Love Is Never Still

The Sculptor

Through every moment of carving, I want her as one wants a woman. I want this lithe creature whose limbs I’ve freed from their ivory enclosures, whose rounds and slopes are discovering their shapes beneath my chisel. She is delicately colored like the palest of women, and when I run my fingers across the plump of her arm, she is smooth and cold.

When necessity requires I set down my tools and leave my estate, all I see are marked bodies. Cooks and merchants, sailors and slaves, rich men and prostitutes—all wear scars and wrinkles and poxes and rotting teeth.

I am sculpting perfection no woman born from mortal flesh can match. I lift my hands to her bosom. Her ivory is soft beneath my palms. I fear I would bruise her if I pressed too eagerly.

Galatea

I am asleep but not sleeping. I am awareness without thought. Objects made by men and gods are like that; we abide in our purpose, complete and content.

The Sculptor

I’ve loved other sculptures. Though I’m not yet old, I have worked diligently at my art, and so have loved hundreds. I have loved leaping horses and dour–faced spearmen and exotic animals pieced together from sailors’ descriptions.

Galatea is my culmination. From the beginning, winnowing the ivory to her form has felt more like discovery than invention. Our bodies move together in conversation; mine contorts as I twist and crouch to discover precise angles, and she emerges from my labor.

I think of nothing but her. I linger with her daily, only noticing the sun for the way it shifts shadow patterns across her figure. My slaves are loyal and speak concern; they bring necessities when I forget to eat.

Galatea

He has begun to call me Galatea. In soft tones, he murmurs this name as he brings gifts. He bestows nature’s adornments on me: cockle shells, doves, Myrrh resin, and flowers in myriad hues. He drapes me with jewelry worked from gold and pearls.

He has not yet completed me, though an afternoon’s hard work would do so. Instead, he only takes up his instruments for a moment in the mornings, and afterward sets them down again so that he can stroke my arms, ornament me with gifts, or whisper endearments in my ear.

The Sculptor

Galatea is flawless to my eye. Yet even if she were flawed, those flaws would be of my own making. Marrying a flesh–born woman would subject me to the capriciousness of fates and men. I would be forced to endure my wife’s imperfections, knowing they were none of my doing. If Galatea were my bride then I could blame none but myself for whatever faults time might reveal.

She remains lifeless in my arms. Her skin–soft ivory does not return my embrace.

Man may create many things: his home, his work, his presence in the world. Yet he is denied the greatest challenge of all, to create the embodiment of his desire.

Summer

I ripen like overhanging fruit, and the sculptor’s love ripens with me. I am Summer and I belong to love: my endless golden hours meant for savoring, my blazing noons, my lingering evening kiss. I am lustful like cicada song; I am the sultry recline of lovers; I am pregnant with harvests.

Under my swollen, sated sun, men and women gather to celebrate the Festival of Aphrodite. They laugh and dance and sing praises to her grace. In her honor, priests sacrifice white–necked heifers with wide, gilded horns. The fallen animals join other tributes: garlands of flowers in perfumed skeins, pots of smoking frankincense.

The sculptor goes to the festival as he might any year. He carries a cloth to wipe away the sweat I draw from his brow. His heart is heavy with confusion, shame, and yearning. He has no thought of hope; he knows the impossibility of his desire.

Though no mortal knows, Foam Born Aphrodite has come as well. Even disguised as a mortal maid, she is glorious. My sun gleams golden on her hair, and my earth is warm beneath her feet.

Aphrodite

I bathe in celebratory scents: balsam and cinnamon, hyacinth and lily, styrax and sweet rush. I stroke the garlands that have been left for me, luxuriating in the subtle texture of rose petals. A man sings instructions to his trained doves, and a woman displays swift, white hares which are blessed with my fertility. Someone tosses me an apple; I bite into juicy, pink flesh.

I am in need of distraction. Of late, Ares will not be denied. Every night, he appears at my window, shining armor piercing the dark. Hephaestus sleeps deeply, but even he will eventually wake under such provocation. I have told Ares not to come; I have told him he presumes too much of me. He does not care. He knows the risk of waking Hephaestus will force me outside.

Nightly, I resolve not to submit to this coercion, but thus far I have always yielded. When we are a tangle of bronze and limbs, I cannot deny the passion that drives me to him. It urges me to run my tongue along his neck until my teeth find, with gentle bite, his tender earlobe. It gives relish to the taste of salt sweat on his throat. He is the god of war; he is ambition translating perfectly into action. He will not walk when he can run; he will not speak when he can battle; he will not hesitate when he can devour me.

Wind blows the scent of frankincense nearer. The hares dart like quick, alert arrows. The apple’s juices are sweet and tart.

Love is a spark, a winging bird, a waterfall splash. It is immediate; it is urgent; it is spontaneous. Like Ares, it moves with perfect, bold unity. It is a fully embodied moment, experienced with every incendiary, saturated sense. It is the smell of a lover and the bite of a provocative glance. I am love, and I am all these things.

The Sculptor

Desire cinches my throat like a torc. Love is air; I am breathless for its lack.

As I stand among the tributes laid for Aphrodite, sudden hope stirs me. Others plead their desires, however impossible. Why shouldn’t I do the same? I rush to buy the goddess offerings of my own and press them to her altars. My mind empties of everything but Galatea’s face and my words: Queen of Laughter, I pray to have as wife—

There I stop, still afraid to speak the rest: to have as wife my ivory maid.

Aphrodite

He does not know I am nearby, the maiden biting into an apple to hide her laugh as she watches flowers tumble from his arms. I smell his body’s longing scent mingled with the perfumes saturating his skin.

It is an insignificant request, and it amuses me to grant it. With the same thought I would give to brushing away a fly, I raise my hand. The flame on my altar leaps three times: it’s done.

Galatea

The first flame is a flicker of ash and warmth like someone’s hand running over my shoulder, summoning me from sleep. The second wakes me from the certainty of objects, and kindles capricious awareness in my chest.

The third burns away my stasis and renders me molten.

I stand alone on my pedestal under the shadow of the olive trees. All afternoon, the wind’s breath has diverted around me, leaving me solid and unmoved. Now, it shifts me. My feet rock to compensate and keep me upright.

Around me, there is motion everywhere. Air stirs the grass and wildflower petals and olive leaves. Clouds distort as they scull across the sky. A partridge ambles between patches of dirt, and a rat rises on its hindquarters to survey its surroundings.

The instinct of movement is not in me. I would remain as I am, but my muscles and joints betray. I fall to the ground, hopeless to understand my new flesh.

The Sculptor

I find her fallen. She is as exquisite as I made her, as delicate and shapely and smooth. Though I saw the goddess’ thrice–leaping flame, if it were not for the movement of her breath, I would believe her a statue still.

I rush to assist her. My fingers, grasping her hand, meet yielding warmth. The bluish flush of veins branches beneath her wrist. I lay my lips across them, relishing the tenderness. Her pulse greets me, a rhythmic gift from gracious Aphrodite.

I help her to stand. Just as it did when I carved her, her body shifts in response to mine. She is ungainly, unaccustomed to her new form. She attains her feet, but slumps against me, and does not seem to know how to pull upright. I ease her into the right position and withdraw my support. She is like a colt; her legs tremble, but even newborn, she holds her weight.

I cast my gaze to her eyes. Though other parts of her body have shifted in color—the rose tinge to her cheeks, the brush of blood on her leg where a branch scratched her when she fell—her eyes remain stark, convex ivory without pupil or iris.

It is then, regarding their baldness, that dread’s cloak settles on my shoulders. I have done something terribly wrong, and like a rash drive of the chisel, my mistake cannot be undone.

Aphrodite

Mortals forget that love comes in many forms. They think they can predict the course of emotion as a sailor knows his path down a river. In truth, even rivers change; even two erotic loves will never run the same.

When mortals forge beyond familiar waters, their blinkered under–standing persuades them to expect territory like what they know. To love a bull or a swan or a golden rain: how can mortals imagine this will twin man merging with woman?

Love is unique. It flows, continuous but unceasingly transformed. It is a rare flower that blooms a single day. It is the snap of now, tumbling, uncatchable. Like life itself, love cannot be repeated. It is as ephemeral as the memories dead mortals pour into Lethe like rain.

Pour love into a statue if you wish. Pour enough love that your prayers reach me where I stand, laughing, an apple in my hand. Pour enough that I may, on a whim, send you a signal in flame that I’ve granted your desire.

Do these things if you will, but remember your love is a statue, not a woman. If she is not what you wanted, remonstrate yourself.

The Fates

Rich–crowned Aphrodite possesses many gifts, but she does not spin the thread, measure its length, or wield the dread scissors. Those duties belong to us, the relentless, ancient spinners, Klothos and Lakhesis and Atropos.

The Queen of Laughter may bring life to an ivory maid, but only we can weave her into the tapestry.

The Sculptor

I cannot describe the dreadfulness of her movement. It is not a matter of aesthetics; she moves as lithely as I imagined. Even her errors are gracefully made, and yet wrongness creeps like insect legs across my skin every time she moves.

Galatea raises her hand to her wan hair. She steps toward me, eyes modestly lowered. The lashes over their whiteness are long and pale. I dread bringing her into the house where others can see her. Yet when I do, they react with wonder at her beauty, exclaiming over her gentle tread, and admiring how her skin remains as white as new–sawn ivory.

Discreetly, I whisper to one of the cook’s boys, asking his opinion of my statue. Unthinking, he gives a blunt description of what he would like to do to her. My shock registers. His eyes go wide. Now that his sense has reasserted itself over his lust, he fears that I will dismiss him for his vulgarity. In truth, I am only appalled that anyone could desire this aberration.

Neither he nor the others perceive the horror that chisels at my spine. Only I cringe with revulsion as Galatea explores my home.

Galatea

Birth is pain, and I have been twice born. First I was an egg of ivory until he struck away the pieces that were not me and cracked me open. Later, the goddess touched me with her fiery fingertips and melted away the good, solid quiet of my soul. She made me into hot, fragile skin, always beating with blood.

What misery it is to crack at the seams, to be forever bending and reshaping. Once, my body held its place in the world; once, it stood in perfect, unchanging balance. Now I am walking, stumbling, falling, sitting, smiling, resting, startling, kneeling, offering, dressing, approaching, avoiding.

My sculptor is nearby, but turns his face away. I chew a cube of cheese and swallow. Even my insides move.

The Sculptor

Too many leaves of history have turned red with the anger of scorned gods. I cannot refuse this gift. I dare not show even a flicker of disquiet. We must marry immediately.

I hire handmaids. In place of the female family she lacks, they take her into their circle to ritually prepare her for our marriage. Like the rest of my household, they instantly adore her for her beauty. They commandeer a chamber and will not let my men approach.

The next morning, they leave the house to buy oils, and then return to heat water for Galatea’s holy bath. I am not supposed to be watching, but I glimpse Galatea’s veiled figure for a moment in the doorway as they escort her out on their way to Aphrodite’s temple.

At a proper distance, I follow the same route. I owe the Shining One an abundance of offerings for granting my prayer, whatever the outcome. I lay my gifts on her altar, knowing that somewhere nearby, Galatea is doing the same. My stomach contracts with the two–pronged awfulness of the thought: first the image of that monstrosity in love’s temple, and second that her offerings bring us another inexorable step closer to being wed.

