Caravans and Decision
I, BALTHUS, Secretary to Sempronius Scipio Cornelius, write from my notes taken after my visit to Simon’s tent show. and a later dinner at the Mule’s home. There I had told him a story or two. On his dining room table there were several copies of Helen’s talk. One scroll was already well worn. It was Helen on his mind,. I had told him the truth, that I had come away from Simon’s so called ‘funeral society’ meeting more impressed by Helen than I wished to be. The people there considered her at least quasi-immortal. (The term is a common one, but I have never figured how the “quasi” is supposed to work). It is more than flattering that they find in her in some aspect of the holy. “Holy” is not so far from “frightening”, as any one who believes it deserves to bring down upon himself. My own opinion did not flatter the locals for thinking so ridiculously. No one at the tent show would have known she had been Pythia, but she’d carried herself as befitted a woman so vested, and, as I recall from my own immediate, now I know it was the show of it and I was silly- reaction. I credit her performance nevertheless. That she had not only been a priestess-princess of Apollo, but one of Celtic/Gaulic/Galatian royalty in her own right, was training for confidence, elegance, arrogance. And I am sure she was, in her own way, close to the supernatural, the other world, which, I must grant, likely exists somehow. For that crowd, this woman was sacred to Sophia. That she was haughty was to be expected, have the gods, or the aristocracy, ever been otherwise?
We were sitting in the garden. The dark was lit by torches. The glass which held our wine was the best Phoenician, thin, prismatic under the light. The wine had hints of rainbow as a result. I was taking a chance saying it, but it was on my mind. “Boss, this Helen has you captivated. She did the same with Simon’s crowd, even before she spoke. What do you think, could she be not only princess, but a witch?” I added, I do know a thing or two about witches” I made an effort to say it with a smile, as if teasing, but the idea, the worry of it, was a serious one. Helen’s obvious powers, so evident but ill-defined, made me ill at ease. I knew I was out of order bringing it up to the man who loved her, but any woman who would tie up with Simon for any reason, had to be poison for an honest man like S. Cornelius. If poison, well, what kind of women dispense that stuff? I don’t think my smile was a success, more of a grimace, the way a horse’s mouth twists when he sneezes.
The Mule and I were close enough now so that I hoped I could get him thinking without his wanting to throw me out of the house first. Startle is good for love-sick minds,
He was startled enough. Shocked, ready to get really heated, and yes, maybe I had gone too far. I thought maybe if I scurried into fast talk, a story to the point, that might do it. A story is about as important a way we have of moving minds, pointing them. There’s an art in the telling and the listening, or the reading, unlike any other. A story can change a life, or even be a life.. I plunged ahead, told him a true one about a witch of whom I had known. I launched:
“During my military service one of my men had shacked up with some eastern woman named Medea. Curious name for a woman to keep, eh? She lived by herself which was rare, even suspect, in villages thereabout. The villagers had warned the soldier she was a witch and a schemer, knew the healing and the killing herbs, that sort of thing. My man told me what they’d said, that he put no store by it, bragged to me she was the best in bed he’d ever had, that
even Venus couldn’t compete. A good cook too, he said. All this visiting domestic pleasure of his didn’t continue, for he became ill, no diagnosis for it, but he kept getting weaker and sicker, and wasn’t worth a damn for duty. Our military doctor gave him some herbal potion against poison, in case it were that, ordered him not to see her, in case bewitchment was the cause, but nothing helped. The best guess was that he was under a spell, which among its effects tied his tongue to silence. Well, he died.
The villagers came to me, said he’d had a baby with the witch.. He didn’t tell me that part, be sure. They explained to me that the witch, Medea, was furious because our soldier told her his legion century were under to leave this camp, which was rue but not for a few months, that wouldn’t be back because he had a wife and family at home. As for supporting her, for money, he told her she could look out for herself. He didn’t tell me, his commander, that part either. As for Medea, the villagers told me her revenge; she killed, gutted, cooked, basted, sliced and fed him the baby. At the beginning of the meal she told him it was a piglet. As he finished the last bite, he told her how fine it had tasted. She told him it was his son. He went mad, clawed the skin off his own throat, bled, dripping some of the skin of him all the way staggering back to camp where he collapsed and died. Medea was gone when we sent a squad for her the next morning. A neighbor woman said she’d seen her fly out of the window in the form of a harpy. The villagers say the hut in which Medea lived was full of poisons. No one dared go in.. Within a week the house burned itself down. There were bones in the ashes, human bones.
