Blind Light, Pentheus Follows Dionysos




Dionysos, in the image of a young man, tempts Pentheus through his prurient anger to risk his life.

Pentheus mumbled something. They began to walk along the road that led to the ford. Pentheus never let himself slip so far behind that the rope rose taut, but never came up so far it touched the ground. Dionysos quickened those impulses from the hearts of householders and servants that led them toward the road or to glance at it from high places. Some were starting journeys and decided to get on the road, others to go to the spring for water for the day, others to climb on their rooftops to see if the earthquake had loosened tiles. They recognized the Lydian from a great distance and his figure lured certain women. From a distance Pentheus seemed only a puzzling and unsettling thing, grey in the dawn light, which he led. The immortal could sense that without knowing it the grey figure evoked human sacrifice and made them fear for themselves and fear the impulse to kill someone important. In middle distance they could only see it was a woman in a purple robe. Only people right on the road recognized the king. He did not seem to see them. Some servant girls who loved Dionysos ran to tell their friends. Admiration filled many hearts and they lifted their hands to the sky in The Gesture. Their admiration washed the immortal and cleaned away stains of the ugliness the city had attributed to him the way a stream will one day muddy the bottom with silt and another day raise and wash the bright rocks. Others filled with shame and rushed either to hide or to tell whomever might redeem the shame.

Dionysos sensed their feelings everywhere as a fish in the flowing water feels the changes in a current or the trembling shells of pressure radiating from a dropped rock, or from a large animal making his way. He saw them as a hawk flying over the city, passing over Lysander's household towards Lentibus' whitewashed walls, seeing the people below like ants, dodging back and forth in the bright blue light between rose and day, attracted to the road and toward one of their number carrying a great drop of honey. A field mouse appeared in its talons and he sweetened the twisting little creature. Its little blood scattered in the air to droplets drifting down to the city. In the rooms of a noble household four servants were pausing around a fountain, an old man, two middle-aged women, and a sturdy girl of twenty five. None related. The old man was sitting beside the cistern washing his legs with the morning hot water. The girl had seemed to be there a moment before but now she entered, laughing, rolled back her head, sat with spread legs on the edge of the cistern, "Oh, my lord Dionysos, you should see him! The king! That ass! You should see how my lord has made a mannikin of him." The middle aged woman put her arm around the old man in a rush of fellow feeling, mute togetherness, neither laughter nor fear. The other suddenly had a bowl of wine, passed it around. A young man the girl had always known appeared at the door, disheveled and tired eyes from reveling. Her heart went to him. It was the immortal. He beckoned. She excused herself and went to the storeroom. Some of them started up after. She half hoped who it was, pretending it was so and pretending it wasn't so, He made love to her on the floor, the others peeping around the door smiling. He shook her as you shake a winnowing fan to make the grain fall away, so that her essential warm bodily self clung to his immortality, free for a moment of all consideration, as the fist of a baby tightens and clings to whatever is offered.

Dionysos was drawn back to Pentheus' imagination by the image of hounds, chaotic and grey, that stormed it when they passed Aktaeon's house.

"Won't the people attack me if they see me this way?" Pentheus asked the Lydian. "Will they bear a king turned to a woman or a beast?"

"You have nothing to fear in the city."

"I seem to see two suns. Is it day or moonlight?" Pentheus said. "A double Thebes. All the houses repeated in colors I cannot understand. Are you a heifer or are you a goat? I seem to see two of you. Are you a heifer or a goat?"

"The immortal is with you; you see what you should see."

When they passed the shrine to Aphroditë that marked the beginning of Amphion's district, Dionysos felt rush into the king the terrible immortal image of the Earthborn fighting among themselves, Echion emerging bloody from among them screaming and grunting in great gasps.

"Why must I go in women's clothes?" he asked the Lydian.

"Because a man would come to a violent end," the Lydian said.

Dionysos saw a servant woman run with the news from the road to where Amphion lay hung over. Dionysos had mixed feelings about Amphion. She woke him gently; he had always been gentle with her, and his first thought on waking was that he was getting his return. When she told him that the Lydian was leading Pentheus through the streets in Queens robes, he gathered a robe around himself and ran toward the road intending to comfort and guide Pentheus back to himself. But when he saw the little procession he sensed at once they could not be touched and were doomed. He lifted his hands in admiration of the immortal and was terrible stricken with shame and sadness for his king; he fell onto the road and began screaming, weeping, and beating his fist into the dirt.

Dionysos' fine sense sought everywhere the intimate, abandoned admiration of the people the way ants run into a house in the end of winter feeling everywhere with their intimate antennae for the chemical nature of things. Especially it crowded around Pentheus as he walked slowly along the famous road as ants will rally around a fat, purple grub strayed from its secure escarpment. When Pentheus reached the shrine of Hermes Argus-bane opposite the market place, Dionysos could feel in him the horror of the myriad dead eyes as if because the king hated Hermes for murder, he was guilty of the murder and saw Argus in the eyes of the shoppers in the market.

"I see revelers everywhere here," Pentheus said to the Lydian. "Why do we need to go to the mountain?"

"Because your mother and aunts are there," said the Lydian.

