Chapter Twenty-Nine

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Long after the sun had set, Demeter and I picked our way over the fields to a small farmhouse. Persephone had told me that her mother lived simply, but I hadn't been expecting the straw on the roof or the single lightbulb suspended from the ceiling in the large room. I guess I should have been thankful that she had electricity! Demeter flicked the switch, and the light buzzed to life. I crossed the room to the sink and began to pump water to wash my hands.

"That was a good harvest festival, I thought." I glanced over my shoulder when she spoke, but Demeter wasn't looking at me. She had crossed to the far wall of the cottage and was stirring the coals on the hearth.

I turned back to the sink, choosing my words carefully. "There were some lovely offerings. The children at the orphanage should eat well until spring."

She didn't answer, but the flames roared to life. I stopped working the pump, and the water slowed to a thin stream. The crackle of the flames and the trickle of the water filled the uncomfortable silence.

Finally, she asked, "Are you tired?" Demeter's voice was soft and motherly, and I again felt a yearning to be at home with my own mother.

I swallowed, and then nodded, trying to get a grip on the homesickness that threatened to overwhelm me. "It's been a long day." I crossed to the thin mattress under the window. Persephone had told me she liked to sleep where she could watch the stars in the night sky, so at least I knew which bed was mine. I yawned and knelt down on the bed.

"Sleep well, daughter. But wake early; we do not have many more days left, and I want to get a head start on the work of the day."

I nodded. She turned off the single light and moved quietly to her bed, next to the hearth. I thought I would fall asleep immediately, but between jet lag and my experience at the harvest festival, I was twitchy and wide-awake. I flopped around on the mattress, trying to get comfortable, but when I heard light snoring from the hearth, I rose and walked out of the cottage.

I wrapped the blanket from my bed around me and sat, shivering, on a large boulder not far from the cottage. I looked up, amazed by the dazzling display of stars. I had always lived in town, and even though we went camping every year, I'd never seen a night sky like this. There were three times as many stars as I was used to, and the sky looked like rich blue velvet. I drew a deep breath but started to cough when the cold air rushed into my lungs.

Not wanting to draw Demeter's attention by coughing near the open window, I began to wander aimlessly. I was too wound up to sleep, and there was something peaceful about being alone in the dark. I wasn't worried about being attacked; after all, I was staying with a goddess. She and Persephone must have protected their home with spells, so I walked around without any of the concerns I would have felt at home. Durham was a pretty cool city, but like any city, it had its issues. I would never have wandered around in a neighborhood I didn't know after dark, but it was different here.

There was a path leading away from the house and farther down the hillside, and I followed it carefully, watching my feet to make sure I didn't trip over any rocks or step into a thornbush. The path wound gently down the hill, past a slow stream before stopping at the mouth of a cave.

The pure darkness of the cave opening was a shock, even after being out in the dark night. The stars didn't seem to reach the cave, and it loomed up before me like monster. Everything around me was still; even the crickets had stopped their song. As I leaned forward, I thought I could hear something from deep within the cave, but I couldn't identify the sound. Suddenly, a hand closed on my shoulder and I squealed in surprise.

"Come back to the house." Demeter's voice was sharp, but her face was shadowed by her cloak and I couldn't see her eyes. Nervously, I followed her back up the winding path. I glanced back at the cave once and paused, but Demeter kept striding ahead of me, and I rushed to keep up. What would she say about me wandering around? Had I blown my cover? I cursed my insomnia as I hurried back to the cottage in her wake.

Once we were back inside, the stillness of the night dissolved.

"How dare you taunt me like that?" Demeter flung her cloak in a heap on the floor and started to pace.

"What do you mean?" Stunned, I couldn't stop myself from speaking. The angry goddess spun on her heel and slapped me hard across the mouth. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I glared at her in shock. My parents had never hit me, and I was surprised at how much her hand stung.

"It's bad enough that you abandon me for half of every year. Did you ever think, just once, to pretend you want to stay here with me?"

Still reeling from her slap, I stayed silent.

"But no! Sneaking out at night to look at the cave, making me feel like a burden that you can't wait to be rid of."

It was slowly dawning on me what that cave was. I couldn't ask, since Persephone would have already known, but I felt sure it must be the entrance to the Underworld. Demeter's next words confirmed that.

"You think I don't know that in just thirteen days you'll walk into that cave and I won't see you again until March? Why do you have to rush it?" Her anger gave way to tears, and she sank to her bed near the hearth, weeping. I crossed over to her and knelt by her side, even though I was still mad that she'd slapped me. Persephone wouldn't fight with her mother, I was sure of that, and I had to keep reminding myself to act like her, not like me.

"I don't want to rush it. I'm sorry. You aren't a burden." I spoke softly, trying to heal a wound that was as old as the earth. I knew that Demeter had mourned the loss of her daughter when Hades first took her to the Underworld, but I hadn't realized that she still felt the pain, year after year, when Persephone descended to be with her husband. I tried to imagine how my mom would feel if she had to lose me again and again, and I shuddered. Pushing my anger aside, I reached out my hands and the goddess enfolded me in a tight embrace.

"I don't have to leave yet," I whispered, fervently praying that it would not be me who would make that journey this year.

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