Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Last Days of the Minotaur by Sophie Green

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 20142nd PRIZE WINNER (2500 word category)

Overhead is a cobalt blue ribbon of sky. The Minotaur lies on the ground and stares up at it, his heartbeat quickening as the white boomerang of a gull flits across, so quickly he can’t be sure he has really seen it. His arms are thin and pale, his broad neck is sinewy. His horns have grown long and unwieldy and the weight of them makes his head ache.

He remembers the day they first visited the great quarry; to see the stone being mined as the labyrinth took shape. The king said it was to be used for a game.

‘You like games, don’t you.’ It wasn’t a question. ‘You like hiding and chasing people.’

He wanted to ask whether he would be the hider or the seeker. He blinked up at his mother with the question, but she looked away.

Three years later, as the sun rose, men roped his horns and dragged him from his room. In the courtyard he yanked his head around and pulled one of the men from his feet: Even for a child he was already strong. He searched the walls for the faces of his sisters. He bellowed out but no one came.

They lowered him down into the labyrinth on a rope. As he sank deeper between the cold stone walls the darkness closed in and the strip of light overhead grew thin.

‘Untie the rope’ they shouted and, bewildered he had. He watched it snake up the wall and out of sight. It was time for the game, he supposed, but there was no one in there but him.

Left in the dark his breath bloomed out in anxious snorts. Faint breezes tickled the hair in his twitching ears. His round, glassy eyes swivelled and stared like crystal balls reflecting the things which flitted in the shadows.

The second day someone threw bread down in a sack; he caught it and ate it all at once. He waited there the next day but no more came.

On the fourth night he lifted his heavy head and, throat gulping, bellowed his rage. His cries hollowed out the night, up the sheer walls of the labyrinth, into the clear sky and the ears of the children that awoke, afraid of the creature in the maze. He bellowed until his voice grew hoarse and then crackled to silence.

On the fifth day men came and threw stones, chased him away from the outer wall. Men, who had watched him run through the corridors of the palace and let him steal apples, now threw rocks at him and jeered and no one stopped them.

He had run away, as they intended, deep into the labyrinth until he found himself in an almost silent world but for the frightened beating of his heart, the metronomic sound of dripping, and the noises of things that moved in the darkness.

He had been scared when he first saw the cave spiders. His eyes had to grow used to the dark and even then they were shy. Soon he saw them everywhere and he grew used to their ways: crawling tentatively out of cracks in the stone, dropping noiselessly from the high walls on strong silky lines and spinning their pale egg sacks which dangled in the blackness like ghostly lanterns.

He had found the moss on the seventh day, when he was starving. It was towards the centre of the maze, growing in thick clumps in the crevices. Its moisture had kept him alive all these years, although sometimes he wished he had never found it. Sometimes he remembers other food: milk and honey and yellow corn bread and he licks the salt from his slimy pink nose when he thinks of the taste of it.

The winding walls are as thick as the clefts between them, twisting into concentric circles, smaller and smaller. He follows them until he comes upon a dead end or, retracing his steps, a gap in the shadows; gaps which are felt but not seen. He has to run his hands along the damp walls, over the soft spongy mosses and past the thin brittle legs of the cave spiders, to find them.

He also has a pool – a shallow puddle of water which forms each time it rains and lasts for a few days. Sometimes he sees a fragment of sky reflected in it, sometimes a star. Once he saw his reflection; the amber eyes of his mother, red-rimmed with pale lashes; the coarse rosette on his forehead which sprung from the same snow-white hide as his father. He saw his funnel ears, filled with tufts of hair, swivel at the side of his head and noted the thick muscles of his neck and shoulders were already a poor match for his horns, which had grown twisted and heavy. Now he drinks from it with his eyes shut.

Every so many years he hears voices: a horn is sounded, and the noises of people seep into the silence. Once, some of them rounded a corner and surprised him. He backed away as they approached, snorting and blinking. His mouth turned down.

He tried to tell them about the moss but they screamed and ran away. He remembered his mother standing alone in the palace, watching the children run from him. Thinking words and saying words. He could only think words, not say them, and his voice, when he used it, sent the others shrieking away through the halls and rooms as it had through the tunnels and corridors of the labyrinth.

Oftentimes they grew weary of running and gave up, but sometimes one of them chose to be the seeker instead. He learned to be afraid of those ones. He lurked in the shadows, eyes scanning the passage ways, the soft hairs in his ears ruffled by the slightest sound. Watching, stone-still, from behind a curtain - that had been another childhood game, well-practiced.

