Angels in Hellas

By N. Marc Mullin

Light shrinks from Antigone as the troops, with boulders and mortar, seal her in the cave. The men curse their heavy work but don’t shoot their mouths off anymore about her ass, breasts, or private parts. She noticed during the journey across the rutted Boeotian plain and up Mount Kitheron that as she drew closer to her living tomb, she became less visible to them, unworthy of derision, unrapeable. 

Midway through their labors, she gets a grip on her trembling enough to make a rush for the narrowed cave opening, hoping they’ll run her through with a sword and end her quickly. But no, the king ordered her immured, entombed alive, and orders being orders, they pry her fingers off the rocks and wrestle her back. “She fights like a wolf,” one says, wiping blood from his scratched cheek. He punches her in the face and back she falls. 

Antigone comes to consciousness on the cave floor in time to see the final rocks placed and the last of daylight blink out. The cold gusts that accompanied the trek from Thebes vanish. She’s left in dead air, silence, and darkness but for scattered rays of light where the mortar parted. She sits in the mouth of a mountain, a gray-black landscape of stalactites and stalagmites. 

And despite her painful bruises, she feels a moment’s relief, lying there in her tunic, embracing the first quiet since the Oedipus family’s most recent chain of horrors: her father’s eyes gashed out by his own hands, her mother—self-lynched, her brothers—speared to death. As they mourned their many losses, her sister Ismene darkly joked that their life was an overstuffed epic poem. “Fat story by fat Homer,” she said. The horrid saga ended with their brother Polynices, a wannabe invader of Thebes, lying dead at the city gates. King Creon ordered the traitor’s corpse left to dogs and raptors and decreed death to anyone who dared bury it. 

Antigone would not have it. She would bury her brother and demanded that Ismene join her in the act. Ismene, her older sister, begged Antigone to obey the king, to honor the rule of law. “You’re a child, Antigone. You don’t know what you’re doing.” But though only seventeen, Antigone didn’t think herself a child. She had led her blinded father, a former king, through the wilderness, holding his hand, guiding him to his end near Colonus. She dealt with all the family’s losses. 

Though Ismene was older in years, Antigone felt herself wiser and charged with restoring the family’s place in the world. 

“If we don’t bury Polynices,” Antigone said, “he is barred for all eternity from the underworld, from his family. We will never see him.” 

“Don’t believe that magical crap, my sister. There is no—”

“Shut your mouth, Ismene.” Her sister had been talking godless stuff for years, condemning seers as money-grubbing liars, saying that much about the gods of Olympus was fiction. Once, when she was plaiting Ismene’s thick black hair, making a chignon and dressing it with azure ribbons, Antigone said, “Wasn’t there a sphinx, Ismene, terrifying our city? Didn’t our father solve the riddle of that sphinx and save us all? Do you dismiss all that as ‘magic’?”

“Look,” Ismene answered, “there may be strange, even talking creatures out there, sister, but the dead don’t live beneath our feet. Hades is a story for children confused by death.” 

But Antigone did believe what she’d been taught by her mother and father about rites and rituals to ensure the dead entry to the underworld. And so, she spread dirt on her brother’s war-mangled body, courting arrest. 

Now, in this cave, at the end of the line, Antigone tells herself not to let Ismene’s heresy into her head, not to feel forsaken or abandoned by the gods or the dead who are surely waiting for her below. This is a time to remind the world of her family’s courage and honor. She, Antigone, is the daughter of Queen Jocasta and once-King Oedipus, from the regal line of King Cadmus. There is no time for doubt, now that she has set her own fate in motion. Yet the problem remains that slow death by starvation, imposed by King Creon, leaves time for the mind to drift, to slip from faith. So, she’ll kill herself sooner rather than later. Why give confusion time to blossom? 

