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Fiction

Danaë

“All the works of this artist, though somewhat uncouth to look at, nevertheless have a touch of the divine in them.”

—Pausanias

She notices him primarily as a new scent in the antiseptic air of the Tower: a rich man’s perfume of milk and fig, myrrh and pistachio. You might expect that the Tower itself would stink of brass, so much of it heaped together beneath the Argive sun, but the metal has no scent of its own. What you smell is only the oil and sweat on your skin, broken down by the copper, wafted to your nostrils and triggering some mammalian predilection for the stink of blood. And she never touches the Tower. Her hands are always gloved: leather for the hot work, the casting and the welding, and cotton for setting the gears.

“What would I do with your gold?” she snaps, watching the visiting stranger upend a velvet bag over her bed. The coins spill over the sheepskin blanket and clatter to the floor, drawing attention, as he no doubt intended, to the bed’s narrowness. You might call it Spartan, and stumble through a quirk of etymology onto the name of her mother’s mother, the first queen of that famously uncomfortable city. Don’t let it trouble you. We’re in an age of Heroes: the time here is spread thin, glutinously anachronistic. If Danaë seems to know what’s coming, it’s not always because an Oracle told her.

“I imagine it has an unsavory purpose,” she muses, “this boy you want me to build?”

“A gift for the king,” says the stranger. The last of his coins lands on her bed with a clear chime, a daintier sound than she’s used to hearing from metal.

Here, the scene appears as no Titian or Klimt would paint it. Danaë sits at her workbench on a tall, backless stool, wearing a rust-stained shirt and a laborer’s striped trousers. Around her neck, she’s looped a linen sweatcloth stamped with crude icons of eyes: maybe this is a sly reference to Argus Panoptes, the thousand-eyed monster who once patrolled the fertile fields of Argos guarding her great-great-grandmother Io, or maybe it’s just what she found between the scarves and felted caps in the dyer’s market stall. Her visitor stands beneath the Tower’s only window, where the light falls twenty or thirty feet onto his handsome face, picking out a sharp ridge of eyebrow and nose and chiseled upper lip. Around the room, on wooden shelves and stacks of paper, ingots, and broken molds, her creatures watch: shining brass faces, bold enamel eyes.

The Greeks have many words for what she builds, these beings of metal and mathematics: daidala, agalmata, xoana. Words for the cleverness of mortal hands, and for images of the divine. Danaë doesn’t care for these words, or more properly for this fuzziness between invention and worship. She prefers to keep the Gods out of her workshop, for all the reasons you might expect.

Her clockwork creatures have taken to the visitor, almost preening. The Owl moves her head as though tracking a mouse’s progress. The Siren stretches her wings, her feathers flowing like scales. You wouldn’t mistake these movements for something organic. They’re too choreographed, too controlled—three seconds this way, two seconds that. All of the faces are ugly.

Danaë leans back on the stool and blots her forehead with the eye-stamped cloth. “Why would anyone want to harm our beloved king?”

“Because he’s a cunt,” the stranger says, tucking the purse into his belt.

“A more principled stance than I expected.”

He chuckles. “What have your principles been, when you’ve created toys that kill?”

Accidents, she could say. Purely unintentional. But why deny it? Anyone who sees her mechanical Python tightening his coils, her Lion dispatching and retracting his claws, would know the lie for what it is.

“I don’t have any,” she says. “I’m a bit of a monster, actually.”

“Then we understand each other.” He smiles conspiratorially. He steps towards her, out of the light, and oh, how out of place he is among the brass creatures, this sweet-smelling being of breath and skin. “It’s a comfort, isn’t it, to be the most frightening thing in the dark?”

He holds out his hand. After a moment’s hesitation, she takes it.

• • • •

What you’ve heard about the Tower is wrong. It was a polite request, not a demand. It was only that she seemed happier with some distance from the rest of them—happier when the charwomen didn’t knock over the contraptions she’d left stacked on the hearth, when the servants didn’t interrupt her to collect the tools she’d borrowed or the mugs she’d piled on her workbench, when the men in the hallways and courtyards didn’t do their best to compliment her pleasant nose, her straight teeth (she hadn’t given them much to work with).

