The plague came out of nowhere. No one knew What god or goddess sent it, and the signs, When not ambiguous, were all too few: The oak leaves still, the livers whole and fine, From left and right the birds flew in straight lines, And worst of all, the tea leaves all refused To form a pattern readers could have used. And so Aegina suffered under doubt As well as spotted fever. Amid the death And raw despair, a couple souls were stout And tended invalids to their last breath; But others, I report to my regret, Were drunken, rowdy, riotous, and rude— In short, a bacchanalic rout ensued. The harbor, drunk with sailors, caught the mood, And soon from there the tide of riot spilled To sweep depopulated streets in flood Until the city plain was all but filled, A violent lake—except where good sense stilled The fires round two places, islanding Plague houses and the palace of the king. King Æacus was long since past his prime And, not as strong as once, in youth, he'd felt, He couldn't stop the carnival of crime. His sons? Off heroing with club and pelt And so no help with troubles he'd been dealt. They're only known today for being hid In family trees, and not for what they did— For hero means "he scatters wide his oats," And heroes' brats are strewn across the nations Like jetsam tossed from overloaded boats. Son Telamon apprenticed that vocation With the greatest of the generations: No lesser man than he—a drum roll please— The man, the myth, the legend—Heracles. Soon after Telamon had helped the Herc To conquer Troy, he spawned the Ajax who Would later try to replicate that work. Young Peleus sacked as well a town or two Before he gave a fateful goddess woo; His son Achilles had his song of rage That still is read in this descendent age. Thus, sonless, Æacus was forced to handle The crisis, and he too old to wield a sword— Which added to his shame, for the scandal Of crumbling state will always hurt a lord, Since he is judged by his domain's accord. And so, as when mere anarchy is loose, He did what monarchs do, and prayed to Zeus. During a lull, he climbed the island's peak Alone (though leaning on the shoulder of His—valet of the chamber), there to seek The god's will in his place—for there above Aphaea's temple is a sacred grove. He tottered in and settled in the shade, Then after catching breath, he slowly prayed: "Dear father—so my mother says you are, And I think well enough of Mom that I As king renamed this island after her— Help us or the city soon will die: What plague has left, the riots have made fly. We ask in whatever name you wish we use, Help us—the city dies if you refuse." The sun beat down. Summer's cicadas chirred. Some ants marched up a tree. A gecko found A hidden moth. At last the old king stirred And from an empty sky, with dreadful sound A bolt of lightning struck and fire crowned The Thunderer's most sacred oak—a sign Unerring of assistance that's divine. The crack set Æacus's head to ringing. "Give me—" he started, feeling full of awe, "Give me—" he thought he heard the acorns singing, "Give me—" alas! slow thinking was his flaw, "Give me—" he took the first thing that he saw, "As many citizens, replacement folk For losses, as the ants upon this oak." Leaves whispered to a wind not there, then stilled. The king correctly heard that message too, And toddled home, secure that Zeus had willed His realm reborn, his populace renewed. He was so heartened, he decided to Go past the citadel down to the city, Nod, smile, clasp hands, be seen, and do the pretty. For being seen at being king is, more Than judgements, generaling, or golden throne, The greater part of kingship. Even for The weak, an order makes a leader known. A word stopped refugees from leaving town: "It all will turn out right now," he assured. The sailors looked askance, but none demurred. To fully play the part, back at the castle He ordered up a feast in celebration. The palace cheered—except, it was a hassle For servants, fixing quickly the collation. That night, the castle's total occupation Was fun, both eating hard and drinking deep, Which led to—not more riots—heavy sleep. In deepest night, the hour of Hecate, The quiet of the world rolled out before The city and the stars. The king's oak tree Shook branches like maids stretching after chores. Ants fell to ground, and got up ants no more: They lost two limbs, stood upright straight and strong, A formic horde become a human throng. When Dawn rose from her lover's bed to light The east, 'twas well before the better folk, But after early servants. To their fright, The mountain side was moving—was it smoke? No, it's descending, like a falling cloak. The growing light revealed to servile classes A ragged stream of strapping naked lasses. For myrmidian workers—soldiers, too— Are female; they're the only ones who swarm, While hustling for the food they bring back to The queen and drones in their below-ground dorms. 