Authors: Melanie Dugan
“Cy,” she said. “Can you please take this and leave it at the cave, the one by the river, with all the willows around? Just drop it at the base of the tree nearest the cave. I’d do it, but mum wants me to check humidity levels.” She dropped what looked like a bulb into my hand: small, round, fleshy, ridged.
She often asked me to do little errands like that. She had a lot on her plate doing stuff for her mom and I just liked to be able to help whenever I could. “Sure, Pers.”
She went off in one direction; I went off in another.
There was something still and quiet about the day, a sense of waiting hung in the air, although I couldn’t have told you who was waiting, or for what.
I’d been to the cave before, dozens of times, and never given it much thought. It’s at a place where the river bends and widens, becoming shallower, and a grove of willows crowds the banks, throwing down cool, dappled shadows. When it gets hot, Pers and I and some of the dryads and Nereids would dip in the water to cool off, then lie on the grass in the shade of the willow while our gowns dried, and Pers would bring us up to date on the latest gossip about the upstairs bunch.
But that day was different. It was sunny, but there seemed to be a shadow behind the sun. The air was heavy. I felt uneasy as I got close to the twist in the river, as if someone was watching. I could have sworn I heard a really low humming or thrumming, the sound of millions of bees buzzing far beneath the earth’s surface. A song of some sort, repetitive, incantatory, cycling through the same few notes over and over.
The willow loomed large. I didn’t remember it being so tall; when I looked up, its shadow filled the sky. It seemed almost to be bending down to me. It’s silly, I know, but I felt as if it were going to pin me to the ground.
And the cave seemed darker than I recalled. It’s just your imagination, I told myself. It’s late afternoon, the shadows are falling is all.
I thought I saw something move in the darkness of the cave, shadow in shadow. I tossed the bulb, or whatever it was, where she had asked me to and got out of there as fast as I could, running through the field, the dry grass pricking the soles of my feet.
I thought I heard laughter as I ran, but it must have been the wind.
I knew the instant Cyane, that silly nymph, dropped it and ran away. How Persephone can tolerate her — frivolous, concerned only with gauzy gowns and the opposite gender, her head filled with half-baked, second-hand attitudes, not one idea knocking around in there — is more than I can understand. And yet, she had a part in all this so perhaps I should not judge her too harshly.
I had stumbled on the cave a year earlier. All caves are sacred to me, entrances to my domain. I had seen Persephone and her posse splashing one another in the river, then throwing themselves carelessly on the ground to let the gentle breezes caress and dry them. Persephone was the leader of them all, outpacing them in strength, intelligence and beauty.
I hadn’t known if Persephone was aware I watched, but when Cyane appeared that day with Persephone’s message it was clear she knew.
From the shadows I observed Cyane approach the cave, saw apprehension take root, noted her darting, anxious glances. I had nothing to do with the willow’s shadow. She practically threw what she was carrying at the tree and fled. I may have laughed. I’m sure I did.
I picked up what she had left — not corm, not rhizome, nor bulb. This was something else, something of Persephone’s own making, a seed of some sort.
When I cradled it in my palm the seed exploded, unfurling leaves and stem of brilliant green, and atop the stem, tear-shaped petals so absolutely black that all other shades of black were mere rumours of the colour: this was the one true black. I recognized the bloom. Its petals were usually scarlet. It was a pimpernel, of the primrose family. In the language of flowers: assignation.
Don’t talk to him,” mum had said. So how — how — to contact him? Then I remembered — the cave. All caves are his, thresholds between this world and his. Freud will say differently, but trust me on this one.
Of course I knew about the cave. The girls and I have bathed near it for years, since we were children, since before our breasts were small, tight buds. It was always a great place to hang out, the water so cool, the breeze fresh and fragrant, the shifting patterns of the willow branches in the sunlight, bird call sweetening the air.
And then this one time it was different. I sensed an awareness watching us. It wasn’t threatening, I never felt that. Just curious.
It isn’t rocket science. I thought; cave : Hades. Just like that. It was obvious.
I didn’t let on. I didn’t look in that direction, didn’t just happen to wander over there. Knowing was power. Knowing and not letting him know I knew was more power. But I could tell; every time we were there I could feel his gaze.
What message did I want to send him? I wasn’t sure. I had no idea where to start.
Then I remembered what mum always says whenever I ask her what she wants for her birthday: “Something you’ve made, dear. Those are always the best presents.” Sick-making, I know, but it gave me an idea.
I had been working on some new flowers. Black ones.
Most colours are easy — yellow daffs, blue hyacinths — it’s a breeze to make them into pretty flowers. But black, now there’s a challenge. How do you make a black flower that doesn’t look sinister, that doesn’t look like it’s in mourning? How do you design it so that when the pigment fades (the pigment always fades) the bloom doesn’t look worn and shabby? And a true black is hard to get; usually it’s either a very dark blue or a purple. I didn’t want either of those; I wanted black.
It took a while. As humans will discover when they start playing around with genetic modification — a clumsy way of working — you can’t always guarantee results. It took some work, it took some tweaking.
And so, after several months, I had the flower I wanted, spring-loaded and ready to go. I didn’t want to drop it off myself, didn’t want to risk a conversation yet, so I asked Cy to drop it off. Then I waited.
Everything seemed fine between us. Persephone seemed her usual self. She wasn’t angry, she wasn’t withdrawn. She appeared happy in her work.
She was spending a lot of time in the greenhouses. She had a real green thumb, could grow anything and was especially interested in flowers.
To my mind, food crops and grains are most important — expanding populations descend into strife if there isn’t an adequate food supply — but I understand humans have a hunger for beauty as well as food, so I see the worth of flowers. Plus there are my bees to provide for. So I encouraged her in her efforts.
