There might be a burst of conversation, quickly aborted. An argument in whispers and glances, nervous titters, struggles to breathe life into the hot, windowless room — but inevitably, silence made its way around the table, laying a hand on every shoulder.
Orpheus hated silence.
He turned to Eurydice. “He’s going to get to you next, I think.”
“You said that.”
“Right.” Orpheus nodded to the ticking of a faceless clock above the mantle.
Hades remained hidden behind his screen–a massive bronze triptych of the Last Judgment. As minutes crawled towards another hour, the painted, pitchfork-wielding demons seemed to come alive in the firelight, herding the Damned across the panels with sinister smiles and erections of gothic proportions.
“He’s very detailed. Sometimes it takes a while.”
“I see that.”
“It’s not always like this. I mean, when it gets going, it’s better.”
The others did not seem to mind the quiet. Athena used the time to catch up on her reading. Jason had his latest girlfriend, the bosomy black-haired Medea. Castor and Pollux entertained each other. Hermes, when he was here, was ever-busy with his phones and his gadgets.
Until now, Orpheus had only the sound of his own voice. But now — oh, now. Now he had Eurydice.
Lovely, gentle, Eurydice. So slight, so sweet, so tenderly eager and out-of-place in Hades’ drawing room. She is a daffodil among redwoods, Orpheus thought, composing songs for her in his head. She is a gasp in a hurricane. She is a field mouse in the house of a god.
For the better part of the evening, all that had been visible of Hades was the top of his dark, curly head. Now, finally, his eyes rose above the rim of his triptych like two black moons on the horizon.
“You,” said Hades, turning his stygian gaze on Eurydice. “Roll.”
Quivering just a bit, Eurydice plucked up her brand new ten-sided die and dropped it onto the table. “Eight!” she breathed. “What does that mean?”
Hades sunk back behind the screen. “What’s your dexterity modifier?”
“It’s on the paper, Love,” Orpheus began. “It controls how fast your character can react; how nimbly. Look for ‘D-E-X’, below the — “
Athena’s clear voice cut through his tutorial. “Plus one.”
“And how do you know that?” said Medea, rising like a lioness sensing prey. “Did you look at her character sheet?”
“I didn’t have to,” said Athena. “I was there when she rolled it up.”
Medea’s eyes were fierce, mascara-lined and violet.
“They were using my room.” Athena explained. She ran her fingers through her short, neat hair and turned back to her book. “I wasn’t about to leave them alone in there. They might fornicate.”
Eurydice’s apple-pink cheeks turned crimson. And was that …? Yes, it was. The hint of a smile. Orpheus felt his heart shudder with happiness. O’ beauteous nymph ….
“Tch,” said Medea, with disgust.
“If you’re suggesting that I’ve taken an unfair advantage by listening in,” Athena answered, “then you are a fool. The girl is a virgin player, unlikely to survive her first session of The Game. Her character stats are irrelevant.”
“Any knowledge is power.”
Jason had been moodily nursing a cup of coffee. Now he rubbed his head as if it pained him. “It’s not a competition. We’re all in the same party here.”
Eurydice had been following the discussion like a mortal caught on the court in a Titan’s tennis match — wide-eyed and mute. When a door opened in the wood paneling behind her, she jumped almost a foot from her chair.
Hades’ wife, Persephone, breezed into the room. A pink smile bloomed across her face. On her manicured fingers, a delicately balanced silver platter.
“You must be Orpheus’s lady friend,” Persephone said, making a beeline for Eurydice. “And aren’t you a pretty one! Eyes like honey — I could eat you with a spoon. They’re going easy on you, I hope? This Game can be so barbaric. Would you like a snack? It’s my own recipe. I put pomegranate seeds in it.”
Eurydice accepted a crispy rice treat. “Th-thank you, Mrs. … um. Thank you. It looks delicious.”
Persephone offered the platter to Orpheus. “Yes, Auntie,” he told her, though his eyes were fast on Eurydice, who was touching the sticky pink square to her lips. “If they taste as good as they look, I could die happy.”
“Well take one, then,” said Persephone. “Go on. Eat.”
Orpheus took a treat from the tray and placed it on a napkin.
Eurydice nibbled. Doe-eyed, she tracked Persephone’s progress around the room.
