When I was a very small child my Aunt Semele was struck by lightning and died.
It was a terrible tragedy. My mother told me the story once, when I was a little older.
“It was one of those awful muggy summer nights,” she said, “right at summer’s end, those cursed days under the Dog Star. Everything was so still and hot, you could barely bring yourself to move all day, and the nights were no better, buzzing with heat and flies. The sky was pregnant with that storm for days. When the sun set that night the whole horizon was boiling purple and orange, the ugliest thing you ever saw, and when it broke I remember everyone being so thankful, just for the cool air at last. Semele just had to run out into it - she was like that, always running into danger, always having to be in the middle of things, and she did like wild weather, your aunt. She said she was going up onto the roof to enjoy it properly. And then there was the lightning and that terrible fire, and when we found her -”
My mother broke off crying there. Apparently my aunt’s lightning-crisped body was a gory sight. People still murmured about it years afterwards. My oldest cousin told me once that her flesh was all stripped away, so that all they actually found was her skeleton and they could only tell it was her because of the jewellery melted over her bones. That kind of ghoulish nonsense is exactly the kind of thing guaranteed to please a boy of a certain age, and it certainly stuck with me. I had nightmares for months of being chased through the night by a disfigured woman-shape with gold-plated bone fingers.
I was about fourteen when I discovered the other half of the tragedy - the scandalous half. Aunt Semele was my mother’s youngest sister and unmarried, but she was pregnant when she died.
“Do you remember how we used to twit her about the father?” I overheard Aunt Ino saying. “Did anyone ever work out who it was?”
“I thought it was the gardener,” said Aunt Autonoe. “She never said.”
“She said it was the king of the gods,” said my mother, snorting.
“Oh goodness, Semele was so irritating that way. I swear I just wanted to know how on earth she’d managed to sneak a lover into the palace.”
“Gods, yes. We were locked up like prisoners in those days. Who’d be a virgin?”
“Well, certainly not Semele!” and they all laughed. Semele was dead but she never really seemed to be gone. She’d been my grandfather the king’s favourite daughter and he loved her memory so much they never rebuilt the wing of the palace that burned in the fire. People talked about her all the time.
The king was my favourite relative, possibly because he was the only one who wasn’t an aunt. The high citadel of Thebes where we lived was a series of long marble colonnades around the front courtyard, and it was constantly echoing with women’s voices, shrieking and twittering from dawn to dusk. I was the only freeborn boy in the palace, and I spent my life dodging aunts who wanted me to do something useful and girl cousins who wanted to play with my hair.
The girls pinched and shoved me when I resisted, but I was the only one the aunts ever told off for fighting, which was very unfair. When I inevitably got into trouble for turning the wool I was meant to be carding into a tangled-up toy for one of the housecats, or pulling out the tail feathers of chickens instead of feeding them like I was supposed to, or hitting one of my cousins to make her leave me alone, King Cadmus was my court of appeal, and he never let me down. “Boys will be boys,” he’d say in his deep rumbling voice, “and those pesky daughters of yours bully him, no wonder he wants a bit of his own back. Leave my grandson alone! Here, boy, come sit with me!”
“Grandfather,” I said to him after one of these episodes, “was Aunt Semele going to have a boy?”
“How do you know about that?” he spluttered, his lined face going red, but his mouth opened in a gap-toothed smile when he saw my downcast expression. “Ah, I suppose you’re growing up. But as for your unborn cousin, Pentheus, only the gods know that kind of thing.”
“I wish she’d lived and had a boy,” I said glumly. “Then I wouldn’t have to deal with nothing but girls all the time.”
He patted me kindly on the shoulder. “I miss your Aunt Semele very much and I would have loved her child, son or daughter,“ he said. “But girls get less upsetting as you get older. Be patient and you may even find you like them.”
“You don’t understand what it’s like,” I told him. “It’s like being at war the whole time - and I’m outnumbered!”
He laughed, and I went off in a huff. I was jealous of my dignity. I dodged around Aunt Ino who was looking for someone to help her beat the dust out of the rugs from the women’s quarters, and avoided two girl cousins who would have wanted to play at knucklebones. I found myself a place to lurk in the shadow of a tall carved column on the western side of the colonnade, and waited for my chance. I had a place I went, you see, when I was sulky or cross or just wanted to be alone, but it was in the burned wing of the palace, and I didn't like anyone to see me going there. The courtyard was never empty for long, but the moment came and I darted across to the eastern side and the burned-out shell of a building that had been there as long as I could remember.
I wasn't supposed to go there because it was unstable. The upper floor was mostly gone, though there were still some uneasily balanced floors remaining and one high wall that stood to twice the height of a man's head, its plasterwork scorched all the way up. The shape of the ground floor was still mostly in place, though, with the knee-high remnants of walls and partitions making a maze where the old storerooms used to be. There was one arched doorway standing tall in the middle of the rubble, leading from nowhere to nowhere.
At the most unstable end, right under where the old women's quarters had been - right under where Aunt Semele had died - there was a stairway down to the old cellars. There'd been new ones dug when I was a child; these were forgotten. There was nothing down there at all, only pottery shards of amphoras that had burst from the heat of the fire. The way down was blocked by fallen rafters, but there was a gap in that I could crawl through. The ceiling at one end had collapsed, so what was left was a tiny dark room barely big enough to turn around in. At thirteen it was beginning to be a little difficult to fold all my limbs through the narrow entrance, and I’d taken more than a few bruises on my skull before I learned to be careful of the way the roof sloped. Still I scrambled inside, curled up in the corner where the ceiling was highest, and fumed.
