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Unmasked

Demeter stayed because she had no where else, in particular, to go and because Trip was enjoying her company.

He entertained her with bright stories full of his love of the earth and the sky. Stories that made her laugh and cry and that filled her with ideas and dreams. They were stories that didn’t require her to dredge into her nearly empty well for soothing words or sweet solutions.

As the days and nights rolled by her feet grew used to leaping from rock to rock, her hair falling freely down her back became wild and curly and her heart remembered how to laugh and shout.

One day sitting on the soft grass surrounded by daffodils and snowdrops she laughed carelessly at the littlest goat’s attempts to catch a butterfly and her laughter turned to tiny golden birds that sang and swept the air before fading into sunlight. Trip sighed happily with awe and she blushed, suddenly acutely apologetic for her deception.

“You were right,” he said, with a voice like honey, “You were right to keep it a secret that you’re Demeter, because anyone else would have begged you not to stay here. Not to let the rest of the world suffer and go hungry. And you weren’t to know that I wouldn’t.” She smiled with relief and wonder. Her friendship, her salvation was intact, but time collapsed and she drew breath as her soul shifted uncomfortably within her. It was time now to find out what was happening out there.

“Is the world hungry?” she asked.

“Yes, just like before. I’ve walked to the top of the hilltop and seen the land around cold, hard and dry. Nothing is growing. The trees are bare, but there is still sap in the small branches.”

Demeter shuddered. Images of hungry children flicked through her mind. Her stomach felt like lead. She drew breath and her dilemma stood blankly before her.

She had quit in order to force the hand of Zeus. If he wanted her to work he would have to order Hades to return Kora to her. She had known that quitting would also rest her soul, but she hadn’t expected so much, she hadn’t known that she would learn to laugh and swim and laze on grass covered hillsides playing with goats and flowers. She loved her work and her people, she loved being the one who was responsible, who provided for them, but she loved her freedom too.

And Zeus, what would it take to force his hand? He hadn’t acted yet, and the land was dry and hard. Did he not care? Would he wait for the children to die? As she pondered, a cold thought passed like a shadow through her heart. Perhaps Zeus would wait. Perhaps Hades knew that Zeus was too weak or stupid or distracted to act. Perhaps Hades would fill his halls with children and win twice. The game of strategy she was playing suddenly skipped a level. She realised that she would have to play smarter.

The people needed feeding. Zeus couldn’t be trusted.

Trip had left her side, seeing that she needed time to think. He called a goat and scratched its bristly head, then placed placing a bowl beneath it. He was squeezing milk from its teats. Milk to drink. Demeter smiled. The answer was suddenly clear ~ this boy was the key.

Trip poured the milk into two cups and offered one to Demeter. As she sipped it she asked him to go to his village, to find out how bad it was there. She needed to know how quickly she had to act, now that she was Demeter again.

The next morning she watched him walk out of the valley, carrying a basket of goat wool he had collected to give to his mother. She was restless throughout the day and spent it examining and re-examining her logic. She ate nothing and did nothing except watch for Trip’s return, but in the meantime she became more solid and focussed, sharper and more potent. She rolled her dilemma around in her heart wincing as its sharp edges pressed against her flesh.

Trip arrived in the purple moments before moonrise. His basket was empty and his face was grave.


Reminiscing

Narcissus often sat with the sword on his lap running his fingers over the strange patterns on the hilt.

Holding it, he seemed to remember things that he couldn’t see or think about. Things that made him happier and more comfortable inside his skin. Warmer. Older perhaps. He felt lucky to have it. Blessed. It puzzled him though. He had never owned a sword before. He had never trained as a warrior. He didn’t understand wars. He didn’t understand why people agreed to participate in them. He thought too much, he could always understand both sides of an argument and he couldn’t understand why other people would use swords and flesh rather than reason to settle disputes.

He had heard from Hecate that Kora had gone again. They had smiled together when she shared the news. He understood why she hadn’t said goodbye. They both did. They were both sure that her departure was a step towards her destiny. Narcissus could only guess at what her destiny might be, but he didn’t doubt that it, and only it, would make her happy. The image of Kora he held in his mind sparkled and he wished magnificent things for her.

