Tiresias Tries to Talk Sense to Liriope About Young Narcissus
“Ille per Aonias fama celeberrimus urbes
inreprehensa dabat populo responsa petenti
prima fide vocisque ratae temptamina sumpsit
caerula Liriope, quam quondam flumine curvo
inplicuit clausaeque suis Cephisos in undis
vim tulit: enixa est utero pulcherrima pleno
infantem nymphe, iam tunc qui posset amari
Narcissumque vocat. de quo consultus, an esset
tempora maturae visurus longa senectae,
fatidicus vates ‘si se non noverit’ inquit.
—Metamorphoses III, 339-348
And so Tiresias,
Famous through all Aonian towns and cities,
Gave irreproachable answers to all comers
Who sought his guidance. One of the first who tested
The truths he told was a naiad of the river,
Liriope, whom the river-god, Cephisus
Embraced and ravished in his watery dwelling.
In time she bore a child, most beautiful
Even as child, gave him the name Narcissus,
And asked Tiresias if the boy would ever
Live to a ripe old age. Tiresias answered:
“Yes, if he never knows himself.”
—Translated by Diane Middlebrook
“The things that happen to us, we bring them on ourselves, I think.” Or so (I think) she said, in that birdlike way of hers, pecking about in language as if her words were strewn seeds, slowly, slowly, more mourning dove than partridge or domestic chicken, velvety like that, gray velour with an undertone of plum, a Buick interior (top of the line, the Electra, how’s that for irony?), the kid still asleep.
I get beyond myself. Or her. The thing is she could have said any of one or two or three things. Work out the permutations:
the things that happen to us
we bring them on
Farfetched of course, the first (for her) too exclamatory, the last too Cartesian and intransitive, and the in-between as always ambiguous. Still. Never mess with a madwoman, especially a mother, and never one who’s been through what she’s been through, come hell or high water, as they say. Ginned by some local god and what you got left, a bundle in the backseat (a pretty boy mind you) and a bad road ahead.
What’s she want me to say?
It goes both ways. And believe me—I know—I’ve been there, what you’d call snakebit, swung both ways, seen torrents enough of my own, moaned up and downstream, like how Lady Day sings in that old Harold Arlen tune:
I gotta right to sing the blues
I gotta right to moan inside
I gotta right to sit and cry
Down around the river
A certain man in this little town
Keeps draggin’ my poor heart around
All I see for me is misery
You get the picture.
She looked in the rearview mirror and smiled on the sleeping boy. All I could see was misery.
“It’s not a horserace,” I said, passing on the obvious, i.e., ars longa, vita et cetera. “No seven furlongs.”
I was thinking of something I read somewhere in the future, a bit of poetry midst the entrails: “The chestnut son of Elusive Quality worked seven furlongs over a fast track at Philadelphia Park breezing in 1:29 1/5 under his regular rider Stewart Elliott.”
The damnedest things go through your head when you’re on duty as a would-be futurist, setting odds, making book, gazing into the pool of days to come and gone. Looking forward and back ain’t easy, ask Stewart Elliott. Never been a thrice-crowned seer.
“What do you want to hear?” I asked her.
“That he’ll live forever,” she said softly, a thrush not a mourning dove like any mother.
“Done,” I said, “as long as he doesn’t try to figure it all out.”
She knew what I meant. I could see it in her eyes. Like Satchmo sings it:
Ain’t from no stars my verdic’ I pluck;
Not to tell no good or no evil luck,
Or else ’bout you, baby, I prog-nos-ti-cate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.
She is looking at me, I knew as much already.
“Very clever,” she says. “Did you learn nothing as a woman?”
“You can’t change things once they are done.”
It wasn’t an answer; we were through with answers now.
It was like asking do you learn anything from the future. The Oracle replies: Yes, how the past was.
“That is why a woman has children,” she said.
Had I breeched silence? Leaked language? The foolish baby stirred as if on cue and the mother dove cooed.
“To see the lusty gold-haired lad rein in his snorting yoke?” I asked.
“To know how the past was,” she replied.
She had heard then.
“What would you be without your songs?” she asked, requiring no answer.
What would songs be without memory?
“It is a line from Sappho,” I lied. The fib would have flattered poor Wilde, a Greek girl himself in his embroidered silk dressing gown.
She surprised me then, reciting the tale like a jackdaw:
Once there were two sisters, Procne and Philomela.
Procne wed Tereus of Thrace and bore him a son, Itys.
Thereafter Tereus seduced her sister Philomela.
Then he cut out her tongue to silence her.
Philomela embroidered the story into a golden cloth.
In the stitches her sister could discern what had been done.
Thus Procne avenged Philomela by killing Itys.
Then she fed the baby’s sweet flesh in a stew to Tereus.
The cursed king pursued the sisters wishing to slay them.
But, tiring of all this, the gods transformed them all into birds.
Philomela became a swallow.
Procne a nightingale.
Tereus a crested hoopoe.
And, oh yes, Itys came back to life as a goldfinch.
Christ, it sounded like mathematics the way she recited it.
“All this is concurrent,” I said. “It takes no gift; one hears things in the waters.”
She didn’t demur.
“Still,” I assented, “you have the gift. But then why would you look to me for knowledge you already have?”
“There is nothing to see in a mirror,” she said.
She was a fair enough oracle herself once she got up to speed.
I looked in the rearview. In the glass the fool child was smiling at an oversize crone with red-rimmed eyes who looked back at him.
“I say someone in another time will remember us,” Sappho sang.
Liriope started up the Buick, the idle was rough.
“You can come along for the ride if you like,” she said, but I begged off and headed into the woods before the lavender light left the sky altogether, never hearing how the story ended.