Blind Light, Semele Meets Zeus




Semelë meets Zeus in disguise as a young nobleman.

Beyond the wall another summer day extended across the grass and trees except among the shadows. Searching for Ino Semelë found instead the nobleman who had been present. He sat against the olive where she had been breathing when Proioxis came. The old silver trunk, lightening struck before Kadmos' time, had been carved to form a chair where he sat as on a throne. His robe was embroidered exquisitely. He bore a small steady smile that showed constant attention to the things around him without changing, like the smiles carved on roadside wooden Herms, but more excellent. He remained silent, following her with his eyes until she sat on the grass at his feet. For a time no one spoke.

"Call me Iapetos, son of powerful Orkanous," he identified himself.

"I am Semelë," she said, "my mother Harmonia, sprung from immortals, and my father, world-known Kadmos."

"His fame equals his knowledge," the stranger said, "Kalliopë attended his birth. He is one of those fortunate leaders of men to whom she gives speech like a distillation of sweetness and from his mouth the words run blandishing and his people all look in his direction as he judges their cases with straight decisions and by an unfaltering declaration can put a quick and expert end to a great quarrel. With your mother's weighty brothers I am also well acquainted." As he spoke he remained still like a bull or a leopard. He did not trouble himself.

"Your esteem for my father ennobles both of you," she replied mechanically. How did he know them? As forces or as selves as she knew Harmonia? Looking at him the questions disconcerted her.

"Your beauty and accomplishments reached my ears in Krete," he said.

The shadow of questions about Krete crossed her imagination, but without force. "I'm glad," she said. Her own voice frightened her.

His head was still, like that of a bull-necked archer shooting at targets for leisure when he waits for the prompts that loose the arrows.

"I always value new foreign lands," she said.

"Your beauty has stricken my eye," he declared. He lowered his eyes, then bowed his head. He would have seemed to blush except his olive skin and the dark shadow of his beard concealed his blood.

He frightened her. "You're making speeches like a young man courting," she said.

"I am, of course," he said, "there is no need." He turned his face away from her and ran his hand along the silver dead wood of the lightening-struck stump.

The trembling of his forearms in the grip of his tendons frightened her. She straightened her back and leaned away from him.

He stood up and walked a little way into the field. Although the days steeped toward the edge of bleak winter and the cranes had passed south, it was one of those fine afternoons when the beetles run through the grass hiding pieces of light. Small yellow and copper-red chrysanthemums blazed in an outcropping of rock. He picked some and handed them to her with his arm outstretched.

"Let me share these with you," he said. He used the formula of sharing with immortals or house guests. The bright spicy perfume of the plant rose from the broken leaves in her hand. She looked back at him. She lay the flowers behind them, patting them. He seated himself on the slant-step of the trunk again. He dropped the embroidered woolen robe around his limbs. He was wearing a fine linen kilt and around his neck a collar of blue wool bearing gold buttons and cloisonne enamel. His olive skin was exquisitely cared for, his arms sturdy, powerful, distinctively articulated. Beneath this thin skin you could discern his muscles like limbs.

"I love your country here," he said. She nodded.

He turned his face back to her. His full lips had a fine grey cast, like the grayness on his cheeks from his shaven beard, as if within his red blood ran an inner vein of black blood. His face was warm and eager, yet fearsome, as if it were the obverse of a dance, and behind the soft human mask lurked the bull, proud-eyed and furious, or the lion shameless in cruelty, the barking of dogs, or the terrible whistling of the dragons where the tall mountains re-echo it. Flight entered her imagination; she should flee like the desperate oarsmen dragging, full of despair towards his invisible home while the thunderheads darken above them and the water is gathered to crests before the first gusts of the tempest that drags the seaweed up from its fast holds.

"Semelë, Semelë, most fortunate of mortal women," he said softly.

"Yes?" she said. He brushed her shoulder with his hand and her jacket fell away.

"Iapetos," she said, "what do you want, that you come here from your distant home? Who are you that you come so far? Have you introduced yourself to my father?" Prideful anger lifted her shoulders. "What gift do you bring me?"

"I will give you the sight," he looked at his robe and fumbled in it for a moment as if he would bring out something else, but let it drop, "of any one thing you want, within the bounds of our ocean."

She was awash.

"How will I see it," she said, "as in a fresco?"

"You see it with your own eyes as it happens."

She did not doubt now she had snared an immortal.

She nodded her head and stood straight, proud, waiting for him to touch her, wondering who he was. She held her fear in her heart as does the wily fisherman when he moves the trout from his net to the basket.

He put his hand on her shoulder. A mist seemed to envelope them. What am I to do? She thought but no choice presented itself. His hand undid and dropped away her robe. She could no longer tell whether her eyes saw or were powerless. After a moment she knew she was in Phylomedea's little storage room by the banks of the Dircë. Then he was making love with her. There was no more praise or preparation. At first she was still and abashed, like stone or earth or clay. She felt like the stone under the Kadmae, like the great hulk of stone that supports the groves, villages, and snow-cold air tips of Kithaeron. She felt like the deep-lying rock and earth of the mainland, striated with layers of different matters, buckled and marked, and with the veins of valuable metals that the founders seek. In coming, she felt the hot fires that run from the forges of Hephaestos, like ice melting in a rock cranny, that torture the earth.

When she stopped trembling she felt a stillness bounded only by the beginning and end of things, the stillness of the under rocks that subsume the roots of the mountains and do not shake when they are shaken, the rocks that frame Tartaros, the stones that lie still, and have always lain, in the blue grey mud at the bottom of the ocean, the damp dirt, below the reach of the plowman and below the burrowing of the grub.