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FICTION: A distinguished visitor from the north, conclusion

Hel remained in the land of Hades for some time after the birth of Melinoe. Hades found her presence reassuring, and so, very shortly, did Persephone and Hekate. Hades caught up on his backlog of work while Hel and Hekate tended Persephone and the baby. The three goddesses were often talking when he stopped in to visit his wife and child, in that passionate and serious way that some gods (and men) believe goddesses (and women) cannot. Persephone recovered quickly from the difficulty of the birth, thank Ananke, and little Melinoe grew with divine swiftness. As the child thrived and Hades took pains to show his acceptance of her, dandling her on his knee, Persephone seemed more and more pleased by his visits and eager to talk with him.

In little time as mortals reckon it, Melinoe was toddling and babbling, and Hades indulged in taking her into the throne room and showing her off to his servants and subjects. Persephone had not resumed her usual work as yet, but she was quite well enough to dress as befitted her station and appear with her husband and child. Hel had asked several times if they wished her to leave, and they had pleaded sincerely with her to stay, so she was present when the thing happened that Hades and Persephone least expected.

Hermes entered in full rig and saluted the thrones with his staff. “Hail, Hades, you who welcome many! Hail, Persephone, queen of the underworld! Hail, Hekate, triformed, fierce, howling! Hail, Hel, daughter of Loki and Angrboda, mistress of the northern dead!”

Hades handed Melinoe off to Hekate, who led the child out, and rose to acknowledge Hermes with a bow. “Welcome, Argeiphontes, Psychopompos! Do you escort a guest to our palace?”

“I do, dread lord. The daughter of Rhea and Kronos, the sister of Olympian Zeus, the mother of Kore who is called Persephone, most noble Deo, seeks entrance here.”

Persephone gasped aloud. Hades gulped and hoped that no one noticed. “Lead her in that I may give her welcome.”

Hermes exited, restraining his usual speed for dignity’s sake, and returned followed by a tall figure wrapped head to foot in deep violet. Hermes stepped aside, bowing, to let her approach the thrones; only when Persephone began to rise did the goddess stop and uncloak, one hand held out.

“Daughter.” The goddess’s low and resonant voice made the whole throne room ring. She was arrayed in her finest garments, embroidered richly with figures of wheat and poppies, with gold adorning her throat and arms and dangling from her ears. She was far more terrifying to Hades than his odd-eyed, soft-spoken visitor from the north.

Demeter came to the throne, holding out her hands. “The child. Let me see him.”

Hades opened his mouth, but his wife forestalled him. “My child is a daughter and she is mine, not yours.”

Demeter looked, for a fleeting moment, dismayed. “Let me see her, then.”

“Why should I?” Persephone stood up. On the top step of the dais, she was taller than her mother. “Where were you when I cried out in agony? Where were you when I needed help in my pains? I called for you, mother. I needed you. And you didn’t come. Now you want to see my daughter, you want to take her away from me as you took Demophoon away from his mother, you want her heart to belong to you! It’s not going to happen, mother. You have come too late.”

Demeter actually took a step backward. “Kore…”

“That is not my name!”

Now it was Persephone’s voice that made the stone of the great hall throb and ring. For a moment, all stood poised like a great rock on the edge of a cliff: Would it fall and crush everything below it? Just as Hades was about to speak, again, he was forestalled. Hel stepped out of the shadows.

“Give the child to me.”

Everyone stared at the northern goddess. Demeter looked utterly confused; she had not known Hel was there.

“I know what you want, Demeter,” Hel said. She smiled her disconcerting smile. “You want a champion who can overthrow Zeus, as Zeus overthrew Kronos and Kronos Ouranos. You want a chlid of your choosing on the throne of the cosmos, fed at your breast, shaped by your stories. But the time is not yet come.”

She turned to Persephone. “When you are ready to wean the child, lady, let her be fostered with me. I will care for her kindly; I think your husband will vouch for that. She will be hidden, protected… but my gates will be open to your messenger, and to the two of you.”

Persephone looked at Hades. He nodded; Hel must have known, all along…. Persephone reached for Hel’s hands and took them. “Let it be so, then. My midwife, my husband’s trusted friend, you will be my daughter’s foster mother, for as long as there is need.”

Hel bowed over Persephone’s hands and released them. She turned back to Demeter. “Lady of the grain, do you wish to see your daughter’s daughter? Or did you only wish to claim your champion?”

Demeter hesitated before answering. “I would like to see my granddaughter.”

Hel nodded and vanished behind the dais. She returned with Hekate, the two of them leading Melinoe between them.

Demeter stifled a noise. Melinoe was neatly dressed in a little black gown, with white ribbons in her dark hair, and a necklace of garnets that looked, Hades thought, like the pomegranate seeds by which he had wooed Persephone. She walked very well, though she did not speak much yet. The right side of her body remained jet black, and the left side milk white; her wide eyes were a clear and brilliant grey.

