The things I do to get laid. I don't like small places. Or mud. Particularly not bat dung. But there I was, wedged in a narrow tunnel, wet and covered in God-knows-what, following Erica's flashlight beam through caves seventy five feet under the Earth.
"C'mon, Meg!" she called, doubling back to grab my arm and pull me through the passage. "The best part is up ahead."
"You mean a hotel room with a shower?" I asked. And a heater. It couldn't be more than fifty degrees. I took a step and my hiking boots slid out from under me, landing me on my butt.
Erica giggled and helped me up. "It's way better than that." Honestly, if she wasn't so gorgeous and aggressively enthusiastic, I would have never let her talk me into spelunking. I would have suggested dinner. A movie. A fun night of shoving acupuncture needles through my eyelids. Or, better yet, I could just accept my role as the human embodiment of lesbian bed death and funnel my energy into double shifts in the ER. I'm good at nursing; I suck at relationships.
My flashlight flickered and I whacked it against my hand. It blazed back to life. "Did you bring another light, like I told you?" Erica asked. Her voice suddenly didn't sound fun-loving. It was tense and annoyed.
"I brought three." As if I wanted to be stuck down here in the blackest black I ever saw.
"Good girl," Erica said, grinning. She brushed a strand of hair out of my eyes and flashed her dimples at me. "It's just a little farther."
She led me through a reasonably wide tunnel to a large cavern. I shined my flashlight around. It looked like I was inside of a stone egg. There were no distinct walls--only the upward sloping floor and the downward sloping ceiling. I tried not to think about the tons and tons of Earth over my head.
"Isn't this awesome?" Erica asked, running into the cavern.
I lingered in the tunnel. "Very. Can we go now?"
Erica pouted. "No. You haven't seen the best part." She looked around and a secretive smile played on her lips. "Percy?" she called softly. "Percy. Hey. It's me, Erica."
I stiffened. Percy? Maybe I should've reminded the adorable Erica that three's a crowd, but she had piqued my curiosity with all this secretive stuff. Also, I couldn't find my way back to the surface without her. Besides....well, dimples.
"Percy," she called a little louder. There was a rumble. My heart jumped. For a moment, I thought the caverns and tunnels were collapsing over my head and I ducked involuntarily. I shined my flashlight on Erica. Her face practically glowed. She stared at one side of the cavern expectantly and I followed her gaze.
An aperture opened in the side of the cavern--a circular door that dilated like a pupil, leaving a six-foot hole in the rock. A breath of wind flowed into the cave. It smelled like mold and rot. I heard footsteps and edged back into the tunnel.
A woman stepped through the circular doorway. She wore a white garment that draped her body to the floor. Her hair fell in perfect curls all the way past her waist, the deep autumn brown glinting copper in the low light. She wore a garland of dried flowers and even in the darkness I could tell that her cameo face was ghostly white. Power radiated off of her like heat; as stunning as she was, it almost made me want to hide from her.
Apparently Erica was having a different reaction. She rushed to the woman, kissing her cheek. "I brought help, Percy."
"Help?" the woman asked, her voice ethereal and melodic.
Erica motioned me into the cavern. "Meg, don't lurk. Come in."
I was beginning to suspect that I wasn't really on a date. Still, even after four years in the ER, this was the strangest thing I had ever seen. I stepped just inside the cavern.
"Meg, this is Persephone." She said it, like it should mean something to me.
"Ummm...pleased to meet you?" I didn't mean for it to come out like a question, but, for God's sake, the woman had just walked through a stone wall.
"Meg," Erica said, sounding impatient, "it's Persephone. You know...Persephone. Greek goddess. Wife of Hades."
I blinked at her.
"Didn't you ever take Humanities?" Erica snapped.
I found my voice. "Of course I did. But that's just a story."
Persephone stepped closer to me. "I assure you that it is much more than that."
I racked my memory for the details of the ancient Greek myth. An innocent goddess is kidnapped by Hades out of a field and tricked into eating six pomegranate seeds while she's in the underworld. That little snack trapped her in the underworld for six months out of the year. And since her mother was the goddess of the harvest, those six months were winter. Nobody did tragedy like the Greeks.
I opened my mouth to speak and noticed that Erica had her arm around Persephone's waist. I definitely wasn't on a date. "Fine," I snapped at the gorgeous woman. "You're Persephone." I turned to Erica, my tone no kinder. "Why did you bring me here?"
