A Story in The Human Calculus
Breakfast in Heaven, Dinner In Hell
Xerxes sent a mounted spy to observe the Greeks, and note how many they were, and see what they were doing … at their head were certain Lacedaemonians [Spartans], under Leonidas, a descendant of Hercules. The horseman rode up to the camp… he observed those on the outside, who were encamped in front of the rampart. It chanced that at this time the Lacedaemonians held the outer guard, and were seen by the spy, some of them engaged in gymnastic exercises, others combing their long hair. At this the spy greatly marveled… he returned, and told Xerxes all that he had seen.
- Herodotus, The Persian Wars
* * * *
Barry Holmes thought later that it was the horses that had made the difference; that taught him courage, and to trust again. Barry was on the run, badly hurt, and needed much more than a place to lay low.
Papa Gordo showed him how horses make love to people, much to Barry’s distress. Later the horses showed him how he himself could learn once again to make love to people. Papa didn’t care for English or Spanish all that much, just showed him with wordless patience and expected him to divine the lessons beneath.
Thus Barry learned little things, was shown, not told, to approach a horse from the left and the front, and slowly; never come directly at the horse, never move too fast, always come at an angle.
Barry knew angles.
Consider each eye as a point; a ray extended infinitely from each point and rotated freely thereon, would be blocked by the plane of the nose to the front, and the rest of the head to the rear. Once he put the problem in geometric terms, Barry instantly recognized that those wide-set eyes give the horse monoscopic vision with blind spots to both front and rear.
Everyone was kind, but the horses were the first thing Barry had ever met that were naturally more fearful than he; though he took his time accepting the fact, ensuring his leg wasn’t being pulled, doubting anything so big and majestic could know fear. Understanding took a while, as his own immediate instinct was fear of the horses; he thought the slightest lean of powerful shoulders, even a twitch of tail, could crush his slight form.
But Papa Gordo taught him, and Papa knew horses as well as any man in the county.
About the time he got the hang of approaching his horse, Donde, Papa in the old man’s patient way taught him a new trick. He waited by his own mount, then just catching Barry’s eye he leaned forward slowly, opened his mouth and gently blew. No! He breathed into the horse’s left nostril.
Barry, wide-eyed, held his breath, but Papa’s horse was still, then snorted messily and dropped his head, a sign, the boy had learned, of comfort and relaxation. He had Papa’s scent. And then Papa looked silently at Barry, and Barry froze, understanding the expectation but too afraid to follow the old man’s example.
In his weeks there Barry had learned that you didn’t fail to meet Papa’s expectations, he just wouldn’t permit it, and he squared his shoulders, quaking, attempted to emulate the example.
Horses understand fear; they are most empathic creatures. Donde shied away, head up, ears up, in distress. Which didn’t bother Barry a bit as he had already jumped back several feet.
Papa shook his head and smiled a little, shrugged, and stood waiting. He would go on waiting as long as it took.
* * * *
Father Peter, a Jesuit out of water, semi-retired here and helping out in the rural parishes had Greek and Latin and an interest in matters historical and cultural; Troy began to have regular Wednesday evening dinners with Peter, eating the best Mexican food Troy had ever encountered, in a ramshackle restaurant in the heart of the little town – when Father wasn’t out tending to a parishioner somewhere in the vast territory. And here and there he discovered a soul in estranged love with Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Vincent, Pablo, or Milton.
But Troy was a stranger in a strange land.
As he feared it might be, it was proving to be a lonely existence, here in his second year. He had some companionship intellectually, loved his students, loved teaching, but was lonely.
To fill the gap he fell in love with the land, took to long explorations of the rugged countryside on foot and horseback, began to explore the rich history too. It wasn’t the Classical world he’d known by heart but it was fascinating.
Surrounded on three sides by deserts, the land was ravines and gullies and hundred foot drops; a mountainous, rocky oasis in the heart of the deserts. To the South ranges of mountains, ravines, river valleys, and big rolling bands of hilly pasture land sandwiched among them led far across the Mexican border into Sonora and Chihuahua. It was a northernmost venture: the Chiricahuas, the Peloncillos, the venerable Sierra Madres themselves reached toward him. Striated cliffs showing layers of rock and sediment and the weathered bones of the very earth alternated with thick patches of lush greenery.
