Apollo’s chariot ride was coming to an end. As he slowed down for one long last look at the sky, he lit the sky up with lustrous shades of gold and red. It was a sight to witness, certainly. Yet, the throngs of people below in the town weren’t interested. Not a single soul looked at his magnificent chariot, although just one look could have calmed down the anxiety of their dying men, fighting a useless war on their insignificant battlefield. Insignificant, even for mortal standards. Nevertheless wartime it was, and all humans lose their perception of art and beauty in such times. A flaw, which Apollo could attribute to the fact that they were mortal. Bound to die, yet afraid of it, and hence anxious to save their delicate life for as long as they could.
But this wasn’t what Apollo was interested in.
At one corner of a plaza in a small town, a young man gently played his nylon guitar. Although the calm tunes helped everyone, the ‘tips’ jar sat empty. On an ordinary day, Scevola would have made enough for his next day’s meals by now, but even as Apollo tried slowing down the chariot to buy the man a few more minutes of sunshine, he knew that not a single person would drop anything in that hat.
War has this tendency of removing appreciation and gratitude from mortals.
Scevola was desperate for work. During wartime, there were no occasions to play on, so there were no opportunities to freelance. There was only one place where he could get some work, the Church.
He had gone there earlier in the day and knocked on the wooden door, where he had been greeted by a rude priest.
“What do you want?”
“Work, as a musician,” Scevola had said, gesturing towards his guitar.
“Would I have to pay you?” the Priest had asked. His eyes indicated genuine doubt, as if it weren’t obvious enough from Scevola’s rags and his unmistakably starved body that he needed money.
“I just need enough for two meals in a day.”
The Priest, the same man who would teach people not to get angry, and to treat everyone with love as if they were your sibling, had then turned red with rage.
“Get lost from my sight! Have you seen the times? The Church does not need your music. You should consider it a privilege to even play here you left-handed monstrosity. How dare you ask for money!”
Saying his fill, he had slammed the door. Scevola hadn’t fussed about it at that moment however, he couldn’t have afforded to. The crowds on the streets had started becoming dense and the evening rush at the plaza, his last hope at earning anything for the day, had begun and he had moved towards the plaza to sing his songs again. Now, however, the desperation caused him to whine about the situation. What was wrong in asking for the minimum requirements of life? Didn’t everybody have a right to live? He stared at his left hand. He had faced years of discrimination because of it. At the orphanage, nobody would sit with him to eat. The Church only ever treated him like a hostile. Of course, there were nice people in town too, who did not care for trivial stuff like what hand he ate with, but it still hurt Scevola every time he was denied an opportunity because of his dominant hand.
He finally gave up at midnight. Apart from a kind gentleman who dropped him a loaf of coarse brown bread, and the deaf old woman who had given him an apple, he had earned nothing the whole week. Whatever little he had saved while times were good had run out. He regretted not charging more for his services then. The only thing encouraging about today was the loaf of bread, it was at least a few days’ worth of food.
Apollo wished to drop down right now and save young Scevola from his misery, but he was already on Zeus’s bad side, he almost always was. He couldn’t afford to intervene.
Scevola went to the park and lay down a cold bench there. He looked up at the starry night and admired the full moon, a scene so peaceful, one might have forgotten that the kingdom is at war. Under normal circumstances, Apollo’s infinite ego would have caused him to curse the man for appreciating only his sister, but this one was an exception.
Apollo was in love with this man. This wonderful orphan who had taught himself to play the guitar.
It was when Scevola had sung the Orphic Hymns at his shrine for the first time, as a 14 year old, that he had drawn Apollo’s attention. His music was strong enough to grab the God’s attention while he was admiring his favourite laurel. And to impress the God of Music was no ordinary feat. Thus, for the past ten years, Apollo had carefully watched this individual. He left him presently, to sleep in peace.
A new sun came out, as falsely encouraging as the last. After eating a slice from the loaf, he walked towards the plaza. His steps were quiet on the dusty road. He clutched his tattered clothes tightly as he walked, winter had extended its embrace over the morning breeze. Many saw him walking by, but only about as much as one sees the stones on a street. Many saw him and yet, it didn’t feel like anybody did. If he were to drop dead at this moment, nobody would even take him to the graveyard, forget a hospital. When times were good, everybody asked him for favours. He had played on many occasions. He had sung for birth and for peaceful deaths. He had sung for prosperity and for happiness, and yet he could have none of it. Cursed is the life of a minstrel, he thought. All those happy emotions he sang of, which he could have none of. He sat down at his spot on the plaza, set his rugged hat down on the ground, and began playing. The moment his fingers touched the old strings, it was as if new life were filled into the tense air around him.
