By Jack Walsh
The late afternoon sun hung low beyond the city walls, and the glare obscured the enormous thing crouched in the shadow of the gates – a thing that had suddenly become very shouty.
An inhuman voice bellowed, the force of it sending a cloud of dust blowing past the man on the road. “Step forward!” The traveller did not feel inclined to do so.
“I said step. Forward.”
The man swallowed, raised his arm to shield his eyes from the sun, and took a step.
“C’mon. Little bit more. Scooch on up.”
The man, squinting, took another half-step.
The thing sighed. “Zeus almighty, guy. Just come into the fucking shade already.”
The traveller crept up until the sun dipped behind the walls. And there, guarding the way in, was a creature more horrible than any he could have imagined. The cruelest eyes looked at him from within a woman’s face, and a long tongue flicked itself over blood-stained fangs. Below all this was the body of a lion, a sight rendered all the more grotesque by the incongruous addition of eagle’s wings. It was an unholy abomination, a magical being seemingly designed by committee.
The creature watched the man as he struggled to process her appearance.
“And don’t forget the tail,” she said, pointing behind her. “It’s a snake.”
Indeed, an asp raised up from behind the monster. “What? I wasn’t paying atten…Oh, hey. I’m the snake.”
“Hey…” said the traveller. “I’m Oedipus.”
“And I…” said the monster, pausing with a flourish as she spread her wings. She then shook her tail with annoyance.
“Sorry,” said the snake.
“And I…” the monster repeated as the snake added to the drama of the moment with a fearsome hisssssss, “am the Sphinx.”
Oedipus said nothing.
“The Sphinx!” she said again.
After a beat, the snake added, “hsssssssss?”
“Like in Egypt?” asked Oedipus.
“No, that’s like a totally other thing,” replied the Sphinx.
“So, you’re like a sphinx.”
“No, I’m the Sphinx!” she screamed, a small burst of flame coming from her throat. “Ow! Holy shit!…I didn’t even know I could do that! Fuck. Do you have any water?”
“Uh, I…I’m sorry. I don’t,” said Oedipus.
The Sphinx flexed her jaw a few times and, grimacing, smacked her lips with distaste. “Ugh, gross…So, you. I imagine you want to go into Thebes or something.”
“Um, yes, ma’am.”
“Then, you must answer…my riddle.”
A look of vague recognition crossed Oedipus’s face. “Oh. The riddle of the Sphinx.”
The Sphinx rolled her eyes. “Ugh, Ares, Apollo and Athena, yes, of course the riddle of the Sphinx.”
“Now, remind me of the deal with that,” said Oedipus
“If you get it right, you pass safely into the city of Thebes.”
Oedipus nodded. “Gotcha.”
“If you do not…” the Sphinx paused again. The snake hissed.
“I die,” Oedipus jumped in.
“Yes,” said the Sphinx, annoyed at the interruption. “Yes, you die. Horribly. Right here.”
“You can turn back, though,” she added. “And maybe I’ll let you run a while across the plain before I swoop from the heavens and devour you alive.”
“Very well,” said Oedipus.
“Very well what?” The Sphinx stutter-stepped with excitement. “You’re going to run for it?”
“I will answer your riddle.”
“Oh.” The Sphinx frowned. “I should warn you; no one’s ever gotten it right.”
“But I shall,” said Oedipus.
“But I shall,” muttered the Sphinx in a sing-songy tone as she reached under one massive wing and pulled out a laptop computer. “Okay. Let’s see here…” She opened it and typed a few keys.
“Shit. Hang on.” She tried again.
Oedipus politely feigned interest in the architecture of the city walls.
“Oh, duh. Caps lock,” said the Sphinx. She clicked the mouse and scrolled down for a moment. “Okay, where was…a ha. Here we go. Oh, you really are quite doomed.”
Oedipus exhaled and rubbed his sweaty palms on his tunic.
The Sphinx looked at him over the top of the monitor and began.
“Name a city…that does not have an “O” in it.”
Oedipus blinked. “Uh…”
“I bet you can’t!” the Sphinx gleefully interrupted.
Oedipus glanced past the Sphinx. “Um…” he coughed, ”Thebes?”
The Sphinx’s jaw dropped slightly, and then she looked back at the city behind her.
“Athens, also,” suggested Oedipus, helpfully.
The Sphinx scowled. “Okay,” she said, looking back at the laptop.
“Oooo, also, Atlantis, Sparta, Delphi…”
“OKAY!!” snapped the Sphinx. “Enough! Fuck. We’ll move on to the next one.”
“Wait, what?” asked Oedpius.
“The second riddle.”
“You just said there was a riddle.”
“No, there’re three.”
