The Hesperides are trying to kill me. Their smiles taint the grove with venom. Skeletal faces. Thanatos eyes. They leer at the fruit, licking black, mummified lips. Greed fills their hearts. They skulk amongst the trees whispering lies. Do not confuse them with ethereal nymphs. Daughters of the Evening? Nay, they are sirens of the abyss.
Sunshine cleared the fog from my mind once again. Nighttime brings out the worst of my nature. It’s as if the moon hypnotizes out a hidden personality. If I were permitted just a single hour of sleep a night, I’m convinced the delusions would disappear. The Hesperides sing sweeter than magpies. Their soft melodies keep my spirits high and demons silent. I would not survive without those three strong women.
Banshees howl at the stars like ravenous wolves. Aigle, Erytheia and Hesperia circle around your tree. They are patient vultures ready to devour the golden apples. My weary flesh is the fortress standing between them and the tree’s destruction.
I live in despair. Last night I snapped at the sisters. Apparently, I bit Erytheia! If not for Aigle’s quick ministrations, Erytheia’s pinky finger would have been lost. The Hesperides’ kind understanding shames me. Apologies are no way near enough. I have not slept in over three thousand years. Humbly, I beg for permission to sleep.
A miasma conspires to pry me from your service. Under cover of Nix, mewling fiends suck the air from my lungs. Claws rake across my skin. Teeth tear open my flesh. I whip around to find the ghosts. I fight. I bare my fangs. Goddess, I fear I will not survive the night.
Dawn found me gnawing my own tail. Blood and bruises cover me. The Hesperides weep at the base of the tree. Tears salt the soil. They said I slammed my heads together. In a fit of insanity, I scraped my skin raw. Aigle fears for me. I fear for me. If only I could close my eyes.
Send reinforcements. I am besieged. Witches fly above the tree. Their cackles rain acid. Goddess, please! Forgive me! They carry torches. The fires are coming! May this letter find you after I am roasted alive.
I am writing to inform you about my intention to resign from my position as your faithful guard at the Garden of Hesperides. My resignation will be effective two weeks from the date of this letter. It has been an honor to serve you for thousands of years. I would serve for thousands more, but my mental health has deteriorated beyond a point where I can perform to the standards you deserve. I will miss the apple grove and especially the Hesperides, Aigle, Erytheia and Hesperia. If you need more time to fill my position, please let me know. I will gladly assist in the training of a new employee.
Wishing you all the very best.
“I can do this,” he mumbled. “Hercules is great. Hercules is strong. Hercules is the son of Zeus.”
The journey from Greece had taken him to the Caucasus Mountain, then to the Libyan Desert. Eight years since the last labor, he had now arrived at the Garden of Hesperides on the western edge of Gaia (the Earth). He touched the surrounding wall. Brown stones warmed under his palm. It was the only barrier to completing his eleventh labor.
A wall, three nymphs and a serpent. Hercules shuddered. And, instant death to mortals who pick Hera’s apples of immortality.
He flipped his hair. “I can do this.”
Hercules followed the wall to a decorative metal gate. Inside was a wondrous sight. Apple trees laden with fruit grew in unending rows. Fluttering like butterflies around the trunks were three beautiful women. Dressed in light pink chitons, the ladies ran bare foot, playing a game. Their giggles tickled his heart – as well as other body parts.
At the front of the grove, one tree stood out. Rainbow colored banners draped along its branches with ‘Retirement Party‘ written in silver. Apples glittered gold in the sun light. A multi-head drakon slithered around the trunk. Dark gray and yellow scales covered its body.
“Hello,” chimed one nymph. She skipped to the gate with the other two in tow. “We’re not interested in buying perfume or pottery, or in saving money on our messenger crow plans.”
The women folded their arms in lock step. Frowns curled the ends of their lips.
Hercules put his hand over his heart. “Girls, I arrive only with compliments.”
“Girls!” The middle sister exclaimed. “We are self-actualized women.” She wagged a finger at him. “Furthermore, we do not appreciate being condescended to by able-bodied, over-privileged, male creeps.”
“S-sorry,” Hercules stammered. “Do you-”
“Don’t sorry us.” The third sister placed her hands on her hips. “We see through your gender elitist, body-policing world view, mouth breather.”
The three vented their outrage at once. Their voices crashed over him in a discordant chorus.
Well, plan one to flirt out a couple apples is a bust.
He fished an arrow from his quiver. Scarlet Hydra blood darkened the tip. He unstrapped his bow.
Time to try plan two.
The nymphs screamed and fled.
Planting his feet, he released the arrow. It whizzed threw the air, passed the gates and thumped into the body of the dragon.
Bestial shirks drowned out all other sounds.
Hercules didn’t check if the serpent was dead. Instead, he walked back to his chariot to collect his cloak and put away the bow and arrows.
Wrapping his lion skin tight about his shoulders, Hercules trekked the highest range of the Atlas Mountains. The air grew colder and thinner as he climbed. Aurochs chomped wet grass, not paying him any mind.
At the summit, he absorbed the bright green forest canopy, the lakes, valleys and the ocean that sparkled in the distance. A heard of goats bayed below on a rocky slope. He inhaled rich earth and moss smells.
Mortals are tiny compared to the vastness of Gaia.
Hercules raised both arms high and whooped for joy. His voice floated down the mountain. Gazelles in a field flicked their tails. The spooked heard ran. Their bodies blurred into a brown mass of fur and thundering hooves.
“Turn off the racket,” a gravelly voice snapped.
