Medusa hated shopping.
Not the act itself, she didn’t mind the looking, the selecting, the purchasing. She certainly didn’t mind parting with her drachmae (she had more than she knew what to do with).
No, she hated the process.
First she had to bundle up. Wrapping her head was a given, as no mortals she had met seemed accommodating to the whole ‘snakes for hair’ situation, though it took one disastrous encounter to make her realize she needed to wrap enough layers to muffle the hissing.
Then came the long sleeves, gloves, and ankle skirt to hide her skin which was a pleasant, though unnatural, shade of light green.
The veil wasn’t the worst, though it had been a process of trial and error to discover which particular type and thickness of fabric would allow her to see while also ensuring that she didn’t run into walls or suddenly acquire a new collection of statues.
That’s why we can’t go back to Makedonia, she remembered.
Then, when all of that was done, she had to sojourn nearly ten dolichos to a secure village where she could make her purchases and leave without too much suspicion.
She sighed as she passed through the back entrance to the temple where she made her home.
She began to disrobe, carefully unwrapping the head scarves so as not to hurt the snakes (little Perakus moped for weeks last time she caught him up in the bundle) and removing the long, stifling garments.
It was nearly summer, and the heat had been all but unbearable. She changed back into her favorite outfit: a short, white tunic with no sleeves, cinched around the waist with a thin, snake shaped, leather belt.
When her sisters were back she wouldn’t need to bother. Euryale could hunt for food, and Sthenos could make the shopping trips which she mysteriously enjoyed. (Euryale thought she might have a boyfriend in the village).
She hung her satchel on the outstretched arm of the statue of some warrior or other (Herodotus? She couldn’t remember. He was noisy, and crass, and much more useful as a coat rack.) and set about placing her acquisitions in the pantry.
Some days she wished she was normal. An ordinary girl in an ordinary village. She would have friends, go to school, shop for fun. Her life would be simpler.
A memory rose in her mind.
A muddy street.
Hands. Terrible hands.
There was the sound of glass breaking as the jar of honey shattered in her grip.
“Amathes.” She swore and set to cleaning her hand and collecting the shards.
It was worth it, she knew, to be like this.
To never feel like that again.
She had just deposited the shards out the window when Medusa heard a crash from out in the temple.
“Ugh,” she groaned, “Now? I just got home. Fine, malaka, I’m coming.”
The main chamber of the old temple was a large room lined with columns. Opposite the large, square entrance, was a tall statue of Athena Promachos, bearing spear and shield. The paint had long since faded and chipped away, leaving the statue a stark white.
The room was also filled with statues. Dozens of flawless stone statues each bearing the appearance of a warrior. Many bore expressions of fear, but others were in mid strike or attack. One, near the back, was frozen in the act of opening his tunic, his lips pursed in a pastiche of seduction.
He was Medusa’s least favorite.
Medusa emerged from a little hidden door behind the statue of Athena and crouched behind it.
“Alright,” she whispered, “You know the drill, fan out, fangs bared. Leander, don’t hiss over my lines. Korinna, get those fangs out. If we scare him enough, he’ll run off so we don’t have to petrify him, for once. All ready? Okay, show time.”
She darted out from behind the statue.
“Foolish mortal,” she hissed, making her voice low and raspy, “Who dares enter the domain of-”
Where is he?
There wasn’t a living soul in sight.
That was odd, she thought. They usually spent much longer staring at the statues in horror.
One, an old statue of a bearded man in heavy armor, had been knocked over, it’s head in pieces.
“Hello?” she called, “Foolish mortal?”
There was a crash from the side room where the offerings to Athena had been kept.
She dashed into the room.
It was about half the size of the main chamber, filled with large, clay vases which each held some quantity of drachmae or valuables that she and her sisters acquired from the hapless men that attempted to slay them.
“Quit wandering around,” she chided, “How am I supposed to-”
Medusa’s voice caught in her throat.
Standing over a broken vase spilling drachmae across the ground was a young woman. She was lithe, dressed in a long, lilac tunic. Auburn hair tumbled over her shoulders in large, lazy curls, and her face was soft, and cherubic. She had her arms in front of her, searching the air.
Medusa saw her eyes. They were gray and clouded.
“Sorry,” the girl chirped, “I think I broke an urn. And something heavy in the other room. I hope they weren’t important. I can pay you back, I promise, I’m just, uh, not sure where I am?”
Medusa had no words. She couldn’t think.
A girl? How did she get here?
What did she want?
“Hello?” the young woman called out, “Are you there? I thought I heard someone. I’m a little lost.”
Medusa shook her head, forcing the wheels of her mind to move.
“I, uh… Don’t move, I’ll help you.”
She started walking over to the young woman.
“Thank you so much. I’m afraid I’m far from home.”
She reached toward the sound of Medusa’s footsteps, narrowly missing a cluster of vipers who stared on in confusion.