I contemplate praying to the goddess for mercy, but if this is her favor, I do not want to see her wrath.

I return home to our feast and eat with the other men while Galatea waits with her women. Her face is obscured by her veil, but even that cannot appease my dread. Every time she so much as raises her hand, shudders course through me.

When the meal is done, I lift her veil. Raw eyes scathe me. We withdraw to my chamber and embrace.

Galatea

I am learning time. It has movement. It is like walking across a room. First you are in one circumstance, then you are in another.

I was on a pedestal. Then I was on the ground. I was treading across his floors; I was being given apples and cheese; I was whispered to and washed and dressed and taken to a temple.

Each moment seems slow as I walk through it, but when I turn back to regard where I have been, the collection of memories is flattened and small. It is like walking to the house from the olive trees. When I reach the columns, I look back, and the trees are diminished.

I am on a couch. He sets his hands on my knees. I crack them apart.

He has been the apex of my life since my conception. In his gaze, he holds the passion that shaped my body. His touch is like the sharp, striking sound of the chisel with which he divided me from my entombment.

Now, as our forms move together, his body reshapes the angles of mine. This is the first moment when I have felt any rightness since coming awake. It is far from the secure, perfect quiet of ivory, but it grants brief respite.

The Sculptor

Around me, she is wrong. I do not want flesh from her at all, not the soft of the underarm or the tender of the breast or the velvet of other parts. But this is the worst of flesh, pleasure fused with horror.

Galatea

His are not the right noises. I know the right ones from when there was still the blade between us. Birth is pain, but the process of conception is pleasure poured into a woman’s shape. He had that pleasure with me once in the manner appropriate to our forms. He conceived of me then, but his body is loath to conceive in me now. He cannot hide the distress in his moans as he completes himself.

The Sculptor

They say Aphrodite is kind, but I have not found her so.

Pedestal

Where there were feet upon me, there are divots, and I am cold.

When Galatea stood upon me, I was proud and complete. I was built with a slope upon which she could stand as if running uphill, her garment flowing around her. She glanced back, hesitating, as if trying to decide whether to succumb to a lover’s pursuit.

Now I am naked and I am ashamed. I am like a modest woman stripped of her garment and helpless to recover it. When the voices of Galatea’s handmaidens drift toward me, I hope they will not veer close enough to see my ruin. Yet I also hope they will, for perhaps Galatea will follow, and perhaps I can reclaim her delicate tread.

Ivory

Galatea was born thrice, but she doesn’t remember the first: the bursting from the jaw, the proud growth out and up. She does not remember the roughness of scratching against bark, or the trumpeting of bulls in the herd, or the hot breath of breeze across hide.

She began when the sculptor looked at me and saw the potential for her. I lived before, and I knew a different purpose.

The Sculptor

When we are done, I fall asleep in her arms. Galatea’s embrace is implacable. I am caged until morning.

Aphrodite

Hephaestus never returns from the forge until evening greys the sky. Sometimes he does not return at all. He prefers the fiery heat of his workshop to the chill of our basalt palace. Sometimes, I think, he prefers it to me.

The workshop is his place, not mine. I have never intruded upon it. If he wishes to spend his hours there, I will not interfere. 

His days are fire and gold, bellows and hammers and silver and electrum and carnelian and malachite. He embosses jewelry with trees and horses and dancers, and adorns the hilts of his weapons with granulated gold. He ornaments gods’ palaces with panels of open work ivory, and oak–carved furniture inlaid with ebony.

This night, when the hour turns dusky, he sets aside his masterpieces, and returns to me. He is tired, but when he sees me, his exhausted mouth lifts in a smile.

Mortals—even sometimes gods—forget the finesse required for working gold. They remember the fury and strength of wielding the hammer. They remember spitting sparks. They remember his bull neck, and the muscles knotted in his shoulders and arms, and his huge blunt fingers with their chipped, charred nails.

They forget those fingers must know the delicacy of repoussé. They must, with great precision, caress gold’s most tender places with surpassing gentleness until it molds to his will.

These are the fingers I know when he returns to me. He brushes them across my face as he crosses the threshold. We sit upon a carved ebony couch and he winds his fingers through my tumbling hair. His fingers trail down my side and glance across the curve of my hip. His touch is exquisite tantalization, like the scent of a flower wafting ahead of a bloom. We will embrace later, or perhaps we won’t, for immortality promises infinite evenings.

Love is a mountain that swallows ages. It endures a thousand winters, and a million storms, and never erodes. It is steady; it is patient; it is sheltering. Like Hephaestus, it wields its hammer boldly, but also remembers the value of gentleness. It is waking to your lover’s dreamy morning murmur, and the smell of his skin that lingers in his linen. I am love, and I am all these things.

Galatea

During the day, he leaves my handmaidens and me to ourselves. I sit in the courtyard while they nap or chatter or weave at my feet. They pay me little attention as I regard the distant sky.

When he leaves the estate, I send them into the house, and practice motionlessness.

My pedestal still stands naked in his garden. I am drawn to it like a butterfly to her chrysalis. I mount it carefully, and then twist as if turning to run, yet glancing backward at my pursuer. My legs strain to keep my position, but soon begin to quake.

I will not permit myself the gracelessness of a fall. When the moment is incipient, I step down and rest for another attempt.

Perfection remains beyond my reach, but I can feel my body changing. At night, when I sit with him under trembling torchlight, I see my skin has grown paler. When his fingers press against my arm, they are warm enough to make me flinch. Thus, I know I am cooling.

The Sculptor

She spends days in the courtyard. Though I customarily avoid her, this afternoon I linger a moment in an archway, glancing outside. Galatea reclines on a bench while her handmaidens sit quietly at her feet, plucking petals from wilting, late–season flowers.

Her garment pools around her in folds that are shadowed so starkly under the midday sun that they might still be carved. In suspended afternoon, she lies unmoving, her breath and blinking so slow that one must watch diligently to catch them. In this moment, for the first time since Aphrodite’s curse, I can look at her without sickening.

One of her handmaids glances up and catches me with quick brown eyes, but cuts them down again immediately, and does nothing to call attention to my presence.

Wind breathes, but Galatea’s garment stirs only slightly.

Aphrodite

I do not understand gods.

I have sported with them; I have sighed with them; I have drowsed with them. I have looked into their eyes and seen my mercurial reflection staring back. I can see that I exist within them in all my faceted and contrary dimensions. So why do they remain witless to understand me?

Ares visits me in the anonymous nighttime, speaking passion with body instead of voice. For all his spontaneous, urgent desire, I know he’s drawn to the familiar. If he weren’t, he would have a hundred, a thousand mortal dalliances, and forget them as easily as he came. Nightly, instead, he comes to me, seeking to cherish.

Hephaestus fits himself against me like mortise and tenon. We were carved to fasten effortlessly. Together, we are bonded, seamless, secure. Still, he has his mortal women. Why must he begrudge ardor in me?

My thoughts circle, approaching nowhere. Ares appears just before dawn. It is still dark enough that I must slip from bed to draw away his glow, but at this hour if Hephaestus wakes alone, he will believe I’ve only risen early.

When we are done, Ares tells me stories of wars lost and wars won, hoping to distract me from departing. As the morning sun mounts, I see the signs that my husband has entered his workshop. The volcano exhales the smoke he rouses in its belly. Ares’ stories fade into the jealous percussion of my husband’s hammer against his anvil.

Ares

She thinks I do not see the distance in her eyes, but she cannot conceal her rapid glances toward her husband’s workshop.

I am not Hephaestus. I am not slow–moving and deliberate and clever. I am the clang of sword on shield. I strike. I act. I charge.

A warrior must have conquests. We do not merely fight. We win. She knows these things about me. She must understand I will not leave a trophy in another man’s hands forever.

I scrutinize her expression as she angles her body toward the peaks. Her lips draw up with familiar affection, and tension relaxes from her shoulders. Her fingers, lain across her lap, cease their worrying and lie still.

A warrior must know the landscape of his opponent at least as well as the grounds on which they fight. Hephaestus is not my adversary in this battle.

Hephaestus

To mortals, the melting point of iron is mathematical, a matter of calculations, tests, and notations. To me, the instant of malleability is an orange fist of heat around my sternum, an acrid taste in the back of my mouth, an instinctive urgency in my lungs. My arm was born knowing the perfect moment to strike, just as my heart was born knowing how to command my blood.

When love, or any iron object, is lain across the anvil, it retains an echo of heat from the forge. All too soon, love cools. One must take it up quickly and drive it into the fire to make it pliable again.

Over an immortal’s span, any love becomes tepid and brittle. Yet how I have resented the necessity of sacrificing it to another’s heat.

Our love has spent long enough in the fire. It is supple again, ready for shaping. Soon, I will reclaim it from the flames, and lay its molten body across my anvil.

Ares has given enough heat. If he cannot restrain himself to the forge, I will find another use for my hammer.

Zeus

If she resents her predicament, she has only her nature to blame. Whoever I gave her to, I would have been setting one god against another.

The Sculptor

Beneath me, Galatea takes on a fixed pose. If I could tolerate the sight, I would find it as lovely a moment of feminine repose as one might wish. My face casts a shadow across the tumult of her hair. Her upturned wrists lie carelessly above her head, nestled in her curls.

She does not move. I count minutes between her breaths.

Galatea

For precious, suspended minutes, my thoughts are ivory.

The Sculptor

I cannot bear it. Not even fear of the goddess will force me to her again. Aphrodite will spare no fury when she realizes I have spurned her gift. I can only hope her attention will not turn back to me.

The Fates

If Rich–Crowned Aphrodite had heard his fretting, she might have replied with a laugh. She might have told him that love is a rabbit bounding through a spring field. “Leap across meadows,” she might have said. “Never give a moment’s thought to what you left behind you.”

Else, with incandescent eyes, she might have told him love is a viper. It recounts betrayals as a miser recounts wealth. It constricts each affront until the tallies of wrongdoing are etched so deeply in its coils that no chisel can erase them. Love’s spite never dwindles, only festers like the venom in its fangs.

Love does not defy answers, but its tongue trips over them on contradictory paths, and the outcome is never certain nor constant.

Aphrodite did not hear him. The tapestry showed her taking leave of Bronze Ares. He watched her breath billow in late autumn cold as she lifted the hem of her garment to prevent it from tangling her feet, and made her way back across the peaks. When she was distant, he returned to his own iron palace to plan for battle.

Ares

When I heft my spear, it becomes part of my body, a bronze bone ten times the height of any mortal. I crouch, balanced on the balls of my feet. I raise it above my head, and its enormous weight forces even me to strain for an instant before its vicious point is ready to dive toward an enemy.

My shield is like a giant’s bronze eye. Leather straps creak against my forearm as I tense and dodge, testing my reflexes. I jab the shield forward, and the spike at its center glints, ready to impale.

With practiced ease, I sweep my spear to the ground and pull my short sword from its baldric. It, too, is bronze and gleaming. Its leaf–shaped blade yearns for melee, to cut or thrust into bodies pressed in close combat.

