by Andrew Gretes
I must have been six at the time. Lured by the zigzags of a stray dog, I found myself snaking down the alleys of our neighborhood, stepping over the familiar debris: shards of pottery, scraps of linen, pools of vomit, lumps of men. The last, in particular, I was forbidden from touching. Death—Mother warned—rubbed on, never off. The dog halted at an old round jar, a barrel used for storing grain. There, it barked, whined. In response, the barrel wept, wailed—like a drum which had been beaten to the point of tears. Standing on my toes, I pushed the ceramic lid aside and discovered an infant: a baby squirming in a bed of straw, mummified from the neck down, its body swaddled in white, its face flushed, its bandages soiled, its eyes shut tight and hidden, equally mistrustful of the dark and the light.
I rushed home to tell my older brother about the child, but when Glaucon learned that I had wandered off alone, he stopped listening to what I was saying and began beating Ajax instead, who was the slave responsible for my whereabouts. Afterwards, Glaucon followed me to the child, forcing me to promise as we walked that I would touch nothing—not bodies, not beggars, not mutts, and especially not exposed infants. My brother’s face, it must have been smooth and unbearded at the time. I never remember it that way. He was always so much older in my mind. The year before our father and sister died of the plague, Glaucon was thirteen years old and could hold his breath underwater longer than any boy in our tribe. Then, in the span of one year, he aged a decade and could hold his joy for eternity.
As we traced through the alleys, I must have asked my brother about the plague. I was always asking him about the plague. I must have asked what it was that caused people to become so weak and hoarse, to cough up blood and bile, to burn with such fevers as to strip naked in the streets and dive into the wells of the city. He must have answered as he always did: begrudgingly. Perhaps he traced the origins of the plague back to the arrows of Apollo...
PLATO: But isn’t Apollo a god?
GLAUCON: Of course he’s a god.
PLATO: Then why does he need target practice?
GLAUCON: He doesn’t—he’s just bored.
PLATO: So the plague is a game?
GLAUCON: Everything’s a game to the gods.
PLATO: Even shooting babies?
GLAUCON: Everything’s a baby to the gods.
The dog was still there, whining, rotating its head from the barrel to the trash on the street. Glaucon released my hand. He leaned over and peered inside, as if probing into one of our city’s spoiled wells.
Perhaps you opened your eyes at that moment. I’ve always imagined it that way. Deposited inside yet another womb, you opened your eyes and used the one weapon at your disposal capable of disarming such a shrewd and skeptical midwife. You smiled. Smiled the way the little tyrant of Corinth smiled at his would-be murderers. You know the legend—the one where the ten elders of Corinth consulted the oracle and learned that a certain child would be their city’s undoing, and so agreed that the first to lay their hands on the future tyrant was to dash his brains out immediately. But the Fates had another plan: one in which the infant would grin at the exact moment of his inspection and so melt the resolve of his would-be murderers, forcing each of the elders to pass the burden on to their fellow conspirators, until all ten assassins had cradled the seed of their city’s destruction, tickled its tiny belly, cooed into its tiny ears, and whispered sweet prayers of longevity...
PLATO: Can we keep it?
PLATO: We can’t just leave it—
GLAUCON: We didn’t leave it.
PLATO: So we can keep it?
GLAUCON: You can’t leave what’s already been left.
But the guilt—be it your smile or my whining or the dog’s interminable barking—wormed its way into Glaucon’s heart. By the time we returned home, I had gained permission to take our slaves, Odessa and Ajax, and bring you clean bandages, fresh milk, and even divine protection: a sprig of laurel to ward off the arrows of Apollo, whose beloved was transformed into a laurel tree.
It became our ritual. Twice a day, we would visit you in your barrel. Odessa, her skin bronze and weathered, a black sash knotted around her silver hair, her forehead a field of furrows which had grown, she assured me, to remind her of her family’s farm in Illyria, would rock you in her arms and watch as you groped for your clay feeding bottle and gnawed on its leather nipple. Ajax, his hulking frame slouched, his bald head shielded by a round felt hat, his nose hooked and pitted, would stand guard and gaze into the distance, north, to Macedonia, where his children had once lived. And I would just stand there. Asking questions. Inspecting your barrel. Examining Odessa. Eyes darting from cradle to crone...
PLATO: Do you think he has a name?
PLATO: Do you think he’ll make it through the winter?
