Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Sisyphus Ascending

 

by Scott Cravens, 

Earl Grey

             A lifetime of ruling over his city passed, and Sisyphus, childless and stricken in years, was near death’s door. He despised Hades for the human assurance of mortal ends. The old king who founded Corinth, was heartbroken that he must die, as all men do. A king of highest authority in the land could decree no law against dying; no power vested within him could conquer it, nor could he flee from its embrace. Sisyphus, bearing the determination not often seen in those his age, decided he must try something. The old king sought the council of his advisors on the matter.

‘I have brought you forth to ask for your wisdom concerning the end of my life.’

With somber facades the men in his chambers looked at one another and their king.

‘My lord, if it is the succession of your throne that worries you—.’

‘No,’ said Sisyphus abruptly, ‘all the concerns me, is staving off death’s cold touch.’

‘Your lordship, you have lived a life of honor and you have ruled your people justly. What regrets could a man of your stature bear?’ asked one of the counselors.

‘What regrets? Merely, that I had ever been born. No greater pain exists for man, than the inevitable day that he must bend the knee to his mortality. I will not go willingly to the ferryman.’ The incensed words of the king stirred the men who listened.

‘The tales of old speak of a spring of immortal youth that veins from the river Aspos. I am leaving my beloved Corinth to trek to the river to uncover the pool of Aegina. I should like to drink the waters and restore my youth.’

His advisors looked at him in disbelief. ‘Your lordship, I’m afraid that you will be unable to do so. That journey cannot be made by a man of your age and stature.’ said one.

‘And even then sire,’ said another, ‘those stories of old are merely legend, nothing more.’

The wise old king looked at them with scrutiny and sighed deeply before he spoke. ‘Yes. But even legends are rooted in truth. That truth, whatever it may be, is what I cling to. Death, the hardest of all truths, will not force me to surrender my love for life. Tomorrow at dawn I alone shall leave. Do not send anyone after me. If the gods will me not to return, then it shall be so.’

The councilors looked about each other, recognizing that they could not deter their aged king from his quest. Sisyphus, whose mind was not rotted like so many others his age knew what he wanted, but the councilors he sought for guidance viewed him as merely a decrepit man plagued with senility. The next morning when his servants came to wake him, he was gone.

 

With walking stick and cloak, old Sisyphus walked from his progeny, Corinth. Many a day and night, like a poor, wayfaring stranger, he tramped across the isthmus that connected Peloponnese lands to the rest of the Mediterranean. No violence befell him on the road, nor did he encounter the company of bandits or highwaymen. When he reached the blue waters of the Aegean Sea, he gazed in awe upon the tranquil body that gave life to the region. He drank and gave thanks to the gods, and continued northward.

Many days followed in the travails of the old king. One day as Sisyphus, beset with fatigue, came to the end of a path, he found himself lost in that foreign land. All through the night Sisyphus creaked along, using every bit of his staff to drag his weary, arthritic vessel along. In despair, he gazed up to the heavens above. The sky was alight with the fire of the stars, giving the black canvas of the gods a flawless image—clearer than any night he’d seen since his youth.

Suddenly, he heard water. His pace quickened with a vigor long forgotten. The roar of water was closer and closer with each step. Through dense brush he clumsily stumbled forth, twisting foot over foot, falling face first. The torrential current of the river before him dispensed its mists, consecrating his brow. Wincing and aching, Sisyphus laid where he had befallen, into the deep sleep of dreams.

Sisyphus stood next to the river Aspos and watched as the waters rose slowly. Across the water his sight landed upon the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. Naked, in all her serenity and beauty, kneeling down next to the edge of the water stood a woman he had only seen in his dreams. The woman turned and locked her gaze with Sisyphus. The old king, elated by the splendor before him, called out, “Who are you?”

The woman extended her hand, gesturing him to her. With locked gaze he walked into the rising water. His aged frame was smitten with the rapids of the current. He trudged with each step driving him deeper into the tempestuous waters. He clutched to his staff tightly for support, as the waters deepened. The river raged harder and harder, yet Sisyphus did not take his eyes from her gaze. She crossed out upon the water to him. Unexpectedly, his staff went out from under his shoulder, submerging him. The old king gurgled upon the torrential waters that filled his lungs. Looking up through the translucent fluid, he saw the light growing dimmer as he sank lower. The woman extended her grasp to him, and with all the strength of mind, he clasped to her.

The two burst forth upon on the bank of the river. Gasping for breath he looked up with trying aspect into her face. Her eyes were of purest green. She walked slowly forward from him into a wooded dell and he followed the naked woman, not uttering a word. Through the dense flora he pioneered behind his guide. They came to a break in the brush, and entered upon a glade with a bellowing spring. Sisyphus fell down and rested next to the edge of the pool.

‘Dearest maiden, may I have a sip of your water?’

The woman cupped her pale hands with water from that celestial well, and knelt before him. With trembling fingers, he pulled her hands to his mouth and drank deeply.


           

Sisyphus thrusted awake, covered with sweat and gasping for air. The sun was hot upon his head as he sat bewildered next to the river. He looked down at his hands. They were taut and hardened, no longer besprinkled with spots and creases. He crawled over to the river’s edge and peered at his reflection. Gazing back at him was a man, who looked like an old friend from some forgotten time. The face in the water began to smile back at him. Sisyphus stood with ease, none of his joints ailed him. He dropped his stick to the ground, and walked back in the direction of home, full of youth and confidence.

