Nels Hanson

It was a month ago that we met and I moved to Bowling Green, just before the March Madness college basketball playoffs began, when the Kentucky Wildcats were favored to win the national title and the brilliant actress Ashley Judd was receiving for her outspoken support of her alma mater’s promising team obscene violent threats over Twitter.

That late-winter day I didn’t connect the “Bluegrass State” with ancient ghosts, pagan gods or Greek sculpture, although the white-fenced pastureland I’d seen beyond the train’s windows would later appear blue as the Aegean Sea surrounding the Cyclades and the sacred island of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo.

As the iron wheels kept turning and we’d crossed from West Virginia, I’d remembered the sad bluegrass song about the coal miner, how “it’s a long way to Harlan, it’s a long way to Hazard, just to get a little brew, just to get a little brew,” that “this nine-pound hammer is a little too heavy, for my size, well for my size.”

And the Johnny Cash song, about the tired miner imagining that after his death he will turn to coal and a later miner will dig at his bones.

    Like a fiend with his dope or a drunkard his wine
    A man will have lust for the lure of the mine.

To see that part of the country I was taking a roundabout route, at times nearly doubling back in a circle, I suppose like some wandering bird looking for something it couldn’t remember and didn’t know if it wanted or feared.

We’d passed through Hazard, on the way north to Lexington, and in a minute would go on to Frankfort for Louisville, where Pee Wee Reese, 10-time all-star Brooklyn Dodger shortstop and kind friend of Jackie Robinson, went to high school, where they made the ash Louisville Slugger baseball bats, then south toward Elizabethtown and Bowling Green.

I thought of the Kentucky Derby at green Churchill Downs, pictures of the ladies’ lavish colored floppy hats and the tall juleps with green sprigs of mint, the great jockeys of my childhood I’d watched on TV, Johnny Longden and Willie Shoemaker, Angel Cordero, imagined a century of silver loving cups and recalled The Triple Crown, in the winner’s circle the great Secretariat with a horseshoe of red roses around his neck, Wild Turkey 100-Proof Bourbon, and decades of championship University of Kentucky basketball teams, Adolph Rupp the legendary coach in the evil days before integration, in white silken backless gown Ashley Judd dancing with Salma Hayek in the movie “Frieda.”

Maybe the Wildcats would win again this year.

I was riding on the railroad, coming from my first visit to the East Coast, from Philadelphia, and now we were stopped in Lexington. The entire coach of mothers and their children and a few men in suits, perhaps salesmen, had filed past and stepped down from the train.

I was sitting alone, for some reason thinking of Bowling Green, of the sound of the name, of clipped green lawn at evening and white bowling pins before a dark border of trees, when a tall graceful woman entered the empty car, swiftly walking down the aisle in a flowing white dress pinned at the shoulder with a silver, shell-shaped clasp, and stopping, quickly taking the seat next to mine.

She smiled without a word, looking straight into my eyes, then turned in profile, as if waiting for something, and for a moment time seemed to freeze.

My brother is a classics scholar and once I traveled to Greece when he was studying at the American School in Athens, to help get him out of the hospital where he was suffering with a kidney stone.

The outline of her face, her flawless skin and profile, her mouth, straight nose and high noble forehead, her heavy piled hair, the light fabric at one shoulder blade, resembled an ancient alabaster statue of Persephone I’d seen with my sister-in-law after a morning visit with my brother at the Greek hospital.

There were no other boarders. The train pulled out of the station and the woman turned to me again, asking if I’d been to the art museum on Rose Street there in Lexington, at the state university.

“Did you see the ancient statues of Athena and Apollo on exhibit, of Cassandra and Pandora, on loan from the collection in Philadelphia?”

“No,” I said. “I missed it. I’m just traveling through on the train. Watching the country go by.”

Toward Bowling Green, I didn’t say as I glanced out the window. I’d always loved the name, the music of it, and the song by the late Jesse Winchester, the preacher’s son from Mississippi, who fled to Canada to avoid Viet Nam.

               Way down in Bowling Green
               Prettiest girls you’ve ever seen
               A man in Kentucky sure is lucky
               To love down in Bowling Green

She resettled herself in the cushioned chair with white cloth on the armrests she touched with perfect hands and unpainted nails.

“I had no idea what to expect.” Again she stared straight ahead. “I didn’t know it would transform my life. Just like that.”

As a small boy in California I sat in a room of adults listening sadly to the evening’s scores, to the radio on a Saturday night at the end of October. The airplane carrying the Cal Poly Mustangs from San Luis Obispo had crashed just after takeoff in Kentucky, after a football game with Bowling Green.

Sixteen young players had been killed and on Thanksgiving Day a year later there was a benefit game in L.A. called the Mercy Bowl, between Fresno State and Bowling Green, at the Coliseum.

