PodCastle 736: The Gorgon’s Glass
The Gorgon’s Glass
by M.E. Bronstein
There are people who try to blame Oken’s unhappy demise on the Gorgon, but if you read Oken’s notebooks carefully (and it’s my job to read his notebooks carefully), you know that he was already dying when he first met her. In fact, that is why he sought the Gorgon out; he needed someone to craft his “monument more lasting than bronze” — i.e. a brilliant thing to preserve his memory.
In his notes, Oken often revisits his first meeting with the Gorgon:
. . . Certain denizens of the township nearest to the Gorgon’s workshop attempted to dissuade me from seeking her out. They called her a witch. It is disheartening, though hardly surprising that her style of artistic production would elicit such reactions. I ventured into the Swamp anyway, and rather enjoyed my solitary escapade into the wilderness, until I found myself caught in circles and stumbled across the same lightning-blasted yew, again and again.
Then I heard a silken rustle, and beheld, in frightening proximity, a serpent — it unfurled from a ragged hole in the moss, a faint rainbow iridescence clinging to its scales. I stepped backwards in careless haste and a rock gave way beneath my foot; I fell upon my rear, something tore, and there was the snake, a line of wriggling calligraphy some demonic hand had written into the earth. It came closer and closer, and I realized with horror that my trousers were quite firmly caught upon a bramble. I struggled and cried out —
I could not die in such a manner (so many intelligent medical men had already foretold another end for me, and how impolite to contradict them!).
And then — the artist herself.
A slight creature with flyaway black-and-gray hair and a grimly set jaw. She wore a ragged shawl and a basket across one shoulder.
She stared fixedly at the serpent, then drew closer, careful not to make a sound, to stir any rocks, all the while untying her shawl — which she then tossed so that it fell across the beast. It writhed, confused by the sudden surrounding weight. The Gorgon pounced upon her quarry, bundled her shawl into a knot, and tossed it into the basket lashed across her back.
To think that so wild a creature should be my object! But there are mysteries and powers beyond our understanding that often choose strange receptacles for their dearest secrets.
A snake brought me to the Gorgon, too.
I first met her glass when I was a girl. I’d chase sand fleas through riverside muck, and there was a worming thing, half buried. See-through, like a newborn squid or shrimp, but hard and motionless. Just one fragment of a larger glass serpent.
That happens, sometimes. Although the Gorgon’s workshop in the Swamp rotted long ago, her sculptures still crop up, carried by the river. Like they want to crawl back ashore.
I found the glass snake by stepping on it, and it sliced into the sole of my foot and glittered and I bled and yet it went on drawing my eye through my tears, and my mother had to work to pry it out of me. She sent the piece of sculpture to the Estate.
Perhaps that is why I wound up here, too, over two decades later. Tugged by a rope made of glass.
That said . . . I confess: I used to prefer Oken’s writings about the Gorgon’s work to the work itself. I wished up likenesses between myself and Oken — a natural result, maybe, of transcribing someone’s words and ideas, day after day, so that you almost take them for your own.
My limp generally prohibits my colleagues from asking me to lead tours. But now and then I appreciate the exercise after hours bent over Oken’s windswept handwriting.
Not long ago, a small group appeared during one of our quieter weeks, and I volunteered to guide them through the parlor, the library, the study: hemlock beams and mahogany paneling, tapestries dense with climbing roses, and framed embroidery by Oken’s daughter, Iris. There is one striking portrait of Oken himself with Argus, his prized pet peacock, nestled like a lapdog on one knee. The house’s quietness (interrupted only by the chatty floorboards) demands whispering. I took my guests into the dining room, where the long table is always laid with a glass feast, some of the expected sort — crystal goblets and decanters and vases — but then it’s like glass is a disease that has spread from the vessels to infect the food, too: clear spheres of quince, plums, and apricots, with crystal leaves thin and delicate as snowflakes. And little glass lizards and snails, frozen while they crawl and eat.
The group murmured, “Beautiful, lovely,” but shuddered as I spoke of the Gorgon’s process.
Like always, someone said, “Surely that’s not . . . legal?”