“My family comes on strong,” Orpheus told her in undertones. “But they mean well. Well. Mostly. Most of them. I mean … my aunt is quite — ”
“Oh. Well, yes. She is.” He did think so, though Persephone’s bottle-blonde hair and yellow sundresses always struck him as incongruous in this place. The light from the hearth and the gas chandelier were a deep orange-red, more reminiscent of forges and volcanoes than sunbeams.
He also felt his aunt wore a tad too much makeup. When one looked at her they tended to think of her beauty in terms of what she had been, rather than what she was. But she reminded Orpheus of his childhood–feminine warmth and perfume, the soft limbs and sweet, musical lips of his mother and her sisters.
“What the hell is that?” boomed Hades.
Eurydice nearly dropped her food.
Persephone had passed behind Athena (who disparaged sweets) and was now holding her tray out for the twins. “What is what?”
Hades pointed an angry finger. “Don’t feed these people!”
“They can’t eat crispy … rice … seed … things, they’re sticky, woman! We’re in Game. Get them out of here.”
“They can bring them to the kitchen if they want to, you old grump.” Persephone dropped her tray with a clatter and exited the room, a flash of yellow silk.
Castor reached for the abandoned tray until Hades turned his black eyes on him. He retracted his hand.
Eurydice slipped the remaining chunk of her treat into her handbag. She began to lick her fingers clean, her little pink tongue deftly flicking. The flutter in Orpheus’s heart became a sledgehammer.
“What? Sorry?” Orpheus looked up to find that he was now the one caught in Hades’ stare.
“Roll for initiative.”
“Oh.” Orpheus rolled. “Three.”
Minutes eked by, marked by faint scratching behind Hades’ screen. Finally, Hades announced the order of play: “Eurydice. Medea. Castor. Athena. Orpheus. Jason …. Pollux failed the surprise roll so you miss a round. Also Hermes, because he’s still in the kitchen.”
Athena frowned. “If he touches my yogurt I’ll castrate him.”
“He’s on the phone,” said Castor.
“Hercules is still pissed that we left Hylas with that pack of succubi last week –” said Pollux.
“ — so Hermes is trying to convince him to come back to The Game,” finished Castor.
Jason gave a wry smile at the mention of the demise of their cohort. “There are worse ways to die than in the arms of a succubus. Or should I say, there are worse ways to go than in the mou — ”
Medea had been massaging his feet in her lap. Her fingers tightened until her knuckles turned white, and the smile on Jason’s face vanished.
“I believe the virtues of such a death are lost on Hylas, either way,” said Athena.
“What’s a succubus?” braved a small voice.
There was a brief pause as everyone at the table glanced at Eurydice. Orpheus coughed.
“Oh, look,” said Medea. “For once he’s speechless.”
Hades glanced up from his notes. “Everybody shut up and let’s get on with the encounter.” He turned to Eurydice. “You notice movement amid the rocks at the edge of the beach. A giant bird rises into the air, sunlight glinting off of its feathers. It’s heading right toward you, shrieking fiercely and moving very fast.”
“Oh,” said Eurydice.
Hades glared at her.
“What do you want to do, Love?” Orpheus prompted.
“You can fight, or you can flee. Or you can aid yourself … or someone else. Have you got a magic spell, perhaps — ?”
“Don’t help her!” Medea hissed.
“Still on the same side, dearest,” sang Jason, under his breath.
“She’s first in order,” boomed Hades. “She’ll act, or she’ll die. Now.”
Eurydice looked at her character sheet in a panic. “Um. Well I …. Uh. C-can I … ch-charm … it?”
She looked up at Hades. His face was inscrutable. “Roll.”
Behind the bronze screen, Hades’ famous ebony dice rattled an echo. “The bird lands docile at your feet,” he announced. “Medea–four more birds have risen from the crags and are flying in your direction ….”
Orpheus was spellbound by the play of emotion on Eurydice’s face. Anxiousness turned to relief, which blossomed into pride, and the whole of her being lit up. He had not imagined that she could shine any brighter, but there it was.
“An excellent choice, Euri,” he told her. “Truly excellent.”
Eurydice beamed. She is the dawn. She is the heavens. She is the Cosmos, and I would drift forever in her beauty ….
