Serpent Tresses

Medusa slipped into the barn the other night while I cleaned the stalls. I heard a bump behind the wall and remembered that this past summer a big rat snake had slithered between those boards as if someone were behind the oak slats sucking it in like a strand of spaghetti.

Normally I’d assume a mouse and not give it another thought, other than to scowl mentally at my lazy barn cats. But the slow creep of my skin tipped me off that something more was going on.
When I heard a soft hissing behind me, I forced myself not to turn around. An image of the rat snake flashed into my mind, and I knew who was there. Emptying my pitchfork into the muck bucket, I straightened and addressed the vacant stall in front of me.

“I am here. What do you require of me?”

The hissing paused, then intensified. I heard a step behind me, close. It took everything I had to keep looking forward.

“Priestesssss…” It was a soft exhale, barely even a word.

I waited for a few heartbeats. When nothing further was said, I forced myself to continue to scoop up the manure balls and flip them into the bucket. As I moved around the stall the soft footfalls and hissing kept pace behind me.

The back of my neck was prickling madly, but I forced myself to silence and the task at hand, keeping my eyes resolutely before me. You’d think that fear plus knowledge would remove any possible desire to turn and look at her, but I had to fight it with every breath.

When both stalls were clean I dragged the heavy muck bucket out into the cold darkness, slogging through the mud to the manure pile. I had a moment’s bright panic— should I run? Or was she still behind me, watching? The slop and trudge of my heavy boots made it hard to know. I stopped and stood perfectly still. The night was so silent under the icy stars that I could hear the faint hissing, about three paces behind me. The naked trees leaned in, watching.

Keeping my eyes carefully lowered, I emptied the bucket and pulled it back to the barn. Not until it was stowed away with the pitchfork and I was mixing hot mash into the grain buckets did she speak again.

“Do you know my stories?” she whispered into my ear, causing a massive involuntary shudder. I had to swallow twice to get my voice back.

“Yes,” I said. “You know this, goddess. I have often suggested in conversations about you that your transformation was a gift, not a punishment. That you were empowered, not reduced. Understanding this was your gift to me almost a decade ago.”

Something touched the heavy hood of my barn coat and stroked down to my neck. I closed my eyes, holding myself still.

“There is more,” she breathed.

I nodded. There is always more. “I must feed the mares, goddess. Your presence is surely frightening them. Will you recede until this is done and I can give you my undivided attention?”

She moved back, past the tractors, and melted into the shadows of the haymow. The mares were tense, ears pinned, when I called them in. They shot past me, snorting in the direction of the haymow. I set flakes of hay out for them, eyes fixed on the bales, and closed up the barn.
As I crossed the paddock to the house I could hear the soft footfalls right behind me. At the door, my dog yelped on a strangled note and fled back to the bedroom where my husband slept.

I washed up and went to the living room where the Christmas tree stood garlanded with lights. I stirred up the embers of the fire, added wood and pulled the rocking chair to face it. I sat and folded my hands in my lap.

“Medusa. I am ready.”

I kept my gaze in my lap as the soft susurration moved behind me. Something touched my hair, burrowed briefly, withdrew. I forced myself to stillness.

“Tell me what you know of me,” she said.

I told her of the young girl, beautiful and innocent, wandering on the sea shore. Of the coming of the god from the sea. Of the girl’s wonder, attraction, terror. How fear overcame her and she fled to the temple of the virgin goddess, Athena, but was captured and ravished nonetheless. Of Athena’s outrage, not at the victim as is usually given, but at her own uncle, Poseidon. Of the transformative gift, granting the sobbing the girl the power to fend off all attacks, to never ever be approached or touched against her will again. Of finding a home with sisters who loved her, all protecting each other, in a place where they would be free from the intrusive gaze and lust of men. Pride and joy for her rose in me as I recounted the tale.

“Is it true?” I asked her when I finished. “This version? The one you gave me?”

“Yesss,” she replied. Then, “What more?”

I dug deep. “You want me to tell of the union with Poseidon.”

Silence, except for the crackling of the flames, and the hissing.
“Tales of Poseidon so often involve rape. Did he ravish you against your will? Or were you seduced by him?” A heartbeat. “Or did you seduce him?”

A soft chuckle. “Humans struggle with the sea-lord. Consent or constraint. Willing or no. Rape or rough sex. Capitulation or manipulation. You are now demanding reciprocity and fairness in your relations, as well you should. But you keep trying to apply your rules to the gods.

“You know the sea, girl. You grew up in it, frolicking in the welcoming sunlit shallows.” I nodded. “The sea takes what it will. Sometimes it flirts with you, plays with you, relishes your mutual delight and releases you unharmed. But you are never untouched. Every interaction with the sea changes you.” I felt the smile in her voice. “Any time you wade in up to your waist, your yoni engulfed in the brine, he is inside you. Make no mistake. You, little priestess, have been seduced by him too. Be grateful that he’s been a preux chevalier with you. That could change at any time.

