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.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Installment #16: Discoveries

From the outside, Hades’ palace looked enormous. It was just as big as the great palace on Olympus, which I had thought was without rival. Had it been possible to walk completely around the outside, I imagine that it would have taken a mortal human the better part of an hour to return to the place form which he started, if he stayed close to the wall and did not tarry. Because I had spent so much of my life on earth, away from the society of the gods and their lavish homes, I was utterly amazed at the sheer size of the place. It seemed illogically, unnaturally, impossibly huge. From the hill on which we stood, about a half millos away from the grand front door, I could see the structure in its entirety, balanced on a great precipice which fell away on every side but one for an unknowable, possibly endless depth. The architecture itself was strange to me, and though it was wider than any building I had ever seen, it seemed narrow lengthwise compared to its height. I was accustomed to the wide stone temples of the humans, which were supported by columns and placed emphasis on the horizontal. I was used to thick blocks of stone and firm shapes that supported one another in obvious ways. By comparison, his black palace looked spindly and precariously balanced, even though I knew that the high towers, which from here looked thin and delicate, were actually more than three times my height in diameter.

“What do you think?” he asked, anxiety creeping into his voice.

“It’s absolutely breathtaking,” I replied honestly. “It’s astonishingly enormous… I’ve never seen anything like it.”

I looked over at him and saw that he was flattered by my praise and smugly proud.

“Are you the only one who lives here?” I asked, still not understanding why it was so large.

“Yes,” he said. “There are the servants, of course, but they live in the far upper reaches of the place… if they do can even be called ‘living’. They mostly just… dwell…”

“So why is it so large?” I prodded.

“What do you mean ‘Why is it so large?’” he asked, confused by my question.

“I mean just that—why is it so large? How could you possibly inhabit all of that space? I know that if I lived in a palace that big, I would only spend time in a few of the rooms—most of the rooms I would probably never even see. What’s the use of having so much space that you’ll never even see?”

“Why not?” he asked. “It is not as though my palace is taking up valuable space that would otherwise be used for more important things. Look around you, there is nothing but empty space as far as the eye can see. This is one of the only structures in my entire world, why not make it as big as it could conceivably be?”

At his request I took a survey of the surrounding land, which stretched out away from the precipice and the palace in every direction. It was made of endless grassy fields, completely devoid of trees or even shrubs. The grass itself was a muted grayish-green or light brown, with none of the vibrance of the grasses I grew on earth. The ground was mostly flat, but rolled up and down here and there into little hillocks. There was no sky overhead, just a thick fog high above which obscured what I assumed to be more blackness, which might have either gone on forever or perhaps terminated at some indeterminable distance with a rock ceiling. I knew we must be in a great cavern of such vastness that it no longer seemed like one, but I could see no walls, and though it was dim my eyes were growing accustomed to the light and I now viewed the landscape under what seemed to me to be the same type of light as can be seen on an overcast day, only duller. The air was damp and cool, but I found it strangely comforting. There was even a slight breeze that pulled gently at my robe and hair.

To my surprise, I found that the place held an austere beauty for me. It was gloomy, to be sure, but I found its subdued colors strangely peaceful. There were no flowers, at least none that I could see, and no animals or insects either, but my first thought was not that the place seemed completely dead. On the contrary, I felt something there that I had never felt before; I believe it was peace. The vast fields soothed me, and I could feel an aura of serenity emanating from the hills. Though Hades was standing beside me, I suddenly felt that this was a place where I could be utterly and completely alone. Until that moment I had never known that solitude and peace were things I even wanted, but now I felt a relief at finding them that I could not understand.

“I know it is gloomy,” he said. “But perhaps there are things I could do to make it more interesting. I have never tried to cultivate the land here; maybe I could make things grow… maybe you could teach me.”

“I like it,” I said in response.

“What?” he asked, as though unsure of if he’d properly heard me.

“I said I like it.” I repeated.

“You do?”

“Yes. It’s very serene… calm… quiet. I don’t know if I’d want to spend an eternity here, but I imagine it’s nice to have all of this time and space to yourself… to be alone.”

“That’s what I thought when I first came here,” he said. “Whether I chose this world or not, it is the place I wanted to be. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts, away from the endless mockery and exhibition of my brothers, away from the critical eyes and gossiping tongues of the pantheon. I wanted this serenity, this solitude. I remember now how it looked to me the first time I saw it. I too was grateful to have found peace.”

“It no longer pleases you?” I asked.

“I think I spent to much time here. I have looked upon the same stale, unchanging landscape for too long, and have spent too much time alone with myself and my own thoughts. After a while, my mind started to deceive itself, and I lost track of reality…” he trailed off, realizing that he may be saying too much.

“I suppose I can see how that would happen,” I said. “Maybe this world wasn’t the problem. Maybe you just needed someone else to talk to, so you could release your thoughts instead of keeping them cloistered inside your mind.”

“Yes, that’s why I went to earth.”

