The Spy and the Babysitter
“Find me the Sibyl! Find her!”
Typhon’s mood was blacker than tar. That question. It had spread like fungus through wheat. Is it our Fate to win? What is our Fate? Each time Monstro rested, little huddling groups formed of whisperers asking each other, glancing over their shoulders anxiously: fretting. Is it our Fate? What is our Fate?
“Find me the Sibyl!”
Finding Monstro’s resident soothsayer was never easy now. Shrivelled down to spider-size, she was easily mistaken for a burr caught in the Laelaps’ tail, or a seedcase snagged in a mane. In Monstro City she had always inhabited the same one crevice; Typhon had known where to find his favourite joke:
“What does the Sibyl want?”
“The Sibyl wants to die.”
Now she was harder to track down. When at last they found and fetched her, she asked sarcastically: “What does the Prince of Darkness want now?”
The terrible weariness of her interminable life made the Sibyl less than respectful. After all, what could the Prince of Darkness do to her that Time had not already done? “Where would I keep such a thing?” she asked. “Do I have pockets? Do I have a body cavity? Do I have a skull big enough to hold visions of a thing your size? Kill me - I wish you could! – and pull my soul apart: you won’t find one word of a prophecy. Not one syllable. Not one letter. I have been out of the smoke for centuries. There is only one who smells of the Smoke now. Ask Pythia of Delphi.”
Pythia pursed her lips. She too had been dogged her whole life by questions. Pumped like bellows for a puff of oracular smoke. Almost everyone in Monstro had already sidled up to her and asked the question: Is it our Fate to win? What is our Fate?
When Typhon asked it too, she simply sealed her lips and refused to speak.
With the black mood on him, Typhon did not ask twice. He picked her up, crutches and all and put her in his mouth. Pythia screamed like a seagull.
Happily, her bronze crutches jammed between palate and tongue, and allowed space for conversation.
“What you doing, husband?” asked the Echidna cheerfully.
Typhon pushed the crutches out of his mouth with a tongue as brown as horse manure. “I need her ‘Knowing’ inside me,” he said. “Smoke’s in her. I’m putting her smoke in me.”
The Echidna gave a snort of good-natured laughter. “You got smoke in you, Pythia? You know something what’s coming?”
Typhon took the Oracle out of his mouth and licked her tentatively, liking the salty taste of fear. From a furlong away Thoősa and Panacea came running as fast as the darkness would let them.
“A boy – a girl – a monstrous army!” gasped Pythia. “ – a place beneath the ground – a mountain top above the clouds. That’s what I saw.”
The whole of Monstro hopefully, hoppingly hurried closer, to hear Pythia prophecy.
But she had no more to tell them. “That is all! I felt my own name coming – rising up through me! A new a prophecy was rising and I was a part of it! So I got down – understand? I got down before I could hear!” All this she said while Typhon’s three-fingered hand held her tight around the ribcage. The face she offered up to him was terrified but mutinous. Too many times she had delivered bad news to people wanting good, and been thanked with a punch, a push, a kick, a shower of curses. “What, Typhon? Do you want me to give you the comfortable lie? Do you want me to invent the news you want to hear?”
Typhon was tempted to bite off Pythia’s impertinent head, but the child Thoősa was tugging on the fur of his kneecap.
“Listen! Please listen!” called Thoősa. “Why would Pythia travel with us, if she knew defeat was coming? Why would she still be here? Why would she?”
Typhon lifted one foot and held it poised over the child, just to show that he could (if he cared to) squelch her like a morning mushroom. Logic was not his strong point, but he could dimly grasp that Pythia knew nothing. He set her down on the ground again.
“Ask the Fates, why don’t you?” said Pythia, tugging her clothing back into place, wincing at the slime and food bits on her bent crutches. “You are almost on their doorstep. If you must know, why not ask the Fates yourself?”
Typhon stretched his heads sky-high, unfurling a banner of flame. “I am Typhon, Prince of the Titans! I need no Fates or soothsayers! No sibyls or oracles! Typhon makes his own fate! Typhon can make or unmake his Fate! Typhon can make or unmake this whole gobbet of a world!” Then he spat fiery phlegm at Pythia, setting her clothes alight so that she had to roll in the dew to put them out again.
“Lucky Boy? Lucky Boy!”
The idea of Hylas as a lucky talisman had grown and grown. That is the way of superstitious minds. Tiny as he was alongside the Prince of Darkness, he had become a powerful mascot – a little snail laying down a silver trail of luck. Each evening, before setting off, Typhon would rub the boy against his chest, like a rabbit’s foot. It covered Hylas in hair, but it also made him feel important, prized. In Thoősa’s opinion, it made him insufferable.
“Go ahead of us, Lucky Boy,” boomed Typhon as he clasped Hylas to his chest. Typhon’s sending you ahead. Reconnoitre. S’years since the Prince of Darkness came this way. Scout about. Find what guards, what walls, what watch towers, what moats. Find what forests have growed up to cloak us as we come upon them.”
