On the eve of her thirtieth year, Loya ascended the sacred hill on her own. It was a warm-blanketed high Summer night. The muted colours of the little village seemed more beautiful then ever before as she walked the spiral path to the Hilltop Grange. The softest of breezes carried scents of fruit and barley from the fields and the orchards. Stars, magnificent and wondrous in their paradoxical closeness, intoxicated the eye and romanced the soul.
At the summit Loya sat cross-legged in the ancient chalk circle.
“Genie,” she said to the thick night air, “sprite, come now. I have need of you.”
Nothing happened. A tiny beetle, it’s rainbow-coloured wings shimmering, ambled slowly across the moonlit ground.
“Genie,” said Loya again, “oh vain and miserly fairy. Come now and listen to the one who freed you.”
There came a faint disturbance in the air, a little whirl of chalk-dust which slowly grew in size and power, spinning and expanding till finally it stood half the height of a man. With a loud ‛pop’ the genie stepped forth and the disturbance abated. The fairy struck a peculiar figure. Its face was sunburned to leather. Its features were bulbous and disproportionate, yet somehow pleasing to the eye. For clothing it had chosen, or perhaps collected, a riotous mish-mash of garments of all colours and styles. The resultant effect was certainly striking.
The genie looked about, rubbed its hands, took a few steps forward and peered up at the woman who had now risen to stand before him.
“There are lines upon your face,” said the genie. With a quick motion it caught Loya’s hand in its own and inspected the appendage closely. “There are wrinkles upon your skin,” it concluded.
“What did you expect?” said Loya, pulling back her hand. “We mortals are not unbound by time as you are.”
“Urhg,” shivered the genie, “to grow old and rot. The very thought!”
“Shallow sprite,” said Loya, “I have need of your help. You remember our meeting of ten years now gone?”
“Aye,” said the genie, screwing up its face. “Too long I dwelt in that bottle, bobbing up and down as the waves took me. Nothing but fish to converse with.”
“Until you landed upon my shores.”
“Until I landed upon your shores,” agreed the sprite. “Three selfish wishes I offered thee. As fair a deal as you could ask for and you…” It sighed. “…and you dithered so long my britches itched and in the end…”
“In the end I decided that I wished nothing for myself.”
“Astonishing,” said the genie, “not unique, mind, but rare as diamonds.”
“But you remember our deal?” said Loya.
“I told you,” said the genie, sticking its thumbs into its belt, “that you need not claim your wishes. I told you, as was right and proper and by-the-book, that you may, in lieu of your selfish wishes, on proviso that I be absolved from your servitude, I told you that you may claim one unselfish wish, the which to be owned within your mortal lifetime, is non-transferable and subject, of course, to the usual clauses and sub-clauses, as explained to you at the time.”
“Yes,” nodded Loya, “and I claim that unselfish wish now.”
“I thought as much,” said the genie, screwing up its face. “Go on…”
“A man from my village,” said Loya, “is gravely ill. I think he will die if I can not get help.”
The genie shrugged. “Mortals die,” he said, “didn’t we just point that out?”
“I would like to use my wish,” said Loya, ignoring the being’s words, “to heal him back to full health.”
“Hmm,” said the genie, planting its hands upon its hips and squinting up into the moonlight, “and this man, he’s just some fellow is he? Some random mortal?”
“No one of special import?”
“No one any more or less special than any other.”
“So then we’re not talking about, oh I don’t know, someone that you love?”
“I bear love,” said Loya, “for all.”
“A specific love?”
“Can love,” said Loya,” be specific?”
“So it’s not, then, for instance,” said the genie, “your husband Gerrard who is down there dying of fever?”
“You knew already!”
“Of course I did,” the genie wagged a finger, “and you, missy, are being less than forthright with the truth.”
“That is may be. Nevertheless I still hold firm to my wish.”
“Well I don’t know now. After all it is supposed to be a selfless wish. The health of your husband is hardly of little interest to yourself. Unless you are a particularly callous wife, but then you would not have gone to the trouble of summoning me.”
“Sprite,” said Loya. She knelt down before it. “I could have asked thrice as much for myself but I did not. I let you go. If it counts for anything then you may take my life in his place.”
“A fine speech,” said the genie, “fine indeed. But I afraid I cannot grant your wish. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
“Wait,” cried Loya, standing, “is there nothing you will do? If you cannot grant me this wish then might you not at least help in another way?”
