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Peggy Ullman Bell

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Recent stories by Peggy Ullman Bell
· Chapter One of Sappho Sings
· Chapter One of Fixin' Things, a novel of Gettysburg
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Chapter Two - Sappho Sings
By Peggy Ullman Bell
Saturday, July 19, 2008

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Here SAPPHO SINGS in her own words. Ancient phrases become the warp and weave of an intricate tapestry so delicately woven it becomes impossible to distinguish the imported threads from the weaver's own. The author has herself become the voice of The Poetess to the extent that invented passages read like newly discovered wonders from the distant past.

 

“A lovely being, scarcely formed or molded,
a rose with all its sweetest leaves yet folded.”
                                                    ‘Lord Byron’
 
 
 
 
-- II --
 
 
 
 
The next day, Psappha posed beside a mirror pool in the orchard above the house. Eurigios and Alkaios’s family home was farther up the hill. Wherever he chooses to go, he’ll pass this way. Her fingers tested the strings of the lyre on her lap. When she heard footsteps, she began to sing her newest lyric.
“Oh, Lady Earth, with bright‑feathered birds singing in your hair, how tenderly you draw your hills of embroidered green velvet around you. The Sea stretches strong arms to embrace you. The pulsating voice of Poseidon joins Gaea's song in a passionate duet to life.”
While she sang, she studied Alkaios’s reflection in the pool. He lounged against an ancient apple tree, seeming a part of its strength. The plume on his worn helmet reminded her of the Minorcan he‑bird's roguish tail. He’s more handsome than Eurigios, she decided, and that’s not an easy thing to accomplish. Sunbeams added burnished highlights to the reflection of his silver‑blond hair. His fine square jaw was bare as an Athenian's and tanned as dark as an Egyptian's. His eyes, accented by bronzed skin, looked pale as a perfect blue sky, their whites as clear as milk, the luxuriant lashes shading them were palest gold.
He wore a simple, abbreviated tunic, belted at the waist. She averted her gaze from the leather‑sheathed sword and concentrated instead on the pale down that covered his well‑muscled, darkly‑tanned arms and legs. His limbs and his bared right shoulder glistened with oil. The breeze shifted and her nose twitched in reaction to the sharp, cinnamon smell of him, her nostrils flaring in response to his beauty. Soldiering has rendered him more fit than his sedentary brother.
“S’pha,” he said. “I've brought you a present.”
His voice flowed through her like the hot honey and ginger with which Praxinoa battled the winter cold. She turned her head slowly. The urge to spring to her feet and run to him was strong, but she resisted. It would be unseemly. A woman must maintain her dignity.
 “Don't you want to see it?”
Calling up every scrap of poise she owned, Psappha rose and strolled toward him, being careful that her hips did not cause any sway of her skirt.
“Well,” he drawled, “if you're not interested . . .”
He swung his arm and tossed the gift away.
In her rush to rescue it, Psappha tripped on her hem. Baritone laughter convulsed around her. She stood before him, so angry with herself she trembled.
“What is it, child?  I didn't mean to frighten you.”
Child is it? I'll show him who's a child. Psappha planted her fists on her hips and stared up at him. “Open your eyes, Alkaios. I’m no more a child than you are. You let my size deceive you.”
Psappha’s spirit shrank beneath his scrutiny. Why did I ask him to look at me? He'll see how dark and ugly I am. Oh, Aphrodite, Gracious Lady, I must wed this man. Please make me lovely in his sight.
Alkaios took both of her hands in his and drew her closer.
The doeskin of his vest kissed her cheek and its leathery smell relaxed her. She took a step back. Determined to impress him, she raised herself on tiptoes and reached as if to remove his helmet. Instead, she used the helmet straps to pull his head down. Her curious lips met willing response.
Alkaios molded her body to his. When he released her, he held her at arms length and whispered, “No, Psappha, you are no longer a child.”
The sensations of the kiss intrigued Psappha. She longed to pursue them just to see where they led. Alkaios retrieved the ebony chest then held it out to her. The wood felt warm and damp from his hands. Her fingers tingled as she opened the lid. Inside the little box, a painted figurine reposed on white silk. Psappha lifted it out with a thrill of recognition.
The Ophidian's bare‑breasted, seven‑tiered gown seemed molded to fit between her fingers, the ivory warming quickly in her palm, as if the ancient goddess still lived and wrestled her up thrust snakes to invoke a special blessing just for her.
Psappha felt a blush rising and hurriedly replaced the statuette in its silky nest. She snapped the lid and thrust the tiny chest toward Alkaios. “The time for fertility goddesses will come soon enough,” she said, hoping the artificial chill in her voice would cover her sudden embarrassment. “Perhaps you should keep your gift until then.” Afraid to trust herself to say another word, she left him.
Halfway home she plunked down under her favorite apple tree. “How could I have acted like such a child?” she asked the blossoms above her head. A silly simple childHe is so beautiful and I am such a goose. Thank Zeus our parents pledged us as children. If our parents hadn’t set our troth, he wouldn't have me and I'd stay a Maiden forever. Without warning, the terror of becoming a social outcast replaced her fears of marriage and lost freedom. It was fame she sought, not notoriety.
“Hera, thou wicked. Why could you not make me blond and beautiful like my mother?”
She sniffed and snuffled until the crying stopped, then trudged home, smudged and crumpled.
Eurigios stopped her as she stepped inside.
“Have you seen Alkaios?”
“Your brother is a blind, arrogant bull.”
“Oh, so you have seen him.”
“Yes, I've seen him. I made such a fool of myself I'll never be able to face him again.”
Eurigios chuckled.
Psappha flinched. “Don't laugh. He thinks I'm still in swaddling and I proved I should be.”
“It can't be that bad, S’pha.”
Psappha parked her fists on her hips and glared up at him. “You’ve been talking with him about me.”
