I was sitting on our garden swing while my mother, Demeter, goddess of fertility and the harvest, was brushing my hair. Hermes, messenger of the gods, descended beside us, his winged sandals flapping. “Lady Demeter,” he said, “Hera, Queen of Olympus, requests the presence of you and your daughter at an ambrosia and nectar soiree, family and close friends only, at sunset, the day after tomorrow. Reply If You Please, etc etc.”
My mother simpered, “Greetings to my sister Hera. Persephone and I will be honoured to attend.”
“That’s what they all say, Lady Bountiful. Happy families, is it not? Have a nice day.” He fluttered off.
She sneered. “Supercilious fig leaf.”
Two sunsets later we sauntered into the gods’ marble hall on Mount Olympus. “All eyes are upon you, Persephone,” Mother said, “You even put that strumpet Aphrodite in the shade, but be on your best behaviour and try not to look bored.”
“I am bored,” I said. “I lead a pointless, tedious life, but it’s your behaviour that worries me. If Aphrodite gets wind of that little outburst she’ll turn us both into vegetation of some kind.”
“She wouldn’t dare. Zeus wouldn’t allow it. You’re his favourite daughter.”
I had no wish to be Zeus’s favourite anything. His lust took no account of consanguinity. My mother was his sister. So was his wife, Hera. I kept as far away from him as possible.
I surveyed the guests while trying to look interested. The deities bore strong resemblances to each other, which was no surprise in view of their close relationships. I noticed one exception. He was tall, slim and muscular. His black braided curls hung around his shoulders, and he had enough facial hair to stuff a cushion in Aphrodite’s boudoir. His black tunic was made from the hide of some unidentifiable beast. It was cut to reveal his bare arms and chest, which were decorated with tattoos of skulls and three-headed dogs. This must be my uncle, Hades, god of the Underworld. He saw me watching him and he winked. I winked back.
Next day I was idling away the hours with my friend, the naiad, Cyone. “I’m bored,” I said.
“You’re always bored. Take a lover and have some fun. There are plenty of candidates in the vicinity.”
I glanced around at the beautiful golden-haired youths in short chitons, showing off their suntanned legs. “I don’t fancy any of this lot. I want a real man.”
“Do you have anyone in mind?”
She gasped. “No chance.”
“I beg to differ.”
“You’ve met him?”
“Yes. We have an understanding.”
Right on cue the ground rumbled and burst open. A team of red-eyed, black horses, pulling a black chariot, sprang through the fissure. Hades reached out to me. “You want to take a ride?”
“I grasped his hand and leaped into the chariot beside him. As the horses dived back underground Cyone yelled, “What shall I tell your mother?”
“Tell her I said goodbye.”
The Underworld was a place of peace and quiet, apart from the howling of miscreants being purged to make them fit to move on to the Elysian Fields. In the eternal night the stars hung above us, like living souls waiting to plunge into death.
My lover and I existed in a state of bliss until Hermes appeared at the foot of our bed. “Get dressed, lovebirds. The Big Man Upstairs needs to talk to you.”
Hades said, “That’s a first. What does he want?”
“We have a situation. Demeter’s thrown a tantrum and the earth’s turning into a barren wasteland. She wants her daughter back.”
“I won’t go back,” I said. “Tell Zeus I’m staying here.”
Hermes sniggered, “Tell him yourself, Lady Downstairs. The messenger’s keeping out of this one.”
I reached into the fruit-bowl on the bedside table and grabbed a pomegranate, smashed it with my fist, took a bite, spat out the bitter pith and swallowed a mouthful of seeds. “Nobody can make me go back now. I belong in the Underworld.”
Hades said, “There you have it, little feathered friend. It’s not our problem.”
Hermes sighed. “No offence, Uncle, but it’s not my problem either. I don’t want any trouble, so either put on some clothes or come as you are, but please, let’s go.”
He looked scared and Hades took pity on him. “Don’t get your loin cloth in a twist. Tell Zeus we’re on our way.” Hermes fluttered off.