Troy discovered that some families had been here more than three hundred years, came in the wake of Coronado who was said to have traversed these very lands; possessors of the earliest of Spanish Land Grants. He began to document their stories, at first grudgingly shared, then later – as they perceived his interest to be genuine, came to understand his intentions, unearthed more of his character than he realized – more openly.
He was naïve; he didn’t realize that they had accorded him an exceptional welcome for an outsider. His genuine interest in them and the community, and above all in their children’s education, along with his own youth and the integrity that he had displayed in small ways had opened doors that most would never in a lifetime even know existed. Of course, they were amused by his Classical interests and had his sexual ones pinned down far better than he imagined.
He presented an interesting problem, a challenge to the elders of the tribe that ran this country with its hidden culture and governance and traditions.
Retention of a good teacher was an important objective. Some of the women who conceived it their responsibility began to think long term for Troy, think about whether there was a suitable Anglo girl he could be introduced to, could he be fit into the community, become a tolerated newcomer instead of a passer-by?
Of course he couldn’t marry into family, but if they could find a suitable girl …and then for the other thing perhaps one of the cousins who liked boys could be rounded up for a discreet affair; he was pretty enough so that some of the men would be interested.
They didn’t hold to queers in the abstract but then the only ones they knew were not abstract at all, most were native sons. In this tough land people had learned to let rivers run their courses.
These were practical people. What he might do outside marriage was just a variation on what any man might do, and not especially important with whom it was done if discreetly so. They could hope he might take a proper man’s role with a woman – no one expected him to do more than make a few babies and raise them – and if he needed another kind of amusement, had a different itch to scratch, that was not a matter of much concern. While you didn’t change a river’s course, you could hope to draw out a little fresh water now and then. Good teachers were valued.
Troy was seen as harmless, a known quantity, a man with some value to the community. For an Anglo. He had gained acceptance, in their way. He was Anglo, he was queer, he was young, so his place was thrice an inferior one.
But it was a place. If he wanted it.
* * * *
Others would no doubt have thought the entire enterprise wholly strange, but it passed for another day in exploration of their world, their unique relationship.
They drive the jeep along the smaller by-ways and in time onto a dusty ranch road, then track a cattle trail into the uplands. On another day perhaps they’d have tried the horses, but it was not certain how well the horses and an inexperienced young rider could handle some of the steeper parts of the trek. And the hike was its own reward.
Parking the jeep when it can go no further, shouldering their packs, they climb steadily up the rocky ravines of an ancient and isolated land – not as one might think, hot desert land; rather lush and dominant and mountainously forbidding, cool and clear on this late spring afternoon – rocky, the cliffs dotted with brush, stands of trees topping outcroppings of forbidding, majestic rock.
It is raw land, rife with wildlife; they see bevies of birds in a legion of species; meadows even more rich with butterflies as, in incalculable color and untold number they swarm, as if to batter away the intruders with powdery wings, ward them from the unspoil’t earth.
Deer, elk, and mountain goat, javelina, brown bear, coatamundi, mountain lion, rattle snakes – all more reticent, shun man if given the chance, yet abound in this wilderness.
The trail cuts maze-like through the land, its twists and turns leading now into convoluted narrow passages among the rocks, now into quiet, shaded valleys, deep in woods.
Occasionally they emerge into open plateau, offering wide vistas; watch mountains majestically roll like waves of the sea into the distance, striking unseen beaches upon far horizon.
The plateaus, the older tells the younger, are Las Islas del Cielo – “The Islands of Heaven” – the name from Geronimo and Cochise and the Apaches; their refuge for twenty-five years of rebellion and resistance before the white man determined to finally crush them.
The youth’s newfound strength is tested, holds, as they continue on for nearly two hours, before the elder calls halt.
The place before them is as if unknown to man. Only animal paths here and there had led them to it in the end. There is nothing here to speak of man; this is raw and majestic nature. The silence is total, broken only by occasional angry song of an outraged bird, protesting the intrusion, defending his territory.
