On a high rock overlooking the grassy plain of Ethiopia, a young man waited.
Everyday since he was old enough to do so, Phaethon would leave the safety of the palace of King Merops while darkness still blanketed the world and some light yet lingered in the constellations.
With spear and bow in hand, he would cross the open spaces of the grassland, and ford the broad rivers, risking lion and crocodile to reach the edge of the forest where the land rose and rocks from the last great making of the world thrust upward to the sky.
The climb to his chosen eyrie was not an easy one, but he had strength in his limbs and a will to reach the top.
Phaethon, golden-skinned and auburn-haired, waited not for beasts to hunt, nor enemies to waylay, nor the young women carrying water upon their heads that he might abuse their bodies.
He waited for the sun.
The whole of Phaethon’s existence revolved around that first, soul-warming glimpse of golden light to pour out of the east every day with divine constancy. And never wavering in his devotion, he watched it, his hands gripping the edge of the rock above the deadly precipice, anticipating that first brilliant crack at the far edge of the world.
It was with a longing, and a lingering sadness, that Phaethon watched the light of the world turn all to colour – the emerald of the plains, the silver of the rivers, the blue of the oceans, and the browns and yellows of earth and mountain. He needed to feel that light as his body needed air to breathe or water to drink. The light was sustenance for his very spirit.
When the light rushed upon Phaethon, he felt it rejuvenate him, fill him with power, and pride, and other inexplicable emotions. All about him life exploded, and he revelled in it.
Flowers blossomed, flights of birds shot into the skies, and beasts crawled from their dens to welcome each new day. The rising sun drove them all, created anew with each rosy dawn.
Phaethon stood, his tunic thrown down, his arms outspread to the world until, having reached its zenith, he could feel the sun moving on. The young man breathed slowly in and out, images of rushing rivers and snow-capped mountains flashing suddenly behind his closed lids – wheels turning, as of fire and streaks across a singed sky.
Then, blinding light.
When he awoke, he was on his perch near to the edge.
He sighed and gathered his belongings – his tunic, bow, and the spear around which a serpent had wrapped itself. Gently, Phaethon slid it off and the serpent lay there in the last light of the sun.
On the plain where the antelope leapt, and wild horses cropped at the tall grasses, a rider in a plumed head-dress came toward him. Phaethon recognized his eldest brother Niobis’ haughty manner.
As Merops’ heir, Niobis treated all his brothers and sisters as subjects, but none more so than Phaethon.
“Phaethon!” he called out.
“Yes, brother,” Phaethon answered, stopping and leaning casually upon his spear.
“You’ve been gone most of the day. Mother is worried.”
“She knows where I go. Why worry?”
“Father sent me to collect you. Come now.”
“As you can see, I am already coming.”
“You’re always so impudent!”
“And you’re as puffed up as a peacock, Niobis. Get yourself back!I come when the sun sets.”
Without warning, Niobis kicked his dark stallion hard at Phaethon, his spear out for attack.
Phaethon dropped his things and grabbed hold of the oncoming spear shaft just in time, throwing Niobis into the mud.
“Curse you!” Niobis sputtered full of rage.
Phaethon held the spear toward his brother and then with three long strides sent the shaft into the brown water of the river where it stuck in the mud and then toppled over beneath the surface.
He picked up his things, turned his back on his brother, and walked away in the direction of the palace.
The palace came into view a short while later, its gilded peaks and walls of red and yellow stone appearing as deep shades of earth in the angling light.
Phaethon nodded to the guards as he passed and saw them tense at his approach.
In the inner courtyard stood all of his brothers and sisters in a circle. Their voices were like a muttering of seals on a too-little beach. All tall, and slim, and dark, Phaethon never felt at one with them. He was pale, and thickly muscled, his brown-red hair always having been a source of amusement.
At his approach, the circle broke to reveal Niobis sitting in the centre. His other brothers stood about him, fists clenched, their royal robes angry and wrinkled from bending over the eldest.
“Phaethon!” cried Teros, a younger of the boys. “Why did you try to kill Niobis?”
“Me?” Phaethon returned. “He charged me from horseback with his spear!”
“You lie!” Niobis rose and came forward, brushing off the hands of his concerned sisters. “You tried to kill me.”
“Careful, little king. Else you may eat more mud.”
