An essay by Stheno the Gorgon, as provided by Marnie Azzarelli
Art by Luke Spooner
“Brave soul, walking by herself in this neighborhood at night,” the passenger in a gray mini-van commented to her driving friend as I crossed the intersection in front of them. They are more afraid of me than I am of them. I smiled, holding my hands within the confines of the dark, hooded sweatshirt I always wore, shivering a little to show how cold I was. It only mattered if they perceived I was cold, even if my breath didn’t come out from under my hood in a puff of body heat.
I tried to walk too quickly for anyone to truly notice. But I needed someone to see. That lady driving home with her friend noticed. She was concerned, and a little disappointed that I would think walking around the South Side at night was a sound idea. Her worry and inevitable twinge of envy were unfounded on me. I have seen so many women like her, all the same, all scared of the endless dark sky that created shadows where the streetlights ended, hiding what needed to be hid from view. It is their enemy, and like all evil, there was an irresistible draw that tried to hide away.
I do not blame them. I was just the same once, but time has a habit of forgetting stories like mine. I walked farther down cracked sidewalks where weeds found new life in every split. The convenience store on Mulberry was open, its fluorescent lights cutting out a rectangular shape so cleanly against the night that the inside of the store looked like a living picture framed in black. The man behind the counter was surrounded by a Plexiglas cage, while more people in sweatshirts and thick coats picked up snacks and cigarettes. I crossed the street before I got too close to the glare, and made my way down the block.
Those women were right to rapidly drive away. The South Side functioned only as a part of town to pass quickly through, especially if you didn’t belong on its streets. Most of the small shops that dotted the road I traveled down were either abandoned or fronts for many illicit practices, and “shady” didn’t truly capture the characters that walked around at night. It is dangerous for even the ones used to the place, but the disappearance of many girls had been its most recent issue. They were always out walking at night, when it was too cold and too dark for any act of bravery. They would be followed as they traversed the block and stolen at the corner, or chased until they were found somewhere else.
I bet that’s why that woman made her comment. The ones who live away from this side of the city don’t understand. While death is the ruler of this tiny hamlet, the ebbs and flow of gender, class, and race change its target. As time passes, predators find a new prey. The next day could prove to be the end of terror for young girls who liked to look at the night sky or buy a snack at the convenience store on their own, and I can only guess at who would be next.
I made it to the corner where the street lamp flickered and faded and found myself smiling through tight lips. The corner hotel was the most beautiful place in the area. Well, beautiful to me. Down in town, the buildings were much larger and grander, and as they grew, the South Side shrank with all the money funneling into the center of town.
But the building I loved wasn’t so fancy or expensive. Shaped like a tall brick box a couple of stories high, its only adornments were the windows on each floor as square as the building itself, and a large wooden door in the middle. A sign hung from a post above it, a large lit square with the visage of a big smiling cat covering it completely. The Laughing Lion Hotel, covered in ages of dirt and ivy, was the only place I cared about in the world. I had never truly gone through its front door or visited the bar off to its side that always seemed busy, and I never dared to slip into its private rooms to witness the many private things that went on in them, but I loved it just the same. Making my way to the corner, I walked by the lovely building, whose two sidewalk trees always covered it up from most of the neighborhood. And as I strode by, I dared to take a hand out of my pocket and raked my long nails across its outer wall, where the moss and grime released the scent of its age. It reminded of a home I missed.
I turned the corner and went around to the back of the hotel, where a derelict building across the darkened alley hid a drug den and housed the homeless where a smashed streetlamp gave them a little privacy. I started down the alleyway behind my beloved when laughter forced me to shake my shoulders and jump back to where the light from the corner still hit.
There is one thing in this world that will always stay the same: a man who wishes to do a woman harm will always present himself in the most ridiculous way possible. I saw his smile first as he tore himself away from the shadows. It was large and white. In a different setting, his smile would charm, cajole, engage, seduce. But at night, it had a different effect. It couldn’t cover his intense smell that radiated off of him like hot pavement. He didn’t seem to have a home indoors with running water, or so he wanted me to think.
That stench no more belonged to him than it did me. His body, tall and lithe, moved closer to mine, and I could truly smell him underneath his clothes. He was clean and sharp. No scent of sweat or years of awful hygiene. When the light fully revealed his face, his eyes glowed deep amber, and I could see dirt smeared on his face. It was all too deliberate–his skin shined beneath the filth, and the cap that supposedly hid his glossy hair was just as deliberate. They were truly all the same.
He barely spoke above a whisper, the sound starting somewhere deep in his body only to bounce lightly off of those perfect teeth. “What a brave soul you are.”
Past the hotel, past the convenience store, past the intersection. I glided, I flew. I could feel him two steps behind me. The scent from the clothes he stole filled my nose. I made it down one more street, only to stop in front of a working street light right in front of an alleyway. It was another perfect spot for him. I beat the breath out of my lungs, let my eyes widen, shook my shoulders, and twisted my head while spinning around. I was the face of abject terror. My sisters would be proud.
He stopped at the edge of the light, and I pretended not to notice. He chuckled again, throwing his voice so it bounced all around me. I panicked a little more and turned away from him. I couldn’t hold it back any longer. My shoulders shrugged and my chest heaved. Water came forth from my eyes, and I made a mewling sound that would break any man’s heart. Inside, I was laughing, and laughing, and laughing. I was so brave.
