The Mother in the Darkness

October 23, 2012
Under the ground, there is nothing but darkness. A damp, moldy odor, accompanied by a chill that seeps through the beautiful woman’s cloak and into her very bones, drips from the cavern walls. The staircase, ancient and crumbling, descends steeply downwards and out of sight. The woman clings to the swaddled bundle at her chest, both to protect it and to provide herself with comfort, and takes her first step.

Thousands of steps and several hours later, the woman reaches the bottom. She stands on a riverbank, shrouded in a vacillating mist that despite the lack of a breeze, twists and curls like a serpent. The onyx waters of the Styx curve by, eerily stagnant. The sound of lapping water signals the approach of a water vessel, and a gaunt, cloaked figure emerges from the mist, illuminated by a bobbing lantern. The stranger stands in a long, flat-bottomed boat, wielding a large oar. He speaks, and his voice is like sand paper scraping against gravel.

“Lady Aphrodite,” he begins cautiously, “why seek you passage to the Land of the Dead?”

The woman holds her head high, despite her unease, and declares haughtily, “Ferryman Charon, I desire a council with Queen Persephone immediately. It is of the utmost importance that you take me to her with extreme haste!”

Unwilling to argue with her, Charon nods and moves aside so that the woman may step into the boat. He lowers the oar and pushes laboriously against the river bottom, propelling them forward. The water parts sluggishly, as if loath to allow anyone passage, even a goddess. Aphrodite carefully opens her bundle; she peers down into the tiny, perfect face, and smiles to herself. A sudden noise rents the silence, and as the ferry follows the bending river, a fearsome creature appears. An enormous hound with three heads, all foaming at their fanged mouths, Cerberus is even more frightening than Aphrodite imagined. He barks again, jumping and pulling the chain around his necks tight. The bundle whimpers, but Aphrodite coos to it softly, and it is silent again. The ferry passes through the ebony gates that surround the kingdom of Hades, and Charon angles the vessel towards a dock close by. Aphrodite steps ashore, nods a silent thanks to the ferryman, and sets out for the towering black palace.

Following a winding path, the goddess reaches a courtyard, elegantly littered with statues depicting all sorts of creatures in various forms of anguish. Aphrodite hurries past, trying to avoid eye contact with the frozen figures. The castle itself is made of glistening obsidian, inlaid with jewels and precious metals. White, twisted trees surround the courtyard, as well as the odd pomegranate tree. Aphrodite chuckles to herself at the irony of the foliage, just as the enormous stone doors swing open. Two soldiers garbed in bronze armor march out, grabbing her by the arms and leading her into the castle before she can resist.

“Unhand me, you loathsome peasants!” Aphrodite cries indignantly, struggling to keep the bundle close to her breast. There is no response, and as the goddess turns to look into the face of the soldier on her right, she realizes in horror that there is nothing under the helmet but a human skull. The eye sockets are terrifyingly empty, devoid of any spark of life, and the hands that clutch her are nothing but bony, fleshless fingers. She is so petrified with fear that her scream catches in her throat, and her fair visage becomes incredibly pale.

Trembling violently, the goddess allows herself to be steered into a grandiose throne room, the ceiling open to the vast darkness of the cavern above it. Tapestries are hung on the walls, depicting incredibly detailed scenes of mortal souls suffering unspeakable tortures in Tartarus. Aphrodite cringes delicately, and turns her attention to the far end of the room where the two thrones lay; one throne is encrusted in rubies, diamonds, and gold, the other in emeralds, sapphires, and silver. Under the torches, the jewels glitter like multicolored flames, bending the light in strange patterns and casting shadows throughout the expansive hall. The ruby throne is empty, but a regal young woman is seated in the emerald throne, expectantly waiting. Her chestnut locks cascade down her shoulders, her dark eyes distant. The woman’s skin glows, an ivory attainable only by remaining underground for months on end. Her gowns are richly hued, yet simple, and her expression is one of guarded interest.

