Fresh running water tastes as sweet to a panther or harpy or cyclops as to any god-fearing man. The pace of the whole cavalcade speeded up; the dust cloud behind them rose up thicker as they hurried towards the river. They would drink; they would bathe; they would snatch fish in their jaws or tickle a trout with a tentacle or two. All their thoughts were on the river now. It would be easy for Hylas to disappear himself, let the current carry him away to safety. He was desperate to break away from this shambling herd of monstrosities.
“You’d think the water would be salty, it being born from tears,” said Thoosa everlastingly telling her unhelpful stories. “This queen, Niobe, boasted she had raised more and better children than any goddess could. So the O’s slaughtered her children: seven sons and seven daughters, right in front of her. Niobe wept…. well she would, wouldn’t she? The tears turned into the river and the river turned into Achelous – a sort of a fifteenth child. Achelous was a good child, too. He made it his job to carry water from the mountains to the sea - watered the whole plain. Grassy meadows, trees, crops… everything’s grown there ever since.”
After the greasy puddles of Monstro City, Achelous River was a blessing to the travellers. They fell on their knees beside it, to drink. Hylas drank. Then he waded into the river, pretending to wash. On and on droned Thoosa’s voice: “Well, I say ‘child’ but actually Achelous was a bull when he wasn’t being a river…”
Easy for Hylas to disappear himself, yes: to duck underwater, then let the current carry him downstream. His experience with the nymphs in the Pegae Spring made him nervous of water closing over his head… but he had to get away.
So cold! Slithering into the shallows, Hylas felt the icy snow-melt from mountains two hundred leagues away. His legs ached with the cold, but he waded deeper. His ribs clenched, but he sank his shoulders under. His teeth chattered but he pursed his lips in readiness to duck out of sight …
Suddenly – unnervingly - a shoal of trout collided with him. Others, leaping clear out of the water, fell back on to his head. A voice – terrible and sibilant – bubbled and hissed up through Hylas’ clothing and, as it broke surface, formed into words.
“Say it is not true! Oh my girls! My girls! Every day – every hour, I have poured my love for them out into the sea. Now these vermin trout tell me my daughters are dead! Curse them with anglers’ hooks and let them be baked in hot ashes! Is it true, boy? Can you tell me? Do you know? Have the Sirens…”
“The Sirens?” Hylas laughed with relief. In happy haste he told the owner of the voice the good news: his daughters could not possibly have been fallen prey to the Sirens, because Orpheus the Argonaut had killed them. The fearful hags were dead - he had seen their vile bodies. He had heard the last croak escape the last stringy throat. Orpheus the singer had broken their wicked hearts. This is told to Achelous.
Entering the water, Hylas had been nervous of pruny fingers clutching at him. He had never expected the whole river to do it.
Strands of current wound him round now, as sinews entwine a bone, holding him bone-stiff, bearing him away downriver. He was plaited into the sinuous body of Achelous. Gasping for air, grasping what breath he would whenever his face broke surface, Hylas tasted salt now in place of sweet. The wind roughened surface of the water cupped itself into mouths, and all of them were shouting. “If they are gone, I’ll drown all the children of Man! They are all I have left! Curse Orpheus! May those who hear him sing tear him in pieces and throw his head to me. Curse him! Curse the Argonauts. Curse you, boy for telling me such news. The Sirens are my daughters! Oh! My girls! My silver stars of the sea! Drowned? Not drowned! They were born from my blood! Here it is again – that pain. That pain!”
Before Hylas knew it, Achelous was dragging him over rocky rapids, gnawing into him with cold. The sinews of water binding Hylas began to bunch and bulk; to resemble a flesh-and-blood beast. He found himself raised above the rest of the river, within a blue flank of rippling muscle, as Achelous took on his other form: a water bull. Added to the noise of rushing water was a billowing bellowing.
Added to the clear purity of icy water were drops of blood now, as the bull bled from a remembered head-wound. One great crescent horn slashed the air to shreds. The other had been torn clean off his skull.
Hylas clung to his master’s name like driftwood - “Heracles!” – and began to shout it over and over again, whether his head was above water or below. “Help! Heracles, help me!”
But hearing the name – feeling the word within his own flank - the water bull tried to gore it out with his one gleaming horn, tried to bite it out of himself with watery jaws. Streamer weed caught around the horn and tumbled down his head and neck like green hair. “A million curses on Heracles who robbed me and broke me and spilled my blood in the ocean!”
Pinioned against the heart of the rampaging water bull, Hylas felt rather than heard Achelous’ grievance, felt rather than heard his sad story.
