They weren’t natural snakes. And they weren’t doing it in any natural position. I’d trekked the Peloponnese hundreds of times by then. I was already 96 years old and baffled by my well-oiled knees. Not a pop, click, or give in 96 years. The walking stick that struck those pink-eyed albino pythons I carried solely so the locals wouldn’t stare. I was playing the part of an old man.
I wasn’t a seer at that point. Many did think so, but me, I was just sprightly. My swagger didn’t look natural in a man that old, so I carried the walking stick, I made senile comments about birds and clouds whenever a goatherd passed, I posed in attitudes of backache at mountainside shrines. In local legend, my walking stick became a prophet’s staff; my senile comments became gnomic utterances; my twists and groans became the ecstasies of a seer.
If I had been a seer, would I have bashed that snake? Watching snakes mate is no aesthetic delight to begin with. Those sweaty scales. That heavy hissing that becomes, at the moment of orgasm, an outright sputter, with the forked tongue fluttering upright like a flame in a breeze. Those reptilian ropes indistinguishable, male or female, as they spiral thickly and rock lengthwise. A god or goddess could see the sex in that, I guess. I would have looked away and walked on, if that were all I’d seen.
But these snakes were throating each other. Their bodies formed an ellipse whose proportions (I would later learn) matched the orbit of the earth. Albino pythons—I should have known. But I wasn’t religious. How did I know Hera liked to watch? Much less that she forced her subjects to mate in such unnatural positions. She made them do things to each other her own husband either wouldn’t do to her or had done but not well. The snakes, coldblooded and subject to additional heat loss because of their scale color, were lying out in the cold morning air. She commanded them to generate heat by sliding back and forth on each other’s tails. The ellipse they made pulsed slowly in place.
The shirr I heard, I realize now, came from the baton full of cicadas Hera was holding between her thighs. Why the sound periodically muffled—keeping time, it seemed, with the ellipse—that I won’t speculate about. It made the scene even more bizarre and vertiginously obscene. I didn’t decide to smash those copulating snakes with my walking stick. I did it out of reflex. The snake I hit happened to be the female, which offended Hera more. But I couldn’t tell the difference, honest, male snake or female. I hit it—her—on the flat skull.
The male sensed the corpse in his mouth immediately, or maybe the force of the blow transmitted, or maybe she bit down at the moment of death. He disgorged her tail immediately and thrashed wildly on the ground, his tail still rooted inside her. Within a minute, he was doing a horrified emergency slough, the dead sleeve skin as white as the living snake underneath. By the time internal hemorrhage had pinked three-quarters of the dead lover’s length, I could feel my breasts coming in.
It was the kind of thing that usually happens overnight. The sleeper wakes up, stands, stretches; suddenly the hands leap to the chest, down and around to the buttocks, the groin; what happened to my, how did this, where did my—cue the lamentations, cue the prayers for restoration.
Hera was impatient. She wanted to operate with me still conscious. So she watched me drop and groan and thrust my pelvis off the ground. These solitary, little death throes meant a new birth. My thighs did jerky butterfly-splays, shutting, each time, with a fuller slap. My chafed nipples kissed blood onto my toga’s throw, blood and a clear sap that made the cloth stick. The softness came in like milk.
As I blinked out the tickle of my lengthening lashes, I saw, eclipsing the sun, a still brighter face upside down. I tried to say, “Help me,” but all that came out was another moan, higher-pitched this time. My voice cracked midway, and no amount of coughing lowered it. Hera ripped the toga’s clinging gauze off my chest’s sores. The morning mist stung. A few swift gestures and I was naked. I looked down and saw my manhood retreating like a turtle’s head into its neck and the neck into the shell. The testicles squeezed through, first the left, then the right, sucked into me, a double lurch of nausea. Hera thumbed the top off her baton and let the dazed cicadas free across my chest. They sipped a while at the blood oases of my nipples and proceeded over my flanks and away. She licked the baton’s white gold and slid it under her nose thoughtfully. Then she knelt down and blew once, and the gray chest hairs scattered off my chest like stone dust off a finished headstone.
