Note: This story takes place between "Maze of the Minotaur" and "The Wrong Path." It comes before my story, "And A Child Shall Lead Him Home."
Iolaus' mother arrived six days after Ania died. The messenger hadn't brought the joyful news she had expected. Instead, he brought a hastily written note from Hercules explaining that Ania had died in childbirth, yet her grandson had survived. Hercules didn't ask her to come but she knew her son would need her.
The wagon dropped her off at the Thebes cross roads. She thanked the driver and made her way up the path. She could feel an emptiness about the place as she approached her son's home. She saw the fresh grave up on the hill under the tree. She walked into the house to find Hercules' wife tending her new grandson while her son went through the motions of living. The sight of him, pale, subdued, and so sad, broke her heart. Yet she resisted the urge to 'mother' him and gave him the space he needed. After a few days he seemed to finally begin pulling out of his shock and depression. He'd gone out to the forge early that morning. She heard him banging away on something. It was a relief to have him out of the house for awhile.
He came in around noon and sat across the table from where she was feeding the baby.
"I'm glad you came. You didn't have to."
"I can't think of a thing that would have kept me away. I needed to come, to know if you were all right."
He genuinely smiled for the first time since she arrived and then, made a face at the baby. She took the cue and handed him over. Iolaus was still a little unsure and awkward but was improving rapidly.
"He's something, huh?"
She nodded, "He has your smile."
"Yes, I can see that."
"Who's nose is that?"
She considered, "I don't know."
"It's not Uncle Strophius' is it?"
She laughed, "Oh, I hope not."
He giggled, then he became serious, "Mom, can I do this on my own?"
"What do you mean?"
"There's so much stuff, I don't know. How to hold him. What to feed him, what not to. Do this, don't do that. He's so small...What if I do something wrong?"
"Oh, you will. You will do things wrong."
"Thanks a lot, Mom!"
She smiled, "Iolaus, every parent does. Babies are tougher than they look. You won't break him. If you love him and you're there for him when he needs you, you'll both be fine."
She nodded, "I'm certain of it."
Over the next few weeks, Iolaus became less insecure and more comfortable in his new role as a parent. Under his mother's watchful eye, he learned about all the things babies needed; what to do when they get sick, how to make sure the milk isn't too hot or too cold, to take him outside to distract him while his toenails were clipped. Iolaus' mother was full of all sorts of little tricks and advice. Iolaus almost thought he could handle it all.
"Can you two men take care of lunch on your own?" she asked as Iolaus was changing his son and doing more playing than changing.
"Of course, we can, We're tough guys, aren't we? Yes, we are."
"Well, you've got baby talk down pat."
"Where are you off to?"
"Lunch with Alcmene."
"Have a good visit, tell her to come by."
"I intend to."
"So, how's everything going with Iolaus? Is he doing all right?" Alcmene asked.
"As well as can be expected. He wasn't prepared for this but he's coping. That's what I wanted to talk to you about. I haven't felt this close to Iolaus for years. It's nice to be able to talk to him without fighting. He just gets so headstrong and stubborn sometimes. These last few weeks have been good for us but it's time for me to go. I think he's ready to try this on his own." Her eyes met Alcmene's, "There have been times when Iolaus wouldn't let me be there for him. I know sometimes, he turned to Hercules and you , instead. I hope he'll do that again. I'm afraid he's going to need some help. I'd feel better about going if I knew you were keeping an eye on him."
"Iolaus and I have had our moments over the years, Alcmene considered, Of course, It would be my pleasure to help where ever I can."
She told Iolaus her plans to leave that night over supper.
"But, Mom, You can't go. What about all the things I haven't thought to ask yet?"
"You know enough. You're doing fine. It's time for you to stand on your own and deal with this. Just take it one day at a time. If that's too much to handle, take it an hour at a time. Don't rush things, it'll all work out. You have Hercules and his family to help you if you need it. You're ready. I have to go home and take care of your stepfather."
Iolaus didn't look like he believed her, "I couldn't have gotten this far without you."
"I just made it easier. You would have handled it fine on your own. You always have taken care of yourself, I have no doubt that you can handle this as well."
Hercules took the scenic route to Iolaus' place, across the fields instead of the path. The day was magnificent, sun shining, breeze warm. Hercules heard Iolaus shouting as he approached.
"Shoo! Go on! Get back in there!"
Hercules hesitantly peeked around the corner of the barn to find Iolaus, baby in one arm, trying to herd the chickens back into the coop. Hercules grinned, "Need a hand?"
Iolaus looked exasperated, "Oh, please. The latch came undone while I was collecting the eggs. Next thing I knew, stampede! They were running everywhere."
Between the two of them, the chickens were soon shooed back into the hen house.
"Something killed Sophias and Fionia this week, so I'm keeping them locket up. I set a few traps, but nothing."
Hercules rolled his eyes, "Sophias and Fionia are chickens?"
"Iolaus, how do you kill and eat chickens you've turned into pets?"
Iolaus shifted uncomfortably, "Ania wrung their necks while I wasn't looking."
Hercules contemplated that, "I'm not killing chickens for you."
"I didn't ask you to. I can do it...when I have to."
"Uh huh," Hercules looked doubtful.
Iolaus changed the subject, "So, what brings you over?"
"I brought..." He sniffed the air.
Iolaus looked down at the babe in his arms and wrinkled his nose, "That's you making all that stink, isn't it? What am I gonna do with you?" He looked up, "Come on in, I've got to take care of this."
Hercules followed and took a seat at the table dropping the satchel he carried beside him. He was highly amused by the diaper changing process going on nearby.
"What a mess! I had no idea babies could create such indescribable stuff. Stop that. The messier it is the more he wiggles everywhere. Oh! Don't put your foot in it. Gross."
"Need a hand?"
"No, I've got it. There, better?" he asked as he picked up the child again and sat at the table with Hercules. He took the bottle from the table and began feeding the baby and rocking slightly back and forth as the baby drank hungrily.
Hercules reached over and brushed his fingers through the fine blond hair, "Well, you picked that up quick."
"Rocking. Deianeira always rocked ours when she nursed them."
"Hmmm, I never thought about it. Just feels natural, I guess."
"So, how's it really going?" Hercules asked.
Iolaus gave him a haggard glance, "It's all I can handle, right now, but we're dealing with it."
"Oh, Deianeira sends these," Hercules lifted the satchel from the floor, "hand-me-down clothes. She said they'd be a little big, but it shouldn't be long before he's in them."
"Thanks, they'll be a help."
The two friends chatted awhile longer. Hercules noticed the dirty dishes in the sink, the clothes on the floor. Then again, Iolaus never was much of a housekeeper.
On the way home Hercules noticed that Iolaus wasn't keeping up with the outdoor chores either. The firewood needed replenishing and the stalls needed cleaning out. He made a mental note to keep an eye on the situation and bring the boys over to lend a hand if Iolaus didn't fine the time in a few days. Iolaus had always been an independent soul and Hercules wanted to give him the chance to figure things out on his own and if he needed a hand, Hercules intended to be there for him.
Alcmene gave Iolaus a week before she just happened to 'be in the neighborhood'. She knocked on the door intending to chat a moment, take a quick look around and be on her way. One look at Iolaus when he opened the door told her that wouldn't be possible. His hair was a mess. There was a smear of dirt on his cheek. He was surprised to see her and reluctantly invited her in..
She walked into a disaster area. She was astounded at the condition of the house. Iolaus looked around, shrugged obviously embarrassed and sat on the bed a picture of dejection.
"I know it's a sight. It all looked so easy when Mom was here. I just can't find enough time. The baby always needs to be fed or changed or bathed. He's up half the night." Iolaus sighed and continued explaining, "I tried to do stuff when he was asleep. I can't go out to the field. It's too far from the house, if he cries, or to the forge. I don't know how we're going to survive. I barely have time to feed and bathe myself let alone work. I'm just so tired..."
