III. Daphne, the River Nymph
Daphne preferred to be alone in part because she found the other river nymphs ridiculous and vain. They littered the pine and cypress trees along the stream beds, naked and slothful, dreaming of Poseidon’s angry seas, of swans entering them, of Apollo’s war victories. When Hermes dropped in for a visit they swooned, clamoring to touch the small fleshy wings at his ankles, to kiss his stubbled neck. They bathed incessantly and wasted afternoons braiding lotus flowers in their hair, sleepy with sunlight. Daphne, they’d chirp, you’d look so pretty if you just did such-and-such. They pleaded with their great dewy eyes to comb and curl her hair—as if doing so would provide some great favor to them, to herself.
Daphne wanted none of it. She was not some frivolous, fluttering girl-child—she was the swift and cunning Artemis, the tall, grey-eyed Athena. She wanted only the freedom of mobility: to explore the world beyond the borders of the forest and to feel herself a part of it. To leave in her wake, trembling in the pine shadows, the men that always seemed to know where to find her. She imagined the cool boulders of Mount Olympus, the roiling grey seas to its west. The shadow of jungle tracing the Nile’s shore, and the crocodiles lurking in its swampy depths, the long blades of their teeth. Chimeras and sphinxes she would slay with arrows, or wit! She would walk beyond the threshold of forest, where the trees met a sea of open space. None of the nymphs had so much as stepped beyond that border, although Daphne had once stood before it and watched the plains roll towards the distant gulf.
How easy it seemed then, standing at the edge of the world. How simple to go one step further, and then one more, and so on, until the woods into which she had been born—the woods which she loved, still—were only a thin horizon line behind her. But she had thought of her father, of his river stones and otters, the algae and the trout, and she had stepped back into the shade. The golden wheatgrass bent in the eastern wind; the shadows of clouds moved across in dark waves.
She hated the other nymphs, too, because they thought her plans were crazy. They did not see her as adventurous and athletic, as brave; they saw only her flaws and their opportunities to repair them. They wanted to paint her lips pink and push her toward marriage. Apollo and Daphne, sitting in a tree, they chanted.
What goddamn idiots.
Let them lounge, dreaming of gods and beasts, languid and masturbating. Daphne preferred solitude. To draw maps on imagined paper, to retreat deep in her pocket of woods, sleeping on the warm soil. The forest so quiet she could sometimes—with an ear pressed flat to the earth—hear the rumblings of the underworld.
Only once had the nymphs stirred in her something besides disgust. She had been running shore side with a pack of wolves—laughing, breathless—when she stumbled upon several of the nymphs swimming in a shaded eddy. She halted behind a large rock and let the wolves race past her. They gnashed their teeth; their matted fur whipped her arms. In the water, the nymphs were not giggling like nitwits. Instead they gazed upwards at the sky, or the treetops—somber and thoughtful. Daphne felt a curious hollow sensation, like a knot suddenly unraveled, in the pit of her stomach. She watched their bodies slither against each other, unafraid in their closeness. When they turned on their backs, their pubic hair skimmed the river’s surface like startled algae.
She turned, prepared to rejoin the race, but the wolves were already far ahead. The trees stood quiet.
Daphne had tried to put it out of her mind, but there the moment remained, an apparition beside her: the swimming girls, the intimacy of their silence. That hollow inside of her which she could not name.
And then, on an early spring afternoon, the memory of winter still alive in the air, she felt it a second time.
Apollo had returned from Delphi. He was crouched behind a cypress tree, not at all hidden; she could see his eyes peering over a root, his hair that same oblivious blonde. She was hunting along the banks of Peneus, eyes fixed on her prey, the cold current rippling around her legs. Apollo’s presence there was irritating, unwanted—sure enough, in the end he had moved, or coughed, and scared off the buck. Her arrow flew past.
She had spurned Apollo before—countless times, in fact—yet he forever continued his dogged pursuit. He grated on her. She found his songs too sentimental, despite the praise everyone lavished upon them, despite the fainting women in the audience, the tearful gods. His muscled calves roped in leather sandals, his tawny skin, the single blue feather tattooed on each forearm—she wanted none of it. And now here he was again. Back from his wars and more arrogant than ever, watching her hungrily from the cypress roots. Cowering, barely concealed. She almost laughed, he looked so absurd, but she then felt a swell of anger. Why could she not be left alone, pinned under the eyes of no one, to hunt a meal? The nymphs wanted to see her transform into a girl, into something pretty; the men wanted to see her flutter her eyelashes, to succumb to their pursuit. Apollo worst of all.
