Monday, 16 June 2014

Spilt Milk: Helen of Troy on Motherhood

I've always been interested in the experience and treatment of women in myth. I've written about Ariadne and Pasiphae, Medea, Medusa, Aphrodite, Djinn, Eve, Daphne, ClytemnestraAndromache, and yes, Helen. I like thinking about the untold stories of women, scraping beneath the surface of the myth to think about what lies beneath. To consider the jagged emotions, the power and the motivations, and in particular, motherhood.  Spilt Milk, finds Helen reflecting on her decisions, on the eve of the fall of Troy. 

 Spilt Milk

Ten years ago, I left her. As my lover murmured against my neck, as I shivered, enthralled, my womb wept from within. They'll find her a wet nurse, I told myself. A nurse to witness her dawn smile, a nurse to feel the press of her tiny fist as she fed. A nurse, not me. My fate was to launch a thousand ships, to bring rivers of blood to the pale sands of Ilium.

Night presses against my skin, a humid blanket. I've woken to a pregnant moon and the pungent smell of curdled milk. That smell, Gods, that smell. Memories taunt me of hot skin stretched tight over burgeoning breasts, splintering pain and a tell-tale stain oozing through my robes. Motherhood, leaking away.

Fate, or choice? I try not to think about that.

I don't know if she survived. Girl children are dispensable, even in Sparta. I was.

Paris shifts beside me, his arm flung over his face, exposing his belly. He has the casual confidence of a child. Though my husband's black ships crowd the beaches of Troy, though the city aches with hunger, Paris sleeps without fear. Death has passed him over before and the gods are on his side. He does not know how capricious they are.

Tenderness spears me. I smooth the hair back from his face. He's a pretty boy still, olive skinned and smooth. The first time I saw him, he was gilded by the dying sun and his face was alive with laughter. He smelled of salt and the wild winds of the wine dark sea. I thought he was Dionysus sprung to life calling the maenad bound within my wifely body. My response frightened me.

So when he smiled at me, I lifted my mantle over my face and turned away. I felt my husband's hand on my shoulder and was reminded that I did not belong to myself, that I never had.

They say Aphrodite made me leave. They say I was cast into a fire of lust, blinded and compelled by the gods. I know better. In my more honest moments I know it wasn't love, nor lust, nor a divine enchantment. It was fear that if I did not, I would dwindle into my goddess smile and perfumed hair; a princess sold to be a queen, a child-woman forced to be a mother. Never me. Never Helen.

I should have taken her with me.

I didn't realise that she was part of me until the sea parted us and the emptiness in my belly threatened to swallow me whole.

I didn't know that I would hear her in every newborn cry that split the air, see her smile in the babes clinging to life within Troy's battered walls. I couldn't guess that I would find myself hovering over cradles, not daring to touch in case I couldn't let go.

My child. My Hermione.

I turn away from Paris, gathering the sheets to my soft breasts. No milk there now, but I smell it still.



Diane J. Reed said...

So exquisitely written & insightful. I felt the haunting ache to my bones. What an astonishing writer you are!

Meg McNulty said...

Thank you Diane, that is lovely to read!