I’m old enough now that memories burnt into my brain feel free to come and go like old friends. Being a storyteller and a lover of lore, it comes as no surprise that stories come and go as I await the coming of the first grey hair to my autumn coloured beard. I find that fabled visits and temporal lessons make life all the richer, when you let them pass at leisure. The meaning of a tale is freer, it comes like a breath of air, natural, fitting. It is a measure for what is true in life and what is not, for the lessons not worth learning seem like dross, wont to fade away unmourned. And that which you seize and choke, may give meaning, but never so willingly as thoughts run free.
I should like to tell you such a story that comes and goes. It is a seldom spoken of tale, one lamentably unattended. It is a story, I think, that carries profound weight, and beauty, and depth. It is one I have carried with me, and on those occasions where the memory of it comes to visit, I shall always smile and never question why she has come.
Ages and years ago in a land once taken by those lofty Greeks and enterprising Romans, there went pilgrims on their lives’ journeys. These were days where Gods were real and walked the Earth in cloaks made of mortal flesh. Like prophets foretold, they put on their lives and took them off. The Gods themselves were like so many memories, coming and going at leisure. A storyteller knew, when he told his tales to strangers, that the Gods may be in his midst. And so it was the art of storytelling came as a sacred honour, and no story was allowed to pass without meaning and venture. And the listeners, the people, the commoners, they knew the stranger in their midst may have been a God by another mean, for in life, nothing was so simple as flesh.
It was in a place called Phrygia that our story should have taken place. I am told this land was once lush beyond desire, but had since become a swamp – a dank and gloomy place. Perhaps it was there, under the shadows of a forest’s canopy, that peasants learned to fear the Gods. For the trees, we know, reach higher to heaven than our fingertips, their reach dwarfed only by the mountains. And mountains, we may be forgiven to forget, if we live in the woods.
There in the abiding solitude of the marsh and woodland shadows there rose a simple abode. Stick foundation, thatched roof gave the home an air of humble poverty. In that hut there lived a worn and weathered couple. Their names were Baucis and Philemon, they had been together nearly all the years of their long lives. They had seen enough from life that they resembled themselves the bark of surrounding trees, bleached by the sun, gnarled, old and mysterious. They loved each other, as they had since childhood, and had never been apart.
Who today could understand the love these two had shared, that had carried and strengthened them through all the years of their long lives? Who indeed but the Gods themselves. For Baucis and Philemon, being so gentle and kind, thought nothing of themselves. They assumed their lives meant nothing to the world beyond their wooded lot. But nothing, my friend, escapes the eyes of the Gods.
So it was that Jupiter, grown bored of Heaven’s pleasures, donned the skins of a man and determined he should walk amongst his creation as the gardener tends his plots. With him he brought Mercury, he who bears the caduceus, who bridges the gap of God’s mind and man’s heart. These two, clothed in the poverty of life traversed a hundred lands and were turned from a thousand homes. Haughty, it seemed, were the Sons of Man, wrapped in their affairs so that not even kindness and equanimity passed their minds.
Jupiter and Mercury knew from the start where their journey would end, never in the hearth of an empire propped up on arrogance, nor in colonies basking with pride, but there to the rustic lands that brought them all to bear. There the Gods knew was the source of greatness, not in the hands of an Emperor, but in the heart of a peasant who can brave the weather with a smile.
Not one would have recognised either God, so convincing the illusion of humanity. And so when they came to the home of Baucis, the old pair would have had no occasion to believe the Gods were anything other than travellers between colonies wearied by the roads. Perhaps they had seen the smoke of their cooking fire?
Baucis and Philemon gave hushed whispers to one another as the strangers approached. Who were these men, and whence did they come? Jupiter announced their presence with a convincingly flat and even voice that spoke nothing of glory. And he said, “hail, strangers and well met. Would you spare a kindness for two travellers, weary from the road?” Philemon inclined his age bent neck and gave the faintest of smiles. “Of course,” the old man croaked.
