His name is Orpheus, and he is the greatest poet on Earth. With his lyre, he can make music so beautiful it causes the gods to weep, but they are not who he wants to impress. Orpheus has been in love with Eurydice ever since the first time he heard her voice, and to win her love he sings the most beautiful songs in history. On the day of their wedding, when Orpheus feels happiness just within his grasp, Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. The groom is heartbroken, but undaunted. He will rescue his beloved—even if he must battle death itself.
Orpheus’s path is fraught with untold dangers, but he presses on—and a tragic yet beautiful love story emerges from this radical reworking of an ancient tale.
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About the Author
Michael Cadnum lives in Albany, California, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Read an Excerpt
The Legend of Orpheus and Eurydice
By Michael Cadnum
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Michael Cadnum
All rights reserved.
Orpheus paused beside the river.
The angry current churned, too hard and deep for an easy crossing, the cold white water surging through the black stones.
Once again he heard the troubling wail in the distance.
"Are you sure this is a safe place to cross, Prince Orpheus?" asked Biton, his young servant, making every effort to disguise his anxiety.
"I had heard it was a peaceful waterway, Biton," replied Orpheus, trying to sound reassuring. "But now that I look at it, I have my doubts."
It was a day when the approach of spring was still merely a hint in the sunlight. The two travelers had nearly reached their destination, the land where King Lycomede ruled with his daughter the princess Eurydice. Orpheus had sent no advance notice of his visit, but he expected a warm welcome. Monarch and shepherd alike were always glad to play host to the famous singer, and for his own part the poet was eager to set eyes on the princess, who was said to possess an ardent love of music – and a magical beauty.
"Let's wander down the river for a while," suggested Biton. "No doubt some strong-armed ferryman will offer his services."
Orpheus was tall and sturdily built, with hair the color of amber, but he had no great faith in his own physical powers when it came to such a violent flood. The poet cocked his head, listening for the distant cry – and heard it again, faint but persistent.
"Do you hear it, too, Biton?" asked Orpheus.
"I was hoping I was mistaken," the young servant responded regretfully. "To my ear, I'm afraid it sounds very much like a crying baby."
Vultures circled a rocky knoll not far up the hillside beyond the river. With each approach, the winged scavengers came closer to a tiny being apparently abandoned there, at the foot of a great ash tree.
"Look there, master, upriver!" said Biton excitedly. "A herd of goats is already halfway across. If goats can make it through the water, then surely we will find our footing!"
"Those aren't goats, Biton," said Orpheus grimly. He lifted his legendary silver lyre over his head, and waded out into the seething river.
Indeed, the poet thought, the animals in question were not anything like goats. They were a pack of wild dogs fighting hungrily to swim the current, no doubt attracted by the human infant's wail. Once there, Orpheus feared, the creatures would make quick work of the baby, and have the ferocity besides to fight over the scraps.
Orpheus sang out a prayer, that the river god might ease the tumbling waters just long enough for a poet and his trusted attendant to reach the opposite bank. He was the most famous singer in the world; his mother was one of the Muses – Calliope, the goddess of epic poetry – and his father was the mortal king Oeagrus of Thrace.
The Muses were daughters of Jupiter, and the nine of them empowered human talent in music, dance, and song. No poet but Orpheus could claim to be the offspring of such an immortal.
And it did seem that at the sound of the poet's song, the river relented in its brutal torrent – just slightly.
"Be careful, master!" called Biton, already far behind.
The poet had rescued Biton some years before, saving him from drowning in a sudden freshet in Rodos – a dry, rocky streambed had filled with a flash flood during a summer storm. Orpheus had given the orphan the affectionate name for an ox, because the boy was so strong, and even-tempered as well.
The poet reached the midpoint, where the river was deepest. The water spun, gathering around him, surrounding him with power that had been, until hours ago, snow on one of the mountains. Upriver, the pack of wild dogs was halfway across as well, struggling but making headway.
