The Edge of Perfection
by Julia Reburn
My eyes close softly as my hands fold in my lap, and I pray.
Lord Posiedon, Protector of the Sea,
Father of Storms, Shaker of the Earth,
Guide me as I face the day.
Give me strength to protect those close
And to do good by Your Name.
Be with me as I walk the world.
My green eyes flutter open, adjusting to the bright sun. I pick a small gardenia from its place in the flowerbed and twirl it through my fingers. Around me, servants bustle around bushes and flower beds, trimming hedges, scrubbing the many statues and shrines to Athena, and picking vegetables from the expanse of the garden.
My name, Penelope Aurelia Dukas, is engraved in the marble chaise on which I’m now resting. Bright flowers sway in the breeze throughout this gathering area, my small sanctuary, which is tucked away in the western corner of my home. Water flows endlessly over the carving of Poseidon, who lounges in a simple throne wielding his glistening trident. My mother carved this statue when I was a baby to treasure my heritage. She was born in Corinth, a small town southeast of Athens, and used to joke that her family didn’t raise her, the sea did.
I keep a tally in the garden: one month, two weeks, three days. That’s how long she’s been gone. I wonder whether Mother was actually joking about the sea raising her.
We have a tradition in Greece where everyone blesses their newborn to the gods, and every once in a while, for whatever rhyme or reason, a god decides to choose a child, making them partially their own. They impart their traits onto the infant mortal.
Me, I was chosen by Poseidon. He blessed me with olive skin that tans well in the summer and pairs perfectly with my churning green and silver-flecked eyes. My hair, falling in waves of black mirroring the night. And my temper, which is the sea itself—calm and elegant at times, angry and dangerous at others.
My father begrudges me these traits. Just like the sea, I always get my way.
Why my father acts like he’s so ashamed of me, I can’t say. All of my achievements reflect well on his name and strengthen his political standing. They are as numerous as the petals that I’m picking off the white gardenia. One is the school I attend, the most prestigious in Athens, having scored in the top five percent of its excruciating entrance exam. Only nine other students are admitted, each of them blessed by gods. I also have suitors lined up at the door. Whenever we ride our carriage through the streets, boys and men alike throw apples to win my favor. And there have been proposals. Sons from powerful families have offered the most expensive and luxurious dowry for my hand.
Mother was so proud of me. But nothing is ever good enough for my father. He is so infuriating.
Right now, as the sun begins its red descent, the servants are throwing their tools into sacks and turning in for the evening. Which means that at any moment, a boy from my school, Alastair, will poke his head in from the ornate gates to see if the coast is clear. We meet almost every night like this, in secret. When Alastair was an infant, almighty Zeus chose him, blessing him with good looks, power, and very good fortune. I have chosen him, as well. Not just because he is trained in politics and battle strategy, not because his family is powerful enough to rival my father’s, but because he cares for me. In the land of Athena, where no one cares to hear about Poseidon, Alastair takes time to listen to me go on and on about my blessings. It’s obvious to us why our parents, especially my father, forbid us from seeing each other. Together, we could rule the city, or even all of Greece.
Laying on the marble chaise, throwing petals into the small stream that runs through my sanctuary, I pray to Poseidon again. I pray to one day feel the sea. I pray he’s looking after my mother, wherever she is. I thank him for my gifts and all he does for me. I rely on him, sitting high on Olumpus, more than my own father here at home.
The garden gate creaks open. A servant enters. I sigh disappointedly, wishing it was Alastair. But the servant is a kind one, trustworthy Cassandra, who acts as my direct line of communication to my father. She walks up to my chaise with her head down and bows.
“Your father would like you dressed in your finest tunic and cloak,” she says. “I am to come collect you in an hour’s time.”
There goes my evening with Alastair. I smile kindly at the girl, thanking her, then dreadfully get up from my chaise and make my way to my chamber. I hate all contact with my father. Even more now since he sold my mother off. One month, two weeks, and three days ago. Make that four days now. He said he needed the money. My father, the second richest man in Athens, said he needed the money! Nothing’s good enough for him. Mother was eight months pregnant at the time, and there are whispers throughout Athens saying that she died giving birth to my baby sister. I pray to Poseidon that this isn’t true, that she would one day return home and steal me away from this place. I pray that I can hold the baby and shower her with all the love I have felt for her watching her balloon in my mother’s belly.
