The Girl Who Swings

What would it be like to be a girl who meets a god?

Maybe it goes something like this.

Once upon a time, in the region of Athens, there lived a girl called Erigone. Athens was small then but developing importance due to the interest taken by such gods as Athena, Poseidon and Demeter.

Erigone lived with her father, Ikarios, and her mother, Phanothea. She was a happy girl of about ten, with unruly curls of deep brown, with a sheen of purple like the bloom of a wild grape, and brilliant hazel eyes. She helped her father tend the goats and her mother spin and weave the linen for their clothing, all the while singing the songs her mother taught her.

“Erigone!” called her father one spring dusk as shadows pooled in the sheltered dell outside their home. “Draw water from the well and fetch bread and mead! A stranger approaches!”

Erigone dropped the spindle she had been holding for her mother and ran to the door. Her father was standing by the gate of the goat pen, shading his eyes with one hand as he peered into the darkening road before their house. His dog, Maera, stood beside him, hackles raised. Erigone joined them, watching the approaching figure. She thought for a moment that there were many people, dancing and swirling around the central form, but as the person drew nearer she could see that it was just one man, his steps halting as if he were very tired.

Maera started forward, barking, as the man stumbled to a halt in the road before their home. She stopped suddenly, lowering her head, and crept toward the stranger. To Erigone’s surprise, their fierce dog licked his hand.

Ikarios’s hand fell on her shoulder. She whirled and ran to the well behind their home, lowering the bucket and then straining to raise it, brimming, to the surface. Phanothea came to the door as Erigone carried the bucket inside. The woman took a basin from a shelf and set it before the fire. Erigone filled the basin and fetched a clean cloth, then began cutting slices of coarse bread while her mother hurried to milk a goat. Erigone burned with curiosity as she listened to her father greet the stranger and invite him inside.

A young man, so tall he needed to bend his head as he came through the door, preceded Ikarios into the house. He looked around, removed his cloak and smiled at the little girl before the hearth. Ikarios took the cloak and gestured to a stool close to the fire.

“Please sit, traveler, and allow my daughter to tend to you. My wife…ah, there you are, Phanothea. We are honored with a guest. Sir, will you take milk or mead?”

The young man said nothing as he sat before the fire and allowed Erigone to draw the dusty boots from his feet. He sighed as she washed the grime of travel from his feet with cool, clean water. Ikarios and Phanothea stood respectfully nearby. Erigone could see the burning desire in her mother to ask questions, but xenia, the custom of reciprocal hospitality between guest and host, kept her silent until the guest was ready to share.

Erigone sat back on her heels and peered shyly at the young man to see if he was satisfied with her efforts. Her breath caught in her throat at her first good look at the man sitting at her family’s hearth. Blue-black curls cascaded around a face of such beauty that he seemed to have stepped from a bard’s tale. His cheeks were as smooth as a maiden’s, his lips full, curved in a secret smile, and his eyes were a deep amethyst. He reached down and touched her cheek with a long finger.

“Thank you, little one,” he murmured in a voice like music. He turned that enigmatic smile to Phanothea and said, “Mistress, I thank you for your offering. I will take a little honeyed milk, if it does not discommodate you.”

For the first time in her life, Erigone saw her mother at a loss for words. After opening and closing her mouth several times, Phanothea turned silently to make the drink.

Ikarios set the bread on a platter with a nub of cheese and some dried figs. Erigone carefully carried the soiled water outside and poured it onto the pomegranate tree as her mother had taught her. Water never went to waste in their arid region. When she returned to the house she joined her parents, sitting silently watching the stranger eat. He was not bothered by the three sets of eyes intent upon him, but finished his meal with seeming pleasure, scattering the last few drops and crumbs into the fire.

“Your courtesy is as welcome as a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day,” he said finally, gesturing for them to join him in front of the fire. “I have a gift for you in return.” He pulled a skin bag from under his robe and set it before them. Phanothea brought a clean bowl and Ikarios rose to pour the contents of the bag into the bowl.

A sharp, sweet smell filled the little room. Erigone gazed with wonder at the rich, red-purple liquid glimmering in the firelight. Darker than blood, it yet evoked the feeling she got seeing the gush of red liquid from the throat of a sacrifice.

“Bring me water, little one,” he said to her. She ran out to the well and returned in moments with a brimming pail. Nodding his thanks, he asked Phanothea to give him a small bowl. He added water to both bowls, enough to the small bowl to dilute the color to a pale rose. He held the large bowl up to the fire, thanked Hestia, sipped, and handed it to Ikarios. A smile played across his mobile face as he watched his host. Ikarios’s jaw dropped. The stranger gestured for him to give the bowl to Phanothea, then he handed the small bowl to Erigone.

