The Riddle of Sappho’s End
by D. J. Belt
Story time-line: This is the fifth in a series of Jan and Mel stories, coming after The Tomb, The Tears of a Goddess, The Legacy of Britannia, and A Bad Day in Algiers, in that order. It’s not necessary to read the others before reading this, as I try to make each story somewhat self-sufficient. In this case, though, it might help somewhat to read The Tears of a Goddess first, but that’s up to you.
The hallway of the Department of History and Archaeology was abuzz with the excitement of the end of final examination week. Students milled about the hallway, seeking out appointments with various professors and crowding around grade lists which were posted on the department’s large bulletin boards. The last finals had been administered and graded, and it was a common practice, before students left town for the summer, to attempt to finagle a change in their grades or bid farewell to professors whom they admired.
Professor of Archaeology Janice Covington’s office had been particularly busy during these last few days, not only from the press of students discussing grades and papers, but from those who were to work on her latest summer dig. The university had agreed to help fund her attempts to locate and excavate the remains of the home of the great poet, Sappho, on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea. As always, Jan preferred to gather around her a cadre of graduate students to oversee the process of the dig and gain valuable field experience. She chose them carefully, coached them as they made their individual plans for the journey there, and provided advice on what to expect when they arrived on Lesbos.
As a student left her office, Jan lifted her petite, athletic frame out of her chair, shook back her shoulder-length blonde hair, and peeked out of her door. Thank God, she thought. The line is gone. If I hear about one more paper, I’ll… She noted the department secretary at her desk down the hall, and thought, Hot coffee. That’s the ticket.
Jan left the door and made her way down the hall to where the department secretary’s desk was situated. The pert young woman was busily smacking a wad of chewing gum as she shuffled through a ream of papers on her desk. She paused and looked up quizzically as Jan leaned against the wall near her and studied her desk. “Jeez, Virginia, how do you find anything on your desk?”
Virginia laughed as she returned the teasing. “You should talk, Doc. I’ve seen your office.” She looked Jan over, then asked, “You look beat. Lemme guess. Coffee?”
“Oh, yeah. Fresh?”
“Nothin’ but. That’s all we live on around here during finals week.”
Janice ducked into the small pantry near Virginia’s desk. “Thanks, Virginia. You’re a doll.” As she grabbed a reasonably clean mug and filled it, she heard Virginia’s retort. “Oh? That’s not what my ‘ex’ says, although I could really spoil the right person if she were to give me the chance.”
Jan smiled at the gentle flirtation as she emerged, cup of hot coffee in her hand. “You’re eight years too late, Virginia. Mel got to me first.”
Virginia’s eyes twinkled as she resumed smacking her chewing gum. “Hm. Go on, then. Just run off to Lesbos for the summer with that gorgeous gal of yours. See if I care.”
Jan laughed at that, then winked at the young woman and replied, “Virginia, you’re the only thing about this dump that I’ll miss.”
“Me or my coffee?”
Jan smiled. “Both.” With that, she wandered down the hallway toward her office, pausing before she entered the door to glance back at Virginia’s desk and half-expecting some witty comment to be thrown her way. The secretary wasn’t looking at her, though; she had stood and was bending over slightly to retrieve something from the far corner of her cluttered desk. Jan studied the tight skirt for a moment, then thought, Virginia, honey, those skirts of yours are killing me. She shook her head, then felt the voice of her conscience tweak at her. Covington, you’re a total dog. Stop that and get back to work. She sighed, then entered her office and rested her coffee cup on the edge of her cluttered desk. As she flopped down into her worn office chair, she thought, Sure could use a smoke.
Her eyes roamed the interior of her cramped office, rows of books and artifacts lining the shelves, and traveled down to her desk. The small calender showed the date. June, 1949. Damn, Covington, you’re getting on up there. Thirty-five years old and counting. Well, you haven’t done too badly. Accomplished a PhD, gained some grudging professional recognition, and fulfilled your father’s dream. Her gaze roamed up the wall and came to rest on an aged parchment scroll encased in wood and glass, hanging on her office wall. Found the Xena scrolls and proved the legacy. I know that you’re proud, Dad. Her eyes roamed back down to her desk, admiring the black-and-white photograph of Melinda. Found the love of my life, too, at the same time. I’ve never loved anyone like I love her. Never will, again. Wouldn’t be the same. She puzzled over that, attempting to imagine herself nesting down with Virginia, and then shook her head. Nope. Sweet kid, but no one can come close to Mel.
She felt a strange pang of emotion as she contemplated life without the marvelous southern woman, and her eyes returned to the scroll on the wall. Gabrielle. She lost Xena, probably when she was even younger than me. It eventually killed her. She took her own life, outside of Athens. Aching grief and loneliness for years. I wonder how I would handle such a thing? She glanced again at Mel’s picture and thought, Not that well. I would have checked out a lot sooner. Life without Mel just wouldn’t be worth living.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a voice at her door. “Doctor Covington?”
She looked up. The face at the door was a familiar one, a first-year graduate student who was to meet the dig team on Lesbos. “Oh, Judy. Come on in.”
She entered and perched on a chair in front of Jan’s desk. “Thanks. Just wanted to talk to you about the trip.”
“Yeah, sure. What’s on your mind?”
“Got a few questions. You got a minute?”
“I’m all yours.”
“Thanks.” She spied the empty ashtray in front of her. “Mind if I light up, Doc?”
“What? Naw, go ahead.” She produced a rumpled cigarette pack from her pocket, noticed Jan’s envious expression, and offered her one. Janice waved a hand. “No, thanks. Trying to quit.”
“Me, too. Any luck?”
She eyed the pack and relented, picking one out and placing it between her lips. “Thanks, and the answer is no. How’s about you?”
“Well, we’ll hack up a lung together. Now, what questions did you have, Judy?”
Melinda Pappas adjusted her wire-rimmed eyeglasses as she mentally inventoried her suitcase, then turned her attention to Jan’s. She stood, stretching her long legs and pulling herself to her almost six feet of height, re-clipped her black hair behind her neck, and began mentally running down her checklist for the umpteenth time. She smiled as she heard the screen door at the front of their cottage slam and Jan clump down the hall. “Mel?”
“In here, Jan.” She met Jan at the door of the bedroom, leaned down and gave her a resounding hug and kiss, then held her lover at arm’s length. “Phew. You smoked a cigarette.”
The guilty expression on Jan’s face convicted her, and she replied, “Yeah. Made it almost all day, though.”
Mel eyed her critically, then relented. “Well, it is finals week. I won’t be too hard on you.”
“Thanks. I’ll take a shower.”
“Please do. Go on, I’ll talk to you while you bathe.”
“Join me and scrub my back?” Jan raised a lecherous eyebrow. Mel crossed her arms in front of her, then responded with a skeptical grin.
“Somehow, I don’t think that it’s your back that you want scrubbed. Now get into that shower, or we’ll never get to dinner. Go on, cutie.” Mel gave the blonde a playful slap on the bottom and returned her attention to the two large bags as Jan stripped off her clothes, threw them on the floor near the laundry hamper and padded into the bathroom. Mel paused to surreptitiously watch Janice’s unclothed form disappear around the corner into the bathroom, smiled quietly and thought, After eight years, she’s still the cutest thing on two legs. As she turned her attention back to the suitcases, she noted the clothes on the floor, sighed deeply, and picked them up, dropping them into the large wicker basket. Totally incapable of being domesticated, but cute. When the water began running, Mel walked into the bathroom and perched on the counter, talking over the noise of the shower. “So, Jan, are you set for the trip?”
Jan’s voice echoed from behind the shower curtain. “Yeah. Can’t wait to get back into the field. That’s where an archaeologist belongs, not in some musty classroom.”
“Have you heard from Alais?”
“Got a letter from her two days ago. She said that she’d meet us there when we’re ready and show us where to dig. All we have to do is telegraph her or telephone her, if the phones work on that island.”
Mel shifted her weight slightly, pulling Jan’s hairbrush from beneath her thigh. As she placed it aside, she wondered aloud, “I wonder how she’ll travel.”
Jan laughed, then stuck her head around the edge of the curtain. Her hair was plastered to her head, traces of shampoo still evident. “Like any immortal travels, I guess.” She snapped her fingers, then waved a hand. “Poof.”
“Do you think that she’ll still have the strength to just appear over such long distances? She did say that her powers had diminished somewhat over the centuries.”
“Hey. Once Aphrodite, always Aphrodite.”
Mel nodded. Her thoughts turned pensive, remembering their trip to France. They had been guests of the Countess d’Agee, a dignified lady with a timeless beauty about her, sad, pensive eyes and a kindly manner who preferred to be called simply ‘Alais’. During the visit, Jan had correctly deduced that she was actually the immortal once known as the Greek goddess of love. She seemed very different than the scatterbrained, impetuous Aphrodite which Gabrielle had described in her scrolls two millennia before. Mel commented on that to Jan, who responded with her usual pragmatism.
“Hell, we all grow up, Mel. I imagine it just takes immortals a lot longer.”
“Ares never changed.”
“He’s different. With him, it’s ‘Once a jackass, always a jackass’.”
Mel’s eyes grew worried. “Jan, do you think that we’ll run into him again?”
Jan had disappeared behind the curtain and resumed her shower. “Nah. What the hell would he want on Lesbos? I think that he could care less about Sappho.”
“I hope you’re right. Every time we’ve run into him, you’ve gotten hurt.”
Jan was silent at that for a moment, then replied, “Yeah, but so has he.” The water quit running, and Jan pulled the shower curtain back, reaching out from the tall claw-foot tub. “Hand me my towel, will ya, love?”
Mel picked up the towel and handed it to Jan, who began busily drying herself. “He’s an immortal, Jan, and you’ve frustrated his plans twice now. I’m really afraid that the next time we meet him, he will kill you.”
Jan wrapped the towel around herself and stepped from the tub, drawing close to Mel. She placed damp hands on Mel’s thighs, looked deeply into the blue eyes and felt the worry which radiated from them. “I never forget who I’m descended from, and neither should you. The ancestors will always protect the descendants. Have faith in Xena and Gabrielle. They’ve never failed us, and they never will.”
Mel traced a thumb over the long white scar prominent near Jan’s left eye and noted the slight asymmetry of her pert nose, reminders of her last encounter with the god of war. “You’re right, of course. I just can’t help but worry. If I lost you…”
“But you won’t. I guarantee that I’ll be around to be a problem to you for a long time yet.” Jan flashed her most charming smile in an effort to brighten Mel’s mood. “Now let me dry my hair so I can take you out to dinner, gorgeous.”
Mel responded with a brilliant grin of her own. “Deal, cutie. I promise not to be so maudlin from now on.”
The trip to Greece had been a long one. The flight from the United States to Athens seemed to have taken literally forever, and both Jan and Mel were thankful beyond words when the plane finally taxied to a stop on the Athens runway. They shuffled through customs and collapsed into the back of a taxi, finding a room at their favorite Athens hotel. After baths, a hot meal, and a bit too much wine, they slept the sleep of the dead, not awakening until mid-morning the next day.
That afternoon, Jan and Mel checked on their travel arrangements to Lesbos. Finding them in order, they walked the short distance to the Athens Museum. Their intent was to visit three old friends.
As they emerged from the back of the museum’s impressive building and walked into the gardens of the expansive courtyard, Mel squeezed Jan’s arm and pointed. “Oh, Jan. That must be it.” Jan followed Mel’s pointing finger and saw a large rectangular structure about six feet high rising prominently in the center of the gardens, surrounded by flowers. Mel was silent, her eyes wide in anticipation as she pulled Jan toward the structure. They approached quietly, their footsteps echoing on the stone of the walkways, until they stood beside it and gazed on the bright marble exterior. It was a mausoleum, its exterior freshly scrubbed and the inscription on its side gleaming in the afternoon sun. Letters in both English and Greek bore the message which Jan and Mel had first seen, covered with dirt and vines, on a dusty hillside above a tomb a couple of years ago in the foothills of Greece, about forty miles from this very spot.
Here rests the mortal form of the Warrior-Bard Gabrielle of Potidaea, with the remains of her beloved Xena.
The two lovers stood silently for some time in front of the mausoleum, arms interlocked, each lost in their own thoughts as they gazed on their ancestors’ tomb. After some time, Jan felt Mel squeeze her hand softly. “It’s beautiful, Jan. The pictures don’t do it justice.”
“I’ll say. The people of Greece really made themselves proud with this.”
“Greeks love their heritage. These are two of their brightest heroines, and you gave them back to their country.”
“No. We did. You and me, Mack and Sallie.”
Melinda smiled at that. “We did, didn’t we?”
“Do you remember when we found them and brought them here?”
Mel nodded. “How could I ever forget? What an adventure. That was when they first appeared to us in spirit.”
“How often I’ve talked with Gabrielle since then.” Jan looked up at Mel. “Do you ever speak with Xena?”
Mel nodded. “She’s not much for words, but yes, occasionally.”
Jan leaned against Mel. “Trust me to have the chatty ancestor.”
Mel laughed, then gently chastised Jan. “Shame on you, to joke at a time like this.” She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed at her eyes as she asked the next question. “Jan? Do you think-I mean, are they pleased with this?”
Jan didn’t answer immediately. They stood silently, each lost in their own thoughts, as a gentle breeze ruffled the flowers at the base of the mausoleum and blew softly across their faces. After a moment, Jan answered.
“I think that they’re very pleased.” She tugged at Mel’s arm. “Now, come on. We need to pay a visit to our old buddy Doctor Pangalos. He’s expecting us.”
The next morning found them embarking on a pleasant but smallish passenger ship bound for Lesbos, one hundred and fifty miles to the northeast across the radiantly blue Aegean Sea. The trip was expected to take just a little longer than a day, and they anticipated arriving in the port-city of Mytilene, on the southeastern coast of the island, around noon on the next day.
After finding their stateroom, depositing their bags and tipping the cabin boy, they returned to the main deck to watch their departure. The railing was crowded with passengers waving good-bye to well-wishers on the dock and chattering pleasantly in a variety of languages. Jan and Mel found a space on the railing and leaned on the smooth wood, watching the activity as Mel squeezed Janice’s arm and snuggled close against her. Her smooth southern drawl was piqued with excitement. “Oh, Jan, what a wonderful idea, making the final leg of the trip by sea. You’re certainly full of surprises, aren’t you?”
Jan smiled. “Had to, Mel. I didn’t have the heart to try to shoehorn those long legs of yours back onto another plane. Besides, they only have a couple of flights a week to Lesbos.”
“Just as well with me. I’ll love being back at sea again. What a treat. I haven’t done a pleasure cruise since I was a little girl.”
“Why, yes. My father took me on a trip.” She eyed Janice pleasantly, her blue eyes flashing in the sunlight. “Didn’t your father ever take you on a sea cruise? You two were always traveling, as I recall.”
Jan nodded at the recollection. “Sure did. I often went with him on his expeditions. We traveled between Europe and America several times before the war.”
“You seldom talk about him, Jan. Were you two close?”
“You bet. I went with him every summer, to wherever he was grubbing in the dirt for artifacts. That’s where I gained my love of archaeology, at my dad’s side. I was in pig’s heaven, those days. Dirty knees and dirty hands. Found my first artifact when I was eight years old. Dad and I dug it out together.”
“What was it?”
“A painted amphora, a type of pitcher. I think that he was prouder than I was.”
“Where is it now?”
Jan shrugged. “Who knows? I haven’t seen it since.” She snorted softly, then added, “He probably sold it on the black market.”
Mel’s voice was reproachful. “That isn’t nice, Jan.”
“Well, it’s probably true. He’d sell anything to anybody to finance his search for the Xena scrolls. They didn’t call him Harry ‘Grave-Robber’ Covington for nothing.”
“And you resent him for it?”
Jan looked down as the ship’s deep-throated whistle sounded repeatedly and she felt the ship move away from the dock. After it silenced, she responded, “I guess so. The Covington name has been one hell of a bad legacy to live down. I’ve had to fight it all my professional life. You know that.”
“I know, and I also know that you worshiped him.”
Jan smiled at that. “Yeah, he was my hero. What did I know?”
“It must have been hard on you when he died.”
“Nearly killed me. I was in my second year of college then. He disappeared mysteriously on some expedition. I never found out for sure what happened. After some time, he was declared dead.”
“I’m sorry. It must be difficult for you to talk about.”
Jan smiled up at Mel. “Ah, spilled milk now. It’s in the past. You gotta take your lumps and move on, Mel. That’s how you get through life.”
“You mustn’t remember him badly, Jan.”
“Oh, I don’t. Whatever else he was, he was my dad. I’ll always adore him. I’m a little pissed about the Covington legacy, but I forgave him for everything else long ago.”
A male voice, fluent in English but with a cultured Greek accent, assailed them from the deck just behind them. “I’m terribly sorry to intrude, but did I hear the name Covington?”
Jan and Mel both turned at the same time and found themselves facing a dignified-looking Greek man. He was dressed in an open-collar shirt, and appeared to be of middle age. His expression was one of curiosity, and his manner reflected education and breeding. Jan answered cautiously. “Um, yeah. Who wants to know?”
He bowed slightly. “Forgive me, but my name is Nikos Topoulos. Do I have the honor of speaking to Doctor Janice Covington?”
Jan relaxed and smiled broadly, offering out her hand to the man. “Sure do. Sorry to be rude, but I’m rather cautious these days.”
The man smiled graciously and shook Jan’s hand. “Not at all, Doctor Covington.”
“Doctor Topoulos, this is my dearest friend and colleague, Melinda Pappas.” Jan looked up at Mel and explained, “Doctor Topoulos is the Director of Antiquities for the island of Lesbos. He granted us permission to do this dig. We’ve been in correspondence quite a bit over the last few months.”
Mel gently shook the hand that was offered her. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Doctor Topoulos.”
“It is my pleasure. Are you the M. Pappas whose translations of Alcaeus were published?”
Mel replied somewhat self-consciously, “Why, yes.”
“Most delightful reading. You seem to have an exquisite feel for Greek poetry.”
Mel seemed to actually blush slightly. “Why, thank you, Doctor Topoulos.”
“Not at all.” He released the hand and then motioned toward the deck. “I believe that several of your students are also aboard this ship. They are quite excited to be with you on this excavation. They speak of little else. Would you care to greet them?”
Jan smiled broadly. “They’ve had to put up with me all year. Let’s give them a break, huh?”
He laughed pleasantly at the joke, then offered, “Why don’t the two of you dine with me at the evening meal? I would be most interested in discussing your search for Sappho’s home.”
“We’d love to, Doctor Topoulos. It’d be an honor.”
“I shall make the arrangements. Until then?” Jan and Mel both nodded, and the man bowed politely and took his leave of them. They watched him enter one of the passageways into the ship’s interior, and Mel leaned against the rail.
“He seems quite a pleasant fellow, Jan.”
“Huh?” Jan looked up at Mel and nodded. “Oh, yeah. Sure does.” They turned their attentions back toward the progress of the ship through the harbor water, the pleasant day and the prospect of an unhurried voyage across the Aegean washing over them like a cool breeze.
Nikos Topoulos entered the dining area and spoke to one of the stewards, assuring himself that the names Pappas and Covington would be on the dinner seating chart with his, and then exited the dining area to emerge on the far side of the ship. He leaned on the rail, popped open a cigarette case and indulged himself in a smoke, his mind active with thought. So that is the famous Doctor Janice Covington? She seems very unassuming, but there is a deep cleverness in those eyes. I see much of her father in her. I must press my questions to her very carefully. He felt a dark burn as his mind pondered his next thought. I have been seeking Sappho’s home for years. How is it that she thinks that she can find it when I have failed repeatedly? What is her secret? What information does she hoard which I do not possess? I will find out. And what if she actually finds it? It is not proper that she should snatch my dream from me so easily. He finished his cigarette and cast the butt over the railing. Well, I will just have to watch very carefully to learn what she knows and then insure that her dig does not succeed.
Mack MacKenzie rubbed his eyes, stretched, and rose from the table, dropping his pencil on the notes which he had carefully scratched on paper. He rubbed his hip and thought, Damned war injury is giving me fits. Too much sitting lately. Time to have some fun. He picked up the documents which the museum had loaned him, arranged them in order and returned them to the young lady who was the archivist for the Mytilene Museum. She received them with thanks, and he gathered his notes, left the museum’s quiet halls and stepped out into the busy downtown street.
Mytilene was a bustling seaside city, warm and pleasant in the early summer sun. From his place on the museum’s steps, he could see the brilliant blues of the Aegean Sea shimmer in the far distance. His pleasantly lined face, somehow appearing more youthful than his thirty-six years and older at the same time, broke into a broad grin as the incredible beauty of the afternoon warmed him and thrilled him with energy. Oh, yeah. This is more like it. Time to get back to the ranch. He bounced down the steps and found his motorcycle, sitting astride it and stuffing his notes inside the front of his shirt. He found his key and inserted it, kicked the contraption into noisy, smoky life and wound his way out into the busy city traffic, heading toward the hilly countryside beyond the city’s confines.
Sallie MacKenzie emerged from the garage housing the trucks loaded with the dig’s equipment just in time to see Mack slide to a stop near the door. She shook a finger at him, her voice chastising but her expression playful as she admonished her husband. “Mack MacKenzie, be careful on that thing. I swear, you’re like a kid.”
Mack nudged his sunglasses down on his nose and looked over them at Sallie. “You say that like it’s a bad thing. Come on, knock off and join me. Let’s go to the beach for a while.”
She looked back at the garage, then nodded and disappeared back into the building with the reply, “You don’t have to ask twice, mister. Just need my sunglasses and my bandana.”
He nudged down the motorcycle’s kick-stand and walked into the garage behind her, pulling his notes from his shirt and dropping them on the table in the corner. Sallie was tying the bandana around her mop of unruly dark curls. She looked up at him, her wide brown eyes sparkling, leaned forward and pecked his cheek, then asked, “Did you get your Sappho research done, oh renowned historian and husband of mine?”
“Unemployed historian, you mean. Yeah, it’s done.”
Sallie attempted to sooth him with a reassuring reply. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Mack. It’s actually lucky that you got laid off from that lecturer’s post at U of M. It gave us the chance to get hired by Jan to be her advance team.” She playfully poked him in the ribs. “Now come on, aren’t you having more fun here on Lesbos than you were in that stuffy classroom, lecturing freshmen?”
Mack grinned. “Yeah, guess I am at that.” He looked around the garage and asked, “Are you finished here, oh fresh new archaeologist and wife of mine?”
“Everything’s inventoried and packed. Let’s go.” They emerged from the garage, locked the door, and sat astride the idling motorcycle. As Mack urged the machine out onto the road and leisurely accelerated, Sallie gripped him tightly around the waist and leaned her chin on his shoulder, speaking loudly over the motor’s noise. “I’m sure glad you found this thing. It’s fun.”
Mack laughed as they leaned slightly into a curve. “Glad you changed your mind. You were pretty miffed when I first bought it.”
“It helped when I found out how little you paid for it. I was just worried that Jan would be upset when her dig money bought a motorcycle along with all the tents and stuff.”
“Are you kidding? When she sees this thing, she’ll go bananas, I guarantee it. We won’t be able to get her off of it. She’ll be like a flea on a dog.”
Sallie’s eyes grew wide with question. “She likes motorcycles?”
“She’s got one Stateside.”
Sallie leaned her head against Mack’s shoulder. “I should have known.” She remained silent for a while, just enjoying the breeze and the ride, then raised her voice over the noise of the motor again. “They’ll be here tomorrow afternoon, you know.”
“Yup. We’ll pick them up at the docks.”
“On this thing?”
Mack laughed. “No, the third truck, the small one. Some of her grad students are on the same boat.”
“So that’s why you wanted me to leave it empty.”
“Bingo. You should know by now that there’s always a method to my madness.”
“Yeah, except for one thing that I can’t figure out.”
Mack looked back over his shoulder for a moment, then asked, “What’s that?”
“How come a California boy with movie-star good looks like you married a Jewish girl from Brooklyn like me?”
Mack teased, “I just wanted to piss off my parents.”
Sallie grinned at the joke, squeezed him about the ribs, then asked, “And did you?”
“Naw. My plot backfired. They absolutely love you.”
“Well, it sure pissed off my family. First I ‘shacked up’ with a divorced guy, a lapsed Catholic at that, and then came back from Paris married. The fireworks are still going off in Brooklyn.”
Mack laughed, then responded, “At least we got married. Hell, if you think that’s bad, try being in Mel’s shoes. Imagine her genteel southern family’s response when she took up with Jan Covington.”
“You mean because Jan’s a girl?”
“Not just that. Their fathers were both archaeologists, remember. Mel’s mother knew Jan’s dad and hated his guts. It was bad enough to her that Mel brought home a girl, but it just had to be the daughter of Harry Covington.”
Sallie laughed brightly. “I see what you mean. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that discussion.”
The docks in Mytilene were crowded with people and cars, all awaiting the passengers about to disembark from the newly-arrived ship. Mack leaned against the side of the truck, his arms crossed leisurely across his chest, his fedora hat pulled low over his eyes. Sallie stood above him in the open bed of the truck, her eyes scanning the gangway for a sign of Jan, Mel, or the young grad students who would be shortly be setting foot on the docks.
Finally, a throng of passengers began filing down the gangway, bags and suitcases in hand. Sallie shouted and waved as she spied their two old friends descending the narrow gangway to the dock, several bright-faced and slightly bewildered young people behind them.
Mel, tall enough to see over the heads of most of the crowd, pointed and spoke excitedly. “Oh, Jan, there they are.”
Jan attempted to stand on tiptoes, frustrated that she couldn’t see. “Where? I can’t see squat.”
“Follow me.” Jan shrugged, waved to the students behind her, and allowed Mel to lead the procession through the thronging crowd to the truck. When they neared it, Sallie bounced up and down exuberantly and waved, while Mack ambled forward and received a hug first from Mel and then from his old friend Jan. In a very few minutes, the group of students were piled into the back of the truck, comfortably ensconced on the luggage. Mel and Sallie joined them, as there was only room enough in the cab for Mack and Janice.
He waved toward the truck’s cab and pulled the key from his pocket, dangling it teasingly in front of Jan’s face. She eyed it, gave Mack an expression of false irritation, then beamed as she held out her hand and he dropped the key into her open palm. “You remembered.”
“You hate my driving.”
“Mack, you just drive like a little old lady.” She eyed the truck, then asked, “This thing safe?”
“With you at the wheel?”
She punched him playfully in the stomach, then motioned toward the cab. “Shaddup. Get in or get left behind, ol’ pal.” They clambered up into the cab and nosed the truck through the crowd, away from the docks and toward the hills outside of Mytilene as Jan questioned Mack on the dig preparations and took directions from him. “So, we got rooms?”
Mack stretched out in the cab, slid his hat back on his head, and nodded. “Yeah. Students are staying at a hostel. You two have a room next to Sallie and me, in a little inn across the street.”
“Nice. No damn tents this time. Running water and clean sheets. Keep this up, and I’m gonna get soft. I don’t like the idea of being away from the dig site at night, though. Security.”
“The Greeks will provide a cop at night. After all, it is an historical site.”
“Well, that’ll work. Guess we’ll probably end up paying for him, though.”
“Hey, it’s partly the university’s dime. Besides, things are cheap here on Lesbos.”
“They had better be. If we come up empty-handed on this dig, I’m going to look damned stupid to the trustees of the university. They’ll be less irritated, though, if I don’t spend all their money in the process.”
Mack cast a quizzical eye her way. “You think that’s a possibility? I mean, that we fail?”
Jan shrugged, ground the gears slightly, and cursed. “Always is.”
“Isn’t Alais helping us? After all, as Aphrodite, she visited Sappho’s house many times.”
“Yeah, but I’m sure that things will look very different to her after two thousand years.”
Mack nodded in agreement, then rummaged in his shirt pocket and produced two cigarettes, lighting them and passing one over to Jan. She hesitated for the briefest moment, then took it with a conspiratorial air. “Thanks. Don’t tell Mel. I’m trying to quit. She’s all over me about it.”
Mack grinned, then jerked a thumb back at the rear window. “Too late. You’ve been found out.” Jan glanced over her shoulder, seeing Mel’s face and a shaking finger in the dirty glass. The expression began as one of severity, then broadened into a brilliant grin when Jan gave her a sheepish look, much resembling a little girl caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Mack just chuckled, then held his hat over the window. An arm reached through the side window and thumped him on the head, Sallie’s Brooklyn accent accompanying it.
“Mack MacKenzie, behave yourself.”
Jan snickered, then echoed, “Yeah. Behave.”
Mack leaned back in his seat. “Something tells me that we’re not getting away with anything on this dig.”
Jan grinned, shifted gears and replied, “Yeah, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Glad they’re with us.”
Mack nodded. “Me too, ol’ buddy. Me, too.”
The next day, Jan, Mel, Mack and Sallie piled into the small truck and left at dawn , slowly driving down the coast road away from Mytilene and toward the high cliffs which towered above the rocky Lesbos coastline. They stopped just outside the city proper, next to some crumbling walls. Jan sat on a large, rectangular stone and pulled Mack’s carefully-drawn maps from her bag, spreading them out on her lap. The others gathered around her, and she began by pointing to a spot on the map. “Look, here is the old city wall. That’s where we are now. We measure out from here, along the coastal bluffs. It’s got to be at one of the higher elevations, near a sheer cliff over the sea, by Gabrielle’s description.”
Sallie interjected, “The Lovers’ Cliff? It was not far from that, as I remember the story.”
Jan nodded. “Right. If we find something approaching that, we’re close.”
Mel rested her hands on Jan’s shoulders. “The Lovers’ Cliff. That’s where Sappho died, as I recall.”
“Yeah.” She was silent for a moment, then folded the map. “Come on. Let’s get the show on the road.” They returned to the truck, started the engine, and pulled out onto the winding highway paralleling the coast. Jan drove slowly, watching the odometer as the numbers slowly ticked off. “You’re sure about this distance, Mack?”
“I converted the measurements as closely as I could, Jan. There’s always some doubt. The distance was not exact. It was an estimation of the time one would travel by horse or donkey-cart from the old city walls until her house became evident.”
Jan said nothing, but continued to drive slowly and watch the odometer. After some time, she pulled the truck off the road and parked it in the grass. “Here. Let’s walk toward the sea.”
The foursome gathered and strolled toward the sea, taking about five minutes to reach the cliffs. They gazed about them, looking down to the waves breaking against the sheer rock face below. Sallie pulled a pair of binoculars from her rucksack and studied the coastline farther ahead of them, passing them to Jan as she pointed. “There are some higher elevations ahead.”
Mel interjected, “That’s right. Gabrielle’s description of Sappho’s house indicated that it was on one of the higher bluffs overlooking the sea.”
Jan peered through the binoculars, then agreed, “Right. We keep going.”
The morning was spent in much this way, with frequent stops and hikes to the bluffs to examine the coastline. After several hours, the group found themselves on a prominent rise looking down a sheer stone cliff into the sea below. Jan folded her arms across her chest, stamped the ground impatiently with her foot, and expressed her annoyance. “We’re just peeing into the wind here. We could use some advice.”
Mel looked down at Jan. “When will Alais arrive?”
“Ah, I expected her already.”
Mack asked,. “You were able to get through to her?”
“Yeah, last night on the phone. Lousy connection, though. Could hardly understand her half the time.”
Mack shrugged, then suggested, “Maybe she misunderstood.”
Sallie added, “Or maybe she couldn’t get here.”
“Maybe.” Jan gazed out over the ocean for a moment, lost in thought, then turned to the others. “Look, give me a few minutes alone, will you? I’ll meet you guys back at the truck.”
Mel seemed to understand immediately. She herded Mack and Sallie toward the truck, leaving Janice standing on the bluff. Sallie studied Mel through her large, dark eyes, then spoke.
“What’s Jan doing?”
Mel smiled, then answered cryptically, “Talking to an old, old friend, I imagine.”
Mack smiled, then looped an arm around Sallie’s waist as they walked. “Gabrielle, probably.”
“Oh.” Sallie considered the statement for a moment, then simply said, “Hope she’s home to take the call.”
Jan stood on the bluff, feeling the breeze cool her and refresh her as she spoke softly. “Gabrielle?” She closed her eyes and listened with both her ears and her heart, then repeated the name. “Gabrielle?” A breeze caressed her face, and a soft voice echoed within her or around her, Jan wasn’t sure which.
I’m here, Janice.
Jan felt a combination of exhilaration and awe thrill through her at the voice. It always affected her so, a feeling of safety and comfort washing over her on those infrequent times during which she conversed with the ancient bard and ancestor. “Thanks for hearing my call.”
Of course, my distant daughter. I am always near. My love for you is my duty.
“Are you aware of what I seek?”
“Can you help me?”
It was so long ago, and the memories are quite…
“Painful to you? Of course. What a moron I am. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked this of you.”
Painful? Yes. Sappho and I were lovers once, you know.
“I know. Never mind. I’ll do this alone. Sorry.”
You are never alone, distant daughter. I will always be close, as Xena is for Melinda. Continue on your present course, and you will achieve your dream.
“Gabrielle? Do you approve of this? I mean, I never considered that it might be a heartbreaking thing for you to have to watch. Do you— wish me to stop?”
Find her, Janice. Glorify her. Give her back to the world. Make her live forever. Do this thing for her.
“What about you?”
I do not matter. You matter. Sappho matters.
Janice hesitated, then attempted to voice her next thought. “And…”
Yes, daughter. To me, Xena matters most of all, and we are both content with this. Jealousy cannot long endure in the timeless realms. Now go and seek your dream.
A final warning: jealousy and envy live large in the mortal realm. It will be your enemy in this endeavor. Take care, my distant daughter.
A breeze wafted across Jan’s face. In it, she felt a burden disappear, and then detected a sudden emptiness of heart as the warm wind evaporated. In that moment, she knew that her ancestor was gone. She sighed deeply, then cast a long gaze out over the bright blue Aegean before turning and finding her way back to the truck.
As they slowly wound up the coastal road, Janice geared the truck down as Mel and Sallie stood in the back of the truck and attempted to study the geography with the binoculars. She noticed that the elevation had slowly increased, and as they wound around a turn, Mel began pounding on the roof of the truck’s cab. Her voice was excited. “Jan! Stop. Pull over.”
Jan guided the truck to the edge of the road and leaned out her window, craning her neck to look back toward Mel.. “What?”
“Turn around. Go back, slowly.” Jan studied the excitement Mel’s face for a moment, then swallowed her questions and did as she was asked. The truck circled around and began slowly proceeding back along the road. In a minute, Mel pounded on the roof again. “Stop. Here.” The truck rolled into the grass and halted. Jan had barely opened her door when she and Mack saw Mel and Sallie drop from the truck’s bed and trot into the grassy field toward the sea, weaving between the widely-scattered trees.
Mack scratched his chin. “What the hell is that all about?”
“Let’s find out.” Jan dropped from the cab and followed, Mack just behind him. In a moment, they cleared the trees and emerged onto a wide field, a magnificent view of the Aegean Sea in the distance. The view of the ocean was breathtaking, their view unencumbered except for a thick, gnarled old tree whose branches danced softly in the breeze. Mel and Sallie were standing near the tree. A third figure was with them, a woman dressed in local garb and with a cloth over her head. As Jan and Mack approached, Mel waved them on excitedly. Jan was alive with questions.
“What’s up, Mel? You scared the hell outta me. I….” She stopped in mid-sentence as the breathtaking beauty of their surroundings caught her eye. “Wow. What a place.”
Mel’s eyes sparkled as she nodded. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
The woman lifted the scarf from her head as she faced Jan, and spoke in English traced with an undefinable accent. “Sappho always thought so, as well.”
Jan’s jaw dropped. “Aphrodite! I mean, Alais.”
Alais beamed a brilliant smile and replied, “Either will do, dear.” Jan stared as she approached, embraced her and kissed either cheek in greeting. “It’s good to see you again, Janice.”
“Likewise. Thanks for coming.”
“How could I refuse you anything?”
Jan said nothing for a moment, fascinated by the timeless beauty of the face in front of her. Tendrils of luxurious blonde hair blowing in the breeze, mesmerizing eyes which reflected intense kindliness mixed with a shrouded sadness and untold centuries of life’s pain, all were gathered in that face which Jan remembered from their encounter in France. Finally shaking herself from her thoughts, Jan gestured toward Mack and said, “Alais, you remember Mack?”
“Of course I do.” She stepped forward and kissed him on both cheeks. “Welcome, Mack.”
Mack actually blushed slightly, then recovered his composure and replied, “Alais, you’re as remarkable as ever. Thanks for meeting us here.”
Jan cleared her throat, then asked, “Um, yeah. Speaking of here, are we, ah, here?”
Alais nodded, then waved a delicate hand across the field. “You are here.” She gazed first at the marvelous Aegean panorama, then across the fields which surrounded them. “How different it appears from when my beloved Sappho lived here, and yet how similar. I remember it now, quite clearly. How often we sat in her gardens and spoke of love. How she bubbled with that priceless creativity when she penned her poems, her black eyes alive with passion both requited and unrequited. And that voice of hers, when she sang her poetry and played her lyre! It could wring tears from the hardest heart. How she worshiped me, and how I adored her. In her and in my dear little Gabrielle, I saw the finest qualities which humanity had to offer.” Her light eyes took on a faraway look, one which seemed to drift back two thousand years. For a moment she stood so, the group around her silent, and then she shook her head. “I imagine that you wish to find her home. It is very close. I will show you.”
Mel placed a hand on Alais’ arm and suggested, “Why don’t you picnic with us here, and we can do it after we eat?” She cast a glance at Jan and raised an eyebrow.
Jan took the hint and added, “Yeah, great idea. Can you spare the time?”
Alais laughed, a musical, charming sound. “I’m an immortal, dear. I have nothing but time.”
The next hour or so was most pleasant. Mack, Sallie, Mel and Jan dined as they listened to Alais spin stories and respond to their questions. She did not eat, but savored some of the wine which they had brought in the food basket, and commented on its pleasant texture.
“But the wine has a different taste, as I recall, than so long ago. Then, you know, mortals made the wine thick and dark, and mixed it with water. Dionysus prided himself on Lesbian wine, bragging that this isle produced some of the finest grapes to be had anywhere. Not to be outdone by him, the Muses concentrated their poets and performers here, as well.”
Mel asked, “And you?”
“The heady intoxication of love is too great and fragile a gift to play favorites with. I refused to participate in such childish games at first.”
Mack caught the implication of her last statement, and prodded her on. “But?”
Alais smiled. “You are very perceptive, Mack. Yes, I relented. I endowed this isle with a particular, enchanting atmosphere. Love, it seemed, was in the very soul of the isle. When one fell in love in Lesbos, it was particularly deep and passionate. I can still feel traces of the enchantment linger today.” Her eyes twinkled when she continued. “The poets began singing of love instead of conquest and honor on bloody battlefields. Their songs glorified eros, not war. As I recall, that particularly irritated my brother, Ares. I reveled in that.” She studied her cup, then added softly, “At first.”
Sallie urged her to continue her tale. “What happened?”
“It is a paradox in mortal affairs that those things which have the power to do the most good also have the power to do the most harm. I learned that quite painfully when I saw desperate, passionate romance drive people to terrible ends.” She looked around, then spoke quietly, a thread of sadness winding through her words. “So gloriously would they love, and so deeply would they despair if it went badly. The agony of a broken heart, so heavy a burden in any land, was even more oppressive here. While those in other lands who lost at love languished and then recovered, stronger in spirit than before, here they were quite often simply crushed beneath its burden. Death seemed, to them, preferable to the endless torment of spirit which they endured.” She gestured toward the cliff. “The bones of countless tortured souls rest in the waters below this very point, a testament to my vanity and naivety as a goddess who was not to be outdone by the other Olympians. ”
The group was silent for a moment, a silence broken by Mel’s question. “The Lovers’ Cliff of legend?”
Alais nodded. “The Lovers’ Cliff. There were actually a few points along this coast that could be so named.”
Jan observed, “It was mentioned in the poem which Sappho wrote to Gabrielle. As I recall, Gabrielle, so despondent after Xena’s death, almost availed herself of it. Sappho stopped her.”
Mel placed a hand on Jan’s arm. “I recall the poem.”
Alais looked at her. “Can you recite it?”
Mel nodded. “Partly.” She sipped at her wine, deep in thought, and then spoke from memory.
“We keep languid company in the flowered gardens
Where we speak of loves lost and loves won
You fall weeping into my lap and wish release in death
While I ache for you.
I lead you away from the olive tree near the Lovers’ Cliff
Where you would seek your solace below, in the rocks washed by the sea
And are unmindful of the healing poultice of my love’s physic
Which I lay at your feet.
Surely I will comfort you in your desperate grief’s purging…”
Mel’s hesitated, squinting in her effort to recall the words. In the next moment, Jan spoke in Mel’s place.
“…And kiss your cheek to taste the sweetest, holiest of tears
Those shed before the altar of a lover’s sacrifice so pure
That Aphrodite herself weeps for you.”
When Jan finished, nothing was said for a time, the five travelers sitting silently as they felt the ancient words enthrall them. Finally, it was Sallie who broke the silence.
“That tree. It looks quite old. Is that an olive tree?” The others looked at her, their expressions alive with the implications of the question. Sallie, noting this, shrugged her shoulders and explained, “Hey, I was raised in Brooklyn. What do I know about trees?”
A ripple of laughter spread through the group, quieting when Alais responded. “Yes, dear. That particular tree is roughly two thousand years old.”
Mack conjectured, “Is that…?”
Alais nodded. “I endowed it with immortality as a shrine, a monument to those who lay below this cliff, and as a mark to identify this place. From time to time, I still visit here.” Jan studied Alais’ face for a moment, attempting to frame her next question properly. Alais returned the gaze, her expression gracious, her eyes perceptive, and answered Jan’s question before it was spoken. “I feel as Gabrielle and Xena feel, Janice. Excavate this place. Do it. We’ve no objection.”
Alais placed her cup down on the blanket, then spoke to the group. “Well, if you are finished with your meal, we can start. Let me show you where to dig.”
The suggestion animated Jan, who stood and motioned toward the truck with her thumb. “Get the stakes and tools from the truck, you guys. We’ve got some archaeology to do.”
Mack, Sallie and Mel rose and scattered, returning with an armful of long wooden stakes and a couple of mallets. In the warm noonday sun, Jan and Alais began strolling through the clearing just a short walk from the Lovers’ Cliff, she pointing and gesturing in her description of long-fallen buildings and walls, Jan pointing out where stakes should be driven to denote dig points. Sallie trailed behind, making sketches and notes of the dig points and of what each stake represented. In about one hour, the stakes were set, the description finished, and Jan eyed the work with satisfaction. The house, the garden, the outbuildings, all were plotted to the best of Alais’ memory. Just one question remained in Jan’s mind.
“Alais, if Sappho kept a library, where would it be?”
Alais thought for a minute, then replied, “She kept her writings in her private rooms.”
“And those are where?”
“The portion of the main house that affords the best view of the sea and her garden.” She pointed toward a stake. “There.”
“Oh, Janice, those writings may never have survived the elements. Besides, they might have been pilfered after Sappho’s death. She was famous, after all.”
Jan shrugged. “I tend to agree, but it’s worth a try. Any of her poetry which can be recovered would bring her back to life, don’t you see?” She drove a fist into the palm of her other hand while she spoke the next thought aloud. “It’s just too bad that her remains were never recovered. We could have learned so much about her from them. The sea consumed her, though.” Alais laid a hand on Jan’s arm, stopping her. She stared deeply, intently at Jan, who suddenly felt extremely embarrassed under the piercing gaze. Janice, you dumb-ass, you’re talking about the remains of someone dear to her. You’ve probably offended her. Quit being so clinical. “Um, sorry, Alais. I tend to be insensitive sometimes, a real jerk.”
“Come, walk with me, dear Janice. Bring a stake. I have made a decision.”
Jan retrieved a stake and a mallet from Mack, returning to the waiting immortal. They left the clearing, walking just a short way along the cliff, and then Alais stopped. She pointed to a slight hill, about twenty feet across and three feet high, and said, “Here, Jan.”
In her years as an archaeologist, Jan had seen numerous burial mounds. What she saw now made her heart pound. “Is this what I think it is, Alais?”
Alais nodded. “One morning, I heard the anguish of my Sappho’s heart. When I visited, I discovered the house in mourning and turmoil. The servants told me that she had thrown herself off of the Lovers’ Cliff. I was shattered. I searched until I found her. I was able to release from the sea’s depths the body of my dear little poet. I returned to this spot, my Sappho in my arms, and entombed her here.”
Alais closed her eyes, and a tear traced a path down one exquisite cheek. Jan placed a hand on her shoulder and spoke very tenderly. “Alais, I’m sorry. All this must be quite painful for you. Had I known, I never…” Alais sniffed, wiped away a tear, and attempted a smile. It seemed, to Jan, a heartbreaking attempt at bravery. She held Alais by the hand and looked at her. After a moment, she asked, “Why are you doing this?”
“Of all the hands in the world, I commend her to yours, Janice. You will deal gently with her. You will honor her.”
“But surely she’s in better hands with you, not me. She has been for two thousand years.”
Alais’ light eyes, glistening with tears, fixed Jan with a kindly look. “Even immortals do not live forever, Janice. A great poet can. She is yours now. Take care of her.” Alais bent forward and kissed Jan lightly on both cheeks. “I must go. I find myself quite weary. Give my affections to the others.”
“You’re coming again, aren’t you? Please come again.”
“I would very much like that, when I have rested.” Alais took a couple of steps back, putting a bit of distance between herself and Jan, and raised a hand. Jan knew that she was about to leave, and blurted out her next question.
“Alais, are you dying?”
The immortal’s eyes widened a bit at that, but she only replied, “Love will never die.” She waved her hand, and in a shimmer of light, she disappeared. Jan stood, dumbfounded, for a long moment, then bent down and drove the wooden stake into the ground at the foot of the hill. With that done, she turned and walked back to the truck, finding the others waiting for her there.
Mel greeted her. “Jan, where did you go? We got a bit worried.” Mel’s expression turned serious, and she exclaimed, “Are you crying?”
Jan wiped her face on her shirt-sleeve. “It’s nothing. Got something in my eyes. Let’s go get this dig under way. Next stop, Doctor Topoulos’ office. Oh, hey. Sallie, grab that sign and hold it over here, will ya?”
Sallie dropped down from the truck’s bed, holding a large metal sign, and walked over to where Jan had pointed. She placed it on the ground. Jan gave the top of the sign-post a few whacks with the mallet, digging it firmly into the ground, then read, approvingly, its message in both English and Greek:
ARCHAEOLOGICAL DIG IN PROGRESS
OR REMOVAL OF ARTIFACTS
WILL RESULT IN ARREST
BY ORDER OF
BUREAU OF ANTIQUITIES, LESBOS
“Let’s go, guys. Mack, you drive, will ya? I’m going to ride in the back with Mel this time.”
Nikos Topoulos leaned against the tree which shielded him from view, watching the distant group of scholars as they paced the clearing, driving stakes a various points along their trek. He noted the members of the team, but puzzled over the identity of one woman whom he did not recognize. As he watched through his binoculars, he pondered the scene in front of him. How has she done this? Can Doctor Covington really be so sure that she has found Sappho’s home? She walks with such an assured air about her. Hm. Walks, speaking with that woman in local garb. Who is she, I wonder? She does not carry herself like a local peasant, although she is so dressed. She seems to be giving direction to Covington. This is odd, very odd. And there, they mark another site, slightly away from the others. That woman seems to know exactly where to dig. Who is she? Why have I not met her? He huffed with impatience, rubbed his eyes, and lifted the binoculars to his face to watch again. They speak. Would that I were close enough to hear their conversation. What’s this? She kissed Doctor Covington on either cheek. Lovers? No, that was more in the manner of greeting or farewell to friend. Topoulos stared through the binoculars, then slowly lowered them, his face a mask of exasperation, his mouth slightly open, his eyes disbelieving what he had just seen. Gracious God! She just… disappeared. Vanished from sight. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it. How? What? His mind raced, and his heart pounded as he thought over possible explanations. I cannot account for it. My grandmother would have said that she must have been an angel, a spirit. Or a witch. He snorted, then mentally chastised himself. Nikos, you are a scholar, not a superstitious peasant. Think clearly. He looked again through the binoculars, then lowered them. They prepare to leave. I must return to my office before they do. That will be their next stop, to register this place with me. I will allow them to dig, and will be most attentive to their progress.
As he returned to his car, he lit a cigarette and mulled over his thoughts. They can dig, for now. We’ll see about later. After all, I can stop it at any time, then continue my own excavation when they leave, if it suits my own ambition to do so. He climbed into his car, started the motor, and steered it out onto the winding coast road back toward Mytilene. As he did, his mind was in constant thought. Doctor Covington’s reputation as a miracle-worker seems to be well-justified. A little too well-justified, in my own mind. A miracle, indeed? What secrets does she harbor? Is the supernatural somehow at work here? My logic says it’s ridiculous, but my culture, my past says differently. As he steered his car into Mytilene, he decided, perhaps the priest can enlighten me. I will pay him a visit.
The next week was a blinding whirlwind of activity. Janice seemed a soul possessed as she led her team with relentless vigor. The site was plotted out, diggers were hired and equipped, exploratory trenches were dug, and stone walls were quickly detected and excavated. Janice strode the dig in work boots, T-shirt and khaki pants, her worn green fedora hat pulled low over her eyes, her natural ability at leadership shining as she quickly brought the graduate students and diggers together and taught them to work as a single-minded, unyielding team. Mel and Sallie joined the diggers in the trenches, working carefully with trowels, hand-picks and brushes to clear away dirt from ancient stone walls and collect bits of pottery, metal and odd objects from the large dirt squares in which they labored.
Occasionally, Mel would look up from her work to see her lover in the distance, the blonde offering encouragement, instruction or congratulations to a particular worker or student as something of interest surfaced. At those times, Mel would only smile and think, God, look at her. Just like Macedonia, all those years ago. That’s the gal that I fell in love with. I’d dig in the dirt anywhere for her. I’d roll in the dirt anywhere with her, too. Mel surprised herself slightly with that last thought. Where’d that come from? Funny, as passionate as I am toward Jan, I’ve felt even more so since we got to Lesbos. She looked down at the brown dirt in which she squatted, picked up a handful, and examined it. Was Aphrodite right? Do traces of her spell still linger in this ground? Mel smiled at her next thought. Look out, Jan. You’re in trouble. Something tells me that this will be a summer to remember. Oh, yeah. She dropped the dirt in her bucket and continued scraping with her trowel, a smile on her face and a soft tune escaping her lips as she sang to herself.
Sallie was often found by Jan’s side, as the more experienced archaeologist offered advice and instruction to her enthusiastic protégée. Sallie drank it in, taking charge where Jan placed her and being particularly mindful of the washing, examining and cataloging of those bits of artifacts, large and small, which were carefully pulled out of the ground or discovered sifting through the myriad buckets of dirt lifted from the dig.
Mack, citing his lack of archaeological expertise and his experience as an artillery captain during the past war, took charge of the dig’s more mundane duties. He personally supervised the erection of the large tents, the layout of the camp, the digging and maintenance of the privies, the supply of the kitchen, and the daily delivery of fresh water to the site. He threw his energies into these activities with an enthusiasm which surprised even him. During the day, he would often sneak over to the dig site and visit, surprising Sallie in the artifact tent as she washed dirt away from pottery shards or coins, and taking a great interest in what she found. He loved the sparkle in her large, dark eyes, the charming way she wrapped her unruly hair in her large bandana, and the way that she affectionately shooed him away when he attempted to steal a kiss while she was working. On one of those occasions, they kissed, then parted, interrupted by Jan’s voice.
“Jeez, guys. You two need a room?”
Sallie laughed, blushed slightly, then punched Mack playfully in the stomach. “Well, since you ask…”
Jan waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah, all work and no play, huh? Hey, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Mack. Meet me outside after you finish groping my best archaeologist, will you?” Jan turned to leave, then shot a grin back at them. “By the way, Sallie, you’re doing a hell of a job here, but I’ve got a special task for you. Find me later, will ya?”
“Um, sure, Jan. Be right there.” Jan nodded, then left the tent, pulling her hat low over her eyes. In a moment, Mack was beside her.
“What’s up, ol’ buddy?”
“You got the tents all up?”
“Yeah.” He pointed to the line of tents in the distance: four large ones and two smaller ones, their olive drab cloth rippling slightly in the breeze.
“Electrical generator work?”
“Can you build a shower tent?”
Mack raised an eyebrow. “Yeah. Got the duckboards and the extra tent in the truck, along with the large water bag. Haven’t needed it, though. We don’t stay here.”
“That’s gonna change. We’re moving out here. Put up the shower tent, and then we’ll stay at the site from here on out.”
“That will mean an extra transport of water every day.”
“Don’t care. I’m worried about security.”
“How about that cop they send out here every night?”
Jan scoffed, “Him? Shit, I wouldn’t trust that drunk to walk my dog. We’re getting too close to gold here. I can feel it. I want to be here all the time.”
“Got you covered, Jan. I’ll get it done. The students will bitch, though.”
“We’ll make it worth their while. Pile them into the truck and take them to the beach every evening or something.” Mack nodded thoughtfully, and Jan added, “They want to be archaeologists? Let ‘em find out what it’s all about.”
Mack grinned. “I’ll get crackin’. Need a couple of hands.”
“Take ‘em from the diggers. I’ll spare ‘em.”
Mack nodded, then left to start work. Jan heard a voice behind her. “Jan?” She turned, and found Sallie standing nearby.
“Hey, Sallie. Got a special project for you. Come here.” Jan waved with a hand, and Sallie followed her across the dig site. They headed for the cliff, slightly away from where the rest of the dig was happening. After a short walk, they stopped next to a small hill with a stake driven into the ground at it’s base. “Here. I want you to personally take charge of this. Start digging, and find me the entrance to a tomb.”
Sallie’s eyes widened at the words. “A tomb?”
Jan felt a wide grin break out across her face. “Yeah. You found Xena and Gabrielle’s tomb for me. You’re going to be the one who discovers Sappho’s tomb, as well.”
“You’re-I mean, you think it’s here?”
“Alais said it was. That’s good enough for me.”
Sallie launched herself at Jan, grabbing her in a crushing bear-hug, and then turned and ran for the dig site, shouting over her shoulder, “Oh, yeah. Hot diggity damn, let’s get started.” Jan watched her go, shook her head as she smiled at Sallie’s infectious enthusiasm, and then bent down and picked up her hat from the ground. She walked along the edge of the cliff to the ancient, gnarled olive tree, stood quietly, and looked out over the sea. The day was brilliantly clear, the water was a deep blue, and not too far from the cliffs, a vessel of moderate size skirted the coast under sail. It was a sloop, single-masted and with two sails up, and it scudded along pleasantly. From the position of the large, triangular sails, Jan guessed that its occupants were enjoying a following wind. She shielded her eyes, noting two figures on board, but unable to tell any more about them at the distance. Lucky buggers, she thought. I’d love to be sailing right now. She watched them for a while, then noted one of the figures wave to her. She took off her hat, waved it in the air, and plopped it back on her head. As she looked about her, taking in the sea, the warm breeze and the sun, the energetic dig behind her, and Mel’s face smiling at her from the distance, she reflected and then thought, Yup. Life is good.
The dig’s work proceeded with a vengeance, the walls of an ancient house rapidly exposing themselves under the relentless efforts of the diggers. Now that the entire team, except for the local diggers, was living at the site, the work began earlier and lasted until dusk every day, the students and their leaders toiling with an energy born of intense excitement. Even the grumbling of the students at leaving the hostel vanished when they settled into living at the site, and the evening trip to the beach afforded them welcome relief from the dirt with which they were constantly surrounded during the warm days.
Mel noted with some humor that some of the graduate students seemed to be forming deep attachments to each other, observing that it did seem that romance was in the air about the dig. Jan had to agree with that, teasing Mack with the statement that he should have bought pup tents instead of the two large, more communal tents which he had acquired, one for the male students and one for the female students. In reply, Mack just shrugged in a good-natured manner and replied, “Love in a pup tent? Yeah, right. You ever try it?”
Evening shower time proved a contentious issue, however, with students and faculty of both genders vying for the tent. Mack solved that problem by posting signs allowing women to use it during the first evening hour, followed by the males afterward. That, however, gave rise to practical jokes in which some stealthy soul would switch the signs and roar with mirth when an unassuming male would enter the shower, only to be chased out by the girls’ shrieks and shouts a moment later, his face a blush of bright red embarrassment. Another jokester struck, adding to the signs “Male” and “Female” a third one which read, “Co-ed”.
The water supply was limited, as well, and the males complained that there wasn’t much left in the large canvas bag after the girls got through. Mack posted another sign reminding all to “Conserve water!”, but found that someone had scribbled underneath a graffiti which added, “Shower together.” The next day, yet another graffiti beneath that one admonished, “Yeah, but don’t drop the soap.”
All these antics were usual on digs, Jan reminded everyone, and broke the monotony of the daily grind. She found no affront, and quite a bit of humor, in the pranks, and even joined in some of them herself. Once, noting that Mack seemed to disappear into the privy at roughly the same time every day, she trapped a large, non-poisonous snake and threw it over the curtain while he was inside. The flurry of colorful language and the speed with which Mack emerged from the tent-privy, his pants only half-fastened, caused her to collapse on the ground, rolling in the grass and holding her sides in laughter.
Mack correctly deduced the culprit, both he and Jan having been much subject to each other’s pranks in college, and lay in wait for his revenge. That night, as he squatted among the trees just behind her tent, he felt around in the leaves and grass until he found the thin rope which he had planted there earlier in the day. He crept close to the tent and waited until the soft light of the lantern was extinguished and a rustling sound told him that Jan and Mel were in bed, then tiptoed back to the bushes. He picked up the end of the rope, gave a final listen, and heard a couple of soft groans emerge through the canvas. You’re kidding, he thought. Now? They’ve got to do that now? I can’t do this to them when they’re… His mind flashed back to college, and the innumerable pranks that Jan had loved to play on him, and he thought, The hell I can’t. He gave a pull on the rope and the pyramidal tent, held up by one large pole in it’s center, collapsed, settling down on the forms inside and initiating muffled cries of surprise and indignation. He reached out, quickly undid the knot at the base of the tent-pole, and slunk through the bushes, pulling himself to his full height and casually walking back into the camp. He emerged from the space between the students’ two tents and strolled toward the scene of the crime. The canvas was bouncing and shaking, and it reminded Mack of two cats in a sack. Mel fought her way out from under the canvas first, her shirt and shorts on and her feet bare. Jan emerged a moment later, swearing and pulling her pants up, buckling them. Mack walked toward them, his face a mask of feigned surprise.
“What’s up, you two?”
Mel began laughing, but Jan waved a hand. “Friggin’ tent.”
“Gee, Jan, how did that happen?”
“Damned pole just collapsed.” She eyed Mack severely, then shook a finger at him. “You just got me back for all that shit I did to you in college, didn’t you?”
Mel intervened. “Um, Jan?”
Jan waved a hand. “Not now, Mel. Come on, Mack, I can see that shit-eating grin just trying to come out all over your face. ‘Fess up.”
Mel again interrupted. “Um, Jan?”
“Not now, Mel. Come on, MacKenzie. Come clean.”
By this time, several of the graduate students had gathered around, and the lights of their lanterns lent a warm glow to the scene. Jan didn’t notice, just waggled a finger at her old friend as she leaned forward and grinned evilly at him. Mack, for his part, kept a hand over his mouth, doing his darndest not to laugh. Mel attempted an interjection once again.
“Not now, Mel. I’ve got him dead to rights. Yes, sir! You did that, didn’t you, Mack?”
The crowd of graduate students were now roaring with laughter, and Jan looked at them, puzzled. “Hey, it was funny, but it wasn’t that funny.”
Mel again attempted a comment. “Um, Jan?”
“Not now, Mel. Come on, old buddy. Give it up.”
Mack thrust his hands into his pockets and nodded. “Okay, you got me, Mae West.”
Jan, her expression at first triumphant, suddenly looked puzzled. “Huh? Mae West?”
“Um, Jan?” Mel’s voice was more urgent. Jan finally looked at her lover.
At that moment, Sallie strolled up. Speaking with her typical New Yorker bluntness, she noted, “Hey, Jan. Nice boobs.”
“Huh?” Jan looked down at herself. Her partially-buttoned shirt was wide open in the front, and an offending breast was shining in the light of the moon and the lanterns. “Oh, shit!” She quickly closed her shirt, gripping it tightly in the front, and waggled a finger at Mack as the crowd of graduate students erupted in cheers, wolf-whistles and applause. Jan’s face turned a bright scarlet, and she cast an eye at Mel. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Mel waved her hands in exasperation. “I was trying to.”
Sallie giggled exuberantly, tapped Jan on the arm, and teased, “Cute. You lucky girl. I’m flatter than a barn door.”
Jan relaxed, an ever-widening grin spreading across her face, and began chuckling. “Jeez, I guess I’ve got no secrets any more. Okay, you got me. Truce?”
Mack smiled. “Truce. Now let’s get you guys’ tent back up.”
Very shortly, the tent was returned to its original shape, the crowd of students had disbursed, and Sallie and Mack bid Jan and Mel a good evening. As they left, they could hear Sallie begin to chastise Mack for his practical joke, he just nodding pleasantly to her attempts to admonish him for his behavior. Mel placed an arm around Jan, led her back into the tent, and pulled the flap down. “Now,” she whispered, “Where were we?”
“Getting horizontal, I think.”
“Well, shall we?”
They shed their clothes and snuggled together in the large double sleeping bag, wiggling themselves down into the warm comfort of the material and wrapping their arms around each other. They lay still for a moment, and then Jan muttered, “Darn.”
Mel held her close in the darkness. “What’s the matter, lover?”
“I lost the mood.”
Mel erupted in a fit of laughter. “Mark the calender, Jan, honey. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you say that.”
Jan retorted, “Yeah? Wait two minutes.”
“It’s another first tonight, as well.”
Cautiously, Jan asked, “What’s that?”
Mel replied, “I’ve often felt the earth move with you, but that’s the first time I’ve felt the tent collapse.”
Jan snickered, then added, “I can’t believe that he dropped the tent on us while we were getting frisky.”
“Speaking of getting frisky, Mel…”
“Go to sleep.”
Mel giggled. “You are so cute when you pout.”
“Cutest thing on two legs?”
“That’s right. G’night, cutie.”
“Good night, gorgeous.”
They lay silently in the darkness, drifting off into a restful togetherness, when the soft strains of Sallie’s voice carried through the canvas of the tent’s side. The words were unintelligible, but the tone of the voice was unmistakable. Jan tapped Mel on the chest. “Mel?”
“Do you hear Sallie?”
“Uh-huh. She sounds like she’s giving Mack hell.”
Jan grinned with an evil satisfaction. “Ah, marital bliss. Nothin’ like it.”
In the next tent, in the dim glow of the lantern, Sallie was punctuating her words with a finger jabbing Mack’s chest. He, for his part, just leaned against the center tent pole, his expression mischievous and one eyebrow raised. “And furthermore, Mack MacKenzie, how dare you do that to Mel. She was in there, too, you know.”
