Chapter 1: ELECTRA
“Your mother said to take care of her.”
Aegisthus gently pushes the girl forward and she looks up at me. I cannot read her eyes but I feel like she’s reading mine. Her clothes are tattered, her long auburn hair tangled and matted, the hem of her dress stained with blood.
“Come,” I say and extend my hand towards her. “I’ll show you where the other slaves are.”
“No,” intervenes Aegisthus, “your mother said to take care of her as a guest .”
I raise one eyebrow in disbelief. “A guest? Why?”
He shrugs. “Queen’s orders.”
More than anything else I hate him for his timidity, his complete and utter submission to my mother. The way he follows her around like a lapdog, eager to fulfill her every request. Sometimes the slaves whisper about the dark sexual spell she must have placed him under - men aren’t supposed to take orders from women, and women aren’t supposed to control men.
Then again, my father is a real man. Aegisthus is a poor excuse for one.
I grab his arm before he has time to leave. “Where is the king?”
He smirks, his sheepish eyes glistening. “In the bath.”
“And my mother?”
“She’s… with him.”
“How long are you planning on hiding in the shadows?”
“Are you going to come out and face him like a man?”
“Something like that.”
I contain my urge to spit at him and I turn around, leading the girl into the women’s wing. She comes with me silently, follows me up several flights of stairs as I take her to one of the guest bedrooms.
“I suppose you could at least tell me your name,” I say when we reach our destination.
“Cassandra,” she utters and her voice echoes against the cold stone walls.
“Ah… The prophetess.” I take another look at her - she doesn’t seem like much of a seer. “Tell me, is my father alright?”
She opens her mouth carefully. “Your father,” she says slowly, “is dead.”
I scoff. “No, he’s not. He just returned from Troy, I saw him in the courtyard from my window.” I cross my arms. “Is that a prophecy?”
“No, it’s not a prophecy. I saw it with my own eyes. He’s gone, Electra.”
My heart dips to my stomach. What is she talking about? How does she know my name?
“Aegisthus said he was in the bath,” I mumble.
“It’s true. He is in the bath - dead. Your mother killed him.”
My jaw hangs open for a few moments before I manage to wrap my head around her words. “No!” I shout, “you’re lying!”
She lifts her dress and shows me the hem. “It’s his blood,” she explains. “The queen made me get inside the bathtub with him. She had already stabbed him to death by then.”
There is something deeply earnest in her perfectly neutral voice. It pierces my heart like a dagger. My father, the man I’ve been expecting so eagerly for ten years, the hero I was hoping would come and rescue me… Gone. I should have known, I should have figured out what that bitch was planning, I should have stopped her… But it’s too late now, his fate was decided on that first cursed night when she tainted his bed with her atrocities.
Dazed, I fall to the floor and the room starts spinning around me. “Father,” I cry and it’s as if I’m hearing my own voice through someone else’s lips, “my dear father!” The sobs emerging in my throat begin to choke me, I cannot breathe, tears fill my eyes and blur my vision. My father is dead, and his murderess is the woman who birthed me.
Chapter 2: CASSANDRA
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do now. Reluctantly, I place a hand on Electra’s shoulder. At first she flinches at my touch but she doesn’t move away. I begin to rub her back in circles, very gently, trying my best to comfort her.
But why am I comforting her? I should be celebrating the death of Agamemnon, and yet somewhere deep inside me I feel her pain. I watched my own father die a horrible death as our city burned around us, I saw my baby nephew get tossed from the battlements, I held onto the statue of Athena until it came off its pedestal and I shrieked while Ajax tore me into pieces. The next morning I stood there, bleeding and chained and caged, as they dragged away my mother and Andromache. Aboard the ship, I screamed every night until my captor broke me: first my body, then my spirit.
I know pain. I have been imbued with pain all the way to my core. And this girl in front of me, the charming princess who has her father’s long black hair and his dark eyes, the sharp angles of his face and his thick eyebrows, this girl is in pain right now, and I must comfort her. Even if it’s over the death of the man who tortured me. Even though she looks exactly like him.
