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Students of Aristotle and Bards

by Heather Momyer

Stylianos shot a blazing arrow into a pile of dirt, firelight in the sunlight on the soil. The flames quickly collapsed into the mound of earth. It was difficult to shoot with fire: the arrow slowed, the trajectory stunted, and the effect was never as dazzling as one expected. Anyone but a boy knew that sending fire-lit arrows across the sky was usually a waste of time and a waste of weapons, and the archer who made the attempt was usually an inexperienced braggart. Shooting with fire rarely works.

Except for the one time it does.

The arrow could reach dry hay and spark. Several arrows could pierce the timber or mast of a ship. The mathematics were not in the archer’s favor, but they were in the realm of possibility. There might be one time out of a thousand times when the flame would take root and the smoke would stem upwards, branch and curl. It could happen. It could happen, so Stylianos practiced.

He heard the Macedonian was building an army and needed archers, and Stylianos was the best archer in Athens. He was an archer because his mother was from Crete. He knew respect for Ares, the god of war, because his father was from Sparta. Because Athens was his home where his Greek name meant “pillar,” Stylianos could stand among the philosophers and the poets and divine something from the meaning of words. Religion was more than incense and blood, he knew. It was the incantations of educated men, manifestations of the rhetoricians, visions from the poets’ odes, new awakenings born from what is written and what is spoken, and Stylianos grew tall among them all—infantrymen and temple priests, geometricians and playwrights, students of Aristotle and bards.

Stylianos went home to tell his father about the Macedonian’s army. He thought he could find greatness by association. He had been taught to believe that. Great nations follow great leaders, study with great philosophers, employ great artists.

“A great soldier in a great army led by a great man is something to aspire toward,” his father said, and they agreed that the Macedonian was a great man. He was brave and vengeful. He was a war god.

The city of Athens fluttered around them. The fishing nets had been emptied; the markets were less crowded. Evening errands were run; visits were prepared. The scholars ate their meals; their students memorized their discussions. Athens was intellect and trade, and the men of Athens had neither time nor love for war gods, but for this one, they might make an exception.

A man could become rich, Stylianos’ father suggested. The army was going to rich lands to fight rich kings. Few men of Athens were trained soldiers and fewer still would join ranks. The Athenians claimed they had buried the furies’ revenge long ago. Still, old wounds ran deep and tunneled under the skin.

Stylianos thought of the things he would buy after becoming a successful and wealthy soldier in a strong army. He thought of the beautiful wife he would one day have, his own goddess of love and beauty, and he thought of the stories he would tell. They would begin with adventure and a quest, the desire to be worthy of a war god and then to become the war god himself, because that’s what the great epics were about. He would not be proud and tragic. He would be a hero.

***

Stylianos left Athens without looking behind. He did not see the women in the market, did not hear the calls of the fishmonger, did not notice the chatter of debate, or orators on the steps, he did not feel the warmth of the sun or the pebbles and rocks as his feet hit the ground. He looked forward into the great expanse of the future. He looked forward to coming back from his journey, leaving as one person, returning as another.

On the road, he joined others of the infantry, men with pikes from the north, more archers from Crete, a cavalry with lean, muscular horses whose hides glistened with sweat and sheen while the flies hovered around them all.

***

The road was long, and the army traveled for many days, and blistered feet gathered dust. They trekked fields of rock and golden grasses, killed the shepherds’ sheep, ate from the farmers’ orchards.

Stylianos imagined women in fine clothes feeling the strength of his body and being seduced by his wit. He imagined the discomfort of the journey would lead eventually to invention, that disputes among the men would lend themselves to loyalty and leadership. He imagined all kinds of things that never came true. Instead, he discovered that the long path to realization is boring and hungry and tired and sleepless, and soon minor scrapes fester.

Stylianos trained to be an archer; he did not train to walk eternally in sweat and boredom. He trained for the quickness of eye and hand, not for the slowness of putting one foot in front of the other step after step after step while cavalry and generals clucked their horses and shared their complaints amongst themselves. A horse whinnied under the weight it carried, and Stylianos remained silent as he followed.

The infantrymen began to feel the jagged, uneven earth under their feet. They told the same jokes, bragged the same brags, and people stopped listening. Where was the excitement they sought? Stylianos wanted to know. When could he prove himself? Each man thought the same thought… he thought about his own gifts, his own greatness, his own heroic nature. He did not think he would be one to die from the enemy arrow, and he certainly did not think he would be the one to die from hunger or thirst or infection.

Stylianos dreamed of Athens and friends and food, and he dreamed of exotic languages and riches. He began to dream both dreams, those of going forward and those of going backward, but he was paid his pay and dreamed his dreams and would not run. He marched forward.

He marched forward.

He marched forward.

He marched forward.

For days, there were no enemies, only farmers, merchants, dogs, and horseshit. Slowly, Stylianos began to understand that greatness would not come, not as he once expected. It would not arrive as a guest to his tent. It would not tap him on the shoulder as he announced his profession, an archer in the army of a great general. It would not follow him into peasant villages. No, he must hunt for it. He must find it on the plains, under the sun, in the heat and sweat. He must meet it hungry and hurt. He must be transformed to see it coming, and it was out there in front of him. Stylianos looked to the horizon ahead, but he saw little except those who marched in front of him.

