From the Alexander Romance tradition
In the royal tent, at the foot of the mountain, during days of relative peace, I often spent time with Roxanne. This was by demand, as there was little for her to do and she was far from Bactria, her country.
In the midst of growth and change, circled its opposite. This reflected my last stage of life, for I was old and near death and turning young again. This is where soul (atman) brings us back to youth.
I could find joy speaking with a cook or conqueror, an elephant or the starry Roxanne. I felt inspired by a crawling beetle, skull or flower. I could pray and fast and inhale the azure opium of the sky, I could make new friends in a dynamic world, and learn about butterflies and Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Sogdians, Trojans, and Sirens whose song lures men to cutting rocks.
It is said that with sight, the soul sees; with breath, the soul breathes.
I taught Roxanne the breathing techniques and postures that conquer the world of the senses: the senses are arrows pointing in all places, only to shoot back at us with dark power. Roxanne sat in the lotus position and expanded her belly. I had her raise it like a bellows, to push the air out. I also showed her the hand gesture that dispels fear. “How long must I do this for?” she asked, twisting her neck, making faces with her red lips.
We performed the breath of fire. That seemed to give her vigor. I believe she was at a lofty stage of consciousness. Her innocence and wisdom intertwined. I just don’t
know why Alexander prefers to be with his wine-besotted friends. It is terrible when a group of men gather, especially when they aren’t yogis.
“This is how I view the world as it really is, upside down.”
After a few minutes I got to my feet and walked over to assist her. “If you please, I can do it alone,” she said. She swayed at first and rolled onto the floor, sprawled out like a colorful tapestry. On the second try she stood firm like a tree. Most people hold their breath and are nervous. That’s what kills any posture. And the stillness between positions is as important as the position. These fundamentals are being lost in the modern world. “Yogi, I have nothing to teach you,” she said.
“Every gesture and silence teacher.”
“I’ve been a dancer since childhood. It is how he first fell in love with me.”
“That must have been wonderful to see you dance. Baron Oxyartes was wise to make peace with Alexander. And your dancing, I’m told, was the brightest event. Like great birds, we are crossing continents.”
“Yes, my father had the wisdom to gain peace and a son-in-law. You know what we have in common, naked philosopher?” she said, hands together. “I’m far from home,
and you’re absent from India and your friends, the yogis bent in odd positions, breathing fire.”
A column of cavalry thumped the ground outside – we saw their magnificent four-legged shadows flit on the cloth of the tent. “Imagine, we’re two weeks from Babylon. The city is a giant temptation. Beware,” I said.
“My passions have died long ago. Now I long to see The Hanging Gardens.”
I walked around the Roxanne’s tent, a temporary palace. From the tables, gold and jewels glittered. A makeup case overflowed with colors and perfumes. Chairs appeared to be made for gods. A Zoroastrian symbol of golden wings watched over us from above. A sword and a Medusa-ornamented breastplate rested against a chair. A krater of wine sat on a side table, unused. The only simplicity was a bowl of fruit.
“I would like to hear more about this shakti, this pervasive female energy.”
“You don’t say? That can get a woman in trouble – or anyone,” I replied. “It frees us, makes us powerful. The chains drop. Shakti is like that rule-breaker and drunk, Dionysus.”
“Okay, don’t believe me.”
“If you see any chains on me, remove them.”
I blushed and turned away. “These chains are invisible.”
“Take your chains off first.”
A woman entered the tent to see if the queen wanted a massage, and another one handed her a note which elicited a smile. She waved them off. I hoped I was saved from her comments about chains.
“Roxanne, you’re young. Alexander is an old warrior, and warriors – well, they don’t relish dying in bed at wise old age,” I said, looking down, hiding the omens.
“He’s young, galloping into his third decade.”
“The number is correct.”
I poured boiling water for mint tea and added some herbs. Her eyes burnt holes over me. She wanted a lot, and I know very little. I follow handed-down knowledge and my own breath during this stack of decades. “What does the wisdom tell you?” she asked.
“You could learn more from trees and flowing water.”
“Sit over there. Oh, go on.” We moved from chairs to separate couches. She chased away two little people who’d been fanning us with palms. Under my feet I noticed a tapestry with a forest of animal shapes covering the floor. I drank tea. She asked a servant for pomegranate juice.
“Some men are young when they’re very old,” I said. “They wake up in the morning and see the sun for the first time. They make friends with new things. Other men are old when they’re young, like Atlas with the world on their shoulders. When Alexander came to India, he threatened ten yogis with destruction – if any one of them failed to answer a question. He asked the tenth yogi: ‘how long should a person live?’ The yogi said, ‘as long as life is preferred over death.’”
Glancing at the bronze mirror, my beakish nose stood out. Even an old yogi can be befuddled. I did not know what to say, and realized I was showing off, feathering my own nest.
“No, he wouldn’t have come this far if he courted death. He’s a warrior, the best. He wishes to live a second life on the lips of men. He has wild horses that gallop over land and sea, swallowing tribes and nations. Do you have influence? I’m told that shakti can drown a man in love and that the soul longs for its counterpart.”
