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.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Installment #13: Truth

I awoke slowly, feeling only the unearthly softness of the warm blankets I was wrapped in. For a few moments, as I reveled in my half-sleep before opening my eyes, I thought I was at home, rolling lazily through a strange dream. Then I remembered that something had happened and opened my eyes. I was in a large, dark bed in a large, dark room that I had never seen before. I had no idea where I was for another heartbeat or two, and then the memories came flooding back to me. I was in the Underworld. I looked around, trying to decide what I should do. Should I stay here and wait for someone to come? Should I leave the room and try to find Hades? Would I even be able to leave? Perhaps my door was locked. By now he surely would have spoken with his brothers and learned of my blasphemy. I gulped and wondered at the fact that I had awoken at all, let alone in a place of luxury. The entire room appeared to be made of black marble, shined up so perfectly that it gave the illusion of endless depth. The walls and floor seemed completely without blemish, and I even wondered for a moment if it were marble at all, or if perhaps my chamber was made of perfectly clear panes of glass that separated me from that horrible black liquid void in which I imagined myself suspended. I reached out a hand to touch the wall beside the headboard of the bed, and it was solid. Once my fingers rested there and I saw their reflection, I knew it was made of rock. This comforted me enough to extend my leg over the side of the bed and test a toe on the floor. It was solid as well, and surprisingly warm. I wasn’t wearing my own robe anymore; it was probably ripped completely to shreds after our violent battle and escape. I wondered briefly who had dressed me, then filed the problem away to be dealt with later. At least it was clean and comfortable.

I decided that I should test the door, and if it was open, explore whatever place I was in and try to find out what was going on. I slid out of the bed and straightened the robe, then slowly crossed the wide room in cautious but deliberate strides. I reached the black doors that reached all the way to ceiling, which appeared to be more than four times my height, and placed my hand on the right handle. I applied a very small amount of pressure, unsure of whether I wanted them to be unlocked or not.

The handle gave easily, and the door began to fall open slowly and silently. I seemed not to be a prisoner; or, if I was, my cage was bigger than I had originally supposed. I was in a long, dark hallway, lit with the same dancing blue ladies as the rest of this world. The impossibly shiny marble was still present, but now the omnipresent black was interrupted intermittently by silver sconces that served as the ladies’ stages. The hallway looked the same to the left and to the right, but I could only see a few passus in each direction. I stepped out into the hallway and turned to the right, then started walking slowly. Everything was the same. Within a few paces there was another door exactly like mine, and the same number of paces beyond that another. I had only gone a short distance, but I was suddenly overcome with an unnamable dread that this hallway went on forever, lined with endless doors and silver sconces forever spaced an even distance apart. I began to walk faster, passing an unknown number of identical doors. I stopped, realizing that I could not see ahead of me or behind me, knowing I had lost sight of my own door and now had no point of reference at all, but was simply Somewhere in an alien hallway. As I squinted to see if there was anything unique beyond the limits of my vision I heard a soft, dull thud, and recognized it as the door to my room closing itself. I snapped around and walked back the way I had come, trying to estimate how far I had traveled, but found that even though I was sure I must have passed my own room by now, I could not discern which door was mine. I made a guess and tried the one nearest me, but found it locked. I never would have become this disoriented on earth; I never would have lost track of how many steps I had taken, or how many doors I had passed, or exactly what distance I had traversed, but down here there was no grass or soil beneath my feet, only the invariable smoothness of the black marble. There was no wind, no sky, no marker or deviance of any kind, only an eternally repeating pattern of doors, sconces, and black.

There was darkness ahead of me and darkness behind me, and I struggled to keep from panicking as I tried to remember which way was left and which way was right. I chose what I was almost certain had to be left, the direction I had not explored as thoroughly, and started to walk. There had to be an end somewhere in sight, unless I had stumbled into my own punishment of eternal torment; walking endless unmarked black halls for the rest of time. My pace quickened as I squinted desperately into the unknown, seeking some hint of an end to or at least deviation in the maddening pattern. I was running now, breathing heavily, feeling the now-familiar hysteria rise in my chest. My eyes began to cloud with tears of frustration and terror, the sounds of my bare feet slapping the marble echoing off the hard walls and becoming thunderous in my ears.

