The only exceptional part of me was my hands. As a young girl, when my mother asked, ‘Medusa, what are you holding?’ I’d tell her my hands were empty. When she said, ‘show me,’ it surprised me as much as anyone when there on my palms was a handful of dirt squeezed into a ball or a flint with a tiny fossil inside that seemed to fit so naturally I forgot it was there.
Our desert village was in a steep flanked valley, a distant star to the sun of Athens. A place of mud walls in which it was a woman’s job to clean the dust always trying to smother us and a man’s job to carve something new from it, something lasting for himself and his sons. It was for this quality, this lasting quality, it was said, that only the men of our village had the power to name things and so make them permanent, meaning all that a woman touched was nameless. My mother would jiggle her hand at the broom in the corner and say, ‘pass me that,’ so that she could sweep away the dirt I had brought inside. ‘Don’t, whatever you do, let your father see.’
My favourite place in the village was the wattle-walled effigy makers, the men who made figures of the gods to sell at market. The process, it was said, was so holy that anyone who looked upon them as they whispered their secrets into the clay would go blind. But I did not go blind, hiding behind the wattle walls, watching them turn out every manufactured figure, all of which looked the same. Whenever they saw my eyes through the wattle, they would curse, ‘She’s here, that damned curiosity is here,’ and send for my father, the greatest grain merchant in the area. My father would prize my hands from the wattle and thrash them with a narrow stick he wore on his belt for just such opportunities. The narrower the stick the worse the damage; how it made my poor hands swell.
‘You dishonour me,’ he’d say, refusing to speak my name each time for fear that my shame might pass to him.
My father, village alderman, and so called guardian of the status quo, would drag me home after the thrashing and lock me in a cage for the night to cure me of curiosity, where the dogs would come and cock their legs at me and my empty belly would rumble all night. But the cage was also a place to mull over what I had seen and form the questions no one could answer. Surely, I thought, recollecting the similarity of the effigies, such conformity is mistaken? Just as people’s faces differ in shape and texture, so must the gods’? Perfection cannot take only one form.
My mother would unlock the cage in the morning when my father had left. She would sluice off the borrowed scent of dog and scrub my skin with her cloth until it squeaked.
‘Use your eyes, Medusa,’ she said, as she scraped dirt from my nails. Even while I dozed, it seemed, I worked my arms through the bars and raked my nails in the earth.
She would throw up her hands or flick me with the end of her damp cloth.
My eyes, she had said, giving me the answer to my own question. My eyes. The only truth that could exist in what my hands made would come from using my eyes. Even if the only material at hand was dust, which my father and brothers daily proved to me could easily be snuffed out, grinding it back into earth by their heels, there must be something better than dust out there beyond the wattle walls of our village. To find it I had to be patient.
My mother sewed new pockets into all my clothes for my hands to burrow since no matter how much she helped me scrub them they never looked innocent of intent. ‘Try harder to hide what you do’, she would hiss. But my father was always watching. He had the men of the village watching. In the evenings, when my father called us out by the fire at meal times, I brought my intent with me somehow, like the dust on my clothes. I would stand with my sisters and mother, and my father would appear with a guest, or even a prospective father-in-law, for a man could take many wives. My father was nearly always drunk, and his breath fumes would spark in the air like fireworks and singe his beard, his wiry eyebrows. He toyed with us, making us wait while he talked, knowing the only true gift he possessed was to talk so slowly that he wore people down. He would not allow any but himself and his guest to sit and eat until he was done. Our legs trembled by the third hour, when the meat had gone cold and even the flies had moved on. And then more often than not he would turn to me as a kind of entertainment. ‘Come,’ he would beckon me, and then turn to his guest. ‘See what I am cursed with. Show me your hands, Medusa’.
One particular evening, as my mother soothed my wounds, she turned to my grandmother. ‘Enough,’ she decided. ‘We must do something.’
So she called the women of the neighbourhood, who put their heads together. In a world with no names this meant a long conversation: their heads remained touching at the forehead for a day and a night. But I knew I could not stay and prepared myself, saying goodbyes to my sisters, unearthing a rusty knife, one of the blades given to all village boys at their coming of age that my brothers dropped heedlessly around the compound. I took the blade and made no attempt to cook or clean the dust, but marked the walls and the corners with its rusty edge, making patterns, trying to understand how a blade might make a truth when my dust and spit could not.
As the women withdrew their heads, my father had pre-empted them. The aldermen met to make their decree to a marketplace of men. ‘Medusa will be exiled. Her unnatural curiosity is a canker — a danger to the very status quo. Left unchecked it will prove contagious to weak-minded women. We must cut her out.’
My grandmother wept. My mother wrung her hands and watched as I packed my bag. ‘Here,’ she said, handing me a chisel she had stolen from my father’s workroom. ‘Here,’ my grandmother added, giving me a tiny hand drill for bone instruments. ‘Here,’ offered Tabitha, our left-hand-side neighbour, even though it was illegal for a widow to pass on her dead husband’s things.
