Of Death and Time and Myth
Death and Time were walking through a mountain pass in the waning light of a westering sun, a path they’d walked many times before.
As he walked, Time cycled between youth and age, but whether he skipped with youthful exuberance, or hobbled painfully along on his walking stick, Death’s tread was ever constant, and eventually, he would catch up to Time.
Whenever Time stopped to rest at the end of his age cycle, Death covered him with a new blanket, until the child shaped re-emerged, sticking out its tongue at Death, sprinting away as fast as it could, and Death would take the remains of the blanket, now a shroud of the dead, full of holes and moth-eaten, frayed and rank, and pack it away in a satchel he kept on his back until the next cycle.
And Death would rise, patiently, and plod behind, the mountain winds pluck at the hem of his black and crimson robe, the bone handle of his scythe, serving as a walking stick, making puffs of dust, or crunching gravel, or click-clacking on stones, or making divots in the soil, depending on the paths they walked that day.His rhythm never varied, but seemed random somehow.
Time never waited for Death, but Death always waited for Time, though there were moments Death grew impatient, and pulled Time along before he was ready.
Time wept the hardest when Death took him away, because sometimes he simply wasn’t prepared to go; there were more memories to share, more places to explore, but Death would not hear his pleading.
It didn’t matter to Death; his world was ever silent.
Where Time saw colors and seasons, meadow and river, flower and tree, birds and animals of all kinds, heard their songs and braying, saw them breed in the spring, saw them in the fullness of life and strength and beauty, Death saw only bones, twisted trees and blackened flesh; the only splashes of color in his world were scarlet and sepia, which turned to black when what he’d seen centuries before passed from being merely old into ancient, and from there began its long, slow descent into the Mire.
Death and Time worked in tandem then, to nourish the earth and comfort the living, but other than that, they went in slow, seemingly senseless circles around the earth.
These circles they made by land, walking trails or in the backs of wagons, tracking the migrations of animals, the turning of seasons; by air, flying through the dark, spinning inside the maelstroms of calamitous storms of rain, or sometimes, sand; by sea, riding the backs of drifting clouds across oceans and continents, Time all the while proclaiming what would be, and Death, watching, waiting, to proclaim when it would not.
Time was cycling now, coming out of the uncertainty of musky puberty into the more mature stability of manhood. His whiskers grew full and shiny, black as crow feathers, black as Death’s Mire.
His muscles filled out, and he was hard and rugged. Instruments of violence and building filled his hands at any given moment, depending on his mood. Sometimes the instrument was the same, like when he used a hammer once...
Today would be different.
Through a trick of the light in the shadowy canyon, Time saw a face inside the rock.
“Death, do you see?"
Death turned his eyeless sockets on the place, and nodded sagely, turning again to look at Time as if to say, “What of it?”
“There’s a face in it! A woman’s face! Someone is in the rock, Death. I swear! I can see it!”
Death, if he were capable of it, would’ve given a smile.
His bony arm swept in an expansive gesture, his finger pointing to the setting sun to indicate the twilight shadows playing tricks.
“Then it plays well, alchemist! She is in there…”
Death took out a broken, splintered hourglass; the sand sloughed off his fingers, and the shards of glass glistened like iced tears in his ivory palm as he slowly shook his head: No time.
Time threw back his head and laughed, and the canyon echoed, and so did the rock face beside him.
Death and Time stared at it then. It had moved ever so slightly, its mouth barely a gash, and laughed as Time did.
“The rock is enchanted,” Time whispered, and the rock whispered it too, softly, but there was no mistaking it this time.
A chisel and hammer appeared in Time’s hands, and with great patience and skill, he cut around the contours of the rock, following its grain.
Death gave up all hope of moving, and walked off, his walking stick scraping in agitation at the packed dirt.
On a large flat rock that overhung the canyon below, he waited, looking down into the wide and windy chasm, to see if there was anyone he knew…
There, in the valley below, by a dried up crater that once contained cool, still water surrounded by willow trees, a withered flower had grown through the bones of a man who died with his arms outstretched, as if embracing something that had pried itself from his desperate grasp.
The flower was where his heart would’ve been in life.
Ah, Death had known him.
What a vain and foolish boy…
Time’s whiskers, glossy and black in the evening, were now streaked through with white, and his body was becoming a bit rounder, his face a bit more full, the hard angles retreating.
The moon rose, full and pale and high, and clusters of stars glittered and flashed like celestial fireflies.
