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THE BURDEN OF ATLAS
Written by Paul Landis Delaune
 

        Shining beads of sweat cover my furrowed brow and I long to wipe my forehead dry.
My face is unkempt and haggard from years of inattention.  My lips are cracked and dry,
and I yearn for a sip of water, but there is none to serve me.  The perspiration trickles down
my face, stinging and burning my bloodshot eyes.  I can merely close my eyes and wait
for soothing tears to clear the irritation.  Clouds of gnats swarm around my face, but I
have become accustomed to their annoying presence.  At times, biting flies torment me and
I angrily shake my head, bringing little relief.

        My long arms and broad shoulders ache from supporting my great burden; my dirty
fingernails clutch at the earth and rock.  My tired back is covered with scrapes and raw
sores, making the pain of supporting the sky unbearable. I stand hunched over, my weary
legs bent from the terrible load.  The continuous exertion brings pounding headaches
that come and go, but are not absent for long enough.  I wish to relieve myself of
the agonizing weight, yet I dare not; it would be disastrous for all the world's inhabitants.

        The lonely place where I stand is in a rough and solitary land.  Few visitors come this
way and none come who can take up my tremendous burden.  I have stood in this place
for five millenia, or has it been six?  There are periods of time in which I have gone years
without seeing another creature and for centuries without hearing another voice.  Time
goes by slowly, too slowly, and I yearn for the presence of another.  Without my devoted
efforts the world would cease to exist, but still my weary vigil goes unnoticed.

        Once a lone seaman, shipwrecked on some lost and rocky shore, made his way
to my hated abode.  He had become sick and dazed while crossing the burning
desert, and by the time he reached me, he was quite mad.  He seemed to receive
unending pleasure in tormenting me.  He hated me, though I know not why, and I
despised him in return.  He tormented me for years until some blessed god or
goddess in the court of Olympus took pity on my plight and struck my deranged
companion dead.  Still, I mourned over his dead body.

        At times, faithful pilgrims have come to the desolate land in which I labor while on
their way to some sacred shrine.  It is always to the east they travel in their journeys of
devotion.  Men of compassion they be, men with divine vision.  They stop for a time and
we talk.  But soon, always too soon, they once again take up their pilgrimages.  Their
visits I cherish and their memory I honor.

        Once a young man made his way to me on a mission, a quest.  His shoulders were broad
and superbly muscled.  He appeared to be very strong, nearly as powerful as myself.  He
came to inquire as to the location of the golden apples.  Only I could obtain the prize he
sought, but first he must take my place supporting the pillars of heaven.  I knew he
possessed the necessary strength, for he wore the signet ring of Zeus, its polished moonstone
shining bright in the shadowy light.  He took my heavy burden from me and for the first time
in ages freedom was mine.

        I was free!  At long last liberty was mine!  With the release of that giant weight from
my back, I seemed to soar through the air.  The surge of exhilaration I felt moved me to
contemplate challenging King Zeus himself.  I roared like a lion and the earth quaked with
the sound.  I stretched forth my hand into the heavens, plucking out bright
stars, precious jewels to be offered in honor of whatever divine person responsible for
securing my release.

        Soon, however, my heady drunkenness passed and the sudden feeling of invincibility
I experienced was replaced with the shock accompanying severe physical injury.  I
staggered and was unable to walk.  The ache of my long labors returned to me and my deep
sores began to bleed.  I needed rest and care, something I was not to receive in this
forsaken wilderness.  In my condition I could not travel, but mustering enough strength to
rise to my feet, I hailed a cousin and with the coming of nightfall arrived upon Mount
Olympus, borne by the setting sun.

        In the home of the gods, skilled Hippocrates ministered to my soreness and raw back.
Gay Dionysus came often to visit, a skin bulging with his potent blood of the vine in hand.  Occasionally, Homer came to recite exciting tales of fierce battles and challenging deeds.
He told me of Hector, Achilles and Odysseus, and the armada of a thousand ships.
Socrates often tried to coax me off into the night, but he has strange tastes that are not to my
liking.  A few times, lovely Venus came by to flirt, but I cared not for her haughty manner.
Finally, tired of the politics of court, I took up the quest for the golden apples.

