City of the Dead (Part II)
by Robert Sheckley
Achilles said in a soothing voice, “I know what you’re scared of. That you’ll make this commitment and then find out that this concept is not interesting. That it will not solve, all by itself, the problems of creativity and recombination and energy. That’s it, isn’t it? I hail your caution, applaud your uncertainty. That will make it all the stronger when you choose the right one, this one. Helen, why don’t you say a few words?”
Helen smiled into the camera, and said, in low thrilling tones, “I think we can accommodate you very nicely. We’re stage people, you see, Achilles and I, and we perform best when we’re set into motion. We’re not your tight-lipped modern people. If it’s words you want, we have a lot of them for you. Daring words, lying words, but not boring words. Let us entertain you with the story of your life.”
Achilles touched her shoulder. “Well said, Helen.” And now he turns his face directly to us. We blink, unsure what to do, staring into the blinding beauty of Achilles’ face. Because this Achilles is the Achilles of infinite thought over the possibility of great deeds in the world. Achilles also represents the hopelessness of falling in love with the wrong woman. Looking at him we realize, through a swift glance at the side-bar, that Briseis, the love of his life, isn’t even represented in this story, her whereabouts are unknown, and Achilles has been paired with Helen for purely symbolic reasons, two troupers acing out a part. “We’ve done what we could,” Achilles said. “Now tell me what you learned in the marketplace.”
“Hades, King of Hell, has gone out of the city and across the little streams that surround Hell. He has gone to the near shore of the Styx, where there is a meadow suitable for a picnic. But he does not picnic there, Hades, though he has caused a feast to be laid for his guest, Persephone.”
“Persephone? Hades walks with Persephone, the Queen?”
“Of course. Who else would he walk with? You know how besotted he is of her.”
“That’s because she’s living,” Achilles said. “People are much more attractive when they’re living. But she is a lovely woman in her own regard, and of course a first-class nature myth of considerable antiquity. Being a very old myth gives a girl a certain panache, don’t you think?”
“Of course I do,” Helen said. “You think being Helen of Troy is jello? Nobody knows about Persephone any more. But everybody knows Helen.”
“I know you’re wonderful,” Achilles said soothingly, because he didn’t want to get her started. He wanted to hear her news, wanted to know what was going on with Hades, however, because Hades’ condition was of importance to Achilles because he figured if he could put some pressure on Hades there might be a way to get out of this place. Because Achilles had by no means accustomed himself to being dead. At least not all of the time.
So if you’re Achilles you attend to reality, even if reality is just being dead. But what you want is this nice interior place protected from bill collectors, jealous lovers, bailiffs, lawyers, wives and ex-wives, husbands and children in all degrees of alienation, and all the rest of the people who live out there, just outside your head, in a world of their own. They’re a little much, aren’t they, other people? That’s why you like to come here, to the City of the Dead. That’s why we’re trying to convince you, or rather, demonstrate to you, that our City of the Dead is one hell of a good construct and is worthy of your most careful attention. We’ll come back to this from time to time. The important thing to remember is this: we are the party of freedom.
We cut back to Hades. Me.
Persephone was saying, “When Achilles hears about this, he’ll go crazy. He wants like crazy to get out of hell.”
“Achilles thinks he had a lot more fun when he was alive than was actually the case. He makes too much over living.”
“Tell me the truth” Persephone asked me. “Is being alive really that good?”
I shrugged. “Achilles thinks so. But that’s just one dead man’s opinion.”
Persephone and I were sitting together beside a black poplar and close to an enormous weeping willow, its branches trailing in the black waters of Lethe which flowed silently past us with a slight gurgle, like a dead man’s gasp. You could see low gray shapes across on the far shore but it was not possible to make out what they were. I was strangely happy. Being with Persephone always brought up that mood in me. They made hell seem brighter. Although gray clouds forever overhung this place, they seemed majestical and inspiring today rather than ominous and sad. I was happy in hell. Which was lucky because I was king. Or, I should say I was almost happy and I was virtual king.
I looked at Persephone’s hands. The one that held the pomegranate seed was on the other side, away from me. I couldn’t see if she had taken the seed or not. I supposed not. It seemed almost as if she had forgotten about it. But how could she have forgotten? The weight of all that stagecraft pressed on my soul. I knew something was about to happen.
Then, very faintly from the direction of the palace, I heard a jingling sound. Persphone heard it too. She said, “That’s the little bells on Demeter’s harness. It’s the harness she put on the bullocks that draw her cart. She is coming for me, as we agreed.”
“Yes,” I said. For I had been forced to agree to Persephone’s returning to the upper world. The weird old ladies who make up what you could call the Supreme Court of Hell had handed down a restraining order on me. Cease and desist. Give the wench up. I had briefly contemplated revolt. But then wised up. I didn’t stand a chance against the living. Not even if all the dead fought for me, which was far from sure. Trouble is, the dead don’t fight worth shit. Dying seems to take something out of a man. It would be slaughter. There’s nothing the living like better than killing the dead. They consider us evil. A case of projection if I ever saw one. But impossible to fight against.
