Authors: Madeline Miller
Tags: #Speculative Fiction
“Shameless,” he said.
“Shameless,” I said.
I felt him looking at me, admiring his work. He had not carved me like this, but he was imagining doing it. A beautiful statue, named
He could have sold me and lived like a king in Araby.
He frowned, pointing. “What is that?”
I looked down at my belly and saw the faint silvery tracks on my skin, caught in the light.
“My love, it is the sign of our child. Where the belly stretched.”
He stared. “How long have they been there?”
“Since she was born.” Ten years ago now.
“They are ugly,” he said.
“I’m so sorry, my love. It is the same for all women.”
“If you were stone, I would chisel them off,” he said. Then he turned and left, and after a little while the doctor came with the tea.
HE THING IS,
I don’t think my husband expected me to be able to talk. I don’t blame him for this exactly, since he had known me only as a statue, pure and beautiful and yielding to his art. Naturally, when he wished me to live, that’s what he wanted still, only warm so that he might fuck me. But it does seem foolish that he didn’t think it through, how I could not both live and still be a statue. I have only been born for eleven years, and even I know that.
I conceived that very first time, a moment after I was born. And though I had been stone, and though the goddess made me, my pregnancy was real enough, and I was tired and sick and my feet were too swollen for the delicate golden sandals he liked to see them in. It made him angry, but it did not stop him from pushing me onto the bed or up against the wall, and I worried that because of it I would have not one child, but a whole litter, like the cats in the street.
My daughter was beautiful and stone-pale and born in a summer that was so viciously hot the calves died in the fields. But she and I were always perfectly cool, rocking in our chair together. When we would go walking, everyone whispered but no one would speak to us, except once an old woman touched Paphos’ foot and asked for my blessing. I murmured something, and she touched my arm in thanks. Her fingers were strange, like twigs on bare trees, but her skin was very soft.
Sometimes, when my husband was working, we were allowed to go as far as the hillsides. Paphos was older by then, and she would pretend to be a shepherd and I would pretend to be her sheep. She liked that. She liked it even better when I was a goat, and leapt barefoot from rock to rock, and never wobbled. When she got older still, I insisted on a tutor, though my husband thought that would ruin her. No, I said, she will be useful to her husband, as I am not. And he had smiled at me. You are useful enough. But he hired the tutor in the end, because I fawned on him every time he mentioned it.
In the countryside, Paphos would teach me. Look, she would say, you can use sticks for the letters, and I would say, But some of them are round. And she frowned and said, You’re right, shall we go to the beach and use sand? So we did, and it was better than sticks, and even better than the tutor’s tablet, because the sea washed it for you. She was a smart girl, very smart, and I didn’t have to tell her to say nothing to her father.
At night, my husband sent her to bed. He would say, “And you too, wife, are you not sleepy?” And I would know it was time to go arrange myself in bed so that we might pretend again that I was waking from the stone to him.
When Paphos was eight, he sent the tutor away. “He was looking at you,” he said to me.
I was distracted that day, thinking of Paphos and the letters, and I said, “Of course he was.” Everyone looked at me, because I was the most beautiful woman in the town. I don’t say this to boast, because there is nothing in it to boast of. It was nothing I did myself.
My husband stared at me, and said, “You knew?”
I tried to explain, but it was too late. We were not allowed to walk anymore, and Paphos was given a governess instead of a tutor, and her tablets were taken away, and during the days my husband sulked over his marble and did not work. At night, he was rougher than he had been and would not stop asking, Would you be like the rest of them? And I knew to say No, no, darling, never.
Paphos was impatient—she hated our house and wanted our old adventures in the country. She wasn’t quiet when her father wished to brood, which was always, and as the days passed she grew more impatient still. I took her to our room and we made the letters with our fingers. She was laughing, and I was too, and we did not know how loud we were.
My husband came to the doorway. “Why are you laughing?”
Paphos said, “Why not?” She was taller than the other girls, and long-limbed. She wasn’t afraid of him.
I said, “Darling, I’m so sorry we disturbed you.”
“She does not say she is sorry.”
“She is still a baby,” I said.
