Marcellus at Lupercalia

 

loin cloth

On the morning of Lupercalia we went first to the temple of Pan. It was here we paid tribute to the god of shepherds and nature, he that watched over all animals, including the beloved wolf, Lupa, for which this festival was named.

I was lucky, for I was among those of the Brotherhood, we the high priests who would be anointed with blood of the goat and dog. In the temple we raised our voices, shouted prayers to the hooved god, knelt in praise. We then passed wineskins, drank in camaraderie and offered the robes off our backs in sacrifice.

When devotions had ended, we marched down the cobbled streets wearing only our loincloths. In the village we met Calpurnia, of Juno’s temple. She held an alabaster jar and inside it, etched in parchment, were the names of every unwed maid in the city.

jar

Calpurnia shook the jar. “With the blessings of Juno and in hopes Cupid smiles upon you. May you have the maids you desire, gentlemen,” she said. She held out the jar to me. I was first to choose, for that year it was I who  represented Romulus.

I thrust my hand into the jar, twisting and extending my fingertips, all the while silently praying to Pan for a good match.

When I pulled up the parchment I saw the name: Lucretia. I knew of her, a modest girl, daughter of a widowed grain farmer. She claimed no fortune nor dowry yet her beauty had always astounded me.

“Lucretia.” Calpurnia smiled, ruby lips etching her white teeth. She raised a hand, beckoned to the girl who stood, arms crossed, her rain colored garments flowing in the February wind. She was lovely. But would she have me?

Lucretia glanced at her father who nodded and motioned her forward. The girl smiled, moved with an awkward grace and stood before me. “It seems, my lord, I am yours for the duration of this festival,” she said. She gave a stiff curtsey and I bowed before her. “I shall unite with you after the anointing,” she added. Before she moved to Calpurnia’s side her gray eyes caught mine. There was a teasing glint, a passing smile. She tossed her hair. “Be aware, Sir, I am of the cult of Diana.”

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It was an odd custom, the drawing of names from a jar. All matches were left to the Fates and the Gods. Yet in the case of Lucretia, I knew Pan had favored me.

When the Brotherhood had finished selection all the men of the village moved forward. Calpurnia dispensed names. Some were pleased and some appalled. “Take heart,” Brother Julian counseled Cicero, who had received the name of the plainest girl in all of Rome. “It’s only for a fortnight.” He winked. “And you, Brother Marcellus. You have been given a great gift. Lucretia is a beauty among beauties and the purest in the land.”

“Too pure for words,” Cicero added. “But also wild. It has been said no man will ever tame her.”

“Tame her?” I answered. “It is not my desire to tame her. Is it not said, the wilder they are the better they shall breed?” It was a bold claim on my part, and somewhat vulgar.  I should be so lucky as to bed her.  The cult of Diana were sworn virgins, every last one of them.

With the other high priests I proceeded to the cave of Lupercal. It was there that Lupa the she wolf had once nursed Remus and Romulus. They were, the legend says, abandoned by their natural mother and then suckled to health from Lupa’s teat. Later they founded our great state of Rome, and indeed it was only one fierce as a wolf that could be worthy of such a founding.

The sacrificial animals were brought to the cave. Two young goats and a dog. With my blade I sliced their throats.

Brother Julian took my knife. He cleaned it with a cloth of wool that had been soaked in milk. He then drained the animals’ blood and anointed the forehead of each priest. “The blood of life,” he said solemnly. “May your women prove fertile as the earth.”

Once anointed, we proceeded to skin the hides off the animals. We soaked the hides in lukewarm salt water and vinegar, toughening them into the februa strands, those that would be used to strike the women.

“Remember to hit softly,” Julian cautioned. “So  they not be afraid. We want them eager for more. Their loins will then spill with their own milk to bring you sons and daughters.”