Chapter 3: ELECTRA
“You have been summoned for an audience with the queen,” I say and Cassandra sits up on the mattress. Her eyes, gold like honey, examine me in the morning light.
“You’ve cut your hair,” she says quietly.
“I’m mourning my father.”
“I know. It’s a shame, though.”
“You don’t look like yourself anymore.”
Where is she getting this impression that she knows me so well? Is it her prophetic vision that allows her to peer into my soul? Or am I that predictable, that easy to read?
“I’ve come to prepare you,” I say, showing her the items I have in my arms: clean clothes, a bottle of oil, a hair comb. “You cannot appear in this state.”
“Thank you,” she responds calmly, getting up from her bed. “But you don’t have to do this, I can take care of myself.”
“No, I want to help you.” I open the door and take her by the hand. “We honour the rites of hospitality in this land. Let me give you a bath.”
The grand royal bathroom is currently closed - queen’s orders again, until she has fully disposed of my father’s remains. She isn’t going to light a funerary pyre, or bury his ashes with the proper honours, or even offer libations. Let her enjoy her triumph; soon enough, my father’s soul will thirst for revenge. From beyond the grave, he will torment her.
I take Cassandra to the women’s bathroom - the tub is already filled with warm water, I had the slaves prepare it in advance. Slowly, she removes her torn garments and stands before me stark naked. Under the squalor I see scratches, wounds, shackle marks on her wrists and ankles. And two large, hand-shaped bruises cover the skin around her neck.
I drive the thought away before it has time to nestle in my head.
She enters the tub, sinks herself in the water with a sigh of relief and I begin to rub her skin with a cloth in gentle circles, just like she did with me. I go over one of the bruises and she winces - I must make my movements more careful. As if I’m holding a delicate vase which could shatter at any moment.
After the dirt of her journey has been washed off, I move on to her hair. I smear the oil between my palms and run it through the thick, coarse mass, attempting to soften it. Then I take the comb in my hand and, section by section, I detangle the knots.
“I hope I’m not hurting you,” I say while working on a particularly matted strand.
“No, don’t worry. It’s almost a caress.”
“If it does become painful, let me know and I’ll stop.”
“I will,” she says and her voice breaks slightly. “Thank you.”
Chapter 4: CASSANDRA
Rays of light spill from the tall windows, reflecting on the golden ornaments and causing the majestic hall to glimmer. Queen Clytemnestra sits on her throne, overshadowing everything around her like a sun among the stars. But more than her crown, her necklaces, her earrings, the golden threads woven in her dress, this burning glow is coming from her fire-filled eyes. This is the face of a woman at the peak of her glory.
“Your majesty,” I say and bow down to her.
“Thank you for coming, Cassandra.” Her voice is deep, imposing, but not without warmth. “I see my daughter has taken care of you, like I requested.” She casts a momentary look at Electra, who is standing behind me.
“Can I go now?” she asks aggressively and I almost hear the hatred bubbling in her chest.
“No, Electra, please stay with us. I would like you to escort our guest again, after her audience is over.” She turns to me now, the impression of a smile twitching at the edges of her mouth. “Sometimes cruelty pays off. But not with you, daughter of Priam. There’s nothing to be won, nor does it please me to see you suffer.”
She glances to her right and suddenly I notice Aegisthus sitting in the smaller throne beside her, a seat likely meant for a queen when her king occupies the main throne. I hadn’t even registered his presence so far. He cocks his head, eyes filled with adoration, but Clytemnestra turns to face me again.
“I pride myself on my clear judgment. I plan my actions carefully and I put reason above all else. But in that moment, I admit I got carried away. You weren’t a part of my plan. And within my rage, righteous as it may have been, I was blinded.”
Electra is fuming behind me, audibly enough for her mother to hear. The queen, however, pays her no mind. Always looking at me, she continues.
“I am not going to punish you for Agamemnon’s crimes. Troy has paid double its dues, and you’ve suffered enough. Besides, you are worth more to me as an ally. Even inside my own house I do not have many.”
My lip begins to tremble. I take a few steps forward, approaching her. Desperate all of a sudden, I throw myself at her feet, I wrap my arms around her knees and my eyes fill up with tears. I thought perhaps they had dried out but they’re here again, burning my cheeks and staining her expensive dress.
