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A Bolt for Semele

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A Bolt for Semele

by Richard Zwicker


Coexistence with gods involves accepting a complex world run on a need-to-know basis. When people demand more information, that’s when I go to work. I’m Phokus, Athenian detective. I wear a tunic.

It started when my wife Delphinia left me for a Spartan. With that city-state’s constant militaristic training, I wasn’t surprised she preferred his  drilling to mine. The truth was, I’d neglected her for my profession. Not ready to throw in the chiton, however, I paid a visit to the temple of Hera, goddess of marriage. I didn’t expect any great insight, but it doesn’t hurt to have a goddess in your corner. I should have known better. I stepped between the Doric columns and right into Hera’s priestess and Zeus getting something straight between themselves. The priestess had her eyes closed and was reciting the opening passage of The Odyssey, but Zeus saw me, and I knew if I didn’t change my address posthaste, he’d transform me into a gadfly and make me bug myself to death. I’d once helped Cadmus, the king of Thebes, find his kidnapped sister and he told me to stop by if I was ever in the city-state. It was time to call him on that. I convinced Alastor, my plodding but faithful assistant, to accompany me. At the very least, it would take my mind off my failed marriage.

Extended land trips guarantee you’ll encounter the biggest misshapen cretins this side of Egyptian mythology. We got off easy, meeting just three questionable characters. One old man wanted us to wash his loincloth. We told him to look us up when he had enough for a full load. The second day an underage female flashed us and offered to rock our world for twenty shekels. Alastor expressed interest, but I reminded him to beware of girls baring groins. On the third day we encountered a zealot who vowed to cleanse the world of its filth. We sent him to the loincloth guy.

On the fourth morning we reached the outskirts of Thebes. In the distance we saw what looked like a very large dog sitting in the middle of the road.

“I don’t want to know whose best friend that is,” Alastor said.

“It’s got the head of woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of a bird, and the tail of a serpent. What does that say to you?”

“Mixed breeding?”

“No, it’s a sphinx. Let’s get out of here.”

We turned left off the road, hoping to double back and enter Thebes from a different route. Before we could get far, the sphinx let out a piercing squawk, and in an unnatural combination of running and flying, plopped down in front of us. It reeked of death.

“If you answer my riddle, I will let you pass. If not, I will eat you,” it said in a world-weary female voice.

I chuckled nervously and turned to Alastor. “It’s incredible Thebes has any tourism at all.” Then I said to the sphinx, “I’m a private detective. Usually I have weeks to solve cases.”

The creature sat still as the rock in front of the Cyclops’ cave. “I’m a sphinx. I eat immediately. Here is my riddle. What creature in the morning goes on four legs, at mid-day on two, and in the evening on three, and the more legs it has, the weaker it be?”

I’d never considered myself a leg man and had no idea. It sounded like another sphinx, but I doubted that was it. I gave the only answer I knew. “To get to the other side?”

“Wrong!” the Sphinx said. “Prepare to be eaten.”

I didn’t know what to do except be literal, hoping to delay the inedible. “Isn’t the onus of preparation on the eater?” Apparently it was, as a claw clasped my left leg. “Alastor,” I said weakly, “this would be a good time for assistance.”

Alastor had on what he called his bluffing face. I called it his blank look. As seconds passed, I wondered if he was thinking of a way to save me or deciding which engraver he’d use to carve “Alastor, Private Detective” on my office door.

“Wait,” he said finally. “There are two of us here. Don’t we get one chance each?”

The Sphinx and I looked doubtfully at Alastor. “Very well. Make haste,” it said.

Alastor did his best, grimacing, grunting, and growling. In the end he just slumped and said, “Man, I don’t know.”

The Sphinx screamed, shooting into the air like an arrow and crashing to the ground like an empty coat of armor.

“What happened?” Alastor asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t even know why people like riddles.” But as I was a detective, it was a good thing they did.

The guards couldn’t believe their eyes when we straggled in. After we told them the riddle and our answer, they still couldn’t believe it.

