Persephone liked dead things. She liked the stillness of them, the pristine, unnatural lack of movement. It wasn’t like sleep where you could see a chest rise or perhaps a finger or paw twitch. Death was mesmerizing.
Her mother had a large garden and during the spring, summer and fall, she expected Persephone to help out. Persephone tended to her areas; pulled weeds, pruned leaves and sowed seeds.
It was tedious and boring. The same repetitive tasks day in, day out, week after week, until finally you could harvest, only to prep the soil again for the next year. The soil was always slightly damp and sticky, pushing itself under her fingertips and no amount of scrubbing or cleaning ever cleared up the dark half-moons of dirt lying beneath her nails.
Persephone’s seasons were fall and winter, when the leaves and foliage started desiccating and turning yellow and brown. The ground under her feet would get crunchy and loud. She liked to walk through the forest as the days turned colder and the nights came earlier and earlier. She waited until the leaves dried out and then picked handfuls, crumbling them in her hands and watching the small pieces fall to the forest floor. The forest became calmer, quieter in the cold months – no incessant chatter of birds or rustling of woodland creatures which always assaulted her ears.
The trees were more beautiful in the winter when they were bare and stark. Their twisted limbs stretched out unencumbered without leaves or mossy growths clinging desperately to them. Brown, grey, white and black, they reached up to the barren grey sky.
The autumn she turned thirteen, she was out in the forest, watching her breath as it left her body in the cold air. The plume of her exhale was visible as it flowed past her lips and then dissipated into the sky, unseen and forgotten. It was when she looked down at the ground that she saw it. The remains of some animal – twisted, furry, broken and bloody.
She felt a longing deep and solid in the pit of her stomach. She moved forward without thinking wanting to be closer.
Large birds perched on the corpse, pecking at it, breaking through the fuzzy pelt into the soft tissue beneath. They squawked in surprise and possibly fear as she moved closer, flying off into the crisp air. The beat of their wings loud and sharp in the cold air, drowning out the sound of her heart in her ears.
Persephone wasn’t afraid or disgusted by the small corpse. She felt a sense of almost homesickness as she drew closer. It had been a rabbit, patches of its brown summertime coat still showing, not enough time for white to bloom over its tiny body before its life was cut short.
She wondered how it had died and, thinking back on it, she realized she hadn’t seen many rabbits around over summer and early fall.
Perhaps it died of loneliness.
She touched the fur, petting the cold softness. She pulled her hand back, seeing dark red patches on her fingertips. Blood. She rubbed her fingers together taking note of the sticky-thick texture. She sniffed it almost delicately, cataloguing its sweet iron scent. She sat down on the ground, cross-legged, ignoring the cold and waited.
She wanted to see what would happen when the birds came back.
After that, it became something of a hunt to walk through the forest and find things that had died. She found small birds, more rabbits, some squirrels and once, in all its glory, a stag that had had been pulled down by a pack of wolves and had been gutted to the bone.
It was stunning. Long limbed and stark, its sightless eyes glassy and dark. They were open and wide in a way she had never seen.
She liked to watch the animals gnaw and tear at the flesh, foraging for the small bits of nutrients.
She loved that stag and would visit its corpse often until other small scavengers pulled and tore at it, breaking it apart until there was nothing left.
Spring started violently pushing through the solid, frozen ground. The sowing and prepping season was upon them far too soon for her liking. Starting at dawn, Persephone went to the garden with her mother and followed the same instructions as every year. Dig, turn, till, sow. She filled buckets of water from the well, lugging them to the seemingly endless rows upon rows of seedlings.
Even their home was not left alone. Small pots littered the entire abode, so many that Persephone thought she would fall over them and break her neck, with her mother only bemoaning the broken leaves and stems of her precious blooms and not her daughter.
Persephone spent as much time as she could in the forest and now, knowing that there were always things to find lying dead, hidden under rocks or buried under foliage, she found she could more easily tolerate the endless tedium of the growing season.
So long as she had her time in the forest.
