by Jim Janus
The full moon cast a gold smudge onto the flat surface of the sea. No wind blew, but the boat cut in a hurry. Its single sail above me billowed as if from a stiff breeze. The captain noticed my confusion and pointed to the canvas. “Of course it’s not wind that she’s catchin’.” He stepped to the mast and adjusted a rope. “It’s the moonbeams that be pushin’ us!”
Such a thing I never heard. In the land where I grew up, fantastic things didn’t happen. It’s why I left. Father urged me to stay, said he’d pay me to keep toiling at the mill. I worked just one day. The next morning I left–for the seaside.
To get to the port town I walked, or when a cart went that way I sneaked on. After a week I reached town and asked for directions to the inn. I stepped from a walkway of wooden planks into a dim tavern with tables of men and women who didn’t turn to look. The host greeted me and I told him briefly about my needing work and a place to stay. He directed me to an empty chair.
At a table in front of mine sat a man and a woman. The woman had a face, young and smooth, like a princess. Her hair was long and straight, and so abundant and black that constellations seemed deep within. Flat on their table was a piece of parchment with some sort of drawing. The man’s fingertip traced along it, as if showing a path. The woman’s head nodded and then she turned toward me; her dark eyes looked at mine, stirring me with a pang of excitement.
Suddenly the host’s aproned waist blocked my view; a pewter pint of ale clanked down in front of me. He found me a job. A sack of messages needed to be brought that night to a nearby isle and distributed by sunrise. If I accepted, he’d provide me a room. He concluded our deal by saying, “The ferry captain will know who you are. At midnight you’re the only passenger.” He resumed his rounds and I hoped to further admire the black-haired woman. But she was gone! So were the man and the scroll.
That evening I was so tired from my week of traveling I slept soundly despite the shoddy bed and the downstairs din of revelers. Before twelve the host’s knocking woke me. When I stepped from the room I almost fell over the sack of messages.
At the dock within the shadows two figures stood by the ferry, one in a long cloak. As I neared with the heavy sack over my shoulder, the cloaked one boarded and disappeared to the lower quarters. When I reached the captain he greeted me. “You’ll make a fine courier,” he said. I stopped and freed one of my hands to shake. His were full. One held a gold coin that he stuffed in his trouser pocket. The other gripped a rolled parchment that he moved to his coat. “I’ll take you as far as the isle. Someone will guide you from there.”
“Who? The man who just boarded?” I asked.
“No. That passenger’s on other business.” The captain continued, “Normally I won’t take someone last minute, but this one,” he patted his pocket, “I couldn’t deny.”
We pushed off and soon, despite the calm, the sail puffed out. That’s when he explained, “It’s the moonbeams that be pushin’ us!” Sailing would take a few hours, according to the captain. So I continued to engage him for conversation, since the cloaked passenger remained below. When I asked where we were, the captain’s eyes became bright as if with an idea. He reached into his coat, pulled out the rolled parchment, and flattened it on the bench between us.
Near its margins, crudely drawn lines represented two bodies of land. Between, wavy lines represented the sea. Among the wavy lines were drawn two small islands. Near one, humps and the head of a sea monster were sketched. I smiled at the captain and complimented the map’s decorative touch. Being very serious the captain said in a low voice, “There’s only one serpent and it protects the first island. The second island is where we’re going. That monster’s only a threat if we sail too close. I’ve heard it said that if the serpent gets hold of someone, for the next twenty-four hours its stays at the bottom ‘til it’s digested its meal.”
He leaned to a wooden box, removed a luminescent dagger, then looked grave. “Take this ‘til the end of our trip.” I took the weapon and said it seemed too small to ward off something so large. “It’s enchanted,” he told me. The two of us became quiet, and he rolled the map and returned it to his coat.
After some time the first island could be seen. It became larger as the boat neared. From below deck came the sound of footsteps ascending. The captain and I turned. There stood the cloaked passenger–the black-haired woman. Through the moonlight her dark eyes looked to mine. Inside me again stirred the pang of excitement. She spoke, but her voice was cold, and dark. “Sail to that island.”
The captain dismissed her request. “I’m stayin’ the course. The serpent would sink us, otherwise.” The woman stepped forward, reached her arm straight toward me, and pointed a wand. My fascination turned to terror, then I felt myself flying in the air, through the dark, and plunging into the cold salty sea. I bobbed to the surface and saw the boat. On it the woman now pointed her wand at the captain, who pulled the ropes, and turned the boat toward the island.
I kept moving my arms and legs to stay afloat. The boat sailed further away, getting smaller. A swishing sound came from the darkness between me and the boat. Not far off–arching out of the water–a hump appeared. First just one, then directly behind it another, then a third. I reached into my coat for the dagger. In front of me a horrible head rose from the sea, it arched high above, then with mouth open and terrible teeth dove toward me. I lifted the dagger and kicked water to avoid the jaws. At that moment, the dagger glowed and I saw on the serpent’s neck a spot that was missing a scale. I felt the dagger pull my arm until the blade and serpent came together. The monster wailed and splashed and once again I was under water.
