A distinguished visitor, part five
Hades always knows when his wife is about to return. A little ripple runs through the underworld; a gust of wind drives the ghosts of leaves that have fallen. Acorns and small animals burrow into the soil for the winter. Certain illnesses bring mortal humans to cross the Styx in numbers. Then there is a moment when everything holds its breath, and as Helios’ chariot finally slips down the western slope of the sky, Persephone returns.
Today, she is late.
There is a routine for these things, a protocol. Demeter will approach the gates of Hades to receive her daughter from the shadows, but not to return her to her lord. In both cases Hermes serves as escort for the goddess, leading her safely between heaven and earth, earth and the underworld.
He knew something was wrong when he went to bathe before her arrival and found her already in the hot water, soaking in the mineral-rich heat with a smile he saw too rarely on her face.
Persephone opened her eyes and started at the sight of him. It pained him that she still did that, occasionally. Her arms went to cover her nudity; then she relaxed, blinked, and smiled.
“My lord. Will you join me?”
He frowned, then tried to smile. “I was not expecting you so soon. How came you here before me? Where is Argeiphontes?” He approached and stooped by the edge of the pool.
“Did we not see each other already, my lord? Hermes led me here by a different way, and I waited for you where the Kokytos divides from the Styx, by that tall rock. You came to me there and we–”
Persephone broke off, no doubt seeing the distress on Hades’ face. Her arms curled across her chest, and she seemed to shiver despite the hot water.
“It was not I, my lady. Indeed, I swear it was not I.”
She stared at him, lips parted, her distress mirroring his own. He thought about joining her in the bathing pool, but as soon as he made the slightest movement, she backed away from him, shuddering.
“Leave me, my lord. Please. Leave.”
He left. At least he knew that if a man’s (or a god’s) company is unwelcome to his wife, he should not press the issue. She did not come to their bedroom that night, nor did he see her in the morning. He was sitting in the garden, listless, wishing Persephone were there to walk with him, when Hekate arrived. Somehow he was not surprised.
Hekate sat down beside him on the bench and sighed deeply. “She came to talk to me, and slept in my house.”
“Good.” At least she wasn’t alone.
“According to her account, you met her at the head of the Kokytos, where it leaves the Styx. You said you had missed her sorely and could not bear to be apart any longer. And you–possessed her, on the rock where the rivers divide.”
Was this what weeping felt like? His eyes stung. His chest felt as if Olympos had been set upon it.
“She is scratched and bruised, though I think she would not have cause to complain if….”
“It was not I. It could not have been.”
“She knows that now.”
He looked at the goddess, his elder. She met his gaze, grave, even angry.
“Kronion,” Hades said, and ground his teeth.
Persephone remained for some while in the house of Hekate, attended by some of the underworld nymphs. She was afraid, Hekate said, that he would be wroth with her for having been seduced. Hades withheld his angry words. Even amongst mortals, there were men wise enough not to blame a woman for having been outraged. She had not been taken by force, but she had been seduced by guile; her consent had been nowise given, or even requested.
Then, one day, a messenger bearing that rare thing, a written missive, with Hekate’s seal. He opened it in private, sitting on the bed which his wife had not shared with him for so many months, and read the single sentence she had inscribed: “She is pregnant.”