Not long ago a man asked me how I came by my name, Aesopos. I laughed and wondered why, with my dark complexion, there was any need to explain why I was called "Burned Face." But then I thought about his question. How had I come by this name? Who gave me the name I would carry through most of my life? And when was that? I could not remember.
As a boy I had no name. No one thought I needed one. I was a slave-boy with no family. What good would a name have served? But as I grew older I came to be known by many names. The first name I remember was given to me by a man called Leonidas. That name was To Mati Mu, "My Eyes."
That was very long ago, of course. I was a boy of about ten. A wealthy family on an island I have long since forgotten kept me in its house to fetch and carry. It was hard work, to be sure, but it was my fate and I accepted it knowing that other slaves met with far worse fates. But it was my fate to be both young and old, to begin my life with a glimpse of its end. I was born with one leg shorter than the other. It was difficult for me to walk and when I tried to run I was soon sprawled across the ground. I dragged myself through my days like a tortoise whose shell was too big for him.
From time to time, I came upon Leonidas while he was making his daily walk to the seashore. He was a very old man and, like me, he walked as though he carried a great burden he could not set down. But whereas my burden was the frame I was born with, Leonidas bore the weight of his years. He walked with short and tentative steps and held his shaking hands close to his sides. Like me, he was covered with an old robe worn in places to bare threads that entangled him like a net. But he walked to the seashore every morning, coming back when the afternoon sun became too much for him to bear. He never told anyone why he made this journey every day. No one asked. He was an old man and entitled to his ways.
One day, as Leonidas set upon the path he had worn, he stumbled and fell. The women of the house rushed to his side and helped him to his feet. The children stood by and watched. The women implored him to come back to the house and go the seashore another day, but he refused. I heard him say that there was something he had to see before he passed from this world and if he did not try he might miss his only chance.
Leonidas was kind to the women. He thanked them warmly for their concern and assured them he was well and strong even if he was unsteady on his feet. They pleaded with him to come back into the house, but he waved away their concerns and carried on.
"You!" one of the women cried, pointing at me, "You must follow Leonidas and make sure he is all right. If anything happens to him, you must come back here as fast as you can and get help."
Off I went. I was not often allowed out of sight of those I served, but when I was I soared like a seabird. I had by then learned much about the animals on the island, in the sea and in the air. I had watched the wild cats stalk and pounce on the mice. I had watched the gulls hover patiently over the smooth sea, waiting for the sign of a fish. They had taught me how to follow a creature without revealing myself. So I kept my distance from the old man while keeping him in sight.
When Leonidas reached the seashore he climbed to a rocky shelf and sat down. I watched him for a while. He did not seem to be doing anything. He simply looked out to sea. The wind blew and he did nothing. Ships passed and he paid them no mind. The sun, the motion of the clouds and the cries of sea birds did not attract or distract him. He sat until the afternoon sun rose to its highest point. Then, his work apparently done, he drew himself up and started back to the house.
He did this the next day, the day after that and the day after that. The woman of the house told me to follow him each day and I did as I was bidden. But while I could follow him without revealing my presence, I could not imagine what he was doing.
Finally, on the fourth day I revealed myself to him, coming out from behind the rock that hid me and placing myself in front of him. He laughed when he saw me.
"So, the old ladies could not make me stay behind and they sent me a caretaker?"
"Uh, uh...," I stammered.
"Oh, don't be afraid, boy."
"They were worried."
"They need not be."
He turned back to the sea and I placed myself back in his view. Then I turned around and looked out to sea, hoping to see whatever it was he sought. I turned back and looked into his old man's eyes.
"What are you looking for?" I asked.
"Yes. Dolphins. Does that sound strange to you?"
"Have you ever seen a dolphin?"
I thought for a moment. "No," I said.
"If you ever had, you would know why I wait for them. But maybe not. Maybe you have to be old like I am."
I looked at him curiously and he smiled. "Let me explain," he said. "When I was a boy I worked on a fishing boat with my father. Now, my father was a very good fisherman but he looked at the sea the way a farmer looks at his land. It gave him his living and he respected it for that. But he did not love the sea the way I did. He once told me I was born for the water. When I was out on the boat and out of sight of land, my mind carried me to more places than any man had ever seen. I imagined that I was sailing seas that Odysseus sailed, or Jason or Glaucus. Not that we ever had the adventures they had. We always sailed back home at the end of the day. But still, day by day, I never knew what we would see or what would happen.
"When I came to be a man, I explored the seas on merchant ships. I sailed to Africa, took my ship down the Nile. I sailed to Corinth, to Piraeus, to Crete and Patmos, to Carthage and Egypt. I saw marvelous places, people who looked nothing like me, lived their lives in ways strange to me. I saw animals I had never seen on the island where I was born. I saw the lion that gave me my name. A fearsome creature he was, with his great mane, his long white teeth and his thunderous roar. But a sad creature too, because he was caged in a land far from his own.
"And wherever we sailed, the dolphins showed us the way. The further out to sea we were, the more the dolphins chased the boat, leaped all about us, rode along in our wake and mapped out the world for us. My father told me that dolphins saved the life of Telemachus. Whenever we drifted too far from shore, the dolphins would lead us home. Whenever they were not in sight, we knew a storm was brewing and it was time to set sail for shore. I remember the joy they gave me when, as a boy, I saw them far out to sea. I'll remember that to my dying day.
