The reporters describe me as a spoiled eccentric. They’re in my husband’s pocket. In truth, I live in my own private prison. For irony’s sake, it’s an elegant prison: the pantry is well-stocked and servants whisk away my fruit peels, dirty plates, handkerchiefs soiled with tears. There is even a stage in the basement where the chorus mills around in their togas—I never ask them to perform—and a library packed with dusty scrolls. If I get sick, a doctor who’s little more than a butcher or a robed priest with spiders in his beard will come to my bedside. All the doors to the outside lock from within, but I never open them. I can’t because of the reporters.
In the yard, they crouch behind bushes like defecating peasants. They toss garbage on the lawn, their chariots block the street traffic. If I so much as crack a window, they rush forward and claw at the glass, cawing and screeching questions. They would knock me to the ground if they got the chance, drag me by the hair to their interviews and chain me to a couch.
Once in a while, my husband—the one I married, I mean—comes by to gloat. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a concubine and the children she’s birthed in tow. Seeing the children wounds me. He knows that and it makes him smile. His teeth are plated with gold.
Today is one of those days. The servants take pains to clean what’s already clean.
“Madam, madam!” they cry, hurrying after me to ask questions of no consequence. They startle at the slightest sound.
Outside, the flock of reporters is larger than usual.
Minos was known for dotting the continents with his palaces. His pockets shed flakes of gold as he walked and he wore a permanently wistful smile as if he owed his wealth not to cunning—which is a nice way of saying cheating and lying—but to tremendous good fortune. When he began coming around and showing an interest in me, my father fawned over and flattered this man as if he wanted to be his bride. I even suggested as much and got a smack for it. Meanwhile my hair was oiled and braided, my body dressed in white and trotted out for Minos to admire. When the proposal finally came, my father wept. No one asked about my feelings on the matter.
The wedding was an extravaganza: Minos—“The King” they called him—bought a mansion and turned the grounds into orchards for orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. He built a swimming pool to hold the wine for the reception. The servants spent days erecting silk tents and lugging plush couches onto the lawn. They filled those tents with roasted meats, fruit, pungent cheeses, and fountains spouting whiskey. Emeralds and yellow diamonds littered the thick grass like a magical creature’s droppings and the guests, giddy with wine and animal fats, crawled around on their hands and knees, snatching at the jewels.
After the feast came the gifts. Minos had promised a fortune to the giver of the most fantastic present. We sat on golden thrones while the servants pranced and paraded around with one offering after another, each more extravagant than the next: a goddess’s comb, one-of-a-kind monsters in chains, delicacies, and gowns woven by enchanted looms. I was nauseated and bored, the scene before me a blur of ecstatic smiles and glitter. Already, I hated this man.
Then, a brilliant light that made me squint, as if something had wrenched a hole in this world and stepped across the divide from heaven: a servant led him gently by a golden rope tied around his neck. He was white as a dove except for his thick, gilded horns.
Ionus turned his head to look at me with one dark eye, lined with kohl. As the servant pulled him around in a circle to display the contours of his body, he kept his gaze on me. I could feel the pulse of his thinking as clearly as the plodding, tinker-tonk thoughts of the human at my side. You’re stupid, I told myself. That’s just an ordinary bull, painted white.
“You like?” Minos said. He lightly stroked my arm and I shuddered. I couldn’t help it.
He stiffened. “Well, maybe you’d like to spend your wedding night with this bull instead?” Then he began to laugh. “Yes, you’ll sleep with the bull tonight!”
Purple tapestries hung from the walls and candles on stands five feet high illuminated the small stable, the floor covered in hay glittering like spun gold. Ionus stood there, waiting for me. His tail switched when I came in.
“Hi,” I whispered. I felt foolish, talking to a bull. But he tossed his head as if he understood. Or maybe he was going to murder me with his horns. Maybe that was Minos’s plan. I’d heard of rich men killing the wives who displeased them.
While I entertained these thoughts, Ionus stepped closer to me. He rubbed his head against my shoulder, snorting with pleasure. I reached out and stroked his neck. His skin was sleek and soft. Ionus continued his nuzzling. I kissed the top of his head and he stamped his foot and snorted.
“I don’t know what this is,” I whispered in his ear. Then I began to cry. “I think I’ve married a lunatic.”
Ionus tossed his head and knelt down on the straw. I lay down beside him, nestled against his chest, and fell asleep.
At midnight I felt him stir. He stood up and slipped out of his skin. It folded into a heap on the floor like a heavy suede coat. Ionus was naked and glistening as a birth. His hair was blond and disheveled. He didn’t say a word, just pulled me to him, pressed his hips to mine.
All those jokes about a bull and a woman, all those comedians making crude gestures.
But he was really just a man living under a curse. Just like the rest of us.
Afterwards, he put his skin back on and I climbed on his back. I fell asleep astride him and when I woke up, we were traveling through unfamiliar woods.
At that point, I had no concept of the mayhem that would result from my disappearance with a living wedding gift, the orgiastic snapping of the rich wives’ jowls.
They would host lunches and bacchanals just to spread their gossip. They said I had a row of breasts, like a pig’s nipples, that I bathed in the blood of the peasants’ slaughtered babies.
