Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 58
Stories
Oba Oyinbo
by Jonathan Edelstein
The Best of the Three
by Camila Fernandes
The Kids in Town
by David Williams
In the Woods, My Voice
by Rati Mehrotra
IGMS Audio
In the Woods, My Voice
Read by Alethea Kontis
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
The Shoulders of Giants
by Robert J. Sawyer

Brazilian Contest Winner


The Best of the Three
    by Camila Fernandes

The Best of the Three
Artwork by Michael Wolmarans

Right after he was born, it became evident that he was intelligent and strong: he nimbly crawled to his mother's teats and hung there, sucking. It wasn't that, however, that set him apart from the other dogs. They were also smart, capable of understanding what the humans said. But they almost always gave the opposite impression. That's because most of the problems between human beings and canines come from errors of interpretation. First, mankind doesn't understand what the dog says, even though the dog says a lot: with its tail, its eyes, the angle of its body, and its voice, although without words. And a dog can even understand when a man asks it to stop barking, but argues in return that it has good reason to do this--by barking, of course. Other dogs might think that the shout or abrupt gesture of its owner are just part of the game, and persist in the error. Yet others hear the kindly words of the man, but, because they have already suffered so many misunderstandings, they no longer believe them. And they growl, and bite, and flee.

In short, he was born intelligent and strong. But that wasn't what separated him from the other dogs.

The difference was that he had three heads.

As soon as his mother's licks freed him from the placenta, the three heads stuck themselves to three teats and sucked voraciously. They found no competition. The litter's other two pups came out stillborn. Noting this, the bitch gave them a fitting end, sending them back into her body, bite by bite.

The man didn't mind her eating the dead puppies. What bothered him were the extra two heads for a single living pup.

"He killed the others in the womb," said his wife, "to have the mother to himself."

"Don't talk nonsense, woman. Dogs are born dead just as often as children or goats. This dog was born for the gods. We should give it to them."

Everyone knew what that meant. When a baby was disowned by the father or unwanted by the mother, it also was given to the gods. It was taken to the woods and exposed to the sun, wind, and beasts, and could survive only by divine grace. Since the gods had strange and fickle desires, it wasn't prudent to question them, just to abide by them.

So, on the next quarter moon, the man wrapped the dog in an old rag, like a baby, and walked outside the village, until he arrived at the entrance to a cavern. There, he deposited the bundle, knelt on the ground, made a silent prayer, and left.

The dog remained there the entire day, sleeping. A long time later, he awoke and, although his six eyes were not yet open, noted the absence of his mother's heat and cried like only dogs can. It was in vain, because no one came, and the little dog, weak and tired, prepared to die.

The sun's chariot dove slowly in the sky when the cave's ground grinded and roared and opened inward, crinkling down like a flower of stone petals. From the rift emerged a man. Behind him, a woman.

"Another one?" he grumbled in an echoing voice. "Someone needs to advise these people that we don't need any more rejected children down below. Do you think they'll understand if I send an earthquake?"

The woman chose not to listen. She passed by him like a cloud and went to the bundle at the cavern's mouth. He amended:

"If it's already dead, have it taken to the mothers who died in childbirth. In their opinion, there's always space for one more."

"You are mistaken, husband," she said, happily. "This reject is alive and unlike any other I've seen."

She carefully took the dog in her arms. And the animal, feeling the heat and the presence and the voices around him, whined once, and twice, and two of his six eyes opened with great effort--those of the middle head. And the first thing he saw was the face of a goddess.

Although, of course, he didn't know it. To him, that was a mother's embrace.

This childless mother was, by nature, incapable of not being generous. Daughter of the harvest goddess, everything in her desired and did and aimed at good and plenty. She didn't even wait for her husband's opinion before saying:

"This is a present for me and for you. For me, a companion; for you, a guard. Who would protect our home better than a three-headed dog?"

"One with fifty heads? I can easily arrange one."

She discarded the suggestion with a gesture from her white hand, which jingled with rings and bracelets.

"Leave at least a nugget of gold for whomever brought it to us, all right?"

"Since when do I pay for the scraps that men leave at my door?" the husband huffed like a bull.

"Hades."

She said the name like a curse and looked at him like a mother looks at an impertinent child. And although she was just a woman, she was young and beautiful and kind to the extreme; and although she was just his wife, she was also his only friend and counsellor, and he could barely breathe in her absence. She could, therefore, demand of him the very least of generosity. He was the owner of the riches from the Earth's womb, of gold and silver and precious gems, and not a single trickle of water sprang from the Earth without his permission. He had the power; she, the right to use it.