“No, Little One, Alkaios and I had more important things to discuss.”
“Don’t lie! Why else would you call me ‘S’pha? That’s his secret name for me.” She stared at him until he offered a penitent smile.
“All right, yes, we talked about you after your moonlight duet last night. He was understandably curious after all this time. You were a child when he left.”
“In his eyes, I still am,” she said. “I just proved it.”
“Psappha stop. Alkaios couldn't help seeing how lovely you are.”
“Lovely? By Cyclops’s eye, Eurigios, you must be blind as your brother.”
Eurigios shook his head.  “It doesn’t matter. You’ll have to face him soon in any case. He's joining us for dinner.”
“I'll stay in my chambers.”
“No, you won’t. Your mother’s not feeling well. That’s why I waited for you. I need you to preside at dinner in her place.”
“I won't.”
“You will. We have guests.”
“I won’t, and that’s the end of it.”
“Be reasonable, Psappha. Now that Alkaios is back, your mother's pregnancy is all that postpones your wedding. People will expect to see you at his side. Did you know he arranged for construction of your home before he paid his respects to our mother?”
“The soldier's life has made him anxious to fill his bed.”
Eurigios roared with laughter. “A full bed is probably the one thing Neccho's troops didn’t lack. From what I've heard, Nebuchadnezzar* captured more women than soldiers when he overtook them. Now go and prepare to serve our guests.”
Psappha hesitated a moment more to establish her maturity then she slowly turned to leave. Eurigios swatted her bottom and she scooted toward her waiting governess.
Praxinoa had cleared away all the clutter left from morning. A purple kiton laid spread upon her bed. On the table next to it, in its normal place, was her lyre. Next to the lyre, as if it had always been there, stood the ivory figurine. Psappha stomped across the room and snatched it up. “How did this get here?”
“A servant of the master's brother brought it,” Praxinoa said. “Should I send it back?”
“No. Leave it.”  Psappha placed the statuette in a more prominent position on the table then turned away. “I don’t have time to think about it now. I have to take Mother's place at dinner.” As she crossed the room, she released the scarabs at her shoulders and the kiton she’d been wearing fluttered to the floor. She caught a glimpse of her naked form in the mirror above her dressing table and she frowned. Still frowning, she slipped into the waiting tub, closed her eyes and imagined herself caressing the dancer in the park.  Blossom‑scented steam caressed her blush. Her breasts pinked from the heat of the water then swelled as she imagined Alkaios’s sun‑dark hands against their virgin olive oil tone. Her thoughts made her skin itch. She ran small, strong hands over her body and wondered if there was any way to make the itching stop.
Eurigios burst into the room like a storm‑borne leaf, all red, and gold and crackly. “Psappha, do hurry.”
Psappha jumped to her feet. Eurigios grinned as Praxinoa hastily shrouded Psappha in dry linen. “Hurry, beautiful one, our guests are waiting.” 
“Stop teasing. I'm almost ready.”
“I'm not teasing. You are beautiful and when you sing, the sky opens for the Olympian's applause. You should sing for Alkaios.”
“I'll never sing for your haughty brother again. He'd probably pat me on my head and send me back to Praxinoa.”
“Not if he glimpsed you as I just did.”
Psappha’s hairbrush barely missed his ear. He chuckled softly then ducked out of her room. When she was sure he was gone, she donned the purple kiton, checked the scarabs at her shoulders then braided the last of the season's lilacs into her hair.  She could not sit, as Klies did, and let another fool with her hair. The thought of it gave her goose bumps. “Ready?” At Praxinoa’s nod, she hurried to the banquet hall, with a fast detour through the kitchen to give the cook her final instructions.
Once within the banquet hall, she had not a minute to herself. She threaded her way between the couches as one guest after another commanded her attention. The women among them pretended not to notice when their companions reached to caress the nude cupbearers, raising a squeal or mock protest from the handsome boys with a well‑placed pinch.
Eurigios rose to greet her when she reached the dais. “Good health and welcome milady.”
From the couch at his right, a man she did not recognize seemed to look through her dress. Eurigios intervened. “You dishonor the daughter of my house, Pittakos.*
Pittakos! Psappha spat the name in her mind.  What business does Eurigios have with Pittakos? Her guess churned her stomach. She spoke with painful courtesy.
“It’s been many years since you’ve graced this family with your presence, Pittakos.”
Eurigios looked puzzled. “You’ve met before?”
“Not exactly, Stepfather. I remember the name from my childhood.”
The man she held responsible for her father's death rose to unsteady feet, a gleaming goblet spilling in one hand. Taking her hand with the other, he turned it over and slurped a kiss into her palm. Bowing to her breasts, he said, “I, Pittakos, beg your forgiveness milady. I'm afraid I mistook you for one of the dancers. One forgets that Eurigios heads so mature a household.”
Psappha felt his voice enclose her in an unwelcome embrace.
“Will you share my couch?”
The question was so loaded she hung her head in confusion then peeked up at Eurigios. From the corner of her eye, she could see that Pittakos’s slur had stung him. Before she could decide her next move, she felt an arm encircle her waist and she cringed. Then, glancing up, her eyes met Alkaios’s smoldering gaze and her distaste subsided. “The Lady Psappha will dine with me.
Like the others, Alkaios was nude to the waist, his body sweet and sleek with scented oil, his hair glistening with pomade. As she took her place beside him, he caressed her cheek then laid her head against his chest. She snuggled into the crook of his arm and tried to ignore her surroundings. The men’s voices hummed in her ears like distant bees.
“... and so, Eurigios, the time is near when . . .”
“I know, Pittakos, but . . .”
Psappha forced herself to focus on the food and disregard their conversation. She selected a bit of fresh vegetable from the bowl on the small table beside Alkaios’s couch. She licked herbed vinegar and olive oil from her fingers. Alkaios tucked a bit of roast duckling into her mouth and wiped his kithara‑string calluses on a chunk of steaming barley bread. Psappha crinkled her nose with pleasure and smiled her thanks as servants replaced their bowls with plates of anchovies fried with nettles and cloves; a special favorite of hers that improved the already superb flavor of the bread.
