I. THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD
The ghostly council of scholars and scribes argue over names and associations as though it matters which one of us was silenced forever by a husband’s hands. They wonder how we survived, mutilated and raped by a barbarous king in the Thracian wild. How do branches grow from dry stones, hyacinth girls clutched in the fiery heart of silent light?
With raised voices, these dead men condemn us. After all, high-born women such as us should have known better. We should have held our tongues, behaved in the civilized manner befitting princesses cultivated in Athens. Those of us descended from naiads have no fear of death by water, but the barren shores of Thrace are a different story, a story written in blood and tears by the Lady of Situations.
Through the centuries our story twists and turns, contorting to fit into new molds, yet the rumors persist as rumors will. They tear apart truths to meet their needs, finding new ways to silence our protesting screams. Only we know the truth.
Even though I am the only one of us able to give our story a material voice in three thousand years polluted with particulate matter, it’s Philomela who tunes the strings of dark matter into a cosmic web of justice through revenge. Though mute, my sister, the night songstress, weaves an invisible net to drag the unwary into the wasteland, the place where fear glitters in a handful of dust trapped by the dark.
II. A GAME OF CHESS
When my father sought the help of the king of Thrace, I should have known I would be pawned off as recompense for a war quickly won. Philomela begged for me to stay until her knees were worn to blood and bone, yet our father refused to recant. Pandion’s word carried the weight of a weapon crafted by his grandfather, Hephaestus. Only one generation removed from the unholy birth of Erichthonius, created from seed spilled to earth during a thwarted rape of Athena by the club-footed god, the fall from grace continued in the king’s gambit.
I crossed the Aegean Sea and ascended Thrace’s burnished throne, my wedding attended by the Kind Ones as I drowned in the strange scents of perfumed smoke. Eros avoided the scene of the crime unless it was he who lingered outside, a wind in the door. The son of Ares conquered me that night. He did his father proud. If Ares still resented my great-grandfather for capturing him in the embrace of the treacherous goddess of love, Tereus’ savage attack in our wedding bed would have eased the sting of that ancient humiliation.
He left me there, a broken thing. And as I bled into the vast nothingness, the flames in the hearth surge into fiery points, as if the universe acknowledged my dire fate, before the celestial protest dimmed into coals dying in the cold dark of a savage stillness.
III. THE FIRE SERMON
Some say Tereus cut out my tongue that night. But I ask you this, why would the King of Thrace quiet an unheard wind? He left me alone to whisper broken syllables to the parliament of bees, our covenant broken with the birth of a boy bearing his face, an infant as eager as his sire to devour the last of my summer nights.
Unheard, the naiad part of me departed, leaving me to wither in a brown land. Wrapped in my own sorrow, I failed to hear the sound of horns as my husband departed once more, heading to the shining city of Athens to slake his insatiable needs. I didn’t read the testimony of the violet hour until the cold blast of winter rattled my bones. The filaments of my sister’s dark message wrapped around me in a cloak connecting nothing with nothing. Only then did I realize how I’d been silenced while walking among the shadows of the dead.
Philomela paid my penance. She resisted, but what chance did she have in winning this war? In the end, my husband branded her, burning away her protests as he tore the tongue from her mouth. In the message woven into the hidden tendrils that intertwine the seen and unseen, Philomela divulged her tale. Not only had the King of Thrace violated and mutilated my beautiful sister, he had also made her watch as the instrument of her voice was served up as a delicacy, dished up with nightingale’s tongues exquisitely prepared with exotic spices. Always the gallant, he even offered her a bite.
To the woods then I rushed, burning with the need for justice. Reunited, Philomela and I plotted against the son of the god of war. We were dry stones, hyacinth girls no longer. The naiads and their tears had departed, retreating into the wasteland of forgotten dreams.
IV. DEATH BY WATER
Vengeance comes with consequences; this I know all too well. Even with her immense power, the enchantress Medea was driven mad with revenge, killing her sons to punish her lover’s betrayal. How could I expect to do anything less?
Together, Philomela and I bathed my son Itylus, washing away his father’s sins in a sea of blood, his flesh boiled and served in the same manner as my sister’s tongue.
Tereus picked the bones even as they whispered his name.
V. WHAT THE THUNDER SAID
Hand in hand, Philomela and I flee the agony of stony places as dessert is served on this day of judgment. The frosty silence breaks on the bones of my name – Procne.
Tereus pursues us with a war cry on his cruel lips. His shout follows us with dry thunder, testament to divine wrath. And although we are together, Philomela and I cannot escape the hooded man following our path down the white road.
Overhead, dead infants cry in a lament of bells, echoing the emptiness I bear in this awful surrender. Thunder rolls. Lightening spears. We wrap the cloak of dark matter around us, seeking cover from prying eyes, without avail.
Philomela shifts, leaving behind the mortal coil, taking wing with only her red tail and mute voice left as testament to her suffering. Behind me, I hear my name shorten into a hawk’s predatory cry, only he will never catch me again. I’m too swift for the like of him.
In another life, Carina Bissett wrote travel articles and books about the Southwest. These days, she spends her time crafting twisted fairy tales and cross-pollinated mythic fiction. She is currently at work on the first novel in her five-book Elements series.