With Jason’s feet still in her lap, Medea lifted her arms and began to chant. “O Glorious Hekate,” she intoned, “O Night, O powers of Earth, come to me!” Her voice continued to rise in intensity until she noticed Hades’ baleful glare over the edge of the triptych.
Medea dropped her arms. “Nocturne Orb,” she muttered, with a roll of her crystal dice.
“You knock out three. The fourth lets loose a volley of bronze feathers. Roll for damage.”
As The Game continued, Orpheus turned to Eurydice. “Are you having fun?” He spoke lowly, under pretense of trying not to disturb the others, but really he just wanted to put his lips next to her ear.
“Yes,” she replied, in an excited whisper. As she turned her head, their lips almost touched. Orpheus felt that he might faint from joy.
“That’s wonderful,” he said. “Truly. See? I told you things would pick up.”
Orpheus had loved Eurydice from the moment he first saw her, hanging a garland of dried apples in an orchard bakery. She’d been standing on a ladder in a dress that barely came past the hem of her cute little red-and-white-striped apron, and he’d seen … well. He’d seen his future.
He’d been wooing her ever since — though whether she knew that wooing was what he was doing, he wasn’t sure. She laughed at all his jokes, listened with interest to his stories; she’d even agreed to join him at The Game when he finally found the courage to ask. She liked him well enough, but there was something missing. She did not seem drawn to Orpheus the way he was to her. She did not seem … convinced.
Have you sung to her? Hermes had asked recently. You know it’s a sure thing if you sing.
But Orpheus hadn’t. He wanted to… oh, the music she inspired in him. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He could have any girl he wanted if he used his voice , but he had to know if there was a chance that Eurydice might love Orpheus for Orpheus alone. If and when Eurydice looked at him with something more than friendship in her honeyed eyes–then. Then he would sing.
That was partly why he had finally invited Eurydice here, to The Game. He thought perhaps if she saw how he was here, if she knew where he came from, she might take him seriously. Perhaps she would see more in him than just a man who liked her donuts. His skill, perhaps. His presence. His charisma, his stature, his birthright…
The door in the paneling swung open. Hermes emerged from the kitchen with a spoon in his mouth and an earbud dangling from his ear. He looked as if he had stumbled into the room by accident, though Orpheus knew his entrance was as intentional as the fashionable indifference of his vintage Nike t-shirt and faded jeans.
Hermes pulled the spoon from his mouth and surveyed the table. “What do we got?”
“Stymphalian Birds,” replied Athena. “At least three dozen, still coming. Two down, four enchanted. Medea and Castor have taken damage and Castor has lost a NPC. Is he coming?”
“Who. Hercules?” Hermes drew a finger along the edge of his thin, meticulously trimmed beard. “No.” His eyes fell on Eurydice, who had been staring at him since he entered the room. Hermes glanced at Orpheus and raised his eyebrows as if to say, Well, well. Look what the canary dragged in.
Athena sighed. “He has my Bracelet of Thunder.”
Medea perked up at the mention of treasure. “Your what?”
Athena opened her mouth to answer, but Hades cut her off. “Your action. Now.”
“The shields,” said Athena. “I bang my spear against my shield. Everyone who hasn’t had a turn yet should do the same.”
“Bang their shields? Are you serious?” laughed Medea.
“The birds appear to be repelled by your action,” Hades informed Athena. “The attackers nearest you are moving off.”
“Their weakness is noise,” Athena told the group.
Hades turned to Orpheus. “You are facing a bird to the north, with another nearing you from the east. Your action.”
Orpheus glanced with embarrassment at Eurydice. “I … bang my shield with my sword, I suppose.” Now there’s an impressive start, he thought. “Bang some pots and pans together …. Way to get her attention.
Now that the rest of the party knew about the birds’ weakness, the melee ended quickly. The group decided to climb a nearby hill and thus discovered that the islet on which they had landed was every bit as barren as it had looked from sea.
“Well that was pointless,” said Medea.
Jason glared at her. “You’re the one who insisted that we stop to rest.”
“I didn’t say stop here. There are hundreds of places you could have come ashore.”
“Have you seen any other islets since Mossynos? We’ve been sailing for days. I’ve lost three rowers from dehydration.”
Medea snickered. “Oh no! We lost Argonaut Number Five.”
“If we lose any more NPCs, you’ll be picking up an oar.”