"Let me guess, you've been napping when he naps, right?"
Iolaus nodded, "It's the only sleep I get."
He looked so helpless. She sat next to him and took his hand.
"I can do this," he said quietly, "I can. I just need a little help."
Alcmene knew how hard that was for him to admit. Iolaus had the eyes of a lost child. She put her arms around him and hugged him.
"It'll get better soon. I know it's hard, dear. It gets a lot easier after they start sleeping through the night." She brushed the hair from his eyes. "Then, you can get enough rest to get by. Tell you what. I have some shopping to do. I'll take the baby with me and you can get a handle on this situation while we're gone. Will that help?"
"Immensely. Thank you."
Alcmene thoroughly enjoyed spending the afternoon with the little one. It brought back joyful memories of when Hercules and Iphicles were small. She also remembered a few cherished, stolen afternoons while the boys were with a friend or a relative. Just a few precious hours when she could relax and remember who she was. Couples could spell each other and give a mate a break. Single parents didn't have that option. Yes, she could help Iolaus just by giving him some time and maybe a little more advice.
"Since when did you become chief babysitter or is there something you haven't told me?" Hercules grinned at her.
She rolled her eyes, "I didn't even hear you come up."
"I know. You were lost in another world somewhere."
"I was just trying to figure out how to help Iolaus. The feeding and changing he's got under control. It's the stress and frustration at not being able to get anything else done and being woken up several times a night."
"Yeah, I remember. I was over at Iolaus' earlier this week. I wondered if he was going to need a hand."
"I don't know that he needs a hand so much as a little relief." She shifted the baby in her arms, "Speaking of which, he's getting heavy, here, you take him."
Hercules accepted the tiny bundle in his huge hands and immediately began cooing at him, "It's been awhile since I held one this small."
"He won't be that small for long. He has his father's appetite."
Alcmene returned to find the house spotless, a pile of unfolded but clean diapers on the table, dishes put away, and Iolaus sprawled across the bed, sound asleep.
"Looky, Daddy's taking a nap." She laid the baby beside him. Iolaus curled around him immediately. Alcmene's mouth dropped open. She lightly slapped him on the leg, "Iolaus!"
"What, what?" The bleary-eyed Iolaus asked.
"You are letting this baby sleep with you!"
"Well, as long as I keep everything right here by the bed, I can change him and feed him here and we don't have to get up in the dark. It's easier. Besides, he gets lonely over there." Iolaus indicated the crib.
She rolled her eyes at that last one, "Right. I'm going, so I can get home before dark. He should sleep tonight. He didn't have much of a nap. We spent the afternoon with Uncle Hercules in town. Yes, we did," she tickled the baby's toes. "I've got a couple of ideas, I'll be back in the morning," she shook her head, "sleeping with the baby. You're going to spoil him rotten."
Iolaus turned to his son, "How'd she know? Huh? Have you been telling stories on me? What gave us away?" He looked toward the door Alcmene had just closed, "How do mothers always know this stuff?"
Early the next morning Alcmene was back as promised.
He complied. Alcmene draped a piece of fabric around him, tied it over his shoulder and positioned the other end around his opposite hip.
"This is going to make quite a fashion statement." Iolaus commented.
Alcmene smiled, "You'll see." She picked up the baby and slipped him snugly inside the fabric, "There, see? You can hold him and still have use of both your hands."
Iolaus was confused, "And..."
"And you can go plow the field and plant things and all the time.."
"He stays right here where I can watch him." Iolaus got excited, "I can do the laundry and go shopping and I might stand a chance at being able to carry home everything we need. This is wonderful! You are a genius." Iolaus grabbed Alcmene, twirled her around and pulled her in for a hug.
"Iolaus, don't squish the baby," she laughed.
"Oh sorry," he let her go and peeked into the sling, "He's fine. This is great!"
