Originally published in Dark Horizons, Issue 46.
Dark clouds roiled in the night sky like a seething mass of living shadow, heralding the onset of a tempest such as the tiny island had never known. When the storm finally broke, the rain was frightening in its intensity, lashing the whitewashed houses and shops of the island’s only town as if it meant to beat down their very walls. The sound mingled with the howling of the wind across the deserted streets and the thunder rumbling in the sky to make what seemed like a mad symphony of raging fury.
In the harbour, the waves heaved up and down, tossing the boats around like so many toys. The passengers of those vessels unfortunate enough to have been caught out at sea, fought their way back towards the island with growing apprehension, guided only by the distant lights of the town. Many were experienced sailors, yet they found themselves completely at the mercy of the storm. At that moment they would have given anything to be somewhere far away from the sea, where the waves rose high into the air, menacing them for what seemed interminable seconds, before crashing down on their heads with bewildering force, swamping the decks of their floundering boats. Truly, it was a night that made all who experienced it appreciate the sheer power of Mother Nature.
From the warmth of their house near the harbour, two young brothers watched this tremendous natural spectacle with wide eyes. Their names were Khristos and Tyrone. They had lived on the island for the whole of their short lives and it was for this reason that they were so in awe of what was happening. In that part of the world, even small showers were rare, let alone storms.
The boys were especially fascinated by the thunderclaps, which would inevitably send Tyrone, the younger of the two, scurrying behind the sofa. His brother would try and coax him out by joking that the noise was really only God’s stomach rumbling from lack of food, but this did little to allay Tyrone’s fears.
The storm raged on and suddenly the sky was illuminated by a flash of lightning brighter than the midday sun. The boys were standing by the window when it happened and for a split second, both of them happened to be focusing on exactly the same thing - the long stretch of beach at the opposite side of the bay where a metal sculpture of a gorgon had been erected many years before. The gorgon flashed with an unearthly brilliance as the lightning played across its gleaming surface. It had been purchased by the island authorities to commemorate an ancient sea battle and was a masterpiece of carefully crafted steel. The idea of placing it at the entrance to the harbour was that it would act as a kind of gargoyle, warding off hostile forces. On that particular night, it was easy to believe how it might accomplish this, standing on the rocky beach in all its magnificence with its long hair - which was made from lengths of chain - flailing around it and its trident planted firmly on the ground. From where the boys stood in their sitting room, the gorgon’s womanly upper body and long fishlike tail made it look more like a mermaid than a monster, but they had seen the fierce expression on its face too often to be in any doubt as to where the sculptor had drawn his inspiration.
Tyrone gasped in amazement at the spectacle of the gorgon bathed in flashing white light. As he did so, something very eerie appeared to take place, something that neither boy could entirely credit. The sculpture seemed to raise its trident high into the air and wave it in a gesture of wild defiance. As the brothers stared in disbelief, straining to get a better view, the moment of illumination ended and the landscape was plunged once more into darkness. “Did you see that?” asked Tyrone, tembling.
“See what?” replied Khristos, not wanting to accept the evidence of his own eyes.
“The gorgon moved!” exclaimed Tyrone.
Khristos waved his hand dismissively. “Of course it didn’t move; it was just a trick of the light."
“I know what I saw, and that statue moved,” Tyrone insisted, backing away from the window. “I’ve always known there was something not quite right about it.”
“What are you talking about?” Khristos asked.
“I’m talking about the way its eyes seem to follow you when you walk along the beach,” said Tyrone, sounding almost hysterical. “I’m talking about tiny changes that you can’t quite put your finger on. I’m talking about a statue that looks too real to be just a heap of scrap metal.”
Khristos swallowed noisily. “Meaning?”
“Meaning there’s more to that gorgon than meets the eye,” replied Tyrone. “We should try and find out a bit more about it.”
“How do you propose we do that?” said Khristos, who was starting to place a good deal more stock in the words of his brother than he would have cared to admit.
Tyrone sat down with his back against the sofa, glancing around the room as though he half expected to see the gorgon hiding in the shadows. “How do you think?”