The truth, as you might expect, is that the princess of the Argives was often unhappy. Boredom stalked her when she wasn’t sending serpents to terrorize farmers and torture mice, when her metal kittens weren’t slicing the skin from courtiers’ fingers, when soldiers and kings weren’t recoiling under the shadow of metal wings. She once declared her favorite myth to be the story of Talos, a monstrous bull cunningly wrought of brass and held together by a single pin. Pull the pin, and all of his blood spills out—a hot and viscous cascade, pounding down like the spillway of a dam at the height of the winter rains. At her worst moments, when the work stalled or when the rain on her metal roof was too loud for her to think, she wished it were that easy. On another branch of her family tree, hanging like rotting fruit, the wife and daughters of Minos were all suicides. At Naxos, at Athens, on Crete, the beautiful women who bedded Gods and heroes and animals and sons-in-law made a tidy end of things, spinning some final, feminine handicraft: a sturdy length of jute, a girdle stitched with stars. But Danaë had no such luck. Some divinity in her, or simple fate, scorned the tightening of a rope.

When she acceded to their request, the Argives described her exile as “self-imposed.”

They were right, of course. She could leave: There were no guards at her door, waiting to crush her under their shields or chop her into pieces if she ventured outside. So she went to the market, studied joints and quills and follicles at the taxidermists’ stall, shifted through crates of metal rings and semi-precious eyes at the jewelers’. She sat outside the café and sipped bitter coffee, tongued her way through honey-sweetened cheesecake. She watched dancers on the sticky floor of a discotheque. Oh, she watched, tracking the world’s motion with barely disguised disgust, so that she could return to her Tower like a sun-blinded mole seeking the comfort of her den. The brief trips were enough to remind her of what she’d escaped: so many wheels spinning and spinning, spraying mud, gouging trenches in the smooth path of fate. So much energy expended on nothing.

The thought followed her home, became a kind of obsession. To fight one’s fate or to accede to it seemed equally undignified. As she fitted shoulder to socket or quill to follicle, she found herself thinking of the abducted women at the edges of this story, of Ariadne, Libya, Europa, Io. It stinks of bullshit, doesn’t it? All these women carried away like cattle, bred like cows; all the monsters meant to prevent it, the neatherd with a thousand eyes, the brass bull held together by a pin. If Danaë considered it long enough, it gave her vertigo. So much making and unmaking, brass into bull, woman into livestock into mother into dynasty. When it wasn’t the indignity of the abductions that sickened her, it was the waste, the inefficacy. The monsters must lose to simple animal husbandry—not because the rutting cow is superior, but because the skill and craftsmanship of their builders picked a battle with the Gods. And the Gods always win.

Reason enough to lock them out of her Tower.

But the visiting stranger has offered an almost unimaginable opportunity. What happens when the Gods and craftsmanship are on the same side? Danaë has reason to think she will be an exception. The Tower is the opposite of a guardian, and Danaë is the opposite of abducted, and a boy made of metal is the opposite of a son. And if a prophecy says he will still slay the king, well—What else would you expect of her creature?

Perhaps for once the play is perfectly scripted, a voluntary collaboration between a woman and the Gods. At her best moments, Danaë feels something akin to faith.

• • • •

She works on the boy night and day, alternating coffee with wine, torches with shades to keep the sunlight from the narrow window from glinting off the brass and blinding her. After all these years shaping her creatures, maintaining equilibrium in her workshop comes as naturally as the rest of the process: calculating, molding, casting, joining, winding, setting, shining. Her other creatures become part of the rhythm. The Owl catches a mouse and crushes it to a pulp. Then, having no use for the meat, she drops the corpse on Danaë’s pillow, and Danaë adds it to the fire. The Owl cleans her talons by scraping them against the hearth’s granite ledge, her claws leaving deep gouges in the stone, and the sound joins the ringing of Danaë’s hammer, or the gentler tap of her jeweler’s mallet pounding a fingernail into place.

The new creature takes shape from anatomy textbooks, parchments from Egypt and Larissa, and from shards of black and red pottery. Broad, smooth thighs and pectorals, heavy ringlets. Eyes of lapis, teeth of elephant ivory. In a fit of playfulness, she calls him Perseus, a name to frustrate the etymologists: It may be from perthein, “to waste,” “to ravage,” or “to strike,” or it may be a tribute to Persephone, that woman not cattle-rustled but plucked like a flower. The underground queen of seeds and roots, but also of mines and ore.

Perseus. He is the first beautiful thing Danaë has ever made.

• • • •

Meanwhile, the time of myth is elastic. Somewhere, a mother brags that her daughter is lovelier than all the goddesses of the sea. Somewhere else, a serpent advances upon a rock. Holding her metal boy, oiling the gears in his sword-hand, Danaë feels the proximity of these things: these other women, other Gods to be crossed, and so many other monsters. The Gorgons cackling in their caves in Libya, and Pegasus, shining like silver, springing from a puddle of blood. Danaë will never encounter them, or not while they live, at any rate—not in the flesh.

