He filled their bedchamber with narcissus each time Persephone returned, because he knew she found them beautiful. The flowers didn’t last long in the underworld, but their aroma lingered. To Hades, the flowers smelled no sweeter than her skin.
His brother Poseidon roared with laughter when Hades told him. Sprawled on his throne of coral, idly fondling the partially-exposed breasts of the Nereid curled in his lap, Poseidon poked at Hades with his trident which, Hades sometimes thought, his brother considered a subsidiary phallus. “Bumbler! You kidnapped the wench with narcissus! They don’t like to remember the first time, even Zeus knows that.”
Hades did know, but what else was he to choose? There were no flowers in his realm, so he had no idea what other flowers she might like. He had to have something to let her know her return was a special occasion, and she scorned his gold and jewels, no matter how intricate the workmanship.
Poseidon’s solution was to offer him a Nereid to “take the edge off.” Useless libertine. Despite her smiling flash of tiny, pearly teeth and her hand that traveled unerringly below his waist, Hades knew the slender creature in her transparent drapery was afraid of him. He couldn’t bear other women’s cringes when he sat too near, their flinches from his hands as if they sensed the cold of the grave. He wanted Persephone, if he could only wait for her.
The waiting was the most difficult part.
He wanted her to at least smile upon him, not the sad and terrible smile she gave to beseeching mortals, but the incalescent smile of the young maiden she had been.
Hence the narcissus.
He might not deserve her smiles, but he wanted them all the same.
His sister Demeter always made Hades wish to be elsewhere. Every time he looked at her matronly form, he was reminded that she had once rejected him, going to Zeus’ bed instead, and later to that of Poseidon. To her credit, she hadn’t struck at Hades with these encounters, but of course Zeus did. At length. He could never resist describing his conquests, stroking his glorious beard the while, as if it were Demeter’s fertile flesh. Their union had yielded Persephone.
From Poseidon, there was his usual braggadocio about his stallion rutting. Not only Demeter but woman upon woman—sometimes several at a time—succumbed to Poseidon’s carefree laughter and unbridled hands.
Hades was paler and slighter than his brothers, his hair and eyes darker, as if reflecting the darkness of the world below. His nose was long, his lips finely carved, his eyes heavily-lidded as if with sleep or eternal contempt; most could not tell which. He did not think himself ugly. Unlike his brothers, his hands were uncalloused, slender and smooth, his chiton always immaculate, his sandals never worn or frayed. He went cleanshaven for the most part, feeling a beard was too profligate, and cropped his thick hair short, though it made futile attempts to escape onto his forehead. True, his body held too much tension for beauty; he knew that; but he was not repugnant.
He could recognize himself in the statues mortals made to represent him, few as those were, and he received worship from mortals, even if that worship consisted only of begging his mercy while banging their heads against the dirt. And he was rich. All the stones and metals below ground belonged to him. He did not understand why women not only refused him but avoided him; not only avoided him but actively ran away.
Of course, had Demeter accepted him in the first place, Persephone might be his own daughter rather than Zeus’, and thus could not have been his wife. He supposed he had got the better end of the bargain. He did not know if Persephone agreed.
Persephone should have blamed Zeus for her predicament, not Hades. Zeus fathered her, and Zeus gave her away. Hades only took what he needed.
It began with a pomegranate. She would not linger with him voluntarily, so legality was Hades’ only recourse. She had eaten; she had obviously intended to stay. Hades presented the facts thus. Zeus agreed with him, Hades suspected, because he was tired of listening to Demeter’s endless plaints about their daughter. If not as romantic as Hades had hoped, at least he had a place from which to begin.
(He never forgot her lips suckling the fruit—scarlet pulp smearing her chin and her defiant eyes when he discovered her.)
Hades did his best for their wedding, belated though it was, and though he could not let Persephone depart his realm to spend the traditional proaulia period with her mother, he made certain all of the proper rites and sacrifices were made. He studded the palace’s ceilings with diamonds and set them alight with the touch of his hand. He carpeted the floor in plush moss and gave it the colors of his finest jewels, arranged into figures forming the war with the Titans. To accompany the sacrificial feast, he arranged for earthly foods, all the ones he hoped Persephone would like best: figs bursting with sweet nectar, cheese pale and smooth as her skin, honeyed sesame seeds, a rainbow of olives. Then he hardened his nerves and invited his sister Demeter. Luckily, old Hecate took Demeter in charge as soon as she arrived, forestalling a number of possibly ugly arguments.
