Long ago, it was scholars and archaeologists who came knocking on Lengo’s door, asking permission to go search her land for antiquities. Then, after her late grandson Nikolas did what he did, came the police officers and the media vultures. Tonight, it’s one of the fascist scum her Nikolas befriended in Athens, where she shipped him off twenty years ago to get an education. And what did that air-headed boy of hers do? He joined a cult—or, rather, a gang? Whatever their ilk, one of them just knocked on her door hours after dusk, expecting to be invited in.
“Evening, ma’am. I’m Jason, a friend of your late grandson’s.” He slides his gloved palm between her creaky door and the doorframe, so she can’t shut it in his face. “I just sailed in from Piraeus for Nikos’ saranta. Can I come in?”
Countless little voices in Lengo’s mind warn her against inviting the evil in, including the whisper of her late grandma, who’s sitting on her usual spot by the stove, knitting with ethereal thread and needles. Still, Lengo finds it hard to turn away anyone, especially in stormy weather. She has never turned away a visitor. But now times have changed. Jason’s kind has resurfaced, and they’re loud and violent. She’d rather avoid an altercation with someone twice her size. But perhaps she shouldn’t judge him from how he carries himself? Perhaps there’s good in him, still. After all, he did remember Nikolas’ memorial service. The funerals of perpetrators of murder/suicide are lonely events, their forty-days memorial services even more so. There should be someone—even this one—to pay respects to her boy who took the wrong path and lost his way.
So she lets him in.
He wipes his combat boots on her worn mat, bows his shaven head to cross the narrow doorframe, and shoves his gloves in the pockets of his camouflage pants. He scowls at her low-roofed two-room home—the other parts of her once-spacious residence have long succumbed to the storms of the Aegean Sea, and no longer keep the winter chill out. He frowns at the pitiful fire in the hearth and the badly-aged covers on the worn divan that doubles as her bed. One glance at his combat boots, and the cat bolts out of the window, seeking better company in the night. Lengo’s yaya’s ghost wraps up her spectral knitting and follows the cat.
Jason wrinkles his nose at the smells from her stove and her dinner table—reheated lentil soup and yesterday’s bread, with a side of olives and a glass of cheap retsina wine. But he draws a chair and plops himself at the table, expecting to be served.
Lengo reaches into the second pot on her stove and serves him the leftovers of a dish with rice and chicken. She’s saved that for after the memorial service tomorrow, and almost regrets wasting this dish on the likes of him, but it might be worth it just to see the look on his face. He digs in, helping it down with chunks of stale bread and gulps of retsina. Between mouthfuls, he manages a compliment.
“That’s some damn-good pilaf, Kera-Lengo!”
“Thank you.” She sits across him, her back rigid, and clasps her hands on her apron.
“You could say that. From my grandaughter-in law’s side; her grandma taught her how to make it, back in Mogadishu, and Astur taught me. It’s called bariis iskukaris, and I hear it’s a very popular Somali dish.”
He stops chewing mid-mouthful at the mention of Nikolas’ late wife. His hands freeze while breaking bread in chunks. Lengo holds her breath and wonders if he’ll spit it out.
He doesn’t. Instead, he swallows and resumes manhandling the bread, spreading crumbs all over her white table cloth that has seen happier times and much better guests.
“Well.” He shovels more spiced rice into his mouth. “Her kind does have some skill with cooking.” Another mouthful of wine, and his face mellows a little. “It reminds me of a dish my late yaya used to make, from Constantinople. I miss her cooking.”
Several questions crowd at the tip of Lengo’s tongue: Which ‘kind’ would that be? Somali women? Black women? Or women in general? And should she clock him with her trusted cast-iron pan? At least his grandma isn’t around anymore to see what he’s become.
But she’s mopped up enough blood already, after Nikolas did what he did to Astur, and she’s tired. She’d rather not deal with more police questions. The bigoted idiot will eat and snore and attend the service tomorrow, then get the hell out of her home, and back to his dungeon or wherever his kind gather in Athens. So she squeezes her hands onto her apron until her nails dig into her palms, and maintains an icy half-smile. But doubt slithers into her heart like drafts find their way into her home. Did she make a mistake letting him in?
