Echo from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Greco-Roman Mythology)
My foot freezes above the broken twig. He knows I’m following him now. My stomach twists. What if he calls out?
“Is anyone there?” Narcissus asks.
Oh, please, don’t. Just this once.
“Anyone there?” I compulsively call back, my begging in vain.
Narcissus shines with a beauty only Venus herself could have gifted. His eyes dart, searching the forest for the noise. Even in caution, his eyes burn through me. Their color is a more brilliant blue than Neptune’s unlimited domain. Even as I hide from him, I want his gaze. Oh, gods, how nice it would be to have those eyes fixed on me with desire.
But I cannot let him see me. I cannot let him hear me.
His eyes would never look at me filled with desire.
She saw to that.
How could anyone desire a woman doomed to repeat others’ words and never speak her own? Cursed never to share her own thoughts. And for what? Because I was the unlucky one in the group that the all-powerful Jupiter set his eyes on.
I was sent from the giggling orgy of Nymphs to keep his ever-jealous wife, Juno, busy in conversation and to ensure his escape back to Olympus went undetected.
What a fool I was, so desperate for my sister’s approval that I tricked myself into believing I could keep the daughter of Saturn from learning the truth about where her husband was.
“Prattling Child,” Juno spat, “did you think your endless chattering would keep me ignorant forever? Let your incessant tongue be your constant companion and worst foe.”
I beg your forgiveness, Queen, I tried to tell her. But my voice betrayed me.
“Worst foe,” I said, defeated, as Juno looked back at me with malevolence. She cursed me so I couldn’t return to my sisters or home on the mountain.
My vision snaps into focus as Narcissus speaks, “I know you follow me, but I cannot see you. This way, we must come together.”
The panic weighing my shoulders vanishes. What luck, I think; the man my heart burns for wants me. His words are like a prayer, finally answered.
“We must come together,” I repeat with glee and step out from the tree I am hidden behind.
His back is still turned to me as I lift my arms toward him.
A glorious vision comes to me. Narcissus would turn and see me, the woman ready to love him as no one else could. The vision of being held by his divine arms burns through my body, and I almost miss seeing him turn around at the repetition of his words.
“Come together” barely leaves my lips before I wish to escape back into my imagination. Instead, reality stabs my heart.
No sooner do his eyes find their way to mine does his face twist with revulsion. How could this be? I beg the gods to change this moment. How could the sight of me upset him so?
“Do not touch me,” he snaps, “May I die before I let you touch my body.”
Dear gods, please strike me down before my cursed lips speak. Blood pours from my tongue as I bite.
“Touch my body,” my betraying voice replies. I hear Juno’s cruel laugh at the irony of my words in the distance.
He looks over my body, and the skin on his nose retreats farther up his face. “Every man and woman fall over themselves to be in my presence. Their desire for me burns so intensely they would happily give all their belongings away to win me. But not one person has proved themself worthy of my attention. How dare you think I would embrace you. I deserve better.”
I wipe my eyes and cover my mouth uselessly. “I deserve better.” My words still sound clearly through my sobs.
I can’t bear to see him look at me like that any longer. How naive I am to think he called for me to come to him. The Sisters Fate are too cruel for that. Of course, he called like that to drive his stalker from the shadows, knowing the allure of his sweet voice would draw any poor soul from their hiding place.
I run from him.
This forest is too open for me to stay in. There are too many chances to come across someone else with words I would be doomed to repeat. I need a place where the only noise is my sad tale retold in my mind.
Mercifully, a cave appears as I run beyond a group of trees with low-hanging branches—my new home. A place unlikely for me to have another chance to shame myself with a passerby.
I go deep into the cave. The sunlight from the entrance is just enough to see my arms. I wait for the color to return to my sallow skin, but it doesn’t. I am a mountain nymph; my health comes from my connection to my home. But now I have confirmed what I dreaded to be true. Not just any mountain can be like my previous home.
Water drips in the distance.
I startle, not at the sound of the water but at the noise from my mouth. A near-perfect replication of a drop hitting the rock— a noise only lifeless objects make.
Was this an added layer of the curse, to be fated to repeat the words and noises of not only men and beasts but even nature itself? Never to die as mortals do, ferried by Charon across the River Styx in the Underworld? I realize, in horror, I will dwell above land, forever as an unoriginal voice.
The view outside my new eternal home beckons me. A stream flows a few steps from the cave’s entrance. Animals would surely come to drink from its banks. The risk is too great for me to go out and wash my salty tear-streaked face. Too high is the risk of crossing paths with another hunter. I won’t allow the embarrassment of my curse to be put on full display again.
I’ve stopped counting the moons since my first night in this cave. I kept track of the first few, wondering where my sisters were and if they worried about me.
My thoughts battle each other each night.
I should find my sisters. They’re probably worried about me. Even if I can’t join in on their conversations or laughter, being near them would lessen my grief.
Silly girl,I tell myself. The Queen of the Gods does not forget so easily! My sisters would fear her returning for more revenge on those who tempted her husband to stray. Who am I to bring that threat to them?
And besides, how long could anyone stand to hear their words repeated? How long would it be before they abandoned me? They don’t need to share in my shameful curse.