Orpheus lifted his voice again, in one of his favorite songs, the story of the many rivers falling out of the sky, flung by the hand of Jupiter. It was a beautiful, soothing tune, and it was wise to remind the river god that, for all his thunder and foam, he was subject to the pleasure of the sky.
Beyond, the vultures circled, ever closer to the tiny human being.
It was an old practice among farm laborers, when sharp poverty made it impossible to feed yet another mouth: An unwanted newborn was left alone, out under the heavens. There the Fates could determine the infant's future, although the poet knew that many such babies lost their lives. Like many before him, Orpheus was often troubled by the flinty ways of gods and men.
At last Orpheus reached the dry, white pebbles of the opposite bank.
He ran as hard as he was able, through brambles and winter-bare bushes, his strong legs driving upslope.
Not far downhill the pack of wild dogs shook dazzling moisture into the sunlight. And then they resumed their course, tumbling over one another in their eagerness.
Orpheus was nearly there, a stitch in his side, the muscles of his long legs burning.
He set down his lyre, and knelt, breathing hard.
The blue-black wings of the carrion birds swept upward, retreating awkwardly and reluctantly as the poet gathered the wailing infant, wrapped in rough-spun wool, into his arms.
Orpheus took a deep breath, and sang the first words of the old lullaby, "Hush, dear one, the friendly sun is high."
The infant stirred, a baby girl not more than a week or two old.
She gave a kick, and gazed up into the poet's smile. She cried no longer, and as the poet gave voice to the time-honored verse – the winds at peace with Apollo, lord of the sun – the infant grew calm.
But within moments the dogs were upon them.CHAPTER 2
The pack closed in.
The lead dog drew so near that Orpheus could feel the warmth from the feral body and smell his rank, hot breath.
He was a thickset brute, larger and less famished in appearance than the rest, with a square snout and fine golden fangs. An old, white scar along his spine showed where a shepherd's barbed arrow had broken off some summers ago. The dog had intent, silver-colored eyes, and uttered a rumbling growl.
The poet was afraid. Not so much for himself, but for the infant. And there was plenty of unease left over for him to consider his own flesh and bone, too. The wet, gaunt animals had spent a bleak winter, by the looks of them, and the poet felt a twinge of compassion for their empty bellies.
But he was not so frightened that he failed to remember the power of song.
"The divine Apollo's golden blessing on all of you," sang Orpheus, a friendly verse of greeting.
White Scar answered with a deeper growl.
"This baby is safe with me, my dear friend," sang Orpheus, an improvised air with a sweet melody that disguised the poet's growing anxiety.
The throng of hungry animals urged White Scar from behind, shouldering and slavering, but the big animal resisted, suspicion and wonder, perhaps, keeping him where he was for a few moments more.
Orpheus reached up, and placed the infant in a fork of the ancient ash tree, its branches leafless this chilly day. Some people believed that Diana, the goddess of the hunt, favored such venerable trees, and the poet was thankful for the old tree's sheltering limbs.
Then the young man hefted the shining lyre from the ground, and settled the gleaming musical instrument into the crook of his arm. His fingers were stiff and cold from the river crossing. Nevertheless, he began to play well, lifting his voice in a poem about Persephone.
It was the story of the graceful mortal woman kidnapped by the lord of the underworld. Some people believed that the arrival of spring flowers was a sign that Persephone was returning to the land of the daylight, bringing new life. Others held that enigmatic Pluto was a jealous lord, and released his wife into the upper world but rarely. Orpheus sang of how Persephone, exiled among the colorless shades of once living people, fondly remembered the creatures of daylight.
She was fond of the hunting animals, too, the poet sang – like the wild dog White Scar, with his fine teeth. The verses told of Persephone's regret that she could not enjoy the company of such hardy animals, imprisoned as she was in the dark-steeped realm of the dead.
Orpheus closed his eyes, and sang of Persephone's passion for all living things.
When his poem was done, Orpheus opened his eyes – and beheld only empty hillside where the dogs had been.
