Few people know about the door to Hell on the second floor of the university library, right behind the Rare Books Collection, near the door that leads to the Archives. Most of the time, it’s a closet door for the janitor. But it becomes something else if you know what you are looking for. I came to the library with intent, submitted my signed request for the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas papers at the librarian’s desk. She pored over it and pointed to the assigned bookstack with a bony finger, throwing in a comment on the sunken state of my face for good measure. I gave her a wan smile and made my way to the stacks. Once I was out of eyeshot, I found the door and stepped into Hell.
Hell, I suppose, would be the inappropriate word. There is a definite sense of “all ye who enter here abandon hope”, but the term ‘Underworld’ is more fitting. It certainly feels so, like the whole world is above me and the sheer weight of it and my choice to come here is crushing me underfoot. The cavernous space yawns downward into inky nothingness, even as strange lights illuminate the rocky walls and the stairs under my sneakers. I descend, each step echoing like a death knell. Somewhere, there are voices wailing. I keep my eyes fixed on my feet and turn my thoughts to her.
It’s almost strange how quickly her face materializes in my mind’s eye. I know it better than my own. It’s the easiest thing, picturing her. Those large bright eyes that could be sweetly curious one moment and sharp with anger the next. The long brown hair I loved to run my fingers through. The contented sounds she’d make when I did that. Bella and I had been together since we were both children. She’d always been beautiful and the passage of time only made her more so. She was even beautiful in death, when I cradled her body in my arms. It was 4:32 PM, two Saturdays ago. The hot tarmac had burned my knees through my jeans. I could barely hear the shocked voices of the people around me, the honking of the cars, the horrified driver trying to apologize. The moment had smelled of iron and burning rubber. I felt the life leave her body.
I reach the bottom of the stairs and am met by a stately woman holding a lit torch in each hand. She is bathed in light, forming jagged shadows that seem to converge on us.
“Come,” she says, and I follow. The shadows seem to follow me more closely, and they sharpen like dark knives.
My heart has gone from stuttering to an all-out pounding. I try my best to take slow, deep breaths like my therapist had suggested and focus on the rhythmic swishing of the stately woman’s dress. I’ve upped my Xanax intake ever since Bella died. I didn’t depend on it as much before. Bella always knew how to comfort me if I was stressed or sad or jittery. She could bring me back if I had an attack. She’d crawl into my arms and rest her head against my chest. I’d move my hand across her back, over her soft hair, counting to one hundred in tandem with each stroke. I’d match her heartbeat to mine. The warmth of her would seep through my shirt and skin, through blood and muscle and bone, until she had soothed my very core. I’d kiss her face over and over, even as she protested.
“We’re here,” says the stately woman.
We’re at a pier on the banks of a black river. A boat is docked there, empty save for the ferryman. Age has burrowed into his body so deep that he’s a mere skeleton with skin hanging off his bones, poorly concealed by the robe wrapped around him. Still, he holds his pole in a firm grip and beckons to me with his left hand. I look to the woman with the torches, who gives me an encouraging nod, and approach him. Before I can board the boat, he stops me.
“Payment,” he rasps. His voice rattles like wind through a dead cornfield.
I rummage in the pockets of my hoodie. My wallet is back in the library and I don’t have my phone with me. Even if I did, I doubt I’d be able to send him any cash through Venmo. I check the pockets of my jeans and my hand closes around something cool and metallic. My initial instinct rears up in rebellion and urges me to put the object back, just look for something else, but the ferryman is waiting and he does not look patient. I have to do this. Bella would understand.
The ferryman examines the little silver charm, the one that hung off the black band Bella always wore around her neck. She loved that charm, loved the way it glinted in the sunlight, the way it made a soft jingling noise as she walked. She always walked a little taller when she wore it. It gave her a confident, almost haughty air, like she had gotten superpowers that she was just too good to use, but she could if she wanted. The ferryman closes his leathery fingers into a fist and it vanishes into smoke. He steps aside to let me board the boat. The stately woman raises a torch in farewell as we push off from the pier.
