Andromeda

Andromeda
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Photo by paukrus (copied from Flickr)
Photo by paukrus (copied from Flickr)

Andromeda waves her rust-caked chains and screams up at the sky. She imagines her pleas, carried by the wind and spiced with sea-salt, flung into the town, the market place, the windows of houses and the church. Sometimes she even bleats like a goat, though she doubts the townsfolk appreciate the satire. They probably imagine that 48 days on a rock has shattered her mind. Apparently there are small clay likenesses of her for sale in the marketplace; some take them home and eye them furtively, others feel protected by her presence on their sill. Trouble – which might slap at any time, depending on the whim of the gods and the patterning of the stars – has been localised and caged and is no longer looking for fresh flesh.

The blue waters at her feet break and a dark shape emerges. Up rears Ketos the sea monster. He is stoned again. She can see it in the whites of his eyes, which are blurry, as though filmed with green smoke. His roar is so unconvincing that even a passing shoal of fish continue on their path; their buoyancy seems an intended sarcasm. Ketos does nothing because when Ketos is stoned he talks about everything being connected, as though he is regurgitating a watery version of Heraclitus.

Andromeda flings a rock at him. It bounces off his nose, plops back into the ocean. The fish scatter into a firework of cerise and gold.

With a limp flick of his tail, he makes a sulky descent back into the ocean.

She slumps back down onto her rock, on a cushion of dried moss that she fashioned herself. The branches of an ebony tree growing out of the cliff provide a dappled shelter. She examines her body, seeking metamorphosis. Her breasts are stained with sunburn and when she combs her bush with her fingers, it seems an inch longer. Her toenails are dirty; she dips them into the water. Before her imprisonment, she often glanced down at the ocean from the cliffs above her (how curious to think she stood there, in such happiness and innocence, unaware of how her future self would be chained to their rocky sides!) and considered the stillness of the waves. Now she no longer sees the ocean as a calm entity. She watches their bustle: the swim of the sea-thrushes, the flick of the thynnis and tritomus, diving xiphias, drifting pelamis, pinnotheres scuttling with their crampy claws, the batrachus blotted and whiskered, scarus bright as birds against the dull turbot and orcynus: busier than the market place on a Friday. Every creature seems to act with such purpose and fierce intent, exacerbating her sense of aimlessness. Sometimes the salt crystals on her skin glitter as though she is acquiring scales, or her bush looks dank and green-seeped like seaweed. Becoming a monster feels like a boon compared to her deepest fear: that she is becoming abstract, as though one day her body will lose its boundaries, slop into the ocean and her quiddity will become loose and liquid, drift into the horizon, lost and forgotten forever.

Another day, another day. Number forty-nine. End of summer. The cliff shrinking, nibbled a little more. The sun inches across the sea, redrawing chiaroscuros of light and shadow on her skin. There comes a certain point in the afternoon – when the sun slices her into a harlequin and the tide has pulled the waters from her rock – when she feels anchored to her setting, weary with remembering. Incidents which only happened months ago but already feel as though they have faded by too much unravelling, as though she is already an old woman struggling to assert details. Her Mother gave her toy horses to play with when she was a little girl. They would kneel down and pretend to race two beasts across the floor. Just before the finishing line, her Mother would draw her own horse back, allowing Andromeda to win. Every victory was tainted by the look of anguish on her Mother’s face, as though her daughter had cheated. Mother tied ribbons in Andromeda’s hair and told her how pretty she was; she became angry when the ribbons attracted the attention of young men at a feast, and accused her of whorish flirtation. Andromeda gradually realised that she needed to deflect compliments with the shield of self-deprecation, or bat back an even sweeter compliment in return. You are such a beautiful daughter, said her mother; but my looks are just echoes of yours, said Andromeda. You are a better version of me every way, her mother would insist; I am what you made me, whispered Andromeda. I seem a faded crone beside you, her mother wailed; I can be your shadow, replied Andromeda, and her Father rolled his eyes. They were all sitting at Andromeda’s birthday feast when her Mother raised her glass and declared that Andromeda was a very beautiful woman. She sat down, twitching, glancing. Andromeda thought, I am 21 today. I am rather tired of all this. She sipped her wine; her Father rolled her eyes. Her Mother stood up again. She raised her glass and proposed a toast to:

“My daughter – the most beautiful woman in all of Aethiopia.”

