FIVE SPHINXES AND 56 ANSWERS
She asks riddles. A life depends on the answers. Yours, if you are wrong.
According to Apollodorus, the Sphinx has the head of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. Other authorities, equally reliable, claim her tail is a snake: an asp, like the Chimera's. Sometimes her head is that of a man, though that is only an androsphinx. Often an artist takes liberties: the Sphinx has the body of a cheetah, the breasts of a notable courtesan, the tail of a housecat. Sometimes it has no wings at all. Many sphinxes do not even fly; at the end of some versions of Oedipus' tale, the Sphinx throws herself from a crag and dies of the fall.
Where does the Sphinx come from? Even her parentage is uncertain: Mother, either Chimera (lion, goat, and serpent), Echidna (half serpent, half woman) or even Ceto, human mother of monsters. Father, any of a checklist but probably Orthrus (two-headed dog) or Typhon (a giant with many snake heads springing from his shoulders). Her monstrousness was baked in at birth.
Was there a home life? Was it happy, or did her father throw bottles and pass out drunk on the couch? Was he simply absent, caught up in his day job? Or was this a single-parent home, the Sphinx's exhausted mother bringing home take-out at the end of her long day: orphaned children as tender as veal, a man sobbing out the last of his blood from the stumps of his chewed-off legs? Or has the Sphinx always been solitary, hatched like a sea-turtle, toddling alone to safety, her survival dependent on luck and circumstance until she is big enough to defend herself? Was she alone? Did she wish she was?
Anyway, this story starts here:
Hera, queen of the gods, summons the Sphinx, whose name is Phix.
Laius, King of Thebes, has sinned against me, says Hera. Details emerge: Some years ago, Laius was told he would die by his son's hand, so he took what seemed reasonable precautions. Step One: When his wife Jocasta bore a son, Laius ordered him killed--though in fact the huntsman given this charge only staked him to the ground and left him to the wild animals. This child, lamed for life by the spear through his leg, is of course Oedipus. (Exactly as prophesied, many years later he will kill his father. The story shapes itself as predictably as a table from IKEA.)
Jocasta undoubtedly has feelings about her husband's treatment of her infant. Perhaps she would deny Laius her bed but it's moot because, Step Two: the King of Thebes decides no longer to sleep with women, not even his wife.
Which leads to Step Three: Laius solves the problem of his aching cock and his midlife insecurities by kidnapping and raping a boy. Chrysippus.
Hera is goddess of marriage and married women. To what exactly has she taken offense, that she curses Thebes? Is it the rape? That it was a child? That it was a male? That it is a public humiliation to Jocasta, his faithful and unfucked wife? Has Jocasta prayed for Hera's intervention, and for some reason, out of all the similar prayers, out of all the world's atrocities against children and women, this one prayer has caught Hera's attention? Do Olympian politics play a part here? Could it be that this is painfully reminiscent of Hera's own marital troubles, Zeus and the rape of Ganymede?
Punish him, says Hera, her cow-eyes implacable as stones. Poison his wells, slaughter his animals, let no man approach or leave the walls of Thebes unless he answers a riddle you pose.
She storms off, leaving Phix with the basics clear. Raze, ravage, ruin. Riddle.
Q: Why did Hera torment all the people of Thebes, when only Laius had committed the crime?
A: Because all men are liars. The play on Laius's name is more evident when the riddle is spoken aloud?
Q: Why did Hera let the women suffer, too?
A: Because women are used to it.
A: To get to the other side.
A: A penguin steak, or a zebra in a blender.
A: Have him walk in front with you.
A: Dogs can't read.
A: When you are a mouse.
A: The other half of a loaf of bread.
A: Wait for the elephant to leave.
A: It was stapled to the chicken.
You grow up in the sort of place and time where the town whistle blows on weekdays at nine, noon, one, five, and six: off to work, home for lunch, back to work, shift over, be home by the six o'clock whistle for dinner or you're not getting any. In the summers, you and your brother Tim rattle around town and along the nearby gravel country roads: be back by six but also, don't be back before six. Your bike is emerald-green with gorilla handlebars and a banana seat; Tim's is smaller, blue, and doesn't have a basket. Tim is eighteen months younger than you are but just one year behind in school, your only friend. You cycle through playing together, fighting, and ignoring one another on a timeline as regular as crop rotation.
