Tuesday 10 August 2021

Purva Prabhuchanderkar, ShortStory 2021 Longlist


They always called me Helen of Sparta, or Helen of Troy. But they never asked me what I was. Even I was doubtful about my identity. Sometimes I felt I belonged to Sparta, sometimes to Troy. But in the end, I would always end up crying in my chambers, for that choice was not mine. It never had been.

As children, my mother often told me and my siblings about the stories surrounding our birth. Among them was a universal rumor that I was so beautiful that, in no way was I the daughter of my aging father and less than beauteous mother. Everyone claimed that I was no mortal child. My mother never agreed with the people who said it, but she did not oppose them either. All that mattered was King Tyndareus loved me like his daughter, and treated me as he did my brothers and sister, doting on my every move and feeding me sweets. Tucking me into bed at night, accompanied by Mother. I was proud and grateful to call him Father. It did not matter whose blood ran in my veins. He was the one that loved me, and the one to retain my eternal respect. He was my father. I never felt unloved, or that I was a commodity.

At least, not until I was made to choose a husband.

My father was against it. He had said I had no need to marry-- he wanted me to be his daughter forever. "Castor or Pollux can get married instead," he said, "I am sure their wives would make excellent queens."

"No," my mother had objected. "Helen is the oldest, and our successor. She shall wed and rule our land, alongside her husband."

Father reluctantly agreed with her, for the peace within the family and that of his mind.

Gifts from suitors washed in from all parts of every land that had learned of Sparta’s glory, that is to say, every land in the world. I had received silks and spices from India, horses from Mycenae. It was all a form of a bribe, bribe that ranged from fruits to jewels from kingdoms high and low. I did not care for them, I had all of that and more. My parents shared my indifference until the day of choosing actually arrived.

The suitors that my brothers believed worthy of my hand in marriage to me came into our precious court that day. I was not nervous, unlike my father and sister Clytemnestra, who could not stop pacing the halls long enough to take a breath. "What if he does not treat you well?" she asked, on the verge of tears as she bit her nails anxiously, causing me to worry about her bleeding all over the floor. "What if he hurts you?"

Our father never hurt our mother, despite the lack of love shared between them. They existed in the same space with no love lost if they were to separate under grave circumstances. They had ruled Sparta for years with only the mutual respect and honor that they shared, nothing less or more. But my sister and I had heard various stories from the maids and helots detailing cruel events that took place between man and wife.

Clytemnestra and I stepped into court and took our seats. I sat in my place calmly, accepting the fate as I had known of since I was a child.

"Sit straighter, be more polite," Mother had always chided, "No man in a high position in his right mind would marry such a wench." I knew I had no choice. My marriage was non-negotiable, compulsory, so that I may ascend to rule the kingdom that was my birthright. So that I could finally get Mother off my back.

And so that I could finally make a name for myself in the rough pages of history, that would be remembered in the future generations. So that everyone would remember Helen, daughter of Tyndareus, not for the fame of her family, but because she had picked up the pen herself and written her own story.

Little did I know, by agreeing to get married, I was forfeiting control of my story, giving it up to my husband. All I could do was wave my pen in the air, hope that the letters that I scrawled would make their way to the rough pages of my story.

Clytemnestra tapped her foot nervously against the carpet, her hand gripping mine nervously. I patted it to comfort her, and she sighed.

The prideful suitors were properly seated, with their backs taut and gallant smiles on their faces. Penelope adjusted her veil across her face, prompted for me to mimic her.

I examined my suitors. They were all of age, some of them overtly so. Despite their supposedly composed demeanor, each and every one of them looked tempted to rip off the head from the torso of everyone else present for my hand.

Sparing one of them.

He merely looked around with an amused smile. I had decided then that given the chance, he and I could have been the best of friends. And the way he looked around impatiently, tapping his foot like he could not wait to run out of there, made me think he had his heart set elsewhere, and he was simply there to please someone of importance-- maybe my father, maybe his own.

One of my suitors was but a child, no older than ten summers old, I had fathomed. His father gave a rude but impressionable speech about how he was manly enough for them both. Then the child came forward to introduce himself in his adorable, squeaky voice. Patroclus, he introduced himself, and his father was apparently a great king.

Clytemnestra snickered behind her veil, as did I. Castor and Pollux looked close to bursting into laughter, but a stern gaze from our father set them straight.

Father looked scared and worried, as if there was going to be endless bloodshed right there in his court over his daughter's hand in marriage. The creases of age that marred his forehead and hands seemed to grow deeper as he gripped his throne nervously. Mother's hand was on his thigh, trying to calm him down.

