Erichtho and the Cumaen Sibyl Walk Into A Bar…
by Eric Williams

Birds, it is avowed, do not fly over the Acropolis; sanctified by the gods, its numinous aura is instantly recognized by all members of the feathered tribe, from hawk to pigeon, causing them to swerve aside with beaks lowered and wings humbly dipped, offering simple but heartfelt birdish prayers to the gods that watch over the world.

Such pious niceties are not for Erichtho, the Witch of Thessaly.

Mouth wide and laughing, the tangle of her hair whipping in the wind, she speeds her Haemonian Wyvern (a beautiful specimen from the rough Meteoraen crags of her homeland – scales blackly iridescent, the long horns crowning its head a wicked curve like the sickle moon so beloved by sickly, dissembling Hecate) on a course directly over the great promontory. It is late afternoon and the tourists ramble like ants through the ruins, their bright summer clothes and the chrome flash of cameras sparkling in the long light. Erichtho grins, wheels her dragon thrice over the holy site and, with a hacking grumble arising deep in her scrawny chest, hawks a thick wad of phlegm over the side of her beast and down onto the crumbling pillars below. 

She cocks an ear, hears only the faintest of whimpers from Zeus Polieus, impotent now as always against the blasphemies of the Witch of Thessaly. She cackles at her bullying, wishes she had time for more affrontery, more and viler insults against the sniveling divinities that swarm this ancient city, but she hasn’t the time.

Evening draws close, and with it: happy hour.

#

Hands at ten and two, the Sibyl of Cumae carefully checks the space cushion between her glittering chariot and the honking taxis that swarm the street, their drivers cursing and throwing rude gestures as they swerve and speed around her. She doesn’t take it personally; in a flash she sees each of the screaming men’s entire lives play out, from squalling birth to whimpering death, each one the brief shimmer of a match flaring in the dark. It would be like getting mad at a mayfly, angry at snowflakes. She signals her turn; a parking spot has become available, exactly when and where she knew it would be. 

The huge aurochs pulling her chariot snort with derision at the cars around them, their enormous frames dwarfing even the chic SUVs rumbling through the city center. They muscle their way into a tight spot between an idling Audi and a pristine and unmuddied Land Rover, their stamping hooves striking sparks against the cracked asphalt. Situated, they roar a Pleistocene bellow that rises above the traffic and bounces against the bricks of Athens, an echo of the old days when Greece was all one vast forest and humans were only the troubled dream of sleeping gods.

The Cumaen Sibyl alights from her chariot, stepping automatically to avoid a pile of dog shit left on the curb. She pats the flanks of her two Aurochs, fixes their feed bags and leaves them munching on honied oats and dried figs. She starts walking; the direction doesn’t matter, since she has seen the future and knows that she will arrive at her Girls’ Night Out in twenty-six minutes precisely. 

#

Chuckling with an almost maternal delight, Erichtho claps her hands and urges her dragon on in its rampage. They’d dropped down out of the sky like a thunderbolt, smashing a rental Fiat and scattering a gaggle of German tourists who had been consulting a map for the best route to their next destination. Now her Wyvern was playfully pulling apart the wreck beneath its talons, tugging tires from their rims, snapping the plastic fenders into shards. Poisonous smoke poured from its nostrils, as sure a sign of pleasure as a kitten’s mischievous purr. 

“Alright, alright, you great big horror,” said the Witch, scratching the reptile’s chin with a hand as gnarled as the beast’s own hide. “You monster! Go ahead and have fun tonight; go wild! Eat whoever you want! Just be sure to come when I call, you understand? Or I’ll feed your guts to the fish!” The great beast rumbled its agreement, nuzzled its blunt nose against Erichtho’s scrawny ribs, then happily pranced off with a roar and a jaunty flip of its tail. Screams soon echoed faintly down the adjoining alleyways, followed by the booming roar of the Wyvern, ravening with delight.

Erichtho grinned at the sounds, then turned and considered her path. The road was long and narrow and overshadowed by tall four or five story buildings packed tightly together, shops and business on the first floor, apartments up higher. At first, in the commotion of the descent, the windows had all been thrown open, and people had poured out onto the street to see what all the noise and activity was about; now the windows were shut, the streets empty. Furthermore, on their landing the Wyvern had knocked the street sign over with its lashing tail, and now she had no idea where she was or what direction she should take to the bar. She pointed her long nose towards the heavens and took in a deep breath through her flared nostrils, holding the air in her lungs, tasting the miasma of the city on her tongue. She exhaled with a gusty laugh, then glared into the shadows of an alleyway.

