The Song of the Harvesters
by Heather Pagano
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
A spray of sulfur-smelling mist told me we had already soared to the border of Hades’ realm and would soon join with the gushing Acheron River as Hades forced it up into the geyser. Hades intended to return Persephone through the hole from which he had taken her. His own power could carry her to the border of his kingdom, but he would need the aid of the geysering water to return her to Earth.
Had Hades known that up above, in my world, I’d frozen that geyser to solid ice? Persephone couldn’t exit the hole Hades left behind because I had plugged it. My daughter would soon slam into that plug of ice, only to fall, screaming, right back into the realm of the shades which she’d just paid so dearly to escape, if only for a short time.
The rushing Acheron surrounded us. Through Persephone’s eyes, I saw the great column of my icy tower grow larger as the water carried her toward it. Persephone twisted in the water, braced with bent knees so that her slippered feet, not her head, would collide with the clear, hard ice.
Her bent knees did little to absorb the bashing force of being slammed into the frozen geyser. Small bones in her toes snapped. The pain of their breaking was eclipsed by bolts of shock burning through her legs and hips. Persephone wailed, no doubt anticipating the wild fall that would plunge her back down to Hades.
But she did not fall.
The spurting waters of the Acheron that had carried us so far crackled to ice around her broken feet. The spraying water froze around Persephone’s thighs, her belly, her ribs. Ice pinned her flailing arms in place and closed over her mouth and nose.
Her heart beat wildly as she struggled to move, but the ice that imprisoned her froze too quickly for her to break free. Already she could move neither hand nor foot. She couldn’t even close her eyes. I peered through those eyes, saw how she was forced to stare through her translucent prison, down into the filthy spray of the Acheron and the darkness of Hades below.
I wanted to curse Hades for what he had done to my daughter, but I couldn’t believe he’d intended this icy prison for her.
No, I had caused this disaster.
By clinging to Persephone, my shade had caused the unnaturally quick freeze of the ice that now confined her. My presence inside her living body had called out to the frozen geyser, monument to my grief, tombstone for my world. If only I had not remained a ghost inside Persephone, she would have never met this fate.
As a mere shade, I couldn’t be pinned in, not even by the icy grief of a goddess. I slipped outside Persephone, outside her rigid prison of ice, and inspected the calamity I had wrought.
Persephone was a butterfly trapped in amber who could not die. Strung upside-down, unable to move. Eternally alone with miserable cold and the impending threat of nagging hunger far worse than she’d known before, now that she’d tasted Hades’ pomegranate. That gnawing hunger would grind her from the inside for days, weeks, years, eons. She was my daughter and could not die, no matter how terribly she suffered. I gazed at her terrified eyes, eyes splayed open by ice, that would never again know rest or close.
Might Hades save her? When it was time for Persephone to return to him, he might come looking for her, discover the miserable fate she had met.
Even if he did, I knew my brother would be powerless to release her. The ice that bound Persephone had been frozen by my grief. Only I could thaw the frigid despair and set her free.
* * *
Waking up inside my Large Self was like waking inside a stiffened corpse. The roots and vines of my world — my arteries and veins — had all frozen, withered, and died. Snow piled thick atop me like a burial shroud. The winds — my breath — that had once driven that falling snow were gone.
When I am my Large Self, time flickers by. Years can vanish while I dally with a river. But if I allowed myself to slide into that broad-visioned way of being, I might leave my daughter to suffer for ages. I had to remain mindful of the time, and I had to find a way to turn that geyser from a prison of ice into a spurting spray of water, once again.
But how? Helios could do the work, melt the geyser, along with all the snow and ice I’d brought to the Earth, but only if I could blow away the clouds that shielded my world from his radiance.
Then it was decided. I would blow away the clouds.
I struggled to pump the bellows of my lungs. They were so stiff and frozen, they’d lost the ability to expand. Thinking of how that terrible hunger must be creeping back in Persephone’s belly, I fought through the numbing cold and gathered the faintest of breath. Even my strongest effort resulted in only a tiny breath, nothing close to what was needed to disperse the clouds.
There was, however, just enough breath to sing.
At first I sang the old songs, of the days when the Sky first brushed its lips to the Earth. How at my birth, my father swallowed me alive. I waited for the song to loosen my lungs, to warm me just enough that I might recover my wind, but my breath remained stiff and frozen.
