Late the next morning, I was in that barely-conscious, immobile state between waking and slumber when I heard voices in the room.
“I really didn’t think you’d have them ready this soon,” I heard Aglaea say. She was clearly impressed about whatever “them” were.
“I’ve had a lot of time on my hands,” I heard Hephaestus modestly reply. “My wife – my ex-wife – is gone, and my son’s away on his honeymoon, so…now, don’t get me wrong; the divorce really was for the best, and I’m happy for my son – I guess he had to grow up sometime – but it’s a lot to adjust to.”
“I understand,” said Aglaea. “It’s just nice to have family around. You’d think I’d enjoy getting a break from my huge, crazy family, but I miss them already.”
“Any kids?” he asked.
“Nope, no kids, no boyfriend. At the moment. It’s not like I’ve taken a vow of chastity or anyth – well, not to say I’m a party girl either, just saying, I don’t know what I’m saying, I probably shouldn’t be saying anything. I have this tendency to ramble on and on and on when I’m nervous, not that you make me nervous, you’re very…you don’t make me nervous,” she mercifully finished.
He chuckled. “I don’t mind your rambling.” After a minute, he said, “So, do the crutches look alright? You don’t need any alterations?”
“Everything looks perfect.” She paused. “Of course, they won’t try them out until this evening.”
“Maybe I should come over then?” he suggested. “That way I’ll be on hand if there’s any…well, I’ll be here. If you want. I don’t have to.”
“No, no, I’d love that,” she protested. “That’d be a big help. I’d love to see you again. I mean-”
“Okay, then. Summon me if you want me. I mean, if you want to.”
By the time I blinked my eyes open, Hephaestus was gone. Apollo opened his eyes at about the same time. “I was wondering when you guys would wake up,” Aglaea cheerfully greeted us. “Here, let me get you some water, and then I’ll bring you your breakfasts.”
“That’s a nice dress you’re wearing,” Apollo observed aloud as I drank my water.
“I had to change into something,” Aglaea defended. It was a nice dress. Almost too nice for the work she was doing. In fact, it struck me as more appropriate for lounging and mortal-harassing.
“Your hair looks really good, too,” I noted. “I like the flower.”
“It’s nothing,” she brushed me off. “I’m going to get you guys something to eat. Don’t try to get up.”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I asked Apollo as soon as she’d left.
“Bitch stole your favorite hunter green dress, not to be confused with your favorite dress in any other color, hue, or shade?” he replied. The degree of his concern, sympathy, and interest was quite evident.
“Leave the mockery to me. It doesn’t become you. And yes.”
Thanks to Aglaea’s skills, Apollo and I were feeling much better. There was hardly any pain, and we were both feeling too energetic to be lying in bed all day. Tragically, that was exactly what we needed to do if we wanted our bones to heal properly. Even with my sisters dropping in to entertain us every so often, the day was agonizingly dull. Apollo and I livened it up as much as possible by congenially sniping at each other until Aglaea threatened us with the sleeping potion again.
I was ecstatic when Aglaea said it was time to try out the crutches. She summoned Hephaestus before we got started. He watched in silence as she showed us, one at a time, how we were supposed to use them. The crutches’ collaborative design made their use nearly effortless. The magic properties soothed the pressure on the arms, and the customized designs put our bodies at just the right angle for optimum comfort, or at least optimum lack of discomfort. And the decorative etchings were indeed pretty to look at.
“I guess you don’t need me, then,” Hephaestus commented, observing that everything was obviously in working order.
“I hate for you to come all the way here for nothing, though,” said Aglaea. “Won’t you stay for dinner?”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to be a bother.”
“Well, of course you don’t have to if you’d rather not,” Aglaea replied, seeming a little disappointed. “I’m sure you have all kinds of work you need to get back to-”
“Oh, good grief,” I cut her off. She’s way too nice, he’s way too shy, and I don’t have that kind of patience. “You want him to stay, you want to stay; he’s staying.”