They all huddled round me.
‘Go, make your truth,’ my sisters said, as we parted.
They stood arm in arm, the women of the neighbourhood, watching in silence as I took the mountain path.
The cave I found faced south, set in a slope where the scree ran down the mountainside and I had my pick of stones. Stones, I found, did not need to be baked in the sun, they held their shape. There was a simplicity in chipping away that I found comforting, and relief too, at this unexpected freedom to seek out the true shape of things through my work. I left the mountainside only once, for cups of sand to rub down the sides of the stone until it was smooth enough to rest my cheek along its planed edges, the way other girls hugged their likeness in a doll.
I thought perhaps the cave had a ghost, for at night I felt a presence there sometimes, a shadowy figure. One evening I called out to it: who haunts me? My mother stepped neatly across the scree, light as a goat. She would not come into the cave, she said, so that she could truthfully deny having been here, but sat on a rock at the cave-mouth and stared up at the stars.
Then for some time she seemed content to watch me fine-polish a small piece of stone. When I sat back, she said, ‘No need to ask if you are happy here, but what have you learned?’
‘Let me show you.’ I handed her the piece of green stone I’d been polishing, a figure of our neighbour’s daughter, who had died the summer before. My mother’s fingers curled round the stone, which had been made to fit inside a woman’s palm. She stared at it a long time with glittering eyes. ‘You have caught her entirely,’ she said, anxiously. She tapped the stone with her nail. ‘Is she in here somehow?’
‘No, no,’ I explained. ‘There is no one inside the stone. It’s her likeness, nothing more.’
My mother’s breath caught audibly as she brought the little figure to her chest and held it there, as though in pain. Our faces were so close I could smell the salt in her tears.
‘What is it?’ I whispered to her anxiously as she used her long rope of hair to dry her face.
‘I never admitted to myself,’ she said, ‘how sad I feel that you make life so difficult for yourself. That you will never know this—’ She offered me back the statue of the child and folded her hands on her lap, becoming a statue herself in a rare moment of stillness.
‘I do what I must,’ I said, ‘and what my hands tell me to do. I may not have a child, but I have my figures, my statuettes, birthed, in their way, from my own mind.’
‘Medusa!’ She sat back, shocked, and made a gesture with both hands that I hold my tongue. ‘You speak as if you were a god,’ she whispered, tilting her head back towards the stars as though they were the ears of the gods. ‘Make no such claims, I beg you, for your own safety.’
My mother, I knew, had never broken a rule to name anything in her life. But I was not like her. I knew what I was: a sculptor of truths.
The moment I started chipping away at my first really large piece of stone I knew I was making my mother. The stone was a piece of pink statuary marble an alderman’s wife sent me secretly, a gift from her sister many miles away, since she too had a fondness for stone.
When it became known that I had dared render a woman in stone, the aldermen gathered at my father’s house to decide what should be done.
‘What is our responsibility now Medusa is banished from here?’
My father soothed them all. Sent my sisters to soothe them too. ‘Do not be troubled about that unwomanly creature,’ he said. ‘The gods will decide. Let her do her worst. She can only harm herself.’
In the time it took to finish my mother’s bust, my sisters were both married. Whispers about the bust reached the women of my village who ventured out of their compounds, crossing miles of scree until they came to the cave mouth. My mother travelled last, pretending she hardly knew the way. When she saw the stone, she did not know herself. How would she know when she possessed no polished brass in which to see herself?
When I told her, she reached out to touch her own face at the same time as the stone.
‘This is me?’ she asked.
The other women were frightened. ‘Don’t touch it,’ they said. ‘What magic is this?’
I set my mother before her bust. ‘It is a reflection. Her likeness. No magic but a chisel and hammer.’ I showed them my tools, but I am not sure they understood.
I wanted to explain to my mother how I lacked the skill to make her hair as I had wanted, thick with its quirky, uneven waves that reminded me of the lobes on an oak leaf. As small girls my sisters and I held onto that hair, dragged ourselves up by it to her face; heavy hair, the texture of hemp rope, falling from a central whirl in her crown, and part covering her face, like a girl who doesn’t want to be seen. The hair of the bust was rough rock, unpolished and dull compared with the sheen of the face.
She listened. But all she said was, ‘It makes me look strong. I did not know my own strength. Thank you.’
Her words gave me hope that she understood how much she was loved. ‘You must keep it,’ I told her, so that every day she would remember.
After she died, and my father set my mother’s memory aside for a new wife, I stole back the bust. The afternoon shadows across its face marked the hour like a sundial and its comfort was unexpected: in early morning light, as I woke and the stone turned pink, I often mistook the face for my aunt’s; and at night in cooler light, with its moonlit brow it resembled my sister’s and, simultaneously, my grandmother.
