"Once upon a time . . . "
In a cold, bleak room in a cold, bleak realm, a queen whispered these words. Her husband turned on his ebony throne, and asked, "Persephone? What troubles you?"
"Once upon a time, a young woman was locked in a tower by an ugly demon . . . "
She swung to face him, with the delicate tinkling of trinkets. "What?"
"Antigone sacrificed everything for me. She loves me, and the holy law I represent. Now she dies a martyr, and earns an honored place. Truly a remarkable woman . . . I wouldn't be surprised if you felt some sort of kinship."
She turned her face away, a high spot of color startling in her wan face. "You understand nothing." She rose to her feet slowly, but a small tremor made her jewelry sing out again.
The queen of the dead turned and faced him, back straight and face set in iron.
"I think it would be a fitting honor if you went and showed her the way to our home."
"This is NOT my home, and I am not your messenger!"
"Do as you will." He bent a little, and his face fell into shadow. The crown on his brow caught the light and held it, like a bright butterfly caught in glass.
She stared a moment, then broke and fled.
"Once upon a time . . . "
A woman - to say true, a girl barely halfway through her adolescence - - stood in a stone tower. It had but one exit, and it was bolted shut from the outside. The oaken door was not damaged at all, it bore not even a handprint. She sat on a stool in the middle of the room, back ramrod straight and face as still as if she sat before an audience of thousands, rather than alone in her coffin.
"So? What now, then?"
She surveyed the room as if she expect an answer, and sniffed disdainfully when she didn't receive one. The sound echoed in the stone room, and she listened as if it were a reply. Apparently, she found the reply unsatisfactory.
"Ah, this would be divine gratitude, then. Come now, you have cursed my entire family, but at least you could curse us together! Send me to my mother and father, to my brothers, on the instant!"
She stood as she spoke, and ended with a fist raised, as if threatening unseen powers, but the fist trembled with fear and hunger. "Speak or be silent forever! Defend your law, or it shall be to men as words written in dust! I am a woman of the house of Oedipus; mine was the honor of burying my father, my mother, and both my brothers. Both! Creon denied me my place, my honor, my only power. He denied me the burial rites, the rituals that the women of my house have learned to do so well. Did we deny burial my father or my mother, despite their incestuous crime? No! How much more deserving, then, was my brother?"
"Oh that man, that tyrant. Thebes knows not what it has done. It has thrown away every right, every freedom, thrown it at the feet of a man who would use and discard them like so much carrion. He couched his hunger in reasonable tones at first, but then - ah, but then! His cruel description of the way my brother would be eaten by the beasts cut my heart. He denied his own son! His own people! Demon, who would lock me away for his own pride!"
"Pride? Intemperate princess, cease your irony. Follow and be silent."
A golden presence in the dimness, crowned in gold and intricately robed, and announced by a subtle chime, there she stood. Antigone paused, then leapt to her feet.
"My queen! You've come to take me home!"
"Silence. Your joy is ill-conceived and irreverent."
"But . . . I stood for the gods."
"You are dead."
"I will see my family again!"
"I wish you joy of them. Follow," said the goddess with cold sarcasm.
Time ceased, and Antigone stood as if the whole world had shattered. Her irises were completely surrounded by white, and she felt as if the wind had blown behind her eyes and swept the dust away. "Nothing," she whispered. "It all meant absolutely nothing."
Persephone turned. "Many mortals say that, upon their entrance to the underworld. It was never worth dying for, for any of them. I've heard your greatest heroes weep and wail and swear that if I only send them back they would be content to be the merest fisherman. But why do you? You will see your family, embrace your brother. My husband honors you. Doesn't that mean something?"
Antigone looked down at her torn and dirty clothes. "I was glad when he died."
"My father. I was glad when he died. I looked into his empty eye sockets as I buried him, and rejoiced that I would never have to endure his sightless gaze again. Tell me, in your realm, does my father have his sight?"
"He was given a choice." The goddess looked away, through a stone wall and into the past. "He chose . . . not."
"He repents his crime forever, then. I wonder, does he mourn the fate of his children? Does he know, does he remember? He and my mother, truly an accursed pairing."
"They were your parents."
"I have lived, knowing my stain. Trying to be pious, pure, hoping to one day be forgiven my parents' crimes. Do you know, only two men have ever looked at me without thinking of my incestuous origin?"
"Haemon, and . . . ?"
"His father, my killer."
Persephone's eyes filled with rage, and the light around her darkened. She gazed at Antigone, and pierced her to her heart and beyond, to everything she had ever been or could be.
"Lie to yourself, child, but do not dare lie to me!"
"He is my murderer!"
"You are your murderer! You understood statescraft and law, you understood what your actions would mean to Creon and Thebes! There were better ways to bury your brother, and you knew it. You loved your parents, but hated them too. You hate Creon for taking the city from your family. Oh, don't deny it, it is unfit for a member of the royal house of Thebes to lie. But you love him, too, don't you? You understand him, his stern inflexibility. To you, he is what your father should have been. And you would have chosen no other to kill you."
"Why are you saying this? What does it matter now?"
"But that is not the whole. You punish those you love, don't you? Ismene, Creon, the entire city of Thebes. You have cursed them all."
"They killed me, all of them," cried Antigone, uncontrollably.
"You love them for it. Come, this is truly what you wanted. There was never a curse on the children of Oedipus, save what you yourselves put there."
"I . . . I want to take it all back. My life, my burdens. Please, let me start over!"
"Follow, and I will show you your rebirth."
There was a flash of light, and then nothing save the falling of dust onto an ashen shell of a woman.
"Once upon a time . . ."
A haggard old man whispered these words to his son, but the son couldn't hear. The son lay peaceful, as if he fell asleep to his father's story. No one was aware of two specters who also visited this once great hall.
"What," Antigone whispered, "is this?"
"Your rebirth. Your legacy. Your curse, and that of your father, and of his father."
"Your majesty!" cried a messenger. "Oh, my gods, your majesty!"
"What!" cried a grieving father. "What more can you do to me?"
"Foolish man," said Antigone, "they can always do more."
"You are enjoying this." The queen of the dead sounded almost bemused.
"No! Yes. I . . . why are you doing this?"
"Antigone, I too had no bridal hymn. I die once a year and then am reborn. No one knows more about regret than I. I wish to give you a choice, before it is too late, before you enter the realm of the dead and realize your mistakes there." She reached into her robes, and pulled out a flask.
"What is that?"
"Nepenthe. Water from the dark river, to make you forget all. You can start over, there in my realm. What say you?"
Antigone scuffed her foot, and was silent.
"What? You have run out of words? Where is your fire, daughter of Oedipus?"
"My father kept his scars."
"Is that your decision?"
Antigone surveyed the room. "What will happen to Thebes?"
"It will be ruled by a wiser, humbler man from now on. Creon has learned this harshest lesson well."
"The gods need no champions. It appears they can deal out the punishments themselves. They knew what was best, all along. Tell me, what would you do? If someone offered to make you forget the half dead life you must lead? If in each realm you had no memory of the other?"
"I . . . would refuse. It is a ponderous burden, but it is the one thing that is mine."
"Yes, I think that is how I have felt. My curse is my only possession, and I treasure it. Lead on, your majesty."
Once upon a time, in a dark and weary throne room, a king smiled. "You have it, wife. I may have pulled the bad lot, so long ago - but it is mine. My kingdom. Now truly, you know my nature well."