"Demeter" by Maile Meloy Originally published in the November 19, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
A new Maile Meloy short story: a good way to start the week.
“Demeter” was written to be part of a collection of short stories based on myths due out next year. For those who need refreshing, Demeter is the goddess of the harvest, of marriage, and of the cycle of life and death. She had a daughter named Persephone who is each year taken to the Underworld to be with Hades. At that time, Demeter goes into mourning, the days shorten, and winter overtakes the earth. The ties between “Demeter” and the myth are clear from the first line:
When they divided up the year, Demeter chose, for her own, the months when the days started getting longer. It was easier that way. It meant that she delivered her daughter to her ex-husband in the late, bright Montana summer and she could handle it then, most of the time, with a little pharmaceutical help. She couldn’t handle giving her up in the dead of winter.
Hank is Demeter’s ex-husband. Their relationship was troubled well before they had their only daughter, Perry, “unexpected, the pregnancy a buoyant gift at a time when Demeter and Hank were like drowning people, tugging each other under.” As the story begins, Demeter is driving her daughter to stay with Hank for the next six months. She’s distraught and already mourning. Naturally, she can hardly bear being away from her daughter. Also, she believes her daughter prefers living with Hank (after all, there she will have red meat and processed foods; Demeter’s hearth is stocked with grains), and so she feels like she’s losing her daughter in more ways than one. So acute is her grief that when Perry gets out of the car, Demeter cannot drive away. When she finally does, she is struck by a thought:
When she was young, she had liked to say that she would never have regrets. Her life was her life, her choices her choices, and she would stand by it all. But she did have a regret now. She wished she had never had a child.
She pulled the care over to the curb, startled by the thought. It was true. She couldn’t wish her daughter away now, but if she had a time machine she would go back and erase the conception. Then there wouldn’t be this agony, there wouldn’t be the black times. She would have found other sources of love, and she wouldn’t have this gnawing emptiness. One tiny erasure and everything would be different. Catastrophe avoided.
I had never connected the myth of Demeter and Persephone with the contemporary legal structure of joint custody. Meloy’s stories often revolve around the legal world, family law in particular, and the emotions here strike genuinely.
However, I’m still not sure how to reconcile what we’ve read so far with the story’s next act, where the story shifts dramatically. At this point I was delighted to find reference to one of Meloy’s older short stories, “Four Lean Hounds, ca. 1976,” from her collection Half in Love (my review here). In that story, Demeter is a side character, probably the least mentioned of the four individuals who make up the two young married couples, best friends. At that time she is still married to Hank (they haven’t had Perry yet). The other couple is Duncan and Kay. All suffer when Duncan drowns while working on a dam with Hank. Grief-stricken, Hank and Kay sleep together: “The first time Hank slept with Kay — the only time — was the night her husband drowned.” In “Demeter,” we learn that Demeter and Duncan had been sleeping together for some time; and another result of the grief was Perry: “[Demeter and Hank] were moving around the death like two satellites in separate orbits when they collided in the bedroom and Perry was conceived.”
The story shifts because Demeter runs into Annie, Duncan and Kay’s daughter, at the swimming pool, and Demeter’s thoughts are centered now on Duncan, not on Perry. Ties to the Demeter myth continue, especially when there’s a freak snowstorm in August, but I’m having a difficult time putting part two of the story with part one. That said, it’s a puzzle I’m interested in thinking about, meaning the story succeeds for me, even if it is not one I’d put in Meloy’s top tier. I’m anxious to look into it again and to read anyone’s thoughts. I believe there is a lot here.