The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Installment #11: Communion

My day, when I finally awoke, had been spent walking through the fields and over the cliffs, deep in contemplation. I remembered the day I had sat on the edge of this particular precipice, watching the waves roll in and out as I drew figures in the dust. It was one of the few times I could recall in which I was alone. I remembered that the day had grown dim as I swirled my fingers in the dust, making simple pictures and smoothing them away again. I had drawn a daisy and wiped it away, then a tree. Finally I had drawn a rosebud and stared at it for moment, trying to decide whether I should pass my hand over it or not. A gust of wind had come off the sea and blown my hair back from my neck, gathering the dust off the ground as it went. My rose was gone. I had raised my head to watch the sun sink into the sea. From my perch on the top of the cliff I could see some mortal youths walking along the beach. There was a young couple strolling a little behind the larger group, and the girl was reaching up to tease the boy’s hair at the nape of his neck. I had glanced to my left, where a small rock lay, and considered throwing it at her. For some reason, her wantonness had cut me across the stomach, sending a searing pain along my skin and causing bile to rise in my throat. She had grabbed the back of his neck and turned his face towards hers, then planted a brazen kiss on his lips. My hand had closed around the rock, feeling its hardnesss against my skin, resisting the force of my grip The lovers pulled away from their stolen kiss, laughing, and my fingers had lost their rage, going slack, letting the solid weight drop to the ground. As though sensing that some harm had just passed her, the girl had suddenly turned and looked up at me over her shoulder as she walked. Even from here, I had seen the look on her face as plainly as if she were standing right in front of me. Her thick, dark hair blew in tendrils over her parted lips, and her eyes bored into me. She had looked at me with wonderment and pity, as though I were some melancholy ghost. Tears had threatened to sprout in my eyes, but anger just as soon followed it. How dare she pity me. I had stood and looked directly back at her, then converted to my highest form for one blinding moment before vanishing in a blaze. She would have known then that I was a goddess, and that she had barely escaped my wrath.

I now stooped to the ground, searching for a rock to squeeze, to feel its cold hardness against my hand again, reliving that day. It was the one time I could remember having felt such a bitter anger towards anyone, especially someone who had done nothing to deserve it. She had been young human at that, innocently going about her simple, short life. I wondered briefly how her encounter with me had affected her. Had she become frightened that the gods were angry with her? Had she been afraid that when she looked at me, she had committed some kind of offense? These things had not happened but a few years ago; perhaps she was even still alive. She would be an old woman now, and I wondered if she remembered that day as well as I did. Perhaps she had not understood what she had seen, and never thought of it again. I wondered if she had married that boy, or if he was just a sweetheart of youth. I felt foolish for thinking about her, a human I hadn’t even spoken to, and yet I was. I fingered the edges of the rock I’d picked up, examining its peaks and crevices, feeling its roughness. It was a little larger than my fist, with streaks of brown and white. I stood again, looking out to sea, feeling the wind gather my hair back from my neck and shoulders as my mother did when she plaited it for me. In the distance I could see dark clouds rolling towards the shore. They were moving quickly and would make landfall within the hour. Poseidon was restless. The wind gained strength, and I had to plant myself more firmly to keep from being knocked over by its sudden gusts. I tossed the rock in the air and caught it again, testing its weight, then reeled back and threw it with all of my strength out to sea. I saw it strike the water a few millos out from shore, landing beneath the swirling storm. Perhaps I had hit Poseidon in his gruff and somber head. The sun sank below the level of the clouds, casting its last rays across the ocean to meet me on my precipice. I closed my eyes and meditated on the juxtaposition of their orange warmth and the piercing cold of the wind as each battled for congress with my skin. Helios was racing to the horizon, and soon enough he plunged into the sea, leaving me with only Poseidon’s coldness. It was apparent now that he was not merely restless or bored, but agitated; perhaps even angry. The storm was gathering force quickly. It was time for me to go. I lifted my mind and disappeared from the cliff, arriving at my grove a moment later. The sky was darker here, and I knew that Hades would soon arrive.

I circled the grove a few times, growing flowers and fruits in my path. The rain would make them stronger, and they would be sheltered by the trees from the harsher gusts of wind. I placed my hands on each of the saplings and young trees, fortifying them for the storm to come. I made their trunks pliant and their roots deep, ensuring that they would neither be snapped in two nor pulled from the ground. Let Poseidon throw his tantrum, whatever it was about. Mother was probably out preparing the most important crops for the onslaught, and would not be home to miss me.

I heard his footfall outside the ring of trees and turned to greet him. His face appeared from between the leaves again, just as it had the night before, but this time it was open, happy, and brightened when he saw me. I felt a strange warmth pass through me when I saw him, and was comforted without having realized I had been ill at ease in the first place. Already he seemed familiar, though I had only known him one day. I smiled to see him, not even knowing why, and he returned my grin.

“Why do you smile?” he asked as he approached.

“I’m… happy to see you again,” I said, realizing the truth of my words as I spoke them.

Hades looked at the ground, perhaps to conceal the rising color of his face, or the now absurdly sized grin which he struggled to control. He looked up at me, slightly more composed, and said, “I’m happy to see you again as well.”

We grinned at each other for a moment there, young fools that we were, until I thought to say something.

“Would you like something to eat?” I asked, gesturing towards the berries and nuts I’d grown.

“Yes, thank you,” he said, going to sit beside them. “The things you grow taste much sweeter than anything I’ve eaten in the underworld.”

“I’m sure it’s not that bad,” I said, “these are just the fruits of the earth. The foods of the gods are infinitely better.”

