Soul's Wager

by K.J. Khan

And now farewell! Enclosed by monstrous night,
I am borne away, stretching out to you,
yours, alas, no more, my unsteady hands.
Book 4 of The Georgics, Vergil


How does one describe death?

So asked Eurydice as she waited to be ferried across the river. She thought it might explain things.

“Slow and creeping,” said an elderly ghost, dressed in armor as old as himself. “The one adversary man can never defeat.”

“Violent.” This from a young man supporting his own flopping head, with a look of pained bemusement. “A violent joke, poorly told and with no punchline.”

“Relief.”

“A lie! A lie! I am not dead, I cannot be dead!” The woman wept non-existent tears and they turned away from her, embarrassed, so that only Eurydice saw.

“What do you say?” asked the old warrior, and she closed her eyes, consoled by an unspoken secret. She did not remember death.

“A song,” she half-lied, to be polite.

***

The boats that came for them were arrayed in colors, and each spirit moved toward a particular one without prompting or thought of doing otherwise. The inhabitants of some behaved differently than others, but Eurydice watched the waves and did not notice. In her boat, children clung to the sides, gazing around at the soldiers, old women, young mothers and slaves who shared their berth. There were no common factors between them, save the hushed and solemn silence in which they traveled. One of them, a bride like Eurydice, still held flowers from earth, and she dropped them, stalk by stalk, into the swirling wake as they went.

The boat found the far shore: a calm, silent wood, where thick, smooth grasses pooled between the white birch trees. The purple sky hovered at the hour before dawn, and the fragrant air felt cool, as though painted on silk.

The other ghosts moved like sleepwalkers; they touched every flower stem and tree and looked around for the echoes of music, which even now could be heard. Eurydice alone pushed forward, fast as she could, digging ever deeper into the woods. They could not go on forever. The master of the land must dwell here, and she meant to find him.

***

The palace came into view suddenly; there was no warning, no sign of it, until she walked from behind a tree and found herself at the foot of a structure whose spires pierced the twilight sky. Eurydice’s dead heart sank at its colossal size. It would take days to traverse, and she did not wish to waste her time.

The portico lay open and unattended, and she stepped inside to find dark hallways and still, thick air. No one stirred in the main hall, and all seemed shuttered and silent.

At that moment she heard a sound, too solid for a shade. She turned away from the portico and there, within a partially walled arboretum, found a being unlike any she had ever seen. He stood the height of three men, and his body shone like molten metal or stone. He looked unbreakable as adamant yet moved as the wind-stirred sea. He was tending a tree, and his hands caressed new branches into being wherever he touched. When he turned to look at her, his face glowed like polished ore and his eyes like a furnace. He did not speak. That job, as suppliant, belonged to her.

She shivered behind her veil and walked closer.

“You are the lord Hades?”

The final word hovered like a foul, cold smell, and he waited as the air swallowed it up.

“No.” He replied, and his voice reverberated in her like approaching thunder. “Take care of how you speak.”

She took a moment to collect herself. “But… you are the master of this place?”

He turned away, touching the side of a tree and pulling forth a new branch. “No. I am merely its keeper.” She didn’t answer and he turned back. “Please say why you have come, Eurydice.”

His use of her name surprised her, and she answered at once.

“I’ve come to contest my death.”

He did not respond with anything like the gravity she’d imagined. Rather, he looked at her with mild surprise, and stooped down to touch her head. His fingers, immensely solid, passed right through, and made her vision ripple like a disrupted pond.

“There is not much to contest,” he said.

She bowed. “I do not argue the fact. I argue…” dare she? “…that it was unjust.”

“Ah. Where is the injustice?”

She thought about it again, of opening her eyes and finding herself on the bank of a river like a discarded hope. She lowered her hood to reveal her hair, cut short like a bride’s.

“I was at my wedding.”

He nodded, inviting her to continue.

“I want to know… why I was taken. Do you… you have not been, I think, to a wedding? No. Usually the brides cry. I’ve watched them, every wedding I’ve attended. Marriage to a bad man is a horror. And there are many bad men.”

“Is this true, then, of the man whom you married?”