The next morning, armed with our februa strands, all the men of the village lined up for the run. The women laughed and gossiped, whispering in each other’s ears. They leaned like soft willows along the buildings and aqueducts. They were quarry, waiting to be caught by we the hunters.

Lucretia was nowhere to be seen.

Calpurnia chimed the bell and the februa run began. Swift on my feet, I softly struck as many maids as I could reach.  “To make you fertile, to make you bountiful, to ease your pain in childbirth,” I chanted along with the other men. The women, although feigning pain, deliberately stood in our way. Only those that were touched by our goat hides, so said the legend, would be able to bear children.

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After the run Calpurnia led us to the great dining hall. Before we entered she took hold of my shoulder. “Marcellus,” she said, “Have you not seen your young maid?”

“No Madame,” I answered, “and of it I am quite disappointed.”

“Remember she is a child of Diana and therefore not easily moved.” Calpurnia tilted her head, smiled broadly and rested her gaze across the dining hall. “There she is. Not too proud to attend the feast. Go to her, boy!”

I bowed to Calpurnia, made my way across the hall. At the end of a long oak table sat Lucretia, a goblet of wine in her hands.

“Brother Marcellus,” she greeted me. “Please accompany me.” She patted her long, sun brown hand on the bench I quickly sat beside her.

“I missed you at the run of februa,” I said, stammering slightly.

“The hide of goat to insure fertility?” She scowled, popped her gray eyes at me. “Surely you do not believe such a lame custom?”

“We of the Brotherhood, my lady, are instructed to believe in such.”

“The Brotherhood is falsity!”

“My lady?”

“You heard me. Falsity I say!”

“I beg pardon my lady, but the fertility of goat hide is our custom and our belief. In this I have been trained and in this hold the title of Romulus Luperci.”

“Luperci!” she sneered. “When he meal is finished, I shall take you to the wood.”

Although the venison and goat’s meat were tasty I barely noticed them. My thoughts were only upon Lucretia. When the feast was finished the mummers aligned for the evening’s entertainment. Lucretia took my hand. “Now,” she said.

“What of the pageantry my lady?”

“Rot the pageantry!” she nearly screamed, gray eyes blazing. “Would you not rather see the vast pageantry of Diana’s wood?”

I could not refuse her. Together we slipped from the dining hall. She led me through the streets of Rome, past the coliseum and the temples, past the merchant’s square and the emperor’s palace. She led me far into the forest. The grass was stiff with winter’s frost.  Night had fallen and the Quickening Moon shone bright and full. In the distance stags and deer pranced freely, pausing to watch us as we passed. Finally she reached a myrtle tree, its enormous branches full with tiny buds.

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“Here,” she declared. “Remove your loincloth.”

Her lovemaking was passionate and strong, with the timing and precision of one who has never in her life been a virgin. No blood spilled beneath her. She smiled, arched an eyebrow, stretched a finger across my cheek. I dared not question her.

“Not all the women of Diana are virgins,” she offered. “Do not let it perplex you, Marcellus.”  She breathed in my ear, climbed atop me again. I was young, virile and not yet spent.

We made love four times before the yellow sun poured its rays through the trees. I fell asleep in her arms.

When I awoke she was gone. The myrtle tree stood, now towering and ripe with flower.

myrtle-tree

The air was hot, steamy as the bath houses in summer.  The grass had grown thick around me.  I stood up, my legs stiff and depleted. In the far distance I saw a new wheat field, golden with stalk. On wobbly legs I walked.

The landscape of the forest had changed. Orange and lemon trees towered above me, fruit falling off their limbs. Flowers of every genus sprouted from the ground. Tangled vines extended before me like tentacles of octopi, heavy with purple grapes. I trudged on.

In all seriousness, I knew I must get back to the temple of Pan.  My duties as Luperci were not yet complete. But Lucretia? What had happened to her? Surely she had returned to the village, to her father. I decided, right then and there, I would ask her father for her hand in marriage. It was only fitting. Such a wife she would make — beautiful, ravishing, unstoppable! I wondered if she was already with child.

