Read chapter Three from Sappho of Lesbos


along the island shores

Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library

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The ship plunged into a titantic wave, dipping its prow into roiling waters, shedding them as it rose cleanly upward into the night air through which a savage rain was pounding. Thunder tore the eardrums as it erupted through the raindrops and where the thunder went, there also went the jagged lightnings, as might the spears of angry gods.

Pharon stood with spraddled legs on the lifting, dipping aft deck of the big penteconter. His red military cloak was sodden. His hide cnemis, covering his legs from foot to knee, were like marsh reeds when he walked. Under the cloak, where he usually wore his iron cuirass, was now only the short chiton with its edging of Tyrian purple to denote his rank of strategos, general of the armies.

He was no sailor, yet he stood firm to the maddened lungings of the vessel. A professional soldier, he was used to the tricks of fate, of the moira which was the destiny of every living thing. He had been at Naukratis in Egypt, a Greek colony where the hired mercenaries of the Pharaoh lived. His task had been to recruit troops for the coming war with Sparta but while he had been in Naukratis, a messenger had come with word that war had broken out. As supreme commander—strategos autocrator—he was hurrying home to accept the leadership over the Athenian hoplites.

The gale had come upon them while the penteconter was rounding the island of Rhodes and ruddering northwest toward Naxos. Blowing off the Carian coast, twin brother to the eruoclydon, it vented its rage on everything in its path. The war galley was a big one, of oak and built in the quays at Laconia. It rode the mountainous seas well but without a sail-ripped from its mast in the first hour of the blow—it could make no headway against the seas that rolled it ever closer to the rocky coastlines of the many islands dotting this corner of Ionia.

If the vessel foundered and sank, his father—the Archon of Athens—might be deposed from his rank as ruler, or worse; sometimes the Athenians punished by death the men they counted on to save them who had failed. Pharon ground his teeth together, cursing the wind and rain and pounding seas. He had sacrificed to Poseidon already, in his cramped cabin below-decks, now perhaps oaths might serve instead of offerings.

Rain pelted his upturned face. The howling gale tore away his words. Pharon angled his unsteady walk on the pitching deck-planks to the starboard rail, clinging with wet fingers as he tried to stare through the gloom and rain.

The captain saw him and cupped his lips to bellow, “We are between Chios and the mainland, as near as I can make it.” In these straits a ship had small room to maneuver. It was toss and wallow and wait for the next wave to lift it closer to the rocks. Two men were at the steer-post, clinging with heavy hands to keep the ship as much before the wind as possible, but the gale was a chancy thing. It veered and shifted, coming from the open sea, from the unseen mainland, from behind and before them.

In front of him, Pharon could make out the great bronze ram towering high as the penteconter seemed to balance on its rudder. A moment it stood while the breath scratched his throat and he wondered if the ship were about to pitch over onto its deck. All hands would be crushed flat by the impact, should that happen.

“A gold statue to Pallas Athena if we get out of this alive,” he vowed, and heard the wind increase in volume as it whistled through the straits.

I am too young to die. I have all my life before me. I could hope to be Archon succeeding my father, with any luck.

Pharon laughed at his momentary despair. A man bowed to his moira, accepting it as the ordination of the gods. Somewhere on Olympus in Thessaly, an offended immortal was paying him back for an injury. Or, the captain. Or one of the crewmen. It made no difference, all would die if the god were angry enough to take a life.

Pharon was a big man. The blood of the Dorian invaders who had swept into Hellas three centuries ago to overwhelm and then absorb the Achaeans, beat strongly in his veins. His hair was almost golden, his skin tanned to old bronze. He was one of the tall people with iron swords before whom the bronze weapons of the Mycenaeans—the conquerors of Troy—could not stand.

As the men of Tiryns and Mycenae had found their Dorian enemies irresistible, so this Dorian found the sea. It was too vast to be overcome. A man bowed to it as to his destiny and hoped its vengeance was not for him.

Pharon grunted. To think this way lay death. In the heat of battle a man must think himself unbeatable or else he would be beaten. It might be so against the sea. His hands opened and closed again about the rail in utter helplessness. In a fight he knew what to do but here he was as a lamb before the wolf. He had no weapon with which to battle the waves, no shield to act as buffer to the gale.

