"Spring in Chicago--hah!" Kalliste Periakes gratefully held the cup of cocoa in her hands. "It was so cold in the stands I thought my fingers and toes would fall off." She was standing in the front room of the Woman's Co-op still bundled up from the cold of Wrigley Field. She was a slight woman with long cascading dark hair and a thin face dominated by large eyes.
"I don't know why you went to that dumb game." Cheryl poured herself a cup of coca. Outside the old storefront people were walking around bound up in heavy coats and scarves. "Baseball is silly. All of those organized sports are silly. And anyway, don't the Cubs always lose?"
"Baseball is different," Kalliste replied. She could feel the heat seeping into her hands. "Baseball is like opera."
"Opera?" Roxanne looked up from the space heater in the corner. "Now you've lost me."
"There are two kinds of people who watch Opera," Kalliste said. "There are those who go because it is expected of them, and there are those who 'get' Opera, as you Americans say. These latter people love Opera at almost an instinctive level. The same might be said for baseball."
"You risked frostbite to watch grown men play a child's game," Roxanne said. "Your 'love' of this game must be intense."
"Today was Opening Day." Kalliste slowly shed her coat and muffler. That still left her in a sweatshirt over a heavy sweater. "I would no more miss Opening Day than I would miss my birthday."
"Is she talking about baseball again?" Anna asked as she carried a box of yarn into the room. She set it by the loom and brushed her dark hair back over her shoulder. Her hard eyes measured Kalliste and the other girls. "You should know better. If you let her she'll talk your ears off about baseball. If you want to hear Kalliste talk, get her to tell you another one of her stories."
Roxanne and the others looked at each other. "Why not?" Roxanne asked. "It's been weeks since she told us a story." She left the room, calling out that Kalliste was going to tell another story.
"Nobody seemed to care for the last one," Kalliste said as people filed into the common room.
"I should hope not," Cheryl replied. "I thought the story of Theseus and Ariadne would be a great romantic story. But it ended so sadly." She glanced out the front windows where the last of the crowd from Wrigley Field were braving the chilly gusts of the early evening. "I was accosted by a pair of Jesus Freaks when I was leaving campus today. They act as if they're the only religion in the world. You're from Greece, Kalliste. That makes you Greek Orthodox, doesn't it? Could you..."
"I am not part of the Orthodox Church." Kalliste shook her head, smiling. "I'm from Crete. Crete is like a whole separate continent and has more history than all of the rest of Greece put together. It is part of Greece, but in many ways it is separate, too." She looked at the faces around her. "Let's not talk about religion."
"But most of your stories involve religion," Anna said.
"Religion was very important to the people of ancient times."
"I just finished a History of Religion class," Cheryl said. "I was thinking of doing my thesis on how religions get started."
Kalliste shook her head, her face set. "No. Absolutely not."
"Surely you know one that wouldn't rile too many people," Cheryl replied. "What about Buddhism? That's been likened to a philosophy as well as a religion."
"There are different aspects of Buddhism," Kalliste said. She looked around the room and sighed. "All right, but don't say I didn't warn you." Kalliste held out her mug for a refill. "This is a story about the Buddha. Don't ask where I learned it, though."
Short, fat, and drunk. Gloriously drunk. Outrageously drunk. He sprawled in the shade of a tree across the road from my inn, a yellow cloth casually draped across his lap his only adornment. A cup dangled from one soft hand, a half-empty wineskin filled the other. He had been to my inn before, buying wine with good silver. From the casual way he treated money he had to be rich. I thought him a young noble wastrel and paid him no mind, I saw enough of them.
For three days he had sat there, drunk, across the road from my inn, just outside the town of Sarnath. I had never seen anyone drink so much wine. Surely I would wake the next day to find his lifeless corpse on my doorstep. This day, though, he was laughing to himself, as if at some joke. There are limits to my patience, and he had found one of them. I stepped to the door and tried to chase him away with gestures. He laughed and waved his cup in my direction.
