Lover, Mother, Immortal
“The face that launch’d a thousand ships,” that’s what everyone remembers of Helen. When tourists coming tromping up the slopes of Mount Ida, smelling of insect repellent and sunscreen, slurping bright blue and orange drinks from plastic bottles that, emptied, are often left to litter the woods at the edge of the trail, they tell and retell one another the story.
My mountain teems with tourists now, flies to a corpse. They clamber up the slopes and wade in the pools of waterfalls, water that looks pure but will sicken them if they drink, so they carry purification systems and think nothing of the stream itself, only of what they will consume. They bring binoculars and point at birds, unaware of just how few there are these days. They stand on ledges and watch the sun set over the sea, as if Phoebus Apollo’s passage means anything anymore through the haze of pollution that rises from their sprawling cities along the coast.
They talk, usually of matters inconsequential, and sometimes of the war that rages on the other side of Turkey, of the refugees whose boats now and then are visible on the horizon. Often, in a funny game of one-upmanship, they try to outdo one another in the retelling of the ancient stories, piecing together the history of my mountain from fragments of memory from the schoolbooks of their youths. I hear them tell Paris’s story—cast out by Priam, raised by a she-bear, judge of the fateful beauty pageant. They seldom mention me, Oenone, his first wife, or if they do, it’s always the rumor of my death.
Homer tossed me on Paris’s funeral pyre. Bacchylides threw me from a cliff. Another tied a rope around my neck, and yet another hurled me from the walls of Troy. These are not my story. These are stories told by men who understand little of the ways of women, whether human or nymph.
A man should love a nymph and end up brokenhearted, not the other way around. It is not the nymph’s nature to love one and only one, the way a man expects her to. Her heart is not a human heart. Her life is not a human’s life. How can it be, when she will never die or grow old? A man to a nymph should be a toy. A playmate for now. A brief distraction from the tedium of life without end.
But to me, Paris was all. With Paris, I felt time for the first time, understood the preciousness of every moment, clung to the passing hours, feared the inevitable loss of outliving the one I adored. How I worried over him.
At first he laughed and called me mother, gently chiding my overprotective ways. Then, when I bore him a son, he called me mother tenderly as we doted on our child together. But all men must leave their mothers. I was too much mother and not enough lover, too much agape and not enough eros, and he left me on my mountainside, left me in the shade of the olive trees, left me for lust, and incited a war.
Fates, you say? Ha. They spin, they measure, they cut. What a charming story. But it is mortals who tug and tangle the threads of their lives. Fate is all mortals must die. They have choices while they live.
More the pity they do; they are so bad at choosing. It was not Helen’s face—beautiful, yes, of course, the most beautiful woman in the world, so said Aphrodite, who should know—but it was not Helen’s face that began the war. Man’s inability to choose wisely led to the launching of a thousand ships. Isn’t it funny how easily men blame women for their own folly? They say for Helen so many fought and died, but it was because of Paris, and it was for Menelaus, his pride so wounded by his wife’s betrayal.
Oh, Paris, vain-glorious fool. You had everything when you were with me. In the forever of my existence, I will never understand why my love wasn’t enough.
When he came back to beg my help, he already had one foot in Hades. He thought my herbs would spare him, but they only would have prolonged his suffering. When I looked into his bloodshot eyes, believe me, I was tempted to give him what he sought so I could watch him endure the misery he had brought upon himself. First, he abandoned me, then our son followed him to war seeking glory and finding only death, and then he had the audacity to beg me for his life! He thought he could pierce my heart once again with the desperation that shone through his eyes. I looked into them, peered into his soul, and saw how he loved life and how he didn’t wish to leave it, though he would leave me again if he had it all to do over.
For a long time, I wished I had never met Paris. For a long time, I told myself loving Paris was my one regret. But that day, when I looked Paris in the eye and saw him approaching death, fearfully, yes, but without regret, I understood that I, too, would do it all again if I could. If I could travel back in time to the day I met Paris, even knowing how it would all turn out, I would love him again.
So I let him go. I let him die, not out of cruelty, but out of love. Despite it all, I loved him. I let him go, though I must stay here forever, nymph of the mountain, watching the tourists in their Lycra and Gortex, with their selfie sticks and portable speakers blaring pop music that scares away the animals, with their own mixed-up versions of my story, versions that have erased me entirely.
On my mountain, the olive grove still thrives. I tend it as if it were my child. I talk to the trees and build homes for the birds and guard it from the tourists who would carve their names in hearts into the bark as Paris once did ours. That tree is long since gone, felled by a lightning strike in a summer storm two millennia ago, but I remember it. I remember him scraping at the bark, unable to contain his feelings, overcome by the need to leave an indelible mark of our happiness. Alas, no tree can live forever.
I know that when he went to the land of the dead he drank from the river of forgetfulness. All of his folly, all of his suffering, all of the hurt he caused washed away by death. And what of the love? Must that, too, be forgotten? Perhaps even the Lethe cannot wash away the memory of love, but here, on my mountain, I’ll never know.
Diane V. Mulligan
Diane V. Mulligan is the author of three novels, most recently What She Inherits. She is an English teacher at Saint John's High School. From 2012 to 2018, she has been the managing editor of The Worcester Review.
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