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Jocasta’s Dictionary A short story Angelli Camille P. Ancheta

SUBMITTED TO PROF. SHAWN DOUBIAGO Comparative Culture and Literature: Cultures in Conflict


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“Sing, Muse, of the woman unsung.” (The Inkwell Review)

The novels The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood and Lavinia by Ursula LeGuin both focus on the wives of prominent Greek personas Odysseus and Aeneas. Minor characters in the epics, The Odyssey and The Aenid, these two authors give life to Penelope and Lavinia by creating the Greek epic narratives in their perspectives. The Penelopiad, specifically, creates multiple voices as a postmodern text. Coming up with this project, I thought hard about the need for a postmodern theme in the novel and I read it as an approach to deconstruct the male-centered narrative of The Odyssey. “Jocasta’s Dictionary” endeavors to do the same thing. Patterned after David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary, this short story deconstructs the objective, meaningproducing dictionary and re-situates it in Jocasta’s subjectivity.

JOCASTA, n. (yoh – KAS – tah) Both mother and wife. See penumbra


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A abysmal, adj. As I descend into death, I feel my senses elude me. My fingers numb and become one with the air’s vibrations. The silence deafens me. The darkness drapes my body and I am unsure if this is my sight failing me or if Hades’ Underworld is supposed to produce synesthesia. This was a week ago. Or maybe three. Maybe years. Chronos is incorporeal and this is not his Kingdom. I try to keep from counting time but I cannot. I cannot without worrying where the pins of my robe have gone. I feel exposed.


acrasia, n. My will was weak. Going into the Underworld, I remember what I had done. The messenger, that harbinger of good news; I did not want to talk to him initially. He felt familiar, smelt of the days I woke up to dreams of my firstborn under the sky, being pierced through solidly by Helios’ golden rays on the summit of a mountain. First, the ankles, creeping up his smooth body and onto his button-eyes. He would screech as a bird then roar like a lion before I finally wake up. Yes, that shepherd reminded me of those nights. The same nights I fought hard to grab the knife under my pillow and stab it into my culpable heart. Still, I led him into the palace when he told about the death of Merope. Oedipus would not listen. While I lacked the command over myself, he lacked the need for boundaries. He carried the investigation on. I pursued my own investigation as I hang myself with the same ropes that bound me the night they took my child away from me. My will was weak.

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ambivalent, adj. I roam around, floating about when I came across a woman by the fallen olive tree. She would not come near me. Living in this place without the sense of time, I still knew that she had come down here after I had. She is Penelope, the Queen so many courted. After years I would ask her if she knew where my pins had gone. She said she does not know. I ask her again, this time, she does not care. But she does care. I see her watching me all the time. Being dead allows you to feel eyes burning at the nape of your neck. Sometimes I trust her, most of the time, I do not.


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B behemoth, n. It frightens me to think that the monster which haunts me is not tangible. It is not unknown. It is neither faraway in the mountains nor hidden in a cave. It is not the Sphinx my Theban folks had dreaded. It is abstracted, it is a thought, it is pervasive. It is a decision. An abominable one. It had led to many deaths as a real monster would, including mine.


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C curse, n. My first husband, Laius, initiated the cycle of violence. The Underworld breeze is filled with gossip I could not filter through. “He abducted Chryssipus.” I hear souls talking behind my back. “And yet she married him.” What could I do? I knew of his past but I was destined to marry the man. I see him wander about sometimes, drunk with the quiet conversations people purposefully let him hear. I stay away. Yet, inevitably I feel his guilty soul around me. I see the future, I see the cycle. I see my children, my children’s children, my entire brood suffering the pains because of my first husband’s inability to constrain himself.


crossroads, n. Sometimes, talking to Lavinia, I recite the litany of all the choices I could have taken to avoid my demise. But nothing would have prevented this. The gods have willed it so. My death was a small path leading up to a greater curse placed upon the people I love. I remember Laius’ guard, the one who survived the encounter with the thief, recounting the experience. He saw many men on the crossroads when there was only actually one. My Oedipus was a great man, too great he was seen as more than one person. Too great that his body could not contain the largeness of his soul, they say. I react. The mirage was the physical manifestation of Oedipus’ instability, the many faces he took in my life and the many choices he could have made but did not.

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D doppelgänger, n. My son is my other half. My other half is my son. Am I a mother, a wife, or both?


disease, n. That which ailed the city during Oedipus’ reign was not an epidemic affecting Thebes’ formerly healthy citizens and harvests. It was the disgrace of my marriage coursing through the Theban air and water. The poison was the fault of the very people who have sworn to rule and defend the country. We are diseased ourselves.

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E ethereal, adj. My body feels as if it has never been removed from being hung. I hover, I do not walk. I see the Underworld, the crowd of men following Helen, who pretends not to notice them as she slips out of her robe to take a bath by the river, Lavinia behind her much older husband, Penelope guarding her tree. I never see Oedipus. I knew the Fates had cut his thread already, a mother knows these things. But I never see him. This was as far as I know: I freed my soul. I knew why and how and though I knew what would happen to Oedipus afterwards, I still cannot recall details perfectly. My memories are waiflike figures in my head, existing yet intangible.


