Ligeia by Sandi Leibowitz
"Ligeia" by Sandi Leibowitz is original fiction from the anthology Speculative Story Bites. Get the whole anthology from Amazon, Kobo, or World Weaver Press.
I cry out as the new bones burst through my shoulders. As the pain ebbs, I crane my neck to watch the young wings form and fledge. The down-feathers are spotlessly white. I touch them in wonder. Speckled plumes grow, dove-white and crow-black. Red flight-feathers the color of poppies.
The rest of us traipsed after her. The other maidens lagged in a flock, their arms laden with blossoms, laughing together. They sounded like a chorus of crows. I looked only at her, following as closely as I could, breathless in my attempt to catch up. No one ran as fast as she. She leapt through the wheat, feet barely touching the ground, swept over a rise and disappeared into the lower meadow.
When I gained the hill and found her again, my heart pounded as if she’d been gone for a year instead of a moment. She stood in a field of poppies, her mouth out-reddening the flowers, her wild hair more golden than the wheat. My hands itched to smooth back the straying curls.
She bent and in a single quick gesture, reaped a sheaf of poppies. She whipped them in arcs over her head until the field bled red petals.
“Fly, Ligeia, fly!” She dropped the headless stalks, grasped my hands and swung me dizzy. We collapsed to the grass, the sky spinning and spinning above us.
The other girls were far behind. Could I kiss her while they weren’t looking? Would she mind?
She stood. I’d waited too long.
“Catch me, Ligeia!”
In a breath she was gone.
When the wings are fully formed, I test my control of them. They open and close as I bid, working like any other muscles. They will bear me through the air; the goddess has declared it. She did not ask us if we agreed to this transformation.
I cannot help but feel joy in this change. The wings are beautiful and will lift me to the sky. Who has never yearned to fly? Oh, she would have loved to sprout wings!
Leucosia stares into space, an empty vessel. The others still grieve, shivering and squaking at Demeter’s violation of their bodies. I am struck with pity for them. If we don’t admire our wings, then we are merely monsters.
“What are we?” anguished Molpe cries.
“Sirens,” the goddess answers abstractedly. She doesn’t spare us a thought, cares only for the return of her daughter.
“Search for Persephone,” she commands. “Fly to all the corners of the earth, every mountaintop, each deserted sea-spawned rock. Bring her back.”
I’m the one who lost her. I’m the one who witnessed the earth open. Watched the dark god with eyes as black as the hearts of the poppies emerge—watched him grab her waist and pull her down below. But before the earth swallowed her, I saw her turn to kiss him with her red mouth.
I’ve told no one.
The others test their new wings and take to the sky, even Leucosia is obedient to the goddess’ demands. Above the sound of wing-beats, I hear them sing. Their voices have been transformed, too. I’ve never heard such a sound. Enchanting but horrible, each siren’s voice haunted by the tragedy of her loss. Her fears a bass hum underneath the current of each song, a dreadful harmony.
The other sirens fly in separate directions, their sharp eyes seeking one who can’t be found. She is under rock, under stone, under earth. She belongs to Death now.
Demeter continues her own journey, too distracted to notice that I stay earthbound. The crevice isn’t far from here. Will I be able to win her back? All about me, I see a change—the goddess’ grief writ in leaf and blade. The poppies bear bald stalks. The grass browns. The trees weep leaves.
Time to try my voice. My lament fills the valley. I hear the low hum underneath the seeking-song asking, “Will you return, Persephone? What am I without you?”
I don’t have to fly far, though it’s not easy to recognize landmarks in this once-familiar place. There are no flowers, just their corpses, brittle and brown. There, at last, is the stone outcropping where I saw Persephone disappear, but it’s solid rock. How shall it open to me?
I am not what I once was, I remember. No mere maiden. Of all the girls who attended on Persephone, I was the one with the most charming voice; even Demeter remarked on it. I sing, an old love ballad about a maiden who would not return a shepherd’s devotion. My changed voice pulses with power—I could win a hundred hearts with such a song!