Apollo and I got a little stronger every day. Aglaea carefully supervised our activity level, including some torture protocol she’d invented called “physical therapy”. By the second week, we were strong enough that she felt comfortable leaving us for a few hours every day. We didn’t ask her where she went, though she did assure us that she wasn’t going to Olympus when she saw how much the idea worried us. Apollo hates his family being anywhere near Zeus and Hera’s court. I don’t blame him, especially in light of recent events. Besides, there was always the chance Zeus might take a liking to my beautiful and partly mortal goddaughter, or that he wouldn’t but Hera would think he did anyway, and we couldn’t have that.
One day during the third week, while we were resting from our physical therapy, Aglaea asked, “You guys are pretty close to Athena, right?”
“More or less,” I said. “She’s a little out of my social stratum, but I’d call her a friend, and I’d hope she’d call me one.”
“She’s probably the most important person in my twin sister’s life after me,” said Apollo.
“After you,” I said. “Yeah, we’ll go with that. Why do you ask?”
Aglaea seemed pretty uncomfortable. “If something happened between her and Hephaestus, would you know both sides of the story?”
We immediately knew what she was talking about.
“So messed up.”
“Just a really stupid mistake.”
“Biggest disaster EVAR.”
“Athens?” we said together.
“Yeah, Athens,” she replied with an anxious frown. “The last time I saw Hephaestus, I asked him about it. I needed to know what happened with that – there are all kinds of rumors, you know – and I thought asking him directly would be the right thing to do. But he wouldn’t talk about it, and he seemed really, really guilty. I can’t believe he would hurt a woman, but…he just acted so guilty, I didn’t know what to think. I figured you guys would know.”
“It’s a long story,” I said. “Have a seat.” She sat down on my bed, and Apollo began the narrative.
“This was after your dad was grown up and I was living on Olympus for awhile,” he said. “Athena was in the middle of a war campaign, and she needed a new suit of armor. Naturally, she went to Hephaestus.”
“He took her measurements, and they were figuring up the order,” I continued. “You have to understand that when Athena is winning a war against Ares, everything in the world is good and beautiful and she absolutely loves everyone in this good and beautiful world. So anyway, she was going on and on to Hephaestus about how much she appreciated all the work he was doing for her, praising his craftsmanship, and so on and so forth. He replied, ‘It’s a labor of love’. He gets pretty flustered when people, especially female people, compliment him. So much so that he told Athena they could work out the payment when she picked up the armor the next day. She kissed him on the cheek and said, ‘Thanks, love ya.'”
“What Thalia left out is that Hermes came in to pick up a new hat while this was going on,” said Apollo. “Hermes is not one to pass up a potential prank.”
“Or a crack pairing,” I added. “He had figured out years before that Athena wasn’t attracted to men, but he also knew Hephaestus’ legendary clue deficiency in regard to women.”
“So, anyway, back to the story that I was telling because I was actually on Olympus when it happened,” Apollo took back the reins. “As the Fates would have it, the next day Athena was held up at the battlefield. She told Hermes to let Hephaestus know she was running late and wouldn’t be there until after dark. Hermes passed on the message – and took the liberty of slightly amending it.”
“If you call saying she wanted to pay him for the suit of armor by making hot, crazy, blacksmith-on-war-goddess love on his workbench ‘slightly amending’,” I interjected.
“That’s a bit of a paraphrase,” said Apollo. “Hermes’ exact message was, ‘I know we both have our vows to honor, but we might want to find a way around them someday. Would that be worth the price? Just you and me, no rules, no definitions. That workbench would be perfect.’ Remember, Hermes can’t lie in his messages, so Athena had to have really said all of those things at some point. I’ve never been able to figure out the original context, but I suppose it’s none of my business.”
“So he was already married?” Aglaea winced.
“Yes,” I said, not seeing the point in sugar-coating the incident. “Though, as far as I know, that was the only time he considered an affair.”
“I doubt he’d have considered it then, either,” said Apollo, “if he hadn’t been led to believe that Athena was propositioning him, while Aphrodite hadn’t spent one night at home in the past month.”
“He still hadn’t made up his mind when Athena came to pick up the armor,” I got Apollo back on track.
“She tried it on to check the fit,” said Apollo. “Once that was done, she told Hephaestus, ‘Help me out of this, and then we’ll talk about my payment’. So, he helped her out of her armor-”
“She was wearing a tunic under it,” I pointed out. “He helped her out of her armor and then decided to test the waters. He kissed her on the lips – probably the only man to do that to Athena ever. She pulled away, unfortunately in the direction of the aforementioned workbench, and laughed, ‘That’s not what I came here for. Let’s get down to business.’ He was on top of her in a second.”
