Aeaea on the Seas
by Hester J. Rook
“Oh, go to the crows,” I snarled under my breath as the knocker slammed home. The door was supposed to be a discouragement to visitors, large and heavy and dark, the handle made up of a curl of iron shaped like a beautiful maiden with fanged dogs at her thighs, eye tormented. Scylla, in the form I’d turned her into so many years ago: Remember my power. Do not come to me lightly.
But no, there it was again, a rapping that echoed through the old house.
“What’s wrong, flower?” Her voice was strangled down the phone.
“Don’t worry, darling. I just have a visitor.”
She chuckled, low and dry. “I really need to teach you my old trick for dealing with them.”
“You forget, my love. I have my own tricks.”
As I stood, my knees creaked mournfully. The millennia did take their toll, eventually. At least the town had not realized how old I had become, or how long I had lived on the island before they built their settlement around me, or even how my garden grew so lush in the sandy soil, in the lick of the salt wind, a thousand plants from a thousand climates for a hundred thousand spells. A little bit of immortality and youthfulness and trickery were not so hard for a daughter of Hecate.
And, well, a little bit of modern medicine did not hurt.
Making my way through the house, I picked and plucked and tended to the vines strung up along the hallway, the oleander blossoms pouring through the open window, along with the breeze and the faint noise of traffic over the sea swell. Aeaea had certainly changed.
I missed the days when I could uproot my island and float her where I pleased with mankind none the wiser. When a stray man would only stumble into my home once every few hundred years.
Occasionally I was lucky—tales would spread, and perhaps only one man in a generation or two would dare to knock on my door. Then, inevitably, he would vanish, or return decades later with creases about the eyes and a hard heart and no desire to tell where he had been. Those times, not even rumors of the beautiful witch who lived alone in her wild garden could tempt them to approach me. But, slowly but inevitably, the humans would forget and some new young man would appear, brave on liquor or taunts from his friends, and disturb me once again.
I know, I know, I’m supposed to be long dead, murdered by that upstart son of that man. Son of the cleverest man in Greece and yet still he did not realize you cannot ever really kill a monster.
The man at the door was young—an adult, yes, grey eyed and strength about the shoulders, but innocence in his unlined face, youthful arrogance in his high cheekbones and pointed chin. But perhaps I’m just getting old. Humanity all look like youths to me now.
My garden sprawled about his feet, but he had clearly trod lightly—only the basil that had hopped across the stone path was crushed, and that only gently. He had avoided the more poisonous plants. Sensible. Best not to tread too roughshod over a witch’s garden.
The ancient boar snuffled about his feet, pulling up roots and tearing through herbs. If you looked carefully, you might see the plants repairing themselves, slowly searching for the sun. The chickens, scratching under the gnarled cypress tree, fossicking in the dirt, were uncannily human about the eyes if they looked at you directly. That passed, eventually. Once they forgot what it was to be a person.
What animal would this one best suit? He was almost foxlike, vulpine about the jaw, but I had learnt my lesson two centuries ago that the townsfolk would not tolerate wild animals in a suburban garden, no matter how fierce the reputation of the occupant. It was a long time since the days I had surrounded myself with lions and peacocks and gazelles and all manner of far-off creatures.
A hound then? Yes, that’d do. Besides, it’d be nice to have a dog about the place. Something with a strong jaw, and slobbery, and fanged, would perhaps keep them away for an extra generation or two.
I smirked. I might even put a sign up, like that poor Roman fool who was sacrificed across the sea in one of Hephaestus’s rages, the silly old god, the man’s tiled warning preserved on the walls of his fossilized home in his fossilized town.
The man had said nothing as I appraised him. With a curt nod, I let him in and led him to the main room, plucking herbs and fruit and flowers from the walls as I went. Marigold and caraway, cherries split from the stem, nasturtium, daffodil, daisy and dandelion. It would be a strange-tasting brew alright, but it would not kill him (I made sure of that, murmuring sweet cures and charms under my breath), and mostly the men who intruded did not care what I gave them—they just drank it down, hypnotized by tits and big eyes and full lips and hips and swinging hair and just a touch of fear.
He sat in silence. I split the leaves and blossoms between my fingers, teasing them apart and dropping them one by one by one into a broiling saucepan, waiting for the water to turn the precise tea-steeped color required for the spell. I felt his dark eyes on my back, calm as yet, unsuspecting. When it was ready, a chipped teacup filled with heavy dark liquid, I took my place in the worn armchair in the center of the room and made my offering.
Oh, I had a throne once. But fortunes change.
The man drank it down. They always do.
He did not transform. I hissed, and he smiled, pulled out moly from the pocket of his jeans.
“Circe,” he said, “I think this means you’re mine, now.”
Arrogant bastard. And wrong, too—I would not be his unless I chose. But then, he was broad hipped and narrow waisted, soft lipped and beautiful, in that youthful way humans so often were, before they had learned their own ignorance. And patterns, repeat: yes, you all know the story of how bold Odysseus tricked the lovely-braided Circe. And a witch gets lonely once in awhile.
