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Argonautica Pt 4: The Siren Sea

As the Argonauts sailed south the swath of destruction grew wider. The river had left it’s shores and they sailed over the treetops. An eerie silence descended as naught was heard but the carrion birds and the muted chunk of boulders rolling on the river bottom.

The Argo didn’t sail at night. A rare exception was their flight across the Euxine Sea, when Jason had them pulling in shifts. The oarsmen worked all hours and they were lucky. Acastus was certain they would not be so lucky again.

“This is madness,” the prince said harshly.

Jason was angry. Medea wouldn’t see him. She keened and spoke to no one. Once a sailor tried to calm her but he returned a bloody mess. He said, after his tongue had healed, that he had no control over his teeth.

“Madness or not, we continue,” said Jason. No one challenged him after that.

On the fourth day they ate the last of their food and finished their last tureen of water. They found no harbor at Lesvos so they sailed south over a deepening sea and steered for the center of the morass.

A muddy, putrid rain fell without ceasing. Jason caused sailcloth to be draped over the tureen. It filtered out large bits of ash, but as they drank they complained of it’s taste. No one dared to eat the fish floating belly-up in the sea, so they went hungry.

Jason held to what he thought was deep water, and as they sailed islands grew small, rivers grew wide and the night became indistinguishable from the day.

Then the earth shook and waves tossed them like a leaf on a lake. Argonauts baled water as fast as it pooled until the brute strength of the crew was all that kept them afloat.

Medea’s eyes scoured the shore. The rocks had moved with the mountains. Did water still pour from a hundred foot fount? Finally she found it.

The palace was close to the rising sea where lightning flashed on the mountaintop.

“There,” said Medea, pointing at the rocks, “There is Aeaea.”

“Where?” asked Ancaeus, gripped with fear.

“There,” she said again, pointing to a crack in a jagged wall of stone.

“Jason, bring us in,” said Ancaeus, but Jason couldn’t see it either.

The volcanic storm was a different kind of storm than they knew. An oily brown rain fell from black clouds and the wind churned in all directions. For a reason unknown the sea becalmed long enough for the way to appear.

They had heard that Aeaea was bewitched, and as soon as they passed through the rocks the water stilled. Rain fell but it was a clear rain and fresh on their faces and even the river was good to drink.

Jason brought the Argo into a lagoon that was sheltered on all sides. Sunlight broke through the clouds and it’s rays were like rainbows climbing the sky. At their top was the Palace of Circe.

The path looked long. In fact it was not.

“If she welcomes us the way is short,” warned Medea, “If she does not we will never come to the end of the trail. If she bids us to stay we will not find this lagoon again.”

“Why would she want us to stay?” asked Peleus, “I just came to be purified.”

“Have respect!” commanded Medea, “Or I cannot help you here!”

The ground was awash in clear pools and every kind of animal partook of their water. They passed with caution by asses and pigs though none seemed wild nor feral.

“Once they were like yourselves,” warned Medea, “Take care that Circe has no reason to make you into the animals you often prove yourselves to be!”

Jason by habit held his tongue. A door opened and the guard took their weapons. All were unwilling and none unable to comply.

After a garden walk they were introduced to Circe. She was working her loom in the afternoon sun.

“You are sad,” she said to Medea, “You did not let Apsyrtus forgive you.”

Circe rose from her loom and took her niece’s hand. Ignoring the Argonauts she led her out of the garden.

“What of Jason?” asked Medea.

“He may attend,” answered Circe, “the others can play with the rest of their kind.”

Jason shrugged his shoulders. He was loathe to leave his crew but the lions made sure the heroes went no further.

“There is a woman among you,” spoke Circe, “Be with us.”

The men could only watch as Jason and the women left the summer garden.

“I know your story,” said Circe to Atalanta, “Your father craved a son so he left you to die, but you were raised by bears and you swear to beat any man at anything. You have vowed to stay a virgin and never be married. I free you from that vow.”

“I will not be some man’s wife!” declared Atalanta in disgust.

“It is not your choice,” Circe told her, “You are a Great Lady’s daughter and the niece of many more. Acastus loves you. Return his love and be Queen of Iolcos. Scorn it and be lonely for the rest of your days.”

“You could just as easily make me fall in love with him,” she said.

“Your love must come from the heart or it will not thrive.”

“Why me, Greatest Lady?” she asked.

“Because your children will be gorgeous,” laughed the Queen of the World, “Do not ask why love pierces you. Bleed and be happy for it.”

“My dear, dear niece,” she said to Medea, “Is this the hero who is chosen for you?”

“And I choose him also,” she replied.

“Well then,” said Circe, “Let’s see who he is.”

She took a look from all sides, but she did not have him turn circles. Instead, Circe walked a circle around Jason.

“I like his form,” she said, “He will make beautiful daughters. Young man, what do you like to be called?”

For once he knew what to say.

“Jason, son of Aeson and Prince of Iolcos,” he replied.

Circe was amazed.

“You have no wish to be king?” she asked him.

