Evelien had a strict rule to never divulge to others what happened at the Church, not in person and certainly not online. Memories made there she kept whole and unprocessed, never leaving the darkroom of her thoughts. On the last Sunday of the month, for a few hours at a time, Evelien disappeared from her life to play the role of Goddess.
This transformation, however brief, didn’t go entirely unnoticed. Churchgoers who saw her in the grocery store or at the playground with her son would stop and look at her for a moment, puzzled. They were trying to align the ponytailed woman in jeans and zippered vest standing before them with their vision of the woman who, at the stroke of midnight, took to the stage naked but for a skirt of cascading wheat berry stalks and a crown of orange blossoms and ferns, her hands and forearms dusted with gold, screaming for her daughter, “Kore!” and cursing the Earth with her freezing grief.
Best for all involved, Evelien decided early on, if those two women never met. The power of the Rites had to be preserved, as did her career as a lawyer, her role as a mother and wife. She would serve her family, chauffeur her son to swim lessons and soccer games, tuck him in at night, work late on her laptop, read novels on the weekends, enjoy a predictable but reassuring routine of lovemaking and domestic labor with her husband and plant flowers in pots around her small front yard each spring. She would keep things simple for them and for her worshippers, who glimpsed in her a power wholly different from the kind they were taught to admire. Disaffiliation made it possible for her to take the stage of that defunct art house cinema turned underground black box theater and become: Demeter, the Fertility Goddess, almighty provider and pourer of the kykeon. She who reaps the grain in silence. Awakener of the real. Matron of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Before she ever put on the Goddess, Evelien acted in local plays. From puberty she’d been told she had good features — slim, strong, a provocative mix of phenotypes — and she delighted in transfixing her audience. She was Cosette, from Les Mis. Tzeitel, then Hodel and finally Chava, from Fiddler. Then Grusha, from Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle and understudy to Anna, from Vogel’s Baltimore Waltz. There was no money in it but the scene was convivial. Five years after graduating from college and working temp jobs, she was desperate for a real income. She was all set to pay for LSAT classes by stripping when she met Andrew at a friend’s dinner party.
Andrew genuinely cared about her. It melted her harder edges, to be known and still admired. He was older, more established in his career directing nonprofits; this introduced the privileges of stability to her life, which further smoothed her. And he had some money, which he would use to help her pay for law school — no commitment needed. He had no doubts. Andrew saw in Evelien a woman he loved to look upon, whose interest in art and literature helped him place some of his own hard-won truths in contexts far beyond his own story. She was a sophisticate, with a mind ever in pursuit of a grander meaning. All that intensity she brought to the table. He had not suffered as much as she had early on. He feared he might be simpler than her. But he was exactly who he said he was and this drew her close.
By the time they began dating, Evelien had not given up entirely on acting, but she had downgraded it, for the first time ever in her thinking, to a hobby. “I’m relenting,” she told Andrew one night over bowls of pasta with clams, a new recipe she had not gotten quite right. “I don’t think I will ever make acting my livelihood.”
“You’ve acted for most of your life,” Andrew said. “You’ve done well in that world. As all those play posters on your wall can attest.” He waved a hand in the direction of her hallway.
“Hm,” Evelien said, irritated by her watery garlic sauce. She did not wish to be talking so casually about what was actually a source of much agony, but hadn’t she chosen to bring it up at mealtime? She could cry. “Still, I ought to face the possibility that the ‘big discovery’ is not going to happen for me, and make room for other parts of myself.”
Andrew took her hand in his, mouth full of spaghetti. She seemed to be offering a certain flexibility about the future, which made him happy. Perhaps now she would agree to let him go grocery shopping with her.
It was an important conversation that she promptly pushed aside when a casting call came up on one of her less frequented message boards for a regular theater gig. Details were a bit vague but it boasted independent investors and high production value. Auditions took place in the shuttered movie theater. She circled the building twice before noticing a sign taped on a heavy metal door by the dumpsters. “Church of Eleusis” it said in small font. The thin office paper looked as if it might detach and blow away at any moment.
