The heroes are eager to sail to Troy for war, but the wind is still. To fill their sails and set out, they must sacrifice Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia--and how does a human girl become the wind? The starkness and psychological insight of Rachel Swirsky’s Tor.com story earned it a place among the finalists for the 2010 Nebula Award.
Rachel Swirsky's short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, and Subterranean Magazine , among others, and has been collected in Year's Best anthologies edited by Rich Horton, Jonathan Strahan, and the VanderMeers. She is also the submissions editor of Podcastle, an audio fantasy magazine.
About the Author
Rachel Swirsky’s short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, and Subterranean Magazine, among others, and been collected in Year’s Best anthologies edited by Rich Horton, Jonathan Strahan, and the VanderMeers. She is also the submissions editor of Podcastle, an audio fantasy magazine.
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A Memory of Wind
By Rachel Swirsky, Sam Weber
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Rachel Swirsky
All rights reserved.
After Helen and her lover Paris fled to Troy, her husband King Menelaus called his allies to war. Under the leadership of King Agamemnon, the allies met in the harbor at Aulis. They prepared to sail for Troy, but they could not depart, for there was no wind.
Kings Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Odysseus consulted with Calchas, a priest of Artemis, who revealed that the angered goddess was balking their departure. The kings asked Calchas how they might convince Artemis to grant them a wind. He answered that she would only relent after King Agamemnon brought his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to Aulis and sacrificed her to the goddess.
* * *
I began turning into wind the moment that you promised me to Artemis.
Before I woke, I lost the flavor of rancid oil and the shade of green that flushes new leaves. They slipped from me, and became gentle breezes that would later weave themselves into the strength of my gale. Between the first and second beats of my lashes, I also lost the grunt of goats being led to slaughter, and the roughness of wool against calloused fingertips, and the scent of figs simmering in honey wine.
Around me, the other palace girls slept fitfully, tossing and grumbling through the dry summer heat. I stumbled to my feet and fled down the corridor, my footsteps falling smooth against the cool, painted clay. As I walked, the sensation of the floor blew away from me, too. It was as if I stood on nothing.
I forgot the way to my mother's rooms. I decided to visit Orestes instead. I also forgot how to find him. I paced bright corridors, searching. A male servant saw me, and woke a male slave, who woke a female slave, who roused herself and approached me, bleary-eyed, mumbling. "What's wrong, Lady Iphigenia? What do you require?"
I had no answers.
* * *
I have no answers for you either, father.
I imagine what you did on that night when I paced the palace corridors, my perceptions vanishing like stars winking out of the night sky. You presided over the war council in Aulis. I imagine you standing with the staff of office heavy in your hands — heavy with wood, heavy with burdens.
Calchas, priest of Artemis, bowed before you and the other kings. "I have prayed long and hard," he said. "The goddess is angry with you, Agamemnon. She will not allow the wind to take your ships to Troy until you have made amends."
I imagine that the staff of office began to feel even heavier in your hands. You looked between your brother, Menelaus, and the sly Odysseus. Both watched you with cold, expressionless faces. They wanted war. You had become an obstacle to their desires.
"What have I done?" you asked Calchas. "What does the goddess want?"
The priest smiled.
What would a goddess want? What else but virgin blood on her altar? One daughter's life for the wind that would allow you to launch a fleet that could kill thousands. A child for a war.
Odysseus and Menelaus fixed you with hungry gazes. Their appetite for battle hollowed the souls from their eyes as starvation will hollow a man's cheeks. Implicit threats flickered in the torchlight. Do as the priest says, or we'll take the troops we've gathered to battle Troy and march on Mycenae instead. Sacrifice your daughter or sacrifice your kingdom.
Menelaus took an amphora of rich red wine and poured a measure for each of you. A drink; a vow. Menelaus drank rapidly, red droplets spilling like blood through the thicket of his beard. Odysseus savored slow, languorous sips, his canny eyes intent on your face.
