The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Installment #18: Curiosity

While Hades and Hypnos were outside, I took advantage of my time alone in Hypnos’ house and decided to more closely examine the statue that had previously caught my attention. I rose from my seat and left the room the way I had entered, through the open wall opposite the black door. I was surprised to find, once I had entered the room, that there were actually two open doorways, on opposite walls, each leading to a different cushioned chamber. I looked from one to the other, trying to remember which way I had turned when I had entered the last sitting room. I remembered following Hades to the right, so now I turned left into a room lined with purple. I vaguely remembered running through it, hopping over stray cushions and weaving through the maze of purple furniture. The purple room led directly into a bright blue one, which I also remembered, but to my dismay, the blue room led to both a yellow and an orange room, and the two colors were so similar in my memory that I could not remember which one I had passed through before. I had been running, trying to catch up with Hades, and I had been concentrating on catching glimpses of the back of his head or the corner of his robe as he quickly rounded corners. I could not remember if I had entered the blue room from the right or from the left. After lingering a moment, I veered left into the yellow room, which also left me at a crossroads between two possible choices: bright light green, or orchid pink. I had no memory of this junction either, and, growing frustrated, decided to simply follow my instinct and move quickly through the rooms until I found the statue again. The house had seemed very large from the outside, but not so big that I would not be able to make my way through it in a relatively short amount of time. I chose orchid, then turquoise, then peach, then ivory, then brown, then gold, then white, then black, and found myself in a place I knew I had not been before. The black room was not another cushioned sitting room like all the others; it was very large, with high ceilings and wide expanses of black marble floors. The walls were hung with deep burgundy velvet curtains. I wondered, briefly, if there were windows behind them, but if there were, no light penetrated the heavy fabric. There were silver sconces on the walls, much like in Hades’ palace, each holding one of those silent, languid flames that I had only seen in the underworld. Unlike Hades’ lamps, however, these flames were not blue but the color of wine. They were a few shades brighter than the curtains, but the effect was a deep reddish-purplish glow that made the black floors, walls, and ceilings seem even darker. A chandelier hung in the center of the room, balancing at least twenty of the wine-colored flames in its arms. On the opposite side of the room there was a black staircase of finely worked wrought iron that twisted up into the darkness above the chandelier. I looked to the left and saw an enormous black door, which I suddenly realized must lead to the outside. The design of this room mirrored that of Hypnos’ large white front room, and I finally understood where I was. This was the entryway to Thanatos’ half of the house. There was a grouping of burgundy chairs in one corner, but aside from that the only thing in the room was a black pedestal which supported another astonishing sculpture.

She lay in the center of the room, and from where I stood to the side I could see only the soles of her feet and the curve of her bottom. I walked around to see her from front, the great door to my back, seeing her as anyone entering Thanatos’ house would see her, should he ever have visitors. I was not under the impression that he ever did. She was beautiful, of course, but more than that she was intriguing. I had never seen a woman, mortal or immortal, with features like hers. Her skin was dark, dark, brown, much darker than even Leta’s, and her thick, textured hair was cut close to her head. I wondered if her hair was so short because it was more comfortable that way, or so none of the beauty of her face would be shielded by unnecessarily long hair. I had never seen a woman with hair so short, but the lines of her face were so strange and wonderful that I was glad the artist had left them unobstructed. Her lips were full, her nose slightly wide, similar to Leta’s, her jaw strong. She looked like a woman from The South, like Leta, but there was something about her that seemed so foreign and wonderful that for a moment I forgot that she was made of stone, or something like it. Her skin shone as if it were real, as if it had life pulsing beneath it. She was draped in burgundy as well, and the contrast with her skin was perfect. Her wrists and ankles were laden with silver bangles. I wanted to reach out and touch her skin, her robe, her hair, to try and discern how they were made, but feared the illusion would be ruined if I prodded it. I stood there, gazing at her in wonder, for several moments. Her lips were slightly parted, and I stared at her for so long that I began to imagine I could hear the faintest whisper of air passing through them. I also began to imagine I could hear her faint, slow heartbeat pounding out a defiant rhythm. She glowed in the middle of the dark room, and I felt myself being drawn into her, as the rest of the world faded away. My mind began to create a voice for her, as if she were speaking to me. She greeted me, wordlessly, with blessings, and I smiled, feeling her love envelop me. Then I felt, strangely, that she was crying out to me, begging me for help, asking me to free her. I shook my head, trying to clear it of these absurd and troubling thoughts, then stopped. What if I was not imagining it? I approached the sculpture, extending my hand, and began to lean toward her when I voice behind me caused me to nearly jump out of my skin.

“Got lost, did we?” said Hypnos.

I jerked around to face him, snapping my hand back to my side. “Perhaps,” I said. “But I found what I was looking for. What are these sculptures made of? Why do they look so real?”

Hypnos grinned, a slightly cruel, bemused grin. “What makes you think they’re sculptures?” he asked.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Installment #17: Hospitality

My eyes darted around almost frantically as I followed Hades through Hypnos’ remarkable house, trying to take in every fascinating detail. We were walking too quickly; I wanted to stop and examine every strange vase and odd painting, every exotic couch and polished end table. I had never felt poor in my home; we always had everything we needed in abundance, and after all, Mother and I were goddesses. We had always been content to live close to the earth, and our home was furnished with wood, which had once been a live, growing thing, and retained an aura of warmth even after it had been hewn and nailed. I felt like a peasant gaping and Hypnos’ extravagance, but it never occurred to me to be self-conscious about my obvious wonderment. I supposed that as a visitor in a foreign land I was allowed to be surprised and amazed at the things I saw. I ran my hand across the top of a red couch as we passed it, feeling the rich thickness of velvet for the first time.

We passed through an enormous front room with high ceilings and an elaborate candelabra, then through a series of progressively smaller rooms, each decorated mostly in white but with different accent colors, and each containing several plush chairs and couches gathered around a low table. It seemed that his house was designed to entertain many people at once in small groups, and I envisioned Hypnos drifting from one room to the next, floating into one party and leaving for another as soon as he got bored. In many of the rooms there were cushions from wall to wall, the floor piled thick with carpets and large pillows scattered artfully about, as if the entire room were meant to be one giant bed. In one room I glimpsed, out of the corner of my eye, what I first took to be a woman lying on a long white pedestal. I stopped in my tracks, startled to see someone so suddenly in what appeared to be an empty house, but then realized she wasn’t moving. Her eyes were closed and her hair fell in beautiful wisps around her peaceful face. The folds of her robe looked as though they were arranged by an artist, falling over her hips and then down over the edge of the pedestal, reaching almost to the floor. The long, undone robe left her left shoulder and breast exposed, and I realized that she must be a statue, and felt foolish for having thought her real. I supposed she must have been made with some kind of magic that gave her the illusion of life, for her coloring looked incredibly accurate. I wanted to go over and touch her, to see how the effect was accomplished, but Hades noticed me lingering and called to me.

I ran to catch up, eager to reach Hypnos and ask him about his magnificent statue. We finally entered a room that ended the twisting chain of interlinked chambers, and Hypnos was already lounging on a couch, waiting for us. There was a black door on the wall opposite where we had entered, which I assumed to led to Hypnos’ private chambers. Hades and I each sat in one of the four huge plush chairs facing Hypnos.

“Welcome,” he said. “Please, help yourself to some tea.”

I hadn’t noticed anything on the table as I sat down, but now there was a white china pot surrounded by matching white cups. “Tea?” I asked. I had never heard of it before, though it seemed obvious now that I had shown my ignorance that it must be some sort of drink.

“You’ve never had tea before?” said Hypnos, raising an eyebrow.

“No,” I replied simply, thinking him rather rude for taking what I perceived to be a disdainfully incredulous tone. “What does it taste like?”

“It depends on the tea,” said Hades. “But mostly it is slightly bitter, and it is served hot. I drink it often in my palace. I would not, however, recommend the tea Hypnos serves.” He cast a hard look at Hypnos, who returned him with a sneer and a roll of the eyes. The tea service disappeared.

“He really is no fun at all,” said Hypnos, looking at me. “I wonder what it is about him that you find intriguing.”

I blushed slightly, then grew a bit more angry at his continuing audacity. To my annoyance, I could not think of anything to say in return.

“Well, in any case,” he continued, “It’s good to have you here. The underworld is rarely visited by goddesses, especially by one with such ties to the earth as yourself. You’re the goddess of flowers, right?”

“I cause blooming things to grow, yes,” I said, still ruffled.

