On a stone bunk at the rear of the cave lies the massive, ailing sow. The lamps in the chamber barely lift her from the darkness. Sprawled on her side, she is dressed in a scarlet mantle and an indigo bonnet with a trim of seed pearls. From beneath this regalia, her hooves and snout protrude, the first gilt in silver—and almost dainty—the latter a bulbous, glistening slab as tender as the thigh of an infant.
She’s called many names—Her Eminence, Sweetie, Madame Satan, Old Ma—but to me, who has tended her since I could carry a bucket, she is simply Cora.
My name is Eubolos and the sow is my inheritance after a fashion. My ward, my anchor, my cage, my subsistence. As she was for my father, whose name I carry and whose father was called Eubolos, too.
Outside, the sounds of rain and a tambourine mingle with the shouts of vendors hawking sweets, meats, libations and jewelry to those who have travelled—as they’ve done for so long—to this shallow cave overlooking the sea.
Smells of dung and incense welcome those who wait their turn to approach Gadara’s only attraction. Many come to seek favor, others to vilify, but all to see evidence of the spirit that haunts her. Some expect to see violent fits or exhalations of flame. Will she levitate? Conjure? Speak in foreign tongues?
These days, one is lucky to see her eyes open. The week before last, someone claimed to have glimpsed in those small, black orbs a diluted version of the fierce blue fire that purportedly lit them in the years when she was newly possessed. It’s not in my interest to refute these claims, but many full moons have eyed the earth since Cora was taken with indecorous tremors or made any sounds that might be taken for speech.
My father said that in her younger days she could hurl stones with a sweep of her eyes; that she had to be put in iron manacles to keep doors on their hinges and babies from harm; that those hairy lips were a fount of blasphemies. He made no such claims to me, however, but only to the sow’s many visitors. When he was drunk, these tales grew strange and violent, holding echoes from a time long past, as if conveyed by an unbroken line of our Eubolos ancestors.
Cora’s legend doesn’t need such embellishments. All kinds of disasters have been attributed to her, as have healings, visions and spontaneous emissions of sperm. The doubters among us reduce her abilities to such ‘tricks’ as extinguishing lamps and moving small objects short distances.
Even these trifles her failing body can no longer support. Or has the demon also been drained of strength and inspiration, being tethered so long to Old Ma?
For me, this is all speculation. The alleged demon, maybe hating the use I have made of it, has denied me any glimpse of its powers. And though I’m almost convinced that Her Eminence is nothing but a remarkably long-lived hog, as her health declines, my foreboding grows in inverse proportion.
Lately, there has been an upsurge of visitors wanting only to know that she lives. They bring pieces of glass or polished metal to hold to her nostrils for proof that life remains. Once confirmed, they clutch the shards closely—as if her breath has made an indelible print—and scuttle out, afraid to be present should she die on the spot.
What will happen then is a matter of conjecture. Will the spirit die with her as the locals believe it was supposed to have done in the sea long ago? Will the times of plenitude return to Gadara if the demon goes elsewhere? Will the soil resume its resistance to blight and the numbers of fish in the sea be restored?
Most stories related to eras of prosperity abound with exaggerations and lies. Comparing all accounts of which I’m aware and reconciling, where possible, the largest contradictions, not much remains consistent.
* * *
Years ago, a wandering magician from a city called Nazareth came to Gadara with a group of his followers. He was told of a man (a mere youth some have said) possessed of spirits known to frequent the region on planting and harvest moons. They caused him to roam the countryside in a state of perpetual distraction. By day, he hid in the sacred groves, living on offerings brought to the altars. He was also seen dancing on the cliffs by the sea—whirling, leaping, clapping, howling and cutting himself with stones. At night, he withdrew to the nearest cemetery to recover from this frenzied behavior.
The magician (called Jeshua in some tellings) expressed his desire to meet the “demoniac,” but a search of the groves proved unfruitful, the youth having hidden himself in the swine pens next to the cemetery. The owner of the swine, alarmed by a ruckus of grunts and screeches, sent word to the constable, whose arrival was followed by the Nazarene and his disciples. In some accounts, the magician freed the youth of the spirits by forcibly casting them into the pigs; others claim that the demons chose their subsequent hosts.