“What kind of stupid answer is that?” one asked.

“Of all the sphinxes in the world, we get a retarded one,” the other said.

I identified us and our reason for being in Thebes. They took us to a pool, where we freshened up. A circular table with eight chairs was at the water’s edge. A slave set two of the places with dishes of figs and two-handled wine cups filled with a liquid I didn’t recognize. He then motioned for us to sit. We stared at the figs, unsure if we should eat or not. Whether meeting visitors, fulfilling government promises, or pleasing his wife, Cadmus had a reputation for making people wait, and then they wondered why they bothered. The shadow on a horizontal sundial moved about a tenth of a revolution as the figs toasted and our faces burnt. Finally, to the funereal beat of a drum, Cadmus entered.

Compared to his pottery drawings, he looked flabby. The tall, vacant-eyed slave who provided the accompanying percussion stood immobile at his side. Had he got tired of solo drum, he could have done duets on his protruding ribs.

“Gentlemen,” Cadmus said, “you honor me with your presence. Did you have any trouble getting to Thebes?”

“No, your kingship,” I said. “We just pointed ourselves northeast and put one foot in front of the other. The Sphinx was a bit of an obstacle though. If it weren’t for Alastor, we’d be paddling down its gullet right now.”

“Sorry about that. We do seem to attract an unwholesome element.”

“The Sphinx could be Thebes’ city-state bird,” Alastor muttered, while undressing the figs on his plate with his eyes. The slave’s mouth was also watering, and I felt a bit peckish myself. Judging from Cadmus’s puffy appearance, however, we had no chance of winning a game of chicken over the figs.

Cadmus continued, “It’s propitious you’re here as I have a delicate problem you might help me with. It has to do with my daughter, Semele.”

“We’re here to serve. Is she missing?” I asked.

“No,” he said, but before he could explain, we heard a splash. The frothing slave had fallen into the pool. Now more animated, his muscular arms flailed and he screamed in a language I didn’t recognize. Neither had much effect on his buoyancy.

Cadmus shook his head. “I got that slave from Ephesus. Can’t swim a lick.”

I told Alastor to jump in and save the poor man, though being a slave, I was unsure we were doing him a favor. In a few moments, both men sat on solid land, sputtering and gasping. Once the slave recovered, Cadmus sent him to fetch Semele.

“The problem is she’s in the family way but won’t tell me who the rest of the family is,” Cadmus announced.

“And you’d like us to find out,” I said. “Has she much exposure to the public?”

“Well, yes, she’s a priestess,” Cadmus said. My heart skipped a beat, then spent the rest of our conversation trying to catch up.

“For Hera?” I asked.

“No, for Zeus.”

Alastor burst into mirthless laughter, but for me, the bad news produced a kind of epiphany. Zeus might not be omnipresent, but as his far-flung seeds attested, he was omnipotent. We’d come all this way, but there was no escaping him. We could only do our job as best we could.

“What exactly are her duties?”

“The usual things. She keeps the torches lit, sweeps up, prepares the sacrifices.”

I could imagine the kind of sacrifices she was making with Zeus. The slave returned, saying he was unable to bring Semele because the temple door was locked.

Cadmus looked confused. “Follow me.” Reluctantly, Alastor and I left the fig-laden table for the temple.

“Semele, are you in there? What’s going on?” Cadmus asked at the entrance.

Moments later, a discombobulated young woman opened the door. Her cloak was wrinkled and her hair askew.

“Why was this door locked?” Cadmus asked.

“Was it locked? The wind must have blown it shut. It gets stuck easily.” She had a musical voice stuck in a high register.

“I’ll have Deleterius put a rock down to hold it open,” Cadmus said. I guessed Deleterius was the slave. The king motioned toward us. “These two men are great admirers of Zeus and have come from Athens to pay their respects.”

“Doesn’t Zeus have a temple in Athens?” she asked.

“Yes, and it’s a very good one, but the lines are terrible,” I said.