"One day, we were casting our nets for fish and a dolphin got himself tangled. Without thinking, I dove into the water, knife in hand. The dolphin struggled hard and I could see that his energy was leaving him. He could not breathe. He needed to get to the surface or he would die.
"I dove down and got to where the dolphin was. Then I cut the net and freed him. He and I raced to the surface to take a breath. Then he turned to me and spoke."
I did not believe dolphins could talk, but I did not say so aloud. Instead, I said, "What did he say?"
"He said this to me," said Leonidas, taking a long pause, "'Thank you for freeing me. I will not forget what you did today, nor will my kind. Someday, you will need to be freed and one of my kind will free you as you freed me today.'"
"Did they ever?"
"I have never needed to be freed. Until now. Now I need someone to free me."
"I am old and weak. Every day I grow older and weaker. My days are few. But I want one thing before I leave this world. I want to see the dolphins one more time. I want to know the thrill I had when I was a boy. Just once more. Then my time in this world will be done. That is why I come here every day. That is why I watch for the dolphins. But there is one problem and you can help me."
"What is that?"
"My eyes are failing me. I fear the dolphins may come back and I will not see them. You must be my eyes."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Come here," he said, motioning for me to sit down next to him. "I want you to watch the sea for me. Watch for white caps as far out as you can see. That will be the dolphins who have come to free me."
I scanned the sea with all my might. I watched for an hour or more but I only saw ocean waves, clouds and the shadows they cast.
"I'm sorry, Sir," I said. "I do not see anything."
"That's all right, To Mati Mu. We'll try again another day."
And we did try again another day. Then we tried yet another day and another day after that. Each day we walked to the shore and took our place. Each day we watched the sea and waited for signs of dolphins. Each day we saw none. But each day, Leonidas told me of his life.
One day, he told me of the time his ship was taken over by pirates off the coast of Samos and how they killed half of his crew and how he bargained for the release of the others and himself by convincing his captors he was Poseidon and could kill them all if he so chose.
And then there was the time he sought out the island of the Sirens and had himself lashed to the mast, just as the great Odysseus had done, and had his crewmen stuff their ears with wax. All he heard when they came to the island was the sound of the wind crying through the rocks. He laughed when he heard this and his crew thought he had gone mad. When they removed the wax from their ears, he told them that, indeed, the Sirens had nearly driven him mad.
"They believed me, the fools," he said. "But I let them have the story. Who was I to take it away from them?"
The day after that, Leonidas was quiet and pensive. I wondered if something was wrong. He had no stories to tell.
"Do you hear that, To Mati Mu?" he asked.
I looked around me. "Do you mean the bird?" I said.
"Yes, the bird." He said, shielding his eyes from the sun. "Do you see it?"
I followed the sound of the birds cry. It led to a seagull hunting for fish just above the surf.
"I see it. It is a seagull."
"What is it doing?"
"Flying back and forth. Watching the waves. I think it is looking for fish."
"I see it now," said Leonidas. "Where there is one creature there are others. Maybe today is the day."
I looked out to sea as far as I could. "I still do not see anything."
"The dolphins are there. I know they are."
I looked again. "I cannot see them."
"They are there, To Mati Mu. I need you to see them for me."
I looked out to sea again. The seagull that Leonidas had heard was circling the water searching for its mark. Then there was a tiny whitecap and the seagull dove upon it. I watched it fly away with its prize.
"There are fish. The seagull just caught one."
"You see? Where there is one creature, there are surely others. Look out toward the horizon. Tell me what you see. Tell me exactly what you see."
I did as he bid me. "The waves are rolling in on shore. There is a white line between the sea and the land. Farther out, the water is a bright blue, like the sky only deeper and brighter. There are whitecaps out to sea. "
"Tell me about them!"
I closed my eyes to keep what I saw in my mind. "They are like a little puffs of spray out to sea."
"Tell me more."
I closed my eyes again.
"It is like the sea is alive. It is like someone is following the ships and they are breathing white and smoky fog, like men on a cold day."
He stood up and walked toward the sea. He closed his eyes, drew in the salt air and listened to the far off sound of waves rolling into the rocks below us. From behind his closed eyes and through the lines and crags of his years, there shone the awed face of a ten year old boy at sea on his father's boat for the first time.
"They have come," he said. "They have come."
He stood with his eyes closed for a long time. Then he started back along the path to the house. He did not say a word. I followed close behind him.
After that day, I would never see Leonidas again. No one told me when or where he died. I have always imagined he met his end like a cat and, knowing his time was near, he sought solitude so that he might take his leave in peace.
I have never been sure if what I saw that day was the dolphins that came to free Leonidas or simply the next episode in the tale he told me. It does not matter. It was the story that freed him. Who was I to take that away from him? He gave me the first stories I can remember. In all the years since that day I have been freed by stories, those he gave me, those I received from others and those I devised myself and gave to others.
I have been known by many names in my life. Each one has a story, but all of them will be forgotten in time. But the one that is closest to my heart is the one Leonidas gave me. The day he gave me the name To Mati Mu and the privilege of seeing the world for him, I became more than a slave. It is the name by which I know myself. I will carry it with me until my days in this world come to an end.