Beware the Minotaur (a short story)
A very real experience, transformed into fantasy...
I wore the boots that night. Those thigh-high boots with the sturdy heels that had made my fingers raw and blistered in their assembling. Those boots that had caused a fight--several in fact. They were made for fighting, gorgeous, supple, supportive, and meant for striding, too.
I wore them with thick leggings and a woolen, hooded tunic that kissed my ankles because it was nearly midnight in the mountains. As I left the hubbub of the cabin, the scuffing of my feet on the dirt road smacked into the hush. Aspens and pines stood sentinel, tracking my progress from their lofty flanking positions, and beyond them, the stars. The moon had not yet risen so they pulsed in the black. I was small in the universe, and I felt it. Felt small, but not necessarily unimportant.
There was something about this night. I could sense it. Could just catch the whiff of it from the shadows. Every step up the slope closed the gap between us.
The boy who guided me was no older than eleven, waifish with dark hair. He wore a black robe, also with a hood which he had pulled up against the chill, as I had mine. Shivering, I tucked one of my hands into the draping sleeve of my tunic. In my other hand, I carried a sword. Long and straight with a black-wrapped hilt and a heavy, curved guard. The boy carried only a small lamp. Ahead, lights flickered among the trees.
I wasn’t inclined to speak. Neither was my guide. I was glad. It made things all the more reverent and really, this was a weighty thing I was about to do.
When we arrived, only the High Priestess awaited us, clothed in her scarlet velvet robe. Within the black-lined hood, her ivory skin shone, lustrous and pristine. Her knee-length black hair mingled with the lining. Her eyes looked nearly violet in the lamplight. She smiled at me, but only with the formal welcome of the priestess, not the big grin and kiss on the cheek I was accustomed to. I suspected my face had been chiseled from marble—my serious-business-face—so I softened into a mirror of her expression. As the boy retreated, she gave me a solemn nod. I returned it, and then it was time to give up the sword.
That was the only reason I had brought it.
For so long I had walked armed, sword unsheathed and held before me. At the very least, one hand lingering close as it hung at my side, fingers twitching, ready to yank it out of its scabbard at any moment. But now it was time to lay it down.
I relinquished the weapon to her, not without some discomfort, though I knew it was only a symbolic trinket of the real armaments to which I clung.
At that, she said, “Welcome to the Labyrinth.” This time she favored me with one of those knowing smiles, rimmed in the kind of pride a mother would have for a daughter, or an older sister would have for one younger. “Are you here of your own free will?”
“I am,” I replied.
“Are you ready to be reborn?”
She covered my eyes with a dark cloth. I easily surrendered to her lead, allowing her to guide me through the hedges. I was more than ready for this. Ready to begin trusting again. This woman offered the perfect first step. She had proven herself in the past as one who would be gentle with me. Steady and strong, but always gentle. Her hand rested atop my head, pushing down, so I ducked and crawled into the small enclosure. It was barely larger than my body in a crouch. Settling down on the ground, I crossed my legs and made myself comfortable. I could feel the walls close by, almost touching me.
“When I hear you feeling for the doorway, I will know it’s time,” she said. “In your own time.”
There was a rustling and some scraping, and all sounds from outside became muffled. My breathing echoed in the small chamber. It was warm and comfortable. From outside came a steady thump-thump….thump-thump…thump-thump…
Heartbeat of the drum.
I smiled into the red-black vision behind my eyes. Red and black like the priestess’ robe. Black like that Winter Solstice at midnight, and red like blood. Deep. Warm. More than a little daunting. Irresistible. Thump-thump…thump-thump…
Surrounded by the void, I chose those things I would shed from the old life. Anger—no, rage. The blind rage that consumed me over and ouroboros-over. Thus blinded in the unlit cave, I felt only calm and wished to hold onto it for always. This blindness was different. My usual was flashing and brilliant, like the lightning over that bridge that seared my vision and had destroyed all my paths. Confusion, apathy, degradation. Cynicism and tunnel-visioned self-absorption. Grief and bitterness. Heartache, heartbreak, heartless, heartburn…
It was not their time any more. They had served their purposes.
Show me the way, I sent into the darkness, into the light within the darkness. Show me my path, now that the old one is no more. Empty me and let me be reborn.
* * *
When I stepped outside, struggling to stand on numb legs, her tender hands helped me up and gave me sight. She gave me a drink of honeyed milk, sweet and nurturing, then marked my forehead with jasmine. “The mark of the newly born,” she said.
I gazed out at the night with those pure eyes and I swooned over its beauty. I asked to always gaze upon the world with those eyes. I wanted to capture that moment and carry it back into all the harsh places that had inspired me to take up the sword. I gazed upon my friend and found her gazing back at me. I gazed upon the cave that had served as the transition between lives. I gazed upon the trees and shrubs and the glittering sky, and turned my face into the wind.
