Seeking Microfiction

Writing has been hard these days. I find that at any given time I either have nothing to say or too many things to say. It’s probably a stress thing. I should meditate more, and drink less coffee. Or more coffee.

Yes. It’s becoming clear to me that I’m not drinking nearly enough coffee. I should rectify that.

Then again, maybe I should drink less coffee after all…

I’m feeling indecisive. Can you tell?

I’ve been thinking that I want to start writing microfiction again. I was very into that style for a while, and it just dropped off suddenly for reasons I could not identify.

Flash fiction is something that has probably been around longer than we think, but has gained traction in the past few years. It does not seem to have a fixed definition. Some people will say under 1000 words, others will say under 1500 or 2000. Some people say anything that’s no more than a few pages is flash fiction.

Microfiction is sort of a subcategory of that, also without a firm word limit, but in my experience it defines works up to the 500-700 word mark. It can be as short as a sentence or two, or as long as a few paragraphs. In theory, the short piece contains an entire story, or enough of a story that the reader can fill in the missing details. Personally, I think there’s a danger of reading that criterion in a limited way. Yes, the intention is to try to fully communicate the piece in that rather small word count, but I don’t think that means packing a plot into that space. Many of my microfiction pieces are more along the lines of snapshots, moments in time, rather than trying to have a narrative. I think the form lends itself to that use and so I took full advantage of it.

I don’t know why I stopped writing them. I suppose I just stopped experiencing things that inspired me in that way. Or I got distracted by adult life and became separated from my imagination. Or both. So I tried to remember how I started writing them, and I remembered–of course, I started by reading.

One book I can go back to is Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance. I would also like to find some microfiction I have not already read. Do you have any suggestions?


Helen: Chapter 2, part 2

Click here to read part 1 of chapter 2.

When the nurse finally accompanied Helen into the main hall for the celebrations, Clytemnestra was already there, but Tyndareus was not, nor were their new guests. Disappointed, Helen moved toward her sister, who was currently circling the hall in a half-hearted inspection of the room. Helen slipped her hand into Clytemnestra’s and joined her in looking over the festive additions to the room. Gauzy golden fabric had been hung over and between the usual tapestries – well out of the way of the torches, which had all been lit, as the sun was obscured behind thunderclouds – making the room seem to glow. Numerous polished platters of food covered every surface. Musicians tuned lyres and harps.

“There are more musicians than usual,” Helen noticed.

“They are going to great trouble with the entertainment for Hector, I imagine,” Clytemnestra commented sagely. “I heard that there will be dancers later tonight.”

“I don’t understand… no other land’s princes come to stay with us, and Father doesn’t usually stay so long away from us. Why do we do all of this for the Trojans?”

Clytemnestra sighed. “You were very young the last time Father voyaged to Troy. He was gone for a long time – not as long as this time, but longer than I can recall him being away in any other kingdom. I don’t know why any more than you do, but there is something about Troy that makes it special to him. And Helen, don’t ask such questions in front of the Trojans. It will seem ungracious.”

Helen did not understand why she should have to be so gracious, but she was excited to have a brother at last and would rather not insult Hector. With this in mind, she agreed to show only happiness and hospitability in the Trojans’ presence.

Lightning flashed. It must have struck an arm’s length from the castle, for the shimmering fabric decorating the walls lit the room to impossible brightness. It appeared like all lightning, powerful but fleeting. It was over before Helen had a chance to properly admire the effect. The room seemed unbearably dim in comparison, with torches as the only source of illumination, although she liked how everything seemed to glitter. While the gray clouds grew darker outside, the hall felt like a cozy, dreamy nymph-dwelling.

Clytemnestra and Helen, completing their first circuit around the hall, met their father’s brother Icarius at the main entrance. They each received a cordial greeting from him, then a warm embrace. Their affection for him was nothing like what they felt for their father, but still very strong.

“Is Father coming out soon, Uncle?” Helen asked, unable to contain her excitement.

