Among The Paths To Delphi
I had been walking for some time, the sun had crossed more than half the sky so the earth was warm, friendly. The path, not always clear, was flat, only a few hills and, in other places, a clever person had found a diversion around a rocky face or a place too steep to easily walk. My staff occasionally clicked as it hit a stone but I did not stumble, only replaced it in my hand for more assurance. At the last small village this course had been recommended to me as being the best if not the shortest path to follow. There was, they conceded, another, quicker way but...it passed near a place that the Ionians held to be theirs and in the past citizens had been carried away, made into slaves, only armed groups were advised to take that path or, if, like myself, a solitary traveler, find such a group and align with them. So I chose the suggested way and was grateful for the advise. It wound through fields at first, past some other villages, through one, and then the farms grew few and the meadows were wild. Birds that avoid places with people appeared, deer looked up, startled, a boar broke and, seeing no enemy, stopped.
I enjoyed my journey, pausing to rest, finding a stream, have water to drink, refill a krater, enjoy the quiet and peace. No war, not here, even in my mind the memories of war seemed a story told in the gymnasium but, to me, I knew the realities and could only hear the stories cynically but refrained from telling the young men that what they heard was not always real. Perhaps, I wondered, there would be no more war but I thought of history and knew that if not here then there...or somewhere. I knew the Persians never give up no matter how badly their losses, the indignities of the battles, but they were Persians and there were many of them, they would be back...some time.
There came a place where the path followed a stream, wide, slow flowing, placid and it seemed a good place to stop, take off my sandals, cool my feet, give my legs rest and so I did. The sun, the placid noise from the brook, the slight exhaustion....I slept.
Later I felt something tap against my shoulder, came to my senses and saw a mans face, high above me, "Are you well, old man?" I rolled over and saw a Centaur. Startled I sat up, was too near the creek and fell in. He laughed. "Bathe while you're there then dry your clothes on the ground while the heat is still upon us.
Centaurs are known to be rough, short tempered but can get along with humans, usually. The one who stood there seemed to have no poor intentions, indeed that he had paused to verify that I was well suggested he meant me no harm and, certainly, I meant none to him. His suggestion was a good one, I pulled off my few garments, squeezed them in the water..."Here.."he said.."mash some of this grass in them, they'll smell better and don't worry about the stain, that only happens when you slide on them....also, here's some lilac blossoms, make a paste of the two and wash yourself, you'll smell good...shame there's no pine about...I like a man who smells of pine but lilac is pleasing as well."
He was right, my clothes did not take the green of the grass and, when I laid them on the edge of the creek, they were elevated just above the ground so air began to dry them immediately. I took the wad of lilac and grass and scrubbed myself, occasionally rinsing in the cool water and was enormously refreshed. The Centaur stood quietly, observing and, I sensed, keeping watch so I might in comfort enjoy this treat. A thought came to me but I wondered if I dared....."Centaur, would you enjoy a wash...I mean...to have me scrub your neck, your back...." and wondered if I'd said too much, given offense. I looked at his handsome face trying to find...something.
"It is good of you to think of me, human. I can roll in the water but to be rubbed and scrubbed and curried, indeed I would enjoy that." He plunged into the water, lay in it and rolled until he was thoroughly wet. He seemed to enjoy the cool, his tail swished to get thoroughly wet and then, for some moments, lay there, on his back his hooves in the air, the water running over his broad, hairy chest, his head beneath the surface occasionally popping up for air. I lay down beside him, my head below water as well and, it was foolish but...when I raised it I had a mouthful of water and made my own poor attempt at a fountain.Seeing this he did the same and, at one moment, we were almost a composition worthy of Phidias, a man and a Centaur, blowing water, a fine statue it would have been. And then we both lay there just enjoying the smooth flow of water, the companionship until he startled and rose up in the fashion of horses and looked surprized.....I tried to find the problem and then laughed as I spotted his tormentor; A frog had jumped on his rump. He saw it and laughed as well, a great laugh, an honest laugh. "Come Human, you have a job to do and the frog will not help. I am wet, my tail and mane are tangled, there is no comb so your fingers will have to curry me. I want my back and belly rubbed...it is a feeling I much desire, hooves are not useful for that.
