Epyllion (Greek for little epic): A short poem in the classical style centered on love, featuring mythological references and plot digressions.
Senator Samuel Apollo Downy sighed when the noise of the mob penetrated his study window. He set aside his pipe and the book by the ancient Greek philosopher. Picking up a wine glass, Downy rose from his chair, barely able to push his frail, emaciated body to a standing position from the seat with only one hand. It was time. His lifetime of service had not prevented the inevitable. The enemy he had fought for over sixty years had won. Downy shook his head, the thinning mane of snowy white hair framing a gaunt and wrinkled jet-black face with dark, bleary eyes, a bunker of a nose, now swollen and covered with tiny red veins, and a wide jaw given over to slackness. The old man sighed again. The fight had been worth the effort, despite the outcome. Especially because of the outcome!
The mob reached the border of Downy's estate, the fruit of a few successful patents created late in life rather than his Senator's pension. A battering ram improvised from an uprooted lamppost soon defeated the locked iron gate and scores of looters poured through the opening. Most stormed up the long winding drive towards the house, but a few veered off to canvas the grounds. Downy watched their progress from the bay window of the second floor den as the music of Handel filled the small study. Downy raised his wine glass in a toast to the packed bookshelf on the opposite wall. "Although I am not a man of worship," he spoke the old salute of medieval knights, "I honor all men of worship." Downy brought the rim to his lips, savored the last sip of wine and then hurled the glass into the fireplace to shatter amidst the flames. The fire momentarily flared up from the few drops still clinging to the interior of the exquisite crystal.
Downy picked up a stout cane topped by a bronze lion's head. He ran his hand over its mane and was lost in thought for a moment. Then he switched the sound system over to the outside speakers, left his study and descended the grand staircase to the first floor. He paused to have a final look into the room just off of the entrance hall. It was his private gallery; a collection of fine art lined its walls. Downy shook his head at the treasures on display. What a waste! He closed the door to the room, but did not bother to lock it. Grasping his cane, he crossed over to the entrance, smoothed the wrinkles in his best suit, threw open the main doors and marched out to meet his fate. Handel was his only escort.
Moon-Eyes spread the branches of the bush with care. He stifled a cry when he peered through the gap. His stalk had been successful! The reedbuck was still there. All he had to do now was wait until its grazing caused it to wander into the range of his throwing club. Woman-of-Tears and little Laughing-Bird would not go hungry this night as they had so many nights before. They would have the strength to walk out of this gods-cursed marsh where the tall, fair-haired, bright eyes had chased them. They would find another group of their people somewhere over the horizon living in a land teeming with game. A land the bright-eyes had yet to despoil.
The thought made Moon-Eyes groan. How many suns had he been telling himself that? He had lost track. All he knew for sure was that the fair-hairs had hunted his people down and laid waste to their lands for as long as he could remember. He had not seen his own kind in... Again, he could not recall. Not since the birth of Laughing-Bird at least.
A rustle made Moon-Eyes come alert. The reedbuck! It was within easy reach of his club. He crouched and made ready to spring up and throw the weapon. But something caught his eye. It was the mate and cub of the reedbuck. They were also grazing, just a little ways off. Unlike other prey, reedbucks lived in family groups like his own people. Moon-Eyes could not help but see Woman-of-Tears in the female and Laughing-Bird in the calf. He was about to act like one of the leering tall ones and kill off their protector.
The old heart-sickness came over Moon-Eyes again; it was that sickness that had prevented him from becoming a good hunter. There was something wrong with him, he knew, but he was not the only one. Others in his tribe had suffered from it, too. Many of them. Maybe that was why the bright-eyes were so good at beating his people down. They didn't seem to have the sickness. They liked to kill. Moon-eyes supposed it was the will of the gods they were that way and that he and his people were not.
Moon-Eyes let the reedbuck wander away. Then he got to his feet and slouched back to the crevice where he had left his woman and child, gathering a few miserable berries on the way. They would have to do. Again.
