Short Story Petals Bend in the Wind
Apollo’s entire being is unstoppable. Yet even he cannot keep up with Zephyrus, with the whipping stone and wind.
I am no longer worshipped in these lands, and so I spend my time learning from him.
A summer breeze kisses my cheeks flushed, both from Apollo’s presence and the focus it takes to hold the bow taut. His breath, as tasty as sweetened frankincense, warms the back of my neck. Each puff spells out his words against my skin like poetry. My ears are alert and attentive. My back shivers knowing he is so close, knowing his breath touches me, wishing his lips would.
His hand brushes my elbow, keeps it straight and steady. His whole being is wrapped around me. Me, nestled in his chest, while he sculpts my body like a statue. His other hand pulls away from mine, now that I have a tight hold on the drawn arrow. I grip the polished olive-wood bow. I breathe him in deep.
The verdant fields just beyond the walls of Amyclae. The scent of a summer’s day. Warm, citrusy, sparkling.
“Hold it steady, Hyacinth,” he whispers. I love how my name sounds in his mouth. “And then, when you are ready . . .”
His hand drops from my elbow. It grazes my thigh on its way down. He remains only a sigh’s length away from me, attentive of my form.
My muscles are tight; then they loosen. I release the arrow. It sings sharply through the thick midday sun, plants itself in the middle of the target.
“You did it!” he says.
“I did it!”
I whirl around to his beaming face, his gold-drenched curls. Then he sweeps me in his arms and wrestles me to the ground, landing gently in the soft grass. He taught me that too. Back in days long gone, I did not know how to wrestle or shoot a bow or play the lyre; I am not as well-practiced in that yet. No, back when I was the center of cult worship, I taught the mortals how to tend to the flora growing along the hillsides and fields surrounding Amyclae, like saffron and crocuses and olive trees.
But those times are long behind me. The mortals have found someone new to favor. As have I. So I lie here in the grass, one arm on Apollo’s chest to prop me up and help me look into his god-sparkling eyes.
“You are very good with a bow,” he says. His voice flows like a song.
“I do not even know when I will need to use one,” I respond. This pulls his lips into a smile. A mouth full of sharp marble.
“Who knows? But it is something we can do together.”
My fingers, so lithe, trace his strong knuckles. His hands are rarely gentle, except with me and his harp. “Let me show you something else we can do together,” I say. “We can try tending to the laurel trees again.”
His hand leaves mine, brushes through my thick curls. Fingers get tangled. “If that is what you want, we can try again,” he says, though there is his bashful undertow.
The last time, he paid no heed to my instructions and broke a branch clean off an old laurel in excitement.
He can bring plagues down onto a city, can sling arrows like rays of light and compose the most beautiful lyrics I have ever heard, more so than the mortal poets. But he does not know how to coax the crocus blooms open into a smile, does not know how to ask the olive fruit to be sweet. And though we have practiced cutting marshmallow root for healing wounds and harvesting peonies for a number of cures, he lacks the attention and care for medicine.
But I have no choice but to teach him, because the mortals make their prayers to him now. And I cannot let the flora wither to nothing simply because they chose him. It would break my heart to feel these fields die. He must learn.
I rest my palm against his hand at the side of my face. I press and feel his caress against my head. “If you are going to take over the shrine at Amyclae, then you must know.”
“But that is what I have you for.”
“Is that the only reason?”
Apollo smiles, a gentle breeze ruffling his hair. “Just because the mortals no longer leave you favors and make you sacrifices, it does not mean the shrine is not yours. We can share it. I want you at my side, my beautiful Hyacinth.”
And when he says those words, I am doused in sunwarmth. Being with him is befuddling, almost like getting wine-drunk, and I cannot help but want more of him. He gives his love so freely, when I am so desperate for it. He adores me, when others have stopped. And so I cannot stop myself from leaning forward and kissing him, his lips fresh and crisp like a summer-morning rain. Warm, wet, welcomed.