And so an hour or more passed. He stood quietly and closed his eyes in pleasure as I rubbed his belly and back. His luxuriant mane and tail were my special pleasure to make sure they were untangled, smooth, magnificent as was he. Having an idea, I took some lilacs, crushed them and used the oil they produced to at once perfume and shine his mane and tail and wondered what more I could do for this good creature. But...there seemed to be nothing, even if I asked...nothing. He was suddenly urgent that we move along as it was rising dark and, he said, a storm was shortly to overtake us so finding shelter was necessary. Although he strayed from the path, I followed him, my staff helping but he was fast and my limp did not allow me to keep to his pace. He noticed."Human, you have earned the privilege of riding a Centaur, climb up, use my mane and we will find a place that is dry...."
On some occasions I have been in a cart but, truly, I had never moved this fast, I wondered if the speed would draw the wind from me but unlike the cart, he was smooth of gait and, holding to his mane, I lost fear. My sack was strung over my shoulders as were my clothes. Riding a Centaur Naked....perhaps this was the point of my journey that I could not have known. In little time we reached a cliff and if you knew where to look, there was an indentation, not a cave, but a place where you could go and be dry, sheltered. In front there were the remnants of former fires...he urged me to quickly, before the rain, find some dry branches, leaves, tinder...he had me stack them, a few at first and then struck his hoof on a stone not like the others. There was a spark that, after a few tries, caught the leaves on fire which lead to the branches making our fire. While that started, I darted out, noticing the now roiling clouds, and found some larger pieces of wood and brought them back just in time for one or two of them to be placed on the fire. In front of our refuge it was suddenly bright and warm as the rain started.
"Come" he said, "it will be dark soon and we must prepare for night. I can go about but you...should not. Have you food in your sack? I can eat fruits and graze on the trees but humans need food..." I assured him I had some fruit, a few vegetables which I could roast, water and I would be fine. He was right, for as suddenly as the storm had come it left, the air was cooler but smelled delicious and, combined with the smell of the smoke and his clean coat, it was altogether pleasant. Only then did I remember to put back on my clothes but he stopped me...."I like the sight of humans as they fell from wombs...men are meant to be seen and since you are riding a Centaur, well, custom has it that you do so without clothing." It occurred to me that I was an old man, not some fit young man, that this might not do him the honour he implied, tried to suggest this to him...but he stopped me.
"Do you see my greying mane? My silver shot tail? I am not young, Yet I am strong, can still draw the string on a bow, can fight. You have the power of your mind, I noticed you have a crook in your leg, you walk not easily all that says to me that you were once a soldier...."
"A Hoplite...wounded fighting, trying to protect my companion but as I was of no further use to them I was left to die but did not It was many years ago now, many..."
The Centaur embraced me with his arms, "I, too, have lost a companion, it is right for men and Centaurs to fight together, to die together but that doesn't always happen...you and I are alone now but we have memories."Looking at him I saw in his face and eyes not memories but the sorrow that is all encompassing, holds all memories. We were silent for a very long time.
"What is your name?"
"Such a sad name for a strong man...why that name?"
" I was born at the time when the sun has gone but it is only partly dark, also my mother died giving birth to me...some say the name fits. When I went to Sparta they took my name, gave me a Spartan one then when I failed, as I was not really one of them, I guess they took back the name when they left me."
He was silent, thinking."Perhaps it is a good name after all, it reflects a serious person, one who thinks before becoming a fool....yes, it's a good name."
We passed the evening pleasantly, he told me stories I'd never heard, wondrous stories of the Gods and his relationship to some of them. I could not ask but...somewhere...remembered that Centaurs were the spawn of a mortal and a horse God. Whatever the reality, it produced a fine looking animal, indeed I would be proud to be one, their wisdom is well known as is their strength and ferocity. He asked gentle questions about my past, my companion until he saw it saddened me but took me to him and said that two lonely creatures can make each other if not happy then..content. He said the next day he had agreed to visit a certain village near where we were and help them with a problem. Only then as he verged on offering an invitation to join him did he ask my purpose in traveling.