Begun with song, the wedding continued with processions and the giving of gifts, purifying baths and the sacrifice of Persephone’s childhood garments. She presented a lock of her hair to Artemis and helped distribute fresh-baked bread to the guests. Hades endured it all, gazing upon his bride and no other, his trembling fingers tucked in the folds of his chiton. She did not appear afraid. Instead, she seemed to Hades to be more haughty than Hera, taking the guests’ homage as her due.
Persephone spent the entire ceremony staring at her mother through her veil. Being a god, Hades could see straight through to her face. Persephone seemed to be angry at Demeter; he could not conceive why.
She would be happy once they were alone again. Surely she would be.
Perhaps it began before the pomegranate, with the narcissus.
True, he did entice her into his realm with the flower’s wondrous scent. He’d been surprised and relieved by how easily she’d followed him.
If not Hades, then some other would make Persephone his wife, possibly even one who was not divine. She deserved better. She deserved a god. The King of the Dead was no less than her due.
On their wedding night he brought her to a bedchamber whose walls were streaked with wide veins of gold and silver, catching the lamplight like her eyes. He loved the cool smoothness of stone, but not as much as warm yielding flesh, so much more rare in his realm. He laid her among pillows and plush fleeces, permitting only the faintest plucking of a cithara to tremble in the air. Kneeling before her, he withdrew the pins and flowers from her hair, spreading her topaz tresses between his fingers. All the while, his eyes did not move from her face.
She would not look at him. When he brushed her cheek, gently as a moth’s wing, she turned her face away.
He had given her golden fibulae to pin her peplos, and a girdle of calfskin embossed in gold and decorated with freshwater pearls. He carefully unclasped the fibula at her left shoulder. He heard the shaft’s drag through embroidered wool as he withdrew it; his fingers closed over the sharp pin, convulsively, before he put it aside. His hands did not tremble as he unhooked the other and folded her garment down over her girdle.
Her breasts held a rosy glow, the nipples dark like the secret flesh of figs. They felt as round and weighty as quinces in his hands, no less perfumed but more yielding. She smelled like fresh bread and very slightly of lanolin, and the relentless odor of narcissus. Her eyes, dark and huge, flicked down to his hands, and back to his face, but she looked away again as soon as she saw him watching.
He had every right to touch her. Hades cupped her breasts and dragged his thumbs over her nipples, feeling the hot rush as they engorged, watching her pulse flutter at the side of her throat. Her skin felt so soft, softer than talc slipping and dissolving under the fingers.
Her nipple tightened in his mouth. He suckled it reverently as his fingers, seemingly unbidden, removed her girdle and pushed aside the folds of her peplos. A faint shiver passed over her skin.
Hades leaned down and kissed her. She knew now to open to him, though she gave him nothing else. Her mouth tasted humid and fluttery, like the wings of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, and slick, too, like the creatures who lived at the edges of pools underground. He inhaled Persephone’s breath and softly tested the plumpness of her lips with his teeth, hoping she would respond in kind.
At last he had to withdraw so he would not fall upon her with his hunger, too great for even ambrosia to satiate. He forced himself to smile and stroke Persephone’s soft cheek with the back of his hand. Her lips brushed his fingers as she turned away, but not purposefully.
Frustrated, Hades blew out his breath. “Look at me,” he said. “I will not harm you, Persephone.”
Then she looked at him, but her dark eyes blazed with anger, not passion.
He flinched. “I only want you to look at me,” Hades said, softly.
“I hate you,” she said, and looked away, her eyes wide open, fixed on the wall like someone dead.
Well, she would have pleasure anyway. Their wedding night would be perfect. Gritting his teeth, Hades unfastened his finery. His fingers stumbled until, all at once, his bare flesh met hers, and it was as if he embodied phlogiston, ready to burst into flame.
