It’s dark down here. It smells of dank earth and algae that creep up the banks of the river Styx like mould. Mud squelches under my feet. With my toes I test the shoreline, tentatively skimming the surface of the water but too afraid to dip in, for there is something unspeakable about this river – something arrêton, not for me to know. Until the blood stills in my veins and my last breath is stolen from my lips, I will not know. This is the Underworld, the place of the unspoken.
And it’s lonely. My hand is empty of the little fingers that pressed into it, and my palm only holds air. The shadows I led here are gone, leaving behind the echo of a childish lisp as they said goodbye, and hugged my waist with their mist-like arms. Charon has taken them across the Styx. There they belong: the Living to the Living, and the Dead to the Dead.
Yet I linger.
Is it concern that holds me back, the need to make sure they journeyed safely to the land of Hades? Is it a secret wish that I have of crossing after them, like Orpheus did for Eurydike, to bring them back? Perhaps it’s nothing at all, just the grief that wells in my chest and keeps me here, contemplating the other shore for a while longer, before I return to where I belong. I miss them already.
Here in the darkness dwells Hermes Psychopompos, guiding the souls of the once-living to the banks of the Styx, where he places them in the care of Charon. He is like me, Hermes, ever stepping on the boundaries between the here and the beyond. It’s a work that never ends.
Here too dwells Persephone for four months of the year, ruling at the side of Hades. Her mother stands across the river, like me, and watches relentlessly for the return of her daughter, her beloved Korê. Her divine face is veiled with shadows. She is Demeter, Giver of Corn, who makes the harvest ripen under her hand; yet she stands here, paralysed by grief, while all which grows upon the earth dies and winter covers the land. But she has hope. When the four months draw to an end, her daughter will return.
We mortals don’t have that hope. When unyielding Thanatos takes us to the Underworld, we don’t return – and if we do, it’s not the Styx we cross, but the Lethe, the river of oblivion.
There is no reason for me to wait here. I should go, rejoin those to whom I belong, instead of keeping vigil for those I have lost. But before I leave, there I something I am compelled to do. Swiftly I kneel, and as my hands meet the clammy ground, I do what until now has been unspeakable. I roll a pebble between my fingers, and venture beyond the arrêton.
I skip a stone across the Styx.
Six quiet splashes and it is gone. Silence. Then, from beyond the darkness, there is movement. Ripples radiate from bank to bank, and a silvery white pebble lands at my feet, then another. I gather them in my fist. There is one for each shadow that I brought to Charon: soft, smooth, and strangely warm against my skin. We will remember.
The river keeps on flowing, and the darkness gathers around me. I’ll be back one day, but for now it’s time to go – time to let go. Holding the pebbles to my stomach, to that soft spot underneath the ribs, I step along the shoreline and tease the water with my toes. Charon and Demeter vanish behind me. Up ahead, Hermes Psychopompos catches sight of me and points towards a light in the distance. “You’ve done well, child,” he says, and with a squeeze of the shoulder he leads me forward. “Now you must go.”
I nod and climb up the banks, the smell of a fresh evening breeze already billowing around me. Without looking back, I leave the Styx behind. I’ve always walked between two worlds. But for now, it’s time to go home.
(This is Part 1 of something I wrote for Pagan Blog Project to explain the meaning behind my blog’s tagline. Part 2, as you can guess, will be “Lighting Stars in the Sky”. The song I linked above was composed and performed by me in July 2014.)