Now, was this Medea a witch or not? How does one ever know? Once a person is fascinated by one, it’s too late..
Cornelius ignored my questions, “As commander, what did you do?”
We had marching orders, soon off to Africa. There was no Medea to find, our man was dead, there wasn’t much else to do. We had a decent tombstone carved for him, planted him in the military cemetery, and were off to war. A man knows what to do fighting a war, but fighting a woman like Medea, no thank you. If the man had come clean with the whole story, before the horror, I would have pulled him out of her reach. I talked to some of the villagers. I can tell you they knew their Medea. Boss, these sort of women live a long long time, are forever spirits They do. fascinate ” I stopped, I was thinking something I couldn’t say,
“Out with it, friend, what were you going to say?
I couldn’t answer him honestly, so spoke sideways, “For myself I tried never to hook up with anyone strange or fancy. Just simple girls for me.” I was thinking ‘enchantress” and whom I feared might be one.. Then I did say,
“Boss, read Homer for the list, most of the men in Troy were killed, the women enslaved, early-departing Aeneas and his followers excepted. Homer tells of a trail of dead and a city destroyed. Homer puts it all on Paris, and then Achilles, Agamemnon, the warring gods. A different angle I’ve heard is that that Helen seduced Paris when he was in her palace, and demanded he steal her away. Now, think on Magdalene, consider the Golgotha story; she walked away from the cross to leave Jesus staring at his nailed feet. No loving vigil to keep him company. She visited him in his tomb. He returned from the dead. What if he wasn’t doing this to prove resurrection for mankind, but that he was so much in love she drew him back to her from the dead? What if she had powers enough to bring him back? Since I don’t believe much that people tell me, try to reason things out on my own; I’d say Jesus in love is a more human and likely reason, or Jesus fascinated.. The point is, that way and it makes sense to me. Take you, for example, Boss, if you could return from the dead to see your Helen if she were waiting for you, wouldn’t you do it?
He stared down at the table, nodded, “Yes, I’d do it.”
If you were dead, and she had the power to bring you back out of love, would you want that”?
“But what if the Jesus story the way the Christians believe it is so, that you could be in heaven together forever, would you still need to worry so much about being with her now?”
“Yes. Time on earth is precious, Balthus, more precious when you’re in love. Every moment with her is precious. How would I know what heaven would be like for lovers? I don’t hear the Christians talking much of sex in Heaven, The ‘now’ of it is all I know, or want so much to know of her with me, Balthus, if that feeling is fascination, if every woman loved by a man is a witch for it, well, , she’s bewitched me as any woman does a man” He paused, “No, that’s not quite so, she’s bewitched me as no other woman could, and, whatever I hear of others’ love, my sense is that mine is different.”
“Exactly, Boss, and that’s why Helen worries me. “
“I don’t believe in witches, Balthus, as for being ‘bewitched’ that’s just a word, not a metaphysical likelihood”
Maybe yes, maybe no. Like it or not, there are immortals, and whatever they really are, deities, demons, and willful forces. Regarding the Media person who poisoned my trooper; I have no idea if what the villagers from that East Danube country told me of their Media was true, but they were convinced enough, my trooper was dead enough, to convince me that the essence of their story was true. The story of a woman like that, and some poor fool of a man like that, is going to be true time and again, there was, is, and will be Medeas. Stories can be more true than we are, Boss, because they can contain all of us, and tell more truth than we do. And then again, all lives are stories, our lives are all stories, , what I tell you, what we tell each other, and very important, what we don’t tell but what some story widely told as story knows about us, about everyone. If we all have similar stories, come from the same village, or being Romans or Germans and the like, we recognize our lives as common and our stories true, including the same lies we tell one another. I take the first Medea story as, later, Euripides wrote it, as basically true. Scheming, passionate women do lots of damage, the Greeks did trade and raid eastward, sisters kill brothers, wives kill rivals and their own babies in a rage, men give women every reason to hate them and hate their offspring flesh. There is immense drama built into lives so why not acknowledge that Medea and idiot soldier of mine in the village where we were stationed? I say listen to the Medea and Magdalene stories, if they are not about us now, they may soon be. Truth in the art of them. Socrates told Thrasymachus the art of a thing is in the service it does, or its artist does, for others.