“Wonderful,” he said. “Perhaps you could brighten this place up a bit. The entire world here is just so… bare. I always wondered why Hades didn’t try to do more with it.”

“I think it’s nice,” I said, “It’s quiet and serene. On earth everything is in constant motion.”

“Yes, I must admit I like the peace and quiet also,” he said. “It’s simply the dull dreariness of the place I have a problem with.”

Hades was glaring somewhat fiercely at Hypnos by now, but Hypnos made an obvious point of not looking at him at all.

“I must admit,” said Hypnos, “When Hades first told me of you I was surprised that I did not already know you better. I have seen you on Olympus during the feasts, but I have never grown intimately acquainted with you. I know most of the goddesses quite well.”

Hades sensed lascivious tone to his words and started grinding his teeth, but I heard only geniality, and warmed to him slightly. “I usually stayed near Mother when we went to Olympus,” I said, “She didn’t like for me to speak to the other gods and goddesses much. She said their lives were very different from ours.”

Hypnos, for reasons unknown to me, grinned at Hades before answering.

“I see,” he said. “I suppose you’re very close to your mother, then?”

“Yes…” I said, remembering her for the first time since I’d awoken in Hades’ palace. My brow furrowed as I realized that I hadn’t spoken to her in a few days, and she had no way of knowing where I was. “Actually, I think I had better try to contact her,” I said. “She’ll be wondering where I am.” I turned to Hades, expecting him to offer some means of communication.

“Well…” he began, seeming unsure of what to say, “I doubt it is safe for you to go back to earth just yet, but I could try to communicate with her in the same way I do Zeus and Poseidon.”

“They’re the only ones he ever calls to,” Hypnos interjected.

“That isn’t true,” snapped Hades, “I call upon other gods and goddesses when it is necessary. Just a few months ago I contacted Aphrodite.”

“Concerning a pair of dead lovers who brought their case before you,” added Hypnos. “It’s always business with him,” he said to me.

“Yes, Hypnos, I have an important job to do. I am the authority over ever soul in the underworld, it is a position that requires careful attention.”

“As I always say, I think their un-lives would be greatly improved if you ever tried to take pleasure in anything. I think that if your mood would lighten they’d be more likely to receive a favorable verdict.”

“I try to be just, not play favors.”

I was growing impatient with their bickering. They traded barbs openly as if they had forgotten I was even here, and my question was still unanswered. I now felt an urgent need to speak with Mother, to make sure she knew I was alright, and to explain to her that even though two of the god-kings were angered at my blasphemy, the third sided with me and would set things right.

“Excuse me!” I said, a little louder than I meant to, “I would like to know how I can contact my mother.”

“Well…” said Hades again, trailing off and looking to the side.

“‘Well’ what?” I asked. “You said you communicated with Zeus, why not with Demeter?”

“I do not know how to connect with your mother,” he explained. “I have never done it before. I do not know what her mind feels like, or how to reach out to it. I would have to simply send out an open call.”

“What if you just went to her on earth?” I asked. “I know I cannot go yet, but you could. Zeus and Poseidon cannot harm you.”

Hades chuckled. “They probably could, eventually. But you’re right, I need to go speak with them in person anyway. On my way I will visit your mother and tell her what has happened.”

“Ask her to come here,” I said.

“What?” exclaimed Hades and Hypnos together, both looking alarmed.

“I said ask her to come here. I cannot go above, and I want to see her. Besides, I have no doubt that once you tell her where I am she will want to see me herself.”

“I… uh… um… okay,” stammered Hades.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, growing agitated with him. “Why is that such a troubling request?”

“It’s just not often that I have a goddess as great as your mother visit my world,” he said.

I smiled at his compliment and tried to reassure him. “Well, I visited, didn’t I? Why not my mother?”

“I don’t think she’d like it here.”

“You didn’t think I would like it here either, and I find it agreeable enough. Different, yes, but agreeable.”

“Yes, your reaction was a surprise to me… but I fear that your mother may already have her own ideas about my world. I don’t want to distress you, but I doubt she would be happy to know that you are here with me.”

“She must be misinformed,” I said simply, “Once she meets you for herself and sees your world firsthand, I’m certain her opinion will change.”

Hades and Hypnos exchanged commiserating looks that I did not understand.

“It will be fine,” I said firmly, “You’ll see.”

“Very well,” said Hades, “I shall leave immediately.” He rose from his chair and then looked at me expectantly.

“What?” I asked, not understanding what he wanted.

“I’ll escort you back to my palace,” he said. “You can amuse yourself there until I return.”

“With what?” I asked, “Getting lost in your endless black corridors? No, thank you, I’d rather stay here with Hypnos.” I turned to him and put a bit of honey in my voice. “You will keep me company, won’t you?” I asked.

“I’d be honored,” he said in an amusing tone of affected gratitude. Hades frowned, but realized there was not much he could do about the situation.

“Very well,” he said grudgingly. “I hope he does not bore you too much.”

“If he does, I shall turn him into a pansy,” I said cheerfully.

“Already done,” said Hades, grinning. Hypnos ignored him and looked at me in genuine wonder.

“You can do that?” he asked nervously.

I shrugged. “Maybe,” I said. “I’ve never actually tried it before.” I doubted I could really turn a demi-god into a flower, but I really hadn’t tried before, and I was always learning new things about my powers.

“Hypnos, may I have a word with you before I go?” asked Hades

“Of course, my lord,” he replied in his character of mocking veneration.

“I will try not to be gone too long,” Hades said to me as Hypnos left the room ahead of him. Without bothering to mask his words, he added, “Don’t trust him,” and then followed Hypnos out of the chamber.

When they had reached the base of the stairs and were standing in the faded grass, Hades turned to Hypnos and looked at him with the greatest severity.

“Hypnos, I promise you, if you do anything—”

“Yes, yes I know,” interrupted Hypnos. “If I harm her in any way you’ll boil me in oil or something, right?”

“If you harm her, if you frighten her, if you play with her mind, if you cast her into sleep against her will, if you do anything against her will, if you seduce her—”

“Hm, worried, are we?” teased Hypnos. “You don’t seem very confident in her fidelity.”

“She has nothing to be faithful to,” muttered Hades, “We barely know each other. She has taken no oath.”

“But…” Hypnos prodded him.

“But I care for her, and you know that. You are a scoundrel, and you prey on whomever you please without care. I saw you practically licking your chops in there…”

“Calm down, Hades,” said Hypnos dismissively. “She’s all yours. I want you to be happy, remember?”

“In hopes that I’ll ‘lighten up,’ as you say, and be more likely to bend rules for you.”

“Yes,” admitted Hypnos, “My reasons for desiring your happiness are almost entirely selfish. However, that should only reassure you all the more that I do genuinely desire it, and that you should not be suspicious of me. I will keep her happy until you get back, and I promise you I will not touch her.”

Hades released a sigh of relief and nodded to Hypnos. “I’ll leave her in your care, then,” he said reluctantly. “Remember,” he added, “Boiling oil.”

“The image is fixed in my brain,” confirmed Hypnos.

“Right. I won’t be gone long,” said Hades.

“Yes, yes, just go already,” said Hypnos, tiring of Hades’ drawn-out farewell.

“Fine, farewell,” he said, then disappeared from the plain.

“Farewell,” said Hypnos, then turned and began to walk back into his home, a devilish grin growing slowly on his face.

Installment #16: Discoveries

From the outside, Hades’ palace looked enormous. It was just as big as the great palace on Olympus, which I had thought was without rival. Had it been possible to walk completely around the outside, I imagine that it would have taken a mortal human the better part of an hour to return to the place form which he started, if he stayed close to the wall and did not tarry. Because I had spent so much of my life on earth, away from the society of the gods and their lavish homes, I was utterly amazed at the sheer size of the place. It seemed illogically, unnaturally, impossibly huge. From the hill on which we stood, about a half millos away from the grand front door, I could see the structure in its entirety, balanced on a great precipice which fell away on every side but one for an unknowable, possibly endless depth. The architecture itself was strange to me, and though it was wider than any building I had ever seen, it seemed narrow lengthwise compared to its height. I was accustomed to the wide stone temples of the humans, which were supported by columns and placed emphasis on the horizontal. I was used to thick blocks of stone and firm shapes that supported one another in obvious ways. By comparison, his black palace looked spindly and precariously balanced, even though I knew that the high towers, which from here looked thin and delicate, were actually more than three times my height in diameter.

“What do you think?” he asked, anxiety creeping into his voice.

“It’s absolutely breathtaking,” I replied honestly. “It’s astonishingly enormous… I’ve never seen anything like it.”