“No. No, he is good. He is… oh, why have you taken me from him? Why could we not be happy? Why have you allowed the violent and unfaithful to wed, and parted us? Look.” She raised the hem of her skirts to reveal the unobtrusive snake bite on her ankle. “Would it be so hard to fix? Are not the gods just? Whom did we offend? Who has wronged us?” She wept amidst the questions, but softly: her voice did not shake, and her eyes kept their firm gaze.

The being-who-was-not-Hades studied her without a word. Then, with the slow, careful movements of a giant, he took a step closer and knelt to look at her upturned face. This close, Eurydice noticed a hint of green in his otherwise dark eyes.

“You cannot,” he began, “go back as you are. But since you feel so wronged, I will give you a chance to regain what you’ve lost.” He turned from the plant back into the portico of the great house and beckoned her to follow. “I have a test for you—a test of four riddles. Answer them, and you may return to earth.”

He led her back into the still, quiet space of the great hall. In the corner of the room stood a table, and, on the table, a merchant’s scale. To either side of it lay mounds of small counterweights, half of gold, half of silver.

“Here is the first. For every just human in the world place a silver counter. For every just god, place a gold. Measure rightly, and you shall win the first of four. You may consult the mortal world for the answer, but know that the living won’t perceive you.” He touched her forehead and she hovered with the sudden gift of flight.

Eurydice studied his impenetrable eyes. “If I succeed, do you swear to return my life to me?”

“I swear nothing, because I do not have the authority to swear in such matters. It is a chance I give. That is all. Now go, Eurydice, and may the wind be fair.”

***

Eurydice flew, out of the underworld and back to the sky. No human could see or hear her now; only the trees knew and stretched branches to touch her as she swept overhead.

You might expect she felt relief. But return requires more than crossing space. She had lost her mortal body, and such a loss must change her sight. Even most of the living will acknowledge that there is the world as it appears, and the world as it is. She born of the former saw the latter, and the seeing proved a shock.

Understand: hatred has a color, dreams a weight, and sin and joy a particular luminescence. We, being material, cannot picture it, but Eurydice was wholly spirit and in spirit saw the world laid bare.

We lie to spare our hearts. Were thoughts not tempered, remade, or allowed to roll past half-conscious, we would die of sickness at them.

Eurydice had wept only three times in life; now she wept for the second time in death.

***

Time ran strangely in the garden, and to anyone watching, Eurydice’s return seemed to come only minutes after her departure. She watched the keeper and the keeper watched her. Her eyes shimmered in the cool light.

“You have taken my peace,” she said, and her voice held more grief than anger.

The colossus turned to the scale. “Have you come with the answer?”

Eurydice came into the room. She stared at the scale, then she picked up two fistfuls of silver coins and let them fall through her fingers and ping off the stones.

“The philosophers speak of the god who is in all mankind, king or beggar. And they were right, something of the sort is there. What they do not say is how much worse that makes it when every man is a liar. When every man denies what is clearly inside him. We have made the world unjust, and the coming of justice would kill us.”

The colossus tilted his head. “Even yourself?”

“Yes.”

“Even your Orpheus?”

The pause was longer, the answer softer. “Yes.”

And Eurydice turned away from the scale’s left side.

“Olympus was empty. I visited every temple I could and found them either empty or too frightful to enter.” She bent and picked up a single gold coin, holding it out for the keeper to see.

“And yet?”

“Yet there is one.” Eurydice dropped the coin onto the scale and the right side slammed against the table like a gong. “But he is terrible.”

They looked at the judgement of the scale.

“You have balanced correctly,” he said.

“Then I have seen the truth of the world.”

“I would not go that far.” And he handed her a scroll.

***

The scroll wasn’t difficult to open. Though it looked and felt like gold, it uncurled at the slightest touch. Inside it read:

Bring hope ignited, hope deferred.

Eurydice turned it over several times, but there were no other words or clues. Yet as she closed the scroll, something slipped free and nearly fell to the ground before she caught it. She opened her hand and saw a delicate crystal vial, with a slender cork as its stopper.

“In this?” she wondered aloud.

