Coming abreast of a little Greek cafe toward evening, I was still wandering in absent-minded meditation when the door burst open with a blast of bouzouki music from the jukebox inside, and a black-haired girl rushed out and banged into me. I automatically wrapped my arms around her to steady us, and the huge Greek who stormed through the door in the next instant didn't like what he saw. He pulled a great knife and brandished it at us. The girl shoved me away and shouted "run!" and so, bewildered by the sudden action, and panicked by the angry man's evident misinterpretation of my role in it, I ran.
I heard confusion behind me. Glancing back, I saw the girl on my heels and the huge man on hers, still waving the knife and cursing violently, so I grabbed her hand and sprinted around a corner. She gasped, "He will kill us!" And I believed her. Dodging past stalls full of watermelons and garlic, I saw an iron gate standing open and pulled the girl toward it; I saw the words "Aeschylus pour cinq sous" hand-lettered over the doorway and wondered irrelevantly as we ducked through what anyone in the Quarter had to do with the great Greek dramatist. I slammed the gate shut, and we ran down the narrow passageway. A rush of people passed the gate, yelling, but their voices faded and then were gone.
I stopped and panted; the girl sank to the ground and began sobbing. My luck has distinctly deteriorated, I thought. The heat and humidity were stifling, but the late afternoon sun left our little passageway in shadow, and the city noise was subdued here; I began to feel calmer and was trying to think of a way to comfort the girl and ask her what had just happened, when a slow, languid voice said, "Cinq sous, si vous plez."
I turned quickly and discovered in the deeper shade of a wrought-iron balcony an old woman in black silks sitting behind a small cloth-covered table that had on it a large book and a coffee pot. From the darkness of an open door behind her came the heady aroma of boiling crab seasoned with peppercorns; azaleas rioted in boxes around a bench near the table.
The girl quickly stood, wiping her face with her sleeve, and dropped the requested nickel on the table. "We are sorry for intruding," she said, with the soft edge of a Greek accent. "There as a man who was angry because I would not marry him, and then this man helped me run away." I was surprised to find what I'd done.
The old woman gazed at us steadily, saying nothing. She closed her eyes, was silent for a long moment, and then began to recite in a high, steady voice
"Zeus, the Suppliant's God, be gracious to us, Pitifully behold us, for fugitives are we; Where the blown sand-dunes silt the mouths of Nilus, There we took the highway of the blue, salt sea; There we looked our last at the land of Zeus, her borders Lapsed and lost in the Syrian marches wild, Fleeing, not as outlaws banned for blood-guilt Lest a people perish, but self-exiled. No way but this to escape abhorred embraces, Marriage rites unholy that rue love shuns; Better far lands..."
The girl's eyes were wide, but I broke in, "Excuse me," I said, and the old woman opened her eyes and blinked. "I don't understand," I went on, and the girl looked from me to the old woman.
"You are fugitives, are you not?" the woman asked.
"Well, in a way, but --"
"No matter. `His counsels tread the maze of labyrinthine ways.'"
I tried again. "Please -- it's just bad luck that brought us --"
She interrupted. "`It was the voice of the Pelasgian's King that moved them, supplying the persuasive word, but Zeus determined what the end should be.'" She widened her eyes at me. "You came to listen, you see? No accident," and she picked up the girl's nickel as proof. "Now please sit."
The girl sat cautiously on the bench amongst the azaleas with her dark eyes fixed on the old woman, looking as though she thought perhaps it was, after all, no accident. Thinking of the man with the knife, I realized that it might indeed be best to stay; looking at the girl's dark eyes, I became certain. So I sat next to her and listened as the high, steady voice resumed:
"Better far lands and unfamiliar faces Than wedded and bedded with King Aegyptus' sons. As when hard pressed on the board a cautious player This piece or that from a threatened square withdraws,
One move seemed best ..."
Wesley Callihan is a Contributing Editor of Antithesis.