“While I was on my way to the shop to pick up an order of arrows, I could hear her screaming, ‘No, stop, what is wrong with you?!'” said Apollo. “I ran to see if she needed help. I heard Hephaestus stammer, ‘So…what, are we role playing, or…?’ That was followed by a loud clang and a louder crash. When I got to the door, Athena was standing up holding her shield, looking ready to kill him or herself, and Hephaestus was on the ground holding another shield over his groin, looking like he wished the former were possible. He kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know!’ over and over. Athena was shouting, ‘What part of ‘NO’ didn’t you understand? The consonant, the vowel, or the shield bash to the kidneys?’ He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you changed your mind when you first came in?’ She said, ‘What do you mean, changed my mind?’ He said, ‘Well, Hermes told me you said you wanted to-‘ ‘What in Tartarus are you talking about? Hermes can’t just make up a message!’
“Quickly, Hephaestus recited Hermes’ message. Athena’s fury simmered to a quiet rage. ‘That was from four different private conversations. The only part that had anything to do with you was the workbench. I wanted to borrow it to work on a new weaving loom, you idiot. You know, all this time I thought you were one of the few men here who understood me. I can’t believe you honestly thought I would want to have sex with you.’ She paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. ‘Actually, I can,’ she shook her head. ‘You probably believe Hermes didn’t knock up your wife again, too.’
“Judging by Hephaestus’ resulting expression, I would say he had. Athena took her things and began a dramatic exit, murmuring oaths and epithets all the way. I didn’t blame her for being angry and shaken up, and I wanted more than anything to let her leave with what little dignity she could salvage. However, not knowing who she’d run across between there and her quarters, I took upon myself the unfortunate and exceedingly uncomfortable task of pointing out that she had something on her leg.
“Mortified into silence, she stalked back through the shop to the window. I was afraid she was going to jump until she picked up a knife. Hephaestus held his shield a little closer. She set her leg on the window sill and poised the knife over it. I didn’t dare make a move to stop her, for fear that she’d either hurt herself or me. Finally, to our relief, she just scraped her leg clean with the blade and hurled the knife out the window.”
“The knife landed in the ground, and a city sprang up,” I said. “Hephaestus was so humiliated by the whole ignominy that he didn’t want to claim it, so Athena said she would since she was the one who threw the knife. That’s how she came to be the official patron of Athens, and why it’s named after her. But they still have a temple to Hephaestus there, since he is technically the father of the city.” I can never say that with a straight face. Never.
“Does Athena hold a grudge?” Aglaea asked in bewildered concern.
“Are my eyes and tongue still in my head?” Apollo pointed out.
“Are Hephaestus’ man parts still intact?” I snickered.
“I guess you’re right,” she relaxed. “And I can definitely see why he didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Yeah, we never mention it around either of them,” I said.
“What about Hermes?” asked Aglaea. “It was all his fault. Didn’t anyone exact divine vengeance on him or anything?”
I was quiet, waiting for Apollo to answer or not. “Artemis killed his mortal lover,” he said, unperturbed and without hesitation. “Chione. Shot her clean through,” he snapped his fingers. “Artemis had had it out for Chione anyway. It turned out that when she left me for Hermes, she’d already been sleeping with him for months and ‘our’ twins were, in fact, his. She’d also claimed that Artemis was still a virgin because no man could possibly want her. In hindsight, I think the woman might have had a death wish.” Yep, I could tell that memory was no big deal to him. Nothing darkens the sun god. Uh huh.
“Um…wow,” said Aglaea. “You know what, thinking about things like that isn’t going to make it any easier for you to heal. Why don’t you tell me another story? How about the time you pawned God of Herding off on Hermes? I always loved it when Dad told me that one, but I’ve hardly ever heard about it from you.”