“Thank you,” I cry, “thank you for killing him!”
Her hand, clinking with rings and bracelets, seeks my chin and lifts my face. Only now do I notice how closely she resembles Helen - but there’s a different kind of sadness in her big blue eyes, as well as a spark her sister lacked.
“Save your tears,” she says and her voice is softer now, almost motherly, “I promise you’re safe.” With her thumb she wipes my cheeks dry and grants me a smile, properly this time.
“How can I repay you?”
“There is no need. I trust that you will remember my courtesy if I ever require your help.”
“You have my word.”
“Good.” She motions for me to get up. “My daughter will escort you back, like we agreed. And if you need anything, don’t hesitate to come to me.”
As we make our way to the women’s wing again, Electra doesn’t speak a single word, nor does she turn to look at me. She’s furiously biting down on her lower lip, drawing blood.
Chapter 5: ELECTRA
Thank you for killing him , she said. What was she trying to accomplish? Get on my mother’s good side? Was this some sort of twisted flattery?
Sure enough, my mother fell for it. She granted her a type of smile I hadn’t seen in years, a smile she used to reserve for us, back in the old days. Sparkling in her throne, more of a golden statue than a human, she spoke of alliances again - her favourite word, alliances, alliances , it’s all she ever talks about. Grandfather, Aegisthus, Hermione’s betrothal to Neoptolemus, her messages to Penelope, and now Cassandra. And there I was, thinking I might have finally found a friendly face in my misery.
“Is it a Trojan custom, being ungrateful?” I say, grinding my teeth.
Cassandra’s eyes are blank. “Ungrateful?” she asks.
“Your brother was a guest of honour in Sparta. And instead of thanking my uncle for his generous hospitality, he kidnapped my aunt. I’d call that ungrateful, wouldn’t you?”
After a long pause, she opens her mouth reluctantly. “My… brother?” she mutters.
“And now, you. My father saved your life in Troy, he brought you here as his bride and this is how you repay him?”
She stares at me as if I’ve grown a second head. The expression on her face is otherworldly - it gives me goosebumps. Fitting for a crazed prophetess.
“Forget it,” I sigh as we arrive at her room. I open the door and she enters dragging her feet, as if all the exhaustion in the world has suddenly fallen upon her.
Chapter 6: CASSANDRA
Apollo, in a rare outbreak of mercy, seems to have released me from my cursed gift. I’ve had no visions since I settled in the palace of Mycenae, my mind is finally at ease. Could it be that he accepted my return of his present? Does he agree that I’ve already suffered enough?
As much of a relief as it may be, it also causes me to feel helpless. Throughout the trials I had to endure, I clung to my visions like a raft among the waves. Even if no one else believed me, I had my knowledge, my certainty. I had my sight, and now I’ve lost it.
I pray at least for a vision of my family, of my mother or maybe of Helenus, but I receive nothing. Perhaps it is for the better. Perhaps they haven’t been as fortunate.
Chapter 7: ELECTRA
The frenzied noise from the main hall fades as I run through the corridors and towards the patio. I breathe the crisp night air deep into my lungs and then I exhale in relief. With quick movements I unclasp the jewels and the diadem my mother forced me to wear - we have an image to maintain , she said, I will not allow you to embarrass me . As if her reputation isn’t already beyond repair.
I am disgusted by all of them: the abominable she-king, as she likes to style herself, putting on a show for the wedding guests; Aegisthus, drunk on my father’s good wine, fumbling with her under the table; Chrysothemis and Hermione, one snake with two faces; Erigone and Aletes, the bastards - since when do children attend their own parents’ wedding?
“Why aren’t you at the feast?”
I jolt forward, then turn around to see Cassandra staring at me from across the patio.
“If I’d stayed another moment, I would have vomited all over those silver platters.”
She nods, her lips pursing in an amused smile. “I’m sure you would have.”
“The bard began a song about the Achaeans’ triumph in Troy. It was… a little too much for me.”
“Oh.” I take a few steps towards her; the moon illuminates her face in the darkness. “You should have asked him to sing something else.”