“I give up,” said Khristos.
“We ask the person who knows everything there is to know about the island,” said Tyrone.
Khristos nodded. Now he understood what his brother was getting at. “The captain!”
“The captain,” agreed Tyrone, wrapping his arms around his knees and cringing as the thunder roared once more in the sky outside.
The man the brothers called the captain was a local fisherman who lived in a ramshackle house nestled between two boatsheds in a rundown part of the harbour. Early the next day, the boys hurried over to his house to see what they could discover. The storm had long since passed and the sun shone with its customary heat in the sky above.
When Khristos and Tyrone arrived at the house, they found the captain outside clearing the barnacles from the bottom of one of his two rowing boats. He looked up and smiled as he noticed their approach. He was used to Khristos and Tyrone coming over to see him and was always happy to talk to them. “What can I do for you, lads?”
“We wanted to ask you about the gorgon,” Khristos replied.
“Ah yes, the gorgon,” said the captain with a wry grin. He straightened from his boat and stretched his arms up into the air. He was an unusually tall man with well-defined muscles from a lifetime of hard, physical work. He was as good as bald on top, but compensated for this with a bushy white beard that protruded in all directions as though it had a mind of its own. His skin was leathery from exposure to the sun and he smelt strongly of tobacco. Yet, people tended not to notice these minor imperfections, focusing instead on his kind face and his blue eyes, which twinkled impishly in a way that quite belied his advanced years.
“I can tell you quite a lot about the gorgon,” he went on, producing a cheap cigar from one of the pockets in his tattered jeans and raising it to his lips.
“That would be great,” said Tyrone enthusiastically. He coughed as the captain lit his cigar and blew a large smoke ring.
The captain nodded and began in typically grand fashion, “The story starts in the time of our ancestors, when fearsome monsters roamed the earth and the gods watched over us from the airy peak of Mount Olympus. Picture, if you will, a handsome young man by the name of Perseus, who I am sure you will have heard of."
The boys nodded vigorously
“Well, this young man was destined to become a hero and perhaps his greatest feat was to kill one of the three gorgons. As I’m sure you know, the gorgon he killed was Medusa, who was, in fact, the only one he could have killed, because she was the only one that was mortal.
“What Perseus did after he killed Medusa is well known. What is less well known is what happened to Medusa or more accurately to Medusa’s immortal soul. As with all evildoers, she was delivered into the hands of the Erinyes, whose duty it was to administer everlasting torment in the underworld, but she wasn't the kind of person to just sit back and accept this, and immediately began to devise a way to escape. For a long time the situation seemed hopeless, as the Erinyes were painstakingly careful in the performance of their duties. The days turned into weeks, the weeks turned into years and the years turned into centuries, and still no opportunity presented itself. Fortunately for Medusa, if there was one thing she had in abundance, it was patience. She was quite prepared to bide her time for an eternity if necessary.
“When an answer to Medusa’s predicament finally came, it was in a form she would never have expected and at a period in history that she could not have imagined in her wildest dreams. Come with me now as our focus shifts to a time much nearer to the present day, when a young artist was struggling to carve out a career in his chosen profession. More than anything else, the artist longed to be gifted at what he did, for in spite of all his endeavours, he had never managed to rise above the level of mediocrity. It seemed to be his lot in life to always come close, but to ultimately fail.
“The artist’s primary influences in practicing his craft lay on the less homely side of human experience, and for this reason, he was widely read in the occult. One day, partly out of desperation and partly for his own amusement, he began to dabble in the dark forces - by which I mean witchcraft - to try and find a solution to his problem.”
The captain paused for a moment as Tyrone let out a gasp at this ill-advised course of action by the artist.
“It didn’t take him long to find what appeared to be an answer,” continued the captain. “The spell he had in mind was cobbled together from a number of ancient texts. The basic idea was that a person could summon up a spirit from the realm of the mythological immortals and request a boon. The artist had it in mind to invoke one of the nine muses and ask her whether she was able to make him into a genius.
