The Wine-thirst of Comus

– The Wine-thirst of Comus-

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

Yet some there be that by due steps aspire
To lay their just hands on that golden key
That opes the palace of eternity.
To such my errand is; and, but for such,
I would not soil these pure ambrosial weeds
With the rank vapours of this sin-worn mould.

COMUS, a Masque
— John Milton (1608-1674)

Table of Contents so far

  • *** *** ***

    Prologue: Of the Telling of this Tale

    I, the poet, in myriad-hued dream ineffable, aided by secret arts perhaps not fully lawful to employ, fared from my Lotus Chamber on wing of hippogriff, beyond the farthest star of Camelopardalis, to the changeless center of time and space, where the sunless realm of The Mnemean hides.

    In her walled garden, if she grants it, one may find whirling as in dance the scattered leaves of books of wonder and mystery, holy or otherwise, forgotten on earth, or never written down with pen. Like white-winged moths found in the midnight jungles when only lunar orchids open their lips of mesmeric perfume, the visions gleam and flutter from my grasp. As ever, I gave chase.

    Here is one I caught, in part, albeit nor you nor I shall know the end of it, for that is hidden.

    *** *** ***

    1. Of Comus and Pasiphaë

    On the island of Comus, thick drear woods loom dank, and dark boughs, like the horns of myriad beasts, adorned with dripping moss and endless twining vines of ivy and of grape, overhang the lightless groves and secret grottos where Comus and his crew hold their riotous wassail.

    By night his house is lit with many colored lamps, festive music plays along the air, and what might seem to mortal eyes of gold and silver shine on roof and hinges.  By day, the house is dark and hearth is cold, and what seemed gold now is dreary iron; silver shingles are bleak slate.

    Comus and his lover, Pasiphaë, were wont to take up bows and arrows, and go to hunt whatever beasts had been unpleasing guests the night before, Comus on the horse which had once been his rival, Glaucus, a sea-prince who had been betrothed to Pasiphaë; and she, a nymph, on foot, swifter than any steed.

    No myth speaks of him, save for the solitary poet, greatest of our race, who tells him to be the son of Bacchus, god of wine and revelry, whose Maenads tore his mortal brother Pentheus to pieces with their maiden hands; and of fairest Circe, darkest witch and daughter of the brightest sun-god, by whose charms her guests at feast, swilling and glutting, were transformed to swine and ungainly beasts. Both natures combines Comus in one.

    It had been his practice, in times long past, to range the coasts of Spain and Celtic lands. This is written in no accounts. It had been he, who, suffering the wrath of Jove for introducing Ixion to Juno, and serving, as punishment, a term of years as thrall to High King Math in wild lands far from Hellenic lands, worked the transformations which Math’s stern command laid upon Gwydion and Amaethon, changing them to Hart and Horse and Hound.

    Pasiphaë, once of Diana’s chaste band of  huntresses, had been led astray by Comus’ seductions, entrapped by the glister in his wine-dark eye, his curling ambrosial locks; and for a time did sport with her, and uttered whatever outward words of love he could thieve from the lips of poets; but when she grew large with child, and she urged marriage and holy vows, he seemed to assent, but declared his wooded vine-girt island  an inappropriate place for the solemnity; and, taking her to a green small island somewhere in the immensity of the trackless deep, practiced his art upon her, plying her with amber wine until she slept; he then took his ship, smiling and relieved, and set to sea, abandoning the mother of his unborn child.

    Away he fared across the winedark waves, laughing and gay.

    Pasiphaë prayed to Diana, who descended from the lunar sphere to attend the birth; but, being unskilled in midwifery, the virgin goddess was unable to save the mother’s life.  With her dying sigh, Pasiphaë cursed Comus and called upon Great Poseidon, Lord of the Deep, to carry out the terms of her dread malediction.