“Drink,” he whispered to her. Never taking her eyes from his face, she did as she was bid. Her mouth filled with a strange sweetness and a puzzling undertone of bitterness. She held it in her mouth for a long moment before she swallowed. Warmth followed the liquid down her throat and into her stomach.

“What is this?” said Ikarios in a tone of fear and reverence. “The nectar served upon Mount Olympos must taste much like this.”

The young man rose to his feet, his head brushing the ceiling of the little hut. White teeth gleamed in a smile that promised delight and ferocity. His voice, though not loud, rang inside the small abode like a silver bell.

“I am Dionysos,” he said, “son of Zeus and thrice-blessed Semele. This is my gift to mankind. This is wine.”

Dionysos stayed with Erigone’s family for a full moon phase, teaching them the cultivation of the vines and explaining how to press the juice of the grapes and ferment it. Ikarios, always a careful study, listened and learned rapidly.

All too soon the family gathered in front of the house to see their mentor off. Phanothea had filled a sack with dried goat meat, bread and figs, which the young man carried slung over his shoulder along with his wine bags. He embraced Ikarios, bowed gravely to Phanothea and knelt before Erigone. She was weeping unashamedly.

“Why do you have to go?” she gasped, lifting wet eyes to his face. “We love you.”

He cupped her face in his long, beautiful fingers. His purple eyes gazed deeply into hers. “I am not made to stay in one place, my small friend,” he told her. “My gifts must be spread widely, and thus my cultus. It is important that your family aid me in this endeavor.” As she blinked at him uncomprehendingly he kissed her forehead. “I love you too,” he whispered. “I always will.”

He stepped into the road and out of their lives. Their last glimpse of him as he rounded a curve was his final wave, his joyous laughter wafting to them through the bright air. Maera sat in the middle of the road and howled.

Ikarios tended his new vineyard with zeal. The first year the vines produced just a few little grapes, not enough to press. There were more the second year. In the autumn of the third year, as Erigone approached adulthood, the clusters of grapes hung sweet and fat, glowing like jewels in the hot sunshine. The family remembered the instructions left to them by the beautiful young god, pressing the juice and fermenting it in the jars Phanothea had made for them as the vines matured. They set most of the jars aside to age, but as the autumn gew colder and the leaves flew, they opened the first jar and tasted the wine. It was sharp and bitter, but the heat that they remembered from their visitor’s brew warmed their bellies and made them laugh.

Ikarios set aside a few jars of new wine to take to the agora in Athens, a few days journey from their home. Erigone was awakened a few days before market day by a roar from the vineyard. She ran outside to find her father stomping between the vines, examining the nibble marks on their trunks and leaves. A billy goat leapt over a broken-down place in the fence, eyes wide, Maera at his heels. As Erigone and Phanothea stared, Ikarios strode after the goat, dragged him to the stump behind the hut where their butchering took place, and after a swift prayer, cut his throat.

Ikarios’s brow was thunderous as he began to butcher the goat. “Those vines are a divine blessing,” he growled to his women who were still staring wordlessly at him. “No goat will defile them.” His angry gaze fell on Maera. “If you let that happen again, you’ll join him.” Maera’s ears and tail drooped.

Erigone was excited to go to market with her father for the first time. They loaded up their donkey with the jars and fabrics Phanothea had made to trade, goat milk and goat meat, and the skin of the billy goat who had raided their vineyard, sewn into a round sack and filled with air. Finally, Ikarios added the jars of new wine.

Trade was brisk at the agora. Phanothea was known for her skill in weaving but even more so as a bard. Soon there was a crowd around her as she sang the song she had created about a fascinating stranger bearing gifts of knowledge and delight. As she sang, Ikarios passed around cups of the new beverage, grinning with satisfaction at the reactions from the crowd. When the song was finished he threw the inflated goat skin into their midst, roaring with laughter at the impromptu game of kickball that ensued among the folk, intoxicated with wine and camaraderie.

The family arrived home well after dark, warm despite the cold of the star-spangled night, laden with the goods from the market. It had been their most successful day of trading ever.

That night, Erigone slept warm in her cot, snuggled into a new fur blanket, and dreamed of Dionysos.

In early spring, when the very first spears of snowdrops and crocus poked through the snow, Ikarios opened the first of the saved wine jars. A rich odor permeated the hut. Erigone turned from the loom where her mother was instructing her and followed her nose to her father, who stood staring into the dark depths of the jar.

“Father!” she said. “It doesn’t smell anything like it did last autumn.”

“No,” he agreed. He looked at his wife. She nodded sharply.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked. “Let’s taste it!”

