Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Always, They Whisper

Always, They Whisper by Damien Walter Grintalis

She was not a monster, nor did Perseus cut off her head. The whole Athena and shield bit? Bullshit. Perseus was a self-absorbed fool who barely had the strength to lift a sword over his shoulder, let alone swing it hard enough to sever sinew and bone.

As far as the rest of her story, the snakes and stone might be true, but not in the way you think. It’s always easy to paint a villain; harder to scrape below the gilt to find the real.

***

Medi pushes away from her desk, rubbing her eyes. Translating ancient Greek is usually a piece of cake, but, for this project, she’s working off photographs, not the actual documents themselves, and the faded text is nearly illegible.

She knows she should keep working, but she’d rather drink wine and watch a movie. She’ll deal with the rest of the translation later.

In the kitchen, her mouth twists. Her last bottle of wine is almost empty. It’s not necessary, but wants never are. She checks the mirror. There aren’t quite enough wrinkles for her liking, but they should be enough.

When she unwraps the heavy towel from her head, the serpents whisper. She does her best to ignore them and puts on an ugly floral scarf and her sunglasses. Never mind that the sky is a shade of dusky purple.

Outside, she steps into the sound of bass-heavy music pumping from a car speaker and the stink of exhaust. She hates it all—the noise, the desperation—but the thought of living in a place where she can’t be just another anonymous body is terrifying.

Especially for her.

Although the sidewalks are nearly deserted, she keeps her gaze down and her steps brisk. The autumn air is cool against her cheeks. Despite the wrinkles and sunglasses, her heart races the entire way.

The man at the liquor store takes her money without a word. He gave up trying to engage her in conversation a long time ago.

On her way back to her apartment, the screech of tires fills the air. A door opens and closes behind her. Then she hears the steady thump of shoes on pavement. She glances over her shoulder, and when she turns back, a man is standing close. Too close. She tries to dodge out of the way, hits his arm instead, and stumbles. He grabs for her, her sunglasses tilt, and she doesn’t look away fast enough. Keeping her guard up is hard, even after all her years of practice.

But he isn’t looking at her face, her eyes. Relief flows through her body. She nudges her glasses back into their proper position and says, “Thank you.”

“No problem. Be careful, okay?” he says in a solicitous manner.

Her heart is still pounding heavy in her chest when she slams and locks her front door. Half a glass of wine downed in two gulps eases it somewhat. She feels the weight of the serpents hidden inside the spiral curls of her hair. She muffles their words with a towel again.

No mortal can understand what they say. Athena granted that mercy at least.

***

How many times do you have to hear something before you believe it to be true?

Not nearly as many as you think.

***

Every Sunday morning, Medi wakes early, regardless of how late she stayed up the night before. She wraps a towel around her head and prays, but not to the gods and goddesses of her youth. They were never friends. Never a comfort.

She prays for forgiveness, for compassion, for safety. She suspects she would’ve had an answer by now if anyone was listening.

Then she takes a glass vial from atop her chest of drawers. The liquid inside shimmers a pale pink. When she removes the stopper, the room fills with the smell of gardenias, but it’s a lie. The elixir tastes like rotten fruit and spoiled meat.

Fitting, she thinks.

There are only a few drops left in this bottle, but she only needs one and the results last for a week, give or take a few days.

The elixir is cool on her tongue. For a long moment, there is nothing but the sound of her breathing and the muted whispers from beneath the towel. Then a slow pain burns beneath her skin, rippling out like a sheet shaken over a bed. The first time, she writhed on the floor until it was finished, but she’s used to it now. Pain is part of being a woman.

When the hurt subsides and her fists unclench, she checks the mirror in the bathroom and nods at her reflection. An ugly woman stares back. A woman not worth anyone’s time.

Or anyone’s attention.

***

They have names for women like her, or maybe she’s the reason for the names. Everyone needs a scapegoat.

In the old days, there was a ritual called the pharmakos. In times of drought or other hardship, a slave or an animal was driven from the city in the hope that casting out the scapegoat would also cast out the hardship.

They never formally pushed her out. They didn’t have to. The words and whispers did it for them. And even though the serpents were hissing their poison, even though she fought tears the entire way, she held her head up high as she left.

There was no such shame for Poseidon.

***

The edge of the sky is just beginning to lighten when she finishes up the last line of translation. She sends it via email, and sits back in her chair with her hands clasped behind her head. The serpents coil around her fingers. She shakes them free and puts on her scarf and sunglasses. Her clothing is already shapeless, but she grabs a cane to complete the look.

One walk around the block to clear her head and get her blood flowing is all she needs before breakfast and bed. She doesn’t normally pull all-nighters, but this was a rush job. Nothing ancient this time, just a bit of modern Greek in a legal document for a writer and her literary agent. A fairly easy, well-paying assignment.

