Her northern sea grey, sea blue, sea- change eyes were warm, much warmer than the wintry seas, that west coast of Gaul, from which such eyes, we all are descendents from the sea, are sprung,” She asked,
“ Is the headache gone?”
It had come upon the night before, that headache for which I was such a reluctant host. I asked the woman wise about herbs to give me a tincture of opium, as a kindly household slave, also an healing woman, had done for me when I was a child when bones had been broken nNo, I had not played dangerously, it was my father’s temper which once itself fractured multiplied those fractures upon me. The wise woman kept a Cypriot pot- that is where the best opium grows- from which she extracted the paste, mixed it with a secret liquid so as to put me to sleep. The pot was painted, blacks, rare browns and reds as in the old Attic showing Theseus and the Minotaur. On the opposite side of the pot, was painted the homecoming ship with the black sail wrongly hoisted which, when spied from Athens’s Pireaus, signaled Theseus had died upon which erroneous news his father, Aegius the king, did kill himself.
I had, from time to time in the past, hoisted a black sail for myself . Only poor resolve kept me from fulfilling its meaning. Nevermore! This life now was good. Whatever path I was to choose it’s ending would not be dictated by my despair? As for the tombstone, were that prophecy from the other world a caring truth that my time was short and that Helen would longer live, so be it. There were those fresh flowers at the stone showing we were remembered. A great thing that, achieving what pyramids, conquests, and that criminally stupid Herostratos sought in burning the temple of Artemus/Diana. Indeed in writing for this, my Book, and aware that flowers wither, I show some of that same vanity. But I want more of immortality than words on parchment, although if you read this, your mind revives me which is some solace for the vain. Recollecting the tombstone, recalling it shows Helen and my own footsteps until mine end, whereas hers go eccentrically sideways, I want to believe it suggests my beloved’s immortality, as indeed is already her legend. Alternatively, I am mindful of the prophecy of the Christians proclaim. Their Jesus was, beyond the kindly Teacher, a seer. But here and now, where I am, short as my life may be, here and now and future, I am more glad to be alive than I have ever been. I have been given, am now, a jubilee.
I was feeling much better, but for the sense of an axe head splintered in my forehead, and protesting tatters of muscle struggling to become, once again my competent shoulder. By my bedside there was one of those pungent, , fuming, healing roots set alight. I had come to like the odor. I had slept the deep sleep of opium that is slow to leave upon awakening. It is as though a heavy cloud has moved into one’s brain. My personal slave, valet and advisor, had slept on a floor mat in my room that night to be sure no new ill befell. In the dawning, Helen came in. She was exquisite, moving as a zephyr does, smiling as the mother of a cheery newborn might, hair glinting as sun does on grasses cuprous sulphur gold, her body curved as attractively melodiously feminine as the carving on her two gold Celtic neck pieces, and allowing me to realize from what, indeed perhaps whom the jeweler’s and the musicians synaesthetic inspiration came. I would say more but the opium cloud slows praise, although not elemental appreciation. It ordinarily does take away desire, but so does the loss of blood that I had undergone. This woman, however, so beautiful, so fragrant, so graceful, so proud, replaced my blood with the rush of her, as if she were flowing within me. As the mystic Christians, Paul was one, say of their God; He is within them, they within Him, there is union. Perhaps it was the opium, there is a cloying sweetness to its weight, which is nevertheless burdensome, but, at this moment I had no carnal thought. In my mind we were already one in and beyond flesh. It was an astonishing feeling.
“Your color is better, Quaestor, the wise woman tells me your wound is healing. Your arm is still attached, your head has not fallen off, no brains have tumbled out, and still I have an urge to comfort you. May I sit on your bed to hold your head again?
I was pleased to be accommodating, although I was in fact feeling quite ready to rise. I then said, “About yesterday, it is all still embarrassing. Bleeding on to your dress was not quite the dignified greeting I had intended,”
I will be wise to credit you with much more than you say you intend. It was a dramatic introduction I must say, quite a novel welcome. But you see, “ she gestured to her present costume, “there are others to wear. One of your older servants tells me she knows how to remove blood stains, that it was a specialty she learned when younger in Rome”
I knew which woman had spoken. “Yes, she had been the slave of an overly ambitious, quarrelsome family. When the winnowing was done, there were too many household slaves to serve the too few murderers remaining. A cousin bought her out of kindness, asked me to maintain her. If slaves wrote the history of Rome, the scholars would be put to shame, and Rome even more so.”
Helen’s look took a grim cast to it. “I know that Rome, Quaestor, have been in the fields when winnowing is done, have had fruitful friends threshed, left to die amongst the chaff. Rome is where death is surplus. For myself I will not go back” Her jaw was set as she said this, it was clear that if I had any counter plans, we would walk no path together. But we were concordant; I found not only Rome but also the Idea which was its kernel, thus grain and chaff together, constituted misfortune masquerading as success. We were both silent. In that was acknowledgement of profound mutuality’s. She smiled as she asked me,
“Now, are you well enough to walk a bit, take some nourishment? You had no dinner last night, whereas I ate well enough in my room, all those fruits, pastries, sweetmeats and, yes, let me say I toasted your health for I did take wine. But now what about something for you?”
I felt almost well, and told her so, asking, “Would you tolerate a reversal of the Roman order?”
From under well plucked ginger blonde eyebrows she looked at me suspiciously, ‘Quaestor, I have just indicated that the present Roman order is repugnant to me, and while I conspire in no insurrection, and I presume you of all people do not ask me to join in that, any private reordering you can suggest I will happily join.
