Perhaps I had known, even before I stepped into the richly panelled drawing room and found her hunched before the fire, thick woollen scarves wound about her head. The notice in the newspaper had carried a grating haltingness, the stony hesitancy of a tongue too long accustomed to silence. An assistant was wanted at the estate up the hill. A short-term engagement. Handsome pay. A proficiency in shorthand and a working typewriter were essential; the vain and timorous need not apply.
Newly penniless, newly solitary, and too exhausted for either vanity or timorousness, I ironed my best skirt and climbed the hill with my typewriter in tow. The house crouched like a vulture at the top. All around it, silent and scattered as bones in a ravaged ossuary, there stood the statues. Scant mind I paid them, as the falling autumn dark drew its cloak over the house’s turrets and shadowed the overgrown front path. No servant answered my knocking; a cavernous foyer yawned before me.
“Upstairs,” came the voice.
Mounting the stairs, I met another host of statues in the halls, their features worn and fresh by turns, some caught forever in surprise, and a very few in ecstasy, but the majority in terror.
She sat hunched before the fire, thick woollen scarves wound about her head. Beneath the hearth’s crackling ran a sibilant whisper, as of silk rubbing against itself, or scales sliding over scales.
“You’ve come for the position?” She spat the consonants as though they offended her; she held vowels in her throat like bones she could not swallow.
Quickly, primly, I outlined my typing and secretary work, the four years spent toiling amidst the dust of a basement archive. At length, she raised her hand. It was liver-spotted and gnarled, the fingers curved into claws. Still, she had not looked at me. “Do you like my statues?” she asked.
I did not, but I forced a smile. “They are remarkable.”
“You please me so far. Shall we greet each other, face to face?”
Yes. I knew then. But I stood rooted to the spot as she turned. The scarves hid her hair, obscured the shape of her head, but beneath the wool, great coils writhed and squirmed, the hissing undeniable.
A white mask hid her face. Porcelain, smooth and cold as snow, it made no attempt at expression. It gave nothing, asked nothing. My gaze slid again and again to the floor. Two perfect circles of darkened glass were set in the eyeholes, impenetrable.
“Surprised?” she asked.
“The statues are telling.”
She snorted. “Are you frightened?”
“Nothing scares me anymore.”
If she noticed the pang in my words, she ignored it. “I wish my collection catalogued. Names, provenance, history.” Another pained snort caught and broke. “I grow old, unimaginably old. Their stories cannot die with me.”
“As you wish.”
“You will live here. Three weeks, no longer. Room, board, and generous reward.” She paused. “You will need to be frightened, here. You will succeed in your task, or you will petrify—through carelessness or failure, one way or another. Do you understand?”
No sooner had I spoken than she reached for her mask. I acted on instinct—cold, swift, unthinking. My hands flew to my face; I shielded my eyes.
As I stood there, she laughed. Low at first, then louder and louder, guttural barks that hurt my ears. “Well, well.” Fabric rustled, a snake hissed. “Perhaps I’ve removed my mask. Perhaps I’ve left it on. What do you think?”
Blood boomed at my temples; fear pressed like a knife at my throat.
“You can turn around,” she whispered. “Leave this room, this house. I won’t follow.”
“How can I trust you?”
I swear before every god, I heard her smile. “You can’t.”
Finding myself on a precipice, I drew a breath—and looked.
Medusa sat there, serene, the mask securely in place. The featureless white porcelain gleamed. “I’ll show you to your room.”
It held little enough, my room. Perhaps it belonged to a governess or ill-favoured cousin now long in the grave. A child’s desk, a four-poster bed, a wardrobe, a window. “Have you brought any mirrors?” she asked. “I permit none in the house.”
I had a small looking-glass. She handled it like the holiest relic—or damnation. “I will destroy this.”
So saying, she left. Silence fell, absolute. Outside the window, statues stood row upon row against the night, their shadows still upon the dying grass. I closed the curtains. I set my typewriter upon the desk. I readied a notebook and pencil for the morning.
And then I crawled into a bed too large for me. The sheets smelled musty; black mould speckled the ceiling. I lay curled on the very edge, my hands clasped tight before me, knees drawn to my chest.