"Go away," I called. "You'll scare away my customers." He laughed even harder, as if that was the funniest thought in the world.
I had to do something about him. If he stayed where he was I wouldn't have a customer all day. I could put him in the little shed behind my inn, I thought, him and his wine. I gave the soup a quick stir, then walked across the road to deal with him.
"Welcome, Ancient One," he said, waving his cup at me. A cold spear shot down my spine. Ancient One? The heat of the day vanished. "How are you, you and your Gods?" He dropped the cup in his lap and tried to count on his fingers. "Le's shee, one hunner'... two hunner'... three hunner'... I give up, ancient lady, how old are you today?"
I looked in his eyes and saw something I had only seen a few times before. Herakles had had that look, and so had Akhilles. Here was a man who had been marked out by Them. I took a second look and shook my head. They had chosen him? They had a talent for choosing the most unlikely of tools for Their bidding--myself for instance. "I-I don't know what you're talking about," I stammered.
He levered himself upright. "I am drunk," he said in that self-important way some drunks have. "But you have been touched by Them. I know, because I see it in myself." He cocked his head, examining me. "You have the mark of a Goddess on you, lady." He gave a nod, satisfied with that conclusion, and relaxed back against the bundle that had been propping him up.
"You're a crazy drunk," I said. I tried to pull him to his feet. "Come with me. I'll give you some soup and a place to sleep it off."
He pulled his hand out of mine. Using the tree as a prop he slowly climbed erect. "No," he said, "We will trade. If you give me some of your soup I will tell you something you haven't heard inna long, long time."
I glanced up and down the road. Nobody was in sight, it was too early for the crowd I got for the mid-day meal. If I could get some soup in him I knew I could get him out of sight. He would sleep it off, and I would be done with him. I brought my palms together and bowed to him. "You will honor my humble inn."
He pushed himself away from the tree. My tone had not been lost on him. "I will honor it in a way you do not know," he said. He lurched across the road and sprawled onto a bench just under my awning. "Soup!" he called. He laughed. "Soup!" I ladled a bowl for him. He looked at it with mistrust. "What is in this?"
"Vegetables," I said. Some of the people of this land had the strangest eating habits. "I used fish caught from the river for the stock."
He nodded and noisily slurped a couple of spoonfuls. Then he dug around in the cloth covering his loins, pulled out a piece of silver half the size of my hand and slapped it on the table. Picking up the spoon he began to empty bowl. "Soup's good."
I stared at the silver piece. It was enough to buy my inn twice over. "I can't take that, it's too much."
"Are you sick, woman? A Keftu turning down money?"
"K'ftiu?" I dropped my voice. "Where did you hear that name?"
With a belch he finished the soup. He hooked a stool from beneath another table and pulled it over. "Sit," he said in a commanding voice. "Your many other customers won't mind."
"You are hopeless," I replied, sitting.
"And how old are you, Ancient One?" Intensity shone in his dark eyes, and suddenly he neither looked, spoke, nor acted drunk. "I look at you and see many years weighing your shoulders, Lady. I ask myself, how could this be? And then I see that the hand of one of Them has touched you, and I know the answer."
"You are a silly drunken fool."
"That I am," he said seriously. "I am drunk, lady, I am on the Gods' Own Drunk. And do you know why?" He touched his nose slyly and leaned across the table to me. The smell of wine was almost overpowering. "Because I have learned a great Truth. I know the secret of everything. I know what rots men's souls, I know why there is so much suffering in this world, and I know how to stop it." He reached for his cup, knocking it over in the process. Carefully he righted it. "If you would fill my cup, I will tell you that Truth."
I have heard the one great Truth in many different inns and over many empty wineskins. Never before, though, had I heard it from one marked by Them. Curiosity won out and I fetched him more wine. Instead of gulping it, he sipped it carefully. Drunk he may have been, but his words came out cold sober.
