what if medusa was a real woman. i mean: what if the woman with snakes in her hair was once a tiny girl with beautiful braids in her black hair.
what if the stories came from her smooth hands. when she was six she could make pottery that looked like flowers blooming in your palms. could carefully create replicas of any plant she saw.
and medusa was smart. ran from home, tucked up her hair so it looked short, made herself into a little boy. besides, they liked pretty boys. medusa at school with top grades, sending her unknowable stares at the other men. because the whole time she’s learning the planes of their faces, the way they look while they’re thinking, the slight twist of their hand that meant they were lying.
medusa going home to sketch every little figure. comes to school in the morning with her hands caked in pottery clay. medusa learns. scrubs dirt on her face to mimic their planes. tilts her head the right way when she’s thinking. doesn’t twist her hand when she’s lying.
in her back yard, a little garden grows. statues of ceramic boys only three feet tall. at first, she can’t quite get the faces right. men are not the same as plants. there is something weird about the proportions she uses. medusa frowns.
she starts making animals instead for a bit, annoyed and disheartened. she’d always just been naturally good at it, and the fact she couldn’t just make something felt as if she’d lost her gift.
she makes cats and dogs and her neighbor’s birds and keeps going.
the snake wasn’t her favorite. he just wouldn’t leave her alone, so she gave up and let him sleep on her in the cold nights. besides, he was a small garden snake, couldn’t even bite her hard, just wanted a place of warmth. she let him rest on the angles of her shoulders, right near her neck, even if he sometimes forgot and held her too hard. that was okay. when she was little, she forgot too, sometimes, and shattered the slim walls of her pottery. the snake had a lot of growing up to do.
she loved no one. not because she was cold-hearted. just because it wasn’t something she wanted. she was busy with her artwork.
she chose an apprenticeship under a master craftsman. his sculptures made her breath stop. she was careful in the workshop, kept her things simple, kept her mouth shut. he called her stupid often. she would duck her head. sometimes she would make mistakes on purpose. all the while he only made sculptures of men. said there was no beauty in women. often made savage remarks about those they saw in the market.
and all the while, she watched him. she watched him and she went home and sketched. this is how his hands were when he made a vine. this is how they were when shaping a nose.
and her back yard garden would grow. little boys became her master, over and over and over, until she could get his jaw right. ceramic became sculpture.
he was who took her to athena’s temple. who shouted at her about how beautiful the statues were against her own. every week he’d come back and shame her. asked how the women there were smarter than the man she was supposed to be. medusa ducked her head and grit her teeth.
in her back yard, she made them. she made every god and goddess she’d seen in the city. her favorite was athena. she ached over her features. had spent so long in the world of men, was blinded by the beauty of women.
it was a black night. and medusa thought her master had left the temple before her. she loosened all the bindings that kept her from breathing. took her hair out. worshiped in peace. placed on athena’s alter a small and beautiful thing. the goddess, head tilted, thinking.
when he found medusa, what made him angry was not her small frame. it was the statute. a delicate thing. much better than the ones he had ever made.
he took it and snapped it in half. threw it deep in the temple’s well to rot. pulled her by her hair. demanded to know where it had come from.
medusa, angry, tired of hiding, tired of late nights and being a boy and pretending: medusa, athena-mad, spat on him. “I did it,” her voice is strong and full of hatred, “A woman made something better than a man could.”
He meant to kill her. To bash her head into the temple steps, claim it was an accident - or better yet, the spite of a god made flesh.
when he grabs her hair, the goddess bites back. athena, patron of creators, patron of the arts, patron of girls and those who are smart - she turns medusa’s hair into snakes.
it is a quick little thing, darts out and draws blood, almost falls from her hair as a result. she catches the creature and runs, runs until she feels numb.
and what if - while her master is making up a story about poseidon and athena’s rage, explaining medusa’s back yard full of frozen men as being evidence of her evilness - what if medusa finds friends in blind women. and they teach her how to feel what she is seeing. how to use her hands with her eyes closed to make maps of whatever she holds. she starts with plants again. her snake is big now, and has babies. she moves on to their little wiggling forms, amused when they make tiny rings around her fingers. she does not live in a cave. she dresses as a man again, goes to market, sells her roses and vines and beautiful (simple) things. buys herself and the women a nice house out beyond all the noise of it. fills their garden with frozen men.
when the men come to kill her - because now her name is known, it is whispered, sticks in the throat - they don’t find her. they find a tall man who tells them: look in the mountains. when they don’t come back, it’s no fault of medusa’s. frankly, she thinks they should have brought more supplies than their swords into the deep woods. she’s not cruel. when they leave, she makes a statue of them, as her version of a memorial.
but one man is not like the others. he finds her with her hair down, humming, dancing around a marble stone. her snakes are warming in the sun.
medusa? he asks her. it’s a name she hasn’t heard in a long while.
she is tired of being hunted. she just wants to make art. she waits for the sword point. but he hesitates. looks at her full in her face.
strikes a bargain. if she makes him a head for his shield, he will tell the others that she is good and dead. and he will sell her art to better patrons when he could - although he suggests at least hiding the signature she has with maybe a little less snake-like scrawl - he would make her name known.
but medusa knows men. knows they will chomp down on a horror story faster than that of the artist. she is already permanent. she says: no, here’s what happens.
after many months, he has his shield. she wouldn’t let him leave with the first nine hundred versions, always found something wrong with them. he grows fond of her in this time, agrees to her terms. even he can’t really look at the shield head-on. she has captured a scream, a rage, too much. it is so utterly human and at once not that it makes his skin crawl.
where medusa’s blood drops, serpents sprawl. or at least, that’s the code she uses. when he finds little girls who can make art, he sends them to her.
medusa does not expect to be known for the school that she starts. she is a women artist in a time of men, and her name is already dead to them. but i know medusa. i know her. she is known for her work.
after all, who can speak about medusa without mentioning how she froze the world?