Athens; Helen Tries to Help

The weeks drifted by. One day, Medousa walked with Helen to the Acropolis. Medousa was spending more and more time at the Parthenon when not training as she prepared for priesthood in Athena’s cult. And more and more often, she was spending what free time she had with Ajax. Cynisca was off running errands with Chionis, and without her company, Medousa fell into a pensive mood.

“What are you thinking about, Medousa?” Helen asked. “You look pained.”

Medousa attempted a brave grin and replied, thinking out loud, “Even if I am installed in Athena’s Temple, Cynisca will have her own family. Children…a home…. I love her so much–But I want these things, too. And Ajax is handsome, and wealthy, and of a prominent family…he says….”

Medousa paused. “We should each have our own houses. Visit each other. Our children should be raised together like cousins. What will become of me? Growing old alone in the Goddess’ service? Only being able to steal brief hours with Cynisca?”

“But Ajax is not Spartan,” Helen pointed out. “Were you to marry him, you’d still be separated from Cynisca.” Suddenly puzzled, Helen looked up at Medousa. “Wait,” she began. “What’s all this about marrying Ajax? You’ve only just met him.” Growing nervous, Helen demanded “What’s going on, Medousa?”

“Here in Athens, Lysimache says, I could marry and still serve the Goddess. I could have a family of my own. Just like you will. Just like Cynisca will.”

Medousa fell into a mournful silence. Either gain everything she ever wanted, except the love of her life…Or give up all chance for a normal life like other women, for the opportunity to steal precious hours here and there with her friend and lover. It didn’t feel like much of a choice.

“I’ve been spending time with Ajax,” Medousa confessed in a low voice.

Helen looked up at her, a worried look on her face.

“Medousa– What do you mean–?”

“Oh, you know what I mean, Helen.”

Helen seemed about to speak. Medousa, noticing her agitation spoke first.

“I haven’t broken my vows to Athena,” she said. “And, I could never leave Cynisca. It’s just that….”

“What?”

“He’s so kind to me, Helen,” Medousa sighed. “And he loves me. And I can’t help but think ‘What if I could marry him?’ I would have a household…children…a devoted man…I would be a wealthy and powerful princess one day.”

“Medousa…” Helen began, feeling as if she were already clutching at straws, “I’m sure Cynisca and I could find you someone as kind and as suitable back home….”

“Oh, Helen. I’m nothing but a freedwoman; no one back home would ever let me forget what I once was… What I really am… But here in Athens– Lysimache says that there is no shame here attached to being a freedwoman.”

“I don’t know,” Helen said, trying to persuade her friend. “Why couldn’t you work for Cynisca as chief of her household staff?”

Medousa heaved a small frustrated sigh.

“A servant again to Cynisca. A servant to Athena. What about a servant to none? What about liberty to choose as I will?”

“What are you talking about? You are free! And a full citizen! Agesilaus even adopted you!”

Medousa said nothing, but kept her eyes cast to the ground, her mind clouded with angst and melancholy.

“How much have you told Cynisca?” Helen asked.

“A little,” Medousa confessed. “But not the whole of it.”

“And how much are you not telling me?”

“Much more,” Medousa whispered. “More than I’ve told Cynisca; but not the half of it.”

Helen reached a hand up to Medousa’s shoulder as they walked. She peered up at her, worried. “Medousa… Is there anything I can do…?”

Medousa brushed away a tear and shook her head. “We should never have come to Athens,” she muttered to herself.

 

#

One evening, the girls decided to escape the supervision of their teacher and Helots, and have a late-evening picnic near the woods across the fields outside the suburbs of Athens. It was Helen’s idea; she had hoped that getting Medousa and Cynisca together a bit more often, and getting Medousa away from Ajax, might help quell the storm clouds on the horizon that Helen foresaw for her friends. Alas, Medousa’s current training schedule on the Acropolis meant that she had less time to spend with Cynisca, given her schedule of duties and training. If she could keep Medousa from brooding, and give her more time to be with Cynisca than with Ajax, she knew things would be alright. Helen knew she had to keep Ajax away from them until Medousa completed her training. Then, the three of them would return to Sparta, and Ajax would be forgotten.

