Downfall Heather Truett
For a while, I don’t exist.
Then I’m here, holding a small box and being stared at by a man with burnished curls and a scruff along his jaw.
I know things without knowing how I know them. The wide-eyed man is my husband, Epimetheus. The box is a wedding gift from Zeus. I’m a story, a cautionary tale. I cannot unmake myself, and the box is non-refundable, though I haven’t paid for it.
Gift or no, that bill will come due.
I’m not even a new story, just another take on woman as downfall of man. At least this version includes clothing. If I can avoid eating fruit or giving Epimetheus a haircut, perhaps there’s hope.
Epimetheus looks at the box.
“You should open that,” he says.
I touch the latch, rub the metal, press one finger against the hard angle of a cut gemstone. “No, I don’t think I will.”
* * *
I’m tempted to open this tiny sparkling treasure that sings with secrets. I hate secrets. I want to know everything. Once a week Zeus and his wife, Hera, deign to visit our humble home. Zeus and Epimetheus smoke bone pipes while I serve a meal. Hera watches me work. Epimetheus feels special because of these visits. I’m trying to be a good wife, so I don’t tell him Zeus only comes to remind me about that small and shining still-locked box.
When I didn’t turn my fingers and hairpins to the task of picking its lock, Zeus brought the key. I wear it on a chain around my throat, which the god brushes with his fingers when he gets me alone in our heat-stoked kitchen, thrumming my jugular like a bard about to sing my story.
“Yes, your story. Your gift,” Zeus says. “What good is a gift unopened?”
I hear Hera outside the door and step away.
“My story, told my way,” I say.
Epimetheus stands beside me after Zeus and Hera leave. “Should I worry?”
“About what?” I ask.
“A literal god alone with my wife in the kitchen?” He quirks an eyebrow playfully, but the worry is real.
“You’ve nothing to be concerned about. I may be the only woman in the world with no desire to bear any of that beast’s godlings. I like Hera, and I want to stay on her good side.”
“Not to mention, I already have this brilliant handsome husband whose hands and mouth and body wreak pleasurable havoc from my toes to my temples and everywhere in-between.”
He grins, and I grin, and this story’s screen fades to black.
* * *
After Pyrrha is born, Zeus visits more often, no longer bringing Hera. He shows up in the wee hours, offering to rock Pyrrha, sing a lullaby, let me rest. He suggests the box holds something that can calm colic, sooth an infant, guarantee safety for my daughter’s future. He sings of Achilles and Odysseus. I sing of Circe and Penelope.
One sleep-deprived night, Zeus spins the box like a top, starlight glinting off gold. He uses one hand to lift the key from beneath my robe, his palm so near my breast that, for a moment, I want to let the god keep going, keep pulling treasures from my flesh.
Epimetheus steps from a shadow and after that, Zeus stays gone a long time, long enough for Pyrrha to grow into a young girl, all gleaming curls and bronze skin. Epimetheus only once mentions our daughter’s resemblance to the god, but I know he’ll always question the truth. I wonder if Zeus used his powers to make my child resemble him, to plant a seed of doubt inside my husband.
When he shows up again, he tells me the box holds proof of my fidelity. If I simply turn the key, Epimetheus will feel confident in my love. When he leaves, I clutch the metal container and cry. Pyrrha asks why I’m distraught. She’s a curious child, desperate to know all the secrets of the world.
So much like me.
But the secret inside this box cannot be everything Zeus says. What can calm a screaming baby, offer sleep when one is weary, prove the purity of love, and do all the other things he promises?
When Epimetheus grows ill, Hera sits with me for hours. Zeus spins another story, says the box holds healing for my husband. When Epimetheus dies, Hera sends flowers. Zeus says the box holds resurrection. When Pyrrha grows angry with me and will not forgive, Hera tells me to give Pyrrha time. Zeus tells me the box holds redemption.
When I’m old and dying, the god is still as golden as the box, and I still refuse to open it, even with Zeus swearing it will grant me immortality, that I’ll never have to wake up inside another story, that this life can always be mine.
I long ago rid myself of the key, passing the necklace to my daughter. I keep the box, but I’m scared. When I’m gone, will she connect the key to the box?
As Zeus paints word pictures that feature me young and beautiful again, I lift the box from my lap. Hardly bigger than my fingertip, it couldn’t hold a ring, a coin, a poison berry.
The god leans forward. At last, I will give in. Here, at the end of my days, I will open his gift and doom mankind.
What does it matter now? My husband’s long gone to the underworld and I can no longer be his downfall, only the downfall of humans I don’t know, humans I’ll never meet.
I look at Zeus. He looks at me.
I swallow the box.
The corners bruise my esophagus. A cold heaviness settles in my gut.
Zeus curses me. He curses me and Pyrrha and all our descendants. He rants and rages as he vanishes into the night. I spot Hera lurking amid the trees outside my window.
She winks at me.
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