Atalanta: The Foot Race by Aleena Islam
She shot off like a bullet ricocheting against the sand, leaving dust in her trail. Whoops, cheers, and howls of encouragement erupted from the ruthless crowd as they watched the Prince of Thessaly chase determinedly, albeit helplessly, after the Arcadian huntress.
Atalanta, jogging just in front of the Prince who was spluttering and gasping for breath, found herself wondering where this bottomless well of suitors originated from. Was it the gods’ creation?
Probable, she thought.
Or perhaps Aphrodite was scheming, attempting to corrode Atalanta’s devotion to Artemis?
Even more probable, she thought.
race flashed in her mind, including his tilting head and patronising leer. She thought of this as she witnessed the catastrophic sight before her; a tomato-red face submerged in enough sweat to fill the River Styx, deep and rasping breaths tumbling out of a gaping mouth, and the rapid pumping of muscular arms. Atalanta, still trotting just in front of this disaster, almost pitied the Prince, knowing his fate beyond the finish line.
Atalanta flipped her head back around, her caramel hair whipping the tip of the Prince’s nose. She scoffed as she heard the whimper from behind her and began to speed up, pushing her legs faster and faster. The shrieks of the crowd, once directed at the pretentious prince, escalated as she neared the finish line. Closer, closer, the finish line beckoned as Atalanta sprinted the last remaining metres. Ten, nine, closer and closer, the space between her and the end dwindling.
Five, four, three metres. Suddenly, she stopped.
Atalanta adored running; the feeling of the wind caressing her face, adrenaline coursing through her body, and the undeniable pulse of her heartbeat pounding in her ears. However, over the past few weeks, she realised that what she adored even more was the humiliation and the ignominy of a pompous suitor.
She bent at the knees, attempting to emulate the same rasping breaths that she had heard from the Prince. With her head still bent down, she subtly lifted her eyes, looking for the challenger.
He’s not even close, she thought, exasperated.
The Prince was just over the half-way point of the track, his arms pumping the same relentless rhythm. As he saw Atalanta in the state of nearly collapsing, a spark of hope ignited in his eyes. What he did not see, however, was the sadistic smirk that had crawled onto her lips.
Nearing closer, gleeful laughs bubbled from his lungs, clumsily intertwining with panting gasps. Atalanta could see his conceited ego reinflating his thorax, as if the previous pathetic sight was an illusion. The Prince, blinded by the prospect of victory, ignored the confused whispers that emerged from the crowd and was only three metres from Atalanta before she suddenly shot up from her previously bent position and simply walked across the finish line. The hope that had accumulated in his eyes now withered away as he realised the consequence of his failure.
“What a shame,” Atalanta crooned, “you were so close, weren’t you?” With a final wink to the Prince, she turned to King Schoeneus and declared, “Well, Father, yet another loser. You know what happens next.”
Slumped in his throne, the King sighed and waved the executioner over with an indifferent hand. The crowds’ whispers transformed back into roars of approval as the whimpering and blubbering Prince was led to his death.
The Axe rose. Then fell. A thump. The head rolled across the sand and stopped at Atalanta’s feet. The sadistic smirk returned to her cruelly beautiful face as she faced the crowd.
“May the next suitor fare better than this one did.” She snickered, kicking the head away. The crowd howled their final roar of approval before gradually dissipating.
Her father, now perched upright in his throne, glared at his daughter, “at least try not to humiliate the challengers any more than necessary. Your cruelty will cause the number of suitors to vanish, and then no-one will be willing to marry you.”
“That’s the whole point,” muttered Atalanta under her breath. Her father ignored her.
“Do you realise that if you do not marry and bear offspring, my Kingdom will be left in the hands of outsiders, foreigners, complete strangers?’ His breath grew heavier, gasps of anger almost as deep as the late Prince’s gasps of exhaustion. Atalanta, however, having heard her father’s same rants many times before, simply shrugged and skipped away.