***

Where does one look for hope? Eurydice could see it now, but seeing was not what the riddle demanded. It seemed too simple to pluck two hopes at random, though most proved too immaterial for even a ghost to touch. She had no deadline, only the pressure of answering right, and she flew to the far reaches of the world, wondering if she would know by sight.

Then the sky ahead filled with a color she’d dreamt of but never seen. It wasn’t hope, but hope lingered in the edges, already half spent. Eurydice sensed the outcome and did not want to see, but she needed her answer and so sank down, through the cloud and into the house below.

The house held a small crowd but for her only one, for the battle belonged to the woman alone. She had strained to the last of her strength and still she continued, though she must have felt the new life flickering out as it moved toward the air. The mourners stood waiting even as the tiny soul crowned, and Eurydice told the unknown God she could forgive his world if only this baby would live.

But the babe’s light—already bound to the woman—was ebbing. It hovered on eternity’s rim, paused, then slipped over the razor’s edge without so much as a breath between. The woman felt it go and stopped her fight for a moment, her mouth open in a gasp. The connected light of the two stretched taut. The little soul bent the bond to its limits and finally tore free, taking part of the mother’s light and leaving some of its own in exchange.

It vanished across the sky before the woman had finished her inhale.

The band that had connected them hovered in the air, already starting to sink. Tiny winks of color fell from its fray, and Eurydice opened the vial and let the glow settle to the crystal’s center.

She looked closer and saw that both hopes belonged to the woman.

***

When she returned, the underworld’s keeper stood waiting.

Eurydice held out the crystal.

“Ah.” He took it in his hand, inspecting its contents. He looked from the crystal to her. “You have a question, I think.”

“There were two hopes in that jar.”

“Yes.”

“They were both hers.”

“Correct.”

Somewhere in the distance, a bird trilled.

“She expects to be reunited.”

He nodded, slipping the crystal into his pocket. “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

“What?”

“One of the kings of her land said that upon the death of his own child.”

There was a pause, during which he returned to tending his tree. Eurydice’s voice, when she spoke again, was both a question and a statement.

“Those who go to the underworld as wailing infants remain wailing infants forever. They do not reside with the other ghosts.”

He fixed her with a gaze that would have leveled mountains. “Has it occurred to you that you are not in the underworld, Eurydice?”

She didn’t answer, and he resumed his work. “There are new instructions on your scroll.”

***

She walked through the castle on her way to the surface, and noticed the room with the scales now held a door. It hadn’t been there before, and she knew because the thing could never have been missed. The rounded frame was made of a dark wood, and one touch showed it to be impossibly thick and sturdy. Light peeked in from the edges, and the light was music. Eurydice put her hands to the edge, but the light poured through as though her hands did not exist. Her desire for what lay beyond it outweighed even her desire for the quest, and she would have tried it, but there wasn’t a handle. She turned to ask the keeper, but the castle had changed and the path behind now led forward into the mortal world.

She looked down at the scroll.

What is the sacrifice most loved by the Divine?

***

Where could she go for sacrifices, when she knew the truth of the world’s temples? She went back to the land where the woman had lived, but there was no temple—only the ruins where a temple once stood. Eurydice hovered, confused. She had thought the woman followed the just yet terrible God, but how had such a deity’s temple fallen into disrepair? She could feel him in the fabric of the world—his breath would have been a windstorm, his touch an earthquake—and she knew nothing posed him a threat.

A stele stood by the ruins, and though Eurydice couldn’t read its inscription, she recognized the imagery from her world-spanning flight. Had the God made a new temple there? It made sense—the city was splendid, the empire grand—far more fitting than this small, conquered place. Didn’t divinity belong with power?

She went, but the conquerors had different temples. Necessity bid her to enter one and she saw a lurking darkness, far weaker than the God but stronger than anything human. It bore this smaller strength with a seething malice, and Eurydice’s soul trembled as though filled with ice.

“Who are you?” she cried.

It caught her by the waist with a grip of searing cold.

The prince of this land, it said, and she felt rather than heard the painful, rock-sliding grind of the answer. Eurydice twisted and cried out, and that might have been the end of her quest if not for the scroll. The gold hissed against the shadow beast’s touch, and it howled and flung her back.

