A Conversation Between Two Men by Andrew Shvarts
published in Volume 11, Issue 1 on June 28th, 2004Orpheus' hair was brown, his eyes green. He had a tall slender build, and a light airy voice. His mother was a muse, his father a man, and he lived in the hills and valleys of a Greece that never quite existed.
Orpheus was with his bride, Eurydice, as the adder's poison took her and as the life drained from her soft blue eyes, but he was not with her for very long after that. Behind them, on the other side of the forest, the wedding party cheered and sang; around them, a cold night wind blew past. In Orpheus' arms, Eurydice breathed her last, and behind him, the snake, crushed under the heel of his sandal, did the same. He neither cried nor spoke, merely held her limp form close, and after some time, began to sing. He did not do it deliberately; he did not even know he was doing it. The song came as naturally as breath. It was a wordless song, one he'd never sung before, and the most beautiful song to ever pass human lips. He sang it quietly at first and then louder and louder, until it resonated for miles around them. The entire wedding party froze where they were, mid-dance, mid-smile, and listened, and the beasts of the forest did the same, and then all wept together. Orpheus' eyes alone remained dry. Rather, they grew glossy and gray, dull and empty, until the song stopped and his body dropped into the grass and lay still.
That was how he came to find himself in Hades, carried on the weight of his grief and the notes of his song. It was only there, on the dark red clay, in the chasms lined with torches that flickered blue and white, that Orpheus truly understood what had happened to his bride. He had no doubts as to where he was: the horrified screams of the tortured rang in his ears, and he could hear the voices of his father, his mother, even his love. He knew not how he came to be here, but it did not matter; he was here, his bride was here, and he would not leave until she was by his side.
Orpheus journeyed through Hades, but it was not like any journey he had ever taken. He walked, and yet he stayed in place; he would never be able to put this into words, but it was as true as anything he had ever known. He walked through an endless series of caves and chasms, never growing closer but never giving up. He wandered for what may have been days and may have been centuries, wandered until that realm's cold god gave in and grew bored of this vagrant on the outskirts of his kingdom.
Orpheus and Hades met in a crumbling palace deep in the kingdom, a palace lined with statues of dead gods inscribed with foreign characters. The god nodded, Orpheus sang, and now the two wept together. The pact was sealed, Eurydice was released, and the half-muse was told not to look back. This he took lightly, for why would he risk losing Eurydice now, having journeyed so long and hard to find her?
He walked out on a different road than he came in, this one taking him through the heart of the underworld itself. He had no doubts as to whether or not Eurydice was behind him, for he could hear her soft footsteps at all times. The two walked on a road made of ice underneath which bodies endlessly writhed. Shades crowded around them, staring, pointing, calling out obscene names. There is, after all, nothing the dead hate more than to see one escape their number. "Orpheus!" they called. "You've been deceived!" The half-muse closed his eyes and ignored them.
Soon the shades began to wane and grow bored. They drifted apart, cursing under their breaths (or lacks thereof). Orpheus walked on proudly, head held high, and though he could not hear Eurydice's footsteps, he could feel her eyes on the back of his neck and smiled broadly.
One shade, however, did not leave. He followed Orpheus, at first from afar, then coming closer and closer. This shade was a man, stout and short, with a gleaming balding head and waxy folds of skin. Orpheus could hear the shade's footsteps but dared not look back. He ignored him for some time, and then, after what seemed like hours, grew weary of uncertainty. "Shade who follows me," he called, facing forward. "Why do you do so?"
The shade dropped to one knee. "Esteemed Orpheus," he said in a strange dialect. "I apologize. May I have the honor of walking alongside you?"
Orpheus shrugged his shoulders. He felt such elation at having rescued Eurydice that nothing worried him. "Do as you wish."
The shade mumbled his thanks and scurried forward. "Thank you, esteemed Orpheus," he said. "I just wanted to speak to you about a matter of some minor importance."
"Speak freely," Orpheus said. "But tell me first, to whom do I speak?"
"Of course," the shade nodded. "I am Pygmalion of Cyprus."
"Pygmalion of Cyprus?" Orpheus gawked. "The great sculptor? The great lover? It is I who am honored!
"Yes, I suppose," Pygmalion sighed and looked towards the ground. "I suppose that's who I once was."
"Are you not Pygmalion the sculptor anymore?" Orpheus looked around. "Is there no art in this place?"