    The Sea-King, who had favored Pasiphaë so well that he had offered his son, Glaucus, to be her bridegroom, nodded, and at his nod the island of Thera shivered and towers fell, and taking up the drops of immortal ichor which had flowed from the dying woman down the sands into the sea, the Great Sea-God raised an immortal storm, a storm of worlds, which, while allowed to diminish, or to move from one place to another, would not and could not ever die out, not until the vengeance of the Sea-God was accomplished.

    For twenty years the storm chased Comus, wrecking one ship after another, standing him on islands where many wild people and wild monsters dwell.

    In the land of the Lotos Eaters he dwelt for a time, and he learned how to concoct poppies and sleeping-potions from them; and he taught the Cycloptic brothers of Polyphemus how to hold their drink.

    A time came when the storm threw his boat upon the shores of dread Cimmeria.  Here is a land which Apollo never visits, dark vapors exude from the ground at day, and the tall cliffs and mountains blot out any solar ray.

    Here the god Somnus has his ebony mansion.

    Neither watch-dog nor watchman disturbs the silence of that place; nor has the gate-way any door, so that there is no hinge to creak.  There is no wind.  At the foot of the rock on which the castle stands, a springs of the river Lethe ooze quietly forth, black as ink, and poppies grow on all the grounds about. At times, Nyx and her daughters can be seen in the gloom here, gathering herbs for their potions.

    To this ill-favored place came Comus, stranded, salt-crusted, alone, his glamour of beauty gray and withered, his charming wand lost at the bottom of the sea.  He crawled into the court of Somnus, and saw where the God reclined on a couch of black ebony, adorned with black plumes and dark curtains.  As many as the forest leaves, or grains of the shore, about him on the pavement stood the Dreams which are his people.

    Comus prayed to the God, saying, “Lord of all — for truly all things sleep, even  sun and moon must quench their fires in the western sea, seeking slumber — if ever my great father the Wine-God had done service to you, or sent into your kingdom tipsy revelers, eyes drowsy with drunkenness, grant my prayer, and grant me refuge!”

    The Sleep-God nodded.  It may have been that he was merely nodding because he was falling asleep, or it may be that he was showing his assent.  Comus was encouraged, and prayed further: “Somnus, having accepted me as your guest, you cannot abandon me to the storm outside, which even now approaches your kingdom with wide and vehement noises, loud thunders, hammering rain, shrieks and shouts of wind.  Consider the disturbance!  Can you not make this great storm sleep?!”

    Somnus spoke in a soft, soft voice: “Little demigod of vice and vine, you who keep wassail and revel at all hours of the night, when others sleep, and play the ringing tambour and amorous flute when honest men seek slumber, I shall grant your prayer, though in a fashion fitting to your merit.”

    Now Comus knew his merit was not the highest, and so he heard these words with dread.

    Somnus said in a voice as soothing as a lullaby: “Look, for behind you there now stand the three princes of my world, my Sons.”

    Comus turned and started, for they were directly behind him, a finger’s length away, or less.  Here were three tall shapes glimmering in the gloom, winged in shadow wings, and crowned with amaranth and poppies, a strange light in their eyes. “I did not hear them approach…” Comus said.

    “No one ever does,” Murmured Somnus, nodding. “This is Morpheus, most expert at taking on the shape and stance, voice and gesture of any man he wishes; the second is Phobetor, also called Icelos, who impersonates birds, beasts, and serpents; the third is Phantasmos, who mimics shapes of rocks, waters, woods, and other things without life.”

    “Is what I see their true appearance…?”

    “Would you like me to show you their true appearance?”

    But Comus remembered how his grandmother Semele had died, and so he thought it wiser to decline the offer.

    Somnus said, “Phobetor is a master of the Therianthrometamorphitic Arts which Circe taught you; she was the daughter of the Sun, and for reasons you might well imagine, there has always been an enmity between the house of Phoebus and the house of Somnus, between the lands of Cimmeria and Hyperboria. It is he who shall preserve you from the wrath of this storm which chases you; thus I grant you your prayer.”

