By Sonia Sulaiman.
The little boy raised an umbrella over his head and looked out over the sea. His clothes were tattered, loose stitches of what had been a carefully sewn tunic and pants. His hair was like a bird’s nest. His feet were torn and blistered. The rain swept down in sheets that shimmered and waved across land and sea alike. The boy walked on, down a long winding road of stones and sticks. It climbed limestone bones and terraces with trees aflame and broken. He stopped to look at these, his face to the fires, his back to the sea. Water and fire warred together, and the sky was brightened by the flashes of lighting coursing through the clouds that hung low like a shroud on the land. It was half-light, either dawn or dusk. The weather was wrong and unnatural. The boy looked on with ageless eyes in a face that had the freshness of only ten years under the sun.
He went where his tired feet directed him. If there were three gods following his step, that was not his concern; they could offer him no blessing he did not already possess. If they chose to throw obstacles in his path, he would climb over them step by painful step. He had faith not in gods, but in himself.
These gods were not the Fates, but it wouldn’t matter if they were; he would defy them too. It wasn’t that he was proud, that he thought himself special from the rest of humanity. He defied because he had to survive. One of these gods ruled the sea, while the other claimed all under the skies, and the third said to hold the honour of embodying the virtue of wisdom.
He had been ten for a very very long time now. He was ten years old when he was born, and at the same moment, he lost everything. He fled his home- he had no choice- and became a refugee. He would remain ten years old until he returns home again. Some fine day the rain would end, and he would grow up. He grimly carried on, allowing joy to steal in despite the harrowing path of his tender feet.
Now, let me tell you something, before we go any further. It’s an old story that you should keep in mind when you hear about this boy’s adventure with the gods. In the old days, a city rose to look down at a rich land and a deep and dark sea. They used to believe it was the first of all cities, but that wasn’t true; the residents only wanted to believe they were the first to solve the problems- and create more- that we call ‘Civilization.’ And although that city was thriving and their king (a man who was also a snake) had created many firsts that were the bedrock of their way of living, they had no patron god. Don’t ask why they needed one, the story doesn’t say. It comes from a time when everyone had a patron god and so it was only natural that in the First of all Cities, they yearned for a god to complete them. It was all very neat: first city, first customs, first marriages, and first patron. Simple. Elegant.
And way back when, the gods that came to that city were eager to compete with each other. Two came forward: an uncle and niece. Poseidon would have been an excellent choice for the young city that would one day rule much of the known world through the might of its navy, but unfortunately for him, he was the butt of this story. The national narrative pranked the god; they said he gifted the city with a salt water spring. Useless. Someone must have clapped weakly at the spectacle. He wasn’t very happy with the reception of his miracle and flooded part of the surrounding countryside, just to show them.
Athene was not an agricultural goddess, but a patron of heroes and technology. Nevertheless, it was fitting that she should win. The national narrative drove on by what had already happened: she was already the city’s patron when this so-called contest began. But it would be inconvenient to acknowledge that she was already the city’s patron, and it would make the story complex. Inelegant. So, Athene gifted the city with something that was not really hers to give: a new kind of tree. The tree was a wonder: the Olive. It provided fuel and food. It would be the companion to the engineers blessed by the goddess, lighting their endeavors and greasing their mechanisms. Wondrous indeed!
So, what does this have to do with the little raggedy orphan and his umbrella? He was in danger of becoming a symbol. A symbol around which a national narrative would be built. If you like, you could say that it was this peril that drew the gods to him in the first place. Among these gods, there were two brothers and a daughter: Poseidon and Athene, but also Zeus. The three drew up short when they saw the boy, the boy with a face like the risen sun. Invisible and ethereal, the gods were everywhere and nowhere all at once and so for the present they were invisible to the boy.
“A child,” said Zeus. “Of course. If we endow this mortal with blessings, and observe how their fate is changed by them, we will at last know which of us grants the best of blessings. Let this adventure be how we settle our dispute.”
“I would prefer bloodshed, I could make your grizzled beards run red, if I must,” said Athene who, piqued, was not feeling especially filial toward her father and uncle in that moment.
“My darling,” said Zeus. “Always so quick to anger. It’s what I love about you, my sweet.”
Poseidon only nodded his head. And these gods took the forms of three travelers, which was very like them. They often disguised themselves as mortal travellers whenever they wanted to test humanity. Poseidon and Zeus wore grey suits with their hattas on their heads, their keffiyehs flapping in the wind as it swept in off the sea. Athene walked beside them, her long thobe trailing in the dirt of the road. It was richly embroidered, a regal testament of her own mastery of technology and art, united in silk and velvet.