“Careful! Here, let me…”
She grasped the woman’s hand and pulled her toward the main hall.
“Oh! Thank you. My name is Xenia.”
“I’m so glad you’re here. I was beginning to worry this building was abandoned and I was all alone.”
“I just returned, and you’re lucky I did,” Medusa explained, “I’ve been out of the house for days.”
“House?” Xenia asked, “From the outer walls, I assumed this was a temple.”
“Um…in a way, it was, I suppose, but now it’s where I live.”
Medusa walked her through the forest of statues to a marble bench, where she sat her down, taking her own seat on the far end.
“Now,” Medusa began, “How did you find yourself here?”
“I am without sight,” she explained, “And I found myself turned around. I think my brother, Demetrios, may be playing a trick on me.”
“A trick?” Medusa bristled.
“Yes, he has…quite the sense of humor,” Xenia smiled, weakly, “But he’s all I have. He does take care of me.”
“Still,” Medusa huffed, “It’s hardly an appropriate thing to do to your sister.”
Xenia smiled broader.
“You’re very kind.”
Medusa felt a flutter in her stomach.
It had been a long time since she spent this much time in the company of an ordinary person without the benefit of darkness or disguise. Even if Xenia was blind, this was the closest thing she’d had to eye contact in ages.
Yes, she told herself, that was it. That’s what this feeling was.
“It’s nothing,” Medusa muttered, “He’s lucky you weren’t hurt. Fallen into a ditch, or beset by brigands.”
Xenia scooted a little closer to her.
“I do appreciate the help. I don’t think I know you from the village, Medusa, are you new?”
“No, I’ve lived here for ages,” Medusa said, without thinking, “I mean, uh, I don’t go to the village often. I live out here. With my sisters. Though they’re traveling, at the moment.”
“I see,” said Xenia, “That sounds lonely.”
“It can be, though I’m used to it. It’s better for me, like this.”
They sat in silence a moment.
“Well,” Medusa said, “I should set you to home.”
“Oh, sure. Thank you. If you can lead me to the edge of town, I’ll be able to manage from there.”
The edge of town.
A shiver ran down Medusa’s spine.
“Um, actually I can’t, uh, go with you, I…uh….One minute!”
She ran out of the room, leaving the confused Xenia behind.
She ran to the rear entry and began to hurriedly don her disguise from the statue it was hung on. Her snakes hissed in protest as she frantically wrapped the head scarf.
“Shut up! Just keep quiet under there and I promise I’ll catch you extra mice tonight.”
They calmed and coiled up under the cloth.
This would get her down the road, but she couldn’t take Xenia all the way to the border. the village was only a twenty minute walk from the temple, but the sisters avoided it at all costs. If anyone there ever found out about the gorgon’s home, it would be easy for them to make trouble.
She looked around, panicked, for a solution.
She saw it: a long, thin piece of cypress wood that they used to knock olives off of high branches.
She led Xenia out to the road at the edge of the temple’s grounds.
“It’s not a far walk,” she said, “But stay close.”
“You sound different,” Xenia said, “Are you wearing something over your face?”
Medusa cursed under her breath. This girl’s hearing was incredible. “I, uh, have a bad reaction to the sun. We should move.”
They headed down the little dirt path until it joined back with the larger main road.
Xenia kept good pace and made pleasant conversation as they walked, though often she would drift until Medusa finally grabbed her hand and lead her directly. Her face felt hot under the veil.
After a bit longer, the sight of the small village came into view.
“This is where I leave you.” She finally huffed.
“Oh,” Xenia said, “Are we at the village? I can usually hear the market from here.”
“I…I can’t take you that far. If you continue down the road, you’ll reach the eastern edge.”
“I don’t know if I can-”
Medusa shoved the stick into Xenia’s hand.
“Tap this on the ground in front of you. If it sounds hard,” she tapped it on the road, “Then you’re on the right track. You’ll be fine. It’s after noon, so keep the sun on your face and you’ll make it.”
“Okay, I think I can manage that. Medusa, you’ve been so kind to me, I really do appreciate everything.”
“It was nothing,” Medusa huffed, “Really.”
Xenia began down the road towards town, tapping her cane against the ground as she went.
She stopped and turned.
“Perhaps I’ll see you again?”
“Perhaps.” Medusa sighed.
Xenia smiled and proceeded down the way.
Medusa watched her until she was near enough to town that she was sure Xenia would make it before she turned back to make her way home.
Summer had come, and the bright sun beat down on the Greek Isles, washing everything in intense heat.
Cicada buzzed in the grove of olive and citrus trees behind the temple as Medusa set a plate of figs to dry in the hot sun.
She wiped her brow and shushed her hair. The heat always seemed to excite them, and they became more and more restless as the summer grew.
She sat in the shade of a fig tree, fanning herself and deciding whether it would be worth the effort to take a dip in the little pond out back. It was unlikely anyone would visit. “Heroes” were less common in the summer when the heat made traveling in armor less desirable.
