FICTION: Philomela by Donna L Greenwood

She sits at her dressing table and stares at her reflection.  An old woman stares back.  She is surrounded by the usual paraphernalia associated with desperate middle age and enabling wealth – bottles of promised youth, tubs of eternity, creams that fill the cracks. She traces her finger across her exposed white throat in a grotesque parody of slow violence.  Her hand drops to the table and she picks up a large silver hairbrush and begins to brush her hair.  Her movements are unhurried and deliberate.

A man in his early forties is standing by the doorway of the bedroom.  There is a glass of whisky in his hand,

“The taxi will be here in ten minutes,” he says, looking at his highly polished Givenchy shoes.

The wife pays no attention and continues to brush her hair in measured, repetitive strokes.  She speaks to her reflection,

“I would have called you Philomela, my beautiful girl, Philomela.  Phi –lo-mel- a.”  It is as if she needs to taste the syllables one by one.

The husband walks towards her. He stops and takes a gulp of whisky. Through gritted teeth, he says,

“For Christ’s sake, pull yourself together. It’s not often I ask you to do something for me.  All you need to do is dress pretty, smile a lot and keep your mouth shut.”

“But I’m not pretty anymore.  I’m old and ugly and… and I smell funny.”

She turns around and faces the husband.  He looks handsome in his suit; she loves his hair in that retro quiff.  A stab of unease stops her from smiling.

“I’m scared.”

“It’s a dinner party not an execution.  Look, the taxi will be here in ten minutes.  Finish your make up and put on that long, red dress, the one that covers up your arms.”  He is pointing at his watch, “And get a fucking move on, for God’s sake.”

She makes no attempt to move, “She was the size of an apple, a tiny, blue, frozen apple.”  She is afraid now but the words won’t stop, “I was too old. I was too old. I’m sorry, Philomela – so very sorry.”

The husband looks confused for a moment and then a small breath of understanding puffs out from his lips. He walks towards her.

“It happened two years ago. Two fucking years ago. Yes, you were too old; you should never have got pregnant. It was disgustingly irresponsible of the both of us. Now forget that and get your dress on.”

She stands and walks towards her wardrobe; the husband is there before her, already pulling out the red dress.

“There’s a story,” she’s saying as she pulls off her dressing gown, “A Greek myth, I think, about two sisters… oh they were treated terribly by this man… I can’t remember the name of the man… Tirimus? Terruem?”

She stares at the husband who is raising both her arms, “Do you know what he did?”

The husband ignores her and pulls the red dress over both her arms; gravity sashays it over her head and shoulders.

“He marries the two sisters and gets one of them pregnant.  Then, after she gives birth to a little baby boy, he locks her up. Can you imagine that?  A beautiful baby boy and he locks her up as if she’s done something dirty.”

She is seated once again and stares at the top of her husband’s head as he pushes her foot into a red, shiny Dolce and Gabbana.

“The best bit is the ending. This woman – the one with the baby – she goes insane and one day she cooks a wonderful dinner for her evil, horrible husband. And do you know what she cooks him?”

The wife pauses dramatically before the big reveal.

“His son. She chops up the little baby boy and throws him in a broth. And he eats it. He feasts on the flesh of his own son. What do you think of that?”

Both husband and wife are now standing. They stare into each other’s eyes for the first time this evening.

“I think that I hear the taxi outside and, if you talk like this at the party, I will have you sectioned.”

***

In the morning, the husband and wife are sitting at their breakfast table.  She is rigid with pretended majesty; he is obeisant with pretended regret.  The clatter of cutlery seems unnaturally loud. Upon the large wooden table a few grains of salt have scattered. The wife slowly dabs her finger onto the salt; she raises her finger to her mouth and tastes it. The salt is cruel on her tongue and she winces. Her left eye waters, the right is incapable of tears. It has been sealed shut by her husband’s fist.

“My mother’s coming round at three.  I’ll tell her I’ve had an allergic reaction to some make-up. It doesn’t look like a bruise, it just looks swollen.”

