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Goddess for a Day 

Harry Turtledove 

This really happened. No, honestly, it did. Well, most of it. You could look it up.

The driver held the horses to a trot hardly faster than a walk. Even so, the chariot jounced and pitched and swayed as it rattled down the rutted dirt track from the country village of Paiania to Athens. 

Every time a wheel jolted over a rock, Phye feared she’d be pitched out on her head. She couldn’t grab for the rail of the car, not with a hoplite’s spear in one hand and a heavy round shield on the other arm. The shield still had the olive-oil smell of fresh paint. Before they’d given it to her, they’d painted Athena’s owl over whatever design it had borne before. 

Another rock, another jolt. She staggered again. Peisistratos, who rode in the car with her, steadied her so she didn’t fall. She was almost big enough to make two of the tyrannos, but he was agile and she wasn’t. “It will be all right, dear,” he said, grinning at her like a clever monkey. “Just look divine.” 

She struck the pose in which he’d coached her: back straight so she looked even taller than she was (the Corinthian helmet she wore, with the red-dyed horsehair plume nodding above it, added to the effect), right arm out straight with the spear grounded on the floorboards of the chariot (like an old man’s stick, it helped her keep her balance, but not enough), shield held in tight against her breast (that took some of the weight off her poor arm—but, again, not enough). She stared straight ahead, chin held high. 

“It’s all so uncomfortable,” she said. 

Peisistratos and the driver both laughed. They’d really fought in hoplite’s panoply, not just worn it on what was essentially a parade. They knew what it was like. 

But they didn’t know everything there was to know. The bell corselet they’d put on Phye gleamed; they’d polished the bronze till you could use it for a mirror. That corselet would have been small for a man her size. Mashed against hard, unyielding metal, her breasts ached worse than they did just before her courses started. The shield she carried might have been made of lead, not wood and bronze. One of her greaves had rubbed a raw spot on the side of her leg. And of course she stared straight ahead; the cheekpieces and noseguard on the helmet gave her no other choice. The helm was heavy, too. Her neck ached. 

She itched everywhere. 

A couple of people—a man with a graying beard and a younger woman who might have been his daughter or his wife—stood by the side of the track, staring at the oncoming chariot. Phye envied them their cool, simple mantles and cloaks. A river of sweat was pouring down her face. 

Peisistratos waved to the couple. He tapped Phye on the back. They couldn’t see that. She couldn’t feel it, either, but she heard his nails rasp on the corselet. “The gods love Peisistratos!” she cried in a loud voice. The gods ordain that he should rule once more in Athens!” 

“There! You see?” the man said, pointing at Phye. “It is Athena, just as those fellows who went by the other day said it would be.” 

“Why, maybe it is.” The woman tossed her head to show she thought he was right. “Isn’t that something?” She raised her voice as the chariot clattered by: “Hurrah for Peisistratos! Good old Peisistratos!” 

“It’s going to work,” the driver said without looking over his shoulder. 

“Of course it will.” Peisistratos was all but capering with glee. “We have ourselves such a fine and lovely goddess here.” He patted Phye on a bared thigh, between the top of her greave and the bottom of the linen tunic she wore under the corselet. 

She almost smashed him in the face with her shield. Exposing her legs to the eyes of men felt shockingly immodest. Having that flesh out there to be pawed showed her why women commonly covered it. 

She didn’t think she’d given any sign of what was passing through her mind, but Peisistratos somehow sensed it. He was no fool: very much the reverse. “I crave pardon,” he said, and sounded as if he meant it. “I paid your father a pound of silver for you to be Athena, not a whore. I shall remember.” 

The village lads made apologies, too, and then tried to feel her up again whenever they got the chance. After that once, Peisistratos kept his hands to himself. Whenever the chariot passed anyone on the road—which happened more and more often now, for they were getting close to Athens—Phye shouted out the gods’ love for the returning tyrannos. 

Some of those people fell in behind the chariot and started heading into Athens themselves. They yelled Peisistratos’ name. “Pallas Athena, defender of cities!” one of them called out, a tagline from the Homeric hymn to the goddess. Several others took up the call. 

Phye had not thought she could get any warmer than she already was under helm and corselet and greaves. Now she discovered she was wrong. These people really believed she was Athena. And why not? Had she been walking along the track instead of up in the chariot, she would have believed it was truly the goddess, too. To everyone in Paiania, the Olympians and other deities were as real and close as their next-door neighbors. Her brother, for instance, swore he’d seen a satyr in the woods not far from home, and why would he lie? 

