Ch. 010 - You must die with grace
Gods... did this truly happen? Am I remembering right?
My mother takes me by the hand, says, “My son, the God calls.”
I am afraid of her. It is the summer I will turn ten and I will be a man and a warrior and a king, and should not be afraid of women, especially my mother, so I whisper it to no one: I am afraid of her. I am afraid of the power in her, of the way her eyes, bright blue right now, flash and shine. She bore me, so I can’t always have been afraid of her, but I do not remember when I did not.
She is garlanded as if for Dionysia, wreathed in flowers and gold, and she has drunk deeply already, I can see the God’s wildness in her eyes, dark and bright at once. “Come, my son.” She has a flask and a cup, she tells me I must pledge Him. “The God calls.” She holds the cup to my lips, the wine, unmixed and mulled strongly and dark as blood stings across my lips, sinks hot into my insides; she wraps the garland around my head, blossoms crushing, shedding scent. “You must drink till you are mad, that is the way of the God.
“My son. Son of Zeus. My all-conquering child, who came to me by a lightning bolt, by the God in a serpent’s form.” She draws me by the hand, a lamp in the other, takes me not to where there are people, but into the dark grove near the temple of Zeus. The flickering of the shadows, the earth beneath my feet, the smell of the bark and the leaves of the oak trees in the darkness, all seems distant as if I am scrying, because of the wine; only my mother’s voice seems close in my ear, low and sinuous.
“You whose destiny is to be a lightning bolt across the world, whose destiny is to be greater than anyone has known.” The cup presses my lips. “Let the madness of the God take you, my child.” She gives me wine that tastes almost more of nutmeg than of wine until I barely known up from down. She sings the hymn to the God, dances around me, her arms and garlands and gold snaking. She throws off her ground-brushing chiton, keeping only the gold and the flowers. Her skin gleams smooth and golden in the lamplight, her hips and thighs wide and powerful, her waist slender, the triangle of hair beneath her navel black like her head-hair and brows, right now. I have never seen a woman naked; all I can think, so full of wine, is how beautiful she is, and how proud I am of her. “My Zeus-begotten son.” Her arms whip like flames, her hair dances, her eyes are full of the God’s madness, and I am too drunk to be afraid any more.
She leans over me, her scent mixed with wine and nutmeg and flowers, unties the belt of my short boy’s chiton, strips me naked like a baby. “My Zeus-gotten man-child, who will be fire across the world. Zeus shall come to me again, through you.” She takes my face between her hands, kisses me on the lips, the cheeks, the forehead. She is tender, but the wine has made her hands a little rough. She kisses my eyes closed. “Let the madness take you, my son, born to greatness. Give yourself to it.” She wraps her arm around my neck, and her other hand closes around my penis, squeezes and pulls, the sensations distant in my dizziness. I look, see only gold and shadows flickering and her wild narrow-set eyes, black now. “Give yourself to the God, my son.”
She lets go and draws me down to lie beside her on the warm earth. She wraps her arms around me, swings me over as if we are wrestling. I hear myself giggle weirdly—as I do when I fight, though I have not fought yet. She holds the cup to my lips again. “Drink deep, Zeus-begotten one.” I am afraid and certain at once that I have drunk enough to be more stupid, like the men late into the night when I’m hiding under my father’s couch. I am wrapped in her golden flesh, in the fragrance of the flowers, in the gold. Then I am kneeling between her legs, her hands twined in my hair, her body writhing, the dark thatch of the sacred triangle of her hair opening to show red petals, like those of roses, but symmetrical, that glisten wet.
“You came from here, son of lightning, get of the storm.” Her breath catches, her chest heaving. She seizes two fistfuls of my hair. “For the God, my child. You may not deny him. Do rightly and you may pledge him with Olympias’s own nectar.”
I stiffen; somewhere through my wine and drug-sodden senses feeling there is some evil in this, somehow, though I cannot name it. “Do not deny the God,” she says, more roughly. She makes me take another draught, then pulls me in again, pressing my face to her dark-shining folds and petals.
Underneath the drunkenness I am frozen, as she instructs me. “Lick, my beautiful one who will be so great, lap me like a hungry dog, there.” She sings my praises as I do as she asks, the world dissolves to sensations, her hot flesh on my tongue with its earthy salt-sourness, her fingers pulling my hair, the tiny rocks beneath my elbows, her moans with the words in between, “You shall strike the world across with fire, my Zeus-begotten one, fruit of my loins and the God’s, you shall make all the world shake in fear, all will pale in glory before you...” I am distant from myself, wish I were more so. Her writhings speed, her grip tightens to painfulness, she starts making cries like she does joined with my father’s when they make love, after fighting or other times. The folds of flesh harden beneath my tongue. She thrusts me off, inspired, swings up to kneeling and drags my head between her thighs. She lowers her weight on me, stopping my nose as well as my mouth, I cannot breathe, she does not let up. Why is this familiar?
