Medusa

by Miriam English

Almost four thousand years ago. That long? It seems so recent...

It was where Libya now is, in the north of Africa on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, but it looked very different from how it is now. This was before all the trees were felled. The land was lush and rich and covered in beautiful, open woodlands. Life was easy and people had time to play and make art. Back then cities and kingdoms were measured in hundreds or thousands of people, not millions.

The leaders in this land were women. Medusa was loved by her people and she loved them in return. Wisdom and compassion were a normal part of the way she saw life. She and her two sisters, Stheno and Euryale learned and passed on knowledge to their people. Being ruler here was less privilege than responsibility. Even so, it was not a difficult life. Everybody lived easily here.

But all good things seem to come to an end.

On that morning, Medusa was sitting in the mottled shade on her favorite rug, surrounded by the children, holding class. The gentle morning breeze from the bay below barely stirred the trees and grape vines here in the arboretum. It was not a formal class like we think of today; in those days learning was fun, and the children enjoyed chatting with Medusa and her sisters about the ways of the world.

The hum of bees in the flowering trees around them blended with echoing whistles and twitters of birdsong and the hiss of the rustling leaves among the tall trees. Three of the children were grooming a fawn while another shared a fig with it. The adult deer grazed nearby, safe in the presence of these peaceful people.

Medusa stretched her long dark arms up in a yawn. "My darlings, we might pause for a little while. The boat of the foreigners will be at the jetty soon and I must go and greet them."

The children protested.
"Not yet, please."
"You were going to tell us about the foreigners."
"Where do they come from?"
"How far?"

She laughed her rich, song voice. "Just a little longer then, but I must greet the visitors soon."

Medusa looked out at the ship. It was painted with an eye at its prow and was faster and smaller than Phoenician or Egyptian vessels. "The ship comes from Sparta. A strange race of men live there, who so love to fight that they have made it their whole reason for living."

One little boy, puzzled asked, "They live for death? But that makes no sense, mother." (All the children called her mother.)

"How right you are, sweetheart." Medusa shook her head slightly, "I don't understand it either. Perhaps we can ask the visitors when they arrive."

"Their mothers might have learned the wrong things," a girl with long, straight, black hair suggested.

"I couldn't say. I've never seen any women on their ships, nor do they ever talk of women. It's hard to believe, but there are rumours that they don't have mothers. If that's true I'm very sad for them."

"They sound like monsters -- no mothers!" A young boy tensed at the thought.

Medusa laughed. "No, sweetie. People often are scared of those who are different from themselves. In fact they think we are the monsters. I have heard that their people think we are really ugly... so ugly that we can kill with our look." This astonished the children. "And they think our hair," she smiled and fingered the long plaited tresses, tied with bright red, yellow, and white string, "is a nest of snakes." She chuckled and all the children thought this was a great joke and fell about laughing.

"Growing snakes on your head!" "What silly people." Some were waving their hair about like serpents and hissing.

Medusa and Euryale One quiet, serious little girl who Medusa was grooming to become a future queen, didn't take part in the mirth. She was frowning thoughtfully, "If the men don't have any women where they live, then perhaps the women live together somewhere else." She looked questioningly at Medusa.

"Very good darling." She reached out and held the child's hand, "Such a race of women do exist. They call themselves Amazons. They love to fight just as much as the Spartans do." She shook her head, "Some of these people in other lands have very strange ideas."

Just then Euryale interrupted, "My love, the ship approaches. We must greet the visitor." She helped Medusa to her feet and they embraced and kissed.

Medusa smiled and caressed Euryale's cheek.

She turned back to the children, "Sweeties, you all stay here with Euryale. If you ask nicely, she might show you how to harvest the honey."

They all jumped to their feet, pleading with Euryale for the honey. Euryale threw Medusa a mock look of annoyance and led the milling, cheering children away toward the open woodland behind the hill.

Medusa set off down the hill toward the small bay and its single jetty. She waved to a tall, wiry, very black man who was making his way up the hill toward her. He, his wife, and children were closer friends to the three sisters than perhaps anybody else in this close-knit community.

When he was near enough, he spoke in his characteristic soft, low voice, "Medusa, I don't like the idea of you meeting this ship. These people are dangerous."

She laughed, "Not you too! I just finished telling the children that these people are simply misguided. No, dear friend. I must meet the visitor. They should be treated cordially."

He looked worried and held her hand.

She smiled and put her other hand on his shoulder, then turned and walked down to the pavilion where visitors were received. She stood before a table of flowers and fruits. Further behind her was the greeting party, a large group of seven citizens.

A man and a woman on the jetty helped the men on the ship dock, then one olive-skinned man disembarked and did the strangest thing: he held up a shiny shield and walked backwards along the jetty to the shore, occasionally stumbling a little. He appeared to be using the shield as a mirror. Medusa smiled, and turned to her friends in the greeting party. They were chuckling and looking embarrassed for the poor backward-walking fool. She touched her finger to her lips to bid them quiet and straightened her smile to something softer and welcoming. She noticed that her friend who'd cautioned her earlier was the only person frowning. He clearly did not like this.

The odd visitor was stumbling closer now. Medusa moved toward him with her usual greeting. She knew many languages and could speak the Spartan's tongue. "Traveller, we welcome you to our land. I am Medusa..." but she never finished her invitation because, to the horror of all present, the young man whisked his sword out and swung around viciously, severing Medusa's head. The bystanders screamed in shock, or fainted, or simply stared, aghast. He resheathed his sword, swept Medusa's head into a bag, ran back to his ship and leapt aboard as the ship, already moving, gathered speed, all oars out, rowing hard.

The folk watched in horror and anguish as the body of their beloved Medusa jerked and trembled and poured blood out in an enormous red pool on the flagstones of the greeting pavilion. There was nothing they could do.

They had been visited by the adventurer Perseus, who had come to defeat the horrific Medusa and live on as a hero in stories which would be passed down for thousands of years.


This was originally written in 2003, then tightened up and generally improved with the kind help of ElaineB, FranW, and JRosestar at the Lesbian Fiction Forum in 2010.

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