She bade me farewell with instructions to follow the torches and keep to the path, saying at the last, “Beware the Minotaur.”
I dipped my head, enraptured with the whole experience. With glowing eyes, I gazed at the torches, gazed at the path, and thanked her for sharing this night with me.
I came first upon the Maiden in a shimmering white gown that flickered the rainbow with her every motion. Glitter dusted her eyelids and cheeks and her rosy, coy smile. Her hands were like wands, spreading stars as she gestured. Her feet trod the ground in skips and bounds, leaving a path of flowers in her wake. I giggled with her as we pranced the path, arm in arm.
I knew her, and loved her well.
Next, I came upon the Mother in her mahogany countenance and gown of moss, draped in folds over her full belly. Upon her brow rested a crown of boughs and flowers, and her smile overflowed with love. Within her earth-black eyes, flecks of gold flickered like a myriad candles. We walked arm in arm as well, but slowly, strolling as the easy conversations wove between us in the night air.
She, too, I knew and loved well.
I then came upon the Crone. She of black cloak and iron-hued hair. She with the ravens upon her shoulders and the falling stars in her eyes. Eyes set deep within folds and creases of ashy skin. A slit for a mouth with wrinkled lips turned under where there should have been teeth. Yet she spoke to me with ease, for words were unnecessary here. She laughed too, a sound of ageless wisdom and even more amusement. She chuckled at me, at the world, at herself as we staggered upon the path. I wasn’t fully sure who was supporting whom. The rhythm of our steps was familiar, as I had walked for the last year-and-a-half hidden within the folds of her cloak, wrapped in her bony embrace. I was ready to emerge into the world of the living again. I thanked her for walking with me. She touched my cheek and bade me farewell.
She, too, I knew and loved well.
Pausing for a moment to reminisce, I took in the winding dirt track lined with torches and rustling aspens. Their branches were full with the growth of late spring. The thickness of the trees beyond stood dark. A patch of light slanted here and there in a clearing, but mostly shadow reigned. Nothing moved there, and I wondered what sorts of animals dwelled within, what sorts of meadows and foliage and secret nooks I might find if I ventured in to explore.
A dark shape caught my eye. Movement among the trees.
I blinked and peered harder, trying to make out the silhouette. A bear? A man? It stood taller than a wolf or fox—
It was gone.
With a purposeful breath out, I smoothed down the raised hair at the back of my neck and continued on. I couldn't help missing my sword, and that was probably the point.
I next came upon the God of the Wood, virile and robust with cloven feet and a chest of reddish, curling hair. He towered so proudly, yet exuded the essence of invitation. His face shifted in the firelight, in the shadows, in his expressions. Sometimes he appeared fair, sometimes dark, now a beautiful young male with long flowing mane, and suddenly a stooped, patchy-haired magician a-grin, then the flicker of a stag. He approached, now the king once more, with a crown of great forked horns upon his head. His tawny cape rippled in the breeze as he took my arm with confidence.
I glanced up at him.
I knew him. Slightly. I was more curious to know him than anything, still enchanted, still a bit shy. Consort. Mate. Beloved. And I did love him.
I asked him why the Feminine had come to me in three different guises, but he chose only one ever-shifting form. He shrugged and smirked, Because I choose to.
I shrugged back. Fair enough.
Where we parted ways, I wandered the path alone. A bird called. A single call. It was answered by another farther off. As I came to a pair of torches flanking a sprawling tree, I stopped to examine it. This tree was different from any I had ever seen. Its leaves were heart-shaped and glowed golden; its bark shone silver. Among its maze of woven branches, golden fruit grew. A branch dipped to dangle one just before my face. Lifting my chin, I took a bite of the offering. Sweet nectar coursed down my mouth and across my tongue. I laughed in delight. It was like an apple, but no apple I had ever tasted. Layers and layers of flavors, a multitude of experience in one bite. I hungered for more but the branch drew back.
The fruit restored itself to whole.
The torches went out.
Charged with this hunger, I strode the track, hastening to discover what awaited me around the next bend. I skittered around the corner and—
Pulled up short.
There at the turn in the path, just on the edge of the trees, lurked an imposing figure. Although horned, this was not the God of the Wood. This was someone else. These horns were immense, curved, and sharp with threat. He leaned against the tree with his arms crossed before his barreled chest, one leg casually crossed in front of the other.
And he was staring at me.
Beware the Minotaur.
