Persephone at the Edge

Originally published in Dark Sky Magazine, September 2010.

for Joan Reilly

Where the river meets rock and dirt, bone and blood and fire, you will find the abyss. You might sense a creeping monstrosity that inches in the spectrum of light outside of human sight. Your skin might prickle to feel the power of a great windstorm that moves invisibly without anything to whip around, and you might fear that it will come to you, meet you at the threshold, suck you into the parlor and down the halls to who knows where.

Once there was a girl who let long locks of braided blond fall from the tower just before the witch had time to fly up with a broomstick and sweep out the window clean, or there was the time when a tiny man spun straw over the spinning wheel turning it to gold in exchange for a newborn babe to be cradled in crooked old arms. There were pictures in storybooks and Persephone was a favorite with her dark hair and lips that sucked the pomegranate seeds in the land of the dead. And there was the flood: the flood in the basement when the creek bed could no longer contain the mountain run-off and stave the river’s waters, when no one was Noah, and there were no arks on which to float away.

I can tell you a thing or two about the abyss. But first, there are things you must know about time.

The waters will flood. The waters are flooding. The waters flooded, and her eyes, her eyes are full of water until her mother drops pounds of dirt into her pupils and those circles turn to mud and she waits to see what will dry and what will slide.

There is a girl on the banks of the river and her body is not bleeding. There are water birds, herons and swans, and they fly to her eyes and land in a circle on the outlines of her irises. They crowd the dry spots and others take flight and circle over the reflections in her pupils. Her name is flowers, and she sees birds that come from the sky. She is dry with blood crusted under her fingernails. She thinks about stepping down into the water, but it is deep and she suspects something writhes and coils below the surface. Sunlight reflects and glistens. The birds notice and sometimes they take flight back over the waters. They are white. They are invisible in white light.

In another life, I was the daughter of the mother earth, Persephone on the banks of the Black River. I was a girl standing at the river’s edge when the air suddenly went still, and the water parted, and the horses came, and there was a man who wanted to take me with him.

“When I was a girl, the river flooded over its banks, and Main Street was swallowed by the current,” my mother says. She was 3 years old, and the newspapers say the Youghigheny River rose to 32 1/2 feet that day. It was 1954. “I remember a motor boat going down the street toward the bridge,” she says. “West Newton flooded often,” she says. Yet, it is hard to say that after each time the town felt washed clean when the waters went back down and what remained was the mud and the debris: the driftwood and vehicles, dead animals and building planks, the river rot caught in the drains.

But so it was. The river lived in basements in the years before I was born and my mother went down the steps, year after year, to clean up the mess of its living after it vacated and the floors were fully dry. She would carry pieces of furniture and boxes full of books that someone else’s mother once read or old photographs and newspaper clippings. There were heirloom items, dressers that were not needed or old dishes and tea sets that may once have been wedding gifts. The pieces of unused domesticity and memorabilia were moved upstairs before the new tenant arrived and then, once the water was gone, they were put back into the foundation of the house, and my mother would walk back up the steps, get another box.

When the earth opened, the birds squawked and flew off into the sun. Blackness poured from the ground, and the light fell silent. The river ran like an umbilical thread leading down into the passage from which we came, down through ash and bone and dirt. “Come back,” he said. The harnessed horses pulled us down the watery canal, and we continued to go down and down until we reached the end that is not the bottom. The end is the center, and it is the abyss, where it should be dark and black, except it is not. The abyss is full of molten lava and the earth’s plasma. Breath is warm, and the internal arteries glow like fire, and they are red like blood.

At its center, the earth does not rotate, and time stands still.

I want to tell him that I imagine him in a room full of quilts, each stitched together by the many women in my family. I want to tell him that I imagine him in an upstairs room where sunlight sifts yellow through bedroom curtains.

In the swamps of Louisiana, there is a pagan woman who read my tarot cards and cast love spells with red and pink candles. She trusted the moon and drummed on the spring equinox and told me the swamps are about discovering the depths of the human psyche. “People who come to the swamps,” she said “come to work through the muck that gets too thick to trudge through.” She was someone who came to the swamps. I was someone who came to the swamps. “I believe that,” she said and spoke of the goddess of destruction, banishment, and black magic.

Those were the years of the hurricanes, and the small shrimping villages where many more houses once stood are not yet rid of the muck. From a car, a young man pointed to the lots where his brother once lived, where his grandfather was born. Concrete steps inched up to no door, no home. Just up. Just air. And we are at the bottom. The land will never dry, and I find myself going back, years after I left, back to the muck because I have too much river rot caught in my blood. I drop black stones into the water but can’t see through the green foam and water lettuce as they sink into the mud. Go back, I say.

At the center, I look into the waters of memory and the lake of forgetting and cannot decide from which I will drink.

To my mother, I say, “I don’t want to go into the basement.” It is dark, and the bedspread is now stained, and the spot is dark as well, not red like fresh and living, but dark, like stale and dying and dead. She hands me the broom and tells me to clean up the mess I made and we are not in rooms full of him and sun and yellow and flame. I begin to choose the waters of forgetting.

I remember two moments. The first: I was standing at the river. In Prague at the Charles Bridge. The sun glows behind the castle. Musicians play horns at the church doorstep behind me. Christ is a silhouette. A family of swans swims down the river. Fucking swans, and it feels like a fairy tale. It feels like beautiful, and it feels like heartache and loneliness. The swans swim under the bridge, and they are gone. The sun sets behind the castle, and it is gone. The musicians pack their trumpets, and they are gone.

The second: Climbing up steps steep with feet and hands to the top of the sun pyramid, and the sun, always the sun moving and moving and moving, coming up over the hills. There is fog and dew. Small villages are scattered around us. Morning bells ring. A couple in their fifties are nearby doing sun salutations and a stray dog nuzzles my hand. And that sun and that light, the dirt and sand and stone piled high beneath my feet, the Mexican who almost became a priest but married the girl after me. I don’t want to go back down. I don’t want to leave. But I do, and I am gone.

I am gone, and the crops are dead, and the soil is hardened cold.

We sit in the dining chamber, and, of course, there is all of the stolen fruit, but the pomegranate was mine already, and I carried it with me until it mashed and stained the skirt of my dress. When I stand, juice drips. I slip and scrape my knees, and soon they are open like fountains and my white socks are turning pink.

“That is nothing,” he says and takes hold of my wrist and carves through it as if his steak knife is a scalpel and my arm is made of expensive marble or some other slick and shiny stone. “For you,” he says, “I’ll carve out vengeance and magic — after all, they are already there.” He shapes my arm into a feathery wing, and from the new tips, the furies birth out, wet and flighty. They forever fly, dripping with birth blood poured from my body. They are water birds, and their beaks are made for plucking.

About fifty miles from the town of West Newton, the mountain spring water pours out of the rock in underground caverns. It runs clean, and I press my hands to the sandstone, lean in, and take a drink.

“Tell me if my blood runs clean,” I ask, and he leans in, licks a clipped and wounded wing, takes a drink. The blood still runs and he cups it, pours it into my muddy eyes and I can feel something that swims. I shut my eyes to keep those other vicious birds away. They are flying in with the flood, and they want to dive back into my eyes, and this time the room floods fire and lava and my mother is coming down the steps calling to me, telling me that it is time to go home. I sew myself back together before I drown, stitch together the severed pieces of me, but I am flushed out nonetheless. My eyes are closed but I feel wings and feathers fluttering around my neck. I fly down the river and there is my mother coming down the banks, and she is ready to clean me up and rub me dry.

I open my eyes and they are green with swamp lettuce, though sometimes I feel the water moccasin and poison swim just below the surface of my sight, and the furies are always waiting and cawing and pecking at the wooden doors. And sometimes the white snowy egrets dive down and orchids grow from the slime and murkiness. And sometimes it seems as though the earth stops moving, and everything happens at once.

I was a girl standing at the river’s edge when there was a man who wanted to take me with him.

It never occurred to me that he could have been a god because it never had occurred to me that
          I was a girl standing at the river’s edge when the water parted like the Red Sea parted for Moses,

there were those kinds of gods. But, yet, there he was, yanking me along
          with all of the smoke and all of the burning, but I could not see through to the end of this passage.
                    I was a girl standing at the river’s edge when the horses came, rearing up like beasts from hades

and his touch felt like night and it felt like fire. And if the story were questioned, I could say that
          There was no promised land in sight, only the pillar of fire in the distance, obscuring the landscape
                    and I couldn’t help but think they were beautiful. Their hooves kicked up the silt of the river bed
                              I was a girl standing at the river’s edge when the air went still and the bees stopped buzzing, and

I remember if only to forgive because I cannot live in anger and loneliness forever. But, truth be told, it never mattered
          that surrounded it with its haze, and I knew that not even that flame could hold the water
                    and they could have easily trampled me down and half-buried me as they kicked the dirt
                              one could wonder in awe at the amount of motion there is in the world when finding the point

that I didn’t know he could fill a kingdom with gifts left on dining tables
          back forever and soon after, as quickly as the water had receded, it would come tsunaming
                    back over my pile of bones, moving the earth with them. But, I also couldn’t help but imagine that
                              when all is quiet. Without the wind, the sunlight felt warmer on my skin and it felt more golden

or that his fingers left burn marks on my arms and thighs. He is the one I remember
          back, flooding those banks and drowning those not quick enough to run away.
                    if I could just reach up and touch the tops of their noses as they snorted and their hot breath
                              as golden is a tender caress. The silence is sweeter when even the tiniest of violets and buttercups

because he is the one I wanted to love the most, and memory might escape our grasp
          But, yet, with each flood, the earth diver will swim to the bottom collecting bits of soil slowly
                    moistened my forearms and wrists that hovered over their nostrils, if I could
                              smell like sunshine when the cicadas stop humming and the birds

just as easily as any person, but we’ll go on and make it new anyway, saying “I remember when”
          handful by handful, piling new ground on which we will all stand and
                    pet the soft membrane around their mouths and feel the thick hair that clings closely to their bodies
                              have all gone away when the sun drops from the sky or when girls are plucked

every day and the vision may change, but the sentiment remains. I’ve always wanted
          live our newer lives, digging for memories of that first birth when the flood waters
                    or the felt textures of their ears, they would have stopped and rested, nuzzling
                              from the day.

someone who would run away with me, because even then I knew that lives were meant to be lived.
          brought us in with the tide. Try as we might, we only suspect there was something earlier and
                    their heads against my body, their ears pricked to hear the rhythm of my lungs and the beat of my heart.

We will all go on, nonetheless, like we do in those moments when we are young,
          older, worn and dirty and lived, something equally as sacred.

before time slips like water, and settles slowly into stillness.

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Categories: Writing

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