“You there,” she snarled at the vague, misty shape skulking against the bricks. “Yes, I can smell you, smell your hunger! Step out where I can see!” Command came easily to the voice of the Witch of Thessaly; she routinely bullied gods and threatened demons in her daily work, so barking an order at the thin shade of one long dead was nothing to her. The watery form oozed out of the dark and into the light, a thin ragged thing all in tatters, with polished bones and angry eyes and long, lank hair.

“Well well,” she said, reaching into the bird’s nest of her hair and withdrawing a long, savage pin. She toyed with the point as she eyed the specter. “Ataphos, eh? Fine. You’ll serve me, little ghost.” She pricked her thumb, and a jewel-like bead of blood, red and fierce, balanced atop the wound. “Come, come, find your voice, little one! I haven’t got all night! I too am thirsty!”

The ghost rippled like an eel towards her, latching its toothless mouth on the wound, lapping at the blood with its translucent tongue. It drank, and the substance of its being grew thicker, took on form and weight and solidity; it even began to cast a thin, wavering shadow in the glow of the streetlamp humming overhead. When it was done is staggered backwards, drunk and shivering at the warmth of fresh blood.

“Had your fill?” Erichtho cackled. “Good, good, then before you flit off, little bat, you will lead me to the place I seek this night!”

“Where is that, O Mistress of the Dark,” the ghost whispered, its voice hissing like a knife against a whetstone.

“Xenios Taverna on the Mnisikleous Steps,” she commanded imperiously. The little specter bobbed its head and they took off. “I saw it on the Athens episode of Rick Steve’s Europe,” added the Witch as they crossed the street.

#

“Hey!” said Olivia, struggling under a stack of chairs. “What the hell are you doing here? I thought you had the day off?” Thalia sighed, shook her head, and helped her friend and coworker manhandle the chairs into place on the patio of the Xenios Taverna.

“Boss canceled my leave,” she said.

“Ah, fucking sucks, sorry,” said Olivia. She cranked hard on the handle that extended the blue and white awning over the patio while Thalia slid the big tables away from the wall. “But I’m glad you’re here anyway. Between you and me, things have been crazy all day, and I’ve got a feeling that the supper rush is going to be hard tonight!” 

“Why’s that?” said Thalia, putting up the iron grating they used to delineate the outdoor eating area from the rest of the tourist thoroughfare of the Mnisikleous stairs.

“Well,” said Olivia, “first off, there were the birds. Got here at opening and the place was just packed with ravens! I mean everywhere – over the door, on the window sills. The patio was packed with them just milling around like they were waiting for opening! Like tourists!” She laughed at the image. “And you couldn’t move ‘em! Tried shooing them off, but they’d just croak at me and hop aside. It was weird!” She shivered. 

“Well,” said Thalia, “they’re gone now.”

“Sure, they took off at five o’clock on the dot, all of ‘em at once, just a whirr of wings and whoosh! Off to the Parthenon! But they left behind bad luck! I’ve broken three carafes already,” said Olivia, wiping the sweat from her forehead. “Stavros spilled wine all over this tiny old American woman; she was so small, and it was, like, the whole bottle. I thought she was gonna drown! Oh, and Konstantin burned himself on the stove. I’m telling you, Thalia, someone has put the evil eye on us!” She turned and spat, trying to ward off bad luck. Thalia laughed.

“You sound like my grandmother!”

“Well, you’ll be singing a different tune when some dumb tourist trips and puts a fork in your ass! Now get changed!”

Thalia hustled through the dining room, shouting a greeting at the kitchen staff before slipping into the back to change out of her street clothes and into her waiter’s uniform, wiggling into the too-tight black pants and form fitting white button-up dress shirt required for the job. 

She checked herself in the mirror, adjusted what needed to be adjusted, and took as deep a breath as she could, given her uniform.

As she left, she made sure to slap her palm against the big blue eye painted over the doorframe, for luck.

