Her house was in order.
The great halls of Atreus held no fear for Clytaemnestra now. How tall and forbidding it had stood, when she first arrived as Agamemnon's young bride; how dark and unwelcoming its rooms, how bleak and heavy its very air! The servants whispered of some unspoken sordid history, and sometimes even the walls seemed to whisper. In those days Clytaemnestra sometimes felt such a strong sense of foreboding that she nearly wept.
Then came the war, and Aulis. The days had grown even worse, then. She was alone, utterly alone. Her remaining daughter, too young to remember Iphigeneia, yearned for her father's return. Her subjects regarded her with mistrust; her servants treated her as if she were a child. She felt the malign spirit of the house acutely; sometimes she felt it would consume her.
But that was all in the past. The house was hers, now. She knew its every secret, every detail of its foul history. She had purged the house of that malevolent influence. The time for bloodshed was past. She had set things to rights. Her house was in order.
"Perhaps we should rebuild the house."
Clytaemnestra sighed inwardly. Every year Aegisthus proposed building a new palace. He was clearly unnerved by living in the house of Atreus and Agamemnon. Clytaemnestra knew what that kind of discomfort was like, but that fear was what made Aegisthus so easy to manipulate. She was not about to give up the advantage.
"Perhaps," she said.
"I mean it, Clytaemnestra. The very foundations of this house are rotten. These walls have seen such—acts of horrific cruelty, the worst imaginable desecrations to the gods! They will continue to poison us as long as we live here. Can you not feel it? A new house will be a much happier place."
Clytaemnestra arched an eyebrow. An unenthusiastic response had usually been enough to get Aegisthus to drop the subject; such an impassioned plea was new. Something must be bothering him.
"It was an act of horrific cruelty that brought you to the throne. You had never seemed to mind."
"You know what I speak of. My brothers were—that banquet—that sacrilege was committed in these very halls."
"Your brothers and father were also avenged in these very halls."
No reply for a moment; Aegisthus was clearly flustered. The man had always been rubbish at concealing his emotions. Finally he burst out, "I dream—of him, Clytaemnestra. Every night, this past month."
He still refused to say the name, but there was no need to; it certainly wasn't his father or brothers that Aegisthus dreamed about. Of course; her consort was really the most predictable of men. There was a reason he still refused to even go near the bath where Agamemnon was killed. Aegisthus had long maintained—even in private—that Agamemnon's death had nothing to do with him, but clearly he was no longer convincing even to himself.
"You fear the punishment of a ghost, for a crime you did not commit?" she said. His reaction should be entertaining.
The color rose in Aegisthus's cheek. "You have much more to fear than I do, woman. Those two died by your hand."
"Those two died by my hand," she repeated. "I say that with no fear in my heart. The malevolent, bloodthirsty spirit of the House of Atreus lived on in him. He murdered an innocent young girl like a beast on the altar. I purged this house of his evil influence. Should I fear that I acted on behalf of Justice?"
"I am trying to protect you!" Aegisthus was clearly furious now. "I have asked the soothsayer about the meaning of my nightmares. He agrees that they portend ill for the house."
"A soothsayer!" Contempt rose in Clytaemnestra's voice. "Agamemnon was also a staunch believer in prophets. Perhaps you could ask him how well their predictions served him."
For a moment she feared that she had pushed Aegisthus too far, for he seemed about to lay hands on her. But he simply stormed off, no doubt to taunt or torture some frail greybeard still loyal to his old king. Clytaemnestra walked along the path, to the edge of the pond. The waters were perfectly still. The swans had long flown away.
That night Clytaemnestra too dreamed of Agamemnon. Her dream was a confused blur of images, a two-headed eagle draping its enormous wings over Argos and then suddenly disappearing, leaving only a puff of blood-red feathers that gently covered her naked breast; a fleet of battleships approaching Argos, every one of them burning, burning, fiery clusters of light and heat bearing down on her city. Agamemnon was not to be seen, and yet she felt his presence everywhere, and she searched for him in a frenzy, about to take an axe to a solid wall, when she awoke with a start.
Beside her Aegisthus slept without a stir. If any nightmares tortured him there was certainly no telling. Wide awake now, Clytaemnestra awkwardly shifted her position in the sheets; but the tension in her body made sleep impossible. Careful not to rouse Aegisthus, she rose and silently strode from her bedroom.
