Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
the pool in the cup of stone
There were times when she remembered Alkaios.
He had avoided her after she thumped his head with a rock. On those few occasions when they came face to face he scowled and brushed past her outstretched hand that would have stayed him for her explanation. The fact that she saved his life made no difference to him. His male pride had been hurt—a girl had vanquished him. When she thought of that, Sappho would smile gently, knowing very well how she might restore that pride.
But not yet, not yet a while. Her breasts must fill out to plump mounds and her thighs must be larger and her hips more fleshy. Not as a girl but as a woman would she go to him, and only after she had exhausted her childhood which still hungered for the yellow petals of the gagea trembling in the breeze and the blue mountains towering into the vault of sky. She needed to sniff again at salt air blowing over the docks and stare upward from a grassy bed to find funny faces in the scudding clouds.
Ah, and most especially the pleasure of listening to the words form in her mind and come to life and then on the sheets of papyrus in the letters made by her reed brush. As her spirit searched her world, so her mind quested for the word-music locked somewhere deep inside her.
Alkaios was to teach her that, among other things. But three years were to pass before he spoke to her as he had on that night on Mount Olympus. The war with Athens demanded all the young men able to bear arms and when he was recovered from his wound, Alkaios went back to Sigeum near the Hellespont with the others. Unknown to him, Sappho went to see him off in the penteconter taking veterans and recruits to the battlefront.
With her brothers Charaxos and Eurygos she had gone to the headland above Cape Malea, past which the ship would slip on its way into the Aegean. From this height she could make out the green cloak that Alkaios habitually wore, and then his brazen armor, his Grecian helmet and the stabbing sword on its baldric over his shoulder. He looked so much like Ares, the war-god, that Sappho wept a little, recalling the bump on his head she had caused.
When her brothers hooted at her, she hit them. As she went about her duties in the house with the dark blue door, she often thought of Alkaios off in Sigeum and wondered whether he were still alive and if he would ever return to Lesbos. And if his head still ached where her stone had struck.
But she had other things to concern her, aside from Alkaios. Bitinna was a frequent visitor to the home of her good friend, Kleis. She would smile secretly at Sappho and when no one was watching, would run her fingers down her back and stroke her buttocks with a gentle palm. At these times Bitinna would press her softness into her and invite Sappho to come visit her while her husband was away buying metal goods for his shop.
She never went, though something inside her hungered for the affection and the love this older woman could bring. Instead, when she was most tempted, she turned back to the hills behind Mitylene and to the loneliness of the wild places.
And here on the mountain heights she met Phyllis. She came upon her suddenly as the girl was bent above a shallow kylix, touching colors to it with a brush. She was a few years older than Sappho, who was now fifteen. Her hair was a deep auburn caught up in a silver caul. She had heavy lids to her eyes and a pouting mouth. The chiton she wore was gathered about her plump upper thighs as she sat cross-legged with the cup in her left hand and the paintbrush in her right. Set in a row before her were a dozen earthenware pots containing dyes.
“What are you doing?” Sappho asked.
The girl gave a little cry and hid the kylix behind her back. When she saw Sappho she laughed with a flash of white teeth and red tongue between moist lips and brought the cup into view.
“I’m painting pictures. Naughty pictures for my lover who is away in Sigeum fighting the Athenians. I’m going to send it to him.”
Sappho came closer and bent to study the tiny figures limned by her brush. There was a girl, obviously this painter, bending above a reclining young man who lay with his hands clasped behind his head. Sappho felt her cheeks redden when she discovered what the girl was doing to the man.
“Are you shocked?”
Sappho shook her head. Before the rites of Dionysos, she would have been; now this was only knowledge which added to her newer understanding of life’s mysteries.
“My name is Phyllis. I’m from Pyrrha on the bay.” Her brown eyes glinted with laughter. “Why aren’t you shocked? You should be.”
The girl moved and let her dress slip back even further. She had splendid legs, long and sweetly curved and where they joined her torso there was the tint of auburn. Phyllis patted the ground beside her.
“Sit a while with me and let me tell you what other pictures I intend to paint for my lover.”
Phyllis was like a young Bitinna in her eyes. Sappho knew this as she joined the other girl, rucking back her own chiton to her hips. Phyllis stared as she herself had stared, with feverish eyes and flushed cheeks.
“The young men are too long away,” Sappho murmured.
“Too long, yes. Far too long.”
“Are there women in Sigeum?”
“Be damned for saying that,” Phyllis breathed.
Sappho felt her hand move to stroke the soft flesh of the naked thigh before her. The other girl quivered and gasped.
