Read The Last Song of Orpheus Online

Authors: Robert Silverberg

Tags: #Fantasy

The Last Song of Orpheus (8 page)

BOOK: The Last Song of Orpheus
13.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Beyond that strait lay a second and larger strait, the Bosphorus, that narrow stretch of swift water that would carry us into the Euxine Sea. But legend had it that at the upper end of the Bosphorus the way was barred to navigators by the Clashing Rocks, two floating islands that constantly tossed and heaved. When—so it was said—any ship began to enter the passage, the rocks would come together as though they had been endowed with malice, grinding and crushing the unfortunate craft that was passing between them. It was King Pelias’ hope that that fate would befall the ship of Jason and his comrades and put an end to whatever threat Jason posed to his own reign; and so he had compelled Jason to take the sea route to Colchis, knowing it must inevitably send him through the Clashing Rocks. 

Many of our Argonauts believed in miracles and never doubted that the
Argo
would safely reach Colchis or that the Golden Fleece would fall readily into Jason’s hands, and they gave little thought to the difficulties that these rocks presented. “Can you charm them into holding still as we go past?” more than one of them asked me. I simply smiled. I know what power my music holds, but also I know what it cannot achieve, and there was no way that the sounds of my lyre could keep those huge rocks from bobbing as they wished on the breast of the tossing water. But Jason, for all his valor, was a brooding fearful man, and although he had forced himself not to think about the Clashing Rocks in the early days of our voyage, he quite openly began to wonder now what chance we had of surviving that fearful passage. 

Our shrewd helmsman Tiphys, it was, who set his mind at rest. Pointing ahead along the coast of Thrace, he said calmly, “Before us lies Salmydessus, whose king is Phineus, the son of Agenor. He knows the secret of the rocks and will tell us how to get ourselves safely through their jaws.” 

That unhappy king’s land lay on the western shore of the Bosphorus close by the water, not very far beyond the mouth of the Hellespont. It once had been a prosperous realm, and Phineus, aspiring to the wisdom of the gods, had accordingly been endowed by Zeus with the gift of prophecy. But he had grievously misused it, widely and carelessly sharing the confidences that the Great Father offered him without tact or forethought, and in the end he was visited with an awful punishment. He had been allowed to live on into old age, but his sight and strength had been taken from him, and food had become devoid of all savor for him, so that he could eat next to nothing. One splendid dish after another would be placed before him, but after a nibble or two Phineus turned aside, shuddering and waving the food away, and therefore in the prime of his manhood he had become a feeble, shrunken, trembling yellowed thing, more dead than alive, tottering about with the aid of a gnarled crooked staff. 

Phineus still was able to see into the future, though, and so he knew that the gods had ordained that relief from his torment would come when a sturdy black-sailed ship with blue and gold and crimson timbers, with fifty renowned heroes aboard, pulled into his harbor. He greeted us, therefore, with such joy and gladness as his withered body could muster, and we performed the rites necessary to purify him and cleanse him of his sin, and for the first time in many years he was able to taste his victuals without revulsion. In return he shared with us those secrets of the Bosphorus and the great sea behind it that we needed to know if we were to complete our voyage to Colchis. He was shrewd enough to know that he dared not tell us all that Zeus had in store for us on our voyage, having learned his lesson in that regard, but he could at least recompense us in some measure for the service we had performed for him. 

“The Bosphorus,” he told us, “is nearly twenty miles long from end to end, but in places is less than half a mile wide between its banks; and thus it is more like a swift river than like an ordinary strait. Above it lies the mighty Euxine Sea, five hundred miles broad and nearly a thousand miles long. Before you enter it, though, you must pass between the Clashing Rocks, and that is no easy matter. Indeed, no ship has ever succeeded.” 

“They are not a legend, then,” said Jason soberly. 

“Not a legend at all,” Phineus replied. And he confirmed all that we had heard of those deadly rocks, telling us how they guarded the narrows at the upper end of the Bosphorus, indeed moving one against the other whenever the spirit moved them, grinding to splinters any vessel unfortunate enough to be between them when they came together. 