But not to Peisistratos and his driver. They joked back and forth about how they were tricking the—unsophisticated was the word Peisistratos used, but Phye had never heard it before, and so it meant nothing to her—folk of the countryside and of the city as well. As far as they were concerned, the gods were levers with which to move people in their direction. 

That attitude frightened Phye. More and more, she wished her father had not accepted Peisistratos’ leather sack full of shiny drachmai, even if that pound of silver would feed the whole family for a year, maybe two, no matter how badly the grapes and olives came in. Peisistratos and his friend might imagine the gods were impotent, but Phye knew better. 

When they noticed what she was doing, what would they do—to her? 

She didn’t have much time to think about that, for which she was grateful. The walls of Athens drew near. More and more people fell in behind the chariot. She was shouting out the gods’ will—or rather, what Peisistratos said was the gods’ will—so often, she grew hoarse. 

The guards at the gate bowed low as the chariot rolled into the city. Was that respect for the goddess or respect for the returning tyrannos? Phye couldn’t tell. She wondered if the guards were sure themselves. 

Now the road went up to the akropolis through hundreds upon hundreds of houses and shops. Phye didn’t often come in to Athens: when you used a third of the day or more walking forth and back between your village and the city, how often could you afford to do that? The sheer profusion of buildings awed her. So did the city stink, a rich, thick mixture of dung and sweat and animals and stale olive oil. 

“Athena! Pallas Athena!” the city people shouted. They were as ready to believe Phye was the goddess as the farmers outside the walls had been. “Pallas Athena for Peisistratos!” someone yelled, and in a moment the whole crowd took up the cry. It echoed and reechoed between the whitewashed housefronts that pressed the rutted road tight on either side, until Phye’s head ached. 

“They love you,” the driver said over his shoulder to Peisistratos. 

“That sound—a thousand people screaming your name—that’s the sweetest thing in the world,” the tyrannos answered. “Sweeter than Chian wine, sweeter than a pretty boy’s prokton, sweeter than anything.” Of the gods, he’d spoken lightly, slightly. Now his words came from the heart. 

Men with clubs, men with spears, a few men with full hoplite’s panoply like that which Phye wore, fell in before the chariot and led it up toward the heart of the city. “Just like you planned it,” the driver said in admiration. Peisistratos preened like a tame jackdaw on a perch. 

Phye stared up toward the great buildings of wood and limestone, even a few of hard marble, difficult to work, that crowned the akropolis. They were hardly a stone’s throw from the flatland atop the citadel when a man cried out in a great voice: “Rejoice, Peisistratos! Lykourgos has fled, Megakles offers you his daughter in marriage. Athens is yours once more. Rejoice!” 

The driver whooped. Unobtrusively, Peisistratos tapped Phye on the corselet. “Athens shows Peisistratos honor!” she called to the crowd. “Him Athena also delights to honor. The goddess brings him home to his own akropolis!” 

At the man’s news and at her words, the cheering doubled and then doubled again. From under the rim of her helmet, she looked nervously up toward the heavens. Surely such a racket would draw the notice of the gods. She hoped they’d note she’d spoken of Athena in the third person and hadn’t claimed to be the goddess herself. 

Past the gray stone bulk of the Hekatompedon, the temple with a front a hundred feet long, rattled the chariot. At Peisistratos’ quiet order, the driver swung left, toward the olive tree sacred to Athena. “I’ll tell the people from the rock under that tree,” the tyrannos said. “Seems fitting enough, eh?” 

“Right you are.” The driver reined in just behind that boulder. The horses stood breathing hard. 

Peisistratos hopped down from the chariot. He was nimble, even if no longer young. To Phye, he said, “Present me one last time, my dear, and then you’re done. We’ll put you up in the shrine for the night”—he used his chin to point to the plain little wooden temple, dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, standing behind the olive tree—”get you proper woman’s clothes, and send you back to Paiania in the morning.” He chuckled “It’ll be by oxcart, I fear, not by chariot.” 

“That’s all right,” Phye said, and got down herself. She was tempted to fall deliberately, to show the crowd she was no goddess. But she had taken on the outer attributes of Athena, and could not bring herself to let the goddess fall into disrepute from anything she did. As gracefully as she could, she stepped onto the rock. 

