The Cavern of Serpents
by Janel Brubaker
Table of Contents|
Chapters: 1, 2 3, 4, 5
This tale takes place in a magical world called Avalon. The country is Estera, a land of merchants and seafarers. The story begins in a maritime city known as Petra. Its people are of the sea, worshippers of the god Poseidon.
Phoebe, the curious daughter of a farmer, is the opening narrator. She is a woman who does not fit inside of the social role assigned to her. She disregards the expectations of society and, in doing so, sets herself on a path of suffering.
The second narrator, a woman who calls herself Python, meets Phoebe under the worst of circumstances, but helps to awaken a shared destiny neither of them could have anticipated.
Chapter Two: Medusa
My name is Python. You probably know me by another name, one I refuse to acknowledge. Names hold a seductive power; they represent more than just what is, more than just what was. They represent all that could have been. Even all that should have been. How can I use a name that has, for nearly a century, represented a monster, a demon of bitterness and death? It only serves to remind me of the injustice, the uneven dynamic of power that exists in this world. It is an injustice that I have sought to remedy since no one else seems to care one whit.
I know that I am the subject of a great myth. How many warriors have snuck into my caverns singing praises of their own bravery in the face of the great, cursed Gorgon? I know, too, that I am mocked and villainized, passed off for my womanly anger, my feminine rage. How many proverbs have been written about the destructive anger of a woman scorned? How little empathy exists for the woman who chooses to fight back against the powers that try to trample over her? I know not what part you may have played in this perpetuation; I know only that, if not for my rage, my anger, my absolute need for vengeance, I would not be where I am today. I would not have accomplished all that I have done.
Bear this in mind, stranger: I am not the villain they have made me out to be.
I had a life before the cave, although I struggle to recall most of it. I know that I was considered beautiful. I recall faintly that I was admired and sought after for my beauty. I know that I had two loving sisters and that the three of us did a great deal of good for the earth and for you mortals. I know that my beauty led a god to imagine himself entitled to me, to the pleasure he sensed within my body. I know, too, that when he came to claim what he felt was his to own, I fought. He had not expected resistance. But he was not the only one with power in his fists.
I grabbed a knife and I slashed it hard across his face, drawing blood. In his confusion, I escaped. I ran and hid in the caverns near Petra, hoping that I was rid of him. A goddess did her best to blind him to my presence, but to no avail. He saw through her magic and cursed me, turned my beauty into a destructive force of death, banished me to the caverns where I have dwelt since.
Some of what you have been told of this curse is false; I was not turned into a large snake; my hair was not made into hundreds of smaller snakes; I did not lose my ability to speak and become a horrendous monster. The god who cursed me allowed me to keep my beauty but wanted to ensure no one else would look on me with pleasure. My beauty became the curse; people would be drawn to me, but the moment they saw my face with their own eyes, they would turn to stone.
That is all I remember before the cave. After that, mine was a life of misery. I was considered a monster, a thing undone and unhinged by the reckless act of a lustful god. I have been hunted like an animal. I never cared for beauty, never valued it; I was not and am not vain. But now I despise what it has come to signify: the loss of the life I loved, the life I cherished.
Can you imagine the loneliness? Knowing that even if a person with a dash of kindness were to enter my cave to offer friendship — an impossibility as far as I was concerned — they would turn to stone the moment they looked upon me. That was the true curse: knowing that no one, no matter how merciful or understanding, could overcome it. For a century, all I knew in the cave was suffering.
Until she was thrown in.
It is true that no one who ever entered my cave made it out, except for her. Most came to kill me, armed to the hilt to face the monster that Poseidon had created. Though I couldn’t see her, I could sense her presence. I assumed she was just more of the same; an arrogant warrior come to face a monster. Surrounded by the stone statues of those who believed they could vanquish me, there seemed to be very little hope for her.
I never sought to kill anyone who came into my cave unless they, first, sought to kill me. For the few who had been sent out of punishment rather than choice, I did my best to keep away from them. Inevitably, they would find me and, without fail, ultimately became their own undoing. I, therefore, attempted to keep my distance from this woman, unsure at first if she was there as a warrior or a wanderer, someone whose presence was accidental. Either way, I didn’t want to risk harming her if she posed no real threat to me. I resolved to keep away from her.
