Seen from the shore, in the sun’s dazzle, the Argo was no more than a black arrow fletched with a feathery wake. But aboard her, heaving at her oars were forty of the world’s finest: heroes to a man. Their armour was piled up in the ship’s well, their trophies hung from her mast. Now the Argonauts were competing to see who could heave on an oar for longest without tiring.
It was Hylas’ job to take them water when they called for it. Several times, he wanted to help himself from the jug. Fear leaves a boy’s mouth dry. But that’s all to the good. That way he can’t muster the spit to say: “I’m scared.”
Back there, none of these men had felt a moment’s fear, so how could Hylas confess to it? Back there, the battle with the six-armed giants had left his heart slamming, his mouth as dry as sand. back on Crete, the business of the metal man…
Luckily, the rowing contest kept everyone from talking about it for a while. The Argonauts had a way of chewing over an adventure afterwards, hanging their battle trophies in the rigging, reliving the victory blow by blow. Orpheus would make up a song about it, and Jason would inform the carved ship’s prow, in the same way peasant women tell any news to their bees. But Hylas did not even want to think about it. He did not want to be reminded of the sweat in his palms, the weakness in his thighs. When he was older, he would be braver, of course, and then it would be easy. One day he would be as brave as Heracles…
If the monsters didn’t get him first.
The wind had died. The sail was useless. To find out who was the strongest rower in the crew (as if they didn’t already know), the Argonauts rowed without stopping, sea mile after sea mile. One by one each man reached his limit and fell forward over his oar. Finally only Jason and Heracles were left rowing. The veins in Jason’s neck were standing out like the ivy on a post, and he started to faint, eyes rolling upwards in their sockets, hands slackening… Heracles was bound to win (as everyone had known all along).
Then suddenly, Heracles’ oar broke with an almighty crack – it sounded as if the keel had snapped – and the great man was lying on his back in the bilges with his legs in the air.
Laugh? The rest of the crew whooped themselves sick, - even Heracles saw the funny side of it. But to Hylas there was something fearful about that jagged black stump of the oar casting its shadow across the fallen man. It made his head spin, his eyes roll upwards in their sockets…
“I am always telling you, boy: wear your hat in the sun!” called Heracles.
On shore, a pelt of pine trees rose up behind woods of a paler green rattling with woodpeckers. There would be shade, and firewood for cooking. A river estuary opened to them, and they moored upriver. Hylas lugged his master’s club and weapons ashore and went back for the axe. Despite Hylas being his ‘armour-bearer’, Heracles did not actually wear armour, as such – not since killing and flaying the Nemean Lion. A lion pelt was softer on the skin, he said, more flexible in a fight, and much more comfortable to sit on. It made a better blanket, too, than metal-studded leather.
The weight of the axe nearly defeated Hylas: the thing was bigger than he was. But he would not ask help: the Argonauts were so weary after the rowing contest, it was all they could do to climb ashore with the mooring ropes in their blistered hands. What he lacked in courage, he was determined to make up for in hard work. So Hylas rested the haft against the ship’s side and tried to lever the massive axe-head up off the deck.
A hand came over his shoulder and lifted it as easily as a fishing rod. “What did I tell you about lifting, mouse?” said Heracles. “Bend you knees and keep your back straight. Look, I’m away to find the makings of a new oar.” He lifted Hylas with the other hand and carried him inshore. “Then a bite, a sup, a story: what say? I could eat a boar.” His voice was so loud that ducks on the river dived underwater in alarm, and butterflies rose from the bushes on the other bank. His touch was gentle, though, as he ruffled Hylas’ hair.
The massive volume of his own voice had made Heracles slightly deaf. Hylas did not like to put his master to the trouble of trying to hear his small, boy’s voice, so he did not often reply when spoken to. But he was sorry, afterwards, not to have said something.
Goodbye, for instance.