“Alright,” he accepted. This used to be one of Apollo’s favorite stories. How do you think Asclepius knew it so well? “The story starts a few years before Aphrodite came on the scene, not that she matters to this story aside from being the Eleventh Olympian,” he began. “By this time, Artemis and I were seated among the Olympians as well. In addition to being an archery goddess, Artemis had already established herself as the Goddess of Virgins, Pregnant Women, Hunting, and Animal Protection. She can be a little confused about herself.
“I realized that if I was going to keep up with my sister, I’d have to expand my resume. So far, I only had God of Archery, Science, and Theater. I’d claimed God of Theater hoping it would take me away from Olympus, and because I love the performing arts, of course, but there wasn’t much to do with that one since the Muses basically had it covered.”
“Not that he didn’t try,” I added. “He hung around the Helicon Museum every chance he got. Pesky little guy. Always underfoot. Constantly telling us how we could improve things that needed no improvement.”
“That should give you an idea of how unpleasant the atmosphere was at the Royal Court. I preferred to spend my time with a group of closed-minded, obstinate know-it-alls who couldn’t appreciate a little innovation and guidance. Recognizing that I wasn’t wanted, I took the opening for God of Herding, distasteful as it sounded.”
“You also wanted something more manly on your resume,” I reminded him. “Ares had plenty to say about you being the God of Theater. He had even more fun with that than with God of Science.”
“But there was no escape from the Muses,” Apollo ignored my contribution. “And did you forget God of Archery?” he quickly interjected. “Anyway, when I applied for the Herding job, I had completely forgotten that Thalia is a pastoral goddess.”
“Of all the luck,” Aglaea raised an eyebrow.
“She thought the job sounded just ‘AWE-some!'”
“I do not say that word like that,” I disclaimed.
“So practically every time Calliope let her off Helicon, Thalia would hang around my pastures. Pesky little thing. Always underfoot. Thought she knew everything about the craft.”
“I knew more than you did, which wasn’t setting the bar all that high,” I recalled.
“I was good at herding, I just hated it,” he defended.
“If by ‘was good,’ you mean ‘really sucked’,” I clarified. “Which brings us to Hermes.”
“The thing with Hermes didn’t happen until I’d had the job for years, thank you very much,” he protested. “And if you recall, it was completely your fault.”
“I do not recall that at all.”
“You were telling me this long, long story that you seemed to think was exceptionally entertaining, but evidently was so dull that it put me to sleep.”
“Could have been the story; could have been how very comfortable you were with your drowsy golden head in my lap,” I suggested.
“Could have been. Your lap was rather soft and ample. As you know, Aglaea, when your godmother is composing or performing, she is incapable of observing anything beyond the creation in her own mind. A herd of Pegasi could fly past the window and she wouldn’t notice. So it shouldn’t have surprised me when I woke up and found that every one of my cows was missing.”
“Again he blames me, but he didn’t notice this until after I’d gone home for the night,” I pointed out.
“So she didn’t even have to help me look for them. I checked for hoof prints, but the only ones I found led toward the middle of the pasture, where the cattle obviously were not. Then I spotted what appeared to be a small child’s sandal prints, also leading toward the middle of the pasture. None of it made sense. I could believe a thief would walk backward to disguise his trail, but how would he get the cattle to do the same? Having no other options, though, I decided to follow the trail in reverse.
“By morning, the trail had led to a dead end. I’d reached a part of the mountain slope that was so rocky, there was no way to leave prints at all. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I couldn’t go back to Zeus and tell him I’d lost all my cattle. I reasoned that he’d probably forgive me, but he also would probably fire me. I’d have to go back to working on Olympus unless I could think of another offsite job. I didn’t like hunting any more than I liked herding, and besides, Artemis already thought I was copying her by becoming an archery god. Which I wasn’t. We both came up with the idea at the same time.
“And then it happened: I had my first prophetic vision. I could see myself at the mouth of a cave talking to a little boy I’d never met before. He wore a garish traveler’s hat that was much too big for him, and he had dove-like wings growing out of his ankles. He was saying, ‘Oh, those? Those are my cows. Yours didn’t have legs like that, did they?’
“When the vision was over, I teleported to the cave I’d seen. My cattle were right there in a pen. They looked unharmed except that their legs were on backward. I also saw two tanned cow hides. I called inside the cave to see if anyone was there. A matronly, somewhat addled nymph came out to meet me. Her name was Maia. I asked her if she lived alone. She said it was only her and her son. I asked to meet her son. She said he was having his nap.