I was hungry, happy in her company and ready to enjoy my recovery, her presence, to the fullest. I suggested that, contrary to all custom, we dine in the garden at noon, enjoy wine at noon, and allow decadence, as measured by the clock, to reign for these coming moments in our lives
“Quaestor, I am happy to oblige. If this is sedition, revising that Roman order, we are partners. If it is not sedition, I like your proposal as much. We have then a contract.
I scolded teasingly, “You speak like a lawyer in the Forum”
She paused for much longer than thinking about lunch required. “Well, since we are in agreement on midday pleasantries, let me talk to you in exactly a lawyering vein. There might be a better time, but I want us to be solid early on, as we were just now about the Roman order, although we did that through hints and presumed agreements. I fear presumptions, Quaestor; I have so much experience watching them lead to the abyss. Indeed the business of a Pythia in her ambiguity was to allow them, thus demanding of petitioners their own search, examination and wisdom. That often went wrong indeed. I want to know that will not happen between us, for regarding what we think of one another but do not say, those unspoken assumptions, we may build a palace on quicksand. We will be past all this at lunch, all light again, but I will be serious now.
I argue that the best partnerships are parallel interests openly reasoned as to the “how” of them, never inextricable or unexamined commitments. I speak of men and women of course, and of marriage, not casual affairs. My first unspoken belief then, I believe you serious about us, I am a serious woman who would like to be serious about you, but that will take me time. In the meantime, better acquaintance in all things about us seems a good idea. Not that knowledge or agreement are ever guarantees. Be mindful of this, Quaestor, not only before, but after marriage, all contracts are being renegotiated. Astronomers can predict the movement of the heavens; humans are more erratic, particularly if they are independent ones such as us. Good negotiators are flexible, understanding, farsighted, committed to new agreements. There are more women than men with these traits. A great number of men are buffoons. They abuse power, discount the value of harmony, indulge pride’s risks, suffer the disease of selfishness, and are chained in self-righteous prisons of rigidity. No such man is any free and sensible woman’s candidates for a marriage. If the man is flawed, but handsome and entertaining, then an affair perhaps. Indeed if error seems at all possible, but attraction exists, if a moral standard allows it, an affair is a good idea. They can get infatuation out of their system.
The whole of Helen was changing. Whether her face looked angry or depressed I could not be sure, but her words had an ever-harder edge to them. Some strong and negative emotion powered her. She was looking through, not at me. I am, of all men, least good a judge of women, but the cause of this fierce, lawyering and driven Helen, arose not from me in this room, but some elsewhere. Old wounds powered this speech; the victorious warrior she resolved to be was presenting it. That this Mule was, because a man, more likely a buffoon, I might agree, but I allow myself to be an exception. In any event, I would not argue with her, it was pointless, even agreeing was pointless. She was laying down Helen’s law. Whether or not anyone who might volunteer to be ruled by it, I would have to see. I said, simply,”
“Yes, I understand what you are saying, go on”
“Understand me, I have too long been a free and empowered woman to bind myself to anyone’s wishes, plans, person not compatible with my own. In other words, Quaestor, I am my own woman, not to be presumed, not to be owned, never to be confused with what you may have imagined, never known for herself at all, if mistaken for that unlikely figure of legends believed by strangers, and yes, legends amusing to herself as well. You may enjoy my company acknowledging me this way, for understanding that is essential for us to do well together. Do you understand me? “
The voice of her demand spoke from the rock dungeons of her fortress, their chill would freeze a desert’s air. It was a fortress that had been besieged and, I strongly suspected, had been damaged. I was part of its rebuilding. I was too conscious now of my own lost wars, my own rebuilding tasks. I also knew, as Athenians did, that laws are best made when all citizens participate. Absent that agreement, I knew that I was by nature a commander, not a foot soldier. I bridle at commands given before I have acknowledged the rightful authority of the commander. I could see this matter would have to be worked out. Nevertheless, I am also a warrior who knows wars are best avoided. I understood the importance of this for her. I understood, even if now she shot as arrows fiercely, that she carried unhealed wounds, that any woman brave enough to fight for a woman’s independence, would suffer injury.
It also came to me —and I realized this with a jealous pang- she might well have had some earlier marriage which had badly failed, tied to one of those buffoons of us. I felt suddenly sad, hot burning in these old warrior’s eyes. Sad for this Helen of beauty enough to have been of Troy , for pain which was more an historical fact of her than Troy. For all her ferocity, what I imagined now of her struggle, acknowledged now as but speculation, made my heart warm to her. We had both been wounded in wars of intimacy and relations. Healing such wounds, easily inflicted where intimacies are, which is in situations of giving, sharing, need and trust, a sense of helplessness, is not an easy thing. Here then I was working on a task of understanding, of respecting, of admiring. I had not given any thought to this matter before, after all, Druscilla was born to power which her character magnified, and I still smarted for it. But this Helen, only a tribal princess and however noble as an oracle, would have been, respected for her particular role and powers, isolated in her place, so to speak, and only in passing as a provincial princess in a political world which Roman emperors rules. I sensed there was something in Helen which yearned, thus with her character, demanded, a broader respect for herself as the person, eloquent, learned of course, of woman.
The male me of me was still prancing about. A buffoon’s self-centeredness soon takes over from compassion, especially a buffoon puzzled in love. I was feeling, hardly for the first time, a bit irritated, no, shocked, that this Helen would drive this Mule. Did she plan on spurs? Mules do not take kindly to harsh direction. Love ends when spurs dig deep, where famous, aristocratic skin is sensitive, which is, all over. This Helen was not adoringly mine as the commander Mule had unthinkingly envisioned. And good for her. I man can have a slave girl any time, but a slave, not a princess and a Pythia is what you get. The slave girl gives you what she must. It might be a wiggle but it will not be love. So then, right Helen was in making her free self-clear. Whether the wounds I now believed she bore allowed her often enough to be the other Helen, that magnificent woman of wisdom, smiles, tenderness, ideals, that gorgeous princess also of courage and the cosmopolitan, I could not guess. But the entire Helen, Pythia, soon to test being Sophia, enough of Troy about her to make that a good allegory, that Helen would always be her own according to her lights.
