Ariadne, Abandoned on Naxos

Edited by Brian J. White

 | Selected by Daniel José Older

August 2016

Selected by guest editor Daniel José Older

You are six when your mother is cursed. She climbs inside a hollow cow and mates with your father’s prize bull until both your mother and the animal are spent.

It is not her fault. Logically, you know this. Your father, the king of Crete, withheld the bull from the gods, who lashed out in return. You mother was a casualty.

You are eight when the labyrinth is completed, nine when your father throws the Minotaur in, and ten when he turns his gaze abroad to feed your half-sibling.

You are twenty-three when Theseus comes to you in the night. Almost thirty of Athens’ strongest and most beautiful youths have already died at the Minotaur’s hands, and the prince of Athens will be one of the next. He needs you, he pleads, he needs you to save him from your family, and in return he will take you away with him.

His shoulders are broad, and his voice is deeper than you expected it to be. His hands are calloused and his lips are so sweet. “Promise my sister may come with us,” you gasp.

“Of course,” he says, breathless. “Anything. Anything for you.” In the candlelight, he is all shadows and golden skin, and the tang of his sweat reminds you of saltwater.

The Athenian sailors hoist you overboard, screaming, and you go under. You get a mouthful of seawater for your trouble, and emerge coughing too hard to continue your threats.

Your sister comes to stand at the railing as they sail away. She cups her hands to her mouth and calls something into the distance between you, then waves so exuberantly her whole body sways.

A great bitterness swells in your chest and beneath your tongue.

You turn away and try to keep your mouth above the water until the tide brings you closer to the beach. You collapse on the sand, retching salt. The water rushes over your hands to encircle your wrists, then retreats and pulls the sand you clutch at with it. You lick your lips and crave fresh water.

Your retching turns to sobs, and you heave, bent over on all fours like your mother. An inhale finally catches, expands your lungs, and you scream. Spit drools from your chapped lips.

The Apollonian priests who you find are kind. They gather you up off the sand, they clean, feed, and clothe you. You tell them you were kidnapped and then abandoned, and they call for a priestess from Demeter’s temple on the far side of the island to come and collect you.

It will take a day, perhaps two, for her to arrive. You are quietly relieved.

Clean and decently attired, you slip outside the white temple. So high up, the wind drives through your skin and tears the hair from your face. You hug your arms to your chest but feel no extra warmth.

You cannot help your sister now. Perhaps you should be angry with her, but you are the one who towed her into Theseus’ path. You squint into the wind and feel your throat ache.

The prince of Athens promised a world without half-beasts, and you gave him everything like it was a ball of twine. This misadventure could have ended so much more poorly than it has, but that knowledge doesn’t keep the terrible ache in your chest at bay.

This is not what you wanted. You wanted a moment to grab hold of and to choose your way forward — something that, at the end of your life, you could point to and say, “There. That is the moment I set my own course, and look how well I chose.”

You drop to a crouch and bury your face between your knees. Desperate, heartbroken noises escape and echo between your thighs because you deserve this, you were so taken with your own abilities and with Theseus’ golden beauty that you dove headfirst into your own ruin.

You are just like your father. It will be fitting, then, to finish out your life as a priestess, serving penance for both your sins.

The wind gusts again and nearly buffets you over. You fling your hand out for balance and your palm touches the mixture of sand and gravel below, and when you stand it sticks to your skin.

A man hikes up the narrow isthmus connecting the island of Naxos to the spit of land on which Apollo’s grand temple abides. He wears a deep purple chiton and his curls reach his slim shoulders. You recognize his gait, his clothing, the color of his hair before his face becomes clear.

You watch him from the corner of your eye as he approaches. At a different angle, he could be a woman.

He comes to stand near you, but not so near that you could strike him if you wanted to. The wind chases goose bumps down your arms and back, but you lift your chin and look out over the whitecaps. “You mended things with your brother, then?” you say. It is not a non sequitur; this is his half-brother’s temple.

The man — he’s beautiful — he smiles, but the gesture gives nothing away. “I won’t stay long,” he says. His voice is smooth and his lips are painted a deep, royal red. “I wanted to make sure you were all right.”

You inhale, and the wind fills your lungs, expanding with such inexorable strength that you might fly apart. Bitterness for the world, for him, for your family, burns cold as the wind.

“I knew what Theseus was,” you say, harshly enough that the back of your throat aches. A roaring, furious whiteness blanks out everything in your head. “I ignored it. I was stupid and weak.”

Dionysus shakes his head. “You got out,” he says. He raises his voice, just a little, to be heard over the wind. “You escaped your father’s home. That isn’t weakness.”

It stops you. You hesitate, then shake your head. “My sister—”

“Your sister is not quite so helpless as you believe her to be,” he says.

You glare at him, search his face for the wry twist of his lips, for the knowledge that this is just another drama to him, that your life is the one party he was turned away from.

Except that isn’t true. He may not be half-bull, but he is only half-human.

It always comes back to family, doesn’t it?

“I’m glad you got out,” he says. “Even if it wasn’t with me.”

The wind pushes at you, forces you take a step to keep your balance. It changes directions and pulls.

“It was a mistake to trust him,” you say, and it feels like a confession. “I should have known. I must have, on some level.”

Dionysus shrugs. “You always have a reason, even when you don’t know it yourself.” Fondness bleeds into his tone.

You look away again, out over the choppy sea, and tell yourself you aren’t going to cry even as your eyes water.

“I felt bad for him,” you say. Your voice comes out hushed, carried away by the wind, but you know he hears you. “I didn’t want him to die.”

Dionysus, bless him, says nothing, so you follow the jumbled, tangled thread. “I liked that he needed me. That he needed me so much that he saw me, apart from my family. That he listened when I spoke.”

Neither of you speak for a long, gusting moment as the sun disappears behind a neighboring island, then beneath the waves. You’d drown if you were thrown overboard now; the waves grew as the afternoon aged into twilight.

“It was a mistake,” you say again. “It was all a mistake.” The growing chill leaves you empty, and it shows in your words. You rub your hands over your arms, but the skin still feels numb.

“Well,” Dionysus says. “Would you like to make another one?”

You look up at him sharply, and he cannot quite conceal the curve of his lips. Then the mischief drops, and he smiles for real. “I don’t need twine, or anything else. I promise.”

You could run to Athens, after Theseus and your sister. You could stay on Naxos and disappear into a throng of harvest priestesses. You could swim to Crete, home to monsters and labyrinths, and drown yourself along the way. You don’t have to go with him.

Dionysus steps forward and reaches out. When you take his hand, his palm is softer than yours.

“You aren’t a mistake,” you say. He is a life raft.

The corners around his eyes crease when he smiles. The warmth in it chases the chill from your skin and your bones, and the wind roars past you both.

© 2016 S.M. Mack

About the author

S.M. Mack

S.M. Mack, colloquially known as Smack, has had stories and poems published in Vine Leaves Literary Journal’s Best of 2015 collection, Gone Lawn, The Art of Deduction, and Into the Teeth of the Wind. She is a participant in the Awkward Robots Clarion Class of 2012’s Red Volume, Orange Volume, and forthcoming Yellow Volume fundraising anthologies, and can always be found on Twitter at @whatsmacksaid.