Actaeon4 min read

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Originally published in The Scroll (1995)

I am running. I am running and it is good, I am running in the dawn–dappled forest and the new air of the day is sharp and good in my lungs.

Listen; the hounds are baying. But not all of them, not all, no. I do not hear Philomel. She is a beauty, my Philomel, my lead bitch; her baying is like the sound of a bell and she is never mistaken.

There, now, the baying falters. It is a cold trail. I let my steps fall slower in the soft loam of the forest’s floor. I whistle to the hounds. The morning is still and hot.

I crouch and touch the earth, letting my chest fill and empty with great breaths. My hair hangs before my eyes, dark with sweat. I stand and whistle again for the hounds. My Philomel will bring them to me. She is a beautiful bitch, she watches me with her wise eyes and pricks her ears at my every word.

It is good to feel my heart pumping this morning, to feel the life coursing through my veins. The heat of my running enfolds me in the still air and I am thirsty. There is a smell of water in the air. I listen for the hounds, but they are far afield yet, slow in returning. I toss back my hair and settle my bow on my shoulder.

I will follow the scent of the water. My Philomel will lead them to me. It is good to be a hunter this morning, good to be young and strong. The water will be clear and cold and good to drink.

There; I can hear it, water and birdsong. My step quickens. I am tasting it in my mind, filling my cupped hands with water and lifting them dripping to my lips. I hear the stream. I part the branches.

I am not alone. There, on the far bank; a quiver and bow, a pair of unlaced sandals, a garment of snowy linen. I am not alone. There, in midstream; a woman bathes. I gaze at her. A snake of cold fear coils in my entrails.

I cannot leave, I cannot turn, I cannot go. My feet are rooted to the earth and my tongue has turned to stone in my dry mouth. She is beautiful. She bends at the waist like a dancer. I cannot see her face. Her limbs are long and slender. She scoops the water with cupped hands and it runs over her skin in rivulets, glistening in the sun.

She straightens. The curve of her back is more beautiful than a longbow. My heart pounds as if I am running. Her skin is smooth, it is the color of a fawn. The stream laps at her thighs. She moves, and shadows ripple in the hollow of her flank.

I have seen too much. I have seen too much. She is no mortal woman. She raises her arms to unbind her hair. It is braided in a long plait, silvery–blond, bound with a leather thong. I am shaking. The lines of her uplifted arms are beautiful. I glimpse one breast, shallow and perfect. I am shaking.

She pauses; her head turns. Her profile is as clean as a new–minted coin, as bright as a flame. I have betrayed my presence. She hears me, she senses me. She is no mortal woman. Father Zeus, help me, she is turning. She is beautiful. I am afraid to see her face.

I cannot move, I cannot speak. She has turned, she sees me. Oh, she is beautiful. She is scowling, her mouth is forming words. I cannot hear. Her anger is terrible.

She is speaking. I cannot hear. Fear clamors at my ears. I have seen too much. Her arm moves as if throwing a javelin, it is a blur of gold. It stops; her hand is raised, palm outward. Water, burning in the sun, drops of water, falling against me.

It burns, it burns. I fall to my knees, I am changing. Oh, there is a curse on the House of Thebes. My bones stretch and my sinews crack. I roll in my agony and the odor of bruised herbs fills the air. Her hand is raised against me. The light of her face streams like the sun between her outspread fingers.

My heart is swelling, it is swelling. It threatens to burst my ribcage. I am changing. My forelegs plunge, my hindlegs gather; I scramble to my feet. Oh, Father Zeus, I am changed. My head is heavy, she has crowned me with horns. I am the king stag, I am the prey.

I am trembling, my haunches quiver. Her eyes are terrible. I back a step. My sharp hooves bite deep into the loam, my lowered horns scrape the trees. Oh, her eyes are terrible. My legs tremble. I am the prey.

I whirl, I flee. My bursting heart pounds with speed and terror. I am running. My horn–crowned head is held high. I am the prey. Listen; I hear the hounds. They have found a trail. I plunge through the underbrush like the prow of a ship breaking through rushing waves.

I am running.

I am running and the fear is like knives in my heart. Listen, oh listen; the hounds are baying, they are all baying. They have found my trail. Her baying is like the voice of a bell, my Philomel, and she is never mistaken. My heart is pounding.

I am running. I am running.

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