Wanderer’s Retreat

I

Across the dive bar floor strode a figure,
Tall but slightly slouching, wearing a cloak.
His facial features, save nose and chin, were
Submerged in hooded shadow as he spoke,
   “Bartender, Olympus Ale, please.” He plopped
   On a stool like a lifeless body dropped.

Most strange the man was, but even more so
Was the one who placed the frothy gold drink
Before his slumped head. T’was a man with no
Eyes, just vacant holes that could never blink.
   The bartender crossed his arms, cleared his throat,
   Asked how he came to a place so remote.

The stranger looked up and removed his hood,
Revealing an old but still handsome face,
The kind of visage that at one time could
Have ruled a kingdom or other such place.
   He quaffed from his mug, wiped foam from his lips,
   Then told his story of Heaven’s eclipse.

“My life was more blessed than any before,”
He said, staring into the golden ale.
“Born Prince of Ephyre, I was destined for
Fame. With kingly wealth, a body as hale
   As any hero born of man or god,
   It seemed certain my birth all men would laud.

“Then, using Athena’s bridle of gold,
I tamed Pegasus, the great wingéd horse;
Greatly swollen with the force now controlled,
I embarked on a most audacious course.
   Since I was unrivaled Lord of the Air,
   There stood no adventure I would not dare.”

Pausing, he lifted his mug, gulped some beer,
And set his glass down. He smiled, ruefully,
Then resumed: “Now I had nothing to fear.
Not even Chimaera could make me flee,
   Though most thought her an invincible beast,
   For, from safe height, my shot arrows could feast.

“On Pegasus I slew that fiend of fame,
Whose fearsome flame could never reach our flight,
As well as others to burnish my name,
The Solymi and Amazons, in fight.
   But earned rest lost out to heat for action,
   And, like Icarus, I aimed for the sun.

“Longing for Olympus, I tried to rise
My godly chariot to blesséd land.
I left all, for I sought where gods reside,
But Pegasus came to know my mind and
   Threw me! The love of Heaven changed to hate—
   I’m cursed by the gods, a most mournful fate!

“So now I’m orphaned from what all men prize,
Wandering the wastelands, loveless, alone…”
He finished his tale with averted eyes,
As if the date of his death could be known,
   But from the periphery of his sight,
   He saw the man’s fingers move left and right,

Like a person requesting a payment.
The wanderer asked, “What are you doing?”
Unclear what was intended by this stunt.
“Friend, though I know that this will likely sting,
   I was just playing the world’s smallest lyre
   Because your story is sad but not dire.”

The former hero was cut to the quick,
But before he could shoot back a retort,
The bartender spoke on: “Yours seems tragic,
No question. I’m sorry for making sport
   Of your misfortune. Yet the honest truth
   Is you were blessed by the gods from your youth

“And you threw that away for ambition.
If you want to hear a true tale of woe,
Listen to my story, for when I’m done,
In your sadness you’ll no longer wallow.”
   “Speak then, blind barman,” the stunned hero said,
   Who finished his drink and nodded his head.

II

The barman filled the starved glass and began
His tale, staring sightless into the room,
Which was mostly void of woman or man,
As dive bars often are just before noon.
   “Unlike you, my friend, I was cursed from birth,
   Destined to suffer all my days on earth.

“Like you, I was born the son of a King,
In Corinth, ruled by the noble Polybus,
But when I learned what the future would bring,
My flesh froze as if faced by the Aegis
   Itself. Apollo’s seer could not augur
   Worse than slay father and wed mother!”

The listener cringed when he heard the words—
Such evil sulked far beyond all he knew;
Yet, though disgust dripped into his innards,
He listened, rapt, as the man continued.
   “Horrified, I fled the fearsome city—
   From that dark fate I resolved to be free!”

So, to flee from evil became my quest—
A perilous life far away from home
Was better than rest cursed by incest!
In the direction of Thebes I did roam.
   On the way, I slew one haughty and rude,
   Not knowing, just then, my fate had been cued.

For it was my own true father I’d slain
On that curséd road.” The bartender paused,
Scratching his chin, then spoke up once again:
“In those days, Thebes suffered a famine caused
   By the blockade of a riddling beast
   Who turned all travelers into her feast.”

“With no one to live for, I sought her out.
Only adventure could stave off despair,
So I boldly faced this monster most stout.
Answering its riddle made me a king,
   As she slew herself, restoring the land,
   And as a reward I earned the Queen’s hand.”

“The arc of this tragic tale you can guess:
The Queen I attained, the sons that she bore,
All the evidence of Heaven’s largess,
Was completion of the fate I foreswore!
   I ripped out my eyes in guilt-ridden craze,
   And wandered the wastes in unending daze!

“Until I came here, the outcast’s Retreat.
Clearly, where you suffered not without cause,
Falling from the weight of your own conceit,
I tried to follow all Zeus’ righteous laws
   But still earned judgment for defiant sin.
   It’s now time for you to thicken your skin!

