Fiction: Hecuba to Him

Larry Smith 

Read More: A Brief Interview with Larry Smith

He fell sick very soon after he got to his father’s house on the island. It was a debilitating torpor. There was no specific pain except a dull ache everywhere. His father was crestfallen, and had the bed in the master bedroom made up for him. He lay there for days in the gentle light. His father’s wife knocked a few times a day and graciously asked after him. Her smile was all affection. Her eyes were warm and guileless. She was in her early forties, more than ten years younger than his father.

They had first met shortly before she married his father. He had only been back to the island once after the wedding for a short visit. He was healthy that time. And he was usually healthy whenever he was not on the island. But this time on the island he broke down and was sick.

She asked if he wanted any music. He said yes, softly. The music was soft too, when she provided it. Her arms were prematurely wrinkled. Her skin was pallid. But she was a healthy woman. She moved about self-confidently. But it was never strident self-confidence.

The doctor came and prescribed something. It didn’t help. On another island, far away, he recalled a woman in love with her husband’s son. She accused him of raping her. Her husband saw to his own son’s death. The woman killed herself and so did her maid who had tried to do her best but made matters worse. He dozed recalling the story. Words merged as he dozed, nearly feverish. A different eye land. Another I land.

When he awoke, his father was standing there. He was a stately tall man. He’d worn a beard for some years but it was shaved now. His face was craggy. His eyes were as kindly as his wife’s. “You’ll get better soon,” he said solicitously. “And when you do, we’ll go out and have a fine time.”

“I want that,” he answered. He did, because he always enjoyed being on the island the half-dozen or so times he was.

“There are some good shows off-Broadway,” his father said. “And you haven’t seen MOMA since it was redesigned.”

“I’d like to, very much,” he said.

In his preface to Phedre, Racine says that, while in Euripides and Seneca Hippolytus is accused of having raped his mother-in-law, in his version he is accused of no more than wanting to. Racine wished to avoid making Theseus less agreeable to the audience by such imputations. But Hughes translates Theseus thus:

After your ravenous lust
Has sated itself in your father’s bed
You dare to confront him?

And thus:

You assumed that Phedre, for shame,
Would hide her defilement…

Either Racine or Hughes has lost the text. I hope Racine lest Hughes’ monumental work be at all fundamentally obviated.

He had brought a beautiful woman as his guest to their wedding. It was seven years ago. His father and his bride were proud of how beautiful the young woman was. The bride too was beautiful, in demure blue. The look in her face was encouraging. They danced. She smelled the same way now as she did then. It was a fresh scent. The scent went with her bright generous eyes. The scent was all the more appealing as, by contrast, her skin was now wrinkled and pallid.

Who seems most queenly is the queen. He always worried that he did not amuse her. But she was always warm to him. He liked it that she liked literature, Homer and Shakespeare. That she read Homer for pleasure. She had traveled a lot too. So had he. They talked about Turkey and the Homeric ruins there. But he didn’t see much of her after the wedding. “Your mother was very beautiful,” she said to him once.

“She was,” he said, and smiled sheepishly. She smiled too.

His brother was landlocked in the Midwest, a businessman. He and his father had a respectful but not particularly warm relationship. Another brother was alcoholic. He’d been wounded since childhood by what neither he nor his father could articulate in the few melancholy chats they’d had about it over the years. “I can’t remember doing anything wrong,” his father sadly said. “I can’t remember your mother doing anything wrong.”

“These things don’t necessarily happen because someone’s done something wrong,” he said.

“I know that,” his father sighed.

Closer to him than either of his brothers had been a friend who pined away and died from no discernible medical cause. But he knew and could see what figured to be the source if not the direct cause. So could his father. A dark look on his father’s face one day bespoke his understanding. “An unfortunate situation,” his father described it.

His father and his wife lived a gracious life. Their affluence enabled sufficient leisure after years of dedicated labor. Both had worked and succeeded. His father had come to see him on a number of occasions, alone. Only once was he accompanied by his wife. “You should come with him more often,” he ventured.

“Thank you,” she said. She planned to the next time but her brother died suddenly in Mexico.

He could barely turn over in bed. He felt like crying but had not the energy even for that. He was his father’s favorite, which was a badly kept secret. His father returned to the room. He hovered again, concerned. His wife accompanied him the next time after that. “Won’t you eat something?” she asked.

“I’ll try,” he said.

He knew so little of her life before she married his father. His father’s life also seemed distant to him, at least those years of it spent to build his empire. There were sketchy tales of adversaries overcome, of old strife on the island, which in those years he’d visit every day, and from which he emerged victorious over other men equally determined to claim a fiefdom. His mother played an active part in that saga and moved with him here to the island, to this very bedroom where now he languished and was too tired to cry remembering his mother. He had never been strong, yet was always his father’s favorite. There were unchartered places in his father’s heart, he knew that. It held inexplicable passions, wise passions.

“We’ll take care of everything,” she said. “Won’t we?” she addressed her husband.

“Yes,” his father answered, hovering now with her over his bed.

“I want to get better,” he said. The two of them practically shivered to hear it. They were wise in their generation.

The next morning she knocked and brought him tea. “Lift your head and try to drink it,” she said.

“Nice of you,” he said. “The maid could have.”

“I’m happy to.”

“I hope you and my father will go about your business,” he said.

“We have no business,” she said.

“I hate to be a nuisance.”

“We love you,” she said.

He drank the tea. “Are you able to eat anything?” she asked.

“Maybe an egg.”

“I’ll see to it.”

“Thank you.”

She left and came back. The egg was scrambled and he ate half of it. Then there was a silence and she smiled generously. “No hospital,” he said, apropos of nothing.

She only bent her head a little in response. “Say, I’ve never asked you. Whatever happened to that beautiful young lady you brought to our wedding? Have the two of you kept in touch over the years?” […]


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Larry Smith’s “Hecuba to Him” is from an unpublished collection of fiction called A Shield of Paris. His novella, Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick, was published in June of 2016 by Outpost19. His “Tight Like That” appeared inMcSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (print edition), #27. “The Shield of Paris” (near-title story of the collection) was published in Low Rent and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “Woman, My Come Is Time,” won Judge’s Choice as highest-rated short story for Issue One of Heart and Mind Zine. Other stories were published in Exquisite Corpse, Curbside Splendor, FictionNow, PANK, Prick of the Spindle, Union Station Magazine, and numerous others. His poetry was in Descant(Canada) and Elimae, among others, and his articles and essays in Modern Fiction Studies, Social Text, The Boston Phoenix, and others. Visit Larrysmithfiction.com.

Read More: A Brief Interview with Larry Smith