"You're an ER nurse."
"Very astute," I crossed my arms.
"Well, you know how to pump someone's stomach. And Persephone has these pomegranate seeds...."
I looked at her. "No."
"C'mon. She's trapped here."
I looked at Erica's arm around Persephone's waist and I wanted to cry. When I spoke, my voice had an embarrassing tremble. "I said no. Now take me home."
Erica followed me around for the next week. She was a social worker and spent a good bit of time in the Emergency Room anyway. Every time she got a call, she was up my ass.
"Erica, get out of here."
I grabbed an emesis basin. "I have a puker in Exam Room Two, so unless you want to help me mop up vomit--"
"I'll do anything you ask. Just help us."
"If Persephone wants her stomach pumped, tell her to come to the hospital like everyone else." I quick-walked down the hall, dodging gurneys and nurses.
"She can't," she said, chasing me. "She can't go above ground until spring. Then she has to go straight to Olympus."
"That sucks for her."
"And for me. I'm in love with her, Meg."
I stopped dead in the hallway, facing Erica. She looked like a wounded child. "How exactly do you think this is going to work? I pump the seeds out of Persephone's stomach and you--what--get an apartment together? Move to Lesbos?"
"She's going to take me to Olympus."
"And her husband?"
Erica snorted. "What about him? They hardly even speak anymore. Did you know he chased a nymph named Minthe?"
"Actually, I did." You can't meet a goddess and not brush up on your Greek mythology. "Do you know what Hades did to Pirithous when he tried to take Persephone?"
"Hades trapped him in the underworld."
"Exactly." I turned on my heel and headed for Exam Room Two.
"I thought you would understand!" she called after me.
I spun. "Why? Because I'm a lesbian?"
"No," she answered. "Because you're alone."
I glared at her but then a bright idea came to me. She was right. I was alone. But maybe I didn't have to be. "I'll tell you what. You go back to Persephone. Tell her I'll help her if she puts in a good word for me with Aphrodite. I want lesbian sex appeal coming out my ears. If she can do that, I'll get those seeds out of her stomach."
Erica beamed at me. "You mean that?"
"Absolutely. It would be nice to go on a real date with someone who's attracted to me."
Erica's smile dimmed a little. "Hey. It's not like I don't think you're h--"
"You just tell your Percy what I said. If she agrees, we have a deal."
Persephone couldn't agree fast enough. On my next day off from work Erica and I were back in the caves, slipping on bat shit. I carried the IV pole and Erica carried the folding cot. Our backpacks were stuffed with medical supplies I took from the Emergency Room. We moved at a snail's pace through the tunnels, getting stuck in narrow places and barely talking.
When we reached the egg-shaped cavern, I busied myself with setting up the cot and IV pole while Erica called "Percy." The rumble sounded and the breath of rot and mold fluttered my hair. I tried not to look up when Persephone came into the room. I knew Erica was greeting her with an enthusiastic kiss and my generosity only stretched so far.
Persephone approached me, hand-in-hand with Erica. "I am grateful, Meg. I cannot describe to you the agony of my imprisonment."
"I'm not doing this out of the goodness of my heart," I told her. "We have a deal right?"
Persephone's smile was heartbreaking. "I would be delighted to speak to Aphrodite."
"OK. Then take a couple of deep breaths," I replied. "Your first brush with modern medicine is going to be a little rough."
Erica shot me a dirty look. "Stop scaring her."
I shrugged and hung a bag of saline on the IV pole. The irrigation bag hung off of the side of the cot. I pulled out the tubing, wishing it was just a little cleaner in the caves. And as long as I was yearning for the impossible, I couldn't help but wish for some sort of suction and a heart monitor and a bright light, too.
"Ready?" I asked Persephone, pulling on my latex gloves.
"More than you know."
She sat on the cot and I lubricated the end of the lavage tube. I had done this a hundred times. Midnight shifts in a college town gave you more than enough experience with getting random crap out of people's stomachs. Still, my hands shook. I hadn't ever pumped the stomach of a goddess.
Persephone put a hand on my arm. "If you hear my husband, go."
"Oh, trust me. I will."
I fished a straw out of my bag and popped it into a water bottle. "Drink a little. I'll need for you to swallow." She did, looking coolly unconcerned.
