Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ode to Belladonna, Chapter Twenty-Two

So leaving behind what little we had aside from food and water, we boarded Olympiodoros’ little fleet of twelve ships loaded down with scrolls of the Greek thinkers and dramatists, miniature sculptures, diagrams of Archimedes, and a thousand other small relics of the classical age, and we set sail.
“Well,” Olympiodoros said as we stood at the prow of the leading ship ...“Sailing for Samothrace takes us towards Constantinople but I think that's the last thing they will expect us to do. Flying the Roman colors at least we have a chance... My God, I heard about you. You put up one determined fight there my friend. The scholar! I didn't know you had it in you! I'm terribly sorry about your family, ...terribly.” Olympiodoros looked away for a moment, and then began again. "...Anyway, even though Samothrace is near the Mouth of Marmara I don’t think the empire will see us as being different from a thousand ships sailing the Bosporus. Nor do they take much notice of Samothrace itself. To them it’s just an impoverished Island of shepherds – a place to buy a little olive oil.”
As we got underway a late spring zephyr was driving strongly from the South, impelling us rapidly over the whitecaps, and we rode swiftly down waves driving from astern. I have never seen more beautiful days than those of that voyage to Samothrace. Gulls danced with brilliant waves; the sea-foam leaped and scattered in the air to their piercing cries and dolphins flew from the waves as we swept along.
That breathtaking splendor had a strange effect on me. It was thrilling, exhilarating, and yet in my heart I was still in mourning. As we swept along I found that the glory of it all had a bittersweet aspect.
That is it. Life is paradox and contradiction, forever trapped in the middle between beauty and ugliness, truth and lies, love and hatred, being and nothingness. We are in the middle world, between our dreams and fears, praying for everlasting joy in a world where everything eats everything else to survive, and the choices we make form our soul everlasting.
Racing through the straights of Euboae, the most dan-gerous part of the passage, we were forced into close contact with other ships, where we might have been recognized from ship or shore. Then we turned almost due northward past the finger peninsulas of Chalcidice, and finally tacked again eastward, arriving in Samothrace after just two days sailing.
Samothrace has no natural harbors and this necessitated a careful approach in case Roman ships were lying in the only anchorage, a manmade breakwater on the northern coast. We were fortunate to find no ships at all except the small fishing boats of the islanders. Pindar, a native, knew whom could be trusted, and going ashore he gathered a small crowd to unload our ships and store their cargo safe inland. Then we called meeting of the Island's Panhellinion for that evening to make plans, and formed a party to bury our relics ...hopefully for future generations. Once this was all done, I followed Pindar to the ruins of The Temple of the Great Gods, destroyed by Christians two centuries earlier, and I could still envision the grandeur once so important to the ancient Hellenes.
The Cult of the Great Gods, with mysterious rites, yet open to anyone who made the pilgrimage and swore an oath of secrecy, counted among their order many of the great figures of Classical Greece and Rome – King Lysander of Sparta, Phillip of Macedon, the family of Julius Caesar. Even these broken remains testified to its glorious past. The tumbled down columns were of the finest marble, its shattered sculptures of the finest workmanship. As we stumbled amid these ruins I came upon something riveting – the marble figure of a winged Nike, astounding in grace, the very incarnation of transcendence. I asked Pindar about it, but he became too emotional to say anything, so we just stood mutely observing it and then made our way back to await the Panhellinion, which took place later in the evening at the home of the still-existing cult leader.
We arrived at dusk and Salander, a man perhaps 70 years old with an immaculate white toga, keen eyes under heavy brows, white flowing hair to his waist and a beard to match, looked the very effigy of a temple priest. He carried a heavy sycamore staff everywhere, even indoors, and that added even further to his very imposing figure.
Over a hundred people were in attendance, a remarkable number on such a small island, showing clearly that in spite of the destruction of the temple and the outlawing of the cult, it secretly thrived on the island. As full darkness came on candles were lit and a bell rung for silence, then the priest spoke:
“My friends," he said, "we have received a very unexpected honor today with the arrival of the heads of not one, but both of the of the Platonic Academies, ...The Academy in Athens and that in Alexandria, and they have arrived with most tragic news. An assault upon the Athenian Academy has forced its closing after nine-hundred years.”
There a stunned silence, and then a murmur of outrage.
“We are coming to the end of an age, and I think honesty compels us to face the fact with courage and dignity. All we can do is to hope the quest for learning, and some more noble human aspiration than the simple pursuit of power and wealth for its own sake, may be carried on in future generations. Those of us who have known the soul set free, who have found our way in un-repressed freedom, are not afraid to die – but rather afraid to leave our children behind us in a world without light.... Our hearts go out also to the remaining Christian sects after the thousand purges of Byzantium. But our esteemed guests have also brought some hope for the future, a collection of the works from the Golden Age, and we have preserved these things carefully for future generations.”
A more cheerful sound arose then from the assembly, during which the old priest scanned the room with his keen eyes. Suddenly he froze, fixing his attention on a single person in the room.
“That man there,” he said, pointing into the crowd ...“Josephus, he's a spy! I know you, Josephus, although we have rarely seen one another, but I never forget a face. You're a member of the Philliponoi, and a spy for the archdiocese.”
