Antinous for Everybody

Archive for the tag “my fiction”

FIC: The origin of make-up sex

james_barry_001

“Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida” by James Barry, 1776

It is not well known, but it is a fact that Zeus and Hera invented make-up sex.

The first time he wooed another after their marriage (and who was that first? that, nobody knows), Hera was furious. She painted the skies with her rage in boiling red sunsets, lurid green cloud cover, humidity so thick that mortals struggled to breathe. When at last Zeus came home, smelling of a stranger and smiling to himself, she screamed at him in shrieking winds, threw knick-knacks in a hailstorm, and pounded her fists on his stubborn chest. How could he outrage her dignity like this? How could he flout their marriage vows? Had he no respect for her guardianship of marriage? How could he prefer, even for an instant, some mayfly mortal to a goddess, the daughter of Kronos and Rhea?

Zeus defended himself with piles of thunderclouds, with shaking the lightning bolt, with bellowing thunder that rolled for miles over the lands about Olympus. He was the king and father among the gods! Of course he respected her, but his attentions were a blessing to be bestowed widely! Of course he would always come back, no one would ever supplant her on the throne. How dare she question him, the wielder of the thunderbolt, the son who overthrew his father when the others wouldn’t even try? Mortals cowered as the lord of the heavens and his lady fought.

Then the proximity of anger turned into the proximity of passion. Shouting into one another’s faces turned into frantic kissing, each swallowing the other’s angry words. Clenched fists turned into gripping and tearing at each other’s clothing. The pins that Zeus pulled from Hera’s curls fell deep into the earth to become raw ore for the swords of heroes. The winds moaned in harmony with Hera’s pleasure; the thunder boomed with Zeus’s grunts of effort.

And in their mutual climax, the clouds burst and rain fell, soaking the earth, blessing the soil, filling dry creek beds, replenishing deep wells. As the divine spouses slept in each other’s arms, the clouds dispersed, and Iris the messenger of Hera danced on the ramparts of Olympus, filled with the joy of her mistress. Mortals pointed to the hem of her many-colored gown as it rippled in the sky and thanked the gods for their blessings.

Zeus and Hera awoke together, Hera’s hand resting on his bearded cheek, his fingers twined in her unbound her. He kissed her brow. “I shall have many lovers, but only one wife. Use your anger to temper the heroes I will father, and remember that I love you, first and last.”

She laid a finger on his lips. “I will scatter your paramours like seeds before the winds, even if mortals think I am merely a jealous shrew. And all your children will come at last to know me as their mother. But let all our quarrels always end thus, in make-up sex.”

And so it was, and so it is.

FIC: “A leisurely cruise through the stars”, part eleven

The retsina might have gone to Melinoe’s head, divine though she was, but the coffee seemed to have steadied her. What an amazing potion that was. She gladly accepted her host’s offer of a walk on the promenade.

“Hadrian always used to recommend a walk after a meal.” They were not alone, although the night was cool; other people were already strolling the deck, mostly couples and small groups, mostly quiet. “Said it improved digestion. He still says that,” and Antinous pointed, chuckling. Melinoe followed his gesture and saw the divus Hadrian with his wife, diva Sabina, her companion the poetess, and Ganymede.

“In case you were wondering, the answer is yes.” She turned back to Antinous, who was smiling, one eyebrow cocked.

“Yes?”

“Yes, Hadrian will likely take Ganymede to bed tonight. And Sabina customarily sleeps with Julia on those occasions.”

“And you?”

“I may sleep alone. But I won’t be lonely. And if I do wish for company, there are many who would gladly be my partner.”

Melinoe paused by the deck rail and laid her hands on the polished brass. It was pleasantly cool, not cold, like the wind that stirred her gown. Around the ship, which glided through the vast heavens like a barge on a deep but gentle river, the stars whirled in their endless dance.

“I… have not had a partner yet. I have long assumed that when I did, I would have but one, and he would likewise find his only one in me.”

Antinous folded his arms on the rail, his elbow a few inches from hers. He, too, looked out into the depth of sky, the body of Night.

“When Hadrian and I met, custom recommended that a man be faithful to one wife, the mother of his children. But custom also held its tongue if a man, even married, found other partners, whoever they might be, as long as he… preserved his dignity in certain ways.”

