Persephone: A Myth From The Future
The day after it rained, we all crowded outside to look at the floodwaters. The waterways are so swollen these days that even a drizzle will do it. The water is practically up to the steps of the home. There is nothing like the winters of my youth in the air, but still I shiver.
I remember walking by Lake Michigan one summer when I was home from college. Turning a bend and coming upon the rocks we used to sit on for picnics, engulfed by the waters. Later that day, I told my grandmother what Google had told me, which is that some river downstate had gotten too much rain and made the lake come up three feet higher on the shore than usual. Now that’s a great lake, I used to smirk to myself when I walked that route. On that day though, I just stand there with the water lapping at my toes. I am twenty-two. I am standing at a border. I am on the shore of the end of the world.
My grandmother is already pretty far gone when I tell her about the lake, but she (and my parents, and my bosses, and my college professors) always say the same thing: They’ll think of something. My friends and I always say We’re going to die. I’m sure our children found that way of looking at it just as exhausting. I wonder what these girls who change our sheets and underclothes think of us, these scowling young nurses sharing a sparsely-rolled cigarette of rationed tobacco a ways off from the crowd of us. Odd to think a pack used to be one of the things I subconsciously felt for in my pockets, would never leave home without. I don’t actually have pockets anymore. And I haven’t left the home in years.
I think this river might run through a dead Walmart or something. The waters are carrying cheap makeup, plastic kid’s toys, mini bottles of detergent, past us and away to wherever Walmart products go in the underworld. I’ll follow them soon, when my thread runs out. In fact, I might be one of the lost souls left wandering the shores forever, since the fees for the home might not even leave me with the two cents for the ferryman.
…for the what? Two cents for the who…? …What?
There’s a whack on my shoulder as someone lumbers by me back toward the home. I bite back a shudder at the un-announced physical contact. I try to remember my lost train of thought, but I just get an image of water, not like the water in front of me but dark, rushing, underground.
More people walk by me away from the river; it seems like they’re herding us back inside. Some of us really do need to be herded. As I watch everyone crowd back in, a nurse approaches me waving her arms in the general direction of the building, and I realize I’m one of the people who needs to be herded. I take one last look at what seems to be a whole pomegranate in the river, bobbing in and out of the water as it floats away.
I watched the world end over Facebook Live. It was the stuff of Biblical plagues: bees dying, waters rising, bands of people fleeing through deserts. Uncanny, seeing the world on fire through that cold blue website. The uncanny is defined by Freud as something familiar appearing out of context, a normal thing in abnormal circumstances. For instance, a ghost is uncanny because the person should be dead but appears in the world of the living anyway. That day long ago by the lake, the rising waters were uncanny because I wasn’t used to water appearing where it did. Today’s flood was not uncanny to me at all.
Maybe Elon Musk still has Facebook on Mars; or in hell, or wherever he is—but we certainly do not have Facebook. I’m always reaching for my phone, thinking it’s lost, then remembering it died years ago. I remember before when it would die and I couldn’t charge it immediately, I would do the same thing; instinctively checking it and getting only a black screen when I pressed the button. Habits. Here we get news from the people who come through looking for shelter. I can’t tell if I don’t understand their news, or if their news just doesn’t make sense.
If I can still expect certain basic things from my mind, then my conclusion has to be that the nurses shouldn’t even still be here. If all our families were paying for their salaries, then they can’t have gotten paid in a long time. Is the girl dishing out rations in the cafeteria doing it because she feels she has nowhere to go? Is management coercing her in some way? Does she have reason to think things would be as bad (or worse) anywhere else? She gives me that look the popular girls used to give me in middle school as I hold out my tray. Now I care a little less than I did before.
I can’t tell if the shadows are moving across the floor of my room faster than they used to, or if I’m slower than I used to be. It used to only be when my anxiety was at its worst that I would spend whole days watching shadows; I used to never be able to nap because of my caffeine habit, but I now I can sleep anytime. I resist though, because I find I’m terribly disoriented when I wake up. Not that it exactly matters if I stay sharp in this place. It’s just that today I woke up to find the room empty except for a nurse, and when I asked if Jude was off at lunch the young thing had to tell me she’s dead. She excused herself despite being nowhere near done cleaning my room, but I couldn’t exactly blame her. When you’re that young, seeing someone in my condition feels like being stuffed into a coffin with a corpse. I was the same way.
