Bloom and Wilt

Bloom and Wilt by Brendon Zatirka

ἔστι μοι κάλα πάις χρυσίοισιν ἀνθέμοισιν
my girl is pretty in her gown of gold roses
—Sappho

I am on guard, and I have been ever since he plucked me from the field I called home.

I have the luxury to languish no longer—not among the flowers, not on my own throne—but I must stand tense as a weaver’s loom threads.

I can still smell the rose petals in the field—a stench of withered pink and brown, of death among the bloom. Standing along the shore of the Acheron, my spine stiff, the last flutters of a breeze rustle the white poplars and carry perfumes over from Nysa. I can still feel the lines of grass pressed into my legs. I can feel their absence. Here in my new domain, there is no soft grass. Only craggy shores, stiff peaks, and deep waters.

And yet, bright roses grow from my palm. Stems stiff and straight and covered in thorns to protect itself, while petals whirl and ripen open into a fragrant bloom. I can feel the life flow through my hands. The roses smell like her, and I want to give them to her, like I used to do every morning.

Until he plucked me away, made me his queen, gave me equal domain in this land.

But from this far away, not too many of Dawn’s smiling rays hit our land and light up our mountainous slabs of rock. Her golden throne sits at the opposite end of the world. And it’s with a longing that I watch the still surface of the Acheron catch distant sparkles of her light.

How I miss her. I miss her bright saffron robes and the birdsong that accompanies her every stride. I miss the warmth of her umber hands over my arms while we lay in the meadows together, entwined with each other.

How many months until I can make my visit back?

There are no snowfalls here to tell me. No more birdsong.

Here, I only hear the soft churn of water at the rocks. That lapping, quiet and peaceful and steady, though not at all melodious like the spring. I listen, my ears perked up, always for the shift in waves, for a crash to break the stillness. It happens every day, several times a day. It marks the arrival of someone to our land.

But now the waters start to rush, and my back stiffens. Something’s not right. Waves curl black-blue against the rocks, dashing here and there a spray of salt that dapples the hem of my rosy peplos. In there, too, is the creak of oars.

These frantic waves tell me someone living is on their way. I can feel it in the air. They’re moving with a flow of life, arms stretching and pulling against the water, the crackle of a thundercloud in their straining muscles. The dead have lost all this. They’re stagnant.

Frightened, I pick up the trail of my peplos and stride across the coarse land, back up to the marble and bronze house atop the tallest hill, dropping the flowers my hands grew. Their petals peel to ash.

I cross over the threshold and try to warm myself near a brazier, but the cold I feel here never sloughs off me. It sheaths me, ever gripping my skin.

Dead slaves flutter about the halls, having heard the waves of our mortal visitor, too. They prepare the halls to couch and feed our guest. While they are busy, I walk on through to the throne room, through the high pillars wrapped in bronze, under the ceiling of bronze beaten into a pattern of poplar leaves. I walk up to the olive-wood throne inlaid with whorls of silver, where my quiet husband sits.

I look into his eyes while my hand drifts to his cheek. Warmth builds between our flesh, and color returns to his face.

“We have a guest,” I say quietly.

He says nothing back, coldly.

The power of Hades is in his presence. Who need question the authority of the lord of the underworld? It’s a power that binds me to a fate I never asked for. Sometimes even gods cannot get what they want.

I take my seat next to him and sit in silence, yet I am on guard. I have been on guard since I sat by and waited for Zeus to plan my fate. Zeus, with his thundering godhead, languished in his own home while my mother implored him to fetch me back, to return me to my meadows among the peaks of Nysa. Because my mother, like me, was powerless. My mother taught me to wait patiently, to endure, as she learned from watching the wheat grow.

So as my mother sat helplessly under Zeus’s decision, I too sit under Hades’s presence.

But I am not entirely helpless.

The heavy bronze doors open slowly. They take several slaves to coax the bolts, and another slave passes through, approaching the throne and bending to one knee.

“Orpheus has traveled from distance shores for an audience,” he says dutifully.

My husband, still as a statue, does not speak. He simply looks onward, his eyes fixed to the floor in front of him, like a powerful king should. The spot where those who fear him and acknowledge his power are meant to kneel and beg.

Only in his silence, his refusal to speak, may I act as intercessor in the eye of our audience. They only see a fraction of my power, because they see Hades first.

“Bring him in,” I say, my voice a salve against the slave’s fear. “Have a lavish spread brought in to feed our guest.”

The slave bows his head before leaving the hall. Shortly after, several others come in bearing a golden platter dressed with figs and roasted meats, along with a cup of wine diluted for the mortal guest. They set the canapés onto a small bronze table next to the fireplace, its legs twined like tree roots. They also lay a fleece down on the seat of the chair.

