No matter all the ways that Persephone imagined it, prepared for it, thought it through moment-by-moment, her marriage was the work of an instant. She was daughter and then she was wife. As simple and as swift as crossing the river that separates her mother’s country from her husband’s.
People call her missus now. They bow to her when before they merely smiled. Before they asked her what she would be; now they ask her where they will reside, does he make her happy, what color will she paint the walls. The being, it seems, has already happened.
She has never thought about the color of walls before. She doesn’t know what to think about the color of the walls.
In that first year her husband says he doesn’t want to go to her mother’s house for the summer, he just wants to stay home and be with her. “We’ve just got married,” he points out. “We have our own lives to live.”
The our lingering in her mind long afterwards.
When Persephone tells her mother she will not be visiting for a while, her mother’s voice becomes something she has never heard before, something hollow and vast like a lake at the darkest hour of night. “This house is a cold thing without you,” she says, “and I’m starting to wonder why I bother getting out of bed anymore.”
When they visit her mother they eat things laden with memory: fresh bread with honey from her mother’s bees, vast salads dripping with whisked mustards and vinegars, pies bursting with fruit picked that morning. Persephone watches her husband out of the corner of her eye, watches him eat some things with enthusiasm, pucker his lips at others. He hates honey and will not have it at their table. She cannot understand how it is that he does not tremble at the very taste of it, does not savor the sweet nostalgia in every drop.
Years married now, and the honey thing still bothers her.
Her mother never comments on the food left on his plate; as she gathers up the dishes, however, she leans over and whispers in Persephone’s ear, “I want grandchildren.”
This, too, provokes memory. When Persephone was twelve, she had lain on the settee groaning in agony while her mother declared “My daughter is a woman” in a voice pitched to reach the stars. Now she sees how these two moments are in truth a single piece of time arcing over decades.
Save that she still does not think of herself as a woman, much less a mother. She wants to say, then perhaps you should have had more children. She wants to say, but what about what I want?
Instead, she takes another bite of her pie, keeping her eyes on the plate before her.
During her mother’s visits, Persephone tries to behave as if it is any other day, but all she can feel is anxiety. What does she do, on any other day? She cannot see herself from without, cannot see how she normally behaves. What is normal for her now?
Her mother smiles but it is a flat smile. She looks over the furnishings and the wall colors; she sits on a chair and appears relaxed, though Persephone knows that she is anything but relaxed. It is a marvelous display. It is something Persephone wishes she could do, especially on days like this.
Small talk. Drinks. She tries not to see, as she moves around the room, how things will look through her mother’s eyes: the worn furniture, the wall color clashing with the chairs (she did not notice the clashing before, but she can see it now and she cringes). Her husband could remake the room completely if he wanted; he could fill it with gilded things and have it painted every week until the perfect shade was achieved. Is this what she should be asking for, demanding?
He had said, “I like things the way they are.”
Now she sits next to her mother and they sip their drinks and they make small talk and at some point, in the flow of conversation, when her husband turns for a moment to change the music—in that moment her mother leans over and whispers, “there is nothing of you in this room.”
Persephone cannot even tell how this is meant: as a prod to change, or as a condemnation? The conversation flows on, smoothing over the moment like it was nothing more than a pebble in a stream, but for days afterwards she turns it over in her mind: where is she in her husband’s house, in her mother’s house, in herself?
Sometimes Persephone imagines that on the day she met her husband her life ruptured, and in that moment her fate split into two branches. That another Persephone still lives on the far side of the river, a Persephone who never left home, who still eats at her mother’s table, who knows only the taste of honey and her mother’s wall colors. Is that Persephone happier than she is now? Does that Persephone wonder what might have happened had she said yes to a handsome stranger, crossed the river, bowed her head to every change thrust upon her?
Her mother still rises in the morning and goes about her business, only now she dotes on a small patch in her garden, a patch that Persephone once played in as a child. Waiting for another small body to inhabit it. When they visit, her mother seems at once lighter and more grim, as if she has let go of many hopes the better to bet all her heart on one outcome.
Sometimes Persephone studies the river as she crosses it, and wonders just when the reckoning will happen: between herself and that other Persephone, between her and her husband and her mother, between who she is and who she might still become.
At some point Persephone falls into the rhythm of visiting once, twice a year, usually without him. She starts to feel strange in her mother’s house, starts to feel an odd distance even in the gardens, even in the taste of the honey. In her belly the years of comments and anxiety, clashing decors and sour looks, all jostle against each other, hard as stones. She still cannot choose a wall color, she still does a double take at missus, she still does not look at her reflection and think woman.
She still has no desire to bear a child.
She thinks as she crosses the river, I no longer care who stands on what bank, or what might have been.
When she was very small, she would gather up a handful of pebbles and then carefully plant them, as her mother planted the precious seeds each spring. Hard stones buried in soft dirt, and her own small self would stare and stare at them, waiting for them to crack and grow and darkly blossom. When they were only stones.
She thinks as she crosses the river, it would be nice one time to stop and swim, instead of forever crossing back and forth.
The river, rushing. Birdsong and the trees rustling in the wind, soft grass yielding to pebbled mud. She will climb down the bank, will tuck her bags in a little hollow and strip off her shoes. No gardens, no small talk, no honey, no clashing rooms. She will wade into the cold, flowing water until her feet no longer touch, and then she will be away. Cradled in water. Carried past landscapes she has never seen before, washed of the grime of her travels and the stones in her belly and the unspoken words in her mouth. She will give herself over, and when she emerges into some new, strange land she will finally be able to say aloud, “I am myself.”