Watching him leave, she knows what he will say. Following the trembling raft as it wanders into the empty sea, she can hear the story he will tell, the same story they all tell after they depart. It is the story the bards will repeat until it becomes a part of every story, until her role is cemented throughout history and her name means only one thing. It is the inevitability that stirs at her anger, an anger she wishes would not overshadow her regret. Watching him trace his slow way out of her life forever, practicing the words he will tell his wife, his son, his men, the words she has heard him mutter in his sleep, she wonders why the storytellers never shipwreck on her shores. Why it is only the heroes whose calamity she must mend, whose desire she is called on to tame.
It was not she who fell in love first. She remembers the look he gave her, only a few nights into his term. She understood the danger of that look, what it would lead to and how it would force her role. She resisted for some time, playing only the nurse, doing what she could to keep him alive. He was resolute. Of course he was. Heroes’ appetites are what make them inhuman, the magnitude of their famishing inflates their legend. And she was not ultimately immune to his charms, as much as she regretted falling prey to them. As much as she only wanted to do her duty.
By his second month they were married. It was an empty island so the ceremony was minimal, the groom playing minister, the bride the audience. He insisted on the formality, would have it no other way. And the gods were not yet meddling in their affairs, so there were no witnesses. She wondered how long he would keep the ring, if he cast it off immediately upon leaving or if he would crush it under his boot sole on the threshold of his homecoming. His vows to her were lengthy, yet she knew they would dissolve. Hers were simple and lyrical. She designed them to be memorable, the kind of rhyme that he could never shake off, that would remind him of their truth long after he left and reclaimed his old life.
He wanted a son by her, and eventually she complied. How he would explain away the family, she could not imagine. Love is easy enough to bury from others, and a shared life can be recast as imprisonment, but would he never reveal the children? She would see his face in them for the rest of time, would never cease to be reminded. She would even ignore their pleas to leave the island, to search for their father. She knew that would only bring death.
Watching him leave the island, she hopes he will not turn to give her one final look. When he does, when she sees his tear-stained cheeks in the distance, the frail, inevitable wave he gives her, she can only think of the woman on that other island, the one whose hair is serpents, and for a moment she calls on the gods to transform her into that gorgon, to make that final look they share the one that transforms him to stone, that buckles the raft from under him, that sinks him to the bottom of the deep waters that circle her island, never to disown her, to deny their life, to write her away as a hiccup and her island as a prison. If there is any justice, she is not imagining the vipers and cobras, boas and asps that are being birthed from her skull, that are winding themselves around her crown and hugging the nape of her neck, that are lending her a new story and dutifully erasing his.
Illustration by Keith Pfeiffer