"Though I may not look it, Ancient Lady, I am a Prince. My father is a King. Worse for me, he will probably live a long time. I love my father, I could not send him to his ancestors, so I did the only other thing a Prince can do, I got drunk. For years I have wandered this land, enjoying life. I have lain with more women than I can remember, I have drunk enough wine to fill an ocean, I have hunted till I have grown sick of blood. I have done everything I could to amuse myself. And all of it, all of it," he repeated, thumping the table, "was for naught because I would wake up each morning and try to think of something to do. I will never be King, my son will inherit from my father. I have no talent for war, no talent for hunting, and I make a poor excuse for a drunk. Years ago I reached the point where even lechery was boring." Carefully he topped off his wine, then he belched.
"I kept asking myself why I continued. Why did I bother?" He smiled, but it wasn't a pretty smile. "I am too great a coward to end my life. There must be something more, but what is it? And then I realized the problem was my desires. If I stopped wanting more, then I wouldn't miss it. The simpler, the purer I live my life, the better I am. And that, I thought, was the great Truth of life. When you want nothing, when you end your desires, when you try to live a pure life, you live a better life." He leaned forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Perfection is achieved by wanting nothing. And I know how to achieve it."
This was the great Truth? I wanted to laugh, but something about him stopped me. He was serious, so very serious. I could see from the light shining in his eyes that he thought he had found something profound. "So why tell me? All I will do is listen to you and sell you more wine."
"Who can I tell this to?" he asked. "My own kin are disgusted with me. My friends have only stayed because of the depth of my purse. And the priests..." He spit. "The priests are no help. So who could I turn to? And then I came by here, I saw you, and I saw something that could not be. Everything in this world has its span of years, everything and everyone but you. You have seen more years than I can count. You must have wisdom I can only dream of."
"You flatter me," I said bitterly. "Long life does not bestow wisdom. What do I know? What have I learned? I know how to get from one day to the next. I know how to take the long view, to look ahead and work patiently for an end that is many, many years away. That is the wisdom I have."
"How old are you?" he asked. He straightened up, and near-sobriety settled on him like a cloak. "Really. Tell me. I am curious."
How old was I? That was a very good question. I tried to count. "I came here, to this inn, in the reign of King Ghades the Wise," I said, the words coming slowly. "He ruled a coastal kingdom south and west of here. I am sure that was more than a hundred years ago. I moved here from the coast--in my mind that was in the time of Ashurbanipal, Great King of the Assyrians."
"I have heard of both of them," he said with a nod.
"I moved into the lands of Assur in the time of the Great King Tilgath-Pilaser II. I came to there from other lands farther north and west. How long ago was that?" I shook my head. "The Gods alone know. The last time I had knowledge of the years was in the time of the Heraklidae, five hundred years after the island of Dariapana fell into the sea." I thought about that span of years. "How old am I? You want the truth?" I shook my head. "I cannot tell you because I do not know."
He reached for his cup, knocking it over again. His hand was shaking as he grabbed the jug of wine and poured it down his throat, spilling half of it across his chin and face in the process. "I heard a story once, years ago," he said when the jug was empty. "When I was a young man I was much given to stories from travelers. This one traveler told me of a race of men called the Keftu. They lived in a mighty city on a beautiful island. In one story it is called Antalantid, in another Darpana. And then the Gods grew jealous of the beauty of that city and grew jealous of the wealth and luxury of that people, and so they turned against them. In a single night and a day their city fell into the sea and was destroyed.
"It made a nice fable, one I dismissed as just that, another tale. As a prince I was always being given cautionary tales about how to appease Them. But a wise man from beyond the mountains to the north told me of a year long ago when the Gods grew angry with the people of one land. And so a mighty mountain exploded, rivers turned to ice in the summer, the sky itself turned black, the sun turned blood red, and a whole city was entombed.
