Forgotten things linger in the corner of your eye. Turn your head and memory runs from perception like a pearl rolling across alabaster. You watch the blue-green ocean sample the rocky beach: each taste generates transformation. The entrance to the cave behind you is a little too low and you must make a small, respectful bow each time you enter or exit. It looks like homage, but to what? Inside it is always cold no matter the heat of the Mediterranean sun outside. You wish for rugs and pillows, colorful things to bring cheer to the grey and brown rock. Scattered, your mind wheels like pearls across a clean white floor asking questions: What happened to me? Why am I here? Where are my sisters? The serpents and their ceaseless sibilance interrupt your musing. Mad, you strike at your own head with fists clenched by pent up rage and sorrow, slap and punch like the deranged woman who loiters by the fountain of Bacchus. Vipers strike back, biting your hands.
You are not immune to your own poison.
Here, where you are exiled, you brood. Generations of allegory ripen to pomegranate seeds to be planted a hundred, or a thousand, years from now. The sound of water displaced, tentacles and carbuncles dripping on rock, pulls you from the cave. Mother. Sea monster. You are so happy for the company. “Close your eyes, child.” How could you forget? Eyes squeezed tight you fold and touch foreheads with her, caress the ridge behind her eyes. You don’t need sight to know her face: she is your mother. She tells you, “Write it down. Tell the story before others take ownership. Before they warp it; torture it into a confession, a new shape – cardinal colored doctrine. You are not the villain here.”
“I don’t remember what happened,” you say. But Ceto – Mother – won’t stay. She is afraid of you, of a misplaced glance. Afraid of sinking with the weight of stone, and depths where the charts don’t show. She slips back into the sea to make her way back to your father. They’re both monsters, and now you are too.
Scarcely ahead of vision, it is there again – a skittering blue pearl. It troubles you, this slippery sphere offering macrocephalic madness in reflection. What does it mean? Never still, it slides from view. Like your mind, it is restless.
You have never been alone like this, without hope. You seek comfort, what can be had in a tomb of granite. Some of the rock is beautiful with veins of quartz that scintillate when light ignites them, but it is no place to call home. Home is music and voices, food and companionship. The cave is silent and empty but for you and a few artifacts, casualties before you knew better – one look is death. You pick up a squirrel, smooth and warm the stone with your hands. It scampered over rocks inducing small stones to frolic. When you heard the noise you thought someone had come to assuage your isolation, ran out of the cave to look, forgot what you were for a moment. It is comforting to stroke the small stone rodent: it reminds you of soft pelts caressed, warmth and adornment. You remember this, but not what needs remembering. Why are you the monster?
Lonely, exiled, your thoughts alight on your sisters. You miss them. You fought – Stheno, Euryale and you – but your fights lacked teeth. Simple kindred scheming born of envy.
“By all the gods, Medusa, come away from the mirror,” Stheno said, tugging on your arm and laughing.
“Yes, give someone else a chance,” Euryale added, stepping in front of you.
“You’re both jealous. The green-eyed monster is going to get you if you’re not careful.” How the three of you laughed.
“Seriously, Medusa, you know what happened to Narcissus,” Stheno said. Her stern look only made you laugh harder.
You stepped away from the mirror and said, “Go ahead. Take your turn. I would rather stare into Perseus’s eyes than my own in this scratched mirror.”
But you were envious as well. Triplets, the three of you, and only two graced with immortality.
You write: They were blessed with life. Endless life.
To be as beautiful as you were for all eternity.
And: They were cursed with endless life.
For wouldn’t it be a curse to you now, immortality?
There it is again, the thing that flees recognition. Always in the corner of your mind’s eye, it moves in tempo to the twist of your head. Heavy, but invisible. Dark but nothing. It crushes your heart to an irregular beat, makes you want to run. You turn your head round and round never catching sight. It’s not the serpents. They have learned their lesson – silence and an existence outside of peripheral vision.
You write: I remember a wave.
You speak into the empty reaches of the cave; broken echoes mock you.
“I remember a wave.” wave
“It rose over me. Over the temple” rose temple
A violation of water washed away the offerings – flowers, perfumed oil, goats. Washed away the obligation of supplicants, things – meant to show devotion.
“There was a goat bleating.”
Gurgled voice and hydrodynamic repression.
“Water was in my eyes. My mouth. My ears.”
“I didn’t drown. Why didn’t I drown?”
Writing it down isn’t helping. You touch your throat and think about pearls on the floor, rolling in all directions.
You write: Unreliable memory and lovers.
“Where is Perseus?” here see see see us
He told you that he loved you most of all. But he turned from you, after. After the wave. His gaze shied from you and anchored to Andromeda, a princess of Ethiopia. She became the bottom of the sea for him. When you reached for Perseus he held his hands stiff at his sides. His eyes mouthed accusations, saying, “This is your own fault. You wanted this.”