Sappho whispered, “Your skin is smoother and softer than the wools of Chios. Its whiteness is as the fleeciness of clouds in the sky.”
“Your own thighs—”
“Are too dark, like brown Phoenician ware.” Sappho moved her palm, inching closer to the girl, and now Phyllis lay back on the grass, breathing fitfully. The freshly painted Kylix rolled into the grasses, its open mouth upturned to the sun. Sappho bent her head and kissed the skin her fingertips had been caressing.
“You are beauty such as Aphrodite symbolizes, girl of Pyrrha. These thighs are warm milk turned to marble by the goddess. And like milk, they are sweet to the taste. As might a cat, I drink this milk.”
Phyllis moaned and put her hands to the pins of her chiton straps and tore them free. Swiftly she rolled down the white linen, baring her upthrusting breasts. Sappho put out her hands to them, gently and with tenderness cupping them and shaking them, lying in the grasses now beside the other girl.
“Be my lover, sweet Sappho. My new lover who can never go to war and be away from me. Yes, do that. Oh, my darling. . . .”
Phyllis turned and clasped Sappho, her palms sliding up under her tunic along her slim young thighs and gently mounded belly, upward to her breast blossoms. A fever burned in both their bodies and the sun was warm upon them, adding to their delight. Their lips met and kisses tumbled between them, swift and furious, slow and languid.
When their lips tired of their play they moved downward to the sweet white hills where the red berries stood and fed there, and moved on. Whiteness twined with duskiness and sharp cries split the air.
Phyllis never finished painting her kylix. It lay forgotten in the grasses and was burned by the sun and bathed by the springtime rains until its picture was washed away and only the smooth surface of the earthenware showed itself.
The girls met many times after that, always in this same spot, to shower their love on one another and so relieve the endless monotony of the days and nights.
As the months passed, the girl from Pyrrha found another lover in her own city and Sappho wandered alone as does the wind on Mount Heira. She was searching, with the sweet sadness of abandonment in her flesh, for something she could not even name.
In Mitylene one evening as the sun was lowering, she heard a voice singing and the voice led her to a girl sitting on a bench between the columns of the long stoa that formed one side of the marketplace. Sappho sat beside her and listened to the song and when it was done and the singer began to weep, took her into her arms.
The singer was a young bride whose recent husband had sailed for Sigeum three weeks before. Her name was Atthis. Her skin was tanned a golden hue with which her brown hair blended perfectly, and her mouth was as a sullen red rose. She quivered against Sappho when the girl stroked her swollen breast through her linen peplos and toyed with its enlarged nipple.
“My house is not far away,” Atthis whispered. “Come home with me and be my husband.” As she spoke she kissed the little ear which Sappho presented for her words, half-hidden in a spill of black hair.
Side by side they walked the streets at twilight, past the pillared temple to Adonis and the fountain, arms clasping one another at their middles, thighs brushing. They sighed often and once they paused to kiss, sheltered by the dark shadows of the sanctuary of Cybele, their strong young arms banding each other tightly.
Atthis lived on the street of the metal workers in a one-story house with a red tile roof, the wooden frame of which was covered over with clay painted white, with red trim for its doors and recessed windows. Atthis opened the door and closed it behind them. From the vestibule Sappho could see into the square court that was open to the sky and two small sleeping rooms that flanked the vestibule.
“My husband inherited this house from his father who died less than a year ago,” Atthis said. “We could never afford such a wonderful home, otherwise.”
It was very much like her own home, Sappho thought, moving to a floor urn and studying the figures of the gods frescoed there. She heard Atthis come up softly behind her and bend to press close. She felt the hands that caught her breasts and the thighs that moved against her.
“My bedroom is at the other end of the house.” Sappho felt her hand taken and then she was led across the mosaiced floor of the court toward a curtain hanging in a narrow doorway. Atthis lifted the hanging and brought her under it.
Moonlight tinted the room a pale silver, touching the large rope-bed on which had been flung a number of cushions and a woolen robe. There were chairs flush to the wall and a table between them on which rested a mirror and a number of cosmetic jars. A polished silver mirror hung above it.
“Let me,” breathed Atthis, and undid the brooch at Sappho’s shoulder. As the woolen tunic slipped to the rushes on the floor, the young wife gave a soft cry and bent to press her mouth to the parted lips waiting for her kiss.
Naked, she allowed Atthis to stroke and fondle her for a long time. The night belonged to them. There was no hurry. Her mother was visiting friends and would not return before morning. It was pleasant to stand here for this sensual worship.