He could smell her musk, almost like the mushrooms mortals ate in worship. He grasped her hips in his hands and lifted her sex to his mouth, for a few moments allowing himself to devour her melliferous petals with his tongue, sucking her tiny stamen between his lips and pressing it between his shrouded teeth. She cried out, a tiny, broken sound, like a soul trapped in Tartarus, and he would have recoiled had her fingers not sunk deeply into his hair. Then he understood, and the next cry from her tore his heart with hope.
Persephone sighed and fell limp. Hades lowered her slight form gently to the cushions and caressed her breast and her face. His hand curled softly around her cheek as he kissed her.
“I hate you,” she said.
Persephone spurned topaz and emerald, amethyst and tourmaline. After that rejection, Hades traveled above on foot to bring her armloads of flowers; she threw them in his face.
The first time Persephone left him to go back to her mother, Hades did not accompany her. He had not the slightest desire to see Demeter. The crone Hecate escorted Persephone instead. Hades pretended he was not watching to see if his wife felt sadness at leaving him, or joy.
It would not have been appropriate to send Persephone alone, and to escort her himself might have seemed too possessive. Hecate was a good compromise. She retained privileges in the underworld from some distant time before his own rule had begun; he knew vaguely that she had something to do with mortal childbirth as well, but that was not his concern. Persephone could bear no children after her congress with the King of the Dead.
Hades thought, since gifts proved useless, he could woo Persephone with poetry. That experience did not bear repetition.
For a time, there was comradeship between Hades and his wife. Persephone had known Theseus and Pirithous were coming to abduct her. Hades shared it with her, and revealed his plan for keeping her safe. She laughed with him at the simple cleverness of it. She took to watching the progress of the Heroes through their realm each afternoon, curled against his arm on a couch of cedar spread with wool carpets. For her pleasure, Hades made a wall into a vast window that followed the invaders like Thanatos himself, implacable. Together, they watched the aging Heroes distract Cerberus with honeyed cakes. Persephone cooed over the creature as if he were a lapdog. Hades had to laugh when she invented her own conversations for the two Heroes:
“Theseus! Oh! I’ve fallen into this pit! If you pull me out, I will lick your cock for you!”
“Nay! My mighty pillar of manhood shall not be licked by you, but by Hades himself only!”
“Then I, too, shall have only Hades for my bride, because to follow you is my only wish!”
Hades sometimes wished some other misguided fool would attempt to steal his wife, just so they could experience such happy times again, two beings with a single goal.
Persephone never came to him for lovemaking, yet complained when he left her alone.
Her hands on his body were never gentle, but he accepted her roughness as better than no touch at all.
Persephone flaunted the pleasure she found with Adonis, or so it seemed. Hades gritted his teeth and bore it. He would not look. He would not look. He could hear their laughter from her sewing chamber as Persephone stroked Adonis and whispered to him-Hades imagined all sorts of things, probably worse than reality, he told himself; surely Aphrodite, Adonis’ chief protector, would not allow Persephone such liberties with her paramour.
All his time underground, however, was fully occupied. Persephone led Adonis about the palace like a pet goat, holding him by the arm or the wrist or the hand, and once by his flowing hair.
She never touched Hades if she could avoid it.
She kissed Adonis in greeting and in parting, and not just a peck on the lips; she kissed his mouth in a leisurely fashion, then trailed her mouth across his cheek and finished with a soft brush of his ear, every time. She made sure Hades saw, and he watched, unblinking. Inwardly, he writhed. That should have been him. He’d meant to be in Adonis’ place: the object of her adoration and the source of her pleasure. Except he was not beautiful, not like Adonis, and his smiles chilled even the bravest mortal souls, and his touch somehow repelled innocence.
Adonis had no choice about his visits. For that reason, Hades could not strike him down, much as he desired to do so. He was not Zeus, wielding his power for petty revenges and momentary seductions. Instead, Hades took pleasure in surveying his domain from his chariot; counting his riches; admiring his favorite ornament, the Lapith prince Pirithous sitting in the chair of forgetfulness, his eyes wide and empty. Then he would picture Adonis in that chair, or in the empty one that had captured Theseus: just punishment for men who had tried to take away his wife and lover.
Inevitably, he would return to their bedchamber after his miserly evening meal of olives and bread and lamb, and pretend he was not waiting for her.
