Early in the first century, sometime during
the increasingly destructive reign of Tiberius,
a ship was making its way slowly up
the western coast of Greece for Italy.
Having just finished dinner, many of the passengers
were strolling around on deck, enjoying
another cup of wine, admiring the sunset
or the dark shoulders of Paxos, a small island of olive groves
that for a brief time separated the vessel
from the forbidding limestone headlands of Epirus.
The wind lessened, then ceased altogether.
The ship drifted. The trees near the shoreline
grew larger as they disappeared.
Suddenly a voice erupted from them, calling
the name of the Egyptian helmsman, unknown to all
but a few on board. “Thamus!” it shouted, and again,
“Thamus!” When it called a third time Thamus answered,
and the voice, louder still, as if in pain
or anger, no one afterward could figure out, now said,
“When you pass near Palodes let them know
the great god Pan is dead!”
Passengers and crew alike, puzzled
and suspicious, started arguing
about the significance of what they’d just heard,
some sure the voice should be obeyed,
some certain it was crazy to get involved
in what was clearly none of their business.
If he had a good wind, Thamus decided,
he’d sail past Palodes as usual,
but if he were becalmed, as they’d been a few minutes earlier,
he’d do the voice’s bidding. Next morning
off Palodes, the sea was a breathless mirror.
He stepped to the rail, leaned out, and repeated the words exactly.
There was a rush of wind, and from the hazy coastline
came the sound of countless people crying out—
the sound a crowd makes when an acrobat slips fatally
from her partner’s grasp, the sound of any multitude
unable to escape what it must recognize.

This Issue

August 16, 1990