Then she put out her own hands, turning Atthis away from her and facing the silver mirror. Sappho lit a small bronze oil lamp, for the moonlight was not bright enough for her eyes. Then she tugged loose the cloth sakkos that held her hair, releasing a brunette waterfall into which she thrust her nostrils, breathing deeply of its scent. Her fingers stole to the clasps of the peplos of linen undoing them one by one. As the gown began to fall, Sappho slipped her palms after it, moving outward over the thrusting white breasts to the rigid tips, pausing to pinch very lightly, then slipping beneath those pallid mounds.
The women looked back at her from the mirror and Sappho saw the young wife and a girl with a dusky, oval face, enormous eyes and a mouth like a quivering fruit. Her black hair mingled with the brown as she touched the bared shoulder with her mouth and ran it up to the soft throat. Atthis moaned as Sappho began a gentle shaking of her heavy breasts.
When the young woman would have turned, Sappho prevented her. An imp of mischief was in her this night, a wonderment of curiosity to savor the flesh as she once had savored the scents of flowers and the taste of the salt green ocean. Parting the long reddish hair she stared at the plump white back and then the upper swells of buttocks half hidden by the clinging peplos.
Her hands pushed at the linen, exposing those quivering buttocks to her eyes and then to her palms. She heard Atthis whisper, “Please, please,” but she was not to be hurried. A long time she stood there behind Atthis and the soft plaints of the tormented wife was as lyre music in her ears.
“I tease myself as well, dear Atthis,” she said once. “No more. On your love for Aphrodite—no more!”
“Yes, it is time. Bring the lamp.” But she waited until the other girl turned and faced her, gripping the oil boat so a golden radiance bathed her nakedness. Only then, after this feast of eyes on flesh, did Sappho turn and walk toward the bed.
In the summer of her seventeenth year, Sappho found the pool.
It was hidden from casual view by a grove of myrtle trees and a ridge of limestone that formed a natural cup for its waters. Fed by rain and by the underground springs which bubbled up into its depression, the waters made a tiny lake of purest crystal.
It was a hot day, with the land baking under a blazing sun. For relief from the heat of summer in Mitylene and because the mood for versification was upon her, Sappho had taken a wedge of cheese and a little bread in a twist of linen and wandered to the heights above Cape Malea. Alone but for the leaves hanging listlessly in the heat from the branches of the bay and myrtle trees, she lay on her front and frowned prettily as she scribbled the words that came to her.
Sweat formed on her forehead and dripped onto her nose. She untied the ribbon holding her long black hair and was about to fasten it more securely when a sea breeze swirled in across the Euripos strait to whisk the ribbon from her hand.
Muttering in vexation she got to her feet and pursued it. As though teasing her, the breeze blew stronger, cooling her flesh but wafting the ribbon past a thick growth of squill. Sappho pushed aside the branches with their weight of blue blossoms and paused, transfixed.
Below her was a large stone cup and in it, water. She squealed with delight, the ribbon forgotten. Her hands went to the hem of her short chiton—now that she was a woman, she no longer adopted the childish tunic—and lifted it over her head. Only the zona and her sandals remained, and these were soon dropped beside the limp chiton. Naked, she ran down the stone slope of the cup and to the edge of the water.
Daintily she dipped a toe, found the water cold and invigorating. Drawing a deep breath, she plunged headfirst into the little lake. Born on an island, Sappho was as a fish in water. She stroked smoothly, kicking strongly with her legs.
She laughed up at the sky in which not a cloud could be seen. “I shall write words to this hidden grotto,” she said, and paused to let them form in her mind, whispering, “Bowl of water in a cup, where the deer must come to sup, here I—”
“Oh! It’s you.”
Sappho whirled, shedding water as her thick black hair swirled to the quick movement of her head. Alkaios stood in the squill bushes, one of her papyrus sheets in a hand.
She was so surprised to see him that she forgot she had nothing on and that the water was as clear as glass. She simply stood there and gaped at him until he flushed and she knew he was seeing her as a woman.
“What are you doing with my writing?” she demanded.
“I didn’t know it was yours,” he said coldly.
“Well, now that you know, put it back and—stop staring at me like that. Haven’t you ever seen a naked girl before?”
He grinned suddenly. “Plenty of them but none as pretty as you.” He hesitated—he was remembering the bump on his head, Sappho knew—then made a little gesture. “It’s really quite good, you know, this writing of yours.”
“It is?” she asked in surprise.
“I think it’s finer than anything by Arion.”
“Oh? Who is Arion?”
He made a sound of exasperation. “Don’t you know anything about poetry and poets? Arion’s a great poet. He was born in Methymna on the other side of the island but he’s living now in Corinth. Periander the king is his patron.”
“How do you know so much about poets?”
