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Copyright © 2010

Christina Murphy

Mrs. Sisyphus


I am waiting for Sisyphus with a thermos of coffee. The rock has rolled down the hill again, and he is sure to follow. There he is. His eyes are bloodshot, he looks weary, and the blisters on his feet are terrible.

“How’s the view today?”


“Here’s your coffee.”

He fills the thermos top, takes a swallow, screws the top back on.

“That’s all you want?” I say.

“Running late,” he says, and back he goes to the rock.

I watch him for a few minutes then head to the house. I have a few geraniums on the porch and pull away some dead leaves before going in.

I can see him from the window—up, up he goes, and on and on. He becomes a smaller figure, and I lose sight of him as the low-hanging clouds become his backdrop.

I shake my head. He wasn’t always like this, believe me. I would have never married him, had I known, but I was in love. Love is supposed to be blind, and I certainly was.

He was a good talker, thought a lot about many things. One of his interests was why the sky was mostly dark at night. I mean, with all the billions and billions of stars supposedly out there, why was the night sky so dark? He set me to thinking, and I liked that.

And he was very romantic—brought me flowers, wrote me love letters, called me often. I never had to wonder if he loved me or if he would cheat on me. He was very sincere, very tender, and the kindest man I had ever known.

The damn rock has rolled back down again. I hate that thud and the way it shakes the house. Sisyphus will be coming back down again soon, and I should go out to him, but I just don’t have the heart for it right now. It makes me sad to see him in this endless folly that he calls noble.

This all came up one night when he was reading Greek mythology. A fateful night. Had I known, I would have taken that book and thrown it into the trash before he ever saw it. But I was in the kitchen making us a salad, and I heard the book drop onto the floor. I went to check on him and there he was, lost in deep thought, his eyes glazed over, and his fists tight, white at the knuckles.

“I can do it,” he said to me in almost a whisper. Then he was shouting, “I will do it!”

“What?” I said.

“Roll a rock to the heavens.”

Of course, this was not the kind of thing I took seriously, so I just listened to his ideas and then went back to the kitchen to finish making the salad. But I should have taken him seriously because that was the night that changed our lives—and changed him.

You could say he was obsessed, but I wish it was only that. As time went on and he searched for just the right rock in shape and size and what he called roll-ability, I came to see that he was crazed. And by that I mean he was convinced that he could pit his will against the universe and triumph. I knew better, perhaps even he knew better, but he would not listen.

It is not easy to find a rock that you are going to roll up to the heavens. We began our search the next day in a truck that he borrowed from his brother. We drove along rock cuttings that road-building crews had made and where we might find large boulders. And we did, but none seemed just right enough. Some had the right size but were not round enough. Those that were round enough did not feel the way he wanted when he pressed his hands against them and pushed.

I told him to let this go as it was a fixation, and nothing good ever came from a fixation, in my view.

“Of course it’s a fixation,” he said. “So what?”

I didn’t have an answer for that, but I did have a bad feeling. I knew he was done listening to me, but worse yet, I was mostly no longer a part of his world. The rock, the heavens, and the journey itself were now his world, and I was a spectator.

Okay, I would accept it this way. I loved him, plain and simple. And if he wanted to push a rock to the heavens, then so be it. I would be here on earth when he came back down.

I guess you really can blind yourself to things if you choose to—or need to. I think I thought he would be at this for awhile and then would come to his senses. I didn’t know he would make this his life’s work, so obviously I was naïve. Perhaps you have to be a bit naïve to lie to yourself and believe it is true.

We were on our fifth journey through rock cuttings when we found the rock he wanted. It was a rather beautiful rock, quite striking. It had a bluish cast to it, and in the starlight, seemed almost silvery at times. The truck was too small for it, so he had to call his brother, who borrowed a truck with a larger bed, brought along several cousins, and helped Sisyphus load that rock and bring it home.

Sisyphus drove the truck back, and I sat beside him. The rock was pressed up against the window in the cab like some giant ghost watching us. Sometimes I would turn to look at it and wonder if I too had lost my mind. Other times I looked straight ahead at the road, but I was always aware of the rock’s presence.

Half the job was done. We had the rock. Now we needed a place to roll it up to the heavens. Where we lived, there was an old observatory that was high on a mountaintop. It was no longer functional and had been abandoned long ago. Sisyphus decided to begin there but to pile more rocks and dirt onto the mountaintop to extend its reach to the heavens.

