Deception is the way of serpents. In memory, I walk with the old Pythia. She tells me her name is Amantaeia. I give her the name Khalkis gave me: Spazakia. She snorts, finding it funny, but says nothing. We tread the steps of a hidden stair behind the temple. There are two points where the path seems to move on to the left, but she takes me down an animal track to the right, each time, and we find another hidden stair.
Reaching the crest of the ridge, she explains the need for such secrecy.
“Look down there, Spazakia. What do you see?”
I tell her. “The north road. It comes into the vale directly ahead. It would lead up here if it did not bend to the west and lead up to the sanctuary.”
“And down the slope? What do you see?”
“Trees. They are thick. They lean over a gully.”
“And in the gully?”
I squint against the harsh sunlight.
“Nothing. It is bare, like a dry stream.”
“It was never a stream. That way is cleared every winter, while we are in Eleusis, tending to the mystes there. Servants of this sanctuary keep it clear of all obstructions.”
“Look up there,” she says, and points to a crag above. I see that the top is levelled off and great stones, squarish, somewhat rounded, rest there. “If I was to go up there, and lever one of those stones off and into the gully, it would roll all the way to the road and down the road for several stades.”
“But that would kill anyone on the road!”
“Yes!” she says, grinning, and draws herself up with a look of vengeance in her eyes. “And if the road was filled with a thousand hoplites, neither bronze nor bone could stand.” Again I see the dramatic flair in her delivery, and realize that despite my horror at the idea, I can imagine myself breathless, watching the great unstoppable stones crashing out of the forest, bloodthirsty as charging elephants, tearing into serried ranks of men.
“Hundreds would perish,” she continued, “and they would be routed. Furthermore…” she says, pointing at spots below the forest canopy, “Men of brass and great engines would be released, and a vast horn would trumpet. It would seem as if the god himself were at war upon them. They would flee, and never return.”
She lets her poise settle. “Deception, my little Spazakia. Deception has defended this sanctuary against the pillaging horde in the past, and it will again. How do you think we can live here at peace with half the world’s treasure in our vaults? The sanctuary is defended. Perhaps not by the god, but defended it is.”
“But it is a lie.”
“Is it? Is it any more a lie than a bit of doggerel that may kill a man as well as save him? More of a lie than the love of the god himself, who turns his lovers into bushes, or fountains, or mad things that no one will believe?”
I shiver at her words. Again, I see the distorted face, the pale eye of the monster that I fear I am. She speaks of me. Of my kind.
Quietly, almost like a concerned mother, she takes me in her arms. “Please, little Spazakia. Trust me in this. Do not strip us bare of our deceits. It will be the end of the sanctuary.”
I know she speaks for her family, for the priests, for the great wealth of Delphi. I pull myself out of her arms and look out on the plain below. I notice for the first time that the north road continues a ways, and joins an east-west road. The roads follow ridges, and the ridges converge on the sanctuary. She follows my eyes.
“Yes, you can see it only from up here. Those roads meet at the wound the god made in the earth on the fourth day of his life. It was there that the he forced his arrows into the navel of the earth. All the earth cracked around, and the dragon was pierced, and tore the ground around him. Since then, the dragon obeys. He speaks for the god.”
She turns, addresses me with her eyes cast down, her voice gentle, intimate as between two sisters. “Or so I am told. The dragon does not speak to me. I wonder if he speaks to anyone. I wonder if all our deceptions hide only a deeper deception. One that we have made for ourselves and have fallen for.”
I shudder, my arms prickling with gooseflesh. I also turn my face downward, unwilling to give her a glimpse of the dragon that may still linger in my eye. She leans in close, whispering in my ear.
“You know, girl, I have travelled and I have seen this with my own eyes: If you cross the sea towards the rising sun, you will come to another temple, far older, far greater, to the god’s sister. There is a navel there also, and all who dwell there say that is the true centre of the earth. And again, if you go south to the island of Crete, there is another navel to the earth where the god and his sister are holy and all who dwell there say that is the world’s centre. There are others. Many others. The earth must have many mothers to have so many navels!” She smiles at her jest, raises my face to look into hers. “So tell me, Spazakia, who is the real deceiver here? Would you be able to tell?”
I shake my head, as much to free it from her fingertips as to admit my ignorance.
“There is a reason the Oracle doesn’t interpret her own prophecies, girl. I hope you never have to learn that reason.”
But I have learned it all too soon. Sardis is burning.
