4

Once upon a time the three crones might have stood at a crude, warp-weighted loom, much as did Arachne… or Penelope, weaving as she waited for Ulysses. Now they sat on padded stools. Their broad, vertical floor loom looked no more than a few centuries old. Perhaps some visiting hero had been a skilled carpenter, and knocked it together for them before he…

Before he what? None of the possible scenarios Pavlos could imagine coming out of this meeting included his being allowed to leave. They had some use for him, to be sure, these ancient meddlers. And they’d had long practice dealing with “heroes” who wanted to take home souvenirs and a story.

Moira beckoned him forward to be presented, but Pavlos interrupted before she began the introductions, partly to keep from falling into another awestruck trance.

“I know their names.” He gestured to the old “woman” who sat a bit apart from the loom, with a basket full of woolly skeins at her feet and bottles of dye at her side. She rhythmically drew threads from the basket, winding each on a wooden frame, then painting on various colors with a blur of brevity. On finishing each, she wound the thread quickly onto a bobbin.

Something about her activity shuck Pavlos as—strange. It was as if he watched a stroboscopic image—like that of a top spinning or an engine turning —and for every “thread” he saw painted and wound, ten thousand were actually handled.

“Your name is Clotho,” he said. She smiled at him crookedly, apparently giving him her entire attention, yet never stopping her work.

“You have also been called Urda, and U-dzu. You prepare the thread.”

He turned to the weaver. She was the oldest hag. She looked as frail as a springtime icicle… as thin and friable as late summer grass.

“This is Lachesis,” he went on, pointing to the weaver, who didn’t even glance at Pavlos. Her hands dipped, with the same stroboscopic effect, into a bag on her lap, constantly bringing forth fresh bobbins of thread, tying the free ends into place upon the tapestry, then flying through the innumerable bobbins, weaving them among each other and the straight strands of warp.

“Her name means She Who Knows Sorrow. She has also been called Verdani. The Norsemen knew her, as well.”

The third crone actually paused in her work, and grinned at Pavlos. She seemed the youngest of the three, though not as fresh as Moira. She was the first to speak.

“Well educated, aren’t you, hero? Then you know, of course, what these are?”

She held a pair of bronze cloth shears up to the filtered afternoon sunlight. The sight of them made Pavlos want to quail, but he forced himself to stand erect instead.

“I know what they are, Atropos. You seem to be a bit lazy in their use, right now.”

The third hag frowned for a moment. But Clotho immediately exploded in mirth. She put down her dyes and cackled dryly, slapping her thighs. Slowly, Atropos resumed her cruel smile.

“Very brave and humorous, hero. When Moira told us of you, we thought you were one of the weak ones. Perhaps not.

Her Greek was even more archaic than Moira’s. Pavlos had to concentrate to understand the heavily inflected speech.

“You are right,” Atropos went on. “I am lazy because Lachesis, my dear sister”—she motioned to the weaver, who never once looked up—“has this last century insisted that I give her more length in the average thread… even though they are more numerous than ever. Clotho and I have been humoring her, though it is we who will decide when this silly phase comes soon to end.”

With that she grimaced and leaned over to snip with the shears. With each “click” a rain of tiny bobbins fell to the floor. Pavlos winced as the clacking speeded up to a high-pitched burr.

“Well!” Clotho cried out. “Now comes the part I like second best! Now that introductions are over, hero, what is your first remark?”

She sat expectantly, like an artist awaiting worship, but equally willing to accept vehement detestation as a form of praise.

Pavlos forced himself to answer, feeling a desperate need to maintain momentum until he had a chance to think.

“Your job was to prepare the thread that makes up the length and tone of a man’s life. I’d like to know how you accomplish that.”

The hag was startled for a moment. The expression looked so unaccustomed on her toothless, satisfied face, that Pavlos felt an instant’s triumph. Any uncertainty he caused these furies was a momentary victory for his sanity.

“The first!” she cried in sudden delight. “The first hero to ask me that!

“Always they ask the stupid questions, like ‘Who gave you the right’… or ‘Why’…” Her voice became mockingly querulous.

Pavlos remained silent. Those were the questions he had wanted to ask next.

“At last a practical hero!” Clotho went on. “No prayers to the dead little gods, or futile attempts to exorcise us by calling on One who is too big, and has forgotten we exist… no, this hero has gained my favor! Come, hero! I will show you how it is done!”

She reached for his hand. When she touched it Pavlos felt a brief thrill of power, as if her aura were something palpable and electric.

But her skin felt rough and dry. Her grip was very strong as she pulled him out the broad portico and down the marble steps of the front face of the temple, into the late afternoon shadows.

He was almost dragged through an overgrown carpet of grass and native flax, across an open area toward a forest-shrouded building on the other side.

A small tholos, a roofed circle of marble columns, faced the temple across the open meadow. It stood beneath a great cedar, the largest Pavlos had ever seen. The fluted pillars of the ancient structure were laced with almost microscopic filigree that had a sort of metallic sheen. But in between, the openings were blocked by massive slabs of undressed stone, which clashed with the original design.

With surprising agility, the ancient fury pulled him along up the short stairs to the narrow portico. There she stopped Pavlos and motioned him to be still as she dragged aside a granite stone blocking the doorway.

