A short story by Grace Huang
The goddess traced a finger along her tunic, staring at the leaves that grew eternally along the seams of her dress. They glowed with life, little buds and sprouts flourishing before her very eyes—such a contrast against the world she lived in.
Gently, she plucked a sprig of pomegranate leaves from a seam close to her shoulder, slowly fashioning the eternally blooming laurels into a crown. For her husband, she decided, and stood.
A trail of sprouting grass followed her as she searched through the castle for her husband. The souls of the dead stared at her mindlessly when she walked by. They saw in monochrome here, saw without the beauty of life or growth. To someone like her, so sensitive to everything that brought life, the only color even she could see was red. The blood on the walls was red. The lava that was barely visible from the cracks in the earth was red.
The pomegranate seeds her husband had given her were red. She could feel them, resting in her stomach like dead weight—the only thing she had eaten ever since she had come to her husband’s world. Alive, yet dead. That was what the pomegranate seeds had been.
A gray hand rested on her elbow. She turned to look at her husband, smiling and reaching up to place the crown of laurels upon his head.
Her husband managed a slight smile, leaning down so that she could place it upon his head easier. After a moment of silence, allowing the goddess to admire her handiwork, her husband spoke. “I must go now,” he said in a gentle tone. “The souls…”
“I know,” the goddess said, nodding. “Go. You ought to do your work.”
Nodding, he hesitated for a moment before reaching out to brush a strand of hair behind her ear. “I will speak to you later, then.”
And then he was gone, and the goddess held still—as though, if she moved, he would be able to see or hear her every movement. As though, if she so much as stood up, he would know and come rushing to her side.
What a silly thought.
She stood and gathered her skirts, holding back the urge to sigh loudly. There was something about this realm that, despite her time here, still made her feel uneasy. The lack of color? The lack of light? The lack of growth—of life?
Those, well… those aspects of her husband’s realm would always make her uneasy, she was certain. And, if she thought about it… there were so many other aspects that made her uneasy and uncomfortable and unsure of whether she really, truly did belong to be here, whether she ought to have even come here in the first, whether she ought to have just run away and not—
Perhaps some fresh air would do. Despite now bearing those pomegranate seeds that would forever weigh her down to her husband’s realm, the mortal realm had always been relaxing to her. How could it be any different now?
In truth, the goddess knew how it could all be different now. But she did not pay it, or any of the warnings she had been told, any heed. If her mother was here, she would have surely scolded the goddess for being so reckless and uncaring.
But her mother was not here. And, this was as much her realm as her husband’s realm. Was it not? She was the queen to his king.
Was she not?
Despite the doubts that buzzed incessantly in her ears like little bees hovering over a flower, the goddess continued to walk the hallways of her husband’s castle. She ignored the souls that stared, knowing that before long, they would not be able to.
And she was right. Hidden behind the doors of the throne room, no one could see or hear or know what she was doing. The throne room was hers and her husband’s to share, and it was here in this very room that she found what she had been looking for.
There, standing regal and tall behind her husband’s throne, was the door he had used to take her here. The door he used to visit all the different pastures of his realm. The door he used to visit the surface.
“Open, in the name of the Queen,” she whispered, and held her breath as the gates slowly creaked open. Carefully, with steps so gentle and soft that not even the ants on the surface would be able to sense her, the goddess ascended the staircase out of her husband’s realm.
Where she emerged was not where she had entered from. The air was not filled by the crisp, sharp scent of the wild sage bushes and olive trees that often grew in the land of mortals she served. Instead, it was fragrant with a barely distinct and yet obviously present spiciness, and laden with an unfamiliar humidity despite the chill that seemed to have settled over the mortal realm—so pervasive that it made even the goddess shiver and draw her chiton tighter around herself.
Despite the unfamiliarity, it all felt so… welcoming. When she took a step forward, an instinctive smile crossed her lips. Her heart filled with relief, something that she had only felt sparingly in her visits to the mortal realm. Yet now, here, having escaped her husband’s realm and having slipped away from that holy mount… the relief felt overwhelming. Every time she breathed in this new air, she felt as though she was experiencing it all over again.