Narcissus, like Hecate, trusted Kora’s good sense and luck completely. He thought about her often and wondered where her feet had led her. He missed her but still savoured the time he had to spend alone.

Since he had arrived in the village he had kept mostly to himself. He had met Hecate at a crossroads before he came to the valley. They had fallen quickly into an easy, happy conversation. He had told her that he was looking for a quiet place to contemplate the greater meanings and she had told him about the Old Dancer’s temple with its sacred pool and mighty trees.

Thinking back on that meeting he remembered her shouting “May Fortuna smile upon you” as he left her and followed her directions towards the small collection of stone and wood buildings that was the village. His hand caressed the hilt of Fortuna’s sword and he smiled in quiet awe at the eerie foresight of his wise friend.

Walking into the village for the first time he had met Ameni. He was handsome, athletic and friendly. He had seen Narcissus wandering around looking like a lost stranger and he’d offered help. They’d walked together to the small dusty house that visitors to the village usually stayed in and Ameni fetched a bucket of water and brought some bread and fruit and left them on the table. He also sent word through the village network that a new guest had arrived and would be staying in the house, perhaps for quite a while.

Then they’d walked together around the village and down to the edge of the water where the stream that ran down from Demeter’s house and through Echo’s pool met another and made a deep clear pool fringed with graceful willows. They threw stones skipping across the surface while Ameni talked about his parents and his brothers and then they’d pulled off their robes and swum. Narcissus had felt Ameni’s eyes running like finger tips across his body.

They’d raced each other across the water. They were well matched at swimming. Though Narcissus’s body was slim and elegant his grace made up for the difference in their muscle shapes. Ameni’s body was well formed and strong, his legs, chest and shoulders shaped by heavy work and warrior training. They paused panting by the distant bank and slid somehow too easily, Narcissus later thought, into an embrace.

Narcissus’ head was dizzy from the swim and from his travels ~ he hadn’t quite arrived yet. Perhaps, he wondered later, it was holding and friendship that he had thought he needed at the time.

Ameni had seemed to be offering this, but it had turned all too quickly into something else, something too intimate, rough and painful that had left Narcissus wondering what had happened and why. The thread of the growing friendship had been broken, or lost or somehow forgotton. Ameni for a moment had been something else, something forceful and hungry, brutal and callous.

Then, just as suddenly, he was laughing again like a boyhood friend with twinkling eyes.
But Narcissus was feeling differently. He swam quietly back across the river and put on his robe. Ameni followed and they walked together back into the village. Ameni hadn’t seemed to notice the change in Narcissus. He waved him a cheerful farewell at the gate of the visitor’s house and promised to visit him the next day.

Narcissus curled up on his new bed and cried and knew that being completely alone and by himself was what he needed. As he slept he pushed the memory of what had happened in the river as deep down in his mind as possible, in the hope that it would never surface again.

He rose before dawn the next day and walked wearily along the path up the hill, following Hecate’s instructions to the Dancer’s temple. Pushing open the soft rotting gate and breathing in the damp air, he had smiled and tingled with relief. He felt old, he limped to a moss-lined nook in the arm-like roots of the huge oak tree beside the pool and curled up and slept again.

He woke a few hours later with dappled sunlight dancing on his skin, birds were singing in the overgrown garden and dragonflies skated on the weedy surface of the pond. He yawned and stretched like a new born baby and started to explore his soul’s new home.
He befriended the plants, clearing eager grass from the roots of some of them and offering others the support of climbing sticks and rough trellises.

Then he looked deep into the pond and reached in with his arms to clear out the weeds that were jamming the flow of water from the rocks at one end. Stopping often in his labour to simply enjoy the garden, he fell gradually deeply in love with the place.
His hands touching solid wood and solid earth became clear in their intention and resolve. This would be the place where his greatest thoughts would be given permission to soar as high as they were able. It was a place of no limits, of delicious potential.

Clearing away a rambunctious creeper, through which he could glimpse white marble, he found a statue of Dionysis, the Old Dancer himself. He pulled off his light robe and dipping it into the pond to wet it, used it to scrub the statue clean. Then he bowed down before the marble figure and asked it for sanctuary and solitude. Looking up from the statue’s feet towards its face glinting wet in the sunlight, he wondered if the eyes twinkled for a moment and he smiled with hope.



