This story is paired with Chapter IV of Bulfinch’s Mythology. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
Plump and purple fruits on the brink of bursting. Pregnant boughs bending beneath their own sweet weight. Bright shafts of grain bleached gold by sun, yielding to a gentle harvester. Suede-soft roses ever opening, their fragrance mingled with the grass green bouquet of a planet unfurling, uncoiling, unwinding. And the delicate orange poppies, day after day, year after year, forever.
Once upon a time, there was only summer.
Red heat red more growing warmer red and harder and more ready more red closer, closer, closer. What is it?
Only summer, and a weather lady who ran the growth. Her name was Demeter, and she oversaw the vast world’s gardens and crops, its fruits and wheat, its chamomile buds, eggplant, ginger. Persimmons. Millet. Wherever this Demeter went, tender furls tended toward her, delicate petals sprang boldly forth, bees stepped up their honey-making projects. The very sun stayed on course because of Demeter, and so the people were fed, the herbs potent, the world fresh and clean and celebrating abundance. Yes, festivals were key to the enterprise, with the people partying for the plenty at each new moon and full, and a big bash in her honor every seven years. But work, too, always, as in: There’s work to be done! (This was good news, as a rule.) And Demeter just had the one daughter.
Honey, one day all this will be yours.
The daughter smiles, a dutiful smile, accepts her morning tea. Persephone is her name, and she downs the brew in one noisy gulp. Each morning Demeter doses herself, her daughter, and the twelve ladies-in-waiting: heavily scented brews for the heavenly sent: whatever it takes to keep them hale, keep them close to the land and its rhythms, close to her.
This morning? Infusion of horehound, bitumen from Judea, green camellia leaf from the million-mile arboretum that is Demeter’s back yard. The head lady-in-waiting retrieves Persephone’s abandoned cup, scurries after her mistress to where the other ladies are in and waiting.
Red and fast, the night dreams, too fast to catch, and the wee hours before dawn are cruelly uncertain. The girl rises slowly to scan the room, strolls to the window to look outside. Only the usual pagans dancing naked round a failing fire, bowing occasionally to the great stone statue of her mother. Smell of roasted lamb wafting across fecund fields.
Curing by the moon: it’s a must. So canny Demeter bides her time till the hour is nigh. Then she crushes new-moon garlic for infections, pounds mustard-from-dawn poultices for bronchitis, sets aside full-moon black cohosh for the occasional pregnancy (sometimes the ladies-in-waiting don’t wait), stalks the feather-leaved hemlock at twilight, perfect poultice for the deepest cuts.
Stinky salve! cries Persephone.
What? This throws her, briefly. Then: Honey, one day all this will be yours.
Mnh. The daughter files her nails, extends her hands one by one to check for uneven stragglers. Grins to herself. Mutters: Perfect.
What? Perfect isn’t easy. Perfect is a job, the mother says, adding: My way. Then she exits, heels echoing along the broad marble hall, baffled by her own words. (What am I talking about?) The white hem of her gown trails across the floor behind her. She is always a bride.
Loamy-scented night breeze and far flung fires and Persephone sighs heavily of the night. Something is wrong. Not everything, just one thing, or two. She glides to the door, pulls open the broad oak slab. Listens for the castle sounds of a sleeping goddess, her mother, and a couple dozen snoring servants. Puzzled and puzzling, she returns to bed.
Aah—she was never a bride. Why should she be? She’s got a brawling brood of brothers and uncles and nephews, and four sisters whom she’s watched since time began. The only happy Olympians are her two virgin siblings, one a huntress, one a homebody. They know what they are doing and why. They know who they are doing. (No one.) They are closed, safe, brilliant with safety.
