Hera is drinking her coffee upstairs on the veranda.
“Tell me a story,” I beg her. “How did you and Zeus meet?”
“We’re closely related, you remember,” says Hera. “For eons he chased me, and I ran, until he turned himself into a cuckoo, so wet and bedraggled I nestled him between my breasts. The wedding night,” says Hera, “lasted three hundred years.”
“William and young Lucinella come out on the front porch below us. I lean over the railing and watch William crush a leaf of lilac and hold his finger under young Lucinella’s nose. She draws her head back. They saunter together and disappear around the left corner of the house. “How does one handle jealousy?” I cry.
“Badly,” says Hera. “You know the story of Zeus and Semele, how I went to her disguised as a neighbor and whispered, ‘Next time tell him to show himself in his true nature or deny him your bed!’ Zeus, of course, came in thunder and lightning. That was the end of her. Poor Io! They thought it was Zeus who turned her into a cow and sent a gadfly after her, but it was me! And it wasn’t only jealousy,” says Hera. “Nobody knows that all the time I was watching my husband chasing every skirt and saw the skirts running, and knew he wasn’t going to make them except in some fool disguise, though everybody thinks it was to fool me.”
“Why did they run? I mean, I really like Zeus,” I say, and blush.
“I know you do,” says Hera and gives me that look I don’t understand. “Maybe,” she says, “he wasn’t all the prize you think.”
“Because of the skirts? All those nymphs and princesses?”
“All those princesses, and not only that,” says Hera. “It was the brutality, the cowardice.”
“Zeus’s cowardice?” I don’t like that. “Cowardice, yes,” she says. “You remember how his mother—Earth, you know—prophesied the child that Metis bore was going to dethrone him. Damned if Zeus, like his father and grandfather before him, doesn’t open up his mouth and with one gulp … and not the child only! Mother and all. So now he had to birth the baby. Have you ever been around a man who’s got a cold in the head? Imagine Zeus with Pallas Athene ready to spring from his brow! Then there was the time Typhon stormed Olympus when Zeus didn’t happen to have his thunder on him. What does he do but turn himself into a ram and skidaddle to save his own skin! When the monster made a pass at me, don’t you think Zeus strung me from the rafters of heavens with an anvil tied to each ankle—though he said it was in punishment for my rebellion. Ares had to come and get me down.” Hera sits very straight, chin high, still smoldering. She has forgotten not a tittle of her husband’s ancient offenses.
We are silent. “So why do we stick with them!” I say.
“Oh,” Hera says, “because one’s tied to them by one’s own possessiveness, by sex, I suppose. Not so much now any more, but I used, once in a while, to borrow Aphrodite’s girdle … And by pity.”
“Pity for Zeus?”
“Oh yes,” Hera says. “It’s watching the erosion of their powers that breaks the heart and grapples you to them even when they no longer want you. You’ve read your Aeschylus?”
“Well …” I say.
“Read it,” says Hera. “Read where the buccaneer god and philanderer has a stature second hardly to Jehovah, before Euripides began to psychologize and Plato turned us into literature. The Romans carved two frown lines between Zeus’s eyes, set his heads on prefabricated torsos, and disseminated him through the known world. In the Christian era, he had to go underground, and when he turns up again, he’s gone baroque, going rococo. By the eighteenth century what is he except a self-conscious grace note of erudition? Yesterday I saw him in company with Thor and Green Lantern, if you please—not all badly drawn—in a kiddie comic. Tomorrow he will find himself a minor character in some Tom, Dick, or Harry’s comical new novel. Desecrated, deposed, exiled, but incapable of dying, no longer god and unwilling—or is it unable?—to be human, what can he do but turn into an intellectual, write a book, research his own descent—heaven forgive me, maybe it’s an ascent—from a bearded snake to what? A refugee college professor!”
It’s William calling me. “I’m coming!” I cry.
In the curl of the banister stands Zeus having a quiet smoke. The party has got too hot and noisy for him, he says.
“Me too,” I say. “I’m going up to bed.” I lift my cheek for a good-night kiss. His tongue thrusts straight and deep between my lips and the world suspends its rotation. His hand inside my blouse touches, his mouth lifts out of mine, pronounces my name as if it were a foreign language: “Lucinella.”
I’m looking into the same astonished roundness of eye that Europa saw the instant of her rape. Whether disguised as bull, or swan, or golden shower activity (as they call it on television—and which requires a great imaginative effort), or as my aging intellectual, your true lover has the grace to be dazzled by each new passion. His veteran confidence needs no double-entendre to make loopholes for a misunderstanding. He says, “Let’s make love.”
Now that I know Zeus and I are going to be lovers (and know it’s him I would have wanted all along if it had occurred to me), I freeze. I want my mother! “Let’s not!” I say.
“Let’s,” he says, waits. No rape, no suasion. There’s no need.
I say, “All right,” and his immense arms take me up and lift me through the front door down the steps.
“But you’re married,” I say, ashamed to be so vulgar, but I have been jealous. It is Hera who’s my sister. What does Zeus know!
“We won’t tell her,” he says, on the faintest rising pitch of irritation. “Hera and I’ve been married these eons and have eternity to go.” He carries me over the midnight fields, tree and stone, into his bed. And when the earth resumes its motion, the direction has been radically altered; I’ve slipped away and run back to New York. I’m not ready yet to meet him with my morning face.
At home his letter awaits me: a quick page of astonished jubilation, and what admirable prose! Happiness is its keynote.
Mine is bewilderment. I’d wanted to be virtuous—that’s the prettiest dream of all!—but now elation must learn to co-exist with my guilty treachery and it’s not hard—oh, shabby guilt. As for happiness, there’s a word! I smile and smile, but how shall I recognize what I can’t exactly remember ever meeting face to face before? And I don’t know the rules. Is it all right to dispatch my prickly perplexity into Arcadia? If I could only talk with him for half an hour, I’d understand everything, and so I write him what I never meant to say: Come!
He writes back to say he will be here at 8:15 but must leave by 7:20 the next morning. He arrives on the dot.
I doubt if I’d have given Zeus a second look in his heyday, when he was gaudy with health, his dark-blue locks, his bristling beard, eyes like oxidized copper sparking pink and gold and purple lights, and his enormous size. I prefer my gods in their twilight. I lean into the voluptuous laxness of elderly flesh. Under my hands, great Zeus lies patiently; he knows how to suffer pleasure. His divine cock has lost none of its potence and his hand is omniscient.
I used to laugh at gods and kings. I’d imagined Zeus muscle-bound, stupid with power, rattling his enormous thunder, unable to control the whims and spectacular tempers of his oversized relations, but in my bed his mind moves feelingly. It’s just that mine, being Jewish and from New York, leaps more nimbly, which he enjoys. I sense his smiling in the darkness. When I get silly he reaches out laughingly to fetch me home to good sense and we make love again, sleep awhile, and more love and more talking.
I ask Zeus to visit inside my head. (You are invited, too. In here he and I, and you, will get to know one another, though like every hostess I’m a little nervous. Notice how I elide my sentences and keep my book short. I’m watching for signs of a yawn burgeoning behind your compressed lips. You don’t want to hurt my feelings, I know, but feel free to leave any time. Though your departing back will make a permanent dent in my confidence, one survives. I prefer it to your sufferance behind my back.)
Morning. I am chilled by the expanse of air that separates me from Zeus. He’s sitting on the edge of my bed. Once he’s put his socks back on, there’s no seduction of mine that can keep him one minute after 7:20.
Lore Segal, Lucinella, 1976.