Returning the Lyre

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Kaleidotrope, January 2021

“My Orpheus had no lyre with him in Hades’ realm. Those perfect fingers had no strings to pluck.”

The snake didn’t bite me.  It bit Orpheus, and his lyre twanged discordantly as he fell to the ground.  It was the first inharmonious sound that perfect instrument had ever made.  It was the sound that started my journey.  It was a claw, hooked inside my ear, ripping and tearing away every illusion I’d had of safety and happiness, shattering my dreams of a future with Orpheus.

Apollo, my father-in-law, came to the funeral, stood beside the pyre with me, and watched his son — my beloved — shed his mortal coil, that alabaster skin, and rise as smoke into the sky.  The fire roared, but the smoke that had been Orpheus made no sound.

When the embers were cold and the guests dispersed, I still wept beside the burned out pyre.  Apollo brought me his son’s lyre.  “Keep this,” the god said, radiance shining from his hair, his eyes.  “It should be yours.”

I looked at the lyre in my hands.  It had no meaning without Orpheus’s fingers to pluck it.  I looked up, prepared to offer the gift back to this god who was no longer truly my kin, but Apollo the man was gone.  Instead there was a fleecy white cloud in the sky, sunlight beaming from behind, outlining it in silver.  If I shouted to the cloud, “Take it back! I don’t want it!”, would the god who’d been beside me only a moment before hear me?  Or would I be mad?  A girl lost in grief, screaming at the sky?

Other than the cloud, the sky was clear.  There was already no sign of the plain gray smoke that had been my Orpheus.  He’d gone to Hades.

Grief is strange.  As it grabs your throat and strangles you, you think you couldn’t possibly hurt any more; then it finds a way to punch your guts, doubling you over in pain deeper still.  My Orpheus had no lyre with him in Hades’ realm.

Those perfect fingers had no strings to pluck.  I would never hear his music again either way, yet it was infinitely worse to know that his music wasn’t happening at all, not even dampened by the sadness dripping from the cave walls in the Underworld.

The lyre in my hands should have been burned in the pyre.  I shoved it into the ashy rubble, but there was no heat left to burn it and carry it to Orpheus in smoke across the sky.

I would have to take it to him myself.

How do you pack for a trip into the Underworld?  Dress warmly?  As if any layer of wool could cut the cold of death.  Or shield me from the molten fires of the river Phlegethon.

I wandered the small house Orpheus and I had shared, picking up cooking utensils, putting them down, considering light shawls and thick bulky blankets.  Eventually, I took none of it.  I walked out of my house, wearing my best shoes and holding his lyre against my heart.  The gods would smile on my quest, or I would die in the woods, searching for the rent in the Earth where the river Styx flows down to Hades’ realm.

* * *

I could tell you about the months I spent wandering, eating unripe berries and wondering why I didn’t starve; the days I spent stumbling through the dark caverns once I found the way down; the three-headed hell-hound who sniffed Orpheus’s lyre with three wet noses, whimpered, and looked away; and the Ferryman who made lewd jokes about the living girl — until he saw the lyre.  Once Charon knew I was Orpheus’s — the wife of a god, even a demi-god, even a dead one — his tongue grew still.

I could tell you about these things — how the waters of the river Styx lapped at the sides of the ferry, how I saw my reflection in that dark mirror and watched myself age and youthen erratically on the water’s surface.  When I saw my smooth face lined with wrinkles, my gold hair turned white, I wondered what life that woman had lived.  Had she remarried and borne children for a human husband?  Or had she been too hooked on the drug of godhood and devoted herself to the study of Athena’s arts?  Perhaps she had become a great weaver with fingers like spider legs, spindly yet soaked in talent, pickled with carefully developed skill.

I smiled at my older self; instead of smiling back, her years and lines faded away into the shallow beauty and pure joy of childhood.  She became a girl who had not yet heard plinking strains of music rise from a fireside to wind around her heart.

I could tell you all these things.  I could.

