by S. Decoteaux Bates
There is a red boat, and you slip over the gunwale and conceal your small body amidst the ropes, for though adult eyes seldom note a child so young, the docks are vast and teeming with myriads of citizens. As you lay among the coils, smelling raw fiber, you stare up at a sky where no sun shines; the heavens arch above you in a uniform and nacreous dome that lights all of space with a comforting impartiality.
A wave rises beneath you, lifting the boat.
You embark on the eve of the spring equinox.
The seas stretch onwards to forever, shallow and flat, and a few days out you ask your reflection which bearing will guide you home. The shimmering figure claims not to know, but tells you your name is Paidon Pais, and that you shall steer a good course. There is a lie here, you decide, for reflections can never speak more than half a truth. At night you watch the face of Luna and feel the tides pulled tight against the sacrum of planet. The air is clean and good, but what is your true name?
When you make landfall on the seventh island you see, the sun hangs in mid-spring, and strange flowers like tongues deck the shore, their calyxes drooping in the humid air. Alone on a shard of rock thrusting out of moss-shrouded lagoon, a slender girl with eyes the color of roses asks you to take her upon your boat. Her name is Ear the Lesser, she says as she strokes your supple limbs, and she has lost her way long ago.
You try your very best, but the seas spin whirlpools and waterspouts, and by the summer solstice she has lost her way once more; starving and parched, you sail into the harbor of a vast white metropolis alone on the little bark.
Along the waterfront run streets lit by ruby lamps as delicate as your skin, and you ache to wander those alleys, but as you disembark armored men take you from the harbor and drag you up ramps of alabaster to where a palace shaped like a chrysanthemum crowns the city. In an ivory hall the men throw you down before a throne.
Her name is Ear the Greater and her pages call her empress, for beneath an anadem of twining roses and briars she brings law to a thousand prefectures. She names you Meirakion Meirax, the violator and murderer, and when they bring you to the calcified chambers below the palace, the armored men chain your hands, and, though you moan and plead, emasculate you there.
The air tastes hot and foul, and through a crack in the walls you watch swift Hermes skirt the horizon. You feel sure the queen has lied, for you are not the man she named.
Released the day after mid-summer, you don the robes of a monastic and beg for your belly in distant villages where xanthic dust floors the streets. You take the name Neaniskos Neanis, and your only companion as you travel the Rimlands is an ascetic called Theros, a blind leper and deaf-mute who scourges himself during the hot nights and parleys with angels at dawn. Over your heads, blue-white Aphrodite arcs towards zenith but never gains dominion, and you ruminate on the idylls of ambition.
Theros builds fires against the dark, and croons to the flames when he believes you asleep. This pleases you, for the flames burn clean and good.
As the serfs load wagons with summer’s harvest, you lose the man and search the wide fields, at last finding his body wrapped in the green sheaves that hold back the arid earthen banks of a canal. Wind stirs the rows of crops like a whisper, a rustling name, and you stretch your lanky form within a furrow and lose yourself in sleep.
You awaken at the autumnal equinox and your army hails you as Aner Gune, Gatherer of War. With your four wives elevated besides you–their litters gleam silver, yours gold–the hoplites bear you across conquered riverlands, subjugated forests, and fortified highlands until the procession halts before the mountain known as Opora. Men and goats are sacrificed to bright Sol, and then you alone descend into the dusty heart of the mountain, losing your path in a labyrinth where stones hang from the ceiling like clusters of ripening fruit. Long do you wander, and your armor rusts and falls away from the slabs of muscle that pad your body.
Flames dwell under the mountain, streams of fire that gnaw at the root of the world, and gnaw at the mountain, and your heart is also gnawed.
At last you find a vein and, touching it, feel the roots of the mountain, and a silver root in your spine, and rooted together you speak to the streams of fires. The flames burn foul and dry, but they heed your words as you confess: you are not Aner Gune.
Blind and blinking beneath a mid-autumn sky, you crawl down from a vent in the mountain to find your hosts dissolved, your wives fled and the lands you claimed with blood despoiled and forsaken. The season of grit has come, and you can smell the waning year on the stale breezes as they blow.
In the seventh of the plundered villages you enter, the survivors–mostly children–touch your hands and mark your grizzled beard, calling you Presbutis, which they have forgotten means Maturity of Reason. Though bloody Ares rides the sky, you think not of war but of peace, and teach the children to till the dry earth.
Pthinoporon, he names himself, and though you taught him how to hunt the beasts of the forest when he was a child, he challenges your rule, calling you out before an assemblage of villagers. You kneel in the dust before the young man and proffer your spear, but he strikes you to the ground with seven furious blows. You can taste dirt in your mouth, and it is clean and good.
When you rise, your persecutor stumbles back into the crowd, for a thrumming fills your throat and your eyes are terrible to behold. But you forgive these children (and they are the only progeny you will ever father), telling them you were never Presbutis, and bless their hearths before striking northwards.
By the winter solstice, all the holy pilgrims and eremites of the northern peaks known your name–Geron Graia, abbot of Sporetos, he who tamed the passions by stacking the sheer walls of his abbey with his own two hands, and then seeded the mountains with a crop of cloud-wrapped shrines to no deity. Your followers venerate you on the high terraces of the abbey’s orchards, and within the jeweled cloisters bathe you in oils reminiscent of the shallow seas, but at night you stroke your magnificent ivory beard and gaze through a clarity of mountain air towards the stars, thinking their network of sparks mirrors the mind of man.
Though you enjoy your life as the abbot, you know the time has come to depart when jaundiced Zeus surmounts the eastern edge of the earth, and so bid Sporetos a reluctant farewell. The illuminists vow to immortalize the name of Geron Graia in their scrolls, and you forebear to tell the eager men that, no, that name is not yours.
Lies bitter the tongue, and as you climb the paths that wind away from your abbey, you feel you can taste the earth, and the earth is cold and foul.
Mid-winter. You have reached the pole. In the dark hours, storms lash the world and waves of chartreuse radiance come rushing from the horizon; the daylight remains the abode of wind and cold and an indifferent white light that drowns the earth. Crouched in a shack built from the timbers of your great sleigh and the bones of the musk oxen that dragged its runners above the ice, you scratch your bald crown and converse with the spirits of the winter, the only company you keep here in this realm at the top of the world.
Androgyne creatures of frost and blue fire, they are whisperers and speakers of tongues whose sense eludes you; among the spirits, Keimon proves the most loquacious, and from his whispers you divine the name they have bound to you: Eskhatogeros, the highest, the best, the last.
Wisdom is yours, and honor, and freedom from obligation, but the days burn cold and distant lie the lands of men.
Once, beneath a heaven ruled by the cruel gaze of old Chronos, Keimon seeks to comfort you, and you watch her spectral fingers pass through your emaciated flesh. Then it is you who seeks to comfort her–you admit you are not Eskhatogeros, and, in truth, you have forgotten your name long ago when the world was young. You weep together, spirit and flesh, and the water is clean and good.
Stars awaken you with their singing.
Her name is Phutalia, and once again she tells you the time has come for planting. With a potter’s caress, she shapes you anew, and the ancient wounds melt to nothingness. Here swing the stars, she says, and here you will go.
Pylons of light support the arc of space, and all the teeming myriads between swim in its ether. You apprehend the diversity of paths and scintillate brighter, anticipating your fall, while the massed glory of Creation beckons like a stream of tainted water to the thirsty.
On that cusp, in that timeless moment of light before you descend, she leans close and whispers your name.
There is a red boat, and you slip over the gunwale and conceal your small body amidst the ropes….