Suddenly, I seemed to glimpse a change ahead. The light was shifting some distance away; there was something, or someone, else in the hallway. I considered briefly that it could be a guard of some kind, or a beast sent to devour me, but by that time I would have welcomed anything that broke the horrifying repetition. I ran towards the unknown figure, my breathing now strangled with emotion, until I drew close enough to see who or what it was. Hades’ face emerged from the shadows and I threw myself against him, shaking and gasping. His arms wrapped around me instinctively as I clutched at his robe, my nonsensical words tumbling out in a confused tangle.

“I thought I was alone in the dark with the pattern and no end to the doors and the shadows and the silver and the reflections of everything repeating again and again and again and again…” I trailed off as I realized I was not making any sense, and I rubbed my back as my breathing returned to normal and my mind regained its hold on reality. When I realized how silly I was being and that I was clutching myself to the God of the Underworld who was most likely my jailer, I pulled away, trying to recover some sense of dignity and decorum. He released me and I looked down, then cleared my throat. “I apologize…” I said, feeling foolish enough now to return to my room without being asked, “the hallway is… disorienting.”

“I know,” he said, the apologetic tone of his voice catching me off guard, “the fault is mine. I meant to be there when you awoke, or at least have someone to guide you. I would have given you a room closer to my chambers but I wanted to give you privacy and I didn’t want you to be found.”

Once again, I was amazed that he seemed to know nothing of my crime and was himself trying to make apologies and amends. His eyes held only concern and shame, and I felt entirely repugnant to be accepting his kindness once again when he seemed to have no idea that I was a traitor and a deceiver.

“Do not trouble yourself,” I said to console him, “all is well now, it is of no consequence. My mind is feeble and unaccustomed to the finery here.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, “this place could drive anyone mad. I’m a dolt for leaving you there alone, and I’m sorry.”

“Please do not apologize again,” I begged him, “it pains my ears.”

“Very well then,” he said, looking downcast.

I burned to ask him what was happening on the outside; I needed to know what was going on. I hated myself for continuing to take advantage of his apparent ignorance, but I had to know what had happened as I slept. “My lord,” I said humbly, “How long have I slept? What has happened? What became of Zeus and Poseidon?”

“Please, do not call me ‘my lord,’” he answered, “and I will gladly tell you all. I will not apologize again, for it is abhorrent to your ears, but you must know that I ache to do so for it is for my transgression that you were harmed on earth and my folly that you were distressed in this passageway. Please, come with me to the dining hall and I will tell you everything as you refresh yourself.” He turned and I followed him as he continued to speak, all the while walking down more endless corridors. At first I tried to keep up with what turns we took and how far we traveled down each one, but after only a few changes of direction I lost track, knowing I would never find that room again without his help. “You have only slept the day and a few hours more. It is now the mid-hour of the night on earth. I had my maids attend to you, and they proclaimed you in need of nothing but a fresh robe and sound sleep, but of which you received under their care. Zeus and Poseidon are unable to follow us into my world. I sealed off all the places where they might have been able to break in, and no matter how hard they try they will never be able to reach us here. This is my world and none can enter or leave it against my will, not even the mighty Zeus himself. I at least still have power over my own realm; that is protected by the ancient laws that he has no power to break.”

“What are they doing now?” I asked.

“They rattled my gates for a few hours until they realized that they would never break in. I tried to talk to them but they were in such a rage that they would listen to nothing I said and I could not reason with them. I tried to apologize for trespassing in his world, but would not claim regret for having met and spoken with you. He called me a traitor and a wretch, and I ended our conversation. I told him we would speak again when he was calm and rational.”

