Always Be Returning
This week, we hope our free August story, Eugenia Triantafyllou‘s beautiful “Always Be Returning,” will transport all our readers to mythical and strikingly heartfelt shores. ~ Julian and Fran, August 6, 2023
Always Be Returning
by Eugenia Triantafyllou
It’s August when Demeter’s daughter returns. Demeter is in a fishing boat, pulling at the heavy nets with her time-dotted hands alongside the young men and women. The people on the boat don’t see her for who she is. Terrible and divine, motherly and familiar. But she doesn’t mind. She has been doing this forever and, besides, this is a special day. The day Persephone returns to her from the Palace of Shadows, where Hades, the God of the Dead and Stolen Happiness, hid her away. Out of her holy reach. Zeus promised to bring her back. And he might have been unreliable with others, but he will keep his promise to Demeter.
There is no Poseidon in these waters, no dark horse riding the frothy waves. She is the Goddess of Harvest and Things Eaten with Gratitude, and she goes where there’s harvest to collect and food to put on the table. The Gods of the ocean can claim only what roams free in the water. But whenever something becomes food for the humans, it belongs to her. This ship is part of her territory now. And these boys and girls fighting with the sea are her subjects, her followers. Everything becomes food eventually. Everyone is someone’s crop. Small fish to big. Big fish to humans. Humans to Gods. Her power reaches everywhere. Everywhere but one place.
The nets are heavy with all kinds of fish: hake and cod glisten like silver under the midday sun, sea urchins cling to the rope for dear life, along with smooth clams and braids of seaweed. The last thing caught in the nets is the body of a beautiful woman. Her long black hair tangled with the deep green of the seaweed. Her skin is the color of sand on a late afternoon. Demeter scoffs. Her daughter always had a flair for the dramatic, but when the rest of her emerges from the waves, her smile vanishes. Bright red scales speck the rim of Daughter’s belly button and keep going, until Demeter realizes the lower half of Persephone’s body is a bright red fish tail.
The men and the women gasp, first in surprise and then in horror. Demeter shares their sentiment in her own way. They fall on their knees and pray for the mermaid to spare them and not take their ship under, letting the heavy net slip back into the ocean. Demeter catches it before it is lost, all by herself. She is at her most powerful when she is old like this. There’s nothing she can’t do with this ancient body.
“You’ve lost weight.”
That’s not what Demeter means to say, but that’s what comes out of her mouth and it’s too late to take it back. Her first instinct is always to nurture. To feed. She gives the people on the ship euphoric visions to keep them busy. Mortals are not meant to bear witness to the family matters of Gods, a rule that her siblings never keep and it always leads to trouble.
By the time she turns her attention back to Persephone, she is already on the ship’s deck with one graceful swing of her tail.
“Nice to see you, too, Mother.” Persephone smiles playfully, coiling her tail under her torso like a sea serpent.
Demeter can’t deny the beauty of that fish tail, but in her mind her daughter is still fully human and terribly young, dancing among the rye crops on two legs like a small crane.
“Once you enter the Underworld, you can’t return to the Upperworld whole again. You always have to leave something behind,” Persephone answers the unspoken question. “I chose to leave my legs in Charon’s boat. I thought you’d prefer talking to my face.”
Demeter feels the anger stirring inside her like a seed sprouting from hard soil. “Thank you for sparing your old mother from talking to a fish head and educating me in the ways of the Underworld. Hades only knows I might need them one day.”
Persephone laughs and her laughter reaches the ears of the fisher people, waking them from their visions of lavish feasts, countless lovers, and hard-earned glories.
“Hades? Hades knows so little about his own realm. He barely leaves the palace these days. The Underworld is such a vast and lovely place. I wish you could see it.”
How could this creature who loved smelling flowers without cutting them, and begged her mother to spare the lives of animals large and small—putting her in a bad spot with the Goddess of the Hunt and Things Half-Eaten—be happy in a place where souls arrive to suffer eternally?
“I suppose you are doing fine, then,” Demeter starts carefully. “There is no point in raising a small army of lesser Gods and nymphs and paying Hades a visit. Your decision has been made.”