Cheat! How came you by that? You should be mine by right, mine! How came you—

Eurydice fled at once and did not hear the rest.

***

“Where is your temple?” she asked, if only to clear her thoughts. It had taken some moments to recover, and she didn’t want to waste more time. “You have no shrines, no altars. How can there be sacrifices? How can mankind worship you, should any dare to try?”

Then Eurydice heard the language of the conquered place, of the grieving mother, and turned to listen. She didn’t understand the words, but felt encouraged to hear it spoken within the realm of the shadow beast. Had the keeper given her a clue, in what he’d said before?

She followed the voice and it led her to an open window, visible from the street. Inside knelt a man, and the man was praying. Without a temple, without an offering, exiled in a foreign land, he prayed, and the men in the streets scoffed as they passed. Why shouldn’t they? Why should a man pray to a god who couldn’t protect his own country? Eurydice herself would have marveled with the rest, had she not known the power of the one to whom he prayed. As it was, she marveled at his audacity.

But the prayer was not a sacrifice, as the riddle demanded. She needed—

But wait.

She had entered the window to circle the suppliant but now stopped. From the man’s chest came a gold thread, so thin she could barely see it, and only when she stood at the right angle to the setting sun.

Eurydice examined the thread—touched it, lightly, and felt a shock that should have been pain and yet was not, not quite. She let go at once, but as soon as she had, felt a longing to seize it again. The thread looked strange, and she feared taking hold of it would mean being at its mercy.

The man bowed—the prayer seemed to be nearing its end—but she continued to hesitate. The gold had an agency to it, as though it served as a conduit for some living thing that had gripped her hand in return. What if the touch proved more than she could bear?

The prayer ended; she stretched out a hand and took hold.

***

She had expected it would wrench her off her feet. For the first instant she thought it had, but the movement proved an illusion. She, held by the thread, stood still—not as on earth, where things might move and then rest, as it suited them, but like a mirror when a torch is swung overhead. Place and time moved like the scattered light, but she had come into the glass heart and stood spellbound while the years and miles rolled and changed.

It was too much to count, even to see, and she rested in a waking daze until the movement stopped. In front of her, the thread came to an end in a great cloud of light, so bright that its density fell against the eyes the way thick darkness might. Eurydice shut her eyes and saw it still; she covered her face with her hands, but the light poured through her like glass, so that she feared her soul might split apart with its force. She cried out, but her cry sounded like the shadow beast’s. The thread had betrayed her and brought her to the terrible God, and she stood naked, unable to escape what the unbalanced scales had shown.

Yet even as she cried out, the light began to temper. It did not dim; the essence remained, but somehow shifted to a spectrum that could be seen without pain. She saw, now that her burning eyes had reprieve to see, that the radiance had compressed itself in size. From infinity, it shrank to the size of a mountain, from a mountain to a palace, and from a palace to a human form. The brilliance crystalized, and she looked into the dark eyes of a man. He was flesh and blood, but his eyes held the eternal spark of the light, and the golden thread lay anchored forever in his breast. In his right hand he held a judge’s staff; in his left, a flawless silver counterweight.

The terror in Eurydice’s throat turned to wonder, and her shriek to a cry of delight.

“Oh!” she laughed. “Oh!”

She would have run the last steps to him, but time rolled backward like a receding tide, and she watched constellations reverse and the surface of the ground invert until she stood before a door in the castle underground. She turned, and there lay the courtyard, there stood the keeper.

The answer must have been written on her face, because he did not pose the question.

“The sacrifice most loved by the Divine,” Eurydice whispered, “is the sacrifice of himself.”

***

“Come,” said the keeper. “For the last riddle we must go elsewhere.” He started down the path by which she’d first come, and Eurydice hesitated.

“The door…” she asked. “The one without a handle. Is there any way to open it?”

“It will open itself to whoever holds the key. But take care, Eurydice. Those who pass beyond the door leave the mortal life forever.”

And so she followed, looking behind her as the palace faded. She had thought the door would have its place in the final riddle. To leave it, forever locked, brought an unexpected ache.

