It’s like no matter how much I shower,” Emily says, “I can’t get the smell of grave dust out of my hair.” She stands in the bedroom door, wrapped in a burgundy bath towel, and all I can smell is her soap and banana-scented shampoo.
“I wonder if Persephone feels like this after she claws her way out of Hell.” She towels her hair brutally and leaves it as it falls, small blonde spikes sticking up at her temples and behind her ears, a crown of colorless thorns. With one hand pinning her wrap across her breasts, she rummages through the closet, settles on a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, and slips back into the bathroom to change.
She never used to be shy about changing in front of me. And she never used to talk about gods.
The therapist told me to stop listing the things that are different about her. Of course, the therapist doesn’t believe that Emily died in February—died and came back. And I have no proof. I didn’t call an ambulance, or the neighbors; I spent that hellish night curled around her cold body on our bed, too numb to move. Then, in the morning, she was here again.
Except it wasn’t quite her.
(She never used to eat rare meat. She never used to lie on the couch in her pajamas, watching daytime television. She never used to cover her face when she passed the hall mirror, as though afraid of her reflection.)
“You had a very frightening experience, Zoe,” the therapist says. She has settled on “experience” as the proper word for my girlfriend’s death, damnation, and resurrection. “It’s changed the way you view Emily. But you’ve told me yourself that this list, this catalog, isn’t helping you heal. It’s not helping you confront the reality of your fear for Emily.”
(She never used to wear long sleeves in summer. She never used to hate the smell of lilacs. She never used to go days without sleeping, standing at the kitchen window, watching the moon climb over our neighbor’s trees.)
“Perhaps we should have Emily join us for a session,” the therapist says. I tell her I don’t think that’s a good idea.
Emily’s brother has visited once since his sister died. We ate grilled cheese sandwiches at the kitchen counter. Kevin and I sat on the bar stools and Emily stood by the sink, nibbling at her sandwich as though she didn’t quite know what it was.
“Our family has…that is, there’s a history…” Kevin began, haltingly, and I was tempted to finish his sentence. Of coming back from the dead? Of going to Hell? He bit into his sandwich, chewed and swallowed slowly. “Our maternal grandmother used to see things. After Aunt Alice died. Grandma thought she saw Alice sitting at the piano in the living room.”
“Are you saying I only think I see Emily?”
“No, no…this isn’t about you, Zoe. All I’m saying is, people in our family have a habit of changing. And they don’t need to go through Hell to do it.”
(She never used to sleep fully clothed, on top of the bedspread. She never used to pull flowers out of the vase on the dresser, swearing she could hear them die.)
“What did Emily do that would have gotten her sent to Hell?” my mother asks. She is infinitely practical.
She sits back on her heels, drags off her ladybug-patterned gardening gloves, and frowns at the twig of a rosebush she’s just finished potting. It has a charred look to it, like something rescued from a burning house.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe God hates lesbians.”
Mother snorts. I remember that she hated most of my girlfriends when I was growing up—thought they were sloppy, uncouth. Emily changed all that—Emily, who was nothing like my usual type, who had asked me out six or seven times before I finally gave her a chance. She took me dancing. Mother loved Emily long before I did.
“What did she die of?” Mother waves an empty hand at me, her sign for me to pass the water bottle, which is full of vodka and lemonade.
“I don’t know. Nothing obvious.” Like a gunshot, I mean. Or suicide. “She’s had hypertension for years, so I thought maybe a stroke or an aneurism.”
“Aneurism. Uncle Pavlos died of that.” She nods her head, as though she approves, as though that were an acceptable thing from which to die.
(The hypertension is gone now. Emily told me after her last physical. And that scar behind her knee, from the motorcycle accident her sophomore year of college—gone, like chalk wiped from a slate.)
“Can you be damned preemptively?” Mother asks. “For driving your girlfriend to drink?”
I lift my mouth guiltily from her bottle, wiping spiked lemonade from my chin.
I went through her internet history. Link after link for recipe exchange forums, the Facebook pages of her friends from graduate school. Tons of local classifieds, a few not-so-local. (She never told me she’d considered moving to Oregon to find work—even when she knew it would mean leaving me behind, knew I’d never lived a week of my life outside of an hour’s drive from Chicago.) She’d bookmarked a blog post with a picture of a kitten in a kiddy pool, above a caption that I didn’t get.
I closed the browser window with more questions than answers.
She hasn’t touched me since she came back from Hell. Nothing more involved than a cold peck on the cheek. If she nudges me accidentally while we’re making the bed or while I’m pouring a bowl of cereal, she quickly apologizes and skitters out of the way.
(She never used to apologize. She used to go out of the way to jostle me, saying things like Hey, gorgeous and You should get in my way more often.)
