Medusa

Mediterranean Waves photo Michael Cadnum

 

An audio version of this story, read by the incandescent Nicola Seaton-Clark, can be heard by clicking the following link.


https://soundcloud.com/michael-cadnum/cadnum-medusa

 

 

Nicola Seaton-Clark reads Medusa.

 

 

 

 

from my book of short stories Can't Catch Me








 

 

 

 

 

 

MEDUSA



    Sharp-eyed Athena passed among us in those days.

    From shore to hilltop, little was lost on her.  She was quick to spot someone
attempting an unwise deed, a youth walking along the rim of a well--showing off to a
maiden--or a young woman flirting with a grinning brigand just arrived on a wine ship
from Samos.

    The goddess of wisdom, Athena was the winged shadow who brushed the ankle
just enough to tumble the lad into the well, where his cries echoed until cold water
drowned them. She was the owl-shape keening lustful encouragement to the shepherd's
daughter, leaving her, as time passed, pregnant and bitterly wise.

    Athena was a pretty little night-bird when she took to the wing, just avoiding the
snapping jaws of the vixen or the hound, too sure of herself to be afraid of a hunter's
tooth.  In her womanly guise, the goddess was beautiful, with a laugh like warm wind in
olive trees, her step gentle music among the small, white stones.

    Every mortal woman learned to leap quickly from her path as the Daughter of
Zeus came flirting with some demi-god or human, running her hands through her sky-
bright hair, her laughter causing red poppies to flower in the field.

    I was a shipwright's daughter, my hair gilded by the sun.  I spent my girlhood
holding a plumb line and handing my father a wood-plane, helping my brothers peg
planks to a ship's frame, loving my father and my brothers as the keel loves sea.

    I learned the names of the winds as I grew up, my stature increasing with the
summers.   My shadow on the sand transformed from a girl's shape to a woman's.  The
wind ran through my tresses, breeze stroking my linen mantle so the outline of my still-
maturing body was clear.  I ran along the edge of the surf, chasing my brothers, laughing
with them in the tart salt spray. 

    Handsome plowmen greeted me, cowherds offered me foaming cups of milk, and
the wealthy vineyard keeper sang for me.

    I was loved.



    One day as I washed the sandy grit from my white feet, the tide began to rise.  Sea
rounded my ankles, lapping upward to my knees, the simmering brine chuckling,

    "Medusa, pretty Medusa, most lovely and playful of all the mortal maidens, listen to me."

    My breath caught, and I stepped back.  But I could not escape far, followed by the
bubbling laughter of the foam, sporting with me, each step.  It tickled pleasingly, this
splashing froth.  Who was I to flee?

    And how could I deny the salt-silvered figure of Neptune in my bed chamber that
night?

    Strong-muscled, ancient and ever-youthful Neptune, the sea god himself
murmured into my ear his vows of faithfulness.  He said that believed himself in love,
and I think he was.  My room grew bright with sea-joy.

    I heard her wings when they were still far off.

    I recognized the flutter of her search, circling as she spied his wet steps among the
grasses of the dunes, her feathers cutting through the night.

    My chamber curtain wafted and parted, flung aside by a pair of owl wings.
I knew her at once, the silken plumage, those gray, raptor eyes, seeing what was
happening just as Neptune took me in his arms, the ocean-god breathing my name like the
surf.

    An owl's cry split the hush, her shriek a curse.

    My hair intertwined, locks seeking each other, coursing curls thickening, writhing. 
I could not make a sound, stunned.  Arrayed across my pillow, my hair was a crown of
serpents, each reptile hungry, rooted in my skull.

    In his horror, Neptune fled me, his sea-perfume fading through the dark.  Athena's
voice, cold as any betrayed mortal woman's, whispered, "From this night, Medusa, every
man who sees you will turn to stone."

    Every lover, I thought she meant, never dreaming the weight of a goddess's curse. 
At dawn, terrified of my own twisting shadow, serpents lunging, battling one
other, I cried out for my father.  He called my name in return, interrupted as he fastened
on his shipwright's apron.

