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She Whose Beauty Rivals the Goddesses

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The first spring that you are old enough to dance for the goddess will be your sister's last, the last dance led by Iphigeneia. Iphigeneia, the golden maiden, who skips as delicately as a fawn, whose voice is sweet like honey and summer milk, who rightly steps out first from the chorus -- as is fitting for the daughter of the king of Great Mykenai's gates, lord over the chieftains of Hellas. Iphigeneia, sister, who held you in warm arms and soothing whispers when you were a squirming baby, whose perfect chin you felt in your hair, whose hands shaped yours to the distaff and the shuttle, who still saves a honey cake for you, whenever she is called to sing for the gathered chieftains at your father’s feast and bear the cup of hospitality.

That is Iphigeneia. She shines where you are dull and is graceful where you are lumpish and awkward and trip over the steps that are still new. She beams with gentleness, whereas Nurse clucks at your unlovely scowl as you concentrate to make it right. In the spring, Iphigeneia will lead the dance for the last time, and in the summer she will surely wed.

Mother looks at you and sighs that it will be a shame, that when Iphigeneia is gone the Goddess’s chorus will no longer be led by a daughter of the king’s house. Next year it will be Glauko, maybe, or your cousin Praxinoä, or Korintha, who everyone says is silver to Iphigeneia’s gold. But it will not be you. “What a pity,” Mother says to Nurse, “that Elektra has my lord’s looks instead.” String-haired and dark, that means; bony, unlovely, unlovable. No one would ever think, to look at you, that you are the sister of Iphigeneia, the daughter of fair Klytaimnestra, the grand-daughter of Leda, a cousin to the most beautiful woman in all the world that Ocean surrounds.

Fifty kings sought the hand of Helen. Nurse promises that at least fifty-one will wish to wed Iphigeneia. Perhaps your father will choose Tydeus’s son, who for all his youth has already conquered Thebai. Or the son of Telamon, already so powerful and glorious a warrior. Or perhaps young Akhilleus, the son of a goddess and the lord of Tempe’s rich valleys. Perhaps even Alexander, son of the Great King of distant Troia, will carry her away to his father's distant citadel. 

Iphigeneia shakes her head when Nurse whispers her predictions and compares the young heroes. Nurse may have the gossip of the servants and the cobwebby news scraped out of corners, but your sister has met some of these prognosticated suitors, or at least greeted them in formal welcome at the feast. Diomedes, she says, is too curious and bold in his gaze; Aias proud and grim beyond his years; Akhilleus, that son of a goddess, is barely a boy, with no more than the faintest promise of down on his cheeks, and that only if you squint. 

As she dismisses them all, for a moment you hear your mother’s unerring sharpness and you shrink back. You wonder how your sister knows to be so much the grown woman, to judge men and strike them to the ground like the spinning of lazy servant-girls. But Iphigeneia laughs at herself and the resemblance passes. “Truly, Nurse,” she promises, “I know they are good men and my Father will choose me a worthy husband from them.” She throws her arms around Nurse then, gives her a kiss of apology, and then runs back to her weaving.

All winter, while the wind whistles outside and bitter whispers of war slice the air inside, Iphigeneia weaves at your mother’s great loom. Crossing back and forth in front of a warp so fine you cannot make out the individual threads, she makes the shuttle leap and dart with purple and gold and sea-dark and grass-green from silver baskets. This robe will be her maiden-gift to the maiden Goddess. 

The slave-women hum to their spindles, but you are out of time from watching Iphigeneia. In the evening you get pursed lips from your mother, a critical brow, fingers unerring to pick out every knot and lump in your work. "You're too old to be this lazy, Elektra." But why watch the spindle when every day, to the hum and the whir of the women's room, you can watch brilliant colors and your sister’s skill turn drab nothing into a robe for the Goddess. Each night Iphigeneia holds you, just as if you were on her lap, although now, of course, you are too big for that, and you curl up next to her instead. Your sister smoothes your hair and kisses your cheek where Mother slapped, and she tells the stories that she has woven during the day: the glorious histories of your family, dear to the gods.

