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Ghosts in the Mirror

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Deep down the mysterious continent of Asia, laden with centuries upon centuries of legends and stories to tell, lies the land of a thousand dynasties, China. The people of this land are known most for their vast seas of wisdom and spirituality. Their eyes look through the physical and value beauty on the purity of the soul and the mind, as we are going to see in the tears falling from the eyes of Zhong Kui, the King of Ghosts.

Bright minds are the spark of civilization yet no mind can shine brighter than Zhong Kui’s:

The hero of this story was a true genius, had the highest grades in his class, was the favorite of all his teachers, and was the teacher of all his classmates. A man of such talents deserves no less than the highest of honors and positions, and so was his thinking. Zhong Kui chose to apply for the imperial examination, to become an advisor of the king and do his part in the rising of his empire.

People in the imperial palace were astonished by Zhong’s brilliant answers and immediately invited him to assume his new position. The emperor, a pretentious man, all too pompous for the common folk was the type of man that wishes everything to be perfect and all too beautiful. He sat on his golden throne wearing the finest of his silk robes and a crown made of pure jade was resting on his head, waiting for our hero’s presence.

Zhong Kui finally arrived at the doors of the palace and presented himself to the guards who allowed his immediate entry. He could not be happier, but all of his joy sunk to the depths of the earth when he entered the emperor’s courtroom. The king gave the highest shriek when helaid his eyes on Zhong. He felt pure disgust as he looked upon our genius’ misshapen eyes and overgrown ears. He almost puked as he looked at our prodigy’s ragged clothes and dirty hair, and immediately expelled him from the palace vowing to never let something so horrendous sit on his imperial tables.

Zhong Kui wept his eyes dry as he left the presence of the emperor and walked with what he thought was shame until he reached the huge metal doors of the palace. Before leaving, he looked at his reflection on those doors and felt so much anger for the world that birthed him in such a fashion, and with so much rage and sadness building in his heart, he struck his head on the door, once, twice, and thrice, until his blood splattered all over it, and he kept beating on his brow until he fell on the ground dead, another victim of suicide.

Fortunately, his story does not end with his untimely death. As his soul traveled to the underground, it caught the eye of the King of Hell and fascinated by its purity, and sensing the talents of the new arrival. He knew that Zhong Kui was way too special to waste.

He honored him with a greater title than he could ever wish for in the emperor’s palace. He named him King of Ghosts and Hunter of Demons. Zhong was delighted and vowed to do right by his new duty, protecting all humans, including the emperor that caused him nothing but depression.

With plenty to take from between the lines of this tale, we can start with the fact that words are as sharp as swords and they can shred a soul to bits leaving a person broken, never to be repaired. There is no ugly, or hideous, there is only different. 

There are no two humans on this earth that look alike and that’s what makes being human beautiful. It’s okay to have features unlike those you see in the media and pictures of models, for those features are you and nothing is as pretty as your love for yourself. Beauty too can come in so many forms, and to the forces of nature, illustrated in this story by the King of Hell and God of Death, the most natural of all forces, nothing is more important than the beauty of your mind.

Superficiality is killed when the eyes are closed to let the ears hear the magnificent words coming out of your mouth, to understand the purity of your golden ideas, and to feel the true essence of what truly is you beneath the shell that might or might not be attractive by the common definition.

To wrap up the story of a prodigy and his unjust end, I advise each and every one of you to stand in front of a mirror and say that you are beautiful because if you accept it, no sword can scathe your soul. And you are not just beautiful because of what you look like, you are beautiful because of what you feel, because of what you think about when you steer away with your thoughts in public, you are beautiful because of what you love and what you cherish, because of the art that leaks like rainbows from your mind and most importantly, you are beautiful because you wake up and live every day to the fullest despite what the poison you hear from the people in your life.

 

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weekly stories

Chapter 1 : Persephone , Caged spring .

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I have been staring at these three doors facing me for longer than I can recall. Curiosity has been eating me from inside out, but I just couldn’t decide if the risk is worth taking. 

Until now, everything about this place has been bizarre. And as I weighed in all the possible horrors that would happen to me if I stayed here, I decided that cowardice wasn’t the way to go. 

I took a deep breath in. And with slow steps, I started heading towards the door facing me. 

The air hung heavy with dust and silence, and a bead of sweat strated making its way down my chest. Only one step to go now. I reached for the door knob, a rusty bronze. And I …

Where were you when Pandora opened that box? She could have used some of your willpower.”, a chilling voice echoed from nowhere.

My hand came to a halt, hung mid air between me and the door. The sound of my heart was tearing at my eardrums. I turned my head slowly, until my eyes caught her.

Nothing about her was intimidating per se. She was beautiful, and iridescent. But something deeply haunting was lying beneath her calm appearance. It radiated from the way she moved, a painfully slow pace, a dead silence and piercing eyes that were studying me from head to toe. 

One thing was sure; she knows something that I don’t.

You people usually get jittery after the Charon cruise. This is quite refreshing.”

