Writing on the Wall

By | 1 December 2009

Delphi, one of the oldest sacred sites in Greece,
includes rebuilt Temples to Apollo and Athena.
The 2500-year-old retaining wall has withstood two
earthquakes which demolished all surrounding buildings.

 

Prologue in Delphi
Ischegaon: The Wall That Keeps the Earth Back

Pale stones, dark-rimmed, limestone edges pressed together,
a cushion of air between. Pocked with age, the slabs interlock

for strength, connecting space to absorb history's blows: earthquakes
and other vandals. The wall is a document in stone two metres high,

thirty metres long, outlasting parchment or vellum.
Two fault lines run under the site; the wall remains.

Shapes of words imprint stone like fossils, chiselled in small square script,
more beautiful than lichen. Stories are patient,

silent until we are ready for them.
What is strength? Perhaps the names keep the wall standing;

one thousand ex-slaves
and the nobles who relinquished them into the hands of the god.
 

1. After Burial the Stele is Delivered

The swaddled stele lies on the bed of the cart, delivered to the estate
by the mason. We carry the headstone as we carried the old lord's body,

shrouded for burial, three slaves to each side; small, slow steps.
The young lord directs us under the lintel, into the men's chamber.

We rest gravestone on trestle, peel cloths. Dust from the journey
flurries in late light. The line is true; the old man's craggy face,

looking sideways into forever. Grapes on the vine, his walking staff.
Only in stone now; there was never a day without him looming

in grove and vineyard, busy with livestock. Bitterness rises like bile.
My father was one dead slave among many, never remembered on stone.

His name and liberty taken, though he was scholar
from a noble Persian house. War overtook him en route to Athens.

He should have been lauded at the Academy –
not captured as war-spoil; a chattel-slave sold at auction.

War takes all the seeds of the future – the mighty and the humble.
The young lord dismisses us, stays with the gravestone of his father.

 

2. The Will is Read

Fear passes like a baton in the games; shepherds, grove workers and domestics
whisper it along. Will we be sold at auction? The desk where I tutor, stylus

and writing tablets, will all these, even my own self, pass from one hand to another?
Will it be a better hand? Before the old man died

the young one returned home from Athens, with news from the polos.
Decades-long the bloodshed, then war with Sparta paused.

Into that peace like birdsong into morning, the voices of the brave ones dawned.
Lycophron, Alcimadas; the whole School of Gorgias causing tumult.

They challenged Aristotle's claim that slaves were living tools,
property to be used at will. Stalwart against wrath, they urged

freedom for slaves, saying foreigners were not barbarians,
Greeks could learn from us.

But Aristotle argued louder, his word had the crowd.
What I would give to see the rebels best him in debate!

The young lord returned on fire.
Is he made of more than words?

 

3. Called to the Atrium

The old master's son sends riders to call slaves back from grove and pasture.
We're gathered as at harvest festival, but uneasy, in the atrium.

Food is laid and jugs of wine. What are we to celebrate?
We're restive as a flock when strangers pass through.

Autumn, end-of-day sun pours honey-coloured light over us;
it blesses us when his news may not. Harvest-time will be soon,

already the grapes fatten. All that was husbanded in his father's time
is nearby; the storeroom with crocks of honey, amphorae of grain and wine,

olives in brine. Cloths of sheep cheese and strings of dried figs.
We never lacked in food. I saw other slaves when I went with the broker

while he sold olives – so thin; they kept their eyes down, cringed.
Some bore welts where skin had been opened by whip or knife.

Our master didn't use weapons but often raised a hand.
Short on patience, rage at mistakes and slowness;

life was misery for some.
I'm not grieved to see the old man gone.

 

4. The Son Becomes a Man

We fall silent as the new master walks out through the colonnade,
his robes dyed black for grief.

He stands – a pillar between heaven and earth, bows before the altar,
lays an olive branch heavy with fruit.

The mistress follows, places the bowl of oil. We drop to our knees,
children hushed. His lips move in prayer to Athena and sun-bright Apollo.

Our lips form the same shapes. Many minutes pass with only the coo- coo
of doves in the cote. He is rising: this is your home; always a roof, food.

His held-up hand gives pause. Are there are to be conditions?
Those of you who wish it, he says, I will release into Apollo's hands.

No-one moves, says a single thing. Moments pass before I hear words again;
… always my dream to set right what was wrong. To each who wants,

a pony and purse of drachma. Or you can stay here as free folk.
Marry, raise children with mine. He is fired with enthusiasm,

wants us free! Someone is already pouring wine.
All I can do is drink and hope to swallow his news.

I never thought he had this in him. Talk it over with your loved ones,
he says, no small detail to decide overnight.

Take your time and we will speak again.
Meanwhile, come eat with me and my kin.

I am to be freed? It hardly seems possible.
My master, he has never more deserved the title than now, in its relinquishing.

 

5. On the Road to Delphi

Only a handful of us, the hardy ones, decide on freedom.
The rest wait for news. Our carts sway and buck

in wheel ruts like coracles in water. The roads are safe,
for now, no strife from Sparta for months.

Dust covers everything like a pelt. We talked of nothing but freedom
along the plains from the coast; now grit closes our mouths.