They prepared a basket of food, and wine, and a lyre. Then, one evening when the Helots were busy with the accounts and stock of their shop in the Agora, they slipped away into the twilight, unnoticed. They strapped their swords to their belts in case of trouble, and struck out toward the wood away from the city. They traveled until they could barely see the lights flickering on the Acropolis in the distance.

Medousa made a fire while Cynisca and Helen brought out the food. “Oh, this is fun!” Helen laughed. “Just the three of us, like in Sparta!”

“Yes,” Cynisca agreed as Medousa finished lighting the fire. She caught her by the wrist, and drawing her down, reclined against Medousa, as if she were a couch. “I don’t like Athens,” she continued, idly toying with Medousa’s hair. “We can never simply go out as we please… We always have to have a male Helot escort us when we do go out….”

“At least you two got to go home for a visit,” Medousa interrupted. “I can’t leave until I’ve finished my studies and receive my investiture.”

Cynisca rolled over and lazily kissed Medousa. “I can’t wait, either,” she smiled. “Here–” She handed an empty cup to Medousa. “Get me some wine, would you?”

Medousa rose and got a jar from their pack basket, and filled Cynisca’s cup from it.

“Back down, now,” Cynisca ordered. Laughing, Medousa lay back down, reclining as Cynisca made herself comfortable against her.

“Why do you still jump at her every word, Medousa?” Helen called over as she idly plucked her lyre. “You’re not her Helot anymore, are you?”

They all laughed.

“She is my slave of love,” Cynisca declared, taking another kiss from Medousa.

“She’s not a toy, you know,” Helen told Cynisca.

“Oh, yes she is!” Cynisca said, suddenly grabbing Medousa in a playful, amorous embrace. Medousa returned her embrace as they both laughed once again.

“Come on, Helen,” Cynisca said. “Play us something.”

Helen played and sang. Cynisca and Medousa joined in with her after a while, between bites of sweetmeats and savories, and many, many cups of wine. After a while, they started taking turns playing and singing, and they danced together in the firelight under the stars.

Their revelries were suddenly interrupted by a gruff male voice.

“Hey! What goes on here?”

The women were immediately in fighting stance, turned toward the sound. Each had drawn her kopis, ready for battle. As they stood ready, a familiar figure stepped into the circle of firelight.

“Ajax!”

The young prince grinned. “What are you ladies doing all alone out here in the woods?”

The girls relaxed and sheathed their weapons.

“We’re not in the woods, Ajax,” Helen corrected him as they sat down again.

“Join us,” Medousa invited. “We’re having some songs and dances.”

“Hello, Medousa,” Ajax greeted her as he sat with them.

Medousa smiled, and Cynisca’s face darkened slightly. She glanced at her lover and then stared narrowly at Ajax. Helen stopped smiling as she noticed the tension. Medousa and Ajax seemed oblivious to Cynisca’s mood.

“So,” Ajax said. “What are you all doing out here at this hour?”

“Just getting away from the city,” Medousa said. “It was Helen’s idea.”

“Yes,” Cynisca added. “It’s so crowded, and noisy, and filthy in Athens.”

Cynisca, her eyes fixed on Ajax, pulled Medousa’s arms about her own waist, and holding them there tightly, turned her head to nuzzle Medousa’s throat.

Medousa giggled and tightened her hold on Cynisca. But Helen, noticing the look Cynisca gave Ajax, moved to sit next to him, trying to prevent tensions from mounting.

“Won’t your teacher be worried about you?” Ajax asked, completely oblivious to Cynisca’s jealousy.

Helen sighed, and lay across Ajax’s lap, putting her hands behind her head. “Bad question,” she said, looking up at him and enjoying his discomfort. “A better question might be, ‘How did you just happen to find us here?'”

“I’ll bet he’s been spying on us,” Medousa teased. Ajax blushed.

“We should run away to Lycia,” Cynisca said, settling in against Medousa’s breast. “We should find one of the cities of the Amazons. Let’s see anyone find us there!” Another pointed glare at the young man.

“Lycia? What for?” asked Ajax.

