She spends the first year of her life being dipped into fire, or the River Styx. Story as a wholeness or constancy has not been conceived. Of seven brothers, she is the only one to survive the process. Her father, who is that novel thing, a mortal, is outraged; demands her mother put a stop to this experimentation; thinks homeopathy is a quack science, disdains superstition, fragrant smoke. Her mother, who is not that novel thing, a mortal, matches her husband’s outrage with her own, leaves the both of them in a huff. Her father takes the toddler to the forest and leaves it with Chiron, the only centaur who is not a drunk or a rapist. You take care of this, he says, and disappears from the map entirely and forever, of course.
She gallops alongside Chiron, packs of greyhounds, steeds, mountain cats, bears; she refuses to admit surrender or fatigue, even when her callused feet leave bloody prints on the ground. Chiron sweeps her up onto his back, laughing, and the skin of his flank is almost no different from the skin of her cheek resting upon it. They follow the trail of blood back to the cave: tiny toeprint, tiny heelprint, tiny halfprint. She is still learning that she does not have hooves. She is only ever allowed to hunt stronger creatures; forbidden from the deer, the lynx, the sick or mourning tiger. Honor being the skeleton of wildness.
For ten years she devours all the edible parts of the lion, the boar, the wolf, and wears all the other parts. This child is going to eat me out of my home, Chiron jokes to the other centaurs, when they visit, which is not often, because they are drunks and rapists and Chiron is as protective as a father of a virginal daughter. But they are contained by none of those things; he not a father, she ignorant of both virginity and daughterhood. And most of all, uncontained by the need for protection: from the age of six she has been killing every lion, bear and wolf on her own, with bare and relaxed hands. But this last fact is a hole in the ground that they avoid like a landmark. That her strength has a specific destiny, well-known to both of them; that war will one day unfold for her like a lover’s embrace—this, they do not talk about. Only now, during the present tense of hero-making, is she capable of ignoring her famous future. The already-built monument in a city she has never visited, a still-blank nameplate at its sandaled feet. The way one ignores air until the arrow parts the lung. This human is pretty impressive, the other centaurs tell Chiron, when they think she is not listening. Not knowing who she really is. Human, she repeats to herself. She has never heard the word before.
In the evening Chiron makes charcoal by burning animal bones, branches, broken arrows. He collects deposits of hematite and limonite in sacks made from the hide of a goat he ate years ago and still praises. He takes the deposits home and crushes them with his hooves, which pains him. He arranges the piles of variously colored dusts next to a hollowed trunk filled with water. His preparations complete, he begins to work. She watches as his red and black handprints shape and fill horsebodies, bullbodies, firebodies, treebodies, cloudbodies. The world unravels, blurrily, from his hands, across the walls. Horses that don’t designate horses. She asks, What is all this? He replies, This is what we are doing. His tail swinging, gently, back and forth, back and forth.
The light is poor in the cave. He invites her to climb onto his back so she can see more closely. She leans her chin on the top of his head, watches a family of bears as they sleep. Big bear, big bear, baby bear. Chiron turns around, asks for her hand. When she gives it to him, he covers it with his own, painting her palm and fingers black. It smells like dinner, and death. Go on, he says. She presses her hand on the wall. Then she pulls it back. The form of her tininess in the world. He says, Now that is a very good turkey.
When she is eight years old she sees a man on a mountain. He is lying on the grass and tugging at himself. It is the first time she has ever seen a man; and the first time she has ever seen a man’s body. Then a white froth spurts from his body, scribbling the mountainside. The man pauses, she watches him breathe heavily. After a moment he starts tugging at himself again. A dog, probably his, is seated several bodies-length away from him, scratching its ear with its hind leg.
She looks between her legs, underneath the wolf skin. She wants to tug herself, too, so she tries it. She wants to laugh, it feels odd. She is still laughing when the white froth spurts from her, too, knocking her onto her knees. The come is sticky on her hand. But she knows that the hand and the stickiness are the same body. What is odd is that the hand part of her hand is not sticky. She wipes her hand upon the grass, looks at the smear. A baby bear, a turkey, half of a running horse.
When she is nine years old she falls in love, or decides to fall in love, with Chiron. I have seen centaurs fuck, like this, she says, going down on all fours in the living room of the cave, pulling back the wolf skin to reveal her hard, mud-covered buttocks. So let’s try that! Chiron looks grieved to his soul. I am trying to eat my breakfast here, he says.
