The gods of Greece and Rome are running out of places to hide. We learned the technology needed to launch us over mountains and slice through clouds. There were no gods to be found. We built telescopes to scour the earliest and furthest reaches of the cosmos in search of the rulers of the heaven and still we did not find them. Our modern world seems intent to move past the old gods but they are still around. They should have died long ago, but we still tell the stories.
Because they are different? Mysterious? Powerful? We have modern mythologies in aliens and superheroes that share the same characteristics. They're the new beings of the firmament. But still we tell the stories of heroes born of gods and gods born of Titans.
They're etched into our psyche: the seat of the mind and soul appropriately named after a Greek immortal. For it is within ourselves that we understand our link to these beings of old. Who are the Olympians if not the ultimate dysfunctional family? It is not any unknowable purpose that drives the actions of the gods. It's their passions and ambitions that lead to their loyalty or betrayal; their generosity or your domination.
If Zeus were to come down from Olympus and knock on your door, eager to compliment you on the captivating beauty of your daughter, the sinking of your heart into your stomach would not result from how different or powerful he is. Your despair and fear would come from how much you do understand him and his intention.
We share Hephaestus' sense of betrayal as his wife, Aphrodite, rejects his grotesque form and finds comfort in other men. Our spirits soar with Icarus on his man-made wings bound by wax, until he soars too close to the Sun god and we all fall to earth. We desire riches, yet fear the gods might grant us the Midas touch. We pity the injustice of Hercules being driven to kill his beloved family by a madness implanted by his step-mother Hera, and marvel as he tackles twelve impossible labors to atone for his crime.
We all have an Achilles heel, a Nemesis, and a Pandora's Box in our lives. We engage in Sisyphean tasks day in and day out, and sometimes indulge in a bit of Narcissism as we read the myths that tell us something about ourselves.
Heroes and gods live within us. It is the secret to their immortality.
Hercules placed his hands to his hips and struck a mighty pose at the sight of the fleeing wraiths. His roaring laughter boomed through the lingering fog that surrounded the River Styx. He swung his flaming club through the air, the fire blazing a brilliant arc of light as deadly as Zeus' thunderbolts in this shadowy realm.
The demigod snorted like the Minotaur himself and snuffed the club's flame. It had been a battle worthy of song, except that one of the wraiths had run off with his tunic. Unusual, but no matter. There was nothing lacking on his physique. Luckily, he'd found his coin satchel on the ground and picked it up wishing he had a tunic to tie it to. Charon carries no one to the land of the dead for free.
"Grand idea, Iolaus, to use fire!" Hercules called, assuming his comrade was still behind him. "Although, it was the same idea you had with the Hydra when you scorched its neck stumps to keep its heads from growing back. Inspired by Athena, that was! I'm sure you will make the proper sacrifice in her honor for using her idea twice. Otherwise she may turn you into something even more ugly. Ha!"
Hercules anticipated a quick-witted reply, but there was only silence. "Iolaus?" he said. "Iolaus!" There... rasping breaths, downriver. He ran towards the sound, and scooped his groaning comrade into his arms. "No," he said softly. "Iolaus."
The young man drew strength from his friend. "I have fallen, Hercules. Bested by a damned wraith. My eyes are drawn to the River Styx, not as a warrior by your side, but soon as a ghost."
Hercules ran a hand over his comrade and felt the deep gash below the ribs. Death would be slow to come. Painful.
"You owe me nothing," Iolaus said hoarsely. "It has been my honor to - " He gasped another breath, "... stand by your side through these many years of adventure."
Hercules felt a glow in his breaking heart. "I love you, Iolaus."
"And I, you."
Iolaus drooped in his comrade's arms like a cut flower that has grown too heavy for its stem. Hercules drew him close and gave him a kiss that would honor Aphrodite herself. Iolaus squirmed and pushed at the broad face until Hercules loosened his grip.
"What was that for?" Iolaus said.
"I was saying goodbye!"
"Why aren't you wearing your tunic?"
"A wraith took it."
