BOURBON PENN

Pearls

I sat in the park watching a couple who were, like all lovers, only intent on one another. The girl was a beauty ripe for harvest, her hair a golden sheaf. The boy's desire was visible in the way he kissed her. I felt a pang. I, too, had been lovely once and loved.

My hair made jealous noises in sympathy.

A man walked by and I could hear the furious beat that was piped straight into his ears. His curious gaze slid over my sunglasses and cap, then the sketches on my pad.

I loved the park. It had appeared in my work many times. I liked how it muted the traffic's song and softened the steel and glass towers with a shimmering heat haze. I felt sleepy, and my pencil made loose, lazy marks on the page, but the coils that passed for my hair were invigorated by the warmth. I hissed at them but the serpents twitched and jerked. They refused to be stilled. They longed to creep and crawl, to enjoy sunlight on their scales.

The young lovers were staring at me.

It was time to go, so I packed my things away. Somehow, it was always time to go.

• • •

I lived a quiet life, contained within three rooms. Sunshine flooded in through long windows and fell upon the bed, whose sheets were stained with turps and paint. Alone in my apartment, I could let down my hair to slither, unrestrained. Without the need for dark glasses, my eyes had to readjust to the light.

My paintings covered the walls. They occupied tables and chairs. They crowded out the clothes from my closet. Canvases were lined up in the plate rack. I filled a crate and sent it to the gallery when I needed funds. The pantheon of my former life was resurrected. Hermes riding the Staten Island ferry. The Graces shopping on Fifth Avenue. Bacchus drinking in a Brooklyn bar. Eros pimping in Harlem, wearing a ridiculous fur coat.

I adored the city, but it rarely noticed me. Sometimes I'd hear a long low whistle or the call of freak. I'd even been stopped and had dollar bills pressed into my palm. Either alms for the needy or an invitation to spend a sweaty afternoon in a hotel room. I always declined and went home, filled with difficult wishes, to lie upon my shambles of a bed. When it got too much to bear I'd get up and occupy myself in a fury of oil paint. I'd work until the insomnia and hunger made me weak. Elation made the colours bright and the pictures come alive.

• • •

I watched the night retreat from my window. I stood there until the shops' shutters rolled up to reveal their displays. A rainbow of plastic beads. Vintage handbags with creases etched into the leather. Indecent mannequins in wispy lace underwear.

I felt confined. I needed to be outside. I wound a scarf about my head to keep the serpents in check and selected a pair of dark glasses from the basket by the door.

There was a man on the stairs. He stared at me.

"I'm Paul." His proffered hand forced me to stop. "I've just moved in across the hall from you. I wondered when we'd meet."

I took his hand. After all, I'd no reason to be afraid.

"What's your name?"

"I'm Maddy." I'd forgotten the order of social niceties.

Paul peered into my darkened glasses as if trying to see through them. My hair made chattering noises.

"Did you say something?"

"No," I replied.

"This building echoes. I'm not used to it yet."

"Have we met before?"

"Now you come to mention it, you do seem familiar." Paul cocked his head on one side "Where are you from, Maddy? Where's home?"

• • •

I was out of world and time. I'd sickened of home, my villa full of torchlight, shadows and statues. The mosaics of my courtyard were obscured by mud, where once they'd been swept clean each day. Broken urns collected rainwater. Fine tapestries rotted where they hung. I kept the remains of a silenced lyre, the strings long since snapped, beside the pile of rags that were my bed.

Home was dangerous. Men came with swords and spears, wanting fame and fortune, to feast and fornicate on the glory of the tale. The battles and vigils exhausted me. Arrows clattered on my breastplate. Javelins struck my shield. Sometimes they used a net as if that could hold me. Tall shadows fell on the walls and reached around corners to find me. There'd been whistles, shouts, and the smash of stone as I sent one of them crashing to the floor. The air was fetid with fear. I could taste it on my forked tongue.

The supplicants were worse. They left dishes of milk on the veranda, as if I were a pet. Then there was a tribute. A caged mouse. Ravenous, I shoved the wriggling rodent in my mouth and crunched down. Its lifeless tail hung from my lips. A little death compared with all the rest, but it caused me so much shame that I ran away. I slithered into the dark, my green tail rattling a warning to worshippers. They fled around me into the trees. More than one stone effigy was found the following morning, immortalised in its own horror.

