Short Story by J.M. Elliott | Historical Fantasy | S6 Contest Winner
Aristeas died the day the caravan came to town.
The ships came in early and Aristeas could see their sails from his fields. He hurried to town and down the path to the harbor, where he met his old friend Linus. There they perused the goods, chatting to the merchants and sailors. The ships sailed regularly from Miletus, and they would dock at the island of Proconnessus to rest and gather a few supplies before heading to the northern colonies through the Thracian Bosporus. Linus always came hoping there would be markets for cloth where they traveled. But Aristeas went for the stories, enraptured by the picture they painted of the strange world beyond these shores.
Unloading their cargoes, a train of asses and carts would ascend the path from the harbor to the town, and merchants would enter the square to hawk their wares. The island's quarries were filled with gleaming marble prized for statues, tombstones, and temples, and no small quantity of this made its way back down the path to awaiting ships. But Linus noticed none of this. He eagerly awaited the unloading of earths from abroad—rare, colorful, magical earths for preparing and dying his cloth.
Some cloth made the trek back down the path to be loaded into the ships—to where he never knew. But it gave Linus a twinge of pride to think that his handiwork left these shores to grace the homes and hides of strangers, who would brag to their friends that their fabric was imported from an obscure island in the little Sea of Proconnessus. That tickled him mightily, and he would smile to himself as the ships sailed away.
Aristeas seldom bought anything, but he never failed to join his friend at the harbor while there were reports from abroad to be had. It was an island, and for all of their lives, it had been their only world. They might have happily believed it was the whole of the world had it not been for those ships.
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By noon, they had returned to Linus’s shop, where it was already too hot to work. Summer had just arrived, Linus liked to rest in the heat of the day while the fabric dried on the lines and work in the coolness of evening. He’d throw open the door and window to let in the fresh sea air and sit in the shade with a simple meal of bread and wine.
Because of the noxious fumes that emanated from it, the fuller's shop sat at the end of the lane, overlooking the sea. Bakers, butchers, and even fishmongers would never abide the stench. It was in part because of this peaceful location that Aristeas had always preferred it when he came to town. A smallholder from inland with a few arable acres and some pastured sheep, he had struck a friendship with Linus when, as a boy, he'd bring the household's raw woolen cloth for fulling. The shop had belonged to Linus’s father then, and its vibrant dyes, pungent herbs, pulverized stones, and simmering cauldrons captivated young Aristeas. It was more like a sorcerer's lair than a common workshop. Magic happened inside its four walls. He witnessed cloth transmuted from scruffy, dull rags to smooth, rich textiles—purified of color, or imbued with foreign hues. He saw how, with enough blows, the roughness could be beaten from a crudely-made weave. How fulling brought to completion the act of creation begun in his pastures and on his loom with the plush garment he held in his hands.
Aristeas was born to a noble family of Proconnessus, among the first Greek settlers to colonize the island, which perhaps meant little in the grand scheme of things, but his father, Caystrobius, had been well-liked. Upon his death, he entrusted the farm and household to his son, who tried to honor his father. But Aristeas was no farmer. His uncle's widow had no other kin, and his sister was not yet married because Aristeas could not settle upon a suitable match. The responsibility for looking after the womenfolk and servants clearly weighed heavily on him. Aristeas would confess as much to Linus when they sat in the shop on market days, drank wine, and pissed together in the vats used to process the cloth.
"The old widow is a lowing cow," Linus told him, "and your sister should marry already. It’s honorable that you look after them, but what about yourself? When was the last time you ate? Bathed?" He'd never find a suitable wife that way. Aristeas looked thin and didn't smell so good, and that was saying something in a fuller’s shop. The women are running him ragged when he should be ruling his roost, Linus thought. But who am I to talk? Linus lived alone in the back of his foul shop, drinking too much wine and pissing in a dye vat. As if this is the life of a family man….
Although Linus made a respectable living, no respectable woman wanted to live behind a shop that smelled of flatulence with a man who reeked of urine—whose hands were rough and stained with dye. Though truth be told, he'd settle for a disrespectable woman just so he wasn’t always alone.
Aristeas happily lived a reclusive life. Quiet and pious, he kept his father's altar and managed his household justly. So the islanders left him be. He tried his best to keep his thoughts on the farm for his sister's sake, so she could have a dowry and find a suitable husband. But, he was plagued by the future.
"If my sister marries, who’ll spin our wool? My uncle's widow is nearly blind, and her hands become more like claws with each winter."
"You could marry."
"I’ve no need of a wife," Aristeas insisted.
"I could think of a few needs a wife might fulfill," Linus said, laughing to himself.
"Just more mouths to feed. I am beset by hungry mouths."
Aristeas had dreaded becoming the head of a household. He confessed to Linus that the first time he slaughtered a lamb for their pot, he wept like a child.
"They say the Hyperboreans live by the fruits of the earth," Aristeas had said wistfully, "never eating the flesh of animals. They live in perfect peace, favored by Apollo. I’d give anything to meet them."
"So, what's stopping you?" Linus goaded, knowing his friend would never set foot aboard a ship.
On these trips to town, Aristeas would always bring a small gift of something special, whether some relic or oddity he plowed up in his field, found lying in the road, or washed up on the beach; an odd bone, a delicate flower, an exotic feather, a strangely shaped twig, a knot of wood resembling a face. Today, he brought a pale blue bird's egg he found in an empty nest in the oak by his byre door. He said it reminded him of the sky. Linus would wait until his friend had gone up the lane before casting these gifts out with the rest of the shop's trash. A twinge of regret, perhaps guilt, always assailed him, but what was he supposed to do with all this detritus in his busy shop?
Fortunately, Aristeas also brought wine, which they drank as they whiled away the hot part of the afternoon, the sea breeze cooling the shady shop. Aristeas was usually a quiet man, but drink loosened his tongue, and soon he would vividly describe helping a ewe birth a lamb, light glistening in a water-trough, the shape of a cloud, the colors of sunrise. Often he would lapse into verse, a habit Linus would have found irritating in any other man, but that Aristeas seemed to not even realize he was doing. And throughout, his friend's gaze was forever fixed on something outside the shop window. Often when Linus spoke, he was convinced Aristeas heard not a word as he gazed unblinkingly out at the sea.
"The merchants say they are continuing north." Aristeas's voice was hushed but hurried as if he passed an illicit secret. "From the colonies, they’ll establish trading routes far inland."
"Why did you never learn to sail?" Linus asked him. "You might have seen the world, made your fortune. At least got out of this miserable place," he chuckled.
But Aristeas didn't laugh. Instead, he mumbled to himself:
A marvel exceeding great is this withal to my soul—
Men dwell on the water afar from the land, where deep seas roll.
Wretches are they, for they reap but a harvest of travail and pain,
Their eyes on the stars ever dwell, while their hearts abide in the main.
Often, I ween, to the Gods are their hands upraised on high,
And with hearts in misery heavenward-lifted in prayer do they cry….
"Huh? What are you even talking about?"
"Oh, nothing. It's just that I've never been fond of the sea. It frightens me. And I can't swim."
"Ach, it terrifies every man. And no sailor can swim! What would be the use?"
"Exactly. I have no interest in going where my wits and skills are of no use to me."
"Like I said, why then do you stay here?"
At this, Aristeas did chuckle, but it was a sad, defeated laugh. Linus suddenly felt wrong to have made his friend miserable. And perhaps he was foolish to prod him this way. The last thing in the world Linus wanted was for his only friend to leave the island. True, Aristeas had been educated, but there was something about the way he spoke sometimes that Linus sensed was different.
"I only meant that you have certain… gifts. They seem wasted here."
"That's for the gods to decide. I’m not the master of my gifts, such as they may be." Then, as he turned on his stool to look through the window, his gloom dissipated, and a smile overtook his face. "Look, a rainbow. Out over the water. Do you suppose it is a sign?"
Linus just grinned and sipped his wine. He’d seen countless rainbows and felt no need to gawk at them. And he didn’t believe in portents. Aristeas was too susceptible to such notions.
"What do you think it means?"
"Why must it mean something? Not everything is a—"
Linus continued talking, but Aristeas seemed not to hear. He was staring again out the window at the sea. His unblinking eyes fixed far in the distance. Then his mouth began to move as if he were speaking, but no words came. When Linus rose to put a hand on his friend's shoulder and rouse him from his daydream, Aristeas sprang up, curled his fists near his heart, and fell backward, striking the ground before Linus could catch him.
