Tagged: Steer

THURSDAY: Spiritus Mundi

BY MARY STEER

Copyright is held by the author.

II HAPPENED in the Antiquities Gallery, just inside the arch and to the right. Cass was looking at a tile mosaic that had been the floor of a temple. The display was dated “1100 BC?” and the location was unknown. The mosaic had been laid in a model of a Greek temple within the museum, but Cass hadn’t noticed it until the tour ahead of her cleared out and she was able to go in herself.

At first she just stood at the door, letting her eyes adjust to the altered lighting inside the reconstructed temple; then when she looked down at the floor, she noticed the design in the tiles. A fabulous black cat — probably a panther —was leaping across a pale golden background, its tail high and its ears flattened against its head, its mouth open in a snarl.

Cass had always liked to get the feel of places and things, to know that someone had created what she was looking at, fashioned it hundreds or thousands or mere dozens of years before she came to see it; someone who had eaten, slept, breathed, made love, made water, known passion and pleasure, disappointment and pain. She wanted to touch the thing they had touched, to feel their presence in the form in front of her. She wanted to sense the sun on her back as they had, to hear the rain falling outside or the laughter of children playing in the village. It was a struggle to get there with objects that were coldly displayed under glass, divorced from their natural surroundings and isolated from any kind of context beyond that provided by the tiny placards at each case, but this floor was different. This floor, she might step on, bend down and touch, imagine other people who had stepped on it or bent and reverently traced the artwork with their fingers, felt the rough tile, admired the craftsmanship.

Before she stepped in, Cass did just that: bent and touched the tiles she could reach from the entrance, running her fingers lightly over them like a lover. To her surprise, they were warm; they almost seemed to throb. She tried to summon up a picture in her mind, of people gathered in the temple, bringing offerings or celebrating a feast day . . . garlands and loose flowers, bowls of water and grain, perhaps even bowls of blood, let from a sacrificial animal . . . air full of scent . . . votive lamps burning softly in gloomy corners . . . someone playing the flute or the tabor . . . people dancing, or solemnly reciting invocations to the gods — or god . . . perhaps a crowd outside, waiting their chance to come in or waiting to hear the result of an oracle.

“Hurry up, lady. There’s people waitin’ to get in,” said a voice behind her.

“I’m sorry,” said Cass, hurriedly standing up and stepping inside. The blood rushed out of her head in favour of her feet, and she fainted.

The sound of blood labouring in her ears, as it pushed its way back into the veins in her head, gave way to a distant mixed murmur like someone tuning a radio. Gradually the voices came closer, as if she were travelling down a tunnel towards them and the sound was the light at the end of the blackness, a slowly widening circumference, opening up to the world outside again. Cass left her eyes closed for the moment. She could hear voices, speaking in a strange language, which she somehow understood.

“Is she all right?”

“Maybe she’s dead.”

“No — these fits come upon her often.”

“It’s the press of people, and the excitement. Stand back and let her breathe.”

The voices all spoke in hushed and reverent tones, but beyond the concerned crowd Cass could hear riotous noises of celebration.
“Cassandra,” said a voice softly, just above her face, “Cassandra, wake up, my dear.” A hand was holding hers and gently squeezing it.

Cass frowned, puzzled. She had come to the museum alone. How did this person know her name? She opened her eyes and found herself surrounded by a small circle of women in beautiful but faded robes. Soft sunlight, hazy with motes, filtered in from cracks in the roof of the temple, and small oil lamps glowed in crevices in the dark corners. The feet around her were all wearing sandals. The woman bending over her was dressed as the others were, and in her hand she held a bowl.

“Here, drink this,” she said, offering the bowl to Cass. “It will bring back your strength.”

Cass closed her eyes and lay perfectly still, petrified. “Where am I?” she whispered. Her thought had been in English, but it came off her tongue in the language being spoken around her. She half-opened her eyes again; everyone seemed to have understood her. The old woman looked grave.

