Chapter Summary: The chapter in which we meet Lady Melissa, the third wife of General Pittacus, ruler of the Isle Lesbos, and in which she makes an interesting offer for Sappho to consider.
On our way back to House Cercylas we passed by the procession of Lady Melissa, the current wife of Lesbos' ruler, General Pittacus.
Forty guards, I thought to myself scornfully. She was important, to be sure, but, really! Perhaps it was because she was so young to be in such an exalted position that she felt herself to be worthy of all that protection? General Pittacus has said: "Power shows the man." He quite fancied himself the philosopher. I guess power also showed the woman.
I had thought our two groups would pass each other without comment. The ruling class had nothing to say to a wayward citizen, such as myself, but I was surprised to hear a delighted "Sappho!" called out from the palanquin at the center of the procession.
And Lady Melissa herself hopped nimbly out of her ride and skipped toward our group with her majordomo in tow.
"Dear Sappho, there you are!" she cried. She couldn't have been more than a year or two older than Tri, but she acted much younger. In fact, I would go so far as to say that she acted much younger than how Cleïs behaved.
"Lady Melissa," I responded stiffly, bowing. The less I dealt with the government, the better.
"Oh, pish-posh, my dear!" she carried on easily. "Let's not be so formal with each other! Why, we're practically sisters!" I had no idea where she invented this familiarity, but it didn't bode well for me. I didn't want the government's interest, even if this regime was the one I had supported during the uprising and consolidation of power. I didn't have time to counter her statement, however, for she was staring, open-mouthed, at Tri.
"Gods!" she exclaimed. "Is this your latest acquisition? She's quite a prize! What does she do? ... I mean, what do you need her for?" She tittered like a child looking over a new toy. "Can we borrow her sometime?" she asked this last one eagerly.
I fumed. "Lady Melissa," I growled at this girl before me, making these arrogant and presumptuous statements, "I believe you haven't met άσπροτριαντάφυλλο, a free woman guesting at our House. Tri," I didn't turn to look at her, keeping my eyes on Lady Melissa, "this is Lady Melissa, third wife recently married to General Pittacus, ruler of Isle Lesbos."
Lady Melissa's mouth reopened in shock. She mouthed the question: "free woman?" But quickly collected herself.
"Gods!" she repeated, "the rumors from the marketplace today and about you in general are true!" She smirked, looking over my party. "My, my, Sappho, dear, you are something else! Quite the motley crew of barbarians you're collecting, isn't it! Quite the progressive you are, hm?"
"Yes," I responded, barely containing my rage, "thank you so much for your, um, compliments. Now, if you'll excuse us ..." and I made to depart her presence.
"Actually," she put a staying hand on my shoulder, that I went to shrug off, ...
But then thought the better of it. Her tone when a touch more commanding, and her guards seemed quite a bit more alert.
"I was thinking you and I might chat a bit about this or that. Shall we still on that bench over there? It's a nice shady spot under that olive tree. Let's you and I go sit alone for a moment; just the two of us ... what do you say?"
It wasn't a question.
"Of course, Lady Melissa, whatever you say," I responded to her while I signed to Zeno in our battle language to stand down, but to stay alert and to protect Tri. He acknowledged, very unhappily, and warned that Lady Melissa's fan was a weapon. I looked at how she held it, fanning herself casually. Yes, I could see that she knew how to use it very well. If anything happened, I would be sliced to ribbons by the time I reached under my tunic for my concealed dagger.
She had me. But she already had me at forty guards. If there was anything she wanted to do, she could, and quite easily. Playing along would be the best course for now.
"Cadmus," she turned to her majordomo, "tell the men to take their ease here whilst Lady Sappho and I talk privately ... we shouldn't be more than a half-an-hour."
"M'lady, you need an escort ..." he began dourly, but stopped mid-admonishment at her look. She raised an eyebrow at him, and he bowed and returned to the mass of guards stiffly, clearly as uncomfortable about this situation as Zeno was.
Lady Melissa led me to the shaded bench, and we sat.
