Etruscan swan song, p.5
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       Etruscan swan song, p.5

           Pier Isa Della Rupe
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  “That day,” went on Thetia, ”that day, long before the sands had run through the hourglass, the Etruscans’ fate was sealed. Marcus Fabius, descendant of Hercules, decided to take his young slave Janu who also spoke fluent Etruscan with him as his sole companion. Janu was an expert hunter and a marvellous poet, a troubadour who sang old tales and legends, a perfect passport to enter Etruria and mingle with the people. Marcus promised him his freedom in return for his company on the dangerous enterprise, and swore solemnly that if they came back alive he would free him from his bonds of servitude in perpetuity.

  Janu wanted nothing more, he had always been determined to make the best of his life and had decided that he would rather die than go on living as a slave, so was quite willing to accompany his master on what everyone thought was a dangerous wild goose chase. The young slave consulted the stars, disguised himself as a shepherd and with a leather goatskin slung over his shoulder set off with his master on the day of the moon.”

  I saw two men advancing side by side in my pool: Marcus, with his snub nose, thick neck and stocky body was well-knit and wiry and marched along at a soldier’s steady pace. His companion was younger and slimmer, a handsome lad with a head of curly dark hair and golden-green eyes, finely-modelled lips and a dreamy look, who walked along with a slight stoop as if carrying an invisible burden; naked he would be like a statue. This was Janu, the handsome slave-poet.

  At the beginning their journey was relatively simple, they travelled through small villages of mean hovels with turf roofs and as they got further away from the city the houses dwindled into the occasional peasant sty with filthy troughs nailed to the doors where pigs rooted happily. When they crossed vineyards nobody took any notice of them in this mellow season when the farmers are busy pruning the shoots back to help the bunches of grapes mature and the fig trees are already bearing their first fruits. The peasants saw them walking along chatting, both dressed as simple shepherds and carrying the tools of their trade as they made their way through rows of vines and newly-planted furrows of wheat and nobody suspected that they beheld the ferocious Roman general Marcus Fabius Cesus. The two men went on their way undisturbed, responding courteously to the farmers’ greetings as they crossed fields mantled with swooping swallows, stony pastures and redbuds, slowly getting closer to their goal. When they finally reached the old mill that stood on the edge of the forest they stopped to eat a hunk of bread and cheese at a stream next to a stretch of undergrowth with a dense tangle of cork oak, ash, blackthorn, wild cherry and hawthorn known as the “Wolf’s lair”. Evening was closing in; it was the moment when the weary day fell asleep on the dark breast of the night, the magic hour when the women came singing out of their houses to fetch water from the well. The two men had not finished their frugal meal when they saw a procession of pretty, supple girls coming towards them, laughing and joking among themselves with terracotta jars balanced on their heads.

  The maiden heading the group was an unfurling bud in the springtime of her years, mother nature had been bountiful and she was lovelier than a goddess, even more lovely than the bride in the Song of Solomon. She had sparkling black eyes set in a face bronzed by the sun which shone out of a fringe of long black lashes, her thick hair the colour of the turning leaves curled softly around her face. She made her way down to the spring with her water jar on her hip and the sun’s dying rays fought for the privilege of kissing the flounces of her dress which danced lightly in a rainbow of colours.

  Janu stared at her with his mouth agape, holding his half-eaten hunk of bread suspended in mid-air. Suddenly she turned her head and looked at him through her flowing veil.

