I think it is fair to say that when you saw me for the first time, small and thin for my age and unimposing in a poppy-colored wedding gown, you thought you knew precisely what you were getting. You knew my brother—knew him too well, the rumors said—and at seventeen, I was much like Sphairos to look at, too pale, too skinny, my dark hair dry and thin. But you thought I had my brother’s thoughts as well, spidery and tangled and poppy-colored, and in that, my husband, you were quite wrong.
I, too, thought I knew you on that pale blue morning thirty years ago. You were no beauty, your skin as brown as a dock-slave’s, your nose long and narrow, your hair slicked out of the way with sickly-sweet oil. You were younger than I had expected—twenty-six, twenty-eight at the most—but cruel for all that, biting Sphairos’s lip when he gave you the greeting kiss, looking me over with your wide brown eyes and saying, with no trace of desire or satisfaction, “It will do.” I accepted your cruelty; girls who marry to settle their brothers’ debts can hardly expect angels. But I had hoped, with a girl-woman’s vanity, that I could also claim your desire.
When the ceremony was over, we walked briskly down the temple steps to your waiting carriage, its black door stamped with a golden bull’s head. You held the door open as I dragged myself gracelessly into the purple plush interior, then followed with an odd wariness, as though I were some strange dog crouched in your path.
“Are you fully aware,” you asked, “of the reason I asked Sphairos for your hand?”
There it was, I thought: the consummate business-man, the poppy-baron of Sarangay. I smiled my sweetest smile. “Because you clearly have no desire for the rest of me,” I said.
It was the only time you ever struck me; a soft touch on my cheek with the tips of your fingers. I returned it with my open palm, hard enough to make you wince.
You pulled something from your waistcoat pocket. I tensed, half-expected a dagger or a tiny pistol, but it was only a scrap of newspaper.
Priam, poppy-baron of Marathon, hung at Antigone Springs prison, I read. There was a picture of a well-built man in a blindfold, his hands bound behind his back. “That could be me in a month or two,” you said. “A bachelor opium dealer on his way to the gallows. But my solicitor found a most convenient law on the last congress’s books; a man cannot be executed if he has one or more dependents.” You dipped your head at me, neither a bow nor a nod, but something of both. “That would be you, Naxos.”
“Your dependent,” I said. Disappointment made my tongue dry, my lips heavy. “Your ticket out of a noose. How disagreeable.”
“I thought you might find it flattering.”
I could not tell, then or in all the long years that followed, if you were making a joke.
I would be lying, my husband, if I said those first hours as man and wife were anything but a disappointment. Your house was fine and large but half-unfinished, your gardens exquisite but only a thin mask for the poppy fields inside. Your library covered three stories but was nothing but plays and old poetry, no trace of history or architecture or law, not even a volume of botany. Stories were your vice, you told me later; your money went to tracking down more volumes and commissioning new ones before anything else, even furnishing your home.
The biggest disappointment, of course, was our wedding night. I knew from the beginning that you did not desire me; I have never told you how much I desired you. Even knowing, knowing you as I do, I imagine the feel of your red lips under mine, imagine biting them, imagine catching your whimpers in my open mouth. I imagine your hair against a white pillow, imagine seeing my reflection in your brown eyes made soft by need. These are fruitless imaginings in a woman who will be ancient before she sees you again. I should not need to tell you how they were for a girl of seventeen.
I did not come wholly unprepared to your bed. My elder sisters had helped me weave a gown of black lace and silk, and Sphairos gave me a bottle of amber scent to wear on my wrists. You must admit, my husband, that I was beautiful when I came to the door of your bedchamber and knocked a sweet tattoo on your door.
“What?” you demanded, flinging it open. You were nude to the waist, your dark skin gleaming in the candlelight, your hair, free of the oil that had slicked it back, tumbling around your shoulders in soft waves. You were no beauty, but you were the Minotaur, the poppy-baron of Sarangay, and I would give as much to taste the hollow of your neck as my brother would give for his next draw of opium.
But I saw the shock on your face, the flicker of disgust you were not quick enough to hide, and over your bare shoulder I saw Stephanos, the manservant, reclining on your bed, and despite the damp heat of the corridor I shivered in my black lace gown.
“Ah,” you said, your eyes bright with mockery. “There’s more where he came from, my lady. Help yourself.”
And you slammed the door in my face.
Do not think I dwell needlessly on these disappointments, my husband. They were far from my mind these last fifteen years, lost in the smell of wallpaper paste, the soft scuffle of furniture legs on new carpet, the color of sunlight in a poppy’s petal. In spite of who I am, in spite of who you are, I have learned to be happy.
