From the mind of Megan Arkenberg

August 11, 2014

Firstborn

Posted by Megan Arkenberg with No comments
First published in The Lorelei Signal, January 2010. Full story behind cut.

* * *

I was a child of the sea.

The whisper of the surf on far-off shores, the taste of salt and sand carried on the wind, the blinding heat of Kalamia’s white cliffs in the sunlight: that was my life.  To watch the ships—magnificent three-masters and ancient triremes, sturdy corbitas and elegant caravels—carried out of the harbor with my family’s colors flapping and the sails pregnant with wind, to hear stories of great battles or sea monsters as they wound their way through the city streets, up to the very door of my mother’s palace: that was what it meant to be a Marmaras of Cephalonia. What it meant to be loved by Tethys.

Tethys loves us no longer.

Until now, I have never sailed aboard a ship. It was never safe. But looking at the cliffs where the magnificent city of Myrtos once stood, the cliffs that now look like a face without skin, the purple and red of the rock like exposed muscle gaping at the sky, I pray that the Goddess is satisfied.

Only a thin rail separates me from the waves, red-stained by the rising sun. Around me, sailors in black armbands turn the sails this way and that, searching for a wind to carry us away from this cursed place. There is none, only the dying breaths of the storm that murdered a city.

Beneath us, the sea moves with the silence of death.


* * *

Over two thousand years ago, Lysias Marmaras and his wife, Ianthe daughter of Aecheron, sailed out of Ithaca aboard a small fishing vessel with nothing more than a crew of six and enough provisions to last one week. When they returned three years later, it was aboard a glorious craft named Thalassa with purple sails and a crew of two hundred. Lysias dressed in amethyst robes and wore a crown of silver, while Ianthe’s gown seemed woven of pure golden threads. The Thalassa’s crew went throughout the island spreading stories of the wealth the Marmaras had found on the island of Cephalonia, and of the mighty city they had built on the cliffs of Kalamia, so flawless and lovely that it must have been placed there by Tethys herself.

Only Lysias and Ianthe were silent, covering themselves in black cloaks when they left the ship, eating little at the feasts thrown in their honor and never sleeping on shore, not even when the king invited them to stay in his own palace. It was not long before the people discovered why: they saw the way Ianthe’s breasts were heavy with unneeded milk, and how Lysias turned his face away at the sound of children’s laughter so that none would see his tears. Soon the people whispered to each other that the Marmaras had sacrificed their son to Tethys in exchange for their kingdom, and everywhere in the streets the words were hissed: “The purple of their robes is bought by the blood of their child.” 

But that was the way of it, and ever since the days of Lysias and Ianthe, the kings and queens of Myrtos have given their eldest child to the sea goddess. At first, the infants were left on the cliffs for Tethys to claim, or placed in reed baskets on the beach at low tide. In more recent times, they have been sent out to sea on merchant ships, wrapped in purple swaddling clothes and laid in golden cradles. The ships always returned with only small signs to show where the Goddess’s servants gained entry—a broken window, a torn sail, a strip of wood pulled from the hull above the waterline. Often, the sailors spoke of a creature seen in the water for days before it happened, a long and silvery monster that was something like a cross between a whale and a serpent. Sometimes, they said, the ship’s reflection shown on the creature’s skin as in a mirror.

Even as the Marmaras turned away from the Pagan ways, they dutifully continued the sacrifice to Tethys. They ordered a magnificent church built at the very top of the Kalamia cliffs, and in the crypt beneath it they set out an altar to be dedicated to the sea goddess. All manner of sacrifices were left there, from little dishes of wine or currents to elaborate pieces of jewelry. The family was determined to keep the Goddess on their side, for without Tethys’ favor, what would become of Myrtos?

