I’m telling Carlos the story of Persephone getting trapped in Hell for eating pomegranate seeds when he breaks in with, “How many did she eat?”
“I think she ate four, but don’t quote me on that.”
“Four? That’s nothing!”
“Don’t worry, you have to eat them in Hell for it to count.”
He’s eating pomegranate seeds by the spoonful, but I can tell from the way he’s looking at me he’s not worried about going to Hell. Which is a relief. I don’t want my kid worrying about going to Hell.
He says, “Why did she have to stay there because she ate some pomegranate seeds? That’s dumb.”
“It was one of the rules of the ancient world. If you ate anything in the underworld, or even had a sip of water, you had to stay there.”
“What’s the underworld?”
“It’s the kingdom of the dead.”
“And you had to stay there if you ate something, even if you weren’t dead?”
“Who said that?”
“Good question.” And it is, but the answer is terrible. “The Fates made that rule.”
He sets down his spoon and looks straight at me and says, “The Fates made a shitty rule.”
I nod. Yes, it really is kind of a shitty rule, isn’t it? Weird, pointless, arbitrary.
“Hades tricked her into it,” I say. “He wanted her to stay there.”
“Is Hades the Devil?”
This is the first time I’ve heard him mention the Devil. Normally we don’t sit around chatting about Hell like this.
“Hades was lord of the underworld, which is the same job the Devil has, I guess.”
“Is the underworld the same as Hell?”
“No, the underworld isn’t the same as Hell. I don’t know why I keep calling it Hell. They’re very different, actually.” Then I say, “To be honest with you, I don’t think Hades was as bad as the Devil.”
He’s looking at me, waiting for more.
“For one thing, Hades had feelings. Well, the Devil does too, I guess. I mean, he rebelled against God, and you wouldn’t do something like that unless you were really upset about something. Not that I’m saying the Devil was justified – I mean, he was still the Devil – but even the Devil’s grievances deserve to be heard, right?”
He looks up at me from his place at the table, chewing a spoonful of pomegranate seeds, trusting me not to tell him outrageous lies.
“Jesus Christ!” I say. “What are we even talking about?”
“Hell,” says Carlos. “And the Devil who lives there.”
“Listen, there’s no such thing as the Devil. It’s just a monster people made up to scare each other with. And the whole reason Hades wanted Persephone to stay in the underworld was that he was lonely down there. He needed somebody to talk to. I can understand that. Can’t you?”
“But he tricked her.”
“Yes, he tricked her.”
“Didn’t he want her to like him?”
“I don’t think he was looking at it that way.”
Now I’m telling my son a story about the kingdom of the dead that verges on date rape. Verges on? It’s called The Rape of Persephone!
“Did Hades look like the Devil?”
“I think he looked like a regular person.”
“What does a regular person look like?”
“Like anybody. Like me.”
“Hades looked like you?”
I go on with the story, but he keeps interrupting. I can’t remember all the details and that makes him angry and suspicious. In my defense I tell him it was one of my favorite stories as a kid. Whenever I see a pomegranate or even think about one I think of that story. I think of the underworld. He was sitting there eating a pomegranate so I thought of the underworld. It’s a good story. Evocative. Takes you right back to ancient times. I thought I’d share it with him.
I try to make it sound like I’m doing him a favor.
I try to make him feel guilty for not appreciating my knowledge.
“If it’s your favorite story, why can’t you even remember it?”
“It’s not my favorite story. It’s one of my favorite stories. And I can’t remember everything!” Then I say, “When you get older you start to forget things.”
This clearly disturbs him.
So I say, “You don’t forget things. But sometimes you can’t remember things.”
“What’s the difference?”
I don’t want to lie to him, but it’s hard not to. You leave things out because shortcuts are easier. You forget to mention things you should probably mention. It’s hard to know, always, what’s important and what isn’t. For example, I haven’t mentioned that Hell isn’t a real place, or at least not a geographical location. And I haven’t mentioned that Hades and Persephone were not real people. I haven’t mentioned that men often rape women and get away with it. Nor have I mentioned that we are all going to die, every single one of us, and what happens after that nobody knows or probably ever will. I haven’t mentioned a lot of things.
Lucky for both of us, before I can explain what I’ve forgotten to tell him, he says, “Did the Egyptians eat pomegranates?”
Like a lot of kids he’s into the Egyptians.
“Yes,” I say. “Thousands of years ago the Egyptians were cultivating pomegranates.”
I don’t know if this is true. I’m just glad he didn’t ask me another question about Hell.
“Did the Indians eat them in America?”
“I doubt it,” I say. “But good question!”
During pomegranate season he eats half a pomegranate a day. I cut them in half and he beats the seeds out with a wooden mortar and eats them with a spoon. Sometimes he pours orange juice over them, sometimes he doesn’t. For variety, I guess. They shine in the bowl like candy. You look at them in the bowl and want to put them in your mouth. Juicy, chewy, pulpy things. They glow. It’s easy to imagine somebody eating them in the underworld. It’s easy to imagine Persephone forgetting herself for a moment and ruining her whole life on an impulse.
An even weirder thing is that the word for pomegranate in Spanish is the same as the word for grenade, and Spanish is his language. He doesn’t know what a grenade is, not really, but he likes them. He pulls the pins on invisible grenades and lobs them into the kitchen while his mother cooks dinner. He skims them under the sofa and they explode apart in his head. Blood everywhere, I guess. Mine, his, theirs. All of us, dying over and over in slow motion, a welter of guts.
When he grabs a pomegranate from the refrigerator he tosses the other kind of grenade in and slams the door. A few seconds later it explodes, sending us all to the kingdom of the dead.
Public domain image: “The Rape of Proserpine” by Simone Pignoni.