I looked over at him and saw that he was flattered by my praise and smugly proud.

“Are you the only one who lives here?” I asked, still not understanding why it was so large.

“Yes,” he said. “There are the servants, of course, but they live in the far upper reaches of the place… if they do can even be called ‘living’. They mostly just… dwell…”

“So why is it so large?” I prodded.

“What do you mean ‘Why is it so large?’” he asked, confused by my question.

“I mean just that—why is it so large? How could you possibly inhabit all of that space? I know that if I lived in a palace that big, I would only spend time in a few of the rooms—most of the rooms I would probably never even see. What’s the use of having so much space that you’ll never even see?”

“Why not?” he asked. “It is not as though my palace is taking up valuable space that would otherwise be used for more important things. Look around you, there is nothing but empty space as far as the eye can see. This is one of the only structures in my entire world, why not make it as big as it could conceivably be?”

At his request I took a survey of the surrounding land, which stretched out away from the precipice and the palace in every direction. It was made of endless grassy fields, completely devoid of trees or even shrubs. The grass itself was a muted grayish-green or light brown, with none of the vibrance of the grasses I grew on earth. The ground was mostly flat, but rolled up and down here and there into little hillocks. There was no sky overhead, just a thick fog high above which obscured what I assumed to be more blackness, which might have either gone on forever or perhaps terminated at some indeterminable distance with a rock ceiling. I knew we must be in a great cavern of such vastness that it no longer seemed like one, but I could see no walls, and though it was dim my eyes were growing accustomed to the light and I now viewed the landscape under what seemed to me to be the same type of light as can be seen on an overcast day, only duller. The air was damp and cool, but I found it strangely comforting. There was even a slight breeze that pulled gently at my robe and hair.

To my surprise, I found that the place held an austere beauty for me. It was gloomy, to be sure, but I found its subdued colors strangely peaceful. There were no flowers, at least none that I could see, and no animals or insects either, but my first thought was not that the place seemed completely dead. On the contrary, I felt something there that I had never felt before; I believe it was peace. The vast fields soothed me, and I could feel an aura of serenity emanating from the hills. Though Hades was standing beside me, I suddenly felt that this was a place where I could be utterly and completely alone. Until that moment I had never known that solitude and peace were things I even wanted, but now I felt a relief at finding them that I could not understand.

“I know it is gloomy,” he said. “But perhaps there are things I could do to make it more interesting. I have never tried to cultivate the land here; maybe I could make things grow… maybe you could teach me.”

“I like it,” I said in response.

“What?” he asked, as though unsure of if he’d properly heard me.

“I said I like it.” I repeated.

“You do?”

“Yes. It’s very serene… calm… quiet. I don’t know if I’d want to spend an eternity here, but I imagine it’s nice to have all of this time and space to yourself… to be alone.”

“That’s what I thought when I first came here,” he said. “Whether I chose this world or not, it is the place I wanted to be. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts, away from the endless mockery and exhibition of my brothers, away from the critical eyes and gossiping tongues of the pantheon. I wanted this serenity, this solitude. I remember now how it looked to me the first time I saw it. I too was grateful to have found peace.”

“It no longer pleases you?” I asked.

“I think I spent to much time here. I have looked upon the same stale, unchanging landscape for too long, and have spent too much time alone with myself and my own thoughts. After a while, my mind started to deceive itself, and I lost track of reality…” he trailed off, realizing that he may be saying too much.

“I suppose I can see how that would happen,” I said. “Maybe this world wasn’t the problem. Maybe you just needed someone else to talk to, so you could release your thoughts instead of keeping them cloistered inside your mind.”

“Yes, that’s why I went to earth.”

“Of course, that’s right,” I said, remembering our conversation in the grove, which now to me seemed to have been weeks or even months ago, though I knew it was only last night. The idea seemed impossible to me. As I recalled what he’d said, I remembered his mention of Hypnos and Thanatos. Thanatos did not sound like someone I was anxious to meet, but I was curious about Hypnos. “If you’re going to give me a tour of your world, does that include the places where your subjects live?”

“I suppose,” he said, “though I don’t know why you’d want to see them.”

“I want to meet Hypnos,” I said. “I want to know what he’s like.”

“No, you don’t.” said Hades dully.

My eyebrows furrowed. I disliked being told by others what it was I did or didn’t want. “Yes, I do,” I repeated.

“Believe me, you don’t,” he said again.

I cast him a cold look, then turned my face back to the horizon, adding a coolness to my voice. “Well, I suppose I don’t need you to introduce me. I’ll find him myself. I’m sure he’d be honored to be visited by an earth goddess.”

“I don’t know that ‘honored’ is the right word,” said Hades ironically.

I turned to face him again, losing my affected coolness immediately as my temper spiked. “What is that suppose to mean?” I asked sharply.

“I don’t think you’d like Hypnos,” he said. “He is… well. I will introduce you to him, if that is what you desire, and you can make your own judgments.”

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s go now.”


“Yes, now. Did you have other events planned?”

“No.” he said, looking defeated. “I suppose we will go now.”

I felt a slightly sorry for having bullied him in such a way, when he had been so kind to me, so I offered a consolation. “On the way, I will see what I can grow, and if I could teach you to do likewise.”

His face brightened somewhat at the prospect. “Very well,” he said, “I’ll lead the way.”

We moved over the fields, passing several millos in mere moments. I knew he could have just taken us there directly, but doubtless he wanted me to be able to see as much of the world as possible. After a few minutes of roaming over the same eternal grasses and fog, I saw in the distance another enormous house, though not even a tenth of the size of Hades’ palace. It was stone as well, but unlike the palace it was not uniformly black but a strange coupling of black and white. One half of the house was predominantly white, and the other black, but at times a stray patch of white would appear among the black, and vice versa. The steps were alternately white and black, and the roof was mis-matched, as if someone had spun it around from where it ought to have been. The black half of the house had a white roof, and the white half a black. The structure of this house was very different from the palace, but the style was equally foreign. The walls, windows, and other features seemed strangely curved in some places and rigid in others. The end result was a disorienting effect that made the house appear to move slightly as we drew quickly near it. I refused to become dizzy and display any apparent weakness in my constitution, goddess that I was.

We halted at the steps and Hades turned to me in an effort to explain the strange place. “Hypnos and Thanatos, Sleep and Death, who are twin brothers, live here together. That’s why the house seems to be two elements combined into one. Though they are twins, they are as different as night and day, and do not resemble one another in the least. Hypnos is sociable, flippant, and, I am told, somewhat attractive. Thanatos is hermitical, misanthropic, and disturbing. Neither of them should be here at the moment.”

He began to mount the steps and I stopped him. “What do you mean they aren’t here? I thought I was going to meet Hypnos!”

“You wanted to visit immediately,” he said, unable to hide his grin, “Hypnos is rarely here while it is night on earth. He goes above and moves through the world, granting sleep and withholding it, taking companions and making merry. Thanatos does likewise, in his own grim way.” He continued his way up the steps and I hitched up my robe and ran after him, cursing him all the way.

“You lying dog!” I cried, “You sly trickster! You deceived me!” As I caught up to him I lifted my left foot and slipped off the sandal, then hit him in the arm with it with a fair amount of force.

“Ow!” he cried, laughing. I hit him again, harder this time. “Agh!” he shouted, no longer laughing at all. “That time it really hurt!”

“That should teach you not to lie to me again,” I said righteously, stopping midway up the steps and putting my sandal back on.

“I didn’t lie,” he said. “I said I’d introduce you to him, but I didn’t say I would do it right now. It was you who wanted to make all haste for his house. I never said that he would be here now.”

“I want to meet Hypnos!” I shouted, my temper rising. I had never, in my entire life, experience a want for something that was denied me. On earth, I could summon whatever I wanted as soon as I craved it. Mother and I had lived relatively simply, and so I’d had simple desires, but I had never been denied anything. Now, I was no longer on earth, and I could not control things in the way to which I was accustomed. I stood there glaring at him and he looked back at me in shock, startled by my outburst. He had never been so openly disrespected before. When Hypnos had defied him, it had been sneaky and stylish, always executed with an air of languid congeniality, as though he were doing Hades a favor by bending the rules. We stood there on the steps for several moments, frozen, locked in our stubbornness against going either up or down, still exchanging defiant looks. We would have stayed there much longer, had not the front door at the top of the steps been thrown open and a beautiful young man in a white robe emerged.

