March 25, 1995
Tantalus hungers. Tantalus thirsts.
The woglies flee.
“That’s not important,” Martin is saying. “That isn’t. I’m going to sweep away the kingdoms of the world and tear down all the monsters. I’m going to rend the world down to a remnant and from its ashes build the most glorious of Heavens.”
His soul is in shreds.
He’s hardly alive. He’s holding himself up by sheer will and his eyes are full of the radiance of the numinous and every time he looks at Tantalus it’s like Tantalus is suddenly naked before the face of God; caught by shame and forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden; staring full on into Medusa’s eyes.
He’s a creature of all wild freedom, Martin is, and freedom’s terrible.
Then Martin wobbles and loses strength.
He falls, face-first, into the lake.
It is Tantalus’ lake. It belongs to him. It’s his clear cold lake of water. He has always thought that it must be extremely cool and damp and refreshing, but whenever he reaches down to cup up some water in his hands, the water flees from him. It drains away into the ground and leaves only parched dry earth behind. For three thousand years Tantalus has lived amidst his lakes and never once has he had a chance to drink.
As for Martin, he is cool and damp and refreshed but also trying to breathe.
He is underwater.
It does not work. Instead Martin, involuntarily, coughs. He thrashes. He tries to pull himself to the surface. It does not work. His eyes widen with panic. His panic redoubles. Shuddering and flailing washes through him. He breaches the surface. He flutters his arms against the water. His head rolls back. He sinks.
“Oh,” says Tantalus.
There is emotion in his voice. He is surprised to hear it there. He had not thought himself still capable of emotion, after three thousand years.
It must be envy, he thinks.
“Oh, I envy you.”
It is the Underworld. Martin cannot die. Beneath the water his eyes pop open. He gasps. He tries to take a breath but he cannot. He tries to scream but he cannot. His arms flutter but he cannot make his body move.
After a while he passes out again.
The emotion in Tantalus’ voice is not envy. This baffles him.
“Ridiculous,” says Tantalus.
It still isn’t envy. It is pity, perhaps. Maybe even kindness.
Tantalus’ heart beats once. It is irritated at him. His heart only beats when it’s irritated at him, these past three thousand years. He’s long since too dry for blood.
The clenching of his heart is a dry and agonizing pain. Air whistles through his veins.
It is a unique experience, to have his conscience blackmailing him again, after all these years of death. He reaches upwards. The wind whips the branches of the trees away from him. They are laden with sweet-smelling fruit and for three thousand years he has not caught hold of a single one.
He braces his hand against the trunk of the tree. He pulls himself upright.
Martin wakes up. His eyes open. He tries to scream but he cannot. He tries to move but he cannot.
He passes out.
Tantalus wades out to Martin. He purses his lips. He looks down at the drowning boy. Then he sits down heavily. The water level plummets. Tantalus snatches at it reflexively, tries to cup some up. There is no water left.
It has drained into the ground already. It has fled from him. It has left only dry dust behind, and Martin like a flopping fish.
Tantalus sets his withered lips on Martin’s own.
He inhales. He is like a vampire. He is seeking some scrap of sustenance — to draw some bit of soothing moisture up from Martin’s waterlogged lungs.
The heart of Tantalus beats.
Tantalus’ face grows taut with pain. He loses his grip on Martin. He tries to hang on but he cannot. In the moment he pulls back and curls around the agony in his chest, the water escapes him, makes a break for it, scrambling out of Martin’s lungs, drooling from his lips, pouring desperately into the ground to escape Tantalus’ touch.
Martin coughs. He wakes. He passes out.
He wakes again.
In the moment Martin wakes he recoils. He throws himself back. His eyes open. He gasps. His skin is bitterly dry. He stares.
Then he begins to laugh.
“Oh, God,” he says. He laughs. “Oh, man.”
His eyes focus on Tantalus. He sees the lines of pain on Tantalus’ face. He gives a wretched smile.
“Thank you,” Martin says. “I’m so sorry. Thank you. Oh, man.”
“It happens,” Tantalus says.
“I was drowning,” Martin says. “And now I am not. It is really good to not be drowning. Nobody ever told me this. Nobody told me how good it was going to be. Nobody ever said, ‘it’s so incredible, not to be drowning, and then passing out, and then waking up and drowning some more.’ But it is. I think that people just don’t know.”
“I would like that,” Tantalus says.
“You would not.”
“It looked moist.”
Martin’s eyes flick down to the dry ground, then back up.
“Yeah,” he says, more softly. “Yeah, I guess.”
He sits up.