"So, Sappho, my dear," she rested a hand companionably on my shoulder, but then she stopped suddenly, glaring over my shoulder.
"Excuse me," she said curtly to me as she rose and stalked about ten cubits to another bench where two men were drinking wine and taking their ease.
"Gentlemen," she greeted them as they rose and bowed to her, "my guards are taking their ease over there," she waved casually in the direction of her guards. "Why don't you go join them and share in their bread breaking?"
"M'lady," one of them started, looking around furtively, "the General was very clear about ..."
But Lady Melissa's hiss interrupted him: "I don't believe you didn't hear me the first time, so I'll say it clearly this time: fuck off!" The way she enunciated each of the last two words left no room for argument.
They didn't look too pleased either as they were forced to leave.
"Ah!" she smiled at me easily as she sat back down, "my husband is so protective! Anyway," she returned to her easy and carefree way of speaking, "what I wanted to talk to you about was this!"
She looked excited, pleased, youthful again, but I had seen the cold and commanding side of Isle Lesbos' ruler's wife. Perhaps she would last as long as her predecessors, if not longer.
"You're educated, right?" she asked. I nodded, cautiously.
"You're a woman, right?" she asked again. Last I checked, I responded sarcastically in my mind, but I kept that thought silent and just blinked at her.
"You're a poet, right?" she continued.
Yes, I'm the poet. I'm Sappho the Great Poet. I'm the Great Poet whose first public work got her parents thrown onto the pyre and herself and her infant daughter banished for ten years. Her first and her last public work. That's me: Sappho the Poet, who hasn't written one line for more than thirteen years.
Yes, that me. I'm the poet.
I swallowed hard, not knowing how to respond at all. Was I to be put on trial again for that one verse to Aphrodite I wrote before my banishment they had labeled as heretical? Was this what this was all about?
"So, this is what I was thinking, ..." she continued appearing oblivious to the knife she just twisted in my heart. I suppose she was too young to even be aware of the uproar caused by my scandal, but how could she not know about it as the ruler's wife?
She was playing me, ... but what was her game?
I didn't have any stomach for intrigue, and I felt my it turning as this now obviously astute and politically savvy woman tightened her nets around me.
"I want you to establish a school of learning for young women ... you know, give them the skills to prepare them for life: poetry, music, cooking, keeping house, managing the servant and slaves, and other domestic duties, ... things like that! Give them some skills at speaking, and more importantly, remaining silent, so that they show themselves well for their husbands' sakes in social settings. Here is where we can make the Isle of Lesbos the pride of the Aegean Sea. We already have bright learned men of valor, let's add the intelligence and wisdom of a woman's touch to compliment and to complete the greatness that is Lesbos. I'll fully fund your school and leave everything to you. What do you say?"
She vibrated in her seat with excitement as her words and their impact washed over me.
What did I say? I could say what I thought ... instead I could say nothing ...
I tried to be political. "Um, I'll think about it, Lady Melissa."
Lady Melissa's eyes narrowed at me. "Hm. Yes. 'Think about it.' That's an interesting answer ... tell me," she continued, speculatively, "which side do you think would win if I told my guards to attack you, your side or mine?"
"Um, why would you ask such a question, Lady Melissa?" I couldn't see why she was suddenly making us adversaries. "But to answer your question, I'd think your forces, with their huge numerical advantage, would easily wipe out my guards."
"I disagree," she answered matter-of-factly, "I'd say it's about even with your two warriors each the size of the tower of Babel and that assassin of yours. And the new girl? She's obviously a combatant and a leader. What's her weapon? The bow? Or is she another assassin like your Gaul? Or did you purchase yourself a strategist? Is that what you're planning in that compound of yours? A coup d'état?"
I worked on controlling my breathing as I looked at a woman causally fanning herself less than two hands distance from me.