The other two sisters have plenty of trouble. Recently, at a family dinner, the trollop announced, If he doesn’t go for me, he’s gay. Indeed, someone goes for her most every night, plenty of afternoons, too, and it isn’t always romance. Meanwhile, her pitiful husband skulks about in shame as if paying for her sins. That’s marriage, for you. And the final sister, Hera, wedded their brother Zeus. Though common in their clan, it still complicates things, especially since this brother, the much-disputed king of the gods, is one wambling womanizer, a titan of titty mongers, a grand poobah on the prowl for his infinite infidelities. The misery of uxory. Demeter feels for Hera, sends infusions of hyssop and lavender for her chronic headaches. But the truth is, a woman has to decide early and stick with it.
All this she has told her daughter.
But the girl is distracted.
While pressing herbs in the afternoon, Demeter spies on her little Persephone (less little lately). Planted before the mirror, she lifts an auburn plait, twirls it to a crown, braids it with tea roses. Widens her grey eyes as if checking each spike on her iris. Sucks in her wee belly.
Vanity, thinks Demeter. She prepares a purge by hellebore to cleanse the spleen. Got any homework, darling?
She stirs the potion with grim determination. After all, the girl doesn’t like agriculture, doesn’t like algebra, doesn’t like books, hates sports. She slouches about in spandex T-shirts, white and tight, and ragged blue jeans. She has no respect for her family, the finest family, the first family, doesn’t send thank-you notes to her aunts for birthday gifts. She never writes at all, well, this year she’s written one paper for school. It was on Nirvana.
Now that, said Demeter, I can help you with.
But no, it was a rock band named Nirvana, and a lead singer who was fair and blonde and fay and fated.
Lately she has developed an unseemly habit of pulling at her lips. She prods and pinches, upper to lower, left to right and back again. Makes her red pout redder still.
In a valiant effort to explain the truth about the world (which is to say, to parent), Demeter regales Persephone with evidence of largesse: the bounty of her earth, the prayerful arriving daily in thanksgiving. Look out the window. Persephone cocks her head to take in the scene: troops of humans bearing platters laden with fruits and meats and roots and herbed ratatouilles and dark cocoa mousses. A couple dozen sects early for the septannual fete, on bloodied knees. Look at them! cries Demeter. All of them, humans, cursed by hope, powered by homage for us, for what we do in this house!
Yet the girl pulls her lips, gazes past the people to the sunset. A gentle furrow between her brows.
Persephone! What are you thinking?
Mother? Her face registers the struggle for specifics. What was she thinking of? Her eyes, now grey, follow a distant flair.
Demeter swirls about the room, white train lapping at the carpet. As if the girl hadn’t been sent to the best schools, the very best schools available. What thinking, child?
Persephone weaves an auburn tress around her pinkie. Hungry, she says. She selects a fig from the bowl before her, then stops to ponder it. Brushes it off. Ponders still more.
Demeter looks heavenward in exasperation. Gods!
Much later, Demeter makes her own stately approach to the mirror. My daughter looks just like me, doesn’t she?
The head lady-in-waiting pauses one damning moment before mewling, Yes mum.
Now alone, Demeter cups her breasts in her hand before the mirror, cinches her gown at her waist, pats her rear. Lifts each part of her, lets it drop. Folding her hands over her generous belly, My daughter, she whispers. My little daughter.
Outside, the fecundity.
In the days before the festival, Demeter doubles her dosages. Adds dandelion to purify the blood in the morning, milk thistle for liver in the afternoon, and a deepened vigilance each evening as the sun is whisked away on its chariot. Beware, she hisses to a lady-in-waiting. The girl is looking to be lost.
The maid glances at her mistress, who is not prone to dramatic proclamations.
Demeter covers her face for a moment, emerges from between her palms with a grin and an explanation. It’s just—her drifting off during ceremonies looks bad. For the faithful.
The maid sucks her teeth. It seems to her, has seemed to her for a long time, that the faithful are so enraptured with the faith that they don’t notice the rest of it. It seems to her that the faithful have so many twisted ideas and het-up superstitions about the faith — and about the gods who are meant to be worthy of that faith — that they wouldn’t notice if an Olympian stepped up and slapped ‘em on the face. Or raped them, as Mr. Zeus does every few days. But the maid nods. Okay.
