© Eva Pohler
Demeter wandered around, disguised as an old woman, until she came into a pretty village on a hillside. Near its center was a well, and it was surrounded by a stone bench. Demeter sat and took comfort by the well, covered her face in her hands, and wept.
After some time, four girls came to fill their jugs, and when they saw Demeter weeping, they asked if she needed help.
“I don’t think anyone can help me,” Demeter said. “My daughter has been stolen from me by the lord of darkness.”
“Oh, no!” the youngest cried. “She’s dead? You poor thing!”
The little girl put a hand on Demeter’s shoulder.
“The people in this village are kind,” the oldest said. “Anyone would take you in, but you would make us happiest if you would come and stay with us for however long you need to.”
Demeter smiled at the girl and was surprised by her kindness. “Thank you. But first go and ask your mother if she has room and enough food for me.”
The girls left with their jugs and, in a half hour, they returned without them, skipping.
“Our mother says yes!” the youngest cried before they’d reached the well.
Each girl had a smile for Demeter and something else besides—an orange, a feather, a flower, and a walnut.
“Please say you’ll come and be our grandmamma,” one of the middle girls said as she handed over her present.
“Our mother just had a baby and is stuck in the house all day,” the girl who had not yet spoken said. “She would love to have your company.”
“She said so?” Demeter asked.
All four girls nodded.
Demeter was moved by their enthusiasm. They didn’t even know who she was and yet they were so welcoming to her. She stood up from the bench and allowed them to crowd around her and take her by her arms.
The girls giggled and talked the whole way home, asking about her favorite color, her favorite food, her favorite thing to do. Demeter tried to answer as best as she could, though she had to make things up since her real answers would give away her identity.
After a while, they came to a small house on the edge of the village. Demeter was appalled by its condition. The exterior was badly worn, and it seemed too small for such a large family. There were no flowers in the garden, and the door had a hole at the bottom of it.
Waiting inside with a baby in her arms was the mother. She smiled warmly at Demeter and said, “Welcome to our humble home. My name is Metaneira, and this is Demophoon, my newborn son. Come inside and sit with us by the cozy fire. I’ll have my daughters bring you a glass of honey-sweet wine and a bowl of spicy lamb stew.”
Demeter was at once smitten with the baby. “May I hold him?”
“It would be an honor!” Metaneira said as she handed her precious bundle to the goddess she thought was just a lonely old woman.
Demeter couldn’t believe the members of this household would treat a stranger with such kindness. Her pleasure made flowers bloom around the house. No one noticed yet, but they would soon, though they wouldn’t understand the cause. Demeter also fixed the hole in the door while no one was looking, and she reinforced the entire house with magic, to keep the place from falling down. But mostly, she sat by the fire and held the baby boy, and sang to him, and was reminded of the days when Persephone was a baby.
Demeter was sitting beside the cozy fire with Demophoon bundled in her arms when his mother, Metaneira, returned home with a basket full of corn and potatoes.
“It’s the strangest thing,” Metaneira said as she set the basket on the table and took off her coat. “Crops are failing all over the lands. Neighboring villagers are starving. But our little farm has had the best harvest of my life. I’ve just been to market, where I sold corn and potatoes by the bushel! Dozens of them!”
“It pleases me to see you so happy,” Demeter said.
Metaneira smiled. “You brought us this good fortune. The gods must favor you.”
Demeter held the bottle of goat’s milk to the baby’s lips. “Your baby has grown bigger these past few days. His strength is remarkable.”
“And that is your doing, too,” the mother said. “You’ve been a wonderful blessing to us, dear.”
Metaneira’s daughters burst through the door with their jugs full of water.
“It’s so cold out there!” the youngest said.
“It’s never this cold!” the oldest said.
“But it’s nice and warm in here,” Metaneira pointed out. “Take off your coats and warm yourselves by the fire.”
To Demeter, she said, “Let me take my son. I’ll bathe him and bring him back to you shortly.”
“I can bathe him,” Demeter said, holding the baby close.
The mother frowned. “I don’t mind doing it, my dear. I rarely get the chance to hold him as it is.”
“I’ll do it, Metaneria. That way, you can get on with making the supper.”
Metaneira nodded, but Demeter could see she’d hurt the mother’s feelings.
As Demeter bathed Demophoon at the basin in the back of the house, the youngest daughter entered the room to offer her help.