It was Apollo’s greatest desire to grant this left-hander immortality, just like it was his desire to ask him out, although that would be a much more trickier thing to do considering his long history with male lovers that wind up dead, or as plants. At the moment, however, observing him was the only thing he was capable of.
As Scevola sang, it was evident that those around him seemed to be rejuvenated. Fresh enthusiasm and hope were filled into their hearts, and even then, not one of them turned to give him just a friendly glance. Nobody could be considerate enough to even acknowledge his presence. He was just another rock on the road.
The sun rose higher and higher. Scevola knew how high it would rise. He stopped when the fruitless fig tree behind him finally stopped giving him shade. He headed to the temple, to the shrine of Apollo, for a change. He threw a slice of his bread into the flames. He did not particularly like the God but was grateful for the sun shining every morning, filling him up with just enough zeal to live and fight another day. The sun was as underappreciated as him, painting the skies with painstaking effort every day, granting the light that lets beautiful Life flourish and yet, always taken for granted. The Romans, Scevola knew, had never acknowledged Apollo as the God of the Sun. They took this role, gave most of it to Sol, the equivalent of Helios and Apollo’s role as the Sun God was mostly discarded. Scevola believed more in the Greeks, despite what his name would suggest. He thanked the God and calmly said his prayers.
A single tear went down the Sun God’s cheek. He wanted to rush down there this moment and tell him how much the Sun cared for him, how badly he wanted to rid him of pain, and more than anything, to tell him how much he loved him.
It was then that Apollo saw a familiar figure behind a tree. A set of cold eyes were looking at Scevola, and a downturned torch was in the figure’s hand. Apollo didn’t need any more details to know who this man was. The merciless God, hated by the Gods and mortals alike, the son of Night and Darkness –Thanatos. A horrified Apollo rushed to confront him.
“What brings you here Thanatos?”
“There is only one purpose I have in this world, and only one person here, who has anything to do with my purpose.”
“You can’t take him! He’s done no wrong!”
“Those who are dead rarely ever do wrong. They just happen to be in bad situations. Besides, Apollo, Death isn’t all too bad, it does rid one of pain, you see.”
His calm annoyed Apollo. It infuriated him that the life of his beloved guitarist meant nothing to anyone but him. It was true that down in the Underworld, Scevola wouldn’t have to worry about mundane things, like staying alive. But this wasn’t the way Apollo wished his pain would be erased.
“Do you think he should get a Roman treatment? I mean, should I do it as Mors?”
Although Thanatos might have meant that question lightly, like a joke, his calm tone did not let Apollo interpret it the same way. His love was on the verge of death, and this pathetic mess of a god was worried about whether he should wear Roman or Greek while separating them.
Apollo glared at Thanatos, eyebrows pulled down together, eyes wide. Thanatos understood the message and shrugged. He said in the same monotony as always,
“The night will be cold, Apollo. I will be back then.”
The God of Death vanished into the shadows and left Apollo to look at Scevola and worry about what he could do, which was nothing.
Scevola finished his prayer, looked up at the skies and sighed. It wasn’t very evident, but he was losing hope with each passing moment. A man can survive 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water and maybe 3 minutes without air. But without hope? He could not survive but for 3 seconds. Hope is also an underappreciated part of life.
The evening went by uneventfully. There was no change in the state of affairs. The sky was a beautiful canvas yet again. The music cheered people on, promising peace, victory and a happy future. A happy future for all, for all except the one who sang of it, Apollo thought. The last evening of Scevola’s life came to a close.
On the way back to the park, a small boy sat at one corner of the street. He was crying. The absence of a guardian told Scevola that his father had most likely recruited for war, and died on the bloody grounds of the battlefield. He recalled that the death toll had been brought in today. The boy must have been hungry for a while now. He took out his loaf of bread and gave it to him with a sense of reassurance he did not feel. The boy’s eyes widened. He thanked him and tore away at the bread. He was hungry after all. Scevola left feeling desperate, yet content. Apollo silently observed the unsung hero.
Scevola lay down on the cold bench, the same way he did every other night. It was an ordinary night to him. Ignorance is bliss, for two trees away, the knowledge of the future was killing Apollo. The insignificance of it all broke his heart. He had seen the most worthless of kings being given the grandest of farewells, then there was his beloved Scevola, who would die on a dull, stone park bench. Scevola’s eyes slowly closed, as his consciousness vanished into one brother’s embrace, the other soon to come and take his soul, Apollo silently blessed him. No doubt, Scevola would get Elysium or even Isles of the Blest. But to be dead, is to be dead, and no paradise could match the joy of being alive. Apollo left a few minutes later, the beautiful face etched into his memory. He had no choice but to accept this fate.
It was indeed very cold that night.