Amaya can’t suppress a wry smile. An item of gossip has reached her. It seems there are those intent on labelling her a witch. Such an archaic term, unused for centuries, its connotation pejorative. Amaya ponders that maybe it’s because she’s an outlier. During that unenlightened age, it was a convenient term for nonconformist women, especially those who, like Amaya, preferred to live alone.
She’s a curator; a purveyor of aesthetics. Her specialty is The Renaissance. For a modest fee patrons can roam her gallery of Caravaggios, da Vincis, and Raphaels. Bold work from over a millennium ago, the world still searching for an identity. Crossing Amaya’s palm with an elusive gold coin, however, will favour you with an altogether more unique experience in her gallery.
A gentle knock at the after-hours door in the rear. Amaya opens it partway, the orb in her palm chasing away the shadow from her cat’s eyes and long, greying hair. Cassian steps inside. The darkness is heavy, the air cool. Raising the orb, Amaya sees a man younger than her usual patrons, hair and eyes raven, brooding. There is an audacity about him as he presses the gold coin into her hand.
They stand before Cassian’s chosen piece: Botticelli’s iconic Birth of Venus. Amaya places a hand on its centre and it expands to fill the whole wall. She regards Cassian expectantly. Previously bold, there’s a hesitation. He appears about to turn away, but then takes three confident steps and leaps into the painting.
Venus is before him, an alabaster statue, hair to the waist. Zephyrus, clutching his nymph, propels her ashore, the ocean rising with his breath. On the sand the guardian Pomona waits, mantle ready to clothe the goddess. Materials in hand, Cassian sits and begins to sketch.
If Looks Could Kill
Perseus had been spending time in Sicily and the Italian mainland. Pasta, wine, caprese. When your father is Zeus it’s a filial duty to oversee operations in the Mediterranean. Not one to usually procrastinate, Perseus was wrestling with this latest assignment, the hit on Medusa. Since he was a boy he’d had an acute phobia of snakes, so that was going to be something of a problem.
Naturally, Medusa’s reputation preceeded her, so the inhabitants fled Karpathos for the neighbouring islands of Rhodes and Crete once word of her approach had been received. For five years now the small isle in the Southern Aegean had been hers alone. Walks on the beach, exploring coves, collecting shells, and a steady diet of olives, feta, and vegetables from her garden. Despite the seclusion, exile had its benefits.
Blue skies, ocean salt in the air. Medusa finishes threading wire through the holes in the butterflies she’d inadvertently turned to stone that morning. Now it’s a wind chime. In her solitude she’d learned to control her power, but still had lapses. A large shadow passes across Medusa’s face, a bird of prey swooping in and alighting on one of the pine trees in the statue garden. One of Athena’s owls. A trusted companion of Medusa from when she was in service to the goddess. Since the banishment it has come to the island regularly.
Someone is coming for you, it says.
Medusa nods, trailing a hand over the owl’s feathers, damp from spray. A few of the snakes get too curious, the owl pecking at them. Perseus, it adds.
Medusa withdraws her hand. My half-brother Perseus? The owl confirms. His quest is to return with your head. The snakes hiss and snarl. Medusa allows a brief smile. It’ll be good to see him again. The owl hops onto her shoulder and they head out for a stroll along the cliffs.
Clear day, crystals of sunlight on the calm Aegean. Perseus has been rowing since dawn. Now he rests facing the island, the tide pulling him toward the beach. Crags scattered with vegetation rise up from the sand. Above, shielded by pine trees, Medusa watches her assassin. The snakes are restless, quarrelsome, as if they already sense his apprehension.
On the ascent Perseus’ sandals send loose rock and gravel over the edge of the path. Turned to scrub and grass at the clifftop, he steps over a fellow Spartan, entombed by Medusa’s gaze, sword and shield still at the ready. In front of him a small house fronted by a garden of statues, silent companions. A breeze stirs wind chimes. From the roof an owl watches Perseus’ cautious approach.
