Atlanta and the Golden Apples

And now for something fun…a story. For anyone who’s interested in the non-poetic version check Bullfinche’s Mythology, there’s also a brief bit in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Meanwhile read on and enjoy the race:


Atlanta and the Golden Apples

Since Meleager killed his uncles (both)
For the sake of your pretty face,
You’ve set aside your silver bow
And traded hunting for the race.
The man who wants you to wive
He must take up the chase.
But what prize to win?
your pretty head, your blushing hide
the land, the cash, the pride
that will dower you.
Ah! but if his grasp this fleet maiden miss?
No blushing bride he’ll own
but pay his debt to Dis.
If only they had the sense to leave well enough alone…
you never wanted this.

Still they’ve come –
stand pawing at the starting line like Phoebus’ horses
primed to haul the weight of day across dawn’s broken rim.
You flash a pitying glance at them
then gird your softer self with iron will
to win –
“What idiots,” you think
“would gamble death for lust?

You set aside your cloak and stand;
slender virgin, lilly pale, in your running dress
fringe grazing your thigh
as you play teasing rabbit
to their panting hounds
but rabbit is swifter than breath
and dogs will die.

Will you stay to watch the executions
By your father duly meted out?
No, you’ve seen enough of death,
The Boar, Meleager and his kin, and now these fools
Who traded life for the chance
To own your glowing skin.

But who is this?  Striding willow light and straight
Across the field like Eros unwinged;
face as gentle, fair, and blue eyes just as bright.
It’s Hippomenes! the boy who, standing at the finish,
Called your foot first across the line.
Now, enchanted by your fluid grace,
He’s come to offer challenge
You see it in his face though he’s still six steps away.
You want desperately to press your soft fingers to his sweet lips, saying:
“Hippomenes – No! My thigh, my breast,
my blushing cheek – no part of me
can be worth this!”

But it’s too late,
The words escape, he taunts:
“What, no trouble for you to outrun
that rack of tortoises?  All clatter and no meat!
I think that I could win you running, as I can,
like Zephyr’s sigh and twice as fleet!”
“Proud as a lion,” you think, admiring.
Still the oracles warning like a tocsin clangs:
“Atlanta, do not marry; it will be your ruin…
and his.”
and so you say:
“I’m ready when you are – Tortoise!”
shaking your head, wondering which pazzo god
has willed this youth to death.

Is he speaking to this god now, eyes up, head tilted
and what is that in his hands?
But now they’ve called the start
And you are running hard out…
but still, he’s managed, somehow
to     catch
What’s this he’s flung aside?
glowing golden in the grass –
an apple like a jewel of heaven?
but wait! Now he’s far ahead
and you must panting run to  nip
his heel’s again!
From the laggard’s place you see
his legs are strong,
now closer,
the golden curl against his neck…
his foot strikes the ground
no firmer than a feather.
He flies but you fly faster!
quick, quick!  he casts again –
what now! does he have another?
Your foot falters in consternation and
in fear:
What god’s game is this,
played with magic fruit?
Who is meant to win?
Who is meant to lose?

Ach! Damn, he’s ahead again!
You run,
you run,
you see that he’s begun to lose his wind!
The goal is near; you register the terror on his face
The prayer in his eyes though he’s looking through you,
past – at something else…
his arm
his hand
he drops the final golden treasure
at your feet.
You stop dead
in shock
and then it’s done
in that one
brief intake of breath
he’s beaten death,
and won
the race.
With it comes your hand,
and, unknown to him, your unlucky fate.

But you’re not thinking of that now.
You’re thinking that he’s beautiful;
Strong and slender, perhaps a hands breadth
Taller than you – perhaps, he will make a fine husband?
Together, a matched pair
both swifter and lighter
than air.
Sweaty, your muscles stiff, you hold the unnatural apples in your hands;
gamely hoping they are a blessing…
Hippomenes comes to kiss his prize;
You are tired, his arms are warm.
As you lay your cheek against his own
you hear, for the first time,
the roar of the crowd – they sound
like lions…

poem copyright Bonnie McClellan 2006 first publication in CC Writer 
magazine. Fall 2006.

By bonniemcclellan

Mother, poet, american ex-pat from Texas living in Northern Italy.


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