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Jan/Feb 2001 Miscellaneous

The Lost Dialogues--Pherecydes

by Michael Katz


SOCRATES: Good morning, Pherecydes.

PHERECYDES: Good morning, Socrates.

SOCRATES: May I sit down here?

PHERECYDES: Of course, of course the sun is warm and the day is young. Tell me, what news have you heard, my friend.

SOCRATES: There's no news since yesterday, old man.

PHERECYDES: All right, then tell me this, what new philosophical devilment have you been up to?

SOCRATES: I'm still worn out from yesterday's long discussion with Antisthenes. I'm too tired to talk. I'd rather hear a story from you.

PHERECYDES: From me? All I know are the old myths, the children's tales. You need something new and fresh to keep your mind keen, Socrates. Otherwise you'll become an old man like me, and you'll find yourself constantly musing and dozing and nodding off in the sun.

SOCRATES: I'm already an old man, Pherecydes.

PHERECYDES: Old? You think that seventy years is old? You're still a child. When you reach eighty, then you'll be old.

SOCRATES: I doubt that I'll live to see eighty years.

PHERECYDES: Then you'll never grow old, Socrates.

SOCRATES: That's fine with me, Pherecydes ... So, old man, tell me a story.

PHERECYDES: As I've said, I don't know any recent stories. However, before you came I was remembering Artemis's sad winter feast. You see, just a bit earlier a large man some ruffian walked by here with an axe, and it put me in mind of a story I'd heard from old Diomedes.

SOCRATES: Diomedes, the son of Tydeus, the bravest Achaian hero in the Trojan War?

PHERECYDES: A warrior? Our Diomedes? Certainly not! Don't you remember him, Socrates? He was short and fat. He rolled when he walked, and he wheezed he could hardly finish a sentence without your having to take a deep breath for him. Usually he sat every day in the main marketplace on Leros. And remember how he tapped one of his feet constantly? I think he always wore out his right sandal before his left.

Now can you picture him?

SOCRATES: I'm afraid I've never been to Leros, Pherecydes.

PHERECYDES: Never? Ah, Socrates you know I spent my whole childhood on Leros.

SOCRATES: Yes I know.

PHERECYDES: It's a shame that you've never seen Leros, my young friend. It's a delightful island -- it's like a little copy of the island of Rhodes; fewer than a thousand people live there. The island has rolling hills and gentle valleys, valleys that produce delicious fruits and vegetables figs and pomegranates and oranges and turnips. Carob trees grow on the hillsides. And wine? Lerosian vines grow the sweetest of grapes in all of Greece. It's a heavenly land. And everyone is a sailor. The winds come out of the West for nine months of the year. They blow away the summer heat, and they also make it only an afternoon's easy sail to the Carian coast. What a fine place for a little boy to grow up.

SOCRATES: And you knew Diomedes there on Leros?

PHERECYDES: I couldn't help knowing him: everyone knew Diomedes. He was a fixture in the marketplace; he was there every afternoon. He never married. At one time he had managed his father's vineyards, but when I knew him, he lived with a friend in town. He wore the same old grey tunic every day, warm weather or cool, and he spoke quietly and he kept his eyes closed when he was talking to you.

Even now I can clearly hear old Diomedes recounting the sad story of Artemis's Feast. Diomedes was quite fond of Artemis -- as were we all, for she was originally from Leros. Artermis is the radiant goddess of all the woodland creatures, even the backwoods churls and the ruffians and the lumbering forest louts. Each year, Artemis gave a winter feast on Leros. Artemis comes to the island less often nowadays in fact I've never met her myself -- nonetheless, we keep the tradition without her. Every winter we hold a large indoor meal on the black night of the winter new moon. Greenery is hung on the walls and over the doorways. There's singing and bonfires, and at the end we spill a cup of wine and we leave in silence.

Some people think that Artemis is a goddess of the moon, but Artemis has little to do with the moon. She's the goddess of the cedar groves. She's the goddess of the woods and the goddess of hunting, and this brings me to an important point: no weapons are allowed inside the hall at Artemis's feast. No weapons at all not bows or spears or knives or axes. And this was the problem, this was how it all began. It started with a crabstick aitchbone axe.

SOCRATES: What is a "crabstick aitchbone axe"?

PHERECYDES: Think, Socrates! A crabstick is a cudgel. An aitchbone is a hipbone. What else could it be but an axe with a blade from an enormous hip?

Undoubtedly you've never seen a hipbone large enough and strong enough for an axe. However, long ago huge beasts hairy gorillas three times taller than a man roamed the Carian coasts herding hairy elephants through the wildlands across the Aegean. Today, their skeletons stick out of the dirt along the desolate mountainsides.

In any case, the gigantic wildman, the lumbering churlish clod of a tree trunk, the rude crude ruffian who stumped into the feast of Artemis that night carried a crabstick aitchbone axe with a blade made from the hipbone of an enormous ancient monkey.

You look surprised, Socrates, and so were the Lerosians. No one could bring even a hunting knife into the hall. But an axe? This was unheard of.

