‘Eurydice Waiting’ by Erica Frances was published in 'Spiral Anthology' in 2020.
Asphodel is cold.
An aching chill permeates the air, where below, Tartarus waits. Dreary, feeble light filters through a cavern of rock, catching on dust and debris. The ghosts’ constant chittering and screeching suffocates me, each voice adding to the cacophony. Each wail drives me insane. Each day monotonous like the last.
It won’t be long before I forget his name.
* * *
I saw him though, just once.
I was sitting on a jagged rock overhanging the Styx, gazing across its black, churning waters. The ferryman, Charon, carried the newly deceased from the shore of the living to the shore of the dead. I loved coming here. It was the only place in Asphodel where I could find any semblance of solace—a pocket of near silence. It reminded me of the blustery days on earth. I would walk hunched against the cold, wind moaning through the olive trees, my hair whipping across my face. Noise hounded me until I walked through the door of our home into Orpheus’s arms. The clamour outside faded, and his smile warmed me through. The wind hurled itself against the walls—but it was subdued, and I was safe. Because that’s what he was: home, safety.
I watched Cerberus, the great three-headed hound, guard the entrance to the Underworld. He looked as lonely as I felt. Cerberus’s middle head sniffed and growled. I sat forward, straining my eyes. It couldn’t be Charon; he had arrived moments before with a boatload of youths. A small part of me died when they stumbled upon the black shore.
I’d put Cerberus’s growling down to paranoia when a voice rang out. It was not a wail from the newly deceased, nor a scream from the Fields of Punishment, but a clear, singular note, accompanied by a lyre.
My hope soared. I’d said I would die a thousand deaths to hear him again. I had wailed and prayed every day and every night to every god I knew when I first arrived to let me see him again. For days, months, maybe even years, I waited, hoping, yearning. Begging any god who would listen to have mercy.
But here he was.
Orpheus. My Orpheus: here to rescue me.
I stood, searching, though it was hard to tell if it truly was him. But I knew him, body and soul. It was the way his hip propped out to the side to accommodate the beautiful lyre he had been gifted by his father, Apollo, and the gentle way his fingers plucked the strings. The way his head bent over the instrument, as if in prayer, and the way song poured from his lips: an unceasing stream that could put the fiercest of beasts at ease and stir the hearts of the idlest of men.
It was the faint glow and vigour that surrounded him marking him as Living.
I gasped, though no air flowed through my lungs, and clutched my hands to my chest. All three of Cerberus’s enormous heads snarled, each glowing pair of eyes fixed where Orpheus stood. Had my heart still been in my chest, it would have pounded against my ribcage, wild and frantic like a wicked maenad dancing to furious drumbeats.
Orpheus looked up, faced Cerberus’s yawning maws, and began to play. Though soft, the sound carried across the fields effortlessly: from the gates at the Styx, to the Fields of Punishment, all the way over to the Elysian Fields and the Isle of the Blessed. The song worked its way through me, soothing me. I almost dozed off standing on the rock, nearly toppling into the Styx. How could I have forgotten how potent his song was? No, I had not forgotten its power; I had only forgotten how it felt.
Since coming to Asphodel, I had become nothing. But in the moments Orpheus had been here, I had finally begun to feel again. As he played, Cerberus’s growls quietened, eyes drooping. No longer poised stiffly, the giant hound’s body began to sway. One head tried to force his eyes open, but the power of the music was too strong. He let out a weak snarl and took a slow step forward, swaying heavily, and collapsed to the ground. Orpheus jumped back, shielding his eyes from a plume of dust that billowed outward. Shudders ran through the earth as Cerberus snored, rattling the loose stones at my feet. The dust settled, and Orpheus made his way towards the palace of Hades.
I ran after him, but a phantom guard materialised before me. His icy hand seized my arm and we dissolved into the wind, appearing before the towering palace. It was high atop one of the hills rising through the gloaming, a perfect vantage point for Lord Hades to look across his dark kingdom. Armed spectres guarded the colossal onyx doors, letting me through without a glance. High ceilings vaulted above me as I craned my neck to see where they ended. Green flames flickered on top of black marble pillars, casting the morose halls in a sickly light. A ghost in servant robes materialised beside me and gently took my hand, leading me to the throne room.
The entrance to the dark palace was impressive, but the throne room was on an entirely different scale. Enormous, dark doors stretched high, twin black marble staircases growing out from either side. Great trusses supported the heavy ceiling that was, impossibly, higher than the last. Riches and jewels of every kind dotted the room, and in a small alcove, sat a large pomegranate tree. The seeds of the cracked-open fruit were as bright as the rubies that engulfed Persephone’s elegant fingers.
