THESEUS: THE RETURN FROM HELL

 

The following story has been adapted, with modest alterations, from Greek mythology.

"Theseus! Just look at you!" Hercules laughed to see the great hero sitting with a blank expression on his face in the throne-like chair. It was the first time laughter had ever been heard ringing through the dark halls of Hades. Only a man like Hercules could have pulled it off.

"Do I know you?" Theseus asked him, regarding Hercules with listless, almost disinterested eyes.

"I donít know. You tell me."

Beside Theseus, also embedded on a massive gray throne, sat Pirithous, whose vacant eyes stirred with boldness that was too heavy to rise. "You think well of yourself, donít you? With that condescending gaze. Well, in spite of the lionís skin youíve draped over yourself and the fearsome club you carry in your hands, it came to you, too, didnít it? Death. The same as for the rest of us. Mock us all you want to, youíre no better than us. How did you die? With a spear in your back, trying to run back to your mother?"

Seeing Herculesí rage take a step in his direction, Pirithous only smiled, though for him to smile was as difficult as drawing back the string of a mighty bow, or rowing a small boat against all the currents of the sea. "What can you do to me now, kill me? Iím already dead. Weíre all dead here, ruined, miserable ghosts as loathsome as bats hanging upside down in a cave, pining for the vigor we had when we were alive, cursed by memories we cannot fix, flitting about like shadows in a world that means nothing and goes on forever. What will you do, smash my skull in as though I were the owner of that flayed skin you carry over your shoulders? Here, your great club is less powerful than a womanís scratches."

"The joke is on you," Hercules replied. "You are not dead! The sun is asking for you back, but here you sit, in caverns of eternal night, a pair of fools who have prematurely sided with the doomed."

Theseus blinked. "Should I remember you?" he asked, concerned, though here it was hard to have an emotion of any kind, let alone a strong one.

"A place which makes one lose track of oneís dearest friends truly deserves the name of Hell," replied the man who wore the lion he had slain on his back.

"You look familiar," ventured Theseus.

"You are great, my friend Ė a great warrior with a brilliant mind shining like a lighthouse over dark waves, to see that much from where you sit."

"Where do I sit?" asked Theseus.

"Where do we sit?" demanded Pirithous.

"On chairs of forgetfulness, which keep you bound to the dark."

"They seem like thrones."

"So they were presented to you by Hades, Ruler of the frightful abode. You broke the rules to come here, as living men, to steal his wife Persephone. Never mind that he, fierce lord of the dead, stole her in the first place from her mother, the queen of the summer grasses whose crown of golden crops sustains all places which can see the sky. Gods take what they want. Mortals who try to right the wrongs of Gods are wrong."

"I donít remember a thing," Theseus protested.

"Your friend, Pirithous," Hercules complained. "So much trouble heís brought you. Always, he wanted the women who others would kill for. You donít remember the wedding party, long ago, ravaged by the stampede of wild centaurs who lusted for his bride? You risked your life, then, to batter away the primal hordes, with their thundering hooves and wine-maddened eyes, who loosed showers of poison arrows at you in defense of their abrasive form of love. Now, Pirithousí desire strikes again. He must have the bride of Hades! He did not come to rescue her, but to take her from one Hell to another, from one sunless prison to the next. He is not innocent as the Centaurs, who had the excuse of being one-half animals, nor as accommodating a captor as a God, who repairs the tears he causes with a palace. No, Pirithous came to replace a collar studded with jewels with a collar of cold iron, to destroy the high art of slavery with crudely-wrought captivity. There is no nobility in his plight. But you, dear friend, you who accompanied him here because you are faithful even to friends who do not deserve you, friends who betray you by harnessing your ideals to their filth: you make me grieve. For you I come. You saw his selfishness as a weakness, and rushed to his rescue. You joined him in his crime, to try to save him."

"Go away," Pirithous told the hero. "Leave us in peace. We spend our lives, now, among shadows which groan with thirst and lament things left undone that can never be righted. Here, there is no enlightenment, only bitterness and undying regret. Suffering is all we have the strength for."

"Rather than challenging you when you came, Hades pretended to sympathize with you," Hercules informed them. "As a gracious host, he offered you the comfort of these throne-like chairs. You could not resist the idea of feeling like kings, so you sat on them. And now, you can remember nothing of who you were, or what Destiny appointed you to accomplish. Your work is left behind, the gold that was yours to excavate to buy life for others, remains buried in the earth. The chairs have conquered you Ė the beautiful feeling of sitting in these chairs."

"They do not feel beautiful," Pirithous complained. "We feel nothing. Nothing at all."

"To the sensitive, that is beautiful," said Hercules.

"You did not look so wise before," Theseus told him, remembering him just a little, now. "I recall your face, brave and simple. Prone to fury. You were like a storm without a mind, like those arms of yours, with bulging muscles, breaking necks without a thought. You had no craft, you were like a charging bull; but you were stronger than skill. But now Ė your eyes Ė they see. Or is it only compared to us?"

"Once, dear Theseus," the mighty hero told him, "you saw ten times as much as I. Your vision was like a sword, slashing obscurity. Now Ė in this chair Ė this throne you sit on, trying to become less than you are Ė now, at last, you are the king of the universe. For you have vanquished Creation. You have defeated its purpose, put the gifts it gave you to flight, remade yourself into a remnant of who you were born to be."

"I am that pathetic?" Theseus asked him. "You have come all this way, down the hole of terror where only the bravest of the living dare descend, to tell me that I am a disgrace?"

