“Compassion is the basis of all morality”
The first man he had brought death to was his father. He brought it to him in a dirty golden goblet, stained purple with the earthy poison it often held. His mother had forfeited the (not insubstantial) silver for the mixture, and the People had been kind enough to provide the goblet itself. Thus was Lamprocles, the fittest of his family, reduced to Death’s delivery-boy.
Despite years of similar service for his mother, he was not a very fast courier: he moved towards his destination in a cautious stabilizing tread. This was somewhat necessary, as he had to overcome the city’s most recent scars- scattered mounds of splintered stone and shredded wood. As he climbed over these remains of the Athenians’ once grand wall, he kept his goblet-hand locked and extended, so as not to spill the mixture. Were he one year younger, he would have engineered such a spill rather than avoid it. He would have run in quiet tears to his mother and claimed there was an accident on the road or an incident at the herbalist’s store. She would have consoled and lightly scolded him, then turned to her father for another loan to pay for the second dose. She would have gone herself the second time, to beg the storekeeper for another mixture at a reduced price so that her children would not be hungry while they mourned. All the shame, dishonesty, and poverty, he would have endured- if only it bought his father the time it took to deliver a second mixture.
But Lamprocles was twelve years of age, and though not yet a man, he had begun to understand what it was that would make him so. Honor and Duty obligated him to guard the goblet with his life. He was more than willing to lay down his life- he had, in fact, planned to do so, to drink the hemlock himself as soon as he acquired it and thereby save his father’s life. But, in time, he recognized this childish plan for what it was: his lifeless body would do little to prevent his father’s execution. Now, his body’s only use was to safely deliver the contents he had been entrusted with. Virtue, however, did not obligate him to make the delivery quickly. Accordingly, he carefully steadied his leg prior to every footfall, without exception or haste.
It was late morning, the first assembly of the day had come to an end, and the marketplace was laced with sunlight and citizens. Lamprocles avoided the animated crowds, for his heart was wrathful (if he met a juryman en route his words would be bitter and fey) and, moreover, his task was one of Shame. He followed the southern sea breeze to the low southwest corner of the marketplace, where the rising sun’s light was restrained by the surrounding hills and towering citadel. The colonnades of the jail loomed in dark grey, obscuring the entrance and its guard. He approached the entrance, greeted the guard respectfully, and walked towards the distinctive blue of his mother’s only dyed tunic. His younger brothers sheltered in her arms; Menexenos pawed at dancing strands of his mother’s black hair, while Sophroniscos, seemingly troubled by the commotion, shut his eyes and nuzzled into her pale skin.
“I am here Mother. I brought the poison.” Lamprocles said, lifting the goblet up to her.
Xanthippe’s gaze was already upon him, for though her eyes were as red stained glass, her head spurned the weight of tears, and she had been intent on the entryway prior to his arrival. “Leave it at the dais, and come sit beside me little-lamb.” She laid the slumbering Sophroniscos on her lap, and created a space for her son to lie.
Lamprocles completed his delivery and while the guard swept the goblet under his cloak and marched it away, Lamprocles joined his mother, but did not sit down. As he faced her, she reached her hand out and encircled his own.
“I’m sorry you had to bring the hemlock here yourself. I know to even touch such a thing must have hurt you, but the law demands your father drink before the sun’s recess.”
“I am unaffected mother: it was my duty and I have done it”
His mother smiled. “Of course you have. Now will you not return home? I must stay and…” her tone hardened, “argue with your father.”
“No, I wish to see him,” he said in a small voice.
“Little-lamb you need not come, he does not expect you to. It is too cruel a time for such fragile youth.”
“I must stay, mother! I must… I want to… I need to ask something of him.”
She sighed, “I will not deny my own son the right to see his father. But I warn you, he is with his friends today, he may deny you himself. Come, sit beside me and we will wait until your father deigns to grace us with the overwhelming awe of his presence.”
Lamprocles sat against his mother, and observed the quiet jail while she stroked his hair into its usual curls. The aligned granite of the interior imposed a grey uniformity upon their surroundings; the rock swallowed what little color there was, rendering all into insignificant specks upon stone.
Yet, the adjoining hall was not so dim. In it, under a divine idol of black marble, a small hearth burned with failing embers. To Lamprocles’ interest, the light did not come from the fire, but from the idol itself. For though it was darkened, the figure reflected the embers’ dying blaze, and as if the idol’s heart had taken in this beating flame, it enlightened the entire hall with waves of warm radiance.
The guard returned and led Lamprocles and Xanthippe to a small room at the end of the empty hall. Inside, his father stood, slightly stooped with the great age he had possessed even at the very shores of Lamprocles’ memory. His grey hair and long beard were clean and combed as if just bathed, and his face possessed the light smile of sympathetic cheer. He spoke in the corner with Crito. Crito was an old friend of Lamprocles’ father: they had been friends, Crito had told him once, since they were even younger than Lamprocles was now.
“And what a boy your father was!” Crito had exclaimed, “When I was old enough to go to school, but he was not, I passed his home to say goodbye for the day.
