The Song of the Harvesters
by Heather Pagano
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The sound of four, maybe five dozen voices rose from the towering stalks of golden barley that grew thick in the plain below me. From my hilltop perch, I couldn’t make out the faces of the sweat-smelling, bare-chested men who swung their sickles in the field down there.
The harvest song they were singing was in praise of me, but I found its complex harmonies alien and sad. It brought to mind the dying of the fire in the sky each night as Helios drives his chariot into the sea.
My Small Self lay on a broad, smooth, sun-warmed rock that stretched over an outcropping on the hilltop. The warmth of the stone eased my achey joints. I grew drowsy and longed to sleep, but the tantalizing smell of crisping pork from my altar on the far side of the field kept me awake. No sooner would I drift into sleep, begin to touch my Large Self, then the taunting scent of spit-roasted pig and the head-spinning aroma of blood thickening in my big, silver cup tugged me back to my Small Self: the hill, the rock, the barley field below.
The uneasy polyphony of The Harvesters below also made me restless. Though their intention was to worship me, their songs of loss and longing are not my songs.
My songs tell of the time when the Sky first brushed its lips to the Earth. How at my birth, my father swallowed me alive. My songs never linger on feelings better left forgotten. Feelings I’m not sure I even recognized in those fearless, early days of wild joy that could and did plunge into terror when I would least expect it.
A faint stirring in the wind rustled small hairs loose from my braid. The wind carried away the tantalizing smoke from the altar and the sound of the sad singing. I finally settled on my sun-warmed stone and slipped into The Dream that takes me to my Large Self.
In The Dream I unfurled my toes so they became the great network of roots massed beneath the earth. Towering trees sprouted from my belly. Burrowing creatures dug their homes along my thighs. I housed a myriad of creeping children, flying children, leaping children. Their short lives flashed in and out of existence. I recognized the rhythm of my old songs in the racing of their hearts.
My Large Self sent a tendril of attention roving out to find my true child. My daughter, Persephone.
As I searched for her, I came across more altars built for me by my strange, new children, the ones who wield sickles and build huts, who sew barley and sing their wistful songs. They call themselves human. I call them The Harvesters.
At first I thought The Harvesters were like Persephone, children more close to me than the beasts and birds and bugs, but they are not. The Harvesters live, then die too soon to glimpse the larger world. And yet they sing. Their music is even more strange to me than the songs of my ancient Titan father.
My Large Self passed by The Harvesters, rippled through a great forest, wound alongside a great, rushing river. The river is not my realm, but when I am my Large Self, the rush of its life running through me brings a thrill.
It was while I was dallying with the river that it happened. There was no more than a moment’s warning. My Large Self went rigid. Winds stilled. The whole world held its breath, bracing for the tragedy that was to come.
Then the rape.
Fiery pain exploded in my gut. My Large Self bucked and shook as a great, ragged hole tore through my belly, ripping me from the inside out.
My Large Self can’t move. There is no hand to clutch a bleeding wound, no mouth to cry out. The blow of great suffering lands in other ways. Eagles dropped from the sky. Wildcats clawed their own eyes. Pigs farrowed their blind litters far too early. The plains and mountains of my Earth convulsed and shook, sending boulders careening down hills, felling trees, rending great fissures in the ground.
I ignored all these calamities. My consciousness was drawn like a lodestone to the site of my wounding. I searched out and found the great hole that had been torn through my Earth.
The great hole in my belly had been made in a meadow, a flat, flower-filled expanse that hummed with bees. Drooping buds of Mandragora and borage painted the meadow purple and blue. It was dotted here and there with tight clusters of yellow sorrel that gave off their sharp, tart smell.
In the middle of all that beauty was an ugly, black scar. My wound. The hole that ran from the Helios-kissed yellow sorrel all the way down to the depths of Hades.
At the edge of of the hole, her fingers clawing mud and grass and crushed borage, I saw my sweet Persephone. My darling child, my true child. So like me, yet so sweetly different.
Persephone was fighting not to be swallowed by that horrible, black hole. Dirt streaked her golden hair, which had come undone from its braid. Her ebullient smile twisted into a grimace of terror.
She could not see me. I could not touch her. My Large Self can see, hear, smell, but was powerless to save her.
