|Fanny & Dice
- Rebecca McFarland Kyle
“I’m leaving Hell for good, Eurydice.”
Persephone wore the most outlandish outfit I’d ever seen. The man’s shirt, which reached to her knee, emblazoned
with the motto “Liberty or Death” on the right breast, and the sturdy pair of men’s breeches and boots must be from
the pair of Greek scholars who’d died in a great war between the British and rebel colonists. George and Thomas
were as surprised as Hades to see themselves in the Underworld rather than Christ’s Heaven, but belief plays a strong
role in the assignment of the dead to their Afterlives. They’d spent more of their lives studying Greek artifacts than
their church’s holy book and that is what brought them to the Elysian Fields instead of Heaven’s Pearly Gates.
From Persephone’s appearance, I knew it was still winter in the Upperworld and not yet time for Mother Demeter’s
summons to her beloved daughter to return and bring Spring to that realm. Her hair, ashen gray, was tied up at the
nape of her neck. The flesh covering her bones was paper thin, lined with wrinkles, and dotted with brown spots.
Blue veins stood out on her once-nimble hands, now swollen-knuckled and near wraithlike. Her eyes were ashen gray
instead of the green of spring leaves they usually were right when she returned to us. She always aged during her stint
in the Underworld, but I don’t think I could ever recall her reaching such a state of decrepitude before. Her condition
crept up on me—seeing it full on made my pulse speed with alarm.
“Are you—” I cut off my question. Plotting, cunning, crafty? Persephone had all her faculties despite her
confinement. Impulsive was the description I’d have given her in our shared youth, before our imprisonment in the
Underworld. Plotting was probably the best fit. If she wasn’t hatching some scheme to unseat her husband, Hades,
and take over his reign of the Underworld, she was seeking some loophole that would allow her back to the
Upperworld—or Olympus, if she was feeling particularly ambitious.
I can’t complain. Persephone’s schemes provide some diversion from my own situation. I never actively partake in
the coups because my own position is far too tenuous here, and I choose not to worsen it. When Hades notices me at
all, he treats me with a familial fondness since I am the daughter of his brother and his favored niece by virtue of
proximity. So far, Persephone has accepted my reticence with good graces. However, this time, she is near fanatically
insistent that I participate—and I am too weak-willed to deny her.
The centuries made Persephone as unrelenting as Apollo’s chariot crossing the skies each morning. Winter was
overlong, cold enough to penetrate even the Elysian Fields. She took matters into her own hands and sent spirits who
dwelled outside of Hades’ demesnes on the other side of the River Styx to explore the Upperworld. One of those
spirits located a suitable entry for mortals. Her scouts were not certain where they would end up in the Upperworld.
The language they heard was unfamiliar and the terrain did not look like Greece. But Persephone was doggedly
pursuing their scouting of the opening as an avenue of escape since no others seemed available. Pity stirred in my
breast for the locals near that portal, who no doubt have been visited by a plague of hauntings and creatures known
only in myth to the living with the most archaic of educations.
Living, yes, we both are still that—although it’s not a precise description for us, either. Persephone is the daughter of
a goddess and has been stuck in the Underworld by consuming forbidden fruit when she foolishly ventured here. I am
an oak nymph, who was killed at my own wedding, a foolish bride drunk on wine and love, who blindly danced to the
tune her husband played…straight onto the tail of a poisonous serpent.
My death was painful and in the arms of the man I loved. In the Elysian Fields, I thought I would never see Orpheus
until he died, no doubt of a great old age. Then, he charmed his way into Hell for me. Hades restored my life at the
behest of my husband, provided he could walk out of the Underworld before me without looking back. We almost
made it, save that Orpheus turned to see me while he was still in the light, and I was returned to Hades. Still, Hades’
gift of my life was an act of kindness I am grateful for, even though Orpheus failed.
Persephone tossed me a pile of similar clothing. I stared at the rough garments, the lyre my love had given me, and the
scratches I’d made on the cold, drab granite wall to mark Persephone’s annual departures to the Upperworld. If there
was even the slightest chance of seeing the sunshine again and hearing the sound of living children playing, I would
take it! I tossed off my chiton and dressed quickly.
While many came to hear me play my lyre, I only claimed the woman standing before me as friend. Even visiting the
Elysian Fields during the long months she was bringing Spring to the Upperworld was little balm to my soul. If she
truly was leaving, I could not bear to be alone in Hades.
I raced behind Persephone to the Styx. The river between the Upperworld and Underworld still flowed, dark and dank
as usual. This was not the sun-warmed sparkling flow of the Upperworld, but a dense murk even the Dead would not
set foot in willingly, let alone consider potable. Stench of decay burned the nostrils of the living who approached. You
did not risk looking long into the flow or spare even a glance at the tentacles and webs that floated to the top. It was
the stuff of madness, remnants of Gods far older than the Titans, the parents of the ones seated at Olympus.
The Boatman long ago tied his craft to the dock on our side of the Styx and freely roamed among the dead. His
companion, the three-headed Cerberus, often kept company with Persephone and me. Cerberus followed us now, his
stump of a tail wagging happily at the unaccustomed run. Though fearsome-appearing with his massive black body
and three heads, he was a gentle creature who harmed none save for those who threatened his master or attempted
unauthorized exits from Hades.
The Boatman greeted us with his customary grim smile. What he was doing would be considered an act of High
Treason. Persephone’s favor bought his silence—at least for long enough to get us across the Styx, I hoped.
I paused when I caught sight of our conveyance. The boat that carried so many souls from the mortal realm to Hades
was held together by splinters and perhaps the pressure of the water. How could such a dreaded conveyance fall to
such disrepair? Truth be told, I thought it made of far better stuff than mere wood—immortal as Hades, perhaps. I
doubted the sieve would even make it to the dock where the newly-dead once awaited their trip to the Underworld.
I still recalled when the recently deceased came in masses, anxious about Judgment, clutching their coins for payment
across the river. When the flood dwindled to a trickle, I visited the dock and played for the lone Boatman and
Cerberus. Some part of me worried that after putting Cerberus to sleep with his music, Orpheus would not be
welcome again. Hades himself assured me that when my husband died, he would come to the Underworld and join me
in the Elysian Fields.
“Are you certain, Persephone?” I watched in horror as she and the Boatman tossed countless overstuffed bags of the
gold coins he’d received as payment for passage into the Underworld onto the boat. The craft sank even further in the
murk with the weight of my companion’s greed.
“Do we need all this?” I carried only the lyre Orpheus gave me and the parchments with music I wrote during my
“Do we know how long we will live in this world?” Persephone demanded. “I, for one, do not want to be poor if
Mother refuses to let me stay with her the whole year.”
Demeter might well be a problem. Persephone had hatched her scheme in the midst of this latest long winter, when
she had no contact with her mother.
“Have you thought what your mother would do if Eternal Spring damaged the world?” I know Persephone hated
hearing what she considered negativity, but I had to ask. Demeter was chosen as custodian for the Earth because she
cared greatly for the mortal realm. While Demeter loved Persephone and wanted her company year-round, the
Upperworld settled on the schedule of seasons Persephone’s curse necessitated. The Earth was her child as much as
her daughter. It was possible the goddess would throw her child over for her charge.
“I won’t give her a choice,” Persephone huffed. “I am not coming back to Hell.”
Persephone stepped onto the boat and cast one backward look to me, daring me to join her. I took a breath and
stepped in. While the boat sank a bit in the murk, no water seeped in. I had no idea what god to pray to for safe
passage, so I kept my peace and watched the Boatman’s back. Just a glimpse of what rose from the waters could be
enough to leave me insane and helpless in a new world.
As the oars touched the waters, Styx whispered hideous secrets. I covered my ears and hummed, hoping the currents
would not fight us too much. The Boatman had their permission to cross. I was technically still alive, though bound to
Hades, but Persephone was escaping along a forbidden path.
If the boat was overturned…I swallowed and forced myself to stop that path of thinking. How could that be any
worse than living in the Underworld forever without my beloved Orpheus?
Despite the boat and our baggage, the Boatman was still swift on the oars. Persephone exhaled gratefully when we
reached the opposite bank. I eagerly stepped out onto the well-worn dock where many dead shed the last vestiges of
their lives. Persephone rose more sedately and thanked the Boatman with a kiss. Cerberus clambered off the boat and
onto the dock, his claws loudly scraping the well-worn wood.
“Go back,” Persephone ordered, pointing to the boat. “Stay with your Master.”
“Let him protect you,” the Boatman urged, his grim and aged face lined further with worry. We relented, considering
there was no way to stop the huge dog. Spirits aided us to our exit, levitating the baggage Persephone brought. I
carried my lyre, not trusting to anyone else my one cherished possession.
Persephone’s spirit agents arrayed themselves around us like a dense fog. Other fantastical creatures emerged from
the shadows to guide us. I wanted to ask once more if Persephone was sure. Were these creatures trustworthy, or
were they simply leading her into yet another misadventure? But I knew she wasn’t listening, and even if she did
respond, it would not change our direction one iota.
“Let’s go!” Persephone never was one for long farewells even when she was leaving for just a season. She gathered
up handfuls of her belongings and hastened toward the location where her spying spirits discovered the gap between
the worlds. I took up a sizeable portion of her burden and watched as the creatures aided us with the rest.
Already, I could see the evidence other beings traversed our route. Someone or some thing had shifted the rocks so
the path was smoother. The dust revealed by the light of Persephone’s lantern showed the mark of many prints from
more corporeal beings.
Large prints, I noted when my boot-shod foot was dwarfed stepping in one. Hades kept the monsters at bay within
his demesnes, but out here they ranged free. Indeed, there were plenty enough poor souls without the coin to pay the
ferryman stuck on this side of the river to feed the monsters’ endless hunger. The creatures were the crows on the
battlefield, the sharks in the sea, and they dined like royalty on the blood of the cast-offs: orphans, loners, victims of
theft, abandoned ones with no one to tend to their corpses.
No time for the threnody that rose in my breast. The monsters’ bellies roared for succor. Who knows how long it’d
been since they had a good meal from the impoverished dead? I shivered, contemplating the steep and treacherous
way back. I’d picked my way upward; I had no illusion that I could run down without mishap.
A low, rumbling growl sounded in the darkness. Cerberus answered with a snarl from deep inside his broad chest that
chilled the cavern even further than the dank could. I shivered, hesitating, wanting to turn back for the safety of
Hades. But there was no return. I’d heard the splash of the Boatman’s oars behind us as we departed the dock.
Massive furred creatures shambled from the caves around us, their eyes glowing a poisonous green in the darkness,
their fetid breath carrying the coppery stench of old blood. They bore no resemblance to what one could see in the
beautifully-drawn bestiaries from the Library of Alexandria. Instead, they looked like parts of the finished predators,
cobbled together by some clumsy creator drunk on honey wine.
And far more lethal.
Persephone and I drew together. Her teeth clattered and she reached a chilled hand out to grasp mine. I trembled,
drawing my dagger, which I doubted would even cut the beasts’ shaggy hair.
Cerberus moved between us and the fiercest of our stalkers. His hackles rose, nearly doubling the huge canine’s size.
He let out a long growl, lunged and seized the largest of our attackers with his massive jaws. The thing howled with
the grief of hundreds of lost souls and evaporated. The rest of the circle faded, leaving us trembling in our boots.
“Make haste,” Persephone said. “Who knows if they’ll return with friends.”
I took a trembling step and staggered into her. Persephone groaned like an old woman at the impact. Neither of us had
a free hand to rub her back where I’d struck.
As we continued, our way grew narrower. Soon, we were climbing upward in a shaft of rock scarcely wide enough
for us and our burdens. My breath caught in my chest like a stagnant pool. There was scarcely enough air for the
three of us to inhale in such close quarters.
Persephone struggled with the uneven footholds, but she gamely continued on without complaint. Though she didn’t
give voice to her concern, I was certain she knew her condition far better than I did, and that was what spurred her
decision to flee.
“Hurry!” Persephone’s voice echoed eerily in the narrow shaft of rock we climbed. When she had difficulty, I pushed
her from behind, knowing she was slowed by her time in Hades. The sound was no longer the smooth peal of a
young girl’s call; it was pitted and cracked like a neglected patch of road.
Persephone carried a lantern, which provided only vague illumination. Despite her wobbly movements, she continued
as though Hades himself chased us. I struggled to keep up, often sliding back as I choose poorer hand-holds in favor
of speed. The heavy hide battle gloves we’d “borrowed” from drunken heroes in the Elysian Fields were already
tearing on crags. Muscles in my arms, unaccustomed to anything but music and dance, ached with each upward pull,
but I’d never return to the Underworld now. As a halfling oak nymph and daughter of Apollo, I had a long lifespan
coming to me.
Earlier times, when Persephone ascended to the Upperworld for Spring, Demeter sent down a stairway of gold that
carried Persephone upward without her having to lift a foot. As Mankind’s faith shifted to newer gods, Persephone’s
ascent became less impressive. The stairway appeared as stone, then wood, then a wooden ladder with rungs spread
far apart. Finally, a knotted and twisted rope ladder I would not have trusted with my life.
We knew the Olympians were fading. Hephaestus, who occasionally came to call and work his underground forge,
was even more unattractive each year. The others made little attempt to venture from their secure locations on
Olympus and interfere in the affairs of man. Mother Hera had only to watch her husband’s adulterous actions with the
denizens of Olympus instead of the whole world.
Hades’ power was rapidly decreasing even more than his kindred. Persephone sabotaged her husband and daily spiked
his ambrosia with the waters of Lethe, the powerful substance that allowed the grieving dead to forget their woes. He
staggered half-clad, unable to recall anything. Still, the Underworld would survive without Hades presiding. Hades
himself would even survive, but in a form so diminished he would probably have preferred not to if he’d been given
the choice. I wondered why Persephone rushed when she’d diminished him so. He could not possibly pursue us.
Perhaps the dead could if they knew we were leaving. The world may have surrendered power to a new faith, but the
dead, residing in the glorious reward of the Elysian Fields or the suffering of Tartarus, hung onto their belief, keeping
the magic of the Underworld alive.
Does Orpheus live? I recalled my last sight of my husband gilded with Upperworld sunshine, his handsome face
turned back, deft hands extended to aid me the last steps into the sunlight. That kindness was our undoing. Had he not
looked back, I would have made it safely to the Upperworld and continued my life with him. I do not blame him for
not trusting the God of the Dead. Hades was like his brothers, treacherous and toying with those he considered lesser
than he. While he laughed that Orpheus charmed his way into the Underworld, we all knew he’d made certain such an
event would never happen again. It was a matter of pride.
Unlike Persephone, I’d taken no lovers as consolation. I am still untouched since my death and saving myself for my
husband. I have slept alone every night. How could I cuckold a man who’d faced Hades to bring me back to the
Upperworld? True, he’d failed, but that failure was born out of love. I could not accept another.
No, I told myself. If Orpheus is not in the Underworld, he is not dead! No one who’d come to Hades since I’d
returned could tell me he was dead. I would not cease looking until I knew for sure. My job in the Upperworld was to
find my husband!
A polite nip at my heels sped me upward. Cerberus’ six glowing red eyes terrified me until I got accustomed to him.
Having no job after stopping Theseus’ and Pirithous’ attempt to kidnap Persephone, he’d shifted allegiance to
Persephone, who kept him more entertained than Hades ever could. When Persephone left for the Upperworld,
Cerberus often came to rest at my feet and listen to my music.
I was grateful for the dog’s company. Two women alone in the Upperworld weren’t safe, though I was uncertain
how we were going to hide his size and heads from the Upperworld dwellers.
A new god presided in the realm of men. My fellow oak nymphs could well have disbanded, but we would live as long
as the trees nonetheless. Oddly, Demeter managed to survive Christianity. She was still respected and cared for by
those in agrarian fields, according to the scholars Persephone took our clothing from. My father, Apollo, must still
rule the day. I was certain I could see the light from his great chariot guiding us out of this dark place.
We didn’t expect power or obeisance. We packed for survival. We’d weighted ourselves with as much gold from the
ferryman as we could carry. The leather sacks were so full, the coins hardly clinked. Even Cerberus panted beneath
the weight tied to his broad, muscular back. I wanted desperately to drop the load weighing down every step, but I
didn’t wish to incur Persephone’s wrath—and she may well be right that we would need the gold in the Upperworld
without our Olympian patrons’ influence.
“We’re close,” Persephone called, voice trembling. “The air’s fresher.”
I heaved a sigh of relief. Now the light from the opening was brighter than the lantern. Dirt was mixed with the stone.
Soon, my hands encountered long roots. Cold flesh crawled up my arm. My heart pounded like a drum as I bit back a
scream, held tight and plucked at the thing with my free hand to throw it far away from me. Laughter, near hysterical,
bubbled up in my throat when I realized it was a worm and not my deadly enemy, the snake.
Please, let there be enough room for us to escape, I hoped as we sped our upward movement, straining my muscles
like taut ropes. I was no stranger to irony. Daughter of the sun god I was, but I had experience where my dreams
were snatched from my fingertips just as I believed I reached them. :
First, my death at our wedding. Then, my return to the Underworld when I’d been within a step of the threshold
between Life and Death. I knew Orpheus grieved at our parting as much as I. The dead I asked about him told me
he’d only given his love to youths and sang threnodies.
Later, the dead only knew of my love in legend. Where had the father of songs gone? His Thracian father, King
Oeagrus, reveled in the Elysian Fields with heroes. Had his mother, the muse Calliope, kept him by her side? How
could I blame her? He could woo the animals and even get the trees to follow him with his music.
For the first time in centuries, I smelled fresh air. My tired body responded like I’d been reborn. I pushed upward
with enough force to jog Persephone. This time, she did not complain. I heard her grunt and heave as she struggled to
make the last approach to freedom.
The tunnel went dark as Persephone shifted out of my view. I choked on dust sifted down into my face, but I pushed
on, scrabbling upward. Hands clasped my wrists. Persephone pulled me up, then we both aided Cerberus.
I stood, realizing we were in a cave, a sort of mouth with a jagged bite of teeth carved out of a hillside. A few feet
ahead and just slightly uphill, I could see blue sky. Persephone busied herself unloading the bags of gold and putting
them into a pile. Then we rolled boulders over the opening to Hades realm.
“Stay,” Persephone ordered Cerberus as she tucked gold into a boot. Her voice sounded young and vigorous again.
“Guard the rest.”
Our companion whimpered. I didn’t blame him. To follow us and be denied the world? On the other hand, I had never
seen a three-headed dog when I was alive. I wrapped my arms around Cerebus’ warm neck and just held him, feeling
moist breath, a heartbeat against my body. I scratched behind his ears and the back of his neck and felt him groan.
“We’ll return for you when it’s safe.” I promised.
I dared not pray that we could keep that promise.