But right now she had put the question to me, did I understand what she was and was demanding? I lied to both of us when, my voice now taking a retreating, thus distant register, said.
“I do. I respect what you are and must be. No man of my station would ever claim rights over a free and noble woman. . Roman law recognizes that. Other lawyers have been there successfully before you. Even so, as to what must guide us together, I am grateful for your frankness.”
Ever so noble it sounded, stiff, almost ridiculous. The Mule maybe, sick from those soured oats, a Quaestor maybe, his weak remains left over from last night, weak from loss of blood and full of gratitude for her love, and the first loving kiss he had ever had. A lie enjoyed for itself, but if a purpose served by it, so much the better. Helen would like Simon Magus’ words, that slippery, charming, defrauding trickster who would say anything for a moment’s advantage. Simon’s words were not him, simply snares he blew into the air to impress, to steal, to capture. Snares, only snares, painted a slimy gold. An Helen, if needier than she acted, could be his tool, his prey. Well, so full of herself, that would be her problem! Well, maybe not really, but one aspect of male buffoonery is our ego.
This man here, this me, Mule, Quaestor, Scipio etc. Cornelii, this, she said-it would be healthier when I could disagree- this man in love, having looked forward to the joy of her in the garden, an afternoon of possibilities, this was not his talk. All this reasoning, no Roman lawyer relied on it, their rhetoric pulled all the illogical, passionate, flattering, self serving levers of persuasion. Maybe Aristotle, prince of logic, could talk of contracts in the bedroom, but I doubted it. And yet, someone was truckling, that whomsoever it was speaking out of my mealy mouth, that one gilding the bitter lily, submissive saying, repeating,
“I agree, the reasoned way is best. I admire your frankness”.
She nodded. “Quaestor, I can only tell you how I am. That is wise for both our sakes. Sophia would approve. You may well come to hate me, although I hope you do not, but if you do, it will be for honest reasons on both our parts. This woman was astonishing. She was Aristotle’s wife, all reason and now, the chill out of voice, she seemed quite calm about it all. She had set her conditions, now, her contract somehow agreed in thin air, was I to have lunch?
By the very hair of Medusa! This union I had been so sure of-the fantasy life of Mules should be a novel- would be at her cool pleasure, if at all. I had waited my life for exactly this woman; she was here, but real, whereas my imagined one had been a one dimensional, monochrome shadow. The Mule had wandered into a stall of sour grains, kicked himself in the behind, and, wondered why he was hurting. Just last night he became free enough to fall fearlessly, that demon was dead. He was free to be madly in love. The Mule was free to kick himself, as many times as she liked, and when Helen kicked the buffoon who was the stupid man of him, he was free to thank her. He was also free enough now to understand something of another person. That was real progress. He had progressed to seeing her ferocity, and not liking it at all. He had freely progressed to comprehend they both must change. He had left his fearful demon behind. Now she must leave her fortress’ dungeon. This Mule had never conceived that loving such a splendid woman would be so much work.
She came over to me as I was slowly arising from my bed.
“Are you well, Quaestor, you have a look about you, dark and pale. She put out her hand and stroked my forehead. She was worried about me, cared, a Mule driver with a tender whip, was that it?
I intended to move myself a hundred steps from the trouble of her, to be able crisply, commandingly, rationally, maturely, in my commander’s voice, that not gruff, not offended, cold perhaps, but commanders must be that, Mules dare not be otherwise, to speak in that particular voice the distancing words of his own man who might or might not enter into contracts of her kind. The words I had ordered up were, “I thank you for your concern. I am quite well, if you please. I will ring the servants to arrange the garden lunch” These were not the words I heard, more of a confused mumbling. As to what came out, I have no idea, but it was no senior centurion speaking.
I do know I wobbled a bit as I wound my toga, for there’s quite an art to it. She stepped toward me, asked if she could help, asked- there was worried caution in that- if she might put her arm in mine. As confused Mules are, being simultaneously stroked, fed, loved, whipped, driven, and covered with fly bites of many years accumulation, this one was stubborn. Mules are stupid too. I was living up to that when I shook her arm off mine. Ever so careful not to stumble, I began my slow walk down the stairs to the garden. I could see she was sad as she withdrew her arm and, were she to be like me, next she would withdrew some of herself. An outsider knowing us this moment, would find us entirely well matched as overly sensitive, self- protecting, mixed- signaling, in my case utterly childish, fools. That was not the kind of match that bode well. Here we were, leaving love in the dirt, where we both seemed too easily to kick it. For myself, I had retreated to the hurt and blame looks of a child, oh my, how those had failed me so many years ago, and now, another try? Petulance. I did have a ways to go, whereas Helen, perhaps she was where she wanted to be. I was introducing myself to the common mysteries of the other.
Where was I now beyond stupidity? It is true she talked too much of independence. No person who, loving and committing, wishing that fulfillment, demands total freedom in doing it. To love is to be with, be of, and be responsive to the other, the reciprocity which defines it. A couple is intertwined, and stronger, closer for it, as strands of hemp make a rope, the strand no longer identifiable as solitary but, now quite differently in union, a rope. But this Mule, Quaestor now, who liked the idea of intertwining immensely, was so used to command, that he expected his filament to order the other, dominate a union of inequalities.. Oh we were a pair! That Helen, the Troy one, for there, some Helen had ruled as well as in the Argolid, would be more Queen Dominatrix, demanding the painful the subordination of mules attending her. was bristling
This Mule’s new freedoms liberated the mind; it was becoming a bit smarter, but slowly. As I saw it this moment, any sweet garlands the not-quite-my-Helen cast around others neck, could serve as reins, who knows, even form a noose.. Maybe the whoever Helen is or was, one of her had hauled Paris into his Troy-bound long- ship by his garland, or laurel, or, if she had bolted it to his skull, or by his nose. Homer does display Paris as much of a man.
