Swan Song

They called us lucky when they dug us out of the sand. Lucky they’d found us before we’d died there, too thirsty to scream. I knew better. We weren’t lucky. Fate just wasn’t done with us yet.

We gave them false names, but why we bothered I’ll never know. Menne didn’t even react to hers. Not that she reacted to much, those days. They wouldn’t look too closely at me, but they wrapped us in blankets and took us to their home, a little cottage beside a well tended barn. Over mutton stew I told them we were from the south, from Sparta. In truth, I was, once. I told them we’d gotten lost on our way to visit relatives in Pella.

“Good thing,” the farmer said, “Good thing you weren’t traveling from across the Aegean. Terrible times, over there, what with the war on. Terrible times.”

He watched Menne because there was nothing left for my face to give away, but she never looked up from her food.

“Would you have any news?” His wife sat down beside him, her eyes too clever. “We haven’t heard anything here for a fortnight. What became of the whore?”

“You would know more than I.”

They let silence fall. They knew better than to push strangers with a dead city still clinging to them. All the water in the Aegean couldn’t get the reek from us.

We slept in the warm hay of their barn. They said we could stay as long as we liked. We’d be gone before they woke up, of course, but it would be impolite of them to say so.

When the night settled in, Menne ran a cool finger over the mutilated scar tissue that used to be my face. “Does it hurt?”

“The cold water helped,” I lied. I tilted away from her.

Menne has only ever been strong. She could never understand mourning over a petty thing like a face. But it was my face. I used to know it, I greeted it every morning, and now there would only ever be an ugly stranger staring back at me, daring me to want someone to think me beautiful again.

Menee slipped into sleep. I was tempted to press my back against hers like we were children in the nursery again, but Menne was so cold, so blisteringly cold to me since she found me waiting for her.

When I was taken it was days before I could get a message out. A chambermaid with old sympathies helped me. I sent to Menne, of course.

They’ve taken me. Don’t listen to what anyone says. They’ve taken me, and I need you to make him understand.

Why did I not send to my husband? the maid asked. I couldn’t make her understand that he was only my husband once and Menne was my sister twice.

Menne’s words reached me a month later. I’m coming for you. I think that’s the only promise anyone has ever made me that they’ve actually kept.

Menne shook me awake before dawn. “It’s time to away, little swan.” For a moment I almost thought she cared for me again, then her eyes clouded over and she drifted away.

Menne was determined to make Argos before the ships. When we heard they’d fallen astray on a storm, satisfaction curved her mouth for the first time since she’d found me.

“It was an ill wind that took them away,” she said, “and it will be an ill wind that brings them back.”

I didn’t ask what she meant by it.

The second letter Menne sent me was also the last.

I fear for you. They will not listen to me. They speak only of war, death, and twisted justice. They lust for blood, not recovery.

Never mind, I will come for you. Mannish I have been called so mannish I will be. Look for me on their blasted warships. I will find you at Troy if I have to tear down the walls myself.

I snuck out to the battlements when the ships came. Mad, blood-wind-driven ships, fat off their sacking. I watched them come, those heroes of Greece, my once husband, and somewhere, somewhere, my sister.

In Thebes we stopped at the market to gather supplies before the last leg of our journey. I picked up a doll and showed it to Menne.

“For the imp,” I said. “I’ll like to see my favorite niece again.”

Menne went cold, colder than I’d ever seen her. She didn’t answer, just walked away. I didn’t know, then. I didn’t know my thousand ships were paid for with my niece’s blood.

Menne, Menne, I’m sorry. A thousand times sorry and a thousand times will never be enough.

When my true love, my Menelaus, found me in Troy, he tried to kill me. Sword raised, he watched me with blood and death in his eyes.

“It’s me, it’s me,” I held out my hands to him. “Always, Menelaus, remember? It’s me.

I could see in his face that he would not be reasoned with, not anymore. I was a traitor, a whore, an utter and complete fool. But he did hesitate, and in that moment I wrenched out a sword from behind my back. I struck out wildly, a clumsy blow driven by fear and landing only because of his shock.

I ran. Helen the traitor, Helen the whore, running for her despicable life.

Later I heard it told that I stopped him with my beauty. Beauty, the weapon of a woman. My beauty stayed the swords of all the army, they said.

That makes them bigger fools than me, I think. Beauty never deflected an arrow. Beauty never put out a fire.

Menne left me when we reached Argos.

“I’ll wait for you in Pylos,” I said.

“I will not come.”

I could see the stirring of a foul wind in her eyes. Fate had other plans for my Menne.

And so I left.

We were married together in Argos. I to Menelaus, and his brother Agammemnon to my sister Menne. None of us kept a one of the promises we made that day.

The lying vows were beautiful, poetic. Always, Menelaus, I whispered in his ear. I meant it at the time. Always.

I found another farming family on the road, another set of lies and polite not-staring. I thought, maybe I will stay here. But they were so in love I couldn’t bear it. When the stew burned the husband took the wife’s hand. “We’ll make do, dear.”

I have been once a wife and once a prize, but I have never been dear to anyone and now I never will be. If I had stayed I would have starved on my own jealousy.

I found Menne at the feet of Troy, her face coated in ash. “We have to go,” she said. “They will hunt you.”

“Wait, wait.” I turned back to the burning city. “My face will be known anywhere, Menne.”

“What are you doing? Oh, you little fool, you lost little fool.”

Hector once told me I wasn’t good for anything, but I did an excellent job burning my face away.

Would you want me now, Paris? Would anyone want me now?

They should have burned my face at birth and saved us all the trouble.

And what became then of once-fair Helen? Did she ever stop running? Was she punished for her crimes?

Every scribe will tell you a different story. Perhaps I never made it out of Troy. Or perhaps I did, but I went under on the ships that sank in the storm. Sometimes I found refuge with my cousins, sometimes I ended up in Crete. In my favorite version, I never went to Troy at all. I was lost on an island and my Menelaus found me when his ship crashed. His loyal wife, waiting for him while her lying double defamed her name.

Would that that one were true.

No one ever asked me, you know. No one cared a thing for what I thought about my fate.

Helen the traitor, Helen the whore.

And how did my treacherous life end?

Perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps I kept going, dragging the guilt of a thousand deaths as I went. Perhaps I never made it to Pylos. Perhaps I got lost along the way and found a path to the heavens.

That, that, my dear Menne, is a story I shall not tell. If I knew the end of it I would have no more words with which to write it. The words of Helen may be worth a pittance against the face of Helen, but one is gone forever and the other yet remains.