From Homer to Harry Styles: deconstructing the softboi through epic poetry

It is the wee hours of an otherwise unassuming Wednesday night when the ghostly spectre of my phone screen lights up the dark. The texts arrive slowly at first and then all at once:

And in the final analysis it’s quite possible that I’m a massive c*** / I blame that on having very little intellectual relationship with my environment t/ Maybe I’m suffering from anhedonia / Maybe I need to rest my head on a tit

A cursory Google search reveals that anhedonia is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘an inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities’. I feel a distinct lack of pleasure at the thought of his head resting anywhere near my body. I turn off read receipts, put my phone face down on the table. A week later, the fifth text comes:

U also make me vomit.

‘Softboi’ is a term ingratiated firmly within our generation’s lexicon, due in large part to the popularity of beam­­­_me_up_softboi, an Instagram account dedicated to sharing their angst-ridden, cigarette-fuelled, and pseudo-intellectual musings. They’re distinguishable by their often-condescending nature — incredulous that you’ve heard of their favourite indie band/philosopher/novelist. Other softboi tendencies include romanticising mental illness, verbose aggrandising declarations of love, proclaiming to understand a unique truth about the world, and, as in the case above, responding poorly to rejection.

On a recent visit to the National Gallery in London, I was stopped short by The Judgement of Paris, a painting by Rubens depicting the eponymous scene from Homer’s The Iliad. Paris, a Trojan mortal, is tasked by Zeus to determine the most beautiful of three goddesses: Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera. He emphatically declares it impossible to judge their beauty while they remain clothed and convinces them to appear nude instead. This request is likely not unfamiliar to women in 2020.

What struck me most, however, wasn’t even that a mere mortal man was designated the ultimate arbiter over literal goddesses. Rather, it was the improbability, yet factuality, that Rubens had depicted Paris in the spitting image of a generic twenty-first-century softboi. Think Harry Styles in a toga; think Timothée Chalamet without cheekbones. I began to spiral.

In the three months since that encounter, I’ve been occupied by a single burning question – what if softbois aren’t a contemporary construct, but have actually been around for millennia by a different name?

Paris isn’t the only softboi type that exists in the Ancient Greek and Roman epic poems. Time and again, characters in The Aeneid, The Iliad, and The Odyssey exhibit softboi-adjacent behavior, extrapolated to its very extremes.

In Book XVII of The Iliad, Achilles’s searing grief upon the death of Patroclus manifests as abject mania (‘with both his hands he took the dark dust and strewed it over his head… on his fragrant tunic the black ashes fell… and himself in the dust he lay…’) and rage, waging a bloody war against Hector and the Trojans. These visceral emotions seem to hold a disturbing sort of appeal to softbois, perhaps out of their own yearning to experience something immense and powerful.

This wish is great to the extent that even overwhelmingly negative emotions can be romanticised as desirable. In the words of someone who, against the odds, I remain good friends with, ‘you’ll probably end up resenting me for my destructive romantic intensity but think of all the great poetry you’ll write’.

The annals of literature see few romances more resentful or destructive than that of Dido and Aeneas in The Aeneid. The pair’s politically controversial relationship serves to alienate all of Queen Dido’s allies, a sacrifice she willingly makes out of love. In contrast, Aeneas attempts to leave her by taking his men and setting sail in the dead of night.

Dido famously self-immolates as she watches her lover sail out of the harbor and away from Carthage. The pinnacle act of being governed by all-consuming love is complete.

The entire scene is the stuff of softboi fantasies – evoking a hatred so passionate within someone who loves you so much that she sees no alternative but to end her own life when you inevitably crush her heart.

A man once informed me with pensive stoicism that he had been ‘meditating on why the intoxicating compassion, love, and desire women once had has disappeared’. I laughed and then felt sad. In the absence of self-awareness, he had chosen instead to take aim at women-at-large as the reason for his own inability to form strong emotional bonds.

Women as scapegoats for the failings of men recur in the epics. Odysseus is sidetracked from his journey home to Penelope by ‘the lustrous enchantress Circe’, practitioner of ‘wicked witchcraft’ and a ‘nymph with lovely braids’.

Homer painstakingly delineates the ways in which Circe lulls Odysseus into a sense of security: plying him with fine wine, clothing him in gold, feeding him on plates of silver, bathing him in an iron cauldron, and ultimately taking him to bed.

