The Rattlesnake

Toppled Medusa statue from one of Istanbul's ancient basilica cisterns.

In which the Gorgon's rageful vengeance against male sexual violence becomes a terrifying mirror of her own wounded heart.

I smash mirrors everywhere. In my wake, shards of reflected sunlight litter ruined streets. Until they are splattered with red.

Mothers hide their baby boys from me and when I root them out from cellars, attics or closets, they wail, squeezing the creature’s rosy fingers.

“He’s just a little thing!” they cry. “How could he have offended you?”

But I point to the snake between his thighs. It is tiny now, when he is cuddled at his mother’s breast. It will grow into a dragon that will hunt down and despoil women like his mother. Women like the one I used to be.

I don’t know what I look like now but my tail grows every time another man lies broken at my feet. It rustles and rattles as I drag it around piles of brick and stone. It is as long as a city block, composed of scaly segments that keep adding up like beads on a necklace. But I can barely feel it. My strength grows, too.

Some women have taken to following me in worship: singing songs, beating drums, even trying to flash out men from their hiding places. 

It is satisfying, but not as satisfying as finding him will be.

Wild dogs roam the streets, and run away when they hear my rattle. A salty wind blows from the sea. A restless sparkle of waves throws gold and silver.

It happened on the beach. I walked along the lacy fringe of the surf, my feet caressed by the water. The sun was setting. I was happy. I remember that. I don’t remember what I was happy about. There are many things that have disappeared from my memory.

No, not disappeared. They have been stolen. By him.

He came from behind me. It was so sudden that when I found myself half-submerged in the chilly water, in the dark, my first thought was that the world had blinked somehow and time lurched forward. 

But the pain told me otherwise. 

And though the sea had washed away most of the blood, enough remained to tell me I was no longer fit for the Temple. 

I was looking forward to my initiation into the vestal sisterhood. Now…what was I? Worthless. Polluted. Discarded.

This was what I thought at the moment. Now I see how mistaken I was. He wanted to destroy me but he has only made me stronger. He tried to lower me to the level of beasts; now I am above him, above all humanity.

The women behind me are chanting and shaking tambourines. But through the noise the dry clatter of my tail is still audible. It is flowing after me like a river of silver scales, sweeping aside the rubbish littering the street: bricks, broken glass, marble fragments. 

Corpses.

When I glance down, I see a pair of legs, dark and sinewy like olive trunks, supporting the girth of my new body. And when I touch my forehead, something cold and oily slithers across my fingers.

I was beautiful. Now I am divine.

I stop before a small dwelling on a side street. It is still whole, one of the few. When I am done, nothing will be left of the city. The city that used to be mine but now is the hiding-hole of my rapist.

The familiar acrid smell assaults my nostrils and my rattle is deafening. The women behind me fall silent. My hair – or whatever it is that crowns my head now – stands up in rage.

I did not see his face. But this stench – like burning dung, like carrion rotting under the midday sun – is how I will recognize him. 

He may have transformed himself into a mewling babe or an old man but the stench of his violation will never go away until I find him. 

It is now as horribly intimate as my own.

My tail flails and walls tremble and collapse in a cloud of dust. Two figures crawl out of the ruins. They stand up, holding hands.

The girl is irrelevant: I barely glance at her, just to ascertain her sex. But the male…

My neck flushes with angry blood and something expands around my face like an unfolding flower. My hair rises with a hissing sound. My rattle beats summons to the execution.

He staggers toward me. He may be twelve or so.

He is male.

The girl steps forward.

“Medusa,” she addresses me and it takes me a moment to remember that is used to be my name. “My brother is innocent. He is my twin and I know his heart as I know my own. He would never assault a woman.”

Her words wash over me. The hissing and the rattling drown them in irrelevance. 

There is a snake between his thighs. He is a man. He is a rapist.

The swollen tension in my neck expands; my head is dragged up; my tail coils and lashes out.

The boy cries out – just a single strangled cry – and falls on his face. A bloody halo expands around his head that has hit the cobbles with a wet sound. A jerk on my tail as another segment is added to the rattle.

The girl drops onto her knees by her brother’s body. 

Is it him? 

I look around at the field of rubble that the city has become. The sea flashes and dances beyond the embankment.

There must be more men left. Somewhere. The stench is still there; I can smell it, thick and nauseating.

I will find him.

I make to move forward but the girl jumps to her feet and bars my way. 

“Great goddess of vengeance,” she says. “Medusa, the Gorgon, who rights the wrongs of women. Let me show you my appreciation of your great work by washing the dust of our unworthy city off your feet.”

I pause, uncertain how to react. This was how the vestals used to honor the immortals. 

Poseidon, who I worshipped in those days — I used to bring clean sea water to pour over his statue in the Temple. But this girl … is it right that she should be my vestal?

And while I am hesitating, the girl lifts a bronze vessel filled with water. But instead of washing my feet with it, she brings it up to my face. And in the mirror of its calmness, I see myself.

I see the cobra-like cowl around my neck, swelling in rage, its fungal flesh flushed with venom. I see the armor of bony plates running down my breast and merging with the pewter scales of my tail. I see a tangle of oily verminous bodies whipping around my head.

And I see my own face. 

It is him. 

My rapist. The god whom I worshipped. 

Poseidon, who took a mortal girl with no more thought than plucking a flower, and left her, broken and defiled, on the beach. 

Poseidon, who is forever beyond the reach of human revenge. 

Poseidon who is not a man.

Immortals do not care for our pain. They have no justice and no mercy. They do what they do.

She called me “goddess,” that girl whose brother I just killed in retribution for a crime he had not committed. 

Yes, indeed, I am a goddess now. A rattlesnake of heaven. A creature who destroys because she can. 

Looking into my own empty eyes, breathing in the burning smell of my own transformed flesh, I feel my hatred harden into the shell around my body, squeezing air out of my lungs. 

The worms on my head stiffen and tumble down in a shower of shards. The segments of my tail separate and fall like a line of dominoes. 

A stone cracks somewhere and I realize it is my breastbone.

Vengeance is mine, I think as I turn to stone. 

Elana Gomel is an academic and a writer. She has published six non-fiction books and numerous articles on posthumanism, science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. Her stories appeared in Apex, New Horizons, Mythic, and many other magazines, and were also featured in several award-winning anthologies, including After Sundown, Apex Book of World Science Fiction and People of the Book. Her story “Where the Streets Have No Name” was the winner of the 2020 Gravity Award. She is the author of three novels: A Tale of Three Cities (2013), The Hungry Ones (2018) and The Cryptids (2019). She has lived in four countries, speaks three languages, and has two children. She is a member of HWA.
She can be found at https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/

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