The plants were watered daily, whether they were dead or not, because, as the Echidna explained, there is no knowing for certain the moment the spirit goes out of them.
The plants in Monstro had all been people once. (People or nymphs, which are almost the same thing.) Transformed by the gods, they had been left out in rain and wind and sun, some of them for generations. They were little signposts in the landscape marking where the Olympians gods had loved, lost their temper, played a joke, got bored.
But the Mother’s Union of Monstro City had organised a rescue operation to fetch them indoors.
“I used to visit them in the fields and mountains,” said Phantasos, Bringer of Dreams, brushing his fingertips unhappily through a rattle of dry reeds in an earthenware tub. “But the Mother’s Union voted to dig them up and fetch them here.” He clearly doubted the wisdom of it.
“You visited them? So plants can dream?” asked Panacea, watching the Postman mulching his own particular magic into the soil around the roots of a sunflower.
“Of course. If they are still alive. These ones here like to dream of limbs and movement and eyes and mouths. Familiar faces. The days before their transformation. Most of the natural plant world dream soft rain, sunlight, the fumbling of bees. Their nightmares are Thirst, the crawl of caterpillars… I confess, when plants annoy me I sometimes deliver nightmares like that.”
“There are plants that annoy you?”
“Ivy – convolvulus – rhodedendrons – those breeds that murder their fellow plants. Should I be their judge? Should I? I should not.” A shudder of distress went through Phantasos. Panacea noticed how his daylight excursions into the world, on top of his nightly mailings, had left him exhausted and unhappy. The more he saw of the world outside his cave, the more the world troubled him.
“May I try something?” she asked, eyes bright with daring, laying out her wallet of herbs.
“No, Panacea!” exclaimed Phantasos when he saw what she was up to.
Panacea glared at him. “What? You think I can’t do it?” She might not be able to bring the dead back to life, but with living leaves and stems, she might just be able to reverse the process.
“No, Daughter of Asclepius! No! Consider!”
“Why?” she pulled her wrist free of the Postman’s grasp. “Why? Because the O’s want them to be trees and bushes and plants? Because I might spoil their joke?” And she began to plunge herbs, spices and oils into the dusty soil around the plants’ roots.
“Because plants can bear more than people can, without dying!”
Taking hold of her elbow, he made her stand up. With great formality, he introduced her to some reeds in a pot nearby. “This is Syrinx. Her story is not unusual. In her sun-kissed days, she was a handmaid to the goddess Artemis. She eminently loveable. But she turned down all offers of love or marriage, because Artemis forbids her nymphs to marry. Usual story. Pan would not take no for an answer. Gods find it hard to believe they are not irresistible. Things started getting rough. Syrinx ran – ran till her way was barred by a river. Hearing her cry out, the river nymphs surfaced, saw the situation and took pity on Syrinx here. They turned her into…” The reeds in the pot begin to quiver with horror or distress. “Pan came pelting along, huffing and grunting. His sighs blew through the reeds – made a noise that pleased him. And since Pan could not have Syrinx, he cut seven reeds and invented ‘panpipes’. Something to brag about. Something to keep the others gods from sniggering about Syrinx turning him down.”
More appalled than ever, Panacea ploughed on with her work. To thwart her, Phantasos took a knife from his robe and cut through every stem. The stiff dry reeds rattled to the ground between them. Panacea screamed with horror.
“Think, girl! Over the years, ants ate holes in her leaves. Goats grazed on her hair. Her roots were pot bound. What would she be now if you changed her back into a girl? What parts of her would be missing? Her tongue? Her wits? What? Come with me.” And he dragged Panacea back up the slope towards sunlight, to where the clutter of statues stood about – the dog, the fox, a woman carved in salt. “There is a task worthy of your healing powers! “
The statues were not stolen works of art. They were living things turned to stone.
“Can stone truly dream, Phantasos?” asked Panacea.
“While I have my way it can,” he said, and the bigness of his voice suddenly betrayed the power concealed inside the raggedy little Postman. His fingertips again touched the fox and dog behind their ears, and beneath the stone eyelids, their stone eyeballs flickered.
Panacea daubed them crudely with juniper oil, oregano, rosemary and syrup of figs, a twist of holistica, a pinch of salt. With a violent shake that began in the muzzle and travelled down the body to the tip of the tail, filling the air with stone dust, Laelaps the dog and Teumessian the fox finally stood before her, yelping and whimpering and barking.
Behind them in the corridor, the Echidna and Stheno the Gorgon arrived, fists full of reeds, foaming at the mouth, stamping their feet, sweating with rage. The snakes of Stheno’s hair hissed like boiling water. “She cut down Syrinx!” the Echidna said, monstrous loud, pointing at Panacea with a fistful of broken reeds. “I sent her to water the plants and see what she did!”
“No, Princess. It was I who cut down Syrinx,” said Phantasos, and his voice was just as commanding, though ten times softer. Taking the cut reeds from the Echidna, he handed them out to every hand, claw, mouth and tentacle that could hold one. “Syrinx is only music now. I set her free to sing. Now blow. Use her to make music. She would like that.”
They blew. Cyclopses and giants and satyrs and furies all blew.
It was like a herd of piglets falling off a cliff.
But when Hylas blew: it was a sweet, mellifluous rippling laughter. It was the voice of the nymph Syrinx speaking in music.
“When did you learn to play like that?” asked Thoősa, using her reed to fasten back her wildly boisterous hair into a knot.
“Oh you know. You pick these things up,” said Hylas, avoiding the dreaded name of Heracles, who had taught him.
The monsters crowding in to the corridor could not fail to notice that the statues which had been cluttering up the passageway for several years were now revolving excitedly, the fox chasing its own tail, the dog trying to bite fleas out of its fur. The Echidna pushed her way through, and fell on them with such shrieks that she seemed about to eat them. Not knowing which to pick up first she hauled up one in each hand, to the height of her hips and wept huge tears which burst with the sound of cheers and laughter. “My babies! My babies!” she cried. “My lovely pups!”
The citizens of Monstro stared at Panacea with a mixture of awe, fear and confusion. They knew that they were seeing something that changed the nature of their hell.
Just when they had been getting used to it, too.
No one could quite remember the story behind the Dog or the Fox. Even the animals themselves could remember. Besides, both were mute.
“Ask Thoősa,” said Hylas confidently. “She knows all the stories.”
Thoősa was hauled into view. A circle formed round her. …. Laelaps and Teumessian sat down at her feet, eager-eyed, ears pricked as if to say. Tell us! Tell us!
“NO!” snapped the Echidna. “I forbid it. Not now. Not ever, poor brutes.”
And Thoősa, knowing the story, caught the Echidna’s eye and nodded in agreement. Dog and Fox were better off not knowing.
“Memories eaten away, I exsssspect, “said Stheno. “Too clossse to the entrance. The Locussst Eaters sometimesss get in this far before Prince Typhon drivesss them off. “
“I’ve heard of the Lotus Eaters!” Hylas jumped in eagerly. “They sit around all day, don’t they, eating fruit and not doing a lot?”
“Not Lotusss… Not the Lotusss Eatersss. Locust. Locussst,” said Stheno’s snaky hair.
“There is nothing idle about Locust Eaters,” Phantasos said shaking his head.
“They are eating us away,” said the Echidna, and wept white drops that bounced when they hit the floor.