The Prince of Crete

*

Step 1: Bring left pointer and middle fingers together and flick upwards.

Step 2: Tap forehead with fingertips of left hand.

Step 3: Point right middle finger outwards.

Step 4: Bend right thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger at middle joints.

Step 5: Click teeth.

Step 6: Pat stomach with back of right hand.

(1) And (2) Yet (3) You (4) Thrice (5) Day (6) Eat

And yet you eat three times a day.

*

Before the feeding began, Mother taught me to speak. I cannot form words like she can; my mouth will not move in that manner, and my throat will not constrict to make the sounds. Our communication, at first, consisted of pointing and clapping, short shouts and low groans. She switched between those mannerisms and her own, more refined speech, bringing me a language I could understand before I knew what understanding meant. As the way she talked to me became more complex, so too did I want to express complexity. She gave me new movements, then. Curling, waving, bending each finger in different successions, making words and phrases. A sign for each object. A sign for each time. A sign to denote a question, an exclamation, a command, my statements as involved as hers ever were. It was only she who knew how to speak to me and, when she saw me eat and could stand me no longer, it was my sister. I understood well what my sister’s presence meant; it was a passing-over, a taking-turn, a burden from one person’s shoulders to another’s. I rarely spoke to her of the toll I knew it took. But, alone, I lamented it, howling so loud my voice ricocheted back to me, every sound I choked out slithering along the moist stone walls. My sister always told me that they could hear my screams from above, and part of me relished in that. That they heard my pain. That they knew I existed, breathed, though they would never see my face.

Dark was two fingers over my right eye. To hurt was my right thumb rubbing circles on my left palm. Hungry was a closed fist pounding once against my gut. I, the middle finger pointed at my heart. To be, one clap. I am hungry, finger pointing, fist pounding, hands clapping. It was a sentence I voiced frequently, and my sister nodded at me with tired eyes. Once every year came the feeding, and until then, I starved. Each night she gave me one bowl of water, no more, no less. She watched as I drank, chattering to me with her spoken words, and I quipped back at her with flicks of my wrists and cracks of my knuckles. When I told her of my hunger, she told me that she knew. I think she grew sick of hearing it. 

She said, “You’ll be fed soon. Have patience.”

“And yet you eat three times a day,” said I. 

*

Step 1: Point right middle finger outwards. 

Step 2: Lace fingers of both hands together.

Step 3: Point right middle finger at heart.

Step 4: Pat stomach with back of right hand.

Step 5: Crack right pointer finger knuckle.

(1) You (2) With (3) I (4) Eat (5) ?

 

Will you eat with me?

*

They first gave me food when I came of age, fifteen years old. Until that point, I had never eaten; I knew not how to reconcile with the growling of my stomach, thinking it was only the way I was made. Mother sat with me before the day. Her hands were shaking, and I thought of holding them, but knew I would be rendered mute if I did. Before telling me I would die if I did not eat, she told me what eating was. And she told me that the terrible emptiness in me would be full momentarily, and that I would feel right and fit and how I should have been. I trembled with excitement, but she could not look at me. 

“Will you eat with me?” I inquired eagerly.

She shook her head. “No,” she said, then again: “No. I will not be there.”

That was all she explained. I waited in the dark for some time, speaking to myself. A boy lived in the walls there, a fact I had never revealed to anyone else. He was my secret, flickering in and out of existence whenever he knew no one else was there. I hated and loved him in equal measure. He did not listen to my hand movements, only took the words from my mind and evaluated them before I could finish thinking them, and delighted in seeing me flounder. He liked it when I cried and gnashed my teeth. “Such a dreadful thing you are,” was a phrase he said to me often, though he assured me that, among all the dreadful things in the world, I was one of the best. He said that there were beasts in the depths of the sea and creatures with a dozen heads and women whose eyes could turn men to stone. Standing next to all of them, I was only a boy. Like him. Some nights, when he was kinder to me, I let him stroke my nose, and he taught me dances from his native land—a kingdom sat atop a wide, green plain. Some nights, he tried to explain to me what a plain was. 

*

Step 1: Press palms of both hands together.

(1) Thank you

Thank you.

