Chapter 13: The Mission

“I should p-p-probably be on my way,” Paul’s companion said, looking through the taverna’s open door at the fading light outside. He seemed reluctant to leave, though, as if there were something more on his mind.

Paul hated to let him go. He wished they could talk for hours more. He wanted to know this man better.

The two of them had whiled away most of an afternoon, sharing cups of wine and stories, enjoying the intimacy that sometimes surprises strangers with time on their hands. Paul, hungry to learn more about the city, had been looking for someone who wanted to talk. The man sitting with him seemed eager for conversation as well; to break the tedium of the day, perhaps, or avoid less pleasant business. So they talked about Corinth … Paul with his questions, the stranger with patient, perceptive responses.

What began as light conversation about the attractions of the city quickly became a wide-ranging discussion of Corinthian history and politics, culture and religion. Paul’s companion was well-read and thoughtful. Not the type I often meet in places like this. His tunic was of beautifully tailored Egyptian cotton. So a man of some means. And he was articulate, in a soft-spoken way. Except for one verbal tic that kept Paul almost as interested as the conversation itself. He always stuttered over hard P’s at the beginning of words.

“Oedipus was raised here, you know,” the man said, sipping his wine instead of standing to leave, a way of postponing his exit a few more moments.

“Oedipus? The one who killed his father and married his mother?”

“The very one.” Paul’s new friend stared into his cup. “Adopted by the king of Corinth, the p-p-poets say. Raised to believe the king was his father, that Corinth was home.”

Paul listened, fascinated. “What happened to him?” he prodded, knowing the story but sensing his new friend was leading somewhere.

Another sip of wine. “When he was a young man, he traveled to Delphi to see the oracle. A rite of p-p-passage back then. At least for the sons of kings. ‘What is my future? Where lies my fate?’ Hummph!” his friend grunted. “Better if he’d never gone.”

Paul nodded. “It was the oracle who told him he would kill his father and marry his mother, I recall.”

“Yes. Scared him to death. He decided to run as far from Corinth as he could. He thought he could escape his destiny, defy the gods. So he ran to Thebes, the opposite direction. On the way, he killed a man who insulted him. And, in time, he married the queen of the city. The man he killed was, of course, his real father. The woman he married turned out to be his true mother.” He took another sip of wine. “When he learned what he’d done, he gouged out his own eyes. Died in p‑p‑poverty, an outcast. Sad story, don’t you think?”

“Yes, it is,” Paul agreed, staring into his own cup.

They sat in silence for a while.

“We’re all like that, you know.” His new friend’s voice fell to a whisper. “Corinthians most of all. Perhaps it’s something in the water. Or the wine!” He lifted his cup towards Paul. “We’re all driven by forces we can’t control, by a fate we cannot escape.”

“You don’t believe that,” Paul smiled.

His companion glanced up at him. He wasn’t smiling. “Yes. I’m afraid I do.”

“Pretty bleak, don’t you think? No choices? No options?”

“Maybe. But maybe it’s just the way things are, bleak or not. It seems to me we’re all running from something that terrifies us, right into the arms of the thing that frightens us most.”

“Ah!” Paul lifted his eyebrows. “I see you are a philosopher.”

“No. Just someone familiar with running.” He smiled sadly, shrugged, and drained his cup. “Funny thing is, most of us don’t even need to leave Corinth to meet our fate. In the end, it doesn’t matter much where we go. All of us kill what is most p-p-precious to us. All of us wind up marrying the thing that destroys us.” He shrugged again.

Paul ached for him. “And you? Is that how it happened with you?”

They looked at each other for a long moment, the man in the fine tunic wondering how much to tell. It was a personal question, the kind they’d managed to avoid for most of the afternoon.

But Paul couldn’t stand it. He wanted to hear this man’s story. He longed for a chance to tell a story of his own.

The moment passed. His companion stood to leave. “It’s just a legend,” he said, though his eyes said differently. “I always get gloomy after a few cups of wine.” He smiled thinly, the sadness lifting a bit. “I’ve enjoyed our afternoon. Hope your stay in Corinth is p-p-profitable. And who knows? Maybe we’ll run into each other again.” He turned to leave.

“While we’re running from something else, you mean?” Paul couldn’t help smiling.

“Exactly!” His new friend grinned and clapped Paul on the shoulder. “I’ll make a Corinthian of you yet!”

Paul stayed at the table a long time after, staring into his cup, thinking of the things we kill and the things we marry.

He realized he hadn’t asked the man his name.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.