I rage, shaking the bars of my tripod, trying to break it. I reach for the dragon, a thousand vicious claws at his throat. “You let me send Sheep-beard to Sardis, and now Sardis is burning!”
That was your choice.
“No!” I shout. The dozing mystia, who was waiting for me to speak, jumps up, her tablets and stylus clatter to the floor.
“Sister?” she cries out.
I do not know if I speak to her. Whatever comes from my mouth, she is frightened by it and runs out of the room.
“Do something!” I scream at a god who does not hear me. I beat the cage beneath me with my cracked hands. My hands, my arms are so thin, so wiry. In my imagination, I see Sheep-beard and his Oxana standing in the fire, calmly watching me as they are consumed like figures of melting gold withering into the coals. They dwindle to nothingness in my mind.
I reach out to the dragon again. My heart is full of vengeance. “Show them to me.”
But instead, I see the Mule-king’s bearded son, the new King of Kings, on a disc of gold, like the coins in Sheep-beard’s hand. He fires a great bow into the sky, piercing the sun. His promise of vengeance is terrible to feel. It ripples from horizon to horizon, echoing with the tramp of five million marching feet. Even the dragon is taken aback.
“Daughter?” It is Amantaeia. She is in a rumpled, hastily-donned gown. She approaches me, squats to look at me better. “Daughter, what is it?”
I try to form words, but I cannot get them to fit around the vast misshapen feeling in my chest. My mouth moves like a fish. “I killed him.”
“Killed? Who? How?”
“My step-father. I sent him to his death. With my words.”
Her face grows still, and a great sadness comes over her. With halting movements, she lifts me from the cage and holds me, but without warmth. I look up into the sad steel of her eye and I realize where her sorrow comes from. I return her cold embrace with my own chill. We have both spoken our heart in the name of the god, and felt the cold bite of our own venom.
I resolve then never to listen to my own prophecy. Never to winnow out meaning from the dragon’s words. I am the liar now. A woman deceiving the girl she once was.
But I digress. I must speak again of the Lacedaemonian. He first came to the Oracle, to me, under false pretences. I had no idea it was him. He had grown fatter, balder, with the years. But there was still a lupine hunger in his eye.
No—what right do I have to speak of pretences? It is our custom to interview the propitiates under pretences. The lesser priests and priestesses, under the guise of hospitality, learn from them their purposes, divine their reason for making the perilous journey to this vale of sparse greenery surrounded by heat-soaked plains. They do so subtly, as one might do on meeting a stranger in the marketplace, trying to divine their substance.
For the men, the priests are young, shaven. They seem like curious boys who hang on their clients’ every word. For the women, we keep others—homely, matronly women with trusting faces who do not dwell on what has been said, instead changing the subject under discussion again and again until the seeker has spilled out their life in scattered shards they do not believe will be remembered. We put these spies in the baths, where they cleanse themselves in steam and hot water, to be purified in preparation for their divine encounter. In the baths, the propitiates sit among others, telling them the “rest of the story”, the part they do not bring to the god.
In the privacy of the bath, a woman will tell a stranger things she would not say into her own pillow. And so a man will do to impress a younger man with his worldly wisdom and cunning, thinking the youth will keep it secret in his desire to emulate the man he would be. It is from these dropped fragments that prophecies are made for those the god does not deign to meet.
As it would have been in the case of the Lacedaemonian. I think it was the will of the god that I overheard the testimony of one young priest who spoke with “Tyvviastis”, this wolf who took my mother from me. But why did the god will that I hear it? Perhaps it was to remind me that I am nothing but a speck in the storm of his eye.
Nevertheless, when there was speech of “Clystia, his slave-woman from Euboea”, I lingered to listen, for Clystia was my mother’s name.
“It is very simple,” the older priest said to the younger. “Under his sponsorship, the man has established a fine granary and has arranged transport and found buyers. If the man has been so instrumental to his master, as you say, then why should he not be rewarded?”
“His master is concerned it is not reward enough. The woman is not young. He took her from Khalkis as spoils of war. She has a child, who is missing, upon whom she pines.” How my heart constricted to hear this!
“A girl was left behind.”
“And he worries that the widow is not comely enough?”
“No, that she is ever fretting about the child.”
“So she will not forget her child and apply herself to her duties as a wife?”
“That is his concern, yes.”
“Surely this isn’t important enough to bother the sybil, is it?”
“I shouldn’t think so, but he received signs.”
