by Katherine Holmes


“Asphyxia” adapts the ancient Greek myth/play Antigone, wherein the title character defies her newly crowned uncle, Creon, in order to bury her traitorous dead brother according to the funerary rites dictated by the gods. Creon has decreed that anyone who so much as covers the body from carrion shall be put to death; but Antigone argues that her brother, no matter his allegiance in life, must be honored. When Antigone asks for her sister’s help, Ismene refuses and begs Antigone not to sign her own death warrant. Having weathered the recent loss of their brothers and the infamous tragedy of their parents, Oedipus and Iocaste, Ismene wants to keep what’s left of their broken family together. Antigone shames her.

“Asphyxia” is a modern retelling of Antigone from the perspective of Ismene, years after the death of her sister. Haunted by Tig’s brazen spirit and horrific suicide, Ismene must decide whether to remain a spinster in her uncle’s mansion or accept a new calling and abandon the ghosts of the golden days.

Tig said that if I didn’t let her play Romeo she would throw me into the blackberries behind the guesthouse. Fight me, she said. Your legs are water. I shouted unfair, but her shirt was already off.

I blame the movies. Tig did her heroics seminude because that, she said, was how they did it. Never mind “they” were boys with muscles and fiery emergencies. As for the blackberries, they grew behind Nanny’s in a feeble thicket that Tig said went all the way back to the witch trials. The juice has special powers, hence why the taste, she said, black bits in her incisors.

I was tired of glory and gloom. Why can’t we play Snow White?

Quit whining and eat.

Tig wanted Mom to see our red, red lips when we came in for dinner. Mom never commented. She never noticed. 

Of course she did. 

She noticed and said nothing like a barn owl over Babylon. I think she was born knowing everything in advance. She had a tortured air, with downturned eyes that screamed, Save yourselves! though she never raised her voice. Tig wanted her to. Tig wanted screaming matches and punishments, trudging through snowfall in a bathrobe and boots to hack the blackberry bush to confetti. She was so steeped in stories, she thought all mothers were crazy and ours was slacking, an untrained imposter chewing on lettuce leaves. 

Wash your fruit, Mom would say. Wear sunscreen

She knew everything. 

And she permitted it. She knew Tig’s theatrics weren’t all about death. The feral parkour of Romeo over the flagstones, the fainting of Juliet, the double suicide and starting over, was an act of conquest. Romeo died, counted three Mississippis, then got up to go again. Death? What was death? In the endless repetitions of tragedy upon tragedy, Tig was indomitable. 

It was her decision to quit playing.

The grass had baked into hard, brown spikes. I wore my trusty Tevas. The sun burned crisscrosses over my feet. It was too hot for toast; honeydew, cucumbers, and crushed ice only. The thing to do was sleep under thin, cool sheets. But Tig wouldn’t defer her fun to the heat. She took off her shirt and pointed me to the rock wall. I went. 

The stones burned under my back. We started as usual. Romeo yelled for Juliet, who laid silent as a mummy, and was shocked to find her unresponsive (Tig would poke me with a stick, harder if I flinched). Assuming the worst, Romeo dropped to the grass and cried Love! and Torture! and writhed like an eel that’s zapped itself. It sounded tiring. 

When the grief spell was over, Romeo gathered her wits. She wondered aloud how she should die: impaled on the sundial, struck by lightning, flattened by falling timber, choked by the hose… 

The last time she played, Romeo wrapped the hose several times like multi-strand pearls and collapsed in a kicking fit. Uncle Creon was on his way to drop the check in Nanny’s mailbox. 

He saw Tig. Tig saw him. He tipped his head back and laughed.

It was worse than a stern word. Tig unwrapped herself and stormed inside. I had no idea the performance was over—I thought it her finest yet. The brush of pine needles and scratching of ants spoke to Romeo’s desolation in a most artful way. I lay on the rock wall, admiring Tig’s subtlety and waiting for her cue to stir. Maybe she hadn’t finished dying. She would emerge momentarily for her biggest death yet, fake blood and firecrackers, lightning from the gods. But it was Nanny who came, ringing the dinner bell. 

And where was Tig? On the couch, eating Whoppers. 

When I brought up the game, she said it was my idea; she only played because I needed the vitamin D and would I stop crying already. She looked flat, vaguely threatening, kind of wide in the face when she lied. It was like staring into an iron. But then I knew, I really knew, my sister. The strong ones are the most brittle. Tig’s ego made her a hot air balloon, big enough to blot the sun and prone to rip if misfolded. 

Some nights I dream that I’m back on the rock wall. The light burns through my eyelids as I wait for my love. The grass hisses with something dragging, the light shifts, and Tig stands like a Great Dane over me. Through my eyelids I make out the solar glare on her shoulders, her yellow hair, her determination. That hiss again. I figure out what’s making it when she jams the hose in my mouth. 

The metal ring dinks my teeth. I taste dirt and a cold jet of—not water, but blackberry juice. It fills my mouth fast so I can’t swallow it all, but she won’t let any waste. It’s magic. Or poison? Before I can reject it, Tig clamps my lips around the ring. The juice goes where it can. My cheeks stretch, my throat closes against choking, it holds for a nanosecond and then bursts like a dam. I am flooding inside. 

Tig says, Relax. You’re finally Snow White. 

My belly rises. I need more room. There is nowhere to go but apart. 

I explode in a shower of black confetti. When I wake, the bed is soaking.

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Author Bio

Katherine is an English teacher and writer. Her work has been published in Litbreak Magazine, Capulet Magazine, Cauldron Anthology, and Illnois’s Emerging Writers. She lives in Boston.