Translated by David Schwab
Greek mythology tells of Sisyphus, the first king of Corinth. Having seen his cruelty and trickery, the gods condemned him to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill; but before he could reach the top of the hill, the rock would always roll back down, forcing him to begin all over again. Referring to this legend, the American Heritage Dictionary defines the word “sisyphean” as “endless and unavailing, as labor or a task”. This is how his story is commonly understood. But here is a different take on Sisyphus’ legend…
I rolled the stone up the hill, straining my shoulders and arms against it with all my might, urging it along with my back. The rock had torn my skin; scratches lined my arms; my eyes were stinging from acrid sweat. Suddenly I heard a sweet voice:
A young woman was walking across the slope. She held a water jug on her head with one of her pretty arms; in her other arm she carried a small basket. Her olive-skinned body showed through light tunic. She smiled at me with her lips, but it was the look in her eyes that captivated me.
I stopped, leaning against the stone. My royal purple mantle was in tatters, and my legs trembled from the strain. I was as dirty and wild-looking as the lowliest of vagrants.
The woman came nearer and our eyes met. My mouth turned dry, and my heart began beating faster.
“Sisyphus,” she said in a melodious voice, “you can’t always be lugging around that horrible stone! What’s this crazy whim that you’ve gotten into your head? Sure, kings can do what they please, but you’ve taken it too far… Now that you’re gone, there aren’t any more strong and handsome men left. No more like you, I mean. You have a certain something, aside from just muscles, you know it yourself…”
“I know,” I answered with a voice that had suddenly gone hoarse, “but the gods commanded me to do this.”
I wedged a chunk of wood under the stone with my foot and carefully stepped away. Pain stung my chest as I rolled my numbed shoulders.
“Sit down, relax,” the woman said softly.
Before, I used to take a great pleasure in looking at women with bright eyes like hers. They were not very common, but, in the end, even they turned out to be just women, nothing more. This one was even more plain, barely taller than a shrub; but she was a woman, after all. And women were a rarity on this hill, so I sat down next to her.
The intoxicating scent of wine wafted from the jug, and the basket was filled to the brim with bread rolls, cheese, and fried meat. She told me that her parents worked in the fields, despite their noble lineage, and she was bringing them lunch.
“Thank you,” I said. “You’re a worthy, devoted daughter.”
The wine, even though the meat balanced it somewhat, hit me in the head from the very first sips and made my thoughts run quick and shallow.
“Why did the gods order you to drag around a rock?” she asked.
“As punishment. For living the way I did.”
“And how did you live?” she asked with surprise. “Was it really that bad?”
“Yes, it was bad. You don’t have to be human to live like I did.”
“But how did they tell you this?”
“How? How do you hear the will of the gods? Suddenly the pain in your heart wakes you up at night. You feel a terrible anguish, a sense of anxiety that you’re living all wrong, you hear a terrible scream inside. Then you hear a thunderous voice, commanding…”
“What?” she interrupted. “Commanding what?”
“The voice of the gods is mysterious. They speak their own language… We can only struggle to grasp what we can from the bits we get to hear… How did they command the people of Kemet to raise the pyramids? It had nothing to do with tombs… Those pyramids were their stone to roll to the top of their hill. Well, maybe not quite to the very top, but still they carried out the will of the gods; they did what was truly human when they renounced the lives of worms and condemned themselves to drag up stones…”
She didn’t understand, so she asked:
“But why exactly did you decide to push a stone?”
“I don’t know. I had to do something right then. Life was slipping away like sand between my fingers, and I was terrified by the pointlessness of it all. But apparently I have discerned the will of the gods correctly. The torturous pain in my chest is gone, I don’t wake up screaming in terrible agony… Do you understand what I mean?”
“No,” she answered. “Hold me.”
