The Dark Wife
by Sarah Diemer
Copyright © 2011 Sarah Diemer
All rights reserved
Edited by Jennifer Reho
Cover art by Laura Diemer
There are many more wonderful people than I have space to list who I appreciate immensely, and who supported me along the way—I am so grateful to every single person who helped me breathe life into this story and who believed in it. You know who you are. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I am deeply grateful to the following amazing ladies for their insight, input, prowess and random awesomeness, without which, this novel would be a sad shell of what it ended up becoming. Bree, Jen, Maddie, Tara and my own Jenn were instrumental in helping me make my story beautiful. I could not have done any of this without you—I will never be able to articulate my gratitude deeply enough. Thank you.
Rhi believed in my story from the start (and wondered how it would smell), Rachel always knew I could do it (and, when I lost my way, reminded me tirelessly and wonderfully), Kat loved it (and it meant the world), Gemma was always incredibly supportive and wonderful, Jen knew this was “the one” before I did, Maddie has never stopped reminding me of who and what I am and Jenn read every draft and loved it as much as I did. Again, I can not express my gratitude adequately enough—thank you.
My mom always believed I would get my books published. Always. When I was a tiny girl, she knew I was going to be a writer—that kind of faith moved mountains. Thanks for believing, mum.
My sister, Laura, is a paragon of intellectualism, bosom and talent, and without her staunch support, grandiose artistic abilities and constant belief in me and the story, it would not live. Thank you, kitty.
Jenn spun straw into gold. It is my supreme blessing that I married the most amazing editor in the world. She perfected this story—any errors left are mine. I love you, baby. Thank you for everything.
I am not my mother’s daughter.
I have forfeited my inheritance, my birthright. I do not possess the privilege of truth. The stories told by fires, the myth of my kidnap and my rape, are all that remain of me. Forever I will be known as the girl who was stolen away to be the wife of Hades, lord of all the dead. And none of it is true, or is so fragmented that the truth is nothing more than a shadow, malformed. The stories are wrong. I am not who they say I am.
I am Persephone, and my story must begin with the truth. Here it is, or as close as I can tell it.
“O, Demeter,” they crooned, tossing flowers at her statue in the temples and sacred groves, anointing her beloved forehead with honey and milk, stretching at her marble feet in the throes of worshipful bliss.
In the Greece of long ago, gods rose and fell in prominence according to the whims of the people. Hestia was beloved, and then Hermes, and then Ares, and then the next god or goddess in a long history of mortal fickleness. One never remained at the peak of popularity for long, but my mother didn’t worry. She was adored. To be fair, she loved the people as much as they loved her.
She loved me most of all.
“You will be queen of all the gods,” she would whisper in my ear as we rested beneath her fragrant green bower. We listened to the hum of mortal prayers spoken through flowers blossoming upon the vines. She would simply clap her hands, and together we laughed as the wheat ripened and the grapes sprung forth along the long, low lines of arbor. Everything my mother touched turned golden, came to life, and I was in awe of her.
“You will be queen,” she said, over and over, and I almost believed it, but I did not want it. Each time she spoke the words, my heart panged, and I changed the subject, showed her a hive of particularly fat bees, or the lining of a gull’s nest, made perfect by its silver feathers. Her face closed up, and she made me say it, too, that I would be queen of all the gods, far surpassing my competitors in beauty and influence and charm. I was a new evolution, part of a generation of young gods and goddesses created not from foam or other mysterious means but through the power of their immortal mothers. Hera’s daughter was Hebe, Aphrodite’s daughter was Harmonia, and Demeter’s daughter was Persephone. Persephone. Me. We repeated the litany while she combed and oiled my hair: it was in my stars that I would be greater than all of the others. And then, of course, Demeter would be greater, too.
I dreaded this with all of my heart.
I didn’t want to be greater than the other goddesses—I mostly wanted to be left alone. I was a quiet child. I wandered the woods with my mother’s nymphs. I could play with the pups of wolves or tigers, could climb the tallest trees, could eat any poisonous fruit I touched, and nothing would ever harm me. In this, in the beginning, I was my mother’s daughter, and the earth cradled me as its own child.
I grew slowly, wild and tall, my reflection in the riverbanks that of a beautiful, sun-kissed creature. I was, after all, the offspring of Demeter, a goddess, perfection in flesh. I lived in the untamed green, lying for hours in sunbeams or cavorting with rabbits in meadows. These were my pastoral days, when I was free and not yet a woman. My life was simple and idyllic, though astonishingly empty, before.
Even now, sometimes, I dream of her.
Her name was Charis, and she was one of the nymphs in my mother’s wood. For the most part, the nymphs were gentle creatures; they frequented the festivals of Pan, sought out other earthy creatures for pleasure. They were always happy in my mother’s perfect gardens and among the trees, what was known, then, as the Immortals Forest.
Charis was not like them. She was a nymph, yes, but she carried the deep regret more common to mortals. She fascinated me, endlessly. “Why are you so sad?” I asked her, over and over, but Charis said nothing, wove flowers into my long, tangled mane. Her fingers were gentle, her eyes filled with tears.
She never spoke to anyone.
It was close to the anniversary of my birth. Most gods did not count their years—what would be the point in counting forever?—but my mother had jealously kept track of mine. Soon, it would be time for my introduction to Olympus, time for me to meet all of the gods, particularly the goddesses I had always been measured against. I had never been outside of the forest, my home, and the thought of leaving that beloved sanctuary woke within me a deep anxiety.
But I tried not to think about it. I made flower crowns, and the sun rose and set, marking off another day nearer the dreaded beginning of my future. Moments flitted by too fast, now that they were more precious, and it was three months away, my trip to Olympus, when everything changed.
The nymphs strummed their lyres at the edges of mirror pools, chatting on heroes and Olympus gossip. I sat at the edge of the water and their world, watching the clouds float over us all. Charis was beside me, and we shared no words; her presence was company enough. The day was new and warm—the days were always warm—and the air smelled of sprouts and ripe peaches.
Charis took me by the hand and led me to a tree.
I did not know what love was. I had heard the songs, had watched the nymphs grow besotted with satyrs and foolish mortals (foolish enough to tempt the gods’ anger by venturing into the Immortals Forest), and I had witnessed heartbreak when lovers lost interest or, worse, were turned into trees or constellations because they had provoked the wrath of some god or other. If that was love, I wanted no part of it. It seemed so fickle, destructive, pointless.
That was before she kissed me, of course.
“I am afraid,” I told her. We were sky-gazing together, seated in the arms of the broad oak. I was curled next to the trunk, and she was farther out along the lowest branch, close enough that I felt her warmth, smelled her green, mossy scent. My stomach was fluttering, though I didn’t understand why—nerves, perhaps. Dread over the journey to Olympus. The days were blurring by, and I felt that I was about to lose all I had ever known.
“Afraid?” she asked me, uttering the first word I had heard her speak. My eyes grew wide as she leaned closer, shaking her head, the ever-present tears beneath her lashes unshed. “You should not fear, Demeter’s daughter. You have nothing to be afraid of.”
“Charis,” I whispered. “Your voice…” It was the sound of rocks grating against one another, rough, deep, a bear’s growl.
“I have been cursed for my past indiscretions,” she smiled at me sadly. “I thought that, if you heard my voice, you would find a better companion.”
We stared at one another for a long moment, feeling raging through me—pain that she had hidden her secret from me for so long, untrusting, assuming that I would, that I could, throw her away. I didn’t know how to respond, but I forced out a whisper: “You’re not a plaything to discard. I would never do that to you.”
“Others have.” And her tears began to fall. They streaked down her face, silver lines like the tails of comets. I touched her, just as we had done a hundred, a thousand times before: a finger to the cheek, a comfortable, comforting thing. She sat still, eyes closed, and permitted me to wipe away her tears, and when I was done, as simple and smooth as a prayer, she wrapped her arms about my waist, pulled me near her, so that she could kiss me.
I had seen nymphs do this amongst themselves, and I had caught a hero and one of the tree girls trysting in the briar hedge. I knew what a kiss was, but not what it was for.
Now, there was softness against my lips. In my nose, her scent of wild green things, leaves and grass. And as she drew me closer, pressed me hard against her chest, I felt a fire catch within me. It was so hot, this new heartbeat that burned through my body, my skin, coursed down to my fingers and toes and back up again, and she tasted warm and good. I was drinking her in, and she kissed me deeper, and there was so much emotion in me, in every part of me, a pure, unbridled and impassioned joy.
This, then—this was love. I finally understood.
We met, that night, beneath the brilliant silver moon, Artemis’s crescent hanging low in the eastern sky. We, too, found ourselves at the briar hedge, and there the moonlight patterned the lines and curves of her body.
“You are so beautiful,” she said, moving her fingers over my skin until it prickled, then ached. She moved the linen away from my legs, my hips, as we lay down side-by-side and murmured together. In her arms, I felt things I had never felt, and she touched those places I had not yet understood. Perhaps I was naive, nearly a woman before I came to know all I could know about myself, about the solace to be found in another’s embrace—but I don’t regret it. That night, beneath the stars, beneath her, I knew love. It all came down to this: this moment, this touch, this kiss. It was easy and perfect, and I would never forget it in all of my immortality. I loved Charis in that hedge, under that moon, with all that I was.
“We’ll leave,” I told her later, when we lay twined together like grapevine. She nuzzled my cheek with her nose and kissed me softly, and I felt like I knew everything, that I could run away from my vile destiny and be happy: truly, forever happy. “We’ll leave before my mother takes me to Olympus,” I whispered, and she agreed, and that was that. The plan was made, and my heart sang. We would, both of us, be free.
Each day, we came together, beat new paths through the forest together, and each night I left my mother’s bower to be with Charis beneath the stars. The days passed as we formed our plans. One month before Olympus, on the night of the full moon, we would leave in a little coracle of the nymphs’ making. We would slip down the river and out of my mother’s blessed garden, and we would find our way to the caverns in the northern mountains. Together, there, we would live and love.
In those lazy, golden afternoons, with Charis’s black mane pillowed in my lap, listening to her heartbeat, winding my fingers with her own, the arrangement seemed flawless—perfect, like her skin and her scent and her laugh. I did not worry over the small detail that every place on this earth belonged to my mother, that there was, in reality, no place we could hide where Demeter would not find us and steal me back. I did not think about food—gods do not need to eat, but nymphs must—or shelter. Charis and I believed that the world would provide for us, as it always had, here in the Immortals Forest—here, where I was a goddess, and all creatures and green life must curtsy to me. I did not believe I would ever know anything less than that sweet privilege I had been born into.
The last morning was like any other. I rose and greeted the sun, sat impatiently while my mother combed out my curls and made me recite her favorite words: “I will be the greatest of all the gods, greater than Hebe and Harmonia. I will be the queen of Olympus.” I muttered half-heartedly as she braided vines in my hair, spread my skin with nectar and flower oils. I sidestepped her embraces, pecked her cheek and walked out into the woods to find my beloved.
Everything was golden. It always was. The birds sang, and the animals lay, cooled by the springs and pools, as nymphs trilled songs of everlasting love and fed each other grapes from purpled fingers. “Have you seen Charis?” I asked them as I passed, and they said they had not, so I ran, deeper into the woods.
It was not like Charis to be absent from our favorite meeting place, the arms of that old oak where all of this, where we, had begun. But she was not there. She was not at the mirror pool. She was not further down the stream, and she was not in the willow grove, another of our favorite haunts. My heart thundered in my chest as I made ever-widening circles around the Immortals Forest, calling out her name. I stood in the center of a meadow, hands balled into fists, fear—for the first time—lodging itself deep in my belly, unfamiliar butterflies twisting and turning and beating against my bones. Charis was nowhere to be found.
