“I brought you a cooler this time, so it doesn’t go bad so fast.” Ariadne said to the hulking shape of her brother. Chips of peeled ceiling paint bounced on the floorboards as she shifted the heavy cooler to the floor with a sigh. Asterion didn’t stir from the shadowed triangle behind the window and the cracked door frame facing the courtyard.
A soft snort issued from the shadows. Ariadne decided to interpret the sound as gratitude.
She brought food to her brother whenever she could slip away. Food. Blankets. Socks. Anything he could need to survive in the dilapidated mansion he called his territory. Other homeless people avoided it claiming it was haunted by vengeful spirits. Urban explorers and photographers whispered about a monster lurking behind its walls.
His gaze burned her in the starlight. The fine hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as she pretended that she couldn’t see him. Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness minutes after she’d scrambled through the first low window into the lower floor of the carriage house. She could see his massive shape darken the arch as he shifted from foot to foot. He had grown strange, darker and angrier, in his years of isolation. Still, she couldn’t abandon him.
Asterion could not form human words. He could grunt, snuffle, and make noises, but he could not speak. What he could do was move. It was almost a dance, a language of feet and hands, punctuated by lowing and snorts. Ariadne and her mother were the most adept at listening to him.
Why? With a step into the light, he asked his sister.
“Why, what?” She paused, twisting away from her task to watch his movements.
Snort, shudder. Why live?
A chill whispered down Ariadne’s spine. “Why does who live?” she asked slowly.
Why ME live? He pounded his chest. Repeating the ME emphatically. Why ME. ME. ME. Why Live?
Ariadne stood up from the pile of supplies and faced her brother.
“Nobody knows. Mother thinks maybe we really are descended from King Minos like Yia-yia says…” Ariadne kept her voice low and calm, repeating the story they had heard a hundred times, but nobody believed. Not really. Not anymore. “Minos refused to sacrifice–”
Why me live NOW? The question was impatient, the words punched into the air.
“I don’t know, Asterion,” Ariadne admitted. “I don’t know. It feels like if there really are still any gods at all, they have forgotten us. Or are punishing us. I wish I knew. I wish I could help you. Maybe if I learn enough –”
His hand sliced through the air, cutting off her words of hope. Sacrifice ME gods.
The minotaur retreated into the darkness of the corner again. Repeating the signal for sacrifice over and over.
Ariadne left a fresh sleeping bag and a jug of water beside the cooler and whispered good-bye. “I’ll try to help you, Steri,” she said to the shadows, using her childhood nickname for her big brother. “I promise.”
She picked up the loop of yellow emergency rope and wound it around her arm and elbow as she walked. Her arms moved of their own accord, flickering in soft circles. She retraced the path over broken floorboards gaping into darkness below, around corners, under arches and through small overgrown tunnels of shrubbery. Ariadne knew Steri’s abandoned mansion like her own house. She knew the outside-in-ness of its passages. The under-over-ness of its winding stairs. If her brother was a labyrinth’s master, then she was its mistress.
Each year, she learned where the new bodies were, human corpses left to rot under the open sky somewhere in the maze of walls and terraces. He didn’t eat them. Sometimes they died because the building got them. A missed step, a decayed and rotting beam. Others, others Ariadne was pretty sure he toyed with them. Tortured them with the madness of the building and their hope of escape until he finally took pity on them and snapped their necks. They were his only entertainment, after all, besides these visits from his little sister.
It was not the first time he had asked her to kill him. However, this was the first time he’d used the signal for sacrifice. It was the first time she’d promised to try to help him die. Ariadne didn’t know quite how she would help her brother. She had to try.
The cruise ship farted and slid its way to the dock like they did every Thursday. Hundreds of tourists smelling of sunscreen and garlic streamed into Heraklion. The ones with ugly shoes and floppy hats started southward to Knossos. They would explore as much as they could on their excursions until the ship puttered them to do the same thing in Patmos or Thera the following day. Heavy with souvenirs and feeling satisfied that they had visited Crete, they would be gone by twilight. Ariadne usually avoided town on Thursdays.