You held your golden rhyton at arm's length, peering into redness as dark as my condemned blood. I can only imagine what you felt. Maybe you began to waver. Maybe you thought of my eyes looking up at you, and of the wedding I would never have, and the children I would never bear. But whatever thoughts I may imagine in your mind, I only know the truth of your actions. You did not dash the staff of office across your knee and hurl away its broken halves. You did not shout to Menelaus that he had no right to ask you to sacrifice your daughter's life when he would not even sacrifice the pleasure of a faithless harlot who fled his marital bed. You did not laugh at Calchas and tell him to demand something else.
You clutched the staff of office, and you swallowed the wine.
I lost so much. Words. Memories. Perceptions. Only now, in this liminality that might as well be death (if indeed it isn't) have I begun recovering myself.
All by your hand, father. All by your will. You and the goddess have dispersed me, but I will not let you forget.
* * *
Next I knew, mother's hands were on me, firm and insistent. She held her face near mine, her brows drawn with concern.
She and her slaves had found me hunched beside a mural that showed children playing in a courtyard, my hands extended toward the smallest figure which, in my insensibility, I'd mistaken for Orestes. The slaves eyed me strangely and made signs to ward off madness.
"It must have been a dream," I offered to excuse the strangeness which lay slickly on my skin.
"We'll consult a priest," said Clytemnestra. She put her hand on my elbow. "Can you stand? I have news."
I took a ginger step. My foot fell smoothly on the floor I could no longer feel.
"Good," said mother. "You'll need your health." She stroked my cheek, and looked at me with odd sentimentality, her gaze lingering over the planes of my face as if she were trying to paint me in her memory.
"What is it?" I asked.
"I'm sorry. I just wanted to look at you." She withdrew her fingers. "Your father has summoned us to Aulis. Achilles wants you as his wife!"
The word wife I knew, but Aulis? Achilles?
"Who?" I asked.
"Achilles!" Clytemnestra repeated. "We'll leave for Aulis this afternoon."
I looked into the familiar depths of mother's eyes. Her pupils were dark as unlit water, but her irises were gone. They weren't colored; they weren't white. They were nothing.
Green, I remembered briefly, mother's eyes are like new green leaves. But when I tried to chase the thought, I could no longer remember what green might be.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"You're going to be married, my heart," said mother. "Everything changes all at once, doesn't it? One day your daughter's a girl, and the next she's a woman. One day your family is all together, and the next there's a war, and everyone's leaving. But that's how life is. There's stasis and then there's change, and then before you even know what the next stasis is, it's gone, and all you can do is try to remember it. You'll understand what I mean. You're so young. Then again, you're going to be a wife. So you're not that young, are you?"
"Who is Achilles?" I repeated.
But mother had already released my hands and begun to pace the room. She was split between high spirits and fretting about the upcoming preparations, with no part of her left for me. She gave orders to her attending slaves. Pack this. Take those. Prepare. Clean. Polish. The slaves chattered like a flock of birds, preening under her attention.
I was not quite forgotten; a lone young girl had been assigned to prepare me for the journey. She approached, her hands filled with wedding adornments. "You're going to marry a hero," she said. "Isn't that wonderful?"
I felt a gentle tugging at my scalp. She began braiding something into my hair. I reached up to feel what. She paused for a moment, and let me take one of the decorations.
I held the red and white thing in my palm. It was delicately put together, with soft, curved rows arrayed around a dark center. A sweet, crushed scent filled the air.
"This smells," I said.
"It smells good," said the slave, taking the thing gently from my hand. I closed my eyes and searched for the name of the sweet scent as she wound red and white into my bridal wreath.
* * *
Once, when I was still a child with a shaved scalp and a ponytail, you came at night to the room where I slept. Sallow moonlight poured over your face and hands as you bent over my bed, your features wan like shadows beneath the yellowed tint of your boar's tusk helmet. Torchlight glinted off of the boiled leather of your cuirass and skirt.
