The Hidden Oracle
To the Muse Calliope
This is long overdue. Please don’t hurt me.
Hoodlums punch my face
I would smite them if I could
MY NAME IS APOLLO. I used to be a god.
In my four thousand six hundred and twelve years, I have done many things. I inflicted a plague on the Greeks who besieged Troy. I blessed Babe Ruth with three home runs in game four of the 1926 World Series. I visited my wrath upon Britney Spears at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards.
But in all my immortal life, I never before crash-landed in a Dumpster.
I’m not even sure how it happened.
I simply woke up falling. Skyscrapers spiraled in and out of view. Flames streamed off my body. I tried to fly. I tried to change into a cloud or teleport across the world or do a hundred other things that should have been easy for me, but I just kept falling. I plunged into a narrow canyon between two buildings and BAM!
Is anything sadder than the sound of a god hitting a pile of garbage bags?
I lay groaning and aching in the open Dumpster. My nostrils burned with the stench of rancid bologna and used diapers. My ribs felt broken, though that shouldn’t have been possible.
My mind stewed in confusion, but one memory floated to the surface—the voice of my father, Zeus: YOUR FAULT. YOUR PUNISHMENT.
I realized what had happened to me. And I sobbed in despair.
Even for a god of poetry such as myself, it is difficult to describe how I felt. How could you—a mere mortal—possibly understand? Imagine being stripped of your clothes, then blasted with a fire hose in front of a laughing crowd. Imagine the ice-cold water filling your mouth and lungs, the pressure bruising your skin, turning your joints to putty. Imagine feeling helpless, ashamed, completely vulnerable—publicly and brutally stripped of everything that makes you you. My humiliation was worse than that.
YOUR FAULT, Zeus’s voice rang in my head.
“No!” I cried miserably. “No, it wasn’t! Please!”
Nobody answered. On either side of me, rusty fire escapes zigzagged up brick walls. Above, the winter sky was gray and unforgiving.
I tried to remember the details of my sentencing. Had my father told me how long this punishment would last? What was I supposed to do to regain his favor?
My memory was too fuzzy. I could barely recall what Zeus looked like, much less why he’d decided to toss me to earth. There’d been a war with the giants, I thought. The gods had been caught off guard, embarrassed, almost defeated.
The only thing I knew for certain: my punishment was unfair. Zeus needed someone to blame, so of course he’d picked the handsomest, most talented, most popular god in the pantheon: me.
I lay in the garbage, staring at the label inside the Dumpster lid: FOR PICK-UP, CALL 1-555-STENCHY.
Zeus will reconsider, I told myself. He’s just trying to scare me. Any moment, he will yank me back to Olympus and let me off with a warning.
“Yes…” My voice sounded hollow and desperate. “Yes, that’s it.”
I tried to move. I wanted to be on my feet when Zeus came to apologize. My ribs throbbed. My stomach clenched. I clawed the rim of the Dumpster and managed to drag myself over the side. I toppled out and landed on my shoulder, which made a cracking sound against the asphalt.
“Araggeeddeee,” I whimpered through the pain. “Stand up. Stand up.”
Getting to my feet was not easy. My head spun. I almost passed out from the effort. I stood in a dead-end alley. About fifty feet away, the only exit opened onto a street with grimy storefronts for a bail bondsman’s office and a pawnshop. I was somewhere on the west side of Manhattan, I guessed, or perhaps Crown Heights, in Brooklyn. Zeus must have been really angry with me.
I inspected my new body. I appeared to be a teenaged Caucasian male, clad in sneakers, blue jeans, and a green polo shirt. How utterly drab. I felt sick, weak, and so, so human.
I will never understand how you mortals tolerate it. You live your entire life trapped in a sack of meat, unable to enjoy simple pleasures like changing into a hummingbird or dissolving into pure light.
And now, heavens help me, I was one of you—just another meat sack.
I fumbled through my pants pockets, hoping I still had the keys to my sun chariot. No such luck. I found a cheap nylon wallet containing a hundred dollars in American currency—lunch money for my first day as a mortal, perhaps—along with a New York State junior driver’s license featuring a photo of a dorky, curly-haired teen who could not possibly be me, with the name Lester Papadopoulos. The cruelty of Zeus knew no bounds!
