He asks of me a favor, and I am quick to do his bidding. For lo! He is the god of gods, Zeus himself, and when he speaks my heart leaps up to carry out his will, what there is of it both voiced and unvoiced.
He has done well to choose me, for though I am not the prettiest of my sisters I am the quickest of them – the quickest of wit, and the most fearless besides, not content to rest in dappled shade but preferring to stretch lithely in the noon day sun. We are the Oreads, the mountain nymphs of Mt. Olympus, and our nature is such that men should look upon us and despair. Our skin is white and smooth as the rock, and our hair as soft as the downy oak. We are as hardy as the pines and as fast as the falcons; we know how to shroud ourselves in cloud and dance between the snowflakes of the snowfalls of the peaks. We know how to run as light as the breeze, leaving no footfall below us, and command with all the deepness of the gorge.
I am the boldest of my sisters, and the one whose anger flames hottest. I am the one who plays games with the shepherd boys, the mortals that trespass too close to our caves and secret hollows. I call out to them that disturb the air with their raucousness, or pollute the grasses, or to those that stalk in the woods for a glimpse of us undressed in bath or dance. I appear before them playfully, out of reach, making my appearance flutter and flit like the mountain’s butterflies and clouding their senses with color and want. I lure them to the precipice, to any of those hundred places where I bid the ground give way beneath them and they stumble, uncertain, half a breath from death. The quick ones recover and return more soberly to their homes, their faces as yellow as the Sternbergia flowers that would have marked their unfound graves, and filled with warnings that they spread like seeds across the lands. The slow ones perish, their cries reverberating throughout the ravine, a fitting reminder of the power of the mountain and of those that command it.
We eat well when the mortals grow too bold for my liking; they shrink their flocks in fear and our shrines overflow with their sacrifices – piece upon piece of lamb and goat, and jar upon jar of milk and oil. My sisters are gentler than I, and chide me even as they fill their mouths with meat and fat, but I laugh as I eat, and am drunk on the respect of men. Of all of nature, the gods have chosen our realm as their home – not the forests of the Dryads, nor the groves of the Alseids, nor the springs, nor the meadows, nor the ash trees, nor the oceans. Only here are Zeus and his relatives, and alone among my sisters there is nothing I would not do to serve him.
He calls to me one day as I relax alone in a clearing, my sisters more prudently sheltered in the darkness of the nearby caves that are our home. It is known not to be safe to be caught alone by the god. He calls to me, startling me, and looks me up and down with appraisal. Under his gaze I blush as pink as the cyclamen. I am not shy; it is a natural reaction, as all flesh reddens under the intensity of the sun.
“Nymph,” he says, “I have need of you.”
I tremble. I bend my head in obeisance. Unable to see him, I wonder when I will feel it.
“What I have is yours, my Lord,” I murmur.
“I will be gone for a few hours. My wife should not look for me, or wonder where I have gone. You will spend the time with her in conversation, distracting her from my absence. You can do this?”
I stand uncertain for a moment, the tension in my body draining curiously into a pool of relief. Then I hear his words and my heart leaps up in glad service.
“I will, my Lord,” I say with conviction. “I will go to her now.”
I look up to smile at him, to reassure wordlessly with my eyes that I will perform this task adequately, but by the time my head is lifted he is gone, perhaps shifted to a swan or other creature, the better to pass among the mortal world.
I run up the mountain as quick as a squirrel, too quick to think or plan. I do not go far before I see a gleam of gold that is not of the mountain, that rests against the mountain like a stone set into a ring. At the sight of her I slow, and then stop.
She is extraordinarily beautiful, with arms so white they must never have seen the noon day sun, and her eyes as brown and deep as the earth. She is weeping, and the tears glisten on her cheeks, catching the sunlight and framing her face in diamonds, making her even more beautiful. When I see her something within me begins to soften and glow. Such is the power that the gods have over their subjects.
“My lady,” I call. I approach her cautiously, as one would a wounded bird. “Do you have need of aid?”
She barely looks at me. “Have you seen my husband?” she demands. Her voice is higher than I expected, but rich in timbre and humming with melody. It would be pure and perfect were it not thick with bile.
“No,” I lie, and the lie comes easily, as easily as the illusion of solid ground. “There is naught below but a small number of goats and a goatherd.”
Hera sniffs and stops. Her white hands move restlessly, grasping but finding nothing but empty air, and I continue, looking for the words that will soothe her.
“He is young and feels himself invincible – he has made no sacrifices at the shrine of Oreads, and I have seen him steal glances towards our caves, as no doubt he would like to steal our virtue. My sister was bathing not far from him,” I embellish, warming to my subject, “and has asked me to protect her. As twilight approaches I was going to lure him to the ravine; if he is so immoral then he deserves nothing else but death.”
Throughout all of this speech Hera is distracted, looking off this way and that, searching for a direction. Then it is as though my words penetrate her preoccupation and she looks me in the face for the first time.
“You lure immoral men into danger?” she asks me. She looks me up and down. Her look is not the same as her husband’s, though my blood rushes to my surface just the same. If he is the burning sun, the one that scalds the deserts and cauterizes the rivers, then she is the gardener’s, the one that warms the plants and nurtures all of life.