But each of the various accounts concurs that all in the herd (two hundred or two thousand) burst the gates of their pen and raced to the cliffs overlooking the sea, where they plunged to the waters below and drowned. I have yet to hear any version suggest that one of them survived.
* * *
Outside, the thunder and rain persist. If only it were a vitalizing rain, prodding the earth toward fruition. Instead it is cold, its effect merely scouring. Some say that Heaven has infused it with poison, and considering the blackened ribs of the land, I am inclined agree.
Her Eminence, meanwhile, consumed by the rigors of age, is oblivious to weather, crop yield, tambourines and Heaven. She even seems unaware of those who approach her—some very boldly, calling out requests or curses, though no one dares to touch her.
Among the stream of suppliants, one man appears at least twice a week. He is always hooded, his manner discrete. I admit it was the glint of jewels on his fingers that first brought him to my notice. Since then, I’ve taken pains to greet him, and he always leaves a gold coin as offering, which keeps our Sweetie in a pampered state and provides me a modest living.
On a day of few visitors, unlike today, the man asked that I recount for him the story of the sow, as though he’d never heard it before or would take special comfort in having it repeated.
So as not to discourage his generous gifts, I happily related the conventional tale, adding a bit of extemporary seasoning to keep the story fresh. I changed the sex of the Nazarene and his coterie, describing instead a white-robed enchantress with the voice of a Siren, by which she guided the spirits into the pigs and drove them to their watery end.
He met my efforts with a disgruntled sigh and a look of such sadness that I immediately offered a more elaborate story. It was one that my father had told many times, though I heard in the telling widely differing elements.
* * *
A boy named Eubolos—so the tale began—was born and raised in The Dragon brothel in the seaport city of Tyre. At ten years of age, he was sold as a slave to the head of a circus troupe. He was put in the service of the man’s daughter, a girl named Cora, who was mute from birth but hauntingly beautiful—her hair a flaming silken stream, her skin flawless, her eyes the color of the clearest sky in the hour before sunset.
The girl’s sole function in the traveling circus was to sell wreaths of flowers to the audience. Accompanied by a gargantuan eunuch, who also served as the troupe’s strongman, she would pass through the crowd with her wares and a smile part sunshine, part ice. The boy spent many hours weaving the wreaths and garlands she sold on circus days.
Word of Cora’s startling beauty preceded the troupe wherever it went, swelling the crowds and coffers of the enterprise. In fact, the circus was credited with bringing prosperity to every town on its route. Locals claimed that fields grew greener, vines more prolific, herds more resistant to plague. The circus master frowned on speculations like this, afraid that a turn in these fortunes would sour their welcome. Yet, as the seasons passed, he was confident enough to increase the size of the troupe. New acts included a second contortionist, an albino ostrich, a sand muralist and a pair of snake handlers, the last of which simply appeared in the convoy with their cart of provisions and two bulky reed baskets containing their livelihood.
These men were a source of fascination for many, not only because of their risky profession but for being twin brothers with long braided beards and tattoos from chin to ankle. Their baskets, the shape and color of pomegranates, invited further intrigue.
One night the boy crept from his mistress’s tent, leaping over the eunuch who slept at the door, and made his way to the brothers’ cart. He lifted the tarp that covered the baskets and put his ear to the reeds. He heard the vipers and cobras shifting softly. He imagined their muzzles pressed to his ear with only the layer of reeds intervening, and trembled at the thought that their fangs were so near.
He assumed that the brothers slept under their wagon like others who didn’t have tents. In fact, there were skins and blankets stretched on the ground but no one lying on them. The same held true on subsequent nights. Forced to keep this mystery to himself, the boy assumed that they bedded with the camp’s several prostitutes or managed to afford the expense of an inn.
Though the twins invoked curiosity for some, they brought alarm to the boy’s mistress. Their many efforts to speak with Cora were met with averted eyes and shudders. Though mute, she could voice her distress with squeaks and groans when sufficiently provoked. Her beauty was a prism of shifting passions, making her joy or displeasure equally enchanting, tweaking her color, darkening her eyes, informing even the strands of her hair with her fiery emotions.
Cora’s aversion grew so acute that she eventually refused to leave her tent. Not even her father’s pleas would budge her. Distribution of wreaths was then carried out by the actor who tended the ostrich. Despite seclusion, the fame of her beauty continued to draw big crowds. From her tent, it was said, shone a mystical light that inspired the abundance so apparent in the fields and vineyards all around.
