PART III

"Failures"

Valerius Mela is the father figure I had always wanted despite his autocratic temperament, and absolute rule over his household. He possesses that most significant trait, woefully lacking in my own father: he loves Servilia above all else, even his own life.

In our humble household, the comparison could not be greater. Where love should be, there is only a solemn, suffocating silence, in which I am neither seen nor heard. Failings are treated with quiet disdain, while ambition and initiative are merely ‘vanity in disguise’. I would rather be rebuked, any pitiful recognition that I have some meager significance, rather than merely ignored.

I feel as if I am a duty that has been imposed on him under sufferance, as a single parent. Am I nothing but an obligation lacking any corresponding commitment, to be discharged as expeditiously as possible? It doesn’t help matters that I assist him at his school on occasion. I prefer the freedom offered by my private tutoring, which provides a meager, though independent income for me.

Whatever lay in his past, I only know my father as a moody, introverted man, whom I have tried to love, as a naïve, young child does naturally. I was raised with tales of the family misfortune: that he had picked the wrong side in one of those seemingly petty, yet torturous disputes, for which Athens was infamous. His self-righteous stubbornness had ended with an exile to the Athenian colony of Samos.

Sequestered on the island, fueled by a temperament of austerity and perpetual melancholy, my father’s misfortunes festered into a hypervigilance that saw conspiracies everywhere. Any remaining friends were driven away, leaving only Marius, our long-suffering but ever-loyal slave. Good Marius would take the brunt, patiently listening to my father for countless hours until he was finally spent, exhausted by his own litany of forebodings. Matters only got worse. First and foremost, there is my mother’s untimely disappearance, then my compulsory military service in Athens, and finally, the Macedonian invasion of Samos, followed by a further exile to Colophon. At the same time, Valerius also relocated to Colophon, by his own choice, using Notium as the base for his trading fleet.

Following my mother’s disappearance, the rumor has gradually trickled down to me, usually in hushed intimations, that she had taken on a secret paramour as a last refuge from a loveless marriage. My mother’s body was never recovered, and questions continue to linger as is their wont in such cases. A vacuum calls out to be filled, even if only by wild speculation. While my father certainly has his problems, I truly can’t believe he is implicated. His grief was pitiful to behold, and he has never fully recovered. Neither have I.

When raging storms sweep inland from the distant sea at Notium, or else, in my dreams, when images arise of my mother lonely and afraid, atop the cliff, I wake up in fright. I find myself looking to the door as if she will walk through at any moment, though we left Samos years ago. Most of the time, the specter of my mother has become a part of my life that I try to seal off, as if that horrid night never happened. Interestingly, my private possession of her sandals provides a material connection, which serves as a memento as well as an inspiration for me.

On the other hand, if my father had not been so quarrelsome in Athens, he would never have moved to Samos in exile. I would never have been born there and Servilia would not be in my life now, such is the happenstance of life.

“Chance and Choice collided,” says Servilia, primly, mimicking one of our past teachers, “like two Euclidean vectors that brought us together.”

The collision of vectors, having its origins in geometry, seems to be a rather odd, arguably ambivalent, way to describe our long relationship. Fervent love reduced to ‘collisions’ and cold geometry? Such small, pert reminders always make me wonder whether her love is real, or is she merely flirting with me? Or have I become overly sensitive, so that any reference to our relationship is turned into an onerous sleight? While we are both strong, opinionated personalities, with inevitable ‘collisions’, it’s my experience that such arguments have nevertheless helped our understanding of each other! On the other hand, if sowing insecurity is Servilia’s intention, it certainly works.

She wants to keep me teetering on the edge, as if I am weathering a storm, atop a high cliff.

I have long observed that when action is procrastinated, dread and angst fill the vacuum for me. So it is now with Valerius’ meeting.

Is his “invitation” to be punishment or praise, leaving my fretful mind scuttling back and forth? Even apprehension must have its own satiation, and I finally decide that the delayed meeting surely, could not be part of some heinous plot? Full conviction and relief however, like the endless toil of Sisyphus, continue to elude me.

I have reached that crucial tipping point when meaningful mediation degrades to fruitless rumination. Like mythical Sisyphus, I push the stone up the hill, almost to the top where it will rest, only to have it roll back down, so that I must start over again.

This is an all too familiar process, one ingredient in a strange admixture of sensibilities that I have come to accept, somewhat unwillingly, as myself. I know for example, that I lean towards the shy, brooding, and melancholic type. Like my father, I will spend long hours in useless rumination, the pull of the “what if” catastrophe, such as Valerius’ meeting. Sometimes, I use a simple physical means of stepping out of this mental treadmill.