Mack just nodded. “Yeah.”
“That was awful.”
“What if she couldn’t find Jan in that mess? She might have tripped over something and been hurt. And another thing…” Her voice trailed off as she watched him slowly unbutton his shirt and peel it off. She gulped, and then muttered, “Stop that. You know what that does to me.”
“Oh, heck. I give up. You’re incorrigible. You’re just a big kid.”
“Yeah.” He pulled her to him, folding his arms around her in a gentle embrace. “No more practical jokes, Sal. Scout’s honor.”
“Promise?” She felt Mack’s head nod in agreement, then asked, “So, exactly what did she do to you in college to deserve that?”
“Got about three hours?”
Sallie kissed him, then quipped, “Mister, you paid for all night. I got time.”
“Come to bed, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
In the next tent, Mel sleepily opened one eye to hear Sallie’s distinct, irrepressible giggle wafting through the tent canvas. “Sounds like they made up, Jan.”
“Mmph.” Jan stirred slightly, then settled back into Mel’s shoulder, beginning a soft snore. Mel listened to the loud purring, then smiled in the darkness as she hugged Jan closer to her. “Ah, marital bliss. Nothin’ like it.”
Even to Jan, the dig appeared to proceed at an amazing pace. Artifacts piled up in the work tent, dirt disappeared, and the walls and floors of the old house were cleared out, showing the patches of some exquisite murals on the remaining walls and a brilliant tile on the floors. The house had obviously been constructed by a very wealthy person.
In the artifact tent, Jan was looking over some marvelous pieces, when a voice interrupted her from the tent’s door. “Doctor Covington?”
Jan looked up. “Doctor Topoulos? Oh, come in.”
He entered, removed his hat and shook her hand. “Just visiting to see how you are progressing in your dig.”
“Right. Let me give you a tour of the place. First, though, look at this stuff.” They spent some minutes examining pieces of pottery, items of artwork and some coins, and then walked outside. As they strolled across the dig, Jan pointing out their progress and Doctor Topoulos nodding pleasantly, he spoke.
“The artifacts and coins which you have excavated are most interesting. They place the house in the proper century for Sappho’s presence. Tell me, have you found anything that definitely points to Sappho in this dig?”
Jan shook her head. “No, not yet.”
“Then this house could have belonged to anyone?”
Jan agreed, “So far, that’s correct.”
“I see. You will let me know immediately if you find something? I have great interest.”
“Of course, Doctor Topoulos.”
They strolled a bit farther, and the Greek pointed toward a group of people working a bit away from the main dig. “What is this?”
“Oh, that? A personal indulgence of mine.”
“I’m afraid that I do not understand.”
“A ‘hunch’, as we Americans call it. Come and see.” They walked toward the digging, and peered down into a hole about six feet deep. Along one side of the hole, ancient blocks of marble showed through the dirt. Sallie and a few other workers were in the hole, enlarging it and brushing the marble clean. At Jan’s call, she looked up.
“Oh, Jan. Glad you’re here. We’ve just about got the door uncovered.”
Doctor Topoulos stared down into the hole, then at Jan. “A tomb?”
Jan beamed. “A tomb.”
“But this is incredible. How did you find it? What made you dig here?”
Jan replied, “A hunch, like I said. I saw the small, very symmetrical hill. It was out of place in a relatively flat piece of land like this. It rather resembles burial mounds which scatter throughout Britain and north Europe. I decided, just on a gut feeling, to excavate.” Jan felt a pang of conscience at the lie. It was against her principles to be less than honest, but she felt that the complete truth was not something that she was at liberty to divulge. An immortal living among mortals treasures her anonymity above all else, and Jan also felt that any serious suggestion to a professional colleague that ‘Aphrodite showed her where to dig’ would destroy her reputation as a scholar forever.
Doctor Topoulos nodded. “It seems to have worked very well for you.”
“That’s archaeology. A lot of research, a bit of luck, and buckets of sweat.”
He smiled at that. “Well put, Doctor Covington.”
Sallie’s voice rang from the pit. “Jan, we’ve got writing here.” She began clearing the dirt from the tomb’s face. “Come on, you guys, clear it off.” Brushes and hands swept the dirt away, and letters began appearing under the clouds of dust. In very short order, the letters were exposed. The group of dirty, sweating workers in the pit looked up at Jan. She slowly read the inscription, and a beaming smile spread across her face. She clenched a fist, waved it triumphantly in the air, and then turned toward the Greek next to her, speaking with restrained excitement.
“Doctor Topoulos, would you care to confirm my reading of that inscription?”
The man stared, his face ashen, his mouth moving but forming no words. After a speechless moment, he slowly turned his head and looked at Jan, speaking only one word.
Doctor Pangalos sat in his office in the Athens Museum, looking at the pile of unopened mail on his desk. The pleasant, aging scholar had, over the years, developed a reputation unparalleled in the forensic study of ancient remains. Unraveling the stories hidden in old bones was a passion for the quiet man. It was he to whom Jan Covington had brought the remains of Gabrielle and Xena, a couple of years before. It was also he who saw them carefully interred in their present mausoleum in the gardens of the Athens Museum.
The paperwork of his present position was, however, not a passion for him. He sighed, sipped his thick coffee, and began sorting through the mail, looking up when his secretary entered his office with a telegram. He took it with a nod of thanks, opened it and perused it once, then again. His face alive with excitement, he rose from his desk, walked into the next room and tapped his secretary on the shoulder. The young man looked at him questioningly. “Would you be so kind as to book me on the very next flight to Mytilene, on Lesbos? It is of utmost importance that I get there as soon as possible.”
“Yes, sir.” He picked up the telephone and dialed a number as the aging scholar strode out into the museum’s large work-room, began collecting the various tools of his trade, and placed them carefully into a leather bag. As he was finishing, the secretary approached him. “Sir, you are booked on the very next flight.”
Nikos Topoulos sat in the office of one of the more esteemed priests in the city, sipping tea and conversing with the man. The priest, his gray beard full, his black robes gathered about him, sat and listened to Nikos, a severe expression on his face as the younger man unfolded a most bizarre story to him. When the story was finished, the priest nodded and spoke.
“What you tell me is most extraordinary. I have heard such things before, but usually from the more, ah, humble and uneducated among my church. That it comes from you, a scholar, makes this more believable, and in my mind, a very serious matter.”
“As a scholar, I look for logical explanations. Here, though, I have none. Hence, I come to you, Father. Can you think of anything which would explain this from your own, ah, more esoteric experience?”
“This woman you saw. You say that she was dressed in local manner?”
“Yes, Father, but had a bearing and an exquisite beauty which is uncommon to a peasant woman.”
“And she seemed to know just where the Americans should dig?”
“Every place, including the tomb which was unearthed.”
“A tomb, you say? Most interesting. And then, she just-vanished?”
“I saw it with my own eyes, Father.”
“This American woman archaeologist in charge, she did not explain the visitor?”
“When I asked how she knew where to dig, she omitted mention of the visitor. She said that it was on a guess.”
The priest thought for a moment, then nodded. “She is hiding something. Perhaps the supernatural is at work here.”
“An angel, perhaps?”
The priest was more pessimistic. “Or a witch, a harbinger of Satan. We must never forget that such evil resides among us, and that ambitious people will use it to further their own ends.” The priest was silent for a moment, then suggested, “Perhaps I should visit this site. With your permission, of course. I’ll speak to some of the local workmen, as well. If something evil is present here, I must do all that I can to stop it.”
“Of course, Father. I’ll arrange it.”
Over the next day, the dig site, which had been accident-free so far, suffered two injuries to the local diggers and a cave-in, almost burying a third man alive. The remaining diggers refused to continue work and left early, claiming that they felt that the site had been cursed with bad luck, perhaps the result of unearthing the tomb so recently discovered. They were heedless of Jan’s attempts to convince them otherwise, and Mel’s more fluent Greek arguments fared no better.
Jan was not in good humor when Doctor Topoulos arrived for a short visit, then explained that a prominent priest wanted to visit the dig for the purpose of “blessing the site”. At first, Jan’s impulse was to decline, but Mel’s gentle reminder that it might draw the diggers back registered with Jan’s pragmatic good sense, and she accepted the offer and stated that the priest would be welcome. This seemed to puzzle the Greek, but he promised to return with the priest during the next day or two.
With the diggers gone, there was little to do but quit work early and take a rest. Jan entered the kitchen tent, it’s flaps rolled up to allow breeze in and smoke out, and spoke in Greek to the man inside.
“Andros, is dinner progressing?”
“Ah, Doctor Covington. My help has left. The curse, you know.”
“What? What curse?”
“The dig. It is cursed, so say the diggers. They scare my help away.”
Jan pushed her hat back on her head and scratched her forehead. “Who’s here, then?”
“Just me and my wife.”
“You two aren’t scared of the curse?”
He waved a cooking spoon in the air. “Ah, I don’t believe in that. I’m a cook, not a stupid digger. They believe anything.”
Jan smiled, in spite of her sour mood. “I understand. Thank you for staying here.”
“But we have no dishwashers. We cook, but we don’t wash dishes.” He shrugged. “So sorry.”
Jan looked down at her feet. Shit! What else can go wrong? She looked back up at the cook and replied, “I understand. You cook dinner and we wash the dishes. Agreed?”
The cook smiled, then nodded gratefully. “How many for dinner?”
“Sixteen, seventeen. Include yourselves.”
“We always do.”
Jan grinned. “Of course. Thank you.” She left the tent and strode across the site, stopping to converse first with Mel, then with some of the graduate students. Then, she slowly walked toward the cliff, noting a lone figure sitting near the olive tree. It was Mack. She walked toward him, settling herself on the grass near the edge of the cliff. “Hey, ol’ buddy.”
Mack looked over at her, smiled a greeting, and passed her a flask. “You look like you could use this.” Jan raised an eyebrow, took it, and sniffed. The familiar odor of whiskey teased her. She tilted it up, took a long swallow, and then handed it back to Mack.
“Thanks. Look that bad, huh?”
“I’ve seen you better. Cigarette?”
She eyed the pack, then took one and allowed Mack to light it. “Thanks. You always were a bad influence on me.”
Mack lit his own smoke, then replied, “Always tried to be.” They were silent for a moment, then Mack asked, “Who took the truck?”
“Sallie and Mel took the students to the beach. What the hell, might as well. Can’t dig.” She snorted, then added, “The Covington karma, at work again.”
“Cheer up, Jan. You’ll pull it through. You always do.”
“I can’t understand it, Mack. Things were going so well until today. What happened?”
“Ah, shit happens sometimes, Jan.”
Jan chuckled. “Hey, that’s good. Mind if I put that on a bumper sticker?”
The afternoon grew late, the students returned from the beach, and the evening settled into routine. The students pitched in around the kitchen, and in record time it was clean. The usual tug-of-war between the sexes took place over the shower, and by the time dark fell, soft voices sounded and lanterns twinkled around the camp. The policeman assigned the night watch duties arrived, smelling somewhat of booze, and set out to make his rounds, his flashlight’s beam bouncing as he walked around the dig’s perimeter.
Mack, Sallie, Mel and Janice lounged in front of their tents, passing the time and talking quietly, when they heard rapid footsteps and saw a flashlight approaching. The policeman’s voice was hushed, but urgent, as he wavered to a stop in front of the group, wobbling slightly and panting. He spoke in urgent Greek.
“Doctor Covington! I hear voices, sounds at the far dig.” He gestured with a hand. “There.”
Jan’s heart pounded in her chest. In an instant, she was on her feet. “Shit. Tomb-robbers. Get your gun, Mack.” She disappeared into her tent and found her pistol belt and flashlight, returning to the policeman’s side. Mack arrived, his own pistol on his hip, his flashlight in his hand. Mel and Sallie joined them, carrying their own flashlights. Jan looked at them, then cautioned, “You two aren’t armed. Stay behind Mack and me. These guys can be dangerous.”
She looked at the policeman, pointed in the direction of the tomb, and said in Greek, “Show me. Keep your flashlight off.”
The man nodded, clicking his light off, and they made their way across the dig by the moon’s light. As they approached the site of the tomb, they could hear muffled voices and the sound of a pick striking stone. Jan grabbed the policeman by the shirt and pulled him behind her, motioning with gestures to keep silent and follow her. The policeman seemed relieved to have Jan take charge, and followed with the group. They walked silently toward the tomb, and in the dark, they could see the faint glow of a lantern rising from the pit in front of the structure’s door. The sound of tools ringing against the stone became more audible, and voices in rough Greek sounded from the pit.
Jan motioned to the group to gather close, and she whispered, “Look, we surround the pit, lights out. At my call, turn your lights on ‘em. The cop can arrest ‘em then.” She looked at the policeman, repeated her instruction in Greek, and the sweating man nodded, his eyes wide. “Let’s go.” The group rose, carefully paced to the edge of the pit, and stood looking down into the excavation. Four men were at work in the light of a dim lantern, attempting to loosen the stones of the tomb’s waist-high door. Amazingly, they seemed totally unaware that they were being watched. Jan took a mental count of the intruders, did not notice any weapons among them, and then said, “Now.”
Five flashlight beams clicked on, illuminating the pit. The men froze, their tools in mid-swing, and looked first at each other and then up at the flashlight beams. Janice spoke to them in Greek.
“You are trespassing on an historical site. We have a policeman here. You are under arrest. Drop your tools and come up, one at a time.” The men did not move, but looked in unison to one among their number. Jan guessed that he was the leader. She spoke again, more forcefully. “Drop your tools and come up, one at a time. Do it now. The police are here.” For emphasis, she shone her light on the uniform of the sweating policeman. The next several seconds became a slow-motion blur as pandemonium broke out at the excavation.
The leader of the tomb-robbers reached under his shirt, produced a pistol and fired a single shot at the policeman, striking him squarely in the chest, while another of the robbers brandished a second pistol. Jan did not think; she reacted on sheer instinct as she drew her own pistol and repeatedly fired it down into the pit. Dimly, she heard the noise and saw the flash of Mack’s pistol join her own. A flurry of shots rang out, too many to count in so very few seconds. The noise was deafening, and the blaze of muzzle flashes both from above and within the pit lit up the excavation.
As suddenly as it had started, the fight was over. The acrid smoke of gunpowder filled the air and swirled into the beams of the flashlights which lit the scene. Four men lay in the dirt of the excavation, at least one of them groaning loudly. Jan stood, stunned, for a moment, then shook her head and brought herself back to reality. Her heart was pounding. Her ears were ringing from the gunshots. She could feel herself sweating profusely, and the hand which held her flashlight was trembling. She looked around and asked, “Everybody okay?”
Mack’s voice answered. “Okay, Jan. Sallie?”
Sallie answered, her voice cracking. “Yeah. Holy shit, what just happened?”
Jan called out, “Mel?” There was no answer. “Mel?”
“I’m… here, Jan.”
Jan swung her light around. “Where?”
“Here.” Jan followed the voice through her ringing ears, and saw a form on the ground next to the policeman. Her heart leapt into her throat. “You okay, Mel?”
“Oh Jan, my leg hurts so badly.” Jan ran to her side, knelt down beside her, and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“What’s the matter, Mel?”
“My leg. It’s on fire.”
Jan ran her light down Mel’s leg, and saw her hands clasped over her shin. She flashed the light up toward Mel’s face and saw the pained expression. “Let me see, Mel.”
Sallie knelt down beside Jan, her light on the scene. Jan handed her light over to the young woman and gently pulled Mel’s hands away from her leg. They were covered in dark blood, and there was a patch of darkness on Mel’s pants leg. “Shit, Mel, you took a bullet.”
“Oh, Jan. Be careful. It really hurts.”
“I know. Let’s get this clothing away from it. Let me see it.” She pulled at the hem of Mel’s pants, and the cloth ripped. She pulled again, and the material split along her leg, parting to above her knee. “Shine the light on it. Let me see.” Sallie directed the two flashlight beams on Mel’s leg, and Jan noted a small, dark hole in the skin. Blood trickled from the wound, and it was puffing slightly. “You got shot.”
“Is it bad, Jan?”
“I don’t know yet. Let me see the other side. Lift your leg.”
“I can’t. It hurts so badly.”
“Let me, Mel.” Jan lifted the leg, and attempted to study the other side of the calf. She noted it to be clean. No corresponding hole showed itself, no exit wound. “It’s still in there. We’ve got to get you to the hospital. Sallie, get to the tent and get the first aid kit. Mack? Where are you?”
As Sallie dropped a light and took off running, Mack’s voice answered, “Here, Jan. The cop’s dead. Took one right in the chest.”
“What about those guys in the pit?”
“They’re not moving, but I’ll check ‘em.”
“Be careful. They might still be alive.” Mack moved to the edge of the pit and slowly began to descend the ladder. As he did, Jan turned her attention back to Mel. “You doing okay?”
“I’m okay, Jan. Are you?”
“Yeah, sure. You know me. Too ornery to die young.” Mel laughed at that, then winced again as she moved her leg. “Darn, Mel, lay still.”
Jan turned and looked toward the pit. She could not see down into it, but saw Mack’s flashlight beam dancing around the inside of it. His voice rang out, “Hey, Jan.”
“Three dead. One still alive. Bring him up?”
Jan looked back at Mel’s pained expression and felt a wave of white-hot anger flood over her. Nobody shoots Mel and gets away with it. She growled, “Kill the son of a bitch.”
“You heard me. Kill the bastard. Put a bullet through his goddamn head.”
Mack’s face appeared over the edge of the pit, his arm looped through a rung in the ladder. “I can’t do that anymore, Jan. The war’s over.”
Jan rose and walked over to the edge of the pit. “If you don’t do it, I will, goddamn it.”
“Then you’re gonna have to do it, Jan. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough nightmares to last a lifetime.”
Jan stood on the edge of the pit, her pistol in her hand, her face a mask of anger. She fixed fierce eyes on Mack, who returned the gaze impassively. They stood that way for what seemed quite some time, until a voice spoke Jan’s name. It was Sallie. Some distance behind her stood a crowd of graduate students, watching the scene carefully.
Jan turned and looked at her. “Don’t look, Sallie. You don’t want to see what I’m gonna do.”
Sallie did not back down from Jan’s stare. “Don’t, Jan. Forget about it. Let’s take care of Mel.” She held out the first-aid kit.
Jan sighed deeply, holstered her pistol and nodded. “Yeah.” As she knelt by Mel, Sallie next to her, Jan looked over at Mack. “Bring him up. We’ll take him to the hospital with Mel.”
Mack smiled, then climbed back down into the pit. “Right, ol’ buddy. Will do.”
As Sallie held the lights, Jan bandaged Mel’s wound and gently felt her shin. “I don’t think your leg’s broken. That’s good, anyway. Come on, let’s get you to the truck.” As she spoke, a heavy thump and a grunt resounded from nearby. Mack had one of the robbers on the ground, his knee in the man’s back, his pistol at the man’s head.
Jan looked at the scene, then said, “What shape is he in?”
“Got one in the shoulder. I think he’ll make it.”
“Lovely. One for the cops.” Jan looked up, and only then seemed to notice the crowd of graduate students standing nearby. “Guess I’d better organize this shindig.” She began to rise, but Sallie placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Let me, Jan. You just stay with Mel.” Sallie rose, clapped her hands a couple of times, and then started shouting. “Okay, you. Fire up the truck. The rest of you, get over here. Pick up Mel. Watch the leg. You two, help Mack with that guy.” The graduate students stirred, then became animated as they gathered around and bent to follow Sallie’s orders, casting an occasional look at the body of the Greek policeman nearby and the three dead men in the pit.
Jan paced the hall in the Mytilene hospital, her face a mask of worry. Mack approached and offered Jan a cigarette. She took it, and lit it with a shaking hand. “Thanks.”
“Look, it’s gonna be okay. Mel wasn’t badly hurt. I gave a statement to the cops, and they’ll be out to the dig first thing in the morning.”
Jan nodded, then looked at Mack. “Crap. The students. If we’re all here, they’re out there alone.”
Mack shook his head. “I gave my pistol to Al. He’s a veteran. He’s standing guard over the students’ tents.”
“Well, there’s nothing more you guys can do here, anyway. Get your butts back to the dig. You and Sallie take charge out there, Mack. I’m staying with Mel.”
“Understood. We’ll come out tomorrow and pick you up. Oh, and give me your gun. It won’t do to have you stalking about the hospital with a weapon.”
“Huh?” Jan looked down and saw that she was still wearing her pistol. “Oh, good idea. Thanks.”
She unstrapped her pistol belt and handed it to Mack, who smiled his best reassurance. “Not a problem, ol’ buddy. Sallie and I have it covered. Take care. We’ll see you tomorrow.” Jan nodded, then watched Mack and Sallie turn and walk down the hallway together. She finished her cigarette, then paced a bit more until a man in a white smock approached her, speaking in English.
“You are Janice?” Jan nodded. “I am Doctor Pappandopolos. You are Melinda’s friend?” Jan nodded again. “She will be fine.”
Jan slumped, then leaned wearily against the wall. “Thanks, Doc.”
He nodded, then hastened to explain, “We must operate on the leg, though. The bullet is still in there. It must come out, and we must clean the wound. She goes to the operating room in a few minutes. You may speak with her, in the meantime.”
