Welshman David Price is a veteran of the small press. He has been writing for years - his first acceptance was back in 1996 - and has had countless short stories published in magazines and anthologies. He even edited the excellent Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque before deciding to concentrate solely on his own fiction. His first collection, Evil Eye, was released in 2001 to critical acclaim and he has recently completed his first novel. David is a very versitile writer and is not frightened to try out different styles or work in different sub-genres, as the following tale shows...
I walk along the beach; carrying my burden and looking to the ground. The sack gives me a hunchbacked appearance. A stone is slipping, very gradually, out of a small hole in the bottom of that sack, emerging like an egg from the womb. Suddenly it drops, sinks into the sand, and is gone. I note the size of the stone, locate another one of similar size, and then place it in the sack. Another stone is beginning to emerge, and I am already looking for its replacement. This is the task that I, and every other resident in the citadel, have carried out, day after day, since before I was born. Finally, a bell tolls the hour. We drop our sacks and make our way home.
All my life I have lived in this citadel. A wall surrounds us, and only in death do we ever go beyond it. I want to see beyond that wall; but such thoughts are discouraged, such possibilities never discussed. Yet I see people look up from their tasks and gaze with longing towards the boundaries of the citadel. Are they, too, dreaming of their freedom? There has to be more to life than this incessant drudgery.
I walk home slowly, shoulders aching, amid a procession of tired-looking stragglers, all wearing the same bored or frustrated expressions. There is little happiness in this world; how can we continue to tolerate such an existence?
Back at my house, my mother serves up a meal of baked ham and boiled eggs. Then we eat in silence; my mother, Cansis; My father, Tarrec; My sister, Minchre - and me, Anolen.
The meal over, we discuss our day over a goblet of wine. The blood red liquid displaces the taste of the sea, and for that I am grateful. Later, as the sun settles over the horizon, I fill a basket with fruit and accompany Minchre to the caves. We place the basket on a rock within, and then take a walk along the seashore. Three circuits of the beach later, we return to find the basket empty. We will not have to repeat the ceremony of the fruit for another sixty days.
Sitting on a rock, we watch the huge red ball of the sun slip below the horizon, and my thoughts return to Thessaly; the place from which we were exiled. I have been told this story many times, but I have never been told why. So there is a dark and sinister secret in our past; why should we all be punished for it? Too often I dwell on this, more and more I dream of returning to that land and discovering the truth. The elders tell us stories of distant lands and wondrous cities. When young I was merely intrigued; now, no longer content to be entertained with simple tales, I want to visit these far and distant places for myself.
The tide comes in, and for a while we amuse ourselves by skimming stones across the surface of the water. Then we return home.
At night I lay awake in bed and think about life beyond the citadel walls. My urge to leave increases; my continued incarceration is becoming intolerable. I think on this long after the candles have been extinguished and the town falls silent. I think about it more and more with each passing day.
When I returned home a week later, I knew that something was wrong. The community had fallen silent, and that could only mean one thing. I ran home. The golden carriage was there, six white horses waiting for the instruction to pull away. I approached it fearfully, scanning the windows. My heart sank as my fears were realized; sitting by one of those windows was my mother, waiting to make her final journey. A number of people surrounded that carriage, some of them ashen-faced and crying. My father was standing outside our home, an arm around Minchre's shoulders; this was the final journey, the trip beyond the citadel walls. I wanted to run forward, waving my arms and shouting, pleading with my mother to get out of the carriage and return her family. But this was not the way to behave, and I could only sink to my knees and grieve. The carriage pulled away...and I could only watch it depart, shattering the lives of the families left behind.
Are you surprised that we accept such cruelty without question? Do you think that you would resist such a calling? It amazes me, now, that I just stood to one side and watched; but at the time, this was the way of things. It also meant that I would not be able to leave the citadel for some time to come.
And so we carried on, a family of three. I stayed for Minchre's sake, helping her through this period of grief; and in truth, I didn't have the heart to leave. So every day I reported to the beach for my allotted task. But I was now embittered, and more determined than ever to make my escape. It is true that my spirit was broken for a while, but I fought back all feelings of self-pity. This citadel had taken all that it was going to take from me; it was time to leave.
On my final night in the citadel I told father and Minchre of my plans. There was no resistance. We had supper, watched the sun dip below the horizon, then returned home and filled a bag with provisions. I waited until the early hours of the morning, and then slipped out, making my way to the wall through the darkened alleyways. It was a simple matter to climb over it. Thick vines adorned both sides, and I gained my freedom in a moment. Then I began my odyssey. I wanted to find out the truth, but the search would be a long one.
For many moons I travelled: sometimes joining a caravan, sometimes settling in a city and taking up manual labour. But the caravan's moved without purpose and few labours ever really came to an end. It was still drudgery, everywhere I turned.
