The Minotaur

from the collection "Body and Mind"

Jan Grue

Illustration by Monika Grubizna

In the end, the minotaur settled in Amsterdam. He was no longer young and it had become increasingly difficult for him to travel undetected between the continents. After many years, he decided he would have to make his home in a large city somewhere in Europe, a reasonable distance by train from his Greek homeland. Paris was too carefully planned, with its straight boulevards, and Berlin was too spacious, too open. The Dutch city reminded him of the labyrinth, the first home that the minotaur had known. In addition, Amsterdam was an old refuge for those who needed it.

The city centre was unchanged since last he had been there, which was some time between the Peace in Westphalia and the Napoleonic wars. The same filth, the same human crowd. The smells had changed, though. There were no longer horses, but cars. And the stench of the canals held a machine-like odour, nowadays. But it was an organic city. It was a living being. It pulsated, the way the labyrinth did. He felt at home within the city's heart.

The minotaur's apartment was small and was located near the old church. Just as in other buildings in this part of town, there was a bordello on the ground floor. Next to the postbox and doorbell, women stood in their underwear, some with bras, others with bare breasts. No one noticed the minotaur as long as he wore the coat and cowboy hat he had bought on his trip to America. That's how things had become. First, they had beheld him as a god, then as a monster. Now, when anyone even bothered to look directly at him, it was with an expression that was otherwise reserved for the very old or sick, an expression containing equal portions of fear and disgust. It was an expression that he could not return, because the viewer never looked him directly in the eyes.

The minotaur had lived too long. For all he knew, he was the only one of his kind that still existed in the world, and he was exhausted. His mighty horns were marked with dents and scratches. Throughout the years, he had growled and butted and gored. But he couldn't do this anymore. Once, at the end of the nineteenth century, he had been shot by a rifle and had lain on his sickbed for one month. It was the last time he had been in a battle.

Sometimes he was proud of his horns and the gouges in them. Other times, he woke from a dream in which they had fallen out and new horns were beginning to sprout from his temples, soft, smooth horns, covered by a thin membrane and with infinitely sharp, fine points. The minotaur had feet, not hoofs, but his skin was so coarse and rough that there was little difference. They had often groomed him in the labyrinth, the youths who had come from the ships. They had been afraid and wanted to appease him. He ate them all, anyway, but when he had so desired, he had first allowed them to cover him in oil and scrape him down.

The apartment where the minotaur lived was not large. His horns had torn up the walls and doorframe. He slept on a mattress with long slashes on both sides, and prepared his meals on a worn-out gas stove in the corner of the room that served as kitchen, living space, and bedroom. The only things that the minotaur had invested in were a door lock and the large safe. Once a month, he sold one of his gold coins for much less than it was worth, and paid his rent to the owner. In return, he was left in peace.

Heavy narcotics didn't much appeal to the minotaur, but he smoked marijuana. The THC content had risen significantly over the last years, which meant that his money stretched further, but it also weakened his discipline. For a long time, he had tried not to smoke every day so that the experience would still mean something. Now and then he had managed to abstain for a week before rolling something very potent and dreaming of the oracle of Delphi. The smoke in the cramped apartment became the smoke from the mountain, and Pythia's face filled his consciousness. But what she told him, this he never remembered when he awoke.

Now his routine was more monotonous. He slept for most of the day. When evening rolled around, he forced himself to get up. He rarely went for more than an hour now before lighting up his first joint. After that, he wandered around the dark city in increasingly larger circles until he lost his sense of direction. He was still able to dream as long as he was moving. Sometimes he imagined that he was at home. The brick houses became walls, the constellations became his old friends, and he himself became one of his old victims. He waited for himself somewhere within the labyrinth.

Only once had the minotaur allowed a young man to escape from his labyrinth. Only once had he been defeated. The next day, he had forsaken his old home and begun to wander. He had seen the world. It was richer than he could have imagined, but it wasn't infinite in size.

One time, an aimless night in Amsterdam had turned into a grey dawn. The minotaur found himself farther from home than he had ever been, far away from the canals. He saw a man riding a bicycle from the other side of the street. The man wobbled and fell, and it was only then that the minotaur heard the shots. The cyclist staggered across the street before another man, in a grey rain jacket, shot him again several times. Then the man pulled a long knife from his grey rain jacket and cut the cyclist's throat. The minotaur smelled the blood immediately. His eyes were opened.

