'How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? ...When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him... Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried.' (Gene Wolfe, Nightside The Long Sun)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A funeral on the beach

The dead man was laid before the altar and a fire of driftwood kindled upon it. Ten sailors who had sworn they had good voices and no blood guilt sang a litany to the sea-god: "Horse-Breaker, Earth-Shaker, Wave-Maker, spare us! Ship-Taker, Spring-Maker, Anchor-Staker, care for us!" And so on.

When they were finished, Hypereides, in full armor with his blue crest upon his helmet, cast bread into the fire and poured wine from a golden cup.

“Third brother of the greater gods

By destiny, Death’s king,

Accept for suffering Kekrops’s sake,

The food, the wine we bring.

He labored for thy brother,

Thy brother used him sore.

Accept a sailor cast adrift,

Beached on thy river’s shore.”

Some beast howled nearby, and little Io, sitting on my right, pressed herself against me. “It’s only a dog,” I whispered. “Don’t be frightened.”

The black man reached across her to touch my shoulder. When I looked at him, he shook his head and bared his teeth.

Hypereides finished the poem in a thundering voice I would not have believed he commanded.

“Yet should the old man slacken,

You’ll find no better oar,

To row such souls as Ocean rolls

Unto Death’s bitter shore.”

“By all the Twelve,” whispered Pindaros. “He remembered the whole of it. I wouldn’t have bet a spit on him.”

Hypereides then cast beans, mussels, and meat into the fire, with other things. Two sailors rushed forward with leather buckets of seawater to quench it. Two more quickly wrapped the dead man and carried him away.

“It was a wonderful poem,” I told Pindaros.

He shook his head. The men around us were rising and drifting back to the big fires nearer the ships.

“Surely it was. See how many of them are crying.”

“They were his friends,” Pindaros said. “Why shouldn’t they weep? May the Gentle Ones snatch you! Poetry must shake the heart.” There were tears in his own eyes; and so that I would not see them he strode away, his chain dragging after him in the sand.

-Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist (1986)

[Next episode: The god comes down to collect the dead]

No comments: