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.
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.