“What was it like to come back?” you ask at book club, almost three months since regular meetings started. You’re not quite sure if you’re ready to talk about this; you are sure that if you don’t, you’ll explode. Still, it’s very personal, or at least it was for you: coming out of the weightless, thoughtless lack of self to a withered meadow full of red poppies and crumbled stones, how old your hands looked and how young they felt, turning your head and seeing your husband asleep in the dead grass next to you. He’s younger than you this time; girls in their twenties side-eye the two of you on date nights. Ereshkigal snorts when you mention that, but you recognize it as the friendly snort and don’t choke off your words like you used to before you went away, before any of you knew there would be a coming back.
You tell all this to book club, nervous to see their reaction. Already you know you won’t be able to bear it if they find you wanting. But Oya’s laugh shocks and warms you. “Could have been worse,” she says. “I woke up in the middle of a thunderstorm.”
A laugh of your own builds at the back of your throat, a little unhinged from relief. “Perfect,” you say, smiling. You settle back in your comfy blue chair as the storytelling begins and try to process the slow relaxation of your muscles that means you’ve been accepted again. Rebirths and origin stories for a new, blighted world slip in and out of your ears like lullabies. For a few hours you forget the way the earth groans, constant but ignorable if you try, and you tell each other: You’re not alone.
Obviously it’s not actually a book club. Only your idiot family believes that. Well, Mom probably doesn’t, but she’s learned not to push too hard. That’s something you haven’t yet gotten used to, even after all this time: the fact that your mother is scared of you. Think too hard about it, and it makes you feel a bit queasy; think a little longer, and all you get is Good.
Your family all took for granted that your particular pantheon was the only one to swim up through the millennia-long nothing of being forgotten. Of course they’d still exist when the curtain slid aside again; of course forever wasn’t forever for them. It seemed unlikely to you mainly because your family believed it; none of them had known there’d be a returning at all, back when you’d all first felt the gentle black loosening of your selves as people forgot you. Their certainty is worth a lot less these days, not that you ever cared much for it at all.
It took you ages to track the whole book club down, but it felt ludicrous to think no one else had been remembered. You’d never really gotten to know any of the other members back in the old life, but you’d always felt them: their presence, heavy and thick around you; their choices, sending hundreds more flitting souls down to you for care; their wary tolerance of you, identical to yours for them.
Tolerance is bullshit, you thought when you came back. We should be friends instead.
Once you started listening for them, you couldn’t stop. You heard them everywhere, confused or bitter or giddy or resigned. You felt them listen for you, felt their thoughts bump up against yours, felt them hesitate when you called their old names, the only ones you knew. You mangled the accents, but they mostly didn’t care. Slowly, one by one, they called or knocked or emailed, and you put new faces to the old names. (You use the old names at book club. The power in them is yours to claim, not to ignore.)
Very few of you knew how to trust. Your kind doesn’t have good memories of trust (and oh, how fantastic is it now to have a kind?). At first the stories came out inch by inch as you gathered together: someone felt brave enough or tired enough to drop a loaded word or two, and four or five heads nodded in silent agreement. Not sympathy. That’s one more thing you don’t trust. This is all of you seeing each other, understanding the ways in which you come about, a whole lot of wronged women who have never let it define them. “I don’t want your fucking pity,” Izanami snarled, the first time she ever talked in book club. You sat and watched her blaze with fury at the idea that anyone else could tell her story better and wondered why you’d spent your whole life letting that happen to you.
Trust builds over time. No pity, no useless soothing words, no dwelling on the past. Only here and now, ever, for all of you. And this new thing—to be seen and known. Even your husband, much as you love him, doesn’t understand you like book club does. You don’t want him to, either. This is special, for you, for you all.
Impossible to understand yourself with family, with their painful need to remember the lost past. They’ve always been inbred assholes with inflated senses of their own self-importance. It’s just more visible now that you and the world have both moved on from them. Some of your half-siblings you can’t even look at, they’re so pathetic: struggling for a scrap of their old relevance, unable to function in a world that doesn’t worship them like it used to. Family reunions (and wow, do you want to strangle whatever hapless mortal told Mom about those) go on for hours of remember-when and back-in-the-old-days until you wonder if you should take better care of your mostly mortal liver or if it can endure the amount of alcohol it takes to survive this.
This year the reunion’s on Halloween. You two go as skeletons and everyone judges the shit out of you: I can’t believe them, such poor taste, do they have to be so obvious? Obvious it was his idea, you mean. Still, it’s embarrassing. But none of them can look at you for long, and when he peels you out of the costume that night, you can’t stop smiling.