I gave up on singing and called out to my children. Did any still live?
There were snakes coiled deep underground, scrawny carrion birds who had survived ripping and devouring corpses. I also found few of The Harvesters. They had sheltered in caves, survived on the boiled remnants of hides they’d used for clothes and blankets.
The Harvesters’ uneasy blend of dread and hope still sounded in their strange song. Their harmonies once seemed ill-tuned and strange to me, but at that moment, as I tried to both inhabit my Large Self and honor the debt that the shade of my Small Self owed to Persephone, the counterpoint of the weaving melodies spoke to me. I understood their acceptance of loss, for even if I spared Persephone from her icy prison, she had taken the seed of Hades’ pomegranate and could never again live the life she had once known. The Harvesters’ despair danced alongside gratitude for what little hope they had, just like mine.
I determined to sing along with them, to use the voice of my Large Self to sing the song of The Harvesters.
As I sang, my winds moaned through barren trees, careened down gullies made by trenches of snow. They keened over thick ice planks that sealed the surfaces of the lakes and rivers I had once loved to explore.
My singing tore from the throats of canyons and plains. I rattled the Earth, sending huge fissures along the hardened tops of lake and ponds. I toppled the tip off the great tower of ice. An avalanche on the side of a great mountain shattered the silence that had settled with the cold.
Prickling pain, like a foot that has fallen asleep, stabbed every surface of my Large Self. A tiny drop of water ran down a twig and splattered, melting a divot in the snow below. I felt my lungs begin to loosen. I was able to sing a little louder.
The bellows of the four winds stirred and began to blow.
My Large Self lost the thread of Small Self time, then. Some time after — I could not have said how long — the first spindly rays of Helios speared through the thinning clouds.
Heat built in my chest, a bursting feeling, like a butterfly fighting to free itself from its chrysalis, or a sprout struggling through the hull of its seed.
Creatures who called me Mother demanded my attention. A heron wrested a mackerel from the sea. A rat doe moaned as she bore her pups. The Harvesters’ songs overlaid all the voices, fierce and futile and free.
Then I heard Persephone scream. With a flush of shame, I realized I’d lost track of how the hours and days passed for her. I bolted from The Dream of my Large Self. In the confusion of finding myself a shade, I plunged that shade back into the frozen body of my Small Self.
As I repossessed the old body my lungs burned, and my eyes ached. I trembled and was unable to still the shaking. I opened my eyes to see snow melting in rivulets from the snarled, brown hair, streaked with grey, that curtained my face.
I pushed away the sodden hair and opened my eyes to a radiant meadow lit with sparkling, blinding light. Helios had, at last, broken through my clouds. He’d diminished the head-high mounds of snow to a mere, crystalline crust that skimmed the meadow, and his far-shooting rays had succeeded in melting the geyser I had frozen, so that it now gushed from the hole in my Earth that Hades had made.
And there in the mud lay Persephone, spewed, along with her icy prison, back to the meadow by the force of the geyser. Chunks of that frozen prison lay all around her. Hunks of broken, melting ice.
My daughter’s eyes were closed, her lips were blue. Her barley-colored curls were brown with mud. She looked like a corpse, newly clawed from its grave.
On aching hands and knees, I crawled through the snow and ice and muck to my Persephone. Rapid melting and refreezing had formed a sharp crust on the remaining snow that scraped my wrists and knuckles. I left a trail of blood behind me.
When I reached my daughter, I cradled her head in my lap and covered her gaunt cheeks with kisses. Then I sang to her. Not the old songs, but the new songs I’d learned from The Harvesters.
Persephone’s lips parted. Her parched lips rasped my name. Her tears soaked, hot, through my veil to warm my frostbitten skin. I shared her tears of blended relief and despair. We both knew all too well what she had done by eating the pomegranate. She was now both a creature of my Earth and a creature of Hades. No matter where she was, the longing to return to her other home would always gnaw at her. A starvation of the heart for which there was no cure.
I had thought my lost age, with its fearless, unbridled joys, with its innocence from worry, had fled and taken the best beauty of the world with it.
But, looking down at my Persephone’s sweet, sad face, her life astraddle immortality and death, I was forced to admit that a new beauty had bloomed in my world, a beauty that was new to my daughter but had been a way of life for The Harvesters. It was a beauty far sadder and sweeter, yet more lovely, than any I had ever known.
Copyright © 2020 by Heather Pagano