A Nereid’s Guide to the Underworld

by E. Catherine Tobler

This story was edited by Lis Hulin Wheeler

Seaweed is most tender as it begins to decay. I had a mouthful of the sweet rot as Thetis approached my cavern pond. In her arms she bore a pale bundle that squirmed and cooed; her son’s voice blossomed upon the draped gypsum ceiling and trailed down every dark passage. 

I swallowed the weeds and flicked myself through the cool water, tail giving way to legs, fins giving way to arms as I reached for the bioluminescent globe and hauled it to the surface. The globe spread cool blue light across the cavern floor and illuminated the look of concern on Thetis’s face.

“Will you guide us?”

We had long since dropped any formalities between us; as Nereids, we were sisters even if she had married a mortal. My wide eyes dropped from her face, to that of her son. He seemed so small, just a fleck of starlight in this dark place, and I still had trouble understanding her request.

“You still wish to go?” She had made the first leg of the long journey to reach me, but still I had to ask. It was the way of things, so that later, should things degrade into terror as they usually did, I could remind her with a superior smile that she had asked three times to go.

Thetis had only to look at her child’s face. “I wish to go.”

Dozens of silversides splattered out of the pond with me; I shooed them back into the cool waters, dripping as I crossed the rocky floor. “No more doom-saying, no more hesitations?” I wrapped a length of lapis linen around me, glancing back at Thetis to find her laughing.

“Your questions are these very things, sister!”

I plucked the glowing globe from the floor. Indeed, my questions were such, for it was I who hesitated to make this journey. No one, not even a Nereid, traveled to the River Styx without some apprehension, even if I had good cause to lead them.

Surely Poseidon would not follow me there, I told myself as we left my pool steadily behind. He had not found me here, so perhaps within the earth’s dark embrace, I would be wholly safe from his knowledge. I needed but a puddle of water to be— Well, not content. What was I doing, other than lying to myself?

I was turning my attention back to Thetis, that’s what. Her jaw remained set, expression grim as she walked at my side. Her son had quieted as though he sensed the journey was a serious one. Or maybe he had fallen asleep. But no, I saw his eyes track the light of my globe, watching as it poured upward like water across more draped gypsum. The stone almost looked like seaweed in the light and my stomach growled.

“Two Nereids walk into the underworld,” Thetis murmured.

I lifted my gaze back to her. “It sounds like a bad—”

I fell to silence and stopped walking. Thetis walked a few paces without me, until she realized I was no longer there. She turned, her face swimming up through the eerie blue light of the globe.

“Did you hear that?”

At my whispered question, she shook her head. She held her silence, though, listening with me. I closed my eyes and heard it again, somewhere deep in the velvet dark that extended beyond the reach of my globe. It sounded like the faint clicking of shells against shells. Or like the cracking of shells, to expose a soft interior ripe for devouring. I shuddered at the image and peered into the dark.

“Poseidon would not find you here, would he?”

“He seeks me everywhere. Logic dictates he will eventually find me.”

Moreover, there was little to be done about it; if Poseidon wished to find me, certainly he would. My own expression likely turned as sour as Thetis’s as we continued into the cavern, away from my pool which had once seemed so safe.

The first time I met Charon, it was by accident. I was roaming these very caverns so that I might know my new home as well as I had known the old. While these caverns were impossibly dry when compared to the open, flooded seas, they had a perplexing geography. One lost in the ocean might say the same of it, but I knew every fish and coral within those boundless waters the way I supposed I would someday know these foul rocks. That day, Charon crouched near the outcropping of rock we now approached (foul, entirely foul), trying to pluck something from the ground. It was a rock he sought to claim—what else might one actually find in this place?—and his clumsy fingers were having a time of it. I snatched the rock up before he could. He only stared at me.

When you think about it—and you should—Charon doesn’t have an easy life or job. I was foolish to play such a game on him, I suppose, but slowly his mouth parted in what might pass for a grin and he smoothed a gnarled hand down his unkempt beard.

“Lady Nereid,” he had said.

I made a curtsey, as one does, and things proceeded from there, with Charon gifting me with his rock (a gleaming cave pearl which I keep in the bottom of my pool to this day), and I gifting him with— Well, I suppose one might call it a sense of humor. He was sorely lacking before.

“You’re certain?” I asked Thetis again.

“A fourth time you ask me!” Thetis shifted her son, draping him over her shoulder as he had now fallen well asleep. “Perhaps it is you who should be asked.”

“Perhaps it is,” I allowed in a mutter and turned again when I imagined hearing the clicking (cracking) shells. Poseidon at a banquet, I thought, picturing him with hair of laced seaweed streaming about his lined face, strong fingers breaking apart crab claws, bright teeth revealed with his pleased chortle.

