The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Installment #4: Sighting

Kianis and Leta were grating on me. I had never before grown tired of their incessant laughing and boundless energy, but today they suddenly seemed ridiculous, ignorant, and childish. I wanted them to understand the old man’s song, but whenever I broached the subject they curled up their lips in disdain and rolled their eyes. “Why do you want to talk about that lame, ugly old man again? His song didn’t even make any sense,” said Leta.

“Of course it made sense,” I replied cheerfully, trying to keep the mood light. “It was about two lovers who were separated by fate and begged the gods for help, only to have their pleas ignored.”

“They didn’t ask the gods, silly,” said Kianis. “Remember? They asked the stars! How foolish! If they had asked the gods, Aphrodite and Athena would have helped them.”

“How can you be certain?” I asked. Kianis and Leta looked at me with a mixture of shock, confusion, and disgust.

“What are you talking about, Persephone? Of course the gods would have helped them! They were beautiful, noble youths. In the stories, the gods always help beautiful, noble youths. Especially if they’re in love,” retorted Leta.

“In the stories we know,” I said quietly.

“What?” asked Leta, confused and wary of what I would say.

“There are many more humans than there are tales… at least, the tales we’ve heard. What if there are other stories, stories in which lovers do not reunite, and the gods don’t intervene?” I knew the words were a mistake as soon as they left my lips. Kianis and Leta’s eyes darkened; they grew angry.

“Persephone, that is what the gods do,” said Leta, “they intervene to help the humans. Everyone knows that.”

“I’m just saying that maybe they don’t help them all. After all, if the gods helped all the humans, there would be no suffering or disease or war, would there?”

“No war? Persephone, what are you saying? Why would there not be war? Great Athena, most wise, chaste, and honorable goddess, is the greatest warrior! She is the mistress of the battlefield! Thousands of men cry out for her blessing! She brings glory to her servants!”

“Do not both sides of a battle, unless we fight foreigners, cry out to Athena? And one side must lose. The prayers of half her subjects, then, must go unheard.”

“Of course one side must lose…” said Kianis, failing to follow me, “…otherwise there is no victor. The men with the truest hearts and the strongest arms win the battle, that is why Athena favors them.”

“So those with weak arms are not worthy of favor? Even those with weak arms may have a mother or lover who cares for them. Do they not deserve her blessing?” I was nearly trembling now, suddenly angry at everything, though I could not understand why.

“Persephone,” said Leta, biting off her words, “What you are saying is against the gods. No war? It is blasphemy! You cannot question why the gods favor one and not another, that is decided through their wisdom. Do you wish to be Great Persephone, Queen of the Gods, Ruler of the Humans, Diviner of the Natural Order? Do you think you could run the world better than Almighty Zeus? If so, perhaps we should all go to Mount Olympus and inform him that his successor has emerged from betwixt the daisies!”

I had never heard Leta speak so forcefully before. Her eyes narrowed and she rose up out of the shallow creek in which she had been sitting, her posture firm and dignified. She gathered the upper half of her wet robe, which she had loosened, and replaced it over her breast, fastening it decisively over her left shoulder. “If the childhood teachings were not adequate to enable you to understand the workings of the world and the greatness of the gods, take your questions to your mother. I cannot untangle your ignorant blasphemies,” she said.

I remained sitting in the cold, clear water, my mouth hanging open in shock, as she turned and walked out of the creek, her back to me. Kianis at first seemed uncertain about what to do, but when she looked at me there was fear, confusion, and disappointment in her eyes. She cast me a pitying smile and fastened her robe as well, then rose and turned to follow Leta. As I had wished to be, I was now alone. The cold water flowed through my hands and away from me, impossible to grasp.

I sat there for a long time, staring at nothing, trying to understand what had just happened. My toes went numb from the cold, then my feet, then my legs, but I did not notice. I sat gazing at the shafts at sunlight that broke through the canopy of green leaves overhanging the creek. Dust, seeds, particles of leaves, and tiny flying creatures floated in and out of the light, catching a glint here and there which reflected back at me in tiny flashes. I sat in the cold water until my hands and feet shriveled, and the creatures of the stream became accustomed to me and regarded me as a log or rock. Tiny frogs sunned themselves on my knees, snails attached themselves to my ankles, dragonflies coupled on my shoulder. I made no movement to shoo them away; I was barely aware that they were there. I was inside my mind, reliving my argument with Leta and Kianis, amazed at myself. I had not even known I had such thoughts until I spoke them aloud.

I was distraught. Were my friends truly angry with me? They certainly seemed to be, especially Leta. I had never quarreled with anyone before; quarreling was something humans did, though, now that I thought of it, the tales were full of the gods quarrelling amongst themselves over powers, and rights, and humans. I had never realized before how selfish the gods could be, and how they used the humans as their pawns.