She unlocks Nikolas’ chamber for the night. Her heart flutters when she crosses the threshold, fetching fresh linen and blankets for the bed. She hasn’t set one foot inside after the officers wrapped up their investigation and she got on her hands and knees cleansing the place. Can blood be ever truly cleansed, or will its echoes haunt the years to come, until the very bricks and beams crumble to pebbles and kindling?
He follows her inside, his gaze seeking the beam overhead where the noose was tied, as if expecting to see marks on the wood. Then he studies the now-bare walls. Did he really expect to see all those despicable photographs, posters, and mementos Nikolas brought back home from his time in Athens? Nikolas kept them hidden at first, but they slowly slithered into her home and their life here. Especially those photographs in which he posed with some others with similar ideology with their arms raised. They called that hail ‘an ancient Greek salute’, and they could all kiss her cat’s ass. She knew exactly what kind of salute it was, and what that crooked cross and equally crooked meander symbol stood for. Off into the fire they went, once the police gathered all they needed from the room. The only remaining picture is a photo of Nikolas’ wedding in the town’s courthouse with Astur absolutely radiant beside him. Next to it, Lengo has placed an icon of the sad-eyed Virgin cradling the Infant.
Jason drops his backpack on the floor by the door and sits at the edge of the bed to untie his boots. He’s comfortable in his late friend’s room, as though he belongs here—as though he’s family. But he’s not. Lengo knows little about him, and she doesn’t care to know more. The bed creaks under his weight, and Lengo’s heart clenches to see this stranger on her grandson’s bed. Astur should be there, instead of him, nursing her infant daughter, Lengo’s great-grandchild. Lengo pretends to wipe her already clean hands on the apron, so he won’t notice her white-knuckled fists. He doesn’t notice—to him she’s probably just another barely-literate old widow, grief-stricken and clad in the clothes of past decades. Her black garments and head-scarves have never been fashionable, only practical, the uniform of crones of the Greek countryside.
“If you need anything during the night, I’m just behind that wall,” she says, and shuts the door behind her.
She huddles on the divan, wrapped in thin blankets that do little against the chill, and cries herself to sleep.
Dawn can’t come fast enough.
Lengo starts from her sleep in the small hours of the night with her heart racing. She thought she heard glass shattering—what did that useless cat break this time? Has her yaya’s ghost returned to torment Jason in his sleep? Or was it an infant crying? She thinks she hears the cry of a baby too often these days, the wailing a distant echo just behind her ears—an infant that cries to come home. Nikolas’ spirit, that won’t depart for the afterlife until after his saranta, or Astur’s little girl, crying for her yaya to come and get her and bring her home?
She sits up and rubs her swollen eyes. Somewhere, window shutters bang against the wall at the north wind that whips their shores for another night. All windows are shut and bolted here; where in the Virgin’s name have they become undone at this hour? She puts on her thin robe and her slippers. There’s light coming from under the door to Nikolas’ room—Jason should still be up, so she might as well check there first.
The room is empty. The light comes from the laptop he’s left open on the desk. The bed hasn’t been slept in, and the backpack is gone. Jason left through the open window, it seems, and broke the glass doing so. But why did he slip out like a thief in the night?
She knows she shouldn’t snoop on guests under her roof, but Jason is one of them; she owes him nothing. So Lengo leans over to check the screen on his laptop—he probably saw her long-out-dated flip phone and thought her another technologically illiterate old-timer. He didn’t even bother to password-protect his laptop. His background image shows him in camouflage clothes, with a dog at his side, which looks up at him with clear adoration. She hopes that’s a good sign; perhaps she misunderstood him after all, if an innocent soul trusts him. She browses through his web history, and finds exactly what she originally expected: rants and manifestos over Nation and Culture, and against everything his ilk deems beneath them: refugees, people of color, women, and all the others who don’t rise up to their abominable standards of “true” humans.
But barely a mention of old women. Her skin color and her origin made her dear Astur other to them, but Lengo is nothing. Nobody.
