by Michael John Grist
The Sphinx asked me its questions.
I ignored the Sphinx. It had the head of a lion, and the body of a man and woman combined.
“Where are you from?” it asked. “Why are you here?”
The Sphinx touched me with its hips. It edged closer to me.
“Stroke my hair,” it said. “Then you may pass.”
“I don’t want to pass,” I said.
“All want to pass. Just touch my cheeks. Stroke my back.”
“I don’t want to. I’m fine here.”
“It’s the desert.”
“It’s where I’m meant to be.”
“Kiss my eyelids. Stroke the soft skin of my fore-arms.”
The sun was hot overhead. I’d been walking for a week. I drank water from cactuses after I smashed them with my machete. I dug holes and lined them with small patches of plastic to catch condensation.
All I got was little piles of sand.
My eyes were dry. I had an endless headache.
The Sphinx was walking close to me. Its porcelain naked skin shone white in the glare of the sun.
“Well surely you haven’t come here just to die at my feet?” it asked.
“Then you may lie here and die, for all I care,” said the Sphinx.
I lay there a time longer.
The Sphinx hummed. The wind scoured my back with sand.
I felt light and spongy, like the dried veins of a leaf. I felt brittle. I felt like my joints were seizing up.
“One little kiss,” said the Sphinx. “You can go on by.”
I turned from the sand to look at it. It was striding haughtily up and down before me, as if on a cat-walk.
“Are you so lonely?” I asked.
The Sphinx shook its shaggy lion’s head. “I’m not lonely,” it said. “I’m just alone.”
“Is that not loneliness?” I asked. The Sphinx ignored me.
“When men come, they want to pass. Why don’t you want to pass?”
“I have my reasons.”
“Men never stop and talk. They never let me come close. They bare their swords, and most of them I have to kill.”
The Sphinx gestured over to the pile of bones by the gateway.
“They guessed at the answer. None of them bring enough water or supplies to get back. None of them know the answer. So they die.”
“I know the answer,” I said.
“What? How could you know the answer? I didn’t even ask the question yet.”
“I know the answer, whether it matches your question or not.”
“Then what is the question?”
“That’s easy,” I said. “Give me some water, and I’ll tell you the question.”
The Sphinx snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous,” it said. “I don’t help men.”
“Yet you begged me to touch your skin. Are you not lonely, Sphinx?”
The Sphinx glared at me. It hoofed the sand. Then it stalked away.
A time later it returned. It had water.
“Drink this,” said the Sphinx. “Then tell me your question.”
I drank the water. It felt cool and clear.
“My question is in three parts,” I said.
“The first part is this. The letter Z.”
“That’s the first part of the question,” I said.
“That’s not a question.”
“I assure you it is,” I said. “And I can’t tell you the second part until you answer the first.”
“Z,” mused the Sphinx.
“Now leave me to rest,” I said.
The Sphinx came back.
“The answer is A,” said the Sphinx.
“No,” I said.
The Sphinx stalked away.
The Sphinx returned to me many times suggesting possible answers. Each time it advanced a little closer. Each time its cloven hooves danced nearer to my worn-down body.
Eventually I leapt to tackle it. It tottered and fell, like any man. I lashed its ankles in moments with the straw-hide I had hidden in my ragged jacket. It jerked at me but I wrapped it in a net from my bag. It tried to throw off the net but I reached for the drawstrings and pulled them tight.
“Now, Sphinx,” I said, standing over it. “We talk about questions.”
The Sphinx guards the doors to heaven and hell. This is well-known. The Sphinx only lets in those strong enough to best it in combat, or wise enough to beat it in a contest of wits.
I knew I was neither. Neither strong, nor wise. But I was wily.
The Sphinx lay on its naked side.
“Let me in,” I said.
“Tell me why you have come first,” said the Sphinx.
“I have come for God.”
“And what would you want with God?”
“I will take him by his beardy chin and strike him into the dust.”
“And then?” asked the Sphinx.
“And then I imagine all things will end.”
The Sphinx mused on this for a time.
“Stroke my hair,” said the Sphinx softly. “And kiss my eyelids. I do not want to die untouched.”
I knelt in, and I stroked the captive Sphinx’s hair. I kissed its eyelids, and stroked its soft downy back.
As I touched it, it transformed. Its lion’s head became that of a beautiful woman. Its body shed its masculinity.
The Sphinx reached out, and touched my face. The Sphinx kissed me. The Sphinx moved against me, and there in the harsh sun we coupled.
It was more tender than any experience I’ve ever had.
I bested the Sphinx. The Sphinx bested me.
I remain her lover. She remains mine. We guard the gates together. No man may enter and end the world, because then she would be taken from me, and I from her. And that I can never permit.
I kiss her back. She feeds me water and grapes. We sew seeds of flowering cacti in the desert.
You can see all MJG’s stories here:[album id=6 template=compact]