A young goatherd named Kouros walked along the same path he took every day. He cared for his animals as brothers and sisters. Being the only child to a family living high in the hills beyond Tyrins, his animals were his friends.
On this particular day, Kouros stopped at the usual fork in the road. He had never taken the other one, never even thought of it really. His father had said that it led to the polis of Argos, that there were all manner of bandits and undesirables along the way.
But the day was bright and airy and it seemed to Kouros that little that was bad could happen on such a day. So, his mind set, he decided to take the road to Argos, his flock following him obediently, adhering to the commands he clicked out, the tunes he sang.
When Helios’ chariot was at the top of the world, Kouros stopped in the shade of an olive grove near a bridge. The path was well-used here but no one was about. A spring trickled from the rocks and he leaned down to wet his hair the back of his sun-baked neck. Cicadas whirred all about as he leaned against the trunk of a gnarled olive tree just off the road, his flock nestling down to rest and graze all about him.
Kouros awoke some time later, his eyes opening slowly to adjust to the intense light. A form hovered before him, a face horned and scowling with a pushed-up nose that was thrust into his face. The goatherd pushed at what he thought was one of his animals.
Then, he felt a stinging slap across his cheek.
“Who’re you?” came the rough, accusatory words.
Kouros jumped up and grabbed his crook. He blinked, rubbed his eyes. Before him stood a satyr. He was tall and hairy and full of disdain, arms crossed, one hoof tapping impatiently.
“I’m Kouros, a goatherd. I was just resting here.”
“This is my bridge and my spot you were sitting in.”
“I don’t see anything that says it is yours. Surely Zeus decrees that travellers can rest where they will, in peace.”
“Hmph. Beehhh! Don’t be impertinent.” At this Kouros’ goats looked up. “Back to your grazing, dummies!” the satyr spat at them. “Mindless ingrates.”
“Hey!” Kouros said. “You leave them alone. Who are you anyway?” He was not afraid of the satyr. After all, he was used to telling goats what to do and this satyr was as close to a goat as people could get.
“What do you mean, who am I?” The satyr looked shocked. “I’m Marsyas. I am the greatest musician in all of Achaea.” He bowed and did a little gig, his hooves clicking on the rocky ground.
“Well, I’ve never heard of you and I live around here.”
“Up the mountain lives a nob, comes down the hill and thinks he’s a god.” The satyr laughed and took out an aulos. He placed the double flute to his black lips and his eyes closed.
Kouros wondered how something so ugly and vile could play such beautiful music. He loved music himself, was always singing on his walks up and down the mountain valleys. All of his goats now looked up and gathered about him to listen.
He felt dizzy, like the melody was intoxicating his senses. Then, another slap!
Kouros swung his crook at the satyr but the beast was too quick and he kicked the young man in the stomach, sending him back into the trees where he hit his head and collapsed.
When his eyes opened again, the sun was dipping away. Something cool ran down his cheek and this time he opened his eyes to a face so beautiful he thought for a moment he was trapped in the web of a dream. He smiled in his half-consciousness and then a gentle laughing filled the air, as playful as a trickle of mountain water upon the rocks.
“Hello,” came the voice, soft, clear and soothing. “He is gone now.” A kiss upon his forehead brought him round.
“Who are you?” Kouros asked, making to sit up.
“Nissa. I am the nymph of this grove. I was watching you when that hideous satyr woke you. I didn’t dare approach for he always likes to grab at me. He’s filthy.”
“Is he gone? I owe him a knock on the head.”
“Oh, don’t do that. He is stronger than he looks. Ugly, but strong. Besides, why would you want to scratch up your beautiful body?”
Kouros blushed. She smiled.
The goats were milling about now, moving toward the bridge. It was time to head back and they knew the routine. Kouros looked at Nissa who smiled, wheat-gold waves of long hair playing down from her shoulders.
“Don’t go,” she said, gripping his arm.
“I don’t want to… but I must. My parents will be worried I’ve been taken by wolves.”
She nodded. “Come back tomorrow, will you?”
“Yes,” he answered without even thinking. Of course he would return.
