Myth and reality collide in a series that sets Greek gods against a modern Manhattan backdrop. Deborah Harkness, author of A Discovery of Witches, calls Brodsky’s The Immortals ‘arresting and uncanny’.
The Festive Maiden
The Salvation Army Santa Claus narrowly escaped having his bell ripped from his hands and shoved down his throat. Lucky for him, the six-foot-tall, silver-eyed former goddess hoofing it down Broadway had recently decided to limit her less socially acceptable behaviors. But if the street had been a little less crowded and the streetlights a little less bright, Selene DiSilva might have made Christmas in New York just a little less annoying.
To avoid the jarring tinkle of Yuletide charity, she hopped lightly over an icy, pee-stained snowdrift and jaywalked across the street. But she couldn’t escape the signs of the season. At the end of the block, a Christmas tree stand hogged the sidewalk, its wares bedecked with colored lights. She peered up from beneath the brim of her WNBA New York Liberty cap at the giant inflated angel wobbling atop the sales shed.
Tempting target, she mused, thinking of the bow and arrows in her backpack. And much less morally abhorrent than taking out the Salvation Army guy. She glanced up and down the street, then sighed. No way could she get away with it. Already the tree seller had taken note of her, blinking eagerly though the thin gap between his wool ski cap and striped scarf.
“Only eighty dollars for a ten-footer,” he offered, his cheer apparent even through the muffling effects of his outerwear. She should’ve ignored him, but the smell of cut pine assaulted her senses and demanded an answer. “Only eighty dollars?” she marveled, stepping closer to bring all her superior height to bear. “What a bargain! I would’ve thought you’d charge a lot more for destroying our forests.”
“It’s a tree farm—” he began diffidently, but she cut him off.
“All these trees, cut down in their prime, and why? So rich New Yorkers can prop them up in a can of water, drape them with tinsel like some beribboned whore, then watch them lose their needles like mange until they toss them on the sidewalk, one more addition to the garbage heaps in the world. All to celebrate the supposed birthday of their supposed savior, but really just to wallow in a yearly tradition of gluttonous consumerism.”
“The city chips them for mulch,” the tree seller protested weakly, but Selene stopped listening as she headed off down the street. She heard only the outraged monologue that ran through her mind in an endless loop from sometime in late October to January second. Normally, she kept such ranting internal, but her recent association with a certain garrulous classics professor had taught her the cathartic effects of occasionally letting loose.
She turned down West Eighty-eighth Street, muttering angrily to herself about the gaudy twinkle lights her neighbors had strung across their brownstones. The building next door to hers had gone all out this year. Three-foot-long blue and white plastic icicles hung from every windowsill. Twinkling, flashing, neon icicles. As if Times Square had picked up its lurid horrors, dragged them forty blocks uptown, and plunked them down next door out of sheer pique.
Her own house remained blessedly barren. A narrow facade, half as wide as the others on the block, reaching up four stories. Only a single dim bulb illuminated the wrought iron grate shielding her front door. The building looked dark, uninviting, a little rundown. Just how she liked it.
She bounded up her stoop two stairs at a time, reaching into the pocket of her leather jacket for her keys.
She froze and looked up.
Theodore Schultz, distinguished Columbia University professor of Ancient Greek and Latin and the cause of her recent loquacity, hung his head off the edge of her roof, his glasses slipping down his nose. A string of colored lights dangled from one hand while he waved eagerly to her with the other.
“Look what I found in your attic!”
Moments later, Selene had burst into her house, galloped up the stairwell, and launched herself through the trap door to the roof, moving just a little faster than any woman had a right to move. “You put a single one of those bulbs on my house and I’ll strangle you with the whole damn cord.”
Still lying prone on the snow, Theo rolled over and raised an eyebrow. “If you hate Christmas lights so much, why do you have them in your house?”
She thought about lying but decided she’d save the deception for the really bad things in her past. “I used them to strangle a pedophilic priest on Christmas morning in 1969.”
Theo dropped the lights with a grimace. “And you kept the murder weapon?”
“Figured it might come in handy next time I needed to do some seasonal killing. Makes a statement.”
Theo got to his feet and brushed the snow off the knees of his corduroys. “I’m assuming you don’t mean a ‘peace on earth and goodwill toward men’ sort of statement.”
“More like a ‘screw this stupid holiday’ and ‘all men are assholes’ statement.”
“Ouch,” he said mildly, coiling the string of lights with a regretful sigh. “Why do I feel like the city gets jollier and you get crankier in direct proportion?”