But stones have no hearts. The ground does not open.
I try again. A song of woe I make up on my own. I name her, name my love. Persephone, Persephone, my song whispers, coaxes, then trumpets to all the wide brown world. The dead grass at my feet stirs. The rock trembles. A wavering line appears in the boulder. But when my song is done, the line disappears.
My new form emboldens me. I sing again—anger at the dark lord who stole Persephone from the light. My song demands entrance! Beneath my voice, bass sounds swell like ocean storms to batten on the rock.
A rift appears, as if the boulder’s lightning-struck. I enter and descend. The rock closes behind me.
A blue glow emanates from air or stone—a strange dim light that makes me even more aware of the depth of the surrounding darkness. Darker than a moonless night. Darker than a cave’s farthest corner. Darker than— Don’t think of it, Ligeia. I totter on clawed feet, coax myself to continue breathing, large heaving breaths, and follow the stairs that plunge below.
I reach a river of black waters that lap against the shore as if they want to consume it. I’m thirsty but I know better than to drink here—I listened to the old tales, learned the oldest songs by heart. Remember, I tell myself. Down here whatever’s strange is truth; it’s the things that appear innocent you must be wary of.
Far away I hear a scraping. Repeated rhythmic splashes. The flesh beneath my feathers pimples. He comes.
Charon poles the blood-red ferry into view. His withered face is full of lines but his arms are corded with muscles. I shudder to hear the unceasing sound of boat through water, pole in sand. That relentless rhythm does not stop until the ferry halts before me.
The ferryman’s gray beard, half-green with algae, falls all the way to his chest. It is tangled with reeds and the skeletons of tiny fish. Around his neck hangs a thick rope of threaded coins. Bone-jewels gleam white from his ears and fingers. Payment from those without coin? Is it disgust I read in his eyes? Pity? Striking an idle pose, he leans upon the pole.
“This place is for men and women, not such as you. Whatever you are.”
“I was but recently a girl. I come seeking Persephone. I must bring her back to her mother; it’s the goddess’ command.”
“Only those who possess the fare may ride with me. Where shall a bird hide coins? Unless you keep them under your tongue, as mortal souls do.” He laughs, but his face shows no humor. I hate the color of his eyes, the same burning blue that lights the Underworld.
I have no coins.
“I beg you! Take me across!”
He does not answer. His face remains unchanged, as if a mere bird chitters in his presence.
“Can you deny the will of a goddess?” I demand.
“I obey the will of a god. And serve laws beyond those of gods and goddesses both.”
I try my song, the same that opened the entrance to the Underworld, but it must take a stronger music than mine to appeal to one attuned to the conversations of the dead.
When pleading and reasoning and music are exhausted, I weep. It’s no mere ploy.
Tears do not move Charon. He is something less than god and yet not a man. And then I remember that I, too, am no longer human. I am a feathered monstrosity.
I do not need Charon or his boat. I almost laugh as I soar above the ferryman’s head. He doesn’t shout after me, or attempt to stop me. Maybe he is too old for rage, or maybe he loathes his occupation and doesn’t care—perhaps rejoices—if some soul escapes the dark lord’s strictures. Or maybe he believes me doomed before I start.
I alight on the far side of the river Acheron. A tall archway rises up from the shore, locked gates stretched between the columns. The gates are unnecessary; no fences flank the arch, so how can they keep anyone out? Or in? The basalt arch is black and smooth as a king’s tomb; the columns that support it writhe with sculptures of monsters and mourners. Some of the monsters look like me.
I hear a growl. A shadow detaches itself from the shadows. Three sets of nostrils flare and sniff. Three giant heads swing my way.