Think then of twining, of fascia, of braided bindings joined for strength. “Fascia” indeed, the word also means a woman’s girdle. We know what that covers, why all tribes cover the lure of that so special female nest. In the mood of me now, as I move slowly down the stairs, I am armoring myself against the high costs of love, rejecting any “negotiating” and forgiving duties. I recast Homer. (I do this easily, history is as much invented as written, even in this Book, truth is what seems most suited to mood, circumstance)
In the Iliad then, allow my different story, not that Helen was stolen by Paris from Menelaus’ Argos palace, Paris taking her against all duties of the guest, and doubling that insult by taking Menelaus material treasures as well. It is obvious that Paris was an island raider, as much pirate as prince, albeit guided in his venture by the gift of her from Aphrodite, that given in the cypress grove here in Daphne. The bard has it all a matter of robbery and ravishing, but nowhere does Homer say she did not go willingly. I say Aphrodite cast a spell over the both of them, but Paris was the greater victim, for that Helen’s lust was for him, whereas he, after all, as pirates are, had undistinguishing greed. Helen then, commanding then as now, dominant then as now, stole Paris, whipped him into a lover’s submission with the sweetness of what her girdle, that binding fascia, covered. And yes, her breasts, her contours, her face and hair, her fragrance, and, no question, her ruling mind.. The honesty of it is that it is all of a woman who can be thattrap of sweetest honey, and all of Troy destroyed because of Paris taste for it. So it is with men, we like honey. We are bees bewitched by the queen. They say the bronzed Argives are buried in beehive shaped tombs. That is no architectural chance, designing queen bees.
Homer sung in the palaces of kings. He was a manly bard who entertained warriors. There are no great queens of whom he sings, but for Ulysses’ Penelope who waited steadfast, patient, husbanding, and shrewd. Let me as Homer sing of Helen, princess and queen, beautiful, audacious, more far sighted, and a deadly worker with her bow. She is just the woman to yoke a man to her plow, or if she a-plowing goes, she will do it masterfully astride the man, for, as we all know, that was indeed the pleasuring position of Apollo’s temple priestesses for his, thus their, paying visitors.. I hate this woman I love, for she overbears me, from which incompetence of mine the almost man of me is burning with a child’s raging near tears. Growing up is a difficult business. I must do the further construction of myself. Consider: a wife plays the roles of lover, worker, counselor and mother. Helen adds “Domina” to that. Her husband must play on the same stage, whether opposite or complementary I am not yet sure. If he can only play one part against her five, their play will have a very short run. If today in my house is our rehearsal, she will cut me from her cast. Had we an audience, as all lives do, I risk from them rotten fruit thrown, catcalls and demands for ticket money back
“You walk slowly. You look pale,” she said. She was walking beside me. Even though petulance had rebuffed her arm through mine, she held her hand ready beneath my elbow should I need support. This Amazon was sweet vigilance in her caring, not that Petulance would admit it.
“Is something wrong?”
“Certainly not. We shall soon be dining. The cooks are good.
“You’ve changed again, sullen now and bristling
“No, worse, I’ve returned to my sameness. It’s not your worry. Let’s dine”
Her face changed, all cast over with worry. I suspected her worry was about herself, no “us” comprehended. “What I said hit you worse than I anticipated. I meant what I said, but not any harm in it”
“No harm?” My voice was sharp, that is was on a higher note than intended sucked some of the righteousness out of it. “ I suppose not if you can solve the riddle of two becoming one with neither present. Or of a Sophia as the high God’s equal and wiser half come to earth to partner only with herself.” I had lost control of my anger, jealousy too. This Mule was kicking with all four legs and, thereby unsupported, was about to find himself ignominious on his belly, all splayed out. But I had to say it ”Go head, see to your arrangements with Simon Magnus, a handsome and charming fellow which I am certainly not. A brilliant smile too, they say, like the sun god he would pretend to be. Well, I’m not good at smiling either, although “ -I was grudging in saying it but it was too apparent, “I know I had best repair that fault, I had thought your presence would teach me smiling. But no matter, Helen now soon Sophia, you will have your way, become Gnostic Christian laden with secrets that have to be purchased as tickets to Heaven. A fine generosity in that, the High God hiding behind a ticket booth. You have set some demands on me, woman, I must respect them. But I tell you what I think. When you become High Priestess to the Gnostics, naturally bedding that sun, Simon, that religion can look forward to your leadership cuddling Simple Simon simpering on your pillow, and the High God himself heard whimpering in heaven. Eh, what do you think of that?”
She opened her eyes, turned full face on me, swung her arm as rapidly as any swordsman I had ever met, and slapped me so hard I thought my eyeballs would fall out. I began to stumble. She held my arm, kept me steady, she was a well-muscled woman, She looked me steady in the eyes, hauled off with another swing to my face below the bandages,thesenow limited to my forehead. She had slapped me so hard the curving stairway rotunda echoed with it. I reeled a bit, might actually have fallen. I was weaker than I thought. Her strong arm went around my waist, supporting me. She looked at me, said not a word. Being “expressionless” is an expression, a challenge. I am a gentleman. It is my creed. My emotions moved from shock to rage to calculation. I had been slapped! I surged with any warrior’s reaction. I was strong again, my legs felt solid on the wide marble steps (and thank goodness they were wide) .I looked at her, being sure it was stern, controlled, bordering on grim. I was careful to use only a bit of my strength (for I was much stronger than she). I slapped her sufficiently hard to sting and inform. There was no chance she would fall from the blow, but as a precaution I put my arm supportively around her. Her body was quivering.