Among the weaponry that glints and grins on my armory walls, there are spears tipped with titans’ teeth, and shields with sirens’ voices that lure men into their enemies’ swords. Yet these simple bronzes are my favorites because they are the best, forged by the first and greatest smith, my brother.

They are his tools, but I wield them with perfection. By wit or any other measure, he is my better, but in the physical realm, he cannot defeat me.

The Sculptor

I have purchased another ivory. I do not want Galatea to see it so I have ordered one of the boys to keep her away while I work. I conceal it between sessions, and place a half–sculpted horse I began years ago near my tools instead, as a decoy.

I did not want to carve another woman. I am not that foolish. My hands compel me.

Galatea

He is trying to conceal a new ivory. He is carving a woman.

The Sculptor

She is my instant, deepest love. I cannot say she is more perfect than Galatea, only that her perfection is unique. Around the eyes, she is softer. Her face is more round than oval. Her mouth is smaller, but her lips more full.

As I chisel her, she stretches toward me, full of joy. She is launching into a leap, arms extended to catch mine. She is giddy and glowing.

What would I say if the goddess descended, giant and shining and terrible? It is folly to continue.

I continue.

The Fates

If she had seen him toiling, Foam Born Aphrodite might have smiled with sly approval. She might have told him love’s essence is unrelenting, untamable obsession. Love’s compulsive stylus sketches its beloved’s face a hundred, a thousand times, across tablets and tables and clothing and walls and skin. Its voice declaims the cherished name until all that remains is scratch and rasp, and even then it continues.

Else, with snarling contempt, she might have told him that love is raw, scathing honesty. Love’s unflinching truth scours mortal hearts for lies and false promises. She might have wrenched him from where he slept, and thrown him to the furies.

Aphrodite said neither. She was far from the weaving of the mortal world, traveling between Ares and Hephaestus, suing for peace.

Aphrodite

I have gone to excoriate him, but how easily I am led astray. We do not start by talking.

When we finish, I see that Ares has not even tried to hide his weapons. They sit prominently on their racks, gleaming with polish, vaguely scented with his sweat.

I tell him he must stop. I will not condone this. I will take no part in it.

Passion is like battle, I say. Daily combat soon wears away the glamor of a stirring call to arms.

Ares

She underestimates both love and war. I have faced innumerable campaigns of attrition. We are both capable of endurance.

I love as ruthlessly as I scythe my enemies. I will fight for her, whether or not I must fight against her as well.

Aphrodite

I beg of Ares: For centuries, we have stolen nights together. Why take up your spear now?

Ares

In any war, there comes the hour when one must either retreat or make the final attack.

On this battlefield, Aphrodite’s lust for me is my only weapon. My opponent is not Hephaestus but the loyalty she feels for him. Over time, love cools, and loyalty grows. If I wait, her ardor will no longer burn hot enough to draw her to me. If I want to keep her, I must win both passion and loyalty before the last of my high ground gives way.

Generations of battlefields tell me that now is the time to fight. I will not surrender her, so this is my only choice.

Hephaestus

I have the rights granted to me by our father, king of the gods. I have both the guttering forge and the magma straining under the earth. Mine are the hands that craft the slayers of titans and monsters.

Let Ares batter himself against me. I will not hold back the hammer.

Galatea

My handmaidens do not want to sit in the courtyard now that the autumn cold sometimes leaves frost on the grass. They huddle inside together, intently sewing. I go without them. The cold does not bother me.

When I return inside, I move silently through servants’ spaces, seeing who notices me and who does not. They are most vigilant in the kitchen where there are knives and flames and pots of boiling water. Elsewhere, only stray glances catch my movement.

Through a thin wall, I overhear my sculptor remonstrating the boy he hired to keep me away from his work. The boy is young and keeps falling asleep. My sculptor warns the boy that if he lets me see what he is carving, I will flee to Aphrodite for revenge.

I cannot understand. What sculpture expects to be the only subject beneath her maker’s hands? At some hour, she must be finished. Another ivory will rightly take her place. It is long past time for one to take mine.

The Sculptor

Galatea is beautiful but staid, elegant but timid. The girl waiting in this ivory is a magnificent sunburst. For her, grace is an unnecessary garment, thrown aside as she bolts for new horizons. She would not twist, eyes demurely downcast, waiting for a lover to act. She would run—either forward or away—with vigor and delight.

Aphrodite

My husband’s hammering is continuous and angry. I suspect he is working on a weapon with which to counter Ares. Still, I refuse to intrude on his workshop. I wait for him at the cave mouth until his four golden automata, carved in women’s shapes, bear him to me.

I entreat him to set aside his hammer. I tell him: Fight, and I will love neither of you. Zeus bound us in this triangle. Bring your fury on your father, not your brother.

He tells me that he is done with Zeus’ equivocations. I beg the same question of him: why now? He answers that if I worked iron, I would understand.

The Fates

A thousand facts and instincts feed, like tributaries, into the river that is any battle plan. Some run fierce, while others trickle, but none flow alone.

Still, there is a rivulet that sprang from the ground on a summer day when the Stormer of Cities wore a human disguise so he could follow his beloved to a festival. Ares was already growing turbulent and obsessive in his love. With his tactician’s eye, he watched as the Queen of Laughter sampled scents, admired trained doves, and adorned her hair with myrtle and roses.

A prayer caught her notice. She glanced up, searching through billowing mortal thoughts as if trying to trace the fragrance from a single stick of incense through a fog of perfume. With a careless wave of her hand, she filled a statue with life, and then immediately turned back to her apple, as if the birth of love were any little thing, no more significant than a petal tumbling from a dancer’s fingers.

Love may be a bounding rabbit or a viper’s venom. It may be contra–dictory; it may be compulsive; it may be caustic. It must not be tedious.

Zeus

Do my sons think they are the first to wrangle over a woman?