“What is all this angry racket out here?” asked Hypnos, “Is it a lover’s quarrel, already? Please, come inside and reconcile. Hades, I am anxious to meet your lovely companion.” He turned and went back into the house, leaving the front door open. We could do nothing else but turn away from our glaring and sheepishly mount the remaining steps, then walk through the black-and-white stone door.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Installment #15: Succulence

Hades had piled his plate high with breads and fruits and cuts of meat, and began to eat politely but voraciously, as if he had a mortal’s hunger. I, however, had simply been picking at the pomegranate I’d cracked open on my plate. I had been drawn to it when I’d first sat down; its earthy redness stood out against the darker and duller colors of the smoked meats and hearty breads. Its skin was wonderfully rough to the touch, and it seemed so real and alive and imperfect compared to the gleaming black marble I was surrounded with. I took my time slitting its pithy husk open with my fingernail and pulling back the layers of fiber that cushioned the succulent, blood-red seeds within. They were arranged perfectly inside in a beautiful pattern, each snugly flush with her voluptuous sisters, gleaming there beneath the dull outer skin like so many sumptuous rubies, full to bursting and just waiting for a touch to release them. I plucked one gently from her place among the others, careful not to pierce her fragile skin, and slipped her into my mouth.

I pressed the seed against the roof of my mouth with my tongue and it burst open, releasing an intoxicating flood of juices. There were so many different colors to the taste that at first I could not focus on one at a time. There was an initial brightness, a tartness that seemed to pierce me, then a strong sweetness, and finally a darker, more mysterious taste that ran deeper and lingered longer. I was overwhelmed with pleasure and decided to simply enjoy this one, then try to discern the subtleties of flavor in the next seed. I let the juices of the first seed wash over me and away before I ate another. By the time I placed a fourth in my mouth, Hades was wiping his lips with a black napkin, having made short work of his mountain of food.

“Why aren’t you eating?” he asked, “Is the food too strange for you? Does it taste stale compared to the foods on earth?”

“Not at all,” I replied, “it tastes deep and rich, just as you described it. That’s why I’m eating slowly. I could spend all night on just one of these seeds… their flavor is similar to the pomegranates of earth, but there is something mysterious about it; the juices seem to take on different tones as they flow around my mouth.”

Hades smiled, obviously pleased that I was enjoying the things he could introduce to me. “Just wait until you try the chocolate,” he said. “If a pomegranate seed is that interesting to you, I wonder how long you’ll sit letting the chocolate dissolve on your tongue.”

“It dissolves?” I asked, perplexed. I had assumed that chocolate was some kind of fruit, but I’d never eaten a fruit that completely dissolved.

“Yes, it is made in the form of soft bricks, and when you put it in your mouth it dissolves.”

“Perhaps later,” I said, “I want to savor this pomegranate.”

“I hope you don’t mean the whole thing,” he chuckled, “At the rate you’re going we’ll be sitting at this table for the better part of the next few centuries.”

“Very funny,” I said, “But one does not have to eat a large quantity to truly enjoy the food. I will only eat two more of these. That should be enough to give me a true idea of its essence.”

“Are you always able to figure out everything so quickly? Does it only take a taste for Peresphone to know all of ones’ secrets?”

I cast him a coy look and did not respond for a few moments, taking a moment to drink from my goblet and swallow down the hard center of the seed. “Fruits are generally easier to decipher than people,” I said simply. “Though that rule has its exceptions.”

“Is that rule more often broken by an extremely complex fruit or a very simple person?” he asked playfully.

“Both,” I answered, looking at him pointedly before breaking into a grin.

“Well, I should hope I’m more complicated than a pomegranate,” he exclaimed in mock distress.

“We shall see,” I said blithely, popping another seed in my mouth. I giggled as he cast me a playfully reprimanding look.

“Are you finished yet?” he asked, “I would like to show you around my world.”

“One more,” I said, not quite ready to part with the intriguing red seeds, “this is a very complex fruit.” I placed the last seed on my tongue, letting it rest there inside my mouth for a moment, feeling its slippery surface, before crushing it between my teeth. I closed my eyes as the juices permeated every crevice of my mouth, delivering their strange tastes and staining my flesh blood-red. I ground the hard center of the seed with my teeth and then swallowed it, knowing I would not unravel all of its mysteries tonight.

“Very well,” I said, standing. “Show me your world.”

Installment #14: Reconciliation

On earth, Mother was frantic. She had known immediately that something was wrong when she sensed Poseidon’s storm, and her fear had peaked when she realized it was moving directly over my grove. Had Hades and I lingered there for much longer, we would have met her as she pushed her way through to the center of the maelstrom, though Zeus was trying to keep her at bay. However, by the time she reached my meadow we were gone, as were Zeus and Poseidon, who attempted to follow us by other routes. The storm quickly evanesced, and by the time she walked into my grove the wind had died completely and the last sprinkling of rain was trickling down through the trees. The air was thick with water vapor and a fog blanketed the now eerily silent field. My mother could smell the ghosts of Zeus’ lighting strikes, and began to fear the worst. She burst through the tangle of trees and bushes into my clearing, calling out my name though she knew I was not there. She could not sense my presence, but felt the remnants of my distressed spirit which had been there mere moments before. She saw the scorched places on the ground where Zeus’ strikes had fallen. Among them were torn and burnt pieces of my robe. My mother gathered the scraps of ruined fabric to her breast and let out a keening moan that rose to Olympus and chilled the hearts of all who heard it, mortal and immortal alike. The people in the nearest towns heard her clearly and trembled in their beds, already aware that the gods were angry. Mother searched the grove for clues to where I had gone, becoming confused at the array of small, strange plants scattered around the clearing as well as the picked-over clusters of grapes and strawberries. She could tell that another had been here with me, eating, before the storm had come, and she was distressed by the unknown person’s lingering aura. She studied the ground, observing the patterns in the grass that told her where and how I had moved, and how large and quick my companion had been. She could tell from all of this that I had been with a male immortal, very powerful and dark of essence.

She observed the broken and twisted tree branches which had grown quickly and unnaturally, and could see that they had been manipulated by Zeus to hold the other god. She saw that they had been broken. She smelled burned fabric and flesh and knew that I had been struck by one of Zeus’ bolts. Fury rose within her and she began to think of how she would punish him. She followed our movements through the grass and trees to where we mounted the chariot, then followed the hoof prints and wheel marks to where they disappeared, in front of a wide scar in the earth. She knew then that I was with Hades, in the Underworld, and let out another moan. She did not know that I was safe and being well-cared for; she did not even know for certain that I was still alive. She presumed that Hades had deceived me; that he had spoken to me as a friend and won my confidence, only to trap me in his brothers’ storm and abduct me after Zeus’ bolts had weakened me. Our conversation about the humans and the gods did not immediately come to her mind; she thought only that Hades must have coveted me, and that he must have enlisted his brothers to help him take me by force. She imagined me weakened, in pain, and being held captive by a lascivious God of the Dead.

Mother did not know Hades well. She had seen him several times, and had even made polite small talk with him at Olympus feasts, but his withdrawn and gloomy nature made him difficult to befriend. Almost none of the other immortals knew him beyond his reputation for being the dark corner of the party, a heavy weight to which all the dreariness in the room was drawn. Even those who tried to be kind, like my mother, found themselves avoiding him. The few times she had spoken with him she had thought him good enough at heart, but self-centered and snobbishly glum. She forgot those impressions now, and her current rage reached back into her memories and re-colored them with suspicion and wariness. She imagined now that she had always thought him twisted and dangerous, a conniving villain who was always carefully observing others so he could later entwine them in his evil plans. She evil began to conflate him in her mind with Thanatos, who really did have dark fantasies about everyone he saw, which showed plainly on his face. If people rarely spoke to Hades, they never spoke to Thanatos. After the first few feasts, he ceased to even be invited to Olympus, his presence was so disturbing. Mother had certain never exchanged a word with him, and yet now she saw his licentious face before her, which she now convinced herself was Hades’ face, and imagined that she’d had long conversations with him in which he told her, to her shock and horror, the best ways one could kill a young child, or a maiden just come into her child-bearing years, or an old man who could no longer control his own body.