I paused, considered, tamped down on the thought of her voice over the phone. And, because patterns repeat, I was his. But on my own terms, after I’d struck him down.
It was only a matter of time.
Educated men are worse than others. They try to trap you, deceive you, fool you. They read the stories, follow the patterns, work out the trickery under the cloth of it all. It worked once—but I have had so long, so very long, to learn their ploys.
This youth was no match for me at all.
“Darling. You’ll come visit when I’m rid of my plaything, won’t you?”
I had kept him for a year, by then. Oh, he still thought he was in charge, swaggering around as he tended to the garden in the way I directed, fetched delicate gifts from town, and pleased me in any which way I wanted. I couldn’t spell him, of course—he kept the moly on him like a talisman, and none of my witchcraft could touch him. But men are easy enough, when you’ve played with them for thousands of years.
There was a staticky hissing down the line, and she laughed, teasing. “Are you sure you don’t need me to come get rid of him? By the sound of it, he’d make a fine statue.”
“You know very well I’m capable of fending for myself. Besides, I have no need for a sculpture garden.”
“Careful, or I’ll think you’re putting me off. I might,” she paused, amusement evident in her voice, “get jealous.”
And then she hung up, laughing.
I sat there, lipbitten, flushed despite myself. It was the same half-joke we’d made for years. Through letters inscribed on vellum and carried on horseback, postcards sent sea-stained on old ships, airmail stickers and telegrams and faxes and rotary phones.
I imagined her brow arching wryly each time she teased me with the prospect of a visit. We carefully did not discuss the danger that would arise with us meeting.
I glanced down at my phone—even her display picture was carefully blackened out, so that I could not see her full face, or even a hint of her eyes. She’d tested video chat on some hapless call centre staffer years ago, and, well, I suspect they never did manage to adequately explain the result to his family. Her lips filled part of the frame, along with the stain of a cheekbone, the gap between her two front teeth. I had imagined her face a thousand times, each version different to the last.
She sent me a sketch, once. A charcoal smudge of herself, head wrapped and eyes veiled in heavy cloth. I had cherished it, smoothed my fingers over the smudges, until the paper disintegrated oh, maybe five hundred years ago? Long enough that her features transformed anew each time I tried to remember the shape of her throat and the line of her collarbone.
Sometimes I imagined her short and pale and sweet, slant-breasted and plum-lipped, skin oiled with sweat under the midday sun. Sometimes I imagined her so tall the top of my head rested under her chin, long-legged and heavy-hipped and velvet-skinned. I wondered if the years had changed her, whether her hands had grown deep lines, whether her skin had turned dusty with age, whether she had grown angular or plump or remained, as I had done, unchanged for eternity.
“Circe?” He stood in the doorway, clear eyes watching me. I never had bothered to remember his name. There were so many names folded within me now, a hundred thousand names to a hundred thousand faces all stuffed in the nooks and crannies of me. Remembering becomes a burden after the seven hundredth year or so.
“What is it, sunbright?” I made myself light and sweet and wicked, purpling the ridges of my cheeks as I turned, greening my eyes. Oh, I couldn’t change him while he protected himself—but I could change myself as I liked. As I saw he liked.
“I have brought you something.”
And he set out sliced yellow peaches on chipped porcelain, juice pooling in the cracks where the glaze had split, fuzzed flesh on the tongue.
I bit through the slips of fruit and smeared the sticky juice along his lips when I was done. And, oh the handsome boy, he looked at me with such need that it rattled my teeth.
I set the plate down, stood, walked calmly through my hall, and stepped over the lintel and into the sprawl of my little wilderness.
I liked him well enough, despite it all, despite myself. But mankind always came with coercion, and trickery, and second guesses, and pushing. Sometimes I loved them and near destroyed myself keeping my inner heart intact, making space for myself in my hollowed house and garden and in their minds. I am certain mankind would eat me, if they could. Subsume me inside themself, force me into the shape they think they need, fill up their broken and empty parts with me. Say that I was willing, beg me to be willing, guilt me until I opened myself for their wants and their needing. Leave me exhausted and empty so they could be filled.
But no. Nobody is my vessel. I will fill nobody’s haunting.
Some days, I spend all the sunlit hours deep in the garden, wrist deep in dirt and purring to the plants until their leaves unfurl, taking offerings of nectar and fruit and scented flowers, smearing earth over my lips or my face and reveling in the cool abundance of growth. I take photos with rose petals through my hair, acacia blossoms bursting from my mouth, frangipani behind my ears. Wrap myself in vines so it is as though I am rooted to the ground, laugh at the sensation of earth between my toes and of sunlight in my hair.
Some nights I spend spread-eagle among the herbs, sage over my thighs and dianella berries crushed over my lips, purple as sin. I bathe naked in the wine-stained ocean and in the night, and wander into the house leaving muddy footprints across the floor, moon-filled and glowing.