I smile and gaze into his eyes again. “The mortals pray to you now, not me. You have a responsibility to care for the fields that feed and heal them. With practice, you will do better.”
I feel his fingers twisting themselves into my hair, pressing our lips closer. He draws my body on top of his, my hands hungry for the muscles flexed beneath his chiton. My lips catch between his teeth. Our thighs entwine, like roots of a tree. I am safe in his touch, his presence on the back of my head, his arms wrapped around my waist.
A breeze picks up, brushing against the two of us, ruffling our hair, sweeping dirt into our faces. It bends the grass and brings the leafy trees in the distance to a shivering sway. Then, as sudden as it came, sudden does it leave.
Now, I am cool.
Another day of riding in Apollo’s chariot, drawn by two large snow-white swans with mighty wings that scatter the clouds and beat the winds. We land in the wide field where my home is. It is a structure tall and marble, topped with a dome of bronze, beaten by the best mortal metalsmiths. Its foundation is surrounded by violets. Grapevines crawl around a column with clusters of fruit ripe to bursting. The swans begin nibbling at the grass, their white feathers kissed by dusk’s rosy smile.
I hop down from his chariot, still wearing the sea-purple shawl he gave me, clasped at my shoulder with my favorite brooch—a wide fig leaf of gold. I look up at him. “You will not be long?”
Apollo smiles down on me, and I ache to feel him under my touch. “I must meet my father and the rest of our family in Troy,” he says. “There are whispers in the wind of what mortals will do there, and we must convene.”
“But do not be long.”
He smiles once more before tugging on the reins, urging the swans to beat their wings in large bursts until they are in the air and drag the chariot away.
His absence fills me immediately. I pull his sea-purple shawl tighter over my shoulder and walk inside. The silence of the doors sliding shut settles over the foyer, and I realize I am alone. I walk through the slant of moonlight from above, climb the stairs, enter my bedroom. There, I lie on the bed, looking at the ceiling lit only by the moon, and take in the usual silence. If Apollo were here, I might hear the echoes of worship in the high marble ceiling above, those same prayers and pleas once meant for me.
The wind picks up. A burst of warmth throws open the windows.
One moment, I am watching the moonlight carve out the darkness of my bedroom; the next, a man—tall, handsome, glowing—is walking over to my bed, as if formed from nothing. His entrance blows the dust off my memories, makes me think of all the times he visited my bed before. The man made of wind folds his wings behind his back; they are translucent, though they grow fainter the closer he gets to me, dripping like stardust. His salty gray hair is long and oiled, like he usually wears it, windswept after flight.
I hesitate to move or speak, but I finally mutter, “Hello, Zephyrus.”
He frowns, and even that does not mar his beautifully sharp face, all pointed and cold. “You do not seem particularly glad to see me.”
I swallow, because it is true.
“Go back to Thrace,” I order him. I beg him.
“But I miss you,” he says. His words rustle like poplar leaves. It sends a frisson of something through my ribcage—pleasure, perhaps, or fear.
The truth is, I miss him too. I miss the way Zephyrus would bring the scent of spring flowers and ripe fruit everywhere we went. I miss the way he would gently bend my crocus fields and honey-scented grass with the lightest touch of his voice. I miss the way his presence would feel like a rush of fresh air every time we came together.
“I saw you with him,” Zephyrus says. “In the field, after he taught you to shoot his bow.”
“He cares about me.”
“Does he see he is pushing you out of your shrine? Does he pay attention to your needs?”
“Does he see he is pushing you out of your shrine? Does he pay attention to your needs?”
There is a slight, chilled gust at the edge of his words. He stands taller now, stouter. I know all too well how quickly that wind can turn violent. How many sailors has he blown off course? How many has he dashed into the craggy shores?
“The mortals no longer worship me.” My voice cracks, and even I cannot hide that sadness.