Erigone fetched water while Ikarios poured the strong wine into a bowl, then diluted it with water. The taste, while still sharper than the wine from Dionysos’s bag, was more mellow and sweet than the new wine. But the heat that coiled in their bellies was now familiar. They sat for a while before the fire, enjoying the warmth from inside and out.

Phanothea rose. “We must create a shrine to this god,” she said. “This is a gift unlike any other.”

Ikarios nodded. “And more. We must take this gift and spread it among the people of our land. He left us to spread his worship and his gift. Can we do less?”

Spring was well underway when Ikarios left his home, the donkey once again laden, but this time with jars of wine. Maera went with him, dancing with excitement at the adventure, the plume of her tail waving madly. Phanothea and Erigone saw him off, waving as he rounded the corner where four years ago they had seen Dionysos disappear. The two women put their arms around each other and stood looking at the empty road for a long time.

A moon phase passed. Then another. The days were longer, the sun warmer, the earth softer. Phanothea and Erigone tended the goats, made cheese, spun thread, wove linen cloth, planted the garden and made clay pots, but nothing could deflect their growing concern.

As the two women worked in the vineyard one warm afternoon they heard a familiar sound from far down the road. It grew closer. They stood. Erigone dropped the paring knife she was holding.

“Mother, it’s Maera!” she cried. Lifting her skirt, she ran out into the road, Phanothea following.

Maera rounded the curve and flew to the girl, throwing herself into Erigone’s arms. She was skin and bones, her thick fur matted and filthy, her body covered with wounds, her beautiful tail dragging in the dirt. Her voice rose, no longer a bark but a wail, a terrible sound.

Erigone felt a chill run through her. She held the crying dog, rocking back and forth, but nothing soothed poor Maera. Phanothea and Erigone led her back to their home, combed and washed her, tended her knots and cuts and bleeding paws, and fed her gruel. Despite her starved condition, the dog barely touched her food, crying and whimpering until she fell into a twitching, exhausted sleep before the fire.

The women stared at each other.

“I must go find him,” said Erigone. “I’ll leave in the morning. I’ll take Maera with me.”

“You cannot,” replied her mother. “It’s too dangerous.”

“I must,” repeated Erigone. Phanothea said no more, but turned to start packing.

Erigone and Maere headed west, then turned north, as Ikarios had planned to do. During the first week they met homesteaders like themselves who remembered meeting Ikarios and expressed delight at the wine he had shared with them.

But soon thereafter they came to a small hamlet where furtive glances and closed doors were as eloquent as Maera’s shivering and pain-filled eyes. The hope in Erigone’s heart withered. Before she met the woman who told her the grim story, she knew. She came to a dwelling on the outskirts of the hamlet where a woman was feeding a flock of chickens. She started as she saw the thin dog, and her face fell as she beheld the desperation in the young girl’s eyes.

“Yes,” she replied to Erigone’s now-familiar inquiry. “I saw him, and his dog as well. You’d better come inside.” She led Erigone into the little home and gave her refreshments as xenia required, then took her hands and gazed into her tired face.

The story that she told struck Erigone like a blow. Ikarios had arrived in the hamlet more than a moon phase prior, just a few wine jugs left, Maera prancing at his side. The herdsmen and fishermen who were nearby were called home and everyone gathered to hear his tale, and, more importantly, to taste his exciting new beverage— a gift, as he said, from a god. He produced an inflated goatskin bag, and the community spent a wonderful afternoon drinking the wine and playing with the bag, kicking it, laughing, falling down and making fun of each other.

Several of the men drank a great deal of the wine and fell heavily asleep after staggering around the hamlet and speaking incoherently. Others who had indulged less tried to wake them but could not. That was when one of the young men, after vomiting up purple liquid, shouted, “Poison! This man has poisoned us!”

The woman was silent for a time. When she resumed the story, she spoke hesitantly. Ikarios had begged the folk of the hamlet to see reason. Then he had begged for his life. The men sent the women and children into their homes and dragged him away. She said that was all she knew. But her face belied her words.

When her story was told, the woman turned her eyes from Erigone’s face. She escorted the girl out of the house and closed the door behind her. Erigone stood frozen, a voice inside her head screaming “No, no, no, no, no.” She didn’t recognize the voice, her own voice, her voice when she had still been a very little girl.

Maera took Erigone’s skirt in her teeth and tugged. Erigone stared down at the dog with sightless eyes. She pulled the skirt free, ran to the house and pounded on the door.

