Monday, July 19, 2004

The Glory of Sons -- by Elliot Bougis

Deep voices echoed faintly from the main chamber as I entered the palace. Stepanos, my father, was meeting with his advisors, Aristochanes and Mastames. A lion between two serpents.

“Good king, what have you to fear?” Aristochanes said. “We have discussed this time and again.”

“You know precisely what I have to fear: losing this kingdom because of Klopothos’s silly daydreaming,” answered my father. “I’m an old man. Death is closer everyday. I want everything in perfect order for Klopothos’s ascent to the throne.”

“But, sire, we’ve assured you, the boy will be … a puppet in our hands. Your alliances, your trade networks, this island – all will remain intact. We will advise Klopothos at every turn and he will do as we say. He has no interest in ruling. Let him daydream while we continue your plans,” Mastames said deliberately.

“A puppet, indeed! You don’t even know where he is now!” my father quipped.

I coughed to signal my approach. I heard them all whisper sharply and then Aristochanes and Mastames scuttled past me without a word or glance.
“Praxagonos,” my father beckoned me, “where have you been?”

“I have been … about,” I answered quickly. I hated hearing my father discuss his death and liked even less overhearing their plans for Klopothos.
“About? About your studies, I hope,” my father mumbled.

“I have been about … life. I have been wandering, in the western hills,” I said with a smile.

“Well, good enough. A fine day for wandering, I suppose – Apollo is in full form today!” My father’s narrow face formed a wrinkled canvas of delight. I never failed to see my brother in him when he smiled.

“Have you seen your brother?” he asked.

“No, but he said he would be in the agora today, watching the vendors.”

“Of course. Klopothos would sleep in the agora if I let him.”

I smiled. Klopothos never bought anything in the agora. He simply watched. He watched the ships dock. He watched the traders haggle. He watched the rare goods bask in the sun. Although he had, after years of watching, learned a few common phrases in Phoenician, Phrygian, and the other dialects of trade, he understood virtually none of what the traders said. Their speech was as garbled to him as their goods were luxurious. But Klopothos didn’t need, or even particularly want, to understand the men. He simply wanted to see them and to smell the foreign oceans and spices and lands wafting from their clothes and hair and jittery hands.

My father continued, “Go find him, son. I want us to go to the theater tonight. Telesthones is debuting a new play. A salty tragedy, I hear. And I want you to meet Herakoltos, from Corinth. He is looking for a tutor for his son. He is an important man in Corinth. Tutoring his son could do wonders for you, Praxagonos.”

“And bring much glory to our family name, I know,” I answered unenthusiastically. “Father, why can’t I tutor here, on Mikanos? You know Threstes needs a tutor.”

“Threstes needs a spine as well. I will never allow you to waste your talents on such a dullard, and for such a … such an ordinary family! Did not Aristotle tutor Alexander the Great?”

“But father, I want to develop the youth of our island, not of some other. Would you forget Socrates’ fatal loyalty to Athens? And what talents would I have if Mastonos, born and buried on this very island, had not tutored me?” The art of rhetoric, Mastonos’s forte, tingled in my veins like wine!

“Praxagonos! As for Socrates, he was a blasphemer, justly executed. As for Mastonos –” my father’s eyes gleamed from the same sweet wine burning in my veins – “well, why not expand his noble influence, even into Corinth? To bring glory to Corinth is to bring glory to our family name, and to bring glory to our name is to bring glory to our land.” We had reached the usual impasse. I turned to find my brother.

“I will see you at the central theater tonight, Praxagonos, at dusk. Wear your finest robe,” my father said calmly.

* * *

I ran, oblivious to the commotion along the path to the agora. Tears blurred my vision. Better arguments and unspoken pleas rattled in my head. But suddenly a hoarse shout caught my attention. A small hunched figure lurched in front of me, as if kicked forward by an unseen foot. It was Zolos.

To children, Zolos was a clown, always ready to tumble for a laugh – and a coin. To most adults, Zolos was a dirty menace. To all, he seemed as old as our town. He spoke a murky pidgin, from which neither good Greek nor his unknown mother tongue could be extracted. Encountering Zolos was as mixed an experience as his speech: part mystified dread, part novel delight. I always delighted in seeing him. He was a tattoo in my memory. Every stinging interaction with him pierced the uniqueness of my home into me. I cherished every jab of his grotesque words, his acrid odor, his piercing gaze. He was as irreplaceable a memento of my home as the western hills. I know one Zolos; I have one home.

From among his rags, Zolos grumbled, “Thou weep for you heart weep.”

“Yes,” I answered him, “I’m weeping because I’m sad.”

“Thy time iz done for wind an’ smoke,” he said.

Wind and smoke? What does he mean? I thought.

“Them journey iz gone to wind like crushed dirt under feets!”

A painted needle stung my mind. Ink spread deep within my soul.

