Priyanka (I/II)

She fled him as a fish, as a duck, and as a goose, but she was caught in the arms and wings of Zeus. So the goddess Nemesis bore four children. And these had children, in their turn, and they more children of their own; and for all the years the world has known, this line—

Priyanka’s line—

is yet to die.

It is September 23, 1968.

It is the equinox: the moment when the spring and the summer give way to winter and the fall.

On this day, Priyanka is 16 years old. She is in a basement. It’s concrete and bare, with a couple of mattresses on the floor. It’s dark, and it has a door. She is tossing and turning and trying, without much success, to sleep.

The door opens. Priyanka does not sit up. She does not turn. But she opens one eye, stealthily. She looks. She wants, despite herself, to know what will happen.

A woman walks in. She closes the door. She is crying, fell and terrible tears. She is dressed after the latest Parisian fashion, her arms bare against the cold. She walks past Priyanka. She touches the basement wall. It opens. There is a stair.

She turns. She looks snifflingly at Priyanka. She says, “Come with me.”

Priyanka rises. Priyanka follows after the woman as she descends the stair. It is a long walk. It is a long stair.

After twenty minutes, Priyanka asks, quietly, “Why are you crying?”

“I do not mind the Underworld,” the woman says. “In all honesty, I do not. Yet it is always hard to leave the world of spring.”

“Oh.”

They walk a while longer. A man passes them on the stairs. He is very tall. He is very green. “Ho ho ho,” he says.

“The Titans lost a war against the gods,” the woman says. “So six months a year, yonder green Titan in Tartarus dwells. But Hades likes vegetables, so in summer the Titan may visit the Earth to record advertisements for vegetable products.”

“Ho ho ho,” the man concurs. He seems saddened, and perhaps somewhat dissatisfied with his lot in life. He descends deeper, and is gone.

“My name is Persephone,” the woman says. “I’m kidnapping you. But I don’t feel very guilty about this, because you were already a prisoner.”

“Are we going to Hell?”

“Sort of,” the woman agrees.

Priyanka thinks about this. “Then it’s not a favor,” she says, tentatively. “Hell is a bad place.”

The woman shrugs.

“We could go somewhere else!”

The woman laughs. “What, back up?”

Priyanka hesitates. “. . . No.” She shakes her head firmly.

“Then down,” the woman says. “It is a characteristic of stairways that they offer limited directions of travel.”

Priyanka looks sour. But she follows the woman downwards.

Something furry and warm shoulders past Priyanka. She draws back in terror as she sees a tiger, padding down the stairs on great soundless feet. She flattens herself against the wall.

“That’s Anthony,” the woman says. “He’s harmless.”

“He has fangs.”

“A long time ago,” Persephone says, “Hades brought him down these stairs. In the bowels of Tartarus, he fed the tiger a certain quantity of frosted cereal. ‘It’s great!’ the tiger exclaimed. But it didn’t seem so great once Anthony found out he could only live in the surface world six months of the year.”

“Oh.”

Persephone looks down. “My lord is cruel,” she says.

“And always after my lucky charms,” comments another passersby, trudging down the stairs.

“That one’s short,” Priyanka says, after a moment. “And green.”

“There was a nymph for him, too,” Persephone says. “She held up her arms before Hades, and cried, ‘This leprechaun and his cereal must be woo’d, not taken!’ But she is not so often remembered as my Cyane.”

“I’m sorry,” Priyanka calls down after the leprechaun.

“Come on,” Persephone says. “Let’s keep going.”

They walk for a while.

“Why are you kidnapping me?” Priyanka asks.

A line of people walks down the stairs. There are thousands of them. Persephone murmurs to Priyanka, “Move to the left.”

Priyanka moves to the left.

“You are almost empty,” Persephone says. “Soon you will be a vessel for the creation of gods. Most likely small ones at first—bees and the like. But eventually, gods of some substance. It will encourage the monster. He will drain you dry.”

“Oh.”

Persephone nods to the men as they pass. “Those are the Whigs,” she says. “They would like to be a major American political party. But they are only allowed to live on the surface world for six months of the year, and are at all other times forgotten; so they have a certain difficulty in the Presidential elections.”

“1972!” shouts a Whig. He adds their slogan: “We’ll figure out something!”

“I thought . . .” Priyanka hesitates. “I thought the six-month thing was special to your case.”

“Another failure of two-party America’s educational system!” a Whig concludes. He presses a button on Priyanka. “Vote Whig!”

Then the last of the men are gone.

“Have you ever been in love?” Persephone asks.

Priyanka shakes her head, mutely. There’s a silence. Then she makes an uncomfortable little motion with her head.

“Emotional entanglement doesn’t count,” the woman says. Priyanka looks at her blankly. After a moment, the woman says, “With the monster. It doesn’t count.”

Priyanka nods, then shakes her head. “No,” she says.

“There are many different kinds of love,” the woman says. “You can love with your heart, and that’s a fire. You can love with your spleen, and it’s . . . grounding, centering. You can love with your kidneys, and that’s the fast kind of love, the slippery, quick, and fading love. I’m afraid I’m in the liver kind of love. It grows from sorrow and pain.”