It came to pass on the summer solstice that the caravan, moving toward the next town on the highway, spent the night in a wayside bordered with yew trees and overlooking the sea. After feeding the ox team—another task assigned to the boy—he sought out the cart of the snake handlers. It stood at the far edge of the camp, tucked between the master’s carriage and the wagon that served as the troupe’s stage and storehouse.
Beneath the cart, the hides and blankets lay empty as always. He removed the tarp from the baskets and pressed his lips to the closest, for he had found that the warmth of his breath was the gentlest way to rouse the occupants.
Though the boy had seen the brothers’ act many times, he had yet to tire of it. They cavorted with their slithery wards in a teasing, nuzzling, fondling performance that seemed more seduction than sport. Occasionally, they invited bites from a large black cobra, which put the victim into a death-like trance—or so he pretended—and terrified the audience until the ensuing recovery took place.
The boy found his clandestine visits compelling enough to risk the beating that would certainly happen if his absence from the tent were discovered. It might have been the illusion of independence they held for a lad who by then was twelve years old. Or maybe a forgotten childhood incident had instilled a fascination for snakes.
Feeling no movement through the sides of the basket, he lightly tapped on the lid. No response came. He moved to the second, which he gave a firm shake. The container felt empty. He cautiously lifted the lids of both baskets to confirm his suspicion.
He was immediately startled by a loud hiss behind him. Turning, he faced what looked like a giant cobra, its inflated head swinging in the moonlight, but the monster veering back as if to strike was really the head and neck of the ostrich, which immediately plumped its wing feathers and tore off in a zigzag path through the camp.
If these events weren’t disturbing enough, when Eubolos returned to the tent, he found the eunuch sprawled in the doorway, his eyes rolled back, his tongue like a folded fish in his mouth. The boy called to his mistress, but no answer came. He ran to the tent of harpist who always kept a lamp burning. By its light, they saw that Cora’s pallet lay empty, her bedclothes strewn over the floor.
Soon after, the camp was in uproar. The master wailed, striking any who tried to console him and commanding that his precious child be found. A roll call by torchlight produced all in the troupe except the snake handlers. At dawn, a search party set out to the countryside while Cora’s father rode to the nearest settlement to alert authorities. Those that stayed kept watch on the convoy.
Days passed, burdened not only by grief and suspense but by rain so heavy that hillsides collapsed and valleys flooded. When it finally stopped, a terrible stench took the air. Travelers passing up the highway spoke of a plague that had killed many sheep, though others said that only hogs had died. Whether dampness, disease or morale were to blame, the ostrich molted its tail feathers and died of apparent chagrin.
The master returned, claiming that the rumors of plague were true and flocks of all kinds had perished. Bringing further trouble, an earthquake struck on the seventh night, and though the camp was unharmed, word came that the town directly behind them had vanished.
On the ninth day, the search party returned to camp bringing with them Cora’s bed shift. It had been found in a patch of briars near the seashore. Her body was not discovered, nor any sign of the perpetrators. Seeing the torn and soiled shift, her father shut himself in his tent and refused to see anyone.
Along with other members of the troupe, the boy shaved his head, tore his clothes and raised his voice in mourning. They sat by the roadside, their hearts in knots of grief for themselves as much as for Cora. Heaven’s favor had deserted them.
By midday, the heat of the sun induced a nauseous delirium in the boy. He could not feel his lips. There was dust in his throat. Through the strata of heat rising from the highway, he thought he saw something heading their direction—a white-haired beast running close to the pavement. It turned aside suddenly and leaped the curb only to return a few moments later, its legs chopping beneath it thick bulk. A pig was racing toward them, a sight as bizarre as it was unexpected. It tossed its head, snorting loudly, then momentarily slowed its pace, making prance-like steps as it passed in front of them before veering off into their camp.
The boy quickly followed, watching as the pig charged through the ashes of the fire pit and trotted so close to the muralist’s cart that it struck its hip on the wheel. Undaunted, it passed the master’s tent and made for the one that had housed his daughter. It rushed headlong through the door flap. All that remained of Cora—her fine-woven tunics and colorful sashes, the fleeces tendered by her wealthy admirers—was at risk of being trampled.