“Thou two be one an’ then be none. Them sea an’ sword slash an’ crush,” Zolos croaked. His eyes were black beads as he perched on one foot, swaying slowly back and forth. He breathed deeply in a slow, faint melody, mumbling strange words. I had no idea what he meant, but I felt, as I feel the sun, that he was speaking an omen.

I fled in terror.

* * *

My terror, and my tears, vanished as I entered the agora. The agora demanded attention as incessantly as the traders in it demanded better deals. It, or rather, she was the heart of our town and the womb of our sensual lives. No sense was spared her seduction; she courted everyone. No one passed the agora without a tender kiss from her insatiable lust for human presence. Pungent pepper and sizzling lamb pricked the nose. Shimmering fabrics and a sea of faces dazzled the eyes. The heat from shouting voices and steaming kettles tickled the skin. The shuffling of feet and the babble of feuding vendors streamed into the ears as inevitably as every path and alley emptied into the agora.

For all its seductive delights, there was a magnetic desperation about the agora. The agora hugged, but only with one arm, and kissed, but with only one side of her face. Beneath her shimmering robes, the agora carried a dagger. Behind every meter of fabric and within every sack of grain, she wrote a twisted tale in the common language of the agora: greed. Every coin smelled faintly of blood, once spilled and now dried – or about to be spilled.

“Klopothos,” I shouted to my brother when I spotted him. He was kneeling by an old woman arguing with a swarthy merchant. He perked up and eventually saw me waving my hands.

“Come on, Klopo,” I said. He laughed as he trotted toward me. We hugged and then prepared for the theater.

* * *

The play was boring: the same tragic melodrama Aeschylus, and Sophocles before him, had tapped out. It was over before it began. Herakoltos sat at my father’s left, I at his right, and Klopothos was next to me. During the intermission, my father introduced me to Herakoltos. He was a stout, ruddy-faced man who smelled of seaweed. I said as little as possible, while my father and Herakoltos conversed in the airy tones of diplomats.

The play resumed. My father and Herakoltos whispered to each other for the rest of it. The deus ex machina swooped in, meted out the fitting punishments, set all things aright, and the audience stood to applaud. My father turned to me with a smile.

“Congratulations, Praxagonos, Herakoltos has agreed to make you his son’s royal tutor!”

It was over before it began.

* * *

My brother and I met in the agora after the play. For once, the agora was quiet. Its furtiveness seeped into our blood. Klopothos wanted the sea and I wanted to stay. But I was headed to sea the next morning and he was bound to stay, forever. A plan blossomed unexpectedly between us. We returned home, smiling, to win our dreams.

* * *

It was still dark when Lystes, the palace chef, woke me. I followed him to my father’s throne. My father hugged me and pointed one olive-colored arm at the port.

“Farewell, my son,” he said. “Herakoltos waits. You should arrive in ten or twelve days, Poseidon willing.”

I walked away silently, steadily, until I was outside in the courtyard. Then I turned on my heel and sprinted to the end of a row of nearby houses where Klopothos was waiting in a dark, heavy cloak. I hardly recognized him; Herakoltos certainly would not. We hugged warmly. He trotted to the port as I headed into the western hills. From a hillside I watched his ship debark and melt, like waxen wings rising into the sun, and sink like a small body, into the horizon. Farewell, my brother. The sea waits.

* * *

I spent the next two nights in the hills. My food soon ran out so I had to buy more, in the agora. I entered town undisguised. I made a point of greeting, loudly, those I passed. I had never really intended to hide from my father. The escape to the hills was simply a dramatic flair. Mikanos was a small island and my father was king. Hiding was not only unpleasant but also futile. My swaggering visits into town, however, barely veiled my anxiety. I knew my father would be furious.

And on my third visit, on the third day, as I was sniffing a handful of apricots, my father found me. He stormed into the agora with Mastames and Aristochanes beside him. A handful of palace guards followed them. I handed the apricots back to the vendor and turned toward my father as calmly as I could.

“You’ve lied to me! Deceived me!” my father roared. His question was pure accusation.

“I –” I began.

“And you dragged your brother into this too!” he interrupted.

“I –” I began again.

My father simply raised an arm at me and turned away. Two guards seized me. I did not resist; I was home.

Mastames and Aristochanes were whispering to my father until we reached the palace. They turned left and I was borne by strong hands to the right. I ate alone in my room that night and the royal court dined in silence – save for the whispering of Mastames and Aristochanes.

* * *

The next morning at dawn I awoke to the sound of marching feet. I peered down the hallway and saw what looked like a galley crew standing before my father. I barely caught his words: “– return with him at all costs.”