But in those first years, caged in an empty stone house between the poppy beds and the sea, I thought ceaselessly of my own misfortune. You were hardly to blame for these thoughts, locked away in the mountain cells—little better than caves—at Antigone Springs. It is not as though I expected you to write me love letters, or to have made plans for my entertainment while you were in prison. But it would be wrong to absolve you utterly of my unhappiness while I lived—orphaned, friendless, virgin—beneath your roof.
You were arrested nine days after our wedding. It came as a surprise to me, but I suppose you had been expecting it all along—the dirty uniforms and rifle barrels, the cold eyes, the huge hands, the pain in the side of your head when the gun knocked you to the floor. I screamed and clawed at them, bridal instinct rushing to your defense when personal affection would not. They pushed me onto the floor beside you. One of them spat on me and stepped on my fingers on his way out the door.
I served my purpose; you were not hung, though from what I have learned since of Antigone Springs—the experiments, the beatings, the rapes—I doubt you were grateful during the fifteen years of your sentence. I should not have pitied you, for you were undoubtedly guilty of every crime they charge you with, and more besides. But I did pity you. Even then.
Selene was the first one to come after your arrest. I do not know if she was so stupid that she did not hear of it, or so addicted that she did not care. The servants told me she was waiting in the conservatory, one of the few rooms you had bothered to furnish, with its heavy dripping trees and cushion-mounded divans and pools of sparkling golden fish. Selene looked like one of those fish, liver-yellowed and glittering with jewels.
“Who are you?” she demanded, looking me over as you had—appraisingly.
I offered her my hand. “I am the Minotaur’s wife,” I said.
(Would you believe, during those first years, I had no other name for you? Even in my fantasies, when I whispered into my pillow and imagined you moaning my name.)
“Your husband has some things for me,” she said. She did not take my hand.
It was this insolence that made me decide to give her not the truth—that you were in prison, and that I knew less than nothing of your business arrangements—but exactly what she was looking for.
When I was a young girl, I kept a sort of journal in a blank book my eldest sister had bound for me, and I hid the journal in a locked drawer of our grandfather’s desk. Sphairos taught me to hollow the margins of a book to hide the drawer’s key. The trick, which you had not learned, is to put the book somewhere inconspicuous; for example, on the shelves of a library. Not on top of the desk which the key opens.
Your lack of guile in this regard made it very simple for me to find your records book, to find Selene’s name and see that she had purchased a fifth of your crop for seven hundred drachmae. I noted the sum, returned the book and key to their hiding places, and rejoined Selene in the conservatory.
“I will send the servants with the poppy tears as soon as the flowers are ready,” I said, “and not before I receive payment. My husband’s records show that you still owe us fourteen hundred drachmae.”
“Fourteen hundred drachmae!” she shrieked. “You’d be lucky to get half that, with most of your clients too scared to leave the shadows.”
“Indeed, lack of customers drives me to raise the price for the ones we retain. We must keep the farming worth our while.” I folded my arms across my chest. “Of course, you may buy the poppy elsewhere, but I fear getting in touch with Priam of Marathon is not as easy as it used to be.”
Her colored deepened a horrid wash of red and yellow fighting on her cheeks. “Bitch,” she spat. I smiled my sweetest smile. And in the end, she paid.
It is not easy, being the Minotaur. Your clients are by definition desperate men, and desperate men do foolish things. The law fears and hates you, and your solicitors must be both well-paid and bound to you with blood. And there is the poppy itself, threatened by heat and drought and lack of sunlight. They ask you how you sleep at night, those virtuously superior moralists, but they could not in a thousand years imagine the exhaustion in your bones at the end of the day, the quick and poppy-scented kiss that welcomes you out of consciousness.
I told you that I spent those years in disappointment and loneliness. That is true, but it does not mean I was entirely unhappy. I became good at being the Minotaur, and so I came to enjoy it, to embrace the secrets and the bargaining and the creamy pages of your records book, to find satisfaction in orange petals and tiny black seeds. It was not what I had dreamed of when I was a child scribbling in my sister’s book, but for better or worse, it was my life.
And then you came back, fifteen years and three months after I watched you led out the door in chains. Your hair was streaked with gray, your long nose faintly crooked, your brown eyes webbed ’round with thin lines. There were other scars, too, that I did not see but that Stephanos told me about in horrified whispers. But you were still strong, still proud, still the Minotaur.