"So, we're about evenly matched, your guards and mine. But those are just my guards. But add my husband's personal forces? I think we could take you. But here's the thing, right? Your House is about one-twentieth the economy of the isle ... more like one-eighteenth now with your recent acquisitions. Very impressive, especially given that there are more than ten thousand families on this Island of the Olive Trees. But even with that much wealth, you couldn't sustain a fight for long enough to secure your power, and what kind of dictator could you be anyway? Who takes orders from a woman except the Amazonians? You'd be constantly putting down rebellions, and you know that, so you have your little Gallic assassin, right? The little man who lives in the night and can go into and out of any place in the world, killing all he likes without breaking a sweat. He could materialize right in our bedchamber and walk right out the front of the capital house without a soul the wiser. You'd assassinate all rivals until you found yourself a puppet that would beg to take orders from you. Isn't that right, Sappho, dear?"
She patted my shoulder affectionately, her fan lazily waving her face, ... covering her mouth from the view of her guards and mine.
My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest. I spoke very slowly and carefully, "I don't know how you came to these conclusions, Lady Melissa, but I wish to make it very plain that I am not your enemy and have no intentions in any way as those you've enumerated. Yes, I've been exiled, but it worked, okay? I have no desire to hurt my home isle or to be forced off it again."
"Enemy!" she exclaimed and laughed easily. "How could you think that?" I couldn't believe how easily she said that, how easily she said everything. "How could you think we'd be enemies when I so wish to work together with you, not to hurt our isle, but to make it and its inhabitants the best in the known world?"
She turned serious again. "You said you think about it, which of course means 'no,' but think about this. I come into my position of power and ask for statii on all the Houses of the isle, and get them, except for House Cercylas. Nobody knows anything about that House, silent for two years since your return, and all the while you continue to build your power and wealth in that tightly guarded compound where our spies make it in, but don't make it out ... that is, make it out alive. Your Gaul likes to change daggers with every kill, doesn't he? So clever of him never to use that dangerous looking knife he carries so publicly. And then, look at you! For the past year, off you go to the market every day with your elite guards, watching everybody and everything, and obviously taking notes of every movement, planning what? And then your most recent acquisition from the Etruscans? For a price that bought that merchant's retirement? You couldn't have bought just that girl with that kind of money. So what did you buy? An alliance with the Etruscans? Hm. I didn't think you, of all people, with your very public stance on them, would do that, but anyone can see the obvious benefit. You'd get your coup, but in so doing, hand us over to those pigs." She spat on the ground.
I turned white. "Lady Melissa, I would never, ever ..."
She looked at me so nonchalantly. "Yeah, yeah, blah-blah-blah. That's what every honest patriot and every deceitful traitor cries, and poor little me ...!" At this she folded her fan and put it to her forehead in mock woe, "how am I to know the difference between the two? I'm just a simple and simpering little trophy of a third wife of my lord and master Pittacus, barely old enough to be his granddaughter. That's me: all beauty and no brain!" She batted her eyes perfectly, assuming a look of complete stupidity.
"Leastways, that's what everybody thinks when they see me. Even my own guards think that! And I'm very pleased to perpetuate that misperception, as it leaves more doors open and more unguarded comments are dropped around me that way than if I showed my true colors. But I see it's not getting anywhere with you, so let me tell you a secret, my dear Sappho." Lady Melissa leaned into me and her lips brushed against my ear.
"I am in awe of you," she whispered.
I had heard that flattery was the tool of the political arts, but Lady Melissa's voice held an unmasked sincerely that couldn't be faked. I pulled back to look into her face: her eyes reflected the sincerity of her voice.
She continued: "Have you ever wondered why your solitary verse merited the death sentence for your entire house that my husband so generously exercised his clemency to spare you, specifically, from?"
So she was apprised of the facts. So why was she asking the obvious. The list of accusations must have been at her disposal.
I recited dully, still pained after all these years of the crimes I committed against the State: "It wasn't written by one of the priests of the order of the Goddess Aphrodite; it didn't follow the chanted form of the ..."
"No," she said firmly. "Those were the excuses. But the reason? The real reason? They were afraid. We are all afraid of you, Sappho."
