Richard Zwicker is an English teacher living in Vermont, USA, with his wife and beagle. His short stories have appeared in Penumbra, Perihelion Science Fiction, Mythic, and other semi-pro markets.
by Richard Zwicker
This is the city-state. Here Athenians, like all citizens, wrestle with time. You can weigh time down with actions, but then it will slip away even faster. You can grind it to a halt with thought, but tomorrow arrives just the same, while your thoughts slip away. The third option is to go about your business as best you can. Whatever you choose, occasionally time will toss you into the Augean stables before Hercules has cleaned them, and you’ll need help getting out. That’s where I come in. My name is Phokus. I wear a tunic.
I was sitting behind my detective stand in the Agora, hoping to drum up some business, but I encountered more peddlers than customers. Not wanting to completely waste my time, I pulled out a scroll and caught up on my Aristotle. The debate between who was better, Aristotle or Plato, raged on, but since my ex-wife left me for a Spartan, I’d had my fill of the Platonic.
A rough hand on my shoulder interrupted my reading. I looked up and recognized the bearded face of Neophytus. Once a muscular Eretrian slave, he won his freedom because after his owner died, nobody would take him. His name meant “newly planted,” but because of his weakness for wine, “newly potted” was more apt.
“Phokus, how is business?” he asked, bowing low and teetering. “Has someone hired you to find spelling mistakes in that scroll?”
“The road to the truth is lined with many sheets of papyrus,” I said, not eager to argue the relevance of “Posterior Analytics” with an ass like Neophytus. “What brings you to my humble detective stand?”
Neophytus frowned, the lines on his face screaming dissolution through his facial hair. “I was given a message for you of a personal nature, but out of consideration for your privacy, I put it in the back of my mind where I wouldn’t dwell on it.”
This statement made no sense unless one considered Neophytus’s priorities. I handed him three shekels.
He took them. “Money compromises us all.” He bowed again. “Your father is dying and wishes to see you at once.”
“My father died three years ago.”
“Not your stepfather. It was Spertias I spoke to, on the Hill of the Nymphs.”
Spertias and I had a distant relationship, largely because he had never admitted to being my father. My mother insisted there had been no one else at the time, and though they never married, I believed her. Spertias countered with puerile questions for me, such as, “How do you know? Were you there?” The man my mother eventually married became my father in every other way. What could Spertias possibly say to me now? Curiosity insisted I find out.
The Hill of the Nymphs was a short walk west of the Agora. I found Spertias lying supine, the slope placing his bald head higher than his dirty, sandaled feet. A bristly beard covered only a few of his many wrinkles.
“If you’re ill, shouldn’t you be at home?” I asked. Home for Spertias was a small room in the back of an inn.
“Why should I pay for the next month’s rent if I’m dying? Besides, the owner has been nagging me for the room.”
Knowing Spertias, the nagging was also for the back rent. “What’s wrong with you?”
He raised a fist. “I’m old! Life is a death sentence. But that’s all right. I look forward to the underworld. Quiet, no blinding sun in your eyes, no demands. If anyone asks me, What are you going to do for the rest of eternity? I can tell them, Nothing!” Despite the talk of death, his voice rang out strong as ever.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.
He laughed, his body shaking until he choked. “When it’s too late, you ask! You can have sexual congress with the Trojan Horse for all I care! May a splinter impale your manhood!”
The only time Spertias reached out to me was when he wanted something, but he always gift-wrapped it in abuse. I just had to wait him out. “Are you in any pain?”
His face softened. “It’s the old problem. I’ve never been able to balance my humors.”
I’d heard that lament before. With Spertias, choler had always crowded out the phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine. “So, if there’s nothing I can do…”
His hand shot out and clamped my ankle, like one of the mouths of Scylla. “Now that you mention it, there is. I’ll be gone in a day or two, but it gets cold at night. Athens is full of miscreants who don’t respect the dying. If you could just offer me some shelter for the short time I have left.” When I said nothing, he added, “I will admit there is a possibility that I am your father. And I would be happy to say that…” he waved his hand in the air… “all this will soon be yours. Except I don’t have anything, but don’t you always say it is the thought that counts?”
In my business, thoughts always counted. And though there was a time when I’d longed to know him better, now the thought of spending quality end time with my supposed father roiled my senses into a choleric soup. But eventually, I too would await my last stroll with Hermes. So I helped him walk to my home. Once we got going, I was surprised and a little alarmed to see a spring in his step.
Lodged in my home, Spertias made few demands on me, and each day I left for work he assured me he’d try to be dead by the time I got back. After three days, however, he seemed more robust than Zeus and Poseidon on a double date.
