"And so the dead shall live again, and there shall be no eternal winter."
Agathon caught Bion's eye and grinned at him. He loved his grandfather with a straightforward, childish love, and even last month he had looked forward to lessons – the warmth of the fire, a honey cake to share, Chariton explaining the world, putting everything in its place: the cold and the dark and the limits placed on both, the will of the gods that made a place for human life, the return of summer; but now it was spring, with new green shoots everywhere, and the sunlight sparkling on the river. How much better to go fishing, or swimming, or up on the hillside to play at wrestling. They'd been cooped inside too long, trapped inside for the long months of winter, and now all he wanted to do was burst out of the house and run, delighting in the light and warmth and the fresh vitality of youth.
Well, he couldn't burst out of the house without attracting attention, and being hauled back to his lessons, or put to work on the farm if he didn't want to study, but maybe he could sneak, if he was very quiet and crafty, and if Bion helped create a distraction. And Bion was with him in this, as in all things, covertly tossing a bit of stale honey cake (last of the winter store) so that the little house-dog ran after it, knocking over their mother's wool, and the two of them could slip away towards the door while their mother shouted at the dog, and Chariton caught up the wool before it could be dragged too far along the ground, picking up dirt. And then they were out of the house, and out of sight, running helter skelter up the hill above the river, laughing until they were too out of breath to do more than gasp, then flinging themselves down on the sun-warmed earth to roll around, play-fighting like puppies, the smell of new grass and crushed herbs heady around them and the air full of birdsong.
Later, they caught a fine trout, and took it home for dinner, so that their mother forgave them, barely scolding them at all, and a smile in her eyes the whole time. Indeed, everyone was smiling now that spring had returned: even Chariton interceded for the miscreants, for all that it was his lessons they'd run out on, saying they were young and that it was the time for them to taste life. Time enough for duty and responsibility when they were older. Nor did duty and responsibility seem harsh things, coming from his mouth: not the way they'd sounded when their father Georgios spoke of them the year the harvest almost failed, or when he caught someone wasting food as the winter lengthened, or failing to collect enough firewood. No, to Chariton all things were good in their way, even hunger and cold, for he was serene in his knowledge they would turn again to joy and plenty, just as the buried seed rose back to new life.
Well, it was not surprising, for he had taken part in the Mysteries, and knew the way of things, knew how to look to the Earth their mother for reassurance and hope, how to read the hidden signs, recognising that a man was like a seed that returned to life, that life was like a flame which, extinguished in one place, sprang up anew in another. He knew how to look beyond the rotting carrion that seemed to be the final end of every animal, beyond the silence where a loved voice once spoke. After dinner, Agathon thought, he would go and sit with Chariton again: now he had had his day playing in the sun, and was pleasantly tired, it would be nice to hear his grandfather talk again about the sure bounty of the Earth, the eternity of life and light.
The drums were already beating, far in the distance, and the wail of the pipes, growing slowly closer, coming from the shrine in the country (set among the most fertile fields), all the way into the heart of the city, winding past every farm along the way, the crowd steadily swelling as one by one the farming families joined in, parents and grandparents and children together. There was always music and celebration for a marriage, everyone coming together to sing and share food and good wishes for the future, but this was not just any marriage, this was the marriage of the goddess herself, come down to join her people: this was the lengthening day and the warmth of the sun, this was the promise of a good harvest, this was all that was good and sweet and necessary. Agathon and Bion repeated the words of the prayer, of the marriage hymn, and next to them their mother and their father and grandfather also, one generation giving way to the next, welcoming the yearly return of their goddess, the yearly renewal of her link to the land.
And afterwards there would be the Spring festival itself, with its cakes and its toys for the children, and everyone happy and laughing, the cares of the winter forgotten.
