The Fall of Persephone
By the time she was twenty, Persephone had forgotten her name.
Her real name, that is, the name that she was born with, the symbol that denoted both her youth and her virginity.
Often, in the dark, she would wonder on her old name, the name she did not know, the shroud, the pentacle she had drawn around herself, unbound, unwitting. But the name was as reft from her memory as was love from her heart, as was joy from her soul, light from her eyes, vigour from her body. Now, in the blackness, she sits inside the cob-webbed chambers of her crawling castle, and ruminates upon a memory that is no longer there, a recollection too long gone to hold any further meaning to her; a recollection that yet, paradoxically, is intrinsic to her being, to all that she is, to all that she was, to all that she ever will be.
But it is forgotten. And therein lies the confusion, the utter anarchy that is her present and future existence.
Persephone, queen of the underworld, sits upon her throne, consumed in her own sense of annihilation, her own destruction – for some reason the eternal cycle of death and rebirth has ended for her; and she is perplexed, utterly mystified – the pale beauty of her face is etched, as a tombstone effigy, with the perpetual, confounded indifference of one that no longer remembers why one is there. The only memory she has she wears upon her – a long, diaphanous bridal gown, once white, now grey with dust and grime, an heirloom from a life disowned. Even the darkness of the room has bleached the colour from her hair, so that it seems black, a void, the antithesis of the halo – the void crowns her, tumbles over her shoulders and onto her smooth, white breasts, onto the grey folds of her grey gown, into her lap. The candlelight falls onto her eyes; her eyes kindled with bewildered lunacy. She has been thwarted – the queen of the underworld is, herself, dead. Dead and forgotten, both from within and without. With no past, she has no conception of future. With no past and no future, the world above no longer heeds her embittered existence. She, in her madness, would not have believed in the world above at all – the world that she came from – for she herself could not remember it.
Ah, but for that mirror, the one that stands before her; after all the ghosts, after all the wraiths and revenants had departed from her realm, only the mirror had remained to provide the pleasure of its company.
No pleasure she found in it. This mirror, alone of all her possessions still bright with the lustre of gold and polished glass, a window to the world above, held no pleasure for her. But she is bound to it. Bound to her own reflection, the symbol of her own demise, to her decay, to her lunacy. She has no other mark, no other impression of self, other than what she sees in the mirror that, like her, came from the outside world. In it she sees her past, her present, her future. That is all she sees. She strokes the mirror with long, white, spindly hands; she fondles it, she cherishes it, she hates it.
But she knows no other thing. The mirror is her life. It is her soul.
In her forgotten youth, many centuries ago, when the world was still young, before immortality and lust had leeched her of purpose, before she had withered and come to suckle on Time with the fevered voracity of the vampire… … Before that, she had been a maiden, a girl – she had been born into the world that lay above; she had known sunlight, the rain, the flowers and the trees, she had known the embrace of a mother's arms. She had owned another name then, or another name had owned her – that forgotten name, the emblem of her innocence. And she, future queen of the underworld, had been young, and fair, and beautiful – golden-haired and pale-skinned, flushed, it seemed with untainted life, for she stood before the world untouched, shielded by her maidenhood, by her long-forgotten name. Yet she faced the world aware of her womanhood; her eyes, now merely half-shrouded but not blinded, burned with an unknowing expectancy, a destiny she perceived yet could not understand; for the blood of her moon cycle had only just begun, and her body was stirring, as a bloom, slowly, imperceptibly.
The unfolding of the blossom is deliberate, unhurried, and not without purpose. But what man heeds the opening of a flower? There are tawdry beauties that reveal themselves to him far quicker – and if they do not oblige him, then he is ever doomed to force them open.
What does she remember of that day? Of course, so little – so much of her former life has already been lost to memory. But that she had been gathering flowers on a sunlit morning, on the plains of the world above. It must have been the world above, for flowers did not bloom under the ground.
Flowers she knows not the names for – that is all she remembers – a conflagration of red and white, burning in the morning sun.
Roses and lilies.
Roses and lilies scatter to the air, unfolding across a canopy of blue, scarring the landscape, falling to the ground. That is the only memory she has of the day when her uncle stole her, her uncle from the world below the ground, in order to make her his child bride.
