Brian Aldiss

Jocasta

From the grandmother’s suite burst forth the Sphinx, terrifying in form, grand in colour. Flapping her wings as soon as she was in the open, rising no more than a metre above the thyme with which the square was bedded, she squarked in indignation as she went. A griffin came chasing after her. The griffin saw Jocasta, turned tail, and darted back into Semele’s quarters.

As it did so, Semele’s venerable prune of a face reappeared, screaming, “I won’t have that Sphinx-thing in here. It keeps going invisible – just to annoy me! Lock the damned thing up, will you?”

Jocasta stood back as the monster approached, still squawking. It loomed above her. She saw that its hindquarters were still not entirely visible.. The Sphinx was a large beast, her lion’s body, eagle’s wings, and serpent’s tail, emblems of the three seasons, not consorting well together. Clumsy she certainly was, yet impressive. Her women’s face was distorted by irritation. Landing with a flutter of feathers, the creature demanded of Jocasta, in its fluting voice, “Is Oedipus surrounded by those moaning mouths again?”

“Is this another of your riddles?”, Jocasta asked. She placed a hand over the generous contour of her left breast, to calm a heart still beating from the encounter with the Furies. “Must you always be in such a flutter, dear Sphinx?”

“Why should I not flutter? Am I not a captive?”

We are all captives of something, said Jocasta to herself. Aloud she replied, “You are free to come and go within the palace grounds. Try to be happy with that.”

The great creature loomed over her before sitting and scratching itself with a back leg, in a show of nonchalance “Granny Semele tells me that we have to process to the coast. Will Oedipus lead me on that golden chain I hate so much? Will I have to walk? Could I not fly? How wretched is my state. Doesn’t Oedipus know I am expecting to lay an egg at any time, and cannot travel? Has he no compassion?” Her voice was high with maternal indignation. She shook her scanty mane. As the feathers floated to the ground, they became invisible.

“Of course he has compassion. Didn’t he save you from death, dear Sphinx? He has much on his mind, with Thebes suffering from famine.”

The creature stretched herself out on the ground with her hind quarters towards Jocasta. She spoke without looking at her. “Why must the tyrant travel?”

We leave for Paralia Avidos in the morning. It’s ritual. We shall worship at the Shrine of Apollo, in order to lift the weight of misery from the shoulders of Thebes. If you’re going to cause trouble, Sphinx, I’ll have to lock you up in your cage.”

At this threat, the Sphinx turned her head to gaze piteously at Jocasta.

Jocasta looked straight into the creature’s great hazel eyes, wherein something both animal and human lived. It prompted her to pat the feathery flank and say, “I love you, dear Sphinx, but you’re such a trouble.”

“By the great broken blue eggshells of Cithaeron Hollow, what have I done to offend you, O Jocasta?” The voice rose shriller still, sinking to a faint warble to ask, “What about ancient Semele’s griffins?They possess neither sense nor sensibility How about locking those wretched little animals up?”

So saying, the creature bounded over Jocasta’s head and squeezed herself into the entrance of the palace in quest of Oedipus. Jocasta stood watching a stray feather float to earth and disappear. She inhaled the fragrance of the herbs underfoot. Then with a shrug of her shoulders she went to look in on her old grandmother.

Then later: -

That night, when the moon rose from the sea, to cast a platinum pathway across it, Oedipus kept vigil in the heavy perfumed dark of the temple. He had sacrificed a lamb to the god. Its carcass still crackled and smouldered on a slab nearby. Silence prevailed in the temple, save for the murmur of a flambeau, representative of the Sun when it had withdrawn. The embers of the lamb remained, and Oedipus remained on his knees, head bent.

A serpent appeared before him. This was no emblem of Apollo. A light, at first soft, then blinding, filled the chamber. Still crouching, for he scarcely dared move, Oedipus cast his gaze upwards, under his eyebrows.

There he beheld a female of radiant beauty. Her jet black hair was ringletted and fell to her snowy shoulders. Her gown, gathered at the waist with a chain of flowers, was so flimsy it scarcely concealed the greater beauties beneath its folds. On her wrists she wore serpentine bracelets, and about her ankles similar enhancements in pure gold.

“Oh, radiant creature, are you not the wood nymph, Thalia?”, asked Oedipus, surprised. He attempted to rise. She gestured with her right hand, so that he remained fixed in his crouching position.

When she spoke, her voice was so soft that it came born to him on unimagined perfumes. “I am the wood nymph, Thalia. I come from Apollo, whose messanger I am, to speak with you.”