Linus knelt by his side to see if he was hurt, but his friend would not awaken. The breath had left his body and Aristeas was dead. There, on the floor of the fuller's shop, his friend’s life had left him. Terror filled Linus’s heart.
"Damn you, Aristeas!" Linus cried in his distress. "I’m ruined! Oh, my friend, look what you’ve done—and here in my own shop! What am I to do?"
He began to weep irrepressibly into his hands, both for his friend's passing and for himself, convinced as he was that his shop would be cursed and his reputation ruined by the aspersions of town gossipmongers. But he must do something. His mind immediately conjured all manner of wild, twisted thoughts. What if this horrible thing had simply never happened—if no one ever found out? Could he hide the body of his friend or throw it into the nearby sea? Then he cursed himself for even thinking such a monstrous thing. He must go and seek out the kin of Aristeas.
He turned, closed the shutters over the large window where his friend had sat, and latched them. Then he gathered up a length of his finest white cloth and, amid sobs, solemnly laid it over the still form of his friend's lifeless body. In the dark tranquility of the shop, his tears flowed. He knelt beside the shrouded corpse, his face buried in his hands, and asked the Averter of Evil: Why? Why Aristeas, your faithful servant? Long he sat until he had no more tears left to shed, and the summer sun had moved a hand’s width across the sky without his noticing. He stood to leave the remains of his friend there on the slates and go to seek help. Then he looked once more around the room, wiped the stains from his cheeks, and slipped out the door, locking it carefully behind him.
The news did not pass well among Aristeas’s kin. Linus’s hope that the womenfolk would share his desire for solemnity and discretion quickly turned to regret. They both created such an uproar of wailing and spectacle that soon all the neighbors, the town, and probably the whole island were informed of the sudden death of Aristeas. Linus escorted the women to his shop as they howled and tore their clothes and hair, gathering a parade of shrieking spectators in their wake who joined in the exhibition. He walked with eyes down and his head bowed, more to mask his resentment than to wallow in his grief. He finally understood something of the trials poor Aristeas had suffered at home.
On the road, a Cyzicenian trader from Artaca who frequented the island on business asked about the commotion. By now, there was no point in trying to contain the story, as the world would soon learn of it.
"But I just saw Aristeas," he said in confusion. "Yes, he was on the road to the harbor on his way to Cyzicus. Saw him with my own eyes."
"No, just now."
"You must be mistaken, sir," Linus said, equally confused. "Maybe the man looked like him. But my dear friend Aristeas lays dead on my shop floor. Besides, he was terrified of the sea; he wouldn't set foot on a ship for all the gold in Persia."
The man shrugged and shook his head. "Suit yourself. I know what I saw." Then he went about his business as if the whole town had gone mad. Indeed, perhaps it had.
Arriving at the shop door, Linus paused, not looking back at the women or the crowd that followed to the end of the lane. He rested his forehead against the weathered planks and drew a deep breath, seeing in his mind the shrouded body on the floor. How would this shop ever be the same? That image would always be with him. He would never walk across the slates or sleep soundly in the adjoining bedchamber without recalling the corpse that lay there now. But he couldn't delay any longer. He unlocked the door and swung it into the dim, shuttered room.
It was empty. A cloth lay stretched neatly on the floor, but there was no one inside.
Aristeas was not seen again. Some called it a miracle; some, like Aristeas’s kin, claimed foul play; others supposed it was a prank cooked up by the two friends. Linus didn't know what to believe, but the mystery of his friend's disappearance haunted him every day. His mind at times went to horrid, dark places, and he tormented himself because he felt that somehow he’d failed his friend, and now his spirit must be uneasy, wherever it may be. The sister of Aristeas did finally marry, but neither she nor her husband would look at Linus, much less speak to him, if they happened to meet.
But work had to continue, and Linus breathed his work like it was air. Orders had to be completed. New woven material would arrive as well as soiled garments and fabric needing cleaning. Some days his feet were tender and raw from hours spent treading cloth in the wash basins filled with solvents, stomping on dirty fabrics as one stomps on vineyard grapes. On other days his shoulders ached from pounding flat the fresh-woven cloth to tame the coarse fibers. His hands ached from brushing out the dry wool with stiff bristles. At times his eyes and nose stung from laying cloth to take the sulfur vapors and enhance its colors. His best days were those when the fabric could be hung to dry in the sea breeze, and he could rest his weary joints for a few hours.