Now every night is red and restless, the fires outside competing with a burning within, and every day is difficult, thickened and dulled by the light, and there are lilac half-moons beneath her eyes, and a further distance no matter how close she gets.
Then, at last, it is the day before the great day. Thousands of pilgrims putter up the hill for the show. (Flowers in their hair, tattoos on their faces, feet bare.) The band Persephone wrote her paper on is due to play in homage to the solstice that marks the middle of the summer, the center heart of an endless summer that has always been, that always will be. Though there is a troublesome rumor about the lead singer. Too much revelry at the mysteries.
In fact, when the assembly has almost assembled, a skinny promoter whose hair is hennaed magenta calls to the crowd about patience. The show is delayed. A panic ensues, voiced consternation and silent outrage, which those who’ve been waiting for weeks pass quickly on to the minions just arriving. Persephone herself sniffs the trouble in the air and turns off the path, sidling away from four ladies-in-waiting accompanying her. The ladies are gossiping about the concert, and about a great bonfire which will burn in the night, orgies to follow. They don’t notice her go. When one turns to call, Persephone waves prettily and shouts that she’ll catch up with them.
Her mother’s daughter, says one. Gone hunting for mushrooms.
They titter benevolently, except for the one who suffers from morbid jealousy.
Iris from Illyria, crocus root from Cilicia, dittany stem from Crete. Demeter frowns while scanning her list, tosses in a mite of medicinal mistletoe, barks at the head lady-in-waiting. The faithful maiden races to the basement to find an old carafe of nectar, vintage the beginning of time.
Away, certainly, but more than away she hurries to something she doesn’t know, tearing through the brush, tripping among the saplings and perhaps it is the memory of her dreams that keeps her rushing until she stumbles forward and cries out and it, the thing she doesn’t know, the thing that has been merely a sense-memory of an unknown, apprehended future, catches her by the wrist then reaches to her waist to set her straight, first in the air and then, lightly, on the ground.
Lovely, says it, which is a he, and whose green eyes bore deep into her and wake her startled, like the punch line to a joke, or like the suddenly clear answer to a question long worried over whose solution was just at hand.
She cries out again.
Well, yes. (A bit of haughtiness inherited from the mother.)
He throws back his dark mane and laughs, a rich dark laugh of one who has seen long and hard but not this. Not this, not yet. Then: Hungry?
He whips a pomegranate from his leather jacket.
And still they keep arriving. More than the usual thousands anticipated from the cities and the thousands expected from the countryside and the smaller groups from the smaller islands. And still more armies of the grateful from farther afield arriving on knees and on feet, in Jeeps and Land Rovers, ears attuned to the good song, eyes alert for the soft blessing, hearts open to the way in.
Demeter stands before the balcony, shielded by flaxen drapes. Below her, blazing torches and halogen headlights mark the pilgrims’ arrival, and then there is a confusion of lights at news of the delayed show. A lone man with a lyre takes the stage but no one seems to notice. A few acrobats at the north end of the field are cruelly jeered as they tumble through the air.
Demeter sips from the carafe, spits it out.
Something is wrong.
A messenger bursts in, breathless, beads of sweat clinging to his brow. Concert cancelled! Concert cancelled!
The lady-in-waiting scolds: What’s the matter with you—raised in a barn?
Demeter smiles. It’s good, she thinks (she has always thought) that there’s someone else around to say such words.
But the people—in fact he is beyond breathless, panting and clutching his chest as he speaks—a group of them have cut a path through the field of her majesty, they have trampled it.
A long bleak wail rises from the lady-in-waiting. Trampled? The field of her majesty?
Something within Demeter ripples like water before a storm, but she promptly steals herself against it. She points to the skinny man, a rattled, wild-eyed reed beneath his toga. You—go away.
There’s more, says the messenger, still panting.
The lady-in-waiting holds out her hand as if to stop him. More? How?
Between clenched teeth, Demeter hisses: My daughter.
He looks twice at her—How’d she know?—then at her feet again as he’s been trained He continues with care. She’s missing this evening. Didn’t go to the concert as planned, didn’t answer her door for dinner, hasn’t been in the bed. Hecate thought she might be collecting mushrooms.