The casting director had them on stage in pairs. Evelien was paired with a woman who introduced herself as Dot. They had one role sheet to share.
Maiden Priestess. No older than mid 20s.
Devoted, capable. Must be comfortable with nudity.
Dot stepped away to crack her knuckles and remove her furry jacket. The casting director instructed them to sing a few lines of a song of their choice, a capella, then perform a sort of dance, really more of a slow strut, with a sharp-eyed choreographer. They were asked to speak these words into a cell phone atop a tripod:
Human ignorance! Heedless of what sustains them, as ravenous birds. Unable to separate nurturing wheat from chaff, tender mollusk from shell, so do their hungry minds confuse knowledge with ephemera.
Evelien’s reading came off a little British. Dot gave a more exaggerated, campy interpretation, ending with an unprofessional giggle.
“Thank you,” the casting director said. “Please send in the next two."
Two months passed; the audition, forgotten. Andrew asked her to marry him at the top of a Ferris wheel and Evelien, nerves ablaze, gave him the Yes. Someone in an adjacent cab saw it and pointed. As they exited the ride, everyone waiting in line clapped and whistled. Schmaltz. But she did love the man.
The honeymoon did not land as well. She got her period; it stormed on the island for all but the first and last day, and Andrew got mild food poisoning from some shellfish a couple days in. They returned to full inboxes and a stale-smelling apartment and resumed their usual routine. It more than depressed Evelien. An unfamiliar guilt would rise up when she didn’t plan a proper dinner for them at night.
You aren’t his wife, she would tell herself, as she swept the floors or searched for curtains for their new home. You are partners. Andrew knows how to clean. Andrew can take care of himself.
Just as these steely mantras about what Andrew could do began, she received an email inviting her to join the cast of the new theater experience tentatively titled Church of Eleusis.
Call time for the first rehearsal was midnight. “Our Day begins at Night,” it read, “with its Possibilities of refreshing Rest and revelatory Dreams.” She envisioned it like some kind of circus, an art touched with madness and spectacle.
First taking care to erase her default signature containing her job title, credentials and legal disclaimers, she replied, simply: “I’m looking forward to it!”
She left their apartment at 11:15 pm as Andrew was spreading toothpaste on his toothbrush. The next morning, he found her on the couch, where she’d slept so as not to disturb his rest.
Evelien could have told him everything. She could have sat up, beckoned him to sit beside her and explained each chapter of the performance, from its quietly odd beginning scene to its bizarre, hallucinatory conclusion. She could have walked him through her reactions, how she felt both uncomfortable and exhilarated at the same time, to see how the entire show was structured to call forth an ecstatic, wild catharsis in the audience. She would not mention the kykeon, a fermented barley drink that would be served, or how marketing for Church of Eleusis would be strictly word-of-mouth.
She would keep things simple for them and for her worshippers, who glimpsed in her a power wholly different from the kind they were taught to admire.
He would insist on attending, on showing his support for her. She pictured him staring up from the front row, mouth open to the Mystery, wondering sweetly what it all meant. Furrowing his brow at its dark material. This show was not like the plays she’d been in. Its loose story was told in imagery. Dances, and blood, and grain. It was ritual, presented as theater. Interactive. Probing. Political, yet unifying. A lot of grief. You had to be honest. Could Andrew be honest? This sort of catharsis required hard work. It wasn’t something she could explain to him.
“It was okay. A little, meh. I don’t think I’ll take the gig.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. Was it just … weird, or what?”
“It wasn’t what I thought it would be.”
“Ah,” he said. “Too bad.”
She stretched and looked at the wall clock. “Is it already 7:45?”
“Fuck it.” She laid her head back down on the pillow. “I’m working from home today.”