“These days, I imagine not. Back then — well, nobody dared stop her. I certainly wouldn’t have.” I’d sooner tamper with a beehive. I often thought of her glass that way. Sharp, stinging. (Or perhaps that is a formulation of Oken’s that I’m mangling.)
I talked about symbols in the glass. Goblets designed after Holy Grails. Quince, associated with Venus.
“Is there a story behind the peacock?”
“Peacock?” I said.
The table is always illuminated by the dining room’s chandelier, while everything against the walls is murkier. One of the visitors pointed. And as my eyes adjusted, I found what he meant: the shine of glass feathers — an elaborate glass peacock perched atop the mantlepiece, a murky twin peacock reflected in the tarnished mirror on the wall. The rest of the group gasped in pleasure and flocked closer.
Argus is very delicate and we usually keep him stored in one of the dining room’s cabinets. Whoever had let him out?
I went on as though he was an expected piece of the tour. “It’s always been sort of a puzzle, how the Gorgon managed to preserve Argus so perfectly,” I said, “with his tail feathers outspread. She must have cast every single feather separately and then fitted them all together. A very delicate jigsaw.”
I described Oken’s affection for Argus, the bird’s role as the culminating piece of the “monument of crystal.” My colleagues may laugh at my abiding love for the radiant beast, but they do not understand the potent symbolism inlaid in his multitude of feathered “eyes”; there is no greater representative of the collector’s power. Well after I am gone, I do so ardently hope and suspect that Argus, preserved, shall retain something of the spirit of my own gaze and tastes . . .
Oken fed Argus crumbs of pastry at every meal. Sometimes he read the peacock myths and fairy tales before going to bed.
“She didn’t break it — him?” asked an elderly gentleman. He had the infamous rift in mind that caused the Gorgon to abandon Oken’s employ (and break many of her most celebrated creations on her way out the door).
“No,” I said.
My questioner clearly wanted me to elaborate. Why ruin so much, but stop short of Oken’s darling? I suggested we proceed to the next room instead, though this question continued to bother me, for I had wondered the same thing often enough.
After rescuing me, the Gorgon permitted me entry to her glasshouse, though she would not, at first, answer any of my questions when I asked after her intentions with the serpent.
I tried another tactic. I told her that I knew very well what she meant to do next.
“Do you?” she said.
“You will drown the beast in urine and vinegar, then olive oil and plaster. After sealing it within a clay mold you will blow through a pipe, expanding liquid glass through bone and meat. Once that is done, you will knock the ashes out of a hole drilled into the bottom of the mold and pry the whole contraption apart to unveil a perfect glass serpent. Like a fetal thing inside a clay egg.”
The old arts of Bernini and Palissy, in bronze and ceramic. But the Gorgon is happier in her choice of medium, for she constructs beings of crystal that become — in their delicate luminosity, their fleshlessness — superior to the living creatures that gave them birth.
“What nonsense,” said the Gorgon idly. “The practice you describe would not be . . . ” she performed a struggle to find the right word, “humane. Nor would it be possible. Unless I were a witch with hellfire in my breath, to melt the living so.”
“Ah. I know that is what your neighbors say. But I know better.”
How many times have I imagined that fire of hers. The rough and earthly skin of her subjects sloughed off by molten crystal. Hellfire indeed! The heat of her glass is purifying, purgatorial (if not quite heavenly).
I told her then that I was an admirer and had come with a commission.
The Gorgon served me a substance which intended to pass for tea, and heard me out as I spoke.
“I realize that the request is an odd one,” I told her, “and that it will require no small ingenuity and exertion on your part. I am willing to pay you whatever price you might wish.”
When she did not answer, I made suggestions of my own in regard to the price (for fear she would otherwise undervalue her own work).
She held up a hand, silencing me. “You will pay me in a different manner — of my choosing,” she said.
“Anything,” I told her.
Nearly every curator, visiting researcher, and docent has some story about the Estate’s glass moving and changing: crystal lilies that unfold with the sunrise, serpents’ shifting coils. That is more or less the principle underlying Oken’s “monument of crystal”: some illusion of ongoing life as light shifts through glass and wavers on the walls. And so still things appear to move and change — or do move and change.
