The words of the god beat their fists on my teeth, my tongue tickles with the honey of them, but I will not speak these words of joy and hope for my enemy, the Lacedaemonian. I refuse them. I will not betray my mother, my promise, nor the years of my service by speaking them.
My face, the good side, is pressed to the hot brass bars, good eye closed against the stinging fume. The open cage swings in a gout of dragon-breath, suspended as it is from the crux of a tripod.
“Sister?” the young mystia asks, her voice muffled by the wet sash over her mouth. I hear her concern distantly—disconnected from meaning. It pulls me from the myriad cracks of time to the here and now, wakes me from my half-dream, from wandering the dragon-mind labyrinth.
I peek, squinting in the hot acrid air rising from below. She is bent forward, golden tassels in her headdress rippling in the updraft, lamplight quivering in watery motion. Her hands quiver also, the wax writing-board and stylus shaking in her delicate, pink hands. Hands that may one day be as grey as my own, cracked, the cracks limned by the ash of the dragon.
The dragon’s eyes close. The earth itself quivers as he breathes in… breathes out.
Speak. His voice is deep as chasms.
The verse bursts from me in a torrent of words. I gasp for breath after every line, each acid breath tears through the passages of my throat, burying its barbs within me. I dictate the words my enemy has waited long and travelled far to hear: By his hand, he will end the bitter feud which drove him from Lacedaemonia on the Laconian plain, the city we Euboeans call “Sparta”.
Tiavviastis of Laconia, be glad you tended
Your shining locks, for you have earned rewards
So long deserved. Go forth to conquer your foe;
Your name will be spoken in Attica for all the years
That stone shall prove mightier than rain
The dragon leaves me, and I abandon myself to silent tears. In the end, I have betrayed them all.
I am Pythia. A word with split meanings: a title and a place. It also means “I stink”. Thinking on this makes me smile. I do stink. Everywhere is the sulphur-smell of the dragon. In my clothes, in my hair. My poor hair. My once-dark, pitch-bright hair is grey, brittle, ragged. Uneven across my eyes. Moons of grey grime line my yellowed fingernails and moons of black ring my mouth and nostrils. I am burned and battered.
But I do not break.
Like water, I do not break, but flow.
A memory, Sheep-beard says to me “You can break a pot, not its water.” He clung to that thought, in exile, far from his beloved Sardis. I had broken an amphora that bright afternoon, trying to carry it despite my shaky knees. Spilled water roused the colour of sunlit stonework in the courtyard. Gentle vapour rose as he spoke.
I love the memory of his voice. Kindness and patience in that voice. But listen, Sheep-beard, if you can hear me: The sun is too bright. I cannot gather the water back. Can you?
But he was not thinking of me as I am now, spread wildly as I am. He was thinking of his city, and how his city was once-broken like my amphora, all its people flowing away, spilt water flowing across the baked Lydian landscape in the shattering that came with the Medan Mule’s iron shoes.
The serpents warned them, those men of Sardis, boiling out of the earth and across the battle-plain in anticipation of Cyrus the mule’s armies. Oh, yes. Serpents always warn, but their cloven tongues form split meanings. And the dragon, King of Serpents, betrayed old Croesus of Lydia; betrayed him to the “King of Kings”. There is a third King of Kings, now. Grandchild of Cyrus; grandchild of a mule, so no heir of his grandfather’s loins. Xerxes is indeed coming, with five million in his wake to wreck the walls of Athens.
My hand is trembling. I am flowing beyond the cracks of my own soul’s amphora. I reach out to the dragon in the depths of the earth. He slumbers: a chance for respite. I am tired, slipping away, draining out into the place where there is no gulf between yesterday and tomorrow, no space between myself and another….
No space between myself and the dragon. The dragon promised me payment in kind, after the duty is done. I think he has forgotten his promise….
Promises are to be kept; I dream of the girl that is my distant hometown, and how she slips through the cracks of Gaia to come to me still. She has not forgotten Spazakia, “little cracked-pot”. Every month she comes, to give me her cold, sweet kisses to my face and cleanses me of the ash, of the duty. I need only hold my shards together for a little more. It grows harder, month by month, and memory of past and future presses upon me like a leaden fist.
I let go, spill out of myself.
In memory, the sun shines clearer, brighter than I have ever seen.
I have seen this Laconian before, this man the dragon forces me to answer. This shameful one who has come before the Oracle calling himself “Tiavviastis of Attica”.
It was fifteen years ago. His locks were filthy with the sweat and soot of battle. He loped into our courtyard. Even his eyes were yellowed, jaundiced, and greedy. But not greedy like a man. Greedy like a Lacedaemonian, which is to say a man raised in the manner of the wolf.
His helm and shield rode his shoulders in a raised hackle, but his sword was unsheathed and in his hand, the edge notched and bright as his jagged teeth. His other seized mama’s wrist. She squirmed against his grip and said something I couldn’t hear. He pointed with his sword over the wall that faced the ford below the city.
“Your husband? He’s down there, with five hundred of his fellows and a hundred Boetian pikemen. No, I tell a lie. There he is, right above us,” and he pointed to a thick black column of smoke rising into the clear blue sky.
