Running with the Apis

Marcus Antonius pushed open the door to the Queen’s private chambers, sending the startled ladies in waiting and guards scurrying off. Even had he not been the Queen’s recent husband, they wouldn’t have opposed him: there was a dangerous, mad quality to his disheveled appearance, and Marcus well knew how to use the sword he carried always belted at his hip.

Marcus stumbled in, slammed the large, ornately wrought door closed, and then slumped against it, panting.

Kleopatra glanced up from her work – she was writing a philosophical treatise on the womanly arts of persuasion and cosmetics – and took in his massive frame. Marcus’ hair was in disarray, his ivy-crown hanging in tatters from his dark head. His khiton – no longer a Roman toga – hung loose about his waist, completely exposing his battle-scarred torso. It was torn and stuffed inside his sword-belt to keep it from falling off of him entirely, and there were plenty of wine stains and muck from the streets covering the once pristine fabric. His chest heaved; he seemed scarcely able to catch his breath. Dark shadows made his face resembled a death’s mask. His normal sun-browned flesh seemed pale even in the shadows of her chamber. He frightened her.

Kleopatra rose and rushed to his side. He collapsed into her arms and with great difficulty she managed to walk him over to the bed they now shared as man and wife. He fell back and lay staring up at the ceiling. With a moment of annoyance Kleopatra noted that they would have to get new sheets, because there would be no way to get the filth and sweat out of them now. She lay down beside him, pressing her slender body against his massive frame, and tried not to inhale too deeply.

“Are you okay, my husband? It is late. Where have you been this evening?”

From the looks of him, partying with their friends and then brawls in Alexandria’s back alleys. At least he didn’t stink of whores. This time. Kleopatra stroked the dark curls out of his eyes: his expression was vacant, haunted. For a moment she worried that he had lost his speech. She sat up and prepared to call for the court physician. Then his gravelly voice boomed in his chest, sounding like a lion’s rattling roar.

“I was running with the Apis.”

Kleopatra smiled. “No wonder you look exhausted – it is quite a journey from Memphis to Alexandria.”

Marcus’ lip curled up. “Do not mock me, woman.”

Kleopatra went cold at the lethal fury that shown in his eyes.

“I do not understand, my lord.” She whispered.

Marcus heaved a sigh. “Neither do I, my love. But it happened nonetheless.”

Kleopatra rested her hand on his chest comfortingly, felt its warmth rise and fall beneath her delicate fingers, and then whispered, “Go on. Tell me. I will not laugh.”

There was silence for a long while. Neither spoke. The only sound aside from their slow breathing was the guttering of the oil lamp’s flame on her writing desk. Then, finally, Marcus spoke, his voice hoarse from thirst.

“I stayed at the dinner-party after you left. The wine was too good, and the conversation even better. We were discussing Dionysos’ conquest of India, a topic that has been close to my heart, of course, ever since Ephesos.”

“You truly are the New Dionysos, my love.” Kleopatra’s hand slid down his chest, resting fondly on the swell between his legs. Normally this would have stopped all conversation and ended with them rolling together under the sheets. Instead he seemed not to notice.

“Like your father and Philopator before him.”

“Yes.” The mention of Auletes brought a sad smile to her lips. She had genuinely loved him, a rare enough occurrence among the Lagides.

“And before them Philadelphos and Soter too?”

“Yes. We are all descendents of Dionysos – his blood has flowed stronger with some than others, however.”

“Yes, and that is why you love me – isn’t it?”

“It is one of the reasons, yes.” Marcus Antonius was not as other men. His passions dwarfed theirs. His spirit loomed larger than other men’s, doing things they only dreamed of but lacked the courage to accomplish. Marcus felt things more strongly, was more sensual and decadent than anyone she had ever met – aside from herself. He was given to great kindness and generosity – to all he met, not just his friends – but when provoked to wrath, he was terrible, crueler than anyone had a right to be. If any single mortal exemplified the contradictory excesses of her people’s ancestral God – it was this man.