He was a powerful man, Agathon's father, and he swung his axe tirelessly, precisely, with the habit and skill of many years; from habit too he whistled as he worked, sometimes a tune, sometimes imitating birdsong. (Only Agathon's mother had been able to distinguish between the imitation and reality, but she had done so unerringly: she would, she used to say, know her husband anywhere, in any guise.) Just now a little bird, not yet fully grown, one of the spring fledglings, had fluttered down almost on top of Agathon and stared around in puzzlement, turning its head first one way then the other, trying to work out where its fellow bird might be. And his father laid down his axe and whistled again and again, enticing the bird closer: the sun glinted on its feathers, turning what had seemed drab to gold and green. Georgios had a way of smiling, sudden and complete, so that age and hardness alike vanished from his face and his eyes came alive with happiness and curiosity; at those times, rare though they were, you could see he was indeed his father's son; almost believe that he, too, had seen the Mysteries and been blessed by them. It comforted Agathon to see his father could still smile like that, that he could still find beauty in the world. It was as his grandfather said: whatever suffering one went through, whatever loss, there was still hope buried somewhere, and nothing was ever truly lost. Somewhere, in some form, his mother awaited them, whether among the happy souls of Elysium, or as a spirit watching over them from the family altar, or reborn in some other shape. The details didn't matter, only the promise that life went on after all.
Truly the gods were kind: the antics of a little bird, the pretty flowers in spring, the heavy weight of fruit on the tree … a thousand graces filling the world, a thousand guarantees of the gods' good will, of their benevolence and generosity, not to be forgotten even in the depths of winter. (And wasn't winter a time for story-telling, for warm fires and stored honey, for family gathered together and resting from toil? All things had their grace, if you knew where to look.)
Come the next Spring festival, she danced with the other unmarried girls, swaying and stamping and giving life to the music. After the maidens came the married women, carrying the emblems of their work, the spindle, the distaff, smiling at their husbands in the watching crowd. One day that might be him, watching his wife go by, sharing a look. Perhaps she would be a graceful woman, not as tall as the others, but smiling just for him...
Later there was the feast, the animals that had been sacrificed during the ceremony roasted and apportioned a piece to each celebrant, and sweetened wine to drink; the rules were relaxed then, and you could sometimes talk even to a girl you weren't related to (more than talk, at times, but that was older boys, mostly, and Agathon had no thought beyond holding hands and whispered confidences).
She was as sweet as he had thought, nestled trustingly against his side, her face a little flushed from the wine and her dark eyes glowing in the firelight, but she had no thought beyond a good marriage to a nice man, children and a little land of their own: when he tried to talk to her about the god who came down to take the sacrifice, about the moment the knife descended and he'd felt the presence of the divine sweeping in to take its due and to give its blessing in return, so that all things would go well, she hadn't understood. To her, the festival was a propitious time, certainly, a time customarily suited for new beginnings and happily ever afters, but no more than that. Not the moment when the immortal god bent down to take sustenance from mortal man; not the moment man might know the immortal spark of fire in his own soul. He was glad, afterwards, that they'd done no more than talk, that there was no need for a marriage to be arranged.
Bion teased him a little about that, too, and he had to agree he deserved it. What more was there to want than a nice girl, pretty, affectionate and a good worker? He couldn't have said what was lacking, but he remembered how his mother and father used to smile at each other, or sit in companionable silence in the evenings; surely in a marriage there should be two people of one mind, one understanding of the world? He wanted a wife who would know him anywhere, know him for what he really was.
That first Autumn festival, when he took part not as a child, watching from the edges, but as a participant, embracing the goddess's husband (whom he had known all his life, gone fishing with at times, or played with at ball); offering up a prayer that the goddess would find a new husband next spring equally to her liking; helping bury the lots that would be dug up at the end of winter and used to select her new groom – that first festival the presence of the divine seemed so close he was almost consumed by it: a shining splendour that touched everything, burned in his memory the colour of the sunset, the warmth of his old friend's embrace (stripped already half bare, skin still tanned gold from the summer sun), the scent of the earth dug up for the burial, the steady beat of the drums.