Suddenly, the woman speaks, addressing the skeletal men in an authoritative tone, “Release my guest at once! Your services are no longer needed, soldiers. Return to your posts.”

The warriors do so, leaving the women alone in the otherwise empty room. “I apologize profusely for your treatment at the hands of my soldiers, Lady Aphrodite. My husband has instructed them to bring any unknown trespassers directly to him, and unfortunately they are not sufficiently sentient to realize when they are mistreating a goddess.” The pale woman appears genuinely remorseful, and Aphrodite nods curtly.

“Though it was an ordeal I would have preferred to avoid, I accept your apology, Queen Persephone.” Her voice softens, and she adds, “My concern was not for myself, after all. The reason I called on your help, the reason for my secrecy and haste- he’s here.”

Persephone raises an eyebrow skeptically, yet her expression remains intrigued. “He?” she inquires.

“Explaining would only waste precious time, of which we have very little. Allow me to show you instead.”

The goddess of beauty carefully unwraps her bundle, revealing a plump, peacefully sleeping infant boy. His golden ringlets shine even in the darkness, his lashes are long and lush, and his minute fingers and toes are rounded and perfect. He is the embodiment of infantile health and beauty, but Persephone can see that his swirling dark gray aura signifies that he will experience tragedy and an early death.

“I do not understand.” Persephone responds, taking the child in her arms. “Who is this child? Who are his parents?”

“I have named him Adonis, meaning “lord,” for I know that his great beauty will bring him good fortune and power.” Aphrodite grinned proudly, but her expression faltered as she continued, “He is the son of Myrrha and her father Theias, king of Assyria, whom I convinced her to seduce so she would bear a child. Her father was enraged when he discovered that his lover was in fact his daughter, and he chased her into the forest wielding a knife, intending to kill her as punishment for her crime. I took pity on her in her plight and transformed her into a tree, so her father could not harm her or her unborn child. Adonis emerged fully formed from a knothole in the tree, and I stole him away to protect him from Theias’ wrath, for the king surely would have murdered an heir sired from an incestuous coupling. This babe is perfect, no matter his parentage, and he will be my son, but first I must convince Zeus to allow me to grant him immortality. Will you watch over Adonis until such a time that I can return for him with Zeus’ blessing? You are the only goddess who does not reign from Olympus, where Zeus knows all.”

Persephone stares intently at the baby cradled in her arms, his aura a dark cloud hanging over his angelic face. Suddenly, Adonis opens his eyes, staring back at the queen of the Underworld with the guileless curiosity only an infant possesses. His eyes are mother of pearl, somehow blue, green, and even lavender all at once. Reaching for Persephone’s hair, he winds a dark lock around his tiny hand, giggling and blinking innocently. The goddess is charmed, and smiles widely at the boy, gently unraveling her hair from his grasp.

“You ask this of me because I am the only one who can protect him from the mighty Zeus, not because you trust me?” the goddess of the dead inquires pointedly.

The goddess of beauty blushes, and stammers, “No, Persephone, I ask this of you because I know that you are lonely without the companionship of your mother here in Hades, and though I am no enemy of your husband’s, I can not imagine he is pleasant company. I know too that you are the goddess of spring and rebirth, and who better to care for an infant than the patron of new life? I beg you, Persephone, please grant me this wish! I will forever be in your debt.”

At this outburst, the Queen of the Underworld nods shortly, and gazes into Aphrodite’s eyes with a look of solemn conviction. Hell shakes hands with heaven, and the babe is passed back into Aphrodite’s arms for a final embrace. Tears streaming down her beautiful face, the goddess of love kisses her son, whispering promises of her speedy return. Then, wiping her eyes, Aphrodite rushes out the obsidian doors, through the garden of statues, following the path back to the dock where Charon waits in his ferry. She vanishes into the mist, out of sight of the Queen of the Underworld quietly observing her exit, the babe gurgling contentedly on her hip. Heartbroken sobs echo across the barren landscape, reverberating off of the stone until they fade into the obscurity.

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