He was a young prince who grew up in comfort and luxury and was nurtured on learning and beauty. A handsome man, with warm brown eyes and brown wavy hair, liked by most people he met, he looked favorably on the world around him. How was he to know anything about life?
One day, Orpheus sat in the meadow near his father’s palace, trying to make his lyre produce the music his mentor was attempting to teach him. It was not going very well, and he laid the instrument by his side with a feeling of disgust; Argos, his dog and constant companion, looked at him with disapproval.
Orpheus tried to forget his music for a while, and let his eyes roam about. It was a lovely spring day, and the green meadow was dotted with a motley of flowers. There was a sense in the air of something going to happen, which he could not name. Just sit and wait.
A soft breeze blew, and the air shimmered. A whirling movement swept the meadow, and in it the figure of a woman appeared, dancing among the blossoms. The prince gaped, thinking he had never seen such a beautiful sight in his life. Her bare feet hardly touched the ground; she seemed to be floating in the air, carried by the light wind. A flower garland encircled her golden hair that shimmered in the bright sun, flying off her head and revealing a very pretty face with shining blue eyes and pouting red lips. She was wearing a transparent, rosy garment that made her look like one of the flowers on the meadow.
Enchanted, barely aware of what he was doing, the prince picked up his lyre and hit the strings. Under his bewitched fingers, a new music emerged he had never known before; his hand glided easily on the strings and he was playing to the girl’s dance as he had never played before.
Now the girl was dancing to the new music, making her movements suit the sweet tune and lively tempo; she twisted and twirled, moved her arms and lifted her legs, her bare feet caressed the blossoms with their light touch; as she turned her head here and there, her hair flew like a golden stream. In her dance, she now came closer and closer to the player; his eyes followed her every movement and his fingers flew over the strings as if by themselves.
At last, the dancer was so close to the musician that instead of dancing in front of him she began dancing around him. He could barely follow her now with his eyes so he closed them, as if seeing her in his mind’s eye. The music and the dance merged together, getting swifter and swifter, turning to sound more like the beat of a drum than the flow of a tune, until nothing was left of the music but a series of strong beats. Suddenly, they stopped, together. The girl fell at the prince’s feet with her head and half her body lying in his lap.
Orpheus opened his eyes to look at the girl’s face that was turned up toward his own, both gasping for breath. Slowly, breathing more calmly, she moved, her motions flowing and graceful. She sat up opposite him and looked at him with half a smile.
“Well,” she said, “you are some musician, I must say.”
“It’s your dance that did it,” he replied. “I wouldn’t be able to play without it.”
“Is that so?” she said, not trying to deny it. “And what do they call you in these parts?”
“I am Orpheus. And who are you? I’ve never seen you around here.”
“I am Eurydice; but some call me simply Thea.”
“Thea – you must be the goddess of Dance.”
“Not more than you are the god of Music,” she replied, the sound of her laughter ringing like a clear bell.
From that day, they became inseparable. All day Orpheus played and Eurydice danced, and at night they made love on the meadow, warmed by the heat of spring and youth. Day by day the prince’s music grew better and livelier, effecting not only the girl’s dance but also the trees that stood here and there in the meadow, and the little animals and birds that frequented it; the flowers assumed Thea as one of them, and even the few rocks jutting sparsely around the area added their heavy stump to the beat. Argos, Orpheus’ faithful dog, also took part in those festivities of love, often showing his feelings for Thea in dancing around her and barking in joy.
When summer came, as the flowers withered in the heat and the ripe fruit hung on the trees, the lovers’ heat assuaged, and they spent their time together walking and talking rather than lovemaking; as they hugged affectionately, they felt their love turning into the flow of a wide river. The prince’s music became languid and thoughtful, and Thea’s dance turned into slower, wider movements instead of the rapid twisting beat. During that hot period, their meetings were occasionally interrupted by short, sweet showers, causing them to run and play like children. Life was happy, and time seemed to last forever.
Seasons turn, and at last the sky hid its blue sheen behind heavy clouds; the air chilled after the heat of summer, and the occasional sweet showers turned into heavy rains. Too often, the lovers had to seek shelter, and lovemaking was not the continuous pleasure it had been before. The leaves on the trees around the meadow changed their color and began to fall off, and Thea became restless.
“What is it with you?” the prince asked one night, when for the first time since they had met she rejected his advances for lovemaking.
“I’ll have to go soon,” Eurydice said softly, caressing his head with her long, gentle fingers.
“Go where?” he asked in astonishment. He had never asked her about herself. Although she knew he was the son of the King and Queen, he had never taken her to meet his parents and she had not asked that of him. Even now, it did not disturb him that he had not known where she had come from and who her people were. Now, all of a sudden, he realized that she had a life somewhere separate from his own.