*

I knew the day of the feeding had arrived because I saw no one with me, yet the boy in the walls did not come. The corridors were silent. Dripping. To drip was three twitching fingers moving down in a line. My eyes—so very used to dark—could see somewhere beyond the glinting of wet on the walls, where a straight passage turned to a sharp corner and led someplace else. I never ventured very far, never had the desire to; my mother and sister always found me. But on that day, I could have sworn that I heard whispers coasting along the floors, the moist tread of bare feet against stone. My heart halted in my chest. I stayed where I was, nearly shivering in the blackness, as the sounds rose around me. I wished the boy in the walls would come. I wish my sister would round the corner with her torch, grinning at me. But nothing happened, and the noises continued, and I could hear them grow sharper with each passing moment, what were once murmurs soon words I knew but voices I did not. I pulled at my hair and coiled up on the ground. My stomach was rising out of my mouth. 

When I saw them, they saw me. A small horde of them, more people than I had ever seen in my life. They looked like my mother and sister and the boy in the walls but different, all shapes and sizes, their eyes wide with youth. They, too, carried torches, small ones that cast painful glows of orange across the stone. Of the first few, four had arrived. They watched me, unmoving, and I signed to them with quivering hands: “Who are you?” Middle finger pointed out, one clap, a single cracked knuckle. None of them answered. Panic rose in me. It had never occurred to me that other people would come, that they would not understand me. Realization began to weigh on my chest, and I tried to comprehend what I already knew to be true. They blinked at me, mere animals processing a form in the dark, and I told them, “I am hungry.” They did not recognize the closed fist against my gut.

Hungry, the fist. Hunger, both palms spread against my stomach. Mother had been right. I groaned and spasmed as their warm liquid filled me, as chunks of them tumbled down my gullet. My teeth tore easily into the layers. The bones were more difficult. I found they hurt me and discarded them. But the softer insides were so lovely, the smooth, shiny purple things in their bellies, the long rope of flesh leading downward, the salty juices between their legs. Ten more came to me that day, and I received them without speaking. I was beginning to understand. To accept. Mother arrived some time after and looked at the broken bones at my feet. 

“Thank you,” I said.

But she did not want to speak of it. 

*

 

Step 1: Point right middle finger outward

Step 2: Press right pointer finger to forehead.

Step 3: Lick lips.

Step 4: Point right middle finger at heart.

Step 5: Point right middle finger outward.

Step 6: Make fists with both hands and cross over chest.

(1) You (2) Know (3) That (4) I (5) You (6) Love

You know that I love you.

*

That was when she began to stop visiting me, when my sister carried the torch, and no one ever thought to tell me why. I knew not of the rituals they conducted above, what they deemed right and what they deemed wrong. I thought it futile to try and piece together. There were people up there I would never meet, places I would never see, things called buildings and animals and mountains, rules that changed depending on the area (what the boy in the walls told me of his kingdom, for instance, differed greatly from what I heard about my own). I knew that that it was a bewildering thing to be born human. Human, left palm pressed outward. Neither Mother nor my sister gave me a word for what I was in contrast. What we used instead was both pointer fingers pointed upwards: my name, Asterion—a singular entity, unique in all the world. Once my sister tried to help me understand how many people existed, planting pebbles in my palm and counting them aloud. We reached one-hundred-fifty-two before she grew tired, and I asked, “That many?” But she shook her head. “That, again and again and again,” said she, “enough to drown in.” 

“Then it doesn’t matter if I eat some of them,” I surmised. “The portion I take away makes no dent in the pile.”

She hated to see me say that.

We did not always agree, she and I. I had argued less with my mother when it was just us two. Supposedly, according to my sister, it was typical for siblings to bicker. She found me pretentious, stubborn. I found her quarrelsome, unfair. But there was a good many things that I learned from her. She loved stories so, and would recount every one she’d ever learned to me until I could recite all of them by heart; she taught me to draw in the dirt, both of our fingers tracing crude replicas of the other’s face, our laughter puffing in the damp air; she forced me to braid her hair in intricate little patterns, and though I acted as though it were a great chore, I secretly liked admiring my own handiwork as it skittered through her dark curls. We joked that I made her pretty. That the suitors who came to see her from far and wide would never have the slightest idea who it was that put her together so nicely. A part of me jittered with excitement whenever I saw the harsh glow of her torch cast over the walls. A part of me sank in disappointment when it was only my food arriving—but still, I was grateful.