He chuckled at my statement and popped another strawberry into his mouth. “You’re thinking of the foods of Olympus,” he said ironically, “the meats that melt on your tongue, the breads that warm your whole body, the cakes that infuse your entire being with sweetness, the ambrosia that lifts your spirit above the heavens themselves... the foods of the Underworld are not like that.”

“What are they like?” I asked, curious about what kinds of things the Underworld could produce.

“They are heavy… dense… they make you lethargic. I suppose some of them are enjoyable. Some things, like the warm cream drinks, are heady and intoxicating. They flow through your veins, warming and relaxing your whole body, as your mind unravels itself and you forget your cares, forget everything, and sink into a very pleasurable sleep…” he had lost himself as he recalled the experience, and seemed to have forgotten where he was for a moment. When he looked back at me, he colored again, apparently ashamed.

“What else is good?” I asked, drawn in by his description.

“Have you ever had chocolate?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “What is it?”

Hades grinned as if at a secret joke. “Someday, if you come to my palace, I will give you chocolate,” he said, “and you will forget the sweetness of strawberries.” He paused, looking at the half-eaten berry between his fingers. “Actually,” he said, “I bet the two would be rather good together.”

“Ah-ha!” I exclaimed, “So you do have divine foods. Anything that rivals a strawberry must be divine.”

“Alright, I concede,” he said, “The foods of the Underworld can be gratifying in their own right, but nothing can compare to the freshness of the foods of the earth.”

“Except perhaps chocolate,” I reminded him.

He laughed. “Yes, except for chocolate. But I am rambling on about food when you wanted to hear more about the Moirae.”

“I don’t mind,” I said, “I like hearing about the Underworld.”

“Why?” he asked, puzzled.

“Because, it’s different.”

“I don’t think you’d like it,” he said.

“How do you know?” I asked, slightly offended.

“It’s dark… cold… damp… there are no flowers.”

“Flowers are not my only interest,” I said sharply.

“It is not a happy place,” he said, insistent.

“I’m not always happy,” I retorted. “I’m sure it’s better than you say it is, just like the food.”

He shrugged. “At first I liked it well enough,” he said, his voice taking on an airy tone as he recounted the past, “it suited me. It was dark, quiet, and isolated. I found it peaceful, and I liked the privacy. But after a few hundred years, the silence became deafening, the solitude pressed in close around me on all sides and constricted me. Sometimes I found it hard to breathe. The place drives me mad sometimes, that’s why I came to the surface, that’s why…” He stopped suddenly, as if afraid he’d said too much. I didn’t press him, for he’d already told me more than I had expected.

“You have no companions?” I asked carefully, trying not to reveal the reasons for my interest in this subject.

“There are others who dwell in the Underworld,” he said, “but I do not consider them my companions. The world is large, and there are few of us, so we rarely meet. They do not live in my palace; I reside there alone. I speak sometimes with Hypnos, but his twin brother Thanatos is strange and troubling. Charon hardly speaks at all, and the Moirae are not even to be approached.”

“What about the souls?”

He laughed slightly again. Apparently my ignorance was amusing to him. “The souls do not speak. They make no sound at all, they simply drift around. I don’t see them often, either, unless I summon them. They keep to their fields. Even the ones in the palace, who serve me, are rarely glimpsed. When I do see them, they may as well not be there. They have no thoughts or feelings that I am aware of, they are just filmy apparitions, empty shells.”

I was troubled by this, and it must have shown on my face, because he asked me what was the matter. “I just didn’t know,” I said, “that their afterlives were so empty. I suppose I imagined them talking to one another and going about activities just as they do on earth. It was foolish of me, I suppose, but I had not thought that the Underworld was so… dismal.”

“I told you that you wouldn’t like it,” he said.

“You still don’t know that,” I said. “And there is only way to settle the matter and find out who is right.” I smiled at him impishly and he understood my meaning instantly.

“That isn’t a good idea,” he said, “trust me, you would not like it.”

“As I said, there is only one way to find out,” I repeated, standing my ground. “Unless, of course, you do not wish for me to visit your home,” I added, considering the possibility that I was imposing.

“It’s not that,” he said hurriedly, “I would love for you to visit me. I am only afraid you would be displeased.”

“I promise I will not be displeased,” I said simply.

He laughed again. “That is not something you can promise!” he said good-naturedly, “How do you know what will please or displease you until you see it?”

“You said it suits you,” I replied, “and you do not displease me.”

He seemed a bit taken aback, but smiled and colored again. I wondered if I had been too bold. I continued to forget that he was the ruler of one of the three realms, on par with Zeus and Poseidon.

“I hope I have not been disrespectful,” I said nervously.

“Please,” he said, “Let that be the furthest thing from your mind. I do not think it possible that you could disrespect me.”

“You would be surprised,” I said, remembering my blasphemy a few days ago, the old fright and anxiety returning momentarily as I wondered once more if I would be found out.

“No, no,” he said, still reassuring me, “it is I who must be careful not to disrespect you.” I remained silent and he noticed that my countenance was suddenly somber. “What is troubling you?” he asked.

I began to panic again, wondering what to say, upset that I was again forced to lie. I certainly could not tell him; he was the God of the Underworld, the King of the Dead, surely most of my grievances about the decisions of the gods must be addressed to him, and yet I could not bring myself to direct any of my anger or disappointment to him. He seemed so good, even innocent. I still did not know him well, though, and perhaps if he learned of my treachery he would turn on me in an instant and revile me. He was still looking at me, his eyes concerned, and I still could not find a response. I was saved from the moment by a more imminent danger; it was at that instant that the first thunderbolt struck, only a few feet from where we sat, as Poseidon’s gales suddenly arrived without warning, knocking us over with their force.

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