"I travel to Delphi, to the Oracle..." and stopped as I could see his disgust.
"That place...yes, I know it, fools go there with stupid questions. Sometimes I stand behind the columns and listen as they entreat the Oracle for all manner of foolishness...what will you ask? Wealth? Love? Long life?...."
"No, nothing so pointless as those are things that resolve themselves if one waits...I only want to find if there's the name of a man skilled at fixing bones. I can bear this, have done so for years but my age...."
Suddenly he held me in his arms. "Yours is an honest question and you should ask it but..wait a little think about it. Form it again in your mind. Come with me to the village...who knows? Without going to Delphi you may find the man you seek there and...we've been good company, why part? A day or so delay will make no difference to the Oracle who, he said bitterly, does not even know you're coming..." He released me. "Come, be my companion for this short while, ride me, gain the respect and honour riding a Centaur confers. You are not heavy and, as we travel, we can talk, look about, inspect...the village is not far and I am expected at no certain time save that all encompassing clock, eventually". I could not refuse. We pushed up the fire, added a log and lay down. He had me near him in his warmth and sooner than I'd meant, I was asleep.
He was right, arriving on a Centaur, being deferred to by him, called his companion, did bring honour and also the invitation to the tavern for wine. Of course that included my companion and, I confess, I was hungry and the wine made laugh, cry, try to dance and then...when I woke I was in a warm bed in a small, comfortable room. My companion was no where to be seen but the family who had "adopted" me for the night laughed and said I was not to worry, he was well and would return before nightfall-then many hours away. Food was offered and, I found, as the rider of the Centaur I had the privilege of a free man in his own city. The people were friendly, asked me questions, were pleasantly curious, wondered what it was like to be with a Centaur and, because this arrangement was of such brevity, I found the sensibility of silence, letting them reach their own conclusions, most of which were amusingly wrong; At the tavern one man, too drunk to be prudent, hinted but did not ask how I accommodated him....It was the moment to feign lack of understanding which I did but realized that as Centaurs bragged about their human conquests, it was logical that I would be asked.
In the late afternoon the teacher from the gymnase asked if I would visit the place and speak with the young men, men who could not even imagine aspiring to riding a Centaur, having one as a companion. To them I had an answer; It was not something to want, it was something that came to you as naturally as air moves. One is a companion not because you or he chose the other but because it just is the partnering that seems best for both.I could honestly offer the one example when I said, "He cannot curry his mane or his tail and that I can do for him." There were Ahs of appreciation. Certainly they could see how that might be. I was glad there were no more examples asked as I had none. There, too, the question of lying with him was "suggested" and I only said that issues such as that were personal; Would they like it if I asked them how it was for them to lay with their companions and they were immediately embarrassed at the thought of having to tell an old man such intimacies. They were good boys, demonstrated their proficiency in running and throwing spear. Showed their young bodies with pride and I complimented them. One asked me if I would honour his family by taking a meal with them; I was told by their master that his father was leader in the town and it would be wise to accept the invitation and so I did.
In truth, as it was growing dim I was worried about my friend who had not come back and who had not sent word. Though I said nothing my meal and the good fellowship that was offered was somewhat ignored in my mind as I listened for the sound of hoof beats but, even when it was full dark there was only the silence left after the quiet noises of the village. I was offered both their son's room and, more subtly their son should I wish him. He was a fine looking lad, tall, muscle hard, proud but with his head held low, afraid he would not please. I accepted and the two of us went to his room where, I must confess, I enjoyed him but not so much as he enjoyed being mounted. Unlike the youths of the village, he now knew the virtue of time spent arousing a partner and then offering pleasure. He slept in my arms, warm, calm, satisfied. The evening had turned cool and a large bear fur was offered to cover us. While he slept the sleep of the satisfied, I slept fitfully, worried, wondering where my companion was....
