Before the Throne of Zeus
So Hylas did arrive, after all, in the Halls of the Gods. And, while Ephetes was still debating how best to stage the presentation - which cup to place in the boy’s hand, which colour to robe him in - Hylas witnessed the delivery of a far greater gift.
The Three were mistaken, at first, for a twist of grass blown in from outdoors. Then first one, then another of the gods recognised the Weaver, the Oracle, the Grasshopper. A tittering snigger of surprise merged into a gale of laughter which brought other members of the pantheon hurrying to see. Boredom grew thick and lush on Olympus, and any incident was a welcome relief from it.
It was not true –– that Zeus was too bright to look upon. A myth? An exaggeration? A rumour? A mistranslation? Hylas did not know or care what had started the story, but it was not true.
His person left an after-pattern on the eye, as a bright flash leaves purple floaters. The intense dye of Zeus’s clothing; the pallor of his skin; the redness of his lips all hurt the eye – but Hylas was not actually burned by the sight. He did not crumble to ash. Awe broke over him like a sea wave, took his breath, closed his eyes, made his heart clamber about his chest. But then the wave withdrew, and Hylas felt a cold shivery nothing, a far stranger sensation. He could breathe again. Who was this, after all, but the father of his master Heracles? And Hylas had cooked for, waited on, learned from listened to, admired, loved, seen through, disliked, detested his master. If his love for Heracles had come and gone, so too his fear of Zeus could be felt, measured, overcome and put behind him. His heart still thumped , but more like a drumbeat now: more like the drum beaten aboard the Argos to keep the oars all pulling as one.
Ephetes stood behind Hylas, holding him by the biceps, awaiting the perfect moment at which to walk the boy forwards into Zeus’s range of vision: a cupbearer the equal of Ganymede; a new ornament to beautify the palace. He gripped Hylas as someone grips a chair to move it. A piece of furniture. Hylas held as still, kept as silent, as any chair. Lesser gods to whom he could not put names, eyed him, intrigued, but their attention remained of course on The Three.
“WHAT DOES THE SIBYL WANT?” asked Zeus, and the fibrous twist of shrivelled bone and sinews obliged with her well known catchphrase: “The Sibyl wants to die.” A roar of laughter burst from Zeus and set his iron grey hair tossing. He sounded exactly like Typhon.
So long had passed since the weaving competition in which goddess Athena had (humiliatingly) lost to Arachne, that Athena had almost forgotten the comical little revenge she had taken on the Weaver. Her shriek of delight, as she saw the spider and remembered, distorted her astonishing face, as a spoon distorts a reflection.
Tithonus hopped a few paces to the East, turned and hopped back again.
“Once,” said the Sibyl, “the Sibyl wanted immortality – and to her astonishment, the gods granted her wish! But then she found it was granted out of love. A joke merely. ‘She forgot to ask for perpetual youth, look! They always do! Let us watch and see how long before she regrets her stupidity!’
Ephetes, repelled by litter and aflutter with excitement over his own news, rushed forward and swept the insects aside with his instep. But Zeus waved him away again. The Three crawled laboriously back to the centre of the room. Zeus, leaning forward in his throne now, peered down at the tangle of decaying life forms.
“I, Arachne, weaver of tapestries, I might have hung the walls of this place with the warp and weft of beauty. Now I have nothing to offer but cobwebs, and must live by eating flies.” Again a titter ran round the room. A nymph covered her eyes: she had never liked spiders.
“Same for me, same for me,” said Tithonus and, scraping a simple tune using one hind leg as bow, one as fiddle, sang a sad song.
“I loved Dawn, she loved me:
Gave me immortality.
I grew old;
She grew cold
Though I loved her constantly.
Here I stand; here I am:
Tithonus the Cricket Man
Wishing I was never born
Still accursed for loving Dawn, loving Dawn, loving Dawn, loving Dawn…”
“AND YOU COME HERE HOPING I WILL GRANT YOU YOUTH AGAIN!” Zeus hooted with laughter, rolling back in his chair, his rump scattering scarlet silken cushions like clots of blood.