Hah. But this Nobody knows things. The school teacher she was before she became a wife and a mother chuckles. There’s a lesson somewhere in there. But she wouldn’t know where to start teaching it to Jason and the others like him. Thick-headed, thick-hearted, ignorant of the power crones hold in these parts—power held since long before the Trinity and the Twelve. It’s a shame, really, the teacher inside her insists. His writing is so eloquent, so articulate and refined, and yet so vile at the same time. It shows a deep thirst for learning, and yet all the knowledge and intellect that shine through his words are twisted into weapons for his perceived war.
She sighs, and her fingers move to turn the device off, when her gaze falls onto a communication folder with her grandson’s name on it. Her hand trembles mid-air. She should ignore it. It can hold only heartbreak. Hasn’t her heart bled enough? Parents shouldn’t live long enough to see their children die, grandparents more so. But perhaps this is part of her penance for failing her grandson.
So she opens the file. It holds both heartbreak and insight into her grandson’s actions. During the investigation of the murder/suicide, the coroner and the officers discussed motives, their main focus Nikolas’ past trauma from out-living his parents, and the fact he stopped his medication a month before the incident. They never told Lengo their conclusions. Small island, small community, big case that could harm tourism for the coming summer. In the end, with no perpetrator to prosecute, they wrapped up the case and moved on. The victim was just another immigrant to them, that nobody would miss. And tonight, this Nobody finds the emails that they conveniently missed, and they are dipped in poison.
Nikolas loved his wife; Lengo knows as much. He left his former ‘friends’ behind for Astur, and returned to the island of his forefathers to raise a family with her. But now she sees that communication with his ‘friends’ continued, week after week, month after month—messages accusing him of treason and desertion, oozing hatred for a girl who’d fled war and famine for a better future. Stop those pills, they urged him. It’s poison, clouding your vision and limiting your true potential. It didn’t take long until Nikolas’ replies shifted from meek excuses and apologies to deranged rants, of how he thought that his wife stepped out in the middle of the night to copulate with monsters, and of how he feared the child that grew in her womb. Jason only fed Nikolas’ delusions, urging him to leave and come back to them. To him, his only real friend.
The last message in the file, from Jason to Nikolas, is five words in all; five blood-chilling words:
“You know what to do.”
Lengo slams the laptop shut, choking on a sob. If her body trembled a little less, she’d smash the device against the white-washed wall. She jumps to her feet to get out of there, out, to the lashing wind to cleanse her thoughts, and she stumbles on Jason’s backpack. He’d shoved it under the bed, but her foot gets caught on its strap. Some of its contents spill out—a stack of papers. As her eyes adjust to the gloom now that the laptop is closed, she picks them up and sinks deeper into rage.
Some of the papers have drawings, others are print-outs, but all show similar features of a bare-chested woman—sometimes with Caucasian features, but mostly of African descent. Some resemble the frescoes of ancient Minoan ladies, but most of them depict a monstrous face over a voluptuous body, with a wild mane of serpents for hair. The last few drawings show someone in hoplite’s armor cutting off the creature’s head. Interesting how this monster-slaying hero’s features resemble Jason’s.
Lengo’s heart dives for her feet. It’s her fault, isn’t it? She raised her Nikolas with the tales of the heroes of old—Herakles and Theseus, Perseus and Achilles. All of them great men slaying enemies and monsters. But she failed to teach him how, in real life, it’s not always easy to tell which is the hero and which the monster. Sometimes monsters wear the forms of friends. Sometimes heroes come to save one’s life and soul in the form of refugees—the kind of heroes who carry no weapon, only a kind heart. And Lengo failed to notice that he stopped taking his pills, and instead self-medicated with alcohol. Both the grandmother and the teacher failed her boy.
Her shoulders slump, but the knot in her gut reminds her she cannot linger. Now she knows where Jason has gone. Nikolas must have told him about the secret tunnels beneath the old chapel. How did he find out? Nikolas was only there as a toddler, after they laid his parents to rest. She thought he’d forgotten. But what matters now is that Jason has at least an hour’s head start towards the chapel atop the cliffside—the chapel Lengo tends like all the women in her family did before her, since before the Romans and the Ottomans. The chapel with the blue windows and the white walls over the wine-dark sea, and the little fence that encloses a few family graves. Her grandson’s too, beside the rest of their family.