She’s stopped looking for work, too. Well-meaning friends still leave classified pages in the mail slot, or drop them off at my office, with some ad highlighted or outlined in thick marker. Emily crumples them up and throws them away without reading.
(She never used to put newspaper in the garbage. She used to recycle.)
“Zoe, what are you afraid of?” the therapist asks. I’m curled up on her ugly couch, a ring of damp tissues around the wastebasket below me—I’ve never had good aim.
“Her,” I say, which isn’t entirely true. Or it is true, but grossly over-simplified. The truth is, I’m afraid I’ve lost her for good. Afraid that she’s gone, and I’ll never have the courage to admit it.
At four in the morning, I come downstairs to refill the glass of water from my bedside table and find her standing over the sink. Her hands are folded, fingertips neatly up-pointed, like a first communicant or a statue of an angel. The sky above the treetops is already purple, working its way toward dawn.
“So what was it like?” I ask.
She doesn’t turn. (She never used to speak to me without looking me in the eye.) “It was like stepping outside on the hottest day in August and getting slapped in the face by the humidity.” She looks down, inspecting her fingertips, as though they belong to a stranger. “It smelled…dead. And floral. Damp, in a way, but also like dust. I can’t get the smell out of my hair.”
“What did they do to you?”
“They fixed me,” she says. “They made it so I wouldn’t be sad anymore.”
(She never used to complain of sadness.)
“So you’re happy now?” I ask. I try not to make it sound like an accusation.
“No.” She shakes her head. “But I’m not sad.”
I never used to pray. I started by accident. I was walking around our yard, noting which bushes needed trimming, which beds would need fresh mulch when the weather dried out, when I saw a strange flower poking its head out of the yew hedge. It was a crocus. The flower that distracted Persephone so that Hades could drag her down into the underworld. And suddenly I was angry, deeply angry, and all my wrath was directed at that tiny purple hell-opening flower.
I knelt to tear it up.
And I began to pray instead.
Dear God, I’ve learned my lesson. Please give me back the woman I love. I promise she will never be sad again. I promise to do better, this time.
His answer came in the smell of the crocus.
Dear child, what makes you think this has anything to do with you?
“Zoe,” she says. She’s opened my door without knocking, and she’s standing there in her bath towel, her hair dripping down her back. “Are you awake?”
I put down my book, set my reading glasses by the ceramic coaster beneath my glass of water. It’s a few minutes past midnight. “What’s happening, Emily?”
Without taking a step, she is standing at my bedside, and her icy hand cups my cheek.
“I’m dying. And this time they won’t send me back.”
I cover her hand with mine. Her calluses are harder than I remember. “I think this was a test,” she says. “To prove to me that I wouldn’t want things different from the way they were. That I wouldn’t choose to live without sorrow.”
“I never even knew you were sad.”
“But Zoe, don’t you see? The sadness didn’t matter. Not for me, anyway. Maybe that’s what they sent me back to learn. That feeling sadness was better than feeling nothing.”
“That’s what I felt, before you died. Nothing.”
“That’s what Hell is.” She strokes my cheek, her rough fingers moving beneath mine like muscle sliding beneath skin. “I’m not going back there, now. I’m going to be happy, Zoe, happy like I’ve never been.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, but she covers my lips.
“Hush. This was never about you.”
(She never used to push me away.)
She crawls into bed beside me. I wrap her damp body in my arms and hold her until she stops breathing.
“I suppose it hurts,” Mother says, “that she didn’t let you play a part in that story.”
We are sitting on a flannel blanket in my back yard, watching the moon bleach the colors out of the roses on the patio. From tonight until the winter solstice, the days will get shorter. I will spend more time in a colorless garden, with only the moon for company.
Mother refills my glass. Vodka and orange juice—fortifying, she said, as she said of the sturdy black suit I wore to Emily’s funeral. Makes you stand up straight. Makes you pay attention.
I find myself thinking, again, that I never paid enough attention to Emily when she was alive. I never felt for her. And now the crocus is there, smiling out of the yew. Dear child, this has nothing to do with you.
“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, it hurts like hell.”
“You never used to cry,” Mother says.
It’s true. I wipe the sticky tears from my cheeks, touching them lightly, with wonder, as if I’ve never touched tears before. Mother watches me for a moment, then folds me in her arms, rocking me back and forth.
“Oh, honey, it’s okay. My honey, my korë, it’s okay. You came back, honey. You came back.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megan Arkenberg lives and writes in Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and dozens of other places. In 2012, her poem “The Curator Speaks in the Department of Dead Languages” won the Rhysling Award in the long form category. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance.
“Harrowing Emily” was first published in Shimmer #15 (July 2012)