The Three Fates
The Fates lived in a cave. The cave had been extended hugely over the millennia, to make room for all the wool. Countless sheep pens cut the surrounding landscape into a mosaic of pole fences and bald grass, and the noise of a shearer’s shears snip, snip snipping fleeces accompanied them all the way to the door. But the black-and-white striped horse grazing nearby by was the only thing remarkable in a peaceful landscape.
“Promise me – are you listening, Hylas? Promise me, if we find out…” but Thoősa broke off. If they found out their fate, then it was their fate to find it out, and what would come would come.
They had expected somewhere fearful – like the cave that Postman Phantasos shared with his brothers Death and Sleep on the brink of the Underworld. But the Fates, ensconced among the foothills of Olympus, looked out on maybells and grazing sheep, trees and a little brook. True, a forbidding glacier had once ground its way past their door, but that had melted away, and wild goats had roamed through the valley it left behind.
Then farmers and pilgrims and the occasional faun.
Ever since Prometheus had shaped the first man and woman out of mud, the Fates had lived and worked in this cave, equipped with tools and furniture by the gods on Olympus.
They were old. They were very, very old. The well ordered routine of their lives had slipped a little, as it can with old ladies. Thoősa and Hylas stood in the door of the cave and looked around them in dismay. Both the lofty cavern and the long annexe built on to enlarge it, were filled waist-deep with plaits and tangles of carded wool still grubby with tics, sheep droppings and grass seed. Bobbins of spun wool had, at one time, been stored neatly on shelves around the walls, but the shelves had long since rotted and fallen on the slant, spilling multicoloured reels into the confusion below. Other bobbins were floating in dyeing vats of various smoking colours – purple, red, green, black…
The woman carding and spinning thread on to a distaff looked up, grey eyes stoppered by cataracts. The knuckles of her hands were huge with arthritis. Thread looped off her spindle in interesting coils – double helixes – and swelled the woollen tide.
“More tourists,” she said, alerting her other two sisters, both equally blind. One was seated close by, staining her hands as she pulled random bobbins from the vats, picking away until she found a single strand, and tying a loop into it. “There’s another one,” she said, as she succeeded. The spinner flinched. (For a thousand years her sister Lachesis had said the exact same words each time a loop was tied, a human life begun: There’s another one.)
Lachesis’ slipped the loop over her own tangle of arthritic fingers and began to wind the thread in figures of eight around her elbow and between thumb and finger: measuring. The sleeve of her white robe was stained with twenty different colours of dye. Her lips moved as she counted the number of turns she made, deciding on the length and colour and ply of the newborn life.
Without breaking off the thread, Lachesis slung each wet, wrinkled hank towards a row of hooks on the wall, but there had been no hooks free for two hundred years, and the hanks simply landed on top of earlier ones – another woollen wave on a sea of wool. Perhaps once there had been a servant to carry hanks to the hooks and hang them neatly up, but housekeeping was a lost art these days.
“There’s another one.”
Thoősa and Hylas, mesmerised by the faded rainbow of knitting that festooned roof, wall and the women themselves, shuffled further indoors. Threading through this matted wilderness of colour ran the fate of every human being: blue sorrows, red joys, green fields and yellow sickness; knotty problems and hopes unravelling into a bewilderment of fluff. Surrounding the third old woman in the far end of the annexe were drums of grimmest grey. Into these she dipped random handfuls of thread before plucking others out and … SNCK.
Thoősa had been expecting warp and weft, separate threads neatly stretched over the loom of time, every one clear and distinct, running from birth to… SNCK.
“If folk lived separate, it would be easy,” grumbled the woman at the far end of the annexe. “But they don’t, do they. Get mixed up with each other, don’t they, oh yes. Parents and children. Neighbours. Lovers. Friends.” Fretfully she hooked up a whole thick rope of tangled threads and hacked it through with a blunt pair of shears. (Atropos had long since lost her good scissors in the swamp of matted wool.) So many threads cut at one go! Somewhere catastrophe struck – an earthquake, a landslide, a flood. Seven hundred lives brought to an end with a borrowed pair of blades.
Clotho spun the makings of life, Lachesis measured out the span of life, Atropos cut life’s thread.
“There’s another one.”
Hundreds, thousands, millions of lives tangling and matting, without sense, without order. How had it happened? How had they let it happen, these mad old women? Thoősa’s eyes filled with tears. They had no right to let chaos decide the course of human life. Once, perhaps, Thoősa could have searched among the bobbins for her own Fate, for Hylas’s. Once, perhaps, but not any more.