“We heard a dramatic, charming, childish yawn from inside the cave. I looked in and saw a small child bundled up on a small pallet. He crawled out from under the covers, found his hat, and toddled over to his mother. I thought he looked a little too big to be toddling. ‘Why is the big man here, Mommy?’ he asked right before he stuck his thumb in his mouth. I knelt down so that I was eye level with him.
“‘I’m here because I’m missing a herd of cattle. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?’
“‘No,’ he shook his curly head.
“I picked him up and carried him around to the pen. ‘You don’t know how those cows got in that pen?’ I asked him. He flew out of my arms and stood on the ground.
“‘Oh, those? Those are my cows. Yours didn’t have legs like that, did they?’
“‘It was the strangest thing,’ said his mother. ‘I woke up this morning and there they were. When my baby saw it, he said, ‘It’s a gift from a god!’ Isn’t that the most precious thing you’ve ever heard?’
“‘You’ve got a real jewel there,’ I told her. ‘The thing is, I’ve lost a herd of cattle, and I’m pretty sure this is it.’
“‘Are you suggesting I stole them?’ Maia asked indignantly. ‘You try running after a winged baby all day and see how much energy you have to steal a herd of cattle when you could be sleeping.’ The winged baby nodded his assent.
“‘Actually, I’m suggesting he stole them.'”
“‘He was with me all night!’ she protested.
“But you just said you were asleep all night,’ I reminded her.
“‘Look, young man, if you insist on slandering my son, I’m going to call his father.’
“Being young and stupid at the time, I replied, ‘Do it.’
“In a second, Zeus was standing in our midst. He complained, ‘Your son again?’ Poor man, being asked to do something about his own child. ‘Make it quick. If you keep me too long, I can’t be held responsible for my psychotic wife’s reaction.’
“‘On second thought,’ I said, ‘you’re not really needed here at all, My Lord. You can just go on back to Olympus. I’ve got it all under control. Really. We’re fine. Perfectly fine.’
“You know how it is with kids. You turn around, and the next thing you know, your baby is a teenager. In the time it had taken us to have this conversation, Hermes had grown three feet and his voice had changed. ‘Hey, Pops,’ he waved. ‘I guess you smelled the sacrifice?’ he indicated the two cow hides.
“‘Not unless it was at one of my designated altars,’ was his impatient reply.
“‘Damn. I knew I left out something. It was such a perfect sacrifice, too. I cut two cows into twelve equal portions, one for each of the Twelve Olympians.’
“‘There are eleven Olympians, ignoramus,’ I corrected him. ‘Aphrodite was named the eleventh when she married Hephaestus. Poseidon and Hades don’t count since they have their own kingdoms.’
“‘Oh, I wasn’t counting either of those guys. The twelfth was to me.’ He doffed his hat, which was still too big for his head, and bowed – not like a man bows to superiors, but like an actor bows to his enthralled audience. ‘Hermes, Son of Zeus, God of Travelers, Thieves, and Music.’
“Suddenly, I realized how I could keep from losing face in front of my father and get rid of that stupid job. ‘God of Music, huh?’ I said. ‘Show us.’
“He produced an instrument he’d just invented. ‘I call it…drumroll…The Lyre!…in honor of myself, the God of Liars.’ He strummed a few bars on it.
“‘That’s pretty cool,’ I told him. ‘What’ll you take for it?’
“‘How about your walking stick?’ he said with perfect innocence.
“‘It’s not a walking stick!’ I protested. ‘This is a sacred herding staff given to me by our father, Zeus, King of Olympus!’
“‘Dude, take it or leave it.’
“‘Fine,’ I handed it over with a great show of reluctance. That was the day I truly earned my place as a theater god.
“‘You know,’ Hermes wheedled, ‘this staff is pretty useless if I don’t have anything to herd with it.’
“‘What else do you have?’ I challenged. He showed me another invention of his – the shepherd’s pipe. It was crude and rustic, but it had a lot of potential. ‘I’d trade an entire herd of cattle AND a herd of sheep for that!’ I admired.
