By Danielle Coombs
Hades only means to visit the white asphodels that grow on the limestone slopes of the mountains, not to disturb Persephone. The god of the dead knows better than to draw the striving, strangling attention of life.
Persephone is picking the asphodel, using a small knife to snick through each waxy stalk and laying them one atop the other in a reed basket. Hades feels the faint, shivering pull of the blade as though over his own skin. He pauses among the shadows, watching, because to retreat would call her attention as much as to advance.
“Hades,” says Persephone. She looks at him. The knife cuts another flower.
“Kore,” says Hades, using her safe name, the one that means ‘maiden’.
“Were you looking for me?” she asks. Her mouth is red and round as a pomegranate. Her hair is more radiant than gold, burnished as a field of wheat under midday sun, and her body is soft and full and youthful. Her eyes are green as grave mold.
“I came to see the asphodel,” says Hades. Persephone smiles.
“I knew you hadn’t come for me. You avoid me.”
Hades could deny it, but he doesn’t need to protect his pride.
“I consider it a respectful distance.”
The asphodel nod at him. The stamens are long and thick, and leave pollen on Persephone’s hands. She doesn’t insult him by pretending to be amused. Instead she places her latest cutting in the basket and approaches him. The grass rustles for fifty feet around.
“There’s no distance between us,” she says. “There are growing things even in your realm, though my mother and I never set foot there. And even in lands you never tread, men and women die. Plants wither. You know that.”
Of course Hades knows.
“Your mother prefers it this way.” He has little enough in common with his sister, Demeter. Flowers and crops rise in her footprints. Trees swell with fruit and livestock with fat. The villages she visits gorge on salty lamb and olives and worship her as Anesidora, the giver of gifts from the earth. The earth offers nothing on Hades’ behalf; it only takes, drawing souls down into the underworld and keeping the bones for itself.
Persephone looks displeased.
“I know she does.”
The asphodel tremble, and Hades, who beheld Niobe’s tears and was not swayed, takes an involuntary step towards that bright, bright hair. Persephone’s displeasure melts into another smile. Her cheek dimples.
“I’d like to see the underworld,” she says.
Hades doesn’t hesitate. He offers her his hand, and when she takes it she gets pollen on his fingers.
Even Hades has to pay the ferryman. He drops two coins into slope-backed Charon’s waiting palm, one for himself and one for Persephone. She sits at the prow with her long plaits coiled in her lap, and trails earth-brown fingers in the waters of the river known as Pain.
“Where do all the coins go?” she asks.
“I keep them in a vault,” says Hades. “You can see it if you like.”
She raises her wet fingers to her mouth.
“I would like.”
So Hades shows her. He offers his hand again to help her from the boat onto the foggy shore. Her sandals leave shallow prints in the mud, which fill with algae behind her.
Some of the dead have built their dwellings close to the river. They eat and sleep and walk about, but they do not smile and they do not speak. They bend the knee to Hades as he passes, and avert their eyes from Persephone.
“It’s quiet here,” she observes. “Mortals are much more pleasant when they’re dead.”
She seems to approve of almost everything. She comments on the unrivalled height of the trees that have stood since the beginning of the world, the depthless grey of the mist, the distant scent of smoke from the river of fire.
“Ostentatious,” she says. “Where does that river go?”
“To Tartarus. That place is empty now, but one day I will make it the home of the dishonorable dead. Each soul will face the punishment most fitting to their crime.”
“Have no mortals dishonored themselves?” Persephone asks, skepticism curving her scarlet mouth.
“By their own standards,” says Hades. “None have offended Zeus to the correct degree, yet. The world is still young.”
He leads her past the houses of the dead, past the shadows of the olive trees, to the entrance of his palace. It’s a modest building in comparison to the soaring pillars of Olympus, the marble statues white and unpainted. Persephone leaves muddy footprints on the mosaic depicting Cerberus in black and white.
“Here,” says Hades. He pushes aside the thick curtain across the vault entrance and waits for Persephone to pass him.
