Understanding Beauty

Author's Note - This is based on the tale of Eros and Psyche. Set when Psyche travels to the Underworld at Aphrodite's command to retrieve a fragment of Persephone's beauty in a box. This is my take on a possible conversation these two might've had during Psyche's time there. Any feedback would really make my day, but please bear in mind that this is my first try at a Greek Mythology fanfic so please be gentle.

Understanding Beauty

Hideousness. The sheer unabashed ugliness of the world haunted her for as long as she could remember and now it was so intense around her she could almost feel it creeping roughly down her throat and choking her. It was all around her, threatening to consume her. Sometimes, she would have gladly have thrown herself into that frightening dark oblivion, taking comfort from the fact that at least it was oblivion, where nothing more could harm her.

Psyche concentrated the remaining shards of her courage and dignity on stilling such thoughts. Yes, she was afraid, yes, her task was stretching her to her limit in the most sadistic fashion but she could not give in. In all her years as she waded through a river of sorrows she had not let her spirit or integrity be broken by hardships. She would not give in to despair. She would not let her heart become hard.

Her body quivered as she approached the gates to the Underworld, knowing full well what would be behind those dread walls. No living being could ever cross the threshold. She felt fear animate her thoughts, driving her from her drowsy, tired misery into a fresh tempest of cold, sharp emotion. She comforted herself, reminding herself that the hardest task was behind her, the journey down those cold granite steps to the gates of the Underworld, encountering person after person and having to turn away from each one.

Her breath caught painfully in her throat and she felt tears begin to burn their way through her once-lovely eyes, begging for release at the memory. Strangers had offered her riches, glory, love and warmth whilst innocents had pleaded for her to help them, dying mothers begging her to save their children, starving families needing her to run back to the surface to bring them the smallest scrap of food. Then of course were her loved ones, reduced to poverty, pain, torture, suffering - her family, friends and even her Godly former lover (she bit her lip hard enough to draw blood as he entered her thoughts once more) all pleaded for help. And she had to turn each one away and make her ears deaf to their mournful cries as she passed by. Each refusal cut into her heart with a jagged knife just a little more with each step. Sometimes, the illusions were so real that she was almost convinced that somehow this was all real; real people calling out to her to help them. And turning her back on them was the hardest thing she'd ever done in her life.

Her knees trembled, her bones and body ached for peace. She wished she could drop her lady's golden box, especially designed for her task and collapse to the ground in tears and cry in the shadows of the Underworld for all eternity. But she continued, struggling to shut out any thoughts that might've delayed her task. Perhaps, if she completed this task then the Goddess Aphrodite would forgive her for her crimes against her and release her. The dark clouds returned to cover the light of that one hope from her with an endless brigade of questions - was life worth living anyway, if she were released? Where would she go? She had driven her dearest love away and her family was long dead. She was alone in the world now.

Still, she walked forward to those huge double doors, full of fears and doubts. Knowing that the guardian to the Underworld, Cerberus would likely tear her apart for attempting to enter the Underworld, she held her golden casket, decorated with the seal of the Goddess Aphrodite, in front of her like a magical shield and spoke with a false air of confidence as she knocked on the large doors, shrouded in shadow.

"I seek an audience with your Queen on behalf of my lady, her divine luminescence, the Goddess Aphrodite." She said, her voice hoarse with thirst and with a whisper of a tremble to it, betraying her fear.

The doors opened and shadow figures, as dark as onyx danced in the perpetual darkness, pulling her in before settling in the furthest corners of the Underworld once more. Psyche gathered her strength and courage to step through, attempting to keep her eyes fixed on the rough ground below her and avoiding having to face the intimidating presence beside her, its dark gaze penetrating to the core of her being. For the monster she had imagined, there seemed to be a silent wisdom and respect to it. Somehow, it must have known whether or not she was lying, she mused absently to herself, pushing away her terror and disgust at the vision in her mind's eye of the dread three-headed dog that was of such proximity to her now. She almost allowed a bitter laugh to escape her chapped lips; she must be telling the truth because what mortal would freely visit the Underworld?