“A dream. Something about a pot shattering.”
“Oh, this is silly stuff.”
The young priest nodded. “So I believed. What shall we tell him?”
“Let me come up with something. You say the man is Euboean as well. Of an old Euboean family?”
“Apparently. It is his connections that have allowed the Attican to approach the Archon of the Attican colony in Khalkis. It is this Archon who has allowed his master to supply the four thousand.”
“The Attican colonists in Khalkis.”
“Oh, the hegemony.”
“Yes. He has done very well by the association, and so he thinks it is fitting that she be gifted to his partner.”
“Do you have an idea of how the partner feels about the union?”
“There is some sympathy. He has had losses as well.”
“It seems very simple. We’ll say the god approves, under the condition that he gives a suitable donation. If he wants the old nag, he can have her.”
And there, leaning up against the wall, listening, I knew what I must do. I would not let them marry my mother to this Euboean grain-peddler. I would risk the pain and again substitute words for the god. After all, the priests had decided the god was not to speak to the Lacedaemonian in any case. What harm could it do?
All afternoon, I composed lines in my head. I wanted them to sound like they came from the god himself. I wanted them to shake the Lacedaemonian. To put fear into him that would equal the pain he has caused us. I wanted him to cringe. So I composed, in the Attican hexameter I had since mastered:
Faithless Tyvviastis, take heed and know your fate.
Woe to you, thief of lives, lowly thing that you are
Return this woman to her home, lavish all goods on her
As she may need, set her handsomely housed in Khalkis
Spare no expense, and see to it she is safe. For your
Crimes have earned you death and pain unless you make
This small token to the god of your earnest humility.
And then I put word out through Amantaeia that the one who dreamed of the broken pot should be brought before the Oracle to receive the word of the god. She looked almost ready to question me. Nevertheless, she sent a mystia. The girl took her seat, primly as always, with her tablet, ready to take the prophecy. She sat and I opened my mouth to recite the lines which I had composed. I spoke:
Tyvviastis of Attica, be easy in your conscience, for the god
Is pleased that you make this offering for him: both bride and groom
Shall receive from your hand the bounty they deserve and
Betrothal besides. End your care and be easy with your choices.
The maiden carefully copied down my words, the merest hint of her tongue parting her lips as she meticulously inscribed her tablet before looking to me and nodding as if one craftsman to another. If she registered any shock, any disappointment on my face, she did not say.
Perhaps all she saw was the mad, monstrous creature that I am. A broken lyre on whom the gods play mocking tunes. I know for a fact these girls are told to betray no disgust of me in my presence. She did her job well, then. A craftsman indeed.
And my promise? If by giving mother to this creature of Tyvviastis is what is meant by taking her away from the wolf, then perhaps my promise is fulfilled. But I know I am again lying to myself. I have failed my mother as surely as I have killed my foster-father.
Yet, one failure stands out from the others. Again I tried to set right the remorseless beat of the dragon’s will upon the earth with my words. Not to Tyvviastis this time, but one of his serving-men. On a wager.
That the Lacedaemonian would wager in the face of the god confounds me. That the god would reward him for it… It wounds my very sense of justice. In it, I see the injustice that permeates my brother, my god, my lover, like the venom of the dragon that trickles through the cracks of Gaia to pool at the gates of Hades.
At this thought, the dragon awakens. My hands tremble against the brass of the cage. I feel the heat rise from below.
Closing my eye, I tell him to take me. Take all of me. Away from this. He does not.
Instead, the maiden arrives again with her report and her writing-tablet. The report is garbled. Will the god favour the sacrifice of “Tyvviastis of Attica”? He wants to know if the god favours Cyrus or Miletus. He has made advances to an Artaphernes, in hopes of gaining favour with the Satrap. He has done this although it will antagonize his cousin, Oremis, a captain of Sparta. This cousin is the one who has had Tyvviastis exiled to Attica in the first place. Most of all Tyvviastis wishes to defeat this cousin, Oremis, in treachery if he cannot do so in battle.
I have no idea what she is talking about. I can’t even find a question in this request. As usual, these reports from our spies in the baths is a mess of unconnected parts which have been sorted by a dull mind and presented by an unlearned mystia. I am about to say so when I remember myself.
The dragon remembers for me, I should say. I bow my head and feel him drawing me into him, insubstantial as breath being sucked into mighty lungs. I sink deeply into the earth where no light shows, not even the amber eyes of the beast that devours my soul.