He guffawed and slapped her backside with the flat of his sword, sending her bounding ahead of him like a plump rabbit. I saw his eyes flash up to my window briefly, his smile cracking in calculation, but whatever he guessed was in the storeroom, he did not think it worth bothering himself over.
I was in the storeroom. My heels perched on the teetering wooden shelf behind me, my hands on the sill of the high window. The hem of my cloak was stuffed in my mouth. I promised Mama that I would hide and be silent—that no matter what, I would not cry out.
I kept that promise, and made a second one, right then—in silence and with a mouth stuffed with lambswool—I vowed I would fetch her back, I would take her away from that filthy wolf-man and bring her home where she could be safe.
I know Great Mother heard me, because the shelf broke, and I was thrown to the floor and against a table’s legs, which also broke. My head was turned, and, in the slowness of fear-stretched moments, I watched the beautiful vase father had bought for my dowery—or burial if I was not to see my wedding day—fall. The Maiden-Mother upon it splintered. Her ample, fruit-draped form fissured outwards across the floor, her brother danced on a fragment in the air above.
Then a quern-stone, still filled with grain, slipped off the tabletop and fell on my face, hard, cold, and as heavy as the world. And I heard the vase echo in my head, fissures of lightning before the thunder, the crunch and shattering of bone as one of my eyes went dark. One eye….
One eye, the eye of Maiden-Mother’s brother, the one they call “the archer”, stared back at me, shards ringing it like the waves of the sea around our island. The sea swelled around me and grew dark.
And then, a dream: we are playing on the flagstones, my brother and I. The sun is warm and bright, and the thyme and sweet-marjoram bushes thrum with the industry of bees. Mama is carding wool on the terrace and Papa is away somewhere, traveling.
Last time he returned from traveling, he had a Colchean bracelet for Mama: Two serpents’ heads nearly touching, all in bright gold. I envied her that bracelet. My brother is teasing me about that.
He has caught two geckos, and I am giggling at the prickle of tiny claws at my wrist. He forms a living bracelet in imitation of the gold one. His clever fingers press their faces together for just an instant, kissing, completing the circuit. The geckos scrabble in terror, their slit-eyes wild with unreadable dread. One of them slips out of his grasp and makes away down the cobblestone path. I watch it scuttle into the border and under the thyme-bushes.
“Oh, look,” he said, pointing at something on the ground.
It was a scrap of flesh, bloody on one end and pointed on the other—like half a worm—wiggling. “He dropped his tail,” he said, and grinned at me. I look at the gecko he’s still holding, the female. Her scales shine in the sunlight. She is calm, now, resting against my brother’s warm skin. Her small lungs billow out along her side, and she watches me with her slitted eyes. Or I think she does. It’s hard to tell with lizards.
“She has eyes like a cat,” I say, ignoring him and the bloody thing on the ground.
“Not all cats have eyes like that,” he says.
“Lions have eyes like people.”
I look up at him, thinking about people’s eyes. His eyes are bright gold, with shards of brown, and they shine fiercely, a dark, knowing pit in the centre. I realize, then, that I do not have a brother. And the boy is holding a tortoise. It is snapping at my eye. It is a round, heavy thing like a quern-stone, but he holds it lightly, a serious look on his face.
“Turtles have people-eyes, too,” he says.
The world threatens to spin away. “So do dragons,” he says, after a while.
I wake, cocooned in white cotton. I tear free of the shroud and emerge into the sunlight with a cry. I am thirsty. The sun beats on my head like a hammer, and it is so bright I cannot make out anything clearly. One eye is swollen shut, and from somewhere is the tinkle of a fountain.
I follow the sound with my ears. I try to stand, but my legs won’t obey, so I crawl, hand-over-hand for the water. I stumble over a bundle of cloth, and the jolt makes my head ring. I squint my good eye. It is another person in a shroud. I scan the square. There are more of them in the way, all laid end-to-end. Shrouds of different colours like mosaics on the sun-baked flagstones. All the dead of the city, laid out for burial. And myself counted among them.
It is noon. The stones scald my hands as I pull myself between rows. Heads on my right, feet on my left. When the water comes, I fall into it, headfirst.
The cold on my face quenches the coals behind my eye. I relax, holding my breath, and let the pain seep away until it is just a dull throb. Panic constricts my chest when I find I cannot turn my head to breathe. The pain keeps me from thrashing. Just before I succumb to the inevitable, someone turns me over, gently as an eddying leaf.
My breath bursts out into the sky, and I gasp, readying myself to sink below. But no, a pair of knees rise from below to hold me up. I relax into them and let my breath slow as the peals of pain in my head fade to dullness. Gentle hands caress my cheeks. Someone is humming. I recognize a lullaby, but the humming is rich as fine singing in a chorus, and the ripple of a brook, and yet simple and plain as honesty. A cold finger begins to trace lines around my eye, along my forehead.
“You are cracked, little pot. But not leaking.” The woman’s voice is rich, clear. I think I know her.
“He took Mama,” I say.
She stops humming for a while. Then she says, “Yes, she’s not here anymore.”
