Saturday, October 3, 2009

41. Niobium



41
Nb
Niobium
92.9064

Woman of Stone

Niobe was one of those women. You've met them: Their children are perfect: They learned violin by the Montessori method, and they eschew candy to snack on raw broccoli. Their parents they address as "Mother" and "Father," and they never, never, never get mud on their exquisite clothing.

If Martha Stewart were a Mommy, this is what she would be like.

Moreover, due to her aristocratic lineage (she was daughter to Tantalus and Dione, sister to Pelops and wife of Amphion of Thebes), Niobe had excellent social connections. She hobnobbed with the gods on an almost daily basis, and on those rare occasions when she did not, she made certain you knew that she normally did.

Sooner or later, however, every social climber overreaches, and so with Niobe. She was having tea with dark-robed Leto, Zeus's first wife (this was before Hera came into the picture), and fell to bragging about not just the quality but the quantity of her offspring. She had a full dozen, six girls and six boys. What a pity, she said cattily, that Leto had only two.

Leto turned pale. To be dissed as infertile by this … this … brood mare! She was ever mild and gentle, for a goddess, but this was really too much. With a moue of distaste, she flipped open her cellphone, and beeped her children's pagers.

When Apollo and Artemis heard of the insult, they didn't hesitate. To punish the affront, they slew with their arrows all twelve of Niobe's children in their parents' Fifth Avenue penthouse.

For nine days the victims of this atrocity lay in their blood without anybody to bury them, for whenever the city health officials turned up in answer to complaints from the neighbors, the young gods turned them to stone. On the tenth day, however, Apollo and Artemis relented and restored to flesh everybody they had earlier petrified.

All save one. To this very day, Niobe stands in the window of the Coach store on Park Avenue, surrounded by a display of fine handbags, with a scattering of ferns at her stony feet thriftily placed so that they are watered by her tears.

with apologies to Thomas Disch





© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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