Special mini-epic poetry feature by Nicole Coonradt.
I teach Great Books at a small liberal arts college. In the first of a two-course sequence, students read texts from the Ancient to Medieval periods, beginning with Homer and concluding with Dante.
Those questions regarding human agency and divinity continue to inform our understanding of literature, but also, more importantly, our understanding of life—if we are to believe Hamlet’s statement about the way art holds a mirror up to nature.
I shall let my readers decide for themselves.
CHILDREN OF AN IDLE BRAIN
I am sad Hephaesta, marked in the womb to limp
the world alone. Mocked or ignored, incapable
of even slavery, I am but a beggar
who lives in a cave in the hills beyond Athens.
I am nobody. But once I had a daughter,
wee foundling of the Agora, an outcast, too,
who was more precious to me than the gods can know.
But man is far crueler than all his immortals
and my dear girl was lost to his reckless evil.
Come, sit beside me a while, and I will tell all.
As you may guess,
my tragic story concerns Fate, fickle Moira,
and one of our noted Athenian fathers,
a leading citizen called Alexis. Lucky
man, he already had a son, his joy, born of
his gentle, handsome wife, Euthymia. When she
was nearing her time to deliver their second
child, Alexis was visited in a dream by
the great Morpheus who transported him to the
shadowed Kingdom of the Dead. There he revealed that
the babe Euthymia would bear would be one of
discord and ruin—a girl child. Fate of the gods.
When young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more,
Alexis, upon waking, roused his sleeping wife
and told her about his dream. In her own distress,
his stricken wife begged him to ignore what he’d dreamt.
For one thing, she somehow felt certain that the child
would be another boy. “When he is born, our son,
you will know that this false, idle dream meant nothing,”
she told him as she massaged her swollen belly.
“We shall see,” said Alexis, “Only time will tell.”
Euthymia was in anguish, however, when
a mere ten days hence, she gave birth to a daughter.
The midwife cooed and beamed at the tiny baby
and could not understand her mistress’ fervent grief,
thinking only of the common favor toward boys.
“Take heart! All will be well, Mistress, you have a son,
now a pretty daughter shall keep you company.”
“No, you don’t understand—Alexis’ dream came true!
He will surely reject the child; Fate has spoken!”
The sacred ceremony of presentation
was arranged for the following week. But before
then, nothing and no one could part Euthymia
from her beloved infant daughter. The short while
of her confinement, she had attempted, desperate
woman, to keep the truth of the birth from Alexis,
but, of course, the ceremony would reveal all.
Maybe, she thought, in the Lustratio the baby
could be saved somehow. Foremost, after all, it is
a purification ceremony. Perhaps
the gods might be appeased after all; Fate altered.
But Alexis rejected his daughter outright:
“Take her to the Agora now and leave her there.
It must be done tonight!” Then such wailing ensued!
They had to pry the infant from her mother’s arms.
Poor, wretched Euthymia fainted straight away
and could not be revived. “Leave her be!” Alexis,
with wrath like Achilles, ordered in his fury.
A dark, heavy cloud lingered over the household
and in a matter of only weeks his wife died.
Some had blamed a fever for her death, poor woman,
but others knew better: grief had claimed her life.
Alexis believed fully that the prophecy
of his dream had already come true. This changed him.
The gods have long lamented mortal recklessness . . .
The night the midwife brought the rejected infant
to the Agora, I happened along, limping.
There was a full moon and the baby’s perfect face
shone in the silvery rays as she lay sleeping,
her mouth pursed into a tiny rosebud. Of course
I had never before seen anything quite so
beautiful. I was struck speechless and stood staring.
The midwife, however, had tongue enough for the
two of us—and tales to tell. Moreover, as she
felt loath to leave the child, her slight charge, she told me
all that had transpired in her harsh master’s household.
I had heard of such things, yes, but was still appalled.
It was then that I got the wild idea to take
the baby and raise her as my own. Madness that,
yet this was common practice. Additionally,
I thought how it would be a balm to me to have
some human company and a worthy helpmate.
Zeus knows how very lonely I was—and crippled.
So I gathered her up, asleep in her basket,
and hobbled back to my cave in the far hillside . . .
The years passed
quickly, as they do, and my Eris, for I had
named her thus, grew into the most beautiful child.