In Book X, the god Mercury warns Odysseus of Circe’s beguiling ways:

When she has got you naked she will unman you and make you fit for nothing.

To expound the multitudes contained within this ascerbic one-liner is a gender theorist’s paradise. Here, Homer acquaints us with Odysseus the victim. Our prodigious hero has been denigrated to a helpless simp, a man overly desperate for a woman, ravaged by a temptress exerting her will over him. Not only is he weakened, but he has lost his manhood entirely, and a man without his manhood is, of course, fit for nothing.

The glorified infliction of distress on oneself, at the hands of a woman, is a recurring motif within softboi discourse. Perusing ­beam_me_up reveals gems such as, ‘let’s listen to tame impala while u ruin my life’, ‘why do I always attract chaotic women haha’, and ‘alas, I wither and die in the absence of your love’.

Perhaps in the context of mythology, weakness in the face of witchcraft is par for the course had Odysseus caved to Circe’s feminine wiles for a single night of passion. Yet he stays with her in Aeaea for an entire year, only departing after the disgruntled urging of his men. It raises the question: when does involuntary magical seduction end and lustful voluntary cohabitation begin?

In setting forth Odysseus’s apparent lack of agency at the hands of a seductress, Homer whitewashes the reality: after years at sea, a tired and wayward man loses sight of his mission and finds solace in the arms of another woman while his loyal wife awaits his return.

In fact, it is this double standard between the behaviour of Odysseus and Penelope that truly epitomises the softboi mentality.

While Odysseus cavorts on Aeaea with Circe, Penelope holds down the fort in Ithaca while fending off the advances of innumerable suitors. Despite total uncertainty that her husband is even alive, she remains the image of the pious wife.

The trope of such a woman is held loftily in the softboi imagination. Women who aren’t chaotic life-ruining sources of destruction are delicate precious petals, to be placed on a pedestal and worshipped. Softbois extoll the virtues of these pure snowflakes in a brilliantly depressing textbook display of the Madonna-whore complex.

And yet buried in all this diatribe and sardonicism, amidst the loquacious spiel and false intellect, I sense earnestness.

I once dated a man who, very early into the ‘talking phase’, made me promise never to screenshot his texts to my friends or, god forbid, submit to beam_me_up. It’s out of respect for this promise that I’ve foregone reproducing here the myriad submission-worthy messages I received over the course of our brief courtship.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about the self-awareness required to make such a request — the knowledge that he conformed to a trope and yet pressed on unrelentingly. Such self-awareness would indicate sincerity far exceeding what we give softbois credit for.

Because yes, there are the softbois who exude toxicity, who spit vitriol and perpetuate misogyny with every misplaced backhanded compliment. But there are also the ones who, by waxing poetic, may simply be seeking a truer form of expression than what the social contract has given them the language for.

The end result may be misguided, laughable even, but is it really a crime worth our judgment? Perhaps in our mockery, we deride them for their attempt to be their most authentic selves. Maybe a better approach would be to celebrate the normalisation of male vulnerability.

Epic poetry is evidence of the fact that male sentimentality isn’t a novel contemporary phenomenon. For as long as men have been writing about themselves, they’ve depicted moments of fragility and tenderness both, even amidst the heroism. In Book VIII of The Odyssey, Odysseus weeps before an assembly of Phaeacians. In Book XVIII of The Iliad, Achilles publicly mourns Patroclus with ‘great moans’ of grief. It’s a powerful tribute to open displays of emotion. Perhaps this is what the softbois are trying to revive.

In fact, softboi narration seems even to mimic the language of epic poetry. Homer and Virgil are masters of the extended soliloquy, waxing lyrical on all manner of the human condition. Such speeches are replicated in the musings of softbois abound, tenuously applying vocabulary such as ‘labyrinthian’, ‘mechanoid’, and ‘crepitation’ into informal text messages.

Their choice of vernacular (particularly in this age of shorthand) hearkens to a period of grandiose storytelling with an almost tender nostalgia.

One softboi on beam_me_up summarises everything aptly: just saying, you give me shit but you’re the one watching Netflix while I read the Odyssey.

The mistake softbois make in their attempts to replicate the passion found in epic poetry is the blind glorification of any powerful emotion, including misery, pain, and rage. This plagues their romantic interactions, fostering hostility in the hopes of provoking such reactions in the extreme.