“You’re a bastard!” The words exploded full force from Niobis’ mouth to echo throughout the palace.
Phaethon held back, his fists wanting to swing up, but he controlled them. Instead, he looked upon his brothers and sisters, all beautiful, all smooth as ebony, with gold about their arms, necks, and ankles. Their eyes were wide with wonder, and he knew they believed it too, that he was not one of them. He never would be.
Niobis smiled broadly, sensing that his shot had hit home. “You know it’s true. You’re a bastard. You…don’t…belong…here.”
“What’s the meaning of this?”
The voice of King Merops crashed down on them, and all the children cowered before their father. All except Phaethon.
Merops’ tall form swept in among them, a full head taller than Niobis. His yellow and purple robes rustling as he swished a horse-hair flail at a few stray flies. He came between Niobis and Phaethon.
“I asked you both a question. What is the meaning of this?”
Phaethon looked up into the king’s big white eyes, held his gaze, but said nothing.
“Niobis?” the king asked. “Why are you covered in mud? It is unseemly for a prince.”
“I fell from my horse.”
“I…” Niobis looked at Phaethon, his eyes narrowing. “I went to fetch Phaethon as you asked, but when I approached him he unhorsed me and threw me into the mud.”
“Father,” Phaethon spoke up. “I merely grabbed the spear that he had levelled at me.”
“But Father -”
“Silence!” Merops’ great hand fastened on Niobis’ shoulder, silencing him.
“Father,” Teros stepped up. “Niobis called Phaethon bastard before all here.”
Merops looked down on the little boy, his countenance grave. He was silent a moment, breathing deeply.
“Phaethon,” the king began. “It is time for you to go to your mother. She would have words with you, and she has been worried.”
“Yes, father.” Phaethon looked at one of the upper windows of Queen Clymene’s apartments. He could see her blond head framed within, her stormy blue eyes taking in the scene below.
Merops looked up at the window, nodded, and spoke loud enough for her to hear him. “It is time she told you what you need to know.”
With that, King Merops swept from the courtyard with Niobis and the rest following.
Phaethon stood alone looking up at his mother.
“Mother?” Phaethon’s voice was soft in the upper corridor of the palace. Red walls led to a blue door at the end. “Mother, may I enter?”
The door swung open and a young girl, one of his mother’s handmaidens, bowed to him.
“Leave us, Anthi,” the queen’s voice commanded, and the girl went out, closing the door behind her as Phaethon watched.
He stood still, taking in the rooms, a place he loved second only to his eyrie on the other side of the plain.
Queen Clymene’s royal rooms were nothing like the earthly elsewheres of the palace of Merops. There were no browns or greys or blacks. Rather, Clymene’s world was one of blues and brilliant greens, pink, white, and the light of the sun. The walls were painted in shades of turquoise with depictions of dolphins and sea horses, and glimpses of Poseidon’s world. Temples wavered in the wine-dark realm, and oceanids roamed freely, including one that looked very much like Clymene.
Above it all, rising above the sea and the earth, shone the sun, brilliant and blinding. The likeness was as though captured sunlight had been embedded in the wall of the queen’s apartments.
Clymene sat on a couch of pure white marble, draped with sea-blue cushions that matched her robes. The blond waves of her hair fell about her shoulders to frame the pink seashell that hung about her neck. She stroked the latter with a finger, and her eyes met her son’s.
“I was worried for you this morning.”
“I’m well,” Phaethon answered. “I wanted to linger in the sun longer today. That’s all.”
“Yes,” she replied, her eyes closing then opening. He thought that she would say more, but she only beckoned for him to sit next to her.
Clymene took her son’s hand in both of hers and bent her forehead to touch it. Phaethon felt cool tears run onto his hand, and sensed an odour of sea spray in the air, though he knew little of the sea, never having experienced that particular joy.
“What’s wrong, Mother?” he asked, letting her weep without making any motion to comfort her.
Clymene regained her composure and sat straight, the salt tears soaking back into her skin like water upon a soft, sandy beach. In truth, something in her majestic eyes now worried Phaethon, and he pulled his hand away.
“I heard all that transpired in the courtyard, my son,” she finally said.
Phaethon jumped up, his anger back. He stared at the sun upon the wall. His back was to her.
