Pythagoras Too

Miles Klee

Pythagoras does not write — he speaks. In five days a pupil, by some enthusiastic error, attributes his theorem to him. It is five hundred years until Cicero writes that attribution down. Pythagoras knows this because for him the law of time is no law. He interrupts the inflexible line as water does a beam of light. He goes to the edge of humanity, and beyond, to moments when the gods alone exist. The gods, and Pythagoras.

He does this now. Comes upon the gods bickering. It sounds like the warp and shatter of trees, frozen trees in Hyperborea, due north. In Hyperborea the sun is fixed, eternal. But the forest is cold — the snow never melts. “Traitor!” Apollo shrieks at his twin, Artemis, across the glowing Olympian hearth. “Whore!” Artemis and the other gods laugh, sounding like heavy rain in the jungle. Apollo has always been somewhat pathetic.

Pythagoras leaves without being seen. In a past life, as the Trojan hero Euphorbus, he ran a lance through Patroklos, allegedly with Apollo’s help. The gods cannot help him now, of that he is confident. Besides, it was Hektor who finally killed Patroklos. How can this indignity, this injustice of another age, that happened to a different body, sting his present mind? The gods cannot help him, and they want more gratitude for help they never gave.

After Pythagoras dies, the Persians will conquer Ionia; the enlightenment there will fade. The Athenians claim and develop its ideas. The gods, those foolish gods, will go on quarrelling as if they remember why they do. He doesn’t believe in them, any more than he believes the myths about himself — all of which are nonetheless true. Except for that theorem thing, of course. Pythagoras is neither god nor man, but he’d rather be a man.

How many men he has been: he’s half-certain he’s been everyone. It’s a chore to live so many lives, it’s an insult to live so few. Pythagoras briefly eludes consciousness and does not like what lies outside a self. It is just the howling absence of thought. Pythagoras loves whomever he loves —  forever. None of it goes away. Beautiful faces flicker through him. Even worse: he started with the love, and found out who was willing to take it.

Stopping his heart to do so, Pythagoras teleports into school. He gives a lesson he has given, is giving, will give. It’s easy. His mouth, his voice, do it for him. His fingers tell him where to point. Pythagoras hovers above these practicalities, a ghost. This, he figures, is not so bad. A fast green world happens itself. The surface of an object has a surface also. A paradox: this barely counts as pleasure, but anything more is too much.

At a dinner of intellectuals, Pythagoras told the host, a respected physician of Croton, that humans would create an artificial lung. The doctor was furious, thinking the very fantasy profane, not to mention a ghastly comment on his work. After more wine, and someone’s lecture on the cause of infertility (white mold), Pythagoras told his host he could write on the moon using blood and mirrors. The doctor was overjoyed.

The Hippocratic “First do no harm” was a thing Pythagoras said first. It is part of the vow that those who join his Brotherhood all swear. Actually, Pythagoras stole it from Pherekydes of Syros, along with his view on the transmigration of souls. He suspects Pherekydes doesn’t care. He cannot fathom why he’s accused of mysticism. “My faith is in reason,” he wants to shout. “And the Sacred, my Holy, our Divine Pentagram.”

Pythagoras is neither god nor man; maybe he’d like to be a tree. He asks the trees how they like it. “It’s fine,” say the trees, “when it’s not so cold we break.” He queries animals after a similar purpose. “Not bad,” says a rabbit, “but you must watch out for the wolf.” “Not bad,” a wolf agrees, “but catching the rabbit is hell.” He tells a snake of his desperate curiosity. “Why, Pythagoras,” the snake says, “how beautifully you hiss.”

In the sect of Pythagoras are mathematikoi and akousmatikoi, learners and listeners, the inner and outer circles. Pythagoras teaches the latter from behind a veil, has difficulty telling the camps apart. Novices make startling leaps; the vanguard settles into dogma. Pythagoras wants a math to interrogate the tides, but others are mired in esoterica. In pure and useless natural fact. A few insist that things are made of numbers.

Young Heraclitus — younger than Pythagoras, anyhow — lives alone in Ephesus, having abdicated its throne to write his beastly riddles. Pythagoras visits the weeping philosopher there. “My friend,” he says, though he once told the man what little of his work would survive, “you look exactly as Michelangelo will paint you!” Heraclitus takes hold of his beard and throws him bodily out of the house: “Begone, you interested old goat!”

