This story is by Lauren Timmins and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“I have bested Death once,” he told her, his knuckles whiter than bone as he gripped her hand. His breath came in tattered gasps, and she knew his soul was sinking.
“You must best him the second time.”
Sisyphus, the now twice-deceased king, was despised by the people of Ephyra. He had incurred the wrath of Zeus after slitting the throats of travelers who unwittingly crossed Ephyra’s borders, a grave violation of the tradition of hospitality, xenia. Thanatos himself was sent to imprison Sisyphus in the depths of Tartarus. When Sisyphus returned unscathed, rumors of a bargain began to spread through the isle – until those who were dying were not taken below, their suffering prolonged interminably. It was then discovered the king had captured the Death god, and even once Thanatos was freed, he refused to approach the king again until he was weakened by extreme age.
Yet while the king ruled over the struggling isle with an iron fist, his love for Merope was tender. When the shadowed arms of olive trees began to trace the palace windows, he would come to her with rust-stained palms turned upwards in the dying light and beg for her forgiveness. The horrors were necessities, he explained, to keep the neighboring Athens and Sparta at bay.
“Ephyra is a lamb,” he once said, scrubbing the underside of his fingernails with white cloth. Merope held a wooden bowl filled with spring water between her knees. Taking the cloth from him, she lifted her eyes to his.
“Athens and Sparta are starving lions. If I do nothing, we will be torn to shreds and devoured. If we become strong…”
She twisted the cloth over the bowl. The water ran red.
“We can survive.”
The man who returned from Tartarus and imprisoned Death was shaken. He insisted that a fire should always be lit by their bedside, as he swore the dark he witnessed in hell was alive, waiting to consume him. She would hear him stir at times, in the late hours, as the phantom screams of Furies and tormented souls held sleep at bay.
“Please,” he whispered a decade later, waking from visions of vultures tearing into Prometheus’ side, “you must keep me from that place.”
Merope faltered. She was borne of sea foam and did not bleed. She would never know Elysia or Asphodel. However, she knew what horrors awaited her mortal husband, along with those that had already left hell with him. But she also knew the will of gods was difficult, if not impossible, to change.
“I will do all I can,” she finally said.
The public square was alight with conversation, the shouts of vendors and tradesmen punctuating the volleys of barters and counteroffers. A young woman selling fabric caught Merope’s eye and waved. Her forearm was covered in delicately jeweled bangles that caught the rays of the midday sun and scattered them. A few stray beams fell on the white shroud in Merope’s arms. The fabric-seller’s smile faded.
Merope walked to the center of the square and dropped her husband’s body on the ground. The corpse’s eyes were still blown wide with panic, the gray-blue irises nearly sheathed in black. Save for part of the shroud wound around its leg, the body was completely uncovered.
“Leave him,” she commanded, silencing the whispers rising from the crowd. “He will not be buried. He will not be mourned.”
The fabric-seller pressed her hand to her lips. A group of fishermen looked from the body to Merope, then back to the body, muttering to one another. One took a coin from his pocket and pointed toward the open eyes. Another, a foreigner, watched intently.
“If any rite of passage is bestowed upon him, I will cut you down like grain in the fields, and your soul too will know no peace.”
Her stomach twisted and grew cold with each step she took away from the square, away from her husband’s body. The fabric-seller fell to her knees and wept.
“It is horrific. I said I would do all I could, but this, this I cannot –”
“It is the only way —”
“It is blasphemy!” Merope paced back across their bedchamber. “This plot will damn you. It will not save you.”
Her husband’s tone stilled her. The once firm bands of muscle that traversed his chest had withered into soft, vulnerable flesh. His hair was thinned, his eyes sunken. She managed to bring her eyes to his – and found tears.
“Please,” he whispered. “Desecrate my body, even though it violates your love for me. It is the only way I can return to you.”
His desperation cracked her will. She approached his bedside and knelt, folding the upper half of her body against the olive wood frame. The old king managed to turn onto his side. Gently, he traced the outline of her face, following the curve of every shadow.
“It will leave my soul untethered. And it is my soul that is yours.”
Ten nights had passed. The square was abandoned, left as nothing more than an open-air crypt for the body lying at its center. The only sign of life within it was a tapestry depicting a man with a lyre at a woman’s side, the corner rising and falling with the breeze. Merope approached the body, two coins in her hand.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, placing two fingers over each eyelid to close them. The temperature of the body surprised her – it felt like wax, or leather. It had not yet grown cold with the chill of death.
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that.”
A man with honey-colored skin and amber eyes stood above her, frowning. He held a great staff in his right hand, upon which two white snakes wound and unwound themselves.
“I have to admit,” the man began, “I was impressed when he avoided crossing the Styx the first time, but a second? That’s unheard of for mortals. And quite… bold.”
“What news have you come to deliver, Hermes,” Merope answered, getting to her feet. She regarded the god coldly. “It’s been some time since I’ve seen you.”
“I have just returned from dealing with your husband.” The god’s smirk was almost sadistic. “Persephone found him stranded on the shores of the Styx. He was cursing, screaming – he said he had told you to ignore the proper rites as a test of your love for him. Which beholding this … sight,” Hermes said, nudging the body with his foot, “you failed.”
Merope continued to watch him, saying nothing.
Hermes frowned. One of the snakes lifted its head, intrigued by the conversation. “Sisyphus pleaded with Persephone to let him return here to admonish you. It almost worked.” The god picked up the forgotten tapestry and pointed to the man with the lyre. “He suddenly reminded me of him. Orpheus. And this reminder helped me sense there was a second trick afoot. But I didn’t expect such betrayal from you, when you know our ways, Merope. Life with mortals has ruined you.”
The god sighed heavily. For a moment, Merope believed he may have even pitied her.
“Your husband’s fate was inevitable after what he did to Thanatos. However, your meddling in these affairs has produced another choice. You can do nothing, and he will suffer eternally, or you can take his punishment.”
Merope looked to the body, recalling the long, torturous nights he had suffered, haunted by hell, and how the eyes that once looked at her with awe and devotion had become permanently transfixed by fear. Eternity, for her, was not so long.
There is a great mountain in the darkest reaches of Tartarus, in which the Titans are imprisoned, and where Prometheus is bound. Merope stands at its peak. Hermes stands beside her. A boulder towers over the two figures, so large that its shadow stretches hundreds of feet below.
“You have to push it down,” Hermes explains. “Once you do, there is a monster damned below to roll it up to where you stand now. If it reaches this peak, the monster will be freed. If it is freed, Sisyphus’ soul will be lost.” He utters these instructions slowly. “Do you understand?”
The god’s eyes glitter like black coals in the hellfire.
Merope doesn’t answer. She places both hands on the jagged rock and pushes until it falls, lost in the ink-black dark below.
There is a great mountain in the darkest reaches of Tartarus, in which the Titans are imprisoned, and where Prometheus is bound. At the bottom stands an old king, despised by his people.
He hears a great crash sound from the top of the mountain. He thinks he sees a faint glow in the shape of a woman, her arms stretched far in front of her. The glow is swallowed by the ink-black dark, and he hears the boulder thundering down.
Sisyphus waits with outstretched arms and looks to the peak.