And anyhow, I was in the wrong, snatching her off the face of the earth like I’d done was against the rule. I was in the wrong. And being in the wrong weakened my case.
The way it was originally set up, when Zeus, Poseidon and I divided all creation between us after we succeeded in killing old Cronus, our rules were very simple and clear. Each to be supreme lord of his own realm, and no poaching on the terrain of any of the others. These rules were not always followed in full. But potentially, if anyone had a complaint, this was the rule they referred back to. I knew that but I took her anyhow. I took her because I wanted her. But my desire had no standing in the law. And even though Persephone was the most important thing in my life, such as it was, because I think you understand now that the life even of a king of hell is not to be compared to that of the most miserable living human being, or so the philosophers say, I was bound by the rule of law concerning cosmic property and all that relates to it, unfair and arbitrary though that rule might be. But you simply must have the rule. Your life is nothing without rules, and not even death is anything much without its rules.
“The seed,” I said. “What about the seed?”
She opened both her hands. They were empty. “Oh,” she said. “I must have dropped it.” And yet there was a lightness in her voice. Nothing very playful ever happens in hell so I didn’t really know how to react to it.
“Don’t tease me,” I said. “Do you have the seed? Or did you drop it? Or did you conceal it and plan to take it later?”
She bent forward and kissed me on the forehead. “Of course I’m going to tease you. Teasing, my love, is exactly what you need. You’re all too gloomy and serious here.”
“You’ve changed all that,” I told her. “You’ve brought a lightness and a pleasure to hell that I never thought possible. Won’t you leave me now with some hope that you’ll return?”
“Oh, you’ll always have that hope,” she said, “no matter what I do or say. It’s certainty that you really want, isn’t it?”
“I suppose it is,” I said. “Can’t I have that? The certainty of your return for six months of every year?”
She shook her head but she was smiling. “Certainty is a very salient quality of your realm. Everybody knows exactly where they stand, which is nowhere. There seems to be nothing quite as certain as death. I think that’s what Achilles really objects to about being here. That’s what you dead people have grown very accustomed to. “Maybe death is bad, you say to yourself, but at least it’s reliable, at least I can count on it.”
“Sure we say that,” I said.
“That’s because you’re dead,” Persephone pointed out. “But I’m not, I’m alive. I’m not bound by your rules. I’m a creature of the realm of life. Where I come from, we have no certainty. Everything changes from better to worse, from worse to better. There’s always hope and there’s always despair.”
The sound of the bullock’s bells grew louder. And then the wagon itself came into sight, decked in flowers, drawn by six garlanded heifers. Demeter herself was standing in the front looking stern and classical, her usual look. She had a little whip in her hand made of grapevine. Her hair was blowing free and she brandished her whip in the air in salutation when she saw Persephone.
Demeter is one of those people who are important but you don’t want to deal with them. They’re so significant that you don’t want to shortchange them, but they don’t play any part in your story so how much characterization do you need? Does a personification of Autumn need a mole on her chin? Must we give her a dumpy figure, and flinty, unrelenting eyes. Yes, the eyes, maybe. But not the rest. She comes in riding standing up in a bullock cart. You know what kind of woman would do that. Need we say more?
Persephone rose, then she bent over and kissed me once, lightly, on the lips. Before I could put my arms around her, she had drawn away. She stepped up lightly into Demeter’s cart. And soon they were gone.
Hades stood there with a stupid look on his face. She was gone. And he had no one to talk to. It looked like he was going to have to monologue.
Suddenly she was back with her cart and her disapproving mother and her garlanded bullocks. The whole shot. The eternal recurrence! Hades’ heart leaped.
“I forgot to remind you about Achilles and Helen,” she said. “You’ll have to cancel our dinner with them.”
“You did remind me,” I said.
“I did?” Helen said.
“You did,” I said. “Previously. But I”m glad you came back. There was something I was going to ask you.”
“I thought you’d never get around to asking me anything,” Persephone said. “I know you love me, but you’re entirely too silent and gloomy about it. At least you could talk about it a little. Yes, I’ll be pleased to answer. What do you want to ask?”
What I want to ask,” I said, “is that I heard that you know what is happening to Tantulus these days, and I wanted you to tell me.”
“I’ll be happy to,” Helen said. “I’ll be as quick as possible, mother,” she called out to the old woman in the shawl driving the bullocks, her mother, Demeter. Her mother nodded resignedly. It was enough she was getting her daughter back. No sense offending her by interrupting her story.