I couldn’t pull my attention from her struggle. She refused to let go of the grass and plants at the rim of the hole, but she seemed unable to pull herself free. Finally, I saw the reason why: a shadowy hand, gossamer thin, black as the prison of Tartarus, was pulling her downward. The hand crept up from Persephone’s waist, to her shoulder, and finally closed around her golden hair. It yanked her head backward, opening her screaming mouth to the pitiless sky.
One by one, the shallow roots of meadow grass and flowers she was holding began to give way. They were not strong enough to hold her against the ruthless tugging of that hand.
I felt each tiny root snap and shred.
Persephone screamed my name.
The shadowy hand dragged her backwards down, down into the deep, black hole.
Her shrieks grew fainter as she fell, but I could still hear them. It seemed her terror would never end, as though the hole had no bottom.
Then, silence. A stillness as each and every one of my creatures sensed the safety of their world crumble to powder.
I sent a tendril of my awareness along the crushed flowers, the torn earth, the mud. It slithered over strands of my Persephone’s golden hair, torn from her head.
I peered down the dark maw that had swallowed her. My only thought was to follow her.
But pursuit was not to be. At that moment a huge rush of water roared out of the hole. It exploded in foaming fury, a great, towering geyser. It climbed high enough in the sky that Helios in his chariot must have spurred his horses not to be splattered.
* * *
Days passed. Weeks. I needed the time to travel. I needed the time to bring my Small Self to the meadow where Hades had stolen my daughter.
I had no doubt about what I’d witnessed. The shadowy hand that had taken Persephone belonged to Hades, my hated brother. He’d blasted a hole from his kingdom all the way into my world, and then robbed me of the only child I’d ever loved.
I made the pilgrimage to the site of her abduction, step by step, as my Small Self. I intended to lie down beside the place where I’d lost my daughter and to let my Small Self die along with my Large Self and the rest of my world.
From the moment Hades had stolen my daughter, I vowed that I would continue to live only long enough to punish him. That punishment was simple. First, I would kill each and every creature on the Earth, choking his kingdom with more death than he could swallow. After I’d overwhelmed him with all those shades, he would then be left with the realization that all Life had ended. There would never be another dying creature for him to add to his collection. His kingdom would be at an end.
How could my fool of a brother forget that Death was powerless without Life?
It was fitting revenge, but did nothing to bring back my darling daughter. My true love. My Persephone. It did nothing to ease my grief.
As I travelled to the meadow, my Small Self wept for her in tears that ran down my sunken, hollow cheeks. At the same time, my Large Self wept from the skies in great, fat flakes of snow. The harder I cried, the thicker the snow fell. Flowers froze and withered. Barley not yet harvested bent and broke under the weight of the snow. All my children, unused to the cold, huddled together for warmth, or killed other creatures to roll in their warm blood, or burrowed deep underground.
The songs of The Harvesters silenced. They hid from the cold and the snow in uncomprehending shock.
My Small Self slipped and slid in the mounting snow, inflaming the nagging soreness in my knees. Featherweight flakes of snow drifted around my head in lazy, slow-motion swirls. They clung to my lashes, eyebrows and hair, turning them frosty white. Icy air singed the lining of my nose and lungs. The cold leached all the smells from my world: the must of the soil, the scent of nut-sweet barley going to seed.
My world had gone so still.
So be it. It took me back to the old days when disaster did its business, swift and certain. Glorious days of wild beauty, too innocent for dread or worry. Now that my Persephone was gone forever, I had nothing left to lose, nothing left to fear. I was free to be my old self again, the Demeter who never worried.
For hours before I reached the site, I’d been gagging on the smell of sulfur. Hades had caused a geyser to erupt from the hole through which he’d stolen Persephone. I knew the stench of that water, its unending source the River Acheron, the mighty waterway of the Underworld, which is fed by several other polluted tributaries of Hades’ realm. Even weeks after Hades had first used the geyser to block the hole, the water still spewed. Its massive spray mounted perhaps ten times as tall as my Small Self and was visible from leagues away.
At last I reached the meadow where Hades had blasted his ugly pit in through my Earth. As I neared it, I saw that the hole and geyser were surrounded by a thick ring of hard, clear ice, where geyser water spattered the snow and had frozen. The corpses of blue and purple and yellow flowers were visible through the thick plate of ice, limp, yet still vibrant.
Copyright © 2020 by Heather Pagano