Their desire to be as great as the epic heroes may be an earnest and noble cause. We may encourage it even, as a preferred reality to generations of emotionally repressed men. The difficulty is in replacing long and terrible soliloquys about why you suck (and don’t understand their music taste) with other types of grand gestures that spark joy instead.

I like to think of contemporary softbois as the founding fathers of a cultural movement comprised of men in touch with their feelings. It’s flawed, as movements often are in their conception, but it’s my hope that with time, self-selection will occur in favour of fervent sincerity instead.

I eventually Googled the opposite of anhedonia in the hopes of crafting a witty retort and was surprised to see hedonism. It’s a truly Homeric coincidence that in The Odyssey, Calypso enchants Odysseus for seven years with unlimited delights of the senses – the purest form of hedonism.

And yet if we’re to believe the narrative that softbois are merely hedonists living in pursuit of pleasure, then Odysseus would have stayed on the island with Calypso forever. His defiance of this rhetoric, in favour of returning to Penelope, is testament to the devoted lovers that softbois could become if they channelled their energies into intense positive emotions.

There may be hope for softbois yet. In the words of our favourite Homeric softboi, Odysseus:

For I too have a mind that is righteous, and this heart of mine is not of iron, but hath compassion.

About the author
Penny Peng

She lives under a small rock on the side of a narrow channel, a sea monster they call her. Godly, immortal and captured there, chained as a prisoner of a feud between brothers. Cursed with an unquenchable thirst for the sea, she swallows so much sea water, she sucks it into whirlpools. For hours, she can contain more ocean than is possible, but with great pain it emerges again. An arrow’s flight across the channel, is a creature, once beautiful, now with twelve feet, six long necks, six mouths, and three rows of sharp teeth in each mouth. Seafarers prefer this creature to her spinning ocean navels, passing on the other side.


The walls are white, the hallways are the width of the length of a bed. All the fabric is stiff, and labelled. Sounds have become muted.
              “Darling,” the doctor says.
              The bed is plastic.
              The skin of her hands is green and blue. She feels her body, pressed in against her chest, but light, as if it were about to slip off. This morning on the food tray, there was an orange, perfectly round and sweet. They left it whole for her. She looked at it while she ate her cereal, and drank her chocolate-flavoured nutrition shake, and the coffee from its plastic cup. Before cutting it, she rolled it down her thigh, pressed against her palm. For a moment, there was nothing more she wanted.
              “Darling, it’s time to go… home.”
              She pulls her hair behind her ears, smelling the sourness of zest on her fingers. The whites of her eyes are shadowed in blue.
              Avoid smoking and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Light exercise is generally recommended. Avoid impacts. Move carefully through a world of sharp rocks. Do not over extend, avoid falling. Living may require assistance.

Behind the eardrum, three tiny bones connect to a spiral of liquid. Waves from outside cause turmoil, in turn creating electrical pulses, to be interpreted as sound. The middle ear where the three bones sit are dead air spaces, a cavity connected to the outer world by the sealed eustachian tubes running to the back of your throat.

In the increasing quiet, she reads what the nurses say with their bodies, hands, and faces. The space of the room draws closer, limiting itself to her eye view. She prefers spaces she already knows the shape of, spaces felt through memory.
              Her bones are birdlike.
              The blue contained in squares spills over. The curtains, patterned in blue, the sheets edged in blue, the smell of laundry powder on the sheets acidic, cheap, blue. In her dreams, opalescent teeth swim in people’s mouths. The floor blue, as if it were the sky.
              He comes holding an arched fragment, almost silver with the memory of sea. She places it amongst the others, gathered from all surrounding surfaces into a paper bag. His chunky black leather lace-up shoes squeak alongside her tiny paces, touched by the hem of his loose black jeans. She has become older than her mother, held together by long metal rods.


She removes the sea from its bed, grounding her feet into the still-dark sand, grasping for rock beneath. Mouth open, water spiraling up, around and into her. The iron around her ankles has rusted, staining her skin, scratching with its flaking edges, but continues to hold her. Hand cast chains keep her stance narrow, vulnerable. On the links limpets have grown, and dark seaweed has caught. The water screeches in its spinning speed. She looks up, dripping, from the seabed to the blue of the sky.