The figure was indeed a woman, and by the light of the moon her stony appearance melted, to reveal beneath its hardness a woman of great beauty, stunned by her new found ability to move and feel once more.
She touched Time’s face with a grateful hand, and kissed him for a long time.
He eagerly returned the embrace, and parting breathlessly, he thought she would thank him, but she did not. As she gathered herself, he questioned her.
“Can you not speak?”
“Yes, madam. Can you talk?”
“You talk?” She patted his chest, shaking her head in frustration.
“You can’t talk?”
Time seemed amused, but she wasn’t; she was trying to tell him something, but could not seem to get it out. She only repeated what he said, and in time he realized.
“Gods be…you’re…” he snapped his fingers, “Echo. The nymph Echo! You’re Echo?”
She pounded his chest again, nodding hopefully. “You’re Echo? You’re Echo? You’re Echo?”
“Yes, yes, all right then.” He tried to take her hands down, but she clutched at him and would not let go, but he finally got her in a firm grip, and lowered his head, and looked into her eyes to calm her.
Her manner was of a bird, set free from its cage, which could only walk trustingly into a waiting hand because it couldn’t fly.
She seemed to settle, and held his gaze, her breathing slowing, her liquid eyes large and luminous in the lunar light.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered.
“You’re so beautiful.” She smiled, and put her hand to her mouth, blushing.
Time also smiled at the unintended compliment, and then shook his head, frustrated now as she was.
Death grew tired of waiting, and they could hear the skritch of his scythe as it scraped the path, and emanated from Echo’s slightly parted lips.
Behind them now, he looked at Echo, and her skin went from blush to blanche.
Time turned to look, and keeping one face on Death, made another to look at Echo.
“Don’t worry, he won’t harm you.”
“He’s not here for you.”
“Not here for you.” Her face twisted, as if with a bitter memory; he saw the agony in her eyes that she could not speak on her own.
Time straightened his stance, and put his hands on her shoulders, looking down at her.
“I will give you a gift, a once-in-a lifetime gift. It can only happen once. Do you understand?”
Death was no longer motionless, however, and upended his scythe, and Echo fidgeted under Time’s hands again.
He tightened his grip once more. “Do you understand?”
“Do you understand?” she was nodding again.
Death’s scythe descended, but seemed to slow the closer it got to cutting them down.
As it whisked through where they’d been standing what only seemed like an instant ago, Time disappeared.
And there was no echo.
In the early afternoon, Echo felt the cool grass under her bare feet, and her white diaphanous dress barely hid her charms for modesty.
She would be ever grateful to Time, who’d manifested himself to her in the form of a sculptor, and barely pushed her through some dimensional door before Death’s gory scythe claimed their lives.
Can time be killed?
She dismissed the thought; it was enough that she was free from the rocks that imprisoned her in her grief all those centuries ago.
The gods had long ago abandoned the region, and her, and the rains had stopped, leaving the land to change to desert, and her alone inside her stony dungeon; she no longer had the luxury of even repeating the words of someone else, and her loneliness crushed her spirit as she slept, and woke to silence, and slept again, in a cycle of living death.
And then the netherworld travelers happened to stop in front of her.
And now she was here.
She gazed about in amazement; breathing in the fresh clean scent of the forest, even in its pungency, made her shiver with pleasure at life once more. She wanted to kiss Time again; his scent had stirred her, but he’d hidden himself.
Maybe there will be…time…for that later. Her mischievous thought brought a smile to her lips when she heard someone rushing through the woods in her direction.
Before she could hide, the figure emerged, and it was her King, flushed, panting, and looking over his shoulder as if a wild boar pursued him.
She took the knee before him, and he paused a moment in front of her.
She stood. “You do me honor, your Majesty.”
“I would, had I time.” He smiled at her with lust, but time was of the essence, and he’d sated himself elsewhere.
“How may I serve you?”
“Juno pursues me for my dalliances with some of your sisters. I would that you use your skills of conversation to detain her while I escape until she calms down.”
“As you command, King Jupiter.”
“There’s a good nymph.” His hand cupped her cheek in a mix of paternal affection and a lion testing the softness of the skin of its next kill.
There was a rustling behind them, and Echo wanted to laugh as Jupiter bolted like a frightened deer into the woods to escape Juno’s wrath.
The scent of lilac wafted through the air, and Echo walked toward the blooming bush, and gathered some in her hands, letting the scent wash over her, as Juno came from the same direction as Jupiter, her eyes sparking with fury, her nails digging into her palms.
