I love Old Navy. Old Navy, and Ariadne.
Let me explain (whilst also pulling metaphor out of a hat by its ears!).
Today was the day I decided I needed new clothes. This usually happens once in spring and once in fall: I’m consumed, seemingly all of a sudden, with the desire to get new things. Not a lot of things. One shirt for work, say; one pair of jeans for non-work. Today I decided I’d walk from work to Winners—brand names at serious discounts! I’ve had success there before, though it’s rarely been quick; usually there’s a great deal of rifling through racks of truly hideous garments, followed by a protracted period of change-room futzing. Today I tried on six things, and not one of them fit me. It wasn’t just an aesthetic issue: the items did not fit. I thought I knew my jeans size. Six brands later, apparently not. So I hooked the uncooperative garments onto a rack and hightailed it for Old Navy.
I know what size I am there. Jeans, dress pants, dress shirts, t-shirts: it’s always the same. I wish this weren’t so compelling. Does the fact that it’s compelling make me old and unadventurous as well as shallow? I love the shirts I found. The jeans fit me perfectly, and I love them too. The jeans are “boyfriend fit”—which, as far as I can tell, means that they’re not so stranglingly tight that you lose all sensation in your legs, from mid-thigh to ankle, and bulge like a sausage everywhere else (because surely boyfriends dislike this, in a jean).
Now for that bunny of an analogy.
The familiar. The thing you’ve known for years, and trust, and enjoy. Old Navy jeans—and Greek myths?
I tried, years ago, to write a trilogy set in a fantastical Aegean, based upon the tragic, bloody, incestuous, cannibalistic, multi-generational story of the House of Atreus. A couple of years later I tried something else: a trilogy based on a fantastical Alexander the Great. Both of these attempts started out well enough: I loved the idea of parlaying obsessions I’d had since adolescence into something literary and adult. Only neither of the trilogies worked out that way. The concepts toppled the characters and I couldn’t prop them up again. Authorial hubris? Or maybe just stories I wasn’t ready for.
About three years ago, I tried again. This time I didn’t start from a map or a multi-generational epic or a still-famous real person. This time I sought out one myth and settled into it. Ariadne. Theseus. The Minotaur. The labyrinth. What if Ariadne were a manipulative bitch, not a lovelorn victim? What if the bull started out as a boy? What if there were a slave girl who knew them, who watched the cruelty and the shapeshifting and ended up being the very centre of everything (including the labyrinth)? This was story at a scale that didn’t scare me. Characters I knew but wasn’t so awed by that I’d hesitate and question and falter.
The Door in the Mountain is what came of this. It’ll be out in spring, 2014. A year after that the story will end with a second book that, for now, has no name. I’m only about 12,000 words into this second book. As usual, I have no idea how it’s all going to end—but I’m sure I’ll figure it out. The characters are clear; plot will follow.
So I guess I’m saying that the Minotaur myth is my happy Old Navy, while Alexander the Great is my fruitless Winners. Tell me you’ve encountered such an analogy before. I dare you.
[This is the Door in the Mountain excerpt I read at the ChiSeries event a week ago. No context required.] [No jeans, either.]
Ariadne could not sleep. She lay as motionless as she could atop her sheet, her arms and legs spread wide, but sweat still seeped from her skin and flattened her hair. She imagined her mother lying in her bed, one corridor away. The same sunlight would be oozing between the round pillars up near the ceiling; the same heat would be pulsing through the walls. But Pasiphae would probably be sleeping, her own skin beaded with water, not sweat.
Ariadne groaned and sat up. The paint on her walls seemed to swim: the green coils of plants and their crimson flowers; the brown of fawns and hares. “Deucalion,” she said, and reached for some hair clips. He would help – he would summon a small, fresh wind that would soothe them both. But he was asleep, curled up like a cat in the chamber beside hers. Glaucus was asleep too; even the children’s slave was sleeping, sitting cross-legged with her back against the square pillar that separated the boys’ rooms.
Ariadne almost woke her brothers (with a single, piercing scream, right in Glaucus’ ear), but then she thought, No – it’s so quiet, and I’m alone – I’m the only one awake, and I could do anything I wanted…If only Phaidra didn’t have a nurse, I could creep in and put a lizard in her cradle. But Asterion – he just moved into his own chamber. Yes – Asterion…
He was not alone: the girl Chara was asleep on the floor at the foot of his bed. She was lying on her back with her limbs splayed, as if she were on the finest of mattresses and not stone. Ariadne ground her teeth in annoyance. The child was always with him, when Pherenike was attending to the queen – a small, thin, dark-haired little shadow whose grey eyes were strangely solemn, when they were open. Now, though, they were tightly closed.