The woman looked at me carefully, frowning as if she remembered the tragedy. I saw her eyebrows were lovely quarter moons. She was very beautiful and I wondered why she had chosen to sit with me with all the empty seats.

“I wonder if their statues affected anyone else? Like a spell of some kind?”

Maybe she imagined I was safe and might guard her if other men got on the train.

“My mother warned me. She said, ‘If one day you meet a god, be cautious. Turn and slowly walk away, then run, fast and far, never looking back.’”

I wasn’t sure what had happened, if she’d been wronged or physically hurt by some man, and looking at Apollo had brought everything to the surface.

Or if she wanted to share and savor again a romantic adventure she’d just recalled before rushing to catch the train for Frankfort?

We were pulling out of the station and it was too late to get her help if she needed it. I couldn’t tell if her excitement was happy or sad or what she meant or wanted, if anything.

Or why she wore a statue’s white pleated dress.

“My mother told me, ‘Remember that Cassandra, Princess of Troy, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, twin of her brother Prince Helenus, was given by the god Apollo the gift of true prophecy. She then fought off his violent advances and instead received his curse: Always to know the future with surety and have no one believe you.’”

Did she mean her mother or Athena’s statue? Perhaps she was an actress, a gifted one, a “method” actor rehearsing, living her part in costume before the play and I was her preview audience. I’d never been drawn to street theater or mimes in whiteface directing summer traffic, turning the real world into a stage.

The woman shook her head, closing her large eyes.

“Or perhaps she fell asleep in the Temple of Athena, a snake whispering in her ear dreadful things soon to occur.”

I wondered if there were an asylum in Lexington as an old brick building passed, if her mother had really spoken to her in those stilted unlikely words, or whether the woman dressed in white imagined a statue on display had whispered to her, a voice confiding the poor woman’s confusion and pain as if she heard and saw another confessing, reflected in a magic mirror. I looked ahead, then glanced behind me, but we were still the only passengers. I wanted the conductor to come, in his neat black cap and suit. On a train he was like a police officer or someone in the military, like a guard at a museum.

“The Trojans thought Cassandra insane—she ripped the veil from Helen’s face, tore her rich hair, declaring the concubine of foolish Paris would bring awful war but all the city hailed the kidnapped lovely Spartan Queen.”

Maybe her speech came from the brochure for the exhibit or from note cards placed below the statuary. I didn’t know what to say and could only look back at her large eyes the color of a wide ocean under an overcast sky.

“On a citadel Priam locked his daughter away in a towering pyramid, ordered her attendant quickly to report any omen she uttered, before the princess escaped and axed the Trojan Horse, screaming Greeks hid inside and the people shouted her down while Ulysses and his warriors listened with relief.”

She paused, waiting for my response, for my agreement or consolation. Now the deserted car seemed fully occupied, the pale football players killed in the plane crash so many years ago in Bowling Green filling the empty seats and silently watching as with me they listened to her story.

“Cassandra forecast the Fall of Troy, her brave brother Hector’s death, her own murder as the mistress of murdered Agamemnon, their twin sons’ murders, the ten-year wandering of Ulysses The Horse’s maker, Aeneas’ escape, his founding Rome. Schliemann the German archeologist was mistaken he’d uncovered her tomb, mother with two infants, at Mycenae, near the Lion’s Gate.”

I’d been there when my brother was sick that time, after he got well. I stood under the carved lion, then descended the narrow staircase to the dark well under the castle, which had water for years if the city was attacked. On a hill field, a young Greek farmer on a blue Ford tractor was swinging his head side to side, singing as he drove.

“He’d forgot that Cassandra in Athena’s sacred halls suffered rape by Ajax and the gods removed her far from Greece.”

I wished someone would enter the car. I saw leafless trees passing at the windows beyond her gold hair, and a big crow, maybe a raven, flying past, if they had ravens in that part of Kentucky.

I remembered the owl, watcher and navigator of the night, was Athena’s bird. I’d seen a statue of Pallas Athena with an owl perched on her shoulder and felt afraid, remembering Poe’s lost Lenore and the raven.

The woman smiled warmly.

“Rewarded for her purest nature, she’s lived in Elysian Fields 3,000 years, where her words were never a mad woman’s ravings, but always understood by those who still follow her. She speaks forever warnings we can’t or don’t choose to hear, each new day applauding the latest wheeled wooden horse entering our open gates.”

I looked from her eyes to her golden hair.

“In Greek mythology’s creation story from ‘Works and Days,’ the long ancient poem by Hesiod, Pandora the first woman was forged of earth and water by Hephaestus, the blacksmith, lamed son of Zeus.”

“Are you a teacher?” I asked.

