Homer and The Goddess
by Cary Semar
It was dark in the streets of Gladia when the teller arrived before the tavern and saw the board with the painted symbol of a Blue Hound. The night was cold, the fire glowed warmly within, and there were the cheerful noises of men talking over their wine. No one looked up when the teller pushed his way through the sheepskin curtain, an old man in dusty robes with a staff in his hand. He found a seat in an undesirable spot far from the fire and sat alone. The proprietor went over to him and said, "Welcome to the Blue Hound, Grandfather. I am Restin, the master of the house. May I bring you something?"
The old man stroked his beard, a gesture that suggested slow but deep thought. "Later," he said, "when I have coin to pay you."
The proprietor smiled and nodded his bald head. "You are a teller then?"
The old man inclined his head in a dignified bow. "I know a yarn or two. For seven years, I have wandered from town to town, telling my stories and earning my bread. When the people of the town grow tired of my yarns, I move on."
"Have you been to Gladia before?"
"I never return to the same place," the teller said.
"You are welcome here," the proprietor said. "We of Gladia like to hear stories of gods and goddesses, of monsters and heroes. Will you speak us of such wonders tonight?"
"Then you are my guest." The proprietor went away and returned a moment later with a bowl of wine which he placed before the old man. "Perhaps that will loosen your tongue. My name is Restin."
"Yes, so you said. I am Homer."
Restin shrugged. "If you say so, then so be it." He returned to his counter.
The teller sipped the wine slowly for a time, savoring the flavor and the feel of it upon his throat. When the bowl was half empty, he set it upon the table before him, straightened in his chair, and took hold of his staff. He raised the staff and smote the floor three times. Thump! Thump! Thump! The babble of talk within the room ceased and every eye turned toward him. "Listen to me!" cried the teller. "For I have a tale to tell." There was a scraping of chairs and tables as the crowd turned toward him and moved closer so that they might hear better. A glow of anticipation illuminated faces made ruddy by the fire and by the wine.
"Alas!" the teller began. "In our time, the gods have vanished from the face of the earth, leaving man without hope of immortality! For our brief span of light, between two darknesses, we have only our dreams to console us. So draw near and hear my tale, and when my tale is done, you shall know the awful truth." So he began to tell a story of an unfaithful queen and her vengeful husband who led an army across the sea to lay a city waste and recover his woman. He told of betrayal, of treachery, and cruelty, and when he had concluded, the men looked down at the floor with sullen, angry faces.
A voice from the far corner of the room said, "Now finish the story."
"I am finished," Homer said. "There is no more to tell."
"I challenge your statement," said the voice from the shadows. " The gods would not let such deeds go unpunished."
The teller glared toward the shadows. "Who speaks?"
A burly man stood up. "You say the gods have vanished from the earth, but this is not true."
"What is your name?" the teller asked.
"I am called Quinn."
"I have travelled the world over and I have found no evidence of gods," Homer said. "The world is a place of strife and misery. There is no hand of any god in this."
Quinn made a sound like a growl and gestured with his wine cup. "You cannot judge the gods by the works of men. It is man that fills the world with strife and misery."
"I have seen no evidence of gods," the teller repeated.
"There is evidence in abundance and all around you. Have you never looked into a flower and seen the wonders of heaven? Have you never looked into a woman's eyes and felt the power of Aphrodite?"
"Sentimental rubbish," the teller snapped. "What are you, young fellow? A poet? Do you see the hand of a goddess at work when a dog mounts a bitch?"
"I do," the burly man said, and looked around the room at the others with a little smile on his face. "I am no poet, but I know what I like."
Homer waved his hand. "Rubbish. You waste my time with metaphors. I have told you about the cruelty of an army that takes a city by storm. I told you about a city that burned and how ten thousand perished in the flames. Their screams could be heard three stadia from the city. I have told you about children thrown from the walls to lie broken on the rocks below. About women dragged into slavery; mothers, wives, and--"
Quinn raised his hand. "We have heard that story though we did not wish to hear it." There was a murmur of assent around the room. "Now you must tell how the men who committed these horrors were punished by the gods! That is the tale we want to hear!"