“Eh, just a woman…”
Intoxication pounded my brain. The juicy, spiced meat ignited my blood and drove it boiling through my pounding heart. The earth reeled beneath us, and we found ourselves among the stars. An ancient and mighty force tossed me like a twig. I wouldn’t have let her go so soon, but at some moment she glanced up at the sky’s edge, where the sun was setting behind the forest. She groaned and hastily climbed out of my arms.
“Sisyphus,” she said, jumping to her feet, “come back to Corinth! You’re strong, handsome, courageous… Everything will be yours: friends, riches, respect, you’ll take the most beautiful girl to be your wife and build the finest palace…”
She hurried down the hill, waving the near-empty basket. I looked back at the stone. Indeed, I was denying myself the simple pleasures of life. A man certainly can’t just do nothing but drag a stone around! I could go down to the city under a false name, so that they wouldn’t point at me and gloat: “Aha, he gave up! We were right, ours is the only way to live…” Besides, people loved me not just for my royal robes. Even in rags, I was a child of the gods: whether in running, fist-fighting or discus throwing I had no equal.
As for the stone? I’d keep rolling it, just as I’d been doing before. But it wouldn’t keep me from carousing in the city to my heart’s content and satisfying my strong young body.
As I drew near to the city walls, I heard a far-off rumble coming from behind me. Trees on the mountain were being bowled over; the heavy mass I’d left behind was barreling down the hill towards the mountain’s base, flattening the forest and crushing the bushes.
I spent only one night in my Corinth. I didn’t truly enjoy myself, though my friends did everything in their power. The fallen stone seemed to roll over the slopes of my heart as well; I felt its heaviness all through the night. It’s impossible to take two roads at once; it’s impossible to seek both human joy and the divine!!
The boulder lay at the very base of the mountain. It packed the ground so densely that its downward path became like stone itself, a bare, shining surface. Rain water would flow clear along its course, without disturbing a single grain of sand, unless dragging along an occasional fallen tree, which would plow everything in its way.
To struggle upwards with a stone is difficult; to roll downwards behind a stone is easy. It seems like a simple truth, but, in order to really understand it, you need to actually experience rolling downhill, experience the feeling of lightness and the shameful sweetness of renouncing difficult truths. When you have lived through that, you understand that the lives of men are easier than those of gods. But easier — is that actually better? For a long time I thought so, until I heard the furious voice of Heaven…
But still, why not give up struggle? People live just fine down below. They don’t even suspect that they could live any different way. People who have never heard the gods’ voice live simply, like every other creature in this world. They live simply day to day, like butterflies, beetles, and sparrows. Yet I’m quite certain that I’m not the only one with divine ancestry. I believe that all people are descendants of gods, and they also could…
I walked up to the boulder, squatted down, and leaned my shoulder against its cold, smooth surface. With great effort my legs began to straighten. Blood pounded in my face. The boulder lurched, and I pressed forward. As the stone face rolled upwards off my shoulder, I gripped it again from below and unleashed my full strength, pushing it with arms, shoulders and back. The skin on my palms started burning. Soon they’d be covered in blisters, and the salty sweat of my brow would drip into the cuts…
I was rolling my stone up the slope when I heard barking somewhere nearby. A little dog dodged through the trees barking belligerently. It ran up close, then jumped away. I didn’t stop working; I just flailed my leg when it came too close, but without managing to hit it. For a moment the little dog choked with rage. Then, completely losing its head, it started jumping at me with such fury that it was almost biting my heels. With a bit of luck, I could have stomped on it.
“Go’way!” I snarled.
I stopped for a minute and started kicking at the dog. It flew into a frenzied rage, running around like mad, almost suffocating with fury. I started holding back my kicks, deciding to let it come close so I could swat it properly. The dog, growing bolder, began whirling around almost under my feet. I slowly began winding up my leg, but the dog just wouldn’t get into position for me to strike. I started getting angry; I had almost stopped my work for this little piece of crap! Finally the dog came right up close to me. My foot shot out as from a catapult, but the accursed animal turned away at the last moment, and my foot only caught a bit of its fur. Now the beast leapt around me furiously, while keeping a safe distance.