But my parents, Queen Dione Marmaras and her consort, Lord Rhesus of Scala, had no care for Tethys or any other God, and they saw no reason to submit to the demands of a myth. While other kings and queens of the past had sought to protect their eldest children from the Goddess’ s wrath, all  eventually broke beneath the threat of Tethys’ horrible monster and the ruin it could wreak on Myrtos. Dione alone stood firm. I was her first-born daughter: in any other kingdom, I would be the heir to uncountable riches. I would not be sacrificed to some ancient goddess whose time had long ago passed on.

But Tethys is not an easy Goddess to slight.

The first tempest struck three days after my birth. Even in the last moments of Myrtos, the people spoke of how the cliffs melted like water beneath the onslaught of wind and rain. Waves as tall as the cathedral pounded the harbor buildings to sand. For weeks after, the air held the smell of sulfur. Whole fleets disappeared into the waves that night, and not a trace was found, not even a slip of cloth from the sails.

Tethys’ monster had come. Legend has it that for a month after the storm finally passed, the sea lay as clear and still as a mirror, yet any man who looked into it long enough would see not his reflection, but the faces of the dead.

The years passed and I grew to be a selfish and demanding girl. My playmates were my subjects, forced to do whatever I wanted, and what I wanted most was adventure. I would lead them all over the city, from the palace through the marketplace, from the church on the cliffs down to the green harbor below, spinning the wildest tales as we went. Some days I was a pirate queen, and the others, my fierce and loyal crew: at times I was the Goddess herself, sending my minions out among mortals to claim tribute in my name. Despite my parents’ urging, I refused to attend to my studies and learn to rule the city. Myrtos would one day be mine, and when that day came, it had better know how to rule itself.

The second storm came when I was nine. Lord Rhesus was out at sea with a large convoy when it struck: he never returned, but soon after, a fisherman found the Marmaras and Scala banners washed up together on a beach in Ithaca. Dione was shaken so severely that she refused to let me out of her sight until the last breaths of wind faded from the sky. It was then that the people began to whisper among themselves, asking each other why they should risk so much to save a spoiled little princess who cared nothing for them or their city.

When word of the dissenters reached Dione, she had every one of them executed, leaving their bodies to hang at every crossroad in the city. “My daughter will one day be the finest Queen Myrtos has ever known,” she declared, laying her cold hand on my shoulder. “And any who say otherwise are fools. We are no heathens to serve the crumbling idols of the past. The beauty and power of my daughter will surpass that of any Goddess you can name!” 

For this reason, the people began calling her Cassiopeia, or “she whose words surpass.” 

Soon, the rebels were too many for Dione to send to the gallows . More and more ships were lost at sea, taken by Tethys to punish my mother for her foolish words. Terrible winds and waves came frequently to Myrtos. As my sixteenth birthday neared, the city shook day and night with earthquakes that cracked the cliffs like eggshells. Dione searched desperately for a way to protect me and the entire Marmaras line from the wrath of Tethys—and of our people.

The mightiest of all the Goddess’ s tempests came in the spring of my sixteenth year. I ran to the cliffs at the first bolt of lightning, forcing down the fear in my heart, for I was determined to meet the unbreakable Goddess face to face.

The bells of the cathedral rang out their terror to the sky. As I ran, the wind whipped my hair around me, leaving deep welts as it snapped across my face. I licked away the blood dripping down my lips. The night was alive with anger, heavy with rain and a thick fog no wind could disperse. The cliffs seemed to stretch out into nothingness: even the pound of the surf on the shore below me was swallowed in the roar of the storm. I knelt down at the very edge and, gripping the rim with white and trembling fingers, peered over into the darkness.

Black fog lay all around me, echoing with the wind and the screams of the people in the city. I heard rather than saw a mass of rock fall away from the cliff beside me. The cold of the night was no match for the anger burning in my heart. How dare anyone attack my city? Not even Tethys would steal it from me! Was it not said that what the Gods had given, even they could not take back?