Demeter sets down the carafe with care and turns—they all think she is hiding her grief from them, they soften as she bends—she’s like us after all, poor giant—but she raises her great golden throne and hurls it across the room. Lands upside down, just before them.
Who knew she was so strong?
The lady-in-waiting opens her mouth as if to retort. Thinks better of it.
In lowering tones: That girl wouldn’t know a portobella from psylocybin.
And not just pomegranate.
Blackberries in her mouth, raspberries on her breasts, down her belly, ripe plums passing between their lips, dollops of dewberries along her collarbone, on his chest. He sucks more sweetness from her every orifice, she licks the juices which have mapped long adventures along his body, and they are lapping and laughing as they go, as they come, at play in her mother’s garden.
She hears the call just as she swallows the fifth seed; for response, she pushes her breasts to his mouth. Eat, eat of me. He carries her to a black BMW and they’re off to his place.
After it was confirmed that the band leader had died, which confirmation stirred up its own melee, the goddess refused to appear. For a long time, the people waited humbly. Then less humbly.
In the end, they left the great field muddied with piss and lighters and crack pipes and condoms. They swiped golden apples from the garden of the hesperides as they went.
Wow! What was that?
That night she prowls the earth, wailing at the stars, then mewling and puling like an infant as dawn approaches.
Daughter! Daughter! Persephone!
After a week, she delays the dawn, so she can mewl and pule for longer stretches.
The witches bring St. Johnswort; a lady-in-waiting boils leaf of gingko; the court astrologer prescribes Prozac, but nothing stops the mother from sleeping all day and raging all night.
Daughter, my daughter. Damn you, my daughter.
Needless to say, nothing grows. The fundamentalists double their offerings, hastily carve and erect more statues; the mystics sing chants, light large fires; the prodigal look to tea leaves for signs. But no. Faded flora wither, die, and blow away, all dandelions to the edges of earth. Sturdy trees grow yellow, then crack in the hurricane winds which are loosed whenever Demeter snarls at the sky.
More chants sung.
The brothers start calling. What’s going on over there? demands the sailor. She hangs up on him.
Zeus barges into her chambers to speechify (his second favorite activity). Forgodssake, sister, the people are pillaging! And yesterday a bunch of them on the big island got together and intimidated one of my head priests. My priest! He beats his chest in excitement, then slows to a conspiratorial tone. I’m worried about the priestesses.
A raised eyebrow. Sure you are, you damned philanderer.
He gives her a small, gentle smile. Please, please bring the sun back around.
Did you say please? Twice? You must be desperate.
You looked down from your balcony lately? The people are desperate.
She crosses the room, but stops short before the window, checking herself in the mirror.
Come on, Dem. Make the sun shine, let the winds blow, let the rain fall. Remember? It was nice. They were used to it. Me, too, I was used to it.
You should have thought of that before. Why should the weather be perfect all the time?
But it’s always been perfect!
Why should the people take these things for granted?
How else were they to take it? Who knew the sun could veer from its course? Who knew the winds could destroy trees, homes, lives? Who could have guessed that the rich black earth would turn grey and dry as ashes? Why, it’s always been the way it was, as natural as the ground under their feet. Should we remove the very earth, just to keep them alert? Well?
Where in hell is she, anyway?
Hell, my dear, is the operative word. She’s down south with our brother. Carried off and raped.
Aaah—it’s natural at her age. She is, uh—He breaks off, points to his groin. Mine?
Demeter guffaws, points to her belly. Mine.
But I was the only one, for you, I mean. She must be—.
And what difference can this possibly make? At this juncture? At this extremely late date?
I just, I suspect it wasn’t entirely against her will.
He flinches as soon as his words are out, anticipating her wrath. But she only eyes him levelly and shrugs. I’ve had signs.
That it wasn’t.
Wasn’t? (He’s no brain surgeon, this Zeus.)
