By Jeff Hardin 

In the days of siren and cyclops, a man with tightened brows hung his head in frustration.  He had a dilemma.  For the past two years, he had been wooing a young woman of generous heart, lively mind and great beauty.  The time had come when marriage could be only expected.  Everything seemed to point to this happy beginning.  Both families appeared to approve.  Signs from the gods, difficult to interpret always, offered favorable portents.  The problem was that he could not bring himself to propose.

Milos was no fool.  He had learned as if by right of passage to trust in his instincts.  These had been nagging at him for weeks.  He felt he should take the final step, but his resolve failed to tow the line.  His heart struggled under a weight of unknown proportion.  Marriage, he felt, was an enormous step.  Clarity in such a matter was worth the price of delay.

Time passed though, and his determination to wed had the certainty of dice in midair.  No matter how many details of trysts recalled, he could not decide firmly whether or not she loved him.  In turn, Milos could not decide upon commitment to the union. 

This state of indecision weighed heavily on his spirit.  Milos had never been one to lean both ways when faced with a problem.  Finding the right woman to marry was no easy matter, and his conflict was growing steadily into a crisis.

Each sunset, Milos prayed to Pallas Athena to guide his path and grant some kind of insight that would lead to the right choice and a lasting peace.  Each sunset, the Goddess of Wisdom greeted these pleas with silence.  The day before, Milos had reached the limit of what his patience could endure.  Traces of anger seemed into the invocation.

“Great Athena, why do you not answer my entreaties?  You know I keep perfect loyalty to you, and I know you are not indifferent to my fate.  Mighty Goddess, please show me how I may know without a doubt that she loves me and that her love is true.”

The Goddess seemed to withhold this secret, for only the forest creatures made any sound.  On his way home, however, Milos noticed a flock of birds in the distance.  They were headed for the sea and seemed to have no leader.  The formation looked more like a generalized mass.  Milos wondered if they knew where they were supposed to go but not the reason why.

As soon as he made it back to the village, Milos found one of the elders to interpret any possible meaning.  Everyone understood that birds were the frequent tools of Olympian tricksters who wanted to convey a message.  Unfortunately, frequent and always were altogether different words.  It could have been simply migrating birds.  The best chance of finding out was obviously to be discovered in the practiced guidance of an elder.

“Hard to say,” the elder duly confirmed.  “Your idea has a degree of merit.  This notion of a lack of leadership could bear important lessons.  It may mean that your battle will be difficult.  It is possible that you yourself lack direction.  You should make an offering to the gods so they may more profitably light your path.”

Milos could hardly satisfy himself with this reply.  He decided upon a definite course of action.  He had pondered the prospect of travelling to the Oracle ever since he first recognized his problem, but hesitated because of the great distance.  Delphi was a journey that would see his return only after the moon reached the same fullness it had when he took the first step.  Milos reasoned that the moment for such a step had arrived, so he packed some clothing and left.

The first few days proved uneventful, but one morning he came across a soldier on the road.  The fellow was mostly quiet, but by midday the two had struck up a conversation.  To Milos’ surprise, Menacles of Sparta had much to say on the subject of love.

“Where I come from,” the Spartan began, “love is war.”  Obviously unaffected by his companion’s doubtful expression, he continued to explain.  “In our land, the state is everything.  Every boy and girl raised by my people learns that service to the state is the single most important calling in life.  The forms lf love we have all derive from this central purpose.  A woman loves you only if she loves her people.”

Milos struggled to understand this explanation.  “If you say that this is true in your lands, then so be it.  Still, how can you know that she loves you and not some other man in the name of the people?”
The immediacy of Menacles’ response revealed the training of a hundred rehearsals.  “It is actually quite simple if you think about it.  If a woman chooses another before me, I can find no dissatisfaction in her commitment to the state.  It is that commitment which gives life its purpose.  The purpose is the important thing, not a man’s individual fate.  Love is not selfish.”