“My whole life has been lived under his shadow. Unconsciously I have acted out his myths through my campaigns, my feasting, my loving, my intense joy – and my volatile wrath. Tonight I finally understand why – and what the Ephesians meant when they gave me that title. I wonder if they even understood how right they were in bestowing that half-mocking epithet.”

“I do not understand. What happened?”

He happened – that is what. I met the God tonight, in a way I never have before. During the conversation about the Indian conquest, something stirred within my soul, something dark and ancient. The God within me awoke. I sat there for awhile, drinking, but it was not I who tasted the wine. I watched the drunken revelers, but it was not I who stared out of my eyes: it was the God, and he was wearing my body like a mask. I would speak, but it was not my words that poured out. I was merely an actor, reciting the lines scripted by another mind. The evening passed. More wine was drunk. I could not stop myself: cup after cup was drained by me and I hardly seemed to notice it. The topic changed. They began discussing the charms of the various whores down by the Pharos, and Octavian’s intrigues at Rome. I grew bored with their idle chatter. I got up, without so much as a parting word, and fled out into the night, not even stopping to grab my cloak.

“I fled into the darkness, desperate to be alone. Old friends hailed me on the street, asking where I was going. I rushed past, ignoring them. I left the familiar royal quarters of the city, the temples and shops and wealthier districts. I had no idea where I was going: my body carried me along, through dark alleyways and deserted thoroughfares. This city is different at night: it changes as the pimps and thieves and sailors come out. I don’t know if they recognized who I was, or if they feared the crazed look in my eye, but none of them hassled me. They stepped out of my way, even when the streets were narrow; they crowded together and whispered as I passed, making warding gestures against the evil that had so clearly taken possession of my soul.

“And they were wise to do so, for I was an animal in human guise, a beast hungry for blood and the crunch of bone beneath my fangs. Had any tarried across my path too long, or tried to give me trouble, I would have been on them in an instant, a ravening beast glorying in the tearing of flesh, the warmth of their blood spraying against my skin, their pitiful shrieks filling the night air. But they knew themselves to be prey and so stayed far from me.

“Finally the dreadful spirit inside me had reached its destination, alone in the night, in an empty quarter of the city, far from the prying eyes of mortals.

“I bent over, trying to catch my breath. At some point I must have been running. I had no idea where I was. Finally I glanced up – and that’s when I saw him: the bull. He was huge, his thick black frame blotting out the light around me. He was darker than night, but his eyes glowed more brightly than the moon. His hooves were made of fire, and the earth scorched wherever they touched. Plumes of smoke rose from his nostrils. He was staring directly at me: challenging me. I should have been afraid. He could have easily gored me with his massive horns or trampled me under his mighty weight. I felt no fear: my heart thundered with reckless pride to be in the presence of so majestic a creature. I met his gaze unflinchingly and accepted his challenge.

“I stood up tall, stretching my body out to its fullest. He dwarfed me, and yet I was proud of my masculine frame. I showed my teeth, giving back my own challenge. He snorted once, the sound a rumble I could feel through the earth, accepting my challenge, and then he turned and began to run. I understood immediately: I was to chase him.

“Despite his size, the bull was fast, faster than he should have been. In moments he was almost out of my sight.

“Growling like a wild beast, I gave chase. I had no idea what I would do once I caught him. I was intoxicated with the frenzy of the hunt: it impelled me on, unthinking.

“As I ran, I felt the power of the God stir once more within me. I reveled in the unbridled strength that coursed through my body; the blood pumping through my veins; my muscles stretching as my lithe limbs carried me forward. I knew myself to be a man in that moment, a great man capable of great deeds. I felt alive, in a way that made everything before seem like a pitiful dream. I have had moments where I glimpsed something of what it is to be alive – in battle or while making love – but here it was in its fullness, not just a fleeting image. This all came to me afterwards: at the time there was no room for thought, even thoughts such as these. My mind completely shut down: I was a creature of pure instinct; relying on my body to find its own way through the narrow streets, leaping automatically over rubbish in my way, darting down an alley when the bull changed its course at the last moment. I had no doubts, no troubling questions about my place in the world: I knew exactly why I existed – to catch this bull!

