“Lysimachus, I don’t tell fortunes. You can’t look into the future. There’s no such thing as fate!” I tried to talk common sense to him, but it was hopeless.
“Please, we’ll pay you! Look, my friends and I have sixteen oboles, and we’ll throw in a white chicken. You can sacrifice the chicken and tell us our fortunes with the entrails. Please?”
“Aren’t you afraid of what I might say?”
“Of course, who wouldn’t be? We know you’re a real oracle. Please? The one in the village is so old, we can’t understand a thing she says.”
I pursed my lips. This oracle business was starting to get on my nerves, yet it intrigued me at the same time. “On one condition.”
“First, you take me to see the oracle in the village.” I wanted to see the old lady and find out what all the fuss was about.
Barsine insisted on coming with us. Even she believed in oracles. Alexander was in Persepolis with Nearchus. Otherwise, I don’t know what he would have thought about this outing. Plexis joined our troop. He said he wouldn’t miss it for the world. Usse watched us leave with a faint line of worry between his brows.
I rode my white donkey, but everyone else walked. We sang and joked as we went toward the town. For me, the whole thing was a lark; a sightseeing trip for a tourist from the future. I didn’t believe in gods, oracles or fortune-tellers, but for the people walking along beside me, the gods were real. For the Greeks, the only difference between the gods and men, was that the gods were immortal and could change form. The gods had the same emotions and frailties as men, and loved to meddle in human affairs – they would often come to earth from their home on Mount Olympus and walk among the unsuspecting humans.
The oracle, or pythia as she was sometimes called, was an old woman living on the outskirts of the village. Her cottage was surrounded by a hedge of fragrant thyme and lavender. Several white goats and chickens were in a small paddock in the back.
Her house was actually a temple. It had an open courtyard with a large stone altar under an olive tree. When we arrived, the old woman was outside sitting in the sun, her face hidden in the shadow of a large-brimmed straw hat. She wore a white robe, Greek style. When she stood to greet us, I saw she was almost as tall as I.
She might have looked old but her voice was authoritative. “Bring the donkey to the altar,” she ordered.
“Why?” I asked, getting off White Beauty’s back and patting her affectionately.
“For the sacrifice. You’ve brought her for the oracle, have you not? Do you want to consult Apollo? Have you the pelanos?” This was the fee paid to the oracle.
“The donkey is mine,” I cried. “She’s not to be killed!” I got back on, intending to ride away.
One of the soldiers caught her bridle. “The oracle has spoken,” he said. “The donkey will be sacrificed.”
“No!” I kicked at him with my foot, trying to wrench the donkey’s head away. But she was too docile and just stood calmly while the soldiers pulled me off the poor creature and led her to the altar. I screamed, “Barsine! Plexis! Lysimachus! Do something!”
But Barsine wore an expression of pity and disgust, as if I were committing a heinous crime.
Plexis grabbed my arm and squeezed it so hard he bruised it. “Don’t say another word!” he hissed. “What do you think you’re doing? It’s an honor for your donkey.”
“You’re just mad because I named her Penelope,” I sobbed. “Lysimachus, don’t let her do that!”
Lysimachus’s face was twisted with pity, and he tried to calm me with gentle words. “Why do you protest? You wanted to see the oracle. Don’t worry, we’ll let you go first, and Apollo will speak directly to you.”
While he spoke, the old woman took off her hat and washed her hands in a small spring next to the altar. Then she reached up into the branches of the olive tree and took down a sharp knife. White Beauty didn’t even blink when the woman seized her under the chin and lifted her head up. With a deft movement, she cut the donkey’s throat. I saw a red line bloom in her snowy coat, and then I fainted.
Barsine shook me awake. She was holding me up, and my head lolled against her arm. “Wake up! Wake up! It’s done.”
I opened my eyes and saw the old woman take a pitcher and fill it in the spring. Then she dashed cold water onto the body of my poor donkey, whose nerves were still twitching, making her look as if she were trying to get up. I gave a sharp cry, and then my nose bled all over Barsine and my tunic.
Blood splattered everywhere. The soldiers were most impressed. They leapt backwards and stared at me and at the dead donkey. The old woman had disemboweled the carcass and was busy spreading the intestines and liver onto the altar. She looked up and saw me, and her eyes widened.
“A good omen!” she cried, pointing at me with the bloody knife. “A good omen indeed!”
The soldiers cheered and Barsine beamed, and then Plexis took off his skirt and held it to my nose, begging me in a low voice to control myself, or I’d ruin everything.
I was not used to having a naked stranger standing so close to me, especially one as good looking as Plexis. His thighs brushed against mine and I could feel the heat of his body. My nose bled even more. I closed my eyes and said in a strangled voice, “Plexis, will you please get away from me? And put some clothes on, you’re making it worse!” He stopped touching me and jumped back as if he’d been scalded. “I don’t believe this,” I said, my eyes still closed. I sat down and used my tunic to staunch the blood.
