Tantalus Redux (Reflux?) in the Era of Staying Alive
Tantalus was the offspring of a mixed marriage—mortal and divine—the cur rising from too much wine and ambrosia-flavored K-Y. As a lad his parents ignored him. He was the profane memento of their night of excess.
Predictably, the boy acted out, did everything he could to attract his parents’ attention, including petty crime. If he couldn’t enter their hearts through the front door, he’d slim-jim in through the back.
All of his criminal efforts were for naught. Only as a grown man, with a family of his own, did Zeus finally relent and take pity on his misfit son—throwing him the hollow bone of a visit now and then. Which is how he and his entourage came to attend Tantalus’ fateful (fetal?) dinner party—the one that tipped the scales; the one that did him in.
The trouble started over the fondue pot, as folks were dipping skewered chunks of bread into cheese sauce. The late-arriving spice-man from Crete insisted on adding a secret ingredient to the pot, savory bits of…what? Caraway seeds? Chopped pimentos?
It wasn’t long before they discovered he’d added magic mushrooms to the mix, the foul play becoming self-evident once the spice-man asked: How many crocuses does it take to make an ounce of saffron?
The arrow had found its mark. The group collapsed backward into purple shag, began counting plaster nubs in the popcorn ceiling, their minds blown to the cosmos by acid calculation.
Rousing from their high a few hours later, one of the bolder wood nymphs opened the patio door, said something smelled uh-mazing.
It’s my infant son, Tantalus said, thumping his chest. Quartered and kabobed, braising on the grill—a little lamb to impress the Z-man.
The entire crew laughed. Satyr Sam said it was a great dead-baby joke, but next time, he really ought to use pitchfork instead of kabob. Tantalus said it was no joke, that sacrificing a son was no joke. It’s what outcasts like him had to do to get ahead in his father’s realm.
A choral shriek suddenly erupted from the living-room intercom. The senior gods in Z’s entourage clamored, pointed accusing fingers at Tantalus. What social sin had he committed?
It was no trifling faux pas. Tantalus’ baby boast (broast?) had inadvertently spilled the beans about how commerce worked on Mt. Olympus—a BIG no-no. The godfathers were keen to protect the House of Lamia’s trade secrets. Their “recycling” (wink-wink) business was lucrative and exclusive. They aimed to keep it that way. How could Tantalus have been so reckless? What would he do next—offer group tours of the abattoir? Pass out free samples of Soylent Green?
Zeus had no choice. He de-laureled his son on the spot.
Tantalus pled inebriation, narcosis even, but his die was cast. It was fine for the gods to supper little children so long as they didn’t publicize their deeds; so long as the confessional seal remained intact. Unfortunately, Tantalus had loose lips—a classic Fredo—his constitution more human than divine. He had to go.
For harmony’s sake, and to avoid charges of nepotism, Zeus felt it necessary to impose a harsh punishment on his son, something Sisyphean. Tantalus was flown upstate to Abu Krave, an orchard prison renowned for its torments.
Temptation was AK’s particular specialty. Tantalus was traction-strapped to a mango tree. For all eternity fruit-laden branches would brush his cheek but not a single mango would ever dip low enough to meet his mouth.
When it rained, a few tantalizing drops of juice might wet his lips, but if he reached up to pluck the fruit, or down for a puddled sip, he’d feel a yank on his lap-band leash—the snap of Z’s authority reining him in.
Tantalus’ anguished cries of longing reverberated throughout the universe, touching even his mother’s distant ears. Pluoto begged Zeus to spare her son, to give him another chance.
Z was moved by Pluoto’s tears. So much so he made her this promise: Maybe, down the road, if Tantalus shows proper contrition, I’ll reduce his sentence. But Pluoto knew, as most folks do, that any father’s “maybe” is just a softer form of “no.”
Maureen Kingston is an assistant editor at The Centrifugal Eye. Her poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in
B O D Y, Gargoyle, Gravel, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, So to Speak, Stoneboat, Stone Highway Review, Terrain.org, and Verse Wisconsin. A few of her pieces have also been nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart awards (2013 & 2014), and named to Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fiction list (2013).