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The First Return

“Not now my love. I can’t. I have important work to do.”

The words were like sharp ice on her warm heart, hard and persistent, painful.

How could anyone say not now to love? Love was the most important thing. It was the point of existence, the one thing worth seeking. What was more important than love?

As she waited for him to come back to the shadowy chamber that was their sanctuary her mind wove a trap even more insidious. She loved him. Therefore he was lovable. Therefore he was wise. Therefore he was right. Therefore there was something even more important than love. But she couldn’t feel it as a force compelling her heart to something. Therefore she was lost, or incomplete, or unwise or something else that she didn’t want to be…she didn’t want to know about it. She paced and wailed and yearned for friends who would pass her time away, eat her life so that she couldn’t feel the yawning cavern of the something that she didn’t have.

Down there in his world there was no escape from him. Everything was attached to stories he had told. Everyone she met had something to say about him. She wore his shirts and lay around on the bed she shared with him, waiting for him to come home so that her life could proceed a little ~ while he was away her heart didn’t beat ~ she was paused, poised waiting. Without him she had no energy at all. She couldn’t even breathe.

She could feel her own pathos building, her strength diminishing. Until eventually she rose, like a ghost, from the bed and floated out of the room. Like seaweed that has lost its footing, she followed the currents of her deepest whims out along dank corridors, around whirling pools, and gradually, eventually, up the through the dark water she had descended through so long ago.

The garden of the old Dancer’s temple was quietly deserted.

Still wet she walked down the mountain path.
The old woman’s house looked sleepy in the mauve dawn. The crescent moon and the star beside it hung like jewels in the silent sky.

The world looked different, the overpowering lushness was gone, the few things that she could see though the morning mist seemed stark and bare ~ raw to the bones. It felt good. It was how she felt inside.

A graceful coil of smoke rose from the chimney, to tell her that there was life within, and that she was welcome.

Her arrival seemed somehow expected.

Seeing her in the doorway, the old woman smiled and nodded, reached for a second cup and placed it on the table beside the brewing tea pot.

Time murmured in its sleep.

There was so much but so little to say.

“Tell me about love”, the girl said.

The old woman smiled and shook her head.

“The question is too big my dear ~ the answer would be too simple, it can’t be understood.”

“Oh,” she paused and then asked: “how is mother?”

Pouring the tea Hecate said: “Your mother is sad and worried. She has grown older and felt many feelings. It hasn’t been easy for her.”

Kora squirmed uncomfortably and asked: “Is she angry with me?”

“Of course, but also frightened and angry with herself and the world ~ you’ve seen outside how she has changed.”

Kora smiled sadly and said: “I thought it was just my eyes that were different.”

The old woman chuckled, deeply and heartily: “Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is. Perhaps we are all changing with you.”

“I LOVE HIM WITH ALL OF MY SOUL” ~ Kora suddenly declared.

“Then why are you here?” Asked the cruel wise woman, not twitching an eyelid at the extremity of the statement.

“Because…because I couldn’t stay.”

“Why not?”

Thinking thoughts she hadn’t been bold enough to have before Kora fumbled for words:
“Because I was turning into him and forgetting who I was and he, I think he had already forgotten who I was, if he ever knew, I think he thought I was just a part of him, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t take him from his work. I couldn’t breathe ~ I was dying, I love him so much, I think my heart is still down there, it doesn’t feel like it’s beating in my chest anymore, I think it’s gone.
Do you think it could be, am I dead?”

“You don’t seem to be dead to me. I imagine that it will be a long while before Atropos cuts the thread that Clotho and Lachesis are spinning and twisting for you.”

Kora shuddered. She had met these three strange dark women in the world below. They had watched her with eyes that reminded her of eagles, sharp and penetrating.

Clotho, the youngest, who turned the spinning wheel that seemed to spin several hundred threads at once, had been the friendliest. She had listened when Kora, lonely and bored, had sat and prattled about the wise things He had said, and about the handsome curve of his shoulders and the firmness of his lovely muscles. She had nodded and smiled and agreed that He was truly a wonderful being.

Lachesis had smiled too, but hers was different. She was calculating. As she sat and wound the threads around her palms and elbows making glistening bundles, she seemed to be lost in thought. Her steady gaze made her seem distant and uncaring. Kora could have forgiven her for this and enjoyed the company of Clotho, if Atropos had not always been with them.

Tiny, ancient and wrinkled with bird bright eyes she said nothing at all. She was always either rubbing a stone against the blade of her glistening sheers or clipping them in the air, in a way that made Kora feel quite unsafe. She seemed like a madwoman, so deeply lost in her own world that there was no point in speaking to her. Sometimes Lachesis would catch her attention though, and in an oddly ritualistic way the three of them would suddenly start singing, an eerie but beautiful sound would fill their dark chamber as if the earth itself answered their song. Clotho would watch as Lachesis held out the thread she was winding and Atropos, like an eagle striking would cut it.

Some days this odd ritual happened every few minutes, on other days it was quieter. Kora had noticed that on days when Atropos was hacking many threads, her Hades returned home from work especially drained and weary.

Hecate saw Kora shudder. She smiled and said: “So you met my old friends. How are they keeping?”

Kora was puzzled, but this time she saw through the old woman’s trick of asking three questions at once and smiled back.

Looking Hecate in the eye she answered: “I can’t tell you how they are now compared with how they may have been at other times because I don’t know them well enough. Clotho was spinning, Lachesis was twining and Atropos seemed quite mad with her shiny sheers.
But I would like to know how you know them, why you call them friends and what their work has to do with my life?”