I peered into the Dumpster, hoping my bow, quiver, and lyre might have fallen to earth with me. I would have settled for my harmonica. There was nothing.
I took a deep breath. Cheer up, I told myself. I must have retained some of my godly abilities. Matters could be worse.
A raspy voice called, “Hey, Cade, take a look at this loser.”
Blocking the alley’s exit were two young men: one squat and platinum blond, the other tall and redheaded. Both wore oversize hoodies and baggy pants. Serpentine tattoo designs covered their necks. All they were missing were the words I’M A THUG printed in large letters across their foreheads.
The redhead zeroed in on the wallet in my hand. “Now, be nice, Mikey. This guy looks friendly enough.” He grinned and pulled a hunting knife from his belt. “In fact, I bet he wants to give us all his money.”
I blame my disorientation for what happened next.
I knew my immortality had been stripped away, but I still considered myself the mighty Apollo! One cannot change one’s way of thinking as easily as one might, say, turn into a snow leopard.
Also, on previous occasions when Zeus had punished me by making me mortal (yes, it had happened twice before), I had retained massive strength and at least some of my godly powers. I assumed the same would be true now.
I was not going to allow two young mortal ruffians to take Lester Papadopoulos’s wallet.
I stood up straight, hoping Cade and Mikey would be intimidated by my regal bearing and divine beauty. (Surely those qualities could not be taken from me, no matter what my driver’s license photo looked like.) I ignored the warm Dumpster juice trickling down my neck.
“I am Apollo,” I announced. “You mortals have three choices: offer me tribute, flee, or be destroyed.”
I wanted my words to echo through the alley, shake the towers of New York, and cause the skies to rain smoking ruin. None of that happened. On the word destroyed, my voice squeaked.
The redhead Cade grinned even wider. I thought how amusing it would be if I could make the snake tattoos around his neck come alive and strangle him to death.
“What do you think, Mikey?” he asked his friend. “Should we give this guy tribute?”
Mikey scowled. With his bristly blond hair, his cruel small eyes, and his thick frame, he reminded me of the monstrous sow that terrorized the village of Crommyon back in the good old days.
“Not feeling the tribute, Cade.” His voice sounded like he’d been eating lit cigarettes. “What were the other options?”
“Fleeing?” said Cade.
“Nah,” said Mikey.
Mikey snorted. “How about we destroy him instead?”
Cade flipped his knife and caught it by the handle. “I can live with that. After you.”
I slipped the wallet into my back pocket. I raised my fists. I did not like the idea of flattening mortals into flesh waffles, but I was sure I could do it. Even in my weakened state, I would be far stronger than any human.
“I warned you,” I said. “My powers are far beyond your comprehension.”
Mikey cracked his knuckles. “Uh-huh.”
He lumbered forward.
As soon as he was in range, I struck. I put all my wrath into that punch. It should have been enough to vaporize Mikey and leave a thug-shaped impression on the asphalt.
Instead he ducked, which I found quite annoying.
I stumbled forward. I have to say that when Prometheus fashioned you humans out of clay he did a shoddy job. Mortal legs are clumsy. I tried to compensate, drawing upon my boundless reserves of agility, but Mikey kicked me in the back. I fell on my divine face.
My nostrils inflated like air bags. My ears popped. The taste of copper filled my mouth. I rolled over, groaning, and found the two blurry thugs staring down at me.
“Mikey,” said Cade, “are you comprehending this guy’s power?”
“Nah,” said Mikey. “I’m not comprehending it.”
“Fools!” I croaked. “I will destroy you!”
“Yeah, sure.” Cade tossed away his knife. “But first I think we’ll stomp you.”
Cade raised his boot over my face, and the world went black.
A girl from nowhere
Completes my embarrassment
I HAD NOT BEEN STOMPED so badly since my guitar contest against Chuck Berry in 1957.
As Cade and Mikey kicked me, I curled into a ball, trying to protect my ribs and head. The pain was intolerable. I retched and shuddered. I blacked out and came to, my vision swimming with red splotches. When my attackers got tired of kicking me, they hit me over the head with a bag of garbage, which burst and covered me in coffee grounds and moldy fruit peels.
