Continued from Part 3.
“Go away, leave me alone!”
I am stunned.
Not just by the rude un-greeting.
But by the ramshackle hut Charon left me at
After departing the homely heaven of Hestia’s kitchen
My twelve-year-old self snaps back.
“I didn’t want to get schooled by you anyway, you mangy old horse-man.
I’ll just sit here and eat the lunch Hestia gave me, until the bus comes to take me back.”
Suddenly there’s a loud but brief galloping.
The door opens.
Revealing an old
Yet still mighty
He sees me starting to unwrap my lunch.
C. Is that… Was that… made by Hestia?
I am sorely tempted to ignore him and wolf down the sandwich. But he is so pitiful… and yet somehow still majestic. And it did seem very important to Hestia that I go to school here….
E. [sighing] Yes. Would you like some?
C. Yes, please!
He reaches for it eagerly. I don’t know if he’s actually hungry, or just longing for a taste of Hestia’s cooking. Either way, I’m not letting him off the hook so easily.
I pull the sandwich out of his reach.
Then stand up and look him in the eye.
E. I’ll make you a deal. You can have the whole sandwich. But then you must teach me what I need to learn.
I can tell he is torn.
For a moment, I can see he is tempted to snatch the sandwich and gallop away.
Old as he is, I could never catch up with him.
Then the moment passes.
He sighs, and kneels down beside me to receive the sandwich.
C. You win, Son of Adam. Though I fear you are getting the short end of the bargain.
E. Wait. You know who I am? And what I need to learn? And you can actually teach me?
He ignores me, lost in the bliss of Hestia’s sandwich. He chews it carefully, like a cow with a cud. When finished, he gazes longingly at my bottle of water. I roll my eyes and hand it to him.
He savors the water as if it were the sweetest nectar. Knowing Hestia, maybe it is.
At last he heaves a contented sigh, which threatens to turn into a whinny. He stands up. He seems more resolute; kingly, even. The sort of being who could train men to fight gods. And win.
He stretches down one still-muscular arm.
I am not much of a horse rider, but I cannot say “No” to that voice. I grasp his arm, and he hurls me onto his back. With a loud cry he gallops away, while I cling to his waist for dear life.
We travel for what might be minutes or days, through Elysian Fields into snow-capped mountains. The air is bitterly cold, yet strangely I feel no discomfort. Perhaps it is the terror and wonder of it all; or maybe just his hirsute warmth.
At last we come to rest on a sun-kissed peak, perhaps Mount Olympus itself, gazing over what seems to be all the kingdoms of the world.
I slowly release my death-grip on my host, and lower myself to earth. He seems barely to notice me. He stands like a statue, his face etched with unbearable sorrow.
C. I vowed once, eons ago, that I would never take another student.
I start to speak — to comfort or to challenge, I know not — but no words come. Perhaps none are needed.
He speaks to me, though he does not turn in my direction.
C. Perhaps you have heard that I traded immortality for death, when the one you call Hercules accidentally struck me with his poisoned arrows.
I nod, which he somehow senses and acknowledges, though he still does not look at me.
C. That is not the truth. Or at least, not the whole truth.
I kneel at his feet, content to let him tell the story his own way, in his own time.
C. The deeper agony was not the poison itself. It was that Hercules was using it to slay virtually all my brothers. And he was right to do so! The idiotic fools were so greedy for the wine of Dionysus, they didn’t care that it destroyed them.
He is weeping openly now, great shaking sobs. I want to touch his leg in sympathy, but fear getting trampled by his restless hooves.
At long last, his sobs subsided into sniffles. He gingerly steps around me and kneels down nearby, finally at my own level. Man-to-man.
C. I know those centaurs were not really my blood-kin. But they were the only tribe to which I ever felt I could belong. Despite all my success as a teacher, I always felt myself a failure, as I could never teach my brethren to overcome their bestial nature.
Abruptly he stops. He turns aside, then stares back at me. He has not risen, but something in his appearance makes it feel like he is towering over me.
C. Son of Adam, I was wrong to be so harsh on myself. I was in truth the greatest teacher that ever lived, save perhaps the One. But at best, a teacher can only bring to maturity what is already there. We cannot turn beasts into men, or men into gods.
He stands up now, but not to tower over me. Instead he extends his hand, and raises me to my feet. More, he raises me from a child into a full-grown man, able to look him in the eye.
C. Son of Adam, I know why you came to me, even if you do not. You wish to learn how to teach men to fight as kings in the wars of the gods, even as I taught the heroes of old.
I step back, stunned. Truly he knows me better than I know myself. I would not have chosen those words, but my spirit within me sings in response. For in the depths of my heart I hope — and fear — that we are entering into an age of gods and heroes such as the world has not seen since the days of the ancient Greeks. To whom I long to be a as Chiron, a Prometheus to help them find the light and shun the dark.
I rush to embrace him, my face radiant with joy. Then stop at the dark thundercloud of his face.
C. You know not what you ask for, son of dust. The powers you seek to battle against are far more powerful that the petty gods and monsters that I trained demigods to fight and outwit. Strong and wise I may be, but there are no words I can speak, nor skills I can train, that will suffice to sustain you and yours in the battle to come.
The cold chill around me suddenly seeps into my bones. To raise my hopes so high, only to dash them!
Cut to the quick, I thrust my chin out and sneer at him.
E. So I gave you my lunch for nothing! You are just as much a fool and a fraud as your erstwhile brothers. After all that, you really have no lessons to teach me after all. Save perhaps the folly of listening to worn-out relics of a bygone age!
Chiron stares at me in shock, frozen in disbelief at my impertinence. Then slowly, imperceptibly, he began to shake. First gently, then violently. I fear he is in the throes of a murderous rage, and my rash words will lead to my untimely end.
And then suddenly I realize… he is laughing!
C. Oh, son of man, I had forgotten how vain and cocky mere mortals can be. So quick to believe the worst, so blind to anything outside their limited experience. Truth, perhaps you are no so far removed from my centaur brethren after all.
I am torn. On the one hand, I am relieved he is not actually going to tear me limb from limb. On the other hand, I am pretty sure he is laughing at me, not with me. On the third hand — hoof? — is he implying that he actually does intend to honor his original bargain?
Chiron catches my eye and winks. Clearly he has seen right through me.
C. You have judged correctly, Son of Adam. I do have one last lesson to teach you. It is the hardest lesson of all, but it has the virtue of being extremely quick.
This is it! The answer I had been searching for.
I reach for my backpack, seeking a pencil and paper for taking notes. Chiron stops me with a gentle hoof.
I look up, and see an indescribable sadness etched upon his face. But this is not the agonized self-loathing he wore when describing how his pupil annihilating his kin. It is more like compassion; a pain C.S. Lewis might even have called Joy.
C. Stay your hand, my friend. Look not to your implements of writing. Look only to me. Receive the final and greatest lesson of all.
He straightens all six of his limbs.
With infinite dignity and patience he walks to the very edge of the precipice.
He lifts his face up to heaven.
C. Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.
With a roar improbably of triumph more than despair, he hurls himself into the abyss.
I gasp, frozen in horror.
Then crumple to the ground and weep like a broken-hearted child.
But whether for him, or myself, I don’t even know.
To be continued