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The Faces of Helen

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1.

“You shouldn’t do it,” Clytemnestra says.

Standing between their brothers, Helen scowls at Clytemnestra, a mixture of impatience and scorn etched onto her features; Clytemnestra can feel her own face twist into a similar expression.  Helen’s face is far more beautiful, though.  Sometimes she’s almost too beautiful to look at.

“Why shouldn’t I?” Helen asks.

“Mother will be here soon for our weaving lesson,” Clytemnestra reminds her siblings.  “If you’re off roaming the hills with Castor and Pollux, you’ll miss it.”  Clytemnestra already knows Helen’s not going to listen, and neither Pollux nor Castor will make her. 

“I’m already better at weaving than Mother is,” Helen points out.  It’s infuriating because it’s true.  They’re not even ten yet, but Helen has surpassed their mother and all of their mother’s ladies in every womanly art except cooking.  It’s her divine heritage, Clytemnestra knows, that makes Helen so skillful and so beautiful, and she tries not to resent how easy it all is for her sister. 

“It’s rude, then,” Clytemnestra says.

Helen shrugs.  “Mother will not stay angry with me for long.”  This is also true, and also infuriating.  Somehow no one but Pollux, Castor and Clytemnestra herself seems to notice that underneath Helen’s lovely skin lives a spirit as ferocious as her face is sweet.

Castor nudges Helen, who hesitates a moment before she softens and asks, “Do you want to come with us?  We’re going up to the mountain spring to practice archery.”

“No, I don’t want to come,” Clytemnestra says sharply.  “Archery and, and running wild outdoors are not good hobbies for a proper woman.”  Helen draws back a little at Clytemnestra’s snappishness before she sets her chin and nods regally.

“We could walk instead of run,” Pollux says.  “And you don’t have to practice with us if you don’t want to, you could just pick flowers and enjoy the sun.”  Clytemnestra can’t tell if he’s mocking her so she refuses again, although she’s politer to him than to Helen.  Pollux and Castor sigh in unison and her three siblings grab their bows and turn to depart without further comment.  Castor ruffles her hair as he walks by.

Clytemnestra watches them go from the doorway.  They’re jostling each other back and forth with careless abandon, laughing and flashing quick, cutting smiles every time they make each other stumble.  Helen’s exquisite beauty looks almost natural when she’s flanked on either side by their charismatic brothers.  As they reach the edge of the family estate, Castor shoves Helen just as Pollux sticks his leg out and Helen crashes to the ground.  She’s up again a moment later, shrieking vows of vengeance in a way that can’t quite conceal her high spirits, but the twins are already running ahead and Helen has to sprint to catch up.  None of them look back.

Clytemnestra closes her eyes, then returns to her loom to await her mother.  Helen looks happy now but it won’t last; people – men – will learn to see through her sooner or later.  Innate talent is good, but hard earned skill is better.  High spirits are fun, but they won’t keep a household running frugally and efficiently, nor can a ferocious hearted wife offer her husband a place of peace.  Practicality will last long after beauty fades.

Clytemnestra will make herself into a woman of enduring worth.

 

2.

Helen has never met anyone as instantly intriguing as Paris of Troy.  The very first time their eyes meet, she knows him entirely, both the good and the bad.  He has a gentleness to him that is completely foreign to her experience; Helen did not know before that it was possible for men to be gentle.  Unlike most men of Helen’s acquaintance, Paris does not war for pride.  He does not lust after power, or riches; he wants only to be happy, and for those around him to be happy as well.

Helen will realize later that this instant knowing is the result of Cupid’s arrows.  Still.  It does not make what she learns of Paris untrue.

Menelaus’s treatment of Helen distresses Paris.  Menelaus values Helen for her beauty, but he does not respect her.  He does not try to make her smile, or listen to her counsel, or even seek out her companionship for any reason other than sex.  Menelaus is proud of her, but only because she is inhumanly beautiful and many other men desire her for themselves. 

