Plain China

Persephone

by Matthew Maichen · Chapman University
"Karla with Candle, Kreuzberg, Berlin", Samantha Metzner · Guilford College

            We shall assume I'm the villain of this story. I usually am.

            I was, after all, motivated by personal desire over anything else. I saw you through the omniscient sight of the gods and lusted after you at once. Zeus came to my side when he sensed it, and gave me permission to have you.

            “Turn invisible with that helmet of yours,” he sneered. “By the time she can object, you'll have already entered her.”

            My stomach churned. “I have no interest in that.”

            He raised his eyebrow. “Your eyes come alight with lust, brother. Of course you do.”

            I struggled to articulate, but gave up. Why bother? The best words would change nothing.

            The land I rule is one of decay. It tears at the soul to stay but a moment, and I am condemned as its king for eternity. Foul and filthy, you'd have nothing to do with me. And if you didn't want me, I didn't want you, either.

            I told myself this, dimming my desperate thirst, or trying to. It didn't work. Nothing did. A suffering that made all the dull entropy of life light aflame overtook me.

            So I mounted my chariot and visited you in the fields to cure myself, if nothing else—my heart racing, my skin tingling in a way I'd only seen in mortals cursed by Aphrodite. Was this what it felt like to desire something on pain of death?

            There you were. Your face cool and warm at once. Eyes large and glancing upon the world. Body buxom, supple, slender, more beautiful in person than I'd been prepared for. I remembered myself, and started to turn away.

            But before I could, you saw me. The steeds of the underworld bayed at your approach and I had no choice but to speak.

            “Hello,” I said.

            You smiled. Your hand ran down the snout of savage, fleet Orphnaeus, leader of the pack.

            “He's beautiful,” was all you said.

            Orphnaeus' teeth shimmered with darkness as his lips rose. His black eyes focused on yours, which widened with wonder.

            “I am Hades,” I said.

            “Hades of the damned? Son of Chronus, ruler of the underworld. My uncle?”

            “So I am.”

            “We've never met,” your eyes touched mine, then fell away weakened. “My name is Persephone.”

            “Persephone.” I thought carefully. “Have you any desire, anything at all?”

            You looked around, still avoiding my gaze. Flowers blossomed in every direction. There were no mountains in the distance, no rivers or streams or lakes. This gorgeous field stretched on for eternity.

            “I dream of seeing what lies beyond this place, or under, or above it. I care not.”

            Under. The word echoed inside me.

            “My mother keeps me here,” you continued. “But after so many eons,  I desire something else. Anything.”

            “I can give you that,” I said. “A whole new realm to rule over and call your own, where no one shall hold any power over you.”

            I outstretched my hand, its darkness contrasting the life beneath it. Flowers wilted at its presence.

            You looked at the death, fascinated, then to my hand, then up to my face; your eyes and mouth widened. Your tongue ran the inside of your teeth.

            “I'm not to wander off with strangers.” Your tone begged me to persuade you.

            “And yet you just gave me my own name.”

            “We've only spoken for a moment.”

            “And yet you haven't walked away,” I said, though my nerves flared. “Flee any time if you do not wish to come with me. But do not stay unless you do. For that is my intent, and I do not care to hide it.”

            Your hand touched your breast, and I couldn't tell if you were caressing your flesh or the heart beneath it. Your other arm reached out. Fingers lingered on mine, then gripped.

            Beneath us, the flowers wilted and died. The light reflecting off them dimmed to nothing, and that field turned so black that night itself would seem to glow. The darkness hid us as my arms wrapped around you. I lay you on the dying ground and did to you as Uranus did to Gaea. At first, you were confused. But I informed you, carefully, of each new motion I was going to take before I took it, and your hesitation faded as you asked for more. By the end, your moans lit the shadows, and with each, I could see your face, if only for a moment.

            After, I tried to mount the chariot, but you demanded me again before I could stand. And again as we rode to the underworld. Your hands gripped me as I tried to drive before I gave in and trusted the steeds to lead us there. Your eyes sparkled with a black thing that, though now enlarged and encouraged, had been there from the start.

            When we reached the underworld, I made you my queen, placing a crown of flaming stalagmites upon your head.

            As we strolled through your new home, you climbed to the top of a cliff and looked around. “This place is gorgeous. You were so lucky to claim it.”