As he worked, he often talked to Aristeas. Not because he lost his wits, but because it gave him comfort to imagine the spirit alongside him. He could not conceive where his friend had gone, so he pretended that Aristeas simply evaporated into the walls of the shop or the air around him, and that he could still hear when Linus spoke. Sometimes he imagined he could hear Aristeas answer, though this he knew was fancy. He dreamt of his friend often, which he supposed to be the wandering of his soul in sleep, though the shade of Aristeas never revealed where he had gone or how. He was only a shadow moving through distant landscapes too far away for Linus to reach. When he would call, no sound would come, and Aristeas never turned to answer. Then Linus would awaken, more desolate than before, and face another day, another week, alone in his shop.
His young apprentice would come in the mornings to help him get underway, preparing the basins, setting the dyes, rinsing and hanging the cloth. But once the work of fetching water and washing was done, the apprentice was allowed to return home and help his crippled father with chores around their farm. He was a good lad, longhaired and beardless, small but wiry. A little too loquacious, but eager and unafraid to dirty his hands. He would do well in the trade. Linus needed the help, but breathed a sigh of relief when the boy left for the day and he had the shop to himself again.
The sun settled low over the sea and his day’s work was almost done. A length of fabric on the line awaited pressing. To first moisten it, he spurted water from his mouth so it formed a fine mist. In the light streaming through the window, a rainbow formed as it had a hundred times before. But today it was so lovely in the gloom of the shop that the beauty of it pierced his heart. He gasped and choked on the water, spilling it from his mouth and down his tunic. He turned away from the window to gather himself and tried to stifle his sobs, though no one was around. But as the light streamed through its opening, a strange shadow cast itself upon the wall. When he looked, a raven had settled upon the sill.
His first instinct was that it was an ill omen, and he cast a stone, but fumbled and missed. The bird didn't budge. It just looked at him with its unblinking eyes. Something about the creature’s persistence aroused his sympathy. He tossed it a leftover crust of his bread, which it seized in its beak and sat on the windowsill eating. Then, the raven gave a knocking call and departed.
When the time came to replenish his stores, Linus took his young apprentice to meet the ships and teach him about buying the materials for fulling. He bargained over Sardinian earths used to wash and whiten fabrics and the Umbrian earth employed for giving luster; fumigating sulfur used to deepen and subdue the colors, and scouring gypsum used to soften and brighten.
The merchants had by now heard the miraculous tales of the fuller's shop and clamored to ask Linus if the rumors were true. Did he know the vanished man? Could they see the place where it happened? Indeed, the merchant who furnished the earths for fulling mentioned to Linus that he had a daughter he wished to betroth and that she was amenable to the idea of marriage. At last, the heavy stone began to lift from off Linus’s heart for the first time in nearly a year.
On the first day of summer, the raven returned. It came bearing a barbed arrowhead of bronze in its beak, which it dropped on the table before Linus’s plate. Though its first visit was odd, he had since forgotten about the raven with the preparations for his marriage. But he was surprised at his happiness upon seeing the bird again. He fed it another crust of bread from his plate, and it hopped about the table, dipping its beak into his cup of wine. Already in light spirits, Linus laughed cheerfully at this, declining to shoo the bird away. Then, as suddenly as it came, the raven departed through the window.
Linus married his betrothed and, with her generous dowry and the income granted by his modest fame, moved with her to a small cottage just outside of town. The following year, the family Linus had always dreamt of came to be with the birth of a son.
Each summer the raven would return, surprising Linus at his shop with odd and trifling gifts. A leather thong, a river pebble, a gold earring, a shard of pottery, a horsehair string…. Linus could make no sense of these objects, but they were so inexplicable that he had not the heart to throw them away. He lined the treasures neatly on the shelf in the shop's backroom above what was once his bed.
Though he watched and waited, this summer the raven never came. Linus expected the bird’s visits as one might await a holiday, and with half the summer already gone, its absence grieved him sorely. After seeing to it that his cloth was loaded onto a ship, Linus dragged himself back to his shop. Inside, a shadow flitted upon the wall, and his heart fluttered, half-fancying the raven had come. But what he instead found made his heart stop altogether. A ghost. He fell back at the sight and struck the doorframe, landing on his backside at the foot of the door.