It turns out that I didn't need to be so worried, either. The tube slipped down her throat. I forced a little air through the tube and listened to the bubbling in her stomach with my stethoscope. She lay obediently on her left side. Then, I opened the clamps on the bag of saline and let gravity do its work.
A little saline down the tube, a little belly massage, and a steady flow of saline into the irrigation bag. Erica practically squealed when the first magenta seed washed into the bag. More than two thousand years in her stomach, and the thing didn't even look digested. It took half the bag of saline to wash out the second seed.
"Can't you make this go any faster?" Erica asked me.
I shot her a look. "No. I can't. Now be quiet."
The third seed fell into the irrigation bag and I switched out the saline bag. Persephone watched me with those patient, mild, dark eyes. "Three out of six," I told her. She offered a little nod.
When the fourth seed washed into the irrigation bag, a puff of rotting air moved my hair. All three of us glanced towards the black tunnel. There wasn't any noise but I massaged Persephone's stomach a little more vigorously. The fifth seed washed into the bag. "You're sure you just ate six?" I said in a low voice. Persephone gave another little nod.
A voice rumbled from out of the depths. "Per-seph-o-ne!" It didn't sound human; it was like wind and fire, terrifying and beautiful. Persephone's eyes widened. Erica put a hand on my back. "Please don't stop," she urged.
I squeezed the saline bag again and massaged her stomach. When I drained the fluid, we watched the bag. Massage. Watch. Massage. Please. A rumble made silt fall from the low ceiling. Massage. Massage.
The last seed fell into the irrigation bag.
Persephone smiled around the tube. The dried flowers in her hair burst into bloom. The color that flooded her face was obvious, even in the shadowy light.
But the rumble also grew.
"I'm going to count to three," I told Persephone in a whisper. "Breathe out on three. One. Two. Three." I withdrew the tube in one smooth movement. She coughed and the rumble got louder. The cave trembled.
"He knows that our connection is severed," she said in a husky voice.
"Then, we have to go." Erica squeezed Persephone's hands.
I threw on my backpack and Erica jerked on hers. The room shook again and a huge fissure split the cavern over our heads. "Come on!" I yelled. Erica was yanking on the cot. "Leave the fucking thing! You have to show us the way out!" Erica dragged Persephone into the tunnel and Persephone pulled me along. The ground was shaking so hard, it felt almost liquid. Huge hunks of wall fell into the passage and I staggered out of the way. I wanted to pray, but I couldn't think of who to pray to.
"It's collapsing!" I yelled as the tunnel fell in behind us. I pushed on Persephone and she urged Erica to go faster.
"He's powerless in the sunlight," Persephone panted. The Greek mythology I read said otherwise, but I decided that she was a better authority.
We saw the glowing entrance and sprinted for it. Pebbles hit me in the face. "Go! Go!" I yelled. We raced through opening just as the tunnel collapsed behind us.
The warm sun on my face was the sweetest sensation I had ever felt. I guess Persephone thought so too; she turned her face toward the light like a flower. Erica looked only at her lover. Persephone reached for the sky and her voice echoed when she called, "Mother!"
"You will take me with you?" Erica reminded her.
Persephone smiled at her gently. "Mortals cannot live on Olympus."
"But you said that I could come t--"
"I will visit you," Persephone told her. She stroked the side of Erica's face and kissed her lips. "I promise." Persephone turned to me. "And I won't forget our deal." Before Erica could mount another objection, Persephone faded from sight.
"I can't believe she just did that," Erica said. Her voice trembled and she looked almost broken.
I shook my head. "I can't believe that you didn't see it coming," I told her, feeling a little cruel. But, really, what Greek mythology had she been reading?
Erica crossed her arms and pouted adorably. "Well, I'll tell you what. I'm not going to take this lying down. I'm going to have a few words with Demeter. She deserves to know what an ungrateful daughter she raised and then I'm going to...." She trailed off put her hand to head like she just got dizzy.
"You OK?" I asked.
"Yeah," she said blinking at me. "I just got a little disoriented there for a minute." She looked at me really hard.
"What?" I asked.
"You know, you have very pretty eyes."
"What are you talking about?"
"They're gorgeous," she said. She put a hand on my arm and stepped closer. "In fact," she whispered in my ear, "I don't know when I've seen a sexier woman. You want to go and get some coffee?"
I struggled to hold back my laughter. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Persephone and Aphrodite, I thought.
"No, Erica," I said. "I think I'll pass."