The magic hellfire in the Gorgon’s breath.
Some of my colleagues say they’ve seen ghosts of the glass she destroyed, those famous lacunas in Oken’s collection: translucent rose bushes, a porcupine with quills like icicles, a lost nightingale on a silver branch.
I only had my story about the glass washed up from the river — but that had faded, memory become almost a dream. Until my little run-in with Argus. After the tour, I struggled to focus on my transcriptions.
When I revisited the dining room later, Argus was back in his cabinet, and I began to question my own recollection of the day’s events.
But as I approached the spot where I could have sworn we truly had seen him earlier, something crunched beneath my cane. The sound grated against my teeth, and when I looked down, shards of glass winked at me. A peacock’s feather. Almost as though the poor dead bird had shed bits of himself during his daring adventure out of his customary place.
Perhaps someone had moved him while cleaning; one of his feathers could have been dislodged in the process.
I wiped my damp palms on my skirt and prodded a few slivers of vane that looked like a fish’s bones, the little needling bits that threaten to choke you on the way down.
I was awakened by a ghastly shriek this morning and rushed out of bed in my dressing gown, only to find my daughter swooning away upon her bench in the music room. As I approached, she raised a wavering finger to indicate the glass nightingale (one of my more recent acquisitions) newly situated upon a silver branch by the piano.
When I asked Iris whatever could have troubled her, she at first stuttered, and I sat by her side and offered to send a servant after her smelling salts. She shook her head, breathed deeply, and gradually resettled herself.
Argus — evidently drawn by the noise just as I had been — sidled through the open doorway and made himself comfortable in a corner of the room.
“I . . . ” said Iris. She paused and tried again. “It was singing. I swear it was. When I sat down to play, it started to sing with me.”
“It is just an illusion,” I reassured her. “They are so lifelike that one imagines such things.”
“Lifelike,” muttered Iris, kneading her hands to steady them. “They are, I suppose. And yet at the same time — they aren’t lifelike at all, are they? I think that is what unnerves me.”
“Just so,” I said and then attempted to outline my own thoughts upon this subject. Though the Gorgon’s work is, to be sure, intensely mimetic, “lifelike” is perhaps altogether the wrong word to describe it. Living things become pale imitations next to the Gorgon’s creations, rather than the other way around — she has figured out some trick that allows her to tread beyond the borderlands of earthly artistry. And we viewers must content ourselves with a second-hand apprehension of whatever cold and beautiful afterlife entrances her crystalline creatures.
“And so you see, my dear,” I told Iris, clasping her hand, “there is no cause for your anxiety. These beings are here to give us a glimpse of something greater than ourselves that would otherwise remain beyond our limited faculties.”
Even as I attempted to articulate these notions to my daughter — though I have done a better job with ink and paper to hand, I daresay — Argus emerged from his corner. He stepped toward us and then shuddered and spread his voluminous feathers, gracing us with a curtain of flashing olive and teal and deepest ultramarine, as though to permit his feathers’ eyes to see the unseeable. (And I am afraid some pellets of excrement escaped his rump — but they did not in the least diminish the majesty of the sight.)
Iris, however, insisted upon quitting the music room, and would not go on playing.
I kept the pieces of glass feather with me and revisited the dining room several times over the course of the next weeks. Argus stayed put — for the most part. But sometimes, I found his cabinet door faintly ajar, and then I discovered more feathers hidden in strange corners, their glitter almost ostentatious. Like he wanted my attention.
Poor, restless creature.
We seldom enter the music room. Once, the Okens entertained guests there, and every corner was stuffed with scintillating sculpture — until the Gorgon’s mysterious rampage. Now the room is scarred, gashes left in the wood by broken glass. The space remains off-limits to visitors, and we store some of our glass there when it isn’t on display.
In his notebooks, Oken often insists that Argus took a “special delight and comfort” in the music room and Iris’s piano playing. Perhaps he would be more at ease and stop tearing himself to bits if I resituated him there. I didn’t know what else to do, and I feared he’d shatter during one of his secret escapades if I did nothing.
