Once Heracles awoke drenched in sweat. Night sweats were not unusual in the lives of heroes back then, given all they had to sleep off on a daily basis. Feats of brawn and endurance were already a strain on the body, to say nothing of the added demands of living up to the expectations that came with bearing a famous name. At times, the stress of being constantly in the public spotlight could drive one deep into oneself for refuge, a sanctuary dense and green yet never free of vague shadows slipping along the edges. The tension of being on the alert against these phantoms of the mind still gripped one long after the nerves and muscles of the body had relaxed. And dreams only made things worse. Especially recurrent ones like the nightmare that left Heracles drained and gasping for breath again now. He laid an arm across his wet forehead, causing beads of sweat to trickle down over his closed eyes, down over his cheeks and into the creases of his neck, then onto the sheets, long since fused to his back like a skin of clammy dread. No matter how tightly he clenched his eyes, the nightmare continued to repeat itself against the back of their burning lids. It was the same every time: he and the giant Antaeus locked together to the death in a wrestling match where death never came for either of them. Heracles was certain he’d dispatched Antaeus long ago, but with each return of the dream, he had to learn as if for the first time the secret that allowed the giant to bounce back whenever he was thrown to his mother earth, revived by her embrace and twice as fierce. And always, when he finally understood that holding his foe in the air was the way to squeeze the life out of him, the dream would take the same turn and Heracles, looking up into the agonized face, would suddenly see in it a reflection of his own. It was all he could do to keep from dropping the giant in terror. Only the certainty that to loosen his grasp would mean prolonging the duel as Antaeus regained his power and he lost more of his own kept Heracles struggling to maintain an advantage so hard won. With every tightening of his clasp, however, the tortured grimace above him became more unmistakably his own. The bulging eyes his, the writhing jaw muscles, the mouth stretched wide and sucking at the air, all of them his. And with the whole of his strength locked in the death-hug he had on his foe, he couldn’t turn away to either left or right, himself caught in the arms of the nightmare’s greater force. Worst was the fear that his trusted might had served only to pinion him between victory and defeat, with neither one a possible release. Would the death of Antaeus not also be his own, while loss to the earth-born giant be a failure to master himself? This recurrent stalemate was what left Heracles exhausted and covered in sweat. Shouldn’t a fatal contest have an end? Yet the summons of his foe’s recurrent taunts was all he could imagine nights to come would bring, along with the iron necessity to answer them. His breath as he lay waiting for dawn had a scummy staleness, as though life had clotted within him. Whatever measure of his strength was left might only be enough, not to hoist Antaeus aloft one more time but merely to steady himself against collapse and a falling back into the nightmare’s full horror. As there always, holding him fast in its unyielding challenge, was the vision of a face in extremis, in pain he’d never thought possible.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans