Chaerim Kim-Worthington |

The Songlover’s Song — The Nightingale’s Song — The Voice of Philomela


 Procne and Philomela’s Revenge. (source)
Procne and Philomela’s Revenge. (source)

[This is one of the prizewinning stories from the 2020 Paideia Institute High School Essay Contest. Based on Ovid’s Latin version of the story of Philomela, Procne, and Tereus, it retells the story from Philomela’s perspective. The Latin winner of the high school essay contest wins an all-expenses-paid scholarship to the Living Latin in Rome High School program, which Chaerim hopes to attend in 2021. In 2020 the program has been replaced by the Living Latin Online High School program, which Chaerim will be attending. High school students with at least a year of Latin are encouraged to apply for this new online program; the application deadline is June 1st.]


I. Tereus

Spectat eam Tereus praecontrectatque videndo
osculaque et collo circumdata bracchia cernens
omnia pro stimulis facibusque ciboque furoris
accipit; et quotiens amplectitur illa parentem,
esse parens vellet: neque enim minus impius esset.
Tereus viewed her pretty pleading, and in his hot heart, imagined he was then
embracing her; and as he saw her kiss her father’s lips, her arms around his neck, it seemed that each caress was his; and so his fire increased. He even wished he were her father; though, if it were so, his passion would no less be impious.

I guess I should have known when little alarm bells went off every time you spoke — but they were so quiet and clear, like every time an angel gets its wings. I like to think of myself as an angel after what’s happened. I like the idea of having wings. I ended up with wings anyways.

You were my sister’s husband. You were a little taller than me, with big hands and bright eyes like Poseidon. I can’t describe you in ways that aren’t physical, can’t explain how you would make me feel. Sometimes my sister’s eyes get blank, and she blames herself as she sits catatonic and shaking. She asked you to bring me to her. She wanted her beloved sister, crying, Si gratia ulla mea est, vel me visendam mitte sorori, vel soror huc veniat! “If I have found any favor with you, either send me to see my sister, or let my sister come here.” She sent you to Athens, sent you and got me back. Imagine my horror when you didn’t take me straight to her. Horror is like blackberry bramble growing in my chest, scratching my lungs and choking my throat. Horror is raw skin; it’s thick and chilling, and imagine my horror when you turned to me with lust in your eyes.

You raped me. There’s no nicer way to say it. You took a person and made them into nothing — other narrators of this story may use honeyed words like frightened lamb, scared of their own shadow or injured dove, hiding from the fierce hawk. Like I was ever a lamb. Like I was ever anything but what I am now- a void of a person, a vaporized existence.


II. Tongue


ille indignantem et nomen patris usque vocantem
luctantemque loqui conprensam forcipe linguam
abstulit ense fero. (Met.6.555–557)
Outraged and calling the name of her father repeatedly and struggling to speak, the tongue having been seized with pincers,he removed with his savage blade.

You cut off my tongue. To keep me silent, you said. A fate better than death.


I was winged before this. I keep saying that word, over and over, rolling my lips over my stump of a tongue. Wing-ed. The scar feels rough on the inside of my mouth, a reminder of how he grabbed my tongue and pulled until it felt like he’d rip it out with his bare hands, and —

Swish. The knife went down and I went away.

I should have known better. Never, through all the gaslighting, could I tell — it always felt like love. And Tereus — you — always told me how you loved. Love like a nightingale song, you’d say.

It’s a general rule of thumb for me that people like to compare themselves to other people in relationships; better, more ideal people. Like calling the couple the sun and the moon, or like characters in a play. I used to say you were like Achilles, and I, a Patroclus to rival any other, and I’d write over and over philtatos (with a masculine ending, because of course, it could never be me. Philtatos will never apply to someone like me.). Beloved. You and Achilles look similar when your eyes are blurring, and for every bitter word there was a thousand good, but god damn it, it makes it so hard to label you clearly as The Manipulator, The Abuser, The Rapist, the One Who Did Wrong. And you’ve said some pretty awful things, and I can guess what you think when you think of me, and I can’t close my eyes next to you without the fear that you’ll pounce.

After I felt dirty. Apparently rape victims often feel like this; apparently I’m not abnormal for feeling layers of dirt and blood under my fingernails. My body became a war zone, in me the grave of Achilles. There is no cleansing me, no ramification of sins, no divine baptism — because i know if you saw me in a church you’d only see me on my knees.


III. Wings


…nec tempore maluit ullo
posse loqui et meritis testari gaudia dictis. (Met.6.660–661)
Nor was there a time when she wished more strongly to be able to speak and to testify her joy in words having been deserved.

If the story ended there, it wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? If my rapist got away and told my sister, through superficial sympathy, that I had perished by chance — that wouldn’t be very exciting to hear, would it? I became a nightingale; in the way that after a long battle a soldier is not human, I became something animalistic and angry.

Sometimes I dream about killing you, taking everything from you without hesitating just like you did for me. I want to burn away every inch of skin that’s softened under your hands. I want to be young again. I want to be Philomela, lover of apples and child of Athens. I want to be golden and young. All I am now is vehement and violent, fantasizing about wrecking both of our bodies until all the dirt — the awful parts of you and me — is gone.

Stronger than anything, though, I feel rage for what you’ve done. I refuse to accept it willingly and refuse to be broken by it. I am Philomela and I will not be silenced.

Chaerim Kim-Worthington is one of the winners of the 2020 Paideia Institute High School Essay Contest. She will be attending Living Latin Online High School.


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