Sisyphus and Truth - Aida Bode
There was no air to breathe. The heaviness of the vacuum pressed tightly on my chest and I realized why. I had arrived to the place where the boulder stopped rolling, and right behind it, was Sisyphus – ragged, dusty, skinny, and pale, yet with a catty look in his eyes, strolling carelessly, his arms hanging from his shoulders, his feet slightly kicking the empty space, as his body obeyed to the downhill law of freedom almost enjoying the rest it was experiencing from the weight of the stone it had pushed and had to start pushing, again. I felt amazement. There was no resentment in his attitude, but this did not shock me. What was impressing, was his ability, in this timeless universe, in this eternal environment created just for him, to find a way to be defiant. As I realized this, I lost all hope for even starting my journey and coming here. What was it that I wanted? Truth! Yes. And, how was I going to get truth from the master of deception? Somehow, I had thought that he would be tired from his toil, would regret whatever he had done that had made him come here, and somehow, he would tell the truth. The truth which gods hid when they punished him. I know they hid the truth, because the whole idea that Sisyphus was punished because he cheated death, was simply too trivial. There must have been something else, more than pride that offended the gods, or perhaps didn’t offend them, but rather, risked them, or something that was worse than just humans’ eternal life. I highly doubt, Hades was concerned that his kingdom was lacking any subjects. He had plenty, who would never leave him! And I don’t believe the gods really cared that humans would live forever, or that death complained for not doing its job, or whatever other reasons that can’t really be reasons for such a great punishment.
But, here I am, waiting behind the bolder, for Sisyphus to come around and ask him, with the hope of a fool, that he will answer, and I’ll know the truth for myself, and for all humanity.
I stood in silence as Sisyphus made his way to the foot of the hill and without looking at me, put his hands on the boulder, lowered his head, and started pushing. I was amazed again. I knew he had seen me, and even expected this behavior, but at least I thought he’d show some kind of curiosity before completely ignoring me. I followed but stepped back when he spoke without turning his head.
“You add to the weight of my stone. You better stay where you were.” His voice was monotonous, but with a hint of rebuke.
The idea that he scolded me, encouraged me and gave me hope that perhaps, he would tell me the truth. I stood behind, obeying his request, and making sure not to ignite any anger on his part, and lose all hope of ever learning what happened.
As I remained behind, the hill looked almost vertical, and a feeling of panic took a hold of me, as I thought of the possibility of the boulder suddenly crushing Sisyphus and falling right on top of me. Sisyphus’ arms were thin, his legs just as thin, and his entire body looked like a skeleton made up of sticks that would break with the next step. The only thing that calmed me was the awareness that this was a timeless loop punishment. He was supposed to push that boulder to the top of the hill, and then as soon as he reached it, the boulder would roll down, only so that he would push it up again. I could not take my eyes off of him, for I felt that if I did, then perhaps, he would be taken by the stone. What started as panic, transformed into pity, and then into judgement of the gods. But I refrained myself from this last reaction, for it was because of the gods that I was here. They allowed me to come for they said, they were ready to change Sisyphus’ eternity.
The boulder had rolled down again, and again I felt the vacuum press on my chest. Sisyphus’ steps gently tapped the ground, and I could see tiny specs of dust rise from the face of the hill and onto his legs. He came around the boulder and with the same tone, which held rebuke and monotony, he asked, “So, what do you want? Truth? Why should I say anything? I’ve made my peace. This is it, and I’m fine with it. Or have the gods now regretted my punishment because I have gotten used to it?”
He put his arms on the boulder and started off on his way up the hill.
I lost my hope of learning the truth. He was OK. He couldn’t have regretted anything and continued his defiance. I stood silent and waited for him to come back. The boulder rose up, leaving behind the big shadow of weight and making me feel as if I too, was vacuum, expanding high up, until the shadow would disappear, and space would turn into a pressing fist underneath Sisyphus’ free feet.
I felt the rumble of the ground. The loop was closed, and the boulder was rolling down. The idea that I had lost hope, and that there was nothing else to lose, renewed my spirit and encouraged me. I have nothing to lose - just like him.
“I’m not here because gods have regretted anything, but because truth is higher than the gods that have punished you. It’s a law, they themselves, can’t ignore. So, yes. I’m here for the truth and you will tell me because even if nothing changes for you, even if nothing changes for the gods, even if everything remains the same for humanity, truth will have gained its face. You can offend gods, but you can’t hide truth.” I spoke as soon as Sisyphus started to walk around the boulder and put his arms to resume his pushing.
“You can follow, but not too close!” he said, and with a soft sigh pressed forward. The monotony and rebuke had disappeared from his voice and I felt the rush of hope in my lungs as the boulder started to move upwards. I dared not speak but followed patiently as the top of steep hill started to come in clear view. The closer we got to the peak, I moved slightly on the side, and as Sisyphus gave one last push, to secure the stone to the top, he moved to the side, too, only to see the stone tilt at the edge, and then rock back downward.
