She swept the red plastic broom across green linoleum squares. They each had a happy yellow daisy in the middle.
When the balls of dust had been pushed into the little red plastic dustpan, Eva filled her yellow bucket in the bathtub. It didn't fit so good in the sink.
She filled it good and hot with suds. Then she mopped the floor with a rag mop. It was made of cotton shreds from an old frayed dress that she'd torn up for the task.
When the floor sparkled, she pulled out the old vacuum. It was heavy and hard to move, but it was what she had and she liked the extension. She could push it back into the dusty spaces and clean all the cobwebs out.
She didn't want a speck of dirt showing when her Joe came home.
His bed was already made with clean fresh sheets. She'd used the fabric softener he liked. Her boy was coming home.
Most young men wouldn't want to come home to their mama's house when they came home from the sea. But her Joe did.
He'd bound up the little rickety stairs three steps at a time. Throw open the door and give her a hug. She'd breathe in and smell the salt in his hair.
Then she'd make him his favorite dinner of spaghetti with a little yellow mustard in the red sauce.
When he got home.
Now she waited. Apartment sparkling and fresh. Pot of water on the stove, ready to get boiling when her boy walked in the door.
She stood in her little living room. She didn't want to mess anything up. So she made herself a cup of tea and went out onto the narrow balcony.
She had a view of Mount Parnassus through a crack between the buildings. It was a sliver of green past the bricks and the cement. It was pretty, but she had her own green here in little pots—herbs and flowers—and vines hung down from the balcony above. She had a little purple plastic feeder with seeds for the sparrows. It was almost empty. She'd have to fill it again. She also had a little glass nectar feeder for the hummingbirds. Joe had bought it for her in a market far away.
She sat on her balcony and listened to the sounds of the City. Cars on their way home from work, honking their horns to say here I am. Sirens calling out that someone was hurt, but help was coming. A million voices all chattering the end of the day, yelling hello and goodbye.
She heard footsteps pounding up the stairs and her heart caught like a blue-green hummingbird, but the steps went on by. They went to someone else's door.
She swallowed some tea, going cool in her hands.
Waited for her boy to come home.
Then the sun set. Then the one or two stars that could push their way down past the City's lights came out. Then the phone rang, and she knew. Heavy steps that had been so light, knot in her throat as she picked up the phone and heard what the man on the other end had to say.
When they told her, she did not believe them.
Her heart squeezed tight, like a hand had reached in. A calloused hand that squeezed her heart like a stone. White acid flashed through her gut. The whole world pulsed white and then red. A roar of rising wind in her ears. Screaming clouds that tore her apart.
She would not fall.
She swayed in her own hurricane's blast.
That's how she knew it was true. Her Kore, her little baby, her sweet duckling had disappeared. Gone in an instant.
Demeter yelled at the Sirens, she didn't know what. Questions scraped and rattled around her empty belly—"Kore? Kore, where is Kore? My fragile Kore? My sweet?" But her throat was too tight to shape even that much sense. Purple sparks crackled around her. The sky above cracked with sudden thunder. But not lightning. That was her dear husband's.
When he was her husband. Before Hera stole him away. Much good he did her.
She swayed on the blows of sudden words. Unexpected, long feared. She held one wrist. Wrapped her fingers around the bone bracelet of her other daughter, her first daughter. She'd failed her too. Demeter swallowed the knot in her throat until it went into her belly. She focused on purple rage. It would keep her warm as all around needle-sharp rain fell from the sky.
She said, "Where is my daughter?"
One of the Sirens lay in the green, green grass. There was a white mark where Demeter had struck her. She did not remember striking her. The Siren whispered, "My Lady, she ran toward the river. I only looked away for a minute, and then she wasn't there." She pointed. "You can see where she ran."
Demeter could see. A trail of posies. Flowers always sprang up wherever her daughter stepped—she was so pretty and soft and mild. The only good thing she ever got from Zeus. Her beautiful sweet girl.
She looked at the Sirens, useless stupid lumps. She should have set all the birds in the sky to watch her daughter. They could have attacked the gods with their claws. She should have set wild wolves, but they always made her little Kore nervous. No, she'd used these pathetic useless nymphs, who mewled up at her with their frightened faces and eyes.
She pushed the knot in her stomach down as it rose into her throat and threatened to knock her down. She said, "Find my daughter."
A Siren stuttered, the mark on her face not fading. It would never fade. She said, "My lady, we do not know where to look." She looked down at herself, "On our own we will be too slow. Please my Lady, let us beg horses from your brother Poseidon, so we can ride."
