Monday, October 13, 2003

Perseus and Andromeda

Are we to understand they believed
A fish monster the size of Zeno's Delicatessen
With arms half a block long
Rose out of the sea foam once a decade
And was satisfied with the flesh of a virgin?

Was their faith in the gods so
That they didn't founder on such a rumor?
Or had they seen the deep grotto
Beneath the jutting, flat rock
And wanted some way to comprehend
The flighty workings of fate
As the blue water churned and roiled
In that looming space?
Maybe a fisherman,
Not too bright you have to conclude,
Tried to launch his boat there on a rising tide
And was caught before he knew it
In a sudden wave and sucked over,
All the while cursing the whore he'd met
Last night in the grimy village delicatessen
and regretting
The too strong wine that left him unbalanced
And vulnerable, not on his watch or prayers.
He was just there one minute and the next gone
Without a chance to clear his wits or call on
The distant gods.

The boat was the only clue, left floating and alone,
Lightened of its passenger and thereby unsinkable,
Circling between the blue-black shade and the
Sudden shafts of sunlight that almost blinded
The lookers.
A woman and a barely walking child
Out for a seaside walk found the skiff and ran
Up to the village, she carrying the babbling child, and told
The other men who brought a rope and a hooked pole.
The boat was pulled to shore and everyone talked
For the morning about the tragedy, and no one
Knew that Demetrius had just had a few too many
And toppled in. One said that he had seen the man
The night before, sodden with half-made wine and
About to spend his last few pieces of silver on a
Used woman. But she wouldn't say anything.
She answered
That she had talked but not slept with him,
Thinking of the business she would lose,
And trade wasn't good that year.
Then the boys who were sitting on the uneven bank
Saw something, there, in the water. It was Demetrius
Dead and whitened by the brutal immersion,
His eyes open and his mouth seeming to say something
As he moved back and forth in the salt-clouded water,
Suddenly cleared by the risen sun so every detail
Was visible, though blurred by depth and distance.

They fished him out with the hook, and he lay
On the yellow rock in the clear sunlight
Like a spoiled gefilte fish pulled out of its jar.
The people talked some more. Then they
Noticed the marks on his back, brought about
No doubt by his thrashings in the grotto, but in the
Light of their faith, they saw it differently. Someone
Was responsible and there was a reason. He didn't
Seem like a bad man. A woman and a good drink weren't
A sin, what was sin anyway? He had worked hard,
Not taken the spoil of another man's net,
And never gotten in an ill-mannered brawl .
But, he was awfully chewed up round the back,
Like something had been at him.
No one had seen a fish of any size in that pool for
Years. So. The gods were angry or maybe just bored
Enough to send a message,

Believe in us. We'll
Send you a reminder like random death every
Few years. If you heed it, your life will be controllable
But if you fuck with us, we'll smash at you in ways you
Will never be able to guess at.
You could be walking
Along a sunlit road with your girl on your arm and
Your gleaming sword in your trained right hand
Ready for anything, and a lightening bolt will flash
Out of the blue and kill you both. You'll be found
With your arm still around her and nothing changed
In the rosy looks of love on your faces. But you'll both
Be dead. The sword will be blackened and half melted,
And your ignorant families will assume that you insulted
Us in some strange way. They'll carry the bloating remains
Back to the burial ground and look over their shoulders
As they say the obsequies, nervous from a brief exposure
To the two who did something to arouse our wrath. Then
They'll scurry home. The priests will keep the sword
And hang it in the temple of Zeus for all to see.
We're just bored. It's easy to scare you with some
Simple trick, and better that rotting away for all eternity
In the echoing halls of empty Olympus.

Or maybe you'll be out fishing, trying to pull a meager
Living out of a played-out sea, and we'll let you fall off
Without even the chance to cry out. You'll not know what
Happened, and you'll try to figure it out from pieces of
Yesterday or last night. But there won't be enough time
And there is really no reason at all. None at all.

Then one of the old men sees a darker patch of water
In the streaming sunlight and cries out. Now everyone
Sees it. Down there the kelp fans back, and what seems
Like a huge fish with four arms and an unbelievable tail
Moves in from the sea through the only opening. Clouds
Cluster over the small town pelting sudden rain. The old
One says to throw Demetrius back in. Whatever it is down
There wants him back. So they roll the still dripping man
To the pool and pitch him down. He makes an unheard splash
And disappears. They never see him again. Some people
Do some thinking. The village priest, who was too busy
To go down to the scene himself, notes it in the tablets
And guts some birds. The gods are happy, maybe just
Well fed for a space.
That year the crops are good.
The rains come early and hard. There is enough grain
To last for seasons and the cattle are fat and sleek.
The wine vats are full of whitened froth and life continues.
Everyone has forgotten the fisherman. What was his name?

Good fortune continues a score of years
And the village grows and prospers. People pass
And the crops grow. Nothing really.

But one day
Or one season the rains stop. Like that. One day there
Is a rain and the next day there isn't. The land dries
And the wheat fields look like someone has scattered
Broken potato chips on a plate and gone home, without
Leaving a proper tip. The boys who
Saw the fisherman and the shadow beast flicker
Are now men and have lost their fear of the gods.
They have cultivated vices and struggle from day to day,
Thinking their fates are their own. Most are married,
However unfaithfully, and have children. The olive groves
Bear silent fruit, and the sea is a little better
Than they remember those days.
After a few seasons
When the grain is dwindling and the tuna have disappeared,
They begin to worry. A wife or two starts to complain,
Nights, that the children are getting thin, that the
Olive oil is cloudy and rancid, that the supply of
Trade goods has gone.
There will be no more money for bronze mirrors
Or red arsenic and perfume.
There will be less comfort and little joy.
The wails of the young and old ones will fill the night
From slack bellies and flagging faith.
A group of women
Visit the temple, burn some wheat and a sickly
Goat. The god answers, well, the priest says that's
What happens.
You have angered us, and we've been
Waiting in sterile Olympus for your supplication. We sent
You good fortune and you have forgotten us. The oil jars
Of your village are full, and the corn fields flower
Year after year in waving brown arms, soon reduced to stubble.
The people find creatures in the sea and linger in markets and
Delicatessens day after day. Why are the temples empty?
Do you not remember Demetrius the fisherman, the one
Who forgot the gods so many years ago?. We sent you
The beast as a message, "Heed our words and fill our temples!"
But now it's too late for all that. We want blood and flesh.
Go to the grotto once a decade and give us a virgin.
We will see to the details.
The village women whiten with fear
And fly to their homes, quite glad that they have children
And are not virgins. Those with girls of marriageable age
Stay indoors. There is talk and argument on the docks and
In Zeno's Delicatessen about who must go. The old one,
Ancient by now, recounts the story of Demetrius and advises
That the girl must be found soon. After all the fisherman
So many years ago was taken suddenly. They must have a
Sacrifice before the next tide.

Then, unlike us, they saw something in its depths,
Not the shallow kelp beds fanning out again
Or the blue of colder water surging in through the
Hidden openings far below sight. A fish with the head
Of a man and limbs stout enough for any oak rises
And falls a hundred feet down. It gestures to the people
Gathered at the sandy opening and breathes in the jet blue
Water through gills suspended on its head like
Kosher pickles steeped in brine, with wrinkles that
Swell out and out until the flesh seems impossibly
Ancient and withered.
The people rush back
To the village and take the first girl, Apollonia,
Who lives in the yellow house by the square and
Drag her screaming to the grotto. The beast,
Who certainly now is not just a shadow, rises and takes
Her in his briny arms with a single movement. He
Devours her in an instant, first biting off her head,
Catching the spurting blood in his pursed lips, and then
Devouring the flesh in strips that he unwinds like
An onion, eating layer by layer. He swallows the
Bones last and sinks to the bottom with a contented burp
That winnows to the surface in a myriad of bubbles.