“When sadness makes us feel better off dead,
Our life through tragedy split asunder,
It’s time to abandon that severed thread.
We have the power to seize another.”
   The bartender folded his arms across
   His chest, awaiting reply. At a loss

For words at first, the wandering hero
Just stared. But then he solemnly replied,
“You are right, friend, my petty tale of woe
Pales against the misery on your side.
   I am aware that I deserve much blame
   For my sudden shame. Still, I’d know your name,

“Oh, most keen host. Here, my hand I offer
You in respect. I’m known as Tremolo.”
The blind man gripped his hand. “I’m called Ed, sir.”
They shook hands; the customer turned to go,
   Leaving some gold. As he crossed the threshold,
   Into the bar another person strolled.

III

This new customer sat as the clock struck
Two in the afternoon. Though but a youth,
His fallen countenance bespoke bad luck,
And his wrathful demeanor was uncouth
   As he ordered: “Barman, a pint of beer!
   How long does it take to get service here?”

“There is no need to get testy, my friend,”
Ed replied calmly. “Which beer would you like?”
“Don’t care. I’ve got enough money to spend
To drink as much beer as I need to strike
   My memory away, for a short time,
   Before I must crawl back into the slime.”

Ed poured the man a pint of Eden Ale.
“From your looks, and your ways,” the barman broached,
“You have suffered some misfortune, a tale
I’d hear. Forgive my rather bold approach.
   My own life is dull, and I have just found
   Speaking out pain makes the whole body sound.”

The man’s old surliness soon dropped a bit
As the kind tone, mixed with the strong beer,
Spread through his blood and subdued all his wit.
It grew more difficult for him to sneer.
   So, he accepted the offer to speak
   And gave the details of why life was bleak.

“My family was very close with God,
So close, in fact, that to Him we could talk
As a cherished friend, not one overawed
Or fearful. We might go out on a walk
   Even. Anyway, since I worked the soil
   I thought I’d gift my friend fruit from my toil.

“My younger brother had the same in mind.
He, a shepherd, brought meat from his stable
To add to the offering I’d assigned.
God loved his gift, but mine was not able
   To please Him. He regarded mine as swill,
   So my foul brother I resolved to kill.

“One day I coaxed him outside to the field
On a pretext I had to be aided
In some weighty task. My future was sealed
When I killed my brother, shedding his blood.
   God discovered my act when the blood cried
   Like gossiping mouths where my rival died.”

The lost farmer then breathed a lengthy sigh
And drank a draught of his beer. “God was cruel,”
He declared, nodding to himself, “too high
To see His scorn had been hatred’s kindle.
   He cursed me more than any man could bear:
   I would wander the earth, choked by despair.

“And that is what I have done for some years.
I lost track of my exile long ago.”
The barman rejoined, “I am one who hears
Much since I see not at all. I would know
   The quality of the gift that you gave:
   Perchance the best for yourself you did save?”

The farmer in response to this stiffened,
His tanned face taking a rubicund hue,
Almost as if his heart had been poisoned,
But he did admit the surmise was true.
   He hadn’t given the best that he could,
   Though what he did give was perfectly good.

To this, the sightless man answered, “My friend,
Let me get facts straight. You knew God Himself
Like a brother, yet you chose to offend
Him with second-rate crops; as for yourself,
   Instead of admitting you were to blame,
   You slew your pure brother, cursing God’s name?”

Anger deepened the red in the man’s face
As he rose either to lash out or flee;
To mitigate the man’s seething disgrace,
The bartender made a most humble plea:
   “I’m sorry that my words to you were cold,
   But I had to remove that thick blindfold

“Your pride wrapped around your credulous eyes.
Please, be so kind to return,” he implored,
“For I’ll share a tale of woeful surprise,
A story certain to strike a deep chord
   In your soul. Please, sit, to you let me share
   A tragic life for your own to compare.”

The bitter farmer chose then to come back,
Called by the charm of life worse than his own.
Pouring a drink and refilling the snack
Bowl, the bartender began to intone
   The same story he had shared just before.
   It affected this man as much or more!

The listener’s face changed from red to white
As the last words seared an image of fear
Inside his mind. Who was he to feel spite
For the world when the man who poured his beer
   Had done nothing wrong save seek for the good?
   Yet fate had tossed him about like driftwood!

Again, the storyteller stood silent,
Waiting to see what the response would be
To his tale of unmerited treatment.
The farmer, now chastened, spoke: “I now see
   ‘Tragedy’ is not a word fit for my
   Life. All this time I’ve been living a lie.”