He is old, much older than she. Where her hair is golden as sunlight playing on corn, his is long, bedraggled, black flecked with grey – but he is strong in his old-age, as if the weight of the years had merely coaxed him to his full strength, like Atlas with the world balanced on his hefty shoulders; it was as if the darkness of his underground palace had cradled him, nurtured him, imbued his sinewy limbs with muscles of wrought stone and taut iron. This was no doddering, senile fool. For all the years that lay upon him, he was a man in his prime. He held her with a tenderness that belied his innate ability to crush her with just a single squeeze. It was a gentle embrace charged with a violent energy, one that spoke of passion, infatuation. It was an embrace that spoke of maddened love.
On their wedding night, it is the lily and the rose that decorates their room – she is caught up in a curdling sense of deja-vu, of the moment of her induction into womanhood being strangely punctuated by the symbols of her youth, of her virginity… A farcical, satirical, passionate performance ensues, in which the colours red and white, red and white, tumble and wheel and sparkle inside a canvas of inky blackness… She grits her teeth and stares at the two-tone rainbow on which her past had been written; her vision blurs, the colours fade. Unbidden motion, soul-splitting ingression, splintering torment… Pain (white); pleasure (red)… Colours fade, she screams, he blasphemes…
An incalculable time later, she sits up, pulling her torn raiment about her shoulders, when the dreadful baptism is done. She is dishevelled, broken, torn wide open, dazed beyond comprehension; she is released. The flowers have dwindled; the flowers are inconsequential – she doesn't even notice them anymore. It is her destiny that slips, unbidden, into the range of her vision – in their dim cavern the Moirae sit, three weird sisters; Atropos nicks her thread ever so slightly; she laughs, she wails, she groans – but she cannot repair what she has stitched. But in Persephone's bridal chamber, the shiny glint of the flickering candlelight catches the corner of a gilt mirror that stands on the other side of the room. The sheen of its golden frame glimmers in the tawny light, throwing molten reflections across the murky, cavernous bridal chamber. But the glass casts no reflection – it is as black as the room itself, it is a void, a thing through which no secrets may escape, and from which none may hide.
"What is that mirror?" she asks of her husband as he lies in the darkness beside her, watching her, dark as the raven, hoary as the twisted realm that he pervades.
"It is my gift to you," he answers, softly, tenderly – even he does not understand why he loves her. "It is the mirror through which we may espy the world above, the world that you have left."
"But I see nothing in it," she protests.
"Stand before it, and you shall see what the mirror shows." He smiles upon her, but the smile is odd, one of indulgence, one of mirth. Slowly she stands and walks towards the mirror; as she steps into the circle of its reflective sphere, she sees herself walk into the frame – no: it is the mirror that engulfs her, encompasses her, draws her into the tidal wave; she is sucked into its embrace, into the core of its depths, yet it impels her image outward, and, conversely, inward, into herself.
She shudders. "I see only myself," she says.
"No," he answers, and now there is a weary sorrow in his voice. "The mirror deceives and yet it tells the truth: what is inside is out and what is outside is in. For what is the world above but a projection of oneself? And what are we but a projection of how the world above would see us?"
"I do not understand," she answers, shivering; for though it is her face that peers back at her, there is something different in her reflection, something the same and yet different, and it frightens her. She does not want to believe that what she sees in the mirror is herself.
"On the other side of the mirror is your other self," he explains, cryptically; her uncle, her husband is now behind her, fondling her hair, caressing her shoulder with an oddly tender touch. Nevertheless, having taken her, he is lecherous still. Yet tender. But her senses are confounded by what she sees – that his reflection too is different and yet the same; and furthermore, that though both of them are neither physically changed nor reconstructed by the mirror, nevertheless, she seems more like him, and he seems more like her.
In an upsurge of fear and horror she turns away, heart pounding, tears stinging her eyes.
"It is an aberration, a monstrosity!" she cries, "Take it away, I beg you!"
His black beard scintillating in the golden sheen of the candlelight, her husband, her abductor, her captor, frowns.
"I cannot take the mirror away," he tells her. "For the mirror is a most ancient heirloom, passed down from the earliest of days…"
"Then if you cannot take it away, cover it so that it may cast no more reflections, no more shadows," she pleads. "For your bride will find no pleasure in it."