The old woman looked at herself in the mirror, twirling around several times to get the full effect of her outfit. She just loved to dress up in her best clothes and put on her pretty jewelry. It was only costume jewelry, true, but she adored the oversized rings, chunky bracelets and gaudy necklaces she had collected over the years. She knew that she overdressed in the same way a child playing grown-up would, but she couldn't help herself. It made her feel so beautiful. If only she had more opportunities to go out in her nice things.
Church had been her only social activity since dear Arthur had died, but now a reason had come up for her to make frequent visits downtown. They were unpleasant visits, certainly, but she seized on any excuse to dress up. She patted her hair where it had come loose and turned from the mirror before she could make a face. How pale she looked these days! She walked across the small living room of her apartment and picked up her cat up from its perch upon the arm of a faded couch.
"Today's the day the tests come in," she said. "Will you say a little kitty-prayer for your mama, Miss Golden Apple?" The cat purred in response. "That's my good little girl!" She petted the cat and put it down, leaving before the temperamental animal could sense her mood.
"This man is nothing but a raving demagogue and a menace to our society. The people who flock to him are the worst element imaginable. I say throw him out! He's a resident alien, not even a citizen of this country. Just revoke his card and boot him out!" Downy--a younger, vital Downy in the prime of his middle age with thick, gray hair the color of an approaching storm front, matched by the darker gray of his eyes as well as the threat of his prominent nose and the set of his square jaw--waved both arms in the air and nearly drove his tall and spare, but muscular body from his seat as he spoke.
"Now Senator, he has rights you know. An individual does not forfeit his rights here simply because he is a resident and not a citizen. I would expect you, of all people to respect that, Apollo, my old friend." The other man seated opposite him spoke in soothing tones. He was the Attorney General, a man of medium height, with a round, flabby face, narrow shoulders and a small pot belly. He wore a pair of old-fashioned reading glasses across the middle of his forehead.
Downy ignored the veiled complement. "Forfeit! How can he forfeit something he never had?" His black face turned purple. "That miserable piss-ant of a country he's from certainly doesn't recognize any of these so called rights. He never had them in the first place."
"Senator, Senator. How would it looked if we tossed somebody out of this country simply because we didn't like what he had to say? What would that say about us?"
"By God, it would say that we were firmly in command of our senses, that's what! This man is preaching our very destruction." Downy leaned forward in his chair and waved his fist at the other man as he spoke.
The Attorney General paused to scratch an armpit before answering. "Yes, it's true he has become the hero of the disenfranchised, and that his message is very disconcerting to some in the established order, but others of us see the value in having a new voice rise up to expose the selfishness of our apathetic society. Frankly Senator, I welcome what he has to say, as should someone of your background."
Downy dismissed the last comment with a wave of his hand. "The only thing you'll welcome is the mob that rises up to cut your throat at his command! How can you defend that rabble-rousing, power-mad, charlatan? You're showing sympathy for the devil." He crouched in his chair as if to leap upon the other.
"I happen to know something of his origin, Senator." The Attorney General wagged a finger at Downy. "His mother was a saint who endured an abusive relationship with his father. The relationship between father and son was also abusive, to put it mildly. Only the man's early death from drink spared the boy further suffering. But his mother's death several years later due to the abysmal medical care available to his class devastated him. That tragedy made him a deeper individual, concerned about the downtrodden who are forgotten by most of us. I'm proud to say that I now feel as he does."
"And you'll feel his boot on your neck before long! Good God, man open your eyes! He is motivated solely by hatred of those better than himself. All he wants to do is destroy us. Don't be such a sap!"
"I can not be so judgmental. I must follow my conscious in this matter and I will advise the president to do the same. The Secretary of Homeland Security agrees. There is such a thing as going too far. We make no apologies for having a heart." The Attorney General dropped his reading glasses down to his nose and picked up a stack of papers. "Now, if you'll excuse me..."
Downy jumped to his feet. "No doubt you will find cause to apologize to the thug who slices your neck open at the bidding of that madman," he shouted and pounded the tip of his lion-headed cane on the floor. "I once followed my heart instead of my head and I have been paying for it all of my life. We are about to go the way of the Neanderthals, my friend. God help us!"