“I’m not a baby,” Paphos said.
“Then apologize,” he said.
“You poor thing, you look half-starved,” I said to him. “Have you not eaten? Paphos, sweetheart, let me talk to your father a moment.”
She left, and I saw him grind his teeth at how obediently she did it. He said, “You love her more than me.”
Of course not, of course not. My hands stroked his hair, long and greasy from brooding. It is only that she is too smart for that governess, I said. She is bored, and I cannot teach her anything. She needs a tutor.
He said, A tutor.
And I said, Yes, another tutor would make everything better, and then we would not bother you. He was quiet, and I hoped he was considering it, but when I saw his face it was taut and angry, as though he would break the skin. He seized my arm, and he said, You never blush.
I couldn’t think to speak, that is how hard he held me.
He said, You do not blush anymore, that is the thing. You apologize and apologize, but you do not blush. Are you shameless now?
No, never, I said. He grabbed the neck of my dress and yanked, but he was not as strong as he wished to be, and it did not tear. He yanked again and again, then pushed me to the floor and held me there, yanking, until the fabric gave way and I was naked.
I covered myself with my hands and made soft noises like a child. Blush, blush, I prayed. Blush for him, or he will kill you. And I was fortunate, for it was warm in the room, and I was angry, and ashamed too, for I feared that Paphos could hear us, and the blood came to my cheeks and I blushed.
He said, “So you are not completely lost to me.” And he sent me to bed, and after, in the torchlight, he wondered at the marks on me, the red around my neck, and the purple on my arms and chest where he had gripped me. He rubbed at them, as though they were stains, not bruises. “The color is perfect,” he said, “look.” And he held up the mirror so I could see. “You make the rarest canvas, love.”
little money, coins my husband had dropped from his messy purses, things I had found in the street. I had shoes that I stole from the governess, leather, not gold, that were meant for traipsing up and down dusty roads. I had a cloak that I stole from my husband. Paphos had her own, because I had insisted she got cold easily, though she was like me and was never cold, nor hot either. And I said to her, “Shall we go to the countryside?”
And she said, “Daddy will not let us,” and I said, “I know, so let’s not tell him.”
We did not make it beyond the next town, because everyone noticed us. A woman and a girl, pale as milk? Yes, just that way.
HE NURSE LET
me lay in the wet for a long time before she came with the dry linens. She bunched the mattress reeds so that they stuck at me worse than ever, and refused to answer me, no matter what I said to her, even when I told her how beautiful her mole was. I wasn’t even lying. At that moment it seemed to have a handsomeness of its own.
After, she gave me a bath. She didn’t use a cloth, just her hand, dipped in the water. I think she hoped that I would complain about it, but I didn’t, because it must be a miserable thing to wash people if you hate it. Next came the rose oil that my husband pays extra for, which she put on as though she was making bread, slapping my skin with both hands. She meant it to hurt, but I sort of liked the vigor of it, the sound and the way my skin went pink.
When she was gone, I wiped off as much of the rose oil as I could on the sheets. The tea had passed through me and my head was clear. I thought, My daughter is ten. Paphos is ten.
HE NEXT DAY,
the doctor frowned at me. “Are you unwell?”
“No,” I said. “I am very well.”
He was about to say, “Then why are you lying down?” but that would have meant admitting that I was not sick to begin with. Ha, I thought.
“I am feeling so calm,” I said. “Calm and well.”
“Hmmm,” he said.
“I hope my husband comes today,” I said. “I miss him terribly.”
“He said he would,” the doctor said.
“How wonderful,” I said. “What wonderful news.”
The jingling came late, but I wasn’t impatient. I arranged myself just so. The door opened, and my husband sent the nurses away. I heard the lock catch.
“Ah, my beauty is asleep.”
And I said, “No, I’m not.”
He said, “For your sake, I tell you to lie down, and I will return in a moment when you have collected yourself.”
I said, “I am pregnant.”
He stared. “It is not possible.” Because ever since Paphos, he leaves his seed on my belly.
With the gods, all things are possible, I said. Look at my stomach. I had puffed it a little, so that it looked like a mound. And anyway, he did not know what women looked like. To him, if there was anything, it was strange.
