Persephone by Author Ellen J. Perry


“By dimpled brook and fountain-brim,
The wood-nymphs, decked with daisies trim,
Their merry wakes and pastimes keep:
What hath night to do with sleep?
Night hath better sweets to prove;
Venus now wakes, and wakens Love.
Come, let us our rights begin;
’Tis only daylight that makes sin,
Which these dun shades will ne’er report.
Hail, goddess of nocturnal sport…”

John Milton, Comus (1634)


Although she had experienced horrible nightmares growing up in the Louisiana bayou, Nadine Brunet’s most recent dream was more terrifying than anything she remembered from childhood. Early that morning she woke up soaked with sweat, panting, fumbling for her water glass and reaching out to defend herself against something that wasn’t there. Then her bedside table lamp started to flicker, the usual sign from her grandmother who had died four years earlier. The three-way bulb went from light to lighter to lightest, over and over again, until Nadine calmed down. “Oh, Mamere,” she whispered, “help me.”

Nadine lay still on the narrow bed in her dorm room wondering who she was, how she’d ended up in northern Louisiana, and what her nightmare meant. Well-intentioned but clueless students sometimes asked her, “What are you, exactly?” They tried to get her to claim a certain ethnicity, join one of the various hyphenated groups on campus. This frustrated Nadine because her identity was hard to explain. Nadine’s mother’s family belonged to the Houma Tribe; her father was of African and Haitian descent. She had been raised primarily by her grandmother and rarely saw her parents; they dropped in and out of her life as they pleased, together or separately. She came to college from Louisiana swampland and the swamps of her home were eroding, disappearing – the coast, the culture, all of the Louisiana she knew was fading. Nadine felt like she was disappearing, too, drowning in stagnant water.

Just before she died Mamere looked at Nadine’s golden face and told her, “Find a way out, boo, before the land falls away from your feet.” To keep herself afloat Nadine read every book she could find, performed well in her high school’s advanced classes, took on part-time jobs at restaurants, and applied for scholarships with the help of a guidance counselor. She had no confidence in herself, so despite her dedication and work ethic, she was astonished when she heard back from a university that all her expenses would be covered and she was welcome, invited, wanted. Could it be? Was it possible that Nadine could study Greek mythology, voudon, Cajun folkways, and environmental preservation, and then write papers about how all of these traditions and belief systems and facts worked together? That’s what she had claimed in her application essay that she wanted to do, and the Admissions people told her, essentially, “Go for it. Come on!”

Now she was going for it well into her second year but feeling deeply troubled and afraid. During the daylight hours she could hold it together by reading, writing, studying, researching, working. At night, though, Milton’s “dun shades” overwhelmed and haunted her, made her feel inadequate and unworthy. Who was she – a bayou girl – to act like some big scholar, some privileged college student who had leisure time to listen to and discuss ideas with smart people?

If Nadine’s nightmare was any indication, she was sinking fast. In the upside-down world of this dream she had taken a long streetcar ride from her home to a location that was a strange blend of New Orleans and a Mexican barrio; she didn’t know exactly where she had ended up, but she felt hopeful because a friend was supposed to meet her there. Nadine disembarked along with the other passengers in order to meet her traveling companion and explore the town.

Nadine roamed around in the dark, looking for her friend by the light of the flashing neon signs along the sidewalks. There was no moon. Panic set in as she realized her phone didn’t work and she couldn’t even remember her friend’s name or where she lived. Everyone around her spoke a different language; oddly-proportioned people floating by stared at her, pointed and laughed. Panic shifted to terror when a group of wild revelers wearing Mexican death masks and elaborate Mardi Gras costumes accosted Nadine, calling her terrible names and knocking her down onto the dirty street where they took turns kicking her. She managed to regain her footing and ran, stumbled, fell, ran again trying to find the place where she’d been dropped off.

Just as she spotted the back of the streetcar, though, it rolled away with all the other passengers tucked safely inside. How had they known when to get back on? Nadine tried her best but couldn’t catch up; exhausted, she stopped running and stood still in the darkness alone. Sensing an awful presence behind her, she turned around to see the most fearsome of the masked attackers walking toward her. He jeered, “How are you getting home now? It’s too late, too late for you.”

Nadine remained for a while in bed that morning after the nightmare, staring at the ceiling and focusing on breathing steadily until her alarm went off and startled her into motion. Daytime, up up up – go, get going. No time for thinking about it. Just go, do. These words and phrases she repeated to herself as she showered, dressed, nibbled on a breakfast bar, and darted out just in time to make it to her first class. She sat in the front row as usual, glancing at the other students around her; opening their laptops, they had no idea she had just experienced such a terrible nighttime vision. Nadine wondered if they ever felt like they were slipping, groundless in the world.

Probably they would never admit it if so. They’d find various ways to cope, maybe drink the sinking away on Bourbon Street during spring breaks at Mardi Gras, maybe go to mass and confess everything later in secret, maybe fill the lonely spaces with cheery Instagram and Snapchat photos. The point was that few people ever said anything real out loud, but Nadine felt like screaming. She knew she could either scream or slink back to the bayou in shame. Desperate for meaningful human connection, she gathered her courage and went after class to see her advisor.

