Blind Light, Childhood on Olympus




In the following passage Harmonia, Semele’s mother,  answers, or rather fails to answer, some children’s questions about her childhood on Olympus.

"What was it like when you were a little girl?" Agavë asked her mother. She saw an injustice that she did not have the same childhood her mother had.

Harmonia remembered animal eyes among shining leaves, leaves so splendid that they glistened as if splendor were a physical thing rather than a values. Silver leaves washed with gold, green leaves veined with silver, leaves like glass filled with spherules of green and silver and gold milling like tiny fish caught in tiny palaces. Splendid but not dazzling, perfectly clear, not iridescent, clear as if all her subsequent life had been one of the hazy days of Summer obscuring the base of Kithaeron beneath its sky-piercing white peaks, whereas in the beginning she had lived in clear Spring seeing the darks and lights of trees and rocks and bald spots and caves in intense dirt-and-leaf-and-rock colors as if all distances were in focus like your hand, all the mountain resting on the complete earth of its tender, detailed feet. But it was not like that either, because what she remembered was the clarity of parts, moments, floating like gold flakes in the transparent leaves without order, reason, cause, agent, consequence, the immortals themselves remembered not as conjunctive figures, but in the moments, as if caught in frescoes: the Graces, one bent down to her child's eyes with her indescribably clear, human smile, the smile of a social heroine, who, without spending her time on premeditation or coldness, has worked up in her imagination every conceivable test of courtesy, and suffered every need, shame, anger, longing, that the person opposite might suffer without losing confidence, freshness, and so is always ready with understanding, lively response. Another who had taught her the use of makeup, sitting at her mirror and table, with the small, exquisite pots of color carved from marble or onyx and polished to a satin like the texture of skin, before a mirror not a field of flaws like bronze, but perfectly clear, wherein your features were always perfectly distinct, like a vertical still pool, which contains your image as the sea contains great fish and dolphins that might suddenly turn into men or immortals and step out to you. The little jars containing not only any color you could put your finger in, and the shape of the love-lock, unlike her mortal armory of beauty which contained only those colors clay and plants yielded, but containing in addition the colors of the heart and imagination so that, when the Grace took her small girl's hand and both knew who would see her, her father, or Eros who came sometimes, or even in a game a pretend husband she pretended Zeus had selected for her, the jars would yield creams to make the eyes and eyebrows and lips and rosy small nipples and wavy black hair an equalizing image that married perfectly what moved the heart of the wearer to the impulses of the other, real or pretend. So she remembered the face of the second Grace in the still bright mirror, beside her own child's face which, however, she did not remember, the immaculate hand and nails of the other holding her hand in the mirror, holding it with faultless closeness and accord to guide the motion of making up, guiding it with such closeness and accord that the Grace's tendons seemed partly inside the palm of her hand, the two hands like two fluids gently mixing, yet in the mirror splendidly distinct, meaningfully contrasted, the adult rich in the experience of charm, the child's rich in newness, yet guided, with small ivory brush tipped with sable.

And the third Grace, remembered not even in her full body, but peripheral hands and ankles and heels departing the rooms where they slept, without her exactly having an image of who "they" were, without remembering identities -- whom had she pretended with? What other person, mortal or immortal, what other celebrants of the life of the citadel? What other bodies had slept on those bedrolls perfectly laid out with embroidered quilts that suited the user, the room, and the mood, with purple-dyed and gold-threaded linens on the trellis tables that were always flat, without fold lines, as if they had been stored floating on air, and the perfectly waiting quilts and cushions on the benches as if when you had a boil on your bottom she intimately but unembarrassingly sensed it, and laid an extra layer of softly turned cloth. But always vanishing, seen as an apt sandal stepping away behind a curtain, a limb appended to an unseen trunk.

