By Craig Laurance Gidney
I only move when the moon is hidden behind the clouds. I take no chances. Artemis would probably ignore me, as she is preoccupied with her silver chariot, drenching the sky in its rays. But one of her hunting hounds of cirrus and cumulous might scent me, and then it would be nothing to stretch her woman bow with her icy arrows, and pierce me. She would bring my head to She Who Cursed Me. This terrible hunger and loneliness would end, as my hot blood splashed on her diaphanous gown. But even cursed, I have a will to survive. So I slink and slither from tree to tree when the moon peeks behind the grey shroud of night. Moving like this is better than walking. It is one of my meager pleasures, to feel my long belly swim through loam and brush. My eyesight is quite poor, so scent guides me. And scent is as rich a palette as any I knew before. Even the droppings of animals are no longer offensive to me. They are just a rich, somnolent brown among the rotting greens and flamboyant pastels of flowers and fruits. Animals avoid me, however, though they needn’t be worried—it is not their flesh that I am after. I see a hare bound away. She must have caught my scent—the perfume of serpent, snake and sin. The stink of the supernatural, the taint of the cursed. Fool. Run as fast as your legs can carry you—you will never escape fate. I laugh, and my hair laughs along with me. My strands hiss. Each of them has eyes, so when an owl bursts from the treetops, I see it through my myriad segmented eyes. They sip the air with their forked tongues, and feed the information to my brain. One part of my brain—the part that is still human—remembers owls. How they are the handmaidens of wisdom, wisdom that I never had when I was mortal. My stupid hairsnakes watch the explosion of feather and horned ears ascending, thinking with their tiny brains what its blood would taste like. I quiet them, and slink towards the clearing.
The silver chariot rides behind a huge bank of cloud, and now I have my chance. I slide into the open, into an orchard of olive trees. The olives are not yet ripe. They are the tawny color of lions, but they are on the verge of changing to their purple-black regality. All of my nostrils and tongues drown in their winey smell, and I remember eating olives with the salty goat cheese my mother would make made in spring. This part is the real curse—the sudden flash of memory that comes from a random smell, a sound. That and still being slave to my monstrous form and desire. The competition of desires—that is what makes Hera’s curse so potent, like a dram of wine…
Another smell catches me, destroys me my reverie with all of the subtlety of one of Zeus’s rages. The endless hunger gnaws at my guts as I smell the child in a nearby house. How to describe my feeling? I love children—they smell of newness and innocence. Their blood is sweet nectar to my tongue, it is sustenance and pleasure. It is my ambrosia. My bouquet of snakes hiss in excitement. I let them drink from the fount of my kills. I curl towards the sleeping house.
If I can, I always take from the servant’s quarters. Those children are no less delicious, but they live such miserable lives, and they are not missed as much as the heirs and heiresses. The servant’s quarters are a bit further away from main house, closer to the olive grove. At the door, I listen, and hear the murmur of sleep.
Sleep. It is also something that I miss. I never sleep. Oh, I am dormant during the day, but that is not the same as sleep. I am never well rested. I am only hungry in my cave. Morpheus eludes me.
I push the door open, and smell hay, earth, sweat, urine and sex. It is dark, according to the human spectrum, but with my heightened sense of smell, I can make out each form. A man, a woman and a child. The smells of cooking, the ghost odors of fish and bread. I move into the room. The man groans. He smells of olives. He mutters something:
But, in spite of all, I possess some strange magic. My hair snakes exhale a mist of fine poison that makes him sleepy and stupid. He falls back into sleep, and his woman begins to snore—she has been dragged down into a deeper trance.
“Who are you?” The voice of innocence asks me, and I turn to see that the child is awake. His eyes are wide and dark, his face is pearlescent and smooth as river stones. His dark, curly hair frames his face. I scent his ichor—red and sweet as honey. It courses through his veins, just beneath the milky skin.
“Hush,” I say, as the snakes coil like Ethiop’s hair, ready to lull him to sweet, poisonous sleep.
But, fearless as any hero, he says, “You are a gorgon, aren’t you? Why haven’t you turned me to stone?”
That stays my hunger. Something else rises from my gullet. It is a strange bubble, uncomfortable, foreign. It bursts from between my lips, and spills out.
Laughter. How many aeons has it been since I have laughed? But, laugh I do, filled with mirth and glee. It shakes my serpentine body, jiggles my breasts.
“Child,” I say between gasps, “I am not a gorgon. That was a completely different curse!”
He nods, as serious as a scholar. “That does make sense. You aren’t that ugly, in the normal parts, at least.”
And he makes me laugh again. I fall into laughter as if it were a deep pool. It cleanses me, in rills and sparkles. I remember my own child—Lysander was his name. Like this one, he had the soft curls of dark brown, and eyes flecked with gold. I remember his laughter, infectious and endless. I remember the way he threw his head back and the tiny teeth that just glowed with his frivolity. And I remembered his smell, on the day I changed. How sweet and irresistible it was. How I had to have it. And how I devoured him, drinking his blood, eating the tender, succulent flesh. And I remember the horror. I, his mother, had eaten him. From my fertile womb to the charnel house of my stomach.
The child interrupts me, once again. “You are going to kill me, aren’t you?” The salty gems of tears fill his eyes.
My hunger fills me. The animal instinct takes over.
I am poised between memory and compulsion. The little boy could be Lysander. Which desire will win?
© Craig Laurance Gidney