“Let’s just make the best of things, shall we?” said Pollux. “We can refill our water stores, at least ….”
“The water on this islet is not potable,” Athena interrupted.
Jason turned to her. “Why didn’t you say something before we came ashore?”
“You made that decision while I was upstairs with Orpheus and his little sprite. I warned you not to do anything significant while I wasn’t here.”
Jason swung his feet to the floor with a muttered oath and retrieved a yellow notepad from his backpack. As Athena came around to look at Jason’s map, Hermes stood and stretched. “I need a smoke.”
Castor and Pollux followed Hermes from the room. The sound of barking ensued, and would not relent in spite of Persephone’s feminine shrieking deep within The House.
Hades pounded a massive fist on the wall. “Silence!” His voice shook the floor and caused Eurydice to turn pale. The barking stopped.
While Athena, Jason, and Medea bent over the map, arguing over which route to take towards the Kingdom of Colchis, Eurydice sat quietly, her hands in her lap. She looked lost, yet eager, watching Orpheus’s larger-than-life companions. Orpheus wished that she would look at him like that.
“Would you like to practice your spells a bit?” he asked.
Eurydice brightened. “Okay.”
Orpheus went to talk to Hades at the head of the table. “Uncle, would you mind running a minor encounter or two while we wait?”
Hades had been leaning backwards in his chair, patiently waiting. Now he let the front legs of his chair thump to the floor. “Minor encounters,” Hades repeated, with an expression that meant either he was intrigued by a diversion or he wanted to sharpen his pencil in Orpheus’s eye socket.
Orpheus stumbled on. “Yes, just something small and random, to help Eurydice get a feel for The Game. Gain experience. The others will be occupied for a while. We should have time. Would that be all right?”
Hades considered him darkly. “All right. Bring her here.”
“Excellent! Great. Thank you, Uncle.”
Orpheus and Eurydice settled into chairs closer to Hades. Hades leaned back, digging into a nearly empty bag of pretzels. “So what do you want to do?”
Eurydice looked at Orpheus, her eyes bright.
“What shall we do, then?” Orpheus repeated, in a nearly sing-song voice. “Test your mettle? Flex our muscles and all that?” Orpheus felt the smile on his face widening to goofy proportions and did his best to reign it in. “Why don’t we go over to the rocky cliff, where the birds came from?”
“Oh,” said Eurydice, “the birds? What if there are more of them?”
“If there are stragglers, we know how to scare them off now. Come on. Let’s see what you can do.”
“Okay,” Eurydice grinned. “Let’s do it.”
Hades began rolling dice behind his screen. Orpheus bit the inside of his cheek, thinking that he might crawl out of his skin if they had to sit through another marathon session of waiting, but after several dozen rolls Hades nodded at Eurydice.
“You scale the rocks without incident. As you reach the top, you encounter a viper.”
Eurydice looked at Orpheus. “What, like, a snake?”
Orpheus shrugged. “It’s something to aim at, anyway.”
“Roll for initiative,” said Hades, over a mouthful of pretzels.
Eurydice tossed her die. “Oh, a one. Is that good?”
“Ah … well. N-no.” said Orpheus.
“What does it mean?”
“It means you’ve not only lost the initiative, but you’re vulnerable to … greater misfortunes, depending on your Moiré roll.”
“You have to roll again. It’s ah — a fate check.”
“Oh,” Eurydice replied. She picked up her die again. “Shall I …,” she glanced at Hades. “I’ll just … okay.”
The little blue die fell from Eurydice’s hand. A single dot looked back at them.
“Another one,” said Eurydice. “What does that mean?”
Hades slowly crinkled the pretzel bag into a fist-sized ball. He tossed it into a wastebasket in the corner.
Orpheus had to swallow several times before he could reply. “Well… a one on a Moiré is… we call it… The Gorgon’s Eye.”
Hades reached under the table. A drawer scraped open.
“That sounds bad,” said Eurydice.
Orpheus didn’t answer. The drawer slid closed again. The sound of dice falling behind Hades’ screen was like a shiver of bones.
“Does she have a Patron modifier?” asked Hades.
Eurydice’s eyes were huge and round. “What is that?”
“It’s when a deity has taken a special interest in your character and may intervene on your behalf at times of crises.”
“Do I have one?”