“So what you call individual fate, the love between a man and woman, has no place at all?”

Menacles thoughtfully considered how to explain further while fighting the urge to recount examples of how limited the men of strange lands could be.  Just before they were about to stop and camp for the night, he struck upon a different way he could put across the idea.

“In Sparta, mothers send their sons to battle with the traditional plea:  Come back with your shield or on it.  I know it is common for outsiders to criticize the harshness of this.

Now you listen to me if you want to know.  My mother first told this to me when I was barely fourteen.  The outsiders are right, it is harsh.  What they do not realize is that it is harsh because our love can be harsh.

You think not?  Without your family, your people, could you really care much about your own particular life?  My friend, if they were all gone forever, what would you know about love?  All Spartans must perform their duty.  That is what individual love is all about.  You talk to me of your personal feelings about a woman, but a lesser love dies with the man.”

The two travelers broke camp early.  They reached a crossroads just after dawn, and Menacles took the road to Sparta.  Milos found him to be a noble creatures, but he could not accept his view of love.  A lesser love might die with the man, he conceded, bua great love should last into the afterlife.  Living for a state was far too impersonal for his needs, and Milos redoubled his efforts to reach Delphi quickly.

Several days passed, and Milos came upon a thriving town.  He decided to stay the night and found himself meandering absently through the artist quarter beneath the fortifications of the acropolis.  On one corner, a crowd had gathered round two scholars engaged in heated debate.  He listened for a moment but grew weary of all the ponderous rhetoric.  The words spilled from their mouths like frenzied fish who want to escape the hand and return home.  When he turned to walk away, a man’s hand touched his shoulder.

“You seem troubled my friend,” the man said kindly.  “I am Sminoos, the poet.  If you have a troubled mind, allow me to ease your worry.  The essence of man is hidden to all but those with the means to pierce its blackened depths.  I am at your service.”

Milos eyed the bard skeptically.  A natural instinct made him doubt the usefulness of flowery verse and lofty platitudes, but after all, he planned to spend the time wandering the streets anyway.  He could find no harm in hearing the fellow out and decided to explain his predicament.

“Indeed,” Saminoos began, “this is a most serious problem.  You must allow me to consider it for a moment before presenting an answer.”

The traveler was not surprised when the right answer turned out to be a poem.  Saminoos informed him that these words, passionately spoken, would convince the woman of his ardor and help love blossom into a garden of fruits and petals to make even the residents of Olympus grow jealous.  Milos said the last thing he wanted to do was make the gods jealous.  The poet told him to withhold judgment until he heard for himself and then unveiled his creation.

“Sweet and noble Pelucida,
The morning dew on all the hills
In all the lands
In all the world
Cannot compare to the tears that rain from my eyes,
Swelling with greatest fortune
When they gaze upon your glistening beauty.

            Delicate and lovely Pelucida,
The radiant sun dancing through the skies
Over all the lands
Over all the world
Cannot match the light that shines in my mind,
Bursting with joy
When it recalls your delicate hair.

            Virtuous and gentle Pelucida . . .”

            Milos could no longer contain himself, and he interrupted the minstrel’s presentation at that point.  He doubted words that served as sentimental decoration could be of any use in his search.  He had heart their kind often, particularly among the beardless and the damned.  To add insult to injury, Saminoos expressed a profound indignation at the interruption.  He felt that services as renowned and enchanting as these naturally required compensation.

In order to extricate himself from this difficult circumstance, Milos decided to review the situation from a more businesslike perspective.  However inopportune the event may be, the act was plainly seen.  Saminoos had never finished the poem and could therefore not demand payment.  Unfortunately, the traveler reported, a sense of the most dire and pressing urgency obliged him to press on.  Only such a profound and necessary need could force him away from what promised to be a poem of such obviously unique craftsmanship.