Ahead heavy growths of oak and Arizona cypress frame a lush, steeply descending grassy meadow, dotted with wildflowers. At the far end it is abruptly bounded by steep, rocky hills, through which a few narrow passes drop in rocky plunge two hundred feet or more to another, flatter meadow.
Here they spread the blanket, consume a warrior’s meal of olives, goat cheese, figs, bread and oil, drink some cheap red wine from a thermos, and a sweet baklava, out of character for the trip but a treat anyway, for dessert. They finish with cold clear water dipped into water bags earlier from a mountain stream, fed by the last snowmelt.
They make love on the blanket, one’s slim and newly-muscled form against the man’s, larger, sturdier one – older, but not at twenty-two very much older – a slow, gentle, practiced love, true to the habit of their weeks together.
Eating breakfast on an island in heaven; relishing; honoring spirit ancestors.
* * * *
Though his father was a postal carrier, he was raised to appreciate history and literature and art. His family had no money but they had culture. They had loved and nurtured him, and given him a perfect name.
Troy emerged from Cal State Chico with a freshly minted secondary education degree majoring in Literature with History and Classics minors; and a lot of student loans to pay off. Deciding there was no time like the present, he looked to apply for a teaching position in an economically disadvantaged community, so half of his loans would be forgiven if he taught for five years. And he wanted to teach.
Wisely he avoided inner city schools in Los Angeles, and settled on a place he’d never known existed, a rural regional high school in the Southwest.
Another student he’d briefly roomed with, a forestry major, had come from there and told him of the place, encouraged him to see if there might be an opening; told him teachers were well-respected.
Better than the ghettos of L.A., he thought, though he had no idea what he was going to do for sex or culture. Well, not that he had found himself overwhelmed with either in Chico, but at least there had been a GSA and Stonewall Alliance and a gay cowboy bar, none of which he expected he’d find along the Mexican border. Well, Chico had left him well-rounded, he knew horses and they were sure to have horses there.
With his dark-eyed good looks and intensity he quickly charmed the kids in his English classes – all the girls in the ninth and tenth grades, and eleventh graders as well in his American History class had crushes on him. The boys seemed indifferent save an exceptional few who found his teaching stimulating. He suspected there were one or two who were well-enough closeted to hide their other interests; he hadn’t spotted them yet but fully expected to in time. He was close enough in age to them all that they were able to relate to him, make him feel welcome. He was also careful to maintain the necessary distance. And the girls flirted with him and see if they could make him blush.
Kids in this remote ranching and retirement community, dotted with long abandoned mines and railroads, had little interest in the wider world much less long dead antiquity.
* * * *
When they were done and had rested a bit, the man pulled out the map and began to show the boy how closely this place compared with the original. All that was missing was the sea a mile or so off on the lower plateau – but there were no actual Persians and thus no need of a harbor for their fleet. Imagination would suffice.
He pointed out the narrow pass, just like the one the Persian army of a quarter million had attempted in their campaign to conquer Greece.
The Greeks had been brilliant, first of all in their selection of Thermopylae to take their stand, a passage so narrow the Persians’ overwhelming advantage of numbers was rendered meaningless.
The man showed the boy the line of the wall the Greeks had built. The wall would hide the rest of the ten thousand strong Greek army from their view, block the Persians, the Greeks could put their backs to the wall and be assured the Persians could not get behind them. That wall was the cork in the bottleneck, keeping the enemy in the narrow gap, only wide enough at its smallest point for eight warriors abreast.
Only those standing before the wall could be seen, and they were the ones who would fight, sallying forth into the defile, the narrow neck of the bottle.
Here there was no wall, of course, only a slight ridgeline and a cliff of eight or ten feet, but it was in the right place.
Xerxes son of Darius, Sublime King of Persia, the mightiest empire on earth, waited four days for the Greeks to realize how badly outnumbered they were and move out; then, knowing he could not keep his immense army in place any longer, began the assault. He sent troops, the Medes, against the Greeks, ordering that the Spartans be taken alive, so confident was he of easy victory.
He had not understood that in living history no Spartan warrior had ever set down his weapons in surrender. In victory; in death; but never surrender.