“We are all stories, then? Is that what you say, Balthus?”
“Any telling of us to anyone, including ourselves, is a story. You, S. Cornelius, are surely a story and, as certain as I sit here with you now, we are a true story, as true as humans are, as try as art will tell, as the greater truth of the idea in the story of any of us which, if people only listen, read, serves them. Our moments speed by so fast, there is really no grasping them, but the idea which telling them, or us, does by way of capturing and holding them, allowing them realized by being captured, told, read, sculpted, painted, even sung about. Whatever we are at the moment experiencing ourselves, that flees. It is our memory and constant senses that give us ourselves. Others, looking, reading, hearing know us as images. We get nothing of ourselves that clear but in the mirror. What others see seems clearer, although of course it’s not substantial either.
We are all ghosts in one another’s minds, not even that in our own minds, but for when we are a proximal cause of action, like shaving, from which we deduce we have done it. A caravan of ghosts, Boss, and yet no one can budge us from knowing we are all real. So then, what’s so strange about a more interesting ghost, Medea or Julius Caesar, what you told me of your Livia Drusilla ? I won’t forget what you said of her thirst for imperial connections, the social whirl of the court, for power and prestige, all these mindful of the clamoring thirst of shades in Hades. In being alive she is luckier, but in my mind, for I have never met her, the idea of her from your story is quite real. With her in mind, I know the shades in Hades better.
Boss, there are ghosts alive in my brain. You or I, you, of my dead brother Tuisto, they, as we are all are a lively inhabitants of the necropolis of our minds. They come to us in dreams, walk about inside us daily. They make up the stories of our lives. We are busy connecting our own sentences as we piece and roll up; store the parchment that keeps the story whole. And, yes, we certainly do write on each other’s pages. If we are entirely written by someone else we are his or her living forgeries. Your father might have wanted that, Mule, but you kept tearing up his pages. That is wise of you. There are many dangerous stories that lives are trying to write. Do you understand what I am saying here, Boss?”
“Balthus, you can be too complex for me. You are wonderfully literate for a self-taught man, and for a man so good with a knife. You speak eloquently, much more so than I. You have great depths, Balthus, I am rather sure I don’t want to plumb them all. There may still be that north German damp darkness moldering somewhere. Your Medea comes out of those cold, foggy bogs ever bit as much as out of her father Aetes of Colchis, and yes, a daughter skilled in witchcraft she was; you say ‘is’, but then she flew right out of her Danube window and, with your story, landed right here. You give me a chill with it, but not Helen, she gives me no chills at all. Nevertheless, you do not offend me. I appreciate your protective good will, and as for stories, well, why not?”
“Thanks, Boss, you give my farmer’s mind a pigeon’s perch to fly off from.”
“Fly as you will, Secretary, I am too fascinated by Helen to have your wings’ melodramatic brush scratch my skin, or hers. Indeed, no one has yet called her Medea, and I know you really don’t think she’s that bad, so the more your fantasy soars to her powers- imagine you give enough love and attraction to her to bring a man, this sweet Jesus fellow, back to life. How could I not be taken with a woman who, even in your damp, dark German mind, could to that? No, good Secretary, the very idea of it makes my mind soar. There’s the ghost of a story for you, fluttering about entertaining. Will more wine help?” A slave moved to pour, but S. Cornelius, far more genial after my Medea warning than I had intended, did the work a good host should.
S.Cornelius did surprise me. He took to soaring instead of offense, and my luck in that. I’d press on a bit, he seemed to be encouraging it, although I must say, calling me ‘Secretary’ which was as impersonal as one could get, warned me he was miffed. I took another chance, for I did mightily suspect and dislike this woman.