She puts on her boots, her headscarf, and a heavy coat, grabs her walking stick and the flashlight she keeps by the front door, and steps out into the night.
It’s a short hike uphill. A path Lengo has climbed too many times in her life, sometimes for Sunday mass when a priest still bothered to come this way. For funerals too, and for her Nikolas’ baptism. More often, though, to tend to the damages the old building suffers, to whitewash its walls and keep the shutters and door from falling off their hinges. Her feet can find their way even in the dark—they did so in bloody sneakers the night Nikolas died. But tonight the raging wind howls alongside her raging heart and makes every step an ordeal. While she struggles to keep her headscarf in place and her hair from lashing her face, her eyes catch glimpses of the Unseen. Ghostly forms appear hiking beside her: her yaya has returned alongside her yaya’s ghost, and other old-timers Lengo has no names for. The chapel has changed forms and guardians many a time: at one time it was devoted to Poseidon with white marble columns, then to Helios, since it faces East, and then to Prophet Elijah. During the Ottoman occupation, about three centuries ago, some reformed pirate captain of the Barbary Coast dedicated it to Aghios Nikolas, the patron saint of sailors.
Poseidon, Helios, Elijah, Nikolas—all of them trespassers on sacred land that belongs to an Other—someone who’s never left, and remains sleeping in the depths.
The chapel’s door looms open, its hinges squeaking at every gust of the wind. Lengo slips inside and bolts the door behind her. At the back of her thoughts, she’s hoped she’d find Jason in here, paying his respects to his friend’s memory. But no—he didn’t even light a candle. The chapel is empty, filled with the scent of long-burned beeswax candles planted on brass trays of sea sand, and whiffs of frankincense. The vigil oil lamp over the sad Virgin’s painting casts dancing lights at the corners of the chamber, creating angles within angles and turns within turns that shouldn’t exist. Lengo adds oil to the lamp, and checks behind the never-used episcopal seat—as if any of their lazy lot would grace the place with their presence. The trapdoor behind it is open.
So Jason did discover the chapel’s secret—or thinks he did.
She shouldn’t waste a single minute, but she still lights a thin candle and plants it in the sand. For Nikolas. At the edge of her vision, she thinks she sees him as a toddler, sitting in the chapel’s corner. He’s playing with a wooden ship—a flimsy little thing, one of the crafts merchants sell to the tourists in summertime. He goes on and on, weaving tales of how he’s going to have his own ship one day, and he’ll set sail to slay the Mermaid who drowned his parents. And then, he’s over there, by the Virgin’s painting, with Astur at his side on their wedding day. When she looked at him, she saw what Lengo saw: a kind heart and a traveling mind that always crafted stories within stories, so he could endure a world that had become too ugly, too soon.
Lengo wipes her tears, then sheds her coat, pockets her flashlight, and starts the descent to the tunnels beneath, her walking stick in hand. She doesn’t need light where she’s going; she’s trodden these depths often. Her mind finds solace in the absence of light. She doesn’t want to see the surface of the rock around her. She pretends that her fingers do not trace the indentations and the folds on marble and granite. A few sections here and there bear marks of human tools, and others run smooth, as if carved by monstrous, rock-drilling earthworms. She’s heard from her predecessors that similar tunnels run the length of the Aegean and then some, a labyrinth that harbors hidden chambers and creatures worse than a minotaur.
One such monster has chosen to desecrate one of the labyrinth’s holiest places. Deep beneath the island and the bottom of the Aegean, the tunnel opens into a narrow cavern, no bigger than the chapel above. Lengo hears curses, and through the cavern’s entrance the wavering beam of a flashlight creates more uncanny angles. She stops a few paces away to remove her boots and socks. The rock beneath her feet is cold, damp, and a little slippery, and she takes tentative steps forward. The chill sends pinpricks up her legs and into her hips, but also soft vibrations of welcome.