Silence prevailed while Eurigios ceremoniously watered the wine. When he finished, Pittakos resumed his argument.
 “Do you really believe the lives of your family will be worth anything if we allow Melanchros to continue turning Lesbian law into a misbegotten mire of an imbecile's mental abortion?”
“They will be alive.” Eurigios countered tiredly.
“You are a fool!”
Alkaios snatched his arm from behind Psappha and sprang to his feet, glaring at Pittakos. “How dare you insult my brother over his wine? I realize you’re a common‑born lout but even you should know better than to abuse your host. If Melanchros is an ass in armor, he's your ass in armor. You originated the coup that set him over us and cost us our fathers.”
Pittakos scrunched his brow. Standing, he still had to look up to meet Alkaios’s eyes.
“I came here to ask for help. I intend to rid Mitylene of a jackass, to borrow your analogy, with your help or without it.”
“Another invitation to death Pittakos?”
Psappha had not intended to speak. Now that she had, she wished she were a turtle and could pull in her head.
“Do you find politics intriguing, milady Psappha?”
She winced. His disdainful tone hurt. “I try not to think of politics at all but yours appear to threaten those dear to me.”
Pittakos slumped onto his couch and raised his goblet for a refill.
Psappha took his posturing as a deliberate attempt to nullify her importance.
Alkaios reseated himself, hugged her close and grinned, apparently amused by the novelty of having a young woman further his argument for him.
Psappha seethed with resentment. She didn’t like patronization nor did she appreciate being someone’s personal entertainment. She would deal with Alkaios later. As for Pittakos, she knew he needed the old families to lend respectability to his disastrous plans. He dared not let the subject drop. She formed arguments in her mind as she waited. Soon he continued in a more conciliatory tone.
“You think do you, daughter of Scamandronomos that I am a threat?”
“You? Certainly not. But, the course you suggest can hardly lead to peaceful living.”
“Life has been peaceful for you, milady. You are most fortunate. You’ve been sheltered, Lady Psappha. I suspect you always will be. Some of us have not found life so pleasant.”
“Well protected? Was I well protected when you and your ideas cost me my father and my proper home?”
“You’re too young to understand.”
“But not too young to suffer from his loss,” she countered, angry and insulted by his obvious disdain. “Because of you and your precious politics, I lived an orphan in ugly Pyrrha* while my betrothed enlisted in a foreign war and my brother ran off to study elsewhere. Even now, strangers enjoy my rightful home. How can you be sure your precious politics won't bring me further pain?”
“No one can be sure of that. We can only hope.”
“And while you are hoping, men die.”
“Yes, men die. Men will always die for what they believe to be right.”
“For what who believes to be right? One man? A few men? You? Or the men who will do your fighting? Men with families? Mother’s sons? Women's husbands? Fathers will fight and fathers will die. For what, Pittakos? Will their fatherless daughters appreciate your better life if they must live it alone? I can tell you I didn’t. Not then and not now.”
“Men must fight . . .”
“...and women must wait. What drivel. Do you think to console anyone with that?”
Pittakos reached for another flagon of wine. “It is not my place to console anyone, milady. I will try to build a better life for the people of Mitylene, and for all of Lesbos, in whatever way I can.”
Psappha could sit no longer. She jumped to her feet and, in two strides, stood glaring down at him; her fists pushing at her hips; her nails gouging her palms.
“It's not your place to console anyone,” she hissed through clenched teeth. “Then whose place is it? You want to stage a re‑assumption of power in which many will die and yet you expect to come out of it pure and beautiful with no responsibility for the pain you've caused.”
All eyes had fixed themselves on Psappha but she saw only Pittakos. She shouted down him. “I cannot understand how bloodshed can be the answer to anything. War is nothing but the greed of one man pitted against the greed of another.”
Pittakos appeared undisturbed. His next words and the trace of pity in his tone increased her agitation.
“I do not expect you to understand the true situation, milady. You have been sheltered from the deplorable conditions in Mitylene, as you should be.”
“You do not expect me to understand. You do not attempt to explain. Then how, pray Zeus, do you expect the people to understand?”
She was beginning to tire from the searing force of her own anger. A deeply drawn breath helped her to continue.
“You say that conditions are terrible. Surely, nothing could be so bad that destroying Mitylene is the only way to fix it. What do the people think? They are the ones who must fight your battle. Have you asked them if they want change? Are yours the changes they want? Have you asked them for their help?”
She noticed tiny beads of sweat piercing the oil on his forehead and she laughed. From the corner of her eye, she saw Alkaios raise his goblet. “Gentle friends and guests, Lady Psappha suggests that Pittakos go to the people for aid. What say you?”
Psappha blinked as the hall erupted with noise. Goblets clattered to the floor. Chairs and couches screeched on the tiles. She had forgotten him. In her anger, she had forgotten all of them. Now she retreated, her courage scared away by mass confusion. She did not resist when Alkaios pulled her down beside him, placed her head again on his shoulder and continued taunting Pittakos.
“Come, my fine man‑of‑the‑people,” he drawled. “Shall we put the question before your public? Shall we ask the populace if the husband of Dracon*’s sister shall be their choice of leaders?”
Raised voices blended into a babble of bawdy aspersions as the diners gathered behind Alkaios. Pittakos looked like a man about to be stoned. His wife was a known and some said unrepentant porna. His words came out cracked.
