“The Cost” is a retelling of the Pandora’s Box myth, originally published in Timeless Tales magazine (2014).
My father Zeus cast me from him – proof he was loveless. He locked tight the only gift he had ever given me – proof he was faithless. And he gave me in marriage to Theus – proof he held no respect for me.
Morning light slants across the tiny room and I lie awake, seeing things that aren’t there. Heaven, a silver crown to fit my head, and golden streets beneath my feet. Things I should have had. Things I’ve never seen, yet somehow still yearn for. Things to make this life I’ve been dropped into seem as pale as a candle against the sun.
Theus stirs in the bed next to me, bringing me back from my bitter thoughts. When he opens his eyes, his first look is for me. Smiling, he puts a rough-skinned hand gently to my face. “Dora.”
I try to smile back, but I’m not sure the muscles in my face obey.
A year ago I had never seen this man. I watch as his handsome face, now so familiar, falls slightly at my cold response. He turns from me to get out of bed, and I am close behind. For there’s breakfast to make, and cleaning to do, and errands to run. I’m a wife now, the daughter of a god no more.
“Husband, fetch down that spoon there – I can’t reach it.” In one arm I carry a pot, with the other I stoke the fire beneath the stove. But my mind is far away.
Theus holds out the ladle to me, but does not let go when I grasp it. I look at him.
“I’m happy to get this spoon, as I’m happy to do your bidding in all things. I love you, Pandora,” he says in a voice quiet as a lullaby, his blue eyes bent on my face.
“Obedient,” I mutter, jerking the spoon from him and turning back to the stove.
“I said you are obedient, Theus.” My voice raises slightly, but I don’t look at him. “You were obedient to your parents when they bade you listen to Zeus. You were obedient to Zeus where he bade you marry his castoff daughter. And you are obedient to Pandora now when she bids you get her a spoon to stir your gruel. Ha.” My laugh is bitter. I can’t help it. “Look where obedience has brought you, husband.”
Now I glance over my shoulder and see something I have never seen on my husband’s face before. Anger. But only for a moment. Then it is gone, replaced with that hard-won patience he values so much. A pity, that – I had almost seen something in him to make me pay attention for once.
“Zeus commands many things,” says my husband. “But he cannot command love, not in me nor in any other man or woman alive. I love where I choose. And I love you.”
Most would think me a cold woman not to respond to those words. But most would simply not understand. In silence I spoon out the gruel into two wooden bowls and place them on the table, without once looking up at my husband.
A heavy hand falls on my shoulder. Theus pulls me around to look into his face, full of pain. “What is this about, truly, Dora? Is it the box again? I asked you not to speak of it. Zeus said we may not open it – not now or ever.”
The familiar feeling is in me again, at the mention of that infernal box. The feeling that nothing will ever be right in the world if I cannot have the gift that was meant for me – the gift that was only partially given.
Why do you keep it from me, I want to cry to my father, when you know it is meant to be mine?
Instead, I hiss, “It’s not the box. It’s only . . . it’s only . . .” My life? My freedom? My restless, hungry spirit, calling for more, more . . .
“I know what it is,” says Theus.
“You do?” I give him a look that says I don’t believe him.
“You long for more, Dora. You think I can’t see it? More than the life we have, more than what Zeus gave us.”
I’m shocked he’s hit at the very heart of it, but my face remains stony. My voice is shot with venom. “Then, why don’t you do something about it?”
For a moment I think Theus will walk away from me. But then his strong arms are around me, and the wetness on my face tells me I must be crying.
“I try to give you more, Dora, I try, I try. If only you could see it.” His voice is a heartbreaking mixture of kindness and sorrow. His embrace surprises me with the comfort it gives. And it whispers of something just beyond my grasp. Something that I can almost see. But not quite.
I shake my head and step away from him. “Thank you, Theus,” I say, wiping tears. And I mean it. I am thankful, in that moment, to have had the solace of his arms. I smile at him, willing him to leave. He smiles back, a smile full of love. A smile that tells me he believes in our future together.
How wrong he is. We have no future – not so long as that box glares at me every night. Not so long as my husband keeps the key to what is mine and mine alone.