White serpent fears slithered down Demeter's spine, but she pushed them down too. Unbidden memories of hooves and running and, no, she would not think on it. The only emotion she could afford was rage. Let the white in her heart be cold. Rain falling from the sky and scouring flesh. She said slowly, precisely, "I trust my brother least of all. No." And from some purple cold place Demeter found such a smile that the Sirens shrank back with little bleats of terror, and she said, "We will not beg horses from my brother. Instead I will give you what I should have done from the beginning." Sparks crackled from her fingers and the wind cracked the sky.
The Sirens shrieked and cried, but Demeter's heart must be ice, cold as the slashing hail that beat the earth. Lest she fail her daughter. Demeter buried thoughts of darkness and unheard screams. She made herself watch as flesh melted and the Sirens changed.
Their faces she left, for they would need to ask questions. Their eyes she transmuted into eagle's eyes, so that they could look far, find her sweet Kore. The wail of the wind crying out, "Where is Kore?" She gave them such far-seeing eyes, wide and unblinking, like owls, so they could see in the night. She melted them, reshaped them with gray wings for the breaking in her heart, and black feathers for the color the sky would now be. Demeter said, "Find Kore."
The Sirens rose into the sky on their new-made wings. They spiraled into the sky. Spread out in nine directions for nine sisters.
Demeter stood in her sacred grove and stared at her daughter's flower footprints, battered in the muddy pools.
Now that she was alone, as much as a goddess of Nature could ever be alone, she fell to her knees like a tree before the wind. All around her, trees were ripped from their roots and flew on angry wind hands until slammed into the earth. Her knees skidded on the frozen ground and she pushed the knot in her belly out.
Threw up her fear and pain and flowers on the ground. They froze as they fell.
Her feet ached from standing all day. Sometimes she thought she should get a job in a shop where she could talk to people, or a factory where there were regular breaks. But she'd had her job for almost twenty years now.
Got it when Joe was just a baby. When Ames left and she'd sat in their little apartment staring at a white pile of bills and the rent come due. Super rattling round the door.
Little Joe gurgling and how was she to pay for someone to care for him on top of their bills. And how could she leave him alone all the hours in the day.
Sat staring at her bills and the gone-over, ratted-up newspaper. Back before there were all these Internet cafés and job boards. Roll the Dice. Monsters. Yahoos. When it was a woman at a Formica table with a red pen and a newspaper scavenged from the garbage at the café down the street.
Then she found it. A nice quiet job that was far away from crowds. Where she could prop Joe up in a bassinet or sit him in a chair. Watch him out of the corner of her eye until he got old enough for school.
She vacuumed books at the City Library.
It seemed sad sometimes. All those books no one ever read. Someone put a lot of love into those pages. They'd spent hours and years of their lives. Now their children sat on gray-green metal shelves in tiny rooms with names like Mesopotamia or Section VIII.
So lonely and forgotten. Even with HEPA-filtered air conditioning and special anti-mold thisits and thatsits, their tops were covered in dust.
Every weekday, she came in. Put up her little yellow sign. Pulled out the special vacuum, with its special filters that she didn't use because they weren't really good enough for the books.
Instead, she'd tie a piece of cheesecloth over the long black bristles of the hose. Pull down a handful of books, run the vacuum along the top and sides, then put them back again to gather new dust. Sometimes, she'd look at the titles. Sometimes she'd open a pretty one made of leather and colorful paper. But mostly she vacuumed.
When Joe was a baby, she'd started in the basement with 000. As a toddler, he'd run her ragged through 200. Tossing books on the floor and chewing on edges. But it was good for a boy to eat a little dirt. But she worried someone would notice the little bite marks on the covers. By the time she made it to 500, he was old enough to stay home by himself, but still, sometimes after school he'd come and sit at one of the tables at the end of the row and do his homework. He was a good boy, her Joe. Sometimes, he'd pull something she'd vacuumed down and look through it. He was a smart boy, her Joe.
By the time she got to 600, Library'd decided it wanted the books listed in the shiny new computers downstairs with their glowing green screens and waiting cursors. Since she was pulling all the books down anyway, they gave her a brown computer with an acid green monitor, a little wand, a box, and a stack of stickers.
So that was her day. She'd pull down handfuls of books. She'd vacuum the top and the sides. She'd slap on stickers. Two-finger type in each book's number. The computer didn't want names, only numbers. She'd run the wand over the lines on each book's sticker until the light on the box beeped. Then she'd put the books back where'd they'd wait.