“No ... I'm not! You have confused me with someone else!”
“Shut up. I have only one question. What should we do with you since you have overheard things it would have been better to not overhear?”
“Very well ...you're right, I'm orthodox. So show yourselves equal to Christians in forgiveness! That is the essence of our God and what makes Him greater than you pagans with all your sacrifices! Your altars are drenched in blood!”
“Are you saying Christians don't slaughter animals?”
“Yes, but not to appease the gods. And it's not just animals you have slaughtered in your temples!”
“You're right. Criminals and prisoners of war, and at times no doubt innocent people have been sacrificed to appease the gods. But what society never slaughtered animals or put criminals to death – and what society, to the eternal shame of humanity, never executed the innocent? Our sacrifices at least were swift and merciful, while at this very moment hundreds of people are being tortured to death slowly in the Holy Palace not a hundred yards from The Church of St. Bacchus!
Unbelievers and pagans, and even Christians guilty of nothing but the slightest deviation from orthodoxy are being burned alive from one end of the empire to the other. Even the Old Romans whom we Greeks considered bloodthirsty barbarians were tolerant of the beliefs of others, often even took things of value from those cultures. So where is this Christian mercy of yours? Your merciful church has just slaughtered fifty scholars and their families – the families of a dozen men in this room, for having had the temerity to believe in freedom of thought and the propagation of reason, and civilization. So don’t lecture me on Christian mercy. I ask you again, what should we do with you?”
“Let me go and I swear on my word of honor that not a word of what I’ve heard will ever pass my lips!”
“Your word of honor? Throw him over the precipice.”
Olympiodoros and three other stout men then gagged him and dragged him from the room.
“...Please forgive me," Damascious interrupted, "and know that I am deeply grateful for your hospitality and your support, but will this never end? I don't question your decision Salander, nor do I question Olympiodoros’ zeal in carrying it out. I know that between us and the Roman Church the slaughter has been rather one-sided lately, but if our cause is to have meaning we must hold to the highest standards, and such things must be kept to an absolute minimum.”
“I am in complete agreement,” the old priest said. “But I don't need to tell you that our survival is at stake. If word got out that we were aiding you in any way the empire would send a fleet to slaughter us all.”
I'm aware of that and I want to thank you again for the risk you have taken on our behalf.”
“It's our great honor,” the priest went on ... “I propose gathering as many olive vats as can be spared to bury your remaining trove in the apple orchard near the temple. Then we will invoke the gods for their preservation and ...and then speed you to your destination.”
"And where is that destination to be," I wondered? Can we sail for Persia without being captured, or find anywhere on God’s green earth to receive a safe welcome?!
When the priest finished speaking there was a brief dis-cussion and we adjourned for the night.
The next morning, before dawn, we hauled the lighter artifacts up to the apple orchard near the temple, where guards were placed so no one spied on our activity, and in no time we cut away the sod, filled the terra-cotta vats, and buried them, replacing the sod and watering it so that it would soon be impossible to know the ground had been disturbed. Salander swore everyone to secrecy, and invoking Zeus to preserve the artifacts for future generations recited lines from The Odyssey of the homecoming of Odysseus and his defeat of the suitors as an omen for our further journey, and a feast was held. There one of the most unexpected twists in my life occurred, with Olympiodoros drawing me aside to speak privately with me.
“Simplicious," he said. "I have something to ask you, and I think it's the hardest question I've ever asked anybody, ...especially since I consider you my friend.”
“What is it, Olympiodoros?”
"Justinian and Theodora are set upon the destruction of the Platonists, and of the two of them I don’t have to tell you that Theodora is by far the more dangerous.”
“She hates the world . . .” I interrupted.
Olympiodoros looked at me piercingly, with an expression unfathomable.
“What I want to ask you Simplicious, is to murder her.”
“To murder her?”
“Yes, and I have to say there is little chance of coming out alive.”
“Why me, or do I have to ask? The last thing she said to me was she never wanted to see me in Constantinople again.”
“Why did she say that?”
“She thought Justinian might get word we had been lovers. ...”
“Did she say that to protect her, or you?”
“Do you think I can fathom her mind?”
“If you can’t then no one can. I have heard that you weren’t just another of her long list of lovers, but that she had some real attraction to you?”
“You could get to her, Simplicious! You’re the only one who stands a chance of getting to her in an unguarded position.”
“I have never murdered anyone, Olympiodoros. You have the better of me there,” I said.
“That’s not what I heard happened at The Academy.”
“That was different! That was self-defense. They were soldiers – They murdered my wife!”
“Are you willing to do it?”
“Goddamn you!”
“I’m sorry to ask you, Simplicious, I really am. But every-thing’s at stake now; everything.”
“I hate the world, Olympiodoros. Perhaps Theodora and I aren't so very far apart after all.”
“I say again, everything’s at stake.”
“Really? Ha, ha, ha ... I’ve already lost everything! That’s why I’ll kill her.” I wouldn't do it for any god damned cause."
“You’re not the only one that hates the world,” he said. “We’ll meet again in a better place.”

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2018 Brent Hightower