“It’s alright, I needed a breath of fresh air anyway. Besides, I was wondering where you had run off to.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. I’m trapped.”
She shakes her head. “Don’t use that word,” she says with a pained expression. “You aren’t trapped, I promise you.”
I want to ask her what she means, but I hesitate.
Chapter 8: CASSANDRA
The more time I spend in Mycenae, the more this peculiar throne arrangement begins to make sense. During his absence, Agamemnon was replaced by an equally powerful king: his wife. Everyone in the palace obeys her without question - some willingly, others not so much. Her grip on Aegisthus is particularly striking; the way he worships her reminds me of Paris and his adoration for Helen.
Although Helen never had Clytemnestra’s wits. She didn’t seem to care about exploiting the power of her allure. Her gaze wouldn’t extend beyond her mirror.
There is only one mutineer among the members of the royal family. She dresses in rags, keeps her hair short and her tears constantly flowing, stands outside the palace gate and weeps loudly enough for all passersby to hear. Endlessly, she laments her beloved father, until the queen sends her people to silence her. She seldom addresses her daughter directly - it typically results in a screaming match. But of course that upsets the children, and so Clytemnestra avoids it.
I have grown fond of the little ones; the girl, Erigone, sometimes asks me to join her games. She likes to make up stories with her dolls and act them out for me. I always clap in the end and Erigone’s chest swells with pride, a grin plastered over her face. Even in my darkest moments, her joy is contagious.
Electra tolerates her half-sister. The one she cannot stand is the boy, Aletes. “They intend him for my father’s throne,” she told me once. “But I wouldn’t count on it. Orestes will return, I can feel it.”
Orestes, her long-lost brother. Agamemnon’s avenger, or so Electra says he will be. It’s hard to tell which parts of her stories are true, and which are fabrications or delusions. She uses her vivid imagination to fill any gaps in the narrative.
There was another child, a stillborn. Clytemnestra had it a few months after I was brought here. It was a girl - she named it Helen, after her sister who is still missing at sea, along with king Menelaus and the rest of the Spartan fleet.
I was present at the burial; the urn with the infant’s ashes was eerily tiny. For the first time, I saw the mighty queen crumble.
Electra came to my room that night, as she has been doing more and more often lately. I gave her my condolences. “A baby’s death casts a particularly heavy shadow,” I said, remembering Astyanax. “Perhaps because they’re entirely pure.”
But Electra’s eyes were glinting; she hadn’t listened to a single word I said. “It was me,” she confessed, “the curse I planted in her womb. I called upon the dead, upon my father’s spirit. He came to my assistance, I just know it.”
Even more than her infatuation with her dead father, she is consumed by her hatred for her mother. It poisons her, renders her blind. It doesn’t anger me as much as it makes me feel sorry for her. She has created her own separate reality to deal with her pain. And I cannot blame a girl for her grief.
The queen assigned her to my personal care - perhaps to keep her busy, although I’m sure there is always some ulterior motive in her actions. At first, Electra resented me; she frowned every time she was ordered to accompany me on a walk or include me in her weaving projects. I had spoken ill of her father, and such an offense was unforgivable - at least for a few weeks.
But she gets lonely. The other girls, Chrysothemis and Hermione, prefer each other’s company. Besides, they are always eager to carry out the queen’s orders and Electra hates them for it. Slowly but surely, she has been warming up to me.
She likes to talk, and I listen. Her sentences flow like an impetuous torrent, pent up for years before finally finding an outlet. She tells me stories about their life before the war; about Iphigeneia, who was their mother’s favourite and whom Electra envied, whom Electra envies still for the fame and glory she acquired through her heroic death. I don’t have the heart to tell her what I saw in my vision: a desperate young girl writhing on the altar, her own father’s hand muzzling her to prevent any curses from exiting her mouth.
And then she speaks of Orestes: she imagines what his life must be like in Phocis, where their mother exiled him. She pictures him dressed in rags, like herself, alone and forgotten, weeping for his father and for Electra, cursing his adulterous mother and Aegisthus, the usurper.
