The Song of the Harvesters
by Heather Pagano
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Hades. Hades with his black hole and greedy hands and stinking geyser. My anger surged, whipping the falling snow so that it drove like cutting flakes of ice against my numbed cheeks. Around me a sudden chill descended so intense that I lost all feeling in my fingers and toes. Before my eyes the geyser of water froze into a solid column of ice, became a jagged, crystalline tower.
I trudged through the raging snowstorm to the foot of that tower. My numbed feet could hardly fight against the shrieking wind or hold me steady across the slick, hard ice. My knees grew bruised and bloody from all the times I fell. But I would not stop until I reached that ziggurat of frozen hate.
When I came to the tower, I did not touch it. I knelt at its base, on the frigid, unforgiving ice. Then I lay my veil across my knees, bowed chin to chest, slipped inside The Dream of my Large Self, and waited to die.
The dying of a whole world takes a very, very long time.
The deep freeze that had turned the geyser to a tower of ice was not contained in the meadow. The deadly cold seeped through my Large Self. Cries of the little creatures that populated my world reached me: a mother bird returning to the nest to find her eggs frozen hard as stones; a mouse suffocating beneath a heavy drift of snow.
The Harvesters took up new songs, melodies dark and twisted, lamenting the transformation of their green and golden world into a brutal tundra.
Helios drove his chariot across the sky, day after day, but his radiant heat was no match for my grief storm. My snow-tears never stopped falling.
Cries of the suffering grew fewer as one after the other my children froze to death. Starved. Suffocated. Died in their nests after devouring their lifeless little ones.
The songs of The Harvesters dwindled to a scattering of voices, keening in an uneasy moan.
The Earth would soon grow silent. My snowy tears would pile to the sky — beyond it — until even the horses that pulled the chariot of the Sun froze to corpses.
Snow also mounded on my Small Self, high as my belly, high as my throat. The cold was soporific. I wavered in and out of sleep, in and out of my Large Self.
The caw of a crow woke me. It drew my eye up, up, up, to the pinnacle of the frozen geyser. It flapped and shrieked, unable to find purchase on the slippery, haphazard spire.
I cursed it for the sin of waking me from deep sleep. It careened off the side of the tower and fell, dead, into a deep pile of snow.
I returned to my slumbers.
The next time I woke to my Small Self, the world had gone dark, and no matter how long I waited, the sun didn’t rise. I was unsure, at first, what that meant. Had Helios given up driving his team and chariot across the sky? But, no. The great weight pressing down on my bowed neck and shoulders convinced me. I was unable to see because at last the falling snow had completely covered me.
I pictured how I would appear to the Helios if he could peek at me through the storm clouds from up above: a lump in the snow beneath a smooth, white plain, broken only by a great, glinting, ugly tower of ice that jutted, like a knife, toward the sky.
I was buried, I knew, but not yet dead. I wondered, might this be the moment where I could choose to end my suffering, to finally exact my revenge?
I suspended my breath. The wind of the whole world stilled.
I shed my shade.
* * *
My shade sifted, lighter than the lightest of the feathery snowflakes, down to the hollow beneath the world.
Down, down, down, until I reached the place I had sought. The place Hades had claimed the first time the world had changed. The dark and shadowy realm of the dead.
I pushed past the swarming shades, so many new and confused had arrived here from the frozen world above. Vermin and bugs and birds, wolves, beasts of burden. I encountered masses of The Harvesters, milling in confused circles. I cared nothing for any of them. Now that I was below, I cared for nothing, not even for Hades, not even for my revenge. I cared only for finding Persephone.
I wandered an hour, a day, a year. Grief made my sense of time unravel. How long it took is not important. What is important is that I found her.
She was a frail and emaciated form, seated on a throne. A living queen in that place of the gliding, shadowy dead. Persephone was bound with chains to an enormous onyx throne, which was intricately carved with skeletons that had been butchered, then reassembled in the most obscene ways I could imagine. Her toes had no hope of reaching the ground, but a tall-legged foot stool, made from the skins of many tanned faces, received her slight, slippered feet. Heavy, multicolored jewels adorned the thick chains that hung from her neck and weighted her head, bending her graceful neck and hunching her lithe shoulders. Those gilded chains shackled her to her throne, which sat just paces from the throne of the King of the Underworld, who had stolen her.
Hades. My brother. As I remembered, he was nothing more than a two-dimensional, black shadow — a shade, just like me. Hades was a touch more solid-looking than me due to the incredible depth of his blackness, but in reality he possessed only length and width and darkness. Hades had cleverly folded himself into resembling a three-dimensional creature. His folded dimensions gave the semblance of a body in space. Creases in the folds imitated joints: ankles, knees, hips. He had propped his folded shade on a massive onyx throne even more grotesque than Persephone’s.
I hovered above my daughter’s head, looking down at the smooth, glistening strands of her barley-colored hair. My fingers reached toward her dear head, a shade’s instinctual longing to touch the warmth of life. But either Persephone had no warmth, or I was incapable of sensing it.
From time to time Hades’ eyes, which were startling, marble-white slits cut out of his charcoal face, flicked to spy on my Persephone.
If she noticed him observing her, she showed no sign. Her bent head and drooping eyes stared perpetually at her knees.
