In the Labyrinth
June 10, 2010
“And speech and thought, quick as the wind
and the mood and mind for law that rules the city-
all these he has taught himself
and shelter from the arrows of the frost
when there’s rough lodging under the cold clear sky and the shafts of lashing rain-
ready, resourceful man!
Never without resources
never an impasse as he marches on the future-
only Death, from Death alone he will find no rescue
but from desperate plagues he has plotted his escapes.”
…from Antigone, by Sophocles (Robert Fagles’ translation)
“You’ll never catch me,” said the shadow of a man who had sewn the severed head of a bull to his shoulders. “You’re too damned tired and you’re too damned horny.”
Theseus jumped. With the passing voice, his heart had flittered into a panic. But it sank again. It sank, not like the sinking of a ship, wooden beams splintering over the sound of screaming and fire, but like an insomniac, whose brain had decayed so far that he forgot what he had been fretting over, and finally fell asleep.
Sweet-smelling steam slipped into his lungs and he sank back into the harem that had insidiously grown up around him. Sink, sink, sink, goes the labyrinth, and pretty soon you’re too tired to fuck even 2% of your 49 omnipresent virgins. You just lie there, half-asleep, thinking how ten-thousand slaves at every coast of the Mediterranean could not be enough to keep you lost in such a small maze.
Dimly, like background music to the infinite and multiplying thighs that enveloped him, Theseus remembered yesterday’s youth. (Aww, hell, it might have been this morning).
After two months on a rolling deck blanketed in a wind that cut your face and obscured the sky; after being paraded before a city by that sad, old man, who had been cuckolded by an albino bull, all the while the double weight on your chest of a cold, short sword, and the fear you would be found smuggling it; after all that, Theseus’ restless impatience was unprepared for a labyrinth so small that he knew its every corridor in half an hour.
Theseus rolled himself over to one of the ubiquitous serving-girls. Skinned-grapes this time, he noted, as he saw from the corner of his eye his blunt and useless sword resting by an amphora.
The only thing he had used that sword for was to hack a useless ball of twine to shreds.
Theseus had almost begun to believe he was the son of Poseidon when Ariadne had snuck into his cell the night before carrying that pointless string. The words “I love you” and “from the first I saw you,” he realised, only sound believable when you really want to believe them. She had given him the ball, he had been stupidly certain, so that he would be able to find his way back out of Daedalus’ endless maze, back to her, his desperate, waiting love.
As it turned out, to his fast-onset chagrin, this had actually been part of an annual joke played by Minoan civilisation on its Athenian backwater.
Only the primitives, herding goats between the olive trees out in the Acadian hills, would think that all it took to make a prison inescapable was to make it bigger and starker. They imagined caverns half-illuminated by the fallen torches of the corpses scattered across every wall and floor, and if you could see them, roof and pit. But in cleverly bored Knossos every child knew that assaulting the body was a waste of energy, when even the smallest maze could be a killing labyrinth, if at least on some sub-conscious level the mind did not want to leave it.
Every year a Minoan princess picked the most weather-beaten and past-it Athenian hick that got sent over for the sacrifice and set him up with the same little game. “I love you,” goes the Siren, “let me help you find your way in that big, scary hell.” The next morning he would be sent into the Minotaur’s prison to cry with hurt rage, as he realised that to be lost in the labyrinth did not actually depend on losing your way.
Beneath every floor and behind every impenetrable plaster-wall, ant-colonies of enslaved men kept the Minotaur and his victims trapped. Caverns of them fed the boilers that maintained the prisoners in perennially sleepy warmth, prepared the fat, sweet food that kept all consciousness comfortably drugged and at bay, and torched bonfires of incense in rooms where there was always a vomit-inducing stink, but from which vapours would be carefully released into the labyrinth to maintain its heavenly atmosphere. Beneath the floors and behind the plaster, Hittites and Assyrians and Egyptians and Scythians remembered marching against the insidious Cretan civilisation. As they worked, they remembered being defeated and enslaved.
Theseus remembered how he had lashed out at the walls when he finally realised what the place was. He had worked so hard, so very hard, slashing holes in the plaster and smashing all the pottery and vases around him. All of these things had been the life-works of an eclectic labour-army as trapped as he himself, and the Minoans would replace all of it the same way, faster than he could destroy it.
Since no visible trace of his rage now remained to be seen, Theseus did not know how long his little war had lasted. It could have been an hour; it could have been a week. When it ended he fell to quiet panting on the barely scratched, sandstone floor. And then, insidiously as ever, a soft, warm hand tentatively reached out to him.
A minute earlier he would have cut it off.
But after so long, however long, fighting the place to no avail, he somehow forgot that it existed. If he had been asked, “Do you think that’s a real hand; that Minoa has given up because you are tired?” he would certainly have known that the answer was no. But with the benefit of such exhaustion he was able to slip by without questions, without anger, and without his little war. He slipped first into the arms of one, then an ever multiplying army of Minoan whores.
“Do you remember the difference between prostitutes and love?” he asked himself, trying to believe that it was possible to attempt to move under his own initiative. “Do you remember why you came here? Or that Aegeus is waiting, looking out over Piraeus with his heart and mind being slowly torn in two by the force of a black and a white sail?”