My mother began to weep as she imagined me chained to a bed somewhere in darkness, in agony from my wounds, cold, wet, and alone, until a dark figure entered my cell and came to me. She forced herself not to let her mind go beyond that point, and knew she must reach me immediately. She took herself to the only entrance to the underworld she could remember, but found it sealed so tightly that even her strongest concentration of power could not open it. She pounded on the invisible gate between the worlds and screamed for me, but was met only with silence. Her next thought was to go to Olympus, even though she suspected Zeus and Poseidon were accomplices in my abduction. She had a small hope that perhaps the storm had been an effort to stop Hades, not aid him. When she reached the Mount, however, she found that Zeus was not there, and none knew where he had gone. She told Hera what had happened, being careful to leave out any mention of Zeus and Poseidon, and collapsed into a chair, not knowing what more to do. To her anguish, she realized she must simply sit and wait for Zeus to return. Hera brought her warm ambrosia and she drank, then tried to devise how she would speak to Hera about the matter.

Hera sat across from her with her own cup of ambrosia and waited for my mother to speak. Mother knew that she must not imply that Zeus was guilty of aiding in my abduction, but Hera knew well enough that it was a possibility. Mother had always pitied Hera for her unfortunate situation, but privately was disgusted by her complaisance and passivity in her marriage. Mother saw Hera as a woman who allowed her husband to take advantage of her, disrespecting her and other women in his self-serving ventures. Everyone knew that Zeus was not faithful to Hera and that his exploits were decisively dishonorable, but no matter how much the other goddesses curled their lips and turned their noses up at his vulgar activities, the gods would laugh and congratulate him. Hera played along with their games, laughing at Zeus’ stories and bantering with the other gods as they made coarse jokes. She insisted that it didn’t bother her when others made sport of her relationship and unfaithful husband, but Mother knew better, as did most of the other goddesses. She claimed that if she made light of it, the subject would blow over and Zeus would love her more for being “free-flowing” as she called it. Mother insisted that if a goddess let her husband disrespect her in such a manner as if it were no consequence, it would lead to greater hardships for all women later on. She said that men would become accustomed to doing as they pleased without regard for their wives, and eventually would come to expect that all women, whether they be wife, friend, sister, or mother, should do only what was pleasing to them.

Mother had been careful to keep her sentiments to herself or between close friends only, but her opinions could be read plainly on her face, and as a result she and Hera had never been close friends. Hera had taken offense that Mother thought she was weak-willed and wrong for being accepting of her husbands’ infidelity, and there had always been a genteel chill between the two. However, at the news of my abduction and injury, Hera’s heart softened to Demeter and she reached out a hand to comfort her, stroking Demeter’s arm reassuringly. To my mother’s surprise, Hera was the first to speak, and her words were untainted with false concern or hidden meanings, but rang only with truth and honesty.

“I know that you suspect my husband is involved in your daughter’s capture, and I can’t blame you,” she said simply. “I know that he does not account for the will of others when he takes action. I know that you have long criticized me for this and that you think me complicit in his ways.”

Demeter was shocked to hear such a confession from Hera, and for the first time in years she felt real sympathy for the goddess. “Hera…” she began, trying to console her even as her own heart was wracked with grief.

“Please, Demeter, do not waste your pity on me. You have troubles enough of your own. As I said, I know he may have helped Hades take your daughter. I know that it may have even been his idea. He has spoken many times of finding a wife for Hades; he thinks it would ‘liven him up’ as he says. But I want to promise you this,” said Hera firmly, looking my mother in the eye and grasping her hands between her own, “I will not allow him to keep your daughter from you. I know I have put up with the abuse of myself and other women before, but I make a vow to you now that I will not abide this offense. I swear to you, on my own great powers, that I will do everything I can to return your daughter to you, and may the fates themselves have pity on Zeus if he tries to defy my will.”

My mother grasped Hera’s hands in return, the tears flowing freely down her face now, and thanked her. “Hera, I am sorry I ever thought ill of you,” she said, “and I thank you for your vow. Oh, I do thank you!”

My mother threw her arms around the goddess and they embraced each other for several minutes, as the room echoed with the sounds of my mother’s frightened sobs.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Installment #13: Truth

I awoke slowly, feeling only the unearthly softness of the warm blankets I was wrapped in. For a few moments, as I reveled in my half-sleep before opening my eyes, I thought I was at home, rolling lazily through a strange dream. Then I remembered that something had happened and opened my eyes. I was in a large, dark bed in a large, dark room that I had never seen before. I had no idea where I was for another heartbeat or two, and then the memories came flooding back to me. I was in the Underworld. I looked around, trying to decide what I should do. Should I stay here and wait for someone to come? Should I leave the room and try to find Hades? Would I even be able to leave? Perhaps my door was locked. By now he surely would have spoken with his brothers and learned of my blasphemy. I gulped and wondered at the fact that I had awoken at all, let alone in a place of luxury. The entire room appeared to be made of black marble, shined up so perfectly that it gave the illusion of endless depth. The walls and floor seemed completely without blemish, and I even wondered for a moment if it were marble at all, or if perhaps my chamber was made of perfectly clear panes of glass that separated me from that horrible black liquid void in which I imagined myself suspended. I reached out a hand to touch the wall beside the headboard of the bed, and it was solid. Once my fingers rested there and I saw their reflection, I knew it was made of rock. This comforted me enough to extend my leg over the side of the bed and test a toe on the floor. It was solid as well, and surprisingly warm. I wasn’t wearing my own robe anymore; it was probably ripped completely to shreds after our violent battle and escape. I wondered briefly who had dressed me, then filed the problem away to be dealt with later. At least it was clean and comfortable.

I decided that I should test the door, and if it was open, explore whatever place I was in and try to find out what was going on. I slid out of the bed and straightened the robe, then slowly crossed the wide room in cautious but deliberate strides. I reached the black doors that reached all the way to ceiling, which appeared to be more than four times my height, and placed my hand on the right handle. I applied a very small amount of pressure, unsure of whether I wanted them to be unlocked or not.

The handle gave easily, and the door began to fall open slowly and silently. I seemed not to be a prisoner; or, if I was, my cage was bigger than I had originally supposed. I was in a long, dark hallway, lit with the same dancing blue ladies as the rest of this world. The impossibly shiny marble was still present, but now the omnipresent black was interrupted intermittently by silver sconces that served as the ladies’ stages. The hallway looked the same to the left and to the right, but I could only see a few passus in each direction. I stepped out into the hallway and turned to the right, then started walking slowly. Everything was the same. Within a few paces there was another door exactly like mine, and the same number of paces beyond that another. I had only gone a short distance, but I was suddenly overcome with an unnamable dread that this hallway went on forever, lined with endless doors and silver sconces forever spaced an even distance apart. I began to walk faster, passing an unknown number of identical doors. I stopped, realizing that I could not see ahead of me or behind me, knowing I had lost sight of my own door and now had no point of reference at all, but was simply Somewhere in an alien hallway. As I squinted to see if there was anything unique beyond the limits of my vision I heard a soft, dull thud, and recognized it as the door to my room closing itself. I snapped around and walked back the way I had come, trying to estimate how far I had traveled, but found that even though I was sure I must have passed my own room by now, I could not discern which door was mine. I made a guess and tried the one nearest me, but found it locked. I never would have become this disoriented on earth; I never would have lost track of how many steps I had taken, or how many doors I had passed, or exactly what distance I had traversed, but down here there was no grass or soil beneath my feet, only the invariable smoothness of the black marble. There was no wind, no sky, no marker or deviance of any kind, only an eternally repeating pattern of doors, sconces, and black.

There was darkness ahead of me and darkness behind me, and I struggled to keep from panicking as I tried to remember which way was left and which way was right. I chose what I was almost certain had to be left, the direction I had not explored as thoroughly, and started to walk. There had to be an end somewhere in sight, unless I had stumbled into my own punishment of eternal torment; walking endless unmarked black halls for the rest of time. My pace quickened as I squinted desperately into the unknown, seeking some hint of an end to or at least deviation in the maddening pattern. I was running now, breathing heavily, feeling the now-familiar hysteria rise in my chest. My eyes began to cloud with tears of frustration and terror, the sounds of my bare feet slapping the marble echoing off the hard walls and becoming thunderous in my ears.

Suddenly, I seemed to glimpse a change ahead. The light was shifting some distance away; there was something, or someone, else in the hallway. I considered briefly that it could be a guard of some kind, or a beast sent to devour me, but by that time I would have welcomed anything that broke the horrifying repetition. I ran towards the unknown figure, my breathing now strangled with emotion, until I drew close enough to see who or what it was. Hades’ face emerged from the shadows and I threw myself against him, shaking and gasping. His arms wrapped around me instinctively as I clutched at his robe, my nonsensical words tumbling out in a confused tangle.