“If you think I will ever forgive you, then your brain has shrivelled as well as your fingers,” murmured the tall, grey-eyed figure of Athena, angry all over again at the thought of losing a talent contest to a nobody, a mortal.
Ephetes’ impatience was making his feet dance on the spot.
“No,” said the Sibyl. We know better than to ask for something from the Stone-Hearted Ones. No. It is we who offer the gift. We who have come to pay the price.”
Hylas wanted to silence her, wanted to snatch a broom and sweep his friends over the doorsill, out over the precipice that dropped away through rainbow sheathed waterfalls into lily-laden ravines. Let them not be swallowed up by Death, clasped in each other’s arms like the Lamia and Scylla. They had been happy, young and beautiful once. But Hylas had never known them any way but this. It was these three uglies he had grown to know and like and…
The Sibyl said: “Zeus swore to release Titan Prometheus from his everlasting torment if any immortal was to offer up their immortality and willingly die. “Immortality is what we offer, and we offer it three times over - to buy the release of Prometheus.”
Silence, like a mudslide, swept through the marble palace of Zeus. The gauzy curtains billowed on the intake of fifty breaths. Tithonus appeared to be wandering off again, betrayed by his grasshopper memory, straying towards his beloved Dawn. But in fact his lame, cock-eyed hops and jumps brought him to Hylas’ feet. “Speak, Lucky Boy,” the insect whispered. “He will listen to you.”
Hylas stepped forward and Ephetes, interior decorator to the gods, was pulled along behind, like it or not, his hands still on Hylas’ shoulders. He made the best of it: “Boy? Where are we…? … Lord Zeus! – Your Magnificence…. I bring this boy … this delectable, matchless mortal boy… cupbearer… to beautify…”
The King of the Olympians flapped his hands irritably. “Not now, not now.” So Ephetes tried to drag Hylas away again, to an alcove, but Hylas struggled free and threw himself on his face at Zeus’s feet. “Hear me, O mighty Zeus!” he shouted, and was vaguely aware of his own voice, choirboy-high, fluttering around the eaves of the room like a trapped bird. “I am Hylas, armour-bearer to your son Heracles! My master humbly begs you, on bended knee: accept the sacrifice of these lives freely offered, and loose the Titan Prometheus!”
At the mention of Heracles, a strange tenderness came into the massive face which, when Hylas glanced up, filled his vision entirely. “You serve my boy Heracles? Is he well? I hear he sailed with the Argonauts. Eurystheus whinges to me in his prayers that the Labours he set Heracles are not finished. Where did he find you? Such a beautiful boy! He has my good taste, plainly… though he should not meddle. Heracles speaks for the Titan? The Fire-Stealer? Why?”
Hylas suppressed a groan. And must he, at the only-half-made age of ten (or eleven) really try to speak for Mankind on behalf of Titan Prometheus and his thousand years of torture? He knocked his forehead lightly on the floor. Thoősa would have found something clever to say.
“My master has a great liking for vultures, Mighty Zeus. They are his favourite animals – well, I expect you know that. He said… says. They are the only birds that never kill to gain their meat. Perhaps it is the poor vultures he’s thinking about: he wants them not to have to eat liver every day. Out of a live man. Maybe. I don’t know…. Only that he asked it.” He fell silent.
Through the silence came a plit-plat, plit-plat of sandals on stone. Just as a single drop of blood fetches a shark from ten leagues away, the name of Heracles had brought sandaled feet hurrying over the marble floors. Foul black weather clouds bunched and bubbled outside the great windows. The temperature dropped, and Olympus was wrapped in gloom. Hail fell. Sweeping into the throne room (her brown hair a stark contrast to the glittering blondness of the majority) came Hera, Queen of Heaven.
“Who dares to name that ox, that peasant lout?” She threw the apple she was eating, and it struck Hylas on the back, breaking a rib.