With every word that she uttered, she took a step closer to me. But my body was no obeyer of mine and my tongue grew heavy with terror. I stayed put, lowering my gaze instead, praying for gods I don’t know if I believe in.

You know, I’ve taken an interest in you. Everytime I walked by this hall I made sure to check if you were still here. Thank god you finally moved, you were starting to fade into the background.”

She let out a long shriek. Shivers ran cold through my spine. 

The hollow sound echoed through my head, waking me up. I have to do something, anything, to save my neck.

“My lady, please, have mercy! Charon implied that my visit was expected, but he left any kind of details out and…”

She looked down at me. And for the first time, I saw a glimmer of sympathy in her eyes.

“Hmm, should I take you to the man in charge then, human? Perhaps he’ll help you figure out whatever it is that you want to know.”

A storm of thoughts was raging in my mind. Would she mean harm to me? If not, what would she gain from helping me? But by then, I was too desperate to get out of that place…

“- I… yes… I mean, would you do that for me? Would you take me to him?

Well, given our current circumstances, that would be me you’re looking for. My husband is fully booked, for two or three decades at least, give or take!

– Your husband?”

Her lips twitched, clearly amused by my confusion. 

“- Forgive my ignorance my lady, but I haven’t the slightest idea about who you and your husband are.”

She stared at me for a moment too long, then looked at her hands. As one would do when he wishes to hide whatever his eyes were telling. 

It’s alright dear, call me Persephone. I’ll tell you all about our tale as we stroll through this room. It is quite a long story.

She offered me her arm, and I held on to it. It was cold to the touch at first but we started walking and the warmth was setting in.

As you may have guessed by now, I am a goddess. daughter of two olympians. However, my birth is a happy memory for only one of them. See, father was a god of many powers. He was mostly known for his never ending conquests, at his poor wife’s dismay. And although he was intelligent and knew a plethora of words, one never made it into his dictionary. After all, who would ever dare to say “no” to the almighty Zeus?

One day, my mother caught his eye, and from that moment the pursuit was on. But Demetra isn’t one to be swayed with sweet words and kind gestures. He was her younger brother and as such, she knew him well. Despite his relentless efforts, his constant courting and begging, she kept giving the same answer, and he started to run out of patience. One day, he decided his ego couldn’t take another rejection, and he will get his way whether she likes it or not. I can assure you she did not like it one bit! She still gets bitter at times when that memory resurfaces. 

Fortunately, she never took out her anger on me. On the contrary, she loved me like no mother has ever loved her child. She was constantly looking out for my best interest, going to the greatest lengths to protect me by threatening and killing any possible menace to my being. She herself has seen how dangerous this world can be for vulnerable little girls, and she swore she would never allow anything of that sort to happen to me. 

It was sweet at first; the reasons behind her protectiveness were clear to me, but I was starting to grow bored and constrained, up there on mount olympus. Tending gardens and running through landscapes can only be fun for so long. I wanted to get out and see the world, and as it turns out, someone from another world took an interest in me.”

A small smile unveiled a fondness that I haven’t noticed before. And she carried on with her story: 

My Hades was always the shy type. People like to pin him as a bad guy in all of their stories; no matter who’s involved, he’s the go-to scapegoat. All because he runs the underworld! As if he tortures the souls himself. That would be way too much work to do…. But I digress. He came on mount olympus one time to attend some business, and I happened to be in the garden with some friends that day. Right place at the right time, although back then it didn’t seem like it. 

He took an instant liking to me, and he went straight to my father asking for his blessing. Granted, it is an uncomfortable conversation to have with your brother, but what can I say? Chivalry wasn’t dead yet back then. Father granted him the permission to pursue me and gave him a few tips of his own, saying things along the lines of “take her by surprise and show her to your world she would absolutely love it” or “whisk her away, she won’t know what’s coming for her”… All of his brilliant ideas involved abducting me while Mother wasn’t looking in some capacity, for he knew her rage would be boundless. And my poor suitor, seeing just how successful his brother was with the ladies, decided to take his advice to heart. 

That’s how my lovely evening spring came to an abrupt end with a blindfold and a hellish carriage ride to the world of the dead. And sure, Hades tried to make my stay alongside him as enjoyable as he could. He made sure to give me his most luxurious suite, with servants bearing foods and gifts daily. He was showering me with unprecedented love, unwavering under the swarms of hatred I was sending his way. He would try to satisfy all of my wishes, promising me everything but liberty. But nothing was enough to stop my wailing and hailing. I was insufferable and unconsolable. 

I spent most of my first week there banging at the walls with my weak fists, spitting threats and curses, calling him every name of the book. No matter how hungry and greedy I got, I would never accept any of his peace offerings. I have never spent more than a day without Ambrosia before, and the more I stubbornly refused to eat, the more unhinged I became. He even brought me pomegranates, my weakness, as a way to tempt me. It was all probably a ruse, I have heard before that consuming anything from the underworld would bind you there forever. I simply couldn’t give in. The only thing that kept me going was my rage, fuelled by my blind faith in Mother, that was certainly moving heaven and earth to get me out of there. And she was! 