“Now, understand that he didn’t expect the spell to work; he was just playing around. So you can imagine his surprise when it proved not to be the washout he had expected. Far from it, in fact. The magic was startlingly effective, but the spirit the artist succeeded in summoning did not belong to one of the muses, as he had hoped, but to Medusa.
“Anxious to correct whatever he had done wrong, the artist began preparing to send Medusa back where she had come from, so he could try the ritual again. At which Medusa, who felt she had finally found a means of escaping her eternal fate, began to plead piteously for mercy. She told the artist it was in her power to give him what he wanted if he would only help her to secure her freedom from the Erinyes. The artist was so moved by her tales of mind-crushing torture that he decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.”
“What was the torture like?” interrupted Khristos, sounding altogether too interested in this particular aspect of the story.
“Like nothing on earth,” replied the captain, “and far too terrible for young ears like yours. Anyway, as I was saying, the artist believed what Medusa told him and asked what she required of him. She told him that she needed him to build her a body that would once again bind her to the earth. The artist explained that he didn’t think he had the necessary skill, but vowed to do his best.
“Day and night he laboured, and on this one occasion, he at last created the masterpiece that had eluded him for so long. He assumed this was because Medusa had given him the gift of genius, but as he would later discover, this could not have been the case, because the wily gorgon had played him false. The only gift it was in her power to give was one she herself had once possessed - the ability to turn living creatures to stone.
“At any rate, he succeeded in creating a masterpiece out of simple scrap metal - the same masterpiece that watches over our harbour to this very day - but the artist was not the only one to be disappointed by the outcome of the bargain. Although the sculpture was intended to be an articulated thing which Medusa would be able to animate with her essence, she discovered she could only do this when she was driven by extreme emotion. Strangely enough, she quickly resigned herself to this, stating that she would rather spend an eternity in idle contemplation than enduring the eternal torment of Hades. So the artist sold his creation, which now contained the spirit of Medusa, to the authorities of our own dear island and left it on the beach, while he went off to seek his fortune.
“Only then did he discover that Medusa had tricked him, when he started work on a clay sculpture and found he was as mediocre as ever. He immediately flew into a terrible rage and began shouting at the top of his voice. His young girlfriend, who was staying with him at the time, came into his studio to find out what all the noise was about. Her presence only infuriated him more, and in the throes of his anger, he found himself unconsciously accessing his newfound power and turning her to stone. Who knows what it must have felt like to unwittingly destroy the woman he loved?”
“So what did he do?” asked Tyrone as the captain paused to light another cigar.
The captain grinned at the interest the boys were taking in his story. “Realising at once what had happened, he vowed to send Medusa back to Hades. He knew from his reading that in order to do this, he would need something from her new body, so he crept back to the beach one dark and dreary night and sawed off a lock of her chain-link hair. Whether or not Medusa tried to stop him from doing this is uncertain, but at the time, he seemed to have got away with it."
“What do you mean at the time?” asked Tyrone. “Didn’t he succeed in getting rid of her?”
“Nobody knows,” replied the captain mysteriously, “for that very same night the artist vanished, never to be seen again. It is said Medusa was so angry at his plan to return her to the underworld she succeeded in seeking him out and destroying him, but who can say?” The captain puffed on his cigar and stood in silent thought, gazing out across the bay.
“And that’s how the story ends?” asked Tyrone nervously.
“That’s how the story ends,” confirmed the captain. “As far as anyone knows, Medusa’s spirit is still locked firmly inside the sculpture, guarding our harbour against those who would do us harm and hoping to remain forever out of reach of the Erinyes.”
Thanking the captain for his time, the boys headed off home to discuss what they had heard. The captain smiled as he watched them depart and went back to his work, having thoroughly enjoyed this rare opportunity to tell one of his tales.
“So now we know,” said Tyrone as the boys sat together in their living room a short time later.
“If you believe it,” said Khristo, “which I take it you do.”
“Of course,” said Tyrone. “Don’t you?”
Khristos shook his head. “No I don’t! I think the captain was just trying to scare us. Those old myths are nothing but stories. Medusa never existed, so how can her spirit be in the sculpture?”
