She expected a sphinx, prepared herself for a riddle that only the wisest can solve. She thought she might end up in a labyrinth, and have to fight the Minotaur. She looked around carefully, fearing the petrifying gaze of Medusa. She was taught to be brave, strong, and confident, but now she was confused.
Maybe she read too many stories.
All she knew was that she was about to face her ultimate test. And by ultimate, they certainly didn’t mean expected. Nothing that can be found in stories. No Pegasus to ride.
She had been put to sleep. That’s how the test always starts, and the only thing about it that was known to all the students. Once they opened their eyes, their challenge would look back at them. Everything was supposed to become clear then. But she woke up in a forest, alone. The grass was cold and wet from the dew. Lying on it was not pleasant, but it was real and comforting. She got up, making sure she wasn’t missing anything. No, nothing was looking back at her.
She had spent ten years in the Mansion, preparing herself for her future role. Not once in those ten years did she set foot outside. The forest smelled of rain, dirt, and was filled with the soft murmur of leaves. She breathed it all in. No human voices, no shouting, no screams. Was this how freedom feels like?
She knew now what the test was. She was all alone in the outside world. Her training will never be finished. Every day would be a new test. Now all she had to do was survive.
For as long as I can remember, I felt his dark eyes following me. I don’t know why I say dark, because they were pale blue and icy, but it is how they seemed to me.
His presence enveloped me every time I danced in the meadows with the others. I don’t know why we did that. It seemed as if we were having fun, but it wasn’t the reason we were doing it. We were supposed to dance, and we were expected to admire the colourful flowers. It wasn’t dancing, it was only living. We could be nothing else but happy and pretty. And even though I had often heard that I was the prettiest of them all, I never saw it. We all had flowy dresses and flowers in our hair. We were all beautiful. We all looked the same.
One day, we felt the ground shake underneath our bare feet. I heard the screams in fear of an earthquake, but I knew it was something else. I lowered myself to the ground, trying to keep my balance, grabbing the soft grass. My white dress flew around me like a cloud and the flowers from my hair threatened to fly away. Suddenly everything was still again.
I opened my eyes to see a crack in the ground, in front of me a deep, endless abyss. I noticed that I was shrouded by a dark shadow, so I looked up. I met the eyes that had haunted me. It was him.
I was scared, but more than anything I was angry. He grabbed my hands and helped me lift myself from the ground. Before I even noticed, I was falling down the abysmal pit. I never had a choice. First I was dancing, and now I was falling, and I chose none of it.
He was silent. We stood in the darkness until my eyes got used to it. Then I saw a ragged man with tangled beard and fiery eyes. He motioned to a boat and I knew I should enter it. My captor walked behind me, and took a place by my side. Suddenly, a swarm of fireflies surrounded the boat, and they flew beside it, lighting the way. The ferryman rowed carefully, obviously not used to the fireflies flying around him.
We first sailed the river of pain. I expected to hear screams of the dead, souls fighting to come back to life. Instead I encountered peace. Never have I experienced such silence, such tranquillity. Its eeriness reminded me how fragile life is.
Then we entered the river of wailing, and cold air of sorrow surrounded me. I had never felt like this before. My life was a cheerful one, life of songs and flowery meadows. But now sorrow seemed beautiful to me, because only those who had something to lose could feel it. I never did.
Next was the river of forgetfulness. I moved from the edge of the boat, scared that its water would touch me. I don’t want to forget who I am. But who am I anyway?
The fourth river is not a river at all, but a path of fire. This is where I hear the screams. Do some people really deserve to be punished so harshly? What have they done? I realized I didn’t know what to think of it. I knew nothing of evil and human crimes. I knew so little of life.
The last river was the widest one. It was peaceful and it led us to a great hall. I took a deep breath and absorbed its dark beauty.
My captor held my hand.
“You know me”, he said. It was the first time I heard him speak. His voice is husky and calm.
“I know who you are”, I responded.
“No, you know more. I know you do.”