Hekate and Hel let go of her hands. Melinoe toddled forward, heading straight for Demeter. She climbed the steps of the dais to stop at Demeter’s feet, small hands clutching at the goddess’ full skirts, and looked up at her grandmother. “Deo,” she said, softly but clearly.

Demeter clapped a hand over her mouth. After a moment, she stooped, sinking down onto the steps to meet the child eye to eye. “Melinoe. You know who I am?”

“Deo,” the child affirmed. “Ya-ya.”

Hades turned away his face as tears spilled down his mother-in-law’s cheeks. “Melinoe,” she answered. “Mikrokoritsi.”

The child wrapped her arms around her grandmother, who embraced her in return. Unnoticed by anyone except perhaps Melinoe, Hel smiled.

FICTION: A distinguished visitor from the north, part eight

The land of Hades was a quiet place, as a rule. Deeper down, in Tartaros, the imprisoned ones raged and howled, but in the fields of asphodel, there was neither weeping nor laughter. Yet it seemed quieter than ever as Hades, clutching the arms of his throne, waited for word of his wife’s labor. His servants kept out of his sight. The dead did not pass before him. He heard the ticking of clocks that had not been invented yet and tried not to hold his breath.

The air–not just the air, but the very walls of the palace, the earth underfoot, and Hades’ ears were rent by a cry of anguish. “Mother!”

He clenched his fists so hard that the eternal black stone crumbled beneath his fingers. Again the cry rang out. “Mother! Mama!” Persephone’s voice, full of unbearable pain. He could not go to her. He must not go to her. No man, not even a god, would trespass on the birthing chamber.

A wordless howl pierced his heart. A deep gasp followed by anguished sobbing. “Mama, mama, mommy–” The word rose into a scream. Hades tore at his robes, his hair to keep from breaking his own holy seat into dust. She would never come. Demeter had made that very clear. She would never enter Hades’ realm. Did she even hear her daughter’s screams? Would she care if she did?

Persephone cried out yet again and Hades half-rose, ready to send someone to beg Demeter to come, in spite of all, ready to go himself and fall at her knees like a supplicant. And then a biting cold wind rushed through the great hall and Hel was standing before him, her mismatched eyes ablaze.

She grasped his wrist with her fingers of bone. “Take me to her.”

He did not allow himself to think; he only obeyed the visiting goddess. Hel burst into the birthing chamber ahead of him, and Hades gagged at the smells of blood and fear. Hekate, her hair undone and her torso bared, was laboring between Persephone’s legs like a wrestler, but her cries were dwindling to weak sobs.

“Stand aside.” Hekate looked up and bared her teeth at the newcomer, but when Hel stepped forward, she moved back. Hel stepped between Persephone’s thighs and laid her hands on the young goddess’ distended belly.

She murmured something that Hades could not make out. Persephone’s panting eased; she twisted with a sudden pang, but her resultant cry was stronger, more focused. Hel glanced from side to side. “You two, hold her up and take her hands.” Hades noted that Hekate also did not hesitate, but obeyed.

Persephone’s head lolled against his shoulder; her hands closed around his and Hekate’s as his hands had closed on the arms of his throne. Hel, her piercing gaze focused downward, stroked her hands over Persephone’s belly, again and again, from her breasts to her pubic mound. Persephone somehow spread her legs wider.

“You are strong,” Hel said. “You must bear this child. You can do it.”

“No,” Persephone whimpered. Hel untied her apron, unlaced her gown; glimpses of naked bone and putrid-pale flesh showed as she bent over the birthing goddess.

“Let it go. Let go. Let the child go. Let it happen.” Hel raised her hands and made a gesture, saying something under her breath in her own tongue. “Let her be what she is.”

Persephone arched, twisted, and made a noise that was more like a roar than a scream. Then she went completely limp against Hades and Hekate as Hel, crooning softly, caught the child that finally emerged.

Hades eased Persephone down onto the bed. Hekate began wiping her face with a wet cloth, but Hades turned to Hel. She had wrapped the child in her shawl and was… laughing over it.

When he approached, she wiped the child’s face gently with the shawl and tilted the small bundle so he could see. A tiny, beautiful, radiant face, black as coal on one side, white as snow on the other. Divided down the middle like her midwife, Hel.

“Where… where…?”

“She is here, lady Persephone, and she is well.” Hel carried the child to its mother and laid it in the crook of Persephone’s arm. “She needs only her mother’s milk and her father’s love.” She looked at Hades, who sat down beside his wife.

“Can you put her to your breast, my dear one?” With shaking hands he helped her adjust the infant, who soon began nursing strongly. Persephone gave a soft groan, yet followed it with a smile.