Then, the king who merely looked, Odysseus was his name, stood up and proposed an idea- I would choose my suitor, right there in the court in front of everyone, so that my decision was free from influence. And each and every single one of my suitors would respect my decision and swear to protect the honour of my husband and I.

Everyone agreed. Some of them-- begrudgingly so. Everyone swore.

Without hesitating, I chose Menelaus of Mycenae.

He had not come into court himself. In his place was his brother, Agamemnon. He must have not been so impressive himself, I thought, since he had to send his fit, assertive and diplomatic brother in his place. I thought I would have power over my kingdom if he were to rule alongside me. I thought my previous freedom as a princess would remain when I became queen. I thought I could still be myself, riding horses and making decisions for the kingdom.

I was wrong.

We were married alongside Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. And by the next moon cycle, I could not recognise my own kingdom. My home became a foreign land to me. The lovely freedom and wildness that Sparta had been categorised by since before the time I was born, was gone. Menelaus tamed my home and made it domestic. And I could not do anything about it.

With one decision, I had lost my kingdom and my sister. I gave a whole new meaning to killing two birds with one stone.

I never had to do anything by myself. The best trainers taught me and my siblings how to ride. The best tutors taught me everything I knew. The best chefs taught me how to cook. Maids cleaned up after me, my entire life.

I had never felt so alone. I felt loneliness for the first time when I married Menelaus.

He gave me a daughter. We named her Hermione. She was the most precious thing in my life, and became the only reason why I could not leave Menelaus, apart from his control over my kingdom. I had assumed he would treat me with the same respect and consideration that my father treated my mother with.

I was wrong-- wrong to assume, wrong to remain silent. I should have tried to take control, but I did not know how. I felt like a fool with no reason to live. I did not want to die, I just had no reason to be alive.

Hermione was the reason for my next breath. I loved her since I had first felt her stirring inside me. I could not die and abandon her with her father, she was very attached to him. He would change her completely, stop her training and make her stay by his side as his pretty little princess until her time to wed. I could not let that happen. Hermione was too brilliant for me to allow her talents go to waste. I needed to be there to support her.

My kingdom needed me to stay alive. It changed, but it still had a will to live, a will to fight, fight for its wildness. To show Menelaus that we were Sparta, and we could not be tamed. I needed to be their guide.

So, I stayed alive.

I had never experienced romantic love in my life. Familial and platonic love I was familiar with. I had friends and family that adored me. But I had never fallen in love, as people say, as if love were a deep ditch that no one can get out of.

The summer Hermione turned thirteen, I confirmed for myself the veracity of people's words.

The king of Troy had recently rediscovered his long lost son. Sparta always had wonderful relations with Troy, as that small kingdom held control over our trade routes with Asia. Enmity with them would have been one of the biggest losses we could possibly concur.

The prince of Troy, named Alexander at birth, arrived in our land, bearing gifts. He had been abducted at birth by wolves and raised by a shepherd who called him Paris. That was what made him different from the smooth and diplomatic people I knew. He spoke his mind blatantly and cared not of others and their thoughts.

I adored honesty. Redemption plainly lies in truth, after all. Truth absolves us of the sins spawned from our lies.

He was handsome, polite and charming. His smile was always a little bit crooked and whenever he laughed, his laughter was contagious to those around him.

He was the only person apart from Hermione, to make me laugh ever since I had gotten married.

I showed him my home. The palace and the city. He talked to me with interest, asked genuine questions and wondered about my opinions. No one had shown such an interest in me since my father before I was wed.

I enjoyed his company. And when I tripped on a rock, he supported me.

A sharp intake of breath. I did not know whether it was his or mine. Or one shared. He just held me like that for a while, until we heard someone headed for us from a street nearby.

We spent the whole day exploring my home, talking about paintings and architecture along with our experiences in the castle of the previous night. How my maids and I had been enjoying ourselves and he walked in, but had not told a soul about it.

He paid attention to me and made me feel like I mattered in a way I had not felt for a long time. I could not remember the last time that I had felt that.

I wondered if I loved Paris. He was indeed a better companion and lover than Menelaus.

So, when he asked if I wanted to go to his kingdom with him, be my own queen and make my own decisions again, how could I say no?

He snuck me onto his ship the night before his departure. I situated myself in a sturdy chest with holes in it, so I could breathe. He kissed me one last time , and I was happy once again. Happier than I had ever been since the day my daughter was born.

Hermione. I could not bear to leave her, but I had to. I asked her to come with me, but she refused. "You are such an awful wench!" she said, "You are leaving Father for that worthless shepherd turned prince?" She supported her father, but she promised that she would not tell him where I was if I left.

