Chapter 10 - The Island of Lesbos
One long day had them approaching the southern tip of Lesbos. The captain directed the men at the tillers to turn north heading up the east coast of the island. Once they started up that side of the island they lost the wind that had been filling the sail.
“We will be putting in to the port at Mytilini, and we will be here at least a couple of days. You will take turns staying with the ship, so that all can spend time ashore. Be sure to be careful here. They have laws they expect all to follow. Now, man the oars so we can get into the harbor before dark.” The captain’s left eye was twitching as he spoke and he turned away as he rubbed that eye. Something was not right, but no one spoke to question the captain’s directions. Some among the crew began whispering to each other as they took their places with the oars.
Mentu looked to Sinon. “What do you know of the island? Have you heard of this place?”
“I have. But I don’t know if I believe what I have heard, and I have too little experience concerning those things.”
Mentu’s brow wrinkled up as he tried to understand what Sinon was saying or not saying.
“Is it an evil place?”
“That depends. Some of what goes on here might be of concern, and some might be quite satisfying.” Sinon was teasing Mentu, who was not amused by that.
Now Mentu looked even more confused and shook his head as he turned to look forward to where the island lay on the distant horizon.
“Mentu, working on the docks in Kirra, I heard sailors speak of this island. There are women here who can give great pleasure. It is their trade.” Sinon thought of his glorious time with Polyxena, his first and only experience with such a woman. But she was different than the women on Lesbos he heard about. Polyxena’s activities were sacred as practiced in the temple.
Mentu nodded then with a broad smile of understanding.
Strymon joined in, “There is also a woman here who is a poet and some say a philosopher.”
“How can this be when women and slaves like me are uneducated?” Mentu glanced at Sinon with a wink. “The only women I know of who are educated are the Hetaerae, and only for the service of men.”
“This woman is of a wealthy family, and she is well educated. Her poetry is well known.” Strymon put his hand to his chest, closed his eyes and began to chant:
“Immortal Aphrodite, on your intricately brocaded
Child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, this I pray:
Dear Lady, don’t crush my heart
With pains and sorrows.
“But come here, if ever before,
When you heard my far-off cry,
You listened. And you came,
Leaving your father’s house,
“Yoking your chariot of gold.
Then beautiful swift sparrows led you over the black
From the sky through the middle air,
Whirling their wings into a blur.”
He paused, opened his eyes and spoke in a low voice. “There is much more to that song, but now is not the time for that.”
Mentu’s jaw dropped open and his teeth were like rows of stars against a black sky.
Sinon leaned to Mentu and whispered, “I think there is much more to this sailor than we know.”
Mentu nodded as a broad smile replaced the wide-eyed look of astonishment.
Strymon was not done, “Mytilini has a tyrant who the people here elected. His name is Pittakos and he is known to be a wise ruler. He has created laws that must be observed by all who come to the city. It would be best if you allow me to accompany you when you go ashore. There is someone I want you to meet there as well.”
“We’ll welcome your company, won’t we Mentu?” Sinon was thankful for Strymon’s offer. The lesson learned on Chios left him feeling less adventurous and too easily gullible.
Mentu nodded. “Yes. I am sure we will.”
As the port and city of Mytilini came into view, draped across a hill, Sinon kept looking over his shoulder at the place as he continued to pull on the oar.
“Mentu, look at that. That is the biggest town I could ever imagine. It looks the way I imagine Athens to look from what I have heard.” He was excited to see such a grand place. It made Kirra seem even smaller.
“It’s huge. There will be much to see here.” Mentu stood up from the bench to get a better view. He was sharing Sinon’s enthusiasm.
Sinon struggled with the oar, which had already been dipped deep. “Hey, I need some help here.” Mentu laughed and sat back down to grab the oar in time to pull.
They continued to row and look as more of the city came into view.
By the time the day began to yield to night, the Amphitrite was secured to one of many docks in the bay by the city. Aristomachos was busy right away with men who met him at the dock. They would not be unloading cargo until the morning, so when several of the men volunteered to stay with the ship, Sinon, Mentu and Strymon headed into the city as did other members of the crew. In Kirra, everything would be shutting down for the night, but here, torches and lamps drove the darkness from the streets and people were everywhere. A cacophony of conversation punctuated with laughter contrasted the gentle sounds of the sea they had grown used to. Some shops were open for business as well as tavernas full of men and women. No doubt the women were not the men’s wives or daughters, but clearly performers of all manner of things. Many were dancing to the delight of the men. Some appeared to be making other arrangements. Young women with color painted on their faces flirted openly with men who wanted more. Sinon grew increasingly interested as he watched them. There was nothing sacred going on here.
