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The Orpheus Descent


Under no circumstances should anyone under
forty ever be allowed to travel abroad.

- Plato, Laws


Athens – 389 BC

I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, my brother. I told him not to waste his time, but he insisted.

Flutes piped me away at dawn. The best parties were just letting out: musicians played a last song, while tired guests dressed and dragged themselves into the streets. Rain licked the air; a dark cloud brooded motionless over the greatest city on earth.

At the eastern gate, I paused for one last look. Civic Athens had already turned her back on me: the agora, the law courts, the Assembly houses and gaols were all hidden behind the shoulders of the acropolis. Only the Parthenon remained, hovering above the city: a marble phantom among the clouds.

For a second, delicious melancholy drowned out my worries. I whispered a silent prayer and tried to swallow the moment whole, to carry it with me on my journey.

‘Take a good look,’ Glaucon said. ‘You’ll miss it when you’re gone.’
I turned away. In front of me, a two-foot god with a three-foot erection leered out at me from the gate. Glaucon spat on his hand and touched the herm’s well-worn cock for luck.

‘At least he’s pleased to see you go.’

I frowned, cross that he’d spoiled the moment with a cheap joke. Glaucon’s face fell, wounded that I’d taken offence. A space opened between us.
Beyond the gate, the road to Piraeus is a long straight corridor between the walls, a no-man’s-land of graffiti, allotments and tombs. Walking there reminds me of a prison yard, especially on the days when the executioners are at work outside the north wall, and the screams of condemned men follow you all the way down to the sea. That early, the executioners were still in bed; the road was almost empty. Our few fellow-travellers merely showed as shadows in the distance.

It was a lonely walk, but if there were bag-cutters and cloak-snatchers skulking among the tombs, they left us alone. The Aristids have always been big men. Even at our ages, just touching either side of forty, you could still see shades of the war hero in Glaucon, the wrestler in me. Pollux and Castor, Socrates used to call us: the divine brothers, boxer and horseman. His star pupils.
A muscle tightened across my chest, as it always does when I think of him. Ten years on, his absurd death still takes my breath away. Athens has been empty since – I should have left years ago. All it wanted was courage.

Glaucon looked at the sky. ‘Could be a storm coming. Not a good day for going to sea.’

I walked faster. I’ve dreamed the same dream three nights running: drowning, sucked down into a void from which even my screams can’t escape.
I don’t want to go on this voyage.

* * *

Athenians have never been easy with the world. We’re exceptional people, only comfortable with each other. Even our fitful attempts at empire feel solipsistic, an attempt to engage the world by making it more like us. The rest of the time, we keep it at arm’s length.

And the end of that arm is the Piraeus, the Athenian hand that holds back the world, or extends – tentatively – to greet it. Every nation is here: dark-skinned Carthaginians jabbering in their quickfire tongue; crafty Sicilians who smell of cheese; Black Sea colonists like bears, and Egyptians who can give you the look of eternity even while haggling three coppers off a bale of cloth. Hens peck at the corn that the grain wagons have spilled lumbering up to Athens, while two-obol whores try to distract men from their work. A few tried to proposition me and Glaucon. Even at my age, I found myself blushing, not knowing where to look.

‘Perhaps it would settle your nerves,’ Glaucon suggested. ‘You look seasick already.’

I couldn’t deny it. Through all the imported scents in the air, I could taste the bitter note of the sea. It turned my stomach. I wished, again, that I could abandon this trip.

My hand moved to my waist, touching the bag where I kept Agathon’s letter. I had to go.

We carried on, past the Emporium and the shrine of the Thracian goddess Bendis. Burnt-out sticks littered the street from the torchlit procession the night before; street sweepers swiped brushes at the crushed garlands and broken pots left behind from her festival.

And then there was the harbour.

I suppose everyone looks at the sea and finds a mirror of his own possibilities. A merchant sees profit; an admiral, glory; a hero, adventure. To me, it was a black mouth, unfathomable and vast. Ships clustered around the basin like teeth; yellow foam and effluent flecked the pilings like spit. Worst of all was the water. Its trackless waves opened in front of me and sucked me into my nightmare. The ground swelled beneath me. Sweat beaded on my face.

Glaucon caught my arm. ‘Are you ill?’

I waved him off and forced my attention away from the water. Behind the stoa, I noticed the widow’s-peak roof of Aphrodite’s temple.

‘I thought perhaps I should say a prayer to the goddess before I go.’

He didn’t believe me. ‘Wasn’t going to Delphi enough? And what about the ram we sacrificed to Poseidon yesterday?’

I hadn’t forgotten it. The beast nodding while I sprinkled water over his head; the sickly gleam of the priest’s knife; the blood gushing into the basin and the entrails quivering like a heap of eels.

‘The priest said the omens were good,’ Glaucon reminded me. His mouth twitched as he said it. ‘If you don’t like the auguries, perhaps you should stay.’

I risked another glance at the harbour. The vision had passed: all I saw was boats.

‘Let’s go.’

We found my ship moored up at the Sicilian docks on the east side of the basin, the busiest part of the harbour. She watched me approach, two red eyes painted on her prow just above the waterline, while slaves fed jars of olive oil into her belly. An unattended pile of baggage sat on the wharf by the gangplank.

Glaucon sized up the bags, which a wagon had brought down yesterday. ‘Are those all yours?’

‘It’s mostly books.’

‘You won’t see much of Italy if you’ve got your head rolled up in a scroll.’

I didn’t try to explain. Glaucon loves learning, but he’d never miss a meal for it.

‘You never saw Socrates with a book,’ Glaucon persisted.

‘I’m not Socrates.’

‘He wouldn’t have left the city.’ There was a point to this, and Glaucon meant to get there. ‘He never left, except on military service. Athens was everything to him.’

