For Whom the Gods Will Call
by Richard Ong
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
At a villa northwest of the Acropolis, Pericles was dying of the plague. Although he knew that he would not last the night, his eyes remained focused.
“Father,” said a young man beside him. “They are here.”
Pericles saw a mirror image of his younger self bent down towards him. The beginning of a stubble darkened the square jaw and the natural curl his hair must’ve broken the hearts of many young women. Pericles tried to smile, but was rewarded instead with a violent coughing fit. The pillow underneath did nothing to ease the heaviness and incessant pounding in his head. He raised his arm and saw the wrinkled skin hanging from his bones.
The ghost-like immortal face of his wife emerged into the light of the burning brazier, followed by a rotund and shabby-looking figure dressed in unwashed robe and tunic.
“By the gods,” said Socrates, holding his hand upon his nose. “The stench!”
“Is nothing compared to what my dear husband is suffering through at this moment,” said Aspasia. “The greatest leader this city has ever known will not be so easy a victim of some mortal illness.”
“Y-yet here I lie, my beloved wife. A p-pitiful remnant of what was once a man.” Another violent cough spilled blood mixed with a yellow, thick substance down the side of his mouth. A servant took the basin full of blood and excrement from underneath his bed while another came with fresh linen to staunch the fluids leaking out of his wasted body.
“I d-don’t have much long to live. But, look! We have a visitor.” His bony finger curved, beckoning someone from the shadows.
“Pheidias. Come to me, my friend.”
A tall, stout figure shrouded in cloak from head to toe walked towards the light. A pair of hands removed the hood to the astonishment of many in the room. Athens’ most celebrated and gifted sculptor had returned.
“My lord,” Aspasia gave a low bow with not a hint of surprise. “Welcome home. I wish that circumstances were better. But alas, you have come at a most dangerous time and with no small risk I would imagine.”
“No indeed, it was not without some risks, I admit,” said the broad-shouldered man, scratching at his white beard. “I was at Olympia when I heard of the war and the plague. I could not in my conscience remain exiled for long while my fair city suffers. I needed to be here to help where I can.”
“Even if it means going back to prison, Lord Pheidias?” asked Socrates.
“Even if it means going back to prison, yes.”
Aspasia warmly hugged the aging sculptor. When she released him, she looked at Pheidias with a great sadness as she stroked his beard.
“Your daughter is here in Athens, do you know? She came a long way from Corinth to see you.”
“Neeth? Is here? In Athens?” said Pheidias. He looked around the room with his eyes wide and his face almost as white as Aspasia’s. “This cannot be!”
“I’m afraid so,” said Socrates. “There’s more. The Lady Aspasia and I witnessed the dark side of our fellow Athenians. The mob led by the poisonous tongue of Lycemedes sentenced her to death by sacrifice to Athena.”
Pheidias collapsed on his knees and wailed with his hands on his head. “Oh by the gods, you are cruel! Have I not paid enough for my infidelity? Did you have to take my innocent daughter from me as well? Athena! Oh, Athena, I beseech you to take me in her stead. Spare her, I beg of you.”
“Infidelity? I don’t understand...” Socrates stopped when Aspasia raised her hand to silence him.
“T-Tell them, my friend,” Pericles coughed. “Tell them as you’ve told me so long ago.”
“You knew about this?” Socrates asked.
“Pheidias is my oldest friend,” said Pericles. His voice grew harsh and was barely audible.
“Almost twenty years ago,” began Pheidias as he looked down on his dry and calloused hands, “I visited Corinth to give advice to one of their temple-building projects. I met an Egyptian merchant’s daughter and in my long absence, I yearned for the affections of another woman.
“The merchant was a member of an elite society, and news of a child born out of wedlock was simply unacceptable. We were forced to maintain the child’s existence a secret and she was adopted by an elderly couple. I provided for her as best I could without arousing suspicion. Neeth knew who I was, and we wrote constantly to each other until my exile. Now her life may be forfeit because of me.”
Pheidias sobbed and whatever retort that Socrates was about to say remained stuck in his throat.
“Pheidias,” whispered Pericles. “Pheidias my dear friend. Listen to me. We can still save her.”
“What is it, my love?” asked Aspasia. She dabbed his brow with a damp cloth. If the smell of his putrefying body bothered her, she did not show it. She turned around and saw their son looking grimly without a word at his own father wasting away on his deathbed. His young eyes were not wet but filled with great sadness. She had never seen him cry since he was child, she thought with a pride in her heart.
Pericles coughed and Aspasia ordered a servant to fetch him a drink. “There is no time, my wife. Pheidias’ daughter can still be saved if you act now. I-if the people have actually reverted back to the o-old ways of.. of p-performing human sacrifice to the gods, then they must first perform a ceremony on the great altar of the Acropolis. Cattle will be sacrificed, giving you time to p-prepare.”
