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Squid #298
(published October 5, 2006)
Tales of the Giant Squid: Tom at the River Lethe
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"Point of interest, right?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Don't be. But I was saying..."

"No, I mean, what are you saying?"

Tom shook his head and sat up. He was in a boat. A narrow, long wooden gondola. A boat on a river shrouded in mist, the water lapping against the occasional gnarled root or half submerged marble step, the water line cutting across the marble neatly, green below, gray above.

The mist was dense, almost a rain, and it ran down Tom's skin, clung to his hair without flattening it, making it heavy. He licked his lips. He relaxed against the musty cushion, dangling a few fingers into the stream.

"I'm trying to make conversation is all. Passing the time."

"I'm sorry?"

Tom shook his head and sat up. He was in a boat. A gondola, like in Venice maybe, or in Vegas as he recalled. His shirt was soaked through from mist that weighed everything down like beads of lead.

The gondolier at the rear of the boat sighed. He leaned against the curved stern, swinging an oar back and forth through the water. He wore a heavy wool sweater, black like the glistening paint of the boat.

Tom sighed, slid back down into the damp cushion. Willows hung their ropey limbs over the water, the gray-green tresses tangled on the surface of the river. The mist clumped, drifted, puffed by short breezes from the north, gentle exhalations from the south. A window was exposed briefly and a lady in a green silk evening gown rested against the sill, her arms crossed, her cheek against her elbow. She stared across the water, the mist collecting on her upturned temple, running down through her hair. Tom tried to catch her eye, but she only stared. He leaned forward, licked the wet off his lips to call out to her.

He leaned back again.

"I just like to pass the time, right? Fill the silence with something. Is that bothering you? I mean, do you want to just stare?" The gondolier kept a steady rhythm, the heavy iron oarlock clanking out the beat.

Tom shook his head and sat up. "I'm sorry, what?" He was in a boat. A gondola, passing down a river cloaked in a heavy mist. He blinked the mist out of his eyes, off his lashes. He wiped a hand down from his sopping brow to his wet lips.

The gondolier sighed. "Point of interest. Orpheus turned right about there." He pointed out to the foggy bank. Tom turned and saw nothing. "People like to know," the gondolier shrugged.

Tom struggled to see the bank from the boat. He struggled to push through the fog with his eyes. He cleaned a bit of spit from the corner of his lips.

He sank back into his seat.

He could almost remember.

"Heracles did this whole trip waterskiing. Bastard," the gondolier snorted and shook his head. He tapped his head with two fingers and made a knocking sound, like the sound of a hollow coconut. "Benefit of being fucking Heracles, no?"

Tom sat up, shook his head, squinted at the man on the far end of the boat. He was in a boat. The mist was dense. The man was smiling. Tom smiled and nodded politely.

"One of the many, am I right?"

Tom frowned and leaned forward. "I'm sorry?"

"One of the many benefits, you know?"

An animal on the far bank knelt and lapped the water. Then two snouts were down in the river. Then three. Then five.

"Women, fucking pythons," the gondolier curled up one skinny arm to make a taut little biceps, inspected the muscle with his finger, smiled, shrugged, "pretty much an open invitation to any party he liked, right? Had that lion skin, right. Walk around in that thing, all oiled up, naked and shaved, just a fucking lion skin."

Tom squinted. The mist parted. A bear, a lamb, a roebuck and doe, and a gaunt grey wolf all lapped at the river's edge. The bear took his fill, lifted his snout, and looked down the line of animals. He snorted and shook his head, turned, and trundled back into the darkness.

"That's how he did it, you know, all naked and shit."

"I'm sorry?" Tom sinks back again.

"The waterskiing. Gave me this girdle, got me wound up, and down we went, sending up wake three feet high to either side. Heracles is just drinking the stuff down, smiling, naked, damn lion pelt flapping in the wind. We're moving so fast he almost blows all of my fog away, right?" The gondolier nods to Tom and smiles.