Entering my room, I bite back tears walking over to the window that overlooks his expensive and secretive private garden. It’s as if he’s shielding me from the public’s watch. Father blames the gods for giving him a daughter instead of the powerful son he always wanted. He forbids me to show weakness. It reflects poorly on the family, he says. To the public, I am the perfect daughter to the perfect man. They believe Mother is off visiting family, readying to give birth. Only the wise suspect otherwise. If Athenians were smart enough, they would lose trust in him; he would lose his power.
Poseidon’s anger courses through me like a storm. My hand balls into a fist and, before I can stop myself, shatters the bay window. Shards crumble to the ground, letting the warm medditeranean air seep into my room. A servant rushes in through the door.
“Everything okay, madam?”
“It is now,” I say, dusting off my hands and smiling. “I’ll be needing a new window tomorrow.”
“I’ll inform your father.” She bows and darts off. There’ll be consequences for this little outburst, as always. Tomorrow, a guard will likely come and escort me to the garden, bind my hands behind my back, gag me with a string of cloth and leave me there until I scream myself hoarse. Father believes in harsh punishments. He believes he is my lord—that I belong to him and him alone—but he is very wrong.
My tall figure frames a simple white tunic and long navy chlamys. I pin my black hair with sapphire clips. An ornate silver necklace clasps my neck. I stare at my reflection in the looking glass—a spitting image of my lovely mother, the epitome of grace and elegance. The kind of beauty Father loves to show off in public but dismiss at home.
There’s a knock on my door. Cassandra shly enters and bows. Her eyes widen at the sight of the bloodied windows and my slowly coagulating hand. I nod to acknowledge her presence, then exit my disaster of a room. She scurries after me down the halls. When we arrive at the gate, I climb into the chariot fitted for our journey.
The ride is silent save the clatter of horse shoes. I bitterly survey the road, straightening my shoulders out of habit. We are in public now, so I have to be perfect. Father, fortunately, is not here to constantly scold me. Your back is slouched, he would likely say. Why is your voice shaky? What are we, peasants?
Cassandra’s so quiet, I forget that she sits across from me in the carriage.
“There have been rumors circulating all over Athens,” she says.
“About your mother…”
Her tone is gentle, genuinely concerned, and a little afraid, as my father forbade anyone to speak a word about this. On any other day, Cassandra’s question might have angered me to the core. Imagine: a servant, prying into her master’s personal business! But I’ve known Cassandra since I was young; she had helped Mother give birth to me, and helped my mother along her second pregnancy. I know that she, too, loves my mother. And maybe, like me, she is hurt and misses her every day.
“Did you hear how he took her from the house, Cassandra?”
She shakes her head no.
“We were sitting in the garden that afternoon,” I say, “me on the marble bench, her on the soft stone nursing her growing stomach. One month, two weeks, four days ago. She asked about my schooling, about Alastair. You remember how she used to usher Alastair inside when we were home alone, and sneak me over to spend time with him? Anyway. She was sitting there, squealing with excitement every time she felt a kick, listing all the baby names she was considering for my little sibling. All was peaceful and perfect. Then four guards marched through the gates hauling rope, swords, chains. Confusion froze me, until one of them seized my mother by the arm and bound her hands. Another one gagged her. The third kicked her stomach. The anger of Poseidon was swelling in me, but before I could defend her, I passed out, only to wake up two days later, chained in my father’s dungeon. I had a splitting headache where I’d been hit over my head with a sword hilt.” My heart was heavy as I gripped the chariot seat. “He said the gods had spoken: the newborn, a girl, would be another spawn of Poseidon.”
I reach up and feel the bruise on the back of my head, which is still a bit tender. My other hand, holding the seat, shakes. The whole carriage seems to shake with it.
“Don’t cry, madam,” Cassandra says. “Crying is for the weak. And what happens to the weak? They are pitied.”
I wipe away my tears. “You sound like my father.”
Cassandra bows her head, seemingly ashamed. “Sorry, madam.”
I look out the window and see the base of the mountain road, which means we are approaching the site of the holy altar. Others will be there. Slaves, servants, animals. I regained my composure: I am a Dukas. I am perfect.
But the sounds of that night refuse to leave. One month, two weeks, four days ago. The beating of a defenseless woman. The jingle of coins. My beloved mother, gone.