'Twas these upon the oak who were transformed, And those who change partake of prior nature For what you were before will shape your fate here. The past is—not the present—present in us; We aren't slaves to it, but as we grow We have its habits and, as mirrors twin us, It gives us shadow selves we cannot disavow: What we have done informs what we are now— But if I keep digressing from my topic My story line will end up microscopic. The servants, startled, finally woke the guards; A guard, the king: "Your majesty, come see!" He came, he saw, he rubbed his eyelids hard, And mumbled, "What the ——!" (I am not free To print the word). But then, with gravity, The king went out to greet what for the nonce We'll call "ant girls"—in Greek, the myrmidons. He met, midst smoking ruins by the wall, This unclothed cohort causing a sensation And hailed them, thanking Zeus for, most of all, His answered prayer—this in explanation Of what was going on to the staring nation. It worked, for just a few men hit upon These women—who ignored them and walked on. This shrug-off irked the men, who started grousing, But then a charred beam shifted in the dust, Reminding people soon they'd need more housing— Although new clothing also was a must. Before ancestral voices had discussed The tasks, the women from the ant collective Just dusted off their hands, and turned effective. Burials first. They learned that, during the clashes, The plague had burned itself out, once refused New fuel, on quarantined survivor ashes. The obvious conclusion from the clues: The cure'd been carried by the girls from Zeus. Their epidemiology was slight, But their theology may well be right. The girls received the kingdom's reverence With calm good grace, then started reconstruction. Some city men with vast experience Tried giving all these new-borns some instruction, But ants and building need no introduction; Relations with the townsmen turned uneasy, For all that they were Greeks and civilisé. Continued nakedness too caused a snit— While some, the outside workers, took to clothing, The others, never having needed it Before, rejected its constraint with loathing— And there is, for a hide-bound elder, no thing That signals civic ill-health like the crudity Of unselfconscious public nudity. The king worked soothing old men's ruffled feathers, But who'd soothe his? His issue was, despite Their civic efforts, one of duty: whether As subjects they'd obey him, king by right. They didn't hear his orders—no, not quite— They listened, but then didn't seem to heed him. It was as if they didn't really need him. They did it well—'twas several days, at least, Until he noticed he had been deflected To planning the next sacrificial feast And not the new defense to be erected— A skill that came from practice: they'd protected Drones' fragile egos from all things that vex To keep them trained on their sole purpose—sex. That's not to say they didn't value It— Indeed, with drones reserved for royal thirst, They prized it more because 'twas illegit. The habits of hands-off were kept at first, Confusing many men, when they conversed— They didn't understand that going nude Says nothing for how easily you're screwed. But then an ant tried it, and soon all learned That every woman is a queen to men— Once homage has been horizontally earned. They took to having sex like sailors when On shore leave, if you credit that—but then, According to the deeply held male credo, There's nothing, nowhere, stronger than libido: Sex drives our species: for our procreation, We do all that we do that is outstanding; Sex drives our drive for wealth: it marks our station, And nothing's sexier than social standing; Sex drives the arts—not just love songs' demanding, For all the Muses are invoked to aid Success for artists hoping to get laid; Sex drives our social structures: "Marry me"; Sex drives our mores: in our mating dance, Without rules for the steps of he and she The rituals turn discordant, askance, As partners lurch about and don't advance— As soon our sex-mad ingenues found out When their stumbling turned the ball into a rout. The girls' miscues were bad enough—their chase Also tripped on sexual disparity: They had replaced one third the populace (Those dead or fled), so men were one in three; While two on one might seem a fantasy, When the two women both are too voracious And squabble over you—now that's hellacious. Their own behavior shocked each myrmidon— Were not they all from the same city/nest? Hadn't they worked together, fed the young, Dug tunnels, gossiped, eaten as a mess, Defended colony, and all the rest? As sisters, they were sickened by their fighting, But shock alone won't make you do the right thing. Without a queen or history to guide them, They quarreled—when provoked or just because. The ones who could have helped now evil-eyed them: Surviving wives and widows, their angry buzz Provoked by these replacement thieves of hus- bands, widowers, and bachelors—worse, the bitches Had focused most on those with well-filled britches. Through all this, reconstruction still proceeded— The unrest wasn't civil, but erotic— And yet, the more that Æacus softly pleaded For moral self-restraint, the more quixotic His toothless campaign seemed—and life, chaotic. He persevered, for he was not a quitter, But still, at times, he almost could feel bitter. The worst part was his saviors—all those good, Hard-working girls—brought this domestic flu, Infecting subjects with their attitude Like some new plague—which told him what to do: The first was cured by gods, so this one too. But prayers sent to Zeus would here depart amiss— For these unmarried women, go to Artemis. The temple of Aphaea on the hill Was sacred to a nymph who, by that name Or as Dictynna or another