Read Variations on an Apple Online

Authors: Yoon Ha Lee

Variations on an Apple

BOOK: Variations on an Apple
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The goddesses came to him three, when he was already thinking about numbers. One had her hair high-crowned with peacock's feathers woven together, and her mouth sardonic. One had hair the color of a yellow sun above the noontide sea, foam-fine, her eyes sideways smiling. And the last was tapping a war beat upon the helmet under her arm, one-two, one-two-three, one-two.

He didn't see them at first, lost in sandglass musings, and polygons begetting polygons, and infinite sums. In one-to-one correspondences and sheep counted by knots upon cords. An abacus, resting on his knee, dreamed of binary numbers and quantum superpositions; harmless enough, in this slant of time. It wasn't so much that Paris was a mathematician. Rather, it was that Ilion was a creation of curvatures and angles and differential seductions, and he was the city's lover.

Then the first visitor said, quietly but not gently, “Paris,” and he looked up.

Paris set his stylus aside, trailing smudged thumbprints and a candle-scatter of photons. “I must remember to get drunk more often,” he said quizzically, “if the results are always this agreeable.”

The first goddess gave him a smile like leaves curling under frost. “What a pity for you,” Hera said. “You'd like this much better if it were about pressing wine from your fancies.”

“Where are my manners?” he said, although he had already figured out that if having one god in your life was iffy luck, three was worse. “I doubt anything I could offer would be worthy of your palates, but maybe the novelty of mortal refreshments would suffice? I still have liquor of boustrophedon laments around here somewhere.”

“Oh, what's the harm,” Aphrodite said. Her voice was sweet as ashes, and Paris kept his face carefully polite despite the heat stirring in him. Futile, of course, especially the way she was looking at him with that knowing quirk of the lips. “A glass?”

“No, I want this done,” Hera said. “Indulge yourself later, if you want.”

Athena spoke for the first time. “I have to agree,” she said gravely.

“Then—?” Paris said. “You can't be here because you're looking for my charming company. At least, I can't imagine that charming company is difficult for you to find.”

“Hasn't your father ever warned you about being glib?” Hera said.

He only smiled, on the grounds that opening his mouth would just irritate her. Hera was high on his list of people not to irritate.

It was then that Hera produced the apple. Its brightness was such that everything around it looked dimmer, duller, drained of succulence. “What a prize,” she said softly, bitterly. “No one wants the damn thing, except being uncrowned by its light is even worse. Someone has to claim it.”

“Choose by random number generator?” Paris said, because someone had to.

“As if anything is truly random in the stories we write for ourselves,” Athena said. Because of the apple, even her voice was gray, not the clear gray of a sky forever breaking dawnward, but the gray of bitter smoke.

Uninvited, Aphrodite took up the abacus, sank down onto Paris's bed, and stretched out a leg. Her ankle was narcissus-white, neat, the arch of her foot as perfect as poems scribbled into sand and given to the tides. She shook the abacus like a sistrum. The rhythms were both profane and profound, and he could not escape them; his heartbeat wound in and around the beats. Then she put it down and he could think again. Her sideways eyes did not change the whole time.

“Why me?” Paris asked, the next obvious question. Or maybe the first one, who knew.

“Because there's a siege through the threads of time,” Athena said, “and you are knotted into it. Not that you're the only one, but that's not yours to know, not yet.”

Paris looked yearningly at the abacus, but it had no answer for him. “I am under no illusions that Ilion will stand forever,” he said. “Still, I had hoped it would last a little longer.”

“If that's your wish,” Hera said, “choose accordingly.”

“Indeed,” Athena murmured.

Aphrodite said nothing, only continued to smile with her sideways eyes, and Paris went hot and cold, fearing that the puzzle had no solution.

*   *   *

A few words need to be said about the apple at this point.

It had no fragrance of fruit, or even flowers, or worm-rot. It smelled of diesel hearts and drudgery and overcrowded colonies; of battery acid gone bad and bromides and foundered courtships. Intoxicating, yes, but in the way of verses etched unwanted upon the spirit's cracked windows. The smell was so pervasive that, once the apple showed up in the room, it was hard to imagine life without it. Not inaccurate, really.

The apple was not precisely the color of gold. Rather, it looked like bottle glass worn smoothly clouded, and if you examined it closely you could see the honey-haze of insincere endearments inside-out and upside-down and anamorphically distorted shining on the wrong side of the skin, waiting for you to bite in and drink them in, juice of disasters dribbling down your chin. Paris didn't have to take the bite to know how the apple tasted.

