Written by Kayla Hays.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.
Content Warning: This article features content that might be triggering to those with histories of domestic violence. Please read with caution.
Ever since I was small, all I have held were words.
Words for my mother when she scolded me, still as gentle as ever, as if tending a plant. No, Sappho, not like that, she would mutter when I moved my hands over the loom in the wrong way, her eyebrows furrowed. Why must I weave? I would huff when my chubby fingers lacked the grace my mother’s had gained through the years. Her answer, always resolute: This is just what us women do.
Words for lovers, too many to count. Muttering under our breath, secrets saved between silent moments. Freedom spilling from our lips when alone. Our whispers caught between one another, lingering like I wished we could under the stars. Brief in life, immortalized in song.
So why must they fail me now?
“I will not repeat myself,” he growls. Each word is punctuated. Sharp. There is a half-finished himation hanging from one hand—the garment he told me to finish before his return home this evening.
My eyes will not meet his without casting tears over themselves, as if to protect me from his anger. I stammer for another moment—a moment too long. I feel his footsteps before I hear them and his palm across my cheek before I see it.
“Wretched woman.” It is as if these words haunt me these days; every step I take in this house I can feel their weight upon my shoulders—a weight that grows deeper with every utterance of this phrase, ever-present. In the corner, a candle flickers.
“I was… I was occupied,” I finally answer. As with anything I do, this does not sate him. My eyes fail to meet his. How desperately I wish I still had the courage of my youth, and perhaps if I did, I would not be standing here. Child Sappho would not have allowed herself to be married to such a man.
“Occupied?” Was my answer deserving of another blow? In the air his hand falters. Slowly, he brings it back down to his side, clenched, as if on standby. “What is it that you must do all day, if not finishing that which I ask?”
How I have managed to keep my songs from him is unknown to me—maybe it is the brief nature of our marriage, or perhaps it is the amount of time he spends beyond the home. Or it could have been the lack of notice he would give me, periods only broken by moments such as these, or by what would inevitably occur later tonight when I would be the closest woman within reach, the closest mode by which his desires could be fulfilled.
Something. I must think of something. I do not have the privilege to hesitate much longer. “Our daughter cried half the day. I had to make warm oatmeal to calm her,” the excuse spills out of me as quickly as I can muster it. And another: “A friend came to visit.” I did not need to name one—he did not ever care to learn of them.
“You women,” he spits out again as if woman is the highest insult, “frolicking without a care, speaking nothing except gossip between yourselves.”
Us women, with a deeper love than he would ever know.
“She was helping me watch our child,” I whimper this lie. He did not need to know that once Cleïs was sound asleep, our hands were upon each other, our breaths one. He thought there was nothing except gossip between ourselves? If only he knew that the only words we shared were our names between pleasurable sighs. If I were younger, I would scream that at him until my voice went hoarse. Instead, I am broken into obedience.
He takes a step back. The half-finished himation hits my chest, too gentle for the force behind it. My fingers curl around it instinctively; I want to rip it to shreds.
“Enough. Finish it before I return,” he commands. I do not watch him as he leaves, and the door solicits a flinch from my body as it slams. For a while my eyes stay fixed both on the himation on my hands and on nothing in particular; my mind, however, races with everything. If only my mother had beaten the unruly child out of me. If only my father had taught me how to respect a man. If only I had not been born. It is only when I hear faint cries through the hallway that I draw myself from these thoughts.
I reach Cleïs’ side as she babbles something incoherent. The girl hardly has two years, evident in the way mouthy Greek vowels overpower the consonants on her lips and teeth. Heavy, I nuzzle her into my chest and wipe her tears. I bring her back to the room where I hide my pages of song—a small chest beneath stacks of linens that my husband would never dare to touch.
“Hush, now, Cleïs,” I whisper. Her cries grow softer, but not by much. This is always what happens whenever my husband returns home in such a mood. I stroke the wisps of hair upon her head. I wish I could cry so when your father acts this way, I want to say to her. I wish I could be held as I weep. Instead, I hold my Cleïs, and our tears mix on her face.
“I did not want to marry him, you know,” I continue, drawing pages of song from the chest beneath me. My breath hitches, and hers too. I spread the pages before us—the symbols mean nothing to her tiny eyes, I know, nor will anything I say mean much to her at such an age, in such a state. “There was someone else I loved—no, I do love.” But Aphrodite did not bestow upon us the courage to be together. And neither did the rest of Lesbos.
A memory resurfaces, brief. A worried look etched into my mother’s face, my father’s fists clenched just as my husband’s do now, her hands quickly retreating from my body. How will you be marriageable? How will you be desirable?
I kiss the top of Cleïs’ head. “And I love you,” I whispered. “But this life… this life is not the one I had ever wanted to live. This—” I point at a page of song— “is”.
This life that I could not have, stuck forevermore at my fingertips.
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