Shy though I may be, I like to saunter around the rustic villages on the periphery of Colophon, where many of the marketplace farmers, artisans, and herdsmen live. I observe people surreptitiously in their everyday lives, going about their business. People-watching is not only my hobby, but also my chosen vocation. To mask my ‘sinister secret’, which may be distasteful to some people, I involve myself in a mundane task, often wood-carving for which I have a natural aptitude.

As well as providing unchallenged freedom of movement, this ruse also enables me to hold up my wood-carving to inspect its progress. At the same time, I use it as a prop to also inspect the surroundings. I have become adept at observing people, and their oddities and compulsive rituals. Take for example, a well-respected, otherwise sensible, local farmer who bows and mutters incantations every time he passes the well in his ancestral village.

I come to realize the enormity with which arcane superstition and the reinforcing power of repetition hold control over peoples’ free-will. When it comes to superstitious ritual, people rarely swerve from their preordained patterns of compulsive behavior and obsessive thought. In fact, they rarely think about such rituals, whether local villagers or the urban elite, and so the repetition continues, however gullible it may seem.

These superstitious rituals serve no functional purpose other than in their owner’s overripe imagination. While such rituals may reinforce a false sense of security, they nonetheless demand a childish suspension of disbelief. It is difficult to be a fully-rounded individual, when one attributes future prospects to the goodwill of arcane, invisible forces.

While I seem able to objectively note the power of such repetitive behavior in other people, there remains a deep irony about this. I wonder whether in observing the village folk, and their oddities and repetitions, I am driven by a cryptic desire to observe such behavior in myself. The truth is that I struggle mightily with this very same issue subjectively, ruminating endlessly about ‘catastrophes’ that never happen.

As it is with the villagers, such groundless repetition is nonetheless, a failure of free-will within me. So it is that Valerius’ meeting constitutes an invisible agency to which I attribute power over my behavior. As I watch my own relentless brooding in action, fully aware yet powerless to intervene, what begins as a harmless meeting with the father is transformed into romantic rejection by the daughter. Somehow, in my tangled thinking, I conflate one with the other.

From our early formative years on Samos, Servilia and I have been close, if not always amicable, childhood companions. Now on Colophon, we are considered to be ‘adults’, as if we are miraculously transfigured into rational beings. Yet nothing has changed, and we continue to struggle with our turbulent feelings for each other, the same as always, following our cycle of loving and fighting. She is at once, both sensual and intellectual, a tantalizing combination for me, but not without its blemishes.

While I have grown accustomed to her labile mood swings, the recent episode took my distress-levels to new heights. It rattled my own mental resilience, as well as causing me for the first time, to question my abiding affection. At what stage does love cross the line into abject subjugation?

As for my father, if he talks to me at all, it’s only in his characteristic flat, wooden manner, devoid of feeling, toneless, loveless. Considering my own passionate nature, it’s hard to believe that I had sprung from the same loins!

The truth is that despite our many differences, we are both suffering. I need to crawl out from beneath his malignant shadow, no more to be just the over-sensitive, bothersome ‘son of Neocles, the teacher’. Whether the betrayal lay mostly with my father, or with my mother, on that ominous, stormy night, I don’t want that allocation of blame to become my obsession in life. In my sensitivity to Servilia, I seem to be repeating my parents cycle of betrayal and rejection.

There it is, my own great fear, stripped naked.

I don’t want Servilia and I to end up like my parents, bitter and accusatory, besotted with betrayal, real or imagined!

Absorbed in my own musing, seated in the culina, I stare listlessly at my mug, with its infusion of herbs collected by my mother in past, happier times.

I’m thinking of her, making the effort to steer my recollections on an uplifting course. ‘Building a private testimonial’ I call it, a remedy of sorts, rather than regressing once again into a hopeless maudlin state. I am startled by a sharp rap on the entry door of our rustic mud-brick cottage. We don’t get many visitors now, since my mother’s disappearance.

While large by local village standards, having the distinction of multiple rooms, it is nevertheless, a hard-scrabble dwelling by comparison with the palatial villas reserved for the Colophon elite. Apart from our single servant, Marius, I am the only one at home, since father is teaching at his classes.

I open the door, not without its customary squeaking hinges.

“Hail Epicurus,” declaims Servilia in mock-formality, a legacy of her Roman heritage, “I thought that you may be in need of some feminine company”

“Why yes, of course,” I reply in a snap, teasing her, “any feminine company whatsoever is always most welcome, day or night.”

We both chortle in unison, then laugh at our own spontaneity. Any residual tension has instantly evaporated. A propitious start.