“I thought I was alone in the dark with the pattern and no end to the doors and the shadows and the silver and the reflections of everything repeating again and again and again and again…” I trailed off as I realized I was not making any sense, and I rubbed my back as my breathing returned to normal and my mind regained its hold on reality. When I realized how silly I was being and that I was clutching myself to the God of the Underworld who was most likely my jailer, I pulled away, trying to recover some sense of dignity and decorum. He released me and I looked down, then cleared my throat. “I apologize…” I said, feeling foolish enough now to return to my room without being asked, “the hallway is… disorienting.”

“I know,” he said, the apologetic tone of his voice catching me off guard, “the fault is mine. I meant to be there when you awoke, or at least have someone to guide you. I would have given you a room closer to my chambers but I wanted to give you privacy and I didn’t want you to be found.”

Once again, I was amazed that he seemed to know nothing of my crime and was himself trying to make apologies and amends. His eyes held only concern and shame, and I felt entirely repugnant to be accepting his kindness once again when he seemed to have no idea that I was a traitor and a deceiver.

“Do not trouble yourself,” I said to console him, “all is well now, it is of no consequence. My mind is feeble and unaccustomed to the finery here.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, “this place could drive anyone mad. I’m a dolt for leaving you there alone, and I’m sorry.”

“Please do not apologize again,” I begged him, “it pains my ears.”

“Very well then,” he said, looking downcast.

I burned to ask him what was happening on the outside; I needed to know what was going on. I hated myself for continuing to take advantage of his apparent ignorance, but I had to know what had happened as I slept. “My lord,” I said humbly, “How long have I slept? What has happened? What became of Zeus and Poseidon?”

“Please, do not call me ‘my lord,’” he answered, “and I will gladly tell you all. I will not apologize again, for it is abhorrent to your ears, but you must know that I ache to do so for it is for my transgression that you were harmed on earth and my folly that you were distressed in this passageway. Please, come with me to the dining hall and I will tell you everything as you refresh yourself.” He turned and I followed him as he continued to speak, all the while walking down more endless corridors. At first I tried to keep up with what turns we took and how far we traveled down each one, but after only a few changes of direction I lost track, knowing I would never find that room again without his help. “You have only slept the day and a few hours more. It is now the mid-hour of the night on earth. I had my maids attend to you, and they proclaimed you in need of nothing but a fresh robe and sound sleep, but of which you received under their care. Zeus and Poseidon are unable to follow us into my world. I sealed off all the places where they might have been able to break in, and no matter how hard they try they will never be able to reach us here. This is my world and none can enter or leave it against my will, not even the mighty Zeus himself. I at least still have power over my own realm; that is protected by the ancient laws that he has no power to break.”

“What are they doing now?” I asked.

“They rattled my gates for a few hours until they realized that they would never break in. I tried to talk to them but they were in such a rage that they would listen to nothing I said and I could not reason with them. I tried to apologize for trespassing in his world, but would not claim regret for having met and spoken with you. He called me a traitor and a wretch, and I ended our conversation. I told him we would speak again when he was calm and rational.”

My heart skipped a beat, realizing that Zeus had been crying out for me.

“Dear Mistress, please,” he said, stopping and turning to face me, “I know you dislike my apologies, but I must express my anguish that you were harmed on my account, because of my affront. Please,” he said, dropping to one knee before me and hanging his head, “please acknowledge this wrong I have done against you. I will not dare ask for your forgiveness now, but it is my hope that someday you could, in your mercy, take pity on me.”

“Please,” I whimpered, “do not bow before me, do not call me mistress…” I felt like the lowest form of pestilence, the most vile form of infectious fungus, the darkest mold that devours crops, most putrid dung that any beast ever excreted. I could bear it no more. I threw myself to the floor, lying completely prostrate, face-down before him, as I moaned out my confession.

“We were not attacked because you trespassed in Zeus’ realm and spoke with a goddess of the earth,” I said. “Zeus and Poseidon were focusing their wrath on me, because I am a traitor, a vile blasphemer, and now a deceiver. I deserve death, or worse than death, for taking advantage of the kindness and faith of the most magnanimous and powerful god in the universe. I beg you, condescend to do me, the lowliest of the low, one final favor and end my misery by ending my existence.” I shut my eyes tight against the pain I expected to issue forth immediately, pressing my face and palms into the hard stone, showing my contrition and bracing myself for the blow. There was nothing but silence for a moment, then his simple response.

“What?” he asked, not comprehending my words.

“I am a traitor,” I repeated, “I blasphemed the gods. I questioned their judgment, their will. I questioned the very foundation of our world.”

“You did what?” he exclaimed in disbelief.

“I am vile, I am treacherous, I should be destroyed!” I cried.

“What did you say?” he asked, still in shock.

“I said that the gods should not only favor those who are young, beautiful, and strong, but those whose hearts are pure. I even said that the gods should favor all humans equally, and that all people should live in peace and contentment. My thoughts were even worse.”

“By the stars themselves!” he cried, “By the laws that govern our existence, for the sake of the Pantheon, and those that came before it, get off the floor!”

I looked up slowly, not understanding what he wanted.

“Get up off the floor!” he shouted again, and grabbed my wrist, hoisting me abruptly back to standing. I prepared for a strike to the face. “Zeus,” he said firmly, looking me in directly in the eye, “Is an arrogant, pompous, greedy, tyrannical, power-drunk idiot,” he said. “Poseidon is almost as bad. Your ‘treacherous’ words as you call them are some of the truest I’ve ever heard in my existence. It’s no wonder your words angered them so; they are true, they are rational, and they more discerning than anything Zeus has ever said. He cannot abide a female wiser than he, unless it is his own daughter, whom he takes full credit for. Dear Persephone, I promise you, I will not let them, in their desire to avenge their wounded pride, harm you in any way, and I will hear no more talk of ‘blasphemy’ as you call it. Truth cannot be blasphemy, and as long as you are in my world, I shall presume to command you to speak your mind at all times.” He held my eyes firmly with his, trying to convince me of his fervent sincerity. “I must ask you, though,” he continued, “to never, ever, lie on the ground before me like that again. It rips my very essence apart and makes me want to destroy myself in shame.” He gave me a weak smile and turned to continue on our journey to the dining hall. “Do not worry about Zeus and Poseidon,” he said, “I can deal with them. You are safe here.”

I walked beside him, dumbstruck at his reaction. I could not have imagined it in a million years. I went over his words again in my mind, making sure I had them right, then let them sink in. He was not angry or offended. He agreed with me, and what’s more he was going to defend me. I smiled to myself and took his hand, causing him to look over at me and blush as we exchanged sheepish grins. Finally, we rounded a corner and stepped into an enormous hall, where a long table was laden with foods of every kind. He led me to my seat and then sat down next to me. We began to eat in silence, having nothing left to say that our smiles did not already openly declare.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Installment #12: Flight

It took me a moment to realize what was happening. I was disoriented from the fall and groped at the earth trying to regain my bearings as the wind and rain continued to assail me. My eyes and ears were still reeling from the first thunderbolt when a second struck just inches from my right hand. The instantaneous flash of heat seared through me from my fingertips down to my wrist, and I cried out in pain as my hand burned and then went numb. Hades was screaming my name from the other side of the grove, where he was entangled in the brush after having been thrown back by the second explosion. I squinted to see him through the relentless rain as my eyes readjusted to the dark and soon saw that he was not simply entangled, but was being restrained. The branches were holding him back as if on someone’s command. It was then that I knew this was not merely a storm. I was under attack by Zeus and Poseidon. Only one being had the same authority over the earth that my mother and I had, and that was the king of this world. Zeus was hurling his thunderbolts at me on purpose, and his aim was getting better with each strike. Likewise, it was Poseidon who supplied the stinging wind and rain, which could not have manifested on land with such force except by his intervention. I knew then that I had been found out. They had heard of my blasphemy, and they were coming for me.

I panicked for a moment, then suppressed the screaming voice inside of me and tried to focus on what I could do. Hades was still trapped on the far side of the grove, the branches cinching him more and more tightly to the ground with each passing moment. He was fighting his restraints with the greatest display of strength I had ever seen before, but the plants were augmented with Zeus’ power and were splintering only slightly. From my prostrate position on the ground I slid my left hand into the earth, feeling the cool soil surround my fingers, protecting it from the elements in a sanctuary of strength and stillness. I closed my eyes, trying not to think about when the next thunderbolt would strike or where it would land, and concentrated. I spoke with the earth, held communion with her, and asked her to obey me instead of Zeus. She whispered that she had not wanted to do his bidding, but could not resist his power. I asked her to find the strength to pull away from him and release her violent hold on Hades, which was contrary to her nature. I asked her to slip out of Zeus’ grasp and return to her natural state.

