The Master of All He Tends
- A Slave and a Boy in Ancient Greece -
When I was a boy and my father traveled the islands of the Aegean striking bargains with other wealthy and powerful men, I often traveled with him. It was a fine time as I remember it. Being under sail for days on the Aegean was, for me, an adventure. At sea, I was no longer a boy. One moment I was Odysseus battling Polyphemus, the next I was Jason at the prow of the Argo dreaming of the golden fleece. My father, who only went to sea because his business demanded it, quickly grew impatient with the long hours, the tight quarters and the unchanging horizon. But through my ten-year-old eyes the Aegean was a vast and continually changing place and each moment was new.
I am older now. My father’s time has passed and he has long since bequeathed his business to me. I still travel the Aegean from time to time. But the adventure has faded and I have forgotten most of the journeys I have taken since my father’s business became mine. But I still remember the adventures of my boyhood. Sometimes it is only the passage of time that gives them meaning. So it was with my encounter with the slave Aesopos.
My father and I arrived at the port of Tigani on the island of Samos in late May. As I recall, my father had no reason to come to Samos beyond that of visiting his old friend, Xanthus. I remember Xanthus and the fine house he lived in. He was a ruddy-faced man with graying hair and a fine robe. His grand white house rose from the ground and sat cloud-like on the top of a small hill. He stood before it with his feet wide apart and his arms folded as though his house were a temple. He knew many things and joyously argued politics and philosophy with my father. I never understood their talk, but I cannot remember two men who took more pleasure in their disagreements. I, on the other hand, sat waiting to be dismissed like an impatient horse waiting for the chance to gallop.
“My slave Aesopos is in the apple orchard over there,” said Xanthus, waving toward a nearby hill. “Be a good boy and go fetch him.”
I sprang to my feet and ran toward the orchard. When I got there, I walked down a worn path and looked down each row of trees. I didn’t know what Aesopos looked like, but it didn’t matter. I saw no one. But I kept looking and, finally, at the far end of the orchard, there was a small man wearing an old brown robe bent over the lower branches of an apple tree. He looked up when he heard my footsteps.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“My father is a friend of Xanthus. He sent me here to fetch you.”
“Did he, now?” said the slave.
“I think he wants you to come back to the house now.”
“Does he, now?”
I stood waiting for Aesopos to get to his feet and start back for the house. But he only turned back to the branches of the apple tree. I looked up and around, shifted my weight from one foot to the other and paced back and forth.
“You’re fidgeting like a horse tied to a tree,” said Aesopos. “Why don’t you run along?”
“Xanthus told me to fetch you,” I said. “I can’t go back without you. I’ll get in trouble.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” sighed Aesopos. “I’ll be along in a while.”
“But he wants you now!”
“I can’t go now,” said Aesopos with quiet confidence. “Come over here and help me. Xanthus will wait.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m checking a graft.”
“Come here and I’ll show you.”
He motioned for me to get down on the ground and look at the lower branches.
“Here’s what you do. When you find a branch that is dying, you take a healthy branch from another tree and cut it off. Then you cut off the branch that is dying. You cut the ends of the new branch and the branch you are grafting so that they fit together. Like this.”
He took knife from where it lay on a nearby tree stump and carefully cut slots in both branches. He then joined the branches at the slots he had cut and fit them together like bricks in a wall. He took a slice of bark from his sack and wound it around the graft. Then he picked up some soil from the ground, spat into it and rubbed it between his fingers. With the mud blended to the right consistency, he first slathered it over the graft, then wound another layer of bark around it.
“Is that really going to grow?” I said.
“Take a look at this one,” he said, pulling a leafy branch forward. He moved the leaves out of the way and there, in the middle of the branch, was a small lump where the branches had been joined. Even though I had just seen how it was done, it seemed to me the work of the gods. He smiled mischievously.
“Have you ever picked apples before?” he asked me.
“Come with me. I’ll show you how.”
Aesopos rose to his feet and shuffled to the next tree. It was then that I saw that he couldn’t stand up straight. His shoulders were bent forward and slightly to one side and one of his feet dragged behind the other. One of his arms trembled with the effort of moving forward.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I won’t fall apart in front of you. And you won’t catch my limp if you get too close.” There was something about the way he spoke that made me smile. The way he looked and moved should have made me fear him. But he had no fear and, therefore, neither did I.