I said I wasn’t a seer and I wasn’t. When this happened to me, I was a philosopher. I had written a treatise in six parts on the unchanging, unitary nature of the All-Man, or pananthropos, inside the protogaia, which was a word I made up for the sentient, postdiluvian mud Deucalion threw over his shoulder. Sound interesting? I wrote all six parts in anapestic heptameter. This was encouraged, back then. A philosopher was expected to have a certain facility with the common meters. The book didn’t survive, of course. Not nearly as long as its author. I had the whole text memorized. (The anapests helped.) But I didn’t bother to reconstitute and republish it. Blind as I was by then, I could see much farther into the past than the flood; I could even see myself, all those years ago: spine in a pillbug-curl, knees wide, index and middle parting the curtains on that new window into myself.
More than just the snake’s femininity entered me. She must have been young because I was young. And her infinite jointedness became, in me, a more than gymnastic flexibility. Seated, I could lunge and rest my wrists atop my big toes. As an old man I had been sprightly, but even as a teenage wrestler in Agamemnon’s funeral games, I had groped my calves and felt my hamstrings cord and pang.
Glorying onto my feet, I swayed in a blood-spotted pile of white cloth, as naked as Aphrodite in the foam. When I bent to pick the cloth up, I felt the new weights on my chest drop away from me. They tugged, they swung. Panicking, I bundled them close in one arm, stood up again holding the toga, and let them go. They fell but didn’t flatten against me, rolling apart slightly. Any movement I made awoke them. I would have to walk carefully. I tried to wrap them so they couldn’t move, but the tighter I tied them down to me, the more clearly they were outlined.
I cried Hera’s name a few times, in my girl’s voice. I touched the spot where my throat should have had a bump and found it smooth. I pressed anyway, as if fingering the stop of a flute. In a voice still female, I asked forgiveness.
All I got in answer was a hiss. The male python was headed for me. His jaw opened wide enough to swallow a small dog or at least my new, hairless forearm. Did he see me as the old man who killed his lover, or as the pythoness herself reborn human, eager to continue throating? I guessed aggression and sure enough saw the great length of the thing sweep round to corral me. I leapt clear, harelike—had I inselved the snake’s last meal along with the snake?—and snatched up my walking stick. The cloth unknotted and fell again, but I ignored the swell and roll and tremble of my breasts. I held my weapon level between his eyes. The mouth shut as abruptly as a sated yawn. He sulked into a loop and let me go.
I hurried several minutes downslope until I felt safe. I was running from Hera more than the snake. My new body let me venture descents I would have never risked in the old one, which now (proud though I’d been of it that morning) seemed knobby, brittle, prone to lock up. I minced from crag to crag on tiptoe. At last I felt had gone far enough to breathe and crouch and inspect myself at leisure.
The serpent had bequeathed me a lair. I wondered how far down—up—it went. I knew this part of the female, but only as deep as I had explored it when male. Those journeys inland dated back to my twenties, before I took up philosophy. Decades later, I should add, when I wandered on foot through Parthia, a milkmaid (pigtailed, big-boned, barbarously rumped) had admitted me as far as the wrist. My fingertips had just brushed some nub or nozzle when an ataxic satyr clopped over and tried to make a third. I had been curious ever since that interrupted investigation; now I had one all to myself.
I feared to be too bold. What if I injured myself? I played coy and went gently—both bridegroom and virgin bride. I sat on a rock and set the walking stick across my lap. Then I propped it upright and closed my thighs around it. I sat that way for some time, trying to figure out if I’d been blessed or cursed. Self-fascination with my new self, self-pity for my old self. I brought the stick closer until it stood flush and I could rub my cheek against its rough raw wood. I stopped thinking. I turned the stick clockwise. That was good. I tried counterclockwise. That was good, too.
I heard a small shuffle at my elbow. Startled, I dropped the stick. A goat. Its hooves clicked on the rocks as it made its way past me. My distraction vanished, and I could hear the jitters and murmurs of its two dozen companions. I stood and turned. There was the herd, parting around me uncomplainingly; and there, a stick of his own lazily over his shoulder, stopped short at the sight of me, the goatherd.