On Opening Day, Evelien was nervous despite being one of many priestesses on stage. The cast took a long swig each from one of the barrels of kykeon. The drink, which tasted like a sour, earthy beer, made the lights shine strangely.
Twelve people attended. Twelve, rapt and tearful.
Next month, it was 30.
And on it went, performing the opening rites and ablutions, then chanting with the drums, the shocking rite of slaughter giving way to ecstatic dancing (the incredible stamina of the drummers!), until the final act, when the maiden priestesses stand in formation at the sight of the Mother and her Child, finally reunited.
For a year, Evelien made intentional eye contact with sold out audiences.
She would tell Andrew she was going out to dance with girlfriends or see a late movie, and he believed her. Perhaps he knew (of course he knew) she was not always telling the truth, but trusted that she needed those night hours to herself. Or he did not mind that she kept secrets. Or he could not face that she was lying to him.
Once, as she returned home from a performance, she discovered Andrew asleep on the couch. His laptop lay on the floor beside him, the browser open to a concluded porno film. She quietly backed up to the door, opened and slammed it shut again, and this time walked directly to the bedroom. He greeted her a few minutes later with a quick hug and together they crawled under the covers.
She took a pregnancy test at his parents’ house, where they were spending the Christmas holiday. They took a moment for themselves upstairs, crying and hugging and staring at the double lines on the pee stick.
“Shouldn’t we wait to tell?” Andrew asked her.
But Evelien couldn’t wait. It was the kind of news you wanted to bring downstairs to a crowded kitchen of loved ones. Andrew’s father’s eyes brimmed with tears. His mother hugged her gently, then gripped her hand and wouldn’t let go. Evelien blushed at Uncle Andrew’s jokes and talked seriously with Andrew’s younger sister about the decision to have a child. It was emotionally exhausting and the questions kept coming, but she loved how this particular ability of her body brought joy to these people.
In late December, the Church held a special Winter Solstice service. In the audience stood her boss, Robert, a senior partner at her law firm. He wore casual clothes, and he did not shout praise or ogle the stage as the fanatics in front did. His hands remained in the pockets of his joggers the whole time. But he did not look away.
By this time, Ev had been serving as Head Priestess, a supportive role reserved for actors who had been with the Church for more than two years. She was responsible for Demeter’s hiera, her sacred objects, and she conducted the announcement of Demeter’s arrival to the stage, which involved some minor ceremonies of respect to Athena and a fast but spectacular animal sacrifice, fake of course.
But her favorite part was the Warning, when she descended from the stage and walked among the audience, holding up their hands with hers, calling for the atonement of all killing, all bodily violations, all harms committed against the sovereignty of others.
“Whosoever remains un-atoned, shall find no succor here,” she would announce in a booming voice.
Now here was her colleague, standing on her path through the crowd. Doubt flashed through to her bones. She was a lawyer, a pregnant woman, a wife, a person whose back ached from sitting too long at the computer. Here was not an Initiate but a man for whom she’d been getting up the nerve to ask for maternity leave, a man with whom she hoped to negotiate her postpartum return to work on a part-time basis. This man and his company’s policy would determine the fate of her unborn child and yet here she was again, the Priestess. She made his hands press against her palms and looked him in the eye, face heavy with makeup and no mask, and asked him, projecting her voice across all of them, “Have you once committed harm against the brethren, Initiate?”
He swayed, no doubt from the kykeon and the intensity of her direct probe, but to his credit, required only a second to answer. “I have.”
She softened her voice to match his. “And have you atoned?”
With that, she ended the Warning and ascended the stairs back up to the stage.
He hadn’t recognized her, or if he had, he never acknowledged it. At the office, he was cordial, quiet verging on curt, as he’d always been. When she announced her pregnancy, he took a deep sigh, as if to hear of it relaxed him. They chatted personably for a couple of minutes. He spoke of his nieces, but made no mention of the Church of Eleusis. Later she received an email from him, approving her to return part-time after three months’ leave.