“Poor choice of words. How about ‘wrathful’? Is that more in keeping with your dignity?”
She glowered at his teasing grin but let him lead her to the western side of the roof.
They sat with their legs dangling over the edge. From here, she could see past the other houses on her block and the treetops in Riverside Park, all the way to the Hudson River. It glinted silver in the moonlight, while the illuminated windows of New Jersey formed yet another string of Christmas lights on the far shore. A bitterly cold night, but at least, for the first time in days, it wasn’t snowing. Theo’s arm felt warm as it snaked around her waist and tucked her close. She wanted to melt into his embrace and punch him all at the same time.
If my grandmother Phoibe, Goddess of the Night, could still look down from the moon, she’d be sick to her stomach, Selene thought. Artemis, Goddess of the Wild, Protector of Virgins, the famous loner and misanthrope, snuggling in the arms of an extroverted mortal classicist who didn’t even know I was real until three months ago. Once, the thought would have sent her into spirals of self-doubt. But she’d learned to stop worrying about her relationship and just enjoy it. Mostly.
“You want to tell me what’s going on?” Theo asked after a moment. “I’ve never seen you quite so angry for so little reason. Usually there’s a woman being murdered or a god being dishonored or maybe a dog refusing to obey . . . but twinkle lights? They used to call you the Festive Maiden, remember? What happened?”
For their first weeks together, she’d simply ignored his demands of emotional openness. But Theo could be as relentless as the Relentless One herself. Better to just tell him.
“Everything about this loathsome holiday makes me mad. The waste. The materialism. The false cheer. Worst of all, the Jesus carols, each one a little prayer offered up to the god who displaced us. They’re like tiny knives in my brain, slicing out my sanity. The closer we get to Christmas, the more I want to throttle everyone around me. It’s like my own little advent calendar from hell.”
He laughed and refused to stop despite her angry scowl. “ ‘You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,’ ” he started singing off-key.
“That string of lights is right over there,” she threatened. “And you know I don’t like pop culture references I barely understand.”
“Fine,” he said with a grin. “You’re nothing like the Grinch. He mends his ways at the end of the movie. You’re much too stubborn for that.”
“But at least admit that part of your Scrooge-iocity comes from the fact that everyone else in the city is spending the holidays with friends and family, while you’ve always spent them alone.”
“I like being alone. In fact, I’m starting to regret giving you a key. Do you realize you’ve been singing nonstop for the past two weeks? Even though I specifically told you I hate Christmas carols?” He’d avoided the most religiously offensive of them, but still. Even “Jingle Bells” rubbed her the wrong way.
Theo ignored her. “How about we have people over for the holidays? We can call it a Saturnalia party. Invite your twin, maybe a few half siblings, some friends of mine.”
She stared at him. “Can you see your friend Gabriela making small talk with Dash?”
“Yeah, actually, Gabi would love Hermes. She likes fast-talkers and has no respect for the law. The God of Liars and Thieves is exactly her type.”
“Well, forget it. It’s bad enough you know about the Athanatoi. You start having everyone over for cocktails, and your friends are bound to wonder who all your super-tall, super-attractive, suspiciously talented new acquaintances are.”
“They’d never imagine the truth. Athanatoi? ‘Those Who Do Not Die’? Hah! What self-respecting thanatos would believe they existed? And I’d never tell. I can be very discreet.”
“What?” he protested. “You’re the one whose emotions are written all over your face. Like right now. I call this one ‘Disdainful Incredulity.’ ”
“Exactly. Because you can’t keep your mouth shut, and you know it.”
“I just don’t see what the big deal is.”
“Besides the fact that you’re one of the few mortals in the world who knows that large portions of the ancient Greek pantheon are alive and well and living in Manhattan? And that if word got out to the rest of the world, we’d either be put in an insane asylum or locked in a secret lab?”
He rolled his eyes. “Hyperbole much? I’m the one they’d lock up as a crazy person for believing in Greek gods in the first place. But all right, maybe we don’t invite my friends. How about an intimate dinner gathering for your immediate family instead? We could work on your whole ‘antisocial and estranged’ problem.”
“I went to Paul’s concert last month, didn’t I?” she demanded. She and her twin brother Apollo, God of Music and Light, currently known as indie rocker Paul Solson, had been on the outs for millennia until they’d joined forces three months earlier to take down a homicidal cult terrorizing Manhattan. When their mother died that same week, the twins had begun a cautious reconciliation. Theo’d insisted Paul’s music was quite good; Selene stood in the crush of sweaty bodies with her hands over her ears and her eyes closed until the torture ceased. It’d been a week before her head stopped ringing.