After my colleagues went home, I lingered, found the caretaker’s keys, and rolled a cart out of the office to the dining room. There I settled Argus on a cushion, made sure I had him stably situated, then wheeled him down the hall.
My bad leg limited our speed, and I talked to Argus on the way. “Why did she betray him?” I asked. “Why turn on Oken — after all he did for her?”
Argus did not answer me. I’d say he contemplated me with something like sadness, but then again, the Gorgon’s glass always looks rather forlorn.
We came to the music room’s door, its brass knob shaped like an acorn.
A room that had once been bright, with its chipping white plaster, a garland molded into the ceiling. Faded cream-and-gold upholstery, color eaten by the wide, sunlit windows. And a very dusty piano.
I wheeled my cartful of peacock inside.
As we came to a stop, I studied Argus. “Won’t you give me some indication . . . please? I know you can. Why did she need revenge — if that’s what it was? She would never have been an ‘artist’ if not for him. Just a witch in the woods.”
I took the broken glass feather from my pocket. I couldn’t figure out what part of his tail exactly it had fallen from and so I laid at his feet, like an offering. A piece of him come back home.
As I pled with Argus and he stayed silent, the light gradually shifted around us. Sunset bled past the window and refracted through his tail, and specks of light spangled the walls. A fragmented gaze made of a peacock’s shadow, his many eyes. Thumbprints of light glittered upon a pane of glass that protected of one of Iris’s pieces of embroidery. Yellow roses on a background of faded pink silk. The Gorgon referred to Iris as Oken’s “popinjay” of a daughter, made to sing for company, and disliked the girl’s practiced and mechanical drawings and watercolors.
But perhaps, beneath the veneer of distaste, she had valued the company of a fellow artist.
I abandoned my transcriptions of the notebooks and shifted my attention to Oken’s letters: warm and hollow wishes to Iris on her honeymoon, invitations to her husband to come visit after the wedding.
Something in me itched after a connection between the two women and the rift.
I found lots of dull stuff that reminded me why I had never perused the letters carefully before. Benign and politic exchanges, requests that friends and family and fellow collectors come dine at the Estate in the light of early spring, when the saucer magnolias are so lovely, and the glass shines to best advantage.
I looked and looked for letters to Iris, letters from Iris, letters concerning Iris. Perhaps it was a little absurd to attribute so much to the direction of Argus’s gaze, his shadow on Iris’s handiwork, and I nearly gave up, convinced myself that he was just a lifeless hunk of glass after all. But then I found something, buried in an older correspondence. A tightly folded sheaf, brittle and yellow, crinkled all over — like a snake’s shed skin. I pried pieces apart. Letters in a hesitant hand, more accustomed to working with glass than ink. In copying this down, I’ve corrected the Gorgon’s occasional misspellings:
I hope you have not forgotten what I am owed, Sir. I await —
I will not have any soft boy from those workshops and guilds you mention. I have no daughter. As far as I can ascertain, you make poor use of yours — surely you would not object to Miss Oken learning a trade and making herself useful for once —
Mr Oken, I am afraid that you are a poor reader of my “alphabet of crystal” — as you call it. You mistake my meaning again and again. To hell with all your gold and silver. I will have what you promised me and nothing less. I pray Miss Oken will understand me better than you do.
I could almost see it: Oken’s curl of frown at the Gorgon’s letters, the pile accumulating by his notes and papers. He must have told her that her request was quite out of the question. The Gorgon’s adventure to the music room, to speak to Iris, so she could make a decision on her own. And then: a suspicious Oken, shadowing the artist’s footsteps. A spilled and broken nightingale. Glass thrown and crumbled.
Oken married Iris to a colleague of his, her senior by a couple of decades. And Iris died in childbirth, about three years after her wedding day.
Once, I pitied Oken and imagined that losing her accelerated his own progress toward death.
I smoothed the Gorgon’s letters out on my desk. I began to transcribe.
And new meaning coalesced out of stranger entries in the notebooks, Oken’s more cryptic interactions with the Gorgon.