“I came here to solicit your help for the sake of the city,” he said. “I did not expect unanimous acceptance, nor did I expect ridicule. Eurigios? Are these your sentiments also? Or, does your insolent young brother speak only for himself?
Eurigios glanced at Alkaios. “It’s never the intention of this household to insult a guest,” he said reprovingly. “My brother’s betrothed is young,” he added as if to give Psappha a reprieve based on immaturity. “Nevertheless, I must admit the young ones have a point. Perhaps the common people should have a voice.”
Pittakos seemed to wilt. Minute beads of sweat grew to rivulets that trickled toward his beard.
“Very well,” he said; his gravel‑tone voice barely audible. “I will ask the people.”
“And if the people decide against you?” Psappha regretted ‑‑ a little ‑‑ her part in creating his embarrassing predicament, but, since the situation already existed, she saw no reason not to pin him down. “Will you give up your dangerous plan if the people refuse to follow you?”
Pittakos seemed unaware of the sweat that dripped from his beard to join the meat juices stuck to the mat on his chest.
“Yes, milady, before this company, I give my word. If the people reject my leadership, I will not press it on them.”
“What good is your word?”  Alkaios put in. “Our fathers had your word, but you chose Melanchros over them. Now that you see your mistake, you expect us to trust you. We aren't the fools you think.”
Pittakos’s dark smile came nowhere near his eyes. “The people will decide.”
Alkaios hugged Psappha approvingly and whispered, “That was something.”
Psappha sighed. “It was not intended as a joke. When he fails to rally the people, we'll hear no more of war until the next idiot evolves,” she said more to convince herself than Alkaios or anyone else who might be listening. The two of them had gathered more than their share of attention. She shivered when Alkaios echoed her uncertainty.
“He may not fail. What he says about Melanchros is true . The mercenaries may decide that returning to be ruled by a donkey is intolerable.”
“He must fail. No matter how bad things are, the people will choose peace. What good can it do Mitylene to tear her apart?”
“I hope you’re right, S’pha. Our position will be unpredictable if he succeeds.”
“Surely Pittakos will behave honorably toward fellow aristocrats,” she whispered behind her hand, “even those who disagree with him.”
“That's just it, lovely eyes. Old crack‑toes is no aristocrat although he tried to become one by marrying Dracon’s sister. Everyone knows what a porna she is. That's why my jest cut deep. Truth is the most deadly weapon. I don't think Pittakos will be gentle if he gets an opportunity to avenge tonight's humiliation. If war comes, look to yourself. In either case, there is danger. If Pittakos loses, Melanchros is sure to hear of it and assume a conspiracy. If he wins, it could be worse.”
Bright costumed acrobats, jugglers and dancers filled the hall.
Alkaios winked at her. “Enough of intrigues for now. Relax. There is no end to talk that leads to nothing.”
Psappha did not respond. Her thoughts were elsewhere. She stared toward the center of the dancers where Atthis's willow‑wand form swayed hypnotically. She saw little else. Her palms grew moist and tingly; a tingling embarrassingly echoed elsewhere. Atthis dance closer. Like an osprey circling over its prey. A warm glow built deep in Psappha’s gut. Atthis swayed. The glow took fire. Atthis whirled, her kiton clinging to long clean limbs. The fire sent sparks through Psappha’s inner thighs. Atthis circled close and the sparks coalesced into a cauldron of molten lava on the altar of Aphrodite.
Psappha glanced quickly at Alkaios. Had he noticed? She would perish from embarrassment if he knew. Is this how she was supposed to feel when she kissed him? She was given no time to decide.
“She is lovely, isn't she?”  Pittakos’s voice reeked with ownership. “She is my ward.”
Psappha cringed. She realized that, as an orphan, Atthis would be someone's ward but, Pittakos? Her small body trembled with rage.
Alkaios stroked her hair. “Are you afraid of Pittakos? You wouldn’t need to concern yourself if you’d let me look after you.”
Psappha spoke without taking her eyes off Atthis. “How can I not let you look after me?  You will soon be my husband.” 
“That’s not exactly what I had in mind, S’pha.” His long fingers traced the joints of her spine. “I want to be more than a husband to you.”
“You’re already more than a husband,” she said without glancing his way. “You’ll always be more than a husband, Alkaios. You’re my friend.”
Atthis twirled from the room and the spell was broken.
As the entertainers retired, bearers appeared outside the archway and guests with female companions escorted them out. Psappha rose distractedly. Alkaios took her hand and placed it on his arm. She smiled at Eurigios and glided from the hall. As she walked, she felt Pittakos’s eyes upon her and she edged instinctively closer to Alkaios.
The stroll down the corridor unnerved her. Her earlier words, spoken thoughtlessly, echoed in her mind. The memory of Pittakos’s expression made her intensely aware of Alkaios’s protective presence. At the entrance to her chamber, he stopped and bent his lean frame just enough to gather her to him. Her feet dangled inches above the tiled floor as he kissed her with practiced skill. New sensations stirred her. Not as strong as those she felt for Atthis, but no less good.
She felt boneless. When he lowered her enough for her to stand, she hid her face against him fighting to catch her breath. Had he released her immediately, she would have crumpled to the floor.
When he did release her, he leaned down, bestowed a fraternal kiss on her forehead and said, “Good night, gentle friend, may Morpheus bring you quiet dreams.”
Watching his back as he strode away, Psappha thought she could understand Helen's madness. If Paris was as straight and fine as Alkaios, Helen could have done naught but have him for herself. As I will have him, she thought.
Alkaios joined some guests who were also on their way back into the banquet hall and, as they passed from sight, Psappha went into her chamber aching with a hunger she could not define. She tried to visualize their wedding night, but her imagination failed her. She brushed half‑formed images from her mind.  Such thoughts are more suited to cupbearers.  She scolded herself but she was more reconciled to the concept of marriage than she’d ever expected.