The teller laughed. "There is no happy ending to my tale. I am an old man and I know that there are no happy endings."
"Then tell us of miracles and wondrous things! Lift our hearts and spirits! Do not tell us that we are doomed and without hope."
"There are no miracles and wonders," Homer said. "Such things are the inventions of madness. Hope is only an illusion. I have been everywhere and I have seen everything. I have heard many tales of miracles, but always they are far away and the place is uncertain. I have looked for miracles, but always, I have found them to be lies."
"He has not been here before," Restin said from behind the counter. "I asked him."
Quinn said, "Indeed, old man. You have come to the right place, for there is a goddess living on the mountain that overlooks the town." Quinn growled when he saw the look of disgust on Homer's face and added, "I do not jest."
"You take me for a fool, farmer." Homer stood up and leaned on his staff. The evening had been long and he was tired. He looked at the proprietor and said, "May I sleep in your stable?"
Restin hesitated a moment before answering. "They did not like your story."
"I have told the truth."
"You do not know the truth," Quinn said. "Tomorrow, I shall prove to you that there is a goddess living on the mountain. Tomorrow night, you shall finish your story properly."
"The story is finished. There is no more to tell." Homer made a gesture with his hand that was meant to dismiss the foolish farmer and started for the door.
Quinn hurried forward and seized the wrist of the teller. The patrons of the tavern looked on with little smiles of amusement on their faces. "But what of the goddess on the mountain? Does not that change your story?"
"There is no goddess on the mountain," Homer said, his exasperation rising. He tried to free his arm, but Quinn held on tightly.
"Stay, teller," Quinn ordered. "You shall not escape so easily the consequences of blasphemy. Sit down."
Homer began to whine. "I am tired. I am old. I must sleep. Let me go."
"Let him sleep," Restin said. "Give him another chance." Restin came out from behind the counter. "Follow me, teller, and I shall show you to your bed."
Homer bowed and thanked the landlord. As he followed Restin to his bedroom, Quinn called after him, "Your door will be watched, old man. Do not try to give us the slip."
There was a growl of assent that rose from the throats of the patrons of the Blue Hound.
It was not yet light when Homer was dragged from his room by Quinn and his two sons. "Murder!" he cried. "Landlord! Help!"
"Silence, old fool," Quinn said. "No harm will come to you. We shall take you to see the goddess."
"You want me to climb the mountain?" the old man asked as they led him out into the chilly morning air.
Quinn laughed without mirth. "Would you have the goddess come to you then? Get moving."
"My staff," said Homer. "I am lame and I cannot walk well without it."
Quinn sent his younger son Nestor to fetch the staff from the room where Homer had slept. With his staff in hand, Homer straightened his back and his voice became stronger and more confident. "Now, show me your goddess and I shall show you a fool."
The path began at the edge of the village and climbed through the morning shadows. The exertions of the climb, warmed Homer and gave him a feeling of well-being, but he was forced to climb slowly and rest often. Quinn and his sons waited while he rested, stamping their feet and warming their hands with their vaporous breath.
At last, the sun broke over the far mountain tops and spilled down upon them. Homer called for a rest, but Quinn placed his finger to his lips and whispered, "Silence. We are almost there." He pointed up the trail.
"I hear running water," Homer said.
Quinn nodded and smiled. There, they left the trail and made their way through the undergrowth. The last few yards, they crawled on their bellies and peered out through tall grass upon a slender waterfall that dropped thirty feet into a large pool at the base of a rock.
"There!" Quinn whispered and the four of them held their breaths as a beautiful young woman came down the trail accompanied by two gray wolves. She wore a garment of wild flowers about her waist, and a necklace of polished stones hung from her neck. Her flesh was a deep copper color from exposure to the sun's rays and in her hand, she carried a crude spear.
