I met her at the Farmers Market on a brisk day in April. She had flowers in her hair.
The wind struck through my jacket and into my bones. There wasn’t much to buy; it had been a cold winter and everything was late. No spinach, no asparagus, no apples. Nothing green or brightly colored. Potatoes and parsnips, mushrooms and onions, everything brown or white or dull yellow.
I took one more step, and walked out of black-and-white Kansas and into Technicolor Oz. Her hair was yellow as dandelions, her eyes were blue as a summer sky, and a dewy handful of green fiddleheads gleamed in her open palm.
She said her name was Sophie. No—she said, “You can call me Sophie.” I remember that now. I’ve never been good at flirting, but everything seemed easy with her. We walked to Central Park, where she found some early crocuses, and then we went back to my apartment and fried the fiddleheads in butter. They tasted like spring.
I hate to make us the cliché about lesbians bringing a U-Haul to the second date, but she did move in with me the same month we met. It didn’t seem strange. And when she told me she was really Persephone, that didn’t seem strange either. You meet a lot of quirky people in New York. And when you’re a folk singer busking at street fairs and coffeeshops—I know, I’m a cliché too—you meet a lot of the specific type of quirky that tells you they’re witches or elves or wolfkin. Sophie wasn’t even my first goddess.
“I hope you and Hades have an open relationship,” I said.
“He knows he doesn’t own me,” she replied.
Sophie never argued with me or demanded that I believe. She just told me what she said I needed to know, like that she was incarnated every spring and died at the end of summer.
I thought it was symbolic. I can’t go a week without some dragonkin or sorceress or Indigo Child informing me that the cells in the human body regenerate constantly, so every seven years, you’re a new person, reborn.
“What’s the Underworld like?” I asked her.
“I can’t describe it,” she said. “The myths are all metaphors. The river isn’t a river. The boatman isn’t a man. The pomegranate isn’t a fruit.”
“But what is it, then?”
“It’s a place without flowers. A place without birds. A place without sun or touch or song.” She shook her head, blowing out a frustrated breath. “No, it isn’t. When I say ‘place,’ you think of earth and sky, or walls and floor. It doesn’t have any of that, either.”
“Is it nothingness?” My skin crept despite myself. “Floating in a dark, empty, soundless void, like space without stars?”
“Yes,” she said. Then, “No. It’s like that. But it isn’t that. The void is a metaphor too.”
In a way, I wanted to believe. There was something magical about her, and not just because she was the woman I loved. But if I believed that she was Persephone, then I’d have to believe that her days were numbered. Six months. Six pomegranate seeds.
The garbage collectors went on strike in July, and shiny black sacks of rotting trash piled six feet high in the alleys. The days grew hotter and heavier, and even the nights brought no relief.
I’d never have imagined that she could leave without me waking. I lay awake watching her breathing, every rise and fall of her chest a fragile wonder. It was too hot to sleep, anyway. I couldn’t even when I tried.
But at the end of July, I woke up to another smothering day and found her gone. She left no note. She didn’t need to. I knew why.
“I don’t want you to watch me die,” she’d said.
“You’re not going to die,” I’d replied. “Anyway, I want you to stay with me, no matter what.”
Forever, I barely stopped myself from adding.
But she’d told me from the very beginning that we wouldn’t get forever. We wouldn’t even get a year.
For all the rest of that summer, I lay in bed atop sweat-sodden sheets, the humid air a weight upon my chest, and thought of her dying alone. With every day that passed, I believed it more and more. By September, I was sure of it.
And for all that long autumn and winter, I too was trapped in the Underworld. It was just like she said, more nothing than nothing. So empty that even emptiness didn’t describe it.
But one spark shone in the black-beyond-black. It was the promise she’d made me when she’d first told me we’d only have spring and summer. It was that we could have another spring and summer. It was her promise to come back.
“I won’t look the same,” she’d said in her light voice with the odd accent that wasn’t quite Irish, though it was like Irish. “And I might not remember your face. You’ll have to recognize me.”
“I’ll always recognize you,” I’d promised. I’d thought it was a metaphor. Love never dies. I will always know you. That sort of thing.
The heart is a muscle, firm and filled with blood. It can stop, but it can’t literally break. But it sure felt like mine had been smashed to bits. All I could hope was that Sophie’s promise to return wasn’t a metaphor for “every time you see a primrose, you will remember me.”
So on the first day of spring, I returned to the Farmer’s Market, looking for a woman with flowers in her hair.
I didn’t believe. I believed. I didn’t believe. I believed. I—
I found her.
Maybe she wasn't Sophie any more, but beneath changeable things like bodies and names, it was her. She was a goddess walking amongst us, wearing a scarlet raincoat and examining a bunch of early asparagus.
“The garbage collectors won the strike,” I said. “The city gave in the day you left. They got everything they’d asked for. If you stay with me this time, at least it won’t be so smelly.”
“With an offer like that, how could I refuse?” Her voice was lower, deeper, with an accent that wasn’t quite Brooklyn, but was like Brooklyn.
“You can’t.” I tried not to let my voice shake, but it did anyway. “I have you now. For a while.”
She took my hand. Longer fingers, bigger knuckles, darker skin, same grip. “I only have you for a while, too.”
Her tone made me raise my gaze from her hands to her eyes. They were brown this time, dark as winter pools. Reflected in those infinite depths, I saw myself as a mayfly, fanning my fragile wings atop her ancient stone.
“Come on.” I tugged at her hand. “The Central Park website says the snowdrops are just starting to bloom.”