Now the chair at the end of the row was empty. Her Joe gone off to sea so he could look at all the things he'd read about when he'd wandered back to 300 or climbed into the high stacks to read ahead in 900.
She hadn't made it that far yet—800 was slow going. Books all sorts of sizes and hard to hold in her hand.
Today, it was Wednesday, Wodan's Day. So after work she stopped at the farmers' market on the way home. She walked past the mural of the All Father strapped to his tree with the hanging horses that looked like so much market meat, the ones Joe had always said looked cool. She walked past the shrine to Demeter that Joe said looked like her.
Eva couldn't see it. It didn't matter. Today she was alone. She touched the foot of the statue, because Demeter was a mother too.
She went by stalls full of fennel and almonds and honey and lampreys and bread and everything anyone could want. Maenads selling homemade wine. Fresh fish caught by Selkies, who wore their sealskins as thick full coats that they wouldn't take off, even on a hot summer day.
Today was cold and rainy. Eva wished she had a warm fur coat that'd slick the rain drops off like butter on a hot skillet. But she didn't. She had a coat Joe found for her at a thrift store. It was yellow with daisies on it and if the weatherproof on it wasn't so good, it didn't matter.
Daisies needed rain.
She bought food that Joe would like. Because maybe today would be the day that Joe came home. At the docks, they said there was nothing to worry about. Ships popped off the edge of the world all the time, only to pop up again someplace unexpected. Happened all the time. Generally everyone came back rich as Croesus and with stories to tell.
The ones that came back.
Plenty to worry about, with the ship long overdue from its run, and the creditors howling for blood, and newspapers, the kind you see in the market checkout line, showing pictures of sea monsters and shipwrecks and Davy Jones's locker.
Great big ship too. Joe had been so proud and happy to get himself a berth. He'd say, "Mama, it's one hundred and fifty cubits long and forty cubits wide, and they only take the best, one hundred and fifty of us to sail down the Sea of Reeds and into the world beyond.
Clear as a bell the day he left. Not a cloud in the sky. Not that she'd seen it. She'd been at work vacuuming books. She knew it would embarrass Joe to have his mama standing at the dock crying as he left.
So she kissed him goodbye in the morning. Told him to write and wear a sweater and left before she could cry on him. Blew her nose on cheesecloth instead and not very many books got logged and dusted at all.
Been raining for months now. Drizzling and pouring and squalling. Not that she could hear it in the library. But she heard it sure enough at home in her little narrow bed, listening to the sky falling down. Pulled her heavy wool army blanket up high.
Joe'd given it to her for her fortieth. Bought it for her at a surplus store. Then glued on daisies from the craft store down the road.
She pulled the blanket over her head, hot and musty, and curled onto her side. Let the water leak out of her eyes as outside the sky fell down.
She covered herself in a dark cloak. She hid her bright hair. She walked like darkness on the deep. She wandered where the winds blew her.
She could not stop. All around her the winds wailed her daughter's name.
She was not sweet Demeter. Not soft Demeter. Not Demeter, bringer of gifts. She was Demeter Erinys. In her hands, she held torches. Fire burned from her hands. Where she stepped the earth cracked. Spilled fire onto the land. Where she walked hail and snow fell.
She did not stop. She could not stop. She did not eat. She did not drink. She walked over the water, the raging waves slapped by her wind. She beat the water, beat on her brother's water. She let him feel her rage.
She beat the land. She cracked mountains with her steps. She leveled forests with her walking.
She wandered. A timeless darkness of wind and fire and rage.
She kept the rage up as long as she could. Let the world see her anger, but the fear like creeping serpents slid up her spine.
Found her when she came to the City at the edge of the world where the earth was covered in stone and hearts were stone too. The City where the past and the future met and bore this bastard child that oozed factory smoke from its shoreline sores.
She kept her cloak over her face. The people did not know her. She walked down the City's streets. The people, they turned away from her as she whispered to them, her voice shattered glass from her screams. She asked them, "Have you seen Kore?"
They edged away from her.
She asked, "Have you seen my daughter?"
They waited at street corners where the lights told them to stop and go and pretended not to hear her. When the lights said green, they crossed the street and never glanced at her at all.
It rained on her. It rained on them. They held their umbrellas high and rushed by her like she was invisible. But she was not, for all that the fires on her hands had burned low, she was not.