She walked with the keeper through azure fields, on a path whose familiarity nagged her. It led, she realized, to the river. She could see mists rising as they drew closer.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

But the keeper did not answer.

The mist from the river began to thicken around them. It swirled under the stride of her giant guide, but swept through Eurydice like water through a sieve, leaving her chilled. Then the mist turned to a veil, and they passed through it and stepped onto the rocky shore of the river. All that lay behind them remained shrouded, as though eternity held nothing more than a gray and empty wind. There was no color on the shore—save for the brown tunic and ruddy face of the living young man perched on a rock beside the dark waters.

“Eurydice!” he cried, and the lyre slung over his shoulder thumped against his side as he ran to her, arms outstretched.

She spoke his name once without sound, then tried a second time. “Orpheus?”

He slowed his final approach in a skid of stones. His arms remained outstretched, his face lit with joy, but even so he dared not cross the final stretch between the living and the dead. “Eurydice!”

She came to him; he hesitated a moment then caught her in his arms. To both their surprise, he did not pass through, but held her ghost as though she wore the thinnest shell of substance.

“Take care,” warned the keeper, for the second time. “You may return by the passage you came, but once begun, you must not touch one another, nor Orpheus turn to look on her, until you have reached the end.”

“The end?” asked Eurydice.

“The borders of this place.”

“To the surface,” Orpheus clarified. “I’ve come to take you back.” He almost took her hand again but remembered the keeper’s bidding and instead hovered about her in anxious happiness.

Eurydice smiled at him. There could be no denying the joy she felt at seeing him again, but the joy mixed with other thoughts, in a well of the unfinished.

She looked back at the keeper. “Were there not four riddles? Where is the fourth?”

“There are no riddles,” Orpheus replied, not understanding. “I’ve come for you.”

But the keeper gazed down at her, and the great stone of his eyes seemed softer. “The last you must take with you.”

She waited, but no riddle came, and Orpheus shifted impatiently on the slipshod stones.

“I have questions,” she said. “Things are not as I supposed them, and I want to know—”

“Eurydice,” Orpheus interrupted. He knew the gods were fickle and was impatient to be off, before the dead lord changed his mind. “Come. The walk is far.”

“Do not look back,” the keeper repeated, though his gaze remained on her. “Do not look back or she must return.”

“Yes. I thank you. The warning shall be heeded.” He looked at Eurydice once more, as though to memorize and map her face. “Are you ready? Will you follow?”

How could she not, when he had come so far?

“I will.”

And so they set out.

***

The route they took proved rocky and dismal. The mist never cleared, and Eurydice marveled to see so much endless, unpopulated space. Her feet did not make any sound on the rocky shale, and Orpheus would call out her name from time to time, to reassure himself she was still there. Eurydice watched the back of his curly head through the mist. She could see how much he longed to turn to her, could see how he held his neck with deliberate stiffness to keep himself from any such accidental turn.

“You must speak to me,” he called, his voice oddly loud. “Speak, let me know you are there.”

She laughed. “As you say. Of what should I speak?’

“You are the one who should have a story to tell. What have you seen, these two days in death?”

“Two days? Is it only that?”

Now it was he who laughed. “It is difficult to mark the time here, no doubt.”

“Or to always tell which way it passes.”

He clicked his tongue. “Poor Eurydice, what a place this is! On return we’ll make sacrifices to Zeus, in hopes he keeps us from here many years more. We’ll offer more, perhaps, than even the bridal hecatomb—much good that it did us, hmph.”

Eurydice stopped as though she had reached the end of an invisible lead and been jerked back. It had not occurred to her that she would be expected to reverence the gods on her return. She had feared to enter the temples of Greece with her ghostly sight, and what she’d found inside the foreign one had forever confirmed her fears.

“I don’t want to sacrifice to Zeus.”

Orpheus could tell by the distance of her voice that she had stopped, and now stopped as well. “Choose another as patron, then. But we must offer something, a little something, to all the Olympians. We’ll be a target otherwise.” She didn’t answer, and he tipped his head to one side in impatience. “Eurydice, we can’t linger here. We must keep on.” Still she didn’t answer, and his voice caught a little. “Eurydice?”