After this the village is changed. Every ten years the
Young girls disappear and a search has to be made.
Finally the priests scour the countryside for eligible children
And they are kept in the temple, under guard, of course
For their own protection. Each decade a girl is chosen and
Taken to the grotto. The village prospers and grows.
Wheat rises in the fields until the gentle winds
Ripple the heads of grain in the yellow light of August.
Fish limber in the sea and fill the nets each season.
The fishermen, in fact, find the catch too easy. They
Grow accustomed to slow mackerel and fat tuna
Sagging in the nets and lose their skill at reading the ocean
And finding the secret ways of the deep.

Then there are no young girls for five years and the
Village elders worry that they will not be able to feed
The monster inside them. Left with nothing else
They choose the tyrant's daughter, the wizened spinster
Andromeda and keep her pure. She doesn't blanch at the
Sacrifice, thinking it noble and her duty.
But things get
Complicated. A man meets her at the temple one day
And falls uncritically in love. He swears to fend the monster
Off and save her, that they'll marry and run away.
It doesn't occur to either of them to run just now
To some foreign city where they don't speak good Greek
And open a small deli anonymously. No, they think
That he must kill the monster and do everything in the open.
No one explains why a good-looking young man falls
So hopelessly in love with a barren king's daughter,
So lacking in charm that nobody has had her yet.
So the young man visits the temple and begs for a sign.
The gods answer,
To save the girl you must kill the
Creature with you r own hand only. The beast is,
By plan, invincible, so it will be a fruitless effort
And you will die after, held in the left hand of the creature
As he devours her layer by quivering layer, lingering on
Her as a hungry man cracks and peels a soft-boiled egg
Cupping the dripping remains of the white cracked
Shell half and sucking the still living liquid in tightened lips
With a small trickle of the thick yellow yolk staining his
Slime encrusted chin.
But we'll give you a way out, a
Slim way, but one that will amuse us. Go to the temple
At the edge of the sea's curtain. Find one of the creatures
Who so long ago was turned from fragile beauty to
Perfect ugliness. They had too proud a look and disdained
To bow low enough in the temple. For this, we
Changed them to some snakelike thing from tail to
Top. Oh, the head is a graft of writhing snakes with
A fiery gaze that turns a man to stone in an instant.
Their blood is a mix of ichor and acrid wine
That eats through any substance except a diamond.
She alone can kill the sea thing with her gaze. Bring
Her head and turn in on the monster and you can defeat it.
Remember you can't look at her. Have a good journey!

Perseus takes his sword and thinks a bit,
Kisses Andromeda's dry lips and sets off
Toward the edge of the world, trusting in the future.
The sun sets beyond the first hill, and he has to stop
Within sight of the village where he makes a fitful fire
And has a dream. A statuesque goddess appears in a white
Cloud and speaks. He stirs in sleep and mutters,
"Find the shield of Argos in a far village and a sword
Of charcoaled iron beside it. With these you can kill the
Monster if you keep from looking. Have faith,
I am the goddess of reason, sprung from Zeus' forehead,
And care for your spirit above that of all men."
A few followers join
Him from day to day until he has a handful of helpers
Like a jumble of sausages in a jar of vinegar.
Perseus and his crew wake and
Walk nights. One dawn he finds the shop of Argos
And takes the arms. Argos does not like it, but perhaps
The goddess spoke to him, too, the other night. He follows
Perseus to check on the precious gear and at last
Falls in with him. They sleep that night at an inn
Where all there is to eat is day old sandwiches, and find a boat in
The morning that takes them beyond the sunset
To the island of blue stones. Argos stays on the dock
And leaves Perseus and a few others to fight the brutes.