Now when you’ve come this far, the idea that your husband is going to hire crews and have them build up a mountaintop so that he can get closer to the heavens when he rolls his rock up a mountain path that he was constructing—that idea does not sound as absurd as I now realize it was. And so the construction began, with me once more an observer, and realizing how much smaller and smaller a part of Sisyphus’ world I was occupying.

We sold our house and moved into one near the base of the mountain. I worked on the house while Sisyphus worked on the mountain. I set it up like a normal house for normal people with a normal life, and I tried to live that life with him. Parts of it were normal. He left for work in the mornings and came home at night. I cooked his breakfast, packed a lunch for him, and had dinner waiting for him when he came home. I could even get him to watch the news with me and talk about current events. On certain occasions, we made love—mostly when his work was going well and he felt he was getting closer and closer to the heavens. Those were the good days, but there were fewer of them than the discouraging days. Those days, he felt he would never get there, and I would try to comfort his despair. He really could descend into some dark, dark moods, and helping him believe in his dream was hard on me. But he needed me, and I needed him, and so we continued on together.

It took almost a year and nearly every cent we had, but the day did come when he was pleased with the height of the mountain and the path that had been made for his journey to push his rock toward the heavens. That was a happy day, and one of the last days I saw him smile.

That morning, it was just the two of us as he did not want anyone else there or any fanfare. I remember seeing the rock in the soft morning sunlight and realizing it looked so much like a huge and solid pearl as the light played against its sides and indentations. And I also remember being so surprised at how large the rock seemed when Sisyphus stood behind it and positioned himself for the first push. Working on the mountain had really built up his muscles, and as he stood behind the rock, poised like a runner at the starting block and pushing with all his might, I almost believed he could do this and would reach the heavens. I almost believed that by the strength of his heart and will alone he could do the impossible, and I was caught up in my love and my hopes for him, and my faith in his dream.

That was a glorious morning. The sun had never seemed brighter or the sky bluer. My heart lifted as Sisyphus put his full strength into pushing the rock and it began to roll up the path. I looked up at the mountain top and realized how far he had to go, and as hard as it was, I let my heart release him to his journey while I would wait for him to return.

And this became our life. He was gone on his solitary journey, and I was waiting for him. I felt very much like a wife from an earlier era in which her husband set out to sea and she waited at home, all the while visualizing the sea and her husband’s small presence upon its vastness. I visualized the mountain, each sharp ledge, each rocky area he and his rock would climb. I was with him in that image. And he was carrying my soul, too, to the top of that mountain.

I was alone a great deal. In time, I adjusted to some of the loneliness, some of the separation. I came to know what a great struggle of the heart it is to keep believing in someone else’s dream when your own dream is largely put on hold. Maybe all love is like that—a willingness, or gift of the heart, to see the world as someone else does and to cherish that vision because it emerges from someone’s soul. Maybe. I wonder. But I knew that all my loneliness, all my sense of isolation and separation, did not pull me from him. It only made me sad that it did not bring me closer to him.

And so each day went on, measured out by the deafening rumble of the rock rolling from the mountaintop and into a cleared area near our house. And soon I would see him coming down the mountain path and positioning himself by his rock and taking up his journey again. Some times he would go for days and nights before resting, and then I missed him most and was most aware of my own solitude. Most nights, he would stop a few hours into darkness and come into the house. His hands would be cracked and blistered, his shoulder bruised, and his feet rough and ragged with open sores. I would wash the dust and sweat from his face and chest and soak his feet and hands. And we would eat meals together, and he would tell me of his day. He had come to like bread with thick crusts, and I would warm and butter the bread for him, and fill a large bowl with the stew he liked. And I would look at him, the purity of his eyes, and know that he had not given up.

I planted a garden. A small one with vegetables and a few flowers. I threw away the clocks in the house and became aware of natural time from my garden, the sun, the stars, and the gentle cast of moonlight through the curtains in our bedroom. And on those nights when Sisyphus was home and sleeping in our bed, I held him close and wished both that he was not the kind of man he was, and that he would never change. What can I say? I loved him.

