I am watching Ismene’s stubby little fingers trying to push the wooden needle between the blue warped threads on her small loom. It’s a tricky task when you’re five years old. At seven, I have of course already mastered weaving. Ismene’s lips stretch into that funny face she wears when she’s concentrating, making her dimples crease into weird jaggedy lines.
“A sword! A sword!”
My father’s voice. He sounds angry, furious.
“Where is that wife, no wife of mine – that soil
Where I was sown, and whence I reaped my harvest?”
Father’s shouts are so loud, we can hear him from this end of the palace.
Ismene’s fingers freeze and she begins to shake. Our father never shouts, never raises his voice.
A piercing shriek.
Worse than peacocks in the gardens.
Worse than the night owl in the sky.
Worse than the sea eagle lurching at the goose.
I loosen the needle from Ismene’s tight fingers. She grips my hand in fear.
Footsteps are running in the marble halls. Groans, shouts, cries.
Ismene’s brown eyes widen in terror.
Uncle Creon appears at the door and marches towards us. He grabs our hands. A strange, unnatural pity lingers in his usually cold blue eyes. He pulls us awkwardly out of the room and rushes us through the palace towards our parents’ quarters.
Why is Uncle Creon holding our hands?
What is all the rushing and running?
I can smell the tension in the palace air. Ismene and I look at each other. We are too frightened to speak. I feel numb.
At the door of my mother’s chamber, Uncle Creon pauses, drops our hands, opens the door and ushers us in.
My father is collapsed on the floor, moaning. His hair droops as he sways his head. Those tousled, brown curls are my father’s but it is someone else who lifts his head to look at us. In vain, I search for the deep eyes of love which have nurtured me since I could remember.
I cannot see them. In their place, mangled skin pours blood. Confused, mesmerised, my eyes track the descent of crimson streams as they fall onto the white silk robe of a figure slumped across his lap. Her lolling neck is strangled in bed sheets. Mother. The blood from father’s eyes is dripping and splashing onto her white face, scarlet rivulets streaking across her porcelain cheeks.
Dizziness sweeps me in waves. Rasping, swaying, I grasp for breath. Uncle Creon’s hand touches my shoulder, steadying me. Ismene shivers and groans next to me.
Glistening from a pool of blood, on the white marble floor, lie my mother’s two golden brooches. Her favourite jewels. The weapons my father has used to blind himself.
What! Do I hear my darlings sobbing?
Where are you, children?
Come, feel your brother’s hands. It was their work
That darkened these clear eyes – your father’s eyes
As once you knew them, though he never saw
Nor knew what he did when he became your father.
They cannot see you; but they weep with you.
I think of your sorrowful life in the days to come.
Oedipus the King, Sophocles (E.F. Watling translation)
When Oedipus realises that the aggressive stranger he killed many years ago at the Phocis Three-Lane-Crossroads was his father Laius, it follows that Jocasta, Laius’ widow and the woman Oedipus has been married to for many years is, his mother.
All his efforts to prevent the fulfilment of the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother have failed. Ignorant that they are mother and son, Oedipus and Jocasta had four children together: Eteocles, Polynices, Antigone and Ismene.
When the truth comes out, Jocasta realises that despite her and Laius’ efforts to kill their baby son, she too has been defeated by the prophecy. Her horror at her incestuous marriage to Oedipus drives her to suicide; hanging herself with the sheets of their marriage bed.
Oedipus, her son; Oedipus her husband.
Oedipus horrified at his parricide and incest, blinds himself with Jocasta’s golden brooches.
“Now, shedder of father’s blood,
Husband of mother, is my name;
Godless and child of shame.”
Oedipus, the King.