Let me describe the setting:

The women had baked and cooked for days. Tables were piled with breads sourbread, chickory bread, figcakes, and carob breads. There were meats and wine and mead. Two deep fireplaces had roaring, crackling blazes, with boys pushing in new logs as soon as the old ones were consumed. Greenery had been woven into hanging wreaths. Dishes of pungent ground spices were set in the corners of the room. Laughing and shouting men roamed about or sat telling stories and drinking.

And then well after dark, when most of the children had curled up on rugs along the edges of the walls and when the women had collected near one of the fireplaces and when the blackest of winter nights lay outside the windows, in through the main portal hunkered a giant rough barbarian. He was bearded and thick-legged. His hairy arms were dirty, his hat was a torn kerchief. From his belt hung the leg of a game bird, and over his shoulder he carried a thick crooked crabstick aitchbone axe. There was a hush in the room...

SOCRATES: ... yes?

PHERECYDES: I said: "There was a hush in the room."

SOCRATES: And then you stopped talking.

PHERECYDES: I was demonstrating the hush.

SOCRATES: I see.

PHERECYDES: I doubt if you really see, Socrates. You can hardly imagine the effect. Diomedes's father, who was there and who saw it for himself, could barely describe it adequately.

Do you know why there was a hush? Think a moment ... Leros is a small island, and, as my mother used to say: "Pherecydes, my golden child, everyone knows everyone here on Leros." Obviously there was a hush, Socrates, because a stranger had walked in a vast foreigner, a rude crude nightmare, a threatening formidable giant. And even more disturbing was his axe.

No one could bring violence to the Feast. Artemis had forbidden it. Yet into the hall lumbered a gigantic creature with an axe, a frightening weapon from the hinterlands. A thick hush choked the room. Finally, Cratinus spoke --

SOCRATES: Cratinus? Cratinus the poet, the political satirist?

PHERECYDES: A poet? Cratinus was no poet at least our Cratinus was no poet. Our Cratinus was a brave young islander and a bold sailor. He had travelled widely, in fact, he often acted as Leros's ambassador. Cratinus wrestled and ran and threw the javelin, and he always stood strong and proud. But he was not a speaker and he was definitely not a poet. Instead he was a golden Olympian athlete, and had there been a war in which he could win fame and glory and far renown, then there is no doubt that Cratinus would have made Leros proud. He was our blue-eyed, fair-haired young hero he was a young man like a god. So when the gigantic churl stumped into the festal hall and when all the Lerosians fell silent they naturally looked to Cratinus.

Cratinus felt a chill and was silent himself, but soon he found courage and he said: "Good friend, you're obviously a stranger and you don't know the custom here. Tonight we leave our weapons outside."

The giant made no answer, and the men looked at their feet or at the fire and the women shivered.

Cratinus felt uncomfortable and weak; he looked away a moment. Then he said: "Stranger, do you not speak Greek? Set your axe outside the door."

Only silence was the reply ...

SOCRATES: ... and?

PHERECYDES: And it was silent.

SOCRATES: I see.

PHERECYDES: Oh? If you really saw, then you'd see that Cratinus was thinking. And what was he thinking about? He was thinking of Aesop.

SOCRATES: He was?

PHERECYDES: Of course he was! Didn't Aesop tell this tale:

After Zeus had fashioned men, he instructed Hermes to put intelligence into them. Hermes made a special jug for measuring the intelligence. Then he carefully poured an equal quantity of intelligence into each man. The little men were filled to the brim with thoughtfulness. Unfortunately the large men were not quite full and the poor giants were left with empty spaces in their heads.

Diomedes's father was lying on a rug at the edge of the room; he had fallen asleep but he was awakened by the silence. In this silence Cratinus remembered Aesop's story and he thought to himself: "This confrontation is becoming embarrassing. If I'm to believe Aesop, this giant can't be very smart. Let's see if I can salvage the situation."

Cratinus stood up and said: "My good man, you're obviously attached to that axe of yours -- and a fine and unusual axe it is. Perhaps you fear for its safety outside the door with no one to guard it. Let me put your mind at ease. We're all honorable men here. No one will touch it. I give you my word."

The giant stared in silence.

The Lerosians looked to tall sinewy Cratinus, and Cratinus said: "Stranger, if you'll just hand me the axe, I myself will set it outside."

Cratinus raised an eyebrow and reached out his hand. Everyone watched. No one moved.

No one moved -- no one, that is, except the giant looming over young Cratinus. The giant shifted his weight and then he spoke. He spoke in a thick uncultured accent. His voice was a thick-tongued rumble and he talked as if there was a piece of meat in his mouth (which there very well may have been), but he spoke Greek and he said: "Only the bravest men touch this axe."

The huge man's voice was rough and low. Cratinus hesitated. Suddenly some Muse whispered in his ear with a sharp cold inpiration. A strange black god spoke in Cratinus's inner heart and Cratinus said to the giant: "Clearly, you are a brave man. Frankly, my friend, I am brave also. So let's demonstrate our bravery, here and now, so that I may take your axe and set it outside the hall.