Sometimes it was tempting to just surrender; settle down, make a new home. But then I would think of my mother, and my determination to press on would reassert itself. Was this just another pointless task?
Then one day the chance to find some answers came my way. I arrived at a seaport just as a longboat was pulling in. Later, as I was taking a supper of goat's milk cheese and bread in a tavern, the owner of the vessel walked in.
'I've cargo to deliver to Thessaly and I need a crew. If anyone's up for a voyage, I'll pay well.'
Thessaly? How often had I been told of this place? If I could find an answer there...
'I'm up for a voyage,' said I.
'A hard voyage, and you'll be manning the oars. The works hard, but well paid... if you still have the inclination for it.'
'I have,' said I, and indeed, I would have made the journey without payment.
We set off the next morning, before the cock crowed, and I gained my first taste of the sea. The voyage lasted just three days, and we rowed in shifts. Never before had I slept so soundly at the end of a day's labour. But I was now working with a purpose; my quest was coming to an end. In Thessaly, I felt sure that I would find the answers.
On the evening of the third day I set eyes on that magnificent city, and the towering form of Mount Olympus, for the first time. It appeared as grand and opulent as I expected. Could evil really be abroad here? As the longboat approached the seaport my expectations were high.
Having unloaded and disembarked, I set off to explore the city. Never before had I encountered such activity as I did the many bazaars and shops, taverns and places of worship. Surely the people here would remember the one's who had been sent into exile, even after all these years.
The payment from the voyage secured a comfortable accommodation, and I set about finding the truth, engaging my fellow man in conversation. But to no avail; either they did not - or would not - remember. It was frustrating, but I had come too far to give up now.
However, unbeknownst to me, my enquiries had been observed, and I was due a very rude awakening.
I awoke suddenly, on the third day of my visit to the city, with a sword pressed against my throat. I looked up to find three of the palace guards surrounding my bed.
'Your presence is requested at the palace.'
I was hauled to my feet and dragged out onto the street where a magnificent, diamond-encrusted carriage awaited me.
'In,' I was told, and a moment later I was being driven through the streets. Under any other circumstances I might have enjoyed the ride; but as I entered the palace and the massive gates closed behind me, I could feel only the most extreme trepidation.
They escorted me into the building and I was marched down a long and winding corridor. Never in my entire life had I even conceived of such a luxurious building; it was almost a citadel in itself. I was shown into a small room and instructed to wait. There followed a tense moment as I contemplated my fate, then the curtains parted and a soothsayer entered the room.
'Make yourself comfortable, Anolen, we have things to discuss.'
We seated ourselves upon plush cushions, and then a servant brought a draft of the most exquisite wine I have ever tasted. As I drank, the soothsayer fixed me with an inscrutable gaze.
'You have travelled far, Anolen?'
'Why did you leave your community?'
'And for the first time, I told my story. The soothsayer was an attentive audience, occasionally nodding, but saying nothing. When I finished, he poured more wine.
'Your presence in Thessaly has not gone unnoticed. In fact, you have drawn considerable attention to yourself.'
I shrugged. 'I've been trying to find out the truth.'
'And what truth would that be?'
'The truth about my forebears. My people are exiled from Thessaly, somebody must know why.'
'Have you discovered the truth?'
The answer was no, and I believe he knew that; but I had to behave with circumspection.
'No-one seems to know.'
'"Seems" is the right word. Some of the elder people suspect, but you'll never get the story out of them; some secrets are better left buried. However, there is talk. Thessaly has been cursed, and the people of your citadel are the victims of that curse.'
I took a sip of wine and allowed him to continue. This, clearly, was not an easy story to tell.
'Many years ago, Thessaly was a happy city ruled by Aeolus, a kind and benevolent King. But then something happened. Aeolus had a son. This son made a mistake and was severely punished by The Gods. In an order to keep this a secret, it was decreed that every member of the court be sent into exile. But this son - whose name I am forbidden to mention - was also a King, and he gave a final order to his own servants. Then he was condemned to Tartarus. He is there now, carrying out his punishment. As for the people of your citadel...' he shrugged. 'They must now endure the same meaningless existence as he does.'
'That's monstrous,' I cried, 'To punish innocent people! And what did this &ldots; King &ldots; do?'
'He enraged a God. A beautiful woman was involved, and that is all I can say. Now we can only strive to keep the secret. That is why you must leave, Anolen; leave and never come back.'
'Just like that?' I said, placing my goblet to one side. 'There are selective sacrifices at that citadel. My own mother...'
But the soothsayer held up his hand. 'It is the way of things. In this world, it is unwise to defy The Gods. Once, all was right. Aeolus reigned in Thessaly, his son ruled over Corinth...'