She lit no lamp; she needed none. She knew the corridors of the house well enough from her years of plotting and scheming, and more years of snuffing plots and schemes against her. Every stone under her feet was familiar to her, and she walked in long, confident strides.
As she turned a corner she suddenly saw the quick flit of a figure disappear into a side passage, accompanied by heavy footfalls. It had happened too quickly for her to give chase. A servant returning after a tryst? Or perhaps some conspiracy brewing? Little within the house escaped Clytaemnestra's knowledge, but she could not afford to be unguarded, not with Electra growing craftier with every passing year. Much as Clytaemnestra disliked the girl, she had inherited her mother's gift for maneuvering.
She was still puzzled when she carefully pushed open the door to her destination, but all distraction was dispelled when she entered her tiny shrine to the Furies. All was exactly as she left it, to her satisfaction: her battle axe, Agamemnon's bloody robes, a necklace that that once belonged to Iphigeneia. Dust had settled in, she had not worshipped here in years. But they were still here, the reminders of a life's work, emblems of her devotion.
Kneeling before the altar, upon the red carpets that had welcomed Agamemnon home for the last time, Clytaemnestra felt her doubt and confusion subside. Once more she felt within her the strength of Justice. Perhaps the ancient bloodthirsty spirit of the Atreides was rising again, bent on bringing ruin. But she would stand firm against it, and drive it once more from her house. For if she did not, then what would become of the ancient laws? She had made an oath. All men were her enemy, if it be the will of the Furies.
A strange ship landed in the harbor the next day. According to the messenger from the port, a storm had blown the small ship off its intended course; the captain was requesting a night's sanctuary and fresh water supplies. With some suspicion Clytaemnestra ordered the guest quarters prepared for them. A ship losing its way in a storm? Near Argos? It scarcely seemed likely to her that a reasonably competent seaman could not find his way in these familiar seas.
Outwardly she strained to remain the perfect picture of hospitality. If that wayward ship was indeed part of some plot to overthrow her, the conspirators would give up their secrets much more easily if they thought they had an unsuspecting victim.
She stood at the threshold, watching as the ship's captain and his small crew walked to her, led by a herald. The captain was dressed simply for seafaring, but his bearing was regal. Clearly her guest was no commonplace merchant or soldier. He was not young, Clytaemnestra noticed as he drew closer; his face bore the lines of age and a life spent out of doors. But when he met her gaze, she saw that his eyes were still clear and alert, with a quick-witted twinkle that seemed familiar to her.
"We thank you for your generous hospitality, my lady," said the captain with a small bow, and Clytaemnestra froze. Yes, she had certainly heard that voice before. It was roughened by age and toil, but it was unmistakeable, that honeyed voice which could persuade even kings among men…
"I must admit some disappointment, however," continued the captain, "that none in Argos have recognized me so far. The herald here, and those young men at the harbor—they are too young, but not even you, Lady Clytaemnestra!..."
"King Odysseus," she said. "Of course I recognized you. It is simply—the shock—it has been so long since I last saw you!"
She struggled to maintain her composure; shifting her position, she moved to plant herself directly in front of Odysseus, as if to block him from looking inside. She had heard nothing about Odysseus after that fateful storm that scattered the Greek fleet. Ithaca was so distant that even rumors took long to reach Argos. When had he returned? Why had he come to Argos? And what did he know about Agamemnon?
"It has indeed been long, my lady, since I have been to Argos—or any other city of my former comrades," said Odysseus. "It was only two months ago that I finally saw my beloved Ithaca once more, the first time since before the war."
"Two months! You have been at sea all these long years?"
"Yes, my lady. A series of calamities, both deserved and undeserved, prevented my return," Odysseus said with a rueful smile. "But now I am safe among civilized men, and I wished to see my old friends. And my first thought was to visit our old commander Agamemnon and his beautiful city."
So he yet knew nothing about Agamemnon's fate. Clytaemnestra relaxed slightly, but she must still be careful. She cast her eyes down and carefully controlled her voice. "Agamemnon is dead, Lord Odysseus. Argos belongs to him no longer."
"Agamemnon dead!" cried Odysseus. For a few seconds he seemed too distraught to speak. "Forgive me, my lady. I did not wish to reawaken your pain. I had not thought of—how much could happen in twenty years. A safe journey home does not free one from the lot of the Fates."