I was trudging back to my mother’s bower, heart pained, when I heard it. If I had not been on edge, my every breath an ache, I never would have heard so small, so soft a sound. I stood very still and listened harder—there it was again. A whimper. It was close, and though my heart skipped, I stood and listened until I heard it, placed it. There, there… It was there.
I had not yet looked for Charis amongst the briars, and the sound was coming from beyond the hedge. I slipped closer and peered through thorns and red flowers, expecting to spy a nymph and a satyr, expecting anything else, anything but what was there.
Charis lay on the ground, on our sacred ground, stomach pressed against the earth, mouth ensnared by vines that wrapped themselves about her body, twining and twisting, even as I watched. Behind her, over her, in her, was a man—a golden man who shimmered and flashed like lightning as he grunted and pushed. Over and over, he pushed. Tears fell and the vines tightened, cut into perfect ankles, wrists. My Charis was held captive as he did what he wanted with her.
Anger rose in me before I could think or make sense of what I was seeing, and I was shouting, shouting loud enough, I was sure, to be heard on Olympus, half a world away. I was moving through the hedge one moment, prepared to scratch and tear, when the man turned and looked at me, and I crumpled to my knees.
He was smiling, teeth dazzling white in a leering, dripping mouth, when he pulled out of her, stood, grew. He was taller than the tallest trees in my mother’s forest, and then, with a great laugh, he fragmented, splintered into a thousand rays of light too bright—a thousand times brighter than the sun itself. I screamed, covered my face with my hands, and when I could see again, he was gone.
I fell, dumbstruck. Where she had been, where that violent blasphemy had taken place, stood a small rosebush. The roses were white, dewy, and, as I watched, they moved in an unfelt wind.
I had heard tales of Zeus’ conquests. He would zap down to earth, lustful, in need of something his wife, Hera, could not provide—or, perhaps she could, and she simply found him despicable. He had his way with whatever creature struck his fancy, and if they were not obliging, he punished them. Hundreds of times he had done this, perhaps thousands. I knew of these stories—the nymphs whispered them to one another—but, shamefully, they had never concerned me. They had never applied to me. But now, here—here was a nightmare come to life. The girl I loved had been raped before my eyes, and she was no more.
In that simple, ordinary space of time, I had lost everything.
I ran until the air burned in my lungs like fire, until I reached my mother’s bower. “Persephone, what’s happened?” she asked, holding out her arms to me so openly. My mother, my mother who could grow a forest from a seed, who could breathe a world to life. How I wished, hoped, that she could undo what had already been done. I wept and I told the story, and she listened, paling.
When I was done, she held me close, patted my shoulder stiffly. “Persephone…I’m so sorry. So…sorry. Zeus—he gets what he wants, and the poor creature cannot be changed back.”
“She’s gone?” I whispered. “But…”
All my life, I’d believed my mother could make the impossible possible. In my childhood imaginings, she could sing the moon down, change the pattern of the stars, unmake the world and build it new again, if she wanted.
Demeter removed her hand from my shoulder, moved away.
“There’s nothing we can do.” Resignation weighted her words. Her face was expressionless, hands shaking. “Please forget her. Forget Charis. It’s what she would have wanted. You don’t know Zeus—you don’t know what he’s capable of…”
There were tears in her eyes. I had never seen my mother cry. She reached for me, but I recoiled from her touch, stepping back once, twice. My mother was crying. It was unfamiliar, frightening. She seemed a stranger.
“Zeus did this,” I spat, carving my fingernails into the palms of my hands. I felt anger grow and tighten within me, an invisible knot. “Zeus…”
Demeter opened and shut her mouth. Her face crumpled. “Zeus gets what he wants,” she repeated, dully.
“How can you say that? What if that had been me?” I couldn’t breathe, held my chest as if my heart was falling, falling, falling down upon the perfect emerald grass. “You wouldn’t be standing there, you wouldn’t say that, you would come get me, you would…”
She was staring at the ground, and the sudden realization devoured me. I stopped speaking, blinked at my mother.
“You would… You would come get me,” I whispered. “Wouldn’t you?” The words lingered between us for heartbeats, and then she shook her head, rubbed at her eyes with long, trembling fingers.
“He wouldn’t do anything like that to one of his daughters,” she said. “I don’t think.”
There was silence for a very long time. The loudest silence, and the sharpest. My mother kept her eyes on the wall of her bower, and I felt a thousand things shift between us. So many words unsaid, thorn-snagged, broken.
I was Zeus’ daughter.
“You never told me,” I whispered. “I thought you’d just created me—like one of your trees or your fields.”
“I’m not that powerful.” She worried at the edge of her garment, shifting it this way and that, staring down at the cloth and not me. “Persephone,” she murmured. “I’m sorry… There’s nothing we can do.”
“Zeus is my father,” I said, stringing the words together quickly, gulping in great lungfuls of air. “If he was raping me, you wouldn’t come to my aid. My beloved is gone now, killed by Zeus, and you are going to do nothing to help me.”
“That’s wrong. Please…” She lifted a hand to touch me but dropped it when, again, I backed away. Tears trailed down her cheeks in bright, silent lines. “He can be so cruel, Persephone. You don’t know. There’s nothing I can do. Nothing anyone can do. I’m sorry. Please believe that I am sorry.” And then, my mother, the goddess Demeter, held out her hands to me. Her voice cracked when she said, “Forgive me—I am glad it was her and not you.”
What could I do? What could I say? She’d spoken her truth, and there was nothing left in either of us. All of the anger, the rage, the deep, abiding pain pooled from my body and drained into the earth. I was empty.
I turned, and I left my mother’s bower. She tried to say something to me, but I didn’t hear it, perhaps didn’t listen, and I began to run when my feet felt the forest floor beneath them. I ran back—back to the briar hedge. I knelt down beside the rosebush, and I wept until my tears ran out. The rose leaves fluttered, though there was still no wind, and I felt everything I was break apart into tiny, tiny pieces. I had lost Charis, and I had lost our beautiful future.
My stomach churned as I dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands again and again, feeling the prick of them against my sore skin. I couldn’t think about my mother, my mother with her tears and wide eyes and paled skin. But all I could see was her face, her mouth forming that most hated word: “Zeus.”
I brushed a finger over the white petals of a rose, held it until I was white, too, hollow and formless, until I had become a beginning. Then, blank, I stood and turned, seeing, unseeing, the stars that had come out, the night sky that arched over me, blotting out the day.
In the sky swung the sickle moon and a myriad of constellations. My mother had told me once that the stars were uncountable, that Zeus had fashioned them endless—endless, like me.
Pain was slowly being replaced by something else in my heart, in my body, that I did not yet understand, and wouldn’t—not for a while yet. That seed was growing, twining around my being, shifting the broken pieces into some new semblance of what it once was.
Zeus—my father—was king of all the gods, and he could do as he pleased.
And I would repay him, someday, for all he had done.
I, Persephone, swore it.
I left Charis where she was, roses and leaves waving beneath the grinning moon. Soon, soon I would be brought to Olympus, compared by the gods to my peers, driven from the only home I’d ever known to spend an evening in the same bright palace that housed Zeus. Zeus, the merry, golden god who raped and destroyed without regret.
What would I do when I saw him? What would I say? Would he punish me for the truths that might tumble from my mouth? My mother had looked so afraid.
I had to stop this.
I put my head in my hands, leaned against the old oak, tried to sooth the scattered aches within me.
Who does a goddess pray to? I sat very still, my head spinning in tight circles. We have nothing and no one to ask for help, save ourselves. I did not believe in myself enough.
The stars shone, silent as always. I folded and lay on the black earth, feeling the empty, lonely places in me crumble until nothing remained but blackness and the scent of white roses I could not see in the dark.
"Speak as little as necessary," she whispered in my ear, anxiety sharpening her words. “It’ll be over before you know it.”
I bit my lip but held my head high as Demeter pressed her hand against the small of my back, steering me toward the gigantic golden maw that would swallow us into Olympus. I breathed in and out and willed my hands to stop shaking. I did not look back at my mother.
One step, and then another, as we neared the opening to the realm of Zeus. No gods or demi-gods or nymphs or satyrs lingered around the gates—they were already inside, I imagined, drinking ambrosia and laughing uproariously at whatever crude party tricks they’d devised. This was the night I had been dreading my entire life. This was the night I would be introduced as a goddess to the Olympians.
My mother nudging me every step of the way, I moved onward.
Columns rose into the clouds, up and away from us. There was no ceiling within the Palace of Olympus, only unending sky that changed, at the gods’ whims, to night, to day, to eclipse, to a hundred million stars. Distant lyre music teased my ears, and laughter, and as we crossed the palace threshold, a disembodied voice proclaimed so loudly, and to my horror, “The goddess Demeter, accompanied by her daughter, Persephone!”
Countless pairs of eyes – set like jewels in gleaming, perfect faces -- stared at my mother and me.
I wanted to vanish, wanted to shrink smaller than a droplet, wanted to hide myself away in the deep, crumbling earth. In that moment, I would have given anything, made any bargain, to be gone from that place. My mother paused, waved to someone, and touched my shoulder gently. “Courage,” she whispered, and I descended the luminous marble steps with my head held high, trying not to mind the whispers, trying to imagine that I was—once more—home, in the Immortals Forest. That I was with Charis, and the lightning bolt that tore us apart had never struck.
“Demeter, she is as lovely as you have told us. Lovelier.”
The goddess who stepped near, laughing softly, dazzled my eyes. She was beautiful, more beautiful than seemed possible, or real. She wore the long white tunic of common Greek fashion, but it was woven of a gauzy stuff, diaphanous and revealing. Pink roses twined her hair, and her smile was coy, infectious. I bowed my head in awe. Though I had never met her, I recognized Aphrodite.
“You are such a pretty creature,” she breathed, embracing me fully, grazing a kiss against my cheek. She reeked of roses. “You have your mother’s eyes.”
Over her shoulder, I saw a girl, a girl like me. New to this place, this game. She was pretty, thin, eyes downcast, hair rife with pink blossoms, just like her mother’s.
“Persephone,” my mother said, though the introduction was unnecessary, “this is Aphrodite and her daughter, Harmonia.”
I smiled, wondered if I should say something, started to, but Harmonia did not look up at me, did not step forward or offer her hand. She remained still as a statue while her effervescent mother laughed, brushing a white hand over her daughter’s tight curls.
“Ah, I must find Ares, so I will leave you to indulge in the festivities. Enjoy yourself, Persephone. You’ll never have another first time.” Aphrodite winked at me, but there was a bitter turn to her smile. She cast her eyes about, grasping Harmonia’s arm, and would have moved on had she not been stopped by a shimmering figure.
“Aphrodite, introduce me to your charming companion!” His voice was soft and sweet, but there was an undercurrent to it that I could not place. I looked up at him just in time to be kissed full on the mouth.
“Oh!” I stepped backward, raking my hand over my lips, but he was laughing, Aphrodite and my mother were laughing—Harmonia stayed dumb, still—and I felt shame steal over my face in the form of a maiden’s blush.
“Persephone—meet your half brother, Hermes,” said my mother, hiding her amusement behind a hand.
His hair was black and curled, and his sandals were winged. “Thou art as lovely as your mother informed us,” he said, in mockery of Aphrodite, and bowed deeply, snatching at my hand to kiss it. “And I am the god of thieves and flattery and all that is wrong with the world. It is ever so divine to make your acquaintance!”
had never met anyone who spoke so quickly. His words blurred together, as did he, flickering in and out of sight, a hazy outline trembling like a leaf in the wind, vibrating.
