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Clytemnestra

by Gania Barlow


For the terror returns like sickness to lurk in the house; the secret anger remembers the child that shall be avenged.
                -Aeschylus, "Agamemnon"


All right, Iphigenia is dead, here is what you do:

You pack an overnight bag. You get on the first plane. You order a glass of wine and you write "nononononononononononono" on your cocktail napkin until the writing becomes a graph of your breath and your heartbeat, and the napkin falls apart in shreds. You do not cry, you do not scream, you do not tear out your hair or beat your breast or scratch your cheeks or rip your clothes. You are a modern woman. You hold yourself carefully together.

At the funeral you stand next to Orestes, and Electra is next to him, and Agamemnon is at the other end. The whole family is together except that Iphigenia is dead. The whole family is together except that you cannot mourn together or comfort each other. Or even say, "Gee, how upsetting. Don't you feel upset? Do you think you can make it? Do you think life will ever be the same again? Do you feel like you're acting out the will of some malicious god? Do you think the scream you are holding inside will rip you in two? Do you think your screaming might rip other people in two?"

Electra is the only one who cries.

You get back on the plane. You go home and you go into your room. You try to brush your teeth but when you look in the mirror everything tells you that Iphigenia is dead. Hello face, hello teeth, hello toothbrush, hello sink, Iphigenia is dead.

So you lock your door and take off your clothes and lie down in bed and you don't get up again for three months.


I. Mnemosyne


There were so many witnesses that no one knows what happened. It all depends. What anyone saw depends upon their position in relation to the sun and the angle of the light. As well as their political leanings, nutritional history, the amount of money they make per year, and which Beatle they prefer.

The police took one look at the man who owned the gun, shrugged, and stamped "accidental death" on the paperwork. Or maybe he paid them. In any case, you don't screw with Agamemnon-he makes seven figures.

Agamemnon would say, "My daughter was killed," using passive voice to avoid difficult questions. This statement had all the unimpeachable veracity of verified fact and, delivered in Agamemnon's slow rumbling drawl, took on the deep shine of Truth. No additional explanation was required. After all, you don't screw with Agamemnon. (Unless you're his wife.)


What everyone knows for certain is that she's dead-the truth is that she's dead. It is necessary for Clytemnestra to separate truth from mere possibility in order to retain some hold on her sanity.

The truth is: Agamemnon and Iphigenia were in Aulis on business.

Clytemnestra doesn't exactly know or care what this means, but Genie, for reasons unclear to Clytemnestra, does. Did. Clytemnestra always thought Genie would become an anthropologist, or a poet, or a surgeon, but instead she majored in business and went to work with her father after graduation. Clytemnestra doesn't know or care exactly what business they had in Aulis, except that it probably involved millions of dollars. But the point is that Agamemnon and Iphigenia were in Aulis on "business" and Iphigenia was shot by her father's gun.

The truth is: no one knows exactly how she died. Maybe not even Agamemnon; he could have had his back turned. But Clytemnestra can imagine many possibilities.

Possibility: the Daughter-as-Scapegoat scenario. Iphigenia (perhaps intentionally?) moves in front of him just as the burglar/assassin/murderer pulls the trigger.

Possibility: made for TV. Your classic psychopathic daddy. Pretty little daughter. Lust, guilt, betrayal.

Possibility: a tragic accident. Agamemnon cleaning his gun, a slip of the hand, the perfect aim of chaotic Fate.

Possibility: the X-variable. A third person involved. (Someone Agamemnon is protecting?)

(Maybe she got too good, maybe she knew too much about the business.)

Possibility: suicide.


The truth is: he was there when she died and he didn't save her.


~


What Clytemnestra remembers about the three months after Iphigenia's funeral is watching drops of water form and fall. Long, slow movement of swell; quick fall. Long slow movement of swell; quick fall. And now she still finds herself, more often than not, floating in her jacuzzi bathtub. Shriveled, naked, lukewarm, choking on soapy slick water.

Or usually it is her lover, Aegisthus, who finds her there. Takes her out and wraps her in a towel. Sometimes talks to her, if that's what she needs. Sometimes sits with her, silent. Sometimes leaves her alone. He seems to have moved in, because he's always there- cleaning up after her, letting her cry on him, or amusing himself by arranging some gourmet meal in the kitchen.

She thinks he must have been there the entire three months. Pulling her out of bathtubs, off of ledges, feeding and clothing her. But she doesn't remember it.

She doesn't even remember the funeral. It must have been lovely. She only remembers the drops of water. And the blood. Aegisthus tries to tell her that she never saw any blood. That she never even saw the body. But she remembers it. (Bubbles of blood, trickles, spurts, pools, rivers of blood. Blood like a dam burst, blood like a tidal wave-red fat bright hot paint blood.) She remembers it clearly.

Iphigenia trusted him, that's the thing. That's why it would have been so easy. Daddy daddy what a big gun you have.

How long does it take to die when you've been shot in the throat?

Iphigenia.


~


Agamemnon left the country right after the funeral. Flew off to Turkey or somewhere to crush some company. Beautiful fucking way to mourn your daughter. Go rip out more throats. Hers only added wind to the sails.

Aegisthus politely suggests that Clytemnestra consider divorce. But that isn't enough. It's weak. It's whiny. "You killed my daughter, now I won't be your wife anymore, so there." Divorce is giving up, moving on. Allowing him to move on. Impossible.


She only wishes she could have a family through this. But her children are Agamemnon's children, too.

Orestes will not come home. He sends his condolences, but he has midterms. He is pre-law and Clytemnestra is, of course, very proud of him. But she knows he's angry about her affairs. Orestes is a little old-fashioned. He thinks his father is put-upon. She imagines in his mind the words "adulteress" and "cuckold." As though Agamemnon weren't doing exactly the same thing.

Electra does not seem to grieve at all. But at least she tries to make herself invisible. Except when she leaves chairs pulled out or windows open or radios on at full volume.

One night Aegisthus cooks Ethiopian and Electra makes a surprise appearance at dinner. But she does not talk. Aegisthus tries, "Is that a new shirt? What are you doing tonight, Electra? When do you get out of school? Would you like a little honey wine, Electra? Do you like the chickpeas, Electra?"

Clytemnestra says, "When she's in this kind of mood, there's really no point."

When Electra is done eating, she stands up and says, "Thanks, Aegisthus, it was great." Then she looks at her mother and pushes her plates off the table and they break clumsily on the carpet.

Aegisthus jumps up so quickly that he knocks over his chair, but Clytemnestra just keeps eating.

"Sit down, Aegi. Eat. She's right, this is really delicious. You've outdone yourself."


Here is Clytemnestra's grief: It is sitting alone in a room too small for it. Arms and legs out the windows into the world. Moving, groping, kicking, sightless and swollen.


And somewhere someone is wearing Iphigenia's perfume. Clytemnestra finds the scent in unexpected places, everywhere.


~


When they were children they were archetypes. Strawberryblond, crooked gappy teeth, freckles. They were potential. They were hers. That was when she really felt like a mother. Like a family even. When they were just young enough and just old enough. Nine, six, three. Genie, Orie, Lecca.

Genie made up story games, epic adventures that they would act out with intense seriousness. Genie would be the Queen, or the misunderstood- but-really-good sorceress. Lecca was the fragile one, the damsel in distress, the princess. Orestes was always, always the hero.

Sometimes Clytemnestra worries that her memories are too generic. That she only remembers the archetypal and not the minute. She is sure she's forgetting something important.

One thing:

Orie peeing on the sand castle Genie built and Genie knocking him down, hitting him and hitting him until his nose bled. Electra crying so loudly at the sight of blood that it brought Agamemnon running. (This is one of the few memories of Agamemnon in motion. Usually he is Napoleonically still. Posed.) Agamemnon pulling Genie off, holding her up by one arm. Genie kicking out for a moment, then hanging, head limp. Toes just grazing the rippled sand.

