By Jodi Ralston
Published by Chiaroscuro House, LLC
Copyright (c) January 2018, All Rights Reserved by Jodi Ralston.
Author’s Note: The inspiration behind this story can be found here.
Once upon a time, there was a man in love with flowers. Their fragrance drifted into his dreams at night, and the sun kissed them every morning. Every inch of his garden was lush with them; they were like a carpet as far as the eye could see. Yet he knew each one just as he knew each of his sheep. Some were old and faithfully blooming. Some were young and new. Some had yet to bloom for the first time. He knew how much water to feed them, and how much shade to give them. When Alteo took his sheep up the mountainside, his thoughts were full of them.
So full he did notice at first he was not alone this day.
Amaryllis did not fail to notice him. He was impossible to miss. While Alteo thought nothing could compare to the beauty of the sunlight on his mosaic of flowers, his living treasures, she thought nothing but the god of poetry and sunlight could compare to him. Beautiful of body and face, but dressed simply in a plain tunic—and despite the dreamy expression, he was attending well to his sheep. One aged ewe, which had lagged behind the others, but didn’t want to be left behind was hefted up with one hand onto his shoulder. With the other hand, he was rolling along a bolder the size of a man which had blocked his sheep’s path.
Strong, too. Gloriously strong. As strong as the famed Hercules.
Though hopefully not as mad, Amaryllis hoped. Beautiful, strong, a good shepherd. What more could a shepherdess ask for in a man? She moved through her own flock in a daze and approached him with her heart pounding in his chest.
He didn’t notice her till he nearly rolled the bolder right over her.
“B-beautiful morning, isn’t it?” her voice quaked—from nerves or being nearly squashed, she couldn’t tell.
“Oh, hello, there.” He beamed at her. “Tell me, did you notice any three-toothed orchids on the way up? My garden is a little short on purple.”
Flummoxed, she stammered out an apology. Her eyes had been on the lookout for wolf prints, not flowers.
“Speaking of orchids? What about the burnt-tip orchid?”
“Is that purple?”
“Ah, if only my crocuses had done better this year.”
But he could only talk of flowers. A strange form of madness, but at least a man thus fixated was unlikely to strangle her and their future children in their beds as some of the god-touched were.
Shepherd and shepherdess made small talk as they watched their sheep that day—or rather, he discussed the merits of his flowers, and as they parted for the night, she sighed and wished him to have “sweet dreams,” and with a sigh back, he responded, “Only if I had a new type of flower. Something no one had ever seen before. It’s the only thing I dream of.”
And likely the only way to your heart, Amaryllis thought. “I’ll see what I can do.”
That night at the supper table, she told her father and mother about the encounter. And they asked after his flocks and marveled over his strength—with a few side questions about his physique from her mother.
“What does that matter?” Father asked.
Mother smiled and sipped her tea. “Quite a bit, my dear.”
Their guest was uncharacteristically silent until this time. Now she shook her head and said, “You can do better. If it’s his beauty that attracted you, well, I heard of one such man beyond compare hereabouts. You should check him out instead of this lunatic mad over flowers.”
Amaryllis just smiled at her friend. “I thought you only had eyes for Zeus, Echo.”
“Everyone has eyes for Zeus. But . . . ” she sighed as she stood and set aside her tea. “Tell me of his name again? Your future husband? Alpine?”
“Alteo. Oh, Alteo.”
And as Echo steered them to the bedroom they shared, Amaryllis clutched her fists to her breast and told everything she knew. Which was mostly a lot of flower details. And by the time she was done, she clasped Echo’s hands in her own and begged a favor. “Please, if you could cover for me tomorrow. I need to see a priestess. Surely one of them will know of the flower he seeks.”
“Oh, I think it will be longer than for tomorrow. You need to go to the Oracle of Delphi if you want to win one as mad as him. You could do better.”
“I don’t want to do better. Eros had pierced my heart with his arrow. I was struck upon first sight of my dear, dear Alteo.”
Echo held up a halting hand. “All right. All right. I’ll see to your flock until your return. I wish you luck and the gods’ blessing.” She kissed her friend on the forehead and then sat back on her own bed, curled up her legs beneath her and said, “Now, my turn.”
The life of an oread, a mountain nymph, was vastly different than that of a mere shepherdess. And the details—and there were always many—put poor Amaryllis to blush. And if some of her stories invaded Amaryllis’s dreams, and if each conquest bore the face and arms of a certain shepherd bedecked in flowers, well then . . . it only spurred Amaryllis on.
