The crones creep in from between the trees, four of them, silent as shadows, each from a different direction. The goddesses told me to meet them here, but I don’t know who these old women are. They sit around a cauldron dangling from a tripod, dry wood stacked underneath.
The last few leaves clinging to the bony branches rustle in the chilly breeze. The sun is down. Deep purple darkness seeps into the woods. I watch from the margins of the clearing, too afraid to come closer. A bent hag rises and pushes back her cowl. A bony finger emerges from her shapeless clothing and touches the kindling under the cauldron. Fire leaps from the wood.
The hags shuffle closer to the flames which lick upwards at the cauldron’s fat belly. Their cloaks make the same rustling sound as the late autumn leaves. Finally I can take it no more. Despite the fear clogging my throat I take a few steps toward the fire. No one moves. Emboldened, I move closer, close enough for the heat to flush my face. I open my mouth to speak, but find it’s so dry that I cannot. I swallow hard and try again.
“I want to tell your stories. Will you share them with me?”
A crone turns to me. She opens her eyes and they are dark, so dark, like falling down a bottomless well. Her toothless mouth gapes in a grotesque smile.
“We all make deals. We are all whores. Our beauty and wisdom is praised, sung to the heavens. We are seductive, fragrant, mesmerizing, irresistible. And when we get what we want? Manipulative, jealous, scheming, conniving, deceptive. I put on the golden girdle full knowing how it would be perceived. What do I care for perceptions? I am the Queen of Olympos. When I seduce him on the mountaintop, wrapped in shining mists, I am working my will. So is he. Without me, he would splatter across the cosmos, spilling his seed fruitlessly into the aethyr. I am the womb that encloses him, the banks that force his rivers to flow down to the seas, the black hole that squeezes him down to his protons, the sheath that contains his dangerous sword. The power behind the throne. Heh heh heh.”
Her cackle is more of a cough, thin and prickly. “I am the universal scapegoat.”
At my involuntary movement she skewers me with those black eyes.
“Don’t waste your pity on me, girl. One of these days, just for fun, I’ll probably poison his tea. He is afraid of me. He should be.”
From within her rags she pulls a peacock feather. Its iridescent colors flash in the firelight. She tosses it into the cauldron, then settles back onto her skinny haunches.
“Oh,” I breathe. “You are Hera.”
Beside her, a hag with an avalanche of pale gray tangles stirs. There is a tiny glint of green deep within the wrinkled pits of her eyes.
“Mothers. Smother. It’s so trendy now to talk about how I try to smother my daughter. How I should always be generous, understanding, giving, devoted, kind, unselfish. I mothered Demophoon, and flung him into the corner when I was done. I am the sand shark. The spider. The hamster. Do not cross me. Rape me, abuse me, vilify me, and my toxicity sickens the land. I am the great sow. My abundance is endless, and so is my wrath. I am all of Motherhood. Not just your pallid pantomime of self-deprecation and fat squirting breasts.”
From under her robes she pulls a newborn piglet. Its eyes are squeezed shut, its tiny ribs rising and falling rapidly. She throws it into the cauldron.
“Demeter! Mother, no!” I jerk forward, but those pinpoints of rancid green pinion me in place.
A tiny curl of steam rises from the cauldron and drapes itself around her. She releases me from her gaze and settles back into her place by the fire. Across from her sits a crone so tiny and ancient that she scarcely seems real. Her skin is pulled tightly over her skull, transparent, the old bone underneath gleaming through, yellow in the firelight. Red eyes glare at me.
She leans forward, her almost lipless mouth writhing. It pouts. A stream of spittle dribbles from it into the cauldron.
“I told him to take me dancing,” she murmurs, so low I have to strain to hear her. “We sat over coffee while he tried to figure out how to get me into bed. I love the smell of coffee.”
She leans over the cauldron, inhales deeply, then shakes her head in disgust.
“No, that’s not it.” She sighs. “I like coffee. And music. And dancing. I like it when he doesn’t know.” She creaks, dusty laughter. “I’m going to shag him all night long, wear him down to a smear. But I love to watch him try to figure out how to persuade me, trick me, seduce me, use me. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just leave him wishing and longing. Thinking and dreaming endlessly of my quim.”
Her eyes flare, redder than the firelight, red as blood. “As if that’s all there is to me.”
She paddles between her legs, pulls out a pomegranate, gleaming and rosy. She holds it over the cauldron and squeezes. Her hands seem too thin to break the thick rind, but it shatters, seeds spattering into the cauldron’s depths. Her talons drip.
I bow my head before her. “Persephone.”
Next to her a tall form rises. Black rags flutter around a body so thin it barely casts a shadow. But when I look more closely I can see that her frail form is casting three shadows, wavering behind her on the cold ground, each facing a different direction.
“Maiden with the shining headband,” she simpers. “Companion to the Little Girl. Torch bearer. The Three-Bodied.”
She turns her head and spits. A toad flops to the ground, hops across her thin shadows and disappears between the trees. “My power is over earth, sea and sky, but your tales are wrong when they say I was granted my dominion by Zeus. I wrested it from him, and he could not resist me. No man uses me to raise his status in his tribe. I am the black dog, and I bring mayhem. The things that follow in my train are horror and madness. Do not look at them. I carry torches across the chasm, but I am not owned by the darkness nor the light. I am not here for your solace.”
She glances at Persephone, mumbling and whispering beside her. “I am companion to the Queen of corpses, but I am no one’s servant. She commands me no more than the Thunderer does.”
She pulls open her robes to reveal a skeleton key hanging from a frayed cord around her neck. She yanks it, breaking the thread, and tosses it into the cauldron.
“Hekate,” I whisper.
The cauldron is at a full boil now, steam obscuring the crones around the fire. Hera gestures to it.
“Bring me a cup, girl.”
I push my gray hair out of my face and look around. There is a dented silver bowl at my feet. Holding my breath against the reek rising from the cauldron, I dip into the bubbling brew and present it to the goddess. She sips. For an instant she is transformed, flowing black hair and eyes as deep and dark as the depths between the stars. With a smooth milk-white arm, she hands the cup to the goddess beside her.
Demeter looks across the cup at me with eyes the fresh green of spring grass. Hair the color of ripe corn ripples over her deep breasts. She smiles and passes the cup to her daughter. A breath of lilies and apple blossom wafts across the steaming cauldron. A girl with a face as bright as flower lifts her eyes to me.
Hekate takes the cup, her headband flowing with rainbow colors. She turns her brilliant eyes to a black ram standing just outside the clearing. He snorts and stamps.
When I look back at the goddesses, they are all crones again, huddled in the firelight, wrapped in their rags. I turn to go.
As I make my way into the darkness under the trees I hear a voice call after me. I don’t know which goddess speaks.
“Our power does not lie in our beauty. We have no need to seduce you. If you do not find us in our crone-selves, you will not know us at all.”