* Nebuchadnezzar (Nabu-kudurri-usur) king of Babylon 604-561 bce
* Pittakos (Pit-ah-KAUS)
* Pyrrha (PEER-ah) a town on the southwest coast of Lesbos
     rumored to have been swallowed by the bay of Kaloni.
* Dracon (c.659-c.601 B.C.E.) introduced the first written legslation to Athens.
“A lovely being, scarcely formed or molded,
a rose with all its sweetest leaves yet folded.”
                                                    ‘Lord Byron’
 
 
 
 
-- II --
 
 
 
 
The next day, Psappha posed beside a mirror pool in the orchard above the house. Eurigios and Alkaios’s family home was farther up the hill. Wherever he chooses to go, he’ll pass this way. Her fingers tested the strings of the lyre on her lap. When she heard footsteps, she began to sing her newest lyric.
“Oh, Lady Earth, with bright‑feathered birds singing in your hair, how tenderly you draw your hills of embroidered green velvet around you. The Sea stretches strong arms to embrace you. The pulsating voice of Poseidon joins Gaea's song in a passionate duet to life.”
While she sang, she studied Alkaios’s reflection in the pool. He lounged against an ancient apple tree, seeming a part of its strength. The plume on his worn helmet reminded her of the Minorcan he‑bird's roguish tail. He’s more handsome than Eurigios, she decided, and that’s not an easy thing to accomplish. Sunbeams added burnished highlights to the reflection of his silver‑blond hair. His fine square jaw was bare as an Athenian's and tanned as dark as an Egyptian's. His eyes, accented by bronzed skin, looked pale as a perfect blue sky, their whites as clear as milk, the luxuriant lashes shading them were palest gold.
He wore a simple, abbreviated tunic, belted at the waist. She averted her gaze from the leather‑sheathed sword and concentrated instead on the pale down that covered his well‑muscled, darkly‑tanned arms and legs. His limbs and his bared right shoulder glistened with oil. The breeze shifted and her nose twitched in reaction to the sharp, cinnamon smell of him, her nostrils flaring in response to his beauty. Soldiering has rendered him more fit than his sedentary brother.
“S’pha,” he said. “I've brought you a present.”
His voice flowed through her like the hot honey and ginger with which Praxinoa battled the winter cold. She turned her head slowly. The urge to spring to her feet and run to him was strong, but she resisted. It would be unseemly. A woman must maintain her dignity.
 “Don't you want to see it?”
Calling up every scrap of poise she owned, Psappha rose and strolled toward him, being careful that her hips did not cause any sway of her skirt.
“Well,” he drawled, “if you're not interested . . .”
He swung his arm and tossed the gift away.
In her rush to rescue it, Psappha tripped on her hem. Baritone laughter convulsed around her. She stood before him, so angry with herself she trembled.
“What is it, child?  I didn't mean to frighten you.”
Child is it? I'll show him who's a child. Psappha planted her fists on her hips and stared up at him. “Open your eyes, Alkaios. I’m no more a child than you are. You let my size deceive you.”
Psappha’s spirit shrank beneath his scrutiny. Why did I ask him to look at me? He'll see how dark and ugly I am. Oh, Aphrodite, Gracious Lady, I must wed this man. Please make me lovely in his sight.
Alkaios took both of her hands in his and drew her closer.
The doeskin of his vest kissed her cheek and its leathery smell relaxed her. She took a step back. Determined to impress him, she raised herself on tiptoes and reached as if to remove his helmet. Instead, she used the helmet straps to pull his head down. Her curious lips met willing response.
Alkaios molded her body to his. When he released her, he held her at arms length and whispered, “No, Psappha, you are no longer a child.”
The sensations of the kiss intrigued Psappha. She longed to pursue them just to see where they led. Alkaios retrieved the ebony chest then held it out to her. The wood felt warm and damp from his hands. Her fingers tingled as she opened the lid. Inside the little box, a painted figurine reposed on white silk. Psappha lifted it out with a thrill of recognition.
The Ophidian's bare‑breasted, seven‑tiered gown seemed molded to fit between her fingers, the ivory warming quickly in her palm, as if the ancient goddess still lived and wrestled her up thrust snakes to invoke a special blessing just for her.
Psappha felt a blush rising and hurriedly replaced the statuette in its silky nest. She snapped the lid and thrust the tiny chest toward Alkaios. “The time for fertility goddesses will come soon enough,” she said, hoping the artificial chill in her voice would cover her sudden embarrassment. “Perhaps you should keep your gift until then.” Afraid to trust herself to say another word, she left him.
Halfway home she plunked down under her favorite apple tree. “How could I have acted like such a child?” she asked the blossoms above her head. A silly simple childHe is so beautiful and I am such a goose. Thank Zeus our parents pledged us as children. If our parents hadn’t set our troth, he wouldn't have me and I'd stay a Maiden forever. Without warning, the terror of becoming a social outcast replaced her fears of marriage and lost freedom. It was fame she sought, not notoriety.
“Hera, thou wicked. Why could you not make me blond and beautiful like my mother?”
She sniffed and snuffled until the crying stopped, then trudged home, smudged and crumpled.
Eurigios stopped her as she stepped inside.
“Have you seen Alkaios?”
“Your brother is a blind, arrogant bull.”
“Oh, so you have seen him.”
“Yes, I've seen him. I made such a fool of myself I'll never be able to face him again.”
Eurigios chuckled.
Psappha flinched. “Don't laugh. He thinks I'm still in swaddling and I proved I should be.”
“It can't be that bad, S’pha.”
Psappha parked her fists on her hips and glared up at him. “You’ve been talking with him about me.”
“No, Little One, Alkaios and I had more important things to discuss.”
“Don’t lie! Why else would you call me ‘S’pha? That’s his secret name for me.” She stared at him until he offered a penitent smile.
“All right, yes, we talked about you after your moonlight duet last night. He was understandably curious after all this time. You were a child when he left.”
“In his eyes, I still am,” she said. “I just proved it.”
“Psappha stop. Alkaios couldn't help seeing how lovely you are.”
