I even disagreed with Charon on my way to Hades. He was a gnarled old man who talked too much–all the way across the Acheron. And he was strangely cheerful for someone with such a terrible job. Did he actually like spending time with the newly dead? Did he think that by chattering away as if we were going to a festival, not an eternity in the underworld, he could lift my spirits?
If so, he was mistaken. I had just been stabbed to death, and was in no mood for small talk.
And yet he rambled on.
“When we reach the shore, Princess, be sure to join the new arrivals. They’re Trojans mostly, killed in battle. There are lots from inside the city, too. And a few Greeks, of course. Soldiers.”
Assassins, I thought.
“My dog Cerberus will take charge of your group, take you straight to the River Lethe. It won’t take long to get there.”
Lethe, River of Forgetting. One of five rivers in Hades and by far the most popular, because its waters washed away memories.
“And there you can drink all you like,” he said brightly, “though you won’t need much, just a sip or two. You drink, you forget, you’re at peace. And that’s that!” He looked at me expectantly, as if waiting for applause.
He waited in vain. I kept my eyes down and my face blank, knowing I would never, ever drink from the River Lethe. Not a drop.
The reason? I did not want to forget my story. On the contrary, I wanted to remember every giddy, painful moment of it–the temple snakes, Apollo’s touch, my beautiful shining city before it flamed and died.
Oblivion was not for me.
So after leaving Charon, I hung back, keeping my distance from the clusters of newly dead waiting on shore. They were pale and blood-splotched, people who had died struggling and were still remembering their final agonies.
I felt sorry for them. I had known my fate for so long that when Clytemnestra stabbed me I was utterly calm. It frightened her, I think. Or maybe it was my last utterance: “You’re next.” The look on her face almost made me laugh, but I died first.
A loud growl interrupted my reverie. It was Cerberus, Hound of Hell, a huge brindled mastiff with three heads and three sets of long, menacing yellow teeth. He set to herding the dead as if they were sheep, pushing, nipping at their legs, and barking at the stragglers, until they were all in line. Following him meekly, they shuffled away, to forget their troubles at the river.
I, on the other hand, set off to find Mnemosyne, the Pool of Memory.
Part of my early training as a priestess had been to learn about all the realms, not just the mortal one, so I knew a bit about Hades, and it held no terrors for me. I had been taught that the sky down here was pearly, like a mild, overcast day in winter, and indeed it was. Iris, goddess of rainbows, had clearly kept her distance, for the landscape was ashen and gray, the color of listlessness. Perhaps because five broad rivers entwined the underworld, the air down here smelled damp, like a garden before a thunderstorm.
Finding the pool did not take long.
It was in a glade of acanthus trees, and no bigger than a serving platter. Its surface was silvery and radiant, and seeing it, I felt as thirsty as if I’d been walking the palace ramparts under the summer sun, in my miserable outcast days.
I ran to it, knelt, and drank with cupped hands. The water, wonderfully cold and slightly effervescent, soothed my throat and calmed me thoroughly, as if I had taken a sip of poppy- wine. I drank again, and was suddenly sharply alert and bouyant, as if I could rise into the air just by willing it. A moment passed, and I understood the feeling: it was relief.
My eyes welled up. Guilt, grief, terror, desperation, rage— my closest companions for so many years—had left me, and no desertion had ever felt so good. I took a long, tearful breath. Then I lowered my face into the water. It reddened with blood from my wounds, and when it cleared, I remembered this:
When we were children, nine or ten years old, Helenus dared me to sleep in Apollo’s temple, home to many fearsome amber-eyed snakes. The old shrine keeper fed them but otherwise kept her distance; sacred or not, their bite was deadly.
I wouldn’t admit I was afraid. “The Pythoness won’t let us in at night,” I objected.
“She’ll never hear us,” he replied, reaching for my hand. I pushed it away. How could he be so fearless?
We went, of course. It was cool in the temple and darker than the secret tunnels under the palace. At first I couldn’t see Helenus, though I could hear his breathing, and smell the eucalyptus oil in his hair. I was terrified. When he moved forward I lurched after him, my naked toes clenched against the touch of anything reptilian. The snakes were coiled up somewhere near us, I was sure of it.
Seeing a red flicker up ahead, the glow of embers in a brazier, I knew we were near the altar. It was strewn with coins and flowers, jars of honey and wine. Scattered there, too, were little clay limbs and body parts, standing in for arms, legs, and hearts that needed mending. Everything on the altar was an offering to Lord Apollo the Shining One, Protector of Troy, and Healer of All Maladies.
The sight of the altar calmed me, and suddenly my fear was gone. Perhaps it was the thought of the god. There were many statues of Apollo in the palace. All portrayed him as a muscular, somewhat stern young man, with a wide brow, a full mouth, and a direct gaze. One, in an alcove near the throne room, showed him with the faintest hint of a smile. That was my favorite.
“Still want to do it?” I asked Helenus, forgetting to whisper. “Of course,” he hissed back. “You?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” I yawned, now perfectly at ease, and we settled against the nearest wall. Oddly, it felt warm to my back; so did the stone floor. As if they’d been in the sun, I thought, and then I must have fallen asleep, because when my eyes opened, Helenus and I were lying side by side, dawn was lighting the sky, and two long, undulating shapes were disappearing under the altar, so quickly that I thought I was dreaming them.
I grabbed my brother’s arm. “Helenus! Did you see them?”
“See what?” He sat up, blinking.
“Snakes?” He yawned noisily. I jumped to my feet, wide awake and thoroughly alarmed. “Let’s get home, Helenus. Hurry, before the Pythoness comes!”
“She won’t be here for a while,” he said. “She’s snoring like a warthog.” He flushed slightly as he said it, shook his head, and stood.
“How do YOU know?” I demanded.
To be continued…