“Will not Apollo speak with me?” He could scarcely hear his own voice for the nymph’s radiations, which seemed half scent, half music. “Hera, the goddess of moonlight and fertility, sent the Sphinx to punish King Laius. Instead he was killed by mortal man.” As she spoke, Thalia looked at Oedipus intensely with her dark eyes. They had appeared beautiful. Now they were frightening and filled with the emptiness of night.

“What of this matter?”, Oedipus asked, with such pride as he could command.

“You have won the Sphinx, O Oedipus,” said the mysterious nymph, “but when the Sphinx dies, you will die, for the Sphinx is a remaining daughter of an older age. Recall how her body parts represent the seasons – the woman’s head standing for Hera, the goddess, while the lion’s body, the eagle’s wings, and the serpent’s tail stand for the three ancient agricultural seasons, summer, spring, and winter.

“Soon the Sphinx will die. Soon the gods also must die. They cannot live in the dull, materialistic world to come, when magic has gone.

“Do you not recall from your childhood the eight-year solar-lunar calendar, O Oedipus? – That calendar which the Sphinx embodies?”

“I was cursed from babyhood. I recall nothing.” Yet, speaking the words from his confining crouch, he suddenly did recall the words of Jocasta’s old grannie, Semele. The hag knew well the ancient succession of the seasons. In her younger age, Semele had worn a dress with eleven pendants, because there was a discrepancy of eleven days between solar and lunar years. She had talked to them over and over of the sacred union of sun and moon, and of how that belief permitted magic, had talked over and over as they sat at table at night, with the candles guttering and the platters pushed aside, and old Semele amusing them with tales of her youth, the wine liberating her tongue?

“I do recall,” he said, with a sense of misery that those times, for which he had had no particular affection, were now forever over. “You do well to recall…,” said the nymph in her musical voice.

He roused himself, asking why she had said that the Sphinx would die.

She gave him one of her divine smiles. “She will die because of your errors and failings.”

Thalia’s luminance seemed to grow more intense. Was he conscious or did he dream? He had quaffed a beaker of the sweet wine they sold at the temple door. What had it contained beside the fruit of the grape? ‘Yes, the solar-lunar calendar… The sun and moon begin and end the cycle in step. That’s when new moon and winter solstice coincide. But the lunar year of twelve moons is shorter than a solar year by eleven days. So the sun takes – as they used to say – three steps and halt at the end of the third and sixth year. Then a thirteenth month brings sun and moon almost in step again.
“So the sun… mmm… oh yes, so the sun goes sometimes on three feet. Then after two more solar years, a further month of thirty days is needful – that’s to say, at the end of the eighth year, ending the cycle. So it sometimes goes on only two feet.”

That’s not quite all,” said Thalia, encouragingly.

He remembered. The old woman had drawn a figure on the table with a finger dipped in her wine. “You used also to add a single day every four years, or leap years. So that occurred twice in the eight-year cycle. You could say that the sun sometimes went on four feet, but is at its weakest then, in the sense that it is only one day ahead of the moon.

“That was how it was, I believe.”

A silence prevailed. The flambeau crackled, its light dulled by the radiance of the wood nymph, who seemed to be waiting for Oedipus to speak again. Her skin. of an intense pallor, seemed to be a source of light.

He did speak again. The words seemed forced from him. “Helios is the sun god. He speaks with one voice. His queen is the moon goddess… So that was once the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle. Are you telling me that?”

“You are telling me that.” He saw that he was adrift with her, passing over a green mountainside. Her delicate fingertips touched his. It was a moment of extreme unction. The snake was guiding him. He was not afraid.

“You are telling me that.” Thalia was looking about her rather anxiously, as if in fear of vultures. “You have now answered the riddle a second time, in two voices.”

They seemed to be in a glowing cloud, and without weight. Distantly to his ears came his own question. “But why did the Sphinx accept my first answer?”

“Perhaps she was tired of killing other fools…” Her voice seemed faint and distant. “Or it was a question of time…”

Fearing she would disappear completely, Oedipus cried, “Stay, sweet nymph! Will not Apollo spare me now?”

She looked at him, full in the face. Her countenance, he now saw, was but a mask, behind it waited a snake, ready to strike.

“Life is a labyrinth. You must solve the riddle of your own personality – if you can…. if you can…” Her laughter was faint, was a cackle, was a crackle, was the noise and splutter of the flambeau dying into its socket, the ribs of the sacrificed lamb cooking in its ashes. Oedipus rose up groaning. The mountainside was gone, the serpent, the nymph. The flame died. He found himself alone in the stifling dark.