I try not to be afraid. When I was a girl I liked dogs. But they lie, those who describe Cerberus as a dog; he’s less like a dog than I am like a lark. Huger than a lion, tusked like a boar, his eyes, all six, glow blue-yellow-white, like the heart of a forge. Eagle talons flex, eager to rend and tear. I force myself to look away from the lashing tail—a snake that hisses at me, ready to strike. I almost think to plead with him, one monster to another. But he is not a creature of reason. He is pure hate. I can barely think in his presence. I quake. Three red pinions drop from my wings.
Only then do I recall that I do not need to fear him.
I fly far above his head, over the basalt arch. The creature snaps at me, his tripartite jaws closing on air. Cerberus’ terrible barks echo and echo and echo. But he cannot abandon his post. He wails his rage at my escape before he settles down beside the gates.
Below me stretches a rocky landscape—misshapen cliffs, abysses that disappear into dizzying darkness. The black wasteland is colder than anything I’ve known. My breath comes out in white plumes. Asphodels glimmer and glower, a color paler than white and not as clean, and a palace rises up, grey and lumpish, like a pile of ashes. I make out the pointed arches of windows, open to the chilly air. I fly in the topmost one and rest, unseen, on a rafter.
I am in a bedchamber. Do the dead sleep? Does their master? Hades’ silent servants move efficiently in and out. They do not gossip or argue. If I listen hard I only hear the swish of grey, shapeless skirts. Their footfalls make no sound.
When the room is empty, I fly through the low doorway and enter the adjoining chamber, keeping again to the rafters. It is a richly appointed sitting-room, though cozy by palace standards. The windows are curtained off with twilight-colored drapes. Whoever stays in this room does not wish to look out on the ravaged lands of hell. She sits before a table by the fire, shrinking back against the wall, lost in the shadows. I look closer.
It is my Persephone.
And yet not my Persephone.
If I have been transformed, so has she. My friend, my companion, my sister, my love, the carefree girl in white chiton is gone. Black robes entomb her. How heavy they look! She who loved to run, how can she even walk in these? The long sleeves swallow up her hands; she looks like an antique statue, broken at the wrists. She has bathed in some flowery substance; I smell its perfume all the way from my rafter. Instead of girlish locks, her hair’s been braided into elaborate forms about her head, more impressive than a crown. This Persephone has eyes rimmed with kohl and shaded with purple powder. Jewels fall from her ears, a rainfall of black tears. When she moves her head, the firelight catches at them, coaxing out the garnets’ hidden crimson. A spider web of garnets drapes her throat. I had forgotten that Hades was the lord of gems, of all things buried in the earth; he has been generous with his bride.
I have never seen Persephone sit so still. What is she thinking? Is she suffering?
Beside her is a table heaped with fruits. Four golden peaches. Three crimson apples. Grapes so ripe they sweat purple, as if they were already halfway wine. A hefty pomegranate has had its dome sliced through; the juice bleeds onto the platter. Persephone lifts her arms to let the dark sleeves fall back. She contemplates her hands. Each finger is bound by a garnet ring. She examines them wonderingly. A smile twitches at her lips but does not bloom.
I fidget, uncertain how she’ll react to my appearance.
Her eyes cast upwards, hearing my nervous rustling. The heart in my bird-breast flutters wildly. But she doesn’t notice me, only stares down at her fingers again. What are you, Ligeia, that your beloved cannot see you? I ask myself. Shadow and heartbeat, nothing more. I gather my courage. Finally, I spread my wings and land at her feet.
Persephone startles. Recoils. Until she focuses on my face.
“Ligeia!” she exclaims. “My, how you’ve changed.”
I wait for her to ask what’s happened to me. She doesn’t.
She smiles. Her mouth is red, so much redder than before. The young queen has used some cosmetic to inflame it. It makes her look much older, more voluptuous—far less genuine. I cannot keep from remembering her kissing Hades, how eagerly her lips—those red, red lips—sought his.