 ***

The first reds of sunset. She has survived another day. She combs her fingers through her hair, searches the rock for some seaweed to tie in like ribbons. She waits for the splash of water. She waits. She waits.

Darkness comes, as though the gods above have stoked up a fire and the smoke is seeping into the world. It fills the horizon and blurs the sun before finally blotting him out. It seeps into the ocean and makes the waves, so light in the day, look heavy and turgid. As the air sharpens with evening chill, she begins to feel afraid. How hard did she throw at the rock at Ketos? Surely not that hard? Despair comes, suffocating, refusing to let her live like this for another moment. She considers the sharp rock hidden beneath the moss, imagines its slash against each wrist, her blood making the cuffs shiny and red –

“Andromeda, Andromeda.” The Nereid appears, slips onto the rock. “The most beautiful woman in all of Aethiopia,” she sneers. “Ketos is waiting.”

Andromeda frowns. She feels as though she has been teased, her anticipation now sour with resentment. Which Nereid is this? She thinks her name is Plexare. She releases Andromeda’s chains and pulls her down, down, down into the dark depths.

***

Ketos’s chamber reminds Andromeda of her mother’s dressing room. Pearly oculta zigzag over the walls. A large mirror, decorated with firefly squid, reflects various vignettes as the crabs holding it shift and shuffle: a floor crackling with seaweed, a large double bed strewn with cerise sheets, fluorescent maracas. Andromeda feels Ketos’s playing reverberate inside her before she sees him. He is sitting in the corner, banging his drums. They range from large turtle shells, which bounce against his palms, to the shells of helices, which emit silvery tings! as his claw-tips touch them. Every so often he exhales a small, exuberant flame which flares blue in its core and dissolves into the air. She can smell his sins in the flame; the burning perfume of his drugs.

At the sight of Andromeda, his playing becomes louder. His smile is big and lazy. She pads over to the bed. There is a tray on the little coral table beside it, carrying food and water. Her fingers tingle with the urge to seize the glass and glug the water down in one gulp, to tear at the food like a beast. She sips it daintily, casually. She feels the sigh in her body; the pleasure in her throat is raw and sensual. Tonight’s food is, inevitably, fish – something that looks like a turbot. As she chews on its soft flesh, she muses on how the townsfolk might picture her. No doubt they believe that Ketos is eating her slowly, a finger one night, a toe the next, a slow torture. That, too, is a reassurance, for if he were to eat her in one gulp their sacrifice would be diminished to a casual snack.

Ketos bashes away and croons a love song.

The rhyme is execrable but Andromeda cannot fail to be charmed. His eyes sparkle as he plays, his wings fizzle and his finned tail flicks and bangs on the floor. She sits on the end of the bed, warm and calm now from the food, and clicks her fingers and hums along.

Ketos clambers out from his drums. He is a beast born to glide through air and water and his wings – a billowing grace when he flies – drag behind him like heavy, moth-eaten curtains. His belly is tubby, streaked with crimson; his face chubby and his chin bearded with green tufts that give his smile a shaggy sweetness. She stretches out and he clambers on top of her with great care, apologising as his tail hits the food tray and upends it. Ketos is in the habit of always saying sorry. Andromeda laughs and kisses him. She thinks of Phineus, whose chest was cool and slender, who used to make love to her as though she was a doll. Ketos’s chest, forever stoking up a fire waiting for release, is warm as a hearth. She runs her fingers over his barnacled back, shivering as his forked tongue flickers over her neck. At times like this, reality and dream exchange their substance. A return to the palace seems a nightmare. How strange it would be, to wear clothes and speak lines at court as though in a silly theatre.

***

Ketos leans over to sprinkle some powdered cuella stones onto a white cigarette paper. Andromeda, still airy from orgasms, stares at down at her nakedness, now imprinted with his touch. Greeny marks from his scales; scratches from where his claws became too enthusiastic; a piece of barnacle embedded in her shin; the faint smell of burning from where his fiery panting enflamed a few locks of hair. She imagines her parents seeing her, her mother appalled and her father telling her that her purity has been forever sullied. She smiles.