“This is infuriating,” he said as we sat my dinner table. “Is it possible Hermes doesn’t know where you live?”
“I’ve never known him to get lost.”
“The problem is the gods do what they want. What hope is there for people like me to be good when I have such flawed role models? Listen, I need you to throw me off a cliff.”
“I’ll pass on that,” I said.
“Where’s your filial devotion?”
“It doesn’t extend to patricide.”
Two more days passed, but Spertias didn’t. To express his disappointment in me, he started breaking cups and throwing pans on the floor. When people passed by my window, he yelled what an ungrateful son I was. In the interest of sanity, I decided to call his bluff… and took him to one.
I looked over the cliff to see a drop of fifty body lengths. There was no question that a fall would be fatal. But when push came to shove, I couldn’t do it, but I didn’t need to because, without warning, Spertias leaped over the edge. His wail shook my insides so much that I also fell, but backward, onto on the safe ground. He landed with a sickening thud. I lay still for a moment, then heard, “Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, that hurt!” I picked myself up and inched toward the edge of the cliff. Below, to my astonishment, I saw Spertias upright, jumping up and down in pain. Nobody could have survived that fall unless the gods had intervened. But who, and why?
I retreated down the path that circled the hill until I reached my father.
“This is outrageous!” he said, still hopping. “Hermes, the god of thieves, has stolen my death.”
“Why would he do that?”
“You’re a detective. Figure it out!”
“Are you hiring me? You don’t have any money.”
He shrugged. “I’ll owe it to you.”
I thought, you sure will. “Why do you want so badly to die?”
He frowned, then his mouth hung open. “I never had control of my life. Each day happened, and I reacted, ranted, made excuses. But I never initiated or even planned. Will you help me control my death?”
His sincerity made me feel sad. “I will try.”
Seeking the help of a specialist, I went to the temple of Apollo, where Dorkas, a seer, practiced her art. The line to see her stretched to the street.
It was a long wait.
When I stepped into Dorkas’s room, it was so dark that I could see little more than the outline of her robe. Pungent incense burned, making it hard to breathe.
“What would you ask Dorkas?” a voice like crackling fire asked.
“When will my father Spertias die?” I asked.
I was expecting an answer like On a day like any other or Not before or after his time. I received something quite different: “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? I thought the future was like a rolled-out scroll for you.”
“In most cases that is so, but no one has died in the past five days. It’s as if the underworld has been closed for remodeling.”
“That’s ridiculous. Nothing changes in the underworld.”
“I can tell you only what I see. If you think the line to talk to me is long, the line to the underworld is longer.”
“Can you tell me why?”
I saw a slight smile. “I can make up something.”
Hades was many things, but he was not a shirker of his duties. Nobody wanted to die, except my father, but if humans had suddenly become immortal, Greece would overpopulate and everyone would starve… and still not die. Then again, maybe we’d become like the gods and no longer need to eat, or do anything. I’d long believed that our responses to our limitations made us, in some respects, superior to the gods. What if those limitations vanished? There was no way I could reach Hades, but as it was summer, there was one goddess who might be able to explain what was happening: Persephone.
Athens had its own cult of Persephone. Its members spent most of their time talking to plants. I found its leader, a big bearded man with oppressive cheer, at Persephone’s temple. He greeted me with an embarrassing hug. When I gasped that I wanted to talk to Persephone, he said no one could do that directly, except Hades and Demeter, and him, of course. He’d be happy to forward my message. I told him I wanted to know why Hades wasn’t accepting anyone into the underworld.
His face creased. “Persephone doesn’t like to talk about the underworld during her months above ground.”
I grew impatient. “When Hades abducted her, her mother Demeter threatened to keep everything from growing until she was returned. Now nobody is dying. It could be just as catastrophic. Anything she knows would be appreciated.”
The man nodded. “I will ask.”
He appeared to go into a trance, which lasted for many drops of a water clock. He then smiled and said, “She says to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.”
When I returned home, Spertias was not happy with me. “You need to go to the source,” he said.
“I’ve done some work for Zeus, but I have no connections with Hades. No one does, until they die.”
“Then you need to go to the underworld and straighten this out.”
“You’re the one that wants to get there so bad. Why don’t you go?”
He thought. “I will… if you take me.” When I didn’t respond, he added, “If the situation was reversed, I’d do it for you.”
“You’ve never done ANYTHING for me!”
He shrugged. “The situation was never reversed.”
It never would be, but he was my father, and something had to be done.
“I will take you.”