Pygmalion shook his head mournfully. "It has little to do with this place. It has to do with this me. Out there, out then, I am Pygmalion the sculptor, Pygmalion the lover. In here, I don't know who I am."
"I do not understand," Orpheus stopped walking, and behind him, in the darkness, Eurydice stopped as well.
"Of course you wouldn't," Pygmalion said. "You're still alive. Death brings with it a kind of enlightenment unavailable to the living. I don't expect you to understand."
Orpheus could think of nothing to say in reply.
"You sing of me, don't you?" Pygmalion asked.
"Yes," Orpheus nodded thoughtfully. "The Song of Pygmalion is one of my finer works."
"I've heard its echoes," Pygmalion said. "Tell me, when you sing of me, where does your song end? What happens last?"
Orpheus smiled proudly. "Aphrodite grants your statue the blessing of life, your love is consummated, you and Lady Galatea live on happily and the isle Paphos is named after your child."
"So I thought," Pygmalion collected his breath. "Would it be rude for me to ask you to stop? Stop singing it, that is?"
Orpheus was taken aback. "Are you not flattered by my song?"
"It's not a matter of flattery. It's a matter of suffering. I exist here because Pygmalion exists out there, for if there is a live Pygmalion, there must be a dead one as well. If I am forgotten above, I will cease to exist below. I will have outlived my purpose."
"I still do not understand," Orpheus said. "You do not appear to be in any pain. Why do you say you suffer?"
"I am not bound to endless tortures like Sisyphus or Tantalus, yet I suffer all the same. I suffer the pain of reflection, and of regret."
"What do you reflect upon? What do you regret?"
"You sing of Galatea, and of her blessing, and our marriage," Pygmalion said. "But you don't sing of anything else. You don't sing about how hard it is to raise children and be an artist, you don't sing about the difficulties of marriage, you don't sing about any of the challenges or failures that followed."
Orpheus said nothing.
"Do you sing of any of the sculptures I made after Galatea?" Pygmalion asked. "I imagine you don't, because there weren't any. Whatever art I had in me I used on her. No matter how I tried, I couldn't make anything even half as impressive again."
"Because my art came from my pain," Pygmalion said dully. "My art came from my longing and my emptiness and my loneliness. My art came from my void; when the void was filled there was no more art." Pygmalion looked at the mortal absently. "I suspect you are the same way. That must be why you will lose her."
Orpheus rubbed his temples with his hands. "I do not understand a word you are saying."
"The songs you've sung just today have been the best you've sung in your entire life. You know that, don't you?"
The half-muse considered this. "If you feel so."
"You made Hades himself cry, Orpheus. That's not something to take lightly. The pain you're going through now is bringing forth the greatest music the world has ever known." Pygmalion smiled. "Do you really think you'd be making these songs if you weren't suffering?"
"I would be writing songs of exaltation and joy," Orpheus looked forward dreamily. "When I emerge from this kingdom, I will sing praise of Eurydice to the stars, and I will sing of her glorious return from the Underworld. I will sing forever of our timeless love."
Pygmalion laughed sadly. "Is that what you'd been doing before she died?"
Orpheus' face darkened. "I was busy then. I had a wedding to plan, I had to reflect, I had not the time for music."
"Of course you didn't."
For the first time in minutes, Orpheus remembered where he was, and resumed walking. "So you wish that I stop singing of you? I am hurt that you are not flattered by my songs, but I will do as you request."
"You won't, though. I can see it. I don't know why I even bothered to ask." Pygmalion walked alongside him. "But the tone of the songs will change, at least. They will be bitter songs of jealousy and loathing, hatred at one whose love was blessed by the gods while yours was seemingly doomed to fail."
"But mine is not doomed to fail." Anger began to rise in Orpheus' voice. "I do not know what you are trying to convince me to do, but I am walking out of Hades soon with my bride following me."
"There is no walking out of Hades. You're no more in Hades now than you were weeks ago. It is not a place. It is a state of mind." Pygmalion gestured at the walls. "These aren't real. They're just how you expect Hades to look. You're still lying limp in a field somewhere in the real world."
"Then Hades has tricked me!" Orpheus pounded on the wall. "How does one leave this place?"
"Most of us don't, but those that do, do so when they're ready. If you're not leaving, it's because you're not letting yourself leave."