“I’m a teacher, and a student, a poor one, as you’ll learn. Athena gave Pandora clothes, Aphrodite great beauty, Apollo the gift of music, winged Hermes speech. But Prometheus had stolen fire and enraged Zeus gave Pandora to a brother of the thief, as wedding present a marvelous jar and warned, ‘Never open it.’”

Maybe she wanted me to guess what was inside.

“As you recall, the gods had given a second gift, Curiosity, who soon persuaded the new bride to raise the stopper and look.”

Her words cast a shadow across her strong lovely face, the day she remembered as real as the one beyond the row of windows as we traveled northwest for Frankfort and Louisville, before turning south for Bowling Green.

“Rushing out like bats appeared Apate, Deceit, daughter of Nyx and Erebos, her mother Night and father Darkness, and Geras, Old Age, escaping with Dire Suffering, Oizys, then Moros, Doom, behind them others, Momos Blame, and Eris, Strife, Nemesis, Just Revenge, before swift Keres, Carnage and Violent Death—”

Her voice speaking the strange words sounded ancient, the echo from a lost well.

“All pain when woman and man first met pain flew hurriedly as owls, black lightning shading a Greek sky until Pandora could replace the heavy lid and capture one being remaining, Elpis, Spirit of Hope.”

I was afraid she would start to cry. I put out a hand to softly touch her wrist.

“Our world was broken, but King Zeus spared the girl he’d wanted to open the jar, just as your Bible’s God wished naked Eve to pluck, taste and offer to Adam a scarlet apple from Evil and Good’s ripe branch.”

She took my wrist, gripping it. I did not feel the pressure of her fingers though my flesh turned white as Carrara marble I’d seen before.

“Tell me now, truly. Do you believe the whole tree was poison, or only the largest reddest one we’d all choose first?”

Her eyes searched mine and finally I managed to say, “I don’t know—”

“But you must! Hands sharp as knives slice hours from the dying clock, and the cruelest joke deserves a true answer though ages late: Let Eve pick a second fruit and shamed Pandora unseal her jar, set free the captive whose white wings beat and cast white shadows to calm dark seas still raging from a breath of envy!”

“Athena and Apollo must have made quite an impression,” I said.

“Those aren’t my words,” she acknowledged. “They’re the words of my mother, that I heard long ago. I listened to my mother and remembered her words but never met a god until today, at the museum in Lexington. I’m a docent there. That’s why I’m dressed like this, for the opening.”

I was glad to hear she’d just come from work. I was glad that I hadn’t stopped in the city we had left, that until now I’d known nothing about the special art exhibit, that I’d never see the statues that had made such an impact on the concerned strange lovely woman with the long pleated dress she might have worn in a church choir or some production of “Oedipus the King” or O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra”.

“You never meet a god,” she confided, nearly whispering, “until you’re sure you won’t, so never doubt the gods exist.”

She leaned so her lips were close.

“They prey upon our disbelief, attracted to all opposites, enjoy our astonishment that after all they’re real but shouldn’t be. I should have listened to my mother.”

She drew back, taking her hand from mine. A veil like a mist had fallen across her face and she seemed far away, standing alone on a rocky headland looking out to sea three thousand years ago.

“What did your mother tell you?” I asked.

“‘A god promised me eternal life and beauty, adoration, and eagerly I agreed and paid the price that seemed no price as he held me in his handsomeness and I felt him hold my soul as I received my most-longed-for gift, the gift instead he gave himself.’”

Again her eyes watched me, waiting.

“Is that all your mother said?” I asked.

“She said, ‘After love I became this prized, more than life-like statue that speaks to you, as once from fine-carved marble my mother spoke this warning to me, and you shall speak to one who follows you, who listens and afterward remembers to tell this story.’”

Now I knew what to say.

“Do you think that people forget how much we need and hunger after wonder, how much we want it and need it to live, how half of believing is wanting and loving to believe, just as loving to love is at least half of loving?”

“A curtain pulls back and you enter another world. Suddenly you realize your true destination. ”

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Where you are.”

I wasn’t sure who answered, the woman or a god.

“I promise,” she said. “It’s not a prophecy.”

“It sounds like one.”

I stared back at her and she smiled.

“I’ll give you one clue.”

“Where?” I asked. “The place I’m going?”

She didn’t speak but softly sang the words, and I knew she was right, as if she’d guessed my name or fortune.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I heard you humming, when I entered the car. I’m going home.”

“Where?” I asked.

“To Bowling Green.”

Nels Hanson grew up on a small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California and has worked as a farmer, teacher and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and Pushcart Prize nominations in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Poems appeared in Word Riot, Oklahoma Review, Pacific Review and other magazines and received Sharkpack Review Annual’s 2014 Prospero Prize.

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