PLATO: Do you think a satyr will come overnight, snatch him up, and carry him away to the mountains?
PLATO: Do you think he has a mother?
PLATO: Do you think she’ll ever come back?
PLATO: Do you think she’ll take him up in her arms and squeeze him tight?
PLATO: Or set him down on the ground and finish the job?
But there were others who had also taken an interest in you. No one in the neighborhood knew how or why, but a mass of mutts had congregated around your barrel. All attempts at dispersing the pack were met with snarls, snapping. It was as if every stray dog in Attica had caught wind of your plight and had come to comfort you with their presence, their panting. There, they stood guard, protecting you against any opportune slave-traders who might try to harvest you out of your barrel and see what price you’d fetch at the port of Pireaus. The dogs, they tolerated us. We dealt with them the way the dead deal with the three-headed hound of the underworld. Bread, cheese, cabbage, onions. Mouths slopping up their tribute, they’d part at our coming and allow us to give you that necessary evil: a daily dose of human contact. And just as fathers traditionally take up their sons and circle the hearth of their homes in order to signify a new ring, a new link in their family’s chain, so these vagrant mutts did likewise, tracing the circumference of your barrel, licking its ribs, its cracks, its crevices, claiming you as their own—as one more lump in the litter of the lost.
And you didn’t die. You didn’t die. Everyone was so convinced—Glaucon most of all—that you would stop being so stubborn and let fate run its course around your soft little neck. The only mystery, they thought, was how you would die. Would it be from malnutrition? Or from the sweltering heat of the Athenian summer. Or the plague. Or a thief who had come to snatch the little toy Trojan Horse I had given you as a present. Or would it end up being your guardians after all—the mutts who had doubtless learned from their masters what to do with the sheep when they’re sufficiently fed and fattened.
By the end of the year, I gained permission to name you…
PLATO: You promised.
GLAUCON: Name it.
When you grew old enough to scamper about and explore the alley, Ajax turned your barrel on its side. You kept it like that, horizontal. Later, you enjoyed commenting that it resembled the den of an urban lion. It was there that I would tell you stories. About the gods. About Greece. About us. About Athens. I remember you getting so anxious when I told you the tale of how Hermes was born, of how he wriggled loose of his swaddling rags and leapt out of his cradle. Of how he tricked a poor little turtle into entering his cave, assuring the animal that it wasn’t safe outside and that it was most fortunate that he, Hermes, had found the turtle before nightfall. Of how the turtle, relieved to have finally found one caring soul in this world of wolves and eagles, crept into the boy’s cave, only to be dashed against the rocks and disemboweled. Of how the turtle’s shell was put to good use: strung with the guts of a goat and plucked now and again to amuse the gods...
DIOGENES: But why didn’t Hermes just, just—
PLATO: Just what?
DIOGENES: Ask the turtle to sing?
PLATO: (laughs) Gods don’t ask.
But even then, when you were still quite young, you distrusted the heroes of old. Achilles, in your opinion, was inferior to his horses. You loved the scene when his stallions spoke, putting the sulking soldier in his place, reminding Achilles that even he had an urn to fill. As for Odysseus, you wept not for his cannibalized companions or his besieged household or his perils at sea; instead, you wept for his dog, who died wagging its tail, blind and flea-ridden, recognizing its master’s scent after twenty years of absence, loyal to the end.
As for Athens’ own heroes, the ten figures who had given their names to our tribes, you were indifferent. Sometimes I wondered if you even knew their names. Having never been adopted into a citizen’s household, you had no official tribe of your own. You were neither a citizen nor even a “metic”—one of our legalized foreigners. What meaning could the marble busts of the tribal heroes in the marketplace have for you? Other than an arbitrary source of shade. Besides, you had formed your own personal tribe with your own personal patron hero. What difference then did it make if all of Attica was oblivious to such a bond because it wasn’t painted in garish colors and prostituted in the marketplace for the whole world to see? As for the leader of your tribe, you had adopted one of the city’s earliest, most mysterious heroes: a man named Erichthonius. He was a “daemon,” they say—one of those creatures grazed by the gods. His right foot was twisted, malformed, but his mind was like a loom which could weave law and order out of the most frayed of states. He was the son of a rape. Hephaestus, the smith of the gods, had lusted after the goddess of wisdom, Athena. Disgusted, Athena had rejected Hephaestus’ advances, but not without first producing an unwanted offspring. Ripping her own dress, the goddess wiped her thigh clean and stashed the rag in a small wooden chest, which she then hurled from Olympus to the Acropolis. Inscribed on the chest was a warning to all those who encountered it: “Open and be opened: an eye for an eye.” But the daughters of the king of Athens, allured by the mystery of the divine windfall, ignored the inscription and pried the box open. There, they discovered an infant inside: little Erichthonius, wrapped in a torn blanket, crying and waving his arms in the air. The sight drove the women mad, for their mind’s eyes had been opened to the abortions of the gods. One by one, they leapt off the Acropolis and plummeted to their deaths...