As a child, I'd watched from time to time from the upper story balconies as you led your troops, but I'd never before been so close while you wore leather and bronze. Here stood my father the hero, my father the king, the part of you that seemed so distant from the man who sat exhausted at meals eating nothing while mother tried to tempt you with cubes of cheese and mutton, as if you were any hard-worn laborer. Here you stood, transformed into the figure I knew from rumors and daydreams. It seemed impossible that you could be close enough for me to smell olives on your breath and hear the clank of your sword against your thigh.
"I had a sudden desire to see my daughter," you said, not bothering to whisper.
The other girls woke at the sound of your voice, mumbling sleepily as they shifted to watch us. I felt vain. I wanted them to see you, see me, see us together. It reminded me that I was Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, niece of Helen, descendent of gods and heroes.
How easy it is to be a thing but not feel it. Greatness slips into the mundanity of weaving, of pitting olives, of sitting cooped up in the megaron during storms and listening to the patter of rain on stone.
"Get up," you said. "I want to show you something."
I belted my garment and followed you out of my chamber and down the echoing stairs to the bottom story. Flickers of firelight rumbled through the doors that led to the megaron. The servants who attended the fire through the night gossiped, their laughter rushing like the hiss and gutter of the flames.
You led the way outside. I hung back at the threshold. I rarely left the palace walls, and I never left at night. Yet you stepped outside without so much as turning back to be certain I'd follow. Did it ever occur to you that a daughter might hesitate to accede to her father's whims? Did you ever think a girl might, from time to time, have desires that outweighed her sense of duty?
But you were right. I followed you onto the portico where you stood, tall and solemn, in your armor.
We descended stone steps and emerged at last beneath the raw sky. A bright, eerie moon hung over the cliff's rocky landscape, painting it in pale light. Fragile dandelion moons blossomed here and there between the limestone juts, reflecting the larger moon above. The air smelled of damp and night-blooming plants. An eagle cried. From elsewhere came a vixen's answering call.
The smell of your sweat drifted on the night breeze, mixing with horsehair and manure. The combined scents were both foul and tantalizing. When you visited the women's quarters, it was always after events had ended, when the sweat was stale or washed away. Suddenly, things were fresh and new. You had brought me into the middle of things.
We reached the place where the river cuts through the rocks. You began running. Ahead of us, voices drifted from a copse of trees, accompanied by the clang of metal on metal. I raced behind you, stumbling over the stones that studded the grass. We veered toward the trees. A low fog gathered over the ground, illuminated from above by shifting white streams of moonlight. Needled cedar branches poked through the veil.
I fell behind, gasping with increasingly ragged breath. Your footsteps crunched onto leaves as you crossed into the copse. I trailed after, one hand pressed against the urgent pain in my side.
You turned when I was mere paces behind you. "If you were out of breath, why didn't you tell me?" you asked while I struggled the last few steps.
I leaned against a cedar to take the weight off of my trembling legs.
Ahead of us, your men stood in the thick foliage, enveloped by the fog. They wore bronze breastplates and thick felt greaves that loomed darkly out of the haze like tree trunks. Their swords emerged from the obscuring whiteness as they swung, metal clanging against metal as blades found each other. The soldiers seemed a ghostly rank of dismembered limbs and armor that appeared with the glint of moonbeams and then vanished into nothing.
The blunt of a sword crashed against a man's breastplate with a sound like thunder. I cringed. Tears of fright welled in my eyes. I felt exposed beneath the vastness of a sky nothing like the ceilings I'd lived below for most of my life.
You were watching me, your eyes focused on my face instead of on the wonder before us. "I told my hequetai to lead the men in exercises. The fog came up, and look! I had to show someone."
I tried to give you what you wanted. "It's marvelous." My voice quivered with fear that sounded like delight.
"I have an idea," you said, a wicked smile nestled in your beard.
You scavenged through the leaf fall with rustle and crunch until you prized out a branch the length of my forearm. You tested its weight against your palm and gave it an experimental swing.
