Typhon, Prince of Darkness was as cheerful as a cherry tree, now that he had recovered his Lucky Boy. Losing and finding something always makes it more precious. Smugness settled over the features of all his remaining heads. His fingers (such as there were) clicked to some happy, inner music.
Back among the Company, Thoősa’s first thought was of Abaris the priest, accidentally swallowed by Ladon the dragon. “Is he… Has Ladon…” she asked squeamishly. “Is he out yet?”
“All in good time,” the Echidna insisted with a giggle. “Everything passes.”
Xyno too was cheerful. His ‘efforts’ to ransom the Lucky Boy had won everyone’s thanks (except the Oracle’s). Again he had plucked both children from Talos’s brass palms and saved them from either drowning or roasting. Why, he had even saved Panacea’s life by rowing his little boat farther off until all risk had passed; the Trambelus (he said) would have dragged the fishing boat under for sure, as she went down. And Monstro (he said) could not afford to lose its marvellous medicine-woman.
Xanthus agreed. The speechless horse was so grateful that he fetched Xyno a steady stream of gifts and laid them at the fixer’s feet – god litter, rabbits gashed open, and lengths of rope. The horse fetched more delicate gifts to Panacea herself – fruit and blossoms and flowers. It was done so reverently, each offering delivered on bended knee and with much nuzzling of her feet. Panacea was a little unnerved.
“He wants somethink off you,” said Xyno confidently. “Your magic. Wants you turn him vegetariable again.”
Ladon the dragon, in passing, blew superciliously on the horse for the fun of seeing his mane and tail stream. “No. It is that arrowhead the doctor’s daughter pulled from his hoof,” he drawled. “Always some venom left on them.”
“Venom?” Panacea’s hands flew to her wallet of herbs. “What manner of venom?”
Ladon, who bored too easily, had wandered away. It took the poetical Talos to say, “Love of course. The boy god of Love, coats his awwows in it. Nothing in your wallet, Panacea. No cure for that poison. Xanthus is in love with you.”
So the presents continued from the besotted horse – fragrant herbs, one of the peacock’s last tail feathers and, of course, flowers.
One morning, when dawn had stirred and the column of travellers were settling down to sleep, in a pleasant dell, beside a small pool, a girl came running out of nowhere. She was so thin that, when she turned sideways, she disappeared. She was searching the ground as she ran – so intent on looking for something that she tripped over one of the leopards and stumbled to a halt in their midst. She made no sound about it – not a cry of shock or a ‘sorry’ – and continued combing the ground for something lost. When she caught sight of Xanthus laying a yellow flower beside Panacea’s sleeping place, she opened her mouth and bent her knees in a silent scream. Hylas presumed the tears streaming from her eyes had momentarily blinded her to the host of carnivores all around her.
But the scream was not fear. For snatching up the flower cut through by Xanthus’ sharp teeth, the girl thrust it at them all, with beseeching, horrified eyes. Its pollen made Hylas sneeze. When neither he nor Thoősa did anything, the girl ran to the leopards, to the horses, to the pot plants, to the cyclopses. She said nothing, but imploringly, desolately showed them the flower, making gestures that signified some tragedy beyond words.
Stheno the Gorgon raised herself up on one elbow, frumpy now that each snaky hair had curled up tight for sleep. “It’s Echo. Is it? Is that you, Echo?”
“Echo! Echo!” the girl confirmed, wavering in and out of sight as she turned her appeal to all points of the compass.
“Is that Nacissssusss?”
“Narcissus! Narcissus!” said Echo eagerly and ran to her.
“Someone picked Narcissus?” asked the Echidna, returning from the pool, her clothes wet from washing.
Echo nodded furiously, sobbing out the borrowed words: “Pick-pick-picked Narcissus!” There was a trickle of communal laughter which the Echidna quelled with a scowl.
Thoősa, seeing Hylas smile too, grabbed him by the shirt-front. “She had more words once, you know? But she chattered too much, didn’t she? Chatter chatter, all day long. Finishing people’s sentences. Butting in. Chatter chatter chatter. Some girls do.” Hylas backed away, but still she did not let go of his shirt; clearly she must feel strongly about a girl’s right to chatter. “But she irritated the O’s, didn’t she. Got on their nerves, didn’t she. So do you know what they did? They confiscated her tongue.“
Pythia the Oracle curled up in a ball, rocking to and fro. If she had her way, she would never speak at all: she whom everyone came to and asked to spout words. And yet to lose one’s tongue – to lose all power of speech…
The rest of Monstro either knew Echo already or were sauntering closer, lured by the prospect of one of Thoősa’s stories. They loved a story, especially when the pain described was someone else’s.