His fear prodded her forward. “Yes. Yes, I’m coming.”

They had walked the shore long enough; the path had grown steeper step by step, and now they walked along the edge of a canyon, with the water rushing far below. Just ahead stood the base of a narrow stone bridge that spanned the gulf to the other shore. There were no rails on the naked, narrow path, and the water below stirred the air into a windy current. Orpheus had already walked this path once, and she saw by the way he tensed that he did not relish doing so again.

“Tell me you are following,” he called, his voice snatched by the wind.

“I am following.”

The bridge’s width matched that of a strong man’s shoulders, and the rush of water below gave the illusion that it swayed slightly underfoot. The wind tugged at Eurydice’s shawl, and it took her a moment to notice she had become more tangible since the journey’s beginning. The thought brought little comfort, suspended as she was over such a terrifying plunge. The swirling wind brought her attention to the weight in her pocket, and she remembered the scroll. On the push of some odd insistence she took it out. Already its golden edges looked translucent, and it struck her that the scroll belonged to the hidden world and would vanish when she crossed the threshold. As she held it, the wind caught and rolled back the gold leaf, and she saw new words embossed.

Open your eyes at the crossroads of faith and doubt.

Up ahead of her, Orpheus had crossed the bridge and now called back.

“Have you made it? Are you safe?”

She returned the scroll to her pocket and ran across the final stretch.

“Yes,” she said, and fought not to cry because she loved him. But to return to his world, sightless again, without the scroll—to hear oracles whom she knew were not prophets, and to smell blood on the altars of terrible things against whom she had no protection…

When she reached the far shore, she looked and saw her arms were now half-tangible, like frosted ice that one can no longer gaze through.

“It’s here,” panted Orpheus. “Around the bend. The entrance.”

They followed the curve in the road and came around to see a hole in the mountain, its opening scarcely larger than a person. Daylight streamed in, but the light was no longer sweet, now that she had seen what light should look like.

Orpheus sprang forward, relieved. For a moment, his silhouette blocked the light, and then he stood in the sun, his back toward her. He raised his head, and she pictured his face: the eyes closed, his mouth parted a little to taste the air. His delight in life had always moved her, and it didn’t fail to do so now, as she stood on the edge of mortality.

“Have you crossed yet?” His hand searched the air behind him. “I don’t dare turn, not now. Tell me when you’ve crossed.”

She felt in her pocket for the scroll, whose visibility was now as thin as the ghost-Eurydice whom Orpheus had embraced. When she touched it, she saw the world ahead with the final vestige of her fading secret sight. The thoughts and plans of her beloved lay haloed around him, and in her mind she followed their beckonings into the future awaiting her on earth.

One thing grew suddenly clear: if she returned, she would have Orpheus, but that was all. Try as she might to hold onto all she’d seen, to put on flesh again would bring back the time and place of her old life. She’d resist, for a while—keep back from the temple, keep her head unbowed to them and her heart closed to their homage—but it could not last forever. Custom was built on the gods. Her husband would need her observances, her society would demand them. Who would heed the contrary visions of a woman, even one who had returned from the dead? Did she think she could unseat the shadow beasts? Comfortable in their dominion, they did not yet know of the golden thread. Unlooked for, unwatched, it unfolded in silence, bearing a remade world in its line. The thread would remain, but the decaying weight of time would wear her down—blur her memories, her convictions—until she settled in the unhappy limbo of belonging to neither the hidden nor seen, and hating both.

“Eurydice? Have you crossed?”

“No. Not yet.”

She would have Orpheus… but she saw, the longer she looked, that even this was not true. She saw his future self in her mind: suspicious, increasingly wary of this wife who had left some part of herself in the underworld. Yes, she thought, as the scenes rolled before her like a stage play, there would come a day when Orpheus would wonder if it were truly Eurydice who had followed him out of Hades. He would watch her, at night, as they lay together, or in similar times of stillness and solitude, and if she caught his eyes she would find the fear that she was something else altogether: a stranger, or a changeling. Then, if the time continued and she still did not relinquish what she’d seen, there would come a day when he looked on her openly in his fear and revulsion, and they would be parted on a different level, in a parting made all the worse by the continued physical presence. The doubt was there. It was just a tiny spot, now, but it would grow like a tumor.

