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 04, 2006

Installment #3: Hades

While I was singing in a meadow, Hades had his head in his hands. On his ebony throne, in a high, empty room, he was clawing at the sides of his head again in desperation. The sounds of his choked breathing echoed off the stone walls of the vast chamber as he grasped at his skull, his soft, dark curls tangled up tightly into his clenched fists. He pulled at himself, grappling desperately for a sensation, some feeling to alleviate the agonizing numbness, the unrelenting sameness of the black void. It was silent down here, save for the intermittent sound of dripping water as it found its way here, to the end of all things, from the bright, chaotic surface. Sometimes he went mad from the dripping alone, and commanded souls to stack themselves under the water sources to diminish the sound of hard water on hard stone. The spirits weren’t made of much, but layered together they provided some thin barrier against the rocks, dulling the cacophonous hammering. They were barely there at all, but thank the gods, they had some modicum of gauzy substance, like cheesecloth or spider webbing.

The constant dripping was the only sound present in the Underworld, aside from those Hades produced himself. He would take to screaming for hours just to hear something besides the deafening silence, pierced at intervals by the echoing drips. Not even the blue fires that illuminated his world made any sound. On earth, fires were a source not only of light, but of heat and sound as well. His fires did not crackle, or sparkle, or shift in the least. They never varied at all. They did not grow or diminish or change direction the way earth fires did, as they burned wood that was once alive and competed with drafts. Earth fires progressed as they moved through their fuel, a performance that you could become entranced by, watching it dance for hours on end. His fires were not like that. They maintained the same undulating sway day after day, night after night. The same sickly blue glow would emanate from their mindless flow from now until eternity.

When he first arrived, he was captivated by the fires. They reminded him of women dancing seductively; their easy, languid movements drew him in with a heady pleasure. He used to thrust his hand into them, watch their translucent liquid embrace and flow around him on it’s way up into nothingness. Now they bored him. They even enraged him with their dullness, their insistence on continuing the same meaningless pattern. There were times when he could no longer take their perpetual sameness, and commanded spirits to stand in the flames, where their filmy substance would catch on fire. They would light up a brilliant orange as the flames consumed them, disrupting the endless rolling flow of the blue women and filling his great hall with a sudden burst of heat and brilliance. He would see the orange flare reflected in the shining black columns of his great hall, and he would tilt his chin up and grin in gratitude for his long-awaited release, like an exhausted man falling to his knees after a long trial. The blaze only lasted a few seconds, though, before the spirit’s meager substance was consumed, leaving behind the tiniest dash of cinder. He took to commanding them to stand in a queue, stepping into the flames one after the other. They looked at him blankly, as they always did, staring at him with empty eyes as they were devoured by the fires. He had never heard any of them make a single sound. He didn’t know if they had the ability to speak, or even the desire. They probably lacked both.

Once he even commanded them to stand in twelve different lines, each leading to one of the huge lamps in his great hall. He bellowed that they would walk into the flames, one after the other, in perfect rhythm, causing all twelve lamps to flare up simultaneously, over and over again. When he felt the heat envelop him from all sides in wonderful bursts, saw the hall light up more brilliantly than he’d ever seen it before, saw the ancient shadows cleared away from between even the highest beams, like cobwebs being scoured away for the first time, he threw his head back and laughed. He laughed like a mad man, a huge, dry, scraping sound that made his whole chest heave as his head hung backwards, his eyes wide and fixed on the ceiling, his arms extended slightly to the sides as he turned his wrists and palms forward, opening himself. His wild, desperate laughing reverberated through the entire Underworld until his voice became a rasping of dry leaves and his lungs could billow no more.

Gasping, he lowered his eyes from the ceiling, numbly surveying the scene around him. The spirits were still walking into the flames one by one, their emotionless faces dissolving in front of him. His brow began to furrow and he started to realize that something may be wrong. He looked to his right and caught his reflection in one of the giant black columns of his hall as another orange burst filled the room with light. His eyes had grown accustomed to this new brightness, and now he could see the shadows that formed starkly against the places the light touched. His face, which appeared to him in the rhythm of the bursts, was half-illuminated and half in shadow. He saw his black curls, strangely disheveled, and the wild, desperate look in his cold blue eyes. He saw the glaze of sweat that had appeared on his arms and chest, which were left mostly exposed by his black silk robe, tied over one shoulder.

