Liana Scalettar
Medusa Alone Sweats Salt
New Prose From the USA
"You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she's not deadly. She's beautiful and she's laughing."
                                                                                                                                  --Hélene Cixous, "The Laugh of Medusa"
 
      I trailed my black hair in the water, the water opaque with seaweed. From the water opaque with seaweed I filched strands of plants and plastic and these I plastered to my scalp with wet sand. With wet sand I caressed my scalp and neck and I shaped the strands of my hair into snakes, curls, and undulant waves. Into snakes, curls, and undulant waves I shaped my floating hair. I shaped my floating hair this way with a purpose. My purpose: a Medusan fury, a Medusan glee, intently pursued. I thought that I had never felt such a thing. I lay stretched on hot sand with my snaky curls baking and I thought I have hair I have hair I have hair on top of my head that I will never let anyone take off.
      My grandmother's cousin got a haircut and came home and went into his room and died, just like that, she says. Just like that. I see what comes of taking hair off the top of your head: nothing good.
      I combed white dry sand and brown damp for ornament, for green sea glass and violet shell and stone. For that purplish white striped sea stone, that soft glass. With that striped stone and soft glass I will adorn myself, I will string them like beads through my seastiff hair. I will walk into town head high eyes proud and see people cower and quake. Maybe one or two of the women will see the humor too but I doubt it. It will be even better than Halloween because I'm the only one in costume. And new-minted heat will pour over me and burn my scalp and crust my salted pungent head.

      Before this: I walked in the rain without an umbrella. Not like Gene Kelly.

     I baked and I curled and I salted my hair until it sat piled high in layers, a snaky salty pompadour glinting with bits of shell and stone and dried fish skins. Five layers of viperous curls crawled about my head; one perfect spit curl sat on either side of my forehead. A few tendrils, stiff and briny too, framed my face. As I walked into town a gull shadowed me, had caught the scent of something lodged there in my scalp. I quickened my pace, the gull sped up, hovered, plummeted straight down. As I crested the small hill that rose just before the bay, I felt his sharp claws grasp. As his beak probed behind my ears I wondered what he was feasting on: a tiny dried fish, a bit of meat left in a shard of shell. An early jogger, fathers coddling wailing daughters with ice cream cones, old ladies with necks preternaturally arced like defective swans, boys careening on rusted bikes saw: a woman with unwashed, sculpted, snakish hair, hair with hissing tongues; a woman in a gray cotton dress; a woman with a seagull standing on her head.

      Before this: I walked in the rain without an umbrella. Not like Gene Kelly. And slept. And walked. And cried. And sleeping, walked. And walking, cried. And crying, slept.

     I asked for time off from work at the restaurant, on the grounds that in summer everyone is out of town anyway. My manager reluctantly agreed. I packed a vinyl bag and dragged myself to the train. I had to switch trains to get here; on the second train, tall and red with old-fashioned latched windows, I pondered my walkings, my sleepings, my cryings.

      The early jogger, panting, glanced at the gull; his mirrored sunglasses reflected nothing. Girls with melted ice cream wailed, and the swan ladies sailed off. I walked, head high, eyes proud, hoping the seagull would soon tire of his unexpected windfall. I felt the fabric of my dress press against my knees, felt it as a foreign unwanted thing draped there. Rising heat beat in waves and poured, burnished my scalp and turned its rough surface scabrous. From the shallows of the bay a rifling of wings rose, summoning the seagull, who left his perch. With hissing hair, reeking curls, I walked over the splintery wood to the benches at the end of the dock. I sat on one, carefully chosen because it faced back to the town, such as it was. I waited for when my hours of salting and layering and teasing would begin to have effect, for when I would be gripped by this Medusan rage and jubilance. Ardently almost I waited, sweat etching damp rivulets down my neck and in a fold of my stomach.

      Before this: I walked in the rain without an umbrella. Not like Gene Kelly.

