"Every time you wish, you die a little." --Anon
Ever taste mud? Your tongue knows it's alien, all bitter grit, and fights it. As a kid, the first dozen times, you spit and gargle goat's milk to get clean, but hours later, you're still poking at your gums, behind your teeth. You lie in bed, mud-mouthed, and plot revenge against the big kids who shoved you in it ‘cos you have a funny name like Joxer and your nose is a little lumpy. When you're big, you tell yourself, you'll kick their asses to Tartarus and back. Only you never really get that big. Sure, you get taller, but your arms and legs stay kinda thin, and the bullies keep bringing on the mud milkshakes. They trip you, and you eat mud with some guy's smelly foot on your neck.
So what d'you do? Me? You could say I learned to like the mud, or pretend to like it. Sometimes there's not a big difference. When I was six or so, my mom took me to Athens for the City Dionysia, and I saw the story of Oedipus. While I didn't understand it all, I did figure out that the Fates had handed Oedipus a juicy mud sandwich, and I started to cry. My mom took me outside the theater near the ticket booth and explained that Oedipus was an actor, and that he didn't actually feel the things his character did. "Under the mask," she said, "he's just an ordinary man playing a part."
For Solstice that year, I asked for my own mask. If it worked for the actor, protected him, then it could work for me, right? My family found that pretty funny, except my father, who backhanded me, saying actors were sissy whores and no son of his would ever be one. When I picked myself off the floor, hand at my bleeding ear, I decided to make my own mask. Life hurt, and I needed some protection.
It helped, you know, the stupid costume I made. A little. People didn't expect much from me, or take me seriously, so I could pretty much do what I wanted. Bullies still came calling, but not as often. Bet you're wondering why I didn't learn to fight. Nothing protects against a bully like a good blade, you say. The thing is, I did learn. Xena and Gabby roll their eyes at me but the truth is I got pretty handy with my sword. I'm not the king of coordination, but all that practice finally sank in. It's just when I think about actually hurting people, using my sword against them, my stomach swirls into a Gordian knot so tight I want to throw up. Instead, I stagger around and purposefully trip over my own feet. I guess that's kinda cowardly, which makes me ashamed, but I just can't fight. A lot of trees in the woods all over Greece bear the mark of Joxer the Mighty Tree-Stabber. But trees don't have parents or lovers or kids. People do. So I pretend.
Lately I've been thinking that maybe I made the wrong trade. My mask's old and cracked--too much bad stuff's slipping in, and I'm tasting too much mud. Like right now. I'm pancaked on the ground, sucking back mud thanks to a coupla Spartan soldiers who found my hat real funny and start tossing it around, with my head still in it. They're gone now, laughing at the buzz they got from playing Joxer-catch, while I'm lying here sore and very, very tired.
I wish... And then it happens. My nose bumps something under the thick brown goo. A rock, I figure, but I sit up and tug it free. It's this brass lamp. At least I think it's a lamp. Must be a newfangled one from Mesopotamia. It's short and squat, with a lid that screws off. Who knows? You don't look a gift brass lamp-thing in the mouth. So I swat the dirt from my face, then give the lamp a rub.
Nothing's gonna happen. I know it. The bug crawling over my left leg knows it. The soldiers now a mile down the road know it. But I rub anyway. In my head, it builds up into this last- chance kinda thing, a coin-toss about whether I should go on or cut my losses. I've spent my whole life wishing, and it's been a pretty raw deal. The wish-genie just snickers and leaves a mud pie.
Since this is my last wish, I'd better make it good. See, there's this guy I like. Well, he's more than a guy. A god. The biggest, baddest, most sexiest god of all. Can't even say his name without a ticklish shiver like a winter wind's blowing. Ares. Only there's no wind, just me and these feelings. Not that he knows I'm alive. If he did, he'd probably squash me under one of those heavy black boots. Slug-bait, he'd think, like the kids back home. But I know he's alive. I've never seen anyone more alive than him. He pulses with it.
That's how Xena knows he's around. The air starts to beat, like some invisible eagle's flapping his wings. Not that she'd admit it. She likes to make him feel bad. I've seen her cut him down. She gets this calculated little twist to her bowed lips, a mean glint in those chinadoll eyes. Ares doesn't notice. He doesn't really look at her. Doesn't need to. He's made up his own Xena-doll, this hot passionate woman who wants him like he wants her. Truth is, Xena can be cold. And no one chills her up like her exboyfriend. He hasn't dropped by to see her lately, though, and I'm glad. She pretends like she doesn't care, but personally I think she liked the attention, even if she doesn't respect him.