The old woman sipped her tea and leaned back in her chair, well satisfied with the girl’s progress.

“Once upon a time,” she began, “when the world and I were both much younger, I lived up above on Olympus. Like all young girls I worried that my friends were prettier than I was, that I would never be noticed and never be loved and that without love my existence would mean nothing. Fear of that nothing gnawed away at me and made me do a foolish thing. I stole from Hera a pot of rouge, because I had convinced myself that a rosy glow on my cheeks and lips was all that stood between me and my destiny.”

“Was it?” Kora interjected.

The old woman chuckled. “The rouge held the seeds of my destiny for certain, but not in the way I expected. The theft was discovered, (because I was not a good thief) and I was banished to the realm you’ve just returned from.

“Then you know Him,” Kora gasped. Rounding onto the subject she thought she wanted to avoid with a quickness that made her flinch

The old woman nodded and savoured the last drops of her tale.

“I do,” she said. “But he wasn’t there when I arrived. Only the three ancient sisters were and the shades, drifting like clouds of dust, stumbling and weeping and sometimes by sheer luck falling into the waters of forgetfulness and finding their way to the light.”

Kora gasped with horror at the prospect. She had seen enough to be able to imagine the unmanageable sadness of the place without Hades and his hall.

Hecate paused for dramatic effect and then continued. “I realised then that sometimes and for some people, there are things to be done that are more important than rouge or love. I stayed there for a long time. A long time alone with my friends the three sisters, and the shades. Then there came others who were banished like I was and gradually the place changed a bit. The gates were built, and Charon began rowing the dark rivers, finding the lost ones and offering help.

“There was talk of a hall too, but I was too weary by then. I was almost a shade myself.”

Kora’s eyes caressed the ancient face and she wondered how long she had been old. “What happened?”, she asked.

Hecate drew breath and delivered her punchline. “He came,” she said. “He came and took the burden from me. He left his family up on sunny Olympus and took over. He told me to spend some time in the light. He banished me from my own realm and made it his.”

“That was when I came here,” she said smiling.

She watched Kora smile for a moment and then continued. “You asked me as well about what the three sisters have to do with you. Well let’s think.

“Clotho, I imagine you liked, because she is something like your mother, births and beginnings are always so much easier than endings. Dear Lachesis, is one of the few who doesn’t hold that preference, or if she does she doesn’t show it. ‘Tis she though who measures the time we have and when for each of us it is up. And Atropos cuts the thread…”

Kora, seeing in her mind’s eye the nameless dead filling the vast hall, felt suddenly sick. Atropos was the murderer who filled the hall and Lachesis helped. They were to blame for Hades’ weariness, for the death of the love. She felt an intense loathing brew in her belly and rise up through her heart, darkening her face. How could gentle Clotho sit there with them, weaving threads for them to hack, what a dark traitor she must be?

Hecate reached over and stroked Kora’s young wrist and clenching fist.

“It is difficult work that they do my dear, even Zeus recognises the strength it takes.”

Drawing strength from the old hand now holding hers she tried to put aside her own feelings and to see through older eyes. She thought about Clotho, about her smiles. She couldn’t see any treachery. Holding the image she felt a surge of love for her gentleness. And the Clotho in her mind seemed to be thanking her for the lightness her gossip had brought to the dark chamber. Kora moved her mind on to Lachesis, and saw that her distance could be seen as a struggle with the urge to judge. She forced herself to look at Atropos, and saw beauty in the blade and courage in the hand that held it, she saw again the souls of the dead as balls of light, returning to the source for renewal.

Then the eye of her mind was gazing into the basket by Clotho’s feet. She had seen it so many times but never noticed it. Inside the basket was light so pure it filled her with awe, she saw Clotho’s hand dipping into it, pulling it up towards her wheel and she saw the glistening strands forming and dancing together, flowing through and around the hands of Lachesis. Then the cutting, the balls of light, the basket and the weaving, the measuring, the cutting and the basket.

She sat quietly for a long time, pondering. Hecate saw the silent process begin, and quietly busied herself about the kitchen.

When Kora finally stood and stretched herself, Hecate put the kettle back onto the stove and reached out a loaf of fresh bread.

********

By the time the teapot was refilled and the bread buttered, the day seemed to have properly begun. Real sunlight was streaming in through the open door and the mist had cleared, revealing a landscape starker than anything Kora had ever seen.

Holding her steaming cup in both hands and looking out at the bare trees, Kora knew that she needed to see her mother. For the first time since she dived into the pool, it struck her how worried Demeter must have been.

Hecate read the expression on her face and said that Demeter was likely to be home in bed, as she often spent the nights out walking.

“Hmmm,” thought Kora, “not like my mother”, and she herself tasted a pang of worry, chased around by fear and regret.

Suddenly in a hurry, she put down her cup, thanked Hecate and ran down the verandah steps, leapt over the low garden gate and raced along the path to the house that she grew up in.

Regret

The thing that shocked Kora the most was not that her mother had fretted ~ or that she had laid waste the beautiful land. It was the way that her skin had changed.

She tried but she couldn’t quite exactly remember what it had been like before she left. The picture that came to her of her mother’s face at the lunch table on the day that they had argued about Narcissus was blurred. In her memory it kept slipping and merging with the face that had smiled over her as she nuzzled a warm breast and the face that told bedtime stories and the face that sternly warned her not to wander into the forest alone.

The face with strange thin papery skin that she saw before her now seemed to belong to a different woman. A woman she loved but had never met before, a sad and frightened woman who had been through a horrible ordeal. A woman who needed help.