My grandmother’s television could be heard from down the hall. She didn’t want to wear her hearing aids, so the whole floor had to hear that day’s Jeopardy episode at 4:00, and whatever old movies were on TV Land the rest of the day. I used to slow my steps when I came in earshot, and when I left I would fast-walk until I couldn’t hear it anymore. You see, every visit home used to be a reminder of time passing—last Christmas I hadn’t graduated yet, last summer I still lived in New York; my life passes by but she asks me the same questions, several times an hour. I have mental breakdowns and epiphanies and move across the country twice, and she has a minor stroke, starts using a walker. I walk down the hallway to her room and I can almost imagine this place, with its rooms like coffins for the living, being hell.
Sometimes she’s asleep when I get there; I just leave on those days, because I find she’s terribly disoriented when she wakes up. Other days I sit with her, watch her do crosswords; I leave a set of red marks on the inside of my palms like Betty Cooper’s on Riverdale.
The thing is, it’s not about inflicting harm on oneself sometimes; it’s more about how going “la-la-la” can drown out what another person is saying, if that makes sense. It doesn’t give you silence, but it gives you distance. It lets you curl up inside your own head and feel like all the knick-knacks around you that used to be in your grandparents’ living room are as far away as the moon, which you know is in Virgo tonight, the sign associated with Persephone, the virgin taken to the Underworld to marry Death. “I’ll to my wedding bed, and death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead,” says Juliet, says Gloria playing her in the fall play my senior year of high school, say I during a Shakespeare class my senior year of college. Under my breath, looking out at the flood from my filthy nursing home window.
Juliet is a total Virgo, by the way—practical and skilled with logistics, she hatches a plan to get her and Romeo out of Verona by faking their deaths. Logical and (some would say) un-romantic, she thinks things through more than other people—instead of being carried away by the romance of the balcony scene, she goes “wait a minute, how did you even get over the orchard wall? And you know the guards will kill you on sight, right?!” Down-to-earth, she doesn’t care about Romeo swearing by the moon that he loves her; she wants to receive love through actions, not words. Perfectionist, if she can’t have Romeo she would rather die than have anyone else; dedicated, she is prepared to follow through.
“Wherefore art thou, baby?” the voice is husky, sardonic, and it shivers through me like the orgasms I used to have while imagining that voice, and then while hearing it for real, and—
I whip around but she’s not there. But I could feel her there. The change to the gravity of a room when another human is inside it; I know the exact spot in the room where she was.
How did Jude get into my grandmother’s room in that nursing home? Or wait. How did my grandmother get into my room in this nursing home, and then Jude also…? Or…wait… Weren’t we outside? There was a flood. The waters are rising. We’re all going to die, like we’ve been going to die for years. We all kept waiting for a capital-a Apocalypse to end history, but the apocalypse turned out to be a period of history on its own and we boiled like the ice caps, or like frogs, or whatever. I hear a noise by the door and whip around: “Jude?!”
The nurse is back in my room. I’ve made her think I’m crazy again. I wipe the desperate look off my face and try to act like a human. “We have to stop meeting like this,” is the kind of breezy banter I used to pull off just fine, with a finger gun and a grin. Now it’s just kind of sad; her eyes tell me so. She opens the curtains, which I could have sworn were already open. It’s brighter than I thought outside.
The girl cleans my room, but before she’s even done I go to bed. No coffee anymore, and my brain hasn’t been without caffeine for over 70 years. Sunset’s about as good a bedtime as any when you’re in withdrawal and it’s the end of days. I awaken the next morning to deafening alarms going off.
Oh wait, I just remembered—before that thing happened with Jude, I was in the cafeteria. I shuffle through the line of people that were standing there, all of them waiting, moving, waiting, moving. If you aren’t bedridden they make you come downstairs for food because they think getting you out of your room is good for your health. I wonder if it was the same for my grandmother.
So I get to the front of the line, and I get my little slices of years-old tofu and bits of prepackaged frozen vegetables, and it’s all well and good, but when I get to the end of the line it seems to me that instead of a cup of jello the cafeteria girl is handing me a goblet of dark, rushing water. Water that feels warm as blood through the ivory chalice, that smells like a place where all rivers flow, if you follow them long enough. If you drink of the river Lethe, you forget your earthly life and everything about yourself, but I know that I can’t do that yet. I have to find her first.
I put the jello back and hurry out to eat lunch alone with my book. It’s just a bit difficult, because I keep losing my place, and it seems like there are several characters in this story who are all the same person, but no one acknowledges it.
