We haven’t always been like this, my sisters and I. Gnarled creatures wailing tunes of melancholy and death, waiting for the one who got away. Not too long ago, we were lovely, magnificent with our gilded wings and pleasant faces. We floated above the ground, not bound by the earth or the sky or any plane. Once upon a time we were angels.
That all changed when she was taken. Grabbed while we were in the forest, eating berries from the bushes near the lake’s edge. We were charged as her protectors, failing her when it was most important.
Persephone sat by the lake, slipping her pale fingers below the water’s surface. She was a woman settled into solitude; beautiful, yet endlessly quiet. Even her footsteps were silent, making no mark or sound in the dirt. She was the opposite of her mother—a large woman who brimmed with vibrations and color. Demeter was always drunk, on life and wine, her voice booming with gossip and adventures. Her daughter wasn’t as vibrant and entertaining as the earth’s creations and creatures. This disappointed Demeter surely, but the goddess never said so. Instead she left her daughter to her solitude, and charged us with watching over Persephone while she went and had her fun.
There was no way to know the god of death had poisoned the berries with wine, leaving us drunk and distracted that afternoon. There was no way to know he rested underneath the surface of the lake, patient as he watched the young goddess dip her fingers into its blue green coolness. There was no way to know he would pull her under, dragging her to his underworld kingdom of death and shadows.
Her body slipped through the water as though she had gone through a looking glass. One moment she was there, and then she wasn’t. We searched the lake frantically and clumsily for hours, coming up with nothing but mud and brine. Our dear Persephone had vanished.
Saturated in water, our wings were heavy on our backs, forcing us to walk. We moved slowly, lead in our feet, to the temple where Demeter was sampling vegetables from one of her many sprawling gardens.
“Great Goddess Demeter,” we said in unison, as we usually did, “we have failed you.”
“How so?” she asked, not looking up from the squash in her hands.
“Persephone,” I said. “She’s gone.”
“Gone? Gone how?” She met our eyes, stricken with horror and guilt, hers dark, piercing us with anger and accusation.
We wept as we told her, our faces in our hands, dry dirt mixing with tears.
“You will die if she is not found,” she said. “If she is not returned to me.”
Demeter threw the three of us into a cage of constructed out of impenetrable vines, adorned with poisonous flowers and fruits. The kaleidoscopic blooms called to us, begging us to have a taste. My sisters almost did in their starvation; luckily, I stopped them in time. Demeter kept us imprisoned for weeks until she discovered what had happened to her daughter. Persephone had not drowned in the lake or been eaten by a monster in the forest as we had imagined. Instead she had become a living prisoner, her shackles tethering her to the underworld. She was to be devoured by the worst kind of monster, Hades.
After Demeter struck a deal with Hades, she announced my sisters' and my punishment: “I will cut off our wings, severing what makes you beautiful, what has given you the notion that you have power. Without your wings, you’ll be bound to the earth, to be no greater than man, the lowliest of beast.” Her lips twitched in amusement. She enjoyed tearing living creatures down as much as she did growing them.
She lined us up, one after the other for the cutting block. With a sickle, she sawed through my sisters’ wings one at a time, inch by inch, her face twisted and sinister, cheeks stained a deep red.
She saved me for last.
“Please bountiful, merciful goddess. Please do not take that which makes me me.” I brought my hands before my heart as I’d seen man do countless times, praying to the gods for safety or wealth or love.
Her cheeks deflated, her lips curling into a frown. She placed her hand onto the crown of my head. My spine pulsed under the weight of it, but I didn’t dare tremble or shy away from her grasp. The goddess of harvest didn’t appreciate weakness.
“Oh, dear child. Poor, poor child,” she said. Her fingers tightened their grip on my skull. “What a pretty little fool you are. Your wings are quite extraordinary you know. More vibrant and magnificent than your sisters’.” She paused. “They’ll make an excellent addition to my mantle. The perfect adornment.”
Demeter forced my head down so far I thought my neck was going to snap. With her other hand she drew the sickle to the place where pink flesh met golden wing. The blade wheezed as it sliced through the top layer. Bone began to crackle as it separated from tissue.
The goddess took her time removing my wings, each cut punctuated with a snap, as though a tree branch was being severed, broken into pieces. Demeter ripped branches from my trunk until I was bare and broken.
When the goddess released her grip on my head, I curled into a ball. I opened my mouth to let out a howl but nothing came. I stayed like that until the blood on my back had dried and became crusty, my shredded skin boiling with sunburn and infection.
“That’s enough,” Demeter’s voice thundered above me. “Stand in line with your sisters.”
I unfurled myself and crawled to my siblings, who stood side-by-side in front of our cage.
“I said stand.”
I pressed my hands into the earth and tried to push myself up. One of my palms slipped and my face met dirt.
A rustle of fabric moved towards me.
“Leave her,” Demeter said to one of my sisters. The fabric rustled again as she stepped back.
I clawed the dirt and arched my back like a cat. I dug my toes into the earth and pushed myself into the air. Slowly, I rose to standing and stumbled my way to my sisters. The three of us linked hands, a battered chain.
The goddess moved to the door of the cage behind us, disappearing inside. She returned a minute later with an assortment of flowers and fruits. My sisters and I held each other a little tighter. We could only imagine the horrors those poisonous plants could do to us.
Going down the line, Demeter smeared the flowers and fruits into our flesh, pressing them deeply into our faces and throats until they burned, a putrid stink rising from the charred skin.
Once again she saved me for last.
“This is your rebirth,” she said, when she finished coating my skin. “Let this remind you of your sacred duties and what happens when you fail.”
In unison, my sisters and I shrieked in horror at our beastly metamorphosis, our shrill voices twisting together, forming a banshee call.
To our surprise, the goddess smiled at our cries. “Good,” she said. “Cry. Cry for what you’ve lost. Cry for my daughter. Cry until she comes home.”
Demeter released us then.
Each morning since, my sisters and I make our way to the forest when the sun paints the land in pastels. Our feet cringe at the touch of the damp, spongy earth, our toes curling up like fists. We miss our wings, although we do not utter our grief. We go past the bushes full of berries to the lake, never daring to sample another taste. We have learned better than to be indulgent.
We sit by the lake’s edge and wait, eyes strained, lips parted, our bodies trembling with anticipation. We lower our jaws and raise our voices, releasing the deafening song we have become known for, to guide our beloved young goddess home.
My sisters and I are no longer beautiful winged creatures, but wrinkled, pockmarked monsters with hunchbacks covered in bright red scars, that no matter the passage of time, never heal. We are feared by man and gods alike. We are no longer angels. No, they came up with another name for us.
Christina Rosso is a red-headed siren and bookstore owner living in South Philadelphia with her bearded husband and two rescue pups. Her work has been featured in Twisted Sister Lit Mag, Queen Mob’s Tea House, FIVE:2:ONE Magazine, and more. Visit https://christinarosso.wordpress.com/ or find her on Twitter @Rosso_Christina.