The Song of the Stag
A SHORT STORY
The waves prodded him forward - lying prone with his broad slab of chest inflamed by the sun overhead, amorphous in the tidal discharge of seaweed and globs of jelly. He (for they discovered it had sex) lay on the surf insensible, like a tremendous chunk of ambergris, as the first girl who found him thought he was.
She and her friends ran back to harvest it. As they hauled away the seaweed, someone screamed, because she’d uncovered a hand. It was the size of a large plate, and muscular, and monstrous. It wasn’t bloated, like a corpse’s, and it wasn’t wrinkled from the water, like a living man’s. Soon they uncovered all of him: a huge trunk, gnarled arms, and flesh that blended at the groin from curled, grey-green stomach hair to iridescent scales. The tail itself might have been a beached shark or a small whale: it was twenty feet long, with a cloacal slit several inches below where human skin began to whorl, harden, and divide itself into glistening scutes.
Cyparissus, with the other men of the island, rolled the body onto logs. The peeling chest was moving faintly up and down. Cyparissus touched the cheeks gently, pulled the tangled greenish beard to open up the lips. Hooking his fingers underneath a thick, barnacled eyelid, he pulled back the flap and gazed into an eye the size of a small melon, with its iris rolled up to expose greenish veins. The eye moved faintly, as if dreaming. It was iridescent.
They heaved until the water sluiced around the chest, and then they stood, with the waves tossing around their shoulders and their toes grappling on the rocky seabed. The girls who’d found the creature swam out to accompany them, treading water and bringing a cloth to ward away the sun. After ten minutes in the shade, the sea-god stirred. “What is this place?” he asked.
“Carthaea,” Cyparissus answered, after no one else did. “Near Chios. Do you breathe air or water?”
The eye rolled toward him languidly. “Water.”
They pushed him down, five of them on each side. The ten-foot beard spread out around them, and gills – part of his ears – trembled as they opened. The god’s luminous eyes looked up, seeming to dance under the surface, until finally he raised his lips into the air. He thanked them, in a voice inflected with a strange, primeval accent.
“Which god are you?” asked Cyparissus. “We will bring offerings.”
“I was called Glaukos,” said the giant.
The beginning of a memory stirred in Cyparissus’ mind, like a cold spring of water that one sometimes felt when swimming in a warm lake. The slimy beard fluttered against his shoulders, and his stomach hardened with a mingled fascination and revulsion.
As their strongest swimmer, Cyparissus ferried grapes, and wild pigs they had been roasting, to the sea-god on an old door. The mouth of Glaukos opened like a small Charybdis in the water; rows of serrated teeth encircled his funneling gullet, one upon another like a shark’s, and stripped the pork legs bare. As oil from the meal floated outward on the surface in shining globules, he told the boy - his voice steadier now but low, susurrus, satiated - that he had been caught in the shallows by a storm and pummeled by the waves, outside the underwater calm of the deep sea.
“Your name, or former one, is known here,” Cyparissus said, “though I cannot remember how.”
The eyes closed contentedly. “Good, good! Then it is fading.”
“Good?” Cyparissus laughed.
“If your kind forgets, then maybe” - a beatific smile - “I shall. Sometime. Sometime.” Grapes mashed in his funneling mouth like a wine-press. “With no one to remind me, it will go.”
Cyparissus spotted a lamprey, grey and sinuous, fixing itself on the sea-god’s tail. Almost unconsciously, he reached to swat it away, but the sea-god said, “No - no - no.”
The lamprey sank its jaw into the scales.
“He is a curious monstrosity,” Apollo said, running a hand through Cyparissus’ hair, with each touch sending warmth - a warmth that Cyparissus still could not believe - into his body. “He was human once, though I’ve been told he doesn’t like to be reminded. How did you hear of him before?”
“I don’t know.” Cyparissus closed his eyes, and curled deeper into the foot of the tree where they had lain together.
“From sailors, probably. He’s much forgotten here.” The god seemed to find this amusing, as he found a lot of things about the rustic isle amusing. “He was a fisherman, and upon eating certain grass, was overcome with a desire to dive headlong into the sea. The currents of the main grew fond and altered him. In Athens, the philosophers use him as a warning: of how the flesh is capable of great distortion, or how the soul flickers out and dies as it descends into an unconscious abandon.”
