The Cavern of Serpents
by Janel Brubaker
Table of Contents|
Chapters: 1, 2 3, 4, 5
This is a reimagining of an old tale, a myth originally written by men now told on the tongues of women. There are two protagonists. The chapters alternate between their perspectives, overlapping and building on each other to create a narrative arc that speaks to the original story while also moving away from it. In this tale, the Gorgon, cursed by the god who raped her, does more than turn people to stone. In this tale, she is not reduced to a mere monster to be vanquished; her head is not a prize for the supposed hero.
In these pages, there is more: love, loss, grief, rebirth. Both narrators are victims of the society in which they live, but neither is content to be defined by those who do not understand them. Instead, they choose to define themselves, to make their own destinies despite the struggles and the challenges they face. And in each other they find solace and belonging, something unexpected, but welcome.
Chapter One: Phoebe
My name is Phoebe. I look back on my life and I see a trail of suffering, of disappointments and mistakes and lives fraught with danger. I wonder: did the gods weep when they saw the path I would tread? Did they regret forming me in the womb? Did they question the outcome of my existence? I know the answers to these queries. If they had ever suspected all that would arise from my birth, I’m sure I would never have been born, but born I was. Much to their chagrin.
I was not born into greatness. My family lived on the outskirts of Petra, a maritime city on the coast of the country of Estera. We were humble farmers who worked the land to provide produce and meat to the nearby city. We gleaned enough produce every harvest to provide for ourselves, but there was precious little left over for even little luxuries.
I was one of nine children and, of them all, I think it safe to claim that I was the most curious and the one most frequently at odds with others. I was often misunderstood. I struggled to connect with other children because I preferred my own company to theirs.
I was easily distracted. I could not dedicate myself to chores; rather, I was obsessed with and drawn to the sea. Petra was a maritime city perched on a cliff-face overlooking the ocean. I would often sneak away from the farm and run to the cliffs, staring out for hours at the vast expanse of water.
I don’t know what it was that drew me so often to those cliffs. I was not neglected or unloved, as some of the other farmers and townspeople asserted. My fascination didn’t stem from loneliness or a lack of intelligence, as others were quick to conclude. I simply disliked people and felt at ease near the ocean. I could see for what seemed like miles. I watched dolphins and whales and merfolk break the surface with their bodies and perform acrobatics that made me squeal with delight. I sometimes imagined myself as part of the sea. I felt I belonged in the salty waves and the warm waters. The vast expanse seemed to indicate a kind of freedom I knew I would never possess.
Because of these tendencies, my parents recognized early that I would never be satisfied with farming. Without physical labor to keep me occupied, they worried I would become too curious, that I would make too much out of my own desires for learning, so instead they sought for me the only other recourse for the not quite well behaved daughter of a farmer: marriage.
Although I was angry at not being consulted before they searched for a potential husband, I understood that I was getting a far better arrangement than any of my other siblings. They were expected to farm, to overcome any desires for transcendence or success and commit to the life into which they had been born. I was the only one offered an escape, and I knew I should take it and be grateful.
My parents found for me a middle-class husband. His name was Belen. He was good to me. Gentle and supportive, he didn’t expect me to conform to Petra’s expectations for lower-class women. He recognized my curiosities as a blessing from the gods and taught me to read. But there was no love between us. My dowry made our marriage as much a financial benefit for him as it was security for me.
I knew by the time we were married that I was different from almost every other woman, that our marriage would be different from any other I had witnessed, and that what set us apart from them could bring utter ruin on our household. Therefore, I saw in Belen a kind of fortress, a barrier between myself and a world I didn’t understand.
It’s easy to glance backward and to ask why I ever allowed myself to be defined by the expectations of a society that I didn’t understand or fit inside of. But at sixteen, I was afraid. I heard stories of women who were banished for their curiosities, exiled for their transgressions, flogged for their impurities. So I lived a lie. I told myself I was lucky to have been given a marriage of kindness and that I should be satisfied with my lot. I pretended in the role of happy wife and supported Belen while he granted me the few comforts that made bearable existing inside the hollow shell of myself.
Lies are little breeders; they fuck each other and they reproduce until you’re surrounded by so many that you can’t remember which lies came from where. Belen and I never had children for the simple fact that we never consummated the marriage. Belen had no sexual interest in women. He never touched any part of my body. He married me for money.
My father offered him one whole half of his farm as my wedding dowry, and Belen took it, not because he wanted a wife, but because he had squandered his entire inheritance. He had his habits: gambling and extravagances beyond his income, but his ultimate weakness was his manservant, Cy. Belen spent inordinate amounts of money on Cy; clothing, horses, wine, and anything else Cy desired.