She was there. Standing there. Weeping burning tears in the freezing rain.
She swayed against a stone building. It did not yield to her. It was not like her home of trees in the sacred wood where she lived with her daughter. With Kore.
The cold serpents of fear slipped up her spine and into her mind. Stole her motion. Stole her heat. Brought her to her knees. She worried at the bone bracelet on her wrist. All that was left of her other daughter. Her first daughter. She'd failed her too, the day she was born.
The white serpents coiled in her mind. They flickered tongues of failure and not good enough, not hard enough, not strong enough, weak, useless, pathetic, feeble, dismal dreaming wretch. They slid through her flickering memories. They reminded her that she'd picked flowers once too. That she'd smiled at her brother sea as the waves lapped upon the shore. That she hadn't run fast enough, hard enough, strong enough. They hissed into her eyes and ears. They showed her sweet Kore in the dark, her voice ripped apart by screams and torn.
Demeter thought she might have screamed then. She would have torn down the stone buildings. Would have tossed them into the hateful relentless sea, if her screams hadn't given out with the wind. Fallen now into sour snow, red-brown and burning. Would have closed her eyes and let the serpents have her, eat her heart, if Hekate hadn't found her there.
Hekate of the crossroads. Demeter opened her eyes and saw her, dressed in power and decision. Hekate held soft light in her hands. She touched Demeter's face tenderly. Held water to her lips, like the sea-born daughter that Demeter had buried in the cold ground, never spoken her name. Gone like Kore was gone.
Demeter found herself sobbing dry heaving sobs as Hekate held her like a mother. Like Demeter's own mother never would. Not for her a mother's hand. Kronos had swallowed Demeter down like a stone.
Hekate held Demeter in her arms and rocked her back and forth. Sang a lullaby. The same song that Demeter sang to her little Kore when she was scared. When she was frightened. She frightened so easily. She was so soft.
The serpents tightened their coils. They showed her visions of Kore. No mother to hold her and keep her safe.
"Shh . . . " said Hekate. "Shhh. . . . " Smoothed back Demeter's tangled hair. Rocked her softly. She whispered, "I heard your daughter's cry, but I didn't see who it was. I came to find you. To tell you what I know." Then smiling, with soft green eyes, she reached into Demeter and pulled the serpents out and dropped them to the ground.
She said, "Here, let me help you." She put words to deeds and helped Demeter to her feet.
Eva kneaded the bread in her hands. The smell of the salty dough filled her nose and mouth. She pushed and she pulled.
Dough won't rise if you don't work it.
She didn't look at the yellow curtains sprigged with holly on the windows.
She didn't look at the cream-colored tiles with their honey-colored swirls. She'd always called them her honey bunches. She'd kept them wiped and clean and told Joe they were what kept her baby so sweet.
She didn't look at the yellowish cream-colored paint mottling the walls. She'd sponged it on herself. She'd done the careful ivy vines across the white cabinets. She'd mottled them with wildflower posies. She'd painted lots of artless daisies and shy violets and brassy sunflowers. Eva didn't like proud flowers. She liked her flowers wild and all around. Each leaf and petal carefully pounced into the wall with a stencil brush when she and Ames had moved in.
Not that he'd helped much. Made a few dabs and told her he was no good at this sort of thing. That her flowers were better. Got that look in his eye and soon enough they were making flowers in the tight bed in the curtained back room. Then later, less and less. Until he wasn't pouncing here at all anymore.
Her forever-and-a-day hubby was long gone now. Younger, prettier faces had beckoned, but the ivy and flowers remained.
The frozen-in-time rabbits peeked out from behind still vines and silent pansies under the bright fluorescent lights.
She'd called her baby, her Joe, her silly dilly rabbit when he was just a boy. Eyes wide as saucepans in his serious face. He'd run around the room to see where all she'd hidden them for him. The lower rabbits were a little worn from where tiny fingers had just had to keep on reaching to touch. The higher ones, too, for that matter.
He'd always insisted that the red robin in the corner was her. Even though she couldn't sing a note, he'd always blink at her and turn on the little transistor radio, and ask her to sing along with him. He always asked for silly songs for a bright sunny room. Then he'd run after the dust motes, caught them in his hands, calling out, "Watch me, mama, watch me."
Her silly dilly rabbit.
She didn't look at any of it. She kept her head down and pushed on the dough. Salt and flour. Tears hot on her cheeks, but she didn't wipe at them. Let them burn out of her glue-tacky eyes and down her hot cheeks to splash on the old wooden board and onto her honey bunches.