She was just starting to rouse herself when she heard a voice.
Her sisters likely wouldn’t be back until next spring, so it probably wasn’t them, she thought. Besides, Stheno would’ve tried to jump out and scare her first. No mortals who came to the temple would know her name, except…
“Oh, by Athena.” She sighed.
Wandering by the front entrance was Xenia. Her skin had tanned, and her hair was tied in a high ponytail. She wore a peach colored dress that came to her mid-thigh, and high sandals.
“Oh, there you are!”
Xenia headed toward the sound of the other woman’s voice, tapping the thin cane Medusa gave her along the way. She had become quite adept with it and managed to avoid small rocks and ledges in her path.
“It’s, uh, good to see you, again,” Medusa stammered, “How did you get here?”
“Well, mostly thanks to this wonderful little cane! It’s been so helpful in getting around, I hardly ever get lost or fall down anymore. I was afraid my brother might break it for one of his jokes, but even he benefits from having to take less care of me.”
“Anyway, I remembered the way from last time and thought it might be nice to pay you a visit. Have your sisters not returned?”
“No. Not yet. Would you, uh, like to come in? Are you thirsty?”
“Yes,” Xenia beamed, “I’d like that.”
Medusa led her carefully through the main hall into the living area behind the altar. The Gorgons had converted it into a large, shared living space with several sofas and a stone table with four chairs. Door led to each of the sister’s private quarters, and another into the kitchen.
Medusa sat Xenia down at the table and retrieved a pitcher of water from the miniature cellar beneath the kitchen, which was cool even in the height of summer. She filled two cups and brought them out.
Xenia drained hers in one and sheepishly asked for more, and Medusa refilled her cup. The blind girl sipped now, demurely.
“So,” Medusa began, “How have you been?”
“Very well! I adore the summer, and get to spend most days walking by the beach, collecting sea shells, though sometimes I take the forest road so I can smell the trees and the wildflowers. Do you ever get to the beach?”
“We’re cliff side, so I’ll watch the ocean in the evening. Most of the day I tend to the orchard and paint.”
“That sounds lovely! Do you get out of here often?”
“No,” Medusa shook her head, “But I have everything I need here. Even a little spring in back to swim in.”
“Oh, I love swimming, but I don’t get to much. I need someone to keep an eye on me so I don’t get turned around.”
“And no one will?”
“I don’t have many friends. And it’s just Demetrius and I at home since mother and father passed.”
“And has he been cruel to you, again?”
“No,” she waved her hand, “He’s never cruel, just…playful. He likes to make fun, but he’s the only one who cares for me. He appreciates my new independence, though, he seems more cheerful.”
“Please don’t judge him too harshly, Medusa. I can be such a burden on him.”
Medusa bit back a comment.
“What’s that noise? Is something boiling?”
Medusa looked around for a moment until she realized what Xenia was talking about: her snakes were rousing and hissing, having picked up on her budding anger. She tried to gently pat them down.
“I’ll tell you what, Xenia,” she deflected, “Let’s go swimming.”
“Sure, I could use a cooling down.”
The pair ventured to the orchard behind the temple where lemon trees formed a ring around a crystal blue pond. It was only twenty feet across, and four feet deep at the center, but that was more than enough to enjoy on a hot day like today.
Only when they arrived and Xenia began to disrobe did Medusa conceive the reality of her plan. She looked away, her cheeks on fire. Not only was Medusa seeing Xenia disrobe, but no one, outside of her sisters, had seen Medusa undressed in a very long time.
And they still wouldn’t, she realized, Xenia is blind.
Medusa felt stupid. To be fair, she sort of was.
She took off her dress and hung it on a nearby tree. She brought out a small head wrap and tucked her serpentine locks into it. No sense risking Xenia getting a handful of snakes.
She took the other girl’s hand and led her into the spring. They shivered as they waded into the cool water, but quickly adjusted.
“You should be okay,” Medusa said, letting her hand go, “It’s not to deep or wide.”
“Oh,” was she blushing? “S-sure, thank you.”
They settled, enjoying the water and the sounds of the summer around them. Medusa felt the snakes calm as her temperature dropped.
“This is wonderful,” Xenia sighed, “The water is perfect, and it smells so lovely out here. Lemons, olives, and are those hyacinths?”
“They are,” Medusa chuckled, “You have a keen sense of smell.”
“It’s one of the ways I can enjoy the world. For example, you smell like…earthenware and…figs?”
Medusa blushed, “Yeah, I was drying some when you arrived.”
“Mmhmm, and there’s something else, too, like a personal scent. Everyone has one, I’ve noticed. It makes it easy to recognize them when they’re near. Though yours is quite unique.”
“You’re the amazing one, Medusa, living here alone, taking care of yourself. I wish I could do that.”
“I mean, my sisters helped with a lot of it. They planted the orchard and taught me about drying and preserving food.”