Then I saw it, a sliver of milky gray in the blackness of the sea. The creature swam towards me as if it sensed my thoughts, its skin reflecting my horrified face as clearly as any mirror. Like a rod of glass, the monster glistened in moonlight no mortal could see. Its red eyes gleamed as it reared up and barred its long ivory teeth, screeching out a sound so terrible I released my hold on the rock to cover my ears.

I saw it lunge for me, and then I saw no more.

I awoke in my own bed, my corseted gown of the night before exchanged for a loose dressing robe. Dione stood beside me, her hands clasped tightly before her, her fingernails showing against her white dress like torn rose petals. A young man sat on the chair at her feet. His hair was the gold of sunlight reflected on the ocean, but his eyes...his eyes were like cold gray mirrors.

“This is Caanthus,”  my mother said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “From the island of Hesperos. His ship was caught in the storm last night, and it is only through the grace of God that he managed to survive.”

Caanthus offered a small smile, but his face was too handsome for it. I wrapped my robe tighter around my body as Dione continued.

“He has come to ask for your hand in marriage.”

I bolted upright, so quickly it made my vision blur. “What?”

“If I may be so bold as to say it, it seems a good match.”  Caanthus’s voice was slow and musical, and as he spoke, his eyes lost their coolness. “My father is one of the wealthiest merchants in the sea. His ships trade from Venice to the Barbary Coast, and he owns caravans to cover the land routes to China and India. Such routes will bring unparalleled fortune to Myrtos.”

I turned from Caanthus to my mother. “You knew of this?”  I asked, struggling to raise my voice above a whisper. “You knew he was coming to ask me...?”

She shook her head and pulled my blanket up to cover me. “Hush,”  she said. “We will speak of this again later.”

But we never did. As soon as I was able to leave my bed, my mother set about planning the wedding. I alone was anxious to wait for Gamelion, the sacred marriage month. Dione scoffed at the superstition, and Caanthus seemed impatient to get the wedding done. It was many weeks before I understood: what better way to destroy Tethys' claim on me than to give me to another? I could only watch as the whole ceremony was planned around me, from what I would wear to what we would eat to the vows themselves. For once, my life had been taken out of my own control.

The wedding day came, the day I would turn seventeen. No other Marmaras heir had ever lived so long. My maids woke me at dawn and, with the Queen in attendance, helped me to dress in my wedding finery: a dress of pale yellow, with a necklace and twin bracelets of sapphire. Dione set a silver tiara upon my head, covered my face with the traditional lace veil, and led me out to the carriage that would carry us to the cathedral.

The day was cold and gray, with a biting wind out of the north. A line of townspeople hemmed the road like a string of black lace on a white gown, looking more suited to a funeral than a wedding. I closed the carriage curtains and bit down on my lip, grateful for the veil covering my face.

As we came to a halt before the church, I heard my maids muttering prayers beside me. Some prayed to the Virgin, others to saints and martyrs, still others to Hera or Hestia or Aphrodite. I prayed to no one. Tethys alone came to mind, and this was the day she would lose her hold on me forever.

Caanthus was waiting for me at the altar, dressed all in pale gray with a single garnet at his throat. He wore his hair tied back in a white ribbon, but a few strands had managed to escape and they now hung around his face, glistening gold in the light from the candles. He smiled when he saw me, and I thought again how discordant it seemed.

The ceremony began. I repeated the Latin words after the priest and heard them repeated by Caanthus: in his beautiful voice, they sounded like waves ringing against the cliffs. Then the priest closed his book and called for the rings, which my mother carried to him on a pillow of amethyst silk. Caanthus and I joined hands, he slipping his ring onto my finger at the same time I slipped mine onto his. He leaned forwards and placed a gentle kiss on my lips, and we were married.

We waited behind as the guests trickled out of the cathedral, lead by Dione. Caanthus had not released my hand. His grip made the ring dig deeper into my flesh.