I bow. “I do, my lady,” I say.
I tell her the tales of the mortals I have tricked, and regale her with stories of those who righteously fell to their doom and of those who cheated death through luck and quick-footedness. She claps her hands in delight. I had heard that she loved vengeance, and tales of faithlessness punished, but had found the theme nearly by accident. We are not so different, she and I.
We talk until the shadows cover the ground and the diurnal birds fall silent, making way for the darkness and quiet of those that hunt in the night. I am weary but elated, flushed by her attention, my inner self broadened and stretched by our meeting.
She bends to go, but beckons me towards her, and kisses me on the lips. “You are an unusual nymph,” she says. “What is your name?”
“Echo,” I say, her touch causing a shiver to go through me.
“Echo,” she says. She smiles. “Thank you for your stories.”
I bow, and when I look up she is gone. I walk home towards my sisters, hardly able to see the path before me for remembering her smile. Weary though I am, I stop and waken the sleeping goatherd, breathing a promise in his ear, entreating him to follow. He does, and in the dark it does not matter how quick he is, as the tangled roots catch his boot and his screams ring through the gorge.
He had been a quiet boy, and not lecherous towards my sisters. But I wanted to please her, and wanted a new tale if ever I saw her again, and the lie I had told seemed like truth on the path home. And besides, he was just a mortal, and it is good sometimes for the punishments of nature to be capricious. So I say, shrugging, in response to my sisters, who reproach me even more than usual as our shrines fill up with desperate gifts. My sisters find the taste of these sour, and have no appetite for them, and out of a sense of disquiet I eat and drink far more than my share.
It is common for Oreads to quarrel, but for the quarrels to be as brief as a summer storm. The storm has nearly passed, and I have nearly forgotten my encounters with the gods, when Zeus comes to me again. At once I bow my head to the ground, feeling myself aflame with purpose.
“Nymph,” he says. “Where are your sisters?”
My mouth goes dry. To lie is unthinkable. “They are at the river, my Lord,” I say. “There is a space sheltered by the trees and only reachable through the caves in the west side. They rest and bathe there, far away from all the prying eyes of mortals, and far from all the dangers of the woods.”
He nods. “My wife is behind me,” he says. “Delay her, and you will serve me well.”
I bow so deeply that my face presses itself in dirt and rock, the pebbles scratching my cheeks and my eyes watering with the sand. We are all of us, the Oreads, of the mountain, and none of us can refuse a god, as no host can refuse a guest in their house. And yet I shudder for the pain of my gentle sisters, even as I wonder at what keeps me from them, and why the god chooses me for my words, and for my quickness.
I remember his order, and jump to my feet. She must have been very close indeed, for she is coming into the clearing now, close enough to see me stand, and in a flash she is beside me, taking my arm with her white hands, her golden sandals having run more swiftly than ever I guessed before.
“Echo!” she cries. “Are you hurt?” She gazes at me, at the cuts on my face and the tears in my eyes. Warmth spreads through me, and gladness at her presence makes me forget all the turmoil I had felt a moment before.
“A scratch,” I say. “I was dancing in the sunlight, and in my fervor mistook the air for a rock, and tripped upon the earth.”
She seems skeptical, and I continue, until mirth slowly stretches her face, and then she is laughing at my clumsiness, while I grin, and blush, and assure her that it is nothing, that she should have seen the wounds on the goatherd’s broken body as I punished him for his transgressions, and then we are talking again, and all thought of Zeus and my sisters has vanished from both of us, and all we can see is each other, and the stories.
I am so caught up I do not think to realize that we are standing in front of my home – and we are still standing there as my sisters arrive, and nothing can prevent her from realizing the truth, as no lie could cover their swelling and bruises, and no words could transpose their keening.
Her face is terrible as she hears them, and terrible as she turns to me, and terrible as she takes me, silently, to the mountain’s peak and locks me in place, shivering, as she disappears.
When she returns, I bow before her, no hope in my heart.
“Echo,” she says, “you have lied to a god. With all your cleverness you have done nothing but make yourself a puppet, a mouthpiece for others’ whims. You have used your gift of quickness to shield the affronter, and your gift of words to break the bonds of faithfulness between sister and sister, between husband and wife. You gave yourself to the will of another, to one who cares nothing for you, and with your lies have lied to yourself, and in your hubris lost sight of truth. You are unworthy of your voice, and so your voice will become worthless. Your words were not your own, and so your words will never be your own. Do you understand?”
“Understand,” I repeat dumbly, as panic swirls inside me. Everything of me, everything of mine, is suddenly locked away, pressing against my skin, wanting to come out, but there is no exit.
She touches my cheek. Her eyes are hard, but her mouth is soft and the corners turn in something nearly like regret.
“Farewell, Echo,” she says.
“Farewell, Echo,” I reply.
“A voice is a powerful thing,” she says. “It is nothing to be wasted, and nothing to so unthinkingly put into the service of the selfish desires of men. Think on it, my nymph, as you have nothing else before you, forever.”
“Forever,” I agree, as I fall back down the mountainside, never again to lure young men or to tell stories to the gods, always to follow, never to create, always to echo, echo, echo.