"Try this," you said, presenting me with the branch.
Tentatively, I placed my palm against the bark.
"Go on." You pointed impatiently at your men battling through the fog. "Pretend you're a warrior."
I waved the branch back and forth, the way I thought they wielded their swords. It rattled in my hand.
"Stop," you commanded. You plucked a dandelion from the ground and laid it across a fallen log. "Here, swing at this. One strong, smooth motion."
The dandelion was a fragile silver moon. I swung the branch up and out. Its weight dragged me forward. I stumbled across a stone.
You took the branch away. "No. Like this."
How I loved the smooth motion of your arm as it moved through the air: the strength of your shoulders, the creak of boiled leather moving with your body. I strove to memorize your arcs and footfalls, but when you returned the branch to me, my fingers felt numb and strange around the bark. I flailed at the leaves and your shins until an accidental swing carried me off balance. My foot came down on the tiny moon of the dandelion. It died with a wet noise.
Wounded petals lay crushed against the wood, releasing the scent of moist soil. You took the branch from me and threw it aside.
"It's a good thing you were born a girl," you said, tugging playfully at my ponytail.
It was, you know. I've never been sorry about that. What I regret most is the children I never bore. I imagined them before you promised me to Artemis: strong boys and dark-haired girls with eyes blue enough to make Zeus lustful. One after the other, each thought-born child disappeared into forgetfulness after you bartered me for wind.
* * *
Do you remember that? Perhaps you do. My memories are still strange and partial, like a blanket that has been cut into pieces and then sewn up again. Stitches obscure old connections. The sense of continuity is gone. I no longer remember what it is like to have a normal recollection.
But I'm not speaking solely for your benefit. I need this too. I cannot articulate the joy of reaching for memories and discovering them present to be touched, and brought forth, and described. I need my memories to transcend the ephemera of thought. I need them to be tangible for the brief moment when they exist as gale winds shrieking in your ear.
I remembered that night when you brought me to see your soldiers for a long time. It was one of the last things Artemis took from me. I've pondered it, and polished it, and fretted about it, as if it were a faceted jewel I could turn in my hand and study from many different angles.
Why did you fetch me when you wanted to share that marvel? Why not my mother? Why weren't you content to share the moment with your men, with whom you've shared so many of your days and nights?
Did you really fail to understand why I ran until I staggered rather than ask you to slow down? You seemed confused then, but you've never stopped expecting me to stumble after you. You've never hesitated to see if I will obey your commands, no matter how wild and cruel, any more than you hesitated that night to see if I would follow you past the palace threshold to a place I'd never been.
Maybe it wasn't ignorance that made me fear your men in the fog. Maybe it was prescience: things have never ended well for me when you've led me out of the world of women and into the world of men.
* * *
Clytemnestra completed preparations to leave the palace by noon. She packed me in the wagon with the clothing and the yarn and the dried fruit. I was one more item of baggage to bring to Aulis: a bride for Achilles.
Mother placed Orestes in my lap to hold while she supervised the loading. If she noticed my stillness and silence, she must have believed they were part of a bride's normal reticence.
The wagon set off under a full day's sun. Our wheels churned dust into the stifling air. It swirled through gaps in our canopy. Choking grains worked their way into our eyes and mouths. I braved more dust to peek through the curtains; beyond our car, the air hung heavy and motionless.
Orestes jounced on my lap as the wagon tumbled over dirt and rocks. He twisted up to look at me, enormous eyes blinking against the dust. He grabbed a lock of my hair in his fists and put it in his mouth, chewing contemplatively.
"Stop that," said mother, tugging my hair out of his mouth. She inspected the ragged, chewed ends and sighed.
I was content to allow Orestes to chew my hair. During his two short years of life, we'd always communicated by gestures. I understood what he meant by taking an expendable part of me into himself.
Excerpted from A Memory of Wind by Rachel Swirsky, Sam Weber. Copyright © 2009 Rachel Swirsky. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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