“Do they leave often?”
“Every few years. They like to travel the isles. Euryale, my oldest sister, loves to sail. And Stheno gets so restless she’d drive the whole world mad cooped up in here.”
“Why don’t you go with them?”
Medusa paused. “I…I like it here. I’ve never wanted to leave.”
She could feel Xenia examining her words.
“I understand,” the other girl said, “Home can be…hard to turn away from.”
The lounged, in silence, for some time.
“Why don’t we get out,” Medusa finally said, “Have some of those figs.”
Xenia smiled, “I’d like that.”
Xenia visited often after that.
Every few days Medusa would hear the tapping of her cane up the little path and go out to greet her. She began to enjoy the visits, and planned around them.
She cleared some of the statues out of the main chamber, putting the rest against the walls so her friend could walk through without issue.
Xenia became more and more familiar with the grounds, and was able to find Medusa even if she was in the orchard picking fruit, or in the cellar tending to the preserves.
Medusa had always enjoyed the time her sister’s were away. Stheno and Euryale were lovely, but they could be a lot to deal with, and she had come to appreciate the peace and quiet that came with solitude.
But being with Xenia was…different. Medusa never found herself tired of the other girls company and, on the occasions where more time than usual passed between her visits, she would find herself dawdling by the entrance of the temple, watching the clouds and listening closely for the tap tap tap of her friend coming up the hill.
The only problem was that she was having trouble keeping their conversations away from the details of her life. Xenia was intensely curious as to how Medusa had come to be where she was, and every little fact threatened to give away her secret.
To say nothing of the time Xenia wanted to trade hair-care tips.
What would happen if she found out what Medusa was? Would she still accept her? Would she still want to be her friend? Would she…
This troubled Medusa late that summer as she and Xenia walked through the orchard together.
Xenia had put her cane up, and the pair walked with their arms linked. Medusa had her head wrapped, though her serpents were growing restless in the heat and little Perakus had peaked out to examine his surroundings with a curious tongue.
“I only worry that someone will accost you on the road,” Medusa complained, “Are you never concerned about robbers or bandits?”
Xenia laughed, “You are sweet to worry,” she said, “But I’ve never heard of anything like that in the lands. I’m much more concerned of pits and rocks, though less so, thanks to you.”
“I keep telling you,” Medusa smiled, “It’s no great invention. I’m surprised no one thought of it before. But, if you aren’t concerned…”
“The only thing of danger around here is the hideous dread the travelers are always speaking of.”
“You’ve never heard? There’s a local legend about a monster who lives on one of the hills. They say it was cursed by the gods to be so dreadful to look upon that anyone who does dies of fright.”
Medusa felt a pit in her stomach. She brushed Perakus back under the wrap, ignoring his protests. “Do many speak of this legend?” She asked.
“A few,” Xenia admitted, “It’s a sort of local superstition. Some of the sailors who stop at the village know of it, too. Every elder has a second-cousin, or some such thing, who went onto the hills to slay it, and never returned.”
“Do you fear it?”
She laughed, “I suppose I’d have no reason too. Unless it just decides to gobble me up. It must be quite horrible to have been cursed in such a way.”
“Maybe it wasn’t a curse,” Medusa muttered.
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe it just wanted to be left alone.”
Xenia considered that for a few moments. “Then,” she said, “I suppose something horrible must have happened to it, to ask the gods for such a thing.”
Medusa didn’t respond.
“Enough of this melancholy topic,” Xenia said, “Let’s go back and enjoy those candied lemons I smell.”
Xenia’s next few visits were different. She was as sweet and jubilant as always, but there was something else. An undercurrent of tension under her words. A hesitance that Medusa had never noticed before. She continued to come to the temple, but less frequently, if only slightly.
It was a few weeks later. Summer had nearly given way to autumn, and Medusa was reading at the table from one of her many scrolls of poetry. The sun had nearly set, so she had lit candles and lanterns by which to read.
There was a knock at the back door.
Medusa stared at it for a moment, unsure, as this wasn’t something that had ever happened. Her serpents rose high, tongues flickering, mirroring her trepidation.
“Who…is it?” She called.
She got up, bid her hair to calm down, and walked over to the door.
Xenia stood outside, dressed in a long, white gown. She held her cane in both hands, her face twisted in a look of concern.
“Xenia,” Medusa said, “What are you doing here so late? The path will be too dark…no it won’t, Medusa, don’t be stupid. Please, come in.”
Xenia entered and found her way to the table. She sat down.
“Medusa,” she said, her voice was shaky, “Sit next to me. Please.”
Medusa did, scooting her chair just far enough away so that her uncovered serpents would be out of reach.
Xenia chuckled, nervously, “You always do that, you know? When I surprise you you stay out of reach.”
“Xenia, is everything alright? You seem nervous.”
“The first time we met, Medusa, you wouldn’t take me to the village. Why was that?”
