Rachel Bolton

Antigone Explains

The Siberian Gulag Death Machine Blues by *Brett Stout

After committing an act of civil disobedience, Antigone, heroine of Sophocles’ play of the same name, is sentenced to be buried alive by the King of Thebes. Instead of dying slowly, Antigone chooses to commit suicide. Daughter of the doomed Oedipus and Jocasta, her death leads to further tragedy for the family. What if her story could have another ending?

It’s been two hours since my uncle, King Creon, buried me in this cave, it’s been fifteen minutes since I stopped crying. 

Sure, I’d had the time to dwell on getting immured for a good couple hours before they put me in here. One can contemplate the idea of being buried alive.  You really don’t know anything until you hear the last stone being thumped into place with nothing but the sound of your own breathing and the occasional crackle of the solitary torch your executioners give you as company.

I promptly burst into tears. 

The guards expected me to go to my death calmly, a noble princess to the end. They were wrong. I went thrashing and screaming. I made them work for it. My knees are bloodied and sore from when they threw me in. 

Why did everything get so complicated?

My life wasn’t always like this, so help me Gods. I was happy once, a princess of Thebes.  My queen mother was wise, elegant, and beautiful. My king father brave, passionate, and strong. I had two brothers, who while occasionally irritating, loved me. My dear sister and I were the best of friends. My aunt and uncle cared for us all, and my betrothed and I dreamt of a wonderful future.

Then my father started searching for the killer of his predecessor, King Laius.

Father-Brother. Mother-Grandmother. My siblings are also my niece and nephews, my aunt and uncles. No one in my family was one thing to the other anymore. Aunt Eurydice told Ismene and I the truth about our lineage and what happened to our mother, Jocasta. Uncle Creon told our brothers. Our aunt didn’t want us to view our mother’s remains. 

“Jocasta wouldn’t want you both to see her like that.”
Ismene and I made her. Mercifully in her laying out, Aunt Eurydice had hidden the black mark around Mother’s neck. She did not look at peace. Even death denied her last request. And my father… How could he do such violence to himself? During our time at Colonus, Ismene and I changed his bandages and cleaned his eyeless face, just as dutiful daughter-sisters should.

If only my brothers had done as they intended, and ruled as co-kings instead of turning their rivalry into a full blown war, so much bloodshed and for nothing at all.

I stand up from my crouch in the dirt of the cave floor, brushing my dress off. What now? I think about how I could give myself the gift of mercy. It would be easy to turn my sash into a noose. Who wouldn’t wish for a quick end when they were doomed to starve to death in the cold dark? I remember my mother’s face in death. I cannot and will not do it.  My uncle has stolen my life by punishing me for my “crime.”

I will not steal my own life from myself. 

I pick up my torch, searching for a tender spot. I run my palm over the smooth marble they sealed me in with. I can’t go back the way I came. This cave is made of earth, and earth can be moved.

After a few minutes of checking, I find a patch of wall I can dig my hand into. This will do. I take off my sash and tie it to hold up my skirt. I use the pins from my dress to help me scrape away dirt and rock. I try not to dwell on what my father-brother Oedipus did with our mother’s pins.

I didn’t want to cause all this trouble, just enough to do the right thing for Polynices. Yes, a proper burial is demanded by the Gods. He was my beloved brother, my eldest brother, or as I once believed him to be. I remember him chasing us through the palace when we were young, Ismene, Eteocles, and I. The four of us laughing and playing together. Have those memories made these revelations all the more worse?

I loved Polynices. Right or wrong, how could I leave him to rot on the battlefield? And at the heart of the matter, it was Eteocles who failed to uphold his end of the bargain. Ismene and I could have done it, ruled together, she as queen and I as king. A queen must be a wise woman and a guardian. A king must be a warrior and a judge. We have those virtues. 

I don’t blame Ismene for not standing up with me at the beginning. Perhaps I do a little. Some sisterly solidarity would have been appreciated. Ismene wants to fit in the roles given to her, princess, daughter, Eurydice’s student of weaving.  But she can’t understand that from the moment of our conception, we’ve never fit into any role, and that is our curse. We are twins, fraternal of course. Along the way, the world saw her as the beautiful one and I as the clever one. Sometimes I wonder what truly has been done to us.

The dirt and rock are getting harder to dig through. One of the pins has broken under the strain. It’s exhausting work as I dreaded it to be.  My fingers are almost ripped to shreds. My sash has been turned into bandages for my wounds. 

I want to rest, but my torch will not last forever. Darkness will only make me tired and scared. I try to think of what I’ll do when I get out of here. Hug Ismene and Aunt Eurydice. Kiss Haemon…

Yes, I know that Haemon is my cousin no matter what view of my lineage you take. And by marrying him, my family tree looks more and more like a bush. But Haemon loves me. He listens to me. The second seems more important than the first. He defended me from his father, but try as he might a prince cannot overrule a king. 

My light flickers. I scrape and scrape away.  I invoke the Gods for their help. Persephone, please grant me passage from your kingdom and into mine.  Artemis, protect me. Athena, give me wisdom and strength as I go home. The torch dies. I see nothing now. Fighting panic, I gulp down dusty air, it’s not enough. I push more loose earth down, the grains burning my bloody knees. This will not be my grave.

The thought gives me a burst of energy. I lift myself higher up on the wall, standing on my pile of rubble. I’m close, I have to be. I punch through, feeling cool air against my fist. I wiggle my fingers in freedom. Thank the Gods, I’ve done it. 