      From my ponderings on the train I had figured one thing: that sleepwalking and nightcrying after a time lead towards death. From the peeling red walls, the begrimed windows of the Jamaica line, I had gleaned one thing more: that I wanted to live. From the grimy glass and its view onto rushed nothings I learned too: that nothingness begets more of itself.
      That I could not remember having felt.

     As I stepped off the train and into a van that would take me to the ferry I reached a conclusion, my first in many months. I resolved to pursue wracking emotions, like those of the Gorgon who killed (according to some) and laughed (according to others), who slew men or giggled in solitude. Or both. I decided to dress my hair with hours upon hours of salt and sun, to arrange it briny, brackish, matted on top of my head. I thought that I would pursue these emotions hirsutely and see what happened then: whether Medusa killed or laughed, whether she was indeed a slayer of men or a lover of women or neither or both. For this I needed an audience.

      I sat facing the town with its general store, its ice cream stand, its rubber raft and sun block and trashy novel store, its liquor. Eddies of heat slammed to a stop against me as the day expanded, opening, and veered to its end. Silverwhite light glanced off glass, searing my eyes; a new seagull came to a stop on a post by my left shoulder. Its beady eye glittered, stonelike; it jerked its neck towards me. I stared back, licked my lips. I ran one finger gingerly over the dried scales and shells in my hair, hoping to arouse some terrible birdish envy. The gull cocked his head and eyed my own, hopped away in a ruffle of disdain.
      I sat still, as I had been.

      Newminted heat poured over me, burned my scalp and crusted my salted, pungent head. Before this: I walked in the rain without an umbrella.

      My snaking waves and briny curls glinted in the light like metal. A gaggle of children clustered around me, not too close. One of the braver, redheaded and translucent, approached in bare feet with a pail and a popsicle. Orange sherbet slush dripped onto her left ankle and overwarm water onto her right; she held her elbows out from her body in right-angled caution.
     "What's in your hair?" she asked from several yards off.
     "Everything," I said. "It's an experiment."
     She scratched the back of her left leg with her right foot, cocked her head gullishly to one side. She lingered a moment, turned, reported back to the others who stood clumped together. She told them that the lady with the shells in her hair is crazy, a mad scientist. I think this is what the intrepid one must have told them. I pictured them in silent congress, all sticky legs and searching eyes; I drifted over and away from this thought in an instant. It wasn’t the children who interested me really, it was their mothers. And some were awkward swans and some were hard and gullish and some swooped and soared and I would never know their names. And all of them, the diffident, the emeraldlike, the brazen, would be my audience that evening.
     Every evening at sundown the town gathered for its main and only social event, sixish. Sixish because of when it began: around six. The rules were strict in town, unvarying. Wear something more than what you wore for the rest of the day. Stroll to the dock carrying a drink in one hand, something summery and buoyant in chalky pastel tones. Stop to greet one or two people and become immensely interested in what they have to say. Lean out over the wooden railings protecting you from the bay and appear absorbed in any small panorama. Invite people for drinks or dinner and receive invitations back; decline them all, explain you already have plans. Extol at great lengths the glory of the particular piece of fish you will grill that evening. When the sun has set, go home tipsy. I waited patiently for sunset and sixish, for the hordes of cottony women to converge on the graying pier. I waited for their husbands, nephews, lovers. I waited for passion. I waited for abandon, for scorn. I sweat and I stank and I waited.

      Before this: I walked in the rain. And waited. The rain runneled glasslike down my hair and face; it screeched, glass on glass. I hummed, perhaps, tunelessly. I sang in the rain.

