Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC, USA
Athena was not one to frolic among mortals, unlike most of her relatives. However, there was one mortal she seemed to never have enough of, one she went out of her way to visit as much as she possibly could.
Her name had been Medusa.
Born a mortal with immortal parents and sisters, Medusa was left to raise herself, to provide for herself, and to live on her own. But she was not alone. She lived in a small polis, one where everyone was kind enough, and so she had many friends. But no one was as close to her as the goddess of wisdom. One could say the little mortal girl had the goddess wrapped tight around her finger. Athena herself would hardly ever deny it. After all, it wasn’t often someone like Medusa looked at her with such kindness in her eyes. When Athena came down from Olympus, she would always make time to visit the polis Medusa lived in. It was on one such visit Medusa came to her with an invitation.
Athena and Medusa walk arm and arm through the streets of the polis. Around them, people go about their days in an ordinary fashion though all stop and bow to their goddess. She returns each one with a humble head nod but it’s easy to tell where her focus is, her gray eyes always lingering on Medusa’s face.
Medusa smiles warmly and squeezes Athena’s arm. “It’s a celebration for another successful harvest year. I’m sure it won’t compare to parties on Olympus, but you’ll come, won’t you?” Her eyes meet Athena’s and the goddess looks away quickly, biting the inside of her mouth.
“I am… not much fun at parties.” she admits. “Wouldn’t you rather take someone else? Alexander is, um, interested in you, is he not?”
“Well, yes, but,” Medusa places a hand on Athena’s cheek and guides her gaze back to the mortal’s face, “I would much rather go with you.”
For a moment, Athena forgets how much she dislikes physical touch. Usually, all she can handle is the arm-in-arm walks the two take together, or the slight brush of their fingers. But Medusa’s hand is warm, soft, like silk feathers tickling Athena’s cheek in a teasing manner. Medusa pulls it away quickly, knowing well enough Athena’s disdain for touch, but the burning sensation of where she placed her hand remains as Athena tries to pull herself back into reality.
“I suppose, I mean, I will be there.” the words tumble from her lips before she can process what they mean. Medusa’s face lights up immediately.
“I look forward to it.”
The festival takes place two nights later, underneath the gleam of Selene’s sky. Tables line the streets, piled high with food and wine, and people converse loudly with each other. In the polis’ center by the well a group has begun dancing to music offered up by a small band of three. In comparison to Olympus celebrations it is a much… tamer night.
Medusa finds Athena almost instantly. She offers the goddess an insincere courtesy which makes Athena laugh ever so slightly. “That’s better.” Medusa says. “You look much more at ease now.”
“I told you, I am not much fun at parties.” Athena reminds her. Medusa meets the words with a gentle expression.
“But, still. Thank you for coming.”
Athena prays to, well, herself that the night is dark enough that Medusa cannot see the burning of her cheeks. She clears her throat. “What do you wish to do?”
Just then, the crowd of dancers cheer as the musicians begin playing a more upbeat melody. Medusa grins and Athena grows nervous. The young girl offers Athena her hand. “Dance with me.”
“I,” Athena stammers, “I can’t. I can’t dance, I mean. I don’t know how.” “Would you like me to teach you?”
The hand remains outstretched towards her, alluring like a siren’s song, and Athena raises her own hesitantly. She places her fingers onto Medusa’s outstretched palm, barely pressing into the skin yet still feeling an unimaginable warmth seeping into her fingers from Medusa’s hands. No one has ever been so warm before.
Medusa threads their fingers together slowly, allowing Athena time to pull back if she decides it’s too much. While the feeling is strange and a little overwhelming, she pushes through, the prospect of dancing together with Medusa too tempting to give up.
“Are you alright?” Medusa asks. Athena swallows, hard, and nods.
“Yes.” she says. “Whenever you are ready.”
Medusa guides Athena to the other dancers, finding her other hand and holding it as well. Athena can hear her heartbeat in her ears as Medusa starts slowly, taking a step forward with her right foot. Athena steps back. Then Medusa side-steps, and Athena follows. Medusa steps back with her left foot and the two begin to find the rhythm of the music together, moving a bit faster with each step.
Athena’s worries slowly wash away and she finds the experience quite enjoyable. Her favorite part of the dance was watching Medusa, the moon reflected against her curls and the shine of the night sky glowing against her skin.
The dance ends all too soon but they stay together, just a little bit of distance between them. Medusa squeezes Athena’s hands lightly.
“Oh, Athena.” she speaks suddenly. “I think I’m in love with you.”
Athena knocks twice on Medusa’s bedroom door. No answer. She sighs, and runs her hand through her hair. “Medusa, please.”
“Go away!” she shouts from behind the door, muffled from the blankets she’s no doubt buried herself under.
“Let’s talk about this.”
“No!” Athena sighs again and presses her back against the wooden door. She slides down to sit in front of it and rubs her eyes. A few minutes of silence pass before Medusa speaks again. “Are you, uh, still there?”
Silence consumes them again as Athena purses her lips in thought. Eventually, she asks, “Why are you hiding from me?”
“Because I’m scared.”
“Scared I’m not going to return your feelings?”