Then it clears. I see a battle at sea. Two flotillas arrayed against each other, one smaller but far more valiant: the Ionians. Two companies of Ionians advance. I can see their victory as clearly as I see the light at the top of the stairs. It is inevitable. As in all things, Tyvviastis shall gain from this. Unless….
There. I find a thread among those of my countryfolk. Euboean refugees among the Samian contingent. Men whose hearts are closer aligned with my own. I reach out and pull as the fisherman pulls his nets, bracing the past and the future in either hand as I draw my catch on board. The battle breaks up. My kin are fleeing. The Samian boats leave the Ionians with too little to defend themselves. They will be defeated.
My eyes snap open. I am again in the cage, but I understand now the power that comes to me through the serpent. The threads of fate are not mine only to touch and to read, but to grasp as one does the reins of a horse. By reaching to the battle, I have changed it. Tyvvastis will learn that his wager has gone badly awry, and a punishment will come to Athens and her allies. And it is I, Spazakia, who has done this.
And yet… two days later, Tyvviastis’ serving-man made a contribution. A very large contribution. In the name of Darius. He has switched sides from Ionia to Persia just as easily as he turned from Sparta to Athens.
And I realize what I have done. Eight hundred have sunk to a watery grave. Miletus is in ruins, her people carried off like my own. And all this from my lightest of touches upon the scales of destiny. All this for my petty vengeance, vengeance easily thwarted by a treacherous heart.
And today, Tyvviastis has won again. He will defeat his cousin, as he wishes, as was prophesied.
I have gone too far. I ask the dragon to take me. I insist. I have failed. This time, I think he will listen.
Enough of these memories. I return to the now, and accept my defeat. I will not dwell in the past or the future anymore: all of it is a desert to me. I dully listen as the young mystia reports that Tyvviastis of Attica has now gone, taking my unwilling prophesy with him to some glorious end far away, leaving me with the final tally of this cruel game: He will have victory over his cousin. My mother is married off to some grain-merchant crony of his. Sheep-beard is dead. My promise is broken as I am. I can do nothing about it.
Khalkis is dabbing my forehead as I bathe in the clear waters of Kassotis. Her fingers are cold and sweet. “Oh, little crack-pot. You must let go of this one. He is just a man.”
Things are clear now. Everything is a landscape behind my eyes, and still the Lacedaemonian stands like a pillar on the plain. I can’t ignore him. It cannot be done. I feel the sobs rise within me. I shake with them, but it is not in the way my hand shakes when the prophecy is coming on me.
But I find no release in the tears. Despite Khalkis’ ministrations, I am not among friends. A priest shuffles off to my right, behind me. Couribidos, his name. He is ashamed the Oracle is a broken thing. He prefers a perfect woman on the tripod, a stately matron as it was in all the days of his calling. I would be angry, but I see his death so close on him. In his last moments he will realize how small a life he has made for himself. How can you be angry with such as him? Might as well be angry at mice for stealing a half-handful of grain.
I realize, then, that I have grown old before my time. I have seen too much and effected so little. I have been an observer of my life, not an actor, and now my frailness has closed me to any further action.
But this resignation brings a little peace with it. No more substantial than the girl I was, I rest in Khalkis’ cool arms as I did before. This time is different. She is at a loss. She does not want to say it, but she is worried. I am falling apart. If I do not seal my cracks soon, there will be little left of me. And the Oracle will fail again, like it did in the fire. I seek within myself, as I once sought in the earth, but I feel only the bitter venom of defeat.
Suddenly, anger against the god, against my “brother”, wells up from within me. Where is he? Why has he left me here? How dare he leave Khalkis with this broken sybil for company?
Khalkis touches my lips with one cold fingertip. “He hears you, little-pot. He does hear you.”
But all I can feel around me is the dragon. So much of me is drawn into him. And he is always hungry.
That day, one last time, I ask the dragon for some word of hope, some true memory of Sheep-beard, but he ignores me and speaks only to some smallholder waiting outside for an answer to his petition, a parsimonious man debating how to best profit from a piece of land. I deliver the prophecy to the attendant mystia with the dullness of the damned, and realize I have indeed become no better than Amantaeia:
With ten gold coins for your southern vineyard, Salmion,
You will gain twice so much wine as in ten seasons,
And the gratitude of your neighbour will keep peace
Over your Theban progeny, until you are safely across Styx.
