A soft tongue of water entered her mouth, filling, pressing against the back of her throat. The darkness thickened, she couldn’t see anymore. There was an insistent pressure, inside her, around her, crushing her. Not even a breath, not even a sound…

The sound of her own long drawn gasp was what woke her. She was in her bed, her heart pounding, her hands clenched on the sheets. But she didn’t want to wake. She wanted to be back in the dream, back in water deep and mobile enough to lift her, or suck her down with an irresistible power. It had been, it had been sucking her down. But to where?

“Persephone.” That name from Greek mythology was still rolling around her head. Her research work for the classics professor was not about supposed to be about Persephone’s tale. In fact it was mainly about earning a little money until she found a real job. But now she couldn’t get the story out of her mind. Hades, death himself, lord of the underworld, coming up from the splitting earth and grabbing the green girl with black arms strong as iron…

What would it be like to drown in earth then, ten times thicker than water, to have it fill your mouth, crush you, surround you with darkness? To be dragged to a place of nothingness, have some stranger tell you, “This is your home now?” But perhaps there wouldn’t be any talking.

It was 3 am and her air conditioner was on the blink again. The sheets stuck to her legs. She decided to turn on the laptop and finish up some of her notes.

“Miss Sanders…” the professor said, clearing his throat awkwardly, “It wasn’t supposed to be about Persephone.”

“Yes…but I think it ties in to your thesis...” He looked puzzled, but in a professorial, and thus entirely polite way.

“How so?” Willing to be convinced. He took his glasses off, pinched the top of his nose. She sat up straighter and began talking.


When she finished, there was a silence. He was wiping his glasses with a cloth now. She wondered why no one had told him long hair went out with the seventies. And that while book-lined offices in gothic buildings might seem to call for it, the vest went out even earlier. But the Brits on campus were always thirty years behind. Even when they were still in their thirties themselves, like Professor Harding.

“You find the myth compelling.” It was a statement, not a question, nor even a helpful critique.

She stared at him. He wasn’t going to use her research. Perhaps not even pay her for the hours. He was about to tell her to pursue it on her own time.

“Your interest was shared by many in the nineteenth century,” he said. “You might look into that. And there’s the early twentieth-century fascination with dying gods…I’d suggest reading Frazer, even Robert Graves…not for the scholarship of course, totally compromised…but for the ideas….”

“But would you be interested in any of this?”

“No miss, I already know it,” he said coolly. Bastard. “But if you are compelled, you should do the research for yourself. You haven’t finalized your thesis topic have you?” She shook her head. She’d been putting it off.

“You don’t have to stick with a straight classics, you know,” he said, eyeing her over his glasses. “You seem to be taking a decidedly… romantic approach to it in your notes here…” He sent her a long, cool glance. From a classicist, the remark was definitely an insult. She felt her face growing hot.

He leaned back in his chair, his lanky form overwhelming it. His eyes drifted to one side. The interview was over.

She gathered her notes and excused herself, seeing him reach for his pipe out the corner of her eye as she left. A pipe, for god’s sake! Who did he think he was?

She didn’t sleep well, stayed up late, reading about Persephone in the books he’d suggested. She was only a girl picking flowers in a meadow, until the earth opened beneath her feet. Raped by death. But then she took a throne by Hades’s side---she was queen of the underworld, mistress of souls…

And once rescued, Persephone let herself be drawn back again, year after year, to spend the months underground.

Perhaps it was the upper world she secretly despised.

The books were still on her bed when she woke. The phone was ringing, had been for a while, but it stopped before she could even lift her head. She heard the answering machine pick up, cringing at how young her own voice sounded as it instructed the caller to leave a message.

The voice that boomed out next was matter-of-fact. “Miss Sanders, perhaps I was a little hard on you yesterday.” God, he was being condescending now. How humiliating. “The fact is, I’m very fond of the Persephone myth myself, and all its implications. I really think you might consider it for your thesis. Why don’t you come and talk to me about it?” He gave a time for an appointment. She rolled over and pulled the blanket up, but she couldn’t get back to sleep.

When she finally made up her mind to go, he wasn’t there. His office was open and she allowed herself to look around, lifting the edges of his notes, scanning the books on his shelf. Even his computer was still on, the turquoise letters on the old-fashioned navy screen blinking irregularly.

She sat in the chair and waited, staring at the screen idly. It must have been five minutes before she saw the words she’d been staring at.

“The Rape of Persephone.” The bastard, he WAS using her work. But when she went closer, there was nothing there, except a short note on the word “rape”-“traditionally not forcible sexual intercourse, as in modern usage, but more of a fated abduction, a theft like the one that death must take from life, and vice versa….” Vice versa? What did that mean?

She read the words, but no one came, and nothing happened.            


When she let herself into her apartment, later, the lights didn’t work, as usual on a hot day, because all the air conditioners turned on at once (except hers of course) and overloaded the building’s ancient wiring. She’d closed the curtains to keep the sun out, so now it was both stuffy and dark. Even the door swinging shut behind her had a sticky sound, not the usual dry click.