“He seemed conscious enough, in his own way,” Cyparissus offered. He had tried lately to offer better conversation for the god who had become his lover, who attended to him once or twice a month in different forms - an old man, or another youth, a priest - but always with the telling golden eyes, the wise turn of the head, the sense of knowledge emanating out of him. Knowledge that begged for imitation, smiled at reflection, sent tingling sparks down Cyparissus’ temples like the touch of charged amber across his brain.
He could almost hear the broad grin from Apollo. Cyparissus opened his eyes, as the god - who was a smug shepherd of some thirty years today - drummed his fingers on the roots of the tree. “Consciousness isn’t rare. Thought is.....”
When had the god first come? That was an unfair question, Cyparissus thought, since in a way, the god had always been there: when, as a child of five or six, he had started his lessons on the lyre, when he had learned how to read the stars, or when he and his friends had stayed by the fire late at night, and conversation (after it had touched on school things) turned to imitating the great dialogues they’d heard were enacted in Athens, far away: “What’s love?” or “Ought we really eat the animals?” The god had always been there. Maybe he was in the smoke that always seemed to fly towards Cyparissus from the fire. Or he used the fire for his eye. Perhaps the night when Cyparissus, thirteen or fourteen, had nodded off at practice, fingers curled around the lyre, had been the first time they had slept together.
By the fire, the boy had argued that they oughtn’t eat the animals, which surprised nobody. He was fond of the village deer, a tame thing somebody had nursed when it was found, still small and flecked with white and mewling desperately, abandoned with a twisted leg. Using berries, he’d taught it a few tricks - kneel, follow, stay - which it picked up with surprising quickness. He helped Berenike, one of the girls nearby, when she came up with the idea to put flowers in its horns and thread some chains of shells around its neck. The animal would look to them to introduce it to new people, who approached it like one would a dog, one hand outstretched, unthreatening, for its soft tufted lips to kiss.
“Whose is it?” said an older youth from one of the trade ships, as it nuzzled his browned hand.
“Nobody’s,” Cyparissus answered. “Or - we all take care of it.”
“It’s rather sacrilegious to Diana, isn’t it? To keep one of these things?”
No one had asked him that before, at least not so directly. There was amusement that he couldn’t place in the youth’s voice. He said, “We didn’t want it to get eaten by a wolf, or suffer. Its mother abandoned it.”
“But isn’t that expected?” said the older boy. “She couldn’t keep it, I mean. They live” - he laughed - “out there.”
Cyparissus wound a perspiring hand into the shag of the deer’s neck. “Well.”
“How much time does it take to feed it, pick up after it?”
“It’s your time, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I manage.” Cyparissus clicked his tongue, and the deer followed him as he grabbed his lyre from the ground.
The strange youth touched his shoulder as they parted. “I enjoy making you think,” he said, and Cyparissus felt his groin get hard.
The deer’s eyes were slotted and horizontal, like a goat’s, and warm brown, which only grew warmer as they doted on it. Like a dog or cat, it played with them, running around and bouncing up and down, which grew more dangerous as antlers branched out of its head. On slow afternoons, when he brushed the deer, Cyparissus would file down the tines as Berenike (who was a priestess of Diana now, and had procured some gold paint) painted coats of molten-looking metal on its antlers. Afterwards, they laid against its warm side as it flopped down, crunching dandelions, in the shade.
Sometime after they’d rescued the sea-god, Apollo remarked that the deer - its chains had some pearls now, since Berenike had made it part of the Dianic ceremonies - was starting to look quite a lot like Glaukos: barnacled and plated, slow and wide. The god strummed the lyre using Cyparissus’ hands, and the deer watched, not knowing that the boy it loved was no longer within his wonted body; Cyparissus watched as his fingers, as if manipulated by an unseen tutor’s hands, blurred in impossible patterns, playing wondrous melodies two or three strands at a time. The god was a warm center in his brain, filing his thoughts to new speed and precision. Large words, esoteric concepts that he hadn’t known before flitted through his head; the god made him understand them, each one bursting like a sweet fig on his tongue. It is better this way than with bodies, isn’t it? Apollo had said the first time they did this. He had moved Cyparissus’ feet until they came to the beach with its open sky. Astronomical predictions moved quickly through his brain: that day’s moon, and the next, and then the next, flew upward in the sky at the same time, each path moving a little differently.