“When you die,” she says, “you must die with grace, with willingness. Would you give less to the Gods?” My lungs strain, and I feel dark fingers reaching towards me—death—and panic, distanced by what I have drunk. “I love you, my child. I have loved every sacrifice I ever made. I redden my hands with love.” Her fingers are on my neck behind her, she is feeling the blood vessels there, the ones that pump out spurts of bright blood when the victim’s throat is slashed.
Then suddenly I am watching this from above, as if I were a bird perched in the oak-branch above us. I see my tiny pale body beneath hers. I remember last time.
So I know this is real, it did happen.
“The blood of Zeus runs in your veins, and so he will come to me again...” She dedicates her pleasure formally to Him, and to Dionysos. A shudder seems to run through her body. “Come to me, Almighty One!” she cries. “I give myself to You, come to me, Wielder of Thunder, take me!” It ends in a wordless cry, her back arching. She looks straight up at me. Then her weight is off my body, air shrieks into my lungs and I am yanked back down violently beneath her again. A spurt of liquid fills my mouth. “Your pledge to the God, child, drink!” I do as she commands, take it into me, tasting and feeling even as part of me, I realize, is still watching from above, in a strange detachment like a philosopher, emotionless.
She goes boneless, her hands falling off my head, and lies still on the earth. We both lie panting. I have the strangest sensation, one I tell myself cannot be real: that, looking at the place I came from, I was looking into the very face itself of evil. Can I have come from that? I try to not to feel it, in the presence of the Gods.
She rises weakly, and takes my face between her hands. “This is a mystery, my son, yours and mine: no one is to know. Least of all anyone who might tell your father. He has no feel for things holy, he would not understand; he might take it as your cuckolding him.”
I freeze with terror beyond terror, so bad the effects of the wine and the drug are suddenly gone. I am certain, now, of what I suspected: I have done a terrible evil. More terrible than any other evil done in the name of Dionysos; I have betrayed my father, the King, which is treason. I should die. Whatever she says, that it was sacred, that I am an initiate, now, in the service of the God, I feel filled with poison, I feel I am poison, and can never be cleansed, by the will of any God.
She struggles up, staggers away wildly, laughing, singing a hymn to Father Zeus. I lie alone in the dark, in the grove.
Somehow I am suddenly threefold, there are three Alexandroi, all the same but different, within me. We look identical, like triplets, but our three minds are on different things, different tasks, like officers assigned to different duties.
One of us moves our body’s hands to drag our chiton back on. To the altar, another of us whispers. Our body staggers there, falls to kneeling before it. We have nothing to offer. Powerless and bereft without parents, like all children, we raise hands to the sky anyway, cry out, “Father Zeus!” In panic; none of us knows what to pray for. She dedicated this thing she did to Him as well, but we feel He will hear us, we who, threefold, are His son. We know only what the prayer is as it comes out. “Please make this never have happened!”
There are some wishes even the Gods cannot grant. To undo the mistake in planning a battle, to raise the dead, to turn back time... it is a child’s prayer, asking the impossible. We sense Him looking sadly down at us, His child, from His throne on Olympus, knowing that He must deny that request, desperate and just as it is. But we sense another thought come into His divine mind, and His ancient veined hand loosen a thunderbolt, a smaller one, in His quiver. He cannot make this never have happened; but He can do the next best thing.
Nausea comes up so fast we cannot get out of the temple in time, we puke all over the marble floor. Red liquid spews out until our stomach is empty and even then it heaves dry many more times. That finishes the body’s strength so completely it cannot even crawl away, and the priests find it lying in the mess. They hand it off to the Palace servants whom, no doubt, Olympias has told to come and get her son. (What did she tell them? “He got carried away by the God’s madness, drank too much wine.” Did my name as a lush start then?)
That night He shoots that small bolt into the sleeping body’s head, a divine instant of shock that wipes away the memory, so that when I wake up in the morning, it is as if it had not happened. I am one rather than three again, the splitting of my mind no longer needed to keep me sane; the memory is gone from my conscious mind as if it never existed, and will stay so for the rest of this life, until now as I lie here growing distant enough from my dying flesh again that I can bear remembering.