I could not bear to reach out and feel emptiness beside me. Not yet. Insomnia enfolded me in cold arms, the most faithful lover I’d ever had. As the hours wore on, I stared unblinking into the darkness, and the night passed silent as stone.
After breakfasting alone on cold toast and black tea, I joined her in the garden behind the house. The lawn swept far back and away to a fieldstone wall, the grass wilted yellow under my boots. Rain-swollen earth mouthed the statues’ feet. As she shuffled to the first statue of the first row, I withdrew my notebook and pencil. She stared for a long time at the stone face. It was worn smooth, nose and lips mere suggestions, the eyes reduced to sunken hollows.
“This is Philon,” she said, speaking abruptly, as though she loathed the taste of his name. “He stole upon me as I slept, when I lived on the island of Sarpedon. He wielded a sickle of iron to take off my head. But he stumbled in the darkness. I heard. I woke. I looked.”
My shorthand flitted over the page, her words transformed and captured as soon as they broke her lips. Without waiting, she lurched to the next statue.
“Demenikos, whom I trusted once long ago. He left fruit at the mouth of my cave, hyacinths to brighten the darkness. But one morning, the grapes turned to ash on my tongue and I knew them for poison…I waited for him, secure in my hiding, and surprised him as he came….”
Only the scratch of my pencil answered. Later, in my lonely bed, as the night lengthened over the poor stones, the horror would find me. But that morning, as she led me onward through the silent crowd, I heard without listening: a recording instrument, nothing more.
“Agathe. I did not mean it. I wore a shroud then, a funeral shroud, embroidered to hide my face. She stroked me, I told her to stop—then I begged her to finish—and as my hips rose and bucked, the shroud slipped free….”
Over and over it repeated: her stumbling reel to the next statue, her flat rasp hanging dead in the cold air. A thick hood covered her head. From behind, she appeared as a monk, she seemed Death—but not once did I hear the snakes. Chilled to sleeping, I thought, languishing in the weak, bitter sunlight.
She moved on, and I called, “Wait!” It was the first word I’d spoken that morning. “You missed one.”
A young woman with clenched fists, a sneer of defiance frozen on her lips. Medusa did not falter, though her head drooped ever lower to her chest. “Later.”
The morning withered to afternoon. A low bank of clouds rolled in to deepen the gloom. My stomach pinched; my reddened fingers stiffened in the cold. Yet I dared not ask her to stop, for no matter how hurriedly she spoke, more statues awaited us, the unending lines spread across the lawn. Already, I despaired of recording them all, and in the recesses of my skull, I heard again her words, so calm and cool, “You will succeed in your task, or you will petrify…”
Though I would have preferred transcribing my notes in the privacy of my room, she bade me work in the drawing room. Seated rigid in her chair, she gazed wordlessly upon the hearth, the flames’ light splashing orange across her mask. Withdrawn to a corner, I squirmed on a hard wooden chair. She had not wired the house for electricity; I worked by the uncertain guttering of a candle. Whenever the clacking of keys slowed or stopped, she glanced towards me, fingering the straps of her mask. Bending over the keys, I typed furiously until she settled again.
At length, I pushed the typewriter back, rubbing my eyes. “I’ve finished. What we got today, anyway.”
Her gnarled hand shot forth. “I will review your work.”
Try though I might to avoid it, her fingers brushed mine as I handed the papers over. They were cool, the skin scabrous and thinned by the passing of ages. Hands clasped behind my back, I stared at the carpet while she flicked through my pages.
“It is satisfactory,” she pronounced.
“May I ask a question?” I said, my eyes still locked upon the floor.
“Why have you brought them all with you? Most of them tried to kill you. Nearly all of them betrayed you. Why not leave them behind?” Daring to lift my gaze ever so slightly, I gestured to the sheaf in her lap. “Why not let them pass into oblivion?”
“Because,” she said, harsh and clipped, “I do not wish the world to forget how I hurt.”