So Hades, Lord of the Underworld, sighing, brought forth from the gray stone the shine of gold, and followed Persephone back to the boat, carrying in her arms that awkward, senseless thing with three identical heads.

Below the earth, he was nourished by the mothers who had died in childbirth, whose children grew up in the world without them, and whose breasts weighed with unconsumed milk. Below the earth, three pairs of eyes opened and three noses sniffed and six ears captured the lamentations of the dead, the constant hubbub and even laughing and singing of those who had been happy in life. For that was Hades, the Earth's bosom, where all those who die must gather.

Death, however, wasn't itself a bad thing. To the contrary, it seemed appropriate, since the destiny of each one there was a mirror of what they had forged in the land of the living. The souls who had wounded in life, there were wounded; those that had done good, received good; and those that passed through the Earth without making any difference, could wander there in the same apathy, the same absence of love or hate. Although they had come to call it hell, death's hidden world was neither ugly nor beautiful; it was just.

When the dog descended to that land in the arms of a goddess, she took a seat at her husband's side in a straight, keen boat, which cut through the black waters of an underground river, illuminated only by the lantern on the boat's bow. It was rowed by an ancient one whose face was hidden by a hood: eyes without vigor, mouth without voice--a shadow.

On the other side lay an arid, rocky plain, inhabited by leafless trees and cut by a path that split in three. Three paths for three heads; it was there, of course, that he would stay. It would be his guard post, although there was little to guard. He would have the liberty to walk and run and sniff where he wanted in that vast world under the world.

But first, he was nourished by the dead mothers, played with the souls of deceased children, ate the meat of lost animals, received affection from the goddess and orders from the god. He learned to listen attentively and growl in threat and attack when necessary. He became what he was born to become: an infernal hound. And he earned a name, Cerberus, and even a false history--since Hermes, the messenger god, who liked truth and lies in equal measure, took it upon himself to spread the story that the kingdom of Hades now contained a three-headed beast with teeth like daggers, the hideous offspring of indescribable monsters that even he had never met.

He learned there that the dead were no less complex than the living. They were voluble, short-tempered shadows, loving and bitter in equal measure. They yelled and hollered as easily as they caressed and spoke with affection. They were like that with each other and even more so with him--perhaps for thinking that he didn't understand them. Perhaps for thinking that he wouldn't remember anything the next day. Perhaps for thinking that a simple dog, after all, didn't think.

Thus, the same children that ran and played with him through the subterranean fields also threw stones at him, since, when bored, they believed they had the right to be cruel. Then, when Persephone appeared, all she saw was her adorable little dog, mad with rage, snapping at the poor, orphan souls with his three mouths, shaking and rending and strewing pieces of shadow through the fields, and the dead children running and screaming and dying once again, as if that were possible.

Persephone cried. Queen in her black throne at Hades's side, she loved every one of the dead souls like the children her womb couldn't produce. And she loved Cerberus also, but he couldn't do more than bark in his own defense. Hades had to implore the Fates to use their life threads to stich the tiny dead that the dog had torn, and to a God, begging is the greatest humiliation. Furthermore, he had to send the little souls to bathe in the Lethe's waters--the river of forgetfulness--too soon, so as not to carry into their next lives the pain suffered in death. There was no precedent for this case. The king of the underworld thought it best to keep the uncontrollable beast away from the spirits. Dead or not, they were his people. And Persephone cried, and her cry was more painful than the lamentations of any of the recently-arrived deceased.

But in the end, she agreed. She herself, with her small hands, put a collar on each of the dog's necks, and on each collar a chain, attached to a larger one. Cerberus, who loved each of her movements, didn't try to stop her. He wagged his tail with the vigor of three dogs and went with her, tongues happily swinging from three mouths. He followed her to the Boatman, who took them by the same river they had crossed before, and left them on the other side, separated from the gray plain, from Tartarus, from the Elysium Fields and all the rest. But only Cerberus remained there, the heavy chain fixed to the rocky ground. Persephone returned with the Boatman, and she remained just as silent as he. The dog wagged his tail and barked once, then again. He barked several times. Then he howled. He whined. But his goddess--his mistress, his mother--didn't return.

He didn't mean to shred the children's souls. At least, not entirely. They had provoked him, true. But he could have just gone away.

That was the will of one of his heads. Not all of them, however, and not the one that had prevailed.