Her mother’s garden was always bountiful and she would load up baskets full of fruit, vegetables and grains for them to take into the village and trade for goods and services. Although the walk to the village was long and the baskets heavy, Persephone liked the trip. She liked the winding road, stretching out before her. On the way there, she could pretend that she was going somewhere new, somewhere unknown that she’d never seen before. She liked never knowing who they would run into once they arrived. She liked seeing the colorful fabrics and smelling the fragrant spices of the market. Each time was different and exciting and broke the tedium of life on the farm.
Although, the market always meant she ran into men, young and old. Persephone was green, like the spring forest, but even she could see the way they leered at her with dark eyes and sideways glances. While she often found her mother overbearing and strict, the marketplace was when she was grateful for it. Her mother turned away men with a sharp glare or sharper word. It didn’t stop some of the more adventurous boys from trying to steal a kiss when Persephone was alone. Persephone wasn’t afraid of the boys, nor of the men, truthfully. She found their ham-fisted attempts to touch her skin, to brush against her hip or her breasts wearisome and irritating. Their sweaty hands wrinkled her dress, their grubby fingers leaving marks against the fabric that would take time to wash out and press clean. She saw the other girls her age – saw how they tittered and chattered, laughed and giggled at the boys. How they looked from under their lashes at the men, turning away shyly. How they would pretend to dodge away from pressing lips and eager hands but in reality, would slow down enough to be caught – squealing and yelping like caged birds.
Persephone didn’t understand it.
She tried once or twice to be like the other girls. She asked her mother if she could join a group of girls playing a skipping game off to the side. Her mother agreed and Persephone joined the girls, learning the rules of the game quickly and doing it well – her years of tending the garden and walking in the forest giving her enough athleticism to excel. When the boys showed up, as they always did, Persephone tried to join in with the girls, mimicking their excited chatter, their laughs, their yips of laughter and joy. She felt false and strange and when one of the boys had managed to get close to her and then pressed his lips against hers, Persephone squirmed away from his wet, hot kiss. It felt slimy and sopping on her own flesh and she pushed him away hard, wiping her hand across her mouth, trying to get rid of the lingering feeling. The boy was startled and got angry, storming back toward her, his face twisted and mean. He tried to grab her, to pull her closer again. Persephone kicked him hard in the shin and then punched him soundly on the jaw. He staggered backward, his face ugly and he called her names.
She didn’t care what he called her as long as he didn’t try to kiss her again. Persephone ran back to the market, where her mother was and stayed close the remainder of the day, trusting her mother’s sharp tongue to keep anyone else at bay.
She was fifteen years old the first time she saw him. It was fall, the leaves just starting to turn, the ground going hard beneath her feet.
He seemed impossibly large in the forest, as though even the trees should bow down under his presence. She spied him as she walked back from a hollow of dead rabbits where she’d spent the afternoon reading. Persephone saw a flicker of black out of the corner of her eye – a flap of fabric and she turned toward the movement. He moved soundlessly through the woods, fluid and fleet of foot.
A pair of does munched on the drying leaves of a tree going fallow. They didn’t startle or move as he approached until he reached out his hand. His long fingered, almost clawed hand settled on one of the doe’s head and it stomped its foot and fell over. The other doe bucked wildly and sprinted away, thrashing madly through the forest.
The first one lay dead at his feet, open-eyed and still.
He turned at his name, his dark hood hooked up and over his head, cloaking his face in shadow. She could make out the sharp white bone of his jaw, the protrusions of his teeth, his lipless mouth and hollow, skinless cheeks, the bleached bones of his skull.
He was beautiful.
She took a step toward him. He didn’t move – his form the pristine stillness of death and decay. She slid closer to him, feet clumsy on the floor of the forest, hand outstretched. She didn’t stop until she was in front of him, feeling the cold chill of his presence press against her body. She looked up into the semblance of his face. Austere, cold – expressionless except for his macabre skull-grin.
Hades titled his head toward her, looking down on her with his empty sockets – deep, dark and fathomless. Her outstretched hand slid across his jaw, her fingertips going cold and numb against his jawbone. She stepped in closer and then closer still, feeling the line of his spine against her fingers, the crack and dip of his vertebrae. Pulling him close, she pressed her lips against his sharp teeth.
He wasn’t warm, moist with sweat or flushed with life. He didn’t stink like perspiration or flutter beneath her hands and lips – flailing with over-exuberance or messy desire. He was a perfect statue against her – motionless and cold.