It moved away from her, indicating that she had been accepted. Her movements were gauche as she walked ahead, devoid of any trace of her noble upbringing. But she was too exhausted to waste time now. Her body shook and ached in pain as she tortured herself with thoughts of rest. But she still continued onwards, trying not to look at the dark kingdom she was now in, hating how pitifully afraid she was. But time and experience had taught her to fear the Gods and for all her beauty, she had been a young maid of wit, kindness and integrity with a mind like a steel trap. Apart from when it came to trust, it was her gullible trust of the words of her two jealous sisters that ruined everything she had ever loved. They had made her a fool and now all she had left of her love and her family was the echo of a terrible, burning wound for which there was no balm.

She greeted Charon with a refined politeness that came instinctively, despite her horror, as she joined him on the boat that would escort her to her destination. She sat back in silence, hands clasped tightly together on her lap as her violet eyes wandered, taking in the magnificent sight of shadows on cavern walls, and mighty flow of the River Styx and almost catching a glimpse of her reflection. She wondered with nostalgia what she looked like, as it had been a rather impressive amount of time since she last had the opportunity to gaze at herself.

She used to be lovely, she remembered with bitterness. So lovely that townsfolk would forsake worshipping Aphrodite because of her. So lovely that she that she was destined to be married to a God. So lovely she had incurred great wrath. She sighed, it hardly mattered what she looked like; beauty was a lie, a mask. One thing she understood about looks was that there was little connection between outer and inner beauty. Loveliness was nothing more than a cold mask to hide an ugly heart. She remembered Aphrodite, the gold flaxen hair, shimmering with all the glory of the sun, the beautiful ripe form, the statuesque perfection, the wine red lips set in a lovely smile and penetrating eyes of sapphire, mischievous and beautiful. She couldn't grasp how that face could look at her with such cruel hatred sometimes.

She had been pretty too, never the grand beauty of Aphrodite of course, not matter what her father claimed but something altogether different. Deep violet eyes like the sweetest, most lush and delicate flowers, pale ivory skin and hair the lightest shade of blonde that it was almost white, like moonlight dancing on cream lace. Her form was petite, as though she hadn't the strength to lift a pin but was simply an object of gentle grace. Men had loved her for her beauty and risked the wrath of Aphrodite for her but it was a God that truly loved her, for more than a sweet face.

But that time in her life was over, her husband Eros had left her as both their hearts broke at her betrayal and his shocked rebuke of her. Now the light in her amazing eyes had been dulled to a shadow of their former happy glory, her skin was far paler than what was fashionable and clung pitifully onto her now starved and unhealthily gaunt carcass and her face was marred with premature lines. Her silky hair had been roughly hacked short, as hair was a woman's crowning glory and this was set to hurt her deeply, but Aphrodite could never hurt her any deeper than Psyche had hurt herself. Her clothes were now longer garments of majesty, artworks in themselves and now the only clothes on her back was crudely fashioned from a rough, itchy, shapeless beige sack. She inhabited her clothes rather than wearing them. She bit her lip till she felt a warm flow of crimson liquid pass over them at the heartbreaking question of how could a Goddess of Love hate her so? Was she really so evil to make a patron of Love her enemy?

She understood Aphrodite's reasoning somewhere; she had stolen her worshippers and her son - albeit unwittingly - and had invoked her jealousy and wrath. This was her punishment. She hadn't trusted her dear husband and was punished by losing him and falling into the hands of a Goddess that hated her with a burning passion. And now her slavery and impossible tasks was a punishment for her crimes against the Goddess of Love.

Her hands, now rough and raw by hard work, danced lightly over the fine golden box and its intricate designs as she left her reverie, remembering why she was here. Her latest task was to travel to the Underworld and bring back a fragment of the beauty of Persephone in a box. Psyche mused, wondering what the Queen of the Dead would be like. Cruel? Kind? Beautiful? Ugly? Somehow, it ceased to matter. Somehow, it was all the same in the end.

The boat came to a sudden halt and Psyche found herself at the grand, foreboding palace of Hades and Persephone. She shuddered involuntarily. There was nothing like the kingdom of the dead to push her apathy into fear, but she was still grateful. The fear was a real, fresh feeling. It made her remember that she was alive.