“I have another name,” he whispered in my ear, then darted behind me. At the corner of my eye appeared a white rose, proffered to me by his shimmering hand. “It’s Quicksilver,” he laughed, and I brushed him away, stepped toward the long line of tables that groaned beneath platters of grapes and cakes, luscious fruits spilling out of golden goblets.
A white rose. Charis had become a white rose. Charis who was lost to me.
I leaned on the table and took a sip from one of the cups to steady my head. I had never drunk ambrosia before—it tasted of grapes and rare fruits, crushed and made perfect within the minds of the gods. It was bliss, but it wasn’t real—they created it with their thoughts, their desires. I stared down into the swirling cup and realized I would be thought rude by Aphrodite, by the statue Harmonia. I had not excused myself. I had been thoughtless. I had behaved as if none of this mattered to me—and it didn’t.
Still, I looked up and tried to find them, but they had disappeared in the sea of assembled immortals.
I sighed and lifted the cup to my lips again but froze in place before the drink touched my tongue. There, that man—from behind, and only for a heartbeat, I’d mistaken him for Zeus. Hot blood thundered through me. It wasn’t him; perhaps it was Ares or Poseidon. But, still, Zeus was here. This was his palace, and he was ruler of all he surveyed. All of us. Somewhere in this great hall, he breathed, spoke, laughed, watched.
“I apologize if I offended.” Hermes appeared so suddenly that I jumped, spilled ambrosia down the front of my dress. He waved his hand over the fabric, and the liquid beaded out of it, crawling over my breasts and down my arm to settle into the goblet once more.
I stared at him, and he bowed again. “I do not mean to startle.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. He held out his hand to me, but I refused it, clutching my goblet tightly. Hermes shook his head, frowned.
I heard what happened to Charis.” Again, he whispered in my ear, lips so close they brushed against my skin there.
I stiffened. He had spoken her name, my beloved’s name. No one had spoken it aloud to me since it had happened, and I murmured it myself only in the dark of night. I liked to whisper her name into the moving waters of the stream; the ripples caught and carried away the private sounds of my grief.
“What do you know of Charis?” I breathed. “How could you know?”
He took the cup from my shaking hand and set it on the table. “I know that Zeus takes what he wants, always. I know what he did to her, that he broke your heart.” His eyes were downcast, and when he raised them, they burned with a fierce light. “I, too, have cried out against his violence, Persephone. You are not alone.” His expression softened. “In myself, you have a friend.”
“Yes.” He offered his hand once more, and I accepted it, tentatively placing my fingers in his flickering palm. He grasped hard and all but dragged me out beyond two sky-grazing columns. We stood on a narrow balcony, and, far below, the earth turned, blue-green and shining. It was so beautiful, the melding of living colors. Now, at this moment, so many mortals were living out their lives on that spinning orb. So much heartache and love and hardship and life. I leaned on the balcony railing and stared down, awestruck.
Zeus has taken much from me. I have learned to live with loss. A worthy existence is still possible.” Hermes turned to me, elbows on the railing, eyes searching my face. “But you do not have to let them”—he tossed a sour glance over his shoulder—“dictate how things must be, Persephone.”
These words—it was as if he knew my heart. I opened my mouth and closed it, tears brimming at the corners of my eyes. I could not weep again, not here, not on Olympus. “My path is set,” I whispered, threading my fingers together, like the pattern of my life. “I am the daughter of Zeus, and I am, therefore, an Olympian, with all that entails.” I shook my head helplessly. “I have lost my love. I feel so empty. I don’t know what to do.”
a long moment, I thought he was laughing, and he was, but his mouth hung open like a water-starved animal, and he leaned close, lips curving up as he spoke a single word, the dare, the key: “Rebel.”
As if I could, as if it were possible.
“It is.” His eyes were on fire, shining so brightly, and for the first time in a month, I felt my heart shift to something other than sadness. A glimmer of hope shone from deep within me, beneath the rubble of my broken heart.
“Can you hear what I’m thinking?” I whispered, and he surprised me by nodding.
Not everything. Mostly, I sense feelings. It’s a lucky gift to have.” He shimmered momentarily, flickered out, and then reappeared with a bunch of grapes in his hand. He began to pluck them, one by one, and tossed them into his mouth, all the while regarding me with his too-wide grin.
“I have wished I could do something, go somewhere, to get away from all of this.” I waved a hand at the crowd behind us. “But there is nowhere on the earth that is not my mother’s domain, and my mother fears Zeus.” My voice caught, and I coughed into my hand. “I fear Zeus, too.”
“Oh, sweet, sweet Persephone,” said Hermes, leaning closer, as if we were sharing a secret. “Our father is violent, selfish, and he exists for no other purpose than his own satiation. You say that your mother fears Zeus, and that you fear Zeus. You want to escape all of this but don’t have anyplace to go.”
Hermes shimmered and appeared at once on the other side of me. “You say that all the earth is your mother’s domain.”
It is,” I replied, perplexed. “Any child knows this.”
“All that is on the earth.” He lifted his eyebrows, staring intensely at me.
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Yes, yes, of course.”
“But…” He chewed a grape, then another. “Not what is under it.”
“What do you—under—“
Even as I felt my mother’s cool fingers grasp my arm, felt her tug me through the columns, heard her haze of chatter, Hermes’ words pulsed within me. I walked in a fog. I staggered, glanced at Hermes, open-mouthed, and—slowly, deliberately—he winked, blew me a kiss.
“Persephone, are you listening to me?” Demeter exclaimed, shoving some stray locks back from her pale forehead, patting my hand and rubbing it hard, too hard—her nervous habit.
I should have noticed the tremor in her voice, but it wasn’t until he stepped within my line of sight, and I blinked, once, twice, that I realized what had happened, what was about to happen.
“Dear, I want you to meet your father, officially.” She inhaled deeply, and I stared at her, at the way the fabric of her gown quivered in the space over her heart. “Persephone, this is Zeus.”
Fear and anger bubbled down my spine as I looked up, up, up at the shining countenance of the king of all the gods. Zeus. Zeus, who had destroyed my life.
Zeus, my father.
She is beautiful,” he boomed in syllables like crashing bells. They rung across the palace, reverberating again and again, so that conversations paused, words clipped, and every god and goddess pressed forward to see who Zeus complimented. He took my hand and kissed it, and the only thing I knew was his lips were wet, and I stared too long at the mark they left on my skin. I shivered, hid my hand away, and his great silver brows raised. He inhaled as if to speak, but my mother stepped between us. I gaped at her hand on his wrist, petting the shining hairs there.
“She looks like you, Demeter.” Zeus held his arms wide, face beaming. “Welcome to Olympus, my daughter!”
I shrunk into myself, wished I could shimmer and go, fast as Hermes.
But I couldn’t, and my father gathered me into an embrace so tight that the breath left me, and dark circles spun before my eyes. He was laughing—oh, I knew that laugh, and I felt it like a kick to my stomach. My hands drew into fists.
He’d laughed when he was done with Charis.
I hated him so much in that moment that I didn’t know what to do.
It was instinct, the struggle out of his grasp, how I lost myself easily in the crowd. I slipped back between the columns on the balcony and waited for a long moment in the small space between marble and railing and never-ending blackness and stars. My heart pounded, and my ears buzzed, and I didn’t know what to think or how to feel. Hermes said “rebel,” as if it were a simple thing to thwart Zeus, to escape his infinite reach and power. How could I? It was impossible, everything was impossible, and I was so tired, so angry, so sad.
I rubbed my eyes and stared down at the revolving, shimmering globe. From here, it seemed a pebble that I might cradle in my hand. Tiny. So vulnerable.
There was nothing I could do. I was trapped.
Neither Zeus nor Demeter came looking for me, and it was just as well. If I’d offended him, if I’d angered him, I would fall to his wrath soon enough, wouldn’t I? I dropped my head into my hands.
There was laughter just behind the column, and despite myself, I turned to look, peeking around the marble edge.
I had met Athena once, when she visited my mother. I remember thinking she had laughed a great deal for someone rumored so somber, and she had kissed my mother very tenderly goodbye. Here, now, her jet-black curls were swept up beneath a glittering circlet, and she draped an arm about a mortal girl’s shoulder. A goblet appeared between them, and Athena drank deeply, tilting her head back until the goblet was emptied. She tossed it over her shoulder, and quick as a hawk, she drew her companion’s smiling mouth down for a kiss.
watched, bewitched, breathless, heart pounding out a rhythm I had almost forgotten. Athena and the girl broke apart for air, laughing, arms entangled together. I blushed; my skin felt slick. I breathed in and out and ducked back to my hiding place behind the column, on the balcony hanging over the earth.
I dug my nails into my palms and concentrated on breathing.
It was not sudden, how the room behind me grew dark, throwing long shadows from the torchlight upon the balcony floor. It was a gradual thing, and I almost failed to notice it, but for the silence. No one laughed or spoke; there was no clink of goblet or twang of lyre. Everything, everything fell to a silence that crawled into my ears and roared.
I shook my head, straightened, peered again around the column at the great room. All throughout the palace, a deep quiet crept, cold as a chill. I saw the gods and goddesses shudder, and then the darkness fell like a curtain, became complete. The stars themselves were blotted out for three terrible heartbeats.
There was the sound of footsteps upon the marble, and the light returned.
“Hades has come.” I heard the whisper—Athena’s whisper—and I started. Hades? I stood on the tips of my toes, trying to catch a glimpse.
of us there had been touched by Zeus’ cruelty, in some form or another. We were meaningless to him, toys to be played with and tossed. But the story of Zeus’s ultimate betrayal was well known.
Zeus and Poseidon and Hades were created from the earth in the time before time—the time of the Titans. They cast lots to determine which of them would rule the kingdom of the sea, the kingdom of the dead, and the kingdom of the sky. Poseidon and Zeus chose the longest straws, so Hades was left with no choice but to reign over the kingdom of the dead, the Underworld.
It did not come to light until later that Zeus had fixed the proceedings to make certain he would get his way—to become ruler of the greatest kingdom, as well as all of the gods. He would never have risked a fair game of chance. Could never have hidden away his splendor in that world of endless darkness.
I shivered, wrapping my arms about my middle. Hades rarely appeared at Olympus, choosing to spend his time, instead, sequestered away in that place of shadows, alone.
My eyes searched the murmuring crowd. Though I was uncertain as to Hades’ appearance, I assumed I would recognize the god of the Underworld when I saw him.
But where was he? Over there were Poseidon and Athena, whispering behind their hands. I saw Artemis and Apollo break apart as Zeus moved between them, climbed several high steps and staggered into his towering throne, hefting his goblet of ambrosia aloft.
“Persephone.” I jumped, heart racing, and Hermes grinned down at me, his face a handbreadth from my own. “You have a habit of startling me,” I whispered to him, but he shook his head, pressed a finger to his lips. My brow furrowed as he took my hand and led me out onto the floor of the great room, to linger again amidst the gods. I felt naked, misplaced, but Hermes stood behind me and elbowed me forward. I yielded and stumbled a step, two steps. Finally, my frustration rising, I turned to admonish him but paused mid-motion because—I had run into someone. Life slowed, slowed, slowed. I muttered, “Excuse me,” looked up at the woman I did not recognize, had never before seen, my heart slack until it thundered in one gigantic leap against my bones.
