Apotheosis; Mourning

Another day passed. No one again attempted to venture in to the temple. Medousa gazed sadly at the statues. No, not “statues,” she thought. Corpses. She could see that there were still guards outside the doors. She was trapped. Medousa’s head spun, and she felt nauseated. She fought to keep from trembling, but could not. She could try to escape, but Medousa realized that if she went out, anyone looking at her face would perish. She sat, rocking back and forth, unconsciously tugging at her hair. Or rather, what had been her hair. She couldn’t get the faces of her victims out of her mind; the high priestess Lysimache, who had always been so kind to her, and shown her such Xenia while here in Athens. Poor, innocent Thaleia, the associate priestess who had helped her learn so many of her duties. Her teacher and guardian Chionis, a man of great standing and accomplishment. Guilt gnawed at her remorselessly, like wild dogs fighting over scraps of meat in the street. She wrapped her arms and her wings around herself, trying to ignore the corpses around her, the bodies of her victims.

She missed her friends. Oh, how she longed to nestle in the safety of Cynisca’s arms once more! Or to talk with her friend Helen, so full of wise counsel. And how terrified she was to be trapped in the house of her who had once been her protector and comforter, but who was now, apparently, her implacable enemy. She tried to choke back the moaning whines that rose up from within her belly as she rose and started pacing agitatedly. Never before had Medousa felt so alone.

 

#

Early on the morning of the second day, Medousa, still sleeping fitfully, heard footsteps.  Someone was entering the shrine again. It sounded like more than one person. She crawled out of the Virgins’ Chamber and up to the fallen columns and wreckage. She peered up over the barrier, being careful not to expose herself to view. Four well-armed warriors were slowly making their way in. The light was behind them, so Medousa could not at first perceive them clearly. But she dared not risk a better view lest she kill them without meaning to.

“Where is she?” the tall one in front whispered. “The others were turned to stone; why is there no sign of her?” He shifted uneasily, wielding a huge shield.

It was Ajax.

Helen’s voice next. “Maybe she escaped before the monster came,” it ventured.

Cynisca answered. “No; she would have returned to us.”

Then, Teukros’ voice. “You may have to face the fact that something even worse has happened to her, Brother.”

“Then I will have vengeance.”

Her friends! Medousa’s heart beat wildly, and her throat choked with emotion. She dropped down so she couldn’t be seen. Oh, how she longed to rush out to them! In a low voice she called out to them.

“…Cynisca…?”

The party froze. “What was that?” one of the women said in a frightened whisper.

“Helen…? Ajax…? It’s me…! Teukros…?”

Silence.

And then, Ajax’s familiar voice; “Who are you, foul creature? How do you know our names?”

“Can you not recognize my voice?” Medousa was on the verge of tears again. “Ajax? Please recognize me! And Cynisca-! Oh, my Cynisca-!”

“It couldn’t be,” Cynisca said.

Teukros spoke up. “Who are you? We ask again! –How dare you defile the temple of Athena? And where is the priestess Medousa?”

Cynisca burst out “Where is she, monster? I swear I will feast on your heart this day, murderer!”

A low wail rose up in the shrine. “Oh, my friends! Oh, my Little Puppy! Is there truly nothing left of me? Is there nothing left that you recognize?”

All was silent but for Medousa’s sobs.

Cynisca, in a small tight voice, called out “Medousa…?”

“Impossible,” Teukros said. “She couldn’t have-”

“Cynisca,” Medousa called. “You’ve been my best and closest friend since we were children. You rescued my wolf-pup Alala from the kitchen fires on the day I arrived….”

Silence. Medousa continued.

“I was your–” She stopped, suddenly, ashamed to admit it in front of Ajax and Teukros. But after a moment’s hesitation, she plunged on.

“I was your slave…Your brother Agesilaus purchased my freedom….”

“How could you know these things…?” Cynisca replied. Her voice was cold, but brittle and uncertain.

“Oh, Little Puppy– Please….” Medousa held her breath, still, except for the quiet hissing of her serpents.

“…Is it truly our Medousa…?” Helen wondered aloud.

“But– It can’t be,” rejoined Cynisca, desperate to believe. “Our Medousa could not have murdered the innocent–And she would have returned to me! She–”

“Could a stranger know these things?” Helen protested.

Tears welled up afresh in Medousa’s eyes. “It wasn’t my fault,” she cried. “It wasn’t my fault! I didn’t mean it!”

Silence again, but for the weeping of serpents.

Helen spoke up. “No one could know these things but our Medousa. I say we trust her.”

Ajax and Teukros turned to look at her. Cynisca stared grimly ahead, knuckles white as she held her spear. Helen cleared her throat nervously, and spoke again. “Medousa.  I hardly know your voice. What happened?”

There was a pause. Medousa heard them relax. Spears and bows were lowered.

Ajax asked, “Come out from the shadows that we might see you.”

“No,” Medousa replied.  “I dare not. So far, anyone who has beheld my face–” She stopped, unable to finish, thinking of her teachers and the little priestess. The others swallowed in fear, glancing at the statues of Medousa’s unintended victims.

“What happened, Medousa?” Teukros repeated.

“Wait,” Cynisca said. “Here-” She removed the himation she wore draped over her breastplate. She rolled it up as tightly as she could, and threw it towards the shadows behind the fallen column and smashed idol. “Veil yourself with this, and come out and sit with us.”

“Clever Cynisca,” Medousa smiled in spite of her sadness. She heard them lay their weapons down and sit on the floor. Medousa carefully covered her face, using the cloak like a burnoose. Her serpents cascaded down from underneath it. Using their eyes to guide herself, she stood.

She flinched as she heard their sharp intake of breath. Carefully, she stepped over the barricade as easily as a man might step over a fallen log. She walked slowly toward her friends, not wanting to frighten them, fearful, lest they should glimpse her face and die.

When she thought she was close enough, she sat, stretching her wings back so that she could sit comfortably on the floor.

There was a long silence. They could hear the noise of the crowds outside the shrine, demanding to know what was going on. Medousa’s friends could feel fear and terror pouring off her, as fog rolls off the mountaintops. She tried not to weep. Her friends shook with terror, but they did not flee. It was Helen who finally spoke, repeating her question.

“What happened to you, Medousa?”

In a tremulous voice, Medousa recounted all that had befallen her since she had left Cynisca in the garden, and gone to make her prayers to Athena. The quiet afterward was punctuated by Medousa’s sobs.

Helen and Cynisca rocked back and forth, wailing with Medousa. After a few minutes, they rose, tore strips of cloth from their under-tunics, and bound their own eyes so that they could not see, and they embraced Medousa, and held her as they cried. Medousa could feel Cynisca’s and Helen’s fear, but they did not shrink from her monstrous form. Cynisca, weeping as though her heart were torn in pieces, clung to Medousa like a baby to its mother’s breast.

Ajax stood, looking upon them, his heart heavy with both longing and guilt. He paced around them, almost deflated. “And how can we take vengeance for Medousa upon a God? It’s not fair,” he declared. “It is unjust.”

The four friends mourned with Medousa for the rest of the afternoon and late into the evening. Their servants and Helots stood guard without the shrine. No one else dared to come in to the temple, though many curious could be seen, straining to listen from the doors, and they could hear the noise outside of the curious and the fearful. Ignoring them, the five spent the night together in restive quiet. Cynisca and Medousa held one another, crying together, dozing off in one another’s arms. Ajax sat apart, staring longingly at Medousa, yet overcome with dread.

At morning light, Ajax stood. “I am told that I am a grandson of Zeus,” he said. They turned to the sound of his voice, hard and determined. “Let us see what he may do on our behalf if we entreat him. Perhaps we can–”

Helen moved away from Medousa and, careful to face away from her, removed her blindfold.

“Medousa cannot stay,” she said quietly, the words themselves rebelling in her throat.