I usher her into the culina, our modest kitchen. Defying proportions, its dominant feature is the oversized stone hearth. Occupying almost one complete wall, with iron cauldrons and ladles to one side, it’s an impressive luxury when the village standard is a primitive fire pit. We sit down together on backless stools casually facing each other across the rough-hewn oak dining table.

“I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking,” I announce, now in a serious tone, “why you and I end up having so many fights. You feel rejected, then I feel rejected, and so on. It’s a muddle. I know that you need to feel independent and free, but it makes me wonder if you will ever settle down….,with anyone?”

“Uh Oh” came her only reply, while she shuffles ominously in her chair.

“I had to admit to myself that it doesn’t take much to set me off,” I say, taking my time to choose my words so that I stay on track. I don’t want matters to escalate, as so often happens when we discuss our ‘arrangement’.

Silence. Servilia is staring intently into my face, keenly focused on my eyes, ‘reading my aura’ as she calls it. I find it unsettling, since matters often take a dramatic turn after such a ‘reading’. It never augurs well.

She may be surprised by my openness, asking herself if today is to be another futile replay of such ‘discussions’ in the past?

I’ve done a great deal of thinking after our last episode, mostly in the nature of a self-reproach, and I need to be open with her, which nonetheless is difficult for me.

“I become reactive and defensive so easily, then I close down and retreat back within myself, and it gets awfully lonely in there.”

I keep my voice soft and entreating, even throwing in a joke at my expense for lightness. Silence. She is listening attentively, though her face remains stony and flat.

In the meantime, Marius has busied himself clattering plates as background noise, ensuring our privacy in such a tight space. Always vigilant, he seizes the opportunity when I pause.

Stepping forward quickly, Marius offers our esteemed visitor a goblet of rustic Samian wine. Certainly not a wine variety that would be found at the Villa. Acting as an impromptu host, he explains that it is “known locally as ‘moschato’, jammy on the palette at first with a lingering dry finish.” Servilia does a tasting, and complements him.

Marius leaves the kantharos serving vase, so that we can refill our own goblets, dispensing with his services. An accompaniment of goat cheese completes his etiquette of welcome.

“Servilia…an accompaniment of goat cheese”

Servilia accepts the goblet, very graciously, all sweetness to Marius, in accordance with her mannered upbringing, yet inscrutable when she turns to me. She’s still suspicious. Marius dutifully pours another goblet for myself, then discreetly retires outside, ostensibly tending to the far garden. Good, faithful Marius, the household diplomat and erstwhile host, taking over from my mother.

“I have to apologize to you, dear Servilia, for the way I have unwittingly used you to avoid myself,” I say slowly, formally, to emphasize its seminal importance for me, “I need to find the courage to be myself, for myself. I need to own those feelings that I’ve long suppressed, which I’ve dumped on you.”

My mouth is parched. Together, as if rehearsed, we both sip from our goblets. She tilts her head, thoughtfully, stroking her chin. Feeling somewhat chastened, I pick up the thread of my sad story.

“These painful feelings, when I closely examine them, actually have little to do with you. Mostly, they have their origins in my family turmoil that I’ve absorbed like a sponge during my childhood years.”

Unexpectedly, Servilia reaches across the table, pulling me towards her, and gives me a wordless, soft kiss on my forehead, accompanied by her signature, bewitching smile. I’m disconcerted, blushing, but only momentarily, not to thrown off my predetermined path. I feel that I’m unburdening myself in some way, and must finish what I have to say.

“Even if you don’t like it, I want my reaction to be mine, and mine alone, not something that’s driven by the past of long ago. That’s no way to live, and offers no future for us.”

I feel depleted, and pour more Samian wine for both of us. Servilia makes no mention of my ‘revelations’ other than gulping down her wine copiously with a broad smile. Now it’s her turn.

It’s obvious that she is feeling in high spirits, bubbling with good humor. I sense that she has appreciated my wine-soaked ramblings.

She begins an animated conversation, mostly minor gossip and updates on mutual acquaintances. Like a true Roman, her brown arms and hands are in constant, graceful motion, swirling, gesticulating, and jabbing the air, emphasizing or offering an opinion. I remain somewhat guarded, going along with it, waiting and watching. I try to inject a word or two, but I’m beating against the tide.

When Servilia slips into one of her periodic garrulous states, I’m never sure what will follow next. Thoughts fall over each other in the pressure to convert them into words, as if she is punctuating the air, ending up as unconnected ideas. I try to smooth out her utterances, making allowances for them, as part of her mercurial character.

Over the years, I have come to realize that like myself, she is riven by inner conflicts, which she inherited, not of her doing, but which she carries along with her as a heavy burden. This deeper understanding gives me the patience to listen, quietly and attentively, just as she did with me.