There were wild flowers in a vase on her desk. She’d picked them on a whim a day ago, in a vacant lot, marveling at how they grew there, imagining the broken concrete around them erupting to emit Hade’s black chariot. She went up to them, cast her eyes on the work that lay spread about her desk.

“Persephone,” said a voice behind her. His voice.

She turned disbelieving, and there he was, vest and all. He’d left his jacket behind, a concession to the heat. His shirt sleeves were rolled up. She saw the muscles of his forearms.

He looked different, away from his books. Less distant. More of a threat.

“What are you doing here?” Why couldn’t she make her voice into more than a whisper?

“My presence is always a surprise,” he said to her. “Even though everyone knows I’m coming.” She stared at him. He was completely straight-faced, serious even. But he wasn’t making any sense. And he had broken into her apartment.

He took a step toward her. When she backed up, she ran into her desk. She put her hands against it, slippery with sweat. Then she turned around.

She didn’t want to look at him. Not because she feared him, but because she didn’t. Not in the way she was supposed to. His eyes had proffered a challenge some part of her understood, almost too well. She felt her will dissolving, and then his breath against her neck.

“You called me here, Persephone, didn’t you?” Slowly-was it only to appease him?--she nodded. She felt his hand, lightly, on her shoulder.

“Are you ready to come to the underworld with me?” The hand worked its way to her neck, and the other came around her, pressing her skirt against her public bone.

It felt good.

But it shouldn’t. She shook her head, pushed his hands away. And they were gone. He was gone. When she turned, she only saw only his back, the door shutting.

She walked to the door and put her hands against it. Was she going to throw all the locks, or run down the hall after him?

Neither, as it turned out.

Nothing happened. Nothing happened. Nothing happened. She dreamed of it, and the dreams were too real.

Seven rings. And then finally…“I’m sorry miss, professor’s on holiday.”
“For how long?”
“Well-the summer, I would guess. He hasn’t any courses this term.”
“Can I…can I reach him? I have some work to discuss…”
“He left strict instructions. He hates being bothered. But I could tell him you called.”
“Oh. All right. Do that.”

It was hard to sleep in the heat. Black hands against her skin, pressing…and the ocean of darkness, swelling all around her…

Something must have interrupted her dreams. She got out of bed, only her cotton shift on, and stood in her bedroom, vague and sleepy-eyed. It was too hot even to think.

She wandered down the hallway and it was like walking under water, so heavy did she feel, as if the darkness had weight.…. The shadows were thick; the orangeish light from the street pushed its way through the plastic slats of her blinds.

The flowers were still on her desk, wilting in the heat. And a candle, lit, beside them.

She stood and stared at it, a feeling like electricity racing over her skin, something else in her chest squeezing her lungs hard.

She heard him, behind her. She could even smell the pipe smoke on him. But the firm gloved hand that cupped her chin, slid down her throat, then up to press her mouth seemed to belong to someone else.

And his voice, his British voice, was not his, but something deeper, older. “Are you ready?”

She nodded, once, behind the hand. Because she was, now.

He wrapped his free arm, draped in the long folds of a cloak, tightly around her. She was pulled back against his body, and felt its nakedness with a shock.

His hand slid away from her mouth, he backed away. She heard the gloves coming off, being thrown aside.

That was when she turned quickly, to see him. What you’re not supposed to do, in stories.

But it was a mask, a blank face with empty eyes and only lips below. She gasped and it was too strange-she started to shake her head, opened her mouth….

Instantly the hand was on her mouth again and with his other hand he forced her down to her knees, the awful mask-bronze colored and ancient-looking-descending over her. Didn’t some tribe believe…a mask could steal your soul? she thought wildly.


“No turning back,” the mask said.

She recognized it now-it had hung in his office, staring hollowly down on her. It had stolen her soul, long before this night.

Persephone had loitered, picking flowers, but that was not why she had come to the meadow. That was not why.

“I can take you under,” the mask said. “But you have to want to go.”

It was the thing she couldn’t resist. The water closing over her head, the earth embracing her. Once again she nodded, and closed her eyes, like a child getting ready to jump from a high place on a dare.

In the underworld you cannot see, you cannot speak, you are stripped of everything. You cannot escape your bonds, no matter how you struggle. And death has his way with you.

There was binding, there was darkness, there was silence. And so in his arms she had no sense left but touch, and it had claimed her entirely. Somehow he knew the bite of his bonds against her flesh was something she needed, more than anything else, more than kind words, or a purpose in life, a thesis or a job. Just this, being held against oneself. Free.

She was drowned in darkness, darkness entered her, but she drowned him too, bound him within her. Bound and bound, they both were, sinking further, until there was nothing left but the contained reaction, the final straining against the bonds, the final triumph of darkness and oblivion.

And she was Persephone, queen of the underworld.


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© Melt Magazine 2001