Quick small footsteps echo on the stairs, followed by larger ones. From the half-open door I see Erigone, her arms tightly wrapped around a wooden bowl, and Electra ushering her inside.
“I hope we’re not bothering you,” she says. “An Athenian merchant brought figs. Erigone wondered if you wanted to try them.”
The girl approaches me with a wide grin, offering me the bowl. “Thank you,” I say and take a fig in my hands, peeling back the purple skin and revealing the ripe rosy flesh, which opens up like a blooming flower.
“Athenian figs are a rare delicacy,” comments Electra, dreamily staring at my mouth as I eat. “Although perhaps in Troy you enjoyed far more luxurious treats.”
I shake my head. “I’ve never had anything as sweet.” I lick the juices off my fingers and Electra grants me a satisfied smile.
“Cassandra,” says Erigone, leaving the bowl on my bed, “will you come to the yard with me? I’m making animals out of wool; I made mother a lioness, and then I made father a wolf, and then I made a bird for Electra and a sheep for Chrysothemis and a chicken for Hermione and a fish for Aletes… Now I want to make one for you.”
I raise my eyebrows attentively. “What is it going to be?"
She taps her chin with her index finger - a gesture signifying deep thought, which she has picked up from her mother. "Another bird," she decides. "Like Electra's."
Electra gives her an impatient look. "Why don't you go downstairs to make it?" she says. "Cassandra and I will come see it when it's done."
Erigone looks up at both of us, her big blue eyes brighter and wider than ever. "Brilliant!" she exclaims and claps her little hands. "And then I'll make a bunny for myself!"
As the little girl runs outside again, Electra slowly closes the door behind her.
“I’m sorry about this morning,” she says, looking straight in my eyes. “I shouldn’t have pressured you into swimming with me.” She sensed my discomfort but she didn't really understand what I felt. How on earth could I explain it to her?
“You said something earlier,” she continues, “about the sun. That it’s beautiful but dangerous. What did you mean?”
I walk towards the window, where I can see the last rays of the sunset turning the sky pink and violet. “I was blinded by the sun once,” I say. “It’s an old story.”
So far, Electra has never asked me to talk. I didn’t mind listening to her rambles - I suppose I needed that kind of noise to muffle the terrors in my own head. But now she sits across the room from me, hands on her lap, eagerly waiting to hear my story, and all of a sudden a newfound warmth floods my chest. Yes, I need someone to talk to as well, and out of all the people in the world I would still choose Electra.
“It happened a few months before Helen came to Troy,” I begin. “I was very young then, just turned thirteen. With my mother’s encouragement, I took a vow of chastity and began my training as a priestess of Apollo. My duties in the temple were trivial in those early days; keeping the fire lit, tending to the sacred palm tree, that sort of thing. As you can imagine, it could get rather tedious.”
Silently, Electra approaches me and stands at the window beside me. “Go on,” she says. “I’m listening.”
Her reassurance calms me. “That day, the other priestesses were absent and I had finished all my tasks, so I did what any bored teenager would do: I lay under a plane tree in the garden to rest. It was a pleasantly warm day, the tree offered a generous amount of shade and before I knew it I had fallen asleep. When I woke up, drowsy and disoriented, the sun was in the middle of the sky, shining brighter and hotter than ever. It hurt my eyes but at the same time I found it impossible to look away.”
From the window I stare intently at the small slice of light as it dips below the horizon. “Suddenly,” I continue, “the beams parted to reveal the figure of a man; he was tall and athletic, with tanned skin and long golden hair, and he was floating in mid-air above me.”
Electra’s eyes go wide; she has already guessed the identity of the “man” I’m describing.
“Apollo,” she says.
“Indeed. He called out my name, his voice echoing like thunder all around me. Moments later he was standing before me, lifting my face so I would look into his eyes.”
“And did you?”
I nod. “His gaze hypnotized me. His voice was softer now, sweeter. He said that he’d seen me when I was inducted as his priestess and he had fallen hopelessly in love with me. That I was the most beautiful girl he had ever laid eyes on, that he longed to touch me, to kiss me. He leaned in and brushed his lips against mine - it sent tingles down my spine.”
Electra is staring intently at my lips - perhaps imagining the feeling of that divine kiss.
“But I was thirteen, and when you’re thirteen, you think you know everything. You think you understand the world in a capacity no one has ever achieved before. So I asked Apollo: if I were to surrender and sleep with him, what would I receive in return? After all, he was requesting my virginity, which was protected under a sacred vow.”
“What did he say?”