Cynisca, still clinging to Medousa, turned her face toward the sound of Helen’s voice. “No…!” she gasped. “No! We… We can take her ba–”

“Back to Sparta?” Helen answered her, turning to Cynisca. “And how would that work? How many would die? How could–”

NO!” Cynisca shouted. “NO, NO, NO…!” She buried her face in Medousa’s bosom and screamed in rage and grief. Medousa clutched her to herself, also weeping piteously.

Cynisca!” Helen cried sharply. “Cynisca,” she repeated, more softly. She tried to find the right words to speak, but could not. She wept quietly, her mind turning to what had to be done next. “Oh, Medousa…. I am grieved for you both,” Helen murmured, slumping to the floor.

Ajax looked defeated. He knew Helen spoke the truth. Medousa could not stay. He turned to her. “Medousa– what are your immediate needs…?”

Medousa felt as if she were falling into a great black pit. She desperately wanted to at least look at her friends with her own eyes one last time, but she knew she could not. She wept, holding Cynisca tightly, as she used to cling to Alala when she was a child. After many long minutes, Medousa regained enough control of herself to answer Ajax’s question.

“I am hungry,” Medousa told him between sobs. “And I thirst. And I long to wash the filth from me.”

“Ajax and I will get bread and wine for you,” Teukros said. “And a washbasin and water for you to bathe.”

“We’ll need to get clothes for her,” Helen thought out loud as she gazed at Medousa’s veiled form. “Cynisca– come with me. We need to… We must help… We…. We must prepare.” And Helen too began to cry again.

“Be strong, Medousa.” said Ajax. “We’ll return as soon as we can.”

“Please hurry back to me.”

Sadness overtook Medousa as they left her. Her heart felt like ice, and the emptiness in her belly threatened to swallow up her soul. Medousa felt cold. She shivered. When she was sure they’d gone, she removed her veil and slipped back behind the rubble. She rolled the himation into the form of a pillow, and laid upon it, comforted by Cynisca’s smell still on it. Yet Medousa could not sleep. Her heart pounded, and her bowels were troubled. She curled up into a tight ball and howled.

 

#

Cynisca and Helen went back to their lodgings to fetch Medousa’s belongings. Then, they would have to go quickly to the Agora, to buy cloth to fashion into clothes for their friend. Ajax and Teukros stood outside on the temple porch as the Helots took up their positions as they awaited the girls’ return. They watched Helen and Cynisca hurry on their way. Then, the young Salamite nobles went on their way to find water for bathing and food for Medousa.

 

“Distasteful,” Ajax commented to Teukros as they walked. Ajax was nervously toying with the fasteners on his armor.

“What is?”

“Medousa,” Ajax said sadly.

Teukros put forth his hand and halted his brother.

“Ajax….”

“I loved her so much, Teukros.” He became pensive. “And now, the poor thing has been made a monster… I myself would take vengeance for her, but–”

“Who could take vengeance on a God?” Teukros finished for him, nodding sadly in agreement.

“Throughout her entire life, she will have to bear the shame and disgrace,” Ajax mused. “And what justice can be done on her behalf? She is ruined.”

“Ajax. Father would never have allowed you to marry her, anyway.”

“No,” Ajax said. “I could have persuaded him….”

“Ajax,” Teukros said, laying a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Perhaps you should be grateful that you escaped such a difficulty with Father.” he suggested.

“What do you mean?” Ajax demanded. “Teukros, that’s heartless!”

“I’m sorry,” Teukros said. He sighed. “Honestly, I don’t know what to say.”  He paused, thinking.

“Ajax– We will have to get Medousa out of Athens, and without harming anyone.”

“I know.”

“Ajax– We’ll need to go talk to the Archons.”

“You have an idea?”

Teukros nodded his head sadly and fell silent.

 

#

Cynisca was silent as she and Helen made their way back to their lodgings. Helen noted that she seemed troubled, no longer sure of herself, no longer the determined, warrior-hearted woman she usually was. Of course, the tragedy of their friend’s transformation would explain the change. But Helen had never seen Cynisca in this kind of state. Finally, as they entered their house, Cynisca broke down sobbing.