At the edge of the forest I tripped over a mass of gray fur, a curled body, soft and warm against my sandals. Clumsily I fell to the ground. Lucretia had exhausted me and I felt very sleepy and dazed.  In my stupor I rubbed my eyes, not believing the blurred sight before me.

It was a wolf stretched out on the grass. Five tiny pups suckled her teats. The wolf lifted her head, gray eyes glinting.  She bared her teeth, white and pearly against her jowls, but not unkind.

wolf-and-pups

The wolf sat up, lapped her tongue against my cheek. “Your intentions are well, but you need not marry me, Marcellus,” she said. “I have no dowry and besides, my duty is forever to Diana’s land. Rest assured you have served your role well. Now we shall part forever.”

I crouched down beside her. “I will have you,” I said quietly.  “You are a shifter, a child of Diana. I see that now. But nonetheless I will have you.”

The wolf stood upon sturdy legs. She tilted her head, perked her ears as if she meant to say more, but then in a flash she bolted into the forest. The five tiny pups scurried after her.

There was a rustle in the trees and I looked above me.  There in the branches, the god Cupid stood, half naked, holding his bow and arrow. He winked at me and in one swift movement he shot his arrow, hitting the wolf straight in the back.

eros

She then transformed. She was Lucretia, gray eyes, hair in disarray, her simple dress the color of rain, clinging to her sweaty body. She walked toward me.

“Brother Marcellus,” Cupid called from the tree.  I looked up. He hung like a sloth, sultry smile on his face. “You will love her, and she will love you. But there will always be a wildness in her and you will never completely tame her. Do not try.” He then vanished.

Cupid was right. My wife was a night prowler, forever chasing the moon, quick of temper, insatiable for sex. My daughters, all five, and the sons that followed would never be completely tamed either.  We had grandchildren, great grandchildren, and more after that, generations that lasted long after the Feast of Lupercalia was forgotten. Our ancient festival was swallowed up in the more ‘civilized’ traditions of Valentines and chocolates.

And yet.

Ever after that all descendants of Lucretia and myself were thought to have bit of the wolf-blood within them. Our descendants scattered to all corners of the world.

If you, dear reader, have been drawn into this story, or if you have gone giddy under a Quickening Moon, or if you have ever fallen truly, madly and inexplicably in love by the shot of Cupid’s arrow — well then, you just may be one of those descendants!

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Billy Goat and the Cubs

 

william-sianis-billy-goat-pd

My owner, a gentleman by the name of Mr. William Sianis, was a kind enough soul, albeit an opportunist. Never one to miss the spotlight, he was flamboyant and prone to anger. He valued me above all else, for I was a novelty, a curiosity and of course a money maker.

“A goat?” Mr. Sianis would say. “A goat gives milk. A goat gives cheese. A goat is a friend!  What is not to like in a goat?”

He was in fact so fond of me that he named his establishment after my species: The Billy Goat Tavern. It was quite a catchy name and drew in much business, especially since he often propped me upon a bar stool and fed me beer.

curse-of-the-billy-goat

In those days, you see, we had no such organizations as PETA nor the ASPCA. Animals were mere servants to humankind. If occasionally we rebelled, who could blame us?

My owner was obsessed with me to an unnatural degree. He had his beard trimmed in a goatee to match mine. He changed his name from William to ‘Billy Goat’ Sianis.  He took me with him on various sojourns around the town.  It was not unusual for me to be seen on my leash at the grocery store or the distillery. He took me upon cable cars and to the occasional social event.  And so I suppose he did not think it peculiar in the least when he chose to bring me to a baseball game.

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The city of Chicago was enmeshed with stockyards back then, the slaughterhouses of my dear sister cows and brethren pigs.  The stench of dead animals was commonplace. Though not desirable, all had grown somewhat accustomed to it.  And so, on that fateful day of October 6, 1945, when my owner saw fit to bring me to Wrigley Field for the World Series game, he had no inkling that his fellow attendees would complain about my smell.