“Niobis called me a bastard in front of my brothers and sisters, even in front of the servants! Father said nothing…did nothing!” Phaethon’s arms and shoulders flexed, his jaw tensed.
When did my beautiful boy become a man? Clymene thought as she looked upon him. How the tides do flow without notice… It is time.
“They are not your brothers and sisters,” Clymene said. “And Merops is…not your father.” It is done…
Phaethon whirled around as though he had been struck, and for a moment he was confused as to whether his anger stemmed from the words his mother had spoken, or because he realized Niobis had spoken true.
“And you?” Fear and sadness welled inside of Phaethon’s golden eyes, their brilliance momentarily dim and dark. “Are you not my mother?”
“I am your mother,” Clymene answered without hesitation, her voice strong like a crashing wave. “And I am proud of that fact. I am your mother, Phaethon. It was I who gave birth to you, who brought you to the light.”
The young man was relieved, but the great question hung like a double-headed axe between them.
“Then…who is my father?”
Clymene rose from her couch and walked to the fresco of the sun on her wall. Phaethon noticed that her lips moved, but she uttered no words.
“Mother, please. I must know.”
“Your father,” she began, “is the Shining One. He who lights the world.” She turned to face her son. “You, my lovely Phaethon, are the son of Helios.”
Phaethon stepped back until he felt the couch, then sat. He saw his mother standing before him, the image of the sun illuminating the space behind her.
“Helios? The Great Charioteer is my father?”
Clymene nodded, sad, wistful, and longing. He would have questions, she knew. First, she moved to a box of carved olive wood which rested upon a table. She opened it and removed a gold medallion with an image of the sun upon it. She handed it to her son, dangling it by the braided leather rope.
“This is yours now,” she said.
Phaethon took it in his hands and looked at the image of the charioteer on the back, then at the face on the obverse. A handsome, golden visage stared back at him, hair long and wild as sunlight, smiling.
“Yes, he is.”
“But why…I don’t understand. Why are we here in this land with Merops? Why are we not with my father? Do you not love him?”
His mother’s face told him the truth immediately. There was a great sadness, untold pain at the remark, a wound that had not healed.
“He is my truest love, incomparable to Iapetus, or Merops.”
“Then why are you not with him?”
“Zeus forbade it.”
The mention of the king of the Olympians silenced Phaethon. Now he waited, listened.
“From the realm of my own father, Oceanus, I used to watch Helios drive his team across the sky. I would sing to him from the deep, and from the shore. I would call to him. One day, he stopped and we, for but a few minutes, stared at each other. We knew we loved one another, and every day after that I sang and he stopped, always for an instant. Then, one night while your aunt Selene lashed her blacks across the world, your father came to my shore in a gilded boat. He was dressed all in white.” She smiled. “Even by night he was brilliant and beautiful.”
Clymene roamed about the large room in remembrance, her hand straying to objects now and then as if to ground herself back in reality.
“Beneath the constellations we lay together, and I begot you.”
“What of your then husband?” Phaethon had known that much of the time before Merops, that his mother had been wed to another.
“Iapetus was a Titan, and had other interests than a mere oceanid. I had not seen him for an age, and our sons, your brothers, were all grown.”
“I have brothers?”
“Atlas, Menoetius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus are your half-brothers, yes.”
Phaethon knew their names. “You never told me?”
“Again, Zeus forbade it, and all are bound to obey or bear his wrath.” Clymene touched the fire of a lamp that burned nearby when she said it, remembering her beloved Prometheus. “When you were born, Zeus commanded your father to stay away from us. He knew, by the word of Aphrodite, that your father loved us more than anything, and so he feared for the timely rising and setting of the sun. I was commanded to marry Merops, and banished to this dry place of earth and heat so far from the life-giving sea.”
Phaethon went to his mother’s side at the west-facing window where they both watched the last rays of sun bleed over the edge of the world.
“That’s why I long for the sun, why I’m so different here,” Phaethon said in a low voice.
“Yes. In your heart, you have always known the light, and been drawn to your father’s strength.” She placed her hands on Phaethon’s shoulders. “One thing you can be sure of is that you were never without him in the light of day, for he sees all from his heights, and was surely watching you as he passed.”
“Am I the only child you had by him?”