IT ISN’T FAIR!” she cried out.

Helen tried to soothe her. “I know, Cynisca, I know….”

“We were supposed to make up! I was supposed to forgive her! And she was supposed to come back with us to Sparta!”

Helen drew her friend into her arms and held her gently, saying nothing.

“I want my Medousa back,” Cynisca cried. “The one that I knew in Sparta. The one that was human. The one that was beautiful. The one who needed me. The one who ….”

Helen rocked her as she wept.

“I’m so sorry, Cynisca. I wish I could say something that would make it all better, but–” Helen paused, again at a loss for words. “Come. Try to be strong. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“I don’t want to say goodbye to her, Helen. I can’t lose her! Not now! Not like this!”

 

#

Later that afternoon, Ajax and Teukros brought a large basin of water to the temple. They knocked and called, to make sure that Medousa would not be within sight while they brought in her bath. They placed it down near the back of the shrine and off to the side, in the gallery behind the pillars.

Then, the two brothers in brought in a large vessel of water, and a small bowl of olive oil and ash, and a scraper. Ajax called out to her, “Medousa!” His voice shook. “We’ve got a bath for you. Wait a moment; we’ll leave you some towels as well.” He ran and brought back an armful of towels and washcloths. “Call out if you need more,” he said, careful not to look up. “We’ll be at the door, just outside.”

“After you’ve had a chance to bathe, we’ll have something to eat,” Teukros promised. He and Ajax quickly left.

Medousa emerged from the Virgins’ Chamber and looked over her barricade. Eagerly, she went to the basin and began to wash. To her relief, the water was warm. She trembled with anxiety as she completed her ablutions.

She washed herself thoroughly, for the most part, but was unsure what to do about her serpents. She soaked her hands in the remnants of the oil and ash mixture and ran her fingers firmly through her tresses. Then, she ducked her head in the basin and tried to dry her serpents with a cloth. That was at least straightforward. Her wings, she was less sure about. She tried wetting her hands and combing her fingers through her pinions. After finishing, she rubbed herself vigorously with a dry towel.

She heard Ajax’s voice from outside “Are you finished yet?”

“Yes, thank you. It was a relief.”

“Veil your face,” Teukros called. “We’re coming in.”

Medousa again wound Cynisca’s himation about her head.

“Dinner!” she heard Teukros call. He and Ajax brought in a large basket of warm bread soaked in olive oil with garlic, and a savory dish of mushrooms. There was also a jar of wine, cut with water.

They set the dishes out before Medousa on the floor.

“We’ll leave you in peace to eat,” Teukros said.

“We’ll be just on the other side of the door,” Ajax added. “In case you’d like to talk.”

The two princes left the food and wine by the threshold, and then stepped outside, closing the door behind them, and then sat down, leaning against it.

Medousa ate in silence, wanting to talk, but not having anything of substance at this point to say. She wasn’t feeling hungry at all, in fact. But she realized that she had to keep her strength up, and so tucked in with, if not enthusiasm, then with laconic efficiency.

After finishing her meal, Medousa went back to the basin and washed quickly. She stood by the closed doors of the shrine and tried to make conversation with Ajax and Teukros. But she really had little to say. Medousa was beginning to feel horribly isolated already; she could hear the bustle and business of people outside. She could hear snatches of conversation, and she could hear hoplites and cultic guards running back and forth. She was close to it all, and yet irrevocably separated from it. The realization plunged Medousa even further down into her well of despair.

Sadly, she turned away from the doors of the temple and went to lay down in the Virgins’ Chamber again.

 

#

Medousa must have drifted off. She awoke to a gentle pounding on the temple doors.

“Medousa! It’s us!” It was Cynisca’s voice. “”We’ve got you clothes, and some other things for you from home!”