Alright then, about this Helen, of course she is marvelous. She creates herself a caravan of stories accompanying her. I grant she doesn’t discourage soft doubts about them. I’m a suspicious spymaster, after all, so I ask to what she might be pretending beyond not denying outright the legends which she wears, yes granted, not worn when she is with you, but quite adorning her in Simon’s stagecraft. In the tent show, where there was this new ‘legend’, signed on her throne, , “Magdalene”, I don’t put it past her that it was, for that ignorant mob, an extravagant tease, ‘Do you really believe this?’ Since they seemed to, even if she was saying with it, , ‘it’s theater, you’re a fool if you believe any of it, this is our story-making hour,’ well then, they proved themselves all fools. I agree.
Now, to her credit and impressive to me, she was not making or assuming fools when she preached. There she presented, in that deep, silver of her voice, stuff of the sort a poet reads, or a clever priests sells. And so now, your view I’d think, Boss, compare her with Simon, his story.
I spoke to S. Cornelius in a softer voice now, for fear he would find me boring, lest he wish to enjoy his wine with none of my thought mixed in. As to Simon then, his attracting magic is magnetism, but his sly cat tongue licks the acquiescing fools into purring as if they were safe. Once in range of his voice, he sings promises, teases and tempts with offerings, most of all, he excites. Excited, the fly must buzz, bound, zoom. The fly requires attractants. Simon provides, is himself the honey. Dancing, music, so both eye-capturing and ear binding rhythms help the spell. This Simon spider weaves a web of sound and sight around his fly. He dooms with charm, is generous with promises they will pay for, and because he is their weakness, they will make every effort to forgive. The story of Simon, all like him, are seek offerings, welcome as water to the thirsty. Historians are the ones after wards writing for the rare wise, whose teaching history is the story of those Simon ones, of flies being caught and sucked dry by spiders.
Be grateful for the storyteller who only beguiles, who leads on the imagination but has no interest in stealing your purse while at it. We are beholden to playwrights, novelists, the story tellers in the market place, for they lead us down marvelous roads of invention, and if to truths, which is often so, the tears we shed are not for ourselves. In contrast, laughter which comes is ours, as may be some lessons. If lessons, they do not press upon us, we can contemplate them at leisure. Stories carry us to other worlds but however serious the story, truths of tragedy told, they are only ghosts of events. It is an easy dimension the storyteller opens us to, a private conspiracy of irresponsibility, since there is no intrusion of demand or duty. The storyteller and his listener share in the fiction which as only as much mystery in it as we elect. If we choose to learn, then there is work and pain in it. And with Simon stories, warning.
The story has one great advantage over more serious paths which also lead to other dominions, domains, dimensions Religion again comes to mind, for it must have its story, for without that, belief would be hard pressed to organize and signify itself. With a story we make no commitments, but only perhaps to see the play again. We place no reliance, but perhaps confidently to invite a friend along. We allow as many truths as poets, playwrights and old women before the family hearth may understand, conjure, convey. These are truths for the nodding of “yes,” or the tears of “oh my”, but we are not bound to any or one of them. The companions of stories invite us to sample and indulge, but are due no oath -swearing, tithing, humility. The story allows us wonder without fear. At least that is so until we see ourselves in it. The story teller is a forgiving person, he allows us to walk away from ourselves, chides no one over denials, is not even too troubled when he, or she is pooh-poohed from the discomfort o when stories come too close to the listener’s own truths.
In contrast, considering now magic as a baser, pedestrian, more cunning substrate to religion, examine the binding curse. The exercise of it is a business; those cast are victims who make no election as all. It is an application of power when no other means is available. It is exploitation by conjuring. At best it is at the level of demons, more likely it identifies compulsions of nature whereby nature is tricked. It binds, but in captivity. The proof that it is shallow is that there is no story to it. What binds is like a rope, it is a foreign externality, a tool. .
Religion also “binds” as indeed is the very root of our Latin, “religare”, to bind. One cannot overlook that the same action is attributed to magic. The difference is that in religion the parties, are taken both to be committing, volunteering, aware, where the outcome is intended good for all so bound. In magic, only the one who pays the witch is aware, the victim is hardly that, hardly free-willingly ensnared, nor s for his, her own benefit. In religion, we are if not Simons changing precincts for exploitative self-advantage, assumed to s genuine, committing ourselves to another, for some religions, the other, or the Other. The relationship is of two beings, lesser and greater to be sure, but mutually committing to loyalty and love. Now there is a story, indeed the basic life story retold many way, essentially, two parties who love. Or a family of lovers, several gods and all of mankind. It is the best of stories. In it there is suspense, uncertainty, clues in a treasure hunt and wise guides to whom to turn. The story develops; the how of parties coming to be and love, their novitiate moving to mature intimate meetings, what art they use to portray the other, and, always an end beyond the growth and now, what will the outcome be? As in true love, the forever us wish is enacted. What ever suspense in the story, and these are required as unknowns, upon hearing the story often, or even once when we are in great need, we will delight in the story, learn from it, and often, as is intended, believe.