She rises stiff and bruised and lets her eyes adjust to darkness. Is that moonlight coming through the cracks? Day must have passed to night while she slept. With both hands, she feels her way along the limestone wall to where she saw a table with a krater of water and a wedge of cheese. Enough sustenance to allow her a few days’ contemplation of her doom—how thoughtful of them. Despite a determination to see herself end honorably, her mind slips to prospects of rescue. Perhaps her fiancé, Haemon, Creon’s son, will come for her. Maybe she should eat and drink a little to survive until liberation. He’s not brave, though, and there’s no love between them. Creon had them engage to give legitimacy to his throne, to have Oedipus’s royal blood flow from Antigone to an heir one day. Haemon will not come for her. 

Antigone examines the water jug, thinking she might smash it and with the shards slit her wrists or cut her throat. But no, they’ve thought ahead; the thing is made of eucalyptus, not ceramic. And they took off brooches that held the robes under her tunic so she can’t stab herself like her father did his eyes. 

She’s thirsty and hungry. Reluctantly acting against her death wish, she drinks and takes a few bites of cheese, placing the remainder in her tunic. What’s left to do? She can walk into the cave’s interior and find a cliff to jump off. Exhausted, overwhelmed, she slumps to the floor. Or tomorrow, she’ll twist the robe under her tunic into a rope, stand on that table, tie a noose to a stalactite, and jump to strangulation. And so, she shall tragically and regally end exactly as her mother, Queen Jocasta, did upon learning she bore four children by her own son.

Antigone hugs her knees to her chest and falls into a long, sad sleep. 

She wakes up hours later soaked in sweat and aching for Ismene. Growing up, they often slept together and did so again after Antigone returned from her father’s passing at Colonus. They held each other through long nights while their brothers’ armies clashed at the gates of Thebes. 

Ismene was thickly built, soft and warm against Antigone’s angular bones and muscle. She loved Ismene’s scent when she returned, misty with sweat, from digging and planting flowers in the palace gardens, a favorite pastime. And how, Antigone considers, has she repaid such love? By calling her sister a coward for not joining in the burial of Polynices. By condemning her as a weak woman, afraid to stand up to the power of men. By abandoning Ismene and choosing death in a gaping cave in some god-forsaken mountain. 

But Ismene was no coward, Antigone now understands. She was an older sister counseling against impulse and arrogance, is all. And for all her talk of women, what had she, Antigone, really done against the power of men? Like a servant, she’d led her blind father through the Grecian forests, negotiating enemies and seers. And she’d thrown her life away in defense of a brother’s corpse. Now she understood Ismene’s complaint: “You’ve done plenty for the men, Antigone, but what have you done for the women of your family?” 

And so Antigone’s calculus, valuing proper burial rites for a brother over a living, loving sister, begins to fail. In the face of that collapse, Antigone needs to move, to jump out of her skin. She drags the table to the wall of stones and mortar, hops up on it, and feels the upper edges for weakness in the mortar, pushing on the rocks, seeing if they might be moved. Nothing gives. She jumps down and tries another spot and another. 

She throws the stupid table over. She takes another swig of water. What next? What to do? She cannot bear being caged. She walks to the opening at the back of the cave entrance. Passages branch to her left and her right. She feels air moving toward her, though barely, from the right. There’s an odd smell on that wind, like wet hay. Perhaps there’s an exit out there into a field. 

She heads right, keeping a hand on the rough walls, in leather sandals that slip from time to time on wet rock. None of the dim entrance light reaches back here. She proceeds in absolute blindness, like her father. Toward life. Or not.

She’s been hiking for hours, light-headed and losing hope though the weak, hay-scented wind persists. At times it feels like she’s moving toward the mountain’s interior, and at times the route slopes up as if to the peak. 

Water dripping down a stalactite, perhaps from a spring above, splashes her head. On tiptoe, she presses her lips against the stone. The drink is cool but bitter with cave minerals. She takes a bite of cheese and returns it to her tunic. She will need to stop soon and rest. 

She walks on for a day or more, imagining openings to the sky or patches of forest. But all she finds is hard rock. Her legs grow leaden. Her fingers swell. At times, she nods out on her feet and trips or falls. 