Her heart thumped madly in her chest. “Take me with you.”
She felt the bony claws of his hand wrap around her wrist, encircling it and in a blink, she was there.
She had never seen so many shades of steel, grey and silver. Shadows jockeyed for position in the dim light, half shapes flickered in the corner of her eye. They disappeared when she turned her head to look. The sky was low and dark, an indigo-grey that shifted and changed as she stared.
Tall, thin, barren tree limbs curled toward the sky, beckoning the darkness closer. They twisted and turned in on one another, snarled up, embracing each other. A shock of lightening lit the sky, burning her retinas and staining everything afterward in black and purple.
She heard a low, clanging bell and turned to see a ferryman bringing his charges ashore. He had a low, green-cast lamp hanging from an iron hook on his small boat. As she watched, sombre, silent souls climbed from the boat; their faces grave and solemn in the sickly light. The light fluttered as each one passed; the ferryman rang his bell for each passenger – a doleful parade of the dead.
She never wanted it to end.
She felt a tug, beneath her ribs and she turned to see Hades walking away from her, the back of his cloak seeming more alive here, in the Underworld, than it had up above. It swirled around his feet and his skeleton, fluid and volatile. His steps were silent as he moved, though she heard her own footfalls on the ground as she hurried after him. The scenery shifted and moved around them, the Underworld traveling by them at the same time they moved through it until finally she saw looming before her a large citadel. A fence of skulls, tibia, fibula and ribcages encircled the fortress and as they approached a snapping, snarling three-headed dog lurched forward. Persephone held her hand out, unafraid and the dog heads whined in a trio. One of them bowed down, one sniffed her and the other licked at her legs.
Hades led her past the gates, into the fortress. The air was hollow and thick; the sounds of her footsteps didn’t reach her ears. It was akin to being underwater. Once inside the dark castle, Hades unravelled his cloak from his shoulders. As he threw it off, it slipped and stuttered, becoming shadow itself.
His face was more like a man’s now – though he was still hollow-cheeked, skin stretched tight over his bones. His eyes were gold and black and when he turned to look at her, she felt as though he expected her to startle back, or perhaps avert her gaze.
Persephone was not afraid of him.
It was Hades who turned away first, showing her the knobby protrusions of his scapula and spine as he walked. She followed him to a large, cavernous dining room where plates of foods were appearing slowly, coalescing out of shadow and mist. She recognized the items as those regularly left to the gods at their temples. Meats, sweets, fruits, gold coins, brightly woven fabrics – all items left to currie the favor of the god of Underworld and keep him at bay for as long as possible.
But like the fall of night, he was inevitable and no amount of bribery nor trinkets would stave him off forever.
His chair was adorned overheard with a set of antlers, arcing up and splitting into curved limbs that seemed moments away from collapsing down and embracing him. As he sat, he watched her carefully, eyes unblinking. Persephone remained as still as possible, meeting his gaze again, unafraid.
Hades inclined his head slightly toward the chair at the other end of the table and she set her shoulders proudly and stepped toward it, taking a seat. It was an unadorned chair, unlike his own. It was simple and bare.
Until she sat.
As soon as she settled herself in the chair, ocher tendrils snaked out, spawning smaller branches, reaching up and out forming antlers much like the ones on Hades chair. She watched the grow and melt outward from the hard-backed spine of the chair until with a mighty groan, as though they were stretching after eons of being caged up, they finally settled and shook once. The chair vibrated with their movement and then stilled. Persephone pulled her eyes from the large, spindly appendages and looked back at Hades who appeared somewhat startled by the sudden protrusions.
She was about to ask him what it meant when she heard the scream.
She would know the timbre and intonation of that voice anywhere. It was her mother, howling at Persephone’s disappearance, calling on the gods of sky, earth, water and air, in search of her missing daughter. Persephone curled her hand into a fist, her fingernails making angry half-moons in the palm of her hand. The floor shook, the room shimmered and there was a sudden and angry ‘pop’ of pressure that caused a shock of pain to shoot through her ear drum and into her brain.