“Wonderful.” She held his arms and together they stood. On her toes, the nymph kissed the goatherd on his neck and then danced into the olive grove, singing and laughing and waving.
The next day, Kouros made his way down the hill from his family’s home, his flock obediently at his heals. He whistled even more that day, his steps and his mood as light as could be, despite the lingering ache in his head.
I’ll get him, Kouros thought.
He sang loudly on the journey to the bridge for his father had told him of a great event.
At Delphi, three days hence, the god Apollo himself was set to play for all those who came to make offerings at his sacred sanctuary. The sound of his kythera was said to make all the pain of human existence disappear so that no listener ever felt sad again.
Of course, no one in Kouros’ family was able to attend, though they wished with all their hearts that they could. To see the Lord of the Silver Bow and hear him play… The whole mountainside of Parnassus would be filled with his music.
The bridge came into view and no sooner did Kouros see Nissa standing on top of the bridge waiting for him, did he hear her scream.
He rushed along the road, knowing his flock would follow.
When he arrived, he found Marsyas with his arms about the nymph, his tongue lashing at her pained face. His hands groped and she did her best to push him away but he was strong and nimble.
“Leave her alone!” Kouros yelled as he ran up the road to the bridge. He poked the satyr hard in the ribs giving Nissa a chance to disappear into the grove.
The satyr turned on him vehemently, eyes burning.
“You!” He walked slowly toward Kouros who stood his ground in the middle of the bridge. “Meddler. You’ll regret that. I’m going to feed your bits to you own herd.” Marsyas launched a series of kicks with his cloven feet but Kouros who was ready, and used to staving off vipers with his crook, managed to block each attack.
Marsyas let out an enraged howl, his aulos falling to the ground at his clicking feet. He bent to pick up his precious instrument and made to play, eyeing the young man wickedly.
Before the first hypnotic note escaped, Kouros spoke.
“You say you are the best musician in all of Achaea?”
The satyr stopped short.
“Ha. In all the world of men and gods!”
“That’s quite a boast. I don’t believe you.”
“What would you know, goatherd. I can tame maidens and goddesses alike so that they melt into my arms. I can make a hydra lie down and dance upon its heads. I can – “
“I know someone whom you cannot beat. Someone who is better than you, Marsyas.”
“There’s no such being.”
“Yes, there is. Apollo.”
“Behhh!” Marsyas waved his hand dismissively. “He plucks away at his strung tortoise shell well enough but he has no real talent. I am the best.”
“Why don’t you prove it?” Kouros walked around the satyr now, keeping his distance. “I have heard that in three days, Apollo himself will be performing at Delphi for all the world.” Marsyas scratched his chin and Kouros pressed on.
“You could challenge him to a contest and if you win, all gods and men will know that you really are the best musician. If you don’t go, you will just be another hillside piper.”
“If I win? If?” Marsyas paced now, the nymph and Kouros all but forgotten.
“You should leave now if you want to make it to Delphi in time. Are you fast enough?”
“Ha! Clearly you’ve never seen a satyr run.” Marsyas nodded. “Yes. I’ll go and challenge Apollo to a musical duel and then, then all will know of Marsyas and equate the name with the artistic perfection that outdid even a god.”
Then, in a puff of dust, Marsyas the satyr sped away up the road, north to Argos and Delphi beyond.
Kouros found Nissa lying in the shade of the olive tree where he had slept the previous day. Her chest rose and fell softly beneath her torn clothing and her golden hair fell in tangled wisps.
The goatherd went over to the spring and wet a piece of cloth from his satchel. He came back and gently wiped the nymph’s face, arms and hands.
Her eyes opened and her arms slid up around his neck. Her kiss was soft and sweet and welcoming and so, in a grove of gnarled trees with the sun beating down and birds chirruping in the boughs, Kouros and Nissa slept in each other’s arms.
Kouros returned to the bridge every day until, a few years later, he built a small house up the hill at the top of the grove. They had a peaceful life.
Marsyas the satyr never returned to what he had called ‘his bridge’ and no one in Achaea ever saw him again.