But, he said, there was a way to outwit even such malign rocks as those. If we found them quiescent and apart as we approached them, that meant that they were lying in wait for some victim to present itself, holding themselves poised on the verge of their next movement toward each other. It was possible then to deceive them and keep them from the goal that they sought, the destruction of ships. As we lay before them we should send out a dove to go ahead of us. The bird would fly between the rocks and very likely the rocks would close upon it, out of their sheer noxious eagerness to do harm. If the gods favored it, the bird would safely negotiate the dire passage; or perhaps the poor creature would be caught and crushed. Either way, though, the rocks would withdraw for a time to restore their baneful energies before making their next inward approach, and in that span we must use all our energy to thrust ourselves between them and move on into the sea beyond. 

And so it came to pass. We traveled up the swift Bosphorus, fighting against the eddies and counter-currents as the strait narrowed, and narrowed and narrowed again. More than once we felt sure we would be swept against the treacherous rocks that lined its shore, but the skill of Tiphys took us past every peril, with, I must say, some aid from me, for I beat the time in an ever-increasing pace to push our oarsmen to the greatest effort. And then at last we were beyond the worst of the currents and nothing more remained between us and the Euxine except the Clashing Rocks themselves, which we knew, from the way the dark water was surging and hissing and boiling before us, lay just ahead. 

They were two craggy menacing fangs, towering high above the ship. But we tried to look upon them as no more than a pair of ordinary rocky masses, one to our left, the other to our right, with a clear space between them for our passage. We did not make the mistake of underestimating the danger that they posed, however, and we followed the advice of Phineus in every degree. We had with us aboard the
Argo
some caged doves trained to aid us in our navigation, and skillful Euphemus of Tainaron, our birdmaster, selected one and set it free. Up it soared, and went straightaway toward the opening between the two rocks. 

At once there was a groaning sound as one sometimes hears at the outset of an earthquake, and the rocks began to move toward each other with frightening speed. It was a horrific thing to behold. Onward sped the dove, undaunted. Then, from nowhere, a hawk dropped down out of the sky and lunged toward it in an attempt to seize it in midair, but in that same moment quick-witted Phalerus the archer, of the royal house of Attica, seized his bow and put a shaft through the hawk’s heart. The hawk fell to our deck; the dove continued on; the rocks crashed together with a deafening sound like that of ten thunderbolts at once, throwing up a great surge of spray and rocking our ship to one side and the other until we thought she would capsize; and as the rocks parted again and the agitated sea grew calmer, we caught sight of our dove winging onward toward the Euxine, while a single tail feather came drifting down and was lost in the sea. 

We wasted no time. The rocks had moved back, but who knew for how long? I took up my lyre and began a hearty song that set the strongest of rhythms, Tiphys clung to his steering-oar with all his might, our oarsmen rowed so hard their oars were nearly bending in the water, and sturdy
Argo
went pressing forward. As we passed between the rocks we heard the groaning sound again, and the beginning of the thunder, and when I made so bold as to look behind me I saw the two great cliffs starting to move inward a second time. But the men rowed like demons and we went plunging forward and came safely through, though the rocks came clashing together just behind us with a sound like that of a herald announcing the end of the world. Just as our dove had lost one of her feathers, we lost a piece of our stern ornament when the rocks clashed for that second time, but we sustained no other harm.

So we left the Bosphorus and its Clashing Rocks behind, and entered onto the bosom of that great sea at whose farther end lay Colchis and the Fleece. And the tale is told among men that the Clashing Rocks, now that they had been outwitted by the
Argo
, grew roots in the sea and never again moved from their places.

12

The story of our voyage up the Euxine Sea to Colchis is something everyone knows, for the tale has been told again and again by the poets. But the daily toil, the pain, the struggle—ah, who can know of that who was not there? For me the suffering was a required ordeal, part of the education that the gods had designed for me; what it signified for the others, I cannot say. But though we suffered greatly, we none of us uttered a word of complaint. Through suffering comes purification. 