  Just for a second their eyes met, that first shining glance which is like a seed sown in a ploughed field by the god of love, like the invisible lighthouse that guides the night birds through the deepest dark. A signal was launched from the unknown island of the heart with the strength and heat of an overwhelming avalanche. Janu stood and stared enchanted, mesmerised by the magic moment, sure that he had already seen her in a thousand other lives, perhaps even before the creation of the world. In the time it took the girl to get down to the spring and fill the amphora under the silver jet of water from the bucket in the well the slave’s world had been tinged with intense colour, and when she climbed back up the bank he was hopelessly in love, ready to die for a drop of her water. Almost forgetting his master he ran towards her saying:

  “Stay, O sweet, mysterious creature, O desert rose! Do not melt away like snow in the sun. Stay! Give me a sip of your water, please. The heart of this migrating bird is dying of thirst and pleads a drink so that it can soar away once more.“

  Trembling like a star trembles in the dark of the night the girl halted immediately. How far beyond the genius of any poet to describe the meeting of two lost hearts, two souls who had been one before birth and had now finally met again. How precious dawning love vibrating like a harp string at the lovers’ first glance, full of mysterious smiles, tender intimacy, timidity, token resistance. Janu and Orphea were lost, helpless mutual prisoners in infinite space, floating as weightless and evanescent as snowflakes.

  “Good evening to you O traveller. Drink deep, drink your fill migrating bird and then please tell your humble servant what brings you wandering here…, but please do not soar away again so soon, flutter around these blue skies for a while.”

  Swiftly the girl lowered her jar and poured a stream of clear water into his cupped hands and as he drank without taking his eyes off her she added:

  “Give me your water skin, stranger and I will fill it from the spring. But do you truly have to be on your way?”

  Janu, with a lump in his throat, lost in that sweet, dreamlike state which cocoons lovers from worldly affairs, just managed to whisper:

  “Ah, now the clouds have blown away, how I long to dry my wings in your sun. The joy of looking at you is like the joy of looking at the world’s first flower, like the feel of the sun on a human face for the first time. Tell me, are you a sorceress? Indeed I think you must be if you can order the north wind to spin your garments out of sunbeams. O sorceress, what herbs, what luscious potions, were in your jar? What magic, what spell does your water contain that it so inebriates those who taste it? Answer me or I will lose my wits! Never have I known love before but you have driven me to madness. Spells are said to have the power to drag the moon down from the stars. With a spell Circe transformed Ulysses’ companions into swine, with a spell a goose can sing like a swan. And you, what intricate knots have you tied to so imprison my soul? I pray you loosen them no more, for if one day you decided to free it I will get down on my bended knee to implore you to lash it up tight again with double knots. And to use the same bonds to chain my heart and mind again and again and again.”

  Laughing the girl went off to fill the skin, swiftly she lowered the bucket to the spring while Janu gazed at her and murmured to himself:

  “As long as I live I will sing her praises and when cruel time has robbed me of all, to my very memory, my one recollection will be of her, and for her alone I will sing till my very last breath. Nothing and nobody will restrain me as nothing and nobody can curtail the flight of the lark.”

  As soon as the girl came back he asked her:

  “Tell me who you are, O siren, what your name is, where you live, whose daughter are you? Answer me, please.”

  “My name is Orphea, I belong to the Bangaria tribe. Our tribe is organised into families of hunters, shepherds and farmers. My father Meleager has a charcoal works in the beech woods. But must you truly be on your way so soon, stranger? And if I were to sing to bind you here?

  Our tent always has an abundant supply of sweet goats’ milk, fresh fruit and nuts to refresh weary guests. Wayfarers are sure of a bowl of fresh water to cleanse themselves with and a comfortable bed to rest on. Come and pass the night in my father’s tent. See how the darkness is already drawing on its starry mantle and the mountain shadows are lengthening until they mer
ge into one? Look, the flocks are being driven into their folds and the farmers are hanging lanterns outside their caverns. If you stay we will pile sheepskins outside the tent and tell tales of faraway lands by the pale light of the moon.”

  “Beautiful, bountiful Orphea, Your eyes alone would suffice to bind me here forever more and I swear that if I ever get back from this journey I will hasten to your tent with a bunch of almond blossoms tied up in a rainbow, but alas, now I am bound by another task. What bitter destiny to meet you and have to leave you so soon, cruel fate that I cannot come to your tent.

