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The Bull from the Sea
By Mary Renault
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Constance Bella Mullard and Graham John Sonnenberg
All rights reserved.
It was dolphin weather, when I sailed into Piraeus with my comrades of the Cretan bull ring. Knossos had fallen, which time out of mind had ruled the seas. The smoke of the burning Labyrinth still clung to our clothes and hair.
I sprung ashore and grasped both hands full of Attic earth. It stuck to my palms as if it loved me. Then I saw the staring people, not greeting us, but calling each other to see the Cretan strangers.
I looked at my team, the boys and girls of Athens' tribute, carried to Crete to learn the bull-vault and dance for Minotauros on bloody sand. They showed me myself, as I must look to Attic eyes: a bull-dancer of Crete, smooth-shaven, fined down to a whiplash by the training; my waist in a gilded cinch-belt, my silk kilt stitched with peacock eyes, my lids still smudged with kohl; nothing Hellene about me, but my flaxen hair. My necklace and arm-rings were not grave jewels of a kingly house, but the costly gauds of the Bull Court, the gift of sport-loving lords and man-loving ladies to a bull-boy who will go in with the music and fly up with the horns.
Small wonder no one knew me. The bull ring is a dye that seeps into one's soul. Even till my feet touched Attic soil, the greater part of me had been Theseus the Athenian, team-leader of the Cranes; the odds-on fancy, the back-somersault boy, the first of the bull-leapers. They had painted me on the walls of the Labyrinth, carved me in ivory; there had been little gold Theseuses on the women's bracelets. The ballad-makers had promised themselves and me a thousand years of singing. In these things my pride still lingered. Now it was time to be my father's son.
There were great shouts about us. The crowd had seen who we were. They thronged around calling the news along towards Athens and the Rock, and stretching their eyes at the King's son tricked out like a mountebank. Women screamed out for pity at the scars on my breast and sides from glancing bullhorns. All of us had them. They thought we had been flogged. I saw the faces of my team looking dashed a little, even in the rejoicing. In Crete, all the world had known these for our honors, the badges of fine-cut skill.
I thought of the solemn dirges when I sailed, the tears and rent hair, the keening for me, self-offered scapegoat of the god. All that could not be told broke from me in a laugh; and some old woman kissed me.
In the Bull Court, boys' and girls' voices had never ceased all day. I heard them still. "Look, we are back! Yes, every one of us; look, there is your son. No, the Cretans will not chase us, there is no Minos now. The House of the Ax has fallen! We fought a great battle there, after the earthquake. Theseus killed the heir, the Minotauros. We are free! And there is no Cretan tribute any more!"
People stared and murmured. It was too great for joy. A world without Crete was a new thing under the sun. Then young men leaped and raised the paean.
I said smiling to the team, "Suppers at home." Yet my heart was thinking, "Leave the tale so, dear comrades of our mystery. You have told them all they will understand; don't cry against the wind." They chattered on; I could hear it now with an Attic ear, foreign as bird-song. "We are the Cranes! The Cranes, the Cranes, the first team in the Bull Court. A whole year in the ring, and all alive; the first time in the annals and they go back six hundred years. Theseus did it, he trained us. Theseus is the greatest bull-leaper who ever was in Crete. Even here in Athens, you must have heard of the Cranes!"
The kinsfolk clasped their darlings, shook their heads and stared. Fathers were grabbing my hands and kissing them for bringing their children home. I made some answer. How we had prayed and plotted in the Bull Court to get away! And now, how hard to shed it from us, the doomed and fiery life, the trust stronger than love. It left a raw bleeding wound. A girl was saying to her betrothed, who had hardly known her, "Rhion, I am a bull-leaper! I can handstand on the horns. Once I did the back-spring. Look at this jewel; I won a great bet for a prince, and he gave it to me." I saw his face of horror, and their eyes meeting at a loss. In the Bull Court, life and honor came before boy or girl. I felt it still; to me these slim athletes of my team were beautiful. I saw with the eyes of this fuller's son how free-moving and firm and brown she looked beside the milky maids of Athens. When I thought of all the Cranes had shared, I could have struck the fool and taken her in my arms. But the Bull Court was ashes and blackened stone; the Cranes were out of my hand, my rule was over.
"Find me a black bull-calf," I told the people. I must sacrifice to Poseidon Earth-Shaker, for our safe return. And send a runner to the King my father."
The calf came meekly, and bowed his head consenting; a good omen which pleased the people. Even at the stroke he scarcely struggled. Yet when he sank down his eyes reproached me like a man's. A strange thing, after his mildness. I dedicated him and poured the blood upon the earth. When I quenched the flames with wine, I prayed, "Father Poseidon, Lord of Bulls, we have danced for you in your holy place and laid our lives in your hand. You brought us safe home; be good to us still, and hold fast our roof-posts. And for myself, now I am come again to Erechtheus' stronghold, let my arm not fail her. Prosper my father's house; and be it so according to our prayer."
They cried amen; but the sound wandered. There was a buzz of news behind. My runner was back, long before he could have reached the Citadel. He came to me slowly; and the people made way for him, drawing aside. I knew then he brought death-tidings. He stood silent before me, but not for long. No news so bad but an Athenian wants to be first with it.
