Two months ago, I launched a contest inspired by the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Darmok’. You were invited to send me a very short story that consisted entirely of metaphor, similar to how the episode’s Tamarians spoke.
The difficulty of the assignment meant that only four people sent in submissions. Fortunately, each of these proved to be creative and interesting, so every one will be sent a book as a reward. The winners are listed below, along with the stories that they submitted, and some comments from my side. Enjoy!
Jake was the first to submit a story for the contest. It doesn’t stick entirely to the ‘metaphor-only’ speech pattern of the Tamarians, but includes plenty of allusions, similes, and other references that people with a decent knowledge of the ancient world are likely to get.
Sirius had risen. Sejanus’ toga hung on him like it was made by Phalaris. Helios, at least, had the wind from his chariot to fan his face. The air was still like Ixion’s wheel when Orpheus plucked his lyre. Nothing moved. Thoughts sprung from nowhere like rocks chucked by Deucalion. Alone in the tablinium, he paced and sweated; declaimed to himself and sweated.
‘This might as well be the Pontine marsh and not the place Rhea Silvia’s brats have bequeathed to the world. All that time and still brothers bash each other heads in. Or, in my case, forced to play Horatius Cocles at the bridge by my co-consul in absentia! Am I to be Crassus at Carrhae with my head served up to the Parthians? Or, probably a new Pentheus wide-eyed as the Bacchae get wise to the whole charade!’ As he spat out the words, his face screwed up like Laocoon.
Sejanus knew he had enemies hiding as though coordinated by Mithradates VI Eupator Dionysus of Pontus. No one can see behind himself. Sure, Argus Panoptes got his licks in with Echidna but even he lost Io!
Sejanus paused, his eyes leaking like craggy old Niobe. He raised his arm and even Phidias couldn’t chisel out a better mix of pathos and chironomia.
‘I was a Ker for that Thanatos on Capri! I was the Cyllenian psychopomp! It should have been Cannae for the Optimates! I should have sown the dragon’s teeth, built the seven gates and not leave an Echion, Oudais, Chthonios, Hyperenor or Peloros! Although instead of seven gates, give me the Caelian, the Aquiline, the Capitoline, the Viminal, the Esquiline, the Quirinal and that oh-so-chic Palantine!
‘It doesn’t take someone who’s been a man and a woman to see that I’m to be the Iphegenia in this tragedy. It’s a pity there’s no Dionysia to commemorate it. I’ll get the Actaeon treatment without even getting to see that Ortygian Parthenos! Even Varus’ leftovers were bleached white in peace away from Arminius. The one with big nose – you know who… he pleaded with Calliope like Euripidean Phaedra with her Hippolytus – wound up sending Tristia from Tomis. My exile isn’t that far. I’ll be banished across town to the Tarpeian. No need to pack bags!’
Sejanus wished he could believe that he would be saved by touching Jupiter Capitolinus’ knee in supplication. He longed to believe that propitiating tiny Lares tucked into their little house would release from his fate. ‘But libations don’t work on the Parcae,’ he thought. ‘You might as well be Xerxes whipping the Hellespont. The Erinyes were coming for him. Sword of Damocles and all that. If he wasn’t like Diagoras of Melos at least he could believe there would be a Lethe! At any rate, he hoped he wouldn’t be bothered by some son of Anchises who chats up Deiphobe at Cumae; hurls Misenus – serves him right for piping with Triton! – into the ground and waves his golden twig at Proserpina!’
He walked softly out the room in his slippers wishing he had on caligae. He tugged at his toga and wished for a tunic and breastplate. He wished his house was littered gladii and not scrolls. ‘Alea iacta est,’ he said to himself with a smirk. ‘Maybe my Rubicon will be the piss and water that run in the gutter.’ With that, he opened the door and squinted into the sun.
Paul has written for Ancient Warfare in the past. He sent me this story, with the heading ‘Nicomedes met Myronides’, and added that the story was virtually unintelligible: ‘even knowing all the history its near impossible.’ Of all the submissions, this one hews most closely to the episode. Here is the text in full:
Misthophoroi, ‘Thalassa, Thalassa’ cry; Spears clash on the Lelantine plain; Arachne winds the burden of Atlas. Sparta and Argos, 300 each side! Aeneas, Arrian, Vegetius! Arms and armour on a post in a field of dead. The 10,000, a prince lay dead. Gorgo under wax. Battle ends at Asculum’s first clash. Darius, Alexander oncoming; Herodotus with an eye to the past. Ptolemy to punish Berenices’s Bane; Alexander through the Persian Gates. Dienekes’ under arrows; Aetolians at the gate with Aegiratans at heel. Ouragos sees Promachos in othismos. No Skythian roams the Athenian streets. Lysander, when lion gives out. Immortals over Trachian path; Thebes at Mantinea march. Pelopidas in Tegyra’s course; Argives at Cleomenes shift. Feet drum on Marathon’s plain. Antony at Actium’s end; Agesilaus round the Ionian shore. Tyrtaios chants to Spartan youth; Coronea ends, some swords in sheaths, some in flesh. At Syracuse, stone-throwers, slingers, and bowmen retire, while goats bleed and trumpets blare!