Be patient, indeed!
I couldn’t imagine ever liking my family.
It was the height of the day's heat and the underground space was stuffy and warm and dark. After a while I fell asleep, and I found myself dreaming of Semele’s baby. He wasn’t a baby in the dream, he was two or three years old, a boy cousin just like I wanted. In my dream I heard his footsteps running lightly through the storerooms and padding down the stairs and then he dived through the door – the one that was blocked by collapsed remnants of the old palace in the waking world - and landed in the dust on his belly, looking comically surprised. He was a chubby toddler with rosy cheeks and bright brass-coloured curls. I recognised him at once, the way you do in dreams. “Hello!” I said. “What’s the matter? Are they chasing you?”
My cousin laughed and nodded and flung himself into my arms. I caught his big baby weight and held him steady. He smelled faintly of some odd spice I didn’t know the name for – the little part of me which knew this was a dream wondered at it, for you never smell things in dreams – and his hair was very soft and tickled my face. “Mischief again?” I asked him, tickling him under the chin to make him giggle and look up. “It’s all right, just say I did it.”
He shook his head, still giggling, and patted at my cheek. There were more footsteps on the stairs outside, and I shushed him. A woman’s voice I didn’t recognise shouted to me, “Pentheus! Pentheus, are you in the cellars again? Have you seen your cousin?”
“No, he’s not here!” I called. My cousin chuckled merrily in my ear and I had to push his head against my shoulder to quiet him. “You have to shush when you hide!” I whispered firmly – or as firmly as I could when I was trying to talk under my breath. He gave me a wide-eyed look. His brass-coloured curls were falling down into his face.
“I know he’s in there!” shouted the woman outside. “He’s been very naughty! I’m coming to get him!”
“Hide behind me!” I whispered, as I turned to face the door.
She came through crawling, elbows and knees. The first thing I saw was the dark cloud of hair that hid the rest of her body from view. Then, with a creeping horror, I saw her hands groping forward through the hair, the white bones of her fingers mottled with burn marks, and her gold rings melted onto them. My skin was cold and I felt like there was a hand gripping tightly at my stomach as the ghoul came on. I backed away from her and bumped into my toddler cousin, who’d gone to hide behind me in the corner just as I’d told him. I let out a little gasp.
He took my hand as his mother got to her feet and I could finally see all of her. Her dark hair hung thick and soft around the face that was half burnt bone and half bubbling, melted flesh; she was dressed in white, and wore gold necklaces and bracelets like my own mother, all of them melted onto her. I thought if she touched me with her horrible bone fingers I’d die. My throat felt as if it were clogged with something thick and soft, and I had to swallow over and over before I could say anything.
“No, he’s not here,” I said, even though the toddler’s hand was gripping mine comfortingly, “he’s not here, Aunt Semele, go away, go away –“ I heard my voice getting louder and more panicked as the apparition watched me and didn’t move. “ – go away, Aunt Semele, he’s not here, go away – “
“Ah?” said the toddler to me in a man’s voice.
I woke sweating and cold, and could barely breathe at first. When I finally felt steady again I made the sign to avert evil as emphatically as I could. I crawled out of the cellar to find the light had dimmed while I slept. I went and sat out in the courtyard with my bare feet trailing in the dust, and tried to make myself think of something else.
My mother found me there and wrapped her arms around me. I stiffened and said, “Mother!” Her pale face wore a hurt expression when I’d pulled myself away from her embrace, and I found myself regretting it. But mothers have to learn, don’t they? I wasn’t a child anymore.
She sighed and said, “Come with me, Pentheus.” I was happy to be distracted and got to my feet, matching my long strides to her little ones as we walked up to the main house. She was nearly as tall as I was, with long dark curls and smooth skin, but she was hobbled by the white swathes of her grand lady’s dress. Once she tripped and I had to catch her. “Curse this thing!” she said, laughing a little. “It’s very tiresome being a matron, Pentheus. When I think that you’ll never have to do it I’m envious. Or whenever I see the little girls running around in their short dresses.” She grew quiet for a little while and then said, “I suppose you must feel like I do sometimes. I heard about your conversation with your grandfather."
I stared at my feet.
"You get very tired of living in the palace with the womenfolk, don’t you?”
“Of course I do!” I said. “I mean – I love you, Mother, of course – and I love Grandfather. Just –“
“Your grandfather’s an old man,” said my mother, “and your aunts are old women, and your cousins are little girls. There’s no one here for you.”
I shook my head, because there wasn’t. I wanted to agree more decisively, but she seemed so sad about it. “I dreamed I had a cousin just now,” I said. “A boy cousin, I mean. It was –“ I stopped. Part of me wanted to go on and tell her the whole dream, my cousin’s brassy curls and the spicy scent of him, and Aunt Semele’s gory ghost descending on us. I wasn’t quite as grown-up as I wanted to think I was, and a mother’s comfort would have been welcome. If she had asked what was wrong just then, I would have told her the whole thing.
She didn’t, though. She just nodded to herself, as if I’d confirmed something she was already thinking. “A dream,” she said. “An omen. That settles it.” She smiled suddenly, and scruffed my hair as if I were still only knee-height. The motion tripped her up again and I had to catch her. “Oh dear!” she said, laughing. My mother was a very beautiful woman when she laughed. “Honestly, Pentheus, sometimes I think the only sane thing for a woman to do is run away to those odious Amazon tribes. Do you think they’d have me? Would I have to cut off my breasts?”
“I think it’s just one,” I said. “So you can draw a longbow.”
