Cassandra’s Tears

Tears of joy, tears of pain, we are reflected in the salt-water pools we create. So let us build a fleet of paper boats and sail them on our ocean of indecision, laughing at the wind-whipped white-crested waves that would wash over us, drowning us in our own despair, yet somehow never vanquishing us in the end.

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Location: Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Sybil of Cumae

The story went something like this:

        During the seven years when the Theban prophet Teiresias had been a woman (he had encountered two snakes copulating on the path and had struck the female, immediately transforming into a woman; seven years later he came across the same snakes on the same path engaged in the same activity and struck the male, thus reverting to his previous state) he was said to have had a daughter, Daphne, radiant as the day. It is no surprise that she caught the attention of a god, Apollo no less, who granted her the gift of prophecy and anything else she asked for. She grabbed up a handful of sand and demanded to live as many years as there were grains of sand in her grasp, but neglected to ask for eternal youth. When she spurned Apollo’s love, he refused to grant the omitted boon, and she was fated to grow old. She became the Sybil of Cumae, in Italy, and continued to age, withering away until she was hung upside down in a bottle, saying only that she wished to die.

        Ruth folded up the tourist brochure and looked around the site. There wasn’t much left of Apollo’s temple at Cumae, near Naples, but she could appreciate the antiquity of the place. Over the tumbled stones and toppled columns lay an aura of great age. She imagined that if she were quiet enough, and patient enough, the stones would talk to her, but no matter how long she stood with eyes shut, hands on the rough rock, no voices spoke. The gods were dead, she decided, dead and gone. It didn’t just happen to gods; but people too, once dead and forgotten, ceased to exist as memories of them faded. Only very famous ones who had left great legacies, like Mozart and Michelangelo, were remembered, but more for the art they created. Their actual lives as people were embellished until one could no longer separate the truth from the fiction.

        It must be the same for dead gods, thought Ruth. In their heyday, the Greek pantheon were all powerful. Now they are relegated to myth and legend. Someday the same fate will befall our modern religions, no matter how fervently people believe in them right now. She wasn’t sure exactly how she felt about this revelation. It would be nice if some things lasted forever, but sadly, even the stones of this once imposing temple were being corroded by acid rain.

        As Ruth moved along the path following the tourist in front of her, she thought she heard a moaning sound coming from among the fallen rubble. It was very faint, easily mistaken for the sighing of the wind, or two branches rubbing together. She stopped and focused all her attention in the direction from which it came, shutting her eyes and closing out all other distractions. There was definitely a sound coming from the ruins. She took a step toward it and then stopped.

        What was she doing? This was an archeological site. She couldn’t start scrabbling around in the dirt, she wasn’t a qualified archeologist. But the sound was pulling at her now, filling her with despair, as though someone needed very badly to be rescued. Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, she stepped off the path and into the ruined temple. The sound was stronger here, and sounded less like the wind and more like a voice, a real voice, moaning in pain, terrible pain. Ruth took another step toward it and this time thought she could hear words, but she couldn’t understand them.

        There, under a fallen column, tucked in behind a chunk of rubble, was a bottle, bound in leather, ancient, looking for all the world like a piece of garbage. Carefully Ruth reached under the stone and grasped the neck, pulling carefully lest she break it. She was very nervous, afraid that a site guard would catch her, that she would be made to give up her find, be thrown in jail. She had heard stories about people who robbed archeological sites of their antiquities. But, when she glanced up, no one was paying her any attention. There seemed to be a gauzy curtain dividing her from the path where the other visitors were slowly wending their way, as though she had stepped across a threshold into a different realm and was invisible to everyone else.

        She picked up the bottle and brought it close to her face, examining the leather wrappings. Once it had been a harness of sorts with a loop, long worn through. It had hung from a hook. The bottle itself was earthenware, red with black figures etched on it. At home she had a book describing the different styles of Greek pottery, she could consult it later. For now, the sound had ceased. Making sure no one was watching, Ruth dropped her find into her knapsack, and slung it back on her shoulders, making her way as nonchalantly as possible back to the line of tourists working their way through the site.

        Later, in her hotel room, Ruth removed the stolen artifact from her backpack. She didn’t quite know what to do about it, thinking that maybe she could enjoy it for a few days, and then turn it over to the proper authorities before it was time to take her plane back to London. Carefully, she pulled it out and lay it on the bed. It was quiet. She hadn’t heard the moaning since she picked it up. It was a mystery to her what had made the sound in the first place. She attempted to remove the leather, but age had made it brittle and it would not slip over the rounded shoulders of the bottle. The opening was inside the harness, and it appeared that it had been hung upside down from the hook. How odd, thought Ruth.

        Finally, unable to contain her curiosity, she retrieved her pocket knife from her bag and cut through the hard substance, which finally separated under the ministrations of the sharp blade. The leather fell away from the pottery and revealed the painting on it, a beautiful woman sitting on an ornate chair, a look of utter disdain on her face as a supplicant knelt at her feet. Behind her, with an expression of combined disappointment and longing, was Apollo. She recognized the Greek letters for his name and looked for others, finally finding them: delta, alpha, phi, nu, eta. “Daphne,” she whispered aloud, letting her held breath out in a rush, “the Sybil of Cumae.”

        Ruth tilted the bottle to see the name better, and something poured out of the opening, dust, ash, sand, she could not tell, onto the hotel bedspread. She didn’t want to touch it, thinking that it could very well be the remains of the oldest Sybil ever, and yet found herself reaching nonetheless towards the small pile in front of her. As she gathered the dust into her hand, she heard a voice in her mind like the wind in lonely places, “βουλομαι αποθνησκειν.” * Then it was gone.

       As she watched, the bottle cracked and broke into tiny pieces, the leather casing crumbled into dust. All that remained was a pile of dirt on the bedspread. Oh dear, thought Ruth, how will I ever explain this to the maid?

Sibyl of Cumae, Andrea del Castagno, 1450, Florence , Sant’ Apollonia Gallery.

* “I want to die.”