Clytemnestra used to remember the blood smeared across Orie's face, him looking so shocked and broken. Lecca's hysterical, gasping sobs. The terrifying fury in Genie's eyes.

But now she only remembers Iphigenia.

Dangling from Agamemnon's huge hand, looking collapsed.

Looking like her neck was broken.


The truth is, Clytemnestra had been angry at Genie all day. Genie had been sulky and stubborn and would not play by the rules. And after that incident, Clytemnestra hadn't spoken to her for hours.

But now she wants to remember grabbing up her child from the father's hand. Holding her tight. It's okay, Genie, it's okay. You got angry. He ruined your castle, I know, shhh, I know. We'll build another one. We'll build a huge castle and no one will be able to find us. We'll hide inside it. Just you and me. All alone. In magic, bulletproof sand.


II. Morpheus


In dreams Clytemnestra sees Iphigenia replaced by a deer, bleeding, its throat ripped out by the bullet. In dreams Iphigenia disappears and a deer takes her bullet. But even in the dream, although she is not dead, she is still gone, disappeared.

And when Clytemnestra wakes up, she is still gone. Disappeared.


~


She decides to empty out Agamemnon's office and bedroom, knock out the wall between them and turn the space into something useful. Maybe an indoor pool or fitness room. Or a library.

She has always hated the aesthetic of these rooms. The house is modern, all angled walls and windows and geometric shapes in white. But Agamemnon chose to decorate his personal spaces in very traditional, very masculine dark leather and dark wood. The contrast is jarring and a little infuriating. She has always wanted to go in and gut it.

But the project does not get very far. In the office she finds hundreds of Iphigenia artifacts. Tucked between books on the shelves, in drawers and cabinets, under the desk. Someone must have hidden them away during those three lost months. There are albums full of pictures of Genie, all different ages and emotions. Her toothless smile; naked in the sink; glowing and grass-stained in her soccer jersey; her beauty showing through too much makeup in her prom pictures; that sarcastic smirk for their family portrait. There are report cards, and notes in her handwriting. Trophies and drawings and toys and knick-knacks. That awful sweater she would never throw out. The broken snow-globe.

Clytemnestra tears the office apart top to bottom until she's sure she's found everything. She carries the artifacts out of Agamemnon's office piece by piece. And then she boards up the door.


The truth is, the rest of the house is no better than his rooms now. It was built to be airy, full of light and open to breezes. So with the curtains closed and the windows and sliding doors all shut up, the house seems to be choking and drained. Bled dry.


~


Electra barely seems to be living at home anymore. Clytemnestra can never find her when she looks. But Clytemnestra knows she's still around because Aegisthus talks to her sometimes. And because she leaves chairs pulled out and windows open and radios on and dirty dishes in the sink.

And laundry in the laundry room.

Clytemnestra discovers that Electra has been wearing Iphigenia's clothes. She sits down on Electra's bed and waits. She breaks a piece of string off of the comforter and ties knots to calm herself. She is very, very calm by the time Electra gets home. It is dark, and Electra is just a silhouette against the light from the hallway. Clytemnestra looks at the place where her face should be.

"I don't want you wearing your sister's things."

"Why?"

"Because they're not yours."

"I borrowed her clothes before and she didn't care." Electra's voice is as shadowed as her face. She could be someone else entirely and Clytemnestra wouldn't know it.

"They're not yours."

"What's she going to do with them?"

"That's very nice."

"I didn't mean it like-"

"And your sister's name is Iphigenia."

"Was."

Clytemnestra can hear the wet sound of teary mucus in Electra's throat. She always cried when she didn't get her way.

"I want you to put everything back."

"What difference does it make?"

"If you don't do it, then I will."

"Fine! Fine, do whatever you want. I don't care. You can have my clothes, too. Burn them all on some big fucking altar for her."