“We could set up house there, and we could fight glorious battles,” Cynisca replied. “Instead of always having to leave it up to the men folk.”

“And what about our Ajax?” asked Medousa.

Cynisca thought awhile. “We’ll take him with us,” she said at last. “We’ll keep him in his own quarters, and he’ll have to give us children, and cook and clean, and keep house for us!”

Medousa’s shoulders shook with laughter. Cynisca turned her face up and took another lingering kiss from her lover in front of Ajax.

“Oh, you’re embarrassing Ajax,” Helen said, smiling. She stood and poured more wine for Medousa and Cynisca. “How about a riddle?” Helen suggested, trying to steer the conversation away from anything potentially dangerous. She hoped she could keep her friends in good humor. “Oh, why did Ajax have to show up here, now?” She thought.

“Here, answer me this one,” Cynisca said. “The more there is, the less you see, gaze all you would when surrounded by me!

“Darkness!” Medousa called out. “A child’s riddle, Cynisca.”

“You can do better? Your turn, then,” Cynisca retorted, laughing.

“Very well–  A spirited dance with all her might, banishing all but Stygian night; Feed her, she lives, give her drink, she will surely perish.”

“Fire,” Ajax spoke up.  “It’s fire, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Medousa smiled. “Very well; your turn, then.”

Ajax pondered briefly, then recited “They follow and lead, but only as you pass. Dress yourself in darkest black, and they are darker still. Always, they flee the light, though in darkness, without light, they perish.

“My turn,” said Helen. “Shadows is the answer! Now, try this one; I am free for the taking throughout all your life, though given but once at birth. I am less than nothing in weight, but will fell the mightiest of mortals if held.

“A bath!” Medousa shouted. She and Cynisca laughed, obviously tipsy.  Even Ajax grinned a little at that one.

“Breath, you two,” Helen cried. “Breath!”

“You two are drunk,” Helen said. “I get one more; I never was, am always to be. No one has ever seen me, nor ever will; and yet I am the confidence of all who live and draw breath upon the Earth.” She sat back and waited for her answer.

“Tomorrow…?” Ajax ventured

“Just so,” Helen affirmed. “So get out of here, you,” she told Ajax. “This is our picnic. No boys allowed. You can pester Medousa tomorrow.”

“Or the day after,” Cynisca said.

“…Or never…” Helen added under her breath.

Blushing again, Ajax rose. “Medousa? I’ll see you tomorrow?”

But Medousa hadn’t heard. She and Cynisca had begun caressing one another by the fireside. Cynisca glanced up long enough to stare daggers at Ajax as he hurriedly turned to leave.

Helen sighed and poured herself a cup of wine, relieved.

“He likes you,” Cynisca said, kissing her golden haired friend.

Medousa blushed. “He is good looking,” she ventured. She combed her fingers gently through Cynisca’s hair. “And he is from a good family. Or so he tells me.”

“And what about me?” pleaded Cynisca.

“I give up; what about you?” Medousa teased. Cynisca pretended to pout, and Medousa laughed at her, pulling her close. “A woman must marry, mustn’t she?” She started kissing the nape of Cynisca’s neck. “And he’s not a bad choice.”

“You’ll forget all about me,” Cynisca protested.

“Nonsense!” Medousa said between kisses.

“Anyway,” Helen said, “Aren’t you betrothed yourself, Little Puppy?”

“That’s different,” Cynisca replied. “We have to stay together in Sparta.” She slipped her arms around Medousa’s waist and pulled her down atop herself. “Ajax would take her away to Salamis, or worse; they’d stay here in Athens.”

“I’ll kidnap you and take you with me,” Medousa declared.

Cynisca looked up at her and smiled. She kissed Medousa again and began to sing:

“Look at him, just like a god,

That man sitting across from you,

Whoever he is,

Listening to your

Close, sweet voice,

Your irresistible laughter,

And O yes,

It sets my heart racing–

One glance at you

And I can’t get any words out!

My voice cracks,

A thin flame runs under my skin,

My eyes go blind,

My ears ring,

A cold sweat pours down my body,

I tremble all over,

Turn paler than grass…

Look at me, just a shade from dead.