Small-town Iowa, the 1960s. There is a creek with snapping turtles and a dam you can jump across. Behind the high school, there is a pile of field-and-track pads you can jump into from the top of a storage shed, behind which the school's ladders are stored. There is the highway, which you have to cross if you want to buy candy with your fifteen-cent allowance. There is scary Mr. Tjaden's house. There is the Lutheran church that they leave open sometimes, and then you can sneak behind the altar and press your face into the openings of the giant brass vases they store there, smelling the ghosts of weddings and funerals. At the end of your street, there are corn and soybean fields threaded with grassy drainage ditches that you can pretend are entrances to a labyrinth, though none ever lead to anything but dead ends spangled with insects and pollen. There is a one-room library, but you are only permitted three books at a time and if you want to keep one for more than two weeks, you have to bring it back in person so they can check it out to you again. But only twice.
The library is where you first learn about the Sphinx, in a big book of Greek mythology. A week later, you check out Bennett Cerf's Book of Riddles and Bennett Cerf's Book of Animal Riddles, though they're little-kid books and you are ten. You begin to waylay your brother every night, crouching at the garage door where he will have to put away his bike. He can't leave his bike outside: Mom will kill him if he does. If you stall him until the exact moment of the six o'clock whistle, you can rush in and be in your seat on time, but Tim will be late for supper and get in trouble.
"'What kind of animal eats with its tail?'" you ask. Through the screened kitchen door, you smell pork chops and sweet corn.
"Kariiiii," Tim whines.
"You have to guess," you insist.
Tim is starting to cry. "No, you have to let me go in!"
You squeeze your hand into a snake shape. "No, you must guess!" it hisses. "Pick anything," you add in your normal voice.
"Earthworm," he says.
"Wrong!" says your snake. "Now you must die, mortal man!"
Your snake lunges at him, and he trips and falls backward in the driveway, gets tangled with his bike. Just as the six o'clock whistle blows, his crying turns to screams. There's blood.
Q: Kari Ann Ellingson, what exactly do you think you're doing?
—your mother, from the kitchen door
A riddle is designed to mislead. The question has a double meaning or a confusing meaning. Sometimes, no meaning at all. You're not meant to get the answer right. You are meant to fail.
Some riddles pivot on wordplay, puns, and homonyms. Bough, bow. Coffin, coughin'. Black and white and re(a)d all over.
Others speak with forked tongues. Look for allegory. Who carries their house on their back? Look for sleight of hand: The tyrannosaur can't clap because it is extinct.
The third cheats by being nonsense, or even by lying. Roosters can't lay eggs. Elephants are never two-dimensional. Apples don't talk.
A: Friday was the name of the horse.
A: An egg.
A: One, but the lightbulb has to want to change.
A: Shark-infested custard.
A: String, or nothing.
A: They both have bills on them.
A: A spider.
A: She has taken a picture of him and developed it in her darkroom.
Imagine Grecian Thebes as a walled city on a hill rising in the middle of a narrow valley. The valley is rococo with stone gorges and crags. It was once well-populated, flanked to the north with sunny fields of whatever is grown in Boeotia—olives? cattle? wheat?—but the people and the fields are all gone now. The herd animals are dead in the fields, clustered with vultures, ravens, hyenas, and busy flies. The tilled fields and orchards are scored deep with claw marks. Poisoned black circles spangle the ground, the effect of venom spat by the Sphinx's asp-tail.
Imagine Thebes behind a tall wall that girdles a hill rising from the center of the valley. The hill's crest is visible above the wall, beaded with temples and sacred groves. Depending on your reading or viewing, this may have the crumbled, icy imperfection of the Parthenon or resemble the castle in a Disney movie. There are a few secret side-doors, the permeable membrane of any walled city: even in sieges, women slip out at night to wash menstrual rags and diapers in the river, or to make uncomfortable bargains for food, or even just a moment away from the horror and tedium of a city besieged.
Imagine that the main entrance to Thebes is along a raised road wide enough for five horsemen to ride abreast, fashioned of bleached gold stone. Imagine a huge column to one side of the causeway. It is tall enough that from its capital you can see all the seven approaches to Thebes.
This is not the way it really was. Ancient Thebes was a real place on Google Maps, with websites and everything. No city could or would be laid out like this except in a Disney movie. But a writer has limited control over what you see when you read her words, and this—town, hill, wall, raised roadway, pillar—is an accessible shorthand we can agree upon.