While squatting to piss after a sharp turn in the cave, she looks ahead. Is that a brightening? She races forward, slipping at times, skinning her bare knees in a fall, clambering to her feet. The passageway grows broader, taller, but she never seems to get close to the dim glow in the distance. Is this imagination? And now this thought—that Creon will murder her sister. With Antigone dead in a cave, Ismene alone carries Oedipus’s blood, the bloodline going back to King Cadmus, founder of Thebes. Any son of Ismene will have more claim to Creon’s throne than he. She sickens at the thought. To rid themselves of competition, they will dispose of Ismene if they haven’t already. 

Though completely exhausted, she pushes forward, finally on all fours. The hay smell grows stronger now. Finally, she has no choice but to stop. She stretches out on the rock floor, prone, wasted, breathless. She rests her head on folded arms and collapses.

Hours later, she opens her eyes to more light than she’s seen in days, more light than she can stand. She squints and squeezes her eyes shut to ease the sting of brightness. But gradually, she tolerates it and now she sees that the passageway she slept in leads to a great space only yards away. She stands and again draws water from a stalactite. Slowly, she walks to what now appears to be the rim of a domed cavern. At the top, perhaps eighty feet over her head, is an opening through which morning light pours, one of the sweetest sights she’s ever known. Perhaps thirty feet below her, there’s a rock slab at the edge of a subterranean lake that reflects light throughout the dome. The place is like a giant cistern, holding rainwater from above. 

There seems to be a way to the opening in the dome, a craggy ledge that curves to the top. And there, at the bottom of the space, is the end of life she’d wanted, a rock on which to shatter like a clay doll. 

As to the opening at the top of the dome, what will she do with that? If she makes her way to it and if no troops intercept her on the way out, will she find a way to pass through the gates of Thebes? And even if she does, what can she do for her sister? As she sorts through the options, a scrabbling of gravel near the base of the dome draws her attention. She looks toward the noise. Near the slab at the lake’s edge, a brown bear and two cubs curl together in a pile of hay, apparently deep in hibernation. In fear at first, she withdraws to the passageway, and then, lying flat again, she peeks over the edge. Ismene would love this. How many times did their mother bring them to Artemis’s shrine in Brauron for the rite of arkteia, where they celebrated womanhood, making masks of she-bears. Ismene was so much better than she was, so much more of an artist. But she always praised Antigone’s work, often wearing her masks as they danced. 

These bears Antigone takes as a sign. The mother bear is Jocasta and the cubs are them. She will climb down the ledge to the slab and then up the rocky path to the opening. If the mother bear wakes and chooses to kill her, let it be. The gods will have willed it, and she will join her mother and father and brothers in the underworld. If not, she will find her way to Ismene. 

As Antigone climbs down from her tunnel and makes her way across the slab, the bear snorts and draws her cubs in closer. But she does not wake. The climb up to the opening is steep and difficult because of Antigone’s exhaustion and sore legs. At the very top, Antigone stretches for exposed tree roots and dangles over the long drop to the pool. Finally, by sheer force, she powers herself up and out of the cave. 

She finds herself on a gentle, grassy slope with a broad panorama. For a long while, she lies on her back, completely exhausted, thankful, taking in the sun, breathing cool, clean mountain air. Finally, she sits up, looking out on the plains. There’s not a soldier in sight. 

She will, she imagines, disguise herself as a peasant boy, binding her breasts and cutting off her hair. She’ll hitch a ride through the city gates on a farm cart drawn by oxen. 

Her first night in Thebes, she will make an offering to Artemis for sending her, a girl from the plagued family of Oedipus, angels in the form of bears. 

No doubt Ismene will insist that all this bear stuff is nonsense, a hallucination produced by hunger, thirst, and isolation in a cave. But instead of fighting or contradicting, Antigone will kiss her and promise never to leave her side.

N. Marc Mullin is a writer who has published short stories extensively in literary reviews and journals and has published non-fiction in the New York Times and elsewhere. He grew up in the Bronx, drove a taxi, worked in construction, and graduated from Columbia University and Rutgers Law School.