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.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Installment #5: Questions

When I reached our door, I hesitated, even though I had reassured myself over and over again on my journey home that Mother would help me. I took a deep breath and pushed the door slowly open, leaning my head over timidly to peer through the tiny opening I had created. Mother was cooking. Her large, gleaming kettle was suspended over the fire, which blazed endlessly at her command without demanding any physical care from her. It kept itself at the perfect height and temperature for cooking what my nose told me was roasted chicken, with rosemary and potatoes. She was pulling a perfect loaf of bread from the brick oven as I slipped through the door.

“There you are,” she said, “I was thinking of sending Mercury out to find you.”

I paled visibly at her suggestion and her eyes narrowed at me, suddenly playfully suspicious. “What have you been doing, Persephone?” she asked with mock distrust, “What is it this time? Did you steal apples? Frighten cows? Frighten humans?”

She always teased me for being overly concerned at causing trouble. The small crimes of my youth were trivial and silly to her, a fact that I sometimes resented. It was as if she considered me too weak, too shrinking to ever cause any real harm. I knew these feelings were unprovoked and without purpose, but they sometimes crossed my mind anyway. This time, I was not annoyed at her teasing, but relieved. She obviously had no idea what had happened in the creek today.

“I was in the barrel meadow with Kianis and Leta, I lost track of time. I was worried that you would be angry,” I said. It wasn’t a lie. I had been with them in the meadow today, and I had also been afraid of my mother’s anger. Still, it was the first time I’d told so much as a half-truth to my mother, and I was certain she would know immediately that I was being less than honest with her.

“I was beginning to grow a little concerned,” she said, “but I realize that you’re a young woman now, and old enough to go where you like at whatever hour you please. Besides, there are none with the power to harm you who would dare to do so,” she said nonchalantly, reassuring herself and placing her hand on my cheek briefly before taking the butter pot down from the shelf and setting it on the table next to the fresh clover honey. “Shall we have milk?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I replied, taking down the plates and arranging the table to my liking. “What did you do today?” I asked, eager to change the subject.

“I visited a region in the south. They’ve been having problems with pests, and their prayers have been ringing in my ears since last week. At first I thought it was part of a natural cycle, but it seems that the insect population has grown out of hand there because of some kind of oil the people have been using. They believed it would keep the pests away and so they spread it on their homes, possessions and bodies, even burning it in lamps throughout their fields, which, in itself caused numerous fires, but what they didn’t know is that it drove away a few kinds of larger bugs which eat the smaller ones, so the smaller ones no longer had an enemy to keep their numbers down…” my mother suddenly realized that I wasn’t listening anymore and trailed off her rambling. My mind had returned to worrying about how and when the gods would find out about my blasphemy. “Is something troubling you, my daughter?” she asked sincerely as she took the pot off its iron hook with her bare hands and placed it in the center of the table. For a moment I panicked, unsure of what I should tell her, then decided to go with another half-truth.

“Leta, Kianis and I quarreled today,” I said.

“Oh? What about?” she asked. I should have anticipated this question, but stupidly I had not thought of what I could say next. I had to think of something convincing enough to satisfy her and get her to drop the subject.

“We had a disagreement…” I began, knowing how vague I was being, “…about the humans.” I paused. I knew she would want more, and that my secretiveness would only make her pry more deeply, but I needed a moment to think. She looked at me expectantly for a moment, chewing her potatoes, then prodded me.

“And?” she asked hurriedly.

“And…?” I feigned confusion, buying time.

“And what about the humans did you disagree on? Did you reach an agreement?”

“Leta thought that the gods should only favor those who are young and strong and beautiful, whereas I thought they should favor all humans, regardless of their age or appearance or abilities.” The truth was slipping out of me bit by bit, and I knew that soon it would all come out. There was no fighting it; at least I was still fairly sure she would agree with me. I looked at her, anxious for her reply.

“Well, I agree with you in principle, dear,” she said kindly, “and I am proud to have such a compassionate daughter. But the gods cannot favor everyone, or else it would not be favor. It would just be sameness. Without trial, there is no joy. However, I do agree that the gods should not favor their subjects on the basis of superficial qualities. If there must be those who are favored, then they ought to be so because of virtue, goodness, and will, not because of beauty.”

I should have stopped there, with the matter resolved in my mother’s mind, but I felt the need to press her further. “But this idea, of favor bestowed on the basis of virtue, is not always in accord with the true actions of the gods, is it not so?” I asked urgently.

My mother’s face took on look of heaviness and worry, and her brow furrowed slightly. “No, I am afraid it is not. The gods do not always choose their heroes because of their virtue, but you cannot deny that those the gods favor are great men, who win great victories for their country and their gods.”

I still sensed a problem in her answer, but was afraid to pursue it. She did not say whether or not it was good to favor a man because of his strength, even though he may use that strength in cruel ways. I ate my chicken in silence, gnawing on a bone between my teeth and in my mind. This was the first time my mother’s answers had not satisfied me. I even began to think of where I could go to learn more about this problem, and look for a possible resolution. I certainly could not question one of the great gods about the problem, for it was they whom I was inherently criticizing. I could not go to a human, for even the most learned philosopher on earth knew only of human morality; how could a human be so bold as to pretend to know the reasons behind the workings and ways of the gods? There were others I could visit; demi-gods, muses, the fates perhaps… there were other immortals who knew many hidden things. I could not be certain, however, that they would answer my questions, or even be discrete about my inquiries. If I asked one who was too loyal to Olympus, they would report me directly to Zeus or Athena, and I could not even imagine what would happen then.

I was now picking my teeth with the end of a bone, and my mother scolded me. “By the gods themselves, Persephone!” she cried, scandalized. “Perhaps you have been observing the humans too closely!” We laughed as we cleared the plates and she broached the subject of my quarrel one last time.

“I’m sorry you had a disagreement with your friends,” she said, “And that it ended in anger. But one moment of discord should not be allowed to end years of harmony. Let a few days pass and then approach your friends to make amends. I’m sure they will be eager to reconcile with you.”

“Thank you, mother,” I said sincerely, then retreated to my small bedchamber, my mind still spinning with schemes to find answers.

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