I sought the safety of the valley, home only to thorny bushes and bony goats. I meant to spend a night or two. To find a shaded hole full of snakes and sleep. To lie down without the stealthy whispers of swords being unsheathed. I must have been tired because I slept for over a thousand years.

• • •

"You ask a lot of questions."

"I'm a curious man." Paul stroked his beard. "Have you ever been to California?"

"No, maybe one day."

We'd progressed to the front step of the building.

"You should. The Pacific's terrific. Would you have breakfast with me?" He didn't pause long enough for me to decline his invitation. "Are you doing anything special today?"

"Yes. No." I was taken aback by my own rashness. "Breakfast would be wonderful."

Paul's grin revealed uneven, ivory teeth.

We walked side by side. Paul had the rolling stride of a man at no-one's command.

"What do you do for a living?" I asked him.

"I trained as an oceanographer, but I've done a few different things in my time."

"And what about now?"

"Antiquities dealer. Ancient Greece mainly." Paul smiled. "It's a passion of mine. I've quite a personal collection."

I'd thought all the believers, hunters, and collectors were dead. That I'd managed to outlive them all. If Paul fell into any of these categories, then we should celebrate. One of us would soon be extinct.

"I like lost things," Paul continued. "I was a bit lost myself for a while. It made me reconsider what's important. Reconciliation. Forgiveness. That life must go on once grief and anger have gone."

"What caused that bout of introspection?"

"A woman. What else?"

I snorted.

"What have you lost, Maddy?"

We stopped at a crossing, the crush of bodies at our back.

"Everything," I replied, "everything that mattered. Some things were taken from me and the rest I threw away."

• • •

I awoke in a panic after my millennium of sleep. The weight of the world crushed me. I'd shed my skin while I'd slumbered, and it had become a fibrous shroud. I'd regrown legs instead. My tongue was fused, not forked anymore. My overgrown fingernails had curled over on themselves and broke into strange brass spirals as I clawed at the earth. Villagers now inhabited my burial plot and saw me crawl out of the ground and stumble on unpliant legs. I tried to avert my eyes, but they got in my way. I left the curious ones with more than feet of clay.

I had to find a means to travel. I had to get away. A travelling show was the only way to go. Home became a shabby caravan. Crowds queued to glimpse my reflection. They saw me in the looking glass, stripped to the waist except for a string of pearls. A mass of writhing serpents hung down from my head and covered my breasts. My eyes shocked them the most though. Yellow, the pupils slits, not circles.

It was a living of a kind. It was a kind of life. I'd have gone on with it but for the Lion Man who shook me from my apathy. He knocked on the door of my caravan and asked to come in. He kissed me, unaware of the incompatibility of our species. Or perhaps he didn't care. I didn't either. I had my spectacles on. His mane tickled my face.

"Don't you find me ugly?" I asked.

"You're the most gorgeous gorgon I've ever encountered."

It was my fault.

The Lion Man ripped off his shirt. My glasses fell to the floor. I was thrilled into forgetfulness by his warm flesh and opened my eyes, just for a moment. His erection was stone against my stomach. I was caught in his flinty embrace and had to wiggle free.

I laid him on my bed and covered him with a blanket. I made a bundle of my things. The extra sets of spectacles, spare clothes, my pearls and an apple I'd saved for supper. It was time to go. Somehow, it was always time to go.

• • •

Paul and I ordered breakfast from a waitress who looked timeless in a black dress and white apron. Her smooth, dark hair was twisted into a bun. A waiter was writing the specials on a blackboard while another wiped down the marble counter.

"You never take your glasses off." Paul spoke between mouthfuls.

"I've a rare eye condition. My specialist told me to keep my glasses on."

"I'm sorry." Paul looked at me as though he could diagnose the fault through my lenses.

"That's nice."

"What is?"

"Nice of you to be sorry." I stirred my cappuccino. The cocoa dust mingled with the froth. It looked like marbled paper.

"I love your style– the boots, the dreds, the headscarf. Where are you from?"

"Here and there. I've travelled a lot."

"Like?"

"Europe mostly." I tore open a croissant, scattering flakes.

"Doing what?"

"Painting. Dancing. Idling."

Paul's eyes were fixed on his empty plate. It occurred me that he might be bored. That he might want to leave and I'd spend another day alone.

"Hey, how about I show you some of my favourite places?"