Her eyes were black, every part of them, her skin pale, like milk. Her hair dropped to the small of her back, night-colored curls that shone, smooth and liquid, as she cocked her head, as she gazed down at me without a change of expression. She wasn’t beautiful—the lines of her jaw, her nose, were too proud, too sharp and straight. But she was mesmerizing, like a whirlpool of dark water, where secrets lurked.
I looked up at her, and I was lost in the black of her eyes, and I did not see her take my hand, but I felt her hold it, as if it were meant to be in the cage of her fingers, gently cradled.
Hello,” she said, her voice softer than a whisper. I blinked once, twice, trying to shake the feeling I had heard her speak before—perhaps in a dream.
And then, “I am Hades,” she said.
My world fell away.
Hades…Hades, the lord of the underworld…was a woman.
"But, but…” I spluttered, and she watched me with catlike curiosity, head tilted to the sound of my voice as I attempted to regain my senses. “They call you the lord of the Underworld. I thought—”
“It is a slur,” she breathed. I had to lean forward to hear her words. Her face remained still, placid, as if she were wearing a mask.
I didn’t know what to say—that I was sheltered? Should I apologize that I hadn’t known? She still held my hand, fingers curled into my palm like a vine. “I’m sorry,” I managed. There was nothing else within me, and the moment stretched on into an eternity as my heart beat against the door of my chest.
I’d forgotten Hermes was there, and he cleared his throat now, stepping alongside us, staring down at our hands, together.
“Hades,” he murmured, chin inclined, smile twisting up and up. “It’s begun, now that you’ve met her.”
“What?” My head spun; everything was happening too fast. Her eyes had never once left mine, two dark stars pulling me in. My blood pounded fast and hot, and I didn’t understand what was happening, but my body did. No, she was not beautiful, but she didn’t need to be. I was drawn to her, bewitched by her, a plant angling up to drink in her sun. Still, still, she had not let go of my hand.
“Hermes, may I have a moment with her?” she asked, turning toward him. When her eyes moved away, I felt an emptiness, a hollow, a great, dark ache.
Hermes frowned, shook his head once, twice, and shimmered into nothingness.
She raised my hand, then, so slowly that I held my breath until her lips pressed against my skin, warmer than I’d imagined, and soft. Something within me shattered as she swallowed me up again with her dark eyes, said: “You are lovely, Persephone.”
I stared down at her bent head, spellbound.
“Thank you,” I whispered. She rose.
Where Zeus’s lips had been wet, rough, pushing hard enough against my hand to leave a bruise…she was the opposite—gentle. Yet I felt her everywhere. I shivered, closed my eyes. She did not let go of my hand but turned it over, tracing the line of my palm with her thumb.
“It has been a deep honor, meeting you, seeing you. You defy my imaginings.” A small smile played over her mouth as she shook her head, traced her fingers against the hollow of my hand. “I hope to see you again.”
She looked as if she might say more—she looked hopeful—but something changed, and her eyes flickered. She sighed, pressed her lips together, squeezed my hand. Hades turned and disappeared into the crowd of Olympians.
“No—” I put my hand over my heart, breathed in and out.
“In front of all the others.” Hermes was shimmering beside me, leaning close; he shook his head. “She’s either stupid or very brave.”
I felt as if I were waking from a very long sleep. I stared at the floor, wondering what was real, what was a dream. “I don’t understand. That…she was Hades?”
“In the death,” he snickered, and he held up his goblet of ambrosia to me, as if in a toast. “It has begun.”
“I don’t understand…”
“You’d better start understanding, and fast, little girl.” Hermes laughed at me, grinning wickedly. Quick as a blink, he grabbed my hand and turned it over. Where Hades had kissed me, where her skin had touched my own, was the lightest dusting of gold. It glittered now, beneath the light of the stars.
“You, Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, daughter of Zeus…you will have choices to make. Very soon.” I could smell the sickly sweet ambrosia wafting from his mouth. “Everything that will be, or could be, is dependent upon what you choose to do,” he told me. “You must choose wisely.”
He draped an arm about the shoulders of Artemis, who had just moved near, her brother at her side. Both stared at me with apologetic smiles.
As one, Hermes, Apollo and Artemis turned toward the ambrosia-laden tables, speaking to each other in hushed voices, and I cherished the moment, the moment I’d been seeking all the night long, to be alone.
I watched my hand, watched the gold dust sparkle. Above, beyond the columns of the titanic Olympian Palace, the stars still shone and sang.
Was I enchanted? For the remainder of the night, no one spoke to me, touched me. I hadn’t even met Hebe, Hera’s daughter. Along with Harmonia, she was my rival, according to my mother. Rival for what? It all seemed so absurd, so irrelevant. All of this opulence, this false camaraderie.
I sat outside of the palace and stared down at my lap and willed, wished, that Hades would find me. This was the only entrance, the only exit. Surely, sooner or later, she would come. Perhaps she would take my hand again. Ornament me with her dust of gold.
But she did not come. At the end, when gods were strewn about the floor, ambrosia so thick that my sandals stuck with each step, I wandered, cautious, until I found Zeus unconscious and spent, sprawled, one leg dangling over the arm of his throne. I was safe. For now.
Hades was not there.
I woke my mother, drew her up, helped her into her chariot of cows that trundled us down, through the heavens, back to our beckoning earth.
Through the warm air, through the forest, back in the bower, my lifelong home, I moved without seeing, lay down and stared.
I was bewitched. I could think of nothing but the goddess of the dead.
"To be honest, I don't remember much about last night.” Demeter smiled softly, shook her head. “But it wasn’t terrible—was it terrible? Zeus was favorable toward you, I think.”
We stood together in the bower, late morning sunshine bright and shafted, lancing through the green leaves and grapevines. The air smelled heady, of warm earth and sweet fruits, but when I took one of the grapes in my mouth, it tasted bitter.
“It wasn’t terrible.” I held my tongue in regard to Zeus. My mother knew how much I hated him. But there was one topic I must broach. “Hades,” I whispered, startling myself by speaking her name here, aloud. Our encounter, the words we shared only hours ago—they seemed like a secret, a secret all my own, and I was protective of them. “She’s a woman. You never told me that.”
Demeter sighed, sat down on an accommodating swell of greenery. She spread her hands, studied my face. “It never mattered, Persephone. I wasn’t hiding it from you.”
“I didn’t say you were.” I smoothed my tunic beneath me and sat opposite her, my eyes drawn down to the ground. “Is Zeus…cruel to her?” I didn’t want to know that he was, but, still, I needed to ask.
“Oh…” My mother exhaled once more, patted the space above my knee. “He taunts her. Calls her the ‘lord’ of the dead because she favors the company of women. She is not like him, or Poseidon. Hades is good.”
My lips parted, surprised. “Are you familiar with her, then?”
“Oh…” She hesitated. “No, no one is, not really. Except, I suppose, for the dead. But that’s too somber a subject for a golden morning, the morning after your debut. I am so proud of you, my Persephone.” She held out her arms to me, and I felt like a little girl again as I ducked my head against her shoulder. But I did not feel the old comfort blossom inside my heart when she held me in her arms. She was trembling a little.
“Speaking…of Zeus…” she spoke haltingly into my hair, pausing for a long moment during which neither of us moved—or breathed. “Since he was unable to talk long with you last night, he hoped to remedy that…” She strung the stilted words together like red berries on a poison tree. I arched back from her in horror.
There was such sadness in her eyes.
“He is coming down later today so that he may bless you, acquaint himself with you.”
“Here,” I whispered. “Zeus is coming here?”
“Persephone, I couldn’t dissuade him. I tried—please believe me, I tried. Once he gets an idea in his head…” She looked so small, so defeated.
I found my feet, cleared my throat, closed my eyes as my mother’s fears collided with my own. “I’m sorry, but I won’t be here when he comes—I can’t be. I’d do something wrong. I’d make him angry with me. With you.”
My mother was nodding, her lovely face pale.
“That may be best,” she whispered, petting the blue morning glory vine curling like a puppy in her lap. “I’ll…I’ll think of an excuse for you. It will be all right. It will.” She sounded unconvinced, and her eyes shone like moons. “I’m sorry, Persephone.”
I stood for a moment, disarmed, as I gazed down at my mother, my mother who would lie to the king of all the gods for me, for me. My mother. After Charis, I had doubted her. But I knew, had always known, the depth of her love for me, deeper than the deepest roots, deeper than the Underworld itself. Words crowded my throat; I could say them, could say anything, but words would never be enough, truly.
She rose, smooth and tall and serene. I could not help her, could not save her. I could not save myself.
My heart splintered, and I needed to leave, needed to escape her kindness and her courage, her trembling hands, the fear buried behind the calm of her eyes. So, slowly, I kissed my mother on her cool cheek and turned and left, vines catching at my hair.
Under the pink clouds, beneath the hum of growing things, I cursed myself, balled my fists. I felt like a coward and a traitor. I should have stayed. But to engage in a father-daughter meeting with Zeus? My skin chilled at the thought.
I don’t remember how I moved through the forest—I must have run, though, because my legs were bleeding the blue blood of the immortals. It pooled on my briar-torn shins, and I stumbled and fell, over and over. I didn’t know where to go. The nymphs stared at me when I passed them. They must have thought me mad. I just wanted to be alone, left alone, safe in a new world, where Zeus could never come. An idea woke in my heart then, and I followed the curve of the sun in the sky, creating my own path through the overgrown woods.
Finally, the trees fell away, the ground softened beneath my feet, and I threw myself toward the sea.
My legs could not carry me fast enough. I ran through the dunes, kicking up a fog of sand. I felt a rhythm within me: the crashing of the waves, the crashing of my heartbeat. I fell down upon the hot sand, sunk my hands deep into the damp, golden crumbles of it, and sobbed—wet, heaving sobs—for the hopelessness, the unfairness, the prison in my mother’s eyes. I sobbed as the wind sang through the sea grasses, as the surf crested, spilled, water removing earth, water sweeping it all away.
Through tear-filled eyes, I gazed at the endless blue of the ocean. I had been here a few times but not many. My mother had taken me here once, when I was very small, to play with the sea nymphs. Their laughter had been strange but sweet, kind. They had made me a necklace of pearls, had called it the hearts of oysters. They’d shown me an oyster, then, tickled him so that he smiled at me, so I could see the hard shining pearl lying within. My mother and I had laughed, and the sun had gleamed like a polished yellow stone, and all I knew was joy.
I stood up, dusted the sand from my tunic, moved nearer to the sea. The surf pounded against the earth, over and over, and it was so loud and still so comforting, a roaring hush that silenced my heart.
When Zeus arrived, found me missing, he would command my mother to find me. And she would have no choice but to ask her flowers, her trees, her vines and grasses where I’d hidden myself, and—traitors all—they would bend and shift, recreate my trail. I would be caught as swiftly as a rabbit in the mouth of a fox.
And when I was dragged before Zeus, I would spit on him. I would scream and sob. I would say, “You have taken away the only person who meant anything to me.” I would say, “Why does my mother fear you so much? What have you done to her?” And he would regard me with that smug twist to his lips and laugh until his sides were sore, while my mother’s hands shook, while she shrunk smaller and smaller in his electric shadow. Then he would punish me in some clever way—perhaps I’d become a rosebush like Charis, or a mirror pool, or a monstrous creature that no mother or sweet nymph could ever love—and I would be lost forever.
I would speak the truth, but it wouldn’t make a difference. Zeus would be the same as before, my mother the same, cowering before him, and the pattern would repeat itself over and over and over again. There was nothing I could do to stop it.