Orpheus shook his head. Together they looked at Hades.
“The viper strikes you in the heel.”
“Oh,” said Eurydice.
“As its venom spreads from your foot to your heart, you lose your balance. You tumble from the rocks into the sea.”
“Oh my,” said Eurydice.
The room had fallen quiet. The others had ended their conversation and were looking at Eurydice with expressions of interest and pity.
Eurydice cleared her throat–a sound like a skin drum thumped softly, very far away.
She is my heartbeat, thought Orpheus, fighting despair. She is my pulse. She is my rhythm.
“What happens now?” asked Eurydice.
Hades looked at Orpheus. “Get her out of here.” He turned to the others. “Has the party decided on a course?”
“Wait,” said Orpheus. He knew the rules: death meant exile. But if Eurydice left now, so summarily done with and dismissed, Orpheus would be humiliated. He might lose his chance with her, condemned to be just friends forever. “Wait. Don’t make her leave. I’ll retrieve her body. Medea can raise her.”
“I will not,” scoffed Medea. “Why would I waste a spell on some newbie trollop just so you can impr–”
“Then I’ll find another cleric. There must be one in Colchis ….”
Jason gave Orpheus a doubtful look. “I’m not sure I want to carry a dead body on the ship, man. We don’t know how long it’s going to take until–”
“What’s going on?” Hermes and the twins had reappeared in the doorway.
“We can fix her when we find the Fleece …,” said Orpheus, insistent. “The Fleece has the power to heal. We can fix her then.”
“The body is gone,” declared Hades. “Lost at sea.”
Orpheus looked at him, mutely pleading.
“Eaten by sharks,” added Hades.
“No,” whispered Orpheus. “Uncle ….”
‘It’s all right,” said Eurydice. “It’s fine. I’ll just go, okay?” She picked up her handbag.
Orpheus stood, ready to follow her to the door, but Hades stopped him with a voice like an avalanche, snuffing the life from him. “Sit down.”
“But I’m her ride.”
“You can’t leave.” Medea looked at Orpheus with a semblance of compassion. “We’re in the middle of The Game.”
Orpheus turned to Hades, knowing it was fruitless yet hoping his uncle might bend the rules this once, for pity’s sake.
Hermes pulled keys from his pocket. “I’ll take her.”
Hades nodded and sank back behind his triptych. Matter settled.
“But he’s in The Game,” said Orpheus. “Why can Hermes leave if I can’t?”
“Come on, Cuz,” said Hermes, laying a hand on Orpheus’s shoulder. “You know why.”
Because you are not like Us, his eyes said. You and Jason, your women … you are family, Orpheus, you are welcome in The House and at our Games, but you have never been one of Us.
And there it was. That which had haunted Orpheus all his life, unspoken and yet loud as a Siren’s call. Welcome, but not One Of. It never mattered how special Orpheus was among men–here, he was never Enough.
No one said anything. Athena and Hermes shared a brief, almost embarrassed glance, then Athena cleared her throat and sat down. Hermes ushered Eurydice from the table, leaving Orpheus standing, slump-shouldered and alone, before Hades’ implacable screen.
Eurydice paused at the door. She smiled sweetly and waved. “Bye, everyone. And thanks. This was fun.”
And then she was gone.
Orpheus had no recollection of playing out The Game that evening; he’d been trapped in his own private purgatory until Castor nudged him to tell him Hades was kicking them out. Somehow Orpheus ended up at home, where he’d lain fully dressed on his bed with no thought in his head but Eurydice.
Now he was sitting in his car, a song of mourning stuck in his throat. Every now and then he would hum to try to clear it. A note might escape, bringing tears to his eyes, but he could not rid himself of it. He felt as if he was choking on his grief.
Orpheus got out of his car and crossed the street.
The House was quiet. A light was on in Athena’s room on the upper level, and the soft glow of Hestia’s hearth fire on the ground floor was warm and welcoming, but the pathway to Hades’ basement apartments was speckled with eerie, shifting shadows.
As Orpheus passed the last of the hedges, one of the shadows separated from the rest and backed into him. Orpheus was caught up in a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke.
Hermes whirled around. “Oh — hey. Orpheus.” He was barefoot, shirtless, a cigarette tucked in his palm. “What’re you doing here?”