Back in Mysia, after her mother’s death, she had been left with the task of keeping the little family hut tidy, keeping order. She had been good at it. She had been. “You could at least get rid of the cut threads once they’re done with…” she complained.
Atropos hesitated, shears poised over a thin yellow thread, and somewhere a child on the brink of death rallied for a moment and her parents praised the gods for it. “The dead aren’t done with, are they, fool? They’re still plaited in with the living, aren’t they, moronic girl. Still part of the fabric, aren’t they? Still complicating everything. Can’t slice out the memories. Can’t sweep out the past.”
“There’s another one.”
“Oh shut your mouth, sister.”
Thoősa and Hylas were not the only visitors to the cave. An antique couple, so frail and pallid that they looked as old as the Fates themselves, were wading to and fro, plucking up strands and following them for a few paces. Like storks fishing, they worked thigh-deep, peering intently down, sometimes suddenly ducking their heads into the waves of wool. Thoősa wondered if they were looking for their own fate, or for that of some lost child, for they wept as they searched. But their sadness stopped her asking, made her shy of struggling in their direction through the impossible entanglement. The Fates did not speak to the elderly couple either, having endured many, many visits from them.
“Don’t mind, Atropos,” Clotho the Spinner was saying. “She remembers better days. We all do. When we were given the job,” - she wiped her sore hands on the grubby cloth of a robe that would never be white again - “When we started, we didn’t just use wool and a bodkin. Used all manner – paint, tiles, wax-resist… At the very start, we got to design the lives, not just spin and measure and end them. We coloured them in. Fitted the pieces together. Made them pretty: mosaical lives with symmetry and plots and happies and lovers’ meetings and adventures. Embroidered them. Crafted them. No artistry these days. No time. What are we now, but three old ladies knitting with dirty wool?”
“There’s another one.”
“Oh change the tune, Lachesis!”
“We should have been sent more help – a few extra pairs of hands! Very laissez-faire, the Olympians. Not much interested in ordinary people. We could cope when we were young, of course. But that was a while ago… Once it was all as tidy as up top. If you want order, look up there. The Heroes are up there.” She waved a stained hand towards a ceiling she could not longer see.
And there, strung across the roof of the cave, threaded through eye hooks driven into the rock, ran the untangled threads of Heroic lives. The wool glinted with fibres of gold. There was a great deal of red.
“The Heroes are happy, I see,” said Thoősa. “Lots of joy.”
Shrill as a corncrake, Atropos called from the far end of the annexe, “Magenta! Magenta! Different shade. Anyone with a brain could see that. That’s magenta, that is! That’s blood.”
Hylas was captivated by the rainbow of heroism strung across the ceiling. “Which is Heracles the Slaughterer?” he asked, scrambling up the shelves, knocking more bobbins into the confusion below.
But there was actually no mistaking which shining plait was the fate of Heracles - red – magenta – blue – magenta – black – magenta – magenta – magenta. Countless lesser threads stretched up from the woolly morass to loop over the glittering cord. His travels had taken him so far afield, his temper had killed so many, his admirers were so many, that Heracles’ Fate had touched thousands of mortal lives. It had touched Hylas’s. One of these lesser strands was his. Which one? Which thread was his dyed-in-the-wool fate? He reached out – as if touch might tell him – and set the whole plait trembling.
“Do monsters have fates?” he called.
“Of course not, fool. The gods made them; the Heroes mar them.”
“The gods didn’t make Typhon!” retorted Hylas, and Thoősa thought how stupidly reckless he had become, how stupidly brash since throwing in his lot with Monstro.
“Imbecile,” said Atropos. “D’you think we don’t have enough to do without weaving fates for bug-uglies? Half wit.”
“Have you measured out Zeus’s life?” asked Hylas, and Thoősa winced again, wishing he would be more careful what he said. This close to Olympus it was impossible to know what words would be reported back to the King-of-the-Mountain.
“Could you cut him off with your shears?” Hylas sounded as if he was trying to egg some other boy on to mischief. “Bet you could.”
“Don’t blaspheme, Hylas. The ladies are busy,” said Thoősa primly.
Crawling along the topmost shelf, though, high among the cobwebs and webs of tangling thread, Hylas continued to snag and brush against the countless stranded fates of mortals whose lives had been touched by Heracles. It was like crawling through a dream, being bombarded with images, feelings, fears, and fragments of memory. Sometimes, on days free of Labours or battles or hunting, he and Heracles had gone eel fishing in quiet rivers or standing ponds. Strands of wool on the end of a pole. The eels would tangle themselves in the wool, and bunch and ball and knot themselves into a wriggling mass that could be lifted, entire, out of the water. Much the same was happening inside the head of Hylas, whose clothes were soon smothered in the woolly remnants of other people’s lives. And through this coiling confusion of feelings, one memory – one distinct memory – came worming its way, and knotted its eely length around his heart. He remembered something from early in his life - earlier than memory had ever taken him before.
