Theseus Enters the Labyrinth
Having abandoned daylight’s bronze embrace, having left behind his Ariadne, whose gift of thread he now untwines between taut fingers to latch upon passing moments, having chosen for himself exploration over stasis, the black and endless corridors over plains of breeze-blown grass and the sounds of birds, having thought that to descend at last is better than to gaze forevermore at the inaccessible sky, having been not ready but willing, when all before him lies in black and blindness, when all behind him can now be only burdensome as to a man who in crossing the desert must walk away from water – only now does Theseus step across the plinth that marks the entrance to the maze.
There has been no precedent in his life for this, no rule by which to plot a route; many have been here, and for each he has heard the maze is different, for each the way unique. Despite this provident uncertainty, Theseus has listened to the men and women who went in dreams, and came back wakened; their words have armed him, their spirits strengthened him. And for no reason at all, while picking berries from the prickly bushes of his childhood, a voice that was no voice told him it was his turn.
Theseus is a perceptive man, though not so prescient as memory woos us into believing. The thread, after all, is not his own – but he has an idea how to use it, and applies it well. His feet take him sometimes boldly, sometimes tenuously, ahead – and he takes every so often a small bead of the string and makes of it a knot that hangs upon the protruberances of his path like a web in a tangled bough. In his naivety, he believes it will save him; in his naivety, he believes all mazes can be solved.
In the labyrinth’s darkness, hope flicks into and out of existence like stars; Theseus sees in its light the black and looming shadow of the Minotaur, catches hardly a moment of its distant passing but enough for him to know it is there, running blackly about, taunting him. If he stops the chase and listens, he can hear the beast’s padding feet, its repellent breath, the puncturing scrape of its horns upon stone. Theseus, being only a man, is afraid; being only a man, he will not admit to himself this is what he feels; but the sounds disappear into silence, and Theseus steps onwards into the depths.
The walls are mirrors. Upon them hang tatters of what Theseus takes to be cloth; but no, not cloth, paper – and upon the paper, words. He takes up one of them and finds bad poetry, simple and desolate rhymes – he takes up another and finds unfinished sentences – on another, tiny chapters pinned together in no order. And then, within the letters, its shape made discernible in the gaps between them, like an after-image of something bright, a spiral within a spiral – a map? Theseus peers closer. It is gone.
Theseus thinks he hears the roar between the pages, and runs to meet it. He reads himself into the words, submerging into the black and hateful mirrors, the walls that are not walls become images of himself; he reads upon the air the fate of one other Theseus, who, having abandoned bronze daylight and having left behind his Ariadne, whose gift of twine he now unravels between uncertain fingers, having been unready yet willing, and chosen at last to descend, it being better than to gaze forever at the inaccessible skies – only then does this Theseus step across the threshold and enter the maze.
The labyrinth is dark, its walls are bleak, its corridors long and its branches many. Welcoming complexity, Theseus steps now boldly, now hesitantly, but always ahead, taking sometimes a bead of thread between his palms and knotting it onto small protruberances along the way. In his naivety, he believes it will save him.
Theseus is not shocked when he hears the Minotaur’s low, feels the floor vibrate beneath its heavy feet, catches brief sparks in the distance as the horns are scraped over stone. He pushes on, blood rising. He does not admit his fear, refusing to accept its utility. When the walls become mirrors and the floor is littered with words, he pauses to inspect them; he sees in his reflection the face of some other Theseus; he reads disjointed parts of some story on pale paper, the writing curled like a Cretan sea; as he reads, he can smell the Minotaur’s breath, taste the foam of resentment in his mouth, feel the beating of its heart pound a warning down the hallways. He thinks he sees for a moment in some brief flare like the after-image of the sun against shut eyes – a shape, some spiral of intertwining branches like a web against the morning – a map? But then it is gone, and Theseus is lost behind the words reflected in the mirrors that surround him, and render him as trapped as free. He throws the pages at the mirror, and as they fall they form a pattern, as leaves in autumn paint transient pictures on the ground. He sees within it the tale of another Theseus, who, having forsaken simplicity for chaos, having abandoned the bronze and inaccessible skies for the descent into a darkened maze, having left behind his Ariadne, whose gift of string he now holds limply between thick fingers and faintly remembers how to use, having been not ready but willing – only then does this Theseus drop his heavy feet across the threshold and enter the maze.
This Theseus is bold and strives onward, now steadily, now more slowly, but onward nevertheless; this Theseus remembers the twine, but no longer deems it necessary – it was never his to lose, and he abandons it. This Theseus turns when he feels he should turn, making patterns with his turning; he sees the walls are mirrors and shakes his head at such inelegant tricks; he treads on pale pages, countless words scrawled upon them, their loops the waves of a Cretan sea, the tales lapping his ankles, his laughter mocking the Theseus in the mirror. Theseus is not shocked when he hears the beast bray back, feels its stamping feet against the carpet of words, catches a lightning glimpse of its horn-sparks upon stone. And yet…
Silence falls, a silence that is not silence, the mirrors that are walls casting back the echo of Theseus’ roar. He sees himself reflected in the words, his face a young man’s face grown old, and oddly dark, and strangely shaped; he turns his head away and scrapes against the mirror, etching pain upon it with a weapon he did not know he possessed. He is afraid, and for the first time it is not the fear he thought he knew; Theseus, become too strange even for himself, stamps his feet and runs, burning blood in rage along the corridors, breaking mirrors and tearing up the littered pages, their words the curls of a Cretan sea. He wails as he runs, calling “Ariadne! Ariadne!” but there is no reply.
In the far halls of another labyrinth, Theseus watches as the beast flees across the darkness; he resigns himself to fear, and walks deeper. In the darkness of a distant maze, Theseus reads of only more darkness, resigns himself to fate, and steps slowly on, measuring his thread while it lasts. At the portal to a labyrinth, an Ariadne waits, knowing that no thread goes on forever, and that not all mazes can be solved. Across the darkness, out from unknown depths, a bellow comes, a sound that an ocean of words has taken up and curled upon itself like the waves of a Cretan sea; a sound that once belonged with names, but now, as Ariadne lets slip from her grasp the fragment that remains, only blows rude air from the labyrinth’s black threshold, and vanishes to nothing in the bronze and breeze-blown sky.
NJ Ramsden is a published writer of short-form fiction, and an occasional novelist and performer, based in Yorkshire. His work blends traditional storytelling with a taste for experiment in order to explore the borders between the familiar and the strange.
Aside from actually writing, Nathan led Creative Writing classes for several years, and to both his joy and his envy, his students have sometimes gone on to greater things than himself. He is also interested in vintage electronic musical instruments, books, baking, books, computers, climbing, and books. He is currently learning Old Norse in order to translate some underappreciated medieval saga material – and growing a beard in order to more effectively facilitate this.
Nathan can be found online at: