Helen: second installment

“That’s nice. It’s time for your music lesson, Helen. Put on one of your day dresses, and you can come change into this one before the King arrives. I shall finish mending it before lunch, and I doubt they will have docked before noon.”

She laid out a lightweight white dress, with which Helen obediently dressed herself. She ran out the door while still tying the white cord around her waist, chased by a shouted request to wear her sandals. She did not go back for them, but hurried to the room of the music tutor in bare feet.

The lyre could not hold her attention for more than half a minute, what with the preoccupation of her father’s arrival. The music tutor very soon abandoned the attempt at instrumental instruction and asked Helen to sing – which, still imagining herself as a siren, she was inclined to do anyway. On this day, she could not stand still, and paced around the room as she went through the verses of a love song, touching everything she walked by.

She had a very pleasant voice, sweet and resonant, pure, as a child’s voice should be. And she loved to sing. Even this, the tutor could see, was hopeless, and he dismissed Helen long before the lesson was meant to be over. Just as she had done to her nurse, she skipped from the room without a word to him.

In an open-walled corridor leading out to a spacious and well-tended courtyard, Helen ran into her sister. She ran to her. “Have you heard yet, Clytemnestra? Father will be home today.”

Clytemnestra, eleven years old and therefore much wiser and more composed than Helen, smiled at her little sister’s excitement. “Yes, I have. It is the news of the day, it seems. But where are your sandals?”

Helen looked at her feet, then back at her sister’s waiting eyes, and admitted with the slightest feeling of guilt, “I forgot again.”

“You’re impossible. I always remembered my sandals, even when I was younger than you are. The bottoms of your feet will be irreversibly rough by the time you’ve seen ten summers.”

Helen stuck out her tongue, although she knew she shouldn’t. “Some people think other things are more important.”

But when Clytemnestra held her hand out, Helen took it and allowed her to lead her back to her bedroom, where the nurse had laid her sandals out by the foot of the neatly made bed. With Helen sitting on the edge, Clytemnestra helped her tie the laces around her ankles.

Helen leapt up the moment it was done. “Now you have to do something I want,” she demanded.

Hands on hips, Clytemnestra laughed and said, “Just until lunchtime. Being up all night makes me hungry.”

“You didn’t sleep either, then?” Helen caught on eagerly.

Clytemnestra stiffened for a moment, then relaxed her shoulders with visible effort. “My neck hurt, that’s why. I couldn’t manage a comfortable position. I might need new pillows. Come on, what is it you want to do? You want me to go outside with you, am I right?”

Helen frowned. Her sister did tend to demur, rarely revealing much emotion at all, but this was different. This was about Tyndareus. Although Helen never could find a reason for it, she grew more and more certain that their father was, most of the time, distant and strained in his relationship to his older daughter. The nurse had told her that it began when their mother died. When Helen had suggested, “Because he misses her?” the nurse said no more.

“Let’s go,” Clytemnestra urged. “I’ll bet the sea is your favorite color by now. It’s a bright day.”

“For now,” Helen responded. She frowned again, a distinct frown from the last. She hurried out onto the balcony again. Shading her eyes from the sun’s reflected light, she scanned the sky to find the dark storm clouds slightly larger than she remembered. They were coming closer, but the sails of her father’s ship were still a long way off the shore. Closing her eyes, she concentrated very hard on her thoughts, and sent a message.

“Zeus, please delay the storm until after Father is home. Then you can rain twice as hard if you want.”

Her eyelids flew open. She grabbed Clytemnestra’s hand and pulled her along, shouting, “Come on! We have to make an offering to Poseidon!”

“What for?” her sister wondered – but Helen, focused on her task, did not stop to explain. Clytemnestra did not ask again, but let Helen drag her outside the palace walls, all the way to the end of the dock where the king’s ship would come in.

Without hesitation, Helen gripped a few strands of her hair and yanked them from the top of her head. She held them over the dock’s edge and waited for the wind to blow toward the ocean. In the mirrored sunlight, the light golden strands shimmered. She watched them while she waited, her hair held out over the water. The wind, slight though it was, shifted, now blowing from behind. Helen released her offering, watching it fall onto the sea’s surface. That spot became bright and choppy for a moment before settling down to the same level of calm and light as the rest of the water.

“Did you see that?” Helen exclaimed.

“Yes, I did, and you know that your nurse wouldn’t be happy if she saw you pulling your hair out. Lucky for you I’m not going to tell her.”

Clytemnestra seemed to have missed what she meant, and therefore had not seen what Helen saw. She did not try to tell her about the light, knowing that her sister would only attribute the sight to her imagination. Instead, she grumbled, “I don’t see why I need a nurse. You don’t have one.”

“I don’t have a nurse because I’m old enough to take care of myself, and I do – as much as is necessary,” Clytemnestra answered with an incredibly knowing tone. “If you didn’t have a nurse, you would never change from your shift into your day dress in the morning – and I doubt you would mend the hole in your own garment for tonight.”

“I could manage just as well as you,” replied Helen, not pouting, but a bit resentful. “I can do all of those things myself.”

“I know you can, Helen, but you wouldn’t. You’re unfocused, head lost in the clouds most of the time, singing as a siren and seeing swirling lights in the water… taking care of yourself requires a practicality that you lack entirely. I don’t mean it as an insult. It’s simply the way you are.”

Helen was silent for a minute.  She could not see her father’s ship from there, but she knew from which direction it would come, and she kept her eyes on that part of the horizon. If she concentrated hard enough, perhaps the ship would arrive more quickly. She closed her eyes and could not tell if the wind began to blow a little harder.

As it so often did, time proved Helen’s enemy. She spent the entire day in agony of waiting, constantly distressed to find that the sun had barely moved at all since the last time she looked. When it was time for lunch, she could barely sit still to eat – not that she had much of an appetite. By then, the ship was so close that it seemed to be just beyond her reach when she stretched her arm out from her balcony. She found herself nearly wailing with frustration, but in a largely unsuccessful effort to appear composed, she forced herself to settle for murmuring and grumbling.

She could at least be thankful that everyone, including the nurse, had given up trying to make her treat this day like any other. Even suspecting that they only meant to distract her, to pass some painfully dragging time, she felt insulted on behalf of her father. Any day he returned from a long voyage was not a normal day. Such days were quite special in her view. Besides, she was un-distractable, despite her wandering thoughts of sirens and gods and lights in the sea.

Note: I still have not named the nurse, but she isn’t an important character – at least, not yet – and I can always add her name in later. For now, you can give her any Ancient Greek female name you want, if you think she needs a name. Let me know what you picked, maybe I’ll use it.

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