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A Sacrifice at Cumae
By Christine Boyce
Saturday, February 15, 2003
Greek and Roman myth fantasy: the quest of a woman warrior to retrieve her lover from the underworld.
The stream wound its way past the last villages, to a rocky spot where the mountain started its rise. There, where any other would have turned aside, it plunged into the earth, a waterfall whose final depth was unknown, save to the dead.
Shield in hand, Anaryn strode to the edge. Her hand pressed the hilt of her sword as she imagined hacking the rock, forcing her way across Styx and Lethe, past Trivia, guardian of the three roads, and on towards the Palace where Pluto ruled. A deep fear restrained her.
Blue-cloaked Pluto, Prince over both Elysium of the blessed and Tartarus of the cursed, seemed to be larger in her mind’s eye than the mountain, more powerful even than his brother Zeus, whose thunderbolts could only send death and not control it. Yet even a vision of him could not make her give up on Erelin.
She was nothing like Orpheus: she could pat a rhythm on her knees, passable among comrades at the campfire, but nothing to buy a living prize from the Prince of the Dead.
And even the demi-god Hercules, greater at wielding sword, club and spear than any other among mortals, could not take such a prize by force.
There was only one way. She took the cracked shield, the one the unwarlike Erelin had been so reluctant to bear, and thrust it, with all her strength, into the crack where the water spilled underground. It was stuck, and the sound of cracking wood let Anaryn know that to press harder, to force the thing, would mean to shatter it in pieces.
Sweating, she stood back, panting in the hot sun, trying to slow her breathing and think.
Damn the Sybil, that ancient, shriveled woman who had been given immortality but not youth—damn her and her bitter advice; because now Anaryn had destroyed the best memento she had left of the lover she’d lost.
She bent over to yank the shield back out. A shattered shield could not possibly bring back memories to one who’d drank a Lethe-draught. Even if recognizable, it would be an ill-omen, a sight that a fading soul would be glad to forget. The wood cracked loudly, and she even would have sworn that iron bent, as she stooped over the sliver of opening, straining her back and arms, and splintering her hands. Against reason, the thing would not come loose, but when, in a rage of frustration, she leapt back with force, screaming out with the effort, only the top half lay in her arms. When the air finally came back to her lungs, for she had fallen backward, she stood to see that the bottom half was gone, fallen where none but gods and the dead might see it.
The pieces fell, carried on a cascade of clear water down where no light touched, and several minutes passed before they made a splash that no one heard. The stream ran on, and though the heaviness of the metal drew the largest piece to the bottom, one thin bit of wood bobbed on. On it went, past white mineral columns stretching upwards, past the slick, smooth, abandoned dark floor. When the stream was no more than a trickle, the little piece of wood, distinguished from a stick only by a bit of rough carving, came to what ought to have been its final stop, since no souls walked in this place.
From the high windows of the Palace, Pluto could see where the Lethe flowed, though it was miles away. The shades of human souls who were neither good enough for Elysium nor wicked enough for Tartarus waited there—in truth, Lethe was the temporary resting place for most of the human dead. Of course, they never stayed for long. Some of the shades were already wavering between their elderly or wounded adult forms, and the forms of the new infants they were about to become. By the time they were born again on earth, the draught of Lethe would finally have its complete effect—entire forgetfulness of the past.
Erelin sat on the bank with the others, comforting the shade of a woman named Greyla, who had arrived a week before. The woman was young—not much more than twenty, but she had been through an attack that would be a mercy to forget. She alternated between crying, telling Erelin the story of her death and what came before, and sitting back, relaxed, with an infantile smile.
Erelin struggled with all her strength against the loss of memory. One sentence in particular she was desperate not to lose: After Anaryn had cut down the last of the bandits that dealt that mortal wound, she had sworn to continue on to their planned destination: Cumae, where the Sybil lived. Only now the question would be different: Instead of two women coming to request the marriage ceremony that Juno had refused them, the Sybil Deramya would see one woman begging to retrieve her lover from the underworld.
Still the loss proceeded on its inevitable course, stealing away the thought of her mother’s laughter, her gentle wit, and the way she had taught her daughter to read, a skill still quite rare. Gone were the memories of plucking grapes off the vine with Ninta, her sister, and of seeing over the marketplace crowds on her father’s shoulders.
