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
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
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
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
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.†
"You feeling distracted?† Unusual thoughts intruding?† Images?†
I stole a glance at Phoebe.† "Nothing
"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
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
Phoebe glanced over her shoulder at me.†
"I think itís already having an influence."
"Careful," I said.† "Youíre a priestess,
She laughed.† "And you are - what?† SchrŲdingerís
"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.
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."
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
"How do you know she hasnít killed
"Jack!"† She placed the back of
her hands on her hips in the classic pose of outrage.†
"I know because I already asked," Dan
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
"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?†
"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,"
"Good," he said, and once again held up
the swimsuit.† "Want this?"
I stood tall.† "Absolutely not.† Iím going
in with complete sincerity."