Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Golden Wheat/Black Coal

Okay! Enough of all that serious stuff! This is a Western, a reinterpretation of the old Demeter/Persephone myth. See what you think.


I begin to sing of Demeter, the holy goddess with the beautiful hair, she who glories in the harvest. And her daughter, Persephone, too. The one with the delicate ankles, whom Hades seized.

Would he really dare to show up? After all that happened between them, even after ten years had passed?
Demeter stood at the window of her Beacon Hill parlor, watching the teams and vehicles go by. Her pale yellow silk dress was finely pleated and embroidered with wheat images, and her blonde hair was plaited and wound around her head in a vaguely Swedish style. From outside, the lace curtain obscured her face, so that her age could not be guessed. She merely seemed a strong and beautiful form.
“Woman at the window,” she thought to herself. “What a literary figure! Does it mean expectation or defense? Am I expecting -- wanting -- something of this man or am I trying to prevent him from doing something?” She had not thought the two could be confused. “Something more than he has already done,” she amended.
She expected that he would arrive dressed in black as he always was and that his carriage horses would also be black, expensive, and hot-blooded. Therefore she was caught off guard when he came walking, looking for the house numbers among the connected fine brick homes. She was even more surprised that he looked shabby, old, even threadbare. He stood at the bottom of her well-scrubbed stairs, looking up at her enameled green doors with their stained glass insets and brass knocker shaped like a sheaf of wheat, and checked the house number against a slip of paper from his pocket. His face was filled with pain and grief.
“So,” she thought. “Even Death himself can be humbled.”
She had met him first at the end of the Civil War. He had been sleek, glossy, prosperous at a time when others were ragged and gaunt. His uniform was impeccable, ornamented with insignia and leather polished to satin ribbon, and somehow so dark that though she knew it must have been either blue or gray, she remembered it as black. He had an oddly funerary air, darkly celebratory. He seemed to fatten on war. His black stallion, tall and glossy, gave out an unnerving scream when it saw other horses, and it fought constantly at the bit until blood dripped from the corners of its mouth. Horses are well-known to avoid stepping on people, but this horse was famous for deliberately trampling the dead and wounded in battle. He was a “striker,” that is, he slashed with his front hooves, which is a kind of horse most people will not tolerate. Though his name was “Surcease,” the men called him “Murder.” It was rumored that he was shod with spiked shoes, so that he would not slip in the blood of the battlefield.
Mort Lethe had been Demeter’s enemy for decades. Yet now that she saw him out on the walk before her house, looking aged and broken, she felt a little stirring of pity. He, in turn, saw her through the lace curtain but it was impossible to know what feeling he might have, if any. He didn’t know himself. The two stood staring at each other dimly as through a blizzard of snow.

It had begun with a desperate telegram and then an explanatory letter. The telegram simply said, “Pers kidnapped. No clues.” Then the letter from one of the girls:
It was Mayday and we had ceremonies. The girls wound the Maypole in the dance we had practised so carefully. We didn’t get the ribbons tangled with each other once. Everything was so perfect! We were waiting until it was time for the big picnic. The older women were setting out the food in the school house where Pers taught and the men were tending their teams which were unhitched and tethered to the fence. We went out on the hillside meadow to gather flowers, thinking they would be fine as centerpieces on the tables. Pers had drifted away from the rest of us, seeing fresher and brighter flowers a little farther away, and we were just about to call her back.
“Suddenly there was a terrible pounding -- the sound of a galloping horse, jingling and panting, leather creaking. As though sprung from the ground itself, a huge black stallion ridden by a powerful man in black came into the meadow, and he snatched Pers away, throwing her over his horse in front of him. She had been bent
over, laughing and braced to pull up something with a tough stalk. He took her as though it were he who was picking a flower.
“His horse hardly broke stride but wheeled and went back up the hillside into the evergreens where it is so thick and darkly shadowed that we couldn’t tell where he went. We ran to the school house, sending up an alarm, and the men went in pursuit, but it was no use. It was as though she had left the face of the earth.”

