The Histories (an Exercise in Plot)

This is another exercise from The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovick.  The exercise was to re-write and fill out three scenes from Herodotus’s “The Histories.”  I didn’t quite do that here, as I wanted to experiment with the style of having a character in the story narrate most of it, as with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”  Still, the object was to learn how to borrow old stories, which I learned with this.  You’ll see a modern version of “The Histories” posted this Sunday.

Burning a man alive would be considered a cruel means of execution by most.  But to Cyrus, the now unrivaled King of Persia, it was the most glorious death he could offer to a captured man—especially to one who’d fought as valiantly as Croesus had.  Cyrus was wounded, then, because when sentencing Croesus to such a glorious death, the former king of Lydia remained blank.  In an attempt to get some recognition from him, Cyrus sentenced fourteen adolescent boys to burn with their king.  When all of them were being tied to the pyre, the boys fighting or silently crying, Croesus only shook his head.  He stretched his neck towards the sky so that a vein bulged in his neck.

“Oh, don’t let him cry,” thought Cyrus, “please, don’t let him cry or beg—for his life or theirs.”  Still, Cyrus hoped the conquered king would speak his last words before him.

Croesus did indeed part his lips and from the black crevice of his mouth bellowed one word three times: Solon.

The pyre had been lit.  Cyrus would have let that word “Solon” remain a mystery; but then Croesus looked at him with eyes full of tears and pity, and Cyrus knew he could not let the condemned man die in silence.

“Croesus,” he said, “tell me this: what is ‘Solon’ and why do you call to it so mournfully?”  A translator communicated this question in a language Croesus could understand.

For a moment, it seemed as though Croesus would remain mute.  But when Cyrus demanded that his translator repeat the question, Croesus looked at the Persian king, and he laughed, as if Cyrus were a fool.  He then spoke, as if it were he who was the conqueror and Cyrus who was about to be burned alive.  The voice of that former Lydian king was like the deep lullaby of echoes in a cave, over which flowed the lighter, bubbling voice of the translator.  His story ran as so:

“What is Solon, you ask?  Solon is truth.  Solon knew that no man could be called happy until he died.  Only now can I accept the truth of Solon—for that unintended favor, Cyrus, will I tell you what Solon is and why I call that name.

“I’ve heard of your palaces in Persia—their descriptions pale when faced with my capital of Sardis.  When you march through those streets, you’ll gawk at the beauty of our city.  All who come to Sardis are enchanted—save one.

“When Solon entered the city, I’m told he called the place a dump.  A few of my guards immediately brought Solon to me, so that I might see the Athenian punished for his slander.  I’m sure, had it been your kingdom, you would have had him drawn and quartered.  But I am a patient man.

“‘Good Solon,’ I’d said, after the introductions, ‘what is it about my city you find so unattractive?’”

“In what seemed at the time a childish answer, Solon said ‘Everything.’

“‘Well, I’m sure we can find something here that pleases you.’  To be honest, I was curious.  I thought Solon might be some sort of ascetic, some sage or prophet I might learn from.  He was, in fact—but I was too blind to see his truth until now.”

The flames had risen higher.  Some of the boys were being burned—many started to scream.  Croesus only amplified his voice, as if the only thing that mattered was that Cyrus—conqueror and executioner—heard his tale.

“I showed Solon my library, my private art museum, my bathhouse, my tea-room—even my beloved orange groves.  He just shook his head at everything, and mumbled ‘It’s no good.  It’s useless, Croesus, it’s useless.’  Though I was a patient man, I was also a king and a rather prideful one at that.  I did not appreciate Solon failing to use my title, nor did I like his depreciative attitude towards everything I’d worked so hard to build.  ‘Perhaps Athens has something more to offer,’ I’d said, ready to slap him in a minute.  If he’d begun to praise Athens, I might have flogged him right there for his impudence.  But he looked at me in such a confused manner—as if I’d suddenly spoken another language—that my frustration subsided.  ‘What’s the good of comparing ashes to dirt?’ he’d said.  ‘It all comes to nothing.’

“I stepped back.  A coldness ran up my spine and down my arms.  For some reason, I could not stand to have this man near me.  His presence didn’t sicken me; but it frightened me.  It frightened me as though I were a child.  The fear of battle, the fear of flames licking for my flesh; that is nothing when compared to the instinctual fear I had of Solon.  Killing him didn’t even seem like an option.  It would have been equivalent to trying to shoot wind or stab water.  When I could speak again, I found myself to have a steady voice.  ‘Solon, since you find nothing of pleasure here, it would be better that you leave.  I’ll see to it you’re well supplied for your journey.’

“‘Actually, Croesus, it would be better if I stayed.’

“I pretended not to hear him and walked away, and my guards prevented him from following me.  He requested to see me again before he left—I denied it.  I wonder if so much pain could have been averted had I allowed him in.”

By this time, the boys were dead—either suffocated or burned.  The flames had begun to touch Croesus, but he ignored them as if they were just tickling grass.  He only coughed for the smoke.

“My son died shortly after that.  Murdered by my best friend.  Lydia has many forests wonderful for hunting.  I was preoccupied with your possible invasion, so I didn’t go on a hunting trip along with my friend and my son.  I was too busy plotting my conquest of your army.  My son is—was—a rambunctious boy.  Never listened to anybody but me.  He got away from his chaperone and ran right in front of the arrow my friend had intended for a bull.  My friend hung himself that same day.

“I shouldn’t have given you a moment’s thought, Cyrus.”

With that, Croesus fell silent, and the flames engulfed him.  Cyrus could still see his figure sitting tall in the flames; a silhouette of dignity and repose.  Cyrus thought that’s what he would look like, were he to be burned alive.  He would’ve killed Solon out of fright, but then felt haunted by that wandering Athenian peasant.  Croesus had great restraint—Cyrus admired that, but also wondered if maybe that’s what cost Croesus his kingdom.  Or maybe Croesus was compassionate, too compassionate to send his men to fight a losing battle.

Cyrus turned and retreated to his quarters.  He could no longer watch the burning king.  He wondered—had Persia and Lydia been allies—what more he might have learned from King Croesus.  Cyrus suddenly paused, and thanks the translator for his services.

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