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Holy Nights in Helicarnassus

It’s hard to put my thoughts in order, priestess, because like the supplicants at the door of a rich man in the morning they are pushing their way forward to be noticed, one blocking the other, some feeling shy and hanging back and maybe those are the ones who should be selected and brought in for the privilege of a dignity of an audience, I’m sure you know — forgive me for my inept use of rhetoric, but I am old and the lessons I learned from the masters about how to lead bull-like to sacrifice the minds of the listeners to the holy of holies, lie vine-covered like the implements designed long ago to perform the rituals in honor to a god whose name is un-remembered. Nevertheless I try.

Helicarnassus the Loyal, because despite speaking Greek our King took his Satrapy to the King of Kings in Iran as a serious vow, the breaking of which would be displeasing to the gods and a shame to men. Helicarnassus the Holy because we are the City of Temples. Helicarnussus the Ever-Fragrant because ships plying sandalwood and cinnamon debouche their wares in the harbor for the acquiring of silver, and trading contracts, and gold.

But to the priests of the Great Goddess we are the Doctor to the World because it was here that She Beneath Whose Peplum Mortal Dare Not Peep took human form and took as her lover the First Doctor Asclepius and in exchange for his wild nights of love taught him the arts of attending to fast-galloping fever, of setting broken bones, of cutting The Stone, and of calling the muse-bewitched wandering wits back to the liver when e’en they do roam. Madness. That was the ill I learned to heal and after the years of war when “horrors seen unclasped the mind” I had patients like the salmons that crowd the rivers in the lands made frigid from the winds of the North.

To what do we liken the mortal mind, my master asked me. To a castle made by children by the ocean’s shore: destined to dissolution and containing the seeds of its undoing mixed within the atoms of its form. What then undoes the clasp of the madman’s soul and allows his every thought to charge forth like peacock and sparrow and wren and eagle rising to sky in a wheeling, chaotic flock when the aviary is afire? Nothing more or less than Fear, a Fear justified in light of the ultimate fate of mortal man, yet lacking in temperance and appropriateness, since as one sand-castle may endure a minute, or one an hour, or one indeed by reason of luck, or the favor of the gods, or sound construction, until the high tide sweeps it away to we know not where, so is known to no man, save few, the hour or time or day of his dissolution. It is fear that unhinges the mind in the general, and it is the job of the Priest of Asclepius, to whose order I had pledge my forelock and in whose honor I abstained from meat and from beans and from taking a wife, to determine in the specific case of the specific mad-man what fear it was that had unhinged this mind, or, to vary the trope, unwoven it.

The madman knelt before me in the pronaos, his fingers never stopping their motion, as if he were weaving thread or counting gold. His hair was untouched by comb or oil. His eyes were startled like a man who upon waking from a dream of his own death had looked into a water basin and seen looking back at him his own face, smeared with blood, his throat cut like a the sacrificial ox.

We looked at each other and evening fell and myriad upon myriad of stars, brightest among them Great Jove himself, looked down upon the two of us, young priest facing his first great challenge although he did not know it, and young mad prince. He spoke:

-My father tried to kill me, my mother let me nurse at her teats when I was already a man and said with these paps I nursed you from babe to child, with these paps I nurse you again for you are not a man, you are a God. My teacher taught me to follow moderation in all things but there was no moderation in his lust for my father’s gold, in his fear of his wrath. But if I am a god to what law do I bow my head?

-Your father tried to kill you?

-He became angry because I became adept at blowing the flute. He said I should be ashamed because this was the art of a woman. Man was made for war.

-And your teacher? Did he agree?

-My teacher asked me to read books: his master Plato, and his own, stories from when he had gone down to the sea in a bell made of glass, to spy on the fish and shrimp and worms.

-And your father?

-My father said I should be ashamed. He said I should read not books but men.

-And your father tried to shed your blood?

-He sent a man to do it posing as my friend. I caught my father’s spear and threw it back at him.

-And the spear? Did it find its mark?

-It did. I need only return to the palace and I will be King of Macedon.

-And your mother?

He paused. Overhead shooting stars like sparks from burning myrrh streaked the sky.

-She rewarded my courage as women do.

-But not as mothers reward their children?

-No. Not as mothers of men reward their children. But perhaps.

-As mothers of gods.

-As mothers of gods.

I waved the incense above the madman’s head three times and then four times as my master instructed me, and gave him to drink of the kykeon, and led him down as mystagogue to the cave beneath the temple where the hetaera performs the mystery of the Great Goddess in secret, unspoken of, terrible and holy. He woke the next morning, bestrode his horse Beucephalus and as all know now turned the wheel of conquest as far as India, before one of his generals, homesick for his own bed, poisoned him in his tent, and the high tide washed him away.

These events that I relate happened years ago. Now Helicarnassus is gone.

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