The cavern resembles the Christian chapels that shepherds sometimes carve into the mountain caves of mainland Greece. It has a row of stacidia at each side—those narrow, uncomfortable seats for the congregation, a few unlit oil lamps hanging from the roof, and a single icon painted on the far wall: the Virgin holding the infant. Only this Virgin isn’t depicted as the sad mother. This one is Fury-eyed, clad in black, her face stern and her head wrapped in a dark kerchief. No locks of hair hide beneath it, but a wild mane of writhing serpents. In her left hand she holds the Infant, in her right she wields the Trident. And from her waist down, she’s immersed in a bottomless sea, her great tail controlling the storm.
Lengo bows her head to the Lady of the Deep. She bears many names: Panaghia Gorgona, the Madonna Mermaid. Older ones, too: Tethys, Tiamat, Thalatta. Sometimes Gorgo, sometimes Medusa, hidden in the narratives of great—Hah!—heroes slaying monsters. And this particular ‘hero’ has tossed the place apart as if seeking more hidden passageways, leading to the Lady herself.
“Kera-Lengo? What are you doing here?” Jason’s bark kicks her back to reality. He frowns, and measures her from bare feet to headscarf. His voice hardens. “You knew. You. His yaya.”
She takes another step inside, her back no longer hunched, her shoulders straight, her walking stick of sturdy cedar wood her staff and her scepter in one.
“What exactly do you think I knew, boy?”
His mouth twists, his right hand reaches behind his back—for a gun? With his left, he waves towards the painting.
“That! Nikolas told me everything! He told me how you brought him here as a child to scare him into mindless obedience. How you fed him chemicals to cloud his mind! But he always made excuses for you, painting you as another innocent victim of this monstrous cult plaguing his island. But you aren’t innocent, are you? What kind of tricks did you use to lure him into the arms of that filth? To dilute his pure Greek bloodline into half-breed offspring?” He draws his gun and wings it about, pointing it at everything and nothing. “I told him to take care of the negr—”
“Watch it, boy. Don’t you dare speak ill of my granddaughter-in-law.”
Lengo strikes her stick on the ground. The cavern responds with a low tremor beneath their feet. In one of the side chambers, stored clay discs and tablets explain the number and sequence of blows required for an assortment of outcomes: from soft vibrations to heal, to focused earthquakes that can raise rogue waves against pirate ships at their shores. Lengo’s yaya once told her of a disc with instructions to raise the Lady herself. But that was stolen long ago, and now features in the case of some museum. Lengo hasn’t read even half of the tablets—some alphabets have lost their meaning by now, other tablets crumbled before anyone could copy them. And even if she tried, she’d never remember them all.
Jason scowls. “Your arapina grandaughter-in-law is dead. Why would you care for that more than your own grandson?”
“You know that they never found her body, right?”
“Nikos tossed her off the cliff into the sea, didn’t he? I read the investigators’ report.” He sneers. “It helps to know people in the Force. She’s probably fish food by now. Think of that, next time you cook fish. You might eat pieces of her. Or of her spawn.” He laughs, as if he’s heard the world’s best joke.
Lengo sees red. She knocks the ground three times, more forcefully than she should have. An earthquake builds up in the depths, and pieces of rock crumble to the ground behind Jason. Dust sprinkles their heads, and Lengo forces her grip to remain steady.
“You idiot. You shit-souled idiot. You think we don’t know how your kind often packs together within the police and armed forces? They didn’t find the body because—”
“Because I’m not dead,” Astur finishes Lengo’s sentence.
A steady voice just behind Lengo’s shoulder. Jason pales. Lengo tilts her head as much as her aching neck allows, bone grinding on bone, to meet Astur’s gaze. There she is, her brave girl, clad in Lengo’s old clothes that hang on her two sizes too large, but thick enough to shield her from the dampness of these tunnels. Astur carries her infant daughter on her chest, in a sling made from a colorful silk scarf that survived Nikolas’ rage on that fateful night. The child naps peacefully, thank the Virgin, despite the tremors and the racket.
Lengo glances at Jason, whose eyes are fixed on Astur’s head, and the black kerchief she’s wrapped her hair in. Dark coils escape from the sides, much like Medusa’s serpents.
