* Named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, St. Louis Dispatch
From the thrilling imagination of bestselling, award-winning Colm Tóibín comes a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra and her children—“brilliant…gripping…high drama…made tangible and graphic in Tóibín’s lush prose” (Booklist, starred review).
“I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war.
Judged, despised, cursed by gods, Clytemnestra reveals the tragic saga that led to these bloody actions: how her husband deceived her eldest daughter Iphigeneia with a promise of marriage to Achilles, only to sacrifice her; how she seduced and collaborated with the prisoner Aegisthus; how Agamemnon came back with a lover himself; and how Clytemnestra finally achieved her vengeance for his stunning betrayal—his quest for victory, greater than his love for his child.
House of Names “is a disturbingly contemporary story of a powerful woman caught between the demands of her ambition and the constraints on her gender…Never before has Tóibín demonstrated such range,” (The Washington Post). He brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it. Told in four parts, this is a fiercely dramatic portrait of a murderess, who will herself be murdered by her own son, Orestes. It is Orestes’s story, too: his capture by the forces of his mother’s lover Aegisthus, his escape and his exile. And it is the story of the vengeful Electra, who watches over her mother and Aegisthus with cold anger and slow calculation, until, on the return of her brother, she has the fates of both of them in her hands.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:May 30, 1955
Place of Birth:Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland
Education:St. Peter's College, Wexford; University College, Dublin, B.A. in English and history
Read an Excerpt
House of Names
I have been acquainted with the smell of death. The sickly, sugary smell that wafted in the wind towards the rooms in this palace. It is easy now for me to feel peaceful and content. I spend my morning looking at the sky and the changing light. The birdsong begins to rise as the world fills with its own pleasures and then, as day wanes, the sound too wanes and fades. I watch as the shadows lengthen. So much has slipped away, but the smell of death lingers. Maybe the smell has entered my body and been welcomed there like an old friend come to visit. The smell of fear and panic. The smell is here like the very air is here; it returns in the same way as light in the morning returns. It is my constant companion; it has put life into my eyes, eyes that grew dull with waiting, but are not dull now, eyes that are alive now with brightness.
I gave orders that the bodies should remain in the open under the sun a day or two until the sweetness gave way to stench. And I liked the flies that came, their little bodies perplexed and brave, buzzing after their feast, upset by the continuing hunger they felt in themselves, a hunger I had come to know too and had come to appreciate.
We are all hungry now. Food merely whets our appetite, it sharpens our teeth; meat makes us ravenous for more meat, as death is ravenous for more death. Murder makes us ravenous, fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction.
A knife piercing the soft flesh under the ear, with intimacy and precision, and then moving across the throat as soundlessly as the sun moves across the sky, but with greater speed and zeal, and then his dark blood flowing with the same inevitable hush as dark night falls on familiar things.
They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. My daughter had her hands tied tight behind her back, the skin on the wrists raw with the ropes, and her ankles bound. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, her muffled screams were heard when she finally realized that her father really did mean to murder her, that he did mean to sacrifice her life for his army. They had cropped her hair with haste and carelessness; one of the women managed to cut into the skin around my daughter’s skull with a rusty blade, and when Iphigenia began her curse, that is when a man tied an old cloth around her mouth so that her words could not be heard. I am proud that she never ceased to struggle, that never once, not for one second, despite the ingratiating speech she had made, did she accept her fate. She did not give up trying to loosen the twine around her ankles or the ropes around her wrists so that she could get away from them. Or stop trying to curse her father so that he would feel the weight of her contempt.
No one is willing now to repeat the words she spoke in the moments before they muffled her voice, but I know what those words were. I taught them to her. They were words I made up to shrivel her father and his followers, with their foolish aims, they were words that announced what would happen to him and those around him once the news spread of how they dragged our daughter, the proud and beautiful Iphigenia, to that place, how they pulled her through the dust to sacrifice her so they might prevail in their war. In that last second as she lived, I am told she screamed aloud so that her voice pierced the hearts of those who heard her.
Her screams as they murdered her were replaced by silence and by scheming when Agamemnon, her father, returned and I fooled him into thinking that I would not retaliate. I waited and I watched for signs, and smiled and opened my arms to him, and I had a table here prepared with food. Food for the fool! I was wearing the special scent that excited him. Scent for the fool!
I was ready as he was not, the hero home in glorious victory, the blood of his daughter on his hands, but his hands washed now as though free of all stain, his hands white, his arms outstretched to embrace his friends, his face all smiles, the great soldier who would soon, he believed, hold up a cup in celebration and put rich food into his mouth. His gaping mouth! Relieved that he was home!
I saw his hands clench in sudden pain, clench in the grim, shocked knowledge that at last it had come to him, and in his own palace, and in the slack time when he was sure he would enjoy the old stone bath and the ease to be found there.
That was what inspired him to go on, he said, the thought that this was waiting for him, healing water and spices and soft, clean clothes and familiar air and sounds. He was like a lion as he laid his muzzle down, his roaring all done, his body limp, and all thought of danger far from his mind.
I smiled and said that, yes, I too had thought of the welcome I would make for him. He had filled my waking life and my dreams, I told him. I had dreamed of him rising all cleansed from the perfumed water of the bath. I told him his bath was being prepared as the food was being cooked, as the table was being laid, and as his friends were gathering. And he must go there now, I said, he must go to the bath. He must bathe, bathe in the relief of being home. Yes, home. That is where the lion came. I knew what to do with the lion once he came home.
I had spies to tell me when he would come back. Men lit each fire that gave the news to farther hills where other men lit fires to alert me. It was the fire that brought the news, not the gods. Among the gods now there is no one who offers me assistance or oversees my actions or knows my mind. There is no one among the gods to whom I appeal. I live alone in the shivering, solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed.
I am praying to no gods. I am alone among those here because I do not pray and will not pray again. Instead, I will speak in ordinary whispers. I will speak in words that come from the world, and those words will be filled with regret for what has been lost. I will make sounds like prayers, but prayers that have no source and no destination, not even a human one, since my daughter is dead and cannot hear.
I know as no one else knows that the gods are distant, they have other concerns. They care about human desires and antics in the same way that I care about the leaves of a tree. I know the leaves are there, they wither and grow again and wither, as people come and live and then are replaced by others like them. There is nothing I can do to help them or prevent their withering. I do not deal with their desires.
I wish now to stand here and laugh. Hear me tittering and then howling with mirth at the idea that the gods allowed my husband to win his war, that they inspired every plan he worked out and every move he made, that they knew his cloudy moods in the morning and the strange and silly exhilaration he could exude at night, that they listened to his implorings and discussed them in their godly homes, that they watched the murder of my daughter with approval.
The bargain was simple, or so he believed, or so his troops believed. Kill the innocent girl in return for a change in the wind. Take her out of the world, use a knife on her flesh to ensure that she would never again walk into a room or wake in the morning. Deprive the world of her grace. And as a reward, the gods would make the wind blow in her father’s favor on the day he needed wind for his sails. They would hush the wind on the other days when his enemies needed it. The gods would make his men alert and brave and fill his enemies with fear. The gods would strengthen his swords and make them swift and sharp.
When he was alive, he and the men around him believed that the gods followed their fates and cared about them. Each of them. But I will say now that they did not, they do not. Our appeal to the gods is the same as the appeal a star makes in the sky above us before it falls, it is a sound we cannot hear, a sound to which, even if we did hear it, we would be fully indifferent.
The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive. For them, if they were to hear of us, we would be like the mild sound of wind in the trees, a distant, unpersistent, rustling sound.
I know that it was not always thus. There was a time when the gods came in the morning to wake us, when they combed our hair and filled our mouths with the sweetness of speech and listened to our desires and tried to fulfill them for us, when they knew our minds and when they could send us signs. Not long ago, within our memories, the crying women could be heard in the night in the time before death came. It was a way of calling the dying home, hastening their flight, softening their wavering journey to the place of rest. My husband was with me in the days before my mother died, and we both heard it, and my mother heard it too and it comforted her that death was ready to lure her with its cries.
That noise has stopped. There is no more crying like the wind. The dead fade in their own time. No one helps them, no one notices except those who have been close to them during their short spell in the world. As they fade from the earth, the gods do not hover over with their haunting, whistling sound. I notice it here, the silence around death. They have departed, the ones who oversaw death. They have gone and they will not be back.
My husband was lucky with the wind, that was all, and lucky his men were brave, and lucky that he prevailed. It could easily have been otherwise. He did not need to sacrifice our daughter to the gods.
My nurse was with me from the time I was born. In her last days, we did not believe that she was dying. I sat with her and we talked. If there had been the slightest sound of wailing, we would have heard. There was nothing, no sound to accompany her towards death. There was silence, or the usual noises from the kitchen, or the barking of dogs. And then she died, then she stopped breathing. It was over for her.
I went out and looked at the sky. And all I had then to help me was the leftover language of prayer. What had once been powerful and added meaning to everything was now desolate, strange, with its own sad, brittle power, with its memory, locked in its rhythms, of a vivid past when our words rose up and found completion. Now our words are trapped in time, they are filled with limits, they are mere distractions; they are as fleeting and monotonous as breath. They keep us alive, and maybe that is something, at least for the moment, for which we should be grateful. There is nothing else.
I have had the bodies removed and buried. It is twilight now. I can open the shutters onto the terrace and look at the last golden traces of the sun and the swifts arching in the air, moving like whips against the dense, raked light. As the air thickens, I can see the blurred edge of what is there. This is not a time for sharpness; I no longer want sharpness. I do not need clarity. I need a time like now when each object ceases to be itself and melts towards what is close to it, just as each action I and others have performed ceases to stand alone waiting for someone to come and judge it or record it.
Nothing is stable, no color under this light is still; the shadows grow darker and the things on the earth merge with each other, just as what all of us did merges into one action, and all our cries and gestures merge into one cry, one gesture. In the morning, when the light has been washed by darkness, we will face clarity and singleness again. In the meantime, the place where my memory lives is a shadowy, ambiguous place, comforted by soft, eroding edges, and that is enough for now. I might even sleep. I know that in the fullness of daylight, my memory will sharpen again, become precise, will cut through the things that happened like a dagger whose blade has been whetted for use.
There was a woman in one of the dusty villages beyond the river and towards the blue mountains. She was old and difficult but she had powers that had been lost to all others. She did not use her powers idly, I had been told, and most of the time she was not willing to use them at all. In her village she often paid imposters, women old and wizened like herself, women who sat in doorways with their eyes narrowed against the sun. The old woman paid them to stand in for her, to fool visitors into believing that they were the ones with the powers.
We had been watching this woman. Aegisthus, the man who shares my bed and would share this kingdom with me, had learned, with the help of some men who were under his sway, to distinguish between the other women, the decoys, who had no powers at all, and the real one, who could, when she wanted, weave a poison into any fabric.
If anyone wore that fabric they would be rendered frozen, unable to move, and rendered voiceless also, utterly silent. No matter how sudden the shock or severe the pain, they would not have the ability to cry out.
I planned to attack my husband when he returned. I would be waiting for him, all smiles. The gurgling sound he would make when I cut his throat became my obsession.
The old woman was brought here by the guards. I had her locked in one of the inner storerooms, a dry place where grain is kept. Aegisthus, whose powers of persuasion were as highly developed as the old woman’s power to cause death, knew what to say to her.
Both Aegisthus and the old woman were stealthy and wily. But I was clear. I lived in the light. I cast shadows but I did not live in shadow. As I prepared for this, I lived in pure brightness.