“My teacher at school says there's often truth in legends,” Tyrone told him.
Khristos rolled his eyes. Sometimes his brother could be such an idiot. “That doesn’t mean they actually happened. Not the way people say they did, anyway.”
“How do you know?” demanded Tyrone. “You weren’t there.”
“Listen,” said Khristos, “I’m so sure Medusa isn’t real I’m going to prove it to you."
Tyrone leant forward. “How?”
“You remember what the captain said about the artist taking a lock of hair from the sculpture?” said Khristos.
“Yes,” replied Tyrone, with increasingly wide eyes.
“Well, I’m going to do the same,” continued Khristos. “If Medusa’s real she’ll think I’m trying to send her back to Hades, and she’ll come to get me, just like she got the artist.”
Tyrone's eyes grew wide. "You wouldn’t dare,”
“Just watch me,” replied Khristos.
True to his word, Khristos made his way to the sculpture of the gorgon that very night. It was then he began to have second thoughts about his hasty words. When he'd told Tyrone he didn’t think the sculpture was really inhabited by the soul of Medusa, he'd believed it. Now, as he stood alone on the pebble beach in the shadow of the giant figure, he wasn’t so sure. He listened nervously to the sound of the sea lapping against the shore, which sounded eerily loud in the otherwise silent night. Maybe he'd been too quick to dismiss the reality of magic. In this lonely place, with the full moon shining in the sky above like a brilliant pearl, bathing everything in unearthly light, it seemed like anything could be possible.
Khristos looked down at his hands. They were trembling. He was half-inclined to turn around and run away, but he forced himself to stand his ground. He looked at the gorgon. She seemed to be staring down at him with eyes like fire as though she knew what he was here to do, but that was ridiculous. As he had told Tyrone, the thing in front of him was nothing but a sculpture!
Angry that he was letting the captain’s story get to him and drawing courage from this anger, he pulled out the hacksaw he had brought from his father’s tool-shed and began sawing into one of the lengths of chain on the gorgon’s head.
As he did so, a sudden gust of wind swept across the beach. The chains jangled as the wind touched them and Khristos found himself nearly jumping out of his skin. Again he thought about abandoning his undertaking and running away and again he thought better of it. He had come this far and he wasn't about to give up now! He took a deep breath and returned his attention to the gorgon’s hair.
Sawing through the rest of the chain seemed to take an eternity with every little noise causing new panic, but finally he managed it. He held up the severed length of metal in triumph. Then, stuffing it into his pocket, he hurried home, not daring to glance over his shoulder, for fear of what he might see. The grinding of metal on the ground and the clinking of chain-link hair seemed to follow close on his heels, but he was sure it was his imagination. Even so, he made double sure he locked the front door as he went inside.
Khristos made his way quietly through the house. He found his family sitting together in the living room, watching television. The moment he walked into the room, Tyrone took him to one side and asked him whether he had really done what he had said he was going to do.
Khristos pulled out the chain and dangled it in front of his brother’s face. “Of course. Was there ever any doubt?”
“Well, now that you mention it, I kind of thought you’d back out at the last minute,” admitted Tyrone. “You’re braver than I thought.”
Khristos puffed up his chest, trying to fight down his lingering unease. “I guess.”
Tyrone turned away and went back to his seat. He glanced across at Khristos as if he was expecting him to sit down on the sofa as well, but instead, Khristos slipped off upstairs to bed. The less that was said about the night’s activities, the better.
For a long time, Tyrone sat up watching a documentary about sunken galleons and then he too made his way up to bed. He paused to offer a silent prayer as he passed his brother’s bedroom. He wanted desperately to believe Khristos was right about Medusa not being real, but couldn‘t help worrying. He and Khristos were so close he couldn‘t bear it if anything happened to him.
Several hours later, as he lay in bed trying to drift off to sleep, he could have sworn he heard a noise on the landing outside as of someone moving around. He sat up in bed and listened intently, but heard nothing further. He heaved a sigh of relief and started to lie back down.