And so intelligent! The things that girl would say
and do—well, I scarcely had wits enough myself
to satisfy her. It was then that I realized
she needed far more than I could ever offer.
When she turned ten, smart thing, I took her to Athens
to present her, with gifts, to the Mistress of the
Hetaerae—the only truly educated
and cultured women in our Greek society:
educated enough, in fact, to rival men.
Moreover, I knew they paid taxes like men and
thus controlled considerable sums of money.
If they accepted Eris among them, I knew
as well how she would enjoy opportunities
such that I could never dream of providing her.
Most of all, I felt certain that her keen mind would
thrive on the stimulation of a more formal
education. And of course a dark cave, my home,
is no place to conceal a thing of such rare grace . . .
During the eight years of her rigorous training
before she could attend her first Symposium,
she was schooled in history, music, rhetoric,
mathematics, and of course dance. She excelled in all,
and how breathtaking my Eris had grown! Though gone
from my cave, each month she would spend a week with me
the while she bled and it would be just like old times.
And the stories she used to weave for me must have
charmed the immortal gods. Such magic, blissful days!
Sometimes she brought a friend along. The dearest one
was called Helen, though she was not blessed by the gods
with that great, renown beauty of her legendary
namesake, the one whose fame traversed the wine-dark sea,
the one for whom so many gave their lives at Troy.
But they were like sisters those two, so devoted.
As well, they always brought with them the sweetest fare:
figs and wine to enjoy each night at my mean hearth.
you will not be too surprised when I tell you that
my lovely, clever Eris was much sought after
at the Symposium. They warn the girls about
forming attachments, but Eris fell hard for a
winning young man about four years older than she.
With her eyes shining like Athena’s, she told me
about him; although, she knew nothing of his past.
I saw she was wholly in love with this fair youth.
And though I worried about her and said as much,
she simply laughed at me in that enchanting way
of hers and promised me that she would be careful.
Yet that very next month when she was due to stay
she did not come and I sensed some looming peril.
In haste, Helen arrived that evening on horseback
with a strapping soldier from Athens. In distress,
gasping, she told me there was danger: an elder
citizen who had sought Eris exclusively
for himself (against the rules) asked that she join him
to help celebrate his birthday. She had agreed.
But when he drank too much and fell asleep, foolish
daughter, she had left to join her fair paramour.
Helen was sure that there would be trouble and begged
me to accompany her to Athens for aid.
But what could I do, lame, old beggar that I am?
Quickly, I bundled up a few things and Helen,
who said she would follow behind on foot, helped me
into her place on the horse where I held onto
the soldier for dear life. That was my virgin ride
horseback and I felt equal measures of terror
and delight. Like wingèd Hermes, the immortal
messenger, we fairly flew to Athens reaching
the Symposium in no time. A sizable
crowd had already gathered, ready for action.
The rest I learned
piecemeal. It seems that Eris had only meant to
lie with her young lover for but a brief hour.
Yet, as often occurs (or so I have been told),
post-coital bliss overcame the spent lovers
and they had fallen asleep in each other’s arms—
meanwhile the elder citizen had awakened.
Still very drunk and finding Eris had left him,
Achilles-like, he flew into a rage. Madman
that he’d become, he took his knife in search of her.
To save time, the soldier carried me inside, down
a dimly-lit hallway to an open door.
We heard yelling that froze my heart and Eris screamed,
“Please, no!” But we were too late. I could smell the blood,
acrid, before I saw it darkening the sheets.
I tried to steady myself to keep from fainting
while the violent murderer lit a hanging lamp.
As the features of the young, dead man’s face became
visible, the elder let loose the most anguished,
primal yell: “Mighty Zeus, what have I done?—My son!”
With horror, recognition dawned on me, as well,
when I saw the crazed citizen’s familiar face
illumed in the lamplight: it was old Alexis.
“No,” I said, “it’s far worse: Eris was your daughter!”
I had knelt down to gather my stricken beauty
in a last, tender embrace so I did not see
when Alexis stabbed himself in mortal disgrace.
Since that night, I find it difficult to heed dreams.
Was it Fate or merely the fault of reckless man?
It is not the place of mortals to understand.
FROG OF GOOD FORTUNE
He sat at his desk and worked—or tried to.