“I write poetry myself, little ninny. Every man who considers himself intelligent does, in this day and age. If he has any leaning toward words, that is. And I do.”
He was not pompous about it, Sappho thought. He was simply stating a fact. It was a new side of Alkaios which she had never suspected, and suddenly her eyes saw him differently. No longer was he the boy-soldier in bronze armor or the lusting young satyr in mountain mists but a man with brains in his tawny head.
“Tell me about poetry,” she said humbly. “Then come out of that water. I can’t concentrate on poetry with you exposed so shamelessly.”
“Don’t look,” she told him with simple logic.
“I can’t help it,” he answered honestly.
An imp of devilry stirred in Sappho. Laughter bubbled on her lips as she said, “It’s so hot out there in the sun and the water is so cool I could never concentrate on words when I’m sweating so. Why don’t you join me in here?”
He looked at her suspiciously. “If you mean to tease me, Sappho—I want you to know that I haven’t changed any since the night you hit me.”
“Oh. Well, I’ve meant to speak to you about that, to tell you how sorry I was. I only did it to save you from discovery.” She wondered what his reaction would be if she were to tell him how the women had torn apart the Athenian captive. It might have been his fate had it not been for the rock in her hand.
Alkaios grunted and looked mollified. His hand went to the Ionic chiton to unfasten its fabric belt. When he saw that Sappho was not protesting, he undid the buckle and let the belt fall, then drew the short garment up and over his head. Now he wore only the white cotton loincloth.
His body was hard and muscular, as if carved by Cheramyes of Samos from Parian marble. His shoulders were wide and when he moved his arms, the muscles that bulged them moved easily, smoothly. His middle was flat and heavily ridged from carrying the weight of armor.
The loincloth dropped and he stood naked before her. Sappho felt her heart thump as she stared. Forgotten suddenly were the words her mind was whispering, gone before a rush of blood in her veins such as she had experienced only once before in her life, with Bitinna. She, who was essentially such a child of nature, who delighted in the world of trees and flowers and soft winds blowing through the grasses, had found at last the most marvelous enchantment of all.
Alkaios dove cleanly, hitting the water with scarcely a splash. Now she could see him as in crystal, gliding easily and smoothly over the stone bottom. She waited, knowing that in the clear waters he could see her very clearly and not caring as her blood sang to her in fevered tones of hidden marvels, wanting suddenly to be seen and admired as men had admired beautiful women since the beginnings of the race.
He came up before her, laughing and shaking drops from his hair. Still in her bemused state, as she might reach to pluck the stalk of a flower for her hair, she put out her hand to touch his chest, running her palms along his ribs to his belly and then around to his lean hip. Even in the cold water, his flesh was warm. He quivered like a frightened colt to the first touch of a master.
“The poetry,” he began.
“You are poetry,” she breathed. “Living poetry.”
His own hands came out to cup her firm young breasts and stroke them. Sappho closed her eyes and let her lips fall open to aid her breathing. They were alone in the world. The rock beneath her feet was mother earth, the cool waters at their middles was the ocean. They were gods, he being Chaos and she, Gaea.
Sappho wanted to scream with the pleasure of his hand on her flesh, wanted to weep from the elemental emotion that made her legs tremble as her nipples firmed like pebbles. Nature and the world about her had been so good to her in the past, giving her eyes to see its colors and its beauties, ears with which to hear its many songs, yet nature had held back its finest gift.
She touched him gently, then more firmly. Understanding of the deeper mysteries came to her in a spate of delight, knowing now why the Bacchae sang the phallicae, why the bull was offered up to sacrifice.
When he cried out she opened her eyes and smiled at the ecstasy her nearness gave him. She was Isis and Venus and Starte combined. In her were all their charms and sensual wisdoms. She moved closer, lifting her arms to place them about his neck.
Her mouth opened to his kiss and she strained to him, feeling his palms slide down her wet, smooth back to the rise of her buttocks. His fingers sank deep, hurting her, yet in that pain was something of the pleasant torment of the senses which was claiming her. It was a bitter-sweetness which brought tears to her eyes and fire to her blood.
His arms lifted her high—the same arms with which he fought battles and killed men—and he carried her easily up the slope and through the squill growths to a level grass plat. Dropping to his knees he lowered her gently.
The sun was warm on her skin but not so warm as his lips that moved across her body. The air was cool but his flesh was colder from the grotto waters as he lowered himself to her. She cried out once, softly and with pain, as she made her sacrifice to Aphrodite. Then, as if the goddes heard and heeded her call, there was only the sweetness and the joy, growing and building within her to a pyramid of ecstasy.
It was not until long afterward that they spoke of poetry.