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A Strange Flower, Suitable to Any Occasion

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 “The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower—suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day, and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.” - Terry Randall, Stage Door

Her husband is in hell now, and sometimes, Rhea visits.

In his last moments above-ground, he was a squalling, pitiful thing, lungs full of wailing as his sons pulled him in irons. Being interned in Tartarus has done nothing to soften his madness; always he calls for her, Rhea Rhea Rhea Rhea. And sooner or later, she answers, as she must; deep in her ancient heart, she loves him still.

Zeus gives her a proper send-off every time, a banquet beyond compare that lasts all the day if none of the night. She thinks, sometimes, that Zeus must wonder if this is the last time he’ll see her, if suddenly Hades will say he plans to keep her, as he does her brothers and her sisters and, yes, her beloved if dangerous husband, too. It is hard to say. Her sons are no less crafty than their father, if each in their own ways.

Her fifth-born, Poseidon, is boisterously brave and sixth-born Zeus magnanimously charming; fourth-born Hades, well, he has patience and some sort of cold stratagem in those quiet, dark eyes, though none on Olympus can say what it is. He never comes up to see them, not anymore. Hades – first devoured, last retrieved – is the child she knows the least.

Still, when night falls on Olympus, he does come for her. For his mother, Hades drives his chariot to the tip of the underworld itself, offers his hand, if not a smile. He has his father’s curls and wide chin, but it’s her eyes that shine when she sees him, wet with memories in the dimness of underworld light.

He is both Chronos’ double and his jailer, Hades; she tries, always, to find some quibble with the way he comports himself because every move he makes is nothing like the man she expects him to be, the living ghost whose face he inherited. Chronos was an expressive man, warm with a laugh that could shatter glass, how loud it was; Hades, born to be his usurper, betrays nothing, says little, and speaks quietly. Zeus and Poseidon titter sometimes, drunk on nectar and wine, that poor Hades got the worst of the three lots; Rhea isn’t certain he didn’t pick this on purpose. He was always a strange, quiet thing; her only child who never cried. 

But, she will say, in fairness to her strange-son, that he is always politely receptive to his mother, if never more than that. He always gives her a royal if impersonal welcome. She may as well be one of Hades long-estranged siblings, or one of their many, many children; he offers her dresses of linen and wool and a rich, thin cloth whose softness speaks of a different origin far east of where her other son’s kingdoms set, but it is all plain, drab, impersonal; black on black, white on white.

Brother Iapetus wouldn't have given her such finery in his day; the underworld was a different thing then, all caves and caverns and skittering ghosts. He would shrug and suggest his sister sleep upon the ground, as he did. Iapetus believed in death as the ultimate teacher; survival of the fittest, dearest sister, he would have said, then laughed his big, booming laugh and snuggled near to his wife, Clymene, whose shoulders were always so soft and lovely for a goddess whose job was so merciless. Rhea remembers being a young girl, curled on Clymene’s soft lap, dozing as she listened to them chuckling as they measured out mortal lives.

She does not think either do much laughing these days, bound to the darkest parts of what was once their very own home. Perhaps Iapetus finds comfort in this final test of his will; she hopes so. She always liked Iapetus.

Hades – her fourth born child but her first son - has no wife, no kin beyond that that lay in Olympus above him and Tartarus below. He is a quieter sort of justice, if as merciless as Clymene and horribly greedy as Iapetus in his own ways. He has built, out of Iapetus’ caverns, his own vast castle, though it resembles no castle seen above; he has poured the foundations to his own cities in a pattern discernible only in his own mind, drawn up his own rivers that circle his realm like an embrace. He was born in darkness and never lived out of it long enough to be aware of things like geography. She isn’t even sure he knows what creature comforts he denies to his mortal souls – no gardens, no walkways, and no sunlight. Iapetus didn’t care, but Hades…she isn’t so sure. One does not build a city if one does not expect their subjects to use it.

And he builds his mother has a room of her own in his castle full of winding walkways and no windows; a nice room, large, magnificently bedecked in warm blankets and comfortable pillows;  for whenever she wishes to use it, he says, and she should be thankful.

And she is thankful — if never more than that.

Hades has a room for them all actually. Individually. Entire wings dedicated to the family that will never, ever come to him willingly. 