We rested at the next pool we reached. Whether this was a day’s walk or a few hours we could not guess, for time had a way of not mattering down here. There was no sun, there was no moon. One might gauge the passage of time by the child’s waxing and waning hunger, but even that was unfamiliar to me. Thetis fed him as he needed, we rested ourselves in the water, and then we walked on.

Sometimes, one goes to the underworld intentionally. People surely still speak of Persephone, who goes on an annual basis. Perhaps Poseidon should have courted her, for she seemed more willing to bend her life to a god’s schedule. No choice, the people cry! The world suffers in darkness while she is gone, yes I know, but still.

Sometimes, one comes back from the underworld (see: Persephone, Orpheus), and this is not a comfort to Charon. He likes people to stay put. He spends his days rowing and there is little more galling than having to endure people telling him to put his back into it as they have a pressing quest in need of immediate resolution. Is it no matter that they’ve disrupted his entire schedule with unplanned crossings?

Charon holds his gnarled hand out for his coins, of course, usually vexing the person, as they have either forgotten the tithe or hate parting with it. Either way, Charon doesn’t need the coins (see: the gleaming mounds on the other side of the river). But oh, he loves to ask.

I wondered if Thetis had remembered to bring an offering for him.

We reached the first signs of the river sometime after I asked Thetis if she heard the clicking (cracking) for the twentieth time. She still hadn’t.

In this part of the world, the River Styx was little more than a trickle. This was one of its small branches, though Charon believed if we moved some of the rock, he could expand. He dreamed of hiring other boatmen, not so that they could ferry more dead, but so that he could shift some of the return traffic onto others. Charon wasn’t as young as he used to be; one should take note of his hands when see you him.

This trickle of water slowly widened and Thetis and I found ourselves walking up an embankment. The rock was loose but we glided over it as easily as water would. It was here the air began to warm and pressed with insistent humidity against our cheeks. It was here the child was no longer sleepy or content; he began to wail, as if he wanted no part in his mother’s madness. Such is the way between mothers and children, so I am told.

We paused and I lifted the globe so that the light danced against the rock walls. No gypsum here, only dark, uneven rocks that looked as though Charon had built the place up out of aged bones, which he may well have. The child was not amused by the light, though, and his wail carried over the river before us.

I would have blamed the child for what came next, but I knew better. Poseidon was nothing if not crafty. While the earth loved to move unexpectedly, so too the water loved games and its master led them all. The river began to rise, overflowing the bank and our feet, as if responding to the child’s cry. But no.

Poseidon himself frothed from the dark waters, rising like the god he was in all his power. He was naked but for the creatures of the sea and the water foam; shells and stringed weeds clung to his ebon hair, while sea stars trickled down his broad shoulders. Shells cascaded from his strong chest, to tumble through the rising waters and crack apart against the cave walls. Thetis shrieked and fled up the bank, where the water had not yet reached (despite wanting to make this journey, she remained somehow delicate), but I could not; Poseidon curled a watery hand around my ankle and pulled. My globe broke apart on the cave stones, its small gleaming creatures scattering like blue embers.

In the water, I let go of my human shape, becoming the fish I more comfortably was. And Poseidon only laughed and dived in after me, his own human form shattering against the river.

I was fast here, but not so fast I believed I would outrun Poseidon himself. I flicked my tail and felt the water skim over every scale as if welcoming me; this water was not clear like the ocean, or even my pool. This water tasted of the dead, for alone, Charon could not keep up with the cleaning in addition to his ferrying. I swallowed a smaller fish, a strand of dark, bitter weed (I still long for another of its kind), and the lump of an obolus. The water darkened further, every light eclipsed, and I realized I had been swallowed in turn.

Poseidon made himself as large as a cave, holding me with the river water in his mouth. I flopped against the warm beach of his tongue, then curled close against the branching coral of his teeth to survey this strange landscape. We were moving; the water sloshed as we went and I pictured his feet leaving deep depressions in the River Styx as he went. I slapped the water with a fin then surged forward to buck against his closed mouth as if I could escape. A glance the other way—down the long black tunnel of his throat—told me that wasn’t an option. I would walk to the underworld, but swim down a god’s throat and into his belly? I wasn’t that foolish.

Turns out, I was.

Poseidon, however, contained the ocean—was the ocean—and I found myself vomited in a rush of clean saltwater, landing on a rocky shore where I flopped and blinked, and opened and closed my mouth like, well, a stunned fish. I stared up at Poseidon, who shrank himself to kneel at my side. His sea-wrinkled fingers stroked over my belly, setting the scales to shimmering.