“Boy,” said Zeus. “It looks like hard times have fallen upon you. Where are your parents? Your family—your friends?”
“I’m alone,” said the boy.
“We would like to do something for you,” said Poseidon. “Would you accept some gifts from strangers?”
The boy thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t have anyone else to give me gifts anymore,” he said. “But what’s in it for you?”
Athene smiled, charmed. “We can’t decide who among us can give the most, the best gift. So we decided to give them all to you and… see what happens.”
“See what happens?” asked the boy.
“You don’t need to be wary of these gifts,” said Zeus. “They are true blessings. You could say that there are none more direct and purer than the gifts we have to share with you. What do you say?”
“It’s strange,” said the boy. “Why are you choosing me? Are you taking pity on me because I’m an orphan and alone? You say you’re not taking advantage of me, but you wouldn’t just admit to it, if you were; that doesn’t make any sense. But, on the other hand, there can’t be any harm in listening to what you have to say to me.”
“Are you sure you’re a child of but ten years?” asked Poseidon.
“Maybe these gifts of yours would do more harm than good? How would I know that they would be of any use to me?” The boy did not let up.
Zeus held up a hand. “You are alone and poor, and you have the nerve to argue with your benefactors, and at your age too?”
Athene tilted her head. “It is as you say, you could just listen to what we have to say on this matter before you accept our gifts.”
Taking the initiative, Athene stepped forward to begin her case. The goddess walked over to the side of the outcropping. She made a divot in the soil and a sapling grew out of it. The tree that matured before their eyes was gnarled and squat, clutching the rocky soil with tenacious roots. It rapidly expanded, becoming a sun shade where there had been none. It was an olive tree.
“I’ll tell you what the real gift is. It’s the one that is projected of its own accord in the centuries of your wandering: a symbol of resistance and persistence. Its oil provides you with an inner light, a hope in the darkness of the many days and nights to come.
“This light will be lit from generation to generation on those special days when you celebrate and the joy of this light will shine from many lamps of dazzling colours. Its wood will be made into rosaries that you can use to count your days, the days of exile until they end. Their marbled beauty will be the joy of your craftsmanship and artistry.
“The tenacity of this tree inspires and nourishes your inborn stubbornness, refusing to be uprooted and refusing to die. It is a bastion of strength and resilience.”
The boy replied to the goddess: “You’re offering me a symbol of what I already have? How will this symbol help me to return home? That is all that matters to me. Memories of festivals and joy in my homeland may bring me some comfort on this lonely road, it’s true. Yours is an enduring and sensible gift, I suppose. But is that enough for you? I have a feeling that isn’t what you really want out of this contest. Or does winning matter so much that you don’t care if I’m not exactly enthusiastic about your offer? Let me be clear: it’s a symbol of what I already am. And I’m in danger of becoming a symbol myself. So, a symbol of a symbol. Isn’t that ridiculous on some level?”
“But you aren’t a symbol,” said Athene. “You are a real child, orphaned and dispossessed. This is the material reality, and I recognize it. I sympathize with your plight; can’t you see that?”
“You care,” said the boy. “But why? What is in it for you?”
“How young to be so cynical!” exclaimed Athene. “Has the world taken such a toll on you that you’re no longer a child in mind? Truly, this is a pitiful situation.”
“And that’s the problem,” said the boy. “I don’t need your pity; I need an ally. And that means you will have to give up something; some of your power and position to repair what is broken, to bring the world back into tune. Only then, when I can go home again, will I be able to grow up. I want to be an old man one day, and have a new generation to protect and guide as best I can, with what little wisdom I have by then.”
“You’re trying to barter with a goddess?!” the goddess shook her head. “It’s unbelievable!”
The goddess’ gift had multiplied over and over until a grove of olive trees, stately and fruitful, stood a short distance away. In her fury, the goddess rushed at the trees. She screamed a war cry and hacked off their limbs with her spear. They sheared off, thrown in all directions, helplessly falling to the ground. Still screaming, she glared at the twisted trunks and they erupted into flame. The wood was devoured from the inside out. The branches crackled as the inferno spread, setting the grass alight. She hadn’t broken a sweat, and the whole grove was destroyed, a smoking heap of ruin. Greasy black clouds of smoke spread up into the sky.
“I didn’t want to do this, but I had to. You are so obstinate! See what you’ve made me do!”