Wiping her hands on her trousers, she admonishes herself for this new breed of melancholy. What is flesh, anyway? Flesh always becomes something else. It becomes rot, puthein, like the name of that serpentine monster Apollo left to stink in the sun at Delphi. Or it becomes stone, like the daughter of Tantalus. Flesh can be stitched into a hero’s armor or pasted on his shield or flown above his troops in battle. It is the material of Nature’s craftsmanship, and heroes’, which is only a little above nature. There’s something vaguely agricultural about heroism, she decides: taking what comes out of the earth, out of the body, and putting it to another purpose.

But farmers need tools, and tools need inventors. And inventors need material.

As a child, she loved the rosy glow of copper. She grew into a magpie, and the list of baubles that caught her eye soon ran the length of the market: silver chains and bronze shields and glass marbles and felt hats and clay pipes and paper crowns. Other children gathered driftwood or smooth pebbles from the mud. These held no interest for her: what she loved was the work of mortal hands.

All that myth remembers of her is a powerful attachment to gold.

• • • •

Her visitor’s name is not important. He was beautiful, and he charmed her creatures and filled her Tower with the scent of wealth, and she made love to him in fact or metaphor. In some stories, he was the king’s brother; in others, a god. He was at best a catalyst, like the Oracle’s answer that brings a great empire to ruin. In any case, he isn’t there when the mob storms her workshop and finds the boy and hammers her into the casket.

She could have argued with them, she supposes. It’s not a weapon, only a man. Not even a man, only a boy. No, not a child, it’s just a plaything—a bored woman’s show of cleverness, a toy to delight the king. But would this have been any better? They have seen the damage her cleverness can do. Is a woman who builds deadly toys any better than one who hammers weapons, or who conceives exceptional offspring?

Mothers fair poorly in these stories: Look at Metis, or Semele, or poor perverted Pasiphaë. But craftsmen do little better. Ask Daedalus, whose first sin was building Ariadne’s dancing-ground, about the dangers of royal recreation. He’s up there now, somewhere above the Aegean, flapping his wax wings.

He is luckier than Danaë in one respect: His prison had a window large enough to fit through.

Through all her days at the workbench, she maintained her posture meticulously. Now the roof of the casket presses on her skull, driving her chin against her collarbone. One arm is trapped across her legs, pinned by her thigh and the roof of the casket, while the other rests between Perseus and one wooden wall. Discomfort turns to agony, then to a liquid numbness creeping in towards her spine. Her gut and her blood and her eyeballs seem to slosh about with the rocking of the sea. And yes, she thinks—curved almost fetal in her casket, her brass boy cradled between her bicep and her breast, bruising her ribs with every jostle of the waves—yes, her visitor was clever: very psychologically astute. There’s a comfort to be found in being the most monstrous thing in the dark. But then you get locked in a box, with only your hideous self for company.

She lets the rage run through her, rising with each wave. Thinks of Io and Europa, borne helpless over the sea; thinks of dancers at the disco, loving and arguing with the same people every night, worse than wind-up soldiers. For once she was willing to play along—but where did it get her? Where does complacency get any mortal? The Gods are perverse.

Announcing this to the darkness, to the metal boy at her side, Danaë conceives an idea.

• • • •

The waves cast them onto a bitter little island called Seriphos, dotted with rude tin-roofed fishermen’s huts and the dry, gaping throats of mine shafts. Iron and copper in the soil make the ground show red between tangles of uncultivated green. Perseus lifts Danaë from the casket, sets her on the metallic earth and begins to chafe feeling into her limbs. She winces against the pain, clenching her fingers through the sand, making it smell of blood.

As soon as she can walk, they make their way to the palace. It seems only a little grander than the fishermen’s huts—built of the same dull clay, roofed with the same tin. The king, a gigantic man, sits on what looks like a milkmaid’s stool; his thighs are twice as wide as the throne, and the lowness of the seat displays them well, all sinew and coiled tension.

Danaë’s legs tremble as she bows, but the walk from the beach has revived her a little, and she does not need Perseus to hold her upright. She knows enough to be grateful for this. She recognizes the look on Polydectes’s broad, sunburned face, having seen it often enough in her own mirror—nostrils flared, as though weakness has a scent he could track.

“What do you want?” he demands. Looking her over, he sees nothing worth taking; not for him, the charms of a pleasant nose and straight teeth, nor even a quick and glittering eye.

“I want to give you a gift,” she says, clasping her hands behind her back. “A plaything fit for a king.”

He turns now to Perseus, and his face takes on a more thoughtful cast. The nostrils flatten, the blue-painted lids lower as the eyes scan Perseus’s long limbs and wide, gleaming chest. This, they seem to say, is indeed fitting. Polydectes moistens his lips.