Before me, the King and Queen of the Underworld sat on imposing thrones carved from the same pitch marble. I had never seen a god before, and the only way my pitiful, mortal mind could describe them was wholly magnificent. Hades looked every inch the dark king he was, dressed in a flowing dark tunic with a black diamond crown. Quite the opposite, Persephone wore a breezy, white garment that made her giant ruby rings glisten like spots of blood. They were radiant. Dazzling. So much so it was several minutes before I saw the small figure before them.
I wrenched my hand from the servant and sprinted towards him, a sob breaking free as Orpheus’s name ripped from my lips. It echoed off the marble, filling the cavernous hall as I reached for his hand.
But I passed right through.
I stumbled, just managing to pick myself up before I sprawled before the King and Queen.
Orpheus hadn’t moved a muscle. He just stood there, back straight, lyre clutched protectively against his chest as he stared Hades in the eye. I didn’t understand. I had waited so long for this day, to see his face, to be near him again, and now it was as if I didn’t exist. Though I had no heart, my chest constricted. I was standing right in front of him and he hadn’t even realised.
Slowly, I reached out a hand and trailed my fingers down his cheek. He shuddered, gaze sharpening. Hope flooded through me—but it was swiftly quashed. If he had not heard me yell his name and fall through him, there was no chance he would feel a light touch. I turned to the thrones. Hades had begun speaking. He glanced down at me and offered a small grimace. Persephone, too, looked at me with sympathy. Damning the consequences, I started to ask her why Orpheus couldn’t see me. In response, she gave me a sad smile, shook her head, and tapped her ear.
‘Please, Lord, let me play for you and your queen. For months I have been lost without my Eurydice. It feels like half my soul has died and already lives in your realm. I know you are no god of second chances but grant me this boon to earn your good favour and win her back.’
He sounded just as I remembered, soft-spoken and melodious. But something was different. My whole body sagged when I realised. Unending grief had hunched his shoulders and roughened his smooth voice, giving it a leaden weight.
Hades started, but Orpheus had already picked up his lyre and begun to play. Anger passed over the dark lord’s face, but, quick as a shadow running from light, it vanished.
The piece was nothing short of exquisite: sorrowful, as if his heart and soul had splintered with anguish. Persephone’s breaths shook, a small sniffle escaping as the piece came to an end. Tears spilled from Orpheus’s eyes, leaving a shiny trail down his cheeks. The song was a musical representation of our relationship; the lyrics detailed our first meeting, our all-encompassing romance, and, of course, my death. Orpheus sang about how he had clutched my cold body, begging me to come back to life. I was wrenched back to the moment, reliving my death as I felt the snake’s poison flood though me, turning my blood and beating heart to stone.
Hades’s response rumbled through the throne room. ‘You will be granted this boon, son of Apollo, but on one condition. You must not look back until you have passed over the threshold into the land of the living. Only then will you be reunited. Eurydice will be behind you.’
‘How do I know you won’t go back on your word? That this isn’t a trick?’ Orpheus looked exhausted. His arms were trembling so hard I feared he would drop his precious lyre.
‘You must have faith.’
Hades and Persephone looked towards me and nodded. I knelt before them, giving them all my thanks and prayers, then turned to follow the man who had followed me to the land of the dead, back to the land of the living.
I couldn’t believe he’d done it. My Orpheus had come for me, bargained with the lord of the dead, and won. We stood at the entrance to a tunnel, and I watched him take a deep breath.
We’ve come all this way, my love, just a little further. It would be so easy; all he had to do was not look back.
The walk was steady and with each step I felt more solid. We were halfway when I felt my lungs fill with air. My heart erupted into ferocious beats when the soft light of the living warmed my face.
We were at the threshold. Orpheus wavered, but took a few more steps forward. One more step, and he’d be through, me right behind him. We could finally be together.
But he stopped: his breathing harsh and heavy, his knuckles white where they gripped the lyre. Why was he stalling? We were so close. I reached out, brushing my fingers against his hand.
They did not pass through.
Quick as the asp that bit me, Orpheus swung around, his lyre clattering to the ground, and looked at me.
Really looked at me.
I gasped. His eyes widened with shock. Horror. Already, I felt myself turning back into a spirit. With the last of my energy, I stepped forward and kissed him.
I smiled and whispered, ‘Orpheus,’ and faded into darkness.
He screamed my name over and over again, just as he had done the first time he lost me, but it was no use. I was gone. Forever this time.
* * *
In the fields of Asphodel, I wait.
It has been so long since that day. Since I saw him and heard his voice.
What was his name again?
It is torturous, but I wait, hoping he will find his way back to me.
Erica Frances is an aspiring young author with a lifelong passion for ancient history and mythology. She is a hopeless romantic for Celtic settings and writes historical fiction and stories infused with magic. You can find her on Twitter: @ericafrances4.