“She is hungry. I might be, too, in a little while. Would you like to name her, husband?” She opened her eyes just for a moment to smile at Hades.

He looked at the child, half dark, half bright, nestled against his wife’s full breast. “Let us call her Melinoe.”

(To be concluded tomorrow in part nine!)

A distinguished visitor, part seven

Hades did not press for his wife’s company. He was grateful that she dined with him, walked with him in the garden, and listened to him talk of inconsequential things, though she neither ate nor said much. She permitted a touch of his hand or a salute of his lips but slept and bathed apart, hiding her body from him like a virgin. As her load grew larger, the rest of her seemed to waste away. How proud his brother would be, no doubt, to see his daughter burning up her strength carrying his child!

One day as he was walking by the Styx, watching the ferry weave back and forth and trying to decide whether he wanted to go for a ride, she came to him and put her hand on his arm. “Send for Hekate,” she said, and her fingers tightened hard on his flesh.

Hekate was sent for and arrived at speed, her horses panting and sweating. Hades stood aside, feeling both useless and helpless, as the elder goddess took Persephone aside and spoke to her in private. He was relieved when Hekate returned.

“Her labor has not yet begun, but it shall, before the moon sets. She is in your shared bedchamber; go and talk with her while I order a room for her lying-in.”

Obediently he hastened into the palace to speak with Persephone. She looked pale, and thinner than ever, except for the mound of her belly under her shift. At once she pulled at the covers, fretfully, but Hades took her hand in his and drew up the covers himself.

“Rest easy, dear lady. Hekate is preparing a room for you, and everything will be all right.”

She would not look at him, but at least she let him clasp her hand. “I am frightened, my lord.” Her voice was barely audible. “I cannot imagine the child born.”

Neither could he, as it happened. Persephone, holding his child, smiling and crying with relief? He pictured her dead and cold as any mortal. “Hekate will be with you, dearest.” It was the most comforting thing he could think to say.

Persephone started to say something, then shook her head, tears spilling down onto her cheeks. He could guess what she didn’t want to say: That her mother would not be here, nor Artemis who midwifed her own brother, nor any of the companions of her maiden days, only Hekate, an infernal goddess attended by chthonic spirits.

Hekate returned then, accompanied by servants bearing a litter. “Your chamber is ready, my dear. Can you get up and walk, or will your lord husband carry you?”

Persephone managed to get out of bed and walk to the litter by leaning on her husband’s arm. It was little comfort that she accepted his help when she looked so weak, so frightened. Hades looked keenly at Hekate, but she did not notice, her gaze fixed on Perspehone. He was not sure whether he clung to his wife’s hand or she clung to his, only that their hands slid apart and he felt terribly alone when the litter-bearers carried her away.

A distinguished visitor, part six

There were no peaceful walks in the garden for a while, nor visits from her ladyship in the north. Given a choice between lashing out at his subjects and servants or sequestering himself where he could harm no one, Hades chose the latter, in the form of long chariot rides where he wearied the horses as well as himself. He appeared in the throne room only when it was absolutely necessary. Sometimes he sat for long stretches by the mouth of Tartaros, staring at the huge black plate that sealed it and wondering what would happen if he lifted it off.

At last he broke down and wrote his own letter, addressed to Hekate. It said only, “Tell her she is welcome, if she will come home.”

He did not receive an immediate reply. Time passed and he refused to bother reckoning it. It was on a day when he had gone back to the gardens, at last, that he heard an unfamiliar chariot approaching, occupied by two women: Hekate and his wife.

Hades stood by the garden gate, watching as Hekate slowed the horses, stepped down from the chariot, patted the horses as she passed by them, and offered both hands to the mantled figure who had ridden with her. His heart ached to see his wife alight clumsily, leaning on the other goddess’ hands. They approached him together, Hekate’s arm around Persephone, who was wrapped in purple from head to foot.

At last Persephone bared her head and looked at him. “My lord.”

Her face was thinner but her shape fuller, unless the mantle deceived him. Her eyes looked sore and bruised. He wanted to take her in his arms. Instead, he bowed deeply. “My lady wife.” And held out his hand.

A brief eternity passed before she took it. Her small hand was cold and weak. Hekate nodded and turned back to her chariot as he led his wife into the gardens.

He sat down on a bench, hoping she would join him. He thanked Fate that she did, even though she kept some distance between them. He tried to think of something to say.

“The gardens look neglected,” she said finally, in a tiny voice.

“Their caretaker was gone. The plants have missed you.” So have I, he wanted to add.

Persephone shifted inside the purple mantle. He thought she was rubbing her belly, in the way of all pregnant females of every kind. “I needed some time to myself.”

“Of course. Understandable.”

“And I wasn’t sure if….” She bit her lip, glanced up at him. Her mouth was trembling, and he wanted to kiss it in reassurance.