In the morning I found him and threw myself around his neck. He had a wicked smile and said that he'd done what the villagers wanted and, as a mark of their thanks, they'd sent a lad with him for his use. I had my own leering answer when I told him to be quiet as my pullet was asleep but smiling. He smiled, ate an apple, tossed me one and said perhaps it would be well if we got a few supplies and left. He said that when you left quietly the hope was you'd return...I quickly grabbed a bag with food, my clothes and seizing his mane pulled myself up on his back. "Your leg seems better", he grinned, "perhaps exposure to youth is a treatment to be suggested to mendicants." It had been a pleasant time and, in a way, I was sorry to leave but knew with my companion, there would be interesting things to do as we went toward Delphi.
The day was warm and we both were anxious to tell each other the things that had happened while the other was missing and, soon, it was almost evening and we approached another village, one I felt he knew.
"If you have no objection to breaking your journey...this is a place I know well, they will welcome us, give us honour...and I know you will meet other soldiers of your age and battle course. If, of course, you have the time....."
What could I say? For this Centaur, now, almost, my Centaur, I would have been pleased to stand by the Styx if he suggested it. A bit out of town he paused, had me find some olive branches and made crowns for each of us to wear as well as a wreath to go over his neck. I broke some of the leaves and scented each of us with them, a gesture he appreciated. "One thing more...it's expected". I felt his hip shudder and then relax. "I've lowered and stiffened my staff as a salute to virgins for which this place is...not known". He turned his head, smiled and winked at me."I hope that the youth you instructed last evening has not exhausted your staff....?" In answer I took my fingers and manipulated it until I, too, was fully extended. "Good, old soldier, good, anyone can see there is much fight left in you...so...to the agora to be received, they will have noticed us at a distance and are preparing for our arrival, be sure and grab my mane for when we arrive I will rise up on my hind legs, a sign of respect and honour for these people and their place. Also, they will want to see my staff, it is a tradition."
So at full speed we rushed the village heading for the centre, the agora where, as he'd said, there was a throng, waiting, expecting. He rose up, beat the air with his hooves, made the cry of a warrior and then settled down. We were besieged by people but one or two men came forward and the crowd moved back to give them access to us.
"Good Centaur, you and your companion human are most welcome as always. Just these past days a sacrifice was made to Athena to give you the knowledge that we yearned for you and now you are here. May we know the fighter you bring?"
"He is a brave warrior, a former Spartan Hoplite who survived but lost his companion as you know I lost mine. You see we wear the crowns of champions....and they are well earned, this good man is called "Darkness" for those who meet him and would challenge, darkness is their destination. You will receive him as my companion and be thanked by me for his reception.Now, as always, I will go to the river for some time. Give Darkness food and wine and provide to him as you would for me. My friend, go with these gentlemen and enjoy their company as they will enjoy yours."
And that was what I did.My Centaur moved out through the respectful and strangely quiet people who lowered their heads as he passed. When he was gone I was led to the tavern, given a fancy glass mug, a sure sign of respect and honour, and a place at a table where good food was shortly served. It seemed odd to dine while others watched almost hoping that I would be pleased. Finally I said, "Good sirs, join me, the wine is too good and the food equally so for only one man. Surely there is plenty for all...my companion would have you join him, you surely know of his generosity...." There was almost a sigh of relief, noise, friendly noise came up, men seated themselves, touched their mug to mine, thanked me, more wine was poured. Platters of food were brought in, it was pleasant, it had been some time since I'd had the pleasure of what seemed like the room in the barracks where we communally ate and drank. This was not so stiff, so formal but to be surrounded by men, being toasted by them made me more grateful to my Centaur and yet...where had he gone. I felt I should know but did not. Carefully I brought him to the conversation and noticed them become quiet. One said, "Perhaps he has not told you....no, he wouldn't, he's too noble a creature, a man but...." He hesitated, as if he were about to breach a secret..."he's gone to his companion at least the place his good companion lies. Long ago there was a battle near here and we had only two champions, your Centaur and his companion, both brave, both fearless both determined to protect us and they did. The enemy withdrew with many losses but we had losses as well. His companion leaned against him, then we saw the blood, not just a little but a torrent and we knew he could not live.It took all his strength but he carried the still living body to the river and there, sacrificed him to the God of Victory. Understand, the companion was dead when his heart was removed and thrown into the river to be taken to the ultimate sea of life. He's there now calling the companion he loves to assure himself he is really gone. He will beat his breast, injure himself and, when he returns, we know not to notice. If you can, if you know any healing unguents, rub them on his breast, warm him as only one companion can warm another. We will provide one of our young men to be sacrificed to his staff and, of course, one for you as well. I am proud that my own son, has asked to be given to the Centaur as the memorial sacrifice for the fallen...."and the man stopped, almost chocked with tears, torn between honour and love. A young man, almost as beautiful as Narcissus, came to him, held him...."Father, we have talked about this, you encouraged me when I was young and said that I wished one day to be the sacrifice...look at me..." and he dropped his clothes..."am I not at least a little worthy of the Centaur? What has he done and given for us? What does he continue to do for us? We have peace, protection and if not me then...would you ask a friend to offer his son so you might keep yours?"