Hylas himself wished some forest would spring up to hide his alarm. “What, on my own?” He looked at the Echidna to see if, by some lucky chance, he had misunderstood what Typhon was asking him to do.
“An ugly boy like you won’t be noticed where pretty monsters like us…,” she said with a wry grin. “Be sure an’ lay down plenty of luck as you go, eh?”
“Spy it out, Lucky Boy. Spy out the land,” said the Prince of Darkness.
“I’ll go with him,” said Thoősa. She tried not to say it too fast – too loud - to sound over eager. She tried to hide the idea she had of breaking away – both she and Hylas – and escaping Monstro’s march on Olympus.
Typhon scowled. He was troubled by the girl, as by something seen out of the corner of his eye. She was so unremarkable – what was her name again? – that he would forget she existed for long periods of time only to feel a mild surprise when he caught sight of her: still there. Besides, the child knew their stories, even the ones they had forgotten themselves. It gave her a kind of power mortals ought not to have.
“She wants a story of her own,” said Hylas apologetically. “Nothing’s ever happened to her.” The monsters standing about mooed and nodded their heads sagely. They knew that need for a story or two. “I don’t mind taking her,” Hylas added magnanimously and stifled a gasp of relief when Typhon said yes.
They were on the point of leaving – Thoősa kissing Panacea goodbye, Hylas surrounded by monsters jostling him for luck - when Typhon spoke again, with sneering condescension. “You have my permission to call on the Fates, while you’re in the whereabouts. You mortals, you like soothsayers ‘n’ horoscopes and such.”
Hylas started to say that no, in fact, Pythia was the first Oracle he had ever … but Thoősa threw a pebble in the air, which fell to earth at Hylas’ feet so that he broke off in mid sentence.
“Visit them if you like. I don’t care,” said Typhon and several of his heads yawned with exaggerated indifference. “Typhon makes his own fate.”
“Now we go,” said Thoősa delightedly.
“This is my mission. You have to do what I tell you.” Hylas was feeling important. One glimpse of a monster in the foothills of Olympus and the crucial element of surprise would be lost. Monstro’s secret would be out -of-the-bag. But a mortal child clambering up through the chrysanthemums and rock-roses? No one would suspect him of being a cunning spy.
“Don’t be stupid. Now we lose ourselves. Without his Lucky Boy, Typhon may even think twice about this war.” Thoosa drew him a picture of giants grown old and deaf, of an army of cyclopses reduced to a mere hundred, of Typhon’s failing fire, of allies nailed to the sky. She reminded him of the Myrmidons and the tooth soldiers all gone within an hour; of Monstro slaughtered like pigs because of Typhon’s pig-headed pride; of Hyperboria waiting for them like safe harbour in a storm.
Hylas did not believe one word. Whistling loudly, tossing Blob from hand to hand with cheerful nonchalance, he trotted off ahead of her, infuriatingly pleased with himself. “No such place as Hyperboria,” he said.
She wanted to shake him, to make him listen to sense, but all she succeeded in doing was to make him drop Blob who landed on a flint and split in two. Two Blobs crawled off, rippling and oozing their way back in the direction they – it – had come.
“Maybe you’ll believe the Fates, then,” said Thoősa and resigned herself to pressing onward towards Olympus when every instinct told her to bolt, hide, lose herself, anywhere out of the eye of gods and monsters.
They walked on squabbling. The green world round about them hummed with bees. A flock of sheepy clouds moved, unafraid, across a deep blue sky, the flat ground undulated into hills. It was so good to walk, head-up, in the sunshine, and not stumble along unlit pathways at night, for fear of being seen. It was almost as if they were alone: no mission, no destination, and all the time in the world.
“Zeus has no one making weapons for him – or thunderbolts – not since Apollo massacred the cyclopses,” said Hylas smugly.
“I ‘spect Hephaestus the Blacksmith still makes them,” said Thoősa.
“Zeus threw him out of Heaven, you said. Apollo killed all his friends, you said. Why would Hephaestus make anything for the Olymps?”
“Because he’s an Olympian himself… Anyway, everybody likes making things. Look at your bride. She knitted those bag things for your feet.”
“Zeus is never home, you said. Zeus is always out chasing girls and turning himself into swans and showers and bulls, you said. Apollo too. They’re all decayed, you said.”
”And Monstro isn’t decayed?”
“You’re just scared of them ‘cos they’re ugly,” said Hylas peevishly.
“I’m just scared of everybody getting killed.”
“They have me, don’t they? They have Heracles’ Lucky Boy?” and Hylas actually struck his chest with one fist, in a gesture he must have seen Heracles use.
Thoősa was too taken aback to answer. Had Hylas really come to see himself as lucky? Had he really decided to believe a lie, thought up on the spur of the moment to keep Hylas from getting eaten?