“If I would still want you?” It was the wrong thing to say, or perhaps the right thing. Persephone began crying, silently, but rocking back and forth on the bench as the tears went on. And on.

He feared that putting his arms around her like a husband would only hurt her. So instead Hades, lord of the underworld, receiver of the numberless dead, went down on his knees before his wife and clasped her legs like a supplicant.

“Dearest wife. I do not blame you. It is not your fault. My anger is for… the deceiver who outraged you, not for you. I only want you to be well.”

Her weeping slowed a little, and he made bold to reach up and stroke her hair. “I thought we were getting on well together, after a difficult beginning. I fear now that I have lost your affections forever. But please, however you feel about me, allow me to take care of you, and of your child. Let it be my child, too. Our child.”

She raised her face from her hands, as tear-stained and blush-blotched as any mortals. Her eyes searched his. And she threw her arms around his neck and wept afresh.

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.

“My lady?”

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.”

A distinguished visitor, part four

She had a habit of asking unsettling questions just before she departed. Nevertheless, Hades found himself looking forward to Hel’s visits, to slow walks with her in the gardens, to her calm face and flat voice and those offhand probing questions.

On one of their circuits about the land of shadows, they crossed paths with Hekate and her retinue. Hades halted the horses to greet the triformed goddess; she approached the chariot and bowed.

“Hail, lord Hades. Hail, Hel, divided goddess, lady of the northern dead.”

“Hail, Hekate, triformed goddess, lady of the torches.” And Hel made a little bow.

Hades was struck by the formality of their exchange; he and Hekate were comrades of old. He did not think anything more about it, however, until Hel had left and he received another unexpected visitor, namely, Hekate.

“Does she come here often?” She had a habit of putting her hands on her hips when she was talking to him that he hoped Persephone never came to imitate.

“Who?”

“You know who. The northern goddess.”

“Often? Well, I don’t know that I would say often–”

“What does she want?”

“Want? I don’t know. To bear me company. To have company, I suppose.”

“She has company at home, surely.” Hekate folded her arms across her chest, which was worse than hands on hips. “And you have a wife.”

“What are you implying, Brimo? Do you think I would cheat on Persephone?”

Hekate glared at him for a long moment without answering. Then she breathed out in a huff. “No, I don’t. But I know you well. Others who don’t know you might be misled by appearances, and they might spread gossp that could get back to the girl, and hurt her.”

Hades had not considered this. He rather prided himself on not looking beyond his own bedroom, now that he was properly married. (Unlike some people he could name.) He was also struck that Hekate still referred to his wife as “the girl”. There was something girlish about Hel, actually, that in some way reminded him of Persephone.

“You know I don’t want to hurt Persephone. That is the last thing I would want to do. But I also don’t want to fail in hospitality to a foreign deity, and a ruler of the dead, at that, someone who’s in the same profession as I am. And I think Hel and I have become–friends.”

Hekate sighed, and her faithful hound wandered in and leaned against her legs. “I divine that Hel has some ulterior motive for visiting you, something she hasn’t revealed, but I cannot divine what that is, yet.” She laid a hand on Hades’ arm. “If you have any doubts, if anything doesn’t seem right, will you speak to me, let me know?”

“I will do that. I swear.” The room seemed to quiver around them. He had not named the sacred river by which the gods swore their oaths, but they were so near to it as made little difference.

Hekate left to pursue her own affairs. Hades made it rain in the gardens and walked in the rain for a long time.

Prayer to Hekate

Through three realms you walk

on two feet with six arms

your three heads and six eyes

all-seeing in light or dark

your two torches raised and lowered

showing the way for us

who dare to follow you,

Hekate Trivia,

away from the crossroads

and over the hill

into the unknown.

Attended by hound and serpent

and armed with dagger and hook

you roam the waste places,

Hekate Soteira,

yet visit grain-giving Demeter

and dread Persephone

and wide-eyed Hera

with equal welcome from all.

Your feet know

the tracks of the stars

and the paths of the sea

and the secret caverns

where the way leads

downward to the light

within the earth.

You who fought the Giants

with the power of a Titaness,

Hekate Perseis, born of Asteria,

teach your worshippers

wisdom and knowledge,

give power to heal and to harm,

to curse and to bless,

to wander far yet

come home safely.

Witch, bitch, torch

in the night, revealer

of mysteries, Hekate,

great goddess,

deal kindly with me,

your supplicant.

Sacred Nights: The Panthea

Hail, Artemis, Diana, Athena, Bendis, Bona Dea, Cybele, Demeter, Ceres, Hathor, Hera, Juno, Hekate, Hestia, Vesta, Isis, Maia, Nemesis, Persephone, Selene, Thetis, Tyche, Fortuna, Venus, Aphrodite, hail!

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