My eyes grew round at the memory of those words I had barely registered in my swooning mirth. Was I supposed to pass him? Would he hinder me? I scanned the side of the road in search of anything I could snatch up as a weapon. If I grabbed that fallen branch, would he take it as a threat? Walking sticks were good for journeys. Weren't they? Keeping him in my periphery, I scurried past and made for the next bend in the road.
When I glanced back, he was gone.
With a shudder, I darted down the path, nearly missing the next pair of torches. I mistook the snake for a pile of logs, but then it moved, so I paused to watch it slowly work itself out of its old skin. The remains, a sheer, crinkling husk, wound its way back into the woods. Fascinated, I watched the methodical undulations until the serpent finally emerged, then drew itself into a coil with its head in the center, resting upon its hulking body. “Remember thisssss,” it hissed. “The Ssssspiral Danssssssssss…”
Nodding in awe, I backed away down the path, but my tell-tale hackles rose again. I tried not to whirl around—couldn’t help it. He was there, in the shadows where I couldn’t make out any of his features except the silhouette of those horns. The Minotaur kept pace with me this time, walking soundlessly, his gaze nailed upon me as I traversed the path. I couldn’t keep my eyes from him. Why was he following me? What did he want? And why did I need to beware him?
I opened my mouth to demand that answer from him, but just when I thought he would step into a pool of light, he vanished.
Sighing in consternation, I stomped on.
Next time, I would talk to him. I would ask him what he was doing, stalking me like that.
A cloud of mist hovered across the path, fading into the perimeter of the trees. Beyond, I could discern nothing. Two figures flanked it, one male and one female. The male was dressed in a white Grecian garment with golden curls atop his head and encircling his chin. Perched upon a log, he jumped down, holding out a flagon of dark liquid to me. “I am the Wine God. Drink with me and be merry! You’ve had a long journey!”
Taking a sip, I discovered it was a sweet red--my favorite. "Thank you," I said, handing it back.
The female stepped up. “I am the Corn Goddess," she said with a curtsey. Pretty and robust, she wore a patchwork skirt and a bodice that augmented her overwhelming bosom. She offered me a piece of cornbread. “Eat and be nourished. You have far to go!”
The bread was also sweet and I bowed in gratitude, for I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. Yet I couldn’t stop glancing into the shadows.
Nothing but the dark forest.
After I had shared the small meal with them, the Wine God stood back to sweep his arm through the heavy cloud behind him, causing it to swirl. “Beyond you will behold…”
“…the face of the Goddess Behind the Veil,” his companion finished. “Fare thee well!”
They linked arms and disappeared into the mist.
The Goddess Behind the Veil.
I have also known her. And loved. I calmly stepped forward, shivering in the cool mist and the excitement, inhaling the vivifying scent of the moisture-laden air. This was it! The culmination of the ritual.
There she was, smiling amidst the sparkling droplets that obscured all but what she wished to show me. The vision was mine, meant for me alone, and not to be spoken of before the uninitiated. I walked with this eternal being for a time, asking all my questions. She said nothing, only winked at me. It was the wink of, “You have asked these things of me before. And my answer is still the same.”
My spirits sank as I felt my time with her come to a close. I sighed, then nodded and thanked her, trying to feel as grateful as I should have been. At my next step, the mist whirled and dissipated, and I saw.
I had traveled nowhere.
I stood beside the deserted log of the Wine God’s perch, and there was the end of the path. An open meadow stretched before me. In the distance, the lights of the cabins beckoned me back.
My shoulders slumped as the breath fell out of me. That’s it? It’s over already?
The Labyrinth had been beautiful and full of enchantment, but it hadn’t offered me any of the promised earth-shattering revelations. No burning bush. No knowledge that I hadn’t already gleaned in my previous journeys, and in all those months lying flat on my back in pain and misery, and in the labor it had taken to return. This place was supposed to offer deep magic. Unimaginable keys, but I had found nothing new.
I had so hoped for something…
I trudged the final steps of the path. I couldn’t help one last glance over my shoulder. Not a rustle. Not a glimmer. He wasn’t there and I had missed my chance. My feet dragged the whole way back and I kept wishing for him to appear. For something to appear.
All too soon, my boots were thumping on the stairs that led up to the cabin. Those boots were too weighty, too large. Always too loud. One of the cloaked guides, a young girl this time, had come for another initiate. Another thump reverberated--this time within me. My pulse raced. “Are you able to give the High Priestess a message for me?” I asked.
With the girl’s affirmative answer, I scrawled a note and gave it to her. While I awaited the response, I lingered about the stairs, not yet ready to go inside and speak to the others. They would want to talk about their experiences, to hear about mine, but I was not yet ready to be back. I remained snagged between that otherworldly place and the return home, and I couldn't continue on. Not yet.
