ouls swim by as I make my way to my husband. I can see why many people would fear or at least dread coming to the underworld. In its simplest form, it is nothing but a cavern with various tunnels that bring the dead to their rightful resting place. Stalagmites burst their spiked heads up from the cave floor, offering a precarious path for the river of souls as the rocks spurt out of the water causing chaos. But my boatman knows the way, so I lean against the velvet cushioned seat and watch the dead go by.
When the boat gently taps against a flat stone landing, I wait for it to steady before rising. The boatman bows as I disembark. My sandaled feet crush against the grey granite. Wisps of fog clear a path as I glide forward. Despite the perpetual chill of the underworld, I feel his heat long before I see him. His voice floats on the cool air currents and nestles in folds of my curly brown hair before spiraling into my ears. He needs me today. He always does.
“—so honored you could make it ladies,” he says.
He hides in one of the offshoots of the river, though this one is dry of any water. It is the plateau upon which our thrones reside. We rule from this room. I enter the large domed opening and get the strangest sensation that I am entering a mouth and getting swallowed whole. Heat ripples in the waves towards me both from the simmering torches about the room as well as from his actual presence. The air becomes stuffy and just as hard to breathe in as the cold. His back is towards me, so I slide up behind him and rub my hand over his back. My hand burns through his cotton robe. He is like touching the sun. I feel the slightest tremble go down his spine. My cool touch singeing his fire.
“Finally,” Hades says, turning to me.
He takes my hands, bringing them to his lips. His kiss sends scorch marks across my skin. The heat leaves red tattoo welts on my hands, but its warmth is quite tantalizing. Indeed, his power only fuels my own. His amber eyes look like they have been set ablaze. Molten lava appears to brew in the depths of his irises. They are just as enchanting as the day we met in the meadow. My mother will never admit how handsome he really is. She would then have to acknowledge that I willingly left her for I was not taken. She spread that lie far and wide because she didn’t want me to become queen of the underworld. My mother could never fathom her precious, pure daughter wanting power. According to her, it is not in the nature of women to be ambitious. And yet here I am. Queen, indeed.
“Forgive my tardiness, ladies,” I say to the three women standing before us.
What a sight they make. One is young and beautiful as a freshly blooming sunflower with long golden hair to match her bubbliness. The second one is middle-aged and has black hair. She is cautious, though her expression is neutral. The woman still shines with beauty despite her older age. And the last, an old hag, too wizen and temperamental for anyone’s good. Her white-grey hair comes out like curled snakes from her scaly head. The Fates are a triangle of the passage of time that mirrors the lives they create, grow, and eventually kill. Though I hate to admit it, they control everything. Even the underworld. Even my power.
“We were just discussing your fates,” the old crone whizzes.
“I would expect nothing less,” I reply.
The youngest giggles, the middle-aged woman smirk, but the old woman doesn’t even crack a smile. Tough crowd. I take my seat next to Hades. Our thrones are an equal match. Both made out of cold black marble with large white veins cutting through it. The path of the white marble veins is uncannily similar to the river of souls just beyond these stone walls. They are pulled along by the might of the river while still managing to make their presence known in the watery depth.
“And what, pray tell, is in our future?” I ask.
The Fates glance at each other. Their quiet deliberation sets my nerves alight. Nervous energy tingles through my body. I am a spark that only needs an ounce more of fuel to make me the fiery queen I am known to be. I tap my fingers tirelessly on the arms of my throne to smother my blistering temper. Hades covers my left hand with his right to steady me. Though it feels as if my hand is resting under a smoldering log, its burn soothes my tension. It is almost as if I absorb Hades’ heat. The warmth of it burns my skin, yet journeys beneath its layers and feeds my blood with passion, with life. Eventually, the middle-aged one steps forward.
“You will return to the world above, Persephone,” she says.
“Impossible,” I retort.
“It is unwise to question the Fates,” the old woman chides.
I huff. My temper and annoyance flare like my nostrils. It sends heated flames licking up the back of my spine until it curls around my neck and crawls up my cheeks. To most, my rosy face would make them believe I am embarrassed. But I am anything but that. I am a crackling ember.
“What could possibly make me leave here?” I snap. “I am queen. No one can possibly dethrone me.”
“It has nothing to do with dethroning you,” the youngest says. Her light, honest voice tries to calm my temper. “But the world needs you.”
“Your absence has greatly upset your mother. She has taken away the fruitfulness of the land. But you can fix it. You are life, Persephone,” the youngest continues. “Even you cannot thrive with the dead eternally.”
“I will not—”
But the old woman cuts in before my anger can best her. “You will do as you are told, child,” she says. Her words are cool enough to counter my rage. They send pinpricks of ice stabbing into my chest. We are both stubborn but, in the end, only one of us will get our way and unfortunately, I know who it will be.
“But,” the middle-aged advances again, “you will return to the underworld after your long stay above.”
“Long stay? I wouldn’t doddle more than a day up there.”
“You will return to the world or else we will deny you our offering,” the old crone says before breaking out into a hacking fit. Spit flies into the air as do clumps of her white-grey hair.
I wrinkle my nose. Taking a deep breath, I glance at Hades. His hand has clamped down so hard on mine that it’s like I’m locked in a burning iron chain. I can barely flex my fingers. The circulation is slowly cutting off. I feel numbness crawl into each finger. He is worried. Like I said, he needs me. He cannot live without me.
“And how can you ensure my wife will return?” He asks.
“Fret not,” the middle-aged one says. “All she has to do is simply eat a pomegranate.”
Bile immediately surges in my stomach. The acidity singes my throat. It is all I can do to stop myself from vomiting. That is the one fruit I simply detest above all others. “You couldn’t force that damn thing down my throat,” I hiss.
“You will eat it should you wish to return,” the hag says. A gaunt smile spreads across her face. It is cruel and reveals piles of chipped and yellow teeth. Not a reassuring gesture. “I’m sure your throne will miss you,” she adds.
The jab hangs in the air around all of us. It has a life all its own. It pulsates with frenzied energy in the cavern. It fuels the fire that erupts in my stomach replacing the vileness of vomit. A viper wishes to be released from my core, but I cage it and contain my poisonous tongue. It is a test, pure and simple. Do I love my power more than people? That is the question I am forced to answer. Without a word, I extend my hand towards the Fates never once breaking eye contact with the crone. The youngest approaches dancing on tiptoe and places the dreaded fruit in my free hand. Hades squeezes my caged hand while his molten lava eyes freeze over.
“I will return,” I promise him.
“Yes,” he nods, “because you are a queen in your own right.”
He brings my hand to his lips once more. The scorching warmth flames my blood and body into action. I take a large bite from the fruit so no one can dispute it. I chew it deliberately slow so the old woman can see me swallow. Now my fate is sealed.