I recount to myself what I know about Servilia, those experiences which, if I listen to her own words, define how she sees herself. I know for example, that she is an avid devotee of the Eleusinian Mysteries of the goddess Demeter, the primal earth mother, and the cycle of the four seasons, aligned with birth, life, death, and rebirth.

Accompanied by a paternal aunt, she made a grand pilgrimage to the sanctuary outside of Athens, at Eleusis, as a gift from her father, on her sixteenth birthday. Valerius had begrudgingly agreed, after the intercession of his sister, acting on behalf of Servilia. Only those without sin are eligible to enter the inner circle of initiates and must be vetted by the Eleusinian goddesses. Since her aunt was already a member of the inner circle, she acted as sponsor, so that Servilia was duly inducted into the mysteries despite her young age. Afterwards, Servilia walked the arduous Sacred Pathway, along with the many other supplicants, weeping frequently as she went, assuaging a long-held regret and sadness.

It would seem that without any conscious plan, Servilia and I have entered into an intimate exchange, an openness about ourselves and our inner lives. This shared self-reverie is a new experience for both of us, aided perhaps, by Samian wine and the ‘magic’ of our rustic culina.

Cozy and inviting, the culina is replete with assorted pots and pans hanging from the rafters. Sea-shells, carvings, specimen rocks, and colorful jars fill the mantelpiece, above the fireplace, while straw-brooms and pans in the far corner complete the domestic scene. The golden rays of the afternoon sun, shining benignly through the open back doorway, fill the small kitchen with a luminous, soft glow. A peaceful silence imbues the space between us, and we both savor its wordless serenity. We sit spellbound, as time passes, becoming meaningless, hardly breathing, not one of us willing to disturb the otherworldly enchantment.

It’s a rare, unforgettable occasion, a moment so unexpected, so precious, frozen forever in our collective memories. I feel as if this is our time and place, that we will always belong here, always together, detached from the rest of the outside world. Finally, I know not when, I clear my throat and gently mention to Servilia that I was thinking of Eleusis and the Mysteries, breaking the genial communion that had overtaken us.

“As you know, dear Epicurus, I am an only child and lost my mother at birth,” she speaks calmly now, “one life exchanged for another, which carries its own perverse burden of guilt. At least you got to know your mother before she died, but I never had that opportunity!”

She hesitates, her top lip quivering, but carries on.

“Sorry, but you should be thankful for whatever time you had with your mother. Yes, I am attracted to the Mysteries. They focus on fertility, and the special relationship between mothers and daughters, womb begetting womb.”

She sips her wine, then abruptly screws up her face into a sour grimace. She waves off my concern, to indicate that it’s not the wine.

“When I think about it, my life consists of endless acts of restitution and sacrifice. Whatever I do, it’s never enough to make up for ‘killing’ my mother, and ‘robbing’ my father of his beloved,” she says, with a long, laconic sigh. She shrugs her shoulders, in a familiar gesture, followed by a short, hollow laugh, redolent of hopelessness.

“I never told this to anyone: what really happened at Eleusis, so it can be our secret. As part of my initiation into the Mysteries, I was given a potent drink of some kind which put me into some kind of trance. I can’t tell you everything, and so much happened that I can’t even recall. I remember that all the gods and goddesses were present, as if I had died, and my mother too was present, smiling at me. I heard her voice for the first time, so sweet and inviting, telling me that she and I will be united forever in the afterlife.”

Servilia paused, wiping away a few tears with the back of her hand.

“It was a blessed experience, and so helpful. But despite everything, I still fall back on my old patterns of thinking. I still feel selfish, as if I don’t deserve any enjoyment in my life, even my time with you. Even now.”

Tears trickle down Servilia’s pale face. I pass a towel to her. I think about hugging her, but feel that she needs her space.

Pitiless self-judgement I think, must always be the ultimate measure of punishment. No one can scourge another person as effectively as the psychological flogging metered out by one’s own self. Well-guarded secrets and unrequited yearnings become the branding irons of that most personal of mental torturers.

Servilia goes on to describe in detail, the pilgrimage to Eleusis. It became a milestone in her life, a rite of passage to womanhood, but moreover, a symbolic redemption of her own identity. She describes it as “Promethean”, alluding to it as a fiery gift of the gods, that of divine forgiveness, burning away her sacrificial shrine of endless guilt. For the first time in her life, she felt free, unburdened. The experience didn’t last, but nor can it be erased.

She knows now that it is possible to be truly free.

This was as unexpected as it was welcomed by the many, many people who love her, not least of all by myself.

 

 

(To be continued next week)