PART I | PROLOGUE
Samos Island, The Aegean Sea
I remember the searing, salty rain, whipping in from the Aegean.
Wind-blown sideways, sheeting into her eyes. Blinking in the thick pall of obdurate darkness, she struggles to find her way up the rugged, goatherd trail. Mottled with tiny windswept craters, the path veers seaward to avoid a steep ravine that slices through the headland. Raindrops are driven like darts, pelting her face, ruddy and glowing.
The escarpment is covered in mounds of tuft-matted schist, now loose and slippery on her leather sandals. As each violent squall sweeps in from the sea, she pauses to hold her ground against the blows, waiting for the lull. Crouching down on all fours, she then scrambles onward, unfeeling of the bruises, groping and clawing at the flinty layers of schist, cutting into her ankles.
She loses what little remains of the rocky trail, as the ground rises sharply. There is only one direction, windward, upwards to the crest. Grass-stalks pierce their way through her tunic, becoming needles. Thickets of scrubby garrigue scratch her with their branches as she pushes against them. Prickly burrs grab at her outer linen cloak, gathering in knobby clusters, made heavy by the drizzling rain.
A lone holm oak, lichen-encrusted, bent double in supplication to the prevailing elements, looms up like a ghostly apparition. The unyielding winds buffet the basalt cliffs nearby, updrafts wafting salt spray and sand from the breaking surf and jagged boulders far below, peppering the oak. She shelters behind its thick, calloused trunk, leeward, panting and gasping in the respite, exhausted, bedraggled, shivering with windchill. She peers furtively into the darkness, listening, secure that she is not followed.
Her tears, long withheld, flow now in gut-wrenching sobs. She startles, shaking. A thunderclap bursts furiously above her in peals of deafening reverberation, growling and rumbling along the cliffs, into the far distance. She reaches into a leather pouch, secured to her waist, tipping the dried black berries into the cup of her hand, gulping mouthfuls at a time in the brief pauses between gusts. Her heart rate begins racing and her head is spinning. Numbness rapidly spreads down her legs and arms, until she no longer feels the buffets of the storm. A skilled herbalist always knows her options, in this case, the bitter-sweet taste of Belladonna, the ‘beautiful lady’ come to take her away. Lighting criss-crosses the leaden sky, framing her hunched figure momentarily in a luminous silhouette. She stands up regardless, in a state of painless delirium and shuffles on, now with firm resolve.
This is what I imagine, and re-imagine, elaborating or otherwise altering images, to be my mother’s last few minutes of life on earth. I try to feel her trepidation, her primal terror, as she takes her penultimate step on the cliff edge into the void, before eternal nothingness consumes her forever.
She may be someplace else now, transcendent, possibly the fabled Elysian Fields, though I don’t believe in an afterlife. If so, then she is lost to me, which is the only thing that matters. While my father tells me that he found her sandals near the precipice, her body was never recovered, nor any trace washed ashore amid the beaches and rocks, far below. I even wonder if she is still alive somewhere, though Samos is a small island; smaller still when it comes to gossip and idle chatter. The sighting of such a well-liked healer, apparently lost to the sea, would instantly fire up the sandal-mongers, already simmering with rumors.
Besides, she would let me know, surely?
My last memory of her, poignant and rueful, are the arguments, several of them, but actually an endless repetition of the same one, mounting variations on a theme of betrayal.
My reaction is visceral. Knees hard against my chest, I am swaying myself in a rocking motion. A residual from my infancy, the regularity of the movement generates some primitive sense of personal control, albeit one that is confined to the body. I realize that the movement is compensatory, yet it nonetheless provides me with some limited relief.
Meanwhile, this uncontrollable crisis descends down upon me like a hideous black spider. The same monstrous image that springs to my mind, fed by the many past confrontations between them. This time it is worse by far.
“Sapphire is my very close friend. Or I thought she was, until now! You know that, and you’ve been cavorting with her, then….”
“I was helping her move furniture. She’s going to move….”
“…. What a liar! You told me you were going to be late, ‘tutoring after school’ you said. Tutoring in what, I’d like to know?”
Totally powerless, I am caught frantically struggling in the web. Trapped, with mounting panic, I must bear witness to the undoing of my family life, the myth of ‘us’. Are these sordid threats to be my last remaining familial memories?
“Since Zenos died, she’s short on drachmas, and decided to have a sale. I was trying to help her out, since she asked me….”
“…..And what kind of help has fornication as a house-chore?”
