OFFERINGS TO HEKATE
By Ellen Lorenzi-Prince
Copyright © 2002
After Persephone returned from the dead, she stood for long moments breathing in green-scented air and drinking sunlight through her skin. She'd stood on this very spot six months ago, laughing with her friends, her arms full of blooms. Between one breath and the next, the gentle meadow became a nightmare. A chasm tore in the earth at her feet and the King of the Underworld charged through, his black horses trampling her flowers to ruin. But despite his dark power, she had been freed. She looked out at the rippling grasses. The land bore no sign of his violence now. She looked at her skin, pale but whole. At her wafting honeyed hair, at her lifting breast. Why, I'm alive! she thought. It felt strange; it felt good.
A swallow swept a circle above her, startling her. She took a small step. Then she took another. Slow and stately as befit a queen who’d been enthroned in stone. Another step, and she felt the deep resiliency of the earth beneath her feet. The embrace of her Mother. Another and she felt the grass pushing from the ground to reach for the sun, the green pushing up through her feet. Another step and her legs leapt and she must run. She must run. For she was a deer, she was a swallow, she was a girl again. Hades, for all his hoard, would never have this. Butterflies more brilliant than gems, sunbeams more precious than gold. She was free, while he was not. She ran and ran and did not look back.
"Persephone!" "Persephone, you're back!" "Persephone, I can't believe it, it's so wonderful to see you!" Her friends the wood nymphs squeezed and petted and pressed a hundred kisses to her cheeks. They pulled her back into their familiar circle. And she danced and twirled, abandoned to love and laughter. Never had her friends been so beautiful, never had the scent of jasmine been so intoxicating. Persephone danced and danced, her heart filling to bursting again and again.
Finally the circle tumbled to the ground, falling into beds of scarlet flowers that had not been there before the dance began. After a breathless time, the women bestirred themselves anew. They poured wine into Persephone's cup and gossip into her ears. They giggled over the satyrs they'd led in circles, and sighed over their unfortunate heroes. They sang her their newest songs. Then one by one the nymphs drifted off to sleep, their lovely mouths still smiling, for the pleasure of their waking continued in their dreams.
Persephone did not sleep. She looked tenderly upon the resting women. How innocent they were, even in their teasing and trickery. The stories they told had no edges, and their songs had no soul. And not a one had mentioned Hades, or said a single word about the place she had been.
She rose. She had been just like them once. But her time spent among the dead had marked her. She'd changed, though exactly how she could not tell. Persephone left the grove to the dreamers, and walked beneath the fading stars.
The marketplace swelled around her when Persephone entered the square. She was staggered by a thousand scents, and a thousand voices. From rough soldiers to crying babies to creaking wood and gnashing stone. She didn't like being where wood and stone no longer sang. But she couldn't find the answers to her questions in the forest.
There were others who had returned from death. She remembered Hades muttering their names in his sleep. He did not forget a one, and spent his everlasting nights counting the days until they'd meet again. Persephone imagined him counting eternally for her. Because she was alive, and she was never going back.
There! That sandal maker. There was something familiar about his face, some shadow on his soul. The very same look was on face after face of supplicants to the King and Queen of the Dead. Perhaps others could see something too; he wasn't getting much trade. She approached slowly. He stared, bared his teeth and ducked his head.
"Welcome, noble lady." And when she said nothing, he twitched and went on. "How about this blue-dyed leather, my lady?" He spread out the skin and gestured to another roll. "Or perhaps something gilded, my lady?" His hands hovered over his merchandise, tugging here, flicking a speck of dust there.
"I want to know how meeting Death has changed you."
The smile fell off his face and his hand jerked on a strap. "I don't know what you mean."
"I think you do."
The man hurried to sweep up the wares he had laid out so carefully. "No, I don't. I know nothing! Nothing’s changed." His glance caught on the goddess's gentle implacable gaze. He shook as he bundled up his tools. “I can’t help you, Lady. Please.”
Persephone reached out a sympathetic hand. The sandal maker's eyes glazed. He shrank and fumbled, his bundles scattering in the street. The man fell to his knees, groaning. "No, no. Nothing happened, nothing's changed, everything’s the same, the same. Nothing happened, nothing's changed... "
The poor man! If she only had the waters of Lethe to offer him. Lethe, the magical pool of the underworld, whose waters offered true forgetfulness, was what he needed now. To forget not only the soul-numbing terror of Tartarus, but his own craven response as well. To have a fresh start on being stronger the next time he looked at Death. Persephone had known Lethe to bring rest to many a haunted soul. She herself had run her fingers through the icy water, but was never tempted to drink. For after the first awful shock, she'd found life in Tartarus held more to be pitied than feared. Like this poor man, babbling now like a ghost.
Had she been Queen for nothing? True, she wasn't in Tartarus anymore. Yet she could still sense its vast brooding beneath her feet, regardless of the bright noisiness above. Its power might still be hers, should she only claim it. And suddenly she felt with cool clarity the merciful drops on her fingertips. Quickly she leaned down and touched the sandal maker's lips. The man shuddered. After a moment he opened his eyes and saw Persephone walking away. He called boldly after her. "Great Lady! Truly the finest footwear in all the Peloponnese!"
But the goddess did not look back. So the sandal maker did not see the look of pensive satisfaction on her face. Persephone left the bustle of the town for her bower in the living woods, to think on what she had done.
She could make the power of Lethe come to her hands. She smiled. She had stolen one of the Gifts of Tartarus. That's what Hades would say; she would say she'd earned it. She could make mortals forget how broken they’d become. She could birth them back to innocence.
There was a reason Lethe was saved for death. So the souls had every chance to reclaim themselves while still alive. Now Persephone could change the rules on earth. She could decide for justice or mercy. As she mused, the goddess drifted into dreams of what it might mean to be mortal. How strange to live a life of only one direction. And to be judged for all you'd done at its end.