Pythagoras holds reincarnation to be a four-part cycle: man, animal, plant, mineral. The source of this insight he cannot name. But it is entirely too plain, when a black cat appears in his window and meaningfully meows, that this is the meowing of a dead mentor. He tosses bread to the cat, whose hair rubs off on everything. The mentor, in his prior existence, was bald. Here is a symmetry that won’t be pinned to a table.

Hey wait, Pythagoras realizes … I’m not having any fun. He zooms around the universe, caroming between galaxies, and the space that cradles them is anything but empty. It’s crowded with hot atoms and photons, asteroids and magnetic winds. From within a gas planet, he observes a storm that lasts a billion years. He goes home to complete depression. He sits with a knife in his privy, carving scalene triangles in the wall.

When Pythagoras looks at the future, he studies the decline of cults. He is shocked at the brute charisma, the obedience of hopeful victims. The prophets are lunatics if not murderers. Pythagoras is a twenty-first century lawyer, defending a cult that worships earthquakes on charges of embezzlement, fraud. Working late, with a town car waiting, the bulb of his desk lamp goes out. The darkness around him expands.

No no no no no no no, Pythagoras wakes up screaming — None of it. The wheeling, celestial symphony. The badly tight skeleton. He aches in his joints the way he aches for the species: periodically, pointlessly. The Croton doctor grants him a clean bill of health, which only makes him worse. He vomits black fluid. His jaw won’t close. Then, for no reason, he’s fine. Another internal dispute, that’s all. Another resolution.

The athletic games of the Panionia. The Pythagoreans, fit and disciplined, excel. A proud Pythagoras discovers them jubilant in their tent, messily eating a meal forbidden: pig. One is eating only beans, yet he is first to apologize. “Abstain from beans,” Pythagoras says, “is a maxim referring to the beans we vote with in elections.” The student is stricken, can’t help but confess: “I thought you wanted us to quit farting.”

Pythagoras is not more than he is, if that’s a coherent way to put it. Eternal nonexistence to either side of him, and even that he is awake for. The single way to describe it is: having a headache but no head. What he is meant to learn from this, as usual, is unclear. It’s unclear whether he’s meant to learn at all, but the single drive he has is to know. Which frames the odd delusion that suddenly, he may.

He is leaving behind a way of life. The worship of logic, which makes no rational sense. Temperance: a way to remain perpetually confused. “This will not do much longer,” Pythagoras mutters to himself. What can he mean by “this”? Other days, there’s that — a kind of thatness, really. Pythagoras is running short on luck. He will not solve the great mysteries. When he comes at all close, the gods turn his brains inside-out.

What then, at last, is the use of a Pythagoras? Why create this minor deity, whose very powers limit his mastery over them? Heraclitus would find his condition quite funny, and apt. Pythagoras, in a street not so familiar, hears the blacksmiths grunting and striking their hammers harmoniously. There is no need for music when the hammers sound like that. There is no reason to keep seeing while your eyes are closed.

That theorem, by the name of every god there is, by Zeus and the Titans themselves —  that theorem. They knew it in Babylon long ago. India as well. All he had wanted was to do was give the world a proof. Pythagoras, when next he finds himself drifting the Elysian fields, is unsure what’s killed him. Hades can’t be bothered to answer, busy tending to his bitch. She nurses a trio of three-headed pups from all nine of her hairy nipples.

Above ground, Pythagoras summarizes. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he says, “if there’s such a thing as intent.” The cosmos ignores the outburst it clearly sought to provoke. Pythagoras walks up a hill to a temple at midday, is overpowered by thirst and weakness. He lies on the hot dry path and hallucinates a song. A wood nymph steps weightlessly over him. “Trying to touch your fate,” she sings. “When only it can touch you.”

Pythagoras returns to his childhood. It is a slow journey to the island of Samos. He watches his father, a jeweler, cut a gem so brilliant it makes the sea go dim. The trees outside are shivering. The engineer Eupalinos has designs for an underground aqueduct, dug from both ends, using geometry. Pythagoras is to study in Egypt, and under the Phoenicians, and with a priestess at Delphi. He leaves before the great tunnel is done.

Miles Klee’s work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Lapham’s Quarterly, Unstuck and McSweeney’s, as well as Birkensnake #2. His first novel, Ivyland, was published by OR Books in 2012.