She is looking over the ocean in a thin cotton dress, she is surrounded by birds, gulls. Fat has fallen off her body. In her hand she crumples oily newsprint. Sunset has already passed, and the gulls ask for more chips, even though they have eaten them all.
              “Mum,” he calls,“mum.”
              He is wearing a hoodie, stiff jeans, thick unmatched socks and sneakers. He approaches the shore.
              “You need to tell me when you go out.”
              She looks at him. His dark closely cropped hair, irises that leave no room for the white of his eyes, and the shadows around his mouth. Even as a baby he had dark hair, soft against his skin. She would trace his whorls, of which he had many — one at the crown, one above his left temple, and three at the nape of his weak neck, while the afternoons passed and both of them drifted between days which were unmarked, just the carpet getting dustier and the sunlight changing its angle. His hair would fall to the kitchen floor in little snippets she cut with the smallest scissors, or gather in the soft pools of his collarbones, until this was no longer allowed and she gave him tightly rolled $20 notes to take to the mall and return with short back and sides.
              In her other hand she encloses a pipi.
              “It’s time to go.” The wind catches his voice, sending it to the circling, white gulls.
              She curls her toes into the sand, making small pools of seawater which circle with foam.

              Was he young still?
              Would he always come for her now?

              He pulled his hood over his head, stepping closer.
They are at the southern end of the beach, where it slips underneath the sea and the black rocks rise in front of the road.
              The foam circles. The moons of her toenails white against their purpling beds.
              “It’s time to go home.”
              The gulls fade northwards, the quiet of the evening attempting to settle in between car exhausts.


Her stomach exhausts, expelling the sea. The whirlpool slows, the sea gathers at its bed again, immersing her, lifting sand and pressing it back down. The great mass of the ocean fills itself, calms. She remains, chained and planted on the bottom, next to her small rock, thirsty, punished. A thick layer of sand covers her toes. Her shoulders slacken down her back, her hair following the currents of the sea. With the water returns darkness and its blanketed, low, growl.


He came to drive her to the city. Away from the oranges falling to the soft wet grass and becoming soft themselves, away from the bay where he once swam. The bay which was mostly rocks at low tide, some covered in dark red algae and littered with limpets. Every time they were there, there was something new to be found, something dead or lost or both. At home every surface was covered, small chipped paua shells placed by rubbery fishing baits and rose corals grown on tangled blue lines.
              He tells her they will come back. On weekends.
              She fills cardboard boxes lined in newspaper with carefully folded woollen jumpers and shells placed out and layered between shapeless dresses. He loads her things into the back of his car, but some things he refuses to bring. She folds linen and towels she has used for decades carefully back into drawers. Everything that means anything is put away, into boxes or deep cupboards, so all that is left is empty and clean. She turns all the glasses and tea cups upside down on the shelves, unplugging the toaster, kettle and oven from the wall. She makes them both chip and white bread sandwiches, with margarine.
              “It’s time to go.”
              Once he had slept with the window open, even in winter, even in storms, to be able to hear the sea. She had, for as long as possible, kept him sleeping in the same room, finding his breathing reassuring in the night. Through their open curtains, the moonlight would trace the rhythms of his chest. Now, he draws all the curtains, locks all the windows, and takes the spare key from underneath the flower pot. He stacks the outside chairs and pulls the hose away from the vegetables, coiling it on the concrete path by the house. She gathers spinach, parsley, and cuts the head off a cabbage, holding it on her lap in the car. The broccoli are yet to crown, just thick dewy leaves with pale stems.

Ears are the organs of hearing, and of balance. Damage can cause deafness and permanent feelings of falling. The snails of the inner ear are part of the bony labyrinth, a series of membranous cavities spiralling, hollowed out and filled with a clear liquid. It is abnormalities here, rather than nerves of the central auditory system, which most commonly cause insensitivity to sound in humans.

He drives slowly, with the music turned off. The dust of the road mutes the blue of his car, sits on his dashboard and inside the windscreen. In the cup holder, the gap between his dashboard and the windscreen, and other compartments, are dried parts of the sea. A crab shell, dried Neptune’s necklace, a lobster leg, a rusted fish hook, knotted blue rope, parts of shells. Brown leather shoes are carefully laced on her feet and placed squarely on the rubber carpet protector. The grey seat belt cuts across her chest.
              At the end of the street, he turns the car right when the sea is to the left, down the hill. She turns left, down the hill, to the sea. The oranges ripen, fall and soften. He is small again, bundled in her arms with the towels and their pulled threads. The tide is out, amongst the gentler rocks and pebbles by the bank, broken shells, fish carcasses, and dark, warm seaweed are scattered.