"I am not a wise man, Lady, but as a King's son I have been taught to look beyond the surface, to see the things the way they are, not the way people want them to be. I put those stories together, and I thought that, perhaps it was not a fable, that perhaps this story, or parts of it, might be true."
"Do you know when that was? Did he say?"
He answer was slow in coming. "He said it happened a long time ago, maybe a thousand years ago, maybe more. I don't think that was an exaggeration in the way of most story tellers."
To tell the truth, to tell someone who I was, who I really was; I confess I was sorely tempted. But all my years had taught me caution, and it was my turn to hesitate. "This is hard," I said at last. "But let me try." I tried to order my whirling thoughts. A cup of wine helped.
"I was born 22 years before The Wave," I began slowly. "That was 22 years before the island of Dariapana fell into the sea, and the city named Kalliste was entombed forever. That story is true, by the way. I lived there. Kalliste was my home, the home of my husband, myself, and my daughter. You've wondered when that was, well, so do I. Such was the chaos afterwards that I did not think to mark the year, not that it would matter now. You say a thousand years have passed, maybe more." Somehow that felt right. "That may be true. I gave up counting a long time ago. How old am I?" I thought to put it in terms he would know. "I walked this earth many hundreds of years before the Reg-Vida was written. That is how old I am." He blinked, his eyes opening a little wider. He knew when the Reg-Vida was written.
"You are right, I am a K'ftiu, the last of the K'ftiu. We called ourselves the Sea King's Children because our Kingdom was the sea and all the lands within it. No man dared face us in our element, the sea. We were not a particularly wise race, no more so than any other people. But we lived, we loved, we had dreams. We were good at only two things, Trade and the Dance. Every race of man has something special to contribute, and those two were ours."
He had picked up the empty wine jug, and now he slowly put it down, his eyes opening even more as I unburdened myself. "Let me ask you something, Ancient Lady," he said at last. "You spoke of getting through the day, getting from one day to the next. How do you do it? How do you bear the weight of your years?"
I fetched another jug and refilled my own cup. "I bear it because I am satisfied with what I have," I said. "I do not long for what I do not have. I do not deny myself pleasure, nor do I wallow in it. Moderation, neither too much, nor too little. My fate is as the Gods will it, perhaps more so than another person's. If I accept my lot in life, a lot I chose willingly, if I accept that, and only try to improve myself, not the rest of the world, then my lot is easier to bear. I cannot change the world to suit myself. Why try something that is impossible?"
That look came into his eyes again, even stronger this time. He stared at me for several heartbeats, and then he stood, knocking over the bench. The years seemed to fall away from him, his face smoothed out, it was like a great load had been removed from him. Staring at something only he could see, he walked out of my inn, across the road, and sat again beneath the tree.
I watched him out of curiosity. He did not move for the rest of the day and all that night. In the morning he was still there, his gaze turned inward. I put soup, bread, and water next to him. He ate mechanically, neither tasting nor aware of what I had done. Another day. And another. In all that time he barely moved.
Finally, on the fourth day, he arose. Inner light burned so strong in him I could scarce look at it. It was the look They had. Was this a man become a God? I looked at the empty bowl, the crumbs of bread left behind, and the nightsoil behind the tree. This was still a man.
"What is your name, lady?"
"They call me Sahampati."
He gave me a half-smile. "I did not ask what they call you, I asked for your name."
"My birth name is Kalliste," I said finally, proudly. My beautiful name sounded so strange in his language. "I am Kalliste, daughter of M'pha, who was daughter of L'risae, of L'risae's village, in the land of the K'ftiu, the land of the Sea King's children. I am Kalliste, last of the Sea King's Children."
"Kalliste, Lady of a Thousand Summers." He smiled then, a smile so peaceful, so assured, so full of insight that it frightened me. No man should have that smile. "Your wisdom has shown me--words cannot explain it yet. I am in your debt, and I would do you a service."
"Which is?" I was wary of anyone offering to do me a favor.