The other day I asked the Gorgon how she learned her craft. Her artistry has always struck me as remarkable given various evident gaps in her education, which speak to instruction by hand and voice rather than by book. She must have once had a master. From whom had she learned her technique?
“My mother,” said the Gorgon.
“And who taught her?”
“Her mother,” said the Gorgon.
“And who taught her? Her mother, too, I suppose?” Perhaps I ought not to have expressed such skepticism, but I did not find these terse answers in the least satisfactory.
The Gorgon muttered something dark, which I took at first for a curse, until I recognized her monosyllable: God. I think she meant to mock me, but a certain weight of truth in her voice made me shudder all the same.
If one were to go far enough back, past her supposed chain of mothers, perhaps God had taught them after all.
There is a purity to the Gorgon’s expression, her arts. An alphabet of crystal scale and tooth and claw. The difference between sign and meaning collapses until signs — letters, art — become exact imitations of what they represent, glistening husks left behind by the dead Original.
Once I have signed my own name upon the earth in this perfect, vitrified language — then I will be satisfied with my existence in all its brevity and limitations.
And I am perhaps, a little selfishly, rather glad that the Gorgon has no daughter, that her art shall die with her (and with me). A monument of crystal is a delicate thing and all the more admirable for its rarity, its fragility.
Once, Oken’s eye seemed more laden with meaning to me than the Gorgon’s craft, which struck me as too mechanical to call “art.” Terrified prey cooked in a witch’s stew of glass. She did not make anything new — only copied and killed, and I could see no evidence of her imagination or ingenuity adding anything to the final product.
There is one sense at least in which Oken understood her better than I did.
I live alone in a cottage just down the road from the Estate. There is no glass in my household (save for the windows). Every glass thing I weigh in my hand at the market feels wrong, brittle and leaden next to hers, and I cannot bear to eat or drink out of that. My cups and bowls are all clay and pewter.
My life is quiet, though not as lonely as you might think. When I come home after a day’s work at the Estate, I leave eggs on the lawn for ravens; I know them better than I do my human neighbors, who avoid me.
Although there is no glass in my house, perhaps I have become akin to the Gorgon in my way.
Lately, I’ve been working on Oken’s final entries. He appears to have suffered a break, around when the Gorgon’s arts preserved a deteriorating Argus. A number of perturbing dreams, visions, and intrusive reminiscences have contributed no small fuel to the rumors that like to circulate about the Estate’s hauntedness:
I have been afflicted by strange impressions these past several nights.
My collection has always had an unusual effect upon the light (and dark); well after twilight passes, the walls around me are all at once obscure and full of glowing reflections. But sometimes the light and dark move of their own accord, dance and shift in a fashion most unnatural. And . . . I could swear that I hear the shadows hissing. I have on occasion awakened in a perspiring panic, convinced I could feel the slick scales of a crystalline serpent crawling across my flesh.
I am persuaded that these nightly visits represent echoes of the snake I encountered in the Swamp, the very first day I met the Gorgon — but the echo is incomplete, or badly distorted, and the memory does not end as it should; she does not manifest again to rescue me. Once, I even started to call her name in the hope that she would appear and whisk the dread, imaginary creature away, but then I swallowed my own cry, for fear that I would not be rescued by the Gorgon I know at all, but by her predecessor and namesake instead.
If those tantalizing eyes draw near, I do not trust myself to look away.
Pity me, for I have seen her, working before her bulbous furnace, an ugly pile of clay and stone — but such miraculous materials within, like malleable sunlight. The Gorgon twirled a pipe while viscous brightness gathered at one end. She rolled the pipe back and forth across her work table until the glass changed, lengthened —
And then, there it was, a serpent made of light. Crawling, reaching for me, and I could not see how to escape its radiant jaws —
So enraptured was I at first that I did not realize that the Gorgon was humming to herself while she worked. And I recognized it . . .
A tune Iris used to play. That I have not heard since her wake. And then I heard her speak; the Gorgon laughed and said, “I promised you a monument, did I not? A house for your soul? Well, now I swear that you will never leave it until my barren tree of glass bears some fruit, be it angry as a beehive. I give you a hundred years to satisfy me.”