“You have hurt your head,” she said. “You are in the temple of Apollo. The god is demanding. You two, help her to her feet. I am an old woman; I cannot help as much as I would wish.”

The two young women stepped forward reluctantly from the crowd and bent to take Cass by the arms. “Careful,” said Cass. “I fainted from standing up too quickly last time.” The crowd exchanged knowing glances.

“You were divinely inspired within the service of Apollo,” said the old woman. “Do not call it a mere fainting spell.”

Cass rubbed her head tenderly. “Who are you?” she asked. To her surprise, the old woman began to wail.

“Oh, Apollo,” she cried, “must your servants forget even their mothers? Dear Cassandra, I am your mother, Hecuba. Have even I been forgotten in your service to the god? Has his madness driven me from your memory?”

All I wanted, thought Cass, was a quiet day at the museum. She put her hands to where her pockets should have been, and found only smooth whole cloth beneath her fingers. For the first time, she looked down at herself, and found she was dressed just like the others. Too weird, thought Cass. Well, might as well play along. Somehow the fact that she was speaking in tongues was already normal.

“Dear Mother,” she began. It was a good start; Hecuba seemed appeased by it, anyway, so she continued: “Dear Mother, it was just the trance that Apollo puts upon me. I begin to be myself again. I am still confused, though. I fear I have forgotten much. Tell me — is today a feast day?”

“She loses her wits,” said someone from quite nearby. People moved towards the portals of the temple, restless and nervous.

“Be still,” said Hecuba. “All will be well. She is merely disoriented, with the heat and the wine. Dear child,” she went on, turning back to Cass, “it is not a feast day, but it shall be ever after. This day, the Greeks sent us a peace offering. They wheeled within sight of our walls a giant wooden horse, and they left in their ships in perfect truce. The seige of Troy is ended! That is why we celebrate.”

“Troy!” said Cass, now really startled for the first time. “I’m in Troy? Wait — where is this horse?”

“The troops are drawing it within the walls now,” said H?ecuba.

“They must be stopped!” cried Cass. Thank God she knew her Greek literature. She could save them, change the course of history. “Put the horse outside the gates again! Its belly is full of Greek generals, waiting to sack the city!”

The temple was suddenly still. Dozens of eyes were on her. Bees and wasps buzzed in the heavy silence, hanging around the garlands and flowers strewn across the altar. Outside the cheers of the Trojans carried clearly in the open air. Light from a chink in the roof fell on the leaping panther in the floor, where Cass now stood alone. People had started to back out of the temple.

“All right,” said Cass. “I will tell them myself.”

“No, child! Someone stop her!” cried Hecuba, but the crowd parted easily in front of her. I remember now, thought Cass. Everyone thinks I’m a loon. Well, I’ll show them. She stepped out of the temple and was momentarily blinded by brilliant sunshine. Gradually her eyes adjusted to the harsh light, and she could see people dancing up and down the steep narrow streets, garlanding temples and drinking from long-rationed wineskins.

Cass ran down the streets, ignoring the revellers, her sandals slapping up small clouds of dust. People called to her to join their parties; she called back that they must come and help her to put the wooden horse out of Troy. All along the way, as she passed, she heard people mutter, “That’s Cassandra, the poor mad princess, the girl who refused Apollo.” This is crazy, she thought as she ran. No one ever believed Cassandra.

Finally, after running down seemingly endless streets grimed with the filth of a 10-year seige and smelling of disease and death, she came to a large open square. The sight of it filled her with a very real dread. She was caught in the past, at the worst place in history that she could imagine. The Greeks took Troy; their generals divided the royal women of Troy amongst themselves for drudges and whores. Her own dear friend Andromache was taken by Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus; she herself was chosen by Agamemnon, and later killed by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Her own mother, Hecuba, blinded King Polymestor of Thrace and killed his sons, all for revenge, and later went mad. I don’t want to be here, she thought. Oh, Apollo, make them believe me this time!