“No one has ever done that to me before” she said, her tone that of objective reporting. “At home my father, the chieftain, would have had your head cut off. My own device would have been, as Artemis, to skewer you with arrows.”
I replied in some heat, “No woman ever done that to me before. My father, in his time, would have told you to do it again. Skewers, ka bobs. are popular in this East, lamb or goat. They are better targets for your arrows than me. My device would be to invite you to dine. We are on the way to do that I think the cook will do better than goat, although I seem to have gotten yours. Sorry, my jealously misspoke my tongue. I apologize. We stared at each other in that expressionless silence of recalculations
She had reached her conclusion, asking, it was almost a command,. “Will you kiss me?”
My reply was a very long kiss indeed, no betraying legs giving way at all, but in itself destabilizing It was a good thing the marble steps were very wide indeed. Things, whatever they were, had been settled.
We were strolling toward the garden, hand in hand. Slaves and free servants scurried out of the way, as if their seeing us was forbidden. There was nothing I needed to say. Women are more loquacious, so it seems. She said,
“My mother was a wonderful woman, from time to time she said important things to me. As a girl, I didn’t understand them all, but because she said to remember them, I have done that. One thing she said, after a wedding in our city- she said the couple’s had not been a smooth courtship nor had parents arranged the marriage- was that genuine love was an aspect of freedom, even a godly thing. She said it comes to its fullest flowering from two who are free to choose it. Love is not conferred, nor imposed, nor coerced, nor successfully demanded either. The capacity for it is a gift better than the gods, a gift which deepens when the gods, or for my mother the one God whom Paul taught, is within the marriage so that there are always three, always as one, always the sacred present. Do you agree with that, Mule?”
I shook my head, “I have not thought about it. But I will be a wiser, safer man if I agree with the wisdom a girl receives from her mother”
“You are a jealous man, Mule. If my mother is right, ill you be jealous of the High God spiritually with us?”
“I don’t see why “
“Do you feel free enough now to share my freedom with me, just our choosing?”
“ I will try”
“’Try’ or ‘do’ or, better, as for freedom, ‘be’? Tell me ‘yes’, you’ll be”. Her head was cocked coquettish, the smile was genuine but a bit worried, a smile not sure of itself, or, every bit as much, not sure of me.
I was not conceived of such a woman! Rescuing, caressing, then declarations, slaps, quivering, holdings, kisses, hands held, worries, questions, smiles and doubts. She was as new at us as was I, but entertained a wide spectrum of feelings, and in all of them was transparent. In that she was a better person than I. So now an invitation to “be”, no outcome specified. This time I comprehended. “Being” contains all of its outcomes. She had, once in Apollo’s sanctuary, encouraged my steps to follow a more free and harmonious path. She was, I realized, a teacher. Mules are stubborn pupils, but once our attention is drawn—those slaps I think did that- we are capable of learning. I had best do so, for beyond my new freedoms, and this love with it, I need more dimensions. She gives me hints of them.
We were in the garden now, next to the new fishpond. She stopped walking, waited for me, her eyes searching me, probing the state of my heart and brain. Once again, I was again an issue pending. Loving her, leaning the complex “how” of it, was indeed work. Obviously her loving me was also that. In this short time I have learned that to the love of another is the study and free -willing revision of oneself. It is also the study of the other, devising best strategies for growing reciprocities. In the meantime, at this moment, pondering Helen is to watch sunlight scuttle behind clouds, only to reappear the brighter. The whole sky of her was my challenge.
Once secluded, sanctified seer, priestess mistress to Apollo’s wisdom, princess of the southern Celts, this tentative Sophia bent on testing one sect’s image of the High God, no mean honor to be allowed to survey her sky. As to that Gnostic Him he was, to my still groping mind, but a Form who cast no earthly shadow, deprived of proximal animation. He might well be poetry and the Sophia she of him would also be, but the He of him so lofty and pure, that he was only an Idea comprised of the earthly poet’s pleasure in man-generated enigmas. They had put him too far away from all of earth’s peoples who needed him. What use, day to day, in our struggles, if this Gnostic God was only spirit. some and concentrated amalgam of the the well known lesser gods? They had, least fought, cheated, impregnated and were, being us, understandable. All these flitting creatures were antitheses to the Hebrew Yahweh who responsibly made matter, taught it our manners, and, irascibly as any man, could be disappointed, love, roar. He was poetry, but also surely power, life’s Father.
Helen would be Gnostic for the sake of elevating, defending all women. was clearly not one for the cabalistic. Were there wisdom there to know, as Pythia she had learned from a generous Apollo that it existed to be shared and made practical. Just as with Prometheus. This Helen would have no part in arcane rituals, any cryptography of God, no sale of incantations or ranking of priestesses by degrees of secret knowledge. She did not subscribe, she said so vehemently, to the status doctrine of the more Platonic Gnostics who, already holding the power of talk, saw only themselves as “spiritual”(pneumatics) who were blessed with God’s secret wisdom and thus closer to illumination, freedom. She was explicit, First Corinthians, and some of Paul, she instructed me later, were elitist doctrines. She herself was from a more gracious elite of noblesse oblige who prized life lived well. Emphatically, a woman could serve any god as well as any man, for, among the ancient Greeks women could be equal to men in priesthood, each to his or her own god and locale. Sophia, if so understood, had ancient origins.
Were there wisdom in her grasp it would be given freely but for the pain of truths. I admire her immensely. How drab I am beside her. I envy the reach of her spirit, her easy congress with the other world. In knowing the other world, her own this world is expanded. I would that I could receive gifts like hers. I would that I could be worthy of them. For daily life I need a lighter and more affectionate touch, whereas for these deeper matters, I must have a more profound one, and as I am learning in loving Helen, there is a door to profundity.