What I required was simple. There was a robe made of netting that my husband sometimes used when he came from the bath. I wanted the old woman to stitch threads into it, threads that would have the power to immobilize him once the robe touched his skin. The threads would be as near to invisible as the woman could make them. And Aegisthus warned her that I wanted not only stealth but silence. I wanted no one to hear the cries of Agamemnon as I murdered him. I wanted not a sound to be heard from him.
The woman pretended for some time that she was, in fact, one of the imposters. And even though I allowed no one but Aegisthus to see her and bring her food, she began to divine why she was here, that she had been brought here to help with the murder of Agamemnon, the king, the great, bloodthirsty warrior, victorious in the wars, soon to arrive home. The woman believed that the gods were on his side. She did not wish to interfere with the intentions of the gods.
I had always known that she would be a challenge, but I had come to learn too that it was simpler to work with those who held the old beliefs, who believed that the world was stable.
I arranged therefore to deal with this woman. I had time. Agamemnon was not to return for some days, and I would have warnings when he was approaching. We had spies in his camp by this time, and men on the hills. I left nothing to chance. I planned each step. I had left too much to luck and to the whims and needs of others in the past. I had trusted too many people.
I ordered the poisonous crone we had captured to be brought to one of the windows high in the wall of the corridor outside the room where she was being held. I gave instructions that this malignant creature be hoisted up so that she could peer into the walled garden. I knew what she would see. She would see her own golden granddaughter, the light of her life. We had taken the child from the village. She, too, was our prisoner.
I arranged for Aegisthus to tell the woman that if she wove the poison and if it worked, then she and her granddaughter would immediately be released and allowed home. I ordered him not to finish the next sentence, the one that began, “If you do not . . . ,” but just to look at the woman with such clear intent and malice that she would tremble, or, more likely, make an effort not to show any sign of fear.
Thus it was easy. The weaving took, I was told, a matter of minutes. Although Aegisthus sat with the woman as she worked, he could not find the new threads in the robe when she had finished. When it was done, she merely asked him to be kind to her granddaughter while she was here and to make sure, when they were being returned to the village, that no one saw them or knew who had accompanied them or where they had been. She gazed coldly at him, and he knew from her gaze that the task had been successfully completed and that the lovely, fatal magic would work on Agamemnon.
His doom was set in stone when he sent us word that before the battles began he wished to assist at the wedding of one of his daughters, that he wanted around him an aura of love and regeneration to strengthen him and fill his followers with joy before they set out to kill and conquer. Among the young soldiers, he said, was Achilles, the son of Peleus, a man destined to be a greater hero than his father. Achilles was handsome, my husband wrote, and the sky itself would brighten when it saw Achilles pledge himself to our daughter Iphigenia, with his followers watching in awe.
“You must come by chariot,” his message said. “It will take three days. And do not spare anything in your preparations for her wedding. Bring Orestes with you. He is old enough now to savor the sight of soldiers in the days before a battle and to witness the wedding of his sister to a man as noble as Achilles.
“And you must put power in the hands of Electra when you are away, and tell her to remember her father and use power well. The men I have left, the ones too old to fight, will advise her, they will surround her with their care and wisdom until her mother returns with her sister and her brother. She must listen to the elders in the same way her mother does in my absence.
“Then, when we return from war, power will return to its proper source. After triumph, there will be stability. The gods are on our side. I have been assured that the gods are on our side.”
I believed him. I found Iphigenia and told her that she would come with me on a journey to her father’s camp and she would be married to a warrior. I told her that we would have the seamstresses work all day and all night to prepare the clothes for her that we would carry with us. I added my words to the words of Agamemnon. I told my daughter that Achilles, her husband-to-be, was soft-spoken. And I added other words too, words that are bitter to me now, words filled now with shame. That he was brave, admired, and that his charm had not grown rough despite his strength.
I was saying more when Electra came into the room and asked us why we were whispering. I told Electra that Iphigenia, older than she by one year, was to be married, and she smiled and clasped her sister’s hands when I said that word of Iphigenia’s beauty had spread, that it was known about in many places now, and Achilles would be waiting for her, and her father was certain that in times to come there would be stories told of the bride on her wedding day, and of the sky itself bright and the sun high in the sky and the gods smiling and the soldiers in the days before battle made brave and steely by the light of love.
Yes, I said love, I said light, I said the gods, I said bride. I said soldiers steely before battle. I said his name and her name. Iphigenia, Achilles. And then I called in the dressmakers so the work could begin to prepare for my daughter a robe that would match her own radiance, which on the day of her wedding would match the radiance of the sun. And I told Electra that her father trusted her enough to be left here with the elders, that her sharp wit and skill at noticing and remembering made her father proud.
And some weeks later, on a golden morning, with some of our women, we set out.
When we arrived, Agamemnon was waiting for us. He came slowly towards us with an expression on his face that I had never seen before. His face, I thought, showed sorrow, but also surprise and relief. Maybe other things too, but they were what I noticed then. Sorrow, I thought, because he had missed us, he had been away a long time, and he was giving away his daughter; and surprise, because he had spent so much time imagining us and now we were here, all flesh, all real, and Orestes, at the age of eight, had grown beyond his father’s dreams as Iphigenia, at sixteen, had blossomed. And he exuded relief, I thought, that we were safe and he was safe and we could be with each other. When he came to embrace me, I felt a pained warmth from him, but when he stood back and surveyed the soldiers who had come with him, I saw the power in him, the power of the leader prepared for battle, his mind on strategy, decisions. Agamemnon, with his men, was an image of pure will. I remember when we married first being carried away by that image of will I saw even more intensely that day.
Also I saw how, unlike other men of his kind, he was ready to listen, as I felt he was now, or would be when I was alone with him.
And then he picked Orestes up and laughed and carried him towards Iphigenia.
He was all charm when he turned to Iphigenia. And it was as if a miracle had occurred when I looked at her, as if some woman had come unbidden onto the earth with an aura of tenderness mixed with reserve, with a distance from common things. Her father moved to embrace her, still holding the boy, and if anyone then had wanted to know what love looked like, if anyone going into battle needed an image of love to take with them to protect them or spur them on, it was here for them, like something precious cut in stone—the father, the son, the daughter, the mother watching fondly, the look of longing on the father’s face with all the mystery of love, and its warmth, its purity, as he gently let his son down to stand beside him so that Agamemnon could hold his daughter in his arms.
I saw it and I am certain of it. In those seconds it was there.
But it was false.
None of us who had traveled, however, guessed the truth for one second, even though some of the others standing around, maybe even most of them, must have known it. But not one of them gave a sign, not a single sign.
The sky remained blue, the sun hot in the sky, and the gods—oh yes, the gods!—seemed to be smiling on our family that day, on the bride-to-be and her young brother, on me, and on her father as he stood in the embrace of love, as he would stand eventually in the victory of battle with his army triumphant. Yes, the gods smiled that day as we came in all innocence to help Agamemnon execute his plan.
The day after our arrival, my husband came early to take Orestes with him and have a sword and light body armor made for him so that he would look like a warrior. Women came to see Iphigenia and there was much fuss and wonder as they admired the clothes we had brought with us, and much calling for cool drinks, and much folding and unfolding of garments. After a while, I stood in the space between our quarters and the kitchens listening to the idle chatter there until I heard one of the women mention that some of the soldiers were lingering outside. Among the names she mentioned was Achilles.
How strange, I thought, that he would come so close to our quarters! And then I thought no, it was not strange, he would come to see if he could catch a glimpse of Iphigenia. Of course he would come! How eager he must be to see her!
I walked out into the forecourt and I asked the soldiers which of them was Achilles. He was the tall one, I discovered, who was standing alone. When I approached, he turned and looked at me and I realized something from his gaze, the directness of it, and the tone of his voice as he spoke his name, the honesty in it. This will be the end of our troubles, I thought. Achilles has been sent to us to end what began before I was born, before my husband was born. Some venom in our blood, in all our blood. Old crimes and desires for vengeance. Old murders and memories of murder. Old wars and old treacheries. Old savagery, old attacks, times when men behaved like wolves. It will end now as this man marries my daughter, I thought. I saw the future as a place of plenty. I saw Orestes growing up in the light of this young soldier married to his sister. I saw an end to strife, a time when men would grow old with ease, and battles would become the subject of high talk as night fell and memories faded of the hacked-up bodies and the howling voices rising for miles across some bloodied plain. They could talk of heroes then instead.
When I told Achilles who I was, he smiled and nodded, making clear that he already knew me, and then made to turn away. I called him back and offered him my hand so that he might join his hand with mine as a token of what would soon happen and of the years ahead.
His body appeared to jolt when I spoke, and he looked around, checking if anyone was watching. I understood his reticence and moved some steps away from him before I spoke again.
“Since you are marrying my daughter,” I said, “surely you may touch my hand?”
“Marrying?” he asked. “I am impatient for battle. I do not know your daughter. Your husband—”
“I am sure my husband,” I interrupted, “asked you to maintain distance in these days before the feast, but from my daughter, not from me. In the days to come, all this will change, but if it worries you to be seen speaking to me before your wedding with my daughter, then I must go back to be with the women and away from you.”
I spoke softly. The expression on his face was pained, perplexed.
“You are mistaken,” he said. “I am waiting for battle, not for a bride. There will be no weddings as we wait for the wind to change, as we wait for our boats to stop being hurled against rocks. As we wait for . . .”
He frowned, and then seemed to check himself so that he would not finish what he had begun to say.
“Perhaps my husband,” I said, “has brought my daughter here so that after the battle—”
“After the battle I will go home,” he interrupted. “If I survive the battle, I will go home.”
“My daughter has come here to marry you,” I said. “She was summoned by her father, my husband.”
“You are mistaken,” he said, and once more I saw grace, tempered with firmness and resolve. For a second, I had a vision of the future, a future that Achilles would transform for us, a time to come in a place filled with cushioned corners and nourished shadows, and I would grow old there as Achilles ripened and my daughter Iphigenia became a mother and Orestes grew into wisdom. Suddenly, it occurred to me that in this world of the future I could not see any place for Agamemnon and I could not see Electra either, and I started for a moment, I almost gasped at some dark absence looming. I tried to place both of them in the picture and I failed. I could not see either of them and there was something else that I could not see, as Achilles raised his voice as if to get my attention.
“You are mistaken,” he said again, and then spoke more softly. “Your husband must have told you why your daughter has been summoned here.”
“My husband,” I said, “merely welcomed us when we came. He said nothing else.”
“Do you not know, then?” he asked. “Is it possible you do not know?”
The expression on his face had darkened, his voice had almost broken on the last question.
I hunched over as I moved from him and made my way back to where my daughter and the women were gathered. They barely saw me, since they were marveling over some piece of stitching, holding up a piece of cloth. I sat alone, away from them.
I do not know who told Iphigenia that she was not to be married but was to be sacrificed. I do not know who informed her that she was not to have Achilles as her husband, but was rather to have her throat bloodied by a sharp, thin knife in the open air as many spectators, including her own father, gaped at her, and figures appointed for this purpose chanted supplications to the gods.
When the women left, I spoke to Iphigenia; she did not know then. But in the next hour or two, as we waited for Orestes to return, as I lay awake and as she went in and out of the room, someone let her know plainly and precisely. I realized I had fooled myself into believing that there would be some easy explanation for Achilles’ ignorance of the wedding plans. A few times, I had a piercing intimation of the truth, but it seemed so unlikely that anyone intended to harm Iphigenia, since my husband had greeted us in the way he did with his followers around him, and the women from among his camp had come so eagerly to see the clothes.