Imagine atop the column at the entrance to the causeway: the Sphinx. On the red-clay kraters you saw on the Wikipedia page, she has been painted as a pretty thing the size of a small panther, with an elegant profile and ideal breasts, her hair elaborately looped and dressed with jewels. Here, now, the Sphinx is the size of a lion. She is not beautiful. Her face is dirty. There is dried blood on her mouth. Drying viscera cakes her breasts. Her hair is a tangled and gummy mess.
She looks down at you and asks you a question.
It's no wonder so many die. Who could keep their head at such a moment?
A: Onion, or penis.
A: A flock of jackdaws. Or swallows. Or gnats.
A: A teapot.
A: Rain, or a siren, or water.
A: A fox burying his mother under a holly bush.
A: A needle stabbed in the sand.
A: Ten chickens.
What the Sphinx is not:
- interested in your problems
- an answerer of questions
This list intersects exactly with what your mother is not.
It is no surprise that you grow up obsessed with trying to find answers to unanswerable questions, questions designed to deceive. You read Stranger Than That! and murder mysteries and Russian novels you do not understand. You tear through the self-directed units in eighth-grade science class so fast that your teacher makes you do them again. You're the Elephant's Child: there are not enough answers in the world, and often enough you find your nose bitten off.
A: A flock of jackdaws.
A: The letter O.
A: Only halfway; after that it is running out of the woods.
A: Just one.
A: The German owns the fish.
A: A school.
A: A horse.
Phix looks about her. This is her home now: this pillar, this valley, this city, this sky. The pillar is broad enough to sleep on if she curls up tightly. Rain and wind do not bother her, though when it is cold, the asp that is her tail will bury itself in the fur of her haunch, looking for warmth.
Hera said to Phix, Let no man approach or leave the walls of Thebes, but she didn't seem to mention this to anyone else. At first, the seven approaches remain crowded: herders leading bullocks or flocks of sheep; carts arriving with wheat, cheeses, amphorae of wine, and leaving with fine-woven woolens, loom-weights, spools, and new carpentry tools. There are messengers, horsemen or fleet-footed runners. There are slaves on errands, beggars, merchants, flaneurs.
Phix keeps busy. She circles into the sky then drops from above, flaring her wings at the last moment with the snapping sound of a flag in a windstorm. She tumbles the men from their horses and carts, presses them to the ground with her lion's paws. She gives them a chance—or rather, a "chance"—answer this riddle and I will not kill you.
Once the news gets out, men learn to flee Thebes on moonless nights or low-skyed, rainy days. Dressed in the colors of dirt, they slink like spies. Dead, and dead. Riderless horses stray across the ravaged fields until Phix hunts them down.
The rules—raze, ravage, ruin, riddle—have become apparent to all. Poor men still hazard their lives because they have no choice, and now they are joined by well-armed men walking alone, aspiring heroes who stand at the base of the pillar and call up to the Sphinx, Monster, ask your riddle.
Dead, and dead.
After a while, whole days go by in which no one approaches.
Phix ends up with a lot of time to herself. She swims on updrafts until the city is only a bit of dirty clutter on the ground below her, high enough that she sees all the lands claimed by Thebes: to the north, the fields and orchards extending to a far-off lake and the smoke from distant farms and smithies. Nearer Thebes, a cautious margin is turning to wasteland. In all other directions, the city is cradled by the Cithæron mountains which are colored russet, gold, and the violet of shadows. She can see the marks of her dedication to her task: the venom-leached fields, the spattered stones. Vultures and hyenas settle like dust on the fragmented remains of answerless men.
But the razing of Thebes is her day job. At night, Phix rests on her pillar. A mile to the south, the city's torches leave dirty stains on the night, blots she can ignore. In moonlight, the shadows are dark as ink, but on moonless nights, she sees a misty, foaming river of stars between spangled black-sand banks. The land turns dim silver.
She has a monster's senses. She sees and feels things you cannot understand: starlight pringling her upturned face, the rosemary bite of cold air, the amber taste of darkness.
Is she lonely? Does she make poems in the fastnesses of her mind? Does she share them with the asp? Does she sometimes, cut off a new poem suddenly to say, look, O look! as a meteor burns a rusty line across the sky? Do they tip their faces up to watch miracles, snake-face and woman-face?