Orpheus didn’t need to answer.
“Eurydice?” Hermes took a drag and rocked back on his heels. “Didn’t know you were this serious about the girl, Cuz.” he gestured toward The House with his cigarette. “You sure she’s worth it?”
She is life. She is breath. She is the spark. She is worth all of it. Orpheus nodded.
Hermes frowned. Orpheus left him, following the walkway around the side of The House to a tall iron gate. The gate was locked, but Orpheus pulled a key from under a planter and let himself in.
A few paces from the gate there was a set of concrete steps leading to Hades’ apartments. Persephone had lined them with pots of flowers in riotous, desperate color, but they did little to dispel the somber mood of the entryway.
Orpheus had a moment of hesitation. He rarely visited his uncle alone, and never uninvited. But the song in his throat was strangling him. Orpheus raised his hand and knocked on the giant red door.
At first there was no response. Orpheus was preparing to knock again when he heard a furious barking from within.
Finally the door opened. Persephone peered out at him from under a head of serpentine curlers. A canine-like snout appeared at her waist, barking and drooling.
“Orpheus? What–back!” Persephone opened the door just wide enough for Orpheus to come through while she held the beast by its collar. “Get back, devil-spawn. Git!” She shoved it into a closet and slammed the door. It immediately began to scratch from the other side, baying wildly.
Persephone turned a haggard face back to Orpheus. Her hair had come undone from the curlers and bounced in crazy spirals from her head. “What are you doing here?”
“I must speak with Hades.”
“Oh, Orpheus. You know better than this.”
Before Orpheus could answer he saw Persephone’s eyes lift over his head. She gave a little shrug and busied herself with the snarls of her hair. Orpheus turned to face his uncle.
Hades was not actually tall, but one inevitably felt the need to hold onto something when in his presence, in case the world should decide to turn itself inside out. Orpheus had forgotten this about Hades, having lately been limited to views of the top of his head or the occasional eclipse of his eyes. Even then, his uncle’s attention was rarely focused on Orpheus but, rather, on The Game.
Now the full force of Hades — disheveled in his black robe and red plush slippers — was staring at Orpheus with a look that could make mountains crumble.
But Orpheus did not crumble. Without Eurydice, there was nothing left to lose.
“I must have her back,” he said. “Please. You must let her come back.”
Hades looked like he could not decide between rage and amusement. “No one returns from death in The Game. Not for love, or lust, or greed — whatever this is. There must be something addling your head, boy. What makes you think I would tell you any different?” Hades laughed. “Because you said please?”
As Hades took a step toward him, Orpheus found he could not speak. A refrain of love flowed through his mind — if only Hades knew what he felt! But Orpheus’s throat was lodged tight with longing and pain.
“I asked you a question, Nephew. Now answer. What makes you think that you are special?”
Orpheus had a view of the adjoining room. It was the formal parlor, a vast space cloaked in shadows. In the center stood a grand piano that seemed to glow of its own inner light. A gift from my Mother, Persephone had told him once, deep into her cups. To remind me of home. Orpheus had always longed to touch it, but never had the nerve to ask.
“Tell me your answer,” Hades menaced.
“May I sing it to you?”
Hades was clearly taken aback. His face contorted, scales tipping towards rage.
“Sing to me? Am I a maiden for you to woo?” He took an angry step towards Orpheus.
Persephone appeared between them. She placed a hand on Hades’ elbow.
“Let him sing.”
“Let him sing?!? You would let him mock me in my own home?”
“Mock you? Would you look at the boy? He is young and in love. What is more earnest than that?”
“Death is more earnest.”
“We were young once, Cocoa Bear. Let him sing.”
Though he vibrated with effort, Hades compressed his mouth into a grim line and took a step back.
Orpheus approached the piano.
To remind me of home, Persephone had said. She switched on a tall Tiffany lamp for him, causing clusters of colored light to fall over the piano, rose and mint and marigold. As Orpheus raised the lid and gently touched the keys, he thought of verdant fields and bubbling streams. He could feel the places where Persephone’s fingers had been, playing music of youth and hope, and so that is where he began.
She is the spring, said his fingers.
With a long, melancholy look at her husband, Persephone sat on the bench beside Orpheus. She watched, holding her breath as if it were a secret.