Shortly, the boy who had been my guide emerged from the woods with a message that the High Priestess would meet with me again. I stifled my gasp of glee. At last! We returned to the beginning of the Labyrinth, had to wait a moment as another initiate was sent on her way, and then the boy ushered me forward once more.
“Well,” the High Priestess said, her familiar grin back in place. “This is a first. No one has ever asked to speak to the Minotaur.”
Disbelief screwed up my face. “Never?”
“Never. He’s waiting for you in the forest. Straight ahead there, through the thicket.”
She sent me with a small lamp and a peck on the cheek. Her eyes glowed with delight. I had no doubt mine were ablaze. Tromping in my big, badass boots off the path and into the thick of the woods, I found myself standing taller than normal, straighter and more invigorated. My pulse was up, but steady. I had become keenly aware of the stray strands of hair tickling my forehead in the breeze, the itch of the wool tunic at my neck, the lingering taste of wine on my lips. My steps had grown buoyant. Broad. Loud through the undergrowth for the simple fact that I wanted them to be. Because I choose to. I grinned harder.
Off to the side, I heard rustling, rustling…silence.
A dark figure stood in the space between two large aspens, his horns ominous in the faint light. A mist hovered about him, obscuring him even farther. We stared at each other for a moment. Then I strode toward him--told you my boots were made for it.
I stopped a few paces away, a polite and slightly wary distance.
He bridged the gap in two steps, and his full form came into the circle of light cast by my lantern. I had to tilt my head up to look into his face--a great bull’s head, covered in blackish-brown fur which trailed off along his corded neck. His eyes were brown and large, but had narrowed in suspicion. He crossed cannonball arms over a bulging bare chest and planted his sturdy legs wide apart. When he spoke, his stern voice resonated with the ages. “You have strayed from the path.”
“No,” I answered without hesitation. “I have come to meet you.”
He rose up even taller, looking down his broad nose at me. There was smugness in his expression, menace in his posture. “You do not fear me?”
My eyebrows rose. “Should I?”
“All fear me.”
Such a simple question. A child’s question, and one that seemed to constantly tumble from my mouth. It had gotten me into trouble my whole life.
The Minotaur’s smirk-glinting eyes shifted to stare off into the wilderness. “All fear the Unknown.”
“But that’s exactly why I’ve come to meet you.”
His gaze locked onto mine once more, penetrating with intrigue. I think he understood me, understood all the questions that his silent, forbidding presence had evoked in me, for he explained, “I am the Keeper of the Labyrinth. I am here to see that none stray from the path.”
“Well…what do you do to those who stray? Eat them?”
My eyes went huge. “Oh.”
He didn’t step forward, but he suddenly seemed a whole lot closer to me. I hadn’t imagined a bull could grin, but this one did. “Should you harbor the notion of wandering in these woods, you’ll find I can be quite deterring.”
I gulped hard. “Yes. I would say so.” Eventually, my eyes found it in themselves to blink a few times. Then my nose wrinkled. “But…but why is it so important to stay on the path?”
“So that none are lost.”
My head tilted and my eyes shifted again as I chewed on his words. “So then...it’s your duty to be menacing and scary, to keep people on the path so that as few as possible are lost?”
At the affirmative dip of that great head, I felt my whole being light up. Sweet warmth flooded my breast for this daunting presence who had looked out for me along my journey. He couldn’t have known that I would be so comfortable here in the shadows of his forest, that I wouldn’t have been lost, simply exploring. I am a Sagittarius, after all, and the smallest, most obscure goat-tracks or rain-made ravines are always the most irresistible to me.
In my oh-so eloquent way, I answered, “Sweet.” After one last look about this transformative clearing, I offered him a bow, overwhelmed with reverence. “Thank you.”
The Minotaur bowed back, nearly as low.
As the conversation settled about me, I sighed, contented. He was my path--the path less traveled, the journey into the Unknown.
The Labyrinth had delivered. I had found my answers.
Enamored of his place within it, and of him, I asked, “Will you show me the way out?”
“Of course. Take my arm.”
My small hands wrapped around the bulk of his limb. He was warm and strong, anything but scary as he set off through the thicket. His strides were so broad and determined that I had to scurry to keep up as he made for the torch-lit trail that would return me to the cabins.
Just as we neared it, I glanced up and gasped, for he was about to walk his immense horns into the branches of a tree. I was too late to stop it. I couldn’t contain a giggle as he snagged himself, swore, ducked back, staggered. He shook his head to clear it. For the flicker of a moment, every shred of his dignity and command disintegrated.
Patting his arm, I grinned up at him, then rested my head against that massive bicep. “Perhaps I should guide you.”