I make the hole big enough for me to crawl through. Laughing in ecstasy, I stumble out and stand triumphantly on my would-be tomb, the evening stars as my witnesses. Giving my respects to the Gods, I lay prostrate on the ground. I will pay proper tribute later. 

It’s time to walk home.

I’m a mess and I know it.  My dress is in tatters, held in place by one barely functional pin. My hair hangs loose around me like a madwoman. Maybe I am mad. I will be bringing dirt from my grave back to the palace. As I take my first steps, I realize I’ve left one of my sandals underground. Oh well. 

The king, my uncle, buried me within the borders of Thebes. Mercifully, I know where I’m going. The walk is far and I’m already weak, but I fear neither man nor beast as I travel into the city. Most are too busy with themselves to pay me much notice. 

A Theban matron with her husband asks me if I am alright.  I smile and tell her I haven’t felt better in ages. I thank her for her kindness, and while confused by my strange visage goes on her way. 

Finally, the palace looms before me.

The guards try to stop my entrance at first. I raise an eyebrow and they recognize me, gaping in shock that Princess Antigone has escaped from her immurement. They let me pass.

If my sense of time is correct, the palace residents will be at dinner. My family, or rather what’s left of it, will be there, King Creon, Aunt Eurydice, sweet Ismene, and my beloved Haemon. Courtiers will be eating as well, politicians and well-wishers, the blind seer Tiresias, and other dignitaries and priests. 

I cross the threshold into the hall. The musicians stop playing as I enter. Everyone stares. 

Tiresias approaches me first, sightless eyes watching me keenly as he leans on his staff.

“Princess Antigone?”

As I have returned from the dead, I wish to spread my good luck to others. I reach up and place my filthy, bandaged hand on his bald head. 

“May the blessings of the Gods be upon you, Grandfather.”

He nods in respect.

The royal family dines high upon a dais. King Creon is swallowing his surprise. Aunt Eurydice covers her mouth. Ismene’s face is bright against the shadows of her mourning dress. Haemon’s smile is wide and unending. They’ve all turned to look at me, the not-dead Princess Antigone.

Ismene leaps down and rushes to embrace me. She’s crying, begging for forgiveness in my ear, and soon I’m shedding tears too.

“Antigone! What have you done?”

King Creon stands, angry and trying to maintain his dignity.

Ismene and I break apart. We stand together as sisters, holding hands. There will be no leaving each other again. 

“King Creon, Uncle, I mean no disrespect. But I could not stay there to die. So I came home.”

In a way, I do feel sorry for Uncle. He never wanted the throne, only to advise and serve. He is not the King of Thebes because of birthright. He rules because there was no one left. The poor man had to learn that his brother-in-law, his king, was also his nephew. 

At the end of the table, Aunt Eurydice’s loom falls over and cracks. 

My uncle sighs.

“Antigone, niece, in your actions you broke the command of the king.”

“I would not break the rules of the Gods.” I speak clear and loud. “Nor would I deny what is demanded by blood and bond to my fallen kinsman.”

“We have gone over this once already.”
“I know, which is why I’ve come before you again. You have carried out your sentence. Now Uncle, what will you do next?” I lower myself to kneel on the floor, cold marble on my broken skin.  Ismene joins me in the position. “Will you execute me properly now?”

“What you do onto her, you must do onto me.” Ismene’s high-pitched voice does not lack conviction. 

“And I as well.” Haemon now kneels at my other side.

My heart feels as if it will burst in affection. Haemon leans over and whispers that I’ve never looked more beautiful. I resist the temptation to give him a swat. 

“Now I Antigone, Princess of Thebes, daughter of Jocasta and Oedipus, sister of Ismene, Polynices, Eteocles, and Oedipus, ask you, King Creon of Thebes, to pass judgement on us.”

Other members of the court wait, eyeing their king expectantly. Tiresias strokes his beard. Aunt Eurydice, the queen, seems as though she too will step off the dais to join her son and nieces. But she cannot embarrass her kingly husband. He must still be respected after this.

“It is the will of the Gods, dear Creon.”

“And of mine.” I raise my fist, the same that freed me from death with the Gods’ blessings. 

King Creon is silent. Aunt Eurydice gives him the stare that only the long married are capable of.

Uncle sits and rubs his forehead. 

“Princess Antigone, since the Gods have deemed it fit to return you to us, you are pardoned. All of you.” He gestures to my fellow protesters. 

“Thank you for your mercy, my king.”

I bow so low my forehead rests on the marble. Ismene and Haemon mimic the pose. 

The king gives the faintest of smiles. “My good Eurydice, gentle Ismene, will you have Antigone tended to and brought some food?”

Haemon kisses my cheek as my aunt and sister officially welcome me home.  I have decided to forgive Uncle for this transgression. We meet eyes, and he knows as well as I do that while I may forgive him, I won’t forget his decision to execute me. It’s a matter to dwell on another time. At long last I feel a sense of peace. I don’t know what will happen next, but it is enough.



Rachel Bolton is a writer working on more projects than she has time for. Her work has previously appeared in Ms En Scene, Women Write About Comics, Rose Water Magazine, My American Nightmare, Weirdbook Annual: Witches, and the upcoming Strange Girls. Follow her on twitter at @raebolt.


*Brett Stout is a 40-year-old artist and writer. He is a high school dropout and former construction worker turned college graduate and paramedic. He creates mostly controversial work usually while breathing toxic paint fumes from a small cramped apartment known as “The Nerd Lab” in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. His work has appeared in a vast range of diverse media, from international indie zines like Litro Magazine UK to Brown University. He is tired of talking about himself at this point and prefers that his artwork speak for itself.