Zephyrus walks over to the bed and sits down next to me. He leans in, and warmth caresses my face. There is a heaviness to his presence. Is he too angry at Apollo? At me? Does he love me too much? My fingers curl in anticipation. He is a storm, swelling at my horizon.
“Do you think they would worship him over you if you did not teach him medicine? Which plants can cure what illness? You have seen how he took sunlight from Helios.”
I cannot fight off Zephyrus’s words flocking me like birds, stripping my lands of branches and pine needles for nests. He is right. But Apollo loves me, and I love that he loves me. I need him to love me.
“He says I am beautiful,” I say.
“I hate you with him,” he hisses. “Would that I could take you away from him.”
“He loves me.”
The wind leans in, and I can smell the ripe pomegranate trees. His fingers, a breeze of a touch, rest against my fig-leaf brooch. They wrap around the gold and pull so Apollo’s sea-purple cloak comes undone. He leans in, his words tickling my ear.
“Do you remember how we would lie in the fields on warm spring days? Before the Spartans were Spartans. Before him .”
How could I forget? He would carry bees to and from their thick, sticky honeycomb with care after they fed off all the flowers I had grown. He would blow the orange blossoms, shake them of their pollen, and carry the little bits of life to other blossoms so they would peel open into tangy fruit. He knew how important it was to be careful with nature and life, and I loved him for it. And I thought he loved me.
Then he met the rainbow and ran away with her. After that, he never came back to me. Until now.
“What do you want?” I ask. I cannot remember what I was doing before Zephyrus poured into my window.
“I want you.” He kisses my shoulder, and I shudder. Like always, his words are a gentle breeze bringing me into his harbor. I feel safe with him leaning over me.
“I want you too.”
“I miss you,” he says again.
Because I miss him too, and because I still love him, and because I need his love as much as I need Apollo’s love, I lean in without thinking and let our lips press. I need this love. I am desperate for love. To go from the love of worshippers over so many ages—brooches and shawls and root-cutting knives—to a shrine empty of gifts has left me hollow and wanting. Once, my ceilings were full of prayers and pleas. Now crickets call these halls their home. And no matter how much Apollo tries to teach me his talents, I am still empty. I am still Hyacinth. And I still need love.
Into Zephyrus’s mouth, I whisper, “Come back to me.”
And soon his hands push me on my back. I am out of breath. He gets on top of me, and a bluster whips up the bed sheets and my stygian curls are in my eyes and his oiled locks are swaying in the air. His teeth bite my lips, sharp as a cold snap in early spring. I take Zephyrus and his love. I consume them both, hungry and desperate.
A week passes, and Apollo returns.
The chariot is at first a speck in the sky, like a seed newly planted in the soil. With the sun growing brighter and brighter, coming up overhead, that seed grows, taking root in my heart and in my eyes, blooming into a wide span of wings that swell and swell and swell. It is exciting. It is thrilling. The swans land in the field, gray feet padding to a still, the chariot right behind and skidding to a halt on a patch of dry dirt.
Apollo climbs down and runs toward me. His saffron shawl is rippling behind him, his hair gold-drenched in the midsummer bright.
“You are back,” I say. An unstoppable smile moves across my face.
“I missed you,” he says, embracing me in his heavy, citrusy scent. I delight in the ease of his strong arms lifting me up. Here, I feel protected.
“I missed you too.”
That night with Zephyrus is a dream to me. An already-fading blur of wind and fear and starlight. I do not think about it while in Apollo’s arms.
“What is happening in Troy?” I finally ask.
“It has not come to pass yet, but the mortals will fight a long war, all for the sake of a woman who comes between two men.”
I swallow. My jaw muscles tighten. “Is there a way to stop it?”
Though I know the answer to that already. I know the power the fates have over gods and the unavailing efforts we might take against them. It is all in vain, because whatever we do to feel some sense of authority, even we cannot fix what has been decided for us. Perhaps that is why so many of the gods toy with the mortals: for control.
