It was the eighth and final day of the Pythian Games. We were gathered in anticipation of the concluding event: the final showdown between the Muses. My sisters and I had chosen a champion to perform in our honor. Apollo would judge their performances and award a prize to the winning Muse. I’d selected Eustachys and his troupe as my champions. I was glad to see we’d be going in alphabetical order. That meant I’d be next to last. Dead last would have been even better, but I failed to convince Apollo that Urania spells her name with a silent Q.
Most of the gods and goddesses present would be in attendance. There were enough rows of seats behind us to seat them all semi-comfortably. However, seating them was complicated by the fact that certain people were particularly disinclined to sit near certain others. Zeus and Hera were the easiest to deal with. Refusing to even sit on the same structure at the same time, they’d had their thrones set on clouds on opposite sides of the pavilion. When Hera arrived, I noticed her all-encompassing robe was back on. So was her hardened countenance.
Ares had been the hardest to seat. Calliope had, at first, demanded that he be banned. Apollo was tempted by the idea, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, so he worked out a compromise. Putting Ares in the farthest possible seat from Calliope wasn’t good enough. He actually measured the farthest possible point from Calliope and stuck a chair on it.
We’d hoped Eris would want to sit with her brother, but she insisted on a front row seat. We put her next to Hera, the parent least likely to encourage her little princess if she decided to create any mayhem. I was at the end closer to Eris, but at least Urania, Hermes, Persephone, and Demeter would be between her and me. Apollo was sitting between Calliope and Artemis, followed by Athena and Dionysus.
Hephaestus and Aphrodite could have fit in the first row, which would have befit their station; but all of the available seats would have put one of them next to a former lover of Aphrodite’s, something Hephaestus very much wanted to avoid. Some Muse whom I will not name had thought her boyfriend, the Messenger of the Gods, could keep a secret. Therefore, the whole pantheon knew Aphrodite was cheating again. Hephaestus had wanted to skip the event altogether for that reason, but it was vital for both of them to be there, so I sat them in the shorter second row, which, like the third, was otherwise occupied by Asclepius’ family.
Apollo had commanded the medics to take the day off unless there was an emergency since they’d hardly gotten to watch any of the events in person. I verified that neither Asclepius nor any of his sons had ever been involved with Aphrodite, but just to be on the safe side, I sat all the guys in the third row. Aphrodite has been known to shapeshift as innocent men’s wives or lovers. Asclepius’ daughters all said they’d kill themselves if they had to sit next to Aphrodite. The seating committee showed them the STFU sign and told them to slap on another coat of makeup and suck it up.
As I sat in my own seat waiting for the show to start, a pair of hands covered my eyes. “Guess who?” said Aglaea.
“You drew the short straw?” I laughed, turning to face her. Her siblings were milling around finding their seats. Aphrodite and Hephaestus had yet to show up.
“Yeah,” she made a face, “but, hey, at least it means I’m closer to you. How do I look?” she asked.
“I thought about doing something different with my hair, but I didn’t want to look like I’m trying to show Aphrodite up or anything. Unlike some crazy brothers I might mention.”
“One of your brothers wants to show Aphrodite up?” I doubted any of them were likely to be crushing on Ares, but you never know.
“No!” she laughed. “When Machaon found out he’d be sitting in front of Ares, he decided to test this new muscle-enhancing potion he’s been working on. See for yourself.”
“Oh. My. I’d say that worked just a tad too well.”
“Subtle, isn’t it?” Aglaea cackled. “I cannot believe that lame sap even tried to compete with Ares.”
Hephaestus has really, really bad timing.
Not only that, I could have sworn Aglaea’s voice was unnaturally amplified on the last sentence. My eyes darted over to Eris, but she was staring straight forward at the stage, seemingly oblivious to us.
“Oh, I wasn’t – I didn’t mean – Hi, I’m just going to keep my mouth shut for the rest of the evening,” Aglaea stammered.
“No, don’t do that,” Aphrodite crooned. “Unlike your friend here, you’re actually funny.” She patted me on the head, crushing my hairdo in the process.
“I was talking about my brother,” Aglaea pointed, having at last untangled her tongue.
“Oh,” Hephaestus noted with a self-deprecating chuckle. “You’re fine; I guess it’s a little arrogant on my part to assume the whole pantheon is obsessing over our personal lives. Nice to see you again, Aglaea.” I inferred from Aglaea’s expression that she’d hoped Hephaestus wouldn’t remember her.