When Evelien’s tummy popped out, she found a handwritten letter in her cubby in the theater’s dressing room. It was signed by each of the three directors and referred politely to her ‘showing’. It suggested that she take a few months, up to a year if she so chose, to ‘acknowledge the miracle of her condition.’ Her role as Head Priestess would be filled by one of the maidens until she had fully ‘recovered.’
Evelien read the letter in her car in the theater parking lot and wept. She tried to calm herself enough to put the car in reverse, but her body refused, shaking her, wracking her with grief. To be excluded from services was more than any part of her could bear.
What finally calmed her was the sense that someone was listening. She was not alone in the car. A baby grew inside her, coming to life inside all that her body experienced: her cortisol spikes, her dopamine flushes, the goodness of her nourishing acts and the strain of her deprivations. She sensed that whatever was coming, she would no longer ever be alone, even in the place she hid from the rest of herself. Even if she came to resent motherhood, to rage against the role’s many limitations and the kind of citizen it would make her in the eyes of the public, she would not betray the person who made it so. Fear rejection, fear penury, but not this love. The pact reached into the sum of her as it encircled them both. She would work to love them, whoever they were, for the rest of her life.
Then the baby kicked her rib, hard, and she gasped. She pressed her hand to her belly, and the hard little heel of a foot pressed back. The sublime joy of first connection with another being burst through the veil of fascia between them. She wiped tears and snot from her face with her sleeve.
She couldn’t wait to get home to Andrew and share this with him.
When Henry emerged from her bottommost place at the local hospital, there was no split ego, no secret running thought, no shame and no ceremony.
Neither wife nor priestess, Evelien became, simply, her animal.
Her animal taught her about the bond of scent, and the meaning of glances. She trained her to hear the differences in Henry’s cries. For eight months, this animal presided, until one day, when it left and didn’t return.
The following Sunday, Evelien returned to her role as Head Priestess.
“The Church of Eleusis is a terrible burden,” said Demeter. Ev had been invited unexpectedly into her dressing room, which was just a large closet with a mirror, a chair and a table wedged inside.
“I find it freeing,” Ev said plainly. The politeness expected in the outside world was something of a faux pas at the Church, as was the use of real names.
“Do you?” Demeter gave Ev a long look.
She turned back to the task of undressing. “Then I revise my statement. The Church of Eleusis is a terrible burden for the one who must lead it as the Goddess.” Demeter laughed. The area of her face covered by her mask was exposed, makeup-less. Her true eyes and crows’ feet and skin spots glistened, more intricate and otherworldly than the gold mask of leaves and fruit that she wore onstage.
“I imagine it is emotional work,” Ev said. She watched as Demeter rubbed cold cream across her bronzed arms and chest, drawing off the metallic glint from her skin. Ev did not say more, being sensitive to the process of undressing, unbecoming, returning. Watching oneself become someone else in the mirror is a private act. She averted her gaze.
“My dear,” Demeter said finally, sitting up to pull a dowdy cotton dressing gown tight around her. A single wheat kernel remained above her temple, like a snagged pearl earring. “I’m retiring. I will play her no more.”
“How was this decided?” Ev asked, shocked. This Demeter had been on stage since the very beginning. She’d hardly missed a service in five years.
“Well, the outside world bears no nuance, as I’m sure you know. I’ve been recognized by so many Churchgoers over the years, eventually I stopped hiding it. I invited my family, my friends. Hell, I invited my lovers. I made a choice to speak freely about my role here and the people around me accepted it, for the most part. Or else they didn’t stick around! It was a beautiful thing. But now I need — ” She paused, wrung her hands. “Circumstances for me have changed, and I can no longer be associated with a topless show.”
“Topless … show?” Ev hardly understood what those words referred to. “Who calls it that?”
“That’s how … it’s over for me. It’s what I’ve decided. You ought to respect that.”
“Yes, of course,” Ev said, looking down, struggling to understand the force behind this Demeter’s submission to shame. “I’ll miss you.”