The boy looked on at the glare from the fires. He took a step toward the blaze, his hands unlocked and seeking. Then he tucked them back behind him and turned away, his face thrown into shadow.
“Yes, you can cry about the destruction you’ve caused,” said the goddess. “Nothing will bring the trees back!”
“I made you do nothing; you chose to destroy. All I did was question you,” said the boy. “You are the one who couldn’t stand a child asking you to account for your behavior and so you’ve made everything worse!” The boy pointed at the rapidly blackening trees. “Those were living beings. Blessings, like you said. They deserve better than this, and so do I.”
“I think we’re done here,” said Athene. “You’ve refused my blessing, and so I leave you with a curse instead. It’s so easy for us: blessing and cursing as we please. That should be a lesson to you, not to push your weight around.” She laughed lightly, cruelly. She walked back to stand with her father and uncle. Her face was reddened and she trembled with fury as she tried in vain to calm herself. It was so unseemly to be made so angry by a pathetic orphan.
As you may have guessed by now, the gods are petty and volatile, for all their supposed agelessness, perfection and wisdom. The weaker their opponent, the more galling it is to find their power shrugged off and ignored. They can’t stand to be made a mockery of most of all. And the power difference between Athene and the boy was so stark, all of her pride was surfacing in the ugliest and most transparent ways.
Poseidon stepped up and leaned in close to the boy. Throwing out his arm, he took in the vast deep dark Mediterranean beyond and said:
“Wherever my waves break upon the shore, there you will be. The world will be open for you, a network of sea-roads, from sea to ocean to arterial rivers.
“Just think of all of the places you will stand, because of this gift of waters. All of the winds, and the four directions will open for you. Currents will drive you on, ever on, to meet peoples and the vast bosom of the earth. It all awaits to welcome you: the greatest of all adventures lies at your feet
“The far horizon is my gift to you, the space between you and that threshold will elide. You, who seem like the risen sun, will be destined to see further and further shores. Islands, continents, worlds! A dizzying array of experiences and ventures. These worlds will break open and be generous to you with their bounty of sensation– if you do not find safe harbour here, there’s always somewhere else. Other minds to know, and scenes to see! The sea-roads are your inheritance!”
The boy rubbed his chin. “That may be, that may not be. I have traveled many sea-roads, and met many minds and places on this dark earth.” The boy lifted a foot with its bruises and blisters. “It seems to me that I already have your gift. But it is a strange sort of blessing. It is as I thought; there is good and bad that comes mixed into it. I will not always be welcome, and I will often be tired, beaten, and hungry. Alone.”
Poseidon did not know what to say, and so he turned his back on the boy and stood leaning on his trident, staring pensively out over the waves.
The waves roiled and surged, and slowly the sea was rising. Before he knew it, the boy was staring down a great wall of water. The god turned toward him. His empty hand reached out and struck the boy across the face. To the god’s astonishment, the boy was not thrown to the ground by the blow- the strike of a god. He took it. And as he took it, the boy also turned and threw all of that force right back at Poseidon. This time, the god was so shocked, so unprepared that he faltered. “You—” he stammered. His divine face was red and dark with the beginning of a bruise. Behind him, the wall of water- a tsunami that would have easily snuffed out the life of the little boy- gently dissipated. It was an unnatural sight. But then, it was an unnatural tsunami.
“He—” the god continued to splutter, this time turning to Zeus, his brother. “He struck me! This mortal dared to strike out at a god! I demand justice!”
“I returned the strike you made,” said the boy. He was still scruffy, his face marred by streaks of mud. The cheeks were sunken, but showed absolutely no sign of the god’s strike. “Everyone witnessed it. You were going to kill me, thinking I was easily broken.” The god stared down at the boy, somehow Poseidon was growing even more enraged by the minute. Then the god broke into sobs. He fell to his knees and reached out to Zeus, imploring him.
“He struck me!” repeated Poseidon. “He struck me on the face! He— he bruised me!” Zeus stood still, allowing his brother to twine his arm around his leg, his other arm outstretched, the hand reaching out to touch Zeus’ beard. It was a formal petition. A supplication. Zeus could not deny the request, even if he had wanted to. “Justice,” said Poseidon pathetically. “I demand justice.”
“He struck a god,” said Athene playing the impartial voice of wisdom. “It is your place to judge gods and men, of course.” She had completely forgotten her offer to settle her dispute with her father and uncle by cracking their skulls open. Now she was the very ideal of a filial daughter and niece. “I witnessed it, and you can see the bruise as well as I.”
