Blob and the Last Prophecy
A second skein of swans flew over Mount Ossa, but these came in to land on one of the oxbow lakes.
Deucalion and Pyrrha had begun naming the people they had created from rocks and stones. But there were so many; inventiveness soon flagged. When they came to one bruised and battered man with close-shorn hair, clad in brownish robes and smaller than a child, they saw his lugubrious eyes, his leg bound in a splint, and considered calling him Tragedy.
“Indeed no,” said the man, who had only been easing his way through the milling crowd. “To fall from the sky is merely unfortunate. To fall from grace… now that would be a tragedy. I thrive. I thrive. What’s a little pain? He that meeteth with friends along the way is not without joy.”
Felled by a shooting star, Abaris the priest had fallen not into oblivion but into a swamp. “Not so soft as death, nor so forgiving, but rejoicing in many beautiful mosses and mottled frogs…” Dragging himself out of the swamp, he had taken refuge with a lifelong friend – someone he often had called on in the past as he toured the world astride his golden arrow: Prometheus. “My arrow was lost to me, but behold how the patient man is rewarded! Here are swans!”
“Swans are important,” said Hylas (though it was more of a question than a statement). “My father kept flocks and flocks of swans.”
The memory came back to him, like a remembered dream: his father lying dead on his day couch, killed by Heracles. The servants running to and fro, rounding up the swans…
“Then was he a man of the Hyperborian cult,” suggested Abaris. “They that believeth all things, hopeth all things, and dislike the idea of the gloomy Underworld. Such men hold that the souls of the dead good… the good dead, I mean… are carried by swans to Hyperboria and perfect happiness. I fear they are mistaken. Happiness and peace are things to be sewn and harvested in this life, not hoped for in the next. Happily, however, swans do indeed travel north to the realms of Hyperboria. Thus shall I return to the land of my birth. Astride a swan. Shall you come, boy?”
A gasp of envious admiration burst from the group.
“I can’t!” said Hylas.
“He’s scared of swans,” Thoősa explained.
“No! No, I would come. I could… Swans are very …splendid and white and wingy… We had lots at home. They smelled better than the ducks. But I have to find Heracles! I have to…”
He found he could not finish. Hylas did not know what business had been left unfinished when he parted from his master in Mysia, what unspoken words lay in the throat of that jug rolling on its side at the pool’s edge. Were they words of hate or love? Admiration or disgust? Thanks or resentment? If he got the chance now, would he warn Heracles against burning shirts – or help him into one?
Heracles. He who had taught Hylas to shoot a bow, play a lyre, use a slingshot, never to drink strong liquor; to bend his knees when he lifted heavy weights; to wear his hat in the sun. The image of Heracles wearing a fiery shirt had seared itself into Hylas’ brain and he was full of horror.
“I will come,” said Hylas. “For a while. Then I’ll come back and go on looking for Heracles.”
“To avenge your father’s death?” said Pythia.
“To carry his armour and cook his supper?” said Thoősa.
“No,” said Hylas, though it was not plain which of them he was answering.
“Thou wilt not come back,” suggested Abaris. “Visitors never wish to leave the Land of the North Wind.”
“You did,” said Thoősa.
“Ah! But how I miss it!”
After counting the swans on the lake below, Abaris extended the invitation to Thoősa, too.
“Oh she won’t come,” said Hylas dismissively. “Thoősa hasn’t got herself a story yet.”
One of the stone-people – a small girl formed in error from a pebble – blinked her speckled eyes at the word ‘Thoősa’. “Me?” she said.
Thoősa blushed and shrugged. “I told her she could have it. I’m not Thoosa any more.”
She had given away her name. After all, without a name, the gods cannot issue a decree for your death, cannot send anyone after you. Neither Laelaps nor Furies can be set on your trail. No one can tell lies about you or spread scurrilous rumours. She was glad she had done nothing of any importance – was still just a girl who had not been burned by Heracles, who had not fought the gods, who had not caused the sky to fall in. Now she would not be remembered just for some one deed done, for rubbing shoulders with a Hero, or being brave when she had no choice. She would not be some story quickly told then flung aside like an apple core. She was a whole life, not a day. She was a book, not a page in a book about somebody else. “I’ll come to Hyperboria,” she said, “If Pythia and Panacea come too.”
The Doctor’s daughter ran back towards the cliff. “But I have to stay here! I have to find herbs for Prometheus! It will take longer without my snakes, but it’s medicine he needs, not magic: I can do it: I have the knowledge. I was well taught. …I can keep him company, too. I think… I think the loneliness must be the worst….”