“As if I couldn’t draw one anyway!” she said. "Come, Pentheus, it's time to eat." At dinner she took care to seat herself right by my grandfather, and spoke to him in a low voice for much of the meal. I eyed them curiously.
A week later Actaeon came.
There was a great fuss in the palace on the day he arrived. My mother and my Aunt Ino were the fussiest, and they commanded a small army of cousins and servants in turning the place upside down until everything was as clean as a whistle – everything but the chaotic rubble of the burned wing, which looked even worse next to the white perfection of the rest. Aunt Autonoe didn’t help. She was in a tremendous temper and wouldn’t speak to anybody, and glared poisonously at my grandfather and my mother whenever either of them crossed her line of sight.
I had no idea what was going on until we heard the horses and everyone had to leave off cleaning to gather by the doors in welcome. I stood beside my grandfather outside the front doors – the women were all just inside, peering out – and waited. “Excited, son?” murmured the old man.
“Who is it?” I asked, as the horsemen came into view.
There were three riders, two old men and one young one, and all around them there was a huge pack of gorgeous dogs, black and white and chestnut-coloured, barking and leaping around the horses' hooves. When the riders clattered through the gates into the courtyard the dogs fanned out around them to fill up every bit of available space, until everywhere you looked was a heaving mass of panting sweating doggy joy, the smell of them filling my nostrils. The riders kept coming until they were barely a horse’s length away from us, and pulled their horses to a halt in perfect sync. The two older men waited very properly for my grandfather’s acknowledgement, but the young one – I couldn’t take my eyes off the young one, he was my age, I thought, or perhaps a little older – the young one immediately swung down, patting his horse’s arched neck, and whistled to the hounds. One of them bounded up to him with her tongue hanging out in delight, and he talked to her in the most affectionate way, so that the conversation that then took place sounded like this:
“My liege and king and sower, we have come to your command.”
“Hello Charis, hello girl – down girl –“
“You are most welcome to the house of Cadmus, my old friend. It has been far too long. Will you not –“
“I said down – hahaha – yes I love you too – “
“- dismount? There is a hot meal inside, and water for you and your horses.”
“Good girl! You shall have a treat.”
“No, sire, with respect, I will not stay here,” said the older man who had been talking, and he raised his eyes to the entrance. I looked around and saw my Aunt Autonoe in the doorway, her eyes sharp and her lips pressed tightly together. “My brother you know. I have brought my son Actaeon.”
“Who’s a beautiful girl, then – my lord,” said the young one (Actaeon) bowing as gracefully as if his hands weren’t covered with enthusiastic dog spittle. “Prince Pentheus,” he added, bowing to me as well. He had dark hair and liquid dark eyes. I stared at him.
“Come on, Pentheus, will you let your cousin give you a greeting like that?” said my grandfather, as Actaeon straightened up. He was not as tall as I was.
“My cousin?” I said stupidly.
“I’ve always wanted to meet my mother’s family,” Actaeon said, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Aunt Autonoe turn away and disappear inside the dark guts of the house.
“I – I didn’t know I had a cousin,” I said. The dogs had left off exploring the yard and had come to cluster around his feet. I saw that there weren’t so many of them as I’d thought at first. They were beautiful sleek elegant creatures, like their master. Looking at him I could see that he looked a bit like our family, with dark curls and pale skin like the aunts, and a hook nose like the one I shared with my grandfather. “Are you Aunt Autonoe’s son?” I said. It seemed like the only reasonable explanation.
Actaeon nodded. He didn’t look anything like my dream-cousin, Semele’s son, but I liked him. I liked him a lot. “Then welcome, cousin,” I said, and held out my arms to embrace him, the proper way to greet a relative. He kissed me firmly on both cheeks and grinned at me afterwards, while his dogs frisked around his feet.
They’d brought him there for me, of course. I found out the whole story later, how my mother had thought up the idea of giving me a companion and my grandfather had seized on it and Aunt Autonoe had argued and been argued down. I hadn’t known about Aunt Autonoe’s husband. It was obvious when I thought about it that my aunts must have men of their own – all those girl cousins had to come from somewhere – but my own father was dead and I’d assumed my uncles-by-marriage were dead too. Actaeon’s father wasn’t dead, he and Aunt Autonoe just hated each other. Their daughters lived with her and their son – the only other boy in my family – lived with him, on the far side of the city. Actaeon himself was a year older than I was and the finest hunter in Thebes.
“It’s the dogs, really,” he said, “I’m only good, but I raise the finest dogs in the world, and that makes me the best.” There was always at least one or two with him, and they were probably the only creatures in the world who adored him more than I did.
I adored him so much it hurt. A new part of my life began once I met Actaeon. I was no longer an interloping teenage boy in a houseful of women. Instead I was a man - or at least, I felt like one. Actaeon and I barely saw our own beds that summer. We spent all of our time out hunting. I say hunting, but he was conscientious about how many kills we made, always reminding me that we wanted to have deer and hares to hunt next year as well, and so often our hunting trips were just excuses to be out in the hills around the city, the two of us and the dogs and the light bright air and nothing else. If evening caught us out too late we’d build a fire and eat what we’d caught that day, a brace of fat young pigeons or a couple of plump rabbits, tearing the meat off the bones with our teeth and throwing the offal to whichever dog could leap the highest and catch it. I grew tanned and muscular, and I’d come home once in a while to bestow venison or wildfowl on the palace kitchens and to lord it over the girls. They didn’t pinch and tease any more; they were quiet and jealous. The aunts treated me with new respect, and even my grandfather talked to me as a man now, not a boy. When my mother wanted to hug me these days I let her do it, for I remembered how she’d complained about being hobbled by her gowns, and felt sorry for her. Unhobbled myself at last I knew how much she was to be pitied, being a woman, and hoped she got what comfort she could from me.