On the plaza in front of her stood an enormous horse, its legs planted foursquare on a wheeled platform. The captains and troops who had drawn the horse within the walls were now singing drunkenly in its shadow, some of them even sitting right underneath its fatal belly. A group of captains were sitting to one side, wreathing a garland of flowers for the neck of their prize. Cassandra could imagine the Greek generals lying quietly inside the monument, perhaps smiling to themselves at the sounds of revelry below them. Well, she was going to shake them up a bit.

“STOP!” she screamed, the little breath she had left gasping in and out of her lungs as she flung herself down the last steep street and into the square. But the garland-makers shouted with laughter at the same time, and she went unheard. Men and women and children whirled in an ever-quickening dance about the feet of the horse; Cassandra cried out again, and again went unheard, as the dance broke into a dozen whirling fragments and the garland-makers tossed their flowers into the air and clapped their hands. Shaking with fear and fatigue, Cassandra fought her way through the milling crowd and swung herself up onto the platform beneath the horse.

“STOP!” she screamed again, this time throwing up her arms and commanding silence. No one noticed; she began her speech anyway. “Men of Troy, put this horse outside the walls again! If you leave it here, it will destroy the city. Men and children will be slain; women will be raped and sold into slavery; the high walls will be torn down, the city sacked, and the temples desecrated. Put the horse without the walls, or burn it here within the square!” She could imagine the Greek generals having at least a moment of panic, up there in the belly of the horse, if in fact they could hear her. After all, they weren’t to know her reputation as a disregarded prophet.

“Where’s Hecuba?” whispered one of the captains.

“Never mind Hecuba,” said another. “I’ll take care of the girl myself.” He began to mount the platform, to the jeers and whistles of his soldiers.

“Leave her be,” said a commanding voice from the ground. It was Hecuba, who had followed her daughter to the square. The captain sullenly dropped to the ground again.

“You deserve strict punishment, but the holiday has saved you,” said Hecuba. “See to it that you never threaten my daughter again.” And taking Cassandra with her, she departed through the crowds.

“What am I to do with you, poor child?” she asked as they turned back into the city. “I cannot lock you up, for fear you’ll hurt yourself. I must keep you by me, then. Will you promise to be good?” Cassandra nodded meekly. Her shins were aching from her swift downhill run to the square; her throat was dry and dusty and her head was aching. In some far reach of her brain, a professor was lecturing: He gave her the gift of prophecy, but doomed her never to be believed. She sank down in the dust and wept, and another little part of her thought, I don’t want to be here.

“I don’t want to be here,” she sobbed out loud.

“There, there, child,” said Hecuba. “You will feel better after a bowl of wine and a rest.” She helped Cassandra to her feet and led her back to the palace.

* * *

Cassandra lay in her room, listening to the revels outside. If they’d only believe her. Why had Apollo done this to her? She cast her mind back, and gradually the memory returned to her: he had tried to make her his lover, and she had refused. In his anger, he had given her the gift of prophecy, that she might always know what events were imminent; but he had also cursed her, that she might never be believed, so the knowledge of peril was hers alone and she alone would always have to suffer every danger twice, through her vision and through the occurrence itself. Maybe if she changed her mind, but how could Apollo ever know in time? And even if he did, weren’t the gods inextricably tied up in the fate of Troy? Hadn’t they made it their personal battlefield? — some championing the Greeks, some the Trojans, and all of them switching allegiance on a whim?

Cassandra lay on her back in her high cool room, listening to the noise rising from the street. The night drew down, and still the parties continued, processions passing beneath the palace windows, marked by shouts and the flirting light from high-flung torches. Snatches of song reached Cassandra where she lay; finally she got up and went to look out of the window. People were still dancing everywhere. She glanced up, to a sky that seemed to blaze with stars; Cassandra had never seen them so bright and beautiful. One shot across the sky in a flash of brief glory, and was gone.

Cassandra slipped out of her room in the small hours of the morning, when across the city the parties had all but given way to a sleepy stupor and the lights in the streets had almost all been extinguished in favour of the brilliant moonlight. Down the hilly streets she went again, until she was almost at the square. Peering round the corner of a building, she could see the horse, beautiful and terrible, the captains’ garland now tossed about its neck.