There is a question underneath. And the answer could be anything: a yes, the nod of a head, the fluttering of an eyelid. Anything affirmative and Demeter will swarm the Underworld with creatures Hades never dared dream of. She will flood every crevasse and nook, drench every cursed drop of water, and destroy every bewitched morsel of food until her daughter returns to her whole.
Persephone’s face softens and she approaches her mother with a liquid motion that no creature with a fish tail should be able to make on dry ground. All around them, fisher people scream and fall overboard in their panic.
“You don’t remember everything yet, do you?” Persephone searches her mother’s eyes for something. But Demeter doesn’t know what specific thing she is supposed to remember. She remembers her daughter was snatched from under her nose somehow, and that’s enough. She needs her daughter back because her heart is bleeding and her patience is running thin.
The mermaid’s face grows dim with disappointment.
“Mother, you ended the world.”
The words have no discernible meaning for Demeter. This is not something she would do. She is the Goddess of Making the World or, at least, the Goddess of Keeping the World from Unmaking Itself. She would have to unmake herself before she unmade the world. While Demeter ponders the implications of this, Persephone kisses her cheek and dives into the water.
“I will return when the season changes.”
Her daughter is the oldest olive tree in the middle of a golden field when she visits next. It is October, the month the olives hang low on the branches. Most trees at this time carry olives both green and black and a few shades in between.
Demeter takes a walk in the fields among the harvesters in an effort to clear her mind. Memories she didn’t know she had return to her slowly. She remembers one thing that terrifies her in a way Gods usually don’t. A fight with her daughter. A fight for power.
She is now younger than before, her apparent age racing backward until the moment she will become a child and then next season an old woman again. Time does not run in a linear way for Gods. Their age is poetic and symbolic, much like their powers. Still, with all her youth returned to her, many things escape her. Why she ends the world. And when the fight with her daughter happened and how she came to forget at all.
The nets the people have spread to harvest the olives crunch under her feet. Small children play hide-and-seek among the twisted torsos of the hundred-year-old trees. The people rake the branches for the precious fruit while singing. The air smells of possibility and domesticity. It smells of families coming together. All except her own.
And then she sees her daughter. She is the most beautiful of the trees. The fruits Persephone’s tree bears are a vibrant red, the color of human blood. The color of pomegranates. Although her roots are firmly planted in the ground, her belly and the curve of her back sprout from the trunk of the tree like a tulip that ends in her delicate shoulders, framed by dark hair.
Demeter can only think of her daughter’s part that’s not here. The part of her that binds her to the Underworld. And she quickens her step.
“You could not hide from me if you tried.”
“I do not try to hide,” her daughter replies, and leans her branches a little to the left just so the broad man with the small hands can pick her olives. The man freezes for a moment, mouth agape, but then a gust of wind coming from the east gives him the assurance he needs that everything is normal.
“You still care for the people of the Upperworld.” Demeter’s observation comes with a sting.
Her daughter shrugs imperceptibly so the man who is now working on the other side of her tree won’t get too suspicious. “People are still people. Here or there.”
No mortal can see them this time. Nobody has time for screams and yelling, and pleading for mercy to Zeus, the God of the Sky and Not Keeping Promises. Demeter has her hands full enough as it is. Now the greater part of her day is in aimless wandering, looking for the right entrance to the Underworld. Every passing day seems more urgent than the one before. Her daughter is slipping from her grasp.
“There is a river not far away from here.” Demeter points in the direction of a stream running between two mountains. “I am quite sure that if I follow it, it will lead me to Lethe. I can come and get the rest of you.”
“No, Mother. Stop.”
Persephone’s face turns serious. Her daughter looks older now than when they last met. The ridges on her bark and skin make her look austere, like Rhea, Demeter’s own mother, once was.
“I remember our fight.” Demeter hesitates. “Well, sort of.”
Persephone goes silent and still. Still enough that the man becomes emboldened and picks the olives that hang from her hair. Demeter wants to smack the man’s hand away.
“There is not much time left,” her daughter says at last. “You usually end the world in winter. A few times you tried to forget sooner and you ended the world in autumn.”
“Why would I even do such a thing?” Demeter asks, exasperated. “We had a fight. So what? That’s usual mother-daughter business.” She tries not to think of her own parents and what happened to them.
Persephone bites her lip and beckons her mother to come closer, close enough that, should the olive-picking man be the agent of a nosy God, he wouldn’t be able to steal their secret words. Demeter knows that fear all too well. She leans closer.
