This story is by Stephen Brown and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ixion is my name. Few have heard of me; fewer have seen me—among the living that is. But when you die and Charon ferries your shade down to Hades’ realm, there you will see me, affixed to my ever-turning wheel of hell-flame. From my torment comes the light which light the dead’s sunless land.
When you hear of my torment, you will think old Prometheus had it easy! But no, for me my punishment is to be forever burning. Hot coals dig into my back, charring skin, searing muscle and flesh. It even feels as if my very blood is boiling in my veins. And yet, I never perish. The fire never consumes me entirely. And always, I am turning. Around and around I go until I am sick with dizziness. And yet what can I vomit up in my nausea? I haven’t eaten in an age. The only time I got a moment’s respite was when poor Orpheus filled brooding Hades’ grim domain with his sweet music as he searched for his dear, departed Eurydice. Ah, what a thing to hear: music in the land of the dead! I still savor the memory of that momentary rest, as brief as it was.
Why, you might ask. What could a man do to deserve such a cruel and wicked fate? I am glad you asked. The answering shall pass some time and perhaps take my mind off the hot coals pressing into my back, even if for a moment. I was once a king on earth. Yes, a good king. A great one, if I may be so bold. I ruled over the Lapiths, the most ancient of the peoples of Thessaly—the same Thessaly which is also home to Achilles’ Myrmidons. Where was I? Ah yes, so a wife I sought for myself. I settled upon Dia the Perrhaebian. She was a nice, good-looking girl. Beautiful dimples. I thought the marriage would be an incredible match.
But Dia’s father, Deioneus, king of the Perrhaebians, laid upon me a ridiculously high bride-price. I might have been a king but that doesn’t mean I lived in a gold house. Well, I promised the old man with the most solemn oaths that I’d eventually get the gold, silver, horses, and other such niceties as he asked but went ahead and married Dia. I didn’t see a problem with that, but the Perrhaebian took it the wrong way. So what does he do? On my own wedding day, he steals the best of my horses from my own stables as the price for the marriage. Never mind that I swore to high Olympus I would pay it all to the man eventually. I was rather upset with losing my prized horses. Wouldn’t you?
I checked my anger, seeing as the old king was now my father-in-law. I wished for there to be no quarrel between us. I invited him over for a grand feast so that we might have peace between us. But when the dotard came swaggering in, well, I guess my anger got the better of me and I pushed him right into a hot bed of coals in the hearth. The old man burned up with quite a lot of screaming and thrashing. Burned up just as I am burning up right now as I tell you this. I think Zeus has a sense of humor after all.
I went nearly mad with grief and shame. It had been an outburst that had killed Deioneus, I had not planned it. How I wished I could bring that old man back and beg for his forgiveness. But I had desecrated the sacred rule of hospitality. How could I be forgiven? I fled from my wife, from my palace, from my very lands and nation. In the mountains of northern Greece I roamed like a wild animal. My hair grew long, my beard a tangled mess. The clothes turned to rags on my body. Naked I wandered, the sun burning my skin until I looked not like a king at all but like a wild Thracian of the mountains. From any sign or sound of other men I fled from like a child from the dark. My only friends were the mice which crawled over me at night and the birds which came to peck at the bugs that lived in my hair.
After passing several years of this self-imposed exile, a most miraculous thing happened to me. White-haired Zeus looked down from the heights of Olympus and took pity on me. Gladly did I accept Zeus’s pardon. Up to Olympus I was taken, to live like a god! My hair was cut, my beard trimmed, and fine new clothes were put on me. For a time I lived in absolute joy. Everything that I needed was provided to me. I even got a taste of the sweet nectar which the gods use to slake their thirst.
But then that wily woman, that Hera, saw to my undoing. I started to fall in love with that noble queen of the gods. I didn’t want to, but alas, such is the way of love. Of course, she knowingly fanned the flames of my desire. As I strode down the shaded colonnades of the Olympians, there she was all of a sudden, speaking to me in the sweetest voice. Once, I even came upon her bathing! It was an accident of course. I knew the fountain was there, I had just never seen anyone using it as a bath. She merely looked at me and smiled and turned her back to me. Oh, how the water glistened as it rolled down that divinely smooth back! Naturally, I ran from that place as quick as I could.
But that meddler, Hermes, saw it happen and reported it to hoary-headed Zeus. The father of the gods had apparently suspected that something existed between I and his sister-wife. But with this definitive proof, the chief Olympian’s rage exploded from him like lightening. A trap was set for me, to prove if I really did desire my immortal benefactor’s wife. So almighty Zeus crafted out of a cloud a replica—perfect in voice and appearance—of his wife and sent this cloud-Hera to me.
She came upon me while I was in my private room. She spoke to me in such a sweet and tender voice that I no longer could control myself and together we lay. Ah, what a night that was. You cannot imagine how lovely the embrace of a goddess is! But the next morning, Zeus, Hermes, and the whole lot burst in and revealed the ruse. There was the real Hera, standing behind her husband, a wicked smile on her cruel, beautiful face. Zeus’s eyes flashed like lightening, his voice boomed like thunder as he rained down judgement upon my unfortunate head. This, my heart could not stand and before the lord of the gods I fell down and wept like a child. But I knew my crime was too great. Now twice had I violated the sacred rules of hospitality. Lordly Zeus ordered that I be punished in a manner that befit my crime. At Zeus’s decree, my fine clothes were stripped off me. Naked, they tied me to this cursed burning wheel.
For a while I made circuits in the heavens. Every time I spun around I would gaze down through the miles of airy abyss and see the land far, far below me. Oh how I wished my bonds would break and I would be sent tumbling down, down, down and hopefully land in the sea and feel cool water on my skin. Eventually I was brought down into the underworld. Gods know why. A decree from Zeus, they said. I suppose even the dead need light. And so here I am, forever turning around and around. Every moment I feel the pain old Deioneus felt as he burned alive. Except unlike him, I have not died. But I live on, ever on. I see before me that sweet water rolling down Hera’s naked back. My parched throat burns at the thought of even one of those drops landing on that dried piece of leather of a tongue that sits uselessly in my mouth. When you too come to the underworld and have even a few droplets of water on you, would it be so hard to remember your dear friend Ixion?