"They left!" panted Biton, hurrying up and brandishing his staff. "And it's a good thing for them, too," he added. "By Hercules, master, I'll kill any dog that so much as snaps at you!"CHAPTER 3
"I do believe it's him!" whispered the farmer to his wife, eyeing Orpheus's lyre. "Yes, I'm sure it's the poet!"
Servants peered through the gate, and then hurried off to obey their master's orders.
"We have mare's milk and cow's cheese, Prince Orpheus," offered the landowner. "Soft-baked bread, if you please, and the sweetest olive oil under the sky."
Orpheus told Biton to pay the farmer with the best, bright-minted Lydian silver.
"This is far too generous!" said the farmer with a laugh – closing his hand tightly around the precious metal. "If bread and cheese will not please you, is there anything else I can get for the son of the immortal muse?"
He asked eagerly – but with a trace of caution, too.
Orpheus glanced around at the sleek geese and fat cows. This well-fed farmer's own children – three of them – gathered behind their father, too shy to speak.
The infant in the poet's arms made a tiny bleat – a sound very much like the young goats in a nearby pen – and squirmed hungrily. Along the path, Orpheus's repertoire of sweet-sounding refrains had reassured the infant, but even the finest song fell short of being food.
"Some repast for this baby, if you please," said Orpheus. "And directions, if you would be so kind," added the poet with a smile, "to the court of the king."
"I shall call this child Melia," said Orpheus later that day as the two travelers continued into the woods. Ash tree. "Because of the branches that offered her welcome – and so that Diana might always protect her."
The baby was swaddled in new, fine-spun wool, a gift from the farmer's wife, and sucked on a teat of goat's milk and honey, fashioned out of linen by Biton.
"Or you could, if you chose, master," suggested Biton thoughtfully, "name her after an ox – or, perhaps even a bison."
Orpheus chuckled. "No little girl would be pleased with such a name, I think, dear Biton."
The poet was of good cheer, now that he was on a well-cleared path again, the day becoming warm with the brilliant sunlight.
But he was troubled, at the same time, by what he saw around him. While some farms were rich, populated by plump ducks and fat hens, many farmsteads were bleak, and several of the field folk they passed were hollow-eyed, stooping to free their wooden pitchforks from the thick and clinging mud.
Orpheus wondered if the impoverished men and women he passed might be relations of the infant Melia, brokenhearted at having to surrender the infant to her fate – but thankful, too, that the gods had found a capable-looking guardian.
"Are we to travel the world with this mild-hearted Melia?" Biton was inquiring. The prince's assistant was a welcoming youth, of ample cheer, but he was sometimes jealous of his master's attentions.
Orpheus gave a laugh. He was about to reassure the lad that soon they would no doubt find a loving home for the infant girl.
But a sweet sound stopped him in his tracks.
Biton crept ahead, peering down the path.
The music of a stream rose upward through the grove, accompanied by the sound of women singing.
"Master, I hear a most pleasant chorus," Biton said at last.
"I hear them, too," Orpheus answered, rocking the drowsing infant in his arms. "Go on, Biton, and see who they might be."
"They could be wood nymphs," responded Biton. "Naked and dancing, and they might blind the eyes in my head for looking."
Such things did happen, it was said – dryads and goddesses were careful defenders of their modesty.
But there could be no doubt. Female voices somewhere not far off sang the hymn of Juno, praising the wisdom of women over the many follies of their husbands. Surely, thought Orpheus, they were mortal women, not wood spirits. And they had astonishingly lovely voices – one of them in particular.
"But if you insist, master," Biton was saying, "I shall investigate."
"Women – mortal human ladies! They are bathing in a stream," said Biton excitedly on his return. "Handsome women, too, Prince Orpheus – if I may say so. And one of them has the most beautiful voice of all."
But the singing had stopped.
Footsteps whispered through the undergrowth, and a man with a lance stood before the two travelers, leveling his weapon at Biton's master.CHAPTER 4
The young stranger wore a brightly polished bronze chest plate, and well-cured leather. The broad point of his spear was bright, and the pommel of the sword at his hip was the finest gold.