"Aren't you busy?" He screwed up his napkin in his fist. "You must have things to do. Like painting. Dancing. Idling."

The mood had soured. I felt the unexpected sting of tears and was grateful for my glasses. "Of course. We'll go back."

"No," he covered my hand with his. "You can't go back. You can only go forward. Give me a tour."

• • •

I kept moving after the Lion Man. I danced, blindfolded, in a Parisian nightclub. I undulated under dimmed lights, moving in a stupor with all those eyes directly on me. My scanty costume itched. I told fortunes in Prague, my face hidden behind a veil. I was no prophet. I couldn't even see a future for myself but I tried to give solace to the hopeless. London followed with its smog, lamplight and piecework. I stitched gloves in a garret. I wearied of being treated as if diseased or as a victim. I was backed into an alley by a man with a scalpel. Such a dapper gent to be wreaking havoc on the flesh. I slipped off my specs and gave him a long, hard stare.

I was no stranger to brutality, but the old world was depraved. Time to usher in the new. I sold some of my pearls to ensure comfortable passage. It was a long voyage spent confined to my cabin. The ship bobbed up and down in the swell like a bath toy of the gods. I lay on my bed, listening as the water thumped the hull. Poseidon's heart beat in my ear.

The Statue of Liberty was as fine as any titan and it made my heart glad to see her green skin. I slid from the ship into the oily black water, my belongings towed behind me in a sealed oilskin bag. My serpents were limp with hypothermia by the time I crawled onto the banks of the Hudson.

My hate for Poseidon wouldn't abate, but it grieved me to sell off his pearls, one by one. Each was a lustrous story. They'd fall from Poseidon's ears, nostrils and mouth whenever we quarrelled. It was his way of getting me to laugh and make up with him.

• • •

Paul and I sat in the atrium of the Frick Museum, chaperoned by an angel. She was an impassive creature carved in marble, her wings folded high on her back. Sunlight flooded through the glass ceiling. The fronds of the ferns were delicate under my fingers.

"I love it here because it looks like a home, not a stuffy museum." I remembered the Frick family. A cunning clan of robber barons who'd discovered gentility and art. They'd built this mansion overlooking the park. "I can imagine the Frick women sitting here, gossiping."

"You look sad." Paul was tender-voiced.

Sad for my home that was like this, except that my courtyard was open to the elements so that the mosaic floor glistened underfoot when it rained. Water trickled from the dolphin spouts into the central cistern. I'd sit there with my sisters, Sthen and Euryale, sewing and talking.

Sthen would play that damn lyre of hers. She was never very good at it. Euryale giggled as she asked, "What's Poseidon like? Is he more salty than mortal men?"

Sthen tutted and blushed but listened, breath held for my answer.

• • •

I took Paul to Grand Central Station to view the crowds from the balcony. It was a grand ballet. People moved with such purpose that I felt tired just watching them.

"Let me show you the Whispering Gallery."

I'd read about it but had no-one with which to test the theory. I took Paul's hand and pulled him down the long, low steps. The spot was underground. Not a gallery at all but the junction of four subterranean walkways. The space was marked with four corner pillars which rose to meet at the apex of the tiled dome. I took Paul by the shoulders and put him facing one of the pillars like a child cornered for their naughtiness.

"Don't move." I went to the opposite pillar and spoke to it. "Can you hear me?"

"That's amazing." His voice came back to me. "Can anyone else hear us?"

"No, the sound transmits from one pillar to the opposite one, across the dome."

"You're beautiful." It sounded like we were in bed together and he was whispering in my ear.

"Isn't the acoustic design fantastic?"

"Don't ignore me."

"Easy flattery. How many women are you currently trying to seduce?"

"Just you."

"Directness. Good. Are you doing this for money or sport?"

"Doing what?"

"Hunting vulnerable women in search of trophies. Will you take my head for your collection?"

"It's not your head I'm after. And you're about as vulnerable as a bag of rattlesnakes"

"You say the nicest things."

"You don't cut men any slack, do you? Do you forgive or forget anything?"

• • •

I returned home, my tryst with Poseidon in every crevice and pore. There were bloody footprints on my porch, as if a battle fresh army had trampled through the house. I followed the trail back to the carnage in the courtyard where I fell to the floor and howled.