“I would not be your oracle,” pleaded the boy, frightened. The warm spot in his brain, the sensation of comprehension, burned brighter. Strange theories and mathematics of the spheres entered his consciousness, made lucid sense, and were reduced to babble as the god withdrew.
Today, however, Apollo was more sated, and constrained himself. He did, however, send a dialogue into the other’s brain:
CYPARISSUS. If the soul partakes in material nature, and becomes encumbered like the sea-god or the deer, is that not good, since nature itself must be natural and good?
APOLLO. They thrive in separation. When the body yields itself to death, the soul must have its anchorage. If it has wound itself into the flesh like two vines lashed together by the vintner, what should keep the pestilence from spreading one onto the other?
CYPARISSUS. You yourself partake in the material to love me.
APOLLO. Yes, but in departure from my real nature. I am kept a hair’s breadth from my own completion - and I’ve told you this - by a bolt put in me by Eros, long ago, from which I have been unable to heal. I, who have known both flesh and absoluteness outside flesh, would choose the former if I could. But am left. Held back. A god becoming his own worshipper, hoping I can recall it all. Its light. Its perfectness. Thought there moves at all speed. Thought there is borderless. Logic not needed. Everything already logical. Sea without strand. I would go back.
APOLLO (2). And take you with me.
APOLLO (1). That is the splinter of bolt that speaks.
The deer nibbled his hair, and Cyparissus, forcing his hands to put down the lyre, fondled its pliant ears and rubbed his nose into the soft, white bristles of its chin. The warm spot in his mind flashed for a minute, spurned and angry, then went dark, like the red end of a stick someone had held into the fire, then grounded. Shuddering, Cyparissus clung to the deer, as the god left his mind to descend to its true stupidity. He knew from doing this enough that it would go away: the panic of loss, and the horror as his intelligence shattered. The woods transformed from something orderly, a network stretching out below him, balanced, into the obscurity that it had been before - an unbreachable darkness, full of creatures’ minds working in secret, and the trees’ as well, and mountains’. Stories that seemed laughable with the god in his veins suddenly resurrected themselves. Dryads in the trees. Salvific springs. These notions grew less strange as he returned to himself - sunlight. His clothes. The deer putting its head in his lap, and how beautiful its decorations were. Suddenly he remembered the longing - it had been longing, too, with the revulsion - when he looked at Glaukos, who had been subsumed into the comfort of the water, placed perfectly in the midst. Gills opening and closing. Letting the world in and out.
The deer fell asleep; he massaged between its eyes.
No one saw the last cloud of spring evaporate, so no one could discern just when it started, when the dry spell became famine, when the island’s throat dried up and closed. They could last two weeks without rain, certainly. Three weeks, even, fetching water from the stream to keep their gardens in flower. The fourth week they caught scores of game, reeking and thick-tongued, which stumbled carelessly into their pits. The fifth week they caught nothing. And the sixth, the stream dried up.
They had water, of course, but had to trek out to the spring. Cyparissus made several trips a day, and the deer followed for a few until it turned back to its hutch, exhausted. Once - seven weeks in - he came back, with a little skin of water for its evening drink, and found Berenike, who had plaited the hair of its neck into delicate braids, shearing its fur to keep it cool.
He lay abed outside - it was too hot to stay indoors – sometimes with the animal beside him, waiting for a stranger with gold eyes to step out of the dark, or for the sudden flare in his mind as the god touched him silently with impressions and shivers, filled his thoughts with new, intoxicating rigor. But there was only silence then: Cyparissus, the deer, and the emaciated island, falling asleep together, dreaming the same dream of water. At dawn, suspicious that the god had been offended by his impudence some weeks before, Cyparissus walked to the sea, rubbed sand onto his body, sang elaborate apologies.
Berenike slunk to him that night with glazed eyes. Her arms, like his, were rough and glowing, from some futile private effort that had not prevented the inevitable. Plans had been made at the temple; they were taking the deer in the morning. When she started crying, the deer ignorantly put its nose to hers like it had done before to raise her spirits.
It didn’t want to leave, and was confused when they sloughed off its adornments, pulled the hoops out of its ears, and led it out. Cyparissus dreaded its steps - loud and careless in the blanketing of leaves.
“It’s going to come back,” he said. “It’s useless.”
“We’ll tie it somewhere they can’t find it.”
“It’ll die of thirst.”
“We’ll bring some water out at night.”
“They’ll know it was us anyway.” He slapped the deer on its hindquarters, and began to cry himself. The deer bayed plaintively but didn’t move. “Get on.”
“Come on, sweetheart,” said Berenike.
He struck it again. Eventually, it slunk away. It felt - he could only guess - like he had felt, after Apollo quickened his mind and then left him: suddenly forsaken, in a world it couldn’t understand.
Various punishments were proposed - stocks, a procession, a fine - for them, and they waited, but nothing was pronounced. The councils, he supposed, were too exhausted. Men who’d thrown invective at him, a week later, were too exhausted. They all trudged shoulder-to-shoulder to the spring, in the pale rut that had formed under their feet. The closest they came to a punishment (they’d drag him through the streets and shame Berenike, he guessed, when they could afford to lose their labor) was having him patrol the woods for game, reform him of his strange Pythagoreanism. He woke up with his throat closed and his body fighting him, but somehow it would do what it was told, pull back the javelin, and send it thudding into animals between the ribs. They traded the meat to the islanders from Chios, who rowed corn and wheat to Carthaea on skiffs, their shoulders blistering and churning as they pulled in the still water. Cyparissus handed it over, limp pink meat, sickeningly warm, passing from swollen hand to swollen hand.
He had wild fantasies at night, of the god coming back to him. Of their words being soft again. Of his mind being quick again. In these, he threw his reticence aside and let the god submerge his mind again and again in those dazzling, bodiless places, burn superfluity away, make him his oracle. What it would be, he thought, to dwell there in a cavern, to enjoy the god’s mind fully, to live up to what was wanted of him. The sharpness and inner light would hone him down, recast him, put his thoughts in order, fit them to the lines and forms and patterns in that other world, until it was the only world.
But the god never came, and every day he woke up to a dewless morning and he wondered: how much worse would he have to become, how mad for peace, crazed for submission, for the god to take him back?
He got his answer when he killed it. He didn’t know what he had thought it was - a pig, a hare. Maybe it had been sound: a clumsy rustling that brought him out of reveries into himself, onto the island. He could smell his own body, in the brackish air, feel his arms burning pleadingly from sunburn. Furiously, Cyparissus drove the javelin into the brush - three times, and each time felt it boring in, and sucking on the tissue as he pulled it free. The deer moaned and rushed from the thicket, slashing at him with its horns, still peeling with gold paint, before it collapsed on its forelegs.
It screamed and thrashed there, blood jetting from its neck like a third antler. Afterwards he realized that it had been screaming for him, Cyparissus, somewhere out there in the woods, not knowing he had been the one behind the spear. Where are you? it was pleading. Why did you leave me? Its side thudded up and down, as it panted in the dirt. He tried to pin it down with the butt of the weapon. It kicked at his ribs, and its antler gashed across his arm. Then it shuddered and lay there, sobbing.
He approached it from the other side. It did not resist as he lifted its head onto his lap and stroked it. Its broad nose was dry and cracked; its tongue felt shriveled, like dried meat. You came back, its eyes, lined with dried mucous, seemed to say. Half an hour passed before it died, limply.
He was sucking at the blood on his arm, wedging his javelin point-up, calmly, in a crack between two logs when the god took over his body, threw him down onto his knees, and spoke out of the forest: That’s enough. Cyparissus’ hands, against his own volition, slid into his lap, but he was too tired to resist. He looked back and the soft brown body and began to weep.