    The hand of Phobetor, warm and soft, now grasped Comus by the neck, and the dream-prince whirled Comus aloft on wings which were more silent than any owl.

    *** *** ***

    2. Of Phobetor and Phantasmos

    On currents of night-air, the dream-prince flew Comus out across the middle sea.  Beneath the stars and above the waves, Prince Phobetor said, “The storm which follows you is not lawful, for it was made without consent of Jove, the Thunderer, who is master of all storms: and the deaths of Orpheus and Asclepius show how much the Father of Gods and Men despises those who give immortality to mortal things.  Therefore, this storm which chases you is not of the Upper World, nor of the Middle, and so falls into neither of their jurisdictions.  Both will blame the other if my magic interferes.  The Gods of the Sea and the Gods of the Air have warred before, and shall again.”

    “Are none of the brethren satisfied with the division of Saturn’s kingdom which the lottery portioned out?”

    Phobetor said, “Only Hades, the eldest, was satisfied … a fact which causes me disquiet when I think on it.”

    “And how will you save me?”

    “You are familiar with the story of Ceyx and Halcyon?  Ceyx was the king of Thessaly, and a son of Helios the bright: his wife was the daughter of the wind.  But Aelous the wind-god was displeased that Ceyx had boasted how the sun flew higher than all storms, and was supreme.  Therefore Aelous unleashed from his bag the storm-winds to sink the boat in which Ceyx travelled; and when the news reached Halcyon, she threw herself from the rock into the sea; but the gods took pity, and transformed them both into the sea-birds who make nests upon the sea, and, for a time, out of respect for his own daughter, the wind-god is obliged to render peace among his warring subjects, and all the winds are becalmed.”

    “An interesting topic, but one which I do not see how it relates to my particular predicament…”

    “You shall see,” said the dream-prince, “For by the time you strike the waters down below, you shall wear the shape of the halcyon-bird.” and he dropped Comus shrieking from his hand.

    Comus shouted prayers to any and every god or goddess he could imagine as he fell, but he was not very popular with the gods.

    However, Phantasmos, on silent wings, had followed his brother from Cimmeria, and now swooped alongside the plummeting Comus, and whispered in his ear, “What will you promise me to save you…?”

    “My soul!”

    “That is more than worthless, for you have corrupted it.”

    “Seven years of my life.”


    “Seven times seven years.”

    “And I may choose the years?”

    “Certainly!”  said Comus, as the sea rushed closer.

    “Then let me tell you a thing unknown to the gods of the heavens, the gods of the sea, and the gods of the netherworld.  Certain unclean spirits have found the passageway which leads from Hades to the realm of dreams; the two realms touch in several places, as well you might imagine.”

    “I would not dispute the opinion.” Ventured Comus, limbs flailing, eyes staring downward.

    “My father has greater power over these spirits than he has over mortal men, for men can be shaken from sleep by noise or need.  But these spirits cannot be stirred from sleep during the hours of daylight by any force, no more than stones can be — and this greatly pleases father.”

    “But you are not pleased, great Phantasmos…?”

    “They sleep, but they do not dream.”

    “And you wish me to do what again exactly…?”

    “I will turn the storm into another form.  Perhaps a man, or a stone, or a rushing stream, and it will sleep, perhaps for days, perhaps for ages.  As for you, you shall turn into a halcyon bird as soon as you strike the sea — this is the ruling of my brother and I shall not overrule him.  But it may be long ages before you fall into the sea.”

    Phantasmos waved his silent wings and they stood upon an island many miles away.

    He plucked a poppy from his crown and handed it to Comus. “Here is your mission: to find a way to return the dreams of men to those who have abandoned their humanity, both the Kallikanzaro, who wear the skins of wolves, and the Sons of Hecate, who drink the blood of men.”

    “And why should I do this thing?”

    “Son of Circe and Dionysus, you have Apollo’s blood in you as well; your songs come from him; why not learn his love of reason also?  Your power can be used also to uplift, as well as to demote.  It is an art in which one who lives upon this isle can instruct you.  Go; seek your tutor; learn. I go to bind the storm, your foe.”

    Comus agreed and smiled, and, once the dream-prince had gone, laughed shortly and tossed the poppy-bloom away, having no more desire to carry out this oath than any other he had ever taken.

    Now, on this island lived a witch named Sycorax, who was young and beautiful and lonely.  Comus came upon her bathing in a pool, but she turned invisible and slipped away.  He made wreathes out of flowers to beguile her, and, when he felt her invisible eyes watching, he sang amorous ditties and long-songs on a lyre he had made from a tortoise-shell.  Each day she showed herself, remaining visible a moment longer than the day before, and her unseen voice called softly to him.

    Oft they spoke, and growing bolder, they danced, they kissed, they caressed.  But more than that she would not yield, no matter his entreaties, and, despite the smoldering glances and warm smiles with which she favored him, she would not favor him with more.  He would have come to her by force, to slake his passion, but she had an unseen spirit named Ariel who guarded her, a creature of the air, and Comus feared the spirits of the wind and air.

    One day he promised to teach her his art, and she sent Ariel searching along the sea-beds for his charming rod.  A bull whose horns were wreathed in ivy and grape-leaves brought the staff up from the sea, and Comus was master of his art again.

    And yet it did not avail him to win his pleasures from this girl, for she was lovely, and had he turned her to some beast less able to resist her passions, she would have lost the shape he found so fair.  Once and twice and several times he tried to snare the spirit Ariel which protected her; but the sylph was both honest and moderate, and therefore Comus had no purchase on him.  Comus knew only how to turn to outward shape the bestial spirits which a man unleashes in himself; over the pure and the just he has no power.

    Therefore he taught his arts to Sycorax, hoping, by this, to win her love.  Sycorax, who had also been taught thing by kings from Northern lands, named Ve and Vil, now used his metamorphic art in a way he had not dreamed before; for she taught the beasts to walk upright, and gave them human seeming.

    Ariel she sent as embassy to other spirits, who, hungry to inhabit human flesh, entered into these shapes she had made, and therefore bestowed reason on them.

    As payment, the spirits told Sycorax all they knew of wind and welkin, the secret names of fire and flood, the deep hidden arts whereby the Earth gives birth to gems and gold, springs and freshets, seed and herb.  Celestial spirits told her the names of the stars and comets; Terrestrial spirits drew maps of unseen lands beyond the Antipodes, and revealed the source of the Nile; Subterrestrial spirits told her of the secrets crimes and histories lamented by the dead, who quailed before the throne of Hades, and revealed all undiscovered evils they had done in life, and also said where forgotten kings, and even forgotten cities and nations, lay buried in hidden places on beds of gold. She wrote these things in twenty-one great volumes, and learned the lore of magic.

    Thus was much preserved which otherwise would have been lost: for the spirits forgot their former lives when they woke inside the man-shaped flesh of beasts she’d made for them.

    These bestial people were not unlike certain fair and ancient folk who lived in Ireland and Wales; and the blue-haired naiades consented to draw seven white ships across the sea for those new peoples who wished to depart this island, and live among the world.

    Of the Eighth ship, this story cannot tell; but soon the Ninth Ship lay upon the beach, and promised to carry Comus and Sycorax away from this lonely island of exile.

    On this final night, when they were alone, Comus, distracted to his utmost by the sight and scent of this fairest of maidens, and realizing that he could not slake his desires in any other way, promised to marry her.

    Ariel fetched the god Hyman from the Blessed Islands where he dwells to perform the rites, and invisible spirits surrounded the couple as they recited vows to each other from beneath a canopy of lilies, poppies, nightshade, belladonna, and other herbs and flowers sacred to the witches.