This time, she clutched her promise to her chest with empty hands. None of these ugly-shoed tourists could do the job. She could win none of these people to her cause… except the final young man who trailed behind the rest. A massive camera looped around his neck. He paused to take photographs at strange angles down alleys that everyone else ignored. His eyes glittered like stars as he met her gaze.
“Excuse me, miss.” The young man’s voice rang a bit too loud as he addressed her. “I’m looking for an abandoned mansion. Have you –”
“Going to take photos?” She stepped forward, eyeing his camera and the bulges in his pockets. “A lot of people get hurt in there. I wouldn’t go inside.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Ariadne blinked. “I can show you where it is.”
Saying a brief prayer to whichever of the old gods might hear her, she set off down the gravel path she had just walked a few days previous.
“Aren’t you worried about the monster?” The man said the word with a grin, like he didn’t believe a word of the stories.
“There are homeless people who nest in there, I’d avoid them.” She said, keeping her voice measured and low. “Do you have a weapon? You know, just in case?”
He glanced at her nervously, for a moment, then nodded. He drew a gleaming black handgun from one of his many pockets. He handed it to her with the barrel pointed carefully toward the gravel path. “I’m not supposed to have that on the ship,” he admitted.
“Maybe Poseidon likes guns.” Ariadne shrugged. But she took the weapon in her hands and weighed it for a moment. Steri wanted to be sacrificed. Not just killed. She whispered a tiny prayer that she hoped would help and handed the gun back to the young photographer.
As they reached the slender path of desire that skirted the main gates and slid into the dusty cypress grove beyond it, Ariadne started her instructions. “This is old-fashioned, but GPS doesn’t get a signal out here.” She handed him the yellow line of rope that she’d used for her trips into the tangled buildings. She anchored the rope to a wrought iron curl near the first-floor window.
“Take the rope with you and unwind it was you walk. If you have to make a choice as to which way to go, choose forward and down, never left or right. If you see red paint splashed on the floor, those boards are rotten and you will fall to your death. Watch for the red paint.”
“You’re not coming with me?”
She shook her head. “Forward and down. You’ll reach the courtyard. That’s what you want to take photos of anyway.”
He nodded. The courtyard was famous. Mosaics still gleamed under the decaying building and photographers competed to take photos there at various times of day. Sometimes they left food or something for Asterion. Sometimes they got out alive.
“The rope will lead me back…” Theseus looked thoughtful for a moment. “What do you get in return for helping me?” he asked.
Ariadne wished again that she knew an old god worth worshiping, but Dionysus was the only one whose stories had ever mattered to her. Her parents would never forgive her for this. She could not go home after orchestrating the death of her brother.
“Can you sneak me onto the ship?”
“I can try.” It was good enough.
One gunshot popped and echoed in the midmorning air. Ariadne waited. Hours later, the young photographer emerged, spattered in her brother’s blood and coated in sweat. But triumphant with his photos.
Ariadne imagined his hands would be stained forever with the blood, but they were merely grubby when he said, “Come on.”
Ariadne held the rough hand all the way to the dock. Numb, she boarded the ship in silence. She stared at the shadows of Heraklion at nightfall. At the place where the city blocked the starlight and where the old palace swallowed it. She watched as all that she knew sank into the reflection of the moon on the sea.
If they passed islands in the darkness, Ariadne was not aware of them. She stared at the bright stars that drew a reclining letter kappa. It was close to the western horizon now, soon to be invisible until next autumn.
At dawn, the ship pulled into a small port on a rocky island. The announcement said it the island of Naxos. It was meaningless to her. Tourists lined up, dressed in their floppy hats and sunscreen. Naxos was as good as anywhere. Grabbing an orange from the breakfast buffet, Ariadne joined them on the walk to shore.
While the wash of humanity edged toward the archeological sites and shopping areas, she wandered into a grove of fig trees nestled in the shelter of an ivy-covered cliff. Her footsteps startled a snake with lines along the length of its wide body. When it slipped into a crevice in the cliff covered by curtains of ivy, Ariadne smiled. The ivy separated with a gentle tug, and the snake was gone. Inside the little cave rested an altar to a god, covered in offerings of food and wine, bread and incense. Ariadne placed her half-eaten orange on the crowded altar.
