The cursed Labdacid family is at the heart of ancient Greek writer Sophocles’ Theban plays: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. In the first play, Oedipus unknowingly fulfills a prophecy by murdering his father and marrying his mother. His four offspring bear the shame of this crime as the family is subsequently roiled by power struggles for control over Thebes. Sisters Antigone and Ismene, born of the incestuous liaison, contrast starkly with one another in the final tragedy, Antigone. Their uncle and ruler of Thebes, Creon, has decreed that the body of the sisters’ dead brother Polynices shall not receive a proper burial. Antigone, who is betrothed to Creon’s son Haemon, defiantly decides to bury her brother, while Ismene refuses to contradict the law by helping. When Antigone’s action is discovered, Ismene lies, claiming she abetted her sister, but Antigone will have none of it. Lea Wintterlin’s short story, “Antigone’s Sister,” places us in the modern-day mind of Ismene.
There, straight ahead, there she goes. Between the bushes, with her buzz cut. Men don’t like that kind of thing on women, but she can pull it off, she has such a feminine face. Even if she were to wear an eyepatch, she would still look good. An eyepatch would totally wreck my appearance. I simply couldn’t wear one. Everybody would look at me and think: What happened to her?
Is she drunk? Why isn’t she going through the front entrance? It’s not like we all don’t know that she slips out every night, why the hide-and-seek? Maybe it’s part of the ritual – climbing over the fence. And it comes with some scratches. I also have a few, from our fat cat. Stravinsky, come here, I want to feel a living, breathing being.
These nights always seem very long to me. I have such a throbbing feeling in my nose as I watch the narrow stripes of light moving over the ceiling. As if we hadn’t learned ever since we were little that you shouldn’t get into a strange man’s car. Our mother talked about this so often that you would think there were no other dangers in this world except for cars and men. She was an anxious mother. She always kept an eye on us, nothing escaped her. Not the half-empty pack of cigarettes way in the back of Antigone’s desk drawer, nor the black, lacy push-up bra I hid from her in four bags, each one tucked inside the other. She claimed she wasn’t looking for anything, she just found such things. I think she was constantly on the alert, always prepared to stumble across a secret. Uncle, on the other hand, just let us do our thing. He’s trying to raise us to be independent. He’s probably afraid that we would drop out of school and still be living with him when we hit our thirties. I can understand his worries, but I unfortunately can’t do anything to dispel them. During these wide-awake nights, it becomes painfully clear to me that I am not the one making the decisions here.
The night has barely begun. Antigone won’t return before dawn. If only I could stop listening. But I can’t help it. I’ve always just listened. For her. For her steps. For the noises that came from her room now and then. Sometimes I’d hear the irregular clacking of the typewriter, an Olympus that she had inherited from our father, and I would picture her in front of me, working on a novel of the century, a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. Or I heard a whisper, her gravelly laugh bursting forth every now and then. Sounds turn into wolves if you can’t see what’s making them. Like in a tent. I spent all my teenage years eavesdropping on this other, bigger life, and I forgot my own in the process. Lying awake and waiting, that’s all I can do. I hate the stillness of this room. Nothing happens here – ever. Just the cat purring. Just something inside me seething with boredom and unease.
Yesterday she came back after only an hour, with dirt under her fingernails, and when I looked at her arms she quickly rolled down the sleeves of her blouse. She could barely stand; don’t fall over, I said, and she came up with some kind of wordplay: All interesting things involve falling. I can’t remember all her examples. Falling in love. Falling foul of the law, falling from grace. It sounds so beautiful when she talks like that, with her smeared mascara. Swaying on her feet and still rhapsodizing: that really looks like life. I know the tricks. Only they wouldn’t work for me. It took more than a fair bit of effort to get her into bed, she kept wanting to get out. Raved to herself, it was our duty to act. But when I asked her what she meant by that, she couldn’t give me a straight answer. We have to throw ourselves away, she said over and over. And other things – things I don’t want to repeat. She was no longer in her right mind. I tried to explain to her that she should be reasonable, but she cut me off. Understand, understand, I don’t want to understand any more, she said.
That hit me hard.