“Well, you’re never here, are you? Not for me; not for Epicurus, and you’re his mother! Always out on your rounds, or too tired. Maybe if you stayed home….”
My mother lowers her voice and assumes the deliberated tone of weary familiarity common to married people who have grown apart. Strangers to each other now, she hears herself once again, repeating the same tired accusations.
“Just stop the lying, for once. I saw you two together myself. You couldn’t get enough of her. All over her. What a lecher…”
Not a player, only a victim, I cover my ears to allay the rising crescendo. Melanchaetes, my best friend, is also agitated and leaps up on the bed to console me. I hug his musty, warm body, and nestle my face deep into his coat of long black fur, as he licks my neck furiously.
When does anxiety reach such a level that it becomes disintegrating, leaving nothing on which to cling? Nothing but an empty shell, sucked dry, and the insatiable spider waits for the next victim, myself again, next time around. That’s my great fear. The circular dilemma that feeds my anxiety: will there be a next time? I hate the fighting so much, but would hate it even more, if the only way to stop it means the end of my family!
I sit huddled on my bed while outside my door, accusations of infidelity and betrayal fly back and forth, scathing fusillades in a battle without mercy. Neither one is listening to the other, leaving just a litany of hurt feelings, without compromise. The ferocity of the exchanges grows by the minute. Then abruptly, they are muted. Everyone pauses, dismayed, confused by a sudden tumult outside the house.
A storm front, known locally as an Etesian, often lasting continuously for days and nights, has burst in from the sea without warning, rattling the shutters. With its pummeling winds and sheeting rain, it funnels down the corridor between the high cliffs of the north Aegean islands. The relentless drumming of heavy rain on the terracotta roof tiles dampen any exchanges. It almost seems to me, as if Nature has imposed an eerie truce, or rather, a rage of a different kind, this time by unseen forces. I seize the opportunity.
Throwing back my bedroom door, I burst out, pushing my way between my parents, distraught, begging them to stop. My father, Neocles, easily shoves me aside. I trip on the rug, and fall heavily, breathless but not injured. Melanchaetes is barking aggressively, crouching and baring his fangs. My father is a robust man, with well-developed musculature, and at sixteen years of age, I am no match.
My efforts only make matters worse. Always protective of me, my mother Chaerestrata screams at him, and steps in between us. Unwittingly, I suddenly become the push-pull focus of the conflict. I know my mother to be free-spirited, assertive, and even at times, abrasive. They are both yelling now, only louder, to outdo the thunderous competition of the squalls.
My father frogmarches me back into my room. Small as a monk’s cell, it resonates the infernal screaming, mixing wind, rain, and argument into one deafening, unbearable cacophony. I return to my rocking, fingers in my ears.
“You betrayed me, and so did she. My so-called best friend! Poor Zenos has only been dead less than a year. It didn’t take you long, did it! In you go! Taking advantage….”
“……You only have yourself to blame. You’re never home. Doing whatever, with whom ever! I’m not the fool you think I am. I know your dirty little secret….”
I hear a scratching at the door, and I partially open it. Melanchaetes enters with his usual aura of entitlement, collapsing on his proprietary rug beside my bed with all due aplomb, and despite the commotion, promptly drops off to sleep, unperturbed. Intrigued and distracted, I can’t help but watch him. I wait for what surely will follow. The furor outside recedes innocuously into the background.
Melanchaetes is a kinetic dreamer, and it doesn’t take long before his black, shaggy body is jerking, paws twitching, performing a diminutive pantomime of running movements, comical reproductions of his waking life. The calming reassurance of normalcy hangs on such everyday, droll routines. I lay my head down, smiling.
Just once, I would love to know what my canine companion is dreaming.
My eyes open drearily, with the stout oak shutters providing only a bleak light. There comes a shiver of recognition that it must be morning.
I sit up with a start, recalling the drama of the previous night. Melanchaetes is already awake on the mat, looking up intently, with that head-tilting quizzical gesture so typical of dogs, as if to question my tardiness. I massage his thick neck muscles, our morning ritual of bonding. Exhausted with anxiety, it surprises me nevertheless, that I could have fallen asleep with so much chaos surrounding me. Perhaps sleep was my last remaining haven, or arguably, it was the soothing, distracting regularity of Melanchaetes’ active dreaming.
I gradually awake, disconcerted by the many discordant noises. The Etesian is howling as hard as ever, leaves and small branches lashing the outer stone wall of the cottage, with rain squalls pounding on the roof and shutters. Even my bedroom door is rattling.