She glares till he chortles, but briefly. (Nor is he a moron.) So let the healing waters fall from above! Let the great beam warm the world! Let the people eat and drink and praise us again!
Well! She’s been too busy to call?
And he does, with a great roaring, mocking laughter that rises and loops back to her as he makes his way down the palace halls.
Demeter strolls to the balcony, opens the doors wide to regard her great yard, now a million miles of gravel and straw. She points to a couple acres of former vineyard in Zeus’ path, and it promptly explodes into pale blue flames that rage for nine days.
At night (and it is always night), it’s like the dreams and it’s more than the dreams, the red, the speed, the heat, and she is ravenous to begin and he starts at the nape and moves down, pulling, squeezing, testing for ripeness, then into the slick—aah!—then back to the breasts, then home, finally home and he says it: home: and tears come to her eyes because she knows he is right and she suddenly remembers the one she left hours ago, or was it days, weeks, maybe a month? And her mother has been calling, is still calling?
Then it’s all forgotten for another couple of nights.
Hey mom, making your rounds?
She has caught her on the cell phone.
Demeter rises from the throne, all her statuesque godessliness in all its majesty. Wishes briefly that she was on the picture phone. Then she remembers herself, the past days, weeks, months, not one or two but six months. Six months! Kicks the throne in rage, grabs her toe (throbbing with exquisite agony), composes herself again and pronounces: What damned daughter is this. Then covers the mouthpiece with a hand and hisses at the waiting lady: Getoutgetoutgetoutgetout.
Sorry I’ve been out of touch.
Already it’s too much, she has lost. She plops to the throne in surrender. There was never a chance, not a snowball’s chance in—How’s hell, anyway?
It’s cool, says Persephone, toying with a golden ring at her navel. But I’m ready to come home.
Demeter pops up again, kicks the throne with her heel. Home? You’re ready to come home? (Loudly.)
Well, sure, if that’s all right.
Lots of tears, multiple recriminations. In time, they agree to meet at Zeus’s place. The philanderer inevitably takes the role of family peacemaker though all he ever causes is drama and children.
His jealous wife will be in attendance.
The devil will not.
Please, please, please, please, please, more, more, more, more. Oh momma!
The three women idle variously on the three chaise lounges that surround him: Demeter wearing her tallest, most self-righteous expression, Persephone slumped and tugging at her lips, and Hera, watching them all like a hungry hawk.
The big brother begins, thundering from across his enormous desk. So, how’ve you liked it on the other side?
The small voice in the middle pipes up: Very well, sir. Thank you.
Hera mutters: Filthy slut, of course she liked it there.
Demeter stirs, swelling with a maternal righteousness that’s been absent for six months, at least. She looks slowly past her daughter to her sister-cum-sister-in-law. Don’t call my daughter a slut, you miserable cuckold.
Hera rises and shrieks: Spinster witch!
Calm down, women, shouts Zeus. His cell phone rings and he slams it down a few times on the great marble table before tossing it to Hera. Turn this off for me, will you?
Hera shrugs, slips the phone into her enormous green gown and begins muttering about scars on the land, the new angle of the sun, crops that refuse to grow. Dead crops! she cries. That’s your job! She points at Demeter, her ancient hand sparkling with diamonds and rubies.
Hera! Control yourself. Zeus removes his jacket, folding it to the inside and draping it atop the desk so that the label shows. Persephone and Demeter snicker at one another, until Demeter frowns and turns coolly away.
So Persephone, resumes Zeus. Little Proserpine. Have you come back to stay?
Who would want her? She’s lost her flower, she’s lost her innocence, she’s a bawdy, she’s—Where’s her father, anyway? Who’s her father!
Hera! Control, Hera. He grins at the group—oh, he loves being emcee—but he is definitely thrown. The moist beads on his brow attest to it. He turns with a flourish to Demeter, momentarily forgetting his question to Persephone. And sister, will you bring summer again? Will you bring nourishment to the people? Will you give them life which they will return to us, to you?