Only willpower kept a fragment of the visit to Lesbos in her mind. When she, a young poet whose talents were only just starting to be recognized, had come to visit the then-aging, world-renowned poet Sappho, she had met someone unexpected: Anaryn, a girl whose parents had dressed her as a boy since childhood, and who had done military service in the Athenian army in that disguise. In the later stages of recovery from a near-fatal wound, Anaryn had made a trip to visit the great Lesbian poet, and had met a young poet she ended up liking better—loving, in fact, as she discovered in time.
Even this was being tugged from her grasp, with such force that it might have been gone indeed, if another shade-shape had not appeared suddenly in her hand. No shades held any objects in the underworld, since the things they were buried with never made it to that place. Yet, nonetheless, here she was, inexplicably holding a little splinter of wood in her hand.
The influence of Lethe surged up in her, and she cast the thing aside, but when it landed on the marble smooth dark surface of the riverbank, she saw the grooves of a crude carving where the glowing shade lit up the gloom.
She had etched that word herself, though she had no skill. In the rough lines lay the name “Anaryn”—the strongest shield she had for her memory.
As she picked it up, she felt drawn to a dark corner—a small trickle far away, so far that she thought Pluto’s sharp eyes could not spot it from the Palace window. She struggled through the tight pressed crowd of thousands by the bank, unnoticed by the shades who struggled with lost thoughts. She slipped away from the infant-shapes at the edges, the ones who were vanishing one by one as babies were born into the world above. The wood-shape was the only shade in the underworld whose solid counterpart rested there as well, and the two were inevitably drawn together.
On she went, till with her shade-hand, she bent down to pick up the solid wood. Her hand became flesh. Meanwhile, in a distant village above, a woman heavy with pregnancy gripped her belly, suddenly fearing miscarriage would deprive her of her child.
But in that instant also, terror filled Erelin as the god appeared near, huge and grim, wrapped in a blue cloak and a frown, with a draught of Lethe water in his hand. He gripped her like a doll, ready to force the liquid down her throat.
But the aged and immortal Sybil, who as a servant of Apollo had lived many years with the burden of too much knowledge and too much infirmity, brought herself at last to the resolution she had long been considering. For the first and last time, she used Apollo’s power to walk in the realm of the dead.
In the distant village, the pregnant woman gave a sigh of relief as the fear passed. The infant within her even kicked its feet, proving its health—and yet, she felt, irrationally, that the little presence within her was not the same.
In Cumae, the priests cried out in wonder and dismay as the aged Sybil, whom according to myths had lived for centuries, stopped suddenly in the middle of a prophecy, stood still for several minutes, and then collapsed, dead and shriveled beyond belief.
Pluto reappeared in his Palace, and the flask that had contained the Lethe-water was empty. Such sacrifices, he thought as he watched the young poet climb upwards, were exceedingly rare.
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|Reviewed by Sage Sweetwater
|I would love a stab at illustrating this! (if only I had time) I could teach myself how to draw warrior women, shields and sexual immortality! The "marriage ceremony" is key to this telling. It addresses modern-day same-sex issues in ancient voice. The mere mention of Sappho and Lesbos make this a timeless, poetic piece!! The characters' names alone are marvelously chosen at BEST ... and Cumae ... what an earthly, quintessential location name!!
I say "Save the Queen!"
Boyce does it again ... surprises the hell out of us with a new genre! A future novel indeed ... it's what we can hope for at best!
|Reviewed by Sarah McCarty
|Wow! This is a great story! The plot is exciting. I really like how Christine Boyce weaves the thoughts of both women into the story to create the conflict that must be resolved. I think this would make a fantastic novel, and I'd like to see Boyce create that novel. Short story format does little justice here as I wanted to get to know the characters more and understand their world a little better. Greek mythology fans probably have a better grip on the characters and beliefs used in this short story, but for the average, and yet uneducated, reader, this story holds too many mysteries that are unanswered.
I love Boyce's use of "shade" and Erelin's exceptional ability to defy the effects of forgetting. I think that by itself would make this an extraordinary novel. I would also like to know more about the couple before erelin died. What brought them together, how have they grown closer, what barriers have they faced, etc. I love how this story plays out though. I think Boyce did suggest many of these things, but again, novel format is necessary to create understanding within the readers.
The story was seeped too much in explaining characters and conditions of the setting to really draw me completely into that world. Again I think this would be fixed over time. I usually prefer short stories, but this is a fantastic story and like I said before, it holds great potential as a novel.
I look forward to reading more of Boyce's work. I bet she is a fantastic author. I hope she tells even more stories about this couple. Thanks fro writing Christine! You are great!