The Judgment of Manhattan
Hephaestus lowers the net back to the couch and lets it expand so his prisoners can at least sit comfortably. They can stand up, but they can’t go far.
“Goddess,” he says, “in the matter of Hephaestus v. Aphrodite
, you are charged with being an unfaithful wife. How do you plead?”
Aphrodite considers. “Amused.”
“You’re in contempt of court,” Hephaestus says. “How do you plead?”
“On which charge?” asks the goddess. “Infidelity, or contempt?”
Hephaestus’s nostrils flare. This is already off to a terrible start. “Both.”
“Ah,” she says. “Guilty on both counts. But I don’t mean to be contemptible.”
Hephaestus pauses. “You plead guilty
She nods. “Um-hm.”
“Oh.” He hadn’t expected this. The clever lines he’d prepared, the scalding words, they desert him like traitors.
“I’ve disappointed you.” Aphrodite’s voice oozes with sympathy anyone would swear is sincere. “Would it make you feel better to present your evidence anyway?”
Who’s manipulating whom here?
She’s not afraid. No amount of evidence will matter.
But Hephaestus spent months gathering it, so he submits it for the court.
The lights dim. A succession of images appears in the air before them like a Technicolor film in their own hotel room. The goddess of love and the god of war, kissing under a shady bower. On the snowcapped rim of Mount Popocatépetl at sunset. Cuddling on the shoulder of an Easter Island statue. On the white sand beaches beneath the sheer cliffs of Smugglers’ Cove, on Greece’s own Zakynthos Island.
“Hermes,” mutters Aphrodite darkly. “Zeus never should’ve given him a camera.”
If Hephaestus had expected his wife to writhe in embarrassment at this damning proof, he has only disappointment for his efforts. She’s shameless. His brother is shameless. He was a fool to think he could shame either of them.
The images fade. Silence falls.
Aphrodite watches her husband.
Hephaestus’s thoughts swirl. What had he expected? A tearful apology? A pledge to be true? He should’ve known this would never work.
But he’d been desperate. Even Olympians, when desperate, can’t think straight. Of all the beings in the cosmos, Hephaestus is the only one who can’t pray to the goddess of love for help with his marriage troubles. The poor sap hasn’t a clue.
“Hephaestus,” Aphrodite says gently, “this trial was never to get me to admit something you know I don’t mind admitting, was it?”
“Your real question,” she says, “if I’m not mistaken, is why don’t I love you?”
“It’s simple,” Ares says. “She loves me.”
Something is apparently hilarious to Aphrodite. Ares’s huge arms fold across his chest.
She wipes her eyes and speaks. “I don’t love either of you.”
Ares sits up tall and thrusts out his lower lip.
“Hephaestus,” Aphrodite continues. He feels like he’s now in the witness stand. “Do you
He’s not sure what to say. What’s she doing? He wishes his dumb brother weren’t here.
“I’ll answer for you,” she tells him. “Of course you don’t.”
“I . . . That is . . .” Hephaestus stammers. “I’m here because I want—”
can love me,” she says. “No one.”
“What do you mean?”
“That is the price,” she tells him, “of being the goddess of love.”
Ares’s deep voice breaks the silence. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “The only reason Father Zeus made you marry him was because all the other gods were fighting tooth and nail for your hand. He stuck you with him to avert a civil war. We all
She shrugs. “I know
you all wanted me.”
Modesty was never her forte, but then, a humble god is hard to find.
“I’m the source of love,” she says, “but no one will ever truly love me. The fountain of passion, but I will never know a true passion of my own.”
Ares throws up his hands. “You’re nuts! Have you read Homer? Hesiod?”
“Goddess,” Hephaestus says quietly, “what can you mean?”
She gazes into his eyes until he squirms. “You male gods are all rapacious pigs,” she says dismissively. “I grant you, Husband, you’re less horrible than some. You all brag of your exploits. You’re no more loving than an anvil is. Fickle and capricious and completely self-centered. You’re incapable of love. Just as you’re incapable of dying.”
“You’re calling us
self-centered?” replies Ares. “You’re no Florence Nightingale.”
“You have no idea what I am,” she tells him, “nor what good I do. I know what you think of my ‘silly romances.’”
She turns to Hephaestus. “I might find a mortal to love me,” she continues, “but that’s worship, not love. I’m perfect. Mortals aren’t meant to love perfection. It disillusions and destroys them in the end.”
