Sisyphus had almost reached the top of the mountain when he saw Bowie. He gasped, stepped back and let go his boulder. They both watched as it rolled down the slope, slowly at first, gaining momentum. They watched until it came to a standstill on the arid plain far below, a pebble.
‘I’m sorry,’ Bowie said.
‘Happens all the time.’
Silence settled uncomfortably between them. Sisyphus dusted off his hands on his loincloth. Bowie remained focussed on the boulder, sitting on the mountain top, his knees pulled up to his chest, hands in the pockets of his greatcoat.
‘You’re frozen in space?’ he enquired eventually, still not looking directly at Sisyphus, but gazing into the far distance.
‘Who are you?’ Sisyphus asked.
‘Do you grow old?’
‘I can’t tell,’ Sisyphus replied, ‘I don’t feel different.’
‘Do the season’s change?’
‘Sometimes it rains,’ Sisyphus answered after a pause for thought.
‘Frozen in space but time flexes,’ Bowie nodded.
‘I don’t understand you,’ Sisyphus said.
Bowie turned himself to face him.
‘I can’t trace time.’
‘Mainly it’s hot and dry,’ Sisyphus said, ‘like today.’
‘And are you happy?’
‘I don’t understand you,’ Sisyphus said again. ‘I have to get back to work.’
‘It must keep you fit, at least,’ Bowie observed with a sudden gay smile that exposed his teeth but didn’t reach the mis-matched jewels of his eyes. A whispering breeze ruffled his curtained copper-red hair.
‘You look fit.’
‘Tired,’ Sisyphus said, hanging his shaggy head.
‘Sit a while.’ Bowie patted the ground beside him.
‘But I must…’ Sisyphus began, looking around anxiously.
‘Oh come on, ‘Bowie cut him off, smiling seductively, his eyes both sparkling now, ‘what’s punishment without a little time to reflect upon it?’
‘Just for a moment then,’ Sisyphus conceded, moving to sit beside Bowie but not too close, leaving a man-sized space between them.
For a minute they just sat, not looking at each other but down the mountain, their eyes inexorably drawn to where the boulder awaited. High in a pale sky the sun shone stark upon them. The air was warm and bone dry, meeting the land as equal. Fuelled by the heat, the silence between the seated figures built, crackling with an electric tension that sparked and flared, invisible. The muscles in Sisyphus’ face twitched. Although Bowie seemed relaxed, when he broke the silence his voice had a brittle edge.
‘I don’t think we have much time.’
‘Aren’t you hot in that coat?’ Sisyphus asked, breaking a bad spell.
‘Always chilled,’ Bowie responded, giving him a sideways look. ‘For a time, for you the very briefest of moments, I epitomised cool.’
‘I’m almost always hot,’ Sisyphus said, ‘hot and sweaty.’ He combed damp strands of dark hair from his forehead with his calloused fingers.
‘Is it getting harder,’ Bowie asked, urgent again, ‘your task?’
‘Every single cycle now the mountain gets steeper and higher,’ Sisyphus said.
‘Space is speeding up,’ Bowie decided.
‘The mountain is growing?’
‘Exponentially drawn,’ Bowie nodded. ‘Mountains on mountains. We must get on before…’
‘The wrath of Zeus descends on us?’
‘Shiva perhaps,’ Bowie said with a lop-sided grin, ‘Nataraja or Sabesan, dancing furious.’
‘For fear your grace should fall.’
‘Wherever did you…’
‘I’ve had a virtual eternity to listen in on the world,’ Sisyphus explained, ‘every sound ever made drifts through my story eventually. Will… Will these deities destroy us?’
‘Identity shifts but essence endures,’ Bowie mused, ‘what’s in a name?’
‘We are in peril,’ Sisyphus decided.
‘It’s not that space will run out,’ Bowie told him, producing a packet of cigarettes and a Zippo lighter from his coat pocket. ‘Not like sand in an egg-timer. In one sense space shifts opposite time, stretches to infinity.
‘Albert Camus said that we must imagine you happy?’
‘Who?’ Sisyphus asked.
‘A French philosopher.’
‘It’s his absurdist philosophy,’ Bowie explained, lighting a cigarette. ‘He believed that all lives were like yours - pointless, devoid of any meaning.’
‘The point is to get the boulder to the top of the mountain.’
‘But you never can.’
‘The point is to try,’ Sisyphus said.
‘That’s exactly Camus’ point too,’ Bowie said, exhaling a stream of smoke. ‘If you can find purpose in pointlessness and be happy with that, then you’ve cracked it: existence becomes life.’
‘May I eat some of that?’ Sisyphus asked, indicating the cigarette.
‘Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth.’