She touched my arm, gestured to a stone bench surrounded by flowers, “We could sit here a moment.”
“There is so much before us, but first, since I am curious, I have a question. You are often silent; I presume that you are of a rather abstract frame of mind. Is that so?”
She was the first to size the frame for my mind, or the contents within it. I shrugged,
“I don’t know. I suspect I am looking for something”.
“Inside or out?”
“Empty zones in both. I’m looking to fill them”
“Would you say you tend to the mystical?”
“If I knew what that was, I could give a better reply”
“Oh, I’m not one, so I can only say what others say. I ask because you are so often lost in silences. It is said that those mystical concentrate on things not seen, keep company with Ideas such as the One, have a sense of a spiritual greatness waiting. ‘Union’ is a word they use, the soul of man and, for Christians, the essence of God coming together, the smallest and the greatest merging. They liken the experience to a man and woman being physically together”
“Oh. Well yes, groping perhaps, sensing, glimpses, hopes, but I’m unformed for anything so grand “
“Because I do sense that in you, solid as you think you are, may I tell you my thoughts?”
‘When Apollo would be within me speaking, it was all quite vivid but the colors were mists. I told you, Apollonius gave me a special meal, mushrooms, barley, and then he burned some leaves and seeds. I floated, had visions, then the voice filled me. He came, I was ready and so I just was. Women are earthier creatures. Earth has her representation in us women; it takes no imagery to know that. A man, however unimaginative, enters that cave, leaves, and a baby follows him out. There is mystery in what has happened. A union is and makes a wonder. My woman’s view is that can be no mystic union, unless one party is alive and walks on the earth, real ground. Any true “God” will also have dirt on his shoes. After all, Jesus did. But when there is talk of two married mortals in the act that is ecstatic, man and woman are out of this ordinary place, that is a union that sweats and moans, when those two get off the bed, there had better be two pairs of feet on the ground. Two pairs, not one! That’s what’s wrong with Sophia, her high God part has no dirt on his shoes. Do you understand me, lovely Mule?
She grinned. At least this ignorance of mine didn’t bother her. She said to me, “We had a library in Apollo’s temple. Apollodorus, bless him, translated from the Hebrew to the Greek. Others parchments were originally in Greek. Scraps some of them, but treasures I took home to read. A Jewish worshipper had brought us rare copies of books from who-knows-where. Gnostic fragments of Thomas, Phillip, Egyptians, who knows by whom really? Pythia has had plenty of time to read the Hebrews translated, what little there is of Gnostics, much of it beautiful and, yes mystical. Since my mother did get involved with the Galatian Christian, I heard directly, after all he was in my city, about that mystic Christian Paul who on his Damascus road pulled visions out of the air to stuff and carry his revealed Christ inside him. Lots of advice he gave the Galatians, he was Jewish himself, but wanted no part of them which is a tortured beginning for faith. Conversion is one thing, negation quite another.
I know some Jews. They are passionate in devotion, build their lives around the laws. As any Roman knows, men need their laws. You can’t just go wandering around every which way, your soul gets dizzy and lost out there on it own. As for Paul, I do know he was hardly a friendly fellow, and surely no advocate for sex. I doubt if he ever entered any cave, female or earth’s. Did he ever got married? Well!. That will be my problem with Gnostics; the flesh is real and good, my cave waits, warm, wet and responsive. I can’t hold with a religion that wants you. Mule, not to have my naked legs being around you. I want you to understand, beloved Mule, even before I go to that meeting Simon will hold, that I I know I will be a rebel Gnostic. I like Zeus better, a very rogue of a god going around inseminating. Mule, you will be that much of a rogue, wont’ you?”
She need not have asked. But that she did ask told me that Helen, whether speaking as Apollo or her, was set on great and sensible truths. Here she wanted a straight and simple one. I was aroused, for that provocative talk of her cave brought a hot reaction, but I was too embarrassed to do anything but grunt a rogue’s considerable agreement. Upper class Romans of a certain kind of family are terrible prudes. As for truths, at the palace I govern but having nothing to do with truths great or small, simply budgets, practicalities and equivocations. Most politicians have learned straight and simple speaking, each lie comes out that way.
Truth has no home in the palace, nor in politicians’ mouths.
The dining table was set in a pergola in the garden, one shaded by mimosa, a twining arbor roofing it with of wisteria, jasmine, rhododendron. The pergola was next to one of the larger fish pools where lotus grew, turtles swam, frogs jumped, dragonflies hovered, swallows darted, where life was. We were ever so much at that moment also life. She had told me she hoped I would “become” to “be”. That was happening. I was so open to the colors, soft sounds, fragrances that there was no boundary between the garden and me. Helen was at my center. Slaves and free servants, waited discretely in the distance. At my gesture they began to bring covered trays of food, and of course wines. We sat on an outdoors couch, a double one covered with Damascus silk.
