A long time ago the world began, and Lachesis took up crochet.
"Hey! Hey, it's Miss Calliope!" called a reedy voice, accompanied by the slap of feet. Lachesis shaded her eyes against the noonday sun, squinting to make out one of the Milton boys from down the road as he came pounding down toward the station.
"He seems to be in a hurry," commented Atropos, already reaching for her hat. Lachesis folded the scarf she was working on and tucked it into her bag.
"It's Miss Calliope," panted the boy, skidding to a stop in front of them. It was Nathaniel, the youngest, disheveled but full of the importance of his news. "Ma says the baby's on the way for sure, and will you come?"
"We'll come," said Clotho. They all three levered themselves up from their chairs, Lachesis patting the boy's shoulder as she stepped down to the street. She liked Nathaniel; she liked all of them.
"Why don't you go inside and get a drink of water," Atropos told him. "We'll be right along."
Calliope lived by herself out at the edge of town, in a house that was all the handsome politician who'd dallied with her had left behind—that and the baby now fighting its way into the world. Some folk in the town seemed to believe the polite pretense that the baby's father was gone off to war, but not Lachesis and her sisters. If there was any gossip they didn't know, it wasn't worth knowing. Calliope didn't seem to mind much either, never wore a false ring or pretended her life was anything other than what it was, and wasn't unhappy with her lot either. Not a bad way to start this time around, the three of them agreed.
Mrs. Milton was happy enough to be relieved of her duty when they arrived. She had children of her own to tend to, and the farm, all by herself with her husband gone to Europe. He wouldn't be returning. She left them with young Calliope, who smiled weakly from her bed.
"Thank you for coming," she said. "My sisters are due in on the two o'clock tomorrow, I thought for sure they'd be in time."
"Well, they'll be in time to help with the newborn," said Clotho. "That's important too."
Calliope patted her swollen stomach. "Maybe that'll be the way with him, always early. Not a bad trait for a child."
Atropos smiled her slow, secret smile. "Perhaps," she said. "Perhaps."
It was a long, difficult birth, but there had never been a better midwife than Clotho, and both mother and child made it through. Night had long since fallen. Lachesis wiped Calliope's brow and Clotho came around the side of the bed with the baby, clean and tiny and possessed of a shock of dark hair and a set of powerful lungs that he immediately put to use, protesting the wide cold shock of the world. Clotho handed him to his mother.
"Sing him something," she advised. "It'll quiet him. He doesn't know much yet, but he'll know his mother's voice."
Orpheus did quiet, and they had a lullaby to pace their steps as they tidied the room, closing the windows against the evening chill and setting the dirtied linens to soak. Calliope might get a few rags out of them, but nothing more, if Lachesis was any judge. Life was a messy business.
"Someone ought to stay with her overnight," said Atropos. "Just to be sure."
"I'll be fine," protested Calliope, but Lachesis paid her no mind, the prerogative of an old woman.
"I don't mind," she said, patting the back of an old rocking chair in the corner of the room. "I'll just take this out to sit by the fire in the kitchen, and you give a shout if you need anything."
"Really, you've done so much, I'll be all right," protested Calliope.
"I'm sure you will," Lachesis told her, a little out of breath as she and Clotho struggled to get the chair through the doorway. Atropos bustled around the kitchen getting water for the kettle and putting it on to heat.
"There you are," she said. "Don't be afraid to come and wake us if you need anything, or just if you want some real sleep."
"I won't," Lachesis promised. Clotho dug in her handbag and produced a skein of soft new wool that she pressed into Lachesis's hands.
"In case you need something to pass the time," she said, and with a quick kiss on either cheek the two of them were gone.
Calliope was humming softly in the other room. They said her voice could break your heart; they said her singing was how she'd captivated the city politician, the one who'd given his son beautiful dark hair and little else. She hadn't performed in a long time, now.
Lachesis settled into the rocking chair, shuffling her feet as close to the fire as she dared and taking her knitting needles from her pocket. The wool Clotho had given her was the vibrant red of new blood. She cast on, her old fingers nimble in the familiar pattern, the way that thread passed and passed and passed through her hands. She thought she might make a jacket.
In the other room, young Orpheus began to cry.
The years passed, and the dust came.
At first it was the dust thrown up by pickaxes and explosives as they cleared the yawning mouth of a tunnel, dust from the workers' boots as they laid the new track. Hades came to watch the work sometimes, the first of the others that they'd seen. He nodded to the sisters, sitting on the stoop in front of the station as they always did, and said nothing.