“I’m a child, and you’re a god. You struck me and so I struck you back.”
“You’re a little snake!” hissed Athene, the holy olive trees still smoldering on the hillside. “And you don’t talk like you are ten years old! You don’t act like you’re ten years old! If you were allowed to roam free, there isn’t a god who wouldn’t live in terror of your venomous behaviour! You would contaminate other mortals with your impiety and endanger all Olympus!”
“This is incredible,” said the little boy. “Yet, somehow, I am not surprised. Don’t ask me how that can be.”
Zeus frowned and stepped out of his brother’s hold.
“We have another matter to settle first,” said Zeus raising his hand to quiet his brother and daughter. We have yet to determine which of us can provide this child with the best of blessings.”
Zeus left Athena’s side and stood in front of the little boy with the threadbare clothes. He gave a wan smile and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder affectionately. The child looked impassively on the paternal gesture.
“My gift to you is the storms and their rains. When the opening rains come, the year will roll, and the land will come back to life for you. Take a look at the wetness that comes down from Heaven! Even in their graves, even the Dead will be refreshed by the gathering rainwater that will come from my storms! Unlike the lands of other peoples and places where canals and irrigation make the land prosperous and fruitful, your land will rely on the Heavens to bring a drink of fresh clean water to the hills. Man and beast and every green thing will be refreshed.”
The boy fixed Zeus with a glare. “I know it’s rude to interrupt,” he said. “What you speak of is not a gift you’re giving me. It’s a reminder of what I’ve lost. And, believe me, I don’t need a reminder; the land is always with me- I am a part of it, do you understand? It does not belong to me, but I belong to it. As for your storms, where I’ve been and where I’ll go, they can be really bad: cold and harsh and painful. I can’t see what’s so much like my home being gently watered by the rains in the hurricane and the tornado…”
“In that case,” said Zeus. “All I can offer is a love for the land–”
“I have that too. How can I not love the land that gave me life and sustains me, even in exile? It’s really frustrating how those who have the most power are so deficient in common sense!”
“Then, a love for the scent of water on the earth. Fleeting and always to be remembered, wherever you roam.”
“And how is that going to help me get home?” said the boy. “You’ve watched the other gods offer me symbols and fine things as far as mixed blessings are concerned. And still you offer something even more useless to me, all the while saying you are my benefactor?”
Zeus raised his hand. It shook. His face worked and he lowered his hand with effort. “Fine. Since you have spurned the help and friendship of all of us, let us see to the matter of your distasteful and divisive nature.” Poseidon and Athene nodded together as they stood side by side on the shore. A great storm bled into the skies above, overshadowing the thick smoke from the olive grove. Livid lightning ran through the clouds and struck down at the land and sea.
“It is time for justice to rain down,” said Athene. “Divine, perfect justice which belongs only to the gods.”
“What are you going to turn him into?”
“A snake, of course,” said Athene. “What else?”
“I’m not going to turn him into anything…” Zeus paused. “What did you say you were,” he asked.
“I’m just a boy.”
“How can you be a boy if you have defied time itself, and remain ten years old for decades as it seems from the way you argue with us?”
“I’m included out, and excluded in,” was the response from the boy. “A lot of people want me to disappear, but I won’t.”
“You’re impossible,” said Zeus in wonder. There was no hint of malice in his voice. “A mortal who is beyond my…” he looked askance at Poseidon and Athene. He shook his head and muttered again: “he can’t exist!”
“He doesn’t exist,” said Athene. Poseidon looked at the other two and then nodded slowly. “There never was such a boy. There never will be.”
Storm clouds spread and curled darkly through the skies. Black plumes of smoke and tongues of flame made the sky look like the End of Days had finally come. The grove of olives threw abundant light, a horrid light, a sickening glow. It was all wrong. But it was what the gods had done to Nature, all because a small boy defied them. It was piteous, is what it was. That Nature should have to suffer along with this little exiled orphan, as if the burning of the trees, the rising of the waves, the churning of the skies could wipe away his little life. But this little boy was tenacious, like the roots of those olive trees. He could ride the current and the wave. He could endure the bluster and the rains of the storm.
The boy had evaded a great peril without even trying. He had avoided becoming a symbol, and becoming fossilized in a national narrative. There would be no songs sung about the boy and the three gods who strengthened him and, of course, the people that he represents. A lot of gifts given to this orphan, a kind of cosmic charity, or a joke perhaps: let’s see what happens if we drop an inheritance on the impoverished. See if their personal responsibility could lift them up, or if the Fates decide whether the boy goes home, whether the boy grows to be a man someday.