I went over my conversation with Achilles, thinking back on each word. When Iphigenia came to me, I was certain that I would, by nightfall, receive some news that would soothe me, and that everything would be resolved. I was convinced of this even as she began to speak, as she began to tell me what she had learned.
“Who told you this?” I asked.
“One of the women was sent to tell me.”
“Which of them?”
“I don’t know her. I only know that she was sent to tell me.”
“Sent by whom?”
“By my father,” she replied.
“How can we be sure?” I asked.
“I am sure,” she said.
We sat waiting for Orestes to return, waiting so we could implore whoever came with him to take us to Agamemnon, or allow us to send a message to him saying that he must come and speak to us. Sometimes Iphigenia held my hand, tightening her grip and then letting go, sighing, closing her eyes in dread, and then opening her eyes again to stare vacantly into the distance. Even still it seemed to me as we waited that nothing would happen, that all this was maybe nothing, that the idea of sacrificing Iphigenia to the gods was a rumor spread by the women and that such rumors would be easily spread among nervous soldiers and their followers in the days before a battle.
I wavered from feeling unsure and nervous to sensing that the very worst was to come, as my daughter found my hand again and held it harder and more fiercely. A few times, I wondered if we could flee from here, if we could set out together into the night and make towards home, or some sanctuary, or if I could find someone to take Iphigenia away, disguise her, find a hiding place for her. But I did not know in what direction we could go, and I knew that we would be followed and found. Since he had lured us here, I was sure, Agamemnon was having us watched and guarded.
We sat together in silence for hours. No one came near us. Slowly, I began to feel that we were prisoners and had been prisoners since the moment we arrived. We had been fooled into coming. Agamemnon had realized how excited I would be at the thought of a wedding, and that is the strategy he used to entice us here. Nothing else would have worked.
We heard Orestes’ voice first, calling out in play, and then, to my shock, his father’s. When they both came in, all bright-eyed and boisterous, we stood up to face him. In one second, Agamemnon saw that the woman he had sent had, as he had instructed, told Iphigenia. He bowed his head and then he lifted it and started laughing. He told Orestes to show us the sword that had been forged and polished specially for him, he told him to show us the armor that had been made for him too. He took out his own sword and held it in mock seriousness to challenge Orestes, who, under his father’s careful guidance, crossed swords with him and stood in combat position against him.
“He is a great warrior,” Agamemnon said.
We watched him coldly, impassively. For a moment, I was going to call for Orestes’ nurse and have the boy removed, put to bed, but whatever was going on between Agamemnon and Orestes held me back. It was as if Agamemnon knew that he must play this part of the father with his boy for all it was worth. There was something in the air, or in our expressions, so intense that my husband must have known when he relaxed and faced us that life would change and never be the same again.
Agamemnon did not glance at me now, nor did he look at Iphigenia. The longer his jousting went on, the more I realized that he was afraid of us, or afraid of what he would have to say to us when it stopped. He did not want it to stop. He was, as he continued the game, not a brave man.
I smiled because I knew that this would be the last episode of happiness I would know in my life, and that it was being played out by my husband, in all his weakness, for as long as possible. It was all theatre, all show, the mock sword fight between father and son. I saw how Agamemnon was making it last, keeping Orestes excited without exhausting him, letting him feel that he was showing off his skill and thus making the boy want to do more and more. He was controlling Orestes as we both stood watching.
It struck me for a second that this was what the gods did with us—they distracted us with mock conflicts, with the shout of life, they distracted us also with images of harmony, beauty, love, as they watched distantly, dispassionately, waiting for the moment when it ended, when exhaustion set in. They stood back as we stood back. And when it ended, they shrugged. They no longer cared.
Orestes did not want the mock fight to end, but, within the rules, there was a limit to what they could do. Once, the boy moved too close to his father and left himself fully vulnerable to his father’s sword. As Agamemnon gently pushed him back, it was clear to him that it was a game only and that we had seen this and noted it. This realization quickly made Orestes lose interest and move equally fast into tiredness and irritation. But still he did not want it to end. When I shouted for the nurse, Orestes began to cry. He did not want the nurse, he said, as his father lifted him in his arms and carried him like a piece of firewood towards our sleeping quarters.
Iphigenia did not look at me, nor I at her. We both remained standing. I do not know how much time passed.
When Agamemnon appeared, he walked quickly towards the opening in the tent and then turned.
“So you know, you both know?” he asked quietly.
In disbelief, I nodded.
“There is nothing else to say,” he whispered. “It must be. Please believe me that it must be.”
Before he left us, he gave me a hollow look. He almost shrugged then as he spread out his arms, his palms facing upwards. He was like someone with no power, or he was mimicking for me and for Iphigenia how such a man would seem. Shrunken, easy to fool or persuade.
The great Agamemnon made it plain by his stance that whatever decision had been made, it had been made not by him, but by others. He made it seem that it had been too much for him, all of it, as he darted out into the night to where his guards were waiting.
Then there was silence all around, the silence that can come only when an army sleeps. Iphigenia came to me and I held her. She did not cry or sob. It felt as though she would never move again and we would be discovered like this when morning came.
At first light, I walked through the camp in search of Achilles. When I found him, he edged away from me, but as much in pride as in fear, as much for the sake of decorum as nervousness about who was watching us. I drew close to him, but I did not whisper.
“My daughter was tricked into coming here. Your name was used.”
“I too am angry with her father.”
“I will fall at your knees if I need to. Can you help me in my misfortune? Can you help the girl who came here to be your wife? It was for you that we had the seamstresses working day and night. All the excitement was for you. And now she is told that she will be slaughtered. What will men think of you when they hear of this deceit? I have no one else to implore so I implore you. For the sake of your own name, if nothing else, you must help me. Put your hand over mine, and then I will know that we are saved.”
“I will not touch your hand. I will do that only if I have succeeded in changing Agamemnon’s mind. Your husband should not have used my name as though it were a trap.”
“If you do not marry her, if you fail—”
“My name is nothing then. My life is nothing. All weakness, a name used to trap a girl.”
“I can bring my daughter here. Let us both stand in front of you.”
“Let her remain apart. I will speak to your husband.”
“My husband . . .” I began and then stopped.
Achilles looked around at the group of men who were closest to us.
“He is our leader,” he said.
“You will be rewarded if you can prevail,” I said.
He looked at me evenly, holding my gaze until I turned and walked back through the camp alone. Men moved out of my way, out of my sight, as though I, in my efforts to prevent the sacrifice, were some vast pestilence that had been sent to their camp, worse than the wind that had smashed their boats against the rocks and then rose up again in further fury.
When I arrived at our tent, I could hear the sound of Iphigenia crying. The tent was full of women, a few women who had traveled with us, the women who had come the day before, and now some stragglers who added their presence to create an air of mayhem around my daughter. When I shouted at them to get out and they did not attend to me, I pulled one of them by the ear to the opening of the tent and, having ejected her, I moved towards another until all of them, except the women who had traveled with us, began to scatter.
Iphigenia had her hands over her face.
“What has happened?” I asked.
One of the women told us then that three rough-looking men in full armor had come to the tent looking for me. When they were told that I was not there, they believed that I was hiding and ransacked the living quarters, the sleeping quarters and the kitchens. And then they left, taking Orestes with them. Iphigenia began to cry now as the women told me that her brother had been taken. He was kicking and struggling, they said, as they carried him away.
“Who sent these men?” I asked.
There was silence for a moment. No one wished to answer until one of the women eventually spoke.
“Agamemnon,” she said.
I asked two of the women to come with me to the sleeping quarters to prepare my body and my attire. They washed me, adding sweet spices and perfume, and then they helped me to choose my clothes and arrange my hair. They asked me if they should accompany me now, but I thought that I would walk alone through the camp in search of my husband, that I would call out his name, that I would threaten and terrorize anyone I saw who did not help me to find him.
When finally I found his tent, my way was blocked by one of his men, who asked me what business I had with him.
I was in the act of pushing him out of my way when Agamemnon appeared.
“Where is Orestes?” I asked.
“Learning how to use a sword properly,” he replied. “He will be well looked after. There are other boys his age.”
“Why did you send men looking for me?”
“To tell you that it will happen soon. The heifers will be slain first. They are now on their way to the appointed place.”
“And then our daughter.”
“Say her name!”
I did not know that Iphigenia had followed me, and I do not know still how she changed from the sobbing, frightened and inconsolable girl to the poised young woman, her presence solitary and stern, that now came towards us.
“You do not need to say my name,” she interrupted. “I know my name.”
“Look at her. Do you intend to kill her?” I asked Agamemnon.
He did not reply.
“Answer the question,” I said.
“There are many things I must explain,” he said.
“Answer the question first,” I said. “Answer it. And then you can explain.”
“I have learned from your emissary what you intend to do to me,” Iphigenia said. “You do not need to answer anything.”
“Why will you kill her?” I asked. “What prayers will you utter as she dies? What blessings will you ask for yourself when you cut your child’s throat?”
“The gods . . .” he began and stopped.
“Do the gods smile on men who have their daughters killed?” I asked. “And if the wind does not change, will you kill Orestes too? Is that why he is here?”
“Do you want me to send for Electra?” I asked. “Do you want to find a husband’s name for her and fool her too?”
“Stop!” he said.
As Iphigenia moved towards him, he seemed almost afraid of her.
“I am not eloquent, father,” she said. “All the power I have is in my tears, but I have no tears now either. I have my voice and I have my body and I can kneel and ask that I not be killed before my time. Like you, I think the light of day is sweet. I was the first to call you father, and I was the first you called your daughter. You must remember how you told me that I would in time be happy in my husband’s house, and I asked: Happier than with you, father? And you smiled and shook your head and I curled my head into your chest and held you with my arms. I dreamed that I would receive you into my house when you were old and we would be happy then. I told you that. Do you remember? If you kill me, then that will be a sour dream I had, and surely for you it will bring infinite regret. I have come alone to you, tearless, unready. I have no eloquence. I can only ask you with the simple voice I have to send us home. I ask you to spare me. I ask my father what no daughter should ever have to ask. Father, do not kill me!”
Agamemnon lowered his head as if he were the one who had been condemned. When some of his men approached, he looked at them nervously before he spoke.
“I understand that it calls for pity,” he said. “I love my children. I love my daughter even more now that I see her so composed and in the fullest bloom. But see how large this seagoing army is! It is ready and restive, but the wind will not change for us to attack. Think of the men. Their wives are being abducted by barbarians while they linger here, their land is being laid waste. Each one knows that the gods have been consulted, and each one knows what the gods have ordered me to do. It does not depend on me. I have no choice in this. And if we are defeated, no one will survive. We will all be destroyed, every one of us. If the wind does not change, we will all face death.”
He bowed to some invisible presence in front of him and then he signaled to the two men closest to him to follow him into his tent; two others went to guard the entrance.
It struck me then that if the gods really cared, if they had been watching over us as they were meant to be, they would take pity and quickly change the wind over the sea. I imagined voices coming from the water, from the harbor, then cheering among the men, the flags blowing with this new wind that would allow their ships to move speedily and stealthily so that they would know victory and see that the gods had merely been testing their resolve.
The noises I imagined soon began to give way to shouting as Achilles ran towards us, followed by men roaring abuse at him.
“Agamemnon told me to talk to the soldiers directly myself, to tell them that it was out of his hands,” he said. “I have now spoken to them and they say that she must be killed. They shouted threats at me too.”
“To say that I should be stoned to death.”
“For trying to save my daughter?”