I stood next to her bed and as she fell asleep, I had to fight the impulse to put her room in order. But I couldn’t touch anything, even if I had wanted to. It wouldn’t have been right. Me and my order, there was nothing for us in that room. I simply stood there and looked around. I used to sneak in there frequently, when she wasn’t there, and carefully walk around between the papers, the underwear, and the teacups she used as ashtrays. For a long time there was a picture hanging on the wall next to the window, showing her and her ex-boyfriend standing on the shore at night, naked and entwined. It was taken with flash, making it look as if light were emanating from their bodies, as if their skin were illuminating the sand and part of the surf. You could only see Antigone from behind, she’d laid one arm around the man’s neck, the other reached under his armpit. Her head was hidden behind his, and he’d slung a leg around her hip. A one-headed, three-legged creature. A friend who’s a photographer took the picture. There are more nude photos of Antigone, but I’ve never seen them.
Antigone always laughed at me for being such a shamefaced person, such a shamefaced woman. I even used to be ashamed of my shamefacedness, but I’ve come to terms with it since. It gives me something to think about when I’m lying awake.
In my room there’s a picture of my parents. They’re standing in front of a road where a rockslide has fallen in and blocked the way. My father is posing as if he were going to move the boulders aside, his face scrunched up in pretend exertion, and my mother is standing next to the car and laughing somewhat sheepishly, as if she has just slipped out of the character my father assigned her to play. Antigone rolls her eyes whenever she comes into my room and sees the picture. Maybe I should take it down.
Stravinsky, come join me at the window. We can’t sleep anyway. There’s a nice view of the trees from here. You can smell it already: The buds are about to burst open. But there is also a little bit of smoke in the air. Virgins are sacrificed in spring. I’m pleased with myself in my solitude. I’m also making myself into a picture: Woman with a Cat at the Window. Otherwise I absolutely couldn’t bear any of this.
Haemon is coming through the garden, I recognize him immediately by the spring in his step. It’s amazing that he’s been able to keep going this long, he definitely doesn’t have it easy with my sister. I hope he didn’t see my light. It’s so humiliating to lie in bed fully dressed with my heart pounding. But it’d be even more humiliating to cross paths with him while on the lookout. To be found by someone who is searching for something else entirely. If I’m already out of the picture, then I don’t even want to make an appearance. If only I could sleep. As soon as he realizes Antigone’s not there, he’ll surely leave right away.
(I admit, at the beginning I thought he might be interested in me. I pay a lot of attention to my looks. I use a night cream before I go to bed, to stop wrinkles, you can’t start early enough. But no one talks about me. Antigone has a type of beauty that is talked about. It’s something totally different. My beauty is obvious. It’s nothing special, it’s expected, demanded. The circles under her eyes tell stories. I also have circles under my eyes. But there’s no reason for them to be there, that’s why I treat them with a roll-on caffeine serum and concealer).
He’s gone now. Even though they all try to move about noiselessly, I hear them anyway. I could have stopped him. Walked into the hall in a thin nightgown and sleepily rubbed my eyes. Maybe he would have been struck by some similarity. Maybe I could have seduced him, if my voice had still been husky with sleep. Or I should have left the door open a crack. That’s how my parents got together. Their encounter resulted from a moment of carelessness, an oversight. My father had forgotten to close the door. No one knows better than me how something like that starts – me, who’s never careless. And that’s why I will remain alone. A dead end in the Labdacid family tree, a withered branch. Apart and unattached, helpless, nobody knows what will become of me. When it comes to love, no one in my family has any luck. But my misfortune is not spectacular. I simply remain alone. Despite everything, I think I know what love is, even if I’ve never experienced it. I just know.
Not you, too, Stravinsky, leave the wood alone, Uncle had the doors sanded not that long ago. You’re not imprisoned here; you know I installed a cat door. Just follow your instinct. Just catch your mice. My basic instincts have left me. Everybody has left me. It’s true, Uncle is asleep three doors down. But sleeping people don’t count. I’m not blaming him. He’s always tired, he works hard. (I’m probably doing him an injustice, and he’s probably staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, too. I really don’t mean to downplay the burden of politics. Whenever he comes home, he runs his hands over his wrinkled, sunken face. We are burdened by a curse, he hasn’t been spared, he knows this. We just try to deal with it, each in their own way).
It’s odd: There’s spit in your mouth all day long, but if you were to collect it in a glass that you then had to drink, it would make your stomach turn. (That’s the taboo of disgust: reabsorbing part of you that has become foreign).