The next day, she returned to the market square. And found a woman, a weaver of baskets, whose face bore a similar mark. Persephone approached and asked her the same question.
The woman let out a long and loud moan. “Oh Lady, yes, everything has changed! Nothing is the same anymore! No one understands what I’ve been through. No one!”
The woman tugged on Persephone’s robe, pulling her closer. “All my family, all my friends, they’ve all left me. Not one of them cares about me anymore. They’ve all changed. Everything’s changed, and no one understands what I’ve been through.” She closed her eyes and rocked herself back and forth. “I was dead! I was dead! I suffered the face of Hades.” She looked at Persephone beseechingly. “They should pity me. They should treat me like a queen for coming back from there. They’ve never done it!”
She continued more quietly, rocking herself again, lost in herself again. “But no one listens to me. I could tell them so much, but will they listen? I may as well still be dead for all they care. No, no, nothing’s the same, nothing’s the same at all. They’ve all changed, and no one loves me any more. They’ve all changed.” The basket maker peered again at the goddess through swollen eyes and sobbed all the harder.
Persephone sighed. The woman needed to realize it was she who’d changed, not everyone and everything around her. If she could look clearly at who she was once and what she was doing with her life now, she may discover who she might yet be. She still had time. Maybe she’d stop the flagellation that drove her loved ones away. A drink from the pool of Memory might do her some good. Few of the dead chose Memory rather than Forgetfulness, for few had the courage to see their souls in naked detail. The ones who did were the wiser for it, and more readily passed on to Elysian Fields. All the ghosts were told this; still most chose immediate comfort over eventual bliss.
Persephone would steal the power of Memory from Hades as well. She drew it out of the earth and into her body. She leaned over and brushed the woman’s forehead with her fingers. The basket weaver stopped crying, her eyes opened, her mouth round. Then she broke into fresh heartfelt tears. The goddess left her, wishing her well, wishing her the wisdom to choose well hereafter.
Back in her forest, Persephone wondered if everyone who returned was like the two she’d met, obsessing or denying. Or still seeking like her. Was there no way for the living to make sense of dying?
She recalled how both the woman and the man had addressed her as “lady”, rather than “miss” or “maid”. She knew herself to be ageless, knew the change must be in her bearing and not her smooth skin. The mark of Death must be on her immortal face as well. She frowned. She touched the ground and called up a pool of fresh water. She gazed into her eyes and she looked the same. She looked the same, but the old Persephone never had these thoughts. She could not see in the reflected eyes the strangeness she felt building in hers. The starts of longing and the brushes of power. She leaned back, closed her eyes and let it rest. Let herself be cradled in the arms of the earth and wake with wisdom.
Before she surrendered, she recalled once more her new powers. Her lip curled. If Hades knew, he’d be doing more in his bed than mere muttering. She nestled in the scented woods, inhaled the glowing evening, and exhaled the deepening night.
She stood at a crossroads. One path led to the town, the other to a favorite waterfall. Before her trip to Hell, her life had been dancing and flowers and song. The girl she was would not have recognized the choice. She had not cared nor considered mortal lives, until she heard story after story pour from the mouths of the dead. Now she felt torn. Her troubled people or her beautiful woods.
A poetic looking young man walked up the path from the town. He saw Persephone, his face bloomed, and he fell to his knees in front of her.
“Great Queen! Merciful Lady! I praise you every day for the life you have restored to me. When I was brought before Hades, I argued for my life; I pled the summons had been premature. Hades was to pronounce his sentence (and his face did not look kind), when you said, may he go back. I exhausted myself with speech, you bought my life with a word.”
Persephone remembered this earnest man. As she remembered others whose tales had touched her. Souls she had somehow succored with a look, a word or a touch. When she had sat beside him, when she had been his Queen.
Hades was severe but not sadistic. The dead were mostly assigned the afterlife they deserved. She had rarely felt the impulse to intervene. For a long time she’d not felt an impulse to anything. The stories of the Dead, the brave ones who faced the King and still spoke, these are the ones who had saved her. So she granted one an escape from the punishment fields, another early release from the cheerless plains and shadowed woods. To restore a Life whole, though, that she had only done once. To this man before her. Of course she remembered him. But she just now realized this was the person she may be looking for.
“How has Death changed you?” Persephone asked the man at her feet.
“Great Lady, everywhere now I see both life and death. Intertwined in every breath in and out. I see it when a child scrapes his knee, the blood spilling and clotting, the life in it dying drop by drop. I see the elderly crippled because Death rides them hard. But Death is inside all of us, waiting for us. We belong to him; there is no escaping that. But there is also no denying the Life with us now, in all its wonder and possibility and beauty. A precious gift to be savored for as long as it lasts. To come before Hades granted me wisdom, Lady. But it was you who gave me the chance to survive it.”
The man fell silent. After an hour passed he dared to glance up at his Lady’s face. Her eyes saw beyond him, and she was still as stone. Slowly he backed away from her. Later, he would build a temple on the very spot where the miraculous statue of the goddess appeared and had once spoken.
Persephone did not see him go. She thought of Death, waiting. She thought of Death, judging. Making the judgments of forever. In that cold room, in the center of that dark palace, she had learned to judge also. She learned to hear truth or lie in a voice, and to see the worst and the best in souls. When she had sat beside him, when she had been his Queen.
She turned away from the town and took the road that led back into the
forest. She walked until she stood again in the meadow of her passage. She gazed
at each leaf. She felt every blade of grass springing beneath her step. She took
big breaths of the sky. She gathered to her the gifts of the upper world. Then
she closed her eyes and commanded the earth to open at her feet.