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  • Writer's picturesamuel butchart

Pillars of Heracles

One rainy summer afternoon in 1998, me and a boy who lived down the street were throwing mud at each other inside the skeleton of a nearby building site. The battle had been raging on for what felt like months, and things had gotten personal. We were Achilles and Hector, locked in a ferocious struggle for life and for death. The boy was younger than me, but he was strong, swift-footed and cunning, It was all I could do to keep pace with him.

The climax of our bitter feud arrived at sunset. The rain was beating down on the arena, which had become an obstacle course of cascades, water jets and flashfloods. The uneven floor was bestrewed with a thousand fallen objects — daggers, spears, shields, arrow heads — the detritus of many months of war and acrimony. The darkness was so thick it was hard to know what was real and what was shadow. But I could tell my adversary was close.

Sure enough the boy emerged from the sodden twilight, stalking me like a jungle cat, weaving his way through the framework of the unfinished house. We came face to face in a clearing (the living room). After an obligatory stare down, the boy advanced, first at a cautious pace, then all of a sudden broke into a sprint, raised his fist and hurled a lump of mud in my face.

The most humiliating thing was that I saw it coming, I watched it coming, but for some reason just stood there rooted to the ground like a stone. It was as if I had no choice in the matter, as if long ago it had been ordained that I should succumb to this final, crippling blow.

I squawked like a dog and ran up the street to tell on the boy to my dad. As I stood sniffling and hiccupping before him, he listened silently, then struggled out of his chair and went outside. There in the front garden he encountered my assailant, the boy, who had followed me home to say sorry. I stood behind my dad, hiding in the doorway — the tears had carved a network of rivulets through the mud on my cheeks.

"If you ever touch my son again I'll beat the shit out of you."

His voice, like an earthquake, seemed to run up and down the road, rattle every gate, thump every door of every house in the street. The boy, wide-eyed and wide-eared with panic, swung his bike around and pedalled furiously down the street to tell on me to his dad. My dad watched him go, then passed me without a word and went back inside to his chair. My dad wasn't feeling well lately. I think he would have beat the shit out of that boy if he could have. But if he could have he wouldn't have. Do you know what I mean? Therefore I didn’t feel sorry for the boy.

I was in awe of my father. At this point during my boyhood I had discovered Greek mythology, and had quickly arrived at the conclusion that my father was Poseidon. Lord of the Deep. The Great Shaker of Earth. I was in awe of my father, scared of him, and excited by the fear, in the same way that I was by the ocean over which he reigned. He used to drag me out into the surf at low-tide, really far, away from my mother, and the entire world.

‘I don’t want to go any further!’ I would squeak ineffectually over the roar of the breakers.

I was afraid we would never make it back, that if we went too far we would pass beyond the Pillars of Heracles, touch the sky, and with nothing to hold on to but each other, fall away into the black heart of the cosmos.

Soon enough I understood that my father was not Poseidon. He wasn’t any of the Olympians. He wasn't even a demigod. My father was only a mortal man, and he had no right to eternal life, and I had no right to it either.

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