“And you wore coverings over your face. You said that was to keep the sun off, but we’ve been in the sun many times since then, and you’ve had no trouble. Why was that?”
“You never go to the village. You’ve been to market, to be sure, I remember you complaining about it, but never the one closest to you. Why?”
Medusa had nothing.
“Medusa, I cannot see. There is much in this world I miss, but also much I notice that others do not. When I spoke of the hideous dread the other day, I heard your voice. I heard you were nervous. Your breathing quickened. I could feel your heart pounding through your skin.”
“What are you asking me, Xenia?”
“I care for you, Medusa, but there’s something I need to know. The other day a man came through the port. He was harried. He had been to Delphi, and the oracle told him never tarry on this island, because of the creatures that lived on it. A trio of sisters, cursed by the gods to turn any who look upon them to stone. You have two sisters, correct? And your front hall was full of statues, I felt them when I first came here. He called them the gorgons.”
Medusa was silent.
“Is it you?”
Medusa paused. Xenia was so sweet, and kind. She was friendly, and bright, and optimistic.
But she was not stupid.
“Yes. I am Medusa, youngest of the gorgon sisters. The goddess Athena gave this, as you say, curse to us many years ago.”
“Can I see?”
“With my hands, can I see your face? I’ve never asked, you were always so nervous when I got to close. Can I look upon you?”
“I-” she was surprised by the request, “I-I suppose.”
Xenia scooted close to her. She reached out, and Medusa guided her hands to her face.
She felt her, running the tips of her fingers over her nose and brow. She stroked her cheekbones and touched her lips.
“I see.” Xenia finally said.
She sighed. “Those legends never get anything right. You’re gorgeous.”
Medusa blushed and her eyes welled with tears. “W-w-what? Y-you’re lying.”
“Why would I be? Cute nose, high cheekbones. By Zeus, I wish my own lips were so full.”
Medusa was lost for words, “You…your…I don’t, I mean, my hair…”
“Yes, what of your hair? You always keep it hidden. Is it unusual?”
“I’m sorry, I thought, for a second, you said snakes.”
“Here,” she grasped Xenia’s hands again, “Feel. They know you, so they won’t bite.”
She guided her hands, slowly, into her serpent locks, which were fanning out to give better access.
“Oh!” Xenia exclaimed, “You weren’t kidding. Well, that’s interesting. I’ve never felt a snake before, but…they’re quite smooth, like leather, I didn’t expect-Oh, that tickles!”
“Sorry, that’s a tongue,” Medusa explained, “Korrina has to taste everything, I swear.”
“They have names?”
“Of course, Korrina, the little one you’re touching now is Perakus. There’s Menalaeus, Archibiades, Kassandra…”
She guided Xenia through her cranial menagerie. The serpents enjoyed the attention, and whatever apprehension Xenia might have had vanished as she caressed the friendly vipers.
They were so involved, neither of them noticed Xenia scoot closer and closer to Medusa.
Not until their faces were inches apart.
They could feel each other’s breath. Now, Medusa could smell her, too. Xenia smelled earthy and sweet, like wildflowers in fresh soil.
“They like you,” Medusa breathed.
“Are they the only ones?”
Medusa had no words for her. She pressed her lips into Xenia’s.
They reveled in that beautiful, wonderful kiss for all of eternity.
When they finally parted, flushed and panting, night had fallen, and crickets chirped outside the window. Xenia reached up and stroked Medusa’s cheek.
“I think this one likes me a lot.”
Autumn came as Medusa and Xenia’s romance bloomed, a single bright flower among cool winds and golden leaves.
The blind girl made the journey to the old temple nearly every day. She would help with Medusa’s various responsibilities and chores, and, once finished, they would spend the day together walking about the temple or simply lounging in each other’s arms. Xenia would describe for Medusa the precise smells and sensations the winds carried, and Medusa would regale her with tales of her of the long time she’d spent living and traveling throughout the Greek world.
On this day, they were laying in the orchard. Xenia’s head rested on Medusa’s chest, while they ate dried figs and talked.
“And then,” Medusa continued, “The myrmidons, all with their eyes covered, their General turned to stone, were just standing there, and Euryale said ‘May we leave? Or will all of your wives be receiving new decorations for their gardens?’”
Xenia laughed, “That’s incredible. What happened next?”
“They prepared our ship and let us leave.”
“Your sister sounds great.”
“She is. Euryale can be bossy, but she always knows what to do and say. And Stheno is great too, lively and very funny, though she can be a little much, at times.”
“Do you think they’ll like me?”
“Oh, I have no doubt.”
“Your heart is beating faster.”
“I mean, I’m sure they’ll love you.” She corrected. “They may be…apprehensive about a mortal being around our sanctuary, but I’ll convince them. You’ll see. It’s not like they can turn you to stone.”
“So how does it work? The turning to stone?”
“Anyone who looks at us is turned to stone. Simple as that.”
“And how to the snakes come in?”