On the robe are your ancestors: Tantalos sitting in honor at the banquet of the gods though a mortal man, and Pelops victorious in his divine chariot; there on the other side is grandfather Tyndarios fighting beside Herakles, and in the center beautiful Phylonoë, the sister of your mother, dancing in the grove. Her head is turned and she almost seems to start away from the cloth because there, with only her brilliant feet and legs so far, and the hem of a tunic kilted above the knee, there Iphigenia has begun to weave the Goddess. “The Lady saw her,” says Iphigeneia, “and she dropped her arrows in surprise at her beauty, which rivaled the goddesses. And she took her by the hand to be her own dear companion, immortal and ageless forever and ever.”

All the daughters of Tyndarios are beautiful -- there is no one of whom Nurse does not say, when she tells the stories, “and she was famous for her grace and her beauty, which rivaled the goddesses.”

“But our mother’s sister Helenë,” Iphigeneia says to you, as she lets you trace the pure golden threads that outline the Goddess. “Helenë even the goddesses might mistake for a goddess.”

You are about to break in as you always do, but something else interrupts the story: commotion in the yard, horses and shouting shouting men outside in the night. Unexpected travelers with unexpected news. You draw closer. It must be important news, and important news is usually grim.

 Torchlight flashes through the shutters as servants run to the yard. News of a raid? A war? The death of a king? Such things have happened before. "What is it?"

"Hush now dear heart," says Iphigeneia. "Father will see to it, whatever it is." As for you and she, you are safe in your mother's chamber, high in the women's quarters. "But you were asking me about our mother's sister Helenë, Helenë who is so beautiful that she might make goddesses jealous."

You squirm, but Iphigeneia’s arm is secure around you. So you acquiesce and put your new curiosity aside for the old curiosity that the story demands. “Was she more beautiful than Mother?” It is the old pattern of question and response that you learned from Nurse’s stories.

“Oh yes, far more beautiful.”

You hesitate, because you should be asking this question of Nurse not of Iphigeneia, but you don’t want to disappoint your sister when she puts on the mantle of storyteller. “Was she more beautiful than you?”

“Oh yes,” says Iphigeneia easily. “Far more beautiful.”

It’s the right response, but the people are all wrong. Because next Iphigeneia should ask with a laugh and a pretense of pride, “Was she more beautiful than me?” And Nurse, who can never hear a word against her favorite child -- against everyone’s favorite child -- will answer “oh no, my sweet little honeybird, you are far more beautiful than she ever was.”

But you don’t ask that question, even when your sister looks at you expectantly. You don’t want Iphigeneia to lie. But before she can press you, Mother sweeps in. The tiers of her skirt sway in the shadows.

She has come for Iphigeneia, but her gaze fixes on you and she frowns. "What are you doing here, Elektra? Get to bed and don't pester your sister. She doesn’t have time for your games now. Especially now that there are serious matters afoot, and you must stay out of the way."

"Yes, Mother." You bow your head and slink out like a guilty dog, but Iphigeneia squeezes your hand, and whispers, "I'll be along soon, little honey."

As you leave, you hear Mother say, "Well, my dear. It’s some mercy that you didn’t decide to weave the birth of my sister Helenë after all." 

But you don't want to wait for your sister to tell you the news. You creep down the stairs to the Hall, which is full of the bustle of a well-ordered household. Under the housekeeper’s eye, women are running to fetch water and fresh linen, to lay the tables and put bread in baskets. With such a press of messengers, no one will notice a little girl.

You crouch by the stairs as your father comes in from the yard, leading his brother by the hand, with his men and the lords of Sparta following. "Come, you must bathe, you must take clean clothes, you must eat. Only then we'll talk about what can be done." He raises his voice, speaks like a king, now. "Where is the water for our guests? Why is there no meat on the fire?”

“Helenë,” she hears the maids whisper as they pass each other. “The lord from Troia.” “War.” “Old Tyndarios and his oath.”

“It’s too late in the year,” Pyrrho says to Aigla, pausing by the stairs to heft her jug more comfortably against her thigh . “The gods must have given them a wind, and there won’t be another.” She shrugs. “ I suppose the king of Sparta will just have to find another woman for himself.”