I felt her power flow through me again, healing my hand, and then sensed her relief as she relaxed her limbs and let them fall limp. Her hold on Hades was gone, as was Zeus’ hold on her. Perhaps because of this act, Zeus’ rage escalated, and before I could make sense of it an indescribable pain ripped through my back with a force that felt like a boulder had been dropped on me. I vaguely heard Hades scream my name again, and the fear and desperation in his voice troubled me. As my body seized and burned with the shock, my mind drifted oddly, as though watching these events from the outside. I saw him break free of the limbs that had constrained him and run to my side, lifting my torso from the ground and weeping. He turned his face upward into the maelstrom and cursed his brothers as he cradled my head, which drooped from my slack neck. My left hand was still embedded in the soil, and mother earth was good to me. Her power flowed into me, healing me even more quickly than I would have on my own, and I returned to my body as I struggled to open my eyes, the pain of the blast returning to me from each and every one of my extremities as sensation returned to me. I groaned and Hades turned back to me, as though discovering in that moment that I was still alive. He should have known that even a bolt from Zeus could not kill me, a demi-goddess, but he seemed shocked that I was stirring in his arms.

“Persephone?” he uttered in amazement, as though not believing what he saw.

“I’ll be fine,” I murmured, “If we can escape them. They know…” I tried to explain to him what was happening, but the words would not emerge. My tongue seemed huge in my mouth and my lips would not obey me.

“They have found us out,” he said, as something terrible dawned on him, “I have done this… I must have broken some law or code by presuming I could commune with a goddess of the earth… I have violated Zeus’ sovereign territory.”

Though I was only half-conscious, I balked at the thought that I was Zeus’ territory. “No,” I tried to say, trying to make him understand why they were attacking us, but the words still would not come.

“Don’t try to talk, Persephone, your body is fragile right now. Fear not, I can deliver us from this attack.”

He lifted me in his arms and rose from the ground, walking purposefully through the cataclysmic storm as if it were of no consequence. His steps did not falter and his pace was constant as he strode out of the grove and across the meadow.

Erchomai!” he shouted through the screaming wind. In half a moment, a chariot appeared drawn by two enormous and fearsome black horses. “Can you stand?” he asked gently, as the rain stung our skin and the wind attempted to swallow his words. I was somewhat more lucid now and was feeling some strength return to my limbs, even as the pain in them increased with my growing awareness.

“I think so,” I said as he lowered my legs to the ground. I felt my weight begin to settle into the soles of my feet and bit my lip to keep from crying out. I pressed my fingertips into his shoulders to ease the pressure on my legs, but that only made my fingers, hands, arms, and shoulders exclaim their own protestations. I gave up on fighting the pain and let it wash over me, easing my full weight down onto my feet.

“Can you make it?” he asked, glancing around nervously.

“Yes,” I said haltingly, the word coming out in a burst as I tried to hold my breath against the pain.

“You need to breathe,” he said, “That will help it to fade. We have to make it into the chariot, and I cannot carry you and drive at the same time.”

“I can do it,” I said more firmly, looking him in the eye.

He nodded at me and gathered my waist into his left arm as I started to limp towards the chariot. Every step was agony, and when I stepped onto the platform my left foot bellowed as I hoisted myself upwards. An ugly noise escaped my lips as I pushed myself forward and leaned against the front railing. Hades came in after me and took the reins of the unnaturally large horses, supporting me with one arm and commanding the animals with the other. “Epistrepho!” he shouted, and the chariot lurched forward, causing another streak of pain to rip through my body. Another thunderbolt crashed into the ground in the very spot which we had been standing only a moment before, and Hades prodded the horses faster. I turned my head to look behind and saw the terrible faces of Zeus and Poseidon taking shape in the swirls of rain and fog behind us as the fury of their storm increased. I turned away to look forward again and clutched at the rail of the chariot as the platform jostled and shook violently with the frantic pace. I was barely hanging on, and certain that if he hadn’t been supporting me I would have been thrown from the basket. Our speed continued to increase and the wild careening of the chariot became more and more tumultuous as I struggled to maintain my grip. My fright rose higher and higher as we seemed to fly more and more out of control and Zeus and Poseidon closed in on us. My ears were now filled with nothing but the screeching wind that tore at my hair and clothes, my eyes were nearly blinded with the torrents of stinging rain, and I felt my mind starting to unravel. When my panic became so overpowering that I thought I could no longer bear it, the impossible happened. The earth cracked open before us, exposing not layers of soil and rock and roots, but instead a great black void that seemed to pulse with power and density. I opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out. I thought Zeus was trapping us, drawing us in to this horrifying black, but when I looked at Hades I saw no trace of fear on his face, only a stern focus. In an instant we were plunging into the darkness, and the rain and wind instantly vanished, replaced by a sensation that was cold and heat and nothingness all at once. I felt the darkness swallow me whole like a great monster and I shut my eyes against the blinding blackness. I held my breath, certain that I could not inhale this dark matter, knowing it would clog my lungs like a heavier form of water. The silence that assaulted my ears in place of the howling wind was terrifying, and for a moment I could hear nothing but my own frantic heartbeat. Then I heard something else, which confused me enough to make me open my eyes. It was Hades exhaling a sigh of relief, and when I looked around I saw that we had come to rest in a great cavern, dark compared to the world above but bright as day to my eyes after experiencing the horrible blackness of the void. The cavern was lit with strange blue flames that undulated slowly upward, and I instantly recognized Hades’ dancing blue women.

His grip on my waist relaxed and he turned to look at me, trying to assess what sort of state I was in. “Are you alright?” he asked, his eyes darting from my head to my arms to my feet in anxiety.

I managed a smile, which came surprisingly easy as relief flooded my body and my damaged muscles began to unclench. “I believe so,” I said. I let go of the chariot railing and tested my weight on my feet. “Yes,” I said, “I’ll be fine,” then collapsed into unconsciousness and knew nothing more.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Installment #11: Communion

My day, when I finally awoke, had been spent walking through the fields and over the cliffs, deep in contemplation. I remembered the day I had sat on the edge of this particular precipice, watching the waves roll in and out as I drew figures in the dust. It was one of the few times I could recall in which I was alone. I remembered that the day had grown dim as I swirled my fingers in the dust, making simple pictures and smoothing them away again. I had drawn a daisy and wiped it away, then a tree. Finally I had drawn a rosebud and stared at it for moment, trying to decide whether I should pass my hand over it or not. A gust of wind had come off the sea and blown my hair back from my neck, gathering the dust off the ground as it went. My rose was gone. I had raised my head to watch the sun sink into the sea. From my perch on the top of the cliff I could see some mortal youths walking along the beach. There was a young couple strolling a little behind the larger group, and the girl was reaching up to tease the boy’s hair at the nape of his neck. I had glanced to my left, where a small rock lay, and considered throwing it at her. For some reason, her wantonness had cut me across the stomach, sending a searing pain along my skin and causing bile to rise in my throat. She had grabbed the back of his neck and turned his face towards hers, then planted a brazen kiss on his lips. My hand had closed around the rock, feeling its hardnesss against my skin, resisting the force of my grip The lovers pulled away from their stolen kiss, laughing, and my fingers had lost their rage, going slack, letting the solid weight drop to the ground. As though sensing that some harm had just passed her, the girl had suddenly turned and looked up at me over her shoulder as she walked. Even from here, I had seen the look on her face as plainly as if she were standing right in front of me. Her thick, dark hair blew in tendrils over her parted lips, and her eyes bored into me. She had looked at me with wonderment and pity, as though I were some melancholy ghost. Tears had threatened to sprout in my eyes, but anger just as soon followed it. How dare she pity me. I had stood and looked directly back at her, then converted to my highest form for one blinding moment before vanishing in a blaze. She would have known then that I was a goddess, and that she had barely escaped my wrath.

