Keos is stern. You'd not suppose so from the proverb, that it knows not the horse nor ox, but is rich in the gladdening vine-fruit, and brings forth poets. That last had not been added, when I was born. On the other hand, it is a lie that on Keos a man has to take hemlock when he reaches sixty. That was only in the old siege when the warriors had to be kept alive. Nowadays, it is just considered good manners.
Iulis, my native city, is high up the mountain, above Koressia harbor. I used to sit on a rock with my father's sheep around me, looking at the foreign sails and wondering where they came from; they thread the Kyklades from all four corners of the world. I could seldom go down to see. My father was not a man to leave his land to a steward while he sat at ease, nor let his sons go sightseeing. My elder brother, Theasides, got leave from work much oftener than I; not because he was the heir, which would have made it heavier, but because he was good with the disk and javelin and a fine pankratiast, and had to train for the games to do the family credit. He was handsome too. My parents never told me in so many words that they preferred me out of sight, but they had no need. I seemed to have known it from my birth.
Keeping out of sight, one is a good deal alone. But if one is short of company, one can always make it. I kept, you might say, the very best company in Keos.
If a fine ship with a painted sail passed proudly by the port, keeping its mystery, for me it was the Argo
with its talking prow and its crew of heroes, going north to the bewitched Kolchian shore. If a hawk hovered, I saw winged Perseus poised for his flashing swoop; grasping, like the hawk its prey, the Gorgon's deadly head to freeze the dragon. The boulder I sat on had been flung by Herakles, playing ball as a boy. When I drove my flock to pasture, I was with Achilles on some great cattle-raid, bringing the spoils of a plundered city back to camp.
As I dreamed I sang, as far back as I can remember. I needed only to be alone, among the creatures of my thought, and the songs would come. Childish, at first; tunes picked up from the work songs of my father's thralls, or the women weaving. They satisfied me, till I was old enough to be taken to the Apollo festival, and heard a rhapsodist chanting his bit of Homer, and some local poet taking his choir through a choral ode. I suppose I was nine or ten.
For the first time, I knew that my secret joy was a thing grown men could make a life of, even a living. I did not yet hope that for myself. I only dreamed of it, as I'd dreamed of fighting at Troy; but on the mountain I dreamed aloud. When some old ewes pushed up to see what all the noise was about, I felt like Orpheus, and wished that Keos had lions to be enchanted. Then I would go home at night, and be silent in a corner. No wonder my father thought me a sullen boy. But what could I have said to him?
Time passed; I was twelve, thirteen; I heard the singing at the festivals; I understood that these men, happy beyond imagining, had all once been boys like me, and somehow achieved their bliss. My dreams turned to wishes; but they could find no voice, except in secret on the mountain. Soon I would be a man, just one of my father's farm-hands. A poet? I could as soon have told him I wanted to be a Scythian king. I would be lucky if he did no worse than laugh. I began to know bitterness, and despair.
Then came the wedding from which my life was born.
The bridegroom was Laertes, our neighbor Milon's eldest son. He was a sea-captain, his rich father having bought him a ship when he came of age. He had grown rich in his turn, by boldness, shrewdness and luck, trading about lonia and as far as Egypt, and had stayed unmarried till thirty, mostly for lack of time. There was always a stir when he put in with his foreign goods, his outlandish men and his tales. Theas, who was taken to call with our father, used to save the tales for me.
I had never thought they would take me to the wedding. Any treats I had as a child came always from Theasides. This time they could hardly leave me behind, because my five-year-old sister was going. She was pretty, though, with hair as soft as cobweb and red as fire. Once she had asked me gravely how I came to be so ugly, not believing such a thing could happen without a reason her elders would understand. I told her I had been cursed by a raven from whom I had taken a lamb, which left her satisfied. Hearing her crying as her hair was combed, I wondered they should be troubled with either of us at a feast, forgetting that weddings beget weddings and are times for looking ahead.
At all events, my best tunic came out of the chest; a castoff of Theasides's though there were five years between us; quite good, but I was outgrowing it in my turn. I looked dismayed at my lean thighs with their dark pelt of hair. But I would have to show enough to frighten the women, before I would get a new one. Keos is stern.
Before the house of the bride was a gently sloping meadow, where the bridesmaids stood with their garlands, waiting to sing. The thrones of the bride and groom were decked with flowers. My parents greeted their hosts, and sought out their friends among the guests, taking Theasides with them. He was plainly dressed (there are laws in Keos against extravagance), but the cloth was fine, and if he had been in rags his beauty would have graced them. I, knowing what my parents would have wished of me, lost myself in the crowd. There was more in this than filial duty. I had marked down the slab of rock where the bard would stand to sing, and the clump of brush near by where I could listen undisturbed. I meant not to miss a word.
Bride and groom took their thrones. Though weathered, he had kept his looks, and his purple fillet from Tyre became him. They made a good pair, for all she was half his age. The girls stood in their circle, hand-linked ready to dance, bright on the grass as another wedding garland. And now came the bard, in his festal robe, its border embroidered in Miletos, his seven-stringed kithara in his hand. He walked to the singing place, and drew his plectrum across the strongs.Happy groom, the favored of Aphrodite,
Now at last you have her, your matchless maiden,
Girdled with violets.
The garland began to turn, like windblown petals.
He was a smallish man past his middle years; his beard, and the hair under his festal garland, were ash-grey. At that time he can't yet have been sixty; but to my youth he seemed as old as Zeus, and I was amazed he could sing so well. I knew nothing of training, except that it was given to good-looking boys who were chosen for Apollo's choir, and went to Delos, the holy island, for his birthday feast. All I had was a voice to which the sheep would answer; and perfect pitch, which I was half aware of, enough to recognize it in the bard. I knew too that his inlaid kithara was a masterpiece.