My darling Sthen and Euryale. All Sthen had wanted was for Perseus to notice her. I could see her longing looks at his oiled curls and athlete's legs. Strutting Perseus and his friends had given both my sisters their full attention all afternoon. Then they'd cut their throats and laid them out with their arms about each other, like sleeping infants. Their hair, always curled and pinned, was loose about their pallid faces. Blood seeped from their wounded necks onto their tattered gowns.

And all because I said no to you, Perseus. All because you couldn't have me.

I ran to Poseidon's cliff top house. He held me while I screamed and shook. He stroked my hair and the sea below boiled in fury.

"I want him dead. Kill him for me."

"We can't, my love. Perseus is championed by Athena. On Zeus' orders."

"Since when do you care about Athena? I was one of her temple maidens when you seduced me. On her altar, no less."

"Let's not give her another reason to seek revenge."

"You said you hated her. You called her a battle hungry spinster. Why do you care what she thinks?"

"She's Zeus' daughter."

"So? You're Zeus' brother."

"Yes but Zeus is King of Olympus. There'd be war."

"Zeus would go to war with you over Perseus?"

"Perseus is his son."

"Son." Secrets and nepotism. Zeus, king of philanderers and begetter of bastards.

"We'll have revenge, but we'll have to bide our time."

"You haven't seen what they did…"

"Listen to me, Medusa. I loved your sisters, but we can't do anything. Not yet."

You gods are as treacherous as men. You all stick together. Blood, Poseidon, is thicker than your precious water after all.

So I sought out a goddess where gods had failed me. Hera was Zeus' queen and consort. I threw myself on the ground before her. Hera shushed her sniggering court with a look and stepped down, dainty footed, from her dais.

"Poor dear, your sisters must be avenged." I could see her calculating the gains. A lesson for her errant husband and his illegitimate children. "I commend your loyalty, and I think I can see a way. There's so much anger in those lovely eyes. The price would be very high though."

"Anything. I don't care. Just help me."

"Are you sure?" She held my hand, relishing the task ahead. "We poor, weak women must do what brave men can't. I'll make them afraid to even look at you."

Goddesses, as treacherous as women. You should have told me to go home, Hera, and bury my sisters.

I didn't care what it cost me. I gloried in what she made of me. A tail replaced my shapely legs. I had snakes instead of locks. Their fangs bit me. I lay in the floor while Hera stepped over my convulsing body. I felt the pain with every heartbeat as I waited to become immune. I didn't mind. I felt alive. Best of all was the fury in my eyes. There was no-one I couldn't petrify.

• • •

It was evening, and the summer sky was dark blue, and the moon hung low and yellow over the city skyline.

"That one, there." I pointed to a basement bar, the high stools and tables just visible from the street.

We drank whisky from heavy tumblers.

"You don't give much away." Paul gestured to the barman who refilled our empty glasses. "I know you paint. That you can walk me off my feet. Why's a girl like you single?"

"You make it sound like I'm incomplete as I am." I leant back, letting the whisky drain down my throat. It left a combination of peat and antiseptic in my mouth. I decided to stop sparring. "There was someone, once."

"What happened?"

"He let me down."

"How?"

"He sided with his family."

"It's a mistake, forcing people to chose. Invariably they never chose you."

"Whose side are you on?"

"See? You're doing it now. There has to be a side." Paul snorted into his glass, clouding it up with his breath. "Not everyone has the luxury of choice."

I put an ice cube in my mouth and crunched it up.

"Let's not talk about the past." Paul turned his body towards me. "I bet they're green. The green of glittering emeralds."

"Guess again."

"Brown, like chocolate."

"Nope."

"Blue, then. But what shade of blue?"

Blue as the deepest part of the ocean. That's what Poseidon, god of all the seas, said to me when we made love. I'd forgotten that.

Oh, Poseidon, you were running water in my hands.

"Do you want to see them?"

My dirty, yellow eyes.

"Oh, yes."

Paul reached out to remove my glasses but I stopped him.

"Not here. Let's go to your place."

• • •

My courtship with Poseidon had been steeped in miracles. Marvels were mundane. He took my hand and we dived into the sea, encased in a bubble he'd made. I could breathe, despite the fathoms that fell away. I could see the swirling surf above me when I looked up. Poseidon's kingdom was below. Jellyfish pulsed and throbbed. Rays flapped their fins like wings. Sharks stared at us as they patrolled. We were engulfed in a shoal of silver darts that went as quickly as they came.