Jan stared up at him. “Operate?”
“A minor surgery, I assure you. It will be fine. No major blood vessels were severed, and no nerves. No bone fracture. She has feeling and good color in her foot. She will recover nicely.”
“Oh. Thanks, Doc. I appreciate everything you’re doing.”
He smiled. “Of course. You would like to speak with her?”
“Go on, then.” Jan left the doctor and walked into the curtained area where Mel rested, her leg freshly bandaged and elevated. Her eyes were closed, and she spoke as Jan entered.
“Jan, is that you?”
“I’m here, Mel.” Jan reached out and took Mel’s hand, noting the dried blood on her fingers. Mel opened her eyes, and the blue of the irises never seemed brighter than at that moment. Jan spoke from the heart next. “God, you’ve never looked more beautiful, Mel.”
Mel laughed softly. “I don’t feel particularly beautiful right now.”
“You look it, though. I was so worried about you.”
“I’m too ornery to die young, Jan.”
“Naw. I’m too ornery. You’re too sweet.”
“I’ll be fine. They’re going to operate on my leg, and I’ll be here for several days. Why don’t you go back to the dig?”
“Not on your life. I’m here and I stay.”
“Stubborn, stubborn. Go and rest, anyway.”
“I’m not tired,” Jan lied.
“Baloney. You’re beat. I can see it in your eyes. They always get puffy when you’re exhausted. Go and find a place to rest. I don’t want to be a bother to you, my love.”
Somehow, those words struck Jan to the heart. She felt a surge of emotion rise in her chest and her eyes clouded with tears. She felt them run down her cheeks, sniffed, then replied, “Always thinking of me, huh?”
“Always. Don’t cry, now. You know I hate to see you cry. It breaks my heart.”
Jan wiped at her face, then mumbled, “Sorry. Just get better, will you?”
“I’ll be fussing at you again in no time, cutie.”
“I’m counting on it, gorgeous. I love you.”
Jan leaned down and kissed her quite tenderly, then stood as two nuns entered the room. They pulled the stretcher on which Mel lay out of the curtained enclosure and wheeled her through the door. Jan watched her go, Mel looking back and mouthing the words, “I love you, too,” then walked out to the hallway and sat heavily on one of the wooden benches scattered along the wall. She dropped her green fedora down on the seat next to her, rested her face in the palms of her hands, and only then allowed herself to succumb to the exhaustion, tension and heartache which poured over her. For the first time in a long time, she wept, a deep, cleansing weeping which she no longer felt the strength to repress.
Janice was awakened by a gentle hand on her shoulder, and a voice which, in her half-dreaming state, she thought belonged to an angel. Groggily, she opened her eyes and looked into the face of a woman, her hair hidden by starched white cloth. The voice spoke to her in Greek.
“Doctor Covington? Are you Doctor Covington?”
Jan blinked, focused her eyes, and then remembered where she was. She sat up on the hard wooden bench in the hospital’s hallway, shook her head to clear the fog of sleep and replied, “Yes. That’s me.”
The nun which bent over her said, “Your friend Melinda is awake now. She asks for you. Would you like to see her?”
“Yes, yes. Of course. Where is she?”
“This way. Come.” The nun gestured, and Jan rose from the bench and followed, her hat in her hand and every bone in her body aching from the restless, hard sleep to which she had succumbed on the bench. She noted the sunlight, looked at her wristwatch, and thought, Holy crap. It’s nine in the morning. I’ve been here all night.
The nun led Jan to a ward, a long, sunlit room with twenty or more beds separated by curtained partitions. Just before they reached the end of the ward, the nun turned to Jan. “You look very tired. Would you like some hot tea?”
Jan smiled at the courtesy. “That would be wonderful. It is not too much trouble?”
“No. I think that Melinda would like some, too. I will bring it to you. Go and see her. She is just there.” With a finger, the nun pointed toward the last partition, then turned and walked away. Jan carefully stuck her head around the curtain. Mel was in the bed, her eyes closed.
“Mel? You awake?”
Mel’s eyes opened. She looked at Janice, then smiled broadly. “Oh, Jan. Come and sit with me. I’ve been so worried about you.”
Jan walked around to the side of the bed and carefully sat down, grasping Mel’s hand with both her own. “Me? Hell, Mel, you’re the one who took a bullet.” She allowed her gaze to travel down the length of Mel’s body, resting on her legs. They were covered with a sheet. “How’s the leg?”
“Hurts, but the doctor assures me that it will be fine.” Mel’s intense blue eyes took in Jan’s features, and then she chided, “You look terrible, love.”
Jan grinned. “Thanks.”
“Were you here all night?”
“I’m so sorry, Jan. You shouldn’t have stayed. Where did you sleep?”
“On a wooden bench in the hall.”
“Oh, Jan.” Mel squeezed her hand, then asked, “How are things at the dig?”
“I don’t know. Haven’t been back. Sallie and Mack have it under control.” The nun returned, two cups of hot tea on a tray. She placed them on the small bedside table, then left as Jan thanked her in Greek. “Nice kid.”
“The nuns take good care of me, Jan. You shouldn’t worry. I’ll be fine. Now have some tea, and pass me my cup, please. Oh, can you crank the back of the bed up for me?”
They spent the next while in pleasant conversation, sipping tea and talking, their hands constantly touching as they passed the time. After a while, Mel looked past Jan toward the foot of her bed, smiled, and exclaimed, “Oh, Mack! Sallie!”
Jan turned and saw them standing at the foot of the bed. Mack just raised an eyebrow at the beaten look around his old friend, but Sallie was more blunt. “Damn, Jan, you look like death warmed over.”
“Yeah. I’ve been hearing that a lot lately. So how’s things at the dig site?”
Sallie replied, “The students are digging out one room. I’ve got ‘em all concentrating on that. There’s cops all over the tomb site. They took statements from us all. They’re cleaning up the bodies now.” She grimaced. “Good thing, too. They were starting to get ripe.”
Mack nodded. “That’s not all. The weirdest thing happened in the middle of all that. Nikos Topoulos showed up with some priest.”
“Oh, yeah, the blessing of the dig, or whatever?”
Mack scratched his head. “I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”
Jan’s face fell. “Oh, good God. What now?”
Sallie took over the story. “Well, he comes out and walks into the dig, sees bodies and cops all over, stares at the tomb, reads the name on it and goes bananas. He starts chattering like a monkey with his balls caught in a vice, waving his hands, and leaves the site.” Mel snickered at the comparison, and Jan and Mack broke out in broad grins. Jan interrupted.
“So what was his problem?”
Mack replied, “I could only understand about half of it. Anyway, the bottom line is that he won’t bless the site. Thinks that it’s cursed, that there’s some sort of witchcraft going on there.”
Jan scratched her head. “Well, that sinks it for getting any local diggers. Guess we’ll just have to continue on our own.”
Sallie hastened to reassure Jan. “We can do it, Jan. Most of the heavy digging has already been done. We’ve got the rest of the summer.”
Mel interjected, “And we won’t have to pay all those diggers.”
“Yeah, save the Pappas/Covington Memorial Trust a bit of money.”
Mack shrugged. “So it takes longer. Big deal.”
Jan nodded. “You guys are really trying to brighten my day, aren’t you?”
Mack reached into his pocket and pulled out a key, tossing it to Jan. “This will help, too. We brought the motorcycle for you. It’s out in front of the hospital.”
Mel looked puzzled. “How are you two getting back?”
“We’ve got the truck. Got to get fresh water, anyway.”
“So who drove the bike?”
Sallie giggled, then replied, “I did.” At Mel’s surprised look, she explained, “Hey, I can’t let these two have all the fun.”
Mel’s reply was a model of understatement. “Sallie, dear, you never cease to surprise me.”
“That’s me.” She slapped Mack on the seat of the pants. “Come on, California boy. Let’s hit the road. Take care, Mel. We’ll see you tomorrow. What can we bring you?”
“We can do that.” With that, she tugged on Mack’s shirt-sleeve. He followed, his parting reply echoing in the ward. “That’s the girl I married. See you two later.”
Jan watched them depart, shook her head, and sat back down on the side of the bed. Mel’s eyes twinkled as she noted, “We have some good friends, Jan.”
“Yes, we do.”
Mel squeezed Jan’s hand. “Now get out of here and go back to archaeology. Indulge your passion.”
“My greatest passion is in front of me right now.”
Mel brightened at that, then softly replied, “Mine, too. Now kiss me and hit the road, cutie.”
“See you soon, gorgeous.” Jan leaned down and kissed Mel, then asked, “What can I bring you?”
“A book? I’m so bored.”
“Got you covered. See you tomorrow. Love ya, Mel.”
“Love you, Jan.” Mel watched with satisfaction as she saw Jan clap her green fedora on the back of her head, then bounce out of the ward with a renewed vigor. She then winced, shifted her leg a little, and muttered, “Darn it. Got to go to the cat-box. How am I going to manage that?”
Jan found the motorcycle ride back to the dig extremely invigorating, and as she coasted the bike through the meadow and halted it near her tent, she found herself feeling renewed from the warm sun and the beautiful view in the dig’s background. She checked the shower, found enough water left to bathe in, and stood beneath the cool streams of water, soaping and cleansing herself. When she emerged, she retreated to her tent, rummaged through her bag, and brought out a pair of khaki shorts, clean socks and a light checkered shirt. Soon, she was striding across the dig site toward the spot where the students were working. When she reached it, she pulled her fedora down over her eyes, looked at the progress of the dig and nodded satisfactorily. “Nice work, Sallie.”
Sallie, her ever-present bandana around her head, looked up from an artifact which she was uncovering in the corner of an almost-excavated room. “Thanks, Jan. Um, come over here and look at this, will you?”
Jan dropped down into the dig, kneeling next to Sallie. “What have you got there?”
“Looks big. Maybe a chest or something.”
“Keep at it.” She stood, then climbed out of the excavation and headed back to her tent. When she arrived, she found Nikos Topoulos waiting for her, an expression of concern on his face.
Doctor Pangalos sat in his seat as the airplane taxied toward the small terminal building of the Mytilene airport. In his hand, he held a telegram. He read it over carefully, pondering the implications of it, then folded it and placed it back in his shirt pocket.
When he finally emerged from the aircraft, a small suitcase in one hand and his leather bag in the other, he wandered into the terminal building, standing uncertainly and looking about for a familiar face. As he was about to hire a taxicab and inquire for the location of the Bureau of Antiquities, a voice addressed him. “Doctor Pangalos?”
He turned, smiled, and rested his bags on the floor as he extended his hand to the man in front of him. “Ah, my old friend Doctor MacKenzie. It is good to see you again after so many years. You look very well.”
“Thanks. You, too. You’re just in time. Shall we?”
Doctor Pangalos picked up his bags. “I am at your disposal.”
Jan stood speechless, her face a reflection of total disbelief. “What? You’re doing what?”
Nikos Topoulos was firm. “I am forced to withdraw permission for this dig site. It must be shut down immediately.”
“What do you mean? You can’t do this!”
“But I can, Doctor Covington. I am the representative of the Greek government in this matter. I have the authority.”
“It is too dangerous. Three men injured in digging, three other men dead, a policeman shot, and your friend and one other in the hospital.”
“You know what happened. We confronted tomb-robbers. They tried to kill us.”
“And the diggers?”
Jan huffed, then explained, “Accidents happen on digs. You know that.”
Nikos raised an eyebrow. “Was it an accident, Doctor?”
Jan was taken aback. “What do you mean?”
Nikos looked at Jan severely. “May we talk privately?”
Jan looked around her. No one was near. “We’re doing that now.”
Nikos nodded. “As you wish, then. There is something else about this dig which gives me great concern. Me, and also some others in the area.”
Jan regarded him suspiciously. “And what is that?”
“There are things at work here that are quite suspicious.”
Jan shook her head. “I don’t follow, Doctor Topoulos.”
“I think that you know exactly what I’m talking about. There is a presence of evil here.”
Jan’s mouth fell open. “Evil? What the- Don’t tell me that you buy that ‘curse’ stuff.”
“Curse? No. It is far more complex than all that.”
“Well, that’s a relief. What is your concern, then?”
“You, Doctor Covington.”
“Me? What are you talking about?”
“I believe that you have at your possession certain, ah, forces which can only deal evil for all who indulge in them. Your continued presence here is unacceptable.”
Jan was finding herself at the edge of losing her temper. “What? Forces? Evil? Jesus, man. I can’t believe that I’m hearing this from you. You’re supposed to be a scholar, not a religious nut.”
Nikos bristled. “Doctor, I am a scholar who accepts that there are forces beyond our understanding. I consider myself also a man of faith. I had a talk with the priest. He was deeply concerned about an evil which surrounds this site.”
Jan was aghast. “The priest? That crackpot? You’re shutting down my dig because some goof-ball priest thinks that I’m dealing in evil? What a load of crap. That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. Superstitious malarkey.”
Nikos held up a hand. “Be careful, Doctor. You’re perilously close to blasphemy, if you haven’t already gone far beyond it.”
Jan’s face was coloring red, and the veins stood out on her temples. She closed her eyes, took several very deep breaths, and then fixed Nikos with her stare again. “Look, I don’t mean to be offensive to your religious beliefs, but you’re a scholar. You’re supposed to deal in logic. Scientific evidence, man.”
“You want evidence? Then explain to me exactly how you knew where to dig, Doctor. Tell me how you were so exacting in your knowledge of the location of Sappho’s tomb and this house.”
Jan studied him. He watched her intently as she shook her head in disgust, then replied, “Research, Doctor, and serendipity.”
“Oh? Was it serendipity who showed you where to dig, that first day here? Was it she who walked with you and pointed out where you should excavate?” Jan was speechless. “Oh, yes, Doctor. I saw her. I watched as she pointed and you staked the site. And when it was done, she simply disappeared. Don’t try to deny it, because I saw it with my own eyes.”
Son of a bitch, Jan thought. He was watching us, spying on us. “It was a friend of mine from France, one to whom Sappho has been a particular, ah, passion for many years. She knew where to look, and she gave me the benefit of her knowledge.”
“Quite a friend. One who dressed in local garb, but was obviously not from here. One who knew what I, in my years of effort, have not been able to detect? One who disappeared into thin air at the wave of her hand? Tell me, Doctor, who was she? More precisely, what was she?”
Jan and Nikos stood, both silent, glaring at each other for what seemed an endless moment. Jan could feel her face redden, her pulse pound in her head as her thoughts sped through her mind. So that’s his game. He’s jealous. We found what he couldn’t. Okay, this is it. I’m going to tell him who she is, he’s not going to believe me, and then I’m going to deck the ass-hole. I’ll never be allowed back on Lesbos again. All right, jerk, you want to know who she was? I’ll tell you, and then I”m gonna kick your ass, and consequences be damned. Jan opened her mouth to speak, but was cut short by Sallie’s voice.
Jan looked over at Sallie. She stood nervously, her large, dark eyes flitting back and forth between Jan and Nikos. Jan tried to keep her voice as even as possible when she responded, “What?”
“We, ah, got the chest open. It’s full of these tablets.” She approached, and offered one out to Jan. “Sorry, but Latin is my expertise, not Greek.”
Jan lifted the tablet from Sallie’s hand. It was a thin piece of wood, obviously very old, covered on one face with wax. Old Greek lettering was scratched into it, tiny, exquisitely-formed letters which almost completely covered the wax. As Jan held it in her hand, her heart began to pound and she thrilled inwardly. Her eye scanned the writing down to the tablet’s bottom, and she noted the signature. Her face broke into a beaming grin, and she held it up in front of Nikos. “Read it and weep, Doctor. A poem in Sappho’s own hand. Her signature is at the bottom, just here.”
Nikos’ face went ashen. He stared at the wax tablet, his mouth open, and Jan could see in his eyes that he knew it was true. The man stammered, “This cannot be.”
Jan was grinning from ear to ear. “It can be, and it is. Sappho’s house, Doctor, and the tomb of Sappho herself. You can’t shut this dig down now. It’s far too important. It’ll get world-wide attention. If you shut it down because of ‘evil spirits’, you’ll be the laughing stock of every archaeologist in the western world.”
Nikos fumed. He snatched the tablet from Jan’s hand, leaned in very close to her face, almost nose-to-nose, and growled, “Watch me.” He turned on his heels and began to stomp away, pulling himself to a halt when he came face-to-face with two men standing about six feet in front of him. One was of Greek complexion and held a leather bag; the other was Mack, hands in pockets and an amused grin on his face. Jan had not noticed them there; she wondered how long they had been standing in that spot, privy to the entire scene and everything which had been said. Nikos paled when he saw them, and uttered a surprised cry. “Doctor Pangalos.”
Doctor Pangalos smiled indulgently and handed his bag to Mack, walking forward and holding out his hand. “Ah, Doctor Topoulos. Please excuse my most unexpected visit. What have you got there in your hand?”
“Ah, ah…” Nikos looked down at the tablet in his hand. “Nothing, just an artifact from this site.”
“Please, indulge me. Let me see it.” Nikos handed it to Doctor Pangalos, who perused it and then smiled pleasantly. “I believe that this is signed by Sappho herself. A most extraordinary find. Doctor Covington, I congratulate you. You, as always, have done very well.”
Jan walked forward, offering her hand out in friendship. “Doctor Pangalos, it’s good to see you again.”
He shook the offered hand warmly. “And you, Doctor Covington. I came as soon as I got your telegram. I believe that you have some remains for me to examine?”
“Indeed I do, Doc. There’s a bit of a problem, though. We aren’t allowed to crack the tomb open. It seems that my dig is being shut down by the representative of the Greek government here.” She gestured toward Nikos, who paled slightly at the remark.
Doctor Pangalos agreed, “So it seems. I have witnessed the entire discussion.” He turned and motioned Nikos over. When the man approached, Doctor Pangalos asked, “Is this true? Are you allowing such treasures as Doctor Covington has uncovered for us to go without the benefit of research?”
“Ah, sir, I can explain.”
“I do not think so, Doctor Topoulos. Not to my satisfaction, at any rate. Things seem to be progressing extremely well here. I cannot wait to offer my services, humble as they are, to my dear friend and colleague.” He gestured toward Jan, then turned to look at Nikos. “Since I am by far your superior in the Greek Bureau of Antiquities, my judgement seems to outweigh yours, would you not agree?”
“Ah, yes, sir. Of course.”
“Good. Now that we have that understanding, you may return to your office, where we shall talk privately at a later time. This dig will remain open and under Doctor Covington’s direction.” He paused, allowing his words to have an additional effect. “On my authority.”
Nikos Topoulos stared, first at Doctor Pangalos and then at Jan, then turned and strode briskly up the path toward the main road, his fists clenched and his shoulders hunched forward. Jan felt a sense of relief flood over her, accompanied by a broad grin which widened at Sallie’s irrepressible giggle. She looked at Doctor Pangalos and said, “Darn, Doc. Talk about timing. Yours is never better. Thanks for saving my butt and this dig.”
Doctor Pangalos retrieved his leather bag from Mack, then smiled at Jan. “My pleasure. I am most interested in seeing what you have found, Doctor Covington.”
“You bet. Follow me, Doc. I think you’ll drop your teeth when you see this.”
Mel sat in the large cane-backed wheelchair, her injured leg propped up, and sipped at her tea, setting the cup aside as she stared out the window at the busy port below her. She sighed, a deep sigh, and turned as she heard Jan’s exuberant voice hail her. “Hey, gorgeous! How are ya?”
She turned, saw Jan bounce into view around the partition, and observed, “Jan, love, it’s good to see you. My, you’re in a good mood today. What’s the occasion?”
“Mel, I’ve got a surprise for you.” She dropped Mel’s briefcase on the empty bed next to her, then leaned down and kissed her soundly.
“A surprise? I can’t wait. I’m going nutty from boredom.”
Jan was bursting with excitement. “Well, this is your lucky day. No, our lucky day.” She opened the briefcase and withdrew a legal pad and Mel’s well-worn reference book, dropping it on her lap. “I brought your translation stuff for you. Boy, are you going to need it.”
Mel was puzzled. “That’s nice, Jan, but what am I to translate?”
Jan grinned from ear to ear. “This.” She withdrew a stack of ancient wax-covered wooden tablets and placed them on top of the book on Mel’s lap. “Sappho’s poems. You up to it?”
Mel squealed with delight. “Oh, Jan! You found them.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s not all. We cracked the tomb open. She’s in there, Mel.”
“Why Jan, that’s wonderful.”
“Doc Pangalos flew out from Athens. He’s in the tomb right now, examining her remains. I can’t wait to hear his report.”
“Why aren’t you there, Jan? You could have brought me this later.”
Jan shrugged, then replied, “Ah, let him work undisturbed. You know how he is. Besides, I just wanted to see you again.” Jan perched on the edge of the nearby bed. “I miss you.”
“I miss you too, Jan. It’s wonderful to see you so bright and perky. When you were last here, you looked horrible.”
Jan affected a false pout. “Thanks.”
“Well, it’s true. I was so worried about you.” Mel glanced down at the stack of tablets in her lap. “Darlin’, where should I start?”
“You can start by telling me how your leg is doing.”
