The Sword of Tiresias
*Editor's Note: This is the sequel to "Some Enemy Exults" and the prequel to "The Lost Myth of Tiresias's Womanhood".
Occasionally Tiresias would glimpse a gleaming seam and his heart leapt for the extra bit of mutton or hunk of cheese he’d be given at the next meal for finding it. He was almost always in the lead. He sometimes believed this was because his eyes were best, but at other times he thought he might be fooling himself. These shadow brothers, who in all other circumstances of priority edged him out before he knew what he’d lost, must have some awful reason for letting him be in the position most likely to make the discoveries and collect the rewards. But Tiresias’s wits had unwound. To investigate the evil lurking behind their generosity only promised tangling. And so, like an innocent, he led the expedition ever deeper into the mountain. Up and up the cave took them, as if surely they must someday pop out of the top into the dazzling sunlight.
When he pointed out his discoveries to the other shadows, they huddled around him and tentatively chipped and chiseled away at the dirt and rock surrounding the glinting line of gold. Meanwhile the torchbearer, virtually a godling in the eyes of the others who could never approach the outside except in the darkness of deep night, would light one more torch and pass it to the last shadow on the wall who held it for the others while he, the lucky torchbearer, took his pleasure in walking out into the light to fetch the master.
You could hear the master from a long way off. He walked like a man who knew the mountain would not dare fall on him. It might come tumbling down on the poor heads of his shadow slaves at any moment (they lived in dread of that eventuality), but it would not fall on him, and by extension them, while he was near. And so they prayed silently for those moments to stretch infinitely, the gold threads weaving their net of safety around them.
In trembling fascination they obeyed his stentorian commands to “spread her legs” (that was what he called opening the area around the gold seam), allowing him and only him to extricate the precious threads. “That’s my girl.” He coaxed the metal, as if it were his concubine. “Come to daddy.” He tugged and pulled the gold threaded clumps into his leather satchel, lined with a silk cloth that would be removed and washed outside.
One morning Tiresias awoke to find himself encircled by black trees and rocks silhouetted by pale light. It was the first inkling of sun he had seen since entering the mine, and he thought he might weep at the beauty of it. The stars shone even brighter than usual, set as they were in that bowl of encroaching daylight. And to perfect the celestial tableau, a sliver of silver moon hung in the sky at the edge of night as if Artemis were ushering in her glorious brother.
The softening of Tiresias’s eyes and heart was abruptly dispelled by the master’s harsh commands. “Get up! Grab grub! Get to work!” It was at that moment that Tiresias saw that the master wore his sword. His fury sparked so violently that he almost lunged at the Thessalian bastard, but then he caught himself and a deep shaft of cunning and cold hatred sliced into his core, leaving him a new and angry man.
His quivering enslaved soul had conformed to the cramped conditions in which it had found itself and shaped him into a small, scared thing, but that was finished. Tiresias, son of Everes and the nymph Chariclo, regained his strength and banished his fear. I will kill this man, take back my sword, and wreak havoc on these sinister lands. Tiresias did not, however, have long to plot his revenge.
Gold had not been seen for several days when, while moving back into the recesses of the cave, the ceiling dropped abruptly, forcing them to work hunched over and then on their hands and knees. Suddenly, their bent heads met only dirt and rock. The Master commanded them to dig. Having led the expedition thus far, Tiresias must now continue to lead, head first, into blackness. This was of course the inevitability foreseen and shunned by the others—the ultimate reward for initiative.
With a miniature pickax and a tiny hand shovel, he inserted himself into the bowels of earth to follow the gold. The tortuous labor left his body broken and his mind raving. His resentment and resolve disappeared in the face of this inhuman work.
When the earthquake struck, signaled first by Poseidon’s angry rumblings, then by the rolling contractions of dirt, Tiresias had no doubt he was a dead man. He was so deep in his awful tunneling that it seemed it would be a relief to be buried alive and done with this wretched existence. Then his lungs rebelled, demanding air. He scrambled and thrashed in his tiny crawlspace as the cries of his fellow shadows turned to silence. His own mouth filled up with blood and dirt, consciousness evaporating.
His mind had nearly split asunder in agony, when the ground beneath him gave way into empty rubble-filled space. His fear could finally have voice, but the strangled scream was drowned almost as soon as it emerged. Spluttering and gasping, his open mouth drank water and for an instant, air.
He was so confused and terrified that his limbs could not reconcile their liberty in water. They remained curled under the weight of the mountain and kept him sinking. Even after he unfurled, recognizing his buoyancy, Tiresias kept screaming, yells echoing off the slick walls like the cries of a thousand harpies. Finally his voice gave out. It was only then that he understood that he was alive and floating in a very cold underground river.
His body bobbed peacefully. As his wits returned so did his will to live. The cave must end, the river flow out. He began to actively swim with the current. He thought he saw distant lights again and again, erratic sparks like dancing fire flies, but it was just his eyes playing tricks on his deprived and desperate mind. When the faint glow of day suffused the distance the difference appeared obvious.
As he floated joyfully into the blinding sunlit world, he laughed and cried in equal measures. The black waters turned suddenly a blue so brilliant its rival could only be the glorious green valley into which it spread. He frolicked in the water like a dolphin, then he saw his chance to pull himself out. As he did, Tiresias looked back at the mountain from which he’d miraculously escaped and saw them. A little knot of people clustered around what, not long before, had been the open mouth of the cave into which they had been thrust each day. Now it was sealed by a mound of rubble.
