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David Angsten

Excerpt from David Angsten's Night Of The Furies:

Our descent down the cliffs began around midnight.† Light from the hidden moon stretched across the plain below and reached the Gulf of Corinth where it set the sea aglow.† The view had been expansive and exhilarating in daylight; now it seemed treacherous and eerie.† The dark wall of the mountain loomed ominously above us and dropped off steeply into shadows deep below.

We peered down warily into the abyss.†

"Why in the hell are we doing this?" I said.†

The paralyzing view made Phoebe philosophical.† "We donít always know why we do what we do."

My genius of a brother sounded positively cheerful.† "I think itís the Fates that have brought us here," he said.† "We have no choice in the matter." †

He started down the precarious path, hugging the steep wall of stone.† For a moment Phoebe and I watched him.† "Sometimes I think Dan really believes that stuff," I said.

"He can believe it or not,"† Phoebe said.† "The truth is weíre free to do as we like."

She bravely followed him down the precipice.

I called after her:† "Somebody said your worse troubles begin when youíre free to do as you like!"

The two of them were fading into the darkness below.† I donít know why, but I followed them.

If it really was the Fates that had brought us to this mountain, it was Dan who had done all the planning.† Heíd decided his experiment at Delphi should begin with a covert midnight skinny-dip, what his girlfriend Phoebe suggestively described as our "nocturnal lustration."† This was to be a ritual bath in the sacred Castalian Spring, the same spring used for purification by the Delphic Oracles of antiquity.†

The spring was hidden beneath towering cliffs on the slope of Mount> Parnassus.† The cliffs formed the dramatic backdrop to the Sanctuary of Apollo, the cluster of ancient ruins where the Oracle for a thousand years had practiced her mysterious art.† Breathing fumes that arose from a crevice in the earth, the priestess, known as the Pythia, would fall into a trance of possession and give voice to the transcendent thoughts of Apollo, the all-knowing god of the sun.

Today, bathing in the spring is forbidden, and the Temple> of Apollo where the Oracle divined has also been deemed off limits.† Dan therefore determined that our only chance to perform a proper augury was to sneak into the sanctuary late at night when weíd have the spring and the temple to ourselves.† And so we had taken to the heights of Mount> Parnassus, hiking all day up the sunny slopes, climbing as far as the Cave> of Pan before returning at sundown to the lofty cliffs, where we awaited the cover of darkness.†

Dan now demanded we descend without our flashlights, even though we carried them in our bags.† Weíd used them in the cave weíd explored that afternoon.† Its enormous cavern had been a favorite site for the worship of Dionysus, Apolloís half-brother, the Greek god of intoxication and sexual revelry.† Stalagmite pillars rose from its floor, looking like monstrous phalli.† Dan had explained that once a year on a winterís night, the young women of ancient Delphi would make this same long trek up the mountain in the company of a single male - a youth dressed as Dionysus.† In chilly mountain air, carrying torches, beating drums, playing flutes and singing wildly, the women followed the youth up the cliffs all the way to the infamous cave.† There they were said to be possessed by the god and indulged in an orgiastic frenzy.

As we made our way down the perilous cliff, this story replayed in my imagination.† I began to speculate about our bath.†

Phoebe Auerbach was a liberated Dutch girl who wouldnít be constrained by the usual inhibitions.† Born in conservative Delft, she had been raised in free-wheeling Amsterdam and endlessly educated in America and Europe.† She was currently on break from an excavation at a goddess site in Crete.† In a postcard he had sent me while visiting the island, Dan had revealed that he met the young archeologist on what he called a naturist beach.† He noted that despite their nudity her behavior had been oddly formal.† When Dan had casually introduced himself, Phoebe offered him her hand - not for him to shake, he said, but - like a prince - to kiss.

The twisty route down the slope of the cliff demanded my constant attention, but still I couldnít seem to stop myself from envisioning Phoebe at the spring.†

'Weíre free to do as we likeÖí

She was 24-years-old, the same age as me, and four years younger than Dan.† She was slim and sprightly, with an athletic figure, and boyish blonde hair even shorter than my own.† Her large eyes were an icy blue, the tops of her cheeks were freckled, and her mouth had a beguiling little curl at the corners as if always on the brink of a grin.† Her laugh, which was loud, came easily and often, and made her seem even younger than she looked.† She had a slight overbite that plumped her upper lip, and she spoke with a noticeable slurring of her "r"ís - they sounded more like "w"ís - an appealing wrinkle of accent in her otherwise "pewfect" English.†

In his postcard Dan had described her as brilliant.† While this may well have been true, my impression of her so far brought other words to mind: flighty, flirtatious, beguiling, brash.† She had a lightning mind that kept us always on alert, and a tongue she couldnít seem to keep in check.