She is the newborn’s first glimpse of color. She is a cascade of petals, the breath of new growth. She is the kiss of sun on winter’s skin, she is the striving, the quickening, the Glory of life in its reclaiming.
At the first string of notes, the wild baying from across the hall ceased. Throughout The House, those that had been sleeping rose from their beds, and those that had been busy put down their tasks. All the world, it seemed, had stopped to listen to Orpheus play–and not a word had yet crossed his lips.
Then Orpheus began to sing. The knot in his throat unraveled, and all that Orpheus felt came flooding out. No one moved until the sound stopped and, spent, Orpheus sat hunched over the piano, hands limp on the keys.
Persephone was the first to stir. She rose from the bench, wiping tears from her face. She crossed the room and laid a hand on Hades’ arm as she passed into the hall. She left them looking at each other.
“Nothing is that easy,” said Hades.
Orpheus hung his head.
“I will let your Eurydice back in The Game. But there is one condition.”
The words reached Orpheus slowly. As their meaning dawned on him, he lifted his head. “What’s that, Uncle?”
Hades ran a hand over his face. “That you may not speak, Orpheus. I don’t want to hear your voice for the rest of the campaign. Not a song, not a poem, not an opinion, not a word.”
Orpheus opened his mouth and then paused, an agonized look on his face.
“Get it out now, while you can. What.”
“How will I play if I cannot speak?”
“Write it down. Work out hand signals. Hell if I care. But if you make a sound, Orpheus, before the campaign is done, she will be banned from The Game forever. Do you understand?”
She will come back, thought Orpheus. She will play at my side. If she is with me, I have no need of sound.
Hades waited for his answer.
She will be my voice, thought Orpheus. She will understand.
If I live a thousand years in silence, it would not matter, so long as Eurydice is mine.
Eurydice is my song.
“Done,” said Hades. He turned towards the stairs and the red door, which Persephone had left ajar. “Bring her.”
Startled, Orpheus raised his eyes to the stairs. He saw Hermes’s bare feet descending first, followed by two slender, delicate feet, also bare, that evolved into Eurydice’s naked, shapely legs, and then the rest of her, nubile, darling and braless under Hermes’s vintage Nike shirt.
The pair of them reached the foyer. Eurydice stood with her thigh touching Hermes. She peered into the parlor.
“Orpheus,” she breathed. “Was that you singing? It was so lovely!” There was awe in her voice, unmistakable, and perhaps the beginning of something else, but Orpheus no longer had a mind to hear it.
He was transfixed by the sight of her perfect skin resting intimately against Hermes’s jeans. The dark of his cousin’s t-shirt over Eurydice’s slight, perfect breasts. They were like a negative of one another, flesh and cloth. They were the ebony and ivory of the piano keys beneath Orpheus’s fingers. The very keys he had just made sing as, perhaps, Hermes had made Eurydice sing with his own quicksilver hands.
Suddenly Orpheus could see it; Eurydice laid out like music on Hermes’s bed, her mouth open in urgent melody. Orpheus’s hands came crashing down on Persephone’s piano and he cried out — not a song, certainly, not even a coherent word — but a sound, nonetheless.
And just like that, it was over.
Eurydice’s face darkened like a crushed blossom. In that sound, she understood everything. She understood what Orpheus had seen in her in the orchard shop, what he had meant by all his kindness and corny jokes, and what he had been holding back. She understood why he had brought her here that afternoon, and why he had fought so hard to let her stay. She understood the beautiful music that she had heard from Hermes’ room, the sound that had drawn her from Hermes’ bed back to the doorway of this strange, windowless place where she was not welcome. It was for her. It was all for her.
What she could not understand was why Orpheus would no longer meet her eyes. Eurydice made a move toward Orpheus, but Hermes turned her gently towards the door.
[Shannon Connor Winward is the author of the Elgin-award winning chapbook, Undoing Winter. Her writing earned recognition in the Writers of the Future Contest and the Delaware Division of the Arts Individual Fellowship in Literature, and has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, PANK, Pseudopod’s Artemis Rising, Literary Mama, The Monarch Review, Qu, Gargoyle, The Vestal Review and Flash Fiction Online, among others. In between parenting, writing, and other madness, Shannon is also a poetry editor for Devilfish Review and founding editor of Riddled with Arrows Literary Journal.]