“Like she found herself another man.”

“Or maybe just a man, evidently.”

They giggle then look around sharply to make sure that the Housekeeper is out of earshot. If Tamno could, she would keep the maids’ tongues under lock just as securely as she keeps the high storerooms.

 “Oh it’s only little Elektra,” Aigla says. “Curious little chickie, do you want me to bring you a cake?”

“No,” you say, rejecting the bribe. “If I want a cake, I will ask my father for one.”

“Proud little honeychick,” laughs Pyrrho. Then they are off to their duties.

You glean a little more before the tables are set and the maids are retreating to stand ready with wine and bread and plates of meat, and the men come forward to sit: the beautiful Helenë has abandoned her husband and run off with the foreign prince from Troia, an insult that no man can bear, and least of all Menelaos, the brother of the greatest king of Hellas. 

This is the night for crossed luck all around, it seems, because as you sidle back toward the stair, your father sees you. It’s like an eagle with a hare in his sight: the gaze pins you and you shudder. One of the greatest firmest rules of the women’s hall is never to disturb Father, never draw his attention unless he summons you or Mother sends you to him. The Great King of Mykenai does not need to be bothered by grubby little girls, says Mother.

But Father’s stern bearded face breaks into a smile. “And here is Elektra,” he says to his brother. “Here is my daughter, come to welcome you to our house.”

Suddenly a way is parted for you. You know that you should be ashamed to be seen in the feast in your wrinkled everyday skirts, your hair not combed, your arms unadorned. When Iphigeneia goes to welcome the guests, she looks like the statue of the goddess freshly adorned, with a shining robe and gold bracelets on her arms and golden cicadas in her hair. That’s how one should look for the feast. But you step forward anyway, you step out toward the hearth and your father’s chair and the pride in his look.

A boy brings you the cup. Carefully, with all the grace you usually lack, take it and turn toward the guests. Carefully, pour the libation and say the prayer. "For you, Zeus of Hospitality, and all the gods. Look on this house propitiously, for we honor you and your laws, and we honor our guests." Carefully, bear it to your uncle; hold it high for him to drink. He smiles, too, through his rusty beard. "She's your likeness," he says to Father. "A beautiful daughter who looks like you-- that's a proof of a true wife not all men are blessed with." 

“It is indeed,” says Father.

It’s what Mother has said a hundred times -- that you aren't beautiful like Mother and Iphigeneia, like Helenë and Phylonoë and all of the women in the stories, because you take after your father. But now, im the light of the hall that glints on the gold of your father’s table, is sounds differently, an honor rather than a reproach: you are your father's own true daughter, for all the world to see.

You take the cup to all of your father's guests, one by one, just as Iphigenia used to do. And when you finally return to your father’s chair, King Agamemnon picks you up and sets you in his lap, and he gives you the last sip of the wine. His nose curves like your nose, and they fit together when he gives you a kiss. "You are growing up strong and graceful, my Elektra," he says, and you feel his beard scratchy against your cheek. Even though the men are talking loudly and angrily through the hall, you begin to fall asleep in the warmth and the firelight and your father's arms.

Someone must carry you up, because you wake on your usual pallet, the one you still share with Iphigeneia. In the weak winter sunlight, you wash and let Nurse comb your hair, just like any other day. Just as if it were an ordinary day, you go to Mother's room and find Iphigeneia. She's by the loom, just as she always is these days.

"Well little honey," she says."I hear our father's hall will be in good hands when I go away to marry."

Somewhere, in the back of your mind, you were afraid she would be angry, and you are relieved she isn't. "I forgot to bring you a cake," you say. "I fell asleep and I forgot."

"That's all right," says Iphigeneia. "Don't worry, little honey. All will be well."

The Lady is growing under her fingers. When the cloak is done, it will be time for the festival, and the dance that you still need to practice. And Iphigeneia, whose beauty rivals the goddesses, will step out from the chorus with her gift. But even when she leaves for her husband’s house, you will still be your father’s own daughter.