They brought me a horse. Some of my father's barons came down to meet me. As we rode from Piraeus to the Rock, the sounds of joy fell back and I heard the wailing.
On the ramp of the gates where it is too steep to ride, the Palace people stumbled to kiss my hands and the fringe of my Cretan kilt. They had thought me dead, themselves masterless: beggars at best, slaves if they could not get away before the Pallantids swarmed back to take the kingdom. I said, "Show me my father."
The eldest baron said, "I will see, my lord, if the women have done washing him. He was bloody from the fall."
He lay in his upper room, on his great bed of cedar, with the red cover lined with wolfskin; he had always felt the cold. They had wrapped him in blue with a gold border; very quiet he lay between the wailing women as they shook their hair and clawed their bosoms. One side of his face was white, the other blue from the rock's bruising. The skull-vault was stove in like a bowl; but they had wrapped a clean cloth round and straightened his broken limbs.
I stood dry-eyed. I had known him less than half a year, before I went off to Crete. Before he knew who I was, he had tried to poison me in this very room. I bore no malice for it. A battered dead old man; a stranger. The old granddad who reared me, Pittheus of Troizen, was the father of my childhood and my heart. Him I could have wept for. But blood is blood; and you cannot wash out what is written in it.
The blue side of his face looked stern; the white had a little secret smile. At the bed's foot his white boar-hound lay chin on paws, and stared at nothing.
I said, "Who saw him die?"
The dog's ears pricked, and its tail struck the ground softly. The women peeped through their hair; then they screeched louder, and the youngest bared their breasts to pummel them. But old Mykale knelt by the bedpost silent. My father's grandfather had taken her in some ancient war; she was more than fourscore years old. Her monkey-creased black eyes met mine unblinking. I held them; but it was hard to do.
The baron said, "He was seen by the guard of the northern wall, and by the watchman on the roof. Their witness agrees, that he was alone. They saw him come out on the balcony that stands above the cliff, and step straight upon the balustrade, and lift his arms. Then he sprang outward."
I looked at the right side of his face, then at the left. But their witness did not agree. I asked, "When was it?"
He looked away. "A runner had come from Sounion, with news of a ship passing the headland. 'What sail?' he asked. The man answered, 'Cretan, my lord. Blueblack, with a bull upon it.' He ordered the man to be fed, and then went in. That was our last sight of him living."
I could tell he knew what he was saying. So I raised my voice for all to hear. "This will be my grief forever. Now I remember how he bade me whiten my sail, if I came safe home. I have been a year with the bulls since then, and through the great earthquake, and the burning of the Labyrinth, and war. My sorrow that I forgot."
An old chamberlain, polished and white as silver, slid out from the press. Some pillars of kings' houses are earthquake-proof; it is their calling. "My lord, never reproach yourself. He died the Erechthid death. So went King Pandion at his time, from that very place; and King Kekrops from the castle crag at Euboia. The sign of the god was sent him, you may be sure, and your memory slept by the will of heaven." He gave me a grave silvery smile. "The Immortals know the scent of the new vintage. They will not let a great wine wait past its best." At this there was a buzzing, decent and low, but keen as the shouts of warriors at a breach that someone else has made. I saw my father's smile in his new-combed beard. He had ruled a troubled kingdom fifty years; he knew something of men. He looked smaller than when I went away, or perhaps I had grown a little. I said, "Gentlemen, you have leave."
They went. The women's eyes moved to me sidelong; I signed them away. But they forgot old Mykale, clutching at the bedpost to ease up from her stiff knees. I went and lifted her, and we looked at one another.
She bobbed, and made to go. I caught her arm, soft loose skin upon brittle bone, and said, "Did you see it, Mykale?"
Her wrinkles puckered, and she wriggled like a child in trouble. The bone twisted while the slack flesh stayed in my hand. Her skull was pink as chickenskin through the thin hair. "Answer me," I said. "Did he speak to you?"
"Me?" she said, blinking. "Folks tell me nothing. In King Kekrops' day I was paid more heed to. He told me, when he was called. Whom else, when I was in his bed? listen again, Mykale, listen again. Lean down, girl; put your ear to my head. You will hear it like a sounding shell.' So I leaned down to please him. But he put me by with the back of his arm, and walked out like a man in thought, straight from his naked bed to the northern rampart, and down without a cry."
She had been telling this tale for sixty years. But I heard it out. "So much for Kekrops. But here lies Aigeus dead. Come. What did he say?"
She peered at me: a wise-woman near her end; a withered baby with the ancient House Snake looking from its eyes. Then she blinked, and said she was only a poor old slave-girl whose memory would not hold.
"Mykale!" I said. "Do you know who I am? Don't fool with me."
She jumped a little. Then, like an old nurse to a child that stamps his foot at her, "Oh, aye, I know you, outlandish as you've grown, like some rich lord's minion or a dancing mime. Young Theseus, that he got at Troizen on King Pittheus' girl; the quick lad with the meddling hand. You sent word from Crete by a mountebank, that he should put out his ships against King Minos, and bring you home. A fine taking it put him in. Not many knew what ailed him. But news comes to me."