At first he did not recognize himself, and saw only a weak young man fraught with despair and anger. His eyes widened in horror as he realized what he had done. He was the King of the Underworld, these spirits were his subjects, but he was their steward. No one had told him that he was not to destroy them, but no one tells a boy shepherd not to murder his flocks. Hades opened his mouth to tell them to stop, but his voice was gone. His throat closed and his tongue grew huge and unwieldy in his mouth. Panic rose within him and his eyes started to cloud with tears. He grasped at his curls, trying to regain control. He was King. He closed his eyes and focused within, healing himself. He opened his eyes and cleared his throat. First the word came out as a croak, but as he repeated it his voice gained strength. “Stop!” he cried, “Stop, I said! All of you, stop!” The spirits froze and looked at him blankly, as always. One was frozen in mid-air as it ascended to the flame. “Return to your fields,” he commanded, his voice shaking slightly. “Leave me, go your way.” The spirits turned silently and glided out of the hall, leaving Hades to let out a shuddering breath, stagger to his bedchamber, and collapse on his bed, weeping silently before losing consciousness.

Since that day he had never again commanded a spirit to walk into the flames, though he would still occasionally have them lie beneath the dripping water to relieve his pounding ears. On this day, though, it wasn’t just the dripping that drove him mad. It was the darkness, the silence, the emptiness, the stale air, and most of all, the loneliness that made him grasp at his locks and flex his muscles against themselves in search of relief or pain. His only companions were his three-headed dog Cerberus, the grim boatman Charon, and his multitude of silent, dead minions. None were good for conversation. Hypnos and Thanatos, the twin brothers who dwelt on the other side of the Underworld, were often in the world above, and when below they avoided Hades as if he were diseased.

Thanatos, death personified, was sharp and cruel, his pointed nose giving him a slightly pinched look, his smirking mouth opening to reveal pointed teeth. Thanatos’ black eyes, full of a dark desire for pain and destruction, unnerved even Hades, whose own presence was terrifying to all humans and disturbing to most of the gods. The twin brothers were technically Hades’ subjects, as residents of the Underworld, but they rarely paid him any attention, and he didn’t bother commanding them. Thanatos served his purpose, spending most of his time weaving through battlefields and lingering in the corners of rooms of the dying, relishing in pain and fear wherever he could find it.

Hypnos, though less frightening and despicable than Thanatos, was a bigger problem. The steward of sleep, Hypnos was lazy, languid, and seductive. His eyes were always hooded, his mouth curled up at the sides in an ironic, unconcerned smile. The bed was his realm, and his lust was insatiable. He collected nymphs and maidens from the world above and brought them below, speaking to them slowly and sweetly, cradling them in his arms as they slept and woke together, lounging on mattresses of down, sinking blissfully into oblivion. He took his pleasure with them for a time, but when he grew tired with one, he would thrust her down into a sleep so deep that she never awoke. After a few weeks, the maidens decayed into spirits, and he usually woke them after that, casting them in among Hades’ other subjects. Once dead, they would not scream, or revile him, or curse his name, or beat at him with their white fists. They would simply glide along silently with the others.

The nymphs, however, were another story. Once they realized that they could never go above again, they would thrash and weep, and hurl things at his head. One of them had even found her way to Hades’ palace, to petition him to release her. She had wept before him, tearing at her hair, banging her head against his black marble floor, until he became so distressed that he stepped down from his throne to restrain her. He wept with her, explaining that it was law, and he could not release her. Once a living creature came below, they could not return again to earth. That was his sole purpose, as king; to uphold the law, and maintain the balance of life and death.

When she heard this, she begged to be returned to her deep sleep, so she would not have to pace the dark corridors and empty chambers of this cursed world for eternity, or however long it took for her kind to fade away. He granted her request; how could he refuse her? She was a creature of the world above; to force her to live down here with color in her cheeks would have been damnably cruel. Hades thought about forcing Hypnos to return her to sleep, but did not trust him to make it a peaceful one. Anyway, there was no power of the underworld that Hades himself did no possess, though he may not be as practiced in some areas as others. He decided to resolve the matter himself.