Her organs have compressed, and yet her flesh is swollen with water, the empty space of her throat frothed with sea. The blue of the sky haunts her eyes. On pale and numb skin, unfelt grazes peel white. Deeper, her bones are crystallised, fine grains held together by the tight mass enclosing them, a solid liquid. Her chains lie in the sand. Ears emerge from plastered down hair. She opens her mouth.

About the author
Gabi is an Argentine-Kiwi artist, writer, publisher, designer & leftie living in Tāmaki Makaurau. In her work, stripped-back yet poetic aesthetics hold visceral and personal embodiments of wider societal structures. She has shown in various institutions and spaces in Te Ika-a-Maui. She co-founded Pipi Press and published its first book In Common in 2019. Pipi books are inviting material objects that reflect their purpose; their content is both critical and hopeful, encompassing the poetic and political. You can read Gabi's words by tracking down one of many self-published zines. Gabi is a member of the left think tank ESRA (Economic and Social Research Aotearoa), holds an MFA with First Class Honours from Elam School of Fine Arts, and is studying Sociology and English. She also loves dancing, gardening and the sea.
Two Pieces

Charybdis Moves to Pōneke

Charybdis is bored. Three times a day she drinks the sea water above her, three times a day she belches it back out. Sometimes she sees Scylla through the waves, darting her heads down at those pesky sailors. Sometimes she swallows a ship along with all that alt water. She finds the oars tickle her throat.
              She’s lost count of how many times she’s partaken in this routine, how many years she’s been stuck to this spot, luring sailors to their demise. She wants a holiday, at least a new location. The taste of the Mediterranean Sea stopped appealing to her several hundred years ago.
              “Zeus,” she calls, knowing her paternal uncle will hear her regardless of where he is. “I have a query of you.”
              He appears with a clap of thunder and spark of lightning, wearing a pristine white toga. He stands at the edge of the beach near her, careful to not get too close to his niece’s whirl.
              “Yes, Charybdis?” His voice is all bass.
              “I am bored, Uncle. I am so bored. Please can I move somewhere else, at least for a few years?” she pleads. The sea lazes above her.
              He looks confused. “Well, why don’t you?” he asks incredulously.
              She scoffs, annoyed at his forgetting. “You trapped me here, Uncle. All those long years ago, as punishment for swallowing the land.”
              “I did? Hmm. I must have been cross with your father at that time,” he says.
              Not for the first time she silently curses her father Poseidon, a god of temper and power. “Well, may I have a change of scenery? Can you reverse this lock on my location?”
              “I suppose, if you grant me a boon,” he offers. “Otherwise, no.”
              “What do you wish of me, uncle?” she asks, freedom niggling at her desire.
              “Tell me a secret of your father’s, may it help me best him in conflict,” he demands of her.
For a time she thinks, the sea water lapping between them like one thousand comforts. She wonders if it will feel different elsewhere in the world. But then she has the answer.
              “His domain covers the seven seas and beyond, but rarely does he leave the seven,” she tells her uncle in a whisper, afraid the currents will carry her words to her father. “I know there are many more seas and oceans beyond the seven we hold, and his power is weaker there. If this information is useful to you I will depart for one of those untainted by his detriment.”
              Zeus is evidently impatient, eager to finish the conversation. “Very well,” he booms. “I will grant you this wish.”
              There is a crack of thunder, and then she is free, blessed by his prior engagement. Her uncle has disappeared from the beach, most likely returned to the twink in his bed. Poor Hera, she thinks, but then she’s swimming—actually swimming—for the first time in aeons.
              She flies under Scylla like a sailfish, calling out a “Woohoo!” in farewell. One of her companion’s heads follows her, eyes tinged with jealousy.
              The water churns around her as she swims, drawn by the force of her travel. Three times a day she stops to swallow down the water and whatever else gets caught in her pull. Three times a day she belches it all out. She swims out into the great expanse, losing sight of all shorelines. There are whales bigger than triremes, and curious sharks that flow in the water behind her. As soon as she starts to swallow the ocean around her, they disperse into the depths.
              Oh, how she’s missed swimming. She is a javelin thrown through the water. Nothing is in her way. She twirls with joy as she propels herself forward.
              She travels through the different climates, finding herself enjoying the crisp chill of the southern oceans after aeons spent stationary in the warmth of the Strait of Messina. She probes the endless waters, hunting for a similar strait or bay she can call home. For a while her search finds no land, just a rolling mass of waves throwing her about like a piece of kelp. There are waves taller than the gates of her father’s hold, so powerful they could swallow them whole. She enjoys the danger, so different from her solitary years.
              Eventually she finds calmer waters, travelling through an expanse of islands. She floats idyllically through their clear waters enjoying the company of sea turtles, fascinated by their hard shells and powerful fins. She likes the pristine sunlight shining through on her skin, but the water still doesn’t taste quite right. The further south she swims the more an undercurrent of a distinct chill is present, so different from the seas she knows well. It pulls her in, so tantalising, and she finds herself swimming towards its origins without thinking.
              How long she swims she could not say, but she does not tire until she arrives in the densest smattering of the taste that draws her. She breaks the surface of the water and finds herself in a bay, populated with a harbour and a city of buildings taller than she’s ever seen.
              Greenery flits between and around these buildings in a beautiful co-habitation. Light reflects off the menagerie of windows, dazzling her. The whole city bustles; even the waterfront is busy with the passings of humans. There’s a peace that cusps the city, one she is eager to consume.
              The water is crisp, even with the passings of giant ferries and ships. She swims excitedly around their expanse, causing a flurry of sea spray. Her mouth is salivating as she begins to swallow her first deluge of this crisp water. It’s a shame she takes a couple of ships down too, the tastes of metal and human flesh permeating her enjoyment. But it’s always fun to belch them free.