The penteconter pitched sideways. The motion shook his hands from the rail capping. Even as he clawed the air to regain his hold, a wave took the ship under its starboard timbers and drove it high. The deck came up at him with numbing force. His legs might have bent to the shock had he been less the warrior and more the seaman, but they were rigid and ungiving. He stood against the storm as he would before an enemy. And so the deck slapped at him, lifting him off his feet and upward to turn slowly through the air.

Below him he caught a glimpse of the deck, seeing the upturned face of the horrified captain and the wide eyes of the helmsmen. Then the black and angry sea was in its place and a wave—its tip capped with white froth like Corinthian ace—moved upward to engulf him. He fell like a stone into its curve.

Freezing water swallowed him. He went down and down into black depths, kicking and moving his arms. His lungs began to burst. His eyes were wide open but there was only wet darkness all about him. Terror such as he had never known sat on his spine and gibbered at him. To die like this, away from the sun and the land was unthinkable. Even the gods could not hate a man so much.

He bobbed upward into cold air with rain and wind in his face, as though the seas rejected him. He would have sunk again but he put one hand to the brooch that held his ephebi and let the cloak slide free. He freed his military boots next and then his chiton. Naked save for his cotton breech-clout, he felt lighter and more able to cope with the storm.

The ship was gone into the blackness and he was alone. He had no idea in which direction lay land. All he could do was move his arms and legs and whisper a prayer to Poseidon.

The night was eternal, and the Furies came across the waves to howl in his ears. Sometimes it seemed they extended their hands to push his head beneath the water, but always he fought back into the air and rain. A lesser man would have drowned. Only his brawny body, used to the rigors of warfare, had the strength to survive.

Yet even his muscles grew tired. It cost heavily to kick out, to lift and drop his arms. He tried to float, rolling over onto his back. It was as he floated that something hit him in the shoulder. Turning, he found a bit of log which had been a tree uprooted in the storm and carried to this meeting. Pharon forced himself onto it, twisted his naked body between its heaviest branches and then collapsed.

The sea took the log and the man a good distance before it abandoned them. They lay inert on a length of sand, neither knowing where they were nor who might find them.

The sun was hot on his back. The man groaned and tried to roll but found himself caught and gripped as if by the tentacles of a kraken. Startled, he opened his eyes and found himself staring into a dusky face framed by a spill of wet black hair.

The woman drew back, laughing a little. “I was afraid you were dead,” she said. “I called and called to you, I even tried slapping you a little, but you never moved.” She paused and studied his face and hair and big body. “Who are you? Where are you from?”

“My name is Pharon.” He struggled against the rough branches that gripped him. His flesh was raw from the chafings of a dozen hours on the stormy waves, but the tree had held him close and he was alive. After a few moments he was free, resting his feet on the sand and his rump against the bole.

The woman was smiling as she studied his body. “My gift from the sea god,” she said slowly, “in return for all the cups of fine Chian I’ve poured into his waves.”

“I feel like Ulysses cast up on Ogygia.”

“Hmmm, let me remember. Calypso was queen in Ogygia and wanted him to marry her. Are you married?”

He shook his head, moving his arms and drawing in deep breaths of salt air, letting the sun bake some of the wetness from his flesh. He had been too busy with swords and shields all his life to think much about women and babies. When he wanted a woman he turned to the hetairae, those beautiful women who dedicated their lives to the delights of Aphrodite, who made the gardens of the Nymphae an abode of happiness. The hetairae had been lovely, but Pharon thought this girl before his eyes more beautiful than any he had ever seen. Her skin was flushed darkly with the old Minoan blood and her hair was thick and black; where her red mouth pouted there was laughter and mischief lurking. Her eyes were heavily lashed, with a sensual heaviness to their lids that made him know he was a man.

“I shall write a poem to you,” she said suddenly. “Already the words are forming in my mind. ‘This is my gift from the sea, this man with the great, tall body. And what is his gift to me, who am—“

Pharon laughed and said, “Your verse has an air to it. In Athens we revere Archilochus, yet he would be the first to admit your merit.”

A cloud touched her brows. “Are you from Athens? You should know that this is the isle of Lesbos.”

