Segments in italics taken from Cecilia Woloch’s poem ‘Hades’
Where we go when he closes my eyes…
Pollen coats her feet like party glitter on her Abduction Day. She’d been kicking at the budding spellflowers, her mother’s newest creation, turning up the earth, squishing dirt between her toes.
She thinks that’s what attracted him. The slaughter of the flowers, her spiteful laugh as she’d trampled on what spring had so painstakingly coaxed into bloom. Turns out you can catch flies with more than honey. Her tantrum drew the eye of a monster.
Tall and distorted with shadow, a hooded figure rises from an unseen pit and grasps her by the arm. She can’t help screaming when its fingers, soot-blackened and conjoined by a membranous web of adipocere, slide over her wrist, leaving a smear of fluid almost like the glistening trail of a mollusc. For a second, she believes in those tired mortal nightmare tales of zombies and mummies, of putrefied corpses rising from graveyard soil to feast on ripe flesh. She’s heard it all before – there are no such monsters, not in Olympus – but for a second, she believes.
And then it mutters a curse and her knees give way, and the beast scoops her into its arms as though she is weightless. Her shift rides up her thighs obscenely, and she has time to blush at the indecency before that pit is gaping before them, a sightless abyss, and she wraps her arms around her captor’s neck and clings on for dear life.
And together, they plunge into the world below.
Some blue darkness, further than hell…
It seems to her that strange galaxies swirl there, in the pinpricks of cold light in the blackness – she feels the pull of gravity lifting the hairs on her arms and head, floating fiery strands about her face. Or maybe what she feels is the absence of gravity, of matter unanchored, as her abductor wades through the dark, radiant shadows rippling in its wake.
Eventually, once her eyes have adjusted to the dark, she notices that the light is bouncing off water – creating the shimmering, cosmic effect she’d thought she’d seen. The beast carrying her is up to its knees, the hem of its cloak trailing like a prince’s coronation robe in the muck. She peers down, trying to glimpse their shared reflection in the mirrored surface, but the beast snarls and grips the back of her head with one hand, shoving her face roughly into its shoulder. Persephone lets out a muffled cry, her mouth crushed against the fabric of its cloak, teeth pressed painfully against her lips. She expects the cloak to stink, imbued with the filth of rot and centuries, but it just smells faintly bitter, like citrus.
There’s a brief splash as her kidnapper enters the shallows, then steps out of the water entirely, onto a more well-lit section of rock. An uneven shelf leads up to a staircase, cut into the feldspar and impregnated with seams of quartz, and Persephone stifles her gasp against the creature’s shoulder as they climb, the crystals scintillating underfoot, a sea of stars.
There are no bodies here – we dream shapeless dreams…
They reach the top of the staircase, the maiden and the monster, with her arms still circling its throat like pearls. Her captor hesitates, and she chooses that moment to squirm and writhe, trying to break its grip. Her mouth is still pressed against its cloak – silencing her – and, instinctively, she peels her lips back to her gums and bites. Her teeth sink through fabric and flesh, and her captor grunts with pain, their vengeful fingers knotting themselves into her hair and yanking mercilessly. Her head rocks back on her spine, a frisson of golden sparks bursting before her eyes, and she kicks reflexively, one of her knees connecting with the monster’s chin with a crack, the hood falling back from its skull to reveal the terror underneath-
And she spits in the monster’s face. A glob of sticky, blood-tinged spittle lands on its cheek, slipping over skin the colour and temperature of metal.
For a moment, they stare at each other in disbelief. Then its lips crinkle with disgust and its arms fall away entirely, letting her slide clumsily to the floor. The creature wipes its cheek with the sleeve of its cloak, grimacing as Persephone watches, at once repulsed and spellbound by the sight of it.
Silver-dusted skin stretches over cheekbones as delicate and pronounced as those of a seraph in bas-relief, but the black veins – spidering up the sides of its face to form lightning forks around its eye sockets – are like cracks in porcelain, ugly and horribly apparent. Its black-lipped mouth curls back over teeth that are nothing more than serrated points, inset in dark gums. Its eyes are dark too, and as Persephone stares, they swivel to meet her gaze – she sees that they are a livid violet, the shade of the belladonna plants that grow in mother’s nightgarden, bearing bloated, poisonous berries. Above those eyes sits a crown shaped out of bleached bone, milk-white and twisted – segments of the bone have crystallized into geodes, winking with baby amethyst crystals.
Beautiful, but deadly, she thinks, and then the monster is speaking to her, in a cracked, guttural voice that sounds like it hasn’t been put to use in aeons.
‘Who are you, brat, and why have you summoned me?’
She looks up at the beast defiantly, and her voice is quavering a touch when she replies, but she imbues her words with enough scorn it hardly matters. ‘Who am I? Who are you?! I would think it is only politeness to let the hostage ask first.’ She lifts her chin, expecting its answering wrath.
It doesn’t come.