She pulled and pushed on the dough on the wooden board in the bright cheery kitchen and didn't even notice as the weak winter sun streamed its dusty motes on in.
Hekate brought her soup and water. Hekate glared at the man at the counter and told him that he should be glad that a goddess had come to his shop.
She brought what the crossroads always brought. Choices. Calmly spooned soup into Demeter and told her to stop running already and stand still and think.
Demeter ate her soup and thought. The sun was hidden now, but it hadn't been hidden when her Kore was taken. She said that and Hekate smiled.
Hekate put her in a shiny plastic box of a car. They drove cars here. Some people. Hekate did.
She took Demeter across the city. Made the stone-hearted men and women make way for her. Took her up to the temple of Helios. Then stood back. Crossroads don't do the work for you. They just make the way.
Demeter looked Helios over. Zeus' son. It was in his burning eyes, angry to be bothered, as he washed and waxed his chariot. As he sniffed at her smell, at the smell of her wanderings. It was there in the curl of his lip as he looked at the scratches in her flesh from where she had clawed herself. It was there in his jaw that would go where it would.
He was the sun, and he knew it.
But she was the earth, and his light would never shine again unless she willed it. She smiled such a smile as had him put aside his sponges and buckets. She said, "Helios! Show me respect, god to goddess. I'm here about my sweet young seedling, renowned for her beauty, I turn to you as one who ranges over all the earth and sea." Clenched her hands and let him see the ice of her heart, rage gone into dull, cold snow. "Have you seen Kore and who took her?"
Helios stared at her, like a man looks at a distasteful awkward thing. He shook the soap suds off his hands. He said, very carefully, as if she were some monstrous horror that must be placated with soft sweet words—like his father there too—"Daughter of Rhea with the beautiful hair, Queen Demeter! Of course I'll tell you, because I really respect you and I feel sorry for you, really, I do." He smiled with his lips, but the lie was in his eyes. He said, "While you've been grieving for your child, the one with the delicate ankles, I went and talked to dad about it, and cloud-gatherer Zeus himself takes responsibility."
Demeter stared at Helios. Stared at the sun, which they said would make your eyes go blind, but her eyes kept seeing. Her ears kept hearing.
He said, "I saw Hades grab Kore, while he was driving his chariot." Helios stopped and patted his own golden chariot. Demeter stared at him. She did not trust her words. Even that brother too then could not be trusted. If she'd known it then, while they grew in their father's stomach, she'd have killed all her brothers.
Helios took her silence for something else. He said, "Since there's nothing much any of us can do about it, what's done is done." He smiled like it meant something. Like her silence meant something else. He said, "I urge you, goddess. Stop your loud cries of lamentation. You should not have anger without bounds, all in vain. Lighten up." He dared to twinkle at her. "Let the sun shine. Hades is a pretty good as a son-in-law. He's got half the earth and all its riches.
Demeter nodded slowly. She looked at Hekate of the crossroads, but Hekate did not tell her what to do. She simply hugged her in the embrace of directions and waited.
Everything that lay upon the land was Demeter's, but what lay below, that belonged to her brother Hades. Just as what lay beneath the sea belonged to her other brother. Just as the empty, vapid sky belonged to her youngest brother, her once-husband, Zeus.
Demeter nodded. She said nothing. She made her slow way from the home of Helios. Away from the home of the gods.
The sky did not howl with wind. She was done with that. Now it was time to show the gods what still winter could bring.
She stood on the sidewalk in the rain holding a child's plastic umbrella covered in ducks. It always seemed cheery and she liked to watch people through the plastic as they walked down the sidewalk.
Today she stood dully at attention next to the bus stop sign. There was no shelter—just a metal post in the cement and a white metal sign with numbers on it.
The same people stood at this stop every day, but she didn't talk to them. Although, in the past, the man in the green cardigan always said hello, and she said hello, and she'd smiled looking down at the cracks in the cement. But not now.
Today she stared with eyes straight ahead. Watched beads of rain hit the clear plastic of her umbrella and roll down in a steady stream. The blue eyes on one of the ducks had worn off. She stared past it, her own eyes as empty.
Then her bus arrived. She closed her umbrella and spent a moment drenched in the rain as she stepped up onto the black plastic tread. She flashed her bus pass, but the bus driver hardly cared. She was a regular on his route. He was more interested in watching the teenagers that jostled and shoved their way on after her.
