Excerpt

Ariadne

Jennifer Saint

May 10, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Jennifer Saint's debut novel, Ariadne, a new epic that re-centers the forgotten women of Greek mythology as they strive for a better world. Due to a lifelong fascination with Ancient Greek mythology, Saint read Classical Studies at King's College, London. She spent the next thirteen years as an English teacher, sharing a love of literature and creative writing with her students.

Asterion, my terrible brother, was born in my tenth year, not long after Eirene told us that story. I had attended my mother after the births of other children—my brother Deucalion and my sister Phaedra—so I believed that I knew what to expect. It was not so with Asterion. The agony was writ deep throughout Pasiphae. Her divine blood from Helios sustained her life through the ordeal, but it did not shield her from the pain—pain I shrank from imagining, though in the depths of night I would be unable to prevent my thoughts from wandering there. The thought of scraping hooves, the budding horns upon his misshapen head, the panic of his drumming limbs—I shuddered to envision exactly how he had torn his way free from my mother, a fragile sunbeam. The furnace of pain in which he was cast shattered the gentle Pasiphae, and my already absented mother never truly returned to me from that journey into flame and suffering.

I expected to hate and fear him, the beast whose existence was an aberration. Creeping into the room from which the birth attendants swayed, pale and shaken, breathing the salty scent of butchered meat, I felt a dread that nearly anchored my feet to the floor altogether.

But my mother sat by the same window that she had leaned against with her other newborns, bathed in the same exhausted glow I had seen before. Although her eyes were empty panes of glass now and her face was ravaged, she cradled a mass of blankets to her breast and pressed her nose softly to her baby’s head. He snuffled, hiccuped, and opened a dark eye to stare into mine as I moved slowly forward. I noticed that it was fringed with long, dark eyelashes. A chubby hand fluttered against my mother’s breast; one tiny, perfect pink nail at the end of each finger. I could not yet see beneath the blanket where the soft pink infant legs gave way at the ankles to dark fur and hard, stony hooves.

The infant was a monster and the mother a hollowed-out shell, but I was a child and drawn to the frail spark of tenderness in the room. Tentatively, I drew closer and mutely asked permission, one finger extended, as I searched my mother’s countenance for some recognition. She nodded.

I took another step. My mother sighed, shifted, and resettled. My breath felt thick and heavy in my throat and I couldn’t swallow. That round, dark, implacable eye still held fast to mine.

Holding his gaze, I reached that final inch and bridged the gulf between us. My fingers stroked the slick fur of his brow, beneath the bulging edifice of rocky horns that emerged at his temples. I let my hand sweep gently across the soft spot just between his eyes. With a barely perceptible movement, his jaw loosened and a little huff of breath blew warm against my face. I glanced up at my mother, but even though her gaze rested upon us, it was empty.

I looked at the baby. He looked steadily back at me.

When my mother spoke, it made me jump. It wasn’t her voice but that of a rasping stranger. “Asterion,” she told me. “It means ‘star.’”

Asterion. A distant light in an infinity of darkness. A raging fire if you came too close. A guide that would lead my family on the path to immortality. A divine vengeance upon us all. I did not know then what he would become. But my mother held him and nursed him and named him, and he knew us both. He was not yet the Minotaur. He was just a baby. He was my brother.

*

Phaedra wanted nothing to do with him. She jammed her fingers in her ears if I spoke of him: how he was growing so rapidly, how so soon after birth he was attempting to walk, hooves slipping beneath him and the awkward imbalance of his great heavy head pulling him forward, toppling him over again and again, but, determined, he persisted. She especially did not want to know what we fed him, how he turned away from the breast and refused milk after only weeks had passed, and how Pasiphae, grim and silent still, scattered meat before him, slippery with blood, and he devoured it, rubbing his slick head against us both afterward. I spared Phaedra the details.

Deucalion wanted to see him, but I saw that while he jutted his jaw forward in an approximation of our father’s manly stance and attempted to dispense some cool words of interest, he was shaken inside.

Minos did not come near.

So it was I alone who tended him, alongside Pasiphae. I never let my thoughts stray to the future; for what were we preparing him? I hoped, and I think she hoped, to nurture the human within him. Maybe she did not even go that far, perhaps she was driven only by maternal instinct by that point, I don’t know. I focused firmly on the here and now: how to teach him to walk upright, an attempt to instill some decorum at meals, how to respond to talk and touch with gentle reciprocity. To what end? Did I imagine him semicivilized one day, shuffling constrainedly around the court, nodding his great bull’s head in polite greeting to the gathered nobles? A prince of Crete, honored and respected? Surely I was not so obtuse as to dream of that. Perhaps I hoped that our efforts would impress Poseidon, that he would marvel at his divine creation and claim him for his own.

Perhaps that is what happened. For I had not considered what the gods truly value. Poseidon would not want a stumbling bull-man, lurching in a facade of humanity and dignity. What the gods liked was ferocity, savagery, the snarl and the bite and the fear. Always, always the fear, the naked edge of it behind the smoke rising from the altars, the high note of it in the muttered prayers and praise we sent heavenward, the deep, primal taste of it when we raised the knife above the sacrificial offering.

Our fear. That was how the gods grew great. And by the close of his first year, my brother was swiftly becoming the epitome of terror. The slaves would not come near his quarters on pain of death. The high keening of his screeches as food was brought scraped icy claws of dread across my back. He was no longer content with slabs of raw, bloody meat—these would be met with a low growl that curdled my insides. Blank and unmoved, Pasiphae would step forward with the rats, unflinching as they twisted and screamed in her grasp before she flung them to her son. He delighted in their panicked zigzagging, back and forth and around the stables in which we kept him now, ready to pounce and tear their living bodies to shreds.

He had grown much faster than a human infant, and I noted the ripple of muscles across his torso as he hunted his rats. His thighs, gleaming pink through the dark hair, his chest sculpted like the marble statues adorning the palace courtyard, his flexed biceps and the power of his clenched fists, all crowned with the weight of horned head and blood-smeared snout.

I would have been foolish not to fear him. Or mad, like Pasiphae. But terror wasn’t the only thing I felt for him. Revulsion, certainly, disgust as I saw him snort and huff and paw the ground in anticipation of his squirming feast—but under it all was a seam of raw pity, so painful it would make me gasp sometimes, my eyes brimming with pain as he shrieked for more blood, more suffering. It was not his fault, I thought fiercely; he did not choose to be this way. He was Poseidon’s cruel joke, a humiliation meant to degrade a man who’d never even deigned to set eyes upon the beast. It was Pasiphae and I who were tasked with his welfare. And however powerful my horror became, it was so inextricably wound up with the pity—and, stirring beneath that, a slowly boiling anger—that I could not bring myself to end him while I still could. To smash a brick down upon his head as he ate, to jam a spear into the vulnerable human flesh at his side. Even as a girl, I suppose I could have done it while he was still a calf. But I could not bring myself to do it, and by the time I had truly grasped what he was—and what use Minos would have for him when he grasped it, too—he was well beyond my strength.

Asterion grew and it became harder to contain him. As the months passed, only Pasiphae could enter the stables, which were reinforced with heavy iron bolts. Although I did not go in anymore, I hung nervously about, unsure of what to do with myself. I had not danced since the day he was born. My stomach was a writhing pit of anxiety, and while I paced relentlessly, I could not find the place within me that let restraint go. I waited and told myself that I did not know what I was waiting for. But I did.

I am certain that Eirene would not have gone near that stable of her own accord. I would never know what made her take that route back to her quarters that night, the night he lowered his head and charged at the bolted doors like he had so many times before without splintering the wood. The butting of his fearsome horns made all who heard it cringe and hurry by, but we had believed him secure. I did not allow myself to imagine the moment he had crashed through, how Eirene must have run, though she would have had no chance. My face felt numb, the tears blocked somewhere in my throat as I gathered up the torn scraps of fabric that had fluttered out into the courtyard, caught in the restless gust of wind that stirred as we arrived at the shattered stable doors, hastily barricaded by the unfortunate stable hands who had discovered the carnage earlier that autumn morning.

Phaedra hid her face in my skirts and I stroked her hair. “Don’t look,” I mumbled through numb lips. 

I remember the heat of the resentful eyes upon us when we turned and saw the gathering of household staff who bore witness to the scene. I remember the stiff paralysis that seized me in the center of that semicircle of accusers, and the repetitive thud, thud, thud of my murderous brother’s horns against the iron slabs that just barely held the doors behind me.

How long that eternity stretched I cannot say, but the deafening silence was broken abruptly by the arrival of Minos. His cloak swished as he strode through the crowd, which scattered and dispersed in his wake like a shoal of fish before a shark.

Beside me, my mother cringed.

No blow was struck, no scathing words delivered. When I risked an upward glance, I saw his expression was placid, with no hint of a storm on the horizon. A fragment of robe spiraled in the chill breeze by his feet, and I saw a smile begin to break across his face. “Wife!” he exclaimed.

I felt her flinch, though her eyes were dull as smoked glass.

He gestured expansively, warm and exuberant. “Day by day, I hear reports of our son’s strength and how it grows. He becomes a fine specimen, despite his youth, and the tales of his power strike awe and respect into hearts far and wide.” He nodded approvingly at the bloodstained scraps of material and the incessant thud, thud, thud.

Our son? I wondered, not yet understanding what he meant. I slowly perceived, in my incredulity, that it was pride warming the stern angles of his face. He was proud of the monster we had nurtured in the heart of the palace, proud of the reputation it had won him. Far from bringing ridicule upon the cuckolded Minos’ head, Poseidon had delivered him a fearsome weapon, a divine brute that Minos had come to see would only strengthen his status.

“He must have a name,” Minos declared, and I did not speak up to say Asterion. Why would he care what Pasiphae and I had called him?

Minos approached the door, and at the sound of his footsteps, the thud, thud, thud increased as my brother’s excitement overwhelmed him. Minos lay his hand against the straining doors and, as they bounced against his palm with ravenous force, Minos’ smile broadened. “The Minotaur,” he spoke, claiming my brother for his own. “A name that befits the beast.”

And so Asterion became the Minotaur. My mother’s private constellation of shame intermingled with love and despair no longer; instead, he became my father’s display of dominance to the world. I saw why he proclaimed him the Minotaur, stamping this divine monstrosity with his own name and aligning its legendary status with his own from its very birth. Realizing that no stable in the world would constrain him any longer, he compelled Daedalus to construct his most awesome and ambitious creation yet: a mighty labyrinth set beneath the palace floor, a nightmare of twisting passages, dead ends, spiraling branches, all leading inexorably to its dark center. The lair of the Minotaur.

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Excerpted from Ariadne by Jennifer Saint. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books.




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