Hephaestus is baffled. Aphrodite has no one to love her? He, the god of fire and forges, has no shortage of ore and fuel. Ares, the god of war, has been enjoying a blood-soaked century like no other in history. Artemis has no shortage of stags to hunt. Poseidon’s not low on salt water.
And his wife, the gorgeous goddess of romance, is lonely?
“Do you know what it’s like,” she says, “to spend eternity embedded in every single love story—
the fleeting and the true, the trivial and the everlasting? I am elbow deep in love, working in passion the way artists work in watercolors. I feel it all
.” She wraps her arms tightly across her chest, as though the room is cold. “I envy the mortals. It’s because they’re weak and damaged that they can love.” She shakes her head. “We need nothing. They’re lucky to need each other.”
“Yeah, well, they die,” Ares points out.
“Why have you never said this before?” Hephaestus asks her.
“Why should I?” she says. “Why would you care? You think my work is stupid. You never come out of your forge.”
She’s right. Not stupid, not exactly. But, perhaps, inconsequential. Iron—there’s something that lasts. Steel and stone. But human affection? Hephaestus, as any Greek scholar can tell you, wasn’t born yesterday.
Aphrodite still looks cold. She couldn’t be. But Hephaestus breathes at the fireplace, and the logs laid out there burst into sizzling flame.
Firelight plays across Aphrodite’s features. She tilts her head to one side. “Do you want to see what real love looks like?”
Hephaestus looks up. Her eyes are shining.
“Do you want to hear about my favorites? Some of my finest work?”
“Yes.” Hephaestus’s reply surprises him. “I do.”
A groan rises from the couch, but the goddess ignores War.
“I’ll tell you the story of an ordinary girl and an ordinary boy. A true story. No, I’ll do one better. I’ll tell you two.”
Ares lifts his head. “Do we know these stories?”
“Barely, if at all,” she says. “You never pay attention to girls.”
He snickers. “I beg to differ.”
“I’m not talking about their bodies.” Aphrodite’s eyes roll. “You never pay attention to their lives
“Ugh.” His head drops back. “I knew this would be boring.”
Aphrodite’s eyes blaze. “I’ll make it easy on you,” she says. “My two stories involve soldiers. From the Great War. The First World War. You’ll know their names and their rank, at any rate. You may find that you remember bits of their stories.”
Aphrodite’s dark-lidded eyes gaze out into the skyline of a Manhattan autumn evening. The Big Apple’s lights have dimmed, in case of German U-boats in the harbor, or Zeus forbid, Luftwaffe bomber planes from who knows where, but not even a global war can completely snuff out the lights of the City That Never Sleeps.
Ares watches Aphrodite’s lovely face, and Hephaestus’s grotesque one. For the millionth time, the war god wonders what Zeus intended, forcing these two to marry. What a curse, to be yoked to that monstrosity! All the more tragic for someone so perfectly perfect as she.
Why, then, does Ares find the hairs on his arms prickling with jealousy? Even now, though the golden net divides the blacksmith from the goddess, there’s something between them. Something he can neither conquer nor destroy. Impossible though it is, a silver thread binds Hephaestus and Aphrodite together, if only slightly, barring Ares from making Aphrodite completely his own.
But what does he expect? They’re married, after all.
Aphrodite meets her husband’s gaze. He points his gavel at her.
“Present your evidence.”
When she tilts her head slightly, he smiles beneath his whiskers. “Tell your story.”
Ares rolls his eyes. “Gods, no,” he moans. “Bring out the hot pincers, the smoking brands! Anything but a love story
Aphrodite glares at him.
“She’s always yammering on,” Ares says, “trying to tell me about some dumb love letter, some random kiss or other, and how long it lasted, and, by Medusa’s hair, what they were wearing
at the time.”
“Goddess?” says Hephaestus.
“Leave nothing out,” says the god of fire. “Make your tale a long one.”
Hazel—November 23, 1917
I first saw Hazel at a parish dance at her London borough church, St. Matthias, in Poplar. It was November 1917.
It was a benefit, with a drive organized for socks and tins of Bovril broth powder to send to the boys in France. But really, it was a fall dance like the one they held every autumn.
While others chatted and flirted, Hazel glued herself to the piano bench and played dance tunes. The chaperones gushed about her generosity, putting others’ enjoyment before her own. Hazel was neither fooled nor flattered. She hated performing. But she’d rather stick pins in her eyeballs than make awkward conversation with boys. Anything was better. Even the spotlight.
