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Literary Short Story

SISYPHUS REX

(subtitle: To Calm the Beast)

(Unedited)

A modern fable of mixed myths

by

Anthony Steyning

The spectator couldn’t believe his ears and eyes, sitting in the theatre seats closest to heaven, high up in the structure of the world, the stage below him a labyrinth inhabited not just by the beastly Minotaur, but for the first time by a king.

It was daylight on that Knossos stage between mountain lush and surf soft and of a brightness that only the isle of Crete enjoys. With the spectator watching this scene from his shade, his dusk and even a touch of darkness under thick, tall, surrounding oaks. In disbelief as unfolding below him in that amphitheater was everything that since a boy he had searched his mind about. His troubled curiosity a sort of hunger, a sort of dehydration, provoked by the onerous voices of his ancestors. Silver voices, tempting tongues yet incapable of silencing his own: mouth dry, nearly dying of thirst, even then reluctant to bring their water, those liquid words, to his aching lips. He couldn’t read and couldn’t write but both his memory and innocence were sharp. It is called the genius of man to observe and register what goes on, though not necessarily what he does with this. At any rate, he knew this scene below was improbable and yet ever so real as he could almost smell the beast’s foul breath, at the same time wondering how that human body supported such a large and heavy Taurus head.

Sisyphus, for this is the king’s name, had strolled into and through the maze as if nothing, unafraid of the murderous, blood-thirsty Minotaur. He had already cheated death and nearly got away with it by fooling Persephone, queen of the underworld, though ultimately paying that famous price, receiving that infamous punishment, now known to all men. For he was a cad this King of Corinth, glib and often cruel himself, the spectator having it heard said of him. And rolling a heavy boulder up a mountain, each time to have it roll back down on him, nearly crushing him before reaching summit and supposed real immortality, likely proper condemnation. For gods or no gods certain values count in this world, are not negotiable, this the spectator understood. Not negotiable for a knave, not for a King, Sisyphus being both. For had this man not robbed and killed innocent travelers to further his own interest, when all life is precious, life is everything, is absolute and cannot be the subject of appropriation or compromise? Leaving his intended victims no choice but to attack in defense, because it represents a situation where half-measures cannot, will not do? The only instance where it’s all or nothing at all: one must defend oneself when really attacked, not when merely imagining it or being told one is, this last variant making a rather vast and ominous difference!

The spectator knew the play would not go on forever, the quick sand of time slowly but surely swallowing everything. And actors mere servants and impersonators, confused about their own role, never to be admired, like tattoo freaks in search of a new skin. Their problem that any hide or cloak will do in assuming characters, with little bearing on their own! And with few people understanding that establishing identity as a form of belonging is nonsense, hereditary or not. That only individuality and moral strength must govern us. Unless one is suitably humble, and therefore harmless and anonymous of course, and so… properly progressive after all. But then again, was this indeed a play, and were these actors real thespians? For had he not smelled the Minotaur’s flesh-eating breath, listened to its angry bull grunts and King Sisyphus’ erudite lust for power expressed by royal wile and a patrician's smooth tongue? Denying as he would, any malicious intent and supposedly only present in the heart of the maze to calm the beast? Trying to divine whence all its hunger came, this appetite so dominating that round it centered its entire existence it seemed? Had he, the spectator, finally, not seen the podgy overfed body of both, from where he sat up high in shadows nearer to dark, when generally actors are poor and slim and underfed?

And as he watched the spectator held a warm and protective dagger in his trousers that had been there since the day that he became a man. It was he who had kept it warm all this time, while by itself or in the wrong company, blades stay mainly icy cold. He had never used it and often wondered why they had given it to him, emphatic it remain where it resides. Once even wanting to justify its existence by furtively putting it to use. For the first time taking it out and putting it on a table in front of him right where he could dissect its meaning and its contours, crafted by another, ultimately to achieve its exquisite harm, and an idea which terrorized him for he could feel the pain this would inflict on not only victims but on scores of souls invisibly tied to them. It was a moment all the living face at one time, when a mystery has become too overwhelming and they, not being animals or cads, must manifest themselves by asking what ‘this’ is all about. For is questioning not being? And could he too no longer postpone this moment, at last having learnt how to listen to his own heart, an achievement by itself? But that had been another day, long ago, his feelings inconclusive he recalled, in the end putting the dagger back into his trousers, where it went on to lie in wait, ever since and just in case.

“Nice place you have here,” the spectator heard King Sisyphus say.

“You have a nerve!” the Minotaur replied. “I’m amazed!”

“I know you are, may I sit down, you can’t harm me, I’ve already been to Hades!”

“Ah, a bluffer, for nobody returns from there. Who are you, and what do you want?!”

“It’s both repulsion and the lure of you: I came to conquer, not to kill, though I shall most certainly defend myself!”

“I don’t conquer, I fill my stomach, my only need…”

“I’m here not to lead your victims out of this labyrinth… “

“A bit of a waste, you’re far too late. Here, there and everywhere their bones, in fact I’m getting mighty hungry again.”

