The hunted and the hunter
Apollo did not even know my name. He called me by my father’s name, knew me as my father’s daughter – even in his cock-charged chase where my own female flesh was the sole object of his soul-blind groping hands.
Hermes, ancient as sunrise, pretended later that he had struck Apollo with his lust-tipped arrows. He wanted the world to think that his cunning had outwitted the mighty Apollo. He bore a grudge against Apollo, who had called Hermes silly boy and bragged of his skill as a bowman. I who have slaughtered the swollen Python, Apollo named himself. I who can wound any wild beast or enemy. Did he see any difference between them: the wild beast and the enemy? My wilderness was my enemy at times, but is was also my host and my friend – infinitely strange and infinitely familiar, endlessly knowable if I only had the time.
Now I have the time. The world has changed and transformed around me, though I am grown as infinitely old as I ever was.
Apollo boasted that his prowess gave him the right to hold Hermes’ great curved bow with its string pulled taut. Venus’ son replied, that marvellous boy with a face like gilded marble (I saw him, once, springing across the forest floor with his snake-curled staff, passing a dozen tree trunks with every potent stride). Phoebus Apollo, he said, though your arrows pierce all things, my bow will pierce you.
So Hermes leapt into the air, and flew to the summit of Mount Parnassus, quicker than any darting swift, traversing the miles in a single wing-beat. From his quiver he drew two arrows, one made to engender love, one to repel it. The second, with its leaded shaft and blunt end, he aimed at me. The first, shining golden with a sharp gold point, he shot at swift Apollo, piercing his divine skin, muscle and bone down to the very marrow. Apollo felt it no more than a stinging fly. He snapped off the shaft with a laugh, and his ever-healthy flesh closed quickly over the barb, buried deep. Its poison, if poison it was, would not start its workings on his golden blood, filling his heart and his cock, until he saw me.
At least, that is how Hermes tells it. I am certain I felt no arrow pierce my skin, no lead seep into my blood. What false incentive did I need to flee?
I am a water nymph, my father a great river. Born from the fluids of my mother’s womb, I slipped straight into the paternal streams that once engendered me, when he seeped into my mother’s body – her pores, ears, vagina, nailbeds, nostrils, tear ducts, sweat glands, lips – as she washed herself in the river. I splashed in the shallows for my nursery, sliding along with the silver-scaled fish or leaning against the grey bark of a waterside willow, my face tickled by its catkins.
As I grow, I make the forest my home. Many of my siblings prefer the water, its shade-cooled stones, its damp mossy banks. There they have fish and frogs, newts and kingfishers for company, as well as the care of the watchful but ever-distracted eye of my river father.
But I find my place among the trees, the shrubs, the fruits and ivies and burrs of the woods. At first, the forest seems untrodden. But I quickly find the paths of animals, the gaps left in the undergrowth by the thick crown of a holm oak. I walk where I wish, barefoot. Sometimes I walk naked – why dress when the weather is warm and I barely feel the scratches of the brambles and holly? My brothers and sisters, cavorting in the river, are always unclothed, occasionally summoning a splashing, teasing wave to hide the parts mortals and gods find so fascinating.
My blood flows and pulses with the rhythms of the woods. I am still a water-child, but I have found a new way of wateriness to love. The trees draw their drink from the ground, the earth impregnated with my father’s waters that seep from the main channel. They pull up the liquids through their trunks, bubbling with a sound that my ears have learned to pick out, just as I can feel the blood moving through my own veins with the throb of my heart. The leaves expel vapour, and it rises from the forest-crown in drifts, gathering again in clouds that burst upon the ground.
I too am porous, open, a body of water. I may be divine, but I bleed and cry and drink and piss like any mortal. As pale Selene relives her silvery birth with every lunar cycle, making her monthly transformation, my body changes too. My breasts ache and grow, blood flows from my womb. I let it run freely down my legs. Flowers spring up where it splashes to the ground, mingling my iron with the earth’s rich soil.
My hair, too, has lost the silvery slickness of my sisters’ and it has grown brown and coarse. I tie it back with a band of hemp. My brothers and sisters laugh when they see me now, when I return to the river to bathe. They tug my hair with their impermanent hands – which may turn to tentacles or fins or rivulets of water at any moment – and tickle the soles of my bare feet as I stand on the stream bed, or splash me as I lie drying, naked with my arms and legs spread, on the river bank.