Mel gestured toward the leg. “It’s fine, Jan. The doctor says that I can leave in a couple of days, if no infection begins. He’s just watching it for that right now.”
Jan noted her leg, extended on the raised wheelchair footrest. The bandage was clean and neatly wrapped, and Jan couldn’t resist a bit of teasing. “It’s fine, all right. I’ve always said that you’ve got some fabulous legs.”
Mel smiled at that. “And I’ve always said that you’re nearsighted and won’t admit it. Anyhow, this leg is going to have quite a scar, I’m afraid.”
Jan’s fingers touched the left side of her own face as she replied, “Scars give a body character. Isn’t that what you told me when I got this?”
Mel shook her head in amusement. “Hoist on my own petard, of course. My words come back to haunt me.” Jan reached out and took Mel’s hand in her own. They sat that way for some moments, no words passing between them. Speech was unnecessary. Blue eyes and hazel eyes locked, spoke silent volumes. Finally, Mel squeezed Jan’s hand and said, “Now get out of here and go back to the dig, Jan. Leave me alone for awhile. It would seem that I have my work cut out for me.” She gently patted the stack of tablets in her lap and gave Jan a blazing smile.
“Sure thing, Mel. Is there anything that I can get you?”
“Yes. Push that bedside table over here before you leave, will you?” Jan nodded, rose from the bed and rolled the table over to Mel’s wheelchair, cranking it down until it was at the right height. “Thank you, darlin’. Now go. As much as I love looking at you, we’ve both got our duties. Don’t worry, I’ll be back at the dig before you know it.”
“Won’t be soon enough for me, Mel. It’s lonesome without you.” In a whisper, she added, “Especially at night. I can’t sleep without you anymore, you know that.”
Mel agreed, “I know what you mean. You should just do what I do, Jan.”
Jan raised an eyebrow in question, her voice echoing a slight trepidation. “What’s that?”
“I hug my pillow.”
Jan’s expression relaxed, and Mel teased, “Why? What did you think?”
Jan actually blushed slightly, then responded, “Never mind. Want to hear a secret?”
This time it was Mel’s turn to raise an eyebrow. Hesitantly, she asked, “I’m not sure. Do I want to hear this?”
Jan whispered, “I sleep hugging your shirt.” Slightly embarrassed at her revelation, she quickly added, “Hey, it smells like you. It helps me sleep.”
Mel smiled at the remark, then softly replied, “Why, Jan Covington. That’s about the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.” She winked, then added, “Now scram, before you embarrass Sister Angela.”
“Huh?” Jan looked around to see a young nun standing about five feet behind her, her face an expression of pleasant friendliness. Oh, for crying out loud. What did she hear? “Oh, that’s okay, Mel. She probably doesn’t speak English.”
Jan stood awkwardly, then waved Mel good-bye and slowly made to leave. The nun chuckled, then said in quite capable English, “I can take the hint. Go ahead and kiss her good-bye. I shall return in a few minutes.” With that, she wheeled about and disappeared around the partition, glancing back over her shoulder with a delightful twinkle in her eyes. Jan felt a hot blush of embarrassment slowly creep up her face, and she rolled her eyes.
“Jeez. Why didn’t you warn me, Mel?”
Mel laughed out loud, then teased, “You didn’t give me the chance. Besides, I didn’t think that you were going to get so personal. Now kiss me and hit the road, cutie.”
Jan looked around to assure herself that there were no witnesses, then leaned down and gave Mel a lingering kiss. When she stood, she whispered, “I love you, gorgeous.”
“I love you too, Jan. Come back soon?”
“You can count on that.” With that, Jan picked up her fedora hat, clapped it on the back of her head, and strode out of the ward. Mel watched her go, chuckled once again to herself, and then placed her work on the table in front of her, opening her legal pad and preparing to begin the laborious process of translation.
Jan coasted the motorcycle to a stop near her tent, killed the motor and let down the kick-stand. As she briskly walked across the dig, she noted that the graduate students were not to be seen. Now what? The beach again? She pulled her fedora low over her eyes and scanned the dig, noting all trucks present. Hm. Where in the…? Only then did she hear the sputtering of the generator, sounding softly from near the tomb. Her question answered, she trotted over to the pit exposing the tomb’s door and gazed down. Her heart thrilled at the sight. The door was open and the blocks which had sealed it were stacked neatly in one corner of the pit. Electrical cables ran down into the pit and snaked into the open door. Oh, yeah! Doc Pangalos is at work. That’s where everyone is.
A quick climb down the ladder put her in front of the tomb door. She bent low and crawled in, looking around. It was a small tomb, much of the inside taken up by a stone sarcophagus. The lid was aside. Electrical lamps lit the inside of the tomb brightly. Crowded into the tomb on one side of the sarcophagus were virtually all the graduate students, Sallie and Mack leaning against the wall on the other side. The atmosphere inside was musty and thick, and the air hot from the lamps and press of humanity. Doctor Pangalos was standing on a large stone block, bent over the open stone edifice and speaking in his gentle voice, occasionally looking over the rims of his glasses to assure himself that his audience was following his train of thought as he examined the contents, still hidden from Jan’s eyes. Mack’s voice whispered, “Hey, Jan. You’re just in time.”
Doctor Pangalos looked up from his work and smiled broadly at Jan’s appearance. “Ah, my esteemed colleague. Come and see what we have for you.”
Jan’s gaze took in the lid of the sarcophagus, propped against one wall, and she nodded approvingly. “Got it open. Way to go.”
Doctor Pangalos gestured toward Sallie. “Your protégée, the lovely Doctor MacKenzie was most efficient in preparing the tomb for me. Fine work.”
Jan looked over and saw Sallie, giving her a wink and a smile. In response, Sallie just shrugged and replied, “Hey, I learned from the best.”
Mack tapped Jan on the shoulder, then pointed toward a corner of the tomb. On a cloth, an ancient lyre lay, carefully placed aside. Its wood was gray with age, the strings long disintegrated, but the gold inlay and exquisite craftsmanship was still very evident. Jan gasped slightly when she saw it. She beamed at Sallie, who whispered, “It was on the sarcophagus.”
Doctor Pangalos interjected, “A most magnificent instrument, and what a treasure. Sappho’s lyre. But come and meet Sappho herself.”
Jan walked forward and stared into the sarcophagus. She immediately noted the absence of a wooden coffin, a rather unusual omission for a burial of this time period. The sarcophagus, in addition, was not constructed of slabs of stone, but seemed hewn from one large piece, intricate designs on the outside. Aphrodite buried her, placed her here with her own hands, two thousand years ago. She probably just willed all of this into existence. Workmen didn’t do this.
Her eyes slowly traveled up the length of the open stone structure, and a skeleton lay exposed to her eyes. Shreds of deteriorated cloth lay about the remains, neatly cut open. Jan’s breath hitched and her heart pounded as her eyes drank in the sight. Sappho. Can it really be her? My God, if it is, this is the find of the century. She thrilled with pride as the next thought struck her. And we did it.
Only then did Jan notice that all activity in the tomb had stopped. All eyes were upon her as she stared at the find, including Doctor Pangalos’. As she mentally shook herself back to reality, he chuckled pleasantly. “Yes, yes, that was my reaction as well. I was speechless for quite some time. Ah, shall I continue?”
“Huh? Oh, sure. By all mean, Doc. I’m all ears.”
“Well, I was just commenting to your students here about the general condition of the remains. The atmosphere in here is slightly damper than when you discovered Gabrielle and Xena, and so the remains are not quite as well preserved. However, we can tell much.” He pointed with a long pair of forceps and continued, “As you can see, this is the remains of a female, from the pelvic bones. She is small, quite slender of skeletal build. Her measurement, accounting for the lack of connective tissue at the joints and spine, would put her at perhaps five feet two or three, when she was alive. She could not have weighed more than about a hundred and ten or fifteen pounds, I imagine.
“Now, notice here. The condition of the teeth is quite good. She still retains most of them, and they are not unduly worn. They are quite even, and given that and the exacting symmetry of the facial bones here, she must have been quite an attractive person. From the lack of degenerative disease in her joints and spine, I would think that she was unused to hard physical labor. From that, and from the elegance of the tomb and the exquisite nature of the jewelry which still adorns her body, I would guess that she was quite a wealthy person.”
Jan was leaning on the foot of the sarcophagus, fascinated. “Doc, where do you put her age at death?”
Doctor Pangalos gestured with his forceps. “Ah, yes. I would guess that she was in her late thirties to forty years of age at her time of death. No older, certainly.”
“Anything come to light which corroborates her cause of death, Doc?”
The pleasant Greek’s face lit up with excitement. “That is the puzzle, my friend. I can only tell you what the remains tell me. Her death is something that you will no doubt find a fascinating mystery, and that is for you to unravel.”
His last statement confused Jan. She looked over at Mack, who shrugged his shoulders, and then back at Doctor Pangalos. “No mystery. According to what we’ve ascertained, she committed suicide by leaping from the Lovers’ Cliff.”
The Greek scholar nodded. “I have been so informed by the Doctors MacKenzie. The state of such remains as we have here would cause me to question that, however.”
“Really? Talk to me, Doc. Tell me what you see.”
He smiled, then pointed with his long forceps as he spoke. “Of course. Now, I have been to the cliff and viewed the plunge which she would have taken. It is quite far. One would expect numerous injuries from such a fall, would one not? Here, however, you see no fractures of the ribs, pelvis or bones of the arms and legs. None. Her skull is also intact. Indeed, the only fracture which I can find is here.” He pointed to her neck, just beneath the skull.
“She could have broken her neck in the fall, right?”
“It is possible. However, I also question that. Come closer, Doctor Covington, and look.” Jan squeezed around the side of the sarcophagus, taking a place at Doc Pangalos’ elbow. “Now, you can see that the human neck is composed of seven bones, stacked one atop another. The first vertebra, just under the skull here, is shaped much like a ring. In her neck, it is intact. If she fell and landed upon the top of her head, this would have broken in half from the pressure upon it. Also, if she landed so, she would obviously have sustained a skull fracture. She did not. Therefore, I believe that she did not land upon her head.
“Now, the second vertebra. Aha, look here. It is fractured, do you see?” Jan nodded. “This type of fracture is most unusual. The fracture lines extend through the back of the bone, separating the second vertebra from the third, just below it. This fracture is caused only by a most specific type of injury: a severe, rapid and extremely forceful hyper-extension of the neck.”
Jan placed a hand on his arm and spoke. “Doc, could you be a little less technical and more specific?”
“Certainly. Please forgive me, I forget myself sometimes. If you will allow me, I will demonstrate the mechanism of injury.” He reached out to Jan, lifted her fedora from her head and handed it to her. “Now, stand sideways, so.” She did, watching him out of the corner of her eye. He placed one hand on top of her head and one hand under her chin, and gently lifted, guiding her head back until she was staring at the ceiling of the tomb, tilting her head. “Like so, except that it would have been extremely forceful, very quick.”
Jan looked at him. “She could have gotten that in the fall. What if she landed on her face or forehead?”
“Then we would expect to see a fracture of the skull, would we not?” Jan nodded. “Or, if she landed upon her face, the facial bones, which are extremely fragile, would have sustained massive injuries. They did not. Also, remember that her body shows no related fractures, so when she landed, she did not strike anything hard such as rocks, the beach, or the bottom of the sea bed.”
Jan felt a foreboding creep into her thoughts, a feeling that she was about to hear something that was going to complicate her summer quite dramatically. Slowly, she asked, “So, what other ways are there to get this kind of injury?”
Doctor Pangalos waved two fingers in the air to punctuate his next statement. “Ah, there are two. The first way gives rise to the nickname of this particular type of fracture. It is commonly called a ‘hangman’s fracture’.”
Jan felt her jaw drop. “Holy crap, Doc. Are you saying that she was hung?”
“No, no. That is not likely, as it was not a method of execution in old Greece. The second way is more likely, for that reason.”
“And that is?”
“Please allow me to demonstrate?” Jan nodded, and he turned her around so that she faced away from him. “Now, she was quite small, quite fragile. A large, strong man could have exerted enough force to do this, like so.” He placed a hip against her back, circled an arm around her neck, and gently tugged upwards. Jan felt her head lifted, her neck extended. “With sufficient force, such an injury is quite possible.” He released Jan, then stood peering over the rims of his glasses, awaiting the flood of questions which he knew would come.
Jan turned and stared at him. “You’re saying that you think that Sappho was murdered?”
He nodded. “I think that is the most likely thing, given the state of the remains. I regret that I cannot tell you more, with all but the skeleton long returned to dust.”
“So she didn’t drown?”
He shrugged. “Impossible to tell, with only the skeleton remaining. However, my guess is that such a broken neck as she sustained would have damaged the spinal cord at a high enough level to disrupt her breathing functions. She would not have been able either to breathe or move. Death would have been within a minute or two after the injury was sustained.” He smiled in a self-depreciating manner, then added, “Of course, that is only my guess, pure speculation.”
Jan scratched her head, staring at the remains. “I trust your guesses more than most people’s facts, Doc. Thanks for coming all the way out here to do this.” Jan extended her hand, and Doctor Pangalos shook it.
“My pleasure, my friend. I was honored that you invited me.” Jan released his hand, and then asked another question.
“As the ranking representative of the Greek government here, how do you wish to proceed? What should we do with Sappho’s remains?”
“I would like to photograph the remains. Also, there is some exquisite jewelry on her body. It should be removed and taken to the museum, along with her lyre. That will discourage tomb-robbers. Then, if I may suggest, perhaps we should re-seal the tomb and allow her to remain here. It is such a beautiful site, and she belongs to Lesbos.” He looked intently at Jan. “Do you concur?”
Jan thought for a moment, then replied, “I’m inclined to agree with you, Doc, but let me think on it for a bit. Give you my answer later?”
He nodded agreeably. “As you wish. I will be here for some time.”
Jan waved a hand. “Everybody out. Give him some time to work.” The graduate students filed out of the tomb, crouching as they exited the door, followed by Mack and Sallie. Jan was the last one out. As she was halfway through the door, she looked back. “Need help, Doc?”
“Thank you, no. I will be fine.” She nodded and left, easing herself out into the afternoon sunshine.
On the walk back across the dig site, the students were abuzz with conversation. Jan, however, was silent, her mind whirling in thought. She was startled when a hand touched her shoulder. It was Mack.
“Penny for your thoughts, ol’ buddy.”
“I’m still sorting them out. Hey, look. I need to talk with someone for a few minutes. Meet you later?”
Mack seemed to understand instantly. “Yeah, sure.”
He took off toward the main dig and Jan wandered over to the ancient olive tree, seating herself underneath it. She sat so, staring out over the ocean for several minutes, then spoke very softly. “Gabrielle?” She closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of the sun and the gentle breeze upon her face, and listened with both ears and heart for an answer. There was none. “Gabrielle?” Again, she sat quietly, but found no presence of her ancestor. What did she know of this? Did she know? And what does she want me to do with Sappho? Jan opened her eyes and looked at the beauty of the cliff, then made her decision. She would want her to remain here, in the beauty and poignancy of this place. That’s what we’ll do. Strangely, Jan felt at peace with that decision, and smiled as a gentle breeze caressed her face. Yeah, that’s what we’ll do, Gabrielle.
“I’m here. I can feel your anguish, Gabrielle.”
“I didn’t know, Xena. By all the gods, I didn’t know. I should never have left her unprotected and alone.”
“It’s not your fault, Gabrielle. You left her because I asked you to. It’s my doing, all my fault. I’m responsible for it.”
“She never mentioned this, Xena.”
“Of course not. She didn’t want to burden you. I’m just so sorry, Gabrielle.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault. I left her because I love you more than I loved her.”
“And I never should have asked that of you. I should have known that we could never have been parted in heart and soul, that our destinies are intertwined always through timeless eternity. Though I had left the mortal realm, you still walked in it. You were both lonely. She comforted you, as you did her. How wrong I was to interfere with that. Had I known then what I know now…”
“I might have done the same, in your place.”
“Somehow, you would have been more insightful. The eyes of your spirit always saw so much more than mine. They still do.”
“Xena, I hurt so much.”
“Don’t, love. Merge with me. Let me take your pain. Surrender it to me, as we are one soul.”
“Oh, Xena. What a mess we made of things, so long ago.”
Melinda placed her pencil down and rubbed her aching eyes. She could feel a headache starting, but shook it off and sipped at her hot tea, her mind alive with nagging questions. Some of these are not poems; these are more in the nature of a personal diary. How I wish that Jan were here to talk to about this. I could use her insight.
Sister Angela approached, noting Mel rub her temples, and asked, “You are not well?”
“I’m getting a headache.”
“I thought so. Here is aspirin.” She handed Mel a small cup containing two white pills, which Mel gratefully swallowed. “What are you translating?”
Mel smiled up at the young nun, then motioned to the empty bed nearby. “Would you like to hear an incredible story, Sister? Do you have a minute?”
The nun glanced around, then nodded. A conspiratorial smile crossed her face, and she perched on the edge of the bed. “I can stay for a bit. There are very few patients in this ward.”
“It’s a story of love and heartbreak, of politics and intrigue. The deeper I get into this, the more fascinating it becomes.”
“How does it end?”
“I haven’t discovered that yet, although I fear that it ends quite tragically.”
“Let me hear it, please.”
Mel sipped at her tea again, and flipped back through her notes. “Well, it took place two thousand years ago, not far from here…”
The evening had fallen, and the dig’s camp site had settled down for the night. At Doctor Pangalos’ insistence, two policemen stood guard over the opened tomb in the distance, while a campfire burned near the tents. A crowd of students and scholars were gathered around it, their conversation ringing with speculation and questions about the day’s revelations.
Jan shook herself out of her private thoughts, listened to the wandering direction of the conversation, and grew slightly irritated. Finally, she offered a comment, the others at the fire quieting as she took command by her presence. “Look, guys, this is getting us nowhere. Let’s look at facts.” She pointed to Mack. “You’re the historian here. You’ve done some recent research on Sappho. Do you find it reasonable that someone would want to kill her?”
Mack kept his eyes on the fire as he spoke. “Well, Lesbos was in political turmoil during her life. It was ruled by a succession of tyrants, one usurping power from another. People took their politics very seriously back then, and when a tyrant fell, his supporters were often killed or exiled. It was a brutal time.”
Sallie leaned against him. “But Sappho was a poet, a performer, not a politician.”
Mack corrected her. “Sappho came from a wealthy family. Such families were deeply involved in local politics. It appears that she was rather outspoken about such things from an early age. In fact, she was exiled from Lesbos for a time, suffering an arranged marriage to an older man far from home. It was hoped, I suppose, that such an arrangement would silence her.”
Jan thought about the irony of it. “Sappho, the lover, in a loveless marriage?”
Mack agreed, “Ironic, isn’t it? I suspect, though, that it actually afforded her the freedom to indulge herself in the arts for which she became so famous. That’s when her renown as a poet grew. She was hired by the rich and prominent in Greece, and her fame spread rapidly.”
Sallie placed a hand on his leg. “And her husband?”
“Oh, marriages among the wealthy often were formal, distant relationships. In old Greece, the sexes socialized separately. I suspect that he had his affairs, allowing her the opportunity to have hers. Indications were that she had many romantic liaisons, chosen from among the women who surrounded her. After all, she was a beautiful and erudite woman, surrounded by others equally so desirable. As for her husband, she was probably merely a trophy to him, ‘bragging rights’ for a wealthy, egotistical man. In return, he supported her in a very comfortable manner. Such arrangements were very common.”
Jan spoke now, as she poked absent-mindedly at the fire with a stick. “So, after her husband’s death, all was forgiven and she was allowed to return home to Mytilene, as I recall.”
Mack nodded. “Correct. Remember, by now she was quite renowned. She was also a rich widow, making her quite eligible for courtship by wealthy men, her lack of interest in them notwithstanding. The current tyrant might have allowed her to return to her homeland in exchange for a promise to keep her mouth shut about politics. At any rate, she presided over a finishing school for the daughters of wealthy families. Girls from all over Greece were sent to learn the finest graces: music, poetry, singing, the arts, weaving, the finer points of being a future wife to a wealthy man.”
Jan added, “But foremost, she was a brilliant poet. She glorified romantic love in an age when other poets sang of war.” She poked at the fire, then asked, “So who would have killed her? Why?”
Mack replied, “That, we may never know. My guess, though, is that it was over either politics or love.”
That night, Jan stirred restlessly in her bunk, unable to sleep. Visions of the remains of the poet swept repeatedly through her mind, keeping her awake, and she felt a gnawing loneliness at Mel’s absence from her side. Finally, in frustration, she rose and dressed, donning a sweater against the cool night air. She found her lantern and lit it, carrying it as she crossed the dig site, now eerily silent in the moon’s glow. She stopped and studied the full moon for a moment, then resumed her tired trek toward the tomb.
The two policemen approached her, then nodded greetings and spoke in Greek when she held her lantern near her face in response to their challenge. “Ah, Doctor Covington. What brings you here at this time of night?”
“I cannot sleep. Is it acceptable if I enter the tomb?”
The two policemen looked at each other, then shrugged. “Of course, for you. There is nothing anymore of value inside, as Doctor Pangalos has removed the valuables to the Mytilene museum. I do not know why we are even here.”
Jan responded, “Because you are guarding a national treasure. You should be proud.”