Danaë catches her rising smile and tucks it down beneath her tongue. “No,” she says. “This is a child’s toy compared to what I have in mind, your majesty. I’ll send him to Libya in pursuit of a truly royal gift. But first, I must find him a weapon.”

“Do you know where you are, woman?” He slaps a hand against the hard slab of his thigh. “The smiths of Seriphos are beyond praising. You can find any weapon you desire on this island, and no better anywhere else in Greece.” Now he frowns, or leers; it is difficult to tell which. “I see no need to send to Libya for any gift.”

“It is a rare and wonderful artifact, my king.”

Polydectes shakes his head at this strange, stubborn woman. What do you think he sees when he looks at her? She’s no beauty; her complexion, long sun-starved and hearth-seared, has gone gray with the days at sea, and her hair has thinned with hunger. She stands straight, but there’s a tremor in her muscles that even Polydectes can’t mistake for awe. All is not well with her. Does he see a cunning woman in that sharp, glittering gaze? And if he does, what does a woman’s cunning mean to him? Is she a sorceress? Or is she a seductress, an adventurer, a con?

“My smiths can make any wonderful thing you imagine,” he says softly. “Tell them what you have in mind, woman. There’s no reason to send to Libya.”

Danaë has grown bored of this. She drops her clasped hands and straightens her shoulders, though they ache as though iron nails have been driven between her bones. She tosses her head, ignoring the sickness that the gesture sends rolling through her gut.

“I am the finest craftsman in the world,” she says. In this stone hall, her own voice sounds strange to her; she is used to it echoing off of metal walls. Her words seem rougher here, like ore wrenched from the earth, and she finds that she likes the effect. “My works put Daedalus and Hephaestus to shame. I have made Sirens that sing and owls that hunt, and mice that hide from the owls. I have made snakes that hatch from eagle’s eggs and swans that give birth to serpents. I built a pack of wolves whose feats will terrify the Argives for generations to come. And I tell you, most merciful king of Seriphos, that the gift I mean to fetch for you is greater than anything my hands can build.”

It is a risk. Honesty is always a risk—honesty to a king, doubly so. But she hasn’t misjudged Polydectes; he respects strength and boldness above all.

“Very well.” He throws his smile at her like a gambler flinging his cards at his opponent, unsure if the hand will win or cost him the game, but knowing it will do one or the other. “We will give your boy a sword and a ship. But if what he brings back does not impress me, woman, I will cut off your hands.”

She bows again. Perseus follows her lead, lowering those unblinking lapis eyes.

“We have nothing to fear,” she says. She even manages, for a moment, to believe it.

And then, time stops.

In Seriphos, the waves freeze on the sea. Beyond the bare doorway of Polydectes’s throne room, the weeds stand fixed on the hillside, twisted like snakes. A seabird hovers like an ink stain on the petrifyingly blue sky. The past and future that ripple behind her, the genealogy she wears like a cloth around her neck, the monsters advancing on princesses and women fleeing monsters and queens speaking foolishly or wisely—she feels all of it snap in her brain like a wire stretched too thin, and the blood rushes from her head.

As she faints, she can hear the Gods laughing.

• • • •

In her fever, she dreams of the Minotaur.

They are walking the labyrinth together, she and this half-brother of her distant cousins—another monster she’ll never meet in the flesh. In her dream she can feel his bullish heat, can taste a strange combination of cowhide and human sweat in the air. The dream-labyrinth is full of lapis-colored flies; the Minotaur blinks them away with his beautiful eyelashes, but she must shoo them with her hands, brushing her cheeks and forehead like a woman smoothing her wrinkles in a mirror. Their buzzing hurts her head.

Meanwhile, the Minotaur is speaking to her in a human voice. It sounds exactly like her visiting stranger’s. They even smell alike, she realizes: milk and fig, sweet and smooth.

“I’ve been thinking,” the monster says, “about the difference between myself and a Gorgon.”

“Theseus kills one and Perseus kills the other,” Danaë mumbles, pushing a fly from her lip. Fever has flattened her brain, and she must pluck hard to grab hold of any thread. “One with golden string, the other with a bronze shield.”

He looks offended, or as offended as a bull’s head can look. “Pardon me. And what kills you, Danaë? A brass pin, perhaps? The stories never say.”

She flinches. She’s mortal enough for that, even in a dream.

“I deserved that,” she admits. “So what is it, this difference between you?”

“You already know. You sent your boy to collect it.” Clop, clop, clop—his human feet make a sound like hooves. “It’s all in the head. Cut off my head and I’m nothing. A human body, a bull’s head. Two ordinary things, nothing monstrous about them.”