The wailing is louder here than it was on the stairs. The voices shriek in pain like they’re being stabbed over and over. They call out names of people I don’t know, beg for someone to help them, please. I don’t dare look into the water. I know that’s where they are. If I see them, I might throw myself overboard just to give them what they want, anything to make the screaming stop. Or they’d reach out and pull me in. The ferryman seems unconcerned either way, and I doubt he’d lift a hand or pole to help if something did happen to me. I make myself as small as possible in the old boat and cling to the denim on my knees. I have to be strong for Bella.
A lifetime may have passed in the time before we finally docked, or perhaps it was only a few minutes. A massive archway looms. Stone serpents wind their way up the pillars, their backs ridged like human spines, to a staring skull keystone. I turn to ask the ferryman if I was supposed to go through, but he’s already pushed off the dock and is floating away. I’m left along on a beach of black pebbles facing an empty arch.
At this point, there really is no other direction to go but forward.
I approach the archway, but when I take a step across the path, a growl rumbles. The sound bounces off walls that I can’t see, echoing like a thousand beasts. A shape materializes from the shadows of the archway and steps onto the beach. The ground shakes. Pebbles scatter. I am thrown into shadow and can do nothing but stare as the gigantic dog glares down at me with six rolling eyes that burn like wildfire.
My every instinct screams at me to run, even if it means swimming through that cursed black river, but my feet seem to have grown roots where I stand. The dog lowers its heads to my level. Its lips pull back in a snarl that rumbles in its chest and vibrates through the pebbles on the ground. Its teeth glint. I stand still, unmoving. After the longest few moments of my life, the dog quietens. Its scowl fades and it cocks its heads, watching me with wary curiosity.
“Do you…do you mind if I go through?” I ask, gesturing at the archway. “I really need to–”
The dog growls and I snap my mouth shut. That was apparently the wrong thing to say.
I hold its gaze as I reach into my hoodie pocket and pull out my pack of graham crackers. Bella and I both had a fondness for them and I made it a habit to always have some on my person so that we could share. The pack is old, but I had left it in there, untouched. Thankfully, I have three left.
“Sorry, boy,” I say, holding them out. “That’s all I’ve got.”
The dog’s middle head leans in and examines the crackers. Then, it moves its nose over me, sniffing my shoulders, my jeans, my old beaten up sneakers. A whuff of breath tears the elastic out of my loose ponytail and sends me stumbling. I stare up at the dog as I scramble to my feet. It shakes its heads, makes a noise that could have been a laugh and opens its mouths.
I put one graham cracker in each mouth and the dog snaps it up.
Rising to its full height, it turns on its heel and disappears through the archway. I look around at the empty beach and follow.
The Underworld ripples around me as I step under the colossal arch and I instinctively squeeze my eyes shut. When I open them, I’m standing in a great throne room. The walls are slate grey, polished to a mirror shine and rippled with minerals. The ceiling above is vaulted with more arches held on fluted columns. There are no torches, no sources of daylight, but a beam slants through an oculus above, illuminating the pavilion at the end of the hall, where the throne sits. It’s a long walk to there and every step echoes. I feel impossibly insignificant.
Bella, I remind myself. It’s for Bella.
When I finally stand at the foot of the pavilion, I have to crane my neck to look up at him. Hades, the king of the Underworld, leans back in his throne, fingers curled around the armrests. He’s far from the cold, terrifying specter that some legends like to draw him as. In contrast, he looks almost normal, if not a bit somber. Stern eyes shadowed by a heavy brow watch me with serious consideration, but not anger, nor judgment. To his right, a woman with skin like molten gold lounges in her throne, petting the three-headed dog. His wife, Persephone, I presume.
“Well,” she says. Her eyes sweep over me, from the top of my tousled head to the weathered tears in my sneakers. “This hadn’t happened in a while.”
I swallow and clear my dry throat. Every little sound is magnified a thousand times.
“Sir, Lord Hades, I am here to–”
“Ask for the soul of someone you lost.” Hades finishes my sentence. He speaks slowly, like each word carries the weight of the world above. “I know.”
“Yes,” I reply. “Her name is Bella.”
“Bella. And who is she? A wife, a friend, a lover?”
“She’s my cat.”
Hades blinks down at me. Persephone’s hand is frozen on the dog’s head, mid-stroke.
“Your…cat?” he asks. “You came down to the Underworld to ask for the soul of your cat?”
Hades and Persephone exchange a bemused glance. He then looks to a blindfolded man with great black wings standing behind his throne.
“Did you bring a cat down here?” he asks.
The man shrugs. His wings ripple like ink. “All souls find their way here,” he replies. “It’s generally debatable with cats, but I might have picked one or two up recently.”
“Please, Lord Hades,” I say. “I’ve read the stories. I know that you are merciful, that you give a chance to those who come so far. You hear their requests. Please, could you give her back to me? I’ll do anything.”
Hades regards me thoughtfully and I can’t help but notice the tired lines that hang around his eyes. The essence of death clings to his body and the edges of his dark robes, but it doesn’t suffocate or hurt to stand before him. It feels safe, somehow. Parental. Familiar, like coming back to a womb.
He straightens in his chair.
“You are not the first to come here, child,” he says, “nor will you be the last. Eons will pass, empires will rise and fall, and mortals will still never understand that death is final. My realm is the last stop on everyone’s journey. Those who come here must stay. It is the order of things.”
A lump grows in my throat and begins to constrict. I resort to begging.
“Please, my lord. Just a chance! I’ll lead her back up and I won’t look back! I promise, I won’t look back!”
“Orpheus said that and he looked back. So did the next man who came after him and the woman after that and on and on. You are a mortal. You will always look back.”
I wouldn’t. If it meant getting my oldest friend back, I would stare straight ahead as I walked back to the living world, not look back even once until I had left the library and was back home. Nothing would trick me. Nothing would make me waver.
“I won’t look back,” I protest. It sounds weak even to my own ears.
“It is not your fault,” says Hades gently. “You were made to strive for life. You do not understand death and thus, you fear it. But its laws are final and must not be broken. Not even for love.”
The throne room feels like its shrinking around me. Hades looks like he’s made of stone. I want to break him. I want to throw something, punch him in his sympathetic old face, pry Bella’s soul out of wherever he’s hiding it, take it and run. I want my cat. I want my friend back.
“Go home,” says Hades. “Mourn your loss. Then, move on with your life. You will see your Bella again when it is your turn to enter my realm. This time, in the proper way.”
I think of my little apartment on the second floor that always smelled of old paper, dirt, and the lemongrass oil I used to cover up the smell of litter. The secondhand couch in front of the TV with a cushion next to the depressed space where I would often sit. The cat seat under the windchime next to the best window right by my row of potted succulents. The picture frosts over in my mind, turning grey and cold. The thought of going back to that empty space grips my heart in my chest and squeezes.
“Hades.” Persephone leans over the arm of her throne. “Give the poor child a chance. It’s just a cat.”
Hades grumbles, irritated. “That’s what you say every time. It starts out with just a cat. Then, the next person comes asking for a dog, then a dead grandparent, then their friend, their lovers, and on and on. If one thing can cheat death, then anything can.”
“Please? For me?”
Persephone pouts, narrows her eyes, and then widens them in the most pleading doe-eyed expression I’ve ever seen. The dog’s middle head on her lap copies her, its version more terrifying than endearing.
Hades stares flatly at both of them for a solid minute before heaving a sigh.
“Alright, both of you stop looking at me like that.” My heart leaps as he turns back to me. “You have one hour,” he says. “One hour to find your Bella in my realm. Nothing and no one here will harm you and you are free to talk to anyone and go anywhere you please, save Tartarus. If you find her within that time, I will permit you to lead her back home. If not, you must leave without complaint and not return until it is your time. Do you understand?”
I nod breathlessly.
“You need to say it.”
“I understand.” My hands and feet tingle, eager to run.
“Very well then,” he says. “One hour.”
Hades makes a flicking gesture with his finger and the throne room dissolves around me. Persephone’s golden light gleams with a final wink before my eyes squeeze shut and I am wrenched away. Wind rushes, dragging me in a hundred different directions, and when I land hard on my feet, my knees sag and I stumble to the ground. It’s solid under my hands and feet, rough like tarmac. The compressive weight I felt on the stairs to the Underworld comes back and I want nothing more than to curl up and let the darkness cocoon me. Then I remember why I’m here.