Phix parses Hera's words. Let no man approach or leave. Angry spittle had flecked from the goddess's mouth, settling to earth as basil plants around the pillar's base. Did she mean exactly what she said? Does she still mean it? The weeks stretch on. Do the rules still hold?
Phix lives through her mouth: the asking of tricky and dangerous questions, the devouring of men. The languages of the world jostle in that red cavern. She builds her questions behind her teeth, releases them on breath that reeks of the previous failures.
What of the women of Thebes? Do they, some nights, slip out through secret passages? Does Phix see them move silently across her wasteland, gleaning what they can, picking through the rags of yet another dead hero in hopes of something to eat? Do some of them, thinking she sleeps (she never sleeps), approach her pillar to collect the basil, the only thing still growing in all this ruin?
Do some of them, already familiar with the nature of monsters, linger? The nights are cold; the women huddle in woolen shawls, leaning back against the stone of the pillar's base. The fresh scent of crushed basil surrounds them, like food, like comfort. Perhaps they are visible to the men pacing the city's defenses, but what are they going to do about it? There is no stopping the women without leaving the walls. And who knows which woman is which, or cares? All cats are gray in the dark.
Do the women of Thebes tell their secrets here, gathered at the pillar of Phix, the Sphinx? The wandering husband, the cruel lover, the heedless son—the loneliness of lying unalone in your bed—the tensed shoulders and dropped eyes of entering a room leaden with male breath?
Phix listens. Are all the men of Thebes bad, or are the women who come to her pillar at night outliers? Phix thinks it through. A woman with a good husband—one who does not beat her— would be content in her bed, would have no desire to risk rape or death to slip at midnight through the dark streets and out the river gate.
Does Phix drop, effortless as a cat from a table, onto the ground beside them? Do the women comb out her tangled hair and wash her breasts clean? Does she turn her face away to protect them from her breath? Does she make promises from her averted lips?
And Jocasta the queen, married to a pederast, kidnapper, and rapist, father and murderer of her child: Does the Queen come to Phix in the night, tell her secrets as well? Does she love her husband in spite of all this, or beg for his death, or both?
It is ironic that one of the few men to escape Thebes successfully will be its king. Laius sneaks off with five attendants to find someone willing to fix his problem for him. Down the road a ways, he meets a limping stranger at a crossroads. There's a standoff, neither willing to grant right of way to the other. The prophecy is fulfilled: Laius is killed by his son, for this is Oedipus of course. Do you see how his story creaks toward its final, inevitable, confusing answer?
A single servant escapes to flee back to Thebes, blood-spattered and exhausted. Phix has grown bored of killing slaves and poor men—they always seem so resigned and never have even a chance of answering her riddles—but her duty is clear. She drops halfheartedly, but she is not disappointed when he slips past her. She shrugs her lion's shoulders: what possible difference can it make if one slave gets through?
Oedipus is following the slave, but his limp makes him slow. In time he approaches Thebes, the causeway, the pillar. The Sphinx.
Q: What's brown, has a hump, lives in the desert, and sings like a canary?
A: ...I give up.
Q: A camel.
A: Camels don't sing!
Q: I put that in to make it harder.
A: Kari, that's not fair!
Q: So what?
By your senior year, you have two jobs, working at a family restaurant until ten and then taking money at the front door of a strip bar until two. This is not what you tell your parents you are doing; your mother thinks you stay late to close out the restaurant's kitchen, and your father seems not even to be aware that you're no longer at supper.
Some nights, when the bar closes and the well and the coolers have been refilled, the staff all drive thirty miles to the nearest Perkins Restaurant for sour coffee and pancakes the size and texture of Frisbees. You always go, grateful for the invitation—just as though you are a peer and not ten years younger than anyone else, and leaving in a few months for college.
You use one of the two family cars to shuttle between these. The miles add up. There are fights until you learn.
A: Leave the tank filled.
A: Even if you think your mother won't notice that you were not home when you said you would be, she will. Have your excuse ready.
A: Tim will cover up for you.
A: When you start having sex with Mac, do your own laundry.
A: If you decide to go back to Mac's house for sex after your shift, go home first and write an entirely fallacious note outlining an impromptu sleepover with Linda. Your mother will not believe you, but she hates these fights as much as you do, so she will pretend.
The silences will stretch on for days.
Five years later, you take an internship in Phoenix, your first time away from Iowa, your first attempt at adulthood. Two weeks in, you are leaving your apartment complex on your way to work when you get in a bicycle accident and break your foot. You call your mother from the emergency room, terrified and in pain.
A: What do you think I can do about it from here?
This is when you finally accept that you are on your own. When you are much, much older, you will also realize this was her way of telling you that she was concerned for you.
A: Six months.
A: Seltzer water and paper towels.
A: Every six thousand miles, three thousand for older cars.
A: Distilled white vinegar.
A: 2000 for a woman, 2500 for a man. These are guidelines only.
A: Keep hydrated and if at all possible, stay awake until your normal bedtime.
A: Ideally, within 72 hours of the event.
A: Caring communication.
A: Use a rubber band.
A: Turn them inside out and wash in cold water. Do not use the dryer. When the time comes to freshen the black, use iDye for natural and poly fabrics.
Could Phix leave? The women in the night have whispered that Laius is dead, killed at a crossroad by a stranger. This must have been the news brought by the slave who slipped into Thebes a day or two back. The Queen Jocasta's brother has announced previously that anyone who kills the Sphinx will win for himself rulership of Thebes and the new widow as bride. Phix sharpens her claws on a dead olive tree, in preparation for the next wave of men who won't have answers.
Now that Laius is no longer alive to watch his subjects suffer If that was the point), Phix thinks that Hera might end the curse on Thebes. But perhaps she's forgotten about all this. Hera's a busy woman. How is she supposed to keep track of everything? Or maybe there's something else about the city that bothers her, something she does not care to admit, and the sins of Laius were only her excuse for something she wanted to do anyway. Did they disrespect her altar? Did they come in late for supper? Some things just can't be forgiven.
But if Phix leaves, who will she find to comb out the tangles of her hair, to wash her breasts clean of gore? Who will stroke the cool strong muscles of her snake? And she knows she is useful here. She has heard what the women of Thebes say about its men. Eventually she will lose her riddle contest and the story's creaking mechanism will push her from its workings; but meanwhile? At least she is helping the women of Thebes.
She is not human, so realizing that she is doing this from compassion comes as a surprise to her.
While most stories emphasize the first, there are actually two riddles Oedipus is required to answer.
The first: I have one voice, yet walk on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening. What am I? There are variations, depending on which source you read, and a number of overlapping answers: "this riddle"; a man; humanity; Oedipus in particular.
Oedipus answers correctly, limps forward onto the raised roadway.
Not so fast, says the Sphinx.
Q: Two sisters give birth to each other. Who are they?
But Oedipus gets this one right, as well: Day and Night, each in turn cracking open the hinge of her pelvis to release the other and dying in the act. Women bearing women infinitely, their roles simultaneous and slippery: mother/daughter/sister/murderer/victim.
And, riddles solved, Phix kills herself. She has served her purpose in advancing the hero's story, and now she is extraneous, a potential plotline complication down the road when sex with his mother, his blinding, and his ignominious death should be driving the story; and so she is hustled off-stage. She throws herself from the column and dies.
A life depends on the answers to the Sphinx's riddles: yours, if you are wrong—but hers, if you are not.
Accounts vary. There may have been a third riddle. There may have been many riddles.
In other versions of the tale, the Sphinx does not leap to her death but devours herself: poetic justice, perhaps a little too on the nose, the biter bitten.
In most versions, she has been eating the men who failed to answer her questions. She must have used her lion's claws to tear them to gobbets soft enough for her human teeth to chew, small enough for her woman's throat to swallow. Bones, sinews, and cartilage would be beyond her delicate jaw's capacity; she is likely a messy eater.
But it is one thing to shred someone else. To devour herself, she must use her own lion's paws to tear past her hide into the soft parts of her body, her belly and groin. She must not flinch; if she does, she must try again. The blood will make her claws slippery.
This is all covered in a phrase, devours herself.
Does the snake's head that is her tail go first? Does it ask questions?
After your first band concert:
Q. It was pretty awful, but fifth graders are never going to be any good, are they?
After you started dating Jeff in tenth grade:
Q: You aren't sleeping with him, are you?
Every other time that you told your mother you were seeing someone:
Q: Why didn't you settle down with Jeff?
When you told your mother about the rape:
Q: What were you wearing?
When you told her about the divorce:
Q: Don't you think your father and I sometimes wanted to split up?
