Attempts at Love

John D'Agata

The First Attempt

Once there was a beautiful girl. In preparation one day for a religious ritual, the girl was bathing in a fountain the middle of her village. That’s when a rich local man walked by her and immediately fell in love. He decided, right there on the spot: he wanted to wed the girl.

As it happened however, the beautiful girl’s cousin had also had his eye on her, and since blood relations in this part of the world can often trump everything else, her father was faced with a dilemma. The rich man’s family was one of the most powerful in Greece, and the father was frankly scared of them. On the other hand, ancient tradition favored the girl’s cousin as a suitor. So instead of choosing between the rich man and the cousin, the father decided to let the girl pick which suitor she preferred. After the ceremony for the gods at which the whole town had gathered, the father asked his daughter which of the two men she wanted.

My cousin, said the girl.

Uh oh, thought the crowd, which turned its head at the rich man to wait for his reaction. He was known for having a temper and flinging himself into fits of rage, but instead of making a scene the rich man simply left the ceremony and kept to himself for a few days. After considering the girl’s decision, the rich man dropped by the father’s house to offer his blessings to the girl’s wedding.

I want to let bygones be bygones, he said. Let’s be friends.

Yes, of course, said the father, surprised but relieved and delighted by the offer.

The two men hugged and the wedding went on as planned.

Days later, as crowds began to gather for the ceremony at the father’s house, the rich man returned with a crowd of his own. But instead of going directly to the father’s home, the rich man and his friends made a detour through the woods where the grotto of the water nymphs was found. Local custom dictated that on the morning of their weddings, virgins should bathe in the nymph’s sacred spring in order to purify themselves for their husbands.

The girl, lovely, nude, and hip-deep in sacred water, couldn’t have known what was happening as the rich man and his friends flew out from behind the brush and seized her by the limbs in an attempt to carry her off. Somehow the bridal party caught word of what was happening and they rushed to the grotto to try to intervene. Arriving just in time, they grabbed hold of the girl, and the two sides subsequently pulled hard against each other: some weighing anchor in the back of the skirmish while others up front yanked on legs and arms and hair, heaving and twisting as their hands chaffed as if against a rope that was slipping. And then, very suddenly, without anyone ever realizing what was happening as it was happening, the young girl began to split apart into pieces.

Nobody knows what happened to the cousin after this. He has since disappeared into history, or perhaps simply into insignificance.

But the rich man, the violent man, the one who was considered unworthy of the girl, he slit his throat right there at the spring, enraged, this time, at himself.


The Second Attempt

An ambitious man dreamed of ruling Greece. But before he could do that, he knew he would first have to unite all of Greece. His first step therefore was to eradicate the city that could pose the greatest threat to his ambitions. He wrote to the mighty city of Corinth and told them that he wanted to enter an alliance with them and that they ought to send him a thousand of their toughest and bravest soldiers to help him build an army.

And so they did. I don’t know why, but they did.

This of course was all part of the man’s plan to undermine Corinth by removing its strongest men from the city so that it would be vulnerable to an attack by his own, a plan that the ambitious man confided to his friend.

Luckily for Corinth, that friend was not very loyal to his man, for he warned Corinth of the attack and thus saved the city. The ambitious man was obviously not happy about this, and pledged to avenge his betrayal.

Understandably, the ambitious man’s friend fled for protection to the one place where he figured he’d be safe, Corinth, and there he raised a son who grew up to have his own son—a boy who was considered the most beautiful in Corinth, and who therefore had many lovers. One of those lovers was the wealthiest man in the city. He was powerful and popular and didn’t want to share the boy with anybody else. So when the boy refused to be with only him, the rich man and a gang of his buddies tried to take the boy by force, descending upon his home in a drunken fury.

The boy’s family resisted, and their neighbors helped too, pulling against the assailants, until the boy was pulled to pieces.

Of course.

The boy’s father, enraged, hung his son’s body in the marketplace downtown, demanding retribution for the murder of his child.

But the people of Corinth were afraid of what would happen if they angered the rich man, and so day after day they chose to ignore the decomposing body of the child that hung in their market.

The boy’s father, even further incensed, went to the temple of Poseidon, the patron god of Corinth, and reminded the god how his own father had once helped save the city by warning it of an attack years ago. The boy’s father then cursed the city and all its citizens, flinging himself off the temple walls and onto the rocks below.