That had been years ago, but it was as clear as yesterday in the woman’s mind. She still woke in the dark suddenly sometimes, thinking she heard the panting of a hard-ridden horse carrying a double weight.
Now, standing before the brick townhouse on Beacon Street in Boston, the dark man in his worn coat thrust the scrap of paper into his pocket. His eyes left the woman behind the lace curtain and travelled up to the second floor windows, in search of a different face: a brighter, more vivid, young face. He saw nothing, unless perhaps one of the drapes moved a bit. How he longed for that second face!
Sighing, he went to the immaculate front steps and mounted them. Before he could ring or knock, a bent but nimble figure yanked the door open. The woman wore a blue dress with a linen apron over it. Her hair was flaming red, clearly dyed to an unnatural shade because her face showed she was old enough that her hair had surely turned white. She looked him in the eye.
“This way to the parlor,” she said, taking his hat and coat as they went. Grandly she swung open interior double doors and stood back to reveal the pale golden woman, now seated on a couch. She announced, “Mr. Morton Lethe.”
“Come in, Mr. Lethe. Do you care for tea?” She did not sound at all hostile. Nor did he when he agreed. “Cate, we will have tea,” directed Demeter. Cate inclined her head and went down the corridor to what had to be the kitchen.
The man barely glanced around the room with its green drapes and paintings of fruit and flowers. “I did not expect to see Cate still with you,” he remarked. “I had thought she would remain in the West.”
“As you can see, she did not. The person who would have kept her there had died. Surely you knew that.”
“Maybe I did,” admitted Lethe. “But what keeps her here?” He sounded a bit jealous, though he had no reason.

Theoretically one employed the other, but Demeter and Hecate had been friends and companions for a long time. Two sides of the same love of earth and growing things, Demeter loved fields and gardens while Hecate wandered the hillsides and shores, looking for wild herbs and medicinal plants. In uncivilized times, one would vie against the other, trying to claim territory from each other, but these two knew that what was good for one was also good for the other. The sun, the rain, the insects and small animals, wove the variety of valley and bluff together in a way that made a place for many, meshed and bordered with difference. But Cate let that order come naturally, merely accommodating, while Demeter made plants into an art form, pushing and pruning them into order -- she insisted. She was a woman who believed she knew best.

The morning the message had come Cate had made a grand gesture, entering the parlor with a huge armload of apple blossoms from the tree in the backyard.
“Good heavens, woman! That’s not a bouquet -- it’s a whole bush! Can’t you find some proper flowers in the garden and just make an arrangement in a vase?” Cate ignored her mistress. The apple trees were a perfect cloud of froth and she’d brought several boughs to jam into a big copper ewer and set in front of a mirror, doubling the generosity. Demeter went on, “You realize, of course, that every time you bring in the flowers off a fruit tree you’re preventing them from becoming fruit.”
“Sure, Ma’am, and it’s a fair trade to miss a few apples later on in order to have these wonderful blossoms now! One must feed the soul.” She stood back to admire the effect of the lacy pink mound in front of the huge gilded mirror. “They only last for a little while and I love them so!”
“Like Pers,” thought Demeter, whose daughter was never far from her mind. Pers who had promised to ripen into such sweet fruit. Aloud she had said, “I should never have let Pers go so far away. We missing the years of her blooming.” At that point she only had a premonition and never expected the consequences of Pers being out West. Didn’t even know that Mort Lethe had gone there.
Cate had turned and stood, hands on her hips. “We’re speaking of a human being here and not an apple. If a body never learns to go out into the world and fend for herself, she’ll only wither and sour. There are plenty of dangers here at home. Surely she must learn to cope with them no matter where she is.”
But no one, child or adult, male or female, could have resisted the force and surprise that took Pers away from them. Even Demeter understood that there was something almost supernatural in this kidnapping, something like a fate that she couldn’t prevent any more than she had predicted it.

About the time the apples were hard and green, Demeter had understood nothing could be done to find Pers from such a great distance -- at least not done properly. She and Cate had packed for travel. In addition to her trunk, she had called a carpenter to build her a tight wooden box, waterproofed with pitch. Into it she put a number of thought-out provisions which she did not explain to Cate. At intervals she sat alone, unseeing, trying to sense Pers out there in all that space. Was she alive?
Cate came into Demeter’s darkened room suddenly, thinking to bring her a lamp for the evening, and was startled to find her sitting so still, but quickly understood and sat in a close-by chair. Demeter looked over at her friend. “Do you think she’s alive, Cate? Can you feel her?” Cate was known to have the power to be in touch psychically.
After a moment of silence while she reached out across the continent with all her senses, Cate said, rather hoarsely, “She’s alive. But she’s... changed.”
“She’s too young for that. She’s still a green girl with a care free heart.”
“She’s alive,” repeated Cate. But Demeter, not weeping, was dry as old wood.


Anonymous said...

This is a whole lot of fun. I love reading your reading of this old, old story.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks, Brett. I hope I can keep intriguing you!

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

I love this story and I'm looking forward to each new installment.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks, Byrd. I haven't looked at this for a while, so I'm a little surprised by what happens myself! I consider this my Richard Wheeler-type Western story.

Prairie Mary