Scylla, Alone

Scylla is alone. She peers down the cliff face of her home with one of her six heads at the churning waves and collected rocks jutting from the water. What else is there to do but look? There is no one and no thing to mark a difference across the landscape, just the deep wide blue of the ocean. It has been months since a ship has passed her by, loaded with tasty morsels for her to snap up in her jaws.
              Hunger is her lone companion. Her heads snap at each other in the weaker moments, scarring her sinewy necks. The smallest head gets the worst of it, bearing a necklace of delicate scars. It knows to stay behind the others now, waiting. For what else is there to do but wait?
              Occasionally, a sea creature will swim below the cliff, diving too deep under the water for her snarling heads to reach. She knows they’re teasing her, stories of her having been passed through their generations. It has been years since one has been bold enough to risk swimming at the water’s surface. It was delicious.
              Day turns to night as Selene drives the moon into the sky. The goddess quickly darts away to revel in the moonlight like a shoot star across the blanketed sky. Scylla snarls with envy. How she longs to be a naiad again, frolicking under the moon’s glow.
              Before her the goddess’s descent alters, turning towards the strait of Messina where Scylla resides. Scylla’s snarls choke in her throats and she cowers into the depths of her cave, but it is no use; the goddess has nearly reached her.
              Selene floats before the cliff face, glowing like the moon she tows to and fro. Her hair is silver, cascading down past the soles of her bare feet. A toga clings to her body, rustling in the breeze as she peers into the cave.
              “Creature, why do you snarl at me so? I bear you no ill will.” Her voice is as shiny as her skin.
              “It is no personal grievance,” Scylla says. Her voice is husky with misuse, but it echoes through all her throats. “I envy your freedom. I wish I could dance like you.”
              “What stops you?” the goddess asks.
              “I haven’t the form,” Scylla replies. “Not anymore.”
              “Let me see you,” the goddess commands. Her face is kind and round. “Come into my light.”
              “I shan’t,” Scylla cries bashfully. “I am ghastly to look upon. You are too radiant to be burdened with my presence.”
              “What nonsense! No harm will come upon you, creature. Come forth and tell me your name.”
              “My name is Scylla,” she responds.
              “Ah, I have heard of you Scylla. Seamen long to best you, and their wives fear you. I will look upon you, my dear.”
              And so, Scylla creeps forward from the depths of her cave, all six heads blinking away the excess light. Selene’s smile only widens as Scylla emerges from the shadows. She feels ugly in the light and has to resist the urge to scour her skin with the teeth of her jaws.
              “See, now that wasn’t so hard,” the goddess croons. “Welcome into my light. It is an honour to meet you Scylla, one so fabled and famed.”
              “How can it be an honour to meet one so beastly?” Scylla questions sincerely. “My faces are all marred with ugliness.”
              Selene’s lone face crumbles before her, heartbroken at hearing words spoken with such conviction. A glowing hand reaches up to cup the cheek of the nearest head. Scylla finds herself nestling into it, the other five heads swaying with the motion. Her hand is warm against her cheek, and soft against the roughness of her skin. How long has it been since someone touched her so lovingly, or at all?
              “It hurts to hear you say such things, my friend,” Selene says softly. As she speaks she looks each head in the eyes in turn. “You may not hold the beauty you once did, but that does not make you ugly. There is a rugged handsomeness in your features, all six of them. And your necks look powerful and strong with muscle. In better circumstances your appearance could be considered regal.”
              Six warmths spread across Scylla’s twelve cheeks. It’s a blush she’ll store for later, in the quiet lonely moments. “Thank you for your words, o goddess. You are too kind to a beast such as I.”
              “All creatures deserve kindness,” Selene reassures her softly. “Your transformation was not your fault. You deserve still the life of a naiad, not this cruel existence. Were it in my power I would return you to your true form.”
              “Alas, I can barely remember how I was,” Scylla mourns gruffly. “For so long I have been this monster, darting heads down from this cave to eat the passings of mankind. Alone.”
              “You are alone no longer,” Selene says, her thumb rubbing comforting circles on Scylla’s cheek. “Each night as I tow the moon across the sky you will know you have a friend in me. When I can I will return to your cave here to engage in our new friendship.”
              “I would enjoy that very much,” Scylla purrs. “I forgot how kindness felt. Thank you.”
              “I will always remind you,” Selene says with a smile. “But now I must go. I will see you soon, my friend. Farewell!”
              “Farewell,” Scylla calls as the goddess darts away, returning to her usual refrain. A lone tear runs down one of her twelve cheeks, but she’s the happiest she’s felt in years.
              Each night as the goddess tows the moon into the sky she gives Scylla a wave and a smile, before darting away through the sky. Scylla is alone no more.