I had to interject myself...."Young Man, you are correct but...as his companion, let me take you to him, let me introduce you to that which he may want.Let me bring back to a sad father the brave news that his son has not fallen in foolish battle but rather has ascended to Olympus in service to his family, his people, this place on earth...I will bring back his sword, his clothes, which shall be his honour for you to have and display with pride. The Centaur, my Centaur is not a cruel beast, whatever might happen will be done with love and in the certain knowledge that the youth wanted this, he was no sacrifice, he was a hero, surely that is how you must see him...now, a wine for the man who will go out and prove he is worthy of being the hero I describe. The day is not yet here, look on your son now, as living, at peace with his decision. Admire his bravery. As a soldier from battle I tell you I would take your son with me and know he would fight well and proudly. Now look at him.....look at him..."
Some knelt, some dropped their heads, some looked at this bright lad in a way that conveyed their new respect and understanding. The mood had to break...
"Raise your sinewed arms, hold up your sword and leave us, the old men, to drink and remember that you were part of this company and we were honoured. Go to your home where, later, your father can be with you. When the time comes I will come for you and take you to a wonderful afterlife, as with all soldiers who fall in service, they do not die, they ascend to Olympus now go...."
When he was gone I took up my wine, encouraged the company to do likewise and we began a series of toasts to men fallen who were missed. Then the stories about them started to be told, stories that grew more raucous, laughter erupted here and there...the evening became one with thousands of other evenings in taverns all across the country. Finally I was tired and found the man who had greeted us in the agora. Signaling to him to step outside, I told him I was tired, needed to find a place to rest and...smiling, winking, reminded him I was promised a lad but, I added, not one who was without experience, perhaps he knew such a lad. The lascivious look on his face told the tale, he escorted me to his own home, showed me a bed chamber, offered me water to wash myself and said it wouldn't be long before I would no longer be alone.
He was green eyed and had a lecherous smile. Lithe, well muscled, shorter than me, his face was not handsome but had laughter in it, as with others of his profession, he had his teeth removed and fell to business immediately. To be in the hands and loins of a master allows one to recline and accept the activities as they come. In the morning I slept in....the hetirae stayed, also slept and, in the lusty first light, we coupled again, my staff improved, it would seem, by trying to compare with that of my Centaur. As a soldier I might say his green eyes got larger but as a man I must say...not so large that he was unable to smile in anticipation.
It was quiet, I joined the family for food, my bed mate having slipped out a window so as to not dis-honour the house by his discovery within. Thanking the family for their kindness, of many sorts, I asked to be taken to where the man and his son, the son who was to give himself to my Centaur might be found, I wished to have some time with them, to understand the young man the better to introduce him. It may seem strange but...at once I wanted to take as much fear and sorrow from the father and also build in his son a desire for what his brief future held and who better than the companion? Also, I needed to find out what form all of this took? Did the young man walk away, looking for the Centaur or was there a place where this sacrifice always took place, a sacred tree or rock, something that had importance beyond the ordinariness of a tree or a rock. However desolated the father was I sensed that he was also proud, clearly this was an infrequent occurrence and of sufficient import that for years his son had trained and desired to fulfill this singular destiny. I wondered how much time had past since the last sacrifice? I sensed I would know.
