O Aetolian Muse, with voice clear and rushing as the Achelous,
sing to me a song of the blessed Kalydonians who once were known as Kouretes
and fought at Troy with Thoas the bull-strong king, before they fell to Octavian, sacker of cities,
he who harshly drove them from their ancestral soil to populate Nikopolis,
crowning his victory over ill-fated Mark Antony with a newfound city of marble.
Avoid the well-trod path, which leads into the high mountains where the best of Minyans
were bested by the indomitable huntress in slaying the great-tusked boar who ravaged the land,
born in the wrath of the Virgin when the wine-besotted king forgot to hail the Lady of the bow and the golden throne
during his harvest feast for the hill-gods – all men know that story already.
What is this that you show me, Nympha?
Her hair is brown as the food of bees after they have gathered pollen from the purple mallow;
her eyes are brighter still, like a bronze shield carried by a valiant soldier,
like the sun reflecting off a still lake at noontide.
Her cheeks are white, except when she blushes modestly,
eager to avoid the gaze of any man not of her family, as is right for a maiden of proper upbringing,
and soft as the wool she busies her bird-delicate fingers with at the loom.
She has breasts like ripe quinces, the kind of slim ankles that set Smyrnaeans to drooling
and feet made for dancing round maiden dances.
Oh, I’m sick with longing! Sweating, feverish, I cannot feast or drink my wine
or think of anything but those soft lips touching mine
– love’s god has me bound in his net and is spinning me in circles,
and I, I am powerless to resist.
Not I, you say, but Koresos who wears the goat-skin and buskins holy to Bakcheios,
it is he whose passion has taken hold of my breast. Despite his high office he is the most wretched of men
for the fair Kallirhoë doesn’t even know he exists. It’s worse than that you say?
She knows but feels only disdain.
She looks up her nose – that perfect nose – when he passes by,
contemptuous of his ample belly and balding pate, his gentle spirit, always ready with a laugh
and a kind word for those in need, how he spends his time when not conducting mystic rites
with a hubbub of books by Melampous and Orpheus and writing doggerel verse
rather than in bellowing Enyo’s vanguard or the palaestra of Hermes and Herakles.
And oh, oh like a dagger through the heart
– what wicked things she says about him when she thinks him out of earshot.
He would not make a better lady-in-waiting than a lover, I’ll have you know.
Koresos is quite accomplished in that regard,
with tens of conquests under his straining belt!
But it makes no difference.
Even if I, I mean he, dredged up the courage to say something
she would not hear, does not care.
There he is, come as a suppliant to the altar where often the man has burned an oxen’s fatty thigh-bone
and poured countless cups of wine into Dionysos’ ever-burning flame.
He places his crown of office upon the ground, prostrates himself and kisses the sacred earth,
tears falling like a Zeus-sprung autumn storm.
His grief is too great for words but Dionysos hears what is in our hearts
and Koresos knows not joy; life is wasted on him. Secretly he wishes to become a second Iphigeneia,
freed from this grievous, wearying circle as his black blood spills out in a final offering
to the tyrant of the flute. And in his own heart Dionysos contrives.
Why show me this? Must I look on? This is not the song I had in mind.
What in Haides is that? It looks like a woman, but what woman bends that way?
She’s on her back, arched impossibly, her whole body supported
on her weirdly contorted limbs, fingers straining under the weight
– Kastor and Polydeukes! She moves! Like a black nightmare, a scurrying spider,
the woman moves about the room, terrifying everyone in the hovel.
She’s not alone. Her sister is in the corner, hair loose and gown smudged with dirt,
thrashing about like a spinning top, crashing into the wall, collapsing, and then leaping up to do it again.
Their mother is squatting beside the snuffed out hearth, completely naked,
breasts pendulous as she whips her head up and down and side to side
caught in a violent frenzy, crooning along to a song none of us can hear.
No one is able to help or stop them for the men of Kalydon are all occupied
as the same scene plays itself out in every house, sometimes worse. Much worse.
I don’t comprehend – an oak? A vast, ancient oak,
black doves, unshorn men whose feet have never known the shoe,
and the voices of shining day and the mother of waters whispering through the leaves.
What does this mean? Oh, I see.
The Kalydonians have sent sacred envoys to neighboring Dodone,
there to discover which god or goddess they have offended and how they might end the plague of madness
which has laid their dear city low. The interpreter speaks, though it is clear he would rather not deliver such tidings
– divine vengeance can only be bought with Kallirhoë, peerless in grace, or someone willing to be slaughtered in her place.
And it is fated for none but pious Koresos to do the deed.
Like a hungry beggar Koresos went door to door, pleading with his neighbors to show rare courage and patriotism
and take this terrible burden upon their shoulders, freeing the womenfolk from their hysterical plight and more
– sparing Koresos the odious task of mangling the lovely flesh of lovely Kallirhoë.
Every door was slammed in his face, even the door of Kallirhoë’s own kin.
Her very father said she squirted from my loins, so what care I? I’ll just make another.
Koresos bloodied the man’s nose and then returned to the temple, an idea brewing in his brain.
The following day Koresos called the Kalydonians to the altar of Dionysos,
where stood Kallirhoë in gleaming white and a crown of fig-leaves and myrtle.
Beside her was Koresos in his handsomest robes,
a sad but resigned smile upon his face.
He sang a hymn to his god and the whole crowd listened,
moved to tears by the beautiful words and the passion in his voice.
Kallirhoë was moved and for the first time saw that Koresos, too, was fair.
And then the priest took a knife from the wicker basket,
where it had been stored with the ball and the mirror and other holy implements,
and he said, “Though your heart was like an empty pithos, cold and stony, mine burns fiercely enough for the both of us.”
He drew the sharp blade across his own throat, gurgled wetly and then fell limp onto the altar.
Kallirhoë shrieked in remorse; no one in the city cared one whit about her,
even her father would rather see her dead than be inconvenienced.
But gentle Koresos, learned in mystic lore and always ready with a laugh and a kind word for those in need,
whom oft she had ignored and reviled, he alone was mindful of her welfare.
She tore the crown from her head, ripped it to shreds and wailed,
beat her breast as the tears streamed down her bone-pale cheeks and wailed,
collapsed to the ground, clutching his corpse to her, and wailed.
To no avail though, for the tragic Dionysos arranged all this in answer to his faithful priest’s prayer,
and he delivers even more than asked for.
For an epilogue, you show me disheveled Kallirhoë wandering down by the harbor of Kalydon,
kneeling in front of a spring of fresh water, said by some to be a door that leads to the world below,
holding the terrible knife that took Koresos’ life in her fist, and she plunged its blade deep into her chest,
piercing her own heart as the sharp prong of Eros pierces – then she is gone, sunk into the water.
Happy lovers, forever united in death, the two of them lay together on a couch and sip wine from the same cup
in Ariadne’s nuptial bower at the heart of the labyrinth.
Very well, O daughter of Mnemosyne, I shall take all of this and weave it into a tapestry of song
that the world might know the tale of Kallirhoë and her beau Koresos,
witnesses to the irresistible might of Dionysos’ contrivances.