When the Dolphin's main engine coughed and began issuing chubby globes of black smoke, it was the most welcome sight of the week so far. Nine hours out of Larisa on what was scheduled to be an overnight cruise on the Aegean, I had been looking forward to another night of torment, watching my 'companions' get falling-down drunk and praying to God that, despite the fact that on paper I was part of the same group, no one was connecting me with them. The breakdown and the announcement that the small secondary motor could only help us avoid navigational difficulties, not propel us all the way back to port, offered a chance for some diversion.
The holiday was a big mistake. A college mate had told me he was going on a package tour of the Greek islands: the friend he was going with had broken his leg and couldn't make it. It was paid for, non-refundable, and he knew I had some interest in Greek mythology. Did I want to tag along?
Stupidly, prompted by the fact that I hadn't been on holiday for three years, I agreed, without asking enough questions, like who the holiday operator was. Well, I'll do them the courtesy of not mentioning their name, but within four hours of landing in Athens, I had dubbed them "Lager Louts R Us." We joined a party of twenty young men, mostly between the ages of eighteen and twenty four, all happy in the knowledge that this wasn't their country and therefore it was fine to behave as badly as they liked. I soon motioned Jason, my college mate, to one side.
"I, um, didn't know this was quite what you meant," I mumbled. "Do we stay with this group the whole time?"
He seemed puzzled and a little put out. "Well, yeah," he said. "What did you think it was? Come on, you're too shy: you're gonna have no fun standing on the edge of the crowd like this. Have a drink." He pressed a can of lager into my hand (I detest lager) and steered me into the thick of things, announcing in a voice that might have been heard on Crete that I was a virgin, and extracting an enthusiastic vow from the rest of the group to correct this lamentable state of affairs by the end of the holiday. I then spent the first of several humiliating nights being thrust at barmaids, female tour operators, and any young woman unlucky enough to be in our vicinity.
As the Dolphin began to drift, the mob - more than half drunk already - cheered and began to make loud jokes about the Greek crew. Two of the lads began to fight over some supposed slight and were enthusiastically cheered on. I left the open-sided main cabin and went aft to where three of the crew were wrestling deck plates aside, while a couple of others watched them. One of them was Aposti, whom I had managed to befriend shortly after leaving port. I think he saw I wasn't really part of the group and had a certain sympathy for me. He spoke fluent English, which was handy: my knowledge of Greek was a few greetings and "Can you speak English?"
"Hi," he said as I approached. He smiled, but there was an edge of concern in his expression.
"Kahleespehrah," I returned. "Are we in any danger?"
He lifted a hand and waved it uncertainly. "If you mean is the boat in danger, no," he said. "But there's a strong current in this area, and we're drifting fast."
"Are we lost?"
"Oh, no danger of that. This is a new boat. We've got radio, and satellite navigation."
"If it's new, you should claim a new engine when you get back," I said.
He frowned uneasily, and I wondered what I'd said. He nodded briefly and turned to aid a crew-mate investigating the big main diesel engine.
A couple of hours passed; late afternoon, and the captain emerged from the small bridge looking concerned. He quickly made his way aft and held a rapid-fire conversation with the crew. Something was wrong, both from their expressions and their tone of voice.
Aposti stood and went to move forward. As he passed, I whispered, "What's wrong?"
Aposti looked about and then said in a low, hurried voice, "This has happened before. Not to us, but it happens. Something is wrong with the radio: we can receive but apparently not transmit. And we are drifting toward Laceros."
"Laceros?" I hadn't heard the name before.
"Listen to me," Aposti said, urgently. "You aren't like your companions. I can persuade the captain to take you with us..."
"Take me with you?" I blurted. "What are you going to do?"
"We beach the Dolphin on Laceros. The crew will take the launch and go for help: the... owner of Laceros will let us do that."
"You're abandoning us?" I asked, incredulous.
"Please!" Aposti said. "It isn't my choice, and you can come with us! We have no choice!"
"Is there danger on the island?" I insisted.
"They'll come to no harm," Aposti said. We both knew that wasn't a 'no'.
Laceros soon came into sight, looming out of haze almost as if it had been hidden. It was a large island, several miles wide, green and hilly. I could make out sandy beaches, open meadows, and thick clumps of woodland. There was no sign of habitation, but it sounded like this was some kind of private retreat. If some millionaire recluse lived here, there was probably only a single dwelling, nestled behind a hill or in the woods.