And the citadel. Satiny stone shining in the warm sun, palm trees and olives, the walls thirty meters high and massive, keeping their heat long into the evening, the stones all dressed, marble perhaps, each fitting into its neighbor with a tiny crack between like the lines of a stylus in a clay tablet from Sidon. The rooms with marble floors in squares with inlaid gold in the stone, as if woven in with a gilding shuttle, lovely designs of the doings of the immortals, of heroes, of splendid animals, many you do not see among mortals, like the Griffin. Ino had asked her if she had seen griffins. She's seen their figures everywhere. She was not sure; she could almost remember their scales close to the eye with the shadow of reality, but perhaps that had been cloisonné enameled figures and centaurs, and gold dishes with animals and men in silver and niello with jars with gardens and branch-armed octopuses and Argonauts. The round hearth in the center of the hall she could remember, where a fire always burned in its place, seemingly never attended, its steady, pale flames perfuming the surrounding country (what country?) with a scent like cedar logs from Sidon, the clear flames taking her imagination to the fine-grained logs, to the garden of straight-trucked trees, cypresses and umbrella pines. There was no well-worn path from the gate to the porch of the main building as there was at the Kadmae and, Harmonia believed, for she had never seen any other terrestrial citadel, there was in other citadels. Around the gate flourished a luxuriant grove of alders along with black peppers and rich-scented cypresses. She remembered standing by the hard shaggy trunks listening to the small, long-winged birds who roosted there, and to the chattering white crows and hook-bill hawks and gulls and ospreys, although she could remember no sea. Four springs quite near together jetted out translucent water into separate rills ingeniously contrived with stones into little aqueducts to water parts of the garden. Soft lawns grew all around the megaron, starred with parsley and violets.

Her illustrious father as seen rarely, rush of hard, hairy skin, huge so he bent coming under the lintels even when he carried his great war helmet under his arm, rough horse hair crest as long as your arm, bristling. She remembered his long, slender feet, somehow terrible to move him with heart-sickening speed in the panic route of battle, and the fear that was always around him so the Graces themselves seemed to feel it and keep moving around him as if he were a flood that would break out and destroy the palace. With him always her brothers, Panic and Terror. She remembered seeing the Grace's feet moving around their feet, bringing cloth and ambrosia to them, the way a careful woodsman sets stones around a fire in the dry season, feeding it always gently, lest it run wild.

Her mother, also with white limbs, always dressed stylishly (how did she know?) in cloth so fine it seemed finer than narcissus petals, half transparent, almost as if it were time. She remembered those strange cloths, the layers of skirt that painted her calves in a haze of layered light, and the way the Graces would move around her, often linking hands in a simple dance, half lost in her, yet not lost but at home, and the softness of the boundary that contained her limbs, so that when Harmonia lay her cheek against it, it was more like the down of sleeping than the stuff of another being, and when she pressed her lips to her mother's, they seemed to sleep with waking and wake with sleeping.

She only remembered father Zeus as weather: storm clouds on the horizon and lightening, or cold wind, or the hot, sultry May weather in the dark when sweat would settle where your limbs touched your trunk, and you knew The Thundered approached because lightening weighed in the air waiting to be born, and then it was not tedious because it was Power.

And mother Hera, like a heavy silver bowl, like a cow, of course, heavy-gaited in the meadow, full of the cud of her own worth, seeming to be the solid middle where all those phenomenal persons anchored, like leeches to a rock in the stream, or even like flies buzzing a heifer. From the moment Harmonia had seen her, she had known that Hera was the public eye before whom she was obliged to disclaim the union between her parents and the shame of her birth. She remembered her arms, full, and white as milk, able to encompass if she only would.

Looking down at Agavë, trying to say something that would let off tension, she remembered her own mother from her marriage trip to the Kadmae, floating down in the dove-drawn chariot. Aphroditë had pointed out the cities and citadels and roads and ships alone on the sea as they passed on overhead. There lived again in her imagination what a weighty responsibility she had seen then in being a mortal, how she had wanted to bury her head in her mother's enchantingly soft arms, and wished at the same time that she had not been let down to earth in this way, but come as an ordinary noblewoman, and at the same time humiliated, and that she was very responsible before mortals and immortals, and that she would do something splendid to smooth things out.

"I don't remember," she told Agavë.