The Doorman of the Underworld by Magda Czajkowska

There he stood guarding the entrance, or rather the exit, of the Underworld, Cerberus the eternal doorman. Behind him floated the disconsolate shades above the fields of asphodel, silent, all but for the sobbing one.

“Please Cerbie, let me out, just for one moment. I’ve left my children all on their own. I only nipped out to buy food for them. A bomb exploded on the market and took me here. They’ve no one to look after them, they are alone, they are only little, one only a baby, please Cerbie, just for a tiny, wee moment. Maybe a good soul took care of them. Please Cerbie.”

“I am not Cerbie,” he growled. “Cer-be-rus, if you please. Go away, nobody leaves this place. Back, or I’ll bite.”

She didn’t know you can’t bite a shade, but Cerberus’ threat worked. At last, she disappeared, while he stood firm, this veritable demon of the pit, before another shade appeared. It grew larger, became solid, nearly sinking Charon’s boat under its weight.

“What in Hades’ name is going on?” Cerberus swore. Before he realised what was happening, the shade grabbed him from behind by the throat and was now dragging him out into the open.

An avalanche of light and smells toppled on both Cerberus’ heads as they came out of the Underworld. Temporarily blinded by the sun, suffocated by smells, of which sweat was the strongest, Cerberus, choking and spitting, felt himself dragged, before his canine instincts kicked in to go for the hands that throttled him, helplessly, as it turned out. He barely noticed the poisonous plants shooting up from his spittle all around him as he focused on the assailant.

There he was, huge, sweaty, smelly, his head wreathed in some greenery, lion’s pelt on his back, arms like tree trunks, hands deftly avoiding his fangs. As he struggled (Cerberus wasn’t giving up easily) he kept talking.

“I am Heracles. You are my last labour, and by Zeus, I’m not giving up, you bloody monster. I am taking you to Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, and you better like it. So, behave yourself, don’t make it difficult for yourself and me,” all this while putting a chain round his neck.

For Cerberus, being put on a chain leash was the last straw. He was certainly not going to make it easy for this smelly non-shade. But after a time, being dragged over stony ground became painful. There were sores where the chain rubbed his neck. His soft paws, unused to walking on solid ground, developed blisters. The fast pace set by this non-shade by the name of Heracles became agonisingly painful by the minute.

“Can’t you slow down, I want to lick my blisters.”

Heracles stopped, surprised. In all that snarling, yapping, and growling emitted by Cerberus, he could detect words.

“You can talk in human voice?” he asked.

“Picked it up from the shades,” mumbled Cerberus.

“So listen, hound, let’s make it clear. I master, you dog. Understood? Now wag your tail.”

Cerberus weighed his options. It was either that or a painful dragging across the rocks and thorny bushes. His blisters were suppurating. He wagged his tail.


Cerberus sat.

“Good. I’m glad we understand each other. We have a long way to go. Don’t you even dream of running away. You can do that once I’ve presented you to the king and am released from my obligations.”

“I won’t run away. Just take it easy, my paws are hurting me.”

They continued on their way. After a time, the silence was broken by Cerberus.

“Hungry,” he squealed.

“So am I,” said Heracles. “There’s a village over there where I can get some food. I can’t take you with me, they’ll run away when they see a monster like you. Stay here, understood.”

“I am not a monster," said Cerberus, offended. “I’ll stay.” Obediently he settled himself under a tree and began to lick his paws.

Heracles returned with provisions.

Thus they continued. Sometimes they would catch a rabbit; at other times, Heracles would leave Cerberus tied to a tree while he went to look for food in the villages. To break the monotony of the journey, Heracles continued with the training.

“Sit! Heel! Paw! Wait!”—after waving a piece of skinned rabbit—“W-a-i-t!”

After several sessions obediently performed by Cerberus, Hercules said: “Good dog,” and patted him on one of his heads.

At the moment of solid contact with a human hand Cerberus experienced a sensation totally novel to him—joy.

Meanwhile Heracles carried on a monologue. “Yes, I did kill my children. Didn’t know what I was doing. Cursed by Hera I was. Am I sorry? You bet I am, but life goes on. Had to atone, of course. Those labours were Eurystheus' idea. Managed them all, you’re my last one, thanks be to Zeus. But enough of this introspective nonsense, how about some more training, eh? Cerberus—sit! Heel! Fetch! Good Boy!”

So that’s how I can earn a pat on the head. I like that, reflected Cerberus.

In this way they travelled across the Isthmus, Heracles talking, Cerberus no longer on the chain, barking merrily by his side. Having developed a liking for the touch of the solid shade, he was looking forward to seeing the king.

“You are to make a good impression once we get to see him,” warned Heracles. “Remember, wag tail, sit, paw.”

On arrival at the destination, if Cerberus expected a “Good boy” and a pat on the head, he was sorely disappointed. On seeing Cerberus, paw extended towards him, tail wagging, eyes sparkling with blue light, Eurystheus fled, screaming “Take him away, away!”

Cerberus looked reproachfully at Heracles, who shrugged his shoulders. “My task is completed. You did all right,” and patted him on two heads, “now off you go, back to where you belong.”

Once back home, Cerberus found things had continued as normal. There was the usual file of descending newcomers led by the god Hermes and the goddess Iris; there was the ferryman Charon by his boat counting obols. The simpering mother was thankfully nowhere to be seen.

He cast a last look at the sun-lit world, savoured the memory of the human touch, and let out a long-drawn howl.


Magda Czajkowska was born in Poland, came to Britain in 1948, and has lived in London ever since. She studied Botany at Imperial College London and Art and Ancient History at the Open University. She has published The Garden of Paradise—Images of the Garden of Heaven in Art and Culture and a number of non-fiction stories and articles through the years. Her translations from the Polish were published in various periodicals and broadcast by the BBC. Her book about the correspondence with the distinguished Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert had reached wide acclaim in Poland, was re-printed twice, and adapted for the stage. She has published three books for bilingual (English/Polish) children. A Penguin Christmas has been re-enacted on the stage by children at Christmastime. Her book on Greek mythology entitled The Garden of the Gods is scheduled to come out later this year.

Author's note

This story was inspired by a 6th century BCE Caeretan hydra vase that depicts Hercules delivering Cerberus to Eurystheus. In the depiction, a terrified Eurystheus takes refuge in a storage jar to avoid Cerberus. Readers can find pictures of the vase here.