Come up and take them.
–Leonidas, king of Sparta, when asked
by the Persian emperor to lay down his arms.
Battle of Thermopylae, 480 B.C.
The gate was almost finished.
In those thirsty hours, a taut rack of earth we raised
With much labor. We packed the soil with shield-butts.
Waist deep in horse-flies, we stretched our lances—
Protean, slender bronze. Our cloaks were red and wet,
The air was old and saline by the end.
The foreman raised the cry. At once we
Scaled the mound and set a fence: women’s heads,
Serpents, chariot wheels, lion’s faces.
Another word and circling, avian spearpoints
Dropped tight against the wall.
Boredom, thighs tensed and rigid, moans of effort
We dredged the final draught of strength
And drew a thread of red gold on the blackness of the pass.
An ox of silk and silver approached to test
The man-stones of our house.
Impact. The charge shook the centre of the line,
Bending the façade back, but this defect
Was long planned by Leonidas, mason, master architect of war.
Our founded sandals took the strain, and each workingman,
Cuirass cushioned by his own mane of hair, pushed.
The ox impaled its trunk on fatal, burnished bronze
And bellowed. Our enemy’s boast of deathlessness
We parlayed down with lizard-killing backhands.
A thousand leagues away, my daughter bides her time
Lays a hand on the table
And opens her palm with a line of blue flint
and the sound of ripping sailcloth.
Envoi. We were what we did. Go, stranger, and say
that Lacedaemon lines are clear. Go, and say
that ruled and parsed law endures.
Go, go quickly.
I fear the thunderbirds of Ahura Mazda.
Their flight will dim the blazing white of day.
Gabriel Olearnik studied medieval history at University College London. He is currently an attorney and practices corporate law.