She went to the Oracle of Delphi.
Which was a woman draped in filmy robes—a little more layered than that of an oread—sitting before an open fire pit of smoking herbs. Slumped in her seat, her heavy black hair hung in front her eyes.
The woman gifted with visions did not stir.
Amaryllis tiptoed closer across the marble floor. “Oracle, it is I, Amaryllis?”
Just as she touched the woman’s shoulder, the other sprang to life, making the poor shepherdess wheel back and crouch in a corner.
The woman’s voice boomed in the large room. “YOU HAVE COME FOR LOVE.”
“Alteo.” The shepherdess dared to uncurl from her cold corner. Still she clutched her hands to her chest out of fear. “My darling Alteo—”
” THE MAD SHEPHERD WITH APOLLO’S BEAUTY AND HERCULES’S STRENGTH.”
“Yes. Yes, my darling Alteo–”
“WHO ONLY HAS ROOM IN HIS HEART FOR HIS FLOWER.”
“NO. FLOWER. THE FLOWER. THE ONE HE ALONE WILL FIRST BEHOLD AND NOURISH.” The gifted but overly vocal woman froze. Then darted forward, sending the poor Amaryllis shrieking and backing into the wall again, thinking Alteo wasn’t the only one who was mad.
Once she was pinned, with nowhere to go, oracle stopped before her, cocked her head left, then right, like a bird. Amaryllis prayed she was not the worm.
Then the woman darted forward and grasped something a few feet from the shepherdess’s chest and pulled back.
But it didn’t fully form. With a curse, the oracle planted one foot on the wall beside Amaryllis and muttered in a softer voice, “Be a dear and hold on. It’s really stuck.”
And with a grunt and a straining, she leant back with all her strength and, pop!, an arrow came into being. She flailed back, and only Amaryllis’s quick action—a shepherdess had to be quick handed and quick eyed in wolf country—saved the odd woman from falling into her smoking pit and catching fire.
“Thank you. You are right. It’s Eros’s—“ She paused and cleared her throat. “IT’S ERO’S ARROW.” She thrust it into Amaryllis’s hand and said, “HOLD ONTO THIS, AND DO AS I TELL YOU.” And she leant in and—thankfully for Amaryllis’s poor, ringing ears—whispered the secret in her ear.
Amaryllis was pale and shaken by the time she was done.
“You are sure?”
The oracle nodded.
The oracle flicked the tip of the arrow. “AS SURE AS EROS SHOT YOU WITH THIS ARROW AND A MATCHING ONE IN YOUR TRUE LOVE’S HEART.”
Amaryllis sighed and tucked the arrow into her travelling bag, which she had dropped at the door upon entering the hallowed premises. “I’m beginning to believe all the gods are nutty.”
“Only beginning to? HAVE A GOOD DAY.” And the woman bobbed and weaved her way back to her seat before the fire, slumped, and could be stirred no more.
And Amaryllis trudged back home.
She did not tell her mother or father the secret. Just that she was cured of the malady that had sent her away. And she showed the arrow as evidence. Mother wanted to melt it down and buy into the silk making business. Father wanted to see if it wouldn’t work on sheep. Alteo’s prized ram looked almost as promising as its master. Echo, who was growing bored, kissed her friend’s cheek and said, “You can do better,” and took her leave.
But Amaryllis was not cured. Not yet. So by night, she carried out her plan. It wasn’t hard to find his house. Just follow the flowers. Boy, did he have flowers.
They gave her headaches.
But she’d just take a tea, when she was his wife, like Mother did when Father got spent an entire day detailing the breeding lines of the nearby sheep, and all would be well.
Amaryllis took out the golden arrow. Held it between her breasts, tip to her heart, the feathers trembling with the thudding of it. She started to press it in. And stopped short at the pain. It hurt a lot worse than a normal cut. A mere prick of it burned like ice.
“I can’t do it.” She slumped. “I’m not strong enough.” She stood there, headache growing with every tear dropped, then she heard a soft sound from inside the simple hut.
But what was her beloved saying?
She tiptoed over a stony path that snaked through the carpet of colors greyed by night and moonlight. Once she came up to his window, she peeked inside. Her dearest one slept as beautifully as he had stood with one aged ewe on his shoulder, the other idly twirling a boulder on a point, a distant look of contemplation on his face as he praised the beauty of his flowers.