I hear word, whisperings of my siblings in the streams, that Hermes the bronze-sculpted god has seen me in my nakedness, watched me from the high mountains that border my woods. At first, I’m not concerned – he must have seen my sisters naked, and the sky goddesses with their translucent wisps of cloud. But apparently it is different for me, living in the woods, among the musky fragrances of the earth. There are different rules: wood nymphs do not run naked, they do not show their coarse brown hair so openly. It grows above my pubic bone too, and under my arms, where my sisters are slippery and smoothly hairless, fishlike. This makes a difference, they explain.
My sisters take men and women as lovers all the time, flickering between the nakedness of childish innocence and the nakedness of delighted sexuality. But for me, to lie on my back and be entered would be to cross a line, a firm line that my fluid sisters will never know, a line that the world has unfairly pushed on me. There would be no return to my delightful days in the woods with the plants and animals and soils.
I decide to hide my body from the bough-piercing eyes of the gods, so I weave a tunic from linen and flax. Then I walk softly up to one of my animal-companions and slit its throat with a swift curve of my knife, feel its warm blood drench my hands and run down my legs. Here, too, flowers spring from the earth, enriched by my offering. I skin the deer neatly – I know the animal so well I can feel out her joints and muscles as easily as if they were my own, as easily as if I were skinning my own body. I sew a cloak from the cured hide, seeking protection in the very word.
My father says I should marry, his liquid voice demanding grandsons of my womb, but Hymen will bring no pleasure for me. My pleasure is in the hiding-places of the forest, where I can dig my fingers into the wet earth, press my lips to the soft moss, and throw my arms around the hard bole of a young tree to feel its rooted weightiness.
Artemis walks into my woods one day, bringing down one of my beautiful deer with a well-aimed shot from her sickle-moon bow. The doe does not die immediately – I end her life with a smooth cut, more blood pours around me. Artemis is pale, moon-bright, savage as well as coldly beautiful. She does not look as if she has ever bled. A silver belt is tied firmly around her waist. She is sworn to chastity, and the other gods accept it. The cold clarity of her features, like marble or ice, repel any lustful thought. There is no shame – where would lust be without shame? – she simply wipes the mind blank of sensuality. I sit as if stunned, only half aware of the warm blood filling my lap from the deer’s soft slit throat. When Artemis touches it, the doe stops bleeding and becomes instantly stiff, as if frozen. She nods gravely to me, lifts the rigid body onto her shoulder with ease, and walks away through the trees, her white feet barely making an impression on the mossy ground.
Her cold chastity is not the same as my virginity. She has made herself impregnable, a cool column of sealed marble, purely herself. But here in the woods I feel so many forces swirling around me; I am pulled along with them, they sweep through my body and my being. I am a multitude – my nymph’s form a porous body of water.
But where Artemis is cold, her brother Apollo burns. This is where Hermes the god-gossip will begin his story, spinning his tale in the halls of Zeus and the muses. Clio, Calliope, Polyhymnia, Euterpe lean forward in their chairs, all alike and all beautiful, murmuring and smiling and shaking their heads, their voices whispering softly. Melpomene sits nearest the half-open door, her open-mouthed mask pulled over her elegant face so the others will not see her tears. The muses consider how they will breathe Hermes’ words to their chosen poets and dramatists, inspiring them to inscribe my story into wood pulp and reeds and animal skins.
The messenger god’s story is perfectly woven, a shimmering cloth of intrigue. Apollo, he claims, is made of fire. He burns with love like a field of stubble after the harvest has been gathered, like a hedge set ablaze by the spark from a careless traveller’s fire abandoned at dawn.
Sun-radiant Apollo steps into my forest and enters with his burning body – heart and eyes and cock – into the damp, cool hollows where the sun’s rays are never meant to reach. His swift-running feet wither the plants he treads on, scare off the insects, and disturb the birds in their close-woven nests. When he passes, bud and unfurled leaf burst into blossom and greenery, tricked into thinking spring has come. His sun-sharp footprints burn a hollow cavity into the yielding earth.
Even from a distance, I can feel the scorching heat from his firm-pumping blood, the pounding of his strides beating the forest floor. He has spotted me through the trees. I know what he is looking for. I run. I need no lead-tipped arrow of Hermes to make me repel Apollo’s advances; I do not want his love, nor his hard-hot weapon that will thrust into me like a spear into wood.