At last they stepped away, breathing heavily. Rough hands patted me down and took my wallet.
“Lookee here,” said Cade. “Some cash and an ID for…Lester Papadopoulos.”
Mikey laughed. “Lester? That’s even worse than Apollo.”
I touched my nose, which felt roughly the size and texture of a water-bed mattress. My fingers came away glistening red.
“Blood,” I muttered. “That’s not possible.”
“It’s very possible, Lester.” Cade crouched next to me. “And there might be more blood in your near future. You want to explain why you don’t have a credit card? Or a phone? I’d hate to think I did all that stomping for just a hundred bucks.”
I stared at the blood on my fingertips. I was a god. I did not have blood. Even when I’d been turned mortal before, golden ichor still ran through my veins. I had never before been so…converted. It must be a mistake. A trick. Something.
I tried to sit up.
My hand hit a banana peel and I fell again. My attackers howled in delight.
“I love this guy!” Mikey said.
“Yeah, but the boss told us he’d be loaded,” Cade complained.
“Boss…” I muttered. “Boss?”
“That’s right, Lester.” Cade flicked a finger against the side of my head. “‘Go to that alley,’ the boss told us. ‘Easy score.’ He said we should rough you up, take whatever you had. But this”—he waved the cash under my nose—“this isn’t much of a payday.”
Despite my predicament, I felt a surge of hopefulness. If these thugs had been sent here to find me, their “boss” must be a god. No mortal could have known I would fall to earth at this spot. Perhaps Cade and Mikey were not human either. Perhaps they were cleverly disguised monsters or spirits. At least that would explain why they had beaten me so easily.
“Who—who is your boss?” I struggled to my feet, coffee grounds dribbling from my shoulders. My dizziness made me feel as if I were flying too close to the fumes of primordial Chaos, but I refused to be humbled. “Did Zeus send you? Or perhaps Ares? I demand an audience!”
Mikey and Cade looked at each other as if to say, Can you believe this guy?
Cade picked up his knife. “You don’t take a hint, do you, Lester?”
Mikey pulled off his belt—a length of bike chain—and wrapped it around his fist.
I decided to sing them into submission. They may have resisted my fists, but no mortal could resist my golden voice. I was trying to decide between “You Send Me” and an original composition, “I’m Your Poetry God, Baby,” when a voice yelled, “HEY!”
The hooligans turned. Above us, on the second-story fire escape landing, stood a girl of about twelve. “Leave him alone,” she ordered.
My first thought was that Artemis had come to my aid. My sister often appeared as a twelve-year-old girl for reasons I’d never fully understood. But something told me this was not she.
The girl on the fire escape did not exactly inspire fear. She was small and pudgy, with dark hair chopped in a messy pageboy style and black cat-eye glasses with rhinestones glittering in the corners. Despite the cold, she wore no coat. Her outfit looked like it had been picked by a kindergartener—red sneakers, yellow tights, and a green tank dress. Perhaps she was on her way to a costume party dressed as a traffic light.
Still…there was something fierce in her expression. She had the same obstinate scowl my old girlfriend Cyrene used to get whenever she wrestled lions.
Mikey and Cade did not seem impressed.
“Get lost, kid,” Mikey told her.
The girl stamped her foot, causing the fire escape to shudder. “My alley. My rules!” Her bossy nasal voice made her sound like she was chiding a playmate in a game of make-believe. “Whatever that loser has is mine, including his money!”
“Why is everyone calling me a loser?” I asked weakly. The comment seemed unfair, even if I was beat-up and covered in garbage; but no one paid me any attention.
Cade glared at the girl. The red from his hair seemed to be seeping into his face. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Beat it, you brat!” He picked up a rotten apple and threw it.
The girl didn’t flinch. The fruit landed at her feet and rolled harmlessly to a stop.
“You want to play with food?” The girl wiped her nose. “Okay.”
I didn’t see her kick the apple, but it came flying back with deadly accuracy and hit Cade in the nose. He collapsed on his rump.
Mikey snarled. He marched toward the fire escape ladder, but a banana peel seemed to slither directly into his path. He slipped and fell hard. “OWWW!”