On the day that we spoke of the number of people in the world, I could see that I had upset her. And I knew why, though I disagreed with her point of view and wished she would leave me be. But still I spoke through the uncomfortable silence that had descended upon us.

“You know that I love you,” I mentioned.

She nodded, taking my hands in hers, and we marveled at how similarly they were shaped. Both of us had our mother’s fingers: long, pretty, delicate. Once my sister told me I would have been beautiful, were I not the way I was. And then she looked into my eyes, and she apologized.

*

Step 1: Point right middle finger outwards.

Step 2: Point right middle finger at heart.

Step 3: Gently bite left pointer, middle, and ring fingers.

Step 4: Crack right pointer finger knuckle.

(1) You (2) I (3) Laugh (4) ? 

Why do you laugh at me?

*

The boy in the walls liked to hear about my sister. He said he’d seen her in the palace, had spoken to her, and enjoyed her wit. Though she had little interest in the male sex, he said, preferring to busy herself with her studies and handiwork. When he felt my confusion, he explained, “Marrying, for a woman, is the end of her life. Your sister wants to keep on living.”

I knew very little about her life above. I felt I knew very little about anything at all. I tried to follow the stories he told me—mainly ones about himself, his own princeship—but found it all so far away from me. I wished he would tell me about my sister in a way I could understand, knowing well there was no way to make that understanding easy. Sometimes, when he spoke to me, I would watch the features on his face glow, even without light. Had I a face like that, I would follow my sister through the corridors and climb up into the sun. I’d always been told it felt so good on the skin. The boy in the walls once snapped a bit of fire from his fingers and held it close to my neck. 

“Do you feel that?” he’d whispered, teeth glinting. “Doesn’t it feel like living?”

Perhaps he was fond of me, perhaps he wasn’t. I could never be fully sure. Some nights, he enjoyed leaping up behind me just to hear me howl, casting sneering faces all along the walls, bringing the fire a bit too close to me. “Why do you laugh at me?” I demanded of him. And he floated down to grab both my horns, murmuring, “Oh, dear bull-boy, you should hear what they say about you upstairs.”

It was he who told me of the visitor. He, appearing before me with sunken eyes and a tense irritation to his shoulders. He framed it like this: “Your sister,” he said, “has fallen in love.”

He had not yet explained that a foreign boy had come to the palace and was dining among the royalty like he were a king himself. I asked, “Does that not mean the end of her life?”

The boy in the walls smiled bitterly. When he blinked, an array of eyes flickered through the air and vanished as soon as they had come. “Perhaps she wants to die,” said he. And then he recounted all that he knew.

*

Step 1: Point right middle finger at heart.

Step 2: Point right middle finger outwards.

Step 3: Slip right thumb between middle and ring fingers. 

Step 4: Point left pointer finger downwards.

Step 5: Lace fingers of both hands together.

 

Step 6: Point right middle finger at heart.

Step 7: Make a clawing motion with left hand.

Step 8: Release short groan, producing an “ah” sound.

(1) I (2) You (3) Want (4) Here (5) With (6) I (7) Stay (8) Mother

I want you to stay here with me, Mother.

*

For the first time in many years, Mother came to see me—long after a terrible bought of no visitations that I worried would drive me insane. But she arrived, finally, her form funerary, shrouded in black, a torch almost slack in her right hand. I said nothing as she approached. For a moment, I did not recognize her; I thought she may have been my sister, or a trick of the boy in the walls. And yet, there she was, before me. Immediately, I rushed forward to grab her. My arms wrapped around her shoulders—for now, I was taller than she—and I groaned a heavy cry into her neck. In the midst of all the sound I barely heard the hoarse shout that escaped her lips when I touched her, but I could feel the stiffness of her body. I pulled back to look at her. She looked at me.

“I’ve missed you,” I said.

She placed the water dish she’d been carrying in her left hand on the floor. I stooped to get it, thinking begrudgingly that she could have just given it to me. She was looking down at me, expression unreadable, and I paused in retrieving the water to ask her, “Who is the boy?”

She blinked. A terrible second passed, and I wondered if she’d forgotten my language altogether. But then, aloud, she echoed, “Boy?”