“You’re so lucky,” Actaeon said one evening by the fireside. We were out on the lower slopes of Cithaeron, where the tall trees grow. Supper had been fish that we’d teased out of a mountain stream. Actaeon had showed me how to lie on the bank and move your hands in the water so that the fish thought they were just another ripple and lay still beneath the banks until you snatched them up. He’d caught six to my one, but he’d promised I’d get the hang of it. “It’s not a really a man’s trick,” he had said, “but sometimes you want fish.” They tasted as fresh as the stream we’d caught them in.
“Lucky?” I asked now. “Why?”
“Living in the palace with all those women, I mean,” Actaeon said. “At home we don’t get anywhere near the women’s quarters. You’re lucky to get so much as a sniff of one. You’re surrounded by pretty girls all the time.”
“Most of them are my cousins,” I pointed out. “Some of them are your sisters.”
Actaeon shrugged. He’d never shown much interest in his sisters. “Cousins isn’t that close,” he said. I nodded. I found the idea repellent myself, but people did marry their cousins sometimes. Perhaps I was too used to all of mine.
“If you want a woman,” I said, “why don’t you go back to Rhopis’s?” The brothel was one he’d taken me to about a month after we got to be friends. It was a fancy-looking place with well-dressed girls who kept their eyes cast down until you picked one. They were ruled over by dark-haired Rhopis, who chewed strange herbs and called the whores her daughters. It was not very popular and the prostitutes were not much like I’d imagined prostitutes would be. They were all so quiet and virtuous-seeming. But Actaeon said it was his favourite place.
“It’s not the same,” Actaeon said. “I don’t want a whore. I want a woman – I want a girl, you know, a beautiful virgin. Rhopis’s girls are just faking. They must be different when they’re really untouched. Untamed. Like this place.” He waved his arm in a gesture encompassing the tall slender trees, the long grass, the stars coming out overhead. “I love it out here. The goddess of girls, the virgin, she’s the goddess of wild places too. Artemis the Huntress.” He laughed. “That’s who I really want! A woman who belongs out here. A woman who can hunt. Do you think she’d take me?”
I made a sign against evil. “You shouldn’t talk like that about the Virgin,” I said. “Gods don’t like that kind of thing.”
“Oh, she knows it’s a compliment,” said Actaeon. “Are you going to finish that fish?”
I dreamed of Semele’s son again that night. It was probably the fish.
I didn’t know it was a dream at first, this time. I thought I’d just been woken up by the light of the full moon overhead. The dogs were curled up in a heap by the embers of the fire, snuffling quietly in their doggy dreams, and Actaeon was asleep next to me, rolled up in his cloak. I stretched and leaned over to shake him awake, and then I saw that he wasn’t Actaeon at all.
He wasn’t a baby anymore – he looked my age. His long brass-coloured curls were fanned out around his sleeping head, shining in the moonlight like a halo. His skin was milky-pale, like a girl's. He was even handsomer than Actaeon. As I stared at him he opened his eyes and smiled at me.
“Hello, Pentheus,” he said.
“Where’s Actaeon?” I said.
I bit my lip. “I’m dreaming too, aren’t I.”
“Are you?” My cousin’s smile turned impish. There was a dimple in his left cheek.
“Yes, I am,” I said firmly. He sat up, drawing his knee up to his chest, and spread his hands in acquiescence.
“Actaeon dreams of beautiful girls,” he said. “Their skins are fair because they have never seen the sun, but they run naked under the moonlight. He chases after them with his hounds baying before him, and always they escape him, but he knows that one day he will catch one and gut her and roast her and hang her skin on his bedroom wall.” He paused thoughtfully. “Or perhaps he will just fuck her. He’s not very clear about it himself. He has some funny things in his head, your cousin. Dangerous thoughts to think in Artemis’ country.”
I stared at him.
“The dogs, now, the dogs are dreaming much simpler things. Food. Pack. Chase. Love. Very boring creatures, dogs. There’s no madness in them at all. Humans always have a little bit of madness in their dreams.” He paused. His eyes were a strange light colour. “And you, Pentheus,” he said, “you’re dreaming of me.”
“Is that mad?” I asked.
“Very mad indeed,” he said, and chuckled to himself. “Nothing could be madder. Tell me, how do you feel about your cousin?”
“Which one?” I said, just to be annoying. I was discovering that I didn’t like this version of my imaginary relative. His mocking smile seemed to be a permanent part of his face, and he spoke in an arch, condescending way, as if he knew something I didn’t.
“Which one indeed? You can remember the names of Actaeon’s hounds more easily than you can the names of his sisters. But I’ll be nice tonight. How do you feel about Actaeon, Pentheus?”
“He’s my friend,” I said.
It was only one soft, teasing syllable, but it seemed as if it saw everything about me, pulled me out into the open and spread me out to be laughed at. I looked up and glared at him, and was caught by his strange light eyes. And suddenly my mouth was saying things that I’d barely let myself think. I found myself babbling about heroes and demigods and the stag we’d taken together the other day, about the way Actaeon looked when he was worried about one of his hounds and the way he smiled at me across the fires we built, about how it felt to be a man, not just a stupid useless boy in my mother’s realm –
“It’s sex, isn’t it?” said Semele’s son, and laughed at my expression. “Oh, it is, you know it is, and when he took you to that brothel you were thinking of him every moment. If it takes sex to make a girl a woman, shouldn’t it take sex to make a boy a man? And you want him every instant you’re with him and every instant you’re apart, you dream of his eyes and his mouth and his hands. I’ve walked in your dreams, Pentheus, so I should know.”