“As soon as he can, little one,” Icarius answered, patting Helen’s cheek lightly. “He had a few matters to see to before the feast – needs to get caught up on the past year before he can get back to running the kingdom. It’s a lot of information to study, but don’t worry. He knows how much his daughters want to see him.”

Icarius excused himself, joining a group of the Spartans who had accompanied Tyndareus to Troy. He had grown up with them and missed their company in the past months. A goblet of wine in his hand, Icarius was soon exclaiming and laughing as animatedly as any of the Spartan warriors.

Another half an hour passed, and neither Tyndareus nor Hector had yet appeared. Helen wondered whether it would be more polite for Tyndareus to arrive first, making him present to welcome their royal guest, or for Hector to come out and wait for the king of his new host country. She wondered if their opinions on the matter would be the same.

She would have asked Clytemnestra, but her sister had claimed a sofa and was currently picking delicious-looking morsels from a golden plate at a leisurely pace. The plates of gold, Helen’s nurse had told her, were special and few, nearly always reserved for the royalty. Helen only saw them brought out for feasts; she was provided ceramic and silver dishes for everyday use. It distracted her momentarily, seeing that golden plate. They were so polished, bright, rare, that she loved to eat off of them. She began to wander toward the food, in search of her own golden plate. When she found it, she would, as always, briefly inspect her reflection. It was not often that she had the chance to see herself in a plate’s surface, and the novelty always amused her.

Helen had hardly begun her treasure hunt when she heard Tyndareus’ arrival announced. She did not wait to see him, but sprinted toward the door, weaving between bodies when they blocked her way. Her small, perfectly formed feet (her nurse had commented on the shapeliness of her feet many times as she did the laces on Helen’s sandals) carried her swiftly to the entrance, where she ran headlong into her father’s arms. He staggered back one step as her force hit him, chuckling deeply.

“I’m so glad to see you, dear daughter. You look lovely. What a pretty belt of ribbons.”

Her father always noticed things like that. Helen smiled broadly. “Thank you, Father.”

An especially loud crack of lightning resounded through the room, flashing several times before it was gone. Startled, Helen gripped her father’s arm until the lightning stopped. The scowl on his face made her nervous. It was the expression he always wore when a thunderstorm became particularly violent, or a lightning strike was especially close.

That one, drawn out bolt signaled the end of the storm. The rain soon abated to a few drops here and there. Once Tyndareus had said a fond hello to Clytemnestra, he made his way to the head of the long table in the room’s center. Some of the men sat with him. Tyndareus promised them his full attention once he had taken advantage of the food, and they laughed, their spirits no doubt lifted by the ceasing of the rain. In no time at all, the clouds had melted from the sky, leaving them with a view of a lovely twilight.

Twinkling pinpricks of stars were slowly dotting the sky, soon to be filled with thousands of bright lights, when Hector led the Trojans into the hall. …To be continued

Helen: Chapter 2, part 1

I know it’s been a while, but here’s more at long last! I haven’t written much more, but I have every intention of devoting much more time to this work, and then I will be able to post some more. For now, this section ends at a good place, and moves the story along just a little. As this is the first draft only, I don’t mind not being completely happy with the writing. Also, just to quell the theory before it arises – no, Helen isn’t crazy, but only she can see the things she’s seeing. As always, I welcome any feedback.

Chapter 2

Forty men had accompanied Tyndareus to Troy, but fifteen more came off the ship with him. These men were Trojans, Clytemnestra whispered to Helen, and while several were academics or servants, six were clearly experienced warriors. Immediately curious, Helen tugged the end of her father’s tunic a few times.

“Father, why did you bring Trojans back with you? Are they going to live here now?”

“I was about to explain that, my dear – “ as Tyndareus began his answer, a young boy began his descent from the ship’s deck. His clothes were fine, his bearing regal if a little haughty, and his features handsome. The Trojans – aside from the warriors, who maintained a strong, intimidating stance – bowed as he passed them.

