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  • Published: 23 April 2024
  • ISBN: 9781405951722
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 416
  • RRP: $22.99

Clytemnestra

Extract

I. Prey
Clytemnestra looks down at the steep ravine but can see no trace of dead bodies. She searches for cracked skulls, broken bones, corpses eaten by wild dogs and pecked by vultures, but nothing. There are only a few brave flowers, growing between the cracks, their petals white against the darkness of the ravine. She wonders how they manage to grow in such a place of death.

There were no flowers down there when she was little. She remembers crouching in the forest as a child, watching the elders drag criminals and weak babies up the trail and throw them into the gorge Spartans call Ceadas. Down the cliff, the rocks are as sharp as freshly cast bronze and as slippery as raw fish. Clytemnestra used to hide and pray for all of those men whose death would be long and painful. She couldn’t pray for the babies: the thought made her restless. If she walked closer to the edge of the ravine, she could feel a soft breeze caressing her skin. Her mother had told her that the dead infants lying at the bottom of the Ceadas spoke through the wind. Those voices whispered, yet Clytemnestra couldn’t grasp their words. So she let her mind wander as she looked at the sun peeping through the leafy branches.

An eerie silence looms over the forest. Clytemnestra knows she is being followed. She descends quickly from the high ground leaving the ravine behind, trying not to trip on the slippery stones that form the hunting trail. The wind is colder, the sky darker. When she left the palace, hours ago, the sun was rising, warm on her skin, and the grass was wet against her soles. Her mother was already sitting in the throne room, her face glowing in the orange light, and Clytemnestra slipped past the doors before she could be seen.

There is a sudden movement behind the trees, and the sound of crunching leaves. Clytemnestra slips and cuts her palm against the sharp edge of a rock. When she looks up, ready to defend herself, two big dark eyes are staring back at her. Just a deer. She clenches her fist, then wipes her hand on her tunic before the blood can leave tracks for her hunter.

She can hear wolves howl somewhere far above her but forces herself to keep going. Spartan boys of her age fight wolves and panthers in pairs as part of their training. Clytemnestra once shaved her head, like a boy, and went to the gymnasium with them hoping to prepare for a hunt. When her mother found out, she didn’t feed her for two days. ‘Part of the training is to starve Spartan boys until they are forced to steal,’ she said. Clytemnestra endured the punishment ‒ she knew she deserved it.

The stream leads to a spring and a little waterfall. Above it, she can see a crevice, an entrance to what looks like a cave. She starts to climb the mossy rocks at the sides of the spring. Her hand throbs and slips on the surface of the cliff. Her bow is slung over her back, and the dagger hangs loose from her belt, its handle pressing against her thigh.

At the top, she stops to catch her breath. She tears off a piece of her tunic, douses it in the clear water of the spring and wraps it around her bleeding hand. The crowns of the oaks blend with the darkening sky, and everything is blurred to her tired eyes. She knows she is too exposed on the ground. The higher you climb, the better, her father always says.

She scrambles up the tallest tree and pauses astride a branch to listen, holding her dagger tightly. The moon is high in the sky, its contours clear and cold, like a silver shield. Everything is silent, except for the water of the spring below her.

A branch cracks, and two golden eyes appear in the darkness in front of her, studying her. Clytemnestra remains still, blood pulsating in her temples. On the tree opposite her, a silver shape slips away from the shadows, revealing a coat of thick fur and pointed ears. A lynx.

The beast jumps and lands on her tree. The impact makes her lose her balance. She clutches the branch, but her nails break, her palms slip. She falls and lands on the muddy ground. For a second, she is blind and her breath is gone. The animal tries to jump down on her, but her hands are moving fast to her bow and arrows. She shoots, and rolls onto her side. The lynx’s claw scratches her back and she screams in pain.

The animal stands, its back to the narrow crevice that leads into the cave. For a moment, woman and lynx stare at each other. Then, swift as a striking snake, Clytemnestra throws her dagger into the animal’s shoulder. The lynx shrieks, and Clytemnestra runs past it, towards the blackness of the cave. She barely passes through the crevice, grazing her head and hips, sinks into the darkness and waits, praying that the cave has no other entrance, and no other visitor.

Slowly, her eyes become accustomed to the gloom. Her bow and most of her arrows are somehow intact and she sets them aside. She removes her bloodied tunic and rests her back against the cold rock. Her panting echoes in the humid air as if the cave itself were breathing. Can the goddess Artemis see her now? She wishes she could, though her father has always told her not to bother with gods. Her mother, on the other hand, believes that forests hide the gods’ secrets. Caves to her are shelters, minds that have thought and lived the lives of the creatures they have hosted over time. But maybe her father is right: this cave sounds as empty as a temple at night.


Clytemnestra Costanza Casati

Giving voice to a woman condemned by history, this debut is an epic feminist retelling of the story of notorious Spartan queen, Clytemnestra

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