The genie’s shoulders dropped. It turned about. “Well,” it said, “since you did release me, and since you do now ask for my help, I am bound, under certain conditions, to gift you three objects which may aid you in obtaining your desire.”
“And does this situation meet those conditions?”
“Yes,” said the genie resignedly, “I suppose that it does. Look, you mortals simply do not understand how much it costs us to give.”
“I am sorry,” said Loya, “truly sorry if the imparting of help causes you sorrow. Nevertheless, I stand firm in my request.”
The genie twitched its nose. It pointed up. “To heal your husband you need stars,” it said, “and not just any will do.” It waved its hand from side to side and, as it did so, certain of the twinkling lights in the blackness seemed to grow and increase in brightness, until the great constellations themselves had taken on their true appearance. The bear, the ram, the charioteer, Hercules, the hydra and the bull, all which the gods had placed there for eternity became clear, as detailed as when they had trodden the earth, shining down in spectral forms from high above.
For a moment Loya could not find the words. “But how…” was the best that she could muster.
“With the gifts that I give,” said the genie, “if you prove wise enough to make the most of them.”
“Give away,” said Loya, fixing her eyes upon the little figure, “and I shall try.”
The genie took of its hat, reached inside and with a flash pulled forth a fish of prodigious size, far too big to have resided in any normal garment. With a flourish the sprite plopped it at the woman’s feet.
“This,” said the genie, “is a salmon from Zeus’ very own pond.”
“It is magnificent,” said Loya, running her eyes over the multicoloured shimmering scales. “Did you steal this, fairy?”
“Certainly not! Genie’s do not pilfer, oh foolish maiden. It was a gift. An exchange, the details of which are not any of your concern.”
“Poor fish,” said Loya, “in life it must have been beautiful.”
“It shall be again,” sniffed the genie, “for what is Zeus’ will return to Zeus, in time, to be reborn.”
“And what is your second gift?”
The genie scowled. “So impatient are we, to take without recompense?”
“Sprite,” said Loya, “I have no time for your tempers. I know you have plenty enough and little cause for complaint. For one thing you are immortal.”
“Well,” sniffed the genie, “judge ye not till ye have walked a mile in the other man’s shoes.”
“That,” said Loya, “is a truth which works both ways.”
Whereupon the genie made a great show of muddling through the many pockets in his vest, trousers and double-coats, sighing and twisting and muttering until, at length, he pulled free a plain, silver hand-mirror, which he held forth whilst fixing his gaze upon his feet.
Loya took it. The mirror was very heavy and warm. She placed it carefully upon the ground next to the enormous fish. “And the third?”
The genie removed a silver locket from around its neck. “May as well clean out the house,” he said.
Loya held the trinket up to the moonlight. “How am I to use these things?”
“That,” said the genie, throwing up its hands, “is asking too much. Have I not, just this moment passed, granted you three of my most prized possessions? Is that not enough? Farewell, greedy guts.”
“Wait,” cried Loya, but the genie, in a dramatic puff of purple smoke, was gone.
Loya put the mirror and the locket into her satchel. She dragged the salmon to the centre of the circle and looked up into the night sky. It was not long before she distinguished the constellation of Aquila. Aquila, the great eagle, bringer of rain and keeper of of lightning. It glowed high and clear in the north-west quarter.
Loya breathed deep, fixed her eyes upon the heavens and spoke as loudly and as commandingly as she could. “Aquila,” she cried, “Aquila. Great bird. Come and feast. Aquila.”
“Aquila,” she called again.
A flicker, a ripple of light. The majestic outline of the mighty eagle shimmered and flexed, solidified, stretched and took form. Detaching itself from the inky black canvas, the raptor shook its head, stamped its talons and then, with a single stroke of its immense wings, took flight.
Around and around it circled, across the night sky, wheeling and banking, swooping lower with every turn. Loya held her nerve and stood firm, watching, as the great beast descended. At last, with a penetrating screech, Aquila dived straight for the hilltop where the woman and the salmon waited.
Loya dropped into a crouch and shielded her eyes as the giant eagle, wings wide and talons outstretched, touched the ground, sending up a great spray of chalk dust. As the cloud settled she discerned Aquila, head turned and one beady eye glaring down, his talons curled over the sides of the mighty fish.
