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The Bright Light of Shipwreck

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The unearthly bonds
Of the singular

Which is the bright light of shipwreck

-George Oppen

Perseus killed her because I could not. That is what you should remember.


The owls in the wood behind me call once, twice. It seems too sleepy a sound for hunters. Rosemary and olive scent the air in these last, brief days before winter. Above me in the dark is Pegasus, a small scattering of distant light. In the still night air I can almost hear the glow of his stars.

He sprang from her, when she died, fully formed and shining. We share that parallel genesis. My father bore me like fruit bears the worm. I bore myself like a seed spit from his soft, over-ripe skin, grown and ready for battle. Zeus, mighty god of sky and thunder, feared me before I ever was, feared a prophecy. Yet here I stand, thought- child, daughter of his reason more than his loins.

There are those who pray to me still, he thea of wisdom and war; call me Atrytone, the unwearied. But tonight I am wearied, in truth. Long has it been since we began dying away, flung into stars or to dust. Few of us remain and we are dying, alone.

Medusa did not die alone. Perseus was there, he who struck the killing blow, and I, who guided his hand. We saw the rich violence of her lifeblood sink into stone and the children of Poseidon rise from her throat. Those twin seeds which spun her madness.

And there was something like gratitude in her eyes. I cannot forget how she begged me.


In the end, her grief could turn living men to stone. Her sorrow was relentless, watching their statues crumble with each lick of the sea. Poseidon’s violation was the first horror, her transfiguration the second.

“Kill me,” she said, when the last of the amber strands of her hair had fallen. The crows snatched each one up for their nests as they fell. In time, they plucked hairs straight from her head. For months after she was gone, I saw glints of fire on branches in the sunlight and the brightness was an ache in my heart.

“Kill me,” she said, and I grieved.


She had been beautiful among the wild hyssop, the olive trees; had smelled always of lavender and vervain; filled the silences with the sweetness of her singing. But the poison within her spread a grotesque path over her body, her face. She smelled of putrescence and her eyes were death. For what was this torment?

Jealous Poseidon, licentious Poseidon, vengeful Poseidon; god of the sea, the ever- present sea. He came upon her in my temple, raped her, left her for me to find. He made her a sacrifice to his unrealised desire - his anger at the people of Athens who had refused him. His anger at me.

Medusa was the instrument of my punishment.

I found her bloodied, naked, cold as a winter dawn in battle. He had left her splayed with only the scent of saltwater to answer my questions, as Helios drove his chariot across the western sky. “Who did this to you? Who?”

And when she discovered that she was with child, that was the third violation. The Moirae always work in threes.


In time men came, drawn by word of her metamorphosis. She wandered, mad with pain and fear, and where she wandered, men turned to stone. She begged for death by day and prayed by night. But the memory of Pallas weighed too heavily upon me. As much as I loved Medusa, I could not grant her the fate she sought, the end to her misery.

So it was that Perseus became the tool of my mercy. He slew Medusa on a bright summer morning, while she was great with child. Her vast wings fluttered once and were still, then her sons burst forth from the wounded ruin of her throat. Blinded with tears, I cradled her terrible head to my breast, heard the mourning wails of her sisters.

We buried her under an olive tree in the gardens by the temple. Within days the grave was covered with the riotous colours of poppies. They grew in the turned earth as if seeded from her skin and the wind rushing through them was sweet as music.


My flute song was sorrow through breath, a wordless elegy. In the ripples of the Hippokrene I saw Medusa’s face and mine commingled. I heard her in the high, clear notes as they spilled into the air. Bright and sharp as crystal, they cut at my heart. Something deeper was in their tone, too, like shadows at the bottom of a clear lake. That sound was the low moan of her last days and the soft sigh of her passing; the sound of a severed thread.

Not all my skill at weaving can repair what Lachesis has measured and Atropos has cut, nor all my wisdom. In this we gods are impotent as mortals.

Euterpe kept the flute and I left the mountain. I have not played since.


Selene wanes low in the west overhead and dawn will soon be upon us. Tomorrow I will begin my journey again to Corfu, where she died. I travel there once each year in her memory. This year will be my last.

There are lighthouses on the headlands now, fuelled by electricity and not men. It seems but a moment since there were signal fires blazing against the darkness to guide sailors safely home. The sea is strange to me now without Poseidon to rule its waves. My ancient enmity has become brittle in my breast, tied so strongly to love and longing that it will not be undone.

Medusa I have carried with me this long while. And Pallas too. Soon I will let them go, and I to follow.

The sea calls to me and the immensity of sky. I will stand in the temple at Corfu and release my burdens. I will wait, a solitary vessel heading into shore.

he thea = the goddess