“Just hold on, you bastard!” I growled.
I bent down and rummaged around under my legs. The dog backed off slightly, but kept following my movements closely and squealing in the most disgusting voice imaginable. All that I could find on the ground were tiny branches, twigs, grass, and bits of clay. Taking a couple of steps to the side, I noticed a large stone. The little dog hurtled about, boiling over with noise, while I slowly bent down, carefully lowered my arm, felt a chunk and grasped it… I didn’t take my eyes off the little dog. It kept barking in my face as my fingers slightly lifted the stone. Then my arm swung in an arc, and the stone flew from my palm with fearsome force. With a dull thud and squeal the dog flew ten paces in the air before flying over the edge of the cliff. Its body disappeared, and the only sound was that of rocks falling far below. Blessed silence set in. I sighed with relief, turned around… and froze.
My stone was rolling downwards faster and faster, flattening plants and bushes in its way. I screamed desperately and dashed after it, ready to throw myself under it to make it stop, but the stone was rolling way too fast. It bounced from a ledge, flew ten paces and crashed down on the slope, tearing up entire sheets of rock as it rushed ever downwards.
Finally a dull rumble and crash from the foot of the mountain announced that the trees in the stone’s way had failed to hold it back. I sank heavily to the ground and held my head in my hands. Yet another lesson for the fool who want to stop being an animal: don’t bother throwing stones at barking dogs — of which there will be plenty more on the way — or else you and your stone won’t make it to the top. Dogs will bark for a while and then lose their interest, but you just keep to your chosen path. What is a petty victory over a trifling mutt? You had just beaten one, you’d end up beating another, then a third, and, in the end, you’d give up a tremendous victory for these trivial ones. And instead of Sisyphus, you’d be a regular little man who lives however he feels like living; who lives simply, like beavers, deer, wolves, and horses do, and passes through his whole life without ever finding and revealing his divine origins…
“Sisyphus! Where are you, Sisyphus?”
I lifted my head. A man in armor was hurrying up the slope. A shining helmet covered his face, save only a narrow slit for his eyes. I wondered at his choice of warrior’s dress: besides the two of us, there was no one around.
He came nearer to me, short, muscular, soaked with sweat. I could hear his hoarse breath tearing noisily from his chest.
“I’m listening,” I said. I rested my back against the stone, holding it on the slope.
“Sisyphus!” the warrior cried. Finally he raised his visor and I saw a happy, youthful, almost boyish face. “Our army has been to the faraway land of Chaldea . Strange people live there… We conquered those pathetic Dasians and turned them into slaves. And to avoid mixing with them, for they’re as countless as sand on the seashore, we set up a caste of untouchables among them. There are thousands of those Dasians, every one of us is a king there…”
“That means little to me,” I replied bitterly, as the stone burned my back. “I want to be ruler over myself.” His eyes widened.
“But you already are ruler over yourself!”
“I wish ,” I said with a sigh, “I wish…”
Years went by. One day I heard the roar of battle slowly spreading upwards from down below. Soon through the trees I saw men in heavy armor running along the slope, sweating, with faces burning red. Arrows whistled toward them, and the attackers took cover behind their shields. Someone fell, pierced by an arrow. The rest made their way to a crevice with a heavy clatter, where more men in flashing armor appeared. They fought fiercely, bitterly, falling with heads and chests split open. Blood stained the green grass. One burly warrior crashed into a bush, so full of arrows, he just hung there, suspended in the branches. At that terrible moment, he reminded me of a hedgehog. Another — strong and handsome—had been impaled by a spear whose point protruded between his shoulder blades. As he lay grasping the grass, he piteously cried «Mama!»
No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t understand: how could they tell one another apart? They looked so much alike, they could have been children of the same mother!
I turned away and went back to rolling the stone. Once upon a time I too held a sword. I wielded it better than any man in Corinth. Maybe that’s how I came to realize before others that swords prove nothing. A sword can kill, but it can’t convince. True victory comes when your enemy is conquered through the force of your arguments… I am Sisyphus, one-time king of mighty Corinth; I am the king who decided to seek out a force greater than force itself; I am the king who cares little about power over people, but who seeks power over power itself.