“Everything else fell away, vanished into the darkness, until the world consisted of nothing more than the bull and myself. All I could see was the bull before me, shining brilliantly with life in the shadows. Never before had I seen anything as beautiful as him: not a fleet of ships, not the work of Pheidias, not even you, my beloved. His hulking frame transfixed my gaze. I marveled at how his tautly muscled legs found their way unerringly through the narrow streets with a dancer’s agility; those fearful horns which existed for the sole purpose of rending flesh; those glowing eyes in whose depths all the secrets of the world are kept. And I knew that this was no ordinary bull – this was Apis, the God; Apis who contains the abundant fertility of the Nile within him; Apis who makes the grass green, the fruit to swell on the branch, the ripe corn to spring forth that men might have food for their bellies; Apis who fills the women with lust; Apis in whose movement the motion of the cosmos is manifest; Apis, power in its most primal, procreative form. Apis is life itself – and without him, no man rules. Rulership, in fact, is nothing more than harnessing the power of this God and learning to direct it outwards into the world. Without thinking about this, I understood all of it – and I knew that I had to capture the Apis bull. I had to possess him, consume him, become him.

“And so, even though my limbs were growing tired from the chase, my heart beating dangerously in my chest, my breath beginning to come with more difficulty – I dug deep and found even further resources of power within myself to continue on. I blocked out the pain. I ignored my aching body. I channeled everything I had into the race – and my focus narrowed even further, thoughts of the race and of my desire to catch Apis falling away until he and I existed alone. Just us. The Apis and I. I and the Apis. As he ran, I ran. As he breathed, I breathed. As he snorted, I too snorted. No longer was there distance between us – we were one soul in two bodies, mirror images of each other.

“And then I understood: Dionysos was the Apis, and I was Dionysos. I was chasing myself, and this race between us was an ancient ceremony, as old as time, and it had been performed many times before, and it would be performed again many times after I had completed it. This is how the King is chosen, how he shows himself worthy to rule. He must race the bull and in the process become the bull himself. The race awakens the sleeping God within him, rouses the bull and all of its bountiful powers into life. Not all who start on the path, however, succeed. They must be able to shut off their minds, trust completely in their bodies, which is where the power of the God resides. If fear or indecision or their doubting mind takes hold, they will fall and be trampled beneath the hooves of the bull. They must permit themselves to exist in the perfect moment of the chase, all else closed off to them. Only then will they discover that they are in actual fact the bull themselves, and understand how to direct the power of the bull into the land to promote fertility and to bring peaceful harmony to the realm. I understood this as I ran without understanding it, and I did not let that knowledge distract me.

“And as I chased the bull I felt the presence of others chasing the bull with me. Your father – and all of your ancestors going back to Ptolemy. And before him Alexander. And before him Theseus and Minos, and the Kings of Egypt, stretching back to the dawn of time. Each had performed this ceremony, some succeeding, others not. And I realized that in some sense, each of us was the same man, runningthis same race, in the same place, at the same time, and I could feel their thoughts in my head, and knew their experiences to be my own. How many times had I chased this bull, acting out this ancient ceremony? How many times would I do so again, in how many different forms? And then I came to realize that I was no longer chasing the bull through the streets of Alexandria – I was somewhere else, somewhere much older, much darker. I was chasing him through the labyrinth at Krete – and the bull was in reality the Minotaur. Apis was Dionysos and Dionysos was the Minotaur – and I was both the Minotaur and Theseus. And we never got out. We were still in the labyrinth, and always will be. The world is nothing more than the labyrinth and the bull chases himself around in it, dreaming sometimes that he is a monster, sometimes that he is a God, and sometimes that he is a man.

