Across the Back of the Wide Aegean


Paul Holler


I love the Aegean.  I love her unending sky and sapphire depths, her warm breezes and terrible winds.  I have sailed her broad back for more years than I know. Still, I can stand on a beach at Samos and let her waves curl warmly around my ankles and forget where my feet end and the sea begins.  She bears me on her back and carries me to places no man has ever beheld.  Even when the winds are still and the crew and I must take up oars, I am happy.

            Still, there have been times when she treated me so cruelly that I thought I would walk away from her forever.  I have seen her throw men to their deaths with no more regard than a child flicking an ant from his arm.  I have seen her lure ships with the promise of fair winds only to smash them to pieces far from land.  But, as many times as I walked away, I came back loving her all the more.  It is my fate. 

Yes, I love the Aegean.  Even now.

Not long ago, I traveled to the port of Samos to join the crew of the trireme Georgios on a voyage to Corinth.  I’d been told that the ship would be carrying a huge and valuable cargo and only a few passengers.  It was always a pleasing voyage when I could have the company of my shipmates and only a few landsmen.  So I arrived in Samos, shaded my eyes against the sun and gazed out to sea where the Georgios sat moored near the shore.

Though the years had not been kind to her, the Georgios was a good ship.  Her hull was worn grey by the sea and her prow rose up and faced the horizon with a furrowed and terrible face.  I’d heard that she’d once served the Athenian Navy.  That could have been so.  She was smaller than other merchant ships I’d known and sat low in the water, like a warship.  I wondered how much she would carry in her small hold and whether there would be profit in this voyage.  But she was headed toward the sea, her prow bobbing like an impatient horse’s head.  That was all I needed to know.

            The captain stood before the Giorgios with his arms folded, talking to two of the passengers.  One of them, a tall man with sun-bronzed skin, talked sternly to the captain while his hands darted about like fleas on a dog’s back.  Next to him stood a smaller man wrapped in a pure white robe and finely worked gold.  He said little but something in his bearing spoke more than his words might have.

In spite of the difference between them, the two men shared features of face and manner and a language of gestures, leers and rolling eyes.

“They’re brothers, you know,” said one of my crewmates, who was standing next to me.  “Their father owns the Giorgios.”

“I should have guessed,” I said.

            I could not hear their voices, but I could feel their talk.  The sound of their gestures rose and, as it did, several more spectators drifted toward the captain and the passengers.  I knew two among the gathering crowd to be Xanthus and Aesopos, one of the most learned men on Samos and his slave.  There was also a white haired man with a younger man by his side.  I’d seen him before and knew he was a councilor from Athens and that the young man by his side was his assistant, who walked in the great man’s shadow to learn the ways of government.  When I was his age, I went to sea for the first time behind an oar.  But the seas I knew were calm compared to the storms he would know in Athens.  I was sure of that.

            My shipmates paid no attention to the passengers or the captain.  They wandered the shoreline, scanning the skies and the waves for signs of what was to come.  They say the gods place the souls of dead sailors into the sea birds.  Some of the sailors on the shore saw their fate in the birds, forever traveling, never arriving, forever free, always a prisoner.

            The councilor and his young protege, on the other hand, observed the brothers’ every move.  Xanthus watched as well, but he didn’t seem to notice that his slave, Aesopos, was watching more intently than he was.

            The brothers stood on either side of the captain.

            “The cargo must be kept in sight at all times,” said the smaller of the brothers, who seemed younger and wore a finer cloak.

            “Kept in your sight at all time, isn’t that what you really mean, young Cyril?” said the taller brother, who had a few wisps of grey in his hair and wore the tunic of a common man.

            “Well I certainly wouldn’t leave you alone with it, Ioannes,” said the younger one.  Ioannes reached for his brother’s throat.  The captain grabbed his arm and jammed himself between them.

            “Stop this!” the captain cried.  “I will not have this aboard my ship.”