Hesitantly, she stepped out of the boat and gave Charon a thanking smile, forcing a brave look onto her haggard face. She suddenly felt slightly lost, without a clue about what to do. Did Persephone know she was here? Did anyone know she was here? Did anyone know her task? Would Persephone be willing to sacrifice a part of her beauty to Aphrodite? Or would she shun and scorn her with terrible refusal? Should she step inside and present herself? Or was she supposed to remain outside until someone would see to her? Should she just abandon her quest and fling herself into the River Lethe in a desperate hope to find forgetfulness and merciful oblivion.

Suddenly, Psyche felt a presence behind her. "Who are you looking for?" a voice asked. The voice was beautiful and sweet, full of light and comfort with a musical lift to it. Psyche sighed and felt comforted by the warm, loving voice behind her and wondered how such a human voice so full of life and light happiness abide being in the Underworld.

Psyche didn't turn to face the voice, but lowered her head and gazed numbly at the dead ground "I am here on behalf of my mistress Aphrodite," she finally replied, her voice cracked and dry, a ghost of a whisper "I seek an audience with Persephone, Queen of the dead at my lady's request." At least she had remembered etiquette she thought to herself as she mumbled her reply, not due to dull insolence but as she lacked the energy for the required enthusiastic response.

"Why does Lady Aphrodite see it fit that you visit Persephone?" the voice asked, not scornful or sarcastic but filled with care and patient enquiry. Psyche felt eager to respond to the kind presence.

"I have a task to fulfill for my lady, the Goddess of Love, but it requires a kind favour from Her Majesty, Persephone." Psyche still did not turn, but faced the floor still and almost choked on a sob. She wanted to go back to her Eros' castle and be in his loving warm arms once more and cry in his chest about how sorry she was and how much she loved him.

"Are you alright?" the kindly voice asked, concerned and abandoning all formalities.

Psyche bit her lip hard and arched her back till she was standing straight and proud, chin in the air and not the defeated weeping girl. She had to hide her pain.

"N-no. I.I'm fine, thank you. Truly. Thank you very much for your kind manner and your concern but you need not waste it on me, despite it being much appreciated." She choked out. This time she turned to give the strange woman a warm smile, and to thank her again for giving her reason to smile. She had almost forgotten what kindness felt like.

The smile vanished from her face as she saw the owner of the sweet, musical voice and her face became awash with shock, horror, fear and complete reverence as she dropped to her knees promptly and held her face to the cold ground. The voice belonged to Persephone, Goddess of Spring and Queen of the Dead, wife of Hades and daughter of Demeter and Zeus. She was terrified that she may have spoken out of turn and began rapidly praying and begging forgiveness for being so crass as not to turn and face her or recognise her as a Goddess.

Persephone looked sympathetically at the terrified Psyche for a moment and then giggled, her laughter child-like and sweet, pealing like silver bells. It was beautiful.

"Oh, rise! Do rise Psyche, I should not have acted like that to an esteemed guest."

Psyche was stunned. It wasn't as much that this mighty Goddess called her an esteemed guest, or actually apologised to her but the fact that Persephone was talking to her like an equal, or rather an old and dear friend, that amazed her the most. She stood and looked at the Spring Goddess, unsure of what to do and feeling half-ashamed, as though she should look away.

Persephone broke the ice by reaching out and clasping Psyche's rough hands in her own smooth, delicate ones, as though they were sisters. Psyche took in the great beauty of this Goddess in awe. She was shorter than her and her form slender and lithe but supple. Despite being short she seemed to shine with an aura of greatness and power but also with a light that seemed to bring a summer's day into the Underworld. Her back was straight and proud and she possessed inner strength and grace despite her delicate body. She had long, lustrous black hair that gleamed a healthy, earthly brown in the brief glimmer of light, adorned with a garland of the most beautiful flowers Psyche had ever beheld. Her face was sweet and pale but healthy and rosy-cheeked, her features delicate and soft, her nose almost elfin and her mouth was small but rich and pink like the freshest petals of a rose. Her eyes, lined with long, thick lashes, were a soft and warm shade of emerald green, full of life and beauty and were soft at first, but also steady and knowing and could shine with gem-hard feeling but yet they seemed deep, understanding and utterly sincere. Lights seemed to dance in them and they looked lovely and childlike, though not in the way Aphrodite's were - Aphrodite's were mischievous and fickle but Persephone's were simply pure innocence in their childlike beauty. Her smile was sweet and kind and seemed to light up the Underworld in its glory. It was also very infectious as well as ever gentle and comforting.

