Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ode to Belladonna, Chapter Seven

Before the shock of Theodora’s departure and my dismissal from The Academy had fully worn off, sometime in early November of 522 A.D. I left for Athens. It was late in the year to sail yet I had no one and nothing to fall back on in Alexandria except my father’s friend Petras, if he would have me, and I would rather have died than go back to him. So I threw caution to the winds and cast myself upon the whims of Neptune. I wish the reader could have seen me then to form their own conclusions. In hindsight I was a rather haphazard mixture of things – independent and adaptable, having a passion for living and an intelligence that impressed even a few of the prominent thinkers of our age. (I don’t say this out of pride, being fully aware that these qualities were not of my own making, and so reflected nothing upon me at all, neither for the positive or the negative. It seems we're all inclined to take credit for aspects of ourselves not of our own creation. Whether we are handsome or ugly, rich or poor, brilliant or dimwitted; these things have little to do with us but only the hand of fortune. All we can do is to either make the most of them or fail to do so.)
Another of the gifts I was simply handed by fate was a seemingly indestructible constitution, enabling me to endure great hardships and deprivation with a minimal degree of suffering, but in the very areas where I might have actively forged a nature to be proud of, I found myself simply beset by deplorable failings!
Not only was I was prone to sensuality, but to black fits of melancholy. There were times a yawning chasm open before me simply contemplating existence, and at such times I'd become petrified with fear for no other reason whatsoever. Also, I sensed that all my life I had been running from something. I didn’t know what yet feared if I ever stopped that something, whatever it was might be gaining on me. So although I was gifted in some ways, I also had my share of faults. Looking back again I realize my youth ended the day I set sail from Alexandria. The reason was that at that time I was quickly caught up in events that propelled me forward for years without rest, and when they were over I had far more than an ordinary lifetime's experience behind me.

That morning I set out was cool and dry with a stiff north wind that blew high cresting waves in from sea. As I remember it Alexandria had never looked so ... what is the word ... so jubilant as on that autumn day, yet the dark appearance of the sea and the strong headwind blowing into the harbor were disquieting. Before embarking, out of gratitude, I paid my final respects to my father’s associate Petras, and I gave him 50 gold pieces – far more than the negligible trouble he took in teaching me the art of swindling passersby was worth The result was that he actually smiled; the first time I had ever seen him do so, and I consequently made the unpleasant discovery that he had an almost as much gold in his teeth as the 50 pieces I'd given him. If you've never seen a dissolute old rogue like Petras bearing a savage, gold-toothed, grin of avarice I can tell you it's a vision to haunt your dreams.
Leaving him then to his jubilation I walked to the harbor. The trees along the way, the walkways, the streets were filled with countless lemons scattered everywhere, filling the blustery air with a sharp, fresh, scent. Thousands of parrots had entered the city to feed on them making a deafening cacophony, so that the morning was a panorama of green birds, green lemon leaves, and yellow lemons. The buildings glowed in the dazzling salt spray and morning light while prismatic reflections danced in the air. The beauty of it made me heartsick then to leave that city I loved.
Ammonius had hired a ship for Athens (not simply for us but for other business as well) and it lay at anchor in the harbor. Lowering a boat some of the crew rowed it ashore and I climbed into it with my sack of things. The ship's polished bronze fittings gleamed as I came alongside. Its planking was new and strong below a fine, new, indigo sail, and all of it made a good impression on me. However I had never trusted the flat-bottomed Egyptian ships one saw everywhere in Alexandria. They were good enough for skirting the coastline or plying the Nile. When it comes to the open sea though give me at least a Greek or Roman trireme! These damned Egyptian things hadn’t changed in millennia and in open water they handled like glorified barges, which essentially they were, and so I felt more of the misgiving I'd felt earlier due to the weather, and considered paying my own passage later on. Meeting the captain he struck me as a capable old sailor with a healthy, seasoned crew, and he told me he had made the crossing over a dozen times. Along with the fine condition of the ship my apprehension was eased somewhat.
I had another worries as well, these concerning the gold I was carrying. Never having more than a little money myself I didn't have the craftiness of men like my father and Petras. Nor did I relish earning the reputation of a careless fool who loses his money to the nearest sneak-thief, so I contrived a waist belt to hold my remaining gold – by far the most money I had ever had. Going out to sea with the belt on however gave me the alarming sensation of donning a heavy anchor round my waist.