'Corinth? But I thought...'
'...and then he saw something that he should never have discussed with anyone. The God's are not forgiving, Anolen, and it is unwise to defy them. Do not make that same mistake.'
And that statement was enough to enrage me.
'I have made no mistake! And yet I have been a prisoner all my life. Haven't I got the right to know why? The King of Corinth was just one man; why should so many people suffer for his 'mistake'? I want an answer, that is my right.'
The soothsayer was quiet a moment, contemplating my words. Then he placed his fingers together in a steeple 'Your "right", Anolen? And if you insist upon this 'right' of yours, would you be prepared to take the consequences? The King of Corinth enraged his God. Will you risk doing the same?'
'I have already been punished. I just want to know why.'
He thought on this a moment; then he nodded, and stood up. 'You are still young,' he told me. 'On the morrow a ship will be setting sail. You will be on board, bound in ropes if necessary. Do not return, for there has been trouble enough. And your previous confinement is as nothing compared to the dungeons of Thessaly. Just think upon that as you leave.'
With that he bowed and walked out, the meeting at an end.
The guards led me outside and I was driven back to my accommodation. I slept very little during the night; it was frustrating to have come so far and learned so little. I left my chamber the following morning to find the palace guards awaiting me. They escorted me to the ship and stood sentinel on the quay as I sailed over the horizon.
'You have denied me my rights,' I said, as the city of Thessaly vanished from sight. 'But I will discover the truth. I swear by all The Gods that I will!'
And with those words I effectively sealed my fate!
On the final night of the voyage I was strolling upon the deck, unable to sleep. Could I simply return to the citadel, resume my meaningless existence and forget all about it? No, that was out of the question. But what could I do? Dismiss a whole lifetime of injustice? If the guards had returned to the palace, I'd have leapt into the sea and swum back to Thessaly. But it was too far away now. There'd be other voyages and, as tired by travel as I was, I still shuddered at the thought of returning to the citadel. Who was this King of Corinth, a man who could so mercilessly punish his own subjects? And what crime had he committed to merit a punishment from The Gods? I was, by that time, completely obsessed with finding out the answers.
At length, I became aware of a tall figure, standing forward of the ship and looking out to sea. He wore a long cloak, and a hood covered his head. For some reason I became wary of his presence and was tempted to leave, but for some reason I approached him. For a time we just stood there. Finally, he spoke.
'You seek answers, Anolen?'
'You know my name?'
'I know everything.'
'Then tell me.'
He turned to face me. Within the cowl, I observed the coldest pair of eyes I had ever seen.
'Is it answers you seek...or freedom?'
'I am free.'
'Your quest imprisons you. Most people, I can help. But only one man can help you. The King of Corinth Himself.'
At this I nodded, then shrugged.
'If I could get to him, I would.'
The tall man regarded me a moment longer. If only I had walked away from him &ldots; but of course, I could never have done that; I was dancing to his tune.
'He is not beyond your reach, Anolen. If you wish an audience, I will happily grant you one.'
'Who are you?'
'I am Zeus...and I give you...Sisyphus, King of Corinth.'
He waved a hand, and I was no longer standing upon the deck of a ship; I was atop a hill, looking down. Zeus pointed, and I beheld a figure climbing towards us, pushing a boulder before him.
'That is Sisyphus,' he informed me, 'the man responsible for the plight of your people. Witness his punishment, Anolen. He will spend eternity pushing that stone to the top of this hill. An endless task, for when he reaches the top it will roll back down again.'
'You have condemned him to this?'
'Yes. And he condemned his subjects - the servants at the palaces of Thessaly and Corinth - to similar labours. But of course, those labours will end one day...unlike his.'
The figure was slowly approaching us, pushing the stone before him.
'But what was his crime?' I asked.
'He betrayed his God. Now he is paying for that betrayal. Observe his fate, Anolen, see what happens to a man who cannot hold his tongue.'
Pushing a stone, over and over again to the top of a hill, only to watch it roll back down again...this task was as tedious as any I had carried out in the citadel.
I turned to Zeus, but found myself alone on the hilltop. I was now trapped in this vile and inhospitable Underworld. The sky was as red as fire, bolts of lightning streaked across it. In the distance I could hear the haunted and plaintive cries of The Damned. Had I, too, been abandoned in Tartarus? Forcing the thought aside, I began to run down the hill.
'Your Majesty,' I cried, 'We must talk.'
Sisyphus regarded me a moment, then continued pushing the stone up the hill. 'Speak?' said he, 'Servants bring me food and water. We do not speak.'
'I am not your servant. I am an exile from Thessaly.'
I fell in beside him.
'My people have suffered,' I told him, 'Members of my community have been...'
