Cicerone

It is cool in the chimney where she ducks out to smoke, cool and dappled with sunlight. She hasn’t met anyone else hiding out there, but Cicerone knows she isn’t alone; they leave pieces of jewelry, shiny stones, scraps of paper with bad poetry behind for her. She scrawls a graceful cursive f on the wall in recognition, using the smear of ashes and tobacco left on her fingers, every time the same long loving letter.

She can hear, but not see, the birds nesting at the top of the chimney, hear, but not see, falling water. She sweats freely, easily in the half-shadow, leaning heavily on the red iron railing. The chimney goes down into darkness; Cicerone likes to stare down into it until she’s dizzy.

She stretches her cigarettes out, since they can’t be replaced once the pack gives out. She remembers more plentiful times, runs her fingers down the curve of the f in hope of forgetting.

Fiji Mermaids

Melusine stirs in the murky water of her tank, and they press close, fat, sweaty faces. They tap on her glass, greasy fingers thudding through her; she feels them dig deep into the delicate lining of her stomach.

She is developing an ulcer.

They gawp, the rubes. That’s their role: to look, fish-mouthed, exhaling small bills and loose change. She stirs, is sullen, is unbelievable. That’s her role: half-fish, half-monkey, all fraud. She heaves water heavy with nicotine through her simian gills.

She resents the imposition, enjoys the wonder.

After working hours she hauls herself to the top, and smokes one honest cigarette in the open air. They shut off the lights in the tank and she is mercifully erased. She pulls on a delicate mask of laurel leaves and dreams of deep water.

Clytemnesta

There can be no more dignity than this: knowing that you must die, and dying nonetheless.

He lacked that courage, my oathkeeping husband. He dared great deeds and terrible, dared a decade of travail and an ocean of war, but lacked the pure courage to sit in a bath and reckon the debt he had pending. Clever, we are all clever, and brave, brave to face a litany of ships, an anatomy of war; eyes pendulous on piercing spears, skin dragged raw and gone in a circuit of a foreign city. Brave that way, to trust the gods, to dare them, to throw himself again and again against the stones of an alien shore. That scant share of belly he had, that scant portion they had in common. But to sit patient against the uncertain judgement of an ecclesiastic court? No.

King’s son, when would he have learned that particular daring? Bred to prick the heaving sides of chargers, born to lash impatient the brazen rise of chariots, who would have grafted that virtue into his blood? No.

Unknowing, but heavy with blood, with kin’s blood, cauled with guilt, he needed no courage. Naked as he was born, wrapped in swaddling nets, he spread his heart for me, and I entered in.

He lacked courage to face his fit judgement. I do not. Let men and gods judge; that is no less than we, all of us, poor clay, deserve.

Sheila of the Plains

Sheila pushes the fur from her mathematician’s mind. It keeps recurring, soft and purring, vibrant, headless, and alive, an impossible luxury: the blanket that hugs you back! She hums the jingle to herself while she struggles with a proof.

Later, only temporarily broken, she goes for a walk in the building’s garden. Dark night outside and winter, but in here is endless summer, tropical heat, jungle humidity. Gemtoned birds flash from tree to tree, passing through and beyond the walls she can touch but can’t see. Her spine and ankles crack and pop. Standing hurts, but stretching is a luxury and an indulgence; she turns her face to the antipodal sun and lets it ease muscles cramped with worry.

Walking back she passes others climbing the white railings to the third floor. She has never dared, having no head for heights. Once, lonely, scared, she rose hand over foot to the bottom of the lower balcony, but visions of a short fall and the hard crack of the tiles against her skull drove her shaking down again. They hallo her and she waves back, silent but friendly. They understand.

Dawn finds her still working, eyes sandy, brain cloudy, still butting against logic’s iron gate. She will sleep at her desk later, for a scant hour; maybe that will help.

A History of the World

Jannes and Mambres, cautious mathematicians, do not predict what will be, only what might. What will be cannot be changed, or avoided, or mitigated, it can only be. Such certainty is limited to the gods, and not always to them — and to their new planted counterparts among the slaves, which rankles Jannes (but not Mambres); he thinks it gauche. No, they stay among the mutable stars and human planets, things knowable but changing, the avoidable dooms, the almost fates.

“Here, look here, Mambres,” says Jannes, eyes adrift with formulae. “Riots along the river tonight, I think, maybe? A shortage of beer among the laborers, short tempers, long hours, a fight over a man. Yes? No?”

Mambres sweeps the thinning hair out of his eyes, leans in, traces his partner’s work with one heavy-jointed finger, lips moving. “Hrm,” he says, “yes, I think that’s right. Let me run these numbers on my own — can I take this? — good, yes, thank you.” Clack of counting; he peruses the elaborate, meaningful border of a table. “Yes, that’s right.”

They summon a runner from the dim chaos of the hallway, send him off to the priests, to the guards. The guards will stand watch along the river, the priests will send beer and dreamers, one to soothe the body, the other to soothe the mind. The river will roll on to flood undisturbed, death and punishment alike kept from the hands of men. The quiet stars spin on, one decennial wing beat after another.