Clytaemnestra smiled. "It is no fault of yours, Lord Odysseus. His death was years ago; you could not have heard the news." She gestured to the herald. "You will be taken to the guest quarters. You must be weary from your travels. We will prepare a feast tonight, in celebration of our noble guest."
Clytaemnestra watched as Odysseus and his men walked off. His dismay had seemed genuine enough; perhaps there would be no danger at all, if she played her part well. But his final enigmatic remark was worrying. She still could not trust his reasons for coming to Argos. She knew all too well how cunning and wily Odysseus could be.
And after all, Odysseus had been the one to invent the trick of the false marriage that brought Iphigenia to Aulis. He might or might not know her treachery, but she certainly knew his.
Argos was ablaze that night with the light of the banquet-hall. It had been a long time since the the hall of Atreus had seen such joyful feasting. Few had dared visit the city after the War, as rumor of the troubled succession spread. But that night the city was once again alive with revelry. It was, some servants muttered with a hint of nostalgia, just like when Agamemnon was king.
Clytaemnestra had little appetite. She ate her food steadily and methodically, tasting almost none of it. Her inquiries regarding the mysterious figure the previous night had come to nothing, and still she could not divine Odysseus's intentions. The king of Ithaca had been a perfectly charming guest all night, silver-tongued as his reputation suggested, an inexhaustible source of merriment. Perhaps he was too merry, she reflected. His easy acceptance of Aegisthus's presence was puzzling. And why did he never inquire about Orestes? She had spent the entire afternoon thinking of a suitable reason to explain why she had not summoned her son from Phocis.
She glanced at Odysseus, who was deep in conversation with Electra. The girl was looking at him with a pathetic mix of admiration and longing. Wishing for an appropriate time to deliver an impassioned plea for help, no doubt. Well, it was easy to ensure that such a moment would never come.
"Are you telling stories of your travels to my daughter, King Odysseus?" she asked. "No need to be so stingy! There is none in this hall who would not like to listen to tales of your adventures. Fetch a lyre for King Odysseus," she said to a nearby servant. "You mustn't refuse us, my lord. Your skills as a bard are famed."
Electra gave her a murderous look, much to Clytaemnestra's satisfaction. Clearly she had interrupted some stratagem of her daughter's. On his part, Odysseus did not even make a show of declining. His face pink, whether from merriment or from wine, he walked up to the lyre and ran his fingers over the strings, clearly enjoying himself. "By the blessing of the Muses, my lady."
The hall quickly quieted, and Odysseus began to sing. He sang of the terrible storm, the wrath of Poseidon, of Polyphemous the one-eyed giant, of his encounters with the Lotus-eaters; of Circe and of grey-eyed Athena, and the terrible passage between Scylla and Charybdis; and of his determination to sail to the underworld, which drew a gasp from the audience—and there he suddenly broke off.
"I am not sure I should continue, my lady," he said. "Perhaps it is not a good idea to divulge the secrets of the underworld."
"Oh, please do tell, Lord Odysseus!" cried a voice from the back of the hall. It was the young herald—was his name Thespis?—who had brought Odysseus in from the harbor.
Clytaemnestra smiled at Odysseus. "The young man speaks for all of us, my lord. Will you not fulfill his humble wish, and ours?"
"I have spoken to those who dwell in the city of the dead, Lady Clytaemnestra. Do you truly wish that their secrets be divulged?"
No one made a sound, yet Clytaemnestra could feel the sudden rise of tension. Electra's eyes blazed with something like triumph; Aegisthus buried his face into a long draught of wine. So that was that. Odysseus knew. There was no use in pretending now. But a final burst of defiance rose in her chest. If he wished to uncover the horrible truth, he would have to speak it himself. He would not intimidate her through insinuation.
"Feel no restraint, Lord Odysseus. There are no secrets in this house." It was true; nothing he said would come as a surprise to anyone in her room.
Odysseus lay down the lyre. "Merely that war is a terrible thing, and we are all driven by it to unimaginable actions, deep offenses to the gods carried out in their names. That is what the shades told me"
For the first time in ten years the Furies' shrieks rang in Clytaemnestra's ears. A direct accusation she could have taken, could probably even have maneuvered out of; but Odysseus's sly utterance brought to her mind the bloodthirsty chants of the Greek army, Agamemnon's hand bringing down that fatal stroke, her own bloody swings of her axe, Iphigeneia on the altar, acts of violence spread like a net that encompassed all of Argos, all of Greece. She rose and fled the banquet hall; Odysseus did not stop her.