When the alarms went off, I wander into the hallway to see what’s happening. I don’t see anything in the hallway, and I can’t remember what the alarms are for, so I just keep walking, assuming I’ll be told once I get outside. It occurs to me that as a child I narrowly missed the era when alarm bells started to mean “get down” instead of “get out.”
I’m on my way to the stairs because the elevators have been broken for months, when unmistakably I hear someone’s footsteps behind me. I don’t feel like talking to one of the other lost souls; I never do. So I don’t turn around, and I try to pick up my pace just a bit. Hopefully they get the message.
It’s a bit of a question whether Persephone went with Hades willingly. The original story was told by men, so of course they’d give her no agency, and I mean, if she did have agency, they wouldn’t have told us about it, now would they? Some believe that in the original myth she is abducted by Hades, while some believe she wants to escape her overbearing mother. Perhaps, like Juliet, she faked being taken by Death to escape the restrictions of her family; what looked like abduction could have been the result of Hades climbing the goddess Demeter’s orchard walls, making a marriage pact with deathly seriousness—the god of death is no frivolous Romeo, making up bad poetry about the moon. Perhaps this Juliet got her happy ending, and was even allowed to visit Lord and Lady Capulet for half the year before returning to Mantua.
“I don’t think so.” She’s behind me. I freeze. I stare straight ahead. “Next you’re going to say Demeter invites Hades over for Thanksgiving every year.”
I swallow what feels like a whole pomegranate in my throat. “Well. If Thanksgiving happens during the winter, then Perspehone and Hades would have to have Demeter over, anyway.”
I can hear her smirk. “Good point.”
“Are you really there?”
“We’re using words like “real” now?”
“There are different degrees of real at least. Relative reality, you know?”
“My sun is imaginary but my moon is in reality, and—“
Before she can say her rising sign I whip around to catch her and she’s gone. I stand there, listening to my own breathing, shallow and adenoidal. If she was behind me, and when I turned she wasn’t, that must mean that she left in the opposite direction from the one I was going. I set off, quickening my pace about as much as I can these days. I’m walking in that direction when I run into water.
Evacuating a nursing home would be my worst nightmare from an administrative perspective, I muse as I shouldered through the crowd—I hate crowds, if you couldn’t have guessed. The thing about evacuating a nursing home, is that people are already prone enough to error when they’re in full possession of their minds and bodies. I imagine telling someone about the bodies I just found floating in the hallway. It could cause a panic, but half the crowd would forget what they were panicking about in ten minutes. People would probably revert to their go-to source of fear; a war, a phobia, a propaganda-fueled rant about immigrants. People rarely fear floods. Or should I say, people of my generation, who are not as used to them, rarely do.
I am walking down the hallway fifteen minutes ago, seeing the water running along the floor, the cargo borne along on this new indoor river. The lake had risen past the boundary between land and water, past the boundary between inside and outside, and finally past the boundaries of human and not-human, at least where those few people were concerned. My guess was that they had been trapped in a room where the water was able to fill the place up, but then once they were dead the door opened, either by chance or by someone discovering them. Then they floated down the hallway as the Styx flowed further in.
In the Greek underworld, the souls of the dead are said to fade, losing their memories until they are only pale whispers milling around the fields of Hades. Those people in the hallway might have entered those fields by now; their substance might be starting to dissolve. The dead begin to dissolve while they’re still the living, though; I can see these people, my fellows, beginning the process of decay. Hair trailing off into wisps, joints disintegrating until the bones rub right up against each other, like the body is already just a skeleton. Bruises crop up on my arms and legs from no certain source, like my veins just can’t hold the blood in anymore.
I push my way to the back of the cafeteria, where there’s a slightly raised stage; groups of schoolchildren doing community service used to sing up there, as well as LMFAO tribute bands. There are several nurses answering a clamor of questions from the people like me who have made an effort to get close to them. I get close enough that I have to maneuver through a denser part of the crowd, and I’m not as good at maneuvering as I once was. Soon I’m stepping on toes, elbowing ribs, bumping shoulders. I hate crowds.
“Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me.” Millennial passive-aggression at its finest. Everyone’s in their pajamas. I realize that I’m in my pajamas. It’s like one of those dreams where you’re in school and realize—within the dream—that you haven’t gone to school in years, but despite that you’re still in the dream and you still have a test that you didn’t study for, because until you wake up this is just the reality you’re going to have to deal with—
“What?” Everyone is looking at me.
