When they asked me what I wanted, I said: ‘The world.’
‘And what would you do with the world?’ my father asked. His words were lined with sharp edges but I didn’t catch their threat until Mother squeezed my shoulder. Her fingers were too hard to be a comfort – a warning, perhaps? Or a threat of her own?
I stared from god to god, no one giving me any indication of what I’d done wrong. They had asked me a simple question. I had given a simple response. Now everyone watched me from the shaded porticoes of the Throne Hall, their distorted faces reflected on the bronze pillars that ringed the room. I had no idea what they wanted, no idea why everyone suddenly seemed tense. A few people glanced to my father whose glower was so fierce he could have passed for one of his own statues.
I considered his question, my mother’s nails digging deeper with every passing second that I remained wordless.
‘I’d fill it with flowers,’ I decided.
A heartbeat as the words landed.
Then my father laughed. Long. Loud. The kind of noise that had me shrinking into my chair. The assembled gods joined in a split second too late.
I wanted to turn to my mother, to see if I’d answered correctly, but her hands held me in place, though her nails were less piercing.
She hadn’t let me out of her sight all evening.
‘It is good practice to be wary around strangers, my child,’ she had said. But these people weren’t strangers – at least to my mother. They were her sisters and brothers, in arms if not in blood. They were gods she had known her entire life.
I’d wanted to know more, but ‘don’t ask questions, my child’ was Mother’s favourite saying.
Still, at least all this ‘my child’ nonsense would stop soon. I was eight years old – or there about. It’s hard to keep track when you’re immortal, and all the other gods had, until recently, been locked in a war against the lord of time who shifted it about as he pleased.
But regardless of my age, it was my Amphidromia, the day a child received their name. And as I was a goddess, I would also receive my domain – the aspect of the world that I would be responsible for.
‘Very well,’ Father said, rising from his throne. The laughing strangers fell silent at once. ‘Let it be so,’ he paused, the corners of his lips twitching as he took in the concerned expressions of the other gods, particularly the other members of the council who sat either side of him. They were his advisors, and now they nudged each other and whispered, keen to see his judgement.
Then Father smiled, though nothing about it eased the tension. ‘Goddess of the flowers it is.’
My jaw dropped and my mother’s grip became vice-like once more, holding me back. She knew me well enough to sense I was just shy of screaming, rage intensified for the confusion of asking for something so large and receiving something so small – all my hopes, all my lofty ambitions crumbling away. But I kept my mouth closed and curled my hands into fists which I hid in the folds of my dress. My anger was not worth contradicting the king of the gods.
‘And I name you... Kore.’ My eyes widened as the meanings of the name ran through my head: Pure, Beautiful Maiden, Little Girl – apparently that was all I would ever be to him. ‘Goddess of the flowers and of beauty –’ Aphrodite made an almost imperceptible noise of discontent and Father continued, ‘In nature.’
As the ceremonial fire was lit, I fought back tears.
This felt like a punishment.
And I had no idea what I had done wrong.
I’m thinking about my Amphidromia now, while trying not to wince as Mother tugs my hair into place. I have thought about it often, for multiple reasons. There was a lot at play, but I’ve had years to unpack it bit by bit. Now, my thoughts linger where they rarely have before: on the sea of faces lost in the shadows.
Mother had told me certain things about them, back then – things to keep me safe, but also stupid. Now that she’s told me more, the memory has drenched itself in fear.
So many people, all watching me. Two of the three courts gathered, gods from Olympus and Oceanus surrounding me. None from Hades, of course. I hadn’t been near that many people before, and I haven’t since. Now, in a matter of days, I’ll be married to one of them – and I can’t even remember them well enough to imagine who might be waiting for me at the end of the aisle.
According to everyone I know, it’s natural to be nervous before you are married, but no one has told me whether it’s natural to be terrified, filled with such abject horror at the thought that you can’t breathe properly.
‘Please hold your head still, Kore,’ Mother sighs, fingers loosening the tangled mess of my hair.
My head is attached to my hair, Mother: pull it and the head goes with it.
‘Put whatever sarcastic comment you’re thinking out of your head.’