Orpheus spoke the proper greeting, introducing himself formally – including the names of his illustrious parents, and his recent ports of call, Lesbos and the sea kingdoms of the Bosporus.
It was important for a wayfarer to share such information – out of courtesy, and to help prove that a traveler was neither a fugitive from some lawful power, nor a ghost. Escapees from the underworld were thought to be angry and vindictive, and not given to civil conversation.
"I am called Lachesis, Prince Orpheus," responded the young stranger, lowering his lance just slightly. "My father rules this kingdom, and I do what I can to shelter my sister."
Orpheus bowed politely, and watched to be sure that Biton gave an even deeper show of respect. "I've heard of you, gracious prince," said the poet. "You are the worthy brother of the famous Eurydice."
"Noble poet," responded the prince, "although your name is praised from shore to mountain summit, I must ask you bluntly: Is it your habit for you and your servant to watch innocent women as they bathe?"
"Oh, and is it right for a brother to hide in the reeds," retorted Biton, "and do the very same thing?"
The infant in Orpheus's arms stirred sleepily.
Perhaps the sight of the baby softened the royal brother's suspicion. Or perhaps it was Orpheus's good-natured answer. "The gods love a warmhearted welcome, Prince Lachesis – and a traveler who deserves one."
Lachesis called out, and three or four other armed figures appeared along the path, their weapons glinting among the willows.
"Brother, what intruders are these?" inquired a woman's voice.
"She's the one, master," whispered Biton excitedly, "who sang more beautifully than all the others."
Mortals were thought to be dependent on divine beings for nearly every passion or skill. Battle courage was endowed by Mars, sound judgment by Minerva, and a reciter of lengthy epics was grateful to Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Even love was believed to be empowered by a deity – and a playful, potent one at that.
Some said that Eros was a boylike god, armed with a quiver of barbs. Others held that the god of sudden love more closely resembled a well-sinewed youth, lancing the human heart with a spear. Orpheus knew many lyrics about the god's caprice. However, until that moment the son of Calliope had believed such tales were merely pretty verses. Surely, he had always thought, a sensible traveler like himself could not be struck dumb with unexpected passion.
But at that moment Prince Orpheus could not make a sound.
"Do you not understand our speech, good traveler?" inquired Princess Eurydice with an air of friendly inquisitiveness.
"We heard the sound of beautiful singing, Princess," Orpheus managed to respond. "And we quite naturally had to stop and listen."
The princess wore a soft-woven chiton, a flowing garment, with embroidered seams of gold-bright thread. Her hair was dark, and her eyes were dark, too, like the night seas off Numidia.
"And is this the renowned poet," the young woman was asking her brother, "whose music is a legend among gods and men?"
As she made this query, an attendant placed a blue cloak around her shoulders, and helped the princess fasten it at her throat with an ivory brooch.
Excerpted from Nightsong by Michael Cadnum. Copyright © 2006 Michael Cadnum. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was okay. It was a little rushed and not a lot of charcter growth. It was a good retelling but i guess i expected it to be more.
I always love reading re-fashionings of Greek myths, and was intrigued when I heard that Michael Cadnum had written one about Orpheus and Eurydice, or, the story of "Metamorphoses" originally written by Ovid.In case you are unfamiliar with the famous storyline, it is the tale of Orpheus, a blessed musician and poet, and Eurydice, a beautiful princess. The two fall deeply in love, but on their wedding day Eurydice is tragically killed by a viper. Orpheus decides to venture to the Underworld and attempt to bring his bride back from the dead.I love this story, but I have to say that this brief little book does not do the epic story any justice. The characters are flat and un-interesting, the story is ordinary, and the author did not seem to spend much time or effort in his writing.Also, I hate when epic romances such as this one are told so bluntly, and in such a dis-impassioned manner. There is certainly no passion or undying love that we see in the characters, only where it SHOULD exist in the plot itself.Not a great re-telling... just read the original.