by CJ Reddick
How far will she go to save her sister?
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is based upon the legends surrounding Oedipus and his children. For more information about the backstory to this specific story, go here (it's not long I promise). Also a few pronunciation guides have been added, for your convenience.
The rain poured and the sky rumbled, warning her of the dangerous path ahead of her. It was as if Zeus himself was urging her to turn back. Yet, she refused.
The peasant that had been in front of her emerged from the cave. She looked at him expectantly, eyebrows raised. Light conversation had revealed he was asking the Oracle if this next season would be bountiful. The peasant lowered his head and shook a no. Ismene pursed her lips, making a mental note to send him enough food to get his family of ten through the apparent famine.
“You’re next, honey cake.”
Ismene whirled to the Delphian guard and glared, blue eyes blazing. “Excuse me?”
“You’re next. Although, between you and me,” he leaned closer “I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be getting a husband anytime soon. However,” he looked her up and down, “if you’re willing to stay until I am relieved of my duty, I can take care of that pesky virginity for you.”
She had to resist the urge to smack him, stand straight up, rip off her cloak, declare herself a princess of Thebes, and order his execution. But, rude swine or no, her purpose must remain secret.
“Never,” she spat, and shoved past him into the cave.
The shelter from the rain was a welcome relief. The cave did not smell pleasant, though. Ismene resist the urge to pinch her nose in disgust. No wonder royalty never came here! This place was horrible!
After what felt like hours of walking, she came to the source of the foul smell. The cave opened into a chamber, with a large crack in the floor. Fumes wafted from the bowels of Gaea and filled the chamber. And, upon the fabled tripod balanced over the crack, sat the fabled Oracle.
Remembering the proper ceremonies, Ismene knelt. “I come before the god of truth, the great Phoebus Apollo, and his beautiful prophetess, and beseech them to answer me what I ask. I, a mere mortal, bow and beg.”
The Oracle cackled. “And what is your name, sweetie?”
Ismene tipped her head up. “I am Phoebe.”
The Oracle cackled again. “Phoebe, no doubt named for your bright beautiful locks.”
I blushed a little bit. “Yes, I have been told I was a radiant child.”
“But, of course, growing up in a palace, one would expect such beautiful, well-kept hair.”
“Yes, of course. Wait!” Ismene groaned and sat up.
The Oracle cackled a third time. “Sweetie, I knew who you were the moment you stepped in the cave. Apollo sees all, and he tells me all. Now, why would you hide your true identity?”
Ismene looked down. “If you know all than surely you know that royalty are not to visit the oracle.”
“Ah, yes. It’s been ages since someone with the blood of the gods came to visit. Now, what is it you would like to know, princess of Thebes?”
“I think you know, but I shall tell you anyway. Surely you know of my accursed existence.”
“Yes, I was the one who issued the prophecy regarding your father to your grandfather. What a mess! Do you find it ironic that your father would’ve never married your mother, or rather, his mother, had his father not tried to avoid the prophecy? And if he himself had not tried to avoid the prophecy, he would’ve never met Jocasta, and never married her? Oh, the irony!”
The Oracle lost herself in a fit of laughter and Ismene clenched her fists.
“Oh, my child, but that’s not why you’re here, is it? Good thing too, as I cannot change the past. What is it you desire?”
“You know of what happened to my siblings.”
“Ah, yes, the bickering brothers and the selfless sister. As opposed to the selfish sister.”
Tears welled in Ismene’s eyes as the Oracle continued.
“Oh, yes, your sister knew what to do, didn’t she? No one, no one is to be denied the last rites! Your fool of an uncle should’ve known that. But he didn’t, did he? And now he is bereft of not only his nephews, but his niece, his son, and his wife! Left only with you, the sister who refused to stand.”
“I speak the truth! The truth is harsh. But, your sister is dead, killed herself rather than living in that cave in the ground! Child, I cannot change the past, and I cannot kill! What do you want me to do?”
Ismene jerked a fist across her face, wiping away the tears. “There is one who goes back and forth between the realms of the living and dead.”
“Thanatos. You would seek Death himself?”
“Even gods can be bound and controlled. You know what controls him.”
“True, I do. But, be warned, the living who journey to the Underworld rarely return. And even more rarely do they return with what or whom they desired. Turn back now. Return to your uncle and take comfort in each other. The path you seek will only lead to heartbreak.”
“Tell. Me. NOW!”
The Oracle sighed. “As you wish.”
She closed her eyes and hummed a strange tune, inhaling the vapors of the vent deeply.