“I’ve changed, too, don’t you think?” she says. She stands, arms extended outward so I can admire the drape of those impossible sleeves. She twirls so the voluminous skirts bell out, then stops herself—I suppose she deems such movements too undignified for a queen. The action reminds me of the Persephone I love. Loved? One Persephone makes my heart ache with longing, and the other makes it ache with bitterness. Do they both have the power to break me?
She unfurls her hands before my face so that I may view the queen’s rings, then moves them slowly upward to her hair, gesturing to the artistry of the regal coiffure. She is displaying herself for me, unaware that the little monster has feelings. Or is she?
But Persephone surprises me again. She covers her face, weeping into the bejeweled hands.
“Oh, Ligeia! It isn’t what I thought it would be! How I long for light! Light! And air! And green, green grass and flowers and cats and girls. Rain! Clouds. Sky! Oh, sky! I want to go home! I want to go home!”
My heart breaks. Persephone thought to give and take a kiss, tease a god, dress like a queen, and then go home. She was only playing. She didn’t know the game lasted for eternity. She’s only a girl, still, under those reddened lips and cheeks. Underneath her extravagant velvet shroud, she is still my Persephone.
“That’s why I’ve come,” I say gently. “Your mother changed all your maidens into sirens and bade us look for you and bring you home. I’m the only one who knew where to look. Come with me, Persephone, and I will lead you back.”
“How? How?” she cries, removing her hands from her face. The purple powder on her eyes has smeared into a bruise; an Acheron of kohl runs down her cheeks.
“Did you bring any coins with you?” I ask.
“No!” Persephone sniffs. “Why?”
“We need to pay Charon’s fare. If I were bigger, I could carry you on my back, away to the upper world and home. But I can’t.”
Persephone looks at her rings and smiles. “My jewels have greater worth than any coin.”
I’ve never heard of Charon taking payment in jewels, but then there has never before been a siren either. And I have never heard of a mortal entering Hades and departing. (Can I still be called mortal? What am I?) I have to believe we will succeed.
“As long as you have eaten nothing,” I tell her, looking at that laden table, worried. In tales, as long as you ate nothing you might escape from enchanted realms. I assume it’s true of the Underworld as well, though no mortal has tried it. We will be the first. I wonder if we will be the last. “Not even a single grape. Tell me, Persephone, that you have tasted neither food nor drink since you came here. For every crumb you eat, you must stay here a month. If the tales tell truth.”
An odd expression creeps across her face and she picks up the pomegranate, red as her strange lips. She cannot have eaten of it, her fingers are still white as dough. Even as I watch, she brings the severed fruit to her lips and sucks.
I scream. The pomegranate rolls to the floor. I sweep the rest of the fruit from the table with my wings. Persephone makes no move to stop me. She holds up her stained hands in a gesture of peace.
“Why, Persephone?” I cry. “Why?”
“I said I wanted to go home,” she says. “I didn’t say I wanted to stay there forever. I like being queen. I like the dark lord. He’s handsome and powerful. But I miss the light.” Her triumphant smile dims. “I’ve only swallowed six seeds. Six months will I reign in Hades with my king; the rest of the year I will dwell in the light of the world above. Now, take me home.”
Joy and grief war within me as I lead Persephone from the palace. No one stops us. When we pass Cerberus the creature bows before his queen and Charon is already waiting at the Acheron. He accepts three garnet rings without question and poles his mistress across while I perch on the ferry’s stern.
Persephone sits facing forward, her body straining towards home. Her face, what little I glimpse of it, is glowing. She is the brightest thing in all the Underworld, a pure white candle. My heart beats full of love and hope. I am bringing her home. The goddess will be grateful and restore me to my former self. All will be as it was!
When the ferry hits the shore, Persephone leaps out. The cleft in the rock is already open—even stone bends to her will. The heavy gown impedes her but she is still fleet as a fawn. I stay perched on the edge of the ferry, watching her. I fill my eyes with the sight of Persephone running. As she reaches the stairs, I take flight after her.
Pain! I fall. Something cold and sharp pins me to the ground. It is Hades’ bident.