Mom calls the next day, while you’re scrambling eggs with ghost peppers. He picks up; the deafening silence on the other end tells you both who it is. “Hi,” you say, taking the phone.
“Sweetheart, how are you?” she asks.
“Fine.” You scoop the eggs onto a plate and steal a sip of coffee from his mug. Cinnamon and chili explode on your tongue together with the dark roast. “Is this about yesterday?”
She sighs. At least you don’t have to live with her and listen to those sighs. “I was just…well, it’s not like you to be so blatant.” You snort. “I wanted to check in.”
“It was my idea,” you tell her. “And what are the uncles always saying? ‘The rules don’t apply to us’?”
“That’s them,” says Mom. “You’re different. Are you okay?”
“Never better,” you say. “Gotta go. Book club’s in an hour.” Something tugs under your feet as you hang up, something sad and hurt and needing. You’ve felt it before; it calls to you the same way book club did when you were trying to find them. You stash it away in your mind to think about later.
He cocks an eyebrow at you from over by the coffeemaker, refilling his mug. “They still say that?” he asks. You nod. “Isn’t that three barrels of dogshit.”
You look at him, standing barefoot in the kitchen in his black pajama pants, his dark hair a mess, a goth kid off by half a century, and you can’t quite breathe with how much you love him. You forgave him for the whole kidnapping business long ago. Another thing no one understands. Mom went wailing over the earth for you, mortals told a fable about rape and spring, and somewhere over the centuries the truth got lost: a girl chafing against one world who found her home and her throne in another, and a man who offered it to her because he loved her for who she was. You chose, always. It used to hurt that no one saw that, before it became a source of power.
“Also, you’re a liar,” he adds. “Book club’s not till Thursday.”
You shrug. “Had to say something to get her off the phone.” He laughs and hands you your own mug of coffee.
Next time book club meets, you talk about adjustments. The air, thick as soup and smelling like dead fish, and the sickly pea-colored cast over the sun. Cuts and bruises that never take; colds that lay you out flat for a week. Not knowing how or why you’re back, which is a little unnerving considering who you all are. Needing to breathe, craving new and different tastes, waiting on offerings that never come. Sekhmet growls a laugh when Ereshkigal complains about the worship she misses. “Oh, it’s still there if you listen hard enough, hon. Not directed to you, but it’s there.”
You think about the earth groaning under your feet, little tremors that wouldn’t matter to a Richter scale or even ordinary mortal senses. Sometimes you’d swear she’s saying something. You’ve gotten used to blocking her out over the years; you never wanted to listen to Mom anyway, and even if she and the earth were never quite one, they still sounded the same. It could be like that with prayers: faint twinges where your power used to live when someone swears or dreams of ghosts. You aren’t surprised to feel half-prayers dinging into your consciousness like emails to your inbox. Some things are eternal: war, birth, creativity, seasons, death. (Other things—sun, moon, love—only seem that way.)
You open your mouth to say something about that groaning earth, but Hel speaks first. “It’s not the same,” she says to Sekhmet. “There’s not enough power in it.”
She’s right; that’s a thing of the past. No lion heads here. Sekhmet has to be content with cat-green eyes and wild tawny hair, and even Kali wears necklaces of skull charms instead of the real thing. Ordinary people can look at Hel’s full face now, even if she can’t move half of it. This isn’t a world that has much time for gods. No real believers anymore for most of you, or the sacrifices and prayers that give divinity power. No more lightning bolts and metamorphoses in this concrete and silicon world. Death changes you; everyone here knows it. “But there’s a power in that,” you say. “We don’t need worship to be ourselves.”
Kali fiddles with her necklace and cocks her head, as if the thought had never occurred to her. (Well, her altars are still active; it probably hasn’t.) Ereshkigal frowns and leans forward.
You tell them how you cried the first time you went back to the old haunts. You remembered what they’d been like when they’d been alive. You felt that tugging sadness under your feet, fainter than it is now, and wanted to scream with how unfair it is that everything has to die. Then you remembered that death is not the ending most people think, and you saw the beauty in their withering change. You’d just come back; it was embarrassing to have reverted, even for a few minutes, to the older (younger) you, who needed a clamor of insistent life to see anything as beautiful.