No, I thought things were fine. I thought we were still of one mind and one purpose, Persephone and I. I thought it was business as usual. Now and forever.
What next? I placed Persephone’s bloom carefully in some soil in a pot. Rumours to the contrary, mine is not the Touch of Death. Thanatos and Atropos handle that little detail. In fact, I have a certain knack with growing things, if I do say so myself. I have a quite remarkable collection of Venus fly traps, hemlock, deadly nightshade, orchids and other exotic flowers.
I had to think.
How to respond to Persephone’s communication?
I was amused and entertained. This was not Aphrodite, who moved from acquaintance to bed in a few quick steps. Persephone was different. This was a contest of two minds.
I considered the situation.
That’s what followed.
I waited, wondering how he would reply, but nothing happened.
Maybe Cy dropped it in the wrong place, I thought, and he never received the message. An animal could have eaten it before he could find it. Or maybe it didn’t work as I had planned, maybe it lay still and silent in his hand. It could be he didn’t speak the language that was second nature to me. For whatever reason, it seemed he wasn’t going to get back to me.
Well, that’s o.k., I decided. Maybe mum was right. He does have the rep of being a bit forbidding. Not a party animal.
And then there’s this other thing; he is Lord of the Dead. He rules over all those, well, dead people. If I hook up with him, do I die? I mean, we don’t, as a rule. Die, that is, us Gods. Sometimes we get turned into constellations, but that’s not standard. Standardly we just go on and on as long as humans remember us. At least, I think that’s how it works. It’s not real clear; it’s not one of the things mum talks about. None of them do. You ask, “So what’s the story with immortality?” and suddenly everyone remembers an appointment they’ve got to keep, or an errand they simply must run this instant, and they all disappear.
Anyway, I wouldn’t want to die. I like being alive. So maybe it’s better all around if I just drop the whole Hades thing and move on to something else, I tell myself. I’m young, there’s lots of time to get serious later. For now I’ll play the field.
I started noticing things. Small things. Working in the fields one day deadheading daisies, a beam of light flashed and I noticed something shiny at my feet. Bending down, I found a yellow citrine in the grass so brilliant it took my breath away. I picked it up and turned it over in my hand. It was beautiful — sunlight trapped in a jewel. I puzzled over it for a while— you don’t usually run into gems while weeding the garden. Who could have dropped it? I’d ask around later, I decided. I put it in my pocket and continued with my work.
A few days after that, while I was tending a gentian, what should tumble from its bloom but a sapphire, as blue as the sky on the first sunny day of spring. I held it up to my eye to drink in the deep cool tone, and saw in surprise words somehow inscribed inside the gem, “Not so blue as your eyes.” Oh, I thought, I get it. Hades, The Rich One, he did understand, and this is his reply.
Cool, I thought, smiling. A bit tacky, but cool. I took the citrine out of my pocket and examined it. Within was written, “Not so fair as your hair.” Internal rhyme, I thought. He’s not just a hack.
Right, blue eyes, yellow hair. Nice, but the basis for a relationship? I don’t think so. Still, I was amused, my interest piqued.
At the centre of a rose the next day sat a ruby the size of a lychee nut, as red as heart’s blood. This time I read, “My heart yours.”
Not bad, I thought, weighing the stone in my palm, although the verse I wasn’t too hot about, a bit creepy, but this was Hades, after all, not Hallmark.
What to do with these gifts, I wondered. It would cost an arm and a leg to get them set, and even if I could afford that, which I couldn’t (I hadn’t had a raise in my allowance in a year) I could hardly start parading around in them without arousing my mother’s curiosity. “Where did you get that?” she would want to know. “My secret admirer” would hardly put her suspicions to rest.
So the ruby joined the sapphire and citrine in my pocket and I went back to work, mulling things over in my mind.
A week later, at work in the rose garden, I found, sitting on a white rose petal, a diamond that sparkled like laughter. I held it up to my eye. “Two a pair,” I read.
So he wasn’t a great poet. It didn’t matter; I got the gist and the sentiment was, oddly, sweet.
Still, I was at a loss about how to proceed. I felt the ball was in my court, but wasn’t sure if I had a statement to make.
I needn’t have concerned myself. Two days later, while weeding a perennial bed, I noticed a glint in the earth. Bending down, I found a small but brilliant opal in the soil. Then, three feet further east, I saw another flash of colour: an aquamarine. A peridot was next, and then a turquoise, each leading me further and further from my garden, until I found myself standing within a circle of white poplars. His trees.
A moment later, with a low rumble and a cloud of smoke, Hades popped into being right in the centre of the ring of trees. He was taller than I remembered, and it looked as if he’d lost weight.
“Nice effect,” I said when the smoke had cleared.
“Thank you.” He was brushing bits of grass and dust that had been stirred up by his arrival off his black robe. “The sound effects and smoke aren’t strictly speaking necessary but studies show onlookers find it disturbing when I pop into existence from out of nowhere.”
“I can see that might be the case.”
We stood in silence for the space of a heartbeat.
“Nice day,” he said, somewhat awkwardly it seemed to me.
“It always is.”
“Yes.” He glanced around restlessly. “Look, I know — ” he began.
“My mother —” I said at the same instant.
We both stopped. We both laughed.
“You first,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
I just wanted explain that all those stories about me, you know, Lord of Death —” he said this in low, mock-sinister tones, wiggling his fingers in the air — “that’s not me at all. I mean, I’ll grant I’m somewhat serious-minded, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do the job — but I’m not all doom and gloom. I know how to have fun.”