A constant, cloudless storm…
Hades looks down at this gremlin, this prickly little cactus of a woman in her grimy shift dress, with her orange hair like spreading wildfire and courage too great for her size. He’s half infuriated, half amused, studying her chubby little face with its smattering of sun-bites and its contemptuous expression. Despite the dirtiness of her clothes, her skin underneath is clean, so pale between freckles it has a nacreous sheen, like the skin of a freshwater pearl. Her eyes burn into his – unwavering, a bottomless brown, the rich colour of the earth she’d torn up and thus summoned him.
Do you truly not know? he thinks with incredulity. After all, they’ve just crossed the river Styx – the stains from its putrid water are all over her dress. This girl is ignorant, he decides, but he’ll grant her one answer.
‘I am the king of the underworld,’ he says with a sneer. ‘And you are in hell. Do you still claim not to know me?’
He waits for the horror to dawn over her face, for those brown eyes to swim with tears, for him to beg her to return her to the surface. The way they all beseech him, those lost souls, both mortal and divine, on their knees at the foot of his throne.
But he is not on his throne, and the girl doesn’t beg. Her eyes glint, a subtle rebellion, and her lip curls as she replies, ‘I know the name of the sewer god.’
The sewer god. That’s a new insult. Hades almost, almost, chuckles. ‘Say it.’
She gazes up at him, her freckled face losing some of its composure, her mask of contempt crumbling to reveal the emotion beneath. ‘Hades,’ she whispers.
Mother, I’ll never wake up from him…
Persephone considers him, plotting her next move. If he is indeed a king, then this is a game of chess. She refuses to play the part of the pawn. Let him see what he wants to see, what the others see – the frightened fawn, the babe in the wood – it will be a fatal mistake. Zeus underestimated her and Demeter misjudged her, as they do all springtime children, thinking them happy and vacant and drunk off nectar. Easy prey. Zeus had certainly thought so when he’d come upon her, frolicking in the spellflowers, and his intentions were as pure as the dirt he’d tried to bury her in. They’re all so shocked when the pawn reveals itself as Queen.
Persephone conquers. She has spat in the faces of monsters and defied the will of gods. And here she crouches before the god of the underworld – the brother of Zeus, the idol, the rapist – and she makes her choice.
‘And am I to be your prisoner here?’
Hades’s platinum façade cracks a little at that – the beast has the audacity to smile. ‘My prisoner? Hardly. You’re my guest.’
I have already travelled too far…
Preferable to a prisoner. Or prey.
She can work with guest.
Persephone gets to her feet, noticing that even at her full height, Hades dwarfs her. But she is far from cowed. She looks up at him – he isn’t quite so monstrous once her eyes have had a chance to map his features, commit them to memory.
Her eyes rest, momentarily, on his bruise-black lips.
And Persephone smiles.
‘Is it a custom in hell for guests to forage for their own food and water?’ she enquires, and she skips off without waiting for an answer. Her shift rides up about her thighs again, sticky with sweat, but she can’t bring herself to care. If she’s already in hell, she might as well misbehave.
She grins to herself when she sees the lanky shadow of the monster unfold, begin to follow her.
Mute as smoke, as my first white dress…
She runs riot through the halls of Hades’s palace – and that is what it is, there can be no other word to describe a place so ornate, every room festooned with trinkets, baroque fabrics and precious metals – until she comes to the dining room, an open hall with candelabras and a heaping feast set on the table. She comes to a halt at the head of the table, eyes wide as she takes in the array of foods, exotic ones she’s never seen before. Clusters of plump black grapes and wedges of cheese, squiggled with electric-blue, goblets of mulberry wine and a strange, red globe-like fruit on a silver platter.
Hades lurks in the doorway behind her, but his presence, unlike his brother’s, isn’t ominous. It is oddly familiar, comforting even, and Persephone turns to him playfully, picking up one of the fruits and pretending to juggle it.
Hades watches her intently, solemnly, his violet eyes betraying a look of longing so fierce it’s almost heartbreaking. ‘Do you know the price for eating the fruits of the underworld?’ he asks quietly.
Persephone stops juggling. Studies the fruit, then picks a knife up off the table and slices it into halves. It’s a seeded fruit, its flesh white and stringy and resembling the ventricles of a heart, clogged with puce, wet pulp and tiny, glossy seeds, the colour of blood. Heartstones, love’s labour made flesh.
And the spear of his name, once ferocious, dissolves on my tongue, like sugar, like birdsong…
She cups the halved pomegranate in one trembling hand. Seeds burst out of their vesicles, spilling over her fingers.
The seeds drape her wrist like jewels.
She counts them in pairs. Two, four, six, plucking at the crimson strands like the strings of a harp.
Her mother warned her not to eat the fruits of corruption. But oh, how she wants to be ruined.
She transfers the six seeds to her mouth and bites.
She tastes blood and sour cherries, and a note of something sweeter, more insidious. It’s familiar.
All girls know the taste of innocence lost.
I whisper it: Hades.
Hades’s claws close over the skin of her throat, a caress deeper and more intimate than any kiss.
The bride of the monstrous bares her teeth in a bloody grin.
Rachel Hehl (yes, that’s her real surname) is a twenty-four-year-old demonic entity from Melbourne, Australia. She likes iced coffee, Byronic heroes, and all things sparkly.