The musicians composed cruel songs like “Love Is Bull” and “Take Me by the Horns,” skipping about with their flutes and lyres. Those tunes became tavern favorites.
The artists painted obscene murals of my first night with Ionus throughout the capital, including on the wall of my father’s house. But my father wasn’t there to see it. Minos had him locked in a dungeon and was starving him as an “interrogation tactic.” My father groveled, pissed himself with fear, begged for his life. Shaking, too weak to stand, he publicly denounced me, said I was no longer his daughter. But they still fed him to a wild boar.
Then Minos declared that Ionus had been intended as a gift to the gods and anyone who brought him proof of a proper sacrifice would receive a generous reward. That was when bounty hunters took over the search.
We hid out at the small farm where Ionus had been bred and raised. The landscape there was flat, trees visible in the distance from the plowed farmland, the sky a cloudless canvas. The elderly couple who ran it were so isolated they were probably the only people in the land who hadn’t heard about my nuptials. If they had, maybe they would’ve turned us in. They seemed like good people, but they did sell Ionus off in the first place. Even good people will do awful things out of desperation. But when I met them, Alex shook my hand in an iron fist. He was nearly one hundred and five. His wife Leia embraced me.
The day I went into labor, Leia distracted me with the story of Ionus’s birth: how Alex ran from the barn to the house to fetch her, saying only, “Come see, come see.” Ionus lay glistening on the straw beside his mother, who was just an ordinary cow. When Leia saw him, she was speechless.
“He looked like he’d been carved out of the moon. So white, shining. I’d never seen anything like it.” She shook her head and I knew what that meant: such beauty did not belong to this world. Such a thing belongs to the gods and only brings sorrow.
Leia had helped mares and cows give birth many times, but I was the first human. The baby had hooves and the face of a cherub.
As he grew, two nubs appeared on his forehead where the horns would come in. As soon as he could walk, he could run and he romped and stomped around the house, charging the cat.
Then, Death found them. Alex went first, collapsing in the field. A few days later, Leia wouldn’t wake up. They’d never had children but I feared some distant relatives might come around and kept the curtains drawn all the time, the front door barricaded. The baby and I did not go outside, not even to sleep beside Ionus in the barn. But no one came.
We lived on there just the three of us. For a time, Ionus tried to keep the farm going himself and would pull the plow, which marred his beautiful skin with welts, but he struggled, big as he was. Besides, he didn’t actually know anything about farming. We had no choice but to let the place go to seed.
Then, sunflowers sprouted out of the field and grew past the top of my head. A bright forest of huge, benevolent eyes with yellow lashes surrounded the house. Ionus thought it was a gift from the gods.
After that, the three of us slept together in the barn. On a soft bed of hay, overlaid with down, I held on tight to the baby nestled against my breast, Ionus encircling us, my head resting against his massive side. He lulled me to sleep with the rhythm of his snores.
Sometimes I had nightmares where Minos tied my wrists and forced me to my knees.
One of his hands gripped my hair while the other shoved rubies down my throat. In the distance, I heard my child, screaming.
It surprises me it took them so long to find us. They must have known where we were but bided their time.
They came in the night. The dogs let loose strangled yelps that startled me awake. Then there was silence. It was that silence that was the most terrifying, that moment of suspense that seemed endless as I held onto my child, his father breathing deeply, and waited, wondering if I had only imagined those sounds or if I were still in a dream.
Then the barn door crashed down and the baby cried. Ionus lumbered to his feet and charged headlong into their knives. In an instant he was dead, his throat slit, the blood staining the straw. It happened so quickly, it did not seem real. I stared at his body and could not make sense of it. The blood so startling against his white skin. I waited to see if the man inside would climb out. He didn’t.
Then they took my child away. There was screaming in a voice I did not recognize. It was me doing that.
Minos hid him away in the basement of one of his mansions. They put him in a cage. I know because Minos delights in reminding me of this when he comes to see me. He grew up like that, with no one singing to him, no one holding him when he cried. No one taught him to read or to hold a fork or how to pick up a fragile thing without breaking it. He never even saw things like that. They never cut his hair or his nails or brushed his teeth. He shit in one corner of the cage, slept in another. They washed him in freezing water, fed him from a trough. Thanks to Minos, he can’t even speak.
Then, when he reached puberty and the horns began to force their way out of his temples and his weight increased three-fold, when he became massive, impossibly strong and fast, that was when Minos brought him his enemies to feed on.
Meanwhile, he imprisoned me in this house with every possible luxury. He enjoys his irony.
If I could see my son now, he would not even know me. He would gore me with his horns and begin to devour me while I was still alive, spilling my blood and entrails. Part of me thinks I wouldn’t mind, that it would be worth it just to see him again.
But first Minos has to decide to kill me, which he’ll only do if keeping me alive no longer amuses him. He believes in his own power so fervently that he doesn’t think about the knives in the kitchen, about how the windows of this house are made of glass, how the servants keep poisons in the pantry. He would never imagine that I would scoop up a little bit at a time, hiding the bottle inside my mattress.
