The Thirteenth Labour


Thestios, father of
Fifty daughters,
Thestios, Thestios,
Him I sing!
Fifty princesses,
All of them beauties,
All of them nubile,
Lively and mobile,
Eager and melting,
Sweeties, patooties,
Binding their tresses,
Dreaming of suitors,
Ripe for a fling —
Think of Thestios,
Father and King!

Even a father may
Find himself daunted
Faced with the breakfast
Greetings of fifty
Ravishing misses
And fifty nightly
Goodnight kisses.
Even a king, though
Rich and thrifty,
May well be haunted
Night and day,
By the thought of fifty
Royal and king-size
Dowries to pay.
Fifty pitchers
Empty a spring.
Alas for Thestios,
Father and King!

Time for a miracle!
Let the gods handle it:
Thestios, Thestios,
Send to the temple
Ask of the oracle:
What’s to be done?
Back comes the answer:
“Send for Herakles,
Hero Herakles,
Thunderer’s son,
Friend of the family,
River-god wrestler,
Slayer of monsters and
Righter of wrongs;
Send to him, Thestios,
Bid him to come to your
Banquet of beauty with
Drinking and dancing and
Amorous songs.
Let all your pretty birds
Eye the young hero,
Dance for him, sport with him,
Revel and sing.
He will know what to do;
All shall be well with you,
Fortunate Thestios,
Father and King!”

“Herakles, Herakles,
Welcome to Thespiai
Friend of my royal house,
Thunderer’s son!
Now we have sacrificed,
Frolicked and revelled, the
Sun, see, is setting, the
Banquet is done.
Now let us talk awhile,
Now, while we can,
Since the hour waxes late,
Since there are serious
Things to be said,
Finish our wine and
Settle as man to man
Matters of state.
And you, my pretty chicks,
Pop off to bed!
Bed-time is half-past six;
Trim all your candle-wicks;
Off to your perches and
Head under wing;
Do as your father bids,
Kind father Thestios,
Father and King!”

“Look at them, Herakles.
Dear liabilities,
Lovely encumbrances,
See how they run!
Past my abilities,
Where in the whole wide
Borders of Greece
Can I make each a bride?
Where shall I find for them
Husbands apiece?
Tell me, friend Herakles,
Tell me, my boy,
What’s to be done,
Herakles Hero,
Thunderer’s son?
Your father, mighty Zeus
Would have devised a ploy.
See what I mean? well,
I leave it to you.
Come now, another drink?
Fill up your cup!
One for me too!
The son of a god,
A god such as Zeus, should
Know what to do,
Know that a nod
Is as good as a wink…
After them Herakles,
Follow them up!
Tell me at breakfast
How the birds sing!
Do this for Thestios,
Father and King!”

Herakles Hero
Mounted the stair.
High in the zenith,
A star in her paw,
The moon was a lioness
Leaving her lair;
Low in the west shone the
Evening star,
Great Aphrodite’s
Luminous car.
Herakles mounted and
Stood by the door,
Listened and looked, for
The door was ajar:
O what a chorus of
Clear voices there!
O what a bevy of
Beauties before
Mirrors untressing,
Combing their hair,
Girls all undressing,
Flitting and fluttering,
Fifty young virgins
All in the raw;
All of them uttering
Just the one word:
“Herakles … Herakles …”
Was all he heard.
Herakles entered and
Put out the light;
Took fifty maidenheads
In the one night;
Fifty virginities
Fell at a blow.
No one but Herakles
Could have done so.
Every girl welcomed him;
All the birds sang.
Everyone said the night
Went with a bang;
Everyone swore that it
Went with a swing;
Blessings on Thestios,
Father and King!

This tale, although it
So shocked Pausanias,
Modest Pausanias,
Hellas’s Guide,
That he felt forced to
Set it aside,
I, a coarse poet
Take in my stride.
Poets, like heroes are
Not often gentlemen
Rarely well-bred,
Apt to do just what
Enters their head.
Heroes, they know, have
Most unconventional
Methods of dealing with
Monster or bride,
Many and various
Tricks up their sleeve,
What scholars call scandalous,
They find hilarious;
What seems incredible,
Poets believe.
And, as for Thestios
Thestios father of
Fifty beddable
Fertile chicks,
See him next morning at
Breakfast with Herakles
Counting the chances that
Everything clicks,
Counting his chickens while
Still on the wing;
Reckoning, tallying
What should befall.
Winds in the tree-tops
Whisper and croon:
Rock-a-bye babies,
Cradles and all
And what was the outcome
At the ninth moon?
What did the oracle
Finally bring?
Fifty-two grandsons,
All to be heroes.
Mighty Heraclides!
Fortunate Thestios,
Gratified Thestios,
Father and King!

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