“My darling,”  he whispered in my ear, wrapping his free arm around my waist. “Like a little pearl, she said. A lovely little pearl. It seems she was right.”

“Who was right?”  I froze in his arms, startled to find myself relishing his warmth.

He laughed and pressed his lips to the back of my neck. “She knows you better than you think,”  he said. “She’ s known you since the day you were born. Every time you laugh, she’s heard it. Every one of your tears has flowed down to her. You are hers now, my love.” 

“Whose?”  I demanded, pulling his arm away from my waist. But his grip was tight, tighter than the grasp of the sea itself. As I struggled against him, I heard his voice in my ear.

“Who else?” 

Tethys. I felt the ground beneath me start to shake, heard the roar of the wind as it slammed against the cathedral walls. The church bell cried out with each gust, thrashing about like a wild animal trapped in a cage. I fell to the icy mosaic floor. Behind me, something shrieked. I turned around as quickly as I could and screamed.

Caanthus was gone. In his place, Tethys’ monster coiled between the columns of the aisle, tightening its horrible grip until spiderweb cracks crossed the ceiling. Its fangs gleamed in the candlelight, its red eyes flashed like blood. The face I saw reflected on its skin was not mine—it was a skull.

I screamed again, but the sound felt trapped in my throat. My dress caught on the corner of a mosaic stone as I leaped to my feet. I freed myself with one tug and ran, my elegant golden sandals slipping along the floor. Just as I burst through the doors, the ceiling caved in behind me.

Before me, Myrtos was in ruins.

Cracks ran all through the streets, swallowing whole rows of houses and shops. Looking up towards the sky, I saw the clouds swollen with rain looming down upon us. Waves battered the shore all around me. I turned just in time to see the whole cathedral vanish as the cliffs collapsed into the sea.

I ran. The monster was beneath me now: I could feel the earth shake as it moved. A deep fissure opened up directly in my path. As I threw myself across it, I heard something screeching from far below. Tearing the veil from my hair, I glanced over the side of the cliff, looking for a way down. There, a slender staircase, carved into the rock by some fisherman long ago. It would do. I flung myself over the edge and started down.

What remained of the cliffs formed a protective wall around me, so that I was spared the worst of the storm. Still, the winds threw me against the rock, filling the skirts of my dress like a sail. Rain began falling in heavy drops, making my staircase into a small waterfall. I lowered my head and forced my way down. No matter how hard I tried, I could not escape the screams of those trapped in the dying city.

Finally, I reached the end of the stairs. The sand beneath my feet was soft and treacherous to walk on. I felt myself sucked towards the angry clutches of the sea with every step, always relying on small handholds in the edge of the cliff to save me from its depths. The water was swirling high around my ankles before I found a hole in the cliff, just long enough for me to fit in.

I crawled into the cave and covered my face with my hands. The stone walls muffled some of the sound, but every drop of water falling against my skin felt like the hot blood of Myrtos spilled on my behalf. I lay there long into the night, shivering with cold but determined not to surrender myself to the wrath of the Goddess. 

* * *

When I left the cave at dawn the next day, Myrtos was gone.

Every street, building, and person in the city had been washed into the sea. The cliffs of Kalamia were bare beneath the hot face of the sun, their white faces streaked with bloody red. The harbor, once the brilliant green of an emerald, was stained black with ash. Where the Marmaras palace had stood, nothing remained, not even sand.

And so I began the long journey to a seaside village, a trading partner of Myrtos, where I knew some of our merchants were doing business. I joined them upon their ship, which was seventeen years ago named Andromeda  in my honor, and now I sail with them, wearing the black band of mourning around my arm and looking out at the angry water that covers the remains of my kingdom.

The sea, that clear and violent mirror, shows me nothing. 

Yet I know that a thousand feet beneath me, past the ash-choked water and through the bloodied sand, down to the very bottom of Tethys’ domain, the city of Myrtos sleeps without peace, the church bells tolling in a restless current.

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