When Orpheus enters the hall, he does so meekly.

He approaches the twin thrones and kneels, a gold-leaf lyre in his hands. Suddenly my heart flitters—an ache for birdsong.

Again, when my husband refuses to speak and merely keeps his eyes fixed onto his guest, I am the one who address Orpheus.

“You have come a long distance, dear mortal. But before we attend to business, we must eat like guest and host should.”

Orpheus gives a slight smile and does not object. He sits atop the fleeced-seat and helps himself to the platter, while slaves bring me a double-handled bowl of ambrosia to eat. Both in Nysa and here, ambrosia has retained its delicate sweetness—honeyed, floral, light. A food I never grow tired of.

After slaves carry the dishes away, the dear mortal once more approaches my seat.

“Daughter of Zeus and Demeter, justice-dealing queen. You wield life in your hands and command the gates of this land, and so I come to you for what I ask. I come bearing leaves of gold, etched with delicate lyrics for you.”

A stand from my seat, gown trail in hand, and take the steps down to him. From his hand, I grasp the thin sheets of gold leaf. Elegant lines are pressed onto the shimmer. I can almost hear the music in my head that these hymns would accompany. Almost like birdsong. It’s a pleasant gift, a hopeful prayer wrapped in gold, and what’s more is it’s for me and me alone.

“Very well, dear mortal. What do you seek?”

I stand over him and feel him bend to my will. This is what my husband feels merely from sitting, never standing. To have a mortal man’s wishes in my hands, to wilt them or make bloom, if I desire. That is power.

“My darling wife, Eurydice, was bitten by a serpent in a meadow—”

Memories flash before me: the soft grass leaving lines in my bare skin; the soft grass falling away as petals fall from my hands; cold claws grasp my wrist and pluck. . .

“The bite was venomous,” Orpheus continues. “She is dead, and here, dwelling in your domain.”

My husband is unmoved by the sobs of loss, the pleas of a man who misses his darling wife. He feels nothing for a man who is delicate. Hades is the type of man carelessly rips out a flower, root and all. But my hands, accustomed to plucking flowers so petals don’t drop, gently hold the gold leaves from Orpheus.

I speak. “You wish to bring your wife back across the Acheron to the living lands?”

“I do.”

I know that longing in his heart. It’s the longing that keeps me going—the longing for when I can visit their land again, when Dawn meets me halfway and warms the meadows again, when I can see my mother among the tickling wheat.

Is that a thread of mercy in my heart?

A source of power.

Again, my eyes drift down to his offering, the hymns written as fast as a stylus can dash across delicate leaves of gold.

“Play this hymn, and if it moves me, you and your darling may both sail home.”

Even in the dim, gray light of the palace, a smile radiates from Orpheus. He is sure. He pulls out a small glass bottle from his knapsack and unstoppers it and drizzles drops of oil through his fingers. Their tips are coated and shimmery. Then he folds his arm around his lyre, gold-leaf resting smoothly in the nook of his arm, and soon his fingertips trickle across the threads.

A slow melody fills the room. The chords are supple like honey. And when I close my eyes, I’m taken away from these cold halls and find myself in a warm field again, doused in the same gold as the wheat growing in waves.

Here, birds fill my ears with their whispers and jeers, trills of the morning. I can smell the fennel and celery nearby, that perfume my mother wears.

In the distance is a small home. Marble, with high columns and a bronze roof. And from those open doors, a perfume of burning storax mingles with the muttering of women young and old, of children and mothers. . .

The hymn trickles to an end, and I open my eyes to the high, gray halls once more.

I can still feel my husband’s presence. And then I again notice the man standing before me, and I remember who he is and why he came here.

“This is a pleasant hymn,” I say, still holding the gold leaves in my fingers. “But it does not move me.”

A craving fills my belly, and I know this lyrist has more in him. He can take me to where I want to be, even if for a moment. Is that not why the mortals sing songs and tales, to travel to places they might not be able? And here I am, chained to this throne.

Orpheus’s face falters, a crack of his smile no longer radiant.

“Lovely-tressed queen, I—”

“You may dwell in our lands for three days,” I interrupt. “Compose me a beautiful song that reminds me of a spring morning. If your new song moves me better, you and your darling may both sail home.”

Orpheus musters a smile before being escorted out of the throne room.

I follow him shortly after, alone, but not before glancing at my silent, statuesque husband. He is cold. But I leave him, and a calm loosens my spine.