“He laughed. It was a beautifully melodic sound, like the strum of a lyre. He said he would compensate me with the greatest gift known among mortals: prophecy. If I slept with him, he would open my eyes to the future. And my predictions would always be correct.”
“Did you accept?”
I sigh. “Well, like I said, I was thirteen. My virginity for the gift of prophecy sounded like a pretty good trade. So yes, I accepted.”
Electra lays a hand on my back; I flinch, but I don’t move away. Carefully, as if I could break, she wraps her arm around my waist. Tears begin to well in my eyes against my will; I haven’t been held in so long.
She bites her lip. “Oh,” she says almost inaudibly and pulls me into her embrace. This time, I welcome the sensation of human touch. I need to be held again.
I cry into her shoulder and she runs her fingers through my hair, down my back, a soft repeated movement that relaxes me. We stay in the embrace for a few moments, neither of us speaking. And then she releases me.
“You don’t have to tell me the rest if it’s too painful,” she says.
“No, I want to. I need to tell you.”
Electra nods. “In that case, I’m all ears.”
I clear my throat. “Apollo… kept his word. He covered my eyes with his palms and a pure white light flooded my shut eyelids. I had my first vision then: my brother Paris, standing on the bow of a ship with a woman. I didn’t know what it meant yet, but I would soon come to find out. Even in that first vision, Loxias was mocking me.”
“The woman was my aunt Helen,” says Electra. “Bringing war.”
“Exactly. I asked Apollo to explain the vision but he shook his head. This was only a first glimpse, he said, a sample of my powers. With time, I would learn to interpret the visions on my own. But now we had more pressing matters to attend to - was I going to hold up my end of the bargain?”
My hand seeks Electra’s. I hold it tight, take in a deep breath and resume my narration.
“As soon as I… agreed, his face changed. It wasn’t sweet and charming anymore; it was wild and hungry, like some sort of beast. He threw himself on top of me and ripped off my clothes, his hands invaded my body, and when he pulled my legs apart I couldn’t help but scream. I begged him to stop, I pushed and kicked and bit him and to my surprise, he let me go. I watched him levitate off the ground, wrapped not in sunlight this time but in fire, as his voice became thunder once again. He shouted that I’d insulted the great god Apollo, and that my punishment would be fitting; a curse to go with my precious gift. He couldn’t revoke a divine power, but he could make it so that no one would believe my prophecies. And just like that, he disappeared. He left me frozen in the garden, naked and trembling and… cursed.”
Electra’s face shares some of my pain, lifting it off me. “I can’t even imagine how you must have felt,” she says. “And you were so young.”
“The worst came after. But I couldn’t yet see it in my visions.”
“Did the curse… work?”
“Every time. At first I didn’t think it would be a problem: people wouldn’t believe my prophecies, so what? I would keep them to myself. But then one night I had another vision; it was Paris with that woman again, arriving in Troy, marrying her, and the next second the entire city was ablaze and a baby was being thrown off the walls. This one didn’t require much interpreting: the message was clear. So when I saw my vision coming true before my eyes the following morning, when Paris introduced to us his new bride and my parents smiled and cheered, I panicked. I tried to warn them, I begged them to send her back but they laughed at me.”
“Was she there willingly?”
“Oh yes. She was laughing along with them, and as I looked at her, a fiery rage began to boil in my chest. This horrid woman, this sweet-faced harbinger of doom, had the nerve to laugh at me. I snatched away her golden veil, tore at her hair, and I would probably have clawed her eyes out if they hadn’t restrained me. After that incident, my family became convinced that I was insane.”
“I wish they had listened to you.”
“It wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t Helen’s fault either, not really - how could she have known? The gods like to toy with us.”
Electra raises her eyebrows. “My mother keeps repeating this idea,” she says. “That it wasn’t Helen’s fault. She’s always been very protective of her little sister. And she always defends Helen when people call her a whore.” This is the first time I’ve heard her speak of her mother without any malice or bitterness. “Of course, whores defend each other,” she adds, as if she suddenly remembered she’s supposed to despise her.
I take her hand again and she turns to look at me, that momentary spark of hatred dissolving from her eyes. She looks so beautiful when vengefulness and spite aren’t twisting her features.
“Shall we go downstairs to inspect Erigone’s craft?” I ask, smiling.
Electra chuckles, pulling an amorphous chunk of raw wool out of the folds of her tunic. “I hope yours looks more like a bird,” she says, holding it up.
“What are you talking about?” I tease her, taking the woolen chunk in my hands and examining it. “This here is a fine image of a sparrow.”
She laughs, and the sound is somehow sweeter than Apollo’s lyre-like laughter.