“Permit me this,” he said.
The god appeared. Smooth fingers made his grimy head rest on a warm chest, and held him gently as if nothing in the world had come between them. The god breathed, up and down, with a slow, soft, metrical rhythm. “Come now.”
“Did you mean for this to happen?”
He was rocking like a child, now, in the bright hands as they stroked the gristle from his face. Softly but insistently, inside the marrow of his brain, he felt a center of solace from the god.
“Remember what I said. It is the order of this place.”
“I should like to go with it.”
“Perhaps now, but think of later.”
He let his eyes close and open as they would, as the day passed. The god waited it out patiently, stirring him back to consciousness sometimes with the shift of a finger on his hair. Each time he found himself weeping again.
For the first time in months, the sun set in the fertile red haze that promised new rain, and Apollo said, chin on Cyparissus’ shoulder, “I will move some men in Samos to sail through the islands. You will join them, leave this place.”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ve loved you much too deeply,” said the god, “to lose you to that.”
Cyparissus looked at the deer. In the soft light, its body swirled incandescently under a carapace of flies. Desiring to hold its head in his lap again, he got up to swat at them, but it was futile, and the body had gone rigid.
“You oughtn’t touch it; it’s unclean.”
“I have to. It’s my fault.”
A long sigh from the god that filtered through the brown exhausted grass. “Shall I return tomorrow?”
The javelin, where it stood, snapped as the god went. The blade shattered.
He was still there the next day, as a rainstorm drove the flies away, drenched the body, and sent a cloud of pink water into the ground. He tried to dig a shallow grave with a flat rock, but mud spilled back into the hole. A moment of dryness and warmth among the dirt and water made him stir.
“Not now. Please.”
“I can help you.”
“Then tomorrow? Can you swear?”
And the rain fell on him again. The next day came and went.
Tomorrow? said the voice. The god no longer bothered coming in a body, and his murmuring was tired and spiteful.
“Yes.” His voice was almost gone. The deer was being gnawed at by a dog, but Cyparissus no longer looked at it.
Tomorrow? said the voice, and Cyparissus shook his head.
Eventually they both stopped talking.
A week later, when he could no longer sustain himself on the dried food in his pouch, or on rainwater he collected in his waterskin, and when the gash on his arm was a festering red web, he took the two halves of the javelin, his cloak, some leaves, the deer’s antlers, and what else that he had to offer, and he gathered them at the base of a tree. He washed himself in one of the freshets that had rushed down from the hills after the rain. He knelt there for some time, and prying what sound he could from his sore, pulsating throat, he called to Glaukos, whom he’d brought back to the sea. And he admitted what he wanted.
The sea-god was not as powerful as the great ones. And it was only slowly, bit by bit, that he fulfilled what had been asked. Some parts of it were dreadful. Cyparissus’ arms, legs, neck, were wrung, compressed, but then slowly lost feeling. Good, he thought. While his eyes still worked, he saw himself, and saw his body move in ways his bones had not allowed before. Then his thoughts drifted, filled with half-dreams of deep earth and water, water filling him like blood, and then the thoughts filtered away, growing more indistinct and foreign. It felt strange to think. The dew of each morning – the mornings came together now – ceased to dry from his skin, and seeped inside it. What was left of his nerves dissolved, feeling with their last ghost of sensation how filaments that had once been his toes now curled, protectively, around a clutch of dark bones in the earth.
The sun god returned years later, having remembered suddenly that a boy who had pleasured him lived on an island near Chios, and had promised to come away. He must have been a man by then: handsome, blooming into the lyre, skilled with words, longing for Athens, for he had a quick mind and a countenance that would be loved there. Perhaps Apollo would play the youth now, teasing at the grey hairs, competing against a wife. But when he got there, he found nothing in the clearing but a tree, and no one on the island with a memory of who the boy had been down in the village. Some profanity against the gods with a tame stag had happened in their grandparents’ time, but that was long ago. It was a story they’d forgotten, since the sea (they said), peaceful and lulling, had its way of taking memories away.