“Take a playboy Zeus with issues; a New-Age Hera; an idiot boy: another who’s half-bug, half-bat; an artist who walks backwards; and a woman who lived inside a door for 2000 years…. You’d think, with this mélange, no one but Eudora Welty could have made a moving and magical novel. You’d be wrong. Leslie What has.”
“Hera and Zeus…mythology’s feistiest dysfunctional couple, are back and feuding in the twenty-first century. With gods like these, who needs a devil? Leslie What has filled this lush book with immortals acting badly and wonderfully realized men and women coping with life’s absurdity and tragedy. Prepare yourself for a wild ride that is often hilarious, sometimes achingly sad, but never dull. Olympic Games is not only the first novel by one of our most gifted fantasists, it’s a revelation.”
—James Patrick Kelly, author of Burn
“The gods haven’t learned a thing through the millennia. Still lustful, vengeful, vain, childish, still wreaking havoc among innocent mortals. But mortals have their own strong magic: love. And the battle is on. It’s a romp, a love story, a tragi-comedy, and altogether great fun.”
“If anybody can write about gods and goddesses, it’s Leslie What. She’s had more close encounters with them than anybody else I know. In fact, I suspect she’s actually a goddess-in-hiding. Read on for a tantalizing and tasty serving of divine madness.”
—Nina Kiriki Hoffman, author of Catalyst
“In Leslie What’s hands, everyday life is revealed in all its weird implausibility. And oddly enough, the things that should be strange—gods and goddesses with marital problems—feel as real as our friends and neighbors and maybe, at moments, ourselves.”
“This novel is so much fun. From the woman in the door to bug bangs (not the haircut) and beyond, the story is deeply imagined and wonderfully realized. Yes, the book is a romp with the gods being the gods, but it is also full of people you will come to care about, like Penelope and Possum, who is used to moody women, and Eddie, who is destined for bigger things—people who will linger in your mind long after you’ve turned the last page.”
Long Ago, Far Away
Hera could practically smell the seduction on his breath; the way Zeus offered her a goblet of sweetened wine, how he plumped the feather pillows and tenderly slid them beneath her back. He rubbed her feet with clove-scented oil, then performed her favorite little trick: lighting the clouds on fire to leave warm, moist trails of smoke. Delightful. Oh, her husband was an expert at seduction when he wanted to be.
There was only one problem and it was a big one.
Zeus was not seducing her.
He strapped on his sandals and her suspicions increased. “Going somewhere?” she asked.
Zeus said, “Rest,” his voice hypnotic and breathy.
Hera struggled to keep her eyes open as she gazed at the heavens. She stifled a yawn. “I'm not tired,” she said.
Zeus brought the goblet to her lips. “Drink,” he said.
The flavor of ripe cherries lingered on her tongue.
Her godly husband was up to no good, but there didn't seem to be a thing she could do about it.
“Rest,” Zeus said again, and blew a breath warm as a blanket across her legs.
A sense of weariness beset her, and sipping wine only made things worse. She yawned. Her body grew numb from the lips down. She attempted to move her legs, but the effort proved too great. Come to think of it, she was feeling a bit sleepy.
“Rest,” Zeus said. His voice seemed very far away.
Her lids grew heavy, her cheeks warm. “Perhaps, just for a moment,” she said, closing her eyes.
When she awakened, some time later, Zeus was gone.
Furious, she plucked a hawk from the air and sent it to the earth to spy on him. It soon returned to Olympus, with plenty of gossip about his whereabouts and actions.
Hera's fury raged. The clouds melted around her; in the distance, Vesuvius rumbled. How Zeus loved making her jealous. “What is this obsession with virgins?” she cried, setting out after him.
Penelope tried to calm her trembling hands to keep the other naiads from noticing her nervousness. She laced her fingers together, squeezing so tightly her hands stung and turned a fiery red. Her stomach ached, as if she had swallowed a lump of fool's gold for breakfast. All around her, naiads gossiped and laughed. They were sitting on the heavy tapestry covering the meadow floor. Penelope forced herself to smile because to do otherwise might arouse suspicion.