“Lovely? By Cyclops’s eye, Eurigios, you must be blind as your brother.”
Eurigios shook his head.  “It doesn’t matter. You’ll have to face him soon in any case. He's joining us for dinner.”
“I'll stay in my chambers.”
“No, you won’t. Your mother’s not feeling well. That’s why I waited for you. I need you to preside at dinner in her place.”
“I won't.”
“You will. We have guests.”
“I won’t, and that’s the end of it.”
“Be reasonable, Psappha. Now that Alkaios is back, your mother's pregnancy is all that postpones your wedding. People will expect to see you at his side. Did you know he arranged for construction of your home before he paid his respects to our mother?”
“The soldier's life has made him anxious to fill his bed.”
Eurigios roared with laughter. “A full bed is probably the one thing Neccho's troops didn’t lack. From what I've heard, Nebuchadnezzar* captured more women than soldiers when he overtook them. Now go and prepare to serve our guests.”
Psappha hesitated a moment more to establish her maturity then she slowly turned to leave. Eurigios swatted her bottom and she scooted toward her waiting governess.
Praxinoa had cleared away all the clutter left from morning. A purple kiton laid spread upon her bed. On the table next to it, in its normal place, was her lyre. Next to the lyre, as if it had always been there, stood the ivory figurine. Psappha stomped across the room and snatched it up. “How did this get here?”
“A servant of the master's brother brought it,” Praxinoa said. “Should I send it back?”
“No. Leave it.”  Psappha placed the statuette in a more prominent position on the table then turned away. “I don’t have time to think about it now. I have to take Mother's place at dinner.” As she crossed the room, she released the scarabs at her shoulders and the kiton she’d been wearing fluttered to the floor. She caught a glimpse of her naked form in the mirror above her dressing table and she frowned. Still frowning, she slipped into the waiting tub, closed her eyes and imagined herself caressing the dancer in the park.  Blossom‑scented steam caressed her blush. Her breasts pinked from the heat of the water then swelled as she imagined Alkaios’s sun‑dark hands against their virgin olive oil tone. Her thoughts made her skin itch. She ran small, strong hands over her body and wondered if there was any way to make the itching stop.
Eurigios burst into the room like a storm‑borne leaf, all red, and gold and crackly. “Psappha, do hurry.”
Psappha jumped to her feet. Eurigios grinned as Praxinoa hastily shrouded Psappha in dry linen. “Hurry, beautiful one, our guests are waiting.” 
“Stop teasing. I'm almost ready.”
“I'm not teasing. You are beautiful and when you sing, the sky opens for the Olympian's applause. You should sing for Alkaios.”
“I'll never sing for your haughty brother again. He'd probably pat me on my head and send me back to Praxinoa.”
“Not if he glimpsed you as I just did.”
Psappha’s hairbrush barely missed his ear. He chuckled softly then ducked out of her room. When she was sure he was gone, she donned the purple kiton, checked the scarabs at her shoulders then braided the last of the season's lilacs into her hair.  She could not sit, as Klies did, and let another fool with her hair. The thought of it gave her goose bumps. “Ready?” At Praxinoa’s nod, she hurried to the banquet hall, with a fast detour through the kitchen to give the cook her final instructions.
Once within the banquet hall, she had not a minute to herself. She threaded her way between the couches as one guest after another commanded her attention. The women among them pretended not to notice when their companions reached to caress the nude cupbearers, raising a squeal or mock protest from the handsome boys with a well‑placed pinch.
Eurigios rose to greet her when she reached the dais. “Good health and welcome milady.”
From the couch at his right, a man she did not recognize seemed to look through her dress. Eurigios intervened. “You dishonor the daughter of my house, Pittakos.*
Pittakos! Psappha spat the name in her mind.  What business does Eurigios have with Pittakos? Her guess churned her stomach. She spoke with painful courtesy.
“It’s been many years since you’ve graced this family with your presence, Pittakos.”
Eurigios looked puzzled. “You’ve met before?”
“Not exactly, Stepfather. I remember the name from my childhood.”
The man she held responsible for her father's death rose to unsteady feet, a gleaming goblet spilling in one hand. Taking her hand with the other, he turned it over and slurped a kiss into her palm. Bowing to her breasts, he said, “I, Pittakos, beg your forgiveness milady. I'm afraid I mistook you for one of the dancers. One forgets that Eurigios heads so mature a household.”
Psappha felt his voice enclose her in an unwelcome embrace.
“Will you share my couch?”
The question was so loaded she hung her head in confusion then peeked up at Eurigios. From the corner of her eye, she could see that Pittakos’s slur had stung him. Before she could decide her next move, she felt an arm encircle her waist and she cringed. Then, glancing up, her eyes met Alkaios’s smoldering gaze and her distaste subsided. “The Lady Psappha will dine with me.
Like the others, Alkaios was nude to the waist, his body sweet and sleek with scented oil, his hair glistening with pomade. As she took her place beside him, he caressed her cheek then laid her head against his chest. She snuggled into the crook of his arm and tried to ignore her surroundings. The men’s voices hummed in her ears like distant bees.
“... and so, Eurigios, the time is near when . . .”
“I know, Pittakos, but . . .”
Psappha forced herself to focus on the food and disregard their conversation. She selected a bit of fresh vegetable from the bowl on the small table beside Alkaios’s couch. She licked herbed vinegar and olive oil from her fingers. Alkaios tucked a bit of roast duckling into her mouth and wiped his kithara‑string calluses on a chunk of steaming barley bread. Psappha crinkled her nose with pleasure and smiled her thanks as servants replaced their bowls with plates of anchovies fried with nettles and cloves; a special favorite of hers that improved the already superb flavor of the bread.
Silence prevailed while Eurigios ceremoniously watered the wine. When he finished, Pittakos resumed his argument.