You came up behind me as I worked at the desk in your study, writing letters to the railroad barons around Lake Argos. You lay a hand on the paper in front of me, stopping my pen. “Boats are cheaper,” you said. “I knew a woman some years back in Ptolemy; she might still have a fleet. Let me find you her address.”
You never thanked me for the work I did those fifteen years, nor confessed your surprise that I had done it. I am glad. Gratitude would have felt too much like a dismissal, a relief of a temporary duty, and my work did not feel temporary. I had not chosen to marry you, but I had chosen to become the Minotaur, and to do it well.
When I had folded and waxed the letter to the woman in Ptolemy, as I pressed my wedding ring into it to form the seal, you leaned across the desk and kissed me briefly on the wrist. “Naxos,” you said, not the needy whimper I had imagined at seventeen, but the whisper of a man on trial naming his co-conspirators. I shivered.
“Tell me your name,” I said, lifting my ring from the wax. A bull’s head stared back at me.
“Asterion,” you said. You looked as if you were about to say something more, but I shocked you into silence with a smile. And we settled down to work.
I suppose, in a way, this is a love letter.
I am sorry, now, that in all the years I ran our business I never bought a book for your library. It is not that I thought only of my own comfort, for you came home to a house every bit as empty and sterile as the one you left. Every drachma I made I invested—in farms, in trains, in a painter whose work I was inordinately fond of—or hid in the hollow slats beneath my bed. But when I finally saw you happy, and knew that happiness had come through me, the feeling was as heady and addictive as opium, and I wished that I had even more to give you.
As soon as you were able, we began to finish the house. Some of the rooms were sheerest whimsy—the parlor full of clocks, the spare bedroom with roots painted on the ceiling and branches across the floor, the tea room with a mirror for a table. But there was also the salon that we converted into our new study, twice as large and with a magnificent view of the poppy fields—now hidden from the rest of the world by a labyrinth of hedges—and the music room where I installed a pianoforte as soon as I learned that you played. I remember the first song you preformed for me, your voice lifted shyly on the folk tune’s chorus.
But contentment cannot last, not in a line of work as dangerous as ours.
The letter came fifteen years to the day after you told me your name and let me kiss you. I had not seen the seal before—an ouroboros in green wax—but the moment you saw it you began to tremble.
“No,” you said. “No, I will not go there again. I will drink hemlock first.”
It was, of course, an order for the arrest of the Minotaur.
I did not lie, my husband, the day they came for you. I said the drink would calm you, and that is something syrup of poppy does very, very well.
When you were asleep, I hid our records in the slats beneath my bed and sent the servants to bring bushels of poppy to the kitchen hearth. We burned what we could, and sank the rest into the ocean past the Sarangay reef. When that was done, I went back to the house and changed into a black gown and black gloves and sat in the parlor to wait.
The clocks chimed five, then six, then seven in the evening. At quarter to eight, they finally came.
“We have a warrant for the arrest of the Minotaur,” the tallest one said, his eyes wet and bovine. For the first time in my life, I thought how stupid it really was, their fear to use your name. As if Asterion were someone else, someone more dangerous.
“I am the Minotaur,” I said, and I did not have to counterfeit disdain for them, or fear for what was coming. “Please, my husband is sickly from his years in prison. He hardly stirs from his bed. Please, do not take me from him.”
They looked at each other, these dirty-faced men on our doorstep, and they looked at me. I bit my lip, hoping your solicitor’s long-ago advice would hold true.
“Well, Mistress Minotaur,” the tallest one said, “I suppose you’ll be coming back to him. Fifteen years ain’t so long, is it?”
I closed my eyes and held out my hands to be chained.
But fifteen years is long, Asterion. In fifteen years I learned to be the Minotaur. In fifteen years I learned to care for you. What will I learn in the next fifteen years, walled up in this place you would rather die than return to, far from our home between the flowers and the sea?
I will learn patience. I will learn to bear disappointment. And I will write to you, because your vice is stories and stories are all I have to give to you. Because I want you to see yourself, if only for a moment, the way I have learned to see you.
You called yourself the Minotaur because in the stories, the Minotaur is a monster, unworthy and incapable of love. But you love your work, and you love me. For better or worse, I love you, and I am counting down each heartbeat until the day I see you again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Megan Arkenberg lives and writes in California. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons,The Apocalypse Triptych anthology series, and dozens of other places. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance.
“The Minotaur’s Wife” was first published in Semaphore, December 2010.
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