My heart skipped a beat, realizing that Zeus had been crying out for me.

“Dear Mistress, please,” he said, stopping and turning to face me, “I know you dislike my apologies, but I must express my anguish that you were harmed on my account, because of my affront. Please,” he said, dropping to one knee before me and hanging his head, “please acknowledge this wrong I have done against you. I will not dare ask for your forgiveness now, but it is my hope that someday you could, in your mercy, take pity on me.”

“Please,” I whimpered, “do not bow before me, do not call me mistress…” I felt like the lowest form of pestilence, the most vile form of infectious fungus, the darkest mold that devours crops, most putrid dung that any beast ever excreted. I could bear it no more. I threw myself to the floor, lying completely prostrate, face-down before him, as I moaned out my confession.

“We were not attacked because you trespassed in Zeus’ realm and spoke with a goddess of the earth,” I said. “Zeus and Poseidon were focusing their wrath on me, because I am a traitor, a vile blasphemer, and now a deceiver. I deserve death, or worse than death, for taking advantage of the kindness and faith of the most magnanimous and powerful god in the universe. I beg you, condescend to do me, the lowliest of the low, one final favor and end my misery by ending my existence.” I shut my eyes tight against the pain I expected to issue forth immediately, pressing my face and palms into the hard stone, showing my contrition and bracing myself for the blow. There was nothing but silence for a moment, then his simple response.

“What?” he asked, not comprehending my words.

“I am a traitor,” I repeated, “I blasphemed the gods. I questioned their judgment, their will. I questioned the very foundation of our world.”

“You did what?” he exclaimed in disbelief.

“I am vile, I am treacherous, I should be destroyed!” I cried.

“What did you say?” he asked, still in shock.

“I said that the gods should not only favor those who are young, beautiful, and strong, but those whose hearts are pure. I even said that the gods should favor all humans equally, and that all people should live in peace and contentment. My thoughts were even worse.”

“By the stars themselves!” he cried, “By the laws that govern our existence, for the sake of the Pantheon, and those that came before it, get off the floor!”

I looked up slowly, not understanding what he wanted.

“Get up off the floor!” he shouted again, and grabbed my wrist, hoisting me abruptly back to standing. I prepared for a strike to the face. “Zeus,” he said firmly, looking me in directly in the eye, “Is an arrogant, pompous, greedy, tyrannical, power-drunk idiot,” he said. “Poseidon is almost as bad. Your ‘treacherous’ words as you call them are some of the truest I’ve ever heard in my existence. It’s no wonder your words angered them so; they are true, they are rational, and they more discerning than anything Zeus has ever said. He cannot abide a female wiser than he, unless it is his own daughter, whom he takes full credit for. Dear Persephone, I promise you, I will not let them, in their desire to avenge their wounded pride, harm you in any way, and I will hear no more talk of ‘blasphemy’ as you call it. Truth cannot be blasphemy, and as long as you are in my world, I shall presume to command you to speak your mind at all times.” He held my eyes firmly with his, trying to convince me of his fervent sincerity. “I must ask you, though,” he continued, “to never, ever, lie on the ground before me like that again. It rips my very essence apart and makes me want to destroy myself in shame.” He gave me a weak smile and turned to continue on our journey to the dining hall. “Do not worry about Zeus and Poseidon,” he said, “I can deal with them. You are safe here.”

I walked beside him, dumbstruck at his reaction. I could not have imagined it in a million years. I went over his words again in my mind, making sure I had them right, then let them sink in. He was not angry or offended. He agreed with me, and what’s more he was going to defend me. I smiled to myself and took his hand, causing him to look over at me and blush as we exchanged sheepish grins. Finally, we rounded a corner and stepped into an enormous hall, where a long table was laden with foods of every kind. He led me to my seat and then sat down next to me. We began to eat in silence, having nothing left to say that our smiles did not already openly declare.

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