In the short story, “Demeter” by Maile Meloy, the writer draws parallels between a modern-day woman named Demeter and the ancient goddess of the harvest in Greek mythology. “The Rape of Persephone,” one of the most sorrowful tales in mythology, is the story of a young girl torn from her mother, Demeter, by a great, colossal fiend – Pluto, the king of hell. In some of the mythical versions, Persephone is a maiden and in other versions she is a goddess in her own right – the goddess of spring.
As the myth is told, Persephone was picking flowers in a vast, summery field among her friends, when Pluto, the king of the underworld, snatched her up and brought her down to Hades to be his wife and his queen.
In tears, the goddess called her mother, called
Her comrades too, but oftenest her mother;
And, as she’d torn the shoulder of her dress,
The folds slipped down and out the flowers fell,
And she, in innocent simplicity,
Grieved in her girlish heart for their loss too.*
The myth, while portraying Pluto as a monster, also allows for the fact that Venus, the goddess of love, had arranged for the coupling by instructing Cupid to shoot Pluto in the heart with an arrow that had Persephone’s name on it.
Meloy’s short story brilliantly translates the sorrow of the Persephone myth into an everyday tale of relationships and divorce, linking the modern world to the myth of antiquity. Here, Demeter’s daughter, Perry is fourteen, perhaps a couple of years older than her mythological counterpart. And her real name is Elizabeth, an intimation of the name-confusion in the Roman vs. the Greek. For example, Persephone and Demeter in the Greek version are named Proserpine and Ceres in the Roman.
As a somewhat sporty, straight-forward and logical girl, Perry hardly mimics the nature-loving, flower child who, rather anemic, rises from the dead every spring, like Persephone – and Perry is spared from actually being abducted, but she fits well into the narrative of a young girl torn between two worlds. In her parents’ divorce-settlement, Perry is to live with her father for half the year and her mother the other half, a harrowing division of the year.
When they divided up the year, Demeter chose, for her own, the months when the days start getting longer.**
This correlation with the annual division of the seasons stands out as the most telling, connecting theme. In Meloy, Perry disappears into her father’s house: The dark interior of the house engulfed her. The screen door slammed shut.
Meloy sprinkles her story generously with such tropes that hearken to the original tale. Perry refuses to eat Demeter’s ultra-healthy, organic food: It’s not real food! I will not eat millet! she shouts – a nod to Persephone’s seven pomegranate seeds. Perry’s parents, Demeter and Hank, are at opposite extremes, just as the goddess of grain, who gives life and vitality to the earth vs. the king of hell, who lives in a dark, cold land underground.
Hank is a scuba diver, and though he is not really a hateful character, death clings to his preoccupation with the extreme. The premise of plunging underwater or swimming works well in Meloy as both symbols of death and transformation – two key ideas that fill the Greek myths.
While Hank’s scuba diving conjures death in Meloy’s story; for instance, their friend, Duncan – Demeter’s lover – drowns on a scuba diving expedition lead by Hank, conversely, Meloy uses swimming as a platform for transformation and healing with Demeter. Just as Arethusa transformed into a beautiful, streaming pool in Ovid, the modern Demeter transforms as she swims in the local swimming pool:
It was her favorite moment of swimming, the passage from dry to wet, her skin shedding tiny bubbles of air as she kicked. It felt as if the world were washing off her. She was starting over, newborn.**
Among many brilliant references to the gods, the celestial-constellations, lightening bolts and “thundersnow,” Meloy supplies her Demeter with plenty of similarities to the character of Demeter in the ancient myth. Both women are the quintessential earth mother; one can imagine each of them cultivating the earth, barefoot – long, wavy hair billowing in the flower-scented air. At her most subtle and brilliant moments, Meloy brings the two together in spirit:
As soon as she knew she was pregnant, Demeter had stopped smoking pot. She started meeting the black-coated Hutterites in their truck to buy chickens and eggs. She bought vegetables at the farmers’ market from the Hmong refugees, who coaxed green shoots from the ground so much earlier in the year than anyone else. She ordered milk from the dairy and made baked eggs and cream with Hmong chives. She didn’t worry about getting fat – she was supposed to get fat.**
The goddess Demeter can be inserted into this scenario of natural, culinary, food preparation with these nomadic, pastoral peoples. As well, both Demeters bear powerful feelings and emotions: the tormented, inner thoughts of the modern Demeter often match the violent responses of the sometimes angry, ancient mother-goddess. And, of course, they both suffer with the tragedy of separation – the consequence of their unbreakable ties to a young daughter.
Meloy’s story is a tale of grief and loss, just as sorrowful as the original mythological tale. Demeter’s feelings emerge in waves over the separation with Perry as much as for the death of Duncan. And the writer brings us ever closer to Demeter’s loss, by degrees, to the culminating moment in the pool when Demeter tries to imagine, while swimming, what Duncan may have felt as he drowned. Then, the whole universe seems to react to Demeter’s slight flirtation with drowning. Annie, the lifeguard who also happens to be Duncan’s eighteen-year-old daughter by his marriage, becomes the sentry amidst all of nature’s omnipresence – blowing her whistle and clamoring down the ladder.
And as in the Greek, Meloy ends with a measure of justice – but with an almost joyful portion of hope. Scenes in which Demeter frolics in the snow with the teenagers, after the summer snowstorm of mythic proportions, symbolize a christening or a blessing of eternal hope – perhaps even Duncan’s blessing. The complications and challenges within a lifetime have brought Demeter to middle age, yet Annie represents the next generation, and she does so with a sense of anticipation. Annie includes and accepts Demeter where Perry, her own daughter, had always shunned and marginalized. Yet, Annie also lightly ridicules her own mother – such is the way of mother/daughter relationships in the modern world.
Meloy renders a beautiful ending worthy of the goddess who promotes the continuation of all life. Whether you are a mother, a daughter, and/or a lover of mythology, you will love and appreciate this story.
* Metamorphoses by Ovid, Translated by A.D. Melville. Book V, The Rape of Proserpine.
** “Demeter,” by Maile Meloy, appeared in The New Yorker, November 19th, 2012.