The vault is unknowably vast. Hades remembers a time when he could span the distance between the walls with his outspread arms, but that was long ago. The world is young but not in its infancy. Many men and women have died since Zeus first became King of the Gods.
The coins go on and on. Stacks of them, heaps of them, chests of coins in gold and silver and bronze and brass, great mountains of coins, coins in leather pouches, coins with the faces of kings and queens, unending as the ocean. The play of torchlight becomes the scintillation of waves.
“Very nice,” says Persephone.
“I don’t do anything with them,” Hades admits.
Persephone lifts one shoulder.
“Women sacrifice pigs to me,” she says. “What do I want with a dead pig? Coins or pigs, it’s the giving that matters and not the having. I’d be extremely unhappy if they stopped.”
Persephone walks through the fields of the dead and coaxes the white asphodel to grow, until the black soil is full of six-petaled stars and rivals the night sky for beauty. Hades can’t remember how long she’s been with him.
“Show me,” she says, and he does. He takes her to empty Tartarus, and to the rich lands of Elysium where heroes yet unborn will go when they die. The fields there are full of corn almost as yellow as Persephone’s hair, ready for reaping. Hades unpicks her plaits, and her tresses stream all the way to the banks of the river named Lamentation, where lilies spring forth and carpet the water with their broad leaves.
Her body makes a hollow in the wheat, and chaff shimmers like gold dust on her skin. Hades braces himself over her on his fists, but she grabs at him and drags him down to kiss her. Their shining bodies strain and swell like ripening fruit. Hades cries out, and Persephone’s wail rises higher and louder than the weeping of the river.
An echoing sob rolls down from the world above, like thunder. Demeter. She is walking the earth and calling for her daughter.
Persephone breathes, in and out, quick as the wings of a bird. Her fingers dig into Hades’ back like roots into rock. He thinks that he would choose to never let her go, but he has no power to hold her here. She’s alive.
“I’ll stay a little longer,” she says, her voice as slow and rich as cream. He laps at her shoulder. She’s snared him.
He knew she would.
There are more dead arriving than is usual. Demeter has gathered up the skirts of her protection, and winter falls harder on the world than ever before. The souls that Hermes escorts to the banks of Pain are pinched thin as knife edges. Charon poles his boat back and forth. More coins clatter into the vault.
Persephone remains. She walks amongst the winter-dead and allows them to touch her robes and her sandaled feet. All souls must have their labors, so she takes those who perished in ice and hunger and makes them her retinue. They call her the best of the underworld, Aristi chthonia.
Hades is always fair. Once a day, when they sit down together to eat, he makes sure to remind her.
“I can’t keep you here.”
Each time Persephone laughs her throaty laugh, her cheek dimpling. She flicks a pomegranate seed at him.
“You can’t get rid of me either.”
They hear the news from a dead boy. Pelops is his name. He was young and handsome and kind in life, but in death men are all the same with faces the color of bonemeal and all the light gone out of their eyes. He stands before the stone throne of Hades and speaks haltingly, pushing the words around his mouth like a too-hot piece of meat.
“My father killed me and cooked me and served my flesh to the gods. He wanted to prove that he was clever enough to trick them.”
Hades remembers the boy’s father: Tantalus, the son of Zeus by Plouto. Zeus pays little mind to most of his mortal get, but coming a hair’s breadth from cannibalizing his own grandson is guaranteed to gain his attention in the worst sense possible.
And there it is. The underworld shakes and trembles as the earth above is wracked by storms. Zeus is flinging lightning bolts like a child throwing toys from its cot.
Persephone seems unsettled. She has no throne of her own, so she prowls around the boy, dress rustling.
“Fool,” she says of Tantalus. “You can’t trick the gods.”
Hades holds his tongue. He knows his brother will be here soon enough.
“I want him punished!” Zeus is enough to fill the throne room. He dwarfs them all in his rage, sparks striking in his hair and beard and in his black eyes. Persephone lurks by the throne, making herself small and maidenlike. Hades waits for a lull in the storm.