“What did you find?” It’s the nurse who cleans my room. I didn’t think she would be the one leading this meeting, considering she changes bedpans and mops floors. She speaks to me like you’d speak to a child who might have wet themselves by accident.
“What happened?” Someone on the other side of the crowd seems to need their hearing aids.
“This person found something.” Someone else tells them.
“What did they find?”
The nurse turns back to me; everyone turns back to me. I hate crowds.
“Yes, G—, tell us what you found.” I haven’t heard the name “G—“ in years, haven’t been called “G—“ regularly in decades. The person who used it has ambled up to us using the walker from when she had a stroke my senior year of college. The nurse looks at her and looks back to me, expectantly, unaware this lady with the stately 1940s diction has been dead since I was in my late 20s.
“What are you doing here?” Is all I can manage.
“Trying to find out why I’m missing Jeopardy!” Everyone is looking at us. What are they seeing?
I stammer out the basic information of what I found, but I leave out Jude, the rushing water in the cafeteria line, that moment by the flood. So they don’t seem to get it. They kind of look like they think I made it up. My grandma does too. It’s a thing with my family; no one believes me. The nurse eventually calls over a couple of the taller and stronger nurses, the ones who kind of function as guards but in a low-key way. She directs them to the hallway where those people who ate lunch at the same time as me yesterday are floating dead.
No matter what account of Persephone you read, the result is the same: our heroine is caught between two worlds, two parts of herself. Whether she’s getting what she wants or longs for escape, she is always separated from half of her identity. Dual citizenship between the land of the dead and the mortal realm is difficult, to say the least. However she feels about one place, she always feels the call of the other, however she feels about that. Kind of like Orpheus, who with his wife confined to the underworld could never fully remain in the land of the living.
With Jude in the Underworld, could I ever be fully here? Could it ever be otherwise that a part of me would always be with her?
“Don’t turn around.” Or maybe part of her is with me.
I realize that I’m kind of weirded out that Jude is here right in front of my grandmother, or maybe it’s just that I’m now getting wet in front of my grandmother, but she seems not to even see Jude behind me. If one hallucination doesn’t believe that another hallucination exists, what does that even mean? Isn't every relationship just one hallucination believing in another?
“Whoa. Makes you think.” Comes her deadpan from behind me.
The nurses have returned, and I feel Jude leave like she’s gotten bored and changed the channel. The guards didn’t bring the bodies back with them, which is smart. One beckons to the lead nurse from the door, and she goes to them despite the protests of the crowd, who don’t want to be left out. We settle in to wait for their party line, whatever story they want to give us to keep us calm, but instead she comes fast-walking back almost immediately, taking her place on the stage and saying “Attention everyone!”
Fifteen seconds later, we’re creating the most pathetic stampede you ever saw. If I fall, there’s no chance I could be trampled to death—I’m more likely to kill other people by tripping them. Apparently there’s a few straggling cars around this place that still have gas and all their parts, and we all get to fight over the seats inside them. Sounds like the ideal way to spend my last moments on Earth. They told us, and they keep yelling over and over above the din, that there’s no need to fight because there will be multiple trips and the people left behind will be picked up later. Not a lie at all, obviously.
Despite my sarcasm, I’m still using my best subway skills to get to the front of the crowd. I read once that it’s almost impossible to drown yourself because your body’s reflexes and what-have-you literally won’t let you stop breathing; maybe it’s something like that. But then like a cloud revealing the sun Jude steps out, and it’s definitely her, it’s her like Newports and that waterfall in Prospect Park and her stop on the J train. My point being, she’s heading the other way, so what can I do but follow?
I turn around to swim against the current of the crowd, feeling like a character in a film who has to get to his love interest before it’s too late. Not so far off. Anyway, in the end, it isn’t another person but my own idiot self who knocks me out, by tripping over my own foot. At first I think I’ve fallen into the dark rushing water I saw before, but I later realized this was unconsciousness.
The Greeks were a seafaring culture. They made their lives and livelihoods by the Aegean, the wine-dark sea; they knew how boats worked instead of just having some vague ideas about sails and jibs. The armies going to Troy sailed on a thousand ships; the Odyssey is about Odysseus being fucked over on his sea-travels over and over; Jason and the Argonauts journey all over the Hellenic world to find the golden fleece. Many of the non-mythic Greeks spent their lives setting out from home and returning in an endless cycle.