She wanted to fight him. To shame him from his hiding place, his cowardice, his obnoxious persistence.
He remained crouched among the roots until she spoke. You’re not even hidden, she told him.
Slowly, he rose. His cheeks burned red. He held his palms upward in surrender. The look on his face seemed sheepish, at first, and then…what? Not arrogant, but not pitiful either. Daphne’s breath had quickened. On her forehead, a film of sweat. She had intended to yell at him. To tell him to leave her alone, that she wanted no man—especially not a god-man.
But something unexpected was happening, a kind of trick. Usually, Apollo talked too much, prattling on with clumsy gestures of affection, spewing insults when she turned him down. Most of the time she couldn’t get him to shut up. Now here he stood, silent before her. Waiting, watching. Her cool eyes moved over the length of his body. The stupid sandals, the feather tattoos. A brown garden snake slithered past his feet, disappeared under the tree roots. She again felt that same hollow pulsing in her guts—something close to dread, but not quite.
In the earthy afternoon light, the river running steady behind her, Apollo appeared to her, suddenly, as neither a threat nor a promise. It was as though she had never quite seen him clearly before, and here he was, the real Apollo, almost the same but not quite. It was as though he was not immortal, but human.
She knew the name now for what she felt. The word came to her with clarity, and she stepped closer to Apollo, who stood as though rooted to the earth, breathing, sweating. She reached forward to touch his stubbled cheek; she hardly knew herself.
He stayed still. He waited.
It might have ended in this way, the two of them there in the woods: Daphne and Apollo. The tips of her fingers lingering over his cheek. The girl, the god—happily ever after and all of that. But Daphne turned her eyes towards his, the brown irises flecked with the gold of golden arrows, her fingers still hovering there, and when their eyes met she saw the depths of Apollo’s hunger. She saw the days and nights ahead of her when that hunger would never and could never be satisfied. She saw the housewifely duties and her resulting failures, the swarming children, her own chewed and swollen nipples. She saw forgotten solitude and lost adventures and dirty dishes piled high. She saw her own aging body and Apollo’s lonely immortality. She remembered the nymphs swimming and then the wolves racing past her and afterward, the indifferent silence of the woods. She thought of Athena, of her appraising gray eyes, and of swift Artemis and of solitude in the treetops at dusk and the imagined maps in her mind stretched open so far they split apart, and she jerked her hand back as though his skin had burned her without her fingers ever touching it.
That was how it went, in the green dappled light. Daphne discovered desire, and she turned, and she ran.
IV. Eros Seeks Revenge
Crouched on a cold crag of stone Eros could see, under a wash of brilliant noon light, miles of fields blanketing the hills of Phocis. Far to the distant south stretched the glittering horizon—the narrow Corinthian Gulf, over which lay the shore of Peloponnesus.
Shivering and winged, he watched Apollo appear on the road below. Popular, beloved Apollo, so freshly victorious. Eros knew who he would most long to see when he reached Peloponnese—that incorrigible nymph Daphne, daughter of the river Peneus, with her atrociously unbrushed hair, her pretty mouth. Rumor had it that she had already turned down Apollo an infinite number of times. And rumor had it that he was in love with her anyway, that he wanted nothing more in his immortal life than to woo her, to marry her. That she was the one and only woman Apollo could not seem to impress.
Apollo carried his belongings with ease. His hair was windblown, his swagger graceful. He was handsome even so far below, so small.
Eros kept his eye upon that distant figure, then pulled a gold-tipped arrow from his quiver and held it to the light. Its point shimmered brightly—it caught Apollo’s attention. From his perch Eros watched as the warrior god paused, tilted his head to look far up the mountain. He acted quickly.
Apollo the warrior squinted like a child towards the sky. Mistaking Eros’s wings for those of a bald eagle, Apollo did not duck or pull his shield. Rather, he paused. Admiring the great bird, he remained stone still, a marbled statue on the plains.
The arrow flew straight and true. A line of gold streaked the mountain air.
Eros dove from the narrow scarp and followed, at a swift clip, the trajectory of gold suspended like the afterflash of fireworks. Apollo, dumbfounded by his injury, was still staring at the small weapon jutting from the flesh between breastbone and shoulder. A trickle of blood ran down his chest. And then, visions of Daphne racing through his mind. He was dizzy with them. Daphne wincing when he moved too close; Daphne rolling her eyes as he sang a ballad. Her small wrists, her browned shoulders. The cold gaze she had so often fixed upon him. Daphne the river nymph, Daphne the beautiful. He gasped for oxygen. His limbs quivered. How he longed!
