The envoy from Thebes is, of course, addressing my husband, the King; but he keeps looking surreptitiously in my direction. I am not offended; everyone does it. Not that there is much to see: an old woman, rather nondescript if not for the royal robes and jewellery. But like everyone else, he is looking for what was there; more exactly, for what the poets and singers have described.
I am sure that the merchants and others who have cause to visit the site of Troy do the same thing. They see a bustling but quite ordinary town (or so I am told, I have never been back there and never wanted to) and they look for glimpses of the tall towers, the high walls, the stables where those legendary horses were kept. They must be disappointed.
The envoy glances at me again, sees that I am staring back at him, and looks hastily away, continuing to speak. “We have concluded similar trade agreements with Mycenae…”
I wonder which version of me he believes in. The one that the bards never grow tired of? The young queen, dragged to the waiting galleys, once more a captive of her unfeeling husband. She yearns to throw herself into the sea (in the poems, for some reason, it’s always “wine-dark”) to drown and be reunited with her poor dead beautiful lover. Paris and Helen, nevermore to be! And as a fitting backdrop, Troy itself is dead along with our love; the walls broken and breached, the towers ablaze or demolished. In this scenario, I am the epitome of Woman who, though she does not fight in the battle-line, must suffer more than man in any war. My lover slain, the city that had become my home a blazing ruin. And now, they think, time has laid siege to my beauty – the beauty that made even my cold-hearted husband drop his sword when he meant to kill me. And if the war was fought because of me, I am no less a victim.
On the other hand, this young envoy looks rather prim and strait-laced. Perhaps he shares the opinion of quite a few. “So, this is all that is left of Helen. The selfish woman who started a war with her silly romantic notions. Heroes died and noble ladies were enslaved, a great city fell, and it was all her fault. She put her lust for a boy before her duty.” I am old, but my hearing is still acute; I have heard some say as much when they think I am out of earshot. Nobody would dare say it to my face, of course: Menelaus would have them killed. Not that he cares about me, but he believes, as all kings must, in royal dignity. And in trade. He is a pragmatist, and always has been.
Still, others, I suppose, would condemn me not for my selfishness but my passivity. She sits beside the King as though nothing ever happened! How CAN she? He killed her lover, doomed her to an unfulfilled life! I suppose they wonder why I did not try to assassinate Menelaus – as Agamemnon his brother was killed by his wife and her lover.
Well, in the first place, Menelaus himself did not kill Paris. Doubtless, sooner or later, there will be a version of the story where they actually clash in single combat. Some fight that would have been! Would Paris have run away before Menelaus fell under the wheels of his own chariot?
No, the death of Paris was one of those random things that happen in war. He was taking pot-shots with his bow from behind a rampart. (That was as close to the fighting as he liked to get; the bards are at least right on that point.)
He thought he was safe; he wouldn’t have been there otherwise. But a stray arrow nicked him. It was hardly more than a scratch, but it festered. (Lots of soldiers die that way, but it doesn’t make for exciting poetry). He went delirious; by the time he died, he didn’t know me. But then, we never really knew each other. The story goes that he was killed by a marksman called Philoctetes, whose blood was so poisonous that he dipped his arrows in it. Just more symbolism: the beautiful youth brought down by a poison-deformed monster. People can’t stand the thought that so much of life is random!
And the fact is that Paris was no longer beautiful anyway. He had those sort of almost-girlish looks that are exquisite for a while, but fade quickly. Long before he died, we could hardly stand the sight of each other.
Not, I admit, that I was any great beauty myself. So, what attracted Paris to me in the first place? Status. Social climbing. Paris was minor royalty in what was, in fact, a rather poky little place. (The new city is doubtless more impressive.)
But it was on a promising trade and strategic location. Menelaus pointed that out to me when we were reunited. I told you, he was a pragmatist. Forget that scenario with the dropped sword, the fading resolve to kill; it was more like a meeting of acquaintances who haven’t seen each other for a while. (Though nowhere near as long as ten years; when the poets aren’t telling outright lies, they are exaggerating.)
“You realize, my dear,” he told me, as we walked towards the shore, “this was all about politics. Otherwise you could have stayed with your pretty boy, and not a fishing boat would have put to sea for you.”
“He didn’t stay pretty for very long,” I replied.
My husband and I understood each other.
My thoughts return to the present. The young Theban has bowed to us, and is walking away.
“Young man!” I call, beckoning him back. He seems a little surprised, even though Spartan women are known to be assertive. When he is standing directly before us, I bend forward so that our faces are quite close.
“I was never as beautiful as they say,” I tell him. He looks startled. “But then, there weren’t all that many ships.”
Retired from a career in healthcare, Dave Whippman writes poetry, stories, and articles.