The crew numbered about thirty with a heavy supply of barley in the hold. Once aboard I found a place to sit for awhile under the mainmast, enjoying the wind and the fine mist erupting from the prow as our oars cut into the oncoming swells. A flock of gulls followed us out of the harbor and gradually replaced the cacophony of the parrots with their own distinct piercing shrieks. My last sight of Alexandria was of the giant lighthouse on Pharos receding slowly into the distance, and then the city that I loved disappeared completely below the horizon.
Beside me under the mainsail sat a giant sailor of Teutonic origin wearing a surprisingly fine maroon colored silk tunic. Over a mane of tawny hair frizzled by the elements he wore a red cotton turban that was completely incongruous.
“This is a heavy headwind.” I said to him. “Do you think it'll be a rough voyage?”
He glanced at me skeptically, then turned back to the onrushing swells and merely grunted.
“Damn them all,” he said after a few minutes, again seemingly apropos of nothing.
“I beg your pardon?” I said.
“The voyages . . .”
“That bad?”
“Fuck all.” he said. Then he produced a great hunk of smoked herring from his knapsack which he began to chew on, and somehow while he was eating he began whistling a startlingly clear and emotional melody. It was really quite beautiful. I tell you, as a whistler that man had no equal!
“Been sailing long?” I asked when he had finally finished that tremendous portion of smoked fish.
“What... this?”
That was all he said and he resumed his whistling. Damn him, I didn’t know what to make of him at all!
“Time to cram the fuck-all anchor!” he said abruptly after another long silence. Shuffling away in that strange gait of the life long sailor, he picked up the anchor from the deck with one hand and tossed it into a well near the main mast and the center of the hull. That damned thing with its chain must have weighed two hundred pounds, and he tossed it like scraps of bread he was feeding the gulls, and then he started whistling again, gradually working his way up from humming by fits and starts into an actual song:
“I’m a rover, a lily-livered rover, my bones are all but flotsam on the bottom of the sea. My bones are all but flotsam on the bottom of the sea.”
These were his very words, as near as I could understand them in his Teutonic accented Latin, and they went on and on in that ridiculous vein for a long while. He seemed cheerful at the prospect of becoming flotsam, and if I recall there were also verses about sharks, and gulls, and fishes, and various other undersea critters picking at his bones. I don't remember exactly, but it was unnerving and exasperating, and his singing voice was resonant, clear, and powerful. It rendered an effect somehow heartbreaking in spite of its ludicrousness. He was outlandish!