“See gray-eyed Athena!” someone exclaimed. Phye’s eyes were brown. The Corinthian helm so shadowed them, though, that people saw what they wanted to see. Thinking that, she suddenly understood how Peisistratos had been so sure his scheme would work. She also discovered why he spoke of an adoring crowd as sweeter than wine. Excitement flowed through her as the crowd quieted to hear what she would say. She forgot the squeeze and pinch of armor, the weight of the shield, everything but the sea of expectant faces in front of her. 

“Athena delights in honoring Peisistratos!” she cried in a voice so huge it hardly seemed her own. “Let Athens delight in honoring Peisistratos. People of Athens, I give you—Peisistratos!” 

She still had not said she was Athena, but she’d come closer, far closer, than she’d intended. She got down from the boulder. The tyrannos hopped up onto it. Most of the roar that rose from throats uncounted was for him, but some, she thought, belonged to her. 

He must have thought so, too. He leaned down and murmured, “Thank you, O best of women. That was wonderfully done.” Then he straightened and began to speak to the crowd. The late-afternoon sun gleamed from his white mantle—and from the crown of his head, which was going bald. 

Phye withdrew into the temple and set down her spear and shield with a sigh of relief. She was out of sight of the people, who hung on Peisistratos’ every word. She did not blame them. If he accomplished half, or even a fourth part, of what he promised, he would make Athens a better substitute for Zeus than Phye just had for Athena. 

He must have memorized his speech long before he returned to the akropolis. It came out as confidently as if he were a rhapsode chanting Homer’s verses. He made the people laugh and cheer and cry out in anger—when he wished, as he wished. Most of all, he made them love him. 

Just as the sun was setting, Peisistratos said, “Now go forth, O men of Athens, and celebrate what we have done here today. Let there be wine, let there be music, let there be good cheer! And tomorrow, come the dawn, we shall go on about the business of making our city great.” 

A last cheer rang out, maybe louder than all those that had come before. The Athenians streamed away from the akropolis. Here and there, torches crackled into life; when night fell, it fell sudden and hard. Someone strummed a lyre. Someone else thumped a drum. Snatches of song filled the air. 

Phye waited in the temple for someone to bring her a woman’s long mantle. She wanted to go forth, not to revel but back to her quiet home in Paiania, and could hardly do that in the panoply of the goddess. Peisistratos had promised one of his men would take care of her needs. She waited and waited, but the man, whoever he was, did not come. Maybe he’d already found wine and music and good cheer, and forgotten all about her. 

The akropolis grew quiet, still—deserted. Down below, in the agora, in the wineshops, people did indeed celebrate the return of Peisistratos: no tyrannos had ever given a command easier to obey. The noise of the festivity came up to Phye as the smoke of a sacrifice rose to the gods. Like the gods, she got the immaterial essence, but not the meat itself. 

She muttered under her breath. Tomorrow, surely, they’d remember her here. If she spoke to Peisistratos, she could bring trouble down on the head of whichever henchman had failed her. She sighed. She didn’t care about that. All she wanted was to go home. Her head came up. Someone up here on the akropolis was playing a double flute—and coming closer to the temple where she sheltered. Maybe she hadn’t been forgotten after all. Maybe Peisistratos’ man had just paused for a quick taste of revelry before he took care of her. She wondered whether she should thank him for coming at all or bawl him out for being late. He played the flutes very well. Listening to the sweet notes flood forth, Phye marveled that she didn’t hear a whole band of men—and loose women, too— following, singing to his tune and stomping out the rhythms of the kordax or some other lascivious dance. As far as her ears could tell, the fluteplayer was alone. Cautiously, she stepped forward and peered out through the entryway to the temple, past the sacred olive and the boulder on which she and then Peisistratos had spoken. She remained deep in shadow. Whoever was out there would not be able to spy her, while she— 

She gasped, gaped, rubbed at her eyes, and at last believed. Daintily picking his way toward her, his hooves kicking up tiny spurts of dust that glowed white in the moonlight before settling, was a satyr. 

No wonder he plays the flutes so well, Phye thought dizzily. He looked very much as her brother had described the satyr he saw, as the vase-painters showed the creatures on their pots: horse’s hind legs and tail; snub-nosed, pointed-eared, not quite human features; phallos so large and rampantly erect, she wanted to giggle. But neither her brother’s words nor the vase-painters’ images had come close to showing her his grace, his strange beauty. Seen in the flesh, he wasn’t simply something made up of parts of people and animals. He was himself, and perfect of his kind. 

