The Labors

This story is paired with Chapter XII of Bulfinch’s Mythology. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 


I.
“The Lion”

O, ragged beast of glorious fame, foe of man’s intent and whim. On your hide I seek my name—destroy the beast no man can tame. You rule your realm with gore and grim, steeped in hunger, constrained by law writ in blood and tooth and claw. Woe betide an end so dim, for those who hear your roaring hymn.

In Nemea, up your craggy steppe I climb, where other sons have come before. They left their mothers, all who wept, knowing promises would not be kept of safe returns from primal wars. Their bones are hoar beneath my feet. Their kith and killer I’ve come to meet. To kill, my charge; to die is yours, the king that reigns with bloody mores.

Our battle brief, and now is done, this breath you draw is last; your ministrations overcome, your kind becomes oblivion. The die, too dire, is cast. No more fiends will scourge this hill; none shall live nor ever will. Here where men have all amassed, the time for beasts now has passed.

This king I slay; this one, obey. Such is the law of my land. I bless the shrine at Cleonae, and strive for home at break of day. I prayed that you would understand. For them, for all, your death’s a gift. I only hope your end came swift. Some men kill to take a stand; others kill upon command.

I wear your skin, all hide and sabers; you were the first of many labors

 

II.
“The Serpent”

It didn’t count. Or so he said. Eurystheus, the king. It didn’t matter, what I did. It wasn’t worth a mow of shit. That’s what the king said of it.

When Pausinias writes of you, son of Typhon, scourge of man,
he calls you insignificant. Of little or no consequence.
Trivial, niggling, paltry, trite;
“of
no
great
shakes.”
You were nothing but a worm; nothing but a snake.

They never saw your coiled bands worrying tumults of muscle and rage never saw nine fearsome mazards; never saw you as anything, ‘cept some “minor little hazard.”

It didn’t count—you didn’t count—you and I, monster, we didn’t count—because of him.
Iolaus.
Didn’t count that your violent caduceus rent my meat in twain.
Didn’t count that as I struck each cephalon two others took its place.
Didn’t count that poison-breath raped and cracked my splaying, bloodied nostrils as your forked tongue snaked across my face.

Didn’t count, didn’t matter; they only add to my disgrace.

Well—
if you didn’t count, vile worm, then neither do you, faithful friend. If it didn’t count, if it didn’t matter, then let not faithful yore record the good works of thy cautery, or the tender pull of your golden curls. If the day of battle is not chronicled, then let us also excuse the eves that came before, stolen nights by Amymonian springs, where, swollen with pride, you battered your eyelashes and implored with your ass. Faithful nephew, faithful friend, our labors go unrewarded, unrecorded; so let us not recall your arched back my turgid flesh the bloodstained ground beneath your red-burned flesh.

They have spoken, our betters, our masters—
we committed no sin.
Those restless nights under Lernean skies are nothing, now.

Eurystheus, and Pausinias, both of them agree:
None of it counts, no difference made, none of it mattered.
Thus some dreams become adjourned; others, shattered.

 

III.
“The Deer”

I want to dance in Arcady…
I want to run the verdant slopes of the Artemisius…
I want to wade, tumultuous and uncaring, through the Ladon…
I want to sing of Ceryneia…
I want to catch the golden hind…

*****

I see you. In my mind’s eye.
Golden haired and bronzed wing, I see you, and I watch
as you leap and fro,
your forelegs and muscular back arched in perfected orchestration.
You are the chase, the quest, my task and my labor,
and I perform willingly the orders of my fate.
I am sent to catch the hind; I need to catch the hind; it is my destiny to catch the hind.

I hope I never catch the hind.

*****

The land here is barren, these greasy-green gray mountains strewn with the ash of peerless nobility and good intentions. You rest beside a cool river bank, the stern, steel color of the water a stark and ill-mannered contrast to your lovely golden horns. You thirst; you thirst for relief, for replenishment, for release from the chase. You drink. I tremble for you.

*****

I want to run with you
run and feel caressing grass on bare foot and cloven hoof
the wind that whips our face and stings our smiles as we,
without care, chase endless suns of Arcadian days.

Tales of Arcady are verdant pastorals of golden bows and golden horns and curious, golden gods.

Tales of Arcady are languid murmurs of happy endings and moon-dipped eves and plaintive, starry sighs.

Tales of Arcady are no more

*****

The fields of this land are now polluted with man. The day has come when sustenance is not enough. The chase is not over; the chase is not yet begun. The spoils of victory are nothing but spoilt. If we cannot be a hind for wishing, we must be men for killing.