After what felt like an eternity, the goddess smiled and brushed aside the tree leaves hanging in front of her face. She found herself standing at the edge of a forest, an expanse of fields stretching out further than even she could see and the sky that she was all too familiar with outlining many, many mountains in the distance—all craggy and tipped with snow.
Turning her gaze away from the horizon line, the goddess saw what stood in front of her—a house. No… more than that. It was a farm. Tilled crop fields, stretching across the rolling hills. At the foot of the hill, merely a rickety wooden fence away from where the goddess stood at the forest’s edge, sat a large cottage.
But when the goddess glanced upon what should have been crops sprouting and blossoming and hungrily clawing for room to grow, she instead saw withering yellow stems and saddened trees, their brown leaves teetering wildly despite a lack of wind.
This… this wasn’t right. This couldn’t be right. Without thinking, the goddess pushed open the wooden fence and slipped into the farm.
“How…?” she whispered under her breath. The soil was damp and dark. The weeds had been pulled. Whoever had been tending to these crops had been doing it perfectly, but… they were not growing. Why? How could it be?
A rustling behind her made the goddess turn, expecting something like a rodent or a squirrel to be darting out from a nearby bush.
Instead, she came face-to-face with a young girl. The two of them stared at each other, too shocked to exchange words for a few moments. Then, the young girl cleared her voice and began to speak—words flowing effortlessly from her lips.
She spoke in a language the goddess did not recognize, with harsh syllables and words that seemed to vary in intonation. And yet, despite its unfamiliarity, the goddess understood all that the young girl was saying—asking, really. “Where did you come from?” the young girl was in the middle of asking. The goddess’s heart warmed, with a strange sense of comfort that she herself did not understand in the slightest.
She opened her lips, about to answer. Yet, as her eyes drifted over the ruined crop field, what fell from her lips was not a response to the young girl’s question in the least. “…Are the plants not growing?” the goddess blurted out.
The young girl blinked, and then glanced down at the brown and yellow crop leaves that were withering before their very eyes. “No,” she said, and the smile she gave was bittersweet. There was something on the young girl’s face that made the goddess pause—something that was both reminiscent and yet hopeful. “Not yet, at least.”
The goddess smiled back, sympathy in her every action. “I’m sorry. I… I know well, how it feels.”
Her disappearance from that holy mount… it seemed like it had certainly taken a toll on the growth of the mortal realm, both in accordance with her lack of presence and her mother’s anger.
“How long have your crops been… like this?” the goddess asked. It was hard to tell when it was day or night down in her husband’s realm, and time like that passed so quickly up there with her mother and uncles and cousins.
The young girl sighed. “Quite a while now. I… I doubt they will be growing any more.”
And here, staring at the bafflingly familiar scene of withering crops and the inexplicably comforting presence of the saddened young girl who had taken up crop-tending before the goddess’s very eyes, the goddess began to wonder.
She did not belong in that realm beneath the earth, where souls gathered and reunited and lived for the rest of eternity. And even atop that holy mount, from which she had learned everything and had been led to believe was her destiny, she had never belonged.
She was a goddess. That, she had known all her life and knew it to be true. A goddess meant to serve mortals—the mortals under the reign of the lightning god and subject to the whim of her mother’s wrath.
But here, in a farm field that felt more like home than anywhere else she had ever been, how could she not care for these mortals? How could she not become a part of their lives, and how could she not live with them when some part of her knew that she belonged here?
“I hope spring comes quickly this year,” the young girl said, staring out over the empty field mournfully. Her words made the goddess look up.
She drew in a soft breath; then, the goddess nodded. “Spring will come,” she said with a reassuring smile, and knelt to touch a small, withering grapefruit tree at her feet. “It will. Of that, I am certain. After all… spring belongs here.”
She did. She belonged here. Not there—being where and who they all wanted her to be.