Where the Strange Heart Lies

The following story appeared in Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing, Volume 33, Number 2, summer 2013:

Leda will take her vengeance on the swans.

She does not blame Zeus.  The gods approximate desire by pawing at beauty, and in this way, Leda was like a god.  Because it was the beauty that lured her.

Most of what you know is true—the old world in new ruin: bulls running wild in the roads, Agamemnon dead, the halls of Mycenae tapestried in mold, haunted by furies and wicked queens and scheming sons—everything rotten with pretext.  All, the bards say, because Leda went down to the water where, at the river’s edge, among the reeds and pussywillows, she couldn’t see the burning city.  Then a white flutter.  The wings’ long cadence of lean muscle.   The black appraisal of the molten eye, gliding closer.  Yes, beauty.  Yes, desire.  Here the bards get it wrong.   She gave herself.  Among the frogspawn and lily muck.  Her beak-bruised neck dropped through the bloody air.  It was afterwards, when the moment like every other such moment was not what it pretended to be, that what was taken turned into a wound.

They don’t understand, the old men with their taut harps, the nature of her rebuke.  Their own guts hang slack and heavy as wineskins.  Their beards are tangled and dusty and bad.  But Zeus!  If she was unimpressed by so great a love, they think it must be that she hadn’t wanted it in the first place.

What Leda wanted was the swan.  The sudden frenzy in the fragrant marl and then its elegant, silent retreat.

Instead, afterwards—a man.

Witness the cruelties of transformation, of the beautiful moment rendered real: his feathers firming to flesh, the smell of his sweat, the stale musk of his ambrosiaed breath.  And the worst, by far the worst, his false platitudes stolen, she was sure, from mortal conversations he’d overheard from on high.  His body may have been perfect but his words were as imprecise as any man’s: silly and human, billowous as wind.  This is why she’d chosen a mute swan—to save herself from the shambling inexactitude of mortal ambivalence.  Now she felt she’d fallen for the oldest trick.  She’d reached for beauty’s permanence and ended up with the worst kind of immanence.  Let’s deprive the ancients their equivocation: Girls, this is not what it means to have God inside you.

Of course, Zeus too had seen beauty, had seen her down there by the water, vivid in her exquisite decay, and known then that he wanted to feel something fleeting—the skin’s swift diminishment against his infinite flesh.  Unpicked, he made his windfall passage to the world.  He licked his lips, he clacked his beak.  She stood at the shore and she looked as ephemeral in her life as a phantom.  For him the pleasure would be feeling her vanish, to touch less of her with every thrust.  We must remember—while gods are always feasting, they are also always full.

So she went away weeping.  Helen, Clytemnestra.  She bore children of womb and laid egg.  She waited for many years.  Even beneath ancient light, the past loses its luster.  The moment was as shabby as anything else: the huts where Troy once stood, Iphigenia’s limpid devotion. It’s true, Zeus had wanted her every way—but gods, lacking Time’s heavy pulse, lack sexual imagination.

But not Leda.  She did not lack imagination.  She turned her back on the bone-white geometry of her city, and walked away while the blue Attic light huddled in the hills like a chorus.

Again, she went down to the water.  She took off her sandals and waited in the warm, red mud.  It was summer.  From its mouth, the river lolled like a dog’s tongue.  She had not returned since that first time and did not know if swans still seasoned there, but vengeance is a journey that always circles up.  The world had long taught her its rules: take only what you need.  What you bring with you, you must use.  Leda brought a net and a rope, a clay cooking vessel and a small, sharp knife.

She waited for the first swan to land.

And when it did—because she was not a god and could not count on sacrifice—she cast her net and roped closed the wings.  She pulled the beast to her breast.  Did she pause?  Yes, but only because she wanted to make sure Zeus was watching.  Here her singular grace: For Leda, the question was never what to do next?

She held it trembling against her bosom; she put her ear to the long flute of its throat and cut where the pulse fluttered fast.  She loosed its blood over the gray Pontic loam and once it was dead, she made the fire, put on her clay pot and plucked the bird bare. Blood on the ground, she splayed the body wide, rubbed its breast with lemon and oil, filled its naked hollows with lupine and vetch.  Then she threw her clothes into the river and let her vessel heat.  Like a groom hesitating at his nuptial chamber, she knew that in the court of desire consumption and consummation are two quick slips of the same tongue.

Still, to be taken by a god is to be consumed.  To disappear.  But not Leda.  See her in this moment.  Placing the bird’s body on the hot surface, she will avenge the swan’s change, the way it bittered her love with its lie, by reducing it to its source.  She renders the fat.  She renders and renders and bastes the breast in its own juice.  Finally the swan is done, seared and golden. Hers to transform, to consume and excrete. She takes her first bite and for a moment she feels like a god.  The way flesh falls to their will, their power, their appetite, their hard and perfect teeth.

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