    Comus carried his bride to a flowery couch, and she, still wrapped in her bridal veil, proposed nine toasts, and then ninety-nine.  Comus, sure of his abilities, drank until his breath was as sweet as a May bouquet, till his eyes were cool flame, and blooms of red showed upon his cheeks.

    Sycorax equaled him draught for draught, promising him, with her glittering eye, all the pleasures of which he had dreamed these long months, but urging yet another drink on him. He thought she would become more pliant as she grew less sober, and so he agreed.  On the hundredth cup he fell down senseless, and Sycorax hiccupped and smiled maliciously.

    He awoke, of course, in chains forged of cold iron.

    Around him stood Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, teeth and eyes as red as blood, carrying whips and torches, with venomous snake-shapes twisting in their streaming hair.

    *** *** ***

    3. Of Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone

    “Kindly Ones!” called out Comus, forcing a smile. “Protectors of the Suppliants!  Venerable Ones!  To what do I owe the ple… the honor of your company…?”

    “Vengeance.  Terrible vengeance.  We come for blood.”  Whispered the Dreaded three sisters.

    “Oh, good!” said Comus. “There have been some people who have really irked me lately, that I assure you.  Why — my own wife tied me here in these chains on our wedding night…”

    “He admits it.  He has wed her.  The crime is confessed.”

    “Um.  While what often seems an admission of some guilt, naturally, is rarely anything of the sort!  A clear and calm-headed discussion often discovers simple misunderstandings…”  But he fell silent, for the Kindly Ones were beginning to hold the blades of their whips in the flame from their torches, to heat them red-hot.

    Alecto said, “She is your daughter by Pasiphaë, raised by the Virgin Goddess of the Moon.  Every night since she could first speak words, without ceasing, Sycorax prayed to us to avenge her mother’s death.”

    Megaera said, “But it was not you who spilled the blood of Pasiphaë on the ground.  And yet the crime of incest is punished as fiercely as is uxoricide.”

    Tisiphone said, “Sycorax has already gone to her punishment, laughing, for she was willing to throw herself living into hell, provided only that you, bound to her by hymeneal bands, should fall as well.”

    “But–  but– I performed no carnal acts with Sycorax!”

    “Her testimony says otherwise.  Drunk, no doubt you forget them.”  Said Alecto.

    “That hardly seems fair.  You would at least think I should be able to remember her passionate kisses, though luscious thighs and that firm, warm…”

    But this is not the sort of speech calculated to allay the Kindly Ones.

    After they tormented him with whips for nine months, the Furies smote the ground and tossed his broken, bleeding body into a pit.  He cried out to them to grant him death, but, since his vow to Phantasmos was unfulfilled, Fate would not let him die, and Hermes, a close confederate of Somnus, refused to come take the soul of Comus out from his body.

    The earth closed over him, and Phantasmos sent him dreams.  In dream, he saw the Age of the Gods come to an end, the pagan temples burnt, and a new religion, from the East, a worship, not of greatness, but of meekness, not of courage, but of cowardice, not of wisdom, but of ignorance, shroud the Earth.  It was a worship, not fit for free men, but for slaves, and they held up as their sign the crucifix on which only thieves and murderers and traitors were fit to hang.

    He dreamed the magic was dying.  A magician found the wand of Comus where it had been dropped, and released Ariel from a pine where Sycorax had imprisoned him; he found the books of lore she wrote, and, for a time, practiced the Old Arts.  But then, Comus watched in agony while the old man, upon returning to the world, broke his staff and buried it certain fathoms in the Earth, and deeper than any plummet ever sounded, he drowned his books.