At some point during the grueling journey upwards, I noticed a giant sycamore off to one side. It was the very size of it that first drew my eye, but a second look revealed that the pattern of the bark was broken in one place, as if a certain symbol had been carved into the very depths of the wood. By the gods, it was a symbol and one that I recognized! It was a svarga , sign of the god Svarog, which our forefathers carried on their battle standards. If the svarga was here, that meant that this was one of their ancient invasion routes. I could only guess the untold riches they had carried back from foreign lands along this very path! As the tree had aged, new layers of bark had grown, but the deep-carved svarga still stood out clearly. It had been the symbol used to mark the location of buried treasured when small bands of returning warriors came under sudden attack by local tribes on their journey home.
I propped up the stone and approached the sycamore. Not that I needed any treasures, but I wouldn’t have turned them away either. I was more curious to know what kind of marvels they had found in those foreign lands. What had been important enough to make them march in difficult campaigns, lay down their lives, ravage and burn cities?
According to the tales of my elders, the northward ray would be pointing towards the treasure. North was the direction of our ancestors’ homeland. I counted out the steps, careful to calculate the angle between the various rays on the svarga. I dug using a broad branch instead of a shovel, tossing the earth aside with my hands. The sun rose and fell behind the mountain twice while I furiously loosened the soil and flung it away. In my imagination, I had already uncovered vast riches, rewarded myself for my toil, and used the rest to fill a treasury I’d use it to reward generously those who were fair and honest. How much could I ease the lives of the weak and poor!
The branch I was digging with struck something solid and I hurriedly dug down to it. The solid mass turned out to be the heavy lid of an enormous chest, carved with symbols of the Sun! Gasping with excitement, I threw myself on the lid, flinging away the soil in search of the edge. My frantic efforts were interrupted when I suddenly heard a rumbling.
I scrambled upwards and the side of the pit I’d dug collapsed under my feet. The chest was now covered with earth just as it was when I started my work. Ten paces away my stone was rolling, slowly gathering speed. It hurtled passed me with a roar, leaving behind a wake of fallen trees, flattened burrows, and downed birds’ nests. I buried my face in the freshly dug earth, my heart exploding in tears. Again I had distracted myself with something that had no eternal value!
I’ve lost count of the days I’ve spent locked in arduous combat with this stone. It struggled to break loose of my grip, pressing with all its weight, seeming to grow even heavier. The bloody calluses on my palms gradually turned into a surface that was as hard as a horse’s hoof. I didn’t even notice the sun anymore. I didn’t see animals playing or hear birds singing. I just rolled that accursed stone up the hill with all my might. I didn’t even sense when someone approached one day and stood for a long time, watching me.
“Sisyphus!” he called with a voice that seemed familiar to me. “Sisyphus, look at me! If you don’t want to look, then at least say something. We played together as children!”
The man wasn’t young and I didn’t recognize him at first. When I left Corinth he had been a young man. Now his body sagged and had grown flabby, like dough.
“Hello,” I said. “You’ve changed.”
“So have you… but what for?” he said in a friendly voice, looking at me with pity. “Stop torturing yourself. Live like everyone else. Get rid of your stone and enjoy life. It is so short!”
I saw the truth in his words. My body hadn’t yet sagged like his, but my muscles too would snap someday. And all I’d got so far was my stone which I hadn’t pushed even halfway up the mountain! And where was that top anyway? The higher I got, the further away it seemed. I could only see glaring radiance in the unthinkable heights…
“I used to live differently, you know. Once upon a time my cup was filled to the brim with all kinds of petty joys possible! The fallen drops would have been enough to fill up whole lives of other men! But those were the joys of mortals… Birds live like that, deer, insects… but we’re higher, we’re the children of the gods, and so our joys should also be higher. Higher, not just more!”