The sailors, dressed in the white tunics of diplomats, bowed and then hurried to the port. My father was not letting Klopothos go. He had undoubtedly sent one of our fastest ships, carrying only the essentials: water, food, and a few weapons. Herakoltos’s ship had a four-day lead, but was a much slower vessel, fully loaded and in no hurry. It would take at least four days for the soldiers to catch up and a few more than that to return. Nearly two weeks before we could know anything. Two weeks before my father would force me to leave Mikanos. I returned to my room but could not sleep.

By the next evening I was invited back to the royal dining table. My father nodded at me as I sat, but said nothing while we ate. Between bites, Aristochanes and Mastames whispered to my father. He only raised his eyebrows or waved his hand occasionally while eating. Suddenly he stood and left. Mastames, Aristochanes and I ate in silence. I heard the sea breeze whistle in the eastern hills and the days passed.

* * *

About a week after Klopothos left, I was at the port watching the sunrise. The clouds burned away as seagulls swirled above the amber horizon. A bird dove. Just to the right of its splash I saw a tiny dark spot on the distant water. As the sun climbed, the speck grew like a seed. The speck sprouted a hull and a mast and sails: it was the ship my father had sent after Klopothos. But its prow was snapped short. Its hull was pocked. Its sails were torn and askew – and stained with blood.

The anchor crashed into the water. The ship drifted forward until it crunched into the shoreline rocks. A rope ladder tumbled over the gunwale into the shallow waters and a single soldier, tattered and wounded, scrambled down it. With the little strength left in him, he trudged onto the rocky shore. I ran to help him.

Terrified, I asked, “What has happened?”

“We must go to the king,” he groaned.

I threw his arm around my neck and we staggered to the palace. When we reached the court, my father was eating breakfast with Mastames and Aristochanes and a few other men I did not recognize. The soldier slumped to his knees before the table and began speaking in a hoarse whisper. They had found Herakoltos’s ship by the third day. The two ships turned back to Mikanos. Apparently, however, pirates – or someone – had been trailing Herakoltos since he departed. They attacked on the third night. They easily outnumbered both the ambushed crews. It was a slaughter. The lone survivor had been knocked unconscious below deck and so escaped the pirates’ blades.

“My crew is dead,” he concluded. “Herakoltos and his crew are dead. Everyone is dead.”

“Klopothos!” I thought.

I looked in desperation at my father. He was silent. His arms hung limp at his sides. His head was facedown on his platter. I ran to him and shook his shoulders. He did not wake. His lips were purple, as if bruised. Then I felt a cool hand on my shoulder. I spun around to find Mastames and Aristochanes behind me, flanked by guards and the unknown men.

“What has –” I began.

Mastames chuckled and said, “At least he enjoyed his last meal. The poison hardly spoiled the flavor.”

Aristochanes snapped his fingers behind him and the guards seized me.

“You should have simply left with Herakoltos,” he said. “You should have obeyed your father, given him that simple joy in his last days. You would have at least been spared all this … all these … inconveniences.”

“You murdered my father,” I retorted. “You’re traitors, both of you!”

“Treacherous, ambitious, call it what you will,” he answered. “Once you had left, and once your father … died, your brother, quite understandably, would have been overcome with grief. A night or two of mourning alone in the hills is awfully dangerous. The winds are quite strong on those cliffs, you know.”

Aristochanes grabbed my chin delicately and said, “Your brother would have had a king’s burial. But now, you fool, he’s dead. Our mercenaries really did a much more … thorough job than I expected. But at least your brother got his dream, I suppose. To see the open seas!” Aristochanes concluded. He released my chin with a cruel laugh. Mastames whispered something into his ear, with a grin.

“Yes, take him to the hills,” Aristochanes ordered. “You’ve wasted enough time there before. Now you’ll waste the rest of it there.”

* * *

The guards hustled me to the eastern hills. I fought for the first few minutes, but the sword at my throat insisted I calm down. I knew what I faced. It was over before it began. Some years ago my father had built a hilltop prison for especially troublesome criminals: murderers, spies, traitors and the like. The prison was little more than a small, dry well, perhaps ten feet deep and half as wide, with a heavy bronze lid onto which more boulders were placed. No guards, no visitors, no food, no water – no hope. Small gaps under the lid gave the prisoner enough air to survive for four or five horrific days. After a couple weeks, the corpse was removed and burned on the cliffs.

The sun, usually so warm and invigorating, burned my neck and shoulders like fire. I was thirsty already. The guards lifted the lid and tossed me – tenderly, almost regretfully, it seemed – into the darkness. I scrambled to my feet and jumped for the opening. The lid scraped over the top of the pit like a rusty eclipse. Beams of sunlight splattered on the smooth, stone wall. Rocks thudded on the metal overhead and the guards left quickly.

I heard the wind moan, my stomach growl, the seagulls screech. I heard Zolos’s scratchy voice, merchants haggling, my father and brother laughing. I heard myself breathing heavily, slowly. And then I heard nothing at all.

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