#

Maybe Olivia was right about the Evil Eye, thought Thalia, catching her breath after the excitement. It certainly seemed like a cloud of bad luck had settled over the Xenios. An hour into her shift, and there had already been a handful of disasters. 

First had been the quake, and then the fire – a slight tremor had shaken Athens, like the roll and pitch of a ship on the sea, just a small one, but enough to jostle the restaurant and send the oil in one of the shallow candle bowls spilling across the paper tablecloth. It had immediately erupted into raging flame, threatening the curtains with their printed scenes taken from a Grecian urn. They’d had to move fast to save the whole taverna, Thalia slinging a pan of water onto it while Olivia had run for the fire extinguisher. They’d just finished mopping that up when a snake, some escapee from the Lycabettus Hill no doubt, had slithered in through a window, sending a pair of Canadian backpackers screaming out the door, overturning their table and, doubtless in their haste, causing them to neglect the paying of their bill. Thalia had used a broom to scoot the snake out the backdoor, and then she’d had to clean up that mess too.

And then there was the rain of fish.

A sudden terrible downpour, but instead of a steamy summertime shower, there had fallen from the clear blue sky a rain of tiny silvery fish. The uncanny event had driven a horde of tourists (Dutch? English? It was hard to tell sometimes) indoors, screaming and plucking the tiny animals out of their hair and from under their collars. But, rather than sitting down for some drinks and a nice meal, they’d immediately gotten into a loud argument with themselves, one half trying to explain the event as the product of freak meteorological processes, the other weeping and calling upon the Holy Virgin to save them from the end of days. It had dissolved into a fistfight, and it took all of them, her, Olivia, and Alex the cook to push them bodily out the door before too much property got destroyed.

“Enough excitement already!” Thalia said, leaning against the wall of the patio, panting and watching the scrum of angry tourists move off.

“I told you!” said Olivia. “All these weird fucking things happening! We’re cursed!” Thalia was gamely about to contest the point when, mouth open, she stopped and stared down the road at the two women marching up the street arm in arm.

Both were indeterminately older, though a starker contrast between the two couldn’t have existed. The taller and straighter of the two was wrapped in a pristine stola and seemed a vision of placid serenity, a classical figure moving as surely and steadily through the world as a river winding its way down to the sea. The palla on her shoulders, bright red and pinned with a simple but beautiful golden brooch in the shape of an owl, seemed to denote the mantle of grave wisdom that floated cloud-like over her broad forehead and around her tower of night-black hair.

Her companion was precisely her opposite: bent and gnarled and wrapped in strange, fluttering, riotously dyed clothes, she capered and cackled and wheezed with laughter, mouth thrown wide, bulging eyes rolling madly in her sockets. If the first woman was a personification of sagely wisdom, the second woman was cloaked in cunning – she reminded Thalia of a literature professor she’d had her first semester, a sinister man who had specialized in the Marquis de Sade and who had clearly thought that making the undergrads squirm was the best part of the job.

As the two women approached, their voices became clearer.

“ – so the Emperor is there, right? Just there in the Forum, and he sees this bumpkin, right? A real country mouse, dust in his hair and the shit still on his sandals, and, wow, does this clodhopper of a farmboy look like him, just like him! This peasant looks just like the Emperor of Rome! Okay?” said the shorter one, her voice harsh as the call of a night bird.

“Yes?” answered the taller woman; her voice was like a warm breeze in the pines.

“And he says, the Emperor, he asks this dirty little sheepfucker from the countryside, he says to him, he says, ‘My friend, the resemblance between the two of us is remarkable! Tell me, did your mother ever visit the capital?’ And the bumpkin, he says – ”

“‘No, but my father often did,’” said the tall woman, finishing the shorter woman’s joke, who dissolved into peals of hacking laughter at the punchline, slapping her knee and elbowing her taller friend in the ribs.

“Ah, it’s a good one though, hey? Even a prophetess can’t ruin that punchline!”

“We’ve arrived, Erichtho,” said the tall one.

“So we have, my dear Deiphobe,” said Erichtho. She leered at Thalia and said with a huge, toothy grin, “Table for two, my dear little thing, and make it snappy!”

#

“More olives,” panted Thalia, “and more ouzo!” She leaned against the door while Alex, the cook, gathered the order. “And they’ll want more keftadakia soon.”

“All out,” grimaced Alex, pouring the drinks and sliding them and the olives towards Thalia. “But I sent Olivia down the road for more octopus!” Thalia nodded and hurried back into the dining area, before Erichtho started banging on the table again.

“You’re getting faster girl,” she laughed, raising her fresh glass in salute.

“It’s all so good,” said the Cumaen Sibyl, her words slurring only slightly under the influence of her fourth ouzo. 

“Told ya! Rick Steves would never steer me wrong,” cackled Erictho, spearing a hunk of feta on the end of her knife. “Here, how about some more of them grape leaves!”

“And more tiropita, if you please,” added the Sibyl after searching the table in vain.

“And some wine!” barked Erichtho. “And none of this tasteless piss they serve now-er-days, mind you! Retsina, girl, the piney-er the better!” Thalia, her head spinning, jogged back to the kitchen.

“It’s so good to see you again,” said the Sibyl, reaching across the table to take Erichto’s cracked and clawed hand in her own. “It’s been too long! It really really has, you know!”

“Ah, getting lonely down in the caves, are ya?” The Witch spit an olive pit into her empty ouzo glass, and nearly made it. “Thought you had that poet to keep you warm, though? What was his name? Vincentius or something?”

“Vergilius,” the Sibyl replied with a sigh. “And he died, oh, what was? Two thousand years ago? More?”

“Pshaw! Mortals, huh? Who can keep track of ‘em!”

“And you?” asked the Sibyl, trying for a sly wink but only succeeding in getting a slow, sleepy blink. “Any paramours waiting up tonight back in Thessaly?”

“Ha! Who needs a boyfriend when you’ve got satyrs!” said Erichtho, roaring with laughter. She threw back her ouzo glass and nearly choked to death on the olive pits. “Here now, what’s this,” she coughed and spat. “Where the fuck is that wine?”

“And the tiropita!” added the Sibyl with a grave nod.

“Not like they’re busy neither,” grumbled the Witch, rolling up her sleeves. She sprang to her feet and clambered up onto the table. 

“What’re you doing, dear?” asked the Sibyl, rescuing the hummus from Erichtho’s stomping sandals.

“If they can’t handle it,” she said, drawing a wickedly curved knife from somewhere under her robes. “Maybe they could stand a bit of help…”

#

“Watch those octopus for me, Thalia,” said Alex, running to the glowing oven to check the tiropita. Thalia set the wine glasses down and gave the octopus a quick stir. 

“I’m smelling something burning,” said Thalia over her shoulder.

“Ah shit the saganaki,” said Alex, hustling around behind her. “Damn damn damn, I need a spatula, where’s a spatula?”

“Here ya go, boss,” said the kobalos, handing the tool up to the human with its long, prehensile tail. 

“Thanks,” said Alex. Then he screamed. “What the fuck is that!?” He dropped the spatula and leaped back from the stumpy, shaggy figures that had invaded his kitchen.

“Here now, you’ll burn the cheese!” said a second kobalos, who hopped onto the head of a third to reach the stovetop. He flipped the saganaki and examined its underside. “Ah, nothin’ a bit of olive oil can’t cover up, huh?”

The door slammed behind Alex as he ran out the back door and down the street into the night. Thalia briefly considered following him, but the three hairy creatures were between her and the door and, anyway, they didn’t seem to be looking to cause any trouble. One of them was dumping some taramosalata into a serving bowl, and the ones on the saganaki seemed to know what they were doing.

Olivia came up from the basement, a crate of retsina rattling in her arms. She stopped and blinked at the kobaloi.

“Who’re these?” she asked.

“The Witch sent us in to help ya’ll out,” said the kobalos acting as a stepping stool. 

“Think she felt bad for all the runnin’ around they had ya’ll doing,” said the one prodding the frying cheese in the pan.

“I think Alex is gone for the night,” said Thalia, blowing a strand of hair out of her face. She grabbed two bottles of retsina from the crate in Olivia’s arms. “Think you can take over the kitchen?”

“Uh, sure,” said Olivia.

“Great, I’ll be back for the octopus in a minute, and there’s tiropita in the oven!”  She turned and tripped against one of the legs of the prep station. She righted herself, wobbled, and noticed that she’d lost a shoe in the stumble. Probably gotten kicked under the shelves, she figured. She’d get it later; they were little more than slippers anyway.  