The boy got up from where he sat on the limestone outcropping and looked on at the three gods. “I need– I want to grow up,” he said after a moment. “I’ve been ten years old for decades now. When can I go home? Do you even know? It’s not up to you to decide when I get my homecoming. Even if the Fates themselves came to me and told me I couldn’t ever grow up, that I’d be as I am forever, I wouldn’t believe them. Only I can bring myself home, and only I can fulfill my hopes and dreams. As for your gifts, there isn’t one that I don’t already have. They are my birthright, my inheritance as a human being. The right to persist, to live, to long, to return.”
The gods were not quite done with him, though. “Immortal and ageless little exile,” said Athene growing resplendent and warlike, throwing off her disguise to reveal herself to be the protector of cities, the patron of heroes indeed. She shone in her bronze armor; the crest of her helmet waved as she tossed her head. And the aegis writhed sensually on her breast. “I recognize in you a hero. Maybe my best gift to you could be my patronage. I have been a patron of many heroes in my time: Diomedes, Odysseus, and others.” She held out an ivory hand to the boy and was sure to take his hand this time. But the boy simply looked at it and then up into her divine face, so beautiful and perfect.
“I’m just a boy. I want to grow up. I want to be happy and to grow old and be loved and to love. Just let me be to walk the path that I have to walk, and don’t get in my way with promises and pity. I can do it. I have faith in myself.” He looked then at each of the gods, looked them right in their immortal and ageless faces. He was bold, unimpressed. Uncowed. “I know where I’ve walked with these two feet of mine, and even if I can’t see where I’m going because of all of this haze of smoke and cloud and rain, it is my path to take. I have no need for your blessings or your curses; they are of no use to me.”
The greatest of the three, Zeus frowned and tore the sky with one of his thunderbolts. His eyes grew flinty when he saw how the boy seemed neither afraid nor surprised. His face darkened and he looked the boy up and down with contempt. There was surprise in the god’s livid face. The only thing holding him back was the shame of losing his temper at such a lowly being- alone, poor, forgotten by everyone, almost un-made. He couldn’t allow himself to incinerate a mortal in front of his daughter, in front of his brother! There we so many words that pressed against the barrier of his own teeth- clenched tight.
“Who do you think you are?!” it was Poseidon, speaking the words that were blocked by Zeus’ rage. Inwardly, he was somewhat cooled by the thought that he shared the dishonour, the disrespect with his niece and his great brother who lords it over everyone. But he could put on a show for his own self respect, and for the sake of appearances. Ignored, he only stewed in his resentment. He could keep heroes from their homecoming, but not hold the attention of this one little child. He was irrelevant to the boy, and that burned in his chest.
The boy started to walk away from them, not looking back even for a moment. His dirty little hands were clutched together behind him, determined to continue on and meet what would lay before him wherever he roamed. He did not want to fight with the gods. He just wanted to be on his way, for each step brought him closer to coming home and, once he returned home, he could grow up. Athene had said he was a hero; He didn’t feel much like a one. He was just a child, and a poor living being trying to survive on this changeable earth. Was that what a hero was these days? Strange times… Hard times in the world of human beings, when a child has to become a hero.
“Every hero needs a patron!” cried the great goddess after him. The boy continued to walk away through a field of waving grasses green and lush. On and on he walked as if he didn’t hear her at all, neither sulky nor hesitant. His path would be struck by himself alone. He would bring his own world back into tune, in time. One way or another, he would find his way home. He kept his back turned to the gods. “Are you not afraid to walk on alone?!” cried out Athene in her glory. “Are you not overly proud to spurn our blessings? Have you not heard the tales of those who defy us- the gods?!”
The boy stopped at a cluster of stones. They were arranged in a rough line, like pillars or the monuments of the prehistoric builders. On these sentinels were laid smaller stones. They balanced simply. Some had lost their balance, or had been disturbed. They lay in small piles all around where they had fallen or been thrown. He recognized them. They were set there by the ancestors to witness their rites of visitation at some long-lost shrine somewhere along the horizon. The stones would serve to testify on the Day of Judgment, let the Great God know that they had been dutiful and humble pilgrims. Among the stones were offerings of water and food, strips of cloth and other talismans. Among the bric-a-brac was a red umbrella. He walked over and unhesitatingly lifted it and tucked it up under one bony arm. He may have smiled.
He is the boy who will grow up.