Hylas put his arms over his head. He heard, quite distinctly, Ephetes utter an oath as he saw his own wonderful gift of a boy had triggered an Olympic row. When King and Queen fought, a large number of vases were smashed and even the carpets had a tendency to curl up in fear.
“Who is that lying at your feet? …that mat?”
“Be silent, wife. He is the Heracles’ latest spear-carrier, and he has come here to buy the life of Prometheus.”
A light of genuine pleasure rucked the queen’s face. “Heracles is offering to die? That mad bullock of yours? Your bastard? Accept. Accept! Oh do!”
Zeus swung at her with his staff. A crackle of electricity burned holes in the curtains and every head of hair in the room stood on end. “With the lives of these three.”
Tithonus had climbed onto Arachne’s back; she in turn, stood on the Sibyl’s bent and buckled shoulders. It was as if they were trying to try climb high enough to see the outcome. They trembled, all three. Perhaps they could taste on their antennae, leg hairs, tiny tongues, the closeness of Death. Hera peered at the knot of creatures on the floor; she had not so much as noticed them before. “Not the Big Oaf?” she said, disappointed. “He is not offering himself? Or his boy there?”
Hylas tried to speak, tried to free his tongue from where it had been fastened with nails of ice to the roof of his mouth. Had he not jumped from a cliff once, half expecting to die? Dying must be easy. As easy as stepping off a cliff. He ought to offer his own life, yes! But his fingers still groped at the marble tiles. Not even for Prometheus? Surely for his own god, Prometheus? “If you like,” he whispered.
A hand, a finger, a breath – something of the King of the gods touched the base of Hylas’ neck. “You may have beauty boy,” he said, “but do you have immortality?”
“No, mighty Zeus!”
“Then you do not have the price to buy the Titan’s freedom.”
Hera lifted the hem of her dress. It showed off her pretty ankles. She raised her foot primly, and lowered it, with exquisite elegance, on to the parcel of stale insect life, grinding down, twisting her heel to left and right. With a gristly crunching, the Sibyl, Arachne and Tithonus were reduced to a smear of black and a litter of legs on the marble floor of Heaven. Hera was a goddess; she could do what Time could not: crush their immortality.
For a moment, a harvest dust of music filled the room. Then it was gone.
“I hate spiders,” she said, and her belligerent face challenged Zeus to hit her again with his staff.
The room was noisy with confusion. Had the deal been struck? Had the Three insects earned the release of Prometheus by giving up their own lives? Did Hera intend that? Or had she simply killed the bugs for the pleasure of doing it? She scraped the sole of her sandal over and over again on the shining floor and smiled the smug smile most calculated to throw her husband into a rage. Then she walked out of the room amid the excitable whispering. All eyes turned on Zeus.
The King of the Gods rose, walked over and looked down at the stain on the floor. “WHAT DOES THE SIBYL WANT?” he asked. But of course there was no reply. His shadow fell across Hylas. He bent to pick up the apple Hera had thrown, crouched to murmur conversationally to the boy: “Return to your master and warn him: my bitch of a wife is brewing up another fit of madness for him. Now and then, she does that. Drives him mad for a while, until he does something he’ll regret for years to come. …Tell him to keep his hat on when the pigeons fly over: she drops it from above, you know. The madness.” Grasping the cloth of Hylas’ tunic, he stood the boy back on his feet, and kissed him gently on the hair. A kiss intended for his son Heracles, presumably.
“What do I tell him, though?” said Hylas backing towards the sunlight. “Is Prometheus freed?”
Zeus straightened up… an up,… and up… and up until his head seemed smaller, it was so far away. “Tell him not to meddle in things he does not understand. Tell him three ugly grubs do not add up to one immortality. Let Prometheus suffer till the mountains of the world are worn flat by the feet of flies. I enjoy hearing him scream.”
As Hylas ran over the door-sill, onto lush grass, on and on, he clearly heard the decorator Ephetes whisper under his breath, “Oh piddle! Such a waste!”