"Why would I not let myself leave?"
Pygmalion looked at Orpheus mournfully. "Because a part of you knows you're not supposed to. Because a part of you knows your role as a tragic hero. Because a part of you knows that the music that you will create and the myth that you will inspire are so much greater than any mortal satisfaction. You can feel it, can't you? You can feel that greater something just waiting for you to become it." He pointed back into the darkness where Orpheus dared not look. "You've been walking how long, and have you even spoken to her once?"
"I.I thought." Orpheus stammered. "I thought I could not."
"You could not look. There was no rule about speaking." Pygmalion's broken demeanor had vanished, and the shade was gripped by confidence. "You care about what she represents, but you do not want the dull life that happiness would entail. You do not want to be consumed by the same mediocrity that has left me a broken dream. Without her, with your pain, you would be the greatest musician in history, a timeless legend that speaks to the hearts of generations about tragedy and grief. With her, you'd just be a parochial fool with a lyre." He sighed. "Turbulence is so much more conducive to art than contentment."
"Enough." Orpheus walked from the shade briskly. "Enough. I will hear no more of this, I will emerge from Hades unscathed and with Eurydice by my side."
"No you won't," Pygmalion said grimly. "Because if you did, then you wouldn't be Orpheus."
"Why do you do this?" Orpheus demanded. "Why do you follow me, why do you torment me with questions and theories and accusations?"
"I do it because it was what I must do, what I always do. The living only see life one moment at a time, one second at a time, but the dead see it all, understand it all." He extended one pale-white hand. "I can show you, if you let me. I can show you the point of understanding."
For a great length of time, Orpheus neither spoke nor move, merely remained in place, staring at the hand. "This will show me what you see?" he said at last. "This will make everything clear?"
"Oh yes," Pygmalion said sadly. "It will make you understand."
"Then show me," and with that Orpheus took Pygmalion's hand.
In the seconds that followed, Orpheus saw more than he would see in his entire lifetime. He saw it all, the universe, and the universes around it, saw the spinning hub that was his life and the branches that jutted out of it, the lives that his story would affect. He saw himself, over and over again, different yet always the same: here he was with dark skin playing an electric guitar, here he was playing a harp before the king of Faerie, here he was wearing the skin of mastodon and banging on a crude leather drum, here he was everywhere at once. Here he was a man, here a woman, here a child. It was not who he was that mattered; it was what he was. He was Orpheus the tragic, Orpheus the unrequited lover, Orpheus who brings tears to eyes every time he is fed to the Women of Bacchus, Orpheus who imparts the great overwhelming truths of the universe. Of course he cannot have Eurydice, for if he does there would be none of this, no myth, no story, nothing. He would not be Orpheus, and this beautiful spinning hub would be lost.
"You see now, don't you?" Pygmalion said and pulled back his hand. "You see your role. You see what you are to become. You see why you must turn back and give Eurydice the death that she is meant to have."
"I see," Orpheus whispered quietly. "Then my will matters not."
"The will of people like us never matters, Orpheus. We serve a higher end, one higher than even the Gods."
Orpheus hung his head low. "I wish I could just have been a man. I wish I could just have lived quietly on a farm somewhere, and loved Eurydice day and night."
"Take that wish with you, Orpheus, and turn it into song. Let other men learn from you, and live that life through dozens of other men."
Orpheus nodded. "I do not know why you have talked to me, but I suppose you did not really have a choice."
Pygmalion said nothing.
"Thank you, and curse you, for what you have done," Orpheus said, then stopped walking. "Eurydice!" he called behind him.
"Yes, my love?" she replied from the shadow.
"I do now what I must," the singer shouted. "But know from now until the end of time, that I love you and have always loved you. One day perhaps, I will rejoin you here."
And with those words, Orpheus turned and looked at his beloved, met her sad bewildered gaze, and tears streamed from his eyes as she was consumed by darkness.
Within the bowels of Hades, in the crumbling palace, the dark God of that world sat in his throne, and the shade of Pygmalion stood beside him.
"And he believed it?" Hades asked in a voice like dust blowing out of a tomb.
"Every word," Pygmalion replied.
"Why did you do it?" Hades asked. "I did not ask you to do such a thing."
"Because." Pygmalion considered. "Because I am a lover of fine art," he said at last, and went silent, so he could better hear the songs of Orpheus, echoing from somewhere far far away.