I uncovered their affair mere months after Belen and I were wed. It was shocking to me at first, and I felt keenly the sting of betrayal. Belen reminded me that he had explained before the wedding what to expect from our relationship; I recalled the conversation with bitterness. In my ignorance I hadn’t recognized what he’d been trying to convey and, afraid to ask for clarification, I had told him I understood and that I would be for him whatever he needed. His relief had been immense and I had walked away confused but carefree. I explained to him that, as the fiancé to the daughter of a farmer, he should have recognized I would be ignorant of the details of city life; he should have realized the need for more straightforwardness.
I’m not even sure now why I was angry with him. My life was considerably better than I ever imagined it could be. I was the mistress of a household. My voice carried almost equal weight to his which, even for middle-class families, was practically unheard of. He genuinely desired my happiness; he just couldn’t be the one in whom that happiness was anchored. It was for this reason he paid for me to be tutored in reading and writing and philosophy. I was taught to use a bow and arrow and how to wield long knives in a duel. Whatever I desired, he found a way to provide. He even paid for me to have my own maidservant, and in her I found the balm to my loneliness.
How he found the means to pay for these gifts, these offerings of peace, I didn’t know until several years later, when he was put in jail for his debts. He loved Cy and couldn’t give him up, and I was the key to his secrecy; if I were content, I would never reveal his affair. And so he ruined himself on the altar of love, risked everything for the chance to be with the person in his life who mattered most. I now understand firsthand his fears, his willingness to do whatever necessary to maintain a great love.
This is why I can’t throw stones at my memory of Belen in those first two years of marriage. Eventually I carried my own secrets in my pockets. What began as a friendship with my maidservant, a kind of intimate confidence I felt could really only exist between myself and another woman, grew into something much more urgent.
I dreamt of her eyes and her flowing raven hair every night. She would visit my chamber whenever Belen was with Cy, and we would revel in the utter bliss of our bodies coiled around each other. I gave her the nickname Serpent because she was always saving the snakes found around our home. She was fierce, a girl with a temper known by many.
She was my ultimate undoing. We weren’t as careful as we should have been. I naively assumed that, because my husband and so many other husbands seemed to be free with their partners, that I could be free with mine, at least in my own home. I know now why this freedom reached to them but not to me, not to the woman I loved.
I don’t know who reported us, but only three years after she was given to me, the authorities came for us. Much of what happened that day is a blur, but I remember that Belen was there, his eyes heavy and sad. He fought for me, pleaded for me, even took some of the responsibility on his own shoulders. “She was a peasant girl when we wed,” he exclaimed. “I should have taken better notice of her actions. I should have been a more diligent husband.”
In the end, his testimony mattered little. We were convicted. She, the one I loved, the one I would have given anything to save, was killed. Like me, she was poor and worth little. Unlike me, she was unmarried and had no husband to fight for her cause. They made me watch her execution. They tore the clothing from her body, revealing her naked form, the form I knew as well as my own. They flogged her. They beat her. They stoned her. It took hours, and by the time she breathed her last, her body had been reduced to something foreign and unrecognizable.
I know I screamed. I know I pleaded. I know I tried to substitute myself in her place; as her master, after all, shouldn’t I bear the weight of her crimes, too? My pleas were ignored. No one cared for the sufferings of a peasant woman. No one cared for the heartbreak of a farm girl convicted of adultery.
I know I felt rage stir within me, a kind of anger I had never known before. It made me feel powerful and I was sure, if I could only loose myself from the hands of those who bound me, my love for her and my hatred for them would be enough to reduce our captors to bone and ash. In that moment I imagined myself a creature of myth; as I cried out as loudly as I was able, heat building beneath my skin, I imagined that my screams could wreck their hearing and liberate me from their grasp. In that liberation, I would place myself between them and her and I would scream until their ears bled and we could escape.
But I was a mere mortal, and my screams produced from them only laughter. They held fast to my arms, and all I could do was watch the nightmare unfold before me. I was exhausted when they turned to execute my punishment. In comparison, mine was swift. My marriage to Belen was declared null and void. I was told that, upon his death, whenever it might occur, I would inherit nothing, even though his property originally belonged to my father.
I was then tied down, my feet and wrists held firm to my sides. I remember that four guards held me upright, facing the lifeless body of the woman I loved. A knife was brought out and my eyes were ripped from me. The last thing I saw was her tattered carcass.
I was taken from the city and thrown into a cave. I knew it was a cave because they told me when they shoved me in, laughing as they rolled what sounded like a stone over the entrance. This part of the punishment came as a surprise to me; I had been told nothing of banishment, though I didn’t object. There was nothing in Petra for me but suffering. I didn’t care about my marriage or the property or my status. Those losses were immaterial and hardly more than the prick of my finger against the blade of a knife. What I mourned and felt inside of my body was the loss of my Serpent, her brutal and horrifying death, and the fact that I had been powerless to stop it.
Copyright © 2018 by Janel Brubaker