“Yes. Well. When you next return to this room, I will be gone and you will be She. When you go up there, here’s my advice: Leave nothing in the shadows.”
Ev remained outside the door for a few minutes, unwilling to leave Demeter’s presence. Then some spell broke with the passing of minutes, and the woman rustling around on the other side of the door, collecting her things, uprooting her home, turned back into some old lady carrying bags of things, this time for good.
When Evelien stepped into the queer light of the stage candelabra, her skin barely reflecting those lumens, to stand and receive her daughter, the regulars gasped. A new Demeter!
Amid baskets of apples which signified her mother’s fertility, Kore emerged from below, from the arms of Hades, from a faulty trapdoor she had practically to slam her shoulder against in order to open, and rushed into her mother’s waiting arms.
She sensed that whatever was coming, she would no longer ever be alone, even in the place she hid from the rest of herself.
It was at this moment, the Embrace, when Kore’s and Demeter’s breasts met, when each of their cheeks pressed gently against the other woman’s shoulder, so close as to smell the other’s sweat under the earthy wheat, the oil-based makeup and unvarnished clay masks, that Evelien saw Andrew in the crowd.
Like all the rest, he could not take his eyes off her, but unlike them, he knew her body and her name.
Kore stepped back from Demeter to thank the Fates for her deliverance “from cold, gray Hell” and to delight in her freedom. Evelien and Andrew looked at each other. Andrew was smiling, faintly, in awe. Doubt seized her again, and her spine tingled.
Then Kore gasped, coughed, and Andrew turned to see. Kore spat up the four pomegranate seeds, the juice of them red as blood on her fingers.
“These seeds … ” Kore cried in horror, holding her dripping fist up to the audience. “What have I done?!”
Snow began to fall. A pair of demons in suits emerged from the wings.
“I thought I was free.”
Demeter was supposed to be outraged, grief-stricken. She was supposed to be summoning her powers, first commanding, then begging her brother to restore her daughter to her.
The words wouldn’t come. She was stuck wondering how Andrew had found a babysitter for Henry. Evelien was always the one who arranged it. And how had he found this place? Had he followed her? This sort of deceptive action seemed entirely beyond his abilities, and yet, she was moved by his presence. By his insistence, finally, on finding out what went on here. Her privacy within this world she’d helped build was shattered, yes, but it didn’t feel like disaster. Andrew had once been a boy, like Henry. How had she not seen this until now? She was unafraid.
Evelien removed her mask and dropped it.
She lowered her wheat skirt to the floor, revealing her legs in a pair of black bike shorts.
She, this person, approached the prostrate Kore and knelt down to be next to her. She picked up the girl’s fist and opened it, took the seeds from her, which were actually hazelnuts in dyed corn syrup.
Holding her sticky, bloody palm out to her audience, Evelien spoke, unscripted:
“Brother, why do you damn her appetite!
All she wanted was to taste the fruit of the orchard like she belonged there.
But it was … only ever contraband in her belly — how free could she be?
And he knew! The Master of Hell knew and yet he allowed her to run, gleeful, to her waiting mother.
My God. Aren’t you starving?”
She looked up blankly. Andrew began to whoop and clap, struck by the strangeness of her voice and an overwhelming desire to see Evelien succeed, then stopped abruptly when he realized the show had not yet come to an end. There was a heavy sense of hesitation. The teenage ingénue who played Kore stood up and took Demeter’s hands into her own. Behind her, the demons looked confused.
The young woman paraphrased:
“Mother. You will learn to share me in time, and your generosity will give life to all who know you.”
The drums came in at precisely 60 beats per minute. The row of Maiden Priestesses hummed in cascading major seventh harmonies. Then Kore began her final song and dance. The rest of the cast finished that night’s performance around Evelien, who gazed out at the faces in the audience, tears moving freely now, with her skirt at her feet and the seeds stuck to her palm.