 “Do you really believe the lives of your family will be worth anything if we allow Melanchros to continue turning Lesbian law into a misbegotten mire of an imbecile's mental abortion?”
“They will be alive.” Eurigios countered tiredly.
“You are a fool!”
Alkaios snatched his arm from behind Psappha and sprang to his feet, glaring at Pittakos. “How dare you insult my brother over his wine? I realize you’re a common‑born lout but even you should know better than to abuse your host. If Melanchros is an ass in armor, he's your ass in armor. You originated the coup that set him over us and cost us our fathers.”
Pittakos scrunched his brow. Standing, he still had to look up to meet Alkaios’s eyes.
“I came here to ask for help. I intend to rid Mitylene of a jackass, to borrow your analogy, with your help or without it.”
“Another invitation to death Pittakos?”
Psappha had not intended to speak. Now that she had, she wished she were a turtle and could pull in her head.
“Do you find politics intriguing, milady Psappha?”
She winced. His disdainful tone hurt. “I try not to think of politics at all but yours appear to threaten those dear to me.”
Pittakos slumped onto his couch and raised his goblet for a refill.
Psappha took his posturing as a deliberate attempt to nullify her importance.
Alkaios reseated himself, hugged her close and grinned, apparently amused by the novelty of having a young woman further his argument for him.
Psappha seethed with resentment. She didn’t like patronization nor did she appreciate being someone’s personal entertainment. She would deal with Alkaios later. As for Pittakos, she knew he needed the old families to lend respectability to his disastrous plans. He dared not let the subject drop. She formed arguments in her mind as she waited. Soon he continued in a more conciliatory tone.
“You think do you, daughter of Scamandronomos that I am a threat?”
“You? Certainly not. But, the course you suggest can hardly lead to peaceful living.”
“Life has been peaceful for you, milady. You are most fortunate. You’ve been sheltered, Lady Psappha. I suspect you always will be. Some of us have not found life so pleasant.”
“Well protected? Was I well protected when you and your ideas cost me my father and my proper home?”
“You’re too young to understand.”
“But not too young to suffer from his loss,” she countered, angry and insulted by his obvious disdain. “Because of you and your precious politics, I lived an orphan in ugly Pyrrha* while my betrothed enlisted in a foreign war and my brother ran off to study elsewhere. Even now, strangers enjoy my rightful home. How can you be sure your precious politics won't bring me further pain?”
“No one can be sure of that. We can only hope.”
“And while you are hoping, men die.”
“Yes, men die. Men will always die for what they believe to be right.”
“For what who believes to be right? One man? A few men? You? Or the men who will do your fighting? Men with families? Mother’s sons? Women's husbands? Fathers will fight and fathers will die. For what, Pittakos? Will their fatherless daughters appreciate your better life if they must live it alone? I can tell you I didn’t. Not then and not now.”
“Men must fight . . .”
“...and women must wait. What drivel. Do you think to console anyone with that?”
Pittakos reached for another flagon of wine. “It is not my place to console anyone, milady. I will try to build a better life for the people of Mitylene, and for all of Lesbos, in whatever way I can.”
Psappha could sit no longer. She jumped to her feet and, in two strides, stood glaring down at him; her fists pushing at her hips; her nails gouging her palms.
“It's not your place to console anyone,” she hissed through clenched teeth. “Then whose place is it? You want to stage a re‑assumption of power in which many will die and yet you expect to come out of it pure and beautiful with no responsibility for the pain you've caused.”
All eyes had fixed themselves on Psappha but she saw only Pittakos. She shouted down him. “I cannot understand how bloodshed can be the answer to anything. War is nothing but the greed of one man pitted against the greed of another.”
Pittakos appeared undisturbed. His next words and the trace of pity in his tone increased her agitation.
“I do not expect you to understand the true situation, milady. You have been sheltered from the deplorable conditions in Mitylene, as you should be.”
“You do not expect me to understand. You do not attempt to explain. Then how, pray Zeus, do you expect the people to understand?”
She was beginning to tire from the searing force of her own anger. A deeply drawn breath helped her to continue.
“You say that conditions are terrible. Surely, nothing could be so bad that destroying Mitylene is the only way to fix it. What do the people think? They are the ones who must fight your battle. Have you asked them if they want change? Are yours the changes they want? Have you asked them for their help?”
She noticed tiny beads of sweat piercing the oil on his forehead and she laughed. From the corner of her eye, she saw Alkaios raise his goblet. “Gentle friends and guests, Lady Psappha suggests that Pittakos go to the people for aid. What say you?”
Psappha blinked as the hall erupted with noise. Goblets clattered to the floor. Chairs and couches screeched on the tiles. She had forgotten him. In her anger, she had forgotten all of them. Now she retreated, her courage scared away by mass confusion. She did not resist when Alkaios pulled her down beside him, placed her head again on his shoulder and continued taunting Pittakos.
“Come, my fine man‑of‑the‑people,” he drawled. “Shall we put the question before your public? Shall we ask the populace if the husband of Dracon*’s sister shall be their choice of leaders?”
Raised voices blended into a babble of bawdy aspersions as the diners gathered behind Alkaios. Pittakos looked like a man about to be stoned. His wife was a known and some said unrepentant porna. His words came out cracked.
“I came here to solicit your help for the sake of the city,” he said. “I did not expect unanimous acceptance, nor did I expect ridicule. Eurigios? Are these your sentiments also? Or, does your insolent young brother speak only for himself?
Eurigios glanced at Alkaios. “It’s never the intention of this household to insult a guest,” he said reprovingly. “My brother’s betrothed is young,” he added as if to give Psappha a reprieve based on immaturity. “Nevertheless, I must admit the young ones have a point. Perhaps the common people should have a voice.”
