I, Cerberus, three headed hound, loyal to my master Hades, King of the Dead, guard the gates of hell to stop spirits returning to the upper world. I feed on the ghosts of dead cats and drink from the springs of Elysium. I prowl among the bones of the earth. Always alert, my heads sleeping by turn, I watch and listen. Behind me cavernous rocks drift into darkness: walls without substance, impenetrable.
When they come I feel them: a densification of air, a press of memory and the snakes lying amid the long shanks of my fur bristle and writhe. Their hissing is a noise which takes the sound out of sound and makes instead an engulfing clammy silent roar which sends the ghosts shrinking back into the shadows.
Some spirits long to return to the world and are forever hovering at the gates hoping to find me unawares. I feel them like the throbbing of a wound, a panicky butterfly heart beat.
Some claim to be content, but still are drawn as if against their will to the underworld’s craggy mouth. My snake’s eyes see the darkness clot and I send the spirits shrieking, unfurling my tail and cracking it across the dust.
When Hermes comes by with a cloud of fresh souls lamenting loves and light, I do not know what this light is. When I accompany my mistress Persephone on her twice yearly journeys to the lands above, we stop before the threshold and she sends me back, as if whatever lies beyond is an unbearable thing. Yet she too seems to long for it, scratching the days into the arms of her gold hammered throne during the months by her husband’s side.
Hermes slips by me, a slither of fine leather and soft linen, a feather tread. He scratches my back with his staff and my snaky fur rises and wraps around the wood. The newly dead follow him like the pale curling foam behind a ship, dragging with them the sounds of river Acheron.
Hermes’ scent brings dreams in which my mouths chew in ecstasy on the softest of leather boots, and I lie on piles of wool which does not pierce me or crumble without warning like the rocks where I sleep here, but supports and caresses me. I feel a weight around my neck and searing pain in my eyes and wake weeping and snarling.
It is said that dreams, unlike the spirits of the dead, must one day become substance, like seeds reaching into the air as green stems, for they are given by the gods to shape the lives of mortals, to nourish and guide them.
Am I mortal? I feel the chill drift of eternity behind and before me.
Year follows year and I forget my dreams.
Yet one day it happens. Without warning, a stench of mountain lion and human sweat overwhelms me and I feel a dreadful pressure around my necks. My muscles paralyse with shock, my feet lose purchase on the ground and scrape as I’m dragged and pulled, my noses stifle on a stranger’s hot breath. I gulp for air. I hear the thin, far off voice of my master: ‘ No blade, Herakles, no club’.
Then suddenly the remembered pain comes like a fresh tempered sword. Light through each of my hound’s eyes and into my heads while my snakes sizzle and shriek. Is this what the spirits mourn? How long it lasts I cannot tell, but as the extremity passes and I can see once more, I find a noose around my necks and at no distance, a lion clad man, pulling. I sit and pull back, but suddenly his huge dark eyes lock onto mine and a spell is cast as strong as those of Circe. Never have I looked into the eyes of another. My limbs lose their power, my veins melt with a running fire. I am bound to those shining depths with a rope of bronze.
Then Hermes, his soothing hand upon my back, ‘Lead on Herakles’ he says, ‘Lead on. It is written in the fates. It is your right.’
Feeling my ferocity leach away, my paws start to pad, yes, actually pad, with even a little spring like the soft steps of lion cubs, or – the horror of it- spaniels, I think of steak minced up in bowls, of leather slippers, of a crackling fire’s heat at my side, cats whiskers nuzzling my chins. I try to shake myself, attempt a bare teethed growl, but only a smooth warm rumble emerges.