Echo

A few days later Narcissus noticed that the trickle of water running through the temple pond was again clogged with weed.

He stepped into the water and started breaking the slippery stems of the water plants with his hands, tugging them and tearing their roots from the rocky bottom. He moved his feet carefully, unsure of the depth in places where weed and mud were thick in the water. He didn’t know back then that all of the ponds in the valley were linked by streams, sometimes above and sometimes below the surface of the land. He didn’t know that stirring up the silt in the temple pond was clouding the water in a pond downstream, a pond inhabited by a water nymph.

Echo was puzzled by the silt and the bits of broken weed swirling in her water, so she stepped up onto her bank and walked up the path towards the temple. Her eyes bright with hope that perhaps another nymph had come to live nearby, she had peered through the gateway and gasped at the sight of Narcissus’ smooth back glistening white and wet in the sunlight.

He was a vision from the deepest depths of her secret longing. She held her breath and was mesmerized. Her spine tingled with excitement. At last she had found the One she had imagined for so long. The One who would dive and play with her, who would stroke her face and hold her hand while she explored the terrible crevices in her soul. The one who would smile with her while she watched her children grow. She wondered, since she had never met another nymph, whether all male nymphs were as beautiful as this one. But this shining figure was so perfectly formed, so much like she was herself, that she was certain that they were two of a kind, a pair destined to be together.

Smiling blissfully, she arranged her body carefully and coughed gently to attract his attention.

Narcissus, startled, dropped the armful of weeds he had carefully gathered. He groaned inwardly, slapped by the invasion of his sanctuary. His manners were well trained though and so he turned and smiled and said hello.

Echo’s face coloured, her chin coiled downwards and her eyes flashed. “Hello”, she whispered with a tremble in her voice, “are you a nymph? ~ I saw the silt in my pool downstream and came to meet you.”

Narcissus stopped working and sensing Echo’s eyes on him he reached for his robe and slipped it on even though it was wet and dirty. He was still shaken by the memory of Ameni and his greedy gaze. He sat with Echo and talked about his plans for the garden and solitude and other things, until the shadows grew long and it was time to walk back towards the warm dry comfort of the visitor’s house.

Echo, like Ameni, had babbled about the village and its rhythms and routines. She asked Narcissus where he had come from and he told her about his childhood in a city far away, where he was the son of a warrior who had wanted him to learn to trade and a nymph, from whom he had inherited his love of twilight, bright new leaves and running water. He told her that he was torn by his understanding of his own nature and the knowledge that he could never please his father, and that he had chosen to leave. He told her about his search for somewhere soft and quiet where he could learn to listen to the whispers of his soul and find the answers to the questions that made his life impossible.

Echo had sat twisting a flower in her fingers watching his face move, lost in thought about how splendid he would look with a child in his arms and yearning to lean over and kiss his soft arched lips.

Narcissus had drawn his ramble to a close and Echo, snapped from her reverie, had giggled nervously. Narcissus sighed, and ached with loneliness for someone who could travel with him through the narrow passageways of contorted thought. Looking back towards the pond he glimpsed his own reflection, and resolving not to let his lack of a connection with her dampen his love for his new home. He smiled at his own face reflected in the pond and winked at it, feeling somehow less alone in its company.

Chilled by the coming evening they stood and gazed at the garden for a moment before heading back down the path towards the village. Narcissus farewelled Echo where the path branched off towards her pool and he slipped unnoticed into the visitor’s house in the village, where he ate fruit and bread and slept deeply.


Visitors

Narcissus fell into a routine of daily life. Each evening he walked down the hill to the village to eat and sleep and each morning, with some food for lunch in his bag, he walked up the hill, to spend his days by the old temple. He was relaxed and contented tending the garden and sitting by the pond watching the reflections of the clouds on the glassy surface.

