There was an old man …
There was an old man, once upon a time, a king.
In an inner courtyard of his residence was an ancient laurel tree, which he himself had discovered when he was laying the foundations of this fortress.
And so he decided to call his subjects “the People of the Laurel,” that is, Laurentine.
He sat upon a throne in the center of an immense palace upon a wooded hill in the middle of their walled city.
Its vast roof rested upon one hundred columns.
In the entrance court were rows of statues, sculpted from the fragrant wood of cedars, depicting the forefathers of this people.
Among them stood the likeness of the old man’s great-grandfather, a primeval god long ago deposed and exiled from heaven.
Who had conferred upon this, his place of refuge, a golden age of peace and plenty.
A statue of his grandfather was there, too, who had constructed this grand palace-amid-the-trees.
Though an enchantress (with a sense of humor) later changed him into a woodpecker.
And the old man’s father?
In a nearby grove, plashy and wreathed in sulphurous fumes, it was possible to hear his prophetic voice, as the suppliant lay sleeping upon woolen fleeces.
His father, that is, now a vatic god of the wild woodlands.
The old man and his wife had but one surviving child, a daughter, their male progeny having died in the first bloom of youth.
This girl was betrothed to the dashing young king of a nearby town.
Who bore upon his shield the image of his remote ancestor:
A young woman undergoing transformation into a cow, an innocent victim of unrestrained passion.
And one day soon, he would come into possession of a baldric engraved with yet another woeful tale from his ancestry:
The image of not quite 50 young men murdered by their newlywed brides.
Lessons in human misery, unlearned.
For the old man, in pious obedience to omen and oracle, joyfully and naively promised his daughter to the leader of a people from the East, newly arrived upon his shores.
He gave no thought to the consequences, this good man.
His infuriated people, their rage stoked by divine machination and the sight of their own countrymen bloodied in a skirmish with the invaders, surrounded his palace and clamored for war.
They demanded that he perform the ritual opening of the shrine they called the “Gates of War.”
These twin gates, guarded by a god with a face for each set of doors, were hung from iron posts and shut tight with bars of bronze.
In the passageway between them sat a howling, bloody-jawed monstrosity upon a heap of weapons: frenzied War.
These were the gates that the old man, a good man, refused to touch.
He turned away, recoiling with disgust from this duty, and hid himself in dark shadow.
And so the goddess, the one who hated these Easterners, did it herself.
She swooped down, and with a mighty blow from her hand, the gates burst open.
But some time later, after the deaths of
Rhamnes, Remus, Lamyrus, Lamus, Serranus, Fadus, Herbesus, Abaris, Rhoetus, Sulmo, Tagus, Euryalus, Volcens, Nisus, Numa, Helenor, Lycus, Emathion, Corynaeus, Ortygius, Caenius, Itys, Clonius, Dioxippus, Promolus, Sagaris, Idas, Privernus, Arcens, Numanus, Remulus, Antiphates, Meropes, Erymas, Aphidnus, Bitias, Pandarus, Phaleris, Gyges, Halys, Phegeus, Alcander, Halius, Noemon, Prytanis, Lynceus, Amycus, Clytius, Cretheus, Theron, Lichas, Cisseus, Gyas, Pharus, Maeon, Alcanor, Dryopes, Lagus, Hisbo, Sthenius, Anchemolus, Laridus, Thymber, Ladon, Pheres, Demodocus, Strymonius, another Rhoetus, Thoas, Halaesus, Abas, Pallas, Magus, Haemon’s son, Anxur, Tarquitus, Antaeus, Lucas, another Numa, Camers, Niphaeus, Lucagus, Liger, Hebrus, Latagus, Palmus, Evanthes, Mimas, Acron, Orodes, Alcathous, Hydaspes, Parthenias, Orses, Clonius, Ericetes, Agis, Thronius, Salius, Lausus, Mezentius, Aconteus, another Remulus, Iollas, Herminius, Eunaeus, Liris, Pagasus, Amastrus, Tereus, Harpalycus, Demophoon, Chromis, Ornytus, Orsilochus, Butes, Aunus’ son, Camilla, Arruns, and many other unnamed warriors …
After all these violent deaths in war, the old man mounted his chariot and drove out upon the battlefield, hoping thereby to prevent still more bloodshed.
On his head he wore a crown in the shape of a sunburst, with twelve golden rays.
In his hand he held a wooden scepter sheathed in bronze.
It was once a sapling, he said to the bronze-clad warriors standing around him, holding it up for them to see, but never again would it grow leaves or cast shade, having been cut from its roots and so deprived of its mother’s sustenance.
As he spoke, there stretched away from him and from the young men of the armies, who were assembled there to witness the duel of their two champions, rivals for marriage to the old man’s daughter …
There stretched away from them a dusty, level plain.
A level plain, for the Easterners had cleared this land of every single tree, leaving only their stumps.
And somewhere on that battlefield lay the stump of a wild olive, a humble, bitter-leaved tree, nonetheless long venerated by this people.
Greatly revered, for that tree had been consecrated to the old man’s father, god of the wild forests, voice in the wilderness.