Jocasta: Wife and Mother Brian Aldiss A Theban adventure from the master of Science-Fiction, here proving himself adept at imagining historical worlds. Part of the Brian Aldiss Collection.In Jocasta, Aldiss brings vividly to life the ancient world of dreaming Thebes: a world of sun-drenched landscapes, golden dust, sphynxes, Furies, hermaphroditic philosophers, ghostly apparitions and ambivalent gods. Jocasta is also a strikingly effective contemplation of an older world order where the human mind is still struggling to understand itself and the nature of the world around it. JOCASTA: WIFE AND MOTHER Brian Aldiss Copyright (#ub5ca876c-40bb-56b3-b791-4a6c4985cb93) The Friday Project An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers 77–85 Fulham Palace Road Hammersmith, London W6 8JB www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) This ebook first published in Great Britain by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd 2014 Copyright © Brian Aldiss 2014 Cover design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2014 Brian Aldiss asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Source ISBN: 9780007482146 Ebook Edition © 2014 ISBN: 9780007482153 Version: 2014-11-12 Dedication (#ub5ca876c-40bb-56b3-b791-4a6c4985cb93) For JASON my Anglo-Greek grandson with hopes for his new life and for his generation She was not unprincipled. In many respects she was a ‘Good Woman’. But love and lust silenced her. She could have spoken. She did not speak. So the trap was sprung. From then on, decline was inevitable and a kingdom was lost. We all face similar crises wherein we are made or broken. Table of Contents Cover (#u05780162-5f97-5160-a40c-d8d53355cb15) Title Page (#ud6ade12a-975c-5834-9eac-adbab66a4f85) Copyright (#ucc0c94a7-7188-58de-af98-f8f0e5061755) Dedication (#ufe8098a3-7554-5e3a-95ca-3dbf2d9720c5) Epigraph (#uac2dd40b-9a43-5a38-a62c-56afd5e85094) Jocasta (#u354358aa-2938-5f18-9914-95b85d0cc9ed) Chapter 1 (#u3c192b6e-75eb-57f8-9c1d-92bf5d50539a) Chapter 2 (#u19166f46-f935-5a6d-862f-e09ad843e047) Chapter 3 (#u2b2967a5-05a8-53c9-8bd5-1f52852385e2) Chapter 4 (#ud9c37234-2398-5351-9d6c-79430ee7d1cb) Chapter 5 (#u58e9a102-a180-5caf-b245-2991532a7663) Chapter 6 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 13 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 14 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 15 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 16 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 17 (#litres_trial_promo) Antigone (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter I (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter II (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter III (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter IV (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter V (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) Other titles in the Brian Aldiss Collection (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Jocasta (#ub5ca876c-40bb-56b3-b791-4a6c4985cb93) 1 (#ub5ca876c-40bb-56b3-b791-4a6c4985cb93) The flowers on the hillside were dying in the August heat. They crunched under Jocasta’s naked tread, spines of Skylokremida, crisp remains of Agriolitsa. Lizards scuttled away from her feet. It was said in the city that where the queen trod, clumps of yellow amaranth sprang up. Jocasta wore a soft skin skirt and a sleeveless leather blouse which hung loose in part and in part adhered to the moist flesh of her upper body. Her thick black hair, flecked with white, hung down her back in a knotted rope. Her body was developing a certain heaviness: yet she strode so easily up the hill that her guard panted to keep up. She was the Queen of Thebes, lovely of lip, beauteous of bosom. She had caught a hare among the rocks in the valley. Its body was slung across the small hummocks of her spine, with a sharp twig piercing the tendons of its legs. The jog of her movements caused blood to run like tears from the dead creature’s nose; the tears dripped down Jocasta’s back, staining the tendons of her legs as she walked. The stone walls of Thebes were lit by the lowering sun. She went in through the south-east gate, under the eye of a lounging sentry who brought his staff to the vertical in salute, himself with it. The palace was a low building, distinguished from its neighbours by its spaciousness and the four-pillared portico adorning its facade. Jocasta avoided the front entrance, trotting round to the rear over weedy wasteland. She passed her grandmother’s altar stone, on which something still smouldered among ashes. Most likely it was the remains of a snake, old Semele’s favoured offering to her dark gods. On the ground in front of the stone, human ordure had been part-covered by sprinkled soil. Jocasta clapped her forehead in instinctive obeisance as she passed by. As if from a magician’s cupboard, Jocasta’s old handmaid, Hezikiee, came trundling forth, arms raised in hopes to embrace her mistress. ‘O Queen Jocasta, my pet! And you’ve been out hunting again. How I feared you were killed.’ ‘Nonsense, Hezikiee, I merely chased a hare.’ ‘Oh, but the wild beasts—’ ‘Round Thebes? Nonsense. Let me pass.’ ‘Please tell me you’re not killed. It bleeds, your poor leg! You will soon be dead.’ ‘Stop it, will you, my Hezikiee? It’s the blood of the hare I killed, and nothing more.’ She pushed past the trembling, devoted old creature, who still mumbled to herself in an apotropaic fashion. As the queen entered the kitchen, she heard the voice of her husband Oedipus roaring in the front chamber. He was holding an audience with a delegation of local people. ‘You farmers, you’re so fond of complaining instead of tending your land! Small wonder it fails. What can you want of me now? Can you not leave me in peace?’ And an old man’s voice answered with a whine in his throat. ‘Great Oedipus, the plague is here. You see it is not only the old who come before you, but the young chicks among us too. For the curse upon Thebes afflicts young and old alike. Everywhere there is affliction.’ ‘Affliction is the common lot of man,’ said Oedipus, more calmly. His wife, standing with the hare in one hand and a knife in the other, said, aloud but softly, ‘And of women, too!’ Passing the dead animal and the knife to one of her slaves, she went to lave her hands in a bowl of scented water which Hezikiee held, murmuring her happiness to have her mistress safe. Jocasta took little notice; her mind was clouded by other matters. As she washed her arms and hands and bathed her face, grateful for the liquid coolness of the water, animal cries of dispute came to her from outside. ‘Oh, dearie me, it’s that awful thing again,’ said Hezikiee. ‘And in an egg-laying mood, without anything to provoke birth with the usual you-know-what business first.’ Promptly, but without haste, Jocasta left the palace and went to cross the square towards the building where her grandmother lived. It was not the Sphinx causing the commotion, as the old slave woman had supposed. Semele was outside her dwelling with a broom, trying to beat off three large flying creatures of grotesque appearance which were hovering above her porch. Rising just out of reach of the bristles, the creatures were singing raspingly to the beat of their leathery wings: This is the house with no luck at all. A shadow lies over it, over it. This is the house that’s bound to fall. Innocence lost – Terrible cost – You’ll not recover it! ‘I’ll give you recover!’ shrieked Semele. ‘You’ll not recover when I swat you lot, you flying bitches!’ Jocasta ran forward, crying to Semele to stop. She seized the old woman’s skinny arm, and bid her be silent. These flying creatures were the Furies, the Kindly Ones, who must be appeased. ‘Fetch milk and wine for them. Bow to them. Make every attempt to flatter them – if it’s not too late.’ ‘Not me, Jocasta girl. I’ll have nothing to do with them.’ With that she flung down the broom and ran into the darkness of her house. Jocasta raised her pale arms above her, calling to the snarling creatures which fluttered close to her head. ‘We’re sorry, we intended you no harm. My grandmother is old and mad. I am your friend. Welcome, thrice welcome! Why are you visiting us?’ The dreadful creatures wore distorted imitations of female faces, emaciated baby bodies and disproportionately large dugs, with tiny bulging bellies and whiplike tails. They flew on wings resembling those of large bats, while the flanges of their over-developed ears, trained to pick up any whisper of human hubris, met in the middle of their foreheads, pipistrelle fashion. Taking up Jocasta’s words, they chanted: Too late! Too late! Too late by far! We’ve come today Only to say You and your mate Must face your fate! Har har har! Spitting and shrieking with horrid laughter, they rose higher, their bat wings drumming against the air. It’s as I thought, you vile pests, said Jocasta to herself but, as had become her custom, what she said aloud was in different vein. ‘Oh, how melodious are your voices! But please don’t say that, dear ladies! Come and stay with us and you shall have wine, and milk served with honey. Tell us what we have done. And what the remedy is …’ But the evil creatures rose above the tiles of the roof, striking into the pure air, and were away, their unwholesome figures dwindling with distance. ‘Oh, Zeus!’ exclaimed Jocasta, clutching her head. ‘As if I do not know what this ghastly visit forebodes!’ ‘You don’t believe that old nonsense, do you?’ said Semele, poking her head out through her door. Her laughter was almost as shrill as that of the so-called Kindly Ones. ‘Those ancient harridans need a covering by bulls, that’s what!’ The skirmish roused a beast within the hut. From the grandmother’s suite burst forth the Sphinx, terrifying in height, miscellaneous in form, grand in colour. Flapping her wings as soon as she gained the open, rising no more than a metre above the thyme with which the square was bedded, she squawked in indignation as she went. A griffin came chasing after her. The griffin saw Jocasta, turned tail, and darted back into Semele’s quarters. As he did so, Semele’s venerable prune of a face reappeared, screaming, ‘I won’t have that Sphinx-thing in here. It keeps going invisible – just to annoy me! Lock the damned thing up, will you?’ Jocasta stood back as the monster approached, still squawking. She loomed above the queen, who saw that her hindquarters were still not entirely visible. The Sphinx was a considerable riddle of a beast, her lion’s body, eagle’s wings and serpent’s tail, emblems of the three seasons, not consorting well together. Clumsy she certainly was, yet impressive. Her woman’s face with its cat’s whiskers was distorted by irritation. Landing in a flutter of feathers, the creature demanded of Jocasta, in her fluting voice, ‘Is Oedipus surrounded by those moaning mouths again?’ ‘Is this another of your riddles?’ Jocasta asked. She placed a hand over the generous contour of her left breast, to calm a heart still beating from the encounter with the Furies. ‘Must you always be in such a flutter, dear Sphinx?’ ‘Why should I not flutter? I should live among the stars … Am I not a captive?’ We are all captives of something, said Jocasta to herself. Aloud she replied, ‘You are free to come and go within the palace grounds. They are more comfortable than the stars. Try to be happy with that.’ The great creature loomed over her before sitting and scratching herself with a back leg, in a show of nonchalance. ‘You are never at ease with me,’ she said. ‘What is the reason? Let us be frank with one another – I have never been Oedipus’ mother.’ Jocasta tried to laugh. ‘Then why act like it?’ ‘I shall be a mother.’ The creature gave a great squawk before rushing on with her discourse. ‘Your grandmother tells me that we have to process to the coast. Will Oedipus lead me on that golden chain I hate so much? Will I have to walk? Could I not fly? How wretched is my state. Doesn’t Oedipus know I am expecting to lay an egg at any time, and cannot travel? Has he no compassion?’ Her voice was high with maternal indignation. She shook her scanty mane. As the feathers floated to the ground, they became invisible. ‘Of course he has compassion. Didn’t he save you from death, dear Sphinx? He has much on his mind, with Thebes suffering from famine.’ The creature stretched herself out on the ground with her hindquarters towards Jocasta. She spoke without looking at her. ‘Why must the tyrant travel at all?’ ‘We leave for Paralia Avidos in the morning. It’s ritual. We shall worship at the shrine of Apollo, in order to lift the weight of misery from the shoulders of Thebes. If you’re going to cause trouble, Sphinx, I’ll have to lock you up in your cage.’ At this threat, the Sphinx turned her head to gaze piteously at Jocasta. Jocasta looked straight into the creature’s great hazel eyes, wherein lived something both animal and human. It prompted her to pat the feathery flank and say, ‘I love you, dear Sphinx, but you’re such a trouble.’ ‘By the great broken blue eggshells of Cithaeron Hollow, what have I done to offend you, O Jocasta?’ The voice rose shriller still, sinking to a faint warble to ask, ‘What about ancient Semele’s griffins? They possess neither sense nor sensibility. How about locking up those wretched little animals?’ So saying, the creature bounded over Jocasta’s head and squeezed herself into the entrance of the palace in quest of Oedipus. Jocasta stood watching a stray feather float to earth and disappear. She inhaled the fragrance of the herbs underfoot. Then with a shrug of her shoulders she went to look in on her old grandmother. ‘Shit!’ exclaimed Semele, pulling irritably at a braid of her tangled grey hair. ‘That wretched Sphinx! So cunning. Its shit’s invisible. Only turns visible after a while, when the damned thing’s gone.’ The old woman was either addressing her great-grandson, Polynices, or talking to herself. Certainly the half-naked boy gave no response. ‘Why it can’t drop a decent visible turd like everyone else I don’t know. Even the steam off it is invisible, and that’s odd … I’m sure there was nothing like this when I was young. People seem to be eating more these days, so I suppose they’re shitting more. Adonis had an idea that you could shove the shit back up your arsehole and then you wouldn’t need to eat.’ ‘Don’t talk in that manner, Grandmother,’ said Jocasta. ‘It’s so crude. These are days of greater civility than used to be.’ ‘Did Adonis manage it?’ asked young Polynices, without curiosity. He lay sprawling on a rug, regarding the ceiling where a bluebottle buzzed furiously in the entanglements of a spider’s web. A small spider rushed in for the kill. ‘Not really,’ said the old harridan. ‘It was just another theory that didn’t work.’ She shot a glance under wrinkled brows at her granddaughter. ‘What does my little mischief want?’ Jocasta stood in the doorway, where some fresh air could still be detected. ‘There’s such a stink in here,’ she said, fanning a well-manicured hand in front of her face. ‘Can’t you clear this pile of excrement away, Grandmother? Must we have such filth within these four walls? We don’t put up with such things, as you used to do in your day.’ ‘When it hardens I’ll pick it up and throw it away,’ the old woman said soothingly. ‘And my days were better days, more carefree. Why, I never wore a dress until I was sixteen.’ The old lady lived in the half-dark, complaining of her eyesight. Her two griffins lay at the back of the chamber, growling quietly at the entry of an intruder. They were house-trained animals. They had never thought up a riddle in their lives. The buzzing on the ceiling ceased. ‘Poly, can’t you do something about it?’ asked Jocasta. ‘You know this dirt just attracts flies.’ But then she added, ‘Oh, as if I care. Live the way you must!’ Polynices waved a hand without stirring from the horizontal position. ‘He likes flies,’ said Semele, faking a yawn. ‘What do you want, dear? It’s time for my snooze.’ Jocasta stood, stately, looking down haughtily at her grandmother who sat in a tangle of bony legs and arms amid cushions on the floor. ‘Oedipus and I are faring to the coast tomorrow. We shall take the children, of course. But you can stay here and look after the slaves and animals, if you like.’ ‘So you don’t want me with you?’ Semele said, with a look of cunning as she narrowed her little eyes. Regarding her, Jocasta thought that as she saw something human in the Sphinx, so she detected something animal in her grandmother. This disconcerting reflection she hurriedly put away. ‘I’ll lock the Sphinx in her cage,’ she promised, ‘so she won’t bother you.’ ‘I shall be lonely. No one cares how lonely I am. Antigone must stay here with me.’ ‘Our journey is ritual. Antigone must come with us.’ ‘Ritual, my arse! The girl’s about to have an affair of some sort with Sersex.’ ‘What, that slave? That stable hand? More reason why she must come with us.’ Jocasta knew Sersex, a handsome and willowy young man, only recently employed at the palace. ‘It’s time Antigone matured,’ said the old woman. ‘Let her be. Don’t interfere. You’re always interfering. She is twelve years old. She’s got hair round it.’ ‘She must come with us, Grandmother. It’s ritual. You’ll stay here. You can have an affair with Sersex.’ Semele gave a high-pitched shriek of laughter. ‘Sersex? You’re mad!’ ‘I was only joking.’ Jocasta sighed. ‘Why do you never understand jokes?’ ‘Don’t sulk! It’s a bad habit. We’ve all noticed how you are becoming rather sulky.’ They heard the voice of Oedipus, calling his daughter Antigone. No longer was his voice grating, as it had been when he addressed his subjects. It took on a gentle note of coaxing, more dovelike. Semele raised an eyebrow in scorn. ‘Always Antigone. Never Ismene. You had better watch your husband, my girl.’ Oedipus had put on a white robe for his hour of audience with his subjects. He wore the crown of the King of Thebes, though it was no more than a modest ring of gold, pressed down into his mop of dark hair. With the audience concluded, he tossed the crown aside. It was caught by his attendant slave who rarely missed a catch, knowing the punishment that missing entailed. Entering the courtyard, Oedipus sank down on a couch which had been positioned in the shade. Kicking off his sandals, he put his feet up, calling again for his favourite daughter. ‘Antigone!’ Antigone came running, barefoot. She sat by her father’s legs and stroked them, looking up with a sunny smile into his face. ‘Wine is coming, Father.’ He nodded. ‘Our poor Thebans, always complaining, always starving … They have no understanding of hardship.’ Antigone’s hair was of a dark gold, close to sable. It fell straight, without a curl. She had tied it with a golden ribbon so that it hung neatly down over her right breast. Her dress was of muslin, through which the dark aureoles of her breasts could be glimpsed. Her eyes were blue, and though her nose straight and long gave her a stern look, the soft bow of her lips denied it. ‘With what were the tiresome creatures plaguing you today, Papa? Not the water shortage again!’ Oedipus did not answer immediately, or directly. He rested a hand lightly on his daughter’s head as he spoke, and stroked her hair. ‘I know that it seems as if a curse is upon Thebes, just as the superstitious old ones declare. I don’t need telling. I cannot change what is the will of the gods. If it is decreed, it is decreed.’ ‘A decree, Father – is there no way round it?’ When he did not answer, his daughter spoke again. ‘And is it decreed that you should suffer their complaints, Father? Does not a king have absolute rights over his subjects?’ With a hint of impatience, he said, ‘My subjects fear that plague will descend on Thebes. Tomorrow we must journey to the coast, to Paralia Avidos, and there offer up sacrifices, that matters will become well again and the crops revive.’ A female slave came forward with a jug of wine, followed by the Sphinx, who loomed over the slave like a grotesque shadow. She arrived with a catlike and slinky walk, wings folded, befitting her approach to her captor. ‘What is one, master, yet is lost if it becomes not two?’ she asked. ‘Please, dear Sphinx, no riddles now. I am fatigued,’ said Oedipus, waving a hand dismissively. The Sphinx sat down and licked a rear paw. Antigone picked up one of her father’s sandals and flung it at the bird-lion. The Sphinx squawked terribly, turned and galloped off. ‘Father, I cannot abide that absurd thing with its absurd riddles!’ Antigone declared, taking the jug from the slave to pour her father a generous libation into a bronze cup. The slave bowed and backed away, her face without expression. ‘Can’t we let it loose?’ ‘Let your indignation rest, my precious,’ said Oedipus soothingly. ‘It was decreed that I, having answered the riddle of the Sphinx, should become King of Thebes. So I acquired the animal, and must keep her by me if I am to remain king. She is wonderful. I cannot help loving her. If the Sphinx goes, then my days of power are numbered. It is decreed.’ ‘Another decree!’ exclaimed Antigone. Oedipus drank of the cool wine without commenting. Over the rim of the cup, he viewed his favourite daughter with affection and amusement. Meanwhile, the Sphinx came creeping back to Oedipus’ presence, belly to the ground, feline. ‘Mother doesn’t like the Sphinx,’ Antigone pouted. ‘She says she does but I know she doesn’t. Why can we not live out our own lives, without the constant interference of the gods? That’s another thing I don’t like.’ He patted her behind. ‘What we like or don’t like is a mere puff of breeze in the mighty gale of the will of the gods. Be content with things as they are, lest they become worse.’ His daughter made no response. She could not bring herself to confess to her father that unease and fear invaded her heart. ‘If only the silly creature would not make her messes in corners,’ she said. She put her tongue out at the Sphinx. The animal got up and walked slowly away again, hanging her head. Jocasta, meanwhile, had retreated to her private shrine in her private bedchamber. Dismissing Hezikiee, she crouched down before it. The corner was decorated with fresh rosemary. For a while she said nothing. At length, however, her thoughts burst into speech. ‘Great goddess, we know there are things that are eternal. Yet we are surrounded by trivial things, domestic things with which we must deal … ‘Yet in between these two contrasting matters is another thing … Oh, my heart is heavy! I mean the thing that can’t be spoken. I can’t speak it. Yet it’s real enough – an unyielding lump which blocks my throat. ‘I must remain silent. When he first appeared to me as a young man, I rejoiced. I loved him purely. A burden was lifted from my conscience. Now there is an even heavier burden. I cannot say it, even to you, great goddess …’ From the troubled ocean of her thoughts rose the idea of a golden child, the extension of the mother’s flesh that would be and become what the mother had failed to become – a fulfilled and perfect person. That link between the two, that identification, could scarcely be broken. In her intense if temporary sorrow, she recognised that she had not attempted to permit the child its freedom. ‘I know I have been a lustful woman. I know it, I admit it … How I have adored the ultimate embraces – particularly when forbidden! There are two kinds of love. Why doesn’t the world acknowledge as much? There’s the time-honoured love, honourable, to which all pay tribute. And there is the love time-detested, which all despise, or affect to. In me, those two loves combined, I cannot tell how … ‘This is the dreadful secret of my life … I am a good woman, or so I seem to be, and so I pretend to be. Yet if the world knew, it would condemn me as evil. ‘This pretence … It steals my sense of reality. Who am I? What am I?’ She struggled mutely with the confusion between her inner and outward realities. ‘And yet and yet … Oh, the misery of it! For if I had my chances over again, I would surely behave as before. Great goddess, since what is done cannot be undone, grant me the strength to contain my secret, to withhold it from the world. Come to my aid … Come to my aid, if not here in Thebes where I am in sin, then in Paralia Avidos, by the limitless seas. For I am sick at heart …’ She thought the goddess answered, ‘You are sick at heart because you know you do wrong, yet make no effort to mend your ways …’ She continued to crouch before her altar, where she had set a small light, repeating to herself ‘For I am sick at heart’, until she felt comforted by it. She rose, smiling, and went to her husband. 2 (#ub5ca876c-40bb-56b3-b791-4a6c4985cb93) The Oedipus family was preparing to go to the coast. The hour of dawn had come. The cloud curtain lifted enough to permit a ray of sun to slip into the rooms where the daughters of Jocasta slept. It was an appropriate time for a small domestic quarrel. Half-naked, Ismene, the dark one, and Antigone, the golden one, discomfited each other. Ismene wanted to take her pet bear on the journey to the coast. Jocasta had forbidden it. Ismene shrieked and cried and threw some clothes about. The bear growled and hid its eyes behind its paws; it foresaw a thrashing in its near future. ‘Hate, hate, hate!’ shrilled Ismene. ‘Sister, dear,’ said Antigone, assuming a studious pose, ‘why make such a fuss? Can you never understand that the more fuss you make, the harder grows Mother’s heart? Have you no more sensibility than your stupid little bear, that you cannot perceive how uncomfortable shrieking and weeping make you?’ ‘Pheobe is not stupid,’ said Ismene. ‘She’s the cleverest little bear that ever existed. She can stand on her head and you can’t.’ ‘Is that a test for cleverness? Don’t you see that the idiot thing stands on its head out of stupidity, because it does not know which way up it should be?’ Ismene rushed at her sister, screaming with anger. ‘Oh, if only you were a bear I would beat you to death!’ ‘If I were a bear, I might be stupid enough to let you. Grow up, Ismene!’ ‘I don’t want to grow up if it means being like you!’ ‘Stop the noise and get yourselves packed!’ cried Jocasta, from the next room, where she was endeavouring to supervise Hezikiee’s attempts at packing. ‘You create a Hades for yourselves inside these four walls. If you quarrel again over that silly bear, I’ll have it slaughtered.’ The girls put out their tongues at one another, and dressed in silence. ‘She doesn’t mean it,’ said Antigone aloud to herself. ‘She just says these things. She doesn’t mean anything she says …’ The day seemed to pause before beginning, as if activity were something to be squeezed from the returning light. In valleys nearby, mists awaited the moment to clear. Cockerels crowed. Rats slunk into empty barns. Farmers, thinner than they once had been, woke to pray to their gods for rain – a bucketful, a mugful, a handful … Anything to offer the parched lips of the earth. Oedipus, meanwhile, was coaxing the Sphinx into her grand gilded cage. He used many honeyed words, calling her sweetheart and mother. The Sphinx had no wish to enter the cage, despite the floral patterns into which the golden bars of the prison had been wrought. She squeaked in protest. She turned her head invisible, so that Oedipus should not see her. The ruse failed. Eventually, Oedipus caused a slave to light a fire in one corner of the gilded cage, away from a bank of cushions on which the creature might sleep. A spitted deer was set to turn hissing above the flames. Oedipus, mustering his patience about him, stood back and waited. The delectable smell arising attracted the Sphinx into her cage. Oedipus slammed the cage door and turned the key. The slave cranking the spit cried out in alarm. ‘You stay with her and attend her,’ Oedipus ordered. ‘Obey the Sphinx’s every wish. Her life is of more worth than yours.’ The slave made an obeisance, his downcast eyes full of hate. ‘My life is worth more than yours,’ parroted the Sphinx. ‘My life is worth yours and more. Your wife is more than yours … When the family is undercast, the sky will be overcast.’ She flung herself against the bars. ‘Be a good Sphinx,’ retorted Oedipus. ‘You are precious to me. So I must keep you safe under lock and key while I am away.’ He had on his black robe and metal skirt, as befitted a soldier. As he strode through the halls of the palace, old women withheld their sweeping; clutching their besoms, they bowed as far as long habit allowed in humble salutation. Disregarding them, Oedipus marched out to see that his guard was ready for the journey. The sky above Thebes was overcast. Heavy cloud had swallowed the infant sun. This was famine weather. Oedipus saw immediately that the cloud was too high for rain. Ten soldiers stood at the ready beside two carriages, each drawn by two horses. The captain came forward and saluted Oedipus. Oedipus returned the salute. He went to inspect the horses, and check the bits that restrained them. One of the mares was the cream-coloured Vocifer. She bridled as Oedipus stroked her nose. ‘Quiet, girl!’ He found the light was not good, as the mare cast a sideways glance at him, a glance full of implacable hatred from a dark eye fringed with lashes like reeds about a deep pool. Vocifer spoke. Foam developed about her bit as the words came forth. ‘Oh, Oedipus, though my days as your captive mare are long, less long is the time before your downfall. I will not gallop many more weary miles before your eyes are blinded.’ Slobber ran from her mouth and dripped to the dust below. Oedipus had never heard his mare speak before. He was shaken. But in a moment he recovered himself, grasping her bridle, answering the animal sturdily and saying, ‘Though you remain a horse and not a prophet, yet I remain a man, and men command mere horses.’ The mare replied, as she struck the ground with a hoof, ‘Though you command horses, yet are you harnessed to your fate.’ Oedipus looked anxiously about him. It appeared that no one had noticed the horse speaking her prophecy. Rather than hear another word, he whacked Vocifer’s flank and moved away from her. The evil look she had given him, more than her words, disturbed him. The mare snorted in contempt. She never spoke another word. He took up a position beneath the four-pillared portico, to remain with arms akimbo. There he stood impassively waiting, giving no sign of his inward apprehensions, as first Antigone and Ismene came out, settling themselves rather sulkily in one of the carriages. Jocasta emerged next from the palace, smiling, dressed in a blood-red robe, her hair tied with a red ribbon. Her personal servant, Hezikiee, followed, garbed in her usual dusty black. Behind them, goaded on by a slave driver, came a small company of slaves – including Sersex on whom, Semele asserted, Antigone had cast an eye. A rug draped about her shoulders, ancient Semele, bent but stormy, came out to witness their departure. ‘You will find no salvation by the dragon-haunted sea,’ she said. ‘What you will find is the beginnings of destruction. Be warned. Stay home, Oedipus, stay home!’ He set his gaze forward, away from the old woman. ‘Go back to your den, harridan,’ was all he said. ‘I am keeping Polynices and Eteocles with me, in my care.’ ‘Send my sons out to me at once, harridan.’ Pouting, she brushed bedraggled strands of hair from her eyes. ‘They stay with me!’ Without raising his voice, he said, ‘Send out my sons at once, or I will come and whip them out, and whip you into the bargain.’ ‘You are nothing but a brute, Oedipus!’ With that, she slowly turned her old bent figure, withered as a prune, to make her way back into the inner courts. A few minutes later, the two sons of Oedipus and Jocasta emerged, eyes downcast, and made to climb into the carriage with their sisters and mother. ‘You are not women,’ said Oedipus to his sons, in a quietly threatening voice. ‘You will walk beside me along the way to the seashore.’ ‘But, Father—’ began Eteocles. His father silenced him with a terrible voice. ‘You will walk beside me to the seashore. I will teach you lads philosophy yet.’ The boys went dumbly to him where he stood, beside the carriage loaded with their provisions. He patted their shoulders. ‘Courage, boys. We require the help of Apollo. To be obedient pleases the gods. Compliance delights Apollo.’ In this manner, the Oedipus family prepared to go to the coast. The procession wound its way through the streets of Thebes, bone dry and dusty under the thrall of a new day. Many citizens came out of their homes to watch from their poor doorsteps as the procession passed. Few cheered. Few jeered. Who would venture to express disgust of their king, when his intercessions at the temple of Apollo, at Paralia Avidos, might deliver them from the present miseries which afflicted their city? And moreover, to entertain another line of argument supporting the wisdom of silence, to venture criticism now was to risk losing that small but eloquent instrument of criticism, the tongue – if not the entire head housing it … Only dogs dared to run snarling at the heels of the soldiery and the wheels of the carriages as they rumbled through the uneven streets. These hounds were grey. The streets they prowled were grey. Even the garb of the citizens, protracted through poverty beyond their best years, was grey. The houses, too, were of a slatey tone under the leaden sky. It was as if Apollo had withdrawn the benison of colour from the once-thriving city of Thebes. Once through the gates and out in open country – heedless of the failing crops – the Oedipus family found its spirits reviving. The daughters, now reconciled, their squabbles forgotten, began to sing in sweet voices. They sang, ‘Mother, You Are Ever-Loving’, and then, in descending sentiment, ‘Where Did I Leave That Undergarment?’ They had some twenty miles to travel to the temple of Apollo at Paralia Avidos, on the shore of the warm sea, where they hoped a better future awaited them. The ruined village of Eleo stood on their route, inhabited now by nothing living but goats and a few scrawny hens. The hens had long since relearnt the art of flight. They rose clucking out of the path of the procession. Beyond the ruins, the entourage entered on a more dreary landscape. Here began bleak heathland, denuded of trees, where three ancient roads met: the roads from Delphi, Ambrossos and Thebes. The procession took the right-hand fork, which led to the coast. A white commemorative stone stood by the track. This was the region called Phocis. Jocasta gave a small shriek, belatedly attempting to smother it in the hem of her red robe. Her daughters asked her why she shrieked. ‘I thought I saw a wolf lurking by the bush,’ she said. ‘Where? Where?’ ‘Over there!’ She stretched out one of her shapely arms, to point vaguely into the distance. ‘You saw nothing but what was in your mind, Mother,’ said Antigone, patting Jocasta’s arm. While her sons argued the possibilities, and the lack of desirability, of being attacked by wolves, a different dialogue was playing in Jocasta’s mind. She was of a noble family, its history darkened by feuds and vendettas. Fathers had strangled their sons, mothers had slept with their daughters, brothers had raped their infant sisters. The juices of their line had become mixed. Yet they had been learned; they understood astronomy and kept doves and enjoyed music, sport and drama. Jocasta herself had been an independent-minded child. She was the jewel of her mother Hakuba’s eye. Her grandmother Semele then lived away in the forest. Semele had come to look after her grandchild only when Hakuba had died unexpectedly. Those were the years of Jocasta’s greatest grief. In her adolescence, she had become a keen runner. Only the generous size of her breasts had robbed her of a championship in the Theban games. She had thought nothing of marrying Prince Laius. She considered it her birthright to wed into the royal line. She knew – her father had told her as much – that Laius had at an earlier age cohabited with two wild youths whom, in a drunken quarrel, he had stabbed to death. What were these sins but the follies of youth, the jeux d’esprit of a bold disposition? Besides, now that he was King of Thebes, Laius was as beyond reproach as he was above the law. So Jocasta wed Laius. Laius wed Jocasta. Oaths were sworn. Flowers were thrown. The throats of many nanny goats were cut. Offerings were made, dances danced, wine consumed. Jocasta’s tastes were lascivious. This pleased Laius. The marriage went well enough. At least she lived in a palace. There was that trouble with Athens. Laius became more brutal. He lost interest in Jocasta sexually. He preferred beating her to making love to her. All these recollections flowed through her mind like blood from an altar. There came the night, filled with the greyness of a watching moon, when she dined with her brother Creon, spilling out her troubles in confidence to him, exhibiting her bruises. Creon was good to her. Creon and she had enjoyed carefree sexual relations when children. They had spurned conventional entrances. It was long ago. Creon grew up to be a stubborn law-abiding man, wedded to the fair Eurydice. He had never forgotten his early affection for his sister. Nor had Jocasta ceased to love her elder brother. She knew his weaknesses. She knew, too, that he coveted the throne on which her husband Laius reigned. She recollected now, as her carriage bumped over the barren heathland, a night when she returned to Laius’ palace, after dining with Creon and Eurydice. Creon had accompanied her, since it was deemed incorrect for women – even queens – to walk in the streets alone. Entering the palace, they heard cries, sounds expressing something between pain and ecstasy, or a blend of both. Hastening through to the courtyard, they came on a scene which remained, though many a year had passed, vivid in Jocasta’s mind. Laius was bent naked over a naked boy. About these figures, as in a diseased dream, stood four naked slaves, holding lamps aloft, and all with erections gleaming as if oiled. The sweat of Laius ran from his back and down his buttocks to the floor. Laius had penetrated the rear exit of the boy. His left hand clutched the boy by the throat, while with his right hand he agitated the puerile organ of the child. It was from this boy that the cries of agony and joy issued. Laius himself was mute, his face in the lamplight a mask of lust. Creon leapt forward, drawing his short sword. ‘You beast! How dare you perform this foul act before mere slaves?’ As he waved his sword, the four slaves dropped their lamps and fled, clutching those organs they no doubt thought imperilled by Creon’s avenging blade. The darkness would have been complete, had the moon overhead not been at full, throwing its drab light on the scene. Although considerably aghast at being discovered, Laius was defiant. ‘You dare speak thus to your king? Go! I must satisfy myself somehow. My wife will not do it.’ To all this Jocasta had been witness, concealed behind a curtain. Only now did she step forth to confound her husband’s words. ‘You liar!’ she cried. ‘On how many occasions have I not bent to your drunken whim, yielded my body to your thrust – yielded to your wretched preferences, while you poured your disgusting seed into my hinder parts?’ ‘Who is this wretched urchin you were defiling?’ Creon demanded of the king. ‘Some common street boy, doubtless!’ Creon seemed to grow in authority and darkness, while Laius shrank back, snatching up his disordered robe and clutching it about him with one hand. The boy seized on the opportunity, slipping from Laius’ grasp, to run away. They heard him as he rushed into the street, yelling at the top of his voice that the king had molested him. ‘Do shut that brat up!’ cried Laius. His voice was faltering. ‘He’ll awaken the neighbourhood. He liked what we were doing, Creon, begged for it, believe me. He’s no slave. He’s a freeman’s son, by name Chrysippus. Do pray silence him.’ Creon drew himself up, while still wielding his sword in a threatening manner. ‘Put your clothes together, you pederast. I will see that this vile act is known, and your four menial witnesses executed in due time. Your reign as King of Thebes is at an end.’ Jocasta’s mind drifted to the present. It was many a year since that gross incident, buried within the sinews of a June night. Laius, forgetting his crown, had fled the city. Yet, as Creon said, a curse lay over Thebes to this day. There was a pollutant in its bloodstream: so Creon declared. It kept him from the throne. The memory of those days returned roughshod to Jocasta when the procession passed another place where three roads met, on the edge of the heathland. There, it was said, brigands had attacked Laius in his chariot and killed him. That act of regicide haunted the situation still in Thebes. Such reflections caused a melancholy disturbance in Jocasta. She felt herself tremble inwardly. Why was it that human life should be so troubled? The life of a wolf was better. Wolves enjoyed the wilderness and the hunt. They relished their strength, their speed, and their family relations. Why was a human being’s life more troublesome than a wolf’s? Perhaps wolves had no memory. Perhaps animals were not born to carry the burden of the past with them every day. Why did she suffer from black spells, during which she felt her life to be hardly worth a candle? She had experienced similar moods when her first child was growing inside her body. Her grandmother had rebuked her for them. She had become bound to religion, undertaking incantation and self-chastisement. Then, when her child had been born, she – little more than a child herself! – had gone to the shrine of Apollo to seek a blessing for the infant, and had experienced the great black moment of her life. For what had the servant of Apollo said? She felt the trembling overcome her again as she recalled the prodromic utterance: that her innocent babe, her boy-child, would grow up to kill his father and, even worse, would take his father’s place and cohabit with his mother. This grievous prediction would surely be fulfilled. She had told Laius of this terrifying prophecy. He had struck her, alarmed and made furious by the blackness of the prediction. Laius was full of pride. He had gone, humbling himself, to Apollo. Apollo had spoken in precisely the same terms Jocasta had been forced to hear: that their infant boy would grow up to be a regicide and, having killed his father, would take his place in his father’s bed, to mate with his own mother. Laius pleaded. Laius swore. Laius sacrificed a dozen goats. Laius covered himself with dust and pleaded again. Still the answer came: that the future was immutable. What had been predicted could be turned aside by no man. Husband and wife, Laius and Jocasta, had discussed this ghastly prediction in whispers; talked in the dark bedchamber, failed to sleep, became ill, quarrelled, made it up, whispered again. And decided that the prediction must not be fulfilled. That Apollo must be defied. Decided that their infant must be killed. That his tainted blood must be spilled. ‘Do you feel unwell, Mama?’ Ismene asked. The question brought Jocasta back into her present, to the vehicle with its creaking wheels, the barren land all about them, and dark clouds frowning on the horizon. Jocasta glared at her daughter under her long lashes. ‘Leave me to myself, Ismene. I’m well enough.’ Ismene made a face. ‘I know. “My happiness is my own, so’s my gloom” …’ She was quoting an earlier saying of her mother’s against her, in a sing-song voice. Jocasta merely sank back into her cloak of dismal introspection as the carriage jolted on its slow way, a creak for every turn of the wheels. In her mind, she heard her grandmother declare that she was sulking again. Oedipus and his sons walked beside the carriage. The king gave no indication that the march brought him pain. They discussed how far a man might walk before he came to the edge of the world. Soldiers marched before and behind the party. The landscape, tawny and desolate, lay like a lion asleep. There was no suggestion that it would ever cease, or ever awaken. Jocasta feared that she could never escape from the past. Like the landscape, it surrounded her, went on for ever. Past, present and future were one whole garment. She could not tear that garment from her body. Laius had been weaker of will than his wife. She had forced him to act against Apollo’s prophecy. She had steeled herself to look on while he pierced the infant’s feet with a skewer and tied them together with cord, so that the child was unable even to crawl. Laius had then gone to the end of the city with the howling child under his cloak. There he had thrust it on a shepherd, with instructions to leave the infant to die on a distant hillside, away from the sight of men. There was an element of comfort for Jocasta to recall that she had rushed forward and kissed the poor babe farewell on its wet cheek. Then the shepherd had it firmly under his arm and was off. It was a while after the child had been left for dead on the hillside that Laius had turned against her and, in sodomising the boy Chrysippus, had become outcast from Thebes. She rested her head on the curve of the arm of the carriage, remembering. The heathland bumped by under her lustreless gaze. All that misery had occurred so long ago; yet when she allowed herself to remember it, back it came, sour and chilling. Snatches of Oedipus’ conversation with his sons drifted to her darkling senses. She listened idly. He was talking now of the curse that lay over the city of Thebes. Oedipus was saying, ‘Certainly there is cause for sorrow in Thebes. But it has happened before. Why do the citizens vex me? The reason lies beyond philosophical conjecture. Why, they go so far as to accuse me of causing the grief! Why do they not love me? I hate the lot of them. Why should they not love me?’ And Polynices’ sharp response, in a bored tone, ‘Perhaps because you hate them …’ The boys showed their father little respect. They don’t realise, Jocasta said to herself, that the poor man is in pain every step of the way. Yet he deliberately resolved to walk the distance to Paralia Avidos. Her thoughts were drawn back to those terrible days when she and Laius had condemned their infant son to death at the hands of the shepherd. She had gone back into the palace in a storm of weeping. It was then that the shadow deepened between her and Laius. There were lies to be told, pretences to be kept up. She had become withdrawn. And Laius, of a disturbed mind, had turned first to whores and then to catamites. She seemed to be trapped in a circle of retribution from which, terrifyingly, there was no escape. How might Apollo be appeased – unless by more sacrifice? With an effort of will, she brought herself out of her sprawling position, to sit bolt upright and smile at her daughters. If her Oedipus could suffer without complaint, then so could she. ‘The air is so beautiful here,’ she said. ‘Are you enjoying the ride, girls?’ 3 (#ub5ca876c-40bb-56b3-b791-4a6c4985cb93) The day blossomed, the sun grew bolder. The blazing air silenced conversation. Soldiers marched with their heads down, horses gleamed with sweat, flies buzzed industriously about them. It was a broken land, uninhabited, the land called Phocis through which they were passing. The procession halted to rest the horses. Jocasta took a pace or two alone. Heather was crisp beneath her sandalled feet. As she passed the cream-coloured mare, Vocifer set her dark regard at her – almost, Jocasta said to herself in horror, almost as if it would speak with her. The thought increased the blackness of her mood. The mare, though she foamed at the mouth, said not a word. After a respite, the company got on its way again; the carriages creaked forward once more. The track they followed became more eroded. The ruts gave an indication of increased rainfall. Summer had baked the ground until it resembled the crust of a loaf of bread. Yet, as the company continued on its way, blades of crab grass, as brown as the land from which they sprang, maintained a brittle presence. Soon, only a mile further on, small white flowers appeared, rare as snowflakes, responding to a fresher smell in the air. They saw a shepherd boy in the distance, tending a small flock of sheep and goats. The bleating of the animals carried to them through the clear air, and the wail of the wooden pipes played by the boy. The company had been climbing a gradient for over an hour. At last they gained the crest of the ascent. Before them, as they gathered together and made a breathless halt, the ground rolled away, becoming greener as it went. Then followed a band of yellow and gold and then – oh, the dazzle of it! – the great azurine expanse of sea, ochre and green near the shore, deep dark blue of smalts further from land, peacock between. The murmur of it came to their ears. A cry went up from the parched throats of the men. ‘The sea! The sea!’ Onward the company went, more gladly now. A camp was established in Paralia Avidos by the shore, where a small freshwater stream gushed from the cliff. Not far distant stood the temple dedicated to the god Apollo. Clustering about it like sheep about a shelter were numerous market stalls. Jocasta stood by Oedipus, linking her arm in his, to oversee the establishment of their camp. Her daughters frisked nearby, glad to be out of the carriage. ‘I’ll race you into the sea, Ismene!’ cried Antigone, beginning to shed her robes. ‘We can cool off immediately – and scare a few crabs!’ ‘You’re not getting me into that stuff!’ Ismene said. ‘It’s full of fish. You should have been a boy, Antigone.’ ‘I’ll come in with you,’ said Polynices, pulling off his tunic. ‘So will I,’ said Eteocles, not to be outdone. Naked, Antigone waded into the sea, stopping only when the languid swell ventured to cover her navel. She stood gasping, laughing, splashing water over her upper body, gazing across the watery expanse to a distant shore. Her golden hair turned dark with its wetting. Polynices paddled out next to her. ‘Your breasts make me hard, sister,’ he said, clutching the organ referred to. ‘I love the way the pink bits point upwards.’ She splashed water in his face, laughing. Oedipus came to the water’s edge, stooped and laved his face and neck. Jocasta stood silent behind him, gazing out across the sea. In the distance on the deep, a single sail showed, as tiny as a white butterfly’s wing. In a while, Ismene went with her mother to see what the market stalls offered. Oedipus took his head groom aside and quietly ordered him to have the mare killed. ‘But Vocifer is a fine horse, sir,’ said the man in protest. ‘I told you to kill her. See to it.’ That night, when the moon rose dripping from the sea, to cast a platinum pathway across the waves, Oedipus kept vigil in the heavy perfumed dark of the temple. He had sacrificed a lamb to the god. Its carcass still crackled and smouldered on a slab nearby. Silence otherwise prevailed in the temple, reinforced by the hiss of a flambeau, representative of the sun after its withdrawal. The embers of the lamb remained, as Oedipus endured on his knees, head bent. A serpent appeared in the air before him. This was no emblem of Apollo. It was winged, writhing to make its golden scales gleam. A light, at first soft, then blinding, filled the chamber. Still crouching, for he scarcely dared move, Oedipus cast his gaze upwards, under his eyebrows. In place of the snake a female of radiant beauty materialised. Her jet black hair was ringleted and fell to her snowy shoulders. Her gown, gathered at the waist with a chain of flowers, was so flimsy it scarcely concealed the greater beauties beneath its folds. Her thighs were snowy white. On her wrists she wore serpentine bracelets, and about her ankles similar enhancements in pure gold. ‘Oh, radiant creature, are you not the wood nymph Thalia?’ asked Oedipus, surprised. He attempted to rise. She gestured with her right hand, so that he remained fixed in his crouched position. When she spoke, her voice was so soft that it came to him borne on unimagined perfumes. ‘I am as you say, O Oedipus, the wood nymph Thalia. I am come from Apollo, whom I serve as messenger, to speak with you.’ ‘Will not Apollo speak with me?’ He could scarcely hear his own voice for the nymph’s radiations, which seemed half-scent, half-music. ‘Hera, the goddess of moonlight and fertility, sent the Sphinx to punish King Laius for his sins. Instead Laius was killed by mortal man.’ As she spoke, Thalia regarded Oedipus intensely with her dark eyes. He found himself unable to move under the power of that gaze. Her eyes had appeared beautiful. Now they were frightening and filled with the emptiness of night. Although her carmine lips moved when she spoke, their sounds seemed to come from elsewhere. ‘What of this matter? How does it concern me?’ Oedipus asked, with such pride as he could command from his inferior position. ‘Laius is nothing to me.’ ‘You have won the Sphinx, O Oedipus,’ said the mysterious nymph, ‘but when the Sphinx dies, you will die also. The Sphinx is a remaining daughter of an older age, an age before you men began to become entirely human. Recall how her body parts represent the seasons – the woman’s head standing for Hera, the goddess, while the lion’s body, the eagle’s wings and the serpent’s tail stand for the three ancient agricultural seasons, spring, summer, winter. ‘Soon, I foresee, the Sphinx will die. Soon the gods also must die. They cannot live in the dull, materialistic world to come, when magic has died like the light of an oil lamp. ‘Do you not recall from your childhood the eight-year solar-lunar calendar, O Oedipus? That calendar which the Sphinx embodies?’ ‘I lived in Corinth and studied new sciences. I recall nothing of which you speak.’ Yet, pronouncing the words from his confining crouch, he suddenly, in a trick of the mind, did recall the words of Jocasta’s old grandmother Semele. The hag was well familiar with the ancient succession of the seasons. In her younger age, Semele had worn a dress with eleven pendants. She explained the pendants as signifying the discrepancy of eleven days between solar and lunar years. She had talked to them over and over of the sacred union of sun and moon. It was necessary to believe in it, she said. All magic sprang from that union, that discrepancy. Oedipus and Jocasta had listened, unwilling to believe a word Semele said: yet, in their confusion, partly believing. The wild lady, sitting there in the candlelight, talking, talking, carried undeniable conviction. She had talked over and over as they sat at table at night, with the candles guttering and the platters pushed aside; Semele amusing them with tales of her early youth, when she was indoctrinated into magic, the wine liberating her tongue. On those occasions, he had seen her beauty, so different from Jocasta’s. ‘I do recall,’ he told Thalia, with a sense of misery that those times, for which he had then had no particular affection, were now over and gone for ever. ‘You do well to recall …’ said the nymph in her musical voice. ‘The calendar may change. The seasons do not change. Some things are immutable …’ She bestowed on him a sweet smile that yet he found threatening. He roused himself, asking why she had said that the Sphinx would die. She gave him another smile, rather less friendly than the previous one. ‘She will die through your fault, your carelessness, O Oedipus!’ Thalia’s luminance seemed to grow more intense. Was he conscious or did he dream? He had quaffed a beaker of the sweet wine they sold at the temple door. What had it contained beside the fruit of the grape? ‘Yes, the solar-lunar calendar … The sun and moon begin and end the cycle in step. That’s when new moon and winter solstice coincide.’ He spoke as if to talk at all was to sleepwalk. ‘But the lunar year of twelve moons is shorter than a solar year by eleven days. So the sun takes – as they used to say – three steps and halts at the end of the third and sixth year. Then a thirteenth month brings sun and moon almost in step again. ‘So the sun … mmm … oh, yes, so the sun goes sometimes on three feet. Then after two more solar years, a further month of thirty days is needful – that’s to say, at the end of the eighth year, ending the cycle. So it sometimes goes on only two feet.’ ‘That’s not quite all,’ said Thalia, encouragingly. He remembered. The young Semele had drawn a figure on the table with a finger dipped in her wine. ‘You used also to add a single day every four years, or leap years. So that occurred twice in the eight-year cycle. You could say that the sun sometimes went on four feet, but is at its weakest then, in the sense that it is only one day ahead of the moon. ‘That was how it was, I believe.’ A silence prevailed. The flambeau crackled, its light dulled by the radiance of the wood nymph, who seemed to be waiting for Oedipus to speak again. Her skin, of an intense pallor, appeared to be a source of light. He did speak again. The words seemed forced from him. ‘Helios is the sun god. He speaks with one voice. His queen is the moon goddess … So that was once the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle. Are you telling me that?’ ‘You are telling me that.’ He saw that he was adrift with her, passing high over a green mountainside. The moon stood still in the heavens. Her delicate fingertips touched his. It was a moment of extreme unction. The snake was guiding him. He was not afraid. He was free of earthly problems. ‘You are telling me that.’ Thalia was looking about her rather anxiously, as if in fear of vultures. ‘You have now answered the riddle a second time, in two voices.’ They seemed to be encompassed in a glowing cloud, and without weight. Distantly to his ears came his own question. ‘But why did the Sphinx accept my first answer?’ ‘Perhaps she was tired of killing other fools …’ Her voice seemed faint and distant. ‘Or it was a question of time …’ Fearing she would disappear completely, Oedipus cried, ‘Stay, sweet nymph! Will not Apollo spare me now?’ She looked at him, full in the face. Her countenance, he now saw, was but a mask; behind it waited a snake, ready to strike. He was confused and alarmed, not least because the mask seemed to resemble the face of Jocasta. He floundered, seeking to disregard the illusion. ‘Spare me!’ The response came without comfort for his confusion. ‘Life is a labyrinth. You must solve the riddle of your own personality – if you can … if you can …’ Her laughter was faint, was a cackle, was a crackle, was the noise and splutter of the flambeau dying into its socket, the ribs of the sacrificed lamb scorching in its ashes. Oedipus found that he lay sprawled on the cold tiles of the temple. He rose up groaning. The mountainside was gone, the serpent, the nymph. The flame died. He found himself alone in the stifling dark. His forehead burned. ‘Apollo!’ he cried in anger and supplication. No answer came. Jocasta could not sleep. The ever-restless sea brought a breeze into her tent which disturbed her. And perhaps there was something more; she could not tell. She lay wakeful, her right hand tucked between her legs. She resented the power of the gods, and resented the way human beings submitted themselves to their whims. Anxiety grew. She stepped over the snoring Hezikiee without waking her, to urinate outside the tent. Confronting the night, she walked barefoot on the beach, drawing into her mind soothing things: the murmur of the waves on the shore, and the moon undergoing its small changes. Could the moon, she questioned, be a goddess? She wondered what the stars were. Could they be the souls of the dead, as her mother had told her? Jocasta was often troubled by her own introspection. She hid it guiltily from others. Even now, on the mild murmuring shore, old worries returned. Although she was aware of her physical being, of her feet scratched by the sand beneath them, there was a moment when she also saw herself as possessing a detached self, a self which looked on coolly at her actions, possibly with contempt. She was aware of a change in the level of her consciousness, as if distant music had ceased in mid-chord. She stopped and looked about her. A man materialised from behind a bush of rosemary, rising slowly from a crouched position. She was startled, but would not show it. The man was old, offering her no threat. He told her not to be alarmed, raising a hand in greeting to show it was empty of weapons. His beard was white, his shoulders bowed. He walked with a staff. Coming to stand before her, he sank the end of the staff into the sand for greater stability. Once she could study his face by the pallid light from above, she had no more fear, for his aspect was one of shrewd benevolence. ‘You should be in bed at your age,’ she said. ‘The old and the guilty find little comfort in bed,’ he replied. In silence they regarded each other. A dog was barking distantly inland. His remark quelled her: she felt that this stranger had recognised her inner confusions. Relief and anxiety struggled within her, making her dumb. Perhaps he mistook her silence for foolishness. ‘Lady, how intelligent are you?’ he asked. She disliked the impropriety of the question. ‘I am a queen, if a wakeful one. Is that not enough?’ ‘Probably not, although you may think it so. My intention was not to challenge you, although I perceive you are troubled in mind. I was considering – when you interrupted my musings – by what means I might measure how distant the moon is from us.’ ‘Is the moon solid?’ ‘I believe it to be as solid as is the world we tread.’ ‘Is it made of silver, then?’ ‘No more than is the sand beneath our feet.’ ‘Why should you wish to know how distant it is?’ He shook his head slowly. ‘If knowledge is there to be had, we should endeavour to obtain it, as we endeavour to eat the food set before us. The chances are that knowledge might make us better people. Or more sensible, at least. Is the moon, for instance, nearer to us than the sun, as I suspect? Why does it not burn us, as does the sun?’ Jocasta breathed a sigh. ‘It is not intelligent to ask such questions. They are remote from our lives.’ ‘Ah, lady, but not from our imaginative lives!’ Jocasta thought about that. ‘Then I will put to you a different sort of question, a question for which I seek an answer, which affects all human beings.’ ‘What question may that be?’ he asked as if humouring her, without any show of curiosity. ‘We live imprisoned in the present time as we move along the path of our lives. Yet we know that the past existed; it remains with us like a burden. So that past must be still in existence, although we cannot see it. Like a path we traversed on the other side of a hill, perhaps. I ask you if the future exists similarly – also unseen – and if there is one path only we can tread there. Or can we choose from many paths?’ The old man leant on his staff and was silent. Then he spoke. ‘These times of which you speak are not like the moon, which has physical existence. It is mistaken to think of times as physical pathways. These times of which you speak are qualities, not quantities. You understand that? Perhaps you do understand, or you would not have asked the question.’ She said gently, ‘But you have not answered my question. Is the future a single path or many?’ The old man shook his head. ‘What will guide you through the future is your own character. Your character is your compass. It is a quality like time. They must be matched, I believe.’ Jocasta thought of her own perceptions of the world, and found them limited. She longed to converse more intimately with this gentle old man. She rubbed the tip of her nose. ‘I don’t understand you. Your answers unfortunately are as incomprehensible as your questions.’ ‘You think so? Someone must ask the questions. Someone must answer the questions. Of course, those answers may not be clear. Why should the moon be fixed, let’s say, a quarter of a million miles from us? Why should you, a fairly young woman, bother about what is to come, any more than what is past?’ His responses baffled Jocasta. ‘We all bother about what is to come, don’t we?’ The old man spoke again. ‘My name, madame queen, is Aristarchus, Aristarchus of Samos, a mathematician of Alexandria.’ He did not suppress a note of pride as he introduced himself, bowing over his staff. ‘I have in my life answered one great puzzling question. I have worked out – and my solution has been confirmed by certain Athenians – that it is not the sun that goes round the earth, but the earth that goes round the sun.’ She gave a grunt of contemptuous laughter. ‘Divination! Often unreliable.’ ‘Mathematics. Always reliable.’ ‘Then you are surely mistaken. We can see that the earth is stationary and that the sun goes round it. Any fool can tell that, ancient Aristarchus.’ Unperturbed, he replied, ‘Fools can tell us many wrong things. Fools mock me for my deduction, yet I have arrived scientifically at my conclusion. The earth is round, and travels about the sun in a grand circle. The earth also rotates on its axis, like a wheel, making day and night. At a lunar eclipse, we see from the earth’s shadow on the moon that it is a round body. ‘You must think more rationally. The old life of magic is dead, or all but dead. We are now in a new epoch, which offers much more than the old. ‘The past has no existence, except in our memories, nor the future either, except in our expectations. Your future may lie within you, curled up, sleeping within your nature. You must not become a slave to appearances.’ ‘I prefer appearances …’ She turned away. ‘I regret I am not able to talk more. Your speech only confuses me. Goodnight, Aristarchus of Samos.’ She walked away down the beach. He called in his weak voice, ‘Do not fear confusion. Doubt is a better guide than faith.’ The words were almost lost beneath the sound of the lapping of the waves, yet she heeded them. She stopped and turned back. ‘I apologise if I have been impolite. I am glad to have spoken to a wise and distinguished man. I regret that my mind is burdened. I make bad company. I’m sorry …’ He raised a hand in benediction and farewell. She found there were tears in her eyes. The old man’s words were too unsettling. Surely she could not be as mistaken in her perceptions as his statements implied … He had said that both past and future were qualities. What else had he said? Had he said there was no future path? Had he said, ‘You must not judge by appearances …’? Perhaps there was sense in that remark, as in much he had said. Jocasta was disturbed to think that her response, about preferring appearances, which she had considered clever at the moment, was rather silly … Appearances differed so sharply from realities. In the early hours of the morning, when the moon sank beyond the shoulder of the hill, she dreamed she was blind and alone in the world. After his vigil, Oedipus slept. His slumbers were drugged, for once again Apollo had turned his face against him. Ismene wakened her mother, who was sleeping heavily. ‘Mother, the sun has come up, and so must we be.’ Jocasta said heavily, ‘It’s not that the sun has come up. Rather the other way round.’ Ismene laughed. ‘Wake up, Mother!’ Jocasta lay where she was, fatigued by sleeplessness, trying to go over in her mind the conversation with Aristarchus. Had it happened or had it been a vivid dream? In a while, Antigone came to her mother, kneeling by her and looking earnestly into her face. ‘How are things with you, Mother? Did you sleep badly?’ Jocasta put an arm about Antigone’s neck and kissed her cheek. ‘No, I slept well and had a beautiful dream.’ Later, Antigone and Ismene walked with their brothers among the market stalls, followed by their personal servants. The stalls were pitched along the land that ran on the cliff above the beach and led to Apollo’s temple. There were decorative objects of bronze to be bought, mirrors and suchlike, and pendants of blue glass, wooden toys from eastern lands, perfumes, drugs, bangles, sandals for women’s feet, bright-dyed costumes, rugs from the southern climes, figs and foods of all sorts. Antigone bought a pair of gold sandals, which her handmaid carried for her. Among the jostle of people, some of them preparing for the festivities that night, were warriors, a strutting sort of persons. They drank at drink stalls and eyed the pretty women passing. One such youth was pressing through the crowds on his own. He addressed Antigone. He had a great thatch of dark hair on his head, suppressed by a metal and leather helmet, and a scanty beard on his chin. A long leather tunic covered his torso, crossed by a belt from which hung a sword. His features were pleasing enough, although his look was grim. He grasped Antigone’s arm, to detain her amid the crowd. ‘So you must be sister to King Oedipus,’ he said. ‘Take your stinking hand away from me!’ She was immediately furious that he, a stranger, should touch her. Her blue eyes, blazing, became darker than the Aegean sea. The warrior held firm. ‘I could dispossess you with one word!’ He would have said more, but Eteocles, rushing up, caught the warrior a stunning blow across the face with the side of his open palm. ‘You dare touch my royal sister!’ he shouted, preparing himself for attack. But the warrior was falling back with a bleeding nose which took all his attention. Polynices, jumping in, seized the warrior by the throat with both hands. ‘Who may you be, you wretch? Tell me or I’ll strangle you!’ ‘They call me Chrysippus of Cithaeron,’ said the warrior, breaking free and grasping the hilt of his sword. ‘And you shall remember it.’ Eteocles immediately took hold of the man’s sword arm, twisting it behind his back so that he fell over backwards to the ground. Whereupon Eteocles jumped on his stomach. Polynices got in a swift kick to his groin. Chrysippus of Cithaeron rolled over, groaning. Staggering to his feet, seeing himself outnumbered, he ran off through the crowd, shouting that he could unmask them all if he wished. The two brothers roared with angry laughter. Their sisters embraced them, praising their bravery before leading them to a stall where the stallholder was selling wine from full-bellied pigskins. ‘Wine for libation!’ said Ismene, filling four earthenware cups from the stall. ‘Teach a commoner to touch the sons and daughters of King Oedipus! Well done, brave brothers!’ ‘Yes, hurrah!’ cried Antigone. ‘But why did that wretch call me the sister of Oedipus?’ ‘The cur was drunk,’ said Polynices. ‘As we shall shortly be.’ They all laughed, and dipped their noses into the cups, drinking until the wine ran down on the outsides, as well as the insides, of their throats. 4 (#ub5ca876c-40bb-56b3-b791-4a6c4985cb93) A meeting was held in Thebes while the king and his family were away. Absence had made some hearts grow bolder. The main speakers were men in the prime of their youth, with golden hair and good sinews. Older men and women stood on the fringes of the crowd that had gathered. Children, those who had energy enough, ran about and played in the dust. ‘The curse that has come upon this town will soon kill us all unless we do something about it,’ said one youthful speaker. ‘We bring our green boughs to the altars of Pallas, and the sacred embers of divination, yet still the drought prevails, the River Ismenus dries, and still its waters turn to mud.’ ‘How are we to water our fields?’ called a man wrapped in a sheep’s hide. ‘That’s what I want to know.’ Other voices shouted that there was death in their pastures also, and in their patches of garden, and in every place where once things used to grow green. And when the shouts of complaint died, an older man spoke, in a voice creaking like a cartwheel. ‘There is death also in the wombs of women. My poor wife bore forth a dead child, a daughter, last week, and is ill of its contagion even now.’ In the silence following this statement, a young man said, ‘The birds did not build their nests this year.’ Beside him, an old bowed woman responded. ‘It’s what you young fellows get up to – that’s what’s caused all this. You don’t control yourselves.’ ‘The ordinary business of mortal life has become confounded,’ said an old one, shaking his shaggy head. ‘The Furies laugh at us.’ The youthful speaker who had begun this litany now spoke again. ‘We look to King Oedipus to save us. He is at the shrine of Apollo even now. Tomorrow he will return and we may expect a change for the better. But if better does not come, what then shall we do?’ ‘Young Pylades lies sick with a mortal and malodorous fever,’ cried one townswoman. A husky older man then spoke up. ‘We shall survive this ill season. I am old enough to recall the gloom that fell upon us once before, when King Laius was exiled from the city. We have all heard tell how robbers set upon him and slayed him by Triodos, in Phocis, where three ancient roads meet. ‘That was the bad time, when a sphinx, that vile creature from the past, ravaged our lands. Was it not then Oedipus who answered its riddle and thus preserved Thebes?’ ‘We can rely on Oedipus to save us again.’ ‘Not while the sun and moon are at odds,’ said the old one who had previously spoken. All this while, Creon watched from his lonely tower, listening to what was said. At this stage in his life he was frequently silent. Semele had also listened to the speeches, crouching behind a side door of the palace, nattering to herself, showing her teeth. ‘We don’t want those monkeys gathering, making things out to be worse than they really are,’ she said to the griffin accompanying her. She clutched him by his mane to keep him quiet. ‘There’s a way we can make them run, and no mistake. The Sphinx will see them off.’ She climbed on her ugly pet’s back. She weighed nothing. Holding on to the creature’s ears to guide him, she rode him into the inner recesses of the courtyard. The griffin started to growl. The old woman climbed from his back and approached the cage wherein the Sphinx was confined. Seeing her coming, the Sphinx rushed to the cage door. ‘By the great oval owl eggs of the outer lands, Grandmother Semele, free me from this stinking cage.’ Semele gave her a cunning glance. ‘What if I do?’ ‘I’ll not touch you. I’m broody, old lady, and have an egg to lay.’ ‘What’s freedom worth, then? – Or you can lay your egg in the cage.’ The slave, also confined, called shrilly from the rear of the cage. The floor was strewn with cracked deer bones and excrement, over which the slave ventured a step forward. ‘Fair lady Semele, please unlock the door of this cage. I can’t bear the Sphinx’s company any more. I shall die unless I can guess what is one yet is lost if it comes not two.’ ‘Quiet, varlet, or I’ll have your tongue cut out. You shall do it yourself,’ promised Semele. Turning again to the Sphinx, she asked, ‘What reward if I set you free?’ ‘Oh,’ squawked the great beast, ‘what makes hell so full of humans, and humans so hellish? Rewards, rewards! Very well, if you free me, I shall conjure up a little sprite with meaty organs, who will lie with you as no one else will …’ ‘Ah! And what will this sprite do, since mere lying is not enough?’ Semele’s cunning little eyes were half-concealed under the complex straggle of her hair which, unwashed, sheltered several objects within it, such as twigs and beetles. The Sphinx spread her wings and banged them against the bars of the cage. ‘This sprite I have in mind has the curious habit of licking between the legs of old ladies. He is young and bald, with red hinder parts.’ Semele let out an andante squeak. ‘Has he tits? And what exactly does he lick with?’ ‘I ask the riddles here, old hag! The sprite licks with what one and all lick with – the tongue. What else? The tongue of this sprite is well known in the bordellos of hell for having a long but plump – decidedly plump – tongue with flesh hanging from it, very tickly.’ ‘Oh, let’s not waste time then!’ Her little wizened hands trembled before her. ‘I like the sound of this sprite. I like the sound of its bad habits.’ The key to the cage hung from a hook nearby. Plucking it off the hook, Semele in her excitement dropped it. She groaned and clutched the small of her back as she picked it up. And then she shook so much she was unable to insert it in the lock. ‘Oh, oh, dear …’ she muttered. ‘We must drive away that smelly crowd outside the palace …’ ‘Give me the key. I’ll unlock from here,’ ordered the Sphinx. Extending her paw through the bars, she snatched the key from the dithering old witch. She inserted it deftly into the lock, turned it, wrenched open the door, and burst forth so fiercely that Semele barely had time to hop aside. ‘Oh, oh, now – the sprite, dear Sphinx! Send him to me. My thighs burn.’ The Sphinx crowed like a cockerel and lashed her tail. ‘No sprite for you, you old hag! You did not free me from that stinking cage. I freed myself.’ ‘You lying foul deformed demonic phantom of a former age! Then go to the great door and frighten the plebeians festering there.’ ‘I’m for egg-laying!’ said the monster, departing with a scatter of feathers and a shriek of triumph. ‘Frighten them yourself. You have but to show your behind or your face.’ ‘Aaaargh!’ shrieked Semele, jumping up and down without allowing her flat feet to leave the ground. She turned to the slave still cowering in the cage. ‘You! I’ll free you! Down on your knees!’ She advanced towards the man, bow-legged, on pleasure bent. 5 (#ub5ca876c-40bb-56b3-b791-4a6c4985cb93) So it fell out that when Oedipus’ party returned, weary and disillusioned, from Paralia Avidos and the sombre shrine of Apollo, a crowd of disgruntled citizens was waiting outside the palace. The citizens hailed Oedipus’ arrival with shouts of acclaim which varied in degree from hope to despair to cynicism. He gave them a gesture of greeting, but did not stop to speak. Jocasta was fatigued by the journey and tired of her bickering children. Going to her chamber, she divested herself of her clothes and ordered two handmaidens to bathe her. She sank voluptuously into her warm water pool. The faithful old Hezikiee disappeared to shake the dust from her voluminous skirts elsewhere. Jocasta allowed Oedipus to enter her apartment, knowing the effect her generous nudity usually had on him. On this occasion, however, he remained unmoved. ‘I am determined to address that unhappy throng outside,’ he said. ‘It is my duty. I should like it if you accompanied me.’ ‘What will you say? You have addressed them before. What can you say that is new? That in a vision you saw Thalia, not Apollo, and that Thalia told you to solve the riddle of your own personality? That would not hold great appeal for your starving subjects, would it? I’d say it would inflame them the more …’ ‘Don’t mock me, my queen. Our dismal failure at the shrine has decided me. I will take matters into my own hands. I will lay a curse on the murderer of Laius. Those who go in search of the murderer shall be paid.’ ‘No, my love!’ She gave a cry and, climbing from the pool, clung to him with her dripping body. ‘Never do that! Never! There have been enough curses. Do not bring more bloodshed, I pray you. Rest here happily with me. The malcontents will go away soon enough.’ Oedipus clutched her sturdy naked form, seeming to be swayed by her pleas. ‘It can do no harm, dearest. Let us resolve this mysterious blight, once and for all.’ ‘No! The drought will break in time, as it must. Remain quiet and be happy with me.’ He looked intensely into her eyes. ‘Happy? Have I ever known what that empty word means?’ Jocasta kissed his cheek. ‘Oh, a curse can do a magnitude of harm, my Oedipus. More than you know. Do not act, I beg of you. Let inaction be the saviour of the day! Please, please. Stay with me, make love to me …’ He struggled to free himself from her embrace. Such was her tenacity that he could not escape. ‘By Hercules, woman, what possesses you? Let me go!’ Her plump body seemed to surround him, her plump arms held him tight. Her dark hair streamed about him, while in its dark tent her eyes gleamed. She pressed her open mouth to his lips. She forgot her pledge to be chaste. ‘We possess each other. Do you wish to lose that gift? Stay here. Come dusk, the throng will disperse quietly enough. Make them no rash promises. Drink wine with me, ravish me, do nothing outside these four walls.’ Reluctantly, he allowed himself to be persuaded by her eloquence. Lying against her damp and steaming body, he raised her right arm and buried his face in the fur of her armpit. As he penetrated her, she said in a sigh, ‘I have no reality but through you …’ So for a while longer all was well with them. Later it would be seen that these were the good times. It was next morning that Semele, prowling the palace before dawn with one of her pet griffins, found that the Sphinx had disappeared. She crept into the den where her two grandsons, Eteocles and Polynices, lay clasped together, sleeping in each other’s arms. ‘Wake up, boys. That winged monster has gone. The omen is bad. Your papa will go mad when he finds out. You must search in town and round about to bring it back.’ ‘For Apollo’s sake, Great-Grandmother!’ Eteocles protested. ‘It’s still dark!’ ‘You old witch, you see in the dark, but you must have missed the Sphinx,’ said Polynices. ‘Go back to sleep and let us do the same.’ ‘Lazy wretches. You’ve been playing with each other again. I can smell it. Get up and find the Sphinx.’ The boys rose, slipped into their robes, and set out for the street. Once there, they made for the tiropita stall, and passed a pleasant hour, eating, sipping lemon cordial, and exchanging jests with some country lads. When they returned to the palace, it was to find the place in an uproar, with Oedipus shouting that the Sphinx must be found. ‘It is ordered that I keep the beast!’ he roared. ‘Without her I die.’ Jocasta stood with her back against a pillar, watching. She was accustomed by now to witnessing this wilder side of Oedipus’ character, which was liable to burst forth in time of trouble: accustomed to it, certainly, but still disconcerted by it. She turned away from his shouting. Slaves scuttled here and there, some daring to snigger among themselves. Semele squatted in a corner of the inner court to watch the excitement. Irritated further by her grin, Oedipus went and glared down at her. ‘I suppose you know where the magic beast is hiding.’ The old woman raised her left arm and scratched her armpit with sharp nails. ‘She’s laying, isn’t she? So of course she has turned invisible to protect herself. I wish I had the art! Why get so worked up, sonny?’ ‘I know the creature’s most likely to be invisible. We’re looking for swarms of flies. Where they cluster, there she’ll be – if they’re not on you!’ The palace had many rooms. Some had been huts, built long ago, but slowly incorporated without great thought into the main building. Jocasta investigated some of the more remote rooms without enthusiasm. Coming on one at the far end of a corridor, she pushed open its bronze door and went in, holding an oil lamp above her head. The door slammed shut behind Jocasta. A brilliant light filled the room, almost blinding her. Through a mist she glimpsed a sombre old man, still as a statue. In confusion and apprehension, she regarded his high forehead, his white hair and beard; certainly he did not appear threatening. Wrapped in an unfashionable toga-type robe, he stood before her, holding a scroll. His blue eyes, coddled between heavy eyebrows above and fleshy bags beneath, were fixed steadily on the queen. ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’ she asked, not without a tremor in her voice. Only then did he move, to give an appearance of life. ‘This verb “to do”, how brief it is, yet what a freight it bears …’ She perceived his response as unnecessarily complex. In what she thought as a deep meditative voice, the ancient claimed that he might ask her the identical question. He asked what indeed was he doing in this place. Could he be said to be doing anything? And where was here? He was a victim of displacement. ‘But … why, I believe – no, it can’t be … Yes, you’re the queen who comes to a bad end. Jocasta, isn’t it?’ Was he speaking in her voice? She fumbled to find a latch on the door. There was no latch. ‘What do you mean, “comes to a bad end”? I have only to call a guard and you will come to a bad end yourself.’ ‘I think not, madam. Since we are meeting, we have made this encounter in another probability sphere, out of time. Out of time, no one can hear your call. Besides, why call? I intend you no harm. It may be that you intend me harm.’ Jocasta decided to put the matter to the test. She called loudly. No answer. She beat on the door with her fists and called. No answer. She tried to open the door. It would not budge. ‘What trick is this?’ she asked. ‘Or am I having a siezure?’ The old man gave her a piercing look. She seemed to hear him say, ‘No one will come. Presumably if we are, as I suppose, in a separate probability sphere, then we are entirely alone, encased, as it were, in our own private abstract universe. If you stepped through that door you might well encounter – nothingness … We are at once here and not here, like a cat sealed in a box. But you need not be frightened. It might indeed be fruitful for you to regard our conversation as a monologue within yourself.’ A monologue? She could not understand the implications of that suggestion. ‘You don’t frighten me,’ she said, pressing a finger to her lower lip to stop it trembling. ‘What do you want, anyway?’ The elder explained that he had no wants, at least as far as this present probability sphere was concerned. ‘Could you stop saying “probability sphere”? It makes my tummy rumble.’ Ignoring this remark, the elder said that their meeting was of academic interest only. Indeed, he went on to say, in a half-humorous manner, it might well substantiate a claim made by his son that he was non compos mentis … Jocasta, he claimed, was not a real person, but rather a character in a play he had written. To believe one had substance was subjectively almost the same as actually having substance. She lived a brief life on stage, but was otherwise a fiction. ‘What you are saying is meaningless to me.’ ‘Nevertheless, I think you understand what it means to live a lie. Living a fiction is much the same.’ This statement, he said, was not at all insulting, for fiction represented another kind of life, a rich imaginative metaphorical life in which mankind itself invented the circumstances; it was therefore an improvement on real life, where people had to endure or do battle with the circumstances in which they found themselves. He said, in his casual rather grumbling way, that she must labour under no illusion about her unimportance in the plot. ‘What plot? What plot are you talking about?’ she enquired angrily. ‘Who are you anyway?’ The elder scrutinised her with his sharp blue eyes before replying with some formality. ‘I am called Sophocles of Athens. I am – or I was – or I shall be – famous. I enjoy the privilege of being the author of a drama in which you are for the most part contained. I must tell you – without, I hope, undue immodesty – that my play has met with considerable success. So much so that it is still performed somewhere or other, in countries of which I have never heard, over two thousand years after my demise.’ ‘You’re dead, are you?’ she said, with contempt. ‘That explains a lot. I am talking to a ghost and therefore am plainly having a hallucination. A fit of some kind.’ ‘Ah, a monologue?’ ‘You’re not like Aristarchus. Aristarchus was alive. He was real. This – this apparition, on the other hand, is all my strange old grandmother’s doing. She was born in another age. She must have conjured you up.’ But in her mind, she asked herself, forlornly, Is this my life? Am I living? I’m talking with the dead: then I must also be dead … So is death any worse than the terrors life inflicts? Neither death nor life makes much sense, when you look into the matter. Both are equally illogical. Is this not something of which that venerable Aristarchus told me – that my path through life might already be written? Was that what he said? I can’t think. I am about to be sick. This old man is not here. I am not here … Semele – she is a witch. ‘I suppose Semele’s in your play too?’ He answered with quiet dignity that Semele’s name did not feature in his play. He thanked her, adding that his play was not about the Bronze Age. ‘What age? What is this drama of yours about, then? Is Antigone in it? The Sphinx? What about Oedipus? Is he in it?’ ‘Oh, he’s in it all right. In fact, the name of my play is Oedipus Rex, more properly Oedipus Tyrannus. It’s a tragedy. Its theme is that of predestination. No matter how humans struggle, it is destiny which shapes our endings.’ ‘Oh, so it’s useless to struggle? We might as well be vegetables – onions, for instance. What a silly idea!’ ‘It is also our destiny to struggle. Onions do not struggle. It is for that reason I would not consider writing a play with a tomato, however purple, however rich, as central character. My play, Oedipus Tyrannus, makes it all clear. Perhaps you would care to read it?’ He proffered the scroll he was carrying. She backed away from it. How can I read about myself? I must be demented to believe I am having this conversation … ‘I don’t want to read your play. Why is it called Oedipus Rex? Between these four walls, Jocasta Regina would have been a better title, wouldn’t it?’ She giggled at the nonsense she was prepared to talk, speaking to an empty room, still standing, if rocking slightly, and plainly out of her mind. Sophocles told Jocasta, with a note of apology in his voice, that she had only a small role in his play. ‘In fact, I am prepared to admit that in your case the characterisation is rather scanty. Poor, to be frank. But a fuller characterisation would have revealed a rather weak hinge in the carefully constructed plot.’ The literary criticism confused her; she was unused to such discourse. She asked Sophocles what he meant by a weak hinge. By way of answer, Sophocles offered her the instance of a play in which two people were marrying. He posited that they were brother and sister and, for purposes of the plot, had been apart for some years, so that it was legitimate to suppose they might not recognise each other when they met again; hence the close relationship between them remained concealed. The he involved marries the she, his sister, in all innocence, unaware that he is committing the forbidden sin of incest … The blue eyes contemplated Jocasta narrowly as he posed the rhetorical question with which, he said, he was confronted at this stage. Was the playwright to characterise the sister as similarly innocent? But that was to make too much of coincidence, bordering almost on farce. (In other words, he said, observing Jocasta’s confusion, if the double-coincidence arrangement was revealed, the audience might laugh. Laughter was fatal to a tragedy.) The playwright was therefore left with two alternatives. He could characterise the woman as a wanton, who secretly recognised her lover as her brother— ‘Stop it! I know nothing about writing plays. I don’t want to listen!’ Jocasta heard her own voice shrill in the confined space. Sophocles continued, unperturbed by the outburst. He regarded this alternative as the more interesting of the two. However, the play was to be centrally about the male, not the female. Therefore, he would adopt the second alternative, which was to give the female in the case as small a role in the plot as possible – even if she provided the hinge of it. Her cheeks were flaming. She hid her face in her hands, to babble that she had no interest in this hypothetical play. Finally, controlling herself, she asked, ‘What is this plot you keep talking about? Is someone plotting against me?’ Sophocles went into a long explanation of the way in which a dramatist worked. In his play it was the circumstances which were against the characters. ‘Circumstance makes character,’ he said. That was his idea of drama: men caught in the net of destiny … His genius in dramatising this idea was to have the central character’s fate revealed step by step, until he was brought low. Sophocles cackled to recall how low … The judgement, he said, was not always to the just. However noble the characters, circumstances conspired to bring them down. For instance, he had written another play in which Jocasta’s daughter, Antigone, had a good meaty role, fighting stubborn circumstance. Her brother Polynices— Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/brian-aldiss/jocasta-wife-and-mother/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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