Just after lunch, there’s a commotion outside. The servants rush to the windows, but I don’t have to look to know it’s Minos in his diamond-studded chariot. Even the wheels are inlaid with diamonds, which wear away with use and have to be replaced regularly.
The front door bursts open and a cacophony of voices rings through the hall as “The King” enters, flanked by one of his sluts and her brat, sucking his thumb, a crowd of reporters hopping and jumping at the threshold as they screech questions.
“Hello? Anyone home?” he calls as the heavy door rushes closed and muffles the sounds of the journalists who continue shouting at the door.
I tell a servant to prepare the wine and to let me taste it before it’s served.
“Yes, by all means,” cries Minos, overhearing, “bring the wine! Now that is a proper way to greet your husband.” He approaches me, arms outstretched. He’s wearing a rainbow robe decorated with an intricate, hand-stitched pattern. I think of the poor woman who made him that thing, the hours wasted on something so hideous. I see he’s gotten a bigger crown since I last saw him. It looks heavy. He must have constant neck pain from wearing it.
“How are you, my dear?” His arms are still open as if he expects a hug. He flashes a gold smile.
“Not as well as you, I bet.”
The concubine—a tiny thing in a simple dress—hangs back, stares at the floor. Her child, half-hidden behind her, is picking its nose.
The servant appears at my side and whispers that the wine has been prepared.
I excuse myself and head into the kitchen, where I order the servants to get out.
Quickly I remove the bottle of poison from the folds of my dress. There are two goblets set out on the tray. I pour half the vial into one, but hesitate over the second. What will they do with him when Minos is gone? Kill him, if they can. I could never stop them. I’d have better luck at that dead than alive. I shake my head. Death is the only way out of both our cages I tell myself and deposit the remaining powder into the second goblet.
I return to the hall with the tray and find Minos has seen himself to the couch in the living room. He’s already chattering away, though it’s unclear who his audience is.
“Did I tell you my architect has built me the most wonderful maze?” he says.
I shake my head and hand him his glass.
“Oh, thank you. Yes, it’s genius. Even the one who designed it could never find his way out. Setting foot in there is an absolute nightmare. It’s just wonderful.” He takes a sip of wine, rolling his eyes as he tastes, then smacks his lips.
“Hm, is this one of my vineyards?”
“Lovely. Anyway, I have such plans for this labyrinth. Just wait till I tell you…”
I take a seat opposite him and hold my cup to my lips to make it look like I’m drinking. I want to watch him first, then I’ll take mine.
“But you have to guess what’s at the center of the labyrinth,” he goes on excitedly. “Go on, guess. You’ll never guess!” He takes another gulp, slurping and smacking his lips.
He’s a greedy drinker, a glutton in all respects. Already the blood is draining from his face and his lips are turning blue.
“My goodness, this is strong wine!” he cries. “Which vineyard was it again? How bout some crackers and cheese or something. . .”
“As you wish,” I say and signal to a servant who has appeared in the doorway. She nods and heads to the kitchen.
“Anyway, what was I saying…?” His voice trails off. He bows his head. For a moment it seems he’s sleeping but then he slips from his chair and falls to the floor in a heap. The concubine jumps up.
“Hey, what is this?” His words are slow and slurred. He smiles. “Did you drug me?”
Minos snorts and tries to pull himself back into his seat but he merely paws at the couch. The concubine approaches slowly, hesitating. She reaches a hand out towards him, but Minos swats it away.
“I’ll get myself up,” he huffs. But his second attempt fails. His face flushes, he’s beginning to sweat. Now he turns to me. “What have you done?” he hisses. The merry mask has slipped. I can see the rot and bile behind it.
I stand up and raise my glass, toasting his demise. “I poisoned you,” I say and take a gulp of wine.
He laughs, bearing his teeth. “Bull-fucker. You can’t kill me,” his whole face works to pronounce these words, his heavy eyebrows crowding together, his jaw clenching.
Minos’s head falls to one side. He seems unable to move his body, though his eyes are fixed on me. They are still vibrant, the rage keeping them alive.
“If I were you, I would’ve done this years ago. But you haven’t the courage. Or even the idea…” His eyes slide side-to-side as if he’s shaking his head. His eyebrows jerk up and down. “Not very smart.” He flubs his lips. “You don’t plan ahead. What will become of you now?”
I take another gulp of wine. My fingertips are tingling.
“Silly girl, silly girl,” Minos chants. “Bull-fucker. Hah!” Minos begins to laugh, a hacking, thunderous snort of laughter, his last breath tearing itself loose from his lungs.
His eyes gloss over, still fixed on me. The concubine screams.
I lean in to spit on his corpse. I hear shouts and rapid footsteps approaching. Downing the rest of my wine, I fall to the carpet. I’m not dead yet, but I can pretend.
Lindsay Merbaum is a San Francisco-based fiction writer and essayist whose work has appeared in Electric Literature, Pank, The Collagist, Anomalous Press, Harpur Palate, Lost Coast Review, and Dzanc Books Best of the Web. Honors and awards include a Pushcart Prize nomination and a storySouth Million Writers Award nomination. She is currently at work on a novel.
Artwork: Caryn Drexl, “Fundamental Elements”