By the time they reached the Thebes-to-Eleusis road, near Erithres, Oedipus was chuckling at the hidebound seriousness of his quest for identity. Who was Oedipus? Who but a puffed-up blood-and-bone-bag, one impassioned clump of the Great Whatever that cared hugely about where it belonged in the vast scheme of things. It amazed him how distracting some thoughts could be.
Pleusidippus hummed merrily by his side, happy to be on the main road again, seeing it as some grand metaphor for his homecoming.
And then they met the Sphinx.
“Hold it right there, you two,” came the sharp voice. They turned toward Thebes to face it. Asterion shied off into the underbrush, grazing warily and hoping he had not been noticed.
She was tall, seven or eight feet easy, standing upright without difficulty on her hindlegs. Her lionish pussy, though it puckered tawny and open before them, did not arouse them in the least; indeed their cocks withered and their balls shrank inside them looking for a place to hide. Behind her, barbed and scaly, her serpent’s tail twitched from side to side. Her eagle’s wings stood out strong from her shoulders, ready to lift her skyward should they dare to run.
But her face, her woman’s face, terrified them more than any of that. Out of a clotted mat of thick black hair peered a puff of face that was all teeth and eyes. The teeth were large and bunched and ready to tear; the eyes burned deep and full of death. Oedipus dropped his cosmic musings at once and brought all of his brainpower to bear on staying alive.
“I have a riddle for you two. When you fail to solve it, I’ll have you for lunch. No sense in trying. I’ve eaten more men than I can count and some of them were very clever. Good brain food. Now you boys seem just about average to me. And high on drugs, if I’m not mistaken.”
She peered into the prince’s eyes. He felt himself tottering dangerously near the edge of her gaze.
“Riddle away,” he said, blinking free. “My friend and I will put our heads together and give you our best answer.”
“Not so,” she shot back. “You will answer my riddle separately, and if either answer is incorrect, I’ll devour both of you.”
“But that’s not fair,” protested Pleusidippus.
“Tell it to Hades,” she retorted, laying her heavy front paws on their shoulders. They could feel her claws sharp on their backs, her breath warm and fetid in their faces. “Here it is: Twixt waking and sleep, I am moved by nine. Four I need in the morning, two will suffice in the afternoon, and in the evening, three stiff ones. Who am I?”
Pleusidippus asked her to repeat it, but she shoved him roughly off the road. He fell hard and began crawling about on all fours, crying. Oedipus she steered to the other side of the road, out of earshot.
“Time’s up,” she said.
Oedipus noticed that his friend had gotten to his feet, found a long branch, and was bending over like an old man, scratching something in the dirt. He strained to make out what it was, but then instinct made him pull back and take in the picture entire. One stick, two legs: three appendages. Old man with staff. Night and death, morning and birth. A baby moving on all fours. He had it!
“The answer is Man,” he said matter-of-factly, and before he could expand on his answer, she screamed in disbelief, shoved him to the ground, leaped across the road to Pleusidippus, and spun him around to face her.
“Well?” she said. There was a quaver to her voice, like a young child at a friend’s funeral, who discovers that death has cradled her in his arms ever since she emerged from the womb.
Pleusidippus, with a smug smile, pointed behind him. There, clearly etched in the earth, was the other correct answer to her riddle: QUEEN MEROPE.
Then her screams shattered the air and she was dragged by some invisible force into the center of the road, her tail flailing wildly behind her. The prince saw her face collapse in on itself, as though some Titan had reached an invisible hand inside her head and pulled hard. Her chin rose to meet her collapsing forehead, like two brown lips, and from those lips gushed a froth of gore. Then the Titan’s hand yanked her head straight down inside her trunk, and her clawed feet danced madly about in the pooling blood, eagle feathers flying off in all directions. A rent opened in the air beside her, and they watched as her body, all snapping bones and slashing claws, fell through into its bottomless depths. And then the rent closed up, her blood sank into the road, and all that remained was the sharp slap of memory.
Oedipus knelt down and the world puked out its guts in front of him. He rose to join Pleusidippus, who was busy rubbing out his answer with his foot.
“So, what did you tell her?” Pleusidippus asked nervously.
The incident, thought Oedipus, had obviously shaken him to the core. “Why, Man, of course.”
“Me too!” said Pleusidippus quickly.
Oedipus looked down. Although the answer was wiped out, the tops and bottoms of some of the letters remained. His friend was lying. Through his entheogenic haze, the prince felt he could almost read this other answer in the swirling browns and tans of the earth. But it eluded him, lost in a pool of dust. He decided not to press his friend, who seemed badly shaken by their meeting with the monster.
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