The maiden is preparing me. She is talking to me as if to a madwoman, as if to a doll. Half of me, the ugly half, is listening to the dragon. He is restless. He has much to say, but I can’t hear him because of the maiden’s babbling. She is reading from the priest’s notes on a wax tablet, telling me what the woman outside has come to propitiate for. The woman took a new husband a few years ago, a husband who has freed her from her lowly status, some sort of slavery. He is a trader of grain, and wealthy. It is an arranged marriage. Her new husband is kinder than her master was. She is happy. She has servants. But a part of her is unhappy. She is looking for her daughter. Will her daughter return? I ask the dragon.
What is it? I ask the dragon. He is maddened by something. I cannot divine what it is, but I know it’s because of me. Somehow.
Screaming. The wolf came among the fold. He circles left, then right. And the sheep pounce. Black laughing wings against the sunset. I….
“What did you say?” I ask.
The maiden thinks I speak to her. “She wants to know if her child lives or has passed on.”
“I will speak to her.”
She nods. “And what will you say?” she says, confidence replacing confusion with the adoption of a familiar role, the stylus poised over the wax, ready to dictate.
“No. I will speak to her.” I have no idea what I will say.
I watch the maiden’s face. She is so young. Every thought plays across her face like a puppet-show. I see a flash of forbidden disgust. “You?” she whispers.
“Yes…” I pantomime her wretched pink face. “I.”
“But what will Amantaeia…”
“The old witch will hold her tongue if she has any sense,” I say, pushing myself out of the cage. Standing, I become dizzy, but I will not let this girl see me weak. I turn my stumbling into a charge. Up the stairs, up to the pythian chambers. I push the curtains aside. There is a woman there, in front of Amantaeia. A dull woman. Short. Soft. Fat with good living. Healthy. All of forty years old. Her coiffed hair is bundled upon her head, a traditional himation wrapping her ample figure.
She sees me emerge from the shadows. She screams.
I go to her. She begins to faint. I try to hold her up by the armpits, but get tangled in her himation. Her thrashing nearly bowls me over.
She screams again. She stares into my unseeing eye and screams a third time. Some birds who have flown into the temple are disturbed, and flutter from statue to column and back.
Amantaeia rises, tries to establish order by patting the air, whispering “cha, cha, cha,” as if she speaks to a swaddling child. With a sharp word, I send her away to stand in the shadows. She scuttles into the dark, fearing my voice.
“Mother,” I say. Mama stops screaming. Her eyes dart left and right across my face.
“Mother, I am here,” I reaffirm. The horror in her face is too much to bear. I want to let go of her. Turn. Run away.
“Iola?” she whispers.
She folds up like a heavy roll of cloth. I hold her to my breast, where she shudders. At last, her hands reach around me, hold me close to her. “Iola. I thought you were dead.”
“No you didn’t. You wouldn’t be here if you did,” I say, unthinking. I am unkind, I know. I live with facts now. The dragon has no patience otherwise.
“No, I wouldn’t,” she admits. She will not raise her head. She is looking at the child. The beautiful girl she hid away. The one she saved for later. I shake my head at the image.
“I am Spazakia now.” It’s the kindest I can do.
“Spazakia,” she whispers into my breast. A strength comes on her. She looks up at me like a dog divining her master’s wishes. “Spazakia. Yes.” For a long time, she holds me by the arms and looks at my broken face. It takes some time for the mask of acceptance to solidify on her features. There is some calculation going on. Eventually, she asks if I will come home with her.
“I have a duty, mother. I must finish my decade. There are only three years left.”
“Only three years? Only? Far too long. I must have you home.” It is sheer propriety forming her brisk words. She knows it means nothing, as she knows I will refuse. I can see it.
I smile, shake my head. “Three years.”
She thinks a long time, looking out the portals at the fading day. “But you will come to me, yes?”
“Of course. When my duty is fulfilled, I will come to you.”
“I will send men in three years. They will see you safely home.”
“No, mother, I will come alone.”
There are some more words, but they no longer matter. I lead her to the door, and she leaves. She is happy, and satisfied. I marvel at that. She heals much faster than I do, my mother. And my promise, what does it matter now?
Thinking on that, I run my finger along the seams of a vast krater near the entrance. The silver plates are welded together with metal of some kind. I touch the welds; feel the uneven lift of the metal, so like the patchwork seams of my face, now brokenly reflected back at me. Rough. Ugly. But whole. Perhaps I am healing after all.