She swept out through the door and into the dining room, one shoe on and one shoe off, and saw that the little kitchen kobaloi weren’t the only additions to the staff the Witch had made. Three fauns, their small horns twined with ivy, had taken over a corner and set up as a musical trio, harp, pipes, and drum together filling the dining area with wild, lilting, spinning music. The Witch was clapping to the tune and the Sibyl was up on her feet and swaying to the music with a sinuous, otherworldly grace.

“Ah, the wine!” said the Sibyl, spreading her arms wide.

“About time!” grunted the Witch. 

“Sorry about that,” said Thalia, pouring wine for the two women. “Should be all better now though, with the help you sent in, I mean.”

“Ha, those little critters know their way around a kitchen!” nodded Erichtho. The Sibyl giggled, threw her glass back, and downed the retsina in one go. She set it down and held her hands out to Thalia.

“Ah, come and dance with me, girl!” she said, her eyes bright and drunk and sparkling.

“Oh, uh, I can’t really, there’s the food –” 

“One of the grubbers can bring it out, don’t worry!” laughed Erichtho, shimmying in her seat.

“Well, I can’t really dance, I, uh,” she looked down at her feet and (gods be praised) discovered her excuse. “I’ve only got the one shoe!” Horns bleated, drums crashed, strings shrieked; the fauns had stumbled in their song and the music had come to a dead stop. The women blinked at Thalia like two owls. She took the moment to hurry back into the kitchen.

“Only got one shoe?” said the Sibyl. She turned and met Erichtho’s grinning visage. “Only got one shoe!”

The Witch threw her head back and cackled. The music started again, wilder this time.

#

In the end, around one in the morning, the tally came up to a little under four hundred euros, most of that in alcohol. The kitchen had closed down hours ago, and Olivia, having become fast friends with the kobaloi, had tossed her apron on its hook and gone out from drinks with them, leaving Thalia to settle the bill with the two now gloriously drunk women. The Witch of Thessaly blearily scowled down at the slip of paper, waved her hands, stamped a foot, and then the earth split open. Terrible skeletal hands wreathed in shadow and smoke emerged from the hole and pushed a huge clay pot up out of the dirt. Then the fissure snapped shut. With a kick, Erichtho shattered the pot into fragments, sending a glittering cascade of golden coins pouring out onto the floor. Thalia met the eyes of dozens of long-dead tyrants, their profiles stamped on each coin, and swallowed.

“Reckon that’ll take cover it, hey?” grinned the Witch.

“A lovely evening, yes a lovely evening,” said the Sibyl, trying to wrangle her pella into some semblance of order. She swayed dangerously as she did, and Thalia was certain the woman would topple over at any moment. She came close, but somehow stayed on her feet, and succeeding in getting her mantle in place. She patted her hair and then smiled down at Thalia. “Are you sure we can’t entice you to come out for one more drink with us, dear girl?”

“Really, thank you so much for the offer, and it sounds like fun, but I’ve got a lot of cleaning up to do and all, so…”

“Dutiful, dutiful,” nodded the Sibyl. 

“Well, if you won’t party with us,” said the Witch, stretching and yawning. “At least walk us down the street and point us in the direction of the Metro, won’t you? We’re such frail little things, old and vulnerable, oh me old back, etc, etc.” Thalia doubted that very much.

“I don’t know if I can leave the restaurant, especially with all this money here,” she said, gesturing at the heap of gold coins.

“None but those to whom it was given may touch the treasures of the dead,” said the Witch.

“It’s settled then,” said the Sibyl, clapping her hands. “Just to the Metro then dear, thank you so much!”

#

Thalia never could quite figure out how they’d ended up in Exarcheia, a good two and a half kilometers north of the Xenios Taverna. She’d walked out the door with the two women and, one on each arm, had started them down the block towards the crossroad where she had planned to leave them, pointing them east towards the Metro Station, no more than ten minutes, round trip. But, somehow, they’d gotten to talking, and Thalia had found herself suddenly very voluble, happily chatting with the two of them about her life, her friends, school, about Kostas and Maria and heartbreak, and about her dreams, her worries about the future, of the tension between what she wanted to do with her life and what she’d need to do if she wanted to survive. At that, the Sibyl had perked up and become suddenly very agitated.

