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.