“You have only to ask, brother.”
“I command it,” says Zeus.
Hades shakes his head.
“I command here.” He makes it a reminder and not a rebuke. Zeus has so much power he sometimes becomes blind to its limits.
“Of course,” says Zeus, barely reining in his fury. Thunder couches in his voice. “But you must agree, this cannot be borne.”
Hades spent his childhood in pieces in his father’s belly, jostled and blinded and burned by acid. He knows better than Zeus what can and can’t be endured or forgiven.
“I will deal with Tantalus,” he promises.
Zeus grimaces. Anger still blackens his eyes.
“Not only Tantalus,” he says. “There must be justice for Pelops.”
“Pelops is dead,” says Hades. What Zeus wants for Tantalus is punishment, not justice. Justice means very little to the dead.
“Ah,” says Zeus. He tugs on a handful of his beard, feigning thoughtfulness. “But we have gathered up the pieces of his body and lain them together again. It was a small matter to mend the flesh.”
Hades is not often quick to anger, but he takes Zeus’s meaning and his answer is whip-fast and harsh.
“One soul,” Zeus wheedles. “Would you see the Elysian Fields lie uninhabited for all time? The boy was meant to father a great house, and his death will cripple the Age of Heroes before it begins.”
Hades has heard every plea there is, and this is nothing new. It would be better if Pelops had lived, but death is not concerned with preferences; not even those of the Sky Father.
“No,” he says again.
He’s forgotten Persephone.
“Kore,” says Zeus. He strokes his beard again, and tilts his head in a wise, listening way. His eyes are sly. “You have Hades’ ear these days. Ask him to revive the boy for love of you.”
Hades sinks his teeth into his tongue to hold it in place. Trust is what keeps him silent, and Persephone rewards that trust by giving the answer he would have given.
“Love has no power over death, Father,” she says. She makes the word ‘father’ a claim rather than obeisance. Hades watches her step out from beside the throne and hold up her chin.
“Is that true, daughter?” asks Zeus, with the air of one about to play a winning card. His anger is still masked, but the air is thick and heavy. “Not even the love you feel for your mother?”
Persephone doesn’t answer. The white flowers in her hair burn steady as stars. Bindweed begins to grow at the base of Hades’ throne, reaching up to wrap around his arms and press sharp spines to his wrists. Hades sits very still.
“Demeter ate Pelops’ flesh,” says Zeus.
The bindweed spines press into Hades’ skin, drawing forth beads of golden ichor. Persephone lets out a wintry keen. Her bare shoulders are still soft and round and her face as brown as summer earth, but her eyes are hardscrabble stone.
“Tell me how this happened.”
“She was lost in mourning for you,” says Zeus. “They served her the left shoulder, and she ate six bites.” Another flash of rage, quicker and deadlier than lightning. “Do you see how deeply Tantalus has slighted us? If you love your mother, ask Hades to grant this favor.”
Hades tests his strength against the bindweed. Ichor runs in shining tributaries down the arms of his throne.
“I don’t grant favors,” he says. He still trusts Persephone will understand him.
Persephone throws a glance at him, a dismissal.
“I don’t need you to,” she says, and looks back to Zeus. “Give me Tantalus and I’ll place him in a pool of water beneath a vine laden with grapes. When he leans down to drink, the water will recede. When he reaches up to eat, the vines will rise beyond his grasp. I’ll give him eternal hunger and eternal thirst.”
Hades says nothing.
“Give me Tantalus,” says Persephone again. This time it’s a command. “Give him to me and I’ll give you Pelops.”
Zeus looks to Hades, almost uncertain. He has what he wants, but he can sense that somehow the earth has shifted beneath his feet.
Hades allows himself the faintest of smiles.
Danielle Coombs is an office worker by day, and a Creative Writing MA student at the University of Surrey by night. Whether she’s working or writing or something else, it’s pretty much a guarantee she’s drinking Diet Coke. Her short fiction has also appeared in Ideomancer and Mirror Dance.