“Perhaps, my lady, of a kingdom I may found in your honor,” he replied.

“He means it!” said Circe with delight, “What will you do with him?”

“I had hoped to marry him and rule Iolcos, perhaps all of Thessaly,” replied Medea.

“You will not be Queen of Iolcos,” said Circe, “I have other plans for you. As I am the voice of the goddess you are the voice of Circe. When I am gone the Goddess will speak through you. You do not want to be Queen of Iolcos when you are to be Queen of the World.”

“Do not weep for Apsyrtus,” she added, “Any bad wound would have killed him. Fate kept it a secret and he was a careful child. If anyone is guilty of murder it is Peleus. I have not decided his punishment. Perhaps I will make him a king.”

There was dinner and small talk. Jason missed much of it. His eyes traced the foliage in the beams. Creatures were carved into the motif. The motif went all around the ceiling but it was never repeated. Eventually he returned to the conversation because Medea was in need of an answer.

“Will you go to Phaeacia?” she asked him again.

“Near Epiris?” Jason replied, “If you want to go there, I shall.”

“That is where you will defeat the Colchisean navy,” Circe told him.

“They are already defeated,” said the hero.

“Do not think you know better than Circe!” she declared.

“No, my lady, it’s just that I saw them go over the falls,” he told her.

“One ship and another also,” said Circe, “A third made it through. Flee to Phaeacia. Queen Arete will see you safely married.”

It was a long journey to Epiris, but the seas had risen everywhere so there had to be a way through. They would sail the Maender River to Lake Ios. It was new route but it didn’t go near Antallis nor back to Iolcos. He wondered how the crew would take it.

“I’ll help you to convince them,” Atalanta promised.

“Take care,” warned Circe, “and do not listen to the voice of the water.”

“Thank you, my lady,” said Jason, but Circe wasn’t finished.

“Do you have one last wish,” she asked of Medea.

“Yes,” Medea replied, “I wish you to cleanse Peleus of my brother’s death.”

“How nice of you,” answered Circe, “I’d have thought you’d want good weather or a surety of success. Why should I cleanse a man who killed my nephew?”

“I caused him to kill Apsyrtus. I wish not to carry his death in my heart. I only have room for his love,” she replied.

It was all Circe needed to hear.

“Peleus is cleansed though it may do him no good. Now go.”

The Argonauts sailed for Epiris. It’s wild western shore was home to pirates, hermits and seers. It was home to the world’s oldest functioning oracle at a place called Dodona. The Argonauts needed only to reach the mountains of Phaeacia, but to get there they must survive the voices that called across the sea.

“Sirens,” said Jason, “Orpheus. Play your harp.”

The day was dark as night. Sailing either was not much different so the Argo kept on going. Twice their pursuers were seen, but smoke and fog made spotting impossible. It must be the same for them, thought Jason.

That far west the Maender was not a river. In the short minutes when the sky cleared they saw no land but islands and then the current turning in circles.

Water itself was heard to shriek as they sailed a sea of boiling pots. Jets of steam shot skyward, hissing and grumbling, and fell back as a burning mist that blistered their faces and hands. Fingers of debris oozed on the water and then burst into flame. Geysers of fire gave a red cast to the volcanic night. Ancaeus did his best to steer around them.

The song of the Sirens was everywhere. Their melody broke the Argonaut’s hearts as Orpheus played in counterpoint.

“Don’t look at their faces,” cried Medea, “If you see one you are already dead.”

The tortured Maender was long passing but it’s end was in sight. Churning currents were sorting themselves out. The Argonauts sailed west as the flow turned against them.

“By all the gods,” shouted Butes. It was his turn at the watch and he saw a monster at the prow. A wall of water was coming at them.

“Hard to port!” he screamed at Ancaeus, “Hard to port!”

Just in time the Argo responded and they turned to face the wave.

“Aft,” shouted Acastus.

“Everybody back,” ordered Jason.

It’s funny what you notice, thought Atalanta. The water was green and she could see well into it. The wave was growing higher. Fear gripped her as she saw how truly big it was.

“From what sea does this monster come?” wondered Peleus with awe.

Rays fell through the clouds to light the foam on the water. Flecks of white flashed in the momentary glow and still it came like a giant in the sea.

“We need a plan!” shouted Argos.

“Oars out,” Jason shouted, “Be ready to climb.”

To a god they looked like an insect; the kind that scuttles across the water on spindly legs, but they were the Argonauts and their spindly legs were the cores of giant trees.

“Jason!” cried Argos, “Whoo-ooo-aaaaa!”

“Oars up!” barked Jason, and he let the wave do the work.

Butes hung his head over the side. The Argo had caught the air. When they fell back it caught the air again, and as the Argo climbed the crest the prow dove under. Screaming, Butes was carried away by the wave.

Then it was over. It passed beyond them and the sea was quiet. They had all the time in the world to reflect. One moment they feared for their lives; the next they were becalmed at sea. Butes was gone to the Sirens. They cooed eerily in the distance, as if thankful for a taste of Argonaut.