He led the nymph, whose name was Diaphona, to a private bedchamber, buried deep within the palace, where none would ever be able to find her. She climbed onto the bed, tears streaming silently down her face, knowing that relief to her misery was near. Hades spoke to her soothingly, promising her the sweetest of dreams, and placed his hand on her furrowed brow. She shuddered slightly at his touch, but closed her eyes at his instruction. He focused on keeping the flow of his power in control. The muscles of her face relaxed and her breathing slowed as he pushed her mind under with his open palm. Her face took on a look of peace as he unlocked the parts of her spirit that contained happiness, love, contentment, desire, and satisfaction. Her body he slowed to a phlegmatic pace; it’s natural processes would be nearly frozen for the rest of time. She would sleep soundly, and forever. None would be able to wake her. He slowly and gently removed his palm from her forehead, her slow, shallow breathing nearly inaudible even to him now. She was beautiful, especially now, at peace. He gazed at her for a few moments, then felt ashamed and turned away, slightly disgusted with himself. He walked quietly out the door and closed it behind him, then slid three heavy iron deadbolts into place, locking them with a large iron key that he kept on a chain underneath his robe. He did all of this slowly and with the greatest care, as if he were afraid the slightest noise would wake her, though he knew better than anyone that the not even the loudest clamoring would rouse her.

On the long, winding walk through dark passages back to his great hall, Hades’ anger for Hypnos swelled and simmered until it reached the point of combustion. He summoned Hypnos to his hall and unleashed his fury on the apathetic demi-god. At first Hypnos tried to make light of it all, dismissing Hades’ rantings as trivial matters made great, but the God of the Underworld would not be placated this time.

“I command you to bring no more female consorts down from the world above,” said Hades sternly. “It is not right to deceive them to their deaths, and not your place to decide their fates.”

“I suppose I may collect all the males I like, then?” replied Hypnos with a cocky wink.

“Do not mock me, Hypnos, and do not attempt to brush me aside. I am king of this world, and you will do as I command. You will bring no more living creatures down to my realm without my explicit permission.” The King’s eyes darkened, and Hypnos saw that he would not be able to charm his way out of this one.

“How dare you say it is not my right!” shouted Hypnos. “I am Sleep, I have the power to keep a colicky babe awake for days on end, and force the strongest man into unconsciousnes against his will! I am an Immortal! Why should I not have my choice of companions!”

“You may still have your choice of companions, however distasteful that choice may be, as long as you remain above. Your nights here must be spent alone, unless you can somehow convince one of the other immortals to share your bed with you, which is not likely.” Hades held back a smile at this statement, enjoying the shocked look on Hypnos’ face.

“How can you even think to reproach me for those I take, whom I merely put to sleep, when you are the King of the Underworld? How many souls do you take? How many, in one day, compared to how many I may take in a month or even a year? You’ve never condemned my brother for his dark works.”

Hades spoke slowly, deepening his voice, letting his words reverberate throughout the chamber and Hypnos’ skull. “Thanatos serves his purpose, and so do I. The balance of life and death must be maintained. We do our duties. You have taken liberties with yours. I have spoken. You may go.”

Hypnos clenched his jaw, knowing that he must obey. However long he had pretended that Hades was no matter, he knew the law. Even Zeus himself could not overturn Hades’ decrees. The worlds were divided; Hades had the ultimate authority here. “My Lord,” he said coldly, and with a stiff bow turned and left the hall.

When he had gone, Hades let out a long breath, amazed with himself. This was the first time he had truly exercised his power, especially over a subject so volatile as Hypnos. If there had been any question before about the health of the terms between he and the twins, there certainly wouldn’t be now. They would be his vassals, as they must, but they would take no joy in serving him, have no true loyalty. Perhaps in time he could win their respect, or even their admiration.
On that day, though, they still did not admire him, or respect him. He almost never saw them, and as far as he was concerned they may as well not exist. While I was singing and swimming with my companions, trying to contrive a way to slip from among them and be alone, he was trying to contrive a way to see a living face, any face. Trips to the surface were rare for him, for many reasons, but this time he resolved that he must venture above. He tried to think of some business he could use as an excuse, but suddenly grew indignant at the thought. Who had he to answer to? Was he not King? True, Zeus was ruler of the world above, and perhaps would expect to be asked or at least warned before Hades ventured into his territory, but what harm would it do? He was not planning to cause any trouble, or even let anyone know he was there. He would pass through the world as a shadow, and nothing would come of it, except a much-needed lightening of his mind. He commanded his ghostly servants to ready his chariot.

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