Before I left, I had to tell Iola, a magistrate’s daughter I’d been spending time with since the dissolution of my marriage. As some of my past cases involved exposing corruption among Iola’s father’s peers, I wasn’t welcome in her house, and she being a woman, her father didn’t like me taking her out of that house, and certainly not into mine. He did let me sit next to her on their front steps, or bring her to the Agora. When I picked up Iola at her home, she looked stunning, her dark hair piled on her head, her supple body in a flowing white robe. That this vision of beauty was forced to spend most of her time hidden indoors infuriated me. As always, her father asked me what my intentions were. I told him to spend time with a young woman I cared about. He asked why I couldn’t spend that time in front of his eyes, which were blazing with such anger that I thought his body would explode. I told him walking was good for health. So was distance from his oppressive nurturing style, but I kept that to myself.
Once we had reached a safe distance from her home, I told her I was going to the underworld.
“Are you joking?” she asked.
“No. My father wishes to end his life, but something has happened to Hades. No one has died for five days.”
“Isn’t that good?”
“It’s hard to believe, but if no one dies, the world would overpopulate and starve. Also, do you know what Zeus and Chronos did to their fathers? Castrated and imprisoned them in Tartarus. That’s nothing compared to what I’ll do if I have to live with Spertias for the rest of eternity. I must take him to the underworld and solve the problem.”
“All right. I will go with you.”
I expected that. Iola was always brushing up against the restraints of Athenian society. For women, it was impossible not to.
“It’s too dangerous,” I said.
“Then it’s too dangerous for you,” she said. “What if you don’t come back?”
I didn’t want to think about that, which made me feel selfish. “Then you will meet someone else and make them very happy.”
“Is that what you want?”
“Of course not. But something is wrong. I can ignore it, or try to do something about it. Once you start ignoring things, you’re not really living.” I was interrupted by the rumbling of a speeding horse cart. I commented, “Someone is in a hurry.” The rumbling increased. “Maybe we should get off the street.” But before we could, the cart careened into view and right at us. Iola stood mesmerized. I pulled her away, but not fast enough. The cart, which appeared to be driverless, clipped us, throwing us both to the ground. Her scream has been drilled into my memory.
“Iola!” I yelled.
At first, she didn’t speak and I feared the worst. Miraculously, I seemed to be all right. I raced to Iola and put my hand over her heart. It still beat. I ran my hand over her forehead, not knowing what to do. There was no blood, but mine raced inside my body like a crazed prisoner demanding escape.
“What happened?” she asked, her eyes opening. Though sore, in a few moments, she was walking again. Thanks to the gods, we had escaped serious injury. We decided she would not tell her parents, as they would only blame me. I kissed her goodnight and promised I would do everything in my power to return.
Halfway home, I stopped in my tracks. No one was dying. What if we were meant to be killed in the accident? If I solved the problem in the underworld, would Iola and I die? I slept little that night.
Spertias and I couldn’t go to the underworld without help. The entrance was rumored to be in southern Greece, near Alepotrypa. To travel there by ourselves would be almost as dangerous as going through the caverns. I had done a favor for Zeus when he’d hired me to find out who had stolen fire. Though I’d never say it to him, he owed me. Just to be on the safe side, though, I figured I’d better do a sacrifice. I didn’t have a bull, but when I heard the runaway horse of the night before was going to be put to death, I convinced its owner to allow me to take care of it.
As we sacrificed the horse, I addressed the sky. “Zeus, for reasons we don’t understand, Hades has stopped accepting dead people into the underworld. This is not a good situation for anyone. We, your humble servants, wish to go to the source and see if we can fix things. Any help you can send our way would be appreciated.”
We waited, and soon an old man appeared. His white hair and beard were askew, and he was gasping.
“Hera was accusing me of seducing a young woman,” he said. “Despite my protestations of innocence, she refused to believe my lies. Your request came at an opportune time.”
“Can you tell us anything about our problem?” I asked, not interested in his Olympian love life.
“I try not to get involved in Hades’s affairs,” said Zeus. “He has his realm and I have mine. Still, this is unusual. I could send Hermes, but perhaps it would be better if you went first. Hades still hasn’t forgiven Hermes for delivering the message that Persephone must live on the surface nine months out of the year. The last I heard, Hades was transporting a particularly disagreeable person to Tartarus. That’s where I would look first.”
“Tartarus?” That was where the most evil people were punished for eternity. “How are we supposed to get there?”
Zeus smiled. Whenever anything good happens, they say, The gods smiled on you. But whenever I saw Zeus smile, I got nervous.
“I’ll point you in the right direction and protect you,” he said. “Take any short cuts that present themselves. If you solve the problem, I’ll reward you.”