The man in the grey rain jacket stabbed the knife into the cyclist's chest and the cyclist lay still. Then he pulled out a piece of paper, wrote something on it, and pinned it to the body with another, smaller knife. He lifted his gaze and looked at the minotaur, and the minotaur knew that the man saw him, saw him just as he was. The minotaur stretched himself up to his full height. He tossed his head and raised his horns. The man in the grey rain jacket went his own way. Many people had begun gathering at the scene. The air was cold and dank, as always. The minotaur plodded back toward the centre.

He had once been larger and more powerful. How large, he didn't know. When he visited museums, sometimes he would see old portrayals of himself, but they varied too much. Now he was barely over two metres tall. Still, he felt confined in the city. The narrow streets were full of wrought iron entanglements sticking out every which way. Perhaps he would have felt like this no matter where he was. When he had stopped killing humans, drinking their blood and devouring the meat from their legs, he began to see them as fragile eggs, as newly hatched chicks. He knew how simple it was to tear their skin off with his horns. It was effortless. But he tried to stay clean. He wanted to be as blameless and light as a nymph.

The minotaur wandered farther around in the grey light. He didn't return home until it began to darken. His body stopped at a window on the ground floor. The sweet, spicy light fell across his coat and hat, across his face. For the second time that day, someone met his gaze.

The bordello on the ground floor was owned by a woman. The minotaur had seen her coming and going. He hadn't lain with anyone since they had stopped making sacrifices to him. When he walked through the street, he tended to keep his gaze directly in front of him, like a race horse. Sometimes he was tempted to paw with his feet and burst through the nearest pane of glass. At one time, he had been told, they had constructed devices that could lift a horse out of the canals. He imagined his own heavy body, painstakingly lifted out through a shattered bordello window.

It was the tattoo on the woman's right shoulder that had raised his attention. Of all the labyrinths he had seen, this was among the simplest. Four concentric circles, something an English lord might have commissioned for his estate, just next to the peacock cage and the superficially designed jungle. A labyrinth like this didn't have any function, it was purely decorative. But the artist who had created it knew something about anatomy and proportions. At first glance, it seemed as though the labyrinth was nothing more than a dark spot, an ornamentation belonging to the shoulder, a piece of armour such as a gladiator might have worn while carrying a net in one hand, a spear in the other.

The woman behind the window neither smiled nor waved, but she looked the minotaur in the eye. It was unusual. Most people developed a blind spot: they allowed themselves to register a minotaur-shaped hole in their line of vision, something that they tried not to fall into at any cost. Sometimes, though very rarely, he would be asked to leave shops or cafés, as though he were a random drunk or homeless tramp. Because he yielded rather than pierce them through with his horns, they got away with it. This woman stood straight up and down, her legs planted on the floor like a soldier at a standstill. She was surrounded by red lamps and wore shiny black undergarments made of cheap, artificial silk. Her gaze didn't waver. She looked directly at him. The minotaur went in.

She nodded to him and shut the curtains. The light would remain visible from outside, around the edges, to signal that she had a customer but that she would be available again shortly. They went into the back room, which contained a bed, a sink, a dresser with a clock radio and nothing else. She pointed to the dresser.

"Money, please," she said in broken English.

"How much?" he said. He was still wearing his jacket, and felt around in the pocket.

"Missionary or something else?" she said.

"I just want to talk with you," he said.

"Fifty euros. A half hour," she said, "if you don't want something else later."

He took a bill from his pocket and showed it to her before placing it on the dresser. She nodded. There were no visible alarms or cameras in the room. Either they were hidden somewhere where he hadn't noticed them, or the woman was left to herself. The minotaur took a decision. He removed his hat. The woman didn't say anything, but drew her breath sharply.

"They're real," said the minotaur. "Touch them."

She moved closer to him, slowly. The minotaur was aware of how heavily she breathed. He felt like an animal again. The woman moved her hand toward the middle of his right horn. First she moved as if toward the root, but then slowly brought her hand to the tip. Carefully, she prodded it with her index finger.

"Thank you," she said.

"Touch them again," said the minotaur. "Please. You don't have to do anything else."

She did it, stroking his horns. Afterwards, the minotaur sat on the bed and she sat next to him. After a while, she pointed to the clock radio. The half hour had passed quickly. The minotaur stood up, put on his hat, and exited the door without turning around. He went up the stairs to his apartment and for the first time in a long while, promptly and naturally fell asleep.