My servants were hardly fools. They had never set a double couch before, for that is where Romans make love. During Livia Drusilla ’s tenure, no. At stud was enough for her, she hated the horse, well Mule, himself. She reigned in bitterness and adulteries; any intimacy once the baby had been made was denied me. But now, love making in my own garden, the all of it a garland about us, and yet I was stupidly she. . For those not reared prudes, for all the of the Satyricon sort, it does not matter whether servants or humming birds are watching. Indeed, since Romans are creatures of display, that sort enjoyed the arena-like show of it. I was immensely relieved when Helen said, “I’m not a casual woman, Mule, this Helen has never even been to Tyre, What do you say? Let’s have the slaves hurry to bring a few dishes and the wine upstairs. I am asking you to go to bed with me”
Everyone knows I am a difficult person, dense sometimes, socially inept, selfish, overly sensitive, stalwart in rigidity, and of course stubborn. I never take orders from women, never drink wine or eat in my bedroom, not for many years have I made love there, or indeed but for the satisfaction of the need, taken time with a slave girl which is much heavy breathing over the releasing in and out of it, but little sentiment there. As a Roman man of the straight and rude sort, I have had sex but not love. As for a “yes” to Helen’s question then, I damn near fell over getting off our couch. I disturbed a humming bird that snorted at me; a snail whom I hurried curled his warning antlers at me, the lotus flower startled out of basking, frowned, while an impatient branch of mimosa tree irritably waved that I should get on with it. That is how awkward I was. I shouted to the servants to carry food and wine upstairs. I am too conscious of my dignity to run, but was nevertheless breathing hard, for the several good reasons, by the time I reached our bedroom door.
Women always seem so much more calm and competent. They slide into a bed as if they were born there, and indeed, they were. I myself was nervous. Love imagined is one thing, love-making to be performed as love, as caring, another. Here I was immensely heated, fumbling, all quivering thumbs and that other, now sizeable organ. I have had no training for this. Romans do not much believe in romantic love, at best between a man and woman are friendships Sex in marriage brings with it trouble as much as offspring, at my level of family, standing, if there is a marriage and there must be, it is mired in politics, money, is ordered to cast a net for alliances for power. It is also very much for a family show, the “see us” of a good catch. An upper class, Equestrian or higher, marriage is like what horse breeders do, match well blooded sire and dam for breeding. So it had been with the arrangements our parents made for Livia Drusilla and me. Horse people do better; in us they mated me, a resentful non complying stone of a lad, yes, a body sound enough, no sword-scarred face at the time, but not so easy the boy of me who carried in his nostrils the smell of devouring crocodiles. His chosen mate? the imperial cousin Livia living, and already loosely, every minute for her ambition. Not physically attractive-her chest and rump were flat, the only thing that stood out was her anger- it was cunning and corruption that were her honey, this Livia Drusilla was a she-hornet, forever flying about stinging. She smiled at the welts she made.
As Helen and I entered the doorway, I said a silent prayer. I used the embracing nomenclature, “God”, praying, “Help me be as good as she deserves and I wish. Let this begin a marriage”
As she disrobed, as graceful as Artemis/Diana trained by Aphrodite/Venus, I saw she wore a lavender under-dress, against which the white of her ever more revealed body was a gentle contrast. She was a flower.
I had seen before that she was gorgeous, but now she was a goddess. The Troy legend must be true, I had won- or so I thought for the moment- Paris’ prize. Whatever I had seen before, when one’s love undresses before one for the first time, she is all revelation. Languorous now, smiling now, coy and aggressive now, shy and brazen now, she of the golden ginger hair, fine complexioned, fine figured, fine featured, and how those northern blue eyes dared, beckoned, taunted, surrendered. She now shed the lavender of her. I had seen such cloth when campaigning in Gaul, it was flax of which there is none growing hereabouts. About her neck, she untied a pale red silk scarf with piping Pans embroidered on it in darker red. . She kicked off her leather sandals, which had been gold-worked to match her hair. Her belt of intricate gold figures was already tossed to the side. I had seen something like it in Rome, which was said to come from far Kushan. It was a chain of cherubs, arms interlocked, in an orientalized Hellenic style of the sort Alexander’s s goldsmiths made in all the lands he had conquered and to which he brought Hellenic artisans. The belt was priceless. No woman hereabouts or in Rome dressed like this, nor, I am sure, undressed as she did either.
I was stunned. I am ready to become a mystic, for this Helen was persuasion to other worlds of heretofore-unimagined beauty. I would touch the all and throbbing of this one. The mystic union is an ecstasy, which was where my mind was even before we touched. This old man of me really, for I am in this Christian year 127 fifty two years old. My word for it all, insofar flesh, its flame, the heat and love of us, admittedly the mortal side of “ecstatic” not yet Eleusinian, means extraordinarily, magnificently beyond any ordinary mortal place. And so, add “Eleusinian” after all.
Consider it a delicious and sacred madness. We were a partnership of Bacchantes, drunk with life where, for those fortunate to be so-initiated, gods may more readily be seen, (and the Devil too, him more easily!) Drunk with wine there is little retention of any, even one drinking with you at the table. Drunk on love, with my goddess and the One there transcending, I reach for the holy. Earth and her caves, the all high god, a woman and a man come together, a seamless expanded beauty becomes possible. She was naked on the bed. I was upon her, no exalted satyr, Pan, roguish Zeus, or handsome Adonis, him born here in Syria and so beloved by a parade of goddesses that an Adonis any lover might like to be, but for the fact he was slain young. No matter, here only this Mule. We were, in a moment, coupling and sworn.
I will not attempt to describe her beauty as flesh aroused, yielding, enveloping, beckoning, accepting, responding, embracing. Ovid, our poet, appreciated passion in its extremes. In its greatest form his poems show us how it moves from a man’s totality to metamorphose as spirit itself, then live forever as poetry, legend and myth. This Helen whom I was astride, beside, behind, a totality of penetrations, this Helen herself astride, beside, beneath and before me, we enveloped one another. Our intertwining was from every angle and in all complementary, as fish fit water, as birds fit sky, as spring rains become the flowers, these conforming synchronies are a magical anatomy.
We lived that perfecting time in our then eternity. I swore every possible lover’s oath to her. She smiled and stroked, kissed my everywhere. She opened her every self to me with cries of angels shouting out of Heaven, with moans that would release the very shades from Hades. If shades, with her the all and any of their eternal thirsts be satisfied. She was pulsing life and any shade wandering nearby ought be contagiously resurrected.
