Never trust a man who’s half a beast, which effectively means never trust a man, but Herakles had a weakness for centaurs, having been raised by one, and when Nessus offered very courteously to carry Djeneira across the river, he thought, “Why not?” This was always a fault his, that he was too trusting and too courteous- but when a man chooses the steep rocky path of virtue and not the level path of vice he inevitably becomes a fool to himself.
The centaur reached the far side of the river and just kept on going. Djeneira wriggled and yelled and Herakles- who may have been a fool to himself, but wasn’t slow on the uptake– being if anything too hasty- drew his bow and let loose an arrow. The centaur had reckoned with the mighty club but had forgotten about the mighty bow and the mighty arrows. He fell forward onto his front knees with the arrow sticking out below his left shoulder blade, thinking, “Fuck!”
By the time Hercules had crossed the river, Nessus was dying and Djeneira was kicking him in his horsey ribs. “Stop that,” said Herakles and, ever courteous, knelt to receive the centaur’s last words.
“Fair enough,” said the centaur. “Lust was always a failing of mine and now I reckon you’ve cured me of it for ever. Don’t be sorry; you’ve done me a favour and I’d like to do you one in return. Thing is, my blood is full of these magical chemicals, and now it’s all over my shirt, my shirt's all magical too. I’d like you to have it."
“What sort of magic?” asked Herakles, but by then the centaur was dead.
It was a nice shirt- all over embroidery. Herakles took it and kept it - as a trophy really- he wasn’t fool enough to put it on. But you know how things go, Herakles was in the business of killing beasts and tyrants at the rate of about one a day and when you lead a really busy life and don’t keep a diary you’re liable to forget things that have happened- and so he and Djeneira forgot about Nessus- and the shirt got mixed up with their other belongings- and a few years later- it was bound to happen- Djeneira found it at the bottom of a chest and thought, “That’s pretty”- And laid it out for Herakles to wear.
Hera was watching as she’d always been watching. She smiled. It might have been a mean smile or it might have been wistful. Who knows? Goddesses are hard to read. Some say she hated Herakles but- if so- how come his name means Glory of Hera and how come she had her arm round little Hebe, Goddess of Youth, who had long loved Herakles from afar?
As soon as the shirt went over his head, the chemicals in the bloodstains got to work. They stuck to his skin and began eating, eating, eating him like the ebola virus. He tried pulling the shirt off but it was like he was pulling the meat from his bones.
Family and friends ran and hid. They knew about his rages. Last time he’d been as bad as this he’d ended up killing his children. Only Philoctetes, his servant, stayed with him- and followed at a distance.
He ran through the landscape of Greece. He threw himself in rivers and thrashed about, he ran through thickets and let the branches whip him, he rolled down slopes of scree. Nothing gave him ease. He could feel his strength going from him and he thought, “Not like this.”
So he wrestled an oak to the ground and broke off all the branches and built himself the biggest bonfire ever and climbed to the top of it and laid down.
Then he called out to Philoctetes, who was still following, and said, “Light it!” And Philoctetes all in tears said “Never.” And he told him to light it a second time and Philoctetes still said,”Never.“ So the third time he said, “Light it and you can have my mighty bow and my mighty arrows and then you’ll be as big a hero as I was.” And Philoctetes knew this was too good an offer to refuse and a kind of a blessing (only it wasn’t; being a hero never is) and he went and fetched a flame.
So the biggest bonfire ever went up in the biggest blaze and the tallest smoke- and Herakles stopped being a man and became a god and rode the blaze and the smoke to where the peacock flashes its hundred eyes and Hebe was waiting in white and gold- and her neck and her wrists and her hair all bound with daisies.