But Helen was captured by Theseus once, and when her brothers brought her home she was not unscathed, so Menelaus thinks her tarnished.  Nor has Helen given Menelaus a son, so he also believes her to have failed a wife’s duty.

Paris is bewildered by this.

“You are canny and wise,” Paris protests.  “You have faced adversity and not been broken.”

“I can also shoot a bow,” Helen says.  “These are not qualities which my husband finds useful in a wife.”

“He does not deserve you,” Paris says. 

“No, but he is what I have.”

Paris and Helen are silent a moment.

“You could have more,” Paris blurts out.  “Troy is far from here; it’s a center for trade, rich and powerful enough to not be worth crossing for a wife you don’t even appreciate.  Come to Troy with me and be my wife.  I won’t care if your beauty vanishes tomorrow and you never bear me sons.  I will love you for your boldness, your courage and your fierce heart.  Be my wife, Helen.”

Helen examines Paris.  He is in earnest, and she finds his naivety charming.  Helen has never met a man like Paris before.  She has never met anyone like Paris before. 

Helen does not truly consider Sparta home.  She does not much care for Menelaus, either, who bought her from her father without even meeting her.  And Hermione is almost ten now, not much younger than Helen was when Theseus took her.  Her daughter will be fine.

“All right,” Helen says.

 

3.

Cassandra doesn’t actually see Helen at all.  Instead, when her eyes pass over the space where Helen stands, she watches an army pouring through the walls of a sleeping city, hears the roar of fire mix with distant screams, feels hot ash blow into her face.

Cassandra screams warnings about invasions, and toppling towers, and death, death, death until she’s hoarse.  No one ever listens, so eventually she stops.

 

4.

Iphigenia is dead. 

In the five weeks since Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter to Artemis and sailed with the Achaean fleet, Clytemnestra has not left her bed except to suckle Orestes.  She cries constantly, sometimes in silence, sometimes wailing so loudly that the deer in the nearby forests flee. 

Iphigenia is still dead.

If Castor and Pollux had been there to support Achilles, Agamemnon would never have dared to kill their daughter.  Her brothers would have stopped him.  She wonders distantly where they are now.  Last time Helen was kidnapped, they tore the known world apart to find her and bring her home. 

Instead, Agamemnon is the one trying to bring Helen back, but Clytemnestra doesn’t delude herself into believing it’s because he cares about her.  Agamemnon doesn’t even care about his own children.  No, he’s only after Helen because Odysseus made all of Helen’s suitors publicly vow to lend military assistance to whoever married her.  Perhaps he is also tempted by the thought of sacking Troy, since Troy is one of the wealthiest cities in the world.  Clytemnestra doubts that Agamemnon would lift a finger to help otherwise.

It seems so foolish now, how excited Clytemnestra had been that Agamemnon had chosen to marry her over Helen.  How proud Clytemnestra had been!  She had sworn to herself that she would never give her handsome and powerful new husband cause to regret his decision.

Iphigenia had been so, so brave.  When she had realized that there was no escaping the sacrificial altar, that at best she would still die and at worst she would drag her mother and promised fiancée into Hades with her, Iphigenia had chosen to be a hero.  She released Achilles from his oath to fight for her life and walked to her death with her head held high, thereby saving the entire Achaean fleet. 

Clytemnestra had not realized the strength of her daughter’s character before.  Iphigenia’s courage had straightened her back, steeled her gaze, and transmuted her fear into grace and dignity; her daughter had never been lovelier.

Something in Iphigenia’s stance had reminded Clytemnestra of Helen when their brothers brought her back from Athens, scared and hurt and above all furious.  Helen had refused to be cowed, refused to be ashamed, had stared down everyone who told her she was lucky her step-father was willing to take her back even though her chastity could no longer be guaranteed.  Helen had practically dared the world to try to condemn or belittle her, eyes promising that anyone who tried would be in for the fight of their life.

Helen would not have let Menelaus kill Hermione.  If it came down to it, Helen would have died first.

