I find the mouth of the labyrinth, dark stones set in the earth before men began to keep track of time. Weeds and dry grasses fringe it like a beard. I see nothing as I look into its darkness, but I smell the cool, dead air with its odor of decay. I walk in. There is business to be done, and I wind my way through rocks, and structures of the mind. There are places of unending shadow where time itself gets lost. I walk, unsteady, and speak words, but only into my own head and forget them later. I feel the walls with my hands and scout the way one step at a time.
I know it’s down here – the beast, that is. Big ugly thing with horns and hair where a man wouldn’t have it, in this darkness, around this next corner, perhaps listening to me, the way I breathe and lay down my feet on the path. I have to look it in the eye. I’ve run out of choices.
The trouble with being a hero is that the damned monsters fight back. They claw, and burn, and sting, and bite, and smash, and swallow, and lie, and stink. Heroes are first in line for the scratch and burn treatment, and nobody will sell you insurance. The worst moment for a hero is when you realize that the wicked witch may have had perfectly good reasons for turning the bratty princess into stone, and that the world would have gotten along more or less the same had you kept your nose out it.
Philosophy will have to wait until later. You have to be honest enough to admit that the damned thing may take your life. It knows how to do it. I guess my worst fear is that I’ll meet it face to face, and it will look like me. Someday I will tell you of a dream like that, but there is no time for that now.
There are deep canyons where you can drop a quarter and it never hits the bottom. Some throw themselves off. I feel their absence still, and their hunger for resolution. The beast knows that, and gives up a few to the hungry space. No jump this time. The heart of the labyrinth is the only way to settle it, to the eye of the beast who knows my next step better than I do.
I am far now from the sunlight and the sound of voices. The earth closes over my head and I feel the weight of its body in my lungs. At times I think I can smell its musk, bitter and unclean. I tell myself it is only the stale air which never moves. I try to remember why I got myself into this. Small pieces of a scene float to the edge of my memory, but there is nothing you could call a picture. I can’t remember, but it doesn’t matter now.
It’s easy to get disoriented. There are so many turns. The next corner gets to looking pretty much like the last, and none of them without the threat. You can take along a big ball of string and let it out as you walk in. You can bring a laser to vaporize the mythic creep, and then cut your way out. You could do that, but something in you wants to look it straight in the eye, to see the fevered sparkle and smell the rage from its lungs.
The way becomes more uneven. I sense its angry movements through these passageways. It has been so long since I first caught a glimpse of it. I begin to think it doesn’t exist, never did except in my head. Then a rustle whispers from the darkness.
The beast has a sort of humor about the game, a way to play on the frayed ends of the nerves. It delays and evades, leaves clues but no solid directions. It plays out its peculiar edition of the dance with agonizing patience.
I’m a modern man. I have trouble remembering why I do the things I do. All of the mythologies are toys to me now, to fill only the emptiest hours. I don’t say this for sympathy, but that you will be in context. A context will help you make decisions about what I am telling you. You can do that. You can make decisions about me. I won’t be offended. Not being offended is part of being a modern man too.
I’m having trouble now, remembering, that is. I wind through this trap, a trap I knew to be a trap before I took the first step into it, and I try to remember why I’m here. Does the monster know? Would it tell me at the moment it was sure that I was dying? Maybe I could trick it into telling me. Times like this are the price you pay for trying to be modern and a hero. Sleep would come easily now, and if the beast would kill me in my sleep, I’d be tempted to let it, but it’s too cruel for that. It would wake me, and I’d have to see the whole thing through my own outraged eyes. Better to stay awake – at least make it harder.
I come around a turn and it’s there. The dirty thatch of hair almost spills over its eyes, but not entirely. I see its eyes, and they are mine, the one thing which could shatter my courage and it does. Its huge, cruel arms are poised to grab me, to strangle and rip my joints apart. Its odor gags my throat. I freeze. I had it all planned – how I would trick it with riddles and questions, and then cut its throat in the unguarded moment. But no, my plans are useless now. I see that, like me, it looks horror stricken on the one sight it hoped never to see. In the heart of the labyrinth, I look into the eye of the beast, and it into me.
Its rage seems to melt, and the cruel arms sink to its sides. It cocks its head to the side, as if the angle might change things. Nothing can change it. Nothing can help us. We must see each other and know the truth. We have destroyed our question.
“Well, this is awkward.”
The moment should be hallowed by words, but none come. None could be said. We decide to go get a beer. I need to sort things out. The way out of the Labyrinth is actually very short and we walk out together into the bright heat of the city street. We climb into a Japanese car, turn on the stereo and air conditioner, and drive to a bar. We take a table in the corner and order light beers. I light a cigarette and glance around to see if anyone notices us, but no one does. The waitress’s pockets jingle with change when she brings the beers. She smiles, says something cute, and walks away. No one notices that I’m sitting in a bar with a stinking monster with the head of bull, so I act as if there is nothing unusual. We begin to talk:
“I’ve been afraid of this, dreamed about it even.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“You didn’t have to make things so difficult.”
“What was I supposed to do? Serve as the head waiter in your boring little melodrama? Forget it. I’ve got ethics.”
“Well, principles then.”
“The waitress has a cute butt.”
“No ‘horny’ jokes, ok?”
“Right. I really wasn’t going to.”
“Of course not.”
“I didn’t think it was all that boring.”
“I don’t know. It just lacked something… imagination, creativity. I don’t know.”
“How do you mean.”
“The hero business is so predictable. Stomp or get stomped. I don’t see how you managed to stay awake.”
“And I suppose you’re proud of stalking around and making life hell.”
“It’s a dirty job, but… “
“Right. Let’s talk about something else…”
We have a few more beers and talk. It was like meeting someone after writing them letters for years, the surprise and shock of having the fantasy destroyed, the curiosity of wanting to see how he would react presented with a certain fact or joke. Old enemies become friends, I guess. Even warfare is an investment of emotion. A bond is formed.
We walked out together into the evening air, I wouldn’t say reconciled, but understanding. Emptied. There should be a better word for it, but “freed” is too romantic. I never saw him again after that. I think he opened a commodities trading firm in Santa Barbara.