  My name is Janu and I was birthed by Elena, Cadmius’ daughter, one night on the cliffs of my native island, the moon played midwife. All during my childhood I ran naked and free along the endless beaches, dusted by the pollen of white sea lilies and surrounded by the dizzy scent of orange blossom, myrtle and prickly pear. Until twelve years ago I lived as free and happy as only a poet born to watch the clouds from the top of a mountain can live. I was a falcon who existed only to gladden men’s hearts. I cast my nets in the glow of dawn and hauled in a catch of verse from the sea’s depths.

  My native city was no metropolis but was strongly built, ringed with stout walls and solid towers. But one month at harvest time it was besieged, and during a fierce battle, cruelly-armed Roman soldiers burnt it to the ground. Bleeding from a hundred wounds I was taken prisoner. With my ears still ringing with the cries of my dead companions, my mouth still sour with the taste of enemy blood and fire in my breast, with my hands bound in chains and my soul sequestered in a dark prison I swore an oath of loyalty to Rome rather than be killed out of hand. On that day my pain was born and poetry’s sweet elixir muted into a bitter draught. At first I was chained hand and foot and condemned to row a galley with many other fellow wretches. Then one day my fate took a different turn and I was sold in the market for the price of twenty oxen and given as a gift to the man travelling with me.

  Now I drink in the same stream as the jackal every day and live off the scraps left in the enemy’s bowl. My heart is so devoured by worms that it will not let me sleep at night and with no love in this life I took comfort in the past, wandering like a sleepwalker lost in memories and wondering whether it would be better to die than go on thrusting my snout in the same carcass that feeds the vulture.”

  Thus said Janu, the enamoured slave. The girl replied:

  “Your great love for your native island and your craving for your birthplace rings in your words, but your pride shines in your sad gaze too. Listen, O shepherd of the clouds, never let anyone dry your tears, or console your suffering, because it is the laden tree which is shaken and struck to make it yield its fruits and everyone knows that wild strawberries, like orchids, can thrive under the nettles’ cruel sting, so do not despair. But if you really desire to break the chains of slavery and be free from the past, the present, and even the future, I can help you. Try this secret recipe. Gather red earth and spring water, mould them in the palm of your hand for during the night your handful of clay will rise and immediately, in the gloaming of the dawn amidst the dewdrops as chilly as pearls of pain you will be born again as if you had just emerged from a woman’s womb.”

  “Even if it were so, my little oracle, tell me what woman, what land, what sea would succour me, if day after day I myself have forged my chains with an iron hammer striking an invisible anvil and then have thrown the key away as one sloughs a dead skin? And yet… in the depths of my being I still hope, although the gods alone know what hope a slave, imprisoned in a blind web, can have. My spring has run dry, every day I am forced to lick the hand that strikes me, I’m forced to abase myself before the tyrant even if he were to kill me. But I swear to you, my love, I swear that if ever the gods see fit to free me, for you I will once again become savage and terrible, for you I will march in triumph through my city brandishing the palm of victory.

  I have been promised my freedom if we manage to cross these mountains and from slave condemned to wander forever only in the dark paths of my mind yearning for I knew not what, seeking the non-existent hidden in the mist, for you and for you alone I will ride the storm and snatch the very lightning bolts from the skies. Only yesterday I was like the night that cold and naked lies dormant in the fruit, and cold and naked I looked forward to death without knowing that I was already dead. But now I have met you I know why I was born, you have turned my pain into joy. Walking past your garden has taught me to fly, I have always dreamt of a girl who would give wings to my heart.

  If you want this love I will come back to seek you even if I am in chains, and in chains I will shout my happiness to the wind from the rooftops, but if you do not want this absurd, mad love born in a cage, in due time it will be born again, perhaps in a thousand years. And if you still do not want it I will hover in the wind for another thousand years and after a sweet sleep of another thousand years it will come back again, it will batten on your heart until you finally let it in. Then we will be blessed with happiness, we will strew fruits and flowers, we will go and live wherever you want, in the rough countryside or in the woods and when the unharnessed bullocks graze and a tasty kid is roasting on the fire, I will weave you bracelets of flowers and play my pipes for you.”