Recollection sparked some worn out gland deep beneath the fatty layers of his brain. Traces of loyalty and reality and love cut through his curdling grey-matter, the incision shadowed throughout by the bull-fetish freak who was always stepping to just beyond his line of sight. Recollection settled on Theseus’ lethargy, like battery-acid spilled on cream.
He tried to get up again. He thrashed in place. He treaded luxury. The angst came back. He was slashing holes in off-white plaster and smashing jars against the ground. He was thirteen years old again, and old enough now to know that he would never grow out of it.
The angst awoke him like it had awoken him dozens of times before. Half-sleep and the jaded soreness of too much exotic sex dissolved in his adrenal-gland’s last ounces of energy. Athens and the war he fought, both of which had become disembodied ideas in the surrounding glut of bodies, again took on some faint form.
And like all the times before, those bodies became a lot more real again too. Subsumed in a shallow flood of excitement which his struggling had succeeded in refreshing, Theseus lost sight of his faint reasons for fighting, and lost himself in fucking and eating.
“Just one more time,” he involuntarily told himself. “Binge now and live later.”
As the orgy grew stale Theseus began to panic. He was growing old, his heart was clogged by grease and sex-slaves.
I have to get away, he thought. I have to get out.
He started down the corridor he remembered he had come down. After only a couple of turns and a pathetically short distance he could see the high, barrierless gate to the labyrinth.
The gate was built into a hill overlooking Knossos and the sea. The city was a sad island of weathered paint in the middle of an expanse of summer fields. It looked deserted with the ceremonial platform at its heart lying empty, either recuperating from whatever fevered fest had just been held, or with the acrobatic bulls sending faint tremors through it from their agitated stables. Stone walls streaked out around it. They formed a maze that mirrored Theseus’ own, its confusion only heigtened by the presence of the orgiastic platform at the centre of it all.
But beyond: the sea. Theseus’ mind had become so manic that it painted over the vista. On the empty, white-with-the-midday-sun horizon there was nothing to be seen even with the eyes of a starved hawk. But Theseus could clearly make out Athena’s olive tree moving with a mild breeze over her city. He drew in the men making their way down from the hills with flocks of their sheep, while their wives sat spinning by their homes, and children ran out over the fields they would inherit, planning the world they would make.
He leant against the ubiquitous plaster and closed his eyes. He saw the ships leaving every year carrying a cargo of those Athenians to Minoa. Seven young men and seven virgins, adjusted for inflation, of course.
He couldn’t walk out of the labyrinth, he realised, because no matter how hard he looked he only saw those ships coming one way. The prison was not behind him, and not even in front of him. There were no walls or guards or man-eating monsters anywhere. The plaster was a decoration, a form given to represent the real world behind every monument. What held him in place was the same thing that held the annual Athenian fleet in place, the force that keeps a people, alone on a free sea, from turning off the way to their annihilation.
Theseus turned around. He was totally unsurprised to see the Freak of Bulls there, waiting.
For the first time he saw him not as a shadow passing over his indulgent world, but facing him in clear light. The legendary psychopath of the greatest civilisation in the world looked out at Theseus from the bloodied eye-sockets of an ex-bull. From the scars on his skin and the smell from his shell, Theseus guessed that the Minoan slaughtered a new bull regularly, at least once or twice a month. He saw that he had cut the head off the animal and scraped out the flesh and eyes and brains inside. He had then sown it onto himself with a fine copper wire. The bull’s head was so much larger than his own that it rested low in his shoulders, the stitches reaching half-way down his chest.
Any residual lethargy Theseus had left was blasted away by the perenially fresh smell of death around the Minotaur. The maniac stood impassive as Theseus convulsed and retched.
As he rose again he could hear the Minotaur’s heaving breaths grow heavier and heavier, even as he continued not to move. Theseus was lost in the beast’s insane stare.
“So have you really been here all these centuries?” he asked for want of any other response to its stillness. “Are you really the same Minotaur that however many lost ages ago was begat by the bull of Zeus and the queen of the world’s proud overlords? Has this little maze been built for your benefit alone, for you, the lonely, single threat at the heart of this civilisation? Or have there been many of you, a line of shadows behind the world’s richest kings?”
Fine Athenian speech-making was lost on Minos’ son.
If you can’t fight it, thought Theseus, and you can’t reason with it, then Athens is out of options.
He stepped out of the Minotaur’s line of sight and leant himself against the wall. This is what Minos is built around, he realised. Keeping this crazed masochist imprisoned from the world. This is what all of it is for: the slaves, the cities and the sacrificial fleets.
As the sun set, he watched the Minotaur. Sometimes its heaving would make its morbid mask slip, and an old wire would open up some of the scars that ringed around its heart.
But at last the angle of the light struck the Minotaur just so, and Theseus saw the eyes within. He recognised them. He recognised that they were not, and had never been, staring at him. They were looking out past the city and over the sea. He recognised that those eyes were painting over a vista, and dreaming of a free country only they could see. That country was not Attica. And if it’s Crete, thought Theseus, then it’s a different Crete to the one we’re standing on. It’s just as far away. And maybe it was no country anywhere in the world, but one he had to dream of all the same, as he tried vainly to scramble out of the Minoan labyrinth. Theseus recognised the eyes as his own.