‘Men don’t take sarcasm well, Kore, they take it as a challenge to their authority.’
I wonder if her lessons will ever sink in or if they’ll forever ring through my mind in her voice, oil on water, condemning my actions without ever helping me stop doing the things that so annoy her. That apparently make me undesirable.
I’ve tried. Fates know I’ve tried.
‘Demeter, are you sure you wish for such a tightly coiled look? The fashion now is much looser,’ Cyane asks from the doorway, the only space left with mother and I both crammed into my tiny bedroom. She is the nymph ordinarily entrusted with the important and arduous task of combing my hair and from the way she’s worrying at the edges of her own tightly-coiled curls, I assume she’s quietly livid mother has decided to interfere on such an important day as this.
Gods forbid my hair looks a mess – the universe might end. Or curse shame upon my household at the very least.
I grit my teeth again as Mother’s hand catches on another knot.
‘Loose?’ Mother sneers, as expected. ‘What would that imply about her? No, a traditional look is best. She will look beautiful but still virginal, precisely what is needed.’
‘Yes, because if I don’t look virginal how will the fine suitors know that the girl whose name literally means chastity and who has lived her entire life alone on an island is pure?’
‘None of that today, Kore,’ Mother sighs again, a sound that has become so common that my name feels odd without it.
Still, there’s something about hearing it on a day like today that pulls at a chord in my chest. I’m still disappointing her, even when I’m agreeing to the biggest thing she’s ever asked of me.
She puts the final pin in place.
‘There, you look just as beautiful as all the rumours circulating about you claim.’ She holds a looking glass up and I take in her work, my thick unruly hair pinned tight against my scalp, frizzy black strands already trying to escape. Hair aside, I try to see myself the way a stranger might, the way my future husband might – smooth olive skin and long straight nose, thick eyebrows and hollowed cheeks. Eyes that are just a bit too big, too dark, that always look inquisitive and naïve, the way you’d expect of someone named Little Girl.
She’s right. I’m beautiful. Of course I am. We’re goddesses. We’re all beautiful.
What I notice isn’t my beauty, it’s how defeated I look. How I have resigned myself to my fate.
In other words, perfect.
‘We’ll have you a husband in no time,’ Mother chirps happily, setting the glass down. It clatters on the table a little too roughly and when she pulls her hand back I see it’s shaking. I don’t like seeing evidence of her fear that I won’t get a good match. Especially when I’m terrified I’ll get one at all.
I tug at the ridiculous dress Mother has forced me into: a monstrosity of lilac silk, draped and twisted again and again, hinting at the body on offer while obscuring it enough to keep my modesty intact. It’s less an outfit than gift-wrapping.
It’s also too long to be practical, trailing along behind me and combined with how shallowly I’m having to breathe, I suspect it’s to stop me being able to run away. I nearly trip down the stairs following her down to the kitchen. Cyane stays behind to tidy up but she must have been cooking before she joined us because the kitchen is steamy – worryingly so in a house made almost entirely of wood and several twisting trees – and the smell of bread is crushing in so small a space. I’d normally be too impatient to wait for it to cool down, burning my fingers as I tear into chunks.
But my dress cinches my stomach so tightly that the very thought is nauseating. My fingers fumble, trying to loosen the strands that tie it all together.
Mother swats my fingers away and straightens the bow that ties it instead. ‘You should always look your best for your husband.’
What would you know? You aren’t married, I want to scream.
‘Will he always look his best for me?’ I ask instead.
Mother jumps, glancing around like an Olympian could be lurking around the corner, like she hasn’t spent the last decade weaving intricate magic to bar the uninvited from our island. ‘Don’t say things like that, Kore!’ she scolds. ‘No one will believe that a woman who talks of attraction is virginal. Do you want people to believe you’re a whore?’
‘Well,’ I feign consideration, the naïve little girl role I slip into for self-preservation. ‘If they did then no one would want to marry me. Maybe I would like that freedom.’
Mother’s face falls and she takes my hands in hers. ‘That’s not freedom,’ she says gently. ‘Men see a reputation as an invitation.’
‘But I don’t understand,’ I blink, though I do. ‘I thought you kept me on this island to keep me away from men. But now I have to marry one? Is sex okay then, if it’s with your husband?’
‘Yes, but only then.’
‘But you weren’t married when you had me.’ I furrow my eyebrows to really drive home my confusion. Remind me of how I was conceived, Mother.
‘That was before the goddess of marriage became queen of the gods. Rivers of Hell, I might not like Hera but at least she gained power somehow, made marriage mean something to bind even her own husband.’
Gods, not Hera as an example again. How is my step-mother the shining hope of marriage? My father forced her into it and they’re both miserable.
‘Hardly,’ I snort without thinking better of it.
‘Marriage is protection, Kore. A ring on your finger binds you to one man and that’s all the gods respect.’
‘Another man’s property?’ I sneer. I can’t stop myself now that I’ve started.
‘Yes,’ she snaps, mirroring the vitriol in my own voice. ‘By the Fates, Kore, I didn’t design this system, so stop blaming me for it. If I have to arrange a marriage to keep you safe then I will.’
‘I’m safe here. Why can’t I just stay on Sicily?’
‘Oh, now you want to stay here – funny, Kore, you’ve spent the last decade begging for me to let you visit other lands,’ she shakes her head but when she speaks again it’s without the bite of her anger. ‘You’re safe here because we’ve been lucky. The wards won’t last forever, and certainly not now you’re of age. Do you really think that if I had the power to keep you safe myself, then I wouldn’t choose to have you by my side forever?’
‘No, actually I don’t.’
That’s not true. I know it’s not. But I want to hurt her.
It works. I see my words land, the wince across her brow, her outstretched hand faltering. I don’t even feel guilty when tears spring to her eyes. I want her to cry. I want her to feel a fraction of the pain the thought of marriage causes me. I want her to realize just how much I don’t want this.
Her hurt turns into anger in seconds. Good. I want her to shout so that I can scream. ‘For your entire life, everything I’ve done has been for your protection: stuck on this island, begging charms and wards off the other goddesses, barely going to Olympus, rarely leaving – all to keep you safe.’
‘I never asked you to do that!’
‘And I did it anyway! Anyone else would be grateful, Kore. Every single god thinks they’re entitled to taking whatever they want, and that includes you. The only thing they respect is each other. Do you not see that marriage is the only way to protect yourself? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you the fates of other girls who thought they could survive alone.’
I don’t care, I want to snarl but my words falter on my tongue as I remember myself. There is no point in arguing and worse, it could undo everything. All this time, pretending I’m fine with this arrangement so she’ll lower her guard and give me the opportunity to escape, and here I am, pushing her barriers back up at the last moment for the sake of an argument I’ll never win.
I know my mother will never understand because what it comes down to is this: safety isn’t enough for me. I’d rather perish, rather be another tragic tale for a mother to use in warning than become a long drawn out sigh in a hymn, an immortal life spent in misery.
But my safety – and my reputation – has and always will be my mother’s priority.
‘I know you’re scared,’ she says, anger cooling with the opportunity for a lecture. ‘I know if you had your way you’d go off exploring the world, planting flowers, probably wearing a vastly inappropriate outfit and no shoes. But you can’t. The world is too dangerous.’
‘You can,’ I say quietly, defeat already heavy in my voice.
‘Kore. I’m only going to say this once and you need to listen to me.’ she steps towards me again and strokes my cheek. ‘I love you, my dear, but you are not powerful. There are gods out there with untold powers and Zeus gave you flowers. How do you plan on keeping yourself safe with petals? Our lives are not the same. I’m one of the first gods, goddess of sacred law, nature, the harvest – all powerful domains. Even then it’s not powerful enough to protect you, because Zeus gave all the more powerful things to men. By the Fates, when the war ended he awarded whole realms to the boys and one of them was ten years old.’
‘To be fair, you would never have wanted the underworld.’ Too cold, too dark, too full of horrors.
‘That’s beside the point,’ she says. ‘The only way you get more power, and carve some space for yourself in this world is by aligning yourself with one of those powerful men in marriage. Give the others something, or rather, someone to fear. Do you understand me?’
