Story: The Niobe Contest Winner! “Niobe”
Keegan’s story won the Niobe Contest! In addition to a great story, I loved the oral poetic storytelling feel he brought to the myth. Thanks, Keegan!
by Keegan Cassady
In the city of Thebes, there is a great house on one of the bustling city blocks. It is grand, especially in context of the metropolis. The cost for land must have been high, for the labor, also high, for the rights and legal fees, all very high, and the price to buy, higher still. There has been a great party here, and around the back of the place is a dumpster. To this dumpster, hired caterers discard the unused food, the scraps, the flotsam of the feast.
To this flotsam comes an old woman, over-large satchel ready, and she scrapes up the fresh garbage from the party, the hors d’oeuvres, the bread, some lucky bottles of wine that did not crack or shatter, and she hustles her way back down the street, reeking of the world.
Night settles in.
The fire burns from a hot trashcan. The grubby faced children gather around, hungry and cold. The old woman, covered, as they are, in layers of unwashed rags, pulls out from the large sack the remains of the Theban fete. They all take turns, five older boys, faces grateful, three older girls, stomachs churning, and some six younger children, tired and shivering.
The night is cold, but there is a roof overhead, for they have taken shelter in a community park on the wrong side of town, and the children have each brought their day’s gathering of kindling, a little food from the two younger boys, some money from the four younger girls, for the larger costs of the week, and nothing from the smallest of the children, a boy and a girl, shy and abashed.
The light from the trashcan fire flickers and the old woman lets the children settle in, with the night, with the chill, with every shadow. Two of the smallest children hang back. There are always some who are shy, and the old woman knows this. A warm breeze flutters over the group, a mercy against the oncoming cold. The woman prepares the children another mercy, one she nightly readies for them: a story.
“I talk to you tonight of miracles.”
The children love miracles; their faces beam at her with wonder.
“First, look at each of you. A miracle each one, more and more miraculous the further back in history you go. Remember that the bearing of each of you is hard work, and often fatal for those that do so. But sacrifice is often an important part of a proper miracle.
“Next, a miracle of isolation. Think now of an island. This island is a rock set alone on a salt sea. Barren and lifeless, it floats, unrooted to the land below it. Any other island, despite its title, can claim itself a mountain peak, its glory hidden beneath the waves, attaching to the rest of the earth, its form a fragment of the greater form, reaching its roots to eternity. But this island is not. It is a severed limb, a cut off moment, untouched by the life of the earth.
“This lifeless island the people call Delos, a place apart.
“This island has always been important, even though it was alone. People felt called to it for its isolation; it was a place where they might find miracles. It was one of those few magic places where gods might be seen walking the earth, in their various guises and aspects.
“For we all know the gods walk among us, from form to form, time to time, eternal. Often, the gods walk as people like us, not having homes as men are expected to, but wandering.
“To Delos came a woman, or a god, named Leto. She was being hunted. Another woman wanted her dead, for that woman’s lover had got Leto with child. And this woman was one of power, motherqueen of the gods, Hera. You remember her vengeance from Hercules?”
A few children nod.
“Then know how wroth she can be. Hera decreed that Leto might not give birth on land or on sea, and so Leto came to Delos, brimming with child.
“Now, there are two ways to see this story, and I will tell you the wonderful one first.
“Imagine now that you are Leto, a figure like our own, hunted and homeless, and that a God has made love to you, and that coming from your form, emitting from you here, are two more gods. Surrounding you at your birth are several of the oldest and most important women in the pantheon, there to support you.
“From your long journey, you bear a daughter. As you were hunted, so she is a Huntress. As you learned much, she is Wisdom. Her birth is easy, like breath. You name her Artemis.
“Your next child is complex. It takes nine days out of you, bearing and crying and straining. This child that emerges is glorious, an entity of music, truth, poetry, light. His name is Apollo, twin to Artemis.
“You have just given birth to two gods.
“Now, for the second, and more likely, story.
“You are a woman taken by a powerful man in the back room of a party. His wife discovers you, either then, or months later, as you come back calling again and again on the man, hoping he will help you, as your belly swells and you need more food, maybe shelter, maybe his favor, maybe just an agreement to take the children when they come. After all, he has everything, and you, you are an obscurity. The woman, his wife, finds your place of work, your home, hunts down every aspect of your life and has you thrown out. She will not have her husband having children by other women. What would people say?