He took hold of the thick scarlet cord - the Fate of Heracles, son of Zeus - and began to bite on it, to tear and rend at it with his teeth, grunting and pulling and spitting out fluff. It was tough, unbreakable. Soon his gums and the corners of his mouth were bleeding. A back tooth came loose and fell into his hand. Looking around for something – anything sharp with which to hack through the cord, he saw a candle in a tin holder.
The visiting elderly pair had wanted to use it to search for one particular colour shade. But the Fates, sensing its warmth, smelling hot beeswax, had forbidden them to carry a naked light hither and thither through a room full of wool. They had insisted it be left safely on a ledge in the annexe, beside the dyeing bins.
Wriggling along on his stomach, his clothes becoming more and more fluffy inside and out, Hylas tugged on the glittering cord that represented the Fate of Heracles the Slaughter. He swung it to and fro, trying to bring it within reach of the candle flame. There was a savage grin on his face as he saw its aura of scarlet fuzz smoke and char. But to his disgust and frustration, it charred without catching fire. Again and again he rocked the looping glittering cord to and fro, to and for, through the licking tongue of flame, but though it charred, even fire could not sever it. Finally, his efforts bent the wick, and swamped it in melted wax. The candle went out.
“There’s another one….”
“Oh be quiet, will you sister!”
“What are you here for, dear, because you are standing in my light?” said Lachesis, busying away, knotting and twisting together lives with her knotty and twisted hands.
Thoősa moved, (even though she knew it would make no difference to the woman’s darkness). “I hoped you might work me a story of my own. Make my thread special.” The wealth of disappointed longing in her voice actually made the Measurer interrupt her work and cast a helpless gesture around her at the irredeemable chaos.
“You find it, I’ll dye and knot it.”
But Thoősa turned and struggled through the woolly undergrowth towards the doorway. There was something appalling about wading into the middle of the Truth: her life was simply one among millions, indistinguishable from any other.
Hylas, though, scattering bobbins with every careless step, gave a whoop and jumped down from the highest shelf, landing spreadeagled in the soft mattress of matted wool. From the far end of the annexe, Atropos snapped her shears at him SNCK SNCK SNCK. One day. One day, said the gesture, and climbed deep into his head to the place where nightmares nest.
But you would not have known it to see him run and hop and jump his way down the path and past the sheep pens. Thoősa was plodding-desolate, lost, empty. It was as though Clotho’s spindle had punctured her heel and, as with Talos, all her energy had leaked away into the ground. She had been so sure she would be able to show Hylas how his fate - her fate - lay far off, unfrayed by war, unstained by blood. She had thought she would be able to point it all out, like the story on a tapestry – ‘There’s the downfall of Typhon; see there? how the Olympians go on and on and on? There’s your fate twining in again with Heracles’... And she had so much wanted a story, a story by which people would remember her long after the SNCK…
“What’s that red round your mouth?” she asked.
“Dye I expect. I tried to bite through Heracles’ thread. But it was too tough. I pulled out a tooth, look. … But I followed it along – right the way along.…!” Hylas bounded round her, over-excited as a child who has eaten too much honey. “And now it ends in fire!”
“What does?” Startled out of her brooding, Thoősa could instantly see that Hylas had found something of what he wanted in the cave of the Fates.
“The Great Slaughterer! Him! Now the end’s all black and charred! He’s not dead, He’s not dead yet. But his thread’s all burnt and charred…”
He did not admit to what he had done – made it sound like a chance discovery – but Thoősa was not fooled. She could tell from the spiteful light in his eyes. “Hylas, you could have…” It did not bear thinking of. A fire in the cave of the Fates? A million lives aflame? The history of mortal Mankind – and the Heroes! - incinerated in a stone oven along with the Spinner, the Measurer and the SNCK? “You’re mad, Hylas! You’re insane!” How could he do it? How could he wish such harm on the Master he had served devotedly and admired so much?
“Don’t you get it? He’s going to burn!” Hylas was dancing almost as frenziedly as the Nursemaids in his frantic joy. “This time Zeus won’t save him, because Zeus will be burning too! The O’s are going down! The Titans are back!”
He bared his teeth at her in a grin that creased his face into a lily-like perfection. His eyes were so blue he might have swallowed the sea. What a fine weapon Typhon had added to his armoury, thought Thoősa.
A god on the outside and inwardly all monster.