***

It has been a day since Orpheus’s arrival. He now sits hunkered up in one of the many rooms of our house. And while he composes next to a plate of figs and peeled oranges, I walk the craggy trail to the home I’ve provided Eurydice.

The marble is tinged with soot, but it’s still a lovely building with big bronze doors and two big lamps burning on either side. Next to it is an old olive tree, its verdant leaves black against our bruised sky. The olives never grow to sweetness though. They grow rotten and fall off the branches into a sad pile of mush. Same with the rose bushes that spiral out of the soil, their branches like shoots sticking out here and there with wilted, brownish-pink heads. Dead petals perfume the road up to her door.

I arrive, and Eurydice is sitting at her fireplace and needles a piece of fabric through with colorful threads.

She stands and bows to her knees as I enter.

After offering me some little honey cakes, we sit by the fire and I tell her Orpheus has journeyed here for her.

“He is really here to bring me back?” she asks.

I nod.

“Isn’t it funny how both of us were plucked from the realm of the living?” I ask. “Yet your husband journeys here to bring you back out of love. He misses you dearly, I can tell.”

A pink tinges Eurydice’s brassy cheeks.

“Will you let him take me home?”

Again, memories flash like my father’s cloud-fire. Rage roiling off me as the meadow’s loamy ground falls away from beneath my feet. Out of desperation, I grab for something, only for my fingers to dig into the sky and rip away warmth and life. I pull it with me—draining the grass of its vibrant green, shriveling up the leaves of trees, leaving the meadow defenseless against newly trespassing frost. As he carries me across the salty blue, gray and brown dearth remains.

Such power . . .

to take life away from the land . . .

to give it back when I visit.

I curl my fingers into my hand and steady myself. Then I look at Eurydice. Here, in the domain of the dead her usual coppery skin is cooled into brass, and I fear what I’m capable of.

But I respond, “I do not know.”

“You will not let him?”

“Should he not prove his love first?”

I can feel the cold run off my words and chill her even more. She shivers and pulls up the wool cloak. But I reach for her hand and offer a slight smile—the little reassurance I can gift. Warmth grows between my palm and her hand. She understands. Like the prayers muttered by mothers and children at my altars, our language is our own.

I stand up and ready to return home. I cannot leave my husband alone too long.

***

A long time ago, before I was brought into this world, Hera challenged Zeus’s seat on Olympus when he ruled like fiery air over the lands, his anger burning through mortals.

But whatever Hera attempted failed, and Zeus, once more taking up his role as king of gods, stormed blows against her and hung her up from the clouds by chains of burning gold wrapped around her dainty wrists, crushed and bruised. And to her ankles he tied stones as heavy as the earth and sea.

Hera keened through the sky.

The goddesses who witnessed this said the queen’s cries were so horrible that they all joined in, beating their breasts and pulling their hair in wails. But they could only do so from a distance, since thundering Zeus glowed with wrath when anyone tried to free Hera from those fiery chains.

This is a story I used to hear among the women of Olympus, whenever my mother or any of the other mothers questioned Zeus or his choices. They would warn and remind one another.

“Remember when . . .”

Hera never spoke of this, though.

That was Zeus’s power. Those before me watched as he crashed lightning against our grandparents in the great war. We have heard him speak, heard his voice tremble the skies and threaten to break brittle mortals. He made himself king, and we fall in line.

These are the stories that remind me of my helplessness and the dangers facing me. Even as a goddess, even with life and death running through my fingers, I have limits.

Zeus the almighty.

Zeus the lord of skies.

Zeus the brother of my husband.

I fear him.

***

It has been three days since Orpheus’s arrival and he is on his way down to the throne room. I wrap bands of laurel leaves dipped in gold around my arm and tie back my hair. I must get to high hall before my guest.

When I arrive, I go up to my husband, who is already sitting in his throne. I perform my daily ritual of touching his cheek, warmth passing from fingertips to cheeks, and reassuring him of my place next to him. He does not speak to me.

The doors open once more, and Orpheus walks in. His gold-leaf lyre is in his soft grip. The slaves bring Eurydice in shortly after him, and the two of them run to each other’s embrace. In that moment, a little color returns to Eurydice’s brassy cheek, like the sun peeking over the horizon in the early spring.

It hurts my heart to see that warmth.

“Stranger to this land,” I say, my voice curling over the room and washing over Orpheus. “Have you composed a new song for me?”

“One that is far more fitting to you than my previous hymn.” The man smiles, his teeth glittering with confidence, something that must’ve come back to life inside him upon his beloved’s sight.

Is that envy I feel whispering against my neck? Whatever it is, I shoo it away, and turn all my attention back to Orpheus. “I am waiting,” I say.