“He took her away. She’s a prisoner.”
“There are many prisoners, now. All in chains of iron. All in the market, sitting on the floor, in their own filth. You could be there, too. But you’re not.”
“I promised to get her back,” I say, unsure of myself or of this woman who holds me.
“That was a bold promise.”
“I meant it.”
“Do you still?”
She turned me in the water to look in my face. The sun shone above her, leaving her form in smooth silhouette. “Well, you’re not in chains, so that counts for something.”
“Can you help me?”
She was silent a long, long time. Then she said, “I was stolen, too. Long ago. I was a girl like you, and this island was still part of Boetia. He kidnapped me and two of my sisters, but I was youngest and most beautiful. My sisters made him promise not to take me against my will. He promised.”
“Did he keep his promise?”
“Yes. I did not want him. I still do not. He keeps his promise to this day. But he is very angry, very cruel. He told me I must stay here until I agree to be his. He shook the earth until it shattered, and the cracks filled with water. He rooted me to the island he made. But no matter whether I accept him or accept my prison, I will never again be free.”
She became silent, and in the silence her sadness drew her away from me. She began to fade as the sun behind a cloud.
“Where would you go if you were free?” I asked, hoping to call her back.
She grew again in presence. I could not see her face, but I knew she smiled, because I smiled myself when I felt it. “I would go home, to the south, to the mountains above the dry plain. I would see my father and mother again, and my remaining sisters,” then a coldness crept into her voice as the sun again moved behind a cloud, and I felt chill. “But he has made it difficult. I must cross his waters and climb the rivers at the farthest reaches of the southern lands. Even so, my father has closed his kingdom and turned the rivers inwards so they deny passage to my tormentor. And so he denies me a road home as well… No, here I will remain until the world changes.”
“I am so sad for you,” I said, not knowing what else I could say.
She laughed suddenly and was again smiling. “And I for you. So I will help you. But first you must mend, broken-pot, if you will ever be whole.”
“What is your name?”
“What is this town called?”
“Khalkis,” I answer.
And then I slept.
I awake, still in memory. Another head in silhouette, gentle fingers on my face. The smell is of beeswax, and rosemary, and something else, more pungent and rich. I gasp. I have not been breathing.
A man’s voice. I hear every word, but I do not understand. The words float past my thoughts, ships upon the water, with no sense or season between them. But the voice is happy. Nearly jubilant. The man rises, is calling someone. I look up at the sun, dappled with green and gold through the grapevine-heavy trellis. I am on a bed-frame of simple cords. My head has stopped throbbing.
The man kneels by the bed again and says something, yearning for something. He wants assurance from me. I raise my hand to his face. It is soft, ashen-grey. His beard is curled and tightly-kinked like lambswool. It is like a sheep’s tail, so thick and knotted. I open my mouth to speak, but I am broken. I hear my words, but they mean nothing to me. I smile at him, and he backs to the wall, afraid.
I am not bothered by his fear. It is right that he should fear. But I reach out to him again.
Slowly, like a timid animal buttressing courage against anticipated doom, he approaches. He takes my hand in both of his. He speaks softly, whispering. I nod.
He closes his eyes. Tears fall from his nose. I, who am broken, feel it keenly when something is mended. He bends his forehead to my hand. Someone approaches with a ladle of clean water. I drink. The water is clean and sweet. I lay back and sleep takes me again.
Years later, when I could understand speech again, he told me the words I spoke on that day:
Oh, Sheep-beard, tarry no longer in distant sorrow,
Neither wife nor daughter will you find there waiting.
Seek the queen in the broken hive that swarms for ten years.
When you sit upon a flying throne of wood, blood-soaked,
Look to a cistern of archer’s tears, marked by a naked ear.
Again, I dream. The moon is bright and high over the hills. The stranger I call “my brother” and I wander along the rocky track. I know it is a dream, because the land around us is revealed like the view from a skylark’s wing. To our right, the broad fertile plain of wheat, white in the light of the moon, rippling. The plain is neatly divided by a silver stream, rushing to the sea. Two cities, one sooty black, behind us, the other chalk-white, ahead of us, rest at the points where the crescent ridge touches the sea, enclosing the river and the fields.
We sit on a rock overlooking the river’s gorge. He wraps his arms around me to keep out the cold, and a vixen leaps up at his unspoken bidding to lay across my feet, warming them. Her kits jump up and begin nuzzling at her belly.
“This is where it began, this plain,” I tell him, coaxing him to speak of the past.
He nods, gazing over the moon-drenched landscape. “Here the cities shared the wealth of Khalkis,” he says, “like these fox-kits at their mother’s teats. And when they came to fighting, they agreed first on how they would fight, and what rules they would follow, fancying themselves the sort of men as gathered once on the plain of Troy. But in the end, neither gained the valley, and both were impoverished, for all the lands in the wide world sided for one city or the other, so neither could best the other. That is the curse. That is where it began, this antipathy between the northerners and the southerners, and, by extension, between Ionia and Persia. This is the lot you have inherited, a growing spiral of sundered halves.”
