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Gray-eyed Athena hurried along the corridors of heaven, searching for her half-brother, the quicksilver boy-god. Eventually, she found him in a rarely used chamber, disporting with a quartet of particularly attractive cherubim.
“Hermes, I need you,” she announced, glancing around the room disapprovingly. “I’m afraid you will have to ask your little darlings to leave.”
After the cherubim had fluttered away, the gleaming god, always ready for a clever quip, smiled winsomely and said, “Ah, sis, such a sense of timing you have. You could chill a bonfire. Were it up to you, we’d be total Touch-Me-Nots, like sourpuss Artemis, in her gothic nonsexuality. Phooey! I say bring on Aphrodite, with all her joy juices flowing! And bring on lusty Ares too, and . . . let me watch!”
The Far-Seeing One frowned a little, but she smiled too, knowing full well how Hermes loved to tease. “Oh, you would like that, wouldn’t you? Exaggerator! Mischief-maker! Anything to keep that silly glistening roger of yours at full staff!”
“Sister!” he cried. “Now you shock me!”
Athena blushed momentarily, then quickly got down to the business at hand. “On your feet, you wastrel. There’s work to be done.”
“What’s up, Ath?” he inquired. “I ask, because it certainly isn’t me.”
“Oh, shut up. Can’t you stop your wisecracks for even a minute?”
“A crack is a crack,” Hermes observed philosophically. “Just how wise it may be, I can’t say. Probably not very wise at all, in my experience.”
“Hush now, and listen,” Athena commanded. “It’s Odd again. And it’s time for his homecoming, just as the Fates ordained. What a relief it must be for the poor man. It’s also the endgame of his story.”
Hermes grinned with relish, saying, “And that means it’s also going to be blood-bath time for the suitors, right?”
Athena ignored the last comment, and pressed on with her instructions. “Now, dear little brother, here’s the thing. As usual, Odd is going to need all the help he can get. When you count up his personal allies, there aren’t many. Telly, yes, and Pismo, old Larrix, and a few rustic servants here and there. Add one or two uncorrupted women, and that’s about it. As things are right now, they are badly outnumbered by the suitors, you see.”
“And what can I possibly do about that?” asked the boy-god, warily. “Because, my dear Athena, I get the distinct impression that you are going to ask me to do some-thing. Even you wouldn’t interrupt my, um, favorite hobby just for the perverse fun of it.”
“You suppose correctly,” his big sister replied, with lips pursed. “Hobby, indeed! Well, pay attention now. We both know that Odd can be crafty enough. He’s a clever enough tactician, no problem there. But what can we do to even up the numbers a little? Specifically, Hermes dearest, what can you do to help –”
“-- Make things easier for the good guys?” He finished her sentence for her. “Come, come, Athena. We are gods, remember? We can do anything!”
But the Gray-Eyed One shook her head. “Technically, that may be so most of the time,” she responded, thoughtfully, “but there are some glaring exceptions. Even we face limitations. We can’t countermand any decision made by the Fates, for instance. That’s completely out of bounds. And, although we can change form, we can’t change sub-stance – that’s beyond us. Like when Circe converted the mariners into pigs, their forms were changed but not their substance. They looked like pigs, smelled like pigs, behaved as pigs do, but they still had the minds and personalities of men.”
At that, the goddess held up her hand. “Which brings up another thing, by the way. We can’t use our powers to willfully increase morality in men. Or diminish it either, for that matter. That’s another no-no.”
“Boring, but true,” Hermes admitted.
“Now here is where it gets a little problematic for poor Odd,” Athena continued. “The Fates have allowed that he will indeed return to his home. Eventually. But there is a tricky part: they made no comment as to whether or not he would actually be victor-ious. That’s the fine print in their contract. So you see, he could possibly fail in his battle with the suitors. Wouldn’t that be a tragedy, after all he has suffered through, and survived? There could be a bloodbath all right, but with the wrong side doing all the bleeding.”
She set her face in a purposeful expression. “So, my dear little bro, I am asking you what you might have in your almighty arsenal that could –”
“My almighty arsenal? Oh Athena, I won’t even touch that!”
“I was going to say,” responded the goddess, with lips in a thin, tight smile, “what might you have in your repertoire of herbs that could be of help to Odd and his allies? Something like moly, perhaps?”
Hermes pondered. “Moly, maybe. Hmm. Well, holy moly wouldn’t be of much help there,” the silvery god pointed out. “Besides, it’s potentially lethal in the wrong hands. Anyway, they would need something that makes magic, not cancels it. Hmm. Hmm. Well . . . there’s goatweed, of course.”