“Of course, that’s right,” I said, remembering our conversation in the grove, which now to me seemed to have been weeks or even months ago, though I knew it was only last night. The idea seemed impossible to me. As I recalled what he’d said, I remembered his mention of Hypnos and Thanatos. Thanatos did not sound like someone I was anxious to meet, but I was curious about Hypnos. “If you’re going to give me a tour of your world, does that include the places where your subjects live?”

“I suppose,” he said, “though I don’t know why you’d want to see them.”

“I want to meet Hypnos,” I said. “I want to know what he’s like.”

“No, you don’t.” said Hades dully.

My eyebrows furrowed. I disliked being told by others what it was I did or didn’t want. “Yes, I do,” I repeated.

“Believe me, you don’t,” he said again.

I cast him a cold look, then turned my face back to the horizon, adding a coolness to my voice. “Well, I suppose I don’t need you to introduce me. I’ll find him myself. I’m sure he’d be honored to be visited by an earth goddess.”

“I don’t know that ‘honored’ is the right word,” said Hades ironically.

I turned to face him again, losing my affected coolness immediately as my temper spiked. “What is that suppose to mean?” I asked sharply.

“I don’t think you’d like Hypnos,” he said. “He is… well. I will introduce you to him, if that is what you desire, and you can make your own judgments.”

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s go now.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now. Did you have other events planned?”

“No.” he said, looking defeated. “I suppose we will go now.”

I felt a slightly sorry for having bullied him in such a way, when he had been so kind to me, so I offered a consolation. “On the way, I will see what I can grow, and if I could teach you to do likewise.”

His face brightened somewhat at the prospect. “Very well,” he said, “I’ll lead the way.”

We moved over the fields, passing several millos in mere moments. I knew he could have just taken us there directly, but doubtless he wanted me to be able to see as much of the world as possible. After a few minutes of roaming over the same eternal grasses and fog, I saw in the distance another enormous house, though not even a tenth of the size of Hades’ palace. It was stone as well, but unlike the palace it was not uniformly black but a strange coupling of black and white. One half of the house was predominantly white, and the other black, but at times a stray patch of white would appear among the black, and vice versa. The steps were alternately white and black, and the roof was mis-matched, as if someone had spun it around from where it ought to have been. The black half of the house had a white roof, and the white half a black. The structure of this house was very different from the palace, but the style was equally foreign. The walls, windows, and other features seemed strangely curved in some places and rigid in others. The end result was a disorienting effect that made the house appear to move slightly as we drew quickly near it. I refused to become dizzy and display any apparent weakness in my constitution, goddess that I was.

We halted at the steps and Hades turned to me in an effort to explain the strange place. “Hypnos and Thanatos, Sleep and Death, who are twin brothers, live here together. That’s why the house seems to be two elements combined into one. Though they are twins, they are as different as night and day, and do not resemble one another in the least. Hypnos is sociable, flippant, and, I am told, somewhat attractive. Thanatos is hermitical, misanthropic, and disturbing. Neither of them should be here at the moment.”

He began to mount the steps and I stopped him. “What do you mean they aren’t here? I thought I was going to meet Hypnos!”

“You wanted to visit immediately,” he said, unable to hide his grin, “Hypnos is rarely here while it is night on earth. He goes above and moves through the world, granting sleep and withholding it, taking companions and making merry. Thanatos does likewise, in his own grim way.” He continued his way up the steps and I hitched up my robe and ran after him, cursing him all the way.

“You lying dog!” I cried, “You sly trickster! You deceived me!” As I caught up to him I lifted my left foot and slipped off the sandal, then hit him in the arm with it with a fair amount of force.

“Ow!” he cried, laughing. I hit him again, harder this time. “Agh!” he shouted, no longer laughing at all. “That time it really hurt!”

“That should teach you not to lie to me again,” I said righteously, stopping midway up the steps and putting my sandal back on.

“I didn’t lie,” he said. “I said I’d introduce you to him, but I didn’t say I would do it right now. It was you who wanted to make all haste for his house. I never said that he would be here now.”

“I want to meet Hypnos!” I shouted, my temper rising. I had never, in my entire life, experience a want for something that was denied me. On earth, I could summon whatever I wanted as soon as I craved it. Mother and I had lived relatively simply, and so I’d had simple desires, but I had never been denied anything. Now, I was no longer on earth, and I could not control things in the way to which I was accustomed. I stood there glaring at him and he looked back at me in shock, startled by my outburst. He had never been so openly disrespected before. When Hypnos had defied him, it had been sneaky and stylish, always executed with an air of languid congeniality, as though he were doing Hades a favor by bending the rules. We stood there on the steps for several moments, frozen, locked in our stubbornness against going either up or down, still exchanging defiant looks. We would have stayed there much longer, had not the front door at the top of the steps been thrown open and a beautiful young man in a white robe emerged.

“What is all this angry racket out here?” asked Hypnos, “Is it a lover’s quarrel, already? Please, come inside and reconcile. Hades, I am anxious to meet your lovely companion.” He turned and went back into the house, leaving the front door open. We could do nothing else but turn away from our glaring and sheepishly mount the remaining steps, then walk through the black-and-white stone door.

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