    The words of Phantasmos came to him in dreaming: “Behold here is the first of the Autumn People, the gray, solemn, horrid souls, who herald the coming of the Universal Winter; a time of cold from which no new seed shall ever spring forth, not for all the span of aeons that prophecy can reach.  The world turns and a new age comes.  But I, alone of all the gods, have dreamed I was the Earth; I have been fields and brooks and mountain crags, and from this I learned the thoughts and dispositions of the world.  I found the great secret of the world; that all the earth was once as I am now, merely a goddess taking the shape of the world for the sake of a dream.  Yet somehow that dream grew solid, even as, across the ages, trees may turn to stone.  And something must be done before all things are turned to stone; even the Kallikinzaro have a part to play, and even the drinkers of blood.  You will do my will in this, Comus. Did you think you would be released so easily from my service?  Even those who oppose the will of the Gods do our work.  I have plucked you outside the flow of time, even as I have my Merlin, my Barbarossa, and those Great Ones who will not wake until the sounding of the Gjallrhorn.  You will wake in a drearier world, a world whose first hints of winter wind have come gray and cold across all things both lovely and divine.  The Green of magic is gone from that world; only blown leaves remain, remembering, in death, strange brightnesses.”

    “Why me?  I have neither wisdom nor bravery.  I seek only a life of ease, of pleasure.”

    “And also to disgrace and to corrupt whatever you find honest, chaste and upright in clean men, and to sully the purity of virgins.  In our world, a creature of your nature is an enemy of gods, Virgin Diana and Jove, Upholder of Oaths alike misliking you, and all the house of Apollo hating what comes from the loins of Dionysus. But, wild one, in a world of gray machines, the world ruled by soulless men who rule by art, a world where reason has been misused to slay all poetry, why, then, you are an aid indeed.  Wild fire is a foe in autumn, among the tall grain stalks; but he saves lives in the winter, when cold is more fiercely to be feared.  Thus are you.  The magic which holds you timeless shall fade when all magic fades; awake, and work your will upon the world; work your most cruel pranks on an unwitting mankind.  The watchdogs of that day and era shall destroy you, O Expendable One, but, since you have done no good for any one while you lived, no one shall weep to see you gone.”

    Nine ages passed, and a drill-head intruded into his cell below the Earth, allowing the sea to rush in.  Comus was instantly changed into a halcyon bird.  He flew up the shaft to the amazement of the workmen there.  Not without cunning, Comus found the foreman, and, as the foreman slept, whispered into his ear where the richest veins of gold were to be found, for, after spending so many years below the earth, Comus knew many of the secrets of the stone.

    Nine times he did this, and made the man nine times richer, till he owned his own company, and came to trust his dreams and hunches in all things.  One the tenth time, Comus told of where he had seen his charming wand buried long ago; and when the man had dug it up, searching for gold, and cast it aside, the sea-bird lit upon the broken stick, which grew with wreathes of poppies, grape and ivy, and a dark-haired man stood up.

    And since he knew the watchdogs of this world would be hunting him, away he stole, most silently.

    A sea-wave carried him in a boat made of grapeleaf and ivy vine to an unnamed knob of rock too small to call an island. With charming wand in hand, it was the work of moments to turn stone to soil, and invoke the instant growth of luxurious blooms and fruit-trees. In the shade of an abundant grape trellis, he strung a hammock between two olive trees, and rested in the dappled sun, in hand his wine-cup fashioned from the hemisphere of a coconut.

    He did not expect to be found so quickly.

    *** *** ***

    4.       Of the Prince of the Hosts of Darkness

    As Comus was lolling at his ease on his garden-rock in the midst of the sea, there came suddenly a great and haggard prince down from the middle air, wreathed in storm and smoldering with the scent of brimstone. His wings were leathery membrane, riddled with tiny scars where all plumes had been plucked away, and his armor was of gold and adamantium.

    Tall he stood, greater than titans, and the spear in his hand was of stature to make the tallest pine of Norway, hewn to be the mast of some great warship, seem but a wand. Sad glory hung about him as about a tower burned by fire from heaven, stones black, capitals cracked, roof tiles torn. Deep scars of thunderbolts trenched his visage.