He looked at me as if to say, “You’re too pale! Paler than me! Your red hair does not fit the black and gray décor of this hill, neither do your red lips refresh the vacuum, nor do your curves bring any joy to the gravel and the dust. Your blue eyes should make me happy, but they don’t, for they remind me of the gods, and the fact that you’re a woman, disappoints even more – for it reminds me of my wife; the one who couldn’t think like me, and because of that, she failed to save me.” But he did not say any of these words. Instead, he headed downwards without speaking.
“Well, aren’t you going to tell me the truth?” I said rushing after him.
“Don’t rush. The boulder isn’t going anywhere.” He turned his head toward me and said with a sly smile on his lips.
I almost stopped, but he stretched out his hand and pulled me closer to him. “I’m not hurrying, but neither am I dragging my feet. So, you want the truth. Which one?”
“There’s only one truth.” I said with conviction.
“And which is it?” he asked with defiance.
“What do you mean which is it? There’s only one truth, isn’t there?” my voice took a higher tone, which I did not like.
“There’s the truth that gods say, and there’s the truth of what happened. These are the truths. So, which one do you want?” his voice determined and strong.
“Well…” I stuttered and tried to find the words. “Truth is what happens, and gods state it as it is. So, there can’t really be a conflict between the two.” I scratched the back of my head as if I was trying to find the root of my thinking there.
Nonchalant and without any surprise Sisyphus responded, “It should be that way, but it isn’t. Gods say what truth should be, and often don’t pair it with reality.”
“Well, I didn’t come here to discuss the gods, but to hear the truth. The truth of what happened.; why you are here and why you were punished. What did really happen?” I insisted my questions and tried to avoid a discussion which could get me in trouble with the gods who had allowed me to come this far.
“Well, what is it you know? Perhaps, I can spare a story and go on with my eternity.” Sisyphus said and stopped only for the blink of an eye.
“I know that you are a master of deceit, and have cheated not only gods, but death itself and chained Hades, while you roamed free and the whole world remained eternal.”
“Yes, that’s half of the story.” His voice low and without force.
I held his hand and pulled him back. “What is it? Since the moment I came here, not once have I seen you have any regret, let alone show disappointment on anything.”
He let out a cry and I let go of his hand “I can’t stop or pull back. Just like I can’t pull back when I push the boulder, I can’t pull back when I follow it. Toil is a blessing compared to the shredding of every part of my being I experience if I stop or step back. My only rest is this walk downward. I must follow the path and the direction of the hill. The gods are cruel, but not spiteful. They have allowed for some comfort, despite the toil that I have to submit to.”
“I’m sorry!” I said and followed him as he followed his path. “Please, tell me. The gods allowed me to come here.”
“I’m sure they did.” He said without turning his head.
At that moment the rumbling I felt under my feet turned into a shudder, and then calm. The boulder had stopped at the foot of the hill. We walked around it and Sisyphus resumed his pushing. Time did not exist here, neither did space. Vacuum was its own entity that existed only below the boulder.
I followed a few steps back without speaking or thinking.
The boulder started to roll down and we followed its path. I remained silent and waited for Sisyphus to continue the conversation, and he didn’t disappoint.
“I took the thread of life from the fates.” His voice was breaking.
“What?!” I exclaimed in shock. I had never thought that I would be shocked by Sisyphus, but there I was – shocked and utterly surprised.
“I did not care about defying the gods. I never thought of them as more than beings that stood outside of time, yet wretched and weak, just like humans. What I did want, was to do something for which the gods would beg humanity – and they did, but it cost me.” He looked at me and shook his head. “Don’t think this is what it cost me; no. This is the best punishment the gods could come up with to ease my pain, not to increase it. The boulder was my idea, and the gods were terrified at the prospect of no rest, for I did not think of allowing myself any comfort. I had decided to be under the boulder for all time, feeling the vacuum going up and coming down, never allowing my chest the release from its pressure, never again feeling freedom, but infinite vacuum – I’d press on the stone with my back and slowly carry the burden as it would roll down, and when I’d reach the bottom, I’d push back up. They showed me the mercy I did not want to show myself.”
I was speechless. My eyes were wet with tears. “What did you do to give yourself such a penalty?” I asked struggling to find my voice.
“Did you know that Death is a slave?” He responded.
“A slave?” I questioned.
“Yes, a slave of the Fates. They cut the thread, and Death is bound by it. I did not chain Death, for it was already chained. Nor did I cheat Hades, for he didn’t need Death for his kingdom. I stole the thread and unchained Death.”
“What?” I exclaimed in disbelief.
“I was cheated by Death.” He said with the same disbelief. “Death asked for my help and cheated me, saying that I would never die – humans need not die, Death said to me. And, I believed Death. He showed me where the Fates keep the thread and told me how they don’t let go of it, for if they do, they lose their power. However, there is a moment that the thread is cut, that none of them touches it, the moment that past is put to rest, present given to life, and future is set in space and time – that is the moment that Death is bound, and that is the moment that it can also be unchained. I wanted to be free of the gods I could so easily cheat, free from their interference, and a lord of my own life – or rather, eternity. Like Prometheus brought us the flame, I wanted to bring us, humanity, eternal life – and so I did. I unchained Death from the thread of the Fates, and eternity started for all of us.”