As for Helen, first in her bold new class of enfranchised holy Magdalenes, she speaks with a punch, needs no more than that, for she is the story herself. People who see her see that aura of everything they have ever heard about her. We have seen her in several attributions on Simon’s stage, but her sun outshone his. That vivifying day she was the actress in her own play about herself, but as the best of playwrights do, she incorporated all women, as well such men who cared for them, action. On stage with her then, she invited all women to be Magdalene, Sophia, with Paris in Troy with her. As subtext, I am told most women have fantasies about being luminous whores, the attribute; “whore of Tyre” was dangling in her aura as well.
Any good story demands to be retold. Look, in this Book we are still writing about her. A story has a long life, which is what Helen assures the play of her is. She fashioned herself center stage not simply but for the moment where one is, but as a pivot point in histories, here Troy’s and with Jesus, thus Christianity’s in being, Magdalene loving as companion to the cross. The Gnostic Christians have little history yet, but Wisdom does and it is Athena’s. As for the whores of Tyre, those bawdy bowsprits on Phoenician ships are pride fully commemorative. Note, Helen of her all her aura of attributes is not simply historically mindful, the ‘ah yes” of Troy or of Nazareth to Golgotha. Wherever she is she is the story that is the history, carries it, might if she were of a mind too- and feeling Helen enough- sit a child on her knee and be the history speaking, “I was there, this is how it was”
She is not, a blessing to be sure, eager for clear claims or any confrontations. She alludes, encourages as any good story does, and encourages the audience to make their own stories out of the ambiguities of hers. The audience rewrites her stories to please themselves. That there is frivolity in it delights. The stories that a serious religion needs are too somber. They all argue the path to one or another kind of happiness, but they are without playfulness. How welcome is a subtle Helen whose play of course is strikingly overbold, cheers on a moment of credulity, is an extravaganza lending romance to the immortal. The Olympian myths do the same. But as with only the best of stories, she uses the moment of entertainment to preach serious matters. That God is also woman? That women are wisdom and equal? That in this Christ syncretic one observes in an historical moment flowing now to us, but in him, for those with sight, revealing the historical flux of gods ever flowing, becoming the all-one, and in that becoming the new and wonderful, not contradiction but final resolution.
These are no small claims. She makes a grander tale than at first I thought I, a Balthus, could forgive her only insofar as I can be indifferent but she disallows that. I do not forget my earlier humiliation, now it is her indifference here to what she knows must by my, and surly the Mule’s. The drama of her is indiscrete Her conceit will not escape consequences. In contrast to her after all seriousness, Simon entertains. The crowd will not forgive his lies if they catch him, but for enjoying the drama of him so much. Helen enthralls but if her views are understand for what they are, radical, disrespectful of custom and the status quo, a re-instructed audience will know themselves as suspect fools in having attended to her. Her beauty and, I grant her sincerity not evident in her appellations, make it worse, for the crowd admired her, some inevitably lusting, and they will take her to have mocked them in that weakness. That is fury’s soil. Each one disappointed looking at the other will say “I saw you there, you fool”
The world is a tough place, remorseless. High stake games usually end in higher stake losses. Helen, in being so confidently princess and once Pythia, wears her beauty easily, is amused by her appellations, and can thank some arrogance of birth and accomplishment for her ability to commit to this tawdry escapade with Simon. As sudden priestess she had a bully pulpit to argue what women are, their wisdom, the rightness of a two sexed God grown beyond the Hebrew’s patriarch, and to propose a timeless Christ, composite and reincarnate. She neither embraced nor made light of that story, her respect was almost too serious for the tenor of this crowd. In deriding Simon’s japery, smile as he did derisively, she has made herself another enemy. I am one, he is another. Her certainty will no doubt have recruited others. “
I apologized to S. Cornelius. That bit of humility from this , ‘Secretary” he called me and I didn’t like his put-me-in-my-place use of it, would do our relationship good. I must realize that I am neither more than I should be or aspire to be that, both unbecoming to a German farm boy and a mere Secretary. I had been swept away by myself. . I had reached out for, perhaps shown eloquence not fitting a Suebian peasant who must, however pleasant the friendship with a superior, be mindful that nobility has set aside as prerequisites for itself –whether or not ever employed--most that is tasteful, elegant, gracious. The better stories, as are the better poets, are the possessions of that class. I must be careful, even with S.Cornelius, perhaps especially so, lest his invitation to familiarity breed my indiscretion and his annoyance. Class is deeper than friendship in the Roman world. I had earlier written something more for him which was in my cloak pocket. I did not give it to him.