“Since you know,” said the blind barman, “now go
Back to your land, the dark scene of your fall,
Straight as Odysseus’ well-aimed arrow.
Build a new life from the slime you did crawl.
   It’s not too late, my friend.” “You’ve made me sane
   Through your counsel, wise one. My name is Zane,”

Said the farmer, extending his worn hand
To the bartender, who, searching, clasped it.
“I am known as Ed here in this dreamland,
Though I’ve lived by others. To God submit,
   And all can be restored.” Just then, someone
   New entered this sanctum of misfortune.

Hair golden curled, in stature a giant,
He moved to the jukebox with haughty strides.
Though youthfully cast, something seemed ancient
In his design, where the spirit resides.
   He chose a song, smiled smug as a Frenchman,
   Then danced to the echo of “Wayward Son.”

The farmer turned to the barman and asked,
“Who’s the large, muscled man with hair like gold?”
“Oh, that’s Lucius, the bright morning unmasked.
He always plays that song. From what he’s told,
   He used to serve God as the Son of Dawn
   But rebelled since he felt used like a pawn.”

“That sounds similar to my own story—
Why not tell him of your undeserved fall,
Perhaps it will change him as it has me?”
“I have told him three times, as I recall,
   But some souls will never admit defeat.
   So, they’ll steep at the Wanderer’s Retreat.”

 

Polyphemus at the Shore

While Polyphemus washes dirt-caked hands
In the surf of the Ionian Sea,
He is reminded of another time
When, like tridents, he thrust his vengeful fists
In the surf, cleansing them of Acis’ blood.
As if struck by a thunderbolt from Zeus,
Polyphemus drops, grief surging through him
And waves surging round him, and he looks out
At the spilling light and darkly wonders:
Will he always be an awful monster?

Then other thoughts wash through Polyphemus
As he sits at the margin of the sea.
He thinks about that tiny man who took
His eye, the Greek bandit who disgraced him.
He’ll never forget how that boastful worm
Taunted him when the boat was out of reach,
Bragging Odysseus had robbed his sight.
Certainly his father had drowned the man?
But, if so, death had not ended his shame.

And what if Polyphemus had shown warmth
To his visitors, as the gods demand?
He remembers mocking the name of Zeus
When the Greeks appealed to their ancient laws,
Then wolfing down men, most heedless of sin
(Polyphemus shudders at his cruelty).
Perhaps he would still possess his own eye,
Not the substitute he now gazes through?
These thoughts churn around like spokes on a wheel,
Always returning to how he was made:
Was he formed to be no more than a brute?

Polyphemus reaches around his legs,
Pulls the pillars of flesh against his chest
As surf rustles against his massive toes.
He knows he is different than the beast
Who tore sailors apart like roasted meat
And crunched their bones between his teeth like bread,
Washing it down with blood. Much different.
His own remorse proves that change has occurred.

Love, though unreciprocated, changed him.
True, he is a son of Poseidon, loved
In a distant way, and Polyphemus
Loves his sheep, if one can call practical
Concern, love. But Galatea, the nymph,
Had conjured feelings that overwhelmed him
So much that he could think of nothing else.
Polyphemus would sit along this shore,
Gazing mournfully at the horizon,
And sing love songs to the milk-colored maid.
Despite his heartache, the once-savage fiend,
For the first time, desired to be good.
For the first time, Polyphemus wanted
To be more than a menacing monster.

Polyphemus directs his wheel-eye toward
The dim horizon, blinks away the tears
Gathering like clouds in a stormy sky.
He watches as his barrel-sized, wicked hands
Tear apart a young prince simply because
That prince was cursed to be loved by a nymph
Dear to a monster. What a fall was there
In the jealous slaughter? All was undone
When Polyphemus let the source of good
Arouse the slumbering demon within.
He had washed the instruments of murder
As if Acis’ blood stained his very soul,
And, by scrubbing his flesh, Polyphemus
Could erase himself, could cease to exist.

But he was doomed to live, so here he sits,
Retracing each step in his hateful life.
Argus with his hundred eyes could not see
The Cyclops’ sin more keenly than he can.
Still, it seems as if the malign monster
Is enclosed in a watery embrace
As the surf swirls around his huddled mass.
He has changed, no doubt, ever so slightly,
A small, bleary gleam buried deep within
A mountain of mutinous flesh. And God,
The life-giver, planted the seed inside
Polyphemus to grow for some purpose.
Perhaps he is destined for more than scorn?
He, a beast, and a reviled shepherd, too,
Could serve some noble end? He must have faith.

Polyphemus sighs, gazes at the point
Where the sun slowly ascends from the earth,
Shooting light from its rosy fingertips.
He imagines a Greek ship approaching,
Cutting through the waters with bursting sails.
In this vision, the Cyclops hails the ship
And begins to plan a feast fit for gods.

 

Ron L. Hodges is a long-time English teacher, having taught at Oxford Academy in Cypress, California, for the past ten years. About a year ago he started writing poetry. He lives in Orange County, California with his wife and two sons.

 

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2 Responses

    • Ron L. Hodges

      Thank you for the kind words, Shari! They are much appreciated!

      Reply

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