“Well, you didn’t say that.”
“Well, there are. Obviously. There are always three magical things. Three wishes. Three guesses of the goblin’s name. Three, I dunno, ghosts or whatever. Three riddles. Okay? I just have to find the next one.”
They were quiet for a moment until the Sphinx began to mutter. She tapped the keyboard angrily several times.
“Shit. I think my IT guy is doing updates right now.”
“In the middle of the day?” asked Oedipus.
“I know, right?” said the Sphinx.
“You should eat him.”
“Ha ha. I totally should.”
Oedipus shuffled his feet. The Sphinx watched the screen. The snake hissed softly to himself.
After what felt like several minutes, the Sphinx spoke. “So, what brings you…What’d you say your name was?”
“Right. What brings you to Thebes, Oedipus?”
“I’m here to see my girlfriend.”
“Ah, a special lady in town. Got a picture?”
Oedipus pulled up a photo on his iPhone and handed it to the Sphinx.
“Oh, cute,” said the Sphinx. “Although…”
“What?” asked Oedipus.
“Oh, nothing. It’s just that…you guys look a lot alike.”
“What?” Oedipus laughed. “I don’t know. I don’t really see it.”
“You don’t think so?” The Sphinx held the picture in line with Oedipus’s face and eyed the two. “I mean it’s almost like she could be your sister. Or your moth…”
“Well, y’know how they say,” said Oedipus, taking the phone. “Couples kinda start to resemble each other.”
“Do they say that?” asked the Sphinx. “Hmmm. I thought that was about dogs and owne…oh, hey! Here we go. Next riddle.” She looked at the laptop, and began to read.
“I truly believe that Cyclops is the son of our lord, Poseidon, God of the sea…”
Oedipus waited for more.
“I bet this won’t get many shares. Are you brave enough to share this?” asked the Sphinx.
Oedipus glanced at the Snake, who gave him a look that suggested that if he had shoulders, he would shrug them.
“Tick tock,” said the Sphinx.
Oedipus looked at her. “Wha…?”
“Are you brave enough to share this?!” demanded the Sphinx.
“Y…Yes?” offered Oedipus.
The Sphinx smacked the side of the computer. “Gods-dammit, you are really good at this!”
Oedipus cleared his throat in a way that he hoped seemed modest.
“But I shall feast on your entrails, yet!” shrieked the Sphinx. “I shall drink your blood and pluck your heart from your che..oh, shit. Here’s a good one.”
The Sphinx’s eyes moved back and forth over the screen. Oedipus couldn’t help but notice that she silently mouthed the words when she read.
After a moment, the Sphinx pushed the screen partway down and looked at him. “You have been a worthy challenger…”
“Oedipus,” he said.
“Right. A worthy challenger, Oedipus,” the Sphinx continued, “but you will soon learn that mortals were not meant to match wits with the scions of Olympus.”
The Sphinx opened the laptop again.
“There is a creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening,” she said.
Oedipus opened his mouth to reply but the Sphinx continued. “This creature is man. Like if you agree.”
Oedipus blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”
“99% will get this wrong!” added the Sphinx.
“I..” began Oedipus and then looked at the snake again, who had clearly lost interest at this point.
“Like if you agree!” shouted the Sphinx.
With some confused hesitation, Oedipus forced a queasy smile and raised his hand in a thumbs-up gesture.
The Sphinx let out a horrific wail, beating her mighty wings and thrashing her tail furiously. “Aaaaaaaa!” said the snake. At the edges of the surrounding plains, thunder boomed. The Sphinx once again fixed her fierce eyes upon Oedipus. He braced himself.
“Okay, well, enjoy Thebes,” said the Sphinx while clicking the mousepad. “The place right inside the gate has killer moussaka, just FYI.”
“Oh…” said Oedipus. “Cool.”
“Actually,” the Sphinx mused, “I could really go for some, now that I’m thinking about it.”
“Aren’t you, I don’t know,” said Oedipus. “Aren’t you supposed to die now that I solved your riddles?”
“Hmm? Oh, no, I don’t think so.”
“I thought maybe you were going to throw yourself off a cliff or something.”
“No,” said the Sphinx. “I mean, I have wings. So. That would be weird. Anyway, you wanna grab a bite? They’ve got WiFi. I have other things I could ask you for fun. Wanna find out what character from the Iliad you are?”
Oedipus eased past the Sphinx, who was making no real effort to move out of the way. “Oh, um, thanks. But, I need to get going and see my mom…I mean, my girlfriend! Haha that was crazy.”
“Mmmm,” said the Sphinx, offering no further comment aside from a raised eyebrow as she turned her attention back to the internet.