The tribal history of Helen joins the continents, for out of Celtic Europa, she came to be born in Galatian Asia. Insofar as she is European, the gods there have few mysteries and no eternity, as with the Romans, pretending indifference, living totally the now. The Orient is full of religions promising the spirit forever. Asia is the continent of deeper knowings. Once during the night while we were whispering mountains of rock sugar candies to one another, she said,
“I will be near you forever”
I felt she spoke from another world, one where there were indeed “forever’s” She knew what I did not. She would lead me there, indeed the gift of wisdom, be that Pythia, Sophia, any Chthonic earth goddess earlier, or grant the universal knowledge that emanates from their stewardship of the womb, any serious woman at all.
My contented mind wanders, for the joy in Helen spurs magnification to the greater dimension of which she, and by virtue of her, I may be part. From the reports I read, their few texts, conversations with Balthus after his foray, some of the Christians, have the conceived architecture of passions joining the flesh and spirit, the immediate with the grand. This begins with the union of man and woman, but like all mysteries, must be reflected upon and expanded to be appreciated. There must also be some instruction in its elevation and metaphor, or indeed as a key. For such matters I grant priests and their texts utility. The more so since intercourse is so common, as is its characterization vulgar, much of its pursuit venal and, as with Eros girls, commercial. It takes sanctification and some formalization for the parties to appreciate how much they receive from one another, and the One should he be present in the grace of it. I am coming to believe such things. To convert ordinary lust, thence ordinary love to a window on lasting beauty is a priestly thing, although poets, whatever ill Plato thought of them, can bestow the same gift. Now that I rest beside Helen sated, joyful, reflecting, I am reaching for these expansions to our freedom for I feel we are in the anteroom to a far grander place. A splendid thing, for when our physical bodies separate, we are bound on a journey together.
I lie here so content that thought amuses me, for Helen sleeps now. I think of her exploratory play with Simon’s Gnostics, not for faith but for Simon’s show, for the sake of women, and because she feels a proud public duty. And of course, there is polished showmanship to her, for Pythia played to the whole of Empire, Helen of Troy to history, Mary Magdalene to all of earth and Heaven; I am aware now of her several genuine talents.
One of the clerks in the palace is a serious Gnostic, hardly Simon’s kind. He was explaining that he thinks of Christ as energy, lightening is their example, or the wind. Only words to play with, a philosopher’s game, I told him, but insisted that if movement, which energy is, then if at all useful on this plagued earth it must be capable of being transformed to the material or, otherwise said, being energy in another form, all of which might be names for their God. Lust is energy that transformed makes a baby! Love is energy which transforming cares for the baby. Helen and I are too old for such a blessing now, or so I fear, but if a child comes, we will all be that miracle
I lie here next to Helen. She breathes softly. We talked a bit of poetry. Helen allows me to understand our great poet Ovid’s insight that out of love and orgasm comes appreciation of the sweat of god. Ovid’s poetry is of transformation; Helen is the being of it. This business is difficult for me. I have never been a man for exaltation. Plain talk and little of it has been my credo. That is not enough. I must move from the concrete to the glorious, must credit Helen and Ovid for help on those travels. There may be emanations of Ovid here in Antioch. This great man, Rome’s only poet of passion and metaphysics, was exiled. Rome has that capacity to expel all good in it. There is dispute about where Ovid resettled, was sad thereby, and died, but some say it was in Antioch. A good choice for a poet of flesh and transcendence. Antioch, the city of pleasures, faiths and mysteries, all here chum for competing gods. That should have pleased him, although no one who was once great there, and then exiled from Rome, can but despair the misery of exile. That is not my case. As I have said, I dislike the city of Rome, and I have come to appreciate the reach of Syrian experience. I reflect on those Christians of Ignatius; I approve their command to kindness, elevating even beyond a social and moral duty to the imitation of their God. I regret it takes a god-idea, and the threat of doom, to enforce what is good for humans, god or no. There is some richness in their myth, or if it is more than that, one must acknowledge gift and miracle. Balthus will be disgusted with my tentative metaphysics. I wonder about them myself.
Helen is lovely in her sleep, slowly undulating as I hold her, her back to me curving, she conforms her body to mine. I fondle her. Our rhythm slowly begins. She moans sweetly unto and beyond awakenings. The flesh, turned sweet in riot, so wet exhausted, so new to each moment of us, expands us beyond itself, ourselves. At one earlier time I fantasized a future, did not realize the already dimensions of what has come is the miracle two people with each other can be. We are temples erected in worship, yes of flesh, but compelling awareness that a greatness from which we are borrowed must have fashioned us. Yes, we are precious offerings, our own sweet and spice of frankincense and myrrh, being hecatombs of beads of steaming sweat, for we were and again will be hot fires, reduced contently to glowing embers of beasts. We gave each other our offerings; we are temples in which we received one another.
As for time, it was boundless. Of course she is my already legend, Helen of Troy the least of her epiphanies. I say the temple at Ephesus to Artemis was built to honor her, for what Helen is, is a wonder of this world. She is Delphi, for in her the world is born, my world realized. We are, for these moments, masters of time and space. We are the sea and Zarathrusta, being seats of moistures and fires. My lips are on her altars all this night, the effervescence of her fragrances lights and burns my candles. Her lips know my body better than my skin itself. Skin is a faithful cover, lips- which can be unfaithful - bring transient joy. Tonight we are a flame, which we wish might be bright forever. Part of the beauty of it is sadness, for a kind of mourning defines these moments. We know our candles, the rows of them that our moments are, will burn out. When this chain of candles are but blackened, crumpled wicks, we will exist only as memories. In the knowledge of that is the fact of death.
I know why Heaven is defined as our continuing.
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