Perseus! Social visit? At her voice he whirls around slashing at the air with his sword, shield falling to the ground. He recoils, caught in her gaze. Paralyzed by his phobia, Perseus stands rigid, eyes closed. Close enough to smell her half-brother’s fear, Medusa traces a finger over his face. I’ve learned to control my power. She speaks softly. So you are not a permanent addition to the garden. Two of the snakes break free of the mass to menace the intruder. As they slither around his neck Perseus faints.
Medusa’s head looks defiant. Mouth and eyes wide open with rage, the snakes twisted and vengeful. Perseus places it in a sack and secures the opening.
You’re taking a risk. What if it fools nobody? Medusa is working on a plate of olives and cheese, holding up occasional pieces for the snakes to squabble over.
It will, says Perseus. It’s his fourth week on the island. His half-sister has cured him of his phobia. In return he has fashioned a reasonable facsimile of her from mud, clay, and pigments. He cannot return empty handed.
The owl will give me word, Medusa says, standing and pulling him into an embrace. Sinewy, the snakes burrow through his hair. They part and Perseus gathers sword, shield, and the sack. On the beach he places them in the boat and looks back up the cliff. Medusa raises a hand in farewell. He does the same.
Six in the morning, mist rising from the surface, the chatter of tropical birds and primates from the dense rainforest flanking their small boat. It’s long and narrow like a canoe, Elliot perched at the bow clothed in khaki, boasting zippers and Velcro and hidden pockets only an angler would wear. At the stern, hand on tiller, Santiago guides the craft through the still waters, as the old man has done for decades.
Santiago maneuvers them into a horseshoe pool off the main river. It’s sheltered by overhanging branches that shed pods into the water. It’s a feasting ground. Elliot baits his line and stands astride the bench for balance.
The first two times the bait is gone, either slyly taken or slipped off. Elliot packs it tighter around the double hook and casts again. This time the line goes taught, the carbon fibre rod doubling in on itself, threatening to snap. Elliot reels and pulls, reels and pulls. Mantenlo tenso, says Santiago. Keep it taut.
The fish is strong, angry. A fighter. It breaches in a commotion. Breathing hard, Elliot brings it toward the boat. Es piranha, says Santiago reaching for the landing net. But Elliot raises the rod too soon, the frenzied ball of muscle arcing at him. Instinctively he holds out a hand, Santiago’s ten cuidado, be careful, a fraction late. With the violent precision of a steel blade, the piranha removes Elliot’s index finger at the mid joint.
Elliot’s mind can’t process what he’s seeing, stalling the shock and pain. The piranha thrashes in the boat, gasping. The disturbance has caught the attention of an alligator on the far bank. Santiago watches it slide into the water. Mantener la sangre en el bote, he tells Elliot, wrapping his hand in a small towel. Keep the blood in the boat.
It wasn’t unexpected. She’d been waiting. At first it was just small things, like water seeping through a breach. An occasional headache, clear bubbles moving across her cornea, shape shifting like a lava lamp. Later, her skin feeling loose and oily, like it wanted to slide off. Then the insomnia. Restless nights filled with echoes of her history. An accounting. Taking stock. Jigsaw pieces of her life falling like confetti into colorful prisms. That was when she knew. It was time to go to the woodlands.
A maze of primordial secrets, forests hold the keys to the truth. Givers and sustainers of life, their trees gatekeepers of the knowledge. She arrived in the northernmost woodlands, where the sky is a canvas for all things celestial; a glimpse of infinity. On a hilltop she looked out over the forest, the moonlight casting silhouettes in black and white. Silent, save for the occasional call of hunter and prey. She sat in contemplation.
The meadow grass was cool and soft under her bare feet. Movements assured and graceful beneath a long robe of sapphire, in her green eyes the wisdom of the gemstone and a promise of spring. Her black hair fell sleek and straight, the moon’s fingers combing it in satin.
Enclosed, she heard the murmurs of recognition, smelled the fragrance of earth and timber as the forest received her into its midst. She wove her way deeper into the interior, the path marked by a thousand fireflies and an owl swooping from branch to branch. They would lead her to the provenance.