*****

I want to dance in Arcady, beautiful Arcady, boundless Arcady…

I want to dance now…
but have forgot how.

 

IV.
“The Boar”

Erymanthian Roast Pig (on a Spit)

You will need:
One large boar, skinned (600 minæ is optimum for a true feast)
250 cloves of garlic
100 medium onions
30 cotylæ of animal stock
40 minæ of pita, roughly chopped
40 cotylæ of rendered fat
2 choenix chopped apples and walnuts
Various herbs, in copious amounts
Salt and pepper to taste

A particular Saturnalian delicacy, Erymanthian roast pig is difficult to catch but surely worth the effort. One must begin by tracking down the beast, usually found on the wintry wildlands of Mount Erymanthus—though a summer boar could be salted and preserved, winter meat is considered heartier and more robust in flavor. The approved method of killing the animal is crushing in bare hands—this helps to tenderize the meat. A bow and arrow may be substituted for those with smaller grips. At least a dozen arrows are recommended; more, if the boar is blessed by a vengeful god.

Clean pig and dry. Cut slits into the skin and insert garlic (Thracian slaves are useful here.) Remove innards, grind, and combine pita, stock, apples, and walnuts into stuffing. Pack cavity with stuffing and stitch closed. Coat with pepper and herbs. Insert spit, and cook above roaring fire for seven to nine hours, turning frequently.

Olive tree makes for a good spit. It flavors the meat and stands up well to fire. Be sure to leaving an offering to Athena, or your feast may be cursed.

Serves up to 500.

Garnish with mint and other things.
Food for peasants, not for kings.

 

V.
“The Stables”

Greek men ponder many things;
Flight of fancy, life of mind.
The way of worlds; the ways of god,
Reveal themselves in their design.

Plato with his shrewd ideals
Learnt from clever Socrates.
Aristotle, a learned man,
Pondered life’s antipodes.

I, too, have often marveled,
Why things are, as they are.
Yet this stable stops my mind
From wond’ring how, or wand’ring far.

It’s hard to fathom life’s wonderment,
When standing waist-deep in fundament.

 

VI.
“The Birds”

For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

-“Easter Wings,” George Herbert

A
wan
moon
hangs in
the ill-lit
sky; a wispy tendril
of cloud sifts by; a tree stands
near a deep-wood pool; its virid water breathes lush
and cool; but lo, the birds, they clamor and peel; their wings
are silver, their beaks are steel; adorned with gold upon their crest, and stained with
crimson upon their breast. They feast upon the flesh of men; I cannot let this hap again.
Yet as one parts on selenian wing, I sigh;
I speak: “What a wondrous thing.”

my arrows shall be deathly wands;
time to employ the castanets of bronze.

VII.
“The Bull”

When, in Paleolithic times, as men worshipped aurochs, where at Lascaux they used ochre pigment to draw dusky silhouettes in earthen hues on the fire-licked walls of their cathedral homes, imbibing the beast with immortality as they themselves grew forgot in the hazy depths of time; and

when, near languid Tigris, where great Gilgamesh slew the Bull of Heaven, consort to Ereshkigal, defying the gods of man for man; and when the lunar bull, noble Seri, grazed on the wrought carnage of fallen cities, the rubble of the devastated fed the four gnawing stomachs of the angry god; and

when, at Apis, the theriomorphic god, embalmed in tana and linden leaves, preserved forever in the sands of time as the bones of poorer men ground to dust; and when Cuchulainn, of Gaelic song, or Saint Sernin of Toulouse, ran with bulls, Pomplona legend gave rise to remembrances of traditions long embraced; and

when from foam, Taurus rose from Mithran more, when syncresis ruled men’s minds, when Minos spared the sacred bull of the sea, and Pasiphae fell to its bovine charm; and when Cretan youth leap o’er the backs of Brahmin barbarity to prove their mettle to Cretan maids, then all delight in cloven rustic charms. But

when my father, in guise of bull, his intent only to play, seduced the maid Europa, he settled a continent to service his lust. And when Io in heifer form he took, (which Hera by gadfly sting delivered her anger,) the fate of all Greece is sewn. Reverence to wrath, temerity to tempest, he hath doomed us all by the rent of his animal intent.

Some feel taurii are beautiful. Know what I say? Bull.

 

VIII.
“The Horses”

Found outside the ruins of the palace at Mycenae, Section 22, Subsection 12, Grid 34-A:

one shard of pottery, 9 centimeters in height and 12.7 centimeters in width, depicting a scene of classical-era red-figure work, possibly belonging to the school of the Niobid painter, though inferior in craft, roughly dated 480 to 425 B.C.E.