“What joys are you talking about?” he asked in surprise.
I looked in the face of my old friend, the face from the previous life of mine.
“I don’t know. But it’s not enough to live by the simplest joys and cares,” I answered honestly.
“So how do you want to live?”
“I don’t know,” I sighed heavily, “but not like a sparrow or an insect!”
Once again I pushed the stone upwards. First, I would lean with my chest, then with my back when I grew tired, straining with my whole body on the plodding climb upwards.
Gasping from fatigue and covered in sweat, I suddenly felt that the stone had stopped. I pressed forward again, but my stone didn’t give an inch. That’s when I saw the stone wall, rising up for a good twenty paces. I froze, stunned. Coldness gripped my legs, then rose upwards, freezing my stomach, leaving it a hollow pit, and finally stabbing my heart with icy knives. A wall! So much effort spent, and all for nothing…
Leaving the stone, I went down to the city that very evening. My sense of melancholy seemed to give way a bit after the first jug of wine. After that I remember some kind of argument with some peasants, some women, a fight with the local tax collectors, and then dancing on burning coals… I spent my time frolicking and drinking, trying to drown out my sorrow. Finally, one morning, I found myself groping about with my foot for my wine jug before I even opened my eyes. I don’t even remember how much time passed. Somehow, though, the unseen force that had guided me in my best days once more drove me to the stone I’d abandoned. I had the sense that since the stone had come to a dead end, I now needed to search out a different path, to the right or the left. If necessary, I would even back up, but the important thing was to keep struggling upward, ever upward!
I discovered my stone at the foot of the mountain. Once I left it by the wall to go into the city, it hadn’t stayed at that elevation for very long…
The journey uphill was as strenuous as I remembered, but having grown wiser through my bitter experience, I made progress all the faster. I knew the traps and obstacles, and I saw the ruts in the road and the roots jutting out in my way. Finally I reached the familiar, ill-fated crossroads where I had unwisely turned right ever so slightly. This time I rolled the stone straight. How much harder it is to go straight up than to follow a smoother incline!
As I climbed higher, my Corinth began to seem tiny and very distant. I often looked down at it in my moments of rest, trying to resolve the question that tormented me: what was the best way for those people to live? What would it mean for them to live “right”? Lock any one of them in a dungeon and he’ll reveal unimaginable depth of intellect and talent just trying to get out. But keep him in peace and quiet and he’ll just live to old age, to his death, never realizing what he’s capable of… If misfortune befalls someone, then his soul awakens. However life in the city usually passes by with relatively few cares, and most people carry on from cradle to grave living more like sheep…
I was pushing the stone upwards when I heard voices. A number of people, short and wearing goat skins, appeared from among the trees. They stopped at a distance, gazing shyly at me. One of them called out meekly:
“Sisyphus! We’ve brought you some food. Can we come bring it to you?”
I thrust a wedge under the stone with my foot, relaxing my muscles somewhat.
“I’d be glad to have guests,” I answered.
They came nearer. They looked tiny and fearful.
“How you’ve grown, Sisyphus!” one said respectfully. “Now we see that you’re from the tribe of the gods. We see it showing from within you.”
“I don’t remember you,” I replied.
“Our grandfathers told us stories about you,” answered one.
“How is it you’re so small? Has the human race digressed?”
“No, we’re just the same as we’ve always been. You used to be like this too… but now you have so much light within.”
We sat on the grass. They kept on glancing at my stone, and so did I. By now I knew that I couldn’t leave it alone even for a short time — it would roll down.
They would meet my gaze from time to time, then turn their eyes away. At last one of them spoke up:
“Now we believe that you’ll be able to roll that stone all the way to the top. It’s clear just from looking at you!”
“The path from the bottom has become easier,” I agreed. “But the slope is growing steeper and steeper and I am still unable to make it to the top, at least not yet…”
They looked at me incredulously.
“You’re kidding, right, Sisyphus?”
