As his mother, who transmitted to him the gift of song, he had accomplished what no other mortal had or could: the journey to the underworld, the undoing of death; but as his father, who had transmitted to him the all-too-human vices of curiosity and doubt, he had failed. Not yet capable of prophecy, he nonetheless knew that one day there would be a reckoning, a punishment for this failure, beyond the punishment of failure itself, his loss, forever, of his beloved, to the house of the shades, beyond even his remorse, which survived her, like a widower’s black armband. For if to receive a gift from the Olympian gods is to be forever in their debt, how much more indebted must one be if one squanders that gift, and how much angrier the creditor at the perceived ingratitude, how much more parched the tongue that speaks of exacting fluent revenge. Perhaps that is why, when it came time for his initiation, he did not go to Eleusis, to learn the mysteries of Demeter and her daughter, whom he had last seen upon a black throne, moments before his error, his literally fatal error, but back to Thrace, to the town of his all-too-human birth, where he would become an initiate, and then the priest, of the mysteries of the new god, Zagreus, the first Dionysus, who would teach him how best to suffer the punishment that he already understood was to be his deserved fate.
To understand one’s fate, however, is not to evade it, it is to move closer to it: his punishment was to come at the hands of his fellow initiates. The nature of the dispute between him and the Kikonian Maenads is unclear. Ovid believes it was his rejection of their advances, preferring, after the death of his wife, the exclusive company of young boys, that provoked the band of frenzied women into attacking him, hurling pinecone-tipped spears and jagged stones at him, as he sat by himself in a pasture, hunched over his lyre, playing for his own ears and those of the soft grasses and the purple haberlea flowers. He resisted at first, out of unextinguished mortal habit, singing the deadly missiles out of the sky, the plucked strings charming gravity’s rainbow in half. But as singular beauty is never a match for mass monstrosity, the voice that had outsirened the Sirens was no match for their shrieking, the lyre that had quieted the hound of hell was no match for their strident pipes and tambourines, whose volume amplified with their rage until his melodies could no longer be heard. The laws of nature awoke again, as if from an inconclusive dream, and the blows began to land, drawing the poet’s blood. In an ecstasy known only to those whose bodies become the means through which time catches up with itself, the women lay hold of the plowshares left behind by the farmers who had fled the pasture in terror, and separated him limb from limb, scattering them, just like their mutual god.
The Maenads placed the severed head on the mangled instrument and threw both into the Hebrus, the white river of Thrace. It stayed afloat until it reached the Aegean, allowing the slowly graying tongue to perform a final miracle, the singing of a dirge of excruciating pathos, a song of self-recrimination and the murder of the object by the gaze of the subject, which caused the sea level to rise as each molecule of salt water that heard it doubled itself in weeping. Anointed with spume and crowned in laurels of kelp, the head made landfall on a stretch of beach near the harbor of Antissa, on Lesbos, over two hundred and fifty miles to the south, inspiring the island’s nightingales to untold perfections of sound. The people of Antissa built a grave for him and a shrine, installing the severed head of the poet in the Cave of Spelios, where it functioned as an oracle, rivaling Delphi in popularity until it was shut down in Ovid’s day, that is, in Christ’s day, on the other side of a calendrical schism that had not yet come to pass, and which only an oracle, who can weave every possible future into a pair of paradoxical hexameters, would have had the power to perceive.
Thus, when she arrived, some seven centuries later, traveling from her stepfather’s estate in Mytilene, the city on the other side of the island, the oracular head could not have been surprised, even if it was not accustomed to receiving female visitors, let alone ones who were only twelve years old, no matter how headstrong or high born, as this one clearly was, with her violet hair and her gangly limbs, and the fearless gaze that did not look away when the twin snakes slithered through its eye sockets and unhooked their jaws to reveal, held fast in their fangs, two round coagulates of black collagen and putrefying vitreous, which regarded her warmly, not a little impressed by her ambition, as she asked with an urgency beyond her years what destiny Destiny had in store for her. Perhaps she reminded the severed head of its ghostly wife, also seeing in her end a fall from a perilous height after a betrayal by a trusted ferryman. Or perhaps she reminded it of its immortal mother, who would one day, on the recommendation of an as-yet-unborn Athenian philosopher, invite this girl to drink wine with her sisters on Helicon. More likely, she reminded it of its former self, an inventor of new forms of poetry, of love. And so, of the many aspects of her future it could have revealed to her, the gray tongue, embalmed in this recognition, chose the one that most closely bound them, questioner and respondent, together. You will win fame as the first self among mortals, it told her, but the future will only know you in fragments.
Ryan Ruby is the author of The Zero and the One: A Novel (Twelve, 2017) and Context Collapse, which was 2020 National Poetry Series Finalist. His writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Believer, 3:AM, Conjunctions, and the New York Review of Books Daily, among other venues. “Ecce Homo / Ecce Femina” is an taken from his prose project Into the Middle of Things, for which he received an Einstein Fellowship from the Einstein Forum in Potsdam in 2019. He lives in Berlin.