At night you stand in front of the toothless mouth of your cave and see your future in the stars. Perseus and Andromeda look at each other across the reaches of space, forever and ever. Tears fall. He never looked at you like that.
You write: I come to stone, to agate.
So heavy. You carry weight. Gravid with the weight of words written in stone, the weight of history. You can only imagine yourself. There are no mirrors on the walls of stone. Your eyes measure consequence. Is destiny just another way of saying status quo?
You write: Where are my pretty wings?
You had wings: decorative and flightless like ostrich and emu, wings that could not bear you aloft. You could not fly from that temple, fly from this cave, fly like Icarus, perhaps, and sink like a skipped stone when airborne exuberance concedes victory to gravity.
The Graeae, your other sisters, come. Your eyes are closed to protect them, but with memory’s eyes you can see their hag faces and layered rags clothing. More monstrous than you, they enjoy your exile.
“Perseus has already forgotten you,” says one.
“You should have given in to Poseidon,” says another.
“Look where love has gotten you,” says the third.
Passing their one shared eye between them, they divine a future where they will never know love. You shiver to hear the wet sucking sound of the eye pulled and inserted, pulled and inserted always with greedy haste: the blind two forever impatient to become the seeing one. You remember that one horrible eye, blood shot and lacking an iris. “We will return.”
“The time is not yet.”
“We will return.”
The Graeae have roused the serpents from previous docility. Vehemently hissing, they are a writhing chorus singing you the future if only you spoke the language. You take a fresh piece of papyrus, blank potential waiting for ink to give it meaning, and write:
The serpents are restless.
And: There were pearls.
There were pearls – the mantles of shelled mollusk and mineral metaphor. They rolled across alabaster; roll their way into memory.
You write: I remember.
You strolled the marketplace, accepting the sun’s warmth and admiring looks of the crown in equal measure, Euryale on one side and Stheno on the other. A group of men had gathered, amicably arguing. You three, arms linked, moved closer to hear what had roused this group of men. One of them, toothless, though not so old, said, “Medusa is the most beautiful girl in all of Greece.” Another agreed, “More beautiful even than Athena.” Euryale and Stheno sucked in their breath, horrified by the insult to the goddess. You, however, smiled. Flattered. Your small vanity and youth forged blinders to the more monstrous vanity of Athena. Your sisters dragged you from the square saying, “Hurry. Hurry.” At first you resisted, not understanding why you must leave so suddenly, before you even had a chance to shop in the market. You finally yielded to the strength of their urgency.
At home Euryale told you, “Stay put. Don’t leave the compound. Keep the gates locked and guarded.” As though a gate and guards would be of any consequence to a goddess. “We will go to Athena’s temple later and make offerings, make amends. Stheno and I will go find her, try to gauge her anger.”
“The temple offering will have to outweigh the insult,” Stheno said, and they rushed away.
How does one compute the value of insulted vanity?
Waiting and thinking you finally understood the magnitude of what had happened. It jolted you into action. You bathed in fragrant oils and dusted – girded – yourself in gold. You chose a white goat with pink eyes and the finest oil, fruit and spices that could be bought. A trusted slave accompanied you to the temple to carry the oblation, the weight of apology. You left before your sisters returned, before they could counsel you. Would their advice have eclipsed Athena’s ruthless lack of compassion?
A wave rose over the temple. Over you. It blotted out the sun, left you crouching in shadow, day turned to gloaming.
“Poseidon.” The cave walls are enormous ears poised to hear your confession.
You were kneeling, head bowed in petition, in what you hoped Athena would believe was humility, for it was humility, and there he was. Water made man. Tall and sculpted and rippling with light – blue and green and white.
“He took my hand.”
He raised you from supplication and spoke, “Medusa. Beautiful Medusa, is any woman more exquisite than you? Be as a wife to me.” He seduced from the depths of the sea a gift, a necklace of rare and shimmering pearls. They reflected the blue sea and the wide blue sky on their curved surface. He placed it around your neck.
“I can’t accept this,” you said and reached to undo the clasp.
He thought you shy. He didn’t yet understand that he was being rebuffed. He smiled and made to re-secure the necklace.
“Perseus and I are to wed.”
He laughed, thinking you toyed with him as part of a love game. He settled his triumphant smile into a look of concern, echoing the seriousness of your expression, playing along. You handed him the necklace. Astonishment rippled across his face when he realized you meant to deny him. Enraged, he roared with the might of the sea. You covered your ears in pain. Used to taking what he wanted Poseidon washed over you in anger. You fell to the floor of Athena’s temple. You tried to rise but he would not allow it. His hands were everywhere. Did he make for himself more than two arms? Resistance only made him angrier. He became a violation of water. Water was in your eyes. Your mouth. Your ears. He penetrated you. Unable to escape the engulfing, your screams went unheard. Each time you opened your mouth to breath or scream there was only more water. Black spots floated and joined to become a squeezing darkness. You couldn’t will your limbs to struggle.
