A Long Way Down
“Daughter mine!” cried the Lamia.
Violent tremors shook the Scylla’s tentacles. They woke Hylas from unconsciousness, and he found himself twelve fathoms high, face pressed to a rock wall, his body bound round with octopoidal muscle and his hand held far too tight by Thoősa who seemed to be speaking a bewilderment of tongue-twisters.
“See who’s here, Scylla. No more sadness, Scylla. Listen, Scylla. Listen!”
One tendril let go the sheep, which fell in woolly silence into the open gape of Ladon the Dragon far below. Scylla groped instead for the woman who had just clambered into her cave.
Bridal finery torn and stained by her long climb, the Lamia smiled into the single bloodshot eye of her monstrous daughter. Her voice was eager and loving, sobbing with joy and distress at the sight of the daughter she had not seen for a hundred years. “Beloved daughter. How you’ve grown, child of mine! Child. Child!”
Hylas and Thoősa, perching on the brink of the cave, looked at one another, said nothing, but understood each other perfectly. As the tentacles binding them trembled to a slackness, they eased free and edged sideways - out on to the cliff face. Spray-flecked wind plucked at them. Seagulls with savage orange beaks eyed them, but there were cracks and crannies here to wedge hands and feet in. From up here they could see the current carrying a whaleful of monsters away down the strait - could see Stheno being pulled from the water alive - could see Typhon stamping out his vexation on the sea monster’s spine. The sun caught the upturned eyes of a dozen cyclopses, red as cherries, watching to see what would become of the Lamia. They could not fail to see Hylas and Thoősa perched there, still within easy reach of the Scylla: food on her larder shelf.
Thoősa and Hylas were still in earshot of the cave. They heard every word of the meeting between the two women: Scylla, cursed with solitude and tentacles; the Lamia cursed with motherlove. It started as a tender embrace: Lamia’s white arms, the Scylla’s green ones. It changed into a laughing tussle. “Dearest daughter! Dearest darling daughter!” Then all of a sudden the Lamia was screaming and swearing, shrieking and sobbing, her serpent coils straining to gain a stranglehold. The Scylla, of course, was also cursed with the need to kill her own children.
Their struggle swept the floor clean: bones, litter, eggs and dung rained down from the cave-mouth: sailors’ belts and shoes, mermaid skulls, dolphin flukes. Mother and child embraced and wrestled, wrestled and clung to one another in an embrace so absorbing that a second ship passed safely by, unnoticed, the crew aboard it never realising how close they had sailed to death.
Hylas felt about with each foot for ledges lower down. The muscles in his calves and forearms were cramping from the effort off clinging on. Thoősa’s eyes were shut. Her lips were still speaking of sisters and wishes and kisses when Scylla and her mother, still clutching one another, tumbled out of the lair and into empty air.
All the way down, from the cave mouth to the water, they cursed the Olympians – not each other but the Olympians. All the way down to the sea bed, they clasped one another and cursed Fate. All the way back to the surface they cursed; even when the cross-current embraced them both and swept them across the strait and into the foaming white mouth of the whirlpool on the other side. The Lamia’s grubby bridal rags were replaced by pure white spray; the Scylla’s warty tentacles were flung out, like plaits of hair, by the spinning maelstrom. And then they were gone.
From up on the cliff, Thoősa and Hylas watched it all. The captured cyclops crawled to the brink of the lair and stuck out his head. He smiled at them in the way that people do, seeing a familiar face in an unfamiliar setting. Then he looked down at the water and gave a shrug, resigned to never getting down. Behind him, the last remaining egg began to crackle and hatch. A seagull swooped in the cyclops’s face and he swatted it aside. They all three watched the bird tumble flutteringly through the air.
“There are no handholds farther down,” said Thoősa.
“Honest?” said Hylas.
So they sidled sideways along the cliff, looking for a way up, a way down. There was none. With agonising slowness they edged from ledge to ledge, from crevice to crumbling clumps of shallow-rooted plants. Their hands came to rest on bird nests, and broke eggs. Their feet dislodged pebbles and flowers, but they advanced along the cliff face until the surface of the sea below was no longer wrinkled and rucked with currents.
“You can stop talking about Sullah now,” said Hylas at one point.
Thoősa (not knowing she was) was happy to stop, and appreciated the sudden silence. “Sorry. Sorry. I thought… Back there. I thought - if Scylla thought we knew her sister, she might think we were friends - family even.”
“We don’t know her sister.”
“Knew news about her sister.”
“Only that she’s dead. Were you going to tell her that?”
“News is news, isn’t it?” argued Thoősa. “It doesn’t have to be true, does it? I would have thought of something happy to say. When someone’s so far away you’ll never see them again, ‘true’ isn’t important. Is it?”
Hylas did not argue. If ‘true’ was not important, he could go about saying that he was Heracles’ son and who would ever call him a liar? No one for a hundred miles. He tried saying it. “I am the son of Heracles.” He tried shouting it out across the straits, and it bounced back to him seconds later off the opposite cliff.
“Is that true?” asked Thoősa.
“Is that important?” said Hylas. But his legs and arms insisted it was not true. Surely a son of Heracles would have had strength in his thighs, not just fiery cramp.
“Must we jump now?”
“We can stay here till we fall, if you like,” he said magnanimously.
Thoősa squinnied up her eyes to see the distant whirlpool. “Do monsters go to our Underworld when they die, Hylas?”
“No. They just rot away.”
“What about Pegasus?”
“He can go if he wants. He isn’t really a monster. Just because he was born out of a gorgon’s sawn-off neck.”
“What about the ones who are only monsters on the outside?”
“They can go too,” said Hylas, dimly aware that he did not have a lot of say in who went to Hades after they died.
“What about the Echidna? I like the Echidna.”
“I’m not going anywhere they let Typhon in.” On that Hylas was adamant.
Thoősa wanted to know what shape the spirits of the Uglies would take in the Underworld – the ones who had been transformed from nymph to bush, from lovely to hideous. Would they be bush or monster, beauty or gorgon? “Hylas – “
But Hylas was not there. He had jumped - or lost his grip and fallen: sometimes the difference between brave and unlucky is only the thickness of a finger. It seemed the two of them were about to find out for themselves everything about the Land of the Dead.
Thoősa pushed off from the rock face, propelling herself as far out as her tired legs would allow. As she fell, all she could think was of Scylla and her mother swirling in the maelstrom. Her own brain was a maelstrom of white thought whirling with unanswered questions and shipwrecked stories.