He stood away from the driftwood tree, tall and straight in the sunlight. Less than three years ago a peace treaty had been made between Lesbos and his own city. He himself, as strategos autocrator in command of the Athenian forces, had signed and sealed the treaty scrolls. Lesbos would not have forgotten the war so soon. To get an enemy officer in their power might help to heal old scars.

“From Scylla into Charybdis,” he said harshly, and gestured a palm at the calm sea. “It might have been better to die out there. It would have been easier, I think.”

“There’s no need to die,” Sappho said flatly. “Only you and I know you’re from Athens. Shall we make it a secret between us?”

They vowed fidelity by the gods, which was the custom among the Greeks when an oath was taken. For a moment he held her hand, savoring its softness, before he let her go.

“I won’t be here too long,” he said. “I’ll take the first ship out for the mainland. I’ll find a merchantman in your harbor bound for Smyrna or for Abydos soon enough.”

“It is the springtime of the year, almost the hour for the Poseidonia.” Her dark eyes glinted with merriment. “It seems you owe the god a debt for your life which you could pay back by dancing in the waters which are sacred to him.”

“In Athens we have no such festival, probably because we are at a distance from the Sea.”

Sappho nodded, her eyes studying this man before her. He was bigger than Alkaios and far more muscular. He must eat heavily to give such a body the energy it needed to lead troop into battle and—

She put a hand to her mouth. “You must be starved! Here I keep your tongue wagging when it’s your teeth you’d rather use.”

Pharon told her, “On shipboard we had small chance to eat and no appetite at all, once the storm struck. It’s been two, maybe three days since I’ve swallowed anything but moldy cheese.”

She caught his hand and drew him after her along the strand. “I have a cloth filled with bread from Eresos and cheese made from goats milk. Oh, yes—and I should imagine you would like the Methymnac wine in a skin I have with me. It’s very famous and your body’s probably chilled from the sea.”

They were in a little cove with high stone cliffs on top of which grew pine trees. It was an idyllic spot with the waves lapping at the shore and the air fragrant with pine needles. Sappho had placed her cloth and wine-skin on a small ridge where she had been walking when she first caught sight of the tree with the man wedged into its branches.

“I was on my way to a headland that looks out over the straits, she told him. “I love the seashore after a storm. It’s so much like a face that has turned from anger to repose. I was going to write poetry.”

“Then you shall write while I share your meal.”

“No, you shall tell me of the Athenian poets. There’s so much about the world I want to know.” She sighed, “I can never see it all, not even a large part of it, here where I live in Lesbos.”

“Take passage on a ship, for the ocean goes everywhere.”

“I must stay with my mother. My father died in the long war with your people.”

“As did my younger brother. He was captured by the Lesbians. At the treaty table I asked after him and was told he had died of his wounds.”

“War is a terrible thing. I grew up away from the young men who went off to fight it. My only companions were girls and women.”

She handed him the wine-skin, throwing the cloth over a shoulder, then moved ahead of him up a narrow path the sheer side of which fell two hundred feet into the sea. There was a wind blowing that ruffled the edges of her Ionic chiton where it was gathered above her knees. The garment was double girded at her slim waist for freer movement of her legs and the sheer linen flapped with every zephyr. Pharon found himself admiring the backs of her shapely legs.

He thought of the tortures of Tantalus, chained to his rock just beyond reach of food and drink. Had she been a hetaira, he would have thrown himself upon her and taken her without thought. In this land of his former enemies, this would bring him death.

And so he morosely fed his gaze on her rounded calves and twinkling ankles, on the somewhat fuller thighs and once drew in his breath when a stronger gust bared her lower buttocks. She heard him and turned her head, throwing a giggle back over her shoulder.

“Alkaios calls me shameless. It isn’t that I have no modesty. I have. But when I climb the cliffs and hills I must be free.”

“A habit I applaud.”

“Oh, you! Keep your mind on Athens. Remember, you agreed to tell me about it in exchange for a meal.”