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F fidelity, n. Penelope epitomizes fidelity. As faithful she is at guarding the fallen tree, so was she with her marriage. I cannot understand the connection I have with her. We rarely talked and when we did she avoided my inquiries, sidestepping them as if she did not know. She probably did, all the souls did, but I preferred to listen only to her because through her ethereal body and her refusal to answer me, I know we are connected by fate, that she will be loyal to me if only because of the familiar tragedies in our wifehood.


finnimbrun, n. My pins. The pins to my robe were gifts from my nameless mother the day I was married to Laius. Long and gold with emerald stones as green as my eyes for accent. Now I suffer the winds of the Underworld, prying my dress open. All three had gone missing when I arrived in this place. With the same confusion I feel with Penelope, I cannot understand why these pins, usually replaceable, were so attached to my thoughts. Now obsolete as the word_finnimbrun_is.

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G gossamer, adj. Punishingly thin. I wore a veil over my head the day I wedded Oedipus. He looked right through me, though, piercing my eyes with his. I can vaguely see through the veil but his eyes were as clear as the sun. We underwent all the niceties offered to the gods, I re-cut my hair and we were bathed ceremoniously. His skin was gossamer against my faintly wrinkled face.


groping, v. Sometimes, I think of you, Oedipus. In the dark, I construct your face and try to remember the things I do not. What has become of you? When I died, I was thinking of you all the same. I was afraid of what you would think of me, your own mother, committing the greatest committable sin. I know a part of you withered when you saw me float in the air. I know you would tear your hair and screech as bird or roar like a lion as you did in my nightmares. I will only know up until this moment. The Underworld allows you omniscience yet a thin veil blocks my attempts to see you. I fumble futilely through the recesses of my mind but I cannot find you.

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H hubris, n. Human flaw is the root of tragedy. My Oedipus was blind to this. He has mistaken heroism with pride, venturing into where the gods have forbidden. He takes after his father. I myself am guilty of hubris. I overestimated human capability, believing it could move the stars. How can I not? Oedipus defeated the Sphinx, born of gods and demi-gods. Apollo sent a blind cripple as his messenger. We are a family of arrogance and we painfully paid for it.


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I ignite, v. Lavinia’s flowing black hair is forever charred by fate. Fire is originary, a symbol of rebirth. Her hair touched by fire had promised her a good life. She, herself, is a warm figure. Where Penelope was enigmatic, Lavinia was open. Nevertheless, I could not bring myself to ask her about my missing dress pins. After several attempts with Penelope, I lost all hope and assumed Lavinia will similarly shrug the topic off. She would tell me that the gods asked me to stay away from Helen or else I’d burn. I dared believe her; she was always close to her gods, though not my own, honoring them on the family heart in Lavinium. I despise this mystery coming from her, it made me more curious. Hubris is not extinguished even after death.


ignorance, n. Will always be bliss. Oedipus learned this the hard way. He did not heed me as I would not heed Lavinia.

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L long-dressed, adj. It is ironic that Homer gave Helen this epithet. I rarely saw her in a long robe. I rarely saw her in a robe at all. She seemed to like the attention and I never got near her for fear of the men surrounding her. I badly wanted to, after Lavinia’s forebodings. One day, she approached me. I was watching her through eagle eyes when she suddenly turned and met my gaze. Walking up to the hill where I sat, she walked graciously, letting the grass hold onto the seams of her gown before moving ahead. She bade her admirers goodbye, flashed a dazzling smile into my face and called me Mother. “I have what you want, dear Mother.” I let her talk.


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M moira, n. Why is fate a woman? If she truly was, then she would have taken mercy on her fellow women. She would have felt as a mother would have if her son was taken away, if her husband was murdered or if her kin suffered. She would have felt the longing for a husband who is travelling aimlessly or is always in danger raging war against neighboring countries. But if she could have felt it, she cannot do anything. Men reign in Olympus. Even Zeus did not need a woman to create Athena. We, women of wars, epics and tragedies, we fight our own battles and fates to merely exist.


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O offspring, n. “A husband by her husband, children by her child” – Line 25, Oedipus Tyrranus


ora, n. I gave birth to Oedipus easily, I was fated to bear him but not to nurse him. I bore his children the same way, gave birth to them through the same cavity. There was not a single indication that the births were unnatural. Now I wander through caves, touching and caressing and trying to feel what it must have felt to be birthed. Tiresias was transformed into a woman for seven years, underwent the same episodes of child-bearing and childbirth. He was blinded by the gods for revealing their secrets. In a lifetime, he embraced both femininity and masculinity. Relaying his experiences, I feel ridiculous that I doubted him and his gods before.