"Electra!" Clytemnestra stands. From this angle some light falls on Electra's face. It is red and she is biting the insides of her cheeks to keep from crying. Clytemnestra is very, very calm. "We are through talking about this. You are not going to wear her clothes or touch her things and I don't want to ever hear you talking about your sister again."

Electra's face flushes even redder. Her bottom lip trembles and she bites it, hard. "Sure. Great. Whatever you say, Mom. Not a single word. I'll pretend she never even existed."

"That shouldn't be too hard for you." On her way out, Electra breaks all the glass and crystal in the front hall.

This time Clytemnestra tells the maid not to sweep up the shards.

Aegisthus says maybe she and Electra should consider counseling. Then he says, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have-Cly I'm sorry. It was stupid of me to interfere. I'm sorry."


~


In dreams Clytemnestra gives birth to a snake. She wraps it in a blanket like a baby and tries to nurse it. But when she puts the snake to her breast it bites her. And when it sucks, it drinks blood and milk together.


~


Clytemnestra sleeps in cycles of nightmare and calm, nightmare and calm. It is difficult to tell what kind of night it will be until she wakes up, either in the morning or screaming in the middle of the night.

Aegisthus seems to sleep restlessly either way. A few times, on peaceful nights, it is he who wakes her up. He is out of bed pacing, or staring out the window. When this happens she keeps her eyes shut tight. She feels his movement in the air over her face, his eyes in the darkness. But she does not sigh or sniffle or open her eyes. And she does not ask what keeps him up. She doesn't want to have to think about him.


One day Clytemnestra does not think about Iphigenia at all.

She wakes up at 1:30 a.m. sobbing. She wakes Aegisthus by hitting him. Yelling, "Why didn't you remind me? Why didn't you mention her? Why did you let me forget? Don't you ever let me forget her again!"


~


The shards begin to look, to Clytemnestra, like a sign. Still lying where they fell, scattered like an oracle in vague patterns. The way things broke. Some of it was wedding crystal. There is a message there, she is almost sure of it. Some kind of message, whispering itself in a foreign tongue.

The truth is: No one knows how Agamemnon died. Maybe not even Clytemnestra; she could have had her eyes closed.

But everyone knows she did it. They can almost see the blood on her hands. Caught in drips and blots in the folds of her gown. Her fiery orange and yellow gown. Not in mourning. Her children fled like snakes before an earthquake. The lover standing at her side. Sweaty. Smelling of fear. They can taste the iron-rich air. Warrior blood.

His widow has the terrible look of Agamemnon about her. As warriors steal their fallen opponents' strength. You don't screw with Clytemnestra. She is fearless now.

But it's only a dream.


III. Moira


In the kitchen, chopping garlic, Aegisthus tells her he's heard that Agamemnon is coming back soon. She turns away and waves her hand at him.

"Our living arrangements aren't going to work so well once he gets back, Cly."

"I don't want to talk about it."

"We're going to have to at some point. Or are you going to stay married to him forever?"

She starts ripping apart green beans on the counter.

"Cly?"

"I don't. want to. talk about it." It comes out sounding sing-song, like a cheer or a rallying cry.

"Are you planning to just wait until he walks through the front door to figure out what you're doing?" His chopping has slowed, then stopped. He's watching her. "Do you even want me here anymore? Clytemnestra?"

"Stop it."

"You barely talk to me. Am I past my usefulness?"

"Oh, please."

"Well, I don't know what to think."

The back of her head does not respond. He sets his knife down and takes her by the shoulders, turning her around to face him. "I love you."

She picks at the beheaded vegetables in her hand.

"You can't say it, can you?"

"Aegisthus, my daughter just died and I-"

"No, stop. Stop it." He shakes her as he speaks, as though he can put his words physically inside of her. "You can't hide behind her. I've been here, okay? Don't use her to make excuses for yourself. I've been here."

Clytemnestra steps back, looking up at his face for the first time. Her own face is white and her breath seems to make her whole body tremble.

"Don't you dare accuse me of using my daughter."

He reaches out for her, but she takes another step back.

"I don't want to talk about it."

