by Hunter Liguore
Medusa spent the morning in the garden filing off the face of the stone soldier. Unnatural and strained, the face was identical to the others, with eyes extended like broken egg-yokes, and an open, hollow mouth that was impeded from ever breathing again.
The nose was the first to go, and once she chiseled off the lips, she’d stuff dirt and seeds, past crooked teeth, into the hole, and wait for flowers to grow. Later, after lunch, she’d return with a make-shift hammer, an invention she’d made in her spare time, many years ago—how many, she couldn’t recall, only that her skin showed signs of age—with it, she’d strike the raised sword free, and use it as a stake in the vegetable area, behind the aging wall, to keep the tomato and sunflower from falling over.
Medusa looked up from her work, gazing toward the trellises of lavender and ivy, which provided the terrace shade from the morning sun, past staggered rows of stone men, now shapeless and deformed—who sometimes reminded her of guests to a party. On the table, her morning tea grew cold. But she had no time for leisure, and continued to search for an empty place to put another head. If she could knock it off in one clear shot, without splitting, it served a multitude of practical purposes, like doorstops and bookends and paperweights for the many treasures that the soldiers left behind. Without too much survey, she assessed there was already an overabundance of heads (and flowers) everywhere. Too many, in fact. She’d be forced to make another wall soon.
“You shall keep your head today,” Medusa spoke to the soldier, as she sanded the area where the second eye had been. No one could know what the eyes of a thousand men did to a woman on her own, especially at night.
When the work was done, she cleaned her tools and finished her tea, then made her way toward the beach: a boat would be waiting, perhaps even more soldiers. She’d need to be careful.
Over the years, the taking of her life had become a sport for the most heroic—or foolish. Sometimes criminals were sent to the island with the reward of freedom if they succeeded in severing her head, and collecting it, risking a bite from her mane of poisonous snakes as numerous as her hair once was. They used mirrors and shields, catapults filled with fire; they used trickery and witchcraft, beasts of the land and air; they sent skilled archers, who could shoot without the aid of their eyes. But they all failed—failed to realize the subtlety, the proportion and minute effort, it took to emit a single glance.
The wars she fought were evidenced on the sands. Along the cliffs, stone vultures and crows kept an immortal watch on the surrounding sea. At the cave entrance, winged horses and chariots, manned by the bravest, formed a kingly procession. All were defaced, even the animals. Toward the east stood a legion of Greek soldiers, charging, though suspended, as if Zeus had cast a spell on them. Broken and holed up by the tides, the boats they rode in on were now covered in barnacles and slime. To the west, past frozen crabs, starfish, and perched seagulls, was a trash-heap of arms, legs, heads, shields, swords, sandals, noses, torsos, and sacred idols that many carried to ward off evil. The assemblage had no formal order. Over time it had become bleached from salt and sun, the sharp edges, smoothed and unwrinkled. In time it would be another unremarkable portion of the beach.
“Hello there,” Medusa called to the sailing vessel drifting several feet from shore. She gave her usual warning, beseeching the listener to turn away. No one ever heeded her words, but it went a long way in relieving her guilt.
Her feet sank into the cool sand, as she climbed the ladder to board. Still leery, she proceeded with care, listening past the creaking planks, the flapping of closed sails trying to unravel, the twisting and sway of the rigging, as the ocean settled around the hull. She called out again. The ship was empty.
Medusa had not anticipated that her day would be spent treasure hunting. The day would’ve been knitted with routine had the ship not arrived: bathing, gardening, darning her clothes, reading—though she’d read most of the scrolls she’d scavenged several times over. “Please have scrolls,” she said, prayerfully, not that any god or goddess would listen. What she was really asking for was relief from boredom. It was deeper rooted than simply being held prisoner by routine. Rather, her longing was for a relationship with another living creature. Scrolls, and the stories they told—even if they were, at times, only the contents of a ship’s manifest—offered some relief.
Over the hour Medusa collected lamp oil, dried herbs, cloth to make a new dress; she found olives, salty fish paste, bread, and jars of wine, left like an offering to a deity. With one last scouring, she searched again for a scroll and came up empty. About to start back, she spotted a second ship, sails squared and open, coasting toward the island.
The fact the first ship had no other passengers, save the one soldier who’d surprised her—or her him—in the garden earlier, hadn’t seemed odd until now. A sense of fear arose, having tasted the paste and nibbled on the bread. It might’ve been poisoned. Had she grown complacent after all? Was this a decoy ship? A coffin for her?
Abandoning the goods, she went for the ladder—only the whip-whip of parchment stopped her cold. Tied to the mast, seemingly invisible before, was a scroll. She took it, and froze at the recognition of its wax seal. Nothing prepared her for this. It had been decades since she’d any word from her lover.
She broke the seal.
I, Perseus, son of Acrisius…
She didn’t read on, knew the contents of the whole in a glance. He’d come to kill her.
But why now?
Hadn’t he put their time together in the foreground—those youthful years before the curse, when the world looked open and harvestable? She’d done so. It was a necessity to save her from a type of madness brought on by all the avenues of what could have been. Though, in the early years, she still had hope he’d find a cure, some technicality in the spell the goddess wrought, some loophole that would free her. When last he came, it was with an army, and before fleeing he cast a scroll on the beach with the message that he’d failed in his promise to raise their son outside of her haunting shadow.
He’d said it to hurt her, she’d assumed. But haunt her it did; she spent the better part of her years looking toward the coast, wondering if her son was among the soldiers marching with vengeance to lay claim to a victory. She looked for his face, but never found it.
Medusa watched the ship coasting across the horizon, never getting closer, nor farther, only waiting.
She read the letter in full, landing on the line, Only the heart of a child will silence the fearful heart of Medusa, and I give our son back to you.
A son. Our son, she thought. Jason.
The entirety of the letter sought her surrender—her death—giving their son his life back again. In fact, all the soldiers that had turned to stone would regain their blood in her death. Perseus has left Jason, now a statue, in a chest on the boat. She’d only ever imagined their child alive and prospering, still a boy, even. Never had she entertained that she’d outlived him—or that she was responsible for his demise.
The chest was plain, not regal as one might expect for a prince. It was made of wood, the lid embossed with the trident of Poseidon, put there, she supposed, to keep it safe across the sea. It had no lock, and needed only her hand to open. She hesitated. This too could be another trap. A cruel one at that.
Another hour passed, while she kicked the box, cursed at it, and went as far as brandishing a sword and driving it through. When it hit stone, she knew the truth.
She opened it. Strained and horrid like the rest, her son’s stony, agonized face was more than she could bear; a deep torture to behold, she went straight away to the beach and erected a fire. She had nothing to prepare, no farewell letter to write; the sky would water her garden, the only thing that held value for her.
Without delay, she lit the fire to call the boat, as Perseus wanted. It was slow to start, but the sea air ignited it. Black smoke, twisted with the blue sky, and put into motion the second ship toward land.
She had only the last part of the agreement to attend to, and realized she should have considered where and how they would find her.
“It must be in the garden,” she reasoned. This way, when her son discovered her, he might notice the beauty she’d created and surrounded herself with. That would go a long way to counter the stories he’d been told.
In the garden the sun had faded, leaving the terrace mostly in shadows. She hadn’t time to make tea, and sat, hands folded, waiting, when she realized she’d forgotten to cover her head.
Medusa grabbed an unused barley sack, and wrestled with the snakes, until her head was fully concealed. Her heart raced. Her skin perspired. Her hands trembled. This was what it felt like to look death in the face.
In her youth—which seemed like another lifetime ago—she recalled a brief, insignificant memory, when she’d climbed down to the filthy ground, and on hands and knees poked at an ant hill. The ants scurried and scattered; some tried for the hole, while others vacated the area. She raised a rock in her fist to squash them, taunting them first with the rock’s heavy shadow, following them like a vengeful god ready to strike at any moment. But the blow never came. From afar the ants seemed almost stagnant, but up close, as she was, they hurried and quickened to flee the deathblow. And as unimportant as an ant was, it still sensed its doom, wanting to avoid it. She never forgot it. Lived by the truth of it, that at the end we were all alike, beast or human, one’s preservation caused the design of one’s day and life.
The smell of smoke called her back.
“No, I’m not ready.” Medusa removed the bag and hurried to the beach. But she was too late. Soldiers emptied from the ship and charged the shores.
“Go back! Go back!” She dropped beside the fire, shoveling sand into it. “It’s my pitiful life to keep.”
Arrows flew toward her, while the men who aimed them turned to stone. Soon, the fire was out and the beach grew quiet.
In the morning, after a long night’s rest, Medusa made a cup of tea, read some passages from an old scroll, then watered the flowers. Afterwards, she’d take her file down to the beach and get to work on the soldiers—all but one. It would take some time, but she’d get her son to the garden, where she’d care for him until her death, when he’d be set free.
Her life, she conceded, had a mundane rhythm, but it was enough for her. Perhaps the Oracle was right after all: the fear of losing her life was gone, like a part of her had been broken away, allowing the rest to go on truly living.
About the photographer: Fabrice B. Poussin teaches French and English at Shorter University. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and numerous other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review, The San Pedro River Review and more than 250 other publications. This photo is titled “Life at 10,000 Feet.”