            The brothers forced their way toward one another, squeezing the captain out of their way, each jabbing at the other’s face.

            “I said I will not have this aboard my ship!” the captain cried again, making his point with a few blows of his own. “You are both men!  Now stop behaving like ill mannered boys or, by Zeus, your father will hear of this!”     

“The cargo must be within my sight,” said Cyril, his arms folded and his feet planted far apart.

            “If it is to be within his sight then it must also be within mine,” said Ioannes, his feet planted just as firmly on the other side of the captain.

            “Well, with everything else we have in the cargo hold, we can’t have both of you below the deck for the whole voyage.  There isn’t enough room,” the captain explained. 

            “Then we’ll have to have the cargo on top, where I, that is, we can see it,” said Ioannes.

            “That will make for a hard voyage,” said the captain.  “It will get in the way of the oarsmen and make it hard to steer.”

            “Then perhaps my brother will stay behind and let me see this cargo through,” said Cyril.

            “Not on your life,” growled Ioannes, lunging toward his brother.  The captain, again, jumped between them.

            “Enough!” he cried.  “Very well.  We’ll store the cargo on deck.  But remember this.  On land, your father rules his house and you.  But I rule at sea.  Do not forget that.”

             I could see his words carried off by the winds, heard by no man.  The passengers gathered around the ship.  They were ready to board but I suspect that they were also were drawn to the brothers and their story.

            “This will be an interesting voyage,” said the councilor to his young assistant. “Watch the brothers.  And watch the captain.  You will learn much.”

            The captain motioned the crew to begin loading the ship.

            “Help them, Aesopos,” said Xanthus with a casual wave of his hand.

            Aesopos lifted the smallest of the cases and dragged it aboard.  The rest of the crew and I put our backs to the largest of the cases.  They were heavy, even for their size, and we struggled to bring them aboard the Giorgios.  They could have contained gold and jewels, perhaps all of the treasures of the brothers’ house.  Perhaps this was their father’s way of testing them, proving who was most worthy of the treasure.  We never learned the whole story but, to the brothers, the treasure was worth more than any of our lives or theirs. 

When we finished, the treasure sat like a mountain at the bow of the ship, blocking the helmsman’s view.  As I stood at the stern of the Giorgios, I suspected that the captain was thinking the same as I was.  Someone would have to sit on top of the cargo and keep watch.  At first, that seemed to be a job for Aesopos.  He was small enough to crawl easily to the top of the treasure.  But he was crippled.  He could not stand up straight and was unsure of his footing. 

“Here’s a job for you,” said the councilor to his young protégé.  “You’ll keep a watch on the bow of the ship and report back to the helmsman.”

“I give the orders on this ship,” said the Captain.

“Of course,” said the councilor, lowering his eyes.

The captain stroked his beard thoughtfully.

“However, he would be the right one for that job,” said the captain, turning to the councilor’s protégé.  “You will take the watch on the bow.”

The protégé took his place at the bow and we crewmen took up the oars.  The captain gave the sign to get underway and we put our backs to the task.

            From where I was sitting, I could see the helmsman working hard to keep the Georgios on course.  She was heavy with cargo and men and we moved at a slow and steady crawl.  It was going to be a long voyage.

            “Why are we not under sail?” Cyril asked.  “We could be making much better time than these men at the oars can do.  You should set the sail.”

            “The winds would take us out of sight of the shore,” said the Captain.

            “Oh, where is your courage, Captain?” said Cyril.  “Surely can find your way across the sea that you’ve been crossing all your life.  There are many islands between here and Corinth.”

            “I am the Captain, sir.”

            “And my father owns this ship.”

            The councilor glanced at his protégé and tilted his head toward the brothers and the captain.   Xanthus looked out to sea.  Aesopos watched intently. Ioannes stood by and laughed. 

“Go ahead, Captain,” he said.   “Put my brother in his place.”

            “You stay out of this!” cried Cyril, jabbing his finger at his brother’s face.