The father and son were seated on a bench in the sun in the bright light. The father was oiling his son to make his already magnificent body glisten, as if he'd been covered in gold but as he did this, I could see the tears, the fear for what the boy might suffer. The son was quiet, accepting the oil but realizing this was done as preparation for his doom. I watched them a few moments, unnoticed.
"Truly, he is a son to be proud of and the nobility of his sacrifice brings the honour of the Gods to your home, Sir. And, young man, know that many young man have I seen but in you, perfection has been reached. It must be said that in doing your deed you will be spared a great unhappiness as your life goes on, writhing jealously, envy, the snide looks and remarks without their knowing yours is the gentle soul in a warrior's heart."
" Are you here to take me? Is it the time.....?"
"No, as his companion I wanted to meet with you, assure you that whatever you may have been told is probably wrong..."
"Then...he will not tear my flesh and eat my heart? He will not remove my manhood and stuff it in my mouth? He will not cause my death by inflicting his staff in me until I burst and bleed......"
"Stop!! Who told you these calumnies? What village fool decided these were the fates of the young men? Who? They must be stopped, my companion would be first deeply wounded that he could be thought such a monster and then furious that this village gossip has gotten so believed." I stopped more from anger than any other reason.
"Then what happens?"
"Some things are only between you and the Centaur. I assure you, great honour will be paid you, he will show you the affection your beauty and courage deserve and then he will do what is best and you will know that, appreciate his love of your sacrifice. Come, show me your beautiful body, pick up your sword, your helmet.....in truth, you could be the next Apollo so brightly you shine." But they were calmer and we sat and talked, had some wine, did the things men do when waiting for something to happen...and, finally, it did.
My host from the previous evening ran to us saying that the Centaur would be waiting just before sunset and whispered in my ear where to take the lad. Not being familiar with the country I asked him to clarify the directions but, in truth they were very simple.
The father and the son were silent, could not look at each other, now that the time was fixed there was no idle talk but...they could not find their way to each other at this last moment for to do so was to speed one to eternity and plunge the other into eternal sorrow. I stood up, said I needed to refresh myself and suggested I meet the son in a little time in the centre of the town, it would be best if the whole place saw him leave, sword held high, a smile on his face...and so I left them.
It wasn't long before the father and son appeared. I had been told it was the custom for the father to bind the hands of his son behind him to demonstrate that he was indeed the sacrifice. There was no sword, no helmet, just the glint of the sun on his oiled skin. With great solemnity I took the rope from the father and lead the young man away. I did not look back nor did he but I fear the scene of a father bereft with sorrow would have been difficult for both the child and his origin.
It was a long walk and we did not speak, what was there to say? I did not know what was to happen and the lad was probably too concerned to ask. And so we trekked on until the village was behind us, there were hills in front and, as I'd been told, there was a pleasant copse of trees which was our destination. I drew the young man close to me, put my arm around him and tried to be comforting. I did not look at him but I could feel a slight trembling. And then we entered the trees, saw the pool and the Centaur.
"So, this is my tribute, my sacrifice from the village, fine looking, even as handsome as I've seen..."
"So I said to him".
"And you were right, Darkness , you were very right. You had no difficulty finding this pleasant place? There is shelter, food, water, all comforts we might want. Sacrifice, scurry about and find things for a fire, as the night comes, we will want to be warm. Over there, I believe, just a bit further than that grove of olives......."
"Well? What does he know, what does he believe?"
I'm afraid I spat. "They say you will eat his heart, break him with your staff until he bleeds to death...." He smiled. "Let them believe such foolishness, the truth would disappoint them."
"What is the truth...you forget, I don't know either."
He laughed, put his hands on my shoulders, "I forgot you didn't know but you were right to bring him, it makes the end easier for all and just to annoy you, I'll not tell, you'll have to find out as he does." Had not the person of interest just returned I would have argued even knowing that I wouldn't be told.
"Good lad, now build a fire, a big one that will warm us all as the night will be cool I thing and none of us is clothed. On that point, you are as worth a sacrifice as I've ever been offered, I shall make sure your people are greatly honoured and some special thing comes to them. Now, quick, the fire and then there's wine, food and good company for all of us."
