FICTION: A distinguished visitor from the north, part eight

The land of Hades was a quiet place, as a rule. Deeper down, in Tartaros, the imprisoned ones raged and howled, but in the fields of asphodel, there was neither weeping nor laughter. Yet it seemed quieter than ever as Hades, clutching the arms of his throne, waited for word of his wife’s labor. His servants kept out of his sight. The dead did not pass before him. He heard the ticking of clocks that had not been invented yet and tried not to hold his breath.

The air–not just the air, but the very walls of the palace, the earth underfoot, and Hades’ ears were rent by a cry of anguish. “Mother!”

He clenched his fists so hard that the eternal black stone crumbled beneath his fingers. Again the cry rang out. “Mother! Mama!” Persephone’s voice, full of unbearable pain. He could not go to her. He must not go to her. No man, not even a god, would trespass on the birthing chamber.

A wordless howl pierced his heart. A deep gasp followed by anguished sobbing. “Mama, mama, mommy–” The word rose into a scream. Hades tore at his robes, his hair to keep from breaking his own holy seat into dust. She would never come. Demeter had made that very clear. She would never enter Hades’ realm. Did she even hear her daughter’s screams? Would she care if she did?

Persephone cried out yet again and Hades half-rose, ready to send someone to beg Demeter to come, in spite of all, ready to go himself and fall at her knees like a supplicant. And then a biting cold wind rushed through the great hall and Hel was standing before him, her mismatched eyes ablaze.

She grasped his wrist with her fingers of bone. “Take me to her.”

He did not allow himself to think; he only obeyed the visiting goddess. Hel burst into the birthing chamber ahead of him, and Hades gagged at the smells of blood and fear. Hekate, her hair undone and her torso bared, was laboring between Persephone’s legs like a wrestler, but her cries were dwindling to weak sobs.

“Stand aside.” Hekate looked up and bared her teeth at the newcomer, but when Hel stepped forward, she moved back. Hel stepped between Persephone’s thighs and laid her hands on the young goddess’ distended belly.

She murmured something that Hades could not make out. Persephone’s panting eased; she twisted with a sudden pang, but her resultant cry was stronger, more focused. Hel glanced from side to side. “You two, hold her up and take her hands.” Hades noted that Hekate also did not hesitate, but obeyed.

Persephone’s head lolled against his shoulder; her hands closed around his and Hekate’s as his hands had closed on the arms of his throne. Hel, her piercing gaze focused downward, stroked her hands over Persephone’s belly, again and again, from her breasts to her pubic mound. Persephone somehow spread her legs wider.

“You are strong,” Hel said. “You must bear this child. You can do it.”

“No,” Persephone whimpered. Hel untied her apron, unlaced her gown; glimpses of naked bone and putrid-pale flesh showed as she bent over the birthing goddess.

“Let it go. Let go. Let the child go. Let it happen.” Hel raised her hands and made a gesture, saying something under her breath in her own tongue. “Let her be what she is.”

Persephone arched, twisted, and made a noise that was more like a roar than a scream. Then she went completely limp against Hades and Hekate as Hel, crooning softly, caught the child that finally emerged.

Hades eased Persephone down onto the bed. Hekate began wiping her face with a wet cloth, but Hades turned to Hel. She had wrapped the child in her shawl and was… laughing over it.

When he approached, she wiped the child’s face gently with the shawl and tilted the small bundle so he could see. A tiny, beautiful, radiant face, black as coal on one side, white as snow on the other. Divided down the middle like her midwife, Hel.

“Where… where…?”

“She is here, lady Persephone, and she is well.” Hel carried the child to its mother and laid it in the crook of Persephone’s arm. “She needs only her mother’s milk and her father’s love.” She looked at Hades, who sat down beside his wife.

“Can you put her to your breast, my dear one?” With shaking hands he helped her adjust the infant, who soon began nursing strongly. Persephone gave a soft groan, yet followed it with a smile.

“She is hungry. I might be, too, in a little while. Would you like to name her, husband?” She opened her eyes just for a moment to smile at Hades.

He looked at the child, half dark, half bright, nestled against his wife’s full breast. “Let us call her Melinoe.”

(To be concluded tomorrow in part nine!)

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