The Goddess was not wearing a grand gown that Hades' wealth could have offered her, but a simple pristine white lace dress, thin and light as though she were in a flowerfield, not the kingdom of the dead. Though its design was simple the dress was anything but a breezy peasant's dress. It was laced with pale mint silk and each facet of the material looked untouched and expensive and whenever a rare light caught the dress; it flickered with a magnificent silver shine, laced with all the colours of the rainbow. It was breathtaking to behold. Her small feet, dancing feet, were bare and wherever she stepped, flowers would grow in her wake, though they withered and died almost immediately afterwards.

Psyche could not hold back a sigh of awe at Persephone's unconscious beauty and finally understood how cold Hades could have fallen in love with her from the moment he laid eyes on her. She was a vision of sincere loveliness that seemed to go beyond outer beauty. She was at a loss for words, though her face obviously betrayed her awe and the sheer intensity of the honour Persephone had so lightly bestowed on her.

Persephone noticed that Psyche's eyes returned to her dress, enchanted by it. She smiled warmly. "Do you like it?" she asked, her hands unconsciously running down the fine material.

"It's beautiful." Psyche replied, still numb with disbelief that this was really happening to her. A Goddess was happily chatting to her as though they were old friends talking over a meal or drink!

"Yes, I never thought a mere dress could be so lovely but then again it was given to me as a gift by Athena and she is the greatest of all weavers so I suppose I shouldn't have expected anything less than perfection."

Psyche recoiled in shock "Athena! Athena made this dress?"

Persephone smiled sadly with compassionate kindness "Please, dear Psyche. Please do not be so afraid."

"I have learnt to fear the Gods." Psyche replied, betraying her misery.

Psyche's heart bled at the sight of Persephone's warm innocent eyes filling with gentle regret and sincere kindness "Then you have learnt wrongly, dear child. You should fear only the wrath of the Gods but not the Gods themselves. We are here to rule and guide an teach mortals, not destroy them."

Psyche laughed bitterly "It is because of the wrath of a Goddess that I am here."

Persephone raised an eyebrow "How so? How have you angered Aphrodite?"

Psyche could bear it no longer. Her eyes burnt with tears that screamed for long-denied release and finally now was the time they could wait no more. The floodgates of her sorrow opened wide to bare her troubled soul.

"I-I.don't know!" she sobbed "I never meant to do anything wrong! It is not my wish to anger any Gods! The men of my town thought I was more beautiful than Aphrodite herself and forgot to worship her because of me.but.but I never claimed to be lovelier, I swear it! It was all idle talk! I never wanted to be prettier than Her and I always knew that there are none lovelier than She but I was still set to be punished. She sent her son.h- her son.Eros.my Eros." she couldn't continue at the mention of her lost love's name. But the bitter tears spoke in volumes.

Persephone placed a comforting hand on the mortal's shoulder and moved it to her face, wiping away the tears. "I'm sorry for your hardships." She said.

Psyche shook her head "Don't be," she replied; her voice steady and cold "Please my lady, you are a Goddess."

"As is Aphrodite. Surely she should see the truth and be reconciled? You must know, that despite these machinations of hers, she is not a cruel Goddess. Jealous, yes, but not cruel or wicked. She is sweet, warm, funny and kind to all her friends."

"But I am not her friend, she hates me."

"And now you belong to her." Persephone said sadly.

"Yes I do! I'm her slave now! If only I had ended my life while I had the chance!"

Persephone's eyes sharpened and Psyche realised again that she was in the presence of a Goddess and could feel the mighty knowledge flow through the Queen of the Dead. "Do not speak like that." It was a simple command, but there was root to it. Psyche felt compelled to comply, knowing that if it took away part of her sorrow she would be eternally grateful. But it would not still her feelings, now a blind tempest in her deepest heart.

"Please forgive for speaking so frankly with an immortal, but if I were to make such an oath, I would be lying and would surely break it. An even if I never spoke like that again, it would not mean that I would not think those dark thoughts. They are always clouding my mind. They haunt me!"