I know Aegisthus channels all his malice into her. When Clytemnestra isn’t looking, he enjoys humiliating her. He mocks her wailing, insults her dead father, threatens to locate her brother in Phocis and murder him too. Even the most obedient dogs need something to bark at, somewhere to take out their frustrations. Every now and then, when Electra retaliates his insults, he tends to hit her.
“Have you told your mother?” I asked her once, when she came to my room with a red handprint over her cheek. “She could get him to behave.”
“You think she doesn’t know?” spat Electra. “She allows it. My suffering gives her pleasure.” I couldn’t tell if she was actually right, or if it was another figment of her imagination. I don’t find it entirely implausible; I have experienced Clytemnestra’s cruelty first hand.
Chapter 9: ELECTRA
We sit on the river bank, dipping our toes in the freezing cold water. The day is bright and hot, the birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming and the sun rays are turning my skin the colour of ripe wheat. When we were children, mother would advise us against playing in the sun, saying that tanning was unladylike - wheat-coloured skin was for farmers and warriors, not for noble young princesses.
Iphigeneia always strung her veil over the ridiculous straw hats mother made us wear. She had one of those on the last time I saw her, boarding the carriage that would take her to Aulis. She was all smiles then, a radiant bride-to-be, mother’s right arm protectively draped over her shoulder - with her left arm, of course, she was cradling Orestes.
And now, they’re both gone.
“Any thoughts you’d like to share?” Cassandra’s voice snaps me out of my stupor.
“I’m going to stay in the sun for hours and get a tan as dark as my father’s,” I say with newfound determination. He spent his days outdoors, training and fighting - the darkness of his skin was a testament to his labours.
Cassandra lies on the grass, shielding her eyes with one hand. “The sun is dangerous,” she replies. “Beautiful, but dangerous.”
“Because you can get a sunburn?”
She chuckles. “Yes, that too.”
“I used to come here with my father in the summer, when he wasn’t fighting his wars. He and I would swim in the river together.” I smile fondly at the memory. “My sisters never came, they preferred staying in the palace. So I had him all to myself.”
Cassandra nods, although she seems a little distracted.
“Aren’t you hot?” I change the subject, wiping the sweat from my forehead.
“Quite a bit, yes.”
“I think I’ll take a plunge in the water, it’s so delightfully cool. Would you like to join me?”
“In the river?”
“Yes! Didn’t you have a river too, back in Troy? What was it called?”
“Right! Well, this is Inachos, not the Scamander, but we could give it a try.”
With a reluctant smile, she takes the hand I offer her. “Let’s do it,” she agrees.
I begin to undo the buckles holding my tunic together - Cassandra is doing the same. I’ve seen her naked before, when I helped her bathe, but she hasn’t seen me. For some inexplicable reason the prospect sends tingles down my spine. Am I embarrassed? Obviously not, she’s only a girl my age. I don’t feel strange undressing in front of my sisters, so why should I be any less confident in front of her?
Her milky white skin reflects the light like pale marble, her long auburn hair flies around her head like a fiery halo. I can imagine what my father saw in her - this kind of ethereal, almost otherworldly beauty she possesses. Unlike my mother, Cassandra doesn’t require layers upon layers of gold to make her impressive; even completely naked, she glistens.
I wonder if my father was in love with her.
I wouldn’t blame him.
The river is mercifully cold when I dive in. “Aren’t you coming?” I shout and Cassandra finally decides to join me. She gets knee-deep inside the current before she begins to shiver; snow starts to melt on the mountains around this time of year and, as a result, the waters of Inachos become particularly frosty.
“Come on!” I urge her, swimming towards her in long strokes. I take her hands, warm and soft, and I drag her into the water. She screams as soon as the icy waves engulf her and I laugh; she laughs with me, her teeth still chattering.
“Here,” I say, “I’ll warm you up.” I vigorously rub her shoulders, the sides of her arms, her back. A wave pushes her into my arms and our bodies become tangled for a brief moment - her breasts on my chest, my hands on her hips, her knee between my thighs.
The water isn’t cold enough to wash off the burning sensation that comes over me. I have never been touched there , I haven’t even touched myself and I promised, I promised my father’s soul that I would never become like my mother - I swore on everything I hold dear that I would never let a man touch me.