Sisyphus sucked tentatively on the cigarette Bowie proffered, inhaled a little smoke and coughed.
‘These things will kill you,’ Bowie said, returning the cigarette to his own lips.
‘Not me!’ Sisyphus said, laughing even as he coughed again.
‘You still have a sense of humour,’ Bowie observed. ‘But what about meaning: how do you make sense of this world, your world?’
‘No sense,’ Sisyphus said, ‘but I have my senses. I sometimes I spot deer, distant on the mountain, shy but magnificent. I see a variety of birds fly overhead and hear their songs, trills and tweets and twitters. I feel the earth shift beneath my feet and perceive its pulse when I rest against a tree - slow, surging life. The water in that small stream down there at the bottom of the mountain tastes sweet. And it changes as time…
‘After heavy rain it tastes of blood.’
‘What does all that mean, though?’ Bowie demanded.
‘Just smell the pine on the breeze,’ Sisyphus said, raising his face and flaring his nostrils to inhale deeply. ‘It means we are alive.’
‘I can’t smell a thing,’ Bowie said. The cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth, trailing its smoke.
A full minute of silence ensued.
‘But what do you do with all that… That input. All that sensation. If you can’t make sense of it?’
‘I think,’ Sisyphus said. ‘I wonder about the birds, how they fly and where to, what their songs convey to them. I ponder how the smell of pine is born on the breeze to my nostrils: What is scent? Is it true, constant, reliable…’
‘So, in your frozen space you have a material world and you reflect upon it,’ Bowie decided, ‘but what about abstract thought?’
‘I think about life,’ Sisyphus said, ‘about death, beauty and love, hatred and debt, the value of loyalty and deceit. I think about the nature of good and evil…’
‘I think we can tick that one off,’ Bowie said, ‘but in your world there is no change, no possibility of change. It is bounded and contains no hope. How do you stand it?’
‘There are always small changes,’ Sisyphus said, ‘and infinite possibilities, beyond even sensing a thing or exploring ideas.’
‘Imagination?’ Bowie inquired. ‘Could imagination make a man of you?’
‘Come,’ Sisyphus said, ‘let’s walk down the mountain together. I must retrieve my boulder.’
An enormous dark swan passed high overhead, casting its shadow over each of their visages in turn. Sisyphus rose smartly and extended a hand to help Bowie to his feet. Bowie wears women’s red shoes.
‘We don’t have very much time,’ he said, ‘we’re under pressure. I feel the terror of knowing what this world is about.’
‘Your hand is cold,’ Sisyphus observed.
‘Call me David,’ Bowie said, shaking Sisyphus hand. ‘I know who you are, of course, Sisyphus, an enduring myth.’
‘I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife,’ Sisyphus said.
‘That’s wasn’t me, was it?’
‘You’re not at the centre of it all,’ Sisyphus said archly, beginning his descent.
‘Actually, I wanted to talk to you about relationships,’ Bowie said, grinding out his cigarette under a kitten heel. He hurried to catch up and fell in beside Sisyphus, thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his greatcoat.
‘You have all those sensory perceptions of all those material things and all those philosophical thoughts about the nature of your world, you have all your questions, but you’re alone, you have no one to share all of that with…’
‘I have you, David,’ Sisyphus said, meeting his companion’s odd eyes with the intense ebony flare of his own.
‘You have a point there,’ Bowie admitted, looking away first, ‘though I don’t see it at all.’
They fall silent as they walk, both musing. Their feet leave little trace in the coarse granite sand which thinly coats the rock of the mountainside.
‘Imagination gives me hope,’ said Sisyphus at last. ‘I imagine things differently, but I also imagine things I do not even know from what I sense and ponder. I imagine the other side of the mountain and it is not like this in any way at all, though nor is it dislike it. You see?’
‘But I have heard hope described as those acts of defiance necessary to bring about some of what we hope for?’
‘Sometimes I push the boulder more slowly up the mountain than I could,’ Sisyphus admitted, exchanging a snatched sideways grin with Bowie
‘Is rest what you hope for?’ Bowie asked intently. They had reached a part of the mountain where Sisyphus’ well-worn path levelled out a little and passed through a sparse carpet of purple and red poppy-anemones.
‘Freedom, of course,’ Sisyphus said, ‘or rather the chance to seek freedom, to pursue it, and in pursuing it to begin to create it.’
‘Wasn’t it power that you used to pursue avariciously,’ Bowie demanded, ‘power over others?’
‘The boulder has taught me.’
‘What?’ Bowie asked after a moment when his companion had not elaborated.
‘That I tried to be too clever for my own good. That the knowledge of how to obtain and exercise power over others is bad knowledge.’
