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The Italic Gods

In the back room of a secondhand bookshop on Printer's Row, I leafed through a stack of nineteenth-century topographic maps spread out on a table and weighted with a stone. I was the only customer in the store, and though he'd checked my bag when I entered, the desk clerk hardly glanced my way. Like the stone, his heavy head rested in the palm of his hand, the blackish-blue tattoo of a griffin rising off his knucklebones. One map charted Alexander's march across the Dardanelles into Asia, along the Lycean shore through the Great Sand Sea to the Siwa Oasis where an oracle declared him the Son of God. Half a life ago, I came across a Johann Platzer painting of Gordius's old wooden-wheeled cart (a kind still seen in Anatolia) where yoke and shaft are fastened by a knot made of cornel bark. More man than god, Alexander has raised his broadsword up to strike the knot, and fear is in the faces of those foreseeing what's to come.

The windowless room was damp and overheated, yet I was glad for its privacy, and I was grateful to the clerk who, as they say, turned a blind eye. Outside, dusk was settling and it had started to snow. Businesses were closing and the sidewalk was crowded with faces that were, by turns, kindly, expressionless, desperate, cruel and, as if each held up the homeless woman's cardboard sign—"I Am Like You"—no one bothered to be different than he was. I was in no hurry to get home, so I continued on beyond my subway stop and by the time I reached the Wells Street Bridge, the crowds had thinned to a handful of people. All along the railing, pole flags for the military dead hung slack above the river. When I closed my eyes, I could feel the water sliding past the wooden pilings, and when I opened them again, the streets were so quiet it seemed all the cars in the city had shut off. If this wasn't peace, it was nonetheless an image from which the experience of peace spilled over into the world. A moment in its own right, pointing toward nothing beyond itself, only it and what would become of it.

Sherod Santos

Square Inch Hours
W. W. Norton

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