Daughter of a Legendary Beauty
I thought my mother was a goddess, but then I found out she was only semi-divine, if you believe that egg hatching and swan-rape tradition the bards still sing about as we sit by the hearth. The story makes me queasy.
She left me when I was nine. More about that later. I knew the departure was imminent, and still I didn't tell anybody. More about that later too.
I am Hermione. I am beautiful, so they say, but not as beautiful as my mother, Helen. Well, who could be that beautiful? She launched 1000 ships or some random thing. She probably killed 20,000 or 100,000 men. That never seemed to bother her.
Early on, she was a good mother to me. She hated the inland heat, and we kept a small house near Helos on the shore. We played on the beach in the sunshine. Even though she wouldn't take me out into the sea with her, I learned to be fearless in the water too. I loved the ocean. Maybe it was a dolphin not a swan who was my grandfather?
My step-father--well, he would have been had lived-- said she was the unhappiest person he had ever seen when he met her on the beach that day. He was not so dumbstruck by her beauty that he walked away from her as other men did. No, he struck up a conversation and that hit a chord within her. She was indeed a lonely woman. My father, Menelaus, isn't much of a talker, nor is he willing to look beyond his list of duties. Did he ever tell my mom she was beautiful or did he assume she had had enough of that trite nonsense?
After they met, they lived only for one another. I was in the picture as more of a burden and a chaperone than as the cherished daughter and bright spot in a dull life. So much for motherly instincts.
Once my mother set her eyes on Paris, that was it. My father was conveniently away at a funeral, which gave the lovebirds way too much time together, chaperoned only by me.
You might think it strange, but I knew, even then, that my mother would leave. I assumed she would take me with her. I knew she was unhappy. I had done enough crying for no reason that everyone was exasperated with me. Well, I was mourning her loss even before I lost her.
That last morning before the escape, we went to the beach very early. It was low tide and the air was still chilly though it was August. I could have played in the water or built mud castles, but it seemed cold. I didn't really understand why we would be at the beach before noon
--we never went in the mornings.
Shortly, Paris showed up, swaggering down the beach. He caught sight of us and began to run. He greeted me with a brisk salute, but turned immediately to my mother. They sat on the blanket, talking quietly. I played in front of them, digging holes in the sand and rolling my goatskin ball into the holes, each worth different "points."
I looked over my shoulder once and caught Paris kissing my mother. I couldn't believe it and dismissed the vision from my mind. Why would he kiss her like that when my father was, well, my father?
They never noticed that I had seen the kiss.
Soon, they suggested that my maid, Arista, take me for a walk along the shore. I guess they felt more ardor coming on or had tired of talking in whispers.
Arista and I walked down the shore, picking up seashells and chasing the gulls. We walked and walked and then turned around for the return to Helen and Paris. Paris had taken his leave.
"Where's that man, Mommy?" I asked innocently.
"Paris has to prepare for his journey home." My mother's eyes misted over. "He leaves tomorrow for Troy."
"Why were you sitting so close to him on the blanket?" I pushed things a little further.
My mother was abrupt. "We weren't close on the blanket. Besides. . . he's .. . a friend." She blushed.
With that she took my hand and we scampered up the rocks and back to the trail to the palace with our usual retinue of guards and servants tagging along. She went into her chambers and I to mine. She loved to spend time reading or weaving or brushing her hair.
I used the time to torture Arista with questions and pleas for stories.
In the morning, I awoke to mist and fog. There would be no morning trip to the beach today. Perhaps Paris had already left and I could have my mother's attention back on me. Scooting out of bed and running barefoot to her chamber, I felt her absence. I looked everywhere, but she was not there.
I asked my grandfather, my grandmother, her nursemaid, my maid. . .no one had seen my mother this morning. Hoping, guessing, I waited by the window. She must have gone riding. She must have gone running. She must have gone. . .
Suddenly, like a thunderbolt, I knew. She had gone! With Paris. . .? To Troy?
I was not a tearful child. I could take a skinned knee or a cut finger or an insult without wincing, but now my heart was broken. I wailed loud enough to bring my grandmother running.