“Epicurus, at 18 years, on Samos, Aegean Sea”
I stagger into the kitchen, followed by Melanchaetes. No one. I search the other rooms, calling out to my parents. The house is inexplicably empty. Surely they would not venture out in such inclement weather? I grow alarmed, unsure of what action to take. The closest neighbors are several leagues distant. I begin to pace. Deciding that any action is better than the anxiety of inertia, I throw on my himation, my heavy woolen all-weather cloak, then my wide-brimmed petasos, tying it under my chin.
Pushing against the wind, I open the front door with difficulty, a sudden gust slamming it back into place again. I pull down the brim of my petasos, shielding my eyes. Melanchaetes and I scour the grounds, keeping the wind and rain at our backs as much as possible. With only blurry visibility, our search is fraught with difficulty. I keep the house within sight at all times, making ever widening circles until I reach the tree-line and brambles at the periphery of our property. We find nothing, not even tracks in the gelatinous mud.
Melanchaetes leading the way, nose to the ground, we trundle along the stony road to Chios, then eventually turn about, exhausted and pilloried by the windchill. In the opposite direction, the road continues for a few leagues past our house, then narrows into a mere goatherd trail, becoming an uphill trudge, ending in a steep climb to a rocky promontory with high cliffs. I couldn’t imagine that my parents would have any reason to take that neglected route. All my efforts have served no purpose.
I prudently decide to return to the empty house, bedraggled, hungry, and disheartened. With mighty shakes, Melanchaetes disperses the rain clinging to his outer coat, then I dry him further with an old cloak. I change into a dry tunic and re-kindle the spluttering embers in the fireplace, adding pine and cypress logs. I feed Melanchaetes some cured goat-meat. The barley and lentil soup ‘leftover’ from last night is enough for me. I am too weary even to bother warming it.
We settle ourselves on a sheepskin rug around the cosy warmth of the hearth. Our storeroom is well-stocked. All I can do is wait perplexed, until the weather clears, or they return. Satiated and warm, it’s not long before I helplessly succumb to sleep.
With much slamming and crashing, I am begrudgingly brought back to my senses.
There is my father, like an apparition, not so much sitting around the culina table as he is crumpled up upon it, ungainly, totally filling its area with his large flaccid frame, so that he seems to be suspended in space. Rain drips off his saturated clothing, collecting in puddles on the flagstone floor.
Fagged beyond sleep, he mumbles incoherently. With obvious pain and effort, he lifts his arm and slowly reaches down into his knotted shoulder-bag draped on the floor.
Sliding his arm along the floor, without looking, he uncovers a pair of leather sandals from the bag. They are narrow, floridly embossed, as would be worn by a woman of status. I shiver, incredulous, recoiling backwards, away from them. The sandals belong to my mother, cut, sown, and adorned in her own distinctive style. She enjoys leatherwork, and takes pleasure in providing footwear for her family and friends.
My father lifts his head off the table and tries to cry but falters, making an unearthly feline mewing, then collapses back limply, into a merciful sleep. I’m left standing beside his prostrate body.
It seems like ages for me to process all that my eyes have beholden, though it was perhaps, only several minutes. My mother was parted from her sandals. Arguably, something has happened which has caused her to discard the sandals. She is proud of her leatherwork skills, and under normal circumstances, would never have forgotten or lost them.
My father stirs again, this time managing a hoarse whisper, replete with anguished gasps, rambling in monotone, repeating himself, directed at no one in particular.
“She’s left me…She did it!.. ….Thrown herself over the cliff…..Over the cliff…..Too late…..Gone……Nothing for me to do…..She did it……….Over the cliff……….” And so on.
With the long outburst over, now regressed to mournful sobbing, he folds his arms on the table in front of him as a cradle for his head. I sit there in stony silence, doubting that he is even conscious of my presence.
My feelings towards my father normally run the gamut from wistful love, through tepid allegiance, to tacit resentment. Only now, not to belittle him, I feel only profound pity. It is truly disturbing to see such a hardy man, normally resilient in the face of life’s many challenges, so totally beaten down, broken in spirit.
As for my beloved mother, I have closed off my mind to the matter of the sandals, and any significance attached to them, a kind of protective numbing. I’m certain that she has run off again, as she has done several times before, and is ensconced somewhere, safe and warm with friends. It is difficult for me to accept the idea that someone with such high morals and zest for life had leapt off a cliff. She probably lost her way in the squall and kicked off her sandals to gain better traction in the sloppy mud.
I would soon have reason enough to bitterly recall my smug complaisance.