“No. But do you know that all people are descended from the gods? You could also roll a stone to the top of a mountain if you tried. Except you just don’t want to…”
“What do you mean by that, Sisyphus?” asked one of them in surprise.
“I mean that you enjoy your life lived like deer, birds, fish,” I said. More and more people were coming to see me lately, trying to understand me with my stone. So I would start talking to them, saying those same words many times over, pained to see how they struggled to understand me.
One of them with an intelligent face that showed through despite his anxious expression, burst out: “You have your philosophy, Sisyphus, and we have ours,” he seemed to be trying to maintain his dignity.
I sensed that he didn’t understand me and shook my head with disappointment:
“No animal will roll a stone up a mountain. In fact no animal will take a step on the mountain, unless there’s some tasty grass or juicy meat.”
He got offended. So I just got back to rolling my stone again, clenching my teeth, suppressing the pain and fatigue. I recall one time when I didn’t have an ounce of strength left, I spent several days by the stone without laying a finger on it. I thought that I’d shored it up well enough, but after a week I discovered that, one way or another, my stone and I had moved downhill!
The pine tree next to the spot where I had propped up the stone was still there, but now it was higher than I’d remembered. We had slid down. That meant I couldn’t stop moving upward. If I stopped, even for a while, I would end up losing ground. Damn!
Sometimes my feet stepped on soft, silky grass followed by the wet snow and then by the grass again. My bare shoulders felt the lash of cruel rain, blistered in the sun, took the sting of cold northern winds. Sometimes I felt almost paralyzed by frost, but then the hot sun would thaw the ice and warm me up, turning my body bronze. Summer’s heat and winter’s cold took turns so often that it seemed as if my first step was onto soft, sun-warmed grass with the butterflies all around, and my second step crunched against brittle snow.
I was rolling the stone, my veins bulging, when to my great displeasure I heard the clanging sound of iron coming closer and closer. Well-armed men clambered heavily from below. At their head was a richly dressed lord.
When he approached me, I was astonished that so much arrogance and conceit could fit in one person’s face. He was a powerful man and I felt sorry that he knew so little, and wanted even less.
“Sisyphus!” he called in a strong voice that sounded like the horn of Jericho. “For many years you have been busy with your superhuman labor. During that time your Corinth — the town you built with your own hands — has grown into a great city and has now become a state of its own!”
I grinned and felt surprised that such a trivial thing was nonetheless pleasant to hear.
“Well, well. That’s unexpected, but I’m glad to hear it.”
“Sisyphus,” he continued in the same tone. Hearing his voice, the warriors straightened themselves up and squared their shoulders. “You should come back! You have to come back. The city is assailed with unrest and revolt on all sides; everyone is fed up with corrupt rulers who care only about their own pleasure and forget about the people. We need a strong leader with a strong hand who would execute criminals right in the public square, punish the swindlers, and protect Corinth from its enemies. We need someone who can establish order!”
The warriors beat their weapons against their armor and shouted in one voice. My heart skipped a beat. It seemed like forever since I held my sword! I couldn’t even remember the last time I rode a swift steed, mowed down my enemies, conquered cities and countries…
“Sisyphus,” the lord continued, “cast off your stone, and we, soldiers and upstanding citizens of Corinth, will follow you!!”
“Aristocrats or demos ?” I asked.
The lord looked triumphantly at me and answered proudly, backed by the approving cries of his warriors:
“We do not have such contemptible distinctions! We are all equal, united in the passionate desire to make Corinth strong. That is above any class distinction.”
A bony, fragile, dry man with deeply sunken eyes stepped forward from the ranks of warriors.
“Are you a patriot or not?” he asked me.
“Of course, I’m a patriot… That’s why I roll my stone.”
They drew closer and circled around me. Their faces were all worn-out and cruel, with eyes full of desperation and anger.
“I have already been a king. I know well that even a tyrant with absolute power is powerless. Only the ignorant think that a ruler can improve the world. If only it was all so simple!” I said.