“Do you think I would rest if you remembered them as heroes?” She laughed, but it sheared the space between us like a sob. “They possessed no golden souls, these wretches. They were petty, they were callous, they were cruel. Or they were foolish, unutterably damned before they ever darkened my door. If I must die, I will reveal all their tarnish before I go.”
“It seems a biased history.”
She raised her chin, the mask blank beyond reckoning. “Inevitably. But it is the tale of my truest heart, even so.”
The days merged into a morass of damp grey weather and damp grey faces. The mornings grew colder as I trudged in her wake, the earth’s chill leaching through my boots, my hands roughening under the wind’s teeth. Sometimes I recoiled from the enormity of the task at hand. Nearly two weeks had passed and we had not completed the garden; there remained yet the statues in the house.
I wrote until my fingers bent like hers and my wrist cramped. At night, I typed beneath her unperturbable, glass-shielded supervision. Even then, little rhyme or reason suggested itself to me. She had not arranged the statues by date, by provenance, by loathing, but by some inner reckoning she would not share. Some yielded no more than an epithet for recording; others she described until I swayed where I stood, my grip on the pencil tight with pain.
She staggered always past the statue of the sneering woman. No second glance, no explanation beyond, “Later.”
I lay awake, as I had every night. Nocturnal solitude was strange to me, even then. From a youth in which I swore I would never share my bed, I now found myself sleepless without another’s warmth beside me.
Unable to stare at the mould-plagued ceiling any longer, I fetched my coat and slipped from the house. The night smelled of wet leaves and something older, deeper: the dankness of graveyards. But then, I suppose this was a graveyard, this stone garden she had transplanted across the years and oceans, and I was its epitaphist.
Their names came to my lips as I slouched through the rows, my hands thrust into my pockets. Their histories spoke to me from the cut of their stone clothes, the expressions wrought on their immobile faces.
I turned another row and froze. There in the moonlight, she stood before the statue of the sneering woman. Her head was bowed, and her black cloak spilled like oil upon the stiffening earth. Though I tried to creep away, her rasp carried through the night. “What are you doing out here?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” I called, truthfully.
Step by leaden step, I trained my face on the dead lawn. She wore no hood, no scarves. The snakes coiled calm about her skull, their scales dulled in the moonlight. Before she turned, I saw the strap of her mask, and I exhaled my relief.
The cloak seemed to swamp her; her head looked too small without its customary wrappings. Hunched shoulders, drooping chin, she might have been an old woman—an old human woman, paying her respects at the cold, cold grave. The snakes raised a perfunctory hiss at my approach, their eyes filmed over, clouded blue.
“I am tired,” she said. “So very, very tired.”
“Then why aren’t you in bed?”
The mask betrayed nothing, but I felt her rare smile. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Who was she?” I blurted suddenly, before I could stop myself. “This woman, here?”
She withdrew, smaller, sadder, older yet. The snakes’ hissing extinguished to nothingness, the ache of a candle blown out. “Later.”
“We don’t have much later left.”
“I am not certain that I wish her remembered.”
With only a few days left, we came to the end of the garden statues—save one. Gratefully, I trailed Medusa through the crypt-like corridors of the house. Though my fingers cramped worse than ever with fatigue, it was warmer inside, especially in those wings with working fireplaces.
Yet her pace slowed; she leaned often against the walls. More and more, she left the snakes unbound to trail listless down her back. By mid-morning, her breath came short and laboured, her footsteps uncertain in the dimness.
As she pushed open a door, revealing another parlour full of statues, she staggered. Without thinking, I caught her elbow. Under my touch, she stiffened, swinging around to face me. The white mask shone bright as ever, its black glass eyes like pockets of night.
“I’m sorry,” I said, releasing her. “Would you like a chair?”
She sank into it until it seemed to swallow her. But her shielded gaze stayed locked on me. For once, she paid no attention to the statues. “I did not expect that,” she said.