On certain days, Stylianos would wake and imagine the army had been moved backward, transported miles and miles behind, constantly returning to the same point. The road was the same road. The field was the same field. The shepherd was the same shepherd. He suspected the enemy priests had spells of their own, and the enemy kings had laws that were not the laws he learned, and the enemy lands had a logic and a magic unlike the fields and streets where he grew.

Stylianos marched forward.

40,000 infantrymen marched forward.

7,000 cavalrymen marched their horses forward.

One Macedonian who would soon be called destroyer marched them all forward.

 ***

Stylianos learned places to names: Troy and the Granicus River, Gordium, Issus, Tyre. Near the river, he pulled the bow taught. Afterward, he couldn’t remember if he had looked to see which target was hit and which was missed. Stylianos was well-trained, but this was his first battle. In Issus, his arrow killed a man who was already dying. Somehow he escaped pikes and the arrows that surrounded him, escaped the kick of horses’ hooves and the thrust of swords; he escaped the wheels of chariots. Stylianos did not die and said he was the better soldier, but he knew he was lucky. One of the gods must be fighting for him, and maybe it was the Macedonian.

The Macedonian was a gifted strategist, a master artist manipulating an enemy into position as if conquering were the same as creating a mosaic or tapestry. He knew where to place the tiniest tile or the thinnest thread. He knew something of aesthetics and saw the patterns among shapes and color—those with horses or elephants or pikes or ornamental helmets, details that told him who fought and how they fought, thousands of lines, tens of thousands of men; he envisioned positive and negative space, filled in the gaps to create a work worthy of the houses of kings.

If the plans were elegant and clean, if they were precise and clear, the battle on the ground was the opposite. It was sloppy. It was messy with filth and blood, the soldiers red-eyed and raw-throated, ruled by gut instinct. They were not gods, not even the beautiful animals one might find woven into a carpet or tiled in a temple wall, but they were alive.

At the oracles, the Macedonian asked his fate and was told he was invincible. He asked if he was the son of Zeus. He didn’t need the answer: the Macedonian knew who he was.

Stylianos did not dare ask for his fortune. He clung to the vision from Athens: to be worthy of a great man, to become a great man, to be a soldier like Ares. He knew the lore, saw the plays, listened to the poets. He knew how he wanted this biography to go and imagined a fantasy of poetic odes. But his muscles and blisters and wounds told him the truth. There could be only one war god and the Macedonian claimed that title. He marched forward.

A year passed. Then another.

He marched the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and lost himself in the reflective waters. He marched sands of desert where no water could be seen or heard. There was nothing of fish nor salt in the air. He marched over broken chariots, broken weapons, broken horses, broken men, women and children. Sometimes they were called liberators. Sometimes every person left alive wished that they were murdered.

“What makes a war god?” asked Stylianos. “Winning wars” was the first thing that came to mind. “And what makes a great soldier?” he asked. “Killing enemies,” he thought. “Obeying orders?” Perhaps. “Not asking questions?” That’s what the generals said. “And what makes a great man?” he asked. “Loyalty” was one answer. “Bravery” was another. “Doing what is good,” the teachers on the streets of Athens said.

Two more years passed.

When the enemy capital was taken, the army prepared for the pinnacle of conquest; they would take the heart and soul and wealth of the rich empire. They would find gifts given to kings, gold and silver, gemstones and embroidered gowns, beasts beyond imagination—when they arrived and he came upon a large spotted cat, a cheetah in chains, Stylianos knew the enemies were a people who had conquered the wilderness. The cat was the finest animal he had ever seen. It was both powerful and beautiful. The line of muscle curved around its shoulder and its teeth pearled and glistened. “This is what a god should look like,” Stylianos thought.

The riches were immeasurable, metal and jewels, fine fabrics, art, beauty, lives lived in leisure. Here, the library texts were written in gold on the hide of cows. They spoke of good and evil, of god and fire. This was a city imagined by poets, where the law of aesthetic and beauty reigned.

The Macedonian accepted it all as a gift from Zeus. The army could take what they earned and Stylianos gathered what he could carry.

  ***

In spite of being a soldier, in spite of being mothered by a woman from Crete and fathered by a man from Sparta, Stylianos was the adopted son of Attica; he knew the streets of Athens intimately. He believed in beauty, and he tried to believe goodness and justice, and he wanted to believe in love. Yet Stylianos was not born in Athens, and he was a soldier who took his pay and did his job. He was not like the citizens of home, where young men flocked to hear the philosophers speak and did think of digging spears into human skin, nor was he like the men who wielded weapons with savage practicality and knew nothing of grace and design. He was not well-suited for the friendship of soldiers from other parts of the empire, soldiers who were trained mercenaries, soldiers who joined any commander who paid them well enough to kill enough. Even the enemy had Greek mercenaries. Stylianos hovered in the margins and thresholds, neither entering nor leaving.

