Written for the Last Author Standing contest (original fiction division, round 1, challenge 2), November 2010.
Don’t weep for me, mother.
I say that each year, though I know you will anyway, as you always have. As always, you will turn your face away from the world in your grief. The plants will wither and die, the trees shed their leaves and stand barren, the birds will flee and all but the hardiest beasts retreat into a dreamless sleep for months on end, and the people will huddle shivering around their hearths, as the world around them is cast into icy death until my return.
But still, I hope that one day you’ll understand.
It’s not that I don’t miss you, and your sunlit world, when I descend into the depths of Hades’ realm each year, doomed to go back again and again because I tasted the blood-red seeds of the pomegranate. I do, with all my heart.
Each time I must return to the underworld, it is as though a part of my soul is being torn from me, left behind in the world of green and growing things that will soon be only a distant memory. Tears blur my vision as I stumble blindly down, down, ever downward, feeling life and hope and beauty recede into the distance.
And when finally I set foot into the land of the dead, and find myself surrounded by the boundless masses of departed souls, each still bearing the marks of their death — wounds from violence or accident, the wasting or illness or old age — and crowding in to touch me as though they could steal some trace of the life they still craved by touching my skin, each time, I question whether I can bear it, even knowing that it is only for a time, that eventually I will return to the world of the living again.
And yet, I know I can bear it, and must. And even though I dread the descent, I have no wish to avoid my winter-long sojourn in the realm of the dead. For it is here that I found my power, and my purpose. Here that I came to know that my life above, for all the happiness that had filled it, had ultimately been as pretty and pointless as a flower that had no means of turning to seed or fruit, and that my true path lay below.
But it was not always this way. At first, there was only horror, fear so great it felt like madness, and an ache in my heart that me wonder if it had been torn from my body, if I would look down to my breast and see only a gaping, bloody wound like those born by so many of the souls around me. I fought for my life when Hades first stole me away, and tried every means of escape before giving up in despair.
Knowing myself, the daughter of the goddess of life and growth, trapped beyond hope in the land of death, I did not know how I could bear it, how I could go on from day to day, as if there were even any way to tell one day from the next in eternal half-light of this grim and desolate place. And yet, I had no choice, for though death was everywhere I looked, as an immortal, I did not know how to die. The only question was whether or not I would go mad.
And I still recall the moment when it all changed. Huddled in a dark corner, eyes now dry because I’d wept all the tears I had within me, voice hoarse and raw from screaming, I heard at last some tiny voice in the depths of my nearly shattered mind say to me: You are a goddess. Small comfort it seemed at first, but then I thought that perhaps I could somehow conjure some trace of life within death, however small, to console myself, to remind myself what I was, the child of life itself.
I clasped my hands together — scratched and bruised, nails torn from too many failed efforts at escape — and into them I poured all my memories of your fertile earth and the things that sprang from it: fields of golden grain, trees heavy with fruit, blossoms in all the colours of the rainbow. And when I opened my hands, I saw within them a single ear of grain, the seeds just beginning to sprout.
I gazed at it in wonder for some time, my hellish surroundings forgotten. Its golden colour seemed almost to radiate light, the only bright spot in that dark and barren place. And then I looked up and saw, gathered around me, the souls of the dead, and saw my own awe and wonderment reflected in their lifeless eyes. And I looked on them as I never had before, seeing them not as anonymous shades of horror, but as fragile remnants of lives lived: here a young soldier cut down by an enemy’s blade, there a mother dead in childbirth, here an old man devoured from the inside by cancer, there a tiny baby, exposed on a hillside by parents who couldn’t feed another mouth.
All of them looked on what I held, and in their eyes I saw the memory of who and what they’d been, and the hope that one day, somehow, they would know life again. And as I saw them anew, the baby reached out its hand toward the bright ear of grain, and I held it out and placed it into the child’s grasp. Its tiny eyes filled with a light never before seen in that place, it made one small coo of contentment—and then, slowly, vanished from sight. And I knew, beyond any doubt, that somewhere in the world above, in a new life, it had just taken its first breath.
I looked out again at the masses of the dead, their eyes yearning, pleading. And I felt my despair replaced by a grim determination. It would take a very long time, I thought, to grant this gift them all. But I have all eternity before me.
And so, mother, though it grieves me to leave behind the world of life each year and to cause you such pain, though my heart still feels like it will break each time I descend, I go willingly into the dark, returning to my winter home, my beloved dead souls awaiting rebirth, and the bittersweet taste of pomegranates.
Story prompt: "If you are going through hell, keep going." — Winston Churchill.