“He dreams himself many different lives, and he lives each one out fully as he dreams it. Some are joyful, some sorrowful, some full of unrivaled glory – others lived in total obscurity. But in every life there is the chasing of the bull, because he desires to know himself. It always comes back to that because all that exists is the labyrinth and the bull. Everything else is just a dream. Everything else except one other – the one who loves the bull, Ariadne, the Mistress of the Labyrinth. She is there dreaming too. And when he is not busy chasing himself through the winding passageways, he seeks her out. And when he finds her, he gives her his crown, places it in the heavens for her, and they love each other, until they fall asleep and forget who they are. But when they awake, they always find each other again, because they are the only two people in existence. Sometimes he wakes first and finds her; sometimes it is she that rouses him from slumber. She was Isis when he was Osiris; he was Haides when she was Kore. As Alexander he found her both as Olympias and Hephaistion. They were brother and sister as Philadelphos and Arsinoe, but that did not stop them from loving each other – and why should it, since they were the only real ones, and all else but a dream? He put her star-crown up in the sky as Berenike’s lock. And he has been both Auletes and Caesar – and now me, dear. He has finally reawakened as me – and you are my beloved Ariadne. I would recognize you no matter how much your form has changed. I will love you forever. And when we die and our form changes shape once more – I will seek you out in the labyrinth, no matter what new flesh you wear.”

All the while Kleopatra had sat quietly listening to her husband share his mad story at a feverish pitch, the words pouring forth like wine from an upturned vessel. Mad it must be: how could this man be both her father and Caesar, since all three were contemporaries – let alone all the rest of it? She was uncertain what to say to that, but figured that she ought to say something, that her continued silence might set him off, and she feared the madness in his eyes. She was trying to find the right words, words that would seem comforting and supportive and not provoke him, when Marcus picked up the thread of his narrative once more, oblivious to her troubled expression.

“It was then that I noticed that the bull was no longer in front of me, leading the chase. He was nowhere to be seen in fact. I was running wild through the streets, alone as I must be alone in the labyrinth. I slowed down to a trot and then a leisurely stroll and finally came to a stop altogether. I found myself somehow in Rhakotis – what winding path or twist of fate had led me here I could not say. I made my way up to the great temple of Serapis there. The forecourt was abandoned, naturally enough since the hour was so late, but I stood outside and stared up at the massive edifice and the ancient statues that lined the path up to the temple doors, a mixture of Greek and Egyptian, as everything in this city is a hybrid of the two.

“I was out of breath, my body exhausted from the run, my clothing torn and falling off of my body from stumbles I do not remember taking. My mind was reeling from all the things I had learned. And yet, despite it all, I had never felt so alive, so full of wild energy, so unabashedly a man. The pulse of life echoed in my ears – not just my life, but all life. I could feel the priests inside the temple, some sleeping, others rousing themselves in preparation for their morning duties in the sanctuary. I felt the lives of all the people nearby, safe asleep in their beds, dreaming or stumbling home from a night of revelry. And I felt you, so far away here in the royal palaces – beautiful and shining more brightly than all the other lives.

“And I felt all these individual lives, thin streams, flowing together into a single great river, and I realized that the Nile is the earthly image of the spiritual river of life. And when the spiritual river wanes or grows sluggish, the earthly Nile recedes – but when the spiritual river is strong, the Nile overflows its banks, flooding the earth and filling it with bountiful life. And it is the duty of the King to make the river strong, through his person, through his power, through his ability to direct and control others. He must do things to promote life, to enhance the lives of his subjects, to make them whole, healthy, and vibrant – communing with the Gods of life, the source of life, in order to add to the streams that flow into the great spiritual river, making it bountiful so that the earthly river, too, will become bountiful. This is the sole function of the King – he exists for no other purpose, and no other can perform this duty, for the King stands midway between Gods and mortals. He is the bridge between the worlds, uniting the two lands within himself. The running of the Apis is how he proves himself – but it is also how he channels the energy of life, making it flow and move, making the two rivers that are one race along their course and flood the earth, infusing it with life and bringing forth its material bounty in the form of the fruit and grain and newborn animals. Wherever his feet set in the race, life springs up.