The boy listened at the door for sounds of rampage, but all he could hear were weary panting and almost plaintive grunts. Slipping inside, he reached for the cudgel that the eunuch always kept by the door. Slowly his eyes adjusted to the gloom. The pig had climbed onto Cora’s bedroll, where it lay on its side, its head cradled in the center of the pillow as if this were its habit.
At once, the boy’s trepidation lifted, replaced by a sense of mystery and the conviction that the hog was female. She was still a young animal, only recently matured. She didn’t move as he stepped toward the bed, though her eyes opened slightly and her panting accelerated. She bore the marks of some physical trauma—the earthquake or a mudslide brought by the storms. One hip was sheathed in ugly scabs and her left foreleg was so swollen at the ankle that the fact that she could walk at all made her marathon sprint even more remarkable.
After a tremendous sneeze and a shudder, the sow went limp on the bed. The boy stayed to confirm that she was still breathing, then went to find his master. A feeling of almost violent anticipation stirred in the pit of his belly. He knew that something important had happened. In bringing the news to Cora’s father—that a pig had entered his daughter’s tent, his daughter’s bed—the boy might have considered the consequences. Blame for the maiden’s abduction had fallen squarely on the eunuch, but Eubolos could also be held to account. Interrupting her father’s grief risked a flogging, possibly death.
Neither prospect came to be, as the master in the preceding hours had hanged himself from a yew tree directly behind his tent. This discovery threw the troupe into chaos, for his death effectively ended its livelihood. The muralist was first to depart with his mule cart and painting supplies, likely foreseeing what would happen. The contortionists plundered the master’s tent and absconded with all they could carry. The oxen were sold by the porters on the highway. One of the actors murdered the harpist and made off with the harp and her jewelry. Then, dashing all hopes of reviving the enterprise, the wheeled stage was destroyed by a fire likely kindled by one of the locals, since the circus had gained a sudden reputation for bringing disaster wherever it went.
Hoping to avoid the fate of the harpist, the boy cleared his tent of any valuable items—all of which were taken—and distracted himself with nursing his tent-mate, who remained in a sleep as deep as the sea. For a week he tended her wounds and fed her, even as his own rations dwindled.
As if to cut short his misery, a bandit crept into the tent one night and put a blade to his throat. Gripped in terror, the boy heard a grunt from the other side of the tent. There he saw what looked like a pair of blue flames blazing from the eyes of a devil. His attacker fell back as a noise like the scream of an eagle sounded. Objects flew about in the darkness and struck the sides of the tent. Another cry came, this from the bandit as he was thrown off his feet and swept out through the door flap. Silence fell. The twin flames grew dimmer, sputtered, blinked out. The boy could make out the form of the sow, which was standing like a statue in the place she’d been sleeping. Slowly she settled onto her haunches and lowered herself to the bed. The boy stayed awake, too frightened to move.
At the first light of morning, he left the tent to urinate. The camp had completely disbanded, leaving hardly a sign it had been there. After relieving himself in the bushes, he returned to see that the tent had collapsed. He debated whether to rescue the sow or to flee. No sooner had he chosen the latter course than he saw that the creature had boarded the cart and was patiently sitting there, as if to say that they should wager their fortunes together in whatever city lay next on their route.
And so it was that they came to Gadara.
Never were any visitors less welcomed, as if they were directly at fault for the troubles in the region. They were spat on and pelted with rocks, driven from the gates and bribed to keep distance.
Many months passed before rumors spread of a witch in the form of a moon-white sow that lived in a cave near the sea.
* * *
A clap of thunder penetrates the cave, then the sound of hail on the stones near the entrance, like the chattering teeth of a thousand rodents.
As if to draw attention to herself again, Her Eminence expels such a wind from her bowels that the lamp flames tremble, burn brighter and settle once more, while an odor befitting the world’s oldest, most infamous hog shrinks the cave.
That this action might be her last draws both excitement and dread from the onlookers. They creep forward, slink back. Some fan the air with palm fronds they’ve bought. A young woman runs up to her, dumps a fistful of corn on the slab and retreats. As if in defiance of this timid behavior, our wealthy patron steps closer, braving another onslaught of flatulence or whatever terrors might accompany the death of Old Ma.