***

            Death was subservient to the ageless king for hundreds of years thereafter, and with prosperity unabated, he ruled over his city. Each year, in honor of the nymph-goddess Aegina who fed him the waters of that hidden spring, Sisyphus would travel across the Mediterranean to the river of Aspos with a multitude of companions and drink from the spring in the glade. There next to the cool water’s breeze, Sisyphus would sleep in his tent, under clouded night with dreams of darkness and utter void. The king’s hope to once again meet the lady of the spring slowly vanished, for no comfort ever came to him in the form of sleep, for he had not dreamt since that fateful night many ages ago.

Unbeknownst to Sisyphus, he had committed the ultimate sin against the gods. Hades, who’s touch extends to all men, had been deprived his due. By evading mortality, Sisyphus had put death in chains, leaving the Underworld with vacancy. The enraged god of the Underworld appealed to the authority of Zeus. Hades made the case that it goes against the entire pantheon of gods, to be put to shame and perdition by a mere human—immortal or not. Zeus, having listened to the description of Sisyphus’ deed, decided that the ageless king would be punished, and so too the nymph-goddess responsible for his immortality.  

***

In some countless year the day had come for Sisyphus to return to the river’s bank, by way of paying respects to Aegina for the gift of eternal life. Ceremonies of praise and thanks where given in honor of the beautiful nymph-goddess, and many heads of cattle were sacrificed in her name. Well into the night, Sisyphus and his mighty throng reveled, and for once in many years, Sisyphus made a point to notice the cheerfulness of the present moment. Sisyphus thought to himself, ‘If this is not happiness, then I do not know what happiness is.’ He danced, he drank, and he toasted Dionysius for the good time.

As he prepared his tent by the river’s bank, he looked up at the sky. Clear and luminous it was—a night with appearance as day. A wan smile broke across his face, as he entered his tent and prepared to dream.

 

            When he had awoken from his sleep, he exited the tent. It was still dark. All about the bank of the river was quiet, ineffably quiet. Once again, he peered up into the heavens and to his surprise, there were no stars lighting the void, as it was before he had slept. Just darkness.

            The water was stagnant and immutable. Across the river he saw her. Aegina in all her majesty exited from the forest, and walked toward the paralyzed Sisyphus. With grace she entered the sluggish stream and waded to its centre. With familiar gesture, she beckoned him to her. Like a siren’s call, he entered the stream almost unknowingly. He swam to meet her, entranced by her presence like a fantasy soon to be fulfilled. When he was within her reach, the nymph-goddess smiled. All that Sisyphus could utter was, ‘If this is not happiness, then I do not know what happiness is.’ The totality of seduction enthralled him into her naked embrace. Her gentle lips met his. As they kissed, they sank into the waters. Sisyphus, eyes closed, continued to hold his beloved savior, unaware of the many leagues of water that submerged them. He felt his feet touch the river bed. Suddenly, he sensed her body slowly hardening. Her frame was contorted and knotted within his arms. Disoriented Sisyphus opened his eyes to a horrific sight. The nymph he held on to so tightly, was no longer in his grasp. Only a great and heavy stone resided in his trembling arms.

            Black expanse traced the environment as far as his eyes could see. A boulder of marble, heavy with its straining weight, was all he bore in his clutch; a mountain before him was all he held in his sight. A voice whispered out from the void:

‘The solidarity of a man is shattered by the weight of a single stone.’

Sisyphus wept bitterly. He wept for he could not, in his anguish, let go of the stone that was once his beloved nymph.

            In utter depravity he thrusted the weight of marble up the traces. With bare feet he traipsed upward, soles clotted in the drudgery of each stride. Sweat perspired from the brow as he toiled, shoulder under stone, cheek tight against the rock-face with arms that kept the weight in equilibrium. Intervals of time and space unending went by when he reached the summit. Sheer nothingness raged all about him at the peak. Sisyphus felt a sudden inability to control his joints. His arms limped and his shoulder loosened under the stone’s weight; it proceeded to roll downward, and stopped with precision at the base of the mountain.

            His defamation of the gods, his abhorrence toward death, and his will to live a life full and ardent, earned him that most cruel punishment—forever laboring with every fiber of his being toward achieving nothing. As he descends in darkness, he knows that his rock awaits him that he will weep at its touch, and he knows that this charge is never ending. The tragedy manifests in the fact that he knows—conscious of the absurd task, wholly aware that it signifies nothing. Yet, Sisyphus descends.

            When he reaches the base of the mount, Sisyphus once again heaves up the stone. Tears stream down his face, overwhelmed by the unfaltering sense of duty. Sisyphus begins the ascent, uttering with each breath:

‘This is my rock. This is my rock.’

 

***

            As dawn broke in the Mediterranean sky overlooking the rushing waters of the river Aspos, the companions who had traveled with Sisyphus began to stir awake. After much time had passed and Sisyphus had not emerged from his tent, his servants entered.

 

There, under linens of finest silk, lay a corpse withered and rotted by many ages.  

About the author 

Scott Cravens is a short story writer from Arkansas. After he graduated from college 2018 from Harding University, he moved to Oklahoma where he teaches literature. Currently, he is working on his MA in writing at Johns Hopkins University. His work has been published in Ariel Chart: International Literary Journal.

 

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