But I do, and I consider my first wish very carefully. I can't waste it on something stupid like Ares being in love with me. The Fates'd fall over laughing, and it'd be raining mud in Joxerville for weeks. It'd screw up the cosmic order. Nothing that unnatural can exist in nature. Ares and Joxer. A chimera. No, gotta be a wish in the realm of possibility. So I scrunch my eyes shut tight as I can, and ask whatever magic genie-guy's in there to grant me a vision. Let me see Ares naked, without the leather.
My cheeks flame just thinking about it, which distracts me, ‘cos I picture myself sitting here off the main road into Sparta, cheeks like twin suns, splattered with sticky brown gunk, hat dented, groping this brass lamp like there's no tomorrow. It's my only chance, though, so I grit my teeth and fondle the rounded sides like it's Ares'... You know. And that only makes my cheeks hotter, especially when I start to wish. I wish so hard that I start humming, rocking back and forth, getting into the wish-zone.
Naturally, after all this, nothing happens. There's no magical crackle of energy, no guy in baggy transparent pants and a pretty blue turban. Then I hear a sound above my head, this whoosh, like some super-sized genie's popped through the ether, ready to grant a devoted lamp-rubber his wish. I turn my head up, reverent-like, my eyes shut, blood zinging through my veins. Genies might be like some gods: you see ‘em in their full glory, and they're scraping you off the highway. I mean, what do I know?
So I'm there, all eager for some genie-favor, when I hear a second sound. A light whistling, like something's dropping through the air. Then: *squish*. It's on my nose, and it stinks. "Dumb bird!" It sucks my energy, that shout at some stupid pigeon and its bladder-control problem. Why does this always happen to me? Disgusting, stupid things. Even the birds use me for target- practice. Do people have wish-bones? ‘Cos I think mine just snapped. That's gotta be why it hurts so much inside, like a live autopsy performed on my heart. It isn't just the bird or the defective lamp or the soldiers' teasing. My whole life's been spent stuck up on a tavern wall, a red circle painted on my ass. I'm not blaming anyone for that. My dad was a jerk, but look at Hercules. His dad's the biggest jerk around, and Herc's this legendary hero. Being a mud- covered mistake that everyone regrets is no one's fault but my own. Sad that even my self-pity has no nobility.
I'm on my feet before I know it, leaving that traitorous lamp in the mud. My eyes are open but I can't really see, and blink back the tears. Too bad there's no god of Pathetic. That's the one job I could do with style. So I stumble along, my armor clanking, my insides groaning and snapping,
and I'm so embarrassed I could die because there are people on this road, merchants and farmers, walking or riding in carts, and they can see me. They laugh and hoot, and someone throws a fig which explodes against my shoulder.
Then it hits me: the perfect solution to Joxeritis. A nice, eternal sleep in a river. There's one nearby, not very big or impressive, more like a stream at the edge of that forest over there, and I plow through the line of brown oaks. In the green darkness, I trample yellow flowers which die quietly. I envy them. Life's a boot, and I'm almost crocus-flat. I crash and crunch through the trees, heading blindly for the stream that'll rock me asleep. Ahead, the trees break apart, and a flat expanse of water shines emerald-green and sparkly under the sun. Maybe it won't be so bad, to be unborn. A few more dead crocuses, and I'm there on the sandy shore, rushes whispering behind me while I toss my clothes on the ground, preparing for my backwards birth.
I test the water with my big toe, then wonder why. Like if it's cold, I'm gonna back outta this deal? No, my mind's made up, and I wade in. The bottom's slick with moss, and silver-scaled fish with wide innocent eyes dart around me, brushing my calves. Reaching down, I pet one, and get a handful of cool soft skin before it arrows off. Even the fish know I'm cursed.
The water's at my thighs now, splashing against me, almost like tongues. It's peaceful, calms me down, and I close my eyes but keep walking. It's tasting my shoulders now, and I can't help it. I picture him, licking me. It's my death, and I can do what I want. My body reacts to the pictures, the water and the sun, and why wouldn't it? My skin's starving, underfed, undertouched. A few rolls in the hay with Meg's girls can't satisfy it. Only he can. Paradox, broken wish, and that's why I'm here.
My mouth's under now, and little squirts of river-water sneak in. It's fresh, almost sweet, and I gulp. My nose goes under next, the water stroking me clean. I'm starting to feel pure, cleaner than I've ever been, and my ears begin to ring and my heart's pounding so loud that I feel like Ares, pulsing with life. Funny how death can feel so alive. Head under now, pressure growing, pain in my chest. But there's always been a pain in my chest, and soon I'll never feel it again.