There is no god who has not wrested pleasure from himself thinking of Aphrodite’s flowing tresses, soft neck, and snow–white breasts. When she rose newborn from the sea foam, the wind teased her garment, and I beheld her virgin bloom with the same desire as any god.

Unwed, she was ruin among us, a treasure all coveted but none could seize. I fixed her in the firmament between my fractious sons, brooding Hephaestus and bellicose Ares, subduing two gods instead of one.

If my sons force this to my attention, I will pin them as a lion pins his cubs. I will forbid Ares from her, and my command will work for a time, but inevitably the ether will draw them back together.

Love will do as it will. I am a god who became a bull and a swan and a golden rain in pursuit of mine. I cannot control her more than they.

We are immortals. There will be infinite trespasses before time runs out its clock.

The Fates

Love is resentful. It is the bitter sight of Ares returning, unwelcome, to her window just before dawn. It is deadening days alone inside empty basalt walls when Hephaestus neglects to return from his forge.

Love is jealous. It is burly hands wielding a hammer. It is bronzed strength casting a spear.

Love is disloyal. It wants Galatea and then it wants another.

Love is selfish. It wishes a statue to life when she wants nothing but to be still.

Galatea

The weather has worsened. There is ice in the sky that falls like rain. He does not want me to go outside during the downpour. My handmaids agree, exchanging worried looks.

I wait until nighttime when they are sleeping. I make my way past them and escape into the courtyard.

I raise my arm to shelter my face as I run to the olive trees. Cold breaks painfully over me. Ahead, the trees bend under the weight of ice. I skid as I mount my pedestal; only the combination of practice and instinct allows me to find my position.

Dirty, frozen fists of ice pummel me. My skin does not bleed; my bones do not crack. In that moment, I am not human. I am my silent, sessile self.

The storm dies before daybreak, and I am sad to discover the ease with which my knees bend as I dismount.

Winter

My chill forces the mortal world to huddle and wait. Aphrodite must join it, trapped between two gods. I am Winter and I belong to Love: my interminable nights when loveless couples lie in icy beds, my dark–swallowed mornings, my morose skies. I am bitter like hard winter fruit; I am the howling wind of widows; I am barren of crops.

Under my remote, indifferent sun, Aphrodite makes her way across the snowy peaks. Even exhausted and worried, she is beautiful. Sadness makes limpid pools of her eyes. Her downturned mouth remains sweet for kissing. At their basalt door, she pauses; her fingers grow stiff from my cold before she finally presses inside.

In his iron palace, Ares uneasily inspects his weapons. He plans to assault his brother’s workshop tomorrow, and force the Smith at spear–tip to renounce his claim on Aphrodite. Ares is resolute—he will bring the volcano down on them if he must—and yet doubts gnaw at him. His plan is anemic, and he mistrusts his brother’s cleverness. Still, he will not relent. If instinct and strategy have abandoned him, he will rely on fortune.

I cannot see the Smith’s labors. The volcano’s hot belly lies outside my domain. The crash of his hammer shakes the ground. One of his automata emerges a step into the cave mouth where my wind blows cold around the stalagmites. A thick, shining chain trails from her hand. It disappears behind her into the shadows, and I cannot guess its length.

Aphrodite sits beside her open window, staring at my cataract sky, and pondering the ways that love can die.

Thanatos

Love can miscarry before it’s begun.

Love can die in infancy, unable to unfurl.

Love can grow too old, too quickly, until it crushes haphazard foundations. Love can stay too young, too long, never capturing enough substance to prevent dispersal by a breath.

Love can be murdered by malice as any jilted lover knows.

Love can starve. Love can be forgotten. Love can be weakened by disease until it succumbs to contempt. It can die in an earthquake, a volcano, a flood—any cataclysm that stops one lover’s heart from beating while laying waste to the other’s world.

Love can simply wilt, like the flower that decays into the soil, and is gone.

Galatea

To be a statue is to be a piece cut out of the world. It is to possess neither past nor future, and instead subsist in the perpetual now of creation. Sculptor and sculpture are bonded as Gaia and Ouranos were before they begot titans, gods and monsters. Earth and sky once laid skin to skin; their bodies merged at every peak and crevasse. In the whole of existence, there was nothing beyond their union.

Hephaestus’ Hammer

I am a thing created and completed. I was forged by the hand of the first and greatest smith. Together, we were once the only beings in the ether; he defined me and I defined him. When he sets me aside, I am inert nothing. When he takes me up again, I fill with purpose. He feeds me gold and magic. I strike the anvil and strike again.

Aphrodite

I stare out the window as wind runs restless fingers through my hair. After so long, I’d thought this would be more difficult, but decision cloaks me like the cold.

Ares began this. I will not reward him for it. I will stand with my husband.

Galatea

None of them notice me now when I am still. They do not see a woman—they see a statue like the many that clutter this place. I have receded from the foreground to the background of their lives.

After slipping from my handmaidens, I go daily to watch my sculptor work. I practice my pose, turned away from him but glancing over my shoulder.

My ivory sister remains unformed. I try to feel her presence. She does not seem to sense me or anything else. I hope she does not.

Aphrodite

When I reach the cave mouth, Hephaestus has gone, his golden automata with him.

I have never intruded here, and especially did not intend to do so alone. I would prefer to withdraw to the basalt palace and await Hephaestus there. However, there are few places Ares cannot pursue me with impunity, and I do not want to see my husband’s brother until this is done.

I delve further. Smoke lingers acridly in the air, staining it the same shade as the soot lying finger–deep on every surface. A glint of gold among the grime draws me to his anvil.

Hephaestus

Ares is reckless and short–sighted. Know these things, and one need know little else.