“Goatweed,” the goddess reflected. “Oh, I like the sound of that. Very down-to-earth. What does it do, exactly?”
“Big sis, you just leave that to me,” Hermes replied, grinning slyly. “It might be worth a try. At the very least, it’ll make for some happy goats.”
Helios was beginning his descent into the western sea behind Mt. Neriton, when Alma reached the wilderness tableland that was home to her former king. She paused for a moment to enjoy the view down island, then resumed her trudging way along the path. “He’ll like the offerings today,” she thought.
Larrix was particularly fond of freshly-baked bread. There were several loaves, quite generous in size, that she was carrying in her basket. Queen Amaryllis had also included several jars of dainty favors from the royal kitchens, to go along with the other lovingly prepared dishes expressly made for her aged father-in-law.
As for Alma, her trips up the mountain, strenuous as they were, were something she looked forward to with a growing interest. They were not only a reprieve from the oppressive atmosphere of the palace, nor were they a mere revisiting of her country roots, however brief. No, she was coming to realize, more and more, that it was the company of the elderly king himself that gave her spirits such a boost.
And as for the emeritus king, he appeared to enjoy an easy communication with her, more or less as equals, she considered. “Something like a simple relationship between a rustic old philosopher and an attentive younger woman,” she dared to believe.
But then she scoffed. “Not all that much younger, dearie,” she thought, scolding herself for a fool. During her moments of introspection, the nurse tended to fall back on the idioms and accents of her youth, as if her forty years of palace service had melted away. “You’ve suckled his child and grand-child both, silly woman. And now you’ve got the tits like muskmelons in a sack, and a great looming arse on yourself. Younger woman, indeed!”
She tottered on, shaking her head scornfully at her own absurd notions. “What a daft folly, Alma.”
It was just at that moment that a silvery flash dazzled her line of sight. Helios was now setting behind a stand of tall trees, and the flash was only momentary. It registered only briefly on Alma’s consciousness, but it was enough to slow her progress. To a stand-still. She stopped and blinked to clear her vision, and it was just then that she spied something she had not seen in a great long time.
“Goatweed,” she remarked, in fond surprise. “Bonny goatweed. Bunches of it, growing here and there! ‘Tis been bloody ages, it has.” Happily, she bent and plucked a few handfuls of sprigs from the plants. She inserted them into the gaps in the weave of her basket, and, feeling considerably more light-footed already, she proceeded on her way.
When she at last caught sight of him, Larrix was tending the open fire that he kept burning at all hours of the night and day. “Greetings, good nurse,” he called out. “A pleasure to see you. Come and sit here, and share this roasting leg of lamb with me. It’s about done to a turn.”
“And I,” she replied, laughing inwardly at her own naughty self. “And I, dear king, have the buns to go with it.”
Upon examining the gifts of food in her basket, the old king smiled broadly, his noble brown face crinkling into a mask of joy. He took out each sample of bread or sweetmeat, and appreciated it in turn. “Thank the gods, and thank the queen as well,” he said. “And thank you too, dear nurse, for coming all this way to be here with an old man. Yes, an old man, but one who is thankful for your company and warm heart. Come, Alma, give me a hug!”
After she had done so, they sat down together on their familiar log, and feasted on the food at hand. She reported the news of Telly’s return, and of how the populace had received him cheeringly, with open arms. “Yes, majesty, and his friend, young Prince Pismo too. He seems to despise the suitors just as much as our own prince does. The sad part, though, is that Telly was unable to find any clear evidence of King Odd’s survival. It’s all still a teeter-totter, majesty. A maybe yes, a maybe no.”
Larrix made no comment, but crouched in silence, peering distractedly into the fire. She stooped to move her basket out of the way, to make the area around the campfire more presentable. He then noticed the sprigs of greenery stuck into the weave.
“Say now, Alma,” he said, intending it as a joke. “Did you bring a salad too? Nothing like a balanced meal, eh?”
Now she was slightly embarrassed. “Och, no, your majesty. ‘Tis only a sprig or two of goatweed. It’s not for the eating, really, although the goats would certainly like to do so. Then you and I could watch them kick up their heels, and misbehave in all sorts of ways. For humans ‘tis a bit different, sire.”
Larrix sat back and held up his hand to still her. “Now, Alma,” he declared. “If we are to be friends, you must stop calling me ‘sire’, and ‘majesty’, and all the rest of it. It’s been years since I was king. Many years. But I’m not a king any more, to be sure. I put all that aside, and never looked back. I’m just Larrix now. Larrix the shepherd, or the cattle drover, or whatever. Or the goatherd, even – because I have a few of those too. And speaking of which, you say they like this herb, the goats do?”