The birds are starting to sing. Now comes the part of the night when it stops being fun. I’m going to sob without being able to cry, and only my shoulders will shake, my face distorted. It’d be more entertaining to follow Stravinsky on his hunt. I once signed him up for a TV show: What Does Your Cat Do When You’re Not Looking? He got a harness buckled around his neck, he didn’t even put up the smallest fight, like the producer had feared he would; sometimes I don’t know if he’s good-natured or plain dumb. He just looked at us with his small, crooked catface, and the harness almost disappeared under his mountain of fur. Then he trotted away with his extra eye. The image was really blurry. All we saw were blurry gray blades of grass framed by Stravinsky’s whiskers. Sometimes he stopped and looked at something. For whatever reason. Weird cathead. Didn’t even catch a single mouse. (I take it all back: Even nature is totally ambiguous). At some point he was standing in front of my door again, and the producer was disappointed. I found it interesting.
A text message from Antigone. It’s surely been four days since my cell phone last vibrated. It was to be expected: She’s in trouble and wants me to come running to her rescue. This time she’s really gone too far. I don’t want anything to do with this. I share neither the ideals driving her to stir up this mad frenzy, nor the means she resorts to. This blindness for everything around her. I can’t do that, I am trained to see, to keep a lookout in every direction. This makes me slow. By the time I’m there, it will be far too late for anything. (Though I’m honored that she calls me for help, as if she believes I could do even the slightest thing in this situation). She would help me, no matter how hopeless things looked. She would die for me, her sister. Hemming and hawing and trying to escape one’s fate – that also didn’t help our father. Better to race toward your ruin with eyes wide open.
Maybe it’s time to jump into action. Our mother had a work colleague who had regular psychotic episodes. He wanted to get the whole department to take over the government. He planned everything down to the last detail. My mother belonged to the group that would storm the radio stations. And how do you storm a radio station? he asked the doubtful faces around him. You storm in!
When I was a child, when our parents were still alive, Antigone always wrote an extensive Christmas list on a long piece of paper that you could unroll like a piece of papyrus. We didn’t believe in Santa Claus, our father never told us any fairy tales. Not those. He loved facts. When I was 14, I desperately wished for a jean jacket. I didn’t tell a soul. That was dumb, of course.
I can’t, Stravinsky, it’s not possible. My courage is failing me. You’re right, I don’t trust myself. There’s a threshold that I never cross. I, too, am a daughter of Oedipus – I want to understand. But I lack his self-destructive decisiveness, I always stop just before the moment of complete clarity. I’ve had orgasms before. That at least. As a little girl, I was already rubbing myself against the gurgling hot water bottle. But sometimes, just before the outward explosion of air, I forget how to sneeze. Something cuts me off. While I’m drinking, I suddenly no longer know how to swallow. I should wake Uncle.
I have to do it. Even though Antigone doesn’t want to be rescued, she will never forgive me for this. She wants me to join her in her fight: that would be nice, us sisters. But I can’t fight. I’m there to spoil the fun. This isn’t self-pity, I’m even a little proud of it, I think. Proud of my – I almost said ‘rebellion.’
At the same time, I already know it. The door will be open. The bed made. The man is already seeing to things. He always gets his information a little sooner than others. And he has a fast car. Maybe he even gets to the crime scene before the police. It was always like that up till now. I feel sorry for the old man, that he has us to deal with. We only cause him trouble. And he already has enough on his plate without us. But Antigone doesn’t care one bit about this. She doesn’t care one bit about anything.
It’s useless. My room to maneuver is limited to these four walls. Leaving them is not that easy. Maybe Uncle also locked me in as a preventive measure, to keep me from following my sister to disaster. I haven’t even tried yet. I prefer to remain at the window. From this spot I’ll eventually watch how Antigone is brought around by a police escort. And maybe this will grip me for a moment. I’ll lean out of my window and yell to the police that I incited her to everything. But Antigone will have only a scornful look left for me – if she even glances up at me at all. The police officer’s gaze will also flash derision in my direction, and then I’ll return to my senses. Antigone will be taken away, in handcuffs maybe, and then I will finally be able to sleep.
Lea Wintterlin, “Antigones Schwester,” poetin nr. 27 literary magazine (Andreas Heidtmann, 2019).