still, Attended the wild goddess who they claimed Was that great huntress giving Delos fame— As Artemis, or also Hecate, Aeginetans revered her specially. For Greeks, you understand, were not so anal As all those tidy myths make them appear, Which turn religion into something banal. Cults of Olympians were not so dear As local shrines, or graves that gave them fear— There is more power in a nearby ghost Then all the gods of heaven's distant host. Her temple offered rites of incubation— That is, a vigil overnight to pray The goddess helps you with your situation. The king climbed up the mountain, sans valet, And after ritual cleansing, groped his way Into the darkened sanctuary where He lay upon a deer-hide, solitaire. He listened in the quiet for her veiled Small voice—but silent night was too well heard— The crickets cricked—the nightingales engaled— The itch was out of reach—at times he stirred To ease his joints—his focus always blurred. At last, he found the still point and could keep Composed enough to hear ... and fell asleep. He had no dreams, but, waking—there—a sense Of what to do, that seemed to linger on. He left the temple with some confidence And, slipping past his keepers in the dawn, He hailed the first new girl he came upon, The leader of some hunters: "Come with me." She waved her troop on with alacrity. Her deference came from, the king inferred, His air of firm command. But while he'd sought Some goddess aid, a myrmidon had heard A townsman call him "Queenie" with a pout. The word ignited, like a spark in drought, The tindered consciences of myrmidons: "A queen? not drone? He'll know where we've gone wrong!" He passed throughout the city, picking here A trainer in the new palaestra, yonder A wife directing husband-fetching, there A building foreman, on a harbor wander A female stevedore, and when he found her His new ant steward—he pulled this human tide Up to the temple and locked them all inside. These leaders made by local acclamation Were not allowed to leave till they created An answer for the domestic situation. Thus: New girls and survivors were equated, And every man of age to would be mated To one of each, with this constraint: all three Must live in mutual fidelity. Because the tripling method must be fair To all, before anyone else could try, The girls had organized a system where A weighted choice of mate could modify That first informal rule of thumb, whereby A husband, if all three of them connived, Could have two town- or oak-born as his wives. The news was greeted with relief—for here Were rules for their sex ratio that seemed Both equally (un)fair and not austere. The plan was more complex than the king had dreamed, But Æacus could grasp this fact: the scheme Required king and castle to be listed Among potential grooms—the girls insisted. Alas for Æacus! He'd gotten heirs, And duty done, he wanted his delayed ease In arms of—well, in casual affairs; And now both he and his were given ladies He'd rather not have—that is—he—oh, Hades! I see I'll have to tell you all the sordid Specifics of the household, clearly worded. I'd hoped to gloss this over, but such is fate. By now, the chance I'll get a PG-rating Is slimmer than a draw for inside straight, What with the girls promiscuously mating, So there's no point in prudish hesitating— Besides, a poet who won't tell what's true Not only lies, but is a scoundrel too. The king liked boys—or young men, I should say. He'd married young at duty's harsh direction But when his first wife died, without delay He indulged his paedic predilection Learned from a mentor held in fond affection. That "valet" was a pretty teen, well-bred, Who dressed him, yes, but also warmed his bed. No more though—no more sleeping in his arms; No more watching youth turn, with the days, Into a man; no more his boyish charms Nor his hard body that led thoughts astray; No more teaching a young protégé— For Kallimorphos, when he could contrive, Abandoned Æacus for his twin wives. These childhood friends together had planned his break From royal duties. The king, not knowing this, In private cursed how Chance made him forsake His chance for happiness—exchanged for his Two ants. At least his had good statuses: Two leaders, both negotiators, who'd Grown fond of this old man who wasn't lewd. The chief of huntresses, blonde Cyrene, Thought from her dawn encounter that the king Was as quick-witted as leaders need to be. Lampito knew, from daily stewarding His castle, otherwise—while valuing That all he did he did with good intent, And, too, his pliancy to management. When she'd arrived, the management was needed— Old steward dead of plague, staff disarrayed; She'd started giving orders; they were heeded. The king'd ignored his household while it frayed To dodder round his country—which dismayed An erstwhile ant who pined for household order: The queen's house and the state had shared one border. Between his servicing two wives (while jealous Of his valet) the king could hardly stay Upright. At least Lampito was less zealous Near Cyrene, who balanced out her ways, But by first light, her co-wife went away On hunts, which left him in Lampito's hands, Her energy, her strength, and her demands. The other men had no advice for him: The elders, even those remarried, all Had older wives who cut their juniors' trim; The youngsters, on the