I knelt, letting my laughter take me to deeper states of despair, the sounds of my choking sobs covering up the sounds of his footsteps from behind. I was so brave to let him come closer and closer, hearing that large smile curl the edges of his lips as he exposed his gums to release the fangs that lived there. Sharp and fresh. Before he could even think of lunging, I turned and fell on him, throwing him into the alley only to straddle his flailing form.
I slammed his steel-strong shoulder against the pavement, snapping it as he howled. I covered his glowing eyes and pushed his head to the ground.
He tried to snap his teeth at me out of anger and confusion.
“You should have known better.” My voice was barely a rasp, age taking its toll. “You must be young.”
He growled and spit, trying desperately to move. He wasn’t used to it. For centuries, he must have dominated and purged the world of beautiful young women. He didn’t know about me. Never could. Only the ones so old they turned to dust knew of my true existence. My true power.
I lifted my hand away and let him see. I didn’t look directly at him, but I could feel his reaction as I showed him my true face.
The face I wear is not real. I peeled it off piece by piece. The full pink lips, a well-shaped nose, round supple cheeks, large doe eyes, all fake. I shook it all off so he could see me.
He stopped flailing to stare, unblinking.
I wondered how long it had been for him to fear. To look the unknown in the face, and know that it was real. I pulled my hood down to let my red hair tumble out in waves that undulated on their own accord, hissing in tandem with the rasp from my throat.
“Mein Gott.” He let go of his façade. The nobleman he truly was came to surface as he threw his arm over his eyes, more dramatic than anyone of this time. His histrionics showed his age. He was hardly 300 if that.
I pulled his arm away with a strength that sobered him as I spoke, throwing my voice into a hollow echo that I knew he could feel through his body. “Do not be brave, mein lieb. I would never harm you.” Although my voice no longer held its strength, my music was still there. It is a music that reminded him of childhood, with rolling hills, and rich dark soil, of kinfolk long gone.
He swore behind his teeth.
He had a music of his own that calmed and charmed women to do his bidding. My music was much more than his. He lowered his arm and gazed into my eyes. He screamed when he took in the full horror of my being. Even to him, a monster, I should not exist. I let him cry out loud. He chose the right neighborhood to hunt in, as a scream in the night would never be answered. As his face turned gray and hardened with the force of my eyes, I placed my mouth on his and took what was mine.
It is a common misconception that these creatures are dead. No, no, a human cannot hear it, or see it, but the immortal’s heart still tremors, its lungs carry the tiniest bit of air, and the blood that largely did not belong to it runs through its sluggish system. They may be strong, and quick, and hellishly evil, but they are just a pest, less than a human, more like a bug.
And they do have souls.
So far down that not even they know of its existence, there is a small, albeit corrupted soul. And as his lips grew harder, and rougher, less of steel, more of cement, I took it from him, and kept it with all the others like him.
When I was done, I slid off his solid body and gathered my face from the ground as he began to crumble into the concrete. Another common misconception. They do not stay stone for long. That would be wildly impractical and highly conspicuous. Sometimes they don’t even turn to stone at all. They only become one with their setting. Some have turned to mud, others to wood, and one even turned to ash, but they all go.
They must because they don’t belong anymore, not when they cause so much destruction. When he was gone entirely, I placed my face into my sweatshirt pocket, and stuffed my moving, angry hair underneath my hood.
I walked back to the Laughing Lion, and into the alley behind it. I went down its full length, averting my eyes from the truly homeless as they slept outside. I found the entrance to the crawl space of my beloved and slipped inside. My home was not very large, but the rocks I called walls and the dirt I called a floor was perfect for me. It reminded me of a home so far from the South Side.
When Medusa was beheaded, I was lost. She had been my rock, so to speak, and while I knew her mortality would get the best of her one day, I still grieved. I left Euryale to drown in her own despair and ran. I travelled the world and watched the humans tear each other apart, but I also saw their kindness, beauty, and truth. They were hidden among the chaos, secret shadows that I needed to dig for, to find in dark spaces.
The owner of my beloved hotel treated me well and let me stay like his father did, and his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father, and so on before even the Down Town was created. He never really talked to me, and never looked at me, but he let me stay. Why wouldn’t he? I did try so hard to keep the neighborhood safe.
Stheno was born in the caverns of Mount Olympus and is the eldest sister to Eurayle and Medusa. She was transformed into an immortal Gorgon when Medusa was assaulted by the sea God Poseidon in the Temple of Athena. After Medusa was beheaded by Perseus, Stheno fled from Greece to travel the world. At some unknown time, she finally settled in the south side of a small Pennsylvania city where she resides in a rundown hotel and protects it from any threat that crosses her path.
Marnie Azzarelli’s short work has appeared in Clever Girl magazine and Marywood University’s literary publication, The Bayleaf. She has co-authored a book entitled Labor Unrest in Scranton, which was published in 2016, and writes plays for local theater productions. She holds a B.A. in English from Marywood University, writes scary stories that only scare herself, and reviews TV shows that keep getting cancelled. Azzarelli currently lives with two cats, two parents, and one dog in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
“Stheno” is © 2017 Marnie Azzarelli
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Luke Spooner