Without waiting for me to regain my senses, my goddess unwound my legs, picked my hands from the branches and turned to drop me on my hands and knees to the earth. Her foot nudged my legs apart before she fell to the ground behind me. A hand snaked under my body, drawing fingers from my throbbing nipple to my swollen nub and then up to my wet core. I shook. Sweat broke out all along my body, wherever she didn’t touch.
“You are so willing, so ready.” The masculine tenor of Artemis’ voice shocked me through the engulfing desire. Peeking over my shoulder, my eyes widened with what I saw. Artemis, my goddess, flickered, her visage fading in and out as a bearded man’s face became clear.
“No!” His large, rough hand moved quickly to stifle my scream. His other arm wrapped around my hips and pressed me low so my breasts brushed against the dirt.
“You are mine, Callisto.”
I felt the head of his cock force its way inside my damp and aroused folds. I clenched hard to stop him. He only groaned and pushed harder. I shoved back trying to dislodge him from my sheath but only caused him to invade deeper. I bit at the hand covering my mouth. His booming laugh rocked the earth beneath me.
“Go ahead and fight.”
Tears leaked from my eyes. I didn’t want this. He didn’t care. Over and over, he took me. When at last he finally came, I wept. Withdrawing, leaving me like an animal on all fours, he patted my head and disappeared.
It took me hours to return to Artemis’ scared grove. It took another few months for me to find comfort with my sister nymphs. At first, their hands on my skin had me cringing during our baths. Soon enough, though, I mastered the art of pretense. Life continued as it always had. Nightmares plagued me all night, but during the day, no one was any wiser to my shame. I kept my distance from the goddess lest she learned the truth of my feeling for her and what it had cost me.
A few months became half a year. With the changing of the seasons, I was feeling hope again. If Persephone could start her life anew every six months, then so could I. That hope came crashing down the afternoon I spent too long soaking in the well of cool spring water. Lately, my body had felt different, achy and heavy. Floating in the water was the only time I felt better. The other nymphs had already cantered off into the woods to spend the day with the young fawns and fox kits. Artemis had gone off hunting boar in the early morning. I was alone.
At least I thought I was. The goddess returned as the noon sun hung suspended at the peak of its journey. Seeing me, resting, asleep, she decided to sneak up on me. It was the touch of her fingertip on my lip that had been jolting awake, terrified. She backed away at my obvious fear.
“Callisto? What is it my nymph?”
I clambered to my feet in the water. Facing her, I struggled to take deep breaths and calm my racing heart.
Her eyes were drawn to my stomach. “You are with child?” Her brows creased and her lower lip quivered.
I shook my head. What? I looked down at myself. I thought I had been gaining weight because of the winter - all that meat. A child?
“Leave, nymph,” her voice was hard, unforgiving and like ice. “You are no longer welcome in my presence.” Disgust marred her features. I saw myself mirrored in her eyes; my distended womb ugly in relation to her toned and slender frame. Not bothering to dry, I hauled my body from the spring, threw my tunic over my head and left.
Through blurred eyes, clouded with tears, the only thing I saw was the man’s face who had forced this fate on me.
For three months I wandered alone. The child within grew big. I spent most of my days crouching beside fruit bushes, picking the ripe ones and eating them. I was too ungainly now to do much hunting, nothing but the slowest animals would fall prey to me. Once the greatest of the goddess’ nymphs, I was nothing now except a refugee. A fugitive from the only life I had ever known.
Sitting on the bank of a stream, far away from my old hunting grounds, I relaxed in the sun. My ankles ached and my gut was rumbling. I rested my hands on my stomach. I could feel my child kicking. She was going to be strong, like her mother, I decided. Enjoying the moment, I fell asleep.
“Wake up, Callisto.” I opened my eyes and squinted into the sun. A tall, regal silhouette filled my gaze. “It is time.”
The pain, when it came, was unlike anything I could have imagined. My entire body was wracked by the enormity of the agony that radiated outwards from my womb. The shadowed woman knelt at my feet and spread my legs.
“Let him come, dear. Open your body. Let nature flow through you. Follow your instinct.” Her voice was soothing, in an authoritative way. I gave in to her words. I had no other choice.
The wailing of my child startled me back into consciousness. Teetering on the edge of a dark abyss, I had gotten lost in the sting of my flesh being ripped wide. Holding him high, cradling him in her arms, the woman smiled down at my baby.
“It’s a boy. Do you have a name for him?”
“Arcas.” From where the name came, I wasn’t sure. Already spoken, I couldn’t take it back.
“Fitting, I suppose.” The woman cast a sneer down at me, splayed in the grass, blood marking the pain I had suffered and the life I had borne. I tilted my head at her. You suppose? “You did not really think I would forget how you seduced him away from my bed, would you?”
Memories assaulted my weakened brain. His attack on me, his words, the wave of passion he had cast over me.
“He was my husband, nymph, and this should have been our son. He is mine to do with as I like.”
“I can. You will not be able to stop me.”
She spun on her heel and began to walk away. I tried to lift my broken body from the ground, to rise and follow her, to take my son back, but I couldn’t. I could only watch as she disappeared into mist.