Ariadne looked from Chara to Asterion. At first she thought he was awake, because his arms and legs were twitching. He was facing the door but his chin was tucked against his chest and she could not see his eyes. He twitched and twitched, and his limbs made hissing sounds on the cloth. She stepped through the doorway and walked slowly toward the bed, her bare feet silent on the stone. When she was close enough to touch him he sucked in his breath and flung himself onto his back. She froze and held her own breath until she saw that his eyes were closed. They rolled beneath their lids, up and down and around. She remembered this rolling from the cave, nearly two summers ago; the very same movement, though his eyes had been open that time. She also remembered that his horn nubs had glowed like molten bronze, before. Even though his hair was much longer and thicker, she could see that it was the same now: two points of light were throbbing on either side of his head.
It was very hot in the cave, she thought. And it’s very hot in here. She pressed a curl flat against her forehead, curling it tighter with her fingertip until it was like a whorl of seashell. What would happen to him if it got hotter?
Getting the lamp was easy. There were only a few slaves about, between the family’s quarters and the underground storerooms, and all they did was raise their hands to her in the sign of the horns and continue about their business. She paused in the grain room, which was dark except for the flickering of oil lamps. The rows of jars soared above her head. Their shadows were taller yet. She drew in gulps of cool air, but just for a moment – soon people would be stirring.
The lamp’s base was metal and she had to shift it from hand to hand as she walked so that her skin would not burn. She set it down quickly on the floor beside Asterion’s bed; it clanged against the stone and he grunted and thrashed but his rolling eyes did not open. Chara did not move at all.
Ariadne stared at his walls for a bit, while she thought. The paint on them was all blues and whites: water, sky, the god-bull forming out of a foaming wave. The god-bull on the wall and the god-boy on the bed – she scowled and turned back to the lamp. Then she smiled.
The hem of Asterion’s sheet caught fire almost as soon as she touched it to the lamp. The cloth melted black behind the flame, which widened as it climbed. When it reached the bed frame it was nearly as long as Asterion was, from glowing horns to scuffing feet. The fire was flowing under the arm and leg closest to the edge; it was around them, over them, in the space of a single heartbeat. He woke with a cry and lurched up on the bed, and the fire was eating at his tunic. He cried out again; his voice sounded too low, as if he were a man, not a two-year-old boy. He threw himself off the bed, straight at Ariadne. She leapt backward and he fell at her feet. Sparks caught in her skirt and she smacked at them with her hands until they died.
He gazed up at her, and in the space of one more heartbeat his eyes widened and rounded until there was no more boy in them. He heaved himself onto his hands and knees. His tunic fell away in gobbets of black and embers and his spine arched. Blisters unfurled on his skin and turned almost immediately to coarse brown hair that bloomed along his back and sides in patches that joined. His golden head had gone dark and matted too, and his horns were longer, curving out and up above folded-over ears. He scrabbled at the ground with fingers and toes that fused as Ariadne watched, their nails spreading and yellowing into cloven halves.
He turned his head – sideways, because his neck was so thick that he could not lift it up. The fire was only sparks now, spinning and settling on his furred body and on the lashes clustered around his eyes. His eyes were rolling again, white and brown and black. Ariadne thought, He can’t see me. She lowered herself slowly into a crouch.
“Look at you, Brother,” she said, loudly enough to be heard above the whuffing of his breath. “Look at what you are – and I’m the one who found out. I’m the only one who knows. So if you change back now – if you can just do that, no one else will –”
The beast that had been Asterion bellowed. This was not the low cry of before but a full-throated roar that startled Ariadne back onto her heels. The roar did not stop. She heard another sound – a scream, behind her – and began to scream herself because she knew she should. The children’s slave ran past her. She flapped her skirt against the sheet until the flames died and then hovered a few paces away from the bull-thing. She raised her hands to her mouth but they muffled nothing. Her scream trailed into a sort of whine, while Ariadne’s continued. Footsteps pounded along the hallway, closer and closer (Ariadne heard them when she paused to breathe). She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Quiet – quiet, Ari!” Deucalion, shaking her by the shoulders but not looking at her. Glaucus was clinging to the doorframe. He was already crying, Ariadne saw, and she wished she did not have to wait to say something mocking. Androgeus strode past Glaucus. He stood above the bull, who was on his side again, kicking as he roared. Androgeus knelt. He placed one hand on the creature’s flank and one on his head, between the horns. He leaned close and spoke his god-marked words again, which Ariadne could never understand. The coarse hair beneath his hands turned to silver.
The bellowing and kicking stopped. The rolling eyes went still and changed shape – everything did, from hoofs to legs to flanks to barrel chest to damp, flaring nostrils. It happened in the time it took Ariadne to blink three times (she tried not to blink at all, but there had been tears with her screaming), and when it was done, Asterion the boy lay on his belly on the stone. His slender arms and legs trembled. They were covered with blistered welts, but his back was the worst: red and raw like the insides of a flayed animal. Androgeus drew Asterion’s head gently onto his lap. He stroked his damp golden hair and murmured more words as Asterion gasped and sobbed. He’s in such pain, Ariadne thought, and felt a rush of pleasure that sent blood dizzily to her head.
