Durus Amor

Dido sees Aeneas in the underworld before she dies.

His sword splits the world in two and there he is, pushing through the shadows of myrtle boughs. He isn’t quite real. He’s as thin as a soap bubble, as if he might turn sideways and let the light glint through him, if there was any light, which there isn’t. He sees Dido turning dreamily on her bloody thread, the finest, thinnest, reddest hair of sea-salt air still hooked in her opened side, and he stops, and he stares.

He weeps. She can’t quite hear him. His tears are the tears of the man who said:

I go unwillingly, but I must go.

She sees it all, then. The wife he left to die in Troy; the women he leaves on a Sicilian beach; the woman he will fight to wed in Italy. The goddess-mother who guards him, the goddess-queen who drives him. The city sprung from the children of the city he will found.

He’s on his knees. He must be begging; what, Dido doesn’t know. She saw his sails flying far off before she threw herself on the pyre. She should be furious, but that poison’s bleeding out of her. Mostly she’s angry with herself for letting herself be used like this.

You deserve better. I’d stay if I could. If the fates allowed...

She looks right through him. Some other woman might give him grace; his wife’s shade, he said, had sent him weeping to his ship. Dido won’t.

“Dido,” she hears, and sees behind Aeneas a familiar, half-forgotten figure standing under the myrtles, his hands and heart open. “I didn’t want to see you like this,” Sychaeus says. “I thought you’d be old before you died.”

She can’t answer him. What can she say?

“Don’t worry,” he says. “Don’t be afraid. It doesn’t matter any more. Nothing does, Dido. Let the living be.”

She parts her lips. Sychaeus, the man she’d adored without any goddess’s tricks or well-meant advice, the murdered husband whose shade had warned her away from Tyre and her murderous brother. She can’t even see the Trojan any more.

The waking world is tugging at her. Somewhere above, where there is light and wind and sound, she’s dying on a pyre, bleeding, surrounded by mourners, her sister Anna still in shock. But Dido’s starting to see the underworld clearly: these dark groves laced with heavy air through which sombre crowds wander, together and alone.

“You did splendid things, Dido,” Sychaeus says. “I’m proud of you.”

He’s reaching out to her. “I love you,” he says, and as Dido moves towards him the thread binding her to her dying body snaps.