“It’s okay,” said Loya, smoothing down her clothes and hair, “eat.”
Aquila cocked his head, ruffled his chest-feathers and bent down his neck, tearing into the salmon with his beak.
As he did so, Loya moved slowly to stand by his side. Tentatively at first, she reached out a hand to his flank. The great bird did not seem to mind. Already he seemed to be almost finished with his meal. Loya took a deep breath, grasped a handful of golden feathers and with difficulty pulled herself up until her legs straddled the creature, just above the fore-edge of its wings. Gently, she stroked Aquila’s neck. “Take me to your home,” she said, “take me to the stars.”
Aquila shuffled and flapped his enormous wings once or twice, sending up great gusts of dust. Loya threw her hands as far around the bird’s neck as she could reach and dug her heels hard into its flanks. In a flash they were airborne and rising up at startling speed. Loya glanced down, and immediately regretted it. Already her little village was a mere speck upon a patchwork of fields and woods, all of which were shrinking at a dizzying rate.
Aquila squawked, banked, reeled and thrust upwards into the night. The wind, which had torn and grasped at Loya’s hair and clothes, slowly died, to be replaced by a silence so complete it was unnerving.
Loya gasped. “Cassiopeia,” she said into Aquila’s ear, “take me to the queen.”
On they sped through the silent, starlit black. Loya spied something ahead but could not fathom exactly what it was. Two large objects came closer and closer, growing at the last so big that Aquila seemed a little sparrow in comparison. The eagle beat back its wings, slowing until it coasted lightly, emitting soft caws and deep gurgles.
“Here?” said Loya. “The queen is here?”
Aquila cooed and pointed his beak in the direction of the twin monoliths.
“Very well,” said the woman upon his back, “will you wait for me, kind bird?” So saying she took a deep breath, stood, crouched, and kicked against Aquila’s back, propelling herself forward into space.
As Loya drifted toward the summit of the mysterious objects, Aquila let out a solitary screech and began to fly, shooting off at an angle upwards and out.
“Wait,” called Loya, “wait, come back.”
The eagle did not stop. It swooped and wheeled and flew on, shrinking and shrinking until Loya was left quite alone.
For a minute or more she drifted, cresting the mammoth structures and on, whereupon she saw with confusion that, great as they were, they formed but the base, or one end, of something much, much larger, an immense structure which was so big that it confused the eye.
It took a while for Loya to comprehend that what she was looking at was a pair of enormous sandalled feet, each as big as a palace. What she had taken to be mountainous projections were, in fact, toes, the vast, flat seas upon them nails and the impossibly wide plateaus merely straps. By flapping her arms and legs Loya was able to rotate so that she was looking up, or across, over the contours of Cassiopeia’s gigantic body, all the way to the Queen’s head, which lay far, far off in the distance.
With effort Loya began to ‛swim’ towards it. The going was slow but steady. Little by little she travelled, above the hills, contours, valleys and folds of the giant beings’ dress. At last, exhausted, she found herself drifting to a halt before Cassiopeia’s face, the incredible proportions of which filled her entire view. The great eyes of the queen were fully closed.
“Your majesty,” said Loya, uncertainly. Her voice sounded thin and impossibly small. “I need to reach the far side of the sky,” she went on, “and Aquila will fly me no further. Perhaps you could be gracious enough to assist?”
Slowly, the great eyes opened. Two enormous lakes made of stars. Great lips began to move.
“Am I not beautiful?” said the Queen, and her voice was so large, so all-encompassing that it seemed to reverberate in Loya’s bones.
“Yes,” she replied, breathlessly.
Cassiopeia’s eyes narrowed. “How beautiful?” she asked.
“As beautiful as the most exquisite painting,” said Loya.
The lake-eyes narrowed further.
“More beautiful,” Loya added hurriedly, “than a sunrise on a mountain-top. More lovely than a full moon on a Summer’s night.”
“Go on,” Cassiopeia’s celestial voice boomed.
“More lovely,” said Loya, “than love itself.”
Cassiopeia’s features remained unmoving.
“I have a gift,” said Loya, fumbling in her satchel. She took forth the mirror. “So that you might bask in the sweet beauty of your own countenance.”
The mirror disappeared from Loya’s hand. It instantly reappeared, having grown in proportion to match the queen, floating in space before her royal head.