He was a boy. He thought I was a goddess. A goddess or maybe a dryad or hamadryad. There would be other boys who thought I was a goddess, too, and they didn’t find me by accident half-naked on a mountainside and neglecting, like some Olympian innocent, to cover my bare breasts. They would find me dazed on brothel ouzo, in the lap of some Minoan douanier; nonetheless, next morning I’d wake up with my alias-of-the-week filling out the meter in an Ode. Other boys would prove to themselves I wasn’t a goddess. I liked those boys best, the ones who left marks.
Maybe the goatherd didn’t think I was a goddess. Maybe he did what he did in the hopes a mortal woman would reward him. I made that first boy work. Impatience, later, made me far more generous. He fetched me his mother’s temple best complete with scarab brooch, he fetched me cheese and wine, he fetched me sandals (an extra trip, poor fellow; I should have remembered when I demanded his mother’s clothes), he fetched me olives—not black ones, green ones; not green ones, black ones—he fetched me a lyre and fetched me a song to go with it and in that song he promised to fetch me the stars.
At last the reward. His. Mine. The goats strayed and called in jittery spasms from ravine bottoms. Walking stick and goatherd’s staff lay fallen parallel, stiff snakes of wood. I had been a philosopher before. I had made love, all my life, with a certain aristocratic distance. Anatomy made that possible. The sensation happened on the surface of an excrescence. The sensation’s exteriority kept the passion exterior to my mind. Sex reached my capital like news of a spring festival among coarse border folk. Plenty of horse tricks and luridly dyed scarves, but nothing to please the refined set. This was different. I felt my nether mouth salivate. Lips parted; seas parted; he sank; the seas closed over him. My gates of pelvic ivory let in this dream-for-dream’s sake boy. He didn’t force his way. The space arose inside me, the sides peeled apart to form a vacuum. He was drawn into me to fill it. That whole region, once scrub and desert, became dank, tropical undergrowth, became quicksand. Became abyss. He clambered up, he slid back down the moss-slick, mist-slick slopes of me. I wouldn’t let him escape. I couldn’t escape, either. No detachment. No watching myself watching myself watching myself copulate. The sensation was all interior, that middle passage a barbarian inroad. The high priests were put to death. The libraries were burned. The capital was sacked.
Four times in succession, that first session. My record would be twelve, the last two while held upside down by a Thessalian mercenary.
How does it feel? Imagine it like this, gentlemen: your body is a city-state. Athens, let’s say. This city-state is razed. Then its ruins are razed. Then the rubble is razed. Then the stones are razed. Four times in succession. What’s left is not ruins, not rubble, not stones, not even dust, but a civilization ground so fine the wind smokes it skyward. This smoke reconstitutes a shadow-Athens in the clouds, complete with alleys and agora, and in that shadow-Athens you are the first to discover reason. You hold lucid dialogues about logos. The universe, briefly, agrees to be understood through method; it actually entertains questions. In this shadow-Athens in the sky, you sip hemlock, close your eyes, and awaken in a bed still wet with your back sweat, your abdominal muscles still curling you rhythmically off your hurricane-swirl bed sheet. That, gentlemen, is what it’s like for them.
Years later, after I’d found the same python—this time throating himself—and killed him, I turned to the laughter and shaded my eyes.
So who has it better, Tiresias? You’re the only one who knows firsthand. Men or women? We’ve got a wager going, the wife and I.
How could I know that Hera wanted me to answer “men?” I couldn’t have lied if I’d been briefed in advance. Is the sun dark?
Is the sun dark. Ah, it would be, soon enough. For me.
Before that blinding—when Hera, miffed afresh, splashed her curse like a cupful of acid, a god-awful eyeful—I saw what no god ever saw. Zeus seduced as a male swan, a male bull. Me, I was a nonagenarian ensconced in a nymph.