If she were less feverish, or if this were more solid than a dream, Danaë would attempt to chart the path they’re following—left here, right there, left and left again. But she suspects it would be fruitless. They may as well be walking in circles. “A Gorgon’s head is still a Gorgon,” she replies. “It still makes things happen.”

“You might call it a weapon.”

“I might call it a tool.”

He snorts, a cold and heavy sound. “Once upon a time,” he says, “if you wanted something, you transformed.” He points to the wall beside them and she realizes it’s painted with a mural: Argus the thousand-eyed keeping watch over Io, a white cow chained to an olive tree. Their shared ancestor, more or less. “You wanted a girl, you turned into a bull, or she did. You wanted safety, you turned into a river or a tree. But things are different now that mortals are more cunning. You want a bull, you build a mechanical cow. You want safety, you build a Tower, or a labyrinth.”

She smiles grimly. “If you want a dead king, you find the tool to make one.”

“If it’s really a dead king you want. Personally, I suspect you’re more ambitious.”

They are still walking in the labyrinth but the ceiling has vanished. The flies drift off of their faces and float into the sky, where they stick in constellations. Yes, there is the Bull, her companion’s father—and there, just above him, is Perseus, arm raised to grip an invisible sword. Flies into stars into heroes. She looks down again, fighting vertigo, and realizes that they are standing on Daedalus’s first creation: the dancing-floor of Ariadne.

“The birthing of monsters is complicated,” the Minotaur muses. “Look at my mother. To make a hero, you just follow the path, but to make a monster, you need to fuck up somewhere. You have to offend a God. You have to go against fate, but only for a turn—a short twist in the path. Anything more and they’ll destroy you outright.”

Danaë crouches, her legs still trembling with sea-cramp, and runs one hand through the soil, tracing the maze’s curve. Crete must be like Seriphos—there must be copper in the earth—because she smells blood when she touches the ground. Or maybe it is blood, the smell of a sacrifice: throats cut, pins pulled. A future suicide dancing in her labyrinth.

When Danaë’s mother was pregnant, she developed a craving for metal. Eurydice, that mysterious footnote in the Argive genealogy—for we know almost nothing about her, except that she was the daughter of the founders of Sparta—wanted to eat brass, copper, iron. She went into the king’s guardhouses and licked the weapons, wandered into his treasury and chewed on the jewelry. She sliced her tongue on the sharp edges. Finally, in desperation, she sent for an Argive butcher, who brought her a wineskin full of cow’s blood.

Yes, Danaë thinks, smelling the metal on her fingers: the birthing of monsters is complicated. And to birth oneself monstrous—is that not an even harder task? That takes a bit of work. That requires a bit of cunning.

• • • •

She wakes with a jolt on a rope cot in the back of Polydectes’s palace. The smell of metal is still there, mingling with salt and bitter greenery, but something underneath it stinks of rot and wet rock. The house of Polydectes is silent as a grave. She raises herself on one arm and glances down the long, narrow room.

It is lined with hideous statues.

Danaë sets her bare feet on the floor and rises carefully. There in the shadows, almost unnoticeable against the drab clay wall, Perseus stands with a velvet bag cradled in his arms. She passes him, walking from statue to statue; she traces the curves of jawbones and rounded cheeks, touches frozen eyes and parted lips. In all her days, she has never seen such fear captured on human faces. So many names for the things she builds—daidala, agalmata, xoana—but this will be her masterpiece. This is a divine production: nature into nature, flesh into stone.

When she reaches the end of the line, she returns to Perseus and lifts the bag from his hands—carefully, so as not to disturb the drawstring. Through the soft material she can feel the bones of a woman’s face, the curve of an eye socket, the loose hinge of a jaw. Above those, the dense, fibrous coils of snakes.

Something rises in her chest. It takes her a moment to recognize the feeling as pride.

• • • •

That night, on the ship back to Argos, she drags her mattress onto the deck and sits out under the stars. It is late summer and the meteors are flying through her creature’s constellation. Perseus stands silently in the bow, and the Gorgon’s head rests between her feet, sheathed in velvet. It will have brutal work to do when they reach the Argive court.

Yes, to make oneself the most frightening thing in the darkness—that is not an easy task. But a clever woman makes do. Danaë smiles to herself.

Although it occurs to her, in a flash like the laughter of the Gods, that she will never again sleep soundly without the rocking of the waves.

Megan Arkenberg

Megan Arkenberg‘s work has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies, including Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. She has edited the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance since 2008. She currently lives in Northern California, where she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature. Visit her online at www.meganarkenberg.com.