Clytemnestra is a failure.  She has put her faith into all the wrong things.  Who cares about a peaceful home when its husband is unworthy?  What use is hard work and practicality when it comes at the cost of the strength to do what’s necessary?  What good is frugality and efficiency when the most precious jewel is already lost?

Perhaps Clytemnestra should stop feeling sorry for herself.  Perhaps she should be more like her brave daughter and fierce sister. 

For the first time in five weeks, Clytemnestra stops crying.  She gets out of bed and dresses carefully in her most attractive garments.  She is going to the palace today, to take part in governing as in truth she should have been doing all along.  She will ensure that the country runs smoothly in Agamemnon’s absence.  Clytemnestra has made mistakes in the past, but today is a new day and she will do better.

Like the good wife that she is, Clytemnestra must prepare for her husband’s return.

 

5.

Helen’s grief is a knot in her stomach and an ache in her eyes.  Paris stands next to her, shaking where they stand on the battlements of Troy.  Achilles roars, lashing his horses to an even greater speed as he drags Hector’s corpse around the city again.

“This is my fault,” Paris says.  “If I hadn’t persuaded you to run away with me, Hector would still be alive and Achilles would not be dishonoring his body now.”

Helen shakes her head.  “No,” she says.  “Our elopement was just an excuse.  Nothing we’ve done could justify this.”

“I can’t even avenge him,” Paris says.

Hector was the best warrior in the Trojan army, and Achilles had toyed with him like a cat before finally slaughtering him.  Paris is a much better fighter than his borderline pacifist nature would imply, but he is no match for Achilles.

Below them, Achilles pulls Hector’s body through a pile of horse manure.  Helen’s nerves thrum with hatred.

“Let me do it,” Helen says suddenly.  “Lend me your armor and a bow, and I’ll kill Achilles.”

When Paris turns to look at her, there is no trace of affronted pride or derision on his face.  Instead, he smiles at her, sad but sincere.  Helen is reminded again why she loves him.

“Helen,” Paris says.  “You are the best woman I have ever known.  Let’s find you a bow.”

 

6.

Cassandra continues to be so overwhelmed by visions that she cannot see Helen in the present, although she does learn to track Helen’s general location by the sound of clashing blades and the clouds of phantom smoke.  It’s ironic.  Cassandra’s a powerful prophetess who’s lived with the most beautiful woman in the world for more than a decade and she still has no idea what the other woman looks like.

Their final meeting takes place during the fall of Troy.  Cassandra is standing, dazed and lost, on a street corner as the city gets sacked around her when Helen spots her.  Helen hisses in aggravation, then hauls Cassandra deeper into the shadows cast by the countless fires.

“Don’t just stand there like a statue waiting to be attacked,” Helen whispers angrily.  “Fight or hide, but do something.”

“Oh, hello,” Cassandra says.  “I can finally see you.  You’re stunning.”  Helen is.  Even coated in the grime of a burning city, Helen’s hair gleams a bewitching gold and her eyes are the deep, clear blue of the Mediterranean Sea.  She is just the right mix of tall and curvy.

“I can see why Paris loved you,” Cassandra adds, and then instantly feels guilty because Helen flinches.

“Come on,” Helen says more quietly.  “Let’s get you to the temple of Athena.  You’ll be safe there.”

“All right,” Cassandra says, although she knows better.  She’s seen how her life ends.  Now that death is almost here, though, Cassandra is beginning to relax.  Soon she will be able to rest.

In the meantime, Helen pulls Cassandra down Troy’s side streets and back alleys and they reach the temple more quickly than Cassandra expects.  Helen pushes Cassandra over the threshold and turns to go.  Impulsively, Cassandra grabs Helen in a swift, tight embrace.

“Thank you, sister-in-law,” Cassandra says.  “May the gods bless you and grant you fortune.  We will meet again, but not in this lifetime.”

 

7.