I open my eyes, blink the blurriness away. I’m kneeling on a pathway that winds through a vast field of white flowers. Asphodels, I note, on closer inspection. I stagger to my feet and look around me. The fields are endless, stretching on for miles and miles under the dull sky. I’m sure there’s some boundary somewhere. It’d be crazy to assume that this place would follow the same rules as the world above.
One hour. Time is ticking.
I set off on the path through the empty fields. The flowers lean over and brush my elbows with their long white petals as I pass. They seem almost curious, like they’ve never seen a person before. Not a living one, I presume.
I speed up to a jog. Ghostly figures materialize around me: men, women, even children. They turn their heads vaguely in my direction as I near them, like I’m a glimmer in the corners of their vision. Then, they look away into nothingness, vacant, and disappear. Some of them seem aware of each other, going as far as to converse with one another. Others amble aimlessly and walk through each other’s bodies like they don’t even notice. When I step too close to any of them, they look up, then vanish. I manage to make eye contact with one–a woman with limp hair that looks like it once would have been full and curly–and I hail her from a safe distance.
“Hello. Please, I need your help.”
She stares at me blankly. Her form is blue and grey, smoke-like and hazy. She tilts her head slowly, locks spilling over her shoulder.
“I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to ask you a question.”
The woman flickers like a bad hologram.
“Please, have you seen a cat anywhere here? Female, long fur, brown with a tortoiseshell pattern? She would have come here recently, a week or so ago.”
The dead woman is expressionless, a thing. Barely even a person. Looking at her, I’m reminded of a boat race I once saw in a park. A bunch of kids had brought their toy sailboats to the pond and were racing them on the water. There was a little catamaran among them with red markings on the sails. The boy who owned it was struggling to get it past the larger boat on its left. He tried to swerve around from the right, banked too hard, and ended up crashing it onto a rock. It broke in two and the pieces tangled up in the weeds. When it was lifted out of the water, it was a pile of wood, electrical parts, and wet fabric with red markings. It was no longer a boat. The woman looks at me with vacant eyes. Any part of her that was once human is long gone, and I wonder how many centuries she’s been here, wandering these fields. She flickers again.
“Alright, alright. Then can you tell me how I can get out of here?”
A sound comes from her like a long exhale, a whisper of a sigh. She looks almost sad as she fades away, or perhaps I just imagined her expression. I look around the fields one more time. I’m not going to find Bella here.
The path comes to a crossroads, forking in three different directions. All of them seem to lead deeper and deeper into the asphodel fields. I bounce on the balls on my feet, feeling the seconds slip away from me. Then, I step off the path and cut right through the flowers. Their soft petals grow sharp as I elbow past them, pushing away stalks and reaching flowers. They grab at my hair, scratch my face, and snatch the ends of my hoodie, tearing. My heart hammers. A stitch hooks in my stomach, but I don’t stop. An archway appears before me, similar to the one I crossed at the river, and I hurl myself through it. The Underworld tilts, disappears in a whirl, and when I open my eyes, I’m somewhere else.
This time, it’s not a meadow, but a town square. Shops and restaurants line the streets, which have lines painted for lanes, but no cars or bicycles anywhere. Instead, it’s bustling with life, in its way. These aren’t the grey wisps of the asphodel fields. The people look more solid, though they still walk through each other like smoke. There’s more color to them, but they’re faded like old watercolor paintings. My eyes follow an old man as he walks into a bakery with loaves of ciabatta bread, cherry danishes, and doughnuts shaped like snowmen in the display window. With a jolt, I recognize the shop. I went there every Saturday morning with my mother, Bella sitting in the basket in front of my bicycle. The proprietor, Mr. Colavita, would put out a saucer of cream for Bella while Mother bought bread and I got to pick any one pastry for myself.
I’m in my childhood town, I realize. I look up at the pale sky. They are either being kind to me or playing a trick.
I make my way into the bakery, which is surprisingly crowded. People mill about the register and jostle between the displays, taking what they want and getting in line for the cashier. I wonder if it’s a Sunday. I wonder if time even exists in the Underworld, if any of that food is real, or perhaps, it’s real to them and that’s all that matters.