Tilting her head to one side, she studied me. “Nettie Parrish stands nearest the window,” she said, her tone offering nothing. “She was a scullery maid, back in…in…” The sentence hitched, caught, her hands knotted on her skirts. “In 1837,” she gasped, at last. “She told me that she wanted to be friends, that she didn’t mind my ugliness…”
That night, I retreated to my customary corner, the steady clacking of my typewriter a welcome respite from my own thoughts. Increasingly, when the silence lay unfilled by distraction, memories welled up which I had no wish to entertain. For the first time in weeks, a sharp ache seized my chest. Shoving all that aside, I typed harder, faster. Secretly, I dreaded the day we completed our work. Perhaps it would be better to peek behind her mask and stand beyond the emptiness forever.
“When did your heart go to stone?”
I startled. She had not moved or spoken for some hours; I had thought her drowsing before the fire. Her words were slurred, thickened, and I did not answer, my fingers poised above the keys.
“What caused it?” she repeated, more insistently, her head lolling to one side.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I felt it from the moment you walked in.”
My hands fell to my lap. Against my ribs, my heart beat smooth and dark as hardened magma. It had cooled with a dulled anger that kept rhythm with my breath.
The white mask transfixed me. Firelight sparkled across the blackened glass at her eyes. She shifted in her chair, her bones creaking and popping. “What happened?”
I could have averted my gaze from my own ugly heart. I could have fled to my bedchambers; she wouldn’t have followed, not then. I could have flung off a glittering lie, distracting and fatal to contemplate as a golden shield raised before her. But instead, I turned my seat to face her. “I had a lover.”
She grunted. “As many do.”
“There was…” I swallowed. “A friend she met for walks in the dells…”
“She left me.” The truth of it ground like granite.
Though I expected an answer, she slid lower in her seat. We might have been a tableau of statues ourselves, seated at our opposite ends of the drawing room. For a long, long time, nothing moved but the flames. When they smouldered to ashes, I gathered my notes and left her to the night.
She did not rise from her bed the next morning. Weak light filtered through a gap in the curtains and pooled upon the mask. The snakes fanned about the pillow, an aureole of dulled scales and loose coils. They did not lift their heads as I entered, their eyes fixed and unseeing.
She propped herself upright as best she could, wheezing. Through her thin cotton nightgown, I glimpsed for the first time the knobs of bone that jutted from her skin, the sharp ridges along her arms. Her liver-spotted hands wandered across the coverlet, restless.
“Chair,” she gasped. “In the corner.”
I retrieved it and settled at her bedside, my notebook balanced on my knee. She turned her head towards me. Sweat beaded the sliver of skin between the top of the mask and her hairline.
“The…the statue in the third floor alcove. On the north side. The boy.” She sucked a long, shuddery breath. “His name…his name was Elfric…he came on a dare…”
“In the blue sitting room. Her name…Lucrezia Bassi. She crept in with her husband when I lived in Tuscany. Seeking gold…”
No tears pricked my eyes, but my grip tightened on the pencil.
“He’s…in the hall outside. Giorgio.”
Her voice grew ever more ragged; I had to bend so close to hear that her chill brushed my cheek. Beneath the mask, I was certain her eyes had fluttered shut. Her chest heaved with effort, the gaps between words lengthening.
As the afternoon light began to fail, she fell silent. I waited, pencil poised. Cold, slick dread crept up my throat. The snakes were motionless. She didn’t breathe.
But then she gasped. “That’s all. All of them. Done.”
“Are you sure?”
I leaned back in my seat. I didn’t want to ask, but the question pushed up and over my tongue. “What about the girl in the garden?”
The silence held.
“Do you know why…” She clawed feebly at her collar, as though the nightgown choked her. I hurried to unfasten the top button. “Do you know why…my face turns them to stone?”
“Athena cursed you, after Poseidon—”
“No, no.” Her head rolled from side to side, the snakes limp. “She gave me snakes for hair, remade my bones…but they don’t petrify because of that.” As she spoke, her talons sank into my arm, tugged me forward; she smelled like a mausoleum left to the ages. “I was so very, very angry. Angry then, and angry to my grave.”
My heart thumped, once, twice.
“They cannot look my fury in the eye. That’s the secret.” The mask fixed on me. “Not ugliness. Rage.”
Rage. My belly burned with it. “Tell me about her.”