Although it takes them years, Menelaus and Helen make it back to Sparta, where Hermione is the only person truly happy to see Helen.  Helen understands; most of the soldiers who set sail to retrieve her have not returned.  It is easier to blame her than to acknowledge the complexities of war and the culpabilities of everyone else involved in the whole debacle.  Helen has had a lot of practice at ignoring the opinions of fools over the course of her life; this is no different from usual.

Hermione is the only bright spot in Sparta.  She has turned into a good, proud woman in her parents’ absence, as Helen always knew she would.  Sadly, the two are given little time to reacquaint themselves before Menelaus marries Hermione off to Neoptolemos, son of Achilles.  Helen hopes her daughter will find happiness with her husband in Epirus, but there are rumors of treachery and tangled engagements before the wedding feast is finished.

Still, life goes on.  Menelaus grows older.  Helen doesn’t.

One day a messenger comes to Helen and tells her that two young men wish to meet with her alone just outside of the city.  She shrugs, picks up a bow, and goes.  She is weary of being taken places against her will, but she is weary of Sparta, too. 

She keeps her steps as light and silent as she can when she draws near to the appointed meeting spot.  Even so, the two young men in wide-brimmed traveler’s hats hear her approach.  They look up in tandem, keen eyes peering out of faces exactly as old as Helen’s own.

“Sister,” says Castor, “we’ve missed you.  It has been too long.”

“Yes,” Helen chokes out.  “Yes, it has.”  She stumbles forward, bow dropping unheeded into the dirt.  Her brothers clasp her in an embrace so tightly that her ribs creak, and she squeezes them back just as fiercely.  At last, they all sigh and sit back, her brothers wiping the tears first from her cheeks and then from their own.

“But what happened to you?” Helen asks.  “Where have you been?”

“About fifteen years ago,” Pollux says, reaching over to punch his twin in the shoulder, “Castor here got himself killed.  Since I’m his son, Zeus told me that I could either move to Mount Olympus as a god, or I could give half my immortality to Castor and the two of us would split our time between Hades and Olympus.  I chose to share, but it’s taken us a while to learn how to navigate being alternately dead mortals and gods.”

Castor laughs.  “We were constantly getting lost on our way out of the underworld,” he admits.  “Getting there is easy, but inside Hades resembles a maze.  It’s a difficult place to leave.”

“Which is embarrassing,” Pollux continues, “seeing as Castor and I are now twin protector gods of, among other things, travelers.”

“Well,” Helen smirks, “it is common for travelers to be lost and confused.  At least their new godly protectors will have compassion for their woes because of your personal understanding of their circumstances.”

“Very true,” Castor says.  “It’s been a tough few years.”

“Yes,” Helen agrees.  “For everyone, I think.”

The mood sobers. 

“We apologize,” Pollux says, voice grave.  “You were having a hard time and we didn’t help you.  Even after we figured out how to transition from Hades to Olympus, Zeus largely forbid us gods from direct interference.”

Helen shoves him.  “Don’t be stupid.  It’s not your fault, and I don’t know what you could have done anyway.”

Castor and Pollux frown at her.  “Even just having someone to talk to can make a difference,” Castor says.  “Did you have someone?”

“Mostly not, after Hector and then Paris died,” Helen says.  “But if I don’t blame them for leaving me with no one to talk to because they died, then I certainly can’t blame you for doing the same thing.”

“Hm,” says Castor.

“What about now?” Pollux asks.  “Do you have someone to talk to here in Sparta?”

Helen raises an eyebrow at them. 

“Right, of course not,” Castor says.

“Come with us to Olympus, then,” Pollux says.  “Become a god like we did.”

Helen raises her other eyebrow.  “Become a god?”

 “You’re half god already,” Pollux says.  “Just go the rest of the way.”

It’s not much of an explanation but somehow it’s enough.  Helen focuses her will and feels the dregs of her mortality slough away.  It feels like lightning fizzing in her veins, like rising anew in the morning after a long night’s rest, or plants sending roots down into the earth and leaves to the sky.  Helen feels more like herself than ever before.

Her brothers grin at her and she beams back.