As she pranced away, she did not notice the loitering spectator in the stands, nor did she see his lingering green eyes observing her all the way back to the Arcadian palace.
On the next day, Atalanta sauntered back down to the tracks after the arrival of another challenger. A similar set up from the previous day laid before her; the King perched in his makeshift throne, eyes disinterested despite his alert body language and the same thundering crowd, blasting with enthusiasm. The only difference that Atalanta noticed was the challenger.
He stood upright near the starting line, with a dilapidated satchel thrown over his lanky shoulders. His pale skin and blonde mop of curls thrown haphazardly on his gaunt head made Atalanta raise her eyebrows in disbelief. If an athletic Prince had failed, how on earth was this beanpole going to beat her? Did he have a death wish? And did he plan on clutching that bag for the whole race? Despite her bewilderment, Atalanta, with her arms crossed and eyebrows still raised to the top of her forehead, walked up to the boy.
“What’s your name?” She asked, sticking her hand out in front of her. The boy said nothing, nor did he raise his hand to return the gesture. Instead, his gaze languidly raked up and down Atalanta, and once his stare returned back to her eyes, he gave her a crooked grin. If Atalanta was perplexed before, her bafflement simply escalated further as the boy turned away, positioning himself parallel to the track.
“Alright then, good chat.” She mumbled, still struck with confusion. Following him, Atalanta crouched at the starting line, beginning to filter out the oddity of what had just happened. She took a deep breath and reminded herself of reality. Another race, she thought. Another competitor. And soon, another head rolling across the sand.
The echoes of the King’s speech to the crowd and their subsequent howls became distorted as both competitors began sprinting, initiating the race. At least this will be over quickly, thought Atalanta, observing the boy dashing after her, his limbs flying in every direction. All of a sudden, however, one of his flying limbs reached into his bag and yanked out what Atalanta thought was a golden ball. He rolled it in front of her, and she realised that it was anything but a ball. It was a golden apple.
Staring at it, she scoffed. As if she would let herself be fooled by the façade! Right now, she had a race to win.
With Atalanta assuming that the golden apple was a ruse, a distraction, she did not understand that if one were to accidentally run onto such apple, one would fall over. Right onto one’s face.
With her ankle twisting, Atalanta crashed to the ground, face splattering into the grains of sand.
The boy, albeit shocked by the ungracefulness of the Arcadian princess, leapt over her body and carried on sprinting, all the way to the finish line. The crowd’s hollers reached the highest magnitude, their contagious enthusiasm delighting the boy, beaming with elation. The King, whose eyes flared to life at the victory, stood up and roared to the stadium, “We have a winner!”
In his glee, the boy did not see Atalanta rise from the floor, snarling and spitting the sand out of her mouth. Having somehow pulled a bow and arrow from thin air, she aimed it at the boy and slowly began to move towards him.
“Foul play! You cheated!” She growled, venom dripping in her speech, “What? You have nothing to say?” Both the crowd and the King fell to a hush as the boy raised his hands on either side of his head. Despite the terrifying sight of the huntress, his crooked grin remained, almost as if it was stamped in place.
Finally he spoke, his voice a smooth and polished purr. “To be fair, you were not meant to trip over the apple. I had three lined up for you, but it seemed as if one did the job just as well.” This only deepened Atalanta’s fury.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you right this second.” Green eyes snapped to hers, although not an ounce of apprehension lay within them. After seconds of heavy silence, the boy spoke again.
“Most Greek women would simply be married off, without the need for a competition. Most Greek women would pick up the golden apple. Most Greek women would run at the sight of the Calydonian Boar. You, however, are not most Greek women. You are an anomaly, a caveat. You don’t adhere to the system; you are a flaw in Prometheus’ code.” Atalanta’s bow loosened slightly and her snarl dropped.
“You may not follow the rules of femininity, but I know that you will follow your honour and adhere to what you promised.” Atalanta’s bow then dropped completely, brows furrowed as she understood the logic to his words.
He concluded with a final wink to the huntress, “and to answer your first question, the name’s Hippomenes.”