Persephone stops twisting her hair, and Hera, set to mutter about the sun off course again, closes her mouth. But Zeus merely laughs. How long? Forever! Like it’s always been. Sunshine, gentle rain in the afternoon, soft grass for lovemaking in the valleys, golden wheat for harvest . . . . he drifts off, apparently contemplating past revelry.
She meant me, says Persephone.
It’s true, says Demeter.
She meant how long will I stay.
She can’t stay back up here forever, says Hera. She’s eaten the seed.
Zeus lights up. The seed?
The seed of the pomegranate.
Ah. He folds his arms before himself. And the seed signifies . . . . He drifts off, frowning to look official.
That she is wed, that she is part of his underworld. Hera rises as she speaks, seemingly floating off the cushion, while Demeter sinks lower into hers.
He considers a moment before asking: How many seeds did she eat? He snorts, adding, Of the pomegranate.
Six seeds, says Persephone. Sitting up straight, no longer toying with her hair, she looks different. Her mother and aunt and uncle take her in with care, for the first time.
Demeter lowers her gaze, folds further into herself.
Six seeds, six moons, chimes Hera.
Hera! cries Zeus. Then: Okay, Persephone. Six seeds, six moons in hell. Then, six moons here, with your mother. You understand?
She can’t even apologize for the trouble, mutters Hera.
Zeus winks at Persephone then turns to her mother with growing solemnity. And you, Demeter. Favorite sister. Beloved goddess. Can you restore the fields now? Bring back the summer? The life?
Demeter opens her mouth, then thinks better of it. She glances at her daughter, who is examining her own folded hands in her lap. She glares at Hera. Six moons, she says. I’ll restore it while she’s here, and then I’ll . . .
Let it all go to hell, finishes Zeus.
Exactly, says Demeter.
Hera rises again. Vicious hag! What of the people? Their health? What of our sacrifices? Six months without growth, without light, it’s abominable.
Zeus cries: Hera! But exasperation melts to concern as he leans towards Demeter and queries, Will they survive, with just the six months?
Demeter shrugs. They’ll figure it out.
As mother and daughter exit, Zeus pads across the room, lightly as a boy, to the telescope before his broad bay window. Hera watches closely, then pulls the phone, once again ringing, from the folds of her gown to demand, Who’s this? Who’s calling my husband?
The clouds due west lift as Zeus adjusts the focus.
A hang-up, she calls. How strange, she adds drily.
But Zeus is lost to her, enraptured with an Athenian princess playing along a beach with her maidens. The princess is young, she is in bud, she is almost ready. He drags a chair near to observe carefully.
They are together through ravaged fields, charred vineyards, gardens that have turned to straw. Walking. Persephone’s eyes widen as she takes in the ruin. I didn’t know it got so bad, mum.
Demeter makes a small moue with her lips. It’ll be all right. Indeed, it improves: where her hem brushes, the earth grows black and fertile again, where her sandals meet the ground, small green shoots pop up. She glances to the west and waves the sun closer to the earth to warm it up. Her hand approaches a withered vine, and it convulses to life. She grabs a bunch of grapes and pops a couple into her own mouth.
Persephone watches without remark. At last, she takes a deep breath and glances fully at her mother. Magnificent, compelling, a great mistress of life, the favorite daughter of Mother Earth herself. She grins and begins, My father’s an idiot, isn’t he?
Demeter rolls her eyes. Don’t call him your father, child. He was just a necessary commission.
Demeter looks fully at her now and adds: You are returned to me.
You stay by my side for six moons, for twelve festivals.
The weather returns to the people.
And then I take it away again. Demeter picks up the pace; the interview is over. She tosses the bunch of grapes to the ground, and a dozen vines leap to life.
And then I go back to him, whispers Persephone.
Once upon a time, there was only summer. And then a daughter found her desire.
Alexis Quinlan is a writer and teacher living in New York City. Previous work has appeared in The Paris Review, Drunken Boat, and others. Exit Strata: Print! published a chapbook of her ongoing project, a series of interventions on and responses to Sigmund Freud’s essay, “Mourning and Melancholia.”