She leaned back and looked at me, appraisingly. "I've been to Athens and educated there; I've been to the Library in Alexandria, and not as a tourist. I've read everything from everywhere. I've read the prayers and chants of the cult of Aphrodite recorded afresh dating back from over one thousand years ago. So I have the authority to say this: what you have written is unlike anything ever seen before."
"You know the standard stuff as well as I do: hum-di-ho-dee, all very austere, all very boring. But your verse ..." and then she chanted.
"Ποικιλόθρον᾽ ὰθάνατ᾽ ᾽Αφροδιτα, ..." she started. The sounds coming liquid-like from her throat: "Poikhilothron athanat Aphrodita ..." saying the first line of the verse I wrote that damned my old house to destruction: "Sparkling, immortal Aphrodite ..."
"Stop!" I shouted, and stood abruptly, breathing hard from the memories that assailed me. My group and her guards looked over at the commotion, some actually made as to move our way, but Lady Melissa's casual wave stayed them. They quickly lost interest when they saw it was just me, behaving in my usual way.
Lady Melissa regarded me critically from the bench.
"Where, ..." I gasped, "where did you read that?"
"Do you think my husband would allow the priests of the temple to burn the only copy of something like that?" Lady Melissa snorted at my naïveté. "The priests got the original, yes, but he had a copy made to keep as his most secret treasure. And he showed it to me because he thought I might like it." She smiled at me. "I did."
"And why, my dear poetess, do you think there was such delight on the part of the priests at its destruction, and such secrecy on the part of my husband over a scrap of papyrus with some words scrawled on it?" she asked.
"Might it be because you don't treat the Goddess as the priests treat her? As some distant and abstract concept, as something harmless and inconsequential? As something to be ignored with rote praise?"
"Might it be because your words are the first time that someone really, truly expects, no, begs, Aphrodite to answer? Might it be because your words were half of a conversation, and you are waiting for her reply? And not waiting for a reply from an abstract nothing, but actually are engaged in a conversation, as we two are now so engaged?"
"Might it be, my dear Sappho," Lady Melissa's eyes stared at me intensely, missing nothing, "that you really, truly believe the Goddess Aphrodite exists, that you've seen her, as if she were real, with your own eyes? That it's as if you actually already had a conversation, a real conversation, even just in your mind, with her already?"
I stood over her, but I was the one who felt trapped, cornered.
Lady Melissa, this young third wife of General Pittacus, leaned back easily and smiled.
"Oh, you play the part perfectly. Maybe you even believe it. 'Oh,' you say, 'I'm just a harmless little poetess, please ignore me.'" She looked at me through narrowed eyes. "But you don't fool me one bit: you are the most dangerous person in the world. Why? Because you see everything differently, and you speak what you see. And when that insight is communicated ...?"
"You will change the world." She said this with such confidence and belief.
"And that's where I come in." Here Lady Melissa's young voice took a practical turn to it. "You may think of me as you wish ..."
I made to protest, but she raised a jaded hand and continued, "... but let me tell you one thing about my husband. No, I won't tell you about his kindness to me, his tenderness, his attentiveness. I won't bother you with the love we feel for each other that you, and everybody else on Lesbos, don't believe exists between us. I will tell you this: General Pittacus has done what nobody else has ever been able to do, he has united the entire Isle under one House and given us peace, direction, and an identity."
"My house could have done that, but we lacked what he had: vision, determination, craft and drive. We could have united Lesbos, but it was my husband, not my old house that did this."
"Your house?" I asked, and suddenly felt out of my depth.
Lady Melissa patted the place on the bench beside her. I sat, cautiously, eying her.
She smiled at me: "I come from the House Methymna."
I gasped in shock, and was very glad that I was now sitting down. She had just told me that she was the arch-rival to General Pittacus' house, and ... with the statements I've so publicly made ... to me.
"Yes," she said, her voice smiling now, too. "I return to my House from my education abroad, finding our aspirations in shambles and our power stripped away, and our people, oh! our people, Sappho: hundreds dead by the hand and by the orders of that hated General Pittacus. Oh, and by the way, little Melissa, you're engaged to be married, I was informed, to guess whom?"
