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My Father's House

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My father made me from my brother's fingerprints, you know. His own were cracked and scarred with shiny burns, half worn away, cuts striped across them like a bright red thread. His hands weren't made for losing but for gripping tight: they knew their way. I still remember how he shaped my stones; how firm his grip was on the sun-hot marble; how delicately he patted down my inlays of green schist, night-blue lapis; liverish porphyry. How quickly he sketched out my lines on his wax tablet, as sharp as feathers on a golden bird - although, before he'd finished; before he'd let my restless brother run away and play, I'd blurred and softened in the noonday sun. Fresh wax still smells like honey, did you know? Like thirty thousand little golden cells.

In any case, my sweet young brother's hands were small and soft, the whorls upon his fingertips as clear as day. My father looked at Icarus' hand, holding it palm-upwards like a stranded crab, and pursed his clever lips, and I was born.

I knew what I was then, before I had a stone or arch or shady room, before the bull-boy ran down through me crying for his mother. I curled around my brother's fingertip, around my father's mind. I knew I was a place for loss, for keeping secrets, for forgetting, folding up and swallowing down.

I know I left my mark upon my brother, that poor lost falling boy. He left his fingerprints, at last, in softened wax, and left his father staring at the swirling sea.

I caught my father too, of course, as he stared, squinting, at the blue-bright waves. Here was a trick he could not hope to solve, a puzzle he could not copy, improve, or undo. His mind chased after it, after his son: his soft small hands, his curiosity and straining wings. Round and around. He'd made me, and he'd almost got away. But in the end I got inside his head, and all it took was my soft brother's flesh.

I couldn't help it, you must understand. I'm made that way. A maze.

 

In any case, by then I'd grown up fat and fleshed with blood.

Father had made me fine, as he made all his things. I had gold rooms, rooms set with jasper and with chalcedony, rooms carved with fruit and little birds and worms. I had great courts of marble, ringed by colonnades, opening on galleries carved thick with garlands, dancing girls, and shapes like bulls. Rooms where small fountains played, and rooms which grew and turned and whispered pleasant things. Rooms within rooms; rooms set with mirrors which showed still other rooms, filled by the burnished sheets with bronze-blurred dusk. I was a gorgeous thing, as fine as dreams, and fresh and crisp as a boy's fingerprints.

But then they put the bull-boy in me, ugly, double-shaped. They shoved him down inside me and snuffed out the lights.

My father held my brother's hand, and watched the door. Back then, he still believed, I think, I'd let him go.

Oh, he'd had a scare or two, walking my halls, showing the king just how he'd hide the family's shame. I'd closed a door or two behind him; shrugged a wall a little out of true. He blamed it on the builders, on the slaves who lugged the stone. He had to put his best face forwards, after all - or, he believed, the king would never let him go. I wonder, though, if it was on my account he ran at last - flew, I should say. Really, a clever man. Ingenious to a fault. And scared, as any architect would be, by walls that slacken when you turn your back, that shift like water or like melting wax.

He did not know how long my restless older brother had already spent within my walls, watching them go up, stone by stone, against the bright blue sky. He did not know how much I'd whispered to him, how I'd told that little buzzing bee to climb on higher, to excel, explore. To climb out on my half-built balustrades and touch the sky. I never let him fall.

I take after my father, after all. I hold on tight.

 

After my brother and my father left, after I'd waited for them in the sucking sea, I flinched back from the world. The sun was cruel; my doors were shut. The bull-boy bellowed in me, and I missed my brother.

They opened me each year to let in food. I'd feel them wandering, those boys and girls, running their fingertips along my walls, crouching and shitting in my wide dark halls. They'd be shit in the end, I knew: the bull-boy's dung. He piled it in the corners, and it reeked.

Do I sound bitter? Well, I knew my purpose. A place for loss. Bull-boy and I, we had an understanding. He, little lost thing, sign of shame, deprived from birth of human form and words, swallowing men and women down like wine, was like a little me. I saw him in me, and I think, you know, he saw himself in me. At least, before the torches died, he scratched the mirrors first.

A little maudlin? Well, I had my fun as well. The food they let in made for poor conversation; mostly it screamed and yelled. But sometimes it rested, shaking, in the dark, and talked of brighter things. I listened, then: two girls talked once of weaving, of their best-loved designs, of how they'd pictured gods and heroes, fish and fowl; their families' special patterns and their recipes for dye. The bull-boy had already got to one of them: her side was open, dripping on my floor. When she fell silent, I tried speaking for her, in my sweetest voice. I thought that, in the dark, her friend would never know the change. Something was different, though: perhaps, on reflection, I should not have tried to make the still girl move. In any case, the girl I tried to talk to jerked away, and screamed and ran. Towards the bull-boy, as it happened. I could have changed her path, but - I'll admit it - I was hurt. I'd half imagined I could make a friend.

After that, well, I played a little with the bull-boy's food. Doors opened up for them, then smoothed themselves back down into the walls. Corridors twisted like a knot of eels, or fell away into the whispering dark. I made rooms smaller, or made them so large that voices fell flat and tinny, echoes refusing to return. I kept some food back for myself, holding it in my rooms as a grown man might hold a child's small hand within his own. When it grew quiet at last, I let the bull-boy find it: I felt like I was giving him a gift.

They never lasted long, those boys and girls. Most of the year bull-boy and I spent still and hungry, dreaming green dreams of fields, or cows, or fingerprints in wax.

 

They sent a hero, in the end. From how the food had whispered to itself, I should have known. They'd wanted to be saved, those boys and girls. They'd woven such things in bright red and blue, had dyed their fingertips, their busy tongues, with tales of men with ships and swords.

The hero that I swallowed had a sword, of course. So much, so sweet. But he was also playing out a length of string, all the way through me, out past my opened door into the sun. At first I feared him, I'll admit it. What kind of lost place has a path marked through it? That string lodged in my guts like a starved eel in flesh; I could not spit it out. He even got poor bull-boy with his sword: I felt him fall. My little Minotaur was, I suppose, a man by then, grown tall and pale inside me, his great stinking mouth and silly flapping tongue sometimes the only thing which moved within my walls. I feared the hero then, yes. When he turned to retrace his steps, feeling his way out along that clever string, I feared him most of all.

I felt his mind twist, then. A twist, now, that's my home. A turn, a trick, a curve. A secret room. I am, remember, my dear father's child. I hold on tight.

The hero's mind turned like a silver fish, an eel, a shift within the glinting, flash-faced sea. His secret was a girl. The trick was hers. Her string, her path. Her twists and turns, her promise and betrayal. He was a little bitter, was the hero. His mind touched on her, and it turned away. He liked her thighs, her smile, her pert young breasts. He didn't like the debt he owed to her. He turned his thoughts away. It was a twist. That's where I live.

By then, besides, I was a little tired of darkness and the smell of shit. The hero smelled of blood around his sword, but he still gleamed. The red string threaded through my doorway caught the light.

I curled within his mind like molten wax. I liked the girl: for all her clever words, she smelled a little of her bull-boy brother. She'd turned on her own kind; had dangled her bold hero down my throat and pulled him back again. I liked her, and I feared her. In her future, coming slowly closer, I could hear the footsteps of a god.

I like to think I'd learned, by then. She tasted of the god; of milk and ozone, and new hissing wine. Unlike my father, I know how to lose things; how to let things go.

We left that girl behind on a wide empty beach: the god could have her, as far as I was concerned. Her and her clever string, there for the finding. She had a story of her own. A string. A loud red mouth, packed full of tricksy words. It was instructive, as we rowed away, to watch her scream out at our ship across the gold-edged waves, under the cry of gulls. Stories can turn under your feet, like stones.

Her god was coming down the deep blue sky. I had my hero raise the sails. We cut the sea like wax.

 

I rode the hero home. He left the girl behind him, yes, but I came back with him to Athens, to its painted marble and its interlacing streets, its courtyards and its colonnades, its halls. A home from home.

And Theseus? Oh, he was stamped with me like wax with fingerprints. I taught him, some would say, to twist his words. To leave it just a little late to change his sails; to weep, and take the crown. To make a place for darkness in the city. To welcome in the Kindly Ones, when they came scratching with their long sharp nails; to go out sailing off with other heroes, whispering in their ears that girls are made for using, not for keeping. But, I would argue, he already knew those things. I taught him second chances, you could say, and third ones too. Endings, and other endings. The city needed him to be all things to all Athenian men, and I helped just a little, on the way. I was his piece of string, his bright red thread, his twisting eel. I'd grown a lot, by then. I grew with every story that he touched, with every hero he slapped on the back, or sailed with out across the gleaming sea. I'd known for a long time, by then, what it was to feed.

They say he went down to the Underworld, or got himself chucked off a cliff, in the end. Or did he leave a friend behind, and crawl back up? He trusted in one set of words in wax, and saw his son gored by a bull-thing from the sea. Endings, and other endings. Twists and turns. The house of Minos had its hold on him, and so did I.

They kept the ship he first sailed home in around for generations, you should know. They patched it up over and over, building endlessly. A one-roomed maze. I'm proud of that one, I confess. Was it the same ship? After ten years? A hundred? New planks, new mast, new oars, new waves? A twist, a trick. A puzzle. A sea-room with a secret. The kind of thing my father would have made.

I knew, by then, that the best maze, oh, the very best, is not made out of wood or marble, gold or porphyry, or even sweet soft wax. Not even out of flesh. No, the true labyrinth, dear reader, is a story. And I made my hero's story keep on going, I can say that much. No god came down for him with wine and panthers and a starry crown. His story frayed and turned. It found new homes, new forms. It doubled back: there was a bull and a bold racing boy, a bitter shore, waiting for my old hero near his many endings. I always was a place for loss. The story, though? It lived.

Well, after all, you've read me, haven't you?