“But… There was blood up the trail—”
“Because I put those bloody footprints on the trail to the cliff.” Lengo’s gut tightens as the memory of her own Via Dolorosa resurfaces—her hike uphill towards the cliffside across from the chapel, her feet sloshing at every step in her grandson’s bloodied sneakers, her right hand dipped in Astur’s blood brushing against wind-blown acacias and prickly shrubs, and her own shoes in her left for the journey back home. “But first we carried her here, where she could heal and give birth on safe, hallowed ground.”
Astur takes two more steps forward, and her hand seeks Lengo’s hand—the hand with the still-numb fingers after she removed the sneakers with Astur’s blood on them from her grandson’s dangling corpse. And now her eyes mist, her soul overflowing with secrets, grief, and guilt. It wasn’t easy to carry Astur up here. May the Virgin keep them all safe, others from nearby settlements came to their aid when she called them in the middle of the night. The retired midwife, with decades of experience before hospital births caught up with the Greek countryside. Katina, Lengo’s third cousin, who was a military nurse at the Albanian front during WWII. And a few others, all of them old women set on protecting their own from modern-day monsters.
Jason’s eyes narrow. “Nikos killed himself for nothing. His death is on your head, monster. You did this.” Now he looks at Astur. “You both did.”
“Leave my granddaughter-in-law out of this. Yes, I did this.”
Lengo holds her head high and her voice steady, while her heart plummets towards the depths beneath their feet, once those words leave her tongue. She should have known. She should have noticed Nikolas spiralling into delusion, self-medicating. Then she wouldn’t have come home to find him black-out drunk, having burned everything Astur owned so she wouldn’t leave him. She wouldn’t have found Astur on the floor across the room, beaten, bruised, and weeping in a pool of blood and amniotic fluid.
Jason points the gun at Lengo. “This stops here. I’ll restore Nikos’ name, who died a hero, slain by monster-worshiping degenerates.”
“You have no idea how Nikolas died,” Lengo says. “Or how he lived.” Lengo raises her chin and meets his gaze, her heart sinking deeper into a storm. Her boy died alone. Scared. In the dark, thinking himself forsaken. But… would any of this have ever happened without the poison this bastard dripped into her boy’s ears? “So shut your mouth and get out while you still can.”
Jason sneers. “I’m not Nikos. You cannot order me around.”
A breeze against her face. The breath of the goddess? At the far corner of the room, she sees Jason in a corner, his face wet, huddling with his dog. He can’t be more than twelve, but he looks older. And bigger. Lengo has seen his kind during her teaching years: the kid that’s bigger than the others, always goaded to throw the first punch in a fight, always valued only as a battering ram, always mocked if he shows interest in anything remotely intellectual. A scared little orphan, yearning for a family to belong to. But maybe his own yaya died too soon, and his only friend left him. Maybe he had no one to help him find the light.
In any case, that boy is long gone. Lengo cannot help him. The man that he’s become now starts to raise his gun, Astur takes a step forward and stands abreast of Lengo. Lengo moves her stick to her left hand so now both of them hold it. They hit the ground twice, the angle just so to the left, just before he pulls the trigger. The quake startles him, and he misses. The bullet hits the cavern wall an arm’s length from Lengo’s head, then ricochets and hits the Lady’s icon on her left eye. It chips off the paint, then whooshes past Lengo’s head, scraping her right ear, and flies into the tunnels behind them.
He takes aim again, but then a howl rises from the depths. It starts like a murmur within the stone—a soft, healing vibration that waxes to a whine that becomes the wail of an angered deity, rudely awaken from her slumber. What frequency did the idiot’s bullet trigger, to release the wail of the goddess? Is it just her howl, or has she risen, at long last?
Jason falls on his knees, clasping the sides of his head, as if anything could stop the wail from drilling holes into his mind. It hurts Lengo too, but much less so, her own ears stiffened by age and the continued exposure to the Aegean winter’s winds. Astur grunts and lets go of the stick to shield her child’s ears. The memory of blood dripping from Astur’s ears from Nikolas’ beating crushes Lengo’s heart, and fuels her wrath. But Astur shakes her head, and mouths that she’s fine. Then Lengo’s eyes turn to the writhing body on the floor. She and Astur cannot let this pain—or any pain—rob them of their chance.