A wind had risen, urging us toward the island with surprising speed. The auxiliary motor roared as the Dolphin maneuvered around a few tiny islets, but stood little hope of making much headway against the strong current and the assisting wind.
Something odd struck me. The Dolphin was steadily approaching a broad bay whose arms extended at least a mile to either side. And yet the current swept us forward as if there were no island there at all. I began to feel just a little odd. If the boat's PA had begun playing the theme to the Twilight Zone, it would not have been out of place.
And then we were landing. The surge of water and the wind that had borne us here simply faded away, leaving the Dolphin rocking gently, fifty yards from a beautiful golden beach. The lager party cheered; most of them dived overboard and swam to the sand. The crew lowered the launch and began ferrying the remainder to the beach, along with a few supplies. The boat was anchored, and the captain made an announcement to the party. This was a privately owned island, he said. If we stayed on the beach, and kept to ourselves, we'd be fine here. he and the crew were going for help.
The lager party was so far gone as to see nothing wrong with this plan, but I was very uneasy. This didn't seem right at all. To abandon this group of drunken idiots on an unknown island without supervision?
"Come," Aposti said, taking me by the arm. "The captain has agreed to let you come with us."
"I can't!" I said. "You can't just leave these idiots here. God knows what they'll get up to."
"They aren't your responsibility," Aposti said. "Don't worry about them."
"I'm staying." I said, surprising myself.
"You don't know what you're saying!" Aposti said, pulling me toward the waiting launch. "Come now, quick."
"That's my friend there," I said, pointing to Jason, happily sprawled in the sand with a drink held lopsided in one hand. Not a hell of a great friend, I admitted privately, but also not someone I could just abandon.
"We have no time for this," Aposti said urgently, as the captain hailed him from the launch. "Come now or we must leave you."
"I'm staying!" I repeated, more out of stubbornness now. Why else would I fight to stay with this bunch of louts?
Aposti let go of me. "Then listen: stay aboard the Dolphin, yes? And get your friend and as many of the others as you can to join you there. Wait for us, and we'll come back for you." He turned to go , then abruptly turned back and grabbed roughly by the shoulders. "You shame us," he said, then turned and ran to the launch. The twin outboard roared and the little craft swept around the Dolphin's stern and headed out to sea.
"What have I done?" I wondered. "Marooned on a desert island - well, hardly desert actually - with this bunch of idiots." After one look at them, I immediately decided that trying to persuade them to return to the boat was futile. Apart from anything else that meant swimming now. Hardly unpleasant in the warm Aegean waters, but coupled with the climb up the Dolphin's stern ladder at the end of it, I doubted many of the men here were up to it.
Not for the first time this holiday, I wondered at the makeup of our party. All male. Unusual surely? These things usually encouraged a lively mix. A large group of rowdy men seemed asking for trouble...
I wandered back up the beach and flopped down in the sand next to Jason. He belched loudly. "Thought you were going with 'em," he said in a slightly slurred voice. There was beer spilt on his blue Adidas tee-shirt.
"What abandon you?" I forced a grin. "Hell, no. United we stand!"
"Not at the moment we don't," he said, "But I might manage it in a few minutes" He let his head fall back in the sand and gestured up at the sky. The sun was low now, and the far sky a deepening blue. "Isn't it great? Shame there's no girls here though. Where's all those nymphs they're 'sposed to have out here, hey?"
I laughed. "Myself, I'd like to meet a little centaur lass."
He laughed. "Huh, you and horses! Sometimes I worry about you." He groaned, burped again and rose unsteadily to his feet. He drained the can he was drinking from and tossed it away. I winced - the island looked so perfect that the discarded can - cans, I amended, looking around - seemed blasphemous. I wondered if it was worth the inevitable teasing it would draw to pick up the litter and return it to the Dolphin. Hmm. Maybe when most of them were asleep.
"Yo, Pete!" Jason hollered to the blond-haired man lying about ten feet away. "We goin' exploring or what?"
'Pete' had set his pitch as nominal group leader quite early in the holiday, mainly by virtue a loud voice and enviable good looks: he'd had better than average luck impressing the girls so far, which seemed to impress most of the others. I detested him. He'd picked up a Clive James witticism: "I have the figure of Adonis - or maybe two Donises", and kept repeating it way beyond the point where anyone - other than his drunken companions - found it funny.