I began to protest. My vision blurred for a moment, and when I blinked it was Actaeon sitting beside me again, with his knee drawn up to his chest and his eyebrows raised. His dark eyes were unreadable as he touched my cheek, and my breath caught. He pushed at me hard and I went over onto my back, and seconds later he was on top of me, pressing me down, his breath warm on my face as he drew near. I gasped and bucked my hips. “Stop it!” I said, not meaning it.
Actaeon’s shape blurred again and it was Semele’s son on top of me, with his golden hair making a curtain around both our faces. “But you can’t have him,” he said, ignoring my flushed face and my short harsh breaths, “because he wants a woman. He wants to deflower virgins, all right, but your virginity’s no use to him.” He was still smiling as he said these things. He never stopped smiling.
“Get off me,” I said, and called him a vile name.
“What if I made you a woman?”
My expression made him laugh. I couldn’t say a word.
“You can’t decide, can you? You don’t even know if I’m telling the truth. I am. I could do it. Would you like to be a woman, Pentheus? I’m really very fond of you, so I will if you like.” The whole world blurred, this time, and when I could see straight again his shape was the same but I felt strange and small. He bent and kissed me, pushing his tongue deep into my mouth, and I shook and arched underneath him, feeling the peculiar softness of my body and the unfamiliar way it moved. He’d done it, then, he’d made me a woman. I closed my eyes and fell into the kiss, and didn’t notice the world blurring again until he broke the kiss and I was a boy once more, breathless and hard.
“Come back,” I said without thinking, reaching out to him.
He laughed and climbed off me, standing up. “You’re wrong, by the way. It isn’t sex that makes a boy a man,” he said. “It’s death.” He looked up at the full white moon. “Your cousin is still dreaming,” he said. “Dreaming of water flowing and naked women. It’s easy to walk into the gods’ realms in dreams. Easy and dangerous.” He scratched the nearest hound behind the ears. It was Actaeon’s favourite, the chestnut-coloured bitch with the white ear – Charis was her name. She opened her eyes a slit and beat the ground with her tail in enthusiasm. “It’s a little difficult to make a dog go mad,” he told me conversationally. “They’re nothing but food and pack and chase and love. All you can really do is pick one and turn it up until they forget the rest. But I promised the Huntress I’d do it, and it’s better to stay on Artemis’ good side on full moon nights. It’ll have to be chase.” Charis closed her eyes in ecstasy after he left off scratching her. He smiled at me. “You, on the other hand, I could send mad quite easily,” he said. “One day I will. For now, though, I recommend you climb a tree.”
“What?” I said.
“Climb a tree,” he repeated. “If you know what’s good for you. Don’t let the hounds get your scent. Today is not a good day to smell like prey on Mount Cithaeron.”
The world shifted around us, and suddenly we were both sitting in a tree, one of the tall slender trees of Cithaeron. "Shh," said the boy when I turned to look at him. I could hear the sound of water splashing, and coming through it and mingling with it the unmistakeable sound of women chatting and laughing. I could smell something sweet in the air.
"Who are they?" I whispered. "Where are we?"
"This is Actaeon's dream," the boy told me, and pointed. My cousin was making his way slowly through the undergrowth beneath us, following the sound. He was moving the way hunters move, slow and almost soundless. "He's found his way to a god-place. Beyond those trees, in the glade, Lady Artemis is having her bath."
The world shifted again. "Climb a tree, Pentheus," the boy said from beside our campfire, and shook his brass-coloured hair back from his face. "It's nearly sunrise. Climb a tree if you want to live."
And I woke up.
The sky in the east was growing grey. The embers of the fire were close to dead. Actaeon was asleep, breathing evenly – I checked to be sure it was really him. One of the dogs whimpered quietly in its sleep.
Feeling a little foolish, I picked up my cloak and went and climbed a tree.
I will not speak of that day’s happening. The whole world knows the story by now. I’ve even heard poets singing about the fate of Actaeon of Thebes, who disturbed the virgin goddess as she bathed naked in the forest and was torn to shreds by his own hounds. From my high perch I saw him wake from his dream of moonlight. I saw him whistle to Charis, and the look on his face when she set her ears low and bared her teeth.
He ran into the woods with the whole pack on his heels. I shut my eyes tight and tried not to hear the baying of the hounds.
It was late afternoon when the dogs crept back to last night’s campsite. They nosed about among the ashes of the fire and the place where we two had slept, and then Charis sat back on her haunches and howled as if her heart would break. There was blood on her muzzle. I knew then the madness had left them. I climbed down from my tree, shaky with terror and hunger, and began the long hike back to the city.
I remember Aunt Autonoe cried when I told my family the news. I thought, in a dull, quiet, numb sort of way, that it was strange of her to cry for a son she’d never spoken to.
I never cried for Actaeon myself. But my dream-cousin had been right about one thing, that it was death that makes a man. I had only really been an excited happy boy when I hunted on the hills with Actaeon; now I lived at home with my family again, and remembered Charis’ howling sometimes, and was most certainly a man.
