A Cautionary Tale
Calla is only ten when her mother first warns her and her sisters of Hades.
“Some call him Pluton,” she says, her face flickering in the candlelight, “Or Pluto. To others he is simply a beast. He appears, sometimes, with a goat’s face and goat’s feet, with curved horns coming out of his skull. Other times he appears just like a man, a handsome man, with a three headed dog at his feet. His realm is below this one, below the Earth, and nothing green can grow there. Its entrance is always found in the darkest, the murkiest of places.”
“Like the forest,” Calla’s youngest sister, Rose, blurts out. She scoots closer to Dahlia, the middle sister, and pulls the blankets up to her chin. All three girls wait in rapt anticipation, eager to hear more.
“Yes,” their mother replies. “Just like the forest. Which is why you must never go there. I can protect you in every place where the sun shines and the Earth is green, but I cannot protect you there.” Calla’s mother has magic of her own. She is the bringer of the Harvest. She is Demeter; within her are the seeds of Earth.
“But, mother,” Calla says, twirling a strand of silken flax hair around her fingers. “What would Hades want with us?”
“My little girls, my little goddesses, you should always be fearful of gods.”
Calla is the littlest of girls, even though she is the oldest of three. You can fit her in your palm if you try hard enough. She is white; white hair, white skin, white dress. Her lips would not stand out from her face if she did not stain them cherry juice red every day before going outside to play.
She has trained herself to walk noiselessly in the grass, she treads lightly on the ground; her presence is not known until she wants it to be. Her mother and sisters tease her and tell her that she is a huntress, a lioness, a sly beast from the bowels of the Earth.
The four of them live on the edge of the forest, in a sprawling field, in a small house settled in a large tree. The forest is off limits. The house and the field, though, are perfectly safe, so Calla’s mother often leaves her three girls alone. Many depend on her to make the wheat fields thick with grain and the apple trees lush with fruit.
Their first lesson in sewing the Harvest comes when Calla is twelve. She has been begging Demeter to teach her about the Harvest since she was five; she has always been eager to learn, to grow, to do. But Demeter waits to teach them until all three girls are old enough.
“Now, girls,” she says in her stern but loving way, “you will have to practice what I have shown you today. It is one thing to plant a seed, it is another to make that seed grow and flourish.”
Dahlia and Rose nod in unison, but Calla is lost in thought, and she is not listening as Demeter begins to show them how to make the wheat ripen overnight.
“Calla!” her mother’s voice cracks like a whip through the air. “Pay attention.”
“I am sorry, Mother,” she says, hanging her head slightly. At her feet the lilies she planted before the lesson have already begun to sprout from the earth, and before her eyes their buds unfurl into white flowers, their long necks not unlike her own.
She wants to grab her mother’s hands, to laugh in delight, to show her what she has done. She wants her mother to approve, she wants her mother’s blessing, she wants to make her proud. But she is afraid that her flowers will be called trivial, she is afraid that Demeter will tell her to use her power for more practical things.
Demeter never glances down, she never sees the flowers growing as she speaks, she never sees them twine around her daughter’s legs, she never notices the tight lipped strain of Calla’s soft, self-satisfied smile.
A village borders one side of the field around their little house, and the townspeople look to Demeter and the girls for food and hope in hard times. Demeter makes sure that the small village farm plots are bursting to the brim with vegetables and fruits, and Calla, Dahlia, and Rose often walk through the village handing out flowers and smiles.
Demeter lets her daughters roam free in the village, unsupervised. Calla is fiercely protective of her younger sisters, especially as she grows older. She is like a mad raging she-bear shielding her cubs; she is like death waiting to reap the soul of anyone who would harm them. The villagers are wary of Calla, especially the men and boys, who are never quite sure what to make of her.
It is difficult for any man to deny the allure of Demeter’s daughters. Each one is more beautiful than the last, no matter what order you look at them in. Each one is like a fragile flower, but tempered with something stronger in their guts– like the pit inside of a soft peach, or, like the way a pomegranate’s hard seed is enclosed in red, alluring flesh.
