The Beggar and the Owl
“This is all your own fault, you know,” said the owl.
The beggar had been steadfastly ignoring his avian goad for the last hour, but this was too much to be borne. “I see,” he said. “So I whipped up that magic gateway myself, did I? Stripped myself of my powers? Pray tell, where do you think I might have hidden them? I’d rather like them back.”
The breeze had turned cold during the morning, and it cut cruelly through the threadbare cast-offs that this ridiculous mortal body was wrapped in. He had asked several passers-by for their jackets, rather politely he had thought, but nobody was playing. It had been a good five hundred years since he had last been fully mortal, and he wasn’t used to discomfort.
“What are you hoping to achieve?” The owl swooped by him, so close he could almost have reached out and grabbed it, but he wasn’t falling for that lure again. It alighted in the branches of one of the elms that lined the river, its brilliant white feathers standing out stark against the russet autumn leaves. “Just apologise to her. You know it’s what she wants. She’s not about to relent just because you’re too proud to talk to her.”
“Apologise?” The de-powered God snorted in derision. “I’m the King of Olympus. I don’t have to ask bloody Hera for permission and I’m not about to apologise for having a bit of fun!”
The owl ruffled its feathers, giving a remarkably accurate facsimile of a shrug. “You may be the King of Olympus but you’re also a homeless beggar and it will be night soon. I don’t want to see you suffer.” When the old beggar tightened his lips and kept walking, the owl changed tack. “She gets upset when you have your ‘bits of fun’. There’s been a dozen this year alone. What was the latest – that Spaniard?”
“Alberto,” said the beggar. “He was a sculptor. I showed him a few things about the male form.” He smiled at the recollection.
“I’ll say you did,” said the owl. “If you’re that tired of Hera, why not just leave her? If you must dally with mortals, why do you have to keep rubbing her nose in it? You might even be free to marry again.”
“Never,” snorted the beggar. “One three-hundred year wedding night is enough for one existence. No, I’m not looking for another wife.” His steps paused for a second. “Hera doesn’t get free of me that easily.”
“You still love her,” mused the owl.
“Nonsense! It’s just… I like being comfortable.”
Their perambulations were taking them past a street mime. The owl left his side for a moment, perching high above the sparse cluster of the audience on a street lamp. A barely visible wave of force that nobody human could see, and suddenly the mime was accompanied by a voice, clearly enunciating in the cold air. “If I climb this ladder, I can see over the wall. Now what…”
The mime froze, hands raised on an invisible sill, and his head whipped around as he tried to find the joker. The audience looked on bemused, and the mime, disconcerted, went on with the act.
“…what do I see? Ah, there’s a door on the other…”
The mime broke character, glaring furiously, but the owl had departed, swooping back to the beggar’s side.
“That was petty,” he said. “You’ve grown more malicious as you’ve gotten older.”
“I hate mimes,” said the owl. “Where were we? No, more to the point: where are we? Where are you going?”
“I’m still looking for that girl,” the beggar growled. “I might as well have something to show for all this. She can’t escape me – even mortal, I’ll sense her.”
“That girl?” The owl’s voice lilted with amusement. “You mean this girl?”
Suddenly, for a moment, the owl was gone, in her place a young brunette in a stereotypical maid’s outfit – garters and all. “Does anybody really dress like that, these days?” the girl asked merrily. Then she was gone, and the owl sat on a post, blinking inscrutably at him.
“You! That was you!” the beggar roared, stating the bleeding obvious. One wrinkled hand lashed out, crooked finger pointing in the owl’s direction. If he’d been in full possession of his faculties, the owl would no doubt have felt a right smiting, but Hera had stolen his thunder and he was left huffing impotently. “When this is over, you’ll pay for this,” he said, voice low with fury.
The owl shrugged again. “Don’t blame me, this wasn’t my idea. I wasn’t the crone and I didn’t set up that gateway. I just did Hera a bit of a favour; you’re the one that followed me.”
“Well, can you blame me? That little dress was irresistible.”
Their random peregrinations had brought them somewhere recognisable. The beggar continued without pause to the gateway marked Parc Zoologique de Paris. Here the peculiar invisibility that afflicts the indigent worked to his advantage; nobody sought to bar him entry or to ask him to pay, perhaps feeling that the former would be cruel and the latter futile. The owl swooped through the turnstile after him, likewise unimpeded.
“Look at you,” said the owl. “Are you looking to take shelter from the night in the monkey house? Have you truly sunk so low?”
“No,” said the beggar, pausing by an artificial lagoon. “I’ve come to pay my respects to a colleague.”
“A colleague?” asked the owl, the slightest tinge of unease in her voice, but then the water exploded, a geyser of fury, and engulfed her. Then the water coalesced into the form of a giant crocodile – and the owl found herself trapped inside a cage made of ivory.
“Athena, I’d like you to meet Suchos,” said the beggar. “I’ve had him trapped here for the last four hundred years since he transgressed one of the Precepts. He’s just awaiting my command and his power will be restored to him.”
“Father? Don’t do this,” said the owl, suddenly frightened. “You know Hera, I couldn’t very well say no to her.”
“I’ll grant you that,” said the beggar. “But now I’ll have my powers back. Suchos, in two minutes from now, your debt is paid; you will be free. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
The crocodile didn’t answer, but that might have been because he had his mouth full and he was trying to be polite.
“My dear, do you remember how you came into being? They had to chisel you out of my head,” said the beggar. “In two minutes, it looks like they’ll have to chisel you out of Suchos’ stomach.”
The owl beat her wings against the toothy barrier but Suchos was still a god, and impervious to her talons. When a crocodile grins, it can’t be denied, and Suchos was obviously having a fine time.
“Very well!” the owl screeched. “There! You’re restored! Tell him to let me go!”
“Let her go,” said Zeus, and Suchos reluctantly opened his cavernous jaws. The owl flew out and immediately out of his reach, perching high atop the enclosure fence.
“That was cruel,” said the owl.
“Effective, though,” said Zeus, shedding the beggar’s form effortlessly, suddenly resplendent in golden armour. “Suchos, your debt is paid. Be a good lad. Next time I’ll have to trap you somewhere truly unpleasant; maybe a croc farm in Malaysia.”
“You’ll have to catch me first,” said the crocodile as it disappeared. A second later there was a loud pop as the space where Zeus had stood filled with air; the few remaining visitors to the park glanced around them in confusion, but of beggar, owl or crocodile there was no sign.
The halls of Olympus were hushed as Zeus strode through them. The rest of the pantheon must have been watching, but none had deigned to help him. He couldn’t entirely blame them, he supposed; Hera’s wrath was a fearsome thing when roused. But that didn’t mollify him; somebody would have to pay for this outrage.
The throne hall’s golden doors split asunder under the force of his rage as he entered, but then he froze on the verge, startled. Before him stood a young brunette girl, dressed in a french maid’s outfit. The garters were a lovely touch.
“I’ve been looking forward to you getting home,” said Hera slyly.
Slowly, Zeus smiled.
Written in response to 13th Floor Paradigm Mythology Workshop: http://13thfloorparadigm.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/mythology-workshop-1/
I received a prompt as follows:
Zeus is lost in Paris.The only other being that pays attention to him is an annoying talking owl that keeps following him.