Three men enter the dank hall, the temple of Medusa,
Finding statues of stone that once were men.
Perseus uses the shield and the
Sword. Looking never, he mirrors the head and slices
Cleanly, slaying the thing he dare not see. Even
In reflection, it sears his eyes so that he can not see
But has to be led from the island when Argos grudgingly comes.
He grumbles at the corrosion on the blade and tries
To clean the mirror, but can't get the pocks of
Blood off it. After a few days' rest Perseus’ sight returns
And he has another dream. He sees a grove far by the river
Shining like the glass on a cold-cut counter and beyond it
A white horse that rises in the air. Following it,
Perseus wanders until he finds the place and, waiting
The night, leaps on its back, taming it with soothing words.
It takes the day to master the beast, but he finally
Gets it so tame that it eats from his hand. Walking
With Argos and his men, he leads it to the city
And hides it in the suburbs.
Except for that,
The walk back is uneventful. They become tired of
Hard beds and cold food long before they return
To the village. They have been out so long no one quite
Recognizes them. Perseus pays off the few men left, but
Argos stays behind to see if he can get his weapons
And armor back or at least get decently paid for them.
Back at Zeno’s delicatessen there is talk. Gawkers
Have begun to arrive, and there are no rooms, so Perseus
And Argos have to sleep out in the courtyard on old
Sheepskins. When he tries to see Andromeda,
He is turned away without even the courtesy of an audience.
The guards are not accustomed to let anyone with
Sun burnt skin and such ragged clothes in the tyrant’s
Presence. And the stranger seems too rough and direct,
An out-dweller. Besides his eye is too clear and his manner
Too abrupt. Perseus does manage to sneak to the balcony
Late one evening and, sitting like a bag of pretzels
Just on the edge of a linoleum counter, he promises his love
And more importantly his sword arm. When she is chained
To the pillar in the grotto, he’ll come to fight the beast.
The dream has told him what to do.

The couple mope separately for the few remaining days,
Each dreaming of the other and not a little nervous
About the plan, for the gods like to tell half-truths
And watch a man deal with the whole of them.
All in all, they are not to be trusted any more than
The braying of a bull or the jangle of bird song.

The day of the sacrifice arrives clean and sudden.
Andromeda is dressed in a bright shift, and the whole
Town gathers to watch her march off. She appears
Quiet and dignified and needs no soldiers to hold her
As they did the last virgin, who screamed and clawed
The way to the grotto. No, she just walks, rather straight,
But in complete control, and nods to the passersby who
Admire her as they hear her footsteps echo
Down the chilled, white streets. She even stops
At the delicatessen and asks for a cream soda
Which she carries and swigs as she strolls down
The empty wharf while the crowd grows larger
And larger till it fills half the way. Finally, they
Reach the grotto, and everyone watches the water
Surge and shimmer in the blue cavern. Two old
Soldiers carry her down the edge where the
Townspeople have erected a pillar, looking for all the world
Like an upright ketchup bottle, and chain her
To it. Then all but the girl in her gold-trimmed dress
Scramble to the other side of the pool and
Wait. The sun reaches its height, and the grotto
Becomes clearer blue. All wind stops, the air
Slowly stagnates, and everyone can smell the
Salt and stale seaweed. The water rushes up
And down in languid circles.