Iolaus' look said he accepted his friend's words rather than believed him. "Why would a wraith take your - "
"I don't know!" Hercules interrupted. He placed his friend on the ground and looked down the river bank. He scratched the back of his head, then cleared his throat. "Well, Cerberus isn't going to capture himself." The labor had to be completed. Men died on quests. Gods endured. Ioalus would understand.
He leaned down and placed his hand on Iolaus' shoulder. "I will complete the task in your honor. When I return, I will burn a thousand sheep so the gods will remember your name."
"Or," Iolaus said, "maybe you could carry me back to a village that has a healer."
Hercules pursed his lips and shook his head. "It saddens me to see my companion ask the son of Zeus to turn away from a gods appointed task. And why? In the selfish hope of extending his mortal thread of life? For the sake of your memory, I vow never to retell this moment of weakness to anyone." He reached into his leather satchel and drew out two coins.
A look of cold realization fell across Iolaus' fading eyes. "Let no mortal trifle inconvenience the gods, right?" He strained to open his hand for the coins. "For the ferryman, dear friend?"
"Um, sure. Whatever you want to use it for," Hercules replied. "It's payment for your tunic."
# # # #
Hercules had followed the river for a day before he found the dilapidated dock. No Charon. No ferry. The wood was wet, rot-soaked, and twisted over the black waters. It would take him six bold strides to reach the signal bell at the end of the dock. His feet remained anchored to the shore, not trusting the slick, oily look of the warped wood to support his muscled frame. All that muscle, his mother reminded him, does not make a good swimmer. A shiver hammered down his spine as he imagined sinking fast and being stranded at the bottom of the dark waters. Water alone was bad enough, but this was the River Styx. How long could he hold his breath? For a while at least, since he had not taken a breath since seeing the dock.
He bellowed a challenge across the dark waters for the ferryman to dare delay the son of Zeus. The mist over the river hid the ferryman's reply. The demigod had no choice. He sat, waited, and looked to the sky for any break in the clouds.
When was the last time he had seen the sun? The dusty grey hue from the sky could barely be called light. A quick wind carried a mist from the river over him, but the higher clouds did not move at all. He looked back to the river.
There! A point of light on the water, diffused in the fog. Charon was coming. Hercules' twelfth, and hopefully last, labor for King Eurystheus would continue. Another chance to prove he belonged among the pantheon of immortals. All he had to do was pull the guardian of the gates of the underworld, Cerberus, the three-headed dog, back to Mycenae and it would be done. He opened his mouth to boast of his enthusiasm for the challenge ahead, but remembered he was alone.
Hercules looked down and admired his flexed biceps. His club would be of no use; the beast must be alive for Eurystheus to consider the task complete. He would not have another labor judged a failure by the mad king. This time he was dropping the unearthly beast at the King's feet and would not remove it until he acknowledged the task complete. It was Iolaus' idea; a suggestion made after Hercules despaired to his friend that his labors, his heroism, might never be acknowledged. His true fear was that the labors would end before he had a chance to prove himself to the gods.
His gaze fell on the tattoo on his right shoulder. An unfortunate choice for a permanent marking. The result of an unfortunate week of celebration after his glorious capture of the Cretan bull. The tattoo artist had stylized the wrestling match between Hercules and the obviously male bovine, making the image of a naked man tangling with a bull open to interpretation.
Charon's lamp clanked against the post. The ferry breached the mist and scoured the wet wood as it rubbed up against the dock. Hercules pulled two coins from the satchel tied to his new tunic and wondered how the tattooist had paid the Ferryman without his arms.
Peering gingerly over the water's edge, he placed a tentative foot on the dock, unable to tell how quickly the depth fell. A creak from the soft boards and he yanked his foot back to solid ground. There'd be no comrade to pull him out if the dock failed him and he sank into the dark water.
Quiet footfalls approached from behind. More wraiths? He spun, prepared to attack.
"Hey," a dead and naked Iolaus said. His blanched complexion was soon matched by Hercules'. "I guess we're taking the same boat after all."