Hades put his arm around me. “Don’t worry, Persi. My brother can lord it over his crowd of wimps till the Styx freezes over, but he won’t take me on. Let’s find our clothes. We don’t want the Olympians getting over-excited.”
The red-eyed steeds carried us to the marble hall. We made a grand entrance, wrecking a few floor tiles.
Zeus and Hera sat on their thrones. The rest of the pantheon stood around looking indolent. My sobbing mother was kneeling before Zeus. She’d lost weight and her hair was a mess. She held out her arms to me. “My child, you’ve come back to me.”
I was overcome with guilt and regret for not having been kinder to her. I ran into her arms.
Zeus said, “Right. That’s settled. Get back to work, Demeter.”
“No,” I shouted. “I belong in the Underworld now. I’ve eaten pomegranate seeds.” I pointed at Hermes. “He saw me.”
A hush fell, until Hera laughed, “That old chestnut? It’s just a myth. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Hades’ voice boomed across the hall. “It means we’re married and I demand my conjugal rights.” Zeus groaned and held his head in his hands.
My mother whispered, “Tell Hades to let you go, Persephone. If he loves you he will.”
I shook my head. “I love him too, Mother.”
“What? That’s disgusting. He’s your uncle.”
I almost laughed. “And Zeus is your brother. That didn’t stop the pair of you producing me.”
“That’s different. We’re the Olympians.”
“You’re a pack of incestuous adulterers and your brother can’t keep it in his chiton.”
She appealed to Zeus. “You’re her father. You can command her to stay with me.”
He raised his head. “I will take it under advisement.” Turning to Hermes he said, “Fetch Athena. This is probably covered in one of her portfolios.”
Hermes said, “On my way, Boss. I have wings on my heels.” He fluttered through the gap in the ceiling, architecturally designed for his convenience.
I glanced at Hades. He didn’t look worried so I was reassured.
The clanging of chainmail, breastplate, and other military accoutrements signalled the arrival of Athena, goddess of war, wisdom, justice, mathematics, and anything else beyond the capabilities of the rest of the Olympian brood. “No need to explain,” she said to Zeus. “I’ve got the gist.”
My mother was sobbing again. Athena said, “Shut up, woman and show some common sense. Persephone’s an adult. She has the right to make her own choices.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, but she frowned at me, “Don’t look so smug, girl. You haven’t handled this well. You’ve shown no consideration for your mother. You have a duty towards her and you’re old enough to accept some responsibility for the environmental catastrophe you’ve caused.” She turned to Hades. “That goes for you, too. You don’t scare me with your black leather and your fancy tatts. I’ve got a few of my own that might scare you.”
He grinned and I saw respect and affection for her in his eyes.
Zeus said, “We’re in your hands, Athena. Do you have a solution?”
“Of course I do. It’s the solution of most self-induced stalemates. Compromise.”
“Sounds good to me. What do you suggest?”
“Persephone spends half the year with Demeter, making daisy chains, dancing around the Sacred Oak at midnight, or whatever. For the other half of the year she does whatever it is she does with the Big Man Downstairs. Any questions?”
I glared at my mother before she could object. “It’s this or nothing.”
I’ll leave you to it,” Athena said. “I have an uprising to put down in Assyria.” She donned her helmet and clanged back into battle.
Next morning I met Cyone on the riverbank. “You look well, she said, “Marriage agrees with you.”
“Thank you. I can’t say it’s good to be back. I have half a year of boredom to endure.”
“The trick is to keep busy. I’ve organised a band of naiads and dryads to help clear up the mess the earth is in. Are you with us?”
“I’m in. Where do we start?”
“In the North countries. We’re treating a disease that’s attacking the elm trees.”
So, here I am, keeping busy, being a dutiful daughter, and counting the days until I can go home. Hades and I will lie in each other’s arms in the land where night never ends, and I won’t have to wonder if he’ll still love me tomorrow.
BIO: Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had 132 stories and poems accepted for publication, she was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize, and in 2019 Alban Lake published an anthology of her stories, ‘Whispers of Magic’. She loves her family and friends, rock ‘n’ roll, Shakespeare and cats.