‘Smart stone,’ Bowie allowed. He stopped and crouched down to pick a purple poppy-anemone, held it to his nose. Sisyphus paused to wait for him but was almost instantly troubled, scanning the sky, looking back up the mountain, and then again towards the boulder, still distant.
‘Can’t you feel it?’ he asked, shifting his feet nervously. ‘The Earth is vibrating with the strangest rhythm.’
‘It’s getting faster,’ Sisyphus said, ‘stronger.’
‘Let the children boogie, let…’
‘Come we must hurry.’
‘I can’t smell this flower, Sisyphus.’
‘It has no scent, David.’
The pair hurried on down the mountain. With the purple flower in his buttonhole, Bowie lagged behind a little, attempting elaborate dance routines in time with the increasingly violent and irregular vibrations of the Earth. He shook, sashayed and swayed, then jerked his body and clapped his hands arrhythmically.
‘Tell me,’ he said, dancing a frenzy around his trudging companion, his movements erratic but strangely sensual, feral but controlled, ‘how you imagine the other side of the mountain? I mean, do you paint pictures in your head or do you put it into words?’
‘After I had been rolling the boulder for the longest time,’ Sisyphus said, ‘I began to sing while I laboured. At first and for many, many cycles, I just grunted but then the grunts became rhythmic. After that I came up with some words to fit, not just about the task of rolling the boulder or imagining that task differently. Not about this mountain or the birds here. I began to sing about other spaces, spaces that were not only physically different but in which my imagining was different too. My songs are always real and imagined and more.’
‘What does that even mean?’
‘Your songs have no connections to either your material or abstract worlds?’
‘So, what do they mean?’
‘You would understand them differently to me,’ Sisyphus said. ‘I would not be telling you something, I would be offering you a space in which to imagine your own some things, you see?’
Bowie caught his arm, stopping him in his tracks.
‘Sing to me!’
‘I’m shy,’ Sisyphus said, ‘I’ve never sung to anyone.’
‘It’s really quite out of sight,’ Bowie said.
But Sisyphus walked on, went away in silence.
They ground they walked on now had levelled out and the parched grass was as tall as the figures themselves, the bronze one with wild dark tresses and the pale one with his copper-red hair. They followed the fresh track that the boulder had flattened this time down. There were many parallel, convergent and overlapping tracks. Beneath their feet the Earth raged and blistered.
‘There is much that I can’t give voice to,’ Sisyphus said, ‘my arrangements have become so multi-layered, elaborate, entangled with each other, an almost eternal symphony.’
‘I love it!’ Bowie yelped delightedly.
‘I try to whistle or hum different parts of the songs,’ Sisyphus continued, ‘and a number of songs have harmonies. Of course, I can only sing one voice at a time or render one element of the music.’
Sisyphus began to hum a tune that ranged from growls deep in his throat to the purest falsetto trills, never flat nor clashing in unpleasing ways. Bowie closed his eyes as he listened and swayed curiously along, caught between the beguiling melody and the heavy-metal song of the Earth. As Sisyphus’ music spiralled and soared and soothed Bowie began to speak.
‘I’ve always had an association with space. I created it and developed that: space as an alien realm, a dimension of otherness, strangeness and possibility; scary and sexy, stylish and shocking, but above all seductive.’
Sisyphus continued his song, adding a harmonies while the tune seemed to linger in the air, reverberating, at once resonant and discordant with the Earth beat.
‘I spent a lifetime mythologizing myself, absolutely refusing to be frozen in space, to be bound. Many people thought that I was from outer space. I became my creations and then abandoned them to lives of their own. They probably meet still at cocktail parties and in nightclubs around the world, and despise each other.’
Sisyphus’ song spiralled from aching lamentation through ecstatic celebration to a pulsing evocation of longing, almost tangible fulfilment, and then deep longing again, repeating, echoing and pre-echoing itself. Enchanting. Nourishing. At one.
Increasingly out of synch with the Earth.
Just ahead two giant iguanas burst into view, one lurid lime green, the other jet black. Dragons, they were locked together in mortal combat, stirring up a cloud of dust as they reared and tumbled, biting and clawing. Each iguana was twice the size of a full-grown human-being. In a trice, the Earth opened and swallowed them whole.
‘And I never learned to make my way,’ Bowie remembered.
The ground beneath their feet began to ripple and shake, throwing them off balance. Cracks appeared, lengthened and gaped wider.
‘Almost there,’ Sisyphus shouted above the racket of rend and grind.
Bowie, who had lost himself in trilling a descant to Sisyphus’ singular song, opened his eyes wide and fell silent. The tearing and trembling of the Earth subsided a little, though a bass growl remained audible, a rumbling chaos barely contained. They were nearing the boulder, it loomed before them on the other side of a small silver stream, only a few minutes’ walk away.