Life went on, in a dreary uninteresting way, until my grandfather had a heart attack. He was getting to be very old and frail, and not really up to fulfilling the duties of a king any more. My mother suggested that I should help him with his work, and so I did, taking over more and more of his obligations as he grew weaker and weaker until I found myself growing interested despite myself. A king’s tasks were not easy. The men of Thebes whom my grandfather ruled – whom I was coming to rule in all but name – were a fierce, stubborn, proud people. They were the sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of the famous warriors of Cadmus – and while I’d often heard the story of how my grandfather had sowed dragon’s teeth in the earth and so produced a race of men, I had never really appreciated how much dragon there was in Theban bloodlines until I was the one trying to steer our city’s bloody, argumentative politics. I suppose I had been a little bit asleep somewhere in my heart ever since Actaeon died, but slowly and surely Thebes woke me, not with kindness but with work. By the time I was twenty my grandfather very seldom stirred from his bed anymore, and I was king in all but name.
The dancing girls arrived a week before the summer solstice. They sneaked into the city at night and were everywhere within a week. They were members of some sort of foreign cult, or so they claimed; personally, I thought they were a nuisance. There must have been more than twenty of them, and they moved into a house in the prostitute’s quarter – the house where Rhopis had once sold two princes her ‘daughters’, in fact – and presumably slept there, although the gods alone know when they bothered sleeping. They were in the streets at all hours. You never saw them in groups of less than three, and often you’d have the whole twenty-odd pour down a street together, shouting nonsense words and banging drums and waving their fancy staves in the air. Everywhere they went people left off work to stare in amazement and appreciation. Oh yes, appreciation – even I could see that they were beautiful, with their dark curls and olive skins and their clinging foreign clothes.
One or two of the more conservative old men in the city came to me – people did come to me, these days – in order to complain. I said some comforting things and sent them away. The dancing girls weren’t, strictly speaking, a problem worthy of a king’s attention. They were only foreigners, possibly even worshipping some sort of foreign god as they claimed, more likely doing some outlandish advertising for a new brothel. They had nothing to do with the city and travellers we’d questioned said that they’d been seen in other places before and usually moved on fairly quickly. Only one of them had any idea why: “They’re doing a pilgrimage to their god’s birthplace,” he said.
Well, a foreign god wouldn’t have been born here. If they didn't leave soon something would have to be done; they were upsetting respectable people. When next I saw them in the city I found myself disliking them; there was something wrong-seeming about the way they paraded themselves on the streets, and the way they looked at you and laughed. But I still thought the best thing to do was just ignore them, until the conservative old men came back to me a week later.
They found me outside the city, inspecting the barley fields. They’d come in a large group this time, plenty of the city’s worthies huddling together and looking worried. “What is it, gentlemen?” I said.
“It’s those girls,” said their leader. “Those foreign tarts. They’ve got a leader now, he says he’s a priest.”
“They did say they were here for religious purposes,” I pointed out, showing a more reasonable attitude than I really felt. The dancing girls made me uncomfortable.
“He’s taking our women!” cried someone at the back of the crowd.
When I heard the whole story it made my blood boil. The cult leader was performing ‘conversions’ in the city. He’d summon respectable women out of their homes and dress them up in outlandish costumes, and then they’d join in with the dancing girls romping in the streets and even in the hills outside the city, staying out all night getting drunk and doing god knows what. Defenceless unmarried girls, good-looking young wives, even well-bred old ladies – all of them were being seduced by this bogus priest’s charisma and forced to behave in the most atrocious and dangerous way possible. It was obvious what the priest was getting out of it. According to my unhappy informants, all of the women, including the two dozen original dancing girls, fawned on him like he was the king of the gods himself.
“Some people are saying he’s preaching a real god, a new one,” said one man. “My own brother, he was fooled. He’s let his wife and daughters go running off into the mountains half-naked – he’s even dressing up and going dancing himself. It’s disgusting – it’s embarrassing!”
“Calm down, calm down!” I shouted, over rising cries of fury and disgust. “Gentlemen, thank you for bringing this to me. The problem is obviously more serious than I thought it was. I’ll have this fellow sorted out.”
“They say he’s already been to the palace!” someone shouted.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” I answered, but I discovered it was true.
When I got home, the foreign mountebank had been there before me. To my appalled astonishment, I found that the priest had convinced my family that his heathen god was the real thing. My own grandfather had climbed achingly out of bed to dress himself up in the peculiar costume of the cult. I raged at him but he was deaf to reason, giggling with a grey-bearded friend who’d joined him in the absurdity; eventually, to my horror, I realised they were both roaring drunk. “Where’s my mother?” I demanded of them. “Where are my aunts?”
“They’re celebrating the rites on Mount Cithaeron,” said my grandfather, waving his staff at me in a haphazard fashion. “Hurry up and get changed, boy, we need to go and join in the fun!”
When he said Cithaeron my blood ran cold. I had not gone near that cursed mountain since Actaeon died. It was an evil place, where gods and daemons did evil things.
“I’m not getting changed,” I spat. “You should be ashamed of yourself, you senile old fool. Where is he? Where is this so-called priest? I want him arrested!”
The first set of guardsmen I sent to arrest him didn’t come back. I sent another set after them, and only one returned. He smelled strongly of wine and reported in unsteadily cheerful tones that all of his comrades were celebrating the rites of the god. “What god?” I bellowed at him. “There is no god! This man is a fraud!”
“Yessir, your kingness,” said the guard, and hiccupped. I bit my lip in disgust and sent another set of guards out. I was running out of men, so this time I told them not to bring me the priest, but his followers – the foreign women who’d come to the city in his vanguard. If he heard they were in trouble he should come for them, and if he didn’t, well, that would reveal the sort of man he was to all his misguided converts.
The guards didn’t look happy when they brought the girls in, but I was satisfied and dismissed them. The girls themselves seemed quite cheerful and not all that drunk. Not all of them were young. They didn’t try to convert me. One motherly-looking lady remarked to me in strongly accented Greek, “You don’t look well, dear boy – you should have yourself some nice hot wine, it’ll pick you right up,” but that was as close as it got, and she seemed more concerned than seductive. I ordered them housed in the women’s quarters lately vacated by my female relatives and settled in to wait for their ringleader.
He arrived with the sunrise, all alone. I only knew he was there when I heard the welcoming cries of his women. I threw on my clothes and stormed out to the courtyard to confront the man. Looking at him made my innards crawl with a soft creeping loathing. He was barely a man at all. He was dressed like a hetaira of the first order, a queen of courtesans, in flimsy clinging silks that draped around his long legs. He leaned on his curved staff as if it were too much effort to stand up straight like a proper man, and smiled lazily at everything he saw – the walls, the columns, the women who flocked around him, the burned-out rubble that flanked the courtyard. His skin was as pale as a girl’s, and his brass-gold hair was elbow-length and fell around his face in curls as flawless as my mother’s.
“You there!” I shouted. He looked up at me and smiled. The soft creeping inside me grew stronger.
“Hello, Pentheus,” he said. His voice was gentle and even. He spoke the language like a native, unaccented and smooth. “How nice to see you. Give me a moment, ladies, I need to talk to this one.”
His followers wheeled around him, laughing and nodding, and then flowed away as if the motion were planned. A clear path was left between the two of us, and he looked at me, smiling sidelong. “What happened there?” he asked, inclining his head towards the burned wreckage of Semele’s death-place. He spoke as if we were friends, not strangers. No one had spoken to me that way since Actaeon died.
“It was struck by lightning,” I answered. “We never rebuilt.”
“Good,” he said.
Fury sprang back into me. “Who do you think you are?”
“You have no idea who I am,” he said. “Weren’t you going to arrest me? I seem to remember some soldiers last night.” He laughed to my face. “They were good fun, I think! It’s all a bit of a blur.”
I had no guardsmen. I was too angry to care about the niceties. I covered the distance between us in six long angry strides and seized him myself. He didn’t struggle against my hands locked around his biceps. I could feel no muscle there at all – he was as slender as a girl, and as weak. I marched him up into the empty palace leaving his followers staring after us.
There was nowhere to take him, I realised as soon as I got inside. “I believe a dungeon is customary,” he said helpfully, and I nearly slapped him; only the thought of how childish it would look stopped me. Childishness gave me another thought, though, and I took him out the back way and around to the burned wing. At the entrance to the cellar, my secret hidden place, I stopped. “In there,” I said, shoving him at the gap between the fallen rafters, and stood over him as he crawled. I felt better seeing him scrambling away on his hands and knees, though frustratingly he wriggled in as easily as a snake. I was too bulky to do that anymore.
“Won’t you join me?” he called from inside. “I was really expecting some sort of interrogation, you know!”
I swallowed the curse I longed to snarl at him and made the undignified transit myself. He was waiting for me inside, sitting cross-legged in the corner with an alert expression pasted onto his smiling face. There was barely room for both of us; I had to stay seated, and our legs nearly touched. “This is cosy,” he commented. “Last time I was here it looked bigger.”
“You – what do you mean, last time?” I said.
“Ah,” said the priest. “Don’t you remember?”
He was sitting so close I could smell him, some sort of spicy foreign perfume. It was painfully familiar, and made my heartbeat speed up.
“You dreamed of me. Not just of me. You dreamed my mother,” he said, and as he said the words it seemed as if he was snatching the memory out of nowhere and bringing it alive. The echo of an old terror seized me along with it. I had nearly forgotten my childhood nightmare of Semele’s ghoul, but now it came back to me, bone fingers and melted gold.
“She’s outside,” said my companion, and I could hear her footsteps in the hallway above – the hallway that I knew no longer existed. “Ghosts don’t care about things like that, Pentheus,” he said. His brassy curls were falling into his face, hiding his expression. “Ghosts just stay where they died, all alone. My poor mother, she's been here for nearly twenty years, and no one came to visit her but you. Almost every day you'd come and fall asleep in her domain and she'd stand right inside that doorway, watching you breathe. She's jealous of breathing. She hasn't breathed in such a long time. She's very ugly now, and she used to be so beautiful."
My breathing was growing shallow. I couldn't tear my eyes away from him. I didn't dare try, for fear of what else I might see.
"She's wearing the things she died in still," he said, "the ghost of a dress that burned into nothing, all her fine jewellery that she wore for her lover. The golden armband like a serpent that belonged to your grandmother, it's melted all down her right arm. The bangles her sisters gave her, heavy on her wrists, the necklaces and the dangling earrings, she's wearing all of them plastered to her bones. And a ring of thunderbolt iron that was a gift from my father's own hand. Are you afraid?" He tilted his head, observing me. "You are. Come here.”
For a long moment I didn't move. Something in me that I barely remembered was myself, my serious strong adult self, was shouting at me that he was deceiving me, doing something to me, that I should not let him take me over with nothing but words and cheap magic tricks. The voice was very far away. The rest of me knew better; the rest of me could hear Semele walking through the burned-out hallways above just as she'd walked through my nightmares for years and years and years. As I hesitated, the footsteps came closer and closer, until they ceased - not gone, I knew not gone; Semele had paused in her wandering, her slow search. The priest held out his hands to me. I fell desperately forward into the safety of his arms.
My heart was pounding with horror and my breaths came harsh and fast as I listened to the footsteps begin again outside, until he put his finger over my lips and murmured, “You have to shush when you hide.”
The effort of being quiet made my whole body shake.
“There’s so many things I could do now,” he said as he held me close. “So many things I could make you say and make you think.”
