'Eurydice and Nicaea'
The news hit Eurydice hard. Nicaea, her secret Naiad lover, dead by suicide. Eurydice was allowed to mourn as a close friend and fellow nymph, but not as a lover, never, for she was a woman as much as Nicaea was. Men took it upon themselves, as they always did, to fawn over her and play on false sympathy for the distraught young Dryad. One man, the celebrated Argonaut and demigod Orpheus, went so far as to propose marriage. Eurydice could hardly refuse; he had been genuinely kind and all their friends expected them to wed. So it was that they were married: Orpheus jubilant, Eurydice numb.
After the marriage, Eurydice's friends, the Dryads and Naiads, took her out to dance in the verdant fields at dusk. It was a beautiful sight to behold, the women of wood and water, clothed in tunics of aether which rippled and sparkled in the waning sunlight with their flowing movement. Eurydice joined in, but was unenthused. Her grinning, giggling friends circled her sluggish self, expecting more from Eurydice. But they were not Nicaea, they did not possess her bubbling wit, her peaceful ebb, her wavy silver hair.
On the horizon, silhouetted against the pink skies of sunset, stood a mischievous man, or perhaps a satyr, it was hard to tell. He leapt down into the long grasses where the nymphs danced, running towards them. Laughing, the nymphs fled further along the field, Eurydice lagging behind. The figure continued his pursuit. The other nymphs skipped away happily, while Eurydice looked around, quick, for somewhere to hide, some escape.
She thought her marriage to Orpheus would free her from the advances of other men, but it was not so. Eurydice caught the glinting eye of the pursuer.
“Eurydice!” he called, his gaze back determining that he was only there to pursue her. Nicaea had warned her of this. Oh, sweet Nicaea, kept in Hades forever. Eurydice navigated the swaying grass, now running but looking for something, anything to get her out of this. It was then that she glimpsed what seemed a small clump of thick, wide grass, scaly and slithering. A nest of vipers!
Eurydice looked back. The fiend was almost upon her. In a rash decision, she rushed across to the nest. She did not stop, but once there she stepped, purposefully, in the coil of serpentine bodies. The next she felt was something catch her heel, like piercing needles, and she tripped, falling flat to the ground with a sharp sensation through her body. The viper let go but the pain remained, as Eurydice's mind began to drift. Nicaea, she thought, I shall be with you soon.
She awoke, what felt like days later, on the bank of the river Acheron, or Styx. She knew this not because of its geography - the great cliffs that bordered either side of its shallow waters - but because a ferryman stood there in his boat, holding his left hand out to Eurydice for payment. This was Charon, the fabled psychopomp, transporter of souls. Eurydice stood and approached him, limping on her bitten heel. Charon tapped his ferryman's pole with one hand, and nodded his rugged head toward the other.
Far down the river she saw other souls wandering: poor souls indeed, too poor to pay for their journey to Hades. Eurydice gasped, and realised there was something cold and hard lodged in her throat. She coughed it up into her mouth, feeling it with her tongue. An obolus! She pulled this coin from her mouth and placed it in Charon's hand. He accepted silently, slowly withdrawing and pocketing the obolus in his ruddy tunic. With that matter sorted, he helped Eurydice aboard.
On his small ferry, Charon sat facing Eurydice as he pushed on his pole and out into the water. The Dryad put her hands in her lap, eyeing his casual manner of directing the boat. “Would you recall,” Eurydice said, “a Naiad who crossed to Hades recently?”
Charon remained wordless and pushed the boat further along. They were now in the centre of the river, drifting downstream. The cliffs appeared higher now, casting a gloomy shadow over the ferry. Eurydice stared at the dark flow of water ahead of their boat, recalling Nicaea. Freshwater was the Naiads’ domain, and Nicaea’s own Lake Astakos had tempted Eurydice away from her forest frequently in recent years. At least there were waters in Hades that Nicaea could reside in, thought Eurydice. At least there was that.
It had begun to get colder on the ferry. Eurydice felt it, but did not shiver. They were almost at the bank of Hades now, a beach of crumbled cliff leading to a cavern. Solemn, shadowy figures were queuing, stationary, from the beach and into the cavern. The boat stopped with a jolt on the bank. Charon gestured to Eurydice, who was staring out at the water. She nodded to him, and then limped out onto the beach, joining the queue. Charon set off to collect his next soul.
The other souls did not greet Eurydice. She did not greet them either; it was not her business that they died. From inside the cavern, guttural growls could be heard: faint but distinctly triple. The great guard-dog Kerberos, no doubt. Nicaea would be in there, somewhere past the dog, no longer in line as she took her life before Eurydice. Each had said in the past that neither could live without the other, but Eurydice was sure she would surprise Nicaea in keeping her word. She left Nicaea, only Nicaea, in her thoughts as she followed the procession that slowly approached the cavern entrance. The sounds of Kerberos were clearer now, so Eurydice was jolted out of her death-dreams when all three heads became suddenly mute.
In place of these growls was the distant sound of an instrument – a lyre. Its melody was transfixing, it seemed as if the whole of Hades were silent apart from this instrument. Then, a voice. Too far away at first to be comprehensible, but it was sweet and familiar, complementing the lyre. She recognised words of “love” and “Eros” but not their context in the song. Not until she recognised a name, her name, Eurydice. Then it was that she knew whose voice it was – Orpheus, from within Hades itself, come to find her. Come to win her back.
A sharp pain struck Eurydice’s dead heart. Orpheus should not have come to Hades; that was not her intention. She had died for love; Orpheus seemed only willing to sing for it. She turned away from the cavern, approached the river. It did not lessen the sound of Orpheus’ music, his lament now seemed louder. She looked for a way out, but there was none now she was dead. If Orpheus found her, what could she say to him?
She had no time to think when the music stopped. Silence penetrated the land, before footsteps scraped out of the cavern. Eurydice glanced back, expecting Orpheus. To her relief it was not him, but another man. He wore a winged cap and sandals, and held a staff that two serpents writhed around. From these emblems she realised he was her uncle, the divine Hermes. He walked towards Eurydice, and she turned to face him.
“Hades and Persephone will see you,” he spoke, flatly.
“Come.” He took her hand. In a moment, she was whisked away from the riverbank, less corporeal than ever. She felt the gaze of Kerberos, the dark of Asphodel, the splendour of Elysium. Then it was over. They arrived, Hermes and Eurydice, in the House of the Dead. As suddenly as they had appeared there, Hermes was gone and Eurydice was left to face Persephone, Hades, and her very husband Orpheus.
Orpheus smiled sadly as he saw Eurydice. She averted her gaze and stepped forward, limping, to be received by the lord and lady of the underworld. Hades announced that they were moved by Orpheus’ song, and agreed that Eurydice could return to the upper world with Orpheus. Eurydice almost gasped, although she had no use for air, but she stayed silent in fear. “However,” he said, “there shall be a condition. Orpheus, you must walk in front, and cannot look back at Eurydice at any time until you both have left the Taenarian gate.” The prospect of going back with Orpheus was hell for Eurydice – she had not yet so much as peeked at Nicaea before being summoned by the world she had tried to leave. The dilemma was that the gods had granted anxious Orpheus the chance to take her back, and to honour his emotions Eurydice felt compelled to follow.
The trek out of Hades, far and away from the bank she had arrived on, was hardly pleasant. Her poisoned heel did not hurt, but made it hard to walk nevertheless, and she found herself dumb in the presence of Orpheus. He did not speak to her either – he walked in front, so could he be sure she was there? The closeness of Nicaea had been tantalising to Eurydice when she arrived, but now it seemed further away than ever. No doubt Orpheus was glad, now that Eurydice was close, yet she did not think he knew her true feelings. He was nice enough but – until now, at least – never showed his devotion. Eurydice wondered if this was an issue of trust. Maybe, she thought, he will not trust me to follow him?
She did not stop following Orpheus, out of a compulsion – she felt sorry for him, and knew that if she did not follow, she would be scorned for eternity. On the ascent to Taenarus, Eurydice’s wound began to heal itself, and she found she could walk with discretion. She continued her quiet pursuit and hoped this would be enough to secure freedom of death. Approaching the gate, she became as noiseless as possible. Orpheus paused and his head twitched. To Eurydice’s dismay, he then carried on walking. Almost at the gate now, the world of the living was close at hand. She made no sound, although she could hear the rush of new lifeblood in her ears. Suddenly, Orpheus looked back.
Eurydice, a morbid joy in her heart, felt the pull of the underworld. Orpheus stared wide-eyed, realising his grave mistake. Death tugged at her body, fresh flesh peeled from her heel. Orpheus reached out to her, tearful. “Farewell,” said Eurydice, faint. “I’m sorry.” Skin pallid and blue, she became incorporeal once again. With one final look at Orpheus, Eurydice was whisked back to Hades, soon to reunite with her own lost love.