Sram kicked one of the small native felines out of his way and cursed the junk-pile of a world that he had landed upon. There was nothing useful for the Haden here. The local science had been primitive to the extreme. The Haden would gain nothing from such a dung-heap. Other alien worlds had at least developed an interesting sidelight or two in their crude technology that Sram's race could make use of as a weapon. But those races had begun to explore their neighboring stars when the Haden conquered them. The population of this pathetic stench-pit hadn't even finished exploring their own solar system when they collapsed long before the Haden arrived--and no wonder.
Sram halted in front of a stylized illustration hanging on the wall of the building he searched. A pretentious squared frame surrounded the rag, as if some wretch had thought enough of the miserable piece of rubbish to highlight the waste of space it represented. The illustration was of a young female of the local species swathed in crude apparel, staring over her shoulder at the observer. She had an mesmerizing expression on her face--if you could call such a weak visage a face!--and there was an ornament in her lower ear. The lighting was very well done, Sram had to admit, even radiant in its effect. It was like a star shining through a nebula. But so what? Of what possible value was such a cartoon? No Haden could take such inanity seriously. Sram stuck out a paw and ripped the cloth to shreds with the pseudo-claws of his suit glove.
Useless baubles! That's all that the race of this dump had produced. Practical creations, such as a multi-species, hostile-alien interrogation device, were beyond a people that wasted their time with childish diversions epitomized by that sentimental drawing of a base female. The only hard-headed scientist they probably ever produced must have been run over by a wheeled, mass-transportation vehicle early in life. Sram laughed at that and passed gas. Well, good riddance to them! It was time to get off of this hovel of a planet. As he made his way down the debris-strewn hall towards the charred entrance, he wondered what was for lunch up on the ship.
Laughing-Bird had grown cold and still. Woman-of-tears would not give up the tiny corpse, but hugged it to her breast as she lay upon the muddy ground within the scant shelter of the crevice. Moon-eyes implored her to let him have the child to be interred according to the traditions of their people, but she would not heed him. She was thin and frail, very much in danger of going down the same path as her offspring, but she did not seem to care. She refused the meager fare of berries Moon-Eyes offered her. He had the feeling he should do something, but he did not know what.
Woman-of-Tears would never rise again, Moon-Eves realized. He would have to perform the passing-away ritual for two. If he had the strength, that is. Why did the gods create him, if all they wanted from him was pain and hurt? Tears welled in his eyes.
"I'm sorry Mrs. Sires, there's nothing we can do." The words hung in the air after the old woman's departure. The doctor seated behind the desk took off his glasses and massaged his temples. Damn this job! If only he had a slender line of hope to offer the poor lady. Something... Anything... But he had nothing. The laboratory performing research in the area had shut down after it was the subject of a television magazine show doing an investigative report on animal cruelty. The explicit video of monkeys, rabbits and cats in various states of distress had been too much for the public. The doctor sighed and closed the file in front of him. So much for that.
Downy was grateful for the knock at the door. He needed a break from his studies. Physics was just as hard as it was fascinating. He was only beginning to grasp its grand concepts. But the possibilities that they opened for him were endless. He couldn't wait until he got past his initial difficulties and began to fully understand what he was studying. Then the world could stand back and watch him work wonders!
Downy rose from the card table piled high with books and stumbled to the door on stiff legs. He opened it to find the flaky old woman from downstairs on his threshold. She had a long-haired, yellow cat in her hands and a shopping bag at her feet. Her eyes were red and her hair was disheveled.
"Sam," she said. "I have such a big favor to ask of you. Please!"
"Um, sure." He only knew his visitor from having said hi to her in the hall every now and then, but he wanted to be polite. He smiled. "Anything you want, Mrs., uh..."
"Call me Helen," the old woman said. "I have to... leave and I'm not going to be able to take care of Miss Golden Apple anymore. I know it's an imposition, but could you possibly give a nice home to this darling little kitty? She's such a joy!"
Downy didn't know what to say. He began to stammer some excuse.
"Oh, you seem like such a nice boy. You've always been so friendly to me. There isn't another soul I could give her to. Really! And I don't want the poor thing to end up back on the street where I found her after I... go. She's the most precious thing I have."
"Well, you see, Helen..." Downy was mumbling. What the Hell would he do with a cat? This was outrageous! "Look, ma'am. I'm afraid you're just going to have to..."
The old woman began to cry. "Oh, please! Miss Golden Apple won't be any trouble. She hardly eats anything and she's very clean. Here, I brought along her favorite cat food so you'll know what to buy." She reached down, picked up the shopping bag and placed it at his feet. "Oh, promise me you'll give my little darling a loving home. Please! I beg of you! I don't know where else to turn; you're all I have. Both my sons have large dogs and Miss Golden Apple is so terrified of dogs. Please say yes. Please!" The old lady was on the verge of collapse.
Downy wanted to advise her to put the cat up for adoption at the animal shelter, but throttled his temper. He couldn't bring himself to make the suggestion. The old woman looked at him like a little girl gazing up at her daddy for a blessing.
Downy shrugged. "OK," he said.
"Oh, thank you, Sam! Thank you, thank you, thank you! God will reward you, I'm sure." The woman placed the cat in his arms; her hands lingered upon and caressed the animal. "Goodbye, my little apple." She spoke in baby talk.
"Sam's going to take real good care of you from now on, just like your mama did." She withdrew her hands and clasped them to her bosom. Her eyes were still fixed upon the cat. She appeared about to faint. After a moment, she whirled around and ran down the hall, a hand stuffed in her mouth. Miss Golden Apple meowed after her.
"Goodbye, Helen," Downy said to her retreating back. He picked up the shopping bag and brought it into his apartment. Then he set the cat on the floor and watched as it explored the living room. When Miss Golden Apple disappeared into the kitchen, Downy sat back down at the card table and tried to decide what to do. He supposed he could wait until the old woman moved out and then take the cat to the shelter. His conscious lurched. Hadn't he promised to keep the animal himself? Well, yes, but he was just being nice when he said that. One couldn't hold him to it, right? Of course not! Downy slapped the table. He had decided. Good! It was time to get back to the books. He had a big test tomorrow. Now where was he?
The cat jumped on the table and sent a stack of papers flying. "Damn!" Downy shooed it off only to have the animal leap up again. It began to swat a pencil across the table top. "All right, Apples, or whatever your name is, I'll fix you." He picked up the cat and carried it into the bathroom. Opening up an old newspaper that he had grabbed on the way, Downy spread the sheets across the floor, dropped the cat and quickly closed the door. "There!" he said. "That'll show you who's the boss around here." Downy wiped the loose hair off of his hands and returned to his studies.
He was soon driven crazy by the pitiful meows that emerged from the bathroom. "OK, OK!" he yelled. I hear you."
Downy rose from his books and selected a can of food from the old woman's shopping bag. He got a bowl and a can opener from the kitchen and went to the bathroom door. Opening it just a crack, he was about to squeeze through when the cat bumped the door open and ran to freedom. Miss Golden Apple strutted around the living room with her nose and tail in the air and then remounted the table to renew her assault upon the pencil.
Downy sighed and shook his head. What did he do to deserve this? He opened the can of cat food, dumped it into the bowl and left it in a corner of the bathroom. He returned to the table, placed both the pencil and the cat on the floor and had a few blessed minutes of peace to study. But the truce didn't last. A purring bundle of fur was soon rubbing itself across his shins. Downy shoved it away several times, but Miss Golden Apple would not be denied. Finally, he picked the cat up and began to pet it. The animal was instantly in heaven and became even more demanding. The moment he stopped stroking the beast, it would nudge his hand into motion again using its head. Downy laughed in spite of himself. Maybe he would keep the damn cat, after all. It was kind of cute.
Having a cat was not liking having a girl, of course, but at least it was company. Downy knew he would never be popular with the opposite sex; brainy, shy and lanky, with a shock of wild hair that fought with a large nose for attention were all detriments that insured there would be no female companionship in his future. Downy bit his lip. Loneliness was to be the defining characteristic of his life.
He ran his hand over the warm, smooth fur of Miss Golden Apple. Maybe this would help. Sure the cat would be a major time-sink, but he was studying too much, anyway. Naturally, he would never let the little beast distract him so much that he gave up his beloved, but demanding, physics for some basket-weaving course like political science. Downy snorted at the thought and scratched the cat's head. His mama working fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, back in the 'hood to put him through school would never forgive him for that!