“Besides your twin,” Theo pressed. “I thought you were turning over a new leaf, remember? But you haven’t had anything to do with Hermes or Dionysus or Hephaestus since they showed up in September to help fight the cult.”
She twisted to look Theo square in the eye. He glanced away, but not before she caught a flash of guilt. She poked him hard on the arm. “Gotcha.”
“What?” He was all innocence.
“You just want me to reunite with my family because you’re curious about the other Olympians. Admit it, you’re using me.”
He gave an exasperated groan. “Of course I’m using you! For God’s sake, Selene, I’m a classicist! You expect me not to want to meet Zeus and Athena?”
“I told you not to use their real names if you don’t have to. It can draw their attention to you. And why do you always bring her up?”
“She’s my favorite goddess! I mean was my favorite goddess until I met you, obviously. Now I know Artemis would kick her ass.”
“You’re treading on very thin ice, Theodore. You shouldn’t mess with me at Christmastime. I’m not in the mood.”
He just laughed. “Christmas trees, candles, feasting . . . they’re all just pagan anyway. Why not embrace it? The early Christians probably chose December twenty-fifth because the Romans already honored it as the birthday of Sol Invictus, the sun god. And it came with ready-made revelry: They always celebrated the Saturnalia festival the week before.”
She curled her lip in disgust. “I didn’t like those holidays either. Too many drunk thanatoi reeling around paying homage to trumped‑up gods with nothing to do with me.”
“Okay, but what about your association with Christianity?”
“Ready for a little pedantic explication?” He kept going before she could say no. “Remember how some Romans worshiped you as a threefold goddess? They thought Artemis—or Diana, I should say, if we’re being strictly accurate— encompassed the Huntress, the Moon, and Hecate, the goddess of dark magic. Some of that iconography might have influenced the Christian trinity.”
She shrugged, growing more uncomfortable by the second. But once Theo embarked on one of his cerebral peregrinations, it would take more than her body language to stop him.
“I keep walking by these nativity scenes around the city,” he went on, “and it reminds me that, in a way, the Romans never stopped worshiping Diana. The Christians see Jesus’s mother as a Holy Virgin who’s the Protector of the Innocent. Sound familiar? She’s just an incarnation of you. Maybe you’ve been enjoying the benefits of that association all this time. Everyone’s saying their Hail Marys, but really they’re paying homage to Artemis. What do you think?” He offered up his scholarly insights like a Christmas gift, expecting her to rip open the paper and exclaim in delight. But this was one package Selene had no desire to unwrap.
“To assume Mary’s worship, I’d have to assume her characteristics as well.” She pulled away from him. “Is that what you want? To have me weak and mild? Impregnated by a shaft of heavenly light? Conforming to a cult of motherhood so all-encompassing that even virgins have to give birth? No thank you. I’d rather stick to hunting and punishing and leave the holy baby making to someone else.”
Theo raised his hands in mock surrender. “Okay! I didn’t realize it works that way. I don’t want anyone having incandescent coitus with you except me, I swear.”
She shot to her feet, feeling her cheeks burn despite the cold.
“Come on,” he pleaded as she headed toward the trapdoor. “I know we aren’t having sex, but can’t we even joke about it? Where are you going?”
“Inside. It’s cold.”
“You barely feel the cold!”
“Barely’s not the same as don’t.” Ignoring the ladder, Selene hopped through the opening in the roof. Her dog, Hippolyta, waited beneath; she jumped to her feet and proceeded to lick Selene’s hand.
“Yeah, yeah, you can tell I’m in a bad mood,” she said, giving the dog a cursory pat. “All this slobber isn’t helping, Hippo.” But it was, a little. She understood her dog’s love, and she knew what Hippo expected in return—a safe place to sleep, plenty of exercise, and hefty portions of meat to maintain her prodigious girth. But Theo was still a mystery. As a goddess, she’d had only one responsibility to her worshipers: to protect them. Theo, however, wanted her heart, her mind . . . and her body. Yet another trinity that I’m not about to give mankind any control over. She stomped loudly down the stairs toward the kitchen, hoping Theo heard the fury in every footstep.
* * *
Theo didn’t follow Selene inside. I should know better than to mention motherhood, much less sex, he thought. It’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull and hoping it just sits down and compliments you on your dance routine. Sometimes Selene seemed so relaxed and reasonable that he started treating her like a normal girlfriend—or as normal as a woman with the eyes of a hawk, the nose of a bloodhound, and over three thousand years of emotional baggage could be—then whoosh! She turned into a goddess, liable to pull out her golden arrows at any moment and make him beg forgiveness for provoking her wrath. When they’d first met, he’d found her tempestuousness exhilarating—three months later, he found it exhausting.