Demeter knows that the men of the village don’t pose much of a threat to her daughters. She knows that Calla’s wicked little smile and snapping teeth are enough to scare off most. She knows that her daughter is now on the brink of womanhood; her body is growing into soft curves, unfurling slowly with each passing day. She has seen the farm boys stare at her form longingly across the field and she has seen the way Calla stares unabashedly back. She knows that her daughter’s trysts with certain lucky farm boys are of her own doing; she recognizes the look in her daughter’s eyes when she returns at night.
But she worries. She knows that the gods are always looking for goddesses, she knows that Calla is a tasty morsel, she knows that Hades or Pan or Apollo could snap her right up, she knows that Calla would let them.
Calla is fifteen. Her mother and sisters are asleep but she is still awake, and feels a presence coming from the window of the bedroom they share. Power washes over her like a dark void, a pit of blackness, a never ending circle of shadows, beckoning to her until she heeds its cry.
When she looks out the window, she sees Hades standing at the edge of the forest. He appears like a handsome man, with a three-headed dog at his feet, just like her mother said he would. She can see the desperation in his form, and the hunger in the line of his body; the curve of his spine beats loneliness into her heart.
She wants to call to him, to tell him to come closer. But the moon is at its apex, and its light is too bright for him to endure. Hades stays where the shadows are; he does not often appear on top of this Earth.
Calla’s soul contracts. She wonders what made him come out of hiding, on a night like tonight. She thinks she sees him see her.
The next day she asks her mother about him. “Tell me more about Hades, mother, I want to hear more about this King below the Earth. Why should I be afraid?”
Demeter glances up from the scythe she is sharpening for the coming Harvest. “Hades is always looking for a Queen,” she says, “He is always looking for someone to stay with him forever, to stay by his side and judge the souls of men.”
“It must get lonely down there,” Calla says, her voice a wistful note in the hazy day.
Demeter’s head jerks up sharply, her eyes fixated on her daughter’s small white profile. “Tell me daughter, who would ever want to stay there with him?”
Calla thinks about him all alone, beneath the Earth, not another living soul in sight. The idea of being Queen takes root in her brain and starts to grow.
She begins to shirk her duties to the Harvest. The only things she grows are flowers: she almost forgets how to make the wheat ripen, or how to sow seeds. While her sisters tend the village plots, Calla spends hours coaxing Dahlias, Roses, and Calla Lilies from the ground. She twines the flowers together into crowns and drapes them across her flaxen hair, and braids them into her sisters’ locks.
She imagines over and over how she will bring life to the desolate landscape of the underworld, how her throne will be draped in lilies, how Hades will worship her for bringing beauty to the dead. She can hardly think of anything else.
Demeter admonishes her daughter for abandoning her duties. She says, “Calla, I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but flowers are of no use in times of hunger.”
“But mother,” she protests, “this is what I’m good at—”
“No daughter of mine will forget her duties to the Harvest,” Demeter says, her mouth a hard line, as flat as the wheat fields in the dead of winter.
Calla nods, and drops the flowers she is holding to the ground. They rot there, abandoned but not forgotten.
It is the eve of Calla’s sixteenth birthday, and the eve of the Harvest. Demeter has left the girls alone for the night, and they know to stay inside.
Calla waits until her sisters are sound asleep, then kisses them each on the cheek.
“I am sorry to leave you, my little cubs,” she whispers against their ears, “but mother will be home soon and I must amount to more than just a tiny seed.”
All her years of preparation have paid off; she slips out of the house as unseen as a panther stalking its prey.
She floats over the field in her white dress, her hair a cumulus cloud undone down her back. Her lips are stained a violent, gaping red: a wound slashed open across her face.