Philemon and Baucis went to work. Philemon fell to his knobby knees and pulled the plumpest of their scarce cabbages from the earth. Baucis plucked the last strips of bacon hanging above their hearth. It would have been a pitiful feast, by any measure, but it was all that the old couple had. And they delighted to share it with a stranger, so long had it been since the Fates had required of them any stretch of hospitality. Baucis fetched the earthenware cups, cracked with age, and Philemon brought a jug of wine – the last they had.
All this meagre fare was set upon a table, whose third leg had broken with age and was propped up by the remnants of a long shattered pot. The strangers were sat upon weathered benches, warmed by the hearthfire while the elderly lovers sat astride the draft from the ill fit door. Philemon and Baucis idly plied the strangers with news of the world, and the strangers delighted in recounting the tales they had collected.
As the minutes turned to hours, and those hours peeled away the veneer of day to reveal the black of night, a curious thing did pass. Philemon and Baucis had served the strangers for all the hours they had sat, and not once did their broken cups want for wine, and neither did it seem that their platter of cabbage and bacon would expire. In fact, the cabbage seemed riper and plumper than when it had been pulled from the cooking pot. The bacon seemed crisper and cut finer than it had been when shorn from the scrawny beast that gave it. Neither did the figs or dates they had saved for cold nights fade away, despite the strangers and couple having themselves partaken.
Baucis sipped her wine, and stared across the table at her husband. Philemon was frozen with the miraculous realisation that it was no pair of strangers that had seated themselves at their table, but that they had been visited by Gods themselves. Poor Philemon clutched his chest as his startled heart made way to escape from his throat and Baucis closed her eyes a spell and wondered if their lot was real. The two clasped their hands and muttered a prayer, apologising for their meagre fare. There was one thing the two had withheld, and one alone, and this was a goose they had kept.
Philemon rose, meaning to catch the goose, but the wily bird proved too swift for ancient Philemon whose back had eroded under the crushing weight of years. The Gods stood at the door and watched, but only for a moment. Merciful Mercury raised his gentle hand and spoke. “Let the bird go, my friend, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander – we are Gods, and ours is such that we need never take from you.” Philemon stopped, his eyes darting, as he regarded the Gods in his midst. He did not understand, always he had been told that Gods required sacrifice.
“Long have we travelled,” Jupiter said, “and we know that in our travels, you are the first that have received us. This world, it seems, is wicked, and has no time for Gods or Man.” Jupiter inclined his gaze so that Philemon withered and turned to gentle Mercury for assurance. “What is to come,” Mercury said, “shall not come to you. Because you have shown us such generosity from your poverty, we shall smile and shine our light in your favour.” Jupiter continued, “the town that surrounds your marsh is wicked and full of iniquity. Brother strives against brother, and love it seems, has faded from his heart. What I have made, I will unmake. But you too, being faithful, I shall spare.” Smiling Mercury extended an open hand and bowed his head, “come, direct your eyes over there a dite. You shall see a mountain that looks over this forest. You shall serve us there, in a Temple befitting our world.”
In no position to argue, Baucis clasping her husband’s hand, watched as Philemon took Mercury’ hand. The two followed the Gods to the mountain, their journey pushing the limits of endurance their age would allow. There upon the mountain, the couple looked with the Gods upon that land they had left. For a moment they wept for the fates of their neighbours, but soon, their tears would dry. On their journey they had heard the rushing of water. Indeed, a surge of water had washed away the town whose outskirts Baucis and Philemon had built their home upon. All that was left was their rustic hut in the woods. Yet, in the blink of an eye, all had changed.
The trees surrounding their hut had been turned from aged wood to shining marble, they stretched up, marvellously rising columns. Their thatched roof had been turned to glorious gold, the leaf littered path through the woods had become a road with a gate to guard it. It was as if their old stead had been wrapped up in the charms of Olympus.