Helpfully, Paul also provided a line-by-line translation, headed ‘At Tanagra’:
Misthophoroi, “Thalassa, Thalassa” cry (I see with excitement); Spears clash on the Lelantine plain (Ancient Warfare); Arachne winds the burden of Atlas (on the world wide web). Sparta and Argos, 300 each side (They are hosting a contest)! Aeneas, Arrian, Vegetius! (Books on warfare!) Arms and armor on a post in a field of dead (For the winners). The 10,000, a prince lay dead (I must return home). Gorgo under wax (And write something). Battle ends at Asculum’s first clash (It was dusk, the sun hanging low in the sky). Darius, Alexander oncoming (I jump in my vehicle and speed away); Herodotus with an eye to the past (to write). Ptolemy to punish Berenices’s Bane (Off to the east I go). Alexander through the Persian Gates (We are blinded by the sun as drivers panic). Dienekes’ under arrows (I pull down my sunshade); Aetolians at the gate with Aegiratans at heel (Cars pile up in a traffic jam). Ouragos sees Promachos in othismos (The cars at the front of my lane have crashed together!). No Skythian roams the Athenian streets (No police in sight), Lysander, when lion gives out (I must use trickery to solve this struggle). Immortals over Trachian path (I make my own short-cut); Thebes at Mantinea march (veering off to the left). Pelopidas in Tegyra’s course (I burst through the crowded cars); Argives at Cleomenes shift (but other drivers copy my move). Feet drum on Marathon’s plain (We take off as fast as we can). Antony at Actium’s end (I pull away from the pack); Agesilaus round the Ionian shore (and I work my way through a tortuous path home); Tyrtaios chants to Spartan youth (I must come up with a tale worthy of my audience): Coronea ends, some swords in sheaths, some in flesh (A story like no other in our time); At Syracuse, stone-throwers, slingers, and bowmen retire, while goats bleed and trumpets blare (Enough with the preliminaries, time to get to work)!
Regular contributor and fellow podcaster Marc DeSantis also submitted a story, entitled ‘That Horse Tale’. I expect that it isn’t too difficult to figure out what the story is about. Here it is:
‘Hotter than the forge of Hephaestus it is in here!’ complained Diomedes. ‘Would that I had the drink of Hebe to slake my thirst!’
‘Far easier it would be to slip past the Hound of Hades than to spirit a cupful of that Olympian beverage out of the Thunderer’s hall,’ Odysseus noted.
‘All this talk of drinking reminds me that I need to drown Atlantis,’ whined Menelaus. ‘Would that I had done so before climbing aboard this wooden horse!’
‘We begged thee in earnest to go before we set out, just as Thetis once pleaded on behalf of her mighty son with the cloud collector,” reminded Odysseus. ‘You said you were good.’
‘I thought I was,’ shrugged Menelaus, ‘but alas, this past decade before Priam’s high-walled city has taken its toll on my bladder.’
‘It has taken a grim toll on each of us as well,” Philoctetes snarled, ‘but with no prospect for anyone else to have the lovely daughter of Leda to wife when this is all over.’
‘How long?’ demanded Menelaus. ‘The turbulent flow of the River Alpheus will not be denied forever!’
‘Hush!’ Odysseus whispered. ‘The Trojans will hear us!’
‘There is nought but a Tower of Babel below,’ said Teucer. ‘I understand nothing of what is being said.’
‘They are hauling us by a leash like Leviathan,’ Odysseus explained. ‘It won’t be long now.’
‘There is the signal!’ cried Diomedes. ‘Open the hatch! We will descend on them like Icarus plummeting beneath the fiery orb of Helios.’
‘Oh no,’ Idomeneus moaned. “I left the key in my other chiton! How now will we escape from the timber belly of this equine Tartarus?’
All eyes turned to the crafty king of Ithaca. “Think of something!’ the Achaean heroes chorused.
Odysseus pointed to the Thessalian archer. ‘Smelly-footed Philoctetes,’ he said, ‘is the least popular of the Argives before Ilion. Toss him through the hatch. Hard.’
“What? Hold on now!’ sputtered the ill-ankled son of Poeas as the noble Danaans held him aloft. ‘What if I break my good ankle when I hit the ground?’
‘Be sure to break your fall with your bad one,’ advised Diomedes. “It’s very hot in here.’
“And I must still drown Atlantis,’ added Menelaus.
Troy fell that very day.
And here’s the final submission that I received, a few days before the deadline. Like Jake and Marc, Justine limited the Tamarian-like speech pattern to the words uttered by her characters:
‘They’re taller than the Lighthouse!’
‘And the wooden horse was a lovely gift.’
‘Well, bigger than Polyphemus’ sheep anyway.’ Gaius set down his wine cup. ‘The lads reckon they’ll block out the sun.’
‘So give them Dienekes answer. Besides, much good they did Pyrrhus. If you’re going to go all Cassandra-like, worry about crossing that river.’
‘It’s hardly the Acheron. Besides, surely the consul won’t try and be Alexander?’
‘The consul’s up for re-election so he’d like to be Fabius Maximus if not Tarquin or Hercules. No, I’ll wager we’ll be drenched like Achilles, so he can save us from a second Allia. Prepare to freeze. It’ll snow.’
‘Freeze now, fame later: sounds good… that’ll be my centuria’s motto tomorrow.’
‘Pericles couldn’t’ve put it better, you’ll make us sound the equal of Marathon.’
‘But Dido’s prophecy?’
‘Do you really think a maniac who crosses mountains in winter is a hero who’ll gain the lasting fame of Horatius Cocles? About as likely as a legion crossing the Rubicon. No, come the Idus Martiae, he’ll be old news, I hope. Let’s get this over, get disbanded and go home. I can’t wait for that nice hot bath from my Penelope.’
And those are the lucky winners of the contest. I hope you’ll have fun figuring out all of the references in these short tales, and I thank the four contestants for the hard work that they obviously put into writing these stories.