“For a North German farm boy, Balthus my friend, you think a lot, make an interesting story, invent some of Helen that I know is not there. The way you view things, should you ever write of me- for clearly you have the storyteller’s talent- there would be as much of you hidden in it as there is pretense of me. Even so, I like your putting it that we are all stories telling one another and ourselves. It is a lucky tale if coherently told, with not too bad an ending, and not too much in it of which to be ashamed, concluding honorably before our parchment is rolled up, filed, and joins other dust.
“I will do your story Boss, or maybe you mine, since the last one to roll up the parchment writes the story his way. I’d say all such stories are caravans, their content varies from treasure to staples, and always there are counterfeit goods inside, Our contents, everything that fills us and much of that is of our own manufacture, sustains our caravan. The chain of our being crosses many boundaries on, if we are lucky, long journeys and allows us be lively over time, observant each moment of where we are, yet always looking ahead to the horizon imagining where it is we shall travel, best not knowing at what point the gods, the Fates, decide we have arrived. These are protean caravans, just as are the ones on the Silk Road that come here from Ch’ang-an, that land of the Seres, (Cathay) for the caravan is always changing drivers, beasts, guards as they move from one land to another, changing content too- as items are traded. So much changes, but perhaps for the silk and spice of it as theme and purpose, that the caravan is the moving idea of it, perhaps envisioned for a moment from its tracks, but these are soon covered unless it travels on a Roman road of stone. But then, on such a busy road and engineered, there are no tracks at all. That is true, I think, that the more the building and the Empire, the risk fewer of us with tracks to show. To counter that we write.
The story of a life is that caravan, No one seeing its, let alone hearing only of its a beginning, a middle or an end knows but some tellings of it, especially not ourselves since before endings we are incomplete, as we approach endings we forget, as old people do, most of what has gone before. Even so, an old one who has seen much may have the gift of constructing pictures of a caravan, an artistic composite if you will that while it is no one caravan, makes a composite “it” of all of them. An old one doing that makes its trail of ghosts so clear a picture, vivid in its telling, that we are satisfied. While a caravan is its journey, a satisfying story of lives will do more than tell of that, it will make lively images of our ghosts, and make all parchments seem whole scrolls, no matter how many pages are missing, or counterfeit, or particularly agreeable since, as with Medea, the myth as essence is the most credible life. Who is to gainsay that?
“And so, Boss, having made my speech almost in defense of Helen, where stand you now on consequential matters?
“Balthus, you claim to be a simple man, you are not. You are a most practical man. I allow that but say that is just the beginning of you. You acquaint yourself with the gods but you claim to admit only logic and good sense. You agree to magic, speak passably well of religion, but distrust both. In contrast, I am a man who has never quite been sensible, and although eminently well behaved although that is not enough to make my peers count me one of them. They are right in that, for what you would call the caravan of my life up to very recently, has been light on cargo, protesting as to following the customary Roman road. What seemed but mirage I now sense as likely real. I sense my better path and place, one I am now free to move toward. It is not by any means an ordinary Roman road, it is Greek, Hebrew, Oriental and also of quite new construction. I own, since that could occur no where else, it is Roman, I say, the new Roman.