She must kill him. There was no doubt in her mind, nothing that could shake that simple belief as she knelt once more at her altar to the Furies. The spirit of vengeance that had lain dormant for so long was once again alive in her, demanding justice, howling for blood to repay past wrongs. It was what must be done to keep the house standing, prevent the destruction that both she and Aegisthus had dreamed of. She could not see her house fall, the house that she had finally set to order.
For Odysseus had come to kill her. Why else could he have come? He knew about Agamemnon's fate, perhaps had even heard it from Agamemnon himself! He had come to avenge an old friend. But was it not also an opportunity for her, for one final act of vengeance on behalf of her daughter? For ten long years he had been beyond her reach, and now he was delivered right to her doorstep.
Iphigeneia had been so glad to leave for Aulis, happy that she was to marry the greatest of Greek champions. Clytaemnestra, too, had been glad that her daughter had made such a good match, but her happiness was tempered by fear that her daughter would be widowed before she had experienced the bliss of marriage. Of course both gladness and fear had turned out to be for naught, for the marriage was just a ruse set up by Odysseus. She could not bear to think about the disappointment and desperation that had followed. The Furies screamed for justice.
She must kill Odysseus. Agamemnon's crime would have been impossible without him; why should he be spared, when Agamemnon had died? She seized the axe. Once more the bronze would be dyed crimson with blood.
The corridors were deserted; she had not realized how much time she had spent in the shrine. Even the servants cleaning up after the feast had gone to bed. Good, she decided; she could cut straight through the feast hall outside without fear of discovery, instead of taking a more surreptitious route.
Cautious not to make a sound, she pushed open the door to the feast hall. The hall was illuminated by silvery moonlight, pouring in through the tall windows on either side; but it was as silent as the corridor had been. She turned to close the door behind her, when a sudden movement caught her eye.
"Have you come to kill me?"
The sound of Odysseus's voice was like a net cast over Clytaemnestra. She stared, frozen and dumbfounded, at the figure whose outline was now clear in the moonlight. He was sitting at the end of a long bench, his had resting on the handle of his sword, as if he had been waiting for battle all night. Her axe still instinctively raised, Clytaemnestra found herself at a total loss for words.
"I now see that you have," he said after a tense silence, gesturing at Clytaemnestra's weapon. "I would advise against it, Lady Clytaemnestra. Truly I would."
This was a much easier reply; Clytaemnestra had spent all these years speaking against the advice and opinions of old men. "And why should I not kill a man responsible for so much grief for this house?"
"Many reasons. Foremost among them that you will not succeed."—Clytaemnestra opened her mouth to protest—"Do not try to dispute that, my lady. Agamemnon was naked and defenseless in his bath. I am armed and alert. You have no hope of defeating me in a clash of arms, and I fear I may not avoid killing you."
She laughed. "You fear killing me! Was that not your very reason for coming here?"
"Murder against my host, my lady? I have not always made the gods happy, but that is an offense that even I dare not committ."
"I suppose luring a young girl to her murder isn't?" Clytaemnestra said, hoping she sounded threatening. Odysseus spoke truth—she had little chance against a man in a fair fight.
Odysseus met her glare, the glint of his eyes apparent even in the faint light. "At no moment could I have prevented Agamemnon from summoning your daughter to Aulis, Lady Clytaemnestra. He was anguished about doing so, and dithered for days about what to do if you refused to send her. Rumor of Calchas's prophecy was spreading, and the men were growing restless. There was talk of revolt. If he had delayed a few more days, it could have spelled the end of all the Greek commanders—including myself."
"And I am to forgive you, because you were only acting in your own interest? What arguments you make, Lord Odysseus!"
"For how long do you plan on avenging your daughter, Clytaemnestra? You have already killed your husband, the father of your children. Will you now kill a guest in your house?" His voice grew softer, almost tender. "I do not expect forgiveness. But why do you destroy yourself for such an old grudge?"
"I act according to the will of the gods. The Furies command me to bring vengeance upon all responsible for the death of my daughter."
