I. Apollo Longs for the Nymph Daphne
His chest still smarted from the arrowhead, and flecks of gold glittered where the blood had shelled: a scab the size of a pencil eraser. A wasp hummed and hovered close to his neck, squatted, and stung—he took no notice.
Past the needled branches, Daphne stood shin-deep in the river Peneus, thighs halfway bared and lightly browned. As always her hair was uncombed, an array of forest detritus sticking from it here and there, and she had piled it high atop her head in a teetering hive. The fringes along her temples were matted with sweat. Through a single open eye she watched a buck drink from the river upstream. Her silver-tipped arrow was aimed, the nock firmly in place. Apollo saw a muscle in the triceps of her arm twitch once, but otherwise the girl remained perfectly still; despite the short distance between her and the animal, she had yet gone unnoticed.
Yes, he thought, here was Apollo the warrior, Apollo the wolf-god. Crouched among the knuckled roots of a cypress tree, a nervous wreck.
He was only a boy when they first met, and she was even younger—a miniscule, pink-skinned infant with a reptilian gaze. She was repulsive, this wrinkled half-nymph, compact as a button and half as interesting. But a few years later, her beauty wholly intimidated him; even in her greenest youth his heart at the sight of her twisted into a dozen knots and refused to untie itself. For a time, scornful of anything he could not conquer—which was primarily limited to Daphne, and his feelings for her—Apollo turned mean. Once, his mother overheard him call the little girl “ugly” to her face and she had slapped the back of his head with a rigid palm. (Leto’s son received no favoritism from her, immortal or not. Leave the praise and the prayers to the rest of the world, she was fond of saying.) In this moment, no one but Apollo saw the girl make a lewd gesture in return, eyes wickedly alight—and she was beautiful enough, besides, that she never got in trouble for anything.
On his list of Reasons Why I Hate Her, that was Number Two.
Number One was her inability, or unwillingness, to touch him. Not so much as a friendly side hug when he played a ridiculously impossible aria on his lyre, or when he sang a ballad that made full-grown immortals fall into his arms, tears streaming. Daphne’s face frosted when he approached; she held her beauty and her body aloof, and leapt backward as though electrocuted if his elbow even came close to brushing hers.
Number Three: her mouth. It was, he often noted, unnaturally pretty. Glossy as candy—a cherry kiss. For so many years had he longed to press his mouth against it.
The list was something Apollo had drawn up as a boy, and he left it crumpled and mostly forgotten in the back of his mind until the moments when he once again decided to try his luck with Daphne, once again tried to win her with his arms and his charm and his hair and his victories, and she once again glanced coolly at him with bored, half-closed eyes. And so the cycle went. For no matter how harsh the rejection, when he saw her next—climbing the pine trees all the way up to their furred peaks, plucking snails from the boulders along the river, removing a mouse that had crawled into the nest of her hair while she slept—all his brittle hatred crumbled. In her presence he knew the truth about himself. His tenor, his skill with the bow, the tattooed forearms that caused the other nymphs to faint in ecstasy—none of it mattered. Around Daphne, he was feeble as a sparrow.
Eros’s golden arrow had not ignited in Apollo any new desire; it had only clarified his hunger.
Among the cypress roots, his thighs ached from the awkward stance and his breath was short and ragged. A nearby snake—who had been watching Apollo slyly for some time now, eager to curl itself into the shade of the roots and nap—finally spoke up. Come on already, it hissed. She’s ripe! Make your move!
But Apollo knew Daphne, knew he could not say or do the wrong thing if he were to succeed, and knew that pretty much everything he could possibly think of to say or do would be, according to her, precisely the wrong thing. Irritated by the snake’s impatience (and more so by his own cowardice), he shushed it.
It was a stupid error.
At the slight sound, the buck glanced upwards, eyes moist with alarm. Daphne, always so quick, released the bowstring—but the deer had already turned to flee and the arrow arched past. The animal disappeared among the leaves. Dejected, cheeks reddened, the nymph moved to retrieve the arrow from where it rested on a pebbled sandbar. A clump of hair spilled down from its pile; a stream of unprintable words flew from her lips. She turned towards the shore where Apollo crouched.