Helen said, I’ve always found Uncle Tantulus an interesting figure. You know his general circumstances, I assume. Waist deep in mud in a swamp. Huge rock suspended above him on a thin copper wire. The rock never drops, of course, but the suspense is nevertheless intense, because it was written in by Zeus himself that no one should take anything for granted concerning the boulder, it could drop at any time, there was no story device forestalling it, even though we always pick it up at a moment when the boulder is just hanging there solid as a rock. There is no way around such a situation except by arbitrary rule: You will feel anxiety for Tantulus on account of the boulder over his head. Do that or we’ll strike the Greek Myth set.
Tantulus is standing there in a muddy little pool on the banks of the Styx up to his chin in water. But each time he bends over to take a drink, the water recedes from him, leaving his face caked with black mud and him with the nickname given him by the Corybantes, Old Dirtymouth. No water for Tantulus. That’s the first rule.
Next, from branches of the willow tree near which he is chained, from drooping branches hang great snack foods, whole pastramis, liverwursts, salamis of every size, sort and description, cheeses like the world has never seen, composed salads, beautifully cooked vegetables suspended in cobwebs, themselves edible.
But of course, you guessed it, when Tantulus tries to eat anything, the thing is pulled out of his hands and is always just out of his reach. So he’s standing there up to the chin in water he can’t drink surrounded by foods he can’t eat and this is Zeus’s idea of a really cruel punishment.
But in hell you get used to anything and if Tantulus couldn’t drink the water, at least he could feel it, the feel of water lapping around his legs. They hadn’t taken that away. Couldn’t. What would be left if he couldn’t feel the water he stood in?
The water was really feeling good this morning. Sometimes that happens even in hell. They try to gross you out, but sometimes they slip up. This was Tantulus at his best, trying to make the best of his lot. Inviting friends over for a banquet even if he couldn’t eat it himself.
His guests came from far and wide. From all parts of hell. Soon they were all assembled. And then Tantulus addressed them.
“My friends,” he said, “you will forgive me if I don’t get out of the water just now. It’s my whim to entertain you while standing chin-deep in this rather delicious flow.”
The fact was, Tantulus had been in hell so long that he had been granted certain privileges. Like the right of bathing in any river of hell of his choosing. This morning it was the Lethe. Of all the rivers of Hell, this was his favorite. The gods had dug mud pits on the banks of all the rivers of hell, and planted willow trees there to carry the food, and Tantulus could stand in any mud-pit he wanted just as long as he gave the people who arrange this sort of thing a little advance notice so they could set everything up.
It had taken Tantulus quite a long time to talk Hades and the other gods into giving him free access to the rivers. After all, he had pointed out, I’m not trying to mitigate my sentence. It has been indeed pointed out that I am indeed doomed to stand until eternity with water up to my chin, and that’s all very well, I accept that. But why shouldn’t I have different waters and different views?”
At first nobody paid any attention to him. Then his case was finally heard by the Judges.
Rhadamanthus, chief god of the judges of the dead, had at first refused to listen to Tantulus’ argument. “It’s not traditional,” he grumbled.
“No,” Tantulus replied, “but there’s no rule against it. What isn’t forbidden is allowed.”
Rhadamanthus, Minos and the other judge hadn’t been interested in getting into it, certainly not at first. It looked like a lot of trouble and they had plenty of work on their hands. There was a lot to do back in those days. People were always dying and coming through from Earth, arriving at the great crossroads where the judges of the dead sat, showing up in droves, hundreds, thousands, and then millions. There was scarcely time to judge the tenth part of them. Their stories were in many ways remarkably similar.
Most of the souls waiting to be judged were clad in winding-sheets. Some still had their jaws bound with the graveyard bandages. A few had managed to bring money with them, and some of them had quite a lot of money, because although Charon demanded but a single obol, several of the more aristocratic families had stuffed several obols, or a shekel or two, or even an entire talent of silver into their mouths. It was better than looking cheap.
It is well-known that Charon, the boatman of the dead, demanded payment for ferrying dead souls to Hades—one obol, cash on the barrelhead. Since there are no pockets in shrouds, the dead used to carry their money down to hell in their mouths.
The reason for payment to Charon, and the whole subject of money in hell, forms an interesting and permissible side issue. There is no use for money in hell. You only need money for buying and selling, and earth’s the place for that, not hell. Nothing’s for sale in hell, and people down there get into a terrible mental condition due to atrophy of the buying gland. They say that no matter how long he lives in hell, a mortal never gets over the memory of the convenience stores of earth. There are none in hell, nor are there inconvenience stores, though it’s an interesting idea. So, nothing to buy, but form was important.
Nevertheless, he refused to take people aboard except for money. The moneyless dead used to gather on the Styx’s near shore and complain. It is a terrible thing, having to listen to the dead whine. They would stand or lie in the mud of the riverbank and cry to Charon, asking to be taken across anyhow, for free, consider it a public service. Charon would just glare at them and say, “No free rides, not even in hell!”