He stared out over the rooftops, trying not to let Selene’s mood ruin his own holiday cheer. The Christmas lights on the nearby buildings glittered merrily, and he even caught a whiff of woodsmoke from some apartment lucky enough to have a not-just-decorative fireplace. Winters in New York could be vile—even the most magical of snowfalls took only moments to devolve into a morass of gray slush when trampled by the boots of nine million residents. But Theo’d always found that December held more than enough wonders to make up for the weather. The Handel’s Messiah sing-along at Lincoln Center, ice skating in Rockefeller Plaza, the ornate window displays on Fifth Avenue, the menorahs and Christmas trees glowing in every apartment lobby—he almost broke into “Deck the Halls” just thinking about it all. Then his thoughts turned to the woman currently prowling the house below him, and his internal song ground to a halt. Christmas cheer was only one of the things he and Selene could never share.
But then he remembered the way his heart raced every time he saw her, every time he thought of how her courage and passion inspired his own. He remembered the way her sleek black hair framed the curve of her jaw, its one streak of white a constant reminder of her vulnerability, while the sculpted muscles of her long limbs promised a strength he could never match. He couldn’t help smiling. Who said dating a goddess was supposed to be easy?
* * *
Selene sat at her small kitchen table devouring the last portion of Canada goose from the fridge. She’d have to go hunting again soon: Taking down a pigeon or squirrel in Central Park might lessen some of her current desire to shoot her boyfriend. She knew full well he hadn’t meant to anger her, but it took some particularly violent tearing of gooseflesh before she could regain any semblance of calm. In recent decades, a single goose would last her a few days, but now she could eat an entire bird in one sitting if she didn’t pace herself. Her voracity was a rather inconvenient by‑product of a recent uptick in her divine powers.
Theo appeared in the kitchen doorway. “You sure you don’t want some salad with that? Something, I don’t know . . . green?”
She knew from his smile that he had no desire to continue their earlier quarrel. She made a face at him. “Have you ever heard of anyone hunting for lettuce? No? There’s a reason.”
“If it can’t cower in fear, you won’t eat it. You know you don’t have to take your Huntress epithet quite so literally. Nothing’s stopping you from becoming She Who Occasionally Eats a Balanced Meal.”
An old argument. Theo constantly nudged her to move beyond the boundaries of her traditional attributes. But she found millennia-old habits hard to break. She tried not to dwell on what other epithets Theo wanted the Chaste One to abandon.
“Maybe not,” she agreed. “But I spent enough time being what mankind imagined I was. Now I choose which of my attributes to keep and which to discard.”
“All right.” He nodded solemnly. They were talking about more than hunting, and they both knew it. “As long as I don’t have to watch you butcher the goose next time.” He’d dealt well with her shooting down the bird in the first place, but when it came to slitting its stomach and pulling out the still-steaming entrails, he’d blanched and left the room. She’d given up on any dreams of teaching him to hunt.
He yawned cavernously.
“It’s two in the morning,” she said. “You should go to sleep.”
As the erstwhile Goddess of the Moon, she normally stuck to a nearly nocturnal schedule. Theo might be a night owl, but he was, after all, still mortal.
“Yeah, I’m exhausted from all the end‑of‑semester craziness. Exam period starts tomorrow, so I’m looking forward to sleeping in.”
She’d forgotten all about his academic calendar. I’m just as ignorant of his life as he is of mine, she thought with a sinking heart.
“Wake me if you get a call, okay?” he asked through another yawn.
“Sure, but don’t get your hopes up.” Her cell phone had remained depressingly silent for a week. In her role as an unlicensed private investigator, she’d always relied on word of mouth to bring her clients. She had a reputation as someone who’d do anything, no matter how illegal, to protect women from the men who abused them. In the past, she’d hunted down rapists, maimed wife beaters, even castrated a child molester or two. Now she was itching to bring down her renewed divine wrath on anyone who looked at her wrong.
“Don’t worry,” Theo said. “Business will pick up. It’s the holidays—plenty of stressed-out couples arguing over budgets and in‑laws.”
“So you admit Christmas is a pain in the ass?”
“Not a chance.” He bent to kiss her good night, the blond stubble on his chin scratching her cheek. “I’m off to dream of sugarplum fairies.” He whistled a tune from The Nutcracker as he headed back up the stairs to the bedroom.