Ketos’s back is still turned. Sometimes he clutches her tight after their lovemaking, but not tonight. She wishes that she could dirty him too, smear patches of ebony on his tough skin, entwine his tufts with her tresses.

He lies back and sucks on his joint, his eyes childlike, as though he is inhaling dreams. She heard that when the Nereids ran to Poseidon with their soprano cries – “Did you hear the news? Andromeda’s mother has announced that her daughter is the most beautiful woman in all of Aethiopia! Why, she should be a god!” – he hailed Ketos and ordered him to wreak havoc on the shore. Ketos agreed and then never got round to even flying over the cliff. Poseidon blocked his supply of cuella powder and gave him cocaine instead. That night, Ketos beheaded a row of eight cottages, quartered a temple and jumbled divine mosaics into a chaos of colour, killed three townsfolk and set their market area on fire. Andromeda pictures Poseidon with his array of drugs, Ketos his puppet: give him a drug of the right shade and then he can pull the strings. And yet, Ketos’s need to blur the world because he finds it all a bit too much for him, too harsh for his tender heart, too manipulative for his simple ways, is what makes her heart ache when she lies beside him. Climbing astride his belly, she tickles him and he emits a hoary laugh. He offers her the joint. She stubs it out and tears at it, so that the powder tumbles over the sheets.

“Andromeda, you are cruel to me,” Ketos chides her softly.

“When that stupid Nereid was bringing me down to you, I heard some whispers from the others – they were saying something about Perseus coming, and how I didn’t deserve to be rescued.”

Three thwacks as Ketos’s finned tail hits the bed.

“Maybe you should go back,” he whispers.

“You want me to?” Andromeda rolls over, staring at the ceiling. Ketos’s silence is a hurt. She cannot imagine sitting down to dinner next to her mother again, a bracelet tinkling around her wrist instead of a cuff. The rusty scars are stained deep; she wonders if they will always leave faint scribbles on her wrists. Yet she cannot sit on the rock forever. The townsfolk will lose their peace again. They will soon require death to immortalise her. A martyr who never gets round to dying might become rather unconvincing. She surprises herself with the sudden ache to become a Nereid, stay beneath the waves forever, even if it would mean playing to Poisedon’s ego. Then she feels the weight of Ketos’s tail as he curls it over her legs. She leans into his chest and gently strokes the gnarly folds of his wing.

***

She sees the figure a few days later. He is standing on top of the cliff. It is a moment of clever theatricality, for the midday sun illuminates him with a leonine sheen and makes his sword look like the tool of an alchemist. He waves and cries out to Andromeda, but by the time his calls reach her, the wind has blurred them into vagueness, like the words of a child. She realises this is Perseus. She nearly cries out in return but stops herself. Her heart is beating very hard and suddenly she feels dizzy with indecision, for she planned out how she would behave at this point, her careless indifference, yet now her instincts seem to be overriding her intellect.

Perseus attempts to climb down the cliff. She realises there is no time for her to call a Nereid; besides, she is afraid of her secret lover becoming spectacle. She imagines Perseus laughing at him, calling him a dirty old monster; she imagines the waves scarlet.

Halfway down the cliff, Perseus gets stuck. His sword gets entangled in the ebony tree and leaves shower over his head and he makes it all the worse by attempting to wave at Andromeda as though this is all part of the plan. Her eyes water from the strain of trying not to laugh.

There is a silvery flash as his sword falls into the rocks and is swallowed up by the sea. She frowns and curls back into the shade, fixing her eyes on her feet, and does not look up until she feels his fingers – cold and slender – on her shoulder. She looks up. He is so much younger than she was expecting – his face is boyish and open, his smile sheepish, the kind she might see on the dog she used to play with in the palace grounds.

***

Andromeda enters the palace wearing Perseus’s tunic. The palace ceiling once seemed epic, as though remembered from childhood; now everything looks small and cramped. Her Mother comes running to her and she tenses, expecting the slap of harsh words or her hand. Her embrace and tears seem genuine; Andromeda finds herself sobbing into her Mother’s hair in abandonment. Her Father joins them and they hold each other tight. Perseus watches on, maintaining his smile, until his lips seem weary from propping it up.