His forehead burned.

“Apollo!”, he cried in anger and supplication.

No answer came.

And later still: -

Men of genius are born to express their knowledge of reality. Often that knowledge is highly idiosyncratic. But reality itself is highly idiosyncratic. The gods have not made it smooth. Some geniuses seem to view reality from a mountain top, others from a valley. Some see poetry and song, others merely prose.

Could everything be in our heads, written in some kind of script?

Do we each stand perfectly alone on an empty stage, while our mind plays tricks on us?

Zeus, what a vile thought!

Genius, at least in part, is a question of knowledge. Oedipus is so unknowing. Certainly, he guessed the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx; yet even that may have been the incorrect answer. The Sphinx accepted it perhaps out of boredom. I believe that the answer was much more complex, all about the seasons – entirely more subtle, more complex.

I am more subtle than he. I know more, too. It’s a burden…

I am discounted because I am a woman. That’s a major flaw in our social relationships. It must have been better in an earlier age, when Granny Semele was a girl, when females had more standing.

So am I a genius? I still know things that Oedipus should have recognised long since.

My fear is… No, that must not come out. It must be kept within these four walls.

He has brought us into such trouble already …

What he must do is let the prisoners go, then announce to all and sundry that he finds himself in error and will therefore rescind his tiresome vows and humble himself and make sacrifices to the gods, blah blah blah, and all will be well again and we can go on living our lives…

…Our stained lives…Our lives of deceit… Zeus, how I have born this darkest secret for so long I cannot tell. Far from having no existence, I think I am a genius. If only I could believe in myself

Jocasta walked alone while talking to herself in such fashion. The nightingale was silent. There was no sound in the garden, other than the halitus of growing things, other than the slight patter of her sandals on flagstones. As she moved, the air about her parted, then seemed to follow her scent.

She flung herself down on a marble bench and wept silently. With a dull suprise, she felt arms come consolingly about her. Yielding to the new embrace, she wept the harder, abandonning self-control.

“Oh, you mustn’t cry like that, my little pet, my thrushling! Hush, hush! There, there. No harm’s going to come to you while your old Hezikiee is looking after you.”

Jocasta lay back, to gaze into the dark and wrinkled face of her old slave woman.

“Alas, Hezikiee, even you cannot fend off the workings of fate.”

“Pah, fate! What’s fate? Do not give up your will to your gods, my chicken. I am a slave to you – you are a slave to no one.”
“You don’t understand, my dear. And in that, you are not alone.” As she slowly shook her head, a dim light in the outer wall caught her attention. Disengaging herself from the embrace of her maidservant, she rose to her feet; taking the old woman by the hand, she walked across to where the light was burning.

A small lamp with a guttering flame stood at the portal of a shrine which Jocasta herself had caused to be built in the days when she had had faith in such things. It was dedicated to the goddess Diana. Jocasta had allowed a season to pass since she had last visited it. Ivy, encroaching, crawled across its sacred stones.

She called now to the hierophant who had been appointed to attend it. A pause followed, until, calling out in response, a woman in a trailing gown emerged from the interior, lifting high her lamp to scrutinise her visitor. On recognising

Jocasta, she fell on her knees before her.

Gently, Jocasta helped her to her feet and passed into the shrine. Hezikiee was left at the entrance, confused but mainly contemptuous. Even the uncertain little light was sufficient to reveal that the shrine was much neglected. The floor was filthy. Dead leaves had congregated in corners. A bundle of dead flowers lay on the altarpiece. The scent of cat’s piss assailed her nostrils.

Self-reproach filled Jocasta. Attracted by a glimmer of light in a side-room, she peered round the corner. A naked man sat huddled among dirty bedclothes. He smiled weakly, bowing his head as if in self-absolution.

Placing a hand on the shoulder of her priestess, Jocasta said gravely, “I have neglected your virginity.” The woman shrank from the hand, muttering excuses. Having brushed a dead woodlouse from the stones, Jocasta abased herself before the altar. There was in her conscious mind no clear idea of what she should say in supplication, but immediately – as if Diana had been lingering here in wait for the moment – the goddess filled her, and without premeditation she spoke.