            I glanced from The River Styx to the Vale of Mourning to the Fields of Punishment. The souls of the damned floated to their stations and stayed for eternity. Many of them reached out to us, begging for respite never to be granted.

            “I do not understand,” I said.

            You turned and smiled. “You do not have to. I've heard tales of a three headed dog. Can I meet him?”

            Cerberus. “Certainly.”

            We walked through the underworld. Your eyes clung to every cliff, gazed around every corner, examined every cold fire. Occasionally, you met my gaze. But when you did I turned, hoping you'd not see me and think of other men you'd be happier with. Your face sunk with disappointment when I did this. It made me all the more ashamed.

            “He's beautiful,” you told me when we reached Cerberus, running your hand along one of his heads.

            “I've known him as many things. 'Beautiful' has never been one.”

            “Then you just don't see him the way I do,” you whispered, and looked to me.

            I watched Cerberus' panting maw. His face lit with joy at your presence. Something inside me burned too brightly to bear; I turned away.

            That night, you tore your old gown from your body, and demanded it be replaced by something that covered less. Each time my servants brought another, you declared it: “too frumpy,” until they returned with a garment that hardly counted as clothing. The blackness in your eyes grew the moment you dawned it. You stood before a mirror, and examined yourself methodically.

            “Was I always this beautiful?” You asked.

            “Always,” I said.

            You looked to me, “Truly?”

            “Why are you surprised?”

            You looked back to the mirror. “My mother promised me no man would ever touch me. Logically, I knew it to be because Zeus had hurt her. But I still wondered if something was wrong with me.”

            “I'm sorry.”

            You bit your lip. “She meant it to be good, when she said it.”

            “Good or ill, it's a promise long broken by now.”

            You turned to me, and raised an eyebrow. We'd break that promise several more times before the night ended, and many more in the days and nights to follow.

            So time passed. In the rare moments when you weren't straddling me, demanding we make love again, you sat in a throne next to mine. They came to fear you more than me. Your name became a curse on mortal lips. You were known far and wide for your merciless condemnations of the dead. It was only fitting. After all, I came to the underworld by chance, you came by choice.

            I should have known it as too beautiful to last forever.

            First came the influx of starved souls. Far too many, filling our realm through a famine greater than any I'd seen before. Within a fortnight came Hermes, demanding your return. Your mother, goddess of the harvest, held all the nutrients of the world hostage until I freed you. I was ready. I'd been ready since I'd first entered you; everything beautiful was an eventual loss. My fate was to be alone in the dark. How arrogant I'd been, to think I'd be allowed-

            “No,” you interrupted my thoughts.

            “What?” I looked to you.

            “I will not go,” you hissed.

            “The mortals are dying. We need their offerings.”

            “Your brothers need their offerings.” You looked to me. “Tell me: when do they praise us? When do they pray to us? Let them die. And when they do, we will rule over them all.”

            “But—”

            You removed what little clothing you'd been wearing, and grabbed me. “Make love to me, but not like a lover. Like a desperate animal who won't see me again.”

            Hermes coughed, then sped away.

            The armies of Olympus came down upon us for your return. I told you we shouldn't fight; it would only end worse for us when the combined might of every other god proved triumphant.

            “How can you be such a coward?” you asked me. “What we have is too beautiful to give up.”

            “That is exactly why it must be given up.” I didn't meet your gaze. “In the end, everything beautiful is denied to me. You, most beautiful of them all, will be no different.”

            “This isn't just about what you want. What about me?”

            “You will find happiness eventually, but with someone else. I am cursed, and to be with me is to be cursed as well. I doomed you to this when I took you from that field. I'm sorry.”

            “So had I stayed there, I would be better off?” your voice nearly broke. “You sound exactly like my mother.”

            Shame pulsed through my shoulders and down into my ribs. Before I could respond, they marched into our throne room, their spears held high. Every god of Olympus, from Aries to Poseidon to Dionysus was present. Zeus, lightning in hand, stepped forward, Demeter furious at his side.

            “Hades!” Zeus yelled. “You are held in contempt for the rape of Persephone, and are commanded to return her at the point of a blade. Do you acquiesce?”

            You looked to me, begging.