About the author
Harold Coutts

Let’s go, he would say, as we held our toppling stacks of blue ice cream containers, arms wrapped round the warping plastic. We’d pile into the car, fighting over the front seat, doors slamming and then settle into the seats as dad swung the car out and around, down through the trees flickered in shadow, past the hydrangeas spilling out in waves of froth, and up the driveway onto the rim of the road. He’d turn right.

The month was summer’s Sunday, before it all began again—when the edges of the leaves were curling into gold, and a thrill of chill hung around the morning, but was burnt off by the afternoon’s heat, when the tar melted on the road, bubbled black sticking to our feet as we quickly crossed. Getting ready for bed, we’d peel the tar from our skin, and with it the debris of the day—sand, dirt, blades of grass. Sometimes I liked to inspect the midday melt, touching the dark iridescent film that then fused to my fingertips. It was like the melted beeswax we dipped our fingers into and then gently peeled away once set, inspecting the whorls of our prints within the honeyed gold.

The road eventually turned into dirt, wheels kicking up dust, and we’d pull over and clamber out. We only ever wore shorts once. Never again. Better to sweat.

Dragging the planks from the car’s boot, Dad would give us instructions, ones he learnt from his own father, our Popski. Use the wood to create an island to stand on. Place them end-to-end. You’ll slowly, slowly, move to the middle of the thicket, that’s where the best berries will be.

Watch to see where the birds go.

And so we did. Gently moving away from one another in a sea of blackberries. Filling up the ice cream containers, hands stained to purple. Inked up. Arms scraped the same colour if we weren’t careful. There were knots of green and pink, best left alone, or ones that were thick black, like the road’s tar, soft and falling apart in my hands, gone to rot. The rest, firm and dark, plucked straight off and fell an easy drop into the container between my legs. Sometimes I’d find a nest abandoned in the bracken, empty but for a few feathers.

Once, I placed the two pieces of wood side-by-side and sat cross legged, shaded from the sun, the sounds of my siblings’ shouts muffled by thorns. I looked up and watched the blue wash of the sky framed in shadowy thicket. I held my hand to my face, closed one eye at a time and watched the berries fade in and out of focus. Making myself dizzy.