She thought she was safe. But music draws me like a bee to honey. And not only me.
A young man sat some distance away and watched her play. He could see her hands, and the intent expression on her face. He tried not to stare, with limited success. He closed his eyes and listened to the music. But even as he listened, he saw in his mind’s eye the tall, straight form of the piano girl, dressed in pale mauve lace, with her dark-haired head lowered just enough to watch the keys, and her lips parted, ever so slightly, as she breathed in time with the song.
Oh, the minute I saw those two in the same room, I knew it. I knew this could be one of my masterpieces. You don’t find two hearts like this every day.
So I sat next to James, while he watched Hazel play, and kissed his cheek. Honestly, in his case, I don’t even think I needed to do it. But he had a very nice cheek, and I didn’t want to miss my chance. He’d shaved for the party, the little darling.
I was jealous of how he watched Hazel, drinking in her music like water and tasting how she dissolved herself in it like a sugar cube. None of the girls whirling by held anything for him. He was a neat sort of young man, very careful about his clothes, as though he dreaded the thought that his appearance might offend anyone. He shouldn’t have worried. He wasn’t exactly handsome, not at first glance, but there was something in those dark brown eyes that might cause Hazel to forget Chopin for a moment or two. If she would ever look up.
I slid onto the piano bench beside Hazel. She was so absorbed in her music that she didn’t notice my arrival. Of course, almost no one notices me, yet all but the hard-hearted do sense a new mood. Perhaps it’s my perfume. Perhaps it’s something more. When I pass by, Love is in the air.
Of the young men present, some hadn’t yet left for battlefields. Others were home on leave (medical or R & R). To their credit, the girls were wonderful about those with ghastly injuries, and made the wounded feel like princes. A few lads worked war production jobs in weapons factories. Some saw them as cowards shirking the battlefield, but this crowd of girls welcomed them in good humor. They were practical, these Poplar girls, and they preferred local beaux over absent loves. Some enterprising girls hedged their bets and held on to one of each.
The young ladies worked in munitions factories and in private homes as domestic servants. Not long ago they’d all been in school.
And then there was Hazel. She played like the daughter of a duchess, raised under the eye of the finest musical tutors. But she was the daughter of a music hall pianist and a factory seamstress. Hazel’s father pounded the keys at night to keep the wolf from the door, but he taught his daughter to love the masters. Beethoven and Schubert and Schumann and Brahms. She played like an angel.
James felt her angel music whoosh through his hair.
Poor James. He was in a predicament. The one girl to whom he’d like to speak carried the party’s entertainment in her hands. To interrupt her would be unthinkable; to wait until the party ended would mean she’d disappear into the crowd.
She reached a refrain, and I lifted her chin toward James’s watchful face.
She caught his expression in full. Both of them were too startled, at first, to break away.
Hazel kept on playing, but she had seen straight through those brown eyes and into the depths behind them, and felt something of the thrill of being seen, truly seen.
But music won’t keep. So Hazel played on. She wouldn’t look up at James again. Not until the song was over did she sneak a peek. But he wasn’t there. He’d gone.
It’s the quiet things I notice. Hazel exhaled her disappointment. She would’ve liked one more glimpse, to see if she’d imagined something passing between them. Hazel, my dear, you’re an idiot,
she told herself.
“Excuse me,” said a voice beside her.
First Dance—November 23, 1917
Hazel turned to see a forest-green necktie tucked carefully into a gray tweed jacket, and above it all, the face of the young man with the dark brown eyes.
“Oh,” said Hazel. She stood up quickly.
“Hello,” he said very seriously. Almost as if it were an apology.
His face was grave, his figure slim, his shoes shined, and his dress shirt crisp. Hazel watched his shoes and waited for the heat in her face to subside. Did those shoes contain feet like her father’s, she wondered, with hair on top? Stupid, stupid thought!
“I’m sorry,” the young man said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“That’s all right,” Hazel replied. “I mean, you didn’t.” A fib.
The scent of bay rum aftershave and clean, ironed cloth reached Hazel’s face and made it tingle. His cheeks were lean and smooth, and they looked so soft that Hazel’s fingers twitched to stroke them. The dread possibility that she might act upon the impulse was so mortifying to Hazel that she very nearly bolted for the door.