"Oh, Lady Clytaemnestra…" there seemed to be genuine pity in Odysseus's voice now. "I have lived at the whim of the gods for ten years. Take it from me that none could ever know their true design. Perhaps it was by their justice that you killed Agamemnon. Why are you so confident that none will avenge him in turn?"
"Why had you come?" she demanded, her voice turning desperate. "I had set things to rights here. My daughter avenged, this house in order… why had you come?"
"I had initially come of curiosity." His voice was even. "I had joined the shade of Agamemnon in denouncing you, but even then I thought that I would like to see how a city fared under the rule of woman without witchcraft, like Circe. Then I returned home, and…" His voice trailed off, his face turning melancholy. It was several moments before he continued
"I slew a host of my guests in my hall, after I returned. They were trying to carry off my wife. Standing there over their bodies I thought then of you. How one might commit crimes against the most sacred bonds—host and guest, husband and wife—for…" He was silent a while once more. "I was assured that no punishment will come for me, that my acts were out of justice. But we are branded, you and I. Who knows what price the gods may yet extract for our vengeance?"
Clytaemnestra felt utterly defeated. No longer did the scream of the Furies ring in her brain, no longer did she embody any ancient spirit of justice. For the first time in ten years she felt small and alone, a woman who had committed two terrible crimes, about to commit another. Silence fell once more. Together they watched a spider weaving a web on the corner of a window. In the pale moonlight the web cast a faint shadow over the floor, a beautiful and intricate pattern.
Finally she said, "I thought you had come—to avenge Agamemnon."
Odysseus shook his head with a rueful smile. "I have not the inclination anymore to meddle with the affairs of other houses. I merely wish that my own is in order."
He slipped into silence a while before saying, "It is an easy mistake to make. Your herald thought the same thing."
"He is a rather stupid boy."
"Did you know he had me join his harebrained scheme? He threatened to kill me and report me as a plunderer if I did not. I need not bore you with the particulars of his… plan, but in short I was to sing about my adventures during the banquet. When I reached my meeting with the shade of Agamemnon—you would be stunned that I knew the truth, giving me the perfect opportunity to slay you with a clean stroke." Odysseus shook his head and laughed. "That young man has quite a flair for the dramatic. Pity it's equalled by a flair for the incompetent."
Clytaemnestra could not help but laugh. For a while they both slipped into silence once more, until Odysseus yawned.
"I really must go to bed, my lady. I thank you for your gracious hospitality today."
"I thank you for the… illuminating conversation. Are you setting out tomorrow?"
"Aye, I set sail for Ithaca. Even a few days is too long to be separated from my Penelope, at my age."
He paused with some hesitation, before saying, "I am sorry about your daughter's fate, my lady, and my part in it."
"Your apology changes nothing."
"I know," he said.
She and Odysseus parted ways at the door to the banquet hall. Clytaemnestra was not tired, and suddenly felt an urge to be outside. She climbed up to the ramparts where the guardes kept watch. The night watchman was hunched over a parapet, fast asleep. It was just as well.
The beacon tower of Argos loomed over her, bathed in moonlight. Ten years ago she had seen the light from Mount Arachnaeus here, relayed from across the sea, the Gorgon's Eye, which had received its message from Kithairon, and it from Asopos, and so on all the way from Troy; an unending, unbroken string of light crisscrossing the world, encircling all within its web, like Zeus' grand design. Tonight the beacons were dark, as they have been all these years after the war. Yet Zeus's design had not faded.
Was she, too, caught in the net of judgment without knowing? Would punishment come one day, unheralded and unforeseen? She acted then on behalf of the Furies, on behalf of a mother's rights. Yet she was alone now, she no longer felt those ancient powers that had guided her all those long years. She was simply a woman, alone facing the dreadful power of the gods. Was she to drop to her knees and beg forgiveness?
But she could neither repent her actions, nor could she protest that she had been driven against her will to kill Agamemnon. For what else could she have done, being what she was? Could any god, any threat of punishment, have stopped her from killing Agamemnon? No, she decided. She would have done it without hesitation and faced the consequences regardless.
The moon sat low, and she could see the morning star shining brightly. She looked down at her city, the house she had ruled over for ten years. Perhaps there had been no justice in her rule, perhaps she had not set things in order as she thought. But there was no second Argos, she could not change what she had done; and she did not regret it.
She descended and returned to her quarters, clutching her axe tightly. She slept, and dreamed of giving birth to a serpent, and offering it her milk.