While the men watched in awe, the woman laid down her spear, put aside her necklace and garment of flowers, and stood for a moment beside the pool, completely naked. She raised her hands above her hand and for a moment seemed to be praying, but then she arched her body and dived into the sparkling pool. There was hardly a splash as she broke the surface and plunged down to the bottom through the clear water. When she came up again, she had something in her hand and she gave out a joyous laugh. She then called out to her wolves, but not in a human voice. She yelped like a wolf and the wolves yelped back at her.
For a little while, the men watched as she dived again and again to the bottom of the pool, bringing up brightly polished stones. She made a little stack of the stones on the far side. When she had enough, she climbed out and sat eyeing her treasures.
Quinn signalled Homer with a touch and they backed out of the tall grass. As they walked downhill, Quinn said, "I dared not remain too long. The breeze is fickle in these mountains and might carry our scent to those wolves."
Homer considered his response. Quinn's face was smug and he seemed to be waiting for Homer to admit that he was wrong. "What goddess do you believe that we have just seen?"
"Artemis," Quinn said. "What other goddess could it be?"
"Of course," Homer said. "But I had heard that gods and goddesses were of greater stature than mortals. She seemed to be no taller than average for a woman."
Quinn scowled at him. "Do you doubt the power of the gods to assume mortal form?"
Homer smiled inwardly and said, "No. That is necessary. That is essential."
They walked along for a few steps and Quinn said, "Tonight, teller, you shall be my guest at the tavern. I shall pay to fill your cup and there will be meat and bread on your platter. And you will tell us another story."
"You do not care for my stories," Homer said. "I cannot accept your generosity. I do not wish to cause the people of Gladia further displeasure with my poor tales."
Quinn's face showed surprise. "Poor tales? How can you say that we do not care for them? We of Gladia love nothing so much as a well told tale, and you are the best we have ever heard. But last night, you failed to fulfill our expectations."
"I wish that it were not so," Homer said. "But I cannot tell a story unless it comes from my own heart."
"It is not your guilt," Quinn said. "Not everyone is so fortunate as to live in the presence of the gods as do we of Gladia. Now you have seen what we have seen. Now you know what we know. I think you will find something in your heart that was not there before."
"Yes. There is a story here," Homer said. "I story such as I have never told before."
Quinn's face lit up with delight. "I knew it!" He paused a moment to help the old man over a high step in the trail then continued, "Then tonight you can tell it at the tavern. You shall be my guest."
"Very well," Homer said. "But you must promise me that when the tale is told, I shall be free to go from Gladia, even if you are not pleased with my story."
Quinn frowned. "Will the story be about the goddess on our mountain?"
"Yes," Homer said. "I must spend this day shaping the tale in my own mind."
"You have my word," Quinn said. "I swear by the gods."
Homer was pleased and he smiled at Quinn in a friendly way. "There are some questions I must ask. They would help me with crafting my tale."
"About the goddess?"
Homer shook his head. "No. I wish to know about your town and your people. If they are to be a part of my tale, I must know it better."
"Ask your questions, teller," Quinn said. "I have lived in Gladia all my life and none knows it better than I."
So as they walked slowly down the trail back to the village, Homer questioned the farmer about the life and history of the village. He learned about the villagers who went about farming and herding sheep, about the weather, and the natural disasters that plagued them. "Do the wolves trouble you often?" Homer asked.
"Very little," Quinn said. "Once in a great while a sheep may be lost, but we get along with the wolves most of the time. They stay up in the hills and we keep to the valley."
"Was it always so?"
"No," Quinn said. "When I was a boy, there was the year when it did not rain all summer. The hills turned brown, the game disappeared, and the wolves came down into the village itself at night. Many a night do I remember when the men patrolled the streets in bands with torches and clubs to drive off the wolves. Many wolves were killed, but we lost many sheep as well."
"It must have been a terrible time," Homer said, in a sympathetic tone.
"Yes, but I have not told you the worst thing that happened. It is almost too terrible to think about." Quinn hesitated a moment. "I do not care for sad stories," he said. "I mistrust those who do."