Aristeas sat on his stool by the window, sipping a cup of wine.
"I hope you don't mind," the figure said. "I poured us a cup for old time's sake."
Linus was speechless, unable to stand.
Aristeas rose from the stool and offered a hand, which Linus refused.
"I am?" Aristeas laughed. He seized his friend by the arms and pulled him to his feet.
"Where have you been these last six years?" Linus demanded, his voice a mix of wonder and ire.
"Some of the places don't even have names."
"Not even a word…. You just vanished!"
"I don't remember. I was here, looking out this window. Then, I was aboard a ship. No one was more surprised than I! But look, I brought you another gift," he reached into the pouch at his waist, carefully cupping something in his hands. A fist-sized egg made of stone. A piece of shell had broken away, revealing the extraordinary creature within.
Linus recoiled, refusing to accept it.
"An unhatched griffin," Aristeas said beaming. "A party of Arimaspi found a nest in the desert while hunting for gold."
Linus just shook his head.
"I carried it such a long way, though."
"You go off on some damned fool’s quest and this is meant to make it all right? It’s all too much."
"Oh, but the things I’ve seen! I hardly believe it myself."
"We went mad with grief. We couldn’t even give a proper funeral."
Aristeas bowed his head like a scolded dog. "For that, I beg your forgiveness. But, it hasn’t all been sorrow? You have a wife and son, as you always dreamt. And when he is big enough, I thought you might show him this griffin’s egg and all my other gifts so he’ll know how wondrous the world is, and have his own dreams."
At this, Linus’s eyes began to sting and fill with tears, and he covered his face in shame.
"What’s the matter?"
Linus confessed that he discarded all the kind gifts Aristeas had brought him over the years.
"No," said Aristeas, "they sit on the shelf above your old bed.”
Linus once again stared at him dumbfounded.
"A lash from a Scythian chief’s whip, broken as he hastened our way across the steppe and through battle. A river pebble from the shining waters of the Tanais, dividing Europe and Asia. A golden earring from a living Amazon, lovely and fierce. A shard from a woman’s funeral urn shattered by rival lovers, her ashes scattered to the winds—though my grief and shame remain. A cithara string which played for an Issedoni chief’s funeral, cut lest it ever play for another. They, too, are sheepherders who build altars to honor their fathers. Only, first they eat the man in a stew and gild his skull before doing it reverence.”
Linus grimaced in horror. “You lived among such men?”
“For two summers.”
“And the Hyperboreans?”
"There is a mountain range, insurmountable but for a single, deadly pass. An unceasing rain of feathers veils the landscape from sight. From a cave above this pass Boreas himself blows, and men are often swept away by his fury. Those who succeed in gaining passage then face the hideous, swan-shaped Graeae and the Arimaspi, a race of shaggy, one-eyed men who by night raid the griffins’ gold. Beyond these dwell the Hyperboreans.”
“No land could be worth such hazards to reach.”
“Perhaps we’ll never know. The Scythian troops guarding our caravan went through the gates of Boreas to scout the way, but never returned. It was then I knew my journey had ended—for now. But I hoped to relate all that I’d seen—to tell the stories these tokens could not. I dreamt one day we would meet again, my friend.” Tears welled in Aristeas’s eyes. “It’s so good to be home."
"A long time has passed and much has changed," Linus said wearily, overwhelmed by all he had heard.
“Have we changed so much?”
"I did when you died. I will if you live. I no longer know what to believe. Maybe I'm a maniac collecting rubbish by the roadside, feeding crumbs to birds, talking to myself in my grubby little shop. Maybe you were never even here," he mused and turned away to fiddle with some cloth on a peg, content for a moment that this was most sensible. That he had imagined the whole thing.
“You are my oldest friend. Please, tell me, what can I do?”
Linus thought as he folded a length of bleached cloth and set it in a basket at his feet. “You might compose one of your poems. Stories like this sound less mad when set to music.”
"You hate my poems."
"You know, I don’t think I ever heard them. Not really. But they say to the gods poetry is next to prayer. I'm no pious man like you. But, gods help me, I need something right about now."
The verse quoted above may be one of the few remaining fragments of the epic poem Arimaspeia by Aristeas of Proconnessus, quoted here by Longinus in On the Sublime, translated by W. Rhys Roberts, Cambridge University Press, 1899. Public domain.