Throwing my head back, I screamed out at all the injustices of my life. I screamed until my throat was rough and red and my voice cracked. Then I roared; I roared with agony as my body morphed, bones broke, and muscles tore. I roared with the full force of a giant brown bear.
“Approach, Callisto.” The deep voice caused a shiver to trace along my spine. I stood at the edge of a great marble floor encircled by twelve monstrous thrones. Each was handcrafted and carved from various precious metals. There were no walls and no ceiling. I appeared to be standing on the top of the world. Giants of men and women sat in the thrones, bright and garishly clothed, diadems resting on judging crowns. All eyes were trained on me.
Easing down to my hands, I began to lumber forward at the command. A snigger of contempt echoed across the hall from the woman sitting before me.
“Hera.” The man beside her said, his warning clear. It was the same man who had ordered me to come close. A voice, which once again caused my body to jolt with shock.
“Why, Zeus?” She patted his arm, her eyes never wavering from me. “Look at how she bows before us.” I stopped. I looked down at myself. I was no longer covered by fur, no longer bore claws, nor did my jaw hang heavy and gaping. I was wearing a simple chiton of pure white, my fingers and toes wriggled free, and I could smile. So many years as a bear, I had forgotten what it was like to be a woman. Gingerly, I stood again. I took one hesitant step forward, then another.
“Callisto, I have called you here to ask your forgiveness. Our forgiveness.” Facing the man in his throne, I turned at his gesture to look at each of the giants. Recognition dawned on me. At the realization of where I was and who these giants were, my stomach flipped and I fell to my knees vomiting. A collective gasp of astonishment flooded my ears. My vision blurred and unconsciousness threatened.
“Shush, my dear girl,” a woman’s gentle voice broke through the haze that had enveloped me. I focused my gaze on an elderly face, tanned, and wrinkled by too much time in the sun. Her brown eyes twinkled with kindness. Placing a gnarled hand beneath my arm, she helped me rise from the floor. When I swayed, she tightened her grip and steadied me.
“Shame on you, brother. You should be ashamed to make this girl so scared. Especially since you brought her here to beg for forgiveness.” Her voice was no less gentle, but I heard the strength behind the words and tried to place her. Brother?
“Demeter?” I asked. My voice shook with the effort to speak. I half-expected a roar to escape my lips instead of the Greek name.
“Of course, dear,” she answered quietly. “Do not worry. He knows I am right. I always was and always am. It comes from being the eldest.” Her smile was genuine as she turned to face me.
Letting go of my arm, she brushed a surprisingly soft palm across my cheek before walking away. As she approached her throne, she grew in size until she was once again towering over me. I took the opportunity to observe each of the Olympians as I spun back around to pin my eyes on Zeus.
“You raped me.”
He had the audacity to smile at my proclamation. A muffled cough from behind me dropped the smile from his face. “I did.”
“And you casted me out, Artemis,” I never moved, but slid my gaze to hers. I caught her narrowed eyes and her pressed together lips. She struggled to keep from speaking. “Even though he took me against my will?” I didn’t wait for her answer. I didn’t want to hear her answer. In my heart, I still felt her abandonment the strongest. “Hera, it was you who cursed me. A bear?”
“I should have turned you into a toad, you un—“
“Hera!” She paled at her husband’s harshness.
“That wasn’t all was it? You stole Arcas from me. Was it your plan to have him be the one to finally kill me? Didn’t want to bloody your own hands?” The queen of the gods turned crimson at my words. Her knuckles gripped the armrest so hard they began to turn white. Shifting her weight, she moved to stand. It took Zeus’ heavy hand on hers to keep her enthroned, but I could still see the rage flare in her blue eyes.
“We must beg your forgiveness, Callisto. You have been greatly wronged by us.” His voice calmed and fell on me in a seductive wave. Its rich tenor filled me with a longing I had forgotten.
“Brother…” Demeter chastised Zeus.
“Right. It is so hard to be this close to you without wanting you again.” Hera shot him a hateful glare. At least I wasn’t the only one she despised now. When he started speaking again, his voice was full of the thunder in the clouds, but was absent of desire. “You were spared your fate at my demand. Whatever it is you think of me, I never forgot neither you nor Arcas. It is now my place to ask you to forgive our treatment of you.”
“In order to rule wisely we must be reminded of our humanity from time to time. We are offering you a gift in return. Do you forgive us?”
I bowed my head at his words. I wasn’t ready to speak the words he was commanding me to say. Forgiveness for a lifetime stolen from me was a hard morsel to swallow. “I wish for my son. At my side. I have spent too many years absent from his life. He deserves a mother.”
“But you fell at his hand,” this time it was Aphrodite who spoke up, “how can you still love him so much?”
“She is a mother,” Demeter answered for me. She was right. I was his mother. No matter what he did, I would always love him. I always had. Even as a bear, I had held that image of him as an infant in my head. Perhaps he was the reason I retained the little of my humanity that had kept me from attacking him.
“Granted, Callisto. Your son will be returned to you.” I fell to the floor in a deep bow.
Unable to work against the fates to save my life, for not even a god has that much power, my son and I were placed in the heavens.
I am a guardian of the mortals and a reminder to the gods.
Forgiveness takes time.