“I wanted to tell you,” the young man said, “how much I enjoyed your playing tonight.”
Now, at least, Hazel had a script. Her parents had coached her over a lifetime of piano recitals in how to respond to compliments.
“Thank you very much,” she said. “It’s kind of you to say so.”
It was a speech, from rote, and the young man knew it. A shadow passed across his face. Of course it did, the poor darling—he only had one chance to interact with her, only one thing he could decently say: that he loved her music, that it took him away from this place, from this night, one week before shipping overseas to the Western Front, where young men like him died in droves, and that she, she
, had given him this indescribable gift of escape, all the while being so sincere and fascinating in her absorption in the music. Propriety allowed him only to tell her that he enjoyed her playing, when he wanted to say so much more, and the one thing he dared hope was that she would feel how desperately he meant it.
And her eyes, he now discovered, were wide and deep, rimmed with long black lashes.
Hazel knew she’d gotten it wrong. She swallowed her fear and looked into his eyes.
“Truly,” she said, “thank you.”
The shadow passed. “My name is James.” He offered her his hand.
She took it, warm and dry, in hers and wished she didn’t have a pianist’s wiry, muscular thumb and fingers. Incidentally, that is not at all how James perceived her hands.
“And you?” He smiled. Never mind Hazel; I nearly swooned myself.
She blushed. If she did any more blushing, her cheeks might spontaneously combust. “I’m Hazel,” she said. “Hazel Windicott.”
“I’m glad to meet you, Miss Windicott.” James etched her name into permanent memory. Hazel Windicott. Hazel Windicott.
“And you, Mr. James,” replied the piano girl.
He smiled again, and this time dimples appeared in his cheeks. “Just James,” he said. “My last name is Alderidge.”
The stout woman running the entertainment, one Lois Prentiss, came bustling over to see why the music had stopped. An older woman, a favorite of mine named Mabel Kibbey, popped up like a gopher in a hole.
“Miss Windicott has worked hard all evening,” she said. “I’m sure she’d like a moment’s rest. I’ll play for a spell. I think I know some tunes the young folks will like.”
Before Hazel could protest, Mabel Kibbey had pried her out from the piano and pushed her toward James. “Go dance,” she said. In a blink, James led Hazel to the edge of the dance floor and offered her his arm. Dazzled by the pink spots on James’s cheeks, just above the dimples, she placed her left hand upon James’s tweed shoulder and rested her right hand in his.
Mabel Kibbey struck up a slow waltz. James pulled Hazel as close as he dared.
“I’m afraid I don’t really know how to dance,” confessed Hazel. “There’s a reason I stay behind the piano.”
James stopped immediately. “Would you rather not dance?”
Hazel fixed her gaze on his necktie. “No, I’d like to. But you mustn’t laugh at me.”
“I wouldn’t,” he said seriously. He slid back into the music.
“When I trip and fall, then?” She hoped this would come across as a bit of a joke.
He pressed his hand a shade more firmly into her back. “I won’t let you fall.”
Nor did he.
James, in fact, was a fine dancer, not showy, but graceful. Hazel wasn’t, but she was musical enough to find the beat. James supplied the dancing. She only needed to follow along.
I sat next to Mabel Kibbey on the bench and watched. This dance could be a beginning, or an end, depending on a thousand things. Could they speak? Would one speak too much? Or say something stupid? Should I do something?
“They’ll be all right,” Mabel said, casting a glance my way.
“Why, Mabel Kibbey,” I whispered, “can you see me?”
She flipped the page of her music. “I’ve always seen you,” she said. “You’re looking especially well tonight.”
I gave her a squeeze about the waist. “You’re a darling.”
She twinkled. “It’s nice to know you’re still here for the young people,” she said. “This dreadful war. How they need you now.”
“Not only the young.” I nodded in the direction of a spry older gentleman, seated across the room. “Would you like me to make you an introduction tonight?”
Mabel laughed. “No, thank you.” She sighed. “I’ve had my day.”
We both saw, then, a faded wedding photograph, an empty chair, and a gravestone.
“Who’s to say you can’t have another day?” I asked her.
She reached a repeat and flipped her page back. “You go see about Miss Hazel.” So I did.