Three people sometimes visited. Hecate was the only one he felt comfortable with. Ameni and Echo both made him uncomfortable, but in different ways. Ameni’s talk circled always on tales of victory, tales that involved the use of force by someone over someone else. They were tales about how greatness could be achieved by increasing the number of people who feared one’s anger or madness. They were told in a cheerful childish way with delight at the brashness and impudence of the various heroes. The stories horrified Narcissus but he couldn’t begin to express why. To begin would have started something and he didn’t want to take on the task of changing Ameni.

Sometimes he enjoyed the change in his quiet rhythm that Ameni and his tales brought but usually he sat quietly listening, hoping that Ameni would soon run out of things to say and go home. When the visits got too long Narcissus took to explaining that he was working hard as a philosopher, and that his important work required solitude and discipline and that he therefore needed to be alone. Ameni was intrigued and puzzled. He had tasted heaven that day in the river when he first met Narcissus. It was more than he had ever felt before and he wanted more of it. He told himself that he needed more. He was drawn to Narcissus like a moth to a candle, against his own will and better judgement. He knew that Narcissus could make him die nobly of happiness like no one else ever could.

Ameni was the youngest of three sons, he knew what it felt like to be smaller and slower than his brothers, he knew how to run to catch up. The bliss by the river was sparked by their evenness in swimming speed, and Ameni guessed that evenness was the key. He decided to run to catch up with Narcissus and loved him for setting a challenge unlike anything his brothers had presented him with. Philosophy was something his family knew nothing about. Matching Narcissus would mean outpacing the brothers who had always outdone him. As weeks passed his respect for Narcissus’ dedication to his task grew and he started to regard him as a teacher and an inspiration. His simple lust for the young philosopher’s smooth body consumed him while his respect and awkwardness kept him silent about his feelings. In an effort to express his unspoken emotions he started to bring offerings. At first simple gifts of food and wine, then other things, treasures from home and tools he made himself carefully and beautifully, to demonstrate his skill.

Echo also brought gifts. Usually flowers but sometimes plump grapes or small watermelons. She said little, but unsettled Narcissus with her long gazes and dreamy smiles and the awkward pauses in what could have been conversations.

He also spent quiet afternoons looking at his own reflection, sometimes trying to see his own soul by gazing into his own eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of it so he could interrogate it. Sometimes he looked at his whole body and tried to understand what it was about it that other people thought was beautiful. Some days he agreed with them and smiled at the sight of himself, privately running his fingertips over his own smooth skin, appreciating the curves and angles of his form. On other days beauty seemed like a meaningless abstract concept and his body like a strange and distracting burden.

He shared the gifts he was given with Hecate when she visited, and sometimes he visited her in her tiny old house with her dogs and Galinthias the wily old cat. The old woman smiled when the dogs loudly heralded his arrival and she ruffled his hair as he sat at her table. Unlike the others she seemed not to notice his body at all. She addressed her attention instead to the quavering core of his being. He relaxed and laughed in her kitchen and drank in her tea and advice.

She counselled him to work hard at his self appointed task and warned him that the price he would pay for his solitude was being misunderstood by others. With a loving laugh she shook her old head and said: “This misunderstanding may make you unhappy eventually, but I’m not sure that you can find your happiness without solitude and time.”

Narcissus appreciated her doses of encouragement. He spent many hours sitting alone by the temple pool, gazing at the ripples made by the breeze, at flowers that drifted on the surface and at the reflections of the clouds.

Sometimes when the light was soft, and the air seemed for a moment to hold its breath, Narcissus thought that the temple and the statue of Dionysis reflected in the water looked crisper and newer than the temple and the statue in the garden. Sometimes he thought he saw figures moving about among them with bright faces and shimmering robes. He wasn’t sure, perhaps it was a trick of the light. It happened at odd and unpredictable moments, sometimes twice in a day for as long as he held his breath, sometimes only once in a week for a fleeting moment, but the thought of it delighted and entranced him. It kept him gazing at the surface of the pond and the layers of image he saw there ~ his own face, the leaves above it, the clouds above them and the reflected statue, closer but further than the clouds.

He told Hecate about his visions and she raised her eyebrows and smiled at him, nodding and mumbling. One day he complained to her that they were frustratingly brief, he wanted to be able to look for longer at them. She counselled him to breathe through the visions and not to clench his mind with excitement.