"She's gone," I gulped. "Mommy's gone."
My grandmother, Leda, looked at me sternly. "Hermione, yes, she has gone. She is following her heart." She rocked me in her arms. "Do not fret. She will return for you."
With my father, stern warrior and statesman that he was, out of the palace, who was there to turn to in my grief? Grandmother accepted her daughter's flight as if it had been the answer to some horrific oracle.
But I could not.
Was I not worth what he was worth? What would people say about my mother, this mother that all the world had worshiped? Would they call her names? Would they blame my blameless father, Menelaus? How could I comfort him, for he loved her beyond measure.
I don't know how that day passed, or the next, or the next. It was weeks before we had word of them, that they were safe and would not return. I think there was a message to send me to them, but I clung to my grandmother, afraid to go.
My father's return, that I must tell you too.
My father sailed home one lovely September evening. This had always been my favorite month, warm and clear, lacking the heat of summer and the cold of winter's gales. Yet now, the glittering beauty of the coastline couldn't penetrate my heart except to remind me that this was where my mother had stepped away from me and her life in Sparta.
Father's entourage disembarked at the harbor. I ran to meet him, gasping and crying, my eyes red and swollen. He picked me up but scolded me, mistaking my crying for childish selfishness over presents anticipated and not forthcoming.
"Herminone. This is no way for a princess to act. You are not a baby. Stop this. Act like a lady. Where is your mother? Where is your maid?"
His men untethered Luna from a nearby post. Luna nickered with pleasure to have Father home again. Father swung into the saddle and swept me up behind him. We galloped across the wheat-colored fields, the harvest having been finished for weeks. As we approached the walls and outbuildings of our castle, I held him tighter.
We clattered into the forecourt, and he released Luna's reins to a servant. Sliding to the ground, he reached up for me and carried me to the palace door, scanning in every direction for my mother. Without speaking, I took him by his hand and led him to my mother's chamber. All her best robes and favorite jewels were gone. The emptiness of the room yawned like a tomb. My heart broke again, sending me into new hysterics. Had no one else told him?
A frosty light entered his eyes. "Herminone," he said. "Stop crying. Tell me what you know."
"They left together, Daddy. Mommy and that man, Paris, the Trojan."
The coldness ignited. My father's eyes blazed with anger and jealousy. Instinctively, I ducked away, for I thought he might hit me. He stalked across the room, swept down the stairs, and jumped onto Luna, though Luna was barely rested from the ride home. They set off in the direction of the sea. He returned in the dark.
I was already in bed. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, and I pretended to be sleeping. He held a candle's light over me, telling Arista, "If her eyes flicker, I will talk to her again." I must have been able to hold my eyes still, for he left my chamber.
In the morning, I hesitated to get up. What was there awaiting me but another lonely day without my mother, consoled by my distant grandmother who seemed burdened by my presence, barely tolerated by my grieving father.
Arista came and chose my clothing for the day, a simple azure robe held by a gold ringlet belt. My father, looking haggard and suddenly old, was sitting at the table in the courtyard, surrounded by his grim-faced messengers.
"We will find her and bring her home," he announced. "Civilized people do not steal one another's wives, and even the Trojans will honor the marriage bond. You, Domitian, go to Troy with five in your retinue. And you, Barceus, go to Mycenae. Tell my brother of this. I will stay here, for surely she will come to her senses. Who would leave the riches of Sparta? Who would leave her husband? Who would leave her daughter? It must have been madness or a potion. Yes, she must have been drugged and kidnapped."
The hours of the day stretched out before me like the endless sea. Somewhere across that blue expanse my mother had sailed in a ship with Paris. Did she miss me? Or had I been dismissed from her thoughts like so much kelp floating under the hull? I could not bear to think of her facing forward on the ship's prow, her blonde curls flying in the breeze, locked in the arms of that new, strange man, a man barely older than my uncles. How would I grow up without her? What would become of me? Only the gods knew, and I went to the temple to pray.