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Authors: Robert Silverberg

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BOOK: The Last Song of Orpheus
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I could go, he said. 

I was free to make the journey upward into the land of the living, and Eurydice could go with me. 

I must not turn to look at her, though. Not the slightest backward glance until we reached the upper air, or he would reclaim her in that instant and never relinquish her again. 

Well, yes: it was as I expected. Nor did I dare quarrel with his decree. One does not negotiate with the king of Hell. I offered proud Hades my thanks, and made my grateful obeisance to gracious Queen Persephone, and turned from them, with Eurydice at my side, to begin the journey to the world of living men and women.

7

We said nothing as we set out on our way. The foggy haze of death still swirled about her spirit, and as for me, I moved as though moving within a dream. In the early stages of the journey I neither spoke nor touched my lyre’s strings; scarcely did I do so much as think. Onward we walked, Eurydice always following a few paces behind me; and though the denizens of the Netherworld peered at us with a kind of blank-eyed curiosity as we passed, I did not meet their glances, nor did I pay heed to the idle questions they called out to us. 

So I retraced my steps, past the place of torments, where all was proceeding once more as it would through eternities to come, and past the white cypress and its pool of forgetfulness, and the black poplars in whose crooked branches black birds of evil omen perched, glaring at us with their glinting yellow eyes, and in time we came to the ferryman’s place at the bank of the Styx, where somber Charon had put me ashore at the outset of my mission. 

He was nowhere to be seen, for he has no reason to wait for passengers on this side of the river; but I brought out my lyre and let some notes drift off into the mists that lay low over the black waters, and in time I heard the sound of his oars, and his boat came slowly toward us through the darkness. 

If he felt any surprise at seeing us there, he showed no sign. In his dour way he beckoned, and I climbed into the boat and heard Eurydice clamber in behind me, and we stood, one behind the other, as he took us to the other side. 

There we disembarked and left Charon and his boat behind, and started off on the road back to life. 

All was night here. Apollo’s heavenly light does not reach the realm of Hades, of course, but the places where the shades dwell have a certain dim glow of their own. Here there was none of that, only the dire emptiness that is the frontier of the kingdom of Hell, and a clammy dankness and a stale reek. But by the mercy of everloving Zeus I was able to see the signs of my own earlier track, the faint glimmering glow that my sandals had left when I made my way inward, and I was able to follow those faint clues as I proceeded toward the surface of the world. 

Could Eurydice see those same signs, I wondered, and was she able to follow me as I went? Or would she lose sight of me and wander away from me in that multitude of branching forks? 

Now and again I heard some small sound that told me she was still behind me, a soft sigh, a little gasp of discomfort as she touched her wounded heel to the ground, even a stirring in the air that perhaps she caused as she breathed. Then would come long stretches of total silence, and I would begin to fear that she had lost the way. At last after one interminably prolonged period of such silence I chose to strum my lyre again—its sudden sound, breaking into that murky quietude, was almost frightening even to me—and in relief I heard what must surely have been the quick intake of Eurydice’s breath. 

Thus I guided her upward by the sounds of my lyre, through dark, steep passages that I scarcely had noticed during my descent, but which now were challenging and difficult as I went the other way. It is easy enough to descend into Hell, for its gates will open readily for anyone; but climbing back up again into the light, ah, that is not so simple! I pressed on, scrambling and clambering over the slippery rocks, and strained my ears to hear the sound of Eurydice behind me, and from time to time I thought I did. But was it so, or only the invention of my eager mind? And why, as I drew ever closer to the gateway that would lead us out into the world again, did I no longer hear anything that might betoken her presence? 

I turned a sharp bend in the passageway and I saw the light of the upper world gleaming just ahead of me. And in that critical moment I became possessed of the belief that Eurydice had strayed into some side passage and become lost. 

Despite Hades’ terrible warning I turned, helpless to do otherwise, to reassure myself. And there she was. 

But I had only the merest hasty glimpse of her, and she of me. For an instant I beheld her pale frightened face and her eyes wide with shock and horror at my transgression. And then the grinning shadowy minions of Hades came gliding out of the darkness to cluster about her and pluck at her with their talons. 