Medousa covered her face again, and came out into the shrine. She watched through her serpents as Cynisca and Helen slipped in carrying large bundles. The doors were quickly closed behind them.

“We’ll leave these here for you,” Helen said, laying the bundles down and opening them up. “We’d stay to help you dress, but….” Helen’s voice trailed off.

Cynisca was busily removing items from the pack baskets and arranging them for Medousa. Her face was set stoically, but tears streamed down her face as she worked.

When their task was done, Helen and Cynisca turned to leave. But at the door, Cynisca paused, looking back to Medousa. Several of Medousa’s serpents were watching her. “I’ll be right out,” Cynisca told Helen.

She ran back to Medousa and embraced her. She was no bigger than a child now, compared to Medousa. Medousa could feel Cynisca’s tears against her belly. She felt her own tears beneath the cloth she wore over her face. Medousa sat, suddenly weary. The strength went out of her legs, and she trembled. Cynisca climbed into her lap and nuzzled between her breasts, holding Medousa as tightly as she could. For a long time, they wept together but spoke no words. Medousa drew her arms around Cynisca and leaned back against one of the fallen pillars. Cynisca lounged upon Medousa as she had done so often before today.

“What have I done, Cynisca?” Medousa said in sob-choked whispers. “It’s all my own fault, isn’t it? I’ve destroyed my life. I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost you. All I ever wanted was to have….” She couldn’t finish.

“I want to look upon your face once more,” Cynisca wept, reaching up to touch the thin scrap of cloth that was the only thing protecting her from certain death at the hands of her lover. Medousa gripped Cynisca’s wrists.

“No, Little Puppy. Please. I want you to live.”

“Why would I want to live if I can’t be with you?”

Cynisca stretched up and began kissing Medousa’s breasts and throat. Medousa stopped her for fear of hurting her.

“Please, Cynisca,” she pleaded. “How will I be able to live knowing that I had caused your death?”

Medousa tried to sit up, gently allowing Cynisca to slip to the floor. Cynisca sat cross legged on the floor, and pulled Medousa toward her, compelling her friend to lay her head in her lap. She took out a scrap of cloth and blindfolded herself as she had done earlier. Medousa capitulated. Cynisca tried several times to stroke Medousa’s hair; it was almost a reflex. But there were only the serpents, writhing and flicking their tongues over her fingers as she slid her hand underneath Medousa’s veil. She shuddered, trying bravely to ignore the squirming, writhing mass atop her friend’s head, and instead reached down to stroke her shoulders. But the strange new texture of Medousa’s flesh frightened her as well. And the massive wings made it difficult to caress her back. Cynisca tried to close out the sound of Medousa’s taloned, bird-like feet scraping quietly against the stone floor as she stirred.

Medousa lay still as her friend petted and comforted her.

“What’s going to happen to me now, Little Puppy?”

“Ajax and Teukros spoke to the Archons. In the morning, we will go with you down to Piraeus. We are commissioning a ship to take you as far away as possible.”

Medousa felt herself go faint with fear. She closed her eyes and tried not to cry again. “Oh, my Little Puppy,” she sobbed softly. “I am afraid!”

They sat up together, holding each other tightly. They were silent for a long time. “I will plead for you daily, Medousa,” Cynisca at last whispered fiercely. “I will beg Nemesis and the Erinyes for justice. I will cry to Aphrodite on your behalf.” She stopped, her voice breaking.

Suddenly, Cynisca turned her blindfolded face to Medousa. “Take me with you,” Cynisca demanded. “Let me go with you. Please.” She hid her face against Medousa’s shoulder and cried like a child as her friend held her. Medousa began to cry also.

“I cannot, Little Puppy,” she sobbed. “It would mean your death.”

“I don’t care,” Cynisca wept, all attempts at composure discarded. Squeezing her eyes shut under her blindfold, she tore aside Medousa’s veil and started covering her face with kisses and hot tears. “You are my blood and my breath,” she wept.  “What will I do without you by my side?” She buried her face between Medousa’s breasts, wailing. She was making herself incoherent with grief.

