Hannah – Reflections In My Kidnapper’s Car Trunk

I waited for the car to stop and someone to open the trunk, for an impersonal hand behind an impersonal gun to shoot me with an impersonal bullet. But that was hours ago, now I rocked with the traffic. I was tragicum heros. I had spun my thread and, as a spider, wove my ancient web. It had been my best work in journalism. A bold piece. Uncompromising. A pothole slammed my head against the carpeted interior.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arachne had been a storyteller, too. A weaver of stories. Our problem was they weren’t our stories to weave. They were the god’s.

Arachne boasted that she wove better than even Athena, goddess of wisdom, craft, and war. Until Athena darkened her door, and spoke as gods who darken mortal doors still speak, “You can never compare to the gods. Beg forgiveness, that I might spare your soul.”

I tumbled when the car swerved from pavement to gravel.

Arachne foolishly persisted, “I speak only truth. If you think otherwise, challenge me yourself!” So Athena wove a scene of great contest between gods and mortals, in which the gods punished the mortals for thinking themselves equals.

I twisted at my bound wrists to regain some feeling.

Arachne countered with a tapestry depicting the gods as misleaders and abusers of mortals, particularly Zeus, celestial rapist and seducer of mortal women. Arachne had not only insulted the gods, of course, but had done so in a work far more beautiful than Athena’s, and the goddess was enraged. She tore the tapestry to pieces and Arachne, heartbroken, hanged herself. Considering my own dilemma, I must admit, a smarter move than witness protection.

But Athena’s wrath was not assuaged. “Live on then,” she cursed, “and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!’ At her words, Arachne’s hair fell out, and her head shrank to the smallest size. Her whole body became tiny, and her slender fingers poked from her sides like legs. The rest was belly, from which she spins her thread and, as a spider, weaves her ancient web.

To show, I thought, as the car finally stopped, how gods punish those who are mortal.


Aoibheann Sweeney – Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking

My favorite stories, in Ovid’s verse, describe metamorphosis as the culmination of a relentless, heedless desire…Too often, though, metamorphosis is only a whim of the gods.

I disliked, for instance, the story of Narcissus, the boy who had fallen in love with himself. In Ovid’s version it is inseparable from the story of Echo, though in more popular versions it stands on its own. Echo was a talkative nymph, whose only sin was that she made the mistake of trying to distract Juno during one of Jove’s dalliances. In her jealous rage, Juno had taken away the nymph’s power of speech, but she had not simply turned her into a mute–she had taken from her the power to speak first. Condemned only to repeat what she heard, Echo took to hiding, it was said, in woods and mountain caves, where she grew gaunt with loneliness until, at the even crueler whim of Fate, she laid eyes on Narcissus.

Narcissus was the son of a water god, and was said to be more beautiful than the nymphs themselves. Echo fell madly in love with him, and followed him in silence for days, until at last he turned and looked behind him. “Is anybody here?” he asked. “Here!” she answered, joyfully echoing back. She must have thought herself, in that moment, beautiful again, for she stepped out into the open, and Narcissus saw the wretched, elusive creature she had become.

He turned away in horror, and Echo withered from that day forward, consumed with shame, until only her voice remained. The other nymphs, long sympathetic to her plight, demanded of the gods that Narcissus meet a similar fate, but Narcissus was too beautiful for anyone to spurn him the way he did Echo. His end was much more gentle: drinking from a pool of the water he was born from, he is said to have seen his reflection and, believing it was another water spirit, fallen in love with himself. Though the water spirit seemed to return his affection exactly, he would not approach, and Narcissus, paralyzed with longing, was riveted to the spot and turned into a flower bearing his name.

I always thought Narcissus, wasting his youth in vanity, had committed a worse crime than Echo, who was only trying to protect another nymph from Juno’s wrath. Ovid never says that Echo lied to Juno, only that she distracts her. But in the end it is Echo who is punished, doomed to live the rest of her life in the shadows, while Narcissus becomes a perennial flower, as immortal as springtime.

Casey – The Transmigration of Basil

When picking basil, Francisco held each leaf to his nose briefly and rubbed it before placing it in the basket. If anyone had ever pointed out his womanly indulgence, he would have felt ashamed. But the gardeners said nothing. Perhaps they presumed that Francisco was testing the quality of the basil, a notoriously mercurial plant: some extolled its rejuvenating properties. Others claimed the mere scent of the leaves brought misfortune upon them. The latter liked to point out that basil would not grow next to rue. And everyone knew rue did not tolerate poisons.

Towards the end of the summer a rumor began circulating among the stable hands that the marigolds growing around the fens had fallen under the protection of a terrible kind of bat. The house servants, skeptical as men of their profession are inclined to be, maintained that the story had been invented by the villagers to raise the price. In those days the supply of marigolds was matter of serious concern. Marigold petals were used to ease the pains of ulcers and the pains of aging ladies, and to dye those same ladies’ greying hair a pleasing shade of yellow. But they were also thought to protect against the pestilence.