“Every autumn I go to visit my elder sister,” she said.
“Can’t you break that custom, even for us?” he asked. His heart was disturbed and he found it hard to keep calm at the news. “Can I come with you?” he asked.
She gave him a sideways look, her eyes deep with some enigmatic emotion. “I don’t think you’d like it there, where my sister lives,” she replied, quietly.
The next morning she was gone, leaving behind her a word scribbled in the soil, “Follow!”
“Follow? How can I do that?” Orpheus asked Argos, his faithful dog, who raised his head with questioning eyes. For some moments they sat together, bound by the same sad sense of loss. The prince took out the lyre and his fingers cascaded on the strings in a minor key for the first time ever, emitting a sorrowful, yearning song as he had never done before.
“We’ll have to follow, my friend,” he told his dog, “if we want our beloved back. I suppose that’s what you’re here for, Argos. You can use your sense of smell to follow Thea’s tracks.”
The dog sniffed the ground until he found the girl’s scent, and the two bereaved creatures started on their way.
In his sorrow, Orpheus did not notice that Argos followed a trail of fallen leaves, red and yellow and brown; the trees swayed their branches from which the leaves had fallen, gently dancing to the music the prince kept playing on his lyre as they walked on. It was a mournful song, full of yearning and depression.
The path led them away from the meadow, leaving the trees behind; they went down a valley that grew deeper and deeper, turning into a narrow gully; above them the sky became darker and darker, and the land around them was desolate. No animals ran about, only a few birds flew over the narrow gully, calling out to Orpheus, “Stop! You don’t know where you’re going! It’s dangerous down there and you might never come back!”
But he did not listen, continuing to play his gloomy song; the slopes grew steep above their heads, getting nearer and nearer to each other. At last, the sky vanished; the slopes on both sides of the gully merged at the top, creating a narrow tunnel in which they walked. It was so dark now that the prince stopped in his way and looked round him, as if waking up from a dream.
“Argos!” he cried out, “do you know where we are? Are you sure we are walking in the right direction?” But the image of Eurydice rose before his mind’s eyes and the doubt was gone. At that moment, a swarm of fireflies filled the dark tunnel, emitting a faint light that made their way a little more visible. Orpheus felt a momentary relief, until he noticed that they were not alone. Other creatures inhabited the tunnel, less innocuous than themselves or the fireflies; but for the moment, they stayed along the tunnel’s walls, and he was able to see them only as shadows.
They made a noise, though, that was so loud he could not hear his own music. He stopped playing, then, and hung the lyre over his shoulder in disgust; but as he paid more attention to the sound, his heart filled with more fear than resentment. He could now hear those creatures growling and roaring, screeching and gnashing their teeth. In the midst of that commotion he was able to hear words that they were calling him to turn back. “It’s your doom down there, Orpheus,” they cried out, “you don’t want to go any further!”
He felt so much terror that he paused in his walking and called up to Argos, who had gone ahead without paying much attention. The dog came up to his master with his head down, whining softly. He rubbed his body against the prince’s legs, and the man expressed his anxiety. “What’d you think, Argos, should we go on or turn back?” he asked quietly.
He got neither reassurance nor encouragement from the dog. Thea’s image had dimmed in his mind, and he wavered. Then a picture of their passionate lovemaking at springtime, and their calm happiness in summer, came to his mind, and he knew he would not be able to live his life as it had been before he had met her, if he did not make this attempt to see her again.
Clenching his teeth, Orpheus signed to Argos to continue on his way. It became much harder now, full of pits and obstacles, and they stumbled on every step. The beasts became more fierce and daring, occasionally jumping at them and trying to bite their bodies and limbs – sometimes even succeeding. The prince, now all his attention on the path in front of him, forgot his goal in the effort to survive. It seemed to last forever.
The end of the tunnel came abruptly, opening into a great underground hall; the cavern was so big that Orpheus was unable to see its boundaries. The wanderers stopped, and the man looked around him. It was much less dark here, as torches hung around, though he was unable to see their stands or the walls they hung on.
In the light of the torches the prince could see more clearly the threatening beasts filling the hall; they looked indeed very menacing with their monstrous bodies, sharp teeth and enormous claws; this time, however, they sat quietly around, as if under some orders to behave. Was their purpose in the tunnel to keep him away, or else to test his courage and determination to reach his goal? For the first time in his life Orpheus was having such thoughts that examined his own behavior.
On one side of the hall, stronger light emanated from a bunch of torches grouped together. In the midst of that light stood a throne-like chair that seemed to be made of black stone. As if pulled by invisible ropes, the prince drew nearer to that throne and stood before it. A figure was sitting on it, and it seemed to him as the ugliest creature he had ever seen.
It looked like a woman, with long black tresses and deep black eyes, her features drowned in a mesh of wrinkles. She wore a long black garment with silver threads and a silver diadem on her head, set with black onyx stones that looked as watchful as her black eyes; she wore silver sandals on crooked feet that showed under her long skirt. Her hands were as wrinkled as her face, her fingers crooked and her nails long and sharp like claws.
The person on the throne sat stiff like the stone it was made of, and Orpheus’ heart filled with dread at the sight of her. After an eon she moved, making a beckoning movement with a crooked hand, and again he was drawn toward her against his will, until he stood right before the throne. His limbs were shaking and, in the hush that fell in the hall, he could hear his teeth chattering and his heart pumping hard.
“Prince,” she said, “what are you doing here?” Her voice was hoarse and grating, with a screech at the end of the sentence; his shaking stopped suddenly, as if he knew his doom had come and there was nothing he could do about it.
“I don’t know,” he replied as if driven by a force stronger than himself. He then mastered what was left of his courage and said, almost brazenly, “I was looking for my lover. We followed her scent to this place but I don’t know if she could be here.” Looking round him again, he implied how unlikely it was to find Thea in such a place.
“And who is your lover?” the person asked in her terrible voice.
“Her name is Eurydice and she’s also called Thea, but I know nothing more about her, except that we love each other and that I could not live without her.”
“Ah!” the creature said. Then she added, “I could tell you where this Thea is if I wanted, as she is my sister.”
“Yes, she told me so, but who are you and what are you called?”
“My name is Persephone and I am also called Hella – didn’t she tell you? I will only tell you where my sister is if you play for me and for my creatures.” With that, she made a sweeping movement with her arm to include all the hall’s inhabitants, and a great noise escaped from them that filled the cavern with roaring and screeching and growling and stumping and even what sounded like the laughter of a hyena.
Orpheus filled again with terror, and he said in a shaking voice, “How could I play and sing in such threatening atmosphere?”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be quiet when we hear your music. But you have to play now, or I can’t answer for your safety.”
With shaking hands the prince took the lyre off his shoulder, and hit the strings. He started his song with some hesitation, while silence was falling around the hall; suddenly, Thea’s image appeared before his mind’s eyes, as he saw her for the first time. At that sight, he soon mastered his music and became absorbed in it as he had been before. He began singing of the terror he felt at his experience in the tunnel and the underground hall; gradually, his song softened, expressing the sadness, yearning and depression that he felt when he was following Thea to what he thought might be the place she had gone to.
At that moment he happened to look up at Hella, and sensed some change in her appearance. There seemed to be a gradual softening of the wrinkles in her face, hands and feet, and her black hair turned dark brown.
The prince’s song, then, went back in time even further, turning into the summertime calmness of their flowing love. Looking now with more intent at the person on the throne, he saw her turn into a woman in her prime of life. Her hair glowed dark red and her eyes warm brown; her body looked the mature body of a mother and her dress turned deep red with golden thread instead of silver. The diadem on her head turned into a golden crown, as did the sandals on her now shapely feet, with the stones becoming twinkling rubies.
Then the song became gayer and gayer, as Orpheus remembered meeting Eurydice for the first time, and the beginning of their love; he was no longer astonished as he saw Hella turn right before his eyes into a young girl with golden hair and blue eyes, her dress a transparent rosy shift, her feet bare and the crown on her head made of springtime flowers.
“Thea!” he called out. The lyre dropped from his hands and he rushed to hold her form as she came down from the throne.
The music stopped, as Eurydice and Orpheus were making love for the last time, and Hella’s warning was fulfilled. In the silence that fell in the hall, her fearsome beasts fell on the musician and tore his body to pieces, and his last music expressed the pain and suffering of death.
But the wind picked up the musician’s song and carried it out into the world. It became known everywhere, the song of love that had all the kinds of music in it: the gay passion of spring and lovemaking; the calm solemnity and affection of summer; the sadness and yearnings of separation in autumn; the pain of loss and the agony of death in winter.
[Tala Bar is a writer and artist who lives in Israel. She studied Hebrew and English languages and literature and holds a Master of Philosophy degree in literature from London University. She taught these subjects before before becoming a full time writer. She is interested in anthropology in general and in mythology in particular and writes accordingly. She is also interested in fantasy and science fiction and has written many stories and essays, some novellas, and three books in those genres, many of which have been published in print and/or on the Net, both in Hebrew and English. A list of her published works in English and some of her artwork can be seen at Tala’s Space Window Live.]