Once the Sphinx just got tired of it all. Who wouldn’t, the Sphinx wanted to know? Waiting here on this rock for years to quiz the occasional wanderer who might shamble by—most often lost and in no mood for riddles—was tedious beyond belief. To say nothing of the flies that circled one in this heat, some days so thick they blotted out the sun and so fierce in their assault the welts they left on the Sphinx at day’s end still hurt the following dawn. But the wait and the welts could have been ignored if only the longed-for strangers measured up to the Sphinx’s desire for the diversion an engaging test of wits might offer. None ever did. The way they scratched their noggins, one after another, and sighed over its riddle for hours on end, missing every opportunity to rework it or expand it or even to ask their own questions in return, and then sealed their fate in an instant with some foolish reply—who should be expected to sit through that? It was an embarrassment. Spending any time at all with somebody so clueless as to insult one’s own intelligence could make the Sphinx want to tear itself to pieces for even having posed its question in the first place. But then to suffer the remorse of dispatching another unfortunate so clearly not in one’s league mentally was worse. Enough of these encounters, and how was one to bear the shame of having undone so many of the defenseless? On the other hand, should the Sphinx dumb down the riddle so a few of this lot might blunder upon the answer? But what would be gained, really, by such a ploy? Wouldn’t it cast both the Sphinx and them in a worse light? They might not have cared, happy just to escape their doom, but what of the Sphinx? To have lowered the bar and cheapened, right at the beginning, all that was to follow in a long tradition of reason—who would be willing to face the scathing contempt such a lapse in judgment was bound to bring? No, better to hold out hope through it all that someone would come along who was up to the riddle. Someone who would, in solving it, do both of them honor. Like this young man Oedipus here, so full of himself and so sure he knew everything. Was there a chance now at last for a true contest of minds, one deserving to become myth? And yet what did Oedipus really know of life’s enigmas that could rival the Sphinx’s own awareness? How much didn’t he have left to learn about what it ultimately meant to crawl and then stride and then limp through this world? Poor fellow. A greater riddle in himself than any the Sphinx could pose. And yet here they were at this rock, trapped by circumstance face to face in a swarm of flies: Oedipus the Sphinx’s last hope for humanity to live up to its potential for wisdom and the Sphinx all that stood between Oedipus and an understanding no one should have to endure. Ought it to spare him that ordeal, make the riddle one without an answer this time and put a stop to the youth’s blind rush towards a far worse fate than death? Or cry out, “Wait! Give it a little more thought! You have no idea what any of this really means!” Or would it be better to stay silent and let Oedipus discover for himself the terrible limits of his knowledge? What an agonizing dilemma it posed for the Sphinx. At last a wanderer comes along who just might be worth having waited all this while and suffered all these disappointments for, only to put the Sphinx in the position of having to choose between exacting his death if he failed at the answer and its own if he succeeded. But there was nothing either of them could do, really, to forestall the inevitable. The years of its standing vigil and the years of his seeking to outwit oracles had come down to this last moment that held them both in its tight urgency. As Oedipus finally cleared his throat and began to open his mouth, the Sphinx looked deep into the eyes of the young man, and a tear rolled out of its own at the knowledge of what must come.
Copyright © 2007 by Geoffrey Grosshans