The Cold Dark Waters of Lethe

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know the dangers of an underworld journey,” Prosperina muttered, her head bowed so low that her gaunt, tightly drawn face seemed to disappear into the silver webbing of her ceremonial cloak. “I’m sorry I failed you…and the sacred order.”

The Hiereia didn’t immediately respond. Instead, she waved a thurible of incense around Prosperina’s face. Smoke plumed up and spiraled around, enveloping Prosperina in a comforting blanket of frankincense and myrrh. She closed her eyes and breathed in the fragrance. It smelled like home—something Propserina had never known except in the hushed hallways and the airy, cavernous rooms of the Templum. It broke her heart to think that perhaps she had risked her only chance of a stable home.

Prosperina knew she wasn’t like other girls. By that, she didn’t mean that she wasn’t subject to the same flights of fancy, the same passionate trajectory of peaks and valleys, as other 16-year-olds. But her dark eyes hid other secrets—ghosts that didn’t seem to haunt those young women whose hushed whispers encroached upon her even now, while she stood in the Hiereia’s chambers, awaiting her verdict.

When Prosperina opened her eyes, the fog of incense had melted away and the Hiereia stood before her, a frown contorting the usually undisturbed serenity of her ageless face. Her voice was measured, with a hint of reproachfulness. “Prosperina, you didn’t fail me. You failed yourself. What have I taught you all these years? You know that we priestesses don’t suffer needlessly or linger longer than we need to—neither in pleasure nor in the void.”

Prosperina gazed down at the ground again, a curtain of hair obscuring her eyes so that the Hiereia wouldn’t see her shame. Sixteen years ago, Prosperina had been abandoned by her mother, who’d left her infant daughter at the gates of the Templum, perhaps eager to deliver her out of the poverty and suffering that had been their family’s lot for generations. At least…that’s the story Prosperina had been told, never having known her mother or family by face or name.

“Orphan bastard!” the other girls had spat and jeered and pulled at her long dark curls. She had been made well aware of the fact that she had no right to the treasures, the knowledge, of this place. Whereas the other priestesses had come here by way of family pedigree or unmistakable talent for the numinous arts at a young age, Prosperina had no claims to anything. She was devastatingly ordinary in both appearance and disposition. The only thing she seemed to have, compared to the others, was the tender regard of the Hiereia, who treated her with uncharacteristic kindness—which she seemed to purposely turn up whenever Prosperina found herself the butt of the other girls’ jokes and envy. Prosperina loved the Hiereia for her kindness, which followed her around like a shiny beacon—and it simultaneously made her squirm with discomfort. It didn’t help that the kindness shown to Prosperina was tempered by the severity of a schoolmistress whenever the Hiereia turned her icy gaze on Prosperina’s unfortunate classmates.

But perhaps the Hiereia’s motherly care had at least something to do with Prosperina’s emerging gifts. Prosperina knew things. Things other people didn’t. Things she never arrived at through ritual, lore, or scholarship. Things like the hidden maps of the underworld, which appeared as intricate networks of spidery veins behind her eyes when she became lost in hours of meditation. Somehow, she managed to memorize these visions. And somehow, as the Hiereia had verified, they were real and accurate.

Which is why Prosperina was uncertain as to how she had gotten so lost. She’d shown so much promise…even the Hiereia had said so…yet she had risked it all.

She had been seduced by the intensity of the underworld. While the other priestesses had easily undergone the initiation—of diving into the depths and returning with a blessing from the Goddess of Shadows—Prosperina had become stuck in the one place where she had arrogantly assumed her superiority, where she had not heeded the warnings of the sacred order because she knew without a shred of doubt that she’d pass with flying colors.

How wrong she had been.

Prosperina could still feel the dark waters of Lethe—so cold that they practically seared her skin and created a permanent layer of frost around her blood. She could still remember the apparition in the water…the face of a woman who seemed so familiar, who appeared to call to her through the darkness, beckoning her to a grave fate. At first, Prosperina had thought, “This must be the Goddess of Shadows!” But quickly, she recognized her error. As she waded in, the cold entered her bones so that she could barely feel her limbs, barely remember herself. The sad thing is, in that moment, as the pale hand reached up from the blood-dark waters, she knew she would have sacrificed her soul to touch the perfect oval pads of those outstretched fingers. She would have been content to sink to the bottomless depths of oblivion...without resurfacing with the blessing she’d been tasked to return with. She would have gladly traded places with the wraith.

But then, the Hiereia herself had pulled Prosperina back up, through layers and layers of fire and ice. That sudden retrieval had been the most agonizing experience of Prosperina’s short life—like being pulled through quickly congealing cement. One simply didn’t emerge from the underworld without going through all the prescribed gateways. But it had been a matter of life and death. If the Hiereia hadn’t come at that exact moment, Prosperina would have been consigned to those frigid waters for all eternity.

The Hiereia’s voice pulled her out of her reverie. “I don’t know how we ended up here. Didn’t I warn you never to negate the above while you were in the below? You were there for one reason only. You knew the map—by Juno’s diadem, you had the map thoroughly memorized! Unlike the other priestesses, you knew the dangers. Why in the world would you purposely disobey the sacred order?”

“I…I…” Prosperina didn’t know what to say. How could she tell the Hiereia the truth? How could she explain that she had been under the spell of a stranger in the forbidden waters of Lethe? A stranger who wore her very own face? Prosperina wanted to explain, but she found that she couldn’t. Not yet.

The Hiereia sighed, mistaking Prosperina’s silence for contrition. “She who embarks on the underworld journey with the belief that she’s broken and needs fixing is the one who stands to lose the most. Yes, the shadow walk will take you to your wholeness, but you must descend with ironclad courage and conviction. Your doubts will make you weak, and that weakness can only lead to ruin.”

Prosperina swallowed the frog in her throat. She refused to cry. The Hiereia lifted Prosperina’s chin gently until it settled into the crook of her thumb and index finger. Prosperina willed herself to look into the older woman’s grass-green eyes without flinching.

“The meaningful witness can save you from isolated wandering, Prosperina. If you have something to say, say it now.”

Prosperina could hear the petty whispers of the other girls outside the Hiereia’s chambers; they were almost deafening. But they were nothing compared to the strangled, waterlogged cries of the dead, which seemed to be permanently lodged in her imagination.

“I understand, Your Reverence. I won’t let you down again.”

The Hiereia abruptly dropped Prosperina’s chin until she was once more left gazing at the ground…still remembering the vast blackness that lay beneath it.

“Good. Because when you’re ready to go back, the Goddess of Shadows awaits your arrival.”

I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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