The Sword of Damocles

Johanna Shapiro, PhD

Poor Damocles
How did he manage that long night
with everyone guzzling and gorging
unconcernedly around him?
They carousing with abandon
He sitting so still
the razor-sharp sword
hanging by a hair
above his head

Did he try to just ignore it
eyes resolutely focused straight ahead
making witty conversation with the guest
on his right
deciding he might as well
eat drink make merry
make the most of
the moment,
his moment

Or maybe he obsessed about that hair
tried to imagine its tensile strength
tried to guess how much weight it could bear
for how long
wondered what would happen
if a gust of wind blew in
through the open window
tried to calculate the equation
wished he’d taken more physics
realized it wouldn’t help

He could have fantasized about the sword
as well
Sharp was better, that must be right
quick and clean
head severed swiftly,
rolling down the banquet table
But maybe dull, though excruciating,
would allow a few more moments of
lingering life
Anguished, yes, but who knew
maybe worth it

And what of the others there that long night
partying hard, magnanimously
sharing in the contrived revelry?
Did they compliment his apparent health?
”You look so well, considering…”
with a discreet but meaningful upward glance
Did they commiserate behind his back?
“Poor Damocles, what a fate”
full of false sympathy
secretly gloating that above their heads
hung only glorious, limitless, infinite air
as far as they could tell
apparent immortality

Perhaps they advised him
with the best of intentions
offered magic spells, oracular wisdom
Perhaps they said they were there to help
All he had to do was ask
Catch his head as it rolled along the floor
contact his wife
console his children
Nothing was too great a burden.

Sitting so still by the open window
watching moonbeams travel across the water
feeling only the wind
I listen carefully for the sound of his voice
coming to me across time and oceans
explaining how to persuade
the mighty Tyrant
to grant me too a second chance