Timothy J. Tilbe
Even as I stoked the fire, I wasn’t sure I could go through with the deal. But this was no time for weakness. It had taken me years to get here – to this hilltop at the dark of the moon.
I almost wished my mother could witness this scene. Talk about shocks. Then again, I’d already disappointed her in so many ways. Like devoting my research to, as she put it, “some ancient lesbian.” As if just being one of those women wasn’t enough for me, oh no, I had to go digging around in the past too. Maybe in her mind, it was only a matter of time before I made a deal with the devil.
Of course, They weren’t the devil. But I had to admit I wasn’t completely sure what I’d contacted.
I doused my lantern. The firelight picked out the lines and arcs I’d traced in the soil. Where they intersected, I’d placed rocks of different colors, as well as bundles of rosemary, poppy, laurel, rue. The pattern formed a virtual temple. It wasn’t fancy, but it had worked once before.
I looked up, and as my eyes adjusted, a million stars popped into focus. No light pollution out here, no buildings or cars or streetlamps to smudge the stars out. But there was still a lot out there that I couldn’t see. Like the cosmic background radiation. If the universe still whispered its own birth, why couldn’t I recover sounds that were much more recent?
I cleared my throat, spoke into the unnatural quiet. “You ancients. You forgotten ones. You keepers of the lost songs. I beg a word with you.”
You have returned. It was the voice of the dark around me, the stars above me, the fire before me.
“I have returned,” I answered, “to make the exchange.”
Now I could see Them, almost. Three forms, floating in midair, faceless as slabs of stone. Forms in constant motion – rotating, whirling. Each splitting into three, and each of those into three more, then melting back together, too fast to follow.
The voice, or voices, came again. What sacrifice do you bring?
They may have been old-school powers, but what They wanted wasn’t blood. I bent down, opened my satchel, picked up a bundle of handwritten pages. I held it up. “These words I offer to you,” I said. “Speech for speech. Song for song.”
It was a novel. I’d been working on it for years, late into the night, or in scraps of time between teaching, research, committees. I’d poured everything I had into it, an encyclopedia of all that I’ve lived and wished and believed. And I would never write another. That was one of the conditions. As the book had reached its final shape, I’d been tempted to show it to friends – even shop it around to editors. Of course, I couldn’t. Another condition.
And what do you wish in return? asked the night.
“Sappho,” I said. I paused, hearing no reply, then added: “You told me you could do that.”
Yes. You shall have what you wish.
“Then….” I took a deep breath. “In the name of echoes, I make this sacrifice.”
I’d destroyed all the drafts, and this was the only copy. I stood with the weight of pages in my hands. Now was my chance to chicken out. But no. Like Them, I demanded 100% from myself. There could be no compromise.
I approached the fire, almost stumbling, and dropped the manuscript into it. The liquid flames grasped it by the edges, began to eat toward its core. Scraps of glow leapt from the paper, sailed into the night, vanished.
As the fire consumed the written words, it consumed the words in my mind. A barrage of phrases flared and crumbled. The burning filled my brain and shot crackling along my nerves. All the thoughts I’d arranged, the careful choices I’d made one by one, all undone in the space of a minute. I stared into the bright fire, taking in deep dizzy lungfuls of the smoke.
The stream of smoke faded. The pile of ash crumpled. I stood there listening to the rustle of coals. I remembered nothing of the book. I was empty. It should have been a somber moment, but actually I felt… free.
Then I thought of what I’d been promised. I listened to the hollow dark around the hill. Tension ran up and down my limbs. What if it was all a trick? What if I’d just destroyed years of work – for nothing?
The faintest possible motion in the air. A glimpse of three forms.
The sacrifice is accepted. The songs you desire will be found. The paths are laid to make their finding sure.
I couldn’t make a sound.
You doubt, They said. That is plain. That you may not doubt, now listen.
A low noise reached me. It was very far away, but it was close too – inside my head. The noise emerged, took on dimension, became lyres and pipes and drums. And voices. Many voices, a chorus. And leading them, her voice. Who else could it be?
The pronunciation was different than I’d imagined. But I understood most of it – familiar fragments now made entire, and works totally unknown. Songs of dawns and seas, of gods and lovers, of joys and griefs, of winds and moons. Yet more than the words it was the sound that pierced me, wild but poised, which no one had heard in centuries. And maybe I was the last to hear it.
The singing, and strumming, and more singing – I wished it could all go on forever. But it faded. Stillness fell. I huddled on the bare earth by the cold fire. The stars, fewer now, wheeled slowly. A hint of dawn the color of ice showed itself. Stiffly I rose to my feet. “Thank you,” I whispered, though They were long gone. I picked up the stones and the herbs, and scuffed out the lines I’d drawn.
They’re calling it a miracle. Or a hoax. A modest house, buried under a landslide for centuries in bone-dry Egypt. And in that house, papyri of lost poems, lying intact, waiting for this moment. Not the complete works, but more than anyone dreamed had survived.
I don’t know, and don’t care, how They pulled it off. The text is still authentic. And I’ve got a head start on analyzing, translating, comparing. I’ll get into the most prestigious journals for sure. And best of all, now Sappho can last forever – or as long as there’s anyone left to hear her.
I hardly notice the book-shaped gap in my memory anymore. And I rarely wonder what it was I had to say.
Timothy J. Tilbe lives in Buffalo, New York. He worked on languages of Mexico for a PhD in linguistics, and is now a technical writer.