It was cold again but the kingdom of Hades was warm with hospitality. The land was desolate but the world beneath it budded with anticipation. The gates to Hell were propped open, the dogs sleeping, the river stopped up and cute little mosaic rocks plopped in the mud of the Styx so Persephone would have a place to lay her bare, sun-kissed soles without tainting them. From the Eylsian fields there was louder-than-usual lyre and the ambrosia flowed freely, sticky on the lips and fingers of all the honored heroes and the people of legend. Lamps full of fireflies hung from scythes and staffs and led the way to the palace.
Hades the person was less thawed than Hades the place, at this point. He kept looking at his hourglass and biting grey flesh off his chapped lips. They bled purpled and didn’t ever get better. He couldn’t stop picking anyway. She seemed to come later and later each year.
When she came, she was grotesquely tan, with ringlets turned blonde from the sun and beads in her hair. She’d even paid someone at a mall kiosk to weave a feather into her locks, a garish pink feather that didn’t look naturally or come across as even remotely culturally sensitive. She was wearing a bathing suit top for a bra and there were blisters on her once pristine and formerly alabaster feet.
"You’re late," Hades said.
"Sorry hon," said Persephone, and she dropped her bags beside the door and padded across the new carpet in her sooty, bare, brown-skinned feet, her sunglasses falling off the back of her head and her breasts bouncing in unbidden figure-8’s. She went to kiss him, but Hades gave her a cheek instead, and she smelled like sunflowers and mango juice and tequila.
"Have you been smoking again?" He asked.
Her head shook. “Honey no, just a bit of weed, that’s all,” and she rubbed the back of his skull. She’d been toiling the earth with her mother, Demeter, and her skin was rougher than it had been when she left. “You got a haircut!” She observed.
Hades’ hand went up to his crown involuntarily and he said, “Oh, yeah, that was a while ago. It’s growing out.”
"I like it," she cooed.
He rose and pulled his robes close to his chest. “Sephie, you’re even later this time than last year. It’s getting out of hand.”
"But it’s a Leap Year-"
The king of the underworld threw his arms back and the earth below them started to quake. Souls caught deep in the bowels of Hades let out a unified, guttural cry that broke stalagmites off the walls. The cerberus puppies cowered in their doggie beds and whimpered.
"Come on," he said. "This is enough. I’m sorry Seph, but this will have to cut into next Summer. You’ll just have to stay here later this year. That’s just simple fairness, you know?"
Persephone snorted and scratched one of the cerberus’ jowly, dark cheeks. “I know, I know.”
Hades stood for a time polishing the side of the giant hourglass that flanked his throne. Then a tsunami commenced in the earth above and the underworld shifted with the weight of a thousand fresh corpses flooding into it. The desk phone rang until Hades shot a hand at it and commanded silence.
"Look, I have to go," he said.
He stepped out of the cavern with two fingers pinching into his left temple. His nails, gnarled and green as cacti, dug into his papery flesh and blood seeped out like oil, smearing across his cheek and the side of his forehead, but he wouldn’t notice the mess until he went to brush his teeth before bed that night. He almost tripped over Persephone’s shopping bags on his way out.
"Hey," Persephone called. "Are you, like, pissed? Hey— it’s not like I was late on purpose, you know?"
"I know. Whatever, I’ll see you at dinner." Hades had arranged for her favorite meal, squash and rosemary turkey with wild rice and fig tarts. Hemlock mojitoes. "Will you please put your shit away, please?"
"Okay." She had begun lotioning her dark arms and calves.
"Just this once, please, don’t leave your shit out for the next month. It drives me crazy."
And he left.
He’d been a smooth operator. When he appeared in the field, so many centuries ago, Persephone had been rendered speechless. Never in her whole life on Earth had she seen something so grey, so darkly blue like the sky but without any stars. No beast or man had a voice so deep and embittered. It had been captivating.
And Persephone had been no spring chicken. Or at least, she hadn’t seen herself as one. She was sixteen, her lips dyed with berries, her hair gathered up into locks and set in place with an array of twigs and burrs. Her mother hopped from flower to flower, treetop to treetop, singing and calling forth blossoms and directing beams of sunlight into the leaves, watering the grasses till they turned lush, petting the rabbits and sighing musically.
Persephone slept during the day in the shade, bit the heads off field mice and flirted with the humans who were learning to make iron from ore. She thought her mother’s naked, hippy-dippy earth-goddess deal was lame. It was an embarrassment and she wanted no part of it. Plants and wild animals were dull. She saw the humans gathered around their fires at night and envied their conversation. Their thoughtless, productive destruction of the woods and the creatures. Their weapons and proclivity towards war and death.
So when Hades materialized before her, dark, sad, lonely, dripping with disdain for the world, it was refreshing in its dankness. He didn’t have to kidnap her. He saw her pale flesh and her chronic sneer and knew exactly the pitch to make:
"Hey kid. Want to blow out of this shitstand?"