“Hm,” Aphrodite observed Machaon, oblivious to Hephaestus’ comment. “I just might have to judge that competition.” She winked up at Ares.
“Fates forbid your tyrannical husband might withhold permission,” Hephaestus muttered, sitting down on the aisle seat.
“The fact that I have a husband is the only reason anyone cares,” Aphrodite retorted, seating herself next to my madly blushing goddaughter. “If it weren’t for you, people wouldn’t be calling me a slut all the time.” My lack of desire to get involved prevented me from offering a second opinion.
“When words come out of your mouth, do your ears just block all incoming sound waves?” Hephaestus incredulously inquired.
“It’s a trick I picked up after a few decades of listening to your mind-numbing excuse for discourse.”
“For the first few decades, plural, you did actually listen to me? I had no idea it was that long.”
Apollo stood up and made a thunderclap with his hands. He was now visible to the mortals below. He introduced the event and turned it over to Calliope, who introduced her champion. The champion recited an epic poem of his own composition. The subject was a battle between two armies, one of whom sought help from Ares and the other from Athena. We were all fraught with suspense as to which army would prevail. Athena threw a smirk over her shoulder at Ares. How she manages that perfect hair flip while wearing a helmet continues to mystify me. Ares snapped his fingers. Hermes appeared beside him in an instant, then next to Calliope, then back to Ares, then back to his seat.
“What was that about?” Urania whispered.
“He asked if she was going to rebound with Athena. She said it would be trading up,” Hermes whispered back.
“Aw, your boyfriend lost to his baby sister,” I heard Hephaestus sneer at the end of the poem. “Will you be comforting the poor guy after the Games?”
“Why? Did you put snare traps in our bed so you can invite everyone to come laugh at me and Ares while we hang from the ceiling by our ankles?” Aphrodite sniped. I filed away that idea for the next mortal who’d come begging me for a play.
“Why would I bother? They’d laugh at you for a day and me for a century.”
They stopped sniping at each other long enough for Apollo to introduce Clio. Her champions’ act was short: a tableau depicting the first Oracle. Next was Erato’s, a duet ballad about a divine shepherd and shepherdess. On the surface it was cute and romantic, but between the lines, it was awfully cheeky and bawdy. “Hey,” Aglaea leaned forward and whispered to me, “is this about Apollo?”
“Why would you think that?” I asked. I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to know that Apollo had spent his year’s sentence as a shepherd.
“Well, I know he was the God of Herding before he conned Hermes into trading for God of Music,” she explained. “I also know he hates herding sheep. I asked Dad about it, and Dad said Apollo told him he just took the job to impress some girl.”
“Man, that was ages ago,” I recalled. “Right after Hephaestus and I broke up. I’d almost forgotten about all of that. But Apollo was probably kidding. I hung out with him in the sheep folds all the time, and I don’t remember any girl.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Aphrodite grab my shepherd’s crook. The time it took me to realize she’d been eavesdropping was enough for her to smack me with the crook. “Hey, what was that for?”
“For being an idiot,” she hissed. “This is why Olympus needed me.”
Euterpe, Melpomene, and Polyhymnia took their turns. Terpsichore’s dance troupe had also been Euterpe’s choir. They sang and danced in both acts, but performed different songs. The crowd seemed to like them. At last, it was my turn. I introduced Eustachys and his troupe and settled in for a long ride. The chorus got the show started.
“Thalia, our own patron and our Muse!
O’er laughter and o’er hap’ly ended tales
Does she preside atop her holy mount.
Enthroned sits she there among the Nine
Around the golden god Apollo, who
Does rule the Nine as well as any could.
With mercy and indulgence he regards
The merriment and mischief brought about
By charmed Thalae, whose impishness cannot
Exceed her sun-kissed favor in his eyes.”
Apollo looked down the row at me. He didn’t glare, grimace, threaten, frown, scowl, scold, or chide. He just stared. I smiled innocently and fluttered my eyelashes. He snapped his fingers. In the space of a few seconds, Hermes was at his side and then at mine. “He says ‘Don’t count on it, cutie,'” Hermes whispered.
“As once she blessed the winged god of love
When he and his true love requir’d her aid,
We ask that Muse to bless our efforts here.
Thalia, may our story end in joy.”