“I begged them. I told them that victory in battle made possible by the murder of a girl was a coward’s victory. My voice was drowned out by their shouting. They will not give in to argument.”
I turned towards the crowd of men that had followed Achilles. I thought that if I could find one face and gaze at it, the face of the weakest among them or the strongest, I could shift my gaze to each of them and make them ashamed. But they would not look up. No matter what I did, not one of them would look up.
“I will do what I can to save her,” Achilles said, but there was in his tone a sound of defeat. He did not name what he could do, or what he might do. I noticed that he too had his eyes cast down. But as Iphigenia began to speak, he looked at her, as did the men around him, who took her in now as though she had already become an icon whose last words would have to be remembered, a figure whose death was going to change the very way the wind blew, whose blood would send an urgent message to the heavens above us.
“My death,” she said, “will rescue all those who are in danger. I will die. It cannot be otherwise. It is not right for me to be in love with life. It is not right for any of us to be in love with life. What is a single life? There are always others. Others like us come and live. Each breath we breathe is followed by another breath, each step by another step, each word by the next one, each presence in the world by another presence. It hardly matters who must die. We will be replaced. I will give myself for the army’s sake, for my father’s sake, for my country’s sake. I will meet my own sacrifice with a smile. Victory in battle will be my victory then. The memory of my name will last longer than the lives of many men.”
As she spoke, her father and his men slowly emerged from his tent, and others gathered who had been nearby. I watched her, unsure all the time if this was a ploy, if her soft tone and her voice low with humility and resignation, but loud enough that it could be heard, was something she had planned so that she could somehow save herself.
No one moved. There was no sound from the camp. Her words lay on the stillness of air like a further stillness. I noticed Achilles about to speak and then deciding to remain silent. Agamemnon in those moments attempted to assume the pose of a commander, as he ran his eyes over the far horizon, suggesting that large questions were on his mind. No matter what he did, however, he appeared to me like a diminished, aging man. He would, in the future, I thought, be viewed with contempt for luring his daughter to the camp and having her murdered to appease the gods. He was still feared, I saw, but I could see too that this would not last.
Thus he was at his most dangerous, like a bull with a sword stuck into its side.
With dignity and proud scorn, I walked away from them, with Iphigenia gently following. I was sure then that the weak leader and the angry, uneasy mob would hold sway. I knew that we had been defeated. Iphigenia continued speaking, asking me not to mourn her death, and not to pity her, asking me to tell Electra how she died and to implore Electra not to wear mourning clothes for her, and to use my energy now to save Orestes from the poison that was all around us.
In the distance, we could hear the howls of the animals that had been brought to the place of sacrifice. I demanded that all the women who once more had arrived get out of our sight, except the few we trusted who had accompanied us to the camp. I ordered Iphigenia’s wedding clothes to be prepared and the clothes that I had planned to wear at the wedding ceremony to be laid out for me. I asked for water so we both could bathe and then special white ointment for our faces and black lines for around our eyes so that we would seem pale and unearthly as we made our way to that place of death.
At first no one spoke. Then the silence was broken at intervals by men shouting, by the sound of prayers rising, by animals bellowing and letting out fierce shrieks.
When word came that there were men outside and they were preparing to enter, I went towards the opening of the tent. The men seemed frightened when they saw me.
“Do you know who I am?” I asked.
They would not look at me or reply.
“Are you too cowardly to speak?” I asked.
“We are not,” one of them said.
“Do you know who I am?” I asked this man.
“Yes,” he said.
“From my mother I received a set of words that she, in turn, had received from hers,” I said. “These words have been sparingly used. They cause the insides of all men within earshot to shrivel, and then the insides of all their children. Only their wives are spared, and they are destined then to search the dust for food to peck.”
They were so filled with superstition, I saw, that any set of words that invoked the gods or an ancient curse would instill instant fear in them. Not one of them questioned me even with a glance, not one shadow passed over what I had said, not one hint that there was no such curse, and never had been.
“If one of you lays a finger on my daughter or on me,” I continued, “if one of you walks ahead of us, or speaks, I will invoke that curse. Unless you come behind us like a pack of dogs, I will speak the words of the curse.”
Each one of them looked chastened. Arguments would not work for them, not even pity, but the slightest invocation of a power beyond their power had them spellbound. Had they looked up again, they would have seen a smile of pure contempt pass across my face.
Inside, Iphigenia was ready, like some deeply molded version of herself, stately, placid, not responding to the sound of an animal howling in pain that rose at the very place where she soon would see light for the last time.
I whispered to her: “They are frightened of our curses. Wait until there is silence and raise your voice. Explain how ancient the curse is, passed from mother to daughter over time, and how seldom it has been used because of its power. Threaten to invoke it unless they relent, threaten it first against your father and then against each one of them, beginning with those closest to you. Warn them that there will be no army left at all, just dogs growling in the deathly stillness that your curse will leave behind.”
I told her then what the words of the curse should say. We walked in ceremony from our tent to the killing place, Iphigenia first, with me some distance behind her, and then the women who had come with us, and then the soldiers. The day was hot; the smell of the blood and the innards of animals and the aftermath of fear and butchering came towards us until it took all our will not to cover our noses from the stench. Instead of a place of dignity, they had made the place where the killing was to happen into a ramshackle site, with soldiers wandering around aimlessly, and the leftover parts of dead animals strewn about.
Perhaps it was this scene, coupled with how easy it had been to invoke the gods in the curse that I had invented, that sharpened something already in me. As we walked towards the place of slaughter, I realized for the first time that I was sure, fully sure, that I did not believe at all in the power of the gods. I wondered if I was alone in this. I wondered if Agamemnon and the men around him really cared about the gods, if they really believed that a hidden power beyond their power was holding the troops in a spell that no mortal power could manage to cast.
But of course they did. Of course they were sure of what they believed, enough for them to want to go through with this plan.
As we approached Agamemnon, he whispered to his daughter: “Your name will be remembered forever.”
He turned to me and in a voice of gravity and self-importance he whispered: “Her name will be remembered forever.”
I saw now that one of the soldiers who had accompanied us went to Agamemnon and whispered something to him. Agamemnon listened closely and then spoke quietly, firmly, to the five or six men around him.
Then the chanting began, the calling out to the gods in phrases filled with repetitions and strange inversions. I closed my eyes and listened. I could smell the blood of the animals as it began to sour, and there were vultures in the sky, so it was all death, and then the single sound of the chant followed by the rippling, rising sound of the chant being repeated by those who followed the gods most closely and then a sudden mass sound directed towards the sky as thousands of men responded with one voice.
I looked at Iphigenia as she stood alone. She exuded an unearthly power, with the beauty of her robes, the whiteness of her face, the blackness of her hair, the black lines around her eyes, her stillness and silence.
At that moment, the knife was produced. Two women walked towards Iphigenia and loosened her hair from its pins, then pushed down her head and hurriedly, roughly cut her hair. When one of them cut into her skin and Iphigenia cried out, however, the cry was that of a girl, not a sacrificial victim, but a young, fearful, vulnerable girl. And the sacred spell was broken for a moment. I knew how fragile this crowd was. Men began to shout. Agamemnon looked around him in dismay. I knew as I watched him how thin his control was.
As Iphigenia pulled herself loose and began to speak, no one could hear her at first and she had to scream to get silence. When it was clear that she was ready to invoke a curse against her father, a man came from behind her with an old white cloth and bound it around her mouth and dragged her, as she kicked and used her elbows, to the place of sacrifice, where he tied her hands and her feet.
I did not hesitate then. I stretched out my arms and raised my voice and I began the curse of which I had warned them. I directed it against all of them. Some of those in front of me started to run in fright, but from behind another man came with a ragged cloth that, despite my efforts, he pulled tight around my mouth too. I was dragged away as well, but in the opposite direction, away from the place of sacrifice.
When I was out of sight, out of earshot, I was kicked and beaten. And then at the edge of the camp, I saw them lifting a stone. It took three or four men to lift it. The men who had dragged me pushed me into a space dug into the earth below the stone.
The space was large enough to sit in but not to stand up or lie down in. Once they had me there, they quickly put the stone back over the opening. My hands were not bound, so I could move them enough to take the cloth from my mouth, but the stone was too heavy for me to push, so I could not release myself. I was trapped; even the urgent sounds I made seemed trapped.
I was half-buried underground as my daughter died alone. I never saw her body and I did not hear her cries or call out to her. But others told me of her cry. And those last high sounds she made, I now believe, in all their helplessness and fear, as they became shrieks, as they pierced the ears of the crowd assembled, will be remembered forever. Nothing else.
Soon, for me, the pain began, the pain in my back that came from being cramped under the ground. The numbness in my arms and legs soon became painful too. The base of my spine began to be irritated and then felt as if it were on fire. I would have given anything to stretch my body, let my arms and legs loose, stand up straight and move. That was all I thought about for the first while.
Then the thirst began, and the fear that seemed to make the thirst even more intense. All I thought about now was water, even the smallest amount of water. I remembered times in my life when there had been pitchers of cool drinking water close to me. I imagined springs in the earth, deep wells. I regretted that I had not savored water more. The hunger that came later was nothing to this thirst.
Despite the vileness of the smell, and the ants and spiders that crawled around me, despite the pain in my back and in my arms and legs, despite the hunger that deepened, despite the fear that I would never come out of here alive, it was the thirst that turned me, changed me.
I had, I realized, made one mistake. I should not have threatened with a curse the men who came to accompany us to the place of death. I should have let them do as they willed, walk ahead of us, or alongside as though Iphigenia were their prisoner. That soldier who had spoken to my husband had, I was sure, whispered him a warning. He had prepared him and now, during my time underground, I blamed myself. As a result of my words, spoken too hastily, I was certain that Agamemnon had ordered that if we began a curse, my daughter or I, we were to be silenced instantly by the gagging cloth.
If he had not been prepared, I imagined the men scattering in fear as Iphigenia began to curse them. I imagined her threatening to continue the curse, to finish the string of words that would shrivel them, unless they released her. I imagined that she could have been saved.
I was at fault. In that time under the earth, in order to distract myself from the thirst, I resolved that if I were spared I would weigh each word I spoke and decision I made. In the future, I would weigh the smallest action.
Because of how roughly the stone had been put over me, I could see a sliver of light, so that when it faded and I could see nothing I knew it was night. Through those hours of darkness, I went over everything from the start. We should never have been fooled into coming here. And we should have worked out a way of fleeing once Agamemnon’s intentions became clear. Such thoughts made the thirst that I suffered even more intense. That thirst lived in me like something that could never be assuaged.
The following morning, when someone threw a pitcher of water into the hole where they had buried me, I heard laughter. I tried to drink what water I could that had soaked into my clothes, but it was almost nothing. The water had merely wet me and the ground beneath me. It had also let me know, in case I needed to know, that I was not forgotten. At intervals over the next two days, they threw more water in. It mixed with my excrement to make a smell like that of a body as it putrefies. It was a smell that I thought would never leave me.
What stayed with me besides that smell was a thought. It began as nothing, as a piece of bad temper arising from the pure discomfort and the thirst, but then it grew and it came to mean more than any other thought or any other thing. If the gods did not watch over us, I wondered, then how should we know what to do? Who else would tell us what to do? I realized then that no one would tell us, no one at all, no one would tell me what should be done in the future or what should not be done. In the future, I would be the one to decide what to do, not the gods.
And in that time I determined that I would kill Agamemnon in retaliation for what he had done. I would consult no oracle or priest. I would pray to no one. I would plot alone in silence. I would be ready. And this would be something that Agamemnon and those around him, so filled with the view that we all must wait for the oracle, would never guess, never suspect.