Finally, there is a quiver of life in her nostrils, the slightest wrinkling, as if she has smelled not her own offensive contribution but ours.
* * *
When I had finished the tale of the boy and the circus, our faithful visitor, who had listened with apparent rapture, looked disappointed that it had stopped. Or maybe he hadn’t been listening at all, but had used my story as a backdrop on which to cast his own recollections.
At length, he lowered his hood and sighed heavily. His gray hair was cropped in the style of the emperor as featured on busts and murals in the city. His face, though worn with age, kept a regal aspect. He gazed at me in a probing fashion, as though he was looking at someone familiar or a person who shared his temperament. Perhaps he sought in me a different Eubolos, the youth in my tale.
Then he offered to tell me his own story if I had the desire to hear it. Since he was the only visitor present and because I wanted to keep in good standing, I encouraged him to share his account.
* * *
He began by confirming many things that I’d suspected. He was one of the local aristocracy and lacked no material comfort. He had held a series of important government posts. The pall of disaster that oppressed the region hadn’t hurt his fortunes. He could boast of eight children, many more grandchildren, and an industrious, good-tempered wife. The gods had invested him with only good things.
Yet he claimed that a shadow lay over him. He experienced a shameful, unshakeable remoteness from these very blessings. He compared himself to a statue in a garden or a ghost at a banquet, and though he couldn’t remember feeling otherwise, he insisted that he must have at some point in his life, for why else would he sense his lack so severely? Who can know hunger who has always been filled?
The prince—which I have taken to calling him—avoided flowery language in favor of epigrams of this kind, while his face kept a philosophical look. With a tone of yearning in his voice, he suggested a possible key to his conundrum: The years of his adolescence remained a mysterious, perplexing void in his memory. It was as though he had fallen asleep one night and woken several years later.
When he had asked his family, they said he had contracted a fever on his twelfth birthday from which he barely recovered. What a small sacrifice, they insisted, to have lost a few years of quotidian memories as opposed to losing his life! Yet something made him distrust what they said. His requests for elaboration were met with vague, contradictory answers. And now all parties that had witnessed those years were long dead.
He told me of a dream that frequently plagued him, the details of which varied little each time. He was passing through a beautiful wood in full flower, following the tracks of a man or woman. A sense of urgency rose as the dream progressed, along with the feeling that the person he sought was quite near. At this juncture, he always glimpsed a sandal in the dirt or a piece of clothing snagged on a branch or a stone marked with blood. Moving swiftly now, leaping over rocks and roots, he became aware of a noise behind him—a roar as of fire or a giant wave. It grew so loud that he fell to the ground, convinced that he would die at any moment. Then a thunderous din of stampeding beasts, punctuated by shrieks and hisses, overran him. Pressed flat to the ground, he heard in these sounds his own seething breath, his own hammering heart, and realized the danger had passed. When he rose, he saw that the footprints he had been following so earnestly were obliterated by the tracks of many cleft-footed beasts who had churned the turf to a bloody mud. At this point, despondent, he woke from the dream.
Pausing, the prince wiped a tear from his cheek. He offered me a wisp of a smile shaded with despair or bitterness, until he recovered himself and continued.
Word of the sow had reached him belatedly. For many years, he was steeped in government business—some of which took him from the city for months—and the endless rounds of patronage that fall to men of his station. Only recently had he resigned his office, delegated financial concerns to his children, and purposely slowed the pace of his days to consider things that had before passed his notice. He walked the remotest streets of the city. He ate from the vendors carts at the market. He opened himself to the hunger in his heart.
The prince had first heard of Old Ma in the market, rumors that she had cured a lame child. His inquires led to a flurry of claims—that this magical pig was housed in a cave, that she was as large as a bull and centuries old, that she could speak like a person, that spikes of flame leapt from her eyes. She made women fertile; she induced miscarriage. She was evil, compassionate, capricious, divine. She was nothing more than a hide stuffed with straw. She was dying. She was dead.
The prince said the last of these in a whisper, followed by a glance toward Her Eminence. The silk mantle had slipped from her shoulder. He carefully drew it back into place, then stood quietly gazing at her, just as he is doing now.
* * *
An eerie quiet seeps through the cave. The storm has moved on or is idling. Night must be near. The perpetual shouts of the vendors have stopped. The tambourines are silent. Water drips in a stony corner as the lamp flames wobble in counterpoint. Do I hear Cora breathing? Does her breast rise and fall with the rhythm of life?