The lord insisted angrily:
“You’re the rightful born king of Corinth! Dragging a stone around does not befit a king!”
There was a moment when I did question whether I should go with them, take an easier path… To roll a stone to the top of a mountain is much more difficult than to rule a country. How many rulers had come before me, how many would come after me? Besides, I had known rulers who left their thrones, put on poor men’s rags, and retreated into the woods in search of Truth…
They left, and I forgot about them right away. My habit of rolling my burden up the mountain kicked in right away.
The days went by, as did the centuries and millennia. Time passing felt all the same to me, as my work was beyond time and couldn’t be measured in terms of how much of it I have spent… The only meaningful measure was height, just height. Whether a day or a century passed was unimportant; the main thing was to keep moving upward.
At some point a disheveled young man in strange clothing ran towards me.
“Sisyphus!” he shouted from a distance. “We won! Darius is defeated!”
“Congratulations,” I answered indifferently, without turning to face him. My arms and entire body kept on rolling the stone without stopping.
“Aren’t you happy for us? Sisyphus, you didn’t even ask why we took up arms against the Persians.”
“My friend,” I replied, without interrupting my work or even pausing, “the only battles that interest me are the ones that take place in my soul…”
“Battles in your soul?”
“Don’t you have them?”
“No, of course not! I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Then you’re not yet human.”
“And the only victories I acknowledge are within.”
One day I heard the deafening sounds of music. Young men and women, six in all, were climbing up the slope. These were primitive beings, pretty, simple, and transparent. I could see their muscles working, their joints bending and straightening, their legs moving them across the slope… They laughed and talked… it seemed they spoke to their stomachs rather than their minds. Their music also — from my point of view — wasn’t aiming any higher…. For the first time I was gripped by fear. Dionysus’ ecstatic followers, the maenads , and even drunken satyrs had never sunk so low. These were not even animals, they were below animals. Their very existence was like that of single-celled organisms that just feed and multiply, they were plebs of the lowest order. They climbed up the mountain lightly, with nothing to burden them.
They stopped a few paces away and gaped at me.
“Check this dude out,” said one in amazement, “he’s rolling a stone up the mountain… Is it actually Sisyphus?! You know, the same one they went on about when we were in school?”
Another protested: “There’s no way that’s him!”
More voices joined in:
“What is he, a dummy?”
“Even if he’s a dummy, he can’t really be that stupid, right?”
“Maybe he’s retarded?”
“All geeks are retarded!”
They came closer and surrounded me. Their wild music played, aiming not at the brain or the heart, but straight at or below the stomach. It deafened me, cut into my ears, and demanded that I listen to nothing else.
“Here’s an idea!” one suddenly shouted. “We should free Sisyphus from his hard labor! Freedom to Sisyphus! In the name of… oh, damn it… um, what do you call him… oh yeah, Jupiter!”
With roars of laughter they grabbed the stone, meaning to push it downwards. These maenads were in a frenzy and were already taking vessels full of wine out of their bags. I was seized with terror. I’d already climbed so high… I braced my shoulder against the stone and spoke with pain, my agonized voice rising to a scream:
“Are you amused? Pleased with yourself? Are you not ashamed of yourself, knowing nothing, unable to do anything?! Don’t you get it? It’s the highest form of happiness to roll this stone up a mountain. There are days when I wail in despair that I didn’t choose a larger stone! My one hope is that the mountain will remain tall and steep. Take away my stone? It will roll down many times by itself, but I’ll still get it to the top!”
They didn’t listen. They seized hold of the stone with shrieks and animal howls. I flung one of them away forcefully and he flew away from me. I heard a collision, a tree shuddered, and a lifeless body dropped down.
The heavy boulder tottered. In terror and desperation, I flung myself in its way, muscles straining, ready to block the path with my whole body, with my very life! The stone lurched, and… moved a small bit upwards.
Copyright © 1984 Yuri Alexandrovich Nikitin
This Translation Copyright © 2011 Tower of Harmony, LLC
All Rights Reserved, used by permission