The voice came from the foyer from which Hades and Persephone had just left and she turned her head to see a white robed figure hulking in the doorway. His massive frame seemed impossibly large in the small space, giving the impression if he flexed hard enough the entire structure should crumble down under his bulk. She flicked her eyes back to dark Hades at the far end of the table.
Hades did not look away from Persephone as Zeus strode further into the room. His limitless eyes bored into her even as Zeus moved closer to her, coming so far as to rest a hand on her chair.
“Brother Death,” Zeus repeated. “You have taken that which does not belong to you.”
“I challenge that I took nothing that belonged to anyone. The birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are not owned by either. Neither are people above world tethered to each other by possession.”
Persephone closed her eyes in pleasure at his voice – thick and dark, like molasses in the winter.
“You may quibble with the language, Brother Death, but the charge is the same. The Underworld is for the dead and the dead alone.”
Hades spun his wine glass between his fingers. “I also challenge that death is not only a state of body and that a mortal may die a thousand times over, every day, before ever once crossing Styx.”
Persephone opened her eyes again, meeting Hades gaze.
Zeus’ presence towered over her out of the corner of her eye. His voice reverberated in her rib cage as he spoke, “You cross the Fates with this act and they are not forgiving.”
“I cross no one,” Hades countered, his eyes seeming to drill into the heart of her even as he spoke to Zeus. “I granted a request. A wish. Nothing more.”
Hades had not moved from his seat and indeed did not appear to be troubled by his brother’s presence. Persephone had the sudden feeling that he would do nothing to keep her in the Underworld, nothing against his brother. She reasoned he could not at the risk of angering the Fates, who surely were the most dreaded of creatures in the universe, second only to the Furies. Persephone feared returning to the Overworld, feared seeing her mother and having to explain her journey. Feared returning to the market season after season and avoiding the sweaty, fleshy boys with their hot hands and damp clutches. Feared having to be with the chittering, chattering girls – their foolish games and inane discussions.
Feared returning to the unending, relentless monotony of the harvest. Dig, sow, till, reap. Dig, sow, till, reap.
Dread sat like a cold, heavy stone in her stomach. She could not go back.
She would not go back.
Zeus was speaking to Hades, ignoring her, even though she was the center of his speech, the sole purpose for his arrival. His attention was focused on Hades and she was but a speck in his vision – an object to be bartered over. His voice was like a drone in her ear – unintelligible, wordless, incomprehensible. Persephone’s eyes never left Hades as she reached forward to one of the plates of fruits, offered up to dark Hades – to garner his approbation, his benevolence. She snatched a handful of pomegranate seeds. They were cold and wet in her hand and felt like freedom and happiness. Hades, hollow-cheeked and sunken-eyed, watched her carefully – the skin of his lips almost curling into a grin over his too sharp teeth. As her hand reached her mouth, at the very last moment, Zeus finally chanced a look at her and saw, too late, as she devoured the pomegranate seeds. She smiled at them both – her teeth stained red from the juice, her jaw cracking down on the bitter, hard seed.
She could not be made to leave now. She could not be made to leave ever.
Hades smiled, canines white in the light. His teeth glistened fierce and razor-edged.
It was Zeus who spoke next. “Stupid girl. You know not what you’ve done.”
Persephone turned to him, her red-stained grin macabre and knowing. “Tell my mother, tell everyone in the Overworld, Olympus and beyond, I have finally come home. Should they wish to enter the Underworld, they must seek my permission first. That includes you, Zeus, ruler of Olympus. You have no power here.”
“Foolish Persephone,” Zeus began.
“Do not speak my name. No one shall speak my name lest they wish me to come for them in person,” she countered, feeling a flush of power. The antlers of the chair writhed and twisted, turning black and purple, giving a horrible screech that even mighty Zeus stepped away from.
“It would appear the Underworld has finally gained a Queen,” Hades spoke from the end of the table. “Send the missives out on Olympus, Dread Persephone has come home.”
ART – COMING SOON!
A fearful hound guards the house in front . . . keeps watch and devours whomsoever he catches going out of the gates of strong Haides and awful Persephone. – Hesiod, Theogony 767 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.)
10.534 – Circe: “Thereupon call to your comrades, and bid them flay and burn the sheep that lie there, slain by the pitiless bronze, and make prayer to the gods, to mighty Hades and to dread Persephone.”