Cerberus was now an immense creature. He had been huge at birth, heavy like a human baby, and far from the sun and air and smells of life, he had grown like only a freak could grow. His size rivaled that of any horse. The toothy mouths would have frightened the Nemean Lion. The compact heads, with black eyes, wide jaws and pointy ears, were identical in every way, except for one detail: they didn't think the same way.

Since he had learned to walk and run and bark, Cerberus had perceived this. His three heads had perceived it, but only one seemed to care. The middle head looked sideways at the other two and tried to understand them, at times dominate them, but didn't always succeed. The head to its right was grieved and reckless. It was responsible for every time he rolled on the ground, offering his belly to the friendly touch of strangers. Anxious for attention, it would shrink in fear at the slightest provocation and, terrified by threats, wouldn't think--it attacked. The one to the left was valiant and impulsive. Because of it, Cerberus would leap and grapple with anything that passed, running like a hare. It yearned to fight, snarled in anger at the slightest provocation, and, when threatened, didn't think--it attacked.

Only the middle head sought to evaluate each situation with caution. It was the one that heard, understood, analyzed. But it was just one. Between the fear and rage of the others, its will rarely mattered. It was the best of the three, but it was alone. And now, because of the others, it was condemned to live in the kingdom of the dead, but far even from them, isolated on the deserted margin of the Acheron River.

Then came the hero.

An enormous man, so covered in muscle that his arms looked like tree trunks and his chest a wall, marched to the borders of the underworld. He had a lion skin over his shoulders, a savage beard on his face, and a club in one hand. The club was the size of a small tree, but the man carried it as if it didn't weigh more than a flower.

Cerberus, being the solitary guard of that path, growled with his three mouths. But the man just squinted at him, advanced, and gave the Boatman an obol for passage. The old Boatman looked at him without understanding; after all, it was evident that the man was still alive. Why would he seek out the kingdom of the dead? The stranger, seeing his mute confusion, just said:

"I come to speak with your master. I'm Heracles."

It took an entire day for them to send for Cerberus. After all, the kingdom was immense and, if the man intended to speak with Hades, he would have to cross the many plains before arriving at the god's palace.

What had been said there, Cerberus didn't know. He only knew that his three heads yelped in pure happiness when he saw Persephone herself cross the Acheron once again to get him. The smart middle head managed to control the impulse of the others to jump on her; instead, it threw the immense body to the ground and offered his belly to the goddess, who caressed it with pleasure, although there was a sad silence in her gaze.

At the side of his mistress and the Boatman, the infernal dog passed back to the inhabited side of the river. He was taken to the palace of the underworld gods. He could barely believe his luck at once again passing through the black marble gates, as he had eras before. When he arrived at the main hall, Hades was in his throne, black and imposing, as if presiding over a judgement. But the jury wasn't there. And that Heracles stood before him, like a supplicant, and turned when Persephone entered with Cerberus, and gave the dog a strange look. A foe's look.

Then, he turned again to the god of the underworld and said:

"As I said before, Lord Hades, I'm here because I must atone for my crimes."

"And your form of atonement is committing other crimes in service of a stupid, spoiled king?"

Hades wasn't pleased. Although justice always spoke louder than fury in his decisions, he was clearly unhappy with the presence of that living man, son of god and woman, whom he could neither expel from there nor throw to the hordes of dead. The man in the lion skin was, after all, his nephew--although he wasn't different, as far as he could see, from the innumerous other fools Zeus had conceived in his lusty trysts. Yet another one who impressed nobody.

But Heracles responded without wavering:

"My penitence is to serve Eurystheus, and his order is my law."

"The law of a common man is worth nothing in my land. But don't let it be said among mortals that I am not just. I will do your will if you do mine: you may take the dog only if you can subdue it without killing it, and without using any weapon."

Cerberus's opinion, of course, wasn't requested, since dogs don't have the right to an opinion, not even those with three heads. Persephone also didn't offer hers. The dog watched her hopefully, but she forbid nothing. Perhaps she didn't believe the pretentious hero capable of beating him. Maybe she didn't have enough will left to argue. Or maybe she didn't care.

As for Hades, he simple ordered, "Cerberus, attack!"

And the animal, as always, obeyed.

On that same day, on the bank of the Acheron, the goddess handed over the infernal dog's chains to the son of Zeus.