Now the thought of being fucked by Chiron fevers everything. She dreams of his cock, which she has seen every day of her life, as long as her arm; of his hooves on either side of her shoulders. Now she is stupid with longing. On hunting days she shoots arrows into testicles and hearts, in clumsy attempts at innuendo; she squeezes herself into a cramped corner of the cave and sketches miniature erotica betweens animals of different species and disparate sizes; while crossing a river she nearly drowns, lost in fantasies of ear-fucking. Chiron says, What the hell is the matter with you? She says, You and your hunting and your charcoal and your piety, do you know how many centaurs have already tried to get at my ass? Chiron says, Listen to me, you are like my own child. She says, What does that have to do with anything, I’m in love with you. Chiron says, Do you know what first loves are there for? She says, What, knowing she won’t like the answer to this. She can already see his erection. Chiron says, To be first, and begins to sleep in the most remote part of the cave.
Childhood, unclothe me, I will never fit you!
Wanted by everyone, wanted by no one. Body that smells of boar blood, shit and sage leaves. When will I be loved? She thinks of the man she saw on the mountain. She looks down at her body. With these legs she can trot, canter, lope, gallop. But where are her hooves, where is her tail? Why is her organ so cute? She loathes this body; its varieties of softness, dryness, skinness. She wants to wear a coat with her own veins in it. Her fingerprints so easily become a horse, she does not know why the rest of her cannot follow suit.
One day she comes home and four drunken centaurs are leaving the cave. When she enters Chiron is there, staring at a wall of horses that have been defaced with giant penises and X marks. He notices her watching him. He says, trying to laugh, Start over again, I guess.
A boy is delivered to the cave by a distant friend of her father’s, to be her companion and squire. He has been entrusted to her family’s care after accidentally killing another boy during a game of dice. His name is Patroclus. He is older than her by a few years, has a self-effacing courtesy and a wide range of suicide jokes. Sometimes she sees him looking down at his hands in a loathing that rivals her own. Once again she is sick and dumb with longing. While they are hunting together, she begs him to fuck her. Patroclus, in the plain and sad way he will become famous for, says that he’ll fuck her if she fucks him first. She is a little surprised; she hasn’t ever really imagined doing that to Chiron. But Patroclus is already on his back, lifting both of his knees, two fingers in his asshole. It’s all right, he says. I’ve done it a few times before, it won’t hurt me too much. She says, How do I. Patroclus says, Spit in your hand and make your thingy all wet, then put it inside me, here. She has barely entered him when she already starts coming. Patroclus bursts into laughter beneath her. Even his laughter is plain and sad. He is wincing. She is already imagining arrows in suggestive body parts, drowning, pornographic sketches, obsessive dreams, forest stalking. Patroclus asks, What, is this your first time? Or just your first time with a boy? Her come leaking out of his asshole, making its own shapes on the ground. Fragrance of dead leaves, seaweed. She says, What’s a boy.
Despite the misfortune that has cut open his life and brought him to her, Patroclus is still a gambling fanatic. He refuses to touch dice or anything resembling dice, but in the forest when they are supposed to be hunting for dinner—both of them are rapidly losing weight—Patroclus rips branches off of trees, whittles them, then throws them onto the ground with passion. He says the figures they make are divining, oracular. He says they can also denote different quantities and qualities, levels of celebrity or potency. She says, Okay, sounds fun, let’s play. She throws the branches to the ground. Patroclus howls, The palace of Aphrodite on your first try?! What are the odds?! You really are blessed by the gods.
She looks down at the figure in the dirt, then back at Patroclus. A blush spreading across her face. Patroclus begins to laugh. I can take a hint, he says, lifting up his boar skin and kneeling down.
Playing hide and seek, she finds him through his footprints. How the hell did you know it was me, there are at least fourteen other prints here, Patroclus asks. She says, I recognize yours. Later he says, You’re not as dumb as you look—or maybe you’re so honest, you’re beyond stupidity. His fist opening up inside of her. What have you done to me, only one of us is supposed to be in love, now it’s all a mess.
But soon the landmark hole in the ground opens up and she falls straight into it. The war has already begun. Her mother visits the cave, weeping. Saying that if she wants to escape the war and live, she must go in hiding as soon as possible. It is the first time she has seen her mother in ten years. She slaps her across the face with great dignity. Her mother takes the slap, then says, Fair enough, but you still have to go. She says, I’m taking Patroclus with me. Her mother says, You can’t, you have to leave everything behind that marks YOU as YOU. She starts screaming, rips out a patch of her hair. Her breath still smells like Patroclus’ pee. Listen to your mother, says Chiron, who has been distant and melancholy since Patroclus arrived.