While Odysseus embodies this most obviously, as the man sailing home from war, Persephone is Odysseus’s shadow. Where his journey is to return home, her journey almost is her home; Odysseus goes from general to king and stops, while Persephone goes from daughter to wife and back again endlessly. Odysseus’s story runs in a masculine straight line, while Persephone’s runs in a circle because it’s linked to the seasons, to the cycle of the moon, to the feminine's associations with the generation of life. Odysseus’s story is a transition, a coming of age, while Persephone’s story dooms(?) her to a permanent liminal space. Like a song that never ends, just going from chorus to verse forever. But which is which? Which place would she have called her real home if someone put a gun to her head?
I lived my life in the in-between; between male and female, straight and lesbian, home and New York. Persephone knows what it’s like to live out of a suitcase, to have your routine at the TSA checkpoint down to a science. We are all travelers in this world, but more than for others transition was my world. Perhaps that’s why I needed so badly for the places I traveled between to stay the same, for my six months here and six months there to move like clockwork, the solstices and equinoxes marking the Earth’s motion around the sun like a Newtonian watch. If Persephone went home to Demeter during the winter and had to see the goddess’s home covered in snow, wouldn’t that have been uncanny to her? And what would she have thought of the Underworld in summer?
At risk of sounding cliche: talk of seasons and change is much more depressing now that the seasons don’t change.
I accidentally peed a little bit when I came with Jude the first time, and I tried to pass it off as squirting because that worked one time before, but she just laughs and says squirting is fake, and because she has the same genitalia as me I realize I can’t fool her like I did with that cis boy my freshman year of college. It seemed at that moment like I had reached the point where I wouldn’t be able to tell any of my usual lies and have them be believed; from now on it was going to have to be real and I couldn’t make any of it up, even to myself.
It figures that no one real came back to find me, but I would have thought my dead grandmother would have stuck around to help me look for my dead wife. I roll over onto my back and rub my eyes, then grind my fingerpads right into their lids; my vision fills with dark sparkles. Do I want to get up? Have I ever once in my life wanted to get up? However, I doubt I’ll have a good time lying here in the shallows, looking up at a sky clouded grey with swirling ash. The water is seeping into my bones, turning my marrow the same deadened color as the view above me; all I have to do is let down my cell walls and allow in the creeping numbness that’s sloshing already through my pores, through my ear-holes, through my mucus membranes…
I bolt upright. The Styx isn’t leaching my life away, but I must have been lying here a long time. My shoes make wet slapping sounds against the floors as I make my way to the hall, and before I’ve gone far I’m splashing my way through, lifting my feet with every step like I’m on an elliptical machine. Every now and then I think I hear someone else, someone with footfalls more familiar than my own, walking just a turned corner ahead of me.
I get up to the first floor, walk past the atrium where I could leave anytime I want, and go over toward the east wing of the building. The sound of someone making a phone call drifts into focus as I slog through the fake potted plants and fluorescent lighting. I’m almost on top of the caller when I remember that the satellites that make cell phones work haven’t been operating for decades.
“You’re breaking up…babe? Babe? You’re breaking up!” She’s actually sitting down in the water, her back against the wall. She’s holding the phone to her ear, so she must be pretty close to my age; nobody more than a decade younger than me does that. Sometimes little quirks like that are the only way to tell how old other people are when some of us look like slightly wrinklier versions of our young selves and some of us look like those sea creatures that wash up on a beach after strangling themselves on six-pack rings.
“Hey.” She looks up at me, so as long as I’m not actually a sentient part of her hallucination, she’s not too far gone. “Who are you calling?”
“My son. He’s going to come get me.” Okay, she’s talking normally too. “I’ve been sick of this place for a long time, and this is the last straw!” My last straw was when they ran out of chocolate pudding at the cafeteria, but fine.
“So uh…your son, he’s talking back to you?”
“No, no, he never talks back to me. He’s a good boy; always respectful!”
“…I see. What is he saying, though?”
“That he’s going to come and get me!” The echoes of her voice get louder as her voice itself gets louder.
“Does he have, like, a boat? Does he know where we are?” She scoffs and tries to listen into her phone instead of talking to me. “Do you know where we are?”
“Excuse me, I am trying to talk to my son!” It’s weird hearing that self-righteous old person tone of voice coming out of the mouth of a millennial. “Honey? You’re breaking up. No, you’re breaking up! I can’t hear you! You’re breaking up!” She’s shouting so loudly into the phone that I can hear her for an impressive distance as I hurry away. Even once the last echoes have faded, it’s like I can still hear her, since I know she’s still sitting there, rocking slightly back and forth. How long is she going to keep it up? How long until she realizes it’s not real?