I was frightened. Had I really blasphemed the gods to my friends? And now, my thoughts were becoming more and more blasphemous by the moment. I realized that I thought they were wrong, with their quarrels and their selfish actions. I realized that I did not think it right that they should decide whom to favor and whom not to favor on the basis of beauty or strength. Perhaps I did not think it fair that they favored anyone. Perhaps I thought that all people should be able to live in peace and comfort.

I swallowed in fear and realized my throat and tongue were dry; I had been sitting for hours with my mouth hanging open. I realized now that I had never liked the stories about Zeus raping young human maidens, even though the other gods would guffaw and slap their knees when he told of his exploits at our great feasts on the Mount. I thought it cruel that Prometheus was condemned to have his liver eaten daily simply because he took pity upon the poor, shivering humans. I, Persephone, Daughter of Demeter and Goddess of the Flowers, thought the gods were wrong.

I broke out into a sweat, though by now I was quite cold. The light had slowly dimmed as I came to my awful realization, and the sun was gone now. Shafts of moonlight now filtered through the leaves, replacing the stronger beams of sunlight and casting a soothing spectral gleam on the surface of the gently rippling water. I bent over slowly, my first movement in hours, lowering my lips to the surface of the water. My parched mouth seemed to come alive again as the water passed through my lips, and I bent there for several minutes sucking life back into myself, remembering my thirst.

When I rose I looked around myself. All was beautiful, serene. I listened. There were flying creatures buzzing through the trees and over the stream, filling the damp warm air with their chorus. Small animals picked through the undergrowth on the far side of the stream, a few birds glided overhead. There was a somewhat larger beast about a millos away, but no humans, immortals, or even nymphs for at least five millos in each direction. I was somewhat reassured by my solitude. No one was coming for me, no one knew my thoughts. I closed my eyes and tilted my face up into the moonlight, feeling a slight dusting of warmth on my skin from its pale light.

It was at this moment, he later told me, that he first saw me. I had not heard him, for he was taking care to cloak his presence, but had my eyes been open I would have seen him wander silently down to the edge of the stream, desiring to bathe in a life-giving stream unlike the ones he had below. As he bent down to loosen his sandal, he caught a glow out of the corner of his eye, and turned to see me on his right, so close, only a few arms’ lengths away. He said that I took his breath away, both from surprise and awe. He hadn’t sensed me there because, like me, he had been lost in his thoughts, and overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells of this world. The meadow in which our barrels sat would have seemed at this hour to be the very picture of peace and rest to any human traveler, but to him is was a flurry of activity. As he crossed it on his way to the stream, he could hear all the tiny things moving beneath the grass, though they grew still when he passed over them, and only resumed their chatter once he had moved on. He heard each leaf rustle slightly at the faintest breeze, saw each bit of chaff vibrate with the motions of the swaying stalks of grass.

He said that when he saw me there, he gasped, frozen in his bent position, his index finger caught beneath one of the leather thongs of his sandal. He said that I was bathed in light; my alabaster skin appeared not to simply reflect the moonlight, but to radiate it. My golden curls, which took on a faded, slightly blue hue in the phosphorescent reflections, fell over my bare shoulders and between my still-exposed breasts. My full, pink lips were slightly parted as I took in deep breaths of the cool night air, trying to calm myself, my bosom rising and falling in rhythm. My eyelashes rested so calmly on my cheeks that he would never have guessed the turmoil within me. He said my cheeks had roses in them, though I still do not believe him; I imagine that in my distress, and after having sat for hours in cold water, I must have been pale and clammy. He still claims that I was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and that I terrified him.

He held his breath, understanding immediately that he was committing a crime, not daring to move but knowing he must. He couldn’t tear his eyes away, though he grew more appalled at himself with every moment they lingered on me.

I began to sense a presence, and eyes upon me. I snapped my eyes open and yanked my wet robe up over my breast, my heart beating wildly as I searched and listened feverishly. By then he was gone, bolted silently away with the speed of a god and had disappeared. I saw nothing, heard nothing, and yet was certain that someone had been watching me. I realized in terror that the gods knew of my blasphemy, and had sent spies, or worse, had looked down upon me from the heavens. I began to shake violently and my stomach churned as I stood and wrapped my robe around me, straightening the wet material as well as I could and fastening it at my shoulder. I had to stop several times and clench my teeth against the bile rising in my throat, propelled upwards by my hysteria.

I picked my way slowly up out of the stream and through the trees that guarded its edge, uncertain where to go. Did my mother know? Would she side with me, or be disgusted and ashamed? She had always been compassionate towards all the humans; she criticized Zeus under her breath and petitioned him to bless them more generously. I suddenly understood that my ideas about the humans had come from her. She would stand with me, she would protect me. I stood a little straighter and began to make my way home.


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