The question perplexed Psyche "What do you mean?"

"Why do you see death as the only option?" Persephone's kind eyes fixed into the very soul of Psyche's own and no matter how much she wanted to look away, she found herself unable to break away from the Goddess' gentle and sad gaze.

She shrugged weakly "There is no hope."

"You are a most strange mortal, Psyche. Sometimes I see great wit and understanding in you to rival the most learned mortal but at other times you are blinded with ignorance. My duties here are to my husband and to our people, the dead. I help my husband decide in the judging of souls, as I think that some are deserving of mercy. I bring joy and love to my husband and such a thing can almost bring brightness to our dark kingdom. I bring gifts to the dead each time I return. Flowers, food, simple things, material things, just so they can feel life again. I speak to them, tell them of a day in the sun and how its warmth feels on my back, it helps them regain a shred of life and what it was once like. But that does not mean that my help excludes the living. I understand your sorrows.

"Can you tell me what to do?"

"I doubt that Apollo, Athena or even Zeus himself could give you an answer as to the perfect course of action but I can offer you advice. I know it will seem empty and little more than convenient words and will offer little comfort now but please Psyche, do not give up. There is always hope. The darkest hour is just before dawn."

"Thank you dearly.but what dawn is there? I am alone!"

"How so?"

"I have no family, no friends," she cried "and.and.I have lost the love of my life. I-I don't know if it could ever have worked.but.we were married and I loved my Eros so deeply. So deeply it aches. We had a marriage of love and that is a rare thing."

Persephone smiled wistfully, full of sympathy "I know."

"I only wish that the world would shift back to the way it was." she sighed, her eyes drying.

"I understand; I felt like that once. When I first arrived here in this solitary land, I had been stolen from sunlight and flowers and warmth.my mother. All that I ever loved. I was taken into a dark existence and I felt as utterly alone as you do now. I felt as though I had been punished for being loved by having all else that I loved stripped away without an afterthought or even a chance to say goodbye. I felt like a child snatched from my mother's arms."

"And.?" Psyche's curious whisper softly cut the eerie silence between them.

"I would cry to my husband and beg him to return me but he would refuse with anguish as he believed I would never return. He was so very afraid of losing me and being alone again, though I never saw it then."

"Would you have returned?"

Persephone's brow furrowed with thought for a brief moment "Yes, I actually would have.even then at my darkest time."


"Strangely enough, he was a good husband. Always kind, always considerate, ever affectionate. The only thing he could deny me was to return me and even that hurt him. And I knew he loved me. Truly loved me, despite the pain he caused me it was the only way he knew how we could be married. And even after our quick ceremony he never forced his rights upon me or hurt me.he believed if he took me against my will I would hate him."

"Did you hate him anyway?"

Persephone allowed a ghost of a smile to shine through the nostalgia "I wanted to. I wanted to hate him more than anything but I never could. It was never in my nature, I was always affectionate and would lavish attention and love over everything but I could never hate. Time passed and with each passing day, my desire to hate him grew smaller and I actually took the time to get to know my husband.and.I grew fond of him. I began to love him."

Psyche paused from any comment but the first thought that crossed her mind was that this only symbolised defeat, that the Queen of the Dead was only a broken woman that had been hurt into loving her captor. The very thought filled her with repulsion and disgust. But it also gave birth to great pity for the sweet, gentle and childlike Goddess that had offered her advice and compassion.

"No, Psyche you misunderstand. It was quite different to that."

Psyche was so startled she almost dropped her golden box "F-forgive me," she stammered hopelessly "I never meant to - "

Persephone smiled a bright, understanding smile "I know. I bear you no ill- thoughts for your own opinion but you have misunderstood part of the love between my husband and I."

"But I am still sorry. It was rude and presumptuous of me, especially to one who has been so unnecessarily kind to me. I apologise."

"Then you are forgiven."

"Please.tell me what I do not understand. I want to know what it is that gave this world light."

"I was lonely and always missing my mother though I had the kindest and most loving husband that gave me riches and sincere affection and understanding. But once I pushed past my sorrows, in my own darkest hour, I grew to understand Hades' reasoning. I began to see how precious I was to him, how devoted he was to me and how much it hurt him to see me longing for anything but what he could give me. I dismissed my growing feelings and thought they were as you thought it to be. A broken woman forced into loving the one she should hate. I was thrown into turmoil. I still longed for my mother and the bright happiness of the surface world but I also grew to genuinely love my husband. Then when I realised I could leave at last, when dear Hermes found me, I was overjoyed but I then realised how sorely I would miss Hades."