Near to towns plane trees arch the road give momentary shade.
Signs of the gods abound. Athena's silver backed olive leaves flash

in the sun, Demeter's green gown is lush in pasture and crop.
My master Demetrius – I must practice saying his name – is named for her.

Three carts and a team of oxen ship us to Delphi. We carry his father's
grave marble and votives for the temple. When night covers us

in dark cloth, Demetrius sleeps in the taverna, we slaves in a shepherd's hut.
Like an underground watercourse, we hear taverna-talk of freed slaves

running furtive under discussion of crops, yield….
many fear reprisals.

Once I accepted the given as ordained. But if Apollo can receive us
into his hands, what's ordained about slavery?

 

6. Emerging

Walking unravels knots;
limbs, spine, thoughts begin to loosen from confinement.

Walking my way to freedom.
Imagine a statue; a figure emerging from stone.

The front is already chiselled free, arms reaching into open space,
chest bared to air. But behind is still imbedded,

still buried shoulder deep in stone. Worse than an ankle gripped
when you want to run. Worse than trying to pull free

from the suck and lock of mud. No matter how hard the struggle
it's not force that will part this back from rock.

That's me, a figure half way out of bondage.
how will I account for myself in the world?

Never been alone abroad or handled my own coin.
There's security in stone, bulwark against life's shocks.

I have taken the purse and the pony will be given me at Delphi.
I have taken the decision, but I'm still thinking like a slave.

 

7. Arriving at Delphi

We climb Parnassus. Delphi's temples cling to the mountainside.
Our wheels seem hardly to turn – I feel like an ant labouring.

The oxen heave. Walking between lead animals
I grip neck ropes with both hands, as if to haul them bodily.

My arms ache from the effort, but effort makes me stronger.
Turning the final corner, I glimpse the marble of Athena's Temple;

bone-white against the green of foliage, round like a hearth
columns rising vertical as pines, summit crowned in cloud.
My head spins – the audacity of coming so close to the Gods!

People from all over mill on the road waiting for the Priest.
Dull bell-metal rings from round the necks of tethered creatures,

echoes into the valley – the familiar sound makes me feel at home.
Delphi, the navel, Omphalos.

* *

It's no small thing to be given to a god. First, bathing in the Springs.
Never before allowed to kneel under that torrent,

but years back I dried the old man when he came
before making offerings. I tuck my votive into the niche

then step down into cold. Water roars from the lions' mouths,
cleanses spirit as well as body, pummels doubt away.

Demetrius bought Metic's clothes for each of us;
the garments and sandals of free men.

My chiton and mantle are newly made. I didn't know what dignity
came from robes which cover your knees.

 

8. At the Temple

Fasting and prayer are night-long in the athletes' dormitory.
After travelling I crave sleep but fall deep instead into fears,

worrying when I should be praying. I hope the god will forgive me.
Should I return to the estate with Demetrius?

Or head straight to Athens? Such a pull to the capital;
plenty of work for scribes, I'm told.

And what of Persia – do relatives survive?
People who knew my father? Am I bold enough for travel?

I wrestle with choice; it takes til morning to decide on Athens –
perhaps some of the others will choose it too.

* *

New day comes mountain-crisp, pale in the sky
like the blue of alpine flowers. Apollo's precinct is huge.

Sheep and goats bleat in the forecourt; resist handling and stamp
the marble with their hooves. Attendants tie the ceremonial ribbons.

They calm the animals; lead them in procession to the sanctuary
of sun-god Apollo. Sun spills like liquid on the altar-stone.

The Priest is good with the knife and quick.
Animals fall surprised not afraid; a whole flock to please the god!

Their sacrifice takes all morning. We leave votives from the home forge,
and drachmas. The carcasses are taken to prepare for feasting.

Now it us our turn at the altar. No knife this time, just the Priest's warm hand
of blessing on our heads. He offers us to Apollo, bids him give us care.

Outside the temenos we rejoice, loud with joy. Embraces are tight enough
to crush olives. There aren't words enough…

now I can choose a name, wear clothes of the free-man, travel, marry.
But this isn't close to what it means to call my life my own.

I know fear will return. For now, though, I am strong…
I think of my father, ex-slave son to slave father;

offer silent pleas to Apollo that my parent knows what dignity
was returned to us this day. One final task remains

before we can slake thirst and feast on haunches of sheep and goat.
We go to the mason's stoa, watch him scratch our details on a tablet.

Later he will carve our names on hexagonal wall-stones, for all to see;
Demetrius, son of Demetrius, gives the slave Theo into Apollo's hands.

 

Epilogue

Pale stones, dark-rimmed, limestone edges pressed together,
a cushion of air between. Pocked with age, the slabs interlock

for strength, connecting space to absorb history's blows: earthquakes
and other vandals. The wall is a document in stone two metres high,

thirty metres long, outlasting parchment or vellum.
Two fault lines run under the site; the wall remains.

Shapes of words imprint stone like fossils, chiselled in small square script,
more beautiful than lichen. Stories are patient,

silent until we are ready for them.
What is strength? Perhaps the names keep the wall standing;

one thousand ex-slaves
and the nobles who relinquished them into the hands of the god.

This entry was posted in 31.0: EPIC and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: