Hades, lord of the underworld sat askew on a roughly-hewn throne. His silent wife, Persephone stood, as she always did. Just behind him. She looked at the floor and said nothing. The cavern was ghost-quiet, though billions of ephemeral souls blew about them in an astral wind, filling the dark chamber where Hades sat. Pensive. His clammy fingertips touching. He drew in a deep breath and blew a thick smoke ring from his cold, pale lips, watching dispassionately as the vapour coalesced into human form, a shade in the aether. It was Apollo’s son, Orpheus. Orpheus the bard. Orpheus the lyre. He had his famous harp slung on his back, and arms unused to toil were struggling him up the entrance to a cave, to the banks of the river Acheron. It was hard to see in the smoke-vision, but Hades fancied that Orpheus’ eyes carried a steely, determined glint. In the smog, Orpheus knelt at the river and cried out. Soon enough a boat appeared from the mist carrying Charon, the silent ferryman. Charon held out a skeletal hand, but Orpheus had no coin to pay him. Instead, on his knees he unslung his lyre and strummed and sang. The strings of the instrument vibrated with such power that they coloured the smoke-screen Hades was viewing through. Tinges of purple and violet plumed outwards, and when he sang, the smoke billowed from his mouth in a dizzying electric indigo. It was his song of grief. He sang of his lost love Eurydice, cruelly taken from him, and of his quest to the underworld to bring her back to the land of the living. He sang with such passion and such pain and such raw emotion that Charon, the empty and impassive ferryman was moved. Bones that could not feel, felt. The ever-still waters of the Acheron rocked up against the boat to listen closer, and the rocks themselves wept. Charon extended his hand and helped Orpheus, the tear-stained, onto the boat. Hades waved a hand through the vision and the smoke dissipated. “Interesting.” He said aloud. He turned to look at his wife, but Persephone’s expression had not changed. “None may cheat death.”
It was two days later when Orpheus arrived in the Hall of Hades. It had been prepared for his arrival – the wall sconces had been lit and torches filled the room with a flickering blue-black light. Hades had watched his progression with the same unblinking eyes, but he was aware that however much she tried to hide it, his wife was moved by Orpheus’ plight. She had said nothing, but had smiled, briefly, when Orpheus had overcome even the mighty Cerberus. So when the great stonewrought door scraped open and the sound echoed through the chamber, Hades watched his wife and not the young figure of Orpheus emerge. Persephone was aware of her husband’s scrutiny, but unable to contain herself at the sight of the pitiable man, who had fallen prostrate at their feet. She smiled at him and beckoned him closer.
“My lord, my lady,” Orpheus began, his voice sweet and mellifluous. “I come with a woe so weighty that it pains me to sing of it,” he said, pulling his lyre round and into his soft hands. “Yet I would beg audience for the span of my tale.” Hades said nothing, and Orpheus looked up at the rulers of the underworld, watching them closely. Hades was immense. Clad in a simple black robe, his frame was gangly and thin and stretched, his head shaven and mis-shaped, his skin a pallid corpse-white. A lumbering, ugly dead-thing. Hades’ wife, Persephone, was mortal both in shape and nature. She wore a simple gown of black, and her hair was cut short in mourning. She smiled encouragingly at him and gestured for him to play. So he did.
Persephone cried tears she had forgotten she owned. Orpheus’ song was beyond beautiful. It was an ancient magic, a song older than the gods themselves – as old as pain. His voice cracked and wavered but each tremulous quaver was a blow to Persephone’s gut. She reeled as he sang and her tears came unbidden but welcome to her cheeks. The river of souls that cloaked the monarchs of death stopped and hung in the air – the power of Orpheus’ song rang through the fabric of their essence and gave them the gift of grief. All of the guardians of Hades filed into the room in silent awe, each sobbing mightily. The Erinyes, wide-eyed and crying – the Gorgons, with eyes closed and heads low, the Harpies, lips moving in mute adoration – until the cavern was shaking with the sounds of wailing and Orpheus’ song. Orpheus struck a final chord and with a trembling creak whispered his final plea for his wife’s return, turning his glistening eyes up to Persephone who was gasping for breath and clutching her newly-broken heart. Every being in the room was rent by the music. Every creature save one. Hades moved his unchanging eyes over his court, so stricken with sorrow and asked: “What would you have me do?”