Part of Kora wanted to pull the sad woman to her heart and to hold her and sing to her, to stroke her hair and to tell her that everything would be alright. She wanted to reach out like Hades did to the troubled souls below ~ but she couldn’t.

She couldn’t because there was a lead weight sitting on her heart. It seemed to be blocking her ability to speak as well as to move about.

Demeter was sleeping slumped in the big soft chair in the corner of the sitting room when Kora came in. Around her were several piles of things. Her weaving and a mass of tangled strings waiting to be sorted out, several used cups and dirty dishes, unopened books, shoes and more. Kora had never known her mother to be so behind with the dishes, or so surrounded by mess. She had never seen her mother with unwashed hair.

Kora sat and watched Demeter sleeping and eventually waking. At first Demeter hadn’t believed that Kora was real, her daughter returned ~ and she had angrily accused her of being a vicious taunting mirage.
Kora took her hand in her own though and the warmth of her touch convinced the pale Demeter. Slowly and carefully the older woman stepped back from the edge of madness. Her body shook with sobs and waves of relief flooded through her. She pulled her daughter close and held her while the winter of her soul melted away in gushing torrents of raw love, anger, relief, love, hate, love and joy.

Kora submitted to the grasp, with an uneasy sense that something about it was horribly wrong.

She wasn’t her mother’s baby returned. The baby was dead. She was here instead. Looking out from Kora’s eyes was a stranger that Demeter had yet to meet. A stranger that she had only recently met herself. A stranger she wasn’t sure that she liked or trusted.

The ears of one of her faces could hear Hecate laughing. The eyes of the other face were fixed on Demeter's pale and papery skin.

She had no idea about how to begin to say what she was feeling and so she sat quietly and answered her mother’s questions with as few words as she could.

“I’m back…I’ve been away….I was in the underworld…yes with Hades.”

Kora flinched a little at the mention of His beautiful name, the love, sorrow and pain twisting inside her

Demeter saw the flinch, she grasped it. It was relatively solid. Hades ~ flinch ~ Hades ~ flinch. The bastard. He had stolen her, he had taken her, frightened and abused her. It was horrible. He made her baby flinch at the very mention of his name. He had turned her into this cold and distant girl. Her pain and relief, her weary joy, the embarrassment and shame all suddenly resolved themselves into something clear and distinct, something that she could act upon.

Outrage bubbled forth like lava. She rose like a tidal wave and strode across to the open door. “I’ll get you for this,” she swore, spitting the molten words at the ground. When she turned around she was somehow back in herself, but not in the usual way.

It seemed to her now as though she had never liked him. She had always found his fascination with death disturbing. His avoidance of the meetings was obviously a sign of arrogance and deviousness. She had long suspected that he was jealous of her life on the beautiful hills with the flowers and fruits and the living people and the beautiful child. Now he had sunk so low into disgusting depravity that he had stolen from her the thing that she loved the most.

Ahhh blessed fate that had returned the child to her unharmed. But curses and bitter vitriol for pathetic Hades who had been so vile.

He was undiluted evil but he was no match for her anger. She would be taking action, clever, calculated, effective action. She would have justice and revenge. She’d take her time and think. She’d take pleasure in doing it well. But for now Kora was back. The child needed breakfast.

Kora was writhing inwardly. She could see the anger in her mother’s face. It seemed to be giving her life, life that she seemed to need. But there was something disturbing about it. Kora silently prayed that the memory of her blissful moments would not be spoilt by simple questions. Her love and her own anger wrestled in her heart, locked together in confusion they blurred her thinking.

Paralysed by the moment she sat still, eyes fixed on a jar of dead flowers on the cluttered table.

Demeter, suddenly mechanically animated, was in the kitchen clattering about ~ her maternal urge to prepare food had returned and she mumbled “poor darling…how dare he….the fool…” and other such things as she brewed tea and rustled together some nuts and currants and crackers.

Kora’s confusion deepened as the day brightened and the full extent of the chaos in the house was revealed in shafts of dusty light. Understanding and accepting what needed to be done she opened the curtains and started picking up dishes and cups and carrying them to the kitchen. She put the books back onto the shelves and took the dead flowers outside.

Demeter returned from the kitchen and silently joined her. When the house was returned to its clean and homely self, they smiled at each other and slipping into an old routine they went to their respective rooms to wash themselves and change their clothes. They then sat together on the sunny step and brushed each other’s long hair, while sipping tea, eating and laughing about the antics of a butterfly dancing about the stark dead garden.

As Demeter’s laughter rang out buds appeared on the withered trees and crocuses pushed up through the dark earth.

To Echo, running up the dusty dry hill towards, them they seemed to be a picture of happiness. Her favourite mother and daughter reunited.

Echo had sprinted the last part of the distance, after seeing first the blossoming trees and then the two of them together.

She had been coming to check that Demeter was all right. She had become so worried lately about her state and the welfare of the land and the people.

She grinned and shouted and hugged her friend close and her reckless joy was contagious. Soon they were dancing around the garden together like they did when they were young.

Demeter smiled as she watched them, and her dark desire for revenge rumbled like an avalanche in her mind.

Kora couldn’t wait to tell Echo all about Hades and his kisses and his broad chest and shoulders and how wonderful it felt to be in his arms…but she knew she couldn’t do it while Demeter was listening. She realised that she could never admit that all this pain had been her own doing. The magnitude of the secret scared her.

Echo was adamant that they must go down to the village all three of them immediately. Kora and Demeter were both too confused to have plans of their own and didn’t know what else to say and so they followed Echo and enjoyed her speculation about how amazed people would be.

As they walked and ran and skipped and smiled down the hill the bare ground turned to green and flowers red, orange, yellow, pink, white and violet flowed in their wake, brightly visible to the village below, so that news of their coming preceded them.

The people of the village, who had been sick with hunger and worry, were more than just happy to see Kora back amongst them. They laughed and cried with bitter relief.

Kora saw, with the tender eyes of both her faces, women clutching their thin children and weeping with joy. She saw the wrinkled faces of fathers blinking back tears. She smiled at them and was shocked and sickened by what had occurred.

 

The first spring

The next few weeks saw the hills and grounds all around the village returned to lush prosperity.

The dark earth was first dotted with specks of green that persevered and became shoots that in turn put forth buds and blossoms in every colour. The tall and graceful cypress trees and the majestic oaks that had been stripped bare by the harsh winds dressed themselves in leaves of such pure green that they shone like jewels against the gentle sun and clear skies.

Waxy yellow crocuses clustered together and playfully tumbled down banks and hillsides. Marigolds, asphodel and daisies clambered towards the sun dancing with excitement. Scarlet poppies, fragile as butterflies, flew like kites above the tangle of grass and blossom. In shady patches magenta hyacinths and dreamy blue day irises filled the air with heady perfume. Even the old wise olive trees, bent and hollowed by passing time, luxuriated in a soft cover of creamy blossoms

A happy rhythm drove the days, the food was excellent and the company, on the surface, seemed cheerful.

In quiet moments Demeter plotted the case she would be putting to Zeus, and Kora sat on the hillside with Echo weaving daisy chains and talking about her time with Him. She even shared the sacred details of their most intimate passionate moments, the salty fragments. As she spoke the feelings flooded back into her limbs and the warmth of the sun on her skin felt like the blaze of His love.

Some days it seemed clear to her that the only sensible thing to do was to go back to Him and to force Him to look at her and to understand what she needed. Some days she yearned for the earth to open up beneath her and for Him to ride up on his great chariot and sweep her up into his arms and ride away with her forever.

But then Echo would remind her of her mother and the way that the village children had nearly died. The heavy weight in her chest grew heavier. She was numb with pain and sorrow. Unsure of which reality was real, she couldn’t act or think.

Gradually the realisation sank deep into her bones that she was back and she was stuck and that the time she’d spent away had been nothing but a blissful holiday. It was just a memory, a phantom, it had slipped from her grasp, it was gone. He hadn’t come looking for her with his chariot, therefore He hadn’t really loved her. It had just been a delusion, a childish mistake. She was back and it was her duty to keep her mother happy, her heavy, grey duty. By doing it she kept the land fertile and the village alive. It seemed to be her destiny. It didn’t matter how miserable she was, as long as she was there the world seemed to work as it should.

She looked down and realised that she had just torn a daisy apart.

She dropped it quickly so that Echo wouldn’t see it and changed the subject by asking about Narcissus.

“Oh him…” said Echo sadly smiling, “He is beauty itself, but I don’t think he loves me.”

Kora pressed for details.

Echo said that she had heard one day that he had refused an invitation to dine with Ameni, and that she had visited him and asked him about it.

Narcissus, she said, had said that he didn’t love Ameni and that it would therefore be wrong to mislead him by accepting the invitation.

Echo, overjoyed that Ameni was not going to win her prize and thinking that she was being clever, had then issued an invitation herself. Narcissus had smiled at her and shaken his head. Echo had been struck with such sadness that she had lost her ability to speak to him and hadn’t visited him since.

A tear rolled down Echo’s cheek, her heart convulsed and she sighed. Kora leaned over and kissed her smooth white brow, stroked her silky hair and held her as she wept and wept. When the storm had passed she was like an empty shell.

“I am nothing,” she said. “He is everything. I feel everything for him. He sees me and feels nothing.”

Kora wanted to argue, she wanted to explain what Narcissus was really like but she was gripped by a fear. Perhaps Echo would hate her for succeeding with him, for befriending him. She didn’t know whether Narcissus could or would ever love Echo. His ideas about passions and his dedication to his questions were so strange she didn’t know if he could make Echo happy, even if he did love her. Echo seemed to need someone more content and less troubled.

Wondering how to say this, Kora admitted to herself that she didn’t really understand him. She didn’t understand Hades either. The two friends held each other, taking comfort in each other’s confusions and painful longings.

Finally, Echo sighed a deep sigh and said: “Pan keeps on telling me that I should forget about him, but I can’t…”

“Pan!” Kora was shocked. “He probably only wants to have you for himself, and only for a little while at that. My mother always warned me to stay well away from him. She always said he wanted only one thing. She says he mates like the animals do.” Hearing herself speak she secretly cringed. Since when did her mother’s warning count?

Echo looked even more miserable. “At least he thinks I’m beautiful and he comes to talk to me and takes me places.”

Kora didn’t want to argue with Echo, or to upset her any more, but her curiousity was tingling. “Where does he take you?”

Echo stopped looking so forlorn. “There’s a dark little glen in the forest beyond the village where it gets pitch dark except for the moonlight bouncing off the tall white cypress trees. The mist swirls around and there are huge rocks that the satyrs climb with their drums and lutes and they play wild music that isn’t allowed in the temples. They dance and there are other nymphs who go and we all dance until we can’t stop and we’re lost in the sound and flying through the stars. We don’t know where we are and then we wake when the sun’s already up and sometimes we’re curled up on the forest floor with Pan and the satyrs all of us together. We creep home, so tired and with aching muscles, and we pass the villagers who are halfway through their day’s work. It’s fun. You should come sometime.”