Something prickles on the back of my neck and I hear a distant meow. I straighten, listening for the sound, and move towards the corner where Mr. Colavita would feed Bella. The meow comes again and I see her.
Her back is to me as she laps up the contents of the saucer. The end of her tail twitches, swishing back and forth. I step closer.
She stills. Then, she sits up, glances at me quickly over her shoulder, and darts out the door.
“Wait!” I shout and bolt after her.
I burst onto the street. Dead people walk through me, every touch a shiver, but I’m looking through them. Where is she? A meow rings out over the murmur of ghost voices, and there! I see her by the archway in the middle of the town square. One step in her direction and she takes off to the right and disappears. I give chase. I don’t know how much time I have left, but I know this place. I know where we used to go. I know the spots she likes, and I know exactly where she’s going. Sure enough, I glimpse her again at the end of the street, right at the entrance to the park. She waits for me to get close enough before running through the gates. I reach it and rattle the bars. It’s locked and people entering and leaving phase right through the bars, giving me affronted looks as they pass. Taking a breath, I grab the bars, plant my feet on the rails, and hoist myself up. I haven’t climbed a gate in nearly fifteen years, and somehow, I manage to make it across without impaling myself on the spikes at the top. I drop to the ground and look around, at the families walking, the playground, the duck pond.
“Bella, where are you?” I call.
A meow answers. I spin in a circle, searching for the sound. She’s standing on a little bluff, watching me over her shoulder like she’s waiting for me to follow. She leads me through a thicket, deeper into the park. I don’t remember this place. The trees are older here and there are fewer people. No benches. The paths shift from paving to gravel.
“Where are you taking me?” I ask. “Bella, stop this! We have to go!”
She circles around a patch of daffodils and disappears behind a pomegranate tree. That’s when I hear the sounds. High-pitched squeaking, unmistakable. My feet slow, instinctively quiet. When I circle around the tree, Bella is stretched out a comfortable patch of ground. Three kittens staggering to her teats, eager to suckle. She looks up at me and meows.
My heart grows cold. The shape of the head is similar, the shades of brown nearly the same, dark face with bright round eyes, but this cat is striped. A piece of its ear is missing and there’s a scratch on the side of its face. It’s not Bella.
The second I realize it, I feel my one hour run out.
Something contracts in my chest like I’ve been punched. My face grows hot. I curl my hands into fists, fighting the urge to scream myself hoarse. I want to rage across this park, tear apart the flowers. They tricked me. They tricked me with this stupid cat that dared to let me believe that she was my Bella. And now she’s gone for good. She’s gone. She’s–
I sink to the ground and curl in on myself, grinding my hands into my eyes even as the tears spill past them. Next to me, the mewling kittens stumble around blindly as they try to feed.
An eternity seems to pass before I can bear to open my eyes. I’m still here. I had expected to be magically thrown out on my ass back in my world. The cat is licking a kitten’s head as it shuffles around on legs still too young and weak for it to stand on. She finishes, then looks straight at me. Seconds pass. I wonder what it was all for.
A hand touches my shoulder. A glance out the corner of my eye tells me that it’s Persephone. She sits
down beside me, her dress pooling around her, and we watch the little cat family together.
“Was it all a trick?” I ask. My voice sounds like how the woman in the asphodel fields looked.
“No,” she replies quietly. “Thanatos brought that cat in just yesterday. It froze to death out in the snow and the kittens didn’t survive for long without their mother. It must have called out to you and you answered.”
Something flickers by the tree’s roots and a fourth kitten materializes. It mews, piteous and afraid, until it recognizes the scent of its mother and makes it way to her, drawn in like a lodestone. I wonder if Bella could have found her way back to me if she could, if I could have been her true north in the same way.
“And there’s another.” Persephone sighs. “It’s a bad winter this year.”
The cat draws her kittens toward herself and curls around them, licking their tiny bodies. I sit and watch them. There’s nothing else I can do. There was nothing else I could do but watch back then too, when Bella was hit by that car and I could only hold her as she slipped away from me. I was useless then, just as I am useless now.
Persephone slips her arm around my shoulder and presses me to her side. Warmth blooms at the point of contact and seeps through my body. A wistful smile hangs on her lips as she looks at the cats.