The sound of a deep contented sigh filled Loya’s ears. The Queen closed her enormous eyes. Her lips, as big as ships, turned upwards into a smile. For a while, Loya floated in silence.
“Your majesty?” she said at length.
Cassiopeia began to purr like a cat.
“Your majesty?” said Loya again, “I was wondering…”
The Queen’s lake-eyes opened a little. The ship-lips slowly parted. Cassiopeia’s giant cheeks sunk inwards with an immense sucking sound. Then they puffed sharply outwards.
Loya, realising what was about to happen, began to shout but, before she could utter a sound, Cassiopeia blew outwards with all her wondrous might. Loya, deafened by the sound, was sent cart-wheeling across the sky at a dizzying speed.
On and on she sped, head over foot, with stars flashing about her. The giant face of Hercules spun past. It seemed to Loya that the hero’s great eye winked as she span. The white wing of Pegasus rose like a planet and just as quickly dipped out of sight. The sky was a kaleidoscope picture of dazzling points.
With a rush of excitement Loya at last glimpsed the four-footed form which she sought. Immediately she began to whirl her arms like windmill blades, twisting her body and moving her legs, striving with all her might to cease her mad spin and halt her forward motion.
“Chrion,” she called out. Although she had slowed somewhat, still she was in true danger of overshooting the object of her quest.
The centaur’s bearded face looked up. He reached out a hand the size of a hut. Loya, furiously back-peddling, fell into his palm and was surprised by how soft the landing proved. Chiron lowered his arm until the woman, sprawled between his digits, was level with his eyes.
“Mortal,” said the centaur and, although it was just as booming as Cassiopeia’s, Chiron’s voice was not in the last unkind. “How came you here?”
Not for the first time that evening Loya stood up, smoothed herself down and took a deep breath. “I came by way of a genie’s gifts,” she said, “I came to ask for your help.”
“What is it that you want?”
“In life,” said Loya, “your renown as a great healer was unsurpassed. My husband lies dying of fever. Will you come back with me and save him?”
The centaur’s brows furrowed. “Only once before has a mortal reached the stars,” he said. “A remarkable accomplishment. It is true that, from time to time, as the Fates permit, we may once again tread the Earth, for a limited time.”
“Then you will come?”
“You have a gift for me?” said Chiron.
“I do.” Loya rummaged in her satchel and brought forth the locket. She held it up.
“Yes,” said Chiron, with a low rumble, “that will do.”
At once all about blurred and changed. The dark of the sky and the lights of the stars became green grass and flickering torch-light. In the space of a single breath they stood now outside the modest dwelling of Loya and her husband. Chiron, reduced to normal size, his medicine bag about his chest, smiled wanly.
“It is good,” he said, “for a short time, to be home.”
“My husband…” began Loya.
“Wait here,” commanded the centaur, “I must work alone.”
For a long time Loya sat upon the steps of her home, her thoughts swimming this way and that, pulled by the fantastic tides of the night’s events, clinging to hope and shielding, as best she could, her mortal heart from despair.
At last, Chiron emerged. “All is well,” he said quietly, “he rests and upon his wakening he shall, in good time, recover.”
Tears sprang to Loya’s eyes. She hugged the centaur about its neck. “Thank you,” she said, “thank you.”
Chiron gently shook his head. He held up the locket. “Thanks also to you, mortal. By your quest and this gift, when I return to my place among the stars I shall take with me something more precious than any gemstone or jewel.”
“And what is that?”
“A lock of hair from the head of she whom I love, providing she will give it and I believe that she will.”
“Go in peace oh wise and generous Chiron,” said Loya, “every night henceforth I shall raise my cup to the heavens and spill wine in your honour.”
The centaur nodded, slung his bag about his neck and, with a last look around, was off, bounding faster than any horse along the path and over the hill.
Inside her home, Loya bent over the sleeping figure of her husband. “I told you,” she said, quietly, “I promised that for you I would journey all the way to the stars and back and I have.”
The genie, watching silently from the shadows, nodded his head, wiped a tear from his eye, clicked his fingers and was gone.
[Chris Wheatley is a freelance journalist, writer and musician from Oxford, UK. He is forever indebted to the advice and encouragement of his wife, his son and his mother, without whom he would never have come so far.]