“They don’t? I mean, they’re venomous, but even if they’re hidden the petrification still works. It’s in our eyes, I think.”
“So how did it happen? Oh, you’ve tensed up. I’m sorry, is it hard to talk about? You don’t have to.”
“I…” Medusa had done everything to put that night behind her. “It was…terrible. I wished…I prayed for a way that no one, no man, would ever look upon me again. Athena answered me. She told me there would be a price, but I didn’t care.” Tears flowed down her face. “I wanted this.”
“And your sisters?”
“After…after that, my sisters wanted to be with me. We were all each other had. Athena gave them the same choice, and they accepted.”
“So you’ve been together all of this time? Just the three of you?”
“They must really love you.”
“They’re my sisters. They’re all I have.”
“Xenia?” A deep voice called from near the temple.
Medusa shot up. “Who is that?” she hissed.
“My brother. Hide, I’ll get rid of him.”
Medusa darted behind a tree. Xenia stood and walked toward Demetrius, who wandered over from the temple.
“There you are, kèpfos, what are you doing out here?”
He was tall, with broad shoulders. His hair was long, and he had a dark, chin-strap beard. His teeth were bared in a wide grin that made him look like he was up to something.
“I-I’ve been coming up here, you know, to get away.”
“By yourself? I’m a little impressed. What is this place? Some old temple?”
“Yes, I think so. Did you need me for something, Demetrius?”
“I wanted to see where you’ve been running off to every day.”
“Oh, well, now you have, I guess.”
“What are you hiding? I’d guess a boyfriend, but who would ever be interested in you?”
A nest of serpents hissed, nearby.
“What’s that?” Demetrius asked.
“Probably a bird. We should get back before it gets late.”
“Don’t be stupid, I want to look around.”
Ignoring her protests, he headed back towards the temple, entering through the large, open portal in the front.
“It’s to Athena,” he said, “Too bad. Poseidon or Zeus would be more interesting. But what are these?”
By the time Xenia caught up to him, he was examining one of the statues along the walls.
“They’re so realistic. And such expressions, what are they for?”
“Demetrius, we really should leave.”
Xenia grabbed his tunic by the shoulder and pulled. He wrenched out of her grasp and shoved her. Xenia fell to the ground, her cane clattering away.
“Don’t tell me what to do, kochòne. I’m the elder brother. You listen to me. Hey, all these statues. That sailor a few months ago, didn’t he say…By Poseidon, this is it! The hideous dread’s lair! I have to tell the village, we can gather the men and-”
“No!” Xenia was standing, her fists balled in defiance.
“What do you mean, no?”
“You can’t tell people, she isn’t a bad person, se-”
“’She?’ What are you talking about? Do you know…Are you friends with this thing?”
Xenia’s face flushed. She didn’t know what to say.
“You’ve always been stupid, sister, but never this stupid. This thing isn’t your friend, it’s a monster that does this to people.”
“Only the ones who’ve tried to kill her!”
“You mean heroes? Xenia, I’m getting the men, and we’re coming back here to kill that monster. You need to go home and stay there until I tell you otherwise.”
He turned and left in a huff.
After he was gone, Medusa entered the temple.
“Medusa? Is that you?”
“Yes.” All of the color was gone from her face, and her voice trembled, “I need to leave, Xenia. Right now. You can come with me if you want, but I have to go.”
“But what about your sisters?”
“They’ll…they’ll find me. Somehow.”
“Medusa, we can stay. We can talk to them, it will be okay.”
“No, Xenia, you don’t understand. I can’t be here when he comes back with the village. I can’t.”
“Please, Medusa,” Xenia cried, “Help me understand.”
Medusa paused. “I was the most beautiful girl in my village. I’m not being vain, Xenia, I was. The gods themselves declared it. Men would sing songs of me. People passing through would make every effort to meet me. Every man I met wanted to share my life or my bed, but I turned them all down. I wasn’t interested. You can probably guess why.” Xenia flushed. “Then a new man arrived. He was tall, and impressive, and smelled of salt-water and he asked to share my bed, and I told him no. He did not take well to that.”
She took a deep breath. “He followed me to Athena’s temple when I went to pray that evening and he…he took what I would not give. He stole it from me, Xenia. I thought it was over, I hoped so badly, but…he brought them all. The men from the village. All the men I had turned down. All the men who thought I owed them something.”
She fell to her knees, sobbing. Xenia reached for her, wrapping her arms around Medusa’s shoulders.
“After,” she choked, “They dragged me out, into the rain, threw me in the mud. They laughed, Xenia. I can still hear it. The laughing. I was so ashamed, so crushed. I prayed to Athena to take my hurt from me, to ensure such a thing would never happen again, and so…”
“She made you a gorgon.”