I swallow and my hands are trembling but I manage to keep my expression neutral. I want to scream that she’s wrong but I honestly don’t know if she is and I think if I try to say anything I might end up crying.
‘I understand,’ I whisper.
‘You cannot stay a girl on an island forever.’ At least we agree about one thing. ‘I know you’re scared but I’m the goddess of vegetation. There is no place on Earth you could go where I will not be able to find you.’ I know that too. ‘You won’t be leaving us forever.’
I press my hurt down, push it to where all my fear and rage coalesces into an impossibly heavy nothingness.
‘You’re a woman now.’ What an arbitrary word. I don’t remember much of a transformation on my birthday but apparently the whole world saw one. ‘You’re too old for these tantrums. Promise me you won’t be like this when your father gets here.’
There it is – her disappointment sucking the final dregs of anger from me.
My eyes fall to the floor, and even that is enough to hurt me, staring at orange tiles I might never see again, the home I’m leaving – one way or another. ‘Yes, Mother.’
‘You’re beautiful, Kore. And you’re wonderful, so accomplished, normally so obedient and gentle, so easy to love,’ she says pointedly. ‘Keep that up and any man would be lucky to have you.’
They’d be bloody blessed.
‘Are you only looking at Olympians?’ I manage.
‘Of course. I’m going to find you a good match, and with an Olympian you’ll still be a part of this court. Besides, I don’t trust anyone under the rule of Poseidon to be the sort of man you marry.’
Right, because Zeus’s rule is so much better.
‘What about the court of Hades?’
Mother laughs sharply. ‘Hilarious, Kore. I know you think I’m sending you off to a fate worse than death but I wouldn’t send you to the actual realm of it.’
‘Okay,’ I say, not wanting to continue this conversation and cursing myself for even bringing it up. ‘Can I go see my friends now? Before Father gets here?’
‘Oh,’ she says, a little wary. ‘I really don’t want you to muddy your dress.’
‘Please, Father’s the one who made me the goddess of flowers, he can hardly be surprised by a bit of mud, can he?’
‘I’m the goddess of harvest and you’ve never seen me with straw in my hair, have you?’
Yes, actually, once. She was two bottles of wine into one of her 'Mother’s evenings' with Selene and Leto. Mother loves inviting the other goddesses over to regale me with horror stories about the men she’s protecting me from.
They gather round, tell me the worst things I’ve ever heard in my life and then give me tips for staying safe. ‘Don’t wear a gown if you have to travel,’ from Aphrodite, ‘disguise yourself as a man if you can and at the very least travel as part of a group.’ Or Athena patting my head, telling me the places to hit a man to break free of him if, god forbid, one ever made it onto the island and took me away. Hestia wasn’t much older than me and would harp on about how it was always safest to stay at home – though admittedly, as goddess of the hearth, I assumed she’d say as much – but if I ever found myself stranded I should march straight to the nearest palace or estate and request Xenia, a bond of hospitality of her own creation that would make them unable to hurt me without consequence. They could still hurt me, of course, but there would be consequences for it. Before Xenia men could do whatever they liked if you were foolish enough to be unprepared for their advances.
‘I’ll be gone in a few days,’ I plead. ‘Who knows when I’ll next see my friends.’
‘You know I don’t like you spending time with those girls,’ she says, gnawing on her lip before finally giving in. ‘Oh very well, I can hardly say no, not with... everything else.’
Which I suppose means if she’s forcing me to bind myself to a man I’ve never met then stopping me from talking to my friends is the moral line she’s unwilling to cross.
‘Cyane!’ Mother calls and the nymph appears at the foot of the stairs.
‘Go with her to the river, but if the girls here start corrupting her I’m counting on you to stop them.’
Oh Mother, they corrupted me long ago. And a good thing too, or I’d be heading off to my wedding night with no idea of what goes where.
‘Be back soon,’ she calls when I’m already halfway out the door. ‘Your father will be here in an hour.’
An hour. I can practically hear sand through a glass – counting away my last moments of the only life I’ve ever known.