“Gods cannot die,” she says, “not really. You cannot kill a god any more than you can kill an idea once it has taken root in your mind. We are immortal and cannot understand death in the way you do, but are capable of feeling pain. We can feel loss and heartbreak that cuts deep. When I first came here, I felt so alone, even with my husband here. I missed my mother and my friends. I missed the whole world above me, a world where the sun shone and the skies were clear and bright. At that time, Cerberus helped me. He’s a good dog. He brought me comfort whenever Hades could not. Having him close soothed the pain and I learned to love this realm, find the beauty in its hidden corners.”
She strokes the cat under its chin and then takes my hands, pulling me to my feet.
“I have to go home now, don’t I?” I ask.
“Yes,” she replies. “My husband is right, you know. Death has rules, and to defy death would be to diminish the value of life. You have gone beyond what anyone else might do for their companions. You did all you could. Now it’s time to go home.”
She draws me down and presses a kiss to my forehead. It feels like a streak of summer sunshine through a wintry night, like blooming flowers, or a mother’s embrace. She smiles, and the Underworld seems to glow.
“Do not be afraid, child,” she says. “Hades is the ruler of the dead, but I am the goddess of spring and rebirth. Go with my blessing.”
My vision floods crimson. Heat ripples off my cheeks and I feel the now familiar shift of the world around me. When I open my eyes, I’m back in the library between the stacks of the Rare Books Collection. The librarian pokes her head around the corner.
“Are you done?” she asks. “We’re closing soon. There’s a snowstorm forecast for tonight.”
Persephone’s light still gleams in the backs of my eyes. It takes me a second to find my voice, and I nod.
“I’ll be right out.”
I leave the university library huddled in my coat and scarf as the snow begins to fall faster. My feet are growing cold in my sneakers and they skid in patches of black ice. It’s basic survival instinct that keeps my legs moving even as they want to drag as I make my way back to my empty apartment. When I reach it, I’m nearly frozen to my skin. Indoors, it’s not much warmer, but it’s enough to be a relief. I flick the light on.
The house is a mess and it smells like old litter. I haven’t cleaned in over a week, so I suppose it’s to be expected. I haven’t gotten any angry calls from the neighbors yet, though I expect those will start coming in soon. I’ll deal with it tomorrow. Maybe.
I wonder what I’ll do with Bella’s things.
Winter, death, spring, and rebirth. The Underworld is already beginning to feel like the shadow of a dream.
With a sigh, I peel off my coat and wander into the kitchen to make something for dinner. That’s when I hear the meow.
I stop in my tracks. This isn’t fair. There have been enough tricks today. Enough false hopes and trials.
And then it comes again.
But that’s not an adult, I realize, following the sound. It’s coming from outside my window. I pull the shutter open and crawl out onto the fire escape. Snow swirls around me, settling onto my hair and shoulders, and the icy wind bites like jagged little needles. I turn the flashlight on my phone on, and there, I see it. On the floor below me in a cardboard box under the stairs, a cat is curled around her kittens, all of them frozen stiff. I count four little ones and the mother, five.
I slowly make my way down. As I come closer, I can make out the stripes on the mother’s back, the ways she covers her babies with her own body. Then, they shift, and a fifth kitten pokes its head out from under its siblings. It opens its mouth and lets out a weak mew.
I walked into hell for Bella. I searched the Underworld for her. I have tried too hard and gone too far to believe in coincidences. It takes me less than a second to decide.
With one hand, I scoop the kitten up and bundle it close to my chest. Immediately, it burrows into my hoodie, searching for the warmest spots. I look back at the mother cat and her four frozen kittens. They’re in a park somewhere else, somewhere far away, playing under a pomegranate tree near a cluster of daffodils. I’m sure the mother won’t mind if her fifth takes a while to join her.
“Let’s get you inside,” I say.
Holding the kitten close, I go back up, crawl through the window, and step back into the light.
BIO: Surya Vaidyanathan is a writer, illustrator, and designer with a background in architecture. She is passionate about history, mythology, the depths of human complexity, and spaces in between the real and the dreaming. Her first fantasy novel, THE FALCON’S EYE, was self-published, and her illustrations can be found on Instagram at @sdotnathan.