He scurried about and soon had a bright, warm fire going. In the reflection of heat, the oil on his skin glowed even more, now he did look entirely gold, I could see my companion was aware of it as well, looked at me and then back at the man as if to signal his real approval beyond whatever words he'd spoken.
As promised, food and wine were produced, we all sat around the fire, my companion in that odd position horses take when on the ground. In the light his human torso radiated strength, from the lowest point before he became a horse, there were striations of muscles. His arms, even when relaxed, had easily seen musculature but it was a casual strength just now, at peace with the situation.
After the wine skin had made two rounds, he summoned the sacrifice to him, bade him sit beside him on his knees with his hands on top. I should add that as soon as we were away from the village I had untied him. The custom had been observed, that was all that was necessary.
"You'll want to know your end I suppose." There was a silence. "Answer".
"Yes, I, I...must know."
"Raise your face, there is only one thing to be done but your sacrifice has already been given. For a man to leave his family, his place, all he knows is the sacrifice you made. I am aware that you thought that sacrifice meant your life but...why would I do that? If you were a prisoner taken from an enemy then maybe but...I could not spoil such beauty there are many who will want to see you and they will. From here Darkness and I will take you to a place that has no hero and needs a bright shining youth to lead them. Look behind us, under that pile of leaves and sticks..."
He lifted the dead leaves and suddenly, light flashed out, a golden helmet with a sword and buckler beside. He was incredulous, looked at the Centaur in awe and love.
"Me a hero? These will be my sword and helmet?"
The Centaur only smiled an affirmation. The youth rushed to him, fell on his knees in thanks, tears fell from his face...."Then...I will not die?"
"Well someday, just not this day and I will not be the cause of it...I never have been and I'm sorry for the tales but...they serve a purpose for they winnow out the weak, the timid, the fearful, only a true hero comes..as you have."
Spontaneously he threw his arms around the Centaur and was embraced back. While he was there in a low voice the Centaur said...."Only one thing...to give you the reality of courage, you must drink the seed of the Centaur. See, my staff is waiting to give you the gift of Centaur courage which comes only from man to other men. Now, take it up, force the milk from it...and rise a hero.
Days later when we had sent the young man to his new home, on an island at some distance, we talked about what happened. Again the journey to Delphi was postponed as there was an errand we could do that, he thought would amuse me.There was a village of virgins of which he was protector and it was time to visit and see if all was well. I confess, I laughed,"Virgins?"
"Man and Maid, both have not experienced physical violation although, I feel sure, in their hearts, looking upon one another I have little doubt that I is much on their minds. It is my task to examine their minds, see to their skills and in that you can be of much help, your wisdom won of battle will help us decide who is for whom. And, my friend, it is amusing to watch their desperation turn to exhilaration when they know their days of pestilence of conduct are behind them. Also there is a man there who will do something for you that I want for you. I hope you you will accept."
I was puzzled but, of course, agreed. And the errand he proposed did sound intriguing.
It was some distance and I was grateful to be riding as I could not have walked that distance.Over the days and weeks we'd grown familiar with each other. Began to have private conversations that meant nothing to others as they referenced other deeds, other places but it build a bond so when we got to the place of anxious virgins, he first sent me to a man only telling me he would truly make me a Centaurs' companion. It was a puzzling statement but it seemed important to him and so I went to the place where the man was and told him what my friend had said. He smiled, said sit down, gave me a large measure of wine, rubbed my head with some odd smelling herbs and...began to pull out my hairs.At first I gasped, tried to stop him but he reminded me that the Centaur had ordered it and it must be done.
It took hours and was painful but, when finished I realized what he'd created and, as had been said, it was exactly right for the companion of a Centaur. All my hair on both sides was gone which pointed up that what remained had not been cut in a very long time. I could feel it touch the top of my back, almost to between my shoulder blades. I looked at him and he smiled. "Yes, you have the beginning of a mane, a beautiful white mane. In time it will pass your waist and, when you and the Centaur ride out, your manes will fly out announcing to all that the companions are coming. It is a great honour, only one other Centaur has ever asked for this for his human companion." He put some Eucalyptus oil on it, said it would be painful for a few days and, in some months, find another who would go back and pull any bits of fur that had dared to come back.
