Time the Devourer by Liam Hogan

If you ask me, Midas had it easy.

My name is Helene, and I am the daughter of a God. Or so my mother told me from an early age. Her husband 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.

[private]The Temple of Aphrodite 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 such beauty does not last. I saw many a weeping woman cast out of the temple as the first blemishes of middle age appeared on her face.

I vowed this would not happen to me, and so I intently studied the science of the day on the subject of ageing. The charlatans who sold me their expensive 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 at what cost!

Flowers withered in my hand. Wine soured, and bread went mouldy. Plaster crumbled from the walls of the temple, and my bed collapsed in a rotten ruin beneath me. Worse than all of this, when my friend Phoebe tried to comfort me, her skin bubbled and creased, liver spots appearing before my eyes. Her legs creaked as she tried to stand, uncertain of what had just happened, her beauty ruined.

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 wither 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 conclusion and we embraced, eager for oblivion.

It did not come. Not only were we immune from the effects of our own curses, we were also immune from the effects of each other’s. The God’s 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 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 crumbles to dust in your hands, and your only companion’s idea of conversation is to ask whether he’s richer than Croesus yet. After an uncounted number of centuries, I had a moment of weakness, and I gave in. And I became 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,” he replied. “Look on the bright side – there are worse outcomes. 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 armour.

As my belly swelled, the hunger pains that I could never satisfy doubled in intensity. I didn’t see how a baby could grow inside me, when everything I tried to eat rotted 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 dust that sparkled in the sunlight, and telling me 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 that much help; not that either of us knew what we were doing. I hadn’t thought it was 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, and 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 off to one side as the rocks came flying out, and then he re-emerged, wild-eyed, with a scant armful of golden nuggets.

“No time to waste!” he cried, and went haring down the hill towards the nearest town.

I found him at the bottom of a ravine, his neck at a crazy angle, plain rocks scattered around him. I buried him there, the rocks marking his grave. And 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 recognise. 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 once thought 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.

So with the last of the golden jewellery, I opened up a beauty salon. And though I really can’t 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 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 out to be 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 any more.

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’d just found. He didn’t understand, but it was the most wonderful thing in the world.[/private]

Liam Hogan writes when he isn't doing anything else. This happens with remarkable regularity, and at least one story has emerged every month for the last three years. Liar's League has been the main beneficiary, but there's plenty to go round. Just ask.

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