            “Don’t you tell me to stay out of things that concern me.  I am your older brother.  You cannot tell me to stay out of anything.”

            “I’ll mind my business when you’ve learned to live your life like a man, not before!”

            “Do not make me tell you again to stop acting like spoiled children and take your places!” the captain shouted.

            “Tell him to take his place!” Ioannes shouted.

            “I know where my place is!” Cyril shouted back.

            “Your place is behind me.  My place is behind our father. Don’t forget that!”

            “Your place is behind the man who can rule our house! Don’t you forget that!  Father might wish that you can take over his house, as an eldest son should, but he knows that I can do that better than you!”

            The brothers squared off again, and, again, the Captain jammed himself between them.  Cyril threw a punch at his brother but it landed on the captain’s chin.  Undeterred, Cyril threw more punches, each one answered by Ioannes.

            “All right, that’s enough!  We’ll go under sail if it’s the only way to stop this.  Now, both of you, sit down!”

            The brothers backed away from each other.  The Captain motioned us to pull in the oars and set the sail.

            I untied the cords and watched the sail unfurl like a bird spreading its wings.  The wind lifted the sail and took from us the heavy pushing and pulling.  The Georgios plowed through the water, shuddering with each wave it struck. 

We looked at each other uneasily but we felt free somehow.  For the moment, there was nothing for us to do except breathe the sea air and live.  Occasionally our gaze would find a passing bird with its wings, like our sails, outstretched and catching the wind.  I wondered.  How many birds set out to places far from home?  And how many went down into the sea, never to be seen again?  Yes, the birds were more like us than we knew.

            And then the sea, with one stroke, slapped us down.  A great wind came up and pushed the Giorgios to her side, sending men and chests of treasure tumbling into the sea.

            “No!” cried both of the brothers together.

            “Everyone to the other side!” cried the captain.  But it was too late.  We were nothing but an annoyance to the Aegean.  We had crawled across her back for as long as she would allow.  Bored with us, she flicked us away. 

The Giorgios was sinking fast but the brothers held on.  I tried to get to the other side of the ship but I lost my footing and slipped into the sea alongside Aesopos and the councilor.

            “I will not get off this ship until I see you disappear beneath the waves!” cried Cyril.

            “Never!  Never!” shouted Ioannes.  “I will not move until I see you disappear beneath the waves!”

            The brothers held their ground as if it were the plains of Thermopylae and not the deck of a sinking ship.  But they couldn’t hold on for long. The brothers were the last to be tossed into the sea and there they treaded water with the rest of us.   We looked at each other with the same unspoken words on our tongues.  We were doomed.

            “The sea has had its way,” said the councilor to his protégé, whose face turned white with horror.  The councilor closed his eyes, his arms slowly churning the water.  The captain brow tightened with grief. Then the stern disappeared before our eyes and the sea was as smooth as it was before the wind rose.

            The crew was spread out on the water as far as I could see.  Cyril floated quietly near me.  Ioannes was another face among the stunned crewman, almost out of my sight.

            In the meantime, the slave Aesopos paddled through the bits and pieces of wood that did not go down with the Giorgios.  Not being a strong swimmer, he needed a way to stay afloat.  And being a slave, he did not understand that the sea had already written our fate.

            “What’s wrong with all of you?” cried Aesopos, without the stammer that normally tangled his words.  “There is enough wood floating to keep us all from going down!  Why are you just treading water?  Grab a piece of wood and kick!”

            We all looked at him quizzically. Who was he to talk to his betters that way?  The councilor lifted his head above the water and listened.  His protégé assumed a determined look. The captain treaded water, not quite sure what to do.  Aesopos paddled over to him and cuffed him across the top of the head.

            “You’re the captain!  Why are you just waiting to drown?  We can make our way back!  Now grab a piece of wood!”

            “My ship is gone,” sighed the captain.