Persephone returned to Hades’ bed when Adonis left her at last. After his enforced celibacy, abstinence was impossible for Hades. He could easily have fallen on her, taking pleasure while allowing her none, but his pride would not allow that. He could not leave her unsatisfied and have her doubt his prowess.
Persephone’s body cooperated savagely in their joining while her words eviscerated. “Adonis,” she said, gasping with each thrust, “makes me—forget-words. With—one touch—he—”
But you are mine, not his, Hades thought. Afterwards, as they lay exhausted, he said, “He doesn’t love you.”
“I know that.” She might have been speaking of household accounts. “He cannot love me.” She paused. “I cannot love you.”
“It doesn’t matter. I am your husband. He is a paramour.”
“He tastes like honey and flowers. His touch is the sun and the wind.”
“He’s for the world above. You are for the world below now, as I am. You are its queen. Be content with what you have here.”
“I will leave you. Very soon now, husband.”
“When you leave our realm, Adonis still will not be yours. He loves Aphrodite. You took him when you could for your own pleasure, but you cannot keep him.”
“As you took me.”
“To be my Queen.”
“I care nothing for being a Queen.”
Hades knew she lied but, wiser than he had once been, he said nothing.
More than once Hades thought being without Persephone would immolate him.
“Led by your balls,” Poseidon scoffed, but Hades noted that his brother’s casual seductions never ended well, if not for him then for someone.
No, Hades knew a faithful marriage was the most prudent course for a ruler, and the most satisfying. And he wanted Persephone. Oh, how he wanted her.
After Adonis was killed, Hades thought to give Persephone a bouquet of the crimson anemones that grew up from his blood, in remembrance of her lover. Then she would also remember their marriage was eternal.
He thought better of it before she arrived, and resolved simply to make her forget that her body had known another.
Hades created windows to the world above, to watch his wife as she went about her daily routine of staining her mouth with grapes and weaving bright woolens and chasing pet piglets in merry abandon and dancing in the sunlight with her maids until they collapsed, laughing. He could not watch for long before his body would quicken, and he had to seek release. The nymph Minthe was enough aroused by Hades’ fine quadriga and plume-tailed black horses that she consented to lie with him, provided the horses could watch. Nymphs had strange ways, but Hades was not one to quibble. Poised on the brink of entering Minthe’s soft channel, he was brought up short by tender breath on his neck.
“I think not, husband,” Persephone murmured in his ear. “Consider what I have given up for you.” Curling one hand around his waist, she flicked the fingers of the other into the nymph’s startled face.
Crushed mint, he found, made a wonderfully crisp-smelling bed for lovemaking. Persephone bit at his lips and scraped her nails down his back even as her thighs urged him over her; gasps jerked from her mouth as her body skidded in the herbs and damp earth. She threw her head back and cooed in her throat like a dove.
But her eyes were closed.
As Hades wandered the palace corridors, he heard Hecate’s cackling mingled with Persephone’s sweet laughter. Once, when Hades went to pay his annual respect to the old bastard Cronus, he came upon the two wandering the fields of Elysium, arm in arm, heads bent close in colloquy. The friendship signified, he thought, Persephone’s acceptance of her place in their realm.
He wondered if they ever discussed him. He decided it was better not to know what advice Hecate might be dispensing.
Having taken Persephone from her mother’s bosom, Hades felt it was only right that she take Hecate as a weird and mysterious substitute.
As his queen, Persephone had the right to contradict Hades’ judgement, so he relented and allowed Orpheus to depart the realm of death with Eurydice. However, the singer could not resist looking back, thus sending Eurydice’s shade irrevocably back to death.
Later, Persephone watched in pity and grief as Orpheus, numb to his fate, allowed himself to be ripped limb from limb. “I did this,” she said. “I thought a love like theirs, at least, should endure. But I should have left well enough alone.”
Hades curled his fingers over her shoulders. “None can escape his destiny,” he reminded her. “This is none of your fault.”
Getting no reaction, he said, “They’ll be together again. When Orpheus rejoins his lover, they will be together eternally in Elysium.”
“Hecate said to me—”
“You would not understand.”
“I am the queen here, am I not? I am the Queen of the Dead. Mortals look to me when they plead for favors.”