“In my opinion,” Thoősa went on, still berating Hylas, “Narcissus deserved everything he got. He was pretty – “
“Pretty! Pretty!” said Echo, still wagging the broken flower under the noses of the crowd.
“….pretty like you’re pretty, blond boy! So vain and so pretty that he liked himself more than he liked anybody else. The fact Echo would have lain down and let him drive chariots over her – that didn’t stir a thing in Narcissus. Not a kind word.”
The Echidna joined in the story, weeping tears of pollen that gave her golden freckles. “Echo here faded clean away almost - ”
“ – Cursed him in her heart because she couldn’t curse him – “
“Couldn’t curse him! Couldn’t curse him!” pleaded Echo, not wanting to recall the crushing sight of Narcissus smirking into that pool.
“Anyway… when he looked in the water next time, and saw his own face, he fell in love for the first time in his vain little life. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t move, couldn’t tear himself away.”
“Would have starved to death,” the Echidna chipped in, “but the O’s turned him into a flower; to their mind, that was funnier. That about gives you the measure of ‘em, the scum. Last I knew, Echo had been mooning over yon flower for thirty year, keeping the goats off, screening it from the winds. Today she turns her back for a moment – “
“- and some fool’s picked him.”
“It’s not right..”
For all she was confined to a vocabulary of second-hand words, what a wealth of emotion Echo could pack into them, howling them to the hills where they bounced about hysterically.
The green stem of the narcissus began to soften and wilt, and it seemed that Echo’s long vigil was about to end at the compost heap. She gave a silent shriek, as Panacea’s snakes slithered over her feet, and she fainted clear away when Talos forced open her fingers and the Doctor’s Daughter took away her lover.
Echo had clearly done wonders to keep Narcissus flowering year after year. But flowers – particularly the daffodil family – have a delicate, tissuey texture and a colour that attracts bugs. The vain Narcissus would have been shocked to know how dishevelled he had become. No bride would have picked him for her posy.
But none of this occurred to anyone - until Panacea’s herb paste had worked its magic and Narcissus lay before them on his back: a callow, sallow youth no older than the day the gods had transformed him. Now he had a touch of yellow jaundice, pock marks (from the greenfly), shrivelled ears and curvature of the spine. His nostrils were still slightly frilly like the fluted trumpet of a daffodil.
Echo, recovering from her swoon, gazed at him open-mouthed: Narcissus restored to human form. She kissed Panacea’s hands with lips so insubstantial they could barely be felt, but her eyes never left her beloved Narcissus. To her, he was still the person in whom she had sunk all her hopes and happiness.
Narcissus also stared. The eyes he opened were a mouldy brown now, speckled with harvest flies. The pollen still inside his nose made him sneeze over and over. He had no memory of his time as a flower, and the sight of the monsters must have upset him, because he was promptly sick on the grass.
So Thoősa explained to him, as gently as she could, how the gods had played a little trick on him but how, year by year, little Echo had cared for him with matchless love.
Narcissus pulled a face. “Is she still here?”
“Still here! Still here!” How she could charge those words with devotion.
“The very picture of a loving wife,” said Thoősa deliberately…
“Wife! Wife!” -
… though she hated to encourage Echo: the one-time daffodil was such a sap.
Suddenly Narcissus sat bolt upright. “Thirty years? How do I look?”
“Look? Look?” cried Echo and turned on Thoősa a pair of eyes which said everything.
The changes in her sweetheart had not dented her love. But if Narcissus saw himself - frilly nosed and floppy eared – his vain heart would break. That was the message written in Echo’s desperate eyes.
Narcissus stood up and looked around him for a pool or river where he could check his own reflection. He saw the shine of Talos’ brass and instead of registering a five storey monster, saw only a walking mirror: an opportunity to see himself. Echo grabbed his hand, but had no strength to restrain him.
“Narcissus! Narcissus! Here’s a better mirror!” Thoősa called him back.