            To see him accuse me of rape would have been comical had it not been rage-inducing. But I held it in. As I always had.

            “Take her,” I said. “I no longer care.”

            Your eyes and lips curled, twisted. I wanted to retreat within my own skin and vanish forever.

            “Very well,” said Zeus. A scornful smile lit Demeter's face.

            “Come here, my daughter, come here,” she wrapped her arms around you. “What is this frock you wear? This gown that exposes your entire body? My brother, look how her perverse uncle made her dress—not even as a nymph, but a mortal whore.”

            You spoke, “Mother, I—”

            She interrupted by tearing your gown away, leaving you naked and humiliated. For a moment, you kept your composure. Then you shivered, and gasped, and tears ran along the beautiful body that you tried to hide from Zeus' prying eyes. Your mother said nothing as he smirked at your nudity.

            All my shame pushed outward, into rage. An impulse struck me, just that and nothing more.

            I stood and yelled, “Persephone!”

            You turned.

            I wrenched a fruit from a tree. “A parting gift!”

            I threw it toward you.

            Many of the gods tried to swat it from the air before it reached you. Swift Hermes was the first to try, but he ran too quickly and zipped past it before he could correct himself. Artemis—who, as the goddess of virgins, took your acquisition rather personally—shot an arrow toward it and missed. Dionysus gave it a drunken fumble and fell over. Next it zipped past Aphrodite, who made a show of “failing” to catch it before winking at me. Zeus would have gotten it if he hadn't been so distracted by your body, and Demeter reached for it so desperately that her own frantic nature tripped her up. For the first and possibly last time the fates were on my side. You snatched it, your wide eyes touched mine, and I smiled.

            It's true. I've given up everything, and I'll continue to. But you, my love, are beyond everything.

            Before they could stop you, you took the fruit to your mouth. I felt your tongue running over it, tasting it. I felt it sliding down your throat as you swallowed. You ran your hands over your body as its power worked upon you.

            “Indecent girl!” Demeter yelled. “What has he taught you?”

            You snapped. “Only what I wanted to know. I chose those clothes. I learned to please him because I enjoyed it.”

            She sobbed. “Poisoned you! Oh, how thoroughly he's done it! You think you want this. You think you wantto be here.”

            “I do. And you have no concept of that! Zeus coerced you to produce me, and then killed any other man you laid with! You are an angry, bitter woman—overprotective only because you wish me not to feel the joy denied to you!”

            Demeter stopped crying. Her face widened and stilled.

            Zeus shot me a chiding glare. You didn't take her by force, you fool. You let her choose. Now look, you've spoiled her into having willpower. This is your fault.

            I said nothing.

            As they forced you onto your father's chariot. You looked back once more, and yelled to me. “Every day I shall dream of my return!”

            I raised an eyebrow. “Dreams are fickle. Just return.”

            You grinned. Zeus lashed his reins, and the chariot shot off like lightning. You vanished.

            But you had eaten the fruit of the underworld, and its chain would not detach from you. For six months, you wandered the Earth. Your mother's joy at your presence flourished the fields and brought an end to the blight. So the mortals feasted, praising her name.

            But then the grip of the chains grew stronger and pulled you down again, to be with me, where we made love until I tired—because you never would—and where you wore a garment that covered even less, perhaps to spite her.

            So the years pass much the same: six months above, six below. The daughter of Demeter and the Queen of Hades both, though drawing joy from one more than the other. Every time you must go, I hope for you to come back sooner than before. I long for your gentle eyes, your confident poise, the curves of your hips and the movement of your lips and tongue whether they are touching me or not. I demand you return, though it is a demand you do not have to heed. I make it not from authority, but from the heart.

            Stay here. Rule with me.

            And forever we will make love in the dark.

About the Author

Matthew Maichen · Chapman University

Matthew Maichen is a proud former editor of Chapman University's Calliope, and the current Editor-in-Chief of The Metaworker, a millennial literary blog. "Persephone" first appeared in Calliope

About the Artist

Samantha Metzner · Guilford College

Samantha Metzner is an artist currently based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She works primarily with alternative photographic processes and relishes in the forever rewarding qualities of handmade photographs. "Karla with Candle, Kreuzberg, Berlin" first appeared in The Greenleaf Review.