"You know," he said. "You kind of look like a lion, Apples."
He hadn't been able to put up much of a struggle. Once Downy was knocked to the ground, a few looters lingered to kick him, but eventually they went off after their fellows in pursuit of booty. One brandished his cane. Downy felt numb and did not try to rise. His vision was blurred, but he could still hear Handel's music. The piece had advanced to the minuet, his favorite part. The notes resurrected a fantasy from his youth and the memory overflowed his senses. The dream had gotten him through the beginning of his life in the ghetto and now it would get him through the end of his life in an estate. If only he hadn't of taken it so seriously in between... Downy sank into the fantasy with a sigh.
He was a handsome prince on his wedding day. A great cathedral was packed with nobility come from far and wide to witness the wedding. An orchestra occupied the balcony, filling the immense interior of the church with Handel's genius. Members of the wedding party marched down the aisle in time to the graceful composition and peeled off at the altar to take their positions for the ceremony.
Immaculate in his uniform, the prince entered from the side during a pause in the music and took his place at the front, staring down the aisle towards the massive, wooden doors of the cathedral entrance, now closed. His princess was on the other side.
As the dignified music drifted over the balcony once more, four bridesmaids came down the aisle unrolling a red carpet that stopped at the feet of the altar. They were just clumsy enough to be adorable. They giggled while trying to be elegant. The prince smiled. When finished, the bridesmaids joined the wedding party before the altar.
A dainty passage followed, only the woodwinds were playing over tinkling percussion, and a host of little girls skipped across the carpet dispensing flowers along the path from the baskets they carried. A few went astray to the horror of their parents, but to the delight of everyone else. The prince bowed deeply as one solemn little girl curtseyed and presented him with a single rose. As the selection trailed off, and the urchins finished their task and found their places next to the bridesmaids, the suspense became unbearable. The prince swallowed and adjusted his collar. There was a lull as the last sound from the last instrument drifted away and was swallowed up in the vast hall. Nothing stirred for a moment.
Suddenly, the music swelled to the full force of the orchestra. The beautiful minuet poured forth in all its glory, reverberating across the great cathedral. The main doors swung open and the bride, an ethereal vision in her long, shimmering dress and train, emerged and floated down the aisle towards her prince. He was visibly moved by the sight and swayed back and forth a few times before he regained his poise. Few noticed, however.
All eyes were on the bride. The veil barely concealed her royal features. Her face blended beauty, dignity and innocence in a portrait of glowing eyes, flawless skin and golden hair. Her sweeping brow spoke of natural intelligence and her firm chin testified to innate courage. Her glistening lips were parted in a smile towards something only she could see. It must have been a goddess smiling down upon her from above. Old women wept at the sight.
The angel in a bridal gown and the music merged into one. Each blessed the other and affirmed the majesty of life. The prince found his purpose for being at that moment. He gladly became the guardian of all that was sacred, fleeting as it might be in the world. The prince stood as transfixed by what he saw as a man about to be engulfed by a tidal wave.
"Let this moment never end," he whispered to himself. "Let it pull me under and sweep me away for all time."
But all too soon the bride completed her journey along the flower-strewn carpet and halted before the prince. She smiled shyly up at him, dropped her eyes and bowed her head. He nearly lost his self-control again, but recovered in time to turn with her towards the altar and the waiting priest. They held hands, the rose between them, as the music reached its triumphant finish and the ceremony began.
Downy, sprawled in his own blood, retained a trace of consciousness long enough to hear a sparkling voice say, "I do." His whole interminable, lonely and frustrating life took on meaning at that one moment. Even if it were an illusion, he would have gladly sacrificed the entire universe for that one, single, precious moment. Indeed, he had in a way. Then the prince and princess were joined together forever in the barren abyss of nothingness.
Mark Stanley is a forty-something avionics technician, former Marine, dedicated bachelor, degenerate gambler, border line alcoholic and unapologetic hack writer. He lives in South Florida.
Visit Aphelion's Lettercolumn and voice your opinion of this story.
Return to the Aphelion main page.