Shit. I come to a full stop. The sound of my splashing dies. I can hear that shimmery white noise that water seems to give off into the air; on the walls are those murky reflections of light that make me think of birthday parties, bathing caps, cardboard pizza eaten while you’re dripping wet. Jude isn’t here. I’m not going to find her by wandering these halls full of old malfunctioning humans, one of whom, I just realized, is me. This isn’t the Underworld or the distant past, this is a nursing home where I thought I would die, and I need to find a way to make that not-happen.
I have to pass by Phone Lady to get there, but I finally make it back to the lobby. I walk past the elevator banks where I said goodbye to my sister’s kids for the last time, and the desk where they signed out of the building before fleeing to Sweden. They told me they would be back the next week. Standing at the threshold of the sliding doors, I can see—I can’t believe this—a cadre of boats on the horizon. Or at least, I think they’re boats? The land all around the home is now flooded, and the only things on the water instead of in it or under it are the tops of a few hills and these things…these things that have got to be boats.
I don’t get it. Did they send a rescue team? Did the nurses get everyone else to safety at some sanctuary with the resources to actually come and get us? A light flashes from one of the dots. I don’t know many floating things that have lights on top and come closer at a steady rate, but one of them is a boat. I scrabble at the sliding door, trying to get it to open without the automatic mechanism working, and that’s when Jude calls out to me. When I turn she’s still there, and she stays there. She beckons me back inside.
Persephone’s choice is about so much more than life and death. It’s about trauma, identity, pathos, the mental grooves we can never stop re-running for our whole lives. How places, people, are tied in with our sense of self, how the inevitability of time reverses the results of any choice we think we’ve made. For some it’s about rape, for some it’s about family, and for me it’s about wandering this world between two fixed points and never finding anywhere to call home. Except for her.
“I don’t get it. You keep drawing me toward the Styx.” I shake my head, correct myself— “I mean toward the flood. Why?”
“Because, darling. If you’re Persephone, that must mean you’re married to Death.”
In myth, Hades is the most serious of his brothers; humorless, but practical, and much more efficient at ruling his kingdom. A Taurus, if you will. The Jude in front of me is serious about her pursuits, yes, and so efficient it’s practically her kink, but humorless she is not. But then again, if Persephone wasn’t raped, maybe Hades can crack a joke, or fill up our texts with memes so arcane even I had trouble comprehending them.
Jude stretches out her hand to me. “Come home. Our kingdom awaits.”
“You want me to come home with you…to Death? You want me to die?”
“My love, there are such terrible things down there in the dark. Things that rip the fabric of the mind. You would love them.” I notice the water rushing in a whirlpool around her feet. It seems deeper where she’s standing. “Let me show you the horrors of Hades one by one, and make you a crown with their choicest viscera.” She always did have a way with words.
“I don’t want to die.”
“Well you don’t want to live!” For the first time today, she seems angry. “What have you been doing lately? You watched me die, then you watched the world die, and now you’re watching yourself die. You’re already in line for the ferry! Stop fucking around and join me.”
“But…I can’t just die…” I trail off. Can’t I, though? I mean, what have I been doing lately? If the me of even a year or two ago could see me now, repeating myself and making bad puns at nurses who didn’t grow up with memes, I might agree that it’s time…
“You used to say you’d kill for me all the time, way back when. Doesn’t that include yourself?”
I let a long moment pass as I mull that over. She’s watching me the whole time, with that lovely steel in her eyes. The thing about our world is, people don’t expect many things of each other. Because they know nothing is expected of them, they don’t commit anything important. No one goes beyond the small circumscribed cycles of their lives, a story that repeats its first and second acts again and again, except for when they have each other pushing them toward the third. We did that for each other, Jude and I, a relationship that was antagonistic in the purest narrative sense—we drove each other’s character development. Had she ever challenged one of my flaws without reason?
I’m pretty sure Jude can hear my thoughts, because she ever so slightly shakes her head no.
“Where do we go?” I croak.
“In the basement, down below the cafeteria, the door to my realm awaits.” I take a breath with these lungs that have fed my brain for over seventy years, and realize that it is one of my last.
She recedes back into the darkness, and what can I do but follow?
“What have you been doing all this time?” I whisper, conscious of how my voice bounces off the water and the plaster walls. The only sound is our splashy steps, and the susurration of the waters rushing past us, into the dimness ahead.
