Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Golden Fleas (1995)

This story was written on the island of Corfu, a rather idyllic summertime mostly spent walking on the beaches at sunset, hiking in the hills, puttering around on a moped, visiting the house of Lawrence Durell, reading books, drinking Retsina and taking the occasional boat trip to Paxos, Antipaxos and Albania.

The girl in the wood is playing her pipes. I want to chase her down the hill to the sea. My nature compels me to run after any woman who places lips to reed. But there is a haunting quality to her music, a spirit I have not heard for a long time. So I watch in mute appreciation, peeping at her from the depths of the olive grove.
     My fleas are troubling me again. "Hurry up, old fool!" they snarl. They make me dance; not to melody which would be welcome, but to pain. "Hurry up, looks like rain!" Sometimes they call me names. Their satire is always biting. "Somebody got your goat?"
     Once, like Marsyas, I challenged Apollo to a music-contest and lost. Rather than flaying me alive  the usual punishment for defeat  the archer-king cursed me with sentient fleas. I have to consult them on all topics. A condition of the curse is that I am not allowed to rid myself of the pests. I have to avoid water and take shelter in a cave when clouds knock together.
     Rain is sweet on Kérkira, as infrequent as the willing kiss of another man's wife. But I have to huddle under rock and wait. No dew must splash my legs, no juice dribble down my chin. Created by the god of light, my parasites are burnished gold. Water would wash the colour out of them. If this happened, Apollo would be displeased. My skin would make a rug for his burning feet.
     Yet I know I will be rescued one day. In dreams I see my saviour. He comes from a distant land on a fast ship. He combs the fleas from my fur and takes them back with him. Not even Apollo can oppose him. But his actions are founded on a misunderstanding. This life of ours is a harmony of mistakes, each blunder a note on the stave of reality. What my saviour does for me is not what he ought to do.
     I will say nothing, I will not betray my luck. On the slopes of my islands's highest peak, I gaze at Illyria's distant shore. The city of Butrint, full of cool stone and heated baths, nestles just beyond the range of my slitted eyes. There are only villages on Kérkira, the rude dwellings of a pastoral people. But we do have shrines where shepherds leave offerings to the nymphs and satyrs. The gods are given wine and honey, but we are content with milk and flowers.
     Apart from my fleas, I am plagued by another entity. A bronze man called Gnathon shares my domain. He tells me he was forged on Crete by Daedalus. Unsatisfied with the result, the great inventor cast him into the sea. For nine years his hollow body was buffeted by the waves before being washed onto one of our beaches. A crack in his mould means all the truth has leaked out of him. He can only tell lies. I am suspicious of his true origins. He talks to my fleas. "What a generous host you have!" And they, knowing his condition, appreciate the sarcasm.
     Gnathon insists that the girl in the wood, the lithe musician, is named Chloe. This means she is not. However, I have nothing else to go on, so I also decide to call her Chloe. Gnathon is as bewitched as I am. He is too ugly for her, I tell him. In return he praises my mild odour. Coming from a bronze liar this is a deadly insult. We wrestle in the dust, near a stream. My fleas warn me not to fall in. We are equals in strength and our struggles come to nothing. Exhausted, we lie back and pant our mutual hatred.
     Where does Chloe come from? She is too dark to be a native of this island. I think Egypt, where men worship cats and herons. Gnathon says from under the sea. He is a liar of little imagination. I want to burst into tears with the force of my emotion. I have never shed a tear, it is difficult with my eyes. But I hope one day to defy nature and drown my cheeks with the globules of feeling. Only after my saviour has removed my fleas will this be possible.
     It is difficult to follow Chloe after she has finished her music. She vanishes between the trees, slippery as olive-oil. I try to keep up with her. Always she stays ahead. It is like chasing your shadow. I fear I will never know anything about her. She is destined to be an enigma. I believe she has no home at all; perhaps she circulates around the isle like a cool breeze, never settling.
     I wonder what would happen if I caught her. Would she be repelled by my form? Every morning, Gnathon makes a new statement about her. He never tires of speculation. "She is celibate," he ventures. "She is a woman-lover." I am able to dismiss such possibilities as he raises them. If Gnathon claims she is celibate, she is not. I have made a list of her non-qualities; I lack only the truth.
     One afternoon, sitting on the long beach in the south-west of the island, I spy a distant sail. I jump up and dance on my hooves. It is my saviour! He is coming at last! I watch as the ship grows larger. Soon it is anchored in the shallows. My saviour leaps from the deck and wades towards me. I throw myself at his feet. He is wearing only one sandal. His limbs are the colour of bronze.
     "My name is Jason," he cries, "and I seek the golden fleas." There is a nobility about his bearing. For some reason I do not answer. What is wrong with me? Why do I not show him my parasites? He will comb them from my body and take them away. But I find it difficult to deceive him. His face is too trusting. Quite against my better judgment, I clasp him around the shoulder and whisper in his ear.
     I tell him he has made an error. I give him directions to his real destination. He is grateful. "What can I do for you in return?" he asks. I whistle the music of Chloe, a melody which burns my lips. Jason nods and strokes his beard. "That is not a real melody, but a ghost made of echoes. Someone has been playing music for too long. The new notes have entangled themselves in the old. Now they seek to escape each other and their struggles are poignant."
     I bow my head in shame at this. He is right; Chloe is no more than the phantom of my lost talent. This is why I will never be able to hold her in my hairy arms. Jason returns to his ship and disappears back over the lip of the world. I am left with nothing. I have missed my chance to rid myself of my fleas. They are relieved. "Blood is thicker than wine," they sneer. While I sit on the sand, arranging patterns of despair with driftwood, Gnathon comes up from behind.
     "You smell sweeter than ever," he says. "Chloe is sure to find your odour appealing." This is the final reed. Suddenly I am up and running. The howl at the back of my throat struggles to keep up. A woodsman's hut lies close. The fellow is enjoying an afternoon nap; his double-headed axe is left unattended. Before he can open his eyes, I have snatched it up and am racing back to the beach.
     Gnathon has followed me a little way into the wood. We meet in a glade. He lifts his bronze eyebrows in creaking bewilderment. "What are you doing?" He has little concept of anger. Bronze men are more familiar with disappointment. In his own dashed dreams Gnathon can dance all over the island. He is too heavy to pirouette. This impossible yearning is his one genuine desire.
     My first blow smashes a hole in his chest. Salty water sprays out into the scented undergrowth. I realise at once what has happened. I have already mentioned his crack. That nine year buffeting filled him with ocean. As I raise the axe a second time, he holds up a hand. "Do not do this. Your fur will be drenched with brine. Apollo remembers your sin." At this, my fears fall away. Then the archer-king has forgotten! I am free. At last, I burst into tears. This is the long-awaited prelude to real refreshment.
     My second blow widens the hole and the cold water washes away the grime of years. Even though this is a world of misery, things sometimes work out for the best. Gnathon is made lighter by my actions. Now he is no longer clumsy; his bronze legs have less weight to bear. He can skip and dance in the way he has always wished. And I am consoled by a rare metaphysical thought. If Chloe is just an echo of my talent, then I am a pre-echo of hers. Our minims can entwine, if not our limbs. Remember too that I have learned to cry.
     More importantly, at the instant of my dousing, the fleas jumped from my body onto Gnathon's. Because he is bronze and they are gold, they suit him more than me. And he is untroubled by their presence; he is too tough to bite. Indeed he welcomes their company, the sardonic conversations. As for the fleas, the situation is less pleasant. They know hunger and the loss of power.
     Out of the crying Pan and onto the liar.