The doubt.

She took the scroll back out and looked at it again, hoping for more instruction. There were no words, but at the scroll’s edge lay a faint, unmistakable, whisper-thin thread of gold.

Eurydice froze, heart in her throat. She shook the scroll, and the thread wavered in the darkness, showing its line by a thin gleam. The thread was anchored in another time, but hadn’t she seen proof already that time too was his servant? Would he take her, a branch born out of season, if she followed? She did not know the answer, but the choice was clear.

“Orpheus?”

He had grown understandably angry and snarled a reply. “What? What is it, what’s wrong?”

“I can’t go with you.”

For a moment he said nothing, but a flush of color rose on the back of his neck.

“So Hades has lied,” he whispered, and his broken voice would have crushed her fledging resolve, had she not held it in her own two hands.

“There is no Hades.”

“Eurydice, I saw him, I—”

“—You did not. You saw a servant, that’s all.”

“—You’re confused, you don’t remember—”

“Orpheus, there isn’t time. I can’t go with you but perhaps you can follow me. Leave Greece. Go to Babylon, find the exiles who still pray to the God without a temple, and ask them.”

“Ask them what—how best to follow you in death?”

“Ask them about their God. The one I’m going after.”

“You can’t.” His voice was boyish in his tears. “You can’t, I command you. I’m your husband and I command you to stay.”

Behind her came the pull of the thread. She kept her voice firm.

“I have to go now. Turn and take my hand.”

“What?”

“I will go regardless. Turn and remember.”

Orpheus’s shoulders curled forward in misery. He was angry with her, and she feared he might not turn and she must leave him like this.

Orpheus turned.

She caught his hand in hers, and with the other moved her touch from scroll to thread. In the final moment, in the still point before the break, she hoped he saw the secret world, if only by the conviction in her eyes. Then the thread drew her back. Their hands parted, and she vanished into the darkness.

“Remember!” She called out, her cry blending with his. “Remember!”

***

But it was not fair to speak of “darkness” anymore, for the light of the thread grew brighter with every step she took. And each step came lighter than the next, until she seemed to fly rather than run. She sped over the chasm and crossed the rocky shore, and her silent guide glowed like amber through the mist. When she came to the palace, she found it changed: the windows blazed light, as though extending a welcome that had earlier been withheld.

Eurydice walked through the halls, where giants like the keeper stood, smiling at her as she came, and pointing her onward toward the garden.

Here, the keeper too had changed. He wore robes like the steward of a feast, and his eyes were no longer black at all, but shone with a living green in the midst of his ebony face. He stood beside the door, and held out his hands to her as she came.

“Lady,” he boomed, in the full bloom of his voice (and yet she did not tremble), “Lady, why have you come?”

And the palace fell silent and the air stilled in preparation for one soul’s reply.

Eurydice seemed to grow taller in the stillness, and she smiled up into the keeper’s face. “I have come to enter the door.”

“Lady, by whose name do you come?”

“My name and my old gods belong to the shadow beasts. I come with a plea to the King beyond time, who holds both gold and silver and will pave the way with himself.”

The name passed over the assembly like the strains of a song, and the keeper waited for the echoes to finish.

“And has he given you his key?”

She opened her hand, revealing the slender bit of carved pearl, tied with a scarlet thread. She had felt it in her palm when she took the golden thread, and she saw that it fit the door’s lock, which lay just above the newly-appeared handle.

“Yes,” she whispered. “He has.”

***

K.J. Khan lives in Louisville, KY, with her husband, Tim, and works as a freelance illustrator. She studied Art and English at Hillsdale College, where she met a lot of nerdy Classics majors who helped inspire some of the ideas behind this story. (Special thanks to one such Classics major, Sam Phillips, who graciously translated the story’s epigraph.) You can see more of her work at Instagram.com/katie.j.khan.


“Soul’s Wager” by K.J. Khan. Copyright © 2021 by K.J. Khan.


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Comments

  1. A fantastic short story! I can't wait to read your next.

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  2. Such beauty and anguish. Thank you.

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