“You find, finally, this desolate place, a place not for men, but for gods, and you give birth. At Delos. The first child, as the first story, is easy. The second, as this story, takes days. But at the end, you give birth once more. And now you hold up your infants, your beautiful twins, to find them both stillborn. The women around you, here in this isolated place, they croon over you, they give you wisdom, they give you sweet music, and you all tell stories of the great heroes these children might have been. You did not have children, sweet lady, but you gave birth to gods. Form to form, time to time, eternal. Not having bodies as men are expected to, but wandering among us.
“This, children, is not the story I am to tell you, it is only a preamble to that story. Remember now that Leto birthed Artemis and Apollo, by their death or their delivery. Remember that she labored for ten days to bring them to bear. Remember that she was hunted, that she could only give birth at Delos. And remember, perhaps, her sorrow.”
The old woman lets the story sink in and looks out at the crowd. The two shy children have gathered closer, probably for the light of the fire. On to the main event.
“Our story tonight is of a great house, and of a couple of small children who begged there.
“Niobe, daughter of Tantalus, was born great, and by Amphion, her husband, became greater. She was the Queen of Thebes. She had many nice things, and lived in a great palace, and ate much and was never cold, never hungry. And she knew stories, Niobe. She knew all the stories of the Gods, of the tales of Zeus and Hera and Hercules. You can be sure she had heard the story of Leto, the hunted woman who gave birth to twin gods. In fact, all of Thebes had heard the story. Both versions, in fact. But which one do you think the people enjoyed more?”
A few children murmured ideas, none brave enough to venture a confident guess.
“People love miracles, my children. They love the idea of a woman giving birth to gods. They love it so much, that when this woman cannot be found, cannot be traced, they begin to talk of her as a god as well, and they begin to worship her, and her children, as men are wont to worship gods.
“Now in this city, where Leto and children were worshiped, lived Niobe, a great woman, and one who was, for all her greatness, in constant danger.
“Remember you now that each of you here is a miracle, by her that bore you? That for that miracle, each of you had a mother who offered her life?
“Let me ask you all, how many trials did Hercules face?”
One child in the back, the shy one, states the right number.
“Twelve indeed, boy. Now Niobe faced two more than that, even. She was upon that sacrificial altar fourteen times. She underwent the miracle fourteen times. And lived.”
The children all looked impressed, some whispered to each other their amazement. The two shy children seemed to be waiting.
“Now, to Niobe’s door would daily come two beggars, a young boy and a young girl, asking for food for themselves and their mother. She was sick, she was sad, she could not work no longer, they all needed food.”
“And from time to time, the servants and even the children of Niobe’s great house would ask the children to perform for them. The girl would make very witty jokes, and the boy would recite poetry. On occasion, when Niobe’s brood were in a sporting mood, they would invite the beggar children to try their hand at archery. Invariably, the pair would get one shot apiece, at which, Niobe’s gaggle would laugh. The brood would then give the beggar children some scraps or some money and send them off on their rank and dirty way.
“One day, these beggar children came to Niobe’s door to find a great crowd. There were nobles all around. The children thought perhaps they should wait until the party was finished, to gather up the scraps. But then they heard Niobe speaking.
“She was at the top of the steps to the great columned entrance of her home, the greatest home in the city, and behind her were her fourteen children. She was shouting, speaking long and eloquently. Near the children, some older-looking men murmured to each other.
“This was no party, the children realized. This was a speech.
“The beggar children heard Niobe speaking. She was talking of changing the local shrines. She was talking of making herself a God.
“The beggar children listened on as she heard the people murmuring agreement.
“Childbirth is deadly, and yet this woman endured it fourteen times. Surely, her life was blessed, perhaps even divine. After all, Niobe claimed, had she not outdone one such god, whose children numbered only two? Fourteentwo, fourteen-two, what comparison, fourteen-two. And on Niobe railed, and on the crowd murmured, praising herself and degrading one exact god, over and over.
“The two children were shocked by the woman. Adults spoke truths after all, but these were not the truths they had heard. You see, these beggar children had been raised on that other, uglier version of the story. The one with less glory and perhaps a bit more truth. They had to figure out what to think, and so they went home.