DIOGENES: And will that happen to you?
PLATO: Will what happen to me?
DIOGENES: What happened to the princesses.
PLATO: ...falling off a cliff?
PLATO: And why in Zeus would that happen to me?
DIOGENES: You opened it.
DIOGENES: My box.
We saw our first Spartans together. Shackled, the captives were being marched through the streets, paraded about the city like exotic beasts. Their scarlet tunics were torn. Their bodies—scarred, skeletal. The Spartan unit had been trapped for two months on the island of Sphacteria, harassed by arrows and undone by their own negligence: one of their campfires had raged out of control and torched the vegetation of the island, leaving the survivors with no food to forage and no cover to conceal themselves. Like everyone else in Athens, we were eager to catch a glimpse of the enemy—to put a face to the authors of our misery. I remember you were holding a ball at the time, one of those pig bladders you used to heat up and inflate in the ashes of funeral pyres until the muscle had become taut and spherical. A handful of your dogs were busy licking your elbows, nipping at the ball, trailing you like a tail...
DIOGENES: Where are their horns?
DIOGENES: And hooves and claws?
PLATO: They’re Spartans, not centaurs.
DIOGENES: I know. I just thought they’d be more...monstrous.
PLATO: And the fact that these men have spent the last 25 years ravaging our countryside, burning our crops, desecrating our cemeteries—
DIOGENES: Without all that.
PLATO: Without all what?
As for the war itself, it was impossible to pin down the precise “cause." It was like asking where a circle began. The war with Sparta—the war which would last for the next 30 years and end in the execution of the best and most noble of us—it was fought over border disputes. It was fought over colony trading rights. It was fought over the technicalities of treaties. It was fought over pride, envy, fear, boredom. Everyone knew a cause for the war; no one knew the cause. I remember asking Glaucon once about the war’s origin. At first, he just sneered. But after some prodding, he answered with an anecdote. We were always telling anecdotes. It was how our generation communicated. Born into war and cooped up behind our city’s walls, our knowledge was vicarious. The islands of the east were an anecdote. The lakes of the west—an anecdote. Health—an anecdote. Peace—an anecdote.
Glaucon told a story about Hercules and the seashore... One morning, he said, Hercules awoke and saw the world with new eyes: the gardener’s eyes. Hercules didn’t see his children anymore. He saw seedlings instead. And so, wishing to help his precious seedlings to grow, Hercules leaned down and tugged at their tiny stems. He yanked. He stretched. He plucked. Sweat trickling down his brow, hands smeared in soil, Hercules collapsed into his bed, exhausted from all his fruitful labor. But the next morning, his vision returned. He saw what he had done: how he had dismembered his own children. Disgusted, Hercules tore down his home, burned it to the ground, and wandered off to the seashore. There, he waited for a demigod named Proteus to surface, a creature known to inhabit the white surf of the wine-colored waves. It was said that if one could catch Proteus and hold on tight, the demigod was bound by an eternal oath to answer any question which one posed him. And so, tears blinding his eyes, salt air stinging his cheeks, Hercules waited on the beach. Waited to ask Proteus why it was that men go mad. Upon sighting his target, he tossed out his net, reeled it in, and threw his captive onto the sand, taking hold of the creature with both hands. Proteus transformed into a boar. Hercules held on. Proteus transformed into an eel. Hercules held on. Proteus transformed into a gnat, a crab, a dolphin—
PLATO: But what was the answer? Did Hercules ever get his answer?
GLAUCON: I was getting there—
PLATO: And now you’re there...
GLAUCON: It’s always the same answer.
PLATO: You don’t remember the answer, do you?
GLAUCON: Of course I do.
PLATO: Then what was it?
GLAUCON: Whatever you can hold onto. That’s what all answers are. They’re what remains in the net.
