The Manticore and The Sphinx

Dawn in the desert. The sun burned on the edge of the sky while the rocks of the great tombs stayed cold. Out from the north, across the open wastes, the Manticore came padding into the valley of his love, the Sphinx.

He made no noise as he crossed the sand. Even his lying mouth was stopped up. He clutched a rose in that twisting mouth, oblivious of the thorns. This delicate rose, gray in the half-light, was laid at his lover’s feet. He sidled close. They languidly tangled as only cats can tangle, and he whispered in her fair ear.

“There… you see the rose grow redder with the ruddy light? In a moment it will die, for it is not made for the wastes like these. This moment, its beauty is at peak.”

When the Sphinx looked away, he pressed her cheek with his so that they faced it together. “The petals are opening and falling, one by one…” he whispered, “No other dance is so subtle. See how fragile? As rare and lovely as the fabled frost in motion.”

The Sphinx, the keeper of mysteries, said nothing. Her silence provoked him.

“It comes from the garden of the King In The Desert,” he hissed. “It was his only rose. Can you understand? I took it. The only such rose in the world. It is my gift to you.”

He could sense some softening in her. Pulling away, he saw that she had finally looked at his gift. He pressed towards her ear and whispered, “Now? Will you tell me? Will you tell me now how to answer your riddle, the secret about the end of the world?”

She broke his embrace to stretch her back and roll her shoulders while facing the rising sun. She didn’t like the dance of the dying rose, or any dance but her own. Her claws were a melody, she knew. Her tresses and neck were lyrics.

“You won’t speak?” Asked the Manticore. “Nothing moves you?”

At noon in the desert, when the sun was high and lizards scampered in the shadows of the tombs because the sun was too hot for mortal things, the Manticore came for a second time out of the north. This time his evil mouth was stopped by a white lamb. Like a cat with a prize, he carried it delicately but cruelly. The legs kicked and the back twisted, it could not escape.

The lamb was stunned and too afraid to run when it was released at the foot of the Manticore’s professed love.

He took a bite from its throat. With his mouth still bloody, he tried to insinuate back into the Sphinx’s embrace. She held him away with a paw, and he had to stretch his neck to whisper near the fair ear.

“See the red of the blood, steaming and boiling in the sun? See the legs kick? Its life is flowing away. It will die, and this moment is rare. There will never be another creature with a fleece so pure. It comes from the wedding of the King In The Desert. It was a gift from beyond the sand and sea. All the world pays tribute to him, and this was the most treasured prize. Yet, it is a better gift for you. I took it, and brought to die here. Will you tell me now? Your secret, how can I find the answer to your riddle about the end?”

She shook off the Manticore to stand and rejoice in the power of the sun’s embrace. She didn’t like the lamb’s white coat, or any coat but her. It shone like gold in the noon heat. Her indifference was the only answer she would give.

“Is she made of stone?” the Manticore complained.

In evening, as the sun fell and the first stars were peeping out of the purple sky, the Manticore came from the north with his final prize in his twisted mouth. It was a man, wriggling and crying for mercy. The Manticore dropped him at the feet of his intended bride.

“Night is coming to the world. The myths of the morning are fading and our days are ending. So I come with a man. He lies here naked. He lies here broken. But this is no ordinary man. I’ve brought to you, for your own enjoyment, the very King In The Desert. I took him from his palace, from his cool garden, where all the world pays him tribute. No walls stopped me. No army. He is my gift for you to do with as you wish. Now, I beg for the way to answer your riddle.”

The precious rose from the King’s garden was gone. Dried to dust. The dance of the Sphinx's neck and tresses were the only thing graceful in the wastes. Besides, what if the Manticore had lied? It could have been one rose among thousands.

Ravaged by jackals and scattered by winds, even the lamb’s bones couldn’t be found in the wastes. The wedding gift, purest among all the world’s fleeces he’d said, was destroyed. There was no fleece to admire in the desert beside the Sphinx’s own. But what if the Manticore lied? It could’ve been one lamb among thousands.

And this king. A naked man who was scratching in the sand. A man in speechless awe. A living king among the thousands in her valley of tombs.

If this truly were the king as the Manticore said, did it please her? Her eyes had no bottoms as they looked at his gift. Graceful, indifferent and profoundly hunger. They were deep as the tombs in her valley. For, if there could there be any such thing as a living king in her desert and her wastes, this was her secret. He watched her for a sign.

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