She wakes to the sound of axes. All through the forest around her, sharp over the howling of the wind. The sunshunted by sea-blown spray. Hekate unceasing, and the wind still hot, with no cloud, air warped and darkened. Her grandfather struggling to rise higher.
The Minyae building on the shore, wearing very little and slick from oil and sweat. She finds Jason beside fallen trees stripped of branches.
For Hekate? she asks.
For Hekate, he says.
And what will you sacrifice?
Jason looks around, spreads his arms to show there’s nothing here. No goat or lamb.
Hekate needs blood, she says.
Jason looks out to sea.
Waves white and broken in water turned green. Medea wonders if the sea is ever the same. There’s no sign of her father.
Your own blood then, she says, grabs his arm, shows the cuts on her own arms. She points at him and his sailors. All of you.
Jason nods, and she can tell he’s afraid, which is good.
She pulls out her knife with its green bronze blade and handle of deer horn, carved with the face of Helios. I will make the cuts, she says.
Each will kneel before her and say the name of Hekate, and she will release their blood and chant above them, their priestess. There will be no more mention of weak Athena.
She leaves Jason, walks into the forest with a goatskin for gathering. The Argonauts afraid to look at her as she passes. Turning back to their chopping.
She climbs quickly to the ridge and disappears over the other side, and all is too dry. Another small ridge leading up toward the Hieros mountains, denser forest, gullies and canyons in shadow.
She could live here. Never return to Jason, never return to her father, live only in the forest, away from all others. But there would be no one to rule.
Steeper slope, and she has to walk. The trees reddish in this morning light, all standing waiting, bent and blown, obedient.
The ridge thinning, exposed rock, and she cuts lower across the slope, beneath cliffs. Farther inland, toward larger mountains, where there will be water, dense forest damp and rotting.
The forest will remake her, as it always has. Breath and blood and wind and isolation. The simple act of walking and hearing only her own footsteps. But there must be water, also, and the sound of water, a return to what she knows.
Displaced now, hollow.
Medea runs again, realizing how far she must travel today. The larger mountains and thicker forest not close. And she must not be caught alone. Hittites farther inland, an empty place here, she’s always been told, but those goatherds’ huts belong to someone.
Fear the best way to run, endless fuel. She imagines men with spears running after her, and she no longer touches ground. She’s done this all her life, chased by phantom men. Wearing masks like her father, faceless, soundless, apparitions relentless and always coming closer.
She will find what she needs for Hekate: moss and root and mushroom and berry and bark and rot and spoor and what lives in these places blind and trackless and mute and forgotten.”
Her father a threat from the very beginning, an enemy before she was born. The power of every king balanced by a terrible prophecy. Her father told by his father, Helios, that his own children would scheme against him. Pelias warned about Jason. Even the gods do not like the power of kings. Even the gods would have them destroyed.
Kings always blind. Her father not considering his daughters, believing a threat only in a son. Daughters to him no more than a tool to bind other peoples through marriage. Unwilling emissaries, their will never considered. Soon enough she would have been sent to the Hittites or Egyptians or anyone else and forgotten, never to return home.
Outcast. This is what she has chosen, and it would have been chosen for her anyway. Her father an enemy later if not now, marriage not powerful enough to prevent war.
It should have been her father she cut into pieces, hacking at his limbs, all power gone, but she loves him, too, only because he’s her father. Cruel trick of the gods, to bind children.
Deeper into the forest, and Medea runs without looking back. She knows she will never be lost. She holds the shape of every pathway inside her, the shape of mountains. All felt and known for as long as she can remember. No moss here, no ferns, no cliff faces covered in bright green, no streams with gold, and the trees are not the same, but she would recognize any forest, even if all were changed. And she will find wetter ground here. She will find what she needs for Hekate: moss and root and mushroom and berry and bark and rot and spoor and what lives in these places blind and trackless and mute and forgotten.
On the next ridge she finds spruce, pushes her way through lower dead branches, coiled, snapping against her, and follows game trails down into a ravine.
