After the mining methods advanced, the delta changed colors: yellows, chartreuses, coppers, even sick blues all running down the hills and stagnating in the mud. The change confuses the snow geese—they swoop over the marsh in sad loops before, unsure where to land. When I say the water tasted strange my husband (that flinty Menelaus, my cherished Menny) says he could have clean water imported from the hills. I say that sounded like a lot of work.
Helen, Quit complaining, he says.
I’m not complaining, I say.
If I were a man, I might be an alchemist.
Menny asks, why don’t you take up weaving?
I remind him that I weave already, that I made him a shroud.
He says It’s as if you want me dead. Then he says, I can’t read you, Helen. What’s going on in that head of yours?
I think there’s something in his blood itching for battle. This is Sparta, after all.
From the balcony, I watch the boys training in the delta below, running in lines like ants or felling pines, stripping them of bark, building crude little matchbox houses. Sometimes their torches look like signals at night so I stare out the window with a lantern and brush my hair, illuminating my face, so if their captain was to scan up with his binoculars he could see me. Menny pretends to hate this, but he knows there’s no point to marrying the most beautiful woman in the world if no one sees her.
Since my father was a swan, I hatched from an egg, and keep the shell fragments under my bed.
Menny calls them a potential biohazard.
Don’t talk, I say, you come from a pussy.
That’s natural, he says.
So’s cannibalism, I say.
We have this conversation at least once a week.
I learn from a merchant that the mines are for tin and lead. I hope they’re getting what they’re looking for. He says it’s a new technique. Something hydraulic. I ask him to explain it to me and he does—we stay up late at night boiling lobster and talking economics. He draws supply curves in oil on an overturned plate. Luxury goods, he tells me, do not follow the rules. He gives me a look and I know what he means.
Sometimes I tell Menny I’m going out to market by the harbor and when I return he asks why I’ve bought nothing back but the smell of salt in my hair. How can I explain that all I want is to watch the ships unload their crates of saffron and fennel and cardamom, ripe pomegranates, smoked tea, cedarwood from Uruk and drums of olive oil viscous as secrets?
Let’s go see the mines, I say to Menny.
Why? He asks.
I tell him it’s important to understand our reign’s economic status.
He looks strangely at me. That’s an awfully sensible answer, Helen. Not what I’ve come to expect from you.
We ride out to the mines one sun-drenched, hot afternoon. The countryside’s parched, the light flat. Peasants and helots wave and call out as we ride by. The olive trees shake their dull plumage. We wind up the hills to the entrance of tin mine. The Forman greets us and shows us the dig site, the chalky pit and the aqueducts, the workers cleaving away at ore. We pay our respects at the mine’s makeshift shrine to pray for its fertility. These new methods are truly revolutionary, says the Forman.
Haven’t you seen what they do to the water? I ask.
Helen! Says Menny.
On the way here we passed dead fish floating in the reeds, I say.
The foreman is silent.
Menny says, If the hills are fertile then the hills are willing.
That’s why you don’t have a child yet, I say.
The foreman stands there, brow knotted in panic, eyes darting between my face and Menny’s.
Menny breaks into an easy laugh, and I’m relieved. We thank the foreman and ride back. When we’ve had our dinner and are sitting on the veranda I begin to make a catapult from silverware and stringy tulip stems, Menny huffs in exasperation. Helen. Look at you.
He says, you want to go to the mines and then you insult them. You do your hair for an hour every morning. You sit by the window and obsess over the river. You ask me how dark my pee is after drinking various teas. You talk to bees. You build tiny contraptions inside books. You take naps when we have visitors. You get up at two in the morning to cook lobster. You’re bored, Helen.
I’m not bored
You’re bored and you’re contrarian.
I’m not bored, I say. I’m just curious.
Even where the dirt looks dry, there is groundwater.
Elizabeth Wing is a rising sophomore at the Pratt Insitute. Her work has appeared in venues including Hanging Loose Magazine, Up North Lit, The Defiant Scribe, Jet Fuel Review, and Euphony. In 2018 Gordon Square Review nominated her short story “Leda’s Daughters” for a Pushcart Prize. When not at school, she lives in California where she works in a popsicle truck and teaches animal tracking.