“And each turn of the wave goes further abroad,” I say, thinking of my own people and the Medes, and the Rowers in their chalk-white city across the plan, and of the Atticans, and the… Wolf-men of the far south. My mind flees from that image, jagged Lacedaemonian teeth against a face of soot.
“And so, two fissures have indeed split this island, and so split me from you,” he says, “both meet at the world’s crossroads, at the navel of the world. You won’t be long getting there? I will be waiting.”
“No,” I say, after a pause wherein regret stops my breath. “No, I will come soon enough.”
We look over the dark city, my city, now half in ruins. Khalkis fled there after the war, and her river is silent, now.
“There will be a reckoning.”
“I know. One of many.”
“Afterwards, you will be free to choose.”
“I would stay with you,” I say, hoping he will relent. That he will tell me it isn’t necessary, this separation.
“You would not survive it.”
I look at the city of Rowers. Not a lamp burns. Pale in the moonlight, its windows are as dark as they will be when the Persians leave it razed to the ground. I draw his arms closer around me. I can feel his heat, his breath on the nape of my neck.
“Will you come to me again?”
I am hurt by his refusal. I look up into his face, my stomach clenching. Clenching with fear of abandonment. He has a sly grin, like a fox. Teasing me. I hold him close when I realize he means to say that he will not need to come back, because he will never truly leave. Not ever. I hear the rumble in his chest, his breathing. For a moment, a rent forms in the cloth of the dream and I feel the sway of the tripod beneath me, smell brimstone in the musk of the vixen. I flee the sleeping dragon’s presence, returning to the memory of the dream.
“And my promise?”
“You made to yourself. It’s not for me to release you.”
Memory hops from stone to stone in the river of time, like a child driving goats to pasture. Seven years have passed, and I have grown. Recovered my wits, my feet, my voice. Karkus, the little balding scholar that is friend and companion to Sheep-beard, is talking. He can’t seem to stop gnawing at a question. “I don’t understand,” he says. “Why did you make her your daughter? She is a foundling. By rights, she should be your slave. She owes you your life, and the use of it.”
Sheep-beard’s voice is tense with strained patience. “She is my daughter now. That is how I wish it.”
Karkus snorts. “Fool. Daughters mean marriages, and good luck finding a dowery for her,” he laughs, an ugly thread woven into his voice, “you will have to pauper a king to get her off your hands.” I wince at the words. In my mind, I see myself ugly as his voice dresses me, uglier than my face in the brass mirror. I imagine flesh flayed from my face and I grimace madly, one eye black as night and the other dead-fish white. I am a thing. A thing of horror. I choke.
“Karkus!” Sheep-beard rarely raises his voice, and I know, this time, Karkus has gone too far.
They mutter, beyond my hearing.
“Yes, well, get out, then. Come back when you can keep a civil tongue in your head,” Sheep-beard says. He isn’t angry. Karkus is a boor, but he does not mean to hurt.
At the door, he turns. “My apologies, Melikates. I spoke badly.”
“Yes, well, get out all the same. Tonight, I will blame the wine. It is too strongly mixed. Come tomorrow, when you have slept on it. We will talk again. But not about Spazakia, or my reasons for accepting her as my daughter.”
I hear the door being dragged shut. Sheep-beard comes into the hearth-room, where I am cooking.
“I wonder the same thing,” I say, trying not to fumble the pronunciation. I feed a few more shards of wood under the pot. He remains silent for a time. I look up.
“So you heard,” he says, a glum cast to his face.
“Of course. And I do wonder.”
He stares at me a while. The melancholy is in him, as it comes when he thinks about family. He sits upon a stool by the fire.
“You know why.”
“You were only a slave a short time. You escaped. There is no shame in that.”
“To be truthful, I had more as a slave,” he says, staring down at his writhing hands.
I put my hand on his arm until he looks up at me. “I am glad to have you as my father, whatever people might think.” He needs reminding. He is too tender sometimes.
He presses the back of his hand to the edge of his eye and changes the subject. We talk for a while of our supplies and the chores ahead for me. I am walking well now, and except for a lisp on psi and chi, I am speaking as well as I did before the accident.
“You are not unlovely,” he says. The good side of my face is to him.
I turn the injured side, face him with my blind eye, the crushed cheek. “But not lovely either,” I say, and grin.
He looks down. “What do you think of marriage?”
“Come now. Be honest with your old ‘Sheep-beard’. Don’t you wish to marry?”
I sigh, and tend the flame under the pot before answering. “What sort of marriage? A local marriage? To whatever grasping farmer will take an ugly wife for my weaving, for my cooking, for the wholesome sons he might get on me in the dark? What good is that?”
He leans back, rests against the wall.
I grin, trying to lighten his mood. “Remember that Persian tradition you told me of?”
“I shouldn’t have mentioned it,” he shrugs. He is ashamed. He should not be.
“No, it made me laugh. The town where the maidens are auctioned every year, and the prettiest that command the highest prices provide dowries for the ugly ones. Maybe I need a Persian marriage. Or a pretty sister.”
I hope he has seen the humour, but when I get a chance to look up, he is pensive, not smiling. “Yes, a Persian marriage would be better for you. When Oxana and I were married, it was before the flame, the Azer.”
He rarely speaks of his wife, the Persian woman he left behind in Sardis. I still my tongue and listen.
“In her tradition, we were yoke-mates, charged both with doing works of good and raising our children in worship of the light-bringer. But here, in this rough and backward land, you would be a kind of slave. No better than a servant, I fear.”
“It sounds as if you don’t wish me to marry.”
“I wish you to be happy. That’s all I ever wanted for you.”
“I am happy here,” I say, but secretly I wish he were happy. I don’t say this. “What do you think of marriage?” I ask instead.
He thinks a while, then says, “Oxana told me, once, of a tribe of slaves in Babylon. They have scholars to guide them, not priests, and they heed few holy men. They believe that as soon as a couple lie with each other, their god descends, and a transformation comes over them where they are made one flesh, one person.”
With a shiver, I remember of the golden-eyed man in my dreams.
“And another tale I heard, when I was a slave in Salamis. An amusing tale. That every couple was once one flesh, but the gods split them all asunder, and now they wander the world, seeking their other half. When they find it, they clasp the other close, trying to make themselves one again,” he chuckles at the vulgar image.
I don’t. This time, I am the pensive one.
“Spazakia, come back!” Sheep-beard is calling, but I can’t. I saw my “brother”, from my dream, up on the ridge above the road. His golden eyes flashed, brass mirrors in the sunlight. An ivory bow slung over a broad white shoulder, now flashing over the shrubs, crowned with wild hair. I had no choice but to leap from my donkey and run after him.
Thankfully, my short chiton is of tight-woven wool, because the thorns would tear anything lighter. My sandalled feet find jutting stones almost of their own accord, and my broad straw petasos, pulled down over my bad eye, keeps the branches from scratching my face.
Sheep-beard is calling from below. I can’t help myself. He is here. After months of leaving me alone at night. His long, broad arm beckoned to me in the valley below. I couldn’t refuse, not even for Sheep-beard. Who is now swearing in Persian, which he only does when he’s really angry.
I gain the ridge, and see my “brother” disappearing around a bend in the track, behind a towering bundle of aloes. I reach the summit. It is flat stone, worn by the weather and blasted by the sun. From here, I can look out on all of the plain to the south, where dust rises from the land and the crickets chitter madly around me.
He is there, now, before me. His silhouette is against the sun, his hair splayed out around him in a mane. He roars; I leap. We meet in the air, claws clasping at fur, at the muscular ridges of his back, and we roll on the hot stone, lions in our sinuous fluid movement. We tussle, shake free, and we’re off, chasing through the thicket again. I am thrilling with the energy of my body as we pad through the brush. We are, for a while, lions who hunt by day, silent paws against the hill-tracks, a leap in to the haze of noon. The prey goes down, silenced by the regal gravitas of the queen of beasts.
I share my kills with him and, sated, we climb the cliff again to bask in the sun and to clean our forelegs. He comes alongside me and nuzzles, his hot fiery breath flinty as sun-baked stone, and turns me over. I stretch, the pleasure of the hot stone beneath me and the musk of his presence filling me with languorous joy.
He rises, in human shape again, as am I. He is kneeling in front of me now, one of his arrows in his hand. The crickets grow silent for a heartbeat. Then he thrusts the arrow deep into my navel, and the soul-shattering ecstasy pours through me like a river of molten silver, pouring through my cracks, through the fissures of the earth, sweeping me away in a storm of pleasure and pain commingled. Again and again he thrusts, and I feel myself shake apart with every sweet blow. I feel myself flow out of my shattered being, encompassing the world, drawing all of it into me, all the beasts, all the rivers, all the waters and mountains into my weal.
All of it surrounds me and is within me, and I rise on a spiral of countless whirling wings, soaring like the greatest of mountains, centre of the world, each and every animal a child at my breast, every bearing tree straining to the sun from along my flanks, corn and berry canes tangling together on my slopes. A million fragments of me clutch at my life, begging for my care and I realize he is the light that pours through me, is me as my breath and blood is me, crashing on my shores, flowing through my veins, filling me with the glory of creation, and yet I remain myself.
The raucous storm of creation fades gradually into brooding silence. All is now still, holy and pure as the smallest evening blossom. The last green blaze flashes across the heavens as the sun closes its eye to the night. Handmaids of darkness carry me to sleep, humming the song of crickets. On the breeze, jasmine.
“Thank the gods—there you are,” Sheep-beard says as he shakes me awake. I startle, look around. I am curled, leg and arm clasped under me. I am in a hollow, a shelter between a bush and a rock. I am cold and I shiver.
“I’ve been looking for you all night. What possessed you to run off like that?”
I can’t speak. My mouth is sticky. My arms are filthy, and my head spins.
“Look at you,” he says, anger and joy warring in his voice. “What kind of fit has come over you?” His dusty cheeks are marked with dry tears. Sheepishly, unsteady as a lamb, I follow. The sun is hot and my thoughts are muddy.
He leads me down the slope and back to where he tied up the mule and the donkey. They are gone. I know he is furious with me. He says nothing, and I weep, ashamed.