Tyndareus gestured toward the boy. “Allow me to introduce Hector, prince of Troy. He has come to study the traditions and battle technique of the Spartans. In one year’s time, King Priam of Troy, will visit us here and Hector will return home with his father. Until then, I will view Hector as my own son, and I have no doubt that you, my beautiful daughters, will treat him as a brother.”

Hector had paused before them, looking carefully at both Helen and Clytemnestra. “I hope we’ll be friends,” he said, his expression quite serious.

In response, Helen quickly stepped forward and flung her arms around him. Hector let her, but did not return her embrace, while Clytemnestra clenched her teeth at her sister’s impropriety. Helen took no notice of this. She laughed and said, “I always wanted a brother.”

Tyndareus hailed a servant and ordered, “Show Prince Hector to his chambers, and show his attendants theirs as well. Make sure he settles in properly, and then escort him to the main hall for the return feast.”

The servant bowed, then addressed Hector. “Please follow me, Your Highness. Your rooms are all prepared for you.”

As Hector and his Trojan entourage trailed the servant into the palace, Helen realized that the messenger who ran ahead of the ship must have informed the servant staff that Hector came with Tyndareus. “Father, why did no one tell me the Prince of Troy would be here?”

Tyndareus touched Helen’s cheek affectionately. “Because everyone knows how you love surprises.”

Thunder grumbled directly above them. Tyndareus looked up, startled. His face suddenly grew much darker, eyes narrow, jaw firmly set. With an arm around each of his daughters, he ushered them inside, leaving the ocean behind him. The clouds above seemed to churn with anger, Helen thought. They had been inside for mere seconds when the rain began. No more than a few drops at first, it quickly became a downpour.

“That was lucky,” Helen said, giggling. “My prayer must have worked. It looks like Zeus smiled on us.”

She peered up into her father’s eyes. He looked down at her, somber and distant, and responded, “Zeus does nothing but frown at me, Helen. He has smiled on you.”

As he headed for his room, looking to change out of the seafaring clothes he had been wearing for weeks or months, he muttered, “As usual.”

Helen tilted her head as she took this in. “What does that mean?” she asked. But Tyndareus was out of hearing, and Clytemnestra just shook her head and she followed her father down the hall. Everyone else was merely passing her on their way to somewhere else.

After a time, Helen’s nurse came to usher her back to her bedroom. The feast would begin soon, but not until Tyndareus, the returning Spartans, Hector, and the Trojans had some time to refresh their bodies and spirits. The nurse, knowing that Helen would be most restless until she could be near her father, brought out a shining handful of colorful ribbons and helped her to braid them prettily together. Helen lost herself in the task. When they had finished, she asked if she could replace her golden rope belt with the new, more creative option. Nodding and smiling, the nurse took the ribbons from Helen and helped her to make the switch.

“These colors are very pretty with that dress,” the nurse said.

“They’re like the ocean,” Helen breathed, gazing with wonder down at the purples and blues and greens of her new accessory. “I saw something in the ocean today.”

“I’m sure you did.”

Of course the nurse did not believe her – but she felt sure that she had really seen those lights in the water. Thinking that, just maybe, if she saw them again now she could point them out to the nurse, Helen made her way onto the balcony. She peered hard, scanning every visible inch of the ocean, but saw no lights. Instead, she saw, far out from shore and just below the surface, a grand and horrible bearded face with eyes even stormier than the ocean. Helen gasped – but the face was smiling at her.

“You’ll be soaked, Helen, and then you’ll have to change your dress. Come back inside,” the nurse insisted. Helen obliged, looking anxiously over her shoulder, but the face had disappeared.

Unadulterated Thoughts of Alice James

I am having a weak day.

Today has been unpleasantly dreary. For a while this morning I watched the grim haze of rain. I complained of the cold and Katharine drew the curtains shut. Now there is nothing interesting upon which to fix my eyes. On any other such a day, I would certainly spend the time writing in my Journal, or composing letters – I have yet to answer William and Alice’s last letter. Today, holding a pen does not appeal to my fingers. I attempted it just following breakfast. After setting down a few words I had to set down the pen, as I could focus neither my eyes nor my hand on the paper in front of me.