             “Your ship is all around you,” said Aesopos slowly waving his hand to the bits of wood and the men floating around us.  “All we have to do is bring it together.  We didn’t go down with the ship.  Neither did the stuff floating around us.  We can all hold together.  We will all be the ship that takes us home.”

            The captain looked at Aesopos for a moment.   Then he nodded his head and did as the slave told him.

            “You know which way the wind was pushing the ship,” said Aesopos.  “The wind was pushing us away from land.  The wind will tell you which way land is.”

            The captain raised his hand and felt the breeze pass through his we fingers.  He drew his shoulders above the water.  We crewmen looked at him.

            “That way,” he said, pointing his finger.

            “Everybody stay together!” Aesopos cried.  “We can make it back to shore if we stay together!”

            We all, the crew, the captain, the councilor and his protégé, the brothers, Xanthus and the slave held on to whatever was near.  One by one, we linked ourselves to one another.  As each man joined, our new ship gained another plank. We must have been quite a sight, this ramshackle vessel of wood, flesh and blood.  But Aesopos was right.  Together, we were seaworthy.  Together, we were strong. 

            Those of us who had once manned the oars on the Giorgios now propelled our new ship with our feet.  The passengers fell into our rhythm. Again, we were crawling across the back of the wide Aegean. We were alive.

            The captain was the prow, we were the hull.  We could feel ourselves rising and falling through the waves.  It would have been easy to think we had mastered the sea.  But when I looked around, I could not see land in any direction.  The captain lead the way confidently.  Just the same, we could do no more than hope that he was leading us the right way.

            I could hear worried voices worming through our ranks.  I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but I could feel that their worries were the same as mine.

            “Look!” said Aesopos, pointing to a bird flying in our direction.  “He’s heading toward land.  And so are we.  We will make landfall.  We will!”

            The murmuring stopped and we continued to crawl, slowly and steadily across the Aegean’s back.  And as we did, the sun slowly descended in the west.  I tried to see the good in that.  As long as the sun was descending, we knew which way was west and could find our way to shore.  But there was still no land in sight. We would be spending the night at sea.

            As darkness fell, our crawl across the Aegean’s back slowed.  Some of us took turns paddling while others rested.  I knew that my crewmates and I could go on for as long as we had to.  But the passengers did not live at sea as we did.  Aesopos, Xanthus, the councilor and his protégé grew weary.  The brothers, each refusing to be outdone by the other, kept their heads high.   If they were weary, I could not tell.

            Aesopos paddled with the rest of us, but he was not a strong man.  We held on to him and kept him in our slipstream for miles at a time.  On another voyage, we might have considered him a burden.  But we knew that if we were to see land again, it would only be with him at our side.

            We kept moving through the night, following the captain who in turn followed the stars. The flat, black sea took in the light from the stars and kept it for itself, leaving a solid wall of darkness around us. I could hear the others but I could not see them. I could barely tell whether my eyes were open or closed.  Even though I could feel the heartbeat of the man next to me, I felt alone.  And I suspect that he felt as alone as I did.

            Then I felt our ship of flesh and bones twist and change course.  I heard the councilor’s voice cry out and his hands and feet slap the water.  He was foundering.  We stopped paddling.

            Aesopos, struggling to stay afloat himself, slid behind us and went to the councilor’s side. 

            “You, come here,” he said.  “Help us.”

            I could not tell if Aesopos was speaking to me.  But I summoned my courage, let go of my crewmates and made my way back to his voice. 

            “He’s lost all of his strength,” said Aesopos.  “Help me bring him up to the others.”

            “No,” said the councilor.  “You’ll never make it if you have to tow me.  You must go on without me.”

            “No!” snapped Aesopos. “We will all make it to shore.  We will all make it together.”

            “Please!” said the councilor.  “I am one man, and I am old.  The lives of the others are more important than mine. The others are moving away from you!  If you wait another minute they’ll be too far away and you’ll never find them in this darkness!  Think of the boy!  You must see to it that he survives.  My life is not important.”