“…but to lead you out, my astonished Minotaur!”

“What? Me? Out of this, my own labyrinth? Are you out of your mind?”

“The conquest of the heart the noblest art, the enterprise of true noble men, I belatedly realized. And to conquer, not to subjugate but to liberate, a most difficult task, when the object of this enterprise is not yet a man or at least a man not realizing he also is a victim, sadly and apparently neither a favourite nor a companion of his own gods.”

The spectator, a witness at the edge of his seat, immediately recognizing the outline of his own dilemma, the dagger having weighed beyond its metallic content, and getting heavier and heavier as time progressed. In fact he didn’t know how he had kept it immobile all these years, so strong, strange and seemingly selective gravity’s upward pull had been. But then gravity picks and chooses with almost human tenacity, he thought, knowing how man can be obstinate to a fault, unable to give up an idea on which he has come to rely, even though this will sometimes bring him misery. Man only in the end, never in the beginning, raising chin and eyes, closeness to a problem never his best friend. Or was this gravity itself at child’s play, more fickle than selective, more random that our man could think? But why would gravity pull less strongly on a person’s dagger raising it all too easily, than on his chin, preventing him from looking up and widen his regard, not neutral this pull, but sometimes good and sometimes bad? A cover-up invented by those who lived well by its threat, only pretending the dagger is ceremonial, ostensibly to ward off evil and defend, but in reality and not so subtly commanding it, it had dawned on him?! The other question begging, who defines evil and first considers it a good idea to use a weapon ancient or more modern? Power always lurking in the background, because he who dominates is free in his manner, the meek and indifferent only ending up caught: the public a commodity, a prop, there so the other may live the life that pleases him, at the expense of all.

But fear not, for listening carefully our witnessing spectator’s head was already intuitively raised. As he couldn’t read and couldn’t write, it was all he had, it was all he could do, but with much aplomb. Gravity again, and good this time, Gravitas textually meaning ‘weight’, and weight seriousness, doesn’t it? Although wouldn't it be best for all, if everything, especially ideas, always...gravitates? He had stroked his dagger lovingly while it rested beside his thigh as long as he could recall, this making him feel secure but as intimated also afraid, and perhaps the reason he was here, listening to and watching his dilemma staged. He could swear the dagger purred like a lazy cat, a cat never having hunted, a cat well fed, but a blade, like he himself ultimately wondering, what their symbiosis was all about. Though there is one large differentiation: people don’t make themselves, but people do make daggers and as such are responsible for them. He didn’t wish to get into the question what with people not producing themselves, does this mean who ever made man is responsible for what man perpetrates? For this would then mean man may wash his hands of everything and plunge ahead with any senseless idea entering his head and feel no guilt. One day, someone erring, suddenly waking all daggers sleeping beside otherwise quiet thighs, for man is not alone and owns a dagger precisely because of this, and so man must accommodate or hurt and get hurt, for which apparently he no longer uses his bare hands. It’s what’s all so worrisome and made the spectator wonder how Sisyphus and the Minotaur could survive each other. The remaining question looming: did Sisyphus per chance also carry a knife? Our spectator seeing him reach for his pocket at one point, but his move rather inconclusive, or better still deliberately… imprecise!

This King, who had heard that one day another young ruler, Theseus, would come and slay the fearsome Minotaur having gone as far as devouring sacrificial maidens and male youths every nine years, appetite growing and growing, as it is wont to with insatiable beasts. This day at pronounced risk, Sisyphus attempting to redeem himself to some degree for what he had done wrong and all ire in life. With our spectator beginning to understand that sacrificing oneself for others to live represents a whole different kettle of fish than sacrificing oneself only to destroy the innocent in the name of a dream that automatically perverts itself. On quite another score the said Theseus also having lifted a boulder, the way Sisyphus did, though not as punishment but to prove his strength and as reward finding the weapons below it, with which to conquer and to rule.

