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The Best Laid Plans (a short story)

This story was first published in the 2018 anthology, Hades Had a Son, after having been rejected by such prestigious institutions as The New Yorker. As a fledgling comedian, I can now see that the reason I was so immensely pleased with myself on this one, is that I had basically written my very first sketch.


Hades had a son, the patsy, the pawn.

His mother made him in the dark but bore him in the dawn.

In the sun he stayed,

Raised by the desert heat,

Longing for the cold,

A home he’d never meet.

Hades only kidnapped Persephone the one time, and even that time it was one of those situations where semantics were involved, and she really didn’t feel comfortable calling it that. His reputation had already suffered a great deal due to the demands of his vocation, and, honestly, it was her mother Demeter’s reaction—not her own—that everyone cared about anyway. As it happened, by the time mother and daughter were reunited, Hades and Persephone had begun to get on quite well. In fact, they regularly and happily engaged in all manner of conjugal activity and had even taken to calling the situation above “her royal temper tantrum.” It was ultimately pity for the cold and hungry victims of Demeter’s grief that prompted the couple to arrange for Persephone’s return to the other gods, but her thoughtful husband issued her a pomegranate seed before she left so that she might return to their home for three months out of the year. Her mother, true to form, persisted to throw elaborate fits during those months, but the humans became accustomed to it, and, knowing what to expect now, they were well-prepared. So yes, strictly speaking, Persephone was technically kidnapped or “raped” the first time, and she did not technically have control over the precise moment she’d return each subsequent time, but to her, the situation at it’s very worst only ever amounted to an inconvenience, and that was usually after she’d had one too many glasses of wine and another fight with her husband about climate control in the antechamber of the throne room where she often stood in order to gaze out at the river of new arrivals to their kingdom. Mostly, she enjoyed married life, and she spent the other nine months out of the year fairly listless as she waited to return to her home.

Of course, she loved seeing her mother each spring and getting together with the other goddesses to run about sprinkling flowers and allergens all over the known world. Often, she would sit with her good friend Ishtar and discuss the liminal nature of being. Occasionally, just for kicks, the two women would fill in for one another at minor feasts and ceremonies, but they showed the somber formality expected of them at the big ones. Persephone always attended with grace to the rites of the Eleusinian mysteries, delighting in the revelations of psychedelic farmers, no matter how repetitive they became. Her mother insisted they would be the most important rites the world would know, just as her grief for her daughter was the most important grief the world would know. “Maybe,” Persephone would say, but inside she would think about how everything has its age and she would whisper in the nearest writer’s ear some phrase, “a time to every purpose under heaven,” or another.

It was by Persephone’s own comings and goings that those gods, once outside of time, began to trace it. It might be noted that once time is traced, an ending begins to manifest, however nebulous, somewhere in the distance. So it was with Persephone’s ascent that the descent of her kind was carved into the stone of destiny. In fact, it would be Persephone herself who would give birth to that which would begin a new age in the world, an age where she would be a fairy tale at best and dangerous more often. As she made her trek in and out of the Underworld each year, she often contemplated what the next age would be like, if she’d be remembered and if she’d get to spend it with her husband. Would they be happy, the two of them together, alone, forever?

One of the sadder aspects of their marriage was that they could bear no children. For thousands of years, they made love. Persephone, a fertile and abundant goddess of spring was barren in her own home. The Underworld is no place for conception. Birth and rebirth even may occur as a result of leaving that place, but it is only in the bright sunlight of the above that those acts are completed. Hades, understanding of his wife’s maternal desires, many times suggested she have children during the nine months she was away from him. She worried that if the timing was not perfect, she’d give birth in their home once she had returned, that the child would never be able to leave and live a proper life and that her husband would come to resent that child, a constant reminder of another man beside his wife. It simply wasn’t worth the risk.

It was a sunny day in Spring when Ishtar hatched up a new plan. Persephone’s light hair was becoming blonder in the sunlight, shedding the silver tone it tended to take on in her months at home. She wore a pink dress with a pomegranate red sash tied across her waist, and she sat upon a sit-upon stitched out of fine silk and filled with softest down. Ishtar in royal purple laid across a fainting couch, her volcanic black curls piled high onto her head and secured by a gold and diamond tiara. Between them was an elaborate spread on a large table. Hot tea, cold tea, wine, baklava, cheese, olives, bread, honeyed fruits, milk, cookies, lamb, boiled eggs, and a large hookah were at their disposal, though the two seemed relatively content and disinclined to partake in any of the offerings. They were seated directly in the middle of a large field, one that would soon be filled with towering stalks of wheat, and, were they not gods, it would have been a rather extraordinary sight. Being that they were gods, the farmer who had been in the middle of seeding that particular area, began immediately to offer his devotion and serve at table. He did so managing to choke down a few complaints that were swimming about in his throat given that this was the fifth year in a row the goddesses had chosen to have their lunch date in this particular location, and, rather than being a boon, the event was a bit of a nuisance. The crowd that gathered a safe distance away to observe the affair interfered with his planting, and the whole thing set his schedule back by at least two days.

