Atop the many levels of the Underworld; beyond the dark caves of Tartarus, the flaming pits of Asphodel, and the ghostly glories of Elysium’s halls, a garden grows. Barley, cabbage, corn, lemons, tomatoes and countless other plants thrive, changing by the season and leaving by the basketful. A small cottage, covered with moss and streams of ivy, rests among them. Here is where Persephone thrives.
Persephone never really knew peace most of her life. Instead she was always contending for the egos of those she loved, be it arguing, negotiating or running. Life at the hidden cottage wasn’t so completely different from most of her life in this way. Being here was another consequence she was dealt for the sake of others. However, at least this time she was mostly unbothered.
Whether it be Greece from Tartarus, or New York from Ohio, Persephone is the partner who escaped from an unhealthy relationship. She is the daughter who never was given a place to call home when she was with her mother. She is the friend who was tired of being tokenized. She is the transgender who decided enough was enough.
Persephone is the runaway who shows running is just as difficult as staying. She was the only one that left and held strong to her boundaries. She still held onto the memories, both of those she loved and those who left her in pain. They were too deeply entangled to separate from each other. Some days she would reminisce on those pieces of the past that made her smile and wondered if leaving was the right thing to do. That is one of the most difficult parts about running away: what you left behind doesn’t just disappear, it returns in some way or another.
One day a young man appears before her, stating his identity as that of her son. This was the boy who died in her arms at birth. This was the child from her confused relationship with Hades, the kind of the underworld. This was the death that pushed her for the last time to leave the underworld and everyone behind. Yet here he was, standing there, asking her questions that she could never conceive needing to be answered.
He tells her that he has been alive all this time, and that he has struggled for so long just to finally see her. He tells her of all the trials he traversed, each successively pinging with a different spike of anxiety; his father and her ex-lover trapping him down in the underworld, old family members who she continued to hide from helping him along the way, and most of all that he wanted her to come back with him.
“It’s time for you to come back home”, he says.
At least the dog was doing okay.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time Persephone had someone ask her to come back. Part of running away is being prepared for many to ask you to return. The foundation of choosing to leave is in the fact that there is no better option. There isn’t a way that anyone’s mind can be changed. There isn’t enough space to heal from the trauma inflicted from remaining in that space.
These aren’t baseless excuses, these are understandings formed from trying to survive inside violent spaces for so long in her life. These are understandings that enabled her to continue living on her own terms.
However, justifying to a loved one that you can’t go back isn’t as easy as knowing that you can’t go back, especially for one who had no agency in the construction of your pain. How could Persephone have Zagreus understand that she couldn’t go back? It wasn’t that it was impossible, but it was ill-fated.
For her son, she must have shined like a beacon of change and hope for his life in the underworld. That place with endless nights and tears. Surely he was experiencing many of the woes she once felt during her time below. Yet, she couldn’t sacrifice her life as she had made it to return for the sake of his own. Surely he could understand that.
She tells her son that she can’t go back, and there isn’t enough time to discuss it further in that moment as she watches her son collapse before her. As his body disappeared into the river Styx, he seemed to not understand, mouthing words of confusion in his final moments.
It was hard to remain peaceful after Zagreus’ initial visit. He broke what Persephone had hoped to be stasis. The thoughts that had become distant memories over so many years were now very immediate anxieties. Her family stood at her doorstep with his every visit. The dream of living a new life was suddenly in jeopardy, and she did not know what would happen if he appeared again. And he did appear again.
With subsequent visits, he didn’t ask as much about her return as much as he tried to understand why things were the way that they were. With each visit, they would talk a bit about one topic explaining her past before Zagreus was pulled away by the river once again. These visits became mostly pleasant despite their subject of conversation. It was freeing to be able to talk to someone about what had happened. Plus, it wasn’t just anyone, it was her lost son, and he wanted to understand her better. It was a chance to share with someone all the pain she had felt. A chance to release what she had kept inside, to herself, and heal in knowing that someone understood.
This only lasted so long, though, as Zagreus made it known that his goal was to have her come down to the underworld and set everything right. Eventually he asked why she couldn’t come back with him.
Blood poured from her heart. Had he not listened to her stories? Did he not understand the ways she was traded as an object between these men? So much time was spent opening herself up to this boy, only to be told that none of it justified her reasoning for hiding away. She explained to him that everything they had spoken about over the weeks of his returns were all her reasons for staying in Greece. She told him that she could not go back, because there would only be more turmoil in the underworld and on Olympus if she left.
“Isn’t it enough to know that I am safe? That I’m content to be alone?”
Zagreus winced in pain as he began to fall once again, “No….it’s not enough, for me, because this blasted family cannot keep hiding from its problems. Running from them! We are stuck with one another, we have to do everything for one another!”
In this moment, all of the pain Zagreus had experienced through his life, from his childhood being raised by Hades to fighting the levels of hell to get to his mother, emerged as a call to familial responsibility. From his perspective, seeing his father hide from the truth, and all of his loved ones and friends attempt to maintain life as they knew it, Persephone was just one more person neglecting to consider another life. But how inconsiderate this was for Zagreus to think of his mother this way? The woman who also felt a similar, overbearing parent during her childhood. The woman who was traded like an object between Zeus and Hades to then be burdened with living in the Underworld. The woman who hoped to find joy in a child, only to watch him vanish into flaming ashes.
Persephone, in this moment, faces one of the most difficult challenges of running away, being told that your choice to run is antithetical to your duty to your loved ones. That morally, running away is the incorrect thing to do. It’s a plea used by many parents, lovers, friends, and colleagues to bring the runaway back.
This plea implies that somehow one deciding to find their own peace is immoral. It implies that once a relationship is formed, those involved are eternally locked into a duty they owe the other to always maintain. And in the case of Persephone it really is eternal. There is no respect for what the runaway needs or how returning will affect their state of living.
In another version of this story, one that I am not writing, perhaps in a popular game out there, Persephone returns to the underworld upon Zagreus’ next arrival. She finds that Hades holds love for her and their relationship mends. She appears to the gods of Olympus to find that there is no war, but acceptance and dinner parties. Running away was just a temporary action which everyone grew from over time, creating peace for Persephone to return to.
However, my version of this story doesn’t create a clean, unifying ending for Persephone. My ending does not somehow repair all the relationships that were broken. My ending is not the hopeful reward given by a game’s invested victory. Not because I want to see Persephone tortured, but because I think there are other means for Persephone to find peace, means that do not prioritize Zagreus’ own trauma over that of Persephone’s. My story believes that happiness can still exist while painful memories of the past lie within us. My story believes that we do not owe anyone an eternity of ill-fated attempts at repair.
In the end of this story, Zagreus’ next return is greeted by Persephone telling him that his form of healing is different from her own. She understands that things in the underworld have been hard for him, but she can’t be his life’s savior, he can’t put the betterment of his life on her shoulders. It isn’t that she doesn’t love Zagreus, or that she won’t do anything to help Zagreus. In fact she does, as she eventually finds ways to prolong the amount of time Zagreus can stay on the surface with her own herbs and help from Nyx.
Persephone’s life as a runaway is just fine as that. Persephone made the decision to leave where she felt was detrimental to her well being. She now can live a life where she builds what she values, without the constant oppression of those holding power over her. She can decide who she wants to be around, how she wants to live, and how she heals. She can never truly be separated from that past, but she can live a life that cares for her experiences from it.
Rosy Hearts is a trans game artist and freelance writer. You can find her latest projects or rants about the Muppets on Twitter @rosy_hearts.