The Greater of Two Evils

(c) 1998

The coals around his feet stretched onward and onward, giving little light but searing heat, stretching to where the horizon should be, if there had been a sky to define the horizon. The view above was as black as it had ever been; no sun, no stars, no reflection of the dim coals.

The only break in the monotony of dark heat was the small knoll which stood as always before him. The hill was remarkably cool and mossy for such a severe environment, and impossibly bathed in a pool of soft light. At the crest of this small bump was the only place of rest to be found, the only place to escape the acrid stench and oppressive heat. One could not sleep or even doze near the coals, so fierce was the lightless inferno. The only place of solace was the knoll's crest, and the only trick to getting there was dragging along with him this large rock which had been chained to his leg these past few eons.

A very smooth and round rock, this, and the chain was very short. Oh, he could roll it up the hill, but once at the narrow and pointed summit the stone invariably rolled down, dragging him with it into those dimly glowing embers. His sandals and toga would catch fire, and the pain of reopened, previously-burned flesh would be excruciating, Yet his shoes and garments never burned away, and his wounds were never fatal. Once he had moved the rock back to the foot of the hill the flames would soon die out and his skin would close. This was just another enigma in Hell, one of the conditions of this goal, this problem in rotational dynamics that the gods had set before him.

At least the pain and futility took his mind off the loneliness, for he had been without companionship (other than the rock) for an eternity. He remembered people; their warmth, their smell, their touch, their moods and dispositions. Good or bad he would welcome some company now. Once, long, long ago, he though he heard a cry over the incessant crackle of the coals, but he could see nothing through the dimness and dismissed the sound as a product of his fever of aloneness. It had been eons, or it had been days; there was no way to tell in the sunless twilight. All he knew was that he was lonely, pained and tired.

He hadn't slept in millennia, and although he wanted to sleep, needed to sleep in the worst way, he remained strangely awake and alert. In fact, he hadn't eaten, hadn't aged, and hadn't died from heat, burns, or exhaustion. Yet he knew no rest from the fires, or the rock, or his task, and after millennia even cremation sounded good.

He thought often of why he was punished so. Was it some god's envy of his city of Corinth that prompted such torture? Should he have revealed to Asopus the identity of his daughter's abductor, Zeus? Was it the chaining of Thanatos, spirit of death, or his impious funeral instructions to his wife, or his defiance of Hades on his previous trip to the Underworld? Could it be........

The searing pain from the burning coals jarred him from his musings. In his reverie the stone had dragged him far into the field of fire as it rolled downhill again. Again his sandals and toga were aflame, again his flesh was being cooked. In a fit of anger and pain he raced through the coals and up the hill, dragging the rock behind. He reached the crest before his clothes had extinguished themselves. Frantically he tore them from his body and it struck him...

He reasoned clearly, he deduced an answer, he found a solution. He wedged the shoes and cloth around the point of contact between the stone and hill...

...and the stone didn't roll. It stuck fast. At first he was stunned beyond emotion. This rock resting comfortably at the top of the hill was such a new experience in his impossibly long existence in Hell that his brain denied his senses. Finally he felt emotion: embarrassment. How could he have been so stupid all this time? Missing such a simple solution was a source of endless abashment, made worse by his nudity. But soon embarrassment gave way to fear. He had defied the gods again! What new sentence would they serve up for this latest transgression? Nothing and no one came for him. Being a man, and sensing that no retribution was in the offing, he soon laughed. He had again beaten the gods at their own game. He had thwarted futility and accomplished their task for him. He laughed so hard he cried, and later became angry for the eons of pain and frustration inflicted on him. And after the fear, the embarrassment, the laughter, and the anger, he slept.

His sleep was dreamless, endless, and sweet. And after hours or years he awoke and was immediately disoriented, for since he had not slept in centuries sleep and awakening were new experiences. As his mind cleared and awareness crept back in, he found himself still on top of the cool knoll, still chained to the stone, with the fiery coals still spreading out to the vanishing point in every direction.

This was puzzling: nothing had changed. He had defied the gods and punishment was not at hand. He thought and pondered and weighed the facts and could come to no satisfactory conclusion. He lambasted the gods for their indifference, at first mumbling, then aloud, finally growing to a shouting tirade. "Fools, weaklings, simpletons!!", he cried. Surely they must be listening? Surely they must know of his triumph over them, his conquest of futility? Surely they would either commend his brilliance or condemn his blasphemy?

He ranted find raved, fell silent, slept, awoke and ranted again, and again. The cycle repeated itself, over and over, for what seemed like years. Each cycle of shouting and sleeping ended with the same results; no change. He was still bound to the rock at the top of the knoll. The gods ignored him. Here he was, Sisyphus, doomed to an eternity of futility. The goal set before him was supposedly impossible; roll the stone up the hill where it would always drag him down into the fires of Hell. Yet he had accomplished this task through strength, perseverance, and cleverness. He had completed the goal set before him and the gods had provided him with nothing: no punishment, no reward, no more impossible feats of mind and body. There was nothing to do. There were no more goals, only time.

Slowly, carefully, even painfully, he removed his sandals from the rock's base...

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