“And how is this possible? Why can the King do this – and no other? Because the King is dead. (As he races with the Apis, he is racing with death. The labyrinth is just a dream too: in reality, the bull-God-man is laying in the underworld, a corpse.) The dead, too, reside midway between Gods and mortals. The King is a vessel for the dead, who dwell within him. Inside the King are all the thousands upon thousands of the dead – they direct his every thought and action. I understood this as I stood before the great Serapeion. I understood what Serapis is: he is the dead King, the King of all the dead. The spirits of every Apis bull, the spirits of all the Kings that have come before, they are united in Serapis, combined into a single living form, for Serapis is the tomb of the Apis, the living bull in death, the dead bull in life. And Serapis is the current King, whoever that is. (Which is why people’s accounts of Serapis are constantly changing – for he shifts depending on who embodies him.) And in that moment, I learned so much more about what it means to be King.

“The King is the door through which the dead can act in this world, of which they are no longer a part. He unites the world of mortals with the dead; the realm of the Gods with the material plane. He is the pivot of the wheel, upon which all things depend. Through him the prayers of people pass upwards to the Gods; through him the blessings of the Gods descend to mortals. He must make the way clear – he himself must be pure and fit – because when things are blocked, there are famines and war and suffering and death. Everything in the world is a reflection of what is going on inside the King – and everything within the King reflects what is in the world.

“And that, my beloved, is all that I can say. There was more – oh, so much more! – but I am sure that I already sound a madman raving in his delusion. I am tired, my love. So tired.”

He collapsed at that, the manic spirit that kept him animated while he poured out his tale in one long, feverish burst vanishing on the wind. His eyes closed, and moments later his breathing deepened and sleep claimed Marcus.

Kleopatra sat beside him, unmoving. She did not wish to disturb her husband – was unsure what strange thing would be unleashed upon her if she did. She felt herself to be in shock, as if a great violent storm had just passed through, uprooting and destroying everything. She wasn’t entirely sure what had just happened, how she was supposed to take the marvelous tale Marcus had just relayed to her. Was there something to it? Was he completely insane? Parts of it felt real to her – some of the things he said only a true King of Egypt might know – and a glimmer of hope stirred within her. Though her brother Ptolemy had been crowned Pharaoh, he had never been King. He was a foolish, power-mad boy, who did not understand what the office entailed. But now… she wondered. Did this strange Roman, this profligate adulterer, this violent brute whom she had seduced for power but come to love over time – did he finally understand? He seemed to. And how glorious that would be, for Egypt to have a true King once more. Together they would make the land strong again, drive out the Romans, re-conquer all the territories that her ancestors had claimed… and perhaps more. And yet… other parts of his story seemed utter foolishness to her, bizarre and jumbled ramblings, like one hears from the beggars on the street or the recluses who have spent too long in the Serapeion at Memphis.

War was brewing with Octavian. It was only a matter of time now – and she wondered how Marcus would stand up. He had proven himself on the field of battle numerous times before, in Spain, Italy, and the east. He had been Caesar’s right hand man and chosen successor before that conniving whelp of Atia had schemed his way into the succession. He was a strong, courageous man – but also a man with great weaknesses which crept up from time to time. And what she had seen tonight made her worry all the more. Was he falling apart? Had he lost his mind? How would he ever compete with Octavian, who for all his failings was a shrewd tactician and a deadly opponent to Egypt’s interests?

But what if his visions were real?

What if …?

Kleopatra worried, and morning light filled her chamber before sleep finally found her.

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