We were at the foot of the hill. Silence fell again as Sisyphus resumed his pushing. I followed and kept thinking of this untold truth and the reason for hiding it for so long. Why had the gods kept this secret? What made this truth dangerous to tell? The vacuum pressed on my chest and I realized its strength. As if hit by lightning, I recognized that the boulder itself was not that heavy, but its shadow, the vacuum that rested below its size, was the oppressive weight that chastised Sisyphus. As we reached the top of the hill, he resumed sharing his story.
“Death showed me where the Fates spun their thread. He showed me when to reach out, and when to steal it, and so I did. The moment I stole it, everything stopped. Death was free, and so was the universe, so were we, the dusty humans, who dreaded Death so much. The Fates had frozen and the thread in my hand was unrolling toward the heavens. As I let it unravel from my fingers, I noticed its size. I had thought that the thread was endless, for no matter how many times the Fates cut it, there was always enough for the next life, and the next, and the next, and so on. I realized there was something really wrong. By this time, so had the gods. Zeus, himself, found me and stood before me almost kneeling. I had never thought that I would not appreciate the moment. Zeus stood before me not angry, but disappointed, and do you know what he said? He said, ‘I never thought that you could be cheated. Yet, here we are, gods and men, equal in our destruction. The Fates will disappear, and along with them, the entire visible universe, gods and their worlds, stars and their systems, galaxies and their heavenly bodies – the only reason why Death was chained, was to keep space-time in balance with eternity. The Fates cut the thread, and bound Death to the emptiness between each life. Now, that there’s no more emptiness, Death can roam free, and anything that has been created, will freeze into oblivion along with the Fates. Once the thread ends, time ends, and with it, everything.’ I felt my hands slowly lose their warmth and as someone who tries to hold on to the last breath, I held on to whatever thread was left in my hands.”
The vacuum reappeared with its full might as the shadow of the boulder fell on the ground. We started ascending, I a few steps behind, while Sisyphus pushed the boulder up and when it reached its peak and made a crack, it started its descent.
“I had not thought that I would care if Zeus was afraid or disappointed, but I did, and not only that, but I was disappointed in myself. I had been played. My own intelligence, my own cleverness, had lost power over me and I had become a fool, a tool. ‘What do I do?’ I asked Zeus. He was expecting me to ask and had the answer. ‘Hold on to whatever thread you have. The Fates can be brought back, if the thread is put in their hands before it ends.’ I had no choice but to trust the god that I had mocked, heed the word of the divinity I had ignored. I doubted him, but I saw the thinning of reality, and had no other alternative but hold on to the thread and put it before the Fates, confused, broken, and defeated. As soon as the Fates touched the last bit of thread remaining in my hands, their bodies regained vitality, and the thread gained a bit of length. Atropos cut with her scissors, and the thread lengthened even more. Death returned screaming and cursing me, for the pain of time is what keeps it chained. ‘You, filthy human! No salvation for you! You made a deal with the gods, saved them from nothingness, saved yourself from oblivion and have chained me yet again with these chains of Time. Oh, I should have known better, that the son of god would not allow me to have my freedom – my nothingness! Yes, the son of god, the son of these divine creatures that stay free of chains, not because there are none for them, but because every little life that springs from emptiness, becomes a shackle for me. And so, the gods keep the balance, allow Space and Time for mortals, and infinity for the immortals – while I remain another Atlas, shrugged with the thread, cut by a scissor that knows no pain.’
Sisyphus stopped to continue with his destiny, push the boulder and climb the hill. I followed with more gratitude than I had ever experienced before. I recognized Sisyphus’ humanity and responsibility for what it was – awareness of fault. A desire to win over the unknown through ignorance had led to his self-conviction, which even the gods valued and revered. Of course, they would not let his deed go unpunished, but they allowed him to choose his own reprimand. And he did, he chose a similar loop by which Death was chained, just so that he could spite Death and show that he had enough pride to not allow himself to be fooled again, but he lacked the compassion which the gods granted. He still liked being considered too smart for the gods, and was OK with being considered a cheat, for he did feel that he deserved to be called a cheat, not because he cheated, but because he was cheated.
“And so, the gods have allowed you here to come and hear the truth. I know, they hope to relieve me from my labor. They’ve given me enough compassion. I don’t want anymore. I’ll keep my title as the one who cheated the gods, and you can go back and keep the truth you have. For if I allow what happened to be told, I’m afraid I will go after Death, and I can’t do that. I’d rather not be a fool again.”
As he said these words, he pushed me in front of the boulder and then started rolling it up with more force than before. I found myself on the other side of the hill and felt the ground rumble.
I knew Sisyphus was now walking down.
Aida Bode is an Albanian poet and writer. She holds an MA in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. See the prose and poetry publications for her extensive publishing history. Aida is a Pushcart Nominee.