    He gaped in dismay.

    And froze, just as he was, early morning glittering on the marble arms of his
fatherly embrace.

    I called out, "Not one step closer, I pray you," to my brothers.

    They rushed forward, aroused by my shriek, and they, too, cast suddenly
unmoving shadows, their once-quick features forever in white stone.

    I hid among the sand dunes and the brambles, my serpent diadem darting,
anchored in my head, ever-hungry, lashing the air before my eyes.  I went without food.  I
slept among the roots of trees, and drank from black-scummed brooks.  When my sandals
wore thin, I cast them off and tattered my soles on thorns.  I cried out to warn wandering
shepherds, and hissed to frighten hunters.  Spring and fall, I felt no human touch.

    The story is told as far as the round sea's end, how Athena, even that sky-dwelling
divine, sickened at the sight of her curse's handiwork.  Regret or disgust ripened in her,
until one day she found a champion.

    She stroked his arm, and seduced him into courage.  Bold Perseus, he of the sharp
sword and ready laugh, was sailing forth to cut off my head.

    I heard the village-folk murmur these tidings at the well-head, ox-drivers
repeating the rumor.  I hid among the ancient olive trees and stole along the village paths,
as far as I could wander from the frieze of stone men, my family and the occasional
traveler, rooted to the soil, permanent and lost.

    I devised a plan.

    The lonely have months to study the nature of the gods, and the nature of false
wisdom.  I heard Perseus singing, coming for miles, love songs about Athena.  He had a
voice that charmed.  He strode through the groves carrying his mirrored shield, adorned
by divinely inspired confidence, and circled around by a pair of darting, moon-silver owl
wings.

    I had heard it foretold by shepherd's gossip, how he had polished his shield so he
could eye my reflection without harm, how Athena would guide his sword-arm,
murmuring in his ear, in love with the songs about her own eternal beauty.

    He smiled when he saw me in his shield.

    He spoke my name--he was so in love with his own voice.

    "I wish you good morning," he added, mock-formal, groping for the pommel of
his sword.

    I said nothing, saving my speech for the prayer I had crafted during my long
silence.

    A sure-footed man, one who had never questioned his own destiny, he winked as
he kept my reflection in his shield.  He slipped his sword from its sheath.  The blade's
shadow lifted, and he held it high as the owl breathed encouragement.

    The sword whispered as it cut through the air.



    When people speak of me they tell of my head cut-off.  They study statues and
paintings of my demise, severed head held aloft, staring with wide eyes as my power to
transform men ebbs away.

    No one knows the secret.

    How a darting pair of wings swooped, whispering praise to  the swordsman as he
swung the blade.  The bright owl banked, gliding ever closer, the wind from her feathers
arousing my serpent-crown.

    A snake goes hungry like no other living creature.  Starving, voiceless and
unnamed, cool nights chill the reptile, and hot sun scalds her.  Within the shadow

of a living quarry at last, at least one pair of reptile eyes grew bright.

    A famished snake snatched the owl.  The hungry serpent swallowed, working the
night-bird down, enclosing the struggling wings in her belly.



    The shore is white, and rippled with wind-dunes.

    Sea strokes the sharp stones round.  Centuries come, and the sharpest flint is
softened, caressed by the tongues of surf.

    Let me live, was my dying prayer to Athena, trapped in the muscled darkness of a
snake.

    Let me live as I deserve, I prayed, the sword stroke severing vessels and bone, my
fading sight held high.

    And I will let you go.

    The goddess struggled, her sharp talons, her crushed wings, working--helplessly. 
And at that moment she was truly wise.

    The wind from the north blows cold, and summer rolls blue and empty of song. 
Perseus is nothing, a graven hero, a breath of air.

    Athena, in her desperation, made a vow.

    And she keeps her word.

    Now I am stone, among the rounded, enduring company of my father and my
brothers.  Every time you walk along the gray and dappled pebbles of the shore you hear
us, laughing with the never-dying sea. 

 

 

 

Ocean rocks photo Michael Cadnum


 
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