The play opened with Psyche sitting in her gazebo. As was customary, her face was covered by an actor’s mask. Half of the mask was frowning like Melpomene’s, and half of it was grinning like mine. She turned the comic side toward the audience.
“I’m safe from Aphrodite. The creature who rescued me says she’ll never find me here. This place is wonderful. Trees, flowers, birds, a waterfall, this arbor; it’s like something out of a fairy tale. The creature keeps me well. I never see him during the day, but he’s here all night, every night. Thick curtains of vines fall around my gazebo when the sun sets. Not even starlight can get though. He holds my hand. He talks with me. Sometimes we kiss.” She turned and faced us with the tragic side of the mask.
“But he never lets me see him. He says he wants to know that I love his soul, no matter what his body is like. I’ve told him I do. He says he wants to marry me someday. I want that, too. But a person isn’t only a soul any more than he’s only a body. I want to know who it is that I love. I need a name, a form, a face.”
Eros descended behind her. His mask was also divided. Thalia entered the stage behind him, a sheer, dark curtain showing the audience that she was invisible. “Psyche?” said Eros.
“You’re back! It isn’t even night yet.”
They circled until they were positioned so that the audience could see both of them take their masks off.
“That’s my son!” Aphrodite screamed. “You found him and you didn’t tell me?” she grabbed my shoulder. I pointed to my sign. She ignored it. “I’m going to send that little bitch right back where she- ”
“No, you’re actually not,” I said. “The stage is enchanted. You can’t touch the players until the show is over. It’s a Muse thing. The show must go on.”
All attention was returned to the stage just in time. “You’re Eros, the love god?” Psyche tried to comprehend. “That’s where I knew your voice. From the pageant. I understand now. I understand everything.”
“That makes one of us,” he said with a nervous laugh. “Do you…can you…still love me?”
“Of course I still love you,” she cried. She ran to him and flung her arms around him. He shielded the two of them with his wings as they kissed. On the pavilion, Erato and Calliope were sobbing again. So was Aglaea.
“What do we do now?” asked Psyche. “Your mother will never let us get married-”
“Damn right,” I heard Aphrodite murmur.
“-And you can’t hide out with me forever. You’re a god.”
“I have some vacation time saved up,” he said. “Olympus ought to be able to spare me for one human lifetime.” He paused long enough for the audience to laugh through their happy tears. The kid does have a flair for the theatrical. “Unless,” he continued, “things go the way I hope they will, in which case all the time I’ll need off is for our honeymoon. Psyche, one human lifetime with you isn’t enough for me. I want you for as long as I live. I want to ask Zeus and Hera to make you immortal.”
“Is that even possible?” Psyche marveled. “If it is, I’ll do it. I would’ve had to leave my family behind to get married, anyway. And I can still visit them, right?”
“Sure. I don’t see why not. And you won’t mind the living forever part?”
“It would be forever with you. No,” she smiled, “I don’t think I’d mind. But what about your mother? Would you even get a chance to explain before she found you?”
Stage Thalia stepped out from behind the curtain. “I have an idea.”
“So mortal, god, and goddess did appear
Before the King and Queen of all the gods
And Aphrodite, she who had been wronged
By words that Psyche spoke in innocence
Yet in the folly of an untried youth.
Before these Powers on Olympus ‘throned,
Earnestly was supplication made
That Psyche of her wrongs might be absolved,
That she be granted immortality,
And that to Eros she might soon be wed.
The curtain shall be drawn while they decide,
And all shall by their ruling then abide.”
“I would just like to say,” Apollo protested, “that I didn’t know about any of this.”
“Apollo didn’t know about any of this,” I confirmed. “It was all me.”
“You didn’t know?” Eris snickered. “You’re her guardian. You should have known.”
“Why are you even here?” asked Aphrodite.
“Because of this lovely handwritten, embossed invitation,” Eris waved said object in the air. “See? That’s my name. I was invited, so I’m here.”
Hera took the invitation away. “Can’t you at least try to behave when we’re in public?” she whispered harshly.
Zeus stepped between them. “Princess, Daddy and Mommy have some business to take care of, alright?” He kissed Eris on the cheek. “Why don’t you go somewhere else and play with your toys?”
“Okay,” Eris delightedly complied. She vanished. We all expected to hear about a massive riot somewhere in Greece before long.