She hardly dared to move. Escape was not possible. By now the Greek ships would have returned, to support their allies inside the horse. They would be waiting just offshore for the first signs of conflict. Nor was it possible to rouse the city: no one would be able to help her, and she could do nothing on her own.

Something was happening, down in the square. The horse was changing shape. Something fell out of its belly and swung in the shadows there; a shape moved down it. A rope ladder? Cassandra wondered. In horrid fascination, she watched as more shapes appeared. The first to reach the ground were now opening the gates to the city; the last out caught a torch from a bracket in the wall beside a temple door and flung it up into the horse through the hole in the belly. In moments the whole statue was ablaze. That must be the sign, thought Cassandra, as sleepy shouts interrupted the silence that had fallen on Troy. I have to get away.

She backed quietly up the street, looking for Apollo’s temple at every torchlit doorway she passed. In the square, the noise of the fire was increasing, and its heat and light were reaching up the streets. People were gradually appearing from their houses, rubbing sleep from their eyes. Cassandra no longer bothered to warn them. In the square, the screams of the victims were already beginning.

At last she found the doorway, and with a swift glance in either direction to make sure no one noticed, she ducked through the portals and lay on the floor before the altar. A sudden thought struck her: I don’t really belong here! She realized it with relief. I belong in a completely different century! But how do I get back there? How did I come here? She tried to think. She was in the museum, and she fainted. But a person can’t faint on demand. Besides, one doesn’t just faint and then wake up in the time of legends. It must have been something else.

Maybe the floor? By now, Cassandra could hear sounds like rioting coming closer up the street outside the temple. She pressed her face to the leaping panther. It was warm. Now she remembered. She had been trying to recreate in her mind what the floor of the temple would have been like in its real life, long before it came to the museum, long before it had even been rediscovered. Perhaps the way to go back was to recreate the 21st century here, as far as possible, in her mind. The museum. She should focus on getting back there. At the moment, her thoughts and the mosaic floor were the only things Troy had in common with her time. If she stopped thinking about Troy and started thinking about the 21st century, wouldn’t that lessen the hold of the past? And maybe she would wake up in her own body on the floor of the temple reconstruction in the museum again.

Outside, she could hear footsteps, many of them, running in retreat up the streets. The screams and the flaring noise of the fire continued in the distance. Cass tried to block it out of her mind. She reached after 21st century noises and images. Some man behind her had wanted into the temple in the museum as well. What would he be wearing? Probably jeans and a t-shirt. Maybe a cheap digital watch, with a plastic wristband. There were probably a few people behind him, dressed in polyester and rayon in bright colours made with chemical dyes, all invented long after Troy. She herself was wearing a t-shirt and walking shorts, and running shoes on her feet. She had a SWATCH on her wrist and a purse slung over one shoulder. She’d had to check her knapsack before they would let her into the museum. As if I’d been planning to stuff some priceless object into it while no one was looking, Cass thought to herself, and giggled.

Someone stepped in through the door of the temple and stood, looking down at her. Cass froze, more afraid than she had been at any moment before now.

“I thought I heard something,” said a man’s voice very softly. “Apollo won’t help you now, girl. Get up and let me look at you.” Cass lay still, wondering what she could do. She had no weapon with her, not even a knife, and trying to recall the 21st century hadn’t worked. Now she was bound for slavery and whoredom, for the rest of her short and painful life.

“Get up!” said the man angrily, and kicked her leg. Cass leapt to her feet at once and fainted again, as the blood rushed out of her head in favour of her feet.

The sound of blood labouring in her ears, as it pushed its way back into the veins in her head, gave way to a distant mixed murmur like someone tuning a radio. Gradually the voices came closer, as if she were travelling down a tunnel towards them and the sound was the light at the end of the blackness, a slowly widening circumference, opening up to the world outside again. Cass left her eyes closed for the moment.