I, Cerberus, three headed, snake-backed hound, guard the gates of hell. I feed on the ghosts of dead cats and drink from Stygian pools. I sleep among the bones of the earth, spiny rocks unseen in the cavernous dark.
When the spirits come, I feel the darkness clot and I unfurl my tail, cracking it across the dust. Snakes bristle from the twining fur of my back. Their hissing takes the sound out of sound and makes instead an engulfing, clammy, silent roar which sends the ghosts shrinking back into the shadows. When Hermes comes with fresh souls lamenting loves and light, I do not know what this light is. Persephone too seems to long for it, scratching the days into the arms of her gold hammered throne during her months by Hades’ side.
Hermes slips by me, a slither of fine leather and 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 dank chill of river Acheron.
His scent brings dreams: my mouths chew in ecstasy on the softest of leather boots; I lie in piles of caressing wool. Yet, there’s a constriction in my necks, a searing pain in my eyes and I 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 drift of eternity behind and before me.Year follows year and I forget my dreams.
Yet one day it happens. I wake to a stench of mountain lion and a dreadful pressure around my necks. My muscles lock, my feet scrape and slip and I’m dragged, the scud of human sweat in my noses. Suddenly the remembered pain comes like a fresh-tempered sword. Light pierces my eyes; my snakes sizzle and shriek. Is this what the spirits mourn? How long it lasts I cannot tell, but then my gaze is drawn into dark pools 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 sinews slacken. I am bound to those shining depths with a rope of bronze.
Then Hermes, his soothing hand upon my back, ‘ Take him Herakles,’ he says, ‘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 buckskin slippers, of a crackling fire’s heat at my side, cats’ whiskers nuzzling my chins. I bare teeth and snarl, only to hear a smooth, warm, rumbling purr. Herakles smiles.
Published in Hastings Independent Press Issue 76