One of the policemen glanced toward the tomb. “That Sappho, she was quite a lady, eh?”
Jan smiled. “Quite.” With that, she descended the ladder and pulled aside the canvas tarp covering the entrance, crouching down and easing herself inside. As she stood in the tomb, holding her lantern aloft to fight back the inky blackness, she saw the stone lid back in place over the sarcophagus. Good old Sallie, efficient to a fault. She’s already replaced the lid.
Jan set the lantern down on the sarcophagus and leaned against it, running her hand over the smooth, cool surface of the stone. Aloud and to no one in particular, she spoke her thoughts.
“Sappho, who killed you? Why? What happened, so long ago? And what was Gabrielle’s part in all this?”
A soft, familiar voice answered her, echoing in the hollow darkness of the small room. “I simply failed her, my distant daughter.”
Jan jerked her head around, staring into the darkness behind her. A soft, ethereal glow lit one corner of the tomb. In the shimmering light, a form materialized and took shape. Jan felt a thrill of amazement and slight fear thread through her chest, and she gasped. “Gabrielle.”
“Forgive me. I have frightened you.” The ancient bard gazed sadly toward the sarcophagus. “I had to visit.”
Jan stared at the form in front of her. The sight was, to her, familiar, and yet mesmerizing at the same time. The compact, muscular form, the shoulder-length light hair, the heavy boots and ancient garb, all painted the vision as one very out of time and place. Most entrancing, though, were those sad, expressive eyes, eyes full of anguish and yet with a presence which saw through the centuries and held knowledge of worlds the likes of which Jan could only guess at. She swallowed dryly, then whispered, “Gabrielle, what happened?”
“I wish I knew.” She approached the sarcophagus, her eyes’ gaze traveling between it and Jan’s face. “She looked upon me as her champion, you see, yet I was not there when she needed me most. Her untimely, brutal death was my fault.”
“No, not you.”
“Yes. I left her unprotected and heartbroken. I may as well have been the one to kill her.”
“Tell me the story.”
Gabrielle considered the request for a moment, then nodded. “I will do much better than that. I will show you.” She raised a hand and placed her fingertips to Jan’s forehead. The touch was cool, even cold, but sent a shock of intense awareness through Jan’s body. She closed her eyes and her mind flashed with vivid images, the swirling, panoramic glory of old Lesbos unfolding in a flash before the eyes of her soul.
Lesbos, two thousand years ago.
Gabrielle sat next to the cliff, under the shade of a vibrant young olive tree, its shade affording some comfort in the bright sun of the Greek summer. Her eyes roamed slowly across the shimmering deep blue of the Aegean water, noting the fishing boats which slowly bobbed in the distance, their white linen sails billowing in the breeze. Before, she would have thrilled at such a sight; now, however, she only sighed deeply and gazed down at the urn in her hands. Her chest ached with an agony borne of grief, a deep, unrelenting grief unlike any she had ever known before. She spoke slowly, a hollow ring to her voice.
“Xena, I miss you. I just hurt all the time. After all these years, it still seems a bad dream, all of this. I awaken in the morning and yearn to see you next to me. You’re not. You never will be, again. I’m nothing without you, love. You were my strength, my passion, my path. I’m lost without you.” She paused, then felt a surge of dark anger electrify her. She slammed the metal urn down into the soft, grassy ground next to her knee. “You chose to die. You left me. You could have returned, and you left me. How could you just do that?” She wiped at her face with a hand, then pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around her legs. She drew in a deep ragged breath, and continued, “We’re soul mates, Xena. I always thought that we would die together. I wish now that we had.”
She rested her forehead against her knees, closing her eyes. Xena, talk to me. Give me some wisdom, here. Send me some sign to let me know that you are near.
A gentle hand placed itself on Gabrielle’s shoulder and a soft, cultured voice roused her from her agony. “Gabrielle, you are hurting. I can feel it from you. How can I comfort you?”
She opened her eyes and looked up. “You can’t. This is my Tartarus. I live in it alone, so very alone.” She gazed out over the water. “But I can take my destiny in my own hands.” She gestured toward the urn, sitting by her knee. “Our destinies. I can end the pain. I can join Xena.” She nodded toward the cliff, just steps in front of her.
Sappho knelt behind Gabrielle, snaking her slender arms around the warrior-bard’s waist and resting her head on the scarred, muscular shoulder. “You can, but you mustn’t. You’re still young. There’s so much to do. The world needs you, Gabrielle.” She placed a soft kiss on Gabrielle’s cheek. “I need you, and now so much more than ever.”
“Why me?” Gabrielle turned to face Sappho and ran her fingertips over smooth olive skin. Dark, intelligent eyes peered back at her, electric with emotion, from a beautiful face framed in tendrils of black hair tinged with the beginnings of gray, which were falling haphazardly about her neck and shoulders. “Of all the lost souls in the world, why me?”
Sappho leaned forward and kissed the tears on Gabrielle’s cheeks, wiping them away with her lips. “Because you’re Gabrielle, and of all the lost souls in the world, there’s none quite like you.” She traced her fingers over the white, healed scars on the warrior-bard’s shoulder. “What quiet strength lies in your warrior’s arms, yet what nobility of spirit shines from your bard’s heart.”
“You honor me too much. I’m not what you think I am.”
“You’re not what you think you are, either.”
Gabrielle studied the face and spoke softly. “You’re in love with me, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Oh, yes. I do love you, more than I think that I’ve ever loved before.” She noted the silence from Gabrielle and reached out a slender hand, intertwining itself in the blonde hair streaked with touches of gray. “Speak your heart, Gabrielle. You don’t ever lie. Tell me the truth: do you love me, as well?”
Gabrielle lowered her head, then looked back up into the wide, dark eyes. “Yes. I find that I do.”
Sappho studied her face, looked deeply into the pained hazel eyes. “But you love Xena more?”
“Don’t be. It is fitting that you mourn, but it’s been years now. She has taken flight to the timeless realms, but you still tread the earth with mortal feet. She would not wish you to despair so, trust me. It’s time you lived again.”
Gabrielle lifted the urn and cradled it in her lap. “How can I? I have been dead for years.”
Sappho stood, reached out a hand to Gabrielle and helped her to stand. “Let me show you. Stay with me here, in Lesbos. Be my strength, my protector, and I’ll be your sustenance. We’ll be lovers in truth, not just in body. Write your scrolls in the shade of my garden, and I’ll comfort you in your lonely moments.” Still hand in hand, they began walking back toward the distant house. “We’ll grow older together, and when you take your flight from me, you will reunite with Xena, as your destinies decree. In the meanwhile, though, let me care for you and you for me. I suspect that’s what Xena would want. Would she not wish for you to be happy again?”
Gabrielle squeezed the small hand cupped in her own. “I don’t know what Xena wants anymore.”
“Do you not talk with her?”
“Sometimes I feel her near me. Occasionally, I hear the sound of her voice in my soul or on the wind about me, but I wonder if it’s not simply my madness which confounds me.”
“You’re not mad, love, though many say you are. You’re just in grief, and you have been for years. Let me comfort you. Let me coax you from this madness which afflicts you. Love me, Gabrielle. Share my life, my bed, my heart. Be my champion, and I shall be your heart’s soft voice.”
They halted in the verdant gardens, alive with summer blooms, and faced each other. Gabrielle felt unfamiliar emotions sweep over her, a hunger deeply buried in her memory, an intense longing for the touch, the words, the glorious, soaring delights of love. They embraced in the shade of the gardens, a desperate, clinging embrace laced with passionate kisses. When their faces parted, Gabrielle hugged her tightly. She glanced over Sappho’s shoulder and saw the urn, still clasped tightly in her own hand. Forgive me, Xena. It’s been so long and I’ve hurt so much. I’ll come back to you, I promise. Please, just let me have this now, and don’t hate me for it. The gods know that I’ll probably hate myself enough. She rested her hands, one still clutching the urn, on Sappho’s slender shoulders and drew her apart from the embrace, their eyes meeting. “I…want to stay, if you’ll have me.”
Sappho’s face brightened into a smile rivaling the brightness of the sun at mid-day, and she placed a hand aside Gabrielle’s face. “Have my desperate words found a home in your heart?” Gabrielle nodded, not trusting herself to speak. “Then come, my love, and live with me. This is now your home as much as mine. All that I possess, I lay at your feet.”
“I have no use for that. Only you, dear Sappho. I’m weak and tired. Be with me, that’s all I ask.”
“Then that, you shall have.” They walked through the garden, hands together, and entered the cool interior of the house. A servant met them. Her expression was worried as her eyes traveled between Gabrielle and Sappho.
“Madam, Lucian calls upon you. He waits in the outer rooms.” At the words, Sappho’s complection paled slightly. Gabrielle felt her hand squeezed.
“Tell him I will receive his visit shortly.” The servant nodded and left, and Gabrielle looked over at Sappho.
“Who is Lucian?”
Sappho grimaced. “A pest. He is well-known in Mytilene, a warrior of some repute. He fancies himself the next tyrant, I fear. He also fancies the prestige and wealth that a marriage to me would afford him. He is rather persistent.”
“Why don’t you just tell him to lose himself?”
“It is not done so among upper-class Mytilene families. I must not insult him. I must receive his visits, and delicately avoid his overtures.”
Gabrielle snorted, “I’m not of the upper-class. I’m a warrior, of peasant stock. Let me rid you of this man.”
Sappho shook her head. “No, no. You must not be rash. I cannot afford to make political enemies in this land. My position is precarious enough as it is, a woman among men in power. Let me handle him.” She kissed Gabrielle on the cheek. “Please.”
Gabrielle relented. “As you say, but I will be in the next room. Call if you have need of me.”
“I will. Thank you.” With that, she left Gabrielle’s side and walked down the central hallway of the house, pausing to allow her servant to drape a robe around her body, concealing her form beneath luxurious folds of scarlet cloth. Suitably attired for the man’s visit, she disappeared around the corner.
Gabrielle followed, her footsteps quiet, her ears alert. She remained just around the corner, listening to the conversation in the next room. A deep voice greeted Sappho.
“Greetings, poet. What has kept you?”
Sappho’s voice was clear and loud, echoing in the house. “Lucian, would you ask a woman of her doings in her own house?”
“No, my apologies. Forgive me.”
“Of course, Lucian. Now, what brings you to my house today?”
“You know my purpose, Sappho. I seek your answer to my tenders of marriage. So, what say you?”
“Lucian, you are kind and gracious to ask, but you know that I must refuse that which is so generously offered.”
“What? You cannot refuse, I would think.”
“And why, sir?”
“You’re a widow. A woman of such status and repute as yourself needs a man of such reputation as mine to offer her the protection of his name.”
“And my money, sir?”
“Well, that would become mine, of course.”
“Of course. Let me be quite plain, Lucian. I am in a difficult position here in the land of my birth. The current ruler allows me peace and quiet only if I refrain from any speech or action which smells of politics. I have promised him that. If I were to marry one such as yourself, one who is known to harbor political ambitions, he would make it difficult for not only myself, but for you as well. Trust me, you’re better off without me.”
“I won’t accept that, Sappho. When you were younger, you thrilled in political intrigue.”
“And I suffered much for that indulgence. No more. I am older and wiser now.”
“You do not wish to see yourself the next queen of Mytilene, perhaps all of Lesbos?”
“I do not. I am content, here by the sea.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“You must. It is not to be. The Fates have decreed another destiny for me, Lucian. Please accept that, and leave my home now in peace and friendship.”
“I’ll not leave until you accept.”
Gabrielle could hear the exasperation in Sappho’s voice. “Such a proposal I could never accept. Please go now. It is improper for you to remain.”
“Then marry me, and make it proper.” Gabrielle had heard enough. She felt a dark, virile anger sweep through her, and she left her place in the hall, walking into the room. Sappho glanced at her and placed a hand over her mouth. Lucian looked at her, his eyes taking her in from hair to feet, and then spoke. “What’s this? Who are you, to intercede in a private discussion?” Gabrielle said nothing, just stood in front of him. He retained his seat, eyeing her with some contempt, and then waved a hand. “Leave us.”
Two hands flashed out, striking Lucian in the sides of his neck. He froze in his chair, the muscles of his neck twisted, his expression one of shock and pain. A trickle of blood seeped from his nose. Gabrielle leaned forward, hands on her hips, and spoke in an angry growl. “I’m the one who will kill you if you ever return. Know that.”
Sappho gasped, standing from her seat and watching in horror as Gabrielle placed her booted foot in his chest and pushed, tipping the chair over backward. It hit the floor with a clatter, and she grasped the front of his tunic, twisting it into a knot. With effort, she dragged the man across the floor and down the steps of the house, his grunts punctuating the thud each time he bounced off a step. In front of the house, a chariot waited, the driver staring wordlessly as he watched the spectacle. She noted the chariot there and dragged him over to it, dropping him in the dirt. She then leaned down over him, struck his neck once again with her fingers, and he gasped heavily, wheezing and collapsing back against the wheel. His eyes, wide with disbelief, fixed her and grew dark. “Who are you? Let me know your name.”
She backed away a few steps, her hand on her chakram, as she watched him struggle to his feet. He made no move to approach her, just studied her for a moment as he coughed a few times. Finally, he spoke. “Ah, the warrior-bard? Know this, Gabrielle. You have just made a powerful enemy.”
Gabrielle did not flinch. She simply replied, “So have you. Leave Sappho in peace, and we’ll never again cross paths. Return, and die. It’s as simple as that.”
He considered the warning for a moment, then wordlessly climbed up into the chariot. The driver nervously whipped the horse-team into motion, and they pulled out onto the dusty road, clattering away. Gabrielle sighed, stretched as if after a vigorous exercise, and then turned to walk back into the house. Both Sappho and her servant stood in the door.
“Gabrielle, I fear that you shouldn’t have done that. His family is powerful. Bad things will come of it.”
Janice felt her eyes snap open. She blinked and looked around at her surroundings. She stood in the tomb, the flicker of the lantern and the soft hue of Gabrielle lighting the deathly place. After a moment, she asked, “Is that it?”
Gabrielle’s countenance was pensive, pained. “No. I do not wish to bore you with a long story, but this will tell you of the world into which I was thrust.”
“He returned and died on the spot. My chakram’s bite severed his head. His servant returned it to his family.” She uttered a soft, ironic chuckle and continued. “The ruler then in power decided that I had done him a favor, and extended his good wishes to us, to the house of Sappho. I thought that would be the end of the affair.”
“But it wasn’t?”
“Sappho and I spent the next month or more together, living in a tranquility which I thought never to see again since my youth. We were lovers.”
Jan leaned against the sarcophagus, listening in rapt fascination. “Go on.”
Gabrielle reached for Jan’s forehead. “Perhaps it is better that I show you.”
Lesbos, two thousand years ago.
Gabrielle turned restlessly, her face pained in her sleep. In her dream state, she could feel a desperate, aching hurt tugging at her. Her eyes opened, and she stared at the ceiling, then turned her head to her left. In the moon’s light, dark hair spilled over the pillow next to her. Slowly, the head turned to face her, and when their eyes met in the dim light, Gabrielle gasped and sat up in bed, her heart pounding and the hair standing up on her neck.
The eyes into which she had looked were blue, not dark. The face fixed her with a sorrowful expression, then the body rose to sit in bed next to her. Gabrielle was scarcely breathing as she looked upon the face of her long-dead soul’s mate. Finally, she was able to choke forth a strangled whisper.
“It’s been too long, love.”
“How good it is to see you again. I feared that you had…”
“Forgotten you? Never. I’m always near you, watching over you, protecting you, loving you. Don’t you know that by now?”
“But you feel so distant these days. You don’t speak to me anymore.”
“It would seem that you don’t need me anymore.”
“Xena? I don’t understand.”
“Don’t you? You’re in love with her, aren’t you?”
Gabrielle was stunned. She looked at Xena’s sad countenance, her mind whirling. Finally, her eyes unable to meet the blue ones near her face, she slowly nodded. “Yes. I am.”
“And she loves you so very desperately.” Xena smiled wistfully. “I can understand that, Gab. I love you with the same passion. I have since we first met, so long ago.”
Gabrielle reached out and rested her hand on Xena’s arm. “As I love you. Aren’t we soul mates, Xena? Aren’t we connected through eternity? Aren’t our destinies intertwined for all time? Haven’t we seen proof of that?”
Xena wiped a tear from her face. “Destinies can change, Gabrielle. They’re not written in stone. I’m learning that. I’m so frightened of what I see, and I feel powerless to do anything about it.”
“What are you afraid of?” Xena said nothing, and Gabrielle prompted her. “What, Xena? Tell me. Nothing ever frightened you this much when you were alive.”
“Only one thing did: you. The fear of losing your love.”
“Me?” Gabrielle stared at the imploring blue eyes. “Is it my love with Sappho which scares you so?”
“What am I to say to you? Am I to tell you how my heart breaks when she holds you? When you tell her that you love her? When I watch my soul’s mate in the embrace of another? When the two of you lie together and whisper soft words in the night, as we used to?”
“You-you’ve seen that, Xena?”
“I am always near.”
Gabrielle sat in silence for a long moment, then sniffed. “Then don’t watch.” It was Xena’s turn to sit in stunned silence. Gabrielle’s words flooded out like water from a burst dam, raging and passionate. “I love you more than my life, Xena. I always will. But you’re dead. You chose to die. You left me, and it almost killed me. I’ve mourned you for years. I’ve carried your ashes next to my heart. I hurt, Xena. I just hurt all the time. I don’t know what it’s like for you to be dead, but that’s what living is like for me. Every day since you died has been an agony for me. I’m losing my mind, do you know that? People say that I’m insane. Perhaps I am.”
“Oh, Gabrielle…” Xena attempted to sooth her, but to no avail.
“Then this happens to me. For the first time in years, I feel alive again. I can smile, I can laugh, I can thrill at a beautiful day, I can feel something again besides loss and grief. Tell me, how can this be bad for us?”
“But we love, Gabrielle. We’re one soul, such a rare thing.”
“But you’re not here, Xena. You’re not here, and you never will be again. I love you, but I love her, too. I need this. I need her, and she needs me. Can you not understand? Can you not be happy for me?”
“You ask too much of me, Gabrielle. I’m not as pure in soul as you.”
“My loneliness was your choice, Xena, not mine. I begged you not to sacrifice yourself. I begged you to live.”
“Yes, I left you here, alone in your mortality. I chose to take wing into the timeless realm, seeking a redemption even our love couldn’t offer me. I couldn’t take you with me. Don’t you see, I could never have asked that sacrifice of you? I left you here to carry on my legacy, my…no, our work. No one could assume my mantle but you, love.”
“I wanted to die with you. I still do.”
“A fruitless waste of your life. Your path is out there, making right what is terribly wrong.” Xena pointed toward the large, open window.
“And I did, for many years. I’m just so tired, Xena. I can’t carry that burden alone anymore.” Gabrielle could feel her eyes fill with tears.
Xena’s hand caressed her cheek. The hand felt warm and strong. “You don’t. I’m with you, every day.”
The tears spilled down Gabrielle’s cheeks. “But you’re not….with me.”
“No.” Xena fixed her with a sad gaze, then pleaded, “Come back to me, Gabrielle. Come back to our path. Don’t forsake us, my love. We’re bound heart and soul. Don’t lose that, I beg of you.” Her body began to fade, then disappeared. Gabrielle gasped, then reached out to touch emptiness.
Sappho awoke, rubbing her eyes. She turned to see Gabrielle stirring fitfully in their bed, a soft whimpering breaking the still of the night. Slowly, she sat up, watching her lover as she desperately fought the tangled web of nightmare which afflicted her. Hesitantly, she reached out a hand and prodded her. “Gabrielle?”
The sleeping bard woke with a start, sitting up in the bed, her body tense with alarm, her hand tightly gripped around Sappho’s wrist. She felt herself perspiring and looked around to see her own hand holding a slender, graceful wrist in a hard grip. She blinked, somewhat disoriented, and squinted toward Sappho. “Xena?”
The answering voice was fearful. “No, it’s Sappho. Wake up, Gabrielle. You’ve had bad dreams again.”
Gabrielle took in a deep, ragged breath, releasing the wrist. She felt suddenly ashamed, embarrassed to have been caught in such a state, and glanced down at the bed, then up at the large, dark eyes which appraised her. “I’m….sorry. I’m sorry.”
“Lie with me, love, and tell me what disturbs you.” She held out her arms, and Gabrielle fell into them. They settled down into the pillows and Gabrielle held her tightly, desperately, as she whispered in the night.
“I can’t tell you.”
Sappho seemed able to read her dreams. “You spoke with Xena, didn’t you?”
“How did you know that?”
“I know much, love. You talk in your sleep. Yes, I know. I know how you love her, how you always will. I know the guilt you must swallow when you feel happiness with me. I know that one day, perhaps because of it, you will leave me and break my heart.”
“I never should have come here. We never should have fallen in love. I’m sorry for all of it, for everything.”
“Don’t be sorry. Be happy to be part of such a love.” She paused, then spoke again, emotion tinging her voice. “You must do what you think is right, but remember one thing.”
“I love you, Gabrielle. I always will.”
Gabrielle felt her chest tighten at the words. “I love you too. That will never change, whatever the future holds for us. Sleep, now. Sleep with me.” She felt the head nestle against her shoulder, then nod in agreement as the small body snuggled against her. In the dark, as time ticked slowly by, Gabrielle lay still in the night, her eyes focused on the dim ceiling as Sappho slept by her side. She, however, could not sleep. The voices of her mind nagged at her, memories both bidden and unbidden raged to the surface of her consciousness, and she agonized over the conflicting emotions which warred in her soul. Finally, when the first light of dawn began to lighten the room, she quietly rose, kissed the sleeping Sappho’s cheek, and dressed in the darkness. It took her only a few moments to pack her bag and find her bedroll, left in the corner where it had been for the last months. She lit a candle, sat down at the table and scratched out a letter, and then, with one last, long look at the beautiful, fragile figure asleep in the bed, forced herself to step out of the low window. She walked across the garden, then paused at the Lover’s Cliff. As she stood, watching the first fingers of dawn streak across the sky, she reached into her bag and pulled the urn from it, holding it in her hand and gazing down into the water below. Then, slowly, sadly, she turned and trekked a roundabout path to the road leading to the port city of Mytilene.
Jan opened her eyes. Gabrielle stood near her, her expressive eyes hooded with an ancient sadness.
“Gabrielle, why are you showing me this?”
“So that you may tell the story of Sappho’s last days with passion, with truth, with dignity, to the world.”
“Do you want me to tell this? About your love, I mean?”
“On my deathbed, I asked Aphrodite to keep the secret of our love silent for all time, out of consideration for Xena. But Xena understands. She has given her blessing, and I, in turn, release Aphrodite and you from the vow of secrecy. Tell what you think is proper and right, Janice. Make Sappho live again.”
“But how did Sappho die?”
“I know no more than you. A few months after I left her, a rumor reached my ears that she had leapt from the Lovers’ Cliff, a victim of despair. Now, to discover that she may have been murdered in my absence…” Gabrielle gazed down at the floor. “I, and I alone, failed her. I will carry the weight of that dreadful knowledge forever.” She smiled at Jan, a sorrowful smile, then said, “Good-bye, my distant daughter.”
In an instant, she was gone. Jan took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and then sat down on the tomb’s floor. “Jeez!” she said aloud, “Talk about family secrets!”
She leaned back against the sarcophagus, mulling over all that she had learned, and then leaned her head back against the cool stone, closing her eyes. She remembered nothing more until she started, suddenly awakening. Hell, I must have fallen asleep.
She opened her eyes, looking around the tomb. No one was to be seen. Jan shrugged, scratched her head, and then rose to gather her lantern and hat. Worming her way out of the tomb, she climbed up the excavation’s ladder and walked across the dig. The first red streaks of morning’s light were just becoming evident in the east. Jan noted this, then stopped and looked at the silhouette of the gnarled olive tree, dark against the lightening horizon. It must have looked just like this when Gabrielle left that morning. She actually stood there, right there. What a heartbreaking choice she had to make. What would I have done in her spot? Hell, I almost found out. I almost lost Mel on this trip. If it hadn’t been for Xena’s protection, who knows where that bullet might have caught her? She thought about the implications of that for a moment, then smiled. Thank you, Xena.
A few minutes later, still unable to sleep, she walked into the artifact tent and went to the ancient chest so recently unearthed. Lifting the crusted lid, she gazed down at the tablets neatly lined up inside, then noticed a bronze tube in one corner. What the…? What’s this? She lifted the tube from the chest, inspected it, and saw a dingy papyrus inside. Carrying it over to the work table, she slowly pulled at the material, and a scroll slid from the metal tube.
She looked around, saw some cotton gloves on the edge of the table, and slipped them on her hands. Carefully unrolling the scroll, she looked at the neat patterns of old Greek letters. Not Sappho’s hand, I think. I wonder…? She glanced down at the bottom of the document, and her mouth dropped open. Two names were recorded at the bottom. One she recognized; the other, she did not.
In a flash, she was at the door of the tent which Mack and Sallie shared. “Hey, you guys, Rise and shine. I want you to see something.”
Voices muttered inside the tent, and Mack emerged, his face half-coated with shaving cream.
“Damn, Jan, you’re at it early. What’s up?”
“Come here. Come and verify this for me.” Wordlessly, Mack looked back at Sallie, and the two of them joined Janice in the artifact tent. She brought them over to the ancient papyrus, then pointed. “See that name? Do you recognize it?”
Mack squinted as he read it. “Yeah. Mocenus. It rings a bell. Now where…? Oh, yeah. He was a slave belonging to Sappho. Part of her devoted household for many years.” He puzzled, then added, “He couldn’t have written this. He was a slave, most likely illiterate.”
Jan pointed to another name. “Yeah? How about that one?”
Mack studied it, then stood in shock. “Holy crap, Jan. Herodotus.”
Sallie echoed his surprise. “Herodotus? The scholar, the author of The Histories? That Herodotus?”
Mack grinned. “The same.”
Jan was exuberant. “Got to show this to Mel. She’s coming back from the hospital today. Can’t wait until she translates this one.”
Mack was puzzled. “What’s so special about this one?”
Jan grinned. “Just call it a hunch.”
The dig was in full activity over the next few days, Jan and Sallie focusing the students’ attention to one part of the house at a time. The tomb was re-sealed, the local officials of the Greek government all in attendance and Doctor Pangalos taking charge of the effort.
Nikos Topoulos was noticeably absent from the island, Doctor Pangalos having had him immediately recalled to Athens, where he was buried in the bureaucracy of the government. His replacement in Mytilene was a fan of Jan’s, having studied her work on the Xena legends. In his eyes she could do no wrong, and Jan was enjoying the wheels of the Bureau of Antiquities running smoothly for once in her career.
In addition, the dig was attracting visiting scholars from Europe, often flying in to inspect first-hand the excavation of Sappho’s home and tomb. Jan was in her glory.
What made her smile most, however, was Mel’s return to the dig, albeit with a limp and a cane. She sat near the tents, warm in the sun, furiously scribbling and thumbing through her reference book, attempting to unravel the complex, beautiful hand with which Sappho had penned her diaries and poems two millennia before. Jan was very attentive to her, often bringing her hot tea and fussing over the way her leg was propped up on a camp stool, helping her about the dig site, or just sitting with her underneath the olive tree, speaking in lively, animated conversation punctuated with laughter. Deeply in love before, they seemed absolutely inseparable now, and their presence as a devoted couple put a wistful smile on the faces of all the students at the dig, many of whom seemed quite “paired up” themselves.
Sallie noted this and commented upon it to Mack, who watched Jan and Mel in such distant conversation and agreed. “Love seems in the air here. Aphrodite was right. Lesbos is charmed.”
“Gee, Mack. Do you think that we’ll be in love like that eight or nine years from now?”
He watched them laughing and talking, then smiled and hugged Sallie to his side. “Sure, honey. The only question I have is, ‘With whom?’”
Sallie stared blankly for a second, got the essence of the joke, and then sputtered, waving her trowel at him. “Mack MacKenzie, you’re awful!”
Jan and Mel heard the loud comment in Sallie’s distinctive voice, turned, and saw Mack sheepishly grin in their direction and shrug his shoulders as Sallie chattered, her words admonishing him and her finger wagging furiously. They watched the spectacle for a moment, looked back at each other and leaned closely together, Jan’s head resting on Mel’s shoulder. After a moment, Jan muttered, “Ah, marital bliss, huh?”
Mel answered, “Yep. Nothin’ like it.”
The night air closed around them as Jan and Mel lay in their bunk, warm and wrapped closely together. This was the part of the day that they treasured most; the moments when, before they drifted off into slumber, they made love, then snuggled tightly and whispered their thoughts aloud. Tonight, Jan seemed pensive.
“Have you finished that papyrus yet?”
“No, dear. It’s quite difficult. Herodotus wrote in a style which I am finding rather slow to accurately translate. It’ll be finished soon. Why?”
“Just wondered. I’m anxious for it, that’s all.”
“Just have patience, cutie.”
“If…something happened to me, do you think that you could ever love again?”
“Why, Jan. What brought this on?”
Mel was silent for a moment, then spoke slowly. “I don’t think that I can even imagine loving someone else like I love you.”
“I just want you to know that if I died, I would want you to live your life without guilt, without remorse. Don’t live it in loneliness. I love you more than my life, and I would want you to be happy.”
“Jan Covington, what’s gotten into you?”
Jan sighed, snuggled ever more deeply into Mel’s arms, and replied, “I’m going to tell you a story, Mel. It’s a long one. Got about an hour?”
“I’m with you, Jan. We’ve got the rest of our lives. I’m all ears.”
The next afternoon, Jan looked up from the dirt of the excavation to see Mel approaching, leaning slightly on her cane, a legal pad in her hand. “Hey, Mel. What’s up?”
Mel stood over her. “I finished that translation you wanted, Jan.”
Jan stood up, dusted off her hands and took the legal pad from Mel’s hand. “Great. Thanks. I know that you busted your butt on it.”
“Jan, go read it under the olive tree, will you? I think that’s only fitting.”
“Huh?” Jan looked at Mel’s expression and found it quite somber. “Yeah, sure. Good idea.”
Somewhat puzzled, Jan walked away from the dig, finding a shady spot under the ancient tree and seating herself. She tipped her hat back on her head, lifted the cover of the legal pad and began to slowly read through Mel’s neat cursive scribbles. The translation read:
The old Mocenus, claiming to be once a slave belonging to the household of the most noble and renowned Sappho of Mytilene, found me out and relayed to me the following story. I relate it here as he told it to me, having his word but no other proof that it is indeed genuine.
I am Mocenus, once slave to the house of Sappho. For countless years I served her well, loving her gentle manner and grace. She never mistreated any of her household in any way, and was most generous to even the least of us. We were all devoted to her.
My story is one which I have carried within me for many years, never divulging it to anyone. In my old age, I find my death near and resolved to tell this most incredible tale to the famous scholar who is visiting our island. He has kindly agreed to hear and record it, as I am most unlettered.
In the latter days of my mistress Sappho’s life, our house was visited by a Greek woman, a warrior-bard of some fame. It was told to me that this bard traveled for many years with the legendary Xena, and recorded her feats of heroism for our children’s children. I thought the story far-fetched at first, but my opinion changed when I beheld her. Her appearance showed her most impressive, her clothing, weapons and carriage reflecting one who has seen war closely and lost all fear of death. Most notable about her were an unusual round weapon which she wore by her side and a large, fierce serpent tattooed across her back. Her manner, however, seemed one of intense weariness of living, a sad, faraway countenance about her. Indeed, there were rumors whispered about which said that she suffered from madness.
Of course, my mistress took to her immediately and invited her to stay for some period of time. In the course of the next days, all of us in the house saw them together quite constantly, conversing in the garden or strolling about the land at idle moments during the day.
I suspected that they had soon become lovers, as my mistress had a regarded preference for the company of women, and it was not long before the household servants confirmed this. My mistress seemed renewed by the romance, and indeed, it did us all good to see her so happy. Even the warrior-bard, often beset with a brooding melancholy, appeared to us to smile much and laugh. She, in her dealings with the household, proved as gracious to the least of us as our mistress did. All of us grew to feel very kindly toward her, especially when she had occasion to protect our mistress and kill an unwanted suitor, a brutal man named Lucian, with a resounding throw of her unusual weapon.
One morning, we awoke to wailing and lamentation sounding through the house. The warrior-bard was nowhere to be found. My mistress was thrown into a deep despair, and was inconsolable by any of those who attended her. She appeared as one who had lost a child; grief horrible to witness. As she wept, so did we. Her pitiful plight broke our hearts. She clutched to her breast most constantly a papyrus with some writing thereon, but what its content was, alas, I will never know. I could only assume that it held some message of dreadful import, and dealt somehow with the warrior-bard’s sudden departure.
I sought out the servant-lady and inquired of our mistress, thinking that perhaps I could do something to relieve her distress. She informed me that the warrior-bard had left the household, and was bound for Athens. I harnessed the fast cart and made my way into Mytilene, searching the docks for some sight of her, my wish being to implore her to return to my mistress’ side. I could not find her, although a few people at the docks remembered seeing such a strangely-dressed woman earlier that morning. Sadly, I returned to the household, my efforts in vain.
My mistress was inconsolable. That she and the warrior-bard were in love, we could plainly see. Why she suddenly left, we know not. It was not for me to pry into the private affairs of my mistress Sappho.
Now come I to the essence of the story: that very day, soldiers banged at the door of my mistress’ house. They shouted that Mytilene’s ruler had fallen, and that the house of the dead Lucian was now in ascendance over the land. All whom the old ruler had favored were to be taken to the capitol, there to pledge their loyalty to the new ruler or lose their land and possessions and suffer exile or death. They bid her come forth from the house, but she denied them, ordering the door barred and fleeing out into the garden behind the house.
I was behind the gardens, scything away some long grass, when I beheld my mistress flee the garden gate, heading for the cliff above the ocean. She seemed in terrible turmoil and I feared for her safety, so I followed her closely, imploring her to stop. I still remember to this day that she carried that papyrus in her hand as she ran, barefoot and weeping, toward the young olive tree which clung to the cliff.
It struck me that she meant to kill herself by leaping to her death. This, I could not allow. She was our goddess, our Sappho. She could not be allowed to die so. I followed, fearing the worst, and caught her just as she meant to throw herself to the ocean below. I pulled her back, imploring her with my most kind words not to do herself violence, but it was of no avail. She fought me, striking me with her fists and weeping with such passion that I found myself weeping with her. She twisted from my grasp and stepped one foot off the cliff, but I reached out and managed to grasp her by the shoulders, then the neck.
Now, let me say here that I always prided myself on my strength. I was a large man in my younger years, but now I live in sorrow at that quality. In my frantic attempt to save the life of my dear mistress, I pulled her up from her leap by her neck. Both her feet dangled over the edge of the dangerous place, and I felt her neck snap soundly. She ceased her lamentation and went limp in my hands. I was horrified. I lay her down upon the grass and spoke to her, but she did not respond. Her beautiful eyes looked right past me, and she uttered not a sound. I had killed my dear mistress!
I fell to my knees, weeping at the sight, beating my head with my hands until I went dizzy with pain. As I grieved so, I heard shouts and the wailing of the women-servants from the house. I feared that the soldiers would soon find her here, dead, with me by her side, and that they would do some desecration to my mistress’ body or torture me for killing her. Without more thought, I picked up Sappho in my arms and flung her far over the rocks, out into the ocean below. I will never forget the sight of her dear body falling for all my remaining days. After she sank below the waves, I looked down by the olive tree and found the papyrus. Knowing it to be of some import and wishing to save it from the soldiers, I placed it into my clothes, hiding it.
The soldiers arrived and questioned me. I declared that Sappho had thrown herself over the cliff, mad with despair from a broken heart and from fear of the house of Lucian. It was close to the truth. They seemed satisfied when they saw my grief, and left the house. The papyrus, I gave over to her closest woman-servant, to be preserved with her personal effects. I do not know what has happened to it, or to the warrior-bard over whom she grieved so deeply and loved so much.
Now, I was dispatched to my mistress’ nearest relative, her uncle in Mytilene, to relay the news of her death, and this duty I performed. When I returned, a most amazing sight greeted my eyes, one which I still scarcely believe myself, although the women-servants swore to its truth to their last days.
They told me that the goddess Aphrodite had appeared to them, and hearing their dreadful story, sought out and returned to us the body of our mistress. I found it incredible, but searched out and found, in the fields beyond the house and near the olive tree, a most marvelous tomb. How it got there in the space of a couple of hours, I cannot say. I leave it to those who hear my story to decide for themselves, and offer it as proof that this story is not just the chatter of an old man, but a tale which bears consideration. As to my own guilt in this, Sappho’s death, I bear it deeply. It will be a dagger in my soul until the day I die. I place my fate in the hands of the gods. Let them judge me fairly.
—From the mouth of the old slave Mocenus, as told to Herodotus, on the Isle of Lesbos in the years following the Great Wars.
(Translated by M. Pappas)
Jan laid the legal pad aside, then stared out over the sea. She did not stir for some time, and only looked up when Mack sat down next to her. He studied her for a moment, then raised an eyebrow in question. She motioned to the pad. “Have you read this?”
“Would you like to?”
She handed the legal pad to him, then inquired, “Got a cigarette?”
“I thought you quit.”
“I think I just started again.”
Mack handed her his rumpled cigarette pack and his lighter, then began reading. Jan lit her smoke, placed the pack and lighter near Mack’s knee, and sat quietly, smoking and gazing out over the water while he read. When she finished her smoke, he was still reading. She said nothing, not wishing to disturb him, but simply stood and walked away from the tree, stopping to regard the newly-hired local diggers working to finish the excavation of the exterior of the tomb. After some time, she returned to her tent to compose a letter to the woman known variously to her as the Countess d’Agee, Alais, and Aphrodite.
Telegram dated October 12, 1949
FROM: THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
TO: DR JANICE COVINGTON
MISS MELINDA PAPPAS
WE ARE PLEASED TO ANNOUNCE THAT THE INSTITUTION HAS DECIDED TO RECOGNIZE YOUR WORK ON SAPPHO BY AWARDING YOU BOTH THE SMITHSONIAN MEDAL. CEREMONY TO TAKE PLACE 16 APRIL 1950 IN WASHINGTON D.C. DETAILS WILL FOLLOW.
THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
Telegram, dated October 23, 1949
FROM: NEW YORK CITY
TO: DR JANICE COVINGTON
MISS MELINDA PAPPAS
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL INSTITUTE OF AMERICA, IN RECOGNITION OF YOUR
OUTSTANDING WORK REGARDING SAPPHO, INVITES YOU TO BE THE
KEYNOTE SPEAKERS AND RECEIVE THE PRESTIGIOUS AIA AWARD AT THE
UPCOMING YEAR’S CONVENTION, TO BE HELD IN NEW YORK CITY ON
21 MAY 1950.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS, AIA
Telegram, dated November 15, 1949
FROM: STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN
TO: DR JANICE COVINGTON
MISS MELINDA PAPPAS
IN RECOGNITION OF YOUR OUTSTANDING RECENT ACHIEVEMENT IN EXCAVATING THE REMAINS AND HOME AND TRANSLATING THE WORKS OF THE CELEBRATED POET SAPPHO, WE INVITE YOU BOTH TO BE PRESENT IN STOCKHOLM ON 21 FEB 1950 TO ACCEPT YOUR NOBEL PRIZE.
THE SWEDISH ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
Janice and Melinda sat, huddled together under a blanket on the back steps of their cottage near the university. They passed company staring at the glorious full moon, not saying much as words were unnecessary between them. Finally, though, Mel voiced her thoughts.
“Jan, do you think that it’s right for us to prosper from this? I mean, the story which we uncovered is so, so tragic for all involved.”
“Know what you mean, Mel. I’ve thought about it myself. It’s history, though. Sappho belongs to the ages, and Xena and Gabrielle gave us their blessing to tell the story.”
“I know, but I can’t help but hurt for everyone involved. Xena, Gabrielle, Aphrodite, Mocenus; they all see themselves as to blame for Sappho’s tragic end, although they only did what they thought was right at the time. I feel so badly for them all.”
“Me too, Mel. No one was at fault, and yet they all suffered deeply. No one meant to do harm, and yet they all wept very bitter tears of conscience and remorse. There’s got to be a lesson in there somewhere.”
“What do you think the lesson is, Jan?”
“I don’t yet know, Mel. Perhaps, one day, we’ll figure it out.”
“Perhaps. I love you, Jan.”
“I love you too, Mel.”
They sat for some time, buried in their shared blanket, silent in their own thoughts, until Mel’s dreamy voice broke the silence.
“I’m freezing my butt off out here.”
“Get used to it, gorgeous. We’re gonna be in Stockholm in February.”
“Oh? Well, I know one thing for sure, cutie.”
“What’s that, Mel?”
“You’re wearing socks to bed tonight. After sitting out here moon-gazing, your feet are going to be simply freezing. They’re not coming into bed without something on them.”
“In that case, little Miss ‘My-butt-is-freezing’, you’d better find your flannel underwear.”
Laughter echoed softly across the back yard, followed by companionable silence. After a few minutes, they looked at each other, snuggled ever more deeply into their blanket, and said in unison, “Ah, marital bliss. There’s nothin’ like it.”
Nearby, the light of the full moon illuminated three shadowy, ephemeral figures. One was tall and wore dark leather and armor; one was shorter and displayed a large dragon tattoo on her back, and the figure which stood between them seemed rather tender and fragile, a long mane of black hair augmenting her scarlet robe. As the three vaporous forms stood, quietly regarding the couple on the porch, the fragile one reached out and gently grasped a hand of each of her companions. The three stood that way, silently, hand-in-hand, for some time. Then, the fragile one squeezed the hand of each of her companions and spoke softly. “Now, no more heartache, Xena? No more self-reproach?”
“None, Sappho. I promise you that.”
“And you, Gabrielle?”
“Then, my dearest of friends, let us go in peace.”
With that, they simply vanished into the moonlit night on a warm breath of wind which seemed, strangely enough, to sound very much like the whispered words, “Thank you.”
The End. ~djb, February, 2004
Continued in A Valentine’s Day Story