“Home for the children was a ramshackle place. The pine boards held up a skin roof. The whole thing leaned on the wall of a run down building. A few rugs and sheets of cloth covered the space from the elements. On the ground were three blankets. Outside the roughly constructed hut, a woman was working over a hot bowl on a small fire, cooking. She looked sad.
“The children called over to her: Mother, O Mother, did you hear? Did you hear what Niobe has said?
“The mother kept working, for her children were often pestering her at her work, she need not hear them and cook.
“They told her what they had heard the woman Niobe say. They told her word for word.
“And the woman, their poor mother, she finished cooking, and set out three bowls she had gathered over the years, and laid out a cheap mix of rice and beans and soup for the three of them. And in the quiet of their eating and slurping, the woman thought.
“The next day, while the children went off begging, the woman went to the house of Niobe.
“The crowds were gathered there still, and Niobe was still speaking loudly to all of them, arguing for her divinity.
“Slowly, the homeless woman worked her way forward through the crowd, the better to hear Niobe.
“And for hours, the homeless woman listened, to the murmur of the crowd, the titters of Niobe’s fourteen children, the echoing of Niobe’s voice off of the great walls of that Queen’s great home.
“And then the homeless woman walked home, and cooked for three, and organized her stores, and thought of her work for tomorrow. But as she did all this, she counted.
“Fourteen-two, fourteen-two, fourteen-none, fourteen-two.
“Her children returned home and heard their mother counting. They night they did not speak, they did not eat their food, they watched their mother cook and clean and count and sit and slowly fall asleep, all the while muttering.
“Fourteen-two, fourteen-two, fourteen-none, fourteen-two.
“The children watched their mother fall asleep in her hovel, hidden away on the bad side of Thebes.
“Now, children, look, these children may have skipped their soup may not have eaten it at all that night and may not have had it at all the night before. Sure, they were worried. Sure, they were angered. But perhaps, they were gods. And perhaps, they were the dreams of a woman who had once held two stillborn things, having once lost her world to an angry woman in a great house. Perhaps they were both.
“Perhaps the woman was Leto. Perhaps she was a homeless wretch. Perhaps she was both.
“Whatever the case, the results are clear; there are records of what would happen next. I could tell you now the end, read you the facts they keep in the records of Thebes, or you could hear what I think happened, what I heard through stories I hear around trashcan fires, the kind you hear tonight.
“That night, the boy and the girl returned to beg at the great house. The crowds had cleared, and Niobe’s children were playing among the steps by the great columned entryway. The boys were telling each other stories, the girls were playing at archery. The beggar boy and the beggar girl joined the two groups.
“That night, the beggar children kept the wealthy children awake, the boy with stories, with special tapestries of poetry he had writ on his beggar sleeves; the girl tested her archery with the other girls.
“This night, the girls competed bravely, and raised the stakes time and again. The beggar girl asked first for a bit to eat, and the girls agreed, should the beggar hit center on a mark. She did so, unwavering and easy. The girls laughed and called her lucky. She showed them she could do it again, for food for her mother. They took her bet, again calling her lucky.
“She said she could hit a mark above one of their heads. The girls laughed, and were something scared. But, she offered, they could fire at her if she missed. And so, the game was on.”
“Here, the old woman draws out a pair of sticks, and illustrates her tale with their foley.
“The first girl waited.”
The old woman drew smoothly one stick across the other, then smacked the sticks together: Whiiiizz—thunk.
“The arrow was lodged in the target, right above her hair. Relief and laughter.
“But the beggar girl offered a harder challenge, to try two by two targets now. Both would, of course, get their chance to shoot at her.”
“Now it was a game.”
“The girl was a perfect shot, after all.”
Whizz, whizz, whizz, whizz. Thunk–thunk, thunk–thunk.
“They had known, they had all been safe.”
“Every time the beggars came, the girl had hit dead center at the target before shuffling back to poverty, and this had made the rich girls laugh.”
“Soon, all seven sisters were lined up by targets, oldest to youngest. They were giggling.
“Last round. Should the beggar archer miss, they would all get to shoot at her now.”
Whizz. Whizz. Whizz. Whizz.
And here, the old woman pauses, letting the silence hang a moment.