     Light shaded into dark wheat gold and the day began to wilt. A batch of teenaged girls and boys sprawled around a corner. They leaned into each other, close but separated, like magnets. I wondered what they would ever find to talk about. I noted and coddled the girls' aloof beauty--one with torn jeans and brass bracelets caught my attention. She glowed and jangled. I thought she held herself apart from the others, stood straight up and down, willed it to be so. Thought that perhaps my snakes and stones and silvery scales would enchant her. Knew I was delirious. I reveled in my brackish smell, my scent that a mild evening wind lifted and swirled about my shoulders. Prayed that it would portend. The smell that will mean: an end to waiting. A return to life. I realized that I had a chill, a definite chill.
      Evening. Six, ish. Yellowed orange street lamps, the three or four that littered the dock and the walk leading to it, burned low. The first few people spilled out of the tiny bar that abutted the liquor store, sloshed kirs and vermouth cassis over the rims of plastic cups. They gathered together in small perfect circles as if they were conjuring weather or signaling aliens. Ripples of talk, indolent, insistent. I waited. The early jogger hove around a bend in the boardwalk, transformed: jeans instead of acetate short shorts, wire rimmed spectacles perched in his hair instead of sunglasses. A Dos Equis swinging idly. Beer, unofficially frowned upon in town: okay for dinner at home but not for public appearances. The early jogger likes to flout convention, I decided. My decision made me fond of him the way one is fond of fellow travelers on trains, promptly forgotten. Or trysted with.
      Women began to gather. Among them I recognized one of my morning swans, molten now in a shimmery amber thing and sandals. Another one minerallike, hard, light refracted off her steely skin and glass green sweater. A redhead with paperthin skin, so thin that her veins underneath pulsed in purple, in artificial sky blue--the mother of my morning interlocutor. Sweat pooled and sank under my gray dress which I felt tightening about my legs; the smell of salt rose sour, bitter, and acrid from my scalp. I turned my head to face the garish sun-set bay, hid in shame from my want. Color dropped like a curtain. Voices lifted, carried, rasped drunkenly. A grating tenor--I imagined it to be that of the early jogger--detached itself, strode in arrogance, expounded something. Before its weight alto, mezzo, soprano subsided to a mechanical hum. My fondness for the jogger dissolved in a rush. Again I turned to face the town, my hands clenched to still their tremor.
      I waited for what would come. My heart did a little nervy dance, leapt and flipped and choked me and I took this as the start of tumult. I made of myself a vessel through which the raggiest ragings, the most abundant joy could course, tried to hold myself still and anticipatory. Sweat ran behind my knees and I shifted, disgust at my wrought squalor roiled my stomach. I sat, sat and waited, waited and felt nothing. For a second I closed my eyes. Blanketed the snowy, amber, emerald brilliance before me in nondescript beige. These people were not my people, especially these flighty squawky women were not mine. My experiment would fail for the oldest of reasons, inadequate control of the test environment. I had arrived glass and I would leave glass and I would go on singing mindlessly in the rain. I would rinse and lather my head until the fresh city water ran clear and squeaky. I would catch up my hair in a plain barrette. The stones, the shell, the skin that had shone silver I would stuff in the trash incinerator and burn. I would walk without an umbrella and one day I would bump against a lamppost and break, but then, being glass, it would be the cleanest of fractures.
      "I know your mother, don't I"
      I opened my eyes on luminescence, transparence. Shining clear tones and the welcome stench of human skin. I was dehydrated and thought I was seeing things, knew that you cannot see through flesh to such an extent. Cannot see indigo, false blue, russet veins and arteries; cannot see the bluish redness of blood, water, lymph running. It was the redhead, mother of the translucent girl.
     "Don't I know your mother?"
      Sea glass green eyes prodded me, not unkind. They took shape and turned into eyes I knew. Dropped exquisitely half shut, making me lament my outlandish hair, my bare feet, my anguished look, her hovering husband.
     "Yes," I said, thinking: you know my mother. You know my father. You know my grandparents and my cousins. You know by heart the train I took to get here and the blinding white of the boat. While I know other things, how you wore two thick braids and smelled clean of salt water for a long long time.
      And I crumpled with laughter, laughter that pinioned me flat on the wooden bench in convulsions, raked through me until tears and spit and sweat and the glue of my slowly unraveling hair glazed together and fell into the bay.