Medusa nodded. “The man…he was Poseidon, disguised in human form. She could not strike him and, in a way, we had defiled her temple, together. She told me her gift would come with a cost. Once my sisters knew what happened, they stormed the town, demanding to know what would be done. They found the men in their homes, at their jobs, living their lives. No one cared. No one, even those who weren’t a part of it, would raise their voice for justice. So they screamed their plea to the heavens, and Athena gave them the same gift she’d given to me.”
“What did they do?”
Medusa sniffed. “There’s no village there, anymore. Only ruins. And statues.”
Xenia squeezed her tight. “I’ll go down the hill, try to buy you time. Get packed and leave. I won’t make you go through that again.”
“Good luck, my love.”
“My heart is with you.”
Medusa packed dried fruits and preserves into a bag, and loaded clothes into another. She knew her sisters would return, eventually, so she considered how best to direct them to her.
And what of Xenia?
She needed to leave it where all of her loved ones could find her. But where would she go? North, along the coast? Into the woods? With winter approaching, neither were ideal, but she was short on options.
She decided she would follow the sea, and leave the missive where Xenia and her sisters would know where to look, in the preserving cellar beneath the kitchen.
But Xenia can’t read parchment. She cursed to herself. She’d have to carve it.
She made relatively quick, though slapdash, work of the message, but she was confident it would be effective. The sun was already setting, though, as she stole out the back of the temple. She heard a commotion along the road.
Just in time.
She chanced a look at the mob, peeking around the far corner.
It was, indeed, a large collection of men from the village, as well as a few women, bearing torches, farming tools, and a few chipped spears. Medusa shivered. She had to get out.
Demetrius was leading the mob, holding a fishing trident, and he was dragging someone.
It was Xenia. She looked ruffled, and there were bruises along her arms and a long cut down her cheek.
Her serpents bristled beneath her head wrap. She felt her heart pound boiling blood through her veins.
The thought of the crowd, the men all looking at her made her knees shake and her stomach roil.
She could leave. Run away before anyone saw her.
She knew what she had to do.
The mob approached the temple, stopping just short of the entrance.
Demetrius yanked on Xenia’s arm and threw her onto the ground before him.
“Are you there, monster? I brought your kochòne laikàs. Come and greet her!”
Nothing happened. There was a grumble through the crowd.
“Not interested?” He raised his trident, “Then you won’t mind if I skewer her into the dirt?”
Everyone froze as the torches in the temple came to life, and, framed by statues of terrified adventurers, was Medusa.
She had changed into her long white gown, and wore belt and bracers designed to look like intertwined serpents. The vipers in her hair fanned out, fangs bared and hissing, menacingly. Her eyes were closed.
“You dare traipse upon the sanctuary of the Gorgons?! Flee, now, or face my wrath, and end up as these other hapless ‘heroes’ have before you!”
The crowd blanched at her threat and terrifying visage, but Demetrius resisted.
“So that’s what you look like,” he sneered, “No wonder you had to get this blind fool to care for you.”
Medusa snarled, and her serpents rose, aggressively.
“Leave,” she ordered, “Now, and leave the girl. Or you will decorate my hall for the rest of time.”
“Will we?” He asked, “Can you stop us all before we take you down? Before we swarm you? I mean you are hideous, for sure, but I don’t seem to be dead, yet.”
He was arrogant, Medusa thought, but he might be right. She didn’t know if she could petrify them all before they were on her. Regardless of how her gambit played out, this was a huge risk.
“Get out,” she growled, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Brother.” Xenia pushed herself to her feet. “Please, don’t do this. She isn’t a monster. Just go, please.”
People yelled from the crowd.
A rock flew from the crowd and struck Xenia across the temple. She cried out and sprawled on the floor.
“Xenia!” Medusa rushed to her, chancing to open her eyes just enough to see her beloved, unconscious and bleeding in her arms.
Medusa forgot fear. She forgot pain. She forgot mercy. She forgot love and glory. The goddess only sung one word in her mind: Rage.
Medusa roared, her serpents hissed and spit venom. The crowd flinched and fell silent. Even Demetrius took a step back.
“Die!” she screamed.
Before she could open her eyes and unleash her deadly glare, a soft hand covered her face.
“Medusa,” Xenia whispered, “Don’t. You aren’t what they call you. You don’t have to be like them.”
Medusa felt her lover’s touch. She could feel her heartbeat. Smelled her scent, earth, and sweat, and hyacinths. The fire in her heart died down. The serpents on her head relaxed and lowered to frame her face. Perakus nuzzled her cheek, licking away a tear.
She stroked his head and smiled.
“You remember the best part of me,” she sniffed, “You remember I’m not a monster.”
The crowd had gone silent at the tender display. They simply stood and watched for a moment.
A man spoke out, “What are we doing?”
Another said, “There’s no danger here. Let’s go home.”
“What?” Demetrius cried, “What’s wrong with you? The monster is right there! Have you lost you manhoods? Have you lost your minds?”
An older man with a white beard put a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s over, Demetrius,” he said, “I will not be part of senseless slaughter.” He looked to the girls, “Medusa, we will not bother you again, so long as you and your sisters do not trouble us. Your secret will be safe.”
“Thank you,” said Medusa, “You will not see me again.”
He nodded, turned, and left with the others.
Demetrius yelled after them, “You can’t! Think of the glory! The songs!”
When they disappeared down the hill, Demetrius turned back to the temple and found Medusa upon him. She wrapped a hand around his throat and, with hardly an effort, lifted him so his toes dangled above the path. His eyes bulged in shock and pain.
Medusa kept her eyes closed, but her vipers neared the terrified man’s face, fangs bared and dripping venom.
“Let me make something clear to you, koprìas.” She growled, “Should you ever cause Xenia, myself, or any woman trouble ever again, I will not turn you to stone before I break you into pieces, chop you to to chunks, and feed you to my snakes. There will be nowhere you can run, nowhere you can hide. I will hound you like the furies themselves from one end of this world to the other.” The back of her dress rustled as huge, white-feathered wings unfurled from the special holes she had cut in it. “I will make you pray to the gods for death, but I promise you, it shall not come. Am I understood?”
He nodded, red faced, and she released her grip. He fell to the ground, gripping his neck. Then he clambered to his feet and ran down the hill.
When the panicked footfalls finally faded away, Medusa opened her eyes and let out a deep sigh. She went to Xenia and helped her to her feet.
“You were brilliant,” Xenia whispered, “Absolutely fantastic.”
“Thanks to you.”
“These…” Xenia asked, running her hands over her girlfriend’s feathery appendages, “Do you have…wings?”
“When I want to,” Medusa admitted, “Truth be told, I’ve never been a…capable flier, so I tend to keep them tucked away.”
Xenia smiled and kissed her. “So many surprises, my love. I fear we shall never be bored.”
Medusa laughed, “I suppose I’ve had my fill of quiet, anyway.”
They kissed again.
They were happy.
Winter had broken, and Spring had come.
The rain and storms had made for a bright season, and flowers bloomed all throughout the orchard behind the temple. Blossoms on the trees sung the prelude of a rich harvest. Birds chirped, sunning themselves and bathing in the crisp, clean water of the little pond.
By the temple’s entrance, Medusa and Xenia sat on a little stone bench that caught the mid-morning sun. Xenia leaned, sleepily, on Medusa’s shoulder, and several of the serpents on that side of her head curled up in her auburn locks, sleeping peacefully.
Medusa read from a pile of scrolls at her side, reciting poetry.
“-and that, I do think, someone will remember us, my dear, even in another time.’” She closed the scroll.
Xenia smiled. “That was lovely. Could you read another?”
“At this rate I’ll have to start writing my own to keep you satisfied.”
“That wouldn’t be so bad, dearest. You have a poet’s heart.”
Medusa smirked and began to unfurl a scroll when the sound of beating wings came from up above.
Two gorgons, who looked much like Medusa, descended from the sky on white wings, landing at the front of the temple.
Euryale, who was tall with broad shoulders, appraised the couple curiously. Stheno, who was petite, grinned broadly when she saw them.
“Welcome home, sisters.”
“Medusa,” Euryale said, “Who is your friend?”
Xenia perked up.
“Oh,” she blurted, hurriedly standing, “Um, hello. I am Xenia. It’s, uh, lovely to meet you.”
The taller sister raised her eyebrow, but stuck out a hand.
“Euryale.” She waited for Xenia to shake.
“Sister,” Medusa said, pointing at her eyes.
“Oh,” said Euryale, “Oh! Well, asked and answered, I suppose. I am Euryale, dear, it’s lovely to meet you.”
“And I’m Stheno!”
Xenia smiled. “I’m so glad to finally meet you! Medusa speaks so highly of you both.”
“I’m sure she does,” Euryale smiled, “Sister, I do believe we have much to discuss.”
Medusa nodded with a grimace. “Can it wait a bit, though? We’ve nearly finished here.”
Eurydale rolled her eyes but couldn’t suppress a smirk.
“Fine,” she said, “Come, Stheno, let’s settle back in and leave these two to their…poetry.”
She walked into the temple, Stheno bounding after.
Xenia sighed, and plopped back onto the bench beside Medusa.
“That went well,” Medusa mused.
“Did it? They seemed…unsure.”
“They’re cautious, but I know, my love, give them time and they will simply adore you.”
She pressed her lips in Xenia’s, who nestled back into her shoulder.
“Where did we leave off?” Xenia asked.
“Right here. ‘Like the sweet apple which reddens the topmost bough, atop the topmost twig, which the pluckers forgot, somehow…”
Many know only the end of Medusa’s story, and so many know only hateful lies. The days ahead were not all joyous, for our young lovers, but there would always be times like this for them. Times of joy, and tenderness, and love that too few ever speak of.
So often that is the truth behind the tales of those we call monsters.
Too often that is the case.