I have pondered your metaphors to the point they are frayed with wear. I ask you not saddle this Mule by them more. Respecting Helen, whom I know to be no more immortal than any of us, Your ‘witch” of her is mischievously amusing. She might be amused herself, but hardly the Medea part. I myself think ‘light shadowed’ is closer to the mark. As for her public presentation, not at all the private one, it is the exuberant drama of her person and the lively tease of her mind, which plays with, adopts, as you would say, as characters in her story. I. She delights in elastic images of potentials. The rest of us are much more stolid. Unlike her, I am much too dull to allow any proclamation of myself as my own imaginary companion. She has the gift of being both an entertaining and Protean,, whereas I am cursed to be a Mule. And worse, don’t mind much what stall I am in. Unless I am swept away by a flood, I trudge along, although now I can stop balking and, thanks to Helen, beginning as Apollo’s clear-sighted Pythia, has encouraged me. A mule of my sort, given his freedom in a green enough pasture, upon feeding. is likely to lay down, stare at the sky dream rather than run wildly over the meadows. You know I am, at least til now, a methodical mule, nothing wild at all.
I am in consequential process, Balthus, I am not arrived,. The nearer moment of it is, thanks to you, Balthus, when you had transcribed and gave me her talk at Simon’s otherwise gaudy show. You see my copy already worn with fingering and thought there on my table.”
He nodded to the parchment roll I had seen when I came in. There was gravity to his face when he said, “She spoke well. As I divine my way along a parallel path, its end, should I arrive there, is hardly an approved one. I hope you will be understanding.”
I didn’t tell him I had little hope of understanding him. Whatever glimmerings of his possibilities I would not forecast this man. I considered it unlikely that one of the most honorable men in all Empire could choose a path that this farm boy would not tolerate. Not the I which I am. After all, my morals are convenient, my honesty dictated by my boss,, my drunkenness is constrained only as long as my memory of its last occasion—Daphne and Eros, recall me there? As long as these override my thirst. Moreover, my ambition tolerates considerable expediency. I praise myself to say I did not plan it so, but my friendship with S. Cornelius, as sincere as it is, has done me a world of palace good. I am much less indifferent to that than he is, but then he ranks high, and I do not, could be higher, and achieves it by the luck of birth, and the good sense, however much he complains, of doing what is expected of a rich warrior aristocrat.
Should his plan anticipate leaving the civil service, for I know he is bored, I will not be surprised. I can envision those Mule hoof prints straying now that some lovely fresh oats are nearby. I will not likely be disadvantaged. He has trained me, been a model of sedulous service. I am bright enough and not without will or cunning. I know the office drill. His palace successor is a practical dolt, he and I have had our talk. As for where some flood might carry the Cornelius Mule, given what rumour says the Emperor Hadrian owes to and thinks of him, he will land lightly. Unless he himself erupts with the disease of an imperial ambition, which kills most who catch it, he will be fine anywhere in Empire. If it is only Helen’s bed which he plans to travel to, in fact her in his, he makes too much of the ordinary. His curse, as I see it, is that he curses his good luck. That is a luxury only a Cornelii can indulge. There it is: wealth, command, courage, admiration by the troops, personal appeal (remember the crowd at the Cretan games?), power, all sum to a reputation of which he thinks so little. Even those who dislike him for his idiosyncrasies, his doubt-plagued soliloquies, those who deride his Cato-like moral rigidity, all of them nevertheless respect him for what he is, and, m oreso, envy him for what he has. They also envy him for what he could become. He is saved the sharper edges of that envy because of his flaws. He flaunts his indifference. This hero of the legions, this direct descendent of those great whose names he bears, and social reforming inclinations he follows, those Gracchii, well, a bunch of bleeding hearts I say. Oh my, this poor Quaestor who almost exclusively governs Syria while newly promoted to Proconsul, the Governor Publius Marcellus is taking it easy. S.Cornelius is an indifferent winner, it isevident he is without ambition. He proves it by making a spectacle of himself, rejecting opportunities that others bribe and conspire for, some have killed for. That irritable, lofty, sour, privileged, socially conscious, murderous as well heir to the Cornelius name, by his patrician casualness, ridicules all of those jealous ones, as if he intended it. Well, I grant that whatever happens around us, we presume it is the intention, usually the nasty intention of some player. In that, about S. Cornelius, those chewing the cud of blame, err. They do not comprhend him.. But I understand them, and I almost understand him, oh yes, for all the good it does me.
