by LMA Bauman-Milner
‘So I stole your boyfriend.’ Persephone stood next to the window in her bedchamber, gazing out at the chorus of tortured souls harmonizing in the courtyard. She dragged deep on the cigarillo, muted hell-fires glowing at the tip, and as she exhaled, curves of smoke twined around her elegant fingers. She knew how much she had changed from the precious Kore she had once been. The sunless clime of Hell suited her: her skin was palest alabaster, untouched by freckle or blemish; her eyes had been the azure of a cloudless summer sky, but now, they were the midnight of blues, flecked with galaxies.
Persephone turned back to the ghostly shape hovering in the centre of the room. ‘Is that why you’re here? To get him back, or bring me home? Either way, I hope you made the terms of recovery clear with Hecate. Otherwise …’ Persephone smirked, blowing a plume of smoke towards the ghost of Demeter.
The apparition gaped at the goddess’s insolence. Gathering itself to speak, it wheezed like a smithy’s bellows. ‘Why?’ drifted on phantom breath.
Persephone barked a sharp laugh, and Cerberus lifted his middle head to see what amused his mistress. Assured she was in no danger, he settled back down, snuffled and closed all of his eyes.
‘How ridiculous would you look? I mean, honestly, think about it.’ She flicked the spent cigarillo out the window. Persephone stepped away from the window and faced her mother’s ghost. ‘You’re the most famous single mother in the known world, you’re the Goddess of life and fruitful bounty, and you want to go off and marry the King of the Dead.’
The apparition choked, unable to speak.
Persephone rolled her starry eyes and sighed. She took a bronze dagger from the table and drew the blade’s tip across the delicate skin of her wrist. Glancing over, she saw greed twist the ghost’s face, and she sneered, disgusted by its hunger. She lifted her arm high above the apparition, forcing it to tilt its head back and back and back, mouth open like a baby bird’s. Six drops of blood fell onto its tongue.
Its thirst barely quenched, the apparition groaned and retched at the floor, waiting for the sickness to pass. Demeter’s ghost straightened, strengthened by the token blood-offering, her anger flaring. ‘Slut!’ she shrieked and lashed out to slap Persephone, but her hand passed like mist through her daughter’s face.
Persephone scoffed. ‘You think you can hurt me here?’ Stars flashing in her midnight eyes, she raised the dagger and slashed down. A red seam opened along the ghost’s cheek, dribbling white vapour. ‘I can hurt you, even kill you, here. You are here on my forbearance, and I can send you back with a mere wish.’ Reaching out with her other hand, she traced over the wound, healing it with a filigree touch. She tapped Demeter lightly on the nose – a gentle reproach. ‘Say what you must.’
Demeter stared at the queen who had been her daughter, running through every accusation, every question, every argument to convince Persephone to return home. She was overwhelmed by her own growing fear of this monstrous creature who wore her daughter’s face. A wheeze again as her blood-strength was already fading, then merely, ‘Why?’
Persephone paced the length of the room, her silken robes whispering around her ankles, the only other noise in the room apart from the tripled snores of the three-headed dog lying on her bed. The wailing chorus outside had stopped while Death’s Queen paused in the calm before her storm broke.
‘Because you would have made me a laughing-stock for eternity, Mother,’ she spat, rage like burning comets in her eyes. Her voice twisted with torment, echoed and magnified as the damned chorus joined her, lent its strength to her words. ‘You wanted to forget your duties on Earth, leave the mortals to scrabble in the fetid dust for a life not worth living.’ ‘You would have abandoned me to them! And they would have punished me for your lust.’ She strode towards the apparition, sparks flaring around her. ‘I would have been married to the worst example of humanity. Forced to spin and weave and warm the brute’s bed and be the scapegoat. For they would have starved if had I done nothing to save them, to stop Demeter from marrying Death.’
Midnight no longer, her eyes flared and the once-beloved Kore was scorched to nothing. Cerberus had awoken and stepped down from the bed, fur bristling as it joined Persephone, now added his growls in counterpoint to his mistress’s pain. Together, they towered above the cringing ghost. ‘I tricked Hades, seduced him, convinced him you didn’t love him, you were using him and that I was the best revenge he could have.’
Persephone’s fury swept through the room and the Underworld shuddered with its force. ‘I gave up everything to stop you.’ With fiery hands, she grasped the shade of her mother, hoisted it up and shrieked, ‘I gave up children for you!’
All sound halted.
She flung the apparition across the room. Just before it connected with the heavy wooden bedframe, Persephone traced a symbol in the air.
Her mother vanished. Banished.
She sank to the floor, fires and anger spent. Cerberus padded to her, whined, and rested two heads in her lap, while the third licked her cheek in consolation. ‘I do my wifely duty every night, but will never know the weight of a child in my belly, in my arms.’ Persephone patted the beast’s heads in turn, as stars fell from her eyes and diamond dust stained her cheeks.
‘Look at what happens when Death fathers a son,’ she whispered, clasping Cerberus’s middle head, staring into eyes that mirrored her own.
She wept, holding the only child she would ever know.
LMA Bauman-Milner is a librarian by light and an author by night. Her first collection of short stories, ‘Dark Doors’, was long-listed for a Saboteur Award in 2016.