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Matricides

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The air was hot and dry, and Orestes hadn’t gotten out of bed for days. Electra washed his face, stale with fever-sweat, each morning, but still his hair grew matted and unkempt, and his cheeks were rough with stubble when she kissed them. The madness of the Furies was clear in his ravaged eyes.

While Orestes turned fretfully in the worn sheets of his bed, Electra paced. She was used to pacing – the stones in her father’s palace had grown smooth and worn from the rhythmic tread of her sandals upon them as she had invented plans for her mother’s death year after year. Now, though, the leather straps of her sandals were fraying through, and she feared that her unceasing movement might cause them to snap. She did not know when she could buy others, exile as she now was.

But would it matter, if the two of them were soon to be sentenced to death?

Pylades alone seemed calm. He sat by Orestes’ side when Electra did not have the patience for it, coaxing him to eat with them, meager crusts of bread and thin broths. Sometimes he spoke to Orestes in words too soft for Electra to hear. Watching Pylades’ unerring tenderness almost grated upon Electra when she saw the way Orestes’ eyes looked through them both as though he had gone as blind as the mythical seer Tiresias. What reason had Pylades for such faithful loyalty?

From behind Electra, a scream, pitched like the cry of a bird of prey, erupted from Orestes’ mouth.

She rushed to him then, grasping his sweat-damp hand, as Orestes rambled on, breathless, his voice ragged. “Their claws, sharp as knives, I can feel them here, in my flesh, oh, and their voices, they cry to me in women’s voices, call me cursed, unnatural, mother-killer, matricide, and their voices, their voices are hers –“

Electra wanted to put a hand over Orestes’ mouth, to stop the flow of his words, but all she could do was clutch his hand so tightly that she must have hurt him, speaking to him, her voice loud enough to drown his out, “It’s Electra, Orestes, your sister, I’m here now, no one’s going to hurt you.”

(Lies, for the gods could and did hurt him, the old curse upon their family hurt him, and she knew all that, should have known it when she laid the matricidal dagger in his hand, but she would say naught to him that was not comfort, and what help was there if that comfort must be lies?)

And Orestes exhaled long and soft. She was comforted as he clutched her hand back, in return. “Oh, Electra, my beautiful sister.”

“Yes,” she began to murmur in return, in a sentence that would perhaps have ended, we are together again, no one will ever be able to separate us this time, even if it ends in death for us both, but he was still speaking, his words slurred, his pauses irrational, but with an even tone.

“Pylades, my dearest friend,” Orestes called, reaching his other hand out as though blind. Of course, loyal Pylades was there immediately, on Orestes’ other side, taking the hand his friend so desperately held out. And so Orestes could continue speaking, one hand held by Electra, the other by Pylades. “You two, my sister and my friend…it would bring me more joy than anything else in the world to see the both of you happy. I can imagine…you both married, uniting us forever.”

Electra looked at Pylades’ smooth face, his eyes unwaveringly fixed upon Orestes, and felt a sudden revulsion for the man. Deference to her brother’s wishes would be required within the laws of filial piety with which she defended her act of vengeance on her father’s behalf. But the thought of marriage to this boy, Orestes’ eromenos, was one that elicited nausea.

It was Orestes she desired, if she was honest with herself. That body like to her own, the hair like her memory of her father’s. Orestes had been gone so long from her that she wanted to link their bodies so closely that nothing would ever separate them. But she would not speak of this desire. Such marriages were for the gods alone, and the history of their family was tangled enough in perversion that she could not let further shame come upon them. She had heard the perversion of her uncle Thyestes, Aegisthus’ father, who had mated with his own daughter, and she had felt herself revolted at the thought. Shared blood should separate as well as unite.

Pylades took Electra’s hand. “I would,” he said, “be most honored.”

Electra felt faint in the heat. Her body had been too long untouched - it was dry, infertile, withered with rage. She had thought she would never marry. All her body had been turned towards the purpose of vengeance, wound up in the tension of its anticipation. And now it was over. Clytemnestra was no more. The anger with which she had sustained herself was now gone, and all that was left to her was the endless task of tending Orestes, who her own urgings had accursed.

She did not look at Pylades. “It will be as you wish,” she told Orestes. He spoke as though he were on his deathbed, her brother. But if he was, so was she. Their fates were linked, inextricably. She could anticipate no future in which she would live and he would die. The same crime condemned them both.

She let go of Pylades’ hand. “This is no time,” she told them both, “to speak of such things. Tyndareus comes, Menelaus comes. The council will soon convene. You must gather yourself, Orestes. You must prepare to speak in your own defense.”

He turned away from her. His hand, though damp with sweat, was clammy in her own.

“I know the Furies torment you,” Electra continued, trying to speak gently, trying to imbue her words with enough force that they could pierce through the haze of his memory. “You must push them aside. You must think of the present. You must defend yourself. It is the only way we will survive.”

He groaned and turned away form him. She let his hand fall.

“We must do something,” she told Pylades, “they will condemn us all to death.”

He looked at her steadily, his eyes bright in the torchlight. She realized how little she really knew of this man, whose assistance with their murder she had accepted based on nothing but Orestes’ assurance of his trustworthiness. “I think,” he said, “I may have a plan.”