Anger is a Porcupine, Sadness is a Fish

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Electric Spec, Vol.13, Issue 1, February 2018

“If Iassandra’s words could change Dara into a porcupine of anger, a fish of sadness, then Dara would cast her own spell of words.”

The child with a malformed arm, bent like a bird’s folded wing, had passed through Troway Village a year ago.  Now Dara was a traveler like he had been.  Would her old village welcome her?  A prodigal daughter returned?  Or would she be hurried along like the child and his parents had been?

Dara and Iassandra had been the town’s truth-tellers together back then.  When the villagers had come to them, not knowing what to think of the strange child traveling through their village, Dara had sung a song of gods’ blessings, how they bent the unborn child’s arm, marking him and setting him apart as he grew.  She sang that he should be welcomed and taken in, a child touched by a god.

Iassandra had sung of illness, deterioration, and decay.  The villagers had believed her; the child with his god-touched wing had barely made it out of town alive.  Dara had left shortly afterward, unable to stay in a town owned by a poisonous tongue.

After a year of travels, the dusty streets of Dara’s home were the same, so familiar as to make Dara’s heart clench inside her.  She hadn’t known how much she missed her home until she returned.  She passed Corin selling fresh bread, and he smiled at her.  Children ran through the streets, bumped into her, and flashed her friendly smiles too.  She recognized the children’s faces, but they were longer, thinner, older than they had been.  Closer to adults.

At the town square, a crowd gathered, listening to a voice Dara couldn’t make out.  She came closer, listening to hear the news, hoping it was good, but all she could make out, floating above the crowd’s heads, was a hissing, whispering sound.  Dara pressed her way into the crowd, working her way between old friends who exclaimed with delight at seeing her before turning back, hushedly, to listen to the hissing sounds.

Dara couldn’t understand the words, but she felt her skin prickling at their sound; it had to be Iassandra, singing a song of Dara’s return.  The formerly friendly faces around Dara grew impassive, and Dara felt her own face grow numb and strange.  Her back arched, and the people around her moved aside, leaving a space surrounding her, an empty bubble, as if her body were covered in a porcupine’s sharp quills, keeping the people away.

Dara remembered the child with his wing-like arm and how her own song had told him that he would fly some day.  His eyes had shone while she sung.  Then Iassandra had sung, and his arm had become a poisonous serpent, eating away at him.  He would never fly.

A year later, Iassandra was still singing, and the whole town listened to her.

If Dara was filled with anger, it was earned.  Her face protruded into a muzzle, and she spat her anger at the dusty ground.  She would own the porcupine quills growing from her back, bending her into a chimera of rage.

Corin with a loaf of fresh bread tucked under his arm approached Dara tentatively.  He held the bread forth and said, “I’m so sorry.  But you should go.  Take this bread for the road.”

Suddenly, Dara’s rage washed away, knocking her from her feet.  The quills sank into her back, flattening against her and widening into slippery scales.  She flopped to the ground, sadness filling her like a gasping fish.  She had only just returned home.  How could she lose it again?  Must she travel for another year?  And another?  Would she ever come home again?

Corin placed the bread beside her and backed away, not looking at the useless incarnation of sadness she had become.  Her mouth opened and closed, voicelessly calling her pain.

The crowd started to clear, and Dara looked up to see Iassandra, still singing her song, but Dara didn’t see the same small woman that all the others saw.

Dara saw the creature that she had cursed her former friend to be — in Dara’s eyes, Iassandra’s face was framed by the hissing, fork-tongued mouths of a dozen snakes.  If Iassandra’s words could change Dara into a porcupine of anger, a fish of sadness, then Dara would cast her own spell of words.

Finding her voice, her singing, truth-telling voice, for the first time in a year, she yelled, “You Gorgon!”  She yelled it loud; she yelled it clear.  The words escaped her mouth moments before her lips hardened, turning to stone.

But as the crowd heard Dara’s words, as the spell of her voice sank into them, each member of the crowd turned to see their town truth-teller, Iassandra, in the light of Dara’s curse.

Snake-faces hissed, trying to weave their spell, but Iassandra’s words had lost their power.  All she could do was freeze her audience with her own impotent rage.

Stone spread through the crowd, faces hardening, eyes glinting like black marble, all of them staring at the gorgon in their midst.  All of them turned to stone, except Iassandra.

Alone in the midst of statues, Iassandra’s snake-faces snarled and rasped, spewing their poison, but no one heard.

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