Nadine knocked softly on the office door that was halfway open, only the high back of a huge leather swivel chair in view as she peeked in. “Dr. Clemmons, I know I don’t have an appointment, but my name is Nadine Brunet and I wonder if – ”

“Come on in, Nadine,” called a familiar voice that seemed to be coming from somewhere other than the chair. Nadine cleared her throat and walked forward. The chair didn’t move but a rustling drew Nadine’s eyes toward the ceiling. There, a petite, almost ethereal woman with a pomegranate tattoo on the inside of her wrist stood on a stepladder looking through books on her many shelves, frowning. Nadine recalled the surprise she’d felt when she was first introduced to this sprite-like figure. The sprite didn’t turn immediately, but focused still on her shelves. “Now, I know I just had that one,” she said. “A student was asking me about it. Well, anyway. Thomas Moore, you know of him?” She turned then, looked Nadine in the eye and added, “Dark Nights of the Soul?

The question seemed at first to indicate clairvoyance. Did the sprite know about Nadine’s dark night? But then Nadine recognized the question as a title and wished she could say she’d read the book. “Well, Dr. Clemmons, I. . .”

“Please call me Tyler. None of this ‘Dr.’ business. Too many big egos around here now, they’ve forgotten we’re all human. What can I do for you?”

Knowing her advisor was busy and she had to act fast, sum things up, get to the heart of the matter, Nadine thought of several smart and professional responses she might offer – things like, “Thank you, Dr. Clemmons (she just couldn’t manage the first-name familiarity); I need a bit of direction in terms of my Graduation Plan,” or “I’d like to get your advice about the possibility of pursuing a double major,” or “I very much enjoyed your lecture last week entitled ‘The Symbology of Monstresses in Greek Myth.’”

What came out instead was, “I want to go home, Dr. Clemmons.” Nadine burst into tears.

“Oh!” Tyler exclaimed, taking Nadine’s heavy backpack from her bent shoulders and noting with sadness her advisee’s apparent need to hold to titles. Well, she’d work on that again later if she could keep Nadine from going home. “Sit down,” she said gently, “right here in this awful lumpy chair I inherited from the dean and keep meaning to replace.” Tyler looked at her watch, set the backpack against the wall, closed her office door, and pulled a smaller chair to the edge of her desk. “I’ve got time. That tenure review committee meeting can wait. I bet even old Dr. ‘I-Only-Read-Literary-Works-Dating-from-the-Counter-Reformation’ Keller can get things started without me.”

Nadine settled in the lumpy chair and reached for a tissue to wipe her eyes and nose. Every time she thought she had control, fresh tears would come. Tyler gave her time, pretended to fuss with the papers on her desk as if still looking for the lost book, wondered out loud what might have happened to it. “You know, every place I’ve worked,” she said, thinking she might know the source of Nadine’s problem, “the English department has had the weirdest people in it. Hard to deal with. Plus the higher-ups always put me in an office near the craziest of them. What’s wrong with English people, you think? Did one of them upset you?” Tyler asked the question without turning from her search, watching Nadine out of the corner of her eye. But as soon as she saw the tissue in her advisee’s lap, she let the papers go and moved the chair closer to Nadine’s. “I bet,” she said, “it was Fred Hollingsworth with his regular rant about how Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich were schizophrenic and we shouldn’t pay any attention to what they wrote.”

“No,” Nadine said, “It’s not the English people. Though they do seem to get upset about little things and then tell on each other to their students.” Tyler laughed. Nadine sniffled. “I just – it sounds so stupid,” she said and then stopped.

“If you want to go home, whatever it is can’t be stupid,” Tyler reassured her. Nadine looked at her advisor and swallowed against the aching in her throat, willing the embarrassing tears not to start again; she hadn’t expected this kindness when she came and, as usual, didn’t feel deserving. Finally she said, “I had a terrible nightmare and I’ve lost my way. I don’t know what I really want, what I’m supposed to do. I’m on a scholarship and I feel like if I don’t talk to somebody right now I’m going to quit school and disappoint everyone, let people down, especially the ones who believed in me enough to send me here.”

“I have a niece,” Tyler said, “who’s about your age. Laura has had every opportunity in the world and then some. She took a few college classes, went on safari, dilly-dallied around in Europe, nearly married an Irishman whose name she couldn’t spell just because she liked the sound of his voice. Her dad, my brother, had a fit about all of it but I told him, Laura will find her way. We all just have to try things, do the best we can to discover the great love of our lives.”

Nadine said, “The last thing I want to do right now is look for love.”

Tyler smiled. “Great loves aren’t just people, you know. They can be. But sometimes a great love begins with the initial pursuit of an idea or a symbol. This really vague, nebulous notion we’re passionate about can then lead us to the right path.”

Nadine thought about this.

