Argive Burial

by David Luntz

The long-suffering wanderer remembers the ox: pale, sticky, and shivering, gaping mournfully at his eyes, as he wrested it from its mother’s womb. They are alone, watching each other, while the sky spreads over them, as if yanked from infinity, still bleeding from its blue umbilicus. The ox collapses, panting heavily, gazing through him, too tired to moan.

It’s been a lousy day. First his dog drops dead, then the bloodbath up at the house, now this…it never ends. He has no physic for the ox, so he wraps his cloak around its shoulders, strokes its neck, shuts his eyes and drifts to the bottom of his dreams.

Down there, it’s nothing but a dark arena, a worn-out stage, concealed by a tatty curtain, like a flap of loose skin, that he should never have drawn back. Across the way, he sees the ox’s bones crack, their marrow loaming dust, servants hacking off hooves, boiling them into glue: a shitty omen.

The next day, the ox dies the same way it was born: clammy and scared. He presses its mouth to a wet nurse’s breast. Who knows, it might provide some relief or convince the gods to change their minds. But it’s all spilt milk, and when it’s over, he says: Fuck it. They can’t have him.

He looks around, (you can’t trust anyone), drags the ox into a cart and rides up into the cedar-clad hills. Digs a pit and lowers the beast next to his dog. They will never find him now. Slips a coin under its tongue (just to be safe) and tells the ox, if he sees Argos, to thank him for waiting all those years. He’s sorry he never got a chance to.

*

The evening sky is clear: the sun melts like a wax ball into the sea. He heads down to the shore, a train of butterflies in his wake, drinks some wine, and knows he’s done it again, screwed with fate, pissed the gods off. He rests under some coppered vines, twisting his fingers around themselves, trying to unravel the strands of time, find that moment before the shadows began to beat over him. But it’s no use. You can only live forward, he knows, not backward. Memory is a copious fountain of regrets; I shouldn’t have touched the snowdrops; I should have taken up with the Lotus Eaters, he thinks, while searching the stars for a hopeful sign. But they have nothing to tell him.

A breeze wakes him the next morning: scents of the ocean’s dew, honey and lavender, a sail ruffling in the bay, a ship waiting for him with a battering ram that looks just like the head of the ox he buried. From the prow, a voice cries out, “Argos sends you greetings and says, “Thanks.” Now stop dawdling. Didn’t Circe tell you that you can never go back? Besides, the past is a foreign country and your home is the sea now.”

He shrugs. The voice is right. So he grabs the rope, climbs on board. Watches Ithaka slip below the horizon, begins to feel better. But it’s not saving the ox and cheating fate that gives him comfort: it’s the vastness of the sea.

David Luntz’s poems and short fiction have appeared in Word Riot, Andromeda Spaceways, Euphony Journal, The Centrifugal Eye, writeThis, Mindflights and other online and print publications.

In an email, you wrote that Odysseus, in “Argive Burial,” deals with two conflicts: messing with the gods and and the affliction of memory. Can you talk a bit more about those conflicts and why you chose to focus on those for this piece? In other words, what personal meaning do Odysseus’s conflicts have?

    Difficult to answer this question without getting long-winded, nor am I sure I can do so with any clarity. Odysseus’s story has always interested me, because so many of the conflicts he faces still resonate our society as a whole. He has to choose between duty to family and duty to tribe, between following personal desires and duty to his crew. Then there is the problem he has with the gods, specifically Poseidon. This aspect of messing with the gods, particularly interested me, because I think it what makes him so human. He knows you can’t win, beat them, but he still resists, because to yield is in some sense to die. Moreover, resistance, defiance, I think is an integral part of creation, particularly, when we create to be remembered, to defy oblivion. On the other hand, whatever we do, our memories are often tinged with regret, either for making what we think were bad choices, or because something we treasured, youth, love, whatever, has gone. On his quest to get back home, Odysseus makes many mistakes and has certainly reason for many regrets. But I wanted in “Argive Burial” to explore the idea that his memories, which spur him homeward, are deceiving him: that the things we look back on and wish we could have again, we cannot really have, because each moment we are being changed; and even if we got those things (in Odysseus’s case his home and family) they would not mean or bring the emotional significance we think they will. There is nothing new or original in this insight, but the chance to express them in less than 600 words, I think, can give them a certain impact that would be diluted if played out in some other more extended literary form, which is why I chose to do so in a compressed format.
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