The streets are still awash in shadow. Her cane thumps against the pavement. She doesn’t hunch over or force her feet into a slow and halting rhythm; there’s no one around to see. She drops a few dollars into a homeless man’s cup. He’s snoring loudly, oblivious to her presence, and she hopes he wakes before someone else steals the money.

As she withdraws her hand, she sees smooth skin and frowns. She pats her cheek. Her frown turns into a gaping hole of shock. No, it isn’t possible. It’s only been two days.

At her feet, the man shifts. Mumbles. She turns and runs the rest of the way home. Inside, she drops the cane, rips the sunglasses and scarf free, tosses them onto the floor, and races into her bathroom. The bright lights reveal an absence of wrinkles. In their place, smooth skin, a firm jawline. A young woman’s face, although she’s anything but. The part in the old stories about her mortality?

Wrong.

They also like to portray her as a hag or a monster. She’s never been either one naturally, and if she were, would so many have tried to claim and conquer her?

She grips the edge of the porcelain. Stares down at the white as she fights the tears. The serpents twitch awake, then settle back to sleep without a sound. She’s grateful; she doesn’t need their input right now. Her breath comes fast and her fingers tremble.

Maybe the last few drops spoiled somehow. A logical, legitimate reason. She’ll toss out the remaining elixir and make a new batch.

***

From the tiny herb garden in her kitchen, she snips two amaratho leaves, for courage and longevity, tugs a few anithos seeds free, for protection, and slices off a bit of daphni, for purification. She grinds them together with a mortar and pestle until her wrist aches, switches hands, and keeps working until the mixture is fine.

Using a small funnel, she pours the powder into the vial, and adds purified water infused with lygos. A poetic bit of irony; in days of old, it was used to calm sexual appetites. Finally, she adds three drops of an oil nicknamed Tears of the Lonely.

She pours the elixir into a vial and shakes it until everything blends. It took her years to get the mixture just right, but now she could make it in her sleep.

It needs to sit for twenty-four hours before she can take it. Luckily, she doesn’t have anywhere to go and her apartment walls are safe. Inside, she doesn’t need her disguise.

***

She doesn’t bother with a towel on her head. She doesn’t pray. Just drops the elixir on her tongue. She welcomes the pain that rushes in, just as she welcomes the hag in the mirror when it’s done.

She breathes heavily, relieved enough to ignore the serpents and the words they whisper.

***

 But the next morning, the hag is gone. The woman in the bathroom is young. Beautiful. A face she knows. A face she hates.

She stands in front of the bathroom mirror, one hand on her cheek, unable to move, unable to think. It’s not possible.

A serpent slips free from the towel. Breathes on her cheeks. Whispers.

Your fault.

The spell breaks and she backs away from the mirror with her hands covering her ears.

“Stop it, stop it, stop it.”

Of course it was her fault. She must not have used enough. She shoves the serpent back beneath the towel and races into her bedroom. Another drop of elixir. Another welcome bite of pain. Another mask of age spots and wrinkles.

Beneath the towel, the serpents stir.

***

Once again, the hag is gone come morning.

***

Perseus came to her the week before she left. He reached for her cheek and said nothing when she pulled away. Then he offered marriage. She laughed, thinking it a joke.

It wasn’t.

Never mind that he had a half-dozen other women fawning all over him, including Athena. Any one of them would’ve jumped at the chance to be his wife. He was good lookingMedi had to give him thatbut he knew it and never let anyone forget it.

The hesitant smile on his face vanished. His jaw clenched. She tried to explain the why, but he wasn’t interested and with each word from her lips, his anger grew. No, it was more than anger. It was rage. And his parting words?

“As if anyone else would ever want you now.”

***

Medi’s hand shakes as she removes the stopper from the vial, but after the drop touches her tongue, there is no pain. No change. She bites back a sob.

In the kitchen, she checks all the plants. No signs of rot or infestation of any kind. The water infusion smells fine, as does the oil. Tears slip from her eyes as she makes another batch. She knows she didn’t make any mistakes before. She knows it as sure as she knows her own name.

Still, she grinds the herbs until her fingers are numb from the effort.

***

Twenty-four hours later, Medi perches on the edge of her sofa, the vial on the coffee table. The museum sent an email, requesting that she come in to look at some recently discovered documents. She asked for photographs, but they were beyond illegible.

She picks up the vial. If she wants this assignment, she’ll have to go, and she needs the money. She pulls the stopper free.

“Please work. Please, please work.”

One drop on her tongue.

Nothing happens.

Another drop.

Still nothing.

