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The Fairest Thing on the Black Earth

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Until the battle on the beach they had lived in an endless summer. Since the time of Zeus there had been no famine or disease, and age had not breathed its chill into their bones, nor stolen the strength from their limbs, nor scratched its nails across their skin. Only Diana marked the passage of time, as, ever so slowly, she grew and changed. But with a mother’s love Hippolyta could always see the babe within Diana, and so even she appeared timeless to her.

Antiope had always known that every summer ends. From the moment they stepped onto the island, she saw fall’s far off approach peaking above the waves where the sea meets the sky. When Antiope first looked upon the babe in Hippolyta's arms, she saw the woman Diana would become.

Yet, on the beach, holding Antiope’s body and watching the needs of the world swallow up Diana, not even Hippolyta could deny the cold wind that had descended upon them.

The chill grip paining her chest woke her from a long dream. Ages ago she had fallen asleep on a battlefield surrounded by an unimaginable number of her slain sisters, and here she awoke to find only the time and place altered. Death returned for them, at last.

The old rites immediately flooded back into her mind and Hippolyta would allow no one else near enough to help tend Antiope. She drew Antiope’s eyes closed, put Antiope's sword back into her limp hand, and placed one of her hands over Antiope’s forehead and the other over her chest, then bent her head to pray that her spirit would find her way home. A hand on her shoulder punctured her focus, and she turned with a shout in her mouth, hand clenched and ready to lash out, only to find Menalippe before her.

“I have a right,” Menalippe said firmly, unwavering before Hippolyta’s grief and fury.

The words drained the desperate anger from her, leaving Hippolyta lax and deflated. “Yes,” she acknowledged, “and I would not deny it.”

Together they reverently placed Antiope onto a pallet and without a word silently carried her back up the cliffs to the empty necropolis. Had Zeus known this day would come when he pulled the island from the sea? These lonely tombs would be full by the end of the night. Antiope would not rest alone.

“You should go,” Hippolyta said, grasping one of Antiope’s hands between her own. At the pained look that pinched Menalippe’s eyes she continued, “You knew her best. You should decide what will accompany her into eternity.”

Menalippe’s brow softened and she nodded. “You will stay at her side?” she asked.

“Every moment,” Hippolyta vowed.

At that Menalippe kissed Antiope’s cheek, then withdrew from the tomb, leaving them alone.

When the last echoes of Menalippe’s retreating footsteps faded, Hippolyta let out a long sigh. “You have much to answer for, sister,” she chided Antiope. “How dare you keep us always ready for war, so that even in paradise we knew not a moment of true peace? How dare you push Diana, the only daughter either of us will ever know, onto a path of danger and pain? How dare you desert us just when we need you most? But most unforgivable of all, sister, how dare you be so right about everything?”

Bowing her head, she added softly, “Oh Antiope. How have I been so long asleep, while you keenly saw all that was to come?”

Feeling suddenly small beneath the weight of the burden she alone must shoulder in the days to come, Hippolyta shuddered. “How am I to go on without you?” she implored the unmoved face before her. “And how will I go on without Diana?”

The sound of Menalippe’s boots at the threshold pulled her from contemplation. Laying a sack between them, Menalippe kneeled beside her and leaned in close to brush away a tear Hippolyta had not been conscious of shedding. Reaching out, Hippolyta traced the tracks of tears down Menalippe’s quivering features in turn. “Oh, my sister. What have you brought for our dear Antiope?” she asked.

Menalippe opened the sack and withdrew a gilded dagger, a scythe, a small shield, a prayer medallion, and a vest of thick woven leather strands, one for each woman Antiope trained to fight. Together they laid these delicately around her, and Hippolyta smiled a small, brittle smile. “She is well prepared for whatever may appear on the path she must now follow.” Antiope died wearing the regalia of a general, and she looked now in death as she had in life, ferocious and formidable.

Menalippe handed her a vial from the sac, and Hippolyta carefully pried it open, to dip the tips of her fingers into the sweet oil inside. Smoothing the oil into the back of each of Antiope’s hands she said, “I leave you to the keeping of Artemis, who was served well by the strength of these hands.” Then she drew her finger across Antiope’s brow, saying, “I leave you to the keeping of Athena, who you honored all your life with your wisdom.” Finally, she drew her fingers across Antiope’s stomach, leaving a streak of purifying oil across her armor. “I leave you to the keeping of Zeus,” she said, “our protector, who could only be proud of you, his fiercest daughter, his finest creation.”

Placing the stopper back in the vial, Hippolyta handed it back to Menalippe, and stirred to rise and leave the tomb, and at last allow in those who would further tend to Antiope's body. But Menalippe did not return the vial to her sac. Instead she removed the stopper again, and dipped her fingertip inside. Reaching out she anointed Antiope’s lips. “I leave you to the keeping of Aphrodite,” she said. “I leave you to the keeping of the goddess who will protect and nurture your passion, who will recognize that all you have done, you did for love.”

Stoppering the vial, Menalippe returned it to the bag, and withdrew a scroll with a delicate leather tie. “Do you recognize this song, Hippolyta?” she asked.

“Yes, of course,” she replied with a catch in her voice. “It is the verse of Sappho.” The verse that caused yet another conflict over Diana, when she had learned that Antiope gifted her daughter with such a volume. Hippolyta had stormed into Antiope’s rooms demanding that she take the gift back. “She is still but a babe!” she protested. “What need has she of such knowledge, the only child on an island of grown women?”

“Oh Hippolyta,” Antiope had teased her. “Children grow up. They must. Diana has a great destiny, full of danger, full of destruction. Do you not also want her to have a life full of pleasure? Full of love?”

“That time lies at such a distance, it may never come to be,” Hippolyta had defiantly replied. Nevertheless, she returned the scroll to Diana’s chambers, and when the child asked to see more of the library, she never denied her any hidden pleasures it may hold.

“The songs of Sappho were Antiope’s favorites,” Menalippe said, and she placed the scroll on Antiope’s chest, above her heart.

Then she reached up and removed the diadem from around Antiope’s head. “Antiope wanted so much for Diana, so much for our people. She trusted that there was no challenge Amazons could not face, no future beyond the capacity of our strength.” She placed the diadem in Hippolyta’s outstretched hands. “Antiope knew Diana would leave one day, and she did not fear it. Diana is the best of us, and she will carry our people with her out into the world. Give her this, so she may carry Antiope with her wherever she travels, and remember both that she is a warrior fit to follow in the path of our greatest hero, but also that she is beloved beyond measure.”

Hippolyta took the diadem with shaking fingers. "I do not know if I will have the strength to let her go," she admitted.

Menalippe closed her eyes. "We cannot wish to prevent those we love from following their path, even if it leads them beyond our reach." Shaking her head then raising her eyes again, she continued, "Antiope had infinite trust in you, and infinite patience. Do her the honor of trusting her to watch over Diana, as they both seek their footing on new paths."

Hippolyta nodded and tucked the diadem in her cloak, but in her heart she knew that she could not let Diana go without a fight. No enemy had ever humbled her like the smile of her daughter. No clash of swords had cadged her and cowed her as thoroughly as the little girl's cry. So for Diana, she would lower herself to any depths, would plead and beg as if she had never known the solemn dignity of a queen. But when she lost that battle, as she knew she must, she would lean on Antiope's strength one last time. With her sister's determination, she would find the fortitude to take that most precious of all gifts, and return her to the world, which awaited its champion.

 

Some say an army of horsemen,
some of footsoldiers, some of ships,
is the fairest thing on the black earth,
but I say it is what one loves.

by Sappho