by P. Murgatroyd, UK
“Long, long ago, in an age of myth and marvel, there was a youth of singular, star-bright beauty called Narcissus. The son of a god, he was as handsome as a god; but his heart was as hard as his body was lovely. Perhaps not surprisingly, Narcissus was rather narcissistic, and prided himself on his exceptional, exotic attractiveness. Many young women turned loving eyes on him. But he turned the nostrils of scorn on them, as his inferiors in looks. He was full of disdain and himself.
One of the females who futilely fancied him was Echo. She was called that because of something very strange about her, something unique: she couldn’t start a conversation herself but could only repeat words that others said. This was a slight handicap when it came to chatting up men. She first saw Narcissus when he was out hunting with his friends one day. Immediately she fell helplessly and hopelessly in love with him. But there was no point in approaching him. All poor Echo could do was follow him furtively and feast her eyes on his beauty from afar.
During the course of the hunt he became separated from the others. When he went looking for them, he saw a cave and wondered if they were sheltering from the hot sun in there. In fact Echo was hiding in that cave, and was closely observing him.
Narcissus went up to the cavern and shouted: ‘Hello.’
‘Hello,’ came back from the shadows.
‘Who are you?’ he asked.
‘Who are you?’ he was asked in turn.
He smirked, puffed out his chest and said: ‘I’m Narcissus, and I am beautiful.’
She responded smartly: ‘I am beautiful.’
Raising an eyebrow, he drawled: ‘I can’t imagine you’re lovely enough for me.’
‘You’re lovely enough for me,’ Echo assured him.
‘Oh, lots of women love me.’
‘Love me,’ urged Echo.
‘I’m just not interested. I’m –‘
‘Not at all ready for an affair.’
‘All ready for an affair.’
Echo emerged from the cavern with a smouldering smile for Narcissus. He eyed her with a superior sneer and barked: ‘Don’t touch me.’
She shortened that to: ‘Touch me.’
He insisted: ‘You can’t kiss me.’
Which was turned into: ‘Kiss me.’
The supercilious stripling became exasperated and shouted. Echo was forced by her nature to shout back, words she desperately didn’t want to use. When he bellowed: ‘Stop it,’ she bellowed: ‘Stop it.’
‘Go away,’ yelled Narcissus.
‘Go away,’ echoed Echo.
Then he roared: ‘All right, I’ll go,’ and her regretful response was: ‘Go.’
Narcissus vibrated with rage, stamped his pretty little foot and flounced off. He was extremely miffed at her harsh words of dismissal, and just couldn’t believe that some perfectly ordinary female had rejected him.
Echo was left desolate and in despair, deeply in love but with no chance of ever winning over the one she loved so deeply. She pined and pined. And then something extraordinary happened, something supernatural. As she pined, she stared to waste away. She became thinner and thinner. A wisp. A wraith. A fade. Finally only her voice remained.
From on high the immortal gods witnessed all this, pitying poor Echo. They were angry with the arrogant youngster and decided on a fitting punishment for him – a reprise with pointed twists. They got him to go off hunting again, and separated him from his friends again, in the same spot. In front of the cave they created an amazingly clear pool of water, which shone like thrice-burnished silver and tempted him to quench his thirst. Then, as he hurried towards it, the gods took away the little sense that god had given him, scrambled his wits and made him forget all about reflections.
Narcissus threw himself down by the pool, lowered his lips to the water and caught sight of an astoundingly lovely face. He gazed and gazed at it, infatuated. He decided on reflection that here at last was the lover he deserved. He marvelled at his own marvellous features, felt the fire of love and at the same time kindled it, and was filled with desire for himself.
And the gods in heaven laughed.
Helplessly and hopelessly in love, he tried to win over the youth in the pool. Narcissus smiled at him, and the young man smiled back, encouragingly. So he spoke words of love, and saw that the youth’s lips also moved and he seemed to be speaking words of love too. Then Narcissus leaned forward for a kiss, and his beloved leaned forward too. But just as they made contact, the youngster in the water disappeared. Narcissus simply couldn’t understand it.
When the young man reappeared, Narcissus did all that all over again in vain. After repeating the process several times he rounded on his tormentor in a rage: ‘You hard-hearted boy, how can you be so proud and aloof? Why do you leave me? Where in the world do you go? Oh, I know why you spurn me. It’s because I’m not lovely enough for you. But who on earth could be? Have pity on me. Please come out of your pool. Let me embrace you, please.’
But the youth was deaf to his pleas and wouldn’t come out.
Narcissus grew sad and wept. He could see that his darling was sad and weeping too. But still he wouldn’t come out of the pool.
Narcissus couldn’t win over the one he loved and couldn’t bear to go away and leave him. All he could do was feast his eyes on his beauty, apart from him. There he lay like a fallen statue in a land ravaged long before by barbarians. Desolate and in despair, he pined and pined, becoming thinner and thinner, and distraught to see his young man wasting away as well. Finally, with his dying breath, he murmured mournfully: ‘Goodbye, my love.’
Brought there by the gods to witness his punishment, Echo also murmured mournfully: ‘Goodbye, my love.’
The gods sent a vision to his friends that night telling them where Narcissus was. But the next day, when they arrived at the pool, they couldn’t see him anywhere. They searched and searched, but Narcissus was nowhere to be found.
But then a miracle! In his place they found…a flower. A flower called the narcissus. Which had a lovely golden centre embraced by ice-white petals. The narcissus flower was beautiful, but not as exquisite as the youth Narcissus. For being diminished like this was part of his punishment.
So, you see, you shouldn’t be proud or –”
“What’s a flower, grandad?”
“What? Oh right, silly me. Must be going senile. I forgot you’ve never seen a flower. Ooh, flowers were gorgeous, colourful little plants; we had lots of them before the Great Heat came. I think I’ve got a photo of one somewhere. They used to come out in the spring. In the days when we had seasons, with different weather, and it was a pleasure to go outside and stroll around. You see, the earth wasn’t always a howling grey wasteland.”