22. THEY COME TO THE DESERT
With the sail spread wide the Argo went on, and the heroes rested at the oars. The wind grew stronger. It became furious, and for nine days and nine nights the ship was driven fearfully along.
The wind drove them into the Gulf of Libya, from where there is no return for ships. On each side of the gulf there are rocks and shoals, and the sea runs toward the endless sand. The Argo was lifted on top of a mighty wave, and she was flung high up on the desert sands.
A flood tide, which seldom occurred, left the Argonauts on the empty Libyan land. They saw that vast expanse of sand stretching away like a mist away into the distance and a deadly fear came over each of them. They could see no water, no path or herdsman’s cabin. Over all that vast land there was silence and dead calm. One said to the other: “What land is this? Where are we?
The helmsman, looking before him, said with a breaking heart, “We cannot escape from this even if the wind should blow from the land, for all around us are shoals and sharp rocks. Our ship would have been shattered far from the shore if the wave had not carried her far up on the sand. But now the tide rushes back toward the sea, leaving only foam on which no ship can sail. All hope of our return is gone.”
He spoke with tears flowing upon his cheeks, and all who had knowledge of ships agreed with what the helmsman had said. No dangers that they had been through were as terrible as this. Hopelessly, the heroes sat on the sand in despair.
They embraced each other and they said farewell as they laid down on the sand so that it might blow over them and bury them in the night. They wrapped their heads in their cloaks, and laid themselves down.
Jason crouched beside the ship. He saw Medea huddled against a rock with her hair streaming on the sand. He saw the men who, with all their bravery, had come with him, stretched on the desert sand, weary and without hope. He thought that they, the best of men, might die in this desert with their deeds all unknown. He thought that he might never return home with Medea, to make her his queen in Iolcus.
He lay against the side of the ship, his cloak wrapped around his head. Death would have come to him and to the others if the nymphs of the desert had taken no notice of these brave men. They came to Jason at midday when the fierce rays of the sun were scorching all Libya. They drew off the cloak that wrapped his head and stood near him .
“Why do you despair?” the nymphs said to Jason. “Why do you despair, you who have risked so much and have won so much? Up! Arouse your friends! We are the solitary nymphs, the warders of the land of Libya, and we have come to show a way for you to escape.
“Look around and watch for the time when Poseidon’s great horse shall be released. Then prepare to repay the mother that gave birth to you all. What she did for you all, that you all must do for her and by doing it you will return to the land of Greece.” Jason heard them say these words and then the nymphs vanished amongst the sand dunes.
Then Jason stood up. He did not know what to make of what he had been told, but there was courage and hope in his heart. He shouted and his voice was like the roar of a lion calling to his mate. At his shout his companions stood covered with the dust of the desert.
“Listen to me friends,” Jason said, “while I tell you about a strange thing that has happened to me. While I lay by the side of our ship three nymphs appeared. With light hands they drew away the cloak that wrapped my head. They declared themselves to be the solitary nymphs, the warders, of Libya. What they said was very strange. When Poseidon’s great horse is released, we are to make payment to the mother of us all, doing for her what she has done for us all. This is what the nymphs told me to say, but I cannot understand the meaning of their words.”
There were some there who would not have paid any attention to Jason’s words, thinking them words without meaning. But even as he spoke a wonder appeared before their eyes. A great horse leaped out of the far off sea. He was enormous and had a golden mane. He shook the spray of the sea off his sides and mane. He galloped past them and away toward the horizon, leaving great tracks in the sand.
Then Nestor spoke, “See the great horse! It is the horse that the desert nymphs spoke of, Poseidon’s horse. The horse has been released, and now it is time to do what the nymphs told us to do.
“Who but Argo is the mother of us all? She has carried us. Now we must repay her and carry her even as carried us. With untiring shoulders we must carry Argo across this great desert.
“Where shall we carry her? Where but along the tracks that Poseidon’s horse has left in the sand! Poseidon’s horse will not go under the earth—once again he will plunge into the sea!”
When Nestor said this the Argonauts saw he was right. Hope came to them again—the hope of leaving that desert and coming to the sea. Surely when they came to the sea again, and spread the sail and held the oars in their hands, their sacred ship would make swift course to their native land!