"And the pomegranate seeds.?"

"He was desperate, I saw that. He loved me so much he had to keep me there. I knew what eating those seeds would do.but.I feigned ignorance and took them."

Psyche was stunned speechless at the revelation.

Persephone smiled warmly "Yes, I wanted to return to my husband because only when we were about to be separated did I realise my love for him. And so my darkest hour of my abduction and forced marriage led to the dawn of a revelation that I had found myself in a marriage of true love. I am stronger and more mature than I once was; I fully understand love and all its beauty. I am the child and the woman. I understand the nature of the dead and the living just as Aphrodite wishes to understand my beauty with part of it in a casket. I may not be as wise or knowing as other Gods or Goddess' but I know I understand the most. I have changed and grown from the maid I once was and it makes me happy and proud. So far from falling into despair in each of my months here, I make the most of it as a queen, a wife and as myself. Persephone. And that is what I love most. I am happy here now, as it is part of who I am."

Psyche nodded, enlightened and moved by the tale "I understand. I finally understand."

Persephone smiled with all her golden love "Take courage Psyche, for even after the coldest of winters, the loving warmth of spring comes by on swift wings." She opened a soft palm of a small hand and a fragile snow-white flower grew in it then shuddered, bathed in rich light before transforming into a plump, lush pomegranate.

Psyche was moved, her heart touched. "Thank you," was all she could say to the beautiful Spring Goddess.

"Now for your task.I would offer you food, drink and garments but you would not wish to be connected to the Underworld. I will give you part of my beauty for your mistress."

"So she can understand your beauty? Why does she not simply speak to you?"

Persephone smiled wickedly, like a cheeky child "She will understand soon enough."

Persephone then took the golden box in her small hands and shut her eyes for a moment. Psyche sensed the dark box, devoid of any life or sense of feeling fill with amazing brightness and infectious life in all its childish innocence. However when she looked back at Persephone, none of her own light had diminished at all. She supposed it must have been because a Goddess has a never-ending supply of beauty.

Persephone gently handed it back to Psyche "Aphrodite will be pleased with this, please do send her my fondest regards." she whispered, leaning forward to kiss Psyche on the forehead in a maternal manner. Psyche was so honoured and happy at that one moment she thought she would die.

"But Psyche, under no circumstances must you look into the box with your mortal eyes."

Psyche nodded.

"Then good luck, and take care." Persephone said, her musical voice full of warmth and love and with a gesture of her hand, Psyche was surrounded by shadows and grandest flowers and was transported back to the surface world in a blink of an eye, feeling a strange, almost dizzying peace fill her.

Persephone, now alone, smiled to herself and wrapped her arms around herself and sighing out loud. Psyche would make a fine Goddess. Out of the shadows she felt a beloved figure appear behind her and lovingly wrap his arms around her. She shut her eyes languidly for a moment and leaned into his touch, her smile as beautiful as the sunlight on water.

Hades chuckled slightly "Why exactly did you plant the seed of curiosity in her mind when you kissed her? You know it will make her open the box before she reaches Aphrodite."

She laughed warmly "And Eros will immediately sense her distress and come to her aid."

"Are you sure?"

"If you felt that I was in danger, would you venture up to the surface to rescue me?"

"No matter what happens anywhere else, I would always go to you. You are my world."

Somehow, he always found a new way of making off-hand comments that went straight to her heart, she smiled lovingly "She and Eros are as deeply in love as you and I. Trust me, he will go to her and she will know spring again."

"The way this is going, Eros and Aphrodite will be facing some competition from you on the skill of matchmaking." He laughed.

She giggled slightly "I doubt it. Besides, I'm perfectly happy where I am now."

"With only two divided responsibilities?"

She turned around to face the God of the Dead and kissed him with warm, lingering passion, her delicate-seeming arms looping around his neck as they held each other close in an embrace of love. "In your arms." She whispered before leaning forward to kiss him once more.