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oxymoron, n. See gossamer “Wedded Oedipus,” sounds so much an oxymoron. Yet I was there. Do I regret? I am not entitled to.


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P pastiche, n. The Underworld is a medley of possibilities of time and space. My story happened years before the Trojan War and yet here are its women, still unheard, years after. Here are its women, generations after, talking to me and I feel as if it’s only been weeks after my death. Is this the Kingdom of Hades’ doing? My mind is deluding me like the day my nurse drugged me so they could take my son away. I fought hard yet the drug was intoxicating, diffusing memories I cherished yet long ago held back. I am at the door waiting for my mother come back from sacrificing at the family altar . . . I am sitting on my father’s lap while he tells triumphant war stories where he was the hero and I was the beloved princess . . . I am lying on the daisies I planted, watching the clouds form various shapes from my dreams . . .


penumbra, n. Jocasta means “shining moon.” The moon, dark and secretive, reveals itself gradually in the running days. I was born during a partial eclipse, the light of the moon obscured only in parts, uncertain if it wants to hide or show. Secrets reveal themselves that way, leaving traces of light you seem to have forgotten over time. Along the way, someone points at them and follows the path. He removes the veil covering the brightness, and there is the moon – the truth – shining and blinding. Helen revealed what Penelope has tried helping me to achieve. She did not mean to intervene by telling me this, she said. She only wanted me to know the truth. Penelope came and dragged me away from Longdressed Helen. I made her explain.

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peripeteia, n. A reversal is always accompanied by metanoia, at least in my experiences. Oedipus’ reversal of fortune subsequently altered mine. When I was beginning to find out the rotten fruits of my first husband’s crimes, I ran into the bedroom. The bed I cannot look at properly. I kept seeing it as a space of abomination. Similarly, I cannot face Oedipus because I did not know how; I did not know what role to take. My change of heart was not repentance, it was a change of perspectives: from loving wife to a terrible mother.


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Q quagmire, n. Tragic flaws are entrapping. It disables you and fixates you in one position, one state of mind. The Underworld magnifies your flaws. Mine is escapism. Alive, I ran to my daisies to be alone with my thoughts, I escaped into the world of dreams where my son still existed, I freed my soul into the Underworld so I would not have to see my shame-faced son. But in the Underworld, I did the same, as Helen revealed and Penelope explained to me. “She made you drink from it, Mother,” said Helen. “Drink from what?” “Lethe.” Penelope suddenly came to pull me away, staring back at Helen who chose to leave. “You were weeping endlessly, Jocasta,” Penelope explained, “You kept begging for my assistance. I helped you.”


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R robe, n. Now my robe is at peace, no longer flapping open through the wind. Penelope and Lavinia helped my create pins from the twigs of Penelope’s tree. She does not stay there anymore. She joins Lavinia and me recount our earthly lives and create new ones here with the company of one another.


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S sanguine, adj. Oedipus blinded himself with my pins. I carried this memory into the Underworld but Penelope helped me forget. Now, trying to imagine her account of the story I have forgotten, I see the crimson blood flowing from his eyes onto my dress. For that single moment of union, we were at peace. Amidst the gory truth we discovered, parts of us unite as mother and son.


son, n. See curse

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sublime, adj. The three of us revisit Lethe. The mist disables me from seeing the flowing water from afar. Coming nearer, the water is dark and thick with the memories it has taken away from its victims. No, not victims – the needy. The river was vast, it does not seem to end. The black sky kisses the water in the horizon. I felt small. I felt the gods’ envelop my being. I did not need to drink again. I believe I am finally at peace.


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T tragic, n. I was born for this. It is the story written in the palm of my hands long before I was born. It is the three Fates deciding that I should live, determining how long my thread is, and choosing how I should die.


tyrant, n. Oedipus, you sketch into me as you have as the King of Thebes: writing on the wall.

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V vestigial, adj. Hidden truth leaves traces as forcefully forgotten memory does. Like an obsession, I cannot explain why I kept feeling the need to look for my dress pins.


void, n. Lethe took away only a portion of my memories. Only those which I came to know when the Underworld allowed me omniscience. Years have become weeks in my head because I have forgotten. Now, the emptiness the River of Oblivion left my mind is slowly being refilled.

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W woebegone, adj. Do I regret? I am not entitled to. Do I pity myself? Yes, now and then.

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X xanthippe, n. I was always permissive as a mother. Oedipus was the one who was shrewish and nagging. He nagged Tiresias into telling the truth but did not believe what the oracle had to say. He nagged Creon into confessing an untrue connivance. He insisted on knowing the truth when I advised him not to. Now, tell me who the irritable woman is between the two of us?


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Z zenith, n. It is paradoxical to think about the fact that I have found the zenith of my existence in the lowest portion of the universe. The zenith of the moon makes it appear smaller than normal. In the Underworld, I am forgotten, wasting away each day. But as the moon changes phases, I try to reclaim myself as well.


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Angelli Ancheta 2013


Jocasta's Dictionary