“I heard the goat’s bleating, heard it drowning.”
Prostrate, lying upon the cold, white alabaster floor of the temple you heaved air and retched. The noose of pearls was broken. Rare gemstones rolled to all corners of the temple and lingered, small globes of iridescent refraction reflecting the grotesquely enlarged features of all who would admire such things. Who might you call for help? Who punishes the powerful? Zeus? He was busy just then wearing the raiment of a swan.
Dress in sodden rags, you wept and raged on the chill floor of the temple, “Athena will be furious when she sees what Poseidon has done in her temple.”
You dozed, exhausted. How long did you sleep before bright light dragged you to consciousness, woke you to saturated pain? It was Athena lit from within; beauty and wrath made her shine like Helios. You thought to rise. Accept her embrace. Be sisters. She pushed you down and ripped the wings from your back. Screaming tore your throat to bloody, stilled your voice to tangled complicity. In the after-silence you heard the sound of sinew loading elastic energy and wondered if you would feel pain when her arrow struck. You closed your eyes and hoped your sisters would place a coin in your mouth – Charon’s tithe – a shiny silver obolus.
Voices intervened at the moment of perfect bowstring tension. Stheno shouted, “Stay your hand.”
Euryale begged, “Please, Athena. Please don’t kill our sister.”
The silence stretched, ended finally by the reluctant creak of the bow. You learned the form of Athena’s mercy: “Your gaze will be death, a fitting punishment for your vanity. You must live in exile or be surrounded by sculpted stone, reminders of friend and foe. I will give you serpents for company to replace your hair.”
“Athena,” Euryale said, but Athena put a hand up, palm outward to stop her from speaking.
“An empty island will become your home: your sisters will escort you. There is a cave for shelter. When your feet touch the stone of that island your transformation will begin. You will remain mortal. I leave you death as an escape.” Then, Athena was gone. Lifting you from the ground, your sisters draped a cloak around you. Always voracious for spectacle, a crowd had gathered: jubilation at the cost of another’s misery is easy. Perseus was there too, and he would not take your hand. His eyes blamed you.
You write: Hurry sisters. There is stone.
The Graeae arrive sheltering their shared eyeball in a silk-lined bag. You keep your back to them.
“Perseus must kill me,“ you tell them before they can tell you that this is your fate.
“You want him to do it for love,” says the one with the eye.
“He will do it from guilt,” says one of your blind sisters.
“Or blame or justice,” adds the third.
He will do it to free his mother from another rapist, Polydectes. He will do it so he can rescue Andromeda, play the hero, unchain her from the rock where she waits to drown.
“Athena will give him a gold shield,” these creatures – your sisters – tell you, and you want to believe it is for mercy belated.
“Hermes, Hephaestus and Hades will give other gifts to your ex-lover.”
You can’t imagine why they participate in this, what they have against you. In parting, the Graeae tell you something you didn’t know:
“Pegasus – winged horse.”
“Chrysaor – golden warrior.”
Children. The Graeae think this information is another injury, but it is a caress, a salve to your wounds.
“Progeny of rape,” says the sighted one, voice trilling bitterness. But you refuse to blame them for their origin. The heaviness, what you took for stone, is a measure of life: not burden but substance.
Perseus flies to you across the wide sea on winged sandals, his gift from Hermes. You wait for him on the beach. As instructed he polished the gold shield to a mirrored shine. Since you dare not look at him you imagine that he struggles to make his heart calloused, to hate you. Keening, you close your eyes and wait for him to approach. The serpents are limp against your bowed head.
Perseus hesitates and begins to weep. It is elation and anguish, the waiting; two sides of a scale hung in perfect balance. Your fate was written for you, but in submission you have taken ownership.
“Do it,” you whisper.
His face shifts like sand in the wind – pity, hatred, love, anger. Is he losing his nerve?
“Do it,” you shout and finally hear the sound of a blade rushing to fulfill its purpose. There is one singular shock of pain. Whole and miraculous – your children erupt from the bloody stump of your neck. Pomegranate seeds and brothers. A teeming coral reef grows where your blood mixes with seawater. Unfurling wings that are more than ornaments, away your children fly.
Clever Perseus thought of one last thing: he brought a canvas sack. He will carry your head in it to use as a weapon. Death has given you the potency that life denied.
The last thing your eyes see before the darkness of canvas closes over them are the forever stars where Perseus holds your severed head. Up there, spinning in the cosmos, he is near to, but never touching Andromeda. You will always be between them.