When she gets to the edge of the forest, she hesitates. She has explored it before, when her mother has been away, but never at night. Usually she tries to stay on the outskirts of the forest; she does not want to go in too far before she is ready. But tonight—tonight is the eve of her sixteenth year and she knows that she is as ready as she ever will be. Her mother grows more impatient with her as each day passes. She is disappointed that Calla does not love the Harvest as her sisters do.
The forest is darker than she anticipated. It feels as if it has never known day, it does not hold a single memory of light. The light of the moon cannot penetrate the thick canopy above her head and she can barely make out the outline of her feet on the ground.
In the darkness, blindly making her way forward, she wonders how she will find him. How will she become Queen if she cannot see two feet in front of her?
It is his white teeth, glinting, sharply bright in the blackness, that give him away. His black eyes meet Calla’s in the darkness and she shivers. Tonight, he appears like a horned beast, but with the face of a handsome man. His canines hang over his lips like two curved scythes and the smell of rotting fruit wafts off of him, filling the space between them with thickly hanging sickly sweetness.
“Who dares cross into my domain?” he asks, taking one step closer to her.
“I am a seed of the Harvest, I am Demeter’s daughter, I am Calla.” She sways in his direction. The stench is making her light headed, and her white dress suddenly seems like such flimsy armor against the permeating darkness of the night.
“And why do you presume entrance into my home?” he asks. He takes another step closer.
Calla’s mind goes blank. Why does she presume? What has prompted her here? Surely she is no match for this King among men.
“I—I am not sure,” she stutters. Her mother’s face flashes in her mind.
“Demeter’s daughter, well, well. I wonder, would mother dearest approve of this midnight tryst?”
Calla knows that Demeter would be angry. Angry to have lost one of her precious daughters, angry to have lost one of her little seeds, angry to lose the extra hands for the Harvest.
“She warned me about you.” Calla’s voice has shrunk to a soft whisper. Hades circles her in the same way that she always circles the farm boys before choosing her prey. She wonders if she should have heeded her mother’s advice. She is a Queen among human men, but here, under the ferocity of Hades’s gaze, she is a mere girl, a little girl, the littlest.
“And she was right to,” he says, his face but two inches from her own, his lips parted ever so slightly.
Calla takes one step backwards, she is ready to leave, to give up, to return to her warm bed and her quietly sleeping sisters, but her foot gets caught on a thorny root. She stumbles backwards and almost topples over. Hades reaches a hand out to steady her at the last moment, his long white fingers wrapping around her forearm and holding her gently.
Suddenly she remembers the first time she saw him. She remembers how lonely he seemed. She looks into his eyes now, and sees the same look she saw then. It crosses her mind that Hades may need her as much as she, ashamed as she is to admit it, needs him. She steels herself against the night. I am the huntress, I am a lioness, I am a sly beast from the bowels of the Earth, she thinks.
She closes the remaining space between them.
“I am here,” she says, reaching out to stroke the line of his cheekbone, “to become your Queen.” Her finger continues its trail down his cheek and ends at his pointed fang. She pricks herself on its sharp point, she hears him gasp as her blood fills his mouth. He reaches to pull her closer, but she slips from his grasp like a ray of light.
“My, my, what would your mother say?” he asks, his mouth curving into a wicked line.
“Mother does not always know best,” she spits out, circling him slowly, eyeing his lithe white body in the night.
“You want out from under Demeter’s thumb, is it? You’d like some power of your own?”
“And you,” she says, “you want someone to call your own, someone to make the underworld feel like home.”
His face darkens in anger, fueled by shame, almost blending into the night. “You have some nerve, little girl, to trifle with the King of the dead. What could you possibly offer me?”
Calla runs her tongue over her bottom lip and then sucks lightly on her bloody finger. Hades’ face turns pale again, and she sees the lightest pink rush to his cheeks. Taking a lily bud from a pocket in her dress, she presses it into his hand and holds his fist closed with both of her own. The flower hesitates for a moment, unsure of being brought into bloom so close to something so dead.