I said, "He had better have sailed than grieved. Crete was falling-ripe and I knew it. I proved it, too; so I am here."
"Trust comes hard, when a man's own brothers have fought him for his birthright. Better he'd trusted Apollo's oracle, before he loosed your mother's girdle. Aye, he woke a fate too strong for his hands, poor man."
I let her go. She stood rubbing her arm, and grumbling to herself. My eyes turned to my father. Under the cloth that wrapped his skull, a thread of blood was trickling.
I took a step back. I could have cried to her like a child to its nurse, "Make this not to be!" But she had drawn away like the House Snake who at a footstep creeps towards his hole. Her eyes were like cores of onyx. She was of the ancient Shore Folk, and knew earth magic, and the speech of the dead in the house of darkness. I knew whose servant she was, and she was not mine. Where the dead are, the Mother is not far away.
No man will lie when the Daughters of Night are listening. I said, "He feared me always. When I first came to him as victor from the Isthmus, he tried to kill me out of fear."
She nodded. It was true that all news came her way.
"But when he knew I was his son, we both did what was proper. I fought his wars; he gave me honor. It seemed we loved as we ought. He would ask me here—you have seen us at evening, talking by the fire."
I turned towards his bed. The blood had stopped flowing; but it lay wet still on his cheek.
"If I had meant him harm, would I have saved him on the battlefield? He would have been speared at Sounion, without my shield. Yet he feared me still. Would I have gone to Crete? Yet I felt his fear still waiting. Well, he might see cause now. He had failed me with the ships. That was to face between us. In his place I would have died of shame."
When the words were out they shocked me. It was unfitting, before his face; and Night's Daughters hear such things. Something cold touched my hand. My flesh leaped on my bones; but it was the nose of the white boarhound, dropping into my palm. It leaned hard against my thigh; the warmth had comfort in it.
"When it came time to show the sail, I prayed Poseidon for a sign. I wanted to reach him before he knew of my coming: to prove I came in peace, that I bore him no ill will for failing me, that I could wait in patience for the kingdom. I prayed; and the god sent me the sign I prayed for."
The Guardians of the Dead received my words into their silence. Words do not wash out blood. There would be a reckoning. Yet I would like to have spoken with him, a man to a man. What I had been afraid he would do in fear, he had done in sorrow. There had been this kindness in him, beneath all his contrivance. And yet, was it so? He was the King. Sorrow or not, he should have named an heir, disposed the kingdom, not left chaos behind. That he knew. Perhaps it was true that the god had called him.
I looked at Mykale, and saw only an old slave-woman of the Shore Folk, and was sorry to have said so much.
She hobbled to the bier, and took a cloth left by the women and wiped the face. Then she turned up the palm, which came stiffly—for the corpse was setting—and looked into it, and laid it down again and took up mine. Her hand seemed still cold from the touch of the dead. The dog pushed between, fussing and whining. She scolded it off, and brushed her robe.
"Yes, yes, a fate too strong for him." A fading flame guttered in her watery eyes. "Go with your fate, but not beyond. Beyond leads to dark places. Truth and death come from the north, in a falling star ..." She crossed her arms and rocked, and her voice keened as if for the dead. Then she straightened, and cried out strongly, "Loose not the Bull from the Sea!"
I waited, but no more came. Her eyes had turned foolish again. I stepped towards her, but thought, "What use? I shall get no sense."
I turned away. Then I heard a sound of growling. It was the dog, his teeth bare, his tail wrapping his belly, the dark roots of his hackles showing. There was a shuffling of feet like old dry leaves, and she was gone.
The barons were waiting. I went out, with the dog's nose pressed against me. He was on my side; and I did not send him back again.CHAPTER 2
I buried my father richly, on the slope of the Hill of Ares with the other kings. His tomb was lined with dressed stone, the nailheads wrought with flowers and gilded. His offerings of food and drink stood in fine painted ware on stands inlaid with ivory. I had a high and splendid death-cart made, and wrapped him in a great hanging worked with lions. He had enamelled coffers, his richest dagger and sword, two great gold rings and his state necklace. When the mound was heaped above the dome, I offered eight bulls upon it, and a war-stallion for him to ride in the lands below. As the blood sank into the earth, the women keened his dirge and praised him. The boarhound Aktis followed me down; but when he whimpered at the blood, I had him led away, and two of the palace deerhounds killed instead. If he had mourned till the end, I would have sent him down to my father; but the beast had chosen me of his own will.
The people began to tread the grave-mound firm. Only the open door was left within its causeway, for the dead to witness his Funeral Games. The chanting rose and fell, the people swayed and tramped to it, moving to the sound like blood to the heartbeat. I stood there spattered from the sacrifice, thinking about him, and what kind of man he was. He had got my message, that if he sailed against Crete the serfs would rise and we bull-dancers would seize the Labyrinth. Fame and victory I had offered him, and the treasure of a thousand years for spoil; but he would not throw for it. That is a thing I cannot understand, nor shall I ever: a man who wishes and will not do.
Excerpted from The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault. Copyright © 1990 Constance Bella Mullard and Graham John Sonnenberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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