He practiced breathing and looking at the same time and gradually the images opened themselves to him, he was able to watch eternal and ancient dramas play and replay themselves in the sky above the pool. He watched and learned and his soul grew stronger.
He knew for certain that there was no where else he would rather be than in the valley, in the temple garden, living and learning.

It was when he had reached this stage that Hecate had told him that Kora might visit. She told him that Kora wasn’t like his other visitors and that he might find her to be a good friend.

He drew the sword out of its scabbard and watched it catch flashes of sunlight. It whispered cleanly as he waved it through the air. Its weight reminded his shoulder of its lack of training. He wondered what to do with the beautiful weapon. Perhaps he should have given it to Kora, maybe it would have been useful on her travels, he doubted though that her shoulder was any stronger than his. No ~ this sword, to be properly used, would need a shoulder like Ameni’s. Ameni had brought so many gifts, perhaps giving this one to him was the right thing to do. He didn’t visit as often as he used to anymore. He was becoming somehow heavier, more serious or perhaps sadder.

Narcissus worried about him. He had changed so much, but unlike Kora who had changed a lot too, he didn’t seem to fit his new self very well. Perhaps the sword would remind him of the happy warrior he used to be.

 

Pomegranate Flesh

Kora kissed the sleeping brow of Hades and smiled. His face looked so innocent and relaxed against the soft pillow, his mind afloat in the world of dreams. She was glad to see him rest, he was exhausted from his long years of work alone, and although she could now help him and ease his burden, he needed time to recover, time to become young and fresh again. So that he could smile and laugh and be happy with her.

She had lost track of how long ago she had walked away from Charon’s boat hand in hand with Hades. It had been so different from the last time she’d been with him. Then she’d been like a shade herself, shadowing him, waiting for him, with nothing to do without him. This time she was beside him, working with him. He took his usual position at the far end of the great hall and she stood by the door, speaking to the trembling shades in a clear, comforting voice, reassuring them and guiding them towards Hades, who in turn ushered them towards the light in the west.

As she worked the light around her grew stronger. One day he commented on it and she told him that Charon had called her Persephone because of it. He kissed her and said that she had brought light into his heart and that he would use the name as well.

While Hades was sleeping or busy in other ways, on other errands that she couldn’t help with, she walked the dark corridors and explored the open spaces of the deep kingdom. Last time she had crept timidly along, like a stowaway, afraid of meeting anyone. Now she walked calmly and confidently, knowing that her heart, her voice and her eyes were up to any meeting. She was curious to learn more about the realm and she knew that her happiness and her smile were warming the chill air and her steps were a pulse where none had been heard for aeons.

She rediscovered the dark chamber where the three fates sat spinning, twining and cutting their luminous threads and she saw them with new eyes. They no longer seemed savage and sinister. She saw instead a patience and a grace in their movements and a loving acceptance of the burden of responsibility in their ancient eyes. They smiled at the sight of her and without breaking the rhythm of their work they invited her to sit and talk, to tell them tales from beyond their room.

This time Persephone spoke like a storyteller, enriching her anecdotes with the colours of sunsets and the soft fragrances of wild herbs. The fates laughed and cried at her sagas and blessed and thanked her for bringing them. She left feeling awed by their beauty and glad that her offerings pleased them.

She also visited Aeacus standing guard by the bronze gates and sometimes she went further and roamed the desolate moors. There were rocks, water pools and pockets of mud, but apart from that the land was nothing but stark, dark and vacant, draped in flimsy clouds of mist. Walking through its heartland she imagined that it could be beautiful in its own still and pensive way. She imagined flowers tall, white and elegant reaching up into the mist and graceful trees bending and sighing into the pools of water. She wondered if one day she would be able to bring these things to the underworld, to make it softer and less frightening, to make the task of moving from one state of being to another less daunting. She’d mentioned the idea to Hades but he had shaken his head apologetically and said nothing grows here.

Hades reached out with a sleepy hand and looping it around her waist pulled her close. She pressed her face against his chest and breathed in the smell of his warm skin. She was happier than she’d ever been, so happy that she knew absolutely that she would not have chosen to be anywhere else.