“Poor Butes,” said Asclepius sadly.

“And Tiphys,” added Ancaeus.

“And Idmon,” offered Jason, “If ever we needed a seer!”

“There,” shouted Castor.

He pointed through the fog at a line of peaks. It was Phaeacia, but it was all wrong.

“It’s an island!” he wailed, holding to his brother, “Polydeuces! An island!”

It was an island, yet it was unmistakably the mountain realm of Queen Arete.

“To the cave of Macris,” ordered Medea. Ancaeus waited to hear it from Jason.

“I know of no such cave,” Jason told her.

“Queen Arete will marry us there,” she said firmly, “Jason, it must be done!”

“Tell me where!” he commanded, for it was sunset.

“See the bats,” she told him, “There is Macris.”

The bats come out of the earth. It took an hour for them to pass. Finding an egress through the rocks, Ancaeus took them to the door in the mountain.

Jason and Medea splashed into a shallow bay followed by Atalanta, Acastus, Orpheus and Asclepius.

“What manner of voyage is this?” asked Ancaeus, watching them go.

He was restless. They had their treasure and every minute on the water was a minute they could lose everything. Their pursuers passed by the shallow bay, with their sails in tatters and their mast considerably shortened.

After a few minutes Jason wished he’d never heard of the cave of Macris. Mounds of dung crawling with roaches fouled the floor and insects flew at the light of their torches. All things met to convince him that going forward was not a good idea, but Medea was insistent.

“Circe wills it,” she said. No one wanted to cross Circe.

They found Queen Arete at the other end of the cave. She was seated in splendor, far from the bats and the roaches.

“Welcome to Phaeacia,” she said, “I am sorry for your discomfort, though you took the long way around. Once things are all straightened out you can leave by the front door. My husband and the Colchiseans are discussing you at this very moment.”

Jason was about to reply but Acastus kicked his foot.

“You’ve brought a witness,” observed Arete, “From where do you come, daughter?”

“I am Atalanta of Arcadia,” she replied, “I have no mother but the bears.”

“Yet Circe speaks highly of you,” said Arete, “It is no easy feat to command a band of bloodthirsty pirates.”

Jason was about to respond to that as well but Medea’s elbow found his liver.

“Is this the hero who was chosen for you?” asked the queen formally.

“Yes, Great Lady,” replied Medea.

“How do you find him?” asked the queen. The question was centuries old.

“I find him strong of body, sound of mind and loyal to his kind,” she replied.

“Daughter,” said the queen, “Know your mind. Do you choose this hero for who he is or do you choose a marriage, any marriage, to escape your father?”

“I cannot decide,” Medea replied, because Arete would have known a lie, “It is both, I think, and for the child I carry.”

“Then I see no reason to deny it,” decided Arete, “Atalanta of Arcadia, do you witness the marriage of Jason, son of Aeson to Medea of Colchise?”

“Yes.”

“Jason, you are a hero so I must ask. Do you wish this marriage?”

“Yes,” he said with enthusiasm, though no one had asked him before.

Queen Arete rose and made the decree.

“By the Will of Cybele I declare you one.”

“Wait!” shouted a Colchisean running into the cave, “That man is a murderer.”

Arete searched his words for the meaning hidden there.

“That is not true,” she replied, “It was the one called Peleus who slew Apsyrtus. You know this, yet you lie to a queen!”

“It was done under his command,” said the Colchisean captain. He was unflappable even in the presence of the great Queen Arete, “By the laws of Colchise he is guilty.”

“His command?” wondered Arete while taking another look at Atalanta, “He is lucky he is not in Colchise,” she added, “I do not hold responsible those who did not commit the crime. You have no claim on him.”

“Then I claim Peleus,” said Captain Talus.

“He is cleansed,” she replied, “To take him would be a crime against the goddess. If you pursue him Cybele will hold you responsible.”

“My Lady,” Talus complained, “I cannot return without a prisoner.”

“Then don’t go back,” answered the queen.

When they were again on the Argo Jason had a question for his powerful new wife.

“How do you know Queen Arete?” he asked.

Medea smiled. Only her new husband could have asked such a question.

“Heading?” asked Ancaeus.

“To the Kriti Highlands,” commanded Jason, “That is where we shall take the fleece!”

“Kriti?” asked Prince Acastus, “Why?”

“Because it must be an island by now,” answered Atalanta.

“If we go to Iolcos,” said Jason, loudly, “King Pelias will demand the entire fleece.”

“If we don’t go,” said Acastus just as loudly, “We will be outlawed as pirates!”

“We will go first to Kriti where we will divide the fleece,” said Jason, “We will go to Iolcos with a quarter share. We will take our reward from that quarter. The rest we will give to the Steward of Antallis as is my word.”

Acastus couldn’t believe his ears.

“Are you all in on this?” asked the Prince of Iolcos.

“We are,” they all said.

“What of you, young prince?” asked Argos, not nicely, “Do you agree?”

“I am an Argonaut,” replied Acastus, “In the future I will be included in your debates.”