She went to the middle of the bus where there would be better luck getting seats. None there now, but she knew that in a few stops half the bus would get off for the connection to the 185.
She stood in the narrow center of the bus, holding onto a metal bar. Her feet ached from her day.
They reached the transfer point and people rushed off. She slid into the seat where she always sat.
She sat with her knees up against the hard blue plastic seat in front of her, her feet dangling down into space. It felt good to put her feet up after standing all day, and the bus driver would yell at her if she put her feet on another chair. As he should. It wouldn't be right.
Joe always thought it was funny to see her with her legs like that.
She sat in the hard plastic seat and stared out the window as the bus passed cars and buildings. Rain washed the grime and the graffiti from the windows. John loves Alcmene. Rodrigo is a troll. Squiggle, squiggle this.
Joe always loved to read the graffiti, even though she told him not to. He thought it was funny. Would make up stories about John and Alcmene. Rodrigo the troll under the Copper Bay Bridge. The secrets behind squiggle, squiggle.
She traced the squiggles with a finger. They didn't tell her anything. No matter how many times she ran her fingers along their lines.
A man's voice behind her said, "Um . . . hello."
She looked up. It was the man in the green cardigan. He said, "I think you missed your stop. Don't you normally get off at 5th?" He smiled at her.
She couldn't smile back. She wanted to cry because she'd missed her bus stop, because the walls of the bus felt like they were closing in. She didn't and they weren't. She pulled the cord and got off the bus. Opened her umbrella and walked down the hill toward her apartment.
At least it was downhill.
She walked slowly and carefully down the roads. Left Hekate at the crossroads of the City. Walked unknown among the people. She walked out from the City along the long curving peninsula that wrapped out and around like an upraised arm. She walked until she came around the far side and stared back at the City across the bay.
All around, people were walking.
They did not know her. They did not recognize her. That was good, because she was waiting, the still winter rain gentle on her face. She looked old.
She looked like an old, old woman, so worn out and wrinkled that no man could ever love her. A woman whose children had gone.
The serpents did not plague her now. She let them curl around her arms. Let them lick her face. Lick the bone bracelet of the daughter who'd gone into the earth. Both daughters had gone into the earth.
She sat by a well that had been sacred to her once and let them lick at her face. Twin serpents to remind her.
A girl said, "Excuse me."
Demeter looked up. Four girls stood smiling at her. They looked like goddesses, although in their eyes she saw that they didn't know how beautiful they were. She saw their names. She saw Kallithoê, who was the eldest and took everything very seriously. She saw Kallidikê, who wore Death Metal shirts and worried about stepping on ants. She saw Kleisidikê, who worried about the spots on her chin and the weight of her thighs and everything in between. She saw lovely little Dêmô, who was as tender as a spring vine climbing up a wall.
She looked and she saw the soft sweet green rush of their hearts.
Death Metal Kallidikê smiled at her. She said, "Are you okay?"
Lovely little Dêmô hopped on one foot and she said, "How did you get out here? Do you have a home." She hopped on the other foot. "You should come to the palace! We've got rooms full of women way older than you."
"Shhh . . . " said Death Metal Kallidikê, but there was no anger in her shh, only sisterly exasperation. Demeter wondered what it must be like to have a sister to shush, who shushed like that. She and Hera had never been that close. Demeter caressed her serpents as Death Metal Kallidikê said, "Our parents are always ready to help people find shelter and food,
"And work," piped lovely little Dêmô. "But you didn't say. How did you get here?"
Serious Kallithoê ruffled lovely little Dêmô's hair.
Demeter looked at the girls, clustered together so beautiful even on this cold winter's day. She wanted to give them a winter's gift. She'd been a gift giver once. She said, "My name is Doso. I'm from Crete, but I was abducted by pirates."
Lovely little Dêmô said, "Really!" and hopped forward.
Demeter nodded slowly. Let the serpents settle in a pool in her lap. She said, "They traveled all over the seas, until they landed in the harbor of Thorikos. There, the women of the town boarded the boat and they beat up the pirates with rolling pins."
Lovely little Dêmô laughed, "Really!"
Demeter nodded. "After they freed me, I set out over the mainland, until I came here. I do not know where here is, but . . . I beg you, if you know the name of a family that has children to be looked after, I have experience with sickly children and I want to work honestly."
Worried Kleisidikê was wondering if they should do a background check on the old woman with the unlikely story, but lovely little Dêmô hopped on one foot and Death Metal Kallidikê said, "There isn't a single family in this town that would turn you away, looking as you do." Straightened her shoulders and said very firmly, glancing at worried Kleisidikê, "But you should come to our palace. We have a little baby brother who isn't well and if you help our mother with him, she will reward you."
