It was the day of my punishment.
The gods assembled. The women were on the left and the men were on the right. There’s Artemis, worked muscle and tied-back hair, fiddling with her bow so that she doesn’t have to look at me. We were friends. We hunted together.
There’s Hera, sardonic, aloof. She couldn’t care less. As long as it’s not her.
There’s Hermes, fidgety and pale, he hates trouble. Next to him lounges Hephastus, ill-tempered and lame, Hera’s crippled son, tolerated for his gold smithy. Opposite him is Aphrodite his wife, who loathes his body. We’ve all had her, though we treat her like a virgin. She smiled at me. She was the only one who dared …
Zeus read out his decree. Atlas, Atlas, Atlas . It’s in my name, I should have known. My name is Atlas – it means ‘the long suffering one’.
I bent my back and braced my right leg, kneeling with my left. I bowed my head and held my hands, palms up, almost like surrender. I suppose it was surrender. Who is strong enough to escape their fate? Who can avoid what they must become?
The word given, teams of horses and oxen began to strain forward, dragging the Kosmos behind them, like a disc-plough. As the great ball ploughed infinity, pieces of time were dislodged. Some fell to earth, giving the gift of prophecy and second sight. Some were thrown out into the heavens, making black holes where past and future cannot be distinguished. Time spattered my calf muscles and the sinews in my thigh. I felt the world before it began and the future marked me. I would always be here.
As the Kosmos came nearer, the heat of it scorched my back. I felt the world settle against the sole of my foot.
Then, without any sound, the heavens and the earth were rolled up over my body and I supported them on my shoulders.
I could hardly breathe. I could not raise my head. I tried to shift slightly or to speak. I was dumb and still as a mountain. Mount Atlas they soon called me, not for my strength but for my silence.
There was a terrible pain in the seventh vertebra of my neck. The soft tissue of my body was already hardening. The hideous vision of my life was robbing me of life. Time was my medusa. Time was turning me to stone.
I do not know how long I crouched like this, petrified and motionless.
At last I began to hear something.
I found that where the world was close to my ears, I could hear everything. I could hear conversations, parrots squawking, donkeys braying. I heard the rushing of underground rivers and the crackle of fires lighted. Each sound became a meaning, and soon I began to de-code the world.
Listen, here is a village with a hundred people in it, and at dawn they take their cattle to the pastures and at evening they herd them home. A girl with a limp takes the pails over her shoulders. I know she limps by the irregular clank of the buckets. There’s a boy shooting arrows – thwack! thwack! into the padded hide of the target. His father pulls the stopper out of a wine jar.
Listen, there’s an elephant chased by a band of men. Over there, a nymph is becoming a tree. Her sighs turn into sap.
Someone is scrambling up a scree slope. His boots loosen the ground under him. His nails are torn. He falls exhausted on some goat-grass. He breathes heavily and goes to sleep.
I can hear the world beginning. Time plays itself back for me. I can hear the ferns uncurling from their tight rest. I can hear pools bubbling with life. I realise I am carrying not only this world, but all possible worlds. I am carrying the world in time as well as in space. I am carrying the world’s mistakes and its glories. I am carrying its potential as well as what has so far been realised.
As the dinosaurs crawl through my hair and volcanic eruptions pock my face, I find I am become a part of what I must bear. There is no longer Atlas and the world, there is only the World Atlas. Travel me, and I am continents. I am the journey you must make.
Listen, there’s a man telling a story about the man who holds the world on his shoulders. Everybody laughs. Only drunks and children will believe that.
Then a man came into the room, not one of our regulars, not one any of us knew, and after a few half-hearted games of chance he spied this figure and engaged him in conversation. They talked for upwards of half an hour and so intently that we thought they must be old friends and lost our curiosity in the assumption of habit. But the rich man with his strangely bowed companion by his side asked leave to make an announcement, a most remarkable wager, and we cleared the central floor and let him speak.
It seemed that his companion, this stranger, had come from the wastes of the Levant, where exotic lizards breed and all is unusual. In his country, no man bothered with paltry fortunes at the gaming table, they played for higher stakes.
The wager was a life. The winner should take the life of the loser in whatsoever way he chose. However slowly he chose, with whatever instruments he chose. What was certain was that only one life would be spared.
Our rich friend was clearly excited. His eyes looked past the faces and tables of the gaming room into a space we could not inhabit; into the space of pain and loss. What could it matter to him that he might lose fortunes?
He had fortunes to lose.
What could it matter to him that he might lose mistresses?
There are women enough.
What would it matter to him that he might lose his life?
He had one life. He cherished it.
There were those that night who begged him not to go on with it, who saw a sinister aspect in this unknown old man, who were perhaps afraid of being made the same offer and of refusing. What you risk reveals what you value.