I did not want to leave her, nor did I want to stay with Menelaus. But she did. She would be safe with him. So, with a heavy heart, I left her in Sparta and journeyed to Troy.

They were terrified and appalled when they learned of me and Paris, the king and queen of Troy. Their outraged voices lasted an entire night until they sighed and accepted what had happened.

The king and queen had a discussion in private as Paris and I sat in his chambers. What Alexander did was foolish, they agreed, and we could hear them. They made sure we would.

They always called him Alexander and he hated it. Deep down, he felt no different from the poor shepherd Paris on the hilltops. He missed his old life, and the man that had raised him. The king and queen had rewarded the poor fellow and sent him off. Paris had not seen him in ages.

The king and queen concluded that we could stay in Troy. They asked me if I loved him. "Yes," I affirmed.

It was neither a lie nor the truth. I was confused, for I had never learned what romantic love felt like. I did not know whether what I said was true, so I did not feel any guilt or repentance while saying it. Uncertainty made its place in my mind, making a comfortable home for itself.

Menelaus came with all my old suitors to take me back. That young child Patroclus had grown into a handsome young man. Achilles, the son of Peleus -- who had not heard of him? Odysseus, whom I could have made friends with, supported my husband to take me against my will. Agamemnon, my brother in law. Ajax, Diomedes.

He stormed into the Trojan court with his allies and demanded my return. I refused. Despite the attempts at negotiations, no one could be satisfied. Both the sides wanted me, but Paris was the only one who asked me for my choice. Sparta was my home, my kingdom, but Menelaus denied me the throne. My daughter sided with her father who did not care for her mother. I could not help the Spartans in any way.

The Trojan royal family had claimed me as their own a few days after my stay in the palace began. Paris's brother Hector was a polite gentleman, even if he was built like a brute. His sister Cassandra was quiet but easy to talk to. The rest of his siblings barely talked to me, but our interactions were at least polite. The king and queen had slowly warmed up to me. They began to ask me about my plans for a wedding. They did not force anything on me. It was such a dream.

I felt like I had a new family and extremely guilty over my uncertainty whether I wanted to join it.
My home, responsibilities and duties were with Sparta, but my heart was firmly situated in Troy.
How could I perform my duties, I wondered, if Menelaus would not let me?
What good were my duties if they came at the expense of my happiness and love?
What good was being queen of a kingdom if it was not mine to rule?
What good were happiness and love if they interfered with my duties?

I did not know what to do.
I did not know where to go.
And I did not know that the choice was not mine.

The king of Troy named me a guest of his court, refusing to let me go with Menelaus against my own will.
And thus began what everyone would learn to call the Trojan war.
Ten years they fought. Ten years was the siege around the precious kingdom.
The Trojans lost their soldiers. They lost Hector.
I lost my Paris.

I did not eat or drink for days. Cassandra would come into my chambers everyday to find me wrapped up in the sheets that held me and Paris for so long.

I no longer had anything to live for in Troy. I was going to turn myself over to Menelaus. But the queen stopped me, saying that they had fought too long and lost too much for me to give up now.

Grief was a strange thing. It crept into my heart during menial tasks. Anything that I recalled would send me into tears-- the happy times, the fights. Cassandra could not calm me down, so no one else tried.

It ended when Odysseus, finally tired of all the deaths and grief after many of their heroes, including Patroclus and Achilles, thought of a ruse so clever that no one knew what it was until it was over.

A peace offering was sent. A large, wooden horse. What we did not know was that it carried not a peace offering, but scores of Greek soldiers inside it. The city was infiltrated, and Menelaus threw me over his shoulder and dragged me back to Sparta.

I lived the rest of my life wondering what could have been.
What could have been of my life if I never met Paris or ran away to Troy?
What could have been if I had never fallen for him only to lose him?
What could have been if Menelaus had loved me the way Paris had?

What. Could. Have. Been.

I realised that even though I lost him, I had been privileged to love Paris for the short time that I could. That I was lucky to experience true love, even if it was short lived.That I would never be free of other people controlling my life.That I would never know if my home was with my duties in Sparta or with my love in Troy.

They always called me Helen of Sparta, or Helen of Troy. Depending on whom they believed deserved me. But not once did someone stop on their way to another story to ask who had written mine. No one had ever stopped to ask whom I wanted to be with. No one ever stopped to ask where I felt was my home.

I was glad they had not. Otherwise, I would have been ashamed to admit that I did not know myself.

All I knew was that the one thing I wanted was my pen back. My scroll back. My kingdom back.
All I wanted was to write my own story.
But, of course, I was not allowed to do that.
And there was nothing I could do to change that.

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