He lowered the double flute from his mouth. His eyes glowed in the moonlight, as a wolfs might have. “Gray-eyed Athena?” he called, his voice a slow music. Phye took a step back. Could he see her in here after all? He could. He did. He laughed. “I know you are in your house, gray-eyed Athena. Do you not remember Marsyas? You gave me the gift of your flutes.” He brought them to his lips once more and blew sweetness into the night air. 

“Go away,” Phye whispered. 

No man could nave heard that tiny trickle of sound. Marsyas did, and laughed again. “You gave me a gift,” he repeated. “Now I shall give you one in return.” Altogether without shame, he stroked himself. He had been large. He got larger, and larger still. 

Phye groped for the spear and shield she had set aside. The shield she found at once, but the spear—where was the spear? She had leaned it against the wall, and— 

She had no time to search now. Past the boulder Marsyas came, past the sacred olive tree, up to the threshold of the shrine. There he paused for a moment, to set down the flutes. Phye dared hope the power of the goddess would hold him away. Athena was a maiden, after all, as Phye was herself. Surely Athena’s home on earth would be proof against— 

Marsyas stepped over the threshold. “Goddess, goddess,” he crooned, as easily befooled as any Athenian, “loose yourself from that cold hard bronze and lie with me. What I have is hard, too, but never cold.” He touched himself again and, incredibly, swelled still more. 

“Go away,” Phye said, louder this time. “I do not want you.” Would Athena let a woman, a virgin, be raped on the floor of her temple? Why not? a cold voice inside Phye asked. What better punishment for a woman who dared assume the person of the goddess? And the satyr Marsyas said, “But I want you, gray-eyed Athena,” and strode toward her. 

Almost, Phye cried out that she was not the goddess. She would have cried out, had she thought it would do any good. But, to a satyr, female flesh would be female flesh. Even in the deep darkness inside the temple, his eyes glowed now. He reached out to clasp her in his arms. 

She shouted and interposed the shield between them. If he wanted her maidenhead, he would have to take it from her. She would not tamely give it to him. All right: for Peisistratos’ sake, she had pretended to be Athena. Now she would do it for herself. She’d have to do it for herself. Plainly, the goddess was not about to do it for her. 

Marsyas shoved aside the shield. Phye’s shoulder groaned; the satyr was stronger than a man. Marsyas laughed. “What have you got under that armor?” he said. “I know. Oh yes, I know.” Like an outthrust spear, his phallos tapped at the front of her corselet. 

“I do not want you!” Phye cried again, and brought up her leg, as hard as she could. 

In her grandfather’s time, greaves had covered only a hoplite’s calves. These days, smiths made them so bronze protected the knee as well. She was a big woman—Peisistratos would never have chosen her had she been small—she was frightened, and, if not so strong as a satyr, she was far from weak. 

Her armored kneecap caught Marsyas square in the crotch. 

Just for an instant, his eyes flamed bright as a grass fire seen by night. Then, all at once, the fire was quenched. He screamed and wailed and doubled over, clutching at his wounded parts. His phallos deflated like a pricked pig’s bladder. 

“Go!” Phye said. “Never think to profane Athena’s temple again,” When the satyr, still in anguish, turned to obey, she kicked him, right at the root of his horse’s tail. He wailed again, and fled out into the night. 

That was well done. 

Phye’s head swiveled round. Had the thought been her own, or had it quietly come from outside her? How could it have? She was all alone, here in Athena’s temple. But if you were alone in the house of the goddess, were you truly alone? 

Peisistratos would think so. 

“Thank you,” Phye whispered. She got no response, real or imagined. She hadn’t expected one. 

A little while later, a man bearing a torch in one hand and carrying a bundle under his other arm came up onto the akropolis. He lurched as he walked, as a man with a good deal of wine in him might do. Almost like a windblown leaf, he made his erratic way toward the temple where Phye waited. 

“Lady?” he called—he could not be bothered remembering Phye’s name. “I’ve got your proper clothes here.” He jerked the bundle up and down to show what he meant. “I’m sorry I’m late but—hic!” To him, that seemed to say everything that needed saying. “Here, what’s this?” Just outside the temple, he bent and picked up the double flutes Marsyas had forgotten in his flight. “Are these yours, lady?” 

“They are Athena’s,” Phye answered. “Close enough.” 

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