“Aphrodite,” Zeus turned his attention to her, “you really do need to make up your mind. If I were you, I’d forgive the girl, since that’s obviously the only way you’re going to get your son back. And I am telling you to get your son back. I’ll do the honors myself if you want to grant the girl’s wish for immortality. She’d make a fine addition to Olympus.”
“I will do the honors,” said Hera, “and if she comes to Olympus as Eros’ bride, she’ll be under my protection,” she added with a pointed glare at her husband.
“Fine,” Aphrodite said in sullen resignation. “I forgive her. Change her, welcome her, whatever you two want. But I won’t give my son permission to marry her.”
“He’s asking,” said Hephaestus. “That should tell you something. Maybe he’s not as much like you as you think he is.”
“Really?” she lashed. “Who do you think he’s like? You? You’re the only one in existence who thinks there’s any real chance you’re his father.”
“It’s mathematically possible,” he insisted.
“I suppose it’s also possible,” Aphrodite ranted, “that Eros won’t come to hate the thought of waking up next to the same person day after day after day for the rest of his life, and that he won’t feel trapped in some useless institution that we only keep up to set an example for the idiot mortals who could care less.” My sisters and I all had a grammatical correction on the tips of our tongues, but Apollo shook his head.
“So it’s marriage in general that you hate, not so much being married to me personally?” Hephaestus shot back. “Well, that’s a comfort.”
“It’s a toss-up. If I’d had my choice of a husband, you would have been somewhere below the Cyclops, if you’d have made the list at all.”
“You think it’s been easy being married to you? Sometimes when you and I are together, I allow myself the delusion that you’re with me because you want to be, but if I’m honest with myself, I know it’s just for convenience’s sake. Even though I knew when we were first married that I wanted it more than you did, I kept hoping that maybe, in time, after you got to know me better…” his diminuendo faded into silence.
“Do you have any idea how pathetic you sound?” she scorned.
“It’s never going to happen, is it?” he said quietly.
“No,” she said in kind, her eyes welling up with angry, frustrated tears. “It isn’t. You want honesty? Fine. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t love you. I have never loved you. I will never love you.”
“Then maybe we should have just gone ahead with the divorce after the Net Incident.”
“I’m not the one who called it off.”
After a long, painful silence, Hephaestus said, “Is that really what you want?”
“Don’t toy with me.”
“Will you two stop all this nonsense and get back to the business at hand?” Hera interrupted. “No one is getting a divorce, especially not my own son.”
“Oh, am I your son today?” Hephaestus replied in mock flattery. “So glad to hear it. My Lord Zeus, if my wife will consent, I ask that you grant us a divorce.”
“Don’t waste my time,” Zeus brushed him off. “Now, about this mortal girl-”
“I mean it this time,” said Hephaestus.
“I think he really does mean it this time,” Aphrodite urged. “Please, my lord, say yes before he changes his mind.”
“I would,” said Zeus, “except that I’ve been through this with you two before. Hephaestus, do you understand that if you divorce her, you can’t have her back?”
“I finally understand that I don’t have her now.”
“Can I say something?” said Persephone, whom we’d all pretty much forgotten about. “I know dead when I see dead, and believe me, this marriage is DEAD.”
“Please, please, please, before he talks himself out of it?” Aphrodite implored on her knees.
“Fine,” Zeus conceded. “With your mutual consent, I declare proceedings begun. As soon as the dowry is completely repaid to me, your marriage will be null and void.” Since Aphrodite’s parentage was unknown, Zeus had been her guardian by default before she was married.
“Excuse me,” said Hera, “but this is my son and I am the Goddess of Marriage, so you can do no such thing without MY consent. Now, I can see that Hephaestus has chosen to disgrace me yet again, and there seems to be no way to change his mind, but I will allow him an opportunity to make amends in my eyes. I will grant the two of you a divorce if you permit your son, Eros, to be joined in marriage to this Psyche.”
“Done,” said Aphrodite.
“I would have let him, anyway,” said Hephaestus.
“Then,” I ventured, “if the Ladies Hera and Aphrodite will join me on stage for the conclusion?”
Eros and Psyche were facing each other and holding hands in the middle of the stage. Hera and Aphrodite stood together downstage and right from them, facing the audience. I was upstage, watching the results of my handiwork. Aphrodite spoke.
“Now, Psyche, most beloved of my son,
Your sin against me is hereby absolved.
I welcome both of you into my house.”
Hera took her cue.