We find a small spring near a grey wooden herm, its face and genitals crudely carved and worn by time. He says a prayer to the god of crossroads, thanking him for my safe return. He does not mention the pack animals. I burn with guilt, but I make obeisance as well, and clean myself up as much as possible in the pooled water. Wiping the tears from my eye, I finish, with a silent prayer that I will not disappoint him anymore. It is a long road to Salamis, and it will be far harder now without the animals.
We walk on. I look around, scanning for some sign of them, but they do not show. We are almost past the hill when a braying begins. We look at each other, unsure of what we heard, then run back towards the sound. We have to stop several times, making our way through the bush. Each time the donkey brays, we alter our course to meet it. At last, we reach a clearing.
It is horrifying. There are bodies all over the beaten earth under the spreading oak. Seven men, at least. Their throats are torn out and their bellies opened. Some are only fragments. The smell is not yet foul, but it soon will be. All of them are less than a day dead. And in the middle of it all, our donkey is there, tied to a laurel, braying in hunger and thirst and fear at the smell of blood.
There is a cart there, too. A small, high cart with a flat board and a seat, just the right size for a donkey. I go to the donkey, quiet him down.
“We are lucky,” says Sheep-beard, examining something on the ground, “these men are bandits. If we had gone past here, we would have been robbed, and we might now be dead.” Or worse, I think to myself with a certainty that comes to me from someplace else.
Sheep-beard grows thoughtful, calculation creasing his face. I am not comfortable with the look he is giving me. I turn away, get the cart in order, while he bundles the bandits’ supplies onto the cart, and I get the donkey harnessed.
“What’s this?” he asks. I come alongside to see. He is holding a fingernail-sized teardrop of gold, smooth and polished. He turns it in his hand. I see it has a stem that curves up, then down in a hook. “I found it wedged in the cracks of the cart,” he said, pointing at a spot next to the seat.
“What is it?”
“An earring, I think. It must have dropped off one of these men.”
“We should bury them,” I say, imagining their unquiet spirits following us on the road, forever demanding the return of their cart. He agrees.
It takes until evening to gather the stones and to put a cairn over each of them. I sleep that night, next to the fire with Sheep-beard, after bringing the donkey in from its grazing. We don’t find the mule anywhere. Sheep-beard says it is a good trade, very good terms. Our mule for our lives and a cart. I think he says it to forget that we had no choice in the matter. I sleep a black sleep of forgetfulness out of sight of the mounds of stone.
The next morning, we are about to leave. We start on our way, but the road is bumpy. The seat, a box of wood, really, starts to shift under us, so Sheep-beard brings the cart to a stop and we examine the seat. It is loose, held on by a leather hinge. He runs his finger along the crack in the back to the point where the earring was jammed. There is a noise as a catch is loosened and the seat falls forward.
There is an image in my mind, now, that ushers me from this memory. It was a crossroad where everything changed. Sheep-beard looking at me, in wonder, his bald head shining in the golden sunlight. In his hand, a dozen golden coins, a mere handful from the cache under the seat, glitter in the sun. Stamped on each of them is an image of my lover, bow and arrow in hand, a lion pacing around his feet. Sheep-beard says they are a picture of Darius the Persian, hunting a lion, but I know better. It is an image of Apollo, hunting with a lioness. With me.
That’s when Sheep-beard told me the first words I said to him on that day, ten years earlier, when I first awoke. We changed our course from there on. We were no longer headed to Salamis. We decided to make our way to Delphi and petition the Oracle to disclose what the god’s will is in this matter.
One day, I hope to reach Salamis, but I will go there alone.
Sheep-beard is always too trusting.
I can see this as we are given our ablutions and our purification rites, each of them for a set fee. He fears to lie to the priests, and so they learn of my adoption, the road to Salamis, the dead bandits and the 500 gold coins.
Gold they have here in plenty. All of it trophies, gifts to the god in exchange for a favourable word. I say to him when we are alone, “If vultures wished to propitiate the god, this hill would be a mound of offal, and the god would value it as much as these costly trinkets,” but he makes me swear never to say such things, certainly not in the hearing of the priests.
Wanting to see a token from home, he bribes a priest to take him to see the Corinthian treasury where the hoard of his Lydian kings is now kept. Inside is a lion of gold that king Croesus gave the god, placed so that the slanting light of afternoon reflects off of it and onto the gleaming hoard that festoons the shelves around it. It is soft in shape, melted like wax. The priest says that it was once a fine statue, but was withered in a fire fifty years hence, and so is no longer kept in the temple. For another small bribe, the priest allows Sheep-beard to hold one of the goblets Croesus’ grandfather sent, first among the Lydians to propitiate the Oracle. It is so heavy, he must use both hands to hold it.
I think of the coins we found, and I imagine them hoarded up in one of these stone houses, of no use to anyone, especially not the god. I wonder how many of these hordes has dwindled, when, like Croesus, their moment of power is fled and no one watches over their braggarts’ purses. No one, save a priest who is willing to fawn for a handful of obols.
My mood burns bitter, and I taste the breath of the dragon in my throat, almost waking from this reverie. I force myself back to that Delphi, different from this one by a span of years, in the way one returns to a dream when half-awakened by a noise in the night.
