Sappho of Lesbos

The sun is almost at its peak as she pushes herself away from the warmth of the fig tree against her back, the bark now shiny from many such days spent in silent reverie, penning letters to a family she hopes one day to see again, left behind in the homeland she has been exiled from. Sicily is beautiful, she thinks, as she casts her gaze across the undulating fields that spread out before her, but it feels a world away from Greece.

The shrieks of a little girl cut through the serenity of the barren landscape like a knife, and she turns and cranes her neck out of fear. At first all she sees are farmers, toiling away on this unforgiving land in their Hessian clothing, but then a patch of grass rustles and a child explodes into the clearing, chasing a flying bug calmly on its way about life. It is her laugh that is the next sound to break the day’s silence. Cleis, her beloved daughter, has all her mothers’ inquisitive spirit, but it is her boundless supply of her father’s energy that saps her mother like this county’s sun.

The harsh sun is a rude shock after the safety of the fig tree, so she calls for Cleis to join her; knowing its almost time to head home to begin preparations for the evening’s celebration. But Cleis is too enraptured with life, and darts back into the tangle of grass, disappearing from view. She watches with a smile on her tanned face as the grass ebbs and flows, moving like the ocean, marking the child’s passing. It may be too soon to head home, she considers, better the child burn off her energy here than at this evenings dinner with her uncle.

Home. To her the word is at best a coarse label for the village on the nearby shoreline, sparsely populated with a few crude structures; just another cruel reminder of how far she is from her beloved Lesbos.

So, Sappho returns to the safety of the fig tree to vent, happy to reunite with her newest friend. The fig tree has become an old friend, a good one too, for many parchments have been filled with words inspired by her silent enjoyment of their moments together. She unrolls the small bundle by the tree, pulling out parchment, a stained clay pot and a worn quill, which she lays out on the flattened grass beside her. After casting a cursory look towards the grass ocean that has swallowed her daughter, she picks up the quill and begins to spill the mêlée of thoughts that have consumed her soul since her arrival in this foreign land…

Scamandronymus, my beloved father,

I hope these words penned from alien lands find you well. What news of home? My Cleis grows bolder every hour and grows more into her grandmothers’ name and beauty every day. She is become a jewel upon this desolate landscape, my sole joy in this place where words and conversation are so often as barren as the landscape that inspires them.

The Sicilian people are as gracious as I had been lead to believe, they welcome us into their homes and love Cleis like their own, however their absence of appetite for intellectual succour leaves me distressed. Cleis is such a beautiful child, the most perfect creation of my life, yet I fear that one day my love for her may sour if I am unable to return home, for she is a constant reminder of what is lost and left behind.

A constant and unwelcome companion has become the thought that these tales of Cleis’s adventures should not be told from foreign lands, though the scant news I can gather from home suggests the turbulent political epoch continues, so it seems we must make do for some time yet to come.

Larichus will dine with us tonite! Such desperately needed joyful news which brings me warm respite from my exile, so dearly needed to refill the spent urn that is my soul, so near to drained o’er these years apart. Of all my brothers he has always brought me the most joy, so I should not have been surprised to hear of his journey here. Though our time together is brief, I am sure the moments we share will last a lifetime and keep me strong until once more I place foot on welcome shores.

Please stay well and pass my warmest greetings to my mother. Reassure her that Cleis asks for her every day and that it is my wish that she accept that this enforced time apart is but an intermission, that our family will once again be whole when calmer minds prevail back home.

Your daughter in exile, Sapphos

Once the venom has been spent and the ink had dried, Sappho carefully rolled up the parchment and re-corked the ink pot, placing her second most valuable possession into the satchel by her side. The sound of a child’s giggle makes her look up, and she smiles when she discovers Cleis lying on the grass, her head propped up in her tiny, filthy hands, quietly watching her mother at work.

“Cleis, my dear, how long have you been there?”

“Only moment’s mother,” she pauses then asks “why do you frown when you write? Are you still sad?”

“How could I be sad child when I have you all to myself in this place?” she laughs as she spins around with her arms out.

Cleis doesn’t say a word; she just lays there staring at her mother.

“Shall we head home and start preparing for your uncles arrival?”

Cleis frowns and wrinkles her nose, causing her mother to consider whether her daughter is also uncomfortable with the idea of labelling the shabby domicile they are forced to live in as a home. But in an instant her frown is gone and she’s on her feet by her mothers’ side, pulling at her hand.

“Do you think uncle Larichus will remember me?” she asks.

“Of course he will,” she laughs, “you are his favourite. I fear he has actually come all this way to see you instead of me.”

Her daughter squeals with delight at the thought, tugging even harder at her mothers’ hand. “Come on, we have to hurry or we wont be ready.”

Sappho lets her daughter drag her down the hill, through the dry grass fields. She smiles occasionally to the farmers who look up briefly from their toil; she knows her presence here is disruptive for these people. They are simple folk, the progeny of generations who have known no other life than working the land for whatever meagre existence they can wrench from it. But she appreciates the effort they make to welcome her.

The dry fields soon give way to a dilapidated dirt road, a path at best, and the first of the many decaying structures of their village. As they emerge from the fields on to the track, and the sound of the swishing grass fades, Sappho becomes aware of the faint sound of a tune that has no place floating above Sicilian soil. She straightens her dress and hair as she walks a little more quickly and braces herself for what is to come.

“Sister, Cleis, my loves” yells Larichus joyously as they round the corner to their home. He jumps up from his hasty seat fashioned from a crate and broken urn, “And about time too, I was becoming parched sitting out here in this unforgiving sun.”

Cleis shrieks and runs to her uncle who scoops her up in his arms and spins her around as she cries out even louder. Several faces appear in the doorways of neighbouring abodes, drawn by the scream, though quickly calmed after discovering all is well. A few faces linger briefly to peruse Larichus, whose proud bearing and classic looks mark him as a man of worth, but he only had eyes for Cleis and his long lost sister.

“By the Gods, Cleis, you have grown into a woman,” he says as he places her on the ground and she stumbles around, fighting to regain her balance. “Sister, what have you been feeding her out here in the wilderness?”

Sappho ignores her brothers’ jibe and wraps her arms around the waist of her baby brother, one she clearly recalls carrying around on her hip and feeding figs to, but who now towers over her by good measure.

“You appear to have grown as well little brother,” she says, her comment accompanied by a good natured squeeze of his waist. “It would appear you’ve been pouring wine in the hall of Mytilene in equal measure for yourself and your guests.”

“Ha, too true,” he laughs, “I have always been a generous host.”

“Well come inside from this accursed sun and lets see if we can do something about remedying your parched condition.”

Cleis attaches herself to his left hand and drags him into their home, finally having the opportunity to ask the million questions that she has been saving for his visit.

“How long are you stying uncle?”

“How is grandmother? Does she get our letters?”

“Is it true that you and uncles Erigyius and Charaxus are attending the 46th Olympiad? Can I come? Will there be prizes?

And on she goes until Larichus escapes momentarily into a welcome seat.

“Slow down Cleis, there will be plenty of time for me to answer all your questions. I am here for a few days yet.”

Sappho smiles at her brother as she pours wine into goblets and gathers olives and bread, enjoying that almost forgotten feeling of having family close by, a welcome respite from the isolation that is her constant companion here. She hands her brother the wine and places a plate of olives on the table, relaxing in the moment well earned.

“Dare I ask what soppy prose my sister has been composing for the world during her exile?

She almost chokes on her wine, laughing at his impudent question.  Larichus is a man of many words, she knows, few of which would be regarded as prose. But whereas her brother has earned a reputation as a plain speaker with the ability to wield words as weapons when needed, she has also earned her own measure of fame. Word recently reached her ear that an eminent philosopher had compared her talents to those of the nine Muses, a compliment which brought joy to her heart as well as a certain measure of ridicule from her brothers who view her craft as trivial.

“Soppy prose?” she jokingly demands. “This from a man famed for using words that strike at the heart of men, though more regularly women, when it counts most. I ask you, how are your words that stir the soul any better, worse or different from the words I use?”

“It is not their soul’s I aim to stir,” he replies with a wink, “plus it is not your words that I question, but your choice of target,” another wink.

Sappho stops and stares at him.

“After this long apart the first thing you wish to know is if I write for the hearts of men or women? Have we so little in common that this is the place you choose to start our long overdue reunion?”

Cleis, who had wrested herself into her uncles lap during the debate, looks up from her plate of olives, alerted by the sudden silence.

“Tell uncle Larichus about your latest poem mother, I’m sure he will like it,” she turns to him, “I don’t understand it all but it sounds nice.”

Cleis’s innocent interruption breaks the tension of the moment, giving Sappho the opportunity to refill their glasses as she shares the details of her latest poem. It is a tribute to the tragic plight of Tithonus, a mortal man the goddess Eos fell in love with. Eos had requested Tithonus become immortal; however she had forgotten to ensure that he stay forever young.

The tragedy and theme of the piece was not lost on Larichus.

“So you are spending your days penning dark poems of lost lovers and the bad dealings of the Gods. Am I to understand that it’s the Gods you blame for your current locale and darkened mood?”

Sappho pauses before she replies . Her brother’s words have stung her yet again, this time as much for their brashness and clarity as for their accuracy.

“Who am I to know the will of the Gods?” she says rising from her seat to light a lamp and fend off the rapidly closing dark, “I simply write tales of their follies to amuse the masses.” Larichus just laughs.

By the time their evening meal is prepared it is completely dark, so Sappho moves about the Spartan structure lighting the meagre supply of candles, as Cleis continues her verbal assault on her uncle. Their evening meal is consumed in fleeting moments of silence, punctuated by Cleis’ seemingly endless torrent of questions for her ever patient uncle.

Soon the food and the excitement of the day take their toll, and Sappho and Larichus have the chance to relax and spend the remainder of the evening trading stories of their youth, as Larichus nurses the slumbering form of an exhausted Cleis on his lap. After many hours of conversation lull their energy, and the conversation has faded into the comfortable silence that only loved ones can bear, Sappho leans back in her chair and looks at her brother.

He looks so much like their father, she thinks, the tyke she raised not so long ago has indeed become a man. A thought creeps into her mind that makes her smile, a thought she dare not say out loud to Larichus for fear of offending him at her challenging the Gods. But she is proud of her brother, and surely pride cannot be a sin for moments like these?

Feeling his sister’s eyes upon him, Larichus tuns and smiles, a tired smile, though tinged with his endless sense of joy. He finishes the remainder of his wine with a large swig from his gourd, knowing that his sister is tired too.The day has come to an end, as it must, as it always has.

The calmness of the room is disturbed when they rise, and the lamp flickers as they pass, casting ghostly spectres onto the coarse walls, ghouls that seem dance and jump, mocking their passing as if the Gods have heard her most intimate thoughts.

A fateful chill from watching the eerie shadows suddenly sends icy fingers down her spine, so after Sappho pulls the heavy blanket over her fading sibling, she crosses the room and picks up the letter she penned earlier that day. Tucking the letter into her brother’s satchel, she reminds herself to have Larichus promise to pass the letter to their father on his return. She wonders why she is suddenly compelled to make sure her father receives the letter, perhaps it’s the dancing spectres that she can’t shake from her mind causing her unrest. Perhaps, she thinks, it’s a part of her that knows that she will never see her home again.