“Look here,” he said, drawing forward a perfect, red apple from the middle of the tree. “Here is a good one. It’s just the right size. Look at the color. Remember that color. When you see this color, you know the apple is perfectly ripe. Now, take the apple and pull, but not too hard. Don’t pick it from the branch yet.”
I did as he said. The apple felt tight on the branch.
“Now, turn the apple three times. If it let’s go after three turns, it’s ready. If it doesn’t, you must leave it.”
Again, I did as he said. On the third turn, the apple came off the branch with no sound except the rustle of leaves on the branch. He looked at me and nodded with a slight smile.
“Now, look at some of the other apples. These small, green ones are still growing. You must leave those. And look at this one,” he said, picking up a deep red apple that came off into his hand as soon as he touched it. “This one has been on the branch too long. It’s no good.”
“How do you know so much about trees and apples?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I watch the world as it goes by me,” he said. “No one ever minds me. I’m only a slave. So I can watch the world as if it were one great theater. Whatever happens, I see it. Sometimes I can learn ways of doing things. Other times, I learn how things are. All things, in nature and in men’s lives, follow the same path. Always remember that. And always pay attention to it.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Take a look at this apple,” he said, holding a perfect red apple near the top of the tree. “It started out as bud on a branch, like any other bud. But it grew into this beautiful apple. Now, the birds will probably nibble it down to nothing. But then again, you look at this one,” he said pulling a small apple forward from deep within the branches, “The birds will never get this one. I wouldn’t have picked it either. So it will have a long life on this branch. Which do you think has a better fate?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “The small one I guess. At least it didn’t get eaten.”
“Maybe,” said Aesopos. “But then again, maybe not. Because, even though the birds will nibble the big apple down to nothing, they’ll take its seeds someplace far from here, where they’ll take root and begin a new orchard. The smaller one will just die on the branch. Do you see what I mean?”
“No,” I said dismissively. “They’re just apple trees.”
“Ah, but this orchard is only a small part of the great story that is always playing out around you,” he said, standing up straight and spreading his hands wide. For the moment, he forgot his body was unnaturally bent and he was a tall and strong man. “The story is always changing and the characters are always changing roles. Sometimes the tree thrives and the birds starve. Other times, the birds are fat and haughty and the trees are withering away. No one ever wins all the time. There would be no story in that. Why, look up there at that vineyard.”
I looked up at the green vineyards that flowed in perfect rows down the hillside. I nodded my head.
“There was once a goat who loved to walk through that vineyard and nibble on the vines. The vines were not happy about a goat nibbling away at them. Would you be? I wouldn’t. But there was the goat, chewing the vines down to their roots. But you know what the real story is? When the people in the village needed a goat to sacrifice to the gods, they chose this one. And when they needed wine to pour over the goat, where did the wine come from? Why, from that very vineyard. Do you see what I mean? Drama!”
“But animals or apple orchards can’t be in dramas. Dramas need actors and theaters.”
“The drama around us now is the drama of men,” said Aesopos. I looked at him as though he were a madman. “Never mind. You’ll understand someday.”
We worked our way down a row of trees, picking the apples that were ready. The way the sunlight was falling on the trees told me that some time had passed, but I wasn’t worried. The slave’s sack was filled with apples. I had found and picked many of them. But I still felt relieved when Aesopos motioned for me to follow him and started on the path back to the house. As we passed from the apple orchard to the road home, the land opened outward into neat rows of olive trees and, beyond that, the hills where white stone spotted the green like patches of skin showing through a worn robe.
On the road home, the slave’s back assumed it’s strange bend as if it were the way of things and he moved as if he were dragging a stone slab behind him. Speaking would have been a huge effort for him, so he remained silent. I was quiet, too, losing myself in this vast open space.
When we arrived at the house, Xanthus stood with his arms folded and my father peered into my soul. Without a word, Aesopos drew the apples from his sack, one by one, and placed them on the table. Xanthus and my father smiled and grabbed the apples like mischievous boys. Aesopos held back the smallest of the apples. He shuffled over to me, took my hand, placed the apple in my hand and wrapped my fingers around it. I had never tasted an apple as sweet.
“Ah, you are a lucky man, indeed, my friend,” said my father to Xanthus, “You have the treasures of the world all around you. This is a beautiful place. Maybe the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Why, those hills roll on forever. I could gaze at them all day long.”
“Bah!” Aesopos grunted.
“Ah, a slave with an opinion!” said my father. “My friend Xanthus says you are a wise old slave. He even seeks your counsel. Surely you of all people must admire the beauty of these hills.”