I put my anger aside when we are bidden to come before the Oracle with our question. We enter, the priests opening the portals for us and the circle of light within draws us forward. Half in shadow, the glories of the world surround us; great silver statues, kraters of gold and silver, fine tapestries of silk. I feel the weight of centuries looking down on us, putting us into our place like pebbles on a great beach of time, each of us a tiny thing, but ennobled in a moment wherein the god stooped to speak to us of our troubled hearts.
I am walking toward the curtain that masks the door to the Pythia, but there is an old woman in the way, sitting on a tall three-legged stool. She is looking at Sheep-beard, who is approaching her with reverence, as if greeting an elderly relative in her private chambers. I am too excited to make small talk with such as her, so I walk past her toward the rear. She clears her throat. I look back, and she’s glaring at me. With a strident motion, she sweeps her arm around and points to a spot before her. I look to Sheep-beard, and he is also glaring, ashamed, at me.
I must have missed some part of the priest’s instructions, so I run up quickly to stand by him and meet this person.
“Is she blind?” the woman asks Sheep-beard, looking at my bad eye.
He whispers that I’m a little “cracked.” Now it’s my turn to glare at him, but I say nothing.
“Very well,” she begins perfunctorily, “Listen, then, and listen well. Melikates of Sardis, here is the verdict of the god. You are to continue to Salamis, with your adoptive daughter. You will leave a tithe of nine-tenths of the gold you have found, as it was intended for this temple in the first place. One tenth of the coin you may keep for yourself, as it is your reward for bringing it to its intended destination. In Salamis you will find it will set you up with land enough to see you to the end of your days. Your daughter is not to wed, she is to care for you in your old age. So the god has spoken.”
I am trembling. The anger that has been building in me since arriving at this gaudy sanctuary starts to escape like a pot boiling over. I look back and forth from placid, credulous Sheep-beard, who is holding his head down in thought, considering the words, to the horrible old woman with her greedy lips and her greasy, powdered face. I am about to scream an oath when my “brother” appears behind her, peeking out from the curtain. He gestures to me. I start towards him, but the woman grabs my arm, pinching the skin. I wrench her hand off, run to the curtain and pull it aside. There is a rough stone stairway down, hollowed by many years of use. A strong odour, like snakes basking in the sun, rises up from below. I am dizzy. I feel my hands trembling. Sheep-beard and the woman are pulling me away from the doorway, afraid I will fall down the stairs. My hands are trembling so hard I cannot hold them still. I look up at the woman and her face is monstrous, bloody, and hideous in the flames. I open my mouth to scream, but all that comes out of me are rhythmic lines of poetry in the Attican dialect. In my native tongue the lines are roughly as follows:
The hand that plucked the spider from the olive tree
Still bloody, holds laurel on the brazen throne, unrepentant.
See, then, the archer’s shafts pierce the land, a plague
Of stinging flies that have driven bulls mad, lions flee
Corinth, Thebes, Euboea, Aegina, Noble blood
Will stain the tyrant of two thousand arms, your doing.
Fire and blood shall be your payment for blood-gold and lies
Flame and blood until the mountain rises on the noble shoulders of Athens
In this memory, I am falling to the floor. Spazakia, the crack-pot. The old woman’s eye at the bottom of a well is all I see as the dark water engulfs me again.
When I awake in the sanctum, the horrible old woman is there. She is glaring at me again, but this time, I sense her fear. I am keen to defy her.
“What are you staring at?” I ask.
“Either I am a fool and you are just some trained monkey sent here to test me, or…”
I sense her guilt. I grab at it. “What have you done?”
She looks down at the floor. After a while, she raises her eyes, defiant. “How did you know I was an Alcmaeonid? Nobody here knows that except my brother and three of the priests.”
“I don’t know or care who or what you are. You were robbing my father. Well, my adoptive father.”
“The things you said—Even I can see they are coming true. Where did you get that verse?”
I look at her more closely. Horrible, yes. And afraid. But there is something else there. I reach beyond the cracks, and, yes, I feel a small spark of flame, burning so long in the darkness it has forgotten that it is kin to daylight. I remember years of learning how to speak again, and I understand how part of her is lost inside her own web of lies. I soften my tone. “I don’t understand it, myself. I cannot remember what I said. I remember a spider.”
“It is plain as day what you meant. My great-great grandfather was a judge of Athens. There was a rebellion that was crushed, and the traitors took sanctuary in the temple of Athena. They came to his judgement, holding a rope that led back to the temple, so as to hold claim to the sanctuary of Pallas. But the rope broke, and he ruled that not only had the goddess withdrawn her protection, but she had declared them guilty. They were executed.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The olive is sacred to Athena. The men were the spider.”
“I still don’t understand.”
She leans in close. I notice that there is sweat beading her forehead. She speaks to me with the same fear Sheep-beard had had on his face when speaking to the priests. Fear of lying to an all-seeing god. She whispers, so low only I could hear. “My grandfather paid a Metic to have the rope cut.” Then she leaned back dramatically, hands held in a oratory pose, letting her words sink in. I could see how the role of Pythia came naturally to her.