I was not sure what he thought by it. I followed him into the hall. I felt tired. We had spent much more time on the boat than it seemed. It was hard for me to keep my eyes open. My captor led me to a room, furnished only with a huge bed covered with the softest feathers I had ever touched. I soon fell asleep.
I recall the previous day now, at the large breakfast table, filled with all kinds of colourful fruits. I’m looking into my captor’s eyes as he offers me some pomegranate seeds.
“They will come, and they have all the right to take you back, your colourful mother and my sweet brother”, he says calmly, and I feel a bitterness in his tone, a bitterness which somehow sounds familiar.
I guess I was lucky it wasn’t his brother who took an interest in me. Those young women never ended well. I feel anger again. I do not want to be so powerless, I refuse to live by the caprice of others.
“There is nothing I can do about it, but you can. You know what they say about the seeds in the Underworld. Once you eat them, you must stay.”
I look at the seeds, and then I gaze again into his eyes. Was he right? Do I really now him?
“You can choose to be my wife”, he concludes.
“I do not choose to be a wife”, I say as I pick up the seeds from his hand. “I choose to be an empress.”
He smiles a crooked smile and I know he likes my answer.
“I choose to choose”, I smile back at him.
I bite the pomegranate seeds, and I feel them melt on my tongue. They are both sweet and sour, and I know it is the best taste I have ever experienced. I am amazed that something so wonderful grows in a place so dark.
But the Underworld does not seem dark to me anymore. It seems as alive as the flowers and the green grass of my meadows. It is just the other side of the same coin. One does not exist without the other. Before coming here, I never knew what life was.
My captor points to a mirror. I look and see myself changed. My ginger hair turned auburn in the Underworld light. There are no more flowers in my hair, and my dress is not flowy or white. The dress is now black, close-fitting and sturdy, decorated with giant feathers. Instead of a nymph-like girl, I see a person of power. I see somebody who should be respected, even feared.
For the first time I see in my reflection that I truly am beautiful.
People fear the unknown. They fear what they don’t understand. Unless it appears in nice attire.
I’ve seen them many times riding horses, ordering the dogs around, and hunting unarmed prey with their guns. That’s all they have against the nature, their guns and houses, dividing them from what they truly are. People are weak -their teeth are blunt, their skin bare. They cannot kill their prey with their hands nor can they survive the winter without their clothes to protect them.
But people can be smart. They are aware of their weaknesses and they think of ways to erase them. It makes them feel superior, not only to other animals but to nature as a whole. It the end, their biggest strength will make them weak. It is never wise to feel too safe.
I see a man on a horse, and a young woman riding behind him, his daughter. Confident they seem. He was not as confident that time when I showed up in front of his horse, only for a glimpse. The horse saw me, but the man couldn’t, blinded by his conceit. The horse decided to run away, as any wise animal would. The man couldn’t control him anymore. He pulled the reins but it only made the horse wilder. The man was lucky. He fell right away and the horse galloped away into the forest. The man broke his arm, but that was better than being trampled with steely hooves.
He feels safe again. He even lets his daughter ride. It was just an accident, and those don’t happen often. People trust horses. Animals are not as treacherous as they are.
So I appear to them as a horse. I am beautiful, white, with silky mane. I come out of the chilly, fresh river and offer them a ride. They are bewitched by me and the nature which is now more and more escaping their reach. They trust me. I carry them to the water and they feel happy. Then I drag them down, and they realize the mistake they have made, but they realize it far too late.
People trust a lovely horse. They think they possess it and that it exists just to serve them. They feel that the nature belongs to them. They are the ones who have the right to swim in lakes, eat their fish, and rest among the green trees. They fought for it with their intellect. But they are still weak.
People trust their possessions and believe they know all about them. They fear the unknown. They fear what they can’t understand. But the unknown sometimes appears in beautiful, familiar attire.
*A kelpie is a water spirit from Scottish mythology, though similar creatures exists elsewhere as well.