‘The thing is,’ Bowie said matter-of-factly, ‘I think I can free you to seek freedom. I can unbind your space, make possible what you imagine.’
‘No,’ Sisyphus shook his head, ‘my punishment is forever.’
‘But it’s no longer punishment, is it?’ Look let’s stop and drink.’
‘We should… I must….’
‘Drink,’ Bowie said, ‘the boulder can wait. Whichever deity it is that one or both of us has offended so grossly will not be swayed from its immortal course by our actions. Its terrible rhythm is all its own.’
They reached the stream and lay down on the bank on their stomachs to suck up the clear, cold water. Sisyphus dunked his head in the stream but Bowie remained aloof, not succumbing to its quicksilver charms.
‘If you do this,’ he told Sisyphus when they sat up, ‘you will be unbound and space will open up for you; you will have the chance to relate to others and so negotiate power with them again. Nothing will be preordained and life will be only as predictable and boring as you allow it to become. Your labours will continue, the same but different, as I said. Your existence will be pointless and without meaning, but you will make a point of it and continually strive for meaning, as you have done. Nothing will change but everything will be different.’
‘Will I be happy’ Sisyphus asked, ‘or happier?’
‘You can find other musicians,’ Bowie said, ‘make your music.’
‘I want it,’ Sisyphus decided, adamant. ‘My heart's a flame, my head's in a whirl.’
‘But if you do break out of this space,’ Bowie cautioned, ‘time will begin to race. You will be mortal once more and, much too soon, you will die.’
‘But I will sing.’
‘You sound like me,’ Bowie laughed.
‘I am humbled,’ Sisyphus said. ‘Truly.’
‘What I have to say must be understood very quickly,’ Bowie said, his words racing and tumbling over each other. ‘Unbound space slices across every story, but every story is continuous in time and every story is a becoming.
‘Beyond this place, space and time are intimately, inextricably linked?’
‘Now consider any one story sliced by space, the story ‘male’, say. Male is a multiplicity comprised of entangled elements that are in constant flux. For a certain time in each individual these elements can establish some consistency. But male and female are quantitative multiplicities, simplifications dictated not least by time, still photographs from an entire dynamic existence. If we recognise that gender is also a qualitative multiplicity which entangles genetics, culture, economic justice, politics…’
The Earth screamed.
‘If we recognise that spectrum,’ Bowie rushed on, ‘we have the possibility of myriad different stories of male, a plurality of voices, which must change how we govern or allow ourselves to be governed, how we are ruled…
The ground shook violently beneath them, the whole mountain straining to burst.
‘Quick,’ Sisyphus yelled over the uproar, ‘to the boulder.’
Instantly, he was on his feet and bounding over the stream, sprinting for the boulder.
‘Wait,’ Bowie cried, hard on his heels in his heels. ‘I can help. You’re not alone!’
They reached the boulder just as a tall pine tree nearby was uprooted by the staccato thunder of the Earth and pitched like a javelin into the far distance.
‘Out of sight!’
Sisyphus put his shoulder to the boulder and strained.
It did not budge.
He took a deep breath and heaved again.
Aghast, he stood erect and took a step back from the boulder.
‘Here,’ Bowie said, kicking off his shoes and handing his greatcoat to Sisyphus, ‘let me try.’ Beneath the coat he was naked, thin and white. But when he put his hands on the boulder and pushed it began to roll. Pleased, Bowie shoved again and the boulder rolled on towards the mountain.
‘Together we can be heroes!’ Bowie yelled.
‘I’m sorry,’ Sisyphus said, donning Bowie’s greatcoat and turning the collar up, ‘I’m going to find myself a rock and roll band.’
He slipped into Bowie’s red shoes, finger-combed his hair back, away from his face, and smiled, not unkindly.
‘Every time is the worst,’ he said, walking along beside Bowie who was now one with the boulder, compelled to keep it rolling.
‘This is not very hospitable of you,’ Bowie said. ‘I thought you were a valuable friend?’
‘I’ve never been good with travellers and guests,’ Sisyphus admitted.
‘You didn’t deceive me, you know,’ Bowie said, ‘I chose.’
‘Then let the good time roll,’ Sisyphus said and bent to kiss Bowie full on the lips before turning and walking away, never looking back.
‘I hope you’re happy too!’ Bowie sang.
Then he took his burden between his canine teeth and leapt across the stream, racing full-tilt on all fours toward the mountain’s summit. His body swelled and lengthened, rippling with a ferocious musculature. His new body hair turned saffron and gold, shadowing amber in the dust that he raised as his driving claws tore the ground.
And the Earth howled.