# # # #
Both men sat on the starboard side, making the boat list, each staring at the empty wooden bench on the opposite side. The ferry crashed over some rapids, and Hercules' grip bored holes into their bench as a wave sent chilling water across his back. Charon's pole pushed off a rocky outcropping that mined the river, and both men turned to the watch the boatman's dexterity as he navigated through the maze of rocks and rough waters. Before long, the rocks began to recede. Each man continued his awkward silence.
Finally, Iolaus sighed. Hercules rolled his eyes, since any form of breathing by Iolaus was now purely for dramatic effect.
Hercules cleared his throat. "You look pretty good," he lied. "I thought you'd be more, um, spirit-like, but you've got your body and everything."
"My body's still back there. I guess spirits are just as real as the living down here."
"You misunderstood my embrace."
"It's no problem."
"Right. It's no problem. It didn't mean anything. You were dying. I was upset. I meant to lift you, but with my strength and in your frail state, you couldn't help but be flung over onto my face."
"That's not how I remem - " Iolaus stopped and threw up his hands. "You're worried about kissing me? You stole my tunic and left me to die!"
"Stole? I paid you for it!"
"It wasn't even your money! Eurythemus gave you the coins for the ferryman!" Iolaus said, thrusting a finger at Charon. "You never lose anything!" Iolaus said, head down with fist rapping the bench. "Only the people around you do."
Hercules spun to the other side of the boat and re-established his crushing grip on the port bench. Charon moved his pole to compensate for the shift in weight. "I thought you, of all people, would understood why I have to do this. The gods want me to suffer and they care little for the plights of mortals. Your death was... " he paused before continuing, "... probably just a test for me."
Iolaus sat quietly for a moment. "I had a wife, you know. My life was important. It should come to more than this."
"I know," Hercules whispered. His comrade looked as if he lacked the strength to look at anything but the scuffed deck. "Don't worry about Megara," he added. "She has many years of beauty ahead of her and robust hips. She'll find a man to care for her in no time."
Iolaus dropped his head further into his hands and groaned. More dramatic air, Hercules thought, but then wondered if his words had not carried the comfort he'd intended. Hercules dared to look over the side of the boat. The rocks at the edge of the mist and grew tall, clamoring to meet what was looking less like dark frozen clouds and more like the ceiling of a cavern. He rejoined Iolaus on the bench and placed wrapped an arm around him. The feel of chilled skin shook him, but he held firm. "You are my best friend, Iolaus. You've helped me through many dangers. Let me help you through this."
Iolaus leaned on his friend and wept. Hercules embraced him and retold the glorious stories he'd heard about the Elysium Fields. "You will rest as a hero among heroes for the remainder of days."
"Do you think so?" Iolaus replied with a wisp of hope in his voice. "But, Hades gets to decide if I can go there, right? I mean, I died trying to steal his dog."
"Do you think he'll be mad?"
"Nah... No way. I guess, maybe, probably."
Iolaus lowered his head back into his hands.
Hercules raised his fist into the air and proclaimed, "I'll sacrifice ten thousand bulls to Hades to - "
"You're not the only one," Hercules said quietly.
Iolaus lifted his head. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about sitting on this gods-forsaken ferry with my dearest friend dead in this gods-forsaken corner of the world to perform my twelfth task for an insane king because the gods say so!" Hercules' gaze focused on Iolaus. "Didn't you ever wonder why the tasks didn't stop after ten?"
Iolaus nodded. "You didn't seem to want to talk about it."
"The Hydra," Hercules started. "It didn't count. The gods felt the victory was yours not mine... and the Augean stables. Your idea to break the dam to wash the stables out. I wouldn't go near the water. All I did was throw the boulder. The gods gave me no credit."
"But what about the Cretan bull, the Nemean lion? You held the Pillars of Heaven on your shoulders! A task assigned to a Titan! You got no credit?"