“Can you take the jug of water back to your mother for me?” Demeter asked, pointing to the water she hadn’t used on the infant.
“I’d be happy to.” As the girl was about to leave the room, she turned back to Demeter and asked, “Are you going to keep my baby brother for yourself?”
“Of course not, child,” Demeter scolded. “He belongs to your mother.”
The girl apologized and left the room.
After supper, Demeter thought it would be wise to allow Metaneira to hold her own son. She didn’t like the suspicions that seemed to be growing among the members of the household. Demeter cleaned the supper dishes while the family visited around their fire. Metaneira’s husband, Celeus, had just returned from his hunt, and the girls begged him to tell them about his adventures.
When the supper dishes were clean and the stories were finished, Demeter asked if she might once again hold Demophoon. The mother kissed her baby’s forehead before handing him over—sadly, it seemed to Demeter. The goddess realized she had allowed herself to grow too fond of the baby and was hoarding him as she had her own daughter. Her heart still ached for Persephone, but, in her efforts to divert her heartache, Demeter couldn’t rob this mother of her time with her child.
As the mother stood to ready herself for bed, Demeter whispered, “I won’t remain in your house much longer. You’ll have your baby back soon.”
The mother either didn’t hear Demeter, or she pretended not to hear, as she ordered her daughters to bed. Then Metaneira told Demeter goodnight before she followed her husband to their bedroom.
Alone with the baby, Demeter took a vial of ambrosia from her robes and anointed it all over Demophoon’s sweet skin. If she was to spare him from death, tonight was the night she must make him a god. As she anointed his skin, she sang the song she’d sung to him each night:
Sweet little cherub, don’t you cry.
Sleep will be coming, and soon you’ll fly
Up to the stars and into the night.
A kiss for Selene and all is bright.
Then, holding the baby in one hand, she stoked the fire with the other, and then she kissed Demophoon on the forehead.
“You will become like me, sweet boy,” she whispered. “And then, when your family has long since died, you will still walk the earth, until you’re ready to join me on Mount Olympus.”
She swaddled him more snuggly in his blanket and then reached down to place him in the flames in the hearth.
Behind her, Metaneira screamed. “No!”
Demeter jumped. She’d been so consumed with what she was doing, that she hadn’t noticed the mortal enter the room.
Metaneira rushed to Demeter’s side and ripped Demophoon from the goddess’s arms. “How could you? How could you want to kill my baby?”
The baby wailed with fear. His mother bounced him and patted him and kissed his little head. “It’s okay,” she whispered to her son. “I’ve got you now, my sweet lamb.”
Demeter was mortified by Metaneira’s accusation. “I would never kill Demophoon! I love him as if he were my own child!”
“You must be mad.” The mother stared at Demeter with wide, frightened eyes. Her voice and body trembled as she patted her boy. “I saw what you were going to do. If I hadn’t come in when I did…”
“Your son would be immortal, like me.”
Metaneira jerked back her head. “What did you say?”
Demeter transformed into the beautiful, slender, youthful woman that she was—but she kept her radiance dimmed, so as not to burn the mortal’s eyes and kill her. Demeter’s old robes were replaced by a purple gown of silk. Her corn-blonde hair fell in braids across her back. A crown of diamonds sparkled on her head above her golden-brown eyes.
In spite of Demeter’s precaution at keeping her radiance dimmed, her transformation startled the woman, and the mother fell back and toppled to the floor. Her baby fell from her arms and struck his head on the brick hearth. The baby’s crying came to an abrupt halt. Blood poured from his head.
“No!” both women screamed.
Celeus rushed from his bed to see what the commotion was all about. His daughters peered down from their loft, rubbing their sleepy eyes.
“What’s happening?” the husband cried.
Demeter had taken Demophoon in her arms, had covered his wound with his blanket, and was trying to breathe the life back into him, but Hermes had been too swift. He’d taken the baby’s soul before Demeter had noticed him.
With her eyes full of tears, the goddess glared at each member of the unfortunate family. “I am Demeter, goddess of the harvest.”
“A goddess?” Celeus asked. “Here, in our house?” He fell to his knees.
Demeter saw the girls above them drop to their knees as well.
Metaneira was already on the floor at Demeter’s feet, sobbing for her son. She said nothing.
