By Mileva Anastasiadou
“I know how the story goes,” I tell my therapist. He stares at me bewildered. “The true story, not the one children are taught in school. Most kids know part of the story, yet they forget it as they grow up.” I watch him lean his head over his notes and I pause. I think I have probably bored him.
“So, what’s the story?” he asks, noticing my pause, lifting his eyes to study my face, holding his pen tight.
“In the beginning there was only God. It was too boring. So God created the world. He created Uranus and Gaia. They gave birth to many gods and then came the mortals. So the drama began.”
“We all know that story, or different versions of it,” he interrupts me. He puts down his pen. As if he doesn’t feel he has to take any more notes. As if I’m not saying something special.
That’s why I don’t go on with the story, yet I do know it. God was an introvert at heart. He soon left for another universe, which he created to avoid the drama. And the world we know was left in the hands of the powerful. Power changed hands and there was always hope that the new hands would be kinder, that they would use the power for good. Yet when power is concentrated, it has the capability to corrupt. And that’s when hope disappears.
“Let’s try something else,” he says. He doesn’t have much time to waste on me.
He shows me an inkblot card and I say, “That’s Santa Claus.”
He looks at me in amazement, while I bow my head ashamed, yet mostly confused, wondering why my answer wasn’t satisfactory. He repeats the question, “What do you see?”
Again I say, “Santa.”
He then points at those red stains, asking me how I explain them, and all I can see is Santa’s cap. I don’t speak at first, because I know that isn’t the right answer, so I say “blood.” That’s what he’s expected, and I see a smile of satisfaction forming on his face and I know I’m right.
“You have lost hope. That’s what’s wrong with you,” he tells me. He then shows me the door, after handing me a brand-new prescription.
Christmas has always been my favorite season. As a kid, I loved the presents, the Christmas tree, the smell of freshly baked cookies, the decorations. I loved the smell of hope in the air. Most of all, I loved Santa’s visits. Not the fake ones—my father dressing up in Santa’s clothes, pretending to talk in a language that I wouldn’t recognize, caressing my head in tenderness, then jumping out of the window, pretending to be in a hurry. I loved the true Santa, visiting every year, magically entering my room through the window, whether it was open or not. I loved the way he took my present out of his big brown sack, after asking me whatever questions he had to ask. That was the deal and I knew it. All kids knew.
“Have you met Persephone this year?” he would ask.
“No, I haven’t,” I would say.
I wouldn’t have told him even if I had. But I never did, so I didn’t have to lie to Santa. I didn’t even know who that Persephone was. I’d hate lying to Santa. Kids don’t like lying to him, which is why they are the main target.
The same ritual was repeated every year, until one year it stopped. I forgot all about the strange visits, until a few years ago, when I met Persephone.
Persephone is a beautiful woman. The moment I saw her, I knew I had seen her before. Beauty like hers cannot be forgotten. She came to comfort me when I was drowning in sadness. That’s what friends are for. Friends don’t let friends drown in sadness, no matter how many years have passed. She didn’t talk much. She didn’t have to. The moment she touched my hand, it all came back to me and the world finally made sense.
I remembered the scene. We were out in the fields, playing, collecting flowers, when Hades came. It was love at first sight. They ran away together, determined to never come back. That’s another thing. In school, we are taught that Hades took Persephone away from her mother Demeter violently, against her will, only because her father Zeus agreed to marry her to the god of darkness. I am not an immortal, yet my soul was there with her, a witness to a holy kind of love. I was her best friend, Callirhoe, the daughter of Oceanus, the daughter of the sea. And my soul has been coming back to this world in different human bodies ever since.
I remembered moments. Many moments. A person cannot remember everything, yet important places, important persons always come back to mind after the right trigger. I should have been comforted. Yet I wasn’t. It was a sad “eureka” moment, when I realized that all the pain kept coming back to me again and again—death didn’t mean escape from torture.
I thought this was common for all people. That I was nothing special. Persephone didn’t reveal the whole truth to me. Not yet. She told me not to tell anyone. Yet what I knew was too important to hide from the world.
Nobody believed a word. Not even my therapist. My words were considered a psychotic breakdown, a reaction to my recent loss. I would have been burnt as a witch had I lived in another era. Nowadays, there are doctors and medication and modern ways to deal with inconvenient truths.
I lost both of my parents in a car accident two months before Christmas. That was the loneliest time of my life. On Christmas Eve, I found myself in the unusual position of spending the Holy Night in a dark and cold dungeon, far away from the place I called home. At first, I thought it was a strange case of kidnapping. Strange, considering the fact there was nobody I could think of who would pay ransom to save me.
In my early twenties, supposedly still in college, yet unable to afford it anymore, I was at the verge of being homeless, if I didn’t soon find a job to pay the rent. No relatives or close friends were there to help me. Persephone had come to visit a few days earlier, in an attempt to soothe my sadness, yet she disappeared the next day, leaving no way to reach her.
“We can’t afford to lose you,” she told me.
“I’m not that useful,” I replied.
“You’re not indeed, in that condition. You should remain alive and hopeful.”
“Do you know why you are here, Callirhoe?”
Only my mother used to call me by that name. Too long and too outdated for my father’s taste, it had been shortened to Calli since I was a kid. The woman addressing me looked too sad to frighten me, yet her figure and outfit was familiar. She could be Santa Claus, if she was a man, but her voice definitely sounded female. It could be a woman dressed as Santa Claus, I thought to myself, trying to regain my composure.