            “You think of the boy!” said Aesopos.  “What will you be teaching him by allowing yourself to die?  What kind of a man will that make him?  No.  You must live.  You must let us help you.”

            “You mustn’t….”

            “Do as I say!  The others are waiting for us.  They won’t get underway without us.” Aesopos scolded.

            Holding on to Aesopos and me, the councilor pushed through the calm sea and caught up with the rest of the crew.  We held his head above the water and, gradually, he regained his strength.

            At the same time, I could tell that Aesopos was losing his strength.  He kept on, encouraging us to paddle on, but with every hour his voice became weaker and he needed more and more help from us to stay afloat.

            And then a line of red light appeared before us. We were heading into the rising sun.  Somehow, we had made it though the night without losing our way. As the sun rose higher, we could make out a ribbon of land in the distance.  As exhausted as we were, we shouted for joy.

            As the sun rose higher, the land rose up from the horizon.  The councilor, now strengthened by the sight of sun and land, kicked along with the rest of us.  Aesopos was at the end of his strength.  He could see the land, too, but he could not shout for joy.

            As we grew nearer to the shore, we could feel the tide drawing us forward.  We didn’t have to work anymore.  It was if the Aegean was testing us and, having found us worthy, was taking us home.

            By mid morning, we felt sand beneath our feet.   One by one, the sea washed my crewmates, the passengers and me ashore.  Aesopos made landfall after I did.  He crumbled to the sand, out of breath and nearly unconscious.  Xanthus followed him ashore.  Seeing his slave helpless on the sand, he struggled to he feet and went to him.  Fighting for breath himself, he reached his hand down to his slave.  Aesopos took his hand and struggled to his feet, but his legs gave out and he collapsed again.  Xanthus dropped to his knees and embraced Aesopos.  He stayed with him until he regained his strength.  Then together they began a slow crawl across the beach.

            I looked around me and realized that we all had survived. Even the brothers, who had seemed not to care about surviving, were together on shore, staring at each other with malice in their hearts.  The truce that the Aegean had imposed on them was over.

            The councilor lay on the beach paralyzed with exhaustion.  His protégé found him and knelt by his side.

            “We are very fortunate, indeed,” said the councilor.  “Fate has treated us well.”

            “Why have we been spared?” asked the protégé.

            The councilor struggled to sit upright. 

            “Hmmm….,” he said, “I can tell you about the winds of politics and the wills of men.  But fate?  I cannot tell you why fate has spared us.  But, every day of your life, remember this gift.”

            Aesopos looked at the councilor and smiled furtively.

            One by one, we regained our strength and got to our feet.  I sensed that everyone had the same question I did.  Where were we?  I didn’t recognize the beach where we had landed.  But that didn’t matter.  We were on land.  We would find our way home.

The brothers set off to look for a town, each trying to lead the way, each blaming the other for losing the family’s fortune.  Aesopos regained his strength and set off with Xanthus, as always, walking a few paces behind him.  Then the councilor left with his protégé, his proud face looking a little odd with his sea-soaked robe.

 I have sailed the Aegean for more years than I know.  I have survived more dangers than I have a right to expect.  But I will always remember this voyage and the crippled slave who gave us all the heart to fight for our lives.  I have no doubt that he spent the rest of his life as he began it, fetching and carrying for the man who owned his life.  But I’ve heard many times that he possessed the storyteller’s gift. Every story I hear makes me wonder if I am hearing his words.  It seems only right that I would be.

Why did we survive?  Was it fate?  Or was it Aesopos who saved our lives?  I don’t think I’ll ever know.  But I know this.  I will return to the sea again and when I do, I will know that I may not live to see the end of the voyage. The Aegean will have her way. But I will see what is on the other side of the horizon. My life will end when it ends. It is my fate.

Perhaps it is my fate.

 Copyright 2011 Paul Holler