“Don’t think too much about it!” Tyler cautioned, waving her hands frantically. “Just respond. Ok here goes. If you quit school tomorrow but had one last opportunity to take a class this afternoon, say a two-hour seminar or workshop on any person, place, or thing – what would the subject be?”

“Hekate,” Nadine said without hesitation, surprised by how quickly the answer came.

Tyler sat back in her massive chair, silent for what seemed like a full minute. Finally she said, looking straight into Nadine’s watery black eyes, “Well, I’ll be damned.”

Right then a loud banging on the office door caused both women to jump as if reacting to an electrical shock.

“Dr. Clemmons,” the voice on the other side of the door boomed, “Just curious about whether you feel like gracing us with your presence today. I know Dr. Lightfoot would like at least to pretend that we the committee members are as concerned about his tenure status as he is.”

Tyler rolled her eyes and answered, “I’ll be there in ten minutes, Dr. Keller. In the meantime maybe you boys can figure out how to take meeting minutes without arguing about the necessity of semicolons so that I can actually complete my advising session with a student.” Tyler stood up, marched around her desk, and shouted through the door, “Which is real work, by the way, as opposed to what you’re doing with, air quote, organizing that Ignatius of Loyola conference. Your administrative assistant shouldn’t be having to put the panels together and you know it.” Then she shouted over her shoulder, returning to her desk, “Read A Confederacy of Dunces, for God’s sake!”

“That’s a funny book,” Nadine said, going with the flow of this tiny woman’s enormous fiery energy.

“Funniest thing ever,” Tyler said as they listened to Dr. Keller storming off. “I love it when Ignatius goes to the movies and eats his ‘current popcorn’ while the ‘auxiliary bags of popcorn’ sit waiting on the seat next to him. Kind of like the popcorn is on the right hand of God.”

Nadine was getting her spirit back. She offered up a quote she’d memorized from the novel: “‘I have a valve which is subject to vicissitudes which may force me to lie abed on certain days.’”

“Good one!” Tyler said. “Oh, that John Kennedy Toole. Bless his heart, what a complex man. Died at 31. But not before writing his masterpiece. Ok, Nadine, back to Hekate: how is she part of your masterpiece?”

“I don’t know about masterpiece, but I think she might be my great love,” Nadine said while wiping mascara smudges off her cheeks, still surprised by the Hekate revelation.

“What do you love about her?”

“She’s misunderstood. People think she’s evil, a witch, out late stalking, the Queen of the Night looking for trouble and casting spells like a mean spirit on the bayou.”

“Who is she, really, then?”

Nadine said, excited, “She’s a cool triple goddess who protects women, advocates for powerless people, watches at crossroads and entryways, holds up two torches so that lost souls can see. She even helped Demeter find Persephone and became Persephone’s friend. Nobody remembers that part.”

“You’re right,” Tyler said, touching her pomegranate tattoo. “Tell me more.”

“Hekate did all kinds of good. She looked out for older folks, made sure babies were delivered ok. She knew her plants and healing herbs, poisons too. Never married, preferred solitude. Had dogs and owls with her for company.”

“Think about this,” Tyler said. “Hekate is a powerful, ancient symbol that still resonates today. She represents change, transitions, passageways; she reminds us that new beginnings are scary as hell but part of the human experience, and they can be liberating or devastating depending on how we interpret them.”

“I guess I’m in transition right now,” Nadine said. “I’m at a crossroads where I have to make a choice, and it’s dark and I feel so alone. I don’t know if I should stay at school, go home, do something else…”

“Well, no wonder you’re drawn to Hekate. Her torchlight will get you through this. You know, you can teach people something about mythology one day. You might share the lessons of archetypes and myths with others who are hurting, feeling lost.”

Nadine let this possibility sink in.

“If you decide to stay in school,” Tyler said, “come back and see me this same time next week. We’ll figure out a plan together, something you feel good about. Maybe by then my Dark Nights of the Soul book will reappear and you can borrow it. Moore writes a lot about myth and struggle in there.”

Nadine felt like crying again, this time tears of relief. She hugged her advisor, and suddenly she thought she might. . . and then she did. “I’m grateful, Tyler,” she said. “For everything. But I don’t think I’ll try the first name with the other English people.” Tyler smiled and hugged her closer.

“Hey, this is my great love,” Tyler said, blue eyes beaming. “It’s what I do. Now if I’m not here next week, run tell the dean that Dr. Keller is holding me captive in the English department lounge and forcing me to listen to him lecture at length on the Council of Trent.”

Smiling, Nadine left Tyler’s office and strolled to the library to read some scholarly articles about Hekate. She attended afternoon classes, ate dinner, met her roommate at the yoga studio, completed an assignment due the next day, and finally settled down for bed. Nadine endured more turbulent dreams that night but woke up at 7:30am feeling steady and grounded. Her bedside table lamp shifted by itself from light to lighter to lightest, three times. Right next to her lamp on the table she saw Thomas Moore’s book Dark Nights of the Soul.

Mamere, Tyler, Hekate,” Nadine whispered, “Triple Goddess, thank you.”