‘Where are you going Crito?’ he asked me, and I told him.
‘Well, you need not say goodbye, for I will go with you.’ And that was that- not all the warnings I gave him about the punishments and the sitting and the silence would dissuade him. In fact, just when I thought I had convinced him to leave, I rounded a corner and found that he had beaten me to my own school-day! I still do not know how he arrived sooner than I did, for even in old age we walk the same pace.
When school began, and our instructors ordered silence after gymnastics, your father was so quiet, that none of the instructors ever noticed him, and he spent the whole day with me. That is, until we were released. I ran home, not wanting to lose twice in the same day and finding myself alone, waited triumphantly. But your father never showed! I looked for him all evening and I could not find him. The next morning, he did not greet me at his home. I foolishly thought perhaps I had offended him by running off or that he was ashamed of coming with me. When I arrived at school, and entered our classrooms, whom did I see but the very man I had been looking for!
‘What are you doing here??’ I asked him. At first he did not respond, but once I called him a few times he said:
‘Oh, Crito, good morning. I was thinking about what our instructor taught us yesterday. I just tried to ask him about it, but either he did not know or he did not wish to speak to me’
‘But our instructor has not arrived yet; you must be lying!’
‘He was here yesterday’
‘You have been here since yesterday?’
‘Why should I leave? I am thinking. I need not move to think.’ Typically, he did the same thing the next day, and the next, until I started expecting him there each morning, and each morning, he would tell me what he had thought of the last night. You should try it young man, who knows what genius will come to you in the nighttime at your school!”
“I tried it, Crito, I couldn’t think of much. Only I memorized some of the words we had learned that day,” Lamprocles, only eight years of age, responded.
“Ah, well that’s better than me; I tried to stay with your father one night, and I slept nearly the whole way through. When I did wake, the dark was so thorough and the walls so close that I felt as if my entire body was fixed and fettered in some vast underground cave. To my young mind, it felt as if the entire world had become nothing but living shadow. I was scared beyond all reason, and so I scrambled under some blankets and hid there unmoving until the other children found me in the morning,” Crito laughed at his own expense and shook his head. “Of course, in the light of day I made an absolutely ridiculous sight: a nearly grown boy, under blankets, sucking his thumb and raving about shadows. For your sake young man I hope you never have to explain such circumstances to your father.”
Lamprocles laughed lightly at this but soon turned to his father, asking “Father, you were with Crito and you were not scared of the dark?”
“No, the dark can hardly be frightening if one realizes that it is present whenever one closes one’s eyes. And why be scared of what you do not know? The dark may hide a ferocious lion, but it may just as likely hold a frightened Crito.” Crito laughed again at this, but Lamprocles had tilted his head and was silent.
“But you had seen the sun and its departure father, you knew the true form of the room. Why did you not comfort Crito and show him the truth?”
“Oh, I tried, but it proved quite futile. He simply could not be convinced or compelled to abandon his delusion.”
“Indeed,” added Crito, “Your father stoically explained to me that there was nothing to be afraid of and informed me that given the angles of the two corners of the room we occupied, it was necessary for the room to be trapezoidal in shape and no more than a few meters large. He even explained to me that if I came out and was patient, my eyes would adjust to see the truth. Even so, I refused to believe him and told him he had gone mad if he thought it was safe. Then, he tried to lift the blanket off of me to show me the proof, but so panicked was I that I’m afraid I gave him a rather savage kick to the chest. My sincere apologies once again for that dear friend,” he said, mock bowing towards Lamprocles’ father.
While his father returned the gesture with some mirth, Lamprocles turned to Crito and said “When I was younger and I cried when I saw little snakes, mother would pick me up and hug me and hold the snake in the air far away from me to show that it couldn’t really hurt me.” He faced his father once more “Why didn’t you just hug Crito, father? He may have understood then.” Lamprocles hadn’t understood why, but at this, both Crito and his father began laughing in earnest.
Yet, with time, Lamprocles had grown to understand. Now, he shared in their laughter, but more vitally, he understood his father’s reasoning. Embracing truth through sentiment of the spirit was an effort as futile as it was absurd- only practiced reason could coerce one towards authentic knowledge.
Lamprocles relinquished his thoughts on the distant memory as his father’s voice in the present usurped his attention. As Lamprocles and Xanthippe entered the room, they had apparently interrupted, as they so often did, an ongoing debate: his father was in the middle of a rebuttal.
“Crito, dearest friend, why is it that you, eldest of all and who should be wisest, are the only one who continues to doubt me? Since you came to me a month ago and offered escape, I have attempted to convince you that not only would it be unjust for me to leave, but I am in no real danger at all. Yet, even now you question me concerning my burial! Ah, but what new foolishness is this?” Lamprocles’ father asked, espying his family entering the room, “Crito are you responsible for this? Do you think that by calling the women and children you will move my heart to cowardice? Surely, you know me better than that.”