I backed away from the fallen thugs. I wondered if I should make a run for it, but I could barely hobble. I also did not want to be assaulted with old fruit.
The girl climbed over the railing. She dropped to the ground with surprising nimbleness and grabbed a sack of garbage from the Dumpster.
“Stop!” Cade did a sort of scuttling crab walk to get away from the girl. “Let’s talk about this!”
Mikey groaned and rolled onto his back.
The girl pouted. Her lips were chapped. She had wispy black fuzz at the corners of her mouth.
“I don’t like you guys,” she said. “You should go.”
“Yeah!” Cade said. “Sure! Just…”
He reached for the money scattered among the coffee grounds.
The girl swung her garbage bag. In mid arc the plastic exploded, disgorging an impossible number of rotten bananas. They knocked Cade flat. Mikey was plastered with so many peels he looked like he was being attacked by carnivorous starfish.
“Leave my alley,” the girl said. “Now.”
In the Dumpster, more trash bags burst like popcorn kernels, showering Cade and Mikey with radishes, potato peelings, and other compost material. Miraculously, none of it got on me. Despite their injuries, the two thugs scrambled to their feet and ran away, screaming.
I turned toward my pint-size savior. I was no stranger to dangerous women. My sister could rain down arrows of death. My stepmother, Hera, regularly drove mortals mad so that they would hack each other to pieces. But this garbage-wielding twelve-year-old made me nervous.
“Thank you,” I ventured.
The girl crossed her arms. On her middle fingers she wore matching gold rings with crescent signets. Her eyes glinted darkly like a crow’s. (I can make that comparison because I invented crows.)
“Don’t thank me,” she said. “You’re still in my alley.”
She walked a full circle around me, scrutinizing my appearance as if I were a prize cow. (I can also make that comparison, because I used to collect prize cows.)
“You’re the god Apollo?” She sounded less than awestruck. She also didn’t seem fazed by the idea of gods walking among mortals.
“You were listening, then?”
She nodded. “You don’t look like a god.”
“I’m not at my best,” I admitted. “My father, Zeus, has exiled me from Olympus. And who are you?”
She smelled faintly of apple pie, which was surprising, since she looked so grubby. Part of me wanted to find a fresh towel, clean her face, and give her money for a hot meal. Part of me wanted to fend her off with a chair in case she decided to bite me. She reminded me of the strays my sister was always adopting: dogs, panthers, homeless maidens, small dragons.
“Name is Meg,” she said.
“Short for Megara? Or Margaret?”
“Margaret. But don’t ever call me Margaret.”
“And are you a demigod, Meg?”
She pushed up her glasses. “Why would you think that?”
Again she didn’t seem surprised by the question. I sensed she had heard the term demigod before.
“Well,” I said, “you obviously have some power. You chased off those hooligans with rotten fruit. Perhaps you have banana-kinesis? Or you can control garbage? I once knew a Roman goddess, Cloacina, who presided over the city’s sewer system. Perhaps you’re related…?”
Meg pouted. I got the impression I might have said something wrong, though I couldn’t imagine what.
“I think I’ll just take your money,” Meg said. “Go on. Get out of here.”
“No, wait!” Desperation crept into my voice. “Please, I—I may need a bit of assistance.”
I felt ridiculous, of course. Me—the god of prophecy, plague, archery, healing, music, and several other things I couldn’t remember at the moment—asking a colorfully dressed street urchin for help. But I had no one else. If this child chose to take my money and kick me into the cruel winter streets, I didn’t think I could stop her.
“Say I believe you…” Meg’s voice took on a singsong tone, as if she were about to announce the rules of the game: I’ll be the princess, and you’ll be the scullery maid. “Say I decide to help. What then?”
Good question, I thought. “We…we are in Manhattan?”
“Mm-hmm.” She twirled and did a playful skip-kick. “Hell’s Kitchen.”
It seemed wrong for a child to say Hell’s Kitchen. Then again, it seemed wrong for a child to live in an alley and have garbage fights with thugs.
I considered walking to the Empire State Building. That was the modern gateway to Mount Olympus, but I doubted the guards would let me up to the secret six hundredth floor. Zeus would not make it so easy.