“I’m dreaming,” I managed to whisper desperately.
“Not this time,” he said, and I knew who he was, now. He was my cousin. He was Semele’s son.
“My father was the king of the gods,” he murmured, sing-song, like someone telling an old old story. “My mother was Cadmus’ youngest daughter. She died of his glory but that couldn’t kill me. I was sewn into his thigh and born from it, so my father was my mother too. Passion and paradox, that was my creation. I am like wine, bringing joy and sorrow and forgetfulness. I am like madness, because I come from very far away but I was here all along. I have been with you for your whole life, and coming for you since you first dreamed of me.” He stroked my hair. I shivered. “I am going to destroy you,” he said softly, “because people must honour the gods. But you once stood in front of a dream of terror for me, so I like you. What shall I do, Pentheus, if I like you and must destroy you?” He paused and raised his voice. “Go away, Mother!”
I lifted my head. There was no sound in the tiny dark storeroom but my breathing and his. I knew the ghoul was gone. My head felt clear in a way it hadn’t in a long time – perhaps for my whole life.
"And the debt is paid," said the god.
I swallowed. I stared at him. He was still the girlishly pretty boy I'd met in the courtyard, but somehow here I could see other things in him, folded up small and hidden but ready to burst out of him in fire when he chose to release them. The fine-boned, laughing face that he wore was only a mask. "You're really going to destroy me," I said.
“Pentheus, I'm going to take you to pieces," said the god. "I'll start now. Would you like to be a woman?”
“No!” I said.
“Well, I’ll make you one anyway in the end,” he said, “but fine. Would you like me to be a woman?”
“Just a thought. Don’t move, then.” He twined his pale arms around my neck and kissed me. His mouth was stronger and firmer than it looked, and there was stubble on his jaw.
I did struggle, for a moment or two. Not much of me was left that wanted to struggle, but the piece of me that was king of Thebes knew that destruction should be fought. I was bigger than he was, and I was tanned and muscled and lean, the way a man should be. But his thin arms were as strong as steel and his mouth never left mine. I could smell the spicy scent of his skin very strongly, and when he pushed me down to lie on my back his slender body was impossibly heavy, irresistible. I opened my mouth for him and he kissed me harder, pushing his tongue deep into my mouth, taking control.
The cellar was blurring around us, and the hard floor I was lying on was a soft bed with silken sheets, and the smell of spice in the air was cut with the heady scent of wine and the sharp ozone smell of a lightning strike. The god broke the endless painful perfect kiss at last and smiled down at me, and I reached up and knotted my hands in his brass-coloured curls the way I'd wanted to the moment I saw him.
His body under the appalling courtesan's gown was white and straight, all lines and sharp edges. I cried out when his skin touched mine; it felt like there was fire running through me. He put his hands on my cheeks to kiss me, and kept kissing me as his hands moved to frame my throat, pressing down just a little so I gasped, and then landed on my hips, gently and inexorably pushing my legs apart. He trailed the tips of his fingers over my hardness, making me cry out and plead, and then his hands went lower, spreading me open.
"Wait," he said, and his eyes went distant and focused. I stared up at him with my mouth open. His lips moved, and his expression went amused.
"What are you doing?" I asked, feeling wretched and exposed.
"Looking for your madness," said the god. "And I think I found it," he added, and suddenly it was Actaeon crouched over me, Actaeon with his hands on my thighs and his dark eyes fixed on me. I made a sound in my throat that could never have been a word. I felt wetness on my face when he took me. I think I was crying. The god's smile stayed the same whatever his shape. He wore it all along, as he watched what he did to me.
Afterwards, dishevelled and half-naked, I panted for breath. The old cellar was cold, and dark, and empty of everything but us two.
“I’m going outside again now,” said the god, sitting back on his haunches and pressing his fingertips against my cheek. They were little spots of coolness on my skin, gone in an instant. “Back to the courtyard. Once you leave this room, you’ll only remember that I was in prison and I escaped. I don’t know how yet. Who knows what I’ll say? I’m very inventive.” He smiled. “And then I'll take you to Cithaeron.”
“Not there,” I said. “Don’t make me go there.”
The god laughed. "You hate it, don't you. Did you always hate the place? Is it only since Actaeon was torn to shreds? You'll be torn apart too and it won't hurt." He thought about this. "That was a lie. It'll hurt."
I cursed at him.
"You could always just stay in here," he suggested. "In here I rather like you. Outside I will rip you to little bleeding pieces." He chuckled. "In here I already did."
He didn't even bother crawling out of the cellar. One minute he was there and the next he wasn't. In the courtyard outside I could hear the joyful shouts of his women as they saw him reappear.
I couldn't move. I saw, over and over, Actaeon pressing me down, Actaeon wearing the mad god's smile. I felt an ache deep inside that was only partly physical. I could leave and die, or I could stay in here and remember it forever.
I knew, in a deep certain way, that it really would be forever. The god could keep me alive like this for as long as he liked, perhaps for all eternity, locked in a hole underground with only himself for company, feeding me sweet painful madness and wearing any face he chose as a mask. He could bring Actaeon back to me over and over, take me over and over, until there was nothing left of me at all. He'd do it with a smile. He'd said he liked me, and looked for the madness that would break my heart open, and taken me wearing it.
Slowly, slowly, I forced myself to sit up. In the courtyard the god waited for me. In the future my family waited, my mother and aunts running wild on Mount Cithaeron, hungry for blood. In here there was only the dark and the love of the god, forever and ever.
I crawled towards the door, leaving pieces of myself on the cellar floor.