Written for Not Prime Time Exchange 2016. The title is from Algernon Swinburne's poem "The Garden of Proserpine."
Demophon has known ever since he was a child that he was nursed by an immortal goddess. He learned the story in fragments: from his mother, his sisters, the palace servants speaking in whispers. When he was an infant, his mother hired an old woman to be his nurse. They say she was secretly the goddess Demeter, who was wandering the earth in search of her lost child. They say she anointed him with divine ambrosia, that she laid him in the fire to burn his mortality away. But his mother saw it and screamed, not understanding the goddess's intention. The gift was lost, and her attempt failed; Demophon is still mortal.
He does not remember it, not truly. But sometimes when he hears the crackling of the fire or passes by a cluster of fragrant flowers in the heat of summer, he thinks perhaps- There was a woman, tall and queenly, with golden hair. There was a flicking light that shone about him, and he tried to grasp it in his small hands. There was a scent rich and strange, unlike anything earthly. He is not sure whether it is truly memory, or only his imagination awakened by the story he has been told so often.
There were other gifts for their house; his older brother Triptolemus was the first of men to learn the ways of sowing and reaping grain. Their family and their city have prospered beyond what is usual. Zeus sends glory and sorrow to mortals by turns, and no man's good fortune lasts forever. But the house of Celeus, so say the people of Eleusis, is blessed by the immortal gods who dwell on wide Olympus. One thing only the gods cannot give: to go beyond the limit appointed for a man, to escape old age and death.
Demophon spends hours now staring into the fire, half drowsing and half dreaming. Age weighs him down, and it is for younger men to stand at the king's side, to fight in war and debate the affairs of Eleusis in council. The warmth of the fire is pleasant, and it is comfortable to dream. Perhaps he is dreaming the woman who stands beside him, taller than the tallest women of Eleusis, her golden hair crowned with a woven wreath of wheat.
"I wished to make you immortal," she says in a voice deep and resonant. "But fate did not grant it. Nevertheless, because you were held at a goddess's breast, because you breathed in ambrosia, your fame will be undying, unfading for all time. The people of Eleusis will honor you with yearly rites, and so will they also do honor to me." She bends down to kiss his forehead. There is a sweet and marvelous scent about her, one he thinks he almost remembers. And then she is gone.
That was by daylight; it is nighttime now, though he does not remember the sun setting, and the room is filled with cool silvery moonlight. There is another woman standing beside him, or perhaps she is the same woman. He is not certain. She too is golden-haired and crowned with a garland of wheat. She and the woman who came in daylight are as like to each other as mother and daughter, as he once saw his mother's face reflected in the faces of his sisters.
"Joy be with you, Demophon," she says, her voice sweet and musical. "My mother has asked me to watch over you in the time to come, and I gave my promise, speaking as a god to a god."
"But who are you?" he asks, or tries to ask. "And who is she?" He is not certain he is speaking aloud, but she seems to hear him.
"My mother, the lady of the bountiful earth, brings the harvest. And I am the one who wields the sickle." She too bends down and kisses his forehead. Her lips are cold, but the spot she touched burns like fire. "Farewell, Demophon. We will meet again soon."
The days pass, one blending into another. His children come to him sometimes and try to speak to him. They are grown now, with children of their own, but it is good of them to visit an old man. He returns their embraces, when he is awake, and speaks to them, when he remembers. And then he drifts again into sleep.
Demophon is lying on his back, though he does not remember leaving his chair. There is a crackling sound nearby, and the flickering light of flames surrounds him. He hears voices speaking, though he cannot make out the words. A cool hand touches his face, and there is a flash of silver like the blade of a sickle.
He sees the woman then, crowned with pale-golden wheat. She holds a torch in her hand, which lights the space around her though everything else is in shadow.
"Come," she says to him in a clear voice. And he goes.