For the next few evenings, another woman stood in the window. The minotaur checked each time he passed. The other woman waved, but he continued on. He was awake during the days now, but drifted around in a dream-like state, even without marijuana. He went to the Rijksmusuem, to the room with the artefacts from the Dutch golden age. He looked at a suit of armour that was composed of several intricate, precisely connected parts, and began to think about Dürer's rhinoceros, an animal that the artist had never seen but had nonetheless portrayed with an astoundingly strong physical resemblance.

The minotaur looked at a halberd with spikes, a cannon that looked too small to harm anyone, and a carved wardrobe large enough to house a family. He stood for an hour in front of the endlessly detailed dioramas in the doll house room. The room was full of furniture and blankets and tapestries. The miniaturized silverware was genuine, and the inhabitants of the doll house stared at him with confident, dead eyes.

The next time that the woman with the tattoo stood in the window, the minotaur paid for an hour and slept with her. He didn't know whether he would manage to control himself, but he no longer had a choice. He wanted himself back. To be sure, though, he had her sit on top of him while his arms were bound to the headboard, and for an extra twenty euros, she tied him up. Afterwards, she informed him that it would cost another fifty euros to repair the bed.

The minotaur felt alive again. He went jogging in Vondel Park, along the lake, and couldn't keep himself from rushing in among the ducks, like a boy.

The minotaur ate meat. It had been ten years since the last time. It was so satisfying to rip the fibres of the pork chops apart between his sharp teeth.

He went to the woman again. This time, he asked her where she was from.

"The east," she said.

"Serbia? Macedonia? Greece?" he said.

"Does it matter to you?" she said.

"No," he lied, "but I would like to know."

She only told him a few things. She said she didn't want to disclose which country she was from, or her real name, but she told him that she was studying at another university that wasn't in Amsterdam.

"What are you studying?"

"History." And then the time was up.

Two days later, the minotaur was jogging along the harbour. When he passed the central station, he saw the woman, dressed in a black cape and on her way into the building. With his large cap still pulled over his head, he walked in and followed after her. He pursued her through the throng of people and down into the underground tunnels. One time she stopped, but before she had turned around, he was able to duck into a side passageway. Then he continued following her. She went up to a platform. The next train was headed to Utrecht. He watched her board.

The next time she stood in the window, he paid twice as much as he had before. And after he had slept with her, he asked:

"Where do you study?"

"It isn't important," she said.

"I want to know," he said. He pointed at the money on the dresser.

"No," she said, and scooted some centimetres away from him.

The minotaur had spoken to her longer than with any other human for as long as he could remember. Now, he didn't have many words left. He put his hat on and departed.

After that day, the woman was no longer to be seen in the window. The weather grew colder. A week passed, and then two, and then three. The year was at its darkest term. He thought he saw her in another window, down a back alley, but when he came closer, the curtain was drawn and remained closed, though he stayed nearby for almost an hour.


The sun changed direction. A new year began. The minotaur stuffed garments into a backpack. He filled his pockets with gold and sold one of the pieces. Then he boarded the next train to Utrecht. He was disappointed from the train ride because it was over so quickly.

The minotaur checked in at a hostel midway between the station and the university. Then he found out where the history institute was located and sat at a table in the nearest café.

After three days of newspapers and overcooked coffee, he saw her. She came out of the building with the same dark cape he had seen her wearing before, but it was open and she had on a blue and white peasant shirt beneath. The minotaur rose abruptly. He didn't hear the chair crash into the ground behind him.

The woman saw the minotaur at the same moment that she saw the man she was on her way to meet. He was young, with dark skin and wavy hair. His leather jacket gleamed in the pale sunlight. He was beautiful and muscular, and resembled one of the youth that had been sent to the minotaur's labyrinth once long ago.

The young man followed the woman's surprised and slightly terrified glance. When he turned toward the minotaur, it was with spartan, graceful movements. The minotaur saw that the man was a warrior. The minotaur knew his own body, knew its weight, and knew that he was not as swift as the young man. He hadn't been that quick for a long time. He had his horns, but that was all.

The minotaur looked at the young woman from the bordello. She stared at him, and the minotaur saw into her gaze. Contempt? Compassion? Curiosity? He could no longer differentiate these things from each other. A red mist was beginning to rise, was beginning to overshadow his body. He knew that he wanted to win her, and he knew that he would never win her. It was no longer his world.

The minotaur lumbered awkwardly toward the pair. The red mist had taken over, but he saw the young man laugh, he saw the young man's right hand move toward his trouser pocket, where he knew that the spring blade was hidden, and the minotaur knew that, in spite of everything, this would be his very best day.

translated from the Norwegian by Becky L. Crook