"Quite the homecoming surprise for the girl bettering herself at the Library of Alexandria! I went out into the world to learn, and, boy, did I ever get an education!"
"So now I am of the House Mytilene," she smiled easily. "Do you know what that means?"
I looked at the girl-child-woman whose old house I had condemned in the worst way and tasted the bitterness of the words as they now left my mouth: "It means my House is beholden to yours."
"Oh, Sappho, Sappho!" She exclaimed in a playfully reproachful manner. "Yes, of course, it means that, but it means much, much more than just the very narrow concerns of your house, albeit wealthy and influential, and mine! It means every house is beholden to mine. It means that the welfare of every person on Lesbos, including yours, is now my concern."
"And my concern is this." Her tone and her look became serious. "We've just now begun to recover from the wounds of our worst civil war. We are just now beginning to prosper as a unified Isle. Do you understand me, Sappho? We cannot afford to be torn apart from within again, especially with our Etruscan visitors so eagerly looking for some weakness anywhere."
"And you, with your world-changing words, and new chattel you've just obtained for an exorbitant sum indirectly from those self-same northern 'friends' of ours ... Sappho, what will you do when you begin to weave that spell of your words? Will you fire the imagination of our countrymen to turn brother against brother again as has so recently happened, calling on the Goddess Aphrodite to ignite the flames of war? How can I tell if you are a devoted fanatic of hers or a zealot of war or a scheming power broker for the Etruscans helping them to make their move against our Isle?"
She unfolded her fan with a practiced snap and smiled at me easily as she resumed fanning herself, cunning and calculation returning to her eyes.
"I can't," she clarified. "I can't tell the difference with you, dear silent and secretive Sappho, so deeply wounded by her countrymen. So, be my friend. Help me find you again; you: that girl who supported Pittacus in unifying Lesbos. Help the girls of Lesbos be the envy of the world, and take my new House's money doing it, and establish a school unlike the world has ever seen. Think of it, Sappho, a school for girls! You will be remember for all ages, and by whom? By those girls and the generations that followed, forever."
"You accuse me of consorting with the Etruscans and then offer to put me on your dole?" I whispered, my hands clenched by my sides, "You can take your filthy lucre and you can take your damn finishing school and you ca-..."
"Now, tut-tut, Sappho, please watch that famous temper of yours." Lady Melissa rested the edge of her fan very gently on my lips, silencing me. The edge of the metal blades of the fan were very, very sharp. "Just think my offer over, at least for a week, and then send me a message or come see me ... come see me any time, day or night, in fact. I'll be delighted to break bread with you and that sweet little daughter of yours."
She removed the fan.
"After all," she concluded, "I think it'd make everybody happier and rest a lot easier if the Houses Mytilene and Cercylas worked together instead of separately."
She turned to go, but then turned back to me. "Just one more thing," she said, and then embraced me.
Her fan rested on my chest, and her mouth touched my ear, in sight of only the olive tree casting its shade over us.
"Dear Pittacus is old, but he's not that old, so if anything, anything, untoward happens to him, and he were to die for some unknown reason or by foul play, utter chaos would overtake the Isle. So if this 'unfortunate accident' does befall my husband, you had better tell that assassin of yours to kill every last person in our house as well, because, otherwise, my guards will follow the orders I gave them this morning, and kill every last member of yours ... except you and your daughter, of course."
I felt her lips smile as my heart stopped.
"Because we'll save you two for last. You get to watch your daughter being split down the middle by this very fan, and then we'll burn her corpse, making sure she never boards Charon's ferry. That's the last thing you'll see, because then we'll put your eyes out, and you'll live the rest of your long life, right by my side, with the memory of the agonizing and final death of your only daughter. So, for your House's sake, I think you might wish to add my husband continued good health to your daily prayers and offerings."
She pulled back, holding me at shoulder length.
"Oh," she exclaimed, "please finish that poem! I can't wait to read the rest of your corpus."
She began walking me back toward our groups, her arm casually wrapped under mine easily holding me up, her fan waving gently at our faces.