    Comus felt the majesty radiating from the apparition like heat from black coals, long after all light has died, but still with power to scald flesh and burn bone. He wisely threw himself to the ground, groveling and scraping.

    “I am the bearer of the light,” intoned the grim monarch.

    “The light of truth, Splendid One?” asked Comus, twisting his neck to turn an eye upward.

    “The light of pride,” the other intoned with a sneer, stepping on the face of Comus. “This era has been given into mine hand, just as Job, most honest and true of mortals, once was given. The bones of the world I cannot break, nor shall all life perish entire, for a bow in the cloud prevents this: but all else is mine.”

    Comus, his mouth and nose pushed down into the dirt by the hard boot, uttered no words. He grunted and clawed feebly at the grassy clumps beneath.

    “The Uranian tyrant who sole reigns in realms of bliss, lolling on despotic throne, decreed the downfall of the gods of old, and silenced their oracles. You alone, for a time, escaped. I am not displeased with you!”

    Comus, mouth full of dirt, grunted in what he hoped was an affable fashion.

    “You neglected to restore the lost human dreams of those who turned toward hell. Drop by drop, the dreamless ones lost their human semblance, becoming lifeless, loveless, unlaughing wretches. They dreamed only grey and greasy dreams of power, power for power’s sake. Their pride swelled as their soul shrank; the churchbells cease to ring, all vows are broken; and so they were all forsaken to me, given to my care.”

    And in his hand, the dark prince seemed to hold a poppy-bloom Comus was sure he knew from years long past. But what it was, and what it meant, Comus could not recall. The flower withered to ash-flakes in the palm of the prince, who threw this litter into the sea.

    “You will serve me and adore.”

    Comus turned his head, so now the pressure was on the side of his skull. The boot-cleats of adamant crushed one cheek; the soil drove into the other. “Mine ear would be more eager for your commands, dread lord, if perhaps your boot-sole were not so, ah, inappropriately, that is, inauspiciously placed …”

    “I loose you from mine hand like a falcon to work your will upon the world. What can you accomplish?”

    The touch of this scarred prince flooded the heart of Comus with arrogance and self-conceit, for such was his nature. So Comus boasted, “Sodom and Gomorrah will blush for shame, for they made wayfarers their catamites, but dared not blaspheme the sacraments of Hymen, who is mine especial enemy. I shall made Hermaphroditus and Tiresias bow their heads, and even Ganymede, Jove’s catamite, shall wonder at the abominations of love.”

    “Such is my will. What else?”

    “The writings of whores and images of harlots will be before every eye! Adulteresses will have cheeks of flint, never to blush beneath their painted faces, while purest virgins will cower and kill themselves for shame!”

    “Such is my will. What else?”

    “To the gods of sleep and death will I feed the lotus-eaters and the slaves of opium by the myriads!”

    “Such is my will.” And now he removed his boot. “Work swiftly! Time is short.”

    That puzzled Comus. Rubbing his check, he rose to his knees. “What is the haste, sir? Time is without end.”

    “Not for thee,” sneered the majestic spirit. “Foredoomed are you to die.”

    “Spare me, noble lord!” called out Comus in remarkable fear.

    “The decree of doom is not mine to recall,” grimaced the dark lord in bitterness. “All who serve me perish — thus the wage is paid.”

    “Sir, in the interests of not imposing on your generosity, gladly will I forego so burdensome a drain on your coffers, but offer, as a gratuity for the privilege of serving you, my full and eager efforts unrewarded!”

    “With your own mouth you have said it,” nodded the dark one. “And called a curse of dread upon you. It is so. All who serve me are unrewarded.”

    “Why, then, must I die? Have I supped not on ambrosia and nectar of the gods? Flows not ichor in my veins, not blood?”

    “The signs gather in heaven, and are seen in the sun and moon; and hailstones are gathered against the last battle. Surtur yields the sword he forged to saint Michael, the Archangel, and the Great Foe prepares a humble virgin to tread upon my head, and trample me. Warsteeds of white and roan, black and pale are harnessed and saddled, and the riders gather bow and sword, scales and sickle. When I am cast into the fiery lake of death, think you not to join me? Do you presume yourself greater?”

