Prompt from Neil Gaiman via the Story A Day May Challenge. The prompt was “Getting Home.” I decided to take the scene from The Bacchae where Agave brings home her hunt and play with the idea of getting home but then losing home. Enjoy!
Agave did not mind the cuts on her feet and the blood slicking the rocks as she tore down the mountain, prize in hand. She had been given a great task, and after weeks of worship in the slopes of Kithaeron, her tried patience had finally been satisfied. The women followed. Her women. Lungs burning and fingers gripping into the slicked meat and entrails for all of Thebes to feast and draw the blessings of the gods. The rhythm of the running and the pierce of their victory cries so different from the dances they had shared and the hunter’s calls when the beast arrived.
The stars and moon lit their paths, but Agave could have run home blind. These were her mountains. She had traced the lines and knew each bend in the earth. She knew the feel of ground when it changed as she neared the Theban walls. Her worship had taken her farther from city than she had been, and as she returned her bones thrummed in joy. Her father, her son, her sisters, all here in her Thebes.
Agave leads her women into the city. Their thundering feet turning to flapping against the stone. The great home of Pentheus lays before her, the guts of the building spilled before Thebes. The questions bubbling up in her brain pop before she can catch them. Her holy task still waits. Thebes waits. Her people stare, drawn from their homes to witness Agave’s glory.
The foreign women look on, their expressions betraying no pride in her kill. Her Thebans stare. She raises her blood-gloved hands, hoisting the lion’s head for them to see, and smiles a bloodstained smile.
“Thebans! We are blessed! The gods sent me to destroy the beast among us, and I am victorious! With my own hands and the hands of my sisters, we have torn his life from him and brought home our prey to feast.”
She takes the lion’s head and places it upon the cracked steps of the palace, a silent scream in its mouth.
Agave laughs. A giggle growing into a cackle, echoing in her city. Her voice drops to growling whisper. “You men. Forbidding us to join your hunts. Telling us we are too weak for this work. But you armor yourselves and cheapen the hunt with weapons. You are weak. I looked into the beast’s eyes and felt its pulse in my hands. I faced Death, and I won.
But I will not gloat. I bring our catch and offer a feast. Let us light the fires and pour the wine and revel in the power of Thebes’ women.”
No one moved. The foreigners simply turned and walked away, out of Thebes. Their leader pressing a hand into the shoulder of Cadmus as they passed each other through the gates. Cadmus catches his daughter’s eyes and shakes his head.
Agave grabs her prize and rushes to her father’s feet. She holds up the lion’s head. “Look! Look, what I did today.” Cadmus turns away.
“Are you not proud, father? Look what we have done with our own hands. The gods will bless us, father. Look. I am so much more than you expect. Look!”
Cadmus brings water and presses the cup to her lips. “Drink.” Agave does as she is told. “It is not a lion, child.” He lays a protective hand on her head, and she crinkles her brow. “Not a lion. Look again.”
Agave looks. The lion’s face looks familiar, human. A fog is clearing around it. The eyes are her eyes, but not her eyes. The nose her husband’s, but not his either. She turns back to her father. “Look.” Her son.
“No.” She throws the head away. “No.” Agave looks again. She … no mother could … how did she not know? A cry chases itself through the air, but she barely registers it as hers.
Iron blood threads through the earthy smell of Thebes. She is repelled. The stones scrapping her knees are somehow harder, sharper. She jumps to her feet. Her eyes see again the destruction. The palace brought low and gutted and the blank accusing eyes of Pentheus pushing her away. The air thickens; her lungs reject it. This place is not Thebes.
Agave runs. Her feet no longer know the stones, and she trips, stone catching her knee and cutting down her leg. Her blood pours out an offering to her home. Thebes rejects it, and it remains unmingled with the soil. Cadmus reaches her and presses a cloth to her knee.
“I … can’t stay. Why?” Her mind flicks back to her hunt, to the moment her hands ripped into the beast’s neck, and she scuttles away from him. She cannot be here. She has to leave. Her skin aches for her son, for her home, but neither is in Thebes.
“Wait.” Her father’s command stops her retreat. “I will come with you. And your sisters. We must bury our dead first.”
The sun had risen fully by the time the pyre was ready. Agave said no word and stared unseeing as Cadmus lit the fire. She stood and watched until even the embers lost their glow, severing her finally and completely from Thebes. She did not eat the food they offered and only moved when finally her family was ready.
She dragged her feet over her path of victory, heading back to the slopes of Kitaeron. She stared only at her feet. They passed where she and her sisters played hide and seek. Then the place where she stole kisses from her first love. Where Pentheus had taken his first steps and his first falls. And where he and his friends climbed trees, reaching always higher and higher to make her heart worry he would fall. Then they passed the site of the lion hunt, and finally her place of worship.
Agave did not look back to the stoney walls of Thebes as she crossed the border into where she had never been.