When they passed the inn, now in full morning light, Pentheus said, "Perhaps we should go in and try my disguise? If I could pass for a whore there, then we are safe from the women on the mountain."

"If you are to fulfill your kingship," the Lydian admonished him, "you cannot let thoughts of idle pleasure divert your imagination."

When they reached the ford the ferry was at the other side. Pentheus walked past the Lydian toward the water as if he meant to ford it. Dionysos could sense his delicious disciplining image of the painfully cold water and of the people watching him master it. The Lydian put his hand on his shoulder.

"My dear," he said, "you do not want to spoil your finery."

Pentheus stepped back and looked at the skirts around his feet. The ferryman drew his craft across. Dionysos felt the king relax when he stepped onto the ferry and none of the crowd followed. But the immortal knew that the gnarled arm pulling the rope was his old man Sileneos. The old man dropped one hand from the rope and pinched Pentheus' ass.

"I am the king," he replied sternly.

"Are you, are you? Are you?!" the old man heaved and screeched.

"I am still King Pentheus," he said, "and I can have you whipped when I like."

"Are you, are?! Are you?!" the old man shrieked. He let go the rope with one hand again and pinched Pentheus' left tit underneath the robe. "You feel to me," he screeched, "like a flat-chested old harlot." Pentheus stepped away from him and turned to the Lydian.

"I seem to see two suns?" he said. "Is it morning or moonlight? A double Thebes. The inn and the road repeated in colors I cannot understand. Are you a leopard and a he-goat? I seem to see two of you? Are you a leopard or a goat?"

"You see the immortal," the Lydian said.

When they reached the far shore Pentheus came to a little and started forward to thrash the old man the way an animal that has been fed opium to stand quiet during the ceremonies before his sacrifice will start with the wildness of his nature. The old man jumped away. Pentheus started after him, but stumbled on the hem of his robe and fell to one knee. As he started to rise the rope choked him and he fell to his hands and knees in the spring mud. The old man scampered back and kicked him in the ribs, grunting with each blow, "Aggh, thud, aggh, thud, aggh, thud." When Pentheus, with aching side, got to his feet, the old man turned his quick tail again. Pentheus, coming to himself in anger, began to jerk at the rope in the Lydian's hand.

"Pentheus, Pentheus," the Lydian said, "you forget yourself completely. Do you want to see what dances the rebel women do on the mountain? Do you think that they will accept you if your clothes are covered with mud like those of a child who's been fighting?" Pentheus let go of the rope obediently.

As the steps lengthened between the pilgrims and the city, Dionysos' attention drifted away over the wide world. Only the form of the Lydian stayed with the king, like the paw of a sleeping animal. When the immortal's attention returned it was about noon. He saw them from a great height, tiny on Kithaeron, climbing from the edge of foothill oak forest to pine forest. Dionysos could sense also Kadmos, Tiresias, and certain other elderly Theban gentlemen resting in the largest room of a village where he had guided them. The women were hunting in glens near the peak. He would bring them down this evening to Thebes. Pentheus climbed with his senses all open and incisive, like the sparkling edge of an ax which the craftsman has honed with the rough stone but not yet with the fine. Dionysos, watching through the eyes of a squirrel in the pine trees, stopped him to rest, the way a bull dancer in Krete stops, pretending to adjust his clothes, to give the animal a chance to rest so the performance can go on.

"Pentheus, I think you should learn a few things before we find the women."

"I am king, what have I to learn?" The dazed man asked.

"Listen," the Lydian said. In the silence sounded the sharp cries of insects and the round songs of several birds, like the sun on water before the steersman going east in the morning. The squirrel jumped from limb to limb rhythmically around the clearing. Somewhere there was a scream of agony or joy, human or inhuman, mortal or immortal.

"Are you afraid of dying?" Pentheus asked the Lydian.

"I lead a charmed life," the Lydian said.

Dionysos felt Pentheus' tendons loosen and then tears come to his eyes for shameful things he had done.

"Have you ever killed anyone?"

"Yes," the Lydian said.

"My father, Echion from the dragon's blood, would not have done this." Pentheus gestured toward the peaks instead of toward his disguise. "He would not have cared what he saw or didn't see. He would have come here more berserk than they. He would have shown them how it was to be mad to kill." For Pentheus the ground shook with a black flash of anger and he bit his tongue and then coughed blood. He wiped his hand across his face and felt the rope.

"I'll teach you a dance to allay heavy thoughts," the Lydian said. He set the end of the rope over the limb of a tree as you do with skillfully trained horses and pulled a pipe from somewhere.

"Do you know the goat dance they do in Tanagara?" He asked.

"I've seen it. Between us, I'm not much for dancing."

The Lydian ran soft rhythms out of his pipe.

"The footwork is almost like the dance from Tanagara one of your women showed me that, but, there, on the fourth beat, you swing out your leg, you reach and pull with all your might, like this." The pipe and he danced the step, "And you move your hips, the one opposite the foot, and you move your arms this way like running." He put down his pipe and showed the whole body motion. "Now I am letting you see secrets of an initiated."

"But I'm not initiated," Pentheus said.

"You can run with this dance if you just step forward on the second beat instead of back."

Pentheus stood watching.