This Week in Short Fiction


If you recall your Greek mythology, you’ll remember Cassandra, princess of Troy, priestess of Apollo, seer of prophecies, and patron saint of women everywhere screaming themselves blue but never being heard. Cassandra’s prophecies unfailingly proved to be true, but still she was seen as insane by her family and the Trojan people and, in some versions of the story, often locked away for it. Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy and warned of the Greeks hiding inside the Trojan Horse but, in an ancient case of mansplaining, was told she was crazy and there were no soldiers hiding in that nice wooden horse, silly lady. Her prophecy unheeded and her people in danger, Cassandra, feminist icon, took matters into her own hands and attempted to destroy the horse herself with a torch and axe, but she was stopped by the Trojans themselves, to their fatal detriment. In a short story at SmokeLong Quarterly this week, Gwen E. Kirby takes the figure of Cassandra and imagines that she could see farther into the future (mythology spoilers ahead), past the Trojan War, past her eventual rape by Ajax in the temple of Athena, past her abduction as a concubine for King Agamemnon, past her ultimate murder at the hands of Agamemnon’s wife, and into the modern era. Considering Cassandra’s treatment throughout life, the story is appropriately titled: “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at That Point Fuck Them Anyway.”

Posters. Water bottles. Newspapers. Junk mail. Bumper stickers. Lists. Top ten Halloween costumes for your dog as modeled by this corgi. Top ten times a monkey’s facial expression perfectly summed up your thoughts on NAFTA. Top ten things your boyfriend wishes you would do in bed but is too afraid to say. Cassandra has not noticed a lack of men telling women what to do. Perhaps this will be a pleasure of the future, a male desire that goes unspoken. A desire that is only a desire, and not a command.

Kirby’s prose spills into a catalogue of what Cassandra sees, creating a vision of the modern world that is more than just a list of random objects: it’s a critique in the form of collage. Kirby skillfully juxtaposes the figure of Cassandra—wise woman to whom men do not listen, intelligent woman who is ostracized, violated, put in her place—with women today, highlighting both the gains women have made and the ways in which the modern world and the ancient are still remarkably the same.

Cassandra would rather see only the fictions, the objects, the colored plastic oddities of the future, but she must see lives as well. Here are two little girls. They sit in the dirt and dig at a boulder. When it is finally unearthed, the possibilities! A passage to the underworld, a buried treasure, a colony of fairies—anything but dirt. It is essential that they will never succeed, never dig up the boulder, and of course they don’t. Their plastic shovels move the dirt aside; new dirt, dusty and thin, blows across their eyes, fills the small spaces they’ve made. One of the girls becomes an engineer. One is raped by her college boyfriend. Some visions show nothing new at all.

“Shit Cassandra Saw” is a powerful and witty, bleak and hopeful, feminist retelling of the familiar myth. Through Cassandra, this ancient and misunderstood heroine, Kirby reveals what has changed for women (washing machines, birth control) and what has not (misogyny, rape). In some tellings of Cassandra’s story, she is given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but when she refuses his sexual advances, he curses her to never be believed by spitting in her mouth. Kirby’s retelling circles back around to this ancient act of silencing, but while men won’t hear Cassandra’s prophecies, this Cassandra knows her fellow women will, and even while she waits for her dark fate, she is excited to share the hopeful news of the future with them:

Soon, Cassandra will be carried across the sea, made another man’s concubine, bear twin boys, and be killed by Clytemnestra. But before this comes to pass, there are visions Cassandra burns to share with the women of Troy.

The women of Troy might listen. They know that Cassandra’s curse is their curse as well. That Apollo spit in her mouth, but it was only spit.

Here is what she might show them.


Logo art by Max Winter.

Claire Burgess’s short fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, and PANK online, among others. Her stories have received special mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, but haven’t actually made it into one yet. She’s a graduate of the Vanderbilt University MFA program, where she co-founded Nashville Review. She lives in Pittsburgh by way of the deep South and says things on Twitter @Clairabou_. More from this author →