We introduced ourselves, then Semele showed us around the Zeus shrine. Inside we noted various symbols associated with the chief god, among them a statue of an eagle, paintings of Mount Olympus, and a cloud with a lightning bolt. In the far corner sat a thick bull oak tree. In the center was a blood-speckled stone altar.

After our tour, Alastor and I met in the courtyard to discuss strategy and attack the figs.

“What I’m wondering is,” Alastor said, “after Zeus turns us into blighted turnips, will we have the sensitivity of turnips or humans? I hope it’s turnips because they can’t feel anything.”

I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Listen, I had an epiphany in the courtyard. Our lives will be easier if we accept that we are the gods’ playthings.”

He grimaced. “It would have been nice if you’d had this epiphany in Hera’s temple before we walked fifty kilometers.”

“With epiphanies, the question is not when they happen but how you respond. For better or worse, I’m a detective and you’re my assistant. I say, let’s detect and assist. Are you with me?”

Alastor hesitated, looked sweepingly at the sky, then at himself. “I’m with you.”

We toasted our solidarity but the wine was so watered down, I didn’t know whether to drink it or wash my face with it. Everyone diluted wine, but this was ridiculous. Thebes’ economy must really have been in the chamber pot, and I worried about my fee.

Alastor grimaced. “You realize there’s more mystery about where this wine came from than about who slept with Semele.”

I pushed my cup away. “Sometimes I dream of how nice it would be if we didn’t have a chief god that was such a porker.”

“King of the porkers. The Sultan of Twat, the Olympian of the Loins.”

“Let’s not get distracted. If we’re going to get paid, we need proof.”

“How are we going to get that? See if the baby has a lightning bolt on its forehead?”

“No. As distasteful as the prospect is, we’re going to have to catch them in flagrante delicto.”

“What does that mean? ‘In deep shit’?”

I told him it didn’t, but for us it probably did.

We settled on a surveillance schedule. While Semele was at the shrine, one of us would enter with a group of devotees and hide behind the bull oak tree. I had the afternoon. I made no discoveries, though I did wonder what bulls had to do with oak trees. I watched as Semele talked to a really ugly old woman who could have been the plain-looking sister in Medusa’s family. Without warning, Alastor stumbled into me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. “You’re not due until dusk.” He looked like Helios had rear-ended him with his sun chariot. His hair, normally neat, branched out in more directions than the tree of life. His eyes were unfocused and his mouth hung slightly open, despite his body crashing to the ground.

“I wanted to see how many goblets it took to get drunk on Theban wine,” he slurred.

This was the type of experiment that fascinated Alastor.

“How many?”

He hesitated. “After a while it didn’t seem to matter. So what’s happening here? Oh, holy Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades.”

His blurred eyes lit on the old crone talking to Semele.

“We can do without your ageism,” I said.

“Ageism? I’m a Greek. I worship the human body. That woman is against my religion.”

“If you cut down on your drinking, you’ll be old someday. You might even make it to thirty-five.”

He belched, then giggled. I told him to hush, as the conversation between Semele and the old woman grew animated. There was no one else in the temple.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” the crone rasped.

“Who are you to tell me what I should feel, old woman,” said Semele. “No one would be ashamed of this child’s father.”

“Really?” The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Is he a prince?”

Semele pshawed, the youngest person I’d ever heard pshaw. “Much greater than a prince.”

“Is he a king?”

Semele guffawed. She really was a virtuoso of dismissive dialogue tags. “A king? My guy could see three kings coming and wonder if it was worth getting out of his seat.”

“Hmm, you make him sound like Zeus. But it’s hard to believe Zeus would give the time of day to a young sprite like you, especially when he’s married to such a beautiful goddess as Hera.” A smile came over the old woman’s face, giving her the appearance of a grinning skull, yet I thought I recognized the outline of Hera herself.

“Oh yeah? Well, it just so happens I’m mature for my age and…” She looked around to make sure the temple was empty. “Zeus is the father.”