Kora grinned at the thought, but Demeter’s warning or not, she wasn’t sure that she trusted Pan ~ although something about it did sound good. She didn’t have to decide right now, so she simply leaned over and hugged her friend.

As the shadows grew long Kora walked home ~ worried about Echo and thinking about Narcissus. What was it that he had said about love and energy and hunger? Was it true, or was it just the strange logic of a strange boy?

She reached back and found snippets stored in her memory, off cuts of a conversation long ago. “The innocence and simplicity of love and passion. People have forgotten how to live comfortably with them.” Kora frowned. Had she ever been comfortable? She reached for another bit. “It’s not love, it’s just a hunger for energy”.

There was something else though, something stupid or strange that he’d said. She was almost at the front door before she found it. She sat down on the step to roll it around in her mind for a while, to claim it for her own. He’d said: “Energy that I have lots of because I don’t spend it chasing others.”

She thought for a moment about what he might have meant and then blushed at the thought that flashed across her mind. Chuckling secretly to herself she stood up and walked inside. Demeter was decorating the evening meal with flowers. Kora poured two cups of water and sat down at the table.


The double-edged blessing

Kora had always believed in honesty but now she took to lying.

She had to, in order to be able to visit Narcissus.

Sensing a disturbing emptiness deep within her oldest friend, Kora knew that Echo would have felt hurt and maybe betrayed or jealous if she knew that Kora’s friendship with him was growing and deepening in a way that her own wasn’t.

And Demeter, if she knew, would probably have blamed him for everything that had happened.

So far neither of them knew of the part he had played in the story. All they had heard was that Kora had spoken to Hecate and then vanished to the underworld.

Demeter’s relationship with Hecate had cooled since Kora’s departure. Demeter and many of the villagers knew that Hecate had once lived in the underworld. It was a long time ago and had seemed to be almost irrelevant and forgotten before, but now there were whispers in the village of what they had started calling “the abduction”. Whispers that grew from the seeds of information that Demeter had let slip into the ears of the women who sometimes sat with her. Whispers that crept from the news-hungry mixed company in the market place to the thoughtful ears of craftsmen standing in doorways. Whispers that Hecate had aided and abetted the sinister crime.

Hecate herself seemed quite content with the state of affairs. She was making jam by day and cheerfully painting pictures of shadows by night. Most of the villagers thought she was mad. She didn’t mind. She liked being left alone most of the time and Kora and Narcissus provided her with company when she wanted it.

Sometimes the three of them sat around her wooden table drinking tea and sharing tales of the underworld, that Kora and Hecate had been to, and of the world above that Narcissus loved and Hecate had grown up in. When they were together like this it seemed that the world made perfect sense, it had three layers and those with enough faces could see them all.

It seemed that life was only difficult for people who could not appreciate that things could be looked at from different perspectives.

Destiny was one of their favourite topics. They argued about what it meant. Narcissus and Kora believed in a sense of universal order but rebelled against the idea that every move they made was pre-ordained, every word scripted by a cosmic hand. Believing that they were in control, they still liked the idea that there was something they were meant to do. Once Kora had argued that just as bees were meant to gather honey she was sure that there was something that she was destined to do. Hecate tackled her saying that she was describing entelechy not destiny. The word stopped the two youngsters in their tracks. They rolled it round and explored it before agreeing that in describing the unfolding of potential it was what they meant when they talked about destiny. Hecate was gracious in her victory and provided thick slices of cake.

Over time and through these heartfelt but playful debates, the dull ache in Kora’s heart softened and her dazed sense of lostness receded as she applied herself to learning as much as possible from her friends. Defining herself by their mutual interests she came to know better the stranger that she had become.

One day she arrived at Hecate’s house to find Narcissus, looking puffed and disheveled, sitting at the table showing the old woman a beautiful jewel-encrusted sword.

It had been given to him by one of the beings in the land beyond the clouds.
He had been there through a dream ~ actually been there ~ for the first time, not just watching the others who were there.

Excited for him, Kora joined Hecate hanging on his words.

He had fallen asleep under the huge oak tree in the temple garden and woken beneath an identical tree in the bright land above. He realised he was there because the temple wasn’t ruined at all, it was in its prime and sparkling in the light.

Feeling almost overwhelmed with awe, he had walked to the statue of Dionysis in the courtyard and bowed down to say a prayer of thanks.

As he did so, the statue had come to life. Dionysis stepped lightly down from the podium and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.

Looking up Narcissus had seen a face scarred with smile lines and bright eyes that twinkled and curls of dark hair that played like mischief in the light breeze.

Narcissus’s face shone as he spoke about Dionysis and the gentle music of his voice and the reassurances that he had offered promising that whatever difficulties may arise, all would be well in the end. After they had spoken for a while a beautiful woman wearing a white robe had come into the temple garden. Narcissus had seen her before often walking hand in hand with another woman, almost identical except that she wore a black robe. Dionysis had greeted the woman in white enthusiastically, as if she were a friend who had been expected. He had told her Narcissus’ name and she had gazed on his face as if she was searching for something. As she looked at him he felt himself burning with a feeling that was a mixture of complete pain and complete pleasure. Then she had looked away and wordlessly asked him to tell her his purest and most secret wish.