‘Make one of us,’ my married sisters begged.
I was glad to.
I caught in stone their kind eyes, their tight smiles now they were the property of men, their filling bellies. It was a pleasure to show them each how they looked to me. Suddenly everyone in the village wanted their likeness made. Of course, despite his scruples, my father was at the front of the queue. I obliged, though I sculpted his from memory since he wouldn’t sit for it. He had the advantage over my mother and sisters of being bald. I polished his scalp with sand until it was smooth and beautiful to touch. The old fool had a plinth made of acacia wood. His bust sits two hands length from his head. With a slight tilt of its angle he can stare into his stone eyes. And he does. He has been seduced by his own likeness into forgetting to worship the gods.
The effigy makers complained, but as I charged nothing for my work, the status quo was not affected. But temple offerings began to decline, the gods came down to investigate, bringing their own stone to work.
I made Athena out of a very fine red marble. Zeus I imagined in ironstone, though of course I never met him; you cannot simply look at Zeus’s face. But Hades was a client and the one who set the mythmakers talking. He had a tricky face to read — didn’t wear his feelings for all to see like a lesser god might. I came to admire him from his physiognomy. He asked, ‘Will I fall in love with you or will you fall for me?’
In my way I fell in love with every face I sculpted. The process is so intimate. You have to know a body’s crevices and creases, it’s balance and texture, to really observe and accept what is, in order not to try to make it better.
I met Poseidon twice and yes I took his likeness. He’s small and salt-smelling, like the last piece of meat at the bottom of the barrel. Even so I felt the stirrings of love as I sketched his likeness, which interestingly, he allowed. He was impossible to pin down, so fluid, shifting his features, his position, without seeming to move and though I was happy with what I caught on paper and then in stone, he was not, for the fluid cannot bear to be made one thing only. He felt himself trapped within the stone.
Over time all stories change, mutate, get torn apart and fuse together, and the Medusa who was whispered about over evening fires and bedtime rituals grew into someone I could hardly believe to be me. In some versions, I’m an Amazon Queen. A Warrior. In some I’m beautiful, in others I’m terrifying, with a headful of writhing snakes. Something violent has always turned me against men, like being raped in Athena’s temple by Poseidon. In all versions my eyes turn a man to stone. I can’t lie, there are days when that would suit me very well to kill with one glance; to be left alone from the men who feared my truths; and yes, there were times I could have been that woman. Couldn’t we all, occasionally? The truth of the matter is I was always going to be killed by those, immortal or not, who are keepers of the status quo.
They came for me in my thirty-sixth year, at night while I slept, not a single hero, definitely not the beautiful Perseus, beloved of the gods, but a group of nameless men with faces covered so that I could not steal their looks and hold them in my head, as sorcerers do. They hacked at my body, though it was passive in sleep, and then dragged it, battered and bleeding, across several miles of scree to my village where they ordered my brothers to dig a pit in the ground. They lit a fire and threw my hands and tools into the flames while my head sat in the dirt at their feet.
My father bade them drink his wine, serving them himself. They ate roast meat off their own knives, seasoned, not by the salt of my family’s tears, but by the finest spices the village possessed, pepper and saffron and star anise, which burned my heart most of all because they had always been my favourite.
As they slept off their gluttony beside the fire’s cooling ashes, a small miracle occurred. My tools, loyal to my hands, melted into their many charred bones and made a single piece of sculpture.
In the morning, woken by their own weasely groaning, heads aching, stomachs sick, eyes watering from the smoke, they dug a hole in the dirt to bury me. My eyes wouldn’t be closed with the hilt of a knife, which they took as an ill omen and kicked in my head before they left.
Although the stories had begun, even before my death, still they felt the need to create their own as they rode down the valley. Let it be known, their voices called, that death is the fate of any woman who tries, like Medusa, to make a name for herself. Girls make no labels. They leave nothing permanent. They said this even as my stone statues were making their way across the world, prized, since their origin was unknown, since the hands that worked them were assumed to be male, far beyond the imaginings of a girl from a village always on the verge of being swallowed by dust.
My sisters deserved to be happy. But the mythmakers cruelly slandered them. Called them Gorgons. Denied them agency, and one was entirely ignored by Ovid, that loathsome spinner of words, while Apollodorus, the rational compiler of histories, decreed them to have tusks, to be scaly and brazen-handed.
In all the myths, my sisters are always immortal but I am not and yet they are gone and I am still here, still speaking, not quite dead. For the truth is Medusa cannot die entirely while her story lives. There’s an irony – I wonder if the gods find it funny – that in making me a myth, they have rendered me immortal. Do I want this unhappy state of consciousness without hands to do the bidding of my thoughts? I do not. I beg you, please, blow warm air and cold rain on my work and my myths, for both stone and words are porous. Let the elements crack them open and return me to dust. For dust is where we are born and what, to know any peace, we must all become again.