The stuff of myth
Alice Thomas Ellis
Ihave just resurrected a piece of embroidery — well, appliqué mostly which I began about 20 years ago and got fed up with. It represents Persephone and Pluto — only I prefer to call him Dis, because otherwise I have this vision of big floppy ears — and is crammed with mythic- al characters made out of bits of felt and silk and velvet and rep. Now I've forgotten who most of them are. The distraught- appearing piece of pink cotton in the middle distance must, I think, be Demeter searching for her daughter (God, I do know the feeling: the school hols find me constantly on the phone tracking mine down, or, in the country, scouring the hills and hollows screeching her name) but I haven't yet given her a head or hands. The three ladies in black on the right are almost certainly the Furies because one of them has got hair made of bootlaces (snakes: did the Furies have adders for hair?). There's a harpy poised above the throne and I can't remember why she's there. Are there harpies in Hades, or has she dropped in out of some other myth? And who are the three ladies on the left wearing white and so far all bald? The Graces? Were they around in this story? I obviously chickened out of putting Cerberus in my picture. According to some versions he had three heads, but according to others he had a hundred. Even three is too many for me, and anyway I don't think I've left room for him. There are three streams of Lethe emerging from under the throne, which suddenly, for the first time, caused me to see this piece of Attic furniture as a commode, and reflect that the attic would be the best place for it. These streams are composed of snippets from an old grey watered taffeta ballgown and would be quite easy to unpick, so if I pulled myself together I could replace them with a horrendous three-headed dog. Maybe I could make him out of fake fur, or would he look too poodly? I see Cerberus really as one of those sleek-coated, short- tempered hounds who bare their teeth and tear you limb from limb before you can say Good boy'. Velvet, I think. Black. I wondered for some time why I'd put the Graces (good) on the left (sinister) side and the Furies (bad) on the right. Then I remembered that the sinister is the distaff side, and that this is really the story of Demeter and Persephone, and decided that 20 years ago I must have sat down and Worked it out and tacked down all my bits of cloth accordingly. I shall have to reread the tale and discover whether my cast is entitled to be present or whether the Younger me had Cecil B. de Mille qualities and an inability to see why she shouldn't put Moses in the Wars of the Roses.
There's a nice little Doric temple made of white satin, but I'm not altogether satisfied with the clouds of pale grey tweed. I think I may replace them with a slice of foam from a shoulder pad. I have got less purist with the course of time. If I do start doing all this fine stitching again I shall have to cut my fingernails because my fingers are tripping over them. I would Paint the clippings white and use them for Cerberus's teeth. I have got to go through the wardrobe too and throw out millions of moth-eaten garments. First I shall have to Consult Someone about the ins and outs of the legend, and then I'll have to ask if I can have most of his old ties to cut up and create fields of asphodel, because I think some of them have got flowers on. I wish they were pomegranates. As it is I shall have to embroider one with silks, which is difficult. Or perhaps I could paint a button. I'll probably lose the sight of my eyes with all this fiddly work but it would be satis- fying to finish it. Twenty years is a long time to leave unfinished business.