“I have an idea that absolutely has to work,” cried Ishtar with the sort of overconfidence known well to gods and the wealthy. She waved her hand dismissively and the farmer felt an auditory shift in his brain. They did this whenever they needed to be sure they had absolute privacy, and it left a ringing in his ears for several weeks following.

“Go on, my dear, but I can’t imagine there’s anything new under the sun. I’ve been thinking about this for literally thousands of years.” She looked up at the sun and made a face, the kind of face you make at a relative who has gotten on your nerves.

“What if Hades comes here for you to conceive a child?” squeaked Ishtar, who seemed frankly too excited for an idea that almost certainly could not have been original. “He can’t. He has to stay in the Underworld.”

“Well, what if someone with experience can watch it for him?” Ishtar puffed herself up high on her seat.

“He wouldn’t leave without a good reason.” Persephone sighed, the momentary hope that her friend might have had something clever to contribute having dissolved as quickly as it appeared.

“We can give him a good reason,” said Ishtar, placing her hand over her hip and arching her back repeatedly and provocatively. The old farmer averted his eyes, his cheeks turning bright red. He reminded himself he had no right to take offense nor was it wise to take interest when the gods acted saucy.

“Ishtar, I think you’ve been spending too much time here in the middle with the humans. Like them, you seem to overestimate the extent to which the God of the Underworld might be ruled by earthly desires.” She rolled her eyes, picked up a fig from the table, examined it disinterestedly, and flicked it out of sight. Out of sight happened to be directly into the sight and right eye of the farmer, who very quietly doubled over and began to tend to his rapidly swelling eyelid, shaking his head furiously all the while.

“No, no, no, Poppy. It’s not earthly desires but immortal love. If his wife is in danger, he’ll surely come to her aid.”

“What danger? What aid? ‘Help, Your Highness! Your wife is trapped in a well, and only you can hump her out of it!’” She cast her forearm over her brow in mock helplessness before using one of the hookah tubes and a wine glass to replicate a lewd act. The farmer, seeing this through one squinting eye, allowed his jaw to drop in horror and began considering how he would phrase a petition to Demeter to kindly not have the honor of hosting her daughter again.

“Well, not exactly. But you have to figure if he comes all the way up here to help you, what’s another five minutes to celebrate your safety?”

“Only five minutes? That’s no fun at all, Tara. But, let’s say if for no other reason than to pass the time, we consider your plan. What sort of calamity would befit a goddess? What would possibly worry a god?”

“That is where our work lies, but I think our easiest route has to do with these humans. The ones that have taken to calling you Proserpina as of late have gotten”—she paused for a moment to look all around her, as if she might pull the appropriate phrase from the air—"so out of control,” she concluded anticlimactically. “I have heard from more than one source that your neighbor to the East is so furious with the way they treat his devotees that he is ready to go like full deluge again.”

“Oh, you know him. It’ll be another thing tomorrow. Still, I agree that this is our best bet. These Romans seem to be possessing in abundance both power and folly. Let’s talk somewhere else, though. I don’t like the way this human is looking at us.” The farmer was holding one hand over his eye and the other up to his ear, thinking perhaps the goddesses who seemed to have taken a sudden interest in him may have forgotten they had deafened him.

Ishtar waved her hand, restoring the man’s hearing. “Here, sir,” she shouted as one may do when they are trying to communicate with someone who does not speak the same language, even though she was speaking in perfect Greek. “We—” She gestured at herself and her friend. “are leaving now. You—” She pointed at him. “keep this stuff. Yum yum! You like!” She patted

her tummy and smiled.

The farmer bowed as low as he could. “Many thanks, my Queens. You have so honored our people by your presence here,” he mumbled.

“Oh, it’s really no trouble at all,” said Persephone as she straightened her sash and smoothed her dress. “May your harvest be plentiful.”

With that, the two gods disappeared leaving the farmer looking desperately over at the crowd beginning to disperse a few hundred yards away. “Free food to anyone who helps me carry these things back to the village,” he shouted. A few held up jugs of water and light baskets to indicate that their arms were otherwise occupied. Most simply walked away. A few small children ran up to the table, filling baskets with food which they began to eat immediately. There would only be scraps left by the time their short legs carried them all the way to town. The farmer’s two sons and a friend dutifully arrived to help carry the couch and table back to his house. This would be third set he had to sell because he did not have room in his own house, and he could never sell them for what they were worth because no one in his village could afford furniture from the gods. A few women came and gathered the hookah, pillows, silks, and dishware. They all chatted blithely about the fashions and behaviors of the immortals as they resumed the real work of life.

