Persephone blinks in the late-summer sun of the above-world. Even months out of Hades, she’s still not used to so much light and heat. Her mother is bustling around the courtyard, a bounty of fruits and vegetables covering the table she’s setting.
The gods will be here soon. It’s the last of many parties Demeter has thrown for Persephone to welcome her back — although this one is to say goodbye.
And to plead with Zeus for Persephone’s freedom. Her mother always waits till the last party, when Zeus is feeling sentimental after having had her home, to ask him to spare her daughter from the obligation to return to death’s realm.
Do you wish for freedom, my wife? Your mother will ask my brother for it.
She asks every time. And he tells her no every time. He knows what I want. He fears me far more than my mother, husband.
Persephone holds her hand out to her mother. “Everything’s perfect. Sit down. Stop fussing.” She takes some of her favorite nuts and eats them casually, earning a look of confusion from her mother, who probably thinks she should savor them, that they are only available to her here, above ground. She doesn’t know Hades brings her anything she wants.
Her mother rushes over and wraps her in a hug that after so many months still feels stifling. And so very warm — her mother’s skin is so different than her husband’s.
“Are you cold? It takes you so long to warm up now—just in time to go back to Hades. I hate that you live in that endless night.”
What do you wish to do on your last day here?
Walk the kingdom. Enjoy the light. The above-world is so bright; everything’s so sharp and hard. Here, in this grayness, the edges are soft, and the dead are beautiful.
Yes, our dead.
Her mother lets go of her and strides to the table. “What is this doing here?”
It’s a pomegranate. It sits red and ripe, its skin like old leather. Persephone smiles at it; she picked it because it was the heaviest of those that grew on the tree down the lane.
The tree that her mother blasts with her wrath every fall and Persephone brings back every spring.
If you eat those every day, you’ll grow sick of them.
And if I share your bed every night, will I grow sick of you? Don’t pout—I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. You know I wish I could stay. After this visit, things will be different.
You underestimate your mother.
And you underestimate me. Here, have some of these.
Wondrous little seeds. But for these, you would have been taken from me and returned to your mother. Lucky that I had a food you liked too much to resist.
If by lucky you mean I told you it was my favorite—it’s well known I can’t resist the seeds. What good was planning your abduction of me if my mother didn’t believe I’d eaten the food of the dead?
She must hate this fruit.
You have no idea. Why do you think it ripens so late in the summer now, nearly when I’m to leave? She would wipe them all out if she could. I resurrect them when I arrive back in the above-world.
In memory of us?
“Mother, leave it.”
Her mother whirls on her. “Leave it? This cursed fruit?”
“It’s time to let your anger go. It’s not the fruit’s fault it was in Hades or that I could not resist it.” She rises and takes the pomegranate, carrying it close to her breast, like a child.
Her mother’s eyes narrow, her eyes losing their luster. “Daughter, you mock my pain? Every year I kill the trees that bear these abominations.”
“I know. I don’t appreciate it. I’m the one who brings them back.”
Her mother looks away. “I know. Each year I hope you won’t, that you’ll finally let them die.”
“Unlikely.” Persephone places the pomegranate in the center of the table, rubbing her fingers along it until it glows a brilliant otherworldly crimson. Only here, in the above-world, can such brilliant colors be seen. In her home, everything is neutral, the soothing palate of white and black.
And, of course, shades of gray — something her mother seems incapable of seeing.
“I’ve invited someone to the party, Mother.”
“It’s your party, darling.” She sounds falsely vivacious, as if she’ll do anything to not spoil their final day together.
Persephone has no such scruples.
She’ll kill me for this, Persephone.
She’d have done that long ago if she were able. Come to my farewell party. I’m tired of being the girl who has to go back to her husband. I want them to see that I care for you, that I’m proud to be queen of this realm — that I return willingly.
Zeus will find this amusing.
Yes, he’s amused whenever he’s not the one in trouble. So, you’ll come?
For you, my love, anything.
“Who did you invite, daughter?”
Persephone hears the chariot of her husband approaching. The same sound she heard on the plain the day he carried her off — as she screamed for the benefit of her companions—they didn’t see her laugh as soon as she and Hades were out of view. Didn’t see her lean back against him, his arms around her as he urged the horses ever faster.
It was a reckless plan. It was their only plan. Her mother would never have allowed them to be together otherwise.
To say Demeter is smothering is to only scratch the surface of how tightly she holds. And she was never fond of Hades — the brother she likes least, she often says.
Her mother’s smile fades as she, too, must finally hear the hooves of the horses of death. “You invited him?” There is, for once, a flicker of something other than her overwhelming love for Persephone.
Persephone thinks it might be dislike — has she finally grown up enough in her mother’s eyes to be something other than an object of adoration?
She laughs, and the pomegranate glows brighter, a beacon for her husband—for her love. “I’m tired of having my time so neatly divided. And we wish to have a child. We must come together in the above-world to conceive.”
“A child? With him?”
She nods and closes her eyes. She can hear the hoof beats of her husband’s black horses. She can hear the huffing of her mother — is the thought of grandchildren so distasteful?
She can hear her own heart — finally beating the way it does in Hades. Fast and … happy. Happy because the man she risked everything to be with is coming for her.
Braving her mother. It’s more than she’s been willing to do — until now.
Her mother shouts out a curse, and the plants and grass leading to the road begin to shrivel.
Persephone calls out the counter to the curse, and the vegetation comes to life again.
Her mother lifts her hand, as if to blast the grass again, and Persephone says as evenly as she can, “Stop it. I’m not yours to own. I’m not yours to control. I’m not yours to hold forever.”
Her mother turns to her, and in her eyes are both anger and desperation. “I will turn this earth into a wasteland.”
“Go ahead. Everything will die, and the dead will find their way to my realm. Then who will worship you? Who will worship any god save Hades and me?”
She can tell her mother doesn’t expect that—the words not of a little girl to her doting mother, but one queen to another. Equals, now.
Why do you love me, Persephone?
You never try to hold me, to confine me with your ideas of what I am and am not. With you, I’m free.
Everyone thinks I hold you captive. I’m infamous for that. Others will never see it your way. And if you confess your part in this…
I won’t — I know how far I can go. But it’s time, isn’t it? For us to be open about some things?
The chariot comes into view. Her mother turns and blasts the pomegranate; the seeds go everywhere, the dark red juice spattering the lovely flaxen tablecloth like blood at a wedding.
“He stays,” Persephone says, softly but not without strength in her voice. In the underworld, a whisper accomplishes as much as her mother’s screams.
“Or what? I haven’t shared you during my time and I won’t start now.”
Persephone shrugs. “Welcome him or not: it’s your choice. I’ve made mine.” She leaves her mother standing near the ruined table and goes out to meet her husband.
[Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle.
In addition to being an avid reader, she’s passionate about horse
racing, tea, ASMR vids, and creating weird one-pan meals. She has work
appearing in Nature, Deep Magic, Galaxy’s Edge, Escape Pod, Daily
Science Fiction, Cast of Wonders, and others. She’s edited several
anthologies for independent presses, is finishing some longer projects,
and is a member of SFWA and HWA. See more at gerrileen.com.