Pericles suddenly gripped Aspasia’s hand and his fingernails dug into her knuckles till they bled. Aspasia did not flinch nor move in the slightest. “What would you have me do, my husband?”
“You and Pheidias must go and convince the people of their mistake. You must become the voice... the voice...” — He coughed and blood spurted from his mouth. His hands relaxed their grip from Aspasia’s and his eyes looked at her own one last time. — “of Athena.”
Aspasia was finally alone in this world, but she had one more duty to perform to fulfill her husband’s wish. She stood up and addressed Pheidias in a strong voice that she hoped would mask her sorrow. “Master Sculptor Pheidias. I remember that a secret passageway was once built beneath the Parthenon. Do you know of it?”
Pheidias blinked and his eyes focused as he stood up. “The one that led into the east chamber, yes. Yes, I know of it!”
“Then it is time we put it to use and save your daughter. Master Philosopher Socrates! We have need of your talents.”
Socrates swallowed. “But what about Lycemedes, my lady?”
“Lycemedes will be dealt with, I assure you. You will not be alone. We have someone in mind to keep you from harm.”
* * *
Demodicus hid behind one of the caryatids, a sculpted column in the likeness of a maiden, built to support the southern porch of the Erechtheum temple on top of the Acropolis. The richly adorned maiden pillars were another one of the many masterpieces of the master sculptor Pheidias, who until recently was thought to have left Athens for good; that is, until he was summoned by the Lady Aspasia to the task of protecting the great philosopher from a political fanatic by the name of Lycemedes.
Demodicus knew nothing of this Lycemedes except that he represented a staunch opposition against everything their late leader had stood for. There were also rumours among the wall sentries that someone of the same name paid one of the guards to open a gate to speak with the Spartans.
However, when the Lady Aspasia explained that a certain young woman from Corinth was about to be sacrificed by the mob under the leadership of one Lycemedes, his mind was made up. He wanted to be the one to embed a spear in Lycemedes’ chest when the time came.
His own young life was about to be cut short by the plague. However, if he could perform his duty one last time to protect the philosopher and the life of an innocent young woman, then the gods might have a more forgiving place for him among the dead.
Demodicus coughed and looked at this palm. There was very little blood on his phlegm this time. Perhaps we might have a chance...
His thoughts were interrupted by the blood-curdling cry of an ox thrashing in the last moments of its death throes. The mob was already gathered around the great altar between the two temples of the Erechtheum and the Parthenon.
Demodicus wrinkled his nose and tried to hold his dinner in his gut. The raw smell of freshly spilled blood was thick in the air as it mingled with the rotting odour of other butchered animals left for the carrion-eaters to feed on earlier in the day. He had never seen so many sacrifices done in as many hours as he did at this moment.
Amidst the squealing of cattle and the cries of supplication from the mob he heard a strong voice penetrate the air with the confidence and strength of a practiced orator.
Socrates, the person he was tasked to protect, had finally arrived. He spoke with great passion, pleading to the better half of his fellow citizens.
“Think, people! Just look at yourselves! We are the new Athenians whose healers and chemists are revered among the Delian League for their learned knowledge of human nature. Why not expend your efforts instead to finding a cure for this plague? Free this innocent young woman whose only fault is her blood association to our former master sculptor, without whom we would not be hailed as the greatest city in the Aegean.”
Demodicus relaxed as he saw the seeds of doubt in the eyes of some of the people nearest him. Some began to argue with others and the inevitable fights broke out.
He heard the distinctly familiar sound of wood bending under strain near to his right. He turned around and saw Lycemedes emerge from his hiding place on the other side of the Erechtheum temple with an arrow aimed towards where Socrates stood near the altar.
Demodicus cursed when a coughing fit revealed his position to the enemy. On impulse, Lycemedes turned towards the noise and loosed the arrow from his bow. The arrow shot at close quarters impaled Demodicus into the caryatid. He looked down in shock as blood spurted from a left shoulder wound where the arrow penetrated the exposed part of his armour.
Demodicus snapped the feathered end of the arrow and gritted his teeth as he slid his injured shoulder free of the other half of the shaft.
Lycemedes’ eyes went wide and ran towards the spot where he had dropped his quiver. His hands trembled as he tried to fit an arrow to his bow. He turned around and drew, but it was too late. The force of impact lifted Lycemedes off his feet, and his breastbone was shattered by Demodicus’ long spear.
Demodicus knew that the statesman was already dead even before he reached the body. He placed one sandaled foot on Lycemedes’ stomach and pulled the long javelin free of the corpse with his right hand.