He'd never seen the lots close up before: they were little clay things, made in the shape of seeds, all the natural colour of the earth, save one, the holy one, dyed grenadine with the juice from uncounted autumns. And now he was a part of its history: he too had watched the priest bless the single, perfect pomegranate, and slice it open with a gleaming knife. He too had taken the fruit and shaken out some of its seeds, the pomegranate passed from hand to hand among all the men and its shining seeds collected, until at last the rind, almost bare of seeds, reached the king of Summer, the goddess's chosen husband, and he picked off and ate the last of them, knelt at the feet of the priest. Later, the women would crush the other seeds, and the holy lot, the choice of the goddess, would be soaked in the liquid. Later, after the lots were buried, plain and holy alike, the last of the juice would be mixed with blood from the sacrifice, and poured out as a libation to the gods of the dead.
How had his grandfather stood it, witnessing the Mysteries in person, standing even closer to the divine? This little mystery, the ordinary marriage and parting of the goddess, was as much as Agathon could bear. And yet his old friend had gone beyond even Chariton, going to embrace the goddess in person. Agathon bowed his head in prayer.
There was a pomegranate carved on the altar – rough work, carved many ages past, worn half-away by the passage of years and the touch of many men. Below it was hole, just large enough for a hand to pass through. The priest had blessed the lots, calling on the goddess, and counted them out, one for every man present (every man young and virile enough to be a worthy choice). Now the lots lay waiting in the altar, like seeds in the dark ground. One by one the men approached, murmuring prayers; one by one they took a seed, keeping it clenched in their hands, invisible, till all had made their choice. Only then would they open their fingers and see their fate.
There was a wedding (Bion and a girl he'd met at that year's Spring festival, at the celebration of Agathon's own marriage), and long walks on the warm hillside, the scent of wild mint in the air and the hum of the bees. Bion had asked him once if he was sure, as though that could be in question, when this was what he'd wanted his whole life. His father had asked him too, eyes doubtful, and he'd tried to put it into words, reassure him that he'd be back in spring, part of everything that grew, still there, just in a different guise. Only Chariton had understood completely, and not tried to talk him out of it (although what was there to say, after the lot fell to him? Some men tried to run, going to eke out a life in exile, before death found them at last, old and abandoned and friendless, but Agathon would have stayed and given his life gladly from duty alone, although as it was there was no room for duty beside the fierce joy he felt, the overflowing love of life and living he had to offer to his goddess).
The knife would be sharp, and the pain brief, and neither any more than a necessary part of life, a stage all must pass through soon or late, and nothing to be feared.
There is the cold of the winter wind, the cold of snow, the cold of ice; there is the bone deep cold of one who ventures too high in the mountains too late in the year, or who sinks in freezing water. There is the shivering chill of illness, that neither fire nor sun can warm. There is the cold of the depths of the night sky. None of these are as the cold of the dead.
Nothing grows, nothing is born, nothing lives. A seed planted in dead earth is dead itself; it will never germinate, never reach out to know the sun and the pleasant rains. No hope comes this way, nor fear, nor joy, nor anger, no thought of any kind. Empty, and empty, and empty... a silent, hungry void, that will consume forever and never be filled, and all things will come to dust, to cold and to silence and to the eternal dark.
There are gods here too, of a kind. (They are the same kind as the gods above, brother and daughter of the living gods.) They move in the dark night, in the emptiness; they are the dark night and the emptiness. And all things come to feed them in the end.
There are stories told: meadows of pale asphodels through which the blessed dead may wander, pale spirits among pale flowers; seeds which die and are buried in earth, only to be reborn; a death which is only the shadow of life. There are other stories also: tortures and damnation; hungry ghosts who can create nothing of their own, but live on the blood of the dying; a death which steals strength from the living and offers nothing in return. Some believe one thing, some another, but the waters of Acheron flow on and away forever, and no man knows for certain the fare to recross that river.