They had covered the basics: She was eighteen. He was nineteen. Hazel, only child, from Poplar, daughter of a music hall pianist and a seamstress. Done with school, practicing full-time and preparing to audition for music conservatories. James, from Chelmsford, older brother to Maggie and Bobby. Son of a mathematics instructor at a secondary school. He, himself, worked for a building firm. Or had, until now. He was in London, staying with an uncle. Here to see about his uniform and kit, before reporting for duty in a week, to be stationed in France.
The war. You
had to walk into the room then, Ares. A final ending, a permanent goodbye.
Yet you were the reason everyone was there. The war was in every sermon, every street sign, every news report, every prayer over every bland and rationed meal.
And so James went from stranger to patriot, hero, bravely shouldering his duty to God, King, and Country.
Hazel went from stranger and pianist to reason why the war mattered at all, symbol of all that was pure and beautiful and worth dying for in a broken world.
When I found them, their heads were nestled together like a pair of mourning doves.
James, the soul of politeness, wouldn’t dream of drawing Hazel too close on a first dance. Which was not to say he wouldn’t like to. But Hazel, baffled by finding herself so safe and warm in the arms of this beautiful young man, realized, when the song ended, that she’d been resting her forehead against his cheek. That cheek, she had wanted to caress, and now, in a way, she’d done it. She began to be embarrassed, but as the other dancers applauded, James cradled her in his arms, and she knew she didn’t need to apologize.
Lois Prentiss began to boom out her thanks for all who’d made the evening a success, but Mabel Kibbey, with a wink at me, cut her off by starting a new song, even more tender than the first. While other couples jockeyed to find partners, Hazel and James found each other wordlessly, having never broken apart, and danced the entire dance, their eyes closed.
If I couldn’t knit these two together by the end of a second dance, Zeus might as well make Poseidon the god of love, and I’d go look after the fishes.
I could have watched them forever. By this point many eyes besides my own were watching Hazel Windicott, a well-known commodity in the parish, as famous for shyness as for music, dancing with the tall young stranger. When the song ended, and she opened her eyes, she saw James’s face watching her closely, but over his shoulder there were other faces, whispering, wondering.
“I need to go,” she said, pulling away. “People will say . . .”
She flooded with shame. How could she betray this moment to fear of others?
He waited openly, calmly, without suspicion.
What did she owe to other people anyway?
“Thank you,” she said. “I had a lovely time.”
She looked up nervously into his dark brown eyes. You’re wonderful,
they said. So are you,
her long-lashed eyes replied.
“Miss Windicott—” he began.
“Call me Hazel,” she said, then wondered if she ought.
The dimples returned. She might melt. Other people didn’t matter. Let them gossip.
Windicott,” he said, “I report for training in a week.”
She nodded. “I know.” He’d already told her. It was so unspeakably awful. Already lads she’d known had died in the trenches.
James took a step closer. “May I see you again before I go?”
She chewed on this shocking proposal. This was not the way of things. Introductions, chaperones, supervision. Parental permission at each step. Large ladies like naval battleships prowling the seas of church socials, scouting for improper hand-holding and clandestine kisses. The war had relaxed propriety’s stranglehold, but only somewhat.
James stewed. He’d said too much. Moved too fast. The thought made him sick. But what choice did he have? He had only one chance to get to know Hazel Windicott, the piano girl.
“May I?” he said again.
Hazel’s father appeared in the doorway.
“How soon?” she asked James.
He smiled. “As soon as possible.”
“How much?” asked Hazel.
The smile faded, leaving only that intent gaze in its place. “As much as I may.”
It was time for Hazel to demur politely, make her excuses, thank him for serving the Crown, and break away from this doomed solider boy. It was definitely time to say no.
“I’d like that.”
She smiled, the first time she’d smiled for this stranger. James’s poor heart might’ve stopped beating then and there if he weren’t young and healthy.
Hazel give James Alderidge her address. When she felt fairly certain the eyes in the room had moved on from gawking at her, and her father had fallen into chitchat with other arriving parents, she reached up onto her toes and gave James a kiss on the cheek.
James Alderidge didn’t know it was the second such kiss he’d received that night. He only knew he was in grave danger of heading off to the Front as a soldier in love.
The thought scared him more than all the German missiles combined. Should he pull back? Should he cut this fantasy short, and not seek out another encounter with the piano girl?
Music. Lashes. Lilac-scented hair. The light grip of her lips in a brief kiss upon his cheek.
And, once more, the music.
What he should do, James decided, and what he would
do, had no bearing upon each other.
Copyright © 2019 by Julie Berry. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.