On the third morning, close to first light, when they lifted the stone, I was too stiff to move. They tried to pull me out by the arms, but I was locked into the narrow space where they had buried me. They had to lever me out slowly; they put their strength under my arms because I could not stand, the power in my legs had gone. I saw no value in speech, and did not smile in satisfaction as they held their noses against the stench that rose in the morning sun from the hole where they had held me.
They took me to where the women were waiting. For hours that morning, having washed me and found me fresh clothes, they fed me and I drank. No one spoke. They were afraid, I saw, that I was going to ask them about the last moments of my daughter’s life and the disposal of her body.
I was ready to be left in peace by them so that I could sleep, when we heard the sound of running and voices. One of the men who had accompanied us to the place of death came breathlessly into the tent.
“The wind has changed,” he said.
“Where is Orestes?” I asked him.
He shrugged and ran back out into the crowd. A sound rose then, the noise of instructions and commands. Within a short time, two soldiers came into the women’s tent and stood guard close to the entrance; they were followed soon by my husband, who had to bend as he pushed through to us, because he was carrying Orestes on his shoulders. Orestes had his small sword in his hand; he was laughing as his father made as though to unseat him.
“He will be a great warrior,” he said. “Orestes is the chief of men.”
When he let him down, Agamemnon smiled.
“We will sail tonight when the moon sets. You will take Orestes and your women home and wait for me. I will give you four men to guard you on your way.”
“I don’t want four men,” I said.
“You will need them.”
As he stepped backwards, Orestes realized that he was being left with us. He began to cry. His father lifted him and handed him to me.
“Wait for me, both of you. I will come when the task is done.”
He stalked out of the tent. Soon, four men came, men whom I had threatened with my curse. They told us that they wanted to begin our journey before nightfall. They appeared afraid of me as I told them that it would take us time to prepare. I suggested that they stand outside the tent until I called them.
One of them was softer, younger than the others. He took control of Orestes and distracted him with games and stories as we made our way home. Orestes was filled with life. He would not let his sword out of his hand as he spoke of warriors and battles and how he would follow his enemy until the end of time. It was only in the hour before sleep that he would whimper, moving towards me for warmth and comfort and then pushing me away as he started to cry. His dreams woke us on some of those nights. He wanted his father and then his sister and then the friends he had made among the soldiers. He wanted me too, but when I held him and whispered to him, he recoiled in fright. Thus our journey was filled both day and night with Orestes, so much so that we did not think about what we would say when we arrived home.
All of the others must have wondered, as I did, if word of the fate of Iphigenia had reached Electra, or reached the elders who had been left to advise her. On the last night of our journey, I concentrated on keeping Orestes calm under a high, starry sky as I started to think about what I would do now, how I would live and whom I might trust.
I would trust no one, I thought. I would trust no one. That was the most useful thing to hold in my mind.
In the weeks we had been away, Electra had heard rumors, and the rumors had aged her and made her voice shrill, or more shrill than I had remembered it. She ran towards me for news. I know now that not concentrating on her and her alone was my first mistake with her. The isolation and the waiting seemed to have unhinged some part of her so it was hard to make her listen. Maybe I should have stayed up through the night taking her into my confidence, telling her what had happened to us step by step, minute by minute, and asking her to hold me and comfort me. But my legs still hurt and it was hard to walk. I was still ravenous for food and no amount of water quenched my thirst. I wanted to sleep.
I should not have brushed her aside, however. Of that I am sure. I was dreaming of fresh clothes, my old bed, a bath, food, a pitcher of sweet water from the palace well. I was dreaming of peace, at least until Agamemnon returned. I was making plans. I left the others to tell her the story of her sister’s death. I moved like a hungry ghost through the rooms of the palace away from her, away from her voice, a voice that would come to follow me more than any other voice.
When I woke on the first morning, I realized that I was a prisoner. The four men had been sent to guard me, to watch over Electra and Orestes, to ensure the loyalty of the elders to Agamemnon. They were happy once I was in my chambers, once I asked for nothing more than food and drink and time to sleep and to walk in the garden and restore the power in my legs. If I left my own quarters, two of them followed me. They let no one see me except the women who took care of me and they questioned those women each night about what I said and did.
It occurred to me that I would have to murder all four of them on a single night. Nothing could happen until that was done. When I was not sleeping, I was planning how best this could be carried out.
Even though the women brought me news, I could not be sure of them. I could be sure of no one.
Electra continued to run through the palace, unsettling the very air. She developed a habit of repeating the same lines to me, the same accusations. “You let her be sacrificed. You came back without her.” I, in turn, continued to ignore her. I should have made her see that her father was not the brave man she still believed him to be, but rather a weasel among men. I should have made her see that it was his weakness that caused the death of her sister.
I should have had her join me in my rage. Instead, I left her free to have her own rage, much of it now directed against me.
When she came to my room, I often feigned sleep, or turned away from her. She had many things to say to the elders and to the four men her father had sent. They, I saw, grew weary of her too.
But one day, I began to listen to her carefully, as she seemed more agitated than usual.
“Aegisthus,” she said, “is walking these corridors in the night. He is appearing in my room. Some nights when I wake, he is standing at the foot of my bed smiling at me and then he retreats into the shadows.”
Aegisthus was being held hostage; he had been in the dungeon under our care, as my husband phrased it, for more than five years. It was agreed that he must be well fed and not harmed, since he was a glittering prize, clever and handsome and ruthless, I was told, with many followers in the outreaches, the wild places.
When our armies had first taken Aegisthus’ family stronghold, no one could fathom how two of my husband’s guards were found each morning lying in their own blood. Some felt that it was a curse. Guards were detailed to guard the guards. Spies were positioned to watch through the night. But still, each morning, once first light came, two guards were found lying facedown in their blood. It was soon believed that Aegisthus was the killer, and this was confirmed when he was taken hostage, as no more guards were found dead. His followers offered to pay ransom, but my husband saw that, so great was Aegisthus’ standing, holding him here, keeping him in chains, was more powerful than sending an army to put down his followers, who had fled into the hills.
When he met with his advisers, my husband often asked, amused, if there was any word of unruliness in the conquered territories and then, on hearing that all was well, he would smile and say: “As long as we keep Aegisthus here, all will be at peace. Make sure that his chains are firmly in place. Have him checked each day.”
There was talk of our prisoner as the years passed, of his good manners and his good looks. Some of the women who served me spoke of how he had tamed the birds that flew through the high window of his cell. One of the women whispered too that Aegisthus knew how to attract young women into his cell, and indeed young servant boys. One day when I asked my women why they were trying to suppress their laughter, they finally explained that one of them had heard the sound of the clanking of chains echoing from Aegisthus’ cell and had stood outside until one of the serving boys had emerged with a furtive, sheepish look and had fled back into the kitchen to resume his duties there.
There was also something that my mother had told me at the time of my marriage. There was, she said, a story that my father-in-law in the heat of rage had ordered Aegisthus’ two half brothers killed and then stuffed and cooked with spices and served to their father at a feast. This stayed in my mind now as I thought about our prisoner. He might have his own reasons to wish to take revenge on my husband were he given the chance.
When Electra mentioned again that she had seen the prisoner standing in her room, I told her that she was dreaming. She insisted that she was not.
“He woke me from my sleep. He whispered words I could not hear. He disappeared before I could call the guards. When the guards came, they swore that no one had passed them, but they were mistaken. Aegisthus moves through the palace at night. Ask your women, if you do not believe me.”
I told her that I did not want to hear of this again.
“You will hear of it each time it happens,” she said defiantly.
“You sound as though you want him to appear,” I said.
“I want my father to return,” she said. “Not until then will I feel safe.”
I was about to tell her that her father’s interest in the safety of his daughters was not something that could be so confidently invoked, but instead I questioned her further about Aegisthus. I asked her to describe him.
“He is not tall. He lifts his face and smiles when I awake, as though he knows me. His face is the face of a boy, and his body too is boyish.”
“He has been a prisoner for many years. He is a murderer,” I said.
“The figure I saw,” she replied, “is the same figure that the women describe who have seen him chained in his cell.”
I began to sleep early so that I would wake when it was still dark. I noticed the soundlessness around me. The guards outside my door were sleeping. Some nights I practiced moving from room to room in bare feet, hardly breathing. Not going far. The only sounds I heard were men snoring in one of the rooms in the distance. I liked the sound because it meant that the noise I made was nothing, a noise that could not be easily heard.
I had a plan now, and the plan involved finding Aegisthus and seeking his support.
After a week or more, I risked traveling into the bowels of this building. I would feign sleepwalking, I thought, if anyone found me. I could not work out, however, where exactly Aegisthus was held, in a dungeon floor below the one where the kitchens and storerooms were or in some outer dungeon.
I started to haunt the corridors in the hard hours of night when it was silent. And it was on one of those nights that I came across our hostage face-to-face. He was as young and boyish as Electra had described, with no hint that he had been in a dungeon for many years.
“I have been looking for you,” I whispered.
He was not frightened or ready to turn and run. He examined me with equanimity.
“You are the woman whose daughter was sacrificed,” he said. “You were buried in a hole. You have been walking in these corridors. I have been watching you.”
“If you betray me,” I replied, “you will be found dead by the guards.”
“What do you want? You must be direct,” he said. “If you do not use me, perhaps someone else will.”
“I will have guards put at your door all night.”
“Guards?” he asked and smiled. “I know the ones who matter. Nothing escapes me. Now what do you want?”
I had one second to decide, but I knew as I spoke that I had decided some time before. I was ready now.
“The four men,” I said, “who came with us from the camp, I want them killed. I can guide you to where they sleep. They have guards at their door, but the guards sleep at night.”
“All four killed on the same night?” he asked.
“And in return?”
“Everything,” I said, and put a finger to my lips and moved back as quietly as I could to my quarters.
Nothing happened then. I realized that perhaps I had risked too much, but I knew that I would have to risk even more were anything to happen. I watched the four guards. I watched the elders who had been left here when my husband went to war. I listened carefully to the murmurings and gossip of the women. I used Orestes as an excuse to wander beyond my own quarters. I followed his sword fights with one of the guards and his young son who often accompanied his father. I knew in this strange time as rumors came of how our army had prevailed that something would move or shift, that somebody would give me a sign, even unwittingly, a sign that would help me, a sign before official news would come to me of Agamemnon’s victorious return.
Each night, I made my soundless journeys in the corridors and then I returned and slept, often sleeping beyond the dawn until Orestes came to my side, all energy still, all talk of his father and the soldiers and the swords. On one of those nights, having fallen into the deepest sleep, I was woken by the sound of an owl screaming at my window and then by some other sound. I lay listening, hearing footsteps from outside my door and voices and shouts to the guards that they must protect me with their lives.
When I approached the door, they would not let me leave my room, or allow anyone to enter. Louder sounds then began, men shouting orders, and others running and the high-pitched voice of Electra. Then Orestes was rushed into my room by two men.
“What has happened?” I asked.
“The four men who came with you were found in their own blood, murdered by their guards,” one of the men said.
“Do not worry. The guards have been dispatched.”
I looked out and saw the bodies being carried along the corridor outside and then I returned to the room and spoke softly to Orestes to distract him. When Electra came, I signaled to her not to speak of what had occurred in her brother’s presence. Soon she tired of having to be silent and left me and my son in peace. When she returned, she whispered to me that she had spoken to the elders, who had assured her that this had been a feud over cards or dice between the guards and the four men. They had been drinking.
