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 08, 2006

Installment #6: Confidence

That night, Hades paced in his great hall. His mind was frantic, spinning with the knowledge of what he had done and what the consequences might be. He berated himself for his foolishness, his ineptitude, and his depravity. Why had he thought going to the surface would be harmless in the first place? Why had he allowed himself to become so distracted by the sensations of the world that he forgot to keep his wits about him? Why hadn’t he sensed her there? Why hadn’t he backed away as soon as he saw her? Her eyes had been opening by the time he escaped; the movement of her lashes, coupled with the quickened rhythm or her heartbeat as she realized she was not alone, were what had jolted him back to his senses. He had stood there, gazing at her like an idiot. He had been like a man struck dumb, hypnotized as if stricken with a curse. He flew from there as quickly and as silently as he could, but surely she had seen him. She must have. In any case, she had known that someone was there, that was certain, and if by some miracle she had not caught sight of him herself, she would find out who had dared intrude on her solitude. She was obviously a goddess, though Hades could not seem to place her face. He knew, or at least had met, all of the immortals, and it seemed impossible that he would forget her, since she appeared to be one of the more powerful goddesses. His inability to remember the Pantheon did not, however, surprise him in the least at this point. His stupidity could not possibly run to greater depths.

He continued to pace, now biting the ends of his fingers and knuckles as he wondered what would happen. Would he be called to Olympus, so that she could chastise him publicly? He would be fortunate indeed if that was all it came to. If only he could remember who she was, perhaps he could gauge how severe her wrath would be. Would she disfigure him? Curse him with an affliction? Cast him out from the society of the gods? That wouldn’t be so bad; he was practically cast out from their society anyway, hidden away down here in the depths. Even when he attended feasts or councils on Olympus, the only acknowledgement they deemed him worthy of was a collective sidelong glance, accompanied by the occasional upturned lip. This disgusting violation of his would only solidify his status as the dark, despicable, God of the Dead, only tolerated as a necessary evil. At least then they would have a real reason to revile him, and he would feel better knowing that their disdain was justified.

What pained him the most about the whole affair, though, was the act itself. He had violated her with his gaze, and he had no idea how much it may have made her suffer. Had she been fearful? Ashamed? Did she feel tainted? Abused? Injured? He couldn’t bear the thought that he had caused her grief and pain, and yet here he was, hiding in his caverns, hoping he would go undiscovered. Had he been noble, he would have revealed himself and apologized for his actions. He should have spoken up that very moment, instead of running away like a coward. And now he was still hiding, instead of actively trying to right the wrong he had committed. He was a King, and yet he was pacing in his hall, worrying over his fate like a treacherous weasel. “Arrgghhh…” he moaned, utterly disgusted with himself. How could he be the ruler of an entire dimension, one of the three most powerful gods in the universe, and completely lack any semblance of a backbone?

That was why he had been given the Underworld, the gloomiest, most despised of the three worlds. He had not fought for the earth or sea; he had lacked the ambition, the courage, and the strength to stand up to his brothers. Zeus, the golden hero with his bronze, sculpted body and blonde hair, had always been the best at everything. He could run for days with speed surpassed only by Mercury, hammer with strength matched only by Hephaestus, and shoot with aim that rivaled his daughter Athena. He was the Mightiest of them all, the Wielder of lightening bolts, and he had grabbed onto the earth with both hands. Zeus had never waited for anyone to give him anything; he took what he wanted.

Poseidon was more reserved than Zeus, but his power was almost just as strong. He kept his might within him, feeling no need for shows of bravado, as his cold eyes told all he encountered that he was not one to be trifled with. Poseidon commanded respect in his demeanor and admiration in his countenance. He spoke only when he felt the words were necessary, and did not mince them. Poseidon was usually quiet on the surface, but when his fury was unleashed there was no one who could appease or oppose him. It was understood that he would rule the sea.

That left the underworld to gloomy, withdrawn Hades. Any other god would have objected to being cast away into the darkness, far from the rest of the world, with only silent, empty shells for subjects. There was hardly anything to rule over. They could have set a scarecrow on his throne and no one would have known the difference. Ruling over the underworld was like being a shepherd of cut hay. He was worthless; that was why he had been given the underworld. It was the one job they knew he couldn’t fail at. And yet, somehow, he had failed already, hadn’t he? A shepherd of cut hay succeeds unless he burns the hay himself. Hades wondered if there had ever been any being, or ever would be a being, more incompetent than himself. And still, for all his supposed regret at being so inadequate, he was continuing to be so, hiding in his hole to avoid facing the superior being he had wronged.

“Arrghh!” he cried, his self-loathing becoming unbearable. He bit his knuckles, pulled at his hair, groaning in his hatred. “AGGGHHH!!!” he screamed, hurling himself at a column and punching it with all of his strength. He immediately regretted the gesture.