Popski would have picked blackberries in Poland before the war, before he became a refugee. When he arrived in Pahīatua, with seven hundred and thirty-two other Polish children in November 1944, he was around the same age I was, among those brambles.

We hardly ever heard him talk about it, not really, but ever since I can remember, Mumsie has been writing it down. Interviewing others, piecing the narrative together. She’s putting it all into a book. It’s almost done. In her last email she wrote I hope to be able to give everyone in the family a copy when I finally finish.

She rolled out a map once, and with shaky hands Popski sat down and showed me where he began, the whorls of blue green topography he walked across, and where he arrived at the edge of the ocean, to be put on a boat. He shuffled through the piles of maps, looking for the one holding New Zealand. And this is where I found myself, months later, he said, pointing to the bottom of the North Island. I was alone and could only hope that my family would find me, oceans away, at the bottom of the world—I didn’t even know if they were alive.

Once sweated and stung and scratched, we return to the kitchen with our berried bounty. Carefully picking leaf and insect off each berry and pouring them into pots on the stove: one part sugar / one part blackberry. The sugar grits along the copper bottom but then softens to slush and the windows blanch as the steam rises. Tired, we traipse off in boredom as dad watches over each batch, and carefully distils it into jars. A pooling red sea rising. When cool, we return to place the brass disc on top and screw it tight with a matching ring.

Dad sends us down to the orchard to harvest the end of season fruits and he shows me how to bottle those up too. Green gold apples, sunset peaches. Plums a dark wine.

The next morning the table would be laden in glass. Stick slicked away. An overnight magic trick that was really just neverending fatherhood.

As I write this my friend posts a photograph of blackberries held in hand, gently glowing in the forest.

Sometimes when I can’t sleep I look at what dad’s selling on TradeMe:
fishing net
chicken wire
length of perspex
orchard ladder

I remember him bent over his workbench, air thick with sawdust and furniture polish. While he put the hive boxes together, I painted them yellow and white, and stacked them, ready to thread with wire and wax.

Popski’s father, my great-grandfather, was a beekeeper too. He died when I was a baby, and I don’t remember him, but when I slept over at Mumsie and Popski’s I would have his honey on toast for breakfast. These huge jars of gold, from summers long gone, had been harvested by the dead. Mumsie would tell me about him as I ate, silent and sticky-fingered.

One morning she popped the lid and said, This is the last jar.

When Popski died, my dad made his casket from kahikatea—white pine.

While the rest of the family gathered at Mumsie’s, I was in limbo at Amsterdam’s Airport, waiting for a flight that was four hours late. My brother Facetimed me, cushioned in a nest of William Morris’ green willow boughs. He frowned and said hey. Hey, I replied, and for once we just sat there in silence. He put down his phone to wipe his tears and suddenly I could see out to the garden. A flare of sun against the fluorescent blue of my face staring out. Staring in.

When I went home, two years after the fact, the floor of dad’s workshop was covered in sawdust. The remains of all the things he’s ever made.

When thinking about my family, I return to Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous in which he considers, “Some people say history moves in a spiral, not the line we have come to expect. We travel through time in a circular trajectory, our distance increasing from an epicentre only to return again, one circle removed.”

As the light fades, and the seasons shift, we consume what we’ve preserved—blackberry jam on toast, or by the spoon at night, stewed apples in pies, honey with lemon steaming to soothe a sore throat, plums and porridge. Peaches thick. Tamarillos.

It feels indulgent to consider what preserves hold, but they are an indulgence—children gorging on summer in the middle of winter. Preserves are time sealed in sugar, a time warp at the breakfast table, alchemy and magic before our eyes, in our mouths, sliding down into our guts.

One winter morning, Dad and I are the only ones awake. Up early for work and uni. We’re usually quiet on these mornings, at ease in our routines. I’m making coffee and I see him open the fridge; he reaches around the door to put the blackberry jam on the table, but the table has shifted slightly—a few inches to the left. As he opens his hand the jar drops and smashes. My shout of laughter wakes him up and he sees what’s happened. Pass me a cloth he says, shaking his head, smiling in disbelief. I do, and we crouch down, pulling shards from summer’s seeds.

About the author
Born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau Laura Surynt is the author of the pamphlet Speech Therapy published by Takeaway Press. Her work also appears in Ache Magazine and Sweet Mammalian. She currently teaches and writes in London.