The Sphinx's Lament

pages The Sphinx’s Lament

by Ari Rubin

Published in Issue No. 229 ~ June, 2016

sphinx

What has cold blood, but warm breath?

 

A dragon.

 

Oh, don’t flatter yourself. I wanted you to get that one. When I don’t want people to solve a riddle they don’t—except for one time, but we’ll get to that later.

 

Anyhow, I wanted to talk to you about dragons. Every time you hear the tale of some heroic quest, the hero has to defeat, “A great green worm wending up into the welkin.” Sure, they cut an impressive figure with those giant teeth and those wide wings—and I love a good pyrotechnic show as much as the next monster. But, come on, they are as boring as they are predictable. Every wanna-be hero who wouldn’t know where to bury the survivors of a war between Athens and Sparta has heard about the dragon’s weakness since he was a wee boy: the skin over his heart is thin compared with the armored scales that cover the rest of his body, and a well-placed stab wound would surely kill him.

 

Now, I don’t blame the dragon for its weakness, but the dragon is stupid, as well. As long as he stays on his belly–sitting on his pile of gold–no hero would stand a chance. He is too heavy to lift, and the rest of his skin is impervious to conventional weaponry. All he would have to do is sit there and blow fire and no treasure would ever be stolen. But the dragon insists on spreading his ridiculous wings and flying, thereby exposing his soft underbelly to any halfway decent archer or swordsman. It is the height of vanity. Worse yet, the dragon’s weakness is well known.

 

Yet, every time a Dark Lord needs someone to guard a magical ring, orb of power, or stolen treasure, whom does he call?

 

No wonder they always lose.

 

There are many manner of monsters available to replace those obsolete lizards. The griffin cuts just as impressive of a figure; the chimera also breaths fire. But, by far, the best choice for guarding magical treasures and terrorizing the townsfolk is yours truly, the not-so-friendly neighborhood sphinx. Now I know what you’re going to say: that club-footed vagabond from Corinth already solved your riddle, and that’s true. But how many years did I terrorize that city before anyone figured it out? And, tell me the truth, you didn’t solve it the first time it was told to you, did you? You had to wait for the end of the story like everyone else.

 

Besides, the only reason he was able to solve it is because of his stupid club foot. Oedipus. He was even named for the damned thing. I’m sure he walked “on three legs” at some point during his ill-fated life. It’s like the one about the two girls, born to the same parents on the same day who are not twins. It’s a difficult riddle to solve, unless you happen to be a triplet, then the answer would be obvious.

 

People think that my famous riddle is the only one I know. Just because the dragon is a one-trick monster, don’t assume that I am. The great thing about riddles is that I have an endless supply. Additionally, I have learned from my mistakes. I will no longer ask the same question over and over again, giving people time to think about it and figure it out. I will, from this point forward, ask each, individual hero a new and unique riddle and force them to try and figure it out on the spot. See, I can learn and develop while still maintaining my iconic monstrous idiom. Try to find a dragon who can do that.

 

Further, I could tailor the riddle to the particular person who would be trying to answer it. For example, if they send some young, testosterone-filled frat boy of a knight, I might go with something in the vein of this classic:

 

A knight goes out to war with his son serving as his squire. The knight dies in battle, and the son survives, through he is badly wounded. His arm is badly gashed and may need to be cut off to save his life. When the son returns to camp, the old surgeon says, I cannot perform the amputation, this boy is my son. How could this be?

 

It would never occur to the young male hero that the old surgeon is actually the boy’s mother. I never would ask such a question to a female challenger, but then again, you rarely see them in these types of quest stories, except as prizes for those who defeat the monsters.

 

Which brings me to my next point: sexism. There is a distinct lack of strong female monsters in the histories and the great texts. Sure, there are old witches, and sexy temptresses, but why not a female monster like myself, or my sisters Scylla and Medusa? Sure, we can be enticing, enchanting, or just plain cold, but why can’t we be as truly terrifying as some dumb lizard with great teeth and fire breath? Hell hath no fury, etc. Surely being turned to stone or having your head bitten off is at least as scary as winding up as a flaming pile of cinders, but each of us female monsters has one distinct story with which we’re associated, while the dragons are ubiquitous in the books of lore. Now, I’m not going to appeal to your sense of morals or equality (you are Dark Lords, after all) but surely you can see that you are putting yourself at a disadvantage by not utilizing half the monsters that are out there. If you read the tales and histories, on balance, evil loses more than it wins. I appeal to your pragmatism. Besides, most of the heroes in these quests are teenage boys. What’s a teenage boy more scared of than a strong woman?

 

I’ve complained enough already, which really isn’t very becoming, but I’ll leave one more riddle for all of you Dark Lords, Fallen Angels, and Demonic Gods:

 

You walk into a room with a Lord of Light, a King of the Underworld, and a Maimed God set on revenge. Who is the most powerful deity in the room?

 

You are, but only if you hire me, the Sphinx, the next time you require the services of a truly terrifying monster.

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Ari Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Scrivener's Pen, The Hopper Review, and Otherink magazines. His short story "White Collar Blues," which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. Mr. Rubin holds a BA (departmental honors) in Writing/Literature from Columbia University and an MA in Teaching of English from Teachers College. A mild-mannered public school teacher by day, he wanders the streets at night as a vigilante crime-fighter. He does not believe in secret identities. He wants those whom he fights to know his true name. Ari Rubin can be reached at: birdman33@gmail.com and on twitter as @thesurrealari