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In Greek myth, Alcestis is known as the ideal wife; she loved her husband so much that she died and went to the underworld in his place. In this vividly-imagined debut, Katharine Beutner gives voice to the woman behind the ideal and reveals the part of the story that’s never been told: What happened to Alcestis in the three days she spent in the underworld?
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Katharine Beutner grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She earned a BA in classical studies from Smith College in 2003 and an MA in creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin, where she is currently a PhD student in eighteenth-century British literature.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
They knew the child’s name only because her mother died cursing it, clutching at the bloodied bedclothes and spitting out the word as if it tasted sour on her tongue. After a few minutes her tongue stilled, and her limbs too, until she lay on the bed gray and cold as stone. The servants stood around the bed in a rough circle, looking down at the tangled mess the queen had made and thinking of the rituals her death would require, the sacrifices, the burning herbs nailed in clusters to the mud-brick walls. The room smelled of copper and sweat, as if a great battle had been fought within it. Anaxibia had warred with death and lost; for the moment, at least, her baby daughter had won.
They’d wiped the babe off, tied the cord, and swaddled her in a blanket. She squalled at fi rst, face purple with incoherent rage, but then she lay quietly in her cradle as her mother’s body hardened and cooled. She knew nothing of death. She came into the world as any girl might, unexpected, tolerated. If she hadn’t been a royal child, she might have been left alone on a hillside to die nameless beneath the summer sun. As it was, Pelias had no time for the naming of girl children. The king would abandon the palace after hearing of his wife’s death, taking a group of his best fi ghting men to hunt boar for the funeral feast, and would not return until the morning of her burial day. For two days the palace would be empty except for the children and the servants and the slaves and the animals and the body of the dead queen, swelling in the heat. The queen’s spirit had already departed, trailing after the god Hermes like a cloak in the dust. The god had looked down at the baby in her cradle, a long, silent look, but she had not seen him—or if she had, she had not cried at the sight.
But now the baby wriggled, bleated like a lamb. The queen’s body servant sighed and wiped her bloody hands on her shift. Stirred out of reverie, the other women shook their heads and blinked in the low light.
The women leaned down and rolled Anaxibia’s body over so they could strip the linens from the bed. The queen lay slumped on her side, her brown braids mussed and tangled, her face smooth. She was twenty-four years old. The baby girl in the cradle was her fi fth child, and the other children had been waiting for hours, clustered outside the bedchamber, to see their mother and new sibling. Their thin voices slipped into the room beneath the closed door. The women looked at each other. “Go on,” said the head maid, nodding to two of the others. “They must be told. And the king too.”
The chosen messengers left. After a moment, the children began to wail outside the door, their cries fading as the maids hurried them out of the women’s quarters. The head maid turned back to the dead queen, then looked at the serious faces of the two other serving women who’d stayed behind, looked over at the baby in the cradle. She bent down to pick up the child and balanced the baby’s small damp head against her shoulder. “Alcestis,” she said and looked to the others for confirmation. “That what you heard too?”
Dry eyed and solemn, they nodded. They’d seen this bloody struggle too often to weep. “Alcestis,” said Anaxibia’s body servant, and looked at the baby, who had fallen asleep in the head maid’s arms. “Poor thing.”
The head maid put the baby down on her back in the crib. She sent a servant to fetch the kitchen maid who’d just borne a son, sent another to call the men to bring oils and cloths. The wet nurse took some time to arrive, but Alcestis did not cry. She lay in the cradle and listened to the skim and slap of the women’s hands spreading oil on her mother’s fl esh, the silky whispers as they combed out and rebraided her mother’s hair. She breathed in the smell of the room, the bodily stench of failed combat with the gods, the reek of a thread snipped. The women watched the baby with nervous eyes as they worked. The two who lived to hear of Alcestis’ death—if one could call it death—would recall her birth then, and mutter to each other about the way the girl had opened her tiny mouth to suck in the fouled air as if it could replace her mother’s milk. Perhaps she’d grown used to death then, they’d say. Perhaps she’d been hungry for it all her life.
I don’t remember those moments, those sounds, those smells. But this is what I imagine from what I was told as I grew older. This, said the maids, the servants, my sisters—this was how your story began.
When I was eight years old, I lived with my sisters in the stuffy upper quarters of the palace at Iolcus. We had a small room to ourselves, a chamber that adjoined the
female servants’ quarters, big enough to hold the bed, a bench, and a small table. It was the room we’d all been born in, the room our mother had died in, though only Pisidice was old enough to remember the disaster of my birth. The room no longer held any traces of our mother. It was a girls’ room now, temporary and unembellished, a place for princesses to sleep and grow until we were old enough to be married and carried away.
