This is another short story based on one of my characters from Ultima Online. She was created as a temporary character to appear in a production of the Golden Brew Players, but after ten years or so, I guess she’s not so temporary after all, and deserves a bit of a background story. She’s also the only one of my characters to appear in a non-fiction book, sitting near Lord British in an illustration from Amy Jo Kim’s book, “Community Building for the Web”.
The golden sun poured its radiance down upon the countryside, and in the temple of Apollo sacrifices were made and thanks given, but not far from the temple an old woman reclined in the meager shade of a fig tree and cursed the sun, the sun god, and the chariot that he rode in on.
It was a fine tirade, full of creative invective, but she found herself winded far too soon and paused to catch her breath.
It was then that she saw the man standing nearby. He was a rotund man, his chiton belted carelessly with a frayed cord that did nothing to contain his girth, and he had been watching her curse with an expression of wry bemusement.
“You don’t think very highly of the gods, I gather?” the man said.
The woman snorted. “On the contrary. I honor them with only the finest of abuse. It is the least I can do in return for the comprehensive selection of aches and pains they have seen fit to gift me with.”
The man laughed, and his laugh was warm and sincere. “You’re Lysistrata,” he said. A statement, not a question.
“Yes,” she replied cautiously, “And you are…?”
He ignored the question. “Tell me about yourself.”
She snorted. “It’s a short story. I was born. I grew up. I ignored suitors. I got old. And in the final act, I die.”
“Final act,” mused the man. “Interesting turn of phrase. Do you like the theatre, Lysistrata?”
“Women aren’t allowed at the theatre,” she replied.
“True, but that’s not what I asked.” The man leaned in towards her, so close she could smell a sweet hint of fine wine on his breath. “Tell me true: do you like the theatre?”
She felt light-headed, suddenly, giddy and reckless. “No,” she whispered in a conspiratorial tone. “I don’t like the theatre. I LOVE the theatre!”
He smiled back, and… strange, how that smile could make such a lump of a man look oddly rakish. “You’ve been sneaking in, haven’t you? Every chance you got, since you were… what, ten?”
She giggled, swaying towards him, then righted herself with a start. “How did you know that?” she demanded.
“I know everything that happens in the theatre,” he whispered. “I’ve watched you watching every play. I know the places you hide. I have heard your anguished longing to be up on that stage, to show the blundering apprentices how a woman should be played, proud and strong.” He cupped her cheek in his warm hand. “I know who you really are, Lysistrata, deep in your heart. You’re an actor. And now, do you know who I am?”
Tears streamed down her face and her voice caught in her throat. “Dionysus?” she whispered.
He stepped back, and as he did the illusion of weight melted from his frame, revealing a slender but muscular frame, a trained body, a performer’s instrument. “God of wine and drama, at your service, my lady.” He sketched a bow that would not be in fashion for another one or two thousand years, and kissed her hand softly. A warmth spread from where his lips touched, and Lysistrata felt herself blushing like a shy maiden.
She struggled to collect her racing thoughts. “Why have you come? Why show yourself to me?”
“Lysistrata,” he replied gently, “you were right. This is your last act. Today. The curtain is closing on your life.”
She bowed her head in acceptance, but couldn’t quite contain a sob. “I know. I’ve known for a while now. I just… I’m not ready… the Dithyramb is in three weeks. Just let me see it once more.” She met his eyes, pleading. “Just three more weeks.”
“I won’t make that bargain with you,” said the god. “Such deals end badly for mortals, and the fates are harshest with those favored by the gods.” Dionysus knelt before her. “I have another proposal. Perhaps it is more cruel, but it is your decision to make, your destiny to choose.”
“That is all I’ve ever asked,” said Lysistrata.
“And what you’ve always been denied, isn’t it?”
She nodded silently.
“Here then is what I offer,” said Dionysus. “Forsake the rest you have earned. Shake off the clutch of the grave and be my maenad. You will see wonders you have never imagined. You will be princess and beggar, courtesan and nun. But wherever you are, there will be a stage, and you will be upon it, practicing the art of theatre.”
“This is the cruel fate you spoke of?” said Lysistrata.
Dionysus nodded. “You will not remember this life. You will be denied the peace of the grave. Lifetime after lifetime you will live, and you will never be truly happy when you are not before an audience. Your craft, your artistry, will be spurned and mocked for centuries, and even in periods when it is not, only other actors will ever really understand. The hunger to perform… do not underestimate its power. It can lift you far above the earth, and then release you to tumble uncontrollably towards your doom. Only when you achieve balance between your passion and the discipline of your craft will you master yourself. Can you do this? Are you willing to try?”
The old woman smiled. “I was born for it. I do not fear this destiny. I embrace it.”
Dionysus extended his hand to her. “Then come with me.”
She took his hand and stood. Her body made no effort to follow, and she looked back upon herself. How small she had been, wrinkled and sad! But sad no longer — an enigmatic smile blessed her still, unmoving face.
Lysistrata floated gracefully alongside Dionysus, young again, lithe and beautiful. Each step felt like a dance, and the oppressively hot Grecian summer faded into a teasing light warmth upon her etherial form.
“Dionysus? If you please… may I ask one more thing of you?”
The god arched an eyebrow. “A request already?”
She ducked her head shyly. “I know… I know I won’t remember this life, this existence. But it pains me to think my name will be forgotten, swallowed by the vastness of time.”
“Ah!” said the god. “A spot of vanity! Splendid! You’re already on the road to stardom!” He waved his hand in the air with a flourish. “There. I give you my promise, your name will not be forgotten, though the details of your existence may be… embellished.”
She smiled radiantly at him. “Thank you!”
He offered his arm. “Shall we be off?”
She took Dionysus’ arm. “I can’t wait!”
Many miles away, in Athens, a man sat before a blank scroll of papyrus, idly tapping his stylus against his desktop. So preoccupied was he that he failed to notice the woman materializing behind his back.
“Hello, Aristophanes,” she trilled in a musical voice.
The man started violently, nearly sending his writing materials flying. He glared at the woman, who laughed gleefully at his reaction. “Thalia! That’s not funny!”
She stuck out her tongue. “Who’s the muse of comedy here? If I say it’s funny, it’s funny!”
The man grumbled and set to putting his desk back in order. “I’m stuck, Thalia. Again. Have you got anything useful for me this time?”
The muse pouted. “You didn’t like my last suggestion.”
Aristophanes rolled his eyes. “Culturally impossible. How am I supposed to explain this imaginary game of yours in sufficient detail that the audience understands or cares who’s on first?”
Thalia shook her head. “All right, all right. Forget about that. Got something new for you. This is hot. Get this: split choruses, first time ever on stage. Topical comedy, current events. Zany antics. Lots of sex… well, lots of references to sex. And a heartwarming message of peace to wrap it up. This is straight from the brain of the master himself!”
The man grabbed for his stylus and scroll, an eager gleam in his eye. “I knew I could count on you! What’ll we call it?”
Thalia smiled. “Lysistrata.”