Of course, Cassandra is not a man.
And she didn’t really touch me, not on purpose anyway.
But I liked it.
Gods, I liked it.
And even now, I feel her warmth on my body and I want her to touch me again.
It isn’t embarrassment, I realize.
But Cassandra’s honey-like eyes have gone wide in terror; urgently, she starts swimming backwards, to the shore.
“Where are you going?”
“Too cold,” she mutters, “can’t take it.”
She scrambles over the river bank and throws herself on the grass, panting.
Chapter 10: CASSANDRA
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.
My eyes are red and swollen and burning, dark circles hanging underneath - I didn’t sleep at all last night. I have to take a load of laundry to the riverside today and supervise the slavegirls as they do the washing, but I’m struggling to get out of bed.
I cannot face the world this morning. And more than anyone else, I must not face Cassandra.
It was me who insisted on learning about her past as our friendship grew more and more intimate. I rejoiced whenever she allowed me to sit beside her, close enough for our bodies to touch, or whenever she held my hand and seeked out my embrace. There were tears too, when she told me stories of her imprisonment, her ominous visions, the things that happened to her inside the temple of Athena - tears that we spilled together as I felt her anguish pierce through me. Those nights she would sleep in my arms, repeating how I made her feel safe, and I would run my fingers through her hair and reassure her that no one could hurt her.
I don’t remember ever feeling as complete as I did in those precious moments.
And now they have been tainted forever.
I know this will be difficult to hear , she said, but you have to believe me.
I promised I would never doubt her; she had been treated like a liar and a lunatic for way too long. But when I heard the things she had to say, I almost broke my promise.
Because Cassandra spoke of my father last night. She had never mentioned him before, and I had never asked about their relationship. It hadn’t crossed my mind that he might have hurt her. I’d heard he was a fierce warrior, brutal with his enemies, but in my eyes he always seemed like a hero. And he had never hurt me, or any of my siblings, or my mother. He loved us, took care of us. I thought he might have done the same for Cassandra. I thought he might have loved her too, in a way.
I couldn’t recognize this vile man she described. The man who dragged her around in shackles and locked her in a cage, no better than an animal. The man who choked her until she was barely conscious and raped her every night on the ship deck, with all the sailors watching. Most of her wounds and bruises have faded by now but I remember them. At the time, I didn’t want to see them for what they were. I didn’t want to believe it.
Just like I did with Iphigeneia. I refused to believe that he’d killed her, I waited patiently to hear his explanation, I came up with all sorts of excuses on his behalf. And all these years I’ve hated Iphigeneia for dying, instead of hating my father for sacrificing her. As if it was some nonsensical whim of her own.
Gods, what a fool I’ve been.
“Electra,” my mother’s voice echoes as if through a dream, “why aren’t you at the gate? The carriage is waiting!”
She stands at the half-open door with her usual exasperated look, but her expression quickly changes when she meets my gaze.
“Are you ill?” she asks. “You look terrible.”
Trembling, I muster all my strength and sit up on the bed. “I’m fine.”
She takes a few slow steps towards me. Holding her hand to my forehead, she checks for a fever - her palm is cool and soft, I breathe in her familiar sweet scent and suddenly my heart shatters into a million pieces; I realize for the first time in years how starved of her affection I’ve been. I am a child again, violently awoken from a nightmare, and I need my mother to comfort me.
“You don’t have a fever,” she concludes. “But I’ll send Chrysothemis if you aren’t feeling well.”
“Please,” I mumble, “stay with me.”
Her eyes go wide in surprise and an amused smile twitches at the edges of her mouth. “You really are ill!” she exclaims. “Should I send for a medic?”
I look up at her, my vision blurred by tears I can no longer restrain. “No. Just… Can I ask you a question?”
She crosses her arms, raising one eyebrow. “Let’s hear it.”
“Am I mistaken in the way I remember him?”
Silence reigns over us for a few moments. There is a look of heartbreak on my mother’s face, and then a hint of satisfaction.
“He was always kind to us, wasn’t he?” I continue. “Not too affectionate, but never cruel either.”