'I know the fate suffered by the exiles. Did I not command it?'
'We have done no wrong.'
At this, he threw his head back and laughed.
'Wrong? What do you know of right and wrong? I, too, thought I knew what was right. Have they told you my story?'
'They didn't tell me anything. Until a few moments ago I didn't even know your name.'
'So they are trying to forget me, is that it?' The look of anger on his face was terrible to behold. 'Once, I made an error in judgement. Zeus is an evil God...'
'Can I make things worse for myself? I'm an innocent man. Now they are trying to bury my very memory.'
'Is that why you ordered your subjects into exile?'
'My father ordered the exile. It was I who decreed that you should live a life of such mind-numbing tedium. Why should I suffer alone?'
We were approaching the top of the hill.
'But the selective killings,' I protested.
'Occasional sacrifices, it's a common enough practice. Would you change a lifetime of tradition? In this world some things just have to be, do you not realize that? Yes, it's cruel, but it's the way of The Gods; they take their coin in blood and suffering, and their appetite for both is insatiable. Do you think Zeus had your best interests in mind when he brought you here?'
'I thought he was trying to help.'
'You are wrong; he is driving home the hopelessness of your situation. Then he will send you home with your illusions shattered.'
We reached the top of the hill. Suddenly, the stone began to roll back down. I tried to grab it, but the momentum wrenched it out of my grasp. It rolled down the hill and I gave chase, almost as though I could end everything by simply terminating this labour. But I could do nothing, except follow it to the bottom; Zeus had decreed this punishment - nothing I could do would ever make a difference.
A moment later, Sisyphus appeared at my side.
'Do you still think your God's are benevolent?' he asked. 'Go back to your people.'
'Back to what?' I demanded. 'You have been just as cruel as Zeus Himself. We have done nothing...'
'Am I guilty of a crime? No. I am guilty of annoying a vile-tempered and petty-minded God. Why should I show compassion when I, Sisyphus, have been shown none?'
'Because it is right.'
A bitter smile crossed his face at this point.
'Go back to your citadel,' he told me. 'When the servants bring me food, I shall command them to release your people from their life of drudgery. Now leave me.'
And without looking back, he continued his eternal trek to the summit of that hill. I was about to call out to him; but in an instant I was far, far away on the deck of a ship. I looked around for Zeus, and saw him at the fore; exactly where I had first observed him.
'I'd say your quest is at an end, Anolen,' he said.
'Will he keep his word?'
Zeus turned to face me, his visage still masked by the cowl.
'Oh yes,' he said enigmatically. 'The noble king will be as..."good"...as his word.'
If I had been able to see his face, I might have understood the terrible implication of his statement.
'Goodbye, Anolen; have a pleasant journey home.'
And with that he vanished, dissolving like smoke into the air.
I returned to the cabin but was unable to sleep, some sixth sense telling me that something was very wrong. They say you should be careful what you wish for. Had I been granted my wish? Or had my probing made things much, much worse?
It was a long time before sleep finally claimed me.
I felt nothing but extreme trepidation during my long journey back to the citadel. Sisyphus had paid dearly for challenging the will of The Gods. Now I, Anolen, had challenged the will of Sisyphus. Was there a threat inherent in his words? I joined a caravan, working my passage as a cook. When the walls of the citadel came into view I departed, and made my way on foot. How I wish I had never returned!
Even as I approached, it was clear that something was very wrong; trees rose, untreated, into the sky, and thick vines clung to the walls. Why had they not been attended to? I reached the gates and found them ajar. Never, in the citadel's history, had the gates been left unlocked and unattended. With mounting fear, I stepped inside.
Not one soul had been spared. A few had been murdered in their beds; other's butchered as they fled. Some had died holding hands, a very few had taken up arms and tried to fight back. But all had been cut down, the will of Sisyphus carried out from the very depths of The Underworld.
I found the body of my father, but Minchre - and a few more of the younger residents - was nowhere to be seen. I can only hope that they followed my lead and left. No longer can I prey to The Gods, for I know, to my cost, that they have little compassion for their subjects.
I kindled a torch and went through the citadel, setting fire to each hut, bush and tree. Then I left it for the second, and final time. When I looked back, flames rose hundreds of feet into the air. Sisyphus had been as good as his word; their labours were now at an end.
Walking to the seashore, I sat upon a rock. There I stayed until sunrise, lulled by the sound of lapping waves. I had never felt so alone, so lost, or so empty inside. I'd only wanted to see an end to the labours. Now I had witnessed the end of everything.
After a very long time, I rose and moved on. If Minchre was out there, I wanted to find her. These many moons later I am still looking. Is this, also, a task that is never destined to end?
(C) David Price 2002
© Paul Kane 2003-2018. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.