In the way of most working artists, Saminoos accepted the praise.  He was forced to agree in the end that it was a regrettable but unavoidable loss.  The two parted on friendly terms, the poet still in possessions of his professional ethic and the pilgrim with a grip on his patience.

The remainder of the journey passed quickly.  Milos arrived in Delphi two nights later.  He went to the Oracle at dawn only to discover a considerable line had already formed.  The Priestesses listened to his request shortly after the sun had passed its zenith and informed him that the divine pronouncement would be granted in three days at sunrise.

As others watched somberly, one of them cautioned Milos that the Oracle’s deliberation required agreement in advance to a condition.  The traditional ceremonial tribute would be waved in exchange for a vow of silence regarding the response.  The knowledge imparted by the gods was not intended for the use of men.  Milos alone was the one upon whom they would bestow this precious gift of wisdom.

After agreement upon this point had been reached, the Priestesses gracefully withdrew.  Milos was left to his own thoughts once again.  His dreams were stained, partly the result of the encounter with the Priestesses, partly in anticipation of the answer to what had proved to be such a vexing search.  Each evening he prayed to the gods, Athena above all, for guidance and a sure path.

On the third sunrise, the Priestesses admitted Milos into the inner chambers of the Oracle ant Delphi.  The moment of resolution had arrived at last.  After a number of complicated rituals and whispered supplications, the virginal servants of the gods closed their eyes.

Milos, who had remained silent during these otherworldly procedures, thought the women might be resting before some more significant event.  He shifted his feet.  His best guess put them in that position completely motionless with yes gently shut to the world for nearly two hours.  Suddenly one of them rose from the ground and shuffled herself in gilding motions until she stood before him.

                        “Heed the word of the gods, and all will be well with you.  Ignore it, and your life will wither and deform.  We must ask you now, once again, do you agree to the bargain forged in the skies?”

Her voice was somber and carried along the wind in unnatural wisps and whines.  Milos accepted once again, and the Priestess spokeswoman began in earnest.

“To know with absolute certainty if the person you love has a great love for you, you must ask her three questions.  Listen carefully, for they must be asked in the proper order.  Examine her answer closely, for it will contain the seed of truth.  Grow it inside your  mind, following every chute and stem and branch.  In its fruits you will taste, bitter or sweet, the knowledge you seek.  Such is the nature of the three questions of love.”

Milos listened intently, absorbed in the message that would in all probability determine the course of his future.  The ceremony ended after the announcement and brief explanation of the questions.  When the traveler asked for more of an explanation the Priestesses only shook their heads.  It was clear they would say nothing more.

They retired without further remark, and Milos was left with a churning in his stomach.  Perhaps because he lacked sufficient faith in heavenly direction, to say nothing of divine methods, he felt his fate was as mysterious as ever.  The questions themselves were simple enough, but the interpretation seemed impossibly complex.  The sheer number of possible phrases and mannerisms was astounding.  What any of these clearly meant seemed no more than the product of guesswork or a vagary of magic.

Milos decided to put this faith in the magic.  If the gods said the questions would work then so be it.  Gods may lie, but in all the legends of Greece they were never wrong.  Milos took himself for much too unimportant a personage to be worthy of any cunning trick.  From what he could tell, they seemed to show far more interest in heroes, battles and royal intrigues. 

The way home took less time, mainly because he never stopped to converse with a passerby and also because of an excitement now swelling in his stomach that urged him onward.  In the towns, he kept to his room and left before sunrise.  Whenever his mind wandered to expectations of what Pelucida might say, he focused instead on the thought that peace was the long awaited harbor before him.  It was a promise of knowing the truth.

At night, when the stars aligned themselves into patterns for men and Milos was alone, his heart beat a quiet song of longing.  He hoped Pelucida was his true love before.  Soon he would be able to prove it.  The possibility that his plan could disprove it never crossed his mind.  His hopes and the high clouds to the north had much in common.

When he arrived home, he immediately set out to find the object of all these efforts.  Pelucida was working in her garden and showed obvious surprise mixed with relief.