“Oh, Orpheus—Orpheus—farewell forever!” she cried, in a faint, vanishing voice. Desperately she stretched her arms to me, and I toward her. But we could not so much as touch. And then, as they pulled her back from me, she became incorporeal and ghostly, a shadow of the woman that once had been, the merest of misty shades. I lunged for her and my arms closed on empty air. I beheld only a fleeting reproachful vision moving swiftly backward, fading from me like a wisp of smoke, and in another moment she had disappeared into the darkness and all I could hear was the eerie whistling sound as those merciless phantoms hurried her away from me to return her to Hades’ kingdom. 

So Eurydice met her second death, and my soul was devastated as it had not been even at the time of her first death, and I stood there frozen, dazed, knowing beyond all doubt that I had lost her forever.

8

You ask me, then, why did I turn back to look at her, I who knew that Hades had explictly forbade it, I who can see all things past and future and who understood what the consequences of that single glance would be? 

And I answer you that we are none of us allowed the option of deviating from the track that has been laid down for us by the gods. I
had
to turn back for that fatal glance, just as Oedipus had to slay the old man he encountered at the crossroads and thereby set in motion the relentless machinery that the gods had devised for him, and Agamemnon the lord of men had to bring his mistress Cassandra back from Troy with him and thus invite the wrath of his murderous wife Clytemnestra, and Jason of the
Argo
similarly to bring upon himself the bloody vengeance of the witch Medea, the mother of his sons, by spurning her for the Corinthian princess Creusa after his return from his great quest for the Fleece. The gods choose our destinies for us, and once we are set in our paths no foreknowledge of consequences can turn us for long from our dooms, not even I, who travel ceaselessly on the ever-repeating current that is my life. 

And so I paused there at the brink of the upper world, with Eurydice’s freedom all but achieved, and, caught in the toils of my destiny, I glanced helplessly back despite everything I knew would ensue, to see if she still followed me. Thus I lost her for all time, until the next return of existence, when I am fated to win and then to lose her again. 

Even then there was more to my torment, much more. One is tempered in the fires of the gods; and because they had much need of me, they saw to it that my tempering was a thorough one. 

Though I had no shred of hope it was necessary all the same for me to descend once more into Hell and follow that dank winding path to the Styx to confront stern Charon at his ferry station. “Take me across once again,” I said to him, knowing what the reply would be. If there had been any laughter in his soul, I think he would have laughed at me, but all he did was stare in that icy way of his and shake his head. 

It was pointless to try to charm him with my music, as I had done the last time. There was no music left in me then, and this time, even if there had been, he would have been armored against its powers. I asked, and he stared his refusal, and I asked again and he stared again, and once more I asked, and again he was silent. Then a pale shrouded wraith appeared, a new dead soul making his pilgrimage to the kingdom within, and he stepped through me as though I were not there and boarded Charon’s boat, and the two of them glided off into the darkness on the breast of that dread river, leaving me alone on the bank. 

Charon did not return. After a time I set out yet again on the ascent to the land of the living. 

Seven days and seven nights I lingered despondent at Tainaron gate, unable either to go forward into the light or to make yet another attempt at the darkness below. I went without food or drink, and my lyre lay before me, untouched, like a dead thing. When finally I picked it up again the first sounds that came from it were hellish jangling ones, a dissonant cacophony, which I could not master for several days more. When finally I could play again I was able to sing only a single bitter complaining song, over and over, until the rocks about me themselves seemed bored with my constant
repetitive lament. 

In time some vestige of life entered me again and I rose and moved on. To Egypt then I went, where I hoped to escape the agony of my grief over the second death of my beloved under the scorching sun of that ancient land. I had never known such despair before, because I had never known the loss of love, since I had never known love itself. All that was new to me, I who had never experienced anything for the first time, for my love for Eurydice was an aspect of the mortal part of myself, which does not see things the way the divine part does. The pain of her double death wrapped itself about me like a cloak of ice. I could not free myself from it, not even with my own songs, that were able to charm the trees and the rivers and the inanimate rocks; but it seemed to me that if I ran far enough and quickly enough, I might be able to escape even the inescapable and leave that great sadness behind. 