A bargain was a bargain, he agreed and between bites of the strong goats’ milk cheese and bread he spoke of his home city, of the hills named Acropolis, Areopagus and Pnyx on which Athens was built. All about it stretched the Attic plain, rich with olive groves and vineyards, and affording fine pasturage for flocks of sheep and goats. It enjoyed three harbors, which permitted its ships to anchor safely from the sudden storms that swept the coast. gray limestone and the marbles of Pentelicus and Hymettus were used for its many buildings. Theseus ruled here in the old days, and some of the walls of his citadel were still to be seen if a man cared to look. A stone stair led to the sacred spring Klepsydra. The most famous building of all Athens was the temple to Pallas Athena which crowned the Acropolis, built of stone painted over and fronted by a massive wooden statue of the goddess, also painted in bright colors. The city proper occupied the slopes below the Acropolis, spreading outward over the nearby hills, and was surrounded by a large wall. Between the Acropolis and the Pnyx was the agora, the great market-place, the temple of the Dioscuri and the circular Tholus, the counsel chamber of the Five Hundred, and the Leocorium.

Listening, Sappho sighed and dreamed, her head thrown back against a stone. She bowed before the statue of the goddess, walked between the figures of the other gods, sipped of the sacred waters of the spring named Kallirrhoe, and marveled at the hole in the ground which legend said had been made by the trident of Poseidon.

Pharon spoke also of great poets like Mymnermus of Kolophon, reciting memorized passages from his works. While he did this, Sappho twisted around to face him, hands on her knees, cheeks flushed with pleasure. She put her attention on his every recitation and repeated it under her breath when he was done, clapping her hands and laughing.

The afternoon sun was low on the slopes of Mount Hiera as he drank the lees of the wine to moisten his dry throat. When he lowered the skin, he found Sappho already standing, shading her eyes and staring northward toward Mitylene. “I thought I saw Alkaios,” she said to him, frowning slightly. “He might recognize you as an Athenian were he to find you with me. He fought against you at Sigeum. The others I’m not so much afraid of, but Alkaios has eyes like a gull and a long memory. Besides,” and here she laughed delightedly, “he fancies himself in love with me. Jealousy might be the hone to sharpen his memory.”

She held out her hand as if to help him rise. On sudden impulse Pharon caught her fingers and tugged, bringing her off balance down across his body. She lay soft and warm in her thin chiton on his bared flesh and her lips were parted below her wide, dark eyes.

There was no fear in her stare, only pride and wonderment. As Pharon kissed her she put her arms about him and yielded up her moist mouth, clinging to him until he felt her breasts go hard against him.

Then she was twisting free and laughing breathlessly, saying, “You are the second man I have kissed like that. Alkaios was my first.”

She was on her feet, proud above him. No anger or regret touched her features, only a slight surprise that she had enjoyed his kiss. Perhaps it had been because he was so gentle. Even Alkaios was rough when the mood to worship Aphrodite pulsed his veins. Yet this man, this stranger, this Athenian, had been as tender as if she were formed of rarest alabaster. Sappho ran a few steps to the edge of the cliff and gazed down at the waters far below. Pharon was rising, advancing toward her. She wondered what he would do. Fiercely she told herself she hated him for being an enemy, yet in the same thought she admitted her flesh thirsted for his caresses.

“Forgive me,” he said behind her. “I’m not sorry for kissing you but I don’t want to spoil this day by having caused anger in you.”

“I’m not angry, only puzzled.” She could not tell him about Bitinna and Phyllis, of little Atthis and the others with whom she had shared the lonely hours of her maidenhood. With Alkaios, they made no difference, but with this bronze man with the golden hair, she was oddly disturbed.

The unusual fact was, she had enjoyed his kiss.

Aphrodite, lend me your wisdom!

She turned to him and smiled, holding out both hands. “We are friends, you and I—brought together by Poseidon. Nothing must spoil that friendship, nothing at all.”

He bent and pressed his lips to her palms. Sappho decided it was a nice gesture and was grateful for it. She told him, “I must get you settled before going home. I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight if I’d left you wandering about like Orpheus looking for his Eurydice.”

“Where in Lesbos could you possibly hide me?”

She brought him with her along a narrow way through groves of olive trees and past a little brook making silvery music over its bottom stones. Where a bird winged its airy path upward from the branches of a berry-bush, she directed his eyes, telling him that this particular bird she called Daphne after the goddess of the laurel tree.

