The young man dashed up the stairs outside a yawning stone temple, its starless silhouette having guided him for miles against the backdrop of night. His legs pumped violently beneath him, an exhausted unconscious rhythm that eluded him if he dared grasp at it. Lightning flashed in the distance. He stumbled when its rumble of thunder pounded down an age behind the light.
Somehow, his hands supported the weight of his falling frame. The stairs were still damp. As his chest heaved, he noted the pools of rainwater gathered in the worn calderas of each step. It had rained and he knew it would rain again. Amidst this distraction, he did not feel the hands pulling him up to his feet. He peered around as if he had just been born. He must have reached the top. A robed priestess spoke to him but he could not hear her over the drumming of his heart. Creases of worry folded themselves into her brow. She appeared to call for some aid, but he brushed by her.
He staggered to one of the soaring columns that supported the open structure around the inner temple. Fearing his instant of respite would ensnare him for an eternity, he pushed off and ran across the polished marble slabs toward a pair of ornate doors. A stern priest, graying at the temples, materialized in his path and caught him by the shoulders. The dangerously cool touch of the young man’s perspiring flesh forced the priest to frown. He stared curiously at the holy man’s moving lips but could make no meaning of them.
“The goddess,” the young man rasped, “I must see her.”
The priest shook his head and firmed his grip on the young man. Refusing to be denied after such an impossible journey, he lunged forward. More arms entangled themselves around his, slowing but not stopping his progression.
Then, with a deep shuddering, the double doors opened like springtime pedals for the caress of the bumblebee. The young man halted as the gravity of the small event demanded the attention of every open eye. The temple’s attendants reluctantly released him, equally beset by awe. Not a soul present believed the wind responsible.
Freshly freed, he strode forward; though after his desperate adventure he found walking a foreign and ungainly task. They watched breathlessly as he slipped inside and pulled the portal closed behind him.
His breast still beat itself into unrelenting oblivion and in the austere quiet of that temple he there feared he would not again know the serenity of a peacefully drawn breath. That was until he beheld the altar of the goddess. By some miracle of architecture, streams of moonlight mingled with starlight poured themselves over the sculpture of perfect female form. The stone figure appeared to him a gem, lit from within, alive like paper before fire.
Mortal women were called beautiful for possessing any of her features even in singularity, but her grace existed beyond mere physicality. As he shuffled raggedly toward the dark and gleaming pool at the statue’s base, the young man mused beyond his fatigue that the true divinity of this goddess was perhaps cheapened in distraction by the lusty curvature of her naked physique.
He leaned doggedly upon the edge of the pool, his composure increasingly evasive. The young man choked upon gulps of air, his face contorting in unflattering fits. Had he the tears, he would have wept.
His gaze shot up to the goddess. Addled by fatigue, he did not question the first word he had heard in days but rather the notion he sully the sanctified waters of this sacred place.
“Drink, my love,” her voice a whispered song, like one lover singing another asleep after a frightful dream. “Step into my waters and drink.”
He could not but obey. With trembling care he removed his leather sandals, unsure of where the packed dust of the road quit and his own flesh began. Swarms of blisters stung like wasps as he dipped his beaten feet beneath the surface. At this, his eyelids forced themselves shut and two defiant tears streaked the grime of his cheek. The young man pitched forward into the pool, catching himself only by hands and knees, imagining the filth of his journey an aquatic cloud, billowing out unseen in the blackness before him.
With tortured determination, he lifted a cupped hand to his cracked lips and let the sweet liquid glide over his tongue and swallowed. That first draft granted him the strength to take another and after a short succession, he found he could finally breathe. He sat upon his heels, the rippling water lapping gently at his waist, and reared his head back to address the deity above him.
“How may I serve you, my love?” She sang to him with such dangerous divinity as to lend a man the feeling of equivalence with gods.
“I have come to beg from you a terrible boon.”
“Speak out, then.”
“I implore you free me from your love.”
“You, mortal, are mine to love as I please.” He could hear the frown upon her heart.
“Love, I fear, has become my one dreadful affliction,” he dug a thumb into his own arm and held it clumsily aloft, “a circulatory stain within my veins.”
“Why, dear one?”
He cast his eyes down into the darkness and well into the world beyond. “She belongs to another.”
“We cannot belong to each other, only ourselves.”
“Then free me from myself,” he pleaded. “I wish to be parted from this form in which she cannot find love. My fragile heart cannot bear another stroke of so cruel a fate.”
“Your words do your heart grave disservice, my love. For three days it has carried you to me faster than the hunted hare. It endeavors to live, even when you do not.”
“Then free me from my sight, goddess. I pledge to you the remainder of my earthly service if I could be but blind,” he wrung his hands in wounded frustration. “Must the whole world remind me of her?”
“Without your eyes, my love, would you then be free of her?” He sensed the knowing in her voice. “Would you not again recall the fragrance of her hair as you tangled yourselves in the warmth of my embrace? Would not her every taste dance on your tongue as you remembered her feminine sighs upon your ear? Would not the soft weight of her in your arms,” she hesitated.
“Please,” he cried, his arms falling open; his hands disappearing to the wrist in the formlessness of the water. “I can bear no more.”
“Then now you know the dire cost of love, dear one.”
He closed his eyes and breathed long breaths of defeat. “It is too great.”
“Yes, my love. Such is the curse of mortality.”
“You will not release me?” He gazed imploringly upward.
“No. I will not.”
“Then my pilgrimage is for naught. I am forsaken to doomed days.” He spoke as though the world were breaking apart over the vastness of void space.
“Stay such pain in my house, young one. Your fiery heart cannot now see I have many daughters.”
“There is but one I desire.”
“For now,” she repeated, her voice reverberated with calming patience. “I have feared you might chance upon one of my favorites before your impassioned heart whole enough to hold the love they command.”
The young man wavered as he knelt in the pool that now felt warm to his blood; speechless, a portrait of exhaustion.
“Rest now, my love,” she sang to him. “No harm shall befall you in my care.”
He knew neither the strength nor desire to defy her.
“You will not wake to a wintering world, but find in its stead a springtide of hope and vitality. Rest now; I shall sing to you a spell.”
The young man then slipped himself beneath the surface of the mirrored and inviting darkness, disappearing from the sight of any observer; though there were none.
There, at the feet of Aphrodite, he fell asleep and continued to dream.