‘I’m not him,’ I repeated.

‘Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?’

‘It depends how you define right action.’

Running footsteps from behind cut me short. A tug on my coat almost pulled me off my feet. A breathless slave, his tunic bearded with sweat despite the cloudy day, stared up at us.

‘Philebus wants you to wait,’ he said baldly.

‘Where is he?’

The slave pointed back to the crowds around the stoa. I snuck a glance at the gangplank. Even my terror of the sea might compromise to avoid a man like Philebus. But I could already see him, a round figure poling himself along on his stick. A bedraggled garland sat crooked on his white curls, and a spray of wine dregs flecked his cheek, as if someone had slapped him. He must have just come from dinner.

He hailed us as he came close.

‘Ariston’s boys. I knew it was you.’ He made a show of looking from the baggage to the boat, and back to us. ‘Are you two going somewhere? It looks as if you’re off on a voyage.’

‘I’m staying.’ Glaucon gave me an unforgiving nod. ‘He’s going.’



Philebus smacked his lips. ‘Of course. The food, the boys – you’ll come back twice the man you are now.’ He jabbed me in the stomach. ‘Careful what you put in your mouth, eh?’

I shuddered, but Philebus didn’t notice. His restless eye had moved on over my shoulder, so that I had to turn awkwardly to see. A tall man with a distinguished mane of hair, a handsome face and a robe worn casually over one shoulder was climbing the gangplank. A gaggle of porters trailed behind him, swaying perilously as they tried to carry all his baggage.

Philebus’ hooded eyes widened. ‘That’s Euphemus,’ he announced. ‘The philosopher.’ He snorted. ‘He’s got even more luggage than you do. At this rate, your ship won’t make it out of the harbour without capsizing.’

My stomach turned. ‘Euphemus isn’t a philosopher,’ I said. ‘He’s a sophist.’

‘A thinker.’ Philebus tapped the side of his head. ‘Proper, useful stuff. Not like your old friend Socrates, wasps farting and suchlike. Euphemus could have taught him a few things. By the time you reach Italy, you’ll be so full up with learning you’ll hardly have room for the food.’

He was standing near the edge of the dock: it would have been quite easy to knock him in the water. A grab of his stick, a twist, and he’d have been licking barnacles off the ship’s hull. I put a hand on Glaucon’s arm in case he’d had the same idea. Unlike me, he might actually have done it.

‘At least you’ll have plenty of conversation on your voyage,’ Glaucon told me. He kept a straight face, though I didn’t appreciate the joke. If there was one thing to dread more than a voyage in solitude, it was a voyage in company with a man like Euphemus.

Are you sure you’re doing the right thing? Avoiding the question was easy; answering it, even with all the wisdom Socrates taught me, impossible. That’s why I had to go. I will always risk a possible good over a certain evil, he said. A month later he drank the hemlock.

A punch in the stomach brought me back to the shore.

‘Dreaming, eh? One foot in the fleshpots already, I bet.’

‘I’m going to meet a friend.’

A vile wink. ‘Of course you are.’ He almost doubled over at his own wit. ‘I wish I was coming with you.’

He rapped the slave with his staff like a goatherd, then upended the stick and poled himself off into the crowd. Glaucon glared after him.

'I don’t suppose there’s another berth on your ship?’

It was a graceful concession. I met his eyes in thanks, and saw the doubts still raw behind them. He looked away.

‘Be careful. Italy’s a dangerous place. Beyond the coasts, there’s nothing but wilderness and barbarians. I won’t be there to look out for you.’

We embraced. The moment I touched him I felt a pang: not the satisfying melancholy of leaving the city, but something bitter and irrevocable. I held him as long as I could.

As I pulled away, he pressed something into my hand – a glossy green pebble polished smooth by the sea.

‘It’s a shipwreck stone. If the boat goes down, cling on and it’ll whisk you back to land. So they say.’

I held it in my fingers like the pick of a lyre. Of course I knew it was superstition – but I was sensitive that morning. I could almost imagine I felt the magic of the stone vibrating inside it like a plucked string.

‘Where did you get it?’

‘A wanderer sold it to me – a priest of Orpheus.’ He laughed, embarrassed. ‘Well, you never know.’

‘I hope I won’t need it.’

‘Of course. Go well. And come back a better man.’

* * *

The moment I set foot aboard, the nausea returned with a vengeance. The deck seemed to roll like a bottle, though the boat was tied up and motionless. That didn’t bode well. I gripped the side and stared down at the wharf, looking for Glaucon and reassurance. He’d gone.

Something struck me on the back of the leg, almost knocking me over the side. An angry porter swore at me to get out of the way; an amphora nearly crushed my toe. Smarting, I edged my way to the stern, around the side of the deckhouse. I was trembling. I sat down on the deck and waited for the panic to subside.

Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?

I reached my hand inside my bag and extracted the letter. The crew were too busy getting ready for sea to pay me any attention. The sophist Euphemus had disappeared inside.

I unfolded the flattened scroll, though I’d read it so often I had it word perfect.

I have learned many things which I cannot put in this letter: some would truly amaze you. But Italy is a strange place, full of wonders and dangers. There is no one here I trust with these secrets.

For the thousandth time, I wondered: What secrets?

Cargo was stowed and lines tightened. The sun traced its course around the world. An afternoon breeze came down off the mountains, snapping the halyards like whips, though the clouds didn’t lift. In the offing, the sea and sky were welded together without a join.

A longboat pulled us out of the harbour, hidden from the deck so that the ship seemed to move of its own volition, without oars or sails. The white tower of Themistocles’ tomb watched from the headland as we passed.

I surrendered myself to the sea.

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