"I just-"

"No. Drop it."

"I think I have a right to-"

"No!" Clytemnestra's hands clench instinctively into fists, crushing the green beans into her palms. "You have no rights. I don't owe you anything. I didn't ask you for anything."

He meets her rising fury with a wall of rational, bitter calm.

"Yeah, you don't need anyone, do you? Not me, not Electra-"

"This has nothing to do with Electra."

"Yeah, it does. It has to do with you shutting everyone out. Like you're the first person to ever grieve. I have been here for you every minute and you won't talk to me. You can't even talk to your own children."

"Don't you dare tell me about my children. You don't know a single thing. You think you have any idea what this feels like? You don't even have any living children-"

"Yeah, well you do."

"Fuck you!" She stamps her foot and throws the wrinkled green beans at him as hard as she can. They fall lightly against his chest and drift to the floor.

"Electra and I-"

"What? Are you fucking her?"

"Don't do that."

"Then what do you care about her? She isn't the one paying your fucking bills."

Aegisthus' face goes blank and his eyes seem to stare at a place two inches in front of her. "Oh. I see. Is that why I'm here?"

"I don't know why you're here."

"Well, I guess I do now. I'm here to freeload off you. That's why I've been here this whole time. To take advantage of you and get a little ass while I'm at it. Just like one of your famous parties with all your lovers and ex-lovers and future lovers gathered around the fireplace. I could be anyone as long as I keep my mouth shut and I'm good in bed, right? Isn't that it, Clytemnestra? Do you even know the difference between your lovers anymore?"

"Get. the fuck. out. of my house."

His hands open and tense, wide, like he is waiting to catch something. He takes a deep breath.

"Yeah. Okay. I made it too easy for you to get rid of me."

She picks the beans off the floor and throws them away. She takes the garlic and the cutting board and the knife he was using, and she throws them away. She takes the pots off the stove and throws them against the wall before throwing them away, too.

But before he's had time to get home, she leaves a message on his machine.

"I know the difference. Only one came when there was no party."

He comes back. He says, "I'm sorry." He holds her by the shoulders, gently now, and tries to look into her eyes, but she twitches and fidgets and looks away.

"You don't have to be sorry."

"No, but I am."

"Aegi, it's okay, let's drop it."

"Okay, but I want to tell you-"

"Aegisthus!" She pulls away from him, but he takes her by the arms, firm.

"No, listen. I want to tell you that whatever you decide to do-about Agamemnon, about the kids, whatever, I'll support you. Okay? I'll be here with you no matter what. To the end."

"Thanks," she says. "I'll let you know."


Clytemnestra is startled by Electra in the hall one morning. She has not seen her in more than a week. Electra has the intrusive presence of a ghost and Clytemnestra can't speak.

"I need some stuff," Electra says.

Clytemnestra breathes.

"Don't worry, I won't stay too long and get in the way of your orgy."

It's been only a week, two at most, but Electra looks different. Clytemnestra doesn't know why, she can't figure out why.

"Not like I wanted to talk to you either," Electra says, carefully walking around her mother without getting too close.

Clytemnestra retreats. She locks her bedroom door and, with odd paranoia, sits with her ear against it, listening to Electra move through the house until she is gone.

Her hair. She cut and dyed her hair. It has an unnatural red glow now. And it has never been that short before.


~


There is something so oddly familiar, so horrifically right about the whole thing. Like she's been expecting it to happen, or like it had happened before. As though she's always known that her husband would become her nemesis. As though she's always known that her bright-eyed, witty girl would disappear in blood. And the tall, delicate son would disappear in morality. And the baby, the pouty-lipped youngest, would disappear in stupid misunderstanding and anger.

And she knows it's not over. Her part has not yet been played. The pressure of pre-Christ tragedy on her head feels like a migraine, pounding in her ears like approaching drums. But she will not take the painkillers Aegisthus tries to give her. Because there is something sitting in there behind all the pain and noise. Some thought or desire. Some inclination or tendency. Waiting-like a half-domesticated beast, sharp-toothed and too quiet-for one unguarded moment to lunge.