"There is one other thing....For a man of your age and experience, it would suit you...the hair on your chest and down to your manhood is removed leaving only another mane on your chest. May I ?"
When I saw the Centaur, he grinned and said now we are truly matched and I could see he was pleased.
The days grading virgins was both amusing and pleasant. They were at once shy and anxious, hopeful and fearful but, in the end, I believe we did as good a job as could be done. As was their custom, the potential brides had to now prove their fecundity before the marriage could be made but also before the child was born. We were invited back to all the festivities that would occur and, as a courtesy, we allowed that we might although neither of us had any intention. We had been too long in that place, both of us wanted to be away, back in the good out of doors, finding shelter if we could or enjoying the rain. We knew it was soon to be winter and a place of shelter had to be found. It was this looking for shelter that prompted a discussion that has made me think.
He had described a real cave, preferably one of rock, earth could moisten and collapse. I said, "Like the Gods, we want permanency..." to which he snorted,"The Gods, have you ever thought that without us, the Gods would not exist? We make them exist because some cannot bear admitting their own faults or weaknesses so they blame what happened on a God or several of them. But no one has seen a God, regardless of the myths and the legends and what people brag about. In one village some time ago a young girl was with child and much was made of it because she reported she'd been bathing and some God or another had caught her and got her with child. And they believed her. We are not young and can imagine the truth, she found a man who wanted her as she wanted him and so they coupled she became pregnant but what to tell people? That she was a slut? How much better if it were a God in a river who carried her away, violated her and now...well, there would be a child. "
"The Gods are conveniences. Humans vary them as they need them to act and when you actually climb Mt. Olympus...you find not halls of marble and gold but the jagged peaks of a mountain. Even faced with nothing, they see something that never was. They have visions of what they want to see.In ever place where there are people there are altars to these Gods, and yet, praying to them never produces anything. The real Gods are things such as water, wind, rain, sun, they cause things to happen, not some idyllic group who look very much like humans but, here and there, something that makes them different, a God...."
" I am a freak, part of a group who are dying as we cannot produce. Have you ever seen a female Centaur? No. They don't exist. I do not know nor does anyone how we happened to be but I am sure I came from some womb, not a cloud or the sea or a fire. I remember being young, smaller and wondering...but I'll never know. Remember when you wanted to go to Delphi? Perhaps you still do and I will be happy to carry you there but....given what you've seen with me...do you really believe some priest or oracle can really help you?"
I thought about this and realized that though he was asking me to give up much I had once believed he was right. Abandoned, wounded, perhaps dying, no God no man had helped me. Eventually I righted myself and if I limped, then other men limped. I leaned forward and put my head on his shoulder and kissed his cheek.
"I've waited for that...more than anything that makes you my companion. Your love will always save you now for you understand it, understand that being bitter garners nothing but false sympathy. Look back at the people, look at how they've seen you, as a man, a warrior, a strong person.It's how I've seen you for a very long time but I had to wait for you to see it yourself." He stopped and I jumped down, rounded him, took his beautiful face in my hands, looked in his eyes and fully kissed him.
Years had passed, both our manes-mine was now below my hips, were white and we did not run as often or as far. I had drunk the seed of the Centaur and truly felt more one than I did a human. Some swelling in a joint on his rear leg caused him, when the weather grew cold, to also limp but only slightly. It was then he'd turn, look at me and say, "Old man, we now have only three good legs between us and two we must keep stored....." We laughed. It was the joke of old men, old men who accepted themselves and loved each other.
I never grew tired of our wandering through the fields and forests, The smells, the silence, the largesse of nature who provided the wonders we saw. Once we saw a group of pilgrims who were, they told us, bound for Delphi to ask the fate of their city against the Persians. We wished them safe passage and, as they drew away from us, I remembered that I, too, had once wanted to go to Delphi. I wonder why?