When the rumor reached the ear of the condottiero, he summoned Francisco. Go to the fens, he told Francisco,  and bring as many petals and leaves as you can carry without attracting attention. If you encounter anyone on your way home, say nothing to contradict the rumor of the bats, he added. For though we are innocent of the sin of malicious gossip, I see not why we should fail to reap some benefit, for by depriving these mendacious villagers of what they thought to gain through falsehood and the terrorizing of women, we shall see them doubly punished for their sins.

Francisco was more wary of the kind of person he would encounter alone on the road than either terrible bats or fraudulent commercial practices. But he said nothing. He showed his compliance in a bow that curved his head down and green-cloaked shoulders inwards. For a moment the condottiero was reminded of a large soft basil leaf ready to be plucked.

At mid-morning the following day, Francisco bid his daughter farewell and crossed the threshold of the outer gate, heading in the direction of the fens. He raised his eyes to the horizon, and then, briefly to the heavens. All around him in every direction he saw countryside under a cloudless sky.  Francisco felt exhilarated, but also decidedly ill at ease. The empty space extended away from him, generous and inviting, but also towards and at him, a great tidal wave of nothing. It was as if the open landscape itself,  no longer held in check by the familiar walls and tidy orchards of the condottiero’s estate, could now at last rush in upon and over him.

To orient and anchor himself, Francisco did what he had done his whole life: he cast his eyes earthwards. His gaze wrested hold of a peony, which, he found himself reciting, “prevents the mocking delusions that the Fauns bring us in our sleep.” Scanning the earth along the wayside, he saw lions teeth, used to clear heat and toxins from the blood; years ago, during the last outbreak of the pestilence, he had applied the herbs wet fresh leaves to boils of the condottieros plague-stricken daughter.

Francisco continued walking along the road, his eyes fixed ever on the ground. He spotted elecampane– “elecampane will the spirits sustain”–and all manner of wild mint, of which Wilafried of Strabo had written: “if any man can name all the properties of mint, he must know how many fish swim in the Indian ocean”. Francisco fearful of not returning before nightfall, hurried along, only stopped long enough to pluck from the drying earth a Valerian plant, known to calm the troubles of the mind. He placed it in the pocket of his cloak, near his heart. It would be his reward to himself  for his services to the condottiero.

Eugene Vodolazkin – Laurus

Christofer was an herbalist and all sorts of people came to see him.

People came with tortuous coughs. He gave them ground wheat with barley flour that he mixed with honey. Sometimes some boiled farro too, because farro draws moisture from the lungs. Depending on the type of cough, he might give pea soup or water from boiled turnips. Christofer differentiated coughs by sound. If the cough was indistinct and didn’t lend itself to definition, Christofer pressed his ear to the patient’s chest and listened to his breathing for a long time.


Christofer also helped with bedroom matters. He immediately identified visitors with these concerns based on how they entered and hesitated at the door. Their tragic and guilty gaze amused Christofer but he did not let that show. Sometimes he sent them to wash in the next room…[for h]e was convinced the rules of personal hygiene should be upheld, even in the Middle Ages. (…) If there was no erection, Christofer suggested supplementing meals with expensive anise and almond, or an inexpensive mint syrup; all increase the seed and promote bedroom thoughts. The same was attributed to the plant with the unusual name of livelong, as well as to simple wheat. Finally, there was also hare’s ear, which had two roots, white and black. An erection would arise from using white but vanish with black. The drawback to this method was that the white had to be held in the mouth at the crucial moment. Not everyone was willing to do that.

Christofer did not exactly believe in herbs; more likely he believed God’s help would come, through any herb, for a specific matter. Just as that help comes through people. Both are but instruments. He did not ponder why each of the herbs he knew was associated with strictly defined qualities; he considered that question frivolous.

Christofer’s help to his fellow man was not limited to medicine. He was convinced the mysterious effects of herbs spread through all aspects of human life. It was known to Christofer that the plant sow thistle, its roots as light as wax, brought success. He gave it to commercial traders so that they might be received with honor and rise to great glory wherever they might go.

Only be not proud beyond means, Christofer warned them. For pride is the root of all sin.

He gave sow thistle only to those of whom he was absolutely certain.

More than anything, Christofer loved a red plant, known as the tsar’s eyes or round-leaved sundew, that was about the height of a needle. He always had it with him. He knew that it was good to have some on his person when beginning any matter. Bring it to court, for example, so as not to be convicted. Or sit at a banquet with it and fear not the heretic lying in wait for anyone who lets his guard down.

Christofer did not like heretics. He recognized them using Adam’s head, also known as mandrake. When gathering this plant near the marshes, he blessed himself with the sign of the cross and the words: have mercy upon me, oh God…

For jealous spouses, Christofer recommended duckweed, though not the duckweed that covers marshes but the dark blue plant that spreads on land. It should be placed at the head of the bed by the wife: when she falls asleep, she will tell everything about herself on her own. The good and the bad. There was another method, too, for compelling her to start talking: owl heart. It was to be applied to a sleeping woman’s heart. Few people took that step, though: it was frightening.

Christofer himself had no need for these remedies because his wife had died thirty years before….