“Oh yes, sire,” she answered. “Larrix, I mean. The goats love the goatweed, they do. But it’s a shame to waste it on them, sire. Because it’s jolly good for people too. Even better, in fact.”
“Hmm? How so?”
“Well, when I was a girl, the shepherd boys and I used to burn it, and breathe in its vapors. It made us giggle, it did. Funny thoughts came our way. It was something like drinking a whole skin of wine, sire, but without the stupidness, or the falling down drunkenness. Or the aching head later. Oh yes, we had many a good laugh from the goatweed, we did.”
The old king’s face took on an interested look. “Well, I rather think I’d like to do that -- have a good laugh with you, Alma.”
“Aye,” she responded. “If you like, we can try with this very sample. We can
throw it on a hot rock from the fire, and you’ll see for yourself. It’s still green, so it will give off a great scad of smoke. Now I haven’t even seen goatweed in many years. Cer-tainly never noticed it growing about the palace. Maybe it’s only for the higher alti-tudes. It’s surprised I am that the goats didn’t get to it first.
“I will say this, though,” and her face grew sober. “I’ve heard that for some it can be more serious. Very like the Oracle at Delphi, it can be. Instead of the giggles, you might get the second sight, sire – I mean, my lord Larrix. Aye, ‘tis been known to pro-duce waking dreams of prophecy. Visions. Sometimes ominous things. It may bring on a god, sire. Or even the Furies themselves.”
Larrix poked a stick into the fire, and watched it flare up in sparks. His eyes gleamed. “You don’t say,” he softly spoke . . .
Goatweed fumes rose heavenward through the trees in gray-green streamers. They had a pungent odor, not unlike that of goats themselves. But there was an underlying sweetness to them as well, as if the rose arbor and the manure pile had intermingled in some unlikely combination.
Larrix and the nurse huddled together beneath his shepherd’s cloak – once his kingly robe of office, but now showing signs of rough wear and tear from his hard upcountry existence.
There they were, the two of them by fireside, coaxing the goatweed fumes into their nostrils. They inhaled deeply, bringing the smoke to the innermost recesses of their lungs, and holding it as long as possible. They were frequently reduced to awkward fits of coughing and gagging. There was hilarity too, with bursts of raucous, gasping laughter, then snorting noises sometimes followed by a momentary urge to vomit. When they could stand it no longer, the cloak was cast aside and frantically flapped to draw in the balming relief of cool mountain air.
“Ah, the intensity of it all, dear Alma!” exclaimed the former king, with wonder-ment in his eyes. “The stirring intensity. I can scarcely bear it, gods bless me!”
“Tee-hee-hee-ee!” came a cackling laugh from the nurse. “Good one, kingship. A merry quip. You have the true m-mark of a wag, Your Majesty.”
Larrix fixed her with a cockeyed stare. “Now, now, Alma, that won’t do. You mustn’t keep calling me that, you know. Larrix will do just fine. Or even Larrikins, as my good queen Briza was fond of calling me at times -- ah, and may the gods rest her soul.”
Then, a brief instant later, from nowhere, he was overtaken by a profound and totally unexpected sobbing. He uttered a cry of what could have been taken as distress. His chin trembled, and tears burst from his eyes with such explosive force that a few droplets splashed upon the upturned face of his companion. Spasms of emotion wracked his old body. His very equilibrium was thrown off by wave after wave of the most exquisite, the most ecstatic pain. Now there was nothing but the eternal moment, and it overturned his usual sense of reality. His former tenure as king, he felt, was now a triviality from the most distant recesses of the past, and beyond relevance.
What he was feeling now was more real to him, in some undefined way. He sensed the totality of all creation. A tremendous power emerged, but it was an elemental power – of wind, stone, water, fire. There was no resistance, no denial. Everything was in its place, perfect. And fierce. All heaven-sent libations felt received, as the stars de-voured the sacrifice of smoke, and Lord Zeus sat foursquare, pleased with all he surveyed.
Larrix stumbled to his feet and stood, swaying uncertainly, with eyes glazed and unfocussed. The nurse reached out as if to steady him, but he motioned her to stand back. His eyes rolled upwards until they appeared as whitened slits. He began to speak in a rumbling, resonant, unfamiliar voice that seemed to issue from the very bowels of the earth. The voice said:
“Hands were tied,
Some gods cried.
By gift horse.
Good Greeks ruled
And won, of course.”