Ereshkigal invites you for coffee two days later. “I’ve been thinking,” she says, emptying four packets of raw sugar into her latte. “We have book club, but we never do anything beyond that. I don’t like feeling that domestic.”
You sip your espresso and scald your tongue. “I think we’re past the days of orgiastic revelry.”
She cocks an eyebrow at you, the afternoon sun warm on her bronze cheeks. “Drinks on Friday with Oya and Hel instead?”
Friday night drinks become as regular as book club proper. You invite them all over and try to make sushi; Izanami rolls her eyes, brings the red slab of raw tuna to the table, and chows down while your husband calls for delivery. You and Kali marathon four early-century Marvel movies in one night at Hel’s request; she sits there grinding the teeth on the side of her face that can move and explains in excruciating detail just what they got wrong this time as the Hollywood battles crash and yell on her flatscreen. The glaring mistakes don’t actually matter; what matters is that the names are out there again, being spoken, even if it’s all wrong. Names have power. You can use that.
Sometimes you all go out at once when you feel like reminding people even on a subconscious level who you are. Humans are good at denial, but they can’t ignore it when they see you walking five abreast, the sidewalk seemingly expanding to make room. (The earth knows her queens, groaning less when she feels your footsteps on her, reaching up with a message you tell yourself you’ll think about later.) Everywhere you go, there are too many people, until it’s hard to take a breath without your lungful of thin stale air bumping into someone else’s. They try to look away, but their eyes keep coming back, wary darting glances, afraid of gazing too long. It feels good to you.
Not everyone feels the same way. Marzanna stares ahead, her eyes like stones and her mouth set in a hard angry line; centuries of ritual drowning will do that to a woman. (“They still do it,” she says at book club once, biting off the words. Izanami helps you put together a care package for her every March after that. Spring hits hard for you too, but not that hard.) Rohe is too used to people staring at her face to take offense, but she still notices. Only Kali is never surprised; you teased her once about it being unfair, and she smiled that wonderful, terrifying smile and said, “I’ve had practice.”
Where do you go? Different every time. Walks through the park, sleepovers at each other’s houses, even a road trip to Death Valley. You suggest it, thinking Obvious and grinning, and once Sekhmet starts laughing, none of you can stop. It’s a fun trip, even if Oya freaks out the locals by whistling up a dust storm, scattering the old cow skulls you dug up and trashing your Georgia O’Keeffe moment. “Oh, please,” she says when you complain. “I love you, but sometimes you’re too corny for words.”
When you get home, you turn your phone back on. Thirteen voicemails from Mom. Your stomach curls with the old, exasperated rage at her complete inability to let you go.
“They’re not all nagging,” says your husband. “She called me once, asking if I knew where you were.” That shocks you; you can’t remember the last time Mom actually talked to him. “Urgent, she said. Some kind of message.”
You feel the earth crying beneath your feet, still unable to make you listen, and you think you already know.
Mom comes over for lunch, her round face paler than normal. She sits at your kitchen table and helps herself to the baguette and cheeses and sugarless cereal you laid out for her. She doesn’t ask why you never picked up on the road trip; you show your gratitude by asking about the family.
“Doing well,” says Mom. “Your uncles are going mountain-climbing next month.”
You laugh. You can’t help it. Mountains. And they called you obvious. Mom frowns; you compose yourself. “Sorry. Something urgent, you said?”
The look on her face reminds you of the first time you went back home. How you stepped down into the split-open earth and looked back to see her heart breaking in her eyes. “Gaia has been trying to talk to you,” she says, her voice uneven. “Ever since we—you—came back. I know you’ve heard her even if you haven’t wanted to listen; you’re good at that. Listen now.”
“How did you know?”
For just a second, you’re a child and she’s only, supremely, your mother. “Honestly, dear. Who do you think I am?”
Stupid question. You take her hands; it couldn’t hurt. The earth stretches up from beneath her crust, quivering in the patterns of your name. Localized, you as the center of a very small circle. You’re here, she says.
I’m here, you tell her.
Her voice is a thin thread of a whisper in your mind; you can tell she doesn’t have the strength for more. I’m so tired, she says—that elemental being of boundless energy, who threw her love and hatred into the wind as if she could never run out. Can you help?
Yes, you tell her, not trusting your mental voice to say more without breaking.
Tears stand in Mom’s eyes when you open yours again. “Thank you,” she says. “For listening. Will you tell…”
She can’t get the words out, but you’re the queen of the dead, of hopeless endless silence and the potentials beyond it. You know what she means. You know how she’s been hurting, trying to hold the earth together until she got through to you. “Of course,” you say. “Thanks, Mom.”