The old woman’s yard looked like a battlefield. Most of us were covered with blood, either White Beauty’s or mine. The intestines and liver were examined and pronounced “most auspicious”. Apparently, all our dreams would come true. I kept my eyes closed as much as possible. For me this day was rapidly turning into a nightmare.
It wasn’t over. The woman washed in the spring and bade us wash too. Then she led us into the temple where a fire smoldered in a bronze brazier. She threw handfuls of leaves and herbs on the fire, and stinging smoke filled the room. I choked and my eyes started watering. Strangely enough, no one else seemed affected. The woman sat with her head right in the smoke for a while, and then she disappeared down a staircase that led to a cellar. We followed her, and found ourselves in a small square room hewn out of the bedrock. The room was lit by a single torch, and there were benches all around the walls.
Everyone sat as if they were in a doctor’s waiting room. Barsine pulled me down beside her and held my hand. I was still crying. Plexis wouldn’t look at me, Lysimachus looked apprehensive, and the soldiers all seemed in high spirits.
The woman went into another room and drew a heavy curtain behind her. After a few moments she called out in a strange voice muffled by the curtain, “Who asks Apollo first?”
Barsine dug her elbow into my ribs, but I shook my head. “You go first,” I sobbed.
She stood up and with a shy smile asked, “Will I have Iskander’s son, oh Mighty One?”
The old woman answered, still in her weird voice, “Yes. You will have a son in nine moons’ time.”
Barsine gave me a radiant smile and sat down.
After looking at me for a minute, Lysimachus stood up. “Is my fortune to be made?” he asked.
“Your fortune will be made at the end of the king’s reign. But beware, in the end a new acquaintance will be stronger than you.” The voice was sly.
Plexis was next. He cleared his throat. “Will I find the answers I seek?”
The woman cackled. “Most handsome one, listen well. You shall go east and east again. You will see the twelve pillars and the sacred river. However, the answers you look for will only be revealed on your deathbed. Don’t seek them too soon.”
Plexis turned white and sat down rather suddenly.
The three soldiers looked at me uncertainly; then they stood up and asked their questions, one after another. The voice told them they would go further than they’d ever dreamed, and that they would all found large, prosperous families. This seemed to satisfy them. They sat down, and then everyone looked at me. I didn’t move, tears running down my face. For this nonsense, my beloved donkey had been killed?
“I see a stranger in our midst,” the voice came from behind the curtain. “Stand! So that I may see you.”
Barsine pushed me roughly to my feet.
“Will you not ask a question of me?” asked the mocking voice.
“No. I don’t believe in you.”
There was a collective gasp from my companions, and Plexis drew in his breath with a hiss.
“To believe or not to believe, that is not the question.” The voice was sly again, and teasing. “You have come from farther than anyone here can imagine, and you will have the chance to return. However, to return you must sacrifice a human life: one living man. A donkey is just an animal with no soul, but you must kill a man with a soul. I see past the ice in your heart. Didn’t you know?” There was a dry chuckle. “Here is a riddle for the Ice Queen. The king is dead, long live the king.” A silence greeted these words. We all looked at each other, perplexed.
“I don’t like riddles,” I snapped, more angry and miserable than confused.
“I’d love to stay and chat,” said the voice, with something very like regret in it. “I too have questions to ask that only you may answer. Grant me one, just one, and I will tell you about your son.”
The blood drained from my face and my heart thumped painfully. “What do you want to know?”
“Will my name be remembered? Is my name still on people’s lips?”
“What do you mean?” I was confused. What was the old woman’s name anyway? “What name?”
“Apollo. I am here, and I want to know. Answer me, child of the future. Answer me now, for soon I will vanish and the centuries will bury me in their dust.”
At first I thought the woman was talking about herself, but a shiver run down my spine. My head tingled. “It can’t be…”
“There are things you will never be able to explain. Just answer me, if you will. Do you know the name Apollo? Have you heard of me once before, perhaps as a whisper? Perhaps in some long, lost song? Do they still sing about me? Answer me… please.”
The voice was plaintive, and for some reason I saw Darius’s tragic face in my mind. The deposed king, a fallen angel. I thought of the Apollo space program. Tears pricked my eyes. “Yes,” I whispered. “Your name is spoken all the way to the moon, but it has nothing to do with you any more.”
There was a deep silence while my words were considered, and then the voice came again, calm and oddly quiet. “Well. I suppose I had to ask. Do you see how similar we are? The gods and men.”
“My baby,” I breathed. “You promised.”
“You shall find him in the Sacred Valley. Guard him well. He will find the lost soul.”
After that, there was no more sound, except for harsh breathing coming from behind the curtain. I was shaking uncontrollably, but no one would look at me or touch me.
“Apollo asked you a question!” Lysimachus shook his head in awe.
“Don’t ever speak to me about it again,” I said fiercely.