He had searched his soul, his heart and his history. A door within his dream had opened and he had seen himself as a babe cradled in his mother’s arm. She was a water nymph as lovely as a waterfall in a silent forest. He saw her smiling over him, bathing him in moonlight and feeding him on nectar. The vision shimmered and he saw himself as a laughing toddler with her dancing around him, singing to him about beauty and weaving flowers in his hair. The vision faded and he felt the chill wind of the city his father had taken him to. His father was a wealthy man, who took him away from the gentle forest to learn about trade. In the city he was schooled, trained and educated in the ways of the human world, but they rasped like sandpaper against his soul. His mother, pining for him, had faded and drifted away. As a young man Narcissus had left the city to search for her. After years of failure his search became a difference quest. Now he was looking not only for her, but also for the answer to the question she had left him with, the question about beauty, why it mattered and what to do with it. Asked for his deepest wish, he thought about his mother. She had wished beauty into him. For her he wished for this beauty to find a glorious purpose.

Fortuna had then taken from a belt around her own waist a sword in a jewel-encrusted scabbard and she had given it to Narcissus, saying that he could use it either as a weapon or a gift. Narcissus wasn’t sure why, but he had been surprised by her solemnity. Perhaps it was just strangely contrasted against Dionysis’ impish humour.

Dionysis turned to him and said, “Wait here” as he walked the woman back to the temple gate.

Narcissus had sat down by the temple pond and had seen below the water the ruined temple and his own body asleep by the tree. As he watched himself he felt himself being drawn down through the water. The World warped and spun and then he awoke beneath the tree with the sword beside him. He had tried to go back to sleep to get back to Dionysis but he couldn't.

He looked into the pond and could see the temple above with its statue white and glistening, as it had been when he had first arrived there.

Then he had run all the way to Hecate’s house.

Kora’s eyes sparkled ~ at last something really interesting had happened. She had been starting to think that this world was the dull shade and the world of Hades was the world of colour and drama.

Hecate, drew a deep breath and her face looked serious. She examined the sword and said in a tone that contained all her age and wisdom: “A gift from Fortuna is a double-edged blessing. Think well about what to do with it.” Then her face softened and she smiled and ruffled his hair and said more gently, “I know you will though, it’s in your nature to be careful, too careful sometimes.”



Meeting Zeus

The sun was shining as Demeter and Kora set off up Mt Olympus together.

There was a jubilant bounce in Demeter’s step. She had been planning this little excursion ever since the strange morning of Kora’s return, when she had first heard that Hades had laid his grubby hands on her daughter.

It was time for justice.

Kora’s step was more cautious. She didn’t know why her mother had decided that now was the time to take her up the mountain. She hoped that it meant that Demeter had finally noticed how mature and responsible she had become. She was looking forward to meeting the Great Ones at the high table ~ her father Zeus and her uncles and aunts. She had always known of them, and known that her blood and theirs was somehow the same, but she hadn’t really been curious to meet them before. Now, since hearing Narcissus and Hecate talking and laughing about them, she was excited, both about what might happen and about the time she would have telling them about it.

She was half tempted while her mind was on this tack to ask her mother some questions about them, but she didn’t want to run the risk of chattering too much and letting slip something that would give away that she’d been seeing Narcissus. The secret weighed her down and stilled her tongue and reminded her of the heavier darker secret that she sincerely hoped would not be prodded or poked at the meeting up the mountain.

She shuddered at the thought and repeated Hecate’s advice like a mantra ~ “Obey your Heart, Obey your Heart, Obey your Heart.”

All the same at the thought of it she was half tempted to turn and run home, or better still all the way to Hecate’s house, or better still all the way back down to Hades.

At times she was sure that He was missing her.

She had even taken to wondering about what had happened from his point of view. She decided that she had been quite harsh on him. He had a kingdom to run after all, and he was right not to neglect his duties, like stupid Demeter had done.

Perhaps what he needed was help.

This thought had struck her one day while she’d been trying to help her mother.

She had been doing her best to coax some seeds to sprout, not much seemed to be happening though and she was beginning to feel that the exercise was silly. Walking to find a fresh patch of ground to try again on, she had found a small bird that had fallen from a nest. Its tiny pink body was broken and bloody and its pulse was failing. She held it in her hands and wished its spirit a swift journey home. As she did so she saw a tiny spark leave its breast and soar skywards.

She’d then made a little nest for the broken body in the earth and covered it over.

She’d looked up to see Demeter frowning over her. She would have excitedly told her about the flight of the bird’s spirit but the icy look silenced her. It was bad enough that she couldn’t make the seeds sprout. She decided to save the story for her friends.

Kora remembered once saying that she would never keep a secret from her mother. They had seemed like the best of friends, but now that seemed like a long, long time ago when she was very, very young.

More and more secrets were being added to the pile of things that they couldn’t talk about, leaving awkward silences where there used to be conversation and leaving strange gaps in the logic of the conversations that they did attempt. Kora felt a sob rising in her chest. She took a deep breath and pushed it down. It was hard living like this. She loved and admired her mother more than anything and now she pitied and thought she understood her as well.

She was now a good two or three steps behind her mother, on the rocky slope of the tall mountain.

She hurried to catch up so that Demeter wouldn’t suspect her concerns. Her face felt like a clay mask. She hoped it wouldn’t break and reveal the tangled mess that she really was.

It occurred to her as she climbed that she had absolutely no idea what was going to happen.

Demeter had announced at breakfast that it was time to for Kora to meet Zeus.

There was a hardness on her face as she said it. A glint in her eye.

Kora had tried asking why. Demeter hadn’t said much, just that things would at last be sorted out.

“What things?”, Kora had pressed.

“You’ll see.” Answered Demeter, with cutting finality.

She then proceeded to tell Kora exactly what to wear and how to tie her hair.

Baffled, and slightly excited at the whiff of destiny that seemed to be in the air, Kora hadn’t argued. She had put on her crispest white robe, tied her hair close to her head with a dozen tiny ribbons and wrapped a fine white linen shawl, so soft and fine it was almost translucent, demurely around her shoulders.