Demeter looked down at the poor woman. “You were good to me while I was feeling low, and I thank you for that. But now Demophoon is dead.”
“No!” the mother cried. “Please! It can’t be! Oh, no, no, no!” The woman beat her breast and rocked herself to and fro at Demeter’s feet.
The girls above broke into sobs, too.
“Can’t you fix him?” the youngest asked.
“We’ll do anything you say!” Celeus said. “Please save my son!”
Demeter glanced across the room at the hurting father and then looked up at the darling girls, their faces twisted with despair. Then she returned her gaze to the mourning mother at her feet. This is not what she had hoped for this family. “I’ll take his body to Lord Hades and beg for his soul to be returned.”
Metaneria kissed Demeter’s feet, again and again. “Thank you, dear Demeter. Thank you so much!”
Demeter held the lifeless baby close to her as she left the cottage and god-traveled to the gates of the Underworld, some distance from Cerberus, where she waited on the riverbank, once again for Charon to appear in his boat.
When she saw the old man nearing the gate on his raft full of souls, she spotted Hermes among them. He held Demophoon’s soul in his arms.
“Hermes!” Demeter shouted. “Give that soul back to me at once, before the body becomes cold.”
Hermes gave her a look of surprise. “Demeter? Is that you?”
“The soul you carry in your arms,” she repeated. “Please give it back to me.”
Hermes glanced all around. Demeter saw the look he exchanged with Charon.
“You’ll have to take this up with Lord Hades,” Hermes finally said. “I don’t have the authority.”
“Tell him I’m here,” she said. “Please tell him to let me inside the gate.”
Demeter carried the lifeless Demophoon in her arms as she flew from the Underworld back to the village near the base of Mount Parnassus, where she saw a crew of men already at work on her temple. She flew further west to their small village and found Metaneira at home sobbing, while her daughters attempted to console her.
As soon as Demeter entered the house, Metaneria leapt to her feet and rushed to the goddess. Her four daughters were close at her heels.
“Is he alive?” she cried peering at the baby in Demeter’s arms.
“My baby brother!” the youngest girl said. “Is he safe?”
“Not yet,” Demeter said to them gravely.
“Not yet?” the oldest daughter asked.
Metaneira looked expectantly at Demeter. “So he will be soon?”
“Maybe. It’s not that simple,” Demeter said.
“Please, dear Goddess,” the second to the oldest begged. “Explain it to us!”
At that moment, Celeus entered the house. He fell to his knees just inside the door.
“You’ve returned! Do you have my son?”
His daughters fell to their knees as well, following their father’s example. Only Metaneira remained standing, her face close to the lifeless baby.
“He’s still not alive,” Metaneira said. “She’s about to explain, aren’t you, dear Demeter?”
“The lord of darkness told me there was only one way he could return Demophoon’s soul.”
“And what is it?” Metaneira asked anxiously.
“Someone must take his place.”
More gasps filled the room.
Metaneira fell to her knees, clinging to Demeter’s legs.
Everyone in the room, including Demeter, was crying.
In another moment, Metaneira said, “I’ll do it.”
The four daughters jumped to their feet and crowded their mother.
“Please, don’t, Mamá!” the youngest cried. “You can’t leave us!”
“No, Mamá! I won’t let you!” the oldest said.
“I’d rather die than let you do it!” the second to the youngest said.
“No, Ophelia! It can’t be you, either!” the second to the oldest cried. “Mamá please! Demophoon is in heaven. Let him stay!”
“I agree,” Celeus said, climbing to his feet. “My beloved Metaneira, I’m so sorry for your grief. I feel it too. But you’ll break my heart beyond repair if you do this thing.”
Metaneira stood, and, unsteadily, went to her husband. She cupped his face in her hands as tears streamed down both of their cheeks. “I love you. I don’t want to leave you. But my instinct is to save my son. Can you understand that?”
“Your daughters need you, too,” he said.
“That’s true, Mamá!” the oldest cried. “Oh, please! Oh, please don’t go!”
Demeter’s heart was breaking, too. She hated Hades for making her do this. Surely, as the lord of the Underworld, he could have thought of a better way.
Metaneira turned to her daughters and embraced each one. “Listen to me, my sweet little lambs. I love you more than life itself. And I would do this for any of you.”
“No!” they cried.