He stood up now. "Sounds good to me," he said. "Anyone else coming? Got to be some action on this rock somewhere."
I looked around at the unspoiled sand (unspoiled except in the immediate vicinity), the green woods, the verdant meadows. "Rock". Yeah, right.
There was a chorus of assent. "I don't know that that's such a great idea," I said.
"It isn't?" Pete asked. "All opposed? The Ayes have it." The group cheered.
"No, I mean this is privately owned island," I said. "We're trespassing." It sounded pretty feeble even to my own ears. A great leader I'm not.
"We didn't land here by choice," one of the other guys, Tim I think it was, asserted. And I'm not sleeping out here with all the bugs."
There was some joking around as several of the group loudly objected to being referred to as bugs. I had to raise my voice. "Then you can sleep on the Dolphin. That's where all the drink is, for God's sake." It was a good argument: several of them were swayed by that, but it was my only card, and apparently Pete wanted to play Great Explorer. Opinion flowed against me, and the entire group set off.
"'Stay on the Dolphin'," I muttered, humiliated and furious. "Yeah, right!" I hurried after them, hoping I could intervene if trouble arose, and doubting it with every fibre of my body.
Pete located a track of sorts :a pleasant grassy avenue that wound into thick woods of cypress and cedar. Singing some kind of moronic rugby song (a relative of 'Ere we go, 'ere we go, 'ere we go) we marched, staggered and otherwise proceeded deeper in to woods. The sun lowered below the treetops and it was suddenly much cooler and darker. "Shouldn't we turn round now?" I suggested hopefully. We all wore nothing more than shorts, sandals and tee-shirts; less in some cases. Wrapped in their comfortable alcoholic glow however, my complaint was overruled again. "Don't you worry, Virgin," Pete said. That had been my nickname since day one: 'virgin on the ridiculous': another over-used piece of wit. "We'll take care of you." He leered which most of the group seemed to find hilarious. I looked to Jason, but he was laughing as much as the others and the look he gave me said clearly that he was regretting bringing such a wimp on holiday with him.
Then the woods opened into a large, grassy clearing, and we halted in surprise.
"Tha's more like it," said Pete, and there were murmurs of agreement.
It was a garden, or a park. Here and there were pools where fountains played a cooling music over huge carp. Topiaried hedges bordered lawns so perfect you could have played bowls on them. On the far side, back to the forest, was a low, grand dwelling of white marble; all columns, like a miniature parthenon. Fine curtains of what looked like silk wafted gently in the evening breeze and a warming, golden light illuminated it from within. In the fading daylight, even I didn't object to approaching it.
And then there was a woman. I didn't see her emerge from the house: it was as if she'd been there all along, but we had somehow failed to notice her. It put me in mind of the way Laceros had suddenly appeared out of the Aegean blue.
She was beautiful. She didn't look Greek: my first thought was that she was English or American. Petite features, and short, very black hair that caught flashing highlights as she moved. A figure that even I could only describe as 'sexy', tantalisingly hinted at by the filmy silk gown she wore. It revealed nothing, and promised everything. My reaction rather surprised me, as I usually take very little interest in women. I'm not gay - I'm just not usually interested.
"You're a long way from home," she said. She spoke in a low voice but it carried to all of us, clear, and confident. Something inviting about it beyond the friendly phrasing. Something was nagging at me, but when I realised what it was, I chided myself for being stupid and ignored it. This was 1997 for goodness' sake!
The group approached her, unusually quiet and... I guess docile is the best word I can find to describe it. Myself, I felt a profound relief. I'd psyched myself up to half-expect Pete to rush up and rape her on the spot.
"Our boat ran into difficulties," I said, since no-one else seemed about to volunteer anything. "We're really sorry if we're trespassing. We've sent for help..."
"Don't worry!" she said, with a glance that almost melted my heart - it was as if she could see straight into my mind and read all my worries there: a look of complete sympathy and understanding. "Please, come in. I wasn't expecting guests, but always happy to receive. Have you eaten anything?"
Again, there was that nagging worry: the overwhelming feeling of familiarity. I knew where I was; who she was; what was happening. But that was ridiculous! It couldn't be! And so I made no effort to resist as we were ushered into a well-lit hall with a long table lined with soft couches. Soft, new-age style music hung in the air, from some unseen source: live, or recorded? I couldn't tell.
More women appeared, all beautiful and clad in much the same way as our hostess, but somehow lacking the sense of presence she radiated. Food and drink was placed before us, but by now I was so jittery I couldn't even think of eating or drinking. I watched as if paralysed as our group settled, and fed, and drank. The docility gradually passed, and their accustomed rowdiness began to surface, but oddly, it seemed to cause no offense. I saw the black-haired woman talking with Pete, saw his arm go around her, and saw her laughing at something he said. I caught the words "two Donises," and thought, "oh, please!"
The night grew deeper, and the party louder: the music had changed to a livelier tune, very reminiscent of traditional Greek music, but with a harder bass line that argued at some modern accompaniment. As usual, I began to withdraw, distancing myself from the brutish enjoyments of my companions as I had each prior night. Tonight though, with plentiful and apparently willing female companionship, they made none of their usual moves to rope me in. Several times one of the pretty serving ladies offered me drink or food, but each time I smiled and shook my head. I felt like I could almost see the future, and my body quivered with it. The sweat that trickled from my brow had nothing to do with warmth. It wasn't fear either: just a nervous expectation - an expectation that was, at last, met.
I think it started with Jason, but it was hard to tell. But one moment he was laughing with the PYT he had coaxed to sit on his lap, happily drinking mead from the goblet she held to his lips. Then another couple danced between us, and when I saw him again, he was alone. The goblet lay on it's side, golden contents spreading across the table and dripping onto his lap, but he seemed not to be aware of this. Instead he was hunched forward over his plate. I don't know what it was he was eating - some seaweed thing or salad by the look of it - but he wasn't using his hands! His face was lowered to the dish, and he was gobbling up the food with a bestial intensity. Scraps spilled down his chin and over his lap, but fell ignored.
I knew what was happening. Completely impossible: absurd! I was drunk... except I hadn't touched a drop of alcohol all day. Hallucinating? Too much sun?
I noticed a handful of the others eating in the same animal fashion, mouths to their plates. I saw Tim slowly nosing his plate forward until it fell with a clatter off the edge of the table. He got down on all fours and began to eat from the floor like a dog. Or some other animal...
I looked back to Jason. I knew him to have a slight beer-gut, but by no stretch of the imagination could you normally describe him as fat. Not until now. His tee-shirt was riding up to show a thick expanse belly: his shorts were stretched tight, and even as I watched, they popped open. I blinked at the sight of a thin, tassel tail curling from the base of his spine. He was no longer sitting at the couch: his limbs seemed changed in proportion and shorter, and now he leaned over the table, supporting himself on all fours, while his face seemed longer now.
The sounds in the room were slowly changing. The shouting and laughing was giving way to shriller sounds: squeals. Guttural grunts. Animal snorts. Utterly fascinated and unable to leave my seat, I watched the hands of the youth sitting next to me flex and shift into crude, biformed hooves. His body had grown like Jason's: like most of the group now: thick, muscular, fat. I looked toward where Pete had been talking to our hostess, and saw her, but beside her, still wearing a tee-shirt but nothing else, a huge pig held its snout to the bowl of salad she held out to it. Distractedly I took in the thick, pink hide, the bristly hair, the curled tail. A pattern of slightly darker spots on his rump. The somewhat prominent evidence that the pig was a boar.
The air was full of oinks and grunts now, and the hall was rapidly assuming the aspect of a farmyard. Dazedly, I noted that, thanks to the fashion for baggy clothing, tee-shirts were surviving unscathed, while bathing trunks and shorts were tearing and bursting open all round. A pig wearing a blue Adidas tee-shirt ambled past, snuffling at the tiled floor as if looking for acorns. I did a doubletake. Clearly visible where the tee-shirt had ridden up was a double row of pink udders. A sow? Were the women changing also? But the only clothing that littered the floor belonged to our group. I did a rough headcount. About twenty, and looking closer, most seemed to be female!
I felt eyes on me. I turned my head to meet our hostess' gaze.
"You're not like the others," she said. There was no malice in her voice: rather, a calculating curiosity.
The funny side of what she said almost got to me: no! I certainly was not like the others: twenty one pigs milling around. The air was filled with the sound of grunting and squealing. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one pig suddenly rise on its hind legs over another and hurriedly looked away, flushing. I'm going mad!