Hercules, who seemed too mighty to let a tear insult him, wiped something that must be dust from underneath his eye, and said: "No, my dear friend. I understand. You are here because you are better than I am. Because you are more sensitive, more complicated, more curious, more open. Hell is made for men like you. It is a trap set by the Gods to keep man mediocre, by snaring the best of us with opportunities that have the sharp points of knives. Deep minds cannot resist the allure of new worlds, and that is the doorway into the realm of the damned! Olympus is high, because of manís mistakes. No, my friend," concluded Hercules, "I am safe, because I am simple."

Pirithous, once again, said: "Go. Leave us in peace."

"Yes," said Theseus, "go. Donít remind us of who we were. It is the only thing left in the world that can harm us."

"I will go," Hercules told them. "But not alone. You, Theseus, are coming with me, because the world is filled with poor people, outcasts and rejects, like I was once, like Oedipus once was. You alone understand the sinner, Theseus. You alone can redeem him. Once I bring you back from Hell, I know you will use the darkness that has engulfed you to lead others out of Hell. I know you will use the expansive mind that has deceived you, to find the truth."

"You are wise," Theseus told him, moved as only a great man could be while sitting in the chair of forgetfulness.

"If it is true, it is because of you," said Hercules.

Resolutely, feet spread apart, he stood before his old friend, who was held fast in his chair as if by a supernatural glue Ė a force that was invisible and had no substance, but which was so powerful that a hundred horses hitched to it could not budge it. "I am afraid my downfall has the strength of a mountain," Theseus observed. "Who can move a mountain even an inch?" He saw Herculesí face straining, the veins in his head and arms nearly bursting from the exertion of trying to pull him out of the chair.

"I will move the mountain a hundred miles!" Hercules cursed. It was not a boast, it was a profession of love. "You are needed!" he implored Theseus, tears beginning to fall from his eyes, which Theseus assumed must be sweat. "Please, my friend! Try to remember how the world was before you left - unfinished! In need of men like you to plug the holes in the ship Ė the ship we sail on tomorrow!"

Flashes came to Theseusí mind, flashes of a labyrinth from years before, of a monster, and a city praying to be saved. Flashes of enemies in helmets, flashes of galloping centaurs seizing helpless women in their arms, trying to topple man back to four legs, flashes of exiles in rags knocking on his door. Why was he here, among the dead? Why had he chosen numbness over the pain that makes the sun rise? Women groan and cry out in agony above heaving wombs that give children to the world, because they know that birth is sacred. Women who have never hurled a spear, or lashed the horses that pull a chariot into battle. Hadnít he been a warrior once? Could he not bear the pains of labor as a million women had?

What was he doing here?

Why was this chair as powerful as a whirlpool?

"Let go! Let go!" screamed Hercules.

"Iím not holding onto the chair!" shouted Theseus, feeling something for the first time in years, fighting back, angry at his friendís anger.

"Let go!"

"I have let go!"

"You have not!"

"I have!"

Suddenly, it was Theseus who screamed, as he flew in Herculesí arms out of the throne of self-negation, pieces of his flesh left behind on the chair as if melted into it, blood pouring out of the wounds. The pain was excruciating.

"Youíll live!" Hercules told him.

"How do you know? You who could get back up after being trampled by a bull, with no more concern than if the wind had blown off your hat?" Seeing that Hercules was planning to carry him back to the light of day, Theseus, forgetting his own pain because he was no longer trapped in the chair of forgetfulness, exclaimed: "My friend!"

"Who, Pirithous? That user, that fool? The one whose failure to be a hero has kidnapped your own heroism and limited it to watching his back, when you could be pursuing your own dreams in the sun? That one who has led you into darkness, stolen all your skill for his corruption? How many widows and orphans has he made, by stealing a hero from those who really need him?"

"He is my friend!" Theseus insisted.

Hercules knew he had to try to rescue Pirithous as well, to satisfy Theseusí sense of loyalty. But the inept adventurer, the would-be thief of Persephone, could not be lifted out of his chair, and cursed Hercules, and then Theseus, as they tried. "Leave me here! Leave me here!" he cried. "I donít want to remember how pitiful it is to be a man!"

"It is a feeling that can be overcome," insisted Hercules.

"Leave me here with the dead," Pirithous said. "You have no right to try to drag me to happiness. What makes you happy makes me sick. Can you drag me to where I want to go? Would you know how?"

Time was running out, for the guardians of Hell are not kind to strangers. And Theseus, for the first time in years, saw something in his friendís face that made the fires of his love for him begin to cool. He saw a man, exploding from the inside, who had never loved anyone or anything, a man who wanted his excrement to be glorified.

"Come on!" Hercules cried out in a stern voice, seizing Theseus by the arm and pulling him along after him.

"Along this very path, Orpheus sought, in vain, to lead Eurydice back from the dead," said Theseus.

"She was dead. You are alive," said Hercules.

"Pirithous!" It was from habit.

"There are some who will not let themselves be saved."

"He stays behind, he does not flee. Is he braver than me?"

"Braver than you to be damned! Less brave than you to live!"

Theseus wavered, but as they approached the opening back into the world, he began to feel once again the warmth of the sun and to remember what it was like. He heard birds singing somewhere, nearby, welcoming him as if he were the dawn. He knew that light has the power to wash away the errors of man, and that he would return to the world as clean as the day he was born.

 

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