Remembering Philomel

Remembering Philomel

by Jeannine Hall Gailey, from Becoming the Villainess

The professor asks, what is the scene here, class? The writer (ah-vid, not oh-vid) here is so spare, implying violence in so few words. Who do you think this character is? You can’t write about a character without imagining her surroundings in vivid detail. Tell us the story from her point of view.


I can’t. After the scene, I can’t remember

anything. Why do I have to do this? I’m fine.

It’s over. I do remember six─

my favorite library book was The Nightingale,

pictures of the jeweled robotic bird the emperor

preferred, and the gray one who never sang

a waltz, refused all command performances.

I loved the sense of triumph.


Listen: I used to be exquisite, cool─

A brightness of skin, an affected grace,

appropriate beauty of a vapid princess.

But see, diminutive in drab gray now

I sing.


Anger hung like smoke in my home,

between my mother and my father. At six

I knew. I tried to pet her yellow hair

smelling of nicotine and toffee, kiss her

read her my fairy tales to make her smile.


I loved my older sister Procne, who

seemed smarter, better than me at all the games.

we used to play.  I wanted to be grown-up, like her. 

After she left, I used to walk the ocean every morning,

barefoot, watching, and when I finally saw her ship

slice through the horizon, there was no warning,

no cold horror clenched my stomach like a fist.


I thought my sister’s husband elegant,

with a thin mouth. How grand he was,

and I not a little dazzled. What I could not

see was that he had already devised

his possession of me.  Light, thin,

a wisp of sea blue eyes and a cloud of hair

a softness of limb and mouth─just beyond his reach

this is how I appeared to him


We need the actual story about what happened to you, says the professor. What are the details?

I can’t remember exactly. I remember that night,

when my parents told me they were going

to a party together, I felt happy. They left me

with a favorite sitter, a neighbor─he was

friends with all the older girls around,

they’d  say how cute he was, looking back I guess he was─

lanky and tan with a slow slack southern drawl


Not a little afraid, when he took my

hand too tight, told me to trust him.

“Where is my sister?”

This is where I stop remembering in sentences.

Only fragments because growing up

in the right kind of family meant you

had no words for what he was doing.


I don’t get the drama here. Class, do you have a clear sense of what is happening? Is he raping her? Is there penetration? Come on, you need to give us a story.


Of course not uneasy, when he locked the doors,

asked me if my brothers were away for the night.

I told him I was cold, the basement clammy and

It smelled moldy, I complained. At six much

too young to suspect as he carefully switched on

a too-loud TV, as he began undressing

he told me to take off my pants. Thin little jeans, with

sunflowers on the pockets,  a T-shirt to match, and

tiny pink underwear he was impatient with.

I was scared, crying quietly, and he told me to shut up.

I remember rough hands but that’s it,


no details. Only the raw chafe of his body crushing me,

his rutting moans, the smells of salt and rotted fish,

the grating of unknown soil beneath me.

Shoving himself into me until I bled,

a red, frightening blood that seemed to excite him.

Forcing his flesh in my mouth as my jaw ached,

I thought he looked like a dying sheep.

I thought of dying, then─floating away from him, from my body

and so I did not taste the tears and bile on my lips


Later, I wonder why, when I finally told her,

my mother said, “It is something we women

bear in secret.”


That doesn’t seem realistic, like something a mother would say. Perhaps you could reword it?


I couldn’t push the story out,

my mouth was filled with blood


I rearranged my dress and hair

as he approached me when he was done.

I choked if there were any gods in heaven


He grabbed me and the knife he put to my face

smelled cold. You won’t be telling anyone he said


Growling as if unsatiated, he let me go.

I chewed on my hair, as you better not tell your parents

when they get home he said.  Why not I asked


Kill me, I was sobbing over and over

when he cut my tongue off violent and quick.

It danced a little, the blood filled my mouth like a song


I’ll kill you if you tell anyone he said. So when

he smiled and accepted money from my dressed-up

mother, I told them I had had a good time.

For the first time my mouth was my enemy


Unable to speak, I wove the ugly scenes shrunken

on pillows and coverlets

over and over, scenes no one could see.


But Philomel’s crime is eventually avenged. The gods did witness the crime, had mercy on her. She is saved by the gods.


Not saved─changed, it’s not the same thing.

ripping the chrysalis that was me

the good daughter, the pretty girl


If they clap their hands it will not matter.

In the silence a song of the new leaves.

Copyright © Dandelion by Pexeto