"You still won't be able to work in the forge like this, but I've got an idea about that, too. Come on and bring a couple of old blankets."
Iolaus followed her like an eager puppy. They entered the building and Alcmene began to case the place with her eyes. She pointed, T"hat corner will be perfect. Lots of light by the window. Now we'll need something for the sides?"
"Will any of these do?" Iolaus asked picking a couple of boards up from a pile against the wall.
"Fine, bring them over." She positioned them to make a box in the corner. "Now we put one blanket in the bottom for padding and the other over the boards so he can't get splinters and there you have it. A nice little play area away from the heat and smoke."
"How'd you get so smart?"
"A mother has to be smart enough to keep mischievous boys out of too much trouble."
"Is that a comment about me?"
"Yes, now I'll be by to take the little guy off your hands 1 or 2 afternoons a week so you can do whatever we haven't figured out a solution for yet and keep food on the table. Babies are a full time job. We all need a break once in awhile. OK?"
"Sounds wonderful. How can I ever thank you?"
"Raise a happy, healthy son."
"I'll do my best, but I am only mortal, you know."
Alcmene touched his cheek, "You're growing up so fast. I'm proud of you."
Iolaus blushed, "Thanks."
The next few weeks found Iolaus' life becoming much more manageable. His son went everywhere with him. They plowed fields and planted the crops. They milked the cow and fed the chickens. They named the baby pig, a neighbor had given them, Penelope and built her a pen of her own. They even spent a couple of days fishing. Everything went fine as long as Iolaus remembered to pack the bag with plenty of extra diapers and his bottle.
Iolaus reached into the basket to pick out some fruit. He ducked under the merchant's canopy to get out of the sun. As he leaned down a tiny hand shot out from the carry sling and latched onto his earring.
"Ow!" Iolaus wailed as he extricated the tiny fingers from the gold hoop. Iolaus rubbed his aching earlobe.
"I had to stop wearing jewelry all together until mine were old enough not to grab," a woman commented as she smiled at the face peaking out of the sling.
"I see why."
"Well, fancy meeting you here. I can't come to town without running into this baby."
"Hi, Herc, Aeson. What brings you to Thebes today?"
"Oh, getting this one out of the house before his mother kills him."
"That bad?" Iolaus asked the boy.
Aeson nodded glumly.
"He has a thing for tarantulas, must take after you."
Iolaus kneeled down to Aeson's level, "Tarantulas are kewl."
Aeson readily agreed, "Oh yeah, and can they jump!"
"It jumped alright, right down the front of Deianeiara's dress."
Iolaus rose and grimaced, "I think a cooling off period is definitely in order." The baby began fussing, "lunch time."
Hercules nodded, "Me, too. Come on. It's on me."
Iolaus and Aeson found a quiet table at the tavern while Hercules ordered at the bar. He carried a pitcher and glasses to the table and proceeded to pour water into the glasses as Aeson filled Uncle Iolaus in on the details of the spider fiasco. The barmaid quickly brought three bowls of stew.
Hercules marveled at his friend as he watched Iolaus feed the baby with one hand and eat with the other. He never could figure out how Deianeira could do that.
"I see parenthood agrees with you. We never see you anymore."
"No time. This sling your mother devised is great. I can actually do the things I need to do but I have to go slower. Everything takes longer," he blushed, "especially when you have to stop and play with the baby, but it's getting done."
"I'm glad everything's OK."
"And, I've noticed something else," he said conspiratorially.
"Women are looking at me differently now."
"They're attracted to a man with a baby. They keep telling me I'm so kind and gentle. I think they find a man caring for a baby...sexy or something."
"You think?" Hercules was not buying it.
"Yeah, I'm serious, Herc. Did you see the way they flocked around me at the market?"
"Iolaus, they wanted to see the baby, not you."
"Hey, I'm cute, too. Ania thought so. Lotsa girls thought so."
"Once," Hercules grinned,
"Herc, if I wasn't holding a baby...."
"Careful, you're a role model now."
Written in January 1998.
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