This story is by Dave Chaimson and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Anthos stands in the doorway of their mud and brick house, gazes at the storm on top of Mt. Olympus, and wonders what mischief the gods are up to. He brushes dust from his eyes as his frail body is blown back by the winds rolling towards his village, Dion, a two-day hike from the summit. He never questions the gods but wonders why they haven’t answered his mother’s prayers.
“Aren’t they happy?” he asks his father, Ver, who’s walking up behind him.
“They are, but they’re in a playful mood. I’m sure you’ve pleased them. Come inside, your mother’s worried.”
They sit on benches at the wooden table, their food illuminated by a small oil lamp. Anthos feels the smooth dirt floor under his bare feet and is reminded of generations that walked before him. They eat cheese, figs, and warm porridge, scooping it up with freshly baked bread.
“Autumnus, come eat,” Ver says to his wife across the room.
She’s sitting on a thin mattress, exhausted from her work. Autumnus is known for her embroidery using only threads of red, yellow, and orange, the colors of a sunset. And while more dyes would be welcome, nearby buckthorn berries and madder roots are all that’s available.
Anthos slides over, makes room for his mother, and welcomes a soft kiss on his cheek. He’s the third child, after previous miscarriages, and can’t blame her for the extra comforting. But the gods have grown weary about making him his father’s successor in Dion once Ver passes. The boy’s been unable to gain the strength and confidence he needs for this priestly responsibility.
“Anthos, I made more. Please eat,” Autumnus says, sliding the clay bowls toward him.
No matter what he consumes, he’s thin as a sapling. Anthos understands his mom’s concerns. The gods won’t grant him strength. This, he needs to find on his own. After the meal, Ver leaves to gather wood for the blacksmith furnace. His arms are thick as trees, and Anthos envies his father’s vigor.
The family’s land is fertile, and the harvest plentiful. Strangely, unlike other parts of the world, the trees are always green with emerald leaves throughout the year. The gods provide everything so long as the people offer their thanks, but Anthos wishes he could do more. Retiring for the evening, he overhears his parents speaking about unanswered prayers.
“I’m not sure I can give anymore of myself, Ver. I don’t see Anthos being able to follow in your footsteps,” his mother whispers nearby.
“Patience, Autumnus, it’ll come,” his father replies. Anthos watches as they blow out the lamp beside them and fall asleep.
Fearing the gods might not answer, Anthos senses his mother will take matters into her own hands and seek them out on Olympus. He sees her prepare a daypack for the journey and watches as she ties it shut with a special sash. It’s beautiful embroidery: bright yellow, for Apollo’s sun; deep orange, for Hephaestus and his forges; and blood red, for Ares, God of War.
Anthos knows she’ll wait to depart until Ver is off on a hunting trip; he’s not letting her out of his site. He follows her to the summit, stays in the shadows cast by the full moon, and hears his mother’s pleas.
“Apollo, Hephaestus, and Ares make yourselves known! Gods, whom I praise daily for your healing powers, please come to me.”
And with a gust of wind kicking up dirt around her, they appear. Anthos watches her duck behind a raised arm to shield her eyes from flying debris. Human in form but divine in spirit, they approach his mother and inquire about her quest.
“What brings you to our sacred ground?” Apollo bellows. Ares and Hephaestus acknowledge in agreement.
His mother responds, “I pray to you for my son’s health, for his strength to replace his father in the temple. He’s my third child; the others died inside me; I can’t bear to lose another.” Anthos feels her sorrow.
“We’ve heard you, Autumnus of Dion,” Apollo says, “and have done all we can. It’s up to him now.”
“But you haven’t done enough,” his mother yells back, catching them off guard. “I sacrifice and pray to you daily, yet he still lacks confidence!”
“We understand your pain. But we do not interfere in the lives of mortals. We have planted in him a will to lead; his time will come. Our work is done, and his must begin. All he needs to improve is within him,” Anthos hears Ares proclaim.
“It can’t be that simple,” his mother replies. “I came all this way for advice I’ve already been giving him?”
“Unfortunately, yes. You know his path forward, but he must see it as well,” Anthos hears Apollo say as they fade away.
And with that, the gods are gone. Anthos follows Autumnus down the mountain but stays well behind her.
Back in Dion, Anthos knows his mother is exhausted and inconsolable after her failed effort. She confessed to Ver and now stays in her bed for days.
“Why did she do this?” Anthos asks his father.
“She did this for you,” he replies quietly.
A wave of guilt washes over Anthos as his father questions his wife’s motives. Anthos stays quiet in the dark corner, watching them comfort each other before they fall asleep. Come morning, she didn’t wake, passing into the underworld. Anger rises within Anthos, filling him with rage as he decides to speak to the gods himself. And while Autumnus questions their wisdom, he seeks revenge. That night, while his father sleeps, he sets out for Olympus. Anger drives him, a strange, new emotion. The gods sense him coming and gather at the summit. Ares, Apollo, and Hephaestus tower over him, their colors glowing brightly.
“What brings you here again, Anthos?” Apollo asks.
“To seek revenge for my mother’s death! She prayed every day for me!” Anthos says, his voice trailing off. “You’ve killed her.”
Surprised at his own reply, he cowers. He knows they didn’t kill Autumnus, but he has no one else to blame. The gods look at him with anger and pity, eyeing a knife sheathed at his side. And while they are incensed, they respect his loyalty to the family.
“Can you bring her back?” he cries out.
“Hades has her now and decides her fate,” Ares says.
Apollos adds, “Anthos, while we can’t bring Autumnus back, we can change your world to remind you of her. Give me your mother’s sash of color.”
Anthos unties it from his waist and leaves it at their feet.
“From now on, at this time of year, we will make the days cooler and change each leaf from green to blood red, deep orange, and sunset yellow. These colors will be symbols of your dedication to Autumnus, your mother. But since you dared challenge us, these days will not last. After a few months, the leaves will die, fall to the ground, and be swept away by the wind. After all is complete, we will blanket the earth with a cold, white cover to hide what’s left. We will supply a plentiful bounty, so you must harvest what you can during the time of color. As the leaves fall each year, we promise you will be reminded of your mother and her tri-color sash,” says Apollo.
Anthos bows his head in fear, murmurs a weak “Thank you,” and returns to the village feeling strength and confidence from his confrontation with the gods.
It’s been months since his visit to Olympus, his father weak and distraught from his wife’s passing and his son’s strange disappearance. Ver notices the short days have become colder. While walking with Anthos through nearby forests in search of firewood, they notice changes in the color of the leaves.
They’re turning from green to orange, yellow and red. Under the canopy, they admire the beauty and watch the leaves fall to the ground as the winds blow. Ver bends down, picks several up, and shapes them into a loose bouquet while Anthos clears the path of heavy downed branches with his newfound strength, his father no longer strong enough to help.
“Anthos, look at this, it’s wonderful! These leaves remind me of your mother – the oranges, reds, and yellows! They’re identical to the dyes and threads she used!” says Ver with tears in his eyes.
Anthos nods and shuffles his feet across the carpet of colors. He knows this will only last for a while if what the gods say is true. His father notices a strange look on his son’s face.
“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about this?” Ver asks his son.
All Anthos could do was smile. The world around them, at least for this mysterious time of the fall, is colorful and content. Autumnus knows the gods have done well and is comforted by their confidence in what Anthos will now be able to bring to them.