The next thing we knew, the ground below us opened up and we fell into a dimly lit cavern, though what lit it, I had no idea.
I turned to Spertias. “Let’s walk.”
I liked walking because it gave you a sense of the land. If you encountered a hill, your legs felt the rise and fall. After half a day of it, however, I would have gladly sacrificed my knowledge of hills for the power of instant transportation. Another problem was the sameness of the terrain: paces and paces of cavern, about one and a half human lengths high, two lengths wide, carved into jagged rock. Spertias lagged behind me.
“Why didn’t Zeus just transport us to the underworld instead of to the entrance?” asked Spertias. “For that matter why is the underworld so far away? Everyone needs it. Why aren’t there branch locations? Underworld West?”
Before I could offer an answer, I heard footfalls in front of us. Someone was approaching. In the dim light a shaggy, bearded man appeared. His pace was deliberate, as one might expect coming from the underworld. As there was barely room for two people walking abreast, I moved to the left, but he went right through me.
“Who are you?” I asked.
He looked at us as if we were gadflies. “Orpheus,” he sneered.
“Orpheus?” repeated Spertias. “Where’s your lyre?”
“I like to travel light. Besides, everyone I encounter asks me to play a tune.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be leading Eurydice out?” I asked.
“She’s fallen behind. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“Is this the way to Tartarus?” I asked.
He laughed. “Keep walking. You can’t miss it.” He turned and marched away.
Spertias turned to me. “Didn’t Orpheus leave the underworld a long time ago?”
“If that was Orpheus, I’m Dionysus.”
“I wish you were. I could use a drink.”
We walked on. My ankles hurt from the rocky ground, but I kept placing one foot in front of the other. I had Spertias walk in front of me, and several times I bumped into him, causing us both to stagger, stare at each other, then resume our walk. My drowsy ambulation reminded me of how much I sleepwalked through life. I was roused by a scream, then Spertias leapt backward, crashing into me.
“What happened?” I asked.
“It’s only because of what didn’t happen that I’m able to tell you!” He pointed two paces ahead to a hole in the ground, about the length of a man in diameter.
“I thought you liked abysses.”
“Not if they don’t kill me.”
I picked up a rock and dropped it. We never heard it hit bottom. “This is the hole to Tartarus. You jump in and you’re there in a day or two.” As Spertias looked unimpressed, I added, “Zeus told us to take any shortcuts.”
Spertias shook his head. “A sign would be nice.”
Neither of us wanted to be the first to leap in, so we agreed to hold hands. I reminded Spertias that Hades was nothing if not just. Though we didn’t have an exit strategy, if he was in some kind of problem, and we helped, he would reward us. If he wasn’t, perhaps we could convince him of our good intentions. “If that doesn’t work, we have until people start dying again for us to figure something else out.” We approached the edge. “You’ve done this before. Any words of wisdom?”
He gazed over the hole and grimaced. “Don’t look before you leap.”
We stepped off the edge.
Falling into a nearly endless abyss can really focus your mind. After a while Spertias and I let go of each other. As our falls remained practically aligned, we could have pushed against each other and perhaps reached the side of the abyss, but there was no reason for that. We were far beyond the point of being able to climb out. As the air whizzed through our ears, I asked, “How are you holding up?”
I figured falling into an endless pit was an excellent time to ask the tough questions. “Why did you abandon me and my mother?”
Spertias looked as pensive as possible with his beard flying up in front of his face. “I wanted to do other things: travel, read, think, have fun. And I didn’t.”
“That’s all?” I asked.
“Life has a habit of slipping away. Don’t let it happen to you.”
As we plummeted, I wondered if I’d let it happen.
Time passed. I thought I saw the bottom of the abyss. I remembered how much pain Spertias had experienced when he jumped off the cliff, and his fall was nothing compared to what we were experiencing. Without warning, I felt something besides windburn. My body started tingling. My hands changed into claws and feathers sprouted. I transformed into a vulture! The same thing happened to Spertias. “Extend your wings!” I shouted. Awkwardly waving them, I halted my fall and slid down to a safe landing. Spertias did the same. Once we touched bottom, we reverted to human form. Spertias patted his body to make sure.
“I guess Zeus really is protecting us,” he said.
“Vultures are associated with Ares. My guess is we also have his blessing on this mission.”
Tartarus is not a pleasant place. Though not much darker or rockier than the cavern that leads to the underworld, it has a depressing population. We passed Tantalus reaching for a grape vine forever out of his grasp, and Ixion forever spinning on a flamed wheel. Tartarus was the one place the Cyclopes were forced to be a community, though all they could do was complain to each other.