I now stooped to the ground, searching for a rock to squeeze, to feel its cold hardness against my hand again, reliving that day. It was the one time I could remember having felt such a bitter anger towards anyone, especially someone who had done nothing to deserve it. She had been young human at that, innocently going about her simple, short life. I wondered briefly how her encounter with me had affected her. Had she become frightened that the gods were angry with her? Had she been afraid that when she looked at me, she had committed some kind of offense? These things had not happened but a few years ago; perhaps she was even still alive. She would be an old woman now, and I wondered if she remembered that day as well as I did. Perhaps she had not understood what she had seen, and never thought of it again. I wondered if she had married that boy, or if he was just a sweetheart of youth. I felt foolish for thinking about her, a human I hadn’t even spoken to, and yet I was. I fingered the edges of the rock I’d picked up, examining its peaks and crevices, feeling its roughness. It was a little larger than my fist, with streaks of brown and white. I stood again, looking out to sea, feeling the wind gather my hair back from my neck and shoulders as my mother did when she plaited it for me. In the distance I could see dark clouds rolling towards the shore. They were moving quickly and would make landfall within the hour. Poseidon was restless. The wind gained strength, and I had to plant myself more firmly to keep from being knocked over by its sudden gusts. I tossed the rock in the air and caught it again, testing its weight, then reeled back and threw it with all of my strength out to sea. I saw it strike the water a few millos out from shore, landing beneath the swirling storm. Perhaps I had hit Poseidon in his gruff and somber head. The sun sank below the level of the clouds, casting its last rays across the ocean to meet me on my precipice. I closed my eyes and meditated on the juxtaposition of their orange warmth and the piercing cold of the wind as each battled for congress with my skin. Helios was racing to the horizon, and soon enough he plunged into the sea, leaving me with only Poseidon’s coldness. It was apparent now that he was not merely restless or bored, but agitated; perhaps even angry. The storm was gathering force quickly. It was time for me to go. I lifted my mind and disappeared from the cliff, arriving at my grove a moment later. The sky was darker here, and I knew that Hades would soon arrive.

I circled the grove a few times, growing flowers and fruits in my path. The rain would make them stronger, and they would be sheltered by the trees from the harsher gusts of wind. I placed my hands on each of the saplings and young trees, fortifying them for the storm to come. I made their trunks pliant and their roots deep, ensuring that they would neither be snapped in two nor pulled from the ground. Let Poseidon throw his tantrum, whatever it was about. Mother was probably out preparing the most important crops for the onslaught, and would not be home to miss me.

I heard his footfall outside the ring of trees and turned to greet him. His face appeared from between the leaves again, just as it had the night before, but this time it was open, happy, and brightened when he saw me. I felt a strange warmth pass through me when I saw him, and was comforted without having realized I had been ill at ease in the first place. Already he seemed familiar, though I had only known him one day. I smiled to see him, not even knowing why, and he returned my grin.

“Why do you smile?” he asked as he approached.

“I’m… happy to see you again,” I said, realizing the truth of my words as I spoke them.

Hades looked at the ground, perhaps to conceal the rising color of his face, or the now absurdly sized grin which he struggled to control. He looked up at me, slightly more composed, and said, “I’m happy to see you again as well.”

We grinned at each other for a moment there, young fools that we were, until I thought to say something.

“Would you like something to eat?” I asked, gesturing towards the berries and nuts I’d grown.

“Yes, thank you,” he said, going to sit beside them. “The things you grow taste much sweeter than anything I’ve eaten in the underworld.”

“I’m sure it’s not that bad,” I said, “these are just the fruits of the earth. The foods of the gods are infinitely better.”

He chuckled at my statement and popped another strawberry into his mouth. “You’re thinking of the foods of Olympus,” he said ironically, “the meats that melt on your tongue, the breads that warm your whole body, the cakes that infuse your entire being with sweetness, the ambrosia that lifts your spirit above the heavens themselves... the foods of the Underworld are not like that.”

“What are they like?” I asked, curious about what kinds of things the Underworld could produce.

“They are heavy… dense… they make you lethargic. I suppose some of them are enjoyable. Some things, like the warm cream drinks, are heady and intoxicating. They flow through your veins, warming and relaxing your whole body, as your mind unravels itself and you forget your cares, forget everything, and sink into a very pleasurable sleep…” he had lost himself as he recalled the experience, and seemed to have forgotten where he was for a moment. When he looked back at me, he colored again, apparently ashamed.

“What else is good?” I asked, drawn in by his description.

“Have you ever had chocolate?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “What is it?”

Hades grinned as if at a secret joke. “Someday, if you come to my palace, I will give you chocolate,” he said, “and you will forget the sweetness of strawberries.” He paused, looking at the half-eaten berry between his fingers. “Actually,” he said, “I bet the two would be rather good together.”

“Ah-ha!” I exclaimed, “So you do have divine foods. Anything that rivals a strawberry must be divine.”

“Alright, I concede,” he said, “The foods of the Underworld can be gratifying in their own right, but nothing can compare to the freshness of the foods of the earth.”

“Except perhaps chocolate,” I reminded him.

He laughed. “Yes, except for chocolate. But I am rambling on about food when you wanted to hear more about the Moirae.”

“I don’t mind,” I said, “I like hearing about the Underworld.”

“Why?” he asked, puzzled.

“Because, it’s different.”

“I don’t think you’d like it,” he said.

“How do you know?” I asked, slightly offended.

“It’s dark… cold… damp… there are no flowers.”

“Flowers are not my only interest,” I said sharply.

“It is not a happy place,” he said, insistent.

“I’m not always happy,” I retorted. “I’m sure it’s better than you say it is, just like the food.”

He shrugged. “At first I liked it well enough,” he said, his voice taking on an airy tone as he recounted the past, “it suited me. It was dark, quiet, and isolated. I found it peaceful, and I liked the privacy. But after a few hundred years, the silence became deafening, the solitude pressed in close around me on all sides and constricted me. Sometimes I found it hard to breathe. The place drives me mad sometimes, that’s why I came to the surface, that’s why…” He stopped suddenly, as if afraid he’d said too much. I didn’t press him, for he’d already told me more than I had expected.

“You have no companions?” I asked carefully, trying not to reveal the reasons for my interest in this subject.

“There are others who dwell in the Underworld,” he said, “but I do not consider them my companions. The world is large, and there are few of us, so we rarely meet. They do not live in my palace; I reside there alone. I speak sometimes with Hypnos, but his twin brother Thanatos is strange and troubling. Charon hardly speaks at all, and the Moirae are not even to be approached.”

“What about the souls?”

He laughed slightly again. Apparently my ignorance was amusing to him. “The souls do not speak. They make no sound at all, they simply drift around. I don’t see them often, either, unless I summon them. They keep to their fields. Even the ones in the palace, who serve me, are rarely glimpsed. When I do see them, they may as well not be there. They have no thoughts or feelings that I am aware of, they are just filmy apparitions, empty shells.”

I was troubled by this, and it must have shown on my face, because he asked me what was the matter. “I just didn’t know,” I said, “that their afterlives were so empty. I suppose I imagined them talking to one another and going about activities just as they do on earth. It was foolish of me, I suppose, but I had not thought that the Underworld was so… dismal.”

“I told you that you wouldn’t like it,” he said.

“You still don’t know that,” I said. “And there is only way to settle the matter and find out who is right.” I smiled at him impishly and he understood my meaning instantly.

“That isn’t a good idea,” he said, “trust me, you would not like it.”

“As I said, there is only one way to find out,” I repeated, standing my ground. “Unless, of course, you do not wish for me to visit your home,” I added, considering the possibility that I was imposing.

“It’s not that,” he said hurriedly, “I would love for you to visit me. I am only afraid you would be displeased.”

“I promise I will not be displeased,” I said simply.

He laughed again. “That is not something you can promise!” he said good-naturedly, “How do you know what will please or displease you until you see it?”

“You said it suits you,” I replied, “and you do not displease me.”

He seemed a bit taken aback, but smiled and colored again. I wondered if I had been too bold. I continued to forget that he was the ruler of one of the three realms, on par with Zeus and Poseidon.

“I hope I have not been disrespectful,” I said nervously.

“Please,” he said, “Let that be the furthest thing from your mind. I do not think it possible that you could disrespect me.”

“You would be surprised,” I said, remembering my blasphemy a few days ago, the old fright and anxiety returning momentarily as I wondered once more if I would be found out.

“No, no,” he said, still reassuring me, “it is I who must be careful not to disrespect you.” I remained silent and he noticed that my countenance was suddenly somber. “What is troubling you?” he asked.

I began to panic again, wondering what to say, upset that I was again forced to lie. I certainly could not tell him; he was the God of the Underworld, the King of the Dead, surely most of my grievances about the decisions of the gods must be addressed to him, and yet I could not bring myself to direct any of my anger or disappointment to him. He seemed so good, even innocent. I still did not know him well, though, and perhaps if he learned of my treachery he would turn on me in an instant and revile me. He was still looking at me, his eyes concerned, and I still could not find a response. I was saved from the moment by a more imminent danger; it was at that instant that the first thunderbolt struck, only a few feet from where we sat, as Poseidon’s gales suddenly arrived without warning, knocking us over with their force.