    Comus was too frightened to speak answer.

    The dark prince said, “Life is pain. Cleave not to it. Instead seek vengeance. Pour out malice on the happy souls who will escape your fate: bedevil, confound, corrupt, and torment them, and they will join us in the outer darkness forever, to wail and bewail their misery without cease.”

    There came a noise like thunder under the earth, and a great rush of flame and sulfur, and then the dark prince was seen no more.

    Perhaps it was ten years, perhaps less, and Comus has accomplished all he had promised, and moreso, for mortal men with eager glee welcomed and aided his efforts. In many lands, instead of being schooled in reading and arithmetic, fresh young boys were groomed for sexual adventures by tutors neither male nor female in word or deed, but both or neither, each man as he said.

    The horrid details of the works of Comus need not be repeated: the world beyond your very window, O you who read, witnesses the truth of all the words written here.

    But one strange postscript must be written down.

    *** *** ***

    Epilogue: Of the Ending of this Tale

    Comus was granted all the kingdoms of the earth, and all their glory, to work his will upon them, and ravish their many pleasures to himself.

    So it was for many a year. Now all is changed.

    Comus spends no longer his days in a mansion beneath the palm trees, overlooking golden beaches, surrounded by golden beauties, fairest of the daughters of men; nor feasts he on rare viands, sipping wine and sniffing rare essences; nor entices he away his nights in dance and riot, high flown with opium, numb with narcotics, or beguiled with barbiturates, as was once his wont.

    It is said he dressed in rags, his once-curled locks shorn close to the scalp, and smudged with ashes, sitting on the stoop before the door of a small chapel in the hills north of the valley, weeping and asking for wine.

    There is a virgin who from time to time is seen at this shrine. It is said she also weeps, albeit none say for what cause. She dresses in drab black, like one in mourning, but her face is so fair and beautiful that none who see her eyes can look away. Hers is a beauty the banishes rather than arouses lustful thought. She walks with her eyes downcast, for but few are those who can meet her gaze.

    Every now and again, she stops and bends over Comus where he sits in his woebegone rags.

    “What do you need, child?” she gently will ask. “Why do you weep?”

    “Wine! Wine!” He sobs.

    “Are you not the wine god’s son? If you smite a stone, it will pour uncut wine into your mouth. If you raise your hand, phoenix-birds will bear to you flasks of brandywine brewed in the valley of the sun. If you call, lakes of champagne will well up in the wasteland.”

    “Mine is the wine of death. I crave the wine of life. What must I do to obtain it?”

    It is said she smiles at those who ask this, no matter how wretched, or who they may be. “I will tell my son you have no wine, and order the servants to do what is needful.”

    She points to the door.

    “Will you not go in? There is water to wash the stain of your travail from you.”

    His eyes are filled with terror, holding terrible memories. In his hands, with poppies and grapevines and nightshade growing from the length of wood, he flourishes his charming wand, which makes the senses drowsy, as if to keep what he sees at bay. “Behold! Two winged and august living beings, dread of eye and aspect, with myriad bright eyes upon their awful wings, and in their hands a sword of fire that turns each way. These are the watchdogs of the world! Surely they will smite me! The door is strait and narrow! They loom to either side, blazing and ablaze!”

    “Put old things aside, and the way will be wide.” She extends her hand.

    It is not said whether Comus clings weakly yet to his charming wand, or shattered its length across his happy knee to cast the truncheons from him, taken her gracious hand, to be seated in glory at a marriage feast in a white robe, quaffing the wine of life. The ending of these things is not known.

    When I heard this tale, I found I thirsted most terribly for this wine.

    *** *** ***


    Watch this space next week for another tale of wonder, phantasy, or phantasmagoria!