I made my way down to the seawater, felt it wash over my feet, cooling me, and I closed my eyes and held my face up to the light. I was weary: world weary, bone weary. I wanted my halcyon days back, those too-few days of laughing in the sunshine hand-in-hand with my beloved, of feeling her warmth beside me as night fell and the stars peeked out. I was so innocent then to the pain in the world, the pain a cruel father could cause. The pain of hearts ripped in half.
I wanted my life to be beautiful again. No matter what foul things lurked in my future, that future Zeus and my mother intended for me, could I hold onto the shining, lovely past, when this, all of this, became too difficult to bear? Would I always remember that, once, my life had been beautiful, that I had experienced—felt, touched—beauty? Could that alone sustain me for an immortal’s lifetime? I was so young. I had experienced so little, in the grand scheme of forever. Could the memory of that handful of months, drawn thin and threadbare over the centuries, be enough?
The words were so soft, at first, that I almost didn’t hear them over the crash of the sea. But they came again, like music: “Demeter’s daughter…”
Lovely—so lovely. They rode the waves up and down, their long green hair braided with pearls or swept up with coral combs. Their eyes were milky and wet, smooth spongy skin white as the bellies of sharks. My old friends. The sea nymphs.
“You remember me?” I murmured, holding out my hands. “It’s been so long…”
They came ashore one by one, a stream of lithe ladies with haunting, slippery smiles. They embraced me, kissed me, whispered in my ears, and when they laughed, it was the sound of tide breaking.
“We never forget, Demeter’s daughter. We have missed you.”
I stepped into the water with them, and they held me up, like a queen in a chair.
When I was small, they filled my hands with broken bits of water-smoothed pottery, iridescent shells, and other mysteries of the deep. They did so again, heaping shining, strange things upon me; soon my palms overflowed with wet, glistening treasure.
“Thank you,” I whispered, and I carried it all back to the shore. Making a little hollow in the hot sand, I buried the tokens.
The wet skin along my back prickled, and I stood, brushing coarse sand from my hands and arms. The wind was picking up, and the water crashed harder against the sand and rocks, over and over, as if—by pounding the earth—it could shape the dirt, the stone, to something new, something more like itself, liquid and lucid and changing. I stooped and gathered a handful of ocean. The sea nymphs, quiet now, watched me with unblinking white eyes. It had been so many years since I had seen them last, but they remembered me. How much longer would it take them to forget me? For the world to forget me?
“Persephone…” The sea nymph brushed webbed fingers against the cool skin of my leg. I shuddered, though the sensation was not unpleasant, only surprising.
“We do not have flowers in the ocean,” she whispered to me. “Persephone, will you gather flowers for us? We so love beautiful things, and they are the most beautiful of all. If you pick us flowers, we will weave crowns for ourselves, and for you. We will all be lovely together.” Again, her hand on my leg. “Oh, pick us flowers, Persephone!”
It was a simple wish to grant. Water streamed over my body as I moved out of the ocean, and I hitched up my drenched tunic to my thighs. Footprints trailed behind me to the water’s edge, as if I had just risen from a shell, new-created in the frothing secrets of the deep.
There was a flower near the shoreline, choked by sea grasses. It was white and plain, not the loveliest of my mother’s kingdom, but I admired its stubbornness, sprouting here in the sand, so far from its native ground.
What would happen to me after this stolen hour?
I couldn’t think of it. I couldn’t.
I found a patch of violets and plucked one of the little purple blooms.
What would Zeus say to me? Would he even remember Charis?
I plucked another flower.
Hades had kissed my hand…this hand. She had sprinkled it in gold dust. I plucked another flower and gazed down at my fingers. There was still the shimmer of gold upon them. I wanted it there always. Always.
I plucked another flower.
“Rebel,” Hermes had told me.
I plucked another flower.
Soon, my skirt was filled with petals and leaves, fragrant with sweet, sun-warmed perfumes. I held the gathered fabric tight in my hands, flowers grazing against my arms, my fingers, soft as skin. Flower and flower I gathered, as if under a spell. Finally, languorous, awake from a dream, I raised my heavy-lidded eyes.
I was in an unfamiliar valley, a round bowl of earth with trees edging its rim, cupping the grass and wildflowers that flourished down and within. I paused near the bottom, petals fluttering from my skirt, and turned to go. I had wandered too far in my enchanted searching; I no longer heard the cresting of the sea.
I took a few steps backward, and then I saw it.
It was red, bright red, red like mortals’ blood. I watched it move, back and forth, borne up on a wind I could not feel. It enticed me.
I needed this flower. I needed to take it.
As I stepped forward, I felt the earth shift beneath my feet like sand, but still I reached, wrapped my glittering hand around the flower’s stem. Its petals were thin, like parchment.
I plucked it, brought it to my nose, breathed the scent of it: sweet but faint as dusk light.
I breathed it in again and felt the ground give way.
I rolled and fell in a rain of flowers. The earth shook like a wild mare, desperate to be rid of me, and I cried out, clinging first to a jagged bush, then a broken root. I slipped, let go, screamed, certain I would be swallowed down like a grape by my own earth, my mother’s earth. Would she know? Would she find me, buried so deep? Or would I be lost and aware for all time—an immortal seed, never growing?
But then it stopped—the breaking, the shifting.
And I breathed in and out and coughed a cloud of dust.
The dust was multicolored and separated into shafts of light from the lowering sun. I stood, or tried to, and grimaced when I saw how my right ankle twisted beneath me. Gods are not impervious—it would take an hour or more to heal the bone’s break. I sank down and picked crushed petals from my skirt, the red flower long gone, and forgotten.
I knew of quakes, had experienced them before: the earth rears up and moves like an animal, impossible to seat.
But this had been different somehow…and strange.
The dust began to clear as I sat waiting, impatient. Darkness had amassed in the center of the valley, and as my eyes made sense of it, I made out a gigantic, gaping hole carved into the earth. It was as wide as the gates of Olympus and had not been there before. I rose and steadied myself against an outcropping of rocks, waiting, watching.
I heard it before I saw it rise out of the maw, before I saw the twisting metal and the sparking hooves. It came as a rumble of thunder, and up through the hole burst two wild black horses in harness—and behind them, a heavy chariot, dark as the night sky.
At the helm stood Hades.
I sank down to my knees, felt my ankle turn painfully beneath me, as the horses reared, as they screamed into the darkening sky, tossing their heads like monsters. When the chariot settled on the earth, Hades jumped down and placed a hand on each of the beast’s necks, whispered softly to them, so that they pricked their black ears in her direction, gentled, stood straight and quiet. She smiled with such fondness.
From the chariot floor, Hades gathered a faint, dark wisp, coiled like rope. It uncoiled when she touched it, long and thin, snakelike. It shimmered in the struggling light as she gathered it close to her chest, as gentle as a mother. She spoke a few faint words that I could not hear, and she lifted her hands over her head. The wisp spiraled up into the sky and began an ascent toward the dome of the heavens. It glittered, winked in and out of sight, and was gone.
Hades watched the sky for a long moment, while I watched her.
When she lowered her gaze, took in the destruction of the valley with her eyes, she took me in, too: crumpled on the broken ground, dead flowers my companions.
Her face, as before, was a mask of white marble, unreadable, but for a single instant, her mask cracked, and I saw—surprise? Excitement? I couldn’t tell for certain, but she took a step toward me, waving her hand.
“Persephone,” she said, her voice whisper-soft. “Why—why are you here?”
“I was…gathering flowers.” I blushed, feeling childish, and gestured lamely at the crushed petals on the valley floor. She gazed down at the headless stems and flattened flowers, uncomprehending.
“Gathering flowers,” she repeated.
“For crowns.” I bit off the words, staggered to my feet and turned to go, limping, but she stayed me, stepping forward and wrapping her fingers about my wrist. I jumped, startled.
“Forgive me,” she whispered, but she did not let go, her fingers yielding and gentle on my skin. Here, standing so close to one another, and so removed from the over-perfumed mob of Olympians, I breathed in her scent, and it soothed me. She smelled of the earth—good, kind earth—and of hidden pools of black water, deep-growing things. Dark, familiar.
I chewed my lip as she stared down at my ankle, as her brows drew together and her eyes filled with concern. “My arrival injured you.”
I shook my head. “I’ll heal.” But she was kneeling down, touching the swollen circumference of my ankle—so gently, like the wing-flutter of a moth.
Without a word, Hades stood, turned from me and moved back to her chariot. I watched, mystified, as she opened the waist-high door, reached down and in and retrieved a rough-hewn box. She hurried back with it, knelt down at my feet again.
“This won’t hurt, I promise,” she said. From the box, she withdrew the smallest of glass flasks, carefully removed the seal, and a dark gathering of liquid, black as ink and cold, dripped from the bottle onto my ankle.
I watched, mesmerized, as, within ten flutters of my eyelids, my bruised skin regained its regular hue, the swelling deflated. I put my weight on my ankle, and it offered no complaint.
“Remarkable,” I breathed.
Hades stopped up the flask and put it back in her box, smiling.
I held my breath, peering down at the goddess of the Underworld. I had been wrong before. She was beautiful. I felt my awareness of her beauty like a pain, and I feared she would notice, would ask me what was the matter, so I cleared my throat, rubbed at my eyes, grasped for plain words to break this spell.
I said, “What was that? That liquid?”
“A single drop from the river Lethe, a river of my kingdom. Its waters steep with forgetfulness, oblivion. So that drop—” She gestured at my repaired ankle. “It made the bone forget it was broken.”
She rose, holding her box beneath her arm, and again she smiled. It was a small, shy smile, unassuming. I had never met another god or goddess with so gentle a manner. I stared at her, and I was not sorry for it.
“Thank you,” I murmured. “You are very kind.”
She shrugged; the stone mask again fell over her features. I felt a pang deep as an old root. I watched her as she moved back to her chariot, the box in her arms. “As you said, your ankle would have healed on its own. I simply quickened the process. It was through my carelessness that it happened at all.”
“Is this…is this how you always come up from the Underworld?” I was grappling for words. I wanted to speak with her longer, keep her longer, if I could. Like a pup, I followed after her to the chariot; she stepped up and in. I placed my fingers gently upon the dark carved rim, as if, by holding my hands there, I could hold her.
“No,” she told me. “I rarely rise to the surface. The true door to the Underworld is deep in the heart of the Immortals Forest.” Hades waved toward the trees, toward my home. “But it is long to travel, and I had an urgent matter.” She grimaced.
“Urgent?” I remembered the snaking wisp, how gently she had guided it to the sky.
“A soul came down to my kingdom by mistake—it wasn’t his time to die. So I brought him back.”
“You journeyed all this way for a mortal’s soul?” I could not hide my astonishment. I had had little interaction with humans, but gods generally viewed the mortals with varying amounts of contempt or indifference. There were a few, like my mother, who loved their worshippers, but not many, to my knowledge, and certainly none who would have undertaken such a voyage, from the Underworld to the face of the earth, for the good of a single soul.
“Of course,” said Hades, and repeated, “It wasn’t his time.”
We stared at one another for a long moment. I smiled.
“That was kind of you,” I said, finally, weakly, because I couldn’t find words true enough to convey the depth of my admiration.
She had been gathering up the reins but paused now, lowering them back to the rim of the chariot. She reached down and took one of my hands, bent her head and brushed her lips against my palm.
My hand was streaked with earth and yellow pollen, and I wanted to steal it back from her, ashamed, but I couldn’t bring myself to break this connection. Her face rose before me, her black eyes bright.
I gazed into those eyes, wondering what thoughts brewed behind them.
