As a crocodile revolves around its prey, dragging it down to devour in the dark, so Hylas was spun through a vortex of hair and limbs and spiralling bodies. Once, the water jug struck him on the temple and knocked a plume of bubbles out of his nose. He pursed his lips, clenched his eyes shut. His lungs burned with the dying embers of his last breath. He was drowning at the hands of water nymphs – could not even open his mouth to plead for his life without letting death in. Purple lights spangled in his eyes.
Then two hands held his head, a mouth covered his mouth, and a girl was kissing him. What eleven year old boy has not wondered about the kissing thing? The bottom of pond, though, did not seem a good place to experiment.
Suddenly, he was crammed through some narrow entrance and up. His face broke surface and he opened his eyes to find himself in – what? - a beaver’s lodge? A cave? Its walls were lined entirely with caddis larvae and the shining shells of living, moving water snails. His eyes strained after other sources of light, but found only the glimmer of eyes very close-to, as faces took it in turns to kiss him. They were very friendly girls, but you know how it is with kissing: a covey of aunts, an ambush of cousins: kissers need to know when enough is enough.
“But you are so beautiful!” the girls protested as he clambered from ledge to ledge of the lodge, trying to get away from them.
“Got to have you!”
This business of ‘beautiful’… Hylas was no stranger to it. Yellow clothes attract ladybirds, so Hylas attracted stares. Wherever he went, women in market squares would break off from haggling and watch him go by. Gossips on their doorsteps would fall silent and gaze after him, in perfect agreement.
What a beautiful child!
It was awful.
Pregnant women stopped him and said they hoped their unborn children would turn out as lovely as him. Artists begged to paint him, sculptors to carve his likeness. Hylas tried grubbying his face and wearing a hat. But total strangers would tip the hat back on his head and lick the corner of a scarf to wipe him clean.
Skin like peaches, look.
And what eyes!
Shame to hide all those lovely curls.
The water nymphs were carrying the thing to new heights – well, depths. He smiled as pleasantly as he could. He told them thank you, but that he was needed – his water jug was needed – and he had to go. “If it’s a sacred pool, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Is it? Sacred?”
The nymphs only pursued him around the cave laughing and shrieking and snatching at him with their water-wrinkly fingertips. Even the gills in their armpits seemed to blow him kisses.
A note of desperation crept in: “I’m armour-bearer to Heracles the Hero! I have duties! I have to go now. You have to let me go.” But either they had not heard of the most famous man in the world or Heracles’ fame only added to their excitement. The white limbs wreathing his legs and arms took on an eel-like horror. Hylas drew himself up into a ball. Their shrilly, silly giggles pecked at him.
And then: “You could almost be a Dryope yourself.” It was a lower, languid, liquid voice more pleasant on the ear, and it fetched off the clinging, lamprey women and their kissing, smiling mouths. The most sober – and most beautiful – of the nymphs spoke from the other side of the pool, leaning her elbows on the rocky shelf behind her. “Look at you. The nose. The forehead. I expect that is why we Dryopes find you so attractive. A face like our own. People are so vain, aren’t they?” The nymph sighed. “Ah well. It cannot be helped. Love is a beast: it falls on us and tears us in pieces. We have no choice. One look and we loved you insanely. You must not think of leaving.”
It was impossible to judge their age - water nymphs have a rangy, underfed, streamlined thinness – but he supposed they were older than he: a thousand days, perhaps. Or a hundred years.
“My master will be looking for me. He can’t manage without me.” Even from underground, underwater, he could hear the thud of an axe on wood.
Later, after the chopping stopped, his own name came dripping down from above, like rain through a roof: “Hylas! Hylas!” He shouted as loud as he could, but his voice was boy-sized and high: it bounced back at him off the shimmering roof. The water nymphs laughed – not spitefully or gloatingly; they just found his every move enchanting. He could not make them understand, could not make them listen: how can a boy be separated from his master? Far from home, in a woodland pond, how can a boy live out the rest of his life on a diet of sticklebacks and kisses? He had been safe with Heracles. Heracles had kept him safe ever since… ever since… well, as far back as memory went. He could not possibly be related to these shine-wet nymphs… and even if he was, friendship is thicker than pond-water.
“Heracles will find me! Heracles will come! Then you’ll be sorry!” he insisted, every day and every night.
But the days and nights went by indistinguishable. His suntan faded, and instead of shouts, silence seeped through the roof. His fingertips turned pruny. So did his heart.
Only one option was left – to escape from the pool and find his master before Heracles sailed away, before he gave up his armour-bearer for dead. So the next time the Dryopes prepared to leave the lodge and swim up to the sunny surface of the pool, Hylas asked to go with them. “I need some light,” he said. “My eyes are thirsty.”
“That does not matter,” said their leader. “We can see you perfectly well.”
“We can fetch you whatever you need,” the others insisted. “What do you want? You only have to say.”
After a day or two more, Hylas had grown annoyed as well as desperate. “All right. I am ready to choose now.”
“A wife,” he said. “But I need to be able to see you all, to make my choice.”
“But we all love you. You belong to us all,” said the leader, with an air of menace.
“Thank you. But in my country a man can only marry one wife.”
For the first time, the Dryopes looked away from him and at each other. A dozen spines stiffened. A dozen fluked feet splayed. Languid as a rule, the Dryopes began to make sharp, darting rushes to and fro across the pool. Squabbles broke out between them – a slap here, a scratch there, a baring of sharp little otter teeth. Their playful games of tag became less friendly – hair was torn out, ears bitten.
“But you are not in our own country now,” said the fairest. “Marry us all. A wife for every day of the week.”
“Here we have twenty days a week,” she said in a voice that forbade argument.
“Impossible,” said Hylas. “Let me compare you in the daylight.”
Again they wound him round in hair and the cold slipperiness of their skin, whirling him through a vortex of bubbles and fright. Beneath their flesh they were as bony as hake. Squeezing him out of the lodge, they dragged him ungently upwards to the pond above. The sunlight piercing the surface fell into his eyes like a flight of arrows. The pupils of his eyes shut down; his lids tried to close. But if he was temporarily dazzled, so too were the Dryopes. So, seizing the advantage, he made blindly for the shore.
Magic altered the depth of the water; fathoms more unfolded whenever the Dryopes wished them to. Not until he reached the submerged tree roots near the shore did his feet find purchase. But a moment later hands and flukes were among the tree roots too, and the nymphs were catching him.
“Choose me, Hylas! Choose me!”
“No, me! Look at me, I’m prettier!”
“He is trying to escape, you fools!” called the commanding voice of their leader. And she came speeding across the pool, submerged but for her flukes, which broke the surface like the dorsal fins of shark.
“Give me your hand, quick!” Another female voice; another someone wanting to stake her claim. Hylas crooked his arms through the tree roots and called for Heracles as loud as his lungs would let him.
But the voice had come from above – from among the branches of the trees that overhung the pool. The girl in the branches began to pelt the water nymphs with twigs, pine cones, crab apples, birds eggs, owl pellets - anything that came to hand, as she climbed down to grab him by the scruff of his tunic.
The Dryopes tried to drag him back down, shredding his tunic with nails and teeth, but the farther their bodies rose from the pool, the less strength was in their skinny arms. Thrashing their flukes, they all but stood on the water, squealing, but Hylas was in his own element now and he had help. The steam of magic rose in plumes off the surface of the pond, but Hylas was in the overhanging tree now, and climbing like a squirrel.