Mercury gently inclined his gaze to the Temple. “Go now,” he said, “and tell your brothers about us. Serve the Gods, and be shepherds to your kinfolk.”
Baucis and Philemon, trembling, asked the Gods for a moment to discuss this between themselves. The Gods nodded and turned away from them, so that they might have a moment of privacy. A moment passed, the two spoke, and returned to Jupiter and Mercury. “We have made a decision, my Lords, and we have a request, if you shall smile upon your humble servants.” Jupiter smiled and said; “we shall hear your prayer.” Philemon spoke, drawing words from the chambers of his hearts that rang with such an honesty that even the Gods were moved to feeling. He said:
“For all the best years of my life, I have lived with my wife. We have always been in each-other’s company, and we have never grown tired of awakening to see one another’s face. I cannot imagine life without her. Nor she, I imagine, without me. Please, Gods, let it be that for all the hours we have left, that the hour of our death be delivered as one and the same. I cannot bear to look upon her grave, nor even one morning awaken without her. Neither let her be buried beside me. Rather take us at once, so that we may die as we have lived – together. Until that day, oh Lords, let us serve you as priest and priestess. We ask that we may share the rest of our lives as we have lived them, in each-other’s company, trying as we may to be worthy of the Gods.”
Mercury and Jupiter took their turns to smile, and their answer came: “it shall be as you have asked.” With that, the Gods turned their eyes backward toward the mountain, and they returned their gaze to the couple and said; “we shall return now, for man cannot be left to the care of Heaven, as God cannot be made to shepherd the Earth.” So it was that the Gods who wore the skins of strangers, departed as they had come, on foot on their trek to Heaven.
Baucis and Philemon were left by themselves with their prayer. And indeed, they conducted themselves with elegance for those remaining years of their lives. And they lived – they had thought they were old before, but ripened by extreme age and those conditions that come with it, they knew their time was coming. As they were wont to do, they stood before the Altar one day, reminiscing about times that had been. The marvels and the wonders of their lives, how they had seen scarcity and plenty, lived through war and peace. How they had been together through it all. How though their vision had dimmed, they still had enough sight to see the sparkle in one another’s eyes, and lastly, how that sparkle had finally faded.
Knowing their time had come, Philemon threw his weakened arms around his wife as he had so often done before. And there Baucis stood, in his embrace, preparing to utter her final farewell to the man that had been her rock for ages, when they noticed, they noticed something strange. Roots had pulled from the ground, wrapping around them. And all the way, from their feet to their knees, leaves had begun to sprout, and branches. Living, they were taken to their graves, returned to the forests that had given them life, themselves turned into a pillar that all should see and know was the working of the great Gods.
On the exact spot where Baucis and Philemon had stood there grew an Oak and a Linden Tree. They grew from the same roots, their trunks twisting into a cord and their branches grown into knotwork. The curious shape of the tree shares a shadow cast by a man holding his wife, and those pilgrims who passed by would know this to be no mere tree, but a sign left for those with sense to believe. And to wit, years would come and go. Believers lived, and they died, and some time would pass before the Gods were replaced by strangers of another faith. So it comes to this, the man that tells the tale and those that hear it.
Now we know of Gods from books, and few are those with faith left in their hearts, and who can say what became of that strange tree in Phrygia on the outskirts of the world? What we know is what we know, that someday we shall be known by how we treat our brothers, and whom we love bespeaks our character. And who among us today can claim it: that they have loved one woman, and been with her all the days of his life? That he has tried to live a life worthy of the Gods, with a loyalty that hardly wavered? For these are cynical times in which we live, where the silence of the Gods reminds us painfully that those disenchanted strangers whom we meet may yet hold the keys to prayer. If indeed we are to be judged, I have for years known that I should like to be judged as Philemon was. A good husband, and a good brother to his kinfolk. Perhaps that is how you would like to be judged, too, in this world where people are commoditized and nothing, not even Gods, are forever.