The scene depicted:

On the right side of the shard, the figure of a high-borne woman, colored in terra cotta and washed in black. Her robes appear ceremonial, and her hair is plaited in an up-knot. She is standing with her posterior protruding well behind her. One hand covers her mouth in an impish gesture, while her eyes can only be described as flashing with girlish glee. To the left of her, the two-dimensional figure of a horse, with a braided mane, angry earthenware eyes, and an impossibly enlarged mouth full of sharp, needle-like teeth. The horse’s mouth is directed suggestively towards the woman’s posterior, as if to bite. Beneath them, and scattered all around, the partially devoured remains of a young man, as evidenced by the depiction of ravaged genitalia in the lower left quadrant and a skull remnant in the upper right quadrant.

At the bottom, in crisply printed Ionian characters: “Welcome to Bistonia.”

On the obverse side, more characters, crudely etched, which read:

“Dear Eurystheus:
The horses ate my charioteer.
Really—really—wish you were here.”

 

IX.
“The Woman”

 

She was my easiest labor, and
my hardest. Mistress mine, I splayed
rough tendrils of her unkempt hair
between my fingers as I sought
that which I had been sent
to seek, sent to uncover,
that which was
hidden deep beneath her skins and furs.
Like a dying oyster she opened
her heart to me, only too glad to be ravaged
ruined by my strong embrace.

I long to write of her golden lips,
lingering on mine as she
forgives me my sins
against her and her kind.

Hippolyta, queen of her people, queen of her kind,
untouched in her savage nobility.
How she longed for my civilization.
Voluptuary, flesh dirty and strong of scent,
when I loved her in the tangled grasses
of her steppe-strewn home she knew my
love was a lie. But it was well-spun,
and thus entangled, she, like Ariadne, allowed
herself to be taken into her own
deceitful web.

I will write an epode to her pallid skin;
a sonnet to her golden eyes;
a dirge to her bloodied hymen
and broken body. It was my
vow to her, to write, the only vow I intended
to keep, but I lack both reason
and temerity. If I were maker enough,
each muse would bless me in her turn, and I
could speak the mystery of her cheekbone or
the importance of her brow.
The words would pour from me, a libation on her
wounds, a salve for her broken nation that
lies dying at my feet.

I have destroyed her, with all the strength of my legend, and am glad of it.

I close my eyes and no sounds come,
no morpheme, no meaning.
Only the image of her,
tremulous and strong and defeated,
as tangible as sound, as resonant as sand.
She is forever inviting, forever beckoning,
the siren of my dreams, the banshee of my pre-waking moments.

I pledged to write of her. I ache to write of her.
I ache to show her broken reflection. But I cannot.
I am not maker. I am destroyer. That is my gift to her,
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons,
my only kept promise, and I must suffer now for what
I did, suffer what I set out to do.

I suffer for what I did destroy. I suffer gladly, and with great joy.

 

X.
“The Cattle”

Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta

If Krishna were my father, then I would be a herder, tending flocks by starlight. These irksome cows I would revere, with gladness and safe tidings. Many hands would make light the labors of my misspent youth; in this life, in the next, and the next, my godly sire would chronicle my sins and tasks, so that my works, my labors reincarnate, would never be forgot.

If Buddha were my father, then I would be a farmer, tilling warm earth on halcyon days. No killing would I do, in his name or in mine; the cattle would all be safe from me. I would spend my lazy days under the cooling shade of a bohdi tree, laboring towards nirvana; and this would be my task, lifelong and devout. And though it would remain my nature to disappoint, I would never be so told.

If Zarathustra were my father, then I would be a tanner, curing my wares in piss and toil. The fires I use to parch the hide would show me the divine; and I would labor to ignore my more destructive principles; strive to find Ahura Mazda, hegemon of my intent; good thoughts to good words to good deeds, good labors, grand sire to grandson.

If Jehovah were my father, then I would be a butcher, slaughter as my trade. The cattle would I slay in all manner befitting a member of my tribe. Reverent death, purified blood spilling onto promised land; my yarmulke spattered not with gore, but with labor and exertion, the sweat of a man at work. On Sabbath night, the family together, to murmur and to pray.

But I am son to mighty Zeus,
and so I am a bastard,
hated by the blood in my veins.
I am son of pedant gods
who inflict madness for trifling matters
and who revel in the roasted flesh of babes.
This is my offal; my offspring, my offering.
Worst of my labors, first to be foretold,
last to be forgot. Let not my twelve go unsolaced,
lest the next death be thy own.
Yet all gods must die, and all before
their time; though they struggle against
Titan and Tartarus’ hold, ‘tis heaven’s
most unyielding foe deigned to conquer
man’s greatest design. Your death marks not
the end of time; it marks not wailing.
Your death marks nothing at all, and will
remain unremarked. So say I, your son,
least of your kind, least of your killers.
You seek to punish me, but your
sentence only works to show me
that which you, in all your vain wisdom, do not understand:

Men make heroes to beget.
Men make gods to forget.

 

XI.
“The Apples”

I’ve wandered this world, dull and dreary;
I drove the vulture from his aerie,
And killed the gods of sea and shore.
Yet my eyes grow dim and bleary;
This labyrinth has happed too weary—
In it, I wander no more.

Atlas, your burden I do discharge;
Though your cross be grave and large,
I’ll take the world from thee.
Get thee to your golden barge;
Off to Hesperide.

Cross Poseidon’s watery realm,
Visit with your daughter;
With you astern the great ship’s helm,
She will be spared my slaughter.

Here, to peace, I’ll be forebound;
Torpescence is a blessing
To those in ichor drowned.

When life is labors to be unfurled,
‘Tis not wearisome to hold the world.

 

XII.
“The Hound”

i. “The River”

I wade through the blackwater.
Give my coin to the ferryman.
I say, “To Lethe, to Lethe,
to forget my care
and woe.”
“No, no,” he replies. “To the Styx
with you. To hell is where
you go.”

ii. “The Fields”

“Journeys end in lovers meeting, Every wise man’s son doth know.”
Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare

From outside I watch them.
Mother. Wife. Child. In the fields. They run.
In Elysium. They run.
They run with the
wind at their bare back in stinging naked feet and
the sun smiling on their faces run run from
nothing in particular just run run run as
if to run was to live again as if to run was life to run with
wind and sun and stinging naked feet and time,
friend and father, enemy no more.
Here they run, and dwell, and beam. Here in the light. Darkness is
friend only to Morpheus and Mnemosyne’s foe so
let them stay in the light, run in run to the light, the brilliant
and bright
Elysian light.

And so I stand, and watch. From the outside.
Looking on. Looking in.
Their faces radiate peace serenity calm as
the light beats down on them. But though I scan them closely—
though I look with demigodly eyes—I see no joy there. No
real happiness as it is known in the world
of men. Only calm serene empty faces as they run,
run, run pell-mell through the dandelioned fields
with stinging feet and sunny sun-licked sunburned brows.

I know well enough there is no joy here, not here,
not in this realm, not in these fields, not in
Elysium. There is no life. There is only reason, only calm, only a
facsimile of life. Here, there is only death. I know that as well as anyone.
I am master of death.

But for a moment, for the kindest of moments…I had forgot.

 

iii. “The Gate”

“Postern of Fate, the Desert gate, Disaster’s Cavern, Fort of Fear;
The Portal of Baghdad am I, and Doorway of Diarbekir.”
The Gates of Damascus, James Elroy Flecker

here is where my journey ends,
here where all men’s journeys end.
here where lovers come to part;
here where hell lies in the heart.

Beyond the gate, darkness reigns,
where cancer curdles in the brain
where torments drip in ceaseless flow
where all must come, and ever so
where faith is pustuled in a pool
where fate is ill and ever-cruel
where future dies, where dwells my past
where mortal cells begin to blast
where endless screams assail my mind
where devil rules, where god is blind
to all the grief that dwells within,
to all the sickness, and the sin,
where all are met with discipline,
and justly punished;
their cries resound, a hoary din,
only yet to scream again,
till they forget their mortal kin
and disregard they’re mortal men.

into this world, I must descend,
I wretch; I convulse; I try.
Beyond this gate, where shadows lie,
where strength and health all come to die,
where none who pass through dare defy
the god who lives to terrify—
here is where I must attend,
to draw my legend to an end.

Beyond this gate, here lies my fate;
my love flits there, as well my hate.
Beyond this gate, my task is won;
my journey over.

My labor done.


NBR4CorneliussmallMichael G. Cornelius is the author/editor of fifteen books, and has been a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and nominated for an Independent Press Award and an American Library Association award. His most recent works include The Snow Vampire (Dreamspinner Press, 2012) and the short story collection Tricks and Treats (MLR Press, 2012). He has also published short fiction in numerous journals, magazines, and anthologies, including Velvet Mafia, St. Sebastian Review, Icarus, Collective Fallout, The Spillway Review, Future Mysterious Anthology Magazine, The Brasilia Review, and others.