        I traveled many strange and wonderful lands.  I fought in bloody battles and admired
pretty maidens.  I laid a wreath at the tomb of the vanquished Titans, my distant cousins
from a peaceful and ancient era.  I visited the Isle of the Cyclops and listened to my host
rage of his hatred for Nemo.  In the renowned libraries of Alexandria I sat at the feet of
learned scholars and listened to the knowledge of the ages.  I meditated in beautiful
gardens, enjoying a bounty of exotic delights.

        I visited one particular lovely garden and wished to stay. Beautiful mermaids lay on
its warm beaches and winged fairies thrived in its luscious forests.  Families of centaurs
made their villages in its broad, green meadows.  There the elders crafted ornaments of
silver, while the youngsters played their games of fun and skill.  This beautiful garden was
ruled by a stunning, Amazon queen.  She was beautifully formed and her movements were
full of grace.  She wore a jeweled crown upon her head and a gown of spun gold about
her lovely figure.  Her skin was as soft velvet and her silky hair as fragrant as wild
orchids.  At her command, delicate blossoms gave forth their sweet nectar and the
rain refused to fall.

        In this colorful garden my past burden became a distant memory for me to forget.  My
beloved queen showed me many new experiences and wonderful delights.  When I looked
into her eyes, my heart melted within me, and when I felt the touch of her hand, my spirit
soared.  Each new day she appeared to be more beautiful than the day before and each
new day I adored her more than the one before.  She taught me the meaning of love and
happiness, and my soul was filled with peace.  I lived for her, for there could be no other.
She was my life, a life filled with much pleasure.

        But I had the quest, the search for the golden apples; the Fates had decreed it so.  My
leaving filled my darling with sorrow and bitter tears welled up in her eyes.  I told her I
would return, but she did not believe me. Her sadness threatened to strangle me and the sun
refused to shine.  She did not want to leave my side, but she knew she had to stay.  On
the day of my departure gray clouds filled the dark sky and drops of rain began to
fall. With my head hung low I started my long trek.  Leaving her was more difficult than
supporting the heavens for a thousand millennia.

        The rest of my search was uneventful, with no exciting adventure.  I reached the land
I sought and gathered up the golden prize.  Then I started back to the lonely place in which
a brave, young man bore the load of the heavens.  Why I returned, I do not know, but he
would not be glad to see me, for I was going to condemn him to Hell.  That hell would be to
continue his sad vigil for the rest of eternity.  The golden apples were to be a gift, a token of
my affection, to a lovely queen in a wondrous paradise.

        When I arrived to the young man bearing my load, I could tell the burden had taken its toll,
for he appeared weak and miserable.  He greeted me joyfully and eagerly beseeched me to
quickly remove the great load from him. As I told him of my plans, I could not look him in the
eye.  He was shocked and dumbfounded, and he began to curse me by all that is holy to the
ancient Achaeans.  His response angered me and I began to taunt him.  The more he cursed
me, the more I mocked him, and the more I mocked him, the more arrogant I became.
He wavered and I laughed at him.  He continued to waver and tempestuous winds
began to blow; jagged lightning streaked across the sky. Still I laughed, but then the
skies began to quake and the earth began to moan.  The burden was too much!  He could
not support the heavens much longer!

        I did not want to again take up that awful load, but at thethought of the destruction of
a beloved garden, I leaped to his side and took the burden from him.  As the crushing weight
settled upon my back,  I thought I would die. However, I did not yield and the heavens
quieted.  The earth sighed in relief and all was peaceful again.  I looked up and the
young man chuckled quietly, smiling.  He had tricked me!  I opened my mouth to curse him,
but no sound came forth.  As the enormity of the situation impressed itself upon me, a loud
groan issued from deep within me and with that solemn sound a portion of me died.

        I still stand in this solitary place.  Scores of centuries have come and gone, but with my
lonely efforts the earth continues to be safe.  Occasionally, I may waver, but I will not
cease my labor.  However, the agony of my burden bothers me no more.  I have become numb
to the tremendous weight, for no heart beats within my weary breast.  Eons ago, it became
lost in a distant and lovely paradise.