Hercules Observes the Nemean Lion, by Bettina McMahon
I first created this story on the spot to fill ten minutes of class. We had been talking about how myths could have been told impromptu and might have reflected the audience and setting (and character of the storyteller) and not necessarily the Disney-type or Stallone-type heroes. I liked my taciturn Heracles, and committed him to paper. Telling a story is a good trick to fill time, but it doesn’t involve the students’ imaginations much. Later in the myth unit I had them re-tell myths that were more familiar to them. I got all sorts of Goldilockses, from pierced and Goth, to sweet country girl in the city of bears, to a girl who just wanted to try out her brother’s drum kit. I required them to make one item for the performance. Some made a poster (Medea dies here) or a sword and two drew the entire scene on the blackboard.
-Nell Wright, Latin Teacher and Writer of Short Fiction
Evening settled on the woods under the gray mist. The road began its descent to Nemea. That was where the king had sent me when he heard that the villagers were losing sheep at night.
I was whistling under my breath when a doe ran across my path, a fawn at her side. Something had spooked them. I watched, still. They stood together to scan the path, but didn’t notice me. The mother whisked her tail and they flew down the ravine. I stared after, admiring them.
A moment behind the deer, a lion bounded onto the path. She didn’t see me either. For a moment she sank heavily into the gravel and leaves. Then her paws tore at the earth and she leaped after the deer.
I followed them into the ravine, the evening’s peace threatened by the possibility of violence. The lovely fawn must live. I dove a hundred feet down through the thick pines. Brambles and branches didn’t slow me.
Looking from an overhanging rock, I saw that the lion had the fawn by the leg. The fawn whimpered, and the mother stood back. She could do nothing.
I paused, reached for my bow. Gone. Lost among the rocks and trees. And the quiver.
The fawn screamed in silent panic.
Before any of them saw me, I leaped on the lion from behind, grabbing her front paws down and back. She fell, trying to switch her head back and forth under me. I held her down.
The fawn limped to its mother. It was lovely to see them get away together.
My muscles warmed to the task of restraining the lion. She tried to roll over; I braced my legs on the earth so she couldn’t move. With my chest pressed against her fur, my hands and arms tense, I considered her. What a joy if I had simply seen her slinking along the creek or playing with her cubs!
I smelled her anger on every breath. She would catch me if I ran. If I didn’t kill her, she would kill me. I had saved the fawn and doomed the lion. Yet I hesitated.
The evening passed and it grew dark. In all the competitions I had entered, in the battles I had fought, I had never competed with strength and determination like hers. I did not want to harm her though she was just waiting for the moment she could kill me. While I was awake, I could hold her easily. But as the night grew later, her warmth would lull me to sleep and she would take me by surprise.
A half moon appeared through the trees above us. I didn’t enjoy it, concentrating on my fight with an animal’s determination to live.
It was nearly dawn when she tried to roll me over. I recovered and held her to the ground. When she quieted, I reluctantly eased my left arm around so I could hold down both paws with it. With my right, I reached under her soft throat until I found the other ear.
The lion couldn’t lash out, struggling side to side as I slowed her breath. She had no chance. My elbow held her jaw. I could feel the growl forming inside, a threatening storm that moved away beyond hearing.
The sound of metal against metal. I woke in the light of day, lying next to her carcass. The lion stretched half again as long as I did.
Two farmers were drawing their knives. They came close to skin her.
“She’s mine,” I claimed.
“That’s clear enough,” one answered. “We just want the meat to feed our dogs. You are the lion’s killer, we do not dispute that. And surely she’s the one that was eating our lambs.”
“She has no scars,” the other one said in awe, standing away from the task. “Did you strangle her?”
“Yes,” I said, sadly. I stood and brushed the dry leaves off my scabbing elbows. The sun gloried in the lion’s fur, creating a sea of gold.
“Quite a feat. We have been trying for many months to shoot this one, but arrows seemed not to pierce her.”
They eyed me up and down, waiting for me to introduce myself. I preferred to live by the old ways, to wait until we shared a meal before I told them my name.
“Cut the hide away for me,” I said.
With a few clean swift strokes they did as I asked.
“Better wait a few days for it to dry.”
“It will dry in the sun as I walk.”
I still had to go down to Nemea, but I had to find the lost weapons. I slung the pelt around my shoulders, the fur against my skin.
“As you prefer.”
“No man we know could carry that for long.”
I tied the lion’s damp forepaws across my chest and started to climb back toward the path. I hauled myself up the smooth rock, backtracking.
“What shall we tell that fellow Herakles when he comes to kill the lion?” one of the men asked below me. “The king sent him half a moon ago.”
“We’ll feast him as a hero and send him home, that’s all we can do.”
Good news. My task was completed. I did not need to go to Nemea after all.
I climbed up and along the narrow ledges, finding footholds where the roots of the trees held onto patches of dirt. My quiver hung upside down on a branch, the arrows lay scattered in brambles. The bow had fallen off on the path.
Maybe small for twenty summers and not given to much speech, I did not need to feast with the villagers as if I were a hero. Killing the lion didn’t feel heroic, but it was necessary. The lion I killed herself killed others. I had saved the children of Nemea from winter’s hunger, but I still wished I could see her running along the creek.
I shouldered my bow and quiver and set out away from that place.