other hand, could call Upon their energy. These national Small compromises they were fashioning Were different for the commons than the king. Which goes to show that every permutation Of bodies and of beds both can and will Be tried—through all the times and nations A marriage party usually is filled Per balance of the sexes. It's hard, still, Because of claims from old religious quarrels, To keep in mind conditions make our morals. But such is life, distractible and local— Like fights that have become their own excuse. The king retreated into bland but vocal Pigheadedness, pretending to be obtuse On issues they debated—from the use Of palace funds, to plans for his domain: Not dredge the channel—repair the harbor chain. "Without good trade, there'll be no revenue," She argued, "and defenses cost too much." What can a wife (and former steward) do When her good sense has been ignored? She clutched Her righteousness, and upped demands a notch. He thought he'd reached the depths of his dismay— Then Cretan Minos rowed into the bay. This ruler soi-disant of all the seas Had wrested Crete from regent brothers, all So he and his could do just as they please— Wife's tastes were bestial, son's beastial, Which worked, for his were architectural. He'd heard of small Aegina's plague and flight And thought he'd conquer it without a fight. Alarms! Excursions! Mobilize our forces! War ships in harbor! Enemies have come! King Æacus was filled with all remorses— He'd let the stubborn fight distract him from Those critical defenses. He felt numb, Especially when the ultimatum came: Immediate submission or the flame. Lampito realized, as her husband claimed, Expensive walls and weapons were really needed; The thought she'd weakened the nest left her shamed. As men's and myrmidons' demands exceeded Her rationed swords and shields, her hopes receded, But with her co-wife gone—off hunting things— 'Twas left to her alone to aide the king. Each side's commander soon received reports: Aegina's rocky shores were all secure, With no place for a landing but the port— But there, alas, defensive works were poor. The myrmidons were news, unknown before, But Minos didn't do a double-take. "More women? Ha! They're nothing." Big mistake. Formalities: Aegina spurned surrender. Thus answered, Cretans landed on the quay, To find that they were fighting either gender: The men were trained, but women meaner—they Threw all their strength and numbers in the fray, All weapons raised against invading males: Swords, brickbats, pointy sticks, teeth, fingernails. At first they held their ground. Their viciousness Unnerved the Cretans—myrmidons fought hard, Ignoring danger, to protect their nest, And men, to save their wives. Thus caught off-guard, They were confined and couldn't gain a yard, But with good armor and their better training, The Cretans forced a breech, and soon were gaining. They battled house to house, result unclear, Till Cyrene at last came from the hills With all her huntresses, each armed with spears— All former soldier ants fresh from the kill. Resistance stiffened under her—but still, The Cretan front kept rising up, not falling: The death rate of defenders was appalling. The myrmidonic tactics were the cause: Their sense of strategy was mass attack In crowded interference, without a pause To make sure that reserves were at their back. Retreat on purpose? The thought took them aback. King Æacus soon realized that while he Was not obeyed, they'd follow Cyrene. But she was in the deepest thick of things And wouldn't back out either. It was hot, But shielded by Lampito, our brave king Worked through the battle din to where she fought— Which made the ants who saw him quite distraught— And once he caught her and her sole attention, He then explained his tactical intention: That first, Aeginetans in front fall back To draw the Cretans out, then sides sweep in Behind their rear, now open to attack. The plan was good, but Cyrene didn't grin— She saw a flaw, much to the king's chagrin: "What keeps our enemy, while we retreat, From pressing on to finish our defeat?" Lampito, with her managerial skills, Knew what: unused material for planned New houses could make barricades to fill The streets, behind which fighters could safely stand. The work was quickly done at her command, And Cyrene then plunged where battle pressed To give the word: fall back, sweep round, invest. They fell back in good order; with fighters freed, As quick as knives her counter then attacked The Cretans. Minos missed what happened—he'd Blinked—suddenly, instead of helpless city sacked, He'd lost his landing party. His wrist smacked, He soothed his ego with an easy crime And went to bully Athens one more time. They held a sacrifice in celebration— This after clean-up—during which they mourned And newly dead were given their libation. That done, while some remarriage plans were formed, They partied hard—though Æacus was scorned By Kallimorphos. Thrown into a funk, He was consoled by getting rather drunk. The skills of both his wives were sorely tested, Cajoling him through the dregs of his expense— Hung over, he was crabby and congested. At least each thought well of the others' sense (Their organizing, his experience) And mutual respect—domestic grease— Is the sole basis for a lasting peace.
Copyright 2004 by Larry Hammer. back