“The boy in the palace,” I clarified, not taking my eyes away from her face. “The guest who comes from the different land.” What I wanted to say was Athens, but I had no word for it.

I could see the stiffening again. The alarm growing in her throat. Eyes wide, she demanded, “How did you know about him?” 

Rather than answering, I asked, “What is he here to do?”

We stared at each other. I held the dish in both my hands and drank.

“Who told you?” my mother asked quietly. 

Years had passed since I met the boy in the walls, and I had never told another soul of his existence. I stayed resolute, drinking, looking down. Time went on. The silence dripped between us. Both of Mother’s fists were at her sides, clenching so tightly they pierced the skin. In brief glances, I searched her face. It was severe, stately, sharp. Honey-skinned. Lips that came together in a regal curve and eyes deep brown and rounded. Had my father been anyone else, I would have looked like her. Like my sister. I would have tossed my hair and bit my lips and laughed.

“Asterion,” she said finally. I flinched at the sound of my name and met her gaze. Obedient. Sonly. She recognized it, and one corner of her mouth twitched downward. “You are kind. You are intelligent. You are creative. You’ve surpassed every expectation I ever had for you. Before you were born, I was so afraid. So afraid. I stared out windows and tried to speak to the sea. I thought I would die, but I didn’t. I gave birth, and you were there. And I looked at you. And I wept. But then—I remember—you wrapped your tiny hand around one of my fingers, and you exhaled. It was such a lovely, soft sound, but it cost me. 

“I tried not to love you,” she went on, now wringing her hands. “You could tell, could you not?” 

My thinking lapsed in the pause that followed. Only after a moment or two of processing her words did I realize she had asked me a question. Puzzled, ashamed, thirsty, I nodded. 

Her tongue darted out to wet her lower lip. “I failed,” she told me. “I always failed. I love you so much it terrifies me.”

I put down the water dish. “Because you are my mother.”

Her statements tangled. Her voice dropped, crumbled to the floor, and we both looked at the place where it would have been.

I said, “I want you to stay here with me, Mother.”

Without any hesitation, she shook her head, over and over again. Her feet were carrying her backwards. I had half a mind to rise and walk towards her, but I stayed where I was, close to the cold floor. My mother was molding into shadows, looking something like the boy in the walls when he decided to leave me. Sometimes, I wished she would insult me like he did instead of leaving me in silence, for the silence rang so loud with uncertainty that it ached. Oh, I knew a great many aches. It was impossible to tell whether they were gifts from my body or mind; no one had ever taught me the difference. 

My mother said, “I love you. When you think on me, remember that.” And I thought of how many things no one had ever taught me.

She did not wait for me to reply. She stopped backing up and turned, marching briskly back the way she came. But I—reeling with bewilderment and something resembling disgust—stood and slapped my palm against the wall. The sound traveled down to her, and she stopped. I huffed.

“No one told me what the boy plans to do here,” I admitted.

Her round eyes turned to circles; her mouth drooped languidly open. “You don’t know?”

She left without telling me.

*

Step 1: Huff through nose.

Step 2: Make a half-circular movement towards the left with right hand.

Step 3: Point right middle finger at center of chest.

Step 4: Rub right thumb in a circular motion on left palm.

 

(1) Please (2) No (3) I (4) Hurt

Please do not hurt me.

*

The boy in the wall woke me on the day I was to meet the guest. He pounded the inside of my head and screamed, “Today a prince shall greet a prince!” I rolled awake in a start, clutching my scalp. He’d sent a sickly pain there. I swatted the air, wishing to hurt him, but he was nowhere to be seen.

I had not eaten in some time. Nor had I seen my sister, so I had no one to tell. None had visited me since my mother’s appearance, and there was no way for me to know how long ago that was. I knew what a day was. I knew what an hour was. I knew not how to count them on my own, how to be certain that the lights above had gone out. Once, my sister had waved a blue shawl past my eyes and informed me that that was the color of the world’s ceiling. I had tried to imagine it and felt so horribly stupid when I could not.