That is when I feel the wetness on his bicep, hidden beneath his shawl. Apollo is injured. “What is this?” I ask.
He puts me down and unfastens his brooch. His shawl falls to the ground, revealing his arms, bare and branded, with a long sliver through his bronze skin. It is dripping with ichor, with glittering sunlight.
“Athena and I argued about what to do with the Trojans and the Greeks. But it does not hurt,” he adds, as if that will quiet the worry.
“You could not heal it?”
This makes Apollo blush. Is it so easy to make this god grow quiet? “I could not remember what plants and roots you said to use.”
I merely shake my head and start looking through the field for little white flowers with clusters of rosy stamens. When I find a few marshmallow plants, I use one of Apollo’s knives to dig deep into the soil and pull out the roots. I cut, then squeeze some of the roots’ juices into Apollo’s wound. I can feel his muscles relax after a few moments.
“That feels good.”
“I hope you were paying attention.”
Apollo gives a weak smile before brushing back his hair. “I have something for us to do.” Then he walks back to his chariot. He pulls out round stones that have been ground down and polished into smooth discuses. “A new game for us.”
Only this puts a large grin on Apollo’s face, so I nod in agreement.
We begin the ritual of stripping off our clothes, like we would to wrestle: Apollo pulls my brooch out of the shawl, unclasping the gathered fabric and letting it fall into the soft grass. I stand there before the god of sunlight, vulnerable, one shoulder exposed, the other covered by my chiton, which Apollo then undoes. I feel the fabric slough off me to the ground.
A gentle wind brushes over my bare body in the field, light as kisses.
Then I help undo his snow-white fabric, crisp against his brawny chest. A rustle of leaves shivers in my ribs, and a building excitement moves through my limbs. It is not simply that Apollo is naked. I have seen him naked before, many times.
But I do not have too much time to ponder this. He takes up a pitcher of olive oil and spills some onto his strong hands and rubs it all over my body. The rustling thrill builds as his calloused fingers fill the nooks in my architecture, softly and gently. Once I am slick and shining, I do the same thing to him. My fingers—not calloused, because flowers demand the softest touch—cup around his muscled biceps, his broad chest, his thick thighs.
Zephyrus told me the mortals would not worship Apollo if not for the talents I have been teaching him. But right now, Apollo glistens in the summer sun, and I am reminded why he shines in his own right.
Zephyrus told me the mortals would not worship Apollo if not for the talents I have been teaching him.
Apollo goes first, picking up a stone discus, his fingers flexing loosely over the thin edge. I take many steps back, give him the wide field to himself. From there, I can watch his body all at once.
In the time he takes to prepare himself, clouds sail into the sky from over the mountains. They are puffy and white and thick, as if to contend with the bright rays of summer. The field of grass is carved apart into shade and sun.
Apollo stands, facing me. Then, in a motion that is all at once quick and slow, he turns his body and shifts his weight onto his left foot, making the rest of him light as air as it curls around the empty space behind him. His right foot lands in the dry dirt, muscles flexing up his calves and thigh, and the rustling shivers in me more. He does one more effortless whirl, his oiled body a sparkling blur, before his hand loosens the discus.
It goes soaring, high, high up and scatters the thick clouds. Shafts of light pour through the breaking gray and shine on the discus singing back to the earth and landing with a thud. I can feel the grass crumple beneath the stone.
Then it is my turn. While Apollo stands in the distance, I try to follow his movements, so brightly seared onto my mind. I flex and whirl and feel the world beneath me fall away. It is an awkward sensation, a movement my body is unaccustomed to, but it is a stunning combination of air and light that makes me happy. My feet lift from the ground, and for a moment I am weightless while the wind whips my hair. All I see is devoured by sunlight. The discus flies up, though not as high as Apollo’s climbed. The clouds sail quickly through the sky, untouched by my smooth stone.
“That was good,” Apollo says when I hurry over to him, his hand grasping my shoulder. The oil slicks between us.