There it hangs on my wall. The embroidered neck-sling wore ragged, and I had a new one worked in Athens. That's wearing too, but never mind.
He had been costly to hire, by Keos reckoning, where most things are paid in kind. You can't offer a sheep or heifer to us wandering men. I once accepted a mule, which I had need of at the time; but that's long ago. From kings, maintenance and gold; from lords, either or both according to their rank; from others, weighed-out silver. Or one makes a gift, for the honor of gods or heroes. Nothing between.
He had been ten days on Keos, a guest in the bride's household, teaching the girls the wedding song and the dance. Sometimes from up the hill I had seen them dancing, but too far to hear. It would have been as much as my hide was worth, to leave my flock.
From my lair in the brush, a yard or two from the dais, I saw only the backs of the bride-maidens, as they faced the seats of honor. But, as I had planned, I could hear each note and each word.
The dancers had on their best thinnest dresses, of fine linen beaten soft upon the river-stones and squeezed, still damp, into clinging folds. As they passed the bride's throne, one or another would toss a flower from the wreath she wore; the lap of the saffron-veiled girl was full of roses. It was too late for the violets of the song. Their clear voices rose like birds' at dawn. The bridegroom's friends, bold young rips for the most part, stood by his throne as quiet as well-beaten schoolboys, saving their bawdries for the bridal ride. At most weddings, they'd have been clapping time and calling out to the girls.
The song was the dance; the bard was its perfect instrument. He sang it lightly but with reverence; none of those little variations thrown in to flatter the hosts, though they are sometimes good enough to keep. This piece was sacred, this he handled like a phoenix egg. When already a singer, he had heard the Tenth Muse sing her own song herself. Such things are the heirlooms of the bards. This time it was a family heirloom too; the bride's mother in her trailing lonian gown was smiling and wiping her eyes. She came from Lesbos, and it had been a gift for her own wedding.
I gathered my childish thoughts as best I could, to make all this my possession. But I was aware, too, that near by on the rock sat the harper's boy.
He was a comely lad, well fed and clothed and washed. His blue eyes were narrowed under his drawn fair brows, as he tried to listen. I knew, from my visits to the festivals, that this was no slave but a pupil, working to learn his art. This was part of his training and reward: a wedding song of Sappho's, a treasure to store in memory. I think I noticed he was shivering, though the breeze hardly stirred the flowers; but my mind was on other matters. Once he looked my way. Poor lad, he was far from home; I daresay he would gladly have changed places, even with me. I eyed him with envy, as a beggar might a prince.
I drank down the song as a thirsty plant does water, freshening and growing, feeling in folded flower-buds the core of fruit. Some of the words I'd seized, and would keep tomorrow sitting among the sheep; some would escape me, and I must patch as best I could. The tune I would remember, but I had no lyre, only my shepherd's pipe; one cannot both pipe and sing. Already the song was done, the dance was over, the girls blew the bride kisses and ran back for their parents' praise. For a little while the rain would nourish me; then would be drought again. Tomorrow the bard would leave; and my parents were looking about to see what had become of me.
I crossed the grass, humming as I went, to fix the song. Theasides was with them; six feet high and hardly done growing yet; wide shoulders and strong thighs; his golden hair cut short across his forehead and hanging down his back, neatly crimped from overnight plaiting in honor of the feast, and crowned with fresh flowers. He was smiling still from the pleasure of the dance. I could not think why our father should have missed me.
Beside my parents stood neighbor Bouselos and his wife, whose small vineyard was near our land. With them was their six-year daughter, picking her nose with a fat finger. As I came up her mother slapped down her hand. She tugged Theasides's mantle, and he turned to give her a smile.
My parents did not scold me for my absence. My father even remarked to Bouselos how I had grown. Bouselos eyed my bare lanky legs, nodded and winked.
People forget their own childhood, or they'd remember a child's long ears. The moment she saw that wink, the child jumped at her father's arm. "Daddy!" she piped. "I don't want to marry Sim! I want to marry Theas!"
There was the pause that you might expect, then the fathers laughed, my mother looked down her nose, Bouselos' wife said, "Hush, naughty girl!" But being a spoiled only child, she stamped and said it again. It distressed my brother, who, though himself a favorite, was sweetened by all the gods had given him.
"You can't marry me," he said, reasoning with her kindly. "You know I'm promised to Hegesilla. You don't have to marry Sim yet, not till you're big; and then you'll like him. He's very clever."
All the parents gazed at him, admiring his good heart, in which indeed they were not deceived. My betrothed looked from him to me; it was, you might say, an epigram. Going fiery red--with temper, not maiden shame--she shouted, "I won't marry him ever! When I'm old I still won't marry him! He's ugly, he's all black, he's got a dirty face."
I had scrubbed it well for the wedding, but had not lightened my swarthy skin nor taken off my birthmark. Like all lonians who have gone east and mixed their blood, we Keans set store by Hellene looks. It is said that before the war in Troy, King Minos' Cretans had a city where Koressia stands, and sometimes we throw back to them. One thing's for sure, on Keos it is not admired. I had black hair, before it whitened; also, though my beard covers it now, a dark mole on my cheek, as big as a double drachma. If I had been a girl, no doubt they would have exposed me on the mountain. But my father was never one to waste a pair of hands.
He looked put about by the words of his chosen daughter-in-law; but it was Theas who darkened with his rare anger. I think he'd even have given the girl a clip; but her mother, from civility to mine, was first with a box on the ear. She was led off bawling. Little Philomache screamed out after her, "You're uglier than our Sim! You're dirtier too! You smell!"
Excerpted from The Praise Singer by Mary Renault. Copyright © 2003 by Mary Renault. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.