Not wine but milk. Not love but to love. There is one here who does not wish to marry. Hylas woke up wide-eyed in the dark, and groped for the laurel wreath under his pillow. Most of the leaves had come detached now - it was hardly more than a fistful of herbs - but it still gave him pleasure. It reminded him that just once he had been cheered and admired for his courage rather than his looks or his links to Heracles. And today would demand all his courage. Today was his wedding day. There most certainly was one here who did not want to marry.
Nomia’s father had decided against inviting the gods, for fear they did not want a grandson of Zeus to marry a sheep-breeder’s daughter. Besides, he did not know how to achieve it. Instead, he had commissioned statues: look-alikes of all the bridegroom’s divine relations. When Hylas and Nomia entered the temple – a low, barn-like affair thatched with turf – they were confronted by the unnerving sight of eighteen Olympian gods and goddesses standing facing the altar. Largest of all, of course, draped in a cloth-of-gold lion skin and leaning on a club, was Heracles the Hero, bastard son of Zeus and (according to Xyno) proud father of the eleven-year-old bridegroom. He even made the bride look small: small and hopeful and, behind the beaming grin, a little unsure.
Hands tied, feet hobbled, to stop him escaping, Hylas edged his way towards the altar. The statues of the gods regarded him with dead, painted eyes. The sculptor had painted on lurid robes, too, and decked the statues in tawdry jewellery. They looked vulgar. Baby the Sheep wandered in among them, eating the flowers strewn on the floor.
Unfortunately, the sculptor had presented his bill early, and Nomius, having no means of paying, had had to murder him. So the statue of Hera, goddess of marriage, had not quite been finished. She still stood waist- deep in the block of stone from which her top half had been carved. Her clothes had not been painted either, so that she presided over the ceremony stark naked, which would have embarrassed Hylas if he had not had is eyes firmly shut.
There were no other guests. The stockbreeder’s only friends were members of the Heraklophilia Club, and they would never have stood by and let Heracles’ son marry anyone’s daughter but their own. When they found out, Nomius would certainly be expelled from the Club. He did not care. Soon he would be father-in-law to a demi-god. Soon – well, in a year or three – his Nomia would be carrying in her womb another, unborn demi-god. If not a demi-god, then a demi-semi-god.
“I am not the son of Heracles.” Hylas had lost count of how many times he said it. It did nothing to change the farmer’s mind. “I don’t want to marry Nomia and you can’t make me.”
Nomius took out the knife he used to joint mutton and geld rams. He put the point to Hylas’ throat. “Just say the words, blessed grandson of Zeus, if you would be so gracious.”
“In the face of these here witnesses, I Hylas take Nomia, daughter of Nomius for wife.”
“In the face of these witnesses… “
He opened his eyes; looked around for help. His vision was at once filled by the gigantic statue of Heracles clad in cloth-of-gold: red-painted cheeks, shineless eyes the wrong colour, looking over the top of Hylas’s head and into the mid-distance. There was a faintly smug smirk on its scarlet lips. The blade in Nomius’ hand drew blood.
“I Hylas, in the face of these here witnesses…”
Aren’t there always latecomers at a wedding, clumping in, scraping the furniture, drawing attention to themselves, spoiling things. The citizens of Monstro did not apologise for interrupting. Typhon was too large to get indoors, but his flaming breath lashed the turf roof overhead, crisped it and turned it brown. Giant fingers poked through and crumbled it until an avalanche of dirt and dust and cinders poured down on the happy couple. The stone gods and goddesses were tumbled noisily on to their sides, suffering broken limbs and fingers, without any change of expression crossing their rosy cheeks. The father of the bride pulled himself up to his full height and, with a kind of futile indignation, told the gatecrashers he was “a personal friend of Heracles the Hero” and that they would be “very sorry indeed if they so much as laid a finger on him!” Hylas winced.
The monsters uttered their orchestral fart of derision and rage. Baby the Sheep skipped for the first time since lambhood.
It was the harpies who went for Nomius first, but someone else who actually killed him. In the general eagerness to tear the farmer in pieces, Monstro barged off-balance the huge statue of The Big Fellow. After rocking once or twice, Heracles fell, crushing Nomius under a half ton of soapstone, leaving nothing to see but a fist slowly loosing its grip on a cloth-of-gold lion skin.
Stheno the Gorgon took it upon herself to kill the bride; her snaky hair strained forward so eagerly that it covered her face and made it hard for her to see.
“No!” cried Hylas. “It wasn’t her idea! ”
The Echidna scuttered closer. “She’s kin, in’t she?” she said. “She shares her daddy’s crimes.”
And a prodigious, crocodilian tail snaked obscenely from under her robes to circle the bride’s feet.
“She never wanted to marry!” Hylas insisted.
The moment Thoősa finished freeing his hands, he thrust one into his waistcoat pocket to bring out a handful of laurel leaves.
“Not wine but milk,” said Hylas.
“Not love but to love,” said Thoősa, pulling the reed from her hair so that dusty locks tumbled round her face. “Did you dream it, too?”
“Not a husband but a child,” said Hylas, quoting his dream. “Nomia doesn’t want me; she just wants a baby to look after.”
As pot plants standing side by side in the corridors of Monstro, Syrinx and Laurel had become friends (in as much as pot plants can.). Both had once been nymphs loyally serving some goddess or other. Neither had wanted to be caught by the gods who came chasing them. But both had been transformed into plant-life for losing their virginity. Even as reeds and laurel leaves, though, even separated by miles, their friendship had held good. Perhaps plants communicate in a different way. They had even managed to communicate with Hylas and Thoosa by means of dreams. They might be pot plants now, but both remembered how it felt to be a young girl in trouble.
“Are you in love with Hylas?” Thoősa asked Nomia. “I know he’s very pretty, but…”
“No,” said Nomia.
“Did your father force you into it?” asked Panacea gently.
“Oh no. I wanted a husband!” The bride was so shaken that she did not even lie to save herself from a horrible death. She looked around for her pet sheep, but it was several fields away and still running. “I just wanted a little baby to love,” she said piteously, “and you have to have a husband to get one of those. Don’t you?”
So the shelled turtleloise did not die after all. Nor did it travel on towards a new life in the North. It stayed where it was wanted and was more than happy. Nomia listened attentively as Panacea taught her how to salve its sunburn. Swaddled in clean linen and lambswool blankets, the turtleoise might easily have been mistaken for a very ugly baby. At sunset, when the first stars came out and Hylas was able to calculate true North, the cavalcade of refugees set off again. The stock-breeder’s flocks of sheepy goats and goaty sheep fell in behind them: sheep have a way of following anybody, lucky or not.
The rescued bridegroom waved goodbye to his almost-bride, but Nomia, cradling the turtleoise, had no hands free to wave back. Anyway, she was gazing down at the bundle in her arms, supremely happy.
“It is very ugly,” Thoősa had warned as she handed over the heavy, rubbery burden.
“No it’s not,” she had replied. “It’s beautiful. It’s mine.”
“I think I want more than that sort of happy,” said Thoősa thoughtfully, as they walked away.
“Oh I know,” said Hylas with a world-weary sigh. “You want a stooory.”