Hero and Leander

O Muse, may I now inspiration drink,

A cool and lasting draught from waters sweet,

That I may sing the love of Hero fair,

And brave Leander and the god’s revenge.

That night was when Leander saw her first,                           5

A maiden, skin that glowed, like ink her hair,

Her grace apparent through the sacred cloth,

Processed among her sisters robed in white.

Selene shone her moonlight, pale and wan,

On Aphrodite’s faithful servant girls.                                     10

There watched Leander, one among the crowd,

His eyes upon her shining face did stare.

He tried to keep up, pushing through the mass,

Then raced ahead, his gaze for hers searching.

He ran and stumbling fell down heavily.                                15

An outcry, shouts; he looked and saw her there.

She stared at him, expression calm, her eyes

Now locked on his. A smile then touched her lips.

The moment came and went, an instant’s time.

She passed like sunshine that’s obscured by clouds              20

And left Leander sitting stunned, on fire,

Infatuation now consuming him,

A sun that burned so hot within his breast.

He watched her lead the dancing band of girls,                    

The only one that mattered now to him.                                 25

She brought the cup of wine to each in turn,

The yield of Bacchus and his fruitful vine,

That brings the purple god whom we consume,

The draught of gods that makes a man enthused,

Like the Bacchant or Delphic priestess mad.                          30

She stepped toward him while his heart beat loud.

The cup extended, fingers brushing hers,

A momentary bond, a secret glance.

He lost himself and gulped and drank the wine

As he desired to hold her evermore.                                       35

His passion shocked her, and her own desire.

‘Leander,’ he said. ‘Hero,’ she replied.

Their understanding was expressed at once,

There was no need for words between the two.                     40

The woods were long a place for secret love.

Leander waited there among the trees,

And watched and hoped that she might come to him.

She came, an apparition, gleaming white

In virgin clothes, the badge of her office.                              45

They met with elm and ash as witnesses,

And pale Selene shining down on them.

He longed to touch, to hold, to feel her then,

As she uncertain stood with downcast eyes,

Afraid of what his touch might mean for her.                            50

In silence forest-shadows shifted slow.

From the horizon, rosy-fingered Dawn

Extending skyward ended night’s repose.

His face in sunlight shining strong and bronze,

She touched with hands both delicate and pale,                    55

And drew herself to him and held on tight.

She wanted never, ever to let go,

And knew she never would while she yet lived.

She begged for him to come to her that night,

To look and find the tower, shore’s high guard,                    60

Her light a constant guide across the sea.

He promised, swearing names of gods unknown

And known: he would return to her that night.                     

A promise made, the course of fate made fast.

But now Apollo’s coursers charged the sky,                          65

And he returned across the narrow sea.

The wine-dark sea in endless rolling crashed.

Into the surf he dove, the summer wind

A constant aid as then he struck forward

Through wave on wave with stroke on stroke.                       70

Over his head the sea came rolling then,

Now rising, plunging now it foamed ‘round him.

Leander’s breath now came still strong but fast,

His shoulders powerfully turning ‘round,

His hands dug furrows deep into the sea,                              75

Just as a farmer’s plow turns clods of earth.

Above, her guiding light, a lowly star,

Shone weak but steady, growing stronger still,

An imitation pale before the sun

He bore now blazing high within his breast.                           80

He saw the deadly cliffs, more black than night

And turned aside toward the nearby shore.

He came ashore, and scrambled through the surf,

A man, alone an army, stormed the beach.

A path around the promontory ran,                                        85

The tower high and lonely overhead,

The wind’s susurrus sounding soft on stones.

A gate stood facing east across the strait,

Its ancient Cyclopean stones piled high.

On through Leander went, and up the steps.                         90

The tower’s broken crown, long since collapsed,

Was where he found his guiding star alight.

He closed his eyes against the sudden light

And felt the warmth of her embracing him.

She gave him bread and wine by the fire.                              95

He told his journey, she her long waiting.

They shared the modest food, their hands entwined,

And watched the constellations wheel above.

She named each one in turn and he listened.

At the first hint of dawn, then she woke him,                            100

And Hero and Leander parted slow,

With a sure promise to return that night

And every night that followed idle day.

He watched her run as lithely as a sprite,

Herself a setting sun that disappeared                                        105

Among the shady oaks and verdant elms.

Leander left the way that he had come,

And swiftly crossed the strait again once more.

That night they shared together bread and wine

While Hero dried his dripping, matted hair,                           110

Leander gently stroked her flushing cheeks.

They laughed and sang the evening after that.

He whispered quiet words to her; she blushed

But pleased within her heart she held him close.

He passed his lips across her reddened cheeks.                      115

A warmth that flowed from chest to fingertips,

Inexorably drew her then to him.

She yearned to cast away her holy garb,

Devotion manifest in simple cloth,

The promised mark of reverence divine.                                 120

For what had she this fateful promise made?

For what had she discarded future love?

The words, her oath, in earnest spoken then,

Now rang within her head resounding words,

And dawn then saw her running home away,                         125

Her hair now flying over raiment bright,

And lost, forlorn Leander crying out.

In tears he wept frustration, sadness, loss,

But he remained then ever resolute.

That night he waited, hopeful yet hopeless.                           130

The dark and endless waves returned his gaze.

Then blazed a sudden light, a blinding star.

It pierced his chest; desire and joy drove him.

The northern wind began to blow the sea,

As gentle autumn turned to bleak winter,                              135

Unyielding waves now roared and dashed him ‘round.

His heart was brave, his arms were swift and sure,

But winds now whipped the waves to frenzied state

And sought to push him back the way he’d come.

He fought though he began to tire with time,                        140

And yet the light did seem to grow closer.

He knew that he would reach the shore this time,

Could feel fair Hero’s touch already then.

His heart did swell, as did the storming sea.

Into the early morning Hero went,                                         145

The moonlit darkness swirling ‘round her feet.

Her mind in two between her want and fear,

Desire and duty dueling fateful dance.

A light, the sun’s resplendence, shone on high.

Did someone know their secret held so close?                      150

She ran and sought to reach the tower’s peak.

There stood a figure dressed so bright and cold,

That Hero, awed and eyes averted, fell.

She spoke: ‘My child, do you know who I am?’

‘My mistress, Aphrodite ocean-born.’                                    155

‘Indeed, and I have come to stay your sin.

For you will not betray your oath to me.

But do not doubt me. I have seen to it.’

And Hero sobbing, turned and ran away

Toward the pebbled shore and crashing surf.                        160

There lay Leander, twisted, bruised, and drowned.

The sea had dashed him on the cliffs over

Again and rolled by surf, by rocks shattered.

She flung herself upon his corpse and wept,

Her tears then mixed with blood upon the sand                     165

As she now tore her hair and scratched her face.

She cursed the gods, and Aphrodite most.

She left her priestess robe behind and ran

Toward the tower’s crown and broken cliff.

The rising sun then greeting her, she leapt.                             170

Her broken body found Leander’s corpse,

Her arms extending reached for him in death.

And thus they stayed forever, night’s sorrow,

Eternal sign of love’s devotion, yet

A curse of Aphrodite’s displeasure,                                       175

In autumn’s sky at night, two sets of stars,

Their arms outstretched, and fingers straining far,

But not to meet a thousand years from then,

Though heaven’s dome still wheels across the sky.

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