Betrothed to the sweetest of nymphs, Achelous, god of freshwater, flowed to the very brink of wedded happiness. But on the eve of the wedding, Heracles passed by, caught a glimpse of the bride and challenged Achelous to a wrestling match. The prize was the bride.
In front of her, Heracles humiliated Achelous, snapped off one of his purple horns and gave it to a nearby bevy of tittering nymphs who sighed and simpered and squealed deliciously at the raw, ragged hide and flesh still clinging to its root. He laughed loud and long, married Deianeira and fathered a son on her, while three drops of the bull’s blood were still drifting out to sea; drifting and clotting, darkly purple. The blood clots congealed into full grown women. Small surprise that these creatures, dragging themselves out of the waves and on to the flower-sprinkled rocks, sang their lives away in a sobbing, minor key. Children take after their fathers. The Sirens inherited all of their father’s bitter rage. They lived out their lives trying to lure sea-going men to their deaths.
The water bull dissolved back into a coursing, cursing torrent, rolling Hylas over and over, slapping him sharply with a thousand white-palmed waves. “And do you pollute me with that word Heracles? Do you muddy me with that name?” He appeared to choke on his own rage; the bellowing roar diminished, the backbreaking push was less. Hylas’ legs scuffed the river bed painfully, repeatedly, then he found he could put down both hands and knees, rise to his feet, stumble a few tripping steps through foam that reached only to his thighs. Looking back upriver, he saw distantly – very distantly – Ladon and Typhon, heads-down, drinking greedily from the river. Beyond them the giants, too, tails pointing at the sky, were guzzling the water, sucking it up through speckled gullets, setting throat-apples bobbing.
Thoősa and Panacea, hearing his cries for help, had been running along the bank, trying to keep pace with Hylas as he was swept away. Only now, as Achelous shrank, were they able to draw level and call out breathlessly, reach out their hands, beckon him ashore- “Quickly! Quickly!”
Both sandals gone, hair plastered flat to his head, arms a-twitch with cold, Hylas climbed out of the shallows. Thoősa’s hands felt hot against his icy skin. “You poor thing! You poor drowned rat!” she cried
They were joined, one by one, by the refugees of Monstro, swilling and glutted with drinking, bellies wobbling with water, throats gurgling. Hylas did not want to retell the river’s story, but they seemed already to know it. Perhaps, having Achelous slopping about in their stomachs enabled them to know it.
“When Heracles did all that, you weren’t even there, probably, were you?” said Thoősa loyally. Hylas shook his head. A rivulet of water trickled down his spine and made him shudder.
“I saw Deianeira once,” said a centaur dolefully. “Sweet creature.”
“That Heracles can’t see a woman but he has to have her.”
“No, no – .“ Hylas struggled to escape his shivering paralysis.
“Fifty sisters in one night, I heard. Left all of them pregnant.”
“A collector,” said Talos.
“Thieving magpie. Snaps up anybody. Anyone shining.”
“No!” It was Thoősa. Her own first impressions of Heracles had not been good. But she could not bear to hear them spoiling all the stories she had heard as she gerw up. In her role as keeper-of-stories, she had to put them right. “Deianeira is different. Deianeira is his true love - well, after the first two, I mean.”
The monsters looked askance at her: there were rumbled growls, the beginnings of snarls.
Hylas, though, was filled with gratitude. “Yes!” he jumped in recklessly. ”Heracles really, really loves Deianeira!”
At the mention of the name, the water-god inside the monsters slopped and churned in misery. They clutched at their guts. Some overbalanced.
Pythia the Oracle curled her lip and, in that smoke-dried voice of hers, said, “Give him time.” The assembled company stared at her, thinking she had looked into the future and seen worse to come. “What? What are you looking at?” she snapped. “You try sitting on a tripod at the Navel of the World while all of humanity traipses up with their problems and their fears and their wishes…. Trust me; it makes you a good judge of character. This wife will be no different from all the rest.”
The bloated monsters ‘freed’ Achelous in the only way they could. Thoősa covered her eyes.
“Everything passes,” said the Echidna, watching, hands-on-hips.
With a sigh of relief, they adjusted their clothing and fur and stood lining the river bank, heads lowered, knowing they had humiliated the river-god once again. They were sorry for it – sorry to add to his miseries. They did not often feel sympathy for a god, but Achelous was not an Olympian: he came of a much older breed. Anyway, they shared a common hatred: Heracles the Hero.
The Echidna and Stheno the gorgon threw little white moli flowers into the (now) yellowish, smelly water, and a faun poured in a libation of goat's milk which promptly curdled. Achelous moved sluggishly away, weaving a weary, looping course across the Egregian Plain towards the distant sea.