Authors: Francesca Petrizzo,Silvester Mazzarella
is from Empoli, Italy. She is currently an undergraduate at Oxford University.
Memoirs of a Bitch
is her first novel.
Translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella
New York â¢ London
Â© 2011 by Francesca Petrizzo
Translation Â© 2011 by Silvester Mazzarella
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual personsâliving or deadâevents, or locales is entirely coincidental.
â¦ it seems only yesterday that the Greek ships gathered at Aulis to inflict destruction on Priam and the people of Troy â¦
, Book II, lines 303â306
The bitch. That's what the ship's crew call me. The bitch.
They say it behind my back. But I hear them.
My name's Helen; I was born in Sparta, but I went away for love.
They used to say I was the most beautiful woman in the world.
The minstrels are already making stories about how little I've won and how much I've lost. Lying tales. They weren't there, after all. But I was.
I'm walking on the bridge. Far off, the sun is setting. Day giving way to night. The ship carves a foaming wake on the bronze sea.
Is that the Peloponnese already, that dark crest racing far away beyond the water like a pack of wolves? Men rise and fall like leaves on the trees, rise and fall while the gods stay mute.
The ship glides on across metallic waves.
My home was built of gold. Big windows facing the river, copper light on stone floors. My home.
My mother Leda was very beautiful, her hair was spun gold, so my nurse said; her smile the smile of a siren. I had a sister with eyes as sharp as blades. Knives in my flesh if I laughed in front of her. She never laughed: Clytemnestra. Thin and serious, hair like flames above green eyes. Born to rule. The long powerful hands of a strangler. When she wrestled with our brother Castor, she always won. I was the youngest. The little one. My daughter, my mother would call me, though she never suckled me. My daughter. They chose a terrible name for me: Helen, the destroyer. Names have power, as I've learned to my cost. But I knew nothing as a child playing on the paths among the slopes of the olive grove.
Sparta. Land of warriors and contorted olives, of tough menâthough my father Tyndareus was gentle. Clytemnestra inherited his flaming hair, which didn't go gray as he got older. I had a halo of fire too, red-gold my nurse Etra called it, singing to me as she combed: she'll be very beautiful, this little girl, very beautiful.
People were scared of me. When I joined the little girls of the court, daughters of ambassadors and warriors, they would circle around me and stare in silence. It's Helen, it's Helen, they would whisper. I discovered much later that the women slaves murmured that I was a daughter of Zeus, insinuating that my mother was an unfaithful wife. Officers of the guard went freely in and out of her rooms and her slave girls would whisper in the ears of the palace ladies. But I understood nothing when the other children didn't want me playing with them. Or when Tyndareusâhe was my father, I've always believed that, I've always wanted to believe thatâgave me a dog that was found drowned in a pool of water after only a single day in my rooms. No hands came to dry my tears. Helen the destroyer. Even then envy and fear were my poison.
Clytemnestra had no love for me. I was the little one, the precious one. I liked the sun, I liked mirrors. I spent hours and hours in empty rooms, gazing at that image, distorted by metal, of a child who looked like me. Clytemnestra was furious one day when she came on me.
“You're ugly! ugly! ugly! I'll make you ugly!” she screamed. I felt her long strong hands in my hair, on my skin. By the time she left me, lying on the floor, purple and black marks were spreading over my body like evil flowers. Outside the window loomed the heavy shadow of the Peloponnese. The mirror had been thrown to the floor, beside a little girl of eight huddled in a pool of black light.
When my nurse Etra came to fetch me, I met her questions with an obstinate silence. No, I would not tell tales and say who had done it. Clytemnestra's eyes were burning into me. I lifted my chin. No.
My mother shook her head gracefully. “Childish squabbles,” she sighed, “do stop crying, Helen.” I had already stopped, but she hadn't noticed. She swept from the room wrapped in the rosy froth of an expensive dress. “Helen, Helen â¦”
My bruises healed. Clytemnestra's eyes no longer mirrored anything but shadows.
I had two brothers, Castor and Pollux: beautiful twins. When they trained in the palace gymnasium, all Sparta came to watch. Girls giggled and sleeked their hair for their benefit. But my brothers ignored them. They only ever had eyes for each other. When Theseus arrived in Sparta one day from Athens with his friend Pirithous, they received him formally, being heirs to the throne.
“The king and queen are away,” they said.
Theseus the Athenian answered: “Never mind, I'll stay.”
“You're welcome, Theseus.”
That evening, after the banquet, Theseus came looking for me. I had stayed in the women's quarters and never met this tall, fair, well-built man. Already aged by an iron streak tingeing his temples with gray.
“Come here, child.”
He detected my shyness by the milky light of the moon. So he laughed, and like a street conjuror, dropped to one knee and pulled from under his cloak a fine gold chain and amber pendant. In those days I loved the glitter of jewels. Step by step I came closer to this man waiting there so patiently. The amber sparkled. I hesitated as though a crowd were pushing me back, but the unknown man smiled, his hands open. He was my father's age. When I reached out to touch the amber, he grabbed my wrist and stifled my cries with his cloak, thrusting the bitter taste of cloth into my mouth. I retched, then a blow to the nape of my neck knocked me down into darkness. He left me tied up in his room till morning. Then he calmly took his leave of my brothers, thanking them and complimenting them on their generous hospitality. I can see them now, cockerels smoothing their feathers in the rosy flush of dawn. Pirithous brought the horses around to the front of the palace and they threw me on, wrapped in a cloak, like
a common bundle. Bound and gagged, the sister of those waving farewell to Theseus from the palace steps.
After a long ride, the Athenians stopped on an isolated promontory by the sea. Tormented by thirst, I was tied to a tree to watch while they threw dice for me. I was twelve years old. Theseus won. Pirithous swore and went to piss into the sea from the edge of the cliff. Theseus, still with the same reassuring fatherly smile on his full lips, came close and reached out a hand to stroke my cheek: don't be afraid â¦ I bit his hand in blind fury, banishing fear to the furthest recesses of my heart. His face changed; a father replaced by a furious man. He slapped me hard. The clear sky and the sea beyond the cliff edge from where Pirithous was watching, smiling with amusement, were hidden by the mist in my swollen eyes. But I did not close them even when Theseus straightened up and took off his belt. I struggled to lift my chin one more time in proud defiance, regardless of the fear in my heart. I'm made of stone.
He didn't rape me, Theseus. Before he could do anything a squad of armed horsemen arrived at a furious gallop from Sparta. At their head Castor and Pollux, exhausted and covered with dust. They had followed the tracks left by the Athenians. With a single throw of his spear, one of the soldiers pierced Pirithous to the heart, knocking him over the cliff without a sound.
“We don't want war with Athens: just go,” Castor told Theseus from the back of his horse.
Theseus laughed and lifted his hands: “She's all yours.” He came to retrieve his cloak from me. “I'll be back, princess,” he said with a wink. The promise of a rapist. Words to be believed. But he died first, Theseus did. One day the husband of a woman he was in bed with would cut his throat. But on this particular day he left in peace. Wrapped in his cloak like a vagabond. Humming sacred hymns.
My brothers never even dismounted. They gave a sign and one of the soldiers of the guard, a polite young man, got off his horse and cut my bonds with his sword. Then he lifted me in his arms and mounted again, wrapping me in his red wool cape. At a signal from Pollux we started back for Sparta, my brothers joking with each other at the head of the column, never turning to see how I was or even to speak to me.