But any chance to remind him was lost amid a clattering racketing riot of noise, and all the birds in the glen took off. Out of two stone structures somewhere between beehives and guardhouses, came noise on legs: two giant men built like wrestlers. Their long hair grey with talcum, their mouths ringed with jam, they came dancing bandy-legged towards the children, whirling fantastically, first on one foot, then on another, fists full of rattles, jingle bells, clacker- and drum-sticks. There were cymbals tied to their elbows and round flat skin drums strung behind their heads, like sunhats. Stamping and hooting, thrashing at their instruments, but frequently hitting themselves instead, they spun till they fell over sideways with dizziness and immediately climbed back on to their feet. They were overjoyed to see Hylas and Thoősa.
“Ooo look, Cory! Babbies!”
“I see them, Bant. Will you look at that face! What a lovely boy!”
Rabbits bolted through the gorse; pigeons battered themselves against branches in their haste to take off. The noise was making the landscape flinch. Beneath their aprons, the two men wore various pieces of armour which they struck with spoon or drumstick or rattle or spear to vary the din.
It could not last. These were aged warriors, wrestlers gone-to-seed, such as sometimes sit about outside inns recalling the triumphs of their youth. Cory and Bant clattered and banged their way to a standstill and stood staring at Hylas with rheumy eyes. Their massive shoulders heaved with the exertion of dancing.
“Very like our darling, in’t he?”
“Not so shiny.”
“Not so loud. … But pretty in a mortal kinda way. How old?”
“I’m ten! Maybe even eleven!” Hylas protested but could not make them hear, and had to hold up all his fingers plus one.
“Small. Our boy was your size at two. … It’s the crying starts us off. Was you crying?”
“Not me,” said Thoősa. “Were you crying, Hylas?” Hylas assured them that he had not been crying either. Cory and Bang shrugged. “It’s the ringing in the ears. Hard to tell some day. Tinitinitinitinabulumbum. Clatter bang whop.”
“Your ears?” shouted Thoősa.
A rictus of sorrow set both men trembling. “Dead and gone, honeybee. Dead and gone, she is.”
“Rhea. Queen Rhea.”
“Did she say Rhea or Hera?” Bant put in. “Hera in’t dead. Married our Zeus. ‘magine! Our little Zeus all grown up and married and ruling the world and universe and all.”
“Doesn’t need nurserying no more.”
“Out to grass, eh Cory?”
“Out to grass, Bant.”
Here were the nursemaids of Zeus, employed by his Titan mother Rhea to guard her last surviving baby after all the others had been eaten. “Kronos was eating ‘em fast as they was born. Didn’ want his son taking over the throne of Heaven, thasswhat.”
“It was god eat god in those days.”
“Big bawling boy, our babby was. That was the trouble.”
“So we clattery banged and whopped, didn’t we, Cory?”
“And danced and singed and racketed about, didn’t we, Bant, to cover up the sound of his crying?”
“Didn’t it wake him up?” (Back in Mysia, Thoősa had been left with a great many babies to mind. Her lullabies had been soft and gentle.)
“Never stopped crying long enough to sleep,” said Bant with the smallest trace of bitterness. Theirs had not been an easy task. Now they were no longer needed. Created for the single purpose of guarding baby Zeus, they had outlived their usefulness and been left only deafness brought on by too much noise.
“Almighty Zeus must be very fond of you,” said Thoősa diplomatically.
The twins shrugged. “Children,” said Cory. “Thankless little baklavas.”
“Won’t have us on the mountain now,” said Bant. “Says we’re too loud.”
Hylas, in his role as spy, smiled and nodded knowingly. Here, perhaps were the perfect pair to help him find a secret stairway into the mountain citadel of the gods. “So you hate him, right?” he said sympathetically. He had grown so accustomed to hearing it: the hate felt for Zeus.
The nursemaids fell suddenly silent. Bant leaned closer and narrowed his puffy, sleep-starved eyes to focus better on Hylas’s lips. “Say it again. I don’t hear so good.”
Thoősa stiffened, as Cory too leaned forward, and the whistles and jingle- bells and clackers swung towards her on the end of their cords. “My brother said, But you love him, though … don’t you?“
“Love him? Our baby boy?” The twin babysitters looked at one another, bewildered. “We burped him. We singed to him. We heard him speak his first word…”
“Take his first steps.”
“Smile his first smile.”
“ ’licious as butter on a bun. Smelled of violets, he did.”
“When he peed, it was like the fountain of Arethusa!”
“He was our Reason, weren’t he Cory?”
“He was our baby boy. We’d lay down and die for him.”
“Of course,” said Thoősa, and drew Hylas, step by cautious step, back down the path to look for an alternative route through the flowery hills. “Didn’t your mother and father teach you anything?” she hissed. “Love beats Hate every time.”
Hylas put his fingers in his ears.