“I’m sorry,” Priyanka says. She looks down. “I can’t help,” she says. “I tried to help Jacob and he died.”

“It’s all right,” the woman says.

“How many . . . how many things?” Priyanka asks. “How many things does Hades call, on equinox day?”

“Much is lost to the world,” Persephone says. “Summer to winter, much is lost. And winter to summer, much the same. You do not see them rising to their freedom because they take the other stair.”

“Why?”

The stair ends. There is a dog. It has three heads. It growls at them.

“Um,” Priyanka says.

“It’s okay,” Persephone says. “We simply wait for someone to distract him with.”

An Italian chef wanders down the stairs. He has a puffed white chef hat.

“Hector Boiardi,” Persephone says.

Again?” the chef asks. “It’s my bad timing!”

“He founded Chef Boyardee,” Persephone says. “Hades loves it so.”

Persephone circles around behind the chef. He looks wary. He braces himself. But it is not enough.

PUSH! The chef falls into the dog’s clutches.

Cerberus begins to gnaw on the chef. The three-headed dog looks blissful and very distracted.

“Thank goodness!” Persephone says, and escorts Priyanka past.

After a long time, Priyanka asks, “But didn’t that hurt him?”

“Oh,” Persephone says. She hesitates. “I guess. You kind of get used to it. After a while.”

She leads Priyanka to a place of deep water. “Stay,” she says. “Good djinn.”

Then Persephone is gone.

After a while, Priyanka sits down. The water comes up to her neck. She lets the emptiness fill her.

There’s a man standing nearby. His name is Tantalus. Fruit is dangling from the trees all around him, but he is terribly thin. He is up to his waist in water. But he is parched.

A few hours pass. “Would you be so kind,” Tantalus says, “as to fetch me a fruit?”

Priyanka is quiet. She looks down.

“Please,” he says.

“It’s hard to move,” she says.

“I know,” he says. “It’s like there’s steel honey pouring down the inside of your arms. It’s like there’s a little brass monkey sitting on the back of your neck holding your head down. It’s like there’s a filter of blown glass between you and the world. But I’ve eaten twice this century and not at all for millennia before that. Please help me.”

So she rises, and she takes a fruit, and she hands it to him. It squirms in his hands, trying to avoid his lips, but it fails.

“You’re Tantalus,” she says. Because suddenly she knows.

“Yes.”

Still?

He shrugs. “Occasionally, I tap my soles together and say, ‘There’s no state like life, there’s no state like life, there’s no state like life.’ It has not been effective. Perhaps it requires a certain phase of the moon, or a certain stance, or a lucky draw on the lottery of life; I continue to hope. In the meantime, yes. The water still sinks when I reach for it. The fruit still rises.”

“I’m sorry.”

“There is no such thing as eternal torture,” Tantalus says. “One becomes used to what one has. The pains secede, one by one, into emptiness. In the end, it’s little pleasures like this fruit that hurt the most. Yet I am a fool, and so I ask for one, whenever someone visits.”

Priyanka sits back down. She stirs the water with one hand. It is cold.

“And now,” Tantalus says, “I remember that I am hungry.” He sighs at the fruit. “Might I have a mouthful of water?” he asks.

“I’m breaking,” she says.

He hesitates, then sighs. “I know.”

She looks up. “What can I do?”

“You can’t win,” he says. He kneels down to fill his hands with water. The water level sinks and drains into the ground, until his hands scrabble in dust. He makes a face. “So you choose what you want to hang on to.”

“Oh.”

“There are seasons,” he says. “Seasons of birth, and growth, and change, and death. In the metal season, we gather the grain that is fallen.”

He rises. A handful of dust falls from his hand. “This is a season of metal,” he says.

Priyanka is crying. The water rises. For a while, he does not speak.

“You can lift this punishment from me,” he says.

That makes her blink. She looks up.

“It’s why she brought you here.”

Priyanka’s vision is full of white. “No,” she says. “I can’t.”

“Please,” he says.

He is pinning her with his eyes. They are ablaze.

There’s a cutting, tugging feeling inside her. It’s rhythmic, like the beating of swan’s wings. It is that quality that would make her a god.

“I can’t,” she says. “You don’t understand. I’d die. I’d come apart. I’m—there’s salt—”

The temptation is burning her. She feels herself coming apart. There is light, and there is darkness, and there is silence.

Tantalus looks away.

She holds herself together.

Tantalus does not speak.

Only just, but she holds herself together, and remaining, in the water and the cold.

After a time, Persephone comes for Priyanka, and leads her to a stair. “Go back,” Persephone says. Her face is cold.

So Priyanka climbs.

There is a white-haired old man beside her. He smells of fried chicken. He spends the whole journey mumbling incoherently about the horrors of the war. When she reaches her basement again, he is gone.

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  1. Pingback: I want to tell you about something that happened in my AP Lit class in high school. « Some Open Space

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