“I have so loved my Oedipus. I know his faults and have complained of them often. Yet now that the hour is upon us when dreadful things will befall him, I see clearly the many torments of his life. I love him for them and for himself. He is the dearest person I know. The sound of his voice, the feel of the beard on his cheek, the touch of his hand, the scent of his body… He has all my love, love of a mother, love of a daughter, love of a lover, love of my whole person….

“For all my womanly years with him as a grown man I am thankful – thankful with a whole heart. I found my existence in him – yet I want more. I need more. I need him always close. If it is within your power, great and kindly Diana, sweet goddess, I pray you not to take my Oedipie away from me, for I will surely die without him. Oh, I’ll die without him. This I say with all my heart and faith. Look into me and see its truth. I cannot love without him. To him I have surrendered my heart…”

Her tears fell soundlessly to the stones.

Behind her, the priestess, listening, also wept.

At length, Jocasta arose, realising that she felt hungry.

Out from the walls of Thebes by the south gate walked dark-clad Antigone, and into the countryside. Briefly green it was at this season, before the sun had scorched everywhere to brown. It was the season of fecundity.

Old women squatted at their blue-painted doors, chattering as the sun went down. Birds darted over their heads, taking food to their nestlings. The drone of bees vibrated on the still air. Their hives, with their painted walls, stood nearby. The women cast hostile looks at Antigone as she went past, and their conversation died.

She walked down to the path by the onion fields, where she laboured every morning. A farmer driving a flock of goats passed, averting his eye. It seemed to her that even the goats gave her a wide berth. She came to an olive grove, and there she stood, resting a hand on a branch. Many kinds of flower, white, yellow, gold and blue, petitioned the bees at her sandalled feet. Shading her eyes, she gazed longingly across the dazzle of river among its reeds, thinking that somewhere there might be a place where her origins were unknown, where she might live as an ordinary person.

She was still young and raven-haired; the Trojan wars were over at last. A string of beads looped by the nape of her neck contained her long tresses. In her face was an elfin quality more beautiful than beauty itself. Her expression was guarded, even in repose. Her feet were calloused from years of wandering with her father; but Oedipus was dead. Her hands were coarse from the recent work she had undertaken in the shelter of her uncle’s city. Her inner world was hers alone, just as she shared her body with no man. Living had been hard through the fratricidal wars now concluded.

Youthful though she still was, Antigone felt herself to have experienced already as much misery as was an older woman’s lot. Her mother had been buried in an unmarked grave. Her father lay in a sepulchre, having found peace at last. To herself she said, gazing into the distance, that all men should have proper burial. It was a law of God, not of man.

She spent a while alone in the olive grove, benefitting from its solitude. Nearby, raspberries grew wild. She supposed that the raspberry patch had been tended by someone who had gone to fight in the wars and never returned. Cramming some of the fruit into her mouth, she made her red lips still redder. Holding some of the fruit in her hand, she began her return to the oppressions of the city in which she had been born.

One of the women at the well, a scraggy woman in a torn dress, called abuse at her. Antigone responded in kind.

“You and your damned family!,” one woman called. “My father was killed because of you lot!”

Antigone spat for answer.

“You incest-brat! My lover got a spear through his chest fighting your rotten battles – and that from your brother Polynices, damn you!”

Antigone flung a lump of donkey dung in their direction. The women jeered the more.

Gathering her black skirts about her lean thighs, Antigone hastened towards the Theban gate. As she went, she pretended not to see the unburied body lying by the ramparts. Yet the breeze carried a scent of carrion to offend her sensitive nose. She heard the bluebottles, angry with life about the corpse. Her head was held high as she trotted past, proceeding under dappled shade, where gnats danced in the filtered rays of sunlight. Above her dark head, squirrels chattered like disembodied spirits. Superstition brushed her mind as she feared what they might be saying about her.
As she was nearing the guard at the gate, the shadow of a bird crossed her path, speeding over the grass. Looking up at the omen, she saw a large black crow, about to settle in a nearby tree. It clung to a high twig and stared down at her.

“Caught!”, it seemed to cry. “Caught!”

Through the gate and into the city, she hurried to her own stone house. It was no bigger or better than anyone else’s house. By the door inside stood her field implement, a hoe with a cracked shaft, bound up by a strip of blue material torn from the hem of Antigone’s garment. She went to kneel by her little stone altar, troubled by the ill omen of the bird’s shadow, and prayed to the goddess Aphaia.

Afterwards, she prepared and ate some saganaki, but the cheese was not of the best. Then she sat silent, hands folded in her lap, to await the night, the time when the dead are buried – or else rise up.