The water in her bath is as gentle as down. The grapes at the feast are ambrosia. Her Father stands and makes a speech; her Mother watches her very closely, as though anxious that she might vanish into the ether. Perseus makes a speech too. It is very long and details all of the various monsters he has killed, including the minotaur, a chimera and several lamias. When they hear a keening noise coming from the sea later that night, they assume that the sea monster has been slain and is slowly dying, a story that Perseus feeds. Andromeda lies in bed, listening to the wails of his heartbreak and refuses to allow herself to cry. She tells herself that she cannot return to that wild existence, which already seems like a strange dream. This is not a desertion; she is a woman who belongs to a civilised life.

***

A few weeks later, Andromeda stands frozen, as though immortalised on a plinth, wearing a white dress which foams in a long train at the back. The dressmaker fusses around her, snipping and picking and stitching. Her Mother watches, paces about, calls directions, narrows her eyes. She declares that the dress is too ostentatious. Andromeda bites her lip. The world within the palace seemed so fresh on her return. But the changes she perceived were an illusion; history favours rhyme and repetition.

Excusing herself, she hurries to the latrine, gathering up her dress and squatting over the hole. A little of her urine splashes onto the hem. She licks her finger, desperately trying to rub out the stain, which is bright green. The faint curve in her belly is too slight for Mother or the dressmaker to notice yet. The wedding is just a week away; she doubts that Perseus will notice it either. By the time she is ripe and heavy, he will assume that the child is his.

Back in her position, she watches the flash of the dressmaker’s scissors. She considers salt water, alcohol. Then she pictures him, a small green boy with fair hair and turquoise scales, small wings and Ketos’s olive black eyes. Her smile becomes dreamy.

That night, she slips out of the palace. The keening noise becomes more piercing as she approaches the cliff-face. Moonlight is spread across the ocean like a lace cloth. She sings softly to him, until his cries fade and there is a peaceful silence.

Ten thousand men and women from the town and neighbouring villages attend the wedding. The clay likenesses of her sold in the market have been recrafted to depict a maiden who looks chaste and sweet. Several times during the ceremony, she feels their eyes on her and feels like bursting into screams, or laughter, or tears. But she manages to coax her expression into something suitably demure and speak with an even tone. Just before the wedding feast begins, she strides into the kitchen and demands to taste the soup that will be served for the first course. A flick of her wrist and the vial of cuella powder is tossed into its greeny swirl.

Her Father stands and delivers a slurred speech which begins with praise of Perseus and digresses into a monologue about whether it might be possible to grow marrows on Jupiter. Perseus draws out his sword and keeps on attacking his soup, oily splashes adorning his tunic and the clothes of surrounding guests. Andromeda notices that her Mother sits tight and still, for she is a woman who takes little pleasure in gastronomy. But there is enough mayhem for Mother to become distracted, for she rises and attempts to berate the men who climb onto the table and dance, the serving girl who strips off all her clothes and crushes grapes under her feet, declaring that from now on she will only serve Bacchus.

Andromeda picks up her train and hurries outside. In the courtyard, the guards are lying on the ground, gazing up at the moon and attempting to converse with it. At the clifftop, she tears off her dress and hangs it onto a tree. It dances in the wind like a flag, a surrender. She hears Ketos calling her and replies, arrowing her arms and diving into the ocean. The water roars around her, bubbling salt in her lungs, deafening her ears. Then she is being lifted up, up into the bright air and finds herself on Ketos’s back. She kisses his neck and clings onto his wings as he slices through the waves. As the palace becomes a white speck in the distance, they sing love songs, their harmonies plaiting together until their voices grow tired.

Sam Mills

About Sam Mills

Sam Mills is the author of The Quiddity of Will Self (Corsair), a novel which aims to be the literary equivalent of Being John Malkovich, with Will Self as the centre of fascination.The Guardian described it as ‘so outrageous as to defy conventional review’, The Sunday Times as ‘an ingenious, energetic read’ and The Catholic Herald as ‘maverick’.

Sam Mills is the author of The Quiddity of Will Self (Corsair), a novel which aims to be the literary equivalent of Being John Malkovich, with Will Self as the centre of fascination.The Guardian described it as ‘so outrageous as to defy conventional review’, The Sunday Times as ‘an ingenious, energetic read’ and The Catholic Herald as ‘maverick’.

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