Now there is a stir on the surface. White-tipped waves mount
And fall in the heat, and a dim shape appears far down,
So far that it seems no more than a speck of dill. But it
Grows larger and larger until it takes the full shape
Of the monster. The people drool in fear and anticipation.
Andromeda smiles a bit and pretends to struggle against
The bonds. She does seem a bit worried when Perseus
Doesn’t appear as the creature looms closer and closer.
But finally, those on the other side of the grotto see it,
A small, black spot against the sun that hovers and
Then swoops downward, no bigger than a mustard seed.
Light flashes from something,
And then it becomes vividly clear. A man on a winged
Horse carrying a dripping sack and a brilliant shield
Thrills down and circles until he finds the grotto.
He floats between the monster and the pale girl,
Suddenly closing his eyes while pulling out a
Hissing head of snakes and blood-stained teeth.
The monster wrenches its head and reaches upward
As if to grab a tongue sandwich proffered to him,
But when his eyes meet the head, he stiffens and shudders,
Freezes suddenly to stone, his arms outstretched
In an arc like ribs on a side of barbecued pork.
Slowly, from the middle outward, he changes color
From deep green-blue to yellow and becomes part
Of the rock.
As for the lovers, Perseus slants down
To Andromeda and catches her in his arms with a
Crushing embrace. He takes her, pushes her on
The horse, and streams for the delicatessen. There the two
Alight and stand in a deep, lingering kiss. The townspeople
Swarm to the street front, cheering, and sing praises to
The spectacle they have witnessed. Who would have
Believed it unless he saw it, a brilliant figure out of the sun
On a winged horse so incredibly swift?. They want to
Dedicate a temple to him, Perseus, but he refuses.
He rants and accuses them of cowardice, asking why
They put up with the creature for so many years,
Doing nothing, fearful of their own shadows.
They are big at talk in the delicatessen but don’t ask them
To stand up for anything. The tyrant arrives and
Grudgingly stands for the marriage of the two.
He orders cold cuts and soft drinks for all, fearful
Of the mood of the crowd if they get sotted on cheap wine
Or a few cold beers.
By this time the couple are so disgusted that they
Start out, this time on land, and say to hell
With them all. They set off down the path
Hand in hand and disappear over the hill, the horse
Following tamely.
At the end,
Perseus is heard to say the gods be damned,
He’ll do what he pleases. It is, after all, to Athena,
Not the other band of bloodthirsty fools that he owes his victory.

We hear all and see all. The least
We expect is a burned goat and a few humble words.
Heroic as the couple is, and we do admire their
Victory, there are limits.
Besides, they have publicly flouted us. What will
People say at the delicatessen?

“The gods? Oh, that lot is an outdated child’s tale.
Just like the Hebrew writing on that carton of
Matzo balls. Children believe such rumors. As for us,
Any man is enough to do anything. Just look at
Perseus. He found what he needed by himself. Didn’t
Need those fools on Olympus for that, did he?
Everything he did, fantastic as it was,
We could have done ourselves with a little pluck.
How much do the priests of Zeus want this year
As tribute? Too much for me!”

This won’t go! Olympus is too tepid without
Some manipulated excitement. We need fear to feed us like
A chili-dog needs extra onions.
An example must be made.

Now the couple is beyond the hill, but still
Within the town limits on a dusty patch of road
Where there is a slight depression where the sun
Beats hotter without the sea-wind to mellow it.
Perseus, happy at his new bride, turns and holds his
Sword up to the sky, not sure whether he wants to
Strike at heaven or salute his good fortune.
Suddenly, the sky clouds, and there
Are some who swear they saw the outline of a face
In the pressing vapor, like the figure set in relief
On a bottle of Ajax root beer. The skin tingles as the
Force builds and, there, over the hill from where
The crowd is still milling, there is a yellow flash
And a clap of thunder.
They find the couple still rosy cheeked
And smiling, hand in hand. The temple was full for
That nightly sacrifice and the collection plates full.

It’s said if you visit the village, an old man
Will take you to the grotto just out of town
And tell you a story. There he points out
A part of the wall that looks like a sea monster,
Huge with outstretched arms threatening
To engulf you and a surprised look on its face,
Though you have to stretch to see it, and the
Yellow-brown rock that makes up its trunk and ribs
Is crumbling and falling slowly away like
A loaf of rye bread cut with a dull knife
Will shed bits of dough and caraway seeds
From the middle, though the crust is whole.

Copyright 2003 by David King.
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry 360 with permission of the author.

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