Monstrous / Sarah Chevallier
CONTENT WARNING: references to sexual assault.
I am still lying on the floor when she finds me.
If she had appeared to me yesterday, or even a few hours ago, I would have fallen to the floor before her feet, averted my eyes from her bright gaze, wept with joy and amazement at her glory. But that was before. I wept more in the past few hours than I thought possible, and it didn’t save me. She didn’t save me. So instead, I look at Athena with dry eyes, walk past her to the steps before her altar, and sit down, before saying in a hollow voice, “You came.”
Her expression is inscrutable as she replies, “Is this the welcome fit for a goddess in her own temple?”
I shrug. She and I both know that I don’t particularly care if I live or die now. Not after what Poseidon did to me, in her temple. Not after she heard me scream and cry and beg and still didn’t come to my aid. Not after I devoted my life to serve her, only to find myself alone.
She shifts. “What happened here was a desecration. It should never have happened.”
But it did. I wait for her to continue.
Watching me carefully, she says quietly, icily, “I can’t change what he did to you. But I can give you something he took: a choice. I will allow you to set the terms of your justice. I will give you until the morning to think it over, Medusa.”
And she is gone.
The next morning, she finds me sitting in the same spot. Asking a favor of a goddess like Athena is a double-edged sword. We both know she failed to save me, but I have to be careful not to blame her or forget my place. After all, I am just a human woman, and this sort of thing happens all the time. The only reason she made the offer is because it happened in her temple. Had it happened even just a few feet outside, she likely wouldn’t bother. But Athena is nothing if not ruthlessly committed to principle, so here we are.
I take a breath. “I want—I need—for this to never happen again. I understand no other gods would want Poseidon’s leavings, so I’m not concerned on that front.”
She narrows her eyes but nods slowly.
“That said, human men are not so choosy. I need to make sure they stay far away. I’d like for you to cast an enchantment on me. To other women, I will appear as I am. Ordinary. Human. But to men, I will be hideous. A monster.”
“They will hunt you,” she says. “You know they will. I will not be there to protect you all the days of your life.”
“I’m not asking for your protection. I want them to be petrified of me. Literally. If a man looks on me, he will turn to stone.”
Athena rolls her eyes. “This is absurd. I can’t have you running around turning every man who happens to cross your path to stone, all because of some petty sense of grievance.”
I flinch as if struck. “He took me in your temple and he laughed as I wept your name! And you call it petty!”
“You forget yourself, human.” She blazes even brighter as she lifts her spear a few inches.
I fall back and collect myself. “You’re right. I apologize. You are generous to hear my proposal, and I overstepped. Please forgive me.”
She lowers her spear.
“Let us strike a deal, then. If I grant you this, you will exile yourself to an island, far from any of my great cities. I will let it be known that a monster lives on that island. If some man is unlucky enough to seek you there, so be it. But you must stay there for the rest of your natural life, and if you should change your mind, no matter how you beg or plead, this enchantment will not be lifted. Think carefully whether you are sure you want this. You will in all likelihood live out your days hated and feared, unloved and untouched. Alone.”
I hold her gaze and reply, “I will manage, I’m sure.”
Years later, she visits me again.
Her voice booms out in the quiet twilight air just as I am about to go inside.
I release the door handle and turn to face her. “To what do I owe the honor, after all this time?”
“You must have known I’d come.”
“I wouldn’t presume to expect a visit from a goddess,” I respond, “but as you’re here, would you care to join me? I’ve taken the habit of walking along the beach in the evenings.”
I start without waiting for her response. I can’t hear her quiet huntress’ footfalls, but I feel her glaring at me with those golden eyes as she follows me.
When I first arrived on the island, the rocky beach was desolate and empty. Now, the shore is dotted with statues facing the water. Some tall, some short. Thin, fat, young, old. All men. All frozen in fear.
I stop in front of one. An older man, strong and well-built, with close-cropped hair and a cruel thin mouth, his hands outstretched in supplication. I tilt my head. “My father was the first to come. He thought I had run away from the temple and assumed that I made up the rumor of the monster to keep him from dragging me back home by my hair. He had allowed me to escape him once, to become your devotee. He said he would be damned if I escaped him twice. Then he saw me. He fell to his knees first in fear, but then he realized he couldn’t move his legs. He started to beg, as he felt his body turning to stone. I couldn’t stop laughing. I had spent so many years cowering and pleading before this pathetic man. That night, I fell asleep smiling and dreamed the sweetest dreams.”
Athena glances at him briefly, uninterested. “He was a fool.”
I resume my stroll. “The next morning, I woke up and pulled him round to face the water. So that anyone else who landed on the shore would see that the rumors were true. But still, they came and they came, undeterred. I brought them here as well. And every evening I come to visit them.” I laugh. “Fools all.”
She speaks from behind me. “Enough, Medusa. I know that you are not alone in that house.”
“I know about the women. The ones who ran from their fathers, their husbands, their brothers. The ones who came here. To your island.” Her voice grows quieter with every word, until she finishes, “Instead of to my temple.”
I try to laugh again. “Oh, well, of course, every so often a confused, misguided soul wanders over, but…”
“Do you think you can lie to me?” she seethes. “Spare me. I granted your ridiculous request, gave you your illusion and your isolation, though I was under no obligation to do so. Out of mercy for what you suffered as my temple maiden, I was generous. But you have grown too bold. You and I both know that for every women who makes it here, there are four others still at home praying to you instead of to me!”
Something snaps inside me. “Of course they pray to me. Of course they come to me! Because they know that I will actually protect them!”
“How dare you speak this way to me, you who once pledged your life to me?” She closes the gap between us, looming over me, waiting for me to step back. But I hold my ground.
“I was a fool to have put my faith in you. I saw a goddess as wise and strong as any god, a daughter favored by Zeus even above his sons, and I thought that surely you would see the power and the promise in women. But you’re no different from any of the rest. Just look at your champions! You say you value cleverness and boldness and strength, but what about me? Have I not proven myself as clever and bold as any man and stronger than any man could ever dream? What man could endure what I have endured, and not crumble but flourish? You want women on their knees, suffering in silence. I would see them thrive, and as long as I draw breath, I will defy anyone who tries to stop them, even if that means I have to turn every misbegotten man on this earth to stone.”
Athena’s nostrils flare, and her grip tightens on her spear. “And what makes you think I’ll let you continue to draw breath?”
“Oh, yes, please, go ahead and kill me. Let the word spread that Athena killed one of her former devotees. I’m sure they’ll flock to your temples then.”
For a long moment, the only sounds I can hear are the waves lapping the shore and the blood pounding in my ears. Finally, Athena takes a breath and says in a low, deadly voice, “You will regret this.”
With that, she disappears, plunging the beach into darkness.
I see her one last time, at the end.
I can’t help but admit, she is every bit as clever as the stories say, and crueler by half. She sent one of her precious champions to kill me, tall and handsome and brutal, armed with a mirrored shield so my gaze can’t petrify him.
By the time I realize what is happening, it is too late. I am once again the prey instead of the predator. I try to scramble back up the hill to my home, calling for help. But I am so tired. I slip, and I know it is over then.
I never even see the blade. I hear his slow footfall behind me. I look up at the faces of the women who had rushed out to help me. I watch them weep as they watch me die.
Then I see her standing behind them, wearing a smug, triumphant grin, and I hear him stop and lift his sword.
And so, in one last rebellion, I smile back at her, and as I watch her grin falter, a laugh climbs up my throat.
I feel the rush of air on the back of my neck as the blade comes down, and all is dark.
Sarah Chevallier is an education policy professional, writer, and feminist living in Long Beach.
See more: @SMChevallier