And so, Egypt. At Pharaoh’s court I dwelled, and there, under that cloudless sky, beside that broad reeking river, in that land of nightmare gods and many-columned temples as big as cities, I learned the magic of their priests and was initiated into the secrets of their beliefs and slowly, very slowly, began to enclose the running sore that was my great grief within an insulating shell of stone within my heart. 

The
strangeness
of Egypt! How astounded I was by it! 

As I have already told you, I was never young, as the world understands the ordinary meaning of that word. I came into the world ten thousand years old, and there is nothing that I can say I have seen for the first time, but, even so, though always I look backward and forward along the river of time, there was much that was new and strange to me in Egypt. Do I seem to contradict myself? Yes, I do; but I embody in myself all the contradictory things that men have believed of me. I confirm nothing; I deny nothing. I am Orpheus the demigod, and you must be a demigod to comprehend what that is like to be. I will help you as much as I can; but it will not be enough. 

Egypt, then. 

That blazing sun, that all-seeing fiery eye filling the heavens. The scent of unknown spices and the heavy reek of the enormous river. The carvings on the walls, the gods with the heads of hawks and vultures and lions; the snakes with legs; the beetles that spoke. The vast temples that were like forests of stone columns. The people with sly faces, moving busily but silently through the city streets, smiling, covertly staring at one another. Here and there I saw a swarthy bearded man who plainly was of Crete or Mycenae, or one from Babylon, or a little knot of black-skinned folk in robes as bright as the sun, for this was the great cosmopolitan center of the world. No one took notice of me. Why should they? I was cloaked in my grief and it made me invisible. 

I went to the stone palace of their king and sang myself past its myriad guards into its airy halls. 

Their king is called Pharaoh. So it has been for thousands of years. This Pharaoh was a small slender hawk-faced man, dark as ivory that has spent a century in the sun and almost fleshless, who wore a white cotton wrap around his loins and a lofty double crown, one part of it red and the other white, and a jewelled pendant on his bare breast, a heavy thing of gold and emeralds and rubies, that was so bright it hurt one’s eyes to look upon it. He held a golden scepter in each hand, one that had the shape of a flail and one that had the shape of a crook, and he wore a stiff little false beard strapped to his chin. 

“Well?” he said, and I struck a chord on my lyre and sang to him of the lands beyond Egypt that he had never known, king though he was of the mightiest of realms. 

I sang to him of Hellas, its great jagged mountains and green plains and cool swift rivers, and of the islands about it in the sea that sparkled in the sunlight like his pendant. I sang of Troy, and of the war that had not happened yet, but would. I sang him Agamemnon and Clytemnestra; I sang him invincible Achilles and valiant Hector; I sang him Helen and Paris and Menelaus; I sang him Heracles and Icarus and Perseus, Theseus and Prometheus and King Oedipus. I sang him Zeus and Apollo and Poseidon and Dionysus. Then I sang to him of the mysterious humid jungles of Africa and the giant predatory beasts that prowl their vine-entangled paths. I sang of the Hyperborean lands that I would visit in a later year, that time when I would sail with Odysseus, those dark water-girt lands, densely forested and green with rain, where the people are as tall as this Pharaoh is short and as fair and golden as he is dusky, and the summer days never end and cold thick snow falls from the bleak gray sky in the wintry time of little light. I sang of the far lands I have seen in dreams, where the yellow-skinned shaven-headed emperors dine with sticks of ivory on vessels of bronze and clothe their daughters in garments of silk. I sang to him of mighty Rome that is yet to come, and of the even mightier empires that will come still farther on in time, in a day when men will fly through the air and journey to other worlds. I even sang to him of those other worlds. I had never sung so long nor so well in all my days. But I was not so much singing for him as I was for myself, for I needed to sing my way into Egypt in order to heal myself of my sorrow, and as I sang I knew I was conquering him and would thus in time conquer even my own intense and nearly unconsolable grief. 

BOOK: The Last Song of Orpheus
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