“Because you forget how to be a Goddess,” Persephone says, eyes welling up. If she were a pine, her bark would weep resin. “When that happens, both of our realms fall into each other.”
“Please, whatever you remember, don’t try to forget.” Persephone lets the ground pull her inside, leaving behind only the husk of a tree.
Our realms. Demeter is not easily surprised. She knows her daughter is meant for greatness. To rule a plane after some fashion. But this is too much to bear. Too much to grasp. And so instead of understanding, she remembers.
Ending the world wouldn’t be too bad now, would it?
Demeter paces outside her small cabin, built on a snowy mountain slope, in early January. Snow melting on her skin does nothing to calm down her inner fire. There’s still harvest out there, animals to milk, parsnips and leeks to gather, and flour to bake into loaves. Nature isn’t dead, just sleeping. Her work is never done.
Her hands are cupped around a bowl of warm milk, an offering on the shrine inside the cabin by her followers. A goatherd had built the cabin and the shrine for Demeter’s worship, with mud from the beach below and stones he found around his pen. He prayed to her and left milk every single day, and she always kept his goats healthy and their milk from going sour. The cabin is plain but sturdy; it outlasted the man, and his sons, and his grandsons. Demeter wonders if all of them are with Persephone now. If there’s even a way to tell where they are. Where anyone is when they slip from your grasp. She is not used to this feeling.
Dark bile stirs inside her.
Demeter is younger now, which hurts even more. She looks almost the age she was when she was carrying her child. As soon as she thinks of Persephone again, there’s the fluttering of wings. Larger than an eagle’s and smaller than a griffin’s. The perfect size for a daughter.
Persephone perches on the roof of the house, at the very edge of a large stone slab, ruffling her feathers. Her arms and her wine-red wings are inseparable; she wears her dark hair in a braid like a crown upon her head. Hair fitting to the Queen of the Underworld. Demeter’s natural opposite. They are the same age this season. Their faces mirroring each other. Just out of the first youth and into maturity. Time, Demeter understands now, runs in an opposite direction in the Underworld, if there’s even a direction to speak of.
“How many times have we done this?”
Persephone, the siren, arranges her feathers with a beak that was a nose a moment ago. “Too many. You always end the world.”
Demeter’s memories settle like snowflakes on her skin. But the worst memory of all is that Persephone was the one who chose to leave. Demeter raised her daughter in her own image, and Persephone demanded to become more. The Goddess of Something Important. Demeter was doing a great job making herself forget the biggest betrayal of her existence until now.
“You are supposed to help people forget.” Demeter takes a sip from the rich, frothy drink, wishing that its sweetness could reach all the way to her heart. “You’re not doing a great job, dear.”
“When you forget you are a Goddess, Mother, our realms collapse into each other.” Persephone lands on the snowy ground like a drop of blood in a bowl of milk. “They are each other’s reflections.”
She hops one-two-three toward her mother. She looks so small and vulnerable to Demeter’s eyes. She only needs to crush her daughter’s wings under her shoe and trap her in the Upperworld in this form forever.
“You meant to dethrone me,” Demeter says plainly.
It’s not an accusation, merely an observation. When it happened, she was impressed by her own spawn. Besides, wasn’t this how Demeter and her siblings came to rule the world? If Zeus, the God of the Sky and Bad Timing, hadn’t interrupted their cosmic fight (Look at the mess you’ve made! What mortal will sacrifice to the Olympians after this?), and made Persephone, Goddess of the Underworld, Pomegranates, and Abandoning Her Mother, they could have even laughed it away, drank goat milk in this hut, the two of them. Just like in the old days. But now one of them can’t stay here and the other one cannot leave. And Demeter can’t stop being angry.
“Well, that’s where you are wrong. I wanted a place where I could be something away from your influence.”
For a time, neither of them speaks. The world itself falls silent. Demeter can sense the eyes of the Gods on both of them. Preparing for another fight of empyrean proportions. Every animal is hiding. The evergreen trees shed their leaves and play dead. The river of Lethe—not too far from here—is quiet, too. The Boatman of the Dead has stopped his singing. Demeter calculates how fast she can reach Lethe’s banks and drink from its waters. Make herself forget all over again.
“I can’t stop,” she admits. “I can’t stop trying to forget because I can’t stop feeling what I am feeling.”
Persephone should know as well as any God that they are creatures more bound to their feelings and desires than any other. And Demeter desires only to be with her daughter and if not that, then she desires oblivion.
Her daughter leaps onto the shrine, where more milk lies in bowls, and laps it up.
“I love this place.” For a moment, Persephone’s face and the red of her feathers are drenched in whiteness. White for snow and white for milk. “I’ve made one just like it in the Realm of Shadows. It gives people comfort.”
“So you never planned to return.” Demeter knows this is a naïve question. Who returns from the Kingdom of the Dead? Only perhaps a handful of people, and they were never quite the same after this. Her feet have already started on the road to Lethe as if they have a mind of their own. How many times has she done this? Not even she can tell.
Persephone is firm but not cruel. She had always needed a place to call her own. She was a gifted and precocious child, even among the other spawns of the Gods. Too powerful, too strong-willed to stay in her mother’s shadow forever. But that’s not the place Demeter had imagined for her. One shadow replaced by many. And now it’s too late for her daughter to become the Goddess of Anything Else.
Demeter thinks she can see the river now that the trees—the cowards—have shed their leaves. The gentle curve of its route glimmers with sunlight before it disappears underground.
“. . . although I do miss you.”
Demeter freezes like a sacred statue of herself. She might have lost count of how many times they have done this fateful dance, but she very much remembers that her daughter never said these words before. For these words alone she could relent and not drink the water of oblivion again. But she is a Goddess and a greedy mother. She is not ashamed to admit to herself that she wants more.
“If only you had not left half your body with that old ferryman,” Demeter says in the magical way all mothers can say I told you so to their children without ever uttering it.
“Perhaps we could find common ground.” Her daughter sounds careful and calm. “The world can’t start over forever. We are reaching an end.”
Demeter is feeling this, too. It’s like the two worlds, Upper and Under, are pressing too closely against each other. Like the souls are about to bleed over and the living will fall through the earth. Then the world as everyone knows it will be over for good this time, and something new will emerge. Demeter isn’t sure she’ll be with her daughter in that new world or if she’ll have the choice of oblivion.
She feels her daughter’s wings flapping next to her cheek before Persephone lands on her right shoulder. It is her way to hug her mother, under the circumstances. Demeter strokes her daughter’s crimson-feathered neck.
“Tell me what to do.”
It’s the first day of May when her daughter comes to her in a meadow, wearing an old woman’s face and a poppy-spangled crown on her silver hair. The world is still the world, and so is the world under this one.
Persephone is old this season. At the prime of her power. There are people everywhere, braiding their own crowns to celebrate spring—it feels like spring came for the first time in decades, and in a way it has—but she doesn’t bother to hide. She is fully a woman now. Her old/new body is proof that her mother can be reasonable sometimes and can meet her in the middle.
The little girl wears a crown of wheat, or a crown of vines, still heavy with dark purple grapes; moments later the crown changes to olive wreaths, and the cycle continues. Demeter, the girl, the Goddess diminished, smiles up at Persephone and asks to be picked up.
“You’re late,” she chides her daughter, but she still leans in for a kiss and a hug. She finds it’s much easier to show affection as a child, when mistakes of the future can remain unspoken. Or perhaps she is just happy to see her.
“It wasn’t easy moving in this body aboveground.”
Demeter knows this to be true. Even in her diminished form she understands how hard it is to carry power of that magnitude. Yet she is happy to have bestowed most of her power to Persephone. To tip the scale so she could stay whole for a season with her in the Realm of the Living.
In a meadow, somewhere in the world above, the Goddess of Harvest and Remembering, cradled in the arms of the Goddess of the Dead and Always Returning, shares a dance.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Eugenia Triantafyllou is a Greek author and artist with a flair for dark things. Her work has been nominated for the Ignyte, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and she is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop. You can find her stories on Tor.com and in Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and other venues. She currently lives in Athens with a boy and a dog. Find her on Twitter @foxesandroses, Instagram @eugeniatriantafyllou, or her website, eugeniatriantafyllou.com.
“Always Be Returning,” © Eugenia Triantafyllou, 2023.
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