“The guards’ faces were all badged with blood,” she said, “and so were their daggers. They must have been drunk. They will do no more drinking now, no more killing either.”
It was nothing more than a feud between men, Electra added, and would seem nothing to her father when he returned. She had issued an order in my name against any dice or card games. All drinking would be banned too, she said, until Agamemnon returned.
I moved with Orestes into the open air. I spoke to him gently as we went in search of a soldier who would train him further in the art of sword fighting.
It was too dangerous, I thought, to venture far in the corridors at night. In the dark hours, I stayed by my door, watching, listening for the slightest sound.
One night, when Aegisthus appeared as I knew he would, like a fox following a trail, he beckoned me to a chamber where there was no one.
“I have men under my control,” he whispered. “We are now ready. We can do anything.”
“Go to the house of each of the elders my husband left to govern,” I whispered. “Take a child. A son or a grandson. Your men must explain that I gave orders for this and that if they want the child returned they must appeal to me. Take the children some distance away. Do not harm them. Keep them safe.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said and moved silently away from him and back to my chamber.
Nothing happened for some days. More rumors came of Agamemnon’s victories and of the enormous spoils he was conveying back to the palace. The elders came to consult with me when it was clear that Agamemnon would return once some further territories were under his control.
“We must prepare a fitting welcome for him,” they said, and I bowed and nodded and asked their permission to call Orestes into the room, and Electra, so that they might hear of their father’s glory, so that they too might prepare themselves for his return. Orestes came in solemnly with his sword by his side. He listened as a man might listen, not smiling but mimicking the gestures of a man. Electra asked that she might greet her father before I did, or the elders did, since she had been the one who had remained, who had ensured that her father’s rule prevailed while I was away. This was agreed. I bowed.
A few days later, some women came to my quarters in the hours after dawn to say that the elders wished to see me, that they had gathered one by one as the light came up and they seemed agitated. Some, indeed, had wanted to visit me in my room, only to be informed that I was sleeping and could not be disturbed. I sent a woman to find Orestes so that he would not come looking for me and asked her to accompany him to the garden. I dressed carefully and slowly. It would be better, I thought, if the men were left to wait.
They began by asking me where the children who had been taken were, but soon, as I asked them, “What children? What do you mean taken?,” they realized that they had spoken too hastily.
“Why are you here?” I asked them.
They explained, interrupting one another, that a group of men, all strangers, had come in the night and taken one male child, their sons or grandsons, and that each group of intruders had said that they were acting on my orders.
“I do not give orders,” I said.
“Do you know anything about this?” one of them asked.
“I know that I was sleeping and I was woken to say that you were here. That is what I know.”
Some of them now were nervously backing away.
“Have you searched for these children?” I asked. “I am sure this is what my husband would want you to do. The sooner you begin the search, the better.”
“We were told that searching would not bear fruit,” one of them said.
“And you believed that?” I asked.
They started to talk among themselves until Electra arrived, when they left my presence. I spent the day alone in my room, or with Orestes in the garden. I noticed the guards were more uneasy now, more watchful, and I determined that I would not move from my room tonight, or any night soon. It would not be long before I would walk where I pleased by day, in full light.
Theodotus, one of the elders, the most eminent and sharp among them, came to see me later that day. The grandchild taken, he said, was his only son’s only child. Much depended on this boy, whose name was Leander. They hoped that he would be a great leader. As I listened to him, I displayed as much sympathy as I could manage. When he asked me finally if there was nothing I could do, if I really knew nothing, I hesitated. I walked along a corridor with him and, on our parting, I said: “There will be news in good time. For now, can you let the others know that if one of them seeks to contact Agamemnon before his return, or send a message to him about this, or tell him about it when he comes back, then this will not help? It will emphatically not help. If you and they remain silent and obey the law, however, then you would all be wise to hope. Can you convey that from me to the others?”
I suggested that he should come to see me again soon, and perhaps then there would be news. I was certain that by the end of the day he would have told the other men that he believed that I was aware who had taken them, and that it was even possible from how I spoke that I had been fully responsible for their abduction.
By that night I saw a different disposition even in the guards. They seemed more humble, almost afraid. The only one who had not changed was Electra. She told me that the men were searching far and wide for the children and that she agreed with them that bandits were behind what had happened and we must be more vigilant in the short time before her father returned. She spoke like someone who was in control.
Two days later, as further rumors came of our victories in battle and of the large number of slaves captured, I walked alone through the palace and down to the kitchens and the storerooms, asking where Aegisthus was kept. At first, no one would tell me. When I said that I would not leave unless I was shown where he was, I was brought to one of the storerooms, where a trapdoor was lifted.
“His dungeon is down here,” I was told.
“Get a torch,” I said.
We descended a ladder to the floor below.
“Where is Aegisthus?” I asked as I saw three narrow doors.
They were still unwilling to say, until I made it clear that I was not only determined but impatient. When a door was finally opened, I found my prey sitting happily in the corner playing with a bird. He had furniture in the room, including a bed. The room was lit by a tiny window, which gave a chink of light.
“I cannot come with you unless you release the prisoners in the next cells,” he said.
“How many are there?”
“Two,” he said.
As I demanded that I be allowed to see the other two cells, the guards were becoming increasingly nervous.
“We have no authority to open these cells,” one of them said.
“I am the authority,” I replied. “From now on, you will report to me. Open the cells.”
The middle one did not have any light. When we opened the door and no one emerged, I believed that it had been empty all along. In the final one, there was a young man who seemed frightened of us and asked for Aegisthus. I told him that we would unchain him and that he would be free to walk out himself to find Aegisthus in his cell, but he shook his head and said that he did not want to leave his own cell until he had spoken to Aegisthus. A low, hollow sound then came from the middle cell, a sound that was like a man’s voice, but with no words. When I took the torch and entered, I found an old man in the corner. I slowly stepped away from him and returned to find Aegisthus.
“Who are these two men?”
“The old man has been here for as long as anyone can remember. No one knows who he is or why he is here. I need to speak to the other one now.”
“Who is he?”
“I cannot say.”
Aegisthus moved out of his cell and down to the cell of the younger man. He closed the door so that no one could hear. When they both appeared, and Aegisthus began to give orders, I stood back and watched him, surprised.
“Remove his chains. Give him fresh clothes and food,” he said. “And shelter him until night falls. Then he will depart. And unchain the old man and leave his cell door open. Feed him and then let him go too.”
And then he hesitated before he smiled.
“And feed the birds,” he added. “They are used to being fed.”
The guards who had followed us down into this dank cellar studied Aegisthus with amazement, and then looked at me. A few minutes earlier, he had been their prisoner.
“Do what he says,” I commanded.
We walked together through the palace to my chamber, to be confronted by Electra.
“This man, this Aegisthus,” she said, “is both a prisoner and a hostage. He must be returned to his cell. The guards will return him to his cell.”
“He is my bodyguard,” I said. “He will be with me at all times until your father returns.”
“We have our own guards,” she said.
“Who got drunk and murdered four men,” I said. “Aegisthus remains here with me as my guard. Anyone who wishes to see me, or speak to me, must know that he is on guard.”
“My father will want to know—” she began.
“Your father will want to know,” I interrupted, “what happened to the four men he sent here, four men who were his close friends, and he will also want to know what happened to the children who have been taken. This is a most dangerous time. I suggest that you take precautions too.”
“No one would dare touch me,” she said.
“In that case, don’t take any precautions at all,” I said.
Soon, many of the elders arrived, wishing to see me. I ordered Aegisthus not to speak as he accompanied me, to walk behind me, to remain silent at all times.
He responded as though this were an amusing game.
I explained to the elders that we must all be careful now in these days before the return of Agamemnon. There must be more vigilance, there must be no more events to make my husband feel that we had not been most careful. For that reason, I had my own bodyguard.
“Aegisthus is being held prisoner,” one of them said. “He is a murderer.”
“Good,” I said. “He will murder anyone who approaches my chamber without permission. And when my husband returns, Agamemnon will decide all matters and we will all be safer, but until then I will protect myself and I suggest that all of you follow suit.”
“Does Aegisthus know where our children and grandchildren are?” one of the men asked. “He has followers.”
“Followers?” I asked. “This man knows nothing more than what I have told him. I have informed him that there have been grave breaches of the peace here, and his task is to protect me and my son and my daughter until Agamemnon returns. My husband will have much to say to you about how you allowed the children to be taken, and how you allowed his most trusted men to be murdered by their guards.”
One of the men made to speak and then stopped. I could see they were afraid.
I asked Theodotus to meet me alone. He seemed eager and wondered if there was news about his grandson.
“When my husband returns, after a day or two, we will raise the matter with him. But you know Agamemnon as I do. He will not be happy to hear news of negligence. When all is calm, and he has slept, then we will speak to him of this. It cannot be dealt with in any other way. We do not want his anger turned on us.”
“Yes, that is wise,” he said.
Aegisthus, who had been listening, walked behind me to my chamber, where we found Orestes with some of the women. I saw Orestes examining Aegisthus suspiciously. He did not know whether this new man was a guard whose duty would be to play with him, or whether he represented some rank above a guard and thus could not be ordered to take part in a sword fight. Before he could decide, I asked the women to take Orestes and find a guard who could play at sword fighting with him until he was tired.
I ordered Aegisthus then to alert his followers to move from hill to hill and be ready to light fires to signal to us where Agamemnon was and how soon he and his entourage would appear. He disappeared for a short time. When he returned, he said that he already had men on the lookout, but now there would be more, and they would have permission to light fires on hills.
“Where did you go just now?” I asked him.
“I have my people close,” he replied.
“In the palace?” I asked.
“Yes, close,” he repeated.
I ate alone at my table that evening, my food served as usual by the women. They brought Aegisthus’ food to a smaller table near the door.
When Orestes was asleep, I asked that he be moved, as usual, to his own small chamber.
Aegisthus sat in the shadows and did not speak. We were alone. In all the plans I had made, I had not considered what might happen now. I had left any close imaginings out of my mind. I was sure, however, that I did not want him to leave. Even though I supposed that he was armed and alert, with one word, I thought, I could have him returned to his cell.
I needed to be certain of him before Agamemnon returned. But I was still not certain. Did he plan to sit watching over me all night? If I slept, how could I know that he would not leave? Or injure me?
He had a choice, I realized. He could flee and save his life. Or he could wait and see what more he could gain. I had, after all, promised him everything. What did he believe that I had meant? Since I was not sure, I did not see how he could be.
As he studied me, his smile grew more shy, more shadowy. In the silence between us I knew now what I had stopped myself from thinking in the days before. I realized what I had kept from my mind since the time when I had first heard of this prisoner in chains. I wanted him in my bed. I saw that he understood that. But still he did not move. He gave no indication of what he would do were I to order him to cross the room.
He watched me and then lowered his head. He was like a boy. I knew that he was weighing up what he would do. And I would wait for him to decide.
I do not know how much time went by. I lit a low torch and undressed and prepared for bed, Aegisthus observing me all the time. Once I was ready, I quenched the torch so that we were in darkness. It occurred to me that I might find him at dawn, still watching. And he had, at any time, the chance to go, disappear. If he did, the children who had been taken would not be returned, or he would ransom them. I had risked too much, I thought, but I had had no other choice, or I did not think I had. I wondered if Theodotus might have been a better ally instead. He had seemed to want to take me into his confidence. As I was working out how I might have encouraged him, Aegisthus crossed the room, making enough noise for me to know that he was moving towards my bed. I heard him undress.