“Oh, Little Puppy!” Medousa cried, frightened for her friend’s reckless actions. “Don’t you know how much I love you? Why did you move my veil? What if you had seen my face? Please, my love; I couldn’t bear it if you were to die because of me.”

“I don’t want to live without you!”

Medousa said nothing but held her tightly. They kissed deeply and lingered over it, still crying fiercely, holding on tightly to one another. Cynisca noted with deep unease the new shape of Medousa’s mouth, her teeth and jaw, and the horrible tusks.

Medousa sang to her, her serpents keening like an orchestra of syrinxes.

“Truly, I wish I were dead.

She was weeping when she left me,

And said many things to me, and said this:

‘How much we have suffered, Cynisca.

Truly, I don’t want to leave you.’

And I answered her:

‘Farewell. Go, and remember me,

You know how much I love you’

And if you should not, I want

To remind you of our moments of grace,

The many garlands of violets, roses, and crocuses

You put on my head,

The many necklaces woven of flowers on my soft skin…

All the myrrh…expensive…I anointed you…royal…

And on soft coverlets…tender…quenched our desire…nor ever any…

From which we held back….”

Suddenly, there came a pounding at the doors.

“Medousa! Cynisca! What’s going on in there? Cynisca, are you alright? Medousa, what are you doing?” It was Helen.

Her body still heaving with grief, Cynisca answered her, “Don’t enter! I’m coming out!”

She stood. Medousa readjusted her veil.

“Medousa? I’m taking off my blindfold now.”

As she did so, Cynisca glanced down to see Medousa still sitting, and was vaguely disappointed that her veil was back in place. “I’ll be back shortly, with Helen. You should be dressed. We have only a few more hours.”

And with that, Cynisca left.

 

#

With Cynisca gone, Medousa did her best to compose herself, and turned to the clothing left for her. First, there was a beautiful soft grey strophion. She wound it around herself, negotiating it below her wings. It fit perfectly from just under her breasts to just above her knees.

Next, was a dark grey peplos of heavier weave than the undergarment. It had a lovely embroidered edge. Medousa struggled with it. It covered her breasts well enough, and hung down elegantly to her ankles. Medousa’s shoulders were left bare, as the material had to be gathered across under her shoulders, and dropped down between her wings.  But the fabric could then be gathered around her waist and drawn up toward her neck to be fastened at her bosom.

Medousa looked for a fastening pin, and saw a pair of exquisite gold brooches, set with sapphires. Medousa wept again as she realized how much her friends had spent on her. She used the brooches to pin up her dress.

Then, there was a gorgeous blue silk epiblema. Medousa took the shawl and draped it around her neck. It hung down past her waist, and she then pulled it up over her serpents. And finally, there was a dark indigo blue himation. Medousa folded her wings tightly against her back, and drew the garment about her huge frame. She drew the cloak up over her head and wrapped it closed around her. It all fit perfectly.

And then, Medousa noticed a beautiful silver headband, simple, yet elegant. It was shaped into the form of a pair of entwined serpents and set with a large blue-grey moonstone in front. Medousa wept, realizing that the jewels must have been gifts from Cynisca. She slipped the headband on across her brow.

Finally, there was a broad leather girdle, studded with glittering bronze, and from which depended a large leather pack. For Medousa, it would serve as a large purse, but she could see that it was the size of a full back pack for any ordinary person. She put it on beneath the epiblema and himation.

Medousa stood for a long while, trying to bring her emotions under control. She was rigid, and weary with the effort it took. At last, she pulled her shawl over her head like a veil, and pulled the cloak up over her head as well. She allowed several of her serpents to slither out from underneath so that she wouldn’t be blind. She sat carefully upon the fallen pillar, and then called through the doors to her friends.

“I am dressed and veiled now. Please come in.”

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a faceless drone in a corporate call center, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in my dead grandparents’ house, alone, with an impressive collection of martial arts weapons, where I practice and train daily. I am not currently on any medications.
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