He holds his lyre with dainty fingers, cradling it in his arms like a husband whispering lovely poems into his wife’s ears. It is a precious instrument, and much of his happiness lies in it. With supple, oiled fingers, he begins plucking the strings, and notes drip like honey into my ears.

It’s immediate. The melody moves between somber and soft, to fluttering and fast. It’s a beautiful sound that would move even the coldest gods.

I am transported outside a walled city, its smooth limestone cutting bold silhouettes out of the creamy sky, and behind that Dawn climbs the cloudless blue with a slow gait, golden roses dropping from her feet and flaking the horizon.

There is trill of thrushes in the distant green, a long-short-short song that flows with the meters of the mortal bards. It fits with the fluttering notes. It grounds me in the field, and I see violets blossoming fragrantly at my feet.

The sun grows brighter, slanting against the meadow, and Dawn’s rosy arms reach down for me.

More somber melody. I feel a warm breeze.

Sunlight tickles my face. I can feel Dawn’s embrace as we lay against the soft grass.

Orpheus’s fingers stop, and I drop like a rotten fig into my seat once more, the cold of my new home choking me like when water drowns roots.

After a moment, I gather myself and watch the two mortals—one dead, one desperate. The way he looks at her with hope, with confidence that his song has moved me, that he saw something in me. He is right. His song took me to places I can only dream of now, and it brought me back to her.

Golden face, rosy arms.

I watch as the woman who has kept me company as of late begins to fill with color and the pale that crept into her skin recedes. Brass to copper, dark and warm.

I ponder them. I ponder the lengths he would go for her to prove his love. He would take a boat across the Acheron to the world’s edge to fetch her back. He would risk life to see her again, while my own husband stripped me of mine.

Hades did not hold me as delicately as Orpheus cradles his lyre or his wife’s hand. Orpheus does not grip them like he means to rip her roots. Rather, he nourishes her.

He and I are alike. Pink roses flourish at my touch and I gift them to Dawn, and Orpheus only has to look at Eurydice, and pink flushes through her cheeks.

I stand up, so my voice carries through the hall. “You have moved me, Orpheus. You and your dear wife are free to travel back across the Acheron. I will no longer keep her confined to these shores.”

With a flash of a smile, Eurydice gets onto her knees. “I honor you, mistress of the house.”

They leave, and I am alone at last.

I sit back in my throne, but my mind is elsewhere. I long for those drops of honey from Orpheus’s lyre again, those notes that took me back across the Acheron.

To the lush green.

To the fragrant flowers.

To her.

But the weight of a miserable reality is heavy on my shoulders, heavy in my chest. I can feel my heartstrings struggling to keep from snapping. For even if I miss Dawn smiling with a bouquet of roses in her arms, I know I cannot runaway and abandon my seat in this domain, not if I want avoid Zeus’s wrath.

The slaves shut the doors behind them, and I can let out a breath of spring air—crisp, refreshing. The knots wound through my limbs—the nerves and muscles held tight—finally unfurl with the untying of Orpheus’s mooring lines.

I sit on my throne and breath with the power I’ve taken.

My husband sits still as ever, his body like a statue . . .

exactly how I made him.

Because what Hades failed to grasp was this: he was the king of the dead, but I am death and life in one body. I raise the fields and orchards with one hand, and wilt leaves and fruit with the other.

It is with these hands that I made my husband appear alive still in Orpheus’s presence, trapped in stasis. It is with these hands that I stole every drop of life from his body, making him a statue I’ve placed on the throne next to me, a monument to the power I have seized.

Because I know too well the stories of men and the stories of Zeus and what he did to his own wife and my mother. I know what he would do if he found out Hades had been harmed.

So I keep him by me and every day I press my fingers to his cheeks to warm them with just enough life to fool anyone, from mortals to the king of gods. And they are fools because they underestimate me, like Hades did.

My husband is my prison and my power, and that is my miserable reality.

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About the Author

  1. Avatar Brendon Zatirka (1 story )

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    Brendon grew up in Detroit, lives in Chicago, and graduated from the University of Chicago. When not writing about speculative worlds, he teaches and translates classical and medieval literature.

5 thoughts on
Bloom and Wilt


  1. This is a fantastic story from start to end! Very well written! Once I started I could not stop…..Thank you for sharing! I’m looking forward to the next….



  2. Absolutely fantastic. Beautiful, evocative writing, from start to finish, that perfectly balanced descriptive language with the narrative. A truly thoughtful insight into the mythology.


  3. A wonderful, rich tale. I was transported. I tasted, smelled, saw , a felt every word. So powerful and thought provoking. I want to read this again and again! Fantastic!


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