“Oh, yes, Thanatos can be bound. Not by chains, not by some spell, no. Thanatos, like most creatures, can be bound by love.”
The Oracle opened her eyes. “You think the god of death cannot fall in love? He does have his own soul. Yes, Death can fall in love. And he did. Her name was . He loved her more than anything, but, alas, she was mortal! She grew old, and he did not. But theirs was an eternal love. When it came time for him to take her, he could not do it. Aphrodite looked down on him with pity, knowing that as a human Petalouda would never survive. But she could not bear to see Thanatos, who rarely loves mortals, as he must take them all eventually, in such pain. And so, Aphrodite transformed Petalouda into the first butterfly, an immortal butterfly. She became Thanatos’s constant companion, teaching dead souls how to fly with Thanatos to the Underworld. And all butterflies, of course, are their children. Thanatos has no such care for these children. How can he? They are easily squashed. But the first one, Petalouda, if you can catch her, Thanatos will do anything to get her back.”
“I thought you said Petalouda was Thanatos’s constant companion.”
“Save for twice a day. At dusk and at dawn she must leave him to feed in a sacred garden in the region of Agrafa.”
“Agrafa?” Ismene wrinkled her nose.
“The people there are fierce, that is true. They are also the only town that worship the true butterfly goddess. They will know where to find the garden.”
“And how do I catch Petalouda?”
“Only a net of human hair can catch her. And not just any human hair. The hair of the one who seeks to catch her.”
Ismene instantly thought of her long, golden hair. She kept it up in a messy pile. “Little Beehive” Mother always called her. True, the thought of cutting her hair pained her. People always told her she looked like her mother, and surely cutting the hair would ruin that image. But what was more important: Antigone, or her own appearance?
No contest. She chose herself over her brother once, and that was what brought her to this wretched situation. “Anything else I should know?”
“Only that I strongly advise you do not do this. This will end in tragedy, I am almost sure of it.”
“If I die, so be it. At least I will be with my sister, finally free of this wretched life.”
The Oracle sighed. “You tamper with dangerous power. Go now. It will take a few days to reach Agrafa.”
Ismene bowed once again. “Thank you, Great Oracle.”
The Oracle did not respond. Ismene turned and recovered her head, exiting the cave. She rolled her eyes at the leer and wink of the guard at the entrance. She had more important things on her mind than rude guards. Most importantly, she needed to figure out how to get to Agrafa.
The answer came easily enough. Offering farmers royal trinkets to take her where she desired worked well. It was a three day journey to Agrafa. While whatever cart she was in bumped along, she made work of cutting off her hair, a difficult task using two sharpened rocks in a moving cart. A piece of shattered mirror aided her, but the process still took a long time. The first day was spent cutting her hair. Her once back-length hair, the beautiful beehive, was now a short bob that stopped at her chin. The next two days were spent weaving a net. Ismene wasn’t sure how small Petalouda was, so she made the net into more of a mesh.
Finally, after three bumpy days, she reached Agrafa. The farmer remained silent as she handed him a golden ring. He turned his cart around and left quickly. He seemed afraid. And, with the tales surrounding Agrafa, tales of horror and violence. Even Ismene’s resolve to retrieve her sister weakened a bit as she walked into the town. Every logical thought told her to run. But it was too late to turn back now. She patted the small pouch on her belt that contained the net. If the residents of Agrafa truly worshipped the goddess, she imagined they were both aware of what could capture her, and did not want that to happen. So it was best that she not take out the net in sight of them.
A sour looking man approached her. “Stranger, what are you doing in Agrafa?”
Ismene resisted the urge to tilt her head. The man, though gruff, did not seem violent, as opposed to the legends. “I am Phoebe, of Thebes. I come seeking the garden of Petalouda.”
The man drew his sword. “How do you know of Petalouda?”
Ismene bowed her head, nervous. “My sister is dying. I went to the Oracle at Delphi, seeking a cure. She told me the story of Petalouda and Thanatos, and told me that a flower lit upon by the true butterfly goddess would cure my sister.”
The man’s eyebrow raised. “The Oracle said this?”
“I don’t understand her words any more than you do. I’m simply doing what she told me.”
The man sighed and sheathed his sword. “Fine. I don’t know if the flower will heal your sister or not, but if the Oracle said…”
“Thank you! Could you please point me in the direction of the garden?”
“Oh, no, I’m coming with you.”
Ismene drew back. “What? I mean, I can do this myself.”
“The sacred garden is filled with thousands upon thousands of butterflies. How will you know which butterfly is Petalouda?”
Ismene sighed. He had a point. “Oh, yes, I forgot that. Would you be kind enough to lead me and point out Petalouda… what is your name?”