The ground they were walking on was becoming smoother and the air thicker.

Then they passed through the mist gate that protected the hallowed halls of Olympus from mortal eyes.

Kora’s eyes drank in the columns of bright air, the monuments of thought, the sculpted dream trees and the fountains of ideas. She smiled at the sight of gardens and courtyards, half glimpsed behind pillars and ornate structures but her exploration was curtailed by a sharp right turn into a moonstone labyrinth. As Demeter led her through the complex maze of curved and convoluted pearly white walls she tried at first to remember the path taken but then gave up as the list of lefts and rights blurred in her mind. Eventually the corridor they were racing along opened out into room like a giant upturned bowl with a throne near the centre and an audience around the edge and a space for them to stand before the throne where all eyes could see them.

The whiteness of it all dazzled Kora. She could see, seated high on the central throne, a strong and muscular man with pure white skin and blazing blue eyes ~ she supposed, from his resemblance to the statues she’d seen, that he was Zeus. His eyes seemed to burn through her, to see not only her skin beneath her clothes, but also her bones and her soul.

While she looked at him the rest of the room seemed to swirl and fall out of focus or existence. She wasn’t sure which.

She tried looking away but when she did the room seemed to flicker and fade and she wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t fall over.

She realised after a while that her mother was speaking. Speaking to Zeus. She was dizzy and struggling to understand the vanishing room but she caught fragments of phrases ~ ‘brutal abduction’, ‘against her will’, ‘terrorized and traumatized.’

She tore her eyes from Zeus to look at her mother, and saw that she was shaking and crying.

Next she heard a voice booming within her own mind ~ as if her conscience had been given the ability to speak. It was asking: “Is this true?”

She looked at Zeus again and realised that it was he who had spoken, as she locked eyes with him the room stopped moving but her mother beside her seemed to vanish.

She felt as if she was completely alone with her destiny in her hands and no one supporting her.

Her stomach churned. Time hovered. The dark secret inside her rumbled like a hungry beast. She hadn’t expected this. There was no way she could hide or think of a clever response.

She closed her eyes and pictured the face of Hades, as he had looked up and seen her falling towards him and smiled.

She opened her eyes and saw nothing but Zeus.

“Is it true?” The voice asked again. “Were you taken?”

Obeying her heart Kora said: “No, I wasn’t.”

Zeus didn’t blink or flinch.

Inside her head the voice boomed: “Were you harmed or tortured or held against your will?”

Again she said: “No I wasn’t.”

Relief was starting to flood through her body, the dull weight of the secret had started to lift, when suddenly her cheek was burning. A slap. She’d been slapped. Her mother, Demeter, had slapped her.

What? Why? Her mind swam free of Zeus’s whirlpool gaze. She found her mother’s face. It was glaring at her and she was shouting.

“What are you saying you stupid child? This is no place for games.”

Kora struggled to understand, the room pitched and swayed.

“What?…what mother? No, not games, it’s true. I told him the truth. I love Hades…” and she would have gone on and let the whole secret out but Demeter cut her short with “Don’t be a fool Kora. I know you far better than you know yourself. This cannot possibly be true.”

She felt as if she’d been slapped again. She didn’t know what to say or do.

Then the voice of Zeus spoke again. “Go home”, it said. “There will be no punishment. Be happy with each other.”

Demeter swept out of the room. Kora watched her go and then bowed humbly but gracefully to Zeus. She felt somehow enormously grateful and despite Demeter’s distress she felt lighter and happier for having told at least part of the truth. She wasn’t afraid. She had followed Hecate’s advice and her confidence in the old woman’s judgement was complete.

Kora stepped out of the bowl shaped room and found herself in a long white corridor. Then she remembered the labyrinth they had come through to get to the room.

Completely sure that if anything was going to get her through the labyrinth it was going to be either luck or fate, rather than memory, she set off. Around the first corner, she met a man with a face scarred by smiling. Her heart leapt. From Narcissus’ description she recognised him as Dionysis. He bowed to her gallantly and offered to escort her to the misty gate.

Kora tried to pay attention as she walked with Dionysis but she was rattled by what had just happened and not sure that the gardens weren’t flickering and sliding about in ways that gardens shouldn’t. As they walked he pointed out people and places. He showed her around the seductive gardens she had glimpsed on her way in, each was more luscious than the last, draped with flowers of different colours, lilac wisterias, radiant yellow marigolds, trailing jasmine like starbursts, and roses full of colour and heady fragrance. In one garden they saw two women playing chess. Grinning wickedly Dionysis called them the terrible sisters, Fortuna and Nemesis. He said that they loved to compete with each other. Fortuna giving excessive luck and Nemesis averting disaster by countering with balance.

At the gate he kissed Kora’s hand and told her to give his best regards to Hades next time she saw him. She smiled and blushed and thanked him and ran down the mountain. All the way to Hecate’s table.


The empty nest

Demeter ran down the mountain in a daze. She was sure that she had a gaping wound in her heart and that a river of blood was flowing from it.

She was almost surprised when she looked down and saw the clean fabric of her dress.

She looked behind her and saw though that the flowers in her wake were dark red. She paused and sat on a rocky outcrop. Her eyes fell on a soft patch of moss and she glared at it, watching it turn under her gaze into a twisted spiky weed with poisonous berries.

Part of her was horrified at what she was doing. Her whole life had been about being good and nurturing and she was boiling with hate and bitterness.

What had happened?

She didn’t know. She felt broken. She didn’t know anything.