Crito opened his mouth to reply, but Xanthippe, her temper flaring, was quicker. “He did not call us here- we have come of our own accord to parley with the decaying mind of an old man who runs and hides from his family even into the clutches of death. Now: shall we go back out, as refuse rejected even by a dying man, or shall you show some streak of honorableness and allow us inside?”
“Of course, enter my dear, I only joke with Crito; I always welcome your company. But your words are harsh- you should know better- it is not right for a woman to speak so to her husband. Many times have we discussed the necessity of my actions. My mind was set when I prevented you from appearing in court with me, and my mind is set now.”
“Your mind is set then on a great foolishness, and where I followed your commands at the trial, I will not do so now and allow others to claim that, out of faithlessness, I allowed my husband to die alone, with no grief shared on my part.”
“It is a female weakness to care for the opinions of others. I do only as I must. My city has said I must die and to defy them would be unjust. I cannot break laws that….”
On they went, sometime arguing, sometime jesting (his father), sometime crying (his mother), sometime embracing. Eventually silence overcame the room, and Xanthippe turned to the door. She slowly exited the room, her head downcast, staring at the children in her arms. Lamprocles had never seen her so before. She was quiet and walked as if lame. He saw for the first time her pale scalp and the worn roots of her thick hair.
When Lamprocles’ mother had finally passed the door, Lamprocles moved to confront his father.
“Father,” he said, pulling at the dulled white of his father’s weathered tunic, “I wish to stay.”
“Oh?” inquired his father, “Jail is hardly a fitting place for a child to play.”
“Please do not mock me father, I wish to stay; with you and your companions as you…” his throat clutched dry air “die.”
“And why would you wish for such a thing?”
“Because… Because I love you and want to be with you, father!!” he squealed the words as if he were an infant crying for his favorite toy. His tongue writhed and recoiled into the depths of his mouth. He had not spoken to his father in months, and had forgotten how his father’s presence always made him act younger than his age.
“That is quite a claim. Any other time, we should discuss it further, but I’m afraid I must depart, my boy.” His father laid a hand on his shoulder and made to leave, but hesitated and turned back to Lamprocles. “I find it odd then that you wish to witness the death of one you claim you love. Why do you make such a request? After all, if your mother was to be executed, would you not turn your eyes away?”
“I hope you are not lying just to get your way. I have taught…”
“No! No!” Lamprocles interrupted, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t mind because I believe you.”
“Believe me? Belief is irrelevant. Your father is not a priest. Who taught you this foolishness?”
“I mean I agree with you, father!” he clarified, exasperated. “When you talk with Crito and your companions, you tell them about such wisdom. About death and the body. About our soul’s immortality. About virtue, and knowledge, and honor, and piety. I’ve listened to it all, and I want to be here when you depart! Please don’t send me far away!”
His father silenced his pleas with a kneeling motion and a sudden grim focus. Lamprocles found he was looking straight into his father’s brown eyes. “You may come, but you must promise you will behave above your years: as a man would. You must not cry or disgrace yourself.”
“Of course I won’t cry, father, I swear to act virtuously”
And he made good his promise. Later, in a room full of his father’s friends (mostly young men Lamprocles had never met), as his father drank the poison in libation, all collapsed into tears. Men twice the age of Lamprocles wept openly, Crito sobbed for his doomed friend, and another man at his father’s bed wailed loudly into the pages of a manuscript he had previously been writing in, but Lamprocles shed not a tear. He could not match the confidence of his father, but he sat close and held his father’s eyes.
“What is this, you strange fellows?” cried his father. “It is mainly for this reason that I sent the woman away, to avoid such unseemliness. One should die in a good omened silence. Control yourselves!” Suddenly, his voice faded to a whisper and he reclined onto his bed. “But ah, now the numbness crawls to my chest. We owe a favor to the gods, Crito.”
And as he died with these words on his lips, Lamprocles imagined his father looked directly at him. He plunged into the depths of this glance, and circled the fading colors of his father’s eyes. Cold white fell into autumn brown; but where he expected to find the infinite black of his pupils, he found naught but shallow pits of spent ink- still absences of all color and life that made Lamprocles blink. Though its work was wrought, the Hemlock continued to consume his father’s body, slowly turning his veins into webs of pale ice. The ashen grey of surrounding mortar and dead flesh wove together, and the entire room, propelled by the torrents of tears, flowed into the foaming Charybdis of present death. Lamprocles blinked again.
Lamprocles was struck by the unexpected flutter of frayed parchment and the pull of a weighty hand: the writing man at his side had collapsed and reached out for support, as a wounded soldier must hold his comrade to walk. The grief that so overwhelmed the writer bereft him of manhood, and though Lamprocles observed a black beard of short-pillared hair and the long stout arm of a youthful adult, he perceived only a child, blinded with the ensanguined eyes of a face strewn with the ruins of abandoned reason. Like a faulty argument, the man seemed unable even to stand under a tempest of overpowering emotion. Lamprocles stood and turned his back on the mourners; the grasping hand’s purchase drifted away, and the writer and his manuscript fell to the cold stone.