"Really, really, really, well," said lovely little Dêmô. She waved her hands in the air.
"Then it is settled," said Demeter, and the girls filled their jars with sweet well water that was sacred to her still. They set out, looking magnificent, although they did not know it. She followed them to the house of their parents.
She saw their mother, Metaneira, sitting with her son in her lap, weak and small, tender seedling born in this still winter, poor baby. Demeter stood in the door, and although she was cloaked and veiled, for a moment, the light that she hid crept out and filled the room.
Metaneira stood up. She wanted to give Demeter her chair, but Demeter could not. It was too beautiful.
She sat down on a stool and would have been quiet in her sorrow.
But lovely little Dêmô jumped around the room like a cricket. She had a rolling pin in her hand and she was threatening pirates with it. Demeter smiled. She did not know from where, but a laugh hopped up her throat.
She asked Metaneira for some water.
Metaneira gave it. Metaneira said, "We humans endure the gifts the gods give us, even when we are grieving over what has to be. The yoke has been placed on our neck. But now that you have come here, there will be as many things that they give to you as they give to me. My daughters have said that you have experience with sickly children." Metaneira brushed the blanket that held her child. "Can you help with my son? He was born to this world of winter, and I want only that he reach a happy age."
Demeter nodded. She said, "I know an antidote more powerful than any other." She took the child to her fragrant bosom, in her immortal hands and through her veil, she smiled at Metaneira.
The cold serpents curled around her legs as a lick of warmth crept through the room.
Eva didn't go to church much. Or temple. Or synagogue. Or all the other words for place to pray and ask for things.
Not that she didn't need things, but she didn't like to ask. Seemed pushy. Like the gods didn't have enough to do. And generally, it was better to stay out of their way.
Now she went to them all. Every god of the sea that she could think of.
She sat in the pews at the Greek White-Bearded Poseidon's temple for hours. Hands folded up and eyes squeezed shut. Thinking, hoping praying wishing dreaming. Please, please, please.
She went to the Egyptian Serpent-Eyed Amathaunta's temple for hours more. Amathaunta was a mother. She might, somewhere in her cold serpent heart, understand.
Went trembling to the Norse Aegir's temple, him always so surly and cruel. Offered to pour him a glass of ale every day for a year and a day. Every day for ten years. Every day for the rest of her life, if he'd roll her son home in the arms of his nieces and daughters, the undines. If he'd send Joe on home.
Then just in case, please, just in case, she gave two coins in Charon's box. To pay for her son's ride to the next world if he'd gone that way.
She lived in the palace of Metaneira. Each night, she anointed the baby, Dêmophôn, with ambrosia. She breathed sweet breath on him, soft as a zephyr, as outside the still winter stretched on.
At night, she blanketed him in the holy fire from her hands as if he were a smoldering log. She hung her bracelet of bone over his crib and let it spin for him to watch. His young eyes blinked and learned to see.
He grew like a daemon. Like a tree in spring. Sap flowing through his veins.
His parents and his sisters didn't know what she was doing, but they marveled at him.
But worried Kleisidikê fussed about this stranger. There were stories about witches who fatted children for their supper. She worried at her mother, until Metaneira growled at her and put up a device with which to see and watch. She saw Demeter put Dêmophôn in the fire.
Demeter could hear her scream from across the palace. Metaneira ran into the room. She cried out, "Dêmophôn!"
Demeter heard her. She carefully put Dêmophôn on the ground and let the fire out. She sighed, "I swear by the Styx"—and how it made her grimace to swear by the river that kept her from her daughter, but swear she did. "Immortal and ageless for all days would I have made your little boy."
Metaneira snatched up Dêmophôn and cradled him.
Demeter sighed. "Because he has sat in my lap, he will have unwilting honor in my eyes. He cannot avoid death or the fates, but for my care, he will meet them strongly." She pushed back her robe and let Metaneira see her face. Let her see her light and know her true name.
Demeter had hidden it so long, she'd almost forgotten it. She said, "Please build me a temple. I need to wait, and I would like to wait here awhile."
She smiled at Metaneira and went to the well that had been sacred to her once and was sacred to her still. She watched the people rush from the City. They knew her for a goddess now. They built her a temple. They prayed for warm weather. They prayed for sunny skies. They prayed for bountiful harvests. They prayed for an end to winter.