Yet complain they did. We had barely entered the park and taken our seats at the bleachers when some spectator took it upon himself to shout:  “That goat smells baaa-aahhd! Take it out!”

Humankind, I suppose, are amused by their own crude puns.  As for myself I had no interest in being there.  I am hardly what one would call a ‘baseball fan’. The bleachers are most  uncomfortable seats for a fellow like me. I would vastly prefer a barn with some fresh bales of hay or tin cans to munch on.  And so when I was ordered to leave I would gladly have gone peaceably. If nothing else, it would end the ridiculous charade.

My owner, you see, was merely using me as a prop. I provided free advertizing for the Billy Goat Tavern.  (In later years the advertizing would go nation wide when a man named Belushi would immortalize the the tastiest meal on the menu: ‘Cheezeborger’.)

However, on that day, upon hearing the comment, Mr. Sianis became most offended. He had paid my way after all. I had a ticket just like any other customer.  William refused to remove me.  In fact he became so belligerent that the Field owner, one Mr. P.K. Wrigley, appeared in person to formally order us out.

Poor Mr. Sianis was highly insulted. So much so that he laid a curse upon the ball team. “The Cubs!” he shouted. “They ain’t never gonna win no World Series no more!”

And they never have. At least not yet.

Seventy one years has passed since that day. It has been chiefly for my own amusement that I have kept the curse active.  You may doubt my power, but I bid you not forget my long standing association with the ancient Dark Lord.

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It has been grand entertainment to observe  the past century, as this team  has periodically come so close to winning, only to be thwarted by some small mistake. My favorite stunt was in  1969 when I sent a black cat to cross their path  in the dugout.

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That year the Cubs lost the World Series pathetically to the New York Mets.

For many seasons the beloved but ever-losing Cubs have suffered defeat.  But now, in 2016 I am growing rather weary of this prank. If any debt was due me it certainly has been paid.

It occurs to me that my owner is long dead.  Mr. P.K. Wrigley is also long dead. Players have been changed and traded and interspersed so many times, the Cubs are scarcely the same team anymore. And so. From where I stand I believe I’d like to see the Northsiders finally take their long deserved win.

With all due apologies, I officially deem this curse lifted. It was only ever artificial  to begin with. There is but one remaining question:

Chicago Cubs, wouldst’ thou like to live deliciously?

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**NOTE**   Folks living outside of Chicago might not know that this story is actually true!  Read more here.

The late, great John Belushi created a hilarious skit on Saturday Night Live to spoof the real Billy Goat Tavern.

GO CUBBIES!!!!!!!

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Poem of the Day: in Just – by e e cummings

steampunk_nymphs_and_satyr_by_k1ow3

 

in Just-

spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman
whistles          far          and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
color-mables
spring
when the world is puddle-wonderful
the queer
old balloonman whistles
far          and             wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing
from hop-scotch and jump-rope and
hopscotch
it’s
spring

and

         the
                  goat-footed
balloonMan          whistles
far
and
wee
pan

 

About the author:e e cummings never bothered capitalizing his own name.  He even legally changed it to use lower case letters, as he often did in his poetry.  Born Edward Estlin Cummings ( 1894 – 1962)  he was an American poet,  painter, author and playwright.

He was a decided Bohemian who did time in the salons of 1920’s Paris, no stranger to the likes of  Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound  and Picasso.  He was also  a right wing Republican who, back home in the U.S. A.,  supported Red-Scare senator Joseph McCarthy in  1950’s anti-Communist campaigns.  His work was influenced by Dada, Surrealism, Transcendentalism and experimentation of all kinds.

 in Just –  was first published in May, 1920.  Some say this poem is about little kids playing marbles, some say it is about puberty and sexual awakenings. Well now. You decide  🙂

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 Happy Poetry Month!