But I must bear it….”

 

Helen smiled as her friends kissed, the wine and their passion helping them forget her presence. “Ajax is probably just teasing, anyway,” Helen said.

“And you should stop teasing Cynisca,” Helen told Medousa as she and Cynisca carried on. “You’re going to become Athena’s priestess in Sparta, and we’ll all be together until we’re all old and grey.”

But Medousa and Cynisca didn’t hear her.

“Maybe I should’ve gotten them drunk long before,” Helen mused to herself, as she took a cup of wine.

 

#

The next day, Ajax spoke to his brother Teukros. “I need your help.”

They walked along together to a public house in the Lower City.

“What do you need, Brother?”

“I’m going to want you to return to Salamis.”

“What for?” Teukros asked.

“I want you to petition Father for me.”

“Petition him for what, Ajax…?”

“I want Medousa.”

Teukros stopped and grabbed at his brother’s sleeve.

“Ajax,” he said. “Father has already chosen the woman he wants you to marry.”

“We can change his mind, Teukros! If he could just see Medousa-!”

“Brother, you haven’t even known her a year!”

“Please, Teukros. I love her.”

“Have you even kissed her yet?’

Ajax blushed. “As a matter of fact, I have. Several times, in fact!”

“Look,” Teukros offered, “Medousa’s a Spartan woman; do you really think she’d be happy with us?”

“What do you mean?” Ajax demanded. “Are you saying that I couldn’t–?”

“Ajax,” Teukros interrupted. “Think! Do you really believe Medousa would be satisfied to remain locked away in the women’s quarters of the palace? Never able to go out on her own? And even if you did allow it, no one in Salamis would accept it.”

“But, brother–”

“And I hear Spartan women can own property, and have inheritances. Would you rob Medousa of that? Or will you renounce your position and go live as a Spartan?”

“You don’t understand, Teukros.”

“Would she remain content never to ride out to the hunt?”

“But that’s–”

“And what about children? Would you allow her to train and educate your daughters as well as your sons?”

“Enough!” Ajax cried. He halted, and placed a hand against his brother’s chest. “I have already approached Medousa. I am going to speak to her guardian, and arrange a proper courtship.”

“But, Ajax-”

“Teukros,” Ajax interrupted, his face like thunder. “Will you do as I ask? Or not?”

Teukros looked upset, but he managed a smile.

“Very well, my Brother. When shall I leave?”

“Next week,” Ajax told him. “I want to go over what I want you to say to Father. And I’ll have a letter for you to deliver.”

 

#

Some days later, Medousa was making her prayers at the garden upon the Acropolis behind the temple, when Ajax interrupted her. She had been badly startled at first, thinking it was old Erectheus again, growing bolder.

“Oh, it’s you, Ajax,” she said, relaxing.

“Hello Medousa,” Ajax smiled.

They sat together on one of the stone benches.

“I’m sorry about the other night,” Medousa said, blushing. “I’m sorry we chased you away like that.”

Ajax laughed. “It’s alright. I understand. You and Cynisca are…close, aren’t you?”

Medousa nodded, smiling.

They sat silently for a while, as if unsure of what to say.

“And– And how do you feel about me…?” Ajax asked. And then, he took Medousa in his arms and kissed her. Medousa was surprised. But she found herself melting into his arms, returning his kiss. She quickly came to herself and pushed away, standing up.

“Ajax…Please don’t….”

“Medousa, I am no poet to weave pretty words for you,” he said as he drew her back down to sit with him. “I have sent my brother back to Salamis to petition our father on my behalf. I have asked him to arrange with your family that we might marry.”

Medousa spoke nothing, but her smile and her sparkling sapphire eyes expressed doubt. She gazed into Ajax’s face.

“I have heard nothing from home as yet,” he said. “But I expect to receive a reply within a week or two.”

“And do you think King Telemon will approve of me?”

“I don’t care,” said Ajax. “I will have no other.”

Medousa’s smile faded. “Ajax,” she murmured, “Even princes cannot dictate to their fathers whom they will or will not marry. And you will certainly not be allowed to take a foreign woman whom you’ve only just met. Don’t be so foolish.”