* * * *
Barry Holmes had felt at home and lost all at once.
Auntie Abe’s family was at first an enigma to him, they rarely spoke English except to him, and he understood nothing, though he never felt excluded, learned in the first minutes that they would tell him whatever he wished, whatever they thought he needed, though in time he came to see that they had a different idea of what he needed than perhaps he himself did.
It was queer, but there was a way in which the sounds of Spanish seemed to wrap ‘round him like a soft, warm blanket, surrounding him with warm, liquid, comfort; bade him welcome.
For days on end he was an automaton, sleepwalking the days, following Mama Theresa’s urgings, taking no initiative, doing nothing on his own, not even eating or getting out of bed. He was shell-shocked, his life torn apart by forces beyond his ken, his schooling abruptly ended, a wanted man, on the lam, running from the law. His heart broken and betrayed, his trust lost.
Each morning she would bustle into his room, clucking as he lay in bed, eyes open, steady, looking at her but not really seeing until she opened the blinds, let in the bright Arizona sun, sweeping all the dark shadows away; then bid him come to breakfast. And obediently he would, eating without relish delicious chorizo and fresh-laid eggs and potatoes fried in lard and tortillas and frijoles and all manner of strange food. Which was odd, for Barry had always been very hungry, had hardly ever had enough to eat, and yet he had little appetite, eating to please Mama Theresa rather than to fill his stomach, his thin frame, his heart.
Later in the morning she would again come to his room; he was usually sitting on his bed, staring at nothing, doing nothing, feeling nothing, and urge him up, make him pick up one of his math books, take him out to the tiled ramada with its view of mountain and plain, sit him in a leather chair in the shade of the ocotillo ribs, place a glass of cafe ranchero – made by boiling a heap of sugar and another of coffee beans in water – beside him, cooled café, from the jug sitting in the old well. They had electric-pumped water for the house, but the old well kept some things at just the right temperature. They didn’t use much ice here; the old ways were best.
She would sit with him, knitting or mending a grandchild’s clothes or shucking peas or beans or cracking open dried chiles; even on rare occasion rolling the mano, grinding dried maize into flour on the stone metate in the corner, next to the now unused beehive oven, placed outdoors to keep the house cool – but only for the comfort, the rhythm, the tradition – these were modern folk, store-bought tortillas were the norm. Still, the old ways counted, couldn’t be lost, especially when someone needing healing.
She would do these chores and keep him company, while pretending the reverse was true. Sometimes she was silent to his silence, but a silence of comfort, a maternal silence unlike anything Barry had every known.
His mother’s silences were brutal, cold, accusatory, punitive, just like the place in which she lived, the place he swore he would never see again. If his mother were to grind anything it would be coal, not corn.
But Mama Theresa could not be any of those things, he knew. There was no cold or coal or sharpness in her.
Children of many ages ran underfoot, chattering in Spanish and English and even throwing in Apache words, asked embarrassing questions and made unwanted comments, sitting, sometimes at Mama’s feet, sometimes at his. Sometimes one of the smaller ones would crowd into the chair with him or sit in his lap, expecting as naturally as sun and moon that he would be held; and Barry found he liked that. Mama would tolerate them ignore them, and even when she scolded it was soft and warm and loving.
Sometimes she would hum or sing old songs, ancient songs, always en Espanol, their comfort reaching out to him.
Sometimes she would speak, in Spanish – in English when she wanted more than sound to reach, instruct. She never asked questions, she never lectured, she never sought reaction or a response in these quiet times, never seemed really to be paying attention to Barry.
His mother’s words usually burned, her angry sharp tongue analog to her leather strap, whose crack and fire he had felt too often – Mama Theresa was not like that, either. None of the ninos running around the place, morning, noon and night, had ever tasted the smoke of leather whipped afire.