“Looking down on you from Heaven.” Her deadpan has no echo. There is no light except a few failing fluorescents throwing jittery illumination over certain parts of the hall, which is now filled almost to our waists with water.
“But you have been watching me, right?” She doesn’t answer. “You’ve been whispering in my ear for days.”
“You’re the one who heard me.” I can hear the faraway rushing getting louder. I smell that crisp humidity in the air like on a river just before a waterfall, but which I really only know from the parts of rides at theme parks where there’s about to be a fake waterfall.
“This is you, isn’t it?”
“Just as much me as it’s always been. Which is to say, this is mostly in your head.”
“What I mean is, quoth Edgar Allen Poe, tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aeden, it shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name—“
“I love your memory for verse, babe, but we’ve arrived.”
I definitely have not come down this hallway before. The waters are rushing toward the door like there’s some kind of suction drawing it in, and I feel the pull in the air around us, too. The door itself is just a simple stone arch, spartan as the bone-white beaches of Hades. And it’s not just a pull like a physical force, it’s a pull like the gaze across the room from the person you already know you’re going home with, like the Facebook profile of the person who broke your heart, like the oblivion of the drug you can’t live without. Or like death.
For a moment, I stand there and look through the doorframe, Jude beside me, and feel a breeze going not past me, but toward us. There is a wind snaking out from the realm of the dead that smells not old, but outside the concept of age; not dead, but outside the concept of life. I’m not even sure if it’s a smell at all, it’s really more of a tactile sensation…
“G—! What are you doing?!” It’s my grandmother again, standing behind us. I realize that I’ve been drifting toward the door to Hades, and am now ahead of Jude. Jude turns with me, so I cannot see her expression as we behold my grandmother together, this woman who held me in her womb when I was one of the lifetime supply of eggs my mother was born with.
“Oh. Uh. Hi, Grandma…”
“Get back from that doorway to the Underworld right now!”
“Um— But— You see— I’m kind of—” Jude has turned around to look at me. If this really is my wife, then she’s probably remembering countless Thanksgivings of having to call me G—. If this is literally the last chance for me to be honest with my family I should probably take it. “I think it’s time for me to go.” I manage, as solemnly as possible.
“Time for you to go?! What?!” She’s irate. “You would die! You can’t just die!”
“She doesn’t even know your real name,” Jude whispers.
I wonder if I can just wait until my grandmother goes away?? It depends on if she’s a hallucination, or if she’s real, like… well, I guess it depends on where she stands relative to Jude in terms of how real she is.
“G—, come on now. Get over here and let’s go back upstairs. You are going to make your mother and father very worried!” She always enunciates extra strongly when she’s angry.
That enunciation makes me remember all in a rush—running down the main hall of the science museum as a kid, running the way only a kid about to see dinosaurs can run, but then—like the millennial I am—I halt and look back uncertainly when I realize I’ve far outstripped my grandparents. After I stop…huh…I don’t quite remember what happens. All I really remember is later (because in my memory it’s definitely in a different place in the museum) and my grandfather is telling me that there are some very bad people in the world, and that they would hurt me if they got the chance, so I can’t do that again. I’m nodding the way you always have to when an adult wants to tell you something important about life, and I probably haven’t gotten a word in edgewise this entire conversation, and maybe I’ve been crying recently…but I really don’t know.
Most of my childhood memories are like this; I don’t remember anything of my interiority, and somehow I’ll remember certain things in the third person. Google tells me that this could be associated with trauma, but it could also come from my brain being used to television as the medium I absorbed most stories from during my formative years. My memories have shifted outside my own perspective to be more like mass media, so I can be like the star in my favorite show. Or maybe I can’t engage with what happened to me on a level beyond that of a passive, distant television viewer. From this remove, my brain can change the channel when I get to something I don’t want to remember, or something I (apparently) can’t.
What’s my grandmother doing during this whole scene? Is she with my sister? Is she in hysterics over what I did? Knowing the size of that museum from an adult perspective, didn’t I only run about a hundred feet, and certainly never out of sight? Why do I know I have to ask my grandmother please please don’t tell my mom, and why do I break down crying in abject terror when she breaks her promise later? How do I become the kind of kid who comes home right after school, lives most of my life online, gets made fun of for how freaked out I get at everything from sharing cigarettes to physical contact with strangers? One night I skin my elbow and make my friends wait while I run into an all-night diner to wash it with soap and water. I’m like one of my parents’ cats when they finally make it outside and just freeze, not knowing what to do or where to go.