“Would you please lead me, Phillip?”
The man nodded. “Follow me.”
Without another word, he turned and walked into the town. Ismene hurried after him.
The town was remarkably ordinary. Children played in the streets, merchants went about their business, wives gossiped at the well. Although the occasional fierce stare played across a face, for the most part Agrafa did not seem so fierce as the stories told.
Phillip seemed to notice her shock. “We are a quiet people; we like to be on our own. We do not usually take kindly to strangers.”
“They worship that wife of Eros as the goddess of butterflies. They have her confused with Petalouda. Psyche was merely a mortal who was made immortal. She has no true relation to butterflies. Petalouda lived centuries before Psyche was even born.”
“I see. And why not spread the truth?”
“Petalouda commanded it. She does not want her children to be feared, and surely if the mortals knew that butterflies, creatures normally associated with life and happiness, came from Death, they would fear them as omens.”
“And are they?”
“Of course not! Are horses omens of good fortune with fish and crops, since their parents are Poseidon and Demeter?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Exactly. But people are stupid. And Petalouda is content with one town of worshippers. She is not greedy.”
Ismene nodded, feeling guilty about what she was about to do. She shook it off. No one would be harmed, after all. Petalouda would go free, once Thanatos returned Antigone to the living.
The sun was just beginning to touch the horizon when they reached the garden. Ismene followed Phillip through the opening in the shrubs, and had to take a moment to take in the beauty.
Flowers of every kind graced the garden. In the center, a fountain of black crystal pushed out shimmering water. The air was thick with butterflies. All shapes, colors, and sizes were represented. Ismene spun around and took it all in. In spite of herself, she laughed.
Phillip smiled-- the man actually looked rather nice when he smiled-- and spoke.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? She made it all, and these are her children.”
“Yes, it is.”
“At some point, she has lit upon all these flowers. Take your pick.”
Ismene cleared her throat. “The Oracle said I needed one fresh with her touch.”
“Ah, yes. Well, there she is. You’re lucky it’s dusk. She’s only here at dusk and dawn.”
Phillip pointed to a medium-sized butterfly, with beautiful wings of black, purple, and silver.
“Not the largest?”
“No. Size doesn’t really matter in the Pantheon. She is the colors of death, however, revealing her darker purpose.”
“Ah, yes. Well then…”
Petalouda switched from one flower to the next. Ismene took a deep breath and stepped toward the flower, and Petalouda. She made sure that Phillip could not see her hands. Slowly, she reached down into her pouch and retrieved the net.
“What are you doing?” Phillip peeked over her shoulder.
Too late for caution. Ismene jerked the net up and over the butterfly quickly, ensnaring her. Phillip cried out and reached to free her, but Ismene jostled him away.
“Thanatos!” she screeched “I have Petalouda!”
The response was immediate. First off, Phillip slumped to the ground. Thunder crackled. In a flash of lightning, a pale man appeared. Ismene quivered at his enraged look.
“Tell me why I should not kill you where you stand,” the man spoke through gritted teeth.
Ismene held her precious package up. “I’m the only one that can free her, correct? That’s why the net has to be made from my hair.”
“That hair would’ve served you much better attracting young men. Without it, you are truly hideous.”
Ismene’s face stung. “No matter. My sister is more important.”
“Proceed then, mortal.”
Ismene cleared her throat. She really did have Death bound. “My sister, Antigone is dead.”
“So are a thousand other women’s sisters. I care because?”
“Because I have your wife! I want you to retrieve Antigone from the Underworld, and restore her to life.”
“You are Death itself. You take, you should be capable of giving back.”
“Not without a living soul for Antigone to hold on to.”
“Take me with you then,” the words left her mouth before she could process them.
“You agree to such dangerous things. Some would say you are recklessly suicidal. I do suppose you have a family history, though. You will return my wife to me when I have returned to you your sister?”
“Yes. Let’s go.”
“Very well then.”
Thanatos reached out and grabbed her hand. Before she could react, both of them sank into the ground.
Ismene expected it to be difficult to breathe underground, but it wasn’t. After about thirty seconds of sinking through miles of dirt, they emerged in a cavern. The legendary dark river flowed by them, and that was when Ismene knew she was truly in the Underworld.
Thanatos turned and began to lead her into the fields of dead. “Wait!” Ismene called.
Thanatos turned around, exasperated. “What is it?”
“How do I know you will not just take Antigone back as soon as I release Petalouda?”
“I will not.”
Ismene was unconvinced. “Fine, then. Prove it. Swear upon it and drink the water of the Styx.”