“You are all old enough to help your Babá, yes?” their mother said through her tears. “And you will take good care of your baby brother? You won’t blame him for my death? He is innocent, you know.”
“Mamá, please!” they begged.
Metaneira turned to Celeus. “If I don’t do this thing, I will be miserable for the rest of my life—knowing I might have saved my son. If I hadn’t been given this choice—if he’d died and there was nothing I could do—I might have moved on. But knowing I could save him…it will kill me if I don’t. There’s no question in my mind. I need to do this.”
Celeus gave Demeter an accusing glare. His eyes told her that he blamed her, but he said nothing.
Demeter couldn’t stand to be in the presence of the grief-stricken family a moment longer. “You must choose,” she said. “The body is growing cold.”
“I have no choice,” Metaneira said. “Take me to the Underworld.”
As Demeter god-traveled with the baby and his mother away from the village, she tried to ignore the wails and cries of the family members left behind.
Demeter god-traveled with the mother and baby to the riverbank near the gate of the Underworld and called out for Hades. “I’ve done as you asked! I’ve brought you the mother!”
“I’m frightened,” Metaneira said through a chattering jaw as she looked across the river at Cerberus. “Will you stay with me until the very end?”
Demeter squeezed the mother’s hand. “I will stay with you for as long as I’m allowed.”
“Will I be able to see Demophoon before I go? Just once, to say goodbye?” She glanced at his lifeless body cupped in one of Demeter’s arms.
“I will ask. It’s not up to me.”
Metaneira kissed the goddess’s hand. “Thank you.”
The enormous black iron gate screeched open, and Demeter thought about making a run for it—racing inside to find Demophoon and Persephone and taking her chances against Hades—but before she could commit to the idea, Charon emerged from the gate with an empty raft.
As soon as he passed the threshold, the gate screeched closed behind him. Cerberus watched attentively.
“Where’s Hades? I need to speak with him!” Demeter shouted from across the river.
“He’s not at home.”
“What?” Demeter was outraged. “How can he call himself the lord of the Underworld if he’s so seldom here?”
Charon said nothing in reply but slowly pulled his pole through the river.
“What about Hermes?” Demeter asked. “Can’t he help me?”
“He hasn’t yet come with the next batch of souls,” Charon remarked.
“Is there no one in charge down here that can help me?” Demeter complained.
Again, Charon did not reply.
“He’s a man of many words,” Demeter muttered beneath her breath.
“What’s wrong?” Metaneira asked, her teeth still chattering. “Is something amiss?”
“I guess we’ll just have to wait,” Demeter said with a tinge of anger she couldn’t suppress, not even for the frightened woman. How she hated Hades. He’d abducted her daughter, he’d refused to allow Demeter to see her, and now he was destroying a family dear to her heart.
“I don’t know how much longer I can take this,” Metaneria said. “I may just die of fear right here and now.”
“Wait, that’s it.” The idea that came to Demeter was horrific, but it was worth giving it a try. What did she have to lose?
Demeter conjured her dagger. “The surest way to get a god of death to come to us is to force his hand.”
Metaneira’s eyes grew wide. “Is it time, then?”
“I’m afraid so, my dear,” Demeter answered. “But it will be quick. One sharp pain, and then it’ll be over. Then you’ll be free.”
Metaneira nodded, though her teeth continued to chatter. “I’m so afraid. Do you suppose you could sing to me, like you did as you rocked Demophoon to sleep?”
Tears now spilled down Demeter’s face as she smiled at the woman. “I promise to look after your baby and to protect him as if he were my own.”
Metaneria didn’t say it, but she unwittingly prayed, Isn’t that what you always wanted? Aloud, Metaneria said, “I would be forever grateful, Goddess.”
Demeter sang her soft tune as she raised the dagger.
Sweet little cherub, don’t you cry.
Sleep will be coming, and soon you’ll fly
Up to the stars and into the night
A kiss for Selene and all is bright.
Eva Pohler is a USA Today bestselling author of over thirty novels in multiple genres, including supernatural mysteries, thrillers, and young adult paranormal romance based on Greek mythology. Her books have been described as "addictive" and "sure to thrill"--Kirkus Reviews. You can learn more about Eva and her work at https://www.evapohler.com, where you can sign up to receive two free ebooks, including Charon's Quest.
About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”