She spied the nymph in the lilac, and rushed over to her.
“Did Jupiter pass through here? Tell me, and don’t you dare lie!”
“To lie to my Queen is to die. I only just arrived, smelling the lilac in the air, and wished to gather some for my bath. Would my Queen like some for her own?”
“No. No, thank you. Did you see Jupiter?”
“I did not, my Queen. I would tremble in his presence, and hide; I am clad only in this faerie cloth, and the King is potent in his lust…”
Juno’s eyes flashed.
“...so my sisters say, my queen. He has not taken me to bed, nor would I go, for we are friends, you and I, are we not?
“I have sat at your feet, and eaten from your hand. I live at your pleasure, and die at your command, and my queen has been most gracious not to seek my death. I would not risk such by bedding your lord and husband, though he grow angry with me, and threaten my life.
“So again, I would not lie to you; I did not see my king pass this way.”
Some of Juno’s steam began to dissipate as her gaze scanned helplessly around the woods; it seemed he’d eluded her once again, and her eyes began to shine with welling tears.
“Come, my friend,” Echo smiled, and held out her hand, “come smell the lilacs in full bloom. I will lace some through your hair, along with flowers of white and gold. We will look for them together, and when I am done, my King will be enchanted by you once more, and bring you his heart, cloven in repentance, for you and you alone.”
Juno sighed. “Oh, Echo. Dear, sweet, kind Echo, you are ever my solace, ever my friend.”
“I’ve no other desire, my Queen.”
Echo surreptitiously cast about for Time once more, but he was not present.
Juno and Echo spent the afternoon together, and Echo chattered away; her knowledge of the woods and all therein was extensive, her curiosity about matters royal always favored Juno’s views, and as the sun wheeled to the chariot house, they gathered the lilac, the yellow posy, blue periwinkle and daisy, and Echo wreathed them round, and crowned Juno, saying she was now a nymph, and had to stay in the forest where Echo could teach her all there was to know.
Juno finally laughed, and Echo laughed with her, not like her.
And so the afternoon went, until they came to a clearing, and sleeping by the base of a tree, was Jupiter.
Both women stopped in their tracks, and gazed upon the sleeping man, clothed only in a loincloth, his royal vestments left at the pool where he’d indulged himself.
Juno turned to Echo, who in trying not to reveal anything, revealed her guilt.
Slowly, Juno took off the crown of flowers, and then her arm flashed forward, and she caught the nymph across the cheek, knocking her to the ground in a spray of blood and blossoms. Echo's dress now immodestly gathered about her legs, and she scuttled along the ground as Juno bore down on her.
Then Juno stopped, remembering she was queen, and she shuddered with unspent energy as she pointed at the nymph, the ruined floral crown between them in the green grass, her extended hand alight with power…
Echo closed her eyes, Time forgotten, reliving the horror of the day of Juno’s curse: unable to scream, or plead, or move, she lay like a newborn babe before a ravening wolf, and suddenly Juno shimmered, and stood still, unmoving as Gorgons' men, yet not of stone.
Time stepped from the woods, and at first Echo was uncomprehending, then she began to realize what had taken place, and slowly, she got to her feet, and walked over to him.
He’d aged more, his rounded frame now thinning, his beard, neat and trimmed at first, then salt and pepper, appealing for its being wilder, was now ragged-edged, stained and unkempt.
His eyes, sharp and keen when he sculpted (for she’d looked deep into them as he cut her out), were now almost rheumy to the point where she wondered if he was blind.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“This is my gift to you,” his voice rasped in her ears.
“You’re giving me back my voice?” Her eyes welled up in wonder.
“It is better to die than to never speak your own words,” said Time.
Echo was overwhelmed.
“What will happen to them?” her gaze took in Juno and Jupiter.
“She will strike him with the bolt that’s meant for you, and he will lose his ability to charm your sisters to his bed.”
Echo embraced him again, ironically now speechless with gratitude.
She looked into his eyes, and saw the light go out; he was truly blind now.
Death had his shroud; he didn’t bother to tell her he would not make it back to save himself. He leaned on his staff, his sight failed, his heart failing; he would not be alive when the moon rose.
A tear rolled down his face, but what or who it was for, he didn't exactly know.
He’d answered her question now: Time could be killed or saved, redeemed or spent.
She found that she had a choice to make, and with her heart quailing inside her, she made it.