“So… it is a… curse?” I hazarded.
“Of course, a curse! We have been propitiating against this curse for generations. Generations! When the temple at Delphi burned down, we saw our opportunity. We spent all our family’s wealth rebuilding it, re-facing the cracked edifices, restoring the decorum. Meanwhile, the rebels have grown a thousandfold and gnaw at the very core of Athens. The city of Alcmaeon, of the line of Nestor. Our city. Noble as we are, we cannot oppose them.”
“No matter what you do?”
“Oh, we tried. How we tried! One matron or another from my family has sat the tripod for every one of fifty years. Our own coffers empty, we beseeched the other noble families to make offerings. Delphi grew rich with the gold of thirty cities. From Cyprus to Carthage, propitiatory gifts have poured in under our guidance, and all that wealth aimed at usurping the mob. Still the rebellion persists. We’ve been banished, returned, banished again, returned again. But the mob never changes.”
“You have been making up the prophecies… yourself? Hoarding the wealth of the sanctuary for… your family?”
The suddenness of the question surprises her into revealing the truth. She nods. Slowly. Real shame, now, in her face. Until then, I had never seen the face of the damned. It is said the great heroes have wandered into the grey lands and met those who stand forever in the twilight. But it is also said they are quiet things, resigned to their fate. This was not one of those, but one who still sought a way to the world above knowing there was no road for them, a living seed frozen in stone.
“Tell me the rest,” I say, gently, coaxing her on.
She begins, quiet at first, but soon shaking with emotion. “So we put the Spartans up to it. They are simple, brutal people. Every Spartan who came through these doors, no matter their question, I told them to free our Athens from the tyrant and his sons. They did, you know. For a while. But their duty done, they simply walked away. Left a fool in the place of the tyrant. And so it went back and forth, between the rabble and our noble families. In the end, the mob killed the nobles. Just like that.” She drew her hand across her throat. “Athens will never be noble again, and we have come to accept the rule of the 1000, the mob.”
I said nothing, so she continued. “So it has come to this: to allow our bones to be buried in our city, we… have joined the mob. My cousin is now… something. Not a tyrant. Not a noble. He’s changed everything. But he’s not in control. He gives the mob what they want, and they take it. When they turned on Corinth… Well, you said it yourself.”
My throat is dry as sand as I ask the next question. It comes out as a croak. “And Khalkis, the city of Euboea?” I see my mother running from the Lacedaemonian, rabbit before the wolf. The Alcmaeonid’s pet wolf, a daemon summoned by this woman’s lies.
She replied with weariness. “Yes. Khalkis sided with the Persians after Naxos. And with so much gold known to be in your coffers, it took little convincing. It was my cousin who ordered the hoplites to Euboea.” She looked at me a long time, then raised a hand to point at my broken face. “Did they do that to you?”
I will shed no tear for this liar. “What is in that room?”
“The room. The one below the sanctum that you didn’t want me to see.”
She sizes me up, stands. “I must ask. Are you untouched by man?”
I reply honestly. “I have lain with no mortal man any day or night of my life.”
She stands. She looks out over the sunset through the lattice windows. “Come. I will show you.”
So, from that day, Delphi had a true Oracle again.
No, that is a lie. I took the tripod for my own. The real tripod. The one of brass, not gold. The one that hangs over the dragon in the chamber below the temple of gold and marble.
The dragon awakes at my thought.
I remember that first time I reached for the dragon. It was as if I had a thousand hands, and every one of them was flayed raw. Every one of them felt the pain of the dragon. I grew dizzy. I fell into the tripod. Not a cushioned stool of gold. A fire-hardened cage suspended between three brass rods. And the dragon was there, all around me, watching me through my own dead eye. And showing me what he saw. It was then that I gave myself up. To the duty.
It was that day he abandoned me to the dragon. But I made one last effort before time fell away. I claimed a space for Sheep-beard from him. The dragon could not deny me that, at least.
Sheep-beard came back to learn of me. I sent the false Pythia out of the temple and met him in the sanctuary, seated on her stool. And I said the words. I said them. For my lover, for the god, I said them. And as I said them, the last cord that bound me to the shore of mankind broke. Or was cut. And I knew there was no returning.
Five hundred seeds of grain go with you
To the house of Atreus, there Ceres petition
To fill your pots with her many daughters
One broken pot leave here, to serve
For five hundred seeds of grain
Grain, daughters, pots, and seeds
The god grant you all and one again
He kissed me. Once. On the forehead. I could feel the shaking in his bones. I wish I could say the leaving was a tearing, a rending of my heart. But it was not. The dragon already had me. I watched Sheep-beard. Older now by far from the weight of leaving his chosen daughter. He paused at the door to the sanctuary, a sigh cracking his lips. Then he walked out and into the world. My world contracted to a small space. A space between three stones, with a crack, a tripod, and the seas of time.
But I had the promise of the god. With the gold, Sheep-beard would again return to Sardis, to his wife, Oxana. Promises in exchange for my life.
All of them lies. Deceptions from a forked tongue.
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.