She was silhouetted by the clouds, by the glow of the sun above the bowl of the valley, orange and red, a disharmony of brilliance against the paleness of her skin, the limitless darkness of her stare.
“Zeus is coming to see me today.” My words surprised me; I hadn’t meant to speak them. But I felt so safe. Hades had been kind to a mortal, and I was hungry for kindness. So—haltingly, head bowed—I told my story. I told her of Charis and Zeus, of my mother’s plans for me. I told her that Zeus meant to bless me, and that I desired nothing he had to offer.
I told her that I had no place to go.
When I finished my tale, I did not feel better, but there was something new and clear amid the shadows within me, and I recognized it with gratitude: relief.
Hades had not spoken a word since I began. She had simply listened. But she opened her mouth now, dark eyes shining, and a single tear traced down her cheek. It fell on my hand, glittered there. “I am so very sorry, Persephone.”
Her tear in my palm—it seemed a precious thing.
I was exhausted, spent, but I nodded my thanks and turned to go. Someone else knew now, knew of Zeus’ travesty, Charis’ tragedy, and that was enough.
Hades tugged at my hand, and I felt the pulse of her heart there.
“Do you believe in coincidence, Persephone?” She bent her head down, and I tilted mine up. Again, that scent: dark, never-known places; smooth water; earth secrets. She did not wait for me to respond—I did not know how to respond—but continued, “I don’t believe that paths cross by chance. I don’t believe that two people who were foretold to join fates could, randomly, stumble upon one another a day after their first meeting…”
Foretold? My heart thundered as she spoke, even as she kept her voice soft, whispered.
“Persephone,” she said, never once pulling her eyes from mine; the intensity within them startled me. “I can help you.”
“But…how? There is no way to—Zeus—”
“Will you come with me, down to the Underworld?”
My heart caught, ceased to beat for a breath. And another.
“Come to my kingdom,” Hades said, “and you will be free.”
I gasped. “Hades—”
The implications of the choice she offered me weighted my heart. Did I want this? Could I leave my mother? My forest? Is this what Hermes meant, to rebel? I could not be found under the earth; Zeus would not touch me there. It must have been what Hermes had in mind. But how had he known?
I didn’t know what to do, and my heart fluttered against my ribs, caught and cornered.
The burdens of the day seemed flimsy now, dissolved, as I recognized in this choice the first true choice I had been given in my whole life. It was sacred to me, a new, young thing, and I held it as carefully as a nestling.
“Hades,” I said again, and looked deep into her eyes, her limitless eyes, and I wanted to fall into them. I wanted to fall into the earth with her.
But then I remembered my mother’s trembling hands.
“I don’t know what to do. Can I have some time to consider this?”
I feared she would say no. I feared she would flick the reins, and the world would swallow up her body and her beasts, and she would be gone from me, leaving behind only her scent and the ghost of her hand in mine.
But she stayed.
She straightened her back and inclined her head to me. “Of course. Forgive my forwardness. I feel your pain and can’t bear it. Any aid I may offer you, Persephone, I give it freely.”
I closed my eyes as she brushed her lips to my palm. Even in the sallow light, I saw the sprinkling of gold dust, like a tattoo marking the places her body touched mine. Now she gathered the reins in her hands, and the horses trembled, anticipating their great descent. They held their black heads high, eyes rolling.
“I’ll await your answer,” Hades said, and I moved my hand to my heart.
“Thank you.” I ventured a small, sad smile. “My mother was right about you.”
She tilted her head, raised a brow. “Demeter spoke of me?”
“She said that you’re different. That you’re good. You are good to me.”
Something like amusement curled the line of her mouth. “If you’ll let me be, Persephone,” she whispered, so quietly that I had to lean closer to catch her words, “I will be even better.”
I pressed my fingers to my lips.
Her words lingered between us as she raised her hand to me in parting. The horses bellowed and reared, the chariot shuddered, and the entire shadowy assemblage leapt into the gaping pit before me, swallowed whole. The horses’ screams echoed long after the animals, and Hades, had disappeared.
The ground moved beneath me, but calmer this time, and the great mouth cut into the earth sewed itself up, as if by an invisible seamstress.
Dazed, I climbed out of the valley, sought the ocean again. Move forward, I commanded myself. Don’t look back.
I gathered a handful of flowers and carried them to the sea nymphs.
They wove me a crown, as they’d promised, and I wore it, accepted their flattery and hugs, but my heart was lost in a place to which I’d never traveled. The nymphs tried to fetch me back; they sang me sea songs, stroked my arms with their hands smooth as shells. The water splashed over my legs, and I tasted salt on my lips.
I turned to go.
“Stay awhile,” they pleaded. “Demeter’s daughter, please.”
“I must go home,” I told them, and left, the stars shining the way.
Zeus did not come that day, or the next or the next. Demeter fretted and paced the bower. Worry made her careless, so that her flowers sprouted strange and poison fruits, and her vines tangled into impossible knots. I stayed away, took refuge in the Immortals Forest.
I found a hollow in an old, forgiving tree, curled up within it, and hoarded my thoughts like acorns.
“You are distracted,” my mother’s nymphs whispered to me, pulling at my hands, my garments. They were worried about me—they knew who my father was. They knew Zeus would come, sooner or later. Perhaps they knew more than I did, for a few wept and hid their faces when they saw me. I tried to keep to myself, discovering other hidden nooks—places to sit alone with my conflicted heart.
On the fourth day, he came.
I walked into the bower to see my mother passionately embracing a stranger.
He stood up straight, tall, too tall for the confines of our little home, but the living walls and ceiling groaned and stretched to accommodate his mass. Zeus wiped the back of his hand over his mouth, and my mother, panting, pulled down her tunic without a word or glance for me.
I glared, silent, as Zeus examined my body with his unfatherly eyes. My stomach roiled with hatred. I clenched my fists at my sides, took a step back for every step he took toward me. We stopped and stood and stared at one another. It was almost comical, and a crazed sort of laughter bubbled up within me, but I suppressed it.
“Demeter’s daughter,” he intoned wetly. I narrowed my eyes, pushed down with great effort the need within me to deny the title, to tell him, That is not my name. The tension between us propagated like the most tenacious weed.
Finally, my mother moved in.
“Say hello to your father, Persephone,” she whispered.
I bit my tongue so hard that I tasted blood. I could not speak to him, would not, but he mistook my silence.
“The child’s shy, Demeter,” he chuckled, reaching for my shoulders. I flinched when his large hands patted my back, caressed the bare skin there, lingering too long. “You have grown up,” he said. “Grown up well. And I am impatient to tell you my surprise.”
I cast a quick glance at my mother, and her eyes met mine, strangely clear—no, vacant. Her hands trembled so that they blurred along the edges. I inhaled, opened my mouth, but Zeus expelled a laugh so loud that I clamped my hands over my ears, horror-struck. The bower reverberated with the sound: leaves shook on their vines; my heart shook inside my chest.
“We have prepared a place for you on Olympus,” he said, grinning, once the noise-quake abated. “You are to come with me, live in my palace on Mount Olympus with the rest of your immortal family.” He spread his arms wide, as if he held within them a bounty of gifts for me.
I schooled my features for a long moment, piecing together his words with care, while my mother stood by and watched, my mother with her unblinking eyes, her tears that began to spill, silent truth-tellers, over her cheeks.
“Persephone…” she began, coughing quietly into her hand when her voice broke. “I have sheltered you, sequestered you, because I could not bear to be parted from you. But now you will learn Olympian history and tradition, culture and poise—any number of things that could never be understood fully with me here on the earth.”
Listening to her, I could not help but think of the talking birds that repeat overheard phrases without any true sense of their meaning. I knew she meant none of this, believed none of this, wanted none of this for me. I knew her like my own heart. These words were Zeus’, not hers.
Still, she said, sadly, “You will be so much happier on Olympus.”
I could not help myself; I laughed.
Demeter shook her head, as if to negate her lies, and put her face in her hands, closed her eyes.
I crept backward to the edge of the bower, felt familiar branches press against my shoulder blades.
I was to become the immortals’ plaything. Zeus’ shiny new toy. My mother knew this as surely as I did, but how could she stop it? What could she do? In her mind, Zeus was king. Zeus got what he wanted. Zeus had won the game of my life.
In reality, Zeus had only made my choice so much simpler.
Fear crawled up my spine, but my tongue was moving before I knew what it would say. “Father,” I said, and the word tasted like bile, but I forced civility into my voice. “Please…I must say goodbye. Give me one more night to bid farewell to my mother, my nymphs. I love them all so much, and I would be heartbroken to leave them suddenly.”
I had never truly spoken to Zeus before, and he considered me for a long, tense while, as my mother paled, bit her lip, folded and unfolded her hands.
“Very well,” he boomed finally. “One night. I’ll return tomorrow to fetch you. Until then…” He shimmered in a golden cloud, flashed and was gone.
Gone so completely, I could almost believe he had never been there at all. Except for the stench of ozone burning my nostrils. Except for the miserable expression on my mother’s face.
“Persephone…” She looked withered and so lost—Demeter, goddess of all the earth. I shut my eyes, rubbed at my face, tried to slow my catapulting pulse. She gathered me in her arms, and she was crying, and it was all so terrible. My mother smelled of him, of his golden body. His stink made me sick, but I held her tightly.
“I don’t know what to do,” she whispered, shaking. “I don’t know how to save you.”
I kissed her forehead, twined my fingers with hers. Her eyes asked me questions, but I could offer no answers. What would this desperate act, my choice, mean for her? Would Zeus take vengeance on her? Would he understand—or care—that I had done this of my own free will, that she was not to blame? She couldn’t know where I was going, what I was about to do, because I wanted her to remain innocent, beyond reproach.
So I said, “I love you, Mother,” and she nodded once, twice. She cupped my face in her hands, questing deep within my eyes as if searching for something. Then she simply turned and left the bower.
I was trembling. I knelt down on the soft, sweet grass of our dwelling, breathing in and out the green perfume.
This was my moment, mine alone.
I remembered the way Hades had taken my hand, wept on my hand.
She was strange and a stranger, and I would follow her down to the land of the dead and darkness. I would give up all I had known for the possibility…
The possibility of what, Persephone?
I bit my lip too hard, breathed in and out and counted my breaths; there was something comforting in the neutrality of numbers.
That was what I wanted. Was there freedom in the Underworld?
Hades was good. I knew that, unquestioning. She held my hand as if it were broken, as if she alone could mend it. She made me feel shining, like a golden thing. There was something deep and dark and so beautiful about her. When I remembered her sad eyes, my heart flipped.
In a life of no choices, this one brash act could set me on a path toward the freedom I longed for more than anything else on—or above—the earth.
“Rebel.” I whispered the word and stood, cast my gaze about the bower, stared long at the flowers—so adored and familiar—and the pretty things: candles and precious stones my mother and I had collected over the years we shared together. I knew I would take nothing; there was nothing that I needed. I did not need the beautiful shell comb or the strand of pearls the sea nymphs had given me. I did not need the first flower my mother had ever grown for me, preserved and perfect as the day it bloomed. Perhaps my mother would need it. Perhaps it would comfort her.
I took myself, and I stepped out of the bower, into the Immortals Forest, empty-handed, alone.
I couldn’t let my mother see me leave, and I couldn’t say goodbye. Already I felt haunted by her hopeless face, her trembling hands. It would be best for both of us if I were to simply vanish, like stars winking out at the break of day.
So I crept along the line of trees and found the great oak. “Farewell,” I whispered into her rough bark, wrapped my arms around her great trunk. She had held me from the beginning and until the end.