“Like abalone,” he whispered in wonder.

I didn’t care what I looked like, only cared for the feel of that hand against me and knew then that much like Persephone, I was a lost cause. When had it first happened, I wondered, and then found myself listening as he told me when it had happened for him. He had seen me dancing with a group of my sisters, and while they were pretty enough, it was my liquid feet he came to treasure. I just stared and gaped. (And probably flopped a little, for how he made my heart pound.)

He trickled water over me, more clean ocean, and I flopped in the puddle he made, until every inch of the River Styx had been washed from me. I could still smell it, or perhaps it was him I smelled, the deepest ocean silt edged in crackling salt. He did not smell dead, no.

“Should you help Thetis?”

I hardly remembered who Thetis was just then, but opened and closed my mouth as if to say yes. I bled from fish to girl and Poseidon thoughtfully draped me in my sodden linen, as if seeing my flesh were somehow more scandalous than seeing my naked scales.

“She worries for her son,” I said as I tied the linen into place. I was still staring at Poseidon and dared reach a hand up, to pull an errant shrimp from his beard. Before I could discard it, Poseidon leaned forward and ate it from my fingers.

“Half mortal boys are trouble.” He glanced across the river to where Thetis stood, clutching her son as Charon poled his boat across the river.

Realizing this could all go horribly wrong, and then Thetis would be telling me she’d told me so, I bolted from Poseidon’s side, fouling myself in the river once again until I was again at Thetis’s side. She reached for me with a shaking hand.

“I didn’t bring him anything,” she said and I exhaled a wet breath.

“You know he will ask.”

She squirmed.

Charon made a striking figure as he approached, chest puffed out, legs braced wide apart to show his thighs to their full advantage. Rowing all day and all night puts a nice figure on a man. So did swimming apparently. Thetis’s elbow in my side brought my attention back to the matter at hand.

“Lady Nereids,” Charon said, his tone so even it could be called flat. He plainly knew this would go poorly for him—what woman willingly gave up the splendor of a son?

“Lord Charon,” Thetis said and dipped a proper curtsey, as you do.

He extended his hand.

Thetis shifted from foot to foot.

I cleared my throat and coughed up the obolus I had swallowed. I stared at it in my palm a moment, then offered it to Thetis.

“I don’t want to cross,” she hissed.

I nudged her none too lightly. “It’s tradition.” I pressed the coin into her hand and she took it, making the same face I imagine Demeter made when Persephone said she would be staying with Hades half the year. She offered it to Charon.

He took the coin and made quite a show of looking it over, inspecting each side, and then biting it, as if to ensure it was true silver. Then, it vanished between his fingers.

“If not crossing, then…” He tilted his head and I smiled at him, appreciating his patience. When Thetis looked at him, he flexed his arms against his oar as if to entice her to cross after all.

“I wish only to dip my child, Lord Charon,” Thetis said.

Charon blinked and his dark gaze swung to me. My smile deepened. He looked back to her.

“Sweet Nereid,” he said, making it clear that he had better ways to spend his day, “this water is foul, for it carries the dead. Smell the stench of your sister here. Were the rumors of these waters true, do you think I would look as I do?”

Thetis was quick with a smile. “But the river has worked its magic upon you, has it not?” Her eyes slid down his muscled form and I had to look away. This was typically when things began to degrade into terror, when a Nereid took to flirting with the ferryman.

Charon only laughed and when I dared look, Thetis bent to the river, holding her squalling child closer to its surface. The Styx gleamed with a sheen of oil, fragmenting with color as she dipped him under. She held tight to his foot, only the heel of it spared the river’s slimy caress.

“And you?” Charon’s gaze was on me again.

I shook my head. “Not crossing,” I said. “Not today.” I pointed toward the scattered blue light on the shore. “You might like those, though.”

And then, I found myself swallowed again, Poseidon tucking me into his cheek. We fled the underworld in a torrent of rushing water, and he shattered the cavern I had called home for so long, allowing the sweet ocean to flood into it, which set the gypsum to gleaming in the sunlight. It was exhilarating—it was terrifying. The crushed glitter of my home shone from beneath the water, an illusion beckoning. 

We go there when we may, to eat the seaweed as it sweetens with its rot, to spit cave pearls into sea foam with our fishy mouths; to crack shells open and devour the sweet insides, to visit the underworld and curtsey to Charon. As one does.

© Copyright E. Catherine Tobler

Hugo and Word Fantasy finalist E. Catherine Tobler lives and writes in Colorado. Weird how that works out! Her debut collection, The Grand Tour, is available from Apex Book Company. Her short fiction appears in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and others. You can find her on Twitter @ECtheTwit.

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