Mama told stories, stories of her children, or of someone’s children; old stories of legend, of coyotes and foxes, Indian and Mexican and Spanish stories; stories of people and times she knew in the flesh and others she knew only in heart and soul and tradition, her voice a light, countermelody to the gentle wind chimes and warm sweet breezes on the ramada. Subtle stories they were, even a mind as sharp as Barry’s didn’t catch her effortless insinuation of lessons into them; messages of strength unknown and discovered, of love for family and children and horse and land; of jokes and foibles of people who he didn’t know and might never meet, and might never have existed; of Abe her wayward son, and of Barry by sinuous parallel and un-metered congruence and geometry he could not consciously grasp, nor unconsciously miss, with his mathematical mind.
She conveyed not mere acceptance and healing, but the inevitability of life and events and the unimportance of it all, the futility of fighting that which is, which was, which would be. She spoke without speaking of the importance of family and friends and beauty and balance and nature.
And Barry was as the land, sun-warmed and quiet and enfolded and existentially so; loved for its cracks and unevenness, it’s very faults.
In her wisdom she was amused, amused by this sad sweet boy, so very smart, so very wounded. She understood why her son had brought him to her, from that far off place, the university in some southern state she could never remember. She was amused that the boy was smart enough at his young age to be in university, and horrified to learn of how badly he had been used, even by his family.
She was amused by many things, and saddened by them too, that her cherished son Abe could not find fulfillment here in this land where he belonged. But she was never one to tell clouds to withdraw, or demand rivers flow uphill.
And she understood the arithmetic of pain and the calculus of a soul, even if she could not write the equations.
So too did her husband, Senor Francisco Vazquez de Marques, named for the famed Conquistador, Francisco Coronado, who had first traversed this land for Spain, who had opened this hostile, beautiful, enduring place to them.
For all his distinguished name he was nicknamed Papa Gordo – Abe had translated it to Barry as “Fat Daddy” with a laugh; that’s not what it meant, that’s just what the words meant. He was a fat old man, true enough, but his heart lived up to every important syllable of his dignified name.
His ways were the ways of a man, gruff, silent in a different way from Mama’s. The ways of a well-settled life; three hundred year deep roots like the taproot of a Mesquite tree, hidden and strong, those were Francisco’s ways.
Barry had never met a man like this. Had never known a father.
Papa Gordo’s ways might be gruff, but they were just as accepting as Mama Theresa’s, though he demanded more of the boy than listening, he put him to work in the afternoons, doing little chores at first, then helping as the boy’s strength grew, with the more demanding ones. Barry helped move blocks for a new adobe wall and set them into place; learned how to oil and fill and screed the forms and be sure the mud was stiff enough to keep its shape while the sun gently dried it in its own sweet time; helped spread the cheap blue plastic tarps over them against any threat of rain, unlikely this early in the year. The rains came in July, torrents, furious thunderstorms, the water rolling with a force to sweep this world clear of all its detritus.
He learned how to fence with barbed wire and with cactus rib, though the latter was used only decoratively, the wire was much faster and cheaper even than collecting the dead ribs of the ocotillos.
Eventually, Papa thought, he’d turn into an adequate little ranch hand, brainy mathematician or no.
So little by little, without volition or even awareness, the boy grew bigger and stronger in so many ways.
* * * *
Before the Greeks engaged the Medes…one of the Trachinians said, "Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude." Dieneces of Sparta…making light of the Median numbers, answered "Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade."
The Spartans taking the brunt, the Greeks had fought and then retreated up the defile, pretending to be routed, and the Medes, sure of themselves, broke ranks to pursue up the narrow passage. And then the Spartans turned as one and fought with their typical, disciplined savagery.
The Medes were slaughtered.
Resolved to end this farce, Xerxes sent in the Immortals, his best troops. But the wily Spartans employed the same strategy, with the same results; by the end of the day they had slaughtered above ten thousand of the Persian king’s finest troops while suffering hardly a casualty of their own. Another day's fighting yielded no better for the emperor. Twenty thousand Persian bodies littered the field of battle.
Xerxes was furious.
Together the companions examined a path in about the right position, very like the path the traitor Ephialtes had shown to Xerxes, a goat path that went through the hills around the Greek position and let the Persian troops come behind them.
* * * *
The Greeks discovered the treachery about dawn.
The Spartan King Leonidas told the other Greeks, the Athenians and Thespians and Thebans, to return home, to fight another day.
