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The Wanderer

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Unborn though it is, she can feel her city about her, hear its sounds, feel its movements, as if it were an extension of her own body; as if the hide that she cut into strips, and painstakingly laid across the sandy ground, was her own skin.Although they have only tents and mud huts, she knows where its streets will lie, where its towers will rise. Where its temples and palaces will be, fairer than any in Tyre.

This dream of a new city has taken so much from her already, and it will take more. But it will also lend her life. I may die, she thinks, I will die - but I will also go on living. Sitting on the sand beside her fire, beneath the stars, she can feel her followers, those who have dared the sea, her brother's anger, and the desert to be with her; she relies on their strength, and knows that she will live through their children, though she has none of her own.

 

***

 

The following night, around the fire, Anna tells stories of their gods and goddesses. They are the tales that Sychaeus once told, and it is a comfort to exiles to hear them now, and to think of the timeless lives of gods.

Perhaps it is because of the closeness of their names, but Anna that night tells of Anat, the warrior-goddess. They worship her in Ugarit, in the North, and they know her in Egypt. Elissa has heard of her before, but she has never paid attention to the tale, preferring Astarte, or Melqart - her husband’s god.

Anna tells of the warrior-goddess, whose brother and lover Baal was slain by Mot; of how Anat sought for the body of Baal, as a cow seeks its calf; of how she found it, and found its killer; how she slew Mot herself, and pressed his body through a sieve, and sowed the fragments, so that the soil grew rich and fat with blood.

Elissa thinks of her husband, whose body - whose death itself - was hidden from her for so long. Later, when the fire has died down to embers, their women go to bed, and only Anna remains by her side. Silence grows about them, filling the void where the tale grew. The wind whistles, and whips the sand about.

“Should I have slain our brother, Anna?” Elissa asks, at last.

It is a cruel question to ask of Anna, who loved their brother dearly. Elissa remembers this when she sees Anna still suddenly, as though pained. It is so long since she has felt any warmth towards Pygmalion, that she forgot how it was to love him. And yet she must ask.

“Was the tale not meant for me?” she adds.

“No,” Anna says sullenly, her hands bunched stiffly in the folds of her dress. “It wasn’t her brother that Anat slew.”

Perhaps it is true, and Anna did not intend it for her. And yet Elissa cannot help but hear the warning therein, or perhaps the invitation. Why else should the tales of gods and goddesses be told? With a shudder (for the thought does not seem to come from her, or even from her own time) Elissa thinks that perhaps Anat was once a woman like her, a simple maid of flesh and blood, who took her revenge and so earned immortality. She thinks that she may be one such woman too, caught in a wider story - stories, even, multiplied and repeated across decades and centuries.

 

***

 

Perhaps Aeneas is too. Certainly he seems a man on whom fate hangs. And he too tells stories.

She likes to speak with him. This is before she loves him, before something in her heart has been wrenched from her and fastened to him; but after he has told the story of his exile. They are alone, and he is tired, spent by all his story-telling. The sheen of divinity has worn off him, and Elissa, though less dazzled, has never felt more fond of him. In his face - beautiful still, but worn - she sees her own; she has found a brother (one who, she thinks, will not betray her this time.) Perhaps that is why she asks him what she would ask of herself.

“Do you ever think of turning back?” she says.

He raises surprised eyes, and asks: “Where?”

She had been thinking of Tyre, glistening as it does still in her mind, not of Troy as he must have seen it last, shrouded in smoke and flames. She musst be thinking of it still when she says - blood thrumming, seeing before her not Aeneas but Pygmalion:

“To seek vengeance.”

Shadows pass across his brow. If there is desire, then it is swiftly smothered.

“No,” he says. “That is not what the gods have required of me.”

No - he is like her, a founder of nations. He is yoked to the future; their trajectories are only meant to intersect. But at that moment he is only a fellow exile to her, and she does not want to consider what it might mean to her - what his gods want of him, want of her; or what poets will make of them, snaring them tight in verse.

Sometimes, when she is weary of choices, she imagines that she has lived other lives, that she has been a woman adrift and bereaved before, and that she has survived.

 

***

 

In another time, as far from the founding of Carthage as Carthage was from the myth-time of Anat, another Elissa leads a different life. Her ship is made of metal and glass, not of wood and rope, and, wrenching itself from the gravity-well of Tyre, it sails silently through the airless regions of space.

This Elissa is a colder woman, who lets her grief make her harder still. She has no desire for other shores; she cannot even imagine them, in this world without earth, or skies, or light. She nurses her hate, and lets her fleet grow - all of Sychaeus’s gold, turned to weapons. Space is too vast; she never meets Aenas, another wanderer doomed to death. When it is time, she does not listen to Anna’s pleas.

Fire rains on Tyre when she returns. Her ship is as large as a planet, yet its deck bucks like a wild beast beneath her feet, thrumming each time a missile is released. Fire engulfs the whole planet, and finds her brother even in the hole where he hides. When it is done, she is queen of a field of ashes.

At the last, though she has taught herself not to feel remorse, or regret, she feels an ache, a twinge. She smells the burnt dust, and remembers something that has never been - not in this lifetime, anyway: a city on the shore, of which she might have been mistress. But even that is soon gone.

 

***

 

In another world, she and Aeneas meet in time. Around them is a wasteland, and all - gods, fate, history and stories - is gone about them.

They are a pragmatic pair. Without destiny, they find that they are well matched; that they can be with each other, not as lovers but as friends, as brother and sister.

What they make together is neither Carthage nor Rome. It has no glory, and it does not spread and conquer. It is a refuge for their broken people. Its strength - her strength - is different, though no less hard.

In the end, she dies unremembered; but first, she lives to be old.

 

***

 

So her lives unfold across time, shifting and twisting. For now, however, she is only, and already, Dido of Carthage, secure and strong. If there is a flicker of thunder, or of fire, in the distance, she does not fear it.