“Ha! I don’t believe you,” the crone said.

“It’s true!”

“How do you know?”

“Well, he had a beard.”

The crone flew into hysterics. “That narrows it down to every man and some of the women.”

“But he told me he was Zeus!”

The woman’s waved her hand. “Maybe he was a minor god pretending to be the god of thunder when he was actually the god of crabgrass or fire ants.”

“There’s no god of crabgrass.”

“And there’s no god for you either, you deluded girl.”

The crone left, taking Semele’s composure with her. We watched the girl pace back and forth, muttering, “He was Zeus.” I wondered if the old woman could be right. If Semele had been compromised by a poser, it would be harder to discover his identity, but after we did, we might avoid joining the brotherhood of the tuber. I was about to comfort Semele, but she abruptly left the temple. As Alastor was younger, I ordered him to follow her. The spirit was willing, but the body was shitfaced. After achieving a wobbly balance, he leaned over by the tree and hurled. By the time he finished purging himself of Theban wine, Semele was back, leading an apprehensive bull to the sacrifice platform.

She tied the bull’s rope to the platform and from the wall grabbed a sword half her length. I prefer to remain general on what happened next: Semele sacrificed the bull. I’ll hear the screams of that poor animal for the rest of my beef-eating days. Alastor threw up again, and I felt queasy myself as blood flew like a sandstorm. So much of it landed on Semele, she looked like a giant, displaced body part. But instead of being appalled, she said, “I guess I’d better clean up.” She doused the floor with a bucket of water, which just spread the stains further. I thought she was going to the pool to get more water, but she kept going and didn’t bring the bucket. We kept a safe distance, but she moved as one possessed, to the river.

We found plenty of trees to hide behind as we watched her romp in the water, humming, “I’m gonna wash that blood right out of my clothes.” For someone doused in bull blood, she maintained a puzzling equanimity. Every so often she glanced at the sky, as if worried about rain, but this time of year, there was more chance of Hephaestus falling to the ground. Then I saw it: a large eagle soaring above us in a majestic circle. Slowly, the circles diminished as the bird approached Semele. On landing it assumed its true form: the mighty, bearded, armored, horny Zeus. Alastor crouched spellbound and I told him to stay that way. One belch out of him and our sleuthing days were over.

“Semele,” Zeus said. “What are you doing here? Did you sacrifice another bull and get blood all over you?”

To my surprise, Semele’s happy mood vanished. This trip to the river was clearly an assignation, but when the guy she’d meant to assig with showed up, she got pissed off. I’ll never understand women.

“If you were truly Zeus, you’d know I sacrificed a bull,” she snarled.

“What do you mean, if I were truly Zeus? Who do you think I am, the Trojan Horse? The world is a complicated place. I can’t be aware of everything.”

Of course, they being lovers, that’s exactly what Semele thought he should be. “Anyone could say they were Zeus. I’m the type of girl who needs proof.”

From his incredulous look, this was news to Zeus, and probably to the unborn child as well. “Proof? We—we yoked the chariot, we did the centaur stomp. Do you really think anyone else could make love like Zeus?”

“How am I supposed to know? You’re the only one I’ve ever slept with.”

“Should I send Hades over for comparison bonking?” Zeus asked, flustered. “Trust me, you don’t want that. Besides, he’ll try to make you eat a pomegranate seed.”

“I don’t like your tone. If this relationship is to continue, you need to prove once and for all that you’re Zeus.”

Zeus lowered his Olympian pectorals. “The fact that I came here as an eagle doesn’t carry any weight with you?”

“I’m not a bird expert. It could have been a roc or a vulture.”

“Very well.” Despite the authoritative aura emanating from Zeus’s body, he looked unsure of his next move. We’d heard Semele admit to a relationship, and Zeus said they’d made love. Would that be enough evidence for Cadmus? Even if it was, what could he do with it? We weren’t exactly treading on the course of logic here. Point in fact, Zeus’s next words: “To prove to you I am Zeus, the king of gods, ask me anything and I will grant it.”