Zeus, my father, prefers to feign ignorance rather than enforce my matrimonial rights. As long as it benefits him to keep my brother and me fractious, he will never interfere. Thus, I must make it more costly for our father to ignore the situation than resolve it.

I wrest gold from the earth’s hidden, gilded depths. It is a long chain that I am forging, and I must replenish my supply.

Aphrodite

The newly crafted golden chain that lies across Hephaestus’s anvil is as delicately wrought as any necklace he’s given me, yet each link is the size of my hand. It could almost be jewelry meant to hang at a giant’s waist.

I reach toward a link with a single finger. Magic sparks along the metal, snapping toward my skin. I feel its desire to snare me. This is not jewelry. Whatever it touches, it will never release.

The Sculptor

All morning, I’ve worked intently, hardly needing to attend my hands. I roll my shoulder to relieve a kink in my neck, and as I shift, I suddenly see her—Galatea—standing behind me in the position I carved for her, bald eyes fixed on my work.

Hephaestus

Metal understands capture. Magnets seize iron; locks incarcerate palaces. Under the spell of flame, copper and tin ensnare each other into bronze. It is easy to convince any metal object that its purpose is imprisonment.

Let Ares try to knock me aside with his strong arm. He is too short–sighted to plan, and too impatient to wait. Having no cunning of his own, he expects none in others. The next time he profanes my marriage, these chains will bind him and my bride together while I call the gods to witness his crimes against me. With their nakedness on display along with their flagrancy, Zeus will be forced to act or reveal himself weak.

I have gathered enough gold to continue, but if I must, I will mine the earth bare before I concede.

The Sculptor

My hands are still clenched around my tools. Has she watched me since dawn? How many sessions have I carved unwittingly under her gaze? Was my work ever secret at all?

I shout in surprise. She startles and begins to run. I call after her to stop.

Aphrodite

I hear the clang of Hephaestus’ return when he is still far distant, his automata taking large strides on their heavy golden feet. I want to run, but although I have not touched the chain, I cannot will myself to move. I thought, of the two of them, Hephaestus was the more prudent, the more constant, the more possessed of foresight. Ares, for all his arrogant haranguing, never claimed to love me while plotting betrayal. I cannot bear this arid sense of loss that sears my breath.

The Sculptor

Galatea stops.

She does not stop like any other woman, who would catch her step, or turn heel, or kneel and pant. She halts in a single, impossible instant.

She hangs suspended. Only the ball of her right foot touches the ground. Her left leg, upraised, casts a graceful shadow. Her hair spills across the air, arrested before it can fall.

Aphrodite

At first, Hephaestus does not see me, preoccupied with his bags of ore. His automata, expressionless, bear him on their golden shoulders.  Hard labor’s sweat soaks his forehead and runs into his beard. This is the man I loved: his muscular shoulders, his thick dark brow, the strength of his hand as it grips his pickaxe. When at last he discovers me by the anvil and the chain, his eyes simultaneously widen with shock and darken with wariness. His mouth works, but he has no words, and neither do I.

The Sculptor

A woman caught in such a position would contort to regain her footing. A statue, unsupported, would fall.

Galatea does neither. She is neither woman nor statue, but some creature sliced in half by the blade that separates one state from another. I prayed this abomination into being, but only now do I begin to consider the cruelty I have inflicted on her as well as myself.

I cannot help the clot in my throat. I grieve for her and for me, and what the goddess will inflict on us in her wrath.

Aphrodite

My husband’s automata shift their lifelike feet, stirring the soot and tossing it into the air between us. The stasis which has held me in place shatters into fragments like knives. Words force through me, burning with tears and ash: “I would have chosen you.”

The Fates

The Queen of Laughter runs.

She skids in the soot, and loses one sandal. Still moving, she abandons the other to even her stride. The soles of her feet blacken. The left tears open on a stalagmite. She trails blood, not slowing.

Drops scatter red across the snow on the peaks as she maneuvers between boulders and scratching trees. She runs nowhere, not merely toward no destination, but toward a place that is nothing, with no Olympus or underworld, no mortals or gods, no domain of love to enslave her.

Love, which is Rich–Crowned, Laughter–Loving, Foam–Born Aphrodite. Love, which is bloody footprints, pridefully thrown spears, greedy snakes of chain. Love, which flees; love, which is desperate, denied, betrayed; love, which is unknown, even to itself. She is love, and she is too many things.

Thanatos

Love can devour, shredding hearts with its teeth until memories of compassion and joy turn to blood and vengeance. Love can eviscerate, ripping out secrets once held safe by skin, and hurling them to the ground amid intestines and bowels and shit. Love can crush the bones of a life, and with the tip of its pointed tongue, lick away the marrow which once made it vital.

Love can murder. Love can starve those too desolate to force themselves to eat. Love can take the knife to its own wrists, or the noose to its own neck. Dead and rotten, love can reach up from the underworld to snare the grieving left behind. 

Love can simply betray, without thought, without effort, without mercy.

Galatea

When I am thrust back into the necessity of motion, I find him weeping. Quavering, he asks whether Aphrodite is punishing me for his disrespect, but I know no more of her intentions than he. All I know is the wrongness in my body that strives to make me into something I am not and never was. If its end is a punishment, I welcome it.

I tell him of my afternoons alone, of mounting the pedestal in the hailstorm, of the precious ivory moments when I am released from this imprisoning consciousness. Soon, I think we will both be freed from his prayer, and I will finally return to what I was meant to be.

The Fates

If the goddess had heard the sculptor’s question, she would have said nothing. She had long ago forgotten there was ever an ivory maiden she blessed with life. She did not soften or relent or hear their hopes. She was only in pain, too distracted by her own troubles to prevent the world from reverting to what it had been.