“Don’t mind him, he’s crazy,” someone said behind me.
I turned around to see a former scholar from the Academy. Olympiodoros was his name. For one reason although we'd both been at The Academy for many years we never got to know each other. He always seemed to be away, traveling here and there on some sort of business or another for Ammonius.
“Olympiodoros!” I said. “I didn’t know you were on board.”
“I am, and I might as well tell you right off that among other things I’m going to Athens to tell them Ammonius has chosen me as his successor.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I’m sorry, Simplicious.”
“I don’t hold it against you.”
“That’s generous of you... Were you really Theodora’s lover?”
Added to his first revelation, the cavalier nature of this question was exasperating.
"We haven't been together for a single minute," I said. "and you've already said three things that seriously irritate me."
“I’m sorry...”
"First you said, 'Don’t mind him, he’s crazy.' Was I sup-posed to find that reassuring? A man who can toss two-hundred pound anchors around like horse shoes? Then you said you'd been chosen as Ammonius' successor. Well, that’s straight forward enough, but nevertheless galling. Finally you asked if I was Theodora’s lover. How the hell do you know anything about that? And how the goddamned hell, if you don’t mind my asking, do you know anything about Theodora? Finally, and this is the crowing bit of insolence, what in the hell makes it any business of yours? It seems everybody in the whole goddamned world knows more about my own business than I do!”
“I’m sorry Simplicious.”
“Well, as our eloquent Teutonic friend over there put it... fuck all!”
“All right then, let me be straight with you as well. You have the reputation of being brilliant and also an absolute idiot.”
“Look," I said, "I might take that kind of rebuke from Ammonius but I’m sure as hell not going to take it from you! I’ve practically never even seen you before. All you ever do is come and go like you've a hive of bees in your goddamn shorts. If you’re a philosopher, or a scholar, or a lecturer, or even a goddamn grammarian like that repulsive Philopponus, I’ll be damned if I’ve seen any evidence for it. How in the name of all that's holy did you conceivably become my replacement?”
“Calm down, calm down I was giving you a sort of compliment. You're unaware of certain things because you simply aren’t aware of certain aspects of the world. That's how a philosopher's supposed to be... sort of. But some of us can’t afford to live in a state of such esoteric detachment.”
"I'm sick of your backhanded compliments. I’m just a rover, my bones are flotsam for the plover, and my toes are growing over, with the fungus of the sea!”
Olympiodoros gawked at me, as if I’d gone mad. Then he broke down laughing so hard that he had to brace himself against the mast to keep from staggering. All my anger vanished in an instant, in the sheer absurdity of the situation.
“I hope that Teutonic colossus in the turban didn’t hear you! You never know what might happen. Anything at all as far as I have any understanding of him... Look, I have the only private room in the ship besides the captain's. The crew sleeps on deck. I’ve got a bottle of half decent retsina in my bags, so why don’t we go polish it off?”
“Why not?” I said. “The sea-sickness will undoubtedly set in before long and the wine will either prevent it or get it under way without the wait.”
“I wish you hadn’t mentioned sea sickness," Olympiodoros said, looking a little pale. "Damn it, let’s drink that bottle before it's too late!”
His cabin was more like a bread box and hunching over a tiny table that jutted from the bulkhead, he opened the flask of wine and set it on the table. The swells were high enough that we had to take turns holding the bottle so it wouldn't slip and fall onto the deck. In spite of a rocky start, over that bottle we inaugurated a lifelong friendship. It would be one conducted over many years, occasionally in person but mostly by letters back and forth between Alexandria and Athens, and far-flung points north, south, east, and west of there. Onboard that ship I discovered he was a complex man, a philosopher and a diplomat (when he wanted to be) of the highest order, yet in communication with associates and subordinates he didn't equivocate at all. He might observe the most ingratiating social niceties with say, the Persian ambassador, but among friends he had an intolerance of formalities that sometimes bordered on outright rudeness. It was an aspect of his character that I'd come to appreciate and respect.
“So,” he said opening the wine, "I hate to ask you again but I’m insatiably curious. (It's a flaw I know but it has its uses) You were Theodora’s lover?”
“Yes, one of many.”
“But they say you were real lovers, you lived together. Rumor has it she even loved you.”
“Who are these they, you talk about, and why would we be the subject of all these rumors? For the love of all that's holy, would you tell me what this is all about? Why is everyone so fixated on Theodora anyway? Why did I lose my position in Alexandria because of her? Who the hell is she anyway?"
You are a most unique person, Simplicious.”
“Unique? What is that? Mesopotamian for idiot?”
“Ha, ha, ha." Olympiodoros broke down laughing again. "It seems although you've been her lover you're also the only person in Alexandria who's unaware she’s been involved in, I don’t know what kinds of intrigue! She's been in the company of Theodosius, the Patriarch, and with the leaders of the heretic monastic order of Egypt. She's been in league with the leaders of The Blue's in Constantinople. She's been in touch with both sides in Rome; with Theodoric, the King of the Ostrogoths, and with the Roman faction scheming to overthrow him. They say she has close relations with people even more powerful than these."
"You must be crazy. She's a dancer, a courtesan. Let's be blunt, she's a prostitute. How could she possibly have such connections? You mean Theodosius the bishop of Alexandria? And who could possibly be more powerful than the people you've mentioned? No, this is crazy, impossible."
"She’s become the consort of Sabbatius.”
“Sabbatius? You mean of The Sabbatius?”
“Yes, the emperor's nephew, the emperor in all but name. Sabbatius.”
“That’s impossible! I mean that’s truly impossible! She left Alexandria only a few months ago!”
“She was acting as his spy the whole time she was there. They've had a long-standing secret relationship.”
“I don’t believe it! She never said a single word about Sabbatius!”
“Simplicious, she's his consort. They are living together openly together at this moment in the imperial palace. I’ve had word from not one, but three different associates that's the case."
“How could you have possibly gotten word from Constantinople so fast?”
“I have contacts, and some of them travel fast. To be truthful that's why Ammonius chose me as his successor. I'm not the philosopher you are, Simplicious. I read your commentaries on The Phado and they were brilliant – maybe the best since Plutarch, or Hypotia. But these are troubled times and we can't afford to be as detached from realities as we once were.” (I was completely taken aback by all of this. I had absolutely no idea Theodora was involved in such things, and at that moment I couldn't even begin to fathom the implications!)
“I don’t know what to say. This is unbelievable to me. I knew Theodora was an unusual woman, an amazing woman even – her knowledge is astounding for her age. But if I had known any of this I wouldn’t have had anything to do with her.”
“If you had known any of that you would probably be dead.”
"But, God! Sabbatius must have heard by now we were lovers. My life isn't worth a piece of copper."
"Apparently, at least so far he hasn't obligated her to chastity," Olympiodoros said dryly. He's well aware of her history."
The full weight of what I’d been dallying in suddenly dawned on me. “My God," I said, "I’ve been a complete fool!”
“Yes, but everyone loves you for it. Even, I suppose, Theodora.”
“If they learn this in Athens I’m done for! There’s no future for me.”
“Don’t concern yourself about that. Ammonius has sent me to give them the highest recommendation of you. And also to tell them what a fool you are! Ha, ha, ha! You’ll be fine Simplicious, but let me give you a word of advice. This philandering will be your downfall.”
“I know." I said. "I'm through with that."
“Good, we'll say no more about it, but since you don't know I must tell you the rest of Theodora's story. I don’t know exactly what game she’s playing but she’s our adversary, and a worthy one. As I said when she was in Alexandria she was associated with Theodosius and the Monophysites who are on the verge of being declared heretics by the eastern Roman Church (the chief figure of which is, of course, Sabbatius himself). From what I've been able to gather her sympathy with them is genuine, which means she's playing a double game. She’s living on a razor’s edge. To what end at the moment I can't fathom. Furthermore she's an outspoken critic of the Academy, and she has probably been using you, whatever her feelings may be for you. That's just her nature, and now she's the Imperial Consort.”
“My head's swimming!”
“Simplicious, she is very clever. I don't know why she formed an attachment with you, but from what I've heard, as bad as things are for us, they may become much worse before long.”

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2018 Brent Hightower