With each passing minute the sky dug a little harder onto Atlas’s shoulders. His legs trembled as he pushed against his black, ceaselessly oppressive burden. How many millennia had gone by since his punishment began? The wind whispered that it was meaningless to track the time, that nothing changed up here except the ever-deepening imprint of his feet on the rocks below. Sometimes he found relief in shifting side to side, and sometimes it helped to push his shoulderblades hard into the celestial sphere, but nothing took away the pain yoking him to the top of this desolate stony mountain.
Pebbles crunched on stone behind him, signaling an approaching visitor. Atlas groaned to imagine Zeus here again, come to mock him for picking the wrong side of the fight. Or perhaps it was wise, serious Brother Prometheus, to update him on these mortals who spread so rapidly through the world.
A faint perfume of apples and flowers wafted towards him. He knew that scent well.
He craned his neck to see the visitor and received a stinging cloud of stardust in his eyes for his trouble.
“Hello, brother,” a once-familiar voice said. Not one, but two figures stepped into view: Brother Epimetheus, and, even more thrilling, a willowy woman Atlas had pictured in his mind’s eye for the last 487,767 days. And nights.
“Epimetheus? Hesperis? What are you doing here?”
“You’ve been granted a one-day reprieve,” his brother said, smiling and tugging on his black beard, as he always did when nervous.
“Who will take my place?” Atlas asked. “I can’t just drop the sphere. I’ve tried.”
Epimetheus’s smile turned strained. “I volunteered. I petitioned Zeus, and he enjoyed my groveling enough that he granted my request.”
Atlas stifled a laughing sob that threatened to drop him to his knees. Epimetheus could be a fool, but to willingly take on the weight of the sky? If only his brother knew of the demanding, relentless pressure… but then, he would quickly find out, wouldn’t he?
“Thank you, brother.”
Epimetheus harrumphed and stepped closer, pressing shoulder to shoulder. He reached up for the sphere, and Atlas gasped at the lessening of pressure on his back. “Go on, then.”
They shifted the weight slowly, carefully, from one brother’s shoulder onto the other. Epimetheus groaned and the veins in his neck bulged purple as Atlas stepped away, straightening his back. Though he moved with care, the pain produced a cry only slightly less agonized than Epimetheus’s.
Hesperis grabbed his elbow. Atlas patted her arm and breathed in her sweet perfume. “I’m all right, Hes.”
They looked at each other and smiled. Atlas knew his wife’s eyes searched for the changes in him just as he was searching for the changes in her. There was little for Hesperis to discover, Atlas thought. For millennia he had stood alone, suffering his punishment. What had he learned besides how heavy a burden could be?
“Come,” Hesperis said, pulling him away. “We only have the day.”
Together they took a few slow steps. Atlas’s hips and knees fairly sang with the surprise of moving again, the pain easing with each step. He looked back at Epimetheus once more, and then he and Hesperis were off and running down the mountain. They raced away from the groaning man supporting the black sphere dotted with faraway winking lights, indicators of planets yet undiscovered, and stars’ warmth yet unfelt.
The cold stones were replaced with moist, inviting earth, which in turn gave way to luscious grass. Atlas had forgotten how warm grass could smell. Hesperis drew him towards a copse of trees, but he stopped her, pulling her close, and kissed her so firmly their teeth clicked.
Then he gave into an urge that had been mounting ever since his toes first touched the grass: he fell to the ground and rolled down the hill. Little bits of grass rubbed against his knees and slipped into his laughing mouth as he rolled. He banged into an apple tree but didn’t mind. It was more pleasant to lie there, panting and laughing up at the fat green leaves above until Hesperis thudded onto him. He wrapped his arms tight around her and their laughter was stifled with another kiss, long and slow.
Hours later Hesperis sighed. “We didn’t get very far down the hill, I’m afraid,” she apologized.
Atlas wrapped a lock of her hair around his fingers. “Going anywhere with you is far enough.”
She bit into an apple and offered the rest to him. He marveled at how inconsequential, how light an object could be. He tossed it in the air twice before savoring the sweet tangy flavor.
At last Hesperis stirred and nuzzled his shoulder. “The sun is setting,” she said.
Atlas tried to make the trudge up the hill last as long as possible, but too soon they arrived at the top. Epimetheus was there, just as they had left him. He looked older, already worn down.
How can I bear the weight once more? Atlas thought.
But he knew he must.
“Hello brother,” Epimetheus said.
“Oh, are you still here?” Atlas asked lightly, though no one laughed, not even himself. He willed his leaden feet to step closer, and the brothers exchanged places in solemn silence.
His brother stepped free.
“Thank you,” Atlas said.
“When will I see you again?” he asked Hesperis.
She caressed his cheek. “In another thousand years.”
Then she too was gone, and Atlas was alone with the celestial sphere, the cold stone under his feet, and the brisk, whispering wind helping him count down the 999 years, 364 days until he was free from his burden once more.