Melinoe had not lived so sheltered a life that she did not recognize a euphemism when she heard it. She paused a moment before daring the question that arose. “And did he, with you?”

“In mortal life, yes.” Antinous turned his back to the railing but still propped his elbows on it. “Since then, no. Not with me. With others–I need not know. There is a mortal saying nowadays–to kiss and tell. He doesn’t.”

He was grinning like an imp, and she was blushing like, well, like a maiden. “Times change. Mortals change, and customs. Still, for most people, gods, mortals, whatever, the hope is one partner, one love, man and woman, the bearing of children. The turning of the wheel of life. Alas, some mortals now are enraged against the few of them who, like Hadrian, myself, my friends, love many, love more than one gender, love without desire to procreate.”

“But whyever for? Surely joining in love and pleasure is a good thing, a blessing mortals share with divinities.”

Antinous turned to look out from the ship again and ran a hand through his hair. “Truly, lady, I have spent many hours of both mortal and immortal life wondering about that. Enough people wish to procreate that the race of mortals will surely not die out for lack of interest. Love between two men or two women or bonds of friendship that include bedplay do no harm to those who have pledged fidelity to one husband or one wife. When I look at the mortal world, I see more harm done by men who claim to be ‘normal’, to be right and proper men, than by those called ‘queer’–tyranny over their wives and children, rape and other cruelties to women in general, fear and hatred also of those who differ from them in race or custom.”

He made a noise of deep frustration and turned to look at Melinoe. “In any case, I have made it my business to protect those who love differently, insofar as I can, to welcome them here and give them passage, and to do justice on their behalf.”

There was a note of ferocity in the young god’s voice that Melinoe had not heard before. She found it–thrilling. Yet she knew she was not ready to act on the feeling.

She was just about to propose that they walk a bit more when a sailor came rushing up to them. “Divine Navigator!” he said, when Antinous had acknowledged him. “We are passing from the constellation of Aquarius into the constellation of Capricorn.”
Antinous smiled and clapped his hands. “Come, lady! Let us go up to the bridge and watch from there.”

FICTION: “A leisurely cruise through the stars”, part ten

Antinous allowed a few minutes of silence while they both ate. Melinoe drank more of her water than of the wine, but she seemed to be enjoying the food. “Have you not seen your divine parents since you went to be fostered in the North?”

“I have seen them, from time to time, though only singly. Father visited only when Mother was in his realm, and Mother only when she was visiting with her mother. It will be a pleasure to see both of them at once, and in their own domain.”

Antinous refilled both their wine glasses. “Tell me of Hel’s realm. Until I came to escort you, I had never been there.”

“It is cold!” The goddess spoke so emphatically that Antinous laughed, and then so did she. “I remember that in my first few days there, I was terribly, terribly cold. I thought I would never be warm again.”

“You must have been very young.” The god signalled a hovering servant for more food.

“I was walking,” Melinoe said, musing. “I think this must be a difference between those who are born gods and those who are made so: I remember my infancy, which mortals do not.”
“True,” Antinous acknowledged. It was difficult to remember that Melinoe, so young and vivacious in appearance, was far older than himself.

“It was cold,” Melinoe repeated, “and I was lonely, at first, even though I knew Hel. She and Hekate midwived me, and I had seen her often. But I missed Mother and Father, of course, and Hekate, and our gardens.

“It is cold in Hel’s realm but dry, except near the Gjoll. In Hades there are small gardens Mother tends that have herbs and flowers, and there are orchards where the trees bear fruit. In Hel the lands have the appearance of late autumn. The leaves that cling to the trees are brown and gold, red and orange, like flames, but their fruit is rotted. Water is scarce, ice-cold, heavy with minerals. In one or two places, near the border with Muspellheim, there are hot springs, which smell horrid but feel very pleasant for soaking oneself. It is very quiet everywhere.”

Though her description did not sound at all appealing to Antinous, he could hear fondness in Melinoe’s voice.

“In my first days, my foster-mother took me to visit the god Baldur. He is one of the Aesir, but long ago he was slain by Loki and went to live among the dead. He has his own separate place in her realm, with his wife Nanna. It is warmer and brighter in their halls, and Baldur held me on his lap when I visited so that I got warm.” She smiled. “He and Nanna were very kind to me, and I visited them often. But once I got used to the chill, and had proper clothes, I liked being with Hel and going about her realm. The places of the dead all have much in common, after all, and Hel, too, is very kind in her way.”