Where am I? Who am I? I am… I am appalled by the length of me. The sheer weight of coil upon coil, weaving in and out of myself, a burly knot at the centre of all the world. I twitch, and the earth heaves. I hiss with delight at the power, at the enormity, at the weight of the poison that distills to the root of the very world, at our strong shared body coiling around the buried lance of the god. I raise my neck up to his face, to his golden-eyed face, scales facing scales with the barest hint of burnt-flint breath, we kiss.
You gave too much.
I say it to myself, here. I say it, the dragon of two heads wrapped around a staff at the heart of the world, male and female both, enclosing the waters of the world until the world’s ending. So vast, and yet so like two geckos encircling the slim wrist of a dreaming girl.
Go. I release you.
I do not understand, but there is an itching pain, and I drop, light as a feather, to the deepest chamber. I am torn from the dragon, a grey thing, a bloody bit of gecko-tail cast off, trailing down the trunk to the very roots of the world, where the venom is gold, gold like the dragon’s eyes. I lie in the pool, flayed daughter and mother of the world, a grey woman older than her years, and above me the dragon coiled around the navel of the world shot through with the rod of the heavens, and the navel is everywhere and is my navel, is my eye, and the eye of the dragon, and the sun. All pierced by the same arrow, the arrow that is breath and dragon, and the god, and I.
The dragon shoves me out. I return to the surface of unseen water, gasping. I am alone. I run my finger over the cracks in my face. They are rough, proud, and healed.
I breathe. Clean air. This simple act is the only affirmation I need that my duty is complete. He never left me after all. Nor I him. I understand, now, why the god is also the healer.
It is several days later and ten years of duty behind me. I am now far from the Sanctuary. On my own. Something ahead on the road makes me stop. I can feel the tension in the air. Nervous sweat runs down my back despite the cold. My toes itch. The sun has not yet risen. Damp clutches at my chlamys, dew falling from it as I pull it about me to keep out the damp. I look around, trying to make out the landscape. The broad rim of my hat cuts the dim sky off at the horizon, but everything is grey and lost in the early morning mists.
I walk a way further, hoping for the sunrise. There is a white pillar ahead, on one side of the road. A memorial in marble. On the other side of the road is a Herm. It is a crossroads, then. I feel the presence of someone. People?
I listen for the dragon’s warnings. But he is silent. He is gone.
But I know this place. I know its significance. I remember….
A noise behind me. I turn around. My petasos is, as before, pulled low over my bad eye and dew falls from the brim as I turn. My walking-stick, tall, crooked, and hard as ebony, is my only weapon. If anyone came upon me here, it would just be me, a staff, and fate. I grimace, remember myself. I am not as brave as I would like to believe.
Facts. They are all I have left.
I have been a fool, pretending I am safe alone on the road. I know this. I grow afraid. I become aware of voices—young men on the road ahead. Clanking. Armed men. Desperate. Cast-offs from some army. There are many such men on the roads these days. I wait.
And wait. No one approaches.
Impatient and nervous, I walk to the crossroads, consider fleeing down the other road. The pillar is strange. A rock stands atop. There are patterns cut along the trunk of the thing. I look down the road. There is more noise, but nobody is coming. Why? I look at the herm. It is one of those with the laughing psychopomp for a head, livid penis erect and pointing obscenely at the pillar.
I start violently at a sudden fluttering of wings out of the darkness. A cockerel, flapping in the desperate way of his kind, alights upon the head of the herm, scaly yellow claws winding among the garishly-painted locks of the laughing god. The cockerel looks at me with one eye. Then the other. Then it crows like a mad thing. Both its feet brace against the herm, the beak rising and falling with every laughing peal.
I am confused. I turn, look at the pillar more closely. In these few moments, the sun has risen. I see writing, faint on a band just under the capital. There is a motto carved there. I wipe my hand across it, try to make out the writing. It is difficult with one eye. I take some mud from the road and rub it into the writing to see it better. I lean back and forward. Then a cloud passes from the face of dawn, and I read it in bare relief:
Traveller, know that here lie the bones Tiavviastis of Attica,
felled by the arrow of his cousin, Oremis of Lacedaemon.
The writing is so faint. In a dozen years, the rain will wear it away entirely. And then it comes to me all in a rush: Water will indeed be stronger than stone, and the Lacedaemonian has earned his reward. His reward was death. Not victory at all.