"This is what I propose. We will each stand brave and tall and still, one first and then the other. As one of us stands, the other can strike him with a single blow of the axe. Now give me the axe, and I'll hit you first. Then you can take a rest or you can return later tonight when I'll take my stand and you can strike me with your best hit."

SOCRATES: That was a rather bold proposal, Pherecydes.

PHERECYDES: Yes it was, my friend. It was the whisper from an evil spirit, and at first it was met with silence.

Cratinus stood a moment. Then he said: "You must agree, my friend this is a pact for only the bravest of men. ... You are brave, aren't you?"

The huge churlish lout stared. Then he nodded his head.

"Good," said the lean and well-muscled Cratinus, "prove your bravery: hand me the axe"...

SOCRATES: ... yes? What happened next, Pherecydes?

PHERECYDES: Do you know, Socrates, how quiet it is very late at night when the insects have fallen asleep and you awaken and are confused and unsure where you are? It's a time when, if you step outside the house, you wonder whether anyone else is alive in the world.

That silent hour is loud compared to the silence in the festal hall while they awaited the giant's move. Diomedes's father sat up thin and scared and small and all was as silent as only silence can be. Slowly the gigantic barbarian took his axe the huge crooked crabstick aitchbone axe from off his shoulder. Evenly and lightly he handed it to Cratinus, who had to reach up in order to take it in his hands. The axe was so heavy that Cratinus almost dropped it to the floor. But our young Cratinus was a well-muscled, graceful athlete; he gritted his teeth and he managed the clumsy weapon, he felt its heft, he swung the axe from side to side, and suddenly quick as you please he slashed and he cut off the giant's curly-haired head. It rolled to the floor with its eyes opened and its mouth gaping, and the crowd in the hall gasped ...

SOCRATES: ... and then, Pherecydes?

PHERECYDES: Then, my good friend, a most remarkable thing happened.

SOCRATES: This entire story is remarkable, Pherecydes.

PHERECYDES: Of course it is Diomedes was not a man to tell trifling tales.

As I said, a remarkable thing happened. The giant, headless as he was, bent down and picked up his fallen head. He grabbed it by the dirty curly hair, he took the crabstick aitchbone axe from the stunned young hero Cratinus, and then that headless giant lumbered off, out of the hall and into the night. Slowly he stalked away, and he left only his shadow and the blank disbelieving silence in the festal hall on that cold silent Lerosian winter night.

No one knew what to say. No one knew whether to leave or to stay. Cratinus tried to smile but his lips were dry. Eventually there was weak talk, broken, fearful, whispered. The fires burned low, the women shivered, and time stopped.

Cratinus wanted to leave, to disappear, to find himself suddenly in his warm bed beside his fireplace on the other side of town. But Cratinus could not leave. Fair-haired Cratinus was a hero on Leros. Cratinus could never back away, or he could never come back.

He returned to his seat and he waited. He did not eat, he did not drink. He sat with a full wine cup at his elbow and he stared at the empty doorway. ...

Have you ever been in the house of a dead man, Socrates?

SOCRATES: Many times, old man, many times.

PHERECYDES: Do you remember how the doorway is too dark in the house of a man after he has died? Suddenly the doorway becomes thick and black and ominous. That winter night, Socrates, the doorway in the festal hall became black. It was the doorway of death, and no one dared walk through it. Instead they looked away and they stayed in the hall, quiet and weak and cold. Time stopped. Time was endless, and, after an eternity, he returned.

At first it was just a shade, then it was a shadow and then it was the giant himself, lumbering in through the doorway of the dead, walking down past the tables and straight through the piles of people who all shrank back. Slowly he stalked up to Cratinus. There was a blank and disbelieving silence. It was the same gigantic lout. It was the hulking churlish clod of a tree trunk, the rude crude ruffian with hairy arms, and his head was in place and his beard was knotted and his hat was a torn kerchief and over his shoulder he carried a thick crooked crabstick aitchbone axe.

On both sides of Cratinus, men stood aside. The giant waited. Cratinus stared. He was frozen. He could not move his eyes. His hands didn't work, his legs wouldn't hold. The giant waited, unmoving. Did hours pass? There was no night or day. No one took a breath.

Finally, our young fair-haired Cratinus stood up. As he did, he knocked over his wine cup and the red wine spilled over the tabletop and onto the floor and into the cracks between the cold dark bricks. Cratinus stood up and the giant waited. There was quiet; the world narrowed. Then the giant from the far hinterlands, from the ancient rock mountains, slowly lowered the axe from his shoulder. He grasped the haft of the thick crooked crabstick aitchbone axe. There was a tear in his eye as evenly and gently he raised the axe, he lifted it like a toy or a stick or the lightest of knives and suddenly he whipped it around and cleanly he slashed the head from fair-haired Cratinus's shoulders. And then the giant turned and he lumbered off, out of the hall and into the night. Slowly he stalked away, and he left behind only his shadow and a blank disbelieving silence. And ever since then, at the end of the Feast of Artemis, we spill a cup of wine, and the red wine rolls down over the tabletop and onto the floor and into the cracks between the cold dark bricks. Then we all go home, walking into the shadow of the silent black Lerosian winter night.

 

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