They wandered until they grew weak and died. The labyrinth killed them, as it is killing me, he thought.

He knew that his time in the world was drawing to a close. People were coming to put an end to him. Each time he tells himself he will come out to meet them, but he always hides.
He has only one joy. For a short time in each passing year, at the middle of the day, the sun shines directly overhead, reaching down into the narrow pathways. The spiders retreat into the shadows, where they crouch and wait for it to pass but the Minotaur always spends these brief moments as he is now: lying on the floor of the labyrinth; feeling the red glow of warmth through his closed eyes; trying to stretch out the seconds before the sun passes and it seems suddenly even darker and colder than before.

He rubs the muscles of his sloping neck. The horns, once as much part of him as his hands have grown monstrous; long and twisted, and they knock and scrape against the walls of the labyrinth. Skin hangs loose on his neck and the bones in his forehead stick out in ridges under his coarse white fringe. His hide that was once a shimmering white has turned to a slushy grey. He sleeps with his heavy head against the wall, his horns resting against the stone and wonders how much longer he will live.

This morning, as every other, he lies on the hard stone floor staring up at the chink of blue sky until his eyes are sore. Something hits him on the nose and he bats it away. The thing swings back and forth; he carefully raises a hand to touch it. The silken rope seems to hang down from the sky itself. The cave spiders twitch in their crannies. The Minotaur takes the strands in his hand and pulls.
The rope holds fast. It has been spun from a thousand silk threads. He looks at it as though it is the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, which it is, but he thinks, I am too old for ropes. He glances at the nook in the wall and a cave spider stares back at him.

Come on says the spider. The Minotaur ignores her. He lies on his side, the cold darkness of the labyrinth making his bones ache.

You could leave here, says the Spider.

Where would I go?

The spider shrugs. I only know this place

The Minotaur snorts, You’re too late. I am too weak to climb. He squeezes a handful of moss and lets the water trickle down his throat then he chews and chews and thinks hard about the rope.

Then you will die here says the Cave Spider, and the beetles will eat you, old and scraggy though you are. And I will eat the beetles.

 Thanks, thinks the Minotaur.

 The spider looks at him with its many sightless eyes.

No use moping, she says and teasing out a thread of silk, she knits it quickly into a patch of lace and adds it to her great web. You’ll have to decide soon: someone is coming.

The Minotaur looks at the rope and at the thin strip of sky and hears the voices carried in on the wind, shouts, growing nearer. He reaches up, and gripping the rope firmly, begins to pull himself to his feet and then up the wall, towards the light. Hand over hand, his arms smeared with algae and grazed by rock.

When, with the last of his strength, he reaches up into the white rectangle of light his long eyelashes close protectively against the glare. He holds on with his fingertips, warm at last, and then heaves himself on to the thick labyrinth wall.

At the surface he lays in the sun, his white body shivering and weak. The world looks larger than he remembers, his eyes struggle to focus. In the foreground he sees the walls spiral out around him like long, narrow roads, all leading nowhere. Further away he can picture hills of olive trees and dry earth in the distance which to him looks like lichen, spreading out across a stone slab.

He closes his eyes and breathes in the free salt wind for the first time in more years than he can remember, and the sunlight dazzles off the droplets that cling to his pale lashes.

When he awakes it is to the sound of voices, calling. With some difficulty he raises himself into a sitting position. His head hangs low and heavy. As he gazes down into the crevice that opens up beneath him, he can see the bobbing torchlight travelling along the passageways and in its fiery glow is the glint of a sword. He hears the voices growing nearer and looks into the dark labyrinth, imagining the spider down there with a web almost large enough to capture a man.

Good luck

He thinks about where he should go. Like the spiders, his old eyes are pale and more accustomed to the dark, he sees only shapes and colours glimmering in the strong light. He pictures a road which cuts through the plain like a dry river bed, and knows it leads to the city of his birth, now flickering on the horizon like a white stone mirage.

Turning his eyes to the soothing darkness far below, he sees the one with the sword stride off ahead of the others, a ball of thread clutched in his hand. He imagines the cave spiders scuttling away from danger and hiding in their crannies, waiting patiently.

The strong light presses down on him and the heat of it sears the naked skin of his back. Panting, he drops his head and takes hold of the silk rope once more. This time he ties it himself, and with the last of his strength and not a few bumps and grazes, he lowers himself back down and into the path of the sword, his pale eyes raw with the strength of the sun.

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