Days like this one can be difficult. I have been able to do nothing but lie down, excepting the effortful meals during which I consumed a few bites before having to lie down again. If I must stay in all day with no visitors, I prefer to write something. It is, unfortunately, one of those rare times when the preliminary efforts of the morning sapped what little strength I have, and my exhaustion now prevents me even from dictating. Silent and helpless, my thoughts have nowhere to go. There is no choice but to content myself with thinking them.

Katharine sits beside my bed. She has been reading to me all afternoon, in a low, under-dramatic voice. The small pile of books next to her consists of ones I read as a child. It was thoughtful of her to select volumes with which I am already familiar. I could tune in to each at any point and understand what was happening. She must be aware that I am not listening attentively. Even so, her voice is a comforting and grounding presence, without which I might simply float away.

I wonder what the time is. Several hours should have passed since noon, it seems, but if that were so they would have disturbed me for afternoon tea by now. Perhaps it had only been an hour, or less, and time had decided to drag horrendously.

In one simple way, I almost prefer times like this to my most productive days. I have the chance to interact with my thoughts in their original, unadulterated form. Knowing that no one will write them down today, I allow the thoughts to come to me as they will, and then leave or sit still in my mind, being nothing but exactly what they are. The act of putting words to thoughts changes their shape. Once it is done, even the source of the thought cannot recall the original impression. Emotions are even worse in this respect, as well as being unjustly difficult to translate into words. I do not often write of complicated emotions in my Diary. I believe that any such account would be indecipherable by anyone but me, and therefore not worth recording. I expressed all of this to Harry once, and he nodded contemplatively, although I could not tell if he actually agreed with me.

I adore Harry’s visits. I am excessively glad that he has not come today, as I would be incapable of enjoying his presence. In addition to that, I do not think I have the strength today to endure his departure, which always strikes me as vastly unpleasant. I should cry hard for two hours, after he goes, if I could allow myself such luxuries. He is perfect company. There are times when I think that he is my sole reason for carrying on in this world. When my reason for carrying on comes by and I have no strength to greet it, I believe that to be a disgraceful state of affairs.

For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed Henry’s presence more than almost anyone else’s. He is incontestably my most intellectually stimulating companion, as well as wonderfully empathetic. He comes at my slightest sign and gives me calm and solace by assuring me that my nerves are his nerves and my stomach his stomach. We are the kindred spirits of the James family. There is nothing to the fact that we are each other’s only family in London, or that we are the only living Jameses of our generation who are not married. The possibility that one of us is not married because the other one is not crosses my mind from time to time. It is, of course, nonsense – neither of us ever really intended to marry. Perhaps if I had gone to live with a handsome butcher-boy or married a Duke, certain people would have been happier, but I have no doubt that I would have ended up here regardless. I would feel much worse about my condition if I had children. I cannot imagine that I am missing anything that I was not meant to miss, and I have Katharine and Harry who are both wonderful.

Katharine reads on, her voice like a hum that has set me drifting. I have within me a cluster of memories testifying that this is not unusual for me to do. I am sure that I often listened very closely when Father or one of the boys read aloud, preparing myself for the day when the deep James family discussions would include me, the only girl. I am also sure that my mind had wandered during many such readings, despite my efforts.

I conclude, years later, that my mind had to wander. Most of my important revelations on life came to me during the years of my childhood; while my brothers soaked up the ideas of others, I was busy pondering my own. While family friends and dinner guests seemed to find me most amusing when I made comments like “I wish that your mashed potatoes might always have lumps in them!”(though I would bet that they remembered it as having been said by Wilky or someone else), I knew that my moments of delicious clarity while walking on the cliffs of Newport were vastly more important.

I understood too much for an adolescent, as the knowledge crystallized within me of what life meant for me. It was all I could think of, up on those cliffs, the winter sea and the gray sky melting into each other at the horizon like life and death. When I returned to the house, Aunt Kate would load me with a shawl and a cup of tea after placing me in front of the fire and Harry looked at me as though he could almost sense that I had solved the mysteries of life. For me, the moment had passed, and I settled into the heat of the tea and the fire, the comfort of home.