Those times he is always silent and sullen and wary, but I am full of the breeze and the iron of darkness and slip into my own bed, alone and untouched, and send her silent messages until the sun peers back over the horizon in a flush of gold.
You are beautiful when you are kissed by the seas.
You are beautiful with starlight in your hair.
I would kiss the flowers wrapped around your lips.
I wish I could look at you.
You might one day, blossoming one.
My eyesight is failing me.
Another year passed, and another, and another. I sent the boy on his way, eventually, after he grew gaunt about the eyes and wary. I do not try to suck up all their youth, and they grow tired of being unable to shape me.
The next man to visit became a goose. The next, a spider. I acquired a stray cat, nothing human in it, not so much by choice as by the sheer perseverance of its stubborn, mewling presence.
There was a hunger in me, an impatience I had not felt since I was young—truly young. I sent her a thousand wondrous things so she could feast on memories of beauty to last her however long she lived. I sent her a thousand photos of myself, pale and fragile and boned and heavy lashed. I sent her photos of my garden blossoming and sprouting in spring, cloaked in red and autumn-touched, bare branches snarled against the iron sky in the depths of winter. I ordered oil paints and sent her messy canvasses filled with sunlight on the waves and clouds against moon-touched skies. I found her seashells on the black sand, whirled with glistening pinks, their insides bare and smooth as bone and tasting of salt and wild.
Can you not see a doctor?
It’s difficult when doctors look into my eyes and turn to stone, darling.
I have not dared look at the outside world for years and years.
I get a bit sick of the screaming, you know? If I cover my hair and cover my eyes and walk with a cane at least I can live properly, talk to people.
Except when the coverings slip. Then, well, more screaming I guess.
That’s why I never visit those I care for.
I grew used the dark long, long ago. It is better.
The years still passed.
I acquired another man, and let him stay awhile, until he grew grey around the edges and yearned for company that changed as he did, who creased about the face in that human way, until he left.
One day she stopped replying to messages, and I stopped sending her photos and paintings and beautiful things. Instead I spent hours twined around my phone listening to her voice. One day, that stopped too, without explanation, and I felt the loss of her somewhere in the hollow parts of me.
Still, I continued. I always do.
It was one of those days in high summer when the sky and the sea melt into a luxurious line of blues and greens, no clouds against the sky and the sun a fat yellow pear above. The light was so thick and warm it was almost heavy against my shoulders, as though I was bearing up weight of the sky.
I crouched over a freshly prepared garden bed, hair pinned above my head in a dirt-streaked mess of bobby pins and charms and shards of stone and plastic clips (it does not hurt to keep spells woven in your hair in case of need).The warmth and humidity pleased me, and I could feel the sweat pooling down my back and across my upper lip as I inhaled the fecund scent of soil. I had spread freshly harvested greens out along the path, crisp and sweet in the sun, the soil still clinging to the cloud of roots bursting from white stalks.
I traced rows into the soil with a red-handled trowel, humming out of tune, sprinkled tiny seeds over the airy hollows. Dirt clotted under my fingernails and weeds snatched against my skirts, and I pushed larger seeds deeper into the soil with my thumb.
“There, little ones,” I crooned, sprinkling them with soil. “Grow deep and tall.”
The cat mewed at me from by the gate, tail arched like a question-mark, and a loud rapping started from the gate.
I hissed, straightening from my crouch.
After a few moments it was clear the interloper was waiting for me. Unusual. Normally they barged right in without a care, no matter how heavy I built the gate or high the fence. No matter the monsters I painted on the heavy slats or the charms I whispered to the latch or the forbidding trees I planted about the edges, in the liminal spaces.
Cautious now, I brushed the dirt off my dress and caught a hex in the space behind my teeth, full and astringent and ready.
I cracked the gate open, pressed one eye to the gap, and—
It was her, it must be her, entirely her, head wrapped and dark glasses and lips greened like basil and pine leaves and the deep parts of the sea, cane resting against the gate.
“Well then,” she smiled, showing the gap between her teeth. “Hello, blossoming one.”
And I led her into the garden and I held her and held all of her, and her complete, and felt her fingers against my tear-streaked, laughing face, and kissed her and felt her fangs against my lips, unraveled her so that her snake hair curled about her like a beautiful hissing cloud, curled down to her collarbones, beckoning me in to her.
I forgot to water my fresh-planted seeds that eve, but the rains came and blessed them anyway.
About the Author
Hester J. Rook is a Rhysling Award nominated writer and co-editor of Twisted Moon Magazine, often found salt-scrunched on beaches, reading arcane tales and losing the moon in big mugs of tea. Find Hester on Twitter @hesterjrook and read more poems and stories at https://hesterjrook.com.
About the Narrator
Danielle Imara (AKA Daniele Minns) is a transmedia artist currently living in France.