Prometheus regarded her affectionately. “And poor Xanthus would find it hard to climb aboard a swan,” he said, and laughed. It was the strangest sound the fire-lit world has ever heard. “You are right, Doctor. Loneliness was the worst. But I am not alone these days. Momus comes by. Momus? The Olympian god of Ridicule? He used to make fun of the other gods, but they couldn’t take a joke - just one of the things that makes them deeply unpleasant… Yes, Momus comes. Also, Phantasos the Postman. He delivers me dreams from time to time. Dreams of a man in a burning shirt… a pyre… my hands free at last…” He tipped his head back against the cliff and closed his eyes.
Pythia was forging her way over the rocky rubble of the arena wall, her bronze crutches wedging and slipping in among the boulders and shale. Her back was turned on Prometheus now, as if he had cheated or offended her. “He’s not the secret,” she fretted. “Heracles is not the prophecy. There’s another thing he’s seen coming. Something he’s not telling you. I must know. I have to know! I must get back to the smoke.” She who had told so many, Don’t ask! Better not to ask! was tormented now by the need to know some hidden piece of knowledge. A-twitch with nerves, half crazed by the day’s frights, no gift of prophecy in her skull, she could feel questions swarming over her body like locust-eaters. What if…? What when…? What will…? What say…? “I must go back! I have to know! I must go back in the smoke! The smoke will tell me if he won’t!” Her hysteria unsettled the swans. They stopped feeding on the rafts of spring flowers and weed. It seemed they might at any moment take off.
Thoősa went to try and calm Pythia, but the Oracle pushed her over with the tip of one crutch.
“Tell me if he’ll pay!” she shouted at Prometheus. “Tell us: will Zeus pay? Will he be defeated? – usurped? Thrown down from the top of Olympus? Will I ever be…”
“Avenged?” asked Talos coldly.
“Free,” whispered Pythia, and sank down with her arms clamped close to her chest.
Prometheus stirred, shook his head to dispel the gnats that plagued him, gaped for air to fill his cramped lungs. “From up here I can see a great way. On a clear day, as far as the Truth – even as far as the Future. Even – it’s true - as far as the final story.”
Deucalion and Pyrrha bowed their ancient, trembling heads. “But he will not tell you that,” said Deucalion. “It has never been spoken aloud. He has never spoken it. If our father knows, the secret is locked up still within his breast.”
“That’s why he’s here!” Pyrrha burst in. “Not because he stole fire for Humankind! Not because the Titans fought the Olymps and lost. That’s why Zeus set the griffin vultures on him - to prise the dear man open! To rend the secret out of him!”
“Because he knows the why and the how of Zeus’s downfall,” said Deucalion calmly.
“Yes! Yes, that’s why! … And why should he tell you? He has never told us!”
Deucalion put a consoling arm around his sister and led her away sobbing. The stone-people followed, some with names now, some not; some waving, some attempting a few simple words. The old people raised a hand in farewell, without looking back. They did not salute their father. Love and grief would bring them back soon enough to visit Prometheus.
They were right: Why, when a thousand years of torture had not persuaded Prometheus to speak, would he choose to confide in a motley pack of strangers?
But he did.
“Let me tell you a story,” said Prometheus. “Apollo has one filthy habit – well, probably more than one, but…. He likes to chew. Nuts, beetles, pieces of rope. (It’s commonly the way with charioteers, but that doesn’t make it any more appealing.) He was chewing that day on Olympus, when the gods assembled a very special ‘wedding gift’.
“It was immediately after the business of the fire. I was lying, bound hand and foot nearby the royal throne, not yet sentenced. So I saw each horror as it was put into that box of theirs – Disease, Blight, Famine. Ares brought War, Athena Jealousy. Dionysus suggested Addiction… He had brought along a few flagons of wine to add to the party mood. In it all went – Loneliness, Phobias, Shyness, Deformity: a nightmare recipe for suffering, disguised as a wedding present for my brother and his bride Pandora. Humankind’s punishment for accepting my gift of Fire.
“I saw Hope fly in at the window – she brushed my cheek. White. Moth-like. So frail, so fragile, settling on the rim of the chest. I knew they hadn’t seen her. I thought she’d be crushed for sure under everything else: so many sharp, merciless inventions: Madness, Boredom, Locust-eaters…. But it was not Hope that got crushed.
“The Olymps were sniggering at the thought of giving the box to my brother and telling him never to open it, knowing his silly wife would never resist the temptation to look inside. The more evils that went in there, the more they giggled, until they were snorting like pigs round a trough, rolling about on their knees, pushing at each other, telling smutty jokes. Apollo was chewing, as I say - some pupating grub only half way to taking shape. As he laughed, it caught in his throat and started him coughing. Hchrrfp. Out it flew, and lodged on the rim of the box – sent Hope fluttering inside.
Not that they saw: the wine had been flowing too freely. Down went the lid and slammed the half-chewed thing out of all shape. Whatever it might have been, that grub, it never would be now. It had been wet with the saliva from Apollo’s mouth. Quite famous, that mouth. Particularly with the soothsayers of this world, eh Pythia? One kiss from Apollo bestows the gift of prophecy. But a second kiss…”
“Takes away belief,” said nameless-Thoősa.
“What a lot you mortals know,” said Pythia in surprise.
“Quite. Apollo, who oh-so-casually hands out the gift of prophecy to his lovers, sometimes kisses them a second time. After that, they can still see what’s coming, but try and tell the world and no one believes one word they say.
When Pandora gave in to temptation and opened the box - in that locust storm that followed - the howling winds, the chaos, all the terror - no one saw the Blob crawl away. A slug. A morsel of gum. Not male, not female, but a bit of each. A blob of Unbelief. So small a thing in the great vastness of the world. But big enough.
“Big enough, my children. You see Blob can divide. Divide and re-divide – two into four, four into eight, eight into sixteen – splitting and multiplying. Once that begins, every street in the world will quickly be leopard-spotted with the descendants of Blob. Unbelief will stick to every sole, every soul. It will be walked into every house, and The gods on Olympus may go on primping and preening and sniffing the air for the scent to burnt offerings: they will wonder why there are none and why their worshippers are shunning them. But it will just Blob – the myriad descendants of Blob, spattering the world’s pavements with Unbelief. Unbelief will have crept through the soles of their sandals and entered their bloodstreams. They will no longer believe in the Olymps – any of them. Instead of gods in the corner of every eye, there will be Unbelief. And no one fears what they don’t believe in.
“Maybe one day the constellations in the sky will riot and pelt Olympus with shooting stars. I cannot see so far. Maybe Typhon will spew his burning hatred over Zeus … Whatever happens, no one on earth will either know or care. They will have stopped mattering. The world of mortals will have stopped believing in Olymps – or monsters, come to that.
“Do gods go on existing when no one believes in them? There’s a thing for the philosophers to argue about.
“As for me, Prometheus son of Iapetus, while there is breath in me, I shall go on believing in my little clay children, my mortal sculptures. Every day they surpass my best hopes of them. Every day they break my heart with their stupidity. But they are Titan-made. Foolhardy and funny. Endlessly interesting. I delight in their busy lives. Of course I do. I may have lost the use of my hands, but my thumbprint is still in the hollow of every mortal palm.”
He and Panacea (and Xanthus the horse, of course) watched the travellers clamber over the rocky debris and down towards the plain, where the swans paddled, vainly admiring their own lovely reflections; watched them wade out and mount the feathery backs, shedding all baggage – bow, crutches, blankets. Much less willingly, the travellers parted from Talos, too: Nature has yet to provide a swan large enough to carry the likes of Talos.
The swans’ inelegant efforts at take off, their exquisite chevron of flight, were reflected in the shiny brass of the giant automaton, but Talos had already set off to run. He ran as he had once run, in never-ending circles, around the coast of Crete. But now his line was as straight and true as the trajectory of an arrow: northwards overland towards the birthplace of the North Winds.
“Watch where you tread, children,” said Prometheus. “Tread carefully.”
All the way there, Hylas scoured the countryside below for a sight of his one-time master. But Heracles was far away, embarked on his Eleventh Labour and bound for the Garden of the Hesperides. He arrived there only the day after Ladon the Dragon completed his long lope home.
Some try to say that Heracles sent the giant Atlas to do his dirty work, holding up the sky while Atlas went and fetched golden apples from the Garden of the Gods. But that’s patent nonsense. Years before, Heracles’ own grandfather had turned Atlas into a lifeless stone mountain using the Gorgon Medusa’s head. No, the truth is, Heracles went to the Gardens himself.
But seeing – or rather hearing – the size of the dragon moving about on the other side of the high wall – the scuffling, deep-throated gurgling – the Hero found he had no appetite for wrestling large reptilian monsters. Perhaps he was weary after so much Labouring.
So he simply loosed an arrow over the wall, and scored a lucky hit. Ladon fell dead, stretched out along a nettly bed of weeds. Heracles had only to step over its head to reach the Golden Apples. The dead monster’s bulging, open eye was large and glassy. Heracles stopped to look at the reflection of himself standing there, an apple in each hand. The eye gave a strange, distorted image in which he seemed all face and hands and knees. Indeed, even to his own eyes, Heracles looked almost monstrous