In mere seconds, the guttural, heart-wrenching sobs of heartbreak reached me as an echo through the cavern, and I felt something in my chest flicker that I didn’t think I would ever feel again: compassion. I was taken aback at myself and how quickly my body was filled with a need to comfort her, so severe were her sobs. What if she were simply a splendid actress and it was a trap?
Before I could stop myself, I moved through the cave, my bare feet soft against the cold stone. I don’t know what compelled me to seek her out, to look on her. I sometimes think it was the utter despair in the sound of her cries, or perhaps that she was the only woman to enter my cave. Or maybe, for the first time in what I considered a wretched existence, I had the chance to be useful, though I had no idea how. Perhaps, too, I was motivated not so much by what I could do for her, but what I thought she might be able to do for me. Loneliness is a slow killer, slicing away at you until you don’t even recognize yourself. No matter the motivation, I moved toward the sound of her sobs, my body aflutter with anticipation.
I found her on all fours, her head down. She must not have heard my approach, for she made no sign of acknowledgment. I watched from around the corner as she stayed there, sobbing, calling the name of someone, though I couldn’t make out the name itself. I remember how my body trembled, how her cries reminded me of my own sorrow when I was branded a monster and cursed, left to the loneliness of an empty series of caves. As I stood and watched and listened, something inside of me resonated with her loss, her grief. It was what I had felt decades before when my freedom and my dignity were taken from me.
I didn’t want her to see me. Looking on my face, on this terror to which I had been reduced, would mean death. In the few seconds I watched her, I felt she was an ally, a person who understood what it means to suffer an injustice. In those few moments, the loneliness I’d felt for decades was lightened.
Not that we would ever speak or become acquainted; I wouldn’t be able to present myself without her turning to face me, and that would be the end of whatever connection I was hoping to create. But I wanted her to know she wasn’t completely alone. I needed to find another avenue of communication, and it came to me swift and certain: food and water. She would need sustenance to survive and I knew precisely where to find it.
Though I hated to leave her in such distress, I knew I had found a purpose to which I could completely devote myself, something that would allow me to transcend what my life had been for nearly a century, and I was thrilled. I felt my heart beating in each of my fingers, in all of my toes, down into the very fibers of muscle and bone; I was overcome by such an intense need to do something strong, something helpful for this woman who, like me, had been abandoned by her community. I would be her community now, even if only from a distance. For the first time since I had been exiled, I smiled.
Deep in the caves there was an expanse filled with clear, drinkable water and about a dozen or so different plants covered in berries and beans. The ceiling in this part of the cave rose hundreds of feet to a wide opening which allowed both sun and rain to fill the garden I had so carefully tended over the years. I didn’t need the food, but seeing them grow and thrive made me feel as though I weren’t all death and destruction. Knowing that I could set my hands to aiding in their health, their life, their growth, reminded me that I was more than this curse. As I filled a large leaf with the berries and the beans, I wondered, had I unknowingly tended my garden for this stranger?
I filled a stone cup with water and quietly walked back to where I’d left her. She was lying with her back toward me and seemed to be asleep. I approached, stepping as softly as I could. I knew the exhaustion that came with grief. She would sleep for a time and, when she awakened, she would need both food and water.
I placed the food and the cup within reach and then backed away. I sat with my back against a pillar and watched her, studied her clothes and tried to guess as much about her as I could. She had been dressed in rags before she was banished, so I couldn’t tell if she were a slave or a once wealthy woman. That she had been sent down to me at all seemed to imply that she was some kind of disgrace rather than a hardened criminal; those who brought shame on their households were sent to me. Criminals were punished in other ways.
I watched her until she began to stir. Then I hurried away, careful to be as quiet as I was able. I wanted to watch her find the food and water. I wanted to see her reaction when an unexpected kindness came from nowhere. I wanted her to know she wasn’t alone. She rolled onto her stomach and then pushed herself onto her knees. Her dark hair hung over her face; she tucked it behind her ears and I saw, from my place more than two yards away, that her eyes had been taken from her. She was blind.
Copyright © 2018 by Janel Brubaker