I thought that I would miss home greatly when I came here, even with Henry’s reposeful presence, and of course I did. Since arriving in England, the “home” feeling which you can fabricate between any four walls has slowly infused these two rooms. Every inch of wall-paper and carpet and every piece of furniture is by now so familiar that I can picture to the minutest detail the entire apartment as I lay with my eyes closed, and I can, with concentration, conjure the feeling of the place when I am elsewhere and wish to feel at home. When Harry visits, the feeling is most complete.

Yes, I am quite happy that he has not come today. It would have been a waste and a disappointment.

I can hardly remember what it felt like to be healthy. I can picture my present self traipsing through Europe as I did when I was a girl – indeed, with my mind it would be surprising if I could not – but I can’t imagine how it would feel. It is just as well; I should not try to feel the way things could have been, but the way they are. There is something very exhilarating in shivering whacks of crude pain. Most people avoid it avidly, undergoing all kinds of medications, sedations, and anesthesia to escape. I find that it is an important part of a life experienced through the senses, which after all is how we experience anything.

I covet the awareness of pain because it is awareness. My lazy state at this moment might appear out of character if I did not know how hard my mind now works. I may not be aware of the words Katharine reads, or the time of the day, or Henry’s present actions and condition, but I am aware of myself. There is nothing beyond that is worth observing, nor would I have the strength if there were. Perhaps I would be stronger if I could feel some sunlight in the room. Even with my eyes closed, I know that the afternoon is unsavorily dark.

A sound, one that has been perpetually pushing at my ears for a while now, causes my brow to furrow as I attempt to determine its source. I decide that it is rain, muffled by the curtains. There are so many layers between my awareness and the rain – thoughts, eyelids, curtains, windowpane – that I am slightly intrigued that I should notice at all. And how could I hear it over Katharine’s reading? Has she stopped – no, paused for a page turn, but she picks it up again in the middle of a sentence whose beginning I did not hear.

There has come a change in me. A congenital faith flows through me like a limpid stream, making the arid places green. It brings me back to the Newport cliffs, somehow, although I can see no similarity between the incidents. The revelations that come to you when you are approaching the end of your life are quite unlike any other. The difference in revelations and the difference in age are connected, I think. All that comes to us is surely only of interest and value in proportion as we find ourselves therein, form given to what was vague, what slumbered stirred to life.

I lay in a meadow until the unwrinkled serenity entered into my bones and made me one with the browsing kine, the still greenery, the drifting clouds, and the swooping birds. Whether the great Mystery resolves itself into eternal Death or glorious Life, I contemplate either with equal serenity.

“A letter has just arrived from Henry. He is caught up in work and will come to visit later in the week. Shall I respond for you, Alice? Alice?”

I hear her voice clearly, but I cannot answer as the subdued patter of rain and the gentle in-and-out of my breath pull me toward sleep.


I wrote this for a Bennington class on historical fiction. This narrative is based mostly on The Diary of Alice James, as well as other readings about the Jameses. Some parts of it are taken from the Diary, and those are listed below (make a note of this before you tell me you liked a particular line, because if it turns out it’s not one that I came up with it’s a disappointment to me). My intention, looking back, was to capture Alice James well enough that readers would be unable to distinguish my writing from hers in this piece. I think I succeeded. I can only tell the difference because when you work someone else’s writing into yours, it just feels different.

1. “I should cry hard … luxuries” The Diary of Alice James, p. 74. 2. “He comes at my slightest sign … my stomach is his stomach” Ibid p. 104. 3. “I wish that your mashed potatoes…!” qtd. in The James Family, p. 71. 4. “As the knowledge … what life meant for me” Ibid, p. 273. 5. “The ‘home’ feeling … four walls” The Diary of Alice James, p. 106. 6. “There is something … crude pain” Ibid, p. 129. 7. “There has come a change … arid places green” Ibid, p. 131. 8. “All that comes … stirred to life” Ibid, p. 27. 9. “I lay … swooping birds” Ibid, p. 130. 10. “Whether the great … equal serenity” Ibid, p. 131.