Though his left shoulder was beginning to feel numb, he still managed to pick up his shield and secure it on his arm. He started the painful march towards the growing altercation among the mob near the altar when he saw the young woman being dragged away by the temple guards and the high priest towards the Parthenon.
Demodicus knew that he was losing a lot of blood. In his weakened state, he would not be able reach them in time to save the young woman. He tensed his muscles and lifted the spear with his right arm. His eyes aimed towards the back of the high priest urging the temple guards from behind.
“Stay your hand, soldier of Athens!”
The command froze Demodicus like a statue. His laboured breathing slowed and a warm glow bathed his body. He felt a brief stab of pain on his injured shoulder and he dropped his spear. When the light subsided and his eyes began to adjust in the natural darkness of the night, he saw that the blood flow had stopped from his wound.
“You have fulfilled your duties with honour, Demodicus,” said the voice. “Now let the others do their part.”
* * *
The high priest and priestesses were alone in the Cella with the young woman from Corinth. The temple guards had bound her wrists tightly behind her back and forced her to kneel in front of the great statue of Athena Parthenos. Once they were satisfied that the offering had been secured, they left the ceremony to stand guard outside the doors. The entrance was left open for anyone in the mob who cared to witness the events.
Neeth opened her eyes and stared at the magnificent work of art. She marvelled at the almost godlike ability of her father to envision and create the greatest tribute man had ever given to Olympian Athena. The statue’s head reached almost to the ceiling of the temple. Several hundred pounds of gold must have been used to cover the armour of the goddess. The richly detailed ivory skin was luminous under the torchlight that lined the temple walls. It was enough to make Neeth want to sing and dance with joy in spite of the hurt and accusations brought to her by the high priest and his acolytes.
She licked her lips and tasted blood. Her cheeks were swollen from the numerous beatings she had taken since she was caught dancing in this hall. She heard herself grunt in pain as one of the priestesses pulled her head back with a clump of her hair.
The high priest recited a chant and asked the goddess Athena to deliver them from the plague that ravaged the city. His voice rose with each repetition, his acolytes echoing his pleas with their hands held high.
The flash of a bronze dagger partially blocked her view of the golden goddess. The wrinkled hand that wielded the sacrificial tool descended onto her neck. Neeth screamed in pain as she felt the edge of the blade on her skin.
The high priest’s hand froze in mid-execution. A small trickle of blood stained the sleeve of his robe.
“I forbid this. In peril of your lives and of your city, I command you to stop!”
Fear replaced the confusion in the high priest’s eyes as he slowly raised his head up towards the owner of the booming voice above him. His acolytes fell to their knees and wailed, begging forgiveness.
The eyes of the tall, ivory-skinned goddess lit up and blinded the high priest in a bright ray of light. He collapsed on the ground clutching at his heart as his mouth uttered a soundless cry. The lights on the eyes of Athena Parthenos swept past the high priest and priestesses towards the temple guards and the mob beyond. The guards dropped their spears and ran. Screams and the wailing of men and women could be heard outside the temple.
Amidst the fearful sobbing of the acolytes around her, Neeth stood up and freed herself from the rope that bound her wrists. There was a warm glow where her finger touched her neck and the wound was no more.
She heard a gasp from above and looked up into the fading light of the eyes of the goddess. She smiled at the ivory face and raised her hand to her lips to blow a kiss. She raised her hands and spoke, a warm glow of light emanating from within her body.
Deep inside the hollow statue of Athena Parthenos, Aspasia released the handle of the bronze reflectors behind each eye. The powerful torch had given out after using up the sparse supply of olive oil and wood that Pheidias had managed to gather on their way up through the underground passageway beneath the temple.
The end of the tunnel opened inside the great statue where they climbed a series of ladders built long ago in secrecy before the sculpture was completed. Within the head was a powerful lamp that could be swivelled in four directions. A large reflector behind each eye directed and magnified the light towards any part of the east chamber below.
Aspasia had fulfilled her husband’s final wish by assuming the role of the goddess and saved the life of his dearest friend’s daughter. Long after the fire of the lamp had died, she remained seated on the wooden floor with her arms around her knees curled up to her chest. She moaned.
Pheidias emerged from a trapdoor and looked around until he saw her. “What happened, my lady? Is it over? Did we save my daughter?”
Aspasia shrank back into the corner when he touched her. Her eyes were wild and tears stained her ivory face. She gripped his arm and cried, “Just before the lamp faded, I saw the colour of her eyes, Pheidias. They were grey! She has grey eyes! I saw her look up as if she knew I was here. And she spoke in a voice so clear and bright and I heard her... Oh, dear gods, I heard her speak inside my head.”
Aspasia shook and Pheidias steadied her with his strong hands. “What did she say, my lady?”
“She said... ‘Well done, my children. Well done’.”
Copyright © 2012 by Richard Ong