She lay against him while he drifted back to sleep and thought that she was dozing and dreaming herself as she watched a large graceful ibis glide slowly into the room on outstretched wings of black and white. She watched it settle on the end of the bed and preen itself balancing delicately on its long red legs. She only realised that she was still awake when Hades suddenly sat up looking shocked and asked it abruptly what it wanted.

The ibis responded by ceasing its casual preening and transforming itself into a golden-haired young man, who smiled and warmly hugged Hades in greeting. Persephone was still looking perplexed when the youth bowed low and introduced himself as Hermes. He appeared to already know who she was. He then cleared his throat and with an air of officialdom blended with mischief delivered his message, the essence of it was that Zeus had ordered her return to her mother, on the grounds that Demeter’s duties among the people on earth were being neglected in her absence.

Persephone felt Hades flinch. She felt simply numb. She looked from face to face, they in turn looked at each other, Hades with eyes full of sadness and anger, Hermes shrugging with impotence and apology.

She drew breath, summoned her courage and asked for three more days. Hermes nodded and said he’d be back for her on the day the sun next crossed the heart of the earth and swung light and dark momentarily into perfect balance.

The last three days were sweet tainted with sorrow. Their hands and lips were never far apart and their work together was masterful, a celebration of the harmony between them.

In the hours before Hermes came to take her, they walked together out across the sad land, they paused by a circle of sleek dark stones and Persephone opened her heart and wept. Letting her tears fall freely down her face, down her chest and arms and onto the earth, Hades held her close and wept, his tears mingling with hers.

The tears sank into the soil and sank through the rock beneath it, hanging for a moment on the ceiling of an underground cavern before dripping down onto a thread. Lachesis paused and smiled and watched the tears colour the thread of Persephone’s destiny, her sisters noted the smile and in strange synchronicity they began a new song.

As they chanted a small leaf pushed its way through the tear-stained earth at the lovers’ feet and struggling towards the warmth of their embrace it became a small tree. As they bent over it smiling with awe and wonder it pushed forth a flower, that changed before their eyes into a fruit. Not a soft fleshy fruit like Persephone had seen before, but a hard woody fruit, rich red and when it split like their breaking hearts they could see it was full of pink seeds.

Persephone reached out to the fruit and it fell from the tree into her hand. Touching the seeds they too fell into her palm as if tasting them was her destiny. She heard the word destiny rustle in a far corner of her mind and suddenly she understood. It wasn’t something she needed to wait for. With all her heart and soul she yearned to be part of this dark world, to be partner to Hades, Persephone: The Bringer of Light. That was the destiny she wanted, the seeds, like pink pearls in her hands, were the first food she had seen since she entered the dark kingdom. Taking them into her body seemed like a magical idea.

She turned her eyes to Hades’ tear-stained face and said with solemnity, I take this land into my body and doing so become part of it. Then she placed nine of the seeds into her mouth and swallowed them.

Hades kissed her softly on the lips and whispered with equal solemnity that he wished she could stay forever and be his queen. The seeds in her belly felt warm as hand in hand they walked to the bronze gates, where Hermes stood waiting.

The golden boy held out his hand and Persephone left Hades’ embrace and took it. She heard a rushing sound, and lost her bearings for a moment and then found herself blinking in the light of a bright day, looking out over a town she didn’t know from an unfamiliar hillside.

 

Ameni’s Gift.

Ameni spent many hours thinking about his visits to Narcissus. There was a restlessness in him whenever he was away from Narcissus’ side, yet when he was there he seemed hardly able to breathe. He had tried to fathom the world of thought that Narcissus lived for but couldn’t. It made him feel smaller and sadder than he could bear.

He saw his mother wince each time he left the house to visit Narcissus. Sometimes he heard her crying at night. He wanted to return to her, to become her little son again, but he couldn’t. He had reached out for something and failed. He wasn’t good enough. He wasn’t worthy of Narcissus or of her love.

The shadows were beginning to grow long as he walked up the hill towards the old temple. He knew that he’d be greeted with a bitter blend of welcome and disappointment at the invasion that he represented. He walked up the hill because he needed to spend some time with the part of himself that he left there at the feet of Narcissus. With a timidness awkward in a body so agile and strong he paused at the gateway.