But the memory of them is swallowed up in the retelling.  They become stories instead of breathless moments, clung to by a mind still sorting itself out.

I defined my life when, after all my journeying, I stood before Hades — not only a god but also a king — and asked him to guide me to Orpheus, to let me return his lyre, and bring music to the Underworld.

Persephone’s eyes caught mine; she leaned over and whispered in her husband’s ear.  Then the king of the Underworld proclaimed:  “You cannot go to Orpheus.”  He offered me a choice instead.

I could give the lyre to Hades, who would hand it along to his great-grandson, or I could turn around, leave the Underworld carrying the lyre, never once looking back, and Hades promised that Orpheus would follow me home.  I had to make it all the way to our small house, without once looking over my shoulder or turning back, and Orpheus would walk through the threshold with me, safely mine again once we were inside.

Hades promised.

But all the gods are tricksters, even the dour king of the Underworld.

I looked to Persephone, the stolen woman, trying to read her expression, wondering what she had whispered and wishing she could advise me, but she gazed into the distance, no longer looking at me.

As I weighed my options, feeling the heavy impatience of Hades’ stone-eyed gaze, I realized that if it was a trick, the harm was already done.  My heart kept leaping inside of me, practicing the moment of joy I already expected.  Over and over again, I pictured myself reaching home, turning around, and seeing Orpheus.  My heart rehearsed the happiness I would feel, as if it could beat hard enough to jump past the hours and days of walking, wondering whether I’d been made a fool and would once again face the heartbreak of losing my love.

My heart had heard Hades’ offer and accepted it; my head had no say.

* * *

With every step away from Hades’ throne room, I listened to hear footsteps join me from behind but heard only echoes of my own.  Or were they echoes?  Maybe I could hear Orpheus.  Maybe my love was following, only a few paces behind.  I held that hope tightly, imagining I could feel his breath in the air between us, binding us together, all through Hades’ kingdom.  I had faith.

Until I saw the fear in Charon’s eyes.

The Ferryman looked at me nervously.  He had not expected my return.  “This is unnatural,” he muttered, but he let me in the boat.

The ferry rocked on the water, disturbed by my weight.  I stepped forward and seated myself on the bench in the front, leaving room on the back bench for Orpheus.  The boat rocked again, but Charon had plunged his oar into the water.  I couldn’t be sure if there were two or three of us in the ferry.

All the way across, Charon didn’t speak to me or meet my eye.  Instead, he kept looking past me, possibly watching Orpheus, possibly staring aimlessly into the distance.  I couldn’t tell. I could tell that he was afraid.  Was it because I’d transgressed the natural barriers of the world, descending into the Underworld and returning… alone?  Was it because Orpheus had transgressed those barriers, and was sitting in the boat behind me?

Or was it something worse?

* * *

This is a story of doubts.  A story of continuing on, in spite of them.

* * *

A story of those doubts plaguing you.

* * *

By the far side of the River Styx, I was convinced that Hades had sent not Orpheus to follow me, but instead a demon who would follow me home and destroy my village as punishment for my impudence and hubris.  Everyone I knew would suffer, and it would be my fault.

Yet, even then, I didn’t look over my shoulder.  I hoped too fiercely that Orpheus was following me.  I would risk everything — not only my own life, but also the lives of others who I had no claim to — to get my Orpheus back.

As I reentered the world of the living, I wished I had asked Charon who was in the boat behind me.  I wished I had looked down into the water; perhaps, I could have seen Orpheus’s reflection and known for sure.  Of course, I had done neither of these things, because I was afraid they’d be cheating.  I was afraid I’d see Orpheus’s face on the water, and he’d melt away, exactly as Hades had promised he would.  I was afraid Charon would laugh at me, taunt me, and tell me made-up details of the demon in Orpheus’s place such that I couldn’t resist looking back at him.  And he would melt away.

All my fears were wrapped up in that phrase:  melt away.