I won’t bore you with details, but from what I’ve been told, she went berserk. Plenty are the people she trampled to find me, gods and mortals alike. And when she finally found out the truth about my whereabouts and couldn’t make Father get me out of there, for he was fearing Hades’ potential response, there was no mercy left. She held out the harvests, abandoning her work on the crops, and left thousands of innocents to perish. Her message was clear: bring me back my daughter, or else, no mortal would be left alive to worship the lot of you.

As time went on, I was starting to get calmer, and quietly accept my fate. Mother hasn’t swarmed the underground yet, nobody seemed to be coming to my rescue. Maybe it was time to stop denying the bitter truth. I started getting out of my room, despite my fear of the dead, and started wandering about these halls. I went to Asphodel fields and talked with newcomers and long-time spirits alike. 

They told me about their pasts. They shared with me their grievances and their hopes for future generations. And I watched the pearling tears at the mention of loved ones, bitter gulps of regret, crimson tints, as crimson as a ghost can get, here and there at the mention of past mistakes…. I had never known how much suffering one could bear in a single lifetime before conversing with them. There was so much more to the world than the endless spring I was accustomed to. How could I have been so blind? So ignorant? 

I now look back at my former self, knowing what I know, and all I feel is pity and shame. I used to be so weak and vain, it’s almost laughable. 

Ultimately, after spending so much time under the earth, I started to pay attention to Hades for the first time. 

His sunken eyes were what I noticed first; dull and devoid of any light, weary from reading names and looking around in this constant ruckus. Then, it was his infinite patience, not only with me and my frequent outbursts, but also with Charon and the Furies and everyone under him waiting for him to give out orders. Under his gloomy exterior, he was nothing but a lonely god, surrounded with nothing but darkness, monsters, and whiny spirits. Nothing about him beside his stature gave away his godhood. He wasn’t exuberant and reveling in his power like Father and the Olympians I grew up around. In fact, the only times some resemblance of life was breathed into him, were whenever I caught him gazing at me, in ways no one ever could.”

Our walk came to a halt. Persephone turned away from me, letting go of my arm. For a moment too long, we stood there in silence. I, staring at her long hair, gleaming in the light, and she, lost in the waves of her memories.

“I am used to being looked at, growing up a beautiful child”, her voice a soft whisper. “But there was something in his gaze I had never found anywhere else until then. He chose me, although in a rather unusual fashion, but he did choose me ultimately. To ease his loneliness. To make this hell hole a little more bearable. As I was slowly starting to get used to this idea, the war Demeter was raging up on earth was finally taking a turn. Zeus conceited to her demands and sent out the god Hermes to retrieve me from my prison. As word of my delivery got to me, a sudden realization dawned on me. The thought has been brewing in the back of my mind for a while now, but this return to reality made it all the more clear. 

The real cage that trapped me all along was the sheltered life I have led on Mount Olympus. I remembered who I was, running aimlessly through the gardens: an airhead. Just another spoiled princess parading in her parents’ castle, oblivious to anything that didn’t revolve around her. I couldn’t let this be. I couldn’t go back now that I have opened my eyes. I had to act on my feet and make it quick. I had to find a way to stay. 

I started ransacking my room, looking for the fruit of my salvation. And when I finally found it, I started eating the pomegranate seeds at everyone’s dismay. 

That forbidden fruit… I suppose you can relate to how sweet and tangy the first bite feels, how the more you succumb to temptation, the less you’re quenched. I ended up eating 6 of them. 6 heavenly bites of freedom. I thought it would be the end of it, how wrong was I. Mother wasn’t going to accept my fate and fought it with all that she got. In the end, she and Hades decided on a custody agreement, stating I would spend half of the year with her on earth, and would go on to spend the remaining months alongside my future husband. She wasn’t happy with this deal. And she stated her displeasure yearly by forbidding the trees to bear fruit and the grass to grow for the cattle to eat. Nevertheless, I was overjoyed with the situation. I wouldn’t want to bid farewell to her forever, no matter how hard I want my freedom. 

All and all, she feared the darkness, how it would forever taint my soul, but I have grown accustomed to the shadows by then. If my life had stayed an eternal spring, I would have slowly grown to resent its warmth, my existence would have gone stale. And I would have sought out the darkness myself. It gave me power and perspective on matters beyond my understanding.”

She looked my way, enticing me to pay attention.

“You know, there’s a great deal you can learn from the dead. Especially when your movements are boundless.”

When I reverted back my eyes in front of me, I found myself facing the same three doors from before. But this time was different, this time I knew what I had to do. 

Persephone is the queen of the underground, and her riddle skills are unmatched. My question was left unanswered, nobody enlightened me on my purpose here thus far, but something deep inside of me changed. I know now that my presence isn’t accidental, that the answers I’m seeking can only be found behind these doors. 

Taking a deep breath, I looked at her for the last time, then waving goodbye, I opened the first door and jumped right in.

 

Written by : Eya Belkhodja .

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