When you admitted yourself to the hospital for repeated suicidal ideations:
Q: Do you have health insurance, at least?
When you visited home for the holidays with your new husband:
Q: Don't you think that wearing black washes you out?
When, after much discussion with your therapist, your husband, your brother, and your best friend, you told your mother you loved her:
Q: Why would you say that?
When you said it again:
A: I never really wanted children.
If you are Oedipus:
Consider your luck. You answer some riddles, which ends up being all you need to defeat the boss monster. The camera pulls back; a dramatic cut scene replays the Sphinx dying, with better production values than you remember from the actual event.The music is triumphant. From here on, it's just epilogue. You limp forward into a world where everything is about to go your way: power and wealth, kingship, hot (if older) wife. King of Thebes! Game over! No further questions.
And then the world bites you on the ass. You got what you got at the expense of so many others: your slaughtered father/rival, your dishonored mother/wife. All the people who died because of Hera's anger and the Sphinx's siege of Thebes: her venom, her falcon-drops. The Sphinx herself, dead. And all for nothing --because this is where you were always meant to be, and would have been without all this pain, if only your parent had not decided you were a threat and cast you out. You're here now but you got here the wrong way.
Your blindness joins your limp. Eventually you die.
If you are the Sphinx:
The goal is self-awareness, not existence. Phix is fortunate. She can look into her own eyes, lion-woman to asp, asp to woman. Even her thoughts are dialogues.
There are so many versions of this story: plays, fragments, references to works that have been lost, tales told by women or slaves that never got written down at all.
Is there a version of this story from the perspective of the women of Thebes, where Hera, goddess of marriage, has set Phix to destroy the unfaithful and abusive men, and Laius is only one of a series; where Oedipus is the villain who drives woman back into fear and servitude?
Is there a version of this story where Phix stands at the center: her yearnings, her deeds, her hubris? Or would she even have hubris, daughter of monsters with her faces tipped to feel the spangling touch of starlight?
There is a version where Phix does not die meeting Hera's demands. It is mine:
Phix knows Laius is dead. She wants out of this pointless chore, so she throws Oedipus a softball question or two. Not: Who are you? Not Why do you think you deserve the air you breathe? Not: Who am I?
She looks down from her pillar's height and says, The city's that way. He is now someone else's problem.
She lifts on her eagle's wings, curling her paws under as she spirals up the dirty updraft over Thebes. Receding below her: the city, the venom stains, the wasteland, the farms, the mountains. The Anatolian steppes are a day's flight across the Aegean to the east. Or she can go south, crossing the sea to the Sahara, a desert so large that no god can find her. There are androsphinxes there. She need not be alone; she could have cubs, or stalk the oases and learn the taste of camel. If she goes north and flies long enough, she will find ice deserts where woman-head and asp-head can watch the sky ripple and shift in colors only monster-eyes can see.
What do you think? she asks the asp, and it gives her an answer they both like.
Q: How long does a sphinx live?
A: Same as you, a lifetime.
If you are your mother:
She sends you checks, she sends you pictures of cute tee-shirts clipped out of catalogues, she sends you Economist articles that she thinks you might be interested in. She tells your brother Tim about your accomplishments, even though she knows that you and he talk all the time. If you don't call her every week, she tells him that you never call. If you call her at work, she puts down her task to chat, even though she hates when people take personal calls at work. Pursuing a flawed strategy for mitigating loss, she picks fights with you the day before you leave after a visit. She does not know how to say I love you, or even to open a space where the words can live. Does she love you? Do you love her?
You have come to accept that she is who she is because of her own confusing and critical mother, and the cycle goes back through forever it seems: women unhinging their pelvises to bear other women and then getting started on the hard work of dying, back and back and back, mothers and daughters and mothers of monsters.
Mixed messages, riddles you can't solve. You stand at the entrance to a great city, the world. Your mother waits astride the rock that bars your way. The first riddle ends in your adulthood; it is unlikely she will be alive for you in your three-legged stage, though perhaps she is counting on you being there for hers.
The second riddle is existential, and there is no answer. Night and Day. Living 'til night or waking up in the morning is always a matter of faith. In the end, both women die.
Your mother is also Hera, angry and vengeful and punishing the wrong people.
You mother is also what you have tried hard not to grow up to be. Have you succeeded? Could she have done better? Have you?
There are other versions of this story, as well.
If you are you:
Q: Why is a raven like a writing desk?