“For ransom, I guess? You are wasting your time,” I mumbled before realizing that the woman in red was indeed Mrs. Claus. The wife of the famous gift-giver of my childhood.
“Don’t be silly. I would never do something like that.”
“It must be about Persephone then. Are you still seeking information about her?”
“I am. I am rather desperate to find her.”
“Why? What has she done to deserve your wrath?”
Mrs. Claus frowned.
“I am her mother. I think Persephone hasn’t told you the whole truth.”
She talked to me about the war of the gods. About the battles, the winners, the shattered world and the new order. Gaia and Uranus, the Titans, the gods who came to replace them. How they mingled with humans and took on their characteristics. How people learned about power from gods and began chasing it. How desire for power prevailed in the world. She told me about the Creator, who finally found out and decided to take over. How the old gods were sent into exile at first, but later returned.
Old gods have taken up whatever place they were given in the new world. Demeter, the goddess of harvest and poppies and grain, the mother of Persephone, came back and chose a difficult task. She now took the form of Mrs. Claus, dressed in red only through the festive season, spending the rest of the year garbed in black, mourning the loss of her daughter.
“My lovely daughter. I need to see her—I’m running out of hope,” said Demeter. When Mrs. Claus runs out of hope, the world runs out of hope. And hope is crucial to existence. Hope is what makes the world go ‘round. In the old times, when Demeter was mourning, winter came. When Persephone came back, once a year, from the underworld to meet her mother, light prevailed, flowers blossomed, hope was instilled in human hearts. If Demeter runs out of hope, an endless winter will prevail. Eternal darkness will take over the world.
I stood there frozen, numb, watching her pain run through her eyes, onto her red dress, painting it black, and for a while she looked like a sad Christmas tree, with blinking lights, red alternating with darkness. The darkness seemed about to prevail and the blinking lights about to go out for good.
She opened the box she had been carrying in her hands, asking me to approach and take a look.
“All that’s left inside this box is these last few drops of hope.”
All I saw was an empty box with only a few red, sparkling drops of what the woman had called hope. Red like blood, like poppies, like fire. Red is the color of hope. Hope is neither blue, like the sky, nor green like the leaves. It is red, because hope burns like fire and warms like fire. Because the sky and the leaves have existed forever. And though fire has always existed as well, humans had to discover it.
I thought Demeter deserved to know her daughter was well and happy. I was ready to talk to her about my meeting with her daughter, when Persephone appeared. Time froze in the dark dungeon. Mrs. Claus stopped moving and became a statue. The fly that was buzzing around my head landed on the wall. The only movement was Persephone approaching me, taking my hand. For a while, all became dark. I couldn’t tell if it was her long black hair covering me or if my eyes were closed. When the darkness was gone, we were flying high in the night sky, above Christmas Land.
“My mother is doing a good job,” I heard Persephone say, although her lips didn’t move. “She keeps the hope alive. Christmas is all about hope.”
There, above Christmas Land, where little elves were standing still, as if a festive dance had suddenly been interrupted, among lighted Christmas trees, whose lights were not blinking, yet shone in great splendor, I felt hope again. The hope I thought I had lost forever, when I lost my parents.
“Hades is not the bad person they all claim him to be,” she told me giggling, as if confiding a secret I had not already known.
“It all began with the original sin. Before it happened, Adam lived happily in the garden of Eden with Eve and the rest of the creatures. God, the original Creator, was far away, resting in another galaxy which got further away from the known world, from the world humans inhabit, due to the expansion of the universe he had created with the big bang. The rest of the gods, those trapped in the known universe, grabbed the opportunity to take action. They shared responsibilities, fought wars. Some were lost forever, some survived and ruled. They convinced God that humans didn’t deserve knowledge. Only Hades refused to comply with their plan. He was the one who presented the apple to Eve, the one who brought fire to humans, only to be punished later on. History is written by the winners. And in all textbooks, Hades has been presented as evil, although he’s the one who truly believes in humans.”
“So why do people hate him so much?” I asked.
“Hades took all responsibility for the fall. He took over the underworld, the world that wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for him. A dirty job, yet someone had to do it. Human greed overcame the greed of the gods with time. Gods, and a few humans, have even managed to convince the Creator that all is as it should be. That Hades only wants to take his place. Hades never intended to take God’s place. He never wished for power. He only wanted to give knowledge and power to people.”
“Like your power of flight?” I asked Persephone.
“We’re not flying because of me, Calli,” she said.
“Of course not. You’re the bird among us.”
I didn’t believe her, but I turned around to make sure there were no wings on my back.
“You may not be immortal like I am, yet you are born again and again, rising from your ashes, every single time.”
“I am a phoenix?”
“You come alive in a different body every time it happens. Your mission is to provide hope. Yet you can do it only if you have it yourself.”
Back in the dungeon, Persephone gave her mother a big hug before disappearing. When Mrs. Claus came ‘round, her eyes sparkling, as if she knew what had happened, she looked a bit brighter, her red dress glowing like red balls on a Christmas tree, like mistletoe berries on a Christmas table.
“Thank you,” she told me, taking a bow.
In that moment, I understood my mission. To give hope to the one who was responsible for keeping it alive. In that moment, all my doubts vanished—I have always been that bird, since the beginning of time.
Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist. Her work can be found in many journals, such as The Molotov Cocktail, Jellyfish Review, Asymmetry, The Sunlight Press, Ghost Parachute, Gone Lawn, and others. You can find her on facebook https://www.facebook.com/milevaanastasiadou/ and twitter @happymil_.