"Tell me," Homer said. "I have heard many sad stories. Another will not overwhelm me."
"A little girl was killed by a she-wolf," Quinn said. "She was just a baby."
"A she-wolf?" Homer asked. "Then someone saw the deed?"
"It was my little sister," Quinn went on, his face twisted with pain. "I was just a boy, but they had left me to watch the cradle. My mother told me to keep the shutter closed, but it was very hot and still. So I opened the shutters, even though I knew there were wolves in the streets. While my attention was elsewhere, a she-wolf came through the window and seized the babe in her jaws. Before I could move, the wolf was out the window and gone. We never saw my little sister again. There was not even a trace of her. No torn cloth, no hair, no bones --" Quinn stopped and walked along in silence.
Homer realized the agony the memory had brought back to the farmer, so he let the man compose himself for a time before asking his next question. "Then you did not see the child die?"
Quinn shook his head. "The gods are sometimes merciful," he said. "She did not suffer, I am sure of that. The gods are always just. And the wolves paid." He looked at Homer briefly and revealed the satisfaction the thought gave him. "Everyone in the village joined in the pursuit. The next day, the rest of the valley joined in and the following day the people from the surrounding country came to help. We scoured the hills in our thousands and we harried the wolves from their dens. There was a great slaughter and we cut off their heads and hung them from trees. Those that were not slain fled north and there were no wolves seen in these parts for many years."
Homer asked no more questions for a time, but as they drew near the village, he asked one more. "Tell me, Quinn. Does your mother still live?"
"Yes," Quinn said. "She is well, although she sometimes still grieves for her babe."
"I would like to meet her," Homer said.
"I shall ask her to come to the telling tonight," Quinn said.
At sunset, the Blue Hound began to fill up. Not only did Quinn bring his mother, but also his wife and so did many another of the regular patrons bring their wives. When Homer appeared for his promised food and drink, there was not a place left for him to sit. Restin sent for torches and benches were set up outdoors to accommodate the overflow. A special table was set aside for Homer in the courtyard and there he ate and drank until he was content. The villagers moved their chairs as close as manners allowed and waited for the telling to begin. Homer overheard the villagers discussing the tale they were to hear that night. "It is called 'The Tale of the Goddess on the Mount,'" a man told his wife and the woman nodded with satisfaction.
When Homer was done, he pushed his tray away, picked up his cup and took a long, final drink. Then he took hold of his staff and rapped it on the table. Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!
"Listen to me!" cried the teller. "For I have a tale to tell."
The people smiled and relaxed as the tale began, for they were confident that the teller would not disappoint them again. Not after he had been shown their goddess with his own eyes. "Many years ago, in a town called Gladia --" A delighted buzz went through the listeners as they recognized the name of their village. "A hungry she-wolf stole a girl child and fled with it into the mountains." The smiles faded a bit and many faces turned toward an elderly woman who had gasped. "The wolf did not harm the child," Homer continued. "When she came to her den with the babe, she found that her own pups were dead, killed and devoured by another, starving predator. It was a time of starvation throughout the land. The she-wolf placed the babe where her pups had been and fell asleep beside it, her dugs full of milk. The child's mouth found the she-wolf's nipples and it suckled there. When the wolf awakened, she smelled her own milk in the child's blood and believed it to be her own pup."
The shepherds looked at one another and nodded for they knew that an ewe would accept an orphan lamb that had drunk her milk. Why not a wolf?
"The next day, men came looking for the child and also for vengeance upon the wolves," Homer continued. "So the she-wolf took the babe and fled with it deeper into the mountains far from the town of Gladia. When she had come to a safe place, she continued to nurse the child, and the child grew up among the wolves, thinking itself a wolf, but it was not a wolf, but a girl child of surpassing beauty. When, after many years, the wolves moved south again toward Gladia, the girl, now a woman, came with them. Though she could not speak any tongue but that of the wolves, and though she knew nothing of the ways of men, yet she was more of men than of the beasts. And though the wolves accepted her as one of them, they recognized her greatness and made her the leader of their pack.