Patroclus says, If there’s a way you can avoid having to kill someone, take it, run. He is a thirteen-year-old murderer, a wise man. He knows the world they are sketched in. Still, she wails, But but but what about us? Patroclus says, My life already belongs to you and I plan to outlive the war. You do the same. GO.
Then Patroclus laughs. Still plainly, still sadly. When we see each other again, we’ll fuck each other’s brains out.
On the boat to Skyros her mother has already prepared robes, rouge, kohl, perfume oils. She is bathed six or seven times until her mother is satisfied that the animal shit smell is gone from her. Her mother teaches her how to tuck the organ between her legs and bind it with scarves, bandages. Her mother says, You are never to let anyone see you naked, and you are never to reveal your real name. The two being equal, or equally dangerous. In the palace she is introduced as her own fictional twin sister. The king, Lycomedes, makes at least four sexually suggestive jokes during the first conversation. Her mother’s last words to her before she leaves the palace are: AS LONG AS YOU’RE ALIVE.
Where she had lions and arrows and burnt bones, she now has laundry and ribbons and pomegranate juice, the rituals of which are no less vicious. Because she exceeds them in beauty and mystery, the women in the palace do not like her. Only Lycomedes’ eldest daughter, Deidamia, smiles at her as if sharing a private and hilarious story. Once, the girls throw all of her new jewelry and clothes in a nearby river. She has to wade in and fish everything out again. She weeps freely; missing Patroclus, missing ever more painful and exciting feats of fucking, missing Chiron’s back as he ferries her outstretched colored hands from wall to wall.
She hears a splashing behind her. Deidamia is in the river, her skirts around her hips, shaking water from a bracelet. You might not want to lift your skirt that high, Deidamia says, giggling. She looks down, sees her low-hanging testicles. Deidamia says, Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. You look just like a girl, anyway.
She says, sniffling, What’s a girl.
In bed she dreams of Patroclus, of his face full of sorrow as he comes into her mouth. She comes into her hand. Her come smells different now. No more leaves, seaweed, bones. She wipes her hand on the silk bedsheets. Still; a baby bear, a turkey, half of a running horse. She dips her finger in the come and traces several lines into the sheets. The lines are for herself, the lines are not for herself. She wishes she could send them to Patroclus and ask them what they divine.
She and Deidamia now spend most of their days sneaking off to secret hiding places in the palace. So do you like anyone in particular, she asks Deidamia. Deidamia says, I barely like anyone in general. She says, That sure sounds lonely. Deidamia looks at her and says, You’re kind of an idiot, but I’m guessing that’s your charm?
Then Deidamia says, To answer your question more nicely, I used to have someone I liked, but she moved away. She was my maid. I only like girls. She says, If you barely like anyone, how do you know you only like girls? Deidamia says, impatiently, I just know, like I know I have an arm.
She looks down at her arm. I don’t always know I have an arm, she replies.
She is starting to think of the robes and the jewelry and the rouge and kohl as another kind of burnt bone, shaved branch, colored dust, come. The ink in everything. Now she has favorite colors, necklines, semi-precious stones. She feels like a cave wall. She is still lovelier by far than all the women of Skyros. She dreams, If only Patroclus could see me now. He would throw branches on the ground, and we would fuck until we were both as blurry as all those animals.
Lycomedes passes her in the hallway, makes a complicated pun about ripening fruit that she thinks is also referring to hymen, but she is not smart enough to be sure. She is not even sure hymen is the right word. She tries to imagine the word HYMEN in her mind and the effort gives her a headache for the rest of the day.
And what about you, do you like anyone, Deidamia asks. She sighs, Yes, but it always ends badly; everyone protects me, everyone abandons me. Deidamia is holding her hand, stroking the palm with her fingertips. She closes her eyes, her breath shifting and falling along with the squiggles and crosses that are inscribed, then erased, upon her hand. To her embarrassment, the touch arouses her, she has to discreetly arrange the folds of her gown. Deidamia says, I’m tracing your life line, your love lines. Do you want to know what they say? She mumbles, I already know everything they’re going to say. Deidamia says, You can’t know everything. She says, Overprotected and therefore neglected child, eternal broken heart, early death in war. That about sums it up? Deidamia says, There’s one more thing. She says, Well, what is it? Deidamia says, Not gonna tell you! She says, Fine, but don’t stop what you’re doing, it feels nice. Deidamia says, Duh, like I can’t see your woody. She blushes.