Some long time after I awoke—a time which I passed by drawing shapes in the dirt and practicing dances the boy in the wall had taught me—I heard the scuffing of feet and the hushing of voices. Food sounds. The saliva swished through my mouth before I could even ready myself to receive. I’d grown used to watching pale faces peer around the corner; sometimes they ran, and I had to chase them, though they never went far before I could catch up. A low, heavy growl began in my chest and rose up to my throat. Involuntary. Many sounds passed through me that I could not control. I drew out my tongue to lick my lips, just barely thinking of how much smaller my mother’s tongue had been when she did the same thing. The voices grew, rumbled. There was a jingling laughter, and I paused. My food had never laughed before.

The boy in the wall yelled out: “Hark, Asterion—the great cutter of beasts!”

There were many things to think as a new boy placed himself at the end of the corridor—that he wore armor; that he carried a sword; that no cutter of beast should have been looking for me, because I was not a beast at all. But the boy was looking at me, me alone, and though he grinned with all his teeth, he said nothing.

I understood that he was the guest. He looked to be made of reed. I did not speak to him, knowing he wouldn’t recognize my words.

“What a nasty thing,” he barked suddenly. Maybe, if I had another father, I would have looked like him. His eyes glared out from underneath a fringe of dark hair like two torches. I could not see their color.

He was like a ghoul. Like a harbinger. His shadow rose up around him like a cloak, and he did not move. I swallowed loudly. The sound traveled around both of us. His sword was pointed diagonally somehow, up and towards me. When I was a child, my mother brought a sword to show me but did not allow me to touch it. She told me that it hurts. I stared at the object and tried to fathom how it could cause harm; it looked so blunt, so much like everything else. But then—holding it with the clumsiness of one who’d never been trained in the craft—she cast it outwards and scratched a single white line on the stone walls. The noise it made was deafening, bleeding, and I wailed with both hands over my ears. She stood for a moment, only breathing. “Made by men to kill men,” she told me. Nothing about beasts.

When he shifted towards me, I felt the burden of understanding. I took a step back. The pin-point of his blade was still pointed outwards. My mind ran; there were hallways here I could escape down, though I had never gone far enough to know exactly how they twisted and turned. But perhaps what I knew was greater than what he did. And perhaps he would be lost like another bit of food, dropping his sword, and I could take him for myself. My chest heaved. Yes. That was what I could do. Was a human like him not just something more to eat? Especially when he’d sought me out like this?

But then another shadow skirted in my direction, and I watched my sister emerge from around the corner. We looked at each other for a long while. I thought of how I might have looked like her in another life. How our bodies were shaped the same.

I said, “Please stop.”

She looked away and to the ground.

A thousand things to think. A thousand things to accept. My sister stood close to the guest’s back, looking as though she wanted to cling to it, wrap herself around it. I asked her what was happening, even though I already knew, and she would not watch my hands. In a moment of frantic pleading, I beat my fist against the wall so she might hear me. But that made the boy’s eyes sparkle. He lifted his sword before him. Where I stood, it looked like he may want to halve his face.

“Stupid animal,” said he. “I think I’ve angered it.”

Time crossed over slowly. He stood a ways away from me, then a bit closer, then he was at my chest, and I saw the pushing of the sword before I felt it. So that was how a blade felt. For one more beat, I watched in silence, studying the obedient opening of my skin before life came rushing back through my ears and I could hear the dripping of water from the ceiling, the scuttling of rats upon the floors, the breathing of the guest as he exerted himself, and I could feel such pain, such fire, my body caving in, I gasped, he pulled it out and I wailed, he pushed it back in and I fell backwards, unable to see, hands scrabbling at my own skin, low whines coming from my throat without my volition. My blood leaked onto the floor in thick, black droplets. I tried to reach out to hold his sword, force it out of me, but he did it quicker, drew it out and drew it in, this time into my throat. There was no breath. There was no sound. My mouth was open. Screaming, wailing, I begged with my hands: “Do not hurt me. Please do not hurt me.”

In a sharp, barely-there moment of lucidity, I looked out and saw my sister. She was watching and weeping. Wondering, perhaps, if the boy even knew I was speaking at all.

The air before me became a shade of gray I did not recognize. Again, he removed the sword and placed it back inside. Was I against the wall? On the floor? I could not tell. My hands moved of their own accord until the fingers fell limp—my right palm down, cutting through the air to the right, over and over and over again. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop.

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