Circles

by Brian Trent


Syracuse, Sicily
April, 212 B.C.
Several minutes before sundown

The screams came from further up the Syracuse beach, and Archimedes sighed in exhaustion, his narrow shoulders sagging, as he crouched in the sandy grove.

Old age had stuffed cotton in his ears. Seventy-five years old now and bent like the ancient tree he had played in as a young boy, gnarled, dried skin like bark, his messy hair and beard like grey moss. Sound still came to the spirals of his ears, but it was as if the sound traveled across a hundred miles and was weary, feeble, dying.

Many old men lamented the failure of their ears, but Archimedes rarely paid any mind. He always thought the world was too loud anyway. Syracuse loved its festivals, and just three days ago the Festival of Artemis had raged with dancing youngsters, merchants, and musicians in a cacophony of lyres and pounding drums. Madness! The island shook from all the noise!

Archimedes remembered an old Sumerian myth, how the gods once flooded the world because its noisiness was keeping them awake every night. Great Heaven, did he empathize!

He squatted now, grateful that his knees were still strong, and pressed his withered face against the old parchment on the sand.

Sudden new wails came from the beach and radiated like a conic diagram of sound: swords hacking into flesh and gristle, the stomp of Roman boots, jostling of armor, twang of bowstrings, and the roar of a human voices.

What do you want to be doing when you die?

The thought flew through his mind like a luminous arrow. He grumbled, scratching deep in his tangled beard. His fingernails located the itch, and dug mercilessly.

The parchment he examined was the music of mathematics. Pure math! Through his entire life the elegant symmetry of numbers swayed him like the rhythmic staccato of Artemisian chants. Poets were exhilarated by sunrises, Dionsyians lost themselves in the frenetic ecstasy of wine and copulation; for Archimedes, the lofty perfection of a balanced equation made his heart swell and eyes moisten.

The noise from the beach grew louder.

The old man sighed again, his fingers trembling now as he touched the illustrated circles on the papyrus scroll.

There was never enough time.

Archimedes found himself wishing for an inkpot and feather-pen, and a blank roll of parchment. There was a small crate near him — his portable library of math — though he had forgotten to stock it with writing utensils. He came to this olive grove to simply meditate. No composition today.

As other men nursed a bottle of wine to relax in the brightest, greenest part of the day, Archimedes sought to lose himself in the forest and bramble of numbers, diagrams, conclusions. But not to create.

And yet... inspiration struck. The jab of a Muse’s knife into his head, stirring around in his skull, lighting his eyeballs with dazzling colors and synesthetic spirals.

From the nearby villa, flames burst into the sky. Red light, seen behind the olive trees, casting dancing shadows like macabre skeletons around Pluto’s bonfire. The sound was louder now, penetrating his old ears.

Archimedes cursed and cast aside the parchment. In absence of ink, he began to drag his finger through the sand, carving smooth ripples into circular patterns. Circles! Ever divine circles! A path of infinity etched in one track!

What do you want to be doing when you die?

King Hiero, ruler of Syracuse, had once asked him that question while they were up late in the royal man’s palace, drinking heavily and discussing the nature of the world.

The king was like a wide-eyed child as Archimedes explained how mechanical force can be multiplied through a fulcrum. The gods may have made the world, he told the king, but mankind can move it. Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I shall move the Earth!

Move the cursed Romans out of my way! Hiero laughingly suggested. Then perhaps I’ll build you such a lever!

A smile cracked Archimedes’ sun-beaten face. He remembered the night when he had fulfilled the king’s wish. Great machines, built in noisy workshops, were wheeled out to the Syracusan beaches when the Romans attacked. Metal claws lifted them wholesale from the sea, flipping them over like dark-bellied fish! Then came his steam cannons, popping in orchestrated firing lines, shooting down the enemy masts as an axeman levels a forest! Hiero was delighted.

The Romans aborted their attack, but Marcus Claudius Marcellus, their commander, dispatched a letter to Archimedes several days later. You are my enemy, Marcellus wrote, and yet I think you the most astonishing enemy I have ever known. Perhaps in times of peace, we may meet and talk. An hour inside your head seems richer to me than the coffers of Croesus! I raise my goblet to you, Archimedes the Terrible!

But the Romans weren’t people who gave up. Two years later and they were here again, only this time...

The itch returned to his beard; the mathematician scratched furiously and then continued drawing his circles. His leathery hands were caked with dirt, and he laughed — that rarest of sounds from a grumpy old bird like him! — feeling like a child again, playing among scattered islands of grass and ever-wandering ants. Circles! He wanted to be drawing spheres, the three dimensional “souls” of flat circles, but he had no sculptor’s wheel nearby.

He was distracted suddenly by a pair of soldier boots, standing on the periphery of his work.

Archimedes lifted his eyes. He saw boots, muscular calves, blood-spattered thighs, stained Roman skirt, and segmented armor. He saw a crimson face twisted with hate.

“I said stand up!” the soldier screamed. He held a sword crusted with meaty ribbons of gore. “Didn’t you hear me?”

“No,” Archimedes said simply.

“Stand!”

Archimedes sighed and obliged. Never enough time to work on math. Life was filled with distraction.

“What’s in the chest?” the soldier barked, pointing to the nearby box.

“Manuscripts.”

“Open it!”

Archimedes moved to the chest. But not directly, since in his enthusiasm he had drawn circles all over the ground. To avoid harming them, he walked roundabout.

“I said open it!” the soldier cried, stepping forward.

Archimedes glared and pointed. “Do not disturb my circles!”

The soldier sprang at the old man, sword glinting in firelight. It sank easily through the man’s stomach. Through the length of iron he could feel the puncture of organs, the retreat of muscle from the tip, and heat was escaping him in a messy rush of fluids. The sand turned to crimson mud beneath his feet.

“Not my circles!” Archimedes whispered, gripping the sword-hilt even as it impaled him. The soldier lost color, seeing the crazy wildness in those eyes. He tried to pull his sword free but the crazy man’s grip was vise-like. In terror, the legionnaire wondered if he had just stabbed a god.

Then those eyes of lightning rolled back. A light seemed to go out despite the approaching torches of the Roman invasion.

The soldier yanked his sword free. The old man lay on the sand surrounded by mad etches.

Flinging himself upon the chest the legionnaire pried its lid up, the hinges squealing in protest.

“What’s this?” he cried, shaking a fistful of parchments. He tossed them aside, where they unwound over the sand. Not a glint of gold! No coins! He overturned the whole crate in disgust, but seeing nothing of value, he ran off to keep searching.


Copyright © 2010 by Brian Trent

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