Lengo marches to Jason, hefting her stick as a woodsman’s ax, and manages a blow at the side of his head.
“When you see your Nazi friends in hell, tell them that Outis killed you!”
He falls sideways to the ground, his eyes unfocused, frothing at the mouth. Astur follows her and manages a well-balanced kick to his jaw. Something cracks. Lengo brings the stick down again and again, on his head, on his back, on his chest, smashing his beefy fingers that move as if to shield him from her wrath. Every hit is a howl in her head and an apology she cannot yet bring herself to utter.
Forgive me, my Nikolas, for all my shortcomings! Forgive me, my girl, for not hiding the tickets I got you to flee from what your husband had become! Forgive me for not being there, when he found them, to take the beating instead of you!
Lengo beats Jason until she’s run out of breath, until she’s run out of tears, until he’s running out of life—until a steady hand grips the stick mid-blow. Lengo turns to Astur, a yell building up in her throat. How dare she deny Lengo her revenge?
In the strange shadows cast by the discarded flashlight, the tendrils beneath Astur’s scarf seem to slither and writhe around her head and neck, like the Lady’s serpents on the wall behind them. The moisture in Lengo’s eyes blurs the two forms, as though Astur now stands in the Lady’s embrace, slithering serpents coiling around the girl’s narrow shoulders, careful and affectionate as a mother’s arms around her newborn.
“Please, Yaya. Let’s… let’s just go home. It’s been forty days already.” A shadow passes behind Astur’s eyes, and she clutches her fussing infant tighter to her chest, without releasing Lengo’s stick. “Enough with the blood. Enough with the pain. Enough with the death. Just… enough.”
Lengo allows her shoulders to relax. Forty days, already… Forty days for a woman who’s given birth to remain isolated from the perils of the outside world. Forty nights between death and the saranta memorial service, to ensure a spirit’s safe passage to the Afterlife. And forty waves to cleanse spilled blood from one’s hands. But where to find compassion in the storm that rages in her heart? She raises her gaze to Astur and, at the edge of her vision, something sparkles: the Lady’s left eye. A reflection of the lamplight on some quartz crystal embedded in the rock? Or has her face mellowed? The great tail of the Virgin All-mother commands the storm, but also calms the waves.
“How can you say this, love? He doesn’t deserve mercy.”
Astur sighs. “For his own yaya, then. For her memory.”
“At least she didn’t fail him. Like I did.”
Astur lets go of the stick. “Don’t ever say that, yaya.” She holds her baby with both hands and brings it closer to Lengo’s face. “She is not a failure. She’s here because of you. You cannot save those who don’t want to be saved.”
But what if Jason does? And she failed to see it? Lengo’s eyes well up. The stick slips from her grip and she drops to her knees, the weight of the world crushing her shoulders. Between sobs, she blurts out the silliest thing.
“He… he ate the rice I made for you! I-I have nothing for you when you come home!”
A soft embrace around Lengo’s shaking shoulders, tendrils of hair and slithering serpents and a cooing child near her arm.
“Then we’ll make more. Come, Yaya. Let’s go home.”
“And what about him?”
“He’s in the Lady’s arms now. She’ll heal his body, as she’s healed mine. But his heart and mind… that’s on him.”
He doesn’t deserve it—nothing has convinced Lengo that he does. But she sighs, and nods, and gets up to roll his body onto thick sailcloth. Then they drag him out of the chapel on the slippery tunnel floor further down, to one of the healing chambers below. If the Lady deems him worthy one day, she may lead him out to the light again. Unless…
Unless Lengo becomes a teacher again. Unless she too takes the long road towards redemption, and she makes the time to guide this foolish boy back to the light. Or, at least, try to. She has many long days and even longer nights ahead of her, but the first step towards healing has always been mercy. Lengo sets him on a cot of riggings, sailcloth, and fishnets, she leans and whispers in his ear the first of his many lessons on monsters and heroes.
“Whenever you see your Nazi pals again, in this life or the next, tell them that Medusa showed you mercy, where you showed her none.”
But she makes sure she takes her walking stick with her, when they start their way home. And she’ll make another one, for Astur. A good, sturdy staff.
Just in case.