She had many names for the birds and the animals of the island. The fallow deer used to come to her patting hand when she was younger. Even now they accepted the salt she offered, licking it from her palm. Usually when she walked with the animals she braided blue petals in her hair and pretended she was Artemis.

“I’m a big silly, I guess,” she sighed.

“You’re in love with Nature,” he told her gently. To him who had never seen her in a house or eating at a table, she was a dryad or perhaps a Nereid, one of those faery women of the woods and streams. So lightly did she walk her feet seemed scarcely to touch the ground, and her sheer garments might be the gossamer webs worn by the oreades, who spin their gowns from moonbeams. His reason told her he was mad to have such thoughts of her. She was a girl, no more. The fact that his lips still tasted her mouth and that he was half drunk from its sweetness—as he might get on fine wine—was of no consequence. The hips swaying gently before him to her stride and the slim legs she had let him see earlier were little different from the hips and legs of other women he had known.

Why then should he know this breathlessness with Sappho? Pharon could not understand it but he continued to turn his thoughts around it as a vine clasps tight to a trellis, while the girl brought him down along the hillside above Mitylene and toward the city walls.

From this height, Mitylene looked like any other Ionian city to the Athenian except for its twin harbors joined by the Euripos strait. Smyrna had an agora as large, as richly furnished with pillared stoa and marble mausoleum, and Halicarnassus as wonderful an acropolis with its great stone columns. The agora and the acropolis were on the harbor islet which was connected to the mainland by white stone bridges. The south harbor, Pharon understood, could hold an entire war fleet with comfort, though it was the north harbor which was mostly used by the merchant vessels because of its fine wharves.

The roofs of the houses were of red tile and blue, and made a pleasant gaming board for giant children. An arsenal had its sanctuary to Ares, the theatre its stone benches curving inward about a stone stage. Sappho pointed out the gymnasium with pride; it was the largest one in all the islands, larger than the one at Rhodes. Beyond it was the palaestra where the young men wrestled and hurled the discus when there was no war on. “We will skirt the better section,” she told him, approaching a narrow line of stone steps that made a white ribbon along the grassy slopes. “You aren’t dressed for public viewing and besides, there are war veterans in the city streets who might know you.”

Pharon was glumly sure they would, but he went where she led as might an ox to the priest’s knife. Sappho chose the poorer quarters to parade her stranger, where people on seeing his cotton kaunake would think him only a slave. Her little white leather sandals skirted the pools of slops and the bits of broken pottery and Pharon came after, in her footsteps.

Salt air touched their nostrils and they heard together the flapping of a great sail being lifted to its mast-head. Now the waters of the north harbor stretched outward to the moles and men moved back and forth on them in little boats. Mitylene was a rich city which rivaled Athens at this time. Vessels made it a port of call between the cities of Asia Minor, Egypt and the mainland of Hellas. Pharon could make out the eyes of Osiris painted on more than one prow and the bronze braziers with which the Carthaginians were wont to decorate their ships. A dolphin sail in the manner of the Corinthians flapped idly beside a bireme from far-off Rhegium.

The houses were poorer, this close to the docks. No longer were they flanked by great gardens in which fountains sometimes were set; they were small, built of crude stones roughly hewed of planed wood, and their roofs were covered over by rushes. Children—what few of them there were—were naked and laden with grime. A slattern, tunic to her buttocks, was filling a crater at a well. Three sailors from Lydia, to judge by their silver ear-rings, lounged on a nearby bench and ogled her. “I have a friend here, an old sailing master named Aeetes,” Sappho said. “He was kybernetes to Periander, the Tyrant of Corinth before he retired. You will be his son, who was lost at sea and has returned.”

The house to which she led him was a shade better than the others. There were flowers in some stone pots before its door; its walls were of timber and brick, and blue tile extended from its roof to the eaves in a graceful overhang. As the latch lifted to her hand, Pharon could see past Sappho to a cool, neat interior.

The floor was of flat stones in dirt packed hard by long usage. A plank table stained black with two benches on either side stood before a wall heavy with shelves. The shelves were laden with small ship models, biremes, punts from the inland waters of the Nile, Carthaginian merchantmen, war galleys of Corinth and Athens, and others Pharon did not recognize. A man in a long lifetime of sailing the seas might see such ships and remember them. He began to feel an eagerness to meet old Aeetes.