Next came Persephone, blowing through the general store like a fresh breeze of spring and the city, twice a year on her way up and down, up and down. Orpheus, singing on the street corner mostly for the joy of it but also coincidentally for his supper, trailed wide-eyed after her. He watched Hades, too, when the train came. His fingers twitched against his thigh, forming silent chords.
Then came the dust again, the dust and the drought and the dirty wind. People scattered before it, first a trickle and then a flood, until the railroad station was as busy as it ever had been but no one disembarked now; everyone was desperate to get away, away, away. Some went down to Hadestown, some out to the west. None came back.
The sisters came and sat outside the station every day, resolute. Some days they had to retreat inside when the storms blew up too badly. Nathaniel Milton was the stationmaster now, the only one of his brothers still in town, and he'd give them water and let them sit on the benches that were supposed to be only for railroad customers while he sold tickets to his friends and neighbors, secured the money in the till and came around the edge of the counter to hug them goodbye.
"That's the last train through," said Nathaniel one night, when the wind was low enough for them to sit outside. He stepped out on to the stoop and locked the station door somewhat more emphatically than necessary.
"Mm-hmm," agreed Lachesis. The three of them knew the train schedule just as well as anyone, save maybe Eurydice, who had a habit of coming to the station door to stare wide-eyed at the departure board for long minutes, although she'd never yet bought a ticket.
"You ought to be getting home, don't you think?" said Nathaniel.
"You go along, don't worry about us," Clotho told him. "We get few enough nice nights to enjoy, these days."
"Go on, your wife will be waiting for you," said Atropos. "We'll go too, soon enough."
Nathaniel went, though reluctantly. Lachesis watched him all the way down the street until he turned at Orpheus's corner by the general store. Eurydice was just coming out of it, and the faint melody of Orpheus's guitar hummed its way into a sweet question that she answered by stopping to talk to him. They were nothing but silhouettes against the street, too far away for their words to reach Lachesis, though of course she knew what they were saying. The sisters always knew.
"Soon, then, I suppose," said Clotho, who was carding wool.
"Mm-hmm," Lachesis agreed.
Nathaniel brought them tea from the station cafe, free of charge.
"Snow's on its way," he said, tilting his chin down into his jacket.
"It'll be a cold one for sure," Clotho agreed.
"I'll come up one morning to find the three of you frozen as icicles on my front stoop, I swear."
Inside, Hades fronted Eurydice the money for a one-way ticket.
"Do you have any sugar?" Lachesis asked Nathaniel. She was working on a skirt, a light yellow color bleached almost to white in the fading dusk. "Oh, and you've got a customer."
Lachesis couldn't remember Hermes arriving; it seemed like he'd always been in town, here and there. Hermes was like that. He spent a lot of time on Orpheus’s street corner, some of the rest telling grand stories of heroes and monsters to the children. Every once in a while he stopped by the railroad station to chat.
“Gone already,” he said the day after Eurydice left, shaking his head slow. “I thought for sure she’d make it another month or two.”
“That’s because you think with your head and not your belly,” Clotho told him.
“I’ve been hungry.”
“Ah, but you’ve never been starving,” said Clotho. “There’s a big difference.”
“I’m not blaming her,” said Hermes. “I’m just saying, it doesn’t seem fair. Seems like they used to get more time together.”
“Lives go at their own pace,” Lachesis said. “Fair or unfair’s got nothing to do with it.”
To tell the truth, Lachesis had never really understood the concept of fairness, though gods and mortals alike had tried to explain it to her and her sisters countless times. Sometimes they seemed to mean that everyone’s lives should be exactly the same. Other times they meant that what happened to a person should be dependent on and in some way equal to the things they felt and did, though there didn’t seem to be any consensus on what action ought to merit what consequence. Neither kind of fairness had ever actually existed in the world, not in any era Lachesis had seen- and she’d seen them all, more or less, though not always as she was now. Mortals were gifted at believing in things that weren’t real, though.
Nathaniel came out of the station, pausing with his keys in his hand.
“Next train’s not for a few hours,” he said. “I was going to lock up and run some errands. Do you three want to come inside?”
“No, no, we’re all settled in out here,” said Lachesis, who did indeed have all her sewing paraphernalia spread out around her.
“Be careful, then,” Nathaniel said. “Folks are getting desperate, these days. You never know what some of them might do.” This was very pointedly directed at Hermes, who was lounging comfortably on the steps. He raised an eyebrow and tipped his hat to Nathaniel, but didn’t say anything.
"I don't think anyone's so desperate that they'd bother an old lady," said Atropos. "And besides, I have my sewing scissors right here." She patted the bag by her hip.
Hermes laughed hard enough to make Nathaniel hesitate and double-check the locks on the station door.
“Go on, go on,” he said, waving a hand. “The ladies and I have been friends since long before your time. There won’t be any sewing scissors necessary.”
Hermes wasn't afraid of them. There was no thread to him, no beginning for Clotho to spin and no ending for Atropos to cut. He existed because mortals imagined him, and mortals with their short precious lives imagined him to be eternal and to have power over them. So the years passed and the mortals died and Hermes remained a blurred copy of himself, telling his own story to each new generation.
Fairness didn't have much to do with it, as far as Lachesis could see.
Orpheus came to the station a few days later, calling for Eurydice.
"What do you think would happen if I didn't show him the way this time?" Hermes asked, leaning up against the signpost and watching Orpheus hurry inside. His hat was pulled low over his eyes, hiding his expression, but his voice was tinged with something. Wistfulness, maybe, but maybe not; Lachesis was better with mortals' emotions than with gods'.
"I expect he'd find his own way down eventually," said Clotho, "but he'd have one less friend."
Hermes tipped his head in acknowledgement. When Orpheus came out of the station, looking frantically around, he came to meet him on the stairs.
Lachesis didn't expect to see Hermes back again after that, but he resurfaced on the station steps several days later, flipping a coin back and forth across his knuckles and looking pensive.
"What happened to Calliope?" he asked abruptly, after several minutes of nothing but the occasional tap of Clotho's spindle.
"Back on the circuit," Lachesis told him. "Singing in Europe, last I heard."
Hermes nodded. There was another long pause.
"You three don't ever get tempted to change the ending?" he asked eventually, looking out at the tracks and not at them.
"I can't say that we do," said Atropos. Hermes shook his head.
"I suppose that's in your nature. I don't understand it, though. All this time looking after mortals, how can you not care, even a little?"
"Oh, and I suppose you think you gods care more for mortals than we do?"
"Seems that way to me," said Hermes with a shrug. "And I know we know the same stories."
"You do pick your special favorites, I'll grant you that, but you all only like the kings and the heroes-"
"-and the especially pretty ones," added Clotho in a murmur. Atropos snorted.
"-and the others are all beneath your notice," Lachesis said. "I'll wager you that coin that you don't know the name of the station master here, or the clerk at the general store, or any of the hundred people who left for Hadestown before Eurydice."
Hermes considered for a moment, then flipped the coin neatly into her lap. Lachesis tucked it away in her bag.
"If you care so much, then why not do something to help them?" he asked.
"That's not who we are," said Atropos. "We are meant to set things as they should be. Gods and mortals are the ones who interfere, if they try hard enough."
"Hmm," said Hermes, producing another coin to spin, and they talked of other things for a while.
"That was a little cruel," Clotho said to Atropos once he had gone.
"Cruel to give hope?"
"Cruel to give false hope."
Atropos shrugged. "We all are who we are. He has to try. Orpheus has to try. That's how the story goes."
There was the real truth, Lachesis thought, of the difference between Hermes and the three of them. Hermes loved Orpheus and so wanted him to make it to the surface, even though it was never in his nature to get all the way there. Lachesis and her sisters loved Orpheus because he turned; they loved Eurydice because she fled, loved Nathanial in his loneliness and the clerk at the store in his petty meanness and every last person who left on the railroad in hunger and desperation. Mortals could be perfect in their faults and their failures, although Hermes would never see it. It was the way they were meant to be.
"I think we'd better get going," said Atropos. "Hades is going to need some advice."
"Storm clouds are coming in, too," said Clotho.
They gathered up their things. Lachesis was only a few stitches away from completing the yellow skirt, but she folded it up carefully. She could ask Atropos to help her finish it once they got to Hadestown.
"Let's just say goodbye to Nathaniel," said Atropos, so they did, and then set off, three old women walking side by side down the railroad track, steps steady and wind whipping at their clothes.
Perhaps, thought Lachesis, she'd get a loom next time around. It had been quite a while since she'd tried her hand at weaving.