As he did so, there was a loud clink of metal on metal. Now he was really afraid! His eyes were open so wide they felt like they would pop out of his head and his forehaed was slick with sweat. He could hear another sound now - a curious scraping sound as if someone was dragging a heavy metallic object along the wooden floor.
Slowly, but surely, this ominous noise came closer. It was Medusa, wasn't it? She'd come to wreak her revenge on Khristos. Part of him wanted to rush to his brother's aid, but he was too scared to move.
The noise was was very close now. Right outside his door, in fact, which was odd, because if it was Medusa, she should have stopped at Khristos’ door. For a long time everything was quiet. Then, very slowly, the bedroom door began to open. Tyrone could feel himself shaking with terror and convulsively clutched the edge of his sheet. A thin beam of moonlight shone into his room from the window on the landing outside, widening as the door edged open. Already, he could see part of a large form shimmering in the moonlight.
At last, the door was open all the way. Just as he had feared, Tyrone found himself face to face with the sculpture of the gorgon. Yet it looked as he had never seen it before. The eyes shone with unnatural life and the hair writhed around the head like so many angry serpents. If Tyrone had ever doubted the truth of the captain’s story, he would never do so again. There could be no doubt the figure before him was animated by the spirit of Medusa.
The fearsome gorgon’s face contorted itself into a mask of rage and she slithered slowly forward. With every movement, her metal limbs creaked in protest, but she seemed oblivious. Tyrone edged backwards. Suddenly, she jerked one of her arms forward as though she intended to grab hold of him. He tried to scream, but the noise died in his throat.
He shifted to the opposite side of the bed, trying to stay out of her reach. As he did so, he knocked one of his pillows to the floor, and saw something underneath which turned his blood to ice. It was the length of chain that Khristos had cut from the sculpture’s head. Obviously, his brother had not been quite as brave as he made out! Now he understood why the gorgon had come after him; it was he who was in possession of the object she was looking for.
He looked frantically to either side of him, searching for a way to escape, but he was completely cut off from the door. Medusa smiled cruelly, as though she had read his thoughts and fastened her hand around his neck. Tears streamed down Tyrone’s cheeks and he struggled frantically, but he could not break loose. He was completely at the mercy of the fearsome Medusa.
When the household woke the following morning, Tyrone was gone. His family and friends scoured the house and later the village from top to bottom, but he was nowhere to be found. One of the local fishermen had a vague recollection of seeing the boy swimming out to sea some time during the night, but there was only a limited amount that could be done to investigate this further, and when a systematic sweep of the coast failed to reveal anything, the search was abandoned.
Khristos was racked with guilt, for he alone knew what had happened and who was to blame. The previous night, just as he was going to bed, his courage had failed him and he had left the chain from the gorgon's head in his brother's room. He hadn't thought he was putting Tyrone in any danger, because at the time, he had refused to accept what the captain had said. He'd merely wished to save himself from a sleepless night. Now, Tyrone was gone and it was his fault!
For days afterwards, he babbled incoherently about what he thought had happened, but nobody believed him. They simply put it down to an overactive imagination, fuelled by grief. The general consensus was that Tyrone had taken it into his head to go for a night-time swim and ended up drowning, but there was no real proof of this and the boy's body was never found.
Who would have thought the answer to the mystery was standing on the beach in plain view? Outwardly, the gorgon looked exactly as it had before, with the same fierce expression and the same warlike posture, but the eyes that watched the people of the island going about their business, were not the eyes that had watched before. They were Tyrone's eyes. Somehow, Medusa had managed to take control of his body and leave him there in her stead.
In vain did the boy struggle to make his presence known. Nor was his spirit experienced enough to able to move the metal frame or inhabit another person as Medusa's had done. He was helpless; a lonely soul, firmly anchored in an artificial body, with no hope of escape and no prospect of crossing over to the other side. He couldn't move, he couldn't speak; all he could do was stare out of that lifeless metal body, missing the life he had formerly known and wondering what he had done to deserve such a terrible fate.
The right of C. J. Carter-Stephenson to be identified as the author of this story has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author, or a license permitting restricted copying.