I started writing a story about Clytemnestra years ago. This morning, I woke up thinking about her. Thinking about her name and how difficult it is, how unpretty. You’d have to be a queen of no small stature to pull off such a name. Since she is a fictional character, I feel at liberty to reimagine her, to lift her out of the culture a little bit, enough to consider how terribly the stories treat her. Is Clytemnestra truly the story of the passing of matriarchy as some scholars posit? The Clytemnestra we know most familiarly is the one Aeschylus created out of the older stories. There are many versions of the story. In some, she is exiled instead of executed. In some stories, her sister Helen is Polydeuces twin, in others Polydeuces and Castor are twins. The stories are ambiguous and contradictory as are the most useful mythologies. We have to make them our own. Thread together what makes sense to us and disregard the rest understanding that what we take from these myths are what we comprehend of life and that is an ever-changing mirror.
The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of the story.
Helen and Polydeuces began one night while our mother, Leda, slept in the room that Castor and I shared. It was not uncommon for her to sleep there. She often did so when Father was away looking for allies.
Castor slept in the cradle next to mine. I could see his face clearly because the moon was uncovered and the touch of its light had awakened me. Beyond Castor, I could see the outline of my mother as she slept on her back, one arm flung above her head, her hair a thick black streak falling over the edge of her bed. A shadow crept slowly across the path of the moon. A sudden wind rose and pushed against the outside walls of our room. It funneled in through our window, roughing my cheek as it passed. Then the air pooled and stilled. A great white bird floated down to the windowsill and thrust its long snake neck toward Mother’s face. The bird paused for a moment tilting its eye at me, snapping its beak. The bird spread its wings wide blocking the moonlight before it pushed off the windowsill and dropped toward Mother’s bed. Wings arched back, its great orange webbed feet lit as silent as snow on her breast.
She must have been entranced. Otherwise, she would not have let him lay his long black beak across her face or allowed him to press his tail to her the way he did. But that is what happened. That is what I saw and when I told Father, he believed me.
Very quickly, Mother grew round in the belly and soon she birthed an enormous silver egg. “Let the swan sit on it,” my mother said.
But the egg was not like those you find in chicken roosts. This egg was given to my mother by a god. A great silver egg, such as this one, does not need sitting, but it does bear watching. I put it in my cradle and crawled in beside it to watch it grow.
When it opened, the shell, as if the silver were melting, receded. Ridges formed like the cracking of earth. Then it burst apart and the babies spilled out. Their perfect round heads, crowned with birth fuzz, sparkled with bits of clinging silver shell. Polydeuces rolled away from me, but Helen’s open eyes clasped my face. We met there, eyes pressed to eyes, searching. Our souls, bent together in the first light of her being, bent toward the same moon.
Helen raised one tightly closed fist and flung it open. A cloud of silver danced off her palm into the air and held in place for a moment before drifting out the open window where it formed into hundreds of tiny doves and sailed off into mother night.
Without warning a bolt of lightning broke and thunder shook the room so hard our cradles rocked. Castor wailed in fear, Polydeuces lay still as a stone, and Helen — Helen laughed.
Our mother, answered Castor’s cry. She looked into the cradle, at the new babies and at the broken egg shell. Then she went to Castor and lifted him against her shoulder and took him out of the room.
In a moment, two nursemaids came and one put Helen to her breast, the other Polydeuces. From the first, Helen had a fierce hunger. She fell upon the nipple so hard the nurse cried out in pain.