Such things, her husband would have said, were not made for pleasure; moreover, he could not understand her reaction, for when he was young he had sat before the mirror many times and found peace and contentment in what it had shown him. But as he had grown older, he had looked into it less and less, and had no longer found any use in the secrets his reflection had given him. For was he not now a grown man, a great man, king of the dead, keeper of the arcane, hoarder of all earthly wealth, witness of first Man's own ugly birth? Their world was dead now; that was the world that the mirror had belonged too. His realm did not belong to the world above. His world was under the ground, in the damp depths of the earth. This was the domain he held under his sway. What care had he for a mirror that showed him the Other Side?
It is for this reason that he will do as his young wife asks; he will have his servants cover the mirror, so that none may penetrate its dark core any longer, that none be impaled by the vision of their own contorted reflection.
But now, the cruel and wanton initiation completed, he kisses her, he kisses her forehead; he makes her forget.
"Now I shall call you Persephone," he says. With a word he erases, he obliterates.
Now she is called Persephone, which means, 'destroyer of the light.'
In the faltering candlelight, the wounded roses, the listless lilies, begin to melt.
In her new world, night seems to meld into day, without conscious motion, without the willful evolution of time and space and light. She, too, follows the silent summons into wakefulness, barely aware of the transition from one state to the other. With no pinpoint, with no reference from which to measure the days, every moment is a waking dream to her, every second holds no certain semblance of life. A single image fills the endless hours of her spectral, gilt-edged existence – that of her reflection in the mirror that comes from the world above – so that she no longer knows whether what she sees is the reality, or the dream.
She does not eat. What need do dreams have of nourishment?
Nightly her husband, her uncle, ravishes her, but she is divorced from it, from him, in part… She no longer even begins to wonder whether this is what it is supposed to be like, whether all sensation is meant to be annihilated by sensation… Whether the pleasure is supposed to be encompassed by the pain… Whether she is supposed to feel nothing, no, nothing at all…?
Caught in the rhythmic equation of brutal, laboured, unreciprocated motion, her eyes wander, they roam to the mirror by the wall, the mirror covered in a shroud of fine, black velvet. It is her face she sees beneath the cloth, her own face remembered, distorted, contorted out of all context; it is the face she sees in her husbands face, when he grits his teeth, when he groans, when he curses, when she sees him with the horrendous face that he must have once worn in youth… Her counterpart, her Other Self, her animus…
She lets out a cry, long drawn out, half wail, half moan; in the rending climax, he mistakes her exclamation for abandon, but no – it is not him that does this terrible thing to her. It is the thing she sees in his face, in the face of the covered mirror, herself, her Other… Her horror is infinite. For in the maelstrom, she is raped by her Other, she is raped by herself.
He pulls away. For his part, it is not in his mind to rape. This is, after all, the ancient way. It has always been this way. This is rejuvenation. The old and impotent reborn and revived by fertile youth. He has gone through the same ritual a hundred cycles and more. But he has made a mistake. For does he not now shun the world that made him, the world he presumes is dead? He will give nothing; it will give nothing in return.
And when he pulls away, his bejewelled bride leaps from the bed with a sudden cry; golden necklaces, bracelets jangling, shimmering, she runs to the mirror and strips away the velvet cloth; she gazes into the glass, she crumples to her knees, she weeps, she embraces what she sees and yet… And yet he thinks he sees that in her embrace she refutes the image, her reflection. Denial warps her face in an eddy, a whirlpool; in that moment Persephone is consumed by madness.
She cries a long time, weeps before her own image. Then, she raises her head and says to him:
"I want to be like you."
"I want to know what it feels like to be you."
Already the flowers have withered. All the wealth of the world drips from the walls of their damp, dark castle; the wraiths and revenants, the vampires and the phantoms pass a collective sigh as if to say that winter, that thing that touches only the world above… That it has come to rest at their door. What shades are these, that fear the cold? They know not that in the realm of the humans and the gods, the crops are failing, the sun has faded and fallen beneath the stars, that all is withered and grey and old. For Persephone is with them – Persephone is beautiful, she is the light, she is the Spring made flesh. She is the destiny of all.
Yet they foretaste the maelstrom, the unholy error: that is why they sigh. They know a little of their fate beyond the grave, after all.
In his bedroom, their master carries out the ritual he has promised them will bring peace, will bring light, will bring youth and joy to their kingdom. Do they know of Persephone's descent into madness? That in rejecting herself, she covets what she is not? That in coveting what she is not, she rejects herself?
"I want to know how it feels for you."
Her words enervate him. In those words, he feels himself exposed, unmasked, encompassed. Nothing shakes him more than those simple words. Horror is on his face. Dread. The dread king of the underworld is swallowed, he is engulfed, he is annulled. More than that, he is impaled, he is punctured, he is wounded, bleeding out to emptiness.