After Theus is gone, I slam the cupboard door, wiping more angry tears from my face. The latch doesn’t catch, and it swings back open. So I slam it harder. A clinking noise makes me freeze. It’s a noise only metal makes.
I am at the cupboard in half a heartbeat, scrabbling at the base of it like a dog digging for a bone. It is heavy, but I soon have it inched away from the wall with enough space for my slender arm to fit into. My fingers slide through a fine layer of dust and meet with the cold of brass.
And just like that, the key is in my hand. The key Theus tells me he has kept away out of love for me, when I know that if his love was true he would keep nothing from me. Nor would my father have done.
This box is yours, Pandora, yours alone – but you must not open it. Zeus’ thunderous voice swirls into memory. And Theus’ voice follows, more softly: Some gifts are meant to protect, not plunder.
“But you should have given me more,” I insist aloud to the empty room, not knowing if I talk to father or husband. “The daughter of a god deserves more than this. So much more.”
My hands shake almost too much to fit the key into the lock. But at last the key turns and the lock opens with a heavy scrape. I have longed to hear that sound for nearly a year, although something tells me it has been much longer than that, in truth. Without another thought, I reach for the lid and throw it back.
The world comes to an end.
A thousand banshees scream past my ears, laden with the rank odor of death and sickness. Images, creatures, even people, rush from out of the box. It is impossible. They’re horrible, all of them, beyond compare. I want to push my face into my pillow and hide, but I cannot tear my eyes away. They sweep over me, tearing at my clothes, roaring in my ears, baring their bloody teeth in my face until I am weeping and screaming like I have lost my wits.
None of them stay. They fly round the house and out the windows, crashing the panes and splintering the wood as they go. They leave me crumpled on the bed. My body is unharmed, but I am aware of a horrid throbbing, deep within me, as if there is a part of me there that I never knew about – a part of me I should have held more precious.
That part of me is torn in shreds. It will never be whole again, I think.
“Pandora.” A voice is at my ear and I give a violent start. It is my husband. His eyes are red-rimmed, as if he’s been weeping too, and his hand is bewilderingly gentle on my hair. His blue eyes hold no reproach. Even so, I’m filled with shame so deep I don’t think I can live beneath the weight of it.
He does not ask, “How could you?” He does not say, “You have loosed hell on earth.” Instead he sits next to me and takes the box from my lap, looking into its emptiness.
“You will find nothing there,” I whisper. “They’ve all gone, and it’s all my doing. Zeus will strike me down now, I know, and you will be rid of a wife who was never good to you anyway. Perhaps it’s for the best.”
Theus’ dark brows come together as he shakes his head. His blue eyes pierce me, and I see tears forming in them. He is fiercely angry, I can see, and I wonder if he will strike me, or perhaps force me to leave him. An hour ago I would not have cared. But now the thought of leaving him makes me grasp at my chest, for I think I can feel my heart cracking in half.
“Even now, Dora, you do not understand, do you?” Theus’ voice shakes with emotion. “Even now you can’t see what I have tried to offer you – the more that you have always wished for.”
I am nodding, grasping wildly at his hands. “I see it, I do see it now, Theus. I swear to you. It’s only that I’m afraid I’ve lost it forever. Please . . . please . . .”
My husband looks once again into the box’s depths, and his dark brows give a slight twitch. Then he sets it down and gathers me into his arms. He kisses my forehead, then my nose, then my lips. I sob with anguish and relief.
What a price to pay, I think as I kiss him back. What a cost, just to see something that was there all along.
Over my husband’s shoulder I see a gentle glint. Something tiny is crawling from the darkness of the open box, perching even now on its wooden rim. It is a creature like I’ve never seen, winged and beautiful and fragile as a cobweb. I grow still and watch as it flutters and lifts itself into the open air. It flies to me, and its touch as it lands on my ear is light as the warmth of a sunbeam.
Then it is gone. Its small wings propel it out the shattered window, into the shattered world.
It will be crushed, I think in panic. It will be destroyed by those other horrors. Killed even by breathing the same foul air that they do.
But then I feel the warmth of Theus’ hands on my shoulders, on my face, on my hair. And when he pulls back to look at me, I see the light of that bright, tiny creature within his eyes. And in joy, I laugh.
(Copyright Ashlee Willis, 2014)