The child who had been her child was someone else. If she knew Kora at all she knew that she wouldn’t, she couldn’t lie to Zeus. If she knew Kora at all she knew that she must have lied to Zeus.

She stamped on the rocky ground and hoped that rocks fell from the ceiling of Hades’ wretched hall below.

Why? Why? Why had he cropped up again now? She hated him for doing what he might have done. She hated him for being dark enough to have done it, even if he didn’t. She hated him for making a fool of her even though he hadn’t.

And worst of all she hated him for the strange connection he might have with Kora.

Her Kora. She shuddered at the memory of her holding and burying the tiny bird, with a smile on her face and rapture in her eyes. It was so much like him when they were children. She used to blow on the eggs to make them hatch and he, he’d almost be glad to find the little things injured on the ground. Demeter felt the old hot tears burning her eyes. She had always hated the thought of the sunless, dark world. She never wanted to go there ever. She never wanted the little birds to go there.

A small bird with smooth grey feathers and beetle bright eyes landed by her feet and tried to pick a berry from the twisted plant.

Demeter shooed it gently away. It hopped back and looked her in the eye.

She smiled at it and said hello.

She wasn’t far from the place where Kora had buried the little bird. She wondered if this was its mother.

“There’s no point looking for your baby,” she said. “She’s gone and she isn’t coming back.”

The little bird held her gaze and nodded.

“Your nest must a feel empty without her, little bird. I’m sorry. It must be hard for you not knowing why she jumped like that.”

The bird tried again to pick the berry. Demeter waved it off and pulled up the plant. She crushed the berries against the rock, they left a dark red stain, but at least they wouldn’t go to seed. It struck her as she stood up to head back home that she had never killed anything before.

Demeter paused at her own front gate. She knew what was inside. She knew Kora wasn’t home. She didn’t want to be home alone. It occurred to her that she didn’t know where Kora was. “What’s new?” she thought, as a wave of anger washed through her. “If she can keep a secret that big, she’s probably full of lies.”
The wound in her heart threatened to tear open. She turned and walked down towards the village. Breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out. Deliberately noticing the dew drops on the leaves and the fruit on the vines.

At the well beside the village she saw Adele drawing water. Adele waved and called “Good afternoon”.

Demeter returned the greeting and asked how Adele was keeping, and how was Ameinias?

Adele ran her hand through her hair and looked to the sky. Her voice trembled for a moment before a dam inside her burst and she released a torrent of pent up fear. Sobbing as she spoke, she tersely explained that he had now decided to be a philosopher so that he could win the heart of Narcissus. The boy, she said, hadn't slept more than two hours a night for months. He had first had to take lessons from the priests because his reading had not been so good, and now he was reading and reading into the night every night. He’s also stopped eating meat because he thought that it “lowered his mind” and he’d declared that he’d never be a warrior despite his talent and his training because it was “a demeaning occupation”.

She was scared for him. All his life he had been planning and training to be a warrior and now he was changing path. She knew him. She knew he’d never be a good philosopher.

“He loves to win too much,” she said. “It’s a good thing in a warrior and a bad thing in a philosopher….and his body is wasting away. He used to be a fair match for his brothers, even though he’s the youngest. Now they can push him over like a stalk of grass. I dread what will happen if they rush off to a war. If he goes too he’ll be killed for sure. If he doesn’t he’ll seem like a coward and the shame of it will kill him.”

Demeter reached out and took Adele’s hand in her own. The two women sat down on the stone bench beside the well. In the silent space between them understanding hovered like the smell of fresh baked bread. They both drew strength from it. Feeling the warmth, Adele continued.

“There’s something else too. I was gathering asphodel roots by the river the other day and I heard Ameinias talking to Echo, the nymph. I wasn’t hiding. It’s just that he didn’t know I was there. It was horrible. He was teasing her, saying “a nymph who thinks she’s more likely to win a noble heart than a fellow philosopher ~ you’re going to have to be something more than a pretty flower” ”.

Adele shuddered: “I’ve never raised my children to be like that. Poor Echo. It’s bad enough that she’s been ensnared by Narcissus. I felt so sorry for her. Why would Ameinias say that to her? Is this what Narcissus is doing to him? I wish I could help him.”

Poor Echo.

Demeter felt sorry for her too.

Adele went on. Some people, she said, thought that Narcissus was part nymph, which would explain some of his oddness perhaps ~ not that what he was doing was forgivable. If he had made Echo happy though they would have borne him no ill will.

The chatter continued rounding always on Narcissus. It made Demeter uncomfortable, after a while. It occurred to her that Kora had been oddly silent on the topic since she returned.

Changing the subject she asked about Adele’s other sons.

Back on firmer ground Adele brightened: “The eldest got married two months ago to a beautiful girl, so sweet and talented and she’s now expecting a child. The other is learning from a visiting master how to make fine weapons….” The prattle continued cheerfully for a little while before closing in again on the itch in her soul. “If only Ameinias was not under this spell he could be with the master as well. If only that wretched Narcissus had chosen a different village to haunt….”

Demeter’s mind began to wander. “If only that wretched Hades, had chosen someone else’s daughter to tempt and lure and cajole…”

She shuddered at the thought of Kora and Hades together.

She stood up and looked down into the well. Drawing up a measure of composure she said. “I know it is difficult but you must tend you own hearth Adele. Let Ameinias make his own choices. His life is his to lead.”

Hearing the wisdom in her own words, she turned to go home. It occurred to her to ask Echo around for a meal, but the Nymph wasn’t home, so she continued up the hill alone, and thought about what she would most like to eat.

 

 

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