I suppose that I had always sensed the location of the entrance to the Underworld. It was the one spot that I—and all of the forest inhabitants—evaded, as if by instinct. Now I stole away into the deepest center of the Immortals Forest, those dark thorny paths that I had always skirted, never stepped upon. They were overgrown and eerie, and wide-eyed animals stilled and watched me as if I were a ghost passing through.
The trail twisted and turned beneath gnarled branches that arched over my head, interlocked. I remembered laughing and running with the nymphs, and I remembered the hush that overtook us when we came within feet of these pathways, how we could not force ourselves to enter, could not bear to stay.
Now my heart thundered, and I felt a pushing, something invisible urging me to turn around, go back to my life, back to the light, but I walked on, stubborn and one-minded. The trees around me grew closer and older, and woody vines tripped me at every opportunity.
Gradually, the air began to change. There was a feeling of held breath, of looming greatness, and the tightly laced brambles gave way to an expansive clearing.
The surrounding trees cast shadows that flickered over the hard-packed earth, and there, on the far side… As the sun slipped away from the day, and the first star stole into the sky, I saw it: a stony cavity leading down into darkness, wide enough for a chariot and pair of horses. The columns were old, older than I could understand, and the soft gray rock that formed the dome was carved with likenesses of men and gods from the beginning of the world. The beginning of everything. A soft gust of chilled air wended its way out of the opening and teased at my hair, brushed cool fingers over my face. Beckoning me, it seemed.
My eyes moved as if spellbound to the single pomegranate tree thriving alongside the entrance, or, more truly, as part of the entrance itself. The roots and rocks twined together, inseparable, and—as anxiety over my impending descent squeezed my heart and weakened my knees—I reached up and held onto the tree for support.
My fingers stroked the smooth red curve of a fruit. I could tell with a touch that it was ripe, and I tugged it from its branch, held it in my palm, cherishing its comforting weight. It was of my mother’s kingdom, yes, but it was of mine, too. And though I had left everything else behind, I tied the pomegranate into a fold of my tunic—food for the journey, I reasoned with myself, but of course I had no need for food. I was simply afraid, and I wanted something I could hold, smell, taste that would remind me of the earth, of growing things, of light. Light makes a pomegranate. I needed to carry some of that light with me, even as I turned my back on it and chose the darkness.
I crossed one foot over the threshold between above and below. There was a vastness before me, and the air made me shiver, but I didn’t look back. I couldn’t. The skin prickled at the back of my neck, and—one hand on the cool rock of the entrance—I moved forward, picked up my slow, cautious pace to something a bit faster and stepped down, down, down.
Time passed—how much I could not say—and I was lulled into a thoughtless state, my steady advance as involuntary as my heartbeat. I could see, though just barely. All was cold and quiet until, suddenly, a soft sound startled me. Like sandal on stone. I waited in the darkness, squinting. A shadowy, person-shaped form detached itself from the gloom, swept closer, evolved into the glimmering, shimmering silhouette of a young man with one hand grazing the cool wall.
Hermes. Somehow, he illuminated the space around us with a gentle glow.
“You began without me,” he remarked wryly, picking bits of leaves from his tunic. “They never begin without me.”
I flinched. “Why are you here?” Fear climbed and clung to my bones. Another god in this forsaken place? Had Zeus sent him? It seemed unlikely, but—
“Don’t be foolish.” Hermes tapped my forehead and raised a brow. “Hades asked me to fetch you. I’m here to take you to the Underworld.”
“I don’t need to be taken. I’m already going.” I sounded braver than I felt, and his flashing eyes softened.
“Allow me to accompany you, then, Persephone.” He could sense my fear, my worry, I was sure. He offered his arm, and I took it with some relief. I was grateful for his presence. The rigidity of my spine eased, and I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
Hermes winked at me and pointed a finger at his feet. His sandals sprouted wings—white as doves—and he grabbed me about my waist and hoisted me onto his hip as if I were a child, and we flew. My vision warped and flickered. My stomach fell away within me, and I gasped and closed my eyes, buried my face in his shoulder. He laughed. “You’re quite safe, I assure you.”
And then…only an instant later—
“You can let go,” Hermes said, still laughing. I detached my limbs from his body, found solid ground beneath my feet and opened my eyes.
We stood in a narrow cave brightened by wall torches that burned with strange green fire. The space before us stretched away to a pinprick of black; it seemed never-ending. I began to wonder how deep down we were, and the weight of the earth—my earth—seemed to press upon my shoulders, my head. I felt suffocated, so removed from the wide-open spaces and forever sky of my forest. After a few desperate gulps of air, I placed a hand over my heart, willed its beat to steady.
Hermes stamped his feet, and the little wings folded back.
“Are we here?” I asked him. “Is this the Underworld?”
“Almost.” He stretched, hands overhead, and then bent forward, shaking out his arms. “I showed off,” he confessed, grinning. “It normally takes longer to get here. But you were nervous, and I didn’t want to prolong your journey.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
“It was the least I could do.” He smiled at me for a moment. “You’ve done well, Persephone. And you’re nearly there.”
“Where are we now?”
He gestured widely. “This is the hall that will take you to the gateway that will take you to the river that will take you to the Underworld.” He nodded toward the endless corridor. “Ever forward. You can’t miss it.”
We began to walk together, and I counted torches to the rhythm of our sandals scuffing stone. I gave up at two-thousand-forty-three, and we seemed no nearer to…anything.
“I can only take you as far as the gateway,” Hermes finally murmured beside me.
“How far is the gateway?”
My face was a handbreadth from a dark metal gate. It hadn’t been there a moment ago, I was certain. The sharp-tipped rails were draped in a moss I had never encountered before; it glowed green beneath the torchlight. I touched the iron, hesitant, and it burned my skin, but the gate opened, swinging outward without a creak.
The air here smelled of shadowed water, of forgotten things. Of Hades.
“Well, always nice to see you, Persephone—good luck.” Hermes was turning to leave, and I gripped his arm automatically, so tightly he winced.
“Please don’t leave me, Hermes,” I whispered. “Please.”
“You know, you’re very pretty when you pout.” He was floating above the ground, winged sandals fluttering, and he bent forward to brush a kiss on my cheek. “You must enter the Underworld alone, Persephone. A symbolic journey, if you will.”
“But I’m afraid.”
He wriggled out of my grasp, drifted down the corridor, the planes of his face shimmering in the ghostly green light.
“Of course you’re afraid,” his words echoed around me. “This would not be so precious if it came without cost.”
I was alone, at the beginning of the Underworld.
I don’t know why I waited, but I waited—waited for him to come back, to say he had only been teasing me, that of course he would guide me right to Hades’ palace—or cave, or whatever sort of abode she dwelled in down here. My faltering bravado had vanished along with my half-brother.
He didn’t come back, and at last I felt foolish, just standing there, waiting to be saved.
I bit my lip, turned, and I stepped through the gateway, stepped from rock to more rock, and nothing looked different, but the pull of air was stronger now, cold and luring. It wound round my legs like rope, and I obeyed its tugging, impatient to be done, to be there, to see Hades. Soon enough, I began to run.
There was nothing but the unending passage and the cool wind, the green fire, the hard earth under my sore feet. I stopped once or twice, pounded my palms against the craggy walls in frustration, but I didn’t consider turning back. If this cave went on forever, I would walk forever.
Then I smelled water.
I almost slipped into the liquid blackness roiling and boiling and licking at my feet, but somehow I caught myself, gripping the edge of the wall with white-knuckled hands. Before me stretched a wide river. I could just make out the shifting waters and, above it all, an unending nothingness of black.
To enter the land of the dead, you must cross the river Styx. I knew this, had heard mention of it here and there, but had never given the mortals’ customs concerning death much thought. There were stories of a mysterious boatman, Charon, who exchanged safe passage over the river for golden coins. I had no coins, nothing precious. I felt a rising panic; I would not be able to cross. I would be trapped here at the edge, stuck between two worlds. Nowhere.
Whispers. Distant, hollow whispers. They rose gradually, hushed at first, but soon enough my ears were swept up in a crescendo. The noise surrounded me like the wind, and I was buffeted back and forth by the tiny urgent words. When the last syllables echoed, echoed, faded, and were gone, I felt their absence, feared the silence, and shivered, stealing backward from the lapping water.
He poled across the river on a broken barge that should have sunk but didn’t. I couldn’t see him, not really: his appearance kept shifting, and one moment he was an old man with a beard, the next a skeleton with bits of flesh dangling between his ribs, the next a small, sad child.
“Welcome to the Underworld,” came the whispers, as before, and I realized they were made up of hundreds, thousands of different voices coalesced into one. He/she/it—Charon—held out to me a skin-tangled hand. “Coin for passage.”
I recoiled. This was horrible, more horrible than I could have ever imagined. My heart seemed to have stopped beating. My mouth was dry, my tongue useless. I coughed and stuttered, “I have no coin. But Hades invited—”
“It matters not why you are here, only that you are.” There was amusement in the lazy susurration. “You must pay me, or you cannot cross.”
“What can I give you? What will you take?”
“From one dead beggar, I took an eye.” And within the maelstrom of flesh and bone, I found a single blue eye staring out at me, glistening. “From another, I took a heart.” I heard the heart beat, too slowly. “What part of your flesh, Persephone, would you offer me that I do not already have in multiples?”
I despaired, thought wildly. My hands pressed against my collarbones, grazed my neck, gathered up fistfuls of night-black hair.
“Will you take this?” The hair pooled in my palms, its bluish sheen shifting so that the light from the torches behind me slid like green oil over its surface. The floating blue eye ogled me, watched as I offered up my hair to the ferryman of the dead.
“Done.” It was quick, the cut, though not painless. I touched a hand to my cheek and felt blood gather along the thin slice Charon had made with his blade. He held my fallen locks in one hand, and the whispers rose again, grew louder now, like wails, or keening, but higher, uniting in a single piercing moan. I felt naked, cold, but I stepped away from the earth and down into the boat, and Charon poled into the dark waters.
Sometimes I caught a glimpse of my hair in Charon’s ever-changing, pieced-together body as he navigated the river. But the sight made me feel sick and dizzy, so I looked away, up into the black or down into the water. It was only hair; it would grow back, must grow back, though I didn’t know for certain that it would. It had never been cut before.
I remembered Hermes’ words about the cost of choice and realized I had made my first payment.
The barge did not glide smoothly. We collided with things that made the creaking boards bump together and jar my feet. The sound was wet, what we hit solid. I saw faces beneath the water, hands reaching out, as if pleading: drowned souls, bodies in the waves. I closed my eyes, rubbed at my skin to warm it.
When we neared land, I scrabbled out of the boat and up onto the rocky bank. Charon, whisperless, turned from me and poled off, back into the blackness and the far end of the shore. I stood trembling, watched him fade away. Once my nerves had calmed, my heart steadied, I turned my head to face fully my destination, the kingdom of the dead.
It stretched, flat, bare earth, as far as my eyes could see. Despite the torches, there was blackness above and all around me, and in the distance loomed a great spindly structure, a gathering of white towers and keeps and tall, wide walkways, lashed together as if with plans drawn from a mad architect’s dream. The palace at Olympus was something the mortals had imagined for us, made real with their beliefs. This was a creation no mere mortal could conjure, so chaotic that my eyes ached when they traced its maze of bridges and stairs. The towers were tall, narrow, leaning. Was it all made of marble? It listed and seemed to hunch, like a crippled animal. This broken-down thing must be Hades’ home, the palace of the Underworld.
I hesitated, afraid.