The fight had been horrific. But short. Heracles had rid himself of the club and even of the lion's skin, which, for its invulnerability, was also a type of weapon. With that, he had received a powerful bite from Cerberus, whose right head had clamped down over his entire right shoulder. But the man freed himself from the bite, which would have ripped the arm off of any other, with an avalanche of punches. His fist knocked the dog to the ground. When the middle head held back and the left advanced, Heracles pounded that one as well, knocking out its teeth. His other arm bled abundantly, but the man, taken over by the insane fury that was his reputation, didn't appear to notice. He didn't stop punching until he realized that the dog no longer reacted, at which point he stopped, afraid, fearing he had killed it. Not only had Eurystheus demanded it alive, Hades also had every right to revenge himself if the so-called hero broke their agreement.

But Cerberus lived. The two lateral heads hung limp, as if dead, and perhaps they were. But the middle head made the body lift itself. He stood, ears low, tail between his legs, and attacked no more. He was tired of feeling pain.

If Persephone could kill a man with a simple glance, the way she looked at Heracles would have done it. But she couldn't, so she simply handed over the chains to the hero. And Cerberus followed him like a good dog follows its master.

Eurystheus was king of the great city of Mycenae and, therefore, a powerful man. But he suffered from nerves. When Heracles took Cerberus to the king's palace, Eurystheus hid himself in an immense, bronze jar and refused to leave. Cerberus felt pity for the man and would have licked his face as a sign of friendship, showing that he was no rabid beast, if he could. Eurystheus, however, had been overcome by an uncontrollable fright upon seeing in his hall that bull-sized dog, with three enormous heads--although two of them hung foolishly, useless, looking at nothing. They made his appearance even more frightening.

The king didn't want to see the dog a second time.

"Get that terror out of here!" he screamed from inside the jar.

"I did what you ordered," objected Heracles. "The dog of Hades is now yours."

"I don't want it. Take it back, throw it from a cliff, do as you wish. . . just get it out of here!"

The hero gave a counterfeit snort. Even Cerberus could tell, then, that there was no love between the king and the brute. And he, the dog, was once again being rejected. He'd been dragged there over land and sea, and now the one who had wanted him, wanted him no more. It had been that way with his first family, with Persephone, with Hades, with the shadows of the underworld. It was too painful for his canine heart. He whined, but Heracles didn't look at him. He just said to Eurystheus:

"My task was to bring it to my king. That should have been my last task. Now you want me to take it back? Is that a new task? I hope it's the last."

"Whatever, whatever!" bellowed the king, his voice muffled by the bronze. "I free you from your obligations. Just get out of here with that terror and never return!"

Heracles showed nothing at the time, but, upon leaving the palace, laughed and punched the air with a happiness that only the truly victorious can express.

"Free!" he shouted to all and none. "I'm free, ugly cur!" he added, this time looking at the dog.

And the hero burst out into a long tale of dangerous tests and impossible tasks that the king had obliged him to perform, to atone for such and such crimes. But Cerberus didn't pay attention. That was just the story of a man, and stories of men didn't interest him. He felt grateful for the attention, for looking into his eyes, but Heracles's agonies mattered little to him. What he wanted to know was what the brute would do with him, now that they were both free. So, he sat on his hindquarters and waited. He wagged his tail from time to time, listening with at least two of his six ears, while the others hung as useless at the heads that carried them, until the son of Zeus tired of jabbering and stammered, as one confused:

"I have to send you back, I think."

Cerberus barked with glee. The agitated tail struck the ground with force, spraying dirt and small rocks.

Heracles pulled the chain that still held the three heads of the beast, which followed him loyally. But they didn't take the path from which they had come. After all, they had passed over rivers and roads, cities and fields, in order to arrive there; the trip had been costly, tiring, unpleasant. And the man didn't intend to repeat it. Instead, he left the city and set course through the fields, toward the nearest woods. There, he examined the dog, analyzing its semi-dead appearance, and said:

"That head there is the best of the three, isn't it? To me, it seems like the other two are already dead. Well, have a good trip!"

And, brandishing the immense club over himself, dealt a blow to the middle head.

Cerberus's body plunged to the ground and there it stayed, inanimate. So as to not attract scavenging beasts, Heracles burned it. The smoke and smell of burning flesh rose to the skies like a prayer. But the soul--the tripartite soul of the infernal dog--took another path. It descended through rock and mineral, in the darkness and the cold, toward the deep Acheron, to the gloomy world. And his three shadow heads, now for the first time, thought as one and salivated, assuring one another:

"We're going home!"


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