Yet as I wandered, seemingly alone, through the forests that had brought me to the Underworld in the first place, the pressure built inside me.  Every moment, I fought the desire to glance over my shoulder.  It was an ache, an itch, an urge that was always with me.  I had to know if he was there.

So, I took a risk and started singing a song that I always got wrong.  I could never quite remember the lyrics to it or hit the notes right.  When Orpheus was alive, all I had to do was start singing, and he would take over.

But his voice didn’t rise from behind me.  I brushed my fingers over the strings of his lyre, hoping to hear him reprimand me and tell the story of how Hephaestus had forged the gold frame; Hermes had sacrificed five perfectly snow-white lambs to provide the strings; and Apollo had gifted the finished lyre to him for his tenth birthday.

Yet although the lyre twanged discordantly under my clumsy fingers, Orpheus did not object.

All is well, I told myself, relieved somehow by the mere act of singing.  Hades would not allow Orpheus to speak before we reached home.  That was all.  A spell of silence.

As the days passed, though, my doubts grew stronger.  At times, I was sure that I was walking through the forests alone.  I awoke every morning from nightmares of Orpheus, smiling at me, kissing me, and then melting away like mist. I lived in fear of forgetting myself for even a single moment and looking over my shoulder.

All day as I walked, my mind focused on controlling my eyes, keeping my gaze straight ahead, but my heart practiced the disappointment I would feel when I arrived home to find Orpheus had never been behind me, alternated with practicing the joy I would feel when I saw him again.  The feelings were more tiring than the miles of walking.

By the time our small house was in sight, I was almost too afraid to enter it.

* * *

Did I look back?  All the way through my story, that has been the question.  If I had known the answer before I started, how much suffering could have been saved?  At times, it felt like the uncertainty itself would kill me.

* * *

I crossed the threshold of our house, and on the other side, I closed my eyes.  I stood there frozen, unable to look, afraid I wouldn’t see Orpheus, afraid I’d misremembered Hades’ command, missed some arcane requirement, and I would see Orpheus but only for a moment, only for the last time.

I felt the lyre lifted from my hands and then warm lips on my cheek.  “Open your eyes, my love, my savior, my Eurydice.”

He was there, and I felt all the joy in the world.

I was never happier to see anyone than to see Orpheus when I opened my eyes.  His regal mouth tilted in a charmingly crooked smile that took my breath away, and his deep brown eyes sparkled with love that I felt mirrored in my own.

Orpheus’s perfect fingers played the lyre I returned to him, moving with a deft dexterity that I knew would play upon my own body soon, and strains of music bent the universe around us into pure beauty.  He improvised a song for me of our voyage together that felt more real than the endless voyage had itself.  I could hardly tell the difference between real life and a dream, because my life had become the moment I’d dreamed of for so long.

* * *

But it didn’t last.  Life moved on and became normal again.  I miss that moment.

* * *

And now I wonder.

I catch myself, looking away when I hear his voice, afraid that if I see him, he’ll disappear, forgetting that Hades’ curse hangs over us no longer.

And I wonder about the lives I imagined.  The child growing in my belly now, conceived the night we made it home from the Underworld, will be a demi-god like his father.  Gods cause trouble, and I’m afraid of what our child will be.  How much easier would it be to raise a fully human child?  Or to have devoted myself to Athena, and not have a child at all?

Somehow, I never noticed the way that Orpheus flirted with the nymphs and naiads before.  I felt so lucky simply for him having picked me.  Now I’ve earned his love.  I rescued him from death, and I feel he owes me better than singing love songs to every pretty girl and boy who swoons at the demi-god’s feet.

Those months of never looking over my shoulder took a toll.  I wouldn’t change my choice, but before Hades forced me to make a choice, and remake it over and over for months on end, I loved Orpheus simply with my whole heart.

Now I wonder, who would I have become if I’d let him melt away?  Would I like myself better?  Would my life be easier?

Could I have fallen in love again with a man whose face didn’t make me want to close my eyes?

When will my doubts melt away?

When will I recover from returning that lyre?.

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