“And,” Athena begins, “what would you do if I did… return your feelings?” There’s a thud from the other side of the door and feet scrambling across the wooden flooring. The doorknob moves slightly before stopping suddenly.
“Do you?” Medusa asks timidly. Athena stands and faces the door.
“Let me say it directly to you.”
Slowly, the door opens and Medusa steps into view. She looks frightened and stares up at Athena with concern written clear across her face. Athena places both her hands onto Medusa’s face and smiles. “I love you, Medusa. More than you could ever know.”
A sunny smile breaks through the clouds that cover Medusa’s face and she covers Athena’s hands with her own warm ones. “I, I love you too. So much, Athena. So much.” ~
When Athena returns to the temple, it’s in disarray. Smashed tile, overturned tables, ripped cloth all litter the floor. Most importantly, it smells of brandy and the salty sea air, of her ocean god uncle. Athena’s heart falters.
“My love?” she calls out, her voice doing nothing to mask the uneasiness that has settled into her heart. It stutters against the silence and dissolves into nothing, making her fears increase tenfold. “Darling, are you here?”
She steps hesitantly into the dim temple. Following the trail of broken items, she turns a corner. This hallway is off limits for the people for it’s where the priestess lives. But it too is empty and dark and cold.
Suddenly, there’s a sob. Distant and faint, but nonetheless there, Athena swivels on her heels. She marches not with confidence but rather anxious hurry out to the back courtyard of the temple. There she finds the young priestess in a torn toga, hunched over a pond of fish. Her body, covered in bruises and dark spots, shakes with cries of a woman terrorized, a woman assaulted. Her fingers are covered with the golden blood of a god and Athena’s heart ached when she pictured Medusa trying desperately to fight back against Poseidon.
She takes a seat beside her lover and offers a hand. It’s all she can offer. Medusa takes it and the blood now covers both of their fingers. “I hate it.” the priestess sobs. With her free hand she grabs a clump of her sunkissed curls, her hair adored by so many. “He said it was this that made him do it. He said it was my hair that made him want me.”
“This is not your fault.” Athena whispers but Medusa weeps on, unable to hear the goddess’ words. “Tell me, my love. What can I do for you?”
“Protect me.” Medusa turns now, bloodshot brown eyes boring into Athena’s gray ones in a desperate plea. “I don’t want another man to look at me again. I don’t want another man to desire me for goddamned hair.” She pauses. “Make me a monster like my sisters.”
Athena draws back in shock. This was not the answer she was expecting. Medusa notices the sudden change and pulls her hand away, returning her gaze to her distorted reflection in the pond. “If I became a monster,” she says softly, “would you stop loving me?”
Athena’s doubts fade away. She takes Medusa’s hand once more, intertwining their fingers together, and smiles. “Nothing can stop me from loving you. You’ll never be a monster to me.”
Her hand moves to cup Medusa’s face. Her thumb brushes against the tear-stained cheeks of her lover’s face. Her other hand runs its way through Medusa’s hair, changing the texture of it forever. Silk to scales. Curls to snakes. Men to stone.
The gray clouds cover the sky when Athena lands on the shoreline where Medusa now lives. She makes her way to the mouth of the cave Medusa calls home, ignoring the terrified faces of the stone men that guard it. She knocks twice against the cave wall and Medusa’s voice echoes back to her from the darkness.
“Just a minute, love!”
Athena waits patiently for Medusa to appear before her, her green scaly skin covered in small droplets of rainwater. The snakes in her hair hiss to Athena in greeting, twirling and twisting around each other as Medusa finishes taking the strip of cloth over her eyes. That done, she holds her arms out and Athena takes her hands and pulls her close.
“I missed you.” she says and Medusa chuckles.
“I can tell.” she says. “How’s Olympus?”
“Please, don’t make me think of my family.” Athena pleads and Medusa laughs again. “Alright, alright.” She moves to step away but Athena pulls her close again, pressing their bodies together and twirling Medusa around. “What are you doing?” she asks. Athena smiles, though she knows Medusa cannot see it.
“Dance with me.”
“I’ll guide you.” she says. “Dance with me. Please.”
Medusa sighs and relaxes in Athena’s arms, leaning her head against the goddess’ shoulder. “Is this alright?” she asks.
“More than alright, darling.” Athena replies. Then they sway silently together, the music of the rolling waves guiding their footsteps. They dance together until Athena is called back to Olympus. They dance together until the Fates tear them apart.
Something is wrong. Athena senses it the moment her feet land on the pebbly shore of Medusa’s home. She attempts to call out for her lover but the fear causes the words to die in her throat. She discards her cloak, leaving it behind to be taken away by the ocean waves as she
rushes towards the mouth of the cave. It’s eerily silent, only the rustle of wind gracing Athena’s ears as she weaves through the stone statues of men who attempted to take Medusa’s life. She reaches the back of the cave and a scream bubbles up from the bit of her stomach. She collapses to her knees, desperately reaching a hand out to Medusa’s lifeless body, begging the Fates to change their design, to bring Medusa back to her.
Medusa’s hand is cold when Athena’s fingers brush against it.
Shaking, she gathers Medusa’ headless body in her arms, burying her face into the coolness of the body that was once the only source of Athena’s warmth. For the first time in her long, long life, the goddess cries.