If you ask me, Midas had it easy.
My name is Helene and I am the daughter of a god. Or so my mother always told me. Her husband, a captain in the Delian League, was not impressed by the divine miracle he returned home to and so, at the unusually early age of seven, I became an acolyte at the Temple of Aphrodite.
The Temple recruited only the most beautiful acolytes and, as I grew, it became obvious to me that I was the most beautiful of them all. But serving from such an early age, it was also obvious that beauty does not last. I saw many a weeping woman cast out of the Temple as the first blemishes of middle age appeared.
I vowed this would not happen to me. I devoted myself to studying every means of halting time’s cruel effects. The charlatans who sold me their expensive charms and potions pandered to my obsession and I reached the point where I was convinced I would live forever. I gloated that my beauty would never fade and would always be on par with Aphrodite’s.
In the middle of her Temple, right in front of her altar.
So, yes, of course the jealous bitch heard me.
Her punishment was a curse: a most peculiar, vindictive curse. In some ways, you could say, I was granted my heart’s desire: I would never grow old, my beauty would never fade. But what a cost!
Flowers withered in my hand. Wine soured and bread went moldy. Plaster crumbled from the walls of the Temple and my wooden bed collapsed beneath me. Worse than all of this, when my friend Phoebe tried to comfort me, her skin dulled and creased, liver spots appearing before my eyes. Her legs creaked as she tried to stand, not certain what had just happened, her youth and beauty a ruin.
Everything I touched faded, aged, perished. Tempus edax rerum: time, the devourer of all things. Even my clothes fell to tatters and, naked, I was banished from the Temple. Everywhere I sought refuge, death and decay swiftly followed. I would walk through a field and the wheat would shrivel on the stalk, pass a farm and the milk would sour. I retreated to the hills, where I could do less damage.
And there, in a golden cave, I found Midas.
He was not happy to see me. “Go away,” he whined. “Or else you’ll be turned to gold!”
“Go away yourself,” I retorted. “Or else you’ll be turned to old.”
We stared at each other for a moment before both of us reached the same inevitable conclusion and we embraced, eager for mutual oblivion.
It did not come. Not only were we immune to our own curses, we were also unaffected by each other’s. The gods would not release us from our punishment so easily; we were stuck with each other. I disengaged his hands from where they had wandered, and he shrugged and retired to his golden bed.
I’ve tried, but I really can’t imagine a wetter dishcloth to spend the rest of eternity with. Kings his age ought to be hitting their stride, but he shuffled about with a forlorn gait, showing all the uncertainty and poor judgement that he was famous for.
But, there isn’t all that much you can do when anything that isn’t gold disintegrates in your hands, and your only companion’s idea of conversation is to ask whether he was richer than Croesus yet. After an uncounted number of centuries, I had a single moment of weakness and gave in.
Disgust turned to horror as I realized I was pregnant.
Midas didn’t seem particularly concerned.
“How will I care for it?” I wailed. “What if the child is born and I touch it, and it ages and dies? Or what if you touch it and it turns to gold?”
“Then you won’t have to care for it anymore,” he replied. “Look on the bright side, there are worse fates. What if you have a child that never grows up? What if you remain pregnant forever?”
I’d have hit him, the miserable sod, if he hadn’t effectively been wearing gold body armor.
As my belly swelled, the hunger pains that I could never satisfy doubled in intensity. I didn’t see how a child could grow inside me, when everything I tried to eat turned to dust in my mouth, but it did. I wondered if I’d be able to nurse it, when the time came, or would it starve at my breast? All the while, Midas clumped about in his heavy golden slippers, exhaling motes of gold that sparkled in the sunlight, and telling me that I looked fat.
Given half a chance, I’m sure he would have slunk off when the contractions began, but I sure as hell wasn’t letting him. Not that he was much help, not that either of us really knew what we were doing. I had not thought it possible for anything to hurt so much! But finally, Midas stood, cradling something in his hands, a terrible expression on his face. And then he turned and showed the little golden baby to me and I screamed in anguish.
The baby screamed back. It was the gods’ last laugh. From then onwards, Jason’s glow faded; his skin turned pink, and even his fleecy golden hair turned black. And we found that we were no longer cursed.
Midas had been preparing himself for this day. He’d been hoarding rocks he’d turned to gold in great piles at the back of the cave. He was going to build—or buy—himself a new Kingdom, but get it right this time. He waxed lyrical on how many rooms his palace would have, how many wives, and how big his kitchens would be, and how many wives.
I had to gently point out that the apples and other fruit that we were eating had once been gold, as had the clothes I was now wearing. His face went ashen and he rushed to the back of the cave. I stood safely to one side as rocks came flying past, and then he re-emerged, wild-eyed, with a scant armful of still golden nuggets.
“No time to waste!” he cried and went haring off down the hill towards the nearest town.
I found him at the bottom of a ravine, his neck at an unnatural angle, dull rocks scattered about him. I buried him there, a cairn of his precious stones marking the grave.
When the food finally ran out, I salvaged the few items that were, it turned out, genuinely gold, and carefully descended to the plain below with Jason in a makeshift sling.
Oh, how strange it was. What changes time had wrought! Even the language was different; a few odd words were all that I could recognize. I could not make myself understood and, after hours of wandering aimlessly around the town, I found myself sobbing on the steps of a temple, where a priest, seeing the crying babe in my arms, took pity and gave me shelter.
I had thought once that my curse was eternal. I had no way then of knowing that even the gods are not forever. The priest taught me his language and tried to teach me his religion as well. But the strange, crucified figure left me cold, and he in return refused to listen to my tales of Zeus, of Apollo, and of Aphrodite.
With the last of the golden jewelry, I opened up a beauty salon. And though I can’t really afford to do so, I find myself turning away the pretty young girls of the town, berating them for their empty-headed vanity. Fortunately, there are plenty of older housewives eager—desperate—to be pampered. Most of my payment is in food or in clothes, but that’s okay. I’ve seen enough gold to last a lifetime.
Jason has grown and keeps growing. He’s turning into a fine young man. It’s only what you would expect; after all, he is the son of a king and a divine priestess, and was born on a golden bed.
I don’t tell him that.
I tell him his father died in the haunted hills, and his eyes widen and he asks, “What haunts them?” I tell him nothing, not anymore.
And that’s it really. I guess it’s a very ordinary end to an extraordinary tale. One last thing, though. The other day, Jason found me at my mirror, smiling like an idiot. He asked me why and I showed him the grey hair I had just found.
He didn’t understand, but it was the most wonderful thing in the world.
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