He grasped at his shattered hand, his mouth wide open, contorting in silent curses. He was bent over in pain, gasping slightly, when Hypnos appeared in the hall.

“What in the name of Hera are you doing?” he demanded, “I’m trying to sleep!”

“You’re always sleeping, Hypnos!” shouted Hades, with a surprising amount of bile.

“What did you do to your hand?” he asked, taking in the scene of the staggering King of the Underworld with amusement.

The look on Hades’ face grew even more pained. “I… I hit the column,” he said sheepishly.

Hypnos burst out laughing and doubled over, then collapsed on the floor, his whole body shaking with the force of his cackles.

“I’m glad to be of some use to someone,” muttered Hades, waiting for Hypnos to compose himself.

“Why…” gasped Hypnos, raising himself up slightly, “Why did you do that?”

Hades hesitated, not sure of what to tell him. For one thing, if he told Hypnos the truth, he would most likely burst out laughing again for another ten minutes, and then everything he said afterwards in explanation would become a jest as well. For another, he wasn’t eager to confess his crime to someone who hated him so much. “I was frustrated,” he said.

Hypnos continued to calm down and now seemed curious. “Frustrated with what?” he asked.

“Frustrated with myself,” said Hades, turning away, expecting another outburst of guffaws. To his surprise, Hypnos remained silent as Hades walked to the front of the hall and sat on the steps that led to his throne. Hades took the first joint of his index finger in his mouth and began to suck on it to ease the pain of the healing. Through the skin he could feel the bones rejoining and solidifying against his tongue. Hypnos followed him, and took a seat beside him on the stairs.

“What happened?” he asked.

Hades resisted the urge to respond with resentment, and tried to make his tone neutrally inquisitive. “Why does it matter to you?” he asked.

“I’m just curious,” replied Hypnos, “Can’t I be curious?”

“This is the first time you’ve taken interest in any of my affairs,” said Hades.

“This is the first time you’ve hit a column,” said Hypnos with a snicker. Hades cracked a small smile as he held the end of his second finger in between his teeth, pulling it straight. Perhaps Hypnos was genuinely interested in what had caused his outburst. In any case, he supposed it would do no harm to tell him. He would most likely find out soon enough, and it would be better to tell him directly than for him to hear another account of it.

“I went up to earth today,” he began.

“So what? I go up to earth every day,” said Hypnos.

“Every day you’re awake.”

“Marked,” he conceded, shrugging his eyebrows. Hades shrugged his as well.

“I don’t go often,” he continued. “My presence is more troublesome than yours is. Your duty is on earth, you are supposed to move through it. Your purpose is concerned with the living creatures.”

“And yours is not?”

“Thanatos fulfills the role of embodying death on earth, I am the king of those already dead. My place is here. My presence on earth is unnatural; it disturbs the living creatures.”

“Your presence on Olympus disturbs the other gods, but you still go there,” said Hypnos jovially.

“Thank you for reminding me, Hypnos, I had forgotten,” said Hades.

“By the sweetest nymphs of Crete, Hades, was that a jest?” asked Hypnos in mock astonishment.

Hades shrugged, now sucking on his third finger. “I can make jests,” he said, “With those who bother to speak with me.”

Hypnos rolled his eyes. “Stop feeling so damned sorry for yourself all the time,” he said in exasperation. “That’s why no one associates with you. You bring everything down.”

“Are you sure it’s not because I’m the fearsome and disturbing God of the Dead?” asked Hades.

“Well, that too,” said Hypnos. “But you have led me away from the subject at hand… what happened on the surface to cause such injury?”

“I was distracted by the activity on the surface…” said Hades, growing nervous about revealing his crime, “I did not have my wits about me as I should have.” He looked at Hypnos, trying to divine his thoughts. He looked only expectant.

“Well, go on,” he said impatiently.

“I did not sense her… or even see her. She was sitting so near the bank that it shielded her as I approached, and I didn’t even know she was there until I was right beside her…”

“What are you talking about, Hades? Did you kill someone on accident? Is that it?” asked Hypnos, looking annoyed.

“By the gods, no!” cried Hades, paling visibly. “No, no! No, I didn’t hurt anyone, blessed be.” Hades now saw that if Hypnos was disappointed by a confession of accidental murder, he would certain curse him when it came out that all he’d done was spy without permission. There was no turning around now, though. He’d have to go on. Better to have Hypnos think him a fool than have him assume he did something much worse.

“What then?” asked Hypnos, preparing for a let down.

“I… she was bathing… uncovered… and I looked upon her.”

Hypnos regarded him with disenchanted scorn.

“That’s all? You looked upon an uncovered maiden, and you feel the need to break your own hand.”

“I didn’t simply glance at her by accident, though I came upon her by accident, I… gazed at her for several moments… without announcing my presence or averting my eyes… her eyes were closed, she did not see me there… she was probably in the midst of expanding her spirit…”

“Hades, you disgust me,” said Hypnos flatly.