Selected Bibliography

The Diary of Alice James. Ed. Leon Edel. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1964

Matthiessen, F. O. The James Family. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1947

Strouse, Jean. Alice James: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980

Reflections on a Piece in E-mails

I came across a piece I did last year that is written in the form of emails between a brother and sister. It was my response to an assignment for Recent Innovative Fiction, a writing class I took during my last semester at Bennington College. It was fun to write, and very very experimental in nature. The plot is built on a rather strange premise and developed only as much as I needed to write a few pages. I don’t intend to ever finish it, and it’s not exactly fit to post online, but I want to talk about it briefly, as it is out of the ordinary and, despite its roughness, I am proud of it.

Many interesting considerations go into writing a piece like this. A skeleton of a plot is necessary to begin writing, but the main consideration was form. We concentrated a lot on form in RIF. It’s not enough to simply write a story in an interesting form – if you don’t take advantage of the form you decide to use, you’re missing an opportunity. So I asked myself: what can I do to play with email form? Of course I decided to create a parody of those ridiculous chain letters people send each other. In terms of language, I mostly stuck to the type of language people typically use in email. It makes the more poetic sentences really stand out. And what else? I could have given the characters interesting emails, but I never got around to assigning them email addresses.

The one thing I came up with that would have made this piece very interesting, if it were finished and published, was to get creative with the time stamps. You have to read them carefully in order to spot it. One character’s emails always originate from the same time on the same day, while the other’s are sent at random times, often weeks later than their last. The conversation progresses as if they were talking in real time, but the information they share about their lives indicates that he is stuck in time, while she’s speeding forward. They also relate strange occurrences in their lives, which is meant to be connected to the weird time paradox they seem to be stuck in. I suppose that makes it a sci-fi/fantasy type story. As I wrote I imagined that most people would interpret the weirdness as indications of end-times.

I think that this story could turn out well, but if I do return to it to write more, create a complete piece, it won’t be for a long time. I’d love to hear that people are intrigued by the idea.

Helen: Chapter 1 (full)

Anticipating Tyndareus’s return from peace negotiations in Troy, his daughter barely slept all night. Her legs twitched and bounced into the early hours of morning, and by the arrival of dawn she was certain that she had not slept for a second. Now, knowing that her nurse would be in to start readying the princess for her father’s return as soon as the sky had turned thoroughly pink, she saw no reason to spend any more time trying to sleep. She threw her silk bed covers off and ran out to the balcony.

In the gray light of dawn, the sea was still dark blue. She liked it best when the water was clear and green and she could look down from her high balcony and see things swimming below. She imagined that they were nymphs, mermaids, or sirens, even though she knew that sirens only lived in the deepest sea. She would fantasize about being a siren, and at the first sight of sails she would hum quietly, imagining that it was her father’s ship that she drew to her with her song.

Sometimes, she thought that if a siren were to beckon her, she would follow the voice creating the most beautiful music, as she had always heard it told, and live in the ocean with them, singing and playing.

She climbed up on the wall, her legs dangling over the side, to watch the sky and sea grow brighter. She closed her eyes for a moment, letting the salty breeze and the early morning sounds wash over her. But for the gentle waves breaking against the cliff above which her bedroom sat, the world was quiet. The sun, growing warmer on her face by each moment, told her that this would soon change.

And just as she thought; very faintly, she could hear evidence of movement in the kitchen. Cooks and servants would be getting everything ready to begin meal preparations. In order to feed everyone who lived and worked in the palace, they would have to work all day.

The water rippled with the sun’s reflection, causing the young girl to squint. No sight of a ship yet. No song of sirens either. She started to hum tunelessly, stringing random notes together as if they were a familiar melody. He’ll come home, he’ll be home. She peered down the cliffside at the brightening water, deciding that the amorphous shadow twisting below the surface was a dolphin. She waved to it.