I had searched long to be with my Persephone, to have back what was stolen from me. But now that I saw her misery, saw the heavy bonds of her captivity, I was stirred to do more than just gaze on her. Somehow I would help her. How I could accomplish such a thing, I didn’t know. I resolved to watch through her eyes, eavesdrop through her ears. And to wait, patiently, until a strategy presented itself.
I dropped my shade directly inside my daughter’s body. My head became her head, my fingers slipped into her fingers, my ghost toes unfurled inside her living ones. My womb settled inside of hers. Our bellies touched.
Settling into her skin was a painful thing. She had grown terribly thin since the day I had lost her. Her cheeks were hollow, her ribs poked through her skin. A miserable hunger pang twisted our conjoined guts. If I could have, I would have cried out. Inside her body, I sensed that Persephone wasn’t just hungry, she was ravenous. I supposed she had eaten nothing since the day Hades captured her.
Had she been mortal, she would, by now, be dazed and sleepy, too weak to care if flies picked their way over her glassy eyes. But she was my child, and her life force ran too strong. She was painfully alert and aware. She was present for each gnawing rasp of hunger, which had grown into a kind of pain that never left her, but which did ebb, until it spiked again in nasty, random jolts that neither she nor I could predict was coming.
“Mistress,” Hades said to her. He sank too deeply into his throne, so the creased fold that was supposed to be his bottom poked through the seat. “Something about you has changed.”
Persephone’s heart began to pound. Heat rushed through her veins. Bile stirred in her empty stomach.
“I’m here, my love.” My words whispered on her lips, but made no sound, Certainly my presence in Persephone was the difference Hades had detected.
To my dismay, the one whose attention I longed for, Persephone, seemed unable to even suspect I was there.
“I fear you grow too hungry.” A ruby red fruit appeared in Hades’ hand. It was one of the fruits she had most loved as a small child, its juice had often stained the crescent moons of her fingernails red.
“You’ve gone far too long without food,” Hades said. “No living creature can go on without sustenance.”
Persephone’s parched lips parted, and her cold tongue wet them so she could speak. “I’m in Hades,” she said, “not properly a living being.”
“But you are no shade. You have a body, you draw breath.” He shimmied his hips higher so they once again floated in semblance of sitting on top of his onyx throne.
He rolled the fruit between his hands.
Persephone’s eyes were now my eyes. She could not pull her gaze away from the red fruit turning between his shadowy hands. Agonizing hunger reached up through gullet and grabbed her by the throat.
I wanted to be in my Persephone’s body like a hand in a puppet, so I could protect her, stop her from yielding to the temptation. I gripped her flesh-and-blood hand with my shadow fingers, but to no effect. I was nothing more than a shade. A witness, not an actor.
“A single bite of the food of the dead will ease your hunger for weeks, for months,” Hades said.
“I am living,” Persephone said, “and cannot eat it.”
Her longing to chew ran to the roots of her teeth.
Hades drew the tip of his shadowy fingers down the side of the pomegranate. The leathery skin split. The snow-white membrane inside was stained pink in places from the fruit’s red juice. Clusters of seeds clung to the membranes, plump with blood-red nectar.
Persephone’s gullet clenched. Her gorge lurched. Her hunger for the fruit was such she gagged on the saliva that spurted at the sight and the acid-sweet smell of the opened fruit.
Hades leaned over the gruesome armrest of his onyx throne and placed the opened pomegranate in her lap. “My love, I’ve heard your mother is unwell.”
“It isn’t true!” I tried to shout the words, to use Persephone’s mouth, her teeth, her tongue, to articulate even a whisper to her. “I’m here. I’m with you.”
She couldn’t hear or sense me. The corners of her vision reddened with desire for the pomegranate.
“I would let you go to stay with her, while she recovers. But not if you are too weak to travel. Not if I have every reason to fear you’ll faint from malnutrition along the way.”
My daughter’s heart pounded, and she squeezed her hands to keep them from trembling. “If I eat the fruit, I may return above?”
“For a visit,” Hades plucked a seed from the half of the fruit he had retained. “Just a single seed will give you the strength you need. Our food is more nourishing than what you would eat up above.”
A bead of spit escaped her lip and dribbled down her chin. Her empty middle sucked in. Her breath heaved with need.
“My daughter, no!” I snatched for her hand as it reached out to cradle the pomegranate Hades laid in her lap.
My fingers only slid through hers.
I leapt from her body, ready to grab her by the shoulders and shake her.
But the moment I slid outside, disaster took Persephone. She pinched a pomegranate seed between her fingers, plucked it, and raised it to her lips.
Hades watched her. The shiny white holes in his dark, dark face, which were his eyes, were unblinking.
I dove back into my daughter to save her, but it was too late.
I did arrive in her body in time to sense the hardness at the core of the pomegranate seed between her teeth, to feel the juice from the membrane explode. I felt tears start in her eyes at the sweet-tart joy of it.
Persephone rolled the flavorful bit over her tongue. When nothing remained but the pip, her throat contracted, and she swallowed the last of the seed down, whole.
Eating that seed had just made the Underworld Persephone’s home. She might leave for a short time, but would always be forced to return. Despair flooded through her as the realization of what she’d done sank into her bones.
“I will go visit my mother, now.” It was a command, not a question. Persephone may have been chained to the onyx throne, but she was still my daughter.
The golden chains that bound her snapped. She hovered an instant, above her throne, then with a shriek she whooshed straight up into the darkness.
My shade clung to her. We sped together up, up, up through the hole in the world through which she’d been taken.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Heather Pagano