Several times the prince has mentioned the sense of kinship he had felt with the sow the first time he saw her. Subsequent visits reinforced this feeling, though she never showed him the flaming eyes that had terrified so many. Words in Latin and Greek that she muttered to others had not been shared with him. Neither had he witnessed a healing or objects levitating. He considered such exhibitions gratuitous, contending that the spirit’s preference to commune quietly was proof of its affinity for him: Aren’t smoldering embers sufficient evidence of a fire’s ability to destroy a whole town?
When he’d finished his story, I caught a shimmer of doubt in his eyes as they met my own for a moment. Did he guess that I hadn’t seen these spectacles either? Regardless, I could see that he wanted confirmation of his theory. Though his well-made clothes and air of health drew little pity from me, I offered what posed as concurrence, though I hoped he would elaborate further.
Did he believe that the sow was possessed of the spirit that had once resided in him? Did he hope, with the death of my Cora, to reclaim it—the only survivor of the host of demons the Nazarene had meant to destroy?
He pulled up his hood as if to shield his eyes, and in apparent anger or embarrassment abruptly left the cave.
Since that day, despite his continued visits, he has never spoken to me. As if he fears that his confession will be used against him, or as if we’re bound in some filial contest despite our difference in age and position. Still, his gifts remain so consistently generous that I ignore his vacillations of temperament, even while I keep close a watch on his actions.
* * *
I credit both the prince’s story and his gentle, studied attentions to Cora with renewing my own experience of her, who has always been the means of my survival. This dependence, and the demon’s refusal to show itself to me, has bred resentments that at times I have unfairly channeled toward the hog.
Some years ago, when my father died, she gave no sign of missing his company or noticed in any appreciable way that I had fully taken his place, feeding her, scrubbing her bunk, salving her bed sores, swatting the clouds of gnats from her eyes. This also embittered me, though her health, even then, was in such decline that I shouldn’t have taken offense.
Sweetie cannot endure much longer. Her imposing bulk decreases daily, her rafters slumping. Beyond the physical deterioration, the most ominous sign is her growing tractability. Especially in recent weeks, she’s been more amenable to touch and sweet-talk. In the night, I dare to lay a hand on her shoulder. I feel the heat of her ancient blood, the eternal cycles, as wave after wave meets the shore. I lift my wrist to her snout in the darkness and count the bursts of breath from her nostrils until the coils of sleep wrap me in. Even sleeping, I can hear the gush of her heart, her rhythm of sighs. They seem to come from my own body. I sense her eyes turning beneath her thick lids—my own eyes, my own lids—as if Madam Satan has swallowed me whole, and I desperately yearn to be free of this casing.
* * *
The prince draws an apple from his cloak and sets it by Cora’s snout. As if the smell of this fruit—which sells for two talents of gold these days—trips something that causes the demon to wake, her body starts trembling. A shudder moves from shoulder to haunch. Her limbs thrust forward. Her hooves clack together. The spasm takes her shoulders next. The bonnet falls, exposing those battered, trinket-hung ears.
A man crouched by her bed scrambles up and breaks through a huddle of terrified onlookers, who quickly follow him out of the cave.
Instead of retreating, the prince steps closer, as though poised on the cliff of a crucial discovery. He kneels before her and lowers his hood, his desire at last beyond doubt. If he previously sought my friendship and blessing, he now disdains them both. I am neither son nor brother, confidant nor accomplice. As if reading my thoughts, he turns my direction, though his eyes don’t quite meet mine. Is he asking me to leave? Daring me to stay?
Cora’s head jerks back and forth as if shake off a tether. Her lips curl back, her broken teeth gnashing. A frothy bile pours from her mouth. With the lamps tucked at the foot of her bed, I can’t see if her eyes are open. I think so. Maybe now I will see the blue flames. Maybe now the demon will reveal itself and my heart be freed of the beggary of faith. This Eubolos, who has served so well, deserves to be shown that notorious fire before it leaves its prison.
Yet thoughts as to where this fire will go, of whom or what it will next make its wick, so trample my curiosity and affection, that I find myself fleeing the cave in a panic. Just steps from the entrance, however, some rote, tenacious dependence or loyalty stops me.
