A Slippage of Stars
Once, they spotted dolphins or porpoises, silver as needles in the moonlight, stitching sea to sky with great homeward bounders. Thoősa was enchanted, But Typhon was less than enchanted. He began to snarl. His wife explained:
“We don’t care for them demons, lovie,” said the Echidna. “The Olymp Dionysius – scummy object - gets ambushed by pirates. Big mistake by the pirates. Dionysius turns the sea to wine, doesn’t he, so they all jump in and slurp it. Then, once they’re in the water, he turns ‘em all intoto dolphins. Dolphins, porpoises – can you tell ‘em apart? I can’t.”
Thoősa was puzzled. “So surely…the dolphins and porpoises hate the O’s too,” she reasoned. “Why – “
“Do they bilgeberries! What kind of life do you think pirates have? A puking poxy life, dear, that’s what kind. Who wouldn’t rather spend all day leaping loops through the sky-dazzle, and never a care but to catch a fish or two? You won’t see too many mermaids riding pirates, but they can’t wait to wrap ‘emselves around a por-… Riddle for you! Are mermaids stupid by accident or do they do it on porpoise? Ha-ha he-he! …Where was we? Yeah. The porpoises love the O’s for saving ‘em from a life of salt beef’n weevils. Do anything for ‘em, they would: courier work, carrying messages. Gossips they are, too, spilling the bubbles. Riddle for you, riddle for you. What’s the difference between a pirate and a porpoise?”
“Only one of them washes,” her husband butted in, in a tone that left no one in doubt what Typhon thought of washing and of porpoises.
Just then, a sharp adjustment of course made the Cetus wallow – a sickening motion that turned several of his faces green.
. “You sleepin’, dozy boy?” Typhon yelled with a bloodcurdling ferocity that woke up anyone managing to nap. “Can’t you keep straight?”
Hylas, too, wondered if he had dozed off or lost concentration, for the pinprick of light that he had identified as the Pole Star seemed suddenly out of alignment with the shafts of the Plough and in his alarm he had given too sharp a tug on the gossamer reins. Perhaps there was a strong cross current that kept shoving Cetus askew of due North. Perhaps Hylas was too tired to remember what the Argonauts had taught him of navigation. It was s nerve-racking – sharing a sea monster with a thousand kinds of ugly; more than once he had looked round at the noise of Lamia cracking her knuckles or grinding her teeth, and found her watching him with the tear-stained smile. Fortunately, brass man Talos never slept. He stood always on look-out, huge against the moon, keeping watch for reefs, keeping watch on carnivorous horses, hungry harpies, centaurs practising their archery, or monstrous, loving mothers with a compulsion to kill children.
Typhon cheered up three days later when dawn showed land within sight. Not so much of an ocean voyage, after all! The land, though, proved not to be gentle shoreline on the far side of the sea, but a strait between two tracts of inhospitable jagged rock.
At that same moment, a slight, fast-moving shape flitted overhead. It circled and made a second pass. Not a bird, but Abaris the Priest, astride his golden arrow.
“I bethought me when I saw you: what a marvel of nature! A sea beast arrayed in such a splendour of barnacles! But nay! Not barnacles. Here are my friends enjoying the salt air. It is a healthsome thing, indeed.” His speed and trajectory took him far out of sight and earshot before he made a steep turn and came swooping back.
“We are going to Hyperboria, like you said!” called Hylas jumping up at full stretch and waving both arms. “I told them what you said: about everyone being happy there!”
“That is good. You will be most welcome,” said the soft-spoken Abaris surveying the Cetus’s crowded back for a likely spot to land. “But I beseech you to tell me: If your sights are set on the Land of the North Wind, why then are you sailing – “
In a most unfortunate coincidence, just as Abaris dipped low over the heads of the company, Ladon the dragon chose to yawn. The tiny priest, seated astride his arrow, disappeared into the void. He made no more than a ripple in Ladon’s long gullet.
It was a fearful accident, but over so quickly that many thought they must have imagined Abaris in the first place. The rest looked questioningly at Ladon’s hard-rimmed mouth clamped firmly shut. His nostrils opened and closed, green flaps of membrane sealing and unsealing the dark boreholes on the top of his snout. Then he swallowed.
Typhon laughed uproariously, filling the air with smuts from his bobbing, runty heads. Thoősa clutched at the Echidna in distress. “Oh! Oh! How do we get him out? We must get him out!”
The Echidna shrugged her big bare white shoulders, and great tears rolled down between her breasts and landed with a tinkle of laughter. “Everything passes,” she said philosophically. “Sooner or later, everything passes, don’t it, Ladon?”
Thoősa looked around for someone with more sympathy for poor Abaris.
“Perhaps if we made Cetus sick!” Hylas suggested. But the citizens of Monstro turned a look on him of utter blankness.
Meanwhile, Cetus glided closer to the rocky straits: tall cliffs facing each other like a pair of hands poised to clap. The rocky constriction compressed the currents through the strait. On one side the sea bunched up its skirts into a lacy whiteness of churning foam. Cetus, though he lacked reasoning power, had some crumbs of good sense. Sooner than be sucked into a spinning maelstrom, he cruised closer to the other cliff. Besides, the place was somehow familiar; he vaguely recollected knowing someone in the area... Low down, near the water, the rockface had been eroded to glassy smoothness by the incessant slop of the sea, but higher up, the cliffs were rougher, painted by the gulls that nested on ledges. Painted brown, too, with snake oil and dried blood.
The Scylla came from her lair then – green and brown, in solid strands, like regurgitated food. She came and she kept coming, a geyser of gruesome gristle, coils uncoiling, a squid-like softness in her boneless tentacles.