The years that followed I think of as one vast field of men lying on their backs, bodies rigid, faces indistinguishable, and at the fork of each one’s legs a geyser that blew according to its own tectonically governed rhythm. The younger ones fountained more frequently, while the older ones had gone relatively dormant. With a younger one, my cupped hand could monitor a pressure head, even while he slept. They seemed connected to a boiler deep underground. If I could align myself over one just in time, the jet of white seminal steam would shoot me a quarter mile into the sky, higher sometimes, clear past Olympus. The gods would pause their bickering and look over to see me suspended at my zenith; then my hair and arms would blow vertical, and I would start the fall back to earth. Only I would do it floating, slow motion, eyes shut in postcoital slumber. There she goes again.
It wasn’t enough, the pleasure. When has it ever been enough? I wanted timing. I wanted simultaneity, two eclipses, lunar and solar, his and mine, at the same hour. I wanted that celestial alignment. Maybe it wasn’t possible. I knew the physiology of men and women now, and maybe what I wanted was mythical. Even Aphrodite and Ares took turns coming. And that was the last hairsbreadth of remove between lover and lover. The detachment of observing the other climax. After all that interpenetration, this one instant of exclusion. It left the union incomplete.
The men didn’t care. But I did. My pleasure had this numbness at its center, and the numbness started spreading. Simultaneity would have required equality. What the men always wanted was rank between lover and lover. A Bactrian footman wanted me on my knees. A Cretan admiral handed me an eel skin whip. The slaves wanted to enslave, the masters wanted to be mastered. I changed accordingly. Even in my new shape I shape shifted.
Hera and Zeus never let me finish my report. She cursed me blind, he made me a seer, and then they were gone, still arguing, up a spiral stairwell that sculpted itself from a cumulonimbus.
It’s women who enjoy it more, I began. I didn’t have the chance to add: But when they’re bored with it, good Gods, are they bored.
Maybe my mistake had been taking up work at the brothel in Smyrna. Too much variety, too much abundance turned me off that saltysweet food of the gods. But I can imagine the same result if I had married that first unlettered goatherd who broke the seal.
I began to understand the mechanism of Hera’s curse: to give me the pleasure, and then take it away. Just as I had taken it from the pythoness. But I had taken it all at once; the pythoness hadn’t known. Hera made me conscious of my loss, and she was making sure I lost the pleasure by degrees. She was cruel like that, everybody knew it. A torturer.
My reputation island-hopped among the Symplegades. Mycenaean eminences crossed the sea to my stained cot. A tempest and a wreck could not discourage the petty potentates of Cos and Syracuse. Meanwhile, thirteen-year-olds who had joined after me began sagging, and I realized I was ageless. I had to expiate or escape this curse somehow.
There was only one person who could help me, I knew. The Delphic oracle probably knew what I had to do, but there was no trusting her; her cryptic counsels had misled me before. Once, having approached her wincing with a hand to my jaw, I received my quatrain and followed what I thought it was telling me to do. I sacrificed a sheep on the solstice instead of a she-goat on the equinox, and the next thing I knew I’d added scrofula to toothache.
No, only one person knew the Gods and Goddesses well enough to give me advice. A contemporary of my former self. I hoped my old friend was still alive. I snuck out to the docks, made a brisk transaction with the captain of a dinghy, rinsed my mouth with some sea-dark wine, and presently crested to Chios.
I got to his hovel the next morning. It was more or less as I remembered it. The old dog lay exactly where he does in the story, on that pile of dung he preferred to the blanket and basket his master provided. My friend did love that dog, fleas and all, and briefly considered naming his second poem in his honor.
“Argos,” I said, and clapped my hands.
The dog sensed the old man inside the young woman, having long learned to mistrust his failing eyes, which were nearly as blind as his master’s. Just to be sure, he gave a sniff of inquiry to my crotch and came away satisfied. His tail began to wag. He guided me indoors to his master’s study, the only room there was. Broken lyres and lyre strings strewed the earthen floor. I stepped carefully. I noticed something I hadn’t seen two decades earlier, when I last visited—stacks of styli, scrolls of blank papyrus, amphorae full of ink.