She tries to write a letter:

Dear Orestes and Electra,
I understand why you don't feel at home here. I know I haven't been myself, and the house isn't the same without Iphigenia. But it isn't the same without you either. You think I love Iphigenia more because there are more baby pictures and because she's dead. But I wish I could make you understand. You can only once make the change from being a person to being a parent. And you can only once make the change from being a parent to being a parent who has lost a child. And it was Iphigenia who led me into both.

Dear Orie and Lecca,
I am still your mother. But I can't come for you. You have to come to me. You have to understand that I need to stay here where I can remember her. Memory is all there is. And I don't think I could move if I tried. Sometimes I try, and my feet don't work. And sometimes the doors are locked and no one has locked them.

Children-
Get yourselves the fuck home right now.

Dear anyone,
I have lost my children. Please send them home.


~


Possibility: grind up the shards of crystal and feed them to Agamemnon in his favorite meal.

Possibility: copycat crime-a bullet through the neck.

Possibility: rip through his chest. Grip his heart like meatloaf. Let the blood thicken around her toes.


She wakes up each morning feeling like the backs of her eyes and the insides of her ears are bruised. She tastes blood along the sides of her tongue and doesn't think it is her own.

She can't really imagine doing it. It's impossible. But she can't think about anything else. After so many nightdreams, daydreams, fantasies, she can't quite be sure it hasn't already happened. She remembers cleaning blood from the front hallway, the bathtub, the dining room table, out from under her fingernails. (But she does not remember the act itself. And she never remembers him.) Sometimes she opens her eyes and doesn't know where she's been. Sometimes her hands feel thick and sticky for no reason.

She can't say for sure, not for one hundred percent sure, that she hasn't already killed him.


~


The last time she saw Iphigenia was a Wednesday morning. Genie was packing for her flight to Aulis. Clytemnestra was in a hurry to get out of the house. She and Agamemnon had had a nasty fight the night before. About soup. Something about soup. Soup as a means of ridiculing everything about one another. So she was in a hurry and just stuck her head in the room to say goodbye.

"Send Electra a postcard, okay? She's still mad that she doesn't get to go."

"All right."

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do." Iphigenia laughed. (Her laugh!) "Never."

"Bye, hon."

"Goodbye, Mom."


~


All right, Iphigenia is dead, here is what you do:

You sit down. You sit still.

You tried getting out of bed and that didn't work, so you get back in.

Instead of waiting behind the door with a sword, you are barricaded in your bedroom. You recognize that this is pathetic. Your tragic figure has somehow come down through the centuries as a headless, armless statue. Death-white and weather-worn. Almost in the shape of a mother. Almost in the shape of a queen. You have lost your children just the same. You have lost your mind just the same. It seems unfair that you should suffer the same losses but be incapable of the same retaliation. That you should be subject to the same fate (a screaming fury in your mind) but in a body too small for it, which collapses quietly, unresisting, under the weight.

You are trapped, as they say, between Scylla and Charibdis. But this time, unfortunately, they are both you. And so you go back to your room. You lock the door and you lie down in bed and you close your eyes. And you feel the uselessness of modern times expanding within you like a weak balloon, about to burst.


Electra has been gone for months now. Orestes never calls. The staff is beginning to quit or just walk out. Aegisthus is still there, he will always be there, but even he is different; he argues less and less. And the house is quieter and quieter. Movement sends phantom sounds of footsteps and voices through the dark hallways and empty rooms.

You decide that it is out of your hands. You will not pull at the threads of your fate. It is pointless to try. You will simply wear it when it is done.

But you are tired of watching and listening. So tired from waiting.


~


One of these days, they say. One of these days Agamemnon will come home.

 

Gania Barlow is currently pursuing a PhD in Medieval English Literature at Columbia University. Her creative and academic work has been published in Fourteen Hills, The Chaucer Review, and Notes and Queries. (updated 7/2012)


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