His body was thin. His face, when I touched it, was small and smooth, almost like a woman’s. I noted some hair on his chest and then the wiry hair between his legs. He was not aroused until he opened his small mouth and edged his tongue towards mine. He gasped when I took his tongue into my mouth.
We did not sleep. In the dawn, when I looked at him he smiled and the smile suggested that he was satisfied or might be soon, the same smile that could, as I later learned, also light up his face after the greatest scheming and cruelty.
But there was no smile when I told him what I was planning. Once he learned that I was preparing to murder my husband on his return from the wars, Aegisthus became serious. When he discovered that I wanted his help in this, he looked at me sharply, then moved from the bed towards the window and stood alone with his back to me. The expression on his face when he turned was almost hostile.
“So this is what you want me for?” he said.
“I will do the killing,” I said. “I do not need you for that.”
“But you want my help? This is why I am here.”
“Who else knows?” he asked.
“No one at all?” he asked, looking at me directly, pointing his finger towards the sky as if to ask if I had implored the gods for permission to do what I planned to do. “No one has been consulted?”
The look that came on his face then made me shiver.
“I will help you when the time comes,” he said. “You can be sure that I will help you.”
Soon, he found the old woman, the poisonous weaver, and brought her to the palace, and then her granddaughter. In those days, I began to visit Electra’s chambers, with Aegisthus waiting outside like a faithful dog, to discuss with her the ceremony we would create upon her father’s arrival. We left nothing to chance. I told her that Orestes would greet his father first. He had become skillful at swordplay and we said we would allow him a short mock fight with Agamemnon while his followers cheered. Then Electra would welcome her father and assure him that his kingdom was as peaceful and law-abiding and loyal to him as when he had left it five years earlier.
When Electra asked if she could mention the name of Iphigenia in her speech, I said no, that her father’s mind could easily darken after his long battles, and that nothing should be said by her or by anyone that would undermine his welcome, his happiness.
“Our task is to make him feel at ease,” I said, “now that he is once more among the people that he loves. This is what he has been thinking about since he left us, this glorious return.”
In the days before Agamemnon’s arrival, as fires were lit on the tops of hills to warn us of his approach, I noticed a tension all around me. I made sure to see Electra each day. When she asked me if Aegisthus would be in the line of men to meet her father, I said no, he would not be there. It would be some days, I said, before I would explain to Agamemnon how unsafe I felt in these times and how I had needed a protector for Orestes. She nodded quietly, as if she agreed with this. I embraced her warmly.
I spoke to each of the elders about the tone of the welcome they would offer to Agamemnon. It almost amused me how quickly they had become accustomed to the silent presence of Aegisthus. They must have known, since rumors spread fast in the palace, that he spent each night in my bed; they must have wondered what would happen to him, or indeed to me, on Agamemnon’s return.
Aegisthus and I often went through each possibility of disruption or deception. We discussed in detail what would happen on the day of my husband’s return. Once Agamemnon was preparing to enter the palace, we agreed, Electra was to be distracted and confined somewhere until it had all ended. And Orestes was to be removed to a safe place so that he too would not witness what was to transpire.
Aegisthus told me that he had five hundred men waiting, each one fully loyal to him. These men would follow orders down to the letter.
I held Aegisthus in my arms then, still worried that something might happen in those first hours when my husband came that would spark his suspicion. It must be open welcome, I thought, it must be all festive. Neither Aegisthus himself nor any of his followers must appear. Thus it would be up to me to make the returning warrior feel that everything was as it should be.
Having charted a great choreography of welcome and good cheer, we made love ferociously, aware of the risks we were taking, but aware too of the gains, the spoils.
We could see the chariots in the distance glistening as they came. We sent the guards running out to meet them as we, each of us, rehearsed our roles. First, Orestes with his sword. Then his sister, Electra. Then each elder, each with a different sentence of welcome or praise. I would stand above all this, watching, smiling. Eventually, I would move towards Orestes, who was nervous now, excited, and I would approach my husband and confirm what Electra had said, that his kingdom was as he had left it, peaceful, loyal, waiting for his command. Inside the palace, in the floor below our quarters, Aegisthus and some of his followers would wait, not making a sound, not even a whisper. But in the main corridor, he would leave a number of guards who would be ready to do our bidding.
Agamemnon stood straight in his chariot. He seemed to have grown larger. He was all swagger as he watched us waiting. When I saw that he noticed me, I made sure my look was of pride and then humility. Even when I saw that in his chariot there was a woman standing with him and she was young and beautiful, I gave a grand, distant smile to both of them and then let it soften into warmth. Agamemnon laughed as Orestes approached. He took out his own sword and began to joust with his son, shouting to his followers to come and help him overcome this famous warrior.
We had trained Orestes to move aside and return to the palace and wait in my room, where he believed that he would be joined soon by his father. Electra then stepped forward. She exuded gravity, pomposity, seriousness. She bowed to her father and the woman who was at his side and spoke the words on which we had agreed and then bowed once more while her father greeted each of the elders. Soon he had a group of them gathered around his chariot as he described some battle he had won and detailed the golden strategies that had caused victory to be his.
And then I signaled to my women and they came with tapestries and set them down between where Agamemnon’s feet would land and the entrance to the palace. He took the hand of the young, proud woman beside him, who pushed aside her cloak to reveal a red robe of enormous richness. She let her hair hang loose as she stepped with him onto the tapestries. She let her eyes range around, as though this were a country that in her dreams had always belonged to her and had become real merely to satisfy her.
“This is Cassandra,” my husband said. “She has been captured. She is one aspect of the gifts and spoils that have come to us.”
Cassandra lifted her beautiful head and haughtily caught my eye, as if I had been placed on earth to serve her; then she looked at Electra, who stared at her in wonder. Many other chariots had come by now, some bearing treasure and others filled with slaves, their hands bound behind them. Cassandra stood apart from this, glancing with disdain at the slaves who were being led away. I moved towards her, and invited her to enter the palace, signaling to Electra that she should follow.
As soon as we were inside, having left Agamemnon to tell more stories and wave his hands in triumph and set about dividing some of the slaves among his men, Cassandra became concerned. When she asked if she could go out to find my husband again, I said no, we the women must stay inside.
This was the moment where all could have been lost, as she spoke in a frightened tone of nets of danger, of snares and dangerous weavings. She lowered her voice as she mentioned murder. She could see murder, she said; she could smell murder. When Electra appeared, she was too excited by her father’s arrival to hear what Cassandra was saying. I asked Electra to check the tables for the feast. I knew that Aegisthus’ men would be waiting for her. And I knew also that Orestes would be taken from the palace by two of the guards.
As Cassandra continued to speak, her tone more and more strident, demanding that she be allowed to return to my husband’s side, I told the guards to remove her to one of the inner chambers. I instructed one of them to tell my husband, if he asked, that Cassandra had sought a place to rest and had been given the most comfortable room for guests and that this seemed to have pleased her.
And then I stood alone at the palace entrance waiting as lines and lines of chariots approached, as the sounds of cheering rose again and again, as my husband repeated a story he had already told to the men hungry for his winning smile, for his familiar touch, for the rich sound of his voice.
Everything I knew I used now. I did not speak or move. I did not frown or smile. I looked at Agamemnon as if he were a god and I was too humble even to be in his presence. It was my task to wait. One word of warning from one of the men would be enough to have changed everything. I watched them, but I saw that they had no chance to speak. Agamemnon was boasting of some danger that he had survived. No one could have punctured the bloated sound he made.
The longer he stayed with them, however, the more comfortable they became and thus the more dangerous. If he does not leave them soon, I thought, one of them will whisper a warning and it will be enough. He had all his guards with him. They were laughing too and showing off their slaves. One word and all that could transform.
I watched calmly, and as Agamemnon moved directly towards me, his face weathered but his bearing open and friendly and sweet, I knew that I had prevailed.
“Cassandra has asked for a bath,” I said, “and a bed where she might rest before this evening’s feast. Electra has gone with her, and some women too.”
“Yes, that is good.”
For a few seconds, something clouded his expression, but then he relaxed again.
“I have waited for this day,” he said.
“Everything is prepared for you,” I said. “In the kitchen they have been working. Come with me to our inner quarters. I have ordered the bath to be filled for you and I have fresh clothes waiting so that when you appear later at the feast the triumph will be complete.”
“Cassandra’s quarters must be close to mine,” he said.
“I will arrange that,” I replied.
“It was her warnings that caused me to be fiercer in later battles,” he said. “We would not have been victorious without her. That we won those last battles is partly due to her.”
He was so involved in the conversation that he barely noticed where we were going. Once again, one warning shout, one strange sound or sight, would have stopped him. But there was nothing except his own voice as he began to describe the details of battles and tell me what spoils were on their way to us.
As we entered the room where the bath had been filled, I knew not to embrace him or touch him. The time for that had passed. I was his servant now as I helped him to remove his robes, as I tested the water for him. What was unusual was the small pang of desire I felt as he stood naked in the room, talking all the while. He had once been beautiful. I felt the old ache of tenderness and it was that very ache, or that change in me, that strengthened my resolve and made me realize even more sharply that if my mood could change, then his could easily shift too. It reminded me how quickly he could become suspicious. Once that happened, he would see how blindly he had been led here, and how vulnerable he was in this room without any guards.
I had planned to wait until his bathing was over and he sought towels to dry himself, but I knew now not to hesitate. I waited for that second when his back was turned. I had the netted robe on a hook on the wall. When he had one foot in the bath, I came behind him and pulled the net around him and tightened it as though I were seeking to protect him. The knife was secreted within my robes.
I saw him trying to struggle and call out. But because of the robe, he could not move and his voice could not be heard. I caught his hair and pulled his head back. I showed him the knife, pointing it first towards his eyes until he flinched, before I stabbed him in the neck just beneath the ear, moving aside to avoid the jet of spurting blood, and then, pushing the blade farther into his neck, I began to drag it slowly across his throat, slicing deep into him as blood flowed in easy, gurgling waves down his chest and into the water of the bath. And then he fell. It was done.
I went quietly along the corridor to the floor below and found Aegisthus at the place we had agreed.
“I have done it,” I whispered. “He is dead.”
I retreated to my own quarters then, telling the two guards that I was to be disturbed by no one except Aegisthus.
Some minutes later, Aegisthus came to assure me that both Orestes and Electra had been escorted to safety.
“And Cassandra?” I asked.
“What do you want done with her?”
It was my turn to smile.
“Do you want me to do it?” he asked.
“Yes, I do.”
She had come to us in glory and now, in ignominy, she was running through the palace seeking Agamemnon, having divined that something had happened to him. Aegisthus followed her at a slow pace. When I saw her, I calmly ushered her into the bathroom, where she could see my husband bent over naked, his head in the bloody water. As she howled, I handed Aegisthus the knife I had used on Agamemnon and indicated to him that I would leave him to his task.
I returned to my chamber. I found fresh clothes and prepared for the feast that we had planned.
Aegisthus had further work to do. Five hundred of his followers, as promised, had come from the mountains. Once darkness fell, he would lead them directly to the palace. They would surround the houses of the elders and prevent them from meeting until they came to our table. He would have others round up the slaves and protect the spoils.
The soldiers who had returned with my husband would be greeted with fanfare and a great feast in one of the halls on the palace grounds, with rich food and strong wine. As the night wore on, and they grew drunk and distracted enough by the welcome not to notice that the doors of the hall had been locked, Aegisthus’ men would lie in wait for them.
At first they would think it was a mistake and they would shout for help. When the doors were opened and they came out in the dark night air to relieve themselves or check their safety, they would be set upon. It would be easy to tie each one up and take them to where the slaves were kept. At first light, slaves and soldiers would be marched away under the guard of Aegisthus’ men.