Narcissus, in his usual place by the pool, sensed his presence and looked up and smiled. Not the usual weary strained smile, but an open, enthusiastic smile. It was the greeting of Ameni’s dreams, his head swam. Beaming, he walked in and sat on the soft moss.

“I’m glad you came,” said Narcissus, “I’ve been thinking about you.”

Ameni’s senses tingled, the air was full of fragrance, the whispering breeze and the humming insects were harmonising melodies. Narcissus’ face filled his vision, exquisite, chiselled, soft, strong and lovely. Every pore and dimple perfect.

“I have a gift,” Narcissus was saying, “a gift suited to a warrior such as yourself, I’d like you to have it.”

Ameni dragged his eyes from Narcissus’ beloved face and turned to the gift that was being held towards him. He had seen it before. It was the sword that Narcissus often held in his lap, gently stroking. He had asked Narcissus about it before, but never received an answer that made sense to him. Narcissus had said it was an instrument of destiny and a token of his impending good fortune.

Ameni took the sword from Narcissus, graciously with both hands and a small bow.

It was a valuable weapon. Well-made of costly metals, set with large well-cut stones. He stood up and held the sword upwards in a noble pose. Then, with practiced grace, he ran through a series of movements, a training routine that his body remembered as well as it knew how to breathe. The sword performed beautifully. It was precisely balanced and weighted for deadly efficiency. It would kill quickly and elegantly.

Ameni performed the long version of the routine for Narcissus, suddenly proud of his physique and his skill. His parched soul guzzling the attention it had yearned for, he closed his eyes and lost himself in the movements of thrust and slice, step and parry. Lost in his bliss.

Narcissus watched him with many mixed feelings. There was much that he liked and admired about Ameni. In many ways he had forgiven him for what had happened on the day they first met. He knew now that it was the teeth of the beast within Ameni that he’d felt. A beast that was wild and sad and hungry but also brave and generous. But Narcissus would never fully trust it, having brushed against it once. He felt like a rabbit spending time with a friendly wolf. He was polite and engaged in conversation but he was also careful would never show his tender underbelly to Ameni and his beast.

Despite this, he had often enjoyed Ameni’s humour and company. He’d been honoured, flattered even by the gifts and the attention. It had confirmed his opinion of himself as beautiful and fuelled his quest for an understanding of the point of his beauty. But he saw too that Ameni was not happy or comfortable ~ he didn’t seem to understand why Narcissus could not let him come close. The incident by the river had never been discussed. Narcissus remained simply wary and he shuddered at the way Ameni sometimes looked at him with parted lips and his tongue resting softly on his teeth. He knew that Ameni hadn’t forgotton that day, and that his memory of it was different.

Narcissus wished Ameni well, but also wished to be free of him. Perhaps this gift would bring them into balance and free Ameni to explore other horizons, to rediscover his own path and his own happiness. Ameni seemed happy with the sword. It was clear that he knew how to use it. Realising this Narcissus felt a quick stab of vulnerability.

Ameni’s dance with the sword drew to a close. He stood and bowed with both hands clasped about the hilt. Then he raised his eyes to look at Narcissus. His heart fell. Narcissus’ eyes had resumed their usual coolness and distance. There was no smile, no loving applause. “I’m glad you like it,” said Narcissus, exhaling his words carefully.

Standing he added, “Come it’s getting cool, we’ll walk down to the village together.”

Ameni’s heart had been primed for warmth and praise, his skin, sweaty with exertion wanted to be touched, held or honoured. Not dismissed like this. Numb he consented and dumbly he walked behind Narcissus out of the temple garden down the path to the village, carrying the sword stiffly by his side.

As they walked Narcissus chatted cheerfully, like a schoolmaster, about the turning of the stars in the sky. Tonight he explained would be exactly the same length as the day had been, because the sun had touched the earth at its very centre, radiating a blissful balance between warm and cool and dark and light.

At the door of the visitor’s house, Narcissus said a casual goodnight and ducked inside, closing the door behind him. Ameni was left alone on the quiet street with his sword and the setting sun.

 

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