“The walls of my prison. Nothing more,” said Aesopos, spitting out each word as if they were pebbles in his mouth.
“This place could never be a prison, my friend. No place this beautiful could ever be.”
The slave’s face reddened with anger. He opened his mouth to speak but Xanthus stared him into silence.
“Let me ask you this,” said my father. “If you were a free man and could choose a place to be, would it not be a place like this?”
Aesopos took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“I cannot answer that,” he said slowly. “I have never been a free man. I cannot choose. I don’t know what a free man would choose. But to me, the hills are what they are. They will never change. They have no story. They are only a line I cannot cross. Now, the apple orchard. The apple orchard is very beautiful. Have you ever seen it?”
“Oh, sure, the apple orchards are fine, but how can they compare to this?” said my father, slowly reaching out and sweeping his hand over the hills in the distance. “I can look upon these hills, take them into my mind and my heart and they become a part of me. They make me want to be worthy of them. They make me better.”
“But can you ever become a part of them?”
My father smiled. “What do you mean?” he asked.
Aesopos held out his leathery hands and took a long breath. His voice was trembling, but his hands were rock still.
“Look at these hands,” he said. “Are they beautiful?”
“You have the hands of a man who works hard,” said my father. “They are covered with callouses and your fingers are crooked. I am sure they are very strong. But beautiful? No. They are not beautiful.”
“Ah, but you are wrong,” said the slave, as if he were sharing a great secret with my father. “It is these hands that tend the apple trees. It is because of these hands that the trees thrive and bear the fruit that you enjoy so much.”
“But surely you cannot find beauty only in the things you create. Otherwise, how could anyone find joy in the beauty of a sculpture or a song or a poem he did not create himself? Yes, you work the apple orchards and, yes, I can admire the beauty in that. But surely you can appreciate beauty in things that did not come from your own hands.”
“Yes, these things are beautiful,” said Aesopos, his voice now resonant and his words flowing with ease. “The great statues of the temple of Hera, the stories of Homer and this land would be the same with or without these hands. But these hands have been a part of the lives and the deaths of the apple orchard. Its story is what it is because of these hands. That’s why these hands are beautiful. Yes, the hills give you much. But they were here before you. They will be here after you die. You can give nothing back to them. You cannot be a part of their story. They can only be a part of yours. These hands are a part of the apple orchard’s story.”
My father thought for a moment and a smile slowly crossed his face.
Over the years, I’ve often thought back to that argument. Who prevailed? When I was a boy, I gave Aesopos the advantage. I had to admire this slave who had no fear of powerful men. But as I grew older and learned to love this land as my father did, I felt that he had prevailed. Even now, when I want to be alone with my thoughts, I walk these roads, take in these hills and find peace.
One morning not long ago, I rose early and strolled through the temple of Hera. I followed a road that led to the tall white columns, the dawn-lit statues of the gods and the tiled floors that tell the old stories. I stopped for a few moments, paid my respects and followed the road to where it led. On one side of the road stood olive trees planted in even rows. On the other side, grape vines spread easily over the hills above me like garlands. On either side of the road were small, quiet houses with closed doors and windows. Wherever a patch of sunlit ground appeared among the trees, there arose a small bed of greens, onions, basil, rosemary and honeysuckle. I stopped for a moment and breathed in the sweet air. I couldn’t see who tended the gardens, but the work of their caring hands was everywhere I looked.
By mid-morning, the road had taken me to the orchard where I’d encountered Aesopos. I wondered if the tree whose branch we had grafted was still standing. I walked the rows of trees, looking for something familiar, something that might be the same now as it was then. I was about to give up my search when I noticed a tree stump. There weren’t many tree stumps in the orchard. I remembered that Aesopos had placed his tools on one like this.
I knelt on the ground and reached back through the lower branches of the tree next to the stump. I searched with great care, but I could not see a graft. I thought I might have been looking at the wrong tree or that the graft had been cut away long ago. But then I ran my fingers down the branches and felt a lump where a graft had been. I knew that this must be the work of the slave Aesopos and that it was still thriving. I felt as though I were reaching back through the years and touching the old slave’s fingertips. It was then that I realized that this tree, here and now, was thriving because of the work of the slave’s hands and mine on that day so many years ago. And I smiled in the knowledge that Aesopos the slave had been right after all.
Copyright: Paul Holler Contact