“You’re worried about the future, are you, my dear? Well now, what would you say if I told you I had something here that could help with that?” The woman reached under her robes and pulled out six books, ancient looking things, each one a few inches thick and about the size of her palm.
“Here she goes,” said Erichtho.

“Right here, in my hand, are some very precious things, yes indeed. Do you know what these are, Thalia Oikonomou? Of course not! Well, I will tell you: they are the future.” She spoke with such vehemence, such importance, that Thalia felt a chill run up her spine. “In each of these is written the entirety of your life from this very point, yes, your future history! Every choice, every event, every failure, every triumph, every danger, every chance! All in here. And, my dear girl, I will sell them to you, yes, you may buy them from me.”

“Um,” was all Thalia could think to say.

“Stunned? Indeed, such offers are rarely made to mortals! Imagine it! A roadmap to your own life, a path forward through the thickets and deserts and terrors of the future. Such things are not given lightly, though.”

“How…how much?” asked Thalia. The sibyl gripped the books in her hands and gave Thalia the once over.

“Fifty euro,” she said. Thalia goggled at her.

“Fifty euro!” she laughed incredulously. 

“No huh?” said the Sibyl, shaking her head. She selected two of the books, tucked the others under her arm, and then snapped her fingers. Erichtho fumbled around in her own robes and produced a lighter, nickel-plated and stamped with an image of a three-headed dog. She handed it to the Sibyl who flicked it once, twice, got a steady flame, and then she burned the two books in her hands. They went up like torches, bright and hot, and the Sibyl tossed them into a convenient garbage can.

“Holy shit!” said Thalia.

“How about it,” said the Sibyl. “Two down. Four to go. Fifty euros.”

“Fifty…the same price for less books!” gasped Thalia.

“There’s a lesson in there somewhere,” muttered Erichtho, half to herself.

“Well?” said the Sibyl.

“It’s just…fifty euros is a lot, you know?” Two more books went up in flames.

“Last chance,” said the Sibyl, her eyes bright with a strange, maniacal light.

“Jesus Christ! Fuck!” said Thalia. “Alright. Alright! Lemme find an ATM.”

Fifty euros poorer but with the two remaining books of prophecy tucked in her waistband, Thalia led the three further down the road, the Sibyl humming happily to herself while the Witch kept sniffing the air, her long nose twitching, her nostrils flaring. Suddenly she stopped, took a couple of deep breaths, and tugged on Thalia’s arm.

“This way, oh yes, this way, come on!” Erichtho said, voice thick and husky.

“Oh, must we?” said the Sibyl.

“You had your fun,” growled the Witch. “Now it’s my turn. Come on!” Her hands gripped Thalia’s arm like a vice, and she practically dragged them up the block, around a corner and into a quiet, abandoned battlefield.

The cops had tried to clear one of the anarchists’ squats again, and it had gone about as well as their previous attempts. A police car burned merrily on the side of the road, flames cheerfully devouring the interior. Black smoke poured from the wreck into the sky, and shadows danced among the weird red flicker of the fire. Bodies were scattered here and there; a few bandanaed anarchists with their heads caved in by tear gas canisters or batons, but many more had been cops, faces smashed with bricks or bottles or bodies crumpled under repeated hammerings of baseball bats or crowbars. A cold slither of fear uncoiled in Thalia’s guts, but it didn’t seem to bother the other two: the Sibyl was bored, the Witch, excited.

“Fresh, fresh,” she cackled. “No more than an hour old, la la la!” She capered from one body to another, examining each in turn, lifting dead heads, feeling dead limbs, prodding dead chests.

“What are you doing?” croaked Thalia.

“Ah! Practicing my art, my skill, my gift,” came the reply. She was a few meters ahead, a dark shape crouching on the dead like a vulture come to feed. She turned her head, craned her neck over her shoulder to look back at Thalia, her eyes glimmering like a jackal’s in the glow of the burning car. “And mine, unlike some, comes free of charge – I practice for the pleasure of the work alone, you see?” Thalia heard the Sibyl harumph.

“Don’t you believe her,” she said in Thalia’s ear. “There’s always a cost.”

