Helen Before Troy
New fiction from Heather O'Neill.
My mother had heard of some of Zeus’s other children. There was a boy who had the head of a bull and bit everyone who came next to him. She thought all of Zeus’s children were lonely. It was only a matter of how lonely they were. How lonely was I? I wasn’t really lonely at all. But I felt loneliness as a sort of foreshadowing. It felt as if I would always be somewhere I did not quite belong.
Zeus took the form of a swan when he impregnated my mother. So I was born in an egg with my sister Clytemnestra. I liked being a twin. When I first came into the world my limbs were wrapped around the limbs of someone else. I thought I was an eight-limbed monster who could whisper into their own ear.
Who was it that decided we should crack the egg open? Was it because we were cramped in there? Or was it because we wanted to see the world? I think it was the second. I was always curious. It wasn’t that I wanted more than what I had. I wanted something different. I was attracted to newness.
I asked my mother what it was like to give birth to an egg. She says she was not as surprised as I think she must have been. After all the things she had seen. There was very little that could surprise her. But my mother did not know what to do with an egg. She was not going to sit on it. She put in in her trunk. She did not leave the house. She was afraid people would ask her how her child was doing. She would have to answer, she did not have a child. She only had an egg. They would of course understand. But, nonetheless.
She was worried about what would come out of the egg. She was afraid she would have a little girl who would have huge wings sticking out of her back she would drag around unhappily. She imagined the baby having webbed feet and there not being any shoes that would fit her. She would walk around flat-footed and awkward and never know how to dance. She imagined I might sound funny when I spoke, as though someone were pinching her nose. When she sneezed, feathers would come out of her nose.
I don’t know if she felt any better having a baby that was so beautiful. One that everyone gathered around to see. One that was suspiciously beautiful. Nobody thought I belonged to her. No one thought I belonged to myself.
My siblings do not find me especially pretty. They do not find me pretty at all. They say my feet are funny. And they tease me about it all the time. So I wear boots made out of goat’s skin instead of sandals. Strangers say it when they come across us playing. We are, all four of us, surprised I am singled out. It embarrasses me and my face turns red.
When I look at my reflection, I don’t see it. I think I am rather odd looking. I think my ears are too big. I have an expression I don’t like. I think I always look melancholic. I wish I had Clytemnestra’s spunky look. When we sit at the dinner table, she looks like she is thinking about some strange plan she is hatching.
I sometimes catch my adoptive father looking at me strangely, as if there is something off about me. He looks at me as if he doesn’t understand why I am here. Whenever I do anything that draws attention to myself, like if I tell a story that makes everybody laugh, he will give me an angry, disgusted look. I have a feeling men will look at me like that for the rest of my life.
My mother does not like to talk about that night because she was accosted. She did not want to make love to Zeus. She never would have given him the time of day.
Zeus has a fondness for mortal women. Who knows what it is that excites him. What they have that goddesses do not. Maybe it is how fleeting their looks are. Maybe he likes to watch them go to the bathroom. Maybe he likes to watch them scream after their children. Maybe it is because they are helpless and cannot defend themselves.
My mother always liked swimming in the pond near our house. It was filled with swans. She thought they were so beautiful. They didn’t like her in return. Swans don’t really like people in return. They never do. They are not interested in being helped by anyone. If a swan found itself in a trap. It would probably rather die than be helped by you.
Then one afternoon she saw a swan being pursued by an eagle. She opened her arms thinking she could save it. She had been waiting her whole life to connect with a swan and how better than to rescue one.
The swan was stronger than she thought a swan might be. The wings were so big. She felt as though she were pinned down by sheets in a bed that were holding her like a straight jacket. It was as though a magic spell had been cast on all the laundry lines and they had come alive to attack her. She thought the swan was panicking and trying to get out of her arms. She tried to let it go, but she could not let it go.
When she walked in the door all disheveled with her face flushed, having been attacked, her eyes were bluer when she had been crying for a long period of time. It was as though the more she wept, the more they shone. She was wet from the pond. My adoptive father wanted to make love to her too. She was covered with the lust of a God.
That is why Clytemnestra and I have different fathers.
It is a curse to have men love you without really knowing you. There are often love letters to me the maid brings in the afternoons. They are all the same. The boys who write them tell me the ways I have driven them crazy. One boy tried to drown himself. One boy claims he has not eaten for a week. He can only eat peaches and it has given him diarrhea. One boy said his dogs have started biting him because he is so lethargic. One boy said he was thinking about me. And then he didn’t notice where he was going. He walked into the path of a horse and it broke both his legs. As soon as his legs are mended, he will run all the way over here and declare his love to me in person.
They never ask whether or not I love them in return. This doesn’t matter at all. They think I owe them something for falling in love with me. They think I owe them something for finding me the most beautiful girl they have ever seen. They do not ask me to send back the details about myself. They do not need to know them because they are already in love. They are already sold on me.
I like to hunt. I like to shoot deer. I run up to them after I have shot them with my arrow. I put my head up against the deer’s chest and I listen to its last heartbeats. I let it die in my arms as though it were the love of my life.
I love eating after swimming. Our mother says we eat like pigs and she is ashamed of us. I close my eyes after biting into a goose leg. It is so delicious.
I like making shadow puppets with my siblings. We made boats out of bark. And we held them up in front of a candle flame and there was a great fleet of ships rocking up and down on the waves and going off to a great battle.
They said there was a constellation Zeus put in the sky for me. But I don’t like to look up at the stars. They are always twinkling and flirting with me, calling me a whore, telling me I will be naked for everyone one day. I will be called a whore.
I used to be so terrified of swans. When I was little, I would scream when they were around. I could never believe a swan was just a swan. I kept expecting it to transform into something else.
I became suspicious of beautiful creatures. That is what Zeus likes to do. If you are a girl he makes you feel crazy and not trust your reality at all. There was a grey horse that looked blue in the dusk. I was suddenly terrified it might be Zeus. He might threaten to crush me with one of his hooves. Or worse. He might open his mouth and smile with his big horse teeth and say, I love you.
Now I go and see the swans often. When I finally stopped being afraid of swans, I began to wonder, what makes a swan a swan? Why are swans the way they are? They hate that we look at them one way and make up our minds about them. Then we decide they have to be that way. Because they are pleasing to our eyes, they have to be pleasing in their gestures and actions.
We have never gotten to know swans. We have only looked at them. And we have drawn them and painted them. Everybody has a right to have an ugly side. Everything unexpected and different is ugly.
I sometimes wish I was back being inside my egg with my sister, a monster with eight limbs and two heads. And the lips of the heads would be so close they were almost touching. And they would whisper to one another, I find you most ugly. And then they would wrap all their limbs around their body and kiss.