There was a huge door set in the ocean floor.

"What's that?"

"A jail. It holds a prisoner that I guard for Zeus."

"Who is it?"

"The Kraken."

The Kraken was a titan from the start of time who had dared to challenge Zeus. The Kraken appeared at the bars, having heard his name. All I could see was a giant eye. The rest of him was lost in the watery gloom. I smiled in sympathy and raised a hand. The eye blinked back.

"I didn't bring you down here to flirt with him," Poseidon chided. "I wanted you to see the water. It's just like your eyes. The darkest shade of blue that the ocean can possibly be."

• • •

Kissing was a distant memory that I associated with gods, lion men and calamity. Kissing Paul was discovering kissing anew. It reminded me of what I'd put away. Poseidon, a god among the waves but just like any other man in bed. Demanding worship and to be worshipped in return.

"Come upstairs with me," Paul clutched my hand, "please."

We started to undress in the hall in his flat, amid the unpacked boxes. Paul's shirt lost its shape as he dropped it to the floor, unable to withstand the world without him. I traced the crookedness of his collarbones with my fingertips. The smattering of coarse hair on his chest.

"Where's your bedroom?" I said between kisses.

"There." He indicated a room behind me with a flick of his eyes. I walked backwards, leading him to it. I pulled my blouse over my head and threw it on a chair. Then I saw the picture Paul had hung over his bed. The canvas dominated the room. A fantasy within a Rococo-style frame.

It was one of mine. A self portrait of sorts. I'd sent it to the gallery as soon as it was finished as I couldn't bear to look at it. I'd remade the city as ancient Arcadia with Bryant Park at its heart. The grass was deep and lush. Trees had conquered concrete and glass. Poseidon and I were postcoital in this idyll. That was clear, not just from our nudity, but from our glow. My head rested on his chest. His arm was around me. He looked down at my head of snakes and yellow eyes like I was the loveliest woman in the world.

"Don't you recognise me, Medusa?"

"Poseidon."

"I've been searching for you. I wasn't even sure you were still alive, but when I saw the painting I knew I'd found you."

"Well, now you have. What do you want?"

"Forgiveness."

"That won't help my sisters."

"Nothing will help your sisters. It would help us though."

"I was just a plaything to you."

"That's not fair."

"Neither's life. You taught me that."

"I loved you. I still do. Why else do you think I'm here?"

I looked out of the window. Distant lights winked at me.

"It's too late. I'm tired. A tired, old murdering hag."

"And I'm a washed up, has-been deity."

"What became of Perseus?" I surprised myself. I couldn't recall when I'd last thought of him. He'd evaded me.

"Hera chose Perseus' bride as a sacrifice. She demanded the Kraken be released to do the deed. The Kraken was more interested in Perseus," Poseidon gave me a wry smile. "The Kraken liked you. He was glad to oblige."

I should've known to leave the gods to slug it out with one another. I felt no satisfaction at the thought of Perseus fixed by the Kraken's slow blinking eye or dangling from its mouth.

I felt nothing.

"Do you really want to see me? See me as I am now?"

A mirror stood against the wall, waiting to be hung. I knelt before it. Poseidon joined me so that we were penitents before ourselves. I unwound my headscarf and took off my spectacles.

"This is me. I've nothing left, not even looks."

"There's still love. Life. We still have those." A pearl dropped from his nostril and rolled to a standstill on the far side of the room. Then another. A third spilled from his mouth. More from his ears. They fell, a percussion of pleading, as they bounced across the wooden floor. "You're beautiful to me. You always will be."

We were reflected in the mirror. A man with a crooked nose and a trimmed brown beard, speckled with silver. A woman with a sinuous coil of dark hair lying over one shoulder. Eyes, blue. The darkest shade of blue that the ocean can be.

"You see? Beautiful."

"Yes," I answered in wonderment. "Yes, I am."


Priya Sharma is a GP in the UK, where she spends as much free time as she can writing speculative fiction. She has a computer but prefers a fountain pen and a notebook. Her short stories have been accepted by Black Static, Albedo One, On Spec and Fantasy Magazine, among others. This year her work will be reprinted in Ellen Datlow's Best Horror Vol 4 and Paula Guran's Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. She is currently working on a historical fantasy novel set in North Wales, not far from where she lives. More information can be found at www.priyasharmafiction.co.uk