“The youngest of the girls was giggling so hard she didn’t notice the silence that followed the first four bolts.
“The second youngest had caught on, and was running past her.
“The third youngest was on the ground, an arrow through her head, that arrow lodged perfectly through her ear. Her face was neutral, her mouth agape, just before a scream could escape.”
“The youngest girl’s giggling turned to gurgling, then she looked up, and as the world grew dark, she saw her older sister running, the beggar girl pulling the bowstring, and the arrow flying.
“Niobe was calling her children in for the fifth time that night when she got to the front steps.
“Her boys were huddled in a group, sleeping on the steps, and something was wrong in the yard.
“It was her daughter, the second-youngest. She was lying face down. In the evening light, a thatch of moonbeam caught something sticking out of her back.
“Niobe ran to her daughter, turned her over, cold and expressionless.
“Then she saw the rest. Five pinned to their archery targets, another laying on the earth.
“Niobe started screaming, and ran to her boys.
“Her mouth was chattering and wailing and asking too many questions at once when she caught it.
“Swarming over the faces of the boys. Faces pocked and riddled with scratches from limp hands, flecked and caked in brown blood. Hands and arms and shoulders covered in boils. A filthy tapestry at their feet.
“Then Niobe’s mouth shouted her husband’s name, and Amphion was with her, rage flooding his expression. And as Niobe watched coldly on, Amphion knelt among his sons, vowing vengeance.
“She said his name again, entreating. Now warning. Now sad.
“Her love, her husband, looked up at her. His hands her covered in boils.
“He spoke her name once, then looked down at his hands, and began screaming, scratching and scratching over his boiled skin. And the boils popped and bled, and he scratched and sobbed, and mewled, and coughed, and looked at his sons and meant to ask a word, but coughed more, and out came ichor, and he looked to his wife, and then was still.
“Niobe coldly looked on, but the tears that streamed down her face betrayed her.
“She had had everything. What had she done wrong?
“She turned around, and there were two beggar children.
“The girl held the bow. The boy held rags, filthy and buzzing with flies.
“’Kill me too.’ Niobe said. ‘I have nothing. Kill me too.’
“Something in the night sky parted, and moonlight spread over the courtyard. It touched over the bodies of Niobe’s daughters, and flashed over the pile of her sons, the body of her husband.
“The beggar children were gone.
“Messengers would come in the morning. They would have people avoid the house, a site of dread disease and of murder.
“Niobe went into hiding. Her face was a disaster. She had not stopped weeping for days now, for weeks. She tried to be above it, she tried to be reasonable. And every moment, she would weep.
“She took to wandering. She left everything behind.
“And one day, Niobe met a man.
“She had fallen out of her luck, and was on one such street as we all live on. He was too, but powerful looking, and strong.
“’You can’t stop that, can you?’ he asked. His voice was charming, his carriage noble, his will absolute.
“Niobe said something behind her tears.
“’You can’t stop feeling, can you?’ he asked.
“She shook her head.
“’Would you like to?’ he asked.
“Niobe nodded, behind her tears.
“Now, what happened next comes down to two kinds of stories. Some say that the man in that alley, he was Zeus, and that he took pity on Niobe, and turned her to stone. Others say, more likely, she was murdered and never seen again. People were reminded of her whenever stones weep, for that was the last anyone saw of her.
“But let us say it is the more wonderful story. Let us say it was the miracle; people love miracles. If Niobe were to be a rock, weeping and weeping, I like to think she lived as the rocks live, form to form, time to time, part of something eternal. But children, Niobe was not a child of the earth. She was not a hill, or a mountain, or a continent, or an island. And if, children, if she wept long enough, perhaps Niobe would be an island, like that one island upon which our story began. A rock resting on a salt sea. Perhaps one day, as Niobe floated on her own tears, another woman, haunted and hunted and pregnant, would bear a son, or a daughter, or give up both, to give birth to gods.”
The story is done, and many children are asleep. The old woman gathers the scattered bodies into a huddle and covers them as much as she can against the cold.
She looks up at the two who wait. The beggar boy and the beggar girl.
The three of them look over the fourteen lost children by the fire.
A patch of moonlight shifts into the covered area, and the huddled children, sleeping around a trashcan fire, are alone.
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