Perhaps in his heart of hearts, the dream of conquering a foreign woman was the desire for balance between worlds, a symbolic bridge between the body and the mind, between good and evil. Yet he would not find the goddess he once sought in the foreign palaces where women from all corners of empires and worlds could be found. Even the captive concubines had known great wealth and lavish fabrics and were not easily impressed with the trinkets acquired by someone else’s soldiers.

Not even the woman who remembered Athens, the city of her birth, who knew the story of its fire more than a century before, not even she could be seduced, not by him. The palace of the long-ago enemy king who once burned her city loomed over her every day as she walked through chambers or irrigated gardens.

Stylianos watched her. He understood that she too had learned something about thresholds. In these foreign temples, fires were stoked. Goodness and the wisdom of the light fought to keep the darkness at bay, to keep it cornered in the periphery, held along edges, in cracks and corners. From where does the darkness come? Like the light, it, too, comes from the east. And what of the Macedonian conqueror? He came from the west, but he was no mortal like the others. The Macedonian hovered between the heavens and the earth, so they believed.

The courtesan from Athens befriended only the Macedonian and his generals. They toured her chambers, and she knew where the bags of wine lay hidden. One evening, she and the Macedonian hosted a Dionysian gala. Stylianos watched from the emerging shadows. The sun was setting, and while the moon and stars lit the paths in the gardens, the courtyards faded between walls. The great halls darkened so that not even the candles of all the great kings could illuminate the details of the columns or the face of the man standing next to you.

That night, drunk men raged; violence spilled into pleasure. They killed the animals and roasted more than they could eat; they raped women and girls and boys, and they fought amongst themselves. The cheetah paced at its chains, and a man brandished a knife and thought of the price of hide. The courtesan’s torch lit the ways.

“Remember Athens,” she told the Macedonian. As if she cast a spell, the furies were dug up from the grave by a woman away from home too long. Their corpses had not decayed. They were as bright and as youthful as ever. They had never died, and Stylianos could see that they were merely sleeping. They had been sleeping the whole time, while Athens had been pretending that they were dead.

The war god woke them with a kiss.

Retribution is the old religion. It never dies.

Perhaps the priests had always expected the darkness would come for them, but they were wrong. It was not darkness that came for them and for their palaces and for their kings and gold. It was light—fire, untended and untamed.

In the palace of the king who burned Athens, the woman and the Macedonian set light to the illustrated tapestries and the rooms soon shone like beacons in the night. The halls were burned. The gardens were burned. The libraries with their collections of sacred manuscripts were burned. People began to run in search of water. A young man threw himself into the canal and was trampled and drowned.

“What does it mean to be a good soldier?” Stylianos asked himself.

“What does it mean to be a good man?”

The torch that he held earlier was lost. Did he throw it onto the scrolls with the others? Did he simply drop it and run? In the smoke, Stylianos thought he saw the shape of the cat race through embers. He thought he could hear the dragging of chains behind it.

It too was gone.

A whole city burned and began its descent into ruins.

The next day, Stylianos stood tall among the columns in the great hall. The roof had yet to collapse; the ceiling had yet to fall, but the stone pillars bore the black scars of the fire.

He went to the library where the blackened manuscripts of poetry and light fell to dust, and there he stood, a pillar in the wreckage, but the remaining mast of a ship is useless when the boat is sinking.

Embers still burned and small fires spread along the edges of the city. The army sobered and looked upon the greatness of their wreckage. The Macedonian demanded to be treated as the son of Zeus. He wore the embroidered cloaks of foreign emperors and asked to have his fingers kissed. Stylianos saw the Macedonian transform from god to tyrant and realized that he was always just a man, a man with hubris and a mind for strategy.

Athens was avenged, and there was nothing left to purchase or steal. No goddess of love and beauty, and the goodness of the empire was no longer for sale.

Stylianos was wrong. He would not return to Athens as a great man. And the foreign enemy was wrong: light cannot save us from the darkness. The darkness will always come. The fire eventually burns out and the remains are blacker than anything.

Later, as the army marched from the city, and the pearl of Persia was a crushed gem, Stylianos saw the bloated body of the cheetah on the side of the road. The flies hovered and the birds pecked, and not even the once svelte hide could be salvaged. He saw the lines made in the dirt and grass from the dragging chains the animal still wore. Perhaps this is what it meant to conquer the wilderness, he thought: to survive the elements when even the gods are shackled to one thing or another.

The foreign empire had been taken. There may yet be time for commerce, as Stylianos’ father predicted, but it wouldn’t be for him. There may be time for greatness, but it too would elude him.

The Macedonian won the battles and the enemy lost; he was ready to go on to the next kingdom.

He told the infantry to march forward.

He told the cavalry to march their horses forward.

Stylianos marched forward.

About Heather Momyer

Heather Momyer is the founding publisher of Arc Pair Press and the editor-in-chief of Masque & Spectacle. Her fiction chapbook, How to Swim, was published by Another New Calligraphy, and her stories and essays appear in journals such as Tahoma Literary ReviewPuerto del SolPsychopomp Magazine,and Bennington Review, among others. She lives in Tacoma, WA.