Phoebe followed Dan down the zigzagging path; I followed closely behind her. When she turned and caught me staring at her "pewfect" derriere, I tripped and nearly tumbled on top of her.

"Whoa!" she cried.† She laughed and held me steady.†

Dan called up from below.† "You okay?"

"Fine!" Phoebe shouted.

Then she turned to me.† "Jackís just having trouble keeping his eyes on the path."

"Sorry," I said.†

Her face looked luminous in the starlight.† "Well donít be too sorry."

Dan was climbing back up to us.† Phoebe went down to meet him.† "Your brother and I were just dancing," she said.

"Which of you stumbled - Jack?"

I walked down to join them.† "Your girlfriend saved my life."

He peered at me inquisitively.† "Something going on in that head of yours?" †

"What do you mean?" I said.†

Phoebe giggled.†
"You feeling distracted?† Unusual thoughts intruding?† Images?† Voices?"

I stole a glance at Phoebe.† "Nothing unusual.† Why?"

"Weíre getting close to the Sanctuary," he said.† He peered down the steep rock wall.† "Climbing down this cliff at night - like shaving with a razor in the dark.† It focuses your awareness.† Puts you in the proper state of mind."

"You mean like, terrified?"

"No," he said.† "Receptive.† By holding your attention it frees the unconscious.† Leaves you moreÖsusceptible."

Phoebe glanced at me.† "Susceptible to what?"

Dan squinted at the night sky.† "Canít say to what exactly.† Weíll have to wait and see."

"Susceptible to falling," I said.

Phoebe laughed.† She stretched up on her toes and gave Dan a kiss, watching me from the corner of her eye.† "Iím not sure that Jackís in the proper state of mind."

We cautiously resumed our descent.† "Youíre the Oracle," I said.† "Danís the desperate supplicant.† Iím nothing more than an observer - my state of mind is irrelevant."

"Donít be so sure about that," Dan said.† "Remember your quantum physics.† The problem of SchrŲdingerís cat.† There are no observers, only participants.† The presence of your consciousness will influence the event."

Phoebe glanced over her shoulder at me.† "I think itís already having an influence."

"Careful," I said.† "Youíre a priestess, remember."

She laughed.† "And you are - what?† SchrŲdingerís cat?"

"Jack has a vital role to play:† your interlocutor.† The Recorder of the Oracle."

I snorted.† "The priestess needs a priest?"

"High priest," Phoebe giggled.† She was growing giddy with exhaustion.

Dan was undeterred.† He had spent the last two years studying ancient Greek religion and had become completely obsessed with the sacred rites and myths.† "This path weíre walking on is called the KakŪ SkŠla, the Evil Stairway.† Know why?"

"Because fools like us were forced to climb down it in the dark?"

"No," he said.† "Because those guilty of sacrilege were thrown off it to their deaths."

Phoebe and I looked at each other.† I donít know why, but we laughed.

The Castalian Spring lay at the bottom of a lush ravine under steep cliffs that blocked out the moonlight.† Just as Dan had predicted, the place was completely deserted.† He said there was only one night watchman who guarded the holy sites, and he usually stayed in the gatehouse down the road, sipping his bottle of retsina.† The sacred spring was fairly secluded; Dan was more worried about getting caught at the far more visible temple.† Nevertheless, he warned, weíd need to stay alert, or weíd end up making our appeal to Apollo from the confines of the Delphi jail.

We climbed over a site fence and walked up the path to a rise of stone steps that led to a rock-hewn pool.† It lay at the base of the cliffís rock wall, carved with several shadowy, hollowed-out niches.† The spring, we discovered, was barely a trickle of water.† The stone pool was not more than a couple feet deep, definitely not large enough for the group bath Iíd imagined.

Dan removed his backpack.† "Itís running low," he said.† "They siphon off the water for the town."

Modern Delphi lay a mile down the road and was geared entirely to the tourists.† Even though we were staying in a hotel there ourselves, I found this vulgar theft of theirs insulting.† "Talk about a sacrilege!"

The three of us stared at the cold, black water.† It made a trickling sound.