“That word again. Naked philosopher, you’ve been told a lot. But I love Alexander’s horses. He has powerful longings that guide every move. I say no more. It’s a secret. I don’t corrupt yogis,” Roxanne said. “Did you know Alexander founded Alexandria, which will be a great a city, a world metropolis, of mingling peoples? He let grain fall from his hand, to outline the city. Old Yogi, life is a riot. I don’t hate him for conquering my people. All warrior-kings are covetous and fateful, demigods and fire-eaters.”
“It is so. It’s how history moves, the strong step on others.”
“It’s more. I’m studying Greek and I already know some of your language too, as you can see. Greeks are logical barbarians, I must say. Did you know that Aristotle, that old scientist and classifier, taught Alexander when he was a boy?”
“You know more than anyone can say.”
“Have you witnessed his courage in battle? Tell the tale. Proceed.”
“A familiar nightmare,” I replied, gripping my chin, shivering in the coldness of the heat. I leaned back, held the couch. “The Jhelum River and those terrible Greeks! He led from the front in his white-plumed helmet. His strategy was to confuse and overwhelm–”
“Not interested in tactics. I want to hear about him. Was he the first to charge? What did he do when the elephants rampaged and stomped the phalanx, draining their liquids into the ground? Was he riding the wicked Bucephalus? Continue.”
I twirled the hair of my beard. “Kali with her belt of skulls rules on the battleground. Yes, he was courageous. He moves like thunder. Before battle, he gets into a wild state, kind of berserk, but there’s a center too. Courage: that’s his dominant characteristic. He’s smart like a philosopher. Even the ants that collect gold get out of his way.”
“Yogi Calanus, stop giving speeches or you’ll lose your youth,” Roxanne said, looking at me with her black cat eyes circled with kohl. “Old men get thick heads and long beards and look out and see everything around them in new clothes. Kali Yuga traps you. He’s also brought new life to fossil kingdoms.”
“New life?” I scratched my head and leaned back on the couch.
She pushed aside a table with a board game. She snapped her fingers, pointed and a servant brought grapes and cheese. “The world will not be conscious if people merely sit around in odd positions and order the lower castes around. Excellence should allow people to ascend, to fly in the wind. We all create our lives.”
“What do you know, silk-clad queen?”
“What do you know, naked philosopher?”
“I’ve quieted the senses, in order to find life.”
“I’m full of life, in order to find life,” she retorted, loosening her silky hair down her back. We argued and argued. She threatened me with a dagger. I revealed my heart. We expressed distrust for cultures and religions outside our own. It was only minutes, but it felt as if the endless centuries rolled upon us and squeezed out what was silky. She screamed at me and called for the guards, then sent them away with a laugh. I wondered if she’d shove a pike through me the way besotted Alexander killed his friend Cleitus.
We laughed and held hands, my big old hands embracing her hands with painted nails. We laughed so much that it hurt my stomach. Some people see things that it takes others forty years of meditation. Though I could not believe all that Roxanne said, she had a natural harmony born of goodness and womanhood.
She returned with purple, red and gold layers over a white sari. The bracelets and necklaces and toe rings glimmered, as if visited by the sun. She grabbed a dagger from beneath the fine fabric and pointed it at me. Then she put the dagger under a pillow and laughed. Astonishment chased my thoughts away. Roxanne suddenly danced. She danced. She began in stillness, with her hands in a prayer position. Then she unfolded like a butterfly.
Her head fell back, her arms became wings. I heard music, the inner music that moves the soul. Even the voice of my voice cannot describe such musical limbs. Her movements were the sun and moon, the flowers and trees, the birth of worlds and Shiva’s Dance that creates, destroys and creates.
I was hit by lightning.
As if sailing through the air, Roxanne set her arms apart from her body. She moved her hands and feet in unison (mudras and gati), then whirled and whirled. She shook her dangerous hips and dark breasts; nature had given her everything, its energies and primal loveliness.
I nodded and she nodded back; I played a dindin drum in the corner. I threw black silk over a statue of Alexander with the lion-mane hair and faraway eyes – enough of him. I was possessed. I shivered and cried, overcome by the tributaries of the sensate world. I had only felt this shakti a few times before, with this urgency and rush. I whirled with Roxanne and tapped the drum. We became the music and the sunrise and the third eye seeing everything.
When it was over, we laughed and bowed to each other. We returned to normal sunlight. Trembling, I put my face in the golden wash bowl. I covered her with cloth and left the Queen’s Tent. The young guards and I glared fiercely at each other. I continued on, drifting under the hint of moon.
Richard Marranca has had stories in The Raven’s Perch, Coneflower Cafe and DASH. \Speaking of the Dead: Mummies and Mysteries of Egypt, will be published this year. his wife Renah, child Inanna and he have won awards from Cranford Film Festival and London Short Film Festival for their film, Covid, A Child’s View.