My mother always said she would take Belladonna if she became incurably ill. In small doses it relieves pain and suffering, she had told me, but caution was needed, since strong dosages are inevitably fatal. Without thinking, I wander into her apothecary, semi-detached at the back of the house.
A familiar florid aroma suffuses throughout the room, a fragrance which I have always associated with fond memories of my mother. As a small boy, I had watched in fascination when she compounded formulations to suit one particular client or another. Best of all were the those special times during school breaks, when I accompanied her on client visits, during which I witnessed incredulously, how readily people responded to her personal therapeutic ministrations.
While efficacious, the herbal ‘remedy’ provided the external rationale for her personal healing powers, without which her many jealous competitors would have her pilloried as a ‘witch’. While they had their suspicions, spreading the gossip, there was little else they could do when the client happily paid for a ‘herbal formulation’, duly dispensed. For my part, the healing power of persuasion, body and mind, impressed me mightily and unknowingly, set the seal on my future life, as do so many seemingly innocent events in our formative years.
Many years have passed since I have had an occasion to enter my mother’s apothecary room, now as a fully-grown man. The diminutive space, much smaller than I remember it, is unexpectedly lined with shelves, top to bottom, packed with inscribed jars, all medicinal herbs which she formulates and dispenses. With a beating heart, I take down the herbal jar labeled as Belladonna, and remove its tight cork stopper. Nothing. I stare into the empty jar, transfixed, before I rouse myself. Yes, she has probably just forgotten to restock it! If she really did intend to kill herself, surely it would be easer to do it here, locked in her own dispensing room. She didn’t need to leap off a cliff, and leave her sandals, neatly arranged. She wasn’t a ‘dramatic type’, and the whole thing just didn’t make sense! On the other hand, people don’t always behave rationally when distressed, even my poor mother.
At some dark, subterranean level, a part of me must have recognized the truth. Why else would I collect her sandals later while my father was snoring? Why did I then hide them in the woods, secreted in a convenient nook under a large rock, to be retrieved at a later time? In the following days, my father queries me several times, convinced that he had returned home with the sandals. I reassure him that it was a false recollection, an artifact of extreme fatigue. Imagination mistaken for memory. Returning home in despair, he had promptly collapsed on the table, empty-handed and comatose. There were no sandals, I explain sorrowfully. He shakes his head, downcast, in consternation.
My mother is justly proud of her leatherwork artistry, especially her finely embellished sandals. Despite many offers, she refuses to sell any of her sandals. Instead, she chooses to give them away as gifts, bestowed as a blessing for the recipient’s friendship. With each gift, she says, “I am there on your feet, as a cushion between you and the world!”. Such heartfelt gestures ensured that unlike her husband, she had many friends who loved her dearly.
Over the years that have passed since the enigmatic loss of my mother, leaving so many questions in the wake of her sudden disappearance, I have carried her sandals with me wherever I wandered. I wanted what little remained of her for myself, not to be shared with my father. If not for his betrayal, would she still be alive? I try to stop my thoughts from straying in that direction, of endless, pointless possibilities.
My mother’s last act, somewhat puzzling, was to remove her sandals. It would seem to be a deliberated action, and if so, then it must have meaning attached to it. I like to think that she left them purposefully for me, as her personal blessing as well as a reminder of her legacy of kindness and tolerance. A call to walk in her shoes. Since that time, my mother’s sandals have become a kind of talisman, as if she is always with me, a tactile memory of a loving heart.
More than once, those sandals have saved me from plummeting into the dark abyss of bitterness and cynicism, that humanity is a corrupt, immoral creature, a lost cause. These were times of deep despair when I firmly believed that the predominant trait of all humans is their proclivity for pitiless violence.
This innate urge for death and destruction, as I conceived it, consumes everything in its path. No one is spared, not each other, not innocent children, not animals, not even or especially, one’s own self. These simple scraps of leather keep my better self alive, one who continues to believe in the possibility of love, and being loved. As told by my mother, I hold that ‘civilization’ with its rule of law constitutes our greatest creation, greater than the Pyramids of Aegypt, or the Parthenon of Athens. Imperfect and intangible as it may be, civilization redeems our baser instincts, giving us the right to claim that we are fully human.
Through the symbolism of these sandals, I retain my mother as a living presence in my life, one that has become the foundation of my own personal philosophy, and all the providence that has followed down the years.
A redemption for both of us, that I carry on in her name.
Fiona Roberts examines the blackened and warped specimen.