He took her in a vortex to the bottom of the world and laid her on a bed of dried leaves and fed her meat, Malort, and cyanide. She delighted in the sting it all gave her as it flowed down her immortal throat. She pulled him onto the bed and stripped as nude as her mother and took him with teeth and nails out, screaming, laughing, calling him an asshole.
The fun lasted a long time. But after two or three years of stabbing hot coals into the eyes of the wicked and riding down the river Styx blasted out of her mind, Persephone looked across the table and over the Scrabble board, stared into her beloved’s face and thought, “This is it?”
Soon after her mother located her and the Heavens executed their grand, obnoxious battle to win her back. At the gates of hell she had to admit she’d been fully, totally down for the ride. She and Hades shared the throne. She had a helmet for his motorcycle and was close to getting her license. Her skin had turned absolutely lavender in the dark.
They were caught momentarily in a tug-of-war, the Gods of the earth holding fast to one arm, and the king of the underworld clutching and rubbing at the other. And Persephone stared into his ink-dark eyes, which seemed to be perpetually dilated at the sight of her, and she couldn’t throw it all away. He was hot. He was fun; he was so much like her. Her mother was lame and the world above was understimulating, calm, gorgeous.
But she missed the sun. She missed fresh fruit from the vine. More than anything, she missed lurking in the bushes by the watering holes and watching the humans bathing. All the people in Hades were grey and the skin sloughed off their bones. It was cloying up there but she did have a slight sweet tooth. Everything in moderation.
And she and Hades fought! The sex got dull after the 734th day straight of doing the same thing. There was no longing. All everyone ever did was sit and smoke and bitch about the world above. Persephone’s ass felt flat and numb from all the sitting. Hades didn’t have an ass to trouble him. She wanted to swim, but Hades (having no body fat— and no body) sank like a rock. She wanted to tan, but his flesh was mummified.
She struck the perfect bargain. Half the year above, glorifying the ground and sky with her mother, naked as a jaybird, bronze as a sculpture, empty-headed as a wild fawn bounding over the hills. Half a year cloaked in the cool, sophisticated darkness, snarking with the deceased and sipping bitter brews and conspiring to torture, her brain quick with judgment of the freshly-accumulated souls.
It served everyone well. By the time Demeter got sick of her daughter’s sourpuss attitude and her pretentious literary tastes, the girl was gone. By the time Hades began to find her insipid, her bags were packed for the surface. She got to enjoy the misery of missing and complaining about both.
Hades slipped under the sheets quietly, his nonexistent breath held.
"Mmph, Honey?" Persephone mumbled. She slid over to his side where the bed was cool.
"Oh hey babydoll," he whispered. His palm found her hair, yellow and dried like hay from the summer sun and the salt water. He fingered the beads dumbly. "Sorry I woke you up,"
"Mmm huh-uh," she mumbled.
Her body had begun its cooling. It was now comfortable for him to touch. She smelled more like dust and fresh snow, the sweetness on her disappearing. Soon she’d lighten and her face would turn flat, and then down. He loved her in her early-fall mirth, still tan but fading, slightly cheery and energetic but increasingly dour. It was like falling in love with her all over again, each time.
"I’m sorry I was being a dick," he said flatly.
"Oh, no. I gotcha. I’ll stay later this year if you want me to," she offered. Her breath (her breath! Oxygen, carbon dioxide, pushed by a pulse!) was hot on his neck. His skin prickled and tingled. "Let it be cold in May, what do I care? Let’s send those fuckers a snowstorm..,"
Hades laid back and watched her shadowy form creep up and lurk over him. Persephone’s golden head sank down his chest, then his belly, tickling him with warm kisses and catlike licks. He laughed a little. Decades back, the humans had replaced Persephone’s myth with the story of a rodent who could foretell the seasons. All Hades would have to do is send the beast a nightmare on the right day, scare it deep into its hole and he and Persephone would have license to hide away for six extra weeks.
Demeter would be livid, but there was just no pleasing your mother-in-law. She needed a boyfriend, or a hobby. She was getting more fanatical about the environment every year. She sent worse and worse storms down on the humans; she sent more and more humans to their deaths as punishment for the shifting seasons, the changing ways of life.
Hades burst the thought like a bubble. He gazed back into the darkness of their den. Persephone was warm and wet against him, soft, intoxicatingly alive. She had so much from the above world to flee from, into his arms, anew, desperate. When once she was familiar, now she was fresh. When once she was too much like him, now she was altered and reset. Where once they had boredom, routine, and companionate love, there was now excitement, conflict, agape.
A long time ago, he had wanted her all to himself, forever, constant. Now he got to have her forever new. He looked at the six pomegranate seeds scattered on their bedside table, gasped as she took him in her mouth, and smiled as wide as the king of the underworld could smile.
Persephone swallowed the bitterness eagerly. Everything in moderation.