The bench further crumbled under Hercules' grip. "What glory is there in doing a task that requires strength if you are the strongest of all? You might as well give a bird credit for flying." He lifted his head to look at the sky, but it was gone. There was only the cavern and the river. "The Hydra and the stables required more than strength. I needed your aid. When strength was irrelevant, I accomplished nothing without you. Now I am to wrestle a soul-eating dog, and drag it onto this boat and back to the surface. Will I fail? No. I am stronger than any beast. Will the gods be impressed and think of me as anything more than a bastard? I doubt it. I did the same thing when we dragged Minos' bull onto the boat from Crete. It wasn't heroic enough for the gods then, and it won't be this time either." There was silence between them for a moment before he added, "Who'd want to spend eternity with a god that'd wet his tunic at the thought of swimming if not for his fear of water?"
"Yeah," Iolaus said, then quickly added, "About the first part. You know what I mean." A question rose in his eyes. "Do you think the gods sent the wraiths to kill me so that you'd have to complete this task on your own?"
Hercules closed his eyes and nodded. "I guess they didn't consider your life insignificant after all."
# # # #
The ferry thudded against the dock. Hercules stood up, caught his balance and clapped his hands in a thunderous echo. "Enough talk of self-pity, Iolaus! We've stared into death's eyes countless times and laughed. Why should it be so different now that you are facing death from the other side? Stand with me. Let's finish this task together."
"What do you mean?"
"We are here to steal Cerberus and take him back to the surface. You, obviously, cannot come back, but you can march at my side into the depths of hell and the underworld will shiver at the havoc wrought by Hercules and Iolaus!"
"You don't think I'd get in more trouble?"
"Actually, I think you couldn't get into more trouble, so why not?" He slapped Iolaus on the back. "Let's show the gods that they messed with the wrong mortal. Ha! I'm feeling better already."
Iolaus stayed on the bench. "What if the gods decide you don't deserve the credit because you brought me again? I mean, we're in hell, right now. It doesn't get worse or tougher than this. There won't be a labor after this that could prove your worth to the gods."
Hercules spat. "I'd risk an eternity in heaven with gods who think nothing of me for the chance to fight at your side in the darkest pit of hell." He again struck his mighty pose. "Now, Iolaus, what will it be? Fade to shadow or tear a swath through the underworld like Apollo through the morning sky?"
Iolaus pondered this for a moment. "I'm with you." He stood to embrace his friend. "And you have my word that the Gods will see your bravery and strength tested like never before. They will be in awe of you during this battle, I promise," he smiled. "But there is one condition: I do not want to spend eternity naked. You have to give me my tunic back."
# # # #
"If I had your body I'd want to cover it up too. Ha! Take the tunic, for pity's sake. No point in making hell worse for anyone who'd have to look at you!" Hercules tossed the tunic and clenched the side of the ferry as he stepped off, crawling along the rotting dock to shore. Before him, the path into the underworld, to Cerberus, where Iolaus and Hercules will part ways for the last time. Hercules stood up and Iolaus hopped off the dock, whistling while he tied his tunic.
"Don't go anywhere, Charon," Hercules yelled. "I'll be back soon."
Iolaus stood at the water's edge and watched his naked friend walk ahead. He chuckled at the laughs they'd shared, usually at each other's expense. This time, he'd get the last laugh, but he was sure Hercules would understand that what he was about to do was meant to help. Hercules was facing away, walking down the path as Iolaus untied the coin satchel from the tunic and dangled it in the air. Charon's greedy eyes locked on it as Iolaus smiled and hurled the satchel into the deep water. Charon snarled and struck the water with his pole, thrusting his ferry back into the mist. He wouldn't be back without payment.
No better way to show your bravery than to face your greatest fear. Wrestling Cerberus through the River Styx with no boat would be as tough a labor as anyone could imagine, but he knew Hercules would prevail. "You better hope that dog can swim, you water-fearing centaur's ass," Iolaus whispered, grinning as he caught up to his friend, surprising him with a cold slap to the hero's naked backside as they departed on their last adventure together.
* * * *
Based in Ottawa, Canada, Kevin Quirt writes speculative fiction in between the learning experiences provided by his three children. A psychology major with an interest in myth and symbols, Kevin's fascination with the human experience is explored using fantastic circumstances. His work has recently appeared in the Spirit Legends: Of Ghosts and Gods anthology.
Penumbra's next issue will be released on July 1, 2012.