Tuesday, October 23, 2007


As far as we in the hills are concerned, the reign of the gorgon began with rumours; and I half believed them, for though the stories had grown more horrible with every telling, yet they had the partial authority of witness. Someone had found the devoured limbs, the discarded viscera: a shepherd perhaps, or a goatherd, stumbling upon the petrified mother, the eaten child. But this was at a time of high prices, when every merchant’s thoughts were with his shipments of grain. Talk of monsters was bad for business: it made buyers cautious and kept out foreign trade. When a messenger ran, bloodied, into the city with tales of fresh horror, some called for a levy of troops to meet the enemy; but these excitable individuals were put in their places. We could not afford to waste time and resources on hypothetical threats from unproven sources.

‘If there is a gorgon,’ an elder said, ‘and I am sceptical on that point, then country folk have our deepest sympathy. But really, don’t come to us that have ridden out plagues and sieges complaining of a little local difficulty. We have enough on our plates not to worry ourselves with mythical creatures.’

At first it was easy to ignore the gorgon: her victims, though ever more numerous, were unknown to us and of little significance. None can gaze on that hideous face and survive; yet it takes a strong constitution to look, not in the gorgon’s eyes, but at the simple fact of her existence. Those who did, and shouted warnings in the streets, were regarded as troublemakers: it was the sort of thing our enemies would have us do. This did not prevent dreamers from thinking up impractical solutions: tinted-glass helmets, or a complex and hopeless device using blades and mirrors. Sceptics viewed such efforts with contempt; the gorgon was a natural phenomenon, they argued, and it was presumptuous to oppose a daughter of Gaia. Others conceded that her depredations might make life more uncomfortable for us and that the only solution was to build higher walls around our villas and to hire mercenaries to guard the hillsides. These things were done; and eventually the tide of refugees abated, knowing that nothing awaited them on the heights save the sharp points of cold iron.

The countryside emptied and famine stalked the city. Another hunger followed; but at first the wails of grief were confined to the poorest hovels. We felt sorry for the victims, of course, but a quick death was preferable to slow starvation and besides, no earthly appetite is insatiable. There were many in the hills that put their faith in our enemy’s indigestion. Yet the gorgon returned, again and again, to ever more empty streets, and soon the serpents on her head were flicking their tongues towards our homes.

For the first time, we in the hills feel directly threatened. Some are indignant about this; others are given to weeping and prayer. Every day we must pay the mercenaries more to keep them from deserting. Naturally, those with the means are looking for ways out; but we chose our hills for the security they offered – the sea on one side, the city on the other. We are trapped in a prison of our own making. Very soon, one bright morning, we will awake to find the soldiers gone.

I look at my children and wonder which will be the more merciful: teeth or stone. That I can write these words does not make them any easier to bear.

Copyright © Gregory Norminton 2007


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