“I grant your wish, that you two might be joined
In holy wedlock, that most blessed state.
And since this sacred union is, in truth,
Intended to be an eternal bond,
I grant you, Psyche, immortality.
When you are joined to Eros as his bride,
Among the goddesses shall you be placed.
As Eros rules the heart, so you the soul.
Your realm among Olympus’ gods shall be
The study of the soul, psychology.”
Impressive rhyming. I wondered if she’d made up the word with the meter in mind.
Hera laid her hands on Psyche’s shoulders. A bright light enveloped the two of them, obscuring them from even the gods and goddesses’ view. When they were visible again, not only was Psyche even more outstanding and captivating than she had been before, but she had a pair of rainbow-colored butterfly wings with a span as long as Eros’ bird wings. With a grand flourish, Hera produced a full-length mirror so Psyche could see herself.
“It is befitting that a wife should be,
In power, equal to her husband. So
I give you as your wedding gift, these wings.
Now, anywhere your husband seeks to fly,
He knows his wife can fly there just as well.”
Judging by the laughter and applause, the audience loved that one. Who knew Hera had a knack for improv? She was so good, I almost felt sorry for the chorus who had to close for her.
“The wedding will be held within a month,
And heart and soul together shall be joined.
With tragedy averted, joy abounds.
Thalia, Muse of Comedy, prevails.”
The audience went wild. We all took our bows. Eros and Psyche took hold of each other’s hands and flew into the air and out of sight together. Hera, Aphrodite, and I disappeared in a colorful cloud of smoke and stardust. As I left, I set off a full round of ground-shaking pink starburst fireworks because I could.
We all met up on the pavilion. After introductions and congratulations were exchanged all around, Hephaestus and Aphrodite took Eros aside. We all gave them their privacy. I couldn’t hear what they said to him, but I could just make out his satyr-may-care reply: “What took you guys so long?”
I lingered behind after everyone else had left the pavilion for Dionysus’s tent. I stood motionless, not looking at anything, not thinking of anything, not feeling anything. Before long, I was vaguely aware that Apollo had come back for me. He took my hand and sat down. I mechanically sat next to him. I still didn’t talk.
“You’re not moping because I gave the trophy to Urania, are you?” he gently chided.
“No, the star map built out of straw and tar was a work of art,” I replied with a half-hearted laugh. “Did you see that coming? At all?”
“Nope. Urania was quite the dark horse in this competition. Still, you had to know that using four – no, five – gods in your act would disqualify you. Besides, although your scheme was brilliant, the story really wasn’t that comical.”
“You know what I mean. I can’t help feeling like it’s my fault.”
“You were just trying to help Eros,” he said as he stroked my fingers.
“I’m not talking about the contest, alright?” I snapped.
“Then tell me what you are talking about. I can’t read your mind,” he said, making a very successful effort not to show his impatience. I hate it when he’s nice to me when I don’t feel like being nice to anybody. It makes me want to be nice, too.
I told him all about my encounter with the Fates. How they had challenged me to influence them with the blessing of my choice. How the blessing of my choice had been a happy ending for Hephaestus and his family. “So I guess it could be argued,” I thoughtfully concluded, “that it’s your fault. You were the one who compared my powers to theirs in the first place.”
“I didn’t tell you to try to make a happy ending out of that mess!” he said, about ninety percent bewildered and ten percent amused. “I guess when the Fates stick it to you, they really stick it to you.”
“Apparently so. Isn’t this the Pantheon’s first divorce ever?”
“You’ll have to check with Clio, but I do believe it is.” After a minute, he told me, “Look at it this way. Your blessing partly worked. I think this is going to be a great thing for Eros. He and Psyche seem really happy together.”
“But I don’t even know if my blessing did that,” I doubted. “That was probably Aphrodite’s.”
“Then you can take comfort in the fact that her blessing only half worked, too. The Games are officially over, and Eros is the only one of us who met his true love.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I perked up.
We were both startled when Aglaea suddenly appeared in front of us. “There you guys are!” she greeted us. “Come on, you’ve got to see this. Euterpe and Terpsichore are trying to teach Psyche this completely insane drinking song they wrote, and she’s getting tipsier by the second while delivering this lecture on why people have a psychological need to ‘babble mindlessly to an infectious rhythm while they’re innoximated’.”
Apollo offered me his arm. “Shall we?”
I took it. “Let’s.”