The answer came like a storm – from every creature, every spirit, every wraith and spectre in every cadence with urgent despair: “Free Eurydice!” the Gorgons cried, “Send her home with her husband!” insisted the Tartarians. The furies tore out their feathers in anguish and added “Soothe his pain!” The clamour grew and grew and Orpheus knelt in the midst of it all, looking at Hades and daring to hope against hope. Everything in the room howled its support, the Gods on high Olympus crossed their fingers and watched with bated breath, the earth itself stilled and quietened to hear Hades’ reply. Hades turned his gaze slowly over his subjects, before meeting Persephone’s bright eyes and saying in a dull, flat voice: “No. None may cheat death.”
The hall erupted into noise again – great cries of weeping and begging from his subjects, but Hades ignored them, rising and striding through the chamber with a lopsided gait, cutting a path through the pleading creatures. At the door, he turned and repeated “None may cheat death.” But added softly to Orpheus “Your wife is gone”. He turned and left, his uneven footfall echoing away into the underworld. There was much wailing and weeping and a great wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth – cries that tore the air itself but Orpheus was deaf to it all. He stood up, blankly and, eyes frozen, he turned to leave.
“Wait!” cried Persephone, rushing down the chamber after Orpheus. He looked around and saw her standing before him, a great gnarled staff in her petite hands. “There is a way.” She turned to face the river of souls that writhed in silent turmoil and pointed the staff in one hand. Holding the other out to Orpheus. “Eurydice!” she called, and the spirits began to settle their roiling dance. “Eurydice, come forth!” She called again and the staff glowed a dull red. Orpheus watched the spirits roil and roll and part as a single wisp of light emerged and began to take shape. He held his breath.
“Turn around.” Persephone commanded. Now! Do not look at her, or you will lose her forever!” she said and Orpheus tried desperately to wrench his eyes away from his love. The light was forming into a shape. Her shape. Still just a silhouette, but gaining clarity with every passing moment. Her hair, and her eyes and her lips, blurry but hers. He closed his eyes and turned his back just before she came into focus. “Orpheus, you must exit the underworld without once looking back. Eurydice will follow you to the land of the living, but silent as the grave. If you look back even once, she will be lost to you forever. Do you understand?” Persephone asked. Orpheus, a look of grateful wonder on his face, wiped dry his eyes and stood, slinging his lyre onto his back and making fists of his trembling hands to stop the shaking.
“How can I repay you?” he asked.
“Just get her out.” Persephone replied.
He did not notice the tone in her voice.
He had almost made it to the entrance. Behind him, he could feel the presence of his wife. His song had slumbered Cerberus for a second time and the chords of power had bested the guardians of the underworld who, for a second time had tried to prevent his passing. He had simply gotten into the boat at the river Acheron, and Charon the ferryman had watched behind him as someone else boarded. He’d felt the boat rock as they entered. Charon had remained silent and still for a long time, watching the figure behind him, until he said “Row man! Scant hours separate me and my love!” and the vestiges of hope and grief lodged in the young man’s voice turned Charon’s head from the passenger to the river, and his brittle arms grasped the oar and sculled for the other side. All was quiet and Orpheus felt himself shake in excitement and anticipation as he saw the other side of the river and the corpse of his wife. He felt her reach out behind him and touch his back gently, and he fought his urge to turn his head, keeping it focused on the goal – life and rebirth. The boat shored up by the cave entrance, and Orpheus leapt from the boat, almost turning to help his wife out, but catching his gaze just in time. He turned back to face the body of his love, dead and on the ground.
“My darling. My beloved. My dear one, you’re free.” He said, kneeling to embrace the corpse, feeling the presence of his wife behind him. A tear rolled down his face, as he tenderly brought his lips to Eurydice’s cold lips. He kissed her deeply and then looked down at his dead love. “Why?” he asked, and kissed her again. “Why won’t you come back? Didn’t I save you? Didn’t I bring you back with me?”
The presence behind him reached out a hand and laid it softly on his shoulder.
“I am sorry, Orpheus.” She spoke. He turned his head, and bleary-eyed saw the light of his love fade, and in her place there stood Persephone. She was crying. “I really am so sorry. But only one may cheat death.” She whispered, and tears on her face, walked out of the mouth of the cave and into the bitter-bright light of freedom.
Yeah, I scraped around the back of the computer and found this old thing. I finished it up and here it is. A reimagining of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Persephone sees his plight as her way out, and takes it.
Not my usual fare at all, but interesting. Nice to write something non-ironic. Like it? Hate it? Let me know in the comments or on twitter @Sellpen.