Dying is an art, and like everything else, I do it wrong. The current in that river must've been really strong, ‘cos I end up here, pancaked on the sand. Irony's always confused me, but this time, I get it.
The moon's out now but a fat grey cloud hugs it, and I can't see anything, including my clothes. I figure I drifted downstream ‘cos the rushes are tall and thick around me, almost like a protective cage. Their stems are beard-rough -- don't think about him how can you think about him you screwed up dying and he's still all you want -- but they keep the breeze out, and I'm tempted to lie here forever, staring up at the star-splattered sky. Only my stomach doesn't see the poetry in this, the beauty of fading into nature, and growls like Cerberus. I remember the silver fish, and know they'd taste pretty good grilled on a fire, so I get up. This brings me against the rushes' soft brown faces, and I pause, brushing my cheek against theirs. The warm night breeze breathes deeply, and the clouds abandon the moon.
Then I see him. Ares. In the water. Naked.
My first coherent thought? Hades screwed up, and I'm actually in Elysium, in the Fortunate Woods, getting some hero's reward for most kills on the battlefield, while the hero's off in a dusty corner of the Underworld picking cabbages. But the gentle lap of water against the shore, the harsh owl cry at my back, the muddy earth under my naked feet... It's too sharp, too clear to be anything but real.
Remembering Acteon, I duck my head a little. Gods don't like being spied on, although if anyone asked, I'd say that bathing naked in a public river's asking for trouble, especially when you've got a body like that. It demands attention. It's...wow. In my world, fantasy's always beaten reality, hands-down. You might say I'm a master of fantasy. It's how I survive. Joxer, mightiest warrior in Greece. Joxer, legendary hero (‘with Gabby as his sidekick'), Joxer, love- slave to the war god. I could teach courses on it.
This is the first time, ever, that reality has fantasy whupped good. Naked, Ares is perfect. When I imagined him all those nights, I guess I made him mortal when I stripped him down. Narrowed his shoulders a little, roughened his skin, shortened his... You know. But he looks like a statue-- that's how polished his skin is, with the water adding a glow. See, every part of him's curved and hard, long, planed lines that disappear into the greedy water. I want to be the river, flowing over him, and it truly stings now, more than ever before, that I'm me. I'm Pygmalion, except that I've always loved him, even when I didn't know how perfect he'd look under moonlight, naked in the water. I've always thought -- and don't to laugh too hard -- that Ares and I had a few things in common. Not the physical stuff. We're beauty and the beast. But underneath, where it's supposed to matter. He's an outsider, too. No one appreciates him. Even the soldiers prefer Athena, ‘cos they buy into Ares' rep. But I've seen him, and he's strong and smart and organized.
He's just dived down under the inky surface, showing me his hip, the swell of his ass. Not showing me. That's a lie. I'm stealing this, stealing these looks. It's wrong, and I take a step back, but he surfaces then, standing in water up to his... The water's splashing against the head of his... It's his cock, and it's long and thick and beautiful. Mine swells a little, ‘cos it doesn't understand that this is worship, and futile, so I press my hand against it, trying to hold it down. Big mistake, especially when Ares shakes his head, and the long wet curls mist the air. I feel it. Oh god. He's close, maybe the length of three men away. I have to leave. Being here's blasphemy, and it flays me inside to stand here under the moon, with the night air soft as cat fur on my skin.
It occurs to me that he's not moving anymore, just standing there. Panicking, I drop to my knees, head tucked into my arms. It's not fear, really, that's got me rolled in this fetal ball. More guilt for daring to wish in the first place. I'm not sure what to do, not sure if he's even seen me peering over the rushes, so I stay in place, breathing in tiny, quiet gulps. My heart's crashing against my ribs and maybe that's why I miss his footsteps. Because all of sudden, there's this hot wet hand over the base of my spine. I figure he's going to pound me there in a second, snap me in two, only that's not how it goes. Those slippery fingers stroke me, slowly, like their owner's a little unsure.
Maybe he doesn't know who I am. I mean, crouched down like this, I could be anyone. Meg always said I had a good back and a decent ass, so maybe he sees that and thinks what the hell. I'm not sure what he wants from me, but I know I'd rather die than turn around and have him see my face. Does he know my heart's on a treadmill? It's weird, ‘cos that strong hand on my back is soothing me, drawing widening gyres, like on some level he does understand.