Clymene hesitated, then turned to the window again.
“No. Your father and I, we disobeyed Zeus and met again. I had to see him one last time. I had to show you to him.” She looked her son in his brilliant, confused eyes. “You have three sisters, Phaethon. They are the Heliades: Phoebe, Merope, and Aetheria. Long have they waited to meet you.”
“Where are they?” Phaethon’s emotions welled fiercely inside. He had felt alone for so long, ignorant of all.
“They linger by the seas, and are charged with the return of your father’s gilded boat when he is not in need of it.”
“They see him?”
“Rarely. They have their purpose as decreed.”
“And I have no purpose!” Phaethon pushed away from her and went to another window where he looked down into the courtyard and saw Niobis and the other boys practicing with sword and spear in the torchlight. “I’ll kill them for their insults,” he muttered.
“No! You shall not. You are no murderer, and Merops has been good to us.”
“A good jailer!”
“No. A good friend and kindly husband. He protected us when no other would have received us beneath their roof for fear of angering Zeus.”
Phaethon turned back to the window, quiet and angry, his mind whirling like the starlit heavens that began to appear in the sky.
Darkness hung heavier on the world that night, it seemed. The stars burned fiercely. The son of Helios suddenly hated the world in which he found himself, in which his mother was imprisoned. The sounds of his step-brothers and sisters out the window annoyed him like the braying of hyenas on the plain. The lake waters beyond the palace smelled stale, and the plains that had once appeared to him green and fresh were now dank, and dark, and soiled.
“Why would Zeus do this to us…to me? He doesn’t even know me.”
Clymene reached out a lithe but shaking hand to her son’s shoulder. He did not pull away this time.
“Zeus rules all the world, and must think of the whole – gods, men, beasts, and those in between. It does not seem fair or just, that is true. Many a night did I cry myself to a sleep of nightmares and loneliness. But…each morning, with the rising of the sun, I would pick you up from your crib, hold you to my breast, and feel the true well of love that existed. You are what has kept me close to my true love. You are a product of that love.”
Phaethon heard the warm words pouring from his mother’s heart, and a measure of guilt crept in upon him. He had not fully listened to her meaning. There was one thought which he then clung to, and would not release.
“I want to go to my father.”
Clymene had been waiting for it, had known he would wish it. She sat down, nodding her head absently. This was the moment she had dreaded in her heart. The time had come to bid her son farewell.
“I cannot stop you. You are a man now, and able to roam this earth as you will.”
“Come with me.” A small remnant of the naive boy asked. “Be with Father.” He said it as if it was so simple a matter.
“If I were to go, I would be defying Zeus who forbade me to ever see your father again. Were I caught, and I would be, I would be chained in the darkest depths of Tartarus, never to see you or feel you father’s light upon my face again.”
“There were no such laws placed upon you. All that was commanded was that you would be reared here, away from your father. And now you are a man, and free to go.”
Sad rivulets ran from Clymene’s eyes. Oceanids had ever been full of emotion, storm-tossed.
Phaethon could see her struggling to right herself and he held both her hands in his.
“I would go, Mother, though it crushes me to leave you in this place.”
Silence hung between them for several heartbeats.
“How do I get there? I mean…where will I find him?”
“Your father dwells in the Palace of the Sun, far, far to the east, beyond the world’s edge. Few ever go there or find it.”
“Then how will I?”
Clymene’s eyes strayed to the medallion about his neck.
“That is your key, your guide. Your sisters will take you to the other side of the world in the gilded boat, and with the medallion of the sun, his palace shall appear to you.”
“Appear? Is it a magical place?”
“It is god-made, the home of the Sun.”
“And my sisters? Where do I find them?”
“You will need to travel to the sea east of here. Wait upon the shore while holding the medallion and they will come to you.”
Phaethon stood up and paced excitedly, scarcely able to contain the new-found life and hope that burned within his veins.
“There is one thing you must do for me, Phaethon, before you go to your father.” She stood now, determined, emboldened by his own fervour.
“I wish for you to go to your half-brother, Prometheus, high in the Caucasus.”
“What shall I say to him?”