She drains the contents. Pain rips through her belly, but she doesn’t feel her skin change and when she holds out one hand, the flesh is still smooth.

“No, no, no!”

She hurls the vial across the room. Shards of glass rain down on the floor when it shatters against the wall. She shrieks into her palms.

She can’t go to the museum. She can’t go anywhere at all.

She gets up, wipes the tears from her cheeks with angry swipes of the back of her hand, and stalks into the kitchen. Pulls out the herbs, the water, the oil. Grinds and pours and mixes and waits.

***

It doesn’t work.

She buries her face in a pillow so the neighbors won’t hear her cries.

***

As she crawled away from Poseidon, with tears on her face, blood on her thighs, and bruises on her arms, she saw Athena standing near the temple entrance, her arms crossed over her chest. Medi whispered and to this day she cannot remember what she said. “Help,” or perhaps she simply said Athena’s name.

But she will never forget the words that spilled from Athena’s mouth. Never. The serpents remind her every single day.

***

She ignores the museum’s emails. Their phone calls. She paces; the serpents slip and slither through her curls. She feels their breath on her cheeks; knows the whispers aren’t far behind.

(Would that Athena had cursed her with the true face of a hag instead of this, but that would have been a kindness. And that wasn’t Athena’s style.)

She takes a deep breath. And another. Everything will be fine. It will. She won’t panic. She grabs her sunglasses and stands at the door for a long time. How long has it been since she went out into the world with her real face exposed on purpose? Years—many, many years.

I can do this, she thinks.

She has to. A quick trip to the shop for fresh herbs and oil. Maybe she can experiment with the mixture a bit. After so many years, perhaps she’s built up a tolerance and now she needs to add something else.

She puts her hand on the doorknob. Maybe it won’t be so bad. Takes her hand away. Maybe she shouldn’t go out. Does she really have to go? But if not, then what?

Maybe she should order what she needs online and pay for overnight shipping; then she won’t—

Stop it!

“I can do this,” she whispers, tugging her scarf tighter.

Between the scarf, the sunglasses, the shapeless clothes, it has to be safe. The shop is only a few blocks away. Her heart races as she steps outside.

At the end of the street, she passes a group of men. They’re speaking loudly. Laughing. She doesn’t like the edge of their laughter. It’s hard. Like a fist, like the words bitch and cunt. Her back goes straight, her mouth dry.

The serpents stir. She takes a deep breath. Walks past with eyes down. Don’t look at me, don’t look at me, she thinks, but she feels their gazes crawling all over her back as if she were wearing nothing more than stiletto heels and a smile.

But they don’t follow. They don’t say a word. She turns the corner. Passes a woman in a business suit who gives her a quick nod. Another woman, younger, this one busy with her cell phone. Then a man emerges from a doorway, but he passes by without looking as well. She allows herself a small smile. Not much farther now.

She turns the last corner and runs into someone. A man. Hard enough to send her sunglasses flying to the ground. She drops her eyes, but it’s too late. His eyes are wide. Dark. Fixed on hers for only a second, but it’s a second too long and he’s smitten. Yes, the first part of the curse happens that fast. Her heart races madness. He reaches for her arm; she pulls away.

“Hi,” he says with a smile.

She says nothing. Takes a step back, pulling her arm away, and bends down, her fingers scrabbling on the pavement for her glasses. He bends down, too. His hands reach the glasses first.

“Here, let me help,” he says.

She shakes her head. Steps to the side. He does the same.

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

She steps again. As does he. Can’t he see the frumpy dress? The heavy-soled shoes, for the gods’ sake? (But of course, it’s too late for the camouflage. He saw her face. He looked into her eyes.)

“Please, let me pass,” she says.

“Why don’t you stay and we can talk for a while?”

She shakes her head again.

“So what, you won’t talk to me?”

She takes a step back, away from the edge in his voice.

He steps forward. Grabs her arm, his fingers digging in hard.

“Why do you have to act that way?” he says. “I just want to talk to you.”

She looks up. It doesn’t matter now anyway. She sees the stone set of his eyes—the second part of the curse. All the breath rushes from her lungs. The serpents shiver.

“Please leave me alone.”

“Please leave me alone,” he repeats in a sing-song voice.

She turns. Breaks into a run. Hears a name (one of those names) carried on the breeze, and quickens her step before it can echo in her ears.

The serpents wake. See what happens? they say. See what you make happen?

“Stop it,” she whispers. “Please.”

Your fault.

She locks her apartment door behind her and covers her ears, but still, the serpents whisper sharp-barbed reminders she doesn’t need; she knows all too well where the blame falls. Where it’s always fallen.

All your fault. You shouldn’t have smiled at Poseidon. You shouldn’t have been there.