After winding their way through several streets they found a place farther from the bay that had several empty seats at tables. It was a little quieter here than most of the places they had seen, but men and women engaged in conversation here as well. The three of them took a table near the door. A woman who was much less covered than Sinon and Mentu were used to seeing, asked what she could bring them. She wore less color on her face, but her cleavage was as exposed as the other women. She was beautifully young but her voice was confident and seductive. Long black hair draped down her back, and when she moved it was like watching cool water flowing in a brook.
Strymon spoke up, “We will have wine, the best you have, and keep it strong.”
Sinon and Mentu looked at each other and then to Strymon, and finally to the woman as she glided away and returned moments later with three cups on a tray. Strymon gave the woman some coins and she moved on to another table.
“You have proven yourselves worthy sailors and you deserve this time to relax a little.”
“If we are worthy, it is largely to your credit. I cannot speak for Mentu, but I feel like there is so much more to know.” Sinon guessed that they had only learned a fraction of what Strymon knew, and he wanted to know more. He wanted to be a man of the world, like Strymon. He envied the confidence that radiated from this crewmate.
A brilliant white smile flooded Mentu’s face as Strymon responded. “There is always more to learn. I have been at this a very long time and I still am learning, but you have earned your keep with this crew. They appreciate your willingness to take the night watch and your energy in handling the cargo. Even the captain said so just the other day. He also mentioned that you are going to Colchis. Now I wonder what is there for you.”
Strymon’s face lit up with a knowing smile. Sinon wondered if he understood why they were going? Is this something that the others would know as well? His father had said that he didn’t share the purpose of the venture with the captain, so how could Strymon know anything of it?
Sinon decided that he was letting his imagination run wild, and that there was nothing to be worried about. Besides, Strymon had made himself an indispensable friend.
The three of them sat for a time drinking their wine and watching the people, especially the woman who was serving. There were other women as well, plying a different trade, whispering into men’s ears while stroking them as though they were pets, then pulling away, laughing as the seduction continued. Two of the women approached the table, but turned away when Strymon shook his head. Sinon did not know about Mentu, but he realized that his body was taking interest in these women. An exciting rush of blood tinted his face and caused growth elsewhere.
Strymon treated them to another round of wine. Sinon was used to drinking wine. He had been having it with meals as long as he could remember. But he had not participated in the feasts his father often attended with the other men of Kirra, when his father would come home clearly full of celebration. The wine here was strong, probably like the wine his father drank at those feasts. Sinon liked this feeling.
“Do they mix this wine with water at all?”
Strymon laughed. “Yes, but not much, and the honey they add makes it more palatable. It is excellent wine to begin with. This island is well known for its wine and its women.”
Getting back to the ship took a little more effort than Sinon was used to even though it was downhill most of the way. In the morning, he didn’t really remember getting to the ship, but he woke up there so he obviously made it somehow.
Sinon’s head throbbed as they began unloading the cargo. He could hear pounding in his ears and his whole body ached. It was clear that Mentu was struggling as well. As the day progressed, Sinon gradually felt better, but he made the decision to limit the strong wine in the future.
Later some men came with several items of additional cargo, a box, several grain bags and four large amphorae. That cargo was quickly stowed and secured, and they were free that afternoon. They hadn’t seen Aristomachos yet this day.
“Strymon, where is the captain?” Sinon asked. It was concerning him that the captain was gone so long. He felt like they had been abandoned.
“Something or maybe someone here takes him away for a time. That is why we have a couple of days here. It happens anytime we come to this island.”
Strymon didn’t offer anything more on the subject.
“I told you that I wanted you to meet someone. Come with me now if you are up to it.”
“Mentu, shall we go?” With the captain gone, Strymon seemed to be their leader.
“There is nothing keeping us here, but I don’t want that strong wine today.” Mentu said what Sinon was also thinking.
“Do not worry. This isn’t a drinking invitation, quite the opposite. We need to be on our best behavior.” Strymon stepped onto the dock.
He led the way into the city and through several streets moving away from the busy center of the town and into an elegant area with buildings that were obviously wealthy residences. There were high smooth walls with large doors of solid wood like the deck of the ship. Vines of green foliage climbed the walls and decorative pots of flowers of all kinds were scattered in front of these homes.
They came to one where Strymon knocked on the door. A moment passed and then a tall man with biceps as big as Sinon’s thighs, and dressed in the best linen toga he had ever seen, opened the door and spoke.
“Strymon, welcome. You bring guests.” The man’s voice was deep and thick with elegance in cadence and accent.
Strymon held out his hand with the palm up toward Sinon and Mentu. “These fine young men are new members of the crew of the Amphitrite.”
They instinctively nodded to the man. Sinon had never heard Strymon speak so elegantly as he was now. The tone, enunciation and rhythm were all strange to hear.