  “And I, my lord, will serve you piping hot meat on vine leaves and will put chestnuts to roast in the embers of the fire, for you I will knead the dough for wheaten loaves and make sweet pastry. Every time you play your pipes I will dance until the ears of our corn will swell with grain, while Pan, the god of the woods, who was the first to play the pipes, will play laughing with us. Do not despair, my lord, if the cup you have drunk has burnt your lips, the pain you feel has brought you here to the Cimina Mountains, home of the gods.

  You and I will hide behind the ancient oaks on these mountains and watch Bacchus gather grapes and figs, if he protects us no curse will be able to harm our lambs, we will be immune to envy and our fields will never be barren, Bacchus will crown us with vine leaves and when the grapes have matured to the colour of the sun, Jupiter will send his silver rain in abundance. During the winter when the trees are decked with snow we will shutter tight the doors and windows and settle down laughing in front of the fire to tell ancient tales. Your heart’s winter is over for ever, my love, you are no longer alone, I was expecting you because a messenger dove had warned me of your coming. You, and you alone, are my spirit’s true companion. It’s true that geese only sing like swans in fairy tales, but I know that the eagle in you will soar with your pain up to the moon, beating his wings against the stars. Poetry has always caused suffering to its bards, but they are by nature free even if they are chained, even if they drink wine from another man’s press and eat bread from fields that are not their own.

  If your fate is linked to these mountains, my beloved, if you can only find freedom by crossing them, then remember that it will be no easy undertaking. You will run into many dangers on the way, many deceptions, these are not mere ivy-clad glades with a few nettles. Whatever happens, do not believe your eyes and your ears, listen only to your heart. Take this skein of flax, my love. While I awaited your coming I wove it during an eclipse of the sun, for this reason it is invisible, endless and cannot be burnt. Tie it to the trunk of the first oak tree you encounter on the edge of the deepest valley, at the Pass of the Kite. You will recognise this particular oak because its branches look like a sleeping giant’s hair and the tip of its last leaf is always stretching to the sun, its trunk is gnarled with age and harbours, ants, grasshoppers, caterpillars and birds. If you are ever in danger I will find you by following this thread.”

  Janu took the skein without saying a word, and stared at her, enchanted, bewitched by love. For a long moment the two young people stood glued together, their hands entwined, lost to the world, drowning in each others’ eyes, desperately imprinting the precious features of the other on their memories.

  Now Janu saw his mission with completely new eyes as it was his only chance of earning his freedom. Janu the
slave without a homeland, the slave who stared at the sun with glass eyes and grasped coals with burning fingers praying to the god of damned souls to extinguish his star on the distant horizon forever, Janu who never sought the east or the west, now that Janu was reborn for the love of a woman.

  What sweet sickness is love, that can be healed by a word. Before leaving, Janu bent his head over hers and in a magic moment of ecstasy, the first sip from the chalice of love, the beginning of that emotion, that tremor, which cuts lovers off from the real world and transports them into a dream. In that instant, hand in hand, gazing into each others’ eyes, the tale of two hearts that meld together to burn as a single torch begins. Then he whispered a single word, a word which burned hotter than a kiss on the lips, the same word that God whispered into the clay he had moulded into the shape of man, a divine whisper that the chaste wind hurriedly blew into the cave of silence before dragging it off to a fool’s heaven. But the jealous wind does not tell us, and never will, what that whisper was that united two souls for all eternity by a chain spun from a spider’s web. The ardent, passionate look, like the embrace the sea reserves for water tumbling down steep cliffs that accompanied it must suffice the enchanted onlooker.

  And so they parted with her image branded on his brain and a promise echoing in the still air. Marcus Fabius and his slave set off immediately. As the dusk descended and the remnants of the sun painted a scarlet brushstroke on the western horizon they made their way up the western slopes of those inviolate, unknown mountains. They spent the first night at the Kite’s Pass exposed to the wind and the stars with just a cloak to protect them.

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