You must be very careful what you say within ear-shot of capricious gods. All I said to a friend was, “It would take a Sphinx guarding my refrigerator to keep me on some diet.” Lo and behold, there She was, perched atop it, in the place where old ice-boxes had some ziggurat temple spiralling to the god of electricity. Now I must solve some cosmic riddle posed to me, when She is good and ready, before the lynx-eyed Sphinx (whom I call Gladys) will again fly off to preside balefully over someone else’s stricken conscience. In the meantime, She torments me with math questions, crossword puzzle clues and trivia beneath even the dignity of television game shows, which I must answer before I am allowed to open the door to retrieve frozen yogurt.
This Sphinx is rather small, hardly a lioness with eagle’s wings likely to intimidate any being larger than my cat, Mr. Jones, or anyone more heroic than the casual tofu-forager. Gladys is bobcat-sized at best, with small wings I doubt can do much more than glide. Even so, when She clamps her claws down on that door like a vice, Heracles himself could not pry it open again. Her face, although beautiful in a severe way, is as judgemental as an army line of nuns, advancing with pinched-nose spectacles, mirroring an infinity of Catholic guilt concerning gluttony. Nor do I exaggerate the look She gives me when I choose food beyond karmic redemption. If She had guarded that fig tree in Eden (or Adam had listened to wiser Lilith), we would yet be basking in happiness.
When She thinks everyone else is asleep, Gladys glides down from her moral heights with the hushed feather silence of a ghost owl hunting gnawing doubts. My cat and I warily watch her shadow fall across the threshold of the locked door. In the dim blue aura of an atomic clock, allegedly synchronized to Boulder, Colorado, Mr. Jones stations himself, a yet smaller Sphinx, listening intently to her whiskered prowling. She eats his food, scratches softly in his litter box, and coughs up hairballs which sometimes reveal omens from her past, cicada wings and small bones which I hope are not human. She disdains all things modern yet is very curious about the Oracles we are always consulting, in lieu of Nature, television and computer screens, which She seems to believe are some reflection of our Narcissism, while poor Echo looks on in despair.
It is very disconcerting to have to meet, at eye-level, disapproval for human hubris on a daily basis. Having answered some lame question about state capitals, She allows me to open the fridge while She engages me in debate. “I ate the potato salad,” Gladys informs me. “That fast food will kill you.”
“Life will ultimately kill me,” I reply testily. “It is built into my cells, they tell me, following like a tail to a tadpole swimming against the current. Have you a cure for Death?”
“Not my Department,” She says, rather smugly. “I’m Immortal. Don’t expect any pity from me.”
The day of the Cosmic Riddle finally dawns. I once told the Sphinx that they should devour those who answered the riddle, as it is those who are too clever for their own good, from Oedipus to Oppenheimer, who cause all the trouble. People not good at chess or crossword puzzles, like myself, do not ask questions better left alone, about internal combustion or splitting atoms.
“Why is War the dark twin of Civilization?” This is the question She suddenly floors me with in the a.m. hours while the atomic clock ticks steadily toward some rendezvous with blind oblivion. Gladys smirks but does not know that she has crossed paths with an old hippie philosophy major.
“Because Western Civilization is based on mastery over Nature, not harmony within it. All wars are really wars waged against Nature. They are contrary to our natural instincts for self-preservation and pity for the powerless.”
With that answer, the Sphinx vanishes and I am again free to become fat, if such is my choice, and Mr. Jones again has free range of his old domain. All is well again, until my friend, not thinking, complains, “You should go back to reading in the evening ! Don’t vegetate in that Lazy-Boy under the Cyclops spell of the Tube! Do you need your proverbial Sphinx to guard your television as well?”
Too late to object!
Yes, now She sits curled up in the Lazy-Boy with her claws firmly clamped down on the t.v. remote. I am certain that the question she will ask when I attempt to change channels will involve math about trains leaving from stations somewhere whose destinations I care nothing about.
John Impey is a long-time peace activist past the prime of standing at barricades. He enjoys re-telling myths as they interface with our cyber-Civilization. He only late in life discovered the computer; before that he painted dancing horses and wily bison on cave walls by the light of that new power, Fire.