Strymon turned to Sinon and Mentu. “This is Lagos.” He turned back to the giant. “Is she here?”
“Yes. I will go let her know you are here. Come in.” Lagos stepped aside.
They were in an open courtyard with several benches scattered among raised gardens of flowers of every color and shape imaginable.
Strymon spoke very quietly, “Beautiful isn’t it? Stark contrast to the simple life onboard a ship.”
Moments later Lagos returned and made a sweeping gesture with his right arm and stood towering over them as they walked, following Strymon into another room. A strikingly regal woman met them as they entered the room. She was not tall and had a dark complexion, yet confidence and sophistication radiated from her. She was dressed in a purple linen toga with a gold trimmed scarf draped across her shoulders.
“Strymon, it is so good to see you. And who are your friends?” Her voice was pure elegance.
“This is Sinon of Kirra,” Strymon said with his hand held out to Sinon with the palm up, “And his close friend, Mentu.” Then he turned to them and continued, “Sinon and Mentu, this is Sappho, a poet and dear friend.”
Sinon swung a quick glance at Mentu, who was obviously as surprised as he was, before bowing deeply to the woman. Mentu bowed as well.
“It is truly an honor to meet you,” Sinon managed. His voice was strong and solid which was far from what he was feeling inside.
Sappho led them all to couches in the middle of this large room. The walls and floor appeared to be marble and there was a tile mosaic of a woman reclining on a couch worked into one wall. A wide doorway at the other end of the room from where they entered led into a garden. They couldn’t see all of it, but rose bushes, sunflowers, lilies and a couple of small, neatly trimmed cypress trees were readily visible. They could also see part of a pool with lily pads floating on the glass smooth water.
Lagos entered carrying a large pitcher and four drinking cups. He set them on a low table between the linen covered reclining couches, which served as seats, and poured the well-mixed wine into the cups. Sappho invited them to drink as Lagos left the room.
“Please accept this wine as a welcome to my home.” She raised her glass and then took a sip.
Strymon responded, “You are too gracious, dear Sappho.”
Sinon and Mentu were so overwhelmed that neither could speak. Instead they each sat listening to the conversation between Strymon and Sappho until she turned to Mentu and asked, “Are you Nubian?”
He swallowed and spoke clearly, “Yes.”
“How long have you been gone from there?”
“I left as a child and was taken into the home of Sinon’s family.”
Sinon was most impressed with the way Mentu answered. There was no indication of servitude now, only brotherhood.
“And what prompted you two to join my friend on the Amphitrite?”
Sinon looked to Mentu and then back to Sappho and answered, “We come at the suggestion of the oracle of Delphi who directed us, actually me, to travel to the end of the Black Sea where I would find my future. My brother agreed to accompany me on the venture and my father arranged for us to travel as crew members with Captain Aristomachos.”
“Strymon speaks highly of the captain, and his bringing you here speaks highly of you. I think you are in very good company. Maybe more than you know.” She gave a sideways glance to Strymon who nodded thanks to her.
For at least an hour, Strymon and Sappho discussed events happening in Mytilini and Lesbos. Sinon and Mentu listened as they learned of political and social happenings in the city and island.
Eventually, Strymon stood, “We have taken enough of your day Sappho. Thank you so much for allowing us this time and hospitality.”
Sinon and Mentu stood, as did Sappho. She walked with them to the entrance of the building. Sinon noticed that Lagos had appeared from nowhere and was standing quietly nearby.
Then Sappho leaned toward Strymon and spoke more quietly, “I may be leaving the island soon. There are things happening that will probably make that necessary. My family is not favored for our political involvement and some do not approve of my writing or even my education for that matter. Growing power among women on this island has the men who live here very angry. If I must go I will leave information about where I will be with Lagos. He will be tending things here. Thank you for your visit.”
Then she spoke more directly to Sinon and Mentu. “It was a pleasure to meet you. Take good care of my friend here.” She smiled as she touched his arm.
“Thank you for your hospitality and, rest assured, he has taken good care of us. We will do the same should the occasion present itself.” Once again Sinon surprised himself.
Mentu spoke as well, “Thank you for your generosity.”
Sinon and Mentu stepped across the threshold and paused until Strymon joined them.
They walked down several streets toward the ship before anything more was said, and then Sinon broke the silence. “How, may I ask, do you know her?”
“It is a long story which I may tell you someday, but this isn’t the time nor the place for that.”
Sinon thought to himself, He says that same thing often. He must have a clear sense of what is the time and place for everything. They walked back to the ship in silence. Sinon’s mind was racing over the visit and especially what she said to Strymon just before they left. He knew he would have a hard time getting to sleep, but sometime later that night, long after he bedded down, sleep finally did come to him.