“But–” He began to protest. She laid her hand on his lips.

“No promises that you won’t be able to keep.”

“I want you, Medousa.”

“Oh, Ajax. You don’t know who and what I really am. If you did–”

“I know all I need to know about you, Medousa.”

His earnest sincerity unsettled her. She still couldn’t quite bring herself to believe that this young princeling would be interested in her. Part of her wondered what it would be like to make love to him. Part of her wondered about the children he might give her. But the greater part of her was nervous and frightened. She stood again, noting the disappointment so obviously displayed on Ajax’s face. She bent down quickly and kissed him, but then tore her eyes away from his and ran as fast as she could back to the Parthenon.

 

#

Later that afternoon, Ajax went to find the girls’ chaperon, Chionis, at the gymnasium. He found him taking a massage in the bath area.

“Ah, Ajax,” Chionis greeted him as he came in.

“Good afternoon, sir.” Ajax greeted him in return. “I’d like to talk to you, if you have a moment.”

“What do you want, Ajax?” Chionis asked, sitting up.

“It’s about Medousa.”

“You like her, don’t you?” Chionis said abruptly.

Ajax was surprised, and a little embarrassed, at the old man’s forthrightness. Chionis grinned. “I’m old, boy; not blind.”

“I– well. Yes, sir. –I wanted to ask….”

Chionis, still grinning, stood, and folded his arms. “Ye-e-e-es…?”

“Well, I was wondering what you could tell me about her family, and, ah, background.”

“You serious? About her?”

“Well, if it’s not improper, I want to write to my father and ask him to arrange a betrothal with her family. I promise; I want to do this properly.”

“She’s had many suitors, you know. Not of your quality, of course. And she was adopted into Cynisca’s family. They’re royalty, and they’re her family now. What’s to recommend you?”

“Well, we’re friends already…and, well, I am to be king of Salamis one day. My father says we are descendants of Zeus himself–”

“A descendant of the Gods? Heh. Every king and princeling throughout the Peloponnese makes such claims. Can you prove it?”

Ajax was embarrassed. He blushed as Chionis continued. “As a matter of fact, the only child of Zeus I know of is our Helen.”

Ajax was silent.

Chionis pressed on.  “A Spartan lad would be in the military long before now. What are you, fourteen already?”

“Fifteen, sir.”

“And hasn’t your father already provided you with a bride?”

“But, I can petition my father to allow–”

“Hmph. Medousa’s come here to devote herself to Athena Parthenos, not to conduct a dalliance. And she’s older than you, you know.”

“She’s a great beauty, and yet I can talk with her as one talks with other men. She’s strong and capable on the field, and well read. She would produce strong children.”

“Boy,” Chionis replied, “Medousa’s here to devote herself to the Goddess Athena. She is to become a priestess, and then return to serve the Goddess in Sparta.”

Ajax said nothing.

“Do you understand what that means?”

“I don’t care, sir.”

The old man drew close to Ajax and stared him straight in the eye.

“And what happens, boy, when you convince that girl to break her vows, throw away her future, leave her family and friends, and you later grow tired of her?” He never raised his voice, nor changed his posture, but there was something about Chionis at that moment that was truly frightening. Ajax looked down, unable to meet the old Spartan’s gaze.

“Sir, I–” He paused, struggling to find the right words.

“I love her,” he said simply, visibly deflating under Chionis’ stare.

Chionis sighed. He put a hand on Ajax’s shoulder. “You get your parents to write. I’ll see that it’s properly arranged with her family. If they accept, you can make your intentions known to Medousa. And then we’ll see where it goes from there.”

“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir! I promise you; my family is well derived, with plenty of gold and silver, and… I promise; I’ll be good to her. I won’t abandon her.”

Chionis stood a while, watching after Ajax as he left. He frowned and shook his head. “Kids today…. No sense of propriety. Must be Athens.”

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a faceless drone in a corporate call center, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in my dead grandparents’ house, alone, with an impressive collection of martial arts weapons, where I practice and train daily. I am not currently on any medications.
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