I woke to the sound of crashing pottery, followed by the pat-pat-pat of tiny feet beating a hasty retreat. If I wasn't careful that would become the crunch-crunch of tiny feet on broken pottery and then there'd be wailing and blood and an angry god beating down my door wanting to know why I'd neglected his little charge. Good morning, me. And on top of that I had a full day of eating stupid human travelers ahead of me.
"Apollodoros!" I roared, lifting myself off my couch with a beat of my wings. "Apollodoros, stop right where you are!" I landed on the marble floor of my bedroom, my heavy paws barely making a sound, and paced out into the main living area.
Apollodoros had half hidden himself behind the kitchen door, his round eyes huge in the shadows. A chubby finger stuck out and pointed at the shattered jar and the spray of meal all over the floor.
"Porridge!" He said. "I makes!"
"Oh great Zeus above…" I muttered, picking up my paws gingerly as the meal stuck to them. Heedless of the smashed pottery, Apollodoros shot out from behind the door, scampered across the room and threw his arms around my front legs, looking up at me with those shiny human eyes. "Porridge, Finks? Porridge?"
I made him porridge with some of the meal I found in another jar. Making porridge isn't easy with paws, but I manage because I have discovered that mornings are not worth living for Apollodoro if they don't include porridge. Not that I particularly care if he doesn't get his every whim—it's just he has a knack for then making the morning not worth living for anybody else in a hundred foot radius either.
He stuck his spoon into his porridge and inquired, as he shoveled it in his mouth, "What doing?"
"I have to guard a mountain pass today!" I said brightly.
"What do dere?"
"Pose impossible riddles to stupid humans so I can then eat them." I said dryly.
I have no idea how to talk to small children. I'm a sphinx, not a nursemaid, yet Apollos had the temerity to name this particular little demigod "gift of Apollo" and then thump him on my doorstep without much more than a list of his favorite foods and his stuffed minotaur. I think he is two. Humans are absurd creatures. They are needy, selfish, fickle and changeable. Pretty much the only good thing about them is how quickly and easily they die. Meanwhile, monsters are immortal, dependable—look at me, I've guarded the mountain pass going into Thebes for the past seventy years—and yet the humans rule the world, not the monsters. To be bluntly honest, I generally pose impossible questions, because I can't see how any of them are worth letting live.
"I don't know what to do with you." I said to him. "This particular job tends to be bloody. I've half a mind to drop you on some unsuspecting fisherman's wife and just hope she feels sorry for you till I'm done watching the mountain pass today."
"I come!" He announced, banging the spoon on his bowl. "I come help!"
I snorted. "Absolutely not." I said.
Two hours later, I crouched on my post and flinched as a small stone went whizzing past my head. "Stop that!" I hissed over my shoulder, and then moments later I abandoned my post entirely to whisk Apollodoro away from a snake.
"'Nake!" He shrieked, delighted.
"You irrational creature! That thing kills!" I said, swooping him a far distance away and setting him down on the ground. "You don't even have claws!"
I flinched backwards as he howled in protest, stamping his tiny feet, going red in the face, and beating on my paws with his fists. "WANT NAKE!" He screamed.
I generally deal with humankind by biting their heads off. "Do you not realize that I can eat you?" I inquired, assuming he would not understand that I could not, in fact, do this without offending Apollo. "I am much more dangerous than that snake. Do you not realize how small you are?"
He did not. He continued to howl for several minutes and then he noticed a stick. He sniffed, wiped his nose, and began to dig in the sandy soil with it. I stared at him, bemused. "How, without divine intervention, do any of you attain maturity?"
About that time I heard the creak of wagon wheels, and hurried back to my post to issue the riddle and exact the punishment. This took some time, as the merchants had heard of my presence and came armed. Not too much time. A rusty sword and buckler is not much use against my teeth and claws. Again, they thoroughly deserved their fate.
After rolling their wagons back down the hill for the townsfolk to find and spread horrible rumors about me, I went to look for Apollodoro in the little cleft in the rocks I'd left him in.
He wasn't there. How could a small skin-covered person get far? I'd find him shortly. "Apollodoro!" I roared. Curse that god for saddling me with such a useless small creature.
There was no reply but the faint echo of my own voice. I thought about his chubby hands and his tiny soft arms and I had a strange feeling, almost like panic come over me. I jumped into the air, spreading my wings. But I saw nothing on the ground below. An eagle in the distance banked away from me (sensibly) but I soared after and overtook it immediately, demanding as I knocked him aside with a gust from my wings: "Did you steal a little boy? Where is he, or I will tear you to pieces and scatter you at such distance on the mountainside that you won't make a decent feather duster!"