It is amazing how the human soul can adjust to just about anything and how any routine, lived out faithfully, can come to seem normal. That was becoming my experience as the days and months went by. I was a compass righting itself and finding true North, and loneliness itself had a way of clarifying and tempering the soul. I became used to the thud of the rock and the sound of Sisyphus’ feet following after. These became the rhythms of my days and the comforts of my heart. I longed for the nights when he would be home and I could hold him close, and I let my heart grieve, much like a bird flying through a cold darkness, when I knew it was a night when he would be gone.

And I contented myself with being there for him in the mornings when he was beginning his journey or the times when he was on one of his many rolls of the day. I was there with coffee and sandwiches for him and small kisses that I would place upon his cheek. Often he was too involved with his own pursuit to notice me with much depth or affection, but I was comforted by my contact with him and rarely did not go to greet him. He was the core of my life, or I was tethered to the core of his life. I was not ever sure, but when I looked into the intensity and passion of his eyes, it did not matter.

I was alone in our bedroom one night when the moonlight was burnishing the clouds and a soft breeze was moving through the room. I was both aware and unaware of my surroundings, as often is the case when people are thinking of something else. I was remembering my childhood and planting strawberries with my father in the summers, and making a resolve to myself that I would plant strawberries this summer and have them ready with cream and sugar for Sisyphus when he came home. So I had been lost in my lovely reverie for a long time before I realized that I had not heard the thud or the sound of Sisyphus’ footsteps in a good while. I focused my ears against the quiet of the night and heard every sound of wind, and insects, and the soft hum of traffic away in the distance—but not the one sound I most wanted to hear. Not the sound of the rock and Sisyphus returning to earth and to home.

I waited. I listened. I pushed away my fears and told myself he was resting somewhere before he began the final part of his descent. I did a good job of this until even I began to know it was not the truth. He was not coming home.

My heart ran through the scenarios: injured, lost, gone. Each image made me more frantic, more certain that I must rush to him and find him. In the darkness of the night, I stood at the bottom of the path with only a flashlight and my breaking heart, waiting, listening, hoping to see him, to hear him, one more time—just one more time. I called out to him over and over, but only the night heard my shouts and carried them deep into the mountains.

I rushed into the house and called his brother. “You must come,” I told him. “He’s lost. We must find him!” Together, we walked the path, shining our lights into each ledge and crevasse as we climbed on, calling his name, shouting with all our might, feeling more and more alone in the darkness, and more sure that things were horribly wrong.

When the morning came, we called in his cousins and friends, and we spread out to look in more places and especially into areas in which he could have gone off the path and fallen to ledges or jagged areas below.

Three days of intense searching went by. I told myself I had to continue looking and could not let my heart break. I would not give up. I would find him. I would be as tenacious and steadfast in my quest as he had been in his. But there was no sign of him, and I began to see hope withdrawing from people’s eyes, and being replaced by the hesitant looks that told me I must begin preparing myself for the obvious truth—he would never be found.

Gradually, the fervor was lost, people began disbanding, and the search ebbed away. What comfort they could lend, people gave to me, and then I was alone. I did what I had done before, embracing my routines, and carrying on with the life I had had when he was with me. In many ways, it felt as if this life were my true life, waiting for him to come home as I always had and being patient with time and loneliness.

Often I felt as if I were learning from my solitude. That perhaps the heart knew most about keeping the bonds of love and hope and not surrendering them to reason’s disregard. Other times, I felt the only thing I learned was how longing for what you love but cannot have can strip you to the core and break your heart more times than you could imagine.

The chill of early winter filled my room one night, and I fell into a gentle sleep, dreaming of him climbing the mountain, pushing his rock before him, going on through the pain in his hands and joints, fighting against the voices in his mind that must have told him at times not to go on. I saw him moving up and up into the mountain, moving the rock with all his strength and all his faith in his own truth, and I was filled with joy because I knew he had made it. That is why we never found the rock or him. He had made it, pushed the rock into the heavens, never to fall to earth again. It was the purest joy I had ever felt. He had made it. I was certain, ever so certain, of that. My heart flew to him, and we were out on the seas, the waves bringing us away from the shore into an expanse of sunlight resting on the water like the promise of a perfect dream. He had made it and had come back to me for us to be together, like the light on the water that joined the seas to the heavens above. The eternal light of eternal being. We had made it.