‘Shaped like a long dark crap’, she concludes, bemused at her own lapse into bawdy vernacular, then looks around sheepishly. She has an eccentric habit of talking to herself when she feels fatigued. Her conspicuous mop of flaming-red hair doesn’t help her offbeat reputation.
David, her laboratory technician, standing nearby, absorbed in his laptop calculations, shows no visible evidence of eavesdropping. His only gesture of life whatsoever, is a slight adjustment to his horn-rimmed glasses. Fiona giggles aloud now, tittering at the thought that the American Center for Antiquities Research in Boston, her venerable employer, would most certainly not approve of her less-than-empirical observation.
“Well it does look like crap”, quips David calmly, in his best deadpan voice, eyes fixated on his laptop screen, as an impish smile spreads across his face. Only his long auburn hair is shaking. They both convulse into hearty laughter.
It was probably the break they both desperately needed, thought Fiona, after their many long, exacting hours. Their tedious, yet meticulous work, was not for the faint-hearted, and left no space for a normal life. Other staff referred to their cramped, detached laboratory, only half-jokingly, as ‘The Hermitage’. It was widely regarded as the techno-religious retreat of isolated hermits, who could not speak in everyday language, unless it was couched in acronyms.
Dr Roberts, double-Ph.D, Rhodes Scholar, restoration scientist and classicist, turned back to the ‘scatological’ specimen. It had been carbonized beyond recognition by pyroclastic flows, waves of superheated gas, that had consumed what was once a tightly-rolled papyrus scroll, one of many, two thousand years ago. So fragile and brittle was the precious scroll, that it had its own hermetically sealed plexiglass case, moved if necessary, like delicate china.
It had been recently moved many times, very carefully, in the Antiquities laboratory.
“Let’s recalibrate,” Fiona says earnestly, assuming her professorial demeanor once more, “and run another XPCT. This specimen shows promise. It’s not as bad as the others, taken from the bottom of the original bundle, I would guess, so it got more protection. A big one too, probably sixty feet long, if only we could unwind it. We can’t, of course, which thankfully keeps us both in jobs, unwrapping it digitally, hopefully.”
She holds up crossed-fingers in both hands.
“Yea, boss,” says David, disrespectful as ever, “we do have a few individual letters already showing a detectable phase contrast, which makes them more distinctive than most.”
He was referring to the thousands of texts recovered from the archaeological site, the only ancient library with its contents still intact, where they were left on that fateful day in 79 A.D. These charred remnants are all that’s left of the many great libraries of antiquity, now gone forever.
“Fiona Roberts, at 28 years, clasping her first Doctorate”
The rolled scrolls had been crudely excavated in the 18th century, as trophies for Italian politicians or with luck, very rich Englishmen. Enclosed in the space behind a collapsed wall, they came from a vast personal library in what was once a luxurious, multi-storied seaside villa. The magnificent villa was one of several in Herculaneum, port of Pompeii and playground resort of the rich, before both towns were buried alive by the cataclysmic eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius.
The villa was reputed to have been owned by a branch of the Julian family, most famous of Roman dynasties, otherwise known as the Caesars. Fiona knew how hard it was to separate hearsay myth from reality however, especially where money was concerned. This was one reason why she loved her vocation as an evidence-based scientist, debunking myths, or else rarely, affirming them when least expected. She thought back to Homer’s Troy, a myth come true, and the hoard of golden treasures unearthed by Schliemann in the 19th century, still glittering, waiting for almost three thousand years.
David chimes in, reminding Fiona of the formidable task ahead, albeit with the wistful possibility of another ‘Golden treasure’ of a different, technological kind.
“Well, professor,” he says, sardonic as ever, “to get inside this scroll and delineate more letters, we need to refine the energy setting of our micro-scan, much better than what we have been doing. We have to do this for each ‘page’ or layer with hundreds of runs, then adjust the setting again for the next layer and so on, all trial and error.”
Fiona keeps silent, allowing David to have one of his unstoppable, pedantic episodes, in which he sees his role as the realist, ‘putting the brakes on’ as he so coarsely puts it to her. She is the dreamer, a role she cherishes, which is why they work so well together. Despite appearances, David is a dedicated, innovative technologist, who while never admitting it, remains inspired by her dream.
“Of course, each papyrus ‘page’ is wrinkled, thanks to the pyroclastic gas, so that I have to be constantly re-calibrating the settings even within that page. Next, we have to sort out what letters fit on what page in the scroll, which is never clear. Then you have this huge jig-saw puzzle, using your super-software to sort out what order of letters go where, before you can begin to construct words even, much less sentences.”
David catches his breath, then continues his monologue, unabated. Fiona has heard the recital before, several times over. It has almost assumed the status of a sacred recital, or perhaps, a good-luck ritual.
“On top of that, the ‘helpful’ ancient Greeks ran their words together, leaving no spaces. And that’s before deciphering the meaning of the text, filling in the gaps as best you can. Finally, there’s the little matter of translating 1st century Ancient Greek, very different to modern Greek, into readable 21st century idiom.”
Fiona’s patience is rewarded, as David expends all his energies, exhausted and breathless by the mere thought of it all.
“Great,” Fiona chipped in, cheerfully, “now let’s get on with it! Lots to do! Hubba, Hubba!”
“God, you can be a pain,” whispers David, in a hoarse sotto, not quite finished with recounting his doomsday litany of the impossible. One last crack.
“All this effort, and it’s going to be another dull dissertation by Philodemus, just like all the rest.” David adds, despondently, referring to the 1st century B.C scholar of Epicurus’ philosophy.
A month passes, in which David progressively supplies Fiona with the latest phase-contrast micro-scans, the best that his perfectionism would permit, several dozen every week from runs of a hundred or more. Dr. Roberts remains absorbed with her microscopic scrutiny, apart from frequent visits to the Center’s mainframe.
Otherwise, she lives in her glass cubicle, which provides her with the silence she values for her classicist analyses. David takes up the de facto role of bringing her lunch and dinner, before she eventually drives to her nearby apartment, late in the evening, then back in her cubicle by 8 a.m.
He has previously witnessed the way that she could become engrossed in her work, ‘monomaniacal’ he called it, but never at this level of isolation. Dedication, she corrects David, pertly, and closes her door on him.
Even their daily chats, which he always enjoyed, that somehow teased out their mutual humanity, sprinkled with good humor, are now brief and superficial. He tells her unabashedly that she is looking haggard, an all-too-truthful comment and one that halts their chats for several days.
David is increasingly concerned, watching her slyly when he can, unsure of what to do. He thinks about calling her widowed mother, but never does so, fearful of the consequences. He has seen Fiona in one of her few but unforgettable rages, not typical of her caring temperament, but enough that he doesn’t want to cross that irreversible threshold.
Finally, the day comes. Fiona bursts out of her office, flinging the door open violently with a sharp slam, that scatters the adjacent tower of storage boxes. David startles, as the impact resounds across their equipment-packed, wired-up space. Fiona strides up to him, wide-eyed, totally elated, her speech so pressured it becomes incoherent, words tumbling ever faster, over each other.
‘She’s finally snapped and gone totally psycho”, is his first thought.
He holds up his flattened hand at her, that she should stop, and commands her to sit, quiet and still. She obeys, surprisingly, flopping on the chair, suddenly quiescent, the exhaustion of elation.
“Now, start at the start, this time very slowly,” says David, speaking softly and mechanically, mimicking what he wants her to do, “and tell me what’s happening.”
Calm now, Fiona proceeds. “You were right, David: it was written by Philodemus as you had predicted, which was disappointing at first. As more of your data accumulated however, letters emerged, until at last, I could make a calculated guess on a few sentences.”
Fiona pauses for dramatic effect.
“David, I think that we may have hit the jackpot! I’ve kept this to myself, for the last week, reworking all the possibilities. Yes, it’s written by Philodemus which was confusing me at first. It’s now my considered professional opinion however, based on preliminary data, that Philodemus made a direct copy of an original work by Epicurus himself.”
David sits bolt upright in his chair, mouth agape.
“Can you be sure?” he asks, protectively, “You know how competitive you classicists can become, with reputations and grant monies at stake, not to mention both of our jobs.”
“Yes, it’s conditional on preliminary data, but at this stage, it’s more probable than not that it’s Epicurus’ work. We need a lot more data, and funding, before we approach the journals. I’m including you, so as to share the fame, or should I say ‘blame’.”
They both laugh and snigger at absent rivals, the first time in a month. Together, again.
“I think the miraculous may have occurred David, but there’s more! It only gets better…I think? This scroll has suggestions that it may be, possibly, a personal record by Epicurus in which he documents his struggles and trials against the odds, to found his famous ‘School of the Garden’. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, he was poor, not from Athens, with a revolutionary approach to the teaching of philosophy. More like Socrates, really.”
Together, they slid upwards and sideways, off their chairs, into a spontaneous hug, which they both enjoy, but with the tacit understanding that it is not under any circumstances, to be considered an intimate embrace.
With her still sketchy, but promising findings, Fiona is ushered into the hallowed, oak-paneled chambers of that august body, the Board of the American Center for Antiquities Research.
The Boardroom is hushed, some members offering a flicker of a feeble smile, as she is relegated to a unpadded visitors chair set against the wall, waiting her turn. Fiona takes stock as the Chair promptly calls the meeting to order, with “We have Doctor Roberts first on the agenda today, presenting her…..ah…recent findings and —- he pauses here —- her ‘provisional’ interpretations”. An unprepossessing lot, Fiona notes, baneful men-in-suits with most noticeably, two exceptional women who had broken through the ethereal ceiling of corporate privilege, yet whose razor-sharp insights ensured that they were regarded as anything but passive tokens.
The Chair is a burly middle-aged man, with pomaded salt-and-pepper hair, ruddy complexion, pressed blue-suit bulging at the seams, and regulation red tie. His introduction continues with several unsettling references to ‘budget overruns’ and ‘red ink’. Fiona notes that his choice of words is minimalist, dense and compressed, so much so that it reaches the level of a coded communication, in which the nuances of what was not said carry the greater meaning. Unusual for Fiona, she dislikes him instantly. A boorish ‘corporate type if ever there was one’ she muses, buttoning down her contempt at his pompous game-playing. She had heard of his gender conservatism and reputation for LGBTQ misspeaks (‘A sad case of repression’ — Fiona is delighted with her own mischievous thought, and an interior chuckle whose only visible representation is an inscrutable smirk).
The Chair concludes with another signature pause, turning the floor over to “Doctor…umm….Roberts, one of our…..ahem…hard-working academics”.
Her dander up, Fiona argues cogently, fleshing out her dream, that if, ‘a big IF’, this is indeed Epicurus’ own story told by himself autobiographically, it will add immediate luster and renown to the Antiquities Center. She knew the Center was currently lagging somewhat in the institutional stakes (she didn’t mention this). It had been a long drought since they had made a groundbreaking Press Release.
With a toss of her ruddy hair, Fiona concludes her animated address with an appeal for additional funding.
“A lot more,” she says, with emphasis, looking steely-eyed at the Chair, “We need a larger team, many times over, papyrologists, classicists, sub-specialist textual scholars, maybe even a forensic archivist.”
The Chair sniffles loudly, rubbing his chin. More coded communication.
Most importantly, Fiona requests ‘access funding’ for trials with the Grenoble synchrotron (at David’s insistence), which would “vastly improve the accuracy of the energy settings for the micro-scans.”
Coughs and mutterings.
“Yes, yes it will be expensive, no doubt….,” she adds.
“…..but the the synchrotron will speed up the project immensely.”
The Board members have restlessly sat through the ordeal of the scientific data, shifting in their plush leather chairs to stay awake. The last statement however, is the clincher that abruptly galvanizes their full attention. Money for immediacy! Tired of endless talk and anxious for tangible results, it’s the ‘bottom line’ they have been patiently waiting to hear.
Sensing the momentum, Fiona shrewdly launches her punchline, plucky as ever.
“I think we are all standing on the threshold of a wonderful discovery!”
Where once a strained silence reigned, now everyone is talking at once, elated to finally have a newsworthy project….with their prominent endorsement. Scanning the room, the Chair congratulates Fiona on “a fine presentation,….Doctor Roberts, may I say, Fiona?” and calls for a round of applause. Fiona notes how adeptly his misogynistic overtones are mellowed by political expediency.
Funding is duly budgeted, conditional upon progress of course, and a ‘best of the best’ team is recruited, hand-picked by Fiona as Team Leader, complete with “Team Epicurus” tee shirts (David’s idea).
After one year, the team reaches consensus that the text is indeed, a copy of an Epicurus original, moreover, of a likely autobiographical nature. At two years, Fiona and David are married, with a stand-in Epicurus as the ‘best man’, complete with toga and golden wreath, an ectoplasmic match-maker.
At four years, despite the bleating of the Board for quick ‘turnaround’ results, Team Epicurus has assembled an acceptable facsimile of an intact manuscript, letter by letter, sentence by sentence, ‘page by page’, from countless thousands of carefully calibrated micro-scans. It is indeed, the ‘Epicuriana’, one of the great lost works of antiquity!
At long last, the Antiquities Board gathers together to launch a major Press Release that takes off like wildfire, grabbed by all the news agencies across the United States, and internationally. In eye-catching hyperbole, headlines trumpet the digital recovery of an ‘invisible diary’, an ageless Epicurean masterpiece. Board members beam while Alumni fight to provide endowments, that nonetheless, carry their illustrious names.