Across the dark plain came a quiet avalanche of voices—whispers again, though less distressing than Charon’s cobbled-together tongue. I wrapped my arms about myself, chilled to the bone, and forced my legs to move away from the water, toward the white palace and, I hoped, Hades. My skin prickled with goosebumps; a shudder raced up and down my back, as if someone invisible stroked the spokes of my spine. I needed to finish this. I needed to rest. Tense and frightened as I was, listening to dislocated voices, I feared I was in danger of losing my sanity. “Almost there,” I spoke softly to myself, and I hurried onward.
The palace was pure white marble, and, as I neared it, I saw the cracks, so many cracks. One of the smaller towers had fallen and crumbled, now a jagged, sad path of broken marble on the ground. I edged around its sharp pieces, crouched to pick up in my hand a cool, soft shard that disintegrated to dust when I squeezed it. Everything here, even the stone, was dying or dead. I felt the dead all around me, felt their eyes watching me, heard their voices speaking of me. But I didn’t see any of them, not yet, and I was glad for it. I crawled through a tunnel in the broken tower and found myself before a staircase leading to the doorway of the palace.
If I had assumed Hades would meet me at the entrance, greet me, usher me in with a smile and a bow, I was mistaken. No one was there. I paused at the threshold, uncertain, heart beating faster than a hummingbird’s wings.
“Hades?” I called out, cursing myself when my voice shook. I took deep breaths, reminded myself that I had completed my quest, had done what no other god before me had dared to do. I was afraid, but I was here, free of Zeus, and that was—had to be—enough.
“Hades? Are you here?” I tried again, mustering up the courage to shout. My voice echoed back to me in mockery of a reply: are you here, are you here, are you here…
“All right, then,” I whispered, and I walked uninvited into the palace of the Underworld.
The hallways twisted and looped around like the tunnels of a rabbit’s warren. I thought I was heading in one direction only to find myself veering in a great curve, until I’d made a circle and returned to the beginning again. It was maddening, but I didn’t have the strength to be angry. I kept one hand on the marble wall and walked up and down, around and around, hoping that I would find Hades, worried that I would find something horrifying.
When I neared one bend in the corridor, I heard music, and I paused to listen. It was a soft melody from strings, soothing; it drew me forward. I peered around the corner into the open doorway of a large room.
She was dressed in black, all black, and in the fashion of a mortal man. Her feet were bare on the stone-tiled floor, and she’d drawn her hair back into a twist behind her shoulders. She didn’t notice me; she was moving in gentle arcs around the room. Dancing, I realized, as I admired her careful gestures and gazed, hypnotized, at the cloud of light she held and whirled and tossed: it separated and coalesced, changing form from a hoop to an orb to a shower of light, flickering over the shadows in the darkened space. And the music—it came from everywhere and nowhere. I felt it in the floor, the walls, inside of myself.
I drew in a quick breath—perhaps I gasped—and then there was silence, and she stood frozen, mid-turn, looking straight into my eyes, lips parted in an expression of surprise. Surprised that I was there, I assumed, spying around corners in the tilting palace of her deep, dark kingdom.
“Hello,” I whispered, and I almost laughed, the word sounded so ordinary and out of place. My legs were shaking, but I held her stare and half-smiled. “I’ve come.”
“So you have,” Hades replied, straightening. With a flicker of her fingers, the cloud of light winked out. She stood still for a long moment, and then, haltingly—as if uncertain—she held out her arms to me, opened them wide.
It seemed like a dream, all of it—my descent, the horrors of the Styx, Hades’ light dance. But my heart was pounding so hard that I heard it as well as felt it, and my tunic was damp and stained, and my hair… I pressed what little remained of it against my neck, shamed suddenly to stand before the goddess of the Underworld in such disarray.
But I could bear it no longer, and I ran across the room to her, buried my face in her shoulder. I did not sob, did not weep, though I wanted to, could feel my lingering strength pool out from the soles of my feet onto the cracked marble floor. I pressed my mouth to her neck, against the dark fabric of her garment, and I breathed her in.
She held me, and it was not a warm embrace, but it was an embrace, nevertheless. When I loosened my grip on her, she backed away, rested her hands on my shoulders at arms’ length, and looked me over.
“You chose this,” she said simply, and I nodded. She drew me near again, though gingerly, as if she did not know how to comfort but wished to try. My ear pillowed against her breast, I listened to her heartbeat, and its rhythm reminded me of a song I knew.
“Hermes brought you?” she asked, arching back to catch my gaze.
“Yes.” And then, because I needed to tell her, needed to explain: “Zeus meant to take me with him to Olympus.”
“I see.” Shock first, and something akin to anger, stirred the flat pools of her eyes. “Well, he won’t have you now.”
“No, he won’t.” I shivered.
“Come with me.”
Hades took my hand purposefully and led me down a series of long, dark hallways. I tried to remember our turnings but soon gave up, confused and lost, grateful for Hades’ sense of direction. Finally, she stopped before a doorway, and beyond the doorway, there was a small room with a smaller bed and a single oil lamp.
“Sleep,” she said, soft and low. “You’re safe.”
I closed my eyes to savor the word and cherished the sensation of Hades’ steady presence beside me. “I can scarcely believe I’m here,” I whispered. “I’m truly here, inside the earth. With you.”
“Sleep now, Persephone,” she intoned, as if the words were a spell, and she touched my arm so gently, I felt a tear sting my eye.
“Good night,” I whispered, and her skin left my skin, and I knew without looking that I was golden, golden all over, and then she left, every part of her: her scent, her eyes, her voice like music from another world. I lay down on the bed and stared up at the darkness.
My head and heart were full, but my body was exhausted, and within moments, I fell fast asleep.
Persephone, Persephone--where are you?Oh, my beloved daughter! Zeus, where could she be? Did you take her? Have you stolen her from me?” My mother wails and beats her chest and scrabbles for ash in the fire as the king of the gods laughs and shrugs and leaves her weeping, alone.
I woke with a start, breathless. My heart felt as if it would break the cage of my bones. I pressed my hands against my face, surprised to find my eyes sore and wet. I’d been crying in my sleep. And my mother—my mother had cried for me in the dream. But it was only a dream.
Woozy, I sat up, detangled my legs from the twisted blankets. I knew where I was, why I was here, but to wake from a nightmare in this cold place, with no green in sight, no sunlight, no birdsong… I felt the weight of the earth pushing down upon me again, and it was only when I lifted my eyes, noticed Hades standing in the doorway, that the weight lifted and I remembered to breathe.
I rose, washed my face, and we walked together; we didn’t speak. I had no sense of the time because there was no sky. I supposed, here, time was irrelevant, since nothing grew, nothing changed. The corridors meandered up and down, ending in staircases so narrow that my hips brushed the walls, and I wondered what it all meant, my life, life itself, that it led to such a strange, dark conclusion.
Hades guided me onto a balcony. Instead of stars, my eyes met uninterrupted blackness.
“Your hair,” she said, touching the ragged edges that brushed against my ears, one gentle finger grazing against my bare neck.
“I sold it.”
We watched the sunless morning in silence. After a little while, I stopped expecting a sunrise.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “There are so many…rules in the Underworld. What is received must be in equal value to what is given. These are old laws, older than me—older than the earth.” Her hands gripped the marble railing. “I couldn’t make it easier for you, though I wanted to.”
I reached out and touched her arm. She didn’t flinch; she didn’t react at all. So I let my hand fall away and whispered, “It was my decision. I rebelled.”
“What did you say?” Hades fixed me to the spot with an intensity of gaze I had never seen from her before. I felt pinned, spellbound.
“I rebelled,” I repeated doggedly. “Hermes told me—”
“Hermes,” she laughed, pressing her fingertips to her temple. “Of course.” Her pale face—luminous as a full moon in the dark surrounding us—tightened with agitation. “He is a dear friend but a born meddler. Did he say anything to you about…all of this?”
I hesitated. “All of what? I’m not sure I understand.”
Hades chuckled for a moment, nervously, arms folded over her middle.
“This…” She cleared her throat and tried again: “This has never happened before. No one, mortal or immortal, has ever chosen to enter the Underworld. We don’t know what will come of it.”
My heart was sinking. She seemed different
from last night, far away, locked up with her thoughts. I felt very
So I remembered Charis’s face. I painted it perfectly for my mind’s eye, replayed Zeus’ unforgivable violation, held the horrid image over my heart like a shield. There were reasons that I had come down to this place, and if I ever forgot them, I would lose myself to despair.
Hades was watching me, but I couldn’t read anything from her steady black gaze.
“Persephone, why have you come here, truly?”
“Truly?” I had already told her about Charis, about Zeus and his plan to whisk me up to Olympus. Her question had a deeper motive, I was certain, but I couldn’t discern it; she was too distant now. “I came for a chance,” I murmured finally, resolve making the words sound sharper than I’d intended. “I came for a choice.”
She nodded, expressionless. “Yes, well—you’ve come a long way. I hope you find what you’re seeking.” She straightened, shook herself, as if waking from a dream, and then she turned and walked back down the corridor at a brisk pace, beckoning me with a glance over her shoulder. I trotted to catch up. “I was waiting for you to wake so that I could show you the Underworld,” she said, and we quickly wound our way through the palace. I took three steps for every one of hers.
“There is so much here that you must learn, see— There is even beauty. It’s not much, but it’s my home.”
I tried to imagine what it must have been like for her, what it continued to be like, her uncountable years underground. Waking to darkness and whispers instead of sunlight and birdsong. Somehow, she seemed contented with the gloom, so I didn’t pity her—or myself. Her world was my world now, and I was eager to explore it by her side.
We left the palace and walked together over the hard earth, our footsteps silent beneath the wind of whispered words. I could see, dimly, by the light of the torches, but then something fell over us—like a mist—and I was blind in the thick fog of black. Hades took my hand, squeezed it tightly.
“There are spells of darkness here that descend without warning,” she said, her voice low, her breath warm at my ear. “Don’t fear them. If you wait a moment, count to ten, they evaporate.” And even as she murmured the words, the darkness began to dissolve, break apart like a flock of frightened bats, and I could see again, gaze at the placid planes of Hades’ face. A path—darker than the dark earth on which we stood—stretched long and wide before us. I noted the far-off walls of the cavern arching overhead, but my eyes couldn’t find the dome, the ceiling, where the walls joined together. When I looked up, I felt a sensation of limitless space, but that couldn’t be true: somewhere above us—far, far above us—grass grew. Unless…
Was the Underworld a place you could journey to, physically find, beneath the earth, or was it another world, like Olympus? I had walked here, found the gate. But my mind couldn’t make sense of this dark vastness, couldn’t connect it in any way to the earth I knew so intimately. Again, I imagined myself caught in a waking dream. Nothing seemed real. Not this path, not Hades’ hand in mine, not those stone mounds up ahead, or the sound of water lapping.
But it was the water that coaxed me out of my thoughts. I knew very little, but I knew this place. Hades drew me to stand near to her on the rocky shore of the river Styx. I looked for Charon, listened for him, but we were alone, and I breathed a secret sigh of relief.
“Here the rivers Lethe and Styx mingle together,” Hades said, sweeping her arm over the waves. “You’ve experienced Lethe waters, their healing capabilities. But one drop from these rivers combined, and you would forget all you ever were, all you ever knew.” Her eyes held mine, the black of them shining, slick as oil. “Oblivion.”
I shivered, chilled.
“But who could ever want oblivion, something so final, so absolute?” I wondered, mystified, even as we were joined by a…being, a soul, I guessed, thin and wispy as smoke from dying embers. He did not acknowledge us—in fact, he walked through us—and kneeled down in the water, bent his head to drink.