“Shut up,” says the husband.

A cloying silence takes its seat at the table. Minutes pass. The meal is finished. The pair stare at their plates. The husband says,

“We always used to have boiled eggs and toast for breakfast. Mother used to make her own bread, toasted and smothered in real butter. She used to place the strips of toast in a pattern on the side of my plate. The kitchen smelled so good. She always sang whilst she cooked. Hymns, she sang hymns.”

The husband continues to look at his plate but now begins to stir his fork into half eaten fried eggs. He begins to sing softly to himself.

“My song is love unknown, my saviour’s love for me, is to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.”

The wife says,

“It’s so cold outside and I’ve only got my skin to keep me warm.”

“Oh who am I that for my sake the lord should take frail flesh and …” He looks up at his wife and mouths the word ‘die’ to her.

She bites her lip, a small tear forming in her left eye. The husband ignores her and continues stirring his congealed eggs.

“My mother’s dead now. I watched her coffin slide through the curtains. I was only eight but I knew… I knew what was going to happen to the coffin. They were going to burn her. My fat auntie watched and smiled.  How could she smile whilst they were burning my mother?”

The question is directed at his breakfast plate. His wife is watching him.  She says,

“Shall we go out tomorrow? I’ll get dressed up. I’ll put on make-up and that red dress you like. I won’t be silly. I promise.”

“My mother’s dead and yet you’re still here, staring at me with those pathetic, pleading eyes. You will die one day; you do know that, don’t you?  For all your creams and potions, your pull-me-in pants and push-me-up bras, nothing will ever alter the fact that one day your old, useless body will give up and you will cease to exist. Your face will crack open in the grave and become a nest for a thousand maggots.”

The husband is breathing heavily.  With mechanical effort, the clock ticks the minutes away. There’s a flurry outside; a small bird has landed on the window sill. It’s a sparrow. The wife sees it.  Its small eyes look into hers and it leans its head slightly to one side. The bird closes both its eyes – a blessing – and then it turns its wing and flies into the wide, open sky. The wife turns to face her husband once more. She says,

“The name of the man who ate his own child was Tereus. Philomela was raped by Tereus and then, to make sure she kept her mouth shut, he cut out her tongue and imprisoned her. But she was a fighter, this girl, she was a fabulous weaver and she wove a message about her desecration into a robe which she then sent to her sister, Procne, the wife of Tereus. That’s why Procne fed Tereus his own child.  When he found out what the girls had done Tereus was furious and went after Philomela and Procne. He tried to kill the sisters but the Gods intervened and turned them all into birds. Procne became a nightingale. I forget what Tereus became, but Philomela, poor, sweet Philomela, became a sparrow, a song-less bird, never able to tell a soul about the horrors that she’d been through.”

The wife stands. She leans forward and stares into the eyes of the pale husband.

The wife says,

“If I were transformed into a bird, I would become a huge, glorious eagle.  And then I would swoop down from the skies and I would rip your fucking guts out.”

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Donna L Greenwood

Donna L Greenwood lives in Lancashire, England. She writes flash fiction, short stories and poetry and you can find examples of her work in Formercactus, Occulum, The Fiction Pool, Cadaverous Magazine as well as others. She has recently won or been placed in several writing competitions including HorrorScribes ‘Trapped Flash’ and Reflex Fiction.

You can read more of Donna’s fiction below:

‘The Moment Before Drowning’ is an example of her recent work published by ‘The Cabinet of Heed’ and can be accessed at https://cabinetofheed.com/2018/05/27/the-moment-before-drowning-donna-l-greenwood/

Her story ‘For Him, It Is A Mouth’ can be found in ‘The Whisper Place’ (Ellipsis Zine Four) which can be purchased at https://www.ellipsiszine.com/four/

You can access a small selection of her short horror stories at https://thehorrorsblog.wordpress.com/

You can find and follow Donna at:

If you enjoyed ‘Philomela’ leave a comment and let Donna know.

Feature image by Mike Moyers

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