He was pale then; almost as pale as me. “The doctor did not say so.”
“I did not show the doctor, I wanted you to be the first to know. Darling, I’m so happy, we shall have another child, and then another after that. And then—”
But the door had already closed. Later the doctor came, with a different kind of tea. He said, You have to drink this. And I said, Please, will you send the nurse to sit with me while I do?
He said, All right, for he saw that I would cry otherwise. It was amazing how easy it was.
The nurse came, and I said, Will it hurt? I fear it will hurt. And she said, It will hurt a little, and then the blood will come.
I am afraid, I said, and I hid my face in the pillow.
A moment passed, and then I felt her hand on my back. You will be all right, she said. I have done it, and look, I live.
But the baby doesn’t live, I said.
No, she said.
I wept, racking, into the cushions.
You must drink the tea, she said. But her voice was not so sharp as usual.
If only I could go outside, I said. I want to give the baby to the goddess.
The doctor doesn’t allow it.
I waited, and waited, and wept, and at last she said, But the doctor is not here at night.
roll on the grass like a dog, but I was supposed to be pregnant and suffering so I limped, as though every part of me might break. She brought me the tea, and I held it, sipping. She said, Tell me when the cramping comes.
I sifted the dirt through my fingers. It was dark, and there was only a little moon, which I took to mean that the goddess, if she existed, smiled on me. I said, I think I feel something. Good, she said. We were in the garden, at the back of the house, away from the sea.
I said, I feel something.
Good, she said.
Then I doubled over, screaming. I fell to the ground and screamed again. She hesitated, afraid to touch me.
It hurts, it hurts! Get the doctor! She was trembling, and I felt a little sorry, but not sorry enough.
The doctor, yes. I will go for him. Just give me a moment, his house isn’t far.
As soon as she was gone, I ran. I did not worry about her catching me. She was clever with her fingers, but she was not fast. I smiled and slipped along the road towards the town.
try the door of the house—I knew it would be locked. But there was a tree behind it, an olive, that Paphos used to beg me to climb with her. I kicked off my sandals and stepped up the warm gray branches. I reached, and pulled myself into her window.
I had thought about it all day, if I would wake her or if I wouldn’t. But seeing her asleep, I could not. She was a child, only ten, and it would frighten her. So I found the pot of sand she liked to keep because it smelled of the sea and spilled a little on the floor. Paphos, I spelled. I would have said more, but that was most of what I knew.
I slipped from her room and went to the front door, which was bolted. I did not have to hurry, because no one would look for me here; had I not run from him before? I eased up the bolt and left the door open a little.
My husband’s workroom was in the far wing, where the light was best. I stood outside the door and though I wasn’t tired anymore from running, my breath was quick. The house was very quiet around me. There were no servants to worry about—my husband did not like them to sleep in the house.
I pushed open the door and saw the girl, glowing in the room’s center. Stone, I told myself, because I was shaking a little. She is stone and she will not wake.
I stepped closer and saw her face. It was pale and pearly, her mouth a soft bow. Her eyes were closed, and she was curled on a stone couch. She looked younger than Paphos because she was so small. She was perfection, every inch of her, from the sweet curls of her ribbons to her sandals painted gold. She had no scabs, and no sand beneath her fingernails. She did not chase the goats, and she did not disobey. You could almost see the flush on her cheeks.
There were silks on her, draped like blankets, and I slipped them off. There was a bracelet of flowers on her wrist, and I pulled it away. I kissed her forehead and whispered, “Daughter, I’m sorry.”
I went to my husband’s room and stood in the doorway. He was flung across the bed and rumpled.
“Ah, my beauty is asleep,” I said.
My husband’s eyes opened and he saw me. I turned and ran. I heard a crash as he tripped over the stool I had left for him in the hall, but then he was up again, almost on the stairs. I fled through the front door and onto the road, and his footsteps slapped behind me. He did not shout, because he didn’t want to waste his breath; it was just the night’s silence and the two of us running through the streets. My lungs ached a little but it didn’t matter, because I wouldn’t need them soon.