But he found it difficult to focus.
This was the norm recently since he had
been laid low by illness. He’d moved about
as in a fog, each day a bit less, while
he recovered; though “normal” felt distant.
But something was distinctly different now;
he had a feeling he was not alone.
He looked around the studio noting
the shadowed corners, soft and ill-defined.
Then almost imperceptibly he heard:
Thwack. Thwack. What was it? Surely not a knock.
More of a dull . . . how would he describe it?
Wet sound. Wet? And then again: Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
He arose from his chair and crossed the room
to investigate, unsure what he’d find.
And then he saw it just there on the floor
struggling against the thick cedar door:
a rather larger-than-normal tree frog.
“How did you get in here, Froggy?” he asked.
The frog said nothing but blinked protruding
eyes in a weirdly knowing sort of way.
For some reason he felt a wave of peace
wash over himself and a kind of faint
tingling just at the back of his neck
that made him shiver. Strange. “You’ll want to leave
now, I expect,” he said to the frog. Blink.
But he had to move the frog first before
opening the door so he leaned over
and very gently scooped it up. The frog
immediately clasped onto his right
index finger with its fat, sticky pads.
He opened the heavy door and walked out
into the yard intending to release
the frog, but it remained latched securely
to his finger. “Froggy, time to let go,”
he told it, but it merely stared at him.
What to do? He could hear the other frogs
singing their night songs. “Go! Join them,” he urged,
“Remember, you haven’t got very long.”
Blink. Blink. He tried, very cautiously, to
unclasp it but to no avail. Puzzled,
he decided to take it back with him
to the studio. At his desk again,
he found a pencil and offered that to
the frog, “Here—” To his surprise, the frog moved.
He stood the pencil on end in a cup,
the frog hugging it just like his finger.
It continued to gaze at him in
the most wry, understanding sort of way.
It was uncanny and yet comforting, too.
So he leaned forward and rested his chin
on his folded hands contemplatively.
He sat there for a long while just looking
back at the frog, their eyes locked, lost in time.
And then he must have fallen asleep.
Was it a dream then? It seemed all too real
even when the frog spoke to him saying,
“Do you really not know why I am here,
why I came to your studio tonight?”
He thought about this for a few moments
before responding; in fact, however,
he had been thinking of this very thing
while staring at the frog on the pencil.
“I think, Froggy, that you have come to me
as a good omen, to help me somehow.
I have been so lost of late ever since
my hospital stay. It isn’t just that
my illness and the medications have
exhausted me, I can understand that.
But there is something else and I can’t quite
put my finger on it. Somehow my soul
feels tired, or distant. I seem to be
a ghost, a sort of shade, haunting my own
existence. As if there’s a heavy veil
between me—whatever I am right now—
and my real self. Moreover, I do not
normally talk to frogs, even in dreams.”
(For some reason he thought it important
to mention this fact.) The frog cleared its throat,
“First, I can only help you as much as
you want to be helped. Frogs are good omens,
always, but we are not quite magical.
You will recall that more often than not
frogs are really the ‘victims,’ if you will,
of magic—but the whole prince thing’s a sham,
so don’t go getting any rash ideas
about kissing me; it’s a waste of time.”
That particular myth had crossed his mind
though he’d not thought quite so far as kissing
(and would prefer a princess to a prince),
pleasing as the frog was with its green flesh
and the dark stripes that ran from its nostrils
across its eyes, ending at its front legs.
Its skin shone like a jewel in the lamplight.
It really was a rather handsome thing.
“But what do I need to do,” he asked it,
“How do I help myself—with your support?”
“What you need to understand,” said the frog,
“has most to do with metamorphosis.
In my case, things happen without effort.
I have no more choice in my life than the
honey bee does gathering its nectar
or the spider spinning gossamer webs.
Humans, however, enjoy agency.
You would call it ‘free will.’ At any rate,
you’re not a ghost and you must embrace life.”
He was trying to sort out what this meant,
but before he had a chance to reply
the frog had hopped away off the table
and was just clearing the crack in the door.
He rose hastily to follow the frog
and was left duly stunned when the frog called
back to him as it hopped across the yard:
“Remember, you haven’t got very long.”
Share your comments or questions below.
By Nicole Coonradt, poet and professor