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Spring/Summer 2008, Volume 24.3

Fiction

 

Robert Olen ButlerPhoto of Robert Olen Butler.

Intercourse


Robert Olen Butler has published ten novels and four volumes of short fiction, one of which,
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His most recent collection is Severance, from Chronicle Books, which contains 62 short short stories in the voices of newly severed heads. His next book, due in late spring 2008, is entitled Intercourse and is also comprised of short short stories, 100 of them in 50 couples. Among his numerous other awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Magazine Awards in Fiction, and the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.

 

Helen, 25, Queen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus
Paris, 22, Prince of Troy

in a villa on the island of Cranae in the Laconian Gulf, 1194 BC

Paris

Cassandra pulled at her hair and proclaimed the fire I will bring to Troy along with my Helen, and at last she is right, my sister the seer, I burned at the first sight of Helen and now I am a raging tall-flamed pine fire at her touch and it will never stop, this hot billowing in me, even as she lies beneath me placid and cool as the snows of Mount Gargarus and her head falls back languidly to the side and her arm rises and her hand curls outward, the long fingers flaring as if to clutch some invisible thing, and I might as well not even be here, for her eyes are the blue of the Aegean and swimming deep inside them, far out of sight, are her goddess thoughts, perhaps of her father Zeus, who waits for her immortal body which one day will lie languidly upon a couch on Olympus when she will belong to the gods, but for now, in spite of her distraction, she is mine

Helen

he is older, my Menelaus, his arms are strong and he is a king, but too strong, but too much a king: what of the beauty of my face and my neck and my hands and my breasts and my thighs, what of all the heroes of Greece who came to woo me and I chose a man with strong arms who was soon to be a king, but then his vast shadow passed over my face, my body, and I vanished and he would not stand aside, and then a prince came, a young man who chose a gift from between three vying goddesses and he declined the power of a great warrior and he declined the wealth of kings and he chose instead the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, me, who for nine years has lived in a shadow, and so the prince and I have come down from his ship on this island, the spray of salt from the sea still on our eyelids, our lips, our throats, and we have rushed to a private chamber with cicadas singing outside our window and we taste the salt on each other and he is beautiful in face and neck and hands and chest and thighs, but not as beautiful as me

 

Helen, 35, Princess of Troy
Menelaus, 42, King of Sparta

on board his ship in the Aegean Sea, after retrieving her at the end of the Trojan War, 1184 BC

Menelaus

this is familiar, after a decade, this is too familiar, I should have just let her go, I should have spared the lives of so many of our warriors, but these are the bodies we men have been given to live in, these are the godsí gifts of sword and shield and knife and fist and teeth and the gifts of strategy and cunning and the gift of bravery to stand before the ferocity of your own imminent death and fight, and so if it had not been for this woman who is beneath me once again that we fought and died, it would have been for something else, in some other place, against some other foe, who, in their own warrior hearts, would have cared as little as we about the reason: it is what we do

Helen

the gift from the gods rolled heavily in amongst us, towering in the center of our city, a vast horse of pine with a beautiful head, nostrils flared, its mane erect, its flanks glittering with torch light, and I understand that long before, Paris had become a fool and a coward, shooting arrows from the parapets and pawing at me in our own bed each night as if it were the first time while the heroes of Troy died beyond the walls using their swords, and I understand that my face is still beautiful, even this many years later, even night before last, even lit in the mirror by Troy in flames outside my bedroom window, and I understand the gods gave me the gift of my beauty and the gods gave Paris the gift of the most beautiful woman in the world, but deep within these gifts our own destruction crouched, biding its time

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