“Either you come with me, or Theseus will annihilate you. And stop that silly beastly roar, that impertinent growl, sound is powerless, silence is the power, wealth is stealth!” the spectator heard Sisyphus say. And he cheered. He is a large man, a man of physical strength, who had noticed the loud voice of impotence in men smaller than himself. Again he had begun stroking his hidden dagger, it’s all he could think of at this point, intently studying the Minotaur’s reaction, from afar admiring Sisyphus’ conversion to the tactic of speaking of action rather than taking action. Again wondering if he could ever lift, manage to raise his dagger again even if only to place it on a table, should the King succeed in neutralizing the beast by persuasion, by his tongue. Guaranteeing that Minotaur a normal life, real freedom: this also perhaps an endless chore, like pushing that boulder up hill, but no longer a pointless one. Because beauty lies in the discovery of what one has, not in what one wants. He wished that he could learn how to write about this one day, telling others how his dagger had mesmerized, bringing out all the strength that’s hidden in him, the strength not to raise it, not to wake it, to leave it purring like a cat. Repeating in his mind the story he already knew, about the King pushing his boulder or die, but juxtaposing it with his own misgivings about lifting or thrusting, at all… His story important enough and not of pushing up or of dying, of existing as opposed to nothingness, but, quite to the contrary, of living and of letting live, a fulfilment completely otherwise. And there's a monumental difference between these components, because by putting in doubt the value of this life, not subscribing to it… one has already moved away from it. But where to, if not a destination our spectator still doesn’t know much about, except what existed in those other, ancestral minds? An abstract place, a place of eternal happiness they claim, but a place they seem to control, locked up like a beautiful bird. A place without daggers all right, but if one uses one to reach it, the cage surely unlocked, the bird long gone. Persuasion again should be that bird’s other name and a treasure to be coveted, not the holding someone prisoner. All this becoming clearer, matters no longer dawning on him--- there are those who persuade but others who smother persuasion, far too impatient, apt to threaten, biding time by brutalising their fellow man. Not understanding that killing the world in order to own it, while simultaneously staking their claim on the hereafter, represents a complete dishonesty and as such an untenable paradox. So where did all this leave him, our witness, our spectator, but in the hands of King Sisyphus, an ignoble nobleman who erred before but would truly live again once he tamed this beast except for that one final doubt: did he, that King, carry a dagger or sword on his person or not?

 

“Don’t attempt to be the wicked Apopis, banned by the sun god Ra, that demon dragon of Egyptian chaos, symbol of evil, later copied by Kings only wanting power and as demi-gods drive tens of thousands of slaves to build monuments to their gory, royal glory!” Sisyphus continued.

“I am neither from Babylon, nor from Memphis or even the hundred-gated Thebes,” the Minotaur replying defensively, carefully looking over an opponent having arrived by great surprise.

“Then who do you think you are, if not just half beast, half man, like Anubis, son of Osiris, ruler of life but also of death, not surprisingly half jackal, half man? Or is it Apis, bull god, embodiment of the ruler of all things and powerful dispenser of Ka, the force of life?”

“I told you I am neither; nor am I from Egypt. I am here like most, to still my hunger, not more, not less!”

“So all you wish for is to eat, but isn’t getting out of this labyrinth the main and only issue? And not just for your victims… but for you, as well!? To roam free, having a wonderful time penetrating consenting women and cows, the difference for someone like you…minimal, and the pleasure not of one, but of two worlds?”

The play went on and on, and the actors continued to be mere actors, except for the smell of the odious beast, speaking well, facing a King whose motives one could never be certain of and who might be armed with more than his tongue, so confident he was. So that for the spectator the question remained that at one point to own or not to own that dagger, to be given or not be given it, to raise and thrust or not to raise and slice or cut with it, to beautify or not to beautify this act, to throw away or not throw it away, to turn it on oneself or not, to use it as a tool with which to gather and to acquire, or as a means to keep that which one already possesses, or obey it as if thinking someone higher than oneself is moving the damn thing, either which way the decision to make, defining not only the person but also this mute and brave old world. This beautiful world barely looked at, this world before which no one stops in awe anymore, desecrated constantly in favor of one that truly hasn’t yet been found.

Isn’t all about the threshold one decides to cross or not, consciously, instinctively but a test of which kind of animal one is? Unhappy, destructive and evasive, or noble, evolved and caring? Because supposing there were only 40 people on this planet, smart, healthy and beautifully equipped, who wouldn’t get into each other’s hair, living thousands of miles apart, no threat to anyone but themselves, couldn’t they help but love this earthly paradise, unencumbered otherwise? Unless blinded by their loneliness and their fear of death? Nose thus thrust into life itself, not into artificial happiness? With a blessed sense of true humility, respect and dignity, reflecting gravity’s most intensive and absolute presence, exerting itself  not on fantasy, but on newly awe-struck minds?

The spectator now seeing the Minotaur growl at Sisyphus, scraping the ground with his hoof at the threshold of his world, for he had the body of a man but, much like the devil, not his feet, desperate now and thinking what to do. Challenged for the first time and strength favoring him, but energy spent on being angry all the time, also weakening him.

“Well, are you beast or are you man? You’ll have to decide if you want to come back out with me.” Sisyphus said, speaking to the Minotaur. “Can you feel pain, or better still remember it? Can you feel pity, or do you know what clemency is? Commiseration and misericord, or the awareness of another’s pain, is it not what separates us? And do you love and make love, or merely relieve yourself, unable to caress, only grope, only claw? And if your reply to my questions is negative, are you consistent enough and feel no self-pity either? But do let me help you, if your answer is NO to all of this, you’re not a man!”

To the spectator, even though he wasn’t educated, the secret lay less in the actual reply which could have been a stubborn reiteration of an old position, and for that matter a lack of true imagination on the part of Minotaur, than the essence of his understanding a simple and straightforward question. He saw the Minotaur hesitate  

 

 

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