Breathing becomes an act of will. I'd stop completely if I could. Nothing can startle him, or this'll end, and I might be a fool or a martyr, but I'm not stupid. Ares is touching me, and even if it's some kind of weird prelude to my execution, I don't care. I don't care about anything right now, not the ache in my cock, very confused by all this and harder than obsidian, not the slight tickle under my right forearm from a newborn reed, only that hand petting me.
When his fingers dip lower, I gasp, then freeze. I've broken the spell with sounds. But Ares doesn't run for cover. In fact, it seems to encourage him, and he moves closer, so close I feel that pulse. His fingers... I can't believe what his fingers are doing. They're preparing me. I nearly turn and show him whose body he's learning, but I can't. It's like I'd be breaking some law of nature. That's how powerful it is, to feel his fingers inside me. He's slicked them with some kind of oil, and they slide so easily it's like the river is fucking me. He keeps adding more, teasing me with a thickness that's like the other one. The real one. The one I want in me.
I'm so caught up in my wish, so open and ready for him, that I don't have time to tense when he grasps my hips and pulls me back. Not onto his cock. He's trying to get me on my back, so he can take me from the front. My face to his face. The panic surges back, and I kick out to stop him from easing me back onto the marshy earth. Doesn't work. I'm there, a little twisted, with one leg crossed over the other, hiding my hard cock, the moon smirking over me, and I see Ares' face for an instant before my eyes slam shut.
I'm still puzzling through his expression when it clicks that he's not touching me anymore. Two possibilities. One: he's gone. Sorry, Joxer: nice ass, shame about the face. But that doesn't mesh with the look I saw. That look... I'm no expert, and maybe it works differently for gods, but he looked... turned on. Maybe it was the dark, or maybe just shadow, but I'll bet a hundred dinars that his cheeks aren't always that flushed. His eyes were half-closed, too. Not like he was repulsed, but like he was thinking things so hot his lashes came down to protect him. And his mouth... You know about the mouth, right? The story goes that Ares was gonna be the god of love, so the Fates gave him that mouth. Only his father thought love was for girls and sissies, and gave the job to one of his bastard kids, and turned his son into war. Well, those lips were half- parted, open for a moan or a kiss.
Which leads me to the second possibility. It's so out there that I'm afraid to even think it and roll my hopes right over the cliff's edge. Maybe he's waiting. Maybe he thought my kicks were a struggle, that I didn't want the same thing he did. Of all the Olympian gods, Ares is the only one who never takes people by force. Even Hephaestus tried to rape their sister Athena. Not Ares. I always figured it was ‘cos of the brass jar. You know the story. Those sick cousins of his, those crazy giant twins, locked Ares in a brass jar for over a year, which is a pretty harsh lesson in consent. Thirteen months without food, without sound, without anything but the smooth sides of his brass prison. So it's possible that Ares is standing over me now, his cock oiled and ready, waiting for a sign that I want him.
I uncross my legs, spread them wide, and wish.
For the second time today, I don't die. It's too bad, because nothing will fix the parts of me that broke when he left. Nothing will--
Another idea creeps up and smacks me in the head. One last chance. One last wish. See, my eyes are still closed. Maybe he's waiting for them to open. Maybe, and this is so weird I feel myself smiling, almost laughing, but maybe he wants me, Joxer, to know without a doubt who's going to be in my body, in case (and I really do laugh here) he's not who I want. So I suck back some night air and go for it. I open my eyes.
He's there, standing at my feet, naked and oiled. When my eyes flash open, he smiles, then kneels in the earth, lifting my legs high and eases his cock inside me. It's huge and fills me completely, and I feel this weird relief, this closure, even though he's only now starting to thrust. It's a long, slow, perfect fuck under the moonlight, but it's the kiss that really ends it. "Joxer," he says, and that love-mouth is on mine, and his tongue is sweet and searching. When he comes inside me, I watch him, even when my come's raining on my chest.
Afterward, when we're lying tangled in the rushes, another idea whacks me, like I'm Archimedes or something, and I think back to that brass lamp that looked like a jar, the one I found in the mud. The wish-jar. "Ares," I say, testing the words, "you're not the god of brass jars, are you? ‘Cos if you are, I still have two wishes left."
He doesn't say anything, just gives a self-satisfied, knowing grin.
Seems I wasn't the only one with a wish.
They say that every time you wish, you die a little. But that's okay. After that night, I didn't need any more wishes. I'd died enough for a few lifetimes, and lived enough for a few more.