The Spartans stayed. For there was an oracle that said either a Spartan King would die or the Persians would sack Sparta. So Leonidas conceived that they must remain to uphold the honor of Sparta and meet prophecy.
``Now eat a good breakfast, men,'' Leonidas grinned, ``for we'll all be sharing dinner in hell.''
Spartans were really not very good at retreat anyway.
* * * *
Barry learned that once Donde felt comfortable, he would lean hard against Barry – like a cat rubbing against your legs, if you had a thousand pound cat and he used your torso instead of your legs — and so he learned the trick of holding himself solid against the horse, not yielding to the weight, acknowledging the contact, teaching Donde Barry’s limits, his growing strength.
And then the riding started.
Mama Theresa’s cousin Juanita had pointed out the thorny challenge Troy presented, mentioned his love of horses. Perhaps, considered Mama, there was a simultaneous solution; a way two lost lines might intersect to provide one answer.
So one day Papa was told to take Barry for a ride on Donde, with strict instructions to stop at a particular time at the stables on the outskirts of town, where people who didn’t have ranches could board, or rent, a horse. Not touristas, they didn’t come here for that, but locals.
Papa was not informed of the reasons and knew it was not his place to ask, but he wasn’t stupid; and sweetly soon, for things fit together just right sometimes, Barry had a new teacher.
Whether a boy's standing was good or bad, his lover shared it… relations of this type were so highly valued…Yet there was no rivalry; instead, if individual males found that their affections had the same object, they made this the foundation for mutual friendship, and eagerly pursued their joint efforts to perfect their loved one's character…
Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus
Troy, like Papa Gordo, was persistent, patient, expectant; he was all the things that make up a good teacher. And Troy knew how to handle a skittish yearling.
It took time to get a frightened horse gentled, used to the bridle and bit; to learn they were not chains but comfort, to learn that not all who approach, not all riders were predators; to find an interest beyond the calculus of books and once again in the calculus of humanity.
* * * *
The Greeks under Leonidas, as they now went forth determined to die, advanced much further than on previous days, until they reached the more open portion of the pass. Hitherto they had held their station within the wall, and from this had gone forth to fight at the point where the pass was the narrowest. Now they joined battle beyond the defile, and carried slaughter among the barbarians, who fell in heaps.
Many were thrust into the sea, and there perished; a still greater number were trampled to death by their own soldiers; no one heeded the dying. For the Greeks, reckless of their own safety and desperate, since they knew that, as the mountain had been crossed, their destruction was nigh at hand, exerted themselves with the most furious valour against the barbarians.
Finally Barry and Troy walked, holding hands, to the knoll.
Here, the three hundred Spartans of the rear guard had fought to the death, held off the Persians an entire day and taken thousands more with them, giving the rest of the Greek Army time to retreat. On this spot the Spartans had stood their ground, at the end each man standing back to back with his lover, so they said, that each might fight the harder to protect his lover’s life and not sacrifice honor before his lover’s eyes.
Drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a hillock, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body…Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians,…now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missile weapons… The slain were buried where they fell; and in their honour…an inscription was set up.
They made love again under the shade of an oak tree by the knoll.
Troy read the poem, first in Greek, then in English.
Honor to those who in their lives
Have defined and guard their Thermopylae.
Never stirring from duty;
Just and upright in all their deeds,
Yet with pity and compassion too;
Generous when they are rich, and when
They are poor, again a little generous,
Again helping as much as they can;
Always speaking the truth,
Yet without hatred for those who lie.
And more honor is due to them
When they foresee (and many do foresee)
That Ephialtes will finally appear,
And that the Medes in the end will go through.*
*translated from the Greek by Constantine P. Cavafy (1903)
And before they left, they scratched the message into a rock face on the cliff behind the knoll – one day months later to be discovered by mystified errant high school students, likewise seeking a place far from prying eyes.
" Go tell the Spartans
O stranger passing by, that here,
Obedient to their laws, we lie”
© 2002, 2013 Philip Marks email@example.com
Credit is due to the wonderful author jfinn (firstname.lastname@example.org) for immense help, especially in wrangling the horses.