Just before dawn, Selene finally joined him. A month ago, he’d insisted on replacing her twin mattress so he could actually be comfortable when he slept over. He’d wanted a queen size, but Selene told him a double was more than enough change for one decade.
She lifted the covers and slipped into the cocoon of his heat. Theo immediately rolled over and slid an arm around her. His eyelids cracked open, and a flash of wonder crossed his face, as if even now he couldn’t believe there was a goddess in his bed. He stroked the side of her arm sleepily, his eyes fluttering shut. But she knew from experience that he’d wake in a heartbeat if she gave him a reason.
She lay quietly, staring at the familiar slope of his pointed nose, the fall of fair hair over his forehead, and remembered their first night in this room together. Theo had only just learned her true identity. She’d been sure, in that moment, that she would give this new lover all of herself. She’d let him into her house, the first man to have that honor in the forty years she’d owned it. He’d been so consumed with her that he didn’t even gawk at the fact that she owned an entire brownstone for just herself and her dog. Instead, they’d fallen onto her narrow bed in a flurry of kisses and laughter. It was easy, glorious fun. He’d pulled off his shirt, and she’d traced the lines of taut, lean muscle, accusing him of secretly lifting weights amid the library stacks. He insisted his brawn resulted purely from intellectual exercises. Then he reached to slip her shirt from her shoulders—and she’d balked.
So many millennia of virginity—how could she surrender it to a man she’d known for only a week? She might tell Theo she could choose which traits to keep, but she wasn’t actually sure that was true. She’d long believed that the Athanatoi preserved their power in part by maintaining their defining attributes. Could the Chaste One take such a risk with the precious remnants of strength that she’d so recently regained?
So that first night, they’d lain in each other’s arms, talking, laughing, kissing . . . and not much else. Since then, Theo had shown nothing but patience. Over time, she allowed him a little
more access, relaxed a little more into his arms. But there were limits—strict limits.
Curled beside him in bed, watching him sink deeper into sleep, Selene couldn’t resist placing a hand on Theo’s chest, tracing the whorl of hair across his sternum. His eyes popped open, and a crooked smile brought a dimple to one cheek. She placed her finger in the matching dent on his chin, turning his face toward her, and kissed him lazily.
Ten minutes later, they’d both reached the very edge of her proscribed limits when Theo’s phone rang.
“Ignore it,” she panted in his ear, grabbing his wrist to stop him from pulling his hand away.
“We’re not all on the lunar cycle, you know,” he remonstrated. “Normal people don’t call at five in the morning unless there’s an emergency.”
“I’m the PI. What sort of emergency could you have? Some student doesn’t know the difference between an omicron and an omega?”
“Let me just see—” He craned his neck over her shoulder, peering at his phone on the bedside table.
She growled low in her throat, unhappy to be disobeyed, but he pulled away anyway once he caught sight of his screen.
“Gabi?” he said into the phone, too loudly, near Selene’s ear.
Theo’s best friend, Gabriela Jimenez, worked as a curator in the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History. When she wasn’t monopolizing Theo’s time with overdramatic tales of the vicissitudes of life among the Native American dioramas, she was shooting highly suspicious glances in Selene’s direction. Somehow, it wasn’t surprising that she was the one to ruin Selene’s night. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be right there.” Theo sat up in bed and gave Selene a pointed glance. “Yes, she’s coming, too,” he said into the phone before hanging up and reaching for his clothes.
“What? She needs you to come help with some recalcitrant Navajo mannequin?”
Theo ignored the jab. “She needs us.”
“Us? You sure she didn’t just want you?”
“Seems a woman just showed up at her door covered in bruises and refuses to go to the cops. In that situation, who would you want? The classicist or the vigilante avenger?” He tossed Selene’s cargo pants at her head. “Gabi’s not dumb. She only called me because she thought you wouldn’t pick up if you saw her number.”
Selene couldn’t dispute that one.
Moments later, they headed out the door, with Hippo pulling excitedly at her leash. Theo’s usually smiling face had hardened to an intense mask, his stride swift and determined. She marveled at the change in his demeanor. Mild-mannered classicist becomes crime-fighting, mystery-solving, death-defying hero. Selene could barely contain the smile that tugged at her lips.
In her pack, she carried a golden bow forged by Hephaestus himself and a quiver of arrows sharp enough to kill. This was what she was born to do. Peace on earth and goodwill toward men be damned, she thought. As long as the Huntress roamed the streets of Manhattan, there’d be no peace for the wicked . . . and nothing but justice for the men stupid enough to get in her way.