Most young men would have quailed from all those eager, beckoning monsters. They had pressed tightly together, flank against haunch, watching him with wide open eyes. Supported on the back of a resting dragon was a circle of gold metal: the frame of a mirror, surely. Narcissus hurried to look in it, chewing on his lip, fretting about what he might see: wrinkles or age-spots. The face that looked back at him was …
Perfect. Even more perfect than he had remembered, with curling honey-coloured hair and eyes the colour of the sea.
“Exquisite,” said Narcissus, in the midst of sneezing again – which was lucky, as it shut his eyes momentarily. Hylas would never have been able to mime the word “exquisite”. Awkwardly crouched on the far side of the dragon, only his head showing, face framed in the golden hoop of Typhon's coronet, Hylas did his best to imitate the raised eyebrows, the eyes widening, the smug smile.
Narcissus could have happily gazed at his reflection for hours – how extraordinarily young he looked – barely more than a boy! - but Thoősa put away her ‘mirror’. The carnivorous horses began to sniff him, and the Lady Doctor warned him to stay away from still-water ponds for fear of spotty-fever. The cavalcade of monsters moved off, leaving behind a variety of interesting pats, pellets and dung on the ground. The golden circlet was returned to the Prince of Darkness.
Hylas said to Thoősa: “Why does he want to be pretty, that NarSissy? Pretty’s a bane.”
The creatures of Monstro liked him better for that.
On the same flowery plain, Panacea replenished her herb collection, her pet snakes bringing her hourly presents - rather as Xanthus did - but with less adoration in their shineless little eyes. They brought her figs which she mixed with oil and, when the dragon fell asleep and no one was looking, poured into Ladon’s sleep-sloppy mouth. In the normal way of things, nothing would have induced her to dose an unwilling patient, but, like Thoősa, she too was having nightmares about Abaris the priest trapped and suffocating in a dragon’s intestines. This was the peaceable, hospitable, gentle little chap who had invited them to emigrate to the Land of the North Wind, had given Monstro somewhere to head for in a world. Besides, getting digested is no way for anyone to die.
When the purge took effect, Ladon put on more speed than anyone had ever seen in the listless, sauntering dragon. Night was just falling and, after a day sleeping in long grass, out of the eye of Olympians, Monstro was stirring itself for the nightly trek. Ladon was gone for the briefest time, but even before he had lumbered back through the darkness to join the cavalcade, a streak of gold passed overhead like a shooting star.
“Abaris!” called Thoősa delightedly. “Abaris we’re so sorry! It was a terrible accident! Are you hurt?”
The needle of light threaded itself into the dark distance and was gone. They could not blame him if he put as much space as possible between himself and Ladon: an ordeal like that is hard to forgive. The Echidna positively beamed with gratification. “All gone. All gone,” she murmured. A squeaking, gurgling, flatulent sigh went through the assembly. The Furies drew in their claws.
Then Abaris (who had merely ridden his golden arrow as far as the nearest clean water, to launder himself) came swooping back. The fletches of the golden arrow made a low whistle, like surprise.
“You poor man!” called Thoősa. “Was it terrible? All that time? How did you – “
The diminutive priest, though damp and sore-eyed, smiled. “It is only pain, child, only pain. With a happy heart, all things may be endured.” Abaris took another turn about the sky. “During my time inside the great beast, I enquired of myself, saying, ‘If these good citizens of Monstro seek the Land of the North Wind …wherefore do they travel West?’ ”
Hylas drew his head into his shoulders and waited for rage to break over him. Had he truly been leading the nation West instead of North? The Argonauts had taught him of all about night navigation, so how could he have got it so wrong?
Thoősa, too, waited for the inevitable burst of spleen from Typhon. Hylas had led them in entirely the wrong direction. The Prince of Darkness would be livid.
But there was no rage, no reproach: not a word. The only sound of complaint was the bleat of the few remaining sheep. Everyone else stood blank-eyed, mouths shut. The cyclopses blinked: yellow lamps lit and extinguished in the darkness. The lapiths (who drank each other’s milk and were always a little drunk) hinnied softly. A giant filed her nails with a flint. The Echidna put a motherly arm around Thoősa and Hylas and drew them close: she smelled of camphor and privet hedges.
Still not a word was said.
Until the sky spoke.