Lesley Saunders

Where Myth Meets Reality

In the late spring of that year, when the dense evergreen forest tumbles from the Kerkyran Mountains in a waterfall of fragrant pine and eucalyptus, I hesitantly approach the white threshold. Standing guard are two imposing pillars embossed with Doric capitals. I’m reassured by the lively hubbub of students exchanging tidbits behind, and step serenely from the brilliant sunshine into the cool interior of the ‘Achilleion’; summer retreat and Neo-Classical Palace of the Empress Elisabeth – ‘Sissi’.

“Kalimera! Kalimera Madam! It’s three euros for an audio guide!” Brushing an escaped blonde brown tendril from my serious face, I rummage for the required fee.   A soft “Efharisto” and a warm smile shatter my solemn canvas.

Headset intact, I enter the room on the right where the sinister smile of Luigi Lucheni stares back at me from the wall of fame. I picture the tragic irony of the assassin’s posy of violets which veil the four-inch replica stiletto he will calmly plunge into the left nipple of the wanderlust Sissi.

Almost 11.00a.m. A tour is starting. Our guide arrives in crisp white linen. Sparkles of golden ribbon complement the graceful curve of hair beneath her typical Grecian ‘kekryphalos’. “My. Name. Is. Sophia.” Each word is a sentence and I’m hearing English for the first time. Noting the bold black ‘11’ on Sophia’s clipboard, I decide to explore the Palace ‘sans masse’.

I cross the entrance under the watchful eye of the Horae in Galoppi’s fresco which grazes the reception hall at ceiling height, suddenly struck by his masterpiece which captures the four seasons of time. I smell the sweetness of the pink candy floss clouds which hover gracefully above the dancing angels and cherubs. Across the marble-tiled floor at the foot of the majestic staircase, a bronzed Zeus and Hera adopt a position of equal control like fianchettoed bishops on a chess-board.

Climbing the stairs, I feel the power of Achilles’ victory and the pain of Andromache’s loss leaping out of the panoramic wall mural at eye level. Memories of a Homeric Iliad ricochet as I’m thrust into the world of Mythological Greece where I lose myself as I watch the bloody, bare and broken body dragging mercilessly through the dust of Troy.

“Poor Hector,” I vocalise to no-one.

“He was a victim of the wrath of the Olympians betrayed at the hands of the anthropomorphised Athena. Nevertheless, that swastika there, symbolizes the propaganda of this unspeakable work of art.” An assertive tone defies opposition. A steel-blue blaze meets my smooth jade glance and I’m forced to mumble agreement, intrigued by the momentary flicker of gold in the depths of his gaze.

I hurriedly enter the room on the left, and am soon immersed in the myriad of possessions belonging to the 19th Century Bohemian Queen. A portrait of the Austrian Duchess Elisabeth, her heel length hair tenderly braided, a treasured album of the Habsburg family immortalised in white and black print makes a stark contrast to the eccentricity of the saddle seat, fitted to the last German Emperor’s writing desk.

The deserted dimness of the Bavarian Princess’s bedroom is where I see at firsthand the mysterious mirror damage which marked her unfolding destiny. “Sissi had a premonition upon discovering the unexplained fracture that she would not return to her soul’s solace and this proved true…” droned the audio-recording.

The heat’s suddenly oppressive. The room starts to spin.   The last thing I notice before my legs give way is that fated crack in her mirror glass which echoes the smack of my head hitting the door jamb. My world is black!

. . .

 

Footsteps……A youthful babble overwhelms the gloom as I realise I can hear.   Time stretches in a tangible torment until full consciousness rules. I will my sleeping legs to move and regaining some equilibrium, manoeuvre unsteadily to the nearest chair. “Here, drink this”, the firm eastern-seaboard accent is vaguely recognisable. “That’s some bump on your head, don’t stand up right away.”

I sip the ice cold water gratefully and eventually feeling strong enough to stand meet the concerned blue stare of the mural commentator. His two strong arms lead me through the Ionic Peristyle to the Garden of Muses. We sit at the balcony of tears as I look upon the splendour of Elisabeth’s commissioned sculpture of the Dying Achilles. I suddenly realise that the arrow which pierces the demigod’s left tendon is strangely reminiscent of the destiny of the Duchess.

My thoughts turn to a page from her poetic diary:

“I wander lonely in this world,
Delight and life long time averted,
No confidant to share my inner self,
A matching soul never revealed.”

We watch the swallows soar effortlessly on the thermals. A choir of cicada’s herald the approaching twilight as the last shades of gold slip slowly behind the mountains and little leaping flames of pink and orange begin to dance. In the distance I can see Sophia and her clipboard. She’s waving ‘11’ at me.


Lesley has included a synopsis behind her story.

Synopsis

My story is set at ‘The Acheillion’ in Corfu, the summer retreat of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, also known as ‘Sissi’.   It was designed with the mythical hero Achilles as its central theme whom she was obsessed with. Elisabeth commissioned a German Sculptor to create works inspired from mythical Greece, especially her personal tribute to him ‘the dying Achilles’.

In telling some of her tragic story, I tried to capture some of the mythical works of art and classical architecture of the Achilleion. In particular, the reference to the Horae in the ceiling fresco is significant to Greek Mythology where they are the guardians of time. The descriptive wall mural which marks the death of Hector also links to Olympus the mythical home of the gods were Zeus had given permission to Athena to decide the fate of both men. Achilles was Athena’s favourite and according to Homer she took a human form (anthropomorphised) to assist Achilles in killing him.

I thought it was striking that they could have such similarities in meeting death, although one was mythical and Sissi’s was actual, hence the title of my story – Where myth meets reality. Also striking was Elisabeth’s immersion in the Greek culture where she learned to speak the language faster than anyone around her. She was an interesting and emotionally complex woman whose life was full of tragedy. Elisabeth lost her only son and heir to the throne, Rudolf, through suicide; my reference to the Balcony of Tears is where she wept for that loss.

I was also struck with the mirror damage in her bedroom and how this seemed to mark her impeding exit from life. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time for Elisabeth, as the assassinator Luigi Lucceni, had originally intended to kill Duke of Orleans, though on failing to find him he chose Elisabeth. He had read a newspaper article that the Empress of Austria was travelling to Geneva under a pseudonym. Having irrevocably wounded her with his makeshift stiletto, which damaged the left ventricle of Elisabeth’s heart, the blood flow was temporarily stemmed as she managed to walk the 100 yards or so to the stationary ship where she fell into a coma and failed to regain consciousness.

The Achilleion was sold to the German Kaiser Wilhelm I following her death, hence the mish-mash of artefacts which remain and was later sold to the Greek government who opened it as a museum in 1983.


About the author:

Lesley Saunders is currently doing a post-graduate degree for her PGDE (M) English Literacy/ Esol at the University of Bolton and her undergraduate degree is a BA HONS Humanities with Classical Studies specialism which she completed with The Open University. She aims to develop her career in teaching alongside her other interests, including her love of writing.

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