Seized with fear, he ducked lower. His armpits were soaked, his teeth chattered. Even from several feet away he could smell the sweet-sour headiness of her sweat. For some reason, he felt as though he might cry.
All the world’s awkward encounters in fluorescent high school hallways, the glinting metal braces and cracking voices, all the swollen whitehead pimples and glittering hairspray-scented prom nights and the big wet pit stains on first dates—all of these moments seared in so many mortal memories were born first of one original moment, and it belonged to Apollo. The various poetic scenarios he had envisioned were already slipping away, and he could not even bring himself to speak to her.
II. The False Wings
The rumors of his white feathered wings were vaguely amusing, but false.
Eros rarely admitted that their absence had long ago instilled in him a sense of inadequacy—a feeling exacerbated by his fairly diminutive stature and the shadow his mother cast upon most who stood in her presence (especially her son). He had spent a lifetime cringing at the various artistic renditions of his supposedly winged body. Why wings? Wasn’t flying enough? Impressive enough? Speedy enough? Aerodynamically speaking, the wings in paintings didn’t even make sense. They were fattish and stumpy, a pair of insults instead of the swanlike things he would prefer (if he should have wings at all). Adding to his deep irritation over the whole issue was that when he told people who he was, he almost always had to convince them. Yeah, sure, they’d scoff. We’ve all seen the pictures, buddy.
So, in recent weeks, he had decided upon at least a partial solution: with a bit of wire, paste, and a discarded children’s costume, he fashioned a pair of fake wings. Admittedly, they were less than ideal. Not exactly swanlike. He only wore them if he knew he would be flying past a particularly public locale, populated with mortals bound to point, stare, swoon. Up close even the dumbest child could see the glue and wire, but from a short distance they looked real enough—even majestic, he thought, if you caught him at the right moment, the movement of his flight enhancing the illusion.
In truth, admiration was all he wanted.
When he stumbled upon Apollo’s weapons in the field that day, in the heavy shadow of Mount Parnassus, he intended no harm. He would later say, defensively, that he had always liked Apollo; anyone could see there was plenty to admire. Unlike Eros, with his smaller physique and soap-smooth chest, Apollo stood over six feet tall in bare feet. A trail of light brown ran from crotch to chest, where a forest of hair burst forth. Both gods were skilled with a bow, but killing made Eros queasy and he had no trophies to parade around in the manner of Apollo. Both had curls, but Eros’s were short and wiry and Jewish-seeming. Apollo’s were absurdly shiny and blonde, blown handsomely askew on windy days. Only days before, the god of light and music had slain the great Python at Delphi. From the beast’s dead carcass—which stretched far across the acres of wheat, they said—Apollo had carved a single green scale and attached it to his quiver. Eros had heard of Apollo’s fight with the Python, of course, even from several islands over. Now he happened to find himself in the area on business, but he was thinking of where he could perhaps find a good hand job, and from whom, not of Apollo and his myriad, tiring successes.
The morning was bright and the shadow of Parnassus fell westward. As Eros swooped below a shelf of cloud, the green eye of the scale caught his attention. He saw no one nearby and he first thought it an emerald or some other expensive jewel, and he licked his lips with pleasurable greed, and dove towards the earth.
The disappointment of his error was surpassed by his excitement at discovering Apollo’s belongings in a careless heap upon the grass. He wondered if the god had somehow been defeated, or kidnapped. Perhaps a sinkhole into the underworld had swallowed him, or his mother Aphrodite, who hated Apollo for being so apathetic towards her body, had enacted some gruesome revenge upon him. (Apollo had not so much as glanced at her breasts when they last ran into one another, she had confided glumly to Eros. Had she sunk so far into middle age? Was she one of those women—dumpy, sexless?). Some half-dozen other scenarios of Apollo’s demise flitted through Eros’s mind, each delightfully more punishing than the last.
But regardless of where Apollo had gone—which in actuality was only to squat behind a nearby boulder and shit, as even immortals must do—here lay the most coveted, most finely arching bow and sharpest arrows, fletched with peacock feathers.
Eros let his own quiver (a small, cracked leather affair) drop to the ground, and heaved Apollo’s up in his arms. He staggered, swayed, then regained his balance under the weight of it. The bright serpent scale hurt his eyes to stare at even in the blue of mountain shadow. The leather was the smoothest fawn, flawless. He considered stealing the scale, or snapping the arrows and scattering their wreckage on the grassy plain like so many bones. But Eros valued beauty above all else, even more than taming his hair, more than admiration. Beauty could rob him of breath: a field of mustard grain in the light of high noon. The world as it looked when he was flying fast above it, the unloosed ribbon of road racing below; a murmur of starlings in their patterned flight. Sometimes, while witnessing a moment of pure and unadulterated beauty, Eros felt not envious, but powerful. Taller. Stronger. Concerns about his wings, or lack thereof, diminished to a speck. He forgot about his mother and her ceaseless expectations; he forgot to scheme and plot and plan and envy. When he experienced true beauty, Eros found himself whole.
He would not, could not harm these lovely weapons. He wanted only to hold them, to smell the wood and the fawn, to know the feeling of something so finely crafted. So loved. As he held the quiver like a child in his arms he closed his eyes and inhaled.
It is unfortunate that at this moment, Apollo emerged from behind the boulder, lighter now, blondish curls springing from his head in the most attractive of ways. Eros’s back was to him and the young god—lover of mischief, lover of admiration—did not hear Apollo approach. Perhaps had he done so he would have taken off, startled, and avoided the whole situation.
As it were, he remained.
You there—little boy! Apollo called, genuinely mistaking Eros for a child.
Eros dropped the quiver and spun around. At the sight of Apollo his mood darkened. At the sight of Eros, Apollo groaned. He had never cared for Eros’s tricks; he was suspicious of his sudden presence. Gods rarely dropped from the sky with kind intentions.
Those arrows are for grown-ups, Apollo said. There was a coldness in his tenor. (Apollo in his worst moments was one of those young men who are at once charming and awful, the kind quickly admitted into college fraternities.) He added: You’re better off playing with your own toys.
The volume of your arrogance is matched only by the volume of your body hair, Eros sneered, though he flushed with embarrassment at the sound of his own high, nasal voice, nearly lost in the wind. He gathered his weapons (pitifully small and light, it seemed to him now) and prepared to fly off with haste. He had realized, upon seeing Apollo, that he was still wearing the fake wings and he hoped he could leave before Apollo noticed.
The two had never gotten along well. As a child Eros had teased Apollo about his crush on Daphne; Apollo, in turn, had mocked Eros for his height, the narrow slope of his shoulders. As grown men, their relationship had little changed. They avoided each other as a general rule but even then the world was small, and when one encountered the other, any acquired maturity or polite social habits dissolved. They turned spiteful and mean. Two petty, petulant children.
Apollo grinned. And I could see the wire in those wings from halfway across this field, he said.
At the sight of Apollo’s tattooed feathers—one on each forearm, each so delicately rendered—Eros’s embarrassment increased. Apollo bent to pick up his weapons, and as he did so the smaller god had little choice but to stumble backwards.
Of course, hurt feelings have a way of opening doors into other, older hurt feelings, and then those open up to still more hurt feelings, until we know only a mess of old wounds and fresh pain—and such was the case with poor Eros at this moment. Apollo’s insults opened a million doors inside of him at once; he felt the pain of the warrior god’s words multiply infinitely, compounded as they were by the pain of his mother’s expectations, his mother’s disappointments, his broken love affairs, his small hands, his short stature, his hairless body, his general failure of a childhood, his tragic flaws, etc. Anger crept upwards along the back of his neck. Splotches of purplish-red formed along his jaw line. He tried hard to think of some clever insult to throw back at Apollo, but fury betrayed his wit. Instead, he sputtered something unintelligible, something he meant to be insulting but sounded halfway between a gag and a girlish belch.
Apollo didn’t hear, anyway. He was ambling southward, the green scale alert at his back, the dark fletchings proud.