“Never cruel? He murdered one of you.”
It’s painful to admit, but she’s right. One of us . It could have been any of us . It could have been me.
“I loved your father very much, Electra. So much that I was able to ignore the warning signs. He had a soft side, of course, and I felt privileged that he reserved it for me. But there was a violent side as well. And I did get a taste of it.”
My eyes go wide. “Did he hurt you?”
“We had… disagreements. Because I wanted to have a say in ruling the kingdom, or because he thought I was disrespecting him, or because he was disappointed that I couldn’t bear him any sons. And I would try to defend myself with arguments, but fists speak louder than words.”
“He hit you?”
“Not regularly, and never in front of you. But there was always an underlying threat of violence. Afterwards, he promised he would never do it again. He took vows upon vows and declared his love for me. I forgave him every time, convincing myself that something else had taken over him, that he wasn’t himself when he did those things. Because, at all other times, he was kind to me. Never cruel - except when I caused him to be.”
She sits at the foot of the bed, not too close but not too far away either. “I understand you, Electra. You, too, are blinded by your love for him. And it’s easier to love an absent parent. They can be whoever you want them to be in your memories.”
“Why didn’t you tell me any of this?”
“You pushed me away. You didn’t want to listen.”
“ You were supposed to be the grown-up! We mourned Iphigeneia too, and we were only children! Orestes was a baby when you sent him to Phocis!”
“I’ve had to make some difficult choices; perhaps I was mistaken in some of them. But I was here, Electra. With all my flaws, my crimes, my wrongdoings in plain sight.”
“I needed your guidance and you abandoned me. You brought another cruel man into this house to take his place.”
“It was the only way.”
I was expecting her to contradict me when I called Aegisthus cruel. “You know?”
“That he hurts me. Have you known this whole time?”
“Aegisthus? No, I… I didn’t know.” Her face hardens. “What do you mean, he hurts you ?”
“He spits at me, slaps me, humiliates me when you aren’t looking.”
“I see.” Her jaw is clenched now and she’s quietly fuming. “Aegisthus and I are going to have a talk later, don’t worry. I must ensure that he doesn’t forget his promises.”
She looks into my eyes again and now her expression softens. “When I was pregnant with you, your father was certain you’d be a boy. He had prepared a list of names for you - all related to fame, glory and military victory. But I knew I was carrying a daughter, and when I first held you in my arms, you looked at me with those big amber eyes of yours. And I decided I would call you Electra.”
Reluctantly, she takes my hand in hers. “Over and over again, I failed you. I wasn’t prepared to handle any of this. I know it’s my neglect that truly fuels your hatred.” Wiping the tears off my cheek, she grants me an imperceptible smile. “I’m tired of living like this, Electra. It’s easier to love you.”
Then love me , I want to scream, love me, mother! But after all these years of despising and cursing her, I’m embarrassed to admit that I need it.
Cautiously, she withdraws again - this is all very new for both of us, very fragile, and it could go wrong if we move too fast. She stares at me in thoughtful silence, as if she's focused on choosing her next words wisely.
“How did you get these ideas about your father?” she says eventually.
I bite my lip. “Cassandra told me some things regarding their… relationship.”
My mother's face assumes a knowing smirk. “Of course. She is familiar with his violent side better than anyone, isn’t she?”
I nod and a chill runs down my spine as I remember Cassandra’s stories.
“I knew you two would get along eventually. And I’m beyond grateful to her for opening your eyes.”
She speaks with such certainty that I can’t help but wonder… Was this all part of my mother’s plan?
“I’ll send Chrysothemis to the riverside,” she adds, walking to the door. “You could probably use some rest today. And…"
She lingers for a moment, carefully choosing her words again.
"You and I can never be like we once were," she says. "We've wounded each other too deeply. But there is still inside me a remnant of love for that little girl. I hope you can find some too, for the mother who held you."
I nod and she smiles again with a sweetness I had forgotten. "I'm not asking you to forgive me - but try to understand me. And I promise to do the same."
It took too many years, but the sharp pain in my chest is finally beginning to soften.
P.S.: "Electra" means "Amber" in ancient Greek!