“I wish I could help these poor souls,” said Spertias, fighting tears.
“It is not in our power or interest to thwart the will of the gods. We can only work within their dictates.”
With so many people in Tartarus and the light so poor, finding Hades wasn’t going to be easy. Other than him being tall, dark, and a god of few words, I didn’t know what he looked like. I asked among the prisoners, but all I got were stares, threats, and one suggestion that I go to the underworld. Spertias came up with the simple solution. Over the moans of the damned, he yelled Hades’ name. They quieted long enough for us to hear a voice say, “Over here!”
We headed in the direction of the voice until we came to a man chained to a rock. Around his arms and chest he wore barbed armor. On his head set a crown of five extended spikes. His eyes glowed blue, illuminating a trim, dark beard. A metal two-pronged staff lay just out of his reach.
“Are you Hades?” I asked.
He looked at me, then Spertias. “This is one time I’m unhappy to admit it. Did Zeus send you?”
“We are protected by him and Ares.”
“They don’t like coming here,” said Hades. “You are brave to make the journey.”
“We had no choice. No one on Earth is dying. How did you get chained to this rock?” I asked.
“Sisyphus!” He spat the word into three distinct syllables. “If anyone deserves a one-way ticket to Tartarus, it is he. But because he crossed Zeus, revealing the location of one of his women, I offered to handle his case personally.”
“So personally that you’re wearing his chains?” I asked.
Hades eyes dimmed. “I am unpracticed in the art of subterfuge. Sisyphus pretended the chains were insufficient to hold him. He asked me to demonstrate their reliability. I did.”
“How could you have fallen for that?” asked Spertias.
Hades shook his armored head. “Justice is blind.”
He asked if we had encountered anyone during our trip to Tartarus, and we described the arrogant shade who said he was Orpheus. That was Sisyphus.
“We need you to get back on the job,” said Spertias. “Maybe we can smash your chain with some rocks.”
“You can try, but I don’t know if it will work,” said Hades.
We did try, and it didn’t work. Hades suggested we use his staff to wedge off the clamp, but that didn’t work either.
“I’ve been here for an eternity, and I still haven’t figured out what that staff does,” said Hades. “I think the problem is we need someone to take my place.”
He looked at Spertias, who backed away. “Oh no. I wasn’t the greatest person in the world, but I don’t deserve to spend eternity in Tartarus.”
“It’s just until I can get Sisyphus back here,” said Hades.
“And how long would that take?” I asked.
“I won’t have an answer until I find him. But I have another idea. I could put Tantalus here. He would consider that a promotion. Unfortunately, I would still need you to take my place while I fetch him.”
Spertias shook his head. “I’ve seen the gods trick too many people.”
So had I, though Hades wasn’t one of the tricksters.
“I’ll do it,” I said. Hades told me to put my hand on the chain. It came alive, releasing the god and winding around my leg. Hades stood, towering over us.
“I am in your debt, though mine are gifts no one wants,” said Hades. “I will be back in a moment.”
It was a long moment, replete with Spertias insisting how touched he was by my gesture and insisting he would remain by my side for as long as it took. I was relieved when I saw Hades leading Tantalus toward us. After Hades released me and secured Tantalus, he looked at Spertias. “Now, I must get back to work. I see you are overdue.”
“Are you sure this is what you want?” I asked Spertias, as he prepared to leave his body.
“The past few weeks have, in a small way, compensated for my biggest regret: not spending more time with you,” he said. “I am ready to go.” He became a shade and drifted away.
I had more or less known Spertias was the man responsible for my life, but I didn’t feel the bond until he was gone. With my father dead and having no children myself, I was untethered.
“He will get out of Tartarus?” I asked.
“He will,” said Hades. “I will now send you back to the surface.”
“Yes, about that. I…” But Hades cut me off with a wave of his hand, and I appeared back in my homes in Athens, though that was not where I wanted to go. I had to find Iola.
I reached her house just in time to see Hermes enter.
“No!” I screamed. “Hades, how can you do this to me?” But I knew the answer. The gods could do anything except die, and all we could do was live. Though I’d said our limitations were an advantage, it didn’t feel that way when the end came, when all we had were tears. I threw open the door, ready to wrestle Hermes for Iola’s spirit, not caring if he took both of us. Instead, I saw Iola standing alive, grieving over the deceased body of her father. She didn’t notice me, but Hermes did.
He became the second god that week to smile at me. “Hades thanks you for freeing him and would like your help in locating Sisyphus,” he said.
“First things first,” I said, and focused on Iola.
Copyright 2018 by Richard Zwicker