He was muttering, “My flower. My flower. My darling flower.”
It gave her heart. With her eyes on her beloved, she drove the tip—”All the way into the heart. It must be heart’s blood you spill outside his house”—and the pain was utter, and blood flowed like a river, and the world spun.
Once it was done, she had to sit down on the cold ground, incidentally crushing a few flowers, but these mad gods knew their sacrifices. She did not die, though her hands and dress and arrow and the flowers before her were coated in blood.
No, she did not die hat night.
Not the dozen after.
Not on the twenty-ninth.
Though she was pale and shaky by that time, and her parents did not let her herd the sheep that morning. They put her to bed, and insisted she rest until she was past this new malady of hers.
“But my Alteo. He’ll be waiting for me. He is teaching me about crocuses today.”
“And crocuses will wait till tomorrow.”
“No, they won’t. They are out of season. They won’t bloom again till next year.”
Mother and father left a cool compress on her head and a soothing tea for head and another for her unexpected month-long bout of allergies.
“Heart sick,” Mother muttered as she guided her husband to the door.
“If only the lad was as willing to share the secret of his strength or flock as he was the breeding and feeding habits of his garden. Have you seen the wool on them . . . ?”
And the bedroom door gently closed.
And Amaryllis, tired as she had ever been, fell deeply asleep. It was only the smell of burning herbs that woke her from her dream. But there were no herbs but in memory. Just a dream. Just the memory of the oracle’s chamber, of the fact that on the thirtieth night her sacrifice would be honored. But it was no longer day. It was pitch black out her window.
“Oh, my gods, I’m late.”
She flung off her covers, and in her haste, climbed out the window in her nightgown, clutching her arrow. This was the night. It all depended on tonight.
Amaryllis staggered along on bare feet. Waded through the flowers though they were nearly strong enough to knock her down. And just before dawn she arrived outside his window.
Just before dawn, she fell to her knees, plunging the arrow into her heart.
Just before dawn, her blood flowed one last time.
Just before dawn, it began to shimmer.
Crimson, not gold this time. Like with the oracle a month ago, she reached into its midst and began to pull. And pull. And pull. But she had so little strength left. Sobbing, she begged for help.
And a strong hand closed around hers and lifted it easily, and from it a beautiful flower with tall green stalks and beautiful red flowers. She handed it to him. “I give this flower and my heart to you, Alteo. Handle it carefully.”
“My gods.” His voice trembled as he cupped the matted roots in his hands. “I’m free. I’m free.” He danced around in circles, waving his flower like a banner. “I’m free!”
And just when Amaryllis began to question the gods for the first time in thirty days, he swooped down and picked her up and danced her around too. She was too weak, so she was placed on the favored place of his favored ewe. And then he bore her home.
Woke her parents.
Asked their permission to wed their daughter.
And Amaryllis made a miraculous recovery then and there at the table. They ate breakfast and sipped tea. And once Father stopped talking about future generations of fluffy, strong sheep, Mother commented, “I’ve never seen such a flower before. What is it?”
“It’s never been seen before. It’s mine.” His eyes met his betrothed’s, and he smiled lovingly. “Its name is Amaryllis.”
Sharp-eyed Mother said, “How convenient.”
“Not really.” Amaryllis grimaced and rubbed her chest. Fortunately not stained by any condemning evidence. It never had been. The blood had always disappeared by morning.
Father just nodded. “Pretty thing. Have them at your wedding, eh? Now, I have this nasty rock that’s in my field. I heard, my son, you are handy with such things.”
And having won her husband’s heart, Amaryllis and Alteo lived happily ever after.
Except for her allergies.
And the fight each time labor pains brought her to bed to be rewarded half a day later with a swaddled, cooing bundle of joy.
“Alteo. Dear. We are not naming her Monkshood.”
“I know very well that’s another name for it.”
Ah, their first fight.
She didn’t win.
Nor did she quite lose.
Their daughter was not named Bindweed or Prickly Ivy, or Chaste Tree or Withy, or Crocus of any color. For sixty days she held out. In the end, their firstborn was named Anemone.
After a flower.
So she didn’t win, but she didn’t lose, and it was fun making up after the naming ceremony. Which led nine months later to the baby boy Heliotrope.
And eventually an entire garden of boys and girls who did not take after their father or grandfather in their obsessions. Thank the gods.
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