Helen in Underworld
by Catherynne M. Valente


It was in Egypt. I found them in Egypt:

little oily seeds.

iridescent, almost,

like hummingbird pupils.


There was sand in your eyebrows

when you gave them to me,

sand in the creases of apothecary-palms.

Your eyes were full of mercury and gypsum,

overflowing with bryony and hellebore.

I thought the venom-glut meant

you were to be trusted.

You promised to make of me

a cloud-Helen,

a creature of vapor and moonlight.

You promised that roses would detonate in my brain,

that my heart would crack

and its ventricles would overflow

with olives and goatsblood.


You promised that oblivion

would strangle me with ringed hands.


You promised me I would remember nothing.


I took it back to my husband,

mashed the seeds with a pestle of bone.

The sludge was so black,

like the innards of butterflies.


It was easy to fold it into honeyed dough,

easy to smile and smile

while I crawled about his errands

on my knees, on my hands,

still boat-shackled

as though it all happened yesterday

and we two still sea-tossed—

no more than I deserved, he sneered.


Easy to lie on my pillows

while he gobbled up the sweets,

crumbs catching in the sheep-wool of his barrel-chest,

licking the sugar-seeds off of his beard

with a slavering tongue.


The taste of them, smeared into Stygian icing,

was of mouse-spleens

and burnt apples soaked in wine.


I pressed it to the roof of my mouth with my tongue.


I waited for the darkness,

I waited for the wind-torn towers

to melt in me and dribble

out of my mouth like scorched fruit.


He crawled to me on his knees,

pawing my thighs, growling that I owed him,

I owed him,

I owed him,

and if I had whored my swan-born body

to the leopard-slaying prince,

there was nothing I could refuse.


My jaw shattered in his fist,

my beak-golden hair tore from my scalp.

He dragged my ship-launching face

down into the depths of his beard,

and I was not a cloud,

I was not vapor,

I was meat and bile and his lips

were stealing my breath

and the city flamed behind me;

I could feel the heat of it still.


He broke the kitchen table when he collapsed,

insensate, honey drooling from his mouth.

Blood bloomed in me,

a secret door, flesh-fluttering,

and I fell into it,

I fell so far,

eager for your promised ease,

eager to forget the smell of Creusa burning,

her hair sizzling into baldness,

her fingernails boiling—

I wanted to forget that spattering perfume,

forget the boy-prince and his zealous kisses,

forget her endless keening,

like a heifer slaughtered for my hecatomb.


You promised me. Sand-browed apothecary,

with your cabinet of poisons.

You promised the shades

would stop crowding me,

would stop worming their mouths into me

to warm themselves in my blood—

but they were there,

waiting at the bottom

of the well of my womb,

and I fell into their arms,

whimpering, begging nonsense vowels.


They opened my belly as though unfolding a blanket

over an amputee on that lonely, mussel-strewn beach—

and pulled out their dresses left on the altars—

blue and violet and green,

spangled and ivory-buttoned,

veils and furs and ribbons.


They pulled from me the hollow horse,

the sleek black ships;

they pulled from me the eggs of my birth,

the ash-spear cock of Ajax,

and fire,

endless buckets of fire,

passed from ghost to ghost like well-water.


They dragged Ilium from my body entire,

towers and gates and plumed helmets,

and I whispered that I was a bird, a cloud,

I had nothing but wings and air to my name,

and they could not accuse me

as though I were a woman.


But they would not listen,

they would not see the feathers I showed them,

they would not see my ruined cradle-egg.

They dug into me over and over

and pulled out their own faces,

coins blazing in their eyes.


I clutched at my belly, my swan-belly,

my vapor-belly: 

it threw back the black paste onto my husband’s feet.

You lied, You lied,

with sand in your mouth, you lied to me.

The cloud-Troy

still floats in me like a cancer,

sending its flames into the slough of asphodels 

that line the curve of my skull.


It is still there, still there,

so pale, and so bright,

and I will take the mercury next,

if you will sell it to me,

and the gypsum, and the bryony,

and the hellebore,

                        I have enough, more than enough

                        to pay for these.

Put your quicksilver under my tongue.

                        I do not mind the taste.

Make me not-Helen. Tell me

I have been here, in Egypt all along,

and I did not hear Cassandra’s wrist break

on the altar steps.



About the Author:

Catherynne M. Valente is the author of the forthcoming Orphan's Tales series, as well as The Labyrinth, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, The Grass-Cutting Sword, and three books of poetry, Apocrypha, The Descent of Inanna, and Oracles. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two dogs. 


Poem © 2006 Catherynne M. Valente.