No, it is better to dwell in this cave and have my only conversations be with falling rocks and squeaking rodents.
So ended the debate of whether to stay or to leave. I stopped noticing every hour that passed by, and soon, I stopped looking for Helios and his blazing chariot to bring the daylight.
I didn’t even notice as my skin became thin as ash. I’ve laid on the cave floor for so long that I’ve become one with this place.
It wasn’t until I heard a familiar voice outside my cave that I thought to move.
“None have suffered for love as I am now. Even lovers separated by miles of land and sea know why they aren’t in each other’s arms. We are only separated by this stream,” the voice cries.
My heart leaps as I hear him.
Oh, Narcissus, you’ve found me after all this time. You must see now how much I love you. Even if I can only repeat your words, we can still hold each other.
“Separated by this stream,” I croak. It’s been so long since I’ve used my tongue to speak words instead of mimicking drops of water.
I lift my arms to prop myself up from the rocky floor, only to see parts of my skin disappear in the air like dust.
He can’t see me like this.
My body is falling apart, and this is when he finally realizes he wants me? Oh, the fates are cruel.
His voice sounds again beyond the cave’s walls. “I know you hear my words–you always speak them back! I’ve seen you echo my words before, but I don’t hear you.”
The sound of my name in his voice is the only motivation I need. I always want to hear him say my name. Maybe the gods will pity me and decide I’ve suffered long enough.
I send a prayer to Olympus to mend my broken body by the time I pass the boulder blocking me from Narcissus.
“Please don’t shy away from me. If you don’t let me hear your voice or touch you, then I beg you to let me see you!” he cries.
“Let me see you,” I whisper nervously as I round the boulder and come to the cave’s entrance.
The sight of him isn’t what stops me from taking another step; it’s who he’s looking at with passion that does.
Narcissus lies on the ground, his face a few inches from the stream’s surface. The water ripples from where he takes his arms out.
“I know you don’t reject me because of my looks. Women and Nymphs throw themselves at me; men offer gifts in hopes of keeping me in their presence. They desire me just as I desire you,” he says to his reflection.
I know what will happen even though I try to stop myself. “I desire you,” I repeat.
“And,” he continues, “I’ve seen you look at me with longing in your eyes just as I look at you. I’ve seen you look at my face…. my body with desire, but just as I reach for you, you flee from me.”
“Flee from me,” I say bitterly.
He rejected me so quickly, but is tearing himself apart for his reflection? Does he not realize he is just looking at himself, seeing his reflected mouth only noiselessly repeating his words?
He’s cursed. Of course, he doesn’t recognize his reflection. Of course, he doesn’t realize that he’s talking to himself. This is only another cruel and poignant curse from the gods.
Oh, poor Narcissus, you must have upset one of your admirers so much that they cried to the heavens, praying for your demise. A young soul in love with him like I was must have seen the same disgusted look Narcissus gave me and prayed to the gods to curse him. He was doomed to his fate as he could never love anyone like he loves himself.
In the fleeting moment when I thought we could be together, I didn’t notice his gaunt eyes or his thin frame. This isn’t the first time he’s gazed into the stream. How long has he been there? Has he never moved to eat or find shelter? How could I not have heard him before now?
My anger dwindles as he stops pleading. I can only repeat his cry, distorted by tears and spittle.
Helios, in his sun-filled chariot, sees him like this many times. Narcissus’ eyes have lost their color. His body, once rivaling the gods themselves, looks like a tan hide stretched too tightly across his bones. Though, he never cries from starving pains or his broken body. Only for his lost love.
Oh, what a cruel twist of fate for our wretched souls. I am so close that I can reach and touch him, but so far that he never knows I am here.
How fitting, then, our punishments. The gods punished Narcissus for his indifferent rejections, only for him to be rejected by the only person he truly loved. Cursed to deprive his lovely body and lose it entirely in a misguided attempt to win his own affection.
And me? A relentless punishment for a soul that hurt no one. Once, I loved to be with others and share in their merriment: to sing, laugh, and tell stories in a crowd. But now, my voice is only heard in empty places.
Narcissus speaks, pulling me from my thoughts. His voice is hoarse and weak. “Even though loving you is my punishment, I still love you, and in the River Styx, I will find you.”
“I will find you,” I say from inside my cave.
He falls onto his chest, and with a feeble effort, he turns his head to the side, gazing with unseeing eyes in my direction.
“Goodbye,” his voice scratches as he slumps into his final posture.
“Goodbye,” I whisper.
I lie on my back, then turn my head to look at what is left of Narcissus. He isn’t there. In his place is a single white flower with a yellow center that is as bright as his beauty had been. My eyes ache from the impulse to cry. But they are desiccated, like grapes long forgotten in the sun.
I sigh and look back up to the ceiling of the cave.
There isn’t much left of me now. I’m not afraid, though. I’ve made peace with my fate. Soon, I’ll be free of my fading body, and my voice will remain. I know that. Those cursed by the gods will live on past the days those gods are worshiped.
The world is vast, with mountains and caverns yet to be reached by humanity. Someone will reach those mountains, and when they do, I’ll be there as they call out in the distance. For my name is Echo, and I will be a companion for those in the most desolate places.