NOTE: Recent takes on the Minotaur myth interpret the creature not as a bloodthirsty animal-human hybrid, but as a human being suffering from a disability. This is what this story is about.
The mad beggar woman was talking of a winged old man who had come to live inside a cave deep in the heart of the cliffs overlooking the harbour. The Princess tossed her a few coins, before the guards chased her away.
Now, the Princess is walking with her maidservant along the edge of the market. The sun is in her eyes. She catches a glint of a ruby from one of the stands, a flash of orange silk. She can’t think of such things now. She comes to a halt.
‘We’re not going to the market,’ she tells her maidservant.
The girl’s eyes widen.
‘We’re going to the cliffs,’ the Princess declares.
‘But, Your Highness!’ the girl protests.
The Princess produces a gold coin.
‘I have heard your mother is ill and you need money. Take it and swear you’ll never tell anyone where we’re going. Swear it by the Serpent Goddess.’
The girl eyes her suspiciously but reaches for the coin anyway. She does need it. The Princess moves her hand away.
‘Swear it first,’ she urges.
‘I swear,’ the girl says. ‘By the Serpent Goddess.’
‘And don’t forget you did,’ the Princess says.
The girl proves to be the more agile one. It’s no surprise. She wasn’t raised in the palace, after all. By the time she reaches the top of the cliff, the Princess is panting. The girl is already there, waiting for her. The Princess takes the lead and makes for the caves.
* * *
The old man is sitting on the cave floor, looking down, his knees hanging to the sides. There’s a crack in the stone above him and the sunlight is streaming through it, wrapping him as if in a cocoon.
He’s wearing nothing but a dirty loincloth and his skin is red, the body all sinew and cavities. The heavy white wings are bound to his arms with leather straps that dig into the flesh. They’re part of it, she sees. If he tried to take them off, he’d peel his bones clean.
‘I knew it was you,’ the Princess says. ‘Daedalus.’
The man looks up, frowning. His name doesn’t sound familiar to him anymore.
‘I’ve heard you were in Syracuse.’
‘I was,’ he says.
‘You’ve grown old.’
‘And you have bags under your eyes, Ariadne.’
She’s not used to be addressed so bluntly. She opens her mouth to speak again, but the sound of the old man’s voice silences her.
‘My son is dead,’ he says. ‘He drowned the very day we escaped. It was for him that I built these wings in the first place. He was the one who was supposed to live.’
She feels nothing. She can’t tell how she already knew Icarus was dead.
‘I know you were in love with him, Ariadne,’ Daedalus says.
She shudders, but immediately recomposes herself, her gaze still fixed on the old man’s face.
‘I wish I could tell you,’ he continues, ‘that he felt the same, but the truth is he was not even aware of your love. He was only a child and you were even younger. Oh, I could see it, it was clear as daylight. The way you looked at him. How it was you who would bring us food every day, although it could have been any servant in the palace. I would think of you pleading with them, maybe telling them they deserve a little rest or saying you want to watch the works.’
She shoots a glance back at her maidservant. The girl is keeping her distance, watching them with her arms crossed over her chest.
‘You stopped visiting us when you found out what the new palace was really for. Did you begin to hate him then?’
‘No,’ she says, plainly.
‘He’s dead,’ the old man repeats.
She wants to say something comforting, but finds she’s out of comforting words.
‘My brother is dying,’ she says, instead. ‘Asterion. He’s dying.’
She wants to tell him more, to tell him that she hears her brother crying all the time, even when she’s not near him. Especially when she’s not near him. That when they first threw the dead bodies inside the Labyrinth he thought they were new friends, and when he saw the gashes splitting their throats from ear to ear he screamed. That he’s never hurt anyone. That they feed him leftovers from the kitchen and she sneaks in some food whenever she can. Too sparsely. That he knows nothing but the stench of shit and rotting flesh around him and the company of bones. That she has to dig her fingernails into her palms in order not to cover her ears in powerless rage when she hears what they say of him.
The Bull of Minos, with great white horns jutting from his head. Eater of human flesh. Able to break a strong man’s back with his bare hands. He can barely stand. His head is round and heavy and almost as wide as his shoulders. He has no horns. He’s getting thinner by the day. He’s still a child, living in his own filth. In his mind, he’s younger than Phaedra – spoiled Phaedra, whom she rarely sees. Instead, she goes to see him. He is worse every time. They barely ever remember to have the place cleaned. A tool for her father’s lies. Something to keep Athens at bay. He’s so afraid, her father. Afraid of Athens. He calls King Aegeus a peasant, but his voice shakes.