Looking up again, she frowned. Dark clouds were just beginning to drift in, far to the right. If they moved into her father’s path, they would delay his arrival, and they had already been expecting him for six days. She took up her tune again, willing the ship toward home and the storm away.

The door opened and then shut. Her nurse’s light, quick footsteps – the most efficient she had ever heard – made their way to the bed, which, of course, she found empty. Immediately, she would look to the wood-framed arch leading out to the balcony. Through the half-drawn gauzy white curtains, the seven-year-old on the stone wall was easily visible.

“Come eat breakfast, Helen,” the nurse requested sternly.

She swung her legs back on the balcony side of the wall, jumped down, and ran to her nurse, who led her by the hand to the round table. Bread, fruit, and olives waited on a plate for her hands to search for the pieces that looked best to her. Beside it sat a painted clay cup full of fresh milk. Helen climbed into a chair, folding her feet underneath her, and stuffed her mouth full of bread.

“I’ve told you not to dangle your legs over the wall like that, it’s very dangerous,” the nurse chided her. “And I wish you  would wear your sandals when you walk outside, even if you’re only out on the balcony.”

“I know,” Helen said, between swallows. “I forgot.”

“Never mind for now. I have to mend your dress before you can wear it, I’ve just found a tear. I don’t know how you manage to put holes in all of your clothing.”

“The one with the gold threads? Does that mean that he’ll definitely be home today?”

“Your father will surely arrive before the night.”

Bursting with happiness, Helen sprang from her chair and skipped about the room, shouting with joy.

“Helen, calm down! Finish your breakfast! You shouldn’t skip around so. Behave like the princess you are.”

But Helen’s radiant good mood would not be quenched, nor would her energy. She picked food from her plate as she passed by, taking bites and crying “He’s home, he’s home!” between chews. The nurse shook her head, smiling, and sat down to mend her charge’s dress.

Helen ran back out to the balcony, still barefoot, and leaned over the wall. She peered hard out over the water, hardly moving, until she at last spotted sails. She smiled widely. Because she liked and feared the god of the sea, she quietly said, “Poseidon, let them arrive safely today.”

She saw, or imagined, a swirling pool of light some way off, a phenomenon she had seen or imagined many times before – a sunny ray that seemed to emit from the ocean, turning the water nearest to it a pure emerald color. She thought of it as Poseidon waving to her, indicating that he had heard her. She pushed herself off of the wall and ran back in to tell her nurse, “Poseidon will not delay their arrival anymore. My father will be here today.”

“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.

Perhaps she would have missed her father less if her mother were alive. Helen had been so young when she died that she could not remember her, but she still felt like she knew her. A beautiful, patient, vibrant, talented, and regal woman, she had been the perfect queen and the perfect mother, until she drowned, soon after Helen’s first birthday. No matter who she asked, no one seemed to know exactly what had happened. There had been a storm. The stones were wet. She must have hit her head, or the current pulled her under, or her foot was caught on seaweed or submerged rocks.

By the time they were able to find her, she had been dead for several days.

Having only one remaining parent, Helen felt unusually strong attachment to her father – unusual according to her nurse and a few others, that is. They commented that they had rarely seen a young girl who loved her father quite so much. Helen herself had never known it to be another way, and so she thought it natural. She could not imagine loving him less. When he stepped off the ship, she intended to give him the longest, strongest embrace she possibly could.

“The clouds have moved in quickly, all of a sudden,” Helen heard an old warrior say as she passed him. His observation stopped her progress down the hall. Her breath and heartbeat became so loud that they drowned all other sounds from her ears. For a few booming beats, she was frozen, and could not move or think. A few seconds passing returned her mobility, and she bolted to the nearest oceanward window – a four-foot-wide opening with a high, arching frame. Helen climbed onto the windowsill and, holding tight to the side, leaned as far out as she could to get the best possible view of the sky. She saw that while she had been fidgeting in her seat as her nurse twisted her hair and pinned it in place, the world outside had not waited for her. The clouds did not have far to travel now before reaching the coast and castle. Her father’s ship still made steady progress, but the clouds seemed almost to hang off its stern. As she continued to watch, the clouds began to overtake the ship. They were full of menace and thunder, but they held back their rain.

