The Stone Ship
“Bad Luck Boy!” raged the Prince of Darkness. At night, Typhon moved on all-fours; it brought his heads closer to the ground. Skimming the grass with them, he breathed fire, and lit his way. He did not like the dark; if he stumbled, he had farther to fall than most. It was unthinkable that anyone should see the Titanic Typhon pitch on his face because of a rabbit hole. “Bad Luck Boy!”
It was also unthinkable that Typhon and his cohort of monsters could find a ship big enough to carry them all over the sea. Hylas’ genius at reading due north from the stars melted away to worthlessness because he had brought them all to the uncrossable sea. Typhon stood on the beach braying fire at the ocean.
“It’s not my fault the sea got in the way,” said Hylas unhappily.
The sheep bleated complainingly and glowed in the moonlight. Then the moon set. There was nothing to be done but for everyone to curl up on the ground and wait for daylight to show them which way was best to turn along the coastline. Morning showed more than that. What had looked in the dark like a headland proved to be an island almost plugging the bay. A narrow gap separated the shore and this sharp-ridged eruption of rock rearing up out of the ocean.
“It looks almost like – “ began Thoősa.
“It is.” Ladon the Dragon, sleepy-eyed with his usual boredom, gave it one glance and turned his back to the onshore wind.
Thoősa ran after him. “What do you mean? Is what?”
Laelaps the Dog was howling balefully. The Teumessian Fox circled on the spot before sinking down, its brush over its face. The whole beach was crowded with jostling, uneasy monsters, throwing rocks at the sea for blocking their path.
“It is one of us,” said Ladon succinctly. “No matter. Wind and tide will wear it away in time.”
But a smell came off him which dragons only exude when they are distressed: cabbage and rotting straw, with a hint of garlic. The rock in the bay was – or had once been - a sea monster.
“Same old story,” said Ladon. “Doting mother boasts that her daughter is prettier than any of the gods’ brats. ‘The cheek of the woman! Teach her a lesson,’ say the O’s. ‘Let’s make a sea monster to have some fun.’ Bit of this, bit of that: you know the sort of thing. Eye of toad, tail of newt.… “ Ladon leaned against a boulder on the beach and began scratching himself. A pair of iron manacles hanging from the rock tore scales from his flank, and he abruptly stopped. “This beastie here is what they make . Cetus is the havoc they loose on the neighbourhood. The people complain to the King - the ones who haven’t already been eaten by Cetus, I mean. King has to do something: the monster is eating everything in sight. King asks The Oracle what he should do, and The Oracle she says….”
“…Feed your daughter to the sea monster.” It was Pythia who said it. She stood there hugging herself against the cold, fingernails picking at the skin of her arms, making them bleed. “I told him to feed his daughter to the sea monster. I saw the man’s heart break then and there, like a dinner plate. But I had to, you see? Those were the words in the smoke. I have to say them or they choke me. Do you see?” She gnawed her lip.
“Did he do it?” The Delphic Oracle rarely got to see the outcome of her prophecy. She genuinely did not know whether the King had followed her advice.
Ladon licked his loose scales back into place. “No. Same old story. Some Hero out on a quest to kill a monster, happens to be flying overhead, sees the princess chained to the rock, sees a sea monster moving in for the kill, pulls out of his sack this… this… thing.…”
Ladon got no farther with his account, because Stheno the Gorgon had begun to scream. It was a noise so terrible that the dragon flinched and the Oracle curled up on the ground. The snakes growing from Stheno’s skull stood out rigid as porcupine spines, mouths a-flicker, while her mouth shrieked and wailed and screamed sibilant curses:
“Perssseusss! Hero Perseusseuss! May he rot in Hadesss!”
What had the sea monster seen, out there in the bay: what sight so dreadful that in an instant its entire grotesque body had turned to stone?
“My sister! My sweet sister! Medusa!” Stheno looked around the beach as if she might even now glimpse the Hero Perseus with his winged sandals and his mirror-shiny shield, brandishing her sister’s severed head, still dripping gore from its ragged neck. “Your mother’s head, Pegasus! That’s what he had in that bag!”
Now Pegasus took off and ran, bucking and twisting, screaming and biting at the sand his hooves kicked up. Bad Luck Boy Hylas had brought them to the spot where two Olympian atrocities collided: Perseus the Hero, fresh from hacking the head off the Gorgon Medusa, and a sea monster sent by the O’s to savage a kingdom. The Teumessian Fox and Laelaps the Dog (both turned to stone themselves by the Olympians) gnawed on the round pebbles as if they might crack them open and let the life inside run free. The horror stood their hackles on end. They barked and mewed at Panacea. As if she could put it right.
“Can you take me out there?” said the Doctor’s Daughter quietly to Brass Man Talos. He picked her up and waded into the sea. Before the water passed his hips, he had reached the dragon-shaped rock. But herb paste would not serve this time. All the herbs and oils Panacea had daubed over Dog and Fox, to restore them to flesh and bone, would not have filled one hollow ear of Cetus the sea monster. Seagulls roosted along its spine. Sea pinks grew in the corners of its eyes. It was an island of a beast. Talos waded back to the beach with Panacea under one arm and set her down. She loosed her serpents, but she also dispatched every beast with a nose or antennae or barbly beard – to sip and sniff out the wild herbs she needed – oregano, tintinabulum, saxifrage, saffron and holistica. Most were found in the overgrown herb gardens of the ruined palace nearby. (The King and his over-proud queen and their lovely daughter were long dead and turned to stars.)