Unable to venture on or retreat, I crouch in the shelter of an overhanging rock and look helplessly out at the sea. Over that vast expanse, the lightning appears to be magically suspended, its radiance mirrored evenly through each succession of ripples, as if the water has somehow managed to absorb it. Distance makes the waves look tranquil, belying the constant assault by which they continue to carve out their bowl. How many cliffs and hills and fields and battlements have they carried to another—perhaps greener—shore?
Braced for another clap of thunder, I see that the rain has stopped. In fact, the clouds have completely vanished. What the sea reflects is the light of the moon, which also drapes the stony slope.
A shadow licks the rocks at my feet. The creature, if it was there at all, leaves behind it the barest echo-image of a snake slipping into its hole. With it has gone any vestige of hope that Cora will survive the night. I know in my heart that she’s gone already. Her blood stiffens. Her flesh grows cold. The air seeping from the depths of the cave contains her final breath, which must hold a tiny remnant of each inhalation she had taken since birth.
And with this breath—comprising also, in even smaller traces, the breath of her faithful keepers—another tale creeps into memory like smoke through a chink in a wall. It is nourished by whispers from the stones and the grass, but the words, when they come, are ones that my father would have used. They carry his inflections, declarative but cautious, as if the story, even after a hundred repetitions—though I have never told it before—has the power to assume added meaning or effect; as if the telling itself were an act of discovery not to be lightly attempted.
* * *
Long ago, in a time of unparalleled abundance, when the rains were wholesome and the soil robust, a plague of vipers beset the land in such numbers that they kept the farmers from their planting their crops. Poisons and traps proved useless. The pests were found in mills and workshops. Even the city fell prey to the scourge. From tenement house to private mansion, inhabitants fled to the streets, many dressed for the festival that inaugurates the labors of sowing each year.
Several weeks after the serpents appeared, a stranger from across the sea came to our miserable shore. As his boat neared land, a sudden tempest driving down from the mountains threatened to submerge it, but he calmed the storm with a hymn from his lyre, music of such piercing and celestial beauty that it was heard by the sentries on the walls of Gadara.
Despite the terror gripping the city, people gathered in the plaza to greet the newcomer, who continued to play his silver-gilt lyre. In contrast to his simple white tunic, he wore his beard in knotted plaits and his face was sheathed in tattoos. If the townsfolk looked askance at his appearance, they encouraged him to keep playing.
Even while he was doing so, word came that the vipers were fleeing their haunts. As long as the stranger played his lyre, fields and mills and villas and tenements were emptied of thousands of serpents. They carried themselves away from Gadara in a single, wriggling convoy. As if directed by the sounds of the lyre, they passed under the gate of a large swine pen. The occupants, roused to a squealing furor, trampled every one of them to death.
With the city fully rid of its nuisance, the people thanked the musician profusely and urged him to stay for the festival. Seating himself on a bench in the plaza, he continued to play through dusk and beyond, as people from the surrounding villages came to listen. Some reported that in the depths of night the music changed to that of a flute and was equally captivating. Others swore that they heard both lyre and flute playing from different parts of the plaza. What isn’t disputed is that every bed in Gadara lay empty that night and no one returned to his home.
At dawn, the stranger rose with his lyre but continued to play while he paced from corner to corner of the plaza, as if to favor each person assembled. The lords of the city ordered wine from the storehouse to officially commence the festival. As the performance continued, jar after jar was emptied. Youths and maidens danced to the music while their parents stood watching and the elders sat. Helplessly enchanted, the people stayed another night in the plaza. Again, some claimed to have heard the sound of a flute.
By the second sunrise, all the city’s wine had been drunk, so water was carted in from the wells in order to sustain the revel. To the wonder of all, the water changed to beer in the cup, besotting the Gadarenes further. Yet this miracle failed to remind them of the reason for the festival. The fields stood empty of seed.
One person, however, did not forget.
An old woman lived in a hut near the sea. In the summer she subsisted on berries and roots, but in winter on the grain from the fields left behind after harvest. In the cool of the morning, she would leave her hut and hobble the footpaths surrounding the city, stopping for no one she met on the road, for she was hard of hearing and apparently mute, for she was never known to have uttered a word.