He looked with a stranger’s eye at the outside workings of the mine. Upon his arrival he had been nearly blind from grief and humiliation and had seen none of it. . There were perhaps two dozen workers out there, many of them women who seemed to be beating their breasts and wailing in anguish, while great slabs of rock, covered by linen that served as washing tables, and tall jugs of water stood by unworked. Then Tiresias’s gaze recognized the master. He could not see his face but he would know that bluster, not to mention the sharp glint of metal that was Tiresias’s sword hanging from his hip, anywhere.
The master paced back and forth in front of the closed cave, whipping the frantic workers to clear the rocks. His fury was easy to read: he must have his wealth opened. Slaves were expendable but the loss of so many at once would surely slow down the mine’s productivity. All this mean greed could be read in his every movement. Though he could barely hear the master’s outlandish demands, each word that did bounce off the mountain towards Tiresias, goaded his fury.
From a distance Tiresias waited and watched. Darkness fell. The pitiful slaves came no closer to reopening the mine. The master gave them another whipping for their efforts. The stars twinkled as labored snores wafted towards Tiresias. He slipped past the guards into the tent, clutching a sharp rock in case he could not get to the master in time to snatch his sword. As it turned out the master was a sound drunk sleeper. He did not open his eyes until it was too late. The sword of Tiresias slipped into the hand of the rightful owner and sliced the throat with ease.
On the edge of a dark wood at the foot of a steep mountain, Tiresias stopped to consider. Since escaping the mine, his rage indiscriminately acted upon Thessalians. Blind vengeance had turned his soul to a bloody pulp. But the poor farmers and simple townsfolk were not to blame for his enslavement. He could see that now. The problem was that Tiresias did not know what to do next. He’d been away from Boeotia for so long, it seemed a foreign land.
Suddenly he smelled fire. He looked to his left and confused, saw smoke emanating from under an enormous rock that seemed to be wedged into the mountain or held up by magic. He thought he heard voices slipping out from under there also, but they were strange as if very small or far away. He lay down on his belly to spy.
Amazed, he blinked for his brain to make sense of what he saw. There were not one but three little fires glowing merrily in a space that might have held a poor man’s hearth. Surrounding the fires he saw grey-green stick men, figures that resembled nothing so much as lizards, but undoubtedly men who stood on two legs and wore clothes of what looked to be undyed wool and bits of tin as armor. Swords, the size of ladies bodkins, hung at the hips of these miniature warriors and bows and quivers hung on their shoulders. Tiresias took in the extraordinary sight with amusement and curiosity. Then his eyes caught sight of a vision more astonishing than the rest.
At the far end of the cave a colorful fluffy couch cradled a plump little pink lady. Her body, that of the most perfect rounded unspoiled maid, wriggled in wanton pleasure like the most debauched of whores. He stared in fascination at the several grey lizard men stroking and kissing her soft flesh. Each seemed content with a portion of her perfection: one bit her nipples gently while another took the beautiful face in his hands and kissed the moaning rosy lips, a third thrust his hand and then his manhood, such as it was, deep inside her.
This small goddess (as Tiresias now understood her to be) reclined on her silken couch, her pleasure gigantic. She cried out as the stick figure between her legs groaned and finished. But before he had tied on his girdle and taken two ludicrously manly steps towards the nearest fire, another took his place.
Tiresias glimpsed golden hair between her legs as fine as the tresses that flowed from her shining head and spilled off her silken couch. Her own hand was buried in those tresses twirling and tugging at them as her pleasure came on in waves like the crashing sea at the turning of the tide. Incredibly, he felt himself stiffen and he nearly laughed aloud at the notion that such a burlesque should rouse him. Almost in that instant her eyes slit open languorously and looked directly at him, penetrating his mean soul. His cheeks flushed at the shame of being caught out in his arousal.
She smiled at him, coiling a golden lock around her lazy finger. No! Tiresias gasped inwardly, this was not a lock of hair but a golden serpent winding its way through her fingers and ringing itself around her wrist! Tiresias saw now that her hair was a mass of writhing golden serpents. One detangled itself from the rest and slid down the silken coverings to the ground. It curved its path to the fire and in! The gold serpent turned red then blue then white hot and sprouted legs like a salamander writhing in the flames. The molten creature needed no Hephaistos to shape it. The silvery being emerged from the flames still evolving until it stood on its two legs, another miniature warrior complete with armor and weapons. He took his place with the others, as if waiting to enter the goddess from which he had just sprung.
The goddess had not taken her eyes off Tiresias. Instead, to his sorrow, she allowed him to watch that which was forbidden to his eyes, and then, with an unhurried gesture pointed out the voyeur. Those engrossed in her did not hesitate in their enjoyment, but the spectators, waiting their turn or already sated, peered at the giant head lolling at the foot of their sanctuary.
Instead of jumping up in alarm and fright as he expected them to do, these stick figures that he could crush between his hands, laughed and pointed at him. As his consternation revealed itself on his face, they grew nearly hysterical, clutching their stomachs. The sound came to Tiresias like so many tiny sharpening knives.
That is when he realized he was bound. The weightless net had been laid over him in such a way as to make any movement impossible. He was enmeshed in a web as fine as a spider’s and as secure as chains.
But before he had time to experience any kind of real fear, a word from the goddess on the couch caused two of the stick men to take in hand their bows and methodically notch their arrows and aim at his two staring eyes. He screamed as his eyeballs oozed down his cheeks. He struggled and the gossamer threads grew tighter. He felt himself being dragged feet first. The shrill voices surrounded him and he was turned over onto his back. A thousand tiny hammers struck their chisels into his flesh as if he were a lump of marble. He howled, a wild beast being carved alive.
Then his blind gaze opened on himself lying there, a bloody writhing stranger. Calm and detached, the hovering part of him watched as the sculptors chipped away at his manhood, and his sword disappeared under the enormous rock that overhung the entrance of the cave.