“After Athena, I thought I would not love again. But then…” Beckoning me forward, she whispered a name straight into my ear. “We could not wed, of course. She…needed a lover she could look at.” A rattling gasp shook her. “And so, she took one. Another woman. Only because I wasn’t—sufficient, you see. As I am. With my—circumstances. But she promised that she loved me, deep and true. She needed more, she said. That was all.”
Tears trickled from under the mask. With my thumb, I brushed them away.
“She didn’t need more. She simply didn’t need me.”
I knew. I knew exactly that wrath. Bending over her, I stroked the cool porcelain as though soothing a child. And then I eased the straps free. Removing the mask, I gazed well and long upon the face of Medusa.
She was beautiful. Clear, bright eyes, undiminished by age, a proud lift to her chin. The lines of her face cut clean, honed by heartache and centuries and too many lands passing before her.
But unimaginable fury shone from her face like the brilliance of dying stars. Unstoppable, unmitigated after so many years. I bathed in it, my own anger singing in harmony. I saw her rage, I knew it. It recognized me in kind; it could not turn me to stone.
A whimper caught in her throat. Forehead to forehead, I cradled her. Our tears mingled on our cheeks, our hurt and stony hearts beating as one. Into my shoulder, she murmured, “Your payment is in the study.”
“Take your manuscript, take everything.”
“This is your job.” Her eyes blazed. “I turned them to stone. You turn them to stories. Let your pages be their plinths.”
“Do not let the world forget how we hurt.” She fell back, snarling and furious and lovelier than art can tell. “Let them look, full in the face.”
I kissed her cheek. It was papery, the skin so delicate I feared it must split beneath my lips. But she only smiled and went still.
A sudden writhing erupted on the pillow. All at once, the snakes pushed forth, shedding their skins like ghosts, dropping from her head and surging out the door. I followed them forth from Medusa’s death chamber. As they hissed about my feet, I gathered my papers and my typewriter and my fortune.
With a last glance up the stairs, I closed the door. I walked away forever from the house upon the hill, the record of our wrath tucked inside my jacket. These words conclude its prologue. It is complete; it is waiting.
I hope you gaze into its pages like a mirror.
I hope you quail before the furious heat of our eyes.
I hope you petrify—and despair.
KT Bryski is a Canadian author, podcaster, and co-chair of the ephemera reading series. Her short fiction has been published in Lightspeed, PodCastle, Strange Horizons, Augur, and Apex, among others. When she isn’t writing, she frolics through Toronto enjoying craft beer and choral music. Find her on Twitter @ktbryski.
Author of “The Gorgon’s Epitaphist”
What inspired you to write this story?
Since I was a child, Medusa has loomed large in my imagination. Nothing scared me more than the idea of petrifaction, and it still makes me very uncomfortable (I did a lot of frame-by-frame-watching-with-the-pause-button YouTube viewing while writing this story, to remember that feeling). But of course, when I got older, I learned the rest of the Medusa myth: Poseidon’s assault, Athena’s curse, Medusa’s own victimhood…
What I found particularly interesting was the notion that Medusa symbolizes female rage. Why is that so terrifying? I got to wondering — what if the snakes weren’t the truly frightening thing about Medusa? What if Athena’s curse isn’t the reason she petrifies people? What if the horrific thing — the thing that we literally cannot stand to look at — is Medusa’s anger?
The rest of it followed all at once: my reticent narrator and that dark, dark house.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
I hope they take away the importance of owning your own story and not letting others silence you. Histories, including personal ones, are inherently constructed. No one else gets to own yours.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
Oh, dear. I’m not sure how helpful this will be. I did one revision to sort out some pacing issues and polish the prose. The story got a lovely personal rejection from another publication, and then it landed here.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
Can I recommend two things?
Suzan Palumbo’s story “Tara’s Mother’s Skin” at PseudoPod is a dark, delicious delight. It gets right under your skin, and there’s a twist at the end that – but I won’t spoil anything. https://pseudopod.org/2020/08/21/pseudopod-718-taras-mothers-skin/
I also want to recommend Alex White’s Salvagers trilogy: a space opera with found family, queer romance, an awesomely-contrived magic system…and racing! It’s an incredibly smart series filled to the brim with heart. https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780316412063