“Persephone!” I call. “Help me!”
She turns at the top of the steps, one foot across the threshold. She stares at me. Turns on her foot and reaches the light, without another backward glance. She is gone.
The rock closes up. How could she betray me? If I had teeth, I would gnash them. If I were a wolf, I’d howl. Hatred floods me. I yowl—no, screech; it is a siren sound that has no human word.
The god looms above me. He is dreadful, with his pupil-less, onyx eyes, the black locks that fall about his ivory face like adders. Only Persephone could have ignored his cruelty and seen just his beauty. For the dark lord is also beautiful.
“You wonder why I do not stop her.”
He is right.
“I, too, am bound by rules and conventions. My bride is free to go—and required to return in six months’ time. But you, Ligeia, you are not free. You will enjoy life as a being never seen before in any of the worlds.”
I am already that, I think, confused. Does Hades believe it was he who made me a siren? If I could laugh, I would.
“No longer maiden nor siren,” he says, as if he hears my thoughts. “Since you were so keen to be Demeter’s hound-dog, for all eternity may you relish your role as a feathered Hound of Hell. You will become a harpy—a creature so foul it will be loathed by all humanity and the gods as well. You will serve my bidding, pursue all those who attempt to elude me, drag the evil-doers down to my realm and punish them.”
He releases the bident. The wound seeps crimson. Everything hurts, not just my shoulder. Something is wrong. Everything is wrong.
“No!” I cry. “Mercy!” My siren voice holds new underlying notes—no longer merely bass, but also a shrill sound higher than treble. A counterpoint half-screech accompanies my words. Charon drops his pole to cover his ears.
I flap and flop in seizure. My feathers fall out. Snowy down feathers and speckled and crimson plumes litter the ground. They stretch, then bloat into solid bodies—sprout wings and clawed feet. Breasts. Long-haired heads. Transforming into sirens like me.
But, gods, not like me! These creatures’ hag faces wear vicious expressions. Their necks are red and wrinkled like those of vultures. Even their bird bodies aren’t beautiful, their feathers brown and ragged, their talons hideously long. Worst of all is the stench. Nothing that foul could be anything but evil.
And me—what am I now? I unfurl a wing and stare at it. Ugly white buds poke from the naked pink skin, like worms from soil, and elongate into tattered vulture quills. Deathly talons sharp as unsheathed daggers burst from my claws. I emit hideous shrieks and caws that would pierce the ears of mortal men and leave them bleeding.
The new-fledged horrors look to me, awaiting orders. I am their leader.
No, I am their mother—they are from me, of me. They are all my sins and sorrows made flesh.
Persephone did this to me. Tricked and abandoned me! Hatred blossoms in my heart like a garden of thorns.
“Persephone!” I scream. I imagine rending the betrayer with my claws, gorging on her reddened meat. My daughters’ caws echo behind me, cheering me on.
Persephone has reached the world above. Soon her mother will clasp her in her arms. The world will grow green again. And I, I will never dance in a meadow, pick a flower, love either maid or man.
But I need not be alone. From my flock I gather strength, I who have spent my life in sisterhood. No longer will I cling to invisibility and silence. Hear my voice! Hear my voice and fall to your knees. For we come. I and my daughters, deathless, keen eyes redder than any of the fires of Hades. We will stretch forth our wings and bear darkness to the world of light.
Sandi Leibowitz is a classical singer, New Yorker, and school librarian. Her speculative poetry and fiction appear in Liminality, Mythic Delirium, Luna Station Quarterly, and other magazines and anthologies. She has been nominated for the Rhysling, Dwarf Star, Pushcart Prize, and Best of the Net. She has traveled in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims from southern France to Santiago de Compostela, ridden in a hot-air balloon over the Rio Grande, and visited with Arthur in Avalon. Feel free to drop in for some virtual coffee at her website, In the Raven’s Wood, at sandileibowitz.com.
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