Hercules scampered over a hill to the sound.
A man four times his height stood with knees bent. His silver beard dusted the ground. Despite the chill, sweat beaded on his forehead. A white cloud that descended from the sky rested on his shoulders.
“You must be Atlas, the Titan,” Hercules said.
The man snorted. “And you must love stating the obvious.”
“Sorry.” Atlas sighed. “Being given the shaft by my nephew for eons has made me cranky.”
Hercules stepped closer, inspecting the thick cloud stump. How heavy could it be? If clouds weighed the same as fog, then what did the Titan complain about? Yet, muscles bulged in his arms. Beefy thighs strained with effort. Atlas’ brows were furrowed in concentration.
Hercules sniggered. “You carry the weight of air, not the world.”
“You know not what you mock.”
“I know a cloud when I see one.”
“This is the fat finger of Heaven.” Atlas bristled. “You scorn the hammer without feeling its heft.”
“A club is my weapon.” Hercules flexed his arm then kissed his bicep. “I swing heavy wood every day. That,” he pointed to the cylindrical cloud, “is a twig.”
Atlas’ cheeks brightened red. “The bones in your legs would break. That’s if your spine didn’t shatter under this rod.”
Hercules erupted into laughter. He hugged his sides and slapped a knee.
“Shut your imbecile maw!” Veins throbbed in Atlas’ neck. “Think you have the strength to heft this third leg? Well, my ugly little brother, I bet you die the second Heaven’s pole brushes your shoulders.”
Hercules sobered, wiping tears from his eyes. “I’ll hold back the heavens, give you a break from this pitiful punishment, but you have to fetch me apples from the gardens your daughters tend.”
“Why would you want those sour fruits?” Atlas asked.
“King Eurystheus of Mycenae’s request.”
“A dragon protects the tree.”
Atlas narrowed his eyes at Hercules, then smiled. “Pfft! Sure. I’d laugh, but…” He shifted the weight of the plump column. “If you don’t succumb to this cumulus colossus in a blink, I’ll pick the apples for you.”
Hercules took off his lion skin cloak.
The men maneuvered so Atlas was in position to slip the weight onto Hercules.
Atlas asked, “Ready?”
“It’s a cloud.” Hercules rolled his eyes.
Atlas hoisted the Heavens onto Hercules.
Hercules staggered under the load. His ankles wobbled. He dropped to one knee. At any moment he might split in two.
Atlas smirked and rolled his shoulders. He massaged sore flesh that hadn’t known relief until now.
Huffing, Hercules cried, “I can do this!” His legs trembled as he slowly stood. His calves threatened to buckle. Through gritted teeth, he said, “Get the apples.”
Atlas eyed him for a moment, then shrugged. “Hope your back doesn’t break before I return.” He spun on his heels then strolled down the mountain path. He whistled a lively tune that replayed in Hercules’ head as Helios rode across the horizon.
“Hercules strong. Hercules great.” Hercules couldn’t remember the rest of his mantra. His thoughts spun. The lower part of his back burned. Sweat drenched his face and plastered his tunic to his chest.
He looked up as far as he could at the sound of sandals padding up the dirt trail. Thank Athena. I’ll faint if I carry this much longer.
Atlas sauntered up to him. Golden apples shimmered in his hands. “Damn, you’re still alive.”
Hercules groaned, “Take. This. Now.”
“Hold on log lifter.” Atlas stepped back. “These apples can’t fall into unscrupulous hands. I’ll deliver them to King Eur…What’s-His-Name, then come back.”
Hercules guess from his wry tone, Atlas would return at his leisure, if he returned at all. “Thank you new friend,” his voice strained. “But, this cloud chafes my shoulders. Mind holding it for a moment while I put on my cloak?”
Atlas hesitated, scrutinizing Hercules’ face. Hercules smiled although his belly flip flopped.
“Well…um,” Atlas’ gaze travelled up the cloud tube to the sky, then down to Hercules’ pained expression. “No way javelin diddler. Have fun keeping Heaven’s knob away from Gaia for eternity.” He turned and dashed down the mountain, leaving dust in his wake.
That night, he ate apple and oat salad with grilled goat. His daughters roasted apples with honey for dessert. Together the family mourned the loss of Ladon, sang and danced amongst the sweet aroma of apple blossoms until morning.
That is how the story should have ended. Can we pretend it did? Oh, alright…
“Well…um,” Atlas’ gaze travelled up the cloud tube to the sky, then down to Hercules’ pained expression. He knew he was being strummed like a lyre. The time he’d spent apple picking with his daughters was nice, but they were a chatty bunch. Preventing Heaven and Earth from embracing like horny teenagers was his punishment and his alone. Plus, he enjoyed solitude.
Atlas laid the apples on a rock. “Alright, club rubber, just for a moment.” He slid beside Hercules with arms raised and shoulders ready.
Hercules passed the cloud to the Titan. He sunk to the ground, his legs boneless jellyfish. He crawled to the apples. Rocks scraped his forearms. “Ha! Tricked you.”
“Guess I’m duped.” Atlas exhaled loudly.
Hercules flopped onto his back. Everything hurt from the ears down. “I’m taking the golden apples and never coming back. Just as soon as I…as I…rest my legs…and my eyes, for a bit.”
Hope you liked this week’s post and my take on Greek mythology. You can read last week’s blog to learn about the Hydra of Lerna. You can also read the first chapters of my urban fantasy series The Children of Ekhidna and Typhoeus on the books page.
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Next week’s blog will share information about Cerberus, The Hound of Hades.