All is well now.
I have been blessed recently by a nocturnal visitation from dear Argus, now far lovelier than he ever was while alive (and he was always a noble beast): he perched upon my bed and stared at me, all his eyes (I mean those in his head and upon his feathers) aglow like stars. The familiar, adored beak lowered, and Argus pecked at my limbs, and I felt no pain, though I realized that my darling was feeding upon me, and I watched as he consumed gobbets of my flesh and became all the more vibrant with each morsel of me that he swallowed.
The heat lies so thickly around everything these days; it has a kind of cloying substance to it, as though the sunlit air is thick with amber. Or perhaps it is molten glass, poured out of the furnace of the sun into the world’s mold all around me.
Well, let the light come, then. Let it purify and preserve me.
I hunted down the riverside path I used to take when I was a child. I still remembered where I had found the glass snake. My hope: to reconstruct Oken’s first journey to the glasshouse with the further aid of landmarks mentioned in his notebooks (his “lightning-blasted yew” is still there).
There’s not much to see, really — a crooked pile of hemlock beams eaten up by moss and ivy. Clay shards here and there, remnants of her furnace and molds and crucibles. And a weird glitter of frit, leavings of her glassmaking process embedded into the earth like diamond deposits.
We have even found abandoned fragments of sculpture in a pit beneath the glasshouse’s ruins. Including a clutch of crystal eggs. A little thorn of tail emerges from one egg, a snout from another, nudging away a flake of glassy shell. Something looks a little wrong about these pieces, clumsy — not the same mimetic beauty as the Gorgon’s usual work (clearly made from wax models rather than real serpents’ eggs). But the really interesting thing — half-hidden beneath the eggs, we found a booklet. Ragged old leather and paper.
At first I didn’t find much of note inside. Just a few things the Gorgon had jotted down about her process. She seems not to have been as given to outpourings of thought and feeling as Oken was.
Her concerns were more practical: to leave behind a recipe book.
My colleagues and I decided that I would take on this task, too, and transcribe the Gorgon’s messy hand as well as Oken’s.
One of the Gorgon’s snakes bit me when I was a girl, and so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that something in it would infect me.
The Gorgon’s writing can be difficult to decipher; I wasn’t sure at first what to make of the final page, which contains only one line of scrawl. I could make out her own name and a few stranger words. I took the line at first for a pen trial, just some nonsense culminating in her own signature. Then it came to me — a list of names? Her lineage, her history. The chain of mothers.
As soon as I stopped looking for any logical grammar or meaning, I found the names I had to transcribe: Stheno. Graziana. Melissa. Grace (better known as “the Gorgon”). And in the blank space that remained: Iris, the missing piece.
And me. (Or I like to think there is room for me on that page.)
Lately I have realized that there is some likeness between my work and the Gorgon’s. We are both copyists. I decipher the language of the dead and write it down anew. She copied dead things and gave them a new kind of life.
Reading is a little like transcribing — or there is some immaterial transcription at work. You’ve heard my voice, repeated it in your own head. Words linger even when their writer is gone — or maybe that’s what a haunting is? I’m unclear on the exact parameters of the phenomenon. In either case: may this serve as an introduction to the Gorgon’s recipe book. Think of it as her looking glass. A thing to be read and copied, a copy waiting to be read.
About the Author
M. E. Bronstein
M.E. Bronstein is a PhD student in Comparative Literature who writes horror and dark fantasy when she should be working on her dissertation. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, khoréo magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review: Mixtape, and elsewhere. You can find her at mebronstein.com
About the Narrators
Dave Thompson aka the Easter Werewolf aka the California King is still uncomfortable with the notion of pumpkin beer, but don’t hold that against him. He lives outside Los Angeles with his wife and three children. Together with co-editor Anna Schwind, he ran PodCastle for five years. Dave is an Escape Artists’ Worldwalker and Storyteller, having been published in, and narrated for, all four EA podcasts.
Rachael K. Jones
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is available from Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.