Thanatos gave her another annoyed look, then huffed and walked past her to the river.
“I swear, that if Antigone is successfully returned to the Overworld, I will not reap her until she has lived a full life and is at a ripe old age.”
He then cupped his hands and plunged them into the Styx. Bringing up a handful of water, he drank. The cavern shook with power as the oath was sealed. Thanatos stood up and looked at her, water dripping from his lips. “Happy?”
Ismene gave him a stone face. “Lead on.”
Thanatos sighed and began to lead her into the fields of the dead. Ismene constantly bumped into souls, finding them surprisingly physical. After a half hour of walking, they came across a soul sitting under a tree.
Thanatos pointed. “There she is. She must come with you willingly, or even I am powerless.”
“She will come,” Ismene was confident.
Quietly, she approached the girl under the tree. She reached out and touched her arm gently. “Antigone?”
The girl whirled around. “Ismene?”
Tears of joy filled Ismene’s eyes. “Yes, yes it’s me. I came to get you!”
Ismene leaned forward for an embrace. Antigone stepped back.
Ismene was confused. “I went to the Oracle, and learned how to control Thanatos,” she showed Antigone the butterfly.
“And you decided to come rescue me?”
“It’s why I went to the Oracle in the first place!”
Antigone took a step further back as anger filled her eyes.
“I am DEAD. I knew you were selfish, but I didn’t realize you were this selfish!”
“Selfish? I’m not selfish. I risked my own life to come save you.”
“Why did you come to save me?”
The moment the answer came to her head, Ismene realized her selfishness.
“I could not live without you. You were my sister, my only companion in our wretched existence. And I let you down, as well as our brother Polyneices. I wanted to ask for your forgiveness. Only you can free me of my guilt! I love you, and I miss you. Please come.”
“And what of Creon?” Antigone asked.
“Our uncle. Did it ever occur to you that if you died, he would have no family left? Did that thought cross your mind in your selfish, suicidal scheming?”
Ismene felt the guilt weigh on her. Antigone was right. Though she had not realized it, her motivations had been selfish all along. And not only selfish, ungrateful! She had taken for granted her only living family member, choosing instead to attempt to raise one from the dead!
Ismene dropped to her knees, crying. “I am sorry. I am so sorry.”
“If you are truly sorry, return to the Overworld without me. Take care of Creon as he ages. Rule Thebes. Carry on our house. Cleanse it. Atone for all of our family’s mistakes.”
Ismene nodded, tears streaming. “Fine.”
With trembling hands, she undid the net holding Petalouda. The butterfly flew free and landed on Thanatos’s shoulder. Ismene turned her back on Antigone and walked towards the reunited pair.
“She didn’t want to come. I have no use for holding your wife captive anymore. Please, take me back to the Overworld.”
Thanatos nodded and reached out, grabbing her hand. However, as soon as their hands touched, flames sprouted all over her body.
Ismene screamed loudly. Loud enough to bring Antigone running. Ismene dropped to her knees, and suddenly the pain faded. When she opened her eyes, the flames were gone. She checked her skin. No burn marks.
“What was that for?”
“You idiot!” Antigone screeched.
“You didn’t really think I’d allow you to live after a stunt like that, did you?”
“What?” Ismene was confused. She turned to Antigone, whose face had become stone. Antigone did not say anything, but pointed at the ground in front of Ismene.
Ismene looked down and horror consumed her. Before her lay a flaming corpse. Her flaming corpse.
“I am…” she couldn’t even say the word.
“Dead,” Thanatos finished for her. He shrugged. “Happens to the best of us. But, I gave you your hair back. Consider it a parting gift.”
And with that, he was gone. Ismene grabbed at her accursed hair and screamed, crying. She turned to Antigone, but Antigone turned away and marched back into the field. Ismene fell to the ground. She was unforgiven. Her selfishness was what killed her, as should be. When she had left on her journey, she hadn’t cared if she was alive or dead at the end of it. But now, thoughts of Creon tormented her. How he’d lost both nephews, his sister, his wife, his son, and his niece. And how his last family member, his final niece, had scorned him. And now she was gone too.
Guilt crushed her spirit. The tears turned into spasmodic sobs, but nothing would ever make it better. She was not forgiven.
“I’m… so… sorry.” pulled the hood tighter, hoping to cover as much of her inconspicuously clean hair as possible. Royalty were not to visit the Oracle, they were to send servants asking questions. However, this was a personal mission, and no one, no one, could know what she was considering. She could practically hear her uncle scolding her, “No one trifles with Death.”