There was rocky land beyond the mountains to be cleared, Aegisthus said, for vines and fruit trees. It would take some years. Most of the slaves and soldiers would remain there under guard, we agreed, but some of the soldiers would be swiftly brought back here as soon as they had been identified as those closest to Agamemnon. We would seek out the ones who knew about the new territories under our control and had the names of the men he had left in charge. These soldiers would know best how to consolidate and keep what had been taken in the wars. They would work for us under our direct protection and watchful eyes.
Some of Aegisthus’ other men would stay here to detain troops as they straggled back from the war. They would march them away, to follow the others. They would confiscate what spoils they could and keep the peace, ensuring that nothing untoward occurred by day, ensuring also that there were no secret meetings or small conspiracies by night. They would guard the palace as they would guard their lives. Ten of them, the most loyal and the strongest, who were detailed to be my personal guards, would be instructed to remain always at my side.
By the time the feast in the palace began that evening, these ten men had arrived outside my room. Aegisthus’ other followers had descended and were making themselves busy. He had trained them years before to be sharp, to make no fuss. There was to be no shouting or triumph; instead there was to be ruthless silence, watchfulness, devotion to the task.
I wore the same dress that I had worn for Iphigenia’s sacrifice, the dress that had been made for me to wear at her wedding years earlier. I had my hair done in the same way and the same whiteness put on my face and the same black lines around my eyes.
The food was served as though nothing strange had occurred, although the guests and the servants must have known that two dead bodies lay in the bathing place whose floor was covered in their blood. As the meal came to an end, I spoke to the assembled men.
“The boys, your sons and grandsons, will be released. They will be brought back to your houses in the night when they are least expected. If there is any effort to oppose me, even whispering among yourselves, or meeting in small groups, all will be suspended and the risks to their safety will be great. And also, you must warn the boys when they return never to speak to anyone of where they have been, or mention that they have been away at all.”
The men nodded, not even glancing at one another. I asked them to remain at the table for some time as I arranged with Aegisthus’ men to have the bodies of my husband and of the woman Cassandra, lit by torches, displayed outside for all to see, and to be left there through the night and the following day and perhaps beyond.
I bade each man good night, standing at the door to watch as they passed the naked body of Agamemnon and the body of Cassandra dressed in red, with their throats cut. The men walked by without stopping, without a word.
When I was ready to have the bodies buried, and when all the prisoners had been taken away and the palace was peaceful except for the buzzing of flies, I told Aegisthus that I wished to see Electra and Orestes. I wanted to have them near me now that justice had been done.
The expression on Aegisthus’ face darkened when a few hours later I had to give the order for a second time.
“I can release Electra immediately,” he said.
“What do you mean release her?” I asked. “Where is she?”
“She is in the dungeon,” he said.
“Who told you that you could put her in the dungeon?” I asked.
“I decided to put her there,” he said.
“Release her now!” I ordered. “And bring Orestes to me.”
“Orestes is not here,” he said.
“Aegisthus, where is Orestes?”
“We agreed that he would be taken to safety.”
“Where is he?”
“He is safe. He’s with the other boys who were captured, or he’s on his way towards where they are being held.”
“I want him returned now!”
“That is not possible.”
“We must send for him now.”
“It is too dangerous to travel.”
“I am ordering you to have him returned.”
As Aegisthus left silence for a few moments, I could see that he was enjoying keeping me in suspense.
“I will decide when it is the right time for him to return,” he said. “I will be the one who decides that.”
He looked at me with an air of satisfaction.
“Your son is safe,” he said.
I had sworn that I would make no more mistakes, but now I saw that I was fully under his power.
“What would I have to do,” I asked, “to have you bring him here now?”
“That is something we can perhaps discuss,” he said. “But in the meantime, do not worry about him. He’s in good hands.”
“What do you want from me?” I asked.
“What you promised,” he replied.
“I want him returned,” I said.
“It will happen,” he said. “You must not worry beyond what is necessary.”
He bowed and left the room.
The palace was quiet in the days that followed. The new guards did not sleep in the night; they were fully alert, prepared to obey Aegisthus’ commands. They were afraid of him, I saw, and this meant that they did not swagger, or talk too much. At night, he came to my room, but I knew that he had also been in the kitchens, or some part of the palace where the women gathered, and I knew that he had been with one of them, or two, or one of the servant boys.
He slept with a dagger in his hand.
When Electra came once to see me, she stood in the doorway and stared at me and did not speak before turning away.
The palace remained a house of shadows, a place where someone could still, it seemed, wander in the night without being stopped by anyone. One morning, I woke uneasily at dawn light to find a young girl at the foot of our bed watching me.
“Iphigenia!” I cried out. “Iphigenia!”
“No,” she whispered.
“Who are you?”
“My grandmother did the weaving,” she said.
I realized then that in all of the care we took in the days since Agamemnon’s death, we had forgotten the young girl and her grandmother.
Aegisthus was wide awake. He would, he said briskly, soon arrange their return to the village in the blue mountains from which we had taken them.
I left the bed and approached the young girl. She was not afraid of me.
As I took her hand in mine to walk to the kitchens, to make sure that she and her grandmother had food, the light of early morning was soft and golden. The silence was broken only by birdsong.
Soon, I thought, I would find a way to implore Aegisthus to have Orestes brought back to me. Since I could not threaten him, I would not oppose him. I would work with him.
And I would, I thought, talk to Orestes gently when he finally came back, as I would speak to his sister in the hope that I could live at ease with both of them now that order had been restored. I saw Orestes growing into a man, learning from me and from Aegisthus how to pull the reins of power, relax them, pull them again, tighten them when the time was right, exerting sweet control. I even imagined Electra subdued and quiet. Forgiving. I would walk in the garden with her.
I saw, as I held this small girl’s hand, the possibility of a bloodless future for us. It might be easy if Aegisthus learned to trust me. Perhaps the worst was over. Soon it would all seem right. Soon I would make Aegisthus believe that he could have what he wanted.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for House of Names includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
From the thrilling imagination of bestselling, award-winning Colm Tóibín comes a retelling of the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and their children—Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes. Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, giving these extraordinary characters new life. As you see Iphigenia’s sacrifice through Clytemnestra’s eyes, you understand her thirst for revenge on the husband who dared sacrifice their daughter. When Orestes is kidnapped and separated from his family, you feel his bewilderment and searching, his lost sense of self. As Electra adjusts to life in the palace with her mother and her mother’s lover Aegisthus in charge, you calculate a path forward with her. Ancient Greece rises from the pages of Houses of Names, full of betrayals, violence, lust, schemes, treachery and—perhaps above all—the restless spirits of the past.
A Note from the Author
When I had finished my novel Nora Webster, which followed Brooklyn, I knew that I would not write about Enniscorthy again for a while. I felt as though I had dreamed the town where I grew up out of my system.
One day, a friend suggested I should look at the story of Clytemnestra, the figure in Greek theatre, who murdered her husband, Agamemnon, and was in turn murdered by her son, Orestes, egged on by his sister Electra.
At first I was not sure. But I became interested in re-seeing this fierce and ferociously dramatic family. I saw motive. I saw love and hatred and jealousy. I saw most of the book happening in a single space, almost like a town, a place full of secrets and whispers and rumors.
Even though House of Names is animated by murder and mayhem and the struggle for power, it is still a story about a single family as it tears itself asunder. No matter what happens, I was dealing with family dynamics, something I have been dramatizing in all my books: the same emotions, the same regrets, the same elemental feelings.
Only this time it was happening in ancient Greece rather than in the streets of Enniscorthy.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Clytemnestra speaks of “a hunger I had come to know too and had come to appreciate” (page 3) in the opening pages. What does this hunger signify? Why do death and appetite come together in these early scenes, particularly for Clytemnestra?
2. Agamemnon and his men seem to believe in the gods so much that they will sacrifice Iphigenia unquestioningly, while this act cements for Clytemnestra “that I did not believe at all in the power of the gods” (page 32). Do you think she is the only one with doubts?
3. Why does Clytemnestra brush Electra aside after Iphigenia’s death? Could the consequences of Clytemnestra’s “first mistake” (page 40) with Electra have been avoided?
4. Was Clytemnestra wise to trust in Aegisthus? What are his true motives? Would you have relied on him in Clytemnestra’s place?
5. As Clytemnestra leads Agamemnon to the bath where she will murder him she feels a “small pang of desire,” “the old ache of tenderness” for him (page 62). Why do these feelings spring up? Why do they not give her second thoughts, instead of strengthening her resolve?
6. After Orestes is taken, Clytemnestra still imagines “exerting sweet control” over Aegisthus and Electra and “the possibility of a bloodless future for us” (page 69). How is she able to be so optimistic at this point?
7. With Leander and the guards, Orestes feels that “if only he could think of one single right question to ask, then he would find out what he needed to know” (page 101). Why is this? How does this feeling characterize Orestes throughout the novel?
8. When Orestes needs to attack one of the men pursuing him, he thinks he “could do anything if he did not worry for a second or even calculate” (pages 124–25). How does this kind of thinking play out in his future actions?
9. Why does Mitros refuse to share with Orestes and Leander what the old woman told him would happen to them in the future (page 138)? How does their time with the old woman, Mitros and the dog shape both Orestes and Leander?
10. Does Electra mourn Iphigenia? Why does Electra so completely spurn Clytemnestra, envisioning her death in the sunken garden with a smile (page 147)?
11. How is the dinner where Electra wears a dress of Iphigenia’s and attempts to catch the eye of Dinos a turning point for her?
12. Why does Electra tell Orestes they live in a “strange time . . . when the gods are fading” (page 206)?
13. When Mitros’ father talks with Orestes about Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, Orestes says Clytemnestra “did not kill Iphigenia,” and Mitros says the gods demanded that and continues to lay all blame at Clytemnestra’s feet (page 217–19). Eventually, Orestes is swayed by Mitros’ insistence that Clytemnestra is in control of all and must be punished. How are they able to brush aside Aegisthus’ and even Agamemnon’s actions?
14. As Orestes prepares to kill his mother he envisions “what was coming as something that the gods had ordained and that was fully under their control” (page 234). But who else might be controlling Orestes in this moment?
15. After Clytemnestra’s death, how do Electra and Orestes continue to reflect and be affected by their mother?
16. Names—calling them, invoking them, remembering them—are significant throughout the novel. What power do they hold? Discuss what names mean to the old woman, the elders who lost their sons, Orestes and Leander and Clytemnestra.
17. House of Names is told from Clytemenestra’s, Orestes’ and Electra’s points of view. How do their different perspectives shape the narrative? What might Agamemnon’s account be like?
18. In his note about how he came to write House of Names, Tóibín says that “even though House of Names is animated by murder and mayhem and the struggle for power, it is still a story about a single family . . . something I have been dramatizing in all my books: the same emotions, the same regrets, the same elemental feelings.” Are there insights you draw from this novel akin to those you might draw from a more conventional family story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Travelling Players is a 1975 Greek film directed by Theodoros Angelopoulos that reinvents Aeschylus’ The Oresteia and traces the history of mid-twentieth century Greece from 1939 to 1952. Watch the film and discuss its parallels with House of Names.
2. Read Eugene O’Neill’s play cycle Mourning Becomes Electra, a retelling of The Oresteia. Contrast Tóibín’s version of the story with Eugene O’Neill’s.
3. Read Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary. How is Mary like Clytemnestra? How are they different? What might have drawn Tóibín to reinterpret these iconic women?