Shadowed and the sound of wind lost somewhere above. Earth dark, rich, breaking beneath her feet. Steep slopes and she’s sliding with every step.
Cold ravine, outside of time, a cleft in the mountain, one of the silent places where Hekate waits, god without breath. A feeling of being watched. Air still and weighted to the ground and the sound of water sourceless, coming from every direction, even from above.
A place of fear but home to Medea, black earth, black trees, black water, black rock. She descends to where the water tunnels below high banks, roots exposed and close enough for one bank to reach the other. She could leap across.
She kneels here in damp earth and feels the mountainside tipping vertical. She lies at the edge and reaches down where she can’t see, reaches under an overhang to lightless places hidden in root and web and feels for any moving thing, comes up with spiders on her hand, bulbous black and one of them pregnant, engorged. Medea brushes them into the goatskin bag, presses the sides gently to kill but not ruin. Legs moving still, reddish on their undersides, faces hooked and eyes limitless. She finds one pair, looks closer, and finds another and another, a being living in darkness yet covered in eyes. Strange fur all along the edges, fur for something made of darkness and without any need of warmth.
She reaches again through root and dirt and web and claws into the roof of this cavern, comes out with a fist of dark rot and a few small white worms, pale and nearly translucent. Seekers waving in the air, reaching blindly toward the heavens. Then a larger pale head emerging, like a human baby, hairless and slick, as big as her thumb. Reddish and veined, fragile just like a baby’s head, ugly for being so bare and moist. Small black eyes. A yellow pincer mouth like an upper lip swollen in deformity. Yellow legs and a segmented body, black banded below. She has seen one of these battle before, killing a wolf spider that would have filled the palm of her hand.
Most ugly of all that crawls. She must kill it carefully, leave all intact, because she will hold this creature on her tongue as each of the Argonauts comes up to her. They will see her face and then this smaller face and the insect legs.
She pins it down with one hand and reaches for her knife, delicately pushes the point into the back of the head. White pus forming and frantic clawing of every leg, and then all is still.
Monstrosity always near, and fear easy to wake. The Argonauts will be changed tonight.
Medea crawls to a rotten tree uprooted and fallen across the forest floor, dismembered, its meat reddish and tracked and inhabited. Termites, their frail wings. She pinches their heads, adds several to her bag. Her fingers unspeakably large, she tears apart a mountainside, exposes caverns and tubes filled with bodies. Finds what she was looking for, slack black skin of a scorpion pinched into a cavern, tail hidden. Thick arms, brutish. Arms of an infant, fatty, segmented, held close.
How it reached this cavern a mystery. Deep inside the log, pathways too narrow, and what will it do here? Wait in darkness forever?
Tombs in a wall, arranged in lines as if written here, carved into stone, layer upon layer. Some record of a place unknown, preserved by an unseen hand. Order in the world, even in places buried. Prophecy the art of reading these signs. Scorpion among termites, wrath waiting as all is eaten. Prophecy always about decay.
She will wear this scorpion as a bracelet, its legs curling around, and use this hand to hold their forearms in place. Pale insect head on her tongue, black infant arms of the scorpion on her wrist, feel of the knife and vision of blood. They will believe this to be the most ancient of rituals, from a darker past before telling, and they will fear her as they fear their own ancestors.
But Medea knows no ritual is sacred. No ritual ancient. All are made in their own time. No one taught her Hekate’s rites.
Her knife edged in bronze golden from use, dull green across its face. Thick and imperfect and hovering close to the dark low head so flat it can’t really be seen, only a part of the rumpled shelf of body, cradled by thick pincers obscenely swollen.
The termites in panic, dragging their wings, climbing the face of their destroyed home, strange waddling walk.
Blade upside down, carving slowly into the decayed roof above, point nearing the head, and still no movement. Red dust falling on soft black plates.
Medea stabs, and the scorpion arches, pincers thrown wide, tail curved high, hooked, and the floor fails and he tumbles close to her knees. She yanks back, stabs again and misses. The scorpion fast, gone backward, flat curve gliding away, but she stabs him through his midsection, pins him to the ground. He flexes and his tail stings the blade, last spasms, soundless. Pain unregistered, unrecorded.
Collapse of a form difficult to believe. Where did the scorpion come from? Unlike anything else in this forest, born of what dream.
The tail in her fingers still pulsing, wicked point hooked and reddish. She presses it down against the body, wonders if he can feel his own sting. Legs curling in, death slow. Until all is slack, and she slides him off the knife into her bag.
She follows the stream in its hollow, walking ground that could cave beneath her, and looks for mushrooms for the Argonauts, to make them see. She will change shape and grow by the fire, become impossible to locate, a leering image of fear. She plucks bits of fern and moss, finds droppings she can’t identify, spoor of something larger, gathers a few pellets. A sense of being watched, and her breath shallow. Listening, but all is covered by the water beside her. All that would encase coming closer still.
Leaves and needles and old branches rotting. Mushrooms in clusters near the bases of trees and on banks that have fallen away but not the right mushrooms, and she doesn’t know whether she’ll recognize what grows here.
Medea finds a colony of mushrooms on a decayed black branch at the stream’s edge… Domed, bulbous, and so plain looking, a smooth light brown, but these are the right ones. Gatekeepers to the other world.”
She moves deadfall, an old branch, and a salamander kinks and runs toward the water but she’s faster, grabs him and holds him close to peer at that sealed mouth, overwide, and slack throat. Eyes without any depth that can be known, bottomless and vacant, numb even at extinction. Belly and squat legs edged in red, otherwise black, as if all creatures must be this, all burrowing upward from some underworld to wait on the surface or just under. Skin moist and not meant for air, for sun. Half-born.
She presses her thumb at his throat until he yanks and dies, sets him carefully in the goatskin and continues on. It could be that no human has ever walked here before. No path, no sign, no trees cut. Wanderers, and so perhaps no forest is untouched, but this air feels unbreathed.
The stream rises in small falls and pools and the banks no longer overhang, no longer so deeply etched. Rotted wood and rock and moss and coming closer to the familiar. Medea finds a colony of mushrooms on a decayed black branch at the stream’s edge. Perfect round caps on short stalks. Domed, bulbous, and so plain looking, a smooth light brown, but these are the right ones. Gatekeepers to the other world.
The Argonauts will begin a new voyage, she says.
The sound of her voice too loud and exposed. She looks around, waits and listens, but there is only the water, made of a hundred sounds and enough to erase all else.
She takes every mushroom, every stalk and bulb until only white circles remain among the bright green moss, a sign unreadable and seen by no one.
She is running out of time. Far away from the shore, and the sun past its peak. She won’t lose her way in light, but she could easily lose her way in darkness.
The goatskin filling. She needs root still, and berries, but there will be no berries here.
She can’t take the same path back. All her life she’s avoided that, always making a circle, afraid to return for what she might find waiting along the way. The sense always of being followed.
So she climbs toward the sea. Steep and the sky rolling away, the mountain growing. Sound of wind, in the distance at first and then all around her, and she crests, every tree surging, and falls again into another canyon.
She rises and falls without thought, her mind going flat on every journey, return to the earliest form, before language. Only listening, aware of scent and movement. Same as any beast.
From Bright Air Black.
David Vann was born in the Aleutian Islands and spent his childhood in Ketchikan, Alaska. He is the author of the international bestseller Legend of a Suicide – which has been translated into eighteen languages and won several prizes including the Prix Médicis étranger – Caribou Island, Dirt, Goat Mountain and Aquarium. He is also the author of two bestselling non-fiction books, and has written for Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, the Sunday Times, Guardian, Sunday Telegraph, Financial Times and other magazines and newspapers. Bright Air Black is out now in hardback and eBook from William Heinemann and Cornerstone Digital. Read more.
Author portrait © Mathieu Bourgeois Agency