The Pit of Libations: a short story in three parts (part III)

April 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

Continued from The Pit of Libations: A Short Story in three parts (part II)

It was midnight and the moon was full, casting long, cold shadows as we gathered around the pit. The ladder had now been removed and into the hole we poured water, milk, and then sweet wine from the silver cup. Honey followed, emptied directly from an earthenware jar, and then barley; which entered the pit with a pattering hiss, glistening like polished tin as it briefly caught the moonlight on its descent into the darkness. I heard behind me the low, throaty bleat of the black ram. Herr Culz, the German, and strongest amongst us, held tightly onto the beast whilst the man, who I still cannot name, held up the knife before cutting deep into the woolly neck. The warm red blood flowed strong and fast, steaming as it entered the night. The blood frothed into the cup and then soon overflowed into the pit – a dozen or so times, before being poured down in gouts by the nameless man with the knife.

Then … Silence … the rams bleating at an end now that it had violently kicked and convulsed into stillness. And we waited; paused at the edge of the pit, as the moon began it’s long, slow descent, for what seemed like an age.

At first there was nothing to discern except shadow. Then, like the dancing lights that one perceives when staring into closed eyelids, little green impish squiggles appeared. Slowly these began to swirl until the effect was very like looking into a child’s kaleidoscope; patterns of brilliant multi-coloured gemstones revolved within the pit and slowly, now, took the form of a glittering whirlwind or sparkling, iridescent dust devil that began to rise. The gemstones changed in colour from green and gold and sapphire blue … coalescing into a dark, bloody, crimson red and as they did so the twisting form became less fragmentary, more liquid. It grew arms and a head, became a tall figure, towering over the pit; still slowly spinning but now dripping also – a figure of blood!

“Why have you disturbed my rest?” I heard the words in my mind, whispered in Ancient Greek, they were not sounds as such … “Why have you disturbed my rest?” … again, those soundless words, repeated with greater urgency …

“Name yourself” – Cultz’s voice wavered in the stillness – he stood directly opposite me and I could see his eyes were wild with fear. The ram was dropped at his feet. All of the others standing around the pit stood like statues before this dreadful Medusa.

“I am Odysseus, known also as Ulysses, son of Sisyphus, grandson of Aeolus. Why have you disturbed my rest – and how came you by my cup?”

The red, clotted eyes had settled on the cup, held in the shaking hand of our nameless colleague. “You must ask him a question in return” whispered the terrified Mills. The man was silent, his body shaking. “Quick, ask the question”, I could hear it in my mind but it wasn’t said out loud, all of the gathered archaeologists in unison willing speech. “Can’t … think …” he somehow gasped. Then, with startling suddenness, the bloody spectre of Odysseus reached out and, grasping the man holding the cup in a crimson embrace, descended with him, spiralling rapidly back down into the pit. As they went down together one could just discern the figure of blood losing form and becoming a black turbid pool deep within … then the ground shook and we were all forced to leap back as soil began to flow back into the pit …

It was now near daybreak and surprisingly cold, a chill wind blew and the rising sun was masked by a black cloud that boiled on the eastern horizon. My colleagues had fled back to their tents. Of the pit there was now no sign, save for the disturbed soil and rock that had created a complete backfill; and a large dark circle of moisture that marked the spot like a rapidly drying stain.

On my return to London I made every effort to ascertain the name of the colleague who was taken from us that day but to no avail. According to the expedition records no one was unaccounted for save for the evidence of a mysterious undecipherable signature on a requisition order that could have been made in Greek – I could perhaps discern the alpha character at the beginning of the name.

My attempts to write an account of this event met, at the best with ridicule; at the worst all attempts at publication were ignored or returned with impossible requests for editorial revisions to the manuscript.

My colleagues simply refused to speak of the matter.

London 1885

The Pit of Libations: a short story in three parts (Part II)

April 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Continued from The Pit of Libations: A Short Story in three parts (part I)

Thoughts of the curious conversation between Mills and Finnigan troubled my mind and I could find no rest.

Around midnight I gave up the idea of sleep and rose from my camp bed. I left my tent and walked out of the camp. Nothing disturbed the peace of that aromatic Mediterranean night; save for the buzzing of a mosquito that orbited around me like an expectant thief.

I came to the mouth of the pit and looked in. The excavation was empty except for a rich, loamy darkness. Heavy, damp air rose up in swirls and a ladder disappeared downwards into its maw. I looked around and, following an uneasy compulsion, descended into the absence of light. When I reached the bottom of the pit I touched the flinty walls, which were cold to the touch from condensed moisture. It felt lonely down there, standing six feet from the surface, a man’s full height beneath the ground. Unpleasant, superstitious thoughts began to spread through my mind like a black, chilling stain … Then, with startling abruptness, a voice rang out from above: “Do you want to know what they found today?” I looked up to see a distinct and recognisable form silhouetted against the moonlight. A mortal man and no ghost, thank God.

I climbed up out of the pit. The man, who I did not recognise, spoke perfect English with a faintly continental accent. He carried in his hands a dirty cloth bundle which he duly unwrapped. It contained a metal cup with an ornate base and two symmetrical handles. Holding this cup to the light of the lantern that he held, I could see that it was made of very fine silver, beautifully wrought in delicately beaten bas relief, the figures realistically described in the most exquisite detail. But what dreadful scenes were depicted on that cup! Scenes of such depravity and wickedness that I had never in all my life seen, not even on the Attic pottery of Ancient Greece.

“What is this terrible thing?” I asked.

“It’s Greek, probably late Bronze age. Amazing workmanship, isn’t it? This is what we’ve been looking for. It’s believed to have belonged to Ulysses and to have been used in the ritual that helped him to eventually find his way home to Ithaca. ”

I looked again at the cup. Could this be true? Could what I was holding in my hands really have been held in the hands of wily Ulysses? Could this vessel actually have been used in that ancient, arcane ritual under the advice of the sorceress Circe; where Odysseus poured libations into a pit in the ground and communed with the spectre of Tiresias and with his own dead mother, recently deceased from the grief of his long absence?

“We’re planning to use it in the libation ritual tomorrow night.”

“To communicate with the dead?”, I asked, staring even more fixedly at the cup.

“To communicate with the dead”, he replied, gently taking the cup from my hands.

I stared into the darkness of the pit. Surely such a thing would be … ungodly … a crime against nature?

But then, think of what could be learned from all of those that have passed beyond the veil. This would be a bountiful gift to science and to archaeology … at last all those questions that have so long troubled my mind could be asked. Finally, we could put an end to speculation and theory; we would gain access to a vast archive of memory and experience from the tens of millions of souls who have passed before us. My curiosity burned like a beacon in that dark night and my inspired gaze felt almost as if it was lighting up the darkness in the depths of that pit on the edge of which we stood.

“I would like to attend this ritual”, I said. The man (whose name I could still not properly recall) only nodded, slowly, in reply, his features masked by the darkness.

To be continued …

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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