“You are, and that is true,” Hades said, hands clasped behind his back to restrain himself from embracing her, this day of her return. She looked more regal than he had ever seen her, his pale bride with her long topaz hair held back with a circlet of woven wheatstraw; the smell of sunwarmed stone clung to her skin. She met his gaze without flinching, brows arched, a small smile hinting at the corner of her rosy lips.
She had decorated their bedchamber with colorful hangings showing scenes of sowing and harvest, flowering plants and fruit-bearing trees, but there was a new tripod in the corner as well, surmounted by silver castings of snakes. A coil of rope rested atop the coverlet.
Hades took a step towards her. She held out one palm and said, “Stop.”
One eyebrow lifting, Hades obeyed. She seemed less like Persephone and more like someone else. Not Demeter. Demeter bore her responsibilities as Persephone did, but without that sense of leashed power; Artemis had the power, but not the calm control; Athena had wisdom but also violence. And Persephone was far from virgin Hestia, always above and uninvolved.
The knowledge in her eyes, as if she knew his every word before he could utter it-she reminded him of Hecate, as if the old woman had become her true mother.
Yet Persephone was also herself. More like to him than to any of the other Olympians, but beyond that, herself, a power in her own right. “What do you want of me, my queen?” he asked and, impossibly, she smiled at him.
The rope bound his wrists and ankles to the bed posts like Ixion to his flaming wheel. Persephone stood at his feet wearing a milky white peplos, her bare arms flickering with shades of rose and lemon in the lamplight, her hair loosed to fall down her back, a few strands clinging to her breasts. She surveyed his naked body. Whether she was pleased with his appearance or his bindings, Hades did not know.
“Do you want me to touch you?” she asked, her tone cool but her eyes hot. Of course he did, but could not decide what answer she expected. He had been wrong so many times.
Persephone tugged one of the ropes, as if arranging his legs more suitably for display. Hades said, “I always want you to touch me.”
“And if I choose not to?”
For a moment he could not speak. “Don’t do that,” he said, finally.
Persephone walked up and down, gazing at him the while, considering her answer. Hades sighed in relief as her finger touched his chest and drew a line downward, halting just above the navel with a sharp twist of her nail that caught his breath once again. Her nail traced his collarbone; then her fingers slipped into his mouth. “I will let you have this,” she said.
Hades nipped her fingertip with frustrated eroticism. He scraped the pad of her finger with his teeth; her lips parted, but she didn’t speak. He sucked the length of it.
She withdrew her hand and lifted it to her mouth; with a quiver in his belly he watched her nip the same finger as he had, her tongue curling around her own knuckle; she reached and touched her slippery fingertip to his left nipple. A shock of cold spread across his upper body when she rubbed gently; her hard pinch sent a jolt straight to his phallus.
Persephone’s hand soothed his skin. She said, “I liked that.” She smiled, slowly.
Hades wished his arms were free. Even one would do. His imagination taunted him with how her skin would brush against the inside of his arm, how her plump breasts would flatten against his chest. The tactile illusion was so distinct, he thought for a moment that he had managed to wrest his arm free of its restraint. He could have done so. But he would not.
Persephone bent and swiftly bit the top of his thigh, startling a jerk from his ankles. She smiled and bit again, and again lower down, teeth and tongue the source of a fiery blush on his skin. She paused and glanced up at him, eyes half-closed, wild and sultry. He gave up attempting to watch and let his head fall back, gasping for breath. She bit him softly above the knee and he sucked in air. More than anything, he wanted her to take him into her body, every fragment of him curling within her skin like a child inside the womb.
He had taken her. Now she took back.
“Close your eyes,” Persephone said.
Without sight, he felt as if the very air around him bent towards her, like a worshipper to an idol. Please, he wanted to say. Please. He remembered what his life had been like before her, before the assurance of her touch, no matter if she touched him in hatred.
The word wrenched from his chest. “Please.”
She did not want jewels. She did not want gold. She—”I would-I would set you free,” he said in desperation. “Do you want to be free of me, Persephone?”
The bed creaked with her weight. Her knees tightened on his hips as she took the tip of his phallus inside her. His breath escaped him on a moan.
“No,” she said. “I am your queen.”