And her mother, she never sees him at all. She’s stopped rambling about punishment from the Gods long ago, about being raped by Poseidon’s bull to pay for her husband’s pride. There are others who say that now. Too many of them. She herself barely even speaks now, and Ariadne can’t bear to look at her. It’s because Asterion has her eyes.
Instead of telling the old man these things, she turns around and makes for the mouth of the cave.
‘Ariadne!’ he calls out.
She stops. Her maidservant has stepped outside and shoots her a startled look.
‘Knowledge is nothing,’ Daedalus says. ‘The thing I was proudest of is nothing. It took my child’s death to make me see it. There are things that cannot and should not be known.’
‘The Gods?’ she asks.
‘Call them whatever you like. Just know they are there.’
* * *
The ship from Athens came every year. She was a child of ten, only one year older than her sister Phaedra was now, back when her father decided she was to attend the executions. Seven boys. Seven girls. All of them in chains, stripped to their undergarments.
The girls had all been raped. Some of the boys, too, the prettier ones. She couldn’t tell this at first, back when she was still a child, but as her own monthly blood came, she saw it instantly. The empty looks in their eyes, the faces from which all colour had run out, the way they moved like leaves in the wind. They were dead well before the soldiers slit their throats.
Her father never flinched. Her mother whimpered and squirmed on her throne. The bodies were carried over to the Labyrinth and the royal family retreated, leaving the place to be cleaned. All Ariadne could hear was her brother crying.
It was the same every time.
But not this time.
This time, one of the young men takes a step forward. He is stopped by a soldier, the tip of his spear pressing against his throat.
‘My name is Theseus and my father is King Aegeus,’ the young man declares.
There’s blood on his neck from the sharp spear, but his eyes never leave the King’s.
‘Then Aegeus has sent his heir to die,’ Minos says, flatly.
‘I will kill the monster,’ the young man says.
The King is alarmed. He tries not to show it. Is this a trick? Does the Athenian Prince know what his Bull really is?
‘Give me until dawn,’ the young man continues. ‘Leave my friends unharmed. If I don’t return by dawn, it will mean I have failed and you may do with them as you wish.’
Minos frowns. ‘You may?’ How dare this boy talk to him in this way? This Athenian peasant, son of a peasant king. Yet he knows he can’t refuse. To deny a Prince and have him summarily executed would mean open war. And Aegeus was getting stronger, as much as he could try and refuse to admit it.
He sinks back. He doesn’t need to look around. He knows what he’ll see. A wife who’s mad. A daughter who hates him. Another daughter way too young to care about anything but dolls. He is tired. Perhaps his time is up. He thinks of Daedalus. ‘You’ll see it all crumble before your eyes, King Minos!’ he shouted as they were walling him and that son of his inside the Labyrinth he himself had designed. ‘All your gold will turn to poison!’ he cried. ‘Your enemies will take away everything you own!’ And Daedalus, he sees now, was not putting a curse him, not making any sort of threat at all. He was merely telling the truth.
‘Until dawn,’ he says.
Perhaps the boy will become lost. Perhaps he’ll starve. He orders two guards to escort him to the Labyrinth. He orders the rest of the prisoners be put in prison for the night.
He does not notice Ariadne clutching the armrests of her throne, white as a sheet.
‘I feel ill, father,’ she says. ‘Allow me an early retreat.’
She rushes out of the room, one hand pressed firmly against her mouth.
* * *
There is no time. Not even to allow her eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. She runs. She trips against the bones. The stench is turning her stomach inside out. She stops against a wall and reaches inside her basket. She takes the knife out. It shines white against the pitch black. She places the blade against the palm of her left hand and closes her fingers around it. She bites her lower lip, to keep herself from screaming. Then, she drops the basket and takes the hilt in her right hand. She opens the other and examines the deep gash in the middle of her palm. It’s not punishment enough. Not for what she is about to do. There is no time.
Her left shoulder feels weak and so she places her slit palm against the wall, then starts walking deeper into the heart of the Labyrinth. The blood dripping from her hand leaves behind a crimson trail.
She finds him lying on his side, his back turned to her, shaking and sobbing.
‘Asterion,’ she says.
He is still for a moment, and then begins to cry again. Louder. She kneels by his side.
‘Can you sit?’ she asks, placing her hands under his armpits.
He shifts, coming up on one elbow. He tries to raise his great head, but is unable to do so. He sobs again. She grabs his chin with her left hand. He doesn’t see the blood. He only sees her. His sister. His eyes are large, dark and wet.
‘That’s right,’ she says. ‘Look at me.’
The tears are streaming down his face.
‘You’ll never cry again,’ Ariadne whispers.
She’s clutching the hilt of the knife so tightly that it has become part of her hand. Like Daedalus’s wings. Daedalus, who built this prison, who lost his son and his mind.
Asterion rests his heavy head on her shoulder and she closes her eyes, feeling his breath on her neck, just below her ear.
‘I can’t let him, brother,’ she says. ‘I can’t.’ She’s not pleading with him. She’s pleading with herself. ‘Come here.’
She hugs him tighter. She holds her breath and plunges the knife deep into his stomach, upwards, looking for the heart. Her own heart is made of stone. She is the dead one.
He doesn’t scream. He doesn’t convulse. He just sighs and falls to one side, his great wet eyes on hers, their light slowly going out as the pool of blood widens beneath him. She’s the one crying now. She screams and flings the knife away. She wrings her hands, takes them to her face and presses them against her skin. She’s made of blood, on the outside as on the inside. The Labyrinth is made of blood. Everything is made of blood.
She doesn’t hear the footsteps. She just feels him getting closer, as the taste of bile rises in her throat.
‘This is it?’ the Prince says, behind her. ‘This is the Bull of Minos?’
She recongnises the tone in his voice. Purest revulsion. He’s mocking her. She’s dead and he’s mocking her. She won’t look at him. Her eyes are on her brother, the crimson flower under his protruding ribs, the swollen head turned to one side, eyes still open. She’s never seen him looking so peaceful. She smiles.
‘You did not kill the monster after all.’
‘Oh, but I did,’ Theseus says, calmly. ‘He had great white horns jutting from his head and he could have broken my back with his bare hands. And you showed me how to kill him.’
She starts as anger shoots through her like thunderbolt, and turns her head round to face him.
‘I followed your red trail,’ he adds.
He moves closer.
‘You see, I get to tell this story, Ariadne,’ he concludes.
She says nothing. Her eyes have grown adjusted to the dark and she can see that he’s beautiful. She hates herself for finding him beautiful.
He grabs her arm and yanks her upright as if she were made of rags.
‘You look like a savage,’ he says. ‘And you call us unwashed peasants.’
She spits in his face.
‘You are unwashed peasants,’ she sneers. It’s not even true, but it’s all she can do to hurt this man.
He strikes her and she falls down. Pain explodes all through her body. At least she can feel something.
Theseus keeps talking as he drags her outside. He won’t stop. She tries not to listen, but can’t help it.
‘My father will not give me away like a thing,’ she says as he describes the life in Athens and how it will teach her what her rightful place is.
‘Your father doesn’t strike me as a sentimental man,’ he retorts. ‘Unlike mine. He told me to put up white sails if I return safely. Now, me being so taken with my victory, it might just slip my mind. There’s no telling what he could do. After all, he cried like an old woman when I boarded the ship.’
He brings her before the throne. Minos gets up. He’s shaking. He can’t feel his legs anymore. He reaches one hand behind to support himself. He stumbles and falls back.
Pasiphaë looks around in panic. Her eyes are open wide. They’re Asterion’s eyes. As Theseus’s hand tugs at her wrist, Ariadne keeps her gaze on her mother’s face. She will never see her again, but, for the first time, she knows that she loves her.
* * *
‘What place is this?’ she asks the strange man.
He could be a youth. He does look it. But he could be hundreds of years old.
The black sails are now just a dot on the horizon. She finds she is not afraid. The soreness at the centre of her body is gone and she started bleeding again just the same morning. She’s not carrying the Prince’s child.
‘Naxos,’ the man answers.
His breath smells of wine. The tiger pelt barely covers him. She can hear the cries of his companions, and spies some of them casting glances her way.
‘Come,’ the man says, holding out his hand.
There’s nothing to lose.