The Idol by Sylvia Gilbertson

He’s been on the grape for two days now, prepping for the performance. Lolling naked on a lionskin far above the hot blue sea, he lifts the jug to his lips. The red wine slides down his throat with a bite that makes him shiver in pleasure. The rough lionskin prickles against him like beautiful, sharp little thorns.

“More,” he calls, and young women appear with jugs. They are shy and demure, averting their eyes as they set the wine beside him, but he can see their lithe bodies through the gauzy gowns. His fans are beautiful.

Now, as he reaches out to lift another jug, he sees them watching covertly. It’s the muscles in his arm. They can’t help it. The young idol grins and drinks.

“Are you coming to the show?” he asks.

The women bow their heads timidly, but eager smiles curve their lips. “Oh yes,” says one. Her chestnut hair tumbles softly against a sunny yellow gown. “We’re so excited. We haven’t slept in days.”

He laughs deep in his throat. He hasn’t slept either. He’s so soaked in wine that his head feels detached from his body.

“Marble Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysus” (image via Flickr user hall.chris25)

Last night he leaped and danced by himself around a bonfire, watching his own shadows flicker on the rocky ground. When the moon came up, so close to full that he could barely see that last missing sliver, he’d nearly gone wild. He’d even thought about springing right off the cliff into the hissing sea below. But who would see him dance if he threw himself into the abyss? Who would applaud? Who would love him down there with the cold mute fish? Who would know he ever existed at all? So instead of jumping, he sang and pranced all night. The wine made him strong.

Now he has to keep drinking or he’ll get stage fright. The sun melts into the hard and glittering sea. Somewhere in the sky, still invisible, hangs the cold white moon. It will be full and round tonight, as fat and complete as it will ever get. Almost time for the performance.

He sees that the young women still linger, huddled together in a little knot. They are pretty, multicolored creatures with painted lips and slim flanks. He lifts the jug and takes another swig.

“Does anyone want to help me dress for the show?”

An excited chorus of titters escapes as heads bob eagerly. Yet they are still afraid to touch him.

He finishes off the jug, red wine streaming down his naked body. “Well, here it is.” He feels hard and powerful as he pulls himself to his feet and points to the lionskin. “This is what I’m wearing tonight. Come on, put it on me.”

The women giggle and hang their heads. But they move toward him, a colorful phalanx of fecund possibility. They keep their eyes on the lionskin, not his body. Though he knows they want to look. He knows they can scarcely bear it. Everyone holds back, waiting for the show.

The woman with the chestnut hair is the first to pick up the lionskin. It’s heavy and warm with afternoon sun and the heat of his flesh. The women touch it and turn it with gentle strokes.

“How shall we place it?” asks the one with the chestnut hair.

“Wrap it around me,” he says. “But wipe the wine off first.”

She lifts the hem of her yellow gown and gently dabs at the wine on his chest. It stains the gown red.

“Get it all off,” he tells her with a sweet smile. She dabs at his belly and thigh. The idol moves one step closer. The other women sigh and murmur.

They work together, arranging the pelt around his shoulders and hips and tying it with a gold cord. The lion’s head hangs at his back like a hood, teeth bared in a snarl. Someone produces a crown of fresh ivy and vines laden with clusters of purple grapes. The grapes feel heavy and round on his forehead, and he can glimpse a frond of ivy over his eyebrow. He is delighted.

“Maenad” (image via Flickr user Prairiekittin)

“The sun is setting,” says the woman in the yellow gown. Everyone looks out across the sea and watches it, hot and orange, dipping out of sight.

“Almost time for the show,” he teases. “Better go or you won’t get a seat.” He slaps her lightly on the rump and she gasps, then giggles. She joins her companions and they rush off, clucking softly like little chicks.

Later he hears music and drums across the dark plateau. The moon is rising over the black inland hills. Pale silver light 0spatters down. There is a distant high shout, the sound of a crowd. The music grows louder, more rhythmic. Thousands of women clap their hands – he can hear the sharp slap of palm against palm. They’ve come to watch him dance.

He stands at the cliff overlooking the shadowy sea. Lifting the last jug, he drinks, drinks, drinks, then throws the jug out to the waves. It vanishes soundlessly into the hungry restless water. The young god spreads his arms high and wide, like a bird ready for flight. But his legs are rooted in the fertile earth. He is ready to share his dance.

He bounds into the darkness, toward the music and the crowd, and conceals himself backstage behind the scaffolding to savor the anticipation. The music rises, the drums pound faster. The fans are chanting in high excited voices that spark like little licks of flame. He longs to blaze with them.

Finally the sweetness overwhelms him. What can he give them in exchange for this worship? How can he touch them as they have touched him? All he can do is offer the gift he has saved for this honeyed night. His own body and the dance.
He leaps onto the stage like a big sinuous cat, crowned with grapes and ivy.

There is a enthralled hiccup of silence – even the music stops – and then the crowd explodes in a mad frenzy of howls as the cacophony of drums and flutes resumes.

The altar blazes with light, shivers with sound. Blinded by the white hot brightness, the young god twirls in ecstasy, arms and legs and tangled hair illuminated like a swaying tree in a lightning storm.

Below him, the women shriek in the dark. He knows they can see him – he is totally exposed on the brilliant stage – but he perceives only moving, pulsing blackness roiling up around him. Their voices rise, carrying him, lifting him almost out of his body. The love madness pierces him. He lets the lionskin garment slip from his shoulder, and the sight of his muscled arm, his tawny, glistening chest, drives them to their feet. He can actually see them now, sweating and bouncing and screaming as they emerge from the dark to close in on the stage. He imagines the long flanks of the chestnut-haired woman in the yellow gown. He hears the hoarse adoration in her voice.

“We love you we love you we love you.” They are sobbing, out of their minds.

He leans toward their passionate mouths, their outstretched arms. Their love has made him worthy. “I love you more.”

He staggers to the edge of the altar, panting and potent. He raises his arms, throws his head back to expose a gleaming bare neck. The women stomp their feet in rhythm. Their screams narrow into a single shrill chant. They scramble closer as the god gyrates above them. He knows they can smell him. He knows he is almost close enough to taste. He knows she’s out there in the crowd in her wine-stained gown, transformed.

Teetering now over this churning sea, he forgets where his flesh ends and theirs begins. Whose sweat drips down his body. Whose cries issue from his lips. Swept into corybantic communion, he welcomes their voracious waves of love. Arms outstretched, he closes his eyes and sinks as the maenads rise to swarm the stage, their hot hands and mouths all over him, and then their teeth.

Sylvia Gilbertson is a freelance translator and former civil litigator who’s spent most of her life with one foot in the mountains of northern Italy and the other in the belly of the United States. Her short fiction has appeared in the literary journal of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters, and she has been invited to read her work at the Wisconsin Book Festival. She recently completed her first novel, A Drink with the Muse, which is all about sex and art, and is now working on a book about the Black Death in Italy. She likes to grow poisonous plants, and you can find her online at literarycurmudgeon.wordpress.com.