She curls up in a ball on the floor, praying the serpents will fall to silence, but of course they don’t.

***

Poseidon said he wanted to talk. He lied.

“It’s not my fault you’re so beautiful,” he said.

But what about when she begged him to stop? When he pressed his hand over her mouth to hold in her screams? When he ripped open her tunic?

After, she went into seclusion. It was for the best. A few months later, when she braved the world again, her eyes, her face, safely hidden behind a veil, she heard the first whispers.

Serpentine and human both.

***

The intercom buzzes. A moment later, a gruff voice says, “Delivery.”

“Leave it at the door,” Medi calls out.

When the footsteps retreat, she brings the box inside and slices open the tape. The serpents press against her scalp as she crushes and grinds and blends, holding tight to hope.

***

She sits on the floor in the corner of her kitchen, amid a scatter of leaves and berries and drops of oil. Nothing has worked. Nothing. She rests her face in her hands, her shoulders slumped.

The curse has won. They have won.

Silent tears slip between her fingers. Doesn’t she deserve peace after all this time? Hasn’t she paid enough for Poseidon’s lust?

One serpent curls around her ear. Your fault, it whispers softly.

But why? What has she ever done but exist?

She rocks back and forth while the serpents whisper again and again. The towel can only muffle so much.

***

Once upon a time, she was a young girl, a priestess in Athena’s temple who wanted nothing more than to wake each morning with the sun, to assist with the rituals, to drink from the sacred spring.

***

Medi tosses and turns beneath the sheets. In the darkness, she remembers the weight of an unwanted body against hers, a mouth pressed hard against lips fighting to scream, wrists straining beneath the iron grip of a hand as the ugliness, the guilt, spilled out of him and into her, marking her as sure as a brand.

Pariah. Anathema.

She chokes back a moan, pushing hard on the scarf wrapped tightly around her head, but even so, she can hear the serpents’ reminder of the how and the why. She sits up, gasping for air, drowning in waves so high, so violent, she’s sure they’ll pull her under.

On trembling legs, she staggers into the bathroom and stares at her reflection, her eyes filled with hate. She opens the medicine cabinet and there on the shelf, a straight razor waits.

Will this make them happy?

She grips the handle tight, the blade glimmering in the overhead light, and touches it to the delicate skin of her wrist. The blue veins beneath her flesh point the way like tiny lines on a map leading to an exit ramp.

A serpent slips from beneath the scarf. Coils. Uncoils. Its tongue flickers cool against her temple.

Your fault, it whispers.

She presses the blade. A tiny wound opens. A single pearl of red runs free.

Your fault.

This is the only way to make them stop, isn’t it? She watches the red run across the pale of her skin, drop to the sink, and slide down the porcelain into the waiting mouth of the drain.

Her lip curls. Hasn’t she bled enough? Hasn’t she given up enough? She rips the scarf from her head, grabs a serpent, and forces its maw open. It hisses and writhes in her fist.

Your fault.

“Shut up, shut up, shut up.”

She cuts out the serpent’s tongue. The pain is like a fire raging unchecked beneath her scalp, a thousand brutal words slamming against her skin. The blade slips from her hands, and she covers her mouth to hold in the scream.

The tongue sits in the basin, dark against the white. Like an exclamation point. Like an accusation.

She takes her hands away. Shrieks. Grabs another serpent. Grabs the blade.

“Not my fault.”

Another tongue falls. She reaches for another serpent.

“Not my fault.”

Again, the blade. Again, the pain.

“It was never my fault.”

One by one, the tongues fall, and when the last is gone, she drops the razor on the floor. The serpents are writhing, their hateful words now the sibilance of rage, of warning, of something else she cannot define, though it feels right and sure.

The pain slowly fades to a dull ache. Perhaps it will remain, perhaps time will turn it to memory, but it doesn’t matter. She stands tall. Smiles. Brushes her hair away from her face. Her eyes are full of tears—a sign of the pain or of triumph or perhaps a little of both. Her skin is still smooth; her face still a maiden’s. If the visage captures a man’s fancy, if it turns his heart to stone, so be it. She will not apologize for who, for what, she is anymore. It’s time to reveal the truth and rewrite the story, her story, the way it was meant to be written all along.

***

Once upon a time, she wasn’t the villain.

© 2013 by Damien Walters Grintalis.

Damien Angelica Walters

Damien Angelica WaltersDamien Angelica Walters’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nightmare, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume One, The Best of Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, Shimmer, Apex, Glitter & Mayhem, and others. Sing Me Your Scars, a collection of her short fiction, will be released in early 2015 from Apex Publications and Paper Tigers, a novel, will be released later that same year from Dark House Press.