She discovers this, looking for clues of just what Chronos’ eldest son does beyond torture his father all day. She is walking through her son’s estate late at night (she thinks – it is, technically, always night in the Underworld, and lateness is merely a state of mind), paddling through his winding halls after the King himself has long-since retired to his own rooms. Rhea thinks that all these absent rooms with Gods’ names writ large on them is just a bit alarming - not enough to report to Zeus, but enough that she dwells upon it when she pads back through stone, empty halls to her bed at night, under covers thick and dense as briar-thorns. 

Sometimes she wonders if perhaps, heartless Hades has internalized his role as jailer just a bit too well. Does he sit and merely wait for the day the eldest comes into his own at last, even if only in the death of all above? Or perhaps, she thinks, Hades is lonely. Perhaps he simply, desperately wishes for heavenly arms to dig deep and remember that one of their own still lives deep in the underground, to come and throw arms around him and thank him for his sacrifice, his service.

They won’t, she knows; it is not the way of the Gods above to concern themselves with the Gods below. If Hades thinks they will hold eternal gratitude for holding back the Titans, he is wrong. Gods’ memories are long, but their attention spans are as short as their mortal ilk. No, my little one, she thinks, they have no idea you exist anymore as anything but a distant threat. Iapetus and Chronos were closer than Zeus and Hades. Iapetus was dragged to Tartarus still living but torn asunder by Hades' bident and Poseidon's trident, still defending Chronos without arms or legs, each part of him fighting for his king-brother's honor; would Hades so much as lift one finger to come to Zeus’ aid, should the situation require it? She truly knows not.

Hades shows no sign of tipping his hand toward becoming anything she can understand; he is dutiful, if only just. He makes sure to see her, gathers her for dinner, gently takes her by the arm and takes her to a stateroom that could seat each and every one of their kin. It seats only two, and she suspects this is a large guest list as far as Hades' entertainment goes. The ridiculous table only highlights the distance between them.

“Do you like your room?” He asks, as he always does, voice quiet as he sups on asphodel roots. She sticks to ambrosia and nectar she brings herself for the journey, and finds his choice bizarre – there is no need to dine like the dead for the underworld's God; Iapetus did not. Why eat the mark of eternal darkness when another option is available? He could live on Olympus; climb upstairs when his day is done.  He doesn’t. She isn’t sure when he’s been on Olympus last, truth be told. Centuries ago, at minimum. She isn’t sure if Zeus even bothers to include him in his council, anymore.

“It is fine,” she says, and he nods, and that is the end of their conversation, as always. He does not ask of his siblings above and she does not ask of hers below. They eat in a silence that looms large as Erebus itself, as if the underworld itself swallows their feelings whole. If he feels conflicted about taking her to see his father, he never shows it. If he wonders if it causes her pain, he never asks of it.

She supposes she should be thankful for Hades' magnanimity, but like those gods above, she finds her long-buried son's habits strange, and his heart far too cold. When he pushes in his chair after only a few minutes, promising he will take her to see his father after a mid-night’s rest, she is relieved to be free of his company. When he asks if she wishes him to ask Charon to see her back, she shakes her head no and he leaves it at that.

She finds her way back to her rooms by herself, and thinks of her strange son, and his strange ways: he still calls Chronos father, she notices, but has he ever called her mother? She stares around the room he has built for her, every luxury present – but nothing of her own essence inherent in the room. On Olympus, her bed is stitched with fine linens of her royal sigil, with lions and hawks darting in silver firs. In Hades, her black hay bed is made with plain white blankets, and little else. 

Her son does not know her any better than she knows him, she realizes with a dull ache in her chest.

 He always accompanies her down to Tartarus, though he does not have to. Her rebel days are long done.

“You do not have to come,” she murmurs, as always; he bids no answer as he pushes off from the coast himself, driving their iron-boat across the Phlegethon. It isn’t as if one must be master of the underworld itself to reach Tartarus; one needs only a strong rowing arm. The river itself is the only source of light and sound as they travel. She does not talk to him during this portion of the travel, instead closing her eyes and waiting only for Chronos.

No matter how many times she sees him in Tartarus, it does not get easier.

He is bound to the ground there, at the shore; his legs and arms, shackled in manacles. He is a far cry from what he once was. His raiment is no longer royal purple, but black with dirt, with filth. The only river in Tartarus is the river of fire, and it casts almost no light, but still she sees his face in the distance as they come upon the shore. Hades face remains in shadow, but she knows it to be impassive.

“My favorite son,” Chronos bellows as Hades steps off the boat; he’s well lit then, next to the fire-bath of the lake, and he steps more so into the light to better talk to his father chained upon the shore. “How long has it been, Hades? You were the tastiest child, you know.”