"So the wolf-woman came to live upon the mountain above the town of Gladia. Soon hunters began to tell of seeing her, running through the trees at the head of a pack of wolves. No one guessed that this was their long lost child of many years past, instead they took these reports to be sightings of the Huntress, leading her pack of hounds. In time, the people of Gladia came to accept the wolf woman as a goddess and she came to accept the presence of men and no longer fled from them when she realized that they would do her no harm. So now the wolf-woman bathes at the same stream each day while men watch her from concealment."
Homer saw the spreading anger on the faces of his listeners, but he would finish his tale. He had the promise of Quinn that he would be allowed to leave, whether the narrative pleased his audience or not. "So the wolf-woman continues to live with wolves," he said. "She runs naked through the forest, covered with fleas and filth. She eats raw flesh, her hurts go untended, and an intelligence that should have been nurtured flickers and dies. So Gladia has no pity on its lost daughter and men still dream their dream of immortality and eternity. The great injustice goes on year after year because men are afraid of the simple truth. Blinded by their own cowardice, they sacrifice their own flesh to imagined gods, then call it a blessing."
Homer stopped speaking and rose to his feet.
"Wait, teller," Quinn shouted, also standing. "Finish the story!"
"You must write the ending," Homer replied. "I do not know it."
The elderly woman who stood by Quinn's side cried out, "We must find her! We must bring her back! She is my baby!"
Quinn came toward Homer and pulled a large knife from his waistband. "You are a liar and a blasphemer! There is a goddess on the mountain! I have seen her with my own eyes!"
Homer picked up his staff and stepped away from Quinn. "There is a madwoman on the mountain," he said. "I have spoken truly and you have given me your word. Now let me pass." He tried to push through the crowd toward the road, but they closed in around him.
"Seize him!" Quinn said, and a dozen hands took hold of the teller.
"You gave me your word!" Homer cried. "You swore by the gods you claim to believe in!"
"You are a blind man," Quinn said. "You do not believe what you see with your own eyes! Take him to the forge!"
Homer struggled to free himself from the hands that held him as they hustled him along the street to the smithy where the forge was still hot from the day's labor. "Let go of me!" Homer shouted as they placed two irons in the fire and began to heat them. "Is this the way to reduce the suffering of the world? To torture an old man!"
"In Gladia, we serve the gods," Quinn said.
Homer strained at the ropes that bound his hands. "I too have served the gods. I was at Salamis! I pulled an oar for Athena! There I was crippled when my foot was crushed between two hulls!"
A sardonic smile was on Quinn's face as he said, "One day, you must tell us about the battle. Perhaps you can use it to illustrate the futility of mortal striving."
Blinding with a red hot iron is painful, but rarely fatal. The teller's wounds did not fester and when he was well enough to travel, they set him upon the road with a boy to guide him to the next village. Others took pity on him and helped him on his way.
For many years, the blind poet travelled the roads telling his tales of gods and goddesses, of heroes and monsters, in inns and taverns throughout the known world. Homer was hailed as the great teacher of Greek virtue and in time he prospered. Wherever the teller travelled, he was welcomed. He returned often to the great cities where thousands gathered to hear him tell his stories again and again until many knew them by heart.
When Homer was very old, a young poet approached him on his death bed and asked for guidance.
"When I was young, I would not take advice," Homer said. "But I offer you this. Never disappoint your audience."
The young poet was puzzled. "The truth that burns in me is hard and unwelcome. Can this principle lead me to greatness?"
"Perhaps not," said Homer. "But it is very good advice."
© 2010 Cary Semar
Bio: Cary Semar was the Short Story Editor for Aphelion for the first seven years of its existence (the Good Old Days, before the current Age of Darkness). Having had a few years to recover from editoritus (a terrible affliction), he is once more turning out fiction of his own for the entertainment and edification of the masses. Enjoy!
E-mail: Cary Semar
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