“Unclench your fist,” Calla says after a few moments pass. In his palm sits a perfect white lily, not yet dead from his touch, her magic helping it stay alive. She suspects this is the first time vegetation has not withered at the mere sight of him, collapsed into itself for fear of his unearthly form.
She picks the lily from his hand and slips in behind his ear. “I would make flowers grow in Hell. That is what I can offer you.”
Without saying another word, he grabs her hand in his and strides forward through the forest. The trees part before him, the roots on the forest floor recede and their path is clear and straight. Calla struggles to keep up, her dress tangling around her legs.
“Slow down, my sweet, your Queen can’t keep up,” she says.
The pace slows, his grip on her becomes gentler. There is softness to be found in this one yet. They come to a stop before two massive trees, their trunks thick and gnarled, with leaves hanging dead from their branches. Hades snaps his fingers once, twice, three times, and the ground between the trees begins to shake and rumble.
“Once we go down, it is likely you will never come back,” he says, staring not at Calla but at the ever widening hole forming in the Earth.
Calla thinks of her sisters. She thinks of never being able to play with them again, she wonders who will watch over them while she is gone. She thinks of the Earth and all that is good and green. But if she stays, no matter how hard she tries, she will never be more than Demeter’s daughter, an extra set of hands. Her powers will never extend beyond making wheat ripen and coaxing vegetables to flourish in the summer.
She goes to his side and laces her arm through his. They sink into the Earth together and it swallows them like the mountains swallow the sun at the end of a long day.
The underworld is exactly as her mother described it. Four rivers, the Acheron, the Cocytus, the Phlegethon, and the Styx meet in an X before the gates. The air is cool and clammy, it sits on the skin like a thin slime. Calla’s hair hangs lank down her back and her dress sticks to the frame of her body.
Together, they cross over the junction of the four rivers and come to the adamantine gates. Waiting for them is the three-headed dog that she saw when she was twelve.
“This is Cerberus,” Hades says. “He does not normally take kindly to newcomers.”
Calla meets one pair of Cerberus’s eyes and sees recognition in their red depths. He circles her slowly, his pointed tail lashing against her sides. He bows each of his three heads in deference to her.
“This one is here to stay, Cerberus,” Hades says, turning towards her. “Come. If you are to truly be my Queen, there is something you must do.”
Hades whisks her away to his hidden dwelling, a palace deep within the underworld. He takes her first to a great hall, where two bone white thrones hang like specters in the shadows. Great curving pillars, made of the same material as the thrones, curve upwards, forming archways hundreds of feet above Calla’s head. She stares up in wonder, awed by the grandeur of her new home, perplexed as to how she was ever happy in her mother’s little house.
For as long as Hades has been Hades, the second throne has been empty. Never has a woman willingly wanted to be his Queen. But Calla is here, and he didn’t even have to trick her.
Calla breaks from his grasp and plants herself firmly on the higher of the two thrones. “Is this where we will judge the souls of mortals, my love?” she asks, eyes wide and upturned towards him.
“Yes, yes, but come, hurry,” Hades replies. Calla can see him growing impatient, worried. He already fears that she will leave.
“No, not yet,” she says, relaxing into the high-backed chair. “Tell me more. What powers will I have when I am Queen?”
“You will help me decide where each soul will go. Asphodel for the ordinary and Elysium for those who are truly great.”
“And for those who have been wicked? Where will I send them?
“Tartarus, for an eternity of suffering.”
“I think I will enjoy it here very much,” Calla says, giggling and leaping up from the throne, returning to his side.
He takes her to his chambers next.
Now comes the part of the story that Calla’s mother did not warn her about, that she is not prepared for. In the middle of his room, hanging over the great bone bed, and growing from the earthen floor, is a tree laden with bright red fruit, fruit as round as the moon, fruit a bloodier red than Calla’s lips, fruit that does not need the sun to grow.
“I thought no plants could grow here,” she says, sharply, senses alert, bracing herself for the unknown.
“Pomegranates. The only fruit in the underworld,” Hades says. “Those who eat the seeds must stay here forever, they can never leave this plane.”
Calla knows now why Hades has always been alone. Forever is a long time. Forever is a chain around one’s ankle and a rope around one’s neck.
“Surely,” she says, moving closer to him, “There must be another way I can convince you that I’ll stay.”
He backs away from her, but she is the huntress and he her prey. She stalks him to the bed and then stops. Her arms twine up his sides, her fingers find themselves curled in his black hair, she strains on her tiptoes to meet his mouth.
Up this close, the smell of death, of rotted fruit, is overwhelming. But she presses her lips to his regardless. Her tongue probes his mouth, now just like the mouth of a man, and comes away surprised. He tastes like honey suckle, like sugar, like grapes fresh from the vine.
“I never expected your skin to taste so sweet, Pluto, King of all dead things,” Calla says, whispering into his neck. He inhales a shaking breath, a failed attempt to suck the air from the room. The lightest brush of her hand against his sternum and he falls to the bed.
“Calla, if you would only eat the fruit first—
She cuts him off with a vicious kiss, but her mind is reeling from the first appearance of her name on his lips.
Her legs wrap around his, her hair trails against his chest, her nimble fingers ease the buttons of his shift undone. She is everywhere on him at once, a bright light penetrating the darkness, an ethereal glow waking him from slumber, a dazzling shock jolting him into life.
She takes him into herself, to the place where only clumsy lovers have been before. His hands erase the memories of Earth left on her skin and give her something new to yearn for. This feeling, this ecstasy, is something comparable only to feeling the life force of a bud as she brings it into bloom. She is a shaking, shivering seedling, writhing her way to the surface of the Earth and bursting open into the air. If only Demeter could see her now, sharing the bed of a King, only a few steps away from becoming Queen.
They collapse together on the bed. Hades closes his eyes, a wave of exhaustion rolling over him. His black lashes fringe his cheekbones like waning moons. Calla looks at her new husband’s peaceful form and knows that this is perhaps her only chance.
She draws herself up, languidly, like water being slowly poured into a tall glass, and stands on the bed. The fruit hangs over her head, glowing faintly in the dim lighting. She chooses the roundest, reddest, largest fruit from the highest branch and pulls it down gently.
She sits cross-legged next to Hades on the bed, aware of his watchful eyes. She digs her fingernails into the fruit’s tough exterior and claws her way to the meat. She cracks it open like breaking a heart in her hands.
“You’ve never tasted it before, have you?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You said that those who eat it can never leave this plane. So you must not have ever tried it,” she says, digging the seeds out and placing them on the sheets in front of her. Soon her fingers drip like bloody claws.
“If you have a point, my little Queen, make it,” he says.
“Well if I must eat it, if I must be bound here forever, then it’s only fitting that so should you,” she says, continuing to pull the seeds from their white casing.
She meets his eyes and sees fear in them. Fear for a life of loneliness and fear for heartache and fear of losing her.
“How else am I to know you’re true? I already know that I would never leave, but what is stopping you?” she asks.
She watches the breath get stuck in his chest, she sees the hitch in his throat. She presses her lips ever so slightly, ever so softly, against the skin of his inner thigh, and finds the acquiescence in his eyes. He is hers, she thinks. He is hers as undoubtedly as the underworld is his home. Hers as undoubtedly as the Harvest is Demeter’s.
She takes two seeds from the pomegranate and passes one to him.
“You first,” she says.
She sees him put the seed between his teeth. What she does not see or notice, so consumed in victory as she is, is that Hades does not chew and he does not swallow. He carefully places the seed underneath his tongue, and smiles at her, warmly.
As for Calla, she will take the second seed and roll it once between her thumb and forefinger. She will place it between her lips and move it with her tongue to the crevice between her gum and cheek. She will smile, the prettiest little smile, and they will live together for eternity, blissfully ignorant of the other’s deceit.