Clotho looked quickly about the rim of the opening, as if watching for something trying to escape. When finally satisfied she grinned at him and crooked a finger in sly invitation.

“So you wanted to see how it begins, did you? Then look!” she hissed. “No more than a handful of men have ever seen what you now see.”

Pavlos peered into the dimness. Beyond the trapezoid of light cast on the floor by the doorway, the interior was gloomy as a starless night.

Yet, off toward the back, there seemed to be a faint glow. It shimmered with a suggestion of an outline that changed before he could grasp it. His mind struggled, and failed to form a straightforward image.

“It looks like… like a hole. Yes, it’s like a deep hole in space, but with a hint of light at the end. It feels like I’m trying to see through my blind spot.”

“Blind spot… hole in space? Yes! Yes!” she cried.

“You fool! Idiot! You are the smartest of all your race of apes to visit us, and still you don’t recognize this?”

She whacked him on the arm and almost knocked him over. He would have a welt from that blow.

Smartest of all? No, Pavlos thought. I’m merely the latest. I’m probably the first arrival who has heard of Einstein… who knows, at least in abstract, that space has shape and texture, almost like her “cloth.” I’ve heard of black holes and antimatter, and I’ve seen the special effects in those American science fiction films. Perhaps that has prepared me.

But prepared me to do what? To devise glib theories, certainly. I can think of a half-dozen fanciful concepts to explain this, whereas all the other heroes had to think in terms of “miracles” and “magic.”

Big deal, as Frank would say. Perhaps they were better off at that.

The hag pointed at the shimmering, burning blackness at the rear of the building. Pavlos turned to watch her, feeling the cottony numbness pack more fully than ever around his mind.

“That’s where you come from, hero,” she announced with dry satisfaction.

“See the threads? You probably can’t, with them in their natural colors, and not gathered into skeins or bobbins. But if I let them, they would fly free into the sky, to tangle with each other as they liked… each the essence of a human soul, good for a hundred years or perhaps more!

“Some do get away. A few fly off to annoy us. Some become ‘great teachers and leaders’…” Her voice was thick with sarcasm. “We manage to kill them off eventually by finding the part of the tapestry which avoids control, where there is a gap that influences the threads around it. Then we choke it off, at last.”

“But where…?”

“Fool! Look at it! It is a gateway that was pushed into this world… my world… fifty thousand years ago!” Clotho shook her fist into the gloom, menacingly.

“We greeted their emissaries courteously, at first… or as courteously as they had any right to expect. Oh, they were great ones for having ideas. Claimed to be as old as we were and interested in learning from us. They settled down here and soon began meddling with our human pets! They said humans showed promise’!”

Clotho sniffed.

“Oh, you were fairly bright. How you worshiped us! But naturally you lacked the Spark. No ambition at all. No curiosity. And your lives were shorter than this!” She snapped her fingers. “Well, our visitors wanted to let you have some experience with the Spark. They said that maybe if you were given some for a while, along with guidance, you’d start making it yourselves. Hah!

“Oh, we cooperated, for a time, though you never did seem about to learn anything. Finally we started to argue over what kind of experience humans needed.

“Zeus agreed with us… at first… him in his sky tower with his thunderbolts…”

“Zeus!”

“Aye.” She looked at him archly. “He was their leader. A tricky devil, and worse still with the one you now call Prometheus at his side. He was strong, too. Like the time he helped us do in Aesculapius… But he went sissy in the end, like the rest of his folk.”

“You mean the ancient Greek deities all had some basis in—”

“Who said all of them? I’m being kind to a smartaleck hero by telling it in a way he can understand! Like wearing this shape was originally for you humans’ benefit, until we grew accustomed to it and found that it suited our purposes.

“Anyway, who cares what their names were. We killed them all in the end. Or drove them back through their hole. That is all that matters! They got most of us, too; but still we won!”

She crowed and shook her fist at the sky.

“The hole’s still open,” Pavlos pointed out. “Is this other ancient race responsible for the threads?”

Clotho paused to look at him, head cocked, as if torn between ripping him to shreds for his insolence, or rewarding him for being clever.

“Yes!” she hissed. “We can’t close it, or keep them from maintaining a narrow contact with your race. They send a thread of Spark for every human child born, without which you’d all be animals again! Each thread is tied to a life. Break a man’s thread, and he dies!”

Pavlos nodded. “Then you are the Fates, the Norns—”

“True enough. And we use their ‘gifts’ as we wish. We’re making a beautiful tapestry out of the threads. When we’re finished, we’ll wipe out every last one of you, and stuff it down that hole to show them what became of their ‘Grand Experiment’!”

Her laughter was shrill and loud. It grew and grew until Pavlos had to retreat with his hands over his ears. The sound chased him down the steps and out onto the lawn. When it finally subsided, he could still feel the echo vibrating in his bones.

He looked back once, as he trudged in the gathering twilight toward the main temple. Clotho was still inside the smaller building. He caught a glimpse of her, surrounded by a fiery nimbus as she leapt and hopped about the chamber, grabbing nothings out of midair and stuffing them into a bag.

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