Cave Canem | Christopher Waldrop

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The poets say if you dropped an anvil from the peak of Mount Olympos it would fall for nine days before it reached Tartarus. I’ve considered trying that but there’s not a straight line. Besides I don’t visit Olympos that often. When I do go I sit in the back. The other god pretend to argue about the affairs of mortals. It amuses them and I just think enjoy it while it lasts, suckers. I know I make the rest of the family uncomfortable. They said they were doing me a favor giving it to me as my domain, giving me all the wealth in the world, but we know they don’t want me around. Seeing me reminds them they’ll end up here eventually. Even my wife spends half the year away from me, and when she’s here she’s like a closed-up flower. I brought her here when I was young and naïve enough to think I could ever have happiness, or that I could at least share this place, that I could have company, someone to care about, someone who would care about me.

So I walk. Not that there’s anywhere here for me to go. Level terrain stretching to infinity, endless shadows, and a handful of amusing characters. There’s Sisyphus rolling his rock up a hill only to have it roll back down again. He could stop if he wanted to but I’m not going to tell him that. There’s Tantalus who served up his own son for dinner, now condemned to stand in water up to his chin with fruit hanging just above his head. His punishment is eternal thirst and eternal starvation, but he’s already dead. How bad could it be? Then there are the Stygian witches. What was it they did? Oh, right, they killed their husbands. That’s not always a crime, I think, although they did do it on their wedding night. They’re condemned to fill a barrel with water using sieves, and they could do it too if they’d work together, but I think they’ve given up. Nothing would change even if they succeeded. The dead are never really free until they’re forgotten; then they fade away. At the very edges of Tartarus shadows dance. Those are the Titans, what’s left of them, and if I walk far enough I see wisps, like breath on a cold morning, of things that came before them.  

So I walk some more. I walk by Charon paddling his boat across the Styx. The dead who can pay with coins on their eyes or in their mouths get to cross right away. It’s the final reminder that you can’t take it with you. The ones who don’t get a proper burial have to wait. The rules say a hundred years but really it’s not until I say the word. Sometimes I forget and it’s more than that, sometimes I just issue a blanket pass and it’s sooner. Either way doesn’t matter. Everything comes to me in the end, and the end is all darkness.

So I go up. I guess it’s good to remind myself there’s a living world, for now. So I come out on a mossy green riverbank and I see leaves swaying in a gentle breeze and birds, and fish darting through the water. There are pale purple flowers at my feet. I find it all beautiful, then I snap out of it. I remember who I am.

There’s a road and I follow it to the city of Cumae. There’s a festival in the main square. Musicians are playing, there are dancers, jugglers tossing balls in the air, fire-breathers. There’s the rich smell of grilled lambs and bread, yogurt and mint, fruits, honey. It’s not nectar and ambrosia, but good enough for mortals, I guess.

 A man next to a tent catches my attention.

“See something you’ve never seen before!” he bawls out at the crowd, and for a coin he lets people in one at a time. It’s a good pitch. I’m almost fooled by it myself, but I’ve seen everything. I slip him a drachm anyway.

It’s hot inside the tent and an opening lets in a sliver of sunlight. At first I think it’s a trick, that there’s nothing here, but then I see a square wooden pen filled with straw. A dark shape moves in it. I kneel down and look in and three squinting heads all lift up and yowl at me. Then the pup stands up, turns around, and falls over, unable to get upright. I reach down and stroke one of the heads and it tries to suckle my finger. Funny little thing, taken from its mam too soon. I pet its body which is soft and warm. Hera doesn’t like to admit she makes mistakes, but she does, and they never live long, but I’ve never seen one like this. One of the heads wobbles and yowls at me again.

Outside I pass the guy a heavy purse. Half again what he’d make if the entire city lined up at his door. Okay, he says, after pretending to think about it. I take the bundle with me, feeling it shift against my chest as I carry it.

On the riverbank it sniffs and craws and howls as it tries to pull itself upright. So small, so weak, in so much pain. But still trying. It opens one mouth and spits out a small bloody clot.

I turn away and try not to choke. So small, so soft, so warm, so vulnerable. I could throw it into the river. I could leave it. A wolf or an owl, even a fox might drag it away. I could let it starve, or just wait for it to stop. Once passed over this tiny, fragile thing will be big, and strong, and it will never be hungry again, but for now, as long as I wait, as long as it fights to stay alive, its pain goes on.

So it’s done. I put the knife away.

Tartarus is still unchanged. Sometimes I walk. Sometimes I sleep. But Cerberus is always with me.

Christopher Waldrop lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and a horde of wild Dalmatians.

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