I slept with Hippothoe and Pisidice, jammed in the middle because I was the smallest. Pisidice came to bed smelling of crushed fl owers and wet linen and kicked in her sleep. Hippothoe smelled of garlic and sweat, but it was a warm smell, not unpleasant,
and on this night I’d fallen asleep curled up against her bony shoulder with my nose pushed into her skin. The bedchamber was dark and quiet when her writhing woke me. I felt the hot point of her elbow in my chest, quickly withdrawn, and then a light hesitant touch on my arm. I sat up half alert in the darkness and scrubbed at my face with my palms. Hippothoe looked up at me, eyes panic-bright, hands fluttering between us in time with her wheezing breath. She shook her head once and I understood.
She was always sorry for waking me, always spent her regained breath on apologies I didn’t need. She had these panting fits often, sometimes only nights apart, and I knew we would both be limp and lazy in the morning—but it was my duty to get help, like Hippothoe’s own little goddess of health, and I’d grown so used to the role that I almost enjoyed it. I squeezed her hot hand, climbed down from the bed, and stumbled off to wake the servants in the outer room.
The head maid sighed when I touched her, a low, miserable sound, as if she could not bear being dragged from sleep. But she hauled herself out of bed and followed me into the bedchamber to fetch Hippothoe. My sister sat on the edge of the bed, shoulders hunched and heaving, the ends of her hair brushing her hands as they twisted in her lap. She leaned on me to stand, her body shaking as we walked, and I felt strong as a tower beneath her arm.
The head maid led us bleary eyed to the hearth, stepping over slaves sleeping in the halls. We stumbled down the stairs and past our father’s empty throne. In the kitchens the head maid boiled water so Hippothoe could breathe the steam and
rubbed cut garlic under her nose as she gasped and coughed.
The air grew thick and my shift clung to my body, clammy with steam and fear. The head maid and I prayed to Apollo, running through the chant we said so often that I worried the god would tire of our entreaties. I believed then that he listened to me when I prayed. I imagined him stealing silently among us, reaching out to touch Hippothoe’s chest with one golden-glowing hand, calming her, fixing her. I held my breath when Hippothoe choked and let it out only when her wheezing smoothed and slowed.
In the bedchamber, Pisidice still slept heavily, only muttering a little when Hippothoe and I collapsed onto the bed and tucked our damp bodies together. I put my cheek against my sister’s shuddery chest and my arm along her neck. We looked like one gray-limbed creature, one divine monster, one flesh. I thought we would never be separated.
“Sorry,” Hippothoe whispered to me as faintly as if she spoke across a great distance, while I stroked her forehead. “Alcestis, sorry.”
In the morning Hippothoe’s breath smelled faintly sweet, like a baby’s, from the honey the head maid had given her for her roughened throat. I lay beside her, my back to Pisidice and my cheek hot on the linens. I had to pee. I’d been thinking of getting
up to use the privy by the kitchens before the heat made the smell too terrible. I liked to walk through the quiet palace, to watch the servants and slaves twitch in their dreams like puppies, to watch my sisters snort and toss in the bed. But I waited, for I wanted Hippothoe to wake enough to pet my hair. On some mornings she’d drift into sleep again with a hand curved around my skull while I listened to her heart thud beneath her ribs.
Now she stirred, restless and exhausted, and I felt Pisidice bolt into alertness with an allover twitch of her limbs. My eldest sister yawned, rolling, and kneed me in the back. Then she slipped out of bed and went to sit by the narrow window, settling in to watch the shepherds in the distant fi elds and gaze hungrily at the road as if she expected a visitor. Pisidice did this every morning.
She was twelve years old and desperate for marriage.
“No one’s coming, you know,” Hippothoe said, and coughed hard, jarring me. She rested her thin hand on top of my unruly head.
“No suitors today, Lady Pisidice,” I echoed, emboldened by Hippothoe’s words. Pisidice did not look away from the window; I wasn’t worth her attention. She’d left her comb and jar of oil on the sill and now she rubbed the oil between her palms and smoothed it over her hair, combing it through while she looked out over the royal road. The oil made her braid heavy and sticky; it made her smell like every other woman in the
palace. I did not like it.
I began to tell her so, but Hippothoe hushed me and eased me up to sit, levering herself out of bed. “Let her be, Alcestis,” she said, only half mocking. “She has to prepare herself.”
Hippothoe didn’t bother with her hair. It stood out around her head like a cloud, wavy fi ne and softer than wool. On some mornings she let me braid it and I wove the light brown strands about my fingers like rope. My own hair grew in bristling waves just past my chin. I’d had a bad fever the year before, bad enough that I had prayed to Apollo for my own health, and the head maid had chopped it off. Now I tugged a comb through it a few times before giving up. Pisidice turned her sharp eyes toward me.
“Really, put on a headband,” she said. “You look like a boy. No man’ll ever want to marry you.”
Hippothoe, standing over the basin of water by the door, barked a laugh. “Perhaps she’ll have better luck finding a husband if she does look like a boy.” Pisidice pitched the comb at her. Neither of them would tell me what they’d meant, though Hippothoe began snickering again as she yanked her shift over her head.
Our mother’s body servant helped us dress. Pisidice was old enough to wear a maid’s bodice, though she hardly filled it out. She was lucky she still had time to grow some breasts before she’d have to wear a matron’s open bodice. I plucked at the lacings until she whirled around and smacked my fingers.
The body servant waited, hands hovering in the air, until we’d settled down, then fi xed each lace so they lay in a neat ladder across Pisidice’s narrow back. Pisidice turned, cupping the servant’s hands in her own, and nodded at her as graciously as a
queen. Practicing. I rolled my eyes and chewed on the skin next to my thumbnail while Hippothoe tied back my mess of hair. I had to look presentable for the ritual.
It was the tenth day of the new year, the day of the dead vessel, and Hippothoe and I could not work or eat until we’d done the ritual in honor of our grandparents, Poseidon and the lady Tyro. My stomach already felt hollow. I hung near Hippothoe as we went downstairs, shoving my hand into the crook of her elbow. The skin below her eyes looked purplish gray, stained with weariness, but still she smiled and let me press close.
Pisidice was too busy to help. At twelve she ran the kitchens and supervised the slaves and decided our chores for the day, whether we ought to weave or spin, direct the washing or work in the kitchens. When we married, we would be mistresses of our own palaces, and Pisidice wanted nothing more. I watched her confer with the head maid, Pisidice’s dark head tilted up toward the older woman’s, her face serious. The slaves had prepared a place for the dead vessel; the omens of the skies had been propitious. It was the right hour for honoring the god of the sea, our grandfather, our household lord—and our absent grandmother. Tyro still lived, but elsewhere; Pelias was not a man who thrived on the care of his mother, and when his father, Cretheus, had died he’d installed her in a smaller villa in the mountains, given her thirty slaves, and sent my young brothers to see her on days when she would need help to perform the family rituals. I had seen her only once, several years before, and even then she’d been a stooped, gray woman, few signs left of the beauty that had drawn Poseidon to her. She had shouted at Pelias; I remembered that because I had enjoyed it so much. But despite their rancor we celebrated her often in ritual, reminding Poseidon of his love for her and his duty to Iolcus.
“It’s ready,” Pisidice said to us, distracted. “Go on.”
I peered through the kitchen doors to the hall. I had not heard Pelias that morning; he never spoke more quietly than a bellow, and my sisters and I tracked him by sound. If we could, we kept away from him in the mornings, when he shouted at
the servants who woke him. We’d retreat to our quarters before he returned to the palace for his midday meal, sit on the bed together, and pick at our haul of cakes and cheese until a slave came to fetch us again. But today was a ritual day, and it would
not be easy for us to avoid our father.
Hippothoe waited, silent. Finally Pisidice sighed.
“He’s in the stables,” she said, and Hippothoe glanced at me and nodded. She took my hand and led me through the hallways to the great hall. A few villagers stood by the doors, awaiting our father; in the afternoons, Pelias sat court here and settled the quarrels of his subjects. He did not yell much. Men would leave with chastened looks, like misbehaving boys called to task, and walk down the broad porch steps speaking of Pelias’s fairness, his calm, kingly demeanor. I wanted to roll my eyes whenever I heard them talk of his virtues, but I was convinced that Pelias would appear to catch me before my eyes had made one revolution in my head. Even though I hadn’t heard
Pelias’s voice, even though Pisidice had said he was elsewhere, I looked for him nervously as we entered the great hall. I saw Hippothoe look too.
The two-handled vessel sat by the round hearth, where Hippothoe had placed it on the fi rst day of the new year after the slaves brought it up from the shore; we girls were forbidden to walk into the water, even for ritual purposes. The seaweed circling the vessel’s base had stained the clay white. Hippothoe knelt before the jar, picking the seaweed away and passing it to me as she whispered thanks to the local gods of the shore for giving ...
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