Hades shrugs long shoulders. “A visitor, father,” he says; next to one another, the resemblance couldn’t be more obvious, and Rhea’s heart hurts. She wishes Hades was easier to love, or to hate; this constant ambiguity is nothing like his bold father and wounds her so. She steps next to him to better see Chronos in the meager light, and his eyes spark upon hers like a flame.

“Rhea,” her beloved madman says, licking chapped lips. “You came.”

“I did,” she says, as she always does. Her hard-hearted son watches unmoved as she sobs, raining tears into Chronos’ eager mouth. “I love you,” she babbles, for he always deprives her of reason. She spreads her hands over manacled limbs that can never hold her again but she remembers the feel of them in his burned, callused fingertips, and that makes it all the worse. “I’m sorry,” she says; she does not regret her choices, but still, she hates to see him suffer so. Hades taps his foot, impatient, as Rhea caresses Chronos’ brow; Chronos' mad voice quiet as she strokes his head.

For a few hours, they say nothing; Chronos, soothed by his wife's hand on his brow; Rhea, in hell but whole; Hades, visibly bored. He has never argued with her over the point of these visits as she knows Poseidon would; never brow-beats her into having less time with her husband because he is busy, as she knows Zeus might; never even gave her the pity that Hestia or Demeter might, nor the cold fury that burns in Hera’s eyes every time Rhea announces her desire to visit their estranged father, buried below.  Hades is still as death and just as patient; he simply waits.

When she goes to the river and retrieves fire to purify Chronos’ suffering skin, he offers neither opposition nor aid. When she casts a long glance among long-suffering cousins and uncles and aunts and fathers, all manacled to her mother’s well-scarred skin, he offers neither condolences nor sympathy. He waits for her to take her hand, to tell him she is ready, to tell Chronos goodbye as he begins his long and ever-unceasing wail: Rhea, Rhea, Rhea, Rhea echoes across the deep caverns of Tartarus, and still, Hades says nothing, shows nothing.

He accompanies her back to the iron boat in the cacophonous wails of the damned, and they push off, sailing back to Erebus’ distant, hazy shore.

As always, they only get a short distance from shore before she asks, “Is all that really necessary, to keep them bound in the dark like that?” as she always does. She longs for some reaction to her words, and chooses them to wound him, to wind him up, to make him show something – anything at all! But there is no change in his mottled brow, and he simply sighs. As always.

“Yes,” he says, with all the weight of his office in the word. She folds her arms, and he holds the oar, and they ride the rest of the way through the Phlegethon with little more than silence on their tongues, as they always do. 

On her better days, she tries to leave quickly after these visits, but there are not many good days for her, anymore. Seeing her husband is exhausting, the trip to Tartarus more so, and her inscrutable son most exhausting of all. She is an old goddess and her power drains quickly; often, she has to stay in the underworld, under Hades' suffocating care.

He will lead her, as always, back to her room in silence. She will squeeze his hand, but will find no warmth in it and offer no thanks for what he has done for her. And he will turn with no goodbye, no goodnight, mother, on his lips; he will stalk back to an iron throne and, presumably, a lonely iron bed after.

And she will lie on a feather-light but dream-heavy bed, where she will dream of Chronos, not the mad Chronos who howls in the dark but the man who she loved once, the golden king. He was magnanimous and kind and clever and true in those days; he was cruel and mad and paranoid, too. She loved both sides of the coin, once and did not mind which way it fell, so long as it was always in her hand. 

She dreams of the man she loved, both the king who came to her bed speaking sweet words and the dictator whose children he held in his hands and he devoured. Always, in the dreams, she remembers she had let him eat them, offered no resistance as he devoured baby Hades, then Hera, Demeter, and Hestia soon after, declaring a daughter no more loyal than a son. Poseidon, last of them all, squalling as he slid into his father’s gullet, her face mute to his red-faced squalling even in dreams. She offered little protest then and offers none in her dreams now.

She awakens queasy, mind woozy and skin slick.

In her darkest moods, she sometimes wonders if it isn't Hades directing the Erinyes to drown her in her own guilt.

She cannot shake her suspicion of him, even if sometimes her son comes in the room when he hears her sobs; he does not ask what is wrong and she does not offer any reason for her tears. He presses a heavy, iron hand to her brow in imitation of kindness, but all it inspires in her is a reminder of all she’s lost.

As always, she tells him she does not require his assistance, and, as always, he leaves, not even with the grace to be insulted by her words. He is as mute as ever, her long-lost child.