When Eros yanked back his arrow, Apollo hardly noticed. Their eyes never met. Silent, scornful, Eros leaned into the wind and was borne upwards, as though on the string of a kite. A few loosened feathers drifted towards the bouldered slopes, and Apollo was alone.
V. Daphne, the Laurel Tree
As Daphne approached, closer to him than she had ever chosen to come, the gold ran rivers in Apollo’s blood.
When he first stepped out from behind the tree, he could see there was something there in her expression, something more; he was acutely aware of it—he was aware of her every nuanced move, of the muscles along her jaw, the tendons in her throat. He suddenly knew her many layers, her complexity, in a way he had never before appreciated. She moved toward him, her hair absurdly, wonderfully tangled. He was aware of his height, his bulk, and consequently of her smaller stature—even with the delicious curve of her hips, her breasts. How he wanted it all, all of it at once—to pick her up in his arms, to steal her, to kiss her for hours, for days; to be her father and her brother and her husband; to tear off her clothes, to bathe with her, to bruise her arms in his grip, to kiss her neck, to grab her waist, to slap, to leave a mark. To push his face between her legs and inhale. To simply take her hand in his. To gaze upward with her, some dark night, at the cold moon. As he felt himself overwhelmed by all of this, frozen with all that longing, that greed, that love, she reached her hand upward toward his face and let it linger there.
Centuries later, he still remembers this moment. He still remembers, puzzled, how something shifted when their eyes met. It happened in less than a second, and then she turned so quickly that he barely perceived the motion. One second she was there and the next he was watching her back as it darted fast among the branches. A chill on his skin where her fingers had almost rested.
Would you not also pursue the chase?
How they ran! Breaking records before they were set. Preemptive track stars. She was up ahead, barely visible through the branches, flitting back and forth along a path she forged, fast as any forest animal. Branches parted as she flew through them, then snapping back again, whipping Apollo’s face. They were running deer; they were wild, racing wolves. Dusk began to fall upon them as they sprinted through the darkened trees. Still she did not respond to his calls. Still she did not turn to look back.
Finally, the shadows merging into night, Daphne began, at last, to slow. Apollo behind her was nauseated with the effort of the chase, but he saw he was gaining ground. He could not give up now. He did not. He did not hear her prayers, deafened as he was by his own breath, his pounding heart, by the sound of his footsteps crashing down upon the earth. She was within his grasp now! Her hair had fallen down in the violence of her flight and it flew out behind her, long and wild. Her legs were no longer a blur; they wobbled, stumbled.
Later, he would say that he wanted only to speak to her. To whisper her name into her pulsing ear, to explain. But he was too winded, his throat dry, and so he reached out. Did she sense him there? Was she afraid?
Just this once, too defeated to duck his grasp, they touched. He felt her skin under his fingers. Her shoulder oiled with sweat. Her warmth. At last, at last! Then she twisted towards him—did he pull her? Did she want to see him?—to kiss him? Or was it the force of the roots already ripping through the earth, her feet already splintering? He tripped, fell aside, then watched, chest aching, mouth dry of words, as her torso thickened into bark. Her hands exploded into an array of branches. Leaves burst from her fingers. Roots snaked down through the soil. And this, finally, was the last he saw of Daphne the river nymph: surprise on her youthful face, her lovely eyes wide. They did not meet his, but rather looked skyward, towards the forest canopy, the trees she had so often climbed. Then her mouth was bandaged by bark, her eyes blinded, her hair twisted into vines.
In her place, a laurel tree: leafy and mute, its branches reaching, in prayer or in gratitude, toward the emerging stars.
The snakes are quiet in the world today; they no longer speak to hidden lovers. Apollo goes unrecognized among the mortals. His curls, his ageless body—they are indistinguishable from the other handsome faces in suits and newly shined shoes, on skateboards in the parks, holding the hand of a child.
Sometimes, in the absence of anything ancient, Apollo forgets his own immortality. Crossing an intersection where a forest once grew, he fears the bus which brakes just in time. Riding the subway through a graffitied tunnel, he imagines a bomb exploding, a fire erupting: How will he survive? What is his escape plan?
In such moments, Daphne diminishes to a vague dream. The bark winding around her body, the roots sprouting from her feet—these images recede, and she is but a speck in his memory, a particle of the original world forgotten.