Circe - my mind gave up the futile attempt at ignorance - rose and walked toward me, the sea of pigs parting before her. Fear rose in me. Was it my turn now? I admit it: shapeshifting has always fascinated me, but a pig? And from the way those around me were behaving - I tried not to look - it was obvious they were pigs in mind as well as body. It just wasn't in me to run though. Shock had turned my legs to water. Terror suddenly filled me and I felt tears running down my cheeks, I tensed, eyes closed, expecting at any moment to feel myself changing into a pig.
I sensed her stop in front of me. I shivered, then started as I felt gentle hands take my own. My eyes sprang open to see Circe kneeling in front of me. One hand raised to caress my cheek and I shuddered, sobbing.
"Shh, shh, shh," she murmured. "You're terrified, aren't you? There's no need! None of your companions suffered, or will suffer. They'll be more than happy here, as are all the others who came before them. How is it that you didn't change with them?"
"I... I didn't eat anything," I said, swallowing painfully, crying like a child. her face seemed full of genuine compassion now, and I didn't understand. "I... I knew what was going to happen..."
"And you said nothing? Didn't run?"
"I couldn't believe it. This isn't possible!" I cried out, gesturing at new-formed herd of swine.
"Oh, it's very possible," she assured me. "I've had a lot of practice. And I can see in your mind that you're thinking this is what they were all along."
I flushed anew. "Are you really... the same..."
"The same Circe that transformed all of Odysseus' men all those hundred and hundreds of years ago? Yes, I am. Funny, I've lost count of the number of men I've transformed, but that's the only story that ever got out about me." She grimaced. "Still, he's the only one that ever got away..."
I looked up. "What are you going to do to me?"
"I can't let you go," she said. " I'm sorry." And I was surprised to find I believed her: she was sorry. "I quite deliberately lured this lot here. You really were supposed to leave with the boat crew. They won't return for you of course: Laceros can only be found when I will it. Your boat has already drifted out to sea."
"Please," I blurted. "I don't want to be a pig. I don't want to forget who I am."
"I transform all who come here," Circe said. "I don't make exceptions. I did a few times and was betrayed every time. I don't want to be forever checking to see if you're trying to escape. But you don't have to be a pig, no, and neither need you lose who you are. There's something different about you."
"What?" I asked.
"Change itself doesn't bother you, does it? There's a hidden fantasy in your heart."
"Horses," I mumbled, sniffing (and regretting it: there was an increasing whiff of pig in the air). "I love horses..."
Circe regarded me with a curious wonder, as if I were something she'd never encountered before. "I wonder," she murmured. "Perhaps we might come to an agreement of mutual advantage. I do get lonely sometimes. It might be nice to have a companion for a change."
She raised a hand and waved it in front of me. Following the pass, as if being drawn from an invisible sheaf, came a long black wand, with a glinting sphere of crystal at one end. Taking it by this end, she pointed the wand at me. I could feel something surrounding me, focusing on me, as if I were standing beneath a giant microscope and all the universe was staring down it.
"If I grant your heart's desire, will you serve me?" she asked. "Answer truly: gainsay your word and you'll join those around you before you can so much as squeal."
Some time later, I stood, veiled by light illusion, watching the beach as a boat of similar lines to the Dolphin ploughed into the sand in the shallows. I watched as crew and passengers disembarked and the crew made a hasty getaway in a motorised dinghy. Watched as the party left behind - all male - drank and sang, and threw up. I tossed my head, feeling the reins slap against my arched neck.
"Shh, shh, shh," Circe whispered, her legs firm against my flanks. "Soon we'll match their forms to their minds." She ran a caressing hand down my withers and I quieted.
There was a quiet squeal from nearby. Sprawled on her side in the undergrowth nearby, a large sow nursed a litter of seven. Around her neck and one foreleg was a tattered blue rag with a fading motif. She grunted contentedly, warm in the sun.
"Now," said my rider, nudging me forward. Concealment dropping aside, I walked forward, sea breeze fanning my long tail.
"Gentlemen," Circe called gaily. "Welcome to my island. Won't you follow me to my house and accept my hospitality for the night?"
Spellbound, the louts surged to their feet and followed as I trotted away. I uttered a short whinny of amusement and felt Circe's answering giggle. I nodded my huge equine head to my myself. Yes, this arrangement would work well.