"I have to say, reading just that verse, you are the best poet in the world!" she enthused, "Better even than Homer himself! I am your biggest fan; it's so wonderful that we are going to be such great friends!"
She paused by her palanquin, folded her fan with a snap, and held it out to me, the blades pointing at her.
I looked at her, offering that dread weapon to me. She nodded to me, her eyes filled with a wisdom in them that I had missed before. I took the fan in my hand. It was much heavier than what it looked to be.
"It's in your hands now, Sappho," Lady Melissa said this so airily, "what happens next depends on you."
She hopped lightly into her palanquin and glanced at Tri. "Your new girl is such a treasure! Cassiopeia's beauty is put to shame. Okay, now, I have to be off, but do seriously consider my offer, Sappho, dear! Ta, now. Bye. Ta!"
I watched numbly as her entourage turned about and headed back in the direction of the House Mytilene. They may have been out shopping, but it appears that they didn't need anything at the market.
Our group watched them disappear around a bend in the road.
Zeno asked: "So, m'lady, what was the offer from House Mytilene?"
Of course Zeno would ask this. His concern for the welfare of our House was only surpassed by my concern for the House, and when there was money involved, ... Well, if he wasn't such a late riser, I would have sworn that he never took his nose out of the books.
"Lady Melissa wishes to fund a finishing school for girls that our House would run," I answered.
"Great!" He rubbed his hands together enthusiastically. "When do we begin this enterprise?"
I shrugged disinterestedly.
Zeno stopped in shock. "You told her no?" His voice was filled with disbelief.
"Zeno ..." I sighed.
He clammed up, and we walked along in silence, but now he was sullen and depressed, too, so I was in excellent company. I knew I was going to get another lecture from him, but all I wanted to do was to return to the compound and crawl back into bed. There was too much that happened already this day, yet it wasn't even noon.
Tri kept giving me looks. I could feel it.
"What is it, Tri?" I asked.
She turned to Achilles and began to speak with him.
I sighed. "Tri," I interrupted, "you can speak your thoughts freely to me; anyone in my House will tell you this."
She looked to Achilles for confirmation. Achilles nodded.
Tri turned her focus to me. "I have a question ..." she began diplomatically.
I had gathered as much. I just nodded.
"Are you stupid because you're rich? Or were you born that way? Or did you have to work at it?" Her diplomacy had turned to bluntness.
Both Achilles and Theseus were pounding their thighs as they bellowed with laughter, nearly doubled over, caught by surprise with her words. Zeno, however, grimaced with a very sour expression on his face.
I sighed again. Why was it that I even got out of bed this morning?
Well, at least nothing else could make this day any worse, I thought ruefully.
It amazes me how wrong that thought was, given the events that immediately followed it. I should have learned by now not to tempt the Fates with thoughts like those, so obviously challenging their foresight.
Lady Melissa of Pittacus is named after the Greek goddess of the same name whose name meant "Honey bee" and who was the goddess of pain-free delivery during child-birth.
A cubit is about a half a meter (or a foot and a half in the Imperial system).
The Library of Alexandria (Egypt) was the central repository of knowledge of the Ancient world. They had a very clever method of acquisition: they would buy whatever writing they could from around the known world, then make an exact copy of that writing and return either the original or the copy, so the owner would get the money for their book and then eventually their book (or a copy of it) back. Needless to say, everyone was eager to send Alexandria their works.
The "Hymn to Aphrodite" that Lady Melissa quotes here is the only poem from Sappho that survives to this day in its entirety. It is indexed as Poem I of Sappho's corpus.
The northern city of Methymna had a leading role in Lesbos up until the seventh century B.C.E. Then the western city of Mytilene united all of Lesbos under its rule when it conquered Methymna's aspirations.
The myth of Cassiopeia is that her claim that her beauty rivals that of the goddesses so angered them that they enthroned her in the sky ... upside-down. The gods and goddesses in ancient times were a capricious, meddlesome, jealous lot, and provoking them was considered foolhardy.