I begin to laugh, myself. Laugh? No, I crow. A rough, mad cackle. A pure and wild sound, flapping around me like a cockerel in flight, like the unwinding of centuries.
I hardly notice when the young men come by. Their leader stops, his sword drawn, his shield by his side. He sees me, petasos drawn down over one eye, chlamys over my shoulder, laughing with the god and the mad cockerel.
“Hecate, save us!” he mutters, leading his men off the road at a run.
In all this time, I am still laughing. Laughing at a promise fulfilled. Laughing with the joy of triumph. Laughing like the cockerel, summoning the sun out of night and into the new day.
I am standing in front of the door of Mama’s house. There is no mistaking. I have asked at the market, and everyone who knows of Clystia of Khalkis knows where she lives. High up on the street that faces the apricot-orchard. The blue door with the crosses in black nails. I stay one night in an inn before approaching her. The innkeeper is afraid of me, of my blank eye and my broad hat. He knows something, but I don’t get the chance to draw it out of him.
I lift my hand and knock. It is a gentle sound from my feeble little hand. Nobody would hear it. I hold my staff up and use the head to hammer against the door. A familiar voice, a man, pipes up. “Hold the reins, hold the reins, I’m coming.”
I recognize his voice just as he opens the door. Sheep-beard stands in the doorway, his eponymous beard now all grey, his eyebrows broader than the crown of his head. He is holding a small child, a girl, in one arm. His jaw hangs. I raise a hand and push it up, grinning.
And then all is a fuss and flurry. He takes me in his spindly arms and swings me like a girl. The servants converge on us. He is babbling. I am babbling. He leads us into the house, and there is Mama, sitting on a broad, comfortable chair, the spindle in her hands. The spindle bounces when she drops it, and she rises to throw her arms around us.
Through the day, our speech coils through our sundered pasts, welding the fractured pieces in place. I learn Sheep-beard never made it to Salamis. Instead, he became a grain-merchant in Thebes, as the Oracle decreed, and was for a while Tyvviastis’ partner. Tyvviastis gave him mama in marriage, and now they live comfortably outside the city, as I prophesied. As the Oracle prophesied, I have to remind myself. After Tyvviastis’ untimely death, the partnership reverted to Sheep-beard. All that the wolf had stolen was, in the end, returned.
Do I imagine the laughter of the dragon, or is that just the sound of the approaching storm? I am too happy to bother with such speculations.
Little sister’s hands are deft, and she is proud of the lizard she has caught. She lets me peek into the globe of her hands to see a tiny gold eye return my gaze. I laugh and send her running off to show Sheep-beard and Mama.
The sun is warm. I adjust my chiton to drink in more of his heat. At my hand is a carafe of new-mixed wine, chilled in well-water. Across from me, Mother and Sheep-beard are examining the herbs. He does it to indulge her. She was always proud of her kitchen-garden, and it gives them both something to remind them of their good fortune. Can I take credit for these things? I dare not. I have made that mistake before. Better to leave it in the lap of the gods.
In my own lap, my hand starts to shake. I watch it, the clumsy thing, waving back and forth across my thighs like some gecko’s tail, and I know it is time. Closing my eyes, I reach within myself, to the true navel of the earth, the crossroads of my mended soul. From there to the heights of my being I summon him to me.
A breeze rattles the leaves in memory of serpent-scales. The sun grows bright, golden. My heartbeat and the song of the birds blend in colours bright and swirling. Then he is there, striding towards me, between the vines, the vineyard that Sheep-beard bought from his neighbour, Salmion, five years ago, at the Oracle’s bidding.
I sit up, trying to still my trembling hands on the arms of the chair. I take pleasure in watching his approach, all lion-mane beauty and sunlight. A smile is on his face, and his golden eyes flash when they meet mine. I can smell the musk of new honey and I feel a tremble in my hips as he comes for me.
This is my choice: Five years, we have. Five years before Xerxes comes to wipe Athens from the map and finish what was started on the plains of Euboea in my grandfather’s grandfather’s time. These are the last years, the good years. Knowing the number of them makes them all the more precious.
His hand takes mine, stills the trembling of my fingers. He is now closer than my own breath. I know its touch as I know my own. After all, we are one flesh. We always have been.
Author Barry King lived in several countries around the world until settling in his spouse’s home town of Kingston, Ontario and converting to Canadianism. They live there with a small blind dog and an increasingly complex battle with the second law of thermodynamics. His poetry has appeared in ChiZine.