All ten sisters were there, along with four other families belonging to her clan. They formed a circle around festive silver platters, urns of flowers, and dishes filled with scented oils. Penelope sat between two other young naiads close to her age. She fumed at her queen for ordering her, on this eve of her fourteenth season, to sit with children. Had no one else noticed that she had become a young woman?
Every naiad there was clothed in finery: tunics trimmed with lace and gold thread, hair delicately oiled and tied with painted ribbons, sandals decorated with gemstones. So much beauty wasted on women forced to sit with women. Penelope had pulled her long hair up, off her back, and into the elegant knot favored by her mother. She was wearing a copper bracelet the color of her hair, matching ear cuffs, and a fine chain anklet-crafted from water-soft links.
They ate their midday meal of chewy flat bread, chunks of fresh sheep's cheese, and soft green grapes with tart skins, all washed down with amber wine as thick as syrup. Penelope ate, despite not being the least bit hungry.
“Lovely feast!” a young one murmured.
Penelope smiled in agreement. She took a bite of bread, while chewing on her imagination. Any moment now, she would sneak away to rendezvous with the young man she had met at market.
The instant her mother pushed away her plate and yawned, Penelope ran from her place to stand beside her eldest sister, Helen.
At first Helen ignored her. Penelope knew that caution would work better than anguish, but sighed loudly in protest. She fiddled with hair that had uncurled from her knot and twisted the strand around her fingers, waiting for Helen to speak. Finally, she cleared her throat.
Helen flashed a sly look, but continued to pluck slowly at her grapes.
Unable to restrain herself any longer, Penelope placed her hand on Helen's shoulder and gave her a slight nudge. She cleared her throat again.
“I shall not be hurried,” Helen said.
Penelope blushed, ashamed by her eagerness to begin her planned deception. “Sister,” she begged in a whisper. “Do not fail me.”
“When the time arrives I shall assist you in your plan,” Helen said, quite firmly. She poured herself another goblet of wine. When she had finished drinking, Helen nodded that she was ready. “All right, Sister,” she said. “Let us begin.”
Penelope fought herself to keep from shouting for joy. Instead she pressed her bracelet and ear clips into Helen's greedy palm. The jewelry had been a gift from their father, Poseidon, and Helen had coveted the pieces for many years. Penelope had only seen their father once, so giving away his gift tugged at her heart. The copper sparkled with fire. It was beautiful, if not precious. Surely, Poseidon had expected its sheen would blind her to the fact that he was absent from her life.
Helen fastened the clips on her ears.
“They look lovely on you,” Penelope told her sister. This was true.
Helen smiled. She was vain, though no more so than any of them. She stood and called upon the naiads to gather into a large circle. “A game!” she cried. “It is time to play a game.”
Her mother eyed them both with suspicion.
Just in time, another of Penelope's sisters shouted, “Oh, yes! A game! A game!”
Two naiads from another clan began to twirl and laugh, their lightweight tunics shimmering in the sunlight.
“Penelope shall pick the game,” said Helen. “Now, please, choose a favorite.”
Penelope pretended to consider the choices. “I know! We shall hide,” she said, “and let our sisters seek us out. One by one!”
“Yes!” shouted one of her sisters.
Helen lifted her hands toward Olympus, and pleaded with their river to sing for their amusement. The river obliged with a delicate melody, a trickling of waters the sound of a hundred harps.
“A water song. My gift to all the children!” cried Helen.
Penelope felt ashamed. She, along with the other young ones present, could not yet boast of magic. How her sister took joy in pointing out her deficit.
But that would change, she thought, and much sooner than anyone could guess. Penelope pulled Helen into the center of the circle, tied a wool wrap around her eyes.
“Give us plenty of time,” Penelope whispered, “before beginning your search. Otherwise, you will find me too quickly and ruin the fun.”
“When you kiss him,” Helen whispered, “you must make sure not to smudge the color on your lips, or Mother will suspect all when she sees you. I envy you just a little,” she said. “That the first kiss shall ever remain the finest.”
Penelope felt her cheeks grow warm, wondering how a kiss might taste. She spun Helen in circles, until a giggling Helen begged her to stop. Penelope smiled and turned to the others. “Go!” she said. “Scatter.” When every sprite except her sister had dissapeared in the woods, Penelope slipped away.