Encounters with Old Gods

They say the old gods are dead.

The old gods are not dead. They’ve all been reborn, reimagined, repurposed, and reincarnated. They live in my city. They walk on my streets. They are my neighbors, my coworkers, my friends, and my peers.

I met Dionysus in a bar. I was lonely on a Friday night, and after the day I’d had at work, a drink sounded like a good idea. He was sitting across from me at the bar, nursing a glass of wine, shadowed face, sunken eyes. His skin was olive and his hair was a mess of black curls and cowlicks. He wasn’t drinking his wine, more like staring into the glass, contemplating the dark liquid, and he was passing what looked like a poker chip between his fingers. At a closer glance, I noticed the chip changed in appearance every time it slipped through his deft fingers. First it was a 60-day token from Alcoholics Anonymous, then a golden drachma. He flipped the coin and caught it on the back of his hand. Now it was a quarter, and it had turned up heads. Dionysus drank. The bartender slid a drink in front of me – the napkin said “From the god of drunken revelry” – and Dionysus nodded when he noticed me watching. I held up my glass to him. We toasted.

Zeus was my boss. Entitled, smarmy, rich, powerful. I had been at the company for years, and I worked harder than anyone else in my department. I was undermined, underestimated, and Zeus was always calling me into his office to comment on the skirt I was wearing, never on the work I was doing. He sat on the edge of his desk and eyed my hemline, his hand proprietary and forceful when he put it on my knee. “We value your skills here,” he lied, his smile hungry. His hand inched up. I was moments away from threatening to sue for sexual harassment when Hera walked in. Thunderclouds rolled across the office and the air crackled with lightning and ozone. Hera was the CEO of the company, Queen of Heaven in a dangerous black dress and towering heels, a glittering 24-karat diamond on her finger. She’d been on the cover of Forbes and Fortune, The 50 Most Powerful Women. She knew her husband was unfaithful, yet she had him by the balls. I admired her and feared her in turns. Her gaze on Zeus was steady and unnerving, sharp eyes, smile thin as a knifepoint. She slapped a binder down on his desk. “Your numbers this quarter are disappointing.” Zeus shrank from her, and when she looked at me, her dismissal was cold. But when I returned to work the next day, I received a promotion and a raise.

I took a women’s self-defense class at my gym, and Artemis was my instructor. She was a hunter of those who hunted, teaching us to defend and fight against those who would take things from us we were not willing to give. We had coffee together after every class and walked our dogs together on the weekends. Her eyes were the color of the moon and her dog looked like a wolf. She invited me to an archery class with her, and we spent an afternoon shooting silver arrows at targets shaped like men. Her arrow always hit the bullseye.

It was a Saturday night when my friends told me about a new nightclub that had sprung up downtown, called Elysium. I put on a red dress and pink heels and joined my friends in an Uber. Our driver’s name was Charon, and he ferried us to the underworld. The walls of Elysium were black and painted with dripping neon flowers, and the entry stamp I got on my hand was in the shape of a three-headed dog. The lights changed colors like seasons, from winter to spring to summer to fall. The best drink on the menu was the pomegranate martini, addicting in its flavor. My friends and I danced and danced, the taste of forbidden fruit on our lips, until the owners of the club made a special appearance and welcomed us to their world. Hades and Persephone were wrapped in velvet and promised us we’d always be happy in Elysium. We believed them.

I met Aphrodite on a solitary trip to the art museum. She was standing in front of a painting of herself, but it looked nothing like her. I always had a feeling the various interpretations of her never captured her image quite right. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Her skin was burnished dark and her hair was rich, long down her back and wavy like the ocean that had birthed her. Her eyes were deep, warm brown. She had soft, full curves and plump thighs. I wasn’t a poet, but I could’ve written a sonnet about her. She smiled when she noticed me staring, and I blushed. We spent the whole day together, and it felt like a dream. Afterwards, I went home with her and we had the best sex I’d ever experienced in my life. She whispered sweet nothings in my ear and made me feel like I was floating on a cloud. She left me with her phone number and told me to call her. When I did, hopeful with my heart full, she didn’t answer. I cried over her for a week and ate my weight in ice cream.

I went on runs in the morning to burn off the ice cream. I liked to run on the beach, and one morning, I came across Poseidon. He was collecting shells along the shoreline, inspecting each one with care. He had a thick gray beard and a fisherman’s distinctive scent. I paused on my run to help him look for treasures. He found a pretty pink shell with a beautiful shape and handed it to me, and I asked what kind it was. He seemed like he would know. “It’s a sunray venus,” he told me. It reminded me of Aphrodite, so I kept the shell and brought it home. When I started on my run again and said goodbye to the god of the sea, he walked right into the ocean and disappeared under the waves.

Hermes was the mailman for my apartment building. He stole mail from me, but that was okay, because they were letters from people I didn’t want to speak to, family I’d fallen out with. Hermes seemed to know I didn’t want to hear from them. He was nice to me, and he always handled my Amazon packages with care. And more importantly, he never judged how many times I bought something from Amazon. When he saw I was sad, he made me laugh with little magic tricks, hiding quarters that turned into golden drachmas behind my ears.

I accidentally broke a watch my grandfather had given me, and when I brought it to the repair place, Hephaestus was the man working behind the counter. He had a prosthetic leg and a weathered face, but he was gentle, and kind. He fixed my watch for no charge and gave me a discount on my next purchase. I told him I’d met his wife, and he made me feel better about my heartbreak when he shared his own. We mourned the loss of love together, and when I left the repair shop, I had a new friend and a renewed fire in my heart.

On another weekend, I went out with my friends to a club with live music. Apollo was the lead singer of the band. He had a voice like a chorus of angels and a smile like the sun, and when his eyes found mine in the front row, he winked. I went home with him later, and in the morning, he told me he was going to write a song about me. His skin was covered in tattoos, words and poems and lyrics, and he played the guitar for me over breakfast, trying out melodies for his new song. I told him I knew his sister, and he laughed. “Tell her I said hello.” He drove me home in his car, a golden chariot.

I saw Ares and Athena on TV. Ares was a corrupt police sergeant running for mayor. Athena was his running mate. They debated over resources and allocations and funding. Ares wanted a larger police presence on the streets, where the boys in blue already ruled with an iron fist and abused their power like the gods they thought themselves to be; Athena wanted more funding for education and a larger focus on city construction, refurbishing old buildings and beautifying our public spaces. I watched their debates on the screen with riveted attention. Ares’s eyes were full of fire and hungry for bloodshed. Athena’s face was trustworthy. Her eyes spoke of wisdom, millennia of it. I was voting for her.

I ran into Demeter at the grocery store. She sold me on the benefits of all-natural organic cereal, and then she prompted me to buy a bouquet of flowers for my kitchen table. “Brighten up your home,” she said. “Make springtime come early. If you see my daughter, tell her I miss her.” It was colder outside, winter on the horizon. Persephone was in Elysium, drawing in the crowds and reveling in the nightlife with her husband. Demeter told me the best way to keep my flowers alive for as long as possible, even though I was a notorious killer of houseplants. Somehow, the flowers thrived and bloomed for months.

Hestia was the manager at Home Goods. I was a frequent shopper there, always in need of new couch pillows or throw rugs or pretty things to hang on my wall, anything to make my house feel like a home. We made small talk every time she found me in her store. She knew me by name. She always made me feel familiar, welcomed, loved. When she invited me over to her place for coffee, I never wanted to leave. Her apartment was nicer than mine, warmer and homier, a fire burning in the hearth, comforting and soothing. She hosted dinner parties every week and made her guests feel like family.

So you see, the old gods are not dead. They’ve all been reborn, reimagined, repurposed, and reincarnated. They live in my city. They walk on my streets. They are my neighbors, my coworkers, my friends, and my peers.

They live, and they breathe, and they say, “We are still here.” I see them all the time, everywhere I go.

They say the old gods are dead.

But I know better.

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