“After yourself, he is one of my most beloved.” Clymene stared into dark memories then, to a time when Zeus had meted out punishment to her sons by Iapetus – Atlas holding up the heavens, and Prometheus chained at the top of the world while the others went down into darkness. “Tell him I love him, and forever shall. That I am proud of him, for what he did to champion men. Tell him that I think of him every day, and hope that my prayers somewhat ease his suffering.”
“But how do I get to the top of the world? Where is the Caucasus?”
She had forgotten that Phaethon’s only world had ever been the one of Merops’ palace, and the plain beyond. To be released from imprisonment would be daunting in itself, a terrifying event.
“You must go north before you go east. Your sisters know the way.” Clymene went to a carved cupboard and removed another box decorated with a relief of Olympus. “Give this to Prometheus for me.”
“What’s in it?” Phaethon opened the lid to see two gold, covered bowls, and a small phial. “It smells wonderful, sweet.”
“The bowls contain ambrosia and nectar. They will give him strength for a long time.”
“And the phial?”
“An alternative to his imprisonment.” Clymene looked down and then directly at Phaethon. “You must not touch the phial, for any reason.”
He looked at it and closed the lid, wary. “Very well.”
There was little else to say. How does one express a whole sea of emotion in a few days, hours, or even minutes. Clymene threw her arms about him, tried to breathe him in, remember how it felt to hold her dearest son.
“I’m afraid,” she whispered.
“I must see him, meet him. If I do not, I shall never rest or be able to gaze upon the sun again for fear of the pain in my heart. I’ll never fit in here, Mother.”
She stood back and looked upon him. He was a man, handsome, strong, a descendant of gods. Such were not meant to be chained.
“You are right. You must go if your heart tells you. Remember, the world is not always kind, even to gods. Listen to your sisters and they will get you where you need to go. When you travel with them, time speeds itself, and so you will be able to cover great distances. Take all that you need from the palace stores – food, weapons. I will speak with Merops.”
“I love you, Mother. I will come to you before I leave tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” she began to protest, but stopped herself. “Yes. Tomorrow. Please do come to see me.”
Phaethon hugged her again, kissed her hand, and left her rooms with the carved box beneath his arm.
When he was gone, Clymene lay down upon her bed and cried herself to sleep as she had not done for an age.
“Will you miss me?” the girl, Anthi, asked as she and Phaethon lay naked together in his room.
“Of course I will,” he answered, his fingers tracing the swell of her breasts, and the curve of her hips. “I shall think on you always.” It sounded hollow to him and her resigned sigh confirmed it. However, she was the only girl he had ever known. She possessed a small part of him, but he found it difficult to imagine missing the girl whom he had first kissed and made love to. All he could think of, as he gazed from her naked body to the collection of his things in the corner of the room, was his long journey on the morrow to the top of the world and beyond, to the Palace of the Sun where he would finally meet his father.
“I love you, Phaethon,” Anthi whispered, her tears falling on his chest.
He held her tight, silent in the dying lamplight.
When next Anthi awoke, Phaethon was gone.
As the sun rose the next morning, Phaethon was already making his way across the plain toward the sea. He walked quickly, eager to meet his sisters, eager to get away from Merops’ palace.
He had seen King Merops that morning, and the truth was that the king had been kindly toward him. He always had been. When Phaethon told him he was leaving, Merops placed a thick hand upon his shoulder.
“I wish you well on your journey to see your father, Phaethon. Though you are not my own, it has been a pleasure seeing you grow into a man. Take whatever you need from the palace for your journey, and if your path ever leads you back this way, your mother and I shall bless the day.”
“Thank you, sire. Please…take care of my mother for me.”
“Never fear, Phaethon. For she is dear to me, though I know her heart has never been mine.”
The king looked sad then. He turned, beckoning all his own children. They followed without another word. Only Teros lingered a moment, his glassy eyes taking one last look at Phaethon.
When he was alone with Clymene, Phaethon embraced her and hoisted his satchel and spears.
“You have the medallion and box?” she asked.
“Go then, with my love, my son. The sun is rising, and you must rush to meet it.”
And that had been it. Phaethon had gathered his things and left by the large wooden gates of the palace. He had glanced back only once to see Clymene’s dark outline upon the parapet of the palace gatehouse.
Ahead, the dirt road was flanked by the green grass of the plain, and as the sun rose higher and higher, antelope, buffalo, zebras, and other beasts ranged all about him.