Being both whimsical and immortal, the time it took Ishtar and Persephone to lay out their plan was relatively short. Three years was the blink of a god’s eye, though it was also a large percentage of a farmer’s life which was shortened significantly by the lasting effects of a herniated disk earned while carrying a particularly heavy metal throne back to his house after a luncheon in which Persephone was feeling “extra royal.” It should be noted that one day, toward the end of the farmer’s life, the god Apollo heard about his sister Persephone’s carelessness and fashioned wheels upon the metal throne, allowing the now paralytic old man to let the object of his suffering also be his chariot until the time of his death. It was his greatest disappointment, however, that after using his land for so many conversations, Persephone and Ishtar would enact their plans miles and miles away in the land of Judea.

It was in twelfth month of the year that Ishtar and Persephone had completed their plan in which Ishtar arrived with great pomp and circumstance to Judea. She arrived as an apparition of her form Esther at the festival of Purim in a small but wealthy village. Here, she persuaded her audience that in order to overthrow the yoke of Roman oppression, they had to wait till the first days of spring in ten years’ time. When the day came, they were to dress as Roman soldiers and capture the goddess they called Proserpina as she completed her ascent from the Underworld. They would take the false goddess to the place of sacrifice, and there their god would lift her into the clouds where he would care for her and teach her the ways of the holy for ten years’ time. In so doing, they would anger her mother, who the Romans called Ceres, who in her grief would cause the fields to fall fallow. The Jews, having long planned and stored for this occasion, would be well-prepared while the Roman soldiers slowly starved. Eventually, the Romans would be so desperate that they would seek the help of the Jews who seemed unscathed by the wrath of the gods. The Jews would then pray to their god who reigned above all gods, prompting the return of Proserpina to Ceres and therefore the return of spring and the conversion of her followers to the Hebrew religion. So grateful would the Romans be that not only would the Jews be allowed to continue the business of living unmolested by persecution, but much like Mordecai who saved the Persian king from an untimely fate, their particular sect would be held in a place of highest honor by the Emperor.

The celebrants of Purim, having partaken freely of wine during the festival, were most grateful and overjoyed to receive this apparition. What they could not know because it was against their customs to follow the romances of false gods, was that another god, one arguably more powerful than Demeter, would unleash armies of the dead to retrieve his wife before he would let some unknown power hold her hostage for any time at all. Ishtar and Persephone, on the other hand, were well aware that, like a child waving his father off to war till there was not a trace left of him on the horizon, the doting Hades would stand at the exit to the Underworld, following his wife with a loving gaze till his sister Demeter swept her away with the spring. He would, therefore, see right away as the fake soldiers descended upon her, and he would no doubt step into the light to save her. Upon so doing, he would enchant the hearts of his sister Demeter and Persephone’s beloved Ishtar who would be there waiting for the return of the goddess to the sunlight. The women would then easily persuade the ruler of the Underworld to remain with them for just an hour while Ishtar’s most trusted twin sister made haste to watch over his kingdom. In this way they might borrow a feast meant for the younger and elder goddess’s reunion and dedicate it in Hades’ own name in thanks and celebration of the enduring love which saved Persephone from foreign captivity. It was during this feast that the married couple would consummate their love one last time before her return to their kingdom many months later. When Persephone returned to her kingdom and husband, she would be ready to deliver their child. The three would be a happy family, the child traveling freely above and below with Persephone. The plan, they thought, was flawless.

The ten years following Esther’s appearance at Purim passed without much of note happening. Perhaps the most marvelous feat that occurred during that time was the fact that neither Ishtar nor Persephone uttered a word to anyone about their plan despite both being notorious gossips in the world of the immortals, each having ruined a handful of surprise parties in her day. When it was finally time for the action to happen, everything went more or less as expected, the less being that Hades, a bit angrier than his wife had ever seen him, opened a crack in the earth which swallowed a dozen of the men who posed as soldiers that afternoon. For this, Persephone later apologized to the god of the Jews while they made small talk at one of those incredibly dull meetings during which no one really knows why they were asked to attend, and, between whispers about Hera’s new hairstyle, promised him a sacrifice of her own to be delivered at some vague point in the future, reminding him that he owed a decade’s surplus of food and supplies for his people in a hostile empire to her and Ishtar’s plan. He conceded her point, accepted the promise of a future sacrifice, and extended his congratulations to her, as it was very clear by this point that her plan had been successful in the conception of a child, one she was expected to deliver the following month after her return to the Underworld, which would no doubt be the happiest of surprises to her dear husband.

Indeed, it was a surprise to her dear husband who stood with happy anticipation at the entrance to his kingdom while he waited for his wife to come make her descent. “My darling!” he cried when he saw her round a bend and emerge into a clearing of trees. After gazing for a moment in astonishment, he corrected himself. “My darlings! How can this be?” He fell to his knees and outstretched his hands, never leaving the precipice of his realm.

“It’s a miracle