Dan informed Phoebe that washing her hair was as far as she needed to go.

I felt simultaneously relieved and disappointed.

"Are you sure thatís enough?" she asked.

"Itís more than adequate," he said.† "Only people who had killed someone were required to take a full bath."†

He looked at me as he said this.† The implication was clear.

Two years earlier, on a boat off the Mexican coast, I had encountered a deadly sea creature and a couple of drug-running pirates.† Several violent deaths had occurred.† Although I thought of my role in the matter as one of self-defense, several people had been wasted, some of them my friends, and all of them largely on account of me.

From the way Phoebe was avoiding my gaze, it was clear sheíd been told the story.

Dan unzipped his backpack.† "I think Iíve got a swimsuit," he said, "if you donít want to go in naked."† He pulled out a pair of sun-bleached surfer trunks.†

I gave him a dirty look.†

So this was how it was going to be.† They were going to wash their hands and watch while I took a bath.† I suddenly began to wonder if Danís promise of a skinny-dip had been nothing more than a crass enticement to lure me into his plan.† I suspected even Phoebe had been in on it.

"How do you know she hasnít killed anyone?"

"Jack!"† She placed the back of her hands on her hips in the classic pose of outrage.†

"I know because I already asked," Dan said.

Judging from the glare Phoebe aimed at him, it appeared that he actually had. ††She huffily glanced back and forth between us.† "People are nicer where I come from!"

"So youíre not going in," I said to Dan accusingly.

"No," he said.† "But with her help, Iím going to shave my head."

"Youíre what?"† Phoebe had apparently not been let in on this little part of the program.

†"Itís important to make a sacrifice," he said.† "The Greeks usually slaughtered a goat.† Others left votive offerings in those niches in the wall.† My offering is my hair."† As we watched him produce various items from his pack - scissors, towel, shaving cream, razor - it became clear he meant to do exactly what he said.

I didnít get the connection.† "Goat?† Hair?"

"A possession of personal value.† I donít care about goats, but I very much like my hair."

"I like it, too," Phoebe said wistfully.

Heíd been wearing it down to his shoulders for as long as I could remember.† "I donít understand," I said.

"Do ut des Ė'I give that you may give.í"† He was setting up his barberís chair, a collapsible aluminum tripod stool with a triangular nylon seat.†

I didnít want to get into which "you" he was referring to - Phoebe?† Apollo?† The Cosmos?† My brother liked to call himself a "spiritual atheist."† He didnít believe in God or the supernatural, but he did believe in a version of what the Greeks had called the Logos, the fundamental, transcendent 'mindí behind Nature.† Contact with this extra-dimensional intelligence could be obtained in various ways - drumming, chanting, praying, fasting, meditation, ritual, sexual abstinence, sexual indulgence, extreme physical ordeals - but none of these methods of inducing ecstatic trance were as ancient and effective as the use of psychoactive plants.† Mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca, DMT.† Dan was a firm believer in the spiritual utility of hallucinogens.† It was in fact the subject of his doctoral dissertation.

Phoebe was having trouble picturing her boyfriend as a baldy.† "So itís kind of like bartering, then - your hair is some sort of payment for prophecy?"

"Itís not a negotiation, Phoebe.† Itís an encounter with the divine."† He continued rummaging through his backpack.† "Socrates said true prophecy required the complete loss of human control, the total abandonment of the individual self to a higher, transcendent power."

Maybe the look of the black water was giving her cold feet.† "I donít know," she said.† "This is all beginning to feel a little crazy."

"It is a little crazy," he said.† "Thatís the essence of ancient Mystery religion.† It goes beyond understanding.† Beyond the rational mind.† The first Oracles were simple peasant girls from Delphi, virgins recruited by the priests.† Divination doesnít require intellectual understanding.† The less you think about it, the better off youíll be."

"How do I not think about it?" she asked.

"Keep it simple and follow the protocol:† We cleanse ourselves in the spring.† We make the sacrifice.† Then we go to the temple> of Apollo and seek the advice of the god."

†"Leave your brains behind?" I said.

"Leave your skepticism.† Free yourself from doubt.† Enter the temple with a pure heart.† The process only works if you approach it with sincerity."† He glanced up from his unpacking.† "Suspend your disbelief, Jack.† Think that might be possible?"

"Youíve given me plenty of practice," I said.

"Good," he said, and once again held up the swimsuit.† "Want this?"

I stood tall.† "Absolutely not.† Iím going in with complete sincerity."