Day after day we followed along the edge of those great waters, a voyage such as few had ever made, day succeeding day, pink dawn and golden noon and red twilight and purple night, and dawn again and noon and night, and dawn again, and noon and twilight and night, and on and on we went on the breast of that arduous sea. There was salt in our lungs, the salt of the sea-breezes that we inhaled with every pull of the oars. The blazing sun baked our skins. The hard dry wind out of the east assailed our aching eyes. Along the shore tall cities flamed in the sun, stone buildings, gold-fretted temples, courses of white paving-stones leading down to the sea, bright in the blaze of the morning light. Rarely did we halt at any of them, but continued going ever deeper into the unknown, moving past the mysterious kingdoms of the Euxine that nestled in the blue valleys descending between the great round mist-wrapped hills. 

The land of the Bithynians, Phineus had told us, lay on our right, but he warned us to make no landing there. We went past it and the mouth of the River Rhebas and the Black Cape and, with our provisions beginning now to run low, we made our first landfall on the little low-lying isle of Thynias to seek meat and fresh water. There Apollo appeared before me in all his divine splendor, golden hair streaming in the wind, his silver bow in his left hand and the ground atremble beneath his feet as he strode by, and I built an altar in his honor and sacrificed a wild goat to him, and pledged myself anew to his service. 

Beyond there we traveled awhile without going ashore, but when we drew near the city of Mariandyne, King Lycus’ land, Jason, feeling fretful and anxious and desirous of diversion and sport, ordered us to put the
Argo
into its harbor. It was an unlucky choice, one of many that our uneasy captain was destined to make. 

There is at Mariandyne an entrance to the Netherworld that no one had ever entered and survived, though Heracles, some years hence, would go down into it and return—a frightful chasm through which the icy waters of the Acheron come bursting to the surface, coating the surrounding rocks with glittering frost. Perhaps it was the cold wind that endlessly blows there from below that brought us ill luck, for at Mariandyne we lost Idmon the Argive, a hot-tempered man but a tireless and valuable one. Idmon had some gift as a soothsayer, and had dreamed, the night before, a dream that seemed to foretell his death; but nevertheless he took part in a boar-hunt the next morning, and as he passed beside a reedy meadow a great white-tusked boar sprang up from the side of a stream and gored him in the thigh, so that a fountain of blood spurted from it. Peleus and Idas carried him back to the ship, but he died in their arms before they reached it. 

Even while we were still mourning for Idmon we suffered an even more grievous loss, a true catastrophe. In the family of Tiphys the helmsman it was a tradition that no man could live longer than the age of nine and forty years, for there was a curse on his line: Tiphys’ grandfather had been imprudent enough once to cut down a sacred oak, and forty-nine was the number of the years that that oak had lived before it was felled. Tiphys now had reached the same age, and had known from the start of the voyage that he would not survive it. In Mariandyne he fell ill and wasted quickly away, despite the efforts of those among us who understood the medicinal arts; for the most efficacious medicines in the world are helpless against the inescapable decrees that shape our fates. 

So Tiphys the irreplaceable was lost, and it was our task to replace him. Jason looked to those sons of the sea-lord Poseidon who were in our midst, of course, Nauplius of Argos, Erginus of Miletus, Melampus of Pylos, and Ancaeus of Tegea, and for a time we debated their various merits among ourselves. In the end Jason gave the nod to Ancaeus, whose strength and courage in time of crisis were beyond debate. And indeed he served us well throughout the remainder of the voyage, though no man could ever have matched Tiphys in his guileful mastery of the sea. After twelve unhappy days in Mariandyne we took to the water once more.

BOOK: The Last Song of Orpheus
13.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

La inteligencia emocional by Daniel Goleman
Emperor's Edge Republic by Lindsay Buroker
Homefront by Kristen Tsetsi
The Sweetest Dare by Leigh Ellwood
Song at Twilight by Waugh, Teresa