Antinous privately thought that he had never encountered a goddess so fearsome as the Northern lady of the dead, but obviously her care had been a boon to Melinoe.

Servants came, took away the empty platters and plates with nothing but crumbs, and brought clean plates and a tray of baklava for dessert. They also brought, on a small table of its own, an urn of coffee with all the accompaniments.

“This, lady, is baklava, a wonderful pastry rich in honey. And this,” he got up to tend to the urn, “is a drink called coffee, made from the beans of a plant, which is excellent with sweet foods and stimulates the mind, especially in mortals.”

He placed a cup of the black, steaming brew in front of her, beside the triangle of baklava. “Try the coffee without any additions, first. If it seems too strong for you, cream or sugar or both can be added.”

Melinoe took a dainty bite of the pastry with one hand and a sip of the coffee with the other. Her eyes and her mouth alike grew round with obvious delight.

“How delicious!” She drank some water, then tasted the baklava again, washing it down with more water. She took a bold gulp of the coffee and licked her lips with relish. “I do like it just as it is. And it provides the perfect contrast to the flavor of the baklava.”

Antinous smiled. “From now on, lady, if anyone should ask you how you take your coffee, you may tell them that you take it black.”

FICTION: A leisurely cruise through the stars, part nine

Antinous dressed for dinner in simple contemporary clothes: A deep red henley that clung to the curves of his chest and shoulders and trousers that clung as determinedly to the curves of his thighs and buttocks. He slipped his feet into a pair of Italian loafers and contemplated his image in the looking-glass, running his hands through freshly washed hair.

“Vain boy,” Hadrian said, passing by with Sabina on their way to the dining hall.

Antinous fluttered his lashes, making Sabina laugh and Hadrian grumble. He had had a long converse with Lucius that included soaking in the baths, fucking in Lucius’ cabin, and showering off after a nap; he was feeling relaxed, happy to have Lucius and Sabina and Hadrian and so many who were dear to him on board the Barque, and excited at the chance for a more intimate conversation with Melinoe, the daughter of Persephone and foster-daughter of Hel.

Hermes himself had come bearing the request that Antinous convey the young goddess from the realm of her foster-mother, lady of the dead in the north, back to the realm of Hades where her parents ruled. Yet though he carried the herald’s staff, the request had been a true request, coming from Persephone, not an order from Zeus or any higher authority. Of course he was happy to oblige; one of the things he enjoyed most about godhood was being the captain of a travelling party in the afterlife. The Barque was a joyful home for the blessed dead in itself and also a transport to any place within the other worlds, and Antinous had found himself a welcome visitor to almost every port.

Satisfied that he looked both sufficiently godly and sufficiently on point, as the youth were saying in the earthly realms, Antinous went to the private dining room by way of the kitchens, making sure that the dinner was in readiness. He was lighting the lamps himself when Melinoe arrived at his door.

“My lady.” He bowed. “May I say that you flatter the dress you have chosen to wear?”

“My thanks to you.” Melinoe tiptoed into the room. “I modeled it after something I saw down below. However, I may be regretting adopting the shoes.”

Her feet were clad in glittering high-heeled sandals with heel and ankle straps–very on point, but difficult to walk in if one were unused to the style. They went well, however, with her gown: A fitted frock of nearly sheer violet stuff with an applique of birds and blossoms in vivid hues that covered her from breast to thigh. Her hair fell loosely over her shoulders, smelling of cinnamon and myrrh.

“Please, sit down,” Antinous gestured to the table, “and don’t hesitate to slip those shoes off–I won’t be looking under the table to scold if you do!”

Smiling, the goddess took her seat at the small round table for two. Antinous lit the last two lamps on their stands and took his seat as well. Small candles burned between them, kindling lights in the colors of his guest’s gown, in her wide grey eyes, in her glossy black and white hair.

“I thought it might please you to sample some foods you have not, I think, had in a long while,” Antinous said. He cleared his throat. “I have ordered a tasting menu of foods from Greece and around the Mediterranean Sea, with local wines.”