I must say he has been good to me, trusting, frank, democratic as no man of his rank has ever been before, all this my good fortune. Yet his egregious disinterest in advance makes a mockery of my own ambition. I am a crude fellow for it, am I? And so, this Cornelii has no ambition, eh? Something of the sort was said about Brutus, was it not?
What is there intent within this chrysalis that would perfect itself to some conceived imago? What is this decision by our caterpillar hero so self consciously, long laboriously intent on transformation? I can tell from his look. Metamorphosed, this evening the doubt was gone, no Drusus -look lingering. For all his distress over Helen having not spread herself permanently in his bed, he is yet a more satisfied man, free he says, and now exalted by her ideals for women turned equal, no, godly. As Magdalene she slept with Christ, she knows it, he does not. Who there, in that story, is the smarter? And Jesus, the Cynic, decrying wealth and the material world has, were any of it true, an actress Magdalene who can sail close to plebian winds, even while wearing expensive dresses, the best of jewelry. Worshippers want their goddess well dressed. Ah, these sympathetic rich. Neither of them ever felt the north wind, Baltic cold, of my house when I was a child. They have much of this heart’s generosity in common, no self-denial in it. No wonder they are peas in the platinum pod. Helen is another damn Gracchii I’d say. Wreck the family she will, make women into kings, not even queens. I say a woman belongs where she belongs, where a man says she belongs, not where some spoiled princess tells her she should aspire to be. Oh, I confess, I do have a fit of pique upon me, Am I unfair to S. Cornelius? Perhaps, but I am one for order, the Roman order. It has been good for me, with a little luck, if I play it right, no treason in my, understand, it may turn out even better. The both of these spoiled aristocrats bent on reform are a plague. She’s the one who’s noisy about it. Women are. If he gets up on a monumental bronze horse, shouts at all, his voice will carry over the Empire. It will hurt my ears, if not more. I much prefer the status quo, nudging it of course my way..
So, what might this Mule, electing now to fly, choose to do? Will he forsake the world to sail to the sacred island of Delos to be the lonely guardian at the Temple of the Unknown God? Will he sit in desert sands to transcribe what the Sphinx, taking not it is S. Cornelius himself there, might finally reveal? Might he out of self-cure write an intimate life of his own father such as to make Suetonius, the biographer of terrible emperors, be shamed for hagiography? I know he would like to kidnap Helen as Paris did, (or be seduced and led by her away) but with neither husband Menelaus nor lover Paris to gainsay him, the Mule faces no trouble at all but with her. I have no doubt she was the first to have the idea of them as a twosome. I say, when it happens, may they enjoy their troubles No, no curse of mine, no unforeseen punishment meted out by the Furies, it is simply marriage!
All this then has gone though my mind, none of it out my mouth, as I crafted my answer to his really quite touching question, no, his plea, approve him. Implied: no matter what. Within limits I meant it when I said, “Boss, you are complicated. I promise is to try understanding whatever it may be. And of course I stand by you, your most loyal Secretary. I will tell you directly the exception, impossible in itself. Were it to happen by some awful mischance, that this flood of mules conspires to grow Perseus’ wings to fly, not with Athena to behead Gorgons, to sit on the imperial throne. I could not abide it . . . I apologize even for conceiving it; so foreign is it to all that you are. Treason, an impolitic egregious ambition would end our friendship. My position is selfish not moral. The Emperor Hadrian executes on slight rumor of treason, I tremble at any slight thought of ending my friendship with my head. My head enjoys sleeping on my palace bed; with pneumatic company two heads enjoy it.
S. Cornelius showed the odd bit the other night, out of character. He guffawed, slapped his hand on his thigh like a German farmer might, reached for the wine cups, poured generously, chuckling toasted a Persius who knows the difference between Gorgons, the Medusa sister one of them, and any throne at all. We drank rather a great deal that night, but not so late as to wreck the morrow, nor so much I could not later, walk a little wobbly, make it home to the palace with my guards.I admit, from time to time, one of them kindly shoring me up. I asked this Mule what was this grand matter growing of his? No reply. Romans cultivate grave silences. The wine flowed. A fine mood was upon us both. Whether he had stopped worrying about Helen or, under the warm glow of wine, was simply more confident of her return, I would not, as with many other things about this changing S. Cornelius, guess.
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