After I explained why my voice sounded as it did, I brought his birch bark palms to my face and let him feel for himself. My mouth began to salivate as those hands fluttered and saw my new face. I am not sure if they were an old man’s tremor. For some reason his blind fingertips felt like a first kiss. Maybe it was reflex, but I took his middle finger in my mouth. His brow furrowed suddenly, and he pulled his hands away and held the hand I had sucked, as if the furnace of my mouth had burned him. I began salivating everywhere. His hands had retreated meekly to his lap, like spooked mammals. I took them by the wrists and showed him my hair, my neck. I guided his blindness over the shelf of my collarbones, over and down my slopes and slaloms until I separated his thumb and proved how deeply I had changed. We had shared each other often enough when I was male, we two old wise men meeting once or twice a decade and becoming, briefly, a single philosopher-poet inarticulate on the white sand, afterwards our long gray beards filling each other’s mouths. Homeros, I sighed, divine Homeros, and reached for the old hemp rope that twice looped his skinny waist. I reached around him and shoved a lyre across the floor and lay him back in the space I had cleared. The dog Argos stood ramrod as a pointer, tail wagging. I lifted the great woolly blanket of the beard and began to kiss his ribs. We took a minute and six seconds.
He told me he had been singing the same songs for decades, but he was always singing to soldiers, generals, practical men. And they always wanted the new song, when all he had were the same two old ones. The same two perfect ones. These pillagers and rapists weren’t his true audience, he told me. His true audience wasn’t even born yet. But he had no way of singing to them. And he was a lonely old man now; there were younger singers, newer songs, a blind poor man who had spent the coins they threw at him buying paper and ink he couldn’t use. So he had prayed to Apollo—had been praying to Apollo for ten years now. Not to get his eyes back. He had prayed, he told me, for an amanuensis.
I gathered a scroll and stylus, I pulled a clay amphora close. Two ink drops touched my white thigh and rested there, the pupils of arousal.
Book One, he said.
And then, still naked and spreadeagle on the floor, cataract-blue eyes staring clear through time, he began to sing.
It was a lot of writing. My hand was young, but it spasmed into a claw whenever he insisted on singing three books in the same session. I would have to stop, and he would take my hand and massage it. It was odd to see that tenderness moments after a dactylically launched javelin exited just below an Achaean’s shoulder blade. At last, after Athena became Mentor, he told me what I had to do. Guilt circles back to a crime scene, he explained; she knew it, and would be waiting for me.
I found my walking stick exactly where I had dropped it when surprised by the goats and the goatherd. Its shaft had freckled itself with white flowerets, a variety unknown to me and possibly to Greece as well. I picked them off and found a larger white flower, possibly an orchid, rooted in the wood. I was setting it distractedly behind my ear when I glanced down and my foot shot back as if I’d stepped in fire. A thick white ring turned clockwise on the dirt. It was the albino python, the surviving husband, tail down his throat. I watched his lonely self fellatio a while. Periodically I glanced up and around—was Hera watching? Inch by determined inch, he tucked himself inside himself. I imagined his jaws getting to the back of his skull, unhooking, flipping inside out, and swallowing themselves. I knew what I had to do. Killing the female had made me this way; killing the male would restore me. I raised what would soon be my prophet’s staff. And I banged his brains out.
When I was done, I raised the limp loop of him on the end of my staff. He slid out of himself, swung where he hung, and slid to the dirt. In moments I, too, curled where I stood, my spine become an old man’s spine, my posture far worse than it had been when I transformed. I was getting my body back, but changed, ruined. Soon I stood so hunched a servant’s bow was built into my anatomy. Hera must have liked that. My semicircle posture brought me face to face with my own restored manhood, which, absurdly enough, stood straight, only inches away from my chin. I pulled aside my robes to let it breathe. A full gray beard, grown a decade longer, spilled from my face and tickled it. I gripped it in an arthritic right hand and pulled and pulled, as if no one were watching, as if to tear it free.