This time, Corinth could not ignore the father’s calls for revenge because soon after his death the city was struck by a debilitating drought, and then by hunger, and then by a horde of rats. The city consulted an oracle to ask what it should do, and she replied that Poseidon’s wrath would not abate until the city avenged the boy’s murder. The rich man, having heard this, tried to outrun the city’s anger by fleeing to Sicily and founding the city of Syracuse, where he eventually became even more rich, even more powerful, and thus even more feared, hated, and even more likely to be murdered, which he was.


The Third Attempt

In Greece there was once a poor but respectable old man whose two daughters were said to be more lovely than any other girls their age. Now, despite his poverty, their father was always welcoming to strangers, which is why when two young Spartan youths came to his house on their way to Delphi, the man graciously played host to the two men in his home.

During their stay, the young men fell in love with the old man’s daughters, but the virtuous nature of their host caused the young men to resist their usual urges. So the next day they departed for Delphi where they stayed for a week paying tribute to the gods.

On their way back home, the Spartan youths decided to stop by the old man’s house again. This time, however, the old man was not at home. His daughters had been raised to be courteous hostesses too, of course, so they invited the young men in, expecting them to behave as they had during their first visit.

After raping the maidens, the men took a nap. Then they woke, ate a meal, and dressed for the rest of their journey back home. They couldn’t help noticing however that the maidens were whimpering, apparently very distressed by the ruin of their virtue, and so the young men decided to take pity on the girls by smothering them, killing them, and then dumping their bodies in a well.

When their father returned home, he found everything as he had left it. He just couldn’t find his girls. He figured that perhaps they had taken a walk, so he didn’t think much of their absence until his dog started whining, then clawing at the legs of the old man, and then running to the well at the far edge of the yard. The man eventually figured out what had happened in his absence and then drew up the bodies of his two daughters from the well.

The next day, after asking around, he learned from his neighbors that two young Spartan men had been seen at his house, and he figured that these were the same young men who had been his guests earlier, the ones who had kept paying unsubtle compliments to his daughters. After laying out his daughters, the old man set out for Sparta for some answers.

On his way, he stopped at an inn. That night at the bar he met an even older wrinkled man who was sitting alone at the bar, cursing at his drink. The old man asked the older man what was wrong, and the wrinkled drunk lit off about a man from Sparta who had once visited his town.

“He fell in love with my son,” the wrinkled man explained. “He kept making passes at my boy every day at the market, but thankfully my son wouldn’t give in. Then one day he showed up at my son’s wrestling camp, and sat there, alone, watching him from the stands. My son’s coach noticed the man lurking during practice, so he asked the Spartan to leave. And for a while we figured that that was that. But eventually the Spartan returned, except this time he rented a boat that he docked inconspicuously just outside town. After kidnaping my boy and sailing with him to an out-of-the-way harbor, he raped him repeatedly, for days on end, in private. Because my boy continued to resist him however, the Spartan got offended, for what the Spartan really wanted was the affection of my boy. So he slit my son’s throat and threw his body overboard. Years later, I’m still protesting this injustice. Every year I make a journey to Sparta in order to plead my case with their elders, and every year they refuse to punish the man who did this. They have never even apologized. All they do is ignore me.”

The old man listened carefully, and then shared his own Spartan tale.

“Don’t bother talking sense to the Spartans,” the wrinkled barfly explained. “Go home. Mourn your girls. Build them a fine monument, and then try to get on with your life.”

The old man, however, disregarded this advice, and the next day continued on his journey to Sparta, where he demanded an audience with the elders, and who, as expected, ignored everything he told them.

The old man, therefore demanded an audience with the king, who ended up paying even less attention to the man.

Still determined, though, the old man hit the streets, going up to everyone who would stop and listen for a moment in order to hear the story of the old man’s daughters. But as would be expected, the townsfolk ignored him. And why wouldn’t they? This was Sparta. And the man was obviously mad.

In a frenzy of frustration, the father raged into the center of the city, shot his fists into the air, slapped his palms to the ground, and conjured up the spirits of revenge to hear him. To seal the deal, the father forced a dagger into his neck and died there in the middle of the Spartan market.

The Spartans, of course, should have listened to the man, for years later, during war with a neighboring city, the Spartans found themselves on a battlefield that happened to be on the grounds of that old man’s home. Obviously they didn’t know this, for the old man, his house, and his two murdered daughters had all but disappeared from that land and the world. But on the evening before a battle that would clinch the course of the war, the general of the opposing army was visited in a dream by the old man whose daughters were still due their revenge. He told the general that as far as he was concerned the Spartans were not here for a battle, but punishment, owing retribution for their injustice to his daughters.

The next morning the general asked some locals if they knew anything about the old man who had visited him in his dream, and eventually he found someone who led him to an old abandoned well, in which it was said an old man had once found his daughters, murdered at the hands of two Spartan youths.