Deidamia says, So this last person you liked, what happened? She says, He’s waiting for me. Deidamia says, Ah, so you like boys. She says, I don’t know what you mean. Deidamia says, Never mind, I forgot I’m talking to an idiot. She says, I wish I could speak to him, I wish I could send him my toenail clippings, or my hair. Deidamia says, You can send him something. Look. She looks down. Deidamia is tracing something more specific into her hand. Deidamia says, Think really hard about what you want to say to him. She closes her eyes, and thinks, really hard, really hard, real and hard, about what she wants to say to Patroclus. Deidamia says, Okay—send it to him—now!
Deidamia’s nails dig into her palm. She says, OW! and opens her eyes again. Deidamia says, All right, it’s sent.
She asks, What did you do to my hand? What did you put there? Deidamia shrugs and says, I don’t know, that’s between you and him. She asks, Is it really going to reach him? Deidamia says, Well, there’s always a chance that it doesn’t get there, you can’t help that.
She stares down at her hand. Four grooves shaped like scythes, already fading, still foreignly warm.
She is in a playroom waiting for Deidamia to be finished with her toilette when Lycomedes opens the door and stalks towards her. I’m just waiting for, she says, but he is already gripping her arm, turning her over onto her stomach on the floor, dragging her gown upwards. He says, You’ll still be a virgin, I’ll only use the other hole. She knows she is stronger than him, she could kill him. Should she kill him? She is already imagining his intestines in her hands.
While she is thinking of this, the door bursts open, and four of Deidamia’s youngest sisters sprint into the room, giggling and shouting. Hello Pa, want to play with us? they chortle and sing. Lycomedes coughs, jerks up. Hello darlings, he says. Not so loud in the morning, all right? She is still on the floor like a branch or pile of dust. Before leaving with his daughters, Lycomedes says to her, They are coming for you; but until then, I own you, girl.
After he leaves, she lays there, breathing. Suddenly someone kicks her in the head. She looks up, it is Deidamia. Deidamia cries, Some fucking warrior! Sending them all in there at once was the only way I could think of to distract him. She says, But I didn’t want to kill him, he was weaker than me, it’s not honorable. Deidamia says, He isn’t weaker than you, you muscle-for-brains, wake up. You should have ripped his throat out. She replies, I only want to kill for love, or something like that. Deidamia says, What kind of an idiot are you? You have to find better ways of resisting, if you want to survive like this. She repeats, Like this? Deidamia says, Like what you are. Like what we are. You’re not in the forest anymore. You have to figure out a way to live.
She lies in bed alone, thinking. She is twelve years old; middle-aged. Lycomedes said they were coming for her. She already knows it, can feel her life narrowing, can see the next hole, the next life, that is already opening up for her. From fire to river to forest to cave to palace to battlefield. What can she do with the making that is making her? Fighting that is not killing, strength that is not strength, better ways of resisting.
It sounds like certain and early death, she thinks, but isn’t that the way it’s going to go anyway? What is it to be the only one of your kind? But she is learning that she is not really the only one of her kind.
They hide in a secret passageway accessible only through a trapdoor in Deidamia’s room. They can already hear the soldiers roaming the palace, flirting with the other daughters, demanding beef jerky. Deidamia says, How are you going to escape? In the cramped space, Deidamia is practically in her lap. She says, You smell so good. Deidamia says, They’re going to drag you by your ears into death and that’s all you can think about? She says, But you smell really good.
Deidamia gazes at her and says, What is it about you. You make people think they have to protect you and then they end up being the one needing protection.
She puts her face in Deidamia’s hair, inhales. She says, I think I’m in love with you, too.
Deidamia says, I’ve been defeated by an idiot.
She says, You’re the one who said I had to figure out a way to live.
Deidamia lifts up her skirt and says, Anyway, you’re a girl, aren’t you. The whole time they are laughing nervously. Deidamia’s blood covers her penis. Ink in everything.
The final trick is ridiculously obvious, even to her. Odysseus puts a box of women’s clothing in the center of a room and invites all the daughters to pick what they like. But hidden among them are a shield and sword. Who would choose them, but Achilles the real boy, har har har fuck you? Like a jackass Odysseus takes advantage of the situation by mentioning Patroclus, who is waiting for him, in every other sentence. Lycomedes leers from behind a goblet.
Standing next to Deidamia, she stares down at the box. Deidamia murmurs, What are you going to do.
She looks around at the other soldiers; she doesn’t have anything in common with any of them. But she sees that even her gaze is undoing their composure, making them fidget. The present tense of hero-making faces its future. She cannot ignore air anymore. She thinks of herself asking Chiron, What is all this? And Chiron replying, This is what we’re doing. She reaches down and picks up the shield, the sword. By now she knows how becoming a costume is.