“I like it better than the bow.”
I see the smirk sharpen on Apollo’s face, blinding and bright, everything the sun is, before he runs back out to the field. Then the air seems to chill. Those clouds above all warp and mix together, the white turning gray and growing heavier. My breath catches in a panic.
Zephyrus. So possessive. So impulsive.
I notice Apollo is too eager to throw again and pays no attention to the darkening sky. He picks up another discus, weighs it in his hands, then walks out further into the field. He sends it soaring up once more, higher than before, and it is swallowed up by the clouds. I cannot see where it is. The clouds, gray and heavy, keep the heavens from my eyes.
A breeze picks up, whipping, angry. It is very familiar. The dark sky is a bruise, an echo of pain I have felt before.
The discus finally drops from the sky, a spill of stone.
Then the breeze becomes a gust becomes a storm and gale. I know that anger and jealousy. The branch-breaking wind swings the discus off its falling path, sends it whipping into another direction. It is all slow motion. I try to move. I try to pick up my feet and get away, darting from where I stand, where I once believed I was safe.
But the wind has always been faster than the blossoming flower. And a storm does not care what garden it tears apart.
In the briefest window of time, I look to Apollo in the distance, already in motion toward me, his entire being unstoppable. Yet even he cannot keep up with the whipping stone and wind.
Then, in an instant, my light shatters.
Zephyrus watches the stone dash the boy across the field, immortal no longer, no longer worshipped. The wind’s rage now rolls to a whisper, barely enough to lift a leaf.
The god of poetry unleashes a howl of pain, too miserable to be contained by lyrics. He falls to his knees and scoops up the fragile boy, but his body is slack in those strong arms, not unlike violets trampled and left to droop, their stems all crumpled, too weak to hold up their heads.
It is a death that seems impossible. Not only because Hyacinth was once sovereign over all this region’s landscape, but because he, Apollo, saw the boy as unbreakable. He was resilient. And he was protected. Because Apollo was powerful and would do all in his means to keep him safe. Even now, he admires Hyacinth’s face. Soft in death, eyes closed as in sleep. But still, that calm cannot distract Apollo from the wet, dark dent in the stygian curls sticking to his head.
Zephyrus whirls above, his heart deflating at the realization of what he did. He did not think he would grow so wild while watching those two together in the field, where he used to visit Hyacinth. He did not think his Hyacinth would, could die.
Apollo begins moving frantically, lying the boy’s bare body in the grass once more, then scavenging through the flowers scattered in the field.
What flower did Hyacinth use moments ago on his spear-pierced wound?
Why did he not pay more attention?
He finds a white flower. It was white, was it not? He does not bother with a knife but delves into the soil with his bronze fingers and scoops up the flower, root and stem. He breaks the root in half with bare hands and squeezes juice into the side of Hyacinth’s head. He caresses the wound.
But what he does not realize is the flower does not have that cluster of rosy stamens. It is not the marshmallow plant, and so its root is powerless against fate. When the body does not rouse awake, when death does not recede, Apollo buckles over. The side of his face presses against the bare chest, lithe and oiled, and tears trickle onto the boy.
“I am sorry, Hyacinth,” he whimpers.
Then, when he finally looks up and clears the tears from his eyes, he sees a thin rivulet of glittering red reach from Hyacinth’s head into the grass, and where the rivulet ends a flower has sprouted up, many-petaled and purple. Richer than the sea, fragrant as Olympus.
Apollo understands now what he must do.
Zephyrus bends down across from him, invisible and light-winged, and listens intently.
“Do not worry, my Hyacinth. I will make sure you are remembered and worshipped. I will take you, gently like you taught me to be with flowers, and plant you across Amyclae. They will celebrate you every summer. And one day, they will even end a war because of you, because they must turn around from whatever land they are on and march home to where your tomb will be built in our shrine. And I promise to learn to heal whomever needs it, as long as the sun shines on your petals.”