“Aye, sure enough,” chuckled the witch. “But it’s the cost of knowledge, the price of knowing. Ah ha! Here we are, perfect!” She danced a little jig around the big body of a cop that lay sprawled out in the middle of the road. “Teeth good, jaws working, lungs sound! If you didn’t look at the back of his head, why, you wouldn’t know there was anything wrong with him.” 

She stopped her dance and produced a number of bottles, vials, pouches, and jars from beneath her tattered robes. Some she poured into the corpse’s mouth, some she rubbed on its eyes or its temples or over its heart. She dusted the asphalt around the body with powder from one, and scattered droplets from another over that. All the while she sang in a low voice, the words writhing against Thalia’s brain, searing and terrible and unintelligible. 

Suddenly a shape like a patch of mist shimmered into existence over the body. It rippled in time to the chanting of the Witch and sent tentative tendrils down towards the corpse on the ground. It hovered; it hesitated. Erichtho raged.

“What’s this? What’s this?” shrieked the Witch, stamping her feet. With a snarl she leaped to her feet, raised her hands to the skies. “Ignoring me, Tisiphone? Pretending you can’t hear me, Megaera? Shall I raise my voice then? Shall I make you hear me speak your True Names, call you before me right now? I’ll lash you as you should be lashing this cringing ghost through all Erebus’s windy wastes! Mother of Hell! Shall I speak of your wedding night, of what revels bind you to the underworld? Iron-shod Hades, shall I send Hyperion of the fiery crown into your realm, send the Sun to topple your throne?! Do you hear me, gods of the underworld? Or shall I speak the name of THAT ONE dwelling below you, nameless, birthless, deathless, and at whose call the earth shudders, who swears and breaks oaths by the waters of the Styx!”

The air shivered, the stars above dimmed and shrank in horror at the blasphemies uttered by the Witch, and the ghost flowed into the dead body at her feet, which shuddered and jiggled and then sat up. The dead eyes held horror, and the jaws worked silently, waiting for the questions that Erichtho would ask of it.

“Ah now, there, you see?” said the Witch, pleased. “They drag their feet alright, but a sharp word and a firm hand and they do what their told, in the end. They’re only gods, after all.” Erichtho winked at Thalia, and then turned to the corpse. “Now, speak!” she said, and she began to interrogate the corpse, asking about Thalia and her future and the future of all around her. 

Thalia couldn’t help herself. She was repulsed by the cold dead corpse and its gurgling sepulchral voice, by the tears that poured from its blank, fishy eyes as it told all it was asked…but still she listened, and she drew closer, and closer, and closer, until she was elbow to elbow with the Witch, leaning over the dead thing, listening in rapt attention to every cursed word…

#

It was well after ten when she woke in the morning, and still she  felt tired; it had been nearly three when she’d finally stumbled back to her apartment in Kolonaki, having seen the two women to their respective rides, although it had all gotten a little hazy after Erichtho had made the corpse tell Thalia’s future. She shivered at the memory – that was still clear, at least, every word.

She remembered patting a pair of huge bulls, and watching the Sibyl fly away in a chariot, striking due west. Then she and the Witch had walked to a fountain where a huge scaly dragon had been happily guzzling water, the blood from its maw staining the marble red. She’d patted the dragon too, even cut her hand on its hard, sharp scales. Then the Witch had hopped up onto its back and, with a gleeful whoop, they’d flown off, heading east and north into the night.

Thalia made a cup of instant coffee, although the memory of the talking dead was still too fresh for her to trust her stomach to hold any breakfast. She opened a window, breathed the gasoline fumes from the road below, heard the honking and the traffic sounds from the city.

Her phone rang – it was the owner of Xenios. She’d never gone back to clean up, she realized. Damn, really not in the mood for a bawling out right now, she thought. The phone rang, and rang. In fact, she might not be in the mood for a bawling out ever, at all. She dismissed the call without answering.

Thalia sat out on her little balcony, her feet propped up on the sill, one slipper on, one slipper off, and casually flipped through the first volume of the Sibylline Books she’d bought last night, enjoying the sound of the couplets, the feel of the words, the weight of the future.


Eric Williams lives on the lithified remains of a Cretaceous seaway in Austin, TX. His short stories have appeared in King Ludd’s Rag, Firmament, and Three Crows Magazine, among other places, and his collection of weird tales, “Toadstones,” is available from Malarkey Books.

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