"It cannot be done," he says, he gulps. His voice is unearthly quiet. He is undone by her suggestion, utterly undone.
"It can!" she cries, enraged, her hair tumbling down her shoulders in golden disarray. "See!" She sweeps a finger towards the mirror, the bells, the dolphins, the chalices, the roses, the lotuses on her rings and bracelets rattling, clashing as if they would shatter. "In the mirror I am you and you are me! We are opposite!"
No. We are both…
The sigh of the revenants drifts down the draughty corridors, extinguishing candles, whispering through all the dusty, dishevelled relics of the world before, all the wealth of the world above… Yet in their room, the husband and his child bride do not hear.
"It is not the nature of things," her husband advises her quietly. She does not heed him. For now she sees him for what he is – old, ancient, shrivelled as if the years had eaten him up, sucked him dry of all volition, all substance. And he cannot deny her. She is meant to be the one to give him new life – how can he deny her?
If either had entered into the mirror, they would have understood. She would have straddled him above ground, in the sunlight, in backwards motion, in anti-motion, inside out and upside down. She would have felt the way it was for him, she would have ruptured into his being, into his self. And he, he would have gasped and thought, oh! Is this pain?! Such pain! How beautiful…!! He would have felt it, the love-death. That it feels like death, it feels like love and it feels like death, and it feels like dying and being reborn all over again. The sacred inversion. A dichromatic vision, inverted.
But they do not enter into the mirror. How could they? No world they know exists within the mirror. She straddles him, in the darkness, in forwards motion, in motion, outside in, upright. And he penetrates the core of her; no sacrifice for him – he infringes, he takes, always. And she screams, in fear, in frustration. Why does she feel pain? He never feels pain… …
Candlelight flashes across her wild, dishevelled hair, setting fire to her jingling, jangling jewellery, throwing the incandescent reflections across the room, across the length of the mirror's ebony surface.
In their perverse synthesis, her analysis is forever destroyed.
Now the ghosts begin to sense that something is amiss. They cannot see the world outside – but they know that the mother searches for her daughter, that the winged trickster will come to take her away. Somewhere inside their cobwebbed souls they sense that she must stay, at least in part; but they do not know how to counsel their lord. Their lord has not been made young again. And Persephone, she will not eat. She has not eaten since she first came to this dreary place. The revenants tempt her with tidbits and wine; they entice her with great feasts. But Persephone will stay in front of the mirror – she loathes what she sees, yet she is enraptured by it; she can no longer understand it, yet in her transposed reflection she senses the redemption hidden deep within. Her calculations have long descended into bewildered insanity.
"I want to know," she says plaintively to her androgynous counterpart in the mirror, "I want to know what is to feel as you feel. To be like you."
Her equal repeats the words to her, eager, desperate, mad.
"You are better than me, and I hate you – why can I not be like you?"
Her husband steps up behind her, places a withered hand onto her shoulder; his wearied reflection looks, not into his own eyes, but down at her, the androgyne in the pale bridal gown.
"You were meant to make me young again," he says, perplexed, quietly, subtly foiled. "My beautiful Persephone – you were supposed to redeem me, but I no longer remember how the ritual should be done… And now, I die…"
One last chance at redemption. His servants, the fading, frittering phantoms had handed it to him without words – their thin, fragile faculty of speech now gone, reft from them. He holds it out to her. A pomegranate, flushed, red, ripe as the womb.
"But you cannot die," he tells her, "I will not see it, my wife, my love. You must eat."
She tears her eyes away from the mirror, looks upon the firm, round fruit lying in his outstretched hand. Though she does not know it, she senses it, nevertheless. A communing, with something unseen and yet omnipresent, something all-consuming and all-powerful. Her hand reaches out to touch her destiny, to grasp it in her own two hands. For the first time a childish wonder crosses her face. She understands now, or thinks she does. Taking the fruit, she breaks open its lustrous, crimson husk, revealing the thick, fleshy pulp within. Perhaps she would eat of the seeds… Yes, perhaps she would.
In that singular moment, she catches her reflection in the mirror, her self, her Other, her animus.
Still, she would eat. One, two, three, four… With greed now, she covets it all, she presses twelve pomegranate seeds into her mouth.
Outside, the world dies.
In its place, the city grows.