I run. My hair, half-loose, catches on branches, my bare arms spring free of my cloak. Apollo cries out, ecstatic, lust-mad. I see her lips – it is not enough to see them. I see her bare arms, her ankles – but the part hidden by her tunic, that must be more beautiful still.
I know now that I have been fooled, trapped by the rules of the gods. The faster I run from Apollo, the more he wants to catch me. But if I stop running, he will claim me and cast me aside all the sooner. I covered my body, so he thinks I have given him permission to imagine what is underneath my clothes, to imagine that it belongs to him and not to me.
Nymph, river daughter! Stay! He calls out to me. I chase you not as an enemy. I run faster. He calls me a lamb fleeing the wolf, a deer fleeing the lion, a dove with trembling wings fleeing the eagle. He claims he is no enemy, but a wild animal, feral. But he is not. I know the wild animals, I know the wolf, the deer, the lion, the dove. They are part of a system, and I am part of it too. Apollo is only himself, an upright carved pillar of fire. The hunger of any animal is better than this lust-driven chase.
Do not hurt yourself as you flee, he calls again. You will mar your beauty on the brambles. Look, I will run more slowly so that you can take more care! But it is a lie, he has not slowed his pace. Moreover, he is a god; he could cover many leagues with a single stride of his powerful legs. But his thrill is in the chase.
Zeus is my father, he tries. I am no uncouth shepherd. What will be, what is and what was: all is revealed through me. Songs are made harmonious through me. Medicine is my invention – bold lies! – I bring aid to the world, the power of plants is under my control. I laugh. The plants have no master. But I wish there were some tincture, some heady woodland scent, that would sate his lust – that he would step upon a simple flower, release its sap and inhale its medicine.
I keep running, but I start to stumble. Hermes later embellishes the story, saying that the winds blew against my body, pulling open my tunic, revealing my breasts and my thighs to the watching gods – but if it is true, I did not notice. Apollo is nearly on me now, his heat singeing my flying hair. Sweat slicks my face and body. I feel his hot breath on the back of my neck, hear his excited inhalation, sense the brush of his fingertips on my arm.
We are nearly at the river now, where my father rolls lazily along. I shout my last hope, calling to the river-god to rescue me, to cut off my pursuer.
Instead, he turns his spell on me.
I feel a heaviness in my limbs, my footsteps slow. My feet have spread roots, fixing me to the ground, pushing deeper through the wet soil with every moment. Rough bark creeps up my legs, locks them together, covers my stomach, my breasts. My hair spreads around me, stiffening and bursting into leaf. My arms are raised, hardening into wood. My face is raised to the sky, I look up through my own shaded canopy. I am changed.
Apollo comes to a halt beside me, watches my transformation, which takes only seconds. He is not amazed. He runs his hands over the trunk, feeling for my breasts under the bark, my still-beating heart, my life-sap. He pushes himself against me, rubbing himself against my hardness, smiling with pleasure, easing the ache in his cock still swollen by the breathless chase. If you cannot be my bride, he says, you can be my tree. I will wear you in my hair, and the victors and poets of future civilisations will take your branches as decoration. He thrusts his body into my tender bark as he says this.
My leaves shake wildly: no! No, I do not consent! But Apollo takes it for a nod. He reaches up and snaps off a strand that used to be my hair. Pain – unlike the pain I have previously known but pain nonetheless – ripples through me. Instinctively, I send sap to salve the wound, concentrate on closing it. Apollo leans in, burning me with his kiss. He has finished.
Here, Hermes will leave off the story. The narrative will return to my father, to warm-blooded Apollo, to other girls who are forced to change their forms because of the gods’ amorous advances. Daphne, the first laurel, is of no more interest.
The gods have stopped watching me. I am naked again, covered all over with my beautiful brown skin. I dig my roots deeper, touch the underground worlds of other trees, tap into the fungal network that has learned to rely on me and I on it. I drink deep, bask in the sunlight, consume sugars sweeter than the gods’ ambrosia. I am part of the forest now. Porous, open, a body of water. I am more than myself.
Image: Olha Pryymak, Mimosa (Those repulsive yellow flowers. God knows what they are called, but they are somehow always the first to come out in spring), 2018, oil on canvas, 69×80 cm