“‘Done,’ he handed it over. ‘HA!’ he triumphed. ‘Who’s the God of Herding now, bitch?’
“‘Damn! You win. I’m stuck with God of Music. Oh, and by the way, Your Majesty, I’m also the God of Prophecy now.’
“And so I was. I got my own temple in Delphi, my own house on Mount Parnassus, and my pick of the most beautiful Delphine mortals and nymphs to be my Oracles. Hermes did get a throne on Olympus, and to make sure he was never bored enough to get into too much trouble – as if – Zeus appointed him Messenger of the Gods. However, knowing Hermes’ love of trickery, Zeus made him swear an oath that he wouldn’t make up any of his messages. Zeus also made me swear that I’d be a good brother to Hermes and not fight with him anymore. It’s an oath I’ve always kept, though only the Fates know how.
“Bravo!” Aglaea clapped.
“Hey, that’s not the end,” I protested.
“My story, my ending,” Apollo ruled.
“Yeah, but you left out the part where you came to the Museum to tell us your big news.”
“I’ve never heard this part,” said Aglaea.
“While my sisters were taking a break from their shameless fawning to help Polyhymnia with a song she was composing for the occasion, Apollo offered me the shepherd’s pipe and said, ‘Here; I already have an idea for an improvement, but I know you like lame things, so…’ I said, ‘Take that back.’ He said, ‘Okay, I will,’ and he took the pipe back. Years later he presented it as a gift to Hermes’ firstborn. That’s why today the instrument is more commonly known as the Pipes of Pan, or the Pan flute. Pan made me one. I can make some awesome music on it, and it’s not lame at all.”
“It’s not lame because I modified it for you,” said Apollo.
“It’s not lame because I’m goooood,” I said, producing the instrument. “Listen.” I played the first few bars of a playful, peaceful melody. Not to be outdone, Apollo produced his kithara and played along. He started singing the melody, and Aglaea joined in on the harmony. She does have an excellent voice. It’s a shame she never devoted more effort to the arts.
When we were done with the song, she took our instruments away. “You two need to get some rest now,” she ordered. “I probably shouldn’t have let you play those instruments yet.” She pulled a dark screen across the window. “I’ll come back in a couple hours with your dinner. Summon me if you need anything.”
A few weeks later, Aglaea informed us that we were well enough to go back to our normal routine. She’d stay one more night with us. Although Apollo and I were more than ready to get back to our usual activities, all ten of us were awfully sad to see Aglaea go. We’d gotten so used to having her as part of our household.
But getting used to something isn’t the same as not wanting it to change. I thought of this as I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, realizing that this would be my last night with Apollo. I’d gotten used to it. Gotten used to him. That didn’t mean I wished things weren’t going back to normal. I couldn’t wait to be back in my own room. I knew I’d fall asleep easier when I couldn’t hear him tossing and turning, trying to get into the one and only precise position in which he could sleep. And it would be such a relief to wake up and not hear him breathing. It’s a very distracting sound.
I was startled out of my reverie as I felt an unexpected touch on my left arm, which had been dangling off the side of the bed. I relaxed and let Apollo raise my arm and push it onto the bed alongside me. “That’s been driving me crazy,” he said. “And I don’t know why you do it. You never fall asleep with your arm dangling. You always pick it up right before you roll over onto your side and curl into fetal position with your back toward me. It’s annoying.”
“You sleep with your mouth open,” I said. “You don’t snore, it’s just wide open. Sometimes I’m not sure whether I want to close it or drop a bug in it,” I softly laughed.
“Maybe you’ve dreamed of it,” he said. “You laugh in your sleep.”
In blissful obstinacy, I dropped my arm back off the side of the bed. I felt Apollo reach for it again. I grabbed his fingers and wrapped mine around them. We stayed like that for awhile; our clasped hands weighing down our arms like a pendant on a cord. I pondered whether, if this were a scene in a play, it would work for the woman to kiss the man’s hand before she let it go, rolled over, and went to sleep. Maybe she’d say something revoltingly sweet like Goodnight, Sunshine even though she’d never given him a nickname before, at least not a flattering one. It could be kind of funny.
I squeezed Apollo’s hand. He squeezed mine back. We let go and turned away from each other. No. It wouldn’t work at all.