Later, I call my parents during an acid trip in college, and the day after I get this advice from both my parents: You never know what will happen with that stuff. You lose all control. Just get drunk; why not be satisfied with that? Don’t get me wrong, I was very satisfied with drinking. But the chain of events that led to me getting sober begins with that acid trip. If I hadn’t taken that trip, my whole life would have been spent passing as straight, voting for centrist political candidates, and binge-watching Pretty Little Liars instead of reading books. Sometimes you have to open the doors of perception, and run through them. Even if you’re running away from your grandmother’s watchful eye, from her G—, get back here!
In most stories, Death is the worst thing that can happen to a character. For Persephone, Death is the beginning of her story. Some people might want a happy ending, a forever after, but I suppose it was unrealistic ideas like this that let society believe economic growth could go on toward infinity without destroying life as we know it. The fact is, what gave me joy in life is gone. Instead of politely ignoring that until I am horrific to behold, I give myself to the Styx willingly, grateful for all my earthly years with the woman who leads me to the Underworld. Even if all of this really is bullshit, at least I got to see her one last time.
The fact is, I was always afraid to make a choice. I equivocated to within an inch of my life when I was alive—was! already thinking in past tense! I didn’t want to be part of the family I was born into, but I politely ignored it to avoid the drama. In relationship after relationship, I dragged out the end to delay leaving, to sabotage it until there was nothing to leave. Wherever I went, all I was doing was taking a break from any given place. If you leave a place but keep returning, you never really have to leave it. You never have to let go. Act one, act two, act one again. Or like the seasons of a TV show where every season finale’s character development is completely undone by the first few minutes of the next season’s premiere. Pointless.
Persephone might have spent the whole of Greek mythology going back and forth, but I am not a god. When I go to the Underworld, I have to stay there. But I think I’m ready to stay somewhere, to become someone who picks a place and stays there. I’m ready to plant a pomegranate seed in the mud by the Styx and see what alien fruit grows beneath the earth. I want to taste that fruit with my beloved, and dance together like we’re young again, the juice running down our chins. I want to drink deep of the river Lethe until my childhood traumas wash away like tears in rain.
As I walk through the door, the water gets deeper. It’s like walking into the water at the beach, with a slow descent at first and then a drop-off and suddenly you’re up to your neck. It’s not cold like I imagined, but lukewarm, and somehow slimy, like I imagine the rainbow oil-slicks in gutters feel. It’s Lake Michigan, and it’s the Styx, and it’s some back-alley tributary of a godforsaken river in the Midwest that no one ever bothered to put on a map, before all the waters started to rise and the tributaries became the rivers and the rivers became annihilating lakes.
In echoes down the long tunnel, I can hear my grandmother calling after me, as frantic as when she would take me to the park and I would get within ten feet of a squirrel or pigeon. I swim on, doggy-paddling. I haven’t put my head under yet. Something brushes my leg underwater and I freeze at first—though I don’t know why I didn’t expect there to be monsters in the Underworld. But oh, it’s just Jude, swimming like a seal ahead of me. She doesn’t come up for air anywhere near as often as a human would. Perhaps she only comes up at all for my benefit, so she can smirk again and dive backwards, joining the darkness once again.
Drips. Echoes so distant and distorted I can’t tell what they’re even echoing. My own splashing and breathing, almost hushed from my self-consciousness in the silence.
After an unknown distance and time, I reach a point where the tunnel goes on, but the air does not. The tunnel’s ceiling slopes down here, and meets the waves. I dawdle at the threshold for a moment, wondering if it’s safe to touch the long hairy algae on the walls. It occurs to me, with dreamlike knowledge, that I cannot enter this part of the tunnel of my own volition. I have to close my eyes and sink. I wait, and I don’t know for how long, but eventually I know that I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. The water takes me under, and it’s not drowning but it’s so much worse.
The water fills me, seeps in between my cells until I can feel them unbinding from each other, spreading me out into a little cloud of particles floating roughly in the same place. From far above me, in echoey watery amplification, I think I hear sirens—a rescue boat?—but it could also be the screams of the harpies, or Jude calling to me just out of reach, or maybe me, howling like a newborn baby in disoriented terror. At first all I can focus on is my lungs, convulsing with their need for oxygen, but then I realize I’m becoming something that does not breathe. That does not crave, that does not weep, that does not grieve. Something else.
Outside, a wave crashes against the walls of the home, carrying a spray of little red seeds.