“Are you well, my love?” she asked with tender concern.  “We did not expect you for several days.”

Milos confessed to her that he had not taken the trip because of business.  He had needed the time to judge his ideas for the future.  Before he could decide to ask her to become his wife, he had to ask her three questions.

Pelucida seemed confused and embarrassed all at once.  She showed not a drop of hesitation at this proposal, however, and swore she would speak words of truth.  The two sat together at a table by the edge of the garden.  Milos looked directly into her eyes and studied them intently.  For the first time in his life, he felt he was about to reveal their mysteries.  He prayed one last time for success and then asked his questions.

“What is the quality you find in me that you most love?”

“Pelucida answered without hesitation.  “That is easy, my treasure.  What I love most about you is the way you look at me.  Even when I appear to be engaged in something else, I can still feel your eyes follow me.  Sometimes they make me forget myself.”

How could a man have any objection to that?  His gaze moved her.  It meant something to her, changed who she was.  Her remark was personal and reflected what she found unique to him.  Milos searched himself and could find no discomfort.

On the contrary, he deemed it a worthy sentiment for a devoted mate.  He swiftly concluded that there was no reason to postpone the next question.

“And what is the quality you find in me that you most hate?

At this her brow furrowed tightly into knots of worry.  She was uncomfortable, and Milos viewed this as a favorable sign.  Perhaps she would be unable to discover one.  While he pondered whether or not such an absence would count as an answer, she stared out into the hills.  At last she seemed to find her way.

“It is hard to find a single thing about you I could hate, my prince.  It is a strong word.  I know the answer because I thought of what I could wish for.  If the gods should one day decide to grant me such a gift, I know I would ask that you should live forever.  This is impossible, I realize, but that is now I know what I hate about you.  I hate your mortality.”

Milos never expected to hear an idea like that.  She had surpassed his hope again.  Thus far, the address of the Priestesses had proved to be accurate in every regard.  He felt a confidence growing within.

The only problem was a nagging suspicion that blemished an otherwise flawless unfolding of events.  The third question still seemed strange and especially unpredictable.  It was the only weak spot of doubt.

“What is the quality you find in me about which you are indifferent?”

Pelucida’s features grew distant.  Her suitor waited in apparent repose, patiently wondering if she understood the question.  Against his instinct, Milos determined to keep silent and allow fate to take its course.  This was the instant when magic would have to unveil its enchanting form.  Her answer came after his patience had been sorely tested.

“Only one part of you means nothing to me, my light, and that is your reputation.  Though your name were spoken throughout the lands with veneration, worship even, I could not love you any more.  Should you become the bane of every man, the putrid of every woman, the nightmare of every child in all the world, I could not love you any less.  I swear it.  My love for you is true.”

Without a corpse’s whisper of a doubt, he knew she was the one.  He asked her for her hand, and they were married forthwith.  The three questions of love led Milos to truth, in his case a happy one.  The advice of the gods lit the path in a bathing radiance no one could miss.

Unfortunately, the life of Milos thereafter took a black turn.  The Priestesses had plainly and fairly warned him about the gravity of the consequences should he break the agreement.  No man defies a contract with the gods without penalty.  How Saminoos the bard acquired knowledge of this great secret is a story perhaps best left to another day, a darker day.  The tragic destiny of Milos and his line is not appropriate for this occasion.

As for the gods on Olympus, they unanimously rued the day Athena had persuaded them to allow a man to know such an important and divine secret.  Some among them suspected, therefore feared, men would continue to gain knowledge.  None could foresee how men might use it.  One or two went so far as to predict that eventually men would have no need of gods.

They resolved to conceive a way to force men to feel a need for faith.  Meanwhile their wrath was severe.

About the Author:

J. Scott Hardin is a writer and co-host of the Up Your Dialogue podcast.  His work has appeared in The Louisiana Review, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Bewildering Stories, Salzburg Poetry and elsewhere.