“Why did they bother?” Panacea asked as she sprinkled the herbs over the bonfires Talos had built and lit all along the beach. “Mortal beauty doesn’t last. I mean, they had only to wait, didn’t they? In the blink of an eye Queen Cassiopiea would have died, her beautiful daughter would have grown old and wrinkled. What threat were they to the gods? The Olymps’s keep their beauty for ever.”
“The palace of mortal beauty falls into wuins,” said the poetical Talos, watching the bonfires’ sparks spiral up into the sky. “But one day the gods too will cwumble.”
With the afternoon’s offshore wind behind it, the smoke from Panacea’s herb-stuffed bonfires drifted out to sea and engulfed the beast-shaped island. Xyno did not help in the work. He was away scouring the palace ruins for the King’s hoard of gold or the Queen’s glass mirror or some souvenir of the Hero Perseus. So he never saw how the thing was achieved. By the time he got back, a flock of seagulls was wheeling homeless in the sky. And there in the centre of the bay stood a sea monster the size of an island, stamping and swaying, sending random waves slopping over a mile of coastline.
“How-wow? How-wow?” yelped the little fixer-and-fetcher, torn between running for his life and gathering up his stash of god-litter.
The monsters on the beach were equally nervous, the cyclopses swinging their hammers, the giants beating their chests. Typhon stood with his belly thrown out, knee-deep in sea, pulling eighty different faces at the sea creature. It lunged a few steps towards the Manacle Rock, as if instinct had shoved it in the rump. Then, seeing no prey chained there, it stopped and swung its head from side to side, bewildered. Cetus was a cold-blooded creature, and without the sun on its back, its body and brain were slow to wake. Right now, it could barely recall how it came to be standing haunch-deep in the bay. Ladon the Dragon, against his better judgement, waded a short way out and made whatever gesture, whatever dragonish noise, whatever shake of the head or bend of the knee it took to convince Cetus that it was among friends.
“Whose magic?” panted Xyno, dodging between Thoősa and Hylas and Stheno. “Who’s magic? Who unfroze the beast?” No one answered him. “That’s sellable magic, that is!” But everyone was too busy wading out - climbing aboard the ship that would carry them north, to Hyperboria. “That’s scratching magic, that is!” cried Xyno, plunging after them.
“Lucky boy! Where’s my Lucky Boy?” roared Typhon festooned with grins. “Give him the best place – where he can read the sky! His luckiness found us a ship!” So Hylas sat on the topmost vertebra of the Cetus’s spine. The sun rolled uphill, and Cetus swam out to sea. Hylas read how the shadows fell, and so arrived at a vague heading. He knew his navigation was rough and ready. But when night came and the moon moved and the stars did not, he would easily be able to correct course to True North. The Argonauts had taught him, after all. Thrown together by the Olympians, using bits of other sea creatures, Cetus had the brawn of a shark, the ugliness of a coelacanth, the size of a whale, but it had the brain of a herring and no eardrums. There was no talking to it.
Luckily a bendy spine grew from its top lip and on the end of it a fleshy tag. Braving spray and bow-wave, Arachne the Spider climbed out to the tip of this spine and wove a long rein by which the spine could be tugged to left or right. Thus the sea monster was persuaded to turn its head: fifty tonnes of fish steered by a gossamer thread. The monsters, by clinging together with tails and teeth, matted themselves into a saddle-cloth of scales, feather and fur to keep from sliding into the sea. If now the Argonauts had sailed over the horizon, they could have sunk all of the world’s monsters with a single harpoon.
On a flat paddock behind Cetus’ dorsal fin teetered centaurs and lapiths, horses and dogs, women and a girl. To begin with, a great flock of sheep balanced there as well, but their numbers mysteriously dwindled during the dark hours. (Monsters get hungry, and not all of them were feeling sea-sick.) The moon flipped like a coin; stars pinned up the night sky. The constellations sprawled across the dark, and the Plough’s starry shafts pointed due north. Far below, a blunt mass of whale-meat ploughed a path through the oil-dark ocean. Little luminous life forms speckled in its wake like seeds.
Xyno hurled himself about the beach, pouncing on crabs and biting through their shelly backs with pure frustration. Typhon might prize his Lucky Boy, but apparently he had no need of a fetcher or fixer. He had turned Xyno away. So, having found Heracles’ armour bearer, worked out how to get hold of hippocrene, and almost witnessed magic that could bring stone back to life, Xyno stood stranded on the edge of an ocean without so much as a bark canoe. There were profits waiting to be made! Deals to seal! And he had to stand and watch his hopes swim away along the silver path of the moon. Seawater washed over his fur boots and he barely noticed. All his thoughts were given over to finding a ship, a boat, a piece of driftwood that would let him follow after Monstro.