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Open the cabinet. Move the cinnamon. Move the nutmeg. Move the coriander, the cardamom pods, the cumin, the cloves. Move the small dark bottle of vanilla extract and the oregano and the garam masala you’ve only used twice. There, the small jar with whole leaves the length of your pinky. Those are me, mine. I was the first of all the laurel trees, and my bay leaves still season your sauces and stews. Dried, I smell of tea and salt and thin-sliced meat and your grandmother’s pantry, with lemon at the edges; it’s something like the way a museum sometimes smells, all those perfect things preserved. But the way you know me now, I wasn’t always this way. When I was young and in a different form than this, I kept what I understood quiet, but I understood so much.
For one: I knew when they wanted me. Some people can’t tell. Some people are blind to this. Not me. That heat behind the eyes. I could see it. Heat and hunger. That was always part of it. Eyes that lingered even when I wasn’t the one talking. That crackle in the air, that elevated energy of desire as though the particles around us were speeded up. I could smell the friction. I could feel it behind my ribs. They’d lean in, wanting us to share our smells, or lean back, wanting to show their shoulders. It was so plain. Most of all, the biggest tell: the weakness. The way we are when we’re at the mercy of our want. It’s hard not to feel a little tender at that point, but this was also when things could get bad. They’d feel that weakness, some of them, and not know that’s what they felt, but they wouldn’t want to feel it, feared it—how frightening desire can be, how scary want, we’re rendered raw and open to wound like a just-hatched bird with all those veins. To want something is to enter into the risk that you might not get it. They wouldn’t know it was fear they were feeling, but they wouldn’t like what they felt and they’d want to make themselves feel brave and strong. They were overbold to hide it, to try to prove—mostly to their own selves—how tough they were, how courageous, how dominant. Hey, pretty girl. You busy tonight? Is your father immortal? Is your mama from Mount Olympus? I’d like a taste of that. I’d like to fuck that.
I always knew.
No chance. I wanted the woods. I wanted the weight of game on my shoulders. I didn’t brush my hair. I wore a simple white band to keep it out of my eyes. Do you understand?
“You owe me a son-in-law,” my father, Peneus, a river god, said. He thought I was in his debt, maybe the way some parents think that about their kids, that they’re owed something for giving them life. “You owe me grandsons,” he said.
I owe you nothing, I thought. You think this is the achievement of a life, a woman’s only purpose? Wrong. Marriage is bondage. A crime. Can’t you see how free I am? But I was soft-spoken and kind when I told him, Dad, listen, I’m sorry, please understand who I am, that the woods are my home, I’m devoted to Diana, what I need is the air and the hunt and the hills. I can’t be someone’s bride, shackled to the stove, shoving babies out. I know I disappoint you, but I hope your love for me allows you to hear what I’m saying. He got tears. We both felt weird. He looked me up and down and said quietly, “The way you look is going to make what you want impossible.” I ignored it. I dodged one bullet, but was hit by another.
* * *
When men are weak and they’re scared, they’ll try to prove themselves, which is how Apollo came to insult Cupid and Cupid came to seek revenge. Apollo had just killed a massive python, shot it with an arrow, and, feeling all puffed up and powerful, he happened upon Cupid. And to feel even bigger, it helped him to make someone else feel smaller, the true sign of the weakest sort of man. He started bragging to Cupid about his kill using words like “infinite shafts” and “swollen snake,” and you didn’t need much imagination to know what he was getting at. He told Cupid that the bow he was holding was way too big for him. “You can’t handle it, man,” he told him. “You’d need shoulders like mine to use it,” and he grabbed the beef of his own shoulders and laughed. “You even work out? Don’t try to compete with me, boy,” he warned, suspicious (fearful!) of this small god. He had to make him know, I’m bigger, stronger, better.
“Your arrows slay, mine transfix,” Cupid said. “Think you’re such a big man. You’re no match for me.”
So, a pissing match. Whose is bigger? Whip it out. Show me.
Cupid, stung by Apollo’s insults, made two arrows. One tipped with lead, that would render its target disgusted by love, and the other tipped with gold, which would make someone love to the point of madness. Apollo got gold. Guess who got lead. My interest in men had been none before; it was rendered even less so now. The arrow hit me in the thigh, a dull poing and then a hotter pain as the rounded tip split my skin and touched my blood.
He couldn’t help himself, that’s what people told me afterward. And my father’s words, the ones I’d ignored, about my looks preventing my freedom, had their ring of truth.
First thing Apollo said to me, “Do you know how beautiful you’d be if you brushed your hair?” A burn disguised as a compliment. Some might’ve heard just how beautiful and none of the if you did this thing that adheres to what I find beautiful. Some might’ve felt flattered, noticed. Not me. I heard it for what it was and his eyes moved like hands all over my body. My neck, my wrists, my bare arms, and I could see him imagining what he couldn’t see below my clothes. A tightness took hold in my body, all the alarms rang at once, and my muscles were flooded with the juice that says run.
So I did. And he followed.
“You’re like a lamb running from a wolf,” he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice. “You’re like a deer running from a lion. You’re like a dove flying away from an eagle. You don’t get it! That’s not what this is about! Just slow down! I’m not going to hurt you, baby. I promise I won’t ever hurt you.”
I kept running.
“You’re going to scratch your legs,” he yelled from behind me. “There are all these brambles! You’re off the path. I don’t want you to fall. Hold up! You’re going to get hurt!”
I knew the pathless places and I didn’t care if thorns tore the skin of my calves.
I kept running.
“I’m not some scraggly goatherd,” he said. “I’m not some dirty bearded farmer who lives on a mountain and only bathes twice a year. Don’t you know who I am?”
And this is when I knew I was fucked.
The smile went away from his voice—he was getting frustrated, mad that I wouldn’t stop. It was making him feel small, and when men feel small they are dangerous. I could hear him closer behind me.
“You’re running because you don’t know who I am. Don’t you know that? You into music? It exists because of me. What music are you into?” He was trying to sound nice, but there was something frantic and cruel now in his voice. “Hey, hey, I invented medicine, honey, but there’s no herb I know that’s gonna cure the fever I caught for you.”
I kept running.
“MY SHAFT IS SURE IN FLIGHT!” he yelled and I could hear the twigs cracking beneath his feet right behind me. “STOP RUNNING.”
I kept running.
I was fast, but the gods are tireless and Apollo was fueled by Cupid’s spell. I could feel him right behind me. I could feel him at my shoulders. And he laughed, a short laugh that came from deep in his guts because he knew he’d caught me. I could feel his breath through my hair on my neck. His fingertips brushed my arm, then my hips. From somewhere I didn’t know existed in me, some well that holds fear, my body gave me more speed. I pulled ahead for another moment. He kept coming.
Fire in my lungs. Fire in the muscles above my knees. The only thing I wanted was to disappear. To evaporate into the air, to dissolve into a mist and settle on the moss and the leaves. I just wanted to be gone. To explode into vapor. To turn and shove him so hard he’d fly halfway around the world.
“I’ve got you,” he said.
Copyright © 2019 by Nina MacLaughlin