Someone was laughing. Ariadne turned and saw Pasiphae standing in the doorway. She was laughing and maybe crying – it was hard to tell whether the moisture on her cheeks was sweat or god-marked water or tears. She walked slowly to her sons and knelt by Asterion. “My little god,” she said. “Poseidon’s little bull – I saw him in you, just now, and I heard him in your voice.” She held her palms above his back. Water dripped from them and fell on his raw skin like a mist. All his muscles bunched when it touched him, but as it seeped and spread he went limp.
“I look on you now, and I rejoice in your godhead, and yet,” she went on, each word harsher than the one before it, “I hate your pain. I hate it, and I wonder what caused it. Who caused it.”
The slave gasped, “My Queen, it –” and Ariadne leapt to her feet.
“It was her!” she cried, pointing at the slave. “I came because I heard him shouting and she was already here with the lamp!”
The queen’s green eyes shifted. The brows above them arched.
“No!” The slave’s hands were still over her mouth. “No, that’s not true! Why would I bring a lamp on such a hot day? My Queen, I came when I heard the prince shouting, and it was she…”
The slave was fat. She was fat and her hair was lank and her eyes were small and darting, like a sow’s – and yet Pasiphae was gazing at Ariadne now, looking her up and down as if she might actually believe the woman.
“Daughter,” she said. “Tell me once more what happened.”
Ariadne swallowed. She drew herself up tall. One of her hair pins was slipping out; she felt its metal tines and a wayward curl tickling her neck but she did not fidget at all.
“I heard Asterion. I was too hot to sleep; I heard him and got here very quickly. He was on the floor and she was kneeling by him. The sheet was still on fire so I put it out with my skirt – look! – there are holes in it, and my hands are all pink and burned! I screamed so that someone else would come.”
Asterion coughed, and froth came out of his mouth. He was staring at her. Hecan hardly speak, she thought. He’s only two. So there’s no way he can understand me, either. And yet he stared at her. Chara was staring too – how long had she been awake? She was crouched with her arms wrapped around her knees, a thumb in her mouth. Her sea-mist eyes were almost as round as his had been.
Before Ariadne could say anything else, hands came down on her shoulders. They were large and blunt-nailed and covered with black hair. She knew they were her father’s even before she craned up at him.
“I have only just come, and yet I think I understand this much: a slave is telling the royal family that the Princess Ariadne lies.”
The slave bent her head. Her hair fell in sweat-clumped strands around her face. “I am,” she whispered.
Fool! thought Ariadne, but as she did, a sick shudder rose from her belly to her throat. (Had she really been dancing in front of everyone, just this morning? Had everyone really just been cheering for her?)
“Leave this room,” Minos said to the slave. His voice rumbled through Ariadne and she felt heat – flame stirring beneath the skin of his fingertips. The sickness had already gone. “Leave this city. And tell everyone who asks that Minos King was merciful enough to let you live.”
The woman shuffled toward the door. When she reached Ariadne she paused and moved her hair aside with one fat-fingered hand. Her beady brown eyes found Ariadne’s and held them.
“Now,” said the king. The slave shuffled on, and out.
Pasiphae was looking down at Asterion, drawing her weeping palms gently along his burns. Deucalion was standing with his head against the painted bull-god’s flank, facing his mother. The only eyes Ariadne could see were Androgeus’ and Asterion’s, and they were on her, steady and knowing. Androgeus can talk to animals, she thought, and the sickness was in her throat again.
“He is monstrous,” Minos said.
Pasiphae smiled and curled a lock of hair behind Asterion’s ear. “He is my god’s, and he frightens you. Shames you, too—for your own family came to kingship with marks far weaker than his. Conjurors of light and thunder; the gods were hardly even trying, when they marked your line.”
Minos gripped Ariadne’s shoulders even more tightly. The heat in his fingers made her want to wriggle, but she did not. She waited for him to growl a curse or shoot bolts of fire at her mother but he only stood and stood, breathing heavily – and then his hands were gone and he was walking swiftly down the hall, in and out of the light that fell between the pillars. “No!” Ariadne wanted to cry after him. “Come back; do something!”
“My son,” Pasiphae crooned. “My little lord.”
Ariadne felt blood surging up into her head again – fury, this time, not joy. There were voices too, her own and ones she did not know: You should have been the only one to know about him no one is looking at you no one is paying you any attention at all not the gods and not men even though you danced for them only this morning run away run away and they may notice…
She ran, but no one called after her and no one followed (she glanced over her shoulder to see). All of her hairpins fell out; by the time she came to a panting halt in Naucrate’s outer chamber her curls were hanging against her neck and back in a tangled mess.
“Princess! What is it now? Come here and sit by me…”
Naucrate smelled like lemons, as always, and her hands were as firm and gentle as ever, tracing long lines on Ariadne’s back, but the voices and blood did not stop their pounding. Ariadne pulled herself free of Naucrate’s arms and ran to the table. She swept everything off it – all the tiny jars and vials and boxes. Kohl, perfume, figs and glass rained down onto the stone.
“Ariadne,” Naucrate said, into the silence that followed. “Oh, Minnow, what is wrong?”