“It was cool, and clear,” he says, “and refreshing. It would have been really nice. Except then I started to panic. Because I couldn’t breathe. And then the panic got worse and worse until I think I would have done anything to make it stop. And then my brain shut down and I couldn’t think any more and my eyes filled up with agony and the dark. And then I’d wake up again and it wasn’t cool and clear and refreshing any more because I was already drowning when I woke.”
Tantalus licks his lips.
“And if it weren’t the Underworld —”
Martin shudders, suddenly.
“I’m so lucky,” he says. “Oh, God. If this hadn’t been the Underworld. If this weren’t the Underworld — what a stupid way to stop existing. I would have died.”
“It is good to be a living person in the Underworld,” Tantalus says, “since there is nothing here that can actually kill you.”
There is a distant cursing. There is a distant rumbling.
Sisyphus, rolled over by a distant boulder, screams.
“There are also disadvantages,” Tantalus concedes.
Martin looks down.
“You’ve been stuck here,” he says, “for three thousand years.”
“I’m going,” Martin says. “I’m going to go. You should also go. You should come out of the Underworld, to the surface world, like me. What d’you think?”
Martin tilts his head. “Why not?”
“It’s my punishment.”
“Zeus said,” Tantalus says. “He said that I had to live in a land of plenty, and know only hunger. He said that I had to dwell amidst sweet lakes, and know only thirst. He said I had to be forever in the company of what I long for, and have it never. So I can’t go.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Martin says.
“That isn’t punishment,” Martin says. “That’s just . . . that’s just life.”
Tantalus can’t help it. He laughs. It’s a bitter laughter and it hurts almost as much as a heartbeat; and eventually it causes a heartbeat, and hurts strictly, mathematically, more.
Martin is watching him.
Tantalus isn’t even looking at him any more and he can still feel it, that Martin is watching him; that that fey power is coming back into Martin’s eyes.
“Hey,” Martin says.
Martin touches his shoulder.
“Hey,” Martin says. “I’m not — I mean, I’m not a good person. I’m not going to say that. But I’m not the kind of person who’s going to just meet somebody who’s been starving for three thousand years and then go away and let them starve and dry out for another three thousand. That’s too much. I’m the kind of cruel hell-god who might leave you to suffer another, you know, three months, for a total of six. Or stab you in the eye with a spork, but then take you to a hospital. But, I mean, seriously, man. Three thousand years. You’re done. You’ve paid enough.”
Tantalus’ heart is not beating. He has stopped laughing.
It is a certain grace that settles in around Tantalus, then, and frees him from the pain of Martin’s words.
“I’m okay,” he says.
“You’re not okay.”
“I have my lakes,” Tantalus says. “I have my sweet-smelling fruit trees. And when I reach for the fruit the branches fly up like winged birds, and it is beautiful; and sometimes, their petals float free to land upon the surface of the lake, like little boats. And they are beautiful.”
He cannot look at Martin.
He dare not look at Martin. He would break. Instead he stands up. He turns away. The water trickles back around his feet.
“I have the gourd of my stomach,” Tantalus says. “I am very used to it. It is always hungry, but I laugh at it, ho-ho-ho, and strike it with my hands to make a drum.”
Martin is on his feet.
That is good, Tantalus thinks. If Martin does not get up and leave the lake then I shall have to repeat this whole conversation again.
“I have no talent for drumming,” Tantalus observes. “And my stomach is not a very good drum. But I can still make Persephone weep or Hades dance with my drumming; for even the least talented man will become a quite good drummer if he practices for three thousand years.”
“You will still have a stomach,” Martin says, “if you go free.”
“I don’t want to go,” Tantalus says.
He risks a glance over his shoulder. Martin is standing on the water. It is lifting him up as it rises. His eyes are as the oceans and the skies.
“I didn’t ask if you wanted to go,” Martin says.
This is a lie.
“Well,” Martin admits. “I did. But that was earlier. After that, I said that I was not the kind of person who was going to just leave you here to suffer another three thousand years. You’re going now. It’s done.”
Tantalus’ heart is beating. It will not stop. It is like four little torturers having an agony party in his chest, one for every valve, and taking occasional vacations down his veins.
And for just a moment Tantalus believes in Martin.
For just a moment Tantalus forgets that he is doomed to this garden and this hell. For just a moment he believes there is a choice; and swiftly, perversely, he rejects it, rejects freedom, turns away from it, clings to his torment with the whole of him, with body, heart, and mind, crying: o my gardens! O my agonies! O my lakes!
And Martin grins.
“I want to stay,” Tantalus says.
Martin grins wider. He snaps his fingers. “Bang,” he says, and points his finger like a gun, because Tantalus has erred.
And desperately Tantalus reaches for the substance of his damnation, and it eludes him; claws for it, and it sinks into the dry parched earth; reaches for it, and the wind catches him up, blows the branches of him away, and he is gone.