Demeter smiled at them and went inside. She went into the temple and waited with garlands in her hair.
Outside, seeds did not sprout. Farmers ploughed fields with oxen and tractors in vain. Hunger swept the land. The gods in their city, they were hungry too. There was no sacrificial meat for offerings. There was no grain for burning.
Even Zeus noticed. He sent Iris, beautiful color-swept Iris, to summon Demeter. He had her say, "Come here this instant."
Demeter smiled, and she obeyed Zeus, the son of Kronos, in her fashion. She ran the space between sky and earth like a girl. She smiled a terrible smile and went to her temple in the City. The little temple that sat in the midst of crumbling stained buildings that once were mighty. She called out, "Zeus, the one who has unwilting knowledge summons you."
Zeus sent other gods. Blessed beautiful gods. One by one they came with beautiful gifts. She stared at them as they made their offerings. Cheap plastic and toys. She said, "I will never to go to fragrant Olympus and I will never send up the harvest of the earth until I see my daughter."
She said this to messengers. She said this to the gods sent by Zeus.
She felt it the moment that Zeus gave in. Not that he met with her, but she felt it when he sent Hermes down into the earth. She heard his swift steps. She heard the vehicle's roar as Hermes sped away.
Demeter went out of her temple. She went to her sacred grove. She ran like a maenad through the mountains. She could hear the car returning. She could feel its passenger speeding toward her.
She came to her grove and saw her. She reached out and held her little girl in her arms. She reached out and breathed in spring, and all around, the earth sighed.
She was vacuuming. Though why she worked in her dreams she didn't know, but was like that a lot. All day in front of green shelves full of books. All night vacuuming books while turtles crawled under her ladder. Didn't they know that was bad luck? So she was always having to climb down from her ladder and move them somewhere safe.
A sandbox on the sea, and the waves were crashing. Behind her the shelves stood and pretended they didn't mind the sea spray, not a bit.
But the turtles just kept crawling back to the ladder and she had to keep getting down. She was never going to get to 900. Never find out where Joe had gone.
She wished she could skip ahead, but she couldn't. She had to follow one set of books on the other. If she skipped some books they might think she was never coming. They might fling themselves to the floor and bend their spines.
She couldn't be responsible for that. So she moved the turtles and dusted the books every night, the sea at her back.
Sometimes she'd hear a noise, but when she turned, she didn't see no one. Just the sea. Just the turtles. She'd go back to vacuuming.
Then she felt a hand on her shoulder and a voice that said, "Don't turn around, Mama."
She stared at the books, frightened. It was Joe's voice. She said, "Why not?"
"Because I'm not really here, and when you see that, you'll forget again," said the voice. The hand felt heavy on her shoulder. Warm. She could feel Joe's class ring through the thin cotton of her dress. She wanted so bad to turn around. But she didn't. Because then she'd lose what little she had.
She whispered, "You dead, Joe?"
"'Fraid so, Mama." Both hands on her shoulders now. He said, "The Eye of Horus went down in a sudden storm. But I wanted you to know that I'm good where I am. I hear you crying to yourself every night and I just wanted you know that." The hands squeezed her shoulders. "I had a whole speech practiced, Mama, but I can't remember it now."
Which was her Joe all over.
Then he picked her up, thumbs under her arms, and turned around with her. Bare feet in the sand and the sea in front of her. The sand felt warm and soft.
She sat down on the beach. She could feel the warmth of the sun through her thin dress. The soft sand on her ankles as she sat with her legs stretched out. She sat on the beach with Joe's hand on her shoulder, and the little green turtles crawled in random patterns on the sand.
In the morning, she woke up before her alarm even peeped.
She looked at her room with its handmade curtains. She pushed aside the heavy wool army blanket that Joe'd bought her at the surplus store and glued on daisies from the craft store down the road. It was getting too warm to use.
She walked barefoot into her kitchen with its pretty yellow curtains.
She cut herself a slice of bread with her bread knife in long leisurely strokes. She dipped it in olive oil with garlic salt.
It tasted good.
She walked barefoot onto her balcony and listened to the City waking up in the growing morning light.
She decided that today she would look for a Job in a shop or a factory, and leave the books to some other poor mother. To be chewed and dusted by someone else.
Went outside to the little park down the way. Fed ducks pieces of stale bitter bread. They ate it up in greedy quacks. She braided daisies into a chain that she put around her neck. Leaned back on the grass and breathed in. Breathed out.