Pittakos seemed to wilt. Minute beads of sweat grew to rivulets that trickled toward his beard.
“Very well,” he said; his gravel‑tone voice barely audible. “I will ask the people.”
“And if the people decide against you?” Psappha regretted ‑‑ a little ‑‑ her part in creating his embarrassing predicament, but, since the situation already existed, she saw no reason not to pin him down. “Will you give up your dangerous plan if the people refuse to follow you?”
Pittakos seemed unaware of the sweat that dripped from his beard to join the meat juices stuck to the mat on his chest.
“Yes, milady, before this company, I give my word. If the people reject my leadership, I will not press it on them.”
“What good is your word?”  Alkaios put in. “Our fathers had your word, but you chose Melanchros over them. Now that you see your mistake, you expect us to trust you. We aren't the fools you think.”
Pittakos’s dark smile came nowhere near his eyes. “The people will decide.”
Alkaios hugged Psappha approvingly and whispered, “That was something.”
Psappha sighed. “It was not intended as a joke. When he fails to rally the people, we'll hear no more of war until the next idiot evolves,” she said more to convince herself than Alkaios or anyone else who might be listening. The two of them had gathered more than their share of attention. She shivered when Alkaios echoed her uncertainty.
“He may not fail. What he says about Melanchros is true . The mercenaries may decide that returning to be ruled by a donkey is intolerable.”
“He must fail. No matter how bad things are, the people will choose peace. What good can it do Mitylene to tear her apart?”
“I hope you’re right, S’pha. Our position will be unpredictable if he succeeds.”
“Surely Pittakos will behave honorably toward fellow aristocrats,” she whispered behind her hand, “even those who disagree with him.”
“That's just it, lovely eyes. Old crack‑toes is no aristocrat although he tried to become one by marrying Dracon’s sister. Everyone knows what a porna she is. That's why my jest cut deep. Truth is the most deadly weapon. I don't think Pittakos will be gentle if he gets an opportunity to avenge tonight's humiliation. If war comes, look to yourself. In either case, there is danger. If Pittakos loses, Melanchros is sure to hear of it and assume a conspiracy. If he wins, it could be worse.”
Bright costumed acrobats, jugglers and dancers filled the hall.
Alkaios winked at her. “Enough of intrigues for now. Relax. There is no end to talk that leads to nothing.”
Psappha did not respond. Her thoughts were elsewhere. She stared toward the center of the dancers where Atthis's willow‑wand form swayed hypnotically. She saw little else. Her palms grew moist and tingly; a tingling embarrassingly echoed elsewhere. Atthis dance closer. Like an osprey circling over its prey. A warm glow built deep in Psappha’s gut. Atthis swayed. The glow took fire. Atthis whirled, her kiton clinging to long clean limbs. The fire sent sparks through Psappha’s inner thighs. Atthis circled close and the sparks coalesced into a cauldron of molten lava on the altar of Aphrodite.
Psappha glanced quickly at Alkaios. Had he noticed? She would perish from embarrassment if he knew. Is this how she was supposed to feel when she kissed him? She was given no time to decide.
“She is lovely, isn't she?”  Pittakos’s voice reeked with ownership. “She is my ward.”
Psappha cringed. She realized that, as an orphan, Atthis would be someone's ward but, Pittakos? Her small body trembled with rage.
Alkaios stroked her hair. “Are you afraid of Pittakos? You wouldn’t need to concern yourself if you’d let me look after you.”
Psappha spoke without taking her eyes off Atthis. “How can I not let you look after me?  You will soon be my husband.” 
“That’s not exactly what I had in mind, S’pha.” His long fingers traced the joints of her spine. “I want to be more than a husband to you.”
“You’re already more than a husband,” she said without glancing his way. “You’ll always be more than a husband, Alkaios. You’re my friend.”
Atthis twirled from the room and the spell was broken.
As the entertainers retired, bearers appeared outside the archway and guests with female companions escorted them out. Psappha rose distractedly. Alkaios took her hand and placed it on his arm. She smiled at Eurigios and glided from the hall. As she walked, she felt Pittakos’s eyes upon her and she edged instinctively closer to Alkaios.
The stroll down the corridor unnerved her. Her earlier words, spoken thoughtlessly, echoed in her mind. The memory of Pittakos’s expression made her intensely aware of Alkaios’s protective presence. At the entrance to her chamber, he stopped and bent his lean frame just enough to gather her to him. Her feet dangled inches above the tiled floor as he kissed her with practiced skill. New sensations stirred her. Not as strong as those she felt for Atthis, but no less good.
She felt boneless. When he lowered her enough for her to stand, she hid her face against him fighting to catch her breath. Had he released her immediately, she would have crumpled to the floor.
When he did release her, he leaned down, bestowed a fraternal kiss on her forehead and said, “Good night, gentle friend, may Morpheus bring you quiet dreams.”
Watching his back as he strode away, Psappha thought she could understand Helen's madness. If Paris was as straight and fine as Alkaios, Helen could have done naught but have him for herself. As I will have him, she thought.
Alkaios joined some guests who were also on their way back into the banquet hall and, as they passed from sight, Psappha went into her chamber aching with a hunger she could not define. She tried to visualize their wedding night, but her imagination failed her. She brushed half‑formed images from her mind.  Such thoughts are more suited to cupbearers.  She scolded herself but she was more reconciled to the concept of marriage than she’d ever expected.


* Nebuchadnezzar (Nabu-kudurri-usur) king of Babylon 604-561 bce
* Pittakos (Pit-ah-KAUS)
* Pyrrha (PEER-ah) a town on the southwest coast of Lesbos
     rumored to have been swallowed by the bay of Kaloni.
* Dracon (c.659-c.601 B.C.E.) introduced the first written legslation to Athens.

       Web Site: Peggy Ullman Bell Re-Versing Hystory

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