He came stamping in from the back yard at Sappho’s call, trim and wiry and with his hair snow-like on his head. His skin was as old parchment but his handclasp was firm. He listened as Sappho explained how she had found Pharon and how she wanted to hide him as Aeetes son cast up by the sea.

Aeetes grinned, showing blackened teeth. “Ai, my lad’d be about your age. And size too, I’d be pleased to think.”

Pharon liked him at once, and complimented him on the house he kept and on the models with which he decorated its walls.

“Made them all myself,” the old man nodded. “I’ve seen each one of them in a foreign port or on the high seas. I made sketches of them with a bit of copper on wax and kept them against my old age. I’m working on one now, out in the sun—a pirate craft called a hemiolia—that has the quality of running under sail at the same time that its slaves swing the oars. Come, I’ll show it to you if you’re interested.”

An Athenian, Pharon was always interested in new knowledge. Sappho made her excuses and left them to their talk of bow-deck watches and oarsmen. The sun was lowering in the west and she would be expected home.

She hurried her strides as she moved along the narrow stone steps that rose upward from the wharf-side to the hills where the mansions of the rich gleamed like red beacons in the dying sunlight. An excitement was in her blood. If the city of Mytilene knew it sheltered an Athenian, a warrior whose iron sword may have cut down in death any number of its young men, she might be brought to task by the Tyrant, Myrsilos.

Myrsilos was not liked in Mytilene. His rule was harsh and intolerable to the easy-going Lesbian people. Alkaios was talking revolt in the city squares, being joined in his crusade by Pittakos, the general who had commanded the troops at Sigeum against the Athenians. Sappho, whether she would or not, and because her circle of friends was also that of Alkaios, found herself being drawn into the conspiracy against Myrsilos. Sappho was well aware of the fact that by protecting Pharon she might be giving the Tyrant a weapon against her party, but she was stubborn enough not to care.

She heard footsteps as she hurried along the sea wall overlooking the south harbor. As a hand fell on her arm, she turned to find Alkaios brooding down at her.

“Who was he, the man you took to Aeetes?” he asked.

“His son, Pharon,” she replied eagerly. She did not want Alkaios to become so suspicious he would expose the Athenian, and so she hurried on into an explanation of how she had found him and from his speech, knew him for the boy swept over-side from a Lesbian merchantman a dozen years ago.

“He may be this son of Aeetes—or he may not,” the poet said, falling into stride with her, fondling his dark beard lazily. “It comes to me I’ve seen him somewhere before—under circumstances that were not at all pleasant. There’s a difference about him I can’t lay a finger on. But I will.”

“What of our plan to overthrow Myrsilos?” she wondered, anxious to turn away his thoughts from Pharon.

“Soon now we’ll make our move. I’d be more anxious to undertake them except that Pittakos has been growing ambitious. He seems to feel that when Myrsilos falls, he should become Tyrant in his place.”

“Pittakos has a fine reputation. He did the best he could during the Athenian war. Wasn’t he the one who killed their first commander, Phrynon?”

“Hand to hand and in a duel. He’s been making a lot of it, ever since. Actually, he tricked him, throwing a net over his head and so befuddling him he was able to stab him often enough to kill him.”

“Would you want to be Tyrant?”

“May the gods forbid! The days aren’t long enough for me to do what I want, even now. To add the tasks of Tyrant would finish me.”

Sappho hid her smile by turning away her face. Since the afternoon by the grotto in the hills, she had come to know Alkaios quite well. He loved her after his fashion and was inordinately jealous of any man—though not of her friends like Atthis and Phyllis—but he liked the wines of Lesbos far too much to please her. Still, it was good to know the weakness of a man. It made it easier to deal with him.

And so, to further move his mind from the Athenian, she said sweetly, “Mother bought a cask of Chian wine the other day. Why not stop by and sample it?”

“Ah, perhaps I will. And listen to your latest poems.” He caught her arm and urged her to a swifter pace. Sappho wondered what Pharon was doing at the moment.

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