At the obligatory black-tie cocktail party, the major fund-raising event of the season, Fiona runs the gauntlet of gratuitous smiles and finger-pointing. The once pretentious, now affable Antiquities Chair shepherds his prized researcher between groups of potential donors, Fiona finding herself responding tirelessly to the same predictable questions. An obese Saudi in traditional garb pats Fiona briefly on the shoulder, and strokes her arm affectionately several times during their conversation. David shows restraint, telling himself that it’s nothing more than cross-cultural differences, though this doesn’t stop him from intervening, calling Fiona aside for an ‘urgent call’.
On a more serious note, Fiona encounters for the first time, those partisan agencies who wish to conflate archeology with geo-politics, the bugbear of all such researchers. While the Chair is waylaid by eager journalists, with David holding forth at the bar, a stylish, handsome ‘official’ from the Greek Embassy buttonholes Fiona into a corner. At first, Fiona is relieved by what seems to be an innocent conversation, as a welcome break from the monotony of rote questioning. It’s actually refreshing, she thinks to herself, that his interests are less concerned with her academic research than they are with some tenuous Greek claims to claw back several small offshore Aegean islands lying off the coast of the Turkish Republic.
Fiona listens attentively but disinterested, concluding that he’s just another ardent patriot, which makes for a pleasant, but harmless interlude. Her passive listening receives an unexpected jolt however, when the ancient kingdom of Ionia, a proto-Greek state, slips into the discussion.
“Would the Epicuriana”, the handsome ‘official’ inquires, “contain any dated references to these Ionian islands, especially relating to ancient commerce and trading routes, which might bolster our righteous case for annexation? Turkey grabbed the islands illegally when Ataturk overthrew the Ottomans in the aftermath of World War One. The West was so anxious to embrace the new Republic, even at the cost of its old ally.”
Suddenly uncomfortable, Fiona finds herself plunged into the murky waters of international intrigue. With beating heart, she quickly excuses herself for the ladies’ ‘powder-room’! Making her way, she notices that her prior exchange had not escaped the notice of the Turkish Ambassador who makes a point of smiling benignly at her as she passes.
Months go by, as Fiona settles back into her laboratory research, preparing her overdue monographs between an onslaught of media interviews. It’s not long before other blandishments follow, considerably more substantive: a hefty salary increase, tenured professorship, plush office, and even a private secretary, as incentives to retain her services. Moreover, she is granted a six month sabbatical which also allows ample time for a honeymoon tour of ancient Troy, especially arranged by the Turkish government.
“A professional courtesy” says the Turkish archeologist, her personal guide on the site, now that she is a momentary celebrity.
A bright young man, he coyly asks her many detailed questions about her work on the Epicuriana, not in itself, an unusual thing in exchanges between scientific colleagues. As time passes however, the conversation subtly converges on her Ionian findings. Fiona is prepared this time.
“Just to clarify any possible misunderstandings,” she states nonchalantly, while intensely examining a tiny ceramic potsherd, “You should know that Epicurus makes no mention whatsoever of the disputed Aegean islands.”
Fiona follows up with an impish smile.
The young man nods innocently, as no further discussion was needed.
High above them, the red flag of the Turkish Republic, with its prominent crescent moon of Islam, flutters over the hallowed site. Ancient history and modern politics, while seemingly strange bedfellows, are uniquely difficult to separate.
“Treasure comes in many forms” mused Fiona, as she wanders amid the dusty ruins of Homer’s Troy, stratum upon stratum of long ago lives, which not surprisingly, remind her of the delicate layers of a carbonized papyrus scroll! She thought too, about the many years of tedious ‘spadework’ spent in excavating Epicurus’ life from the dustbin of history, her very own Trojan odyssey.
Epicurus’ voice had been lost in time, suppressed, disparaged, and distorted beyond recognition, finally brought to vibrant life from the Athenian ‘Golden Age’ of philosophers:
“For I am he, born Epicurus of Samos, son of the Athenians, Neocles and Chaerestrata, of the Athenian deme (village) of Gargettus, and clan Philaidae, and this is my true voice.”
“Herewith, I lay aside my pen, having recorded my thoughts as well as my lived life, such as it is, which is merely the pallid interlude between such thoughts. Neither poetics nor rhetoric, I turn my memorabilia over to the Fates, in the hope that while I am now nothing but dust, these erstwhile thoughts may yet continue to live, and find a gentle heart amidst an uncertain posterity.”