“I disgust myself.”

“No, you disgust me for the opposite reason you disgust yourself. You disgust me because you refuse to take any enjoyment in anything. You abhor pleasure. You revile happiness. You seem to consider the very act of feeling anything at all to be a horrible transgression.”

“I am the God of the Dead, Hypnos. Am I to be cheerful satyr, chasing nymphs and whistling tunes? My trade, my purpose, my art is death. I must respect my charge.”

“Sisyphus is more fun than you are.”

“It is not my job to be fun.”

“Oh, but if you had any feeling at all for those who must spend eternity in this hole with you, you would make a martyr of yourself and attempt it once in an age or so.”

“This is not relevant to what I was recounting to you.”

“It most certainly is. You catch a glimpse of one supple maiden… she was supple, wasn’t she? And rounded and plump?”

“Yes,” confirmed Hades, wincing at the stir within him the memory caused.

“So, you catch a glimpse of one supple maiden, in all her womanly attributes…”

“She was seated in the water,” corrected Hades, “and only the upper part of her garment was loosened.”

Hypnos’ eyes narrowed. “Half. You only saw half? You didn’t even see her-”

“Hypnos!” cried Hades, scandalized, and becoming angry. “Don’t speak of her as if she were a leg of lamb!”

“Oh, but they’re far more delicious than any leg of lamb I’ve ever tasted…”

Hades’ hand was fully healed now, and he was pressing his palms against his ears, resting his forehead on his knees. Hypnos looked over at him and elbowed him in the side.

“Really Hades, you must lighten up.”

“I’m the Lord of Darkness,” Hades said into his knees, his voice coming out muffled.

“Yes, and how fearsome you are,” said Hypnos, rolling his eyes.

“I think she was a goddess,” mumbled Hades.

At this, Hypnos woke up once more. “A goddess? Really? Which one?”

“I don’t know,” said Hades, raising his head. “I can’t place her. But she must have been. She was so beautiful… she radiated light… and I could sense her power, she was definitely an immortal. When I looked at her, it was as if I were seeing everything… as if she were all there is, all there ever will be, for the rest of eternity.”

“Hm. Maybe she was some kind of time goddess.”

“I don’t think so. She was pure beauty. She must be some sort of goddess of love… or art.”

“Aphrodite doesn’t tolerate rivals, or even apprentices and handmaidens who are too lovely. She couldn’t be a love goddess. Perhaps she was a muse.”

“She was more powerful than a muse.”

Hypnos thought for a moment. “I must know her. I know all the immortals… especially the beauties. What was her hair like?”

“Golden, and curled.”

“Eyes?”

“They were closed, remember?”

“Skin?”

“Alabaster.”

“Lips?”

“Full... sensual…”

“Did she have any beauty marks on her face or neck? Tiny moles?”

“A few… most noticeably a small brown one below and to the left of her left eye… do you really need to know all this?”

“You want to find out who she is, don’t you?”

“Only so I know to whom I may address my sincere apologies.”

“Is this another one of your jests?”

“No. No! That’s what I’ll do!” shouted Hades, beginning to conceive a way to resolve his fault. “I can make amends! I only need to find out who she is, and I can apologize to her! I can redeem myself! Maybe not fully, but partially at least. What’s truly important is that I ease whatever suffering she may be enduring by assuming total blame for the incident and assuring her that it was entirely accidental. Hypnos, please, tell me who she is.”

“I hate you,” said Hypnos flatly.

“I know,” said Hades regretfully.

“No!” barked Hypnos, “Don’t just accept things like that! By the gods, sometimes I think I would wring your neck if I could. You’re the king of an entire realm, you possess power beyond comprehension, and yet you always whine for scraps like a beaten dog. Don’t just take what is given you, stand up for yourself! Demand respect!”

Hades was silent for a moment, slightly shocked at his outburst. “A king must have sympathy for his subjects…”

“A king must be strong for his subjects. A king must be someone his subjects are proud to serve. A king cannot wilt at the first sign of resistance.”

“Perhaps you should be king, then.”

Hypnos paused before answering. “I lack certain attributes you possess,” he said finally, with a tone of sincerity and concession that surprised Hades.

“Power?” Hades asked.

“Concern,” said Hypnos quietly.

The two young immortals sat together stoically for a moment, gazing across the hall as the blue women danced on their pedestals.

“So,” said Hypnos, “if you aren’t going to feel right until you apologize, I suppose that’s what you must do. Go to her and offer recompense.”

“But how can I, when I don’t even know who she is?”

“You know her name, that’s enough.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Persephone,” said Hypnos simply, then rose and left the hall.

Hades sat for a moment, turning all of this over in his mind. “Persephone,” he said softly, then rose from the steps.

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