“You’ve seen the giant chunks of land falling into the sea from glacial melt, and the wreckage left behind by tsunamis. When the sea is rampaging, no prayers or pleas or libations or sacrifices of virgin maidens will stop the carnage. It is the nature of oceans and it is his nature. Never forget it.
Her voice lowered. “He’s invited you down, hasn’t he? To dive into the dark with him. Down, down, far past the sunlit surface. Will you go?”

I dropped my head, shaking convulsively. “I’ve said no. I’m too afraid.” I felt again that burrowing into my hair, something dry and warm stroking my scalp.

“I know your fear. And I know that you will, one day, say yes despite it.”

My heart hammering, I hurried to change the subject. “You are said to be the only mortal of the Gorgon sisters, but Hesiod says your parents are the ancient sea deities, Phorkys and Keto, so shouldn’t you also be an immortal?”

“I am ancient beyond the creation of mortal humans,” said the dry voice behind me. “Never underestimate the power of bards to lie when it suits them. I was slain and beheaded by that little man, but here I am. Think, little priestess. What would the implications be for a mere mortal, especially a dolt like Perseus, to kill a goddess? Why might that story change?”

My head whirled. I stammered, “I-I don’t know. It would elevate him beyond human status? Apotheosize him?”

The silence was not encouraging. I stilled my thoughts, took three ritual breaths and tried again. The placement of her head on Athena’s shield had to be for more than decoration. And despite their portrayal in myth, gods work in harmony. Her obsidian gaze from the aegis must be working her Will in the world, not something forced upon her.

“He didn’t kill you,” I said. “He was the catalyst for a change that you chose.”

The hissing started again, strangely approving. “Why?” came the whisper.

I took my time. Finally I came up with, “Your children. Pegasus and Khrsaor were born when you were beheaded, having gestated from the time of rape. They needed you to change your form in order to be released into the world.”


I dug deeper. “Your sister Gorgons weren’t able to protect you, so something to do with them. But I don’t know what.”

“My name means ‘cunning’,” she told me. “Or ‘ruler’. Both fit. My sister Stheno’s name means ‘strength’, Euryale’s ‘far-ranging.’ Does that enlighten you?”

I was intrigued that she was goading me to figure this out, not simply telling me or leaving me in ignorance. I stared into the fire, letting the soft hissing at my back merge with the fire’s crackling, my mind riffling through what I knew of the ancient tales.

Finally, I straightened, nudging a questing wedge-shaped head off my shoulder. “I’ve always thought that it was the later tales that added more Gorgons to make three, that at first it was only you. But maybe I’ve got it wrong. After all, Stheno and Euryale don’t appear in any myths that I’ve read after your beheading. Maybe the transformation was the merging of the sisters, from three to one. Perhaps Athena, or even Zeus, had need of your cunning, strength and range. Maybe you were summoned from your comfortably-removed lair and brought back into the active cycle of the Theoi. Your offspring set free in the world, the Gorgons taken from their remote desert lair and returned to society as an apotropaic symbol on the aegis of the Gods of Law, and bane to those who break the laws. Back to active duty for you.”

I could hear the smile in her voice when she said, “There is yet more, but you’ve done well, little one. Can you find a story in there?”

I laughed. “A few, even for a poor bard like me. But if you’re going to give me stories, I would so love to hear more about your son Khrysaor, the giant with the golden sword. You know I’ve loved Pegasus my whole life, but I can’t find any tales about your other child.”

The snake noises became more agitated. “My mighty son’s obliteration from history is an abomination. But if you wish to know more, you must seek it from him directly. His is not my tale to tell.”

“There’s so much I don’t know,” I pleaded. “Are your deadly eyes related to the bright eyes of Athena? Did drops of your venomous blood turn into vipers, and what about coral reefs? Are they your creation? Do you hate men? Are you beautiful or monstrous? Are you happy?”

I heard her move to the ancestor shrine. My Little Mumsie’s mirror, the one she gave me right before she died, was placed in my lap. I froze.

“Look,” she commanded. When my hands remained twisted together in my lap, she leaned over me, slender arms and beautiful hands slithering over my shoulders, picked up the mirror and placed it in my grasp. “Look,” she said again.

I lifted the mirror and looked into it, back over my shoulder. I screamed, but breathlessly, making a sound that brought the dog back out, but only as far as the hallway, whining anxiously. The terrible face that looked back at me will haunt my dreams for as long as I live— the wide cheekbones, protruding tongue, and whirling, seething eyes, writhing like the serpents that darted at me from her scalp, drops of venom trembling on their fangs. She grinned at me and I could smell death. I made myself keep looking although I could feel my face frozen into a moue of pity and terror. As she held my gaze, her face shifted, the eyes becoming still and wide, dark as the depths of the oceans. Her cheeks slimmed and narrowed, the grinning mouth softened and became lush and full. Ringlets of midnight hair cascaded over her shoulders, emphasizing rather than concealing the long slash of skin exposed by jungle-print green Versace silk.

At my gasp she placed a warning hand on my shoulder. “Don’t turn,” she warned. “You are not safe.”

I subsided, staring into the mirror. “Which of your stories are the true ones, Gorgon Goddess?” I asked her. “I have to know.”

“All of them,” she replied.

Then she was gone.