“Help me, I do not know my future now.” Ariadne knelt before the altar on stone that was smoothed by many knees. “Hear my plea, Dionysus.” She spent several quiet moments in contemplation inside the tiny cave. If she could, she would do it the old-fashioned way and sleep there, hoping for a dream.
Instead, she stood and brushed off her knees, and turned back toward town. Even before she stepped out of the shelter of the wide leaves, Ariadne realized that the clatter and chirp of the tourists was missing.
Stepping out onto the beach, Ariadne felt as if her heart would stop beating in her chest. The cruise ship had already left the port. It grumbled and puffed away to the next dock without her. She sank to the hard sand.
What would she do? There was no one here to do anything for. There was no one who needed her. No one who could love her for her cleverness or her hard work. She was alone on a beach on an island she knew nothing about. She was as homeless as Asterion. She was worthless to everyone.
She had betrayed her family to keep her promise to her brother. Her poor parents. She had no monster to help and no labyrinth to master. She was no one. She had nothing.
There was not even a heroic photographer to claim Ariadne as his prize.
Her despair crowded the darkness behind her eyelids and she opened her eyes again at the growing brightness of the mid-morning sun gleaming off the sea. Her gaze fell on her hands. Her left hand was smeared rust brown with dirt. She imagined it was Asterion’s blood.
The only thing that had made her special had been the labyrinth. Her brother. Their secret pact. She had fulfilled her purpose.
Was death the only thing left for her?
The sand was not a comfort under her head as she lay back and stared at the familiar blue sky. Her belly heaved and the first few sobs surprised her as they jolted through her body. She let herself weep – openly, loudly, shamelessly. Her big brother was dead at her hand. She had betrayed her family. No one wanted her.
When her face was puffy and tight, and her body tired from crying, she sat up. Gazing at the soft waves of the sea before her, she became aware of her own breath in her nostrils. Of her ribs expanding with each inhale. Ariadne touched one fingertip to her throat. Her heartbeat answered her.
She rose and rinsed the dried blood off her hand in the gentle surf. Then she stood, hugging her arms tight across her chest and faced the breeze.
She was alive. She answered to no one. Belonged to no one. A jumbled sort of giddy joy filled her as she stood there. She shouted, confused and overwhelmed, into the openness of the beach and the sky.
The sound of an answering whoop replied from the grove of fig trees. The nearness of another voice almost sent Ariadne tumbling into the waves.
“It’s just me,” a man’s voice said from the shadows of the grove. A great bull stepped onto the beach, its hooves sinking deep in the sand. As Ariadne watched, the bull transformed into a man’s body with a bull’s head. Her breath caught in her chest, she wondered if it were her brother come back alive, come back to forgive her. To whisper benediction. But her brother could have never said those words. And her brother’s bullish face was white, while this one gleamed black.
Then the bull’s head transformed into that of a beautiful young man with curling black hair. His smile held mischief and sensual promises, daring her to kiss him. His walk was too graceful. His eyes were dark and violent with secrets.
Ariadne’s belly flipped inside her. She didn’t know what to think of this transforming, beautiful man. She didn’t think but trembled and wept. She fell to her knees before the old god.
“My lovely Ariadne,” Dionysus stretched his hands out to her. “My bride.”
Alicia Anderson has a MA in Mythological Studies and Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute where she is pursuing a Ph.D. Her work has been printed in Mayday Magazine and a recent anthology from World Weaver Press called Grimm, Grit, and Gasoline.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The House of Asterion.” Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, London: Penguin.
Burnett, Leon. “Ariadne, Theseus, and the Circumambulation of the Mythic Self.” Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, vol 40, no. 2, July 2017
Downing, Christine. “Ariadne: Mistress of the Labyrinth.” YouTube, presented by the San Diego Friends of Jung, 14 Nov 2013, youtu.be/VNge6OIuVQg
Grazia Griffo, Maria. “The myth of the Minotaur: from the genesis to the contemporary interpretation.” January 2009. http://www.dynamic-psychology.eu/
Mandelbaum, Allen, trans. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993.