According to the ancient myth, the pale phantom king of the underworld had a frozen heart—unmoved even by Orpheus’ twinkling music. The poet would have to rely on charming the king's wife, kindly Persephone in her flower crown, instead. With lyre and honey-colored falsetto, he applied himself to his art.
Charm her, the poet did.
Having brought warmth to that cold place, Orpheus was, thus, able to win her over. The Queen of the Underworld convinced her husband, Hades, to offer the bereaved poet what seemed like a fair chance, at least, that Orpheus might lead the shadow of his beloved maiden, Eurydice, up with him—out of the deep—and promising that, should he be able to do so, she would be restored to life.
He deserves that much, Persephone said, for coming all this way.
Hades agreed. The bargain was set. Orpheus started up the cyclopean stairs, playing gentle music to keep time as he went step by step, like a moth rising toward the moon, all the while believing that Eurydice was just a few paces behind, and fancying that her could hear her footsteps—though he could never quite be certain.
So why, upon reaching the surface-world, was Orpheus cursed to wander the remainder of his days so melancholy and alone?
In the version most commonly retold, it's because once the poet had nearly reached the light, he looked back just to make sure Eurydice was really there—still following him—breaking the one rule Persephone had made for him to obey. It was upon this very simple rule that the entire agreement hinged. Once broken, the poet would not be allowed a second chance.
It is true Orpheus did look back—he broke the promise he made to Persephone—that much is not a lie.
Still, there ought to be some question of whether or not the poet was right not to trust the gods at their word: Few know that when the Orpheus looked back it wasn’t really Eurydice standing. Of course, the bereaved thought it was her, at first—for it was so dark and how he missed her so—but whose lips were waiting for him instead?
Those of an imposter.
None the wiser, the poet kissed her in the stygian gloom and they didn't stop there. Not until he heard a deep throaty laugh did the startled Orpheus even begin to have an inkling of what had happened. How he had been tricked.
A flame in the dark ascended toward the two—revealing its carrier as a ghostly figure with a petrifying smile that seemed to split the specter-like face it belonged to.
It was none other than Hades coming up the stairs with a torch-light. He shone it on the two lovers commingled there on the stairs hewn into rock. Who, besides himself, did the light reveal to Orpheus?
None other than Queen Persephone.
At last she, too, began to cackle—much louder than her husband—now that she could see the look on the poet's face. Orpheus realized three things then: That no goddess who turned the seasons around could be called kind, why the cruel-hearted queen was well-matched to her king, and the reason she consented to spend half of each year with her husband in those chthonic depths. Despite their appearances of night and day Hades and Persephone were equally twisted at heart and had made of the poor poet their puppet-like plaything.
Hades took Persephone by the hand then, helped her up from where fallen petals lay strewn, and Orpheus wept at the loss of the girl who was never really there as he watched the queen led back down the stairs—until the shrinking torch-light seemed but a distant, burning star.
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Romey Petite is recognizable by his wire-rimmed spectacles, pinstripes, and suspenders. He loves reading and writing fairy tales, myths, and short stories that blend the sacred and mundane. His short fiction has been published in 3Elements Review, Scott Thrower's podcast Fairy Tales for Unwanted Children, and Coffin Bell Journal. Along with cartoonist Laurel Holden, he is also a co-author of the illustrated middle-grade reader's novel Spiderella: The Girl who Spoke to Spiders. Because of his habit of daydreaming in shop-windows, he has often mistaken for a mannequin by passersby. Take care and be absolutely certain it is really him, before going up and whispering secrets in his ear.