Her fleeing steps took her to the sea where she was born. She collapsed on the wet sand, too exhausted to move.

The Sculptor

The weather is cold but clear, the sun a small, clenched fist set remotely in the sky. Our footsteps sink into the slurry of three–day–old snow as we enter the courtyard.

Galatea’s handmaids, seeing us emerge, run in our direction, exclaiming with worry. Their hems are filthy with snow melted into mud. They did not see Galatea leave their rooms, and have been frantic in their searching. I wave away their questions and send them back into the house.

I will send them elsewhere tomorrow. Today, Galatea and I walk together toward her pedestal.

Galatea

Evening lengthens our shadows, which cut darkly across the patches of intact snow. Above, bleak sky shades into deeper and deeper greys, too exhausted to muster the profligacy of lapis.

With naked arms, the olive trees gesture me to my pedestal. I feel the moment’s significance, crisp as the air. I am at the fulcrum between motion and stillness. I will not be trapped awake much longer.

I lay my foot on the pedestal and climb. I wonder for a moment if I should pause to speak to him, but words are one of the many things I am leaving behind.

The Fates

Love is loneliness. It is the Foam Born staring into waters that churn, deep and listless grey. Even the sea birds wade with their backs to the world.

Love is searching. It is the slam of the Smith’s palm against his anvil when he commands his automata to bear him across the world until they find her. It is the Stormer of Cities launching his attack against his brother’s abandoned workshop, finding neither battle nor beloved.

Love is realization. It is the sculptor’s hands, still aching from days laboring over his new ivory, rising to swipe tears from his cheeks.

Love is hope. It is the lightness of Galatea’s heart as her feet touch her pedestal.

Love is joy. It is the new ivory woman, half–complete, ready to leap.

The Sculptor

She moves silently and deftly, every movement assured. When her toes find ice, she shifts her weight, and does not so much as waver. I think of her when she was born, confused by her legs, fallen to the ground.

It is only moments before she is posed. She turns back to look over her shoulder. Although I am not in the correct place, somehow I expect her gaze to meet mine, even as it sweeps toward the trees.

Standing below her, watching her become herself again, I finally see her beauty return.

Galatea

Beyond the horizon, the sun ponders sinking. I stare into the dimness that will swallow it. The shadows of my friends, the olive trees, drift across my body, blown by gentle wind. I watch their patterns as my gaze grows diffuse until they are merely stirrings of light, then blurred moments of shade, then nothing.

Pedestal

She returns to me. The graceful movement of her feet solidifies. She is mine again to hold, and I will bear her always.

Aphrodite

I run my hand along featureless, sodden sand. Birds wail in the distance, winging out to sea where they can die alone and fall into the waves. The water reflects the sky; both are pale and restive.

I do not remember the ocean. Whatever time I spent submerged in its depths evanesced once I crested the waves. Once, I must have been cradled by currents that held me, weightless and suspended in my nascence, helping me grow.

My first memory is the gods, shining as they awaited me on shore, immortals whose lives already stretched into incomprehensibility. Even now, I am still as much an infant to them as when I emerged, knowing neither their names nor my own.

Love cannot be charted, and yet even I forget how unpredictable its courses are. How easy it is to lie with my passionate Ares, my thoughtful Hephaestus, and think I know tomorrow’s river.

I cannot prevent Ares and Hephaestus from finding me here. I could turn into a dove or a fish, but even so, I could only elude them so long. Though I will refuse them both, Zeus rules with his thunderous fist, and I do not know what he will command.

A bird dives, too far away for me to see whether it is fishing or dying. A large wave breaks, spilling further across the sand than its sisters. My drenched garment clings to my legs, quickly turning cold enough to make me shiver.

Foam

We bore love between the waves. She rose out of us, her hair like garlands around her shoulders, her eyes shining like pearls. There was love in the world before her, but as she emerged, it condensed into her body like morning dew. She was the eyes of love, and the skin of love, and the thoughts of love. It was too much for a newborn, so Zeus took her in hand and set her in the firmament of the gods in the place most convenient for him, to secure two sons with a single wife.

Birthed from the waves onto the shore, she shook her feet free of our shine, and trailed wet footprints across the sand. Ares was waiting for her, spear in hand. Hephaestus watched her with eyes like patient, banked embers.

She has forgotten us, but we are still her mothers, and we grieve for the innocence she’s lost.

Cresting the waves, we stretch toward her but can only wet her hem. Like any mothers, we wish we could keep her eternally safe and content, but our embrace makes her cold.

Love is a child. She is the Queen of Laughter, impulsive and contradictory and still surprised by the world. Sometimes she is foolish; we love her anyway as mothers do.

She presses her cheek against the sand, and we watch her through the night as she sleeps. The moon’s tide pulls us away, but we are accustomed to watching from a distance.

Dawn breaks and she rises, cheek smeared. Sunrise splashes over us, casting the colors of apples and roses. Slowly, she advances a step toward us, and then another. Soon, she is running, across the shore and through our waters until she is immersed to her throat. Like a dolphin, she dives beneath our waves.

We held her once while she grew, and we will hold her while she heals. Love is pain, betrayal, and decay, but it is also the early bloom that opens into winter’s cold. She is love, and she will always be reborn.

(Editors’ Note: Rachel Swirsky is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in this issue.)

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Rachel headshot over shoulder

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop and is a 2005 graduate of Clarion West. Her short fiction has appeared in venues including Tor.com, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Subterranean Online, been nominated for the Hugo, the Locus Award, and the World Fantasy Award, and twice won the Nebula Award. Visit her website at http://www.rachelswirsky.com. She and her husband have been in love for thirteen variable, affectionate years.

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