The chariot rolls to a stop at the clearing of brown-leafed trees and dead grass. I dutifully take Cassandra’s hand. A number of people surround the small geyser—my father, with flecks of silver in his black beard, standing regal amongst his servants. Steam rises into the cool evening air. A few slaves are here, I notice, bound by their wrists and ankles. Beautiful oxen lie slain and stripped to bone. Others, still alive, kick and bellow. I take my place next to my father, grimacing at the sight of these sacrifices. The servants’ death I don’t mind, but I can’t stand watching the oxen boil in the geyser.
“Shoulders back, head tall,” Father commands me. “All of this is for your dear Poseidon. Now kneel.”
I’m dumbfounded. Why this sudden change of allegiance? What would Athena, who gave the people of Athens an olive tree to win their patronage, think of this betrayal? I wait for him to kneel first, then follow suit.
“I don’t understand,” I whisper.
“My dear Penelope,” he starts, placing a gentle hand on my neck, “the gods have spoken to me again. Your brother has been born. Yes, a brother—healthy and sound. Chosen, like you, by Poseidon. He and his mother are being cared for in Corinth as we speak.”
His hand squeezes my neck with excitement. “The Dukas legacy is secure, my dear. Our namesake lives on. So tonight, we oblige the Protector of the Sea with a sacrifice.”
I am speechless. Will Mother soon return home? With a little baby brother for me to snuggle and spoil? It seems too good to be true. Stars tingle into vision, dancing across the trees, the grass, the pit of the boiling geyser.
“Close your eyes,” Father commands, and all goes dark.
When I open them, moments later, the altar site’s a blur. A low, grumbling chant surrounds me. The geyser, I can feel, bubbling hot at my back. A chain tugs at my neck and wrists.
“Sweet daughter,” he says, wielding the chains. “So blinded by your faith. So gullible.”
I kick, I twist, but my father’s grip is suffocating. The mouth gag stifles screaming.
He laughs. “Just one mention of your mother, and you’re wrapped around my finger. Here’s what I’ve learned: an ungrateful woman makes the perfect sacrifice.”
I feel my feet lowering into the geyser. The chanting grows louder.
Lord Poseidon, Protector of the Sea…
The heat sears my heels and calves. I’ve seen slaves dipped into the boiling water. Like them, I struggle against the chains, hearing them clink and scratch, to no avail.
Father of Storms, Shaker of the Earth…
The metal chains grow hotter. I pull against them like a rabid dog. Lower, lower. My eyes wince at the fumes. Laughter ensues.
Guide me as I face the day.
On my neck, I feel a dagger’s blade. It’s my father’s. His mocking smile, inches from my face. “Give me strength to protect those close,” he sneers, “and to do good by your name.”
He eases the grip of the chain, letting me fall through the pit towards the source of the scalding steam. A sharp tug chokes me again, suspends me inches from death. Father, laughing, slowly pulls me back up.
“Oh, sweet Penelope,” he taunts, “I never liked you. But the gods will.”
The chains are soft from the heat of the geyser. Blood seeps out from beneath blistered skin. Inside, I feel the storm rousing. Tidal waves, coursing through my veins. I rip my arms free from bondage, popping broken chainlinks in the air. I clutch the pit’s edge before I fall, feet scrambling for a foothold.
Father, eyes maniacal, races toward me with the dagger. He trips over his own foot. Stumbles over the edge. Falls past me, screaming, into the pit of rites. The splash silences him. A few hot droplets hit my ankle.
Father, unlike me, had never been a day to training school. I find a foothold and haul myself onto the earth. The slaves, without their master, stand still as statues. Wheezing, huffing, I turn and look once more down the pit.
“May he burn in Tartarus,” I command.
From the clearing entrance, I can hear wheels of a chariot clatter and stop. It’s Cassandra. And with her, Alastair. They’re running toward me, calling my name. But my head is heavy, limbs exhausted. My body collapses atop the dead grass, where I lie like a slain ox.
Alastair’s arms wrap around me, lift me off the ground as if I’m weightless. His skin glows golden, radiating power from his blessing of Zeus. “Cassandra came for me.” His voice is a soft hum heaving from his chest. I allow my body to relax, let burning tears pour over my face.
“Please,” I begged. Afraid he’d be scared away, that he would leave.
“I’m here, Penelope. I’m here.”
“Be with me as I walk the world.”