A hand gently took Helen’s arm. She turned to find Clytemnestra there. Her sister said firmly, “You mustn’t lean so far out of the window. What if you slipped? You would never survive a fall.”

“Why did Zeus ignore my prayer?” Helen asked, pained.

In lieu of an answer, Clytemnestra stroked Helen’s hair and kept her steady on the windowsill. Helen looked toward the clouds again, trying not to cry. Her father had been away for nearly a year. One more day was far too much to ask.

The ocean looked rather more emerald-green to Helen than it usually did when under such clouds, as if it were lit from underneath. She knew that Clytemnestra would not also see it, if she pointed out her vision, but it gave her some hope. Poseidon must have been happy with her offering.

“They’re close now,” Helen said, mostly to herself.

“Yes,” Clytemnestra confirmed. “It might be a good idea to put on the dress that your nurse spent so much time and effort mending.”

Helen could not be budged until the ship had come close enough for her to see each individual sailor, her father among them, tall, serious, regarding the sky with a mixture of respect and warning. Then, she allowed Clytemnestra to lead her back to her room, where her dress of shimmery, gray-blue silk trimmed with bright gold thread waited on her bed. The nurse, it seemed, had gone about her other duties, trusting that Clytemnestra would do her part to get Helen ready.

It did not take long to dress, as her hair had already been arranged and her sandals neatly laced. The moment she was fully presentable, Helen rushed out of the palace. Clytemnestra had to hurry to keep up, despite her much longer legs, with Helen in her eagerness. She would have gone all the way to the end of the dock, had Clytemnestra not caught up with her and held her back a bit to leave room for the men to disembark.

They stood and watched and waiting. Helen lost all control of her imagination, gazing in horror as monsters of the deep with long, glistening bodies bore down on the ship and Zeus and Poseidon came out to argue heatedly over whether the seafarers would reach home. Poseidon reached up, sending enormous waves in the direction of the sky, while Zeus shot lightning into the water. It wasn’t until Clytemnestra firmly took her shoulders, protesting, “Stop swaying!” that Helen realized none of this actually occurred. The storm had not yet broken, and the ocean, while not ideally smooth, would not cause any difficulty in docking.

She didn’t know why she had such thoughts. When she saw the lights in the water, she was convinced they were real, even if no one else’s sight confirmed the vision. When she imagined herself as a siren, it was harmless and fun. When she was wishing for things to go right, she often imagined everything going wrong – everything possible as well as things impossible. She could not stop it, nor could she understand it.

A small group of men guided the ship to its proper spot. Thunder rolled along the clouds overhead, starting out at sea and moving toward shore. The first drop of rain landed on Helen’s temple. Restlessly, she watched them maneuver with ropes and oars and planks, and after what felt like hours, Tyndareus made it onto the dock. He looked for his daughters before anyone else, and found Helen running toward him. Laughing deeply, he spread his arms to let her leap into them.

“You’re home!” Helen cried, hugging him tightly.

“Yes. I’m home.” He put Helen down, greeted Clytemnestra tenderly, and started toward the palace with an arm around each of his daughters.

The Writer (2)

She is sleeping and will not wake.

She feels herself move between thin sheets, nearly waking every so often. She shifts and feels her bed damp with sweat, moves to the other side of the bed. The night’s heat confuses her body; she tosses uncomfortably each minute, but cannot come out of the heat-induced stupor that invades her. She stays trapped in fever dreams.

She can hardly make sense of the things she sees. One moment things are bright and sharp, and someone speaks to her, and she answers – then she turns around and everything is in a blur, and all of the people she knows are people she doesn’t know. In a sleep that is on the edge of consciousness, she is both the character of the dream, who responds as if everything were normal, and herself, who does not understand what the dream-writer is doing or why.

And she thinks, “If I could only write something, it would help.”

But immediately turns over and continues in her perpetual haze, wasting away in discomfort and stillness.