“Ha, ha,” responded Alma, peering at him closely. “Aye, of course they did, my liege. We had the gods on our side, didn’t we? Surely yes. Well, they had theirs too, was it not so? Even Zeus almighty sided with Troy, it is said. I suspect that’s why the war stayed in stalemate for so long. But everyone knows . . .”
The voice rumbled on:
By gods battered,
“Och, and that’s the truth, Alma nodded. “So many brave lives snuffed out. So much waste. A terrible thing, war is. Terrible and . . .”
“One was lost.
A slippery blighter.”
Now Alma dipped her head, and held her brow in both hands. She muttered, “Aye, my lord Larrix, aye. It’s plain that the goatweed has given you the second sight, my king. You have the words of the oracle now, sire. You’ve taken on its voice. And there’s none so truthful as the ora –”
And now the nurse looked up with hope shining in her eyes. She dared to rise and approach the old king, who was standing rigidly still, oblivious to her presence. When she embraced him, it felt as if she were hugging the trunk of a tree.
“Och, now, you see,” she declared. “This is where the oracle can get a mite sticky. It can be full of truth and blarney too. In equal measure. It needs an interpreter, it does, and that’s another god-touched thing in itself.
“For instance, it speaks, ‘Lonely roamer, royal son’. Now does that refer to Prince Telly, who is both a royal son and a lonely roamer? Lonely perhaps because he grew up without a father – and a roamer because he sailed away in search of that very father? And he did return home, so bless him, he’s a homer.
“Or, does the oracle refer to the father himself, King Odd? See, because it also said, ‘Return homer, almost done’. That would suggest that King Odd is almost done. Almost done roaming, that is. Correct?”
She thought for a moment, then resumed in a more sober tone. “I suppose ‘almost done’ could mean almost dead too. Couldn’t it?”
The voice spoke again:
This time Alma simply sat quietly for a while, letting the words sink in, even as goatweed fumes continued to swirl in her mind. “Now where’s our interpreter?” she muttered to herself. She frowned. “I suppose it’s me, then. There’s none other about that I can see.”
She turned her eyes toward the figure that stood immobile before her, looming, as if it were some barbarian totem carved from wood. She paused thoughtfully, then spoke aloud as if to the king – although the king himself was clearly beyond under-standing.
“Here again, tomfoolery at first glance,” she began. “It sounds like it might be good news on the face of it. But what on earth does it really mean? It ends well: ‘Kingdom healed’. Lovely. All’s well and good then, since Zeus knows, we are sorely in need of a healing. But with what invisible strings attached?
“As for ‘Idlers prance’ – well, that refers to the suitors, surely. That seems clear enough. But I’m bothered by the other two lines: ‘Ruler revealed’, and ‘Coots advance’. You did say coots, sire, didn’t you?”
There was no response from the wooden totem.
“Coots are a type of diving duck, are they not?” Alma resumed. “So why would they advance? And so what, in any case? Is it some sort of code? Well, Alma, of course it is – that’s the way of the oracle. It operates that way, in a daft code.
“I’m particularly leery of ‘Ruler revealed’, and here’s why: who’s the ruler? Does it refer to Prince Telly in some way? Or you, old king? Since the earlier verse implied that dear King Odd might be well and truly done, it may be hinting that a new monarch might be soon revealed. Which means the Queen Amaryllis may finally have to suc-cumb to a suitor! And that means we’ll all be ruled by one or another of those strutting shiteheels! Is that would it take to have our kingdom healed? What kind of godsfor-saken healing is that?
“As you can see, my lord Larrix, the oracle teases us so! It can be quite the piece of mischief that way. It tells the truth, yes, and in fact it may be the most truthful thing we know. But rarely does the oracle speak simply. It likes to throw in bits of code and codswallop, for us to stumble over. Like those blessed ducks. What, dear sire, would you take them to mean?”
By now Alma had lost much of her earlier giddiness. To the contrary, she felt tremendously sobered, but with a mind still buzzing with wonderment – in the grip of a force not so distant from whatever was possessing the king. However it remained that, for all her chattiness, the nurse was speaking to herself.
The elderly king remained stock-still in trance, rigidly standing, woodenly vacant, with eyes fixed and unseeing. And making a series of fearsome gurgling sounds from deep within the cavity of his chest.
Blair Drawson worked for many years as an editorial illustrator for some of North America’s finest magazines. Currently his interests revolve around painting and writing and illustrating his own books. He lives in Toronto and teaches graphic narrative at the Ontario College of Art and Design and Sheridan College.