“That sounds delicious,” the goddess said. He was struck, not for the first time, by the brightness and happiness of her face, the sheer enthusiasm she radiated. In his experience, most of the deities of the underworlds were more solemn, dealing as they did with human loss and grief, with the multitudes of the deceased and the greater multitudes of those who had not been properly honored at death and wandered restlessly through all the worlds. The realm of Hel was notoriously somber even amongst the lands of death, yet Melinoe had come out of her long fostering there with a smile on her face.

A server arrived with the first course of food, diverting Antinous from gazing at his guest. “Here we have tzatziki, made of cucumber and fresh sheep’s-milk yogurt seasoned with garlic, mint, and dill. This is hummus, made from chickpeas, sesame, garlic, and olive oil. This dish is melitzanosalata, roasted eggplant mixed with tomatoes, yogurt, garlic, and herbs. And finally, we have fresh vegetables and toasted pita bread to dip.”

While Melinoe was exclaiming over the variety of spreads, another server arrived and set down two tall plain modern glasses for water and two heavy glass goblets made in the Roman fashion, the richly figured and colored stuff that Hadrian had been proud of on his tables. A third server filled the modern vessels with water and the goblets with a golden wine.

“This is retsina,” Antinous said, lifting his goblet. “It’s white wine flavored with pine resin. Long ago it was created by accident when mortals used pine resin to seal their wine jugs, but they still drink it for the flavor. I drank quite a lot of it in my hometown and have never lost the taste.” He raised the goblet toward Melinoe. “To your health, lady!”

“To your health!”

They both drank. Antinous watched the goddess sip carefully and savor the pungent taste.

“It pairs very well with the food before us,” he said, when she smiled and made no comment. “Please, guests should eat first.”

 

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 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.

A distinguished visitor, part three

Hades did not try to answer the question then, as Hel inclined her head to him and then turned to limp out of his throne room. Nor did he answer it the next time she visited him, and they drove his chariot through the various regions of his realm, talking of their mutual concern with the dead. He was surprised by Hel, again, when he learned that it was her personal concern to feed and clothe all of the dead, to gather those who would come into her hall for a nightly banquet, and in general to be much more personally involved with the shades than he had ever been.

“My people are fewer in number,” she said, with that strange smile that exposed all her teeth for a moment. “The inhabitants of the north are fewer than those of the southern lands, and those who die in battle are taken by Odin or Freya to dwell in their halls, in Asgard.”

“We have places of higher honor here as well, but all in my domain, except for the Isles of the Blessed, and few indeed merit to go there.”

“And you have places of lower honor, too, do you not?” She accepted his hand and stepped down from the chariot, stopping to watch as servants came to unharness his horses and lead them away. “What you call Tartaros?”

“Yes. The prison of the earlier gods who did not wish Zeus to take the throne of heaven.” It was growing easier to match his stride to her unabashed limp. “Not that we created it; the pit of Tartaros existed before the Titans or our father Kronos.”

“Kronos himself was a Titan, was he not?”

“He was. He and his brothers turned against their father Ouranos and killed him.”

“As your brother Zeus subsequently turned against him.” The goddess lowered herself into a chair in the small audience chamber where he had led her.

“Indeed. May I summon food or drink for you, lady?”

“Just water, guardian of Tartaros.” There was, of course, a pitcher of fresh water on a nearby table–two pitchers, in fact, one on a tray with cups for drinking, the other by a basin and a stack of towels, for washing. Persephone was rather fastidious about the dust of the underworld.

Hel drained off the cup Hades poured her and turned it in her hands. It was plain, unfigured, but perfectly smooth, satisfying to the hand. “I am a Titaness, you know.”

Hades sat down with his own cup of water. “I did not know that, no.”

“In our language, it is Jotun, Jotnar. The word is closer to your word ‘gigantes’ in meaning, but it amounts to the same thing. My father Loki and his people were gods in the north before the Aesir or the Vanir came along. The Allfather of the Aesir put me into Hel as your brother put some of the Titans into Tartaros. He thought he would be safer if I were locked up. He did not realize until too late that he had not locked me in; rather, he had locked himself out.” She smiled again, widely; Hades would not have admitted it, but even he found her half-flesh, half-bone smile–disturbing.

“Are you locked in, lord Hades? Or is your brother Zeus locked out?”

(Part two Part one)

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