The beasts understand the language of the gods and monsters, though they do not speak it well, and the eagle cringed away from me, clacking his beak in a panic. "Just fish." He croaked. "Only eat fish."
I left him and dropped swiftly down close to the mountainside, roaring, "Apollodoros!" That unprotected human skin would tear if he fell and tumbled against the rocks. What would he do? Would he know to call for me? Would he be afraid?
Then I saw him.
He was capering around in the middle of a dirt road around a man whose hair was white and whose shoulders stooped with age. The old man was limping, and calling out to the boy, "Hold fast, Doro, I can't keep up with you!"
I landed as softly as only a sphinx can, and followed them, listening.
"It's so good to see you, Doro. Do you remember me? I'm your grandfather. Where have you been staying? I've missed you and your mother since you went away."
"Finx!" Apollodoros announced, waving a hand in what he supposed was my general direction. "RAWR!"
"Is that so? I doubt a sphinx would have much patience for a little hooligan like you, my boy."
Well, he was right there.
"Come here before you get run over by a cart!" And he snagged the back of Apollodoro's tunic, ruffling the boy's hair even as Apollodoro squirmed and giggled and nearly knocked him over.
The question was, would this old, injured peasant be willing to take this inexplicable, mercurial being off my hands? I doubted it. The boy was of no practical or monetary value and humans put immense value on those things. This old man would be no different.
"Doro, I can't keep up with you." The old man said gently, and to my surprise, Apollodoro hesitated, turned around, and ran back to hold his grandfather's hand. He began chatting away about Finxes and Porridge in the semi-human tongue he used.
His grandfather was obviously abstracted, only half listening. He finally voiced what he was thinking. "I don't have much, you know." He said. And I thought, here it comes. He's fishing for an excuse to abandon the boy.
"But you stick with me, my boy, and I'll give you what I can. I'm not sure how I'll manage it." He squeezed Apollodoro's shoulder. "You're a bit young to do much work in the fields, after all! But I'll figure it out, I will. A boy ought to have a family."
Far ahead of them I saw a cart drawn by a seedy looking donkey rumbling towards them. The men driving the cart looked familiar, and rascally (a group of bandits I'd spied several weeks earlier, perhaps?) but I was too occupied with my thoughts to give them much heed.
I sat down in the dirt with a thump, feeling rather odd. Was this why the gods loved humans? Were they searching for this type of person, who, with no hope of payment or recompense, simply took up the responsibilities of raising a small human? And had I not just abandoned my post to search for the very selfsame small boy who could offer no recompense for my attention?
Up ahead, the donkey cart paused by Apollodoro and his grandpa, and one of the men I distantly recognized began sidling up to grandpa, so obviously wheedling that I didn't need to be there to hear the pathetic whine in his voice. My hackles raised. I would have immediately leapt forward to send the carters away from the impressive grandpa, but at the same moment, I heard the sounds of feet coming up the mountain path. I froze, tail lashing. Why should I neglect my duty to save two insignificant humans? I was getting as bad as the gods, imagining good qualities in these shallow creatures. I launched myself into the air to return to my ledge.
I settled into my place just as a young man came into view. All I ever saw in human faces was animal fear or ridiculous hubris. For all their technology and brains, faced with a monster, they were no better than a rabbit looking up at a fox, so I generally avoided their gaze. But spurred by thoughts of Apollodoros and his grandpa, I looked at this one. He was young, with bright, intelligent eyes. If I didn't eat him, would this one turn into the kind of being who would patiently care for someone weak and helpless?
"What's your name?" I asked.
He looked surprised. I felt a little surprised myself for caring.
"Oedipus." He said with a tilt to his chin as if he'd announced a title.
No, I thought, this one is proud. This one is not like that old man. And I began to look forward to eating him—when I heard a panicked scream below me. "HELP, FINX!"
I bolted upright in a panic. Those bandits! Apollodoro! And yet, it was my duty to riddle and eat this man in front of me, to rid the world of yet another human parasite. Was it possible that that old humble man had once been a young arrogant man? Were humans, with their tiny lifespans, capable of changes monsters were not? And if they were, did that make their lives more valuable than I'd thought before?
Apollodoro screamed again, and I heard the old man give a helpless shout of fright.
I made my decision. I gave Oedipus a solvable riddle. "What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening? Hurry!"
I saw comprehension dawn on his face, and that silly look humans get when they forget they're the rabbit and mistake themselves for the fox. "Man!" He said, "Because—"
"Because you can change!" I shouted, and leapt backwards off the side of the cliff, spreading my wings as I drove. "I'm coming, Apollodoro!"