Paris could have awarded the apple to Hera. (
For the fairest,
it proclaimed, as though partial ordering was possible.) A lifetime's empire, and the riches to go with it. A prince, he was no stranger to the latter, even if (especially in time of war) there was no such thing as too much wealth. But he knew that it was one thing to scythe down the world with your shadow, and another to build ships, schools, roads; to gird your conquests with the integument of infrastructure. Even if the queen of the gods felled nations for him, conquest was never the hard part. As his mother often said, a hundred dynasties guttered out every day, from fire or famine or financial collapse.

He could have done the obvious and given it to Aphrodite, either because he ached for some phantasm of heart's yearning, or because he wanted to warm himself with a moment's kindling of appreciation in those sea-shadowed eyes. But that's an older story by far than this one.

That left Athena, gray-eyed, giver of wisdom. Athena, who leaned down to whisper in his ear that there were mysteries even greater than the ones he jousted with. Books of sand; tessellations of dart and kite, never-repeating; superpositions of sines in a siren's song ever-descending.

And here was where Paris did something even the farsighted warrior goddess didn't predict. He refused her too.

*   *   *

After the goddesses left, the room was full of shadows athwart each other, and mosaics unraveling into fissures, and sculptures scavenged from ruined starships. Paris saw none of them. Instead, he only had eyes for the apple. They had left it with him; they knew his decision, and they had no reason to believe that he would renege on it.

The apple did not burn his hands. It did, however, leave a prickling residue, which he could not see but which clung to his skin. He hoped the effect was temporary.

Ilion, nine-walled Ilion, spindled Ilion with its robed defenses. Outside and inside, the city-fort shone black, girded with lights of pearling white and whirling gold. He walked through its halls now, listening to the way his footsteps were swallowed by expanses of silence, toward its heart of honeyed metal and striated crystal. As he traversed the involute path toward Ilion's center, the apple whispered to him of radioactive decay and recursive deaths, of treaties bitcrushed into false promises.

No one said this was going to be easy
, Paris told himself ironically, and avoided looking at his blurred reflection in the sheening walls, the way his shadow stretched out before him as though yearning toward the dissolution past a singularity's boundary.

At last he came to Ilion's heart. The doors were open to him; they always were. He paused, adjusting to the velvet air, the sweetness of the warm light.

“Paris,” Ilion said. He sat with his feet crossed at the ankles, on a staircase that led down to nowhere but a terminus of gravitational escapades. Today he was a dark youth, clear-eyed, with curls that always fell just so. Two days ago he had been a tawny girl with long lashes and small, neat hands, the fingernails trimmed slightly too long for comfort. (Paris had the scratches down his back to prove it.)

Paris hesitated. The usual embrace would be awkward with the apple in hand, and setting the thing down struck him as unsafe, as though it would tumble between the chinks of atoms and disperse into a particle-cloud of impossibilities. “I have a gift for you,” he said, except his throat closed on
gift
.

“An ungift, you mean,” Ilion said. His voice was light, teasing, accented precisely the way that Paris's was.

“Don't,” Paris said. “Don't make this a joke.”

“I wasn't going to,” Ilion said, but the crookedness of his mouth suggested otherwise. Unhurriedly, he rose and ascended step by step, barefoot, crossing to clasp Paris's upper arms. “So tell me, what possessed you to bring this particular treasure here, instead of letting someone else have nightmares over it?”

No one had ever accused Ilion of having a small ego. Paris supposed that if he were as old, with an accompanying habit of kaleidoscope beauty, he'd be conceited, too. More conceited than he currently was, anyway. “Because it's for the fairest,” Paris said. He met Ilion's eyes. “And, frankly, because if anyone has a chance of keeping the wretched thing contained, it's the oldest and greatest of fortresses.”

“Flatterer,” Ilion said, smiling. “Do you never listen to your brother when he goes on about strategy? Only an idiot picks a fight when they could avoid it instead.”

“You are walls upon walls,” Paris said. “It's you or no one.”

“Give it here,” Ilion said after a moment's pause.

Paris didn't want to let go of the apple, despite its whispers. He felt it clinging to his skin. Clenching his jaw, he dropped it into Ilion's outstretched hand.

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