With that, the general marched his army with confidence against the Spartans, and with confidence they defeated the Spartans.


The Fourth Attempt

As usual, there was once a beautiful girl who had thirty suitors, each of whom was even more eager than the next to win her as a prize. But the girl’s father kept finding excuses to avoid selecting one as a husband. He was afraid, after all, of angering the twenty-nine others who’d inevitably be rejected.

So rather than making a decision himself, the father decided to consult an oracle. This, for some reason, infuriated the suitors, and before the father could make it to the temple the suitors swarmed around him and bludgeoned him to death.

The young girl escaped their attack on her father, traveling into the country where she hid in a pile of grain. The suitors, chasing after her, rushed past in their haste.

Eventually the girl made her way to a temple, where she explained how her father had been killed, and gave the priests the names of all the murderous suitors.

The young men heard about this, and fled for refuge in a faraway town. But by now the girl’s story had spread all across Greece, and people refused to help the suitors in town after town after town. So they traveled even farther, right up to the edge of a mountain on the outskirts of the country, where a tiny village that hadn’t yet heard about the suitors agreed to give them shelter.

The people of Greece, determined to bring justice to the girl, formed an army and marched on the village, demanding that they hand the men over. When the village elders refused, the army set up camp and blockaded the village. And after the inhabitants were overwhelmed and weakened by hunger, the army forced their way into the village, took hold of the murderous suitors, and stoned them one by one.

And then, to teach a lesson to the rest of the country of Greece, the people enslaved the villagers who had harbored the murderous suitors—all the men, all the women, all the children—but killed the slaves.

For good measure, they tore down the walls of the village, burned every home and temple, outbuilding and barn, and divided up all of that village’s land to distribute among the neighboring towns.

The people of Greece then paid tribute to the gods and returned to their respective towns.


The Fifth Attempt

There was once a genuine Spartan, by which is meant a man who was native-born, a fearless soldier, an attentive husband, a loving father, a steadfast and reliable servant to the homeland.

And of course because he was so successful at being Spartan, other Spartan men despised this remarkable man. Secretively, a few of them even conspired to get rid of this man by convincing the village elders that this perfect model of a Spartan was actually a fraud—a spy who had been planted in the village in order to win the leaders’ trust and eventually undermine the country.

So this Spartan of Spartans, this nearly perfect man, was exiled from the village under the threat of execution.

Upon his departure, the man’s wife and daughters said that they wanted to go with the man, accompanying their husband and father in exile. But the elders wouldn’t allow it. Instead, as punishment for their loyalty to their husband and father, their property was confiscated so that the daughters could never offer a dowry to their suitors and thus remain ruined for life.

A lot of people in the village secretly admired that Spartan, though, and as time went on his name and reputation became even greater. When the daughters grew up and came of age, they received a surprisingly large number of marriage proposals, despite having nothing but the reputation of their father to offer in exchange for those marriage proposals. This angered the village elders, who by now were made up of that generation of men who’d originally conspired to get rid of the Spartan. They passed a law that forbade anyone from wooing the Spartan’s daughters, claiming that the girls were secretly hoping to give birth to traitorous sons who would grow up to avenge their exiled grandfather.

The law further prohibited that the mother and her daughters could never be employed, or offered charity, or be spoken to, etc. The law wouldn’t even allow them to leave, so the mother and her daughters were branded as outcasts, and simultaneously were cursed to remain in the place rejecting them.

So one night, during a festival in which all the women of the village were gathered in a banquet hall—the wives, the maidens, the slaves, and even infants—the loyal wife of the exiled Spartan retrieved her husband’s sword and took her daughters into the woods. Then, once all the other women were inside the great hall and the doors were shut behind them, the wife crept out of the nearby woods and loaded heaps of timber against the hall’s doors, blocking every exit, and lighting them on fire.

The Spartan men saw the flames and rushed immediately to the hall, and there they met the wife who stood in front of the giant fire, awaiting all those men who had continued to betray her husband. With screeching pleas for mercy bleeding from the smoking hall, the wife revealed her husband’s sword and slit the throats of her daughters before then slicing into her own.

Nearly every woman in Sparta was killed in that fire, and so the men, not knowing what to do, nor how to vent their anger, took the cursed bodies of the wife and her daughters and flung them over the walls of their village.

Almost immediately afterward there rumbled a furious swell across the land. Today we know that this was the Great Earthquake of Sparta, the one that killed almost twenty thousand men, boys, infants, and slaves, and eventually led to Sparta’s first war with Athens, in which it was brutally defeated.