“I’ve figured it out,” you tell Ereshkigal over coffee the next day. She chokes on her latte and wipes up the brown spill with a rough napkin. You fidget with the double chocolate muffin you bought, picking out the chocolate chips, waiting for her to be ready. When she looks at you again, you realize she was ready, just surprised; it was you who needed time.
You pitch your voice low, so the other people at the coffee shop can’t hear, and you tell her. Earth reaching, tired, dying. Death needs midwives just as much as birth—why else do you all exist? And who else would the earth ask for help but her queens? Power may elude your hands, but it’s in your bones, in your blood, in every second of your existence. Little by little, it trickles back in. You’ll never be all of who you were, but you’re also never helpless.
Ereshkigal hears you out, unblinking. Her coffee goes cold, your muffin was already stale, and she never looks away. When you’re done, she lets out a thin slice of a sigh. “Why everyone?” she asks. “Not all our absurd families have final battles.”
You shrug. “We’re a zero-sum game, I guess. You need one of us, you need the whole circus sideshow. She just needs all of us for this. And no, I don’t like it any better than you.”
“And you haven’t even met my sister,” she mutters. She stands, bolts the half-full cup of cold coffee, and pushes your crumbled muffin across the tabletop. “Come on. We’ve got some ladies to see about the end of the world.”
Turns out they’ve been feeling it too, listening and thinking and waiting until they had something solid to offer. (You figure it’s good for your pride to remember that you’re not special, not among them.) Sekhmet gets out one “Did the earth move for you too?” before Coatlicue glares at her and everyone decides that one was enough. Marzanna’s got plans; it’s always the quiet ones. Izanami has to talk her down from the more extravagant details.
Hel and Ereshkigal hang back with you. “It’s bad, then,” Hel says. “If she wasn’t in real pain, I can’t imagine she’d have called on me. We never quite got along.”
“Same,” you say. “But this isn’t about settling scores. This is about doing our job.”
“Oh, I know.” Hel smiles that half-smile, baring teeth. Her bad side is really quite beautiful. “We were never the ones who held grudges.”
You think about Mom, the uncles, all the half-siblings who danced around you and never met your eyes. You’re not sure she’s right. But holding grudges never did any good. If Gaia betrayed you when she opened up and let your husband kidnap you, she did it to help you to your own power. The greater betrayal would have been to keep you from it. This thick unbreathable air, the sickly clouded light, the way she groans at her overburden—she already knows betrayal better than you do. She and your mother let you go together. Your turn to repay them.
That night you hold your husband close. You bury your face in his tangled black hair, in the warm crook of his neck, and do your level best not to think at all.
As you catch your breath, he asks, “Are you afraid?”
“I don’t know,” you say. “Are you?”
He rolls over and kisses you, slow and careful. “Of you? A little. Always have been. I’m not stupid.” You laugh, mostly because he wants you to. “But not afraid of your decisions. You’ve never been careless or malicious. Half the people who came to us back in the day would have been so much less afraid if they’d remembered that.”
“And you’re not angry with me?”
His turn to laugh. Sweat gleams in the hollow of his throat. “Would you stop if I was?”
“No,” you say.
Above the covers, his fingers find yours, wrapping loosely around them. “Of course not,” he says. “And of course I’m not. I love you.”
You do it together, all of you, enough power amassed between you all to push the earth over the edge she teeters on. Each of you calls her by a different name; they’re all hers. Her voice in your ears, head, heart, is sad and tired and welcoming as she slips into the floating dark of the forgotten, from which even gods can be recalled if they’re needed enough. She sounds like Mom. Thank you, she says as she dies.
Everything on her dies. The cities, the people, the smoke and heat and wounds dripping black, the terrible crushing weight that killed her—all of it gone, screaming in terror whose blindness you’ve never been able to pity.
You die too, because death demands a sacrifice, and even gods need a place to stand in the end. You think of your husband, who knew what you were going to do and kissed you goodbye that morning. You think of your family, so small, so afraid. (How afraid you were of them, for so long, and how strange it was when they flipped the script.)
You hold on to your sisters’ hands, loving them, loving your beautiful infant death as it swallows you in one gulp. You know it better than anything, and it calls Persephone in a breath that smells like winter. You’ve never loved anything so much, and you have to love it while you can. Because spring follows winter, and you have never been the end.
© 2022 Elizabeth Zuckerman