This is the place, veiled by a patchwork of interlocking branches, ageless and sacred. The earth hugging her feet, soft as velvet. Above, wisteria vines in their thousands. Purple, pink, fragrance that can be tasted. Smiling, she reaches out her hands and bestows the gift of herself. A double helix hangs suspended, as if a lantern in the darkness. It starts to rotate, the stairways embraced in a dance of life.
With each rotation comes a spray of vivid, falling petals, each a recognition of a life lived; the entirety of her story. Here Ts’ai Lun who brought paper into the world, there Cornelius, final breath preserved by the ash from Vesuvius. And here Edmund, navigator on Drake’s wooden vessels, and there Natasha, swept up in an October revolution. Spent, the double helix dissolves into the night. All that remains is her robe on the forest floor.
It took fifty of the strongest men to pull the two-story structure through the western gate of Troy. The width had inches to spare but part of the ramparts had to be removed to accommodate the neck and head of the impressive wooden horse. The siege had lasted a decade, but now the Greeks retreated back to the fleet anchored in the Aegean, leaving the horse as an offering to Athena. The return of peace.
Jostling, shoving, Trojans thronged to see the powerful stallion, pride restored. They lit fires, cooked food. Wine flowed. The historical event too late for Homer and his Iliad, but a prize for Virgil’s later tales.
Night. Embers strewn like cat’s eyes, revelry now just echoes in the stone walls. Soft thuds as Odysseus and his men emerge from the low belly of the beast and drop to the ground, weapons drawn. Gates opened for the returned Greeks, deception complete. With awe two children are observing Odysseus, believing him to be an emissary of Athena. He approaches them, holding a finger to his lips, bidding silence. Kneeling now. “Can you keep a secret?”
A landscape of mud. Thick, invasive. Like a disease it spreads and clings, fueled by the autumn rains that have pummeled the endless fields of Flanders. Now, with the onset of winter, comes a hardening as the frigid air coats the mud with a shell, until the next thaw once more releases it.
Unforgiving, this landscape. Nothing to redeem the harsh shades of brown and black. Bruised and brooding, the low December sky rolls over the battlefields, resolute in its indifference. Wood frames and sandbags encased in grime as they give shape and symmetry to the network of trenches. Horses, limbs in a tomb of clay, stand forlorn in deep puddles. Just beyond the horizon the charred and jagged edges of Ypres.
No nature’s song here, the birds long exiled by artillery that has gouged the land into submission. Young men, adversaries in a conflict they don’t understand, dwell a hundred yards apart in deep man-made fissures. Tomorrow arrives a counterpoint to challenge the malevolence, the first since hostilities began. Christmas Eve.
Two privates from one of the Welsh regiments were the first to notice. Through the periscope they spotted dozens of small beacons along the top of the German trench. Candles, the tiny flames reaching out into the twilight. Word spread and soon the British trench is abuzz, soldiers queuing to look through the viewfinder with disbelieving eyes. The barrage ceased, a dissonant sound punctures the air. The Germans are singing carols.
The following morning an impromptu and unauthorized gathering, as ragged and weary men from both trenches converge on the sludge and frozen earth of no man’s land. Many remain concealed though, distrustful, yet with an uneasy gratitude for the lull. Men roll cigarettes, make small talk. A German officer breaks open a bottle of Schnapps. Somebody kicks a ball high into the air and a disorganized game ensues. Laughter and handshakes as these men, thrown together as combatants on Belgian soil, cling resolutely to life.
The day after. No more gatherings, the carol singers now quiet. A steady rain has erased the candles. Officers in both trenches bark orders, using their boots to shake men out of reverie. The screech of ordnance as a shell hits no man’s land, sending shrapnel in search of targets. In both trenches young men press hard into the sandbags, their lives once more in the balance.
David Patten is an educator living in Colorado. He was raised in London, England, but has spent half of his life in the U.S. He loves reading and creating short fiction. He is hoping to increase the audience for his work.