The Pit of Libations: a short story in three Parts (Part I)

March 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

It is with some reluctance that I set down my account of the events that have recently passed. By doing so, I will give good cause to my reader to doubt my sanity. I am nevertheless impelled to do so, not only because the incident that I will describe was so strange as to demand that it be recorded with the most precise attention to detail that my memory can muster; but also because I hope that it will explain some of the controversial behaviour that I have been responsible for recently, and which has engendered such bitter criticism within the circles of academia.

It was in the late summer of 1883 that I set sail from Athens on the ship Aeolus, in the company of a pan-european assemblage of gentlemen archaeologists and natural historians. We were bound for the Islands of Greece, to study both the remnants of classical civilisation and the fauna that Aristotle described in his History of Animals. I have no trouble in recollecting the sunset that stained the Mediterranean almost to the colour of claret that evening (although in retrospect I have been led to understand that these romantic atmospheric effects were caused by a volcanic dust cloud, casting its iridescent veil from an erupting island in the distant East Indies). I also recall swimming at night in the cool water, which acted as a balm against the heat of that Athenian afternoon, and the scent of resin and wild herbs blown on gentle breezes to our vessel from tiny islets hidden in the darkness. Our first port of call was the island of Lesbos where, around the calm, clear, cerulean waters of the lagoon (the same waters where the aforementioned ancient Greek philosopher had conducted his earliest scientific examinations), our team made observations without incident, with much work being done on the local testudo. These creatures, with their aged features and slow and determined movements, I found very charming and it was somewhat distressing to see Georges, our zoologist, dissecting them to observe the living, beating mechanism of the heart.

Then, seven days into our stay on the island, they decided to dig the pit.

At first, I took it for granted that this was a conventional archaeological excavation; I myself had found sun-bleached shards of pottery in the locality along with a few corroded metal items of great antiquity but of questionable purpose; but little did I  know then of the true purpose of the pit.  Work started early and continued throughout the furnace of the afternoon; even in the blinding whiteness of noon the hole was dug with steady but relentless labour, the slow grating rhythm of the workmen’s shovels creating a harsh counterpoint to the mind-numbing stridulation of the cicadas. It was only when the pit was deep and wide enough to accommodate three burly diggers that whisperings about the libation began to be heard.

I first grasped the tail end of the rumour when I saw the archaeologist Mills conversing in his lowest voice with an Irish colleague called Finnigan. Finnigan had climbed down into the pit to record its stratifications on a drawing board that he held propped upon his knee. It was clear that the two men were sharing the deepest confidence, so I held back from greeting them. Four words escaped the pit and entered into my ears: wine, barley, honey and the fourth and quietest, least distinguishable utterance … ram.

So, I thought, that explains the muffled bleating that I had heard on the Aeolus.

It was no dream, or hallucination brought on by the heat, after all.

To be continued …

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