I couldn’t believe it. How could the king of gods be so dumb? How many times had gods made that kind of promise to young people? There was no chance Semele would ask for something sensible, like a ring or a necklace.

“I want to see one of your lightning bolts,” she said.

For a moment, Zeus relaxed. “No problem. I’ll just sashay up into the sky and make a storm you’ll never forget.”

“No. I’ve seen thunderstorms. I want you to produce a lightning bolt right now, in front of me.”

The ruddy color drained from the visible portion of Zeus’s bearded face. “That’s not possible.”

“Aha, so you’re not Zeus!”

“Please ask for something else. How about an all-expenses-paid trip to Mount Olympus, three days, two nights?”

Semele was unmoved. “I want my lightning bolt.”

Zeus lowered his head, sighed, then said softly, “A promise is a promise.”

This is another thing I’ve never understood. Greek gods have affairs all the time, often with their brothers and sisters. They castrate their fathers. They ruin the lives of innocent people to satisfy their lusts and whims. BUT THEY CAN’T BREAK THEIR PROMISES? It makes no sense. Sometimes I feel like opening the gates and saying, “Barbarians, come on down!”

Zeus, in a masterful understatement said, “This is really a bad idea,” and explained to Semele how he was going to show her his smallest lightning bolt. Alastor, Zeus, and I all knew no human could survive seeing even a small lightning bolt up close.

We needed a plan and we needed it yesterday. “Listen,” I told the now sobered Alastor. “Just before the bolt appears, I’m going to throw my body in front of Semele and avert my eyes.”

“That’s very brave, boss. I salute you,” Alastor said.

“You’re going to do more than that. On my signal, I want you to charge into the river and scream, “Aegean Beach!”

“Why ‘Aegean Beach’? This is the Dirke River.”

“That’s not the point. I want you to cause enough confusion for Zeus to think, ‘These humans are nuts. I’m going back to the mountain.’ But if he does get off that lightning bolt, whatever you do, don’t look at it.”

We waited, then Zeus raised his arms. I yelled, “Go!” and we both took off. I had my head down though, and accidentally crashed into Semele. To this day, I can’t say if the flash I saw was inside or outside of my head, but it happened. Alastor really did yell “Dirke River!” but I don’t think that mattered. When I came to my senses, Zeus was gone and a dazed Semele lay sprawled beside me. She slowly sat up, rubbing her head.

“What hit me?” she asked.

I checked my head for dents. “I’d like to say common sense, but that’s probably more credit than either of us deserve.”

After we’d returned Semele to her father, we had a long talk. Basically, Cadmus said, “How could you?” while Semele said, “How couldn’t I?” What could I say to bridge that divide? In trying to understand emotions, I’d turned to a life of logic and detection, and it cost me my marriage. I finally said to Semele, “Though you will bear Zeus’s child, you can find a better life partner than the king of gods.” I hoped one day she would be old enough to believe that.

The walk back to Athens was more solitary than the way up. We didn’t meet anyone of note except Hermes. Of course he had a message, and it was from Zeus. I quote, “I admire your courage, but know this. There are things humans can never understand. We call those things gods.” Unfortunately, since the gods are omnipresent and we are in their image, humans have no choice but to keep trying to understand them. For now, my conflict with Zeus is at a standoff, and I figure as long as I don’t have a wife, daughter, or female livestock, I am safe.

I’ve since pledged to restrict my practice to Athens. I even have my own riddle ready if the sphinx comes knocking on my door: Why is Thebes the last place you should ever visit? Answer: You don’t want to know. It’s not sphinx quality, but it works for me.


headshotRichard Zwicker is an English teacher living in Vermont, USA, with his wife and beagle. His short stories have appeared in T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, Zetetic, Perihelion Science Fiction, and other semipro markets. Besides reading and writing, his hobbies include playing the piano, jogging, and fighting the good fight against middle age.

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