A man was staring at Tom. Tom shook his head. He was in a boat going down a river. A gondola, he guessed. The gondolier had just said something and was now smiling at Tom expectantly, so he half-chuckled to appease the boatman as he looked about for a familiar landmark, something, anything to spark his memory.

"Yeah," the gondolier laughed, a far away look in his eye. "That guy was like Sean Connery in 1958. And I'm no fag, right, but damn if he wasn't hung. And he kept talking about it, too. Kept hefting, smiling, beaming at me. He regretted killing all those horse guys, and all, but he just had to, I mean he had to assure me that he was better hung than any of them. Stallions to a man, the centaurs. But Herc, he would just stand there and hold his log, half stiff, and he'd smile like a baby what just sucked a tit for an hour. Oiled and naked, wearing that damn lion, the teeth yellowed from all the years, the glass eyes scratched so bad they looked blind.

"What in the hell are you talking about?"

"Hey, now, let's be precise. Okay? Not hell, not sheol, not gehenna or jahannam. Not other people. Bigger than that. Dig?"

Tom frowned and tried to see the features of the man's face. He sighed."What in the hell are you talking about?" Tom asked again.

"I fucked your mom. In the ass," the man said.

Tom leaned forward and licked his lips, drawing in a breath to speak.

He exhaled and leaned back against the cushion in the prow of the boat, the mist collecting on his face in rivulets, running through his eyes, into his ears, it was running down his eustachian tubes, mixing with mucus in the back of his throat.

"So, point of interest, right?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Don't be," the gondolier smirked, "but what I was saying was..."

"No," Tom sat up and shook his head. " I mean, what were you just saying. I didn't catch what you were saying." He was in a boat. A narrow, long wooden gondola. A boat on a river shrouded in mist, the water lapping against the occasional gnarled root or half submerged marble step, the water line cutting across the marble neatly, green below, gray above.

The mist was dense, almost a rain, and it ran down Tom's skin, clung to his hair without flattening it, making it heavy. He licked his lips. He relaxed against the musty cushion, dangling a few fingers into the stream.

"I'm trying to make conversation is all. Passing the time."

In the window of an ancient building whose foundation was entirely submerged between the crystal clear waters of the river, there was the shadow of a bear. The building drifted back, or they drifted forward, and Tom rested his cheek against the gunwale.

They passed through a copse of white poplars.

"There's a story behind these," the gondolier said vaguely, wagging a figure around without really pointing.

Tom felt like something in him itched.

"What happens if you have an organ that itches? Like a spleen or something." Tom asked the gondolier. "I mean, does that even happen."

The gondolier's face went flat, the color drained away and he bit his lower lip. "Yes," he said quietly.

Something deep inside of Tom itched, but it wasn't an organ, he decided. It was just a sense. He dipped a hand into the river. It was as clear as January air, and just as cold. He drank a bit from the cup of his palm. The itching passed.

He sank back into the cushion at the prow of the boat, the damp padding so comfortable, so warm, he felt like nothing would pull him from it. His eyelids were heavy, and it was as though serpents had coiled around his limbs.

"Theseus came with his brother to steal Persephone once. Theseus had made a sucker's deal with his brother, and couldn't get out of it. Those two didn't talk the entire trip down." The gondolier shook his head.

He watched the gondolier work his oar in a steady motion, sweeping back and forth, back and forth.

"When Theseus sat down with Pluto for supper, he rested on a settee that had been heated by an eternity of fire. But Theseus was a hero, and refused to be startled by a little heat. Only, he found at the end of the meal that was fused to the cushions of the seat, and the seat was bolted to the floor."

The gondolier worked the oar back and forth, back and forth.

He watched the gondolier, he let the gondolier's voice shimmer through the air. The mist settled down undisturbed on all exposed bits of his flesh. He draped each arm over each gunwale, his fingers sinking, the boat it seemed sinking, all the way down below the waterline, the clear cool current rushing around his ribs, across his legs, around his wrists, then his elbows, then his shoulders.

"Finally," the gondolier continued, "Heracles came bursting in, four years later, a huge fucking grin on his face. Naked, draped in a lion skin, golden and shining with oil, Heracles is there to ask if he can borrow Pluto's dog, and incidentally if he could be forgiven for killing all these centaurs. Pluto was all like, 'sure, whatever, but just don't hurt him.'"

He sank further, the boat sank further, the dipped below the waterline, the air and water mingling, the river like clear mist, the bed of the river deep, unfathomable, the roots reaching down into the clear darkness, the foundations of the buildings sinking and sinking. Turtles rested motionless in the rotting leaves. A lonely salmon passed them in the other direction, heading back upstream. Was there something he should say to salmon? Some warning about things upstream?

The gondolier craned his neck around and caught his eye. The gondolier squinted. He looked at the gondolier, shook his head ever so slightly, bit couldn't raise himself from the cushion. He was on a boat, maybe? And they were under the waterline of a river or something? Where was he?

"Heracles almost walked right out again."

Who was he?

"You know how, when you haven't talked for a long fucking time, say four years, and all of sudden someone shows up, and you can't remember for a second how to talk? Right? Talking is totally gone. Your mouth is just this place where spit collects until you swallow, and like, sound, is totally a foreign concept. Well, there was Theseus, ass fused to a bench, and there was Heracles, naked and shining, and Theseus just stares up at him, hoping maybe he's psychic, or something."

The gondolier taps his head and clucks his tongue to make a sound like a hollow coconut. He smiled. "Stupid thinking, right?"

Who was he? Where was he? He was in a boat. What was a boat? He could almost...

"Well, Heracles catches the look and he stops. He beams with pride. He smiles and smiles and smiles, and Theseus just sits there dumb, his lips dry, his mouth full of spit, his ass melted down, and he thinks 'Thank the fucking Gods, this guy IS psychic!'"

The gondolier smiles. "So Heracles reaches down and raises the log to half mast, his grin going completely open mouthed, his teeth like pearls. 'I know,' he says, 'I can't help it either. I stare at it all the time!'"

The gondolier barked out a nasty laugh that almost woke him up, almost pulled him up from the cushion. But he couldn't move. He couldn't even politely smile. He slid down, almost lay down.

Finally, the gondolier just snorted and shooks his head. "That guy, man..." The gondolier closed his eyes, smirked, rested his chin against his chest. "That guy had a huge cock and no brains at all." Then he shrugs. "Anyway, Heracles marches over and helps the guy up just so they can shake hands. Meeting the fans and all, Heracles figures it will just be a second. But when he tugs on Theseus' hand, Heracles finally realizes that he is stuck. So, with a yank, he pulls Theseus up off the bench. And Theseus yowls like a cat because Heracles had left half Theseus' ass stuck to the bench. I shit you not. Heracles had to carry Theseus over one shoulder, ass torn half off, and that three headed Cerberus over the other. And Theseus' descendants, I mean all of them, totally ass-less for the rest of time."

The gondolier nodded. "True story."

The boat ground to a stop. The gondolier picked his way up to the prow, picked him up and toss him onto the bank.

He found himself in a sea of bodies ling in the dirt. Thousands. Millions. Billions. Trillions. He lay on a woman. She didn't seem to notice. He rolled to one side and watched as a gondola, empty except for its gondolier, drifted up a river.

He was by a river draped in fog, but where he lay the fog had lifted. It was cool. He was lying on, amongst, an endless mass of bodies.

A wolf lay down beside him, its ribs poking through its gray flesh. It panted.

"Where am I?" He asked the wolf.

A man under his shoulder said, "Can't you remember, wolves can't talk."

"Remember?" He asked, staring up at the sky.

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