“Where is he?” she screamed. “Where is my father’s body? What have you done with him? I must perform the rites!” She beat her fists on the door until they ran with blood, but no one answered. Ripping her hands through her hair, she ran to the center of the hamlet and cried aloud, ululating, her sobs tearing through the soft afternoon sunshine.

No one came to see. The doors stayed shut. Erigone wept with only Maera howling a dirge with her.

Finally Erigone collapsed into exhausted silence. She sat alone in the dust.

Once again Maera tugged at her mistress’s skirt. Erigone lifted bleary eyes and saw the dog, thin and knotted with bruises, and rose wearily to her feet. Maera trotted toward a hill that lay to the south of the village, stopped and looked back to make sure Erigone was following her, then led her up and over the hill.

On an open field, about a mile from the hamlet, stood a gnarled oak tree and an old well. As Maera topped the hill she threw back her head and howled, a terrible sound of grief and fury. She ran down the hill and across the field, throwing herself down at the stones around the well, her body shaking in paroxysms of horror. Erigone ran after her, almost tripping over large stones that lay scattered before the well. She looked around wildly. There was no sign of Ikarios. She hurried over to the great tree. Caught on a branch she saw a torn piece of cloth, fluttering in the gentle breeze. She reached up for it and turned it over in her hands. Her mother’s needlework was as familiar to her as the sound of her singing. Erigone was holding a piece of her father’s traveling cloak.

She looked back at the well. It was clearly long abandoned, probably dry, but the stones that bordered its rim had been torn up and lay disheveled in the soft grass. Some of them bore dark stains.

Erigone crept to the mouth of well. Maera howled one last time and lay silent, panting. The girl peered over the lip. The well was deep. Darkness mercifully hid what lay below, but the smell left no doubt as to where Ikarios had finally escaped his tormentors.

Erigone staggered to the shade of the oak and collapsed. Maera crept into her arms. They lay intertwined for a long, long time.

Dusk inched across the field from the western mountains. The shadow of the oak tree stretched and deepened. As the sun slid out of sight and the sky turned lavender and pearl, Erigone rose. She tore her robe into strips and tied them together, good, tight knots as her father had taught her. She looped the rope over her arm and climbed into the oak tree, not too high, just enough to find a good stout branch. She was a slight girl, and not very tall. She tied one end of the rope firmly to the branch, the other around her neck. She let go of the tree and fell.

Maera watched until the form stopped jerking and swung gently in the gathering dark. She did not make any sound. As night fell across the field, stars blazing in the heavens, the dog walked slowly to the well. She paused on the rim, then jumped in.

In the deep darkness before rosy-fingered dawn brightened the sky, a figure appeared silhouetted against the stars. The form of a tall young man, hair in riotous curls about his head, strode to the well, then the tree. Luminous tears, shimmering pale violet, ran down his cheeks.

By the time the sun rose, tree and well were empty. There was no one in the field where horrors had taken place.

As time passed, something terrible stalked grimly through Athens and the villages and hamlets surrounding it. The figure of a maiden, slender and slight, with burning amber eyes, was reportedly seen near groups of playing children.

For no reason that anyone could explain, young girls began hanging themselves from trees, first one or two, then a few, then many. Parents tried to keep their daughters in sight at all times, but just as children have always done, girls found ways to elude the watchful eyes and found trees. They hanged themselves alone. Best friends and sisters swung from trees together. In some unspeakable instances, entire groves creaked and danced with great clusters of ghastly fruit. In one hamlet, where a deflated goatskin ball lay abandoned in the weeds, every single girl under the age of twenty took their own lives and those of the baby girls and toddlers they brought with them to the tree.

Phanothea left her empty home, abandoning her goats, her loom and her vineyard, and made her way to Delphi where she appealed to the Pythia, the oracular priestess of Apollon. When she had her answer, she created a new form of verse, the hexameter, and composed a song that was soon sung in every home on the Attikan plains. It told the story of Ikarios and Erigone, and how at the Anthesteria, the festival of flowers in late winter, their shades could be propitiated. The Aiora, the festival of swings, was instituted to appease the shade of Erigone. As bright ribbons fluttered from branches, and laughter echoed from swings installed from strong boughs, sanity returned to the girls of the region.

Phanothea stayed in Delphi and spent the rest of her life in service to Apollon and the Pythia.

The folk of Attika noticed new stars gleaming in the skies. One shone within the constellation of Canis Minor, where Maera now hunts joyfully across the night sky as Procyon. The constellation known as Bootes, or Arcturus, shines with the soul of Ikarios. Erigone is honored as the beautiful constellation Virgo.

They shine down upon the whole world, a gift to all. A gift no less beloved and far less dangerous than the liquid amethyst, the blood of the grape, the heady wine of Dionysos.

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