Surveying the fields on her early walks, the crone looked for signs that the sowers had come, that the seeds of her future gruel had been planted. Now that the plague of vipers had ended, she could think of no reason for the ground to lie fallow. When she saw the farmsteads abandoned of workers and untended sheep in the groves, she grew increasingly alarmed. She defied the heat of the day to check on the fields and even dared to approach the walls of the city, though she didn’t enter.
On the third day after the serpents’ demise, as the sun reached its zenith, the lyrist, who many proclaimed was at least half a god, stepped out through the gates of the city still gaily playing his instrument. Though weak from hunger and sleeplessness, the Gadarenes followed, unable to bear any end to their pleasure.
The old woman, watching from an empty grain shed, correctly guessed what was happening. Stepping into the shed, she took hold of a scythe and hurriedly sharpened its edge with a stone. Though she didn’t know where the lyrist was leading the great throng of people, she had learned as a girl to distrust young men with unusual talents.
And the white-robed musician was marching straight for the cliffs. The townspeople—rich and poor, young and old—trudged doggedly after him, bound to the spell of his summons. They failed to notice the old woman’s attack. Leaping out from behind a roadside boulder, she ran toward him, weapon raised, hair streaming. The lyrist, intent on his own machinations, turned only as the blade of the scythe swung toward him. The music stopped. The lyre fell.
At that moment, standing on the road at the edge of their fields, the people were freed from the spell. As their trance slowly ebbed, they might not have seen the blade of the scythe as it cleft the dead man’s head from his body, his limbs from his torso. In the heat of conviction, the old woman perhaps didn’t either, or appreciate the strength she still had. But as the blood of the stranger flowed into the ground, everyone returned to their senses and looked on the aftermath of the deed. What they saw in the muddied dirt of the road was the dismembered corpse of a hog.
Recognizing the danger that had nearly destroyed them, the Gadarenes seized up the bloody remains. These they cut into small bits of flesh which were planted along with the seed grain that night by the lamp of the waxing moon.
That year, Gadara was blessed with a harvest that the granaries could barely accommodate. The old woman lived to see many more planting seasons. Not once, however, did she enter the city to see the statue that had been cast in her likeness and put on display in the plaza.
* * *
The cliff sides don’t rise straight from the shore but mount in a steepening slope. A wide strand separates the toes of the cliffs from the surf. Given these factors, accounts of swine leaping from the heights into water seem doubtful, unless erosion has angled the sides of the cliffs and the sea has shrunk since the events related occurred—if they did.
With only my bedroll and the clothes on my back, I have determined to venture on, not taking the highway but following the coastline northward. For a week, I’ve slept on the sandy shore, unable to leave the vicinity. Just when I start to feel glad of her absence, released from a duty I have often resented, I feel the space of that dark, narrow cave casting her lamp-lit likeness inside me, and I progress no more than a few steps further.
Today, however, a sweet-smelling breeze wafts over the water, different from any I have known. The time for planting has returned, it suggests. Tillers and sowers of the earth: Listen! Leave your haunts of despair and indolence. Despite a hundred such efforts that have yielded nothing, take out your dwindling reserves of seed. Yoke your ox to the plow. If you have no ox, a mule will suffice; for lack of a mule, your own shoulder must do. So the gentle winds bid.
From the seashore, I look toward the city once more. From here, I can’t see its walls or watchtowers. I see only the greening cliff tops. How quickly after the spirit’s release have leaves and blossoms overtaken them.
Among the poppies and burgeoning grasses there, I can see the prince moving. He has doffed his fine-spun cape and tunic. He leaps like a youth. He dances like a child. Do I hear the pulse of a tambourine? I watch him running naked near the precipice, arms lifted. He drops to the ground and springs up again as if to mediate between snail and butterfly, stone and cloud. To judge from this evidence, his wish has been granted. I can’t, from this distance, see a flame in his eyes, or tell if he has bloodied himself in his ecstasy. Does he see with an animal’s eyes? I don’t know. Does he speak the tongue of angels? It is possible. Has he joined the flesh of man and gods so that all the generations of Earth shall be blessed?
Michael Hawley’s short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Boston Review, Cimarron Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The New Yorker, The Saint Ann’s Review, and other publications. His work has been nominated for Pushcart prizes and honorable mentioned in ‘The Best American Short Stories’ anthologies. He lives in New York City.