The cause of the war with Sparta—according to Glaucon—was whatever reason which refused to slip through your fingers. Whatever satiated and shut you up.
In anticipation of the conflict to come, we mounted fortifications five miles long. Walls sprawling from Athens to the port city of Piraeus. Having surrendered the countryside to the Spartans and their allies, we staked everything—empire and starvation—on the hulls of our fleet. Refugees flooded in by the thousands, families arriving at every gate, lugging with them their most prized possessions: stools, looms, mules, children, doorframes. Farmers sought out new plots within the urban voids and vacancies. Some chose to squat along the walled corridors that now connected Athens to the sea. There, they propped their backs against the seemingly endless rows of limestone, adding flesh—living inches—to the width of the walls. Others grafted themselves into the marketplace, settling down like stumps. Surrounded by vendors and court trials, they begged for alms.
But something else entered the city. One last refugee. The plague. At first, you didn’t believe in it. You didn’t believe in the plague. You called it a ghost story. A fib. A fable. I’d sit you down. I’d describe its symptoms...
Of how the victims felt a boiling in their brains.
Of how the fever dyed their eyes red.
“Stop making things up—”
Of how they bled internally.
And developed a cough: a dry retching.
You’d stand up, storm off.
And a heaviness of the chest.
Go and hide in your barrel.
As if the disease was oozing down its victims bodies.
Your dogs would begin to growl.
Until the dam broke. The soul broke. And all the liquid that kept the victims afloat ejected out as sweat, puss, drool, blood, diarrhea—
Until you’d crawl out, cry.
You had no father who could die of the plague. No sister. Not even a memory of its smell, its panic. The plague’s last outbreak was the year I found you in your barrel. Envious, I dug up the past and threw you into its ditch. It’s what we do, I said to myself. It’s what older brothers do. It’s what Glaucon did.
As for the war, it plodded on. The Spartans marched north each spring, casually razing our countryside. We remained within our city walls, spectators critiquing the plot of our own tragedy. Our solace was the sea. There, we could avert our gaze and watch our ships sail south, unopposed, as they plundered the coastline of the Peloponnese. And so on it went. Year after year. Our navy—undefeated. Their army—undefeated. “A war of deployments,” our comedians quipped.
Then I found you sitting by the docks, staring into the sea. Sun-burnt, scrawny, you must have been eleven or twelve. A young woman was kneeling nearby on the rocks, cutting open a cuttlefish and inspecting its innards. You turned to me and asked if I remembered a story I had told you once about a tyrant and a pharaoh. I nodded yes. Not that it mattered. You had every intention of retelling the tale… Of how the pharaoh, alarmed by his friend’s good fortune, wrote a letter to the tyrant, warning him that he was in danger of angering the gods with his incessant good fortune, and that one more windfall would surely prove fatal. The pharaoh suggested to the tyrant that the only way to prevent such a disaster was to throw away his most prized possession. The tyrant agreed and immediately sailed out to sea, throwing overboard his great-grandfather’s golden ring. He lamented at first, but then he felt relieved and sat down that night to a meal of a freshly caught fish. Cutting open his dinner, the tyrant discovered—to his amazement—his great grandfather’s golden ring lodged within the entrails. Delighted, he wrote a letter to his friend, informing him of the miracle. The pharaoh wrote back: “You’re cursed. Goodbye old friend.” That night, the tyrant fell ill, died.
PLATO: “Polycrates.” That’s his name. The tyrant’s name.
DIOGENES: I think I’m the ring.
PLATO: You think you’re what?
DIOGENES: I think Athena’s my mother, and that she wanted to save us, save Athens, so she threw me away in hopes of satisfying the gods. But then I came back and screwed everything up. And now we’re cursed.
PLATO: Is that right? A son of Athena? All this time and you never told me—
DIOGENES: We’re cursed.
That night, we watched a ship with a black sail approach the docks. We watched it relay the news of how the Spartans had sunk our entire fleet. We watched as the news blazed through the city, sparing no one. Mothers and sons and fathers and daughters. All exhaling their hope like smoke. The Spartans were on their way. They would be in Athens in a matter of days.
It was too late. You were right. We had no time to toss you back into the sea.
Andrew Gretes is the author of the novel, How to Dispose of Dead Elephants (Sandstone Press 2014). His fiction has appeared in such publications as Witness and The Pinch. He is currently a doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi. His website is: http://andrewgretes.com/