I surfaced unharmed to see the serpent’s whole length on the water. Its giant, snakelike body lay underside up, from head of horns to tail’s triangled tip. In the calm I noticed I was somewhat closer to the island, so I began to swim to it. As I got close to the island I saw the boat heading away. On its deck stood only the captain. Despite my waving and calling he didn’t see or hear me, or perhaps he was simply too afraid to stop.
I made it to shore at what looked like the only spot for landing a boat. The small beach extended inland, rising gradually to an opening of trees by which was a garden. Beyond it stood a stone cottage with a wooden door illuminated by the flickering flame of a hanging lamp. I stayed behind the trees and walked the edge of the grounds, peering at the cottage from different angles. Candlelight shone inside, which raised my hopes that someone there could help me get dry and warm.
From inside the cottage I heard women speaking. I couldn’t distinguish the words, so I stepped into the moonlit yard and crept to the window. In the center room a small fire of orange and yellow danced in a fireplace. To its left in a chair was sitting a golden-haired woman of great beauty. Her expression showed peace as she spoke.
“I cannot help you, Scylla. I don’t cast spells anymore.”
She was talking to someone near the other edge of the flickering fire. I shifted my feet to see better to the right. It was the black-haired woman! Now I knew her name. Scylla’s dark eyes showed evil and obstinance. “Circe, just teach me the spell. I’m not asking you to cast it.”
My body, still shaking from my wet clothes and the cold, shook even more as I listened to their discussion of magic.
“Scylla, for ages I’ve been banished to this island, sent here for the spells I cast long ago. Since then I kept a vow to Helios to no longer use magic. Soon he’ll set me free.”
Scylla rose and stepped toward a shelf of books, each one tall, wide, and elaborately bound in leather. “Your freedom is what I want for you, Circe. I’ll prove it. Let me remove these volumes of incantations. Surely they’re a temptation for you.”
Circe shook her head. “You’re not getting my books, Scylla. If others use my spells I’m just as responsible.” Scylla fingered a volume and began to slide it from its place. Circe rose and stopped her. They agreed to rest for the night, with Scylla staying in a vacant shelter in the yard. In the morning they’d arrange for Scylla to leave the island.
Before Scylla stepped out of the cottage I returned to the woods, exhausted. I found an area to try to sleep. I sat on the ground, my back against a tree, and faced the yard. The cottage’s glow dimmed to darkness, and Scylla retired to the shelter. I couldn’t sleep, though, for fear of being discovered. My head nodded and I began to doze when a stirring roused me.
I saw, in the yard, Scylla. She sneaked to the darkened cottage and entered it. I crept to the same window I watched through before. A glow from Scylla’s wand enabled her to find the shelves. Book by book she browsed quickly through the pages, until within a particular book she stopped, lowered her eyes, and ran her fingertip across lines of words. She then closed the book, put it under her arm and turned toward the door. I dropped to the ground and didn’t move. Much later I stole back to my spot in the woods.
I woke to the dawning sky–and the sound of pigs grunting. I also heard a woman’s voice speaking in a strange language. I moved inside the woods to get near the yard where the swine were penned. Just outside the fence crouched Scylla, and near her the book leaned opened against a post. As Scylla chanted, the pigs rooted in the mud. When she stopped, she stood up and studied the pigs as if expecting something to happen.
From the cottage Circe emerged, yelling, “Leave my swine alone.” She saw Scylla’s wand lying on the ground and before Scylla could get to it, Circe picked it up and used her knee to break it in two. She rushed to Scylla who had her back to the pen. The two battered each other with their hands until Scylla’s foot slipped and Circe pushed her backwards over the fence into the mud of the pen.
Circe walked to the book, lifted it, and inspected the page. “You think these pigs were men? You’re trying to change them back?”
Scylla stood up from the mud. “Victims from your past remain.”
“Scylla, your failure to change these pigs back into men is because they are pigs and were never anything else!”
“There’s at least one man who still suffers in a transformed state. That man sent me.”
“He deserved it. The men I transformed were men who harmed me.”
“The one who sent me sees it differently. But I can restore him. Now I know your spell.”
Circe unhooked the gate and Scylla stepped out, covered in muck. “Would you get me a pail of water to wash myself?”
“Go to the sea to bathe.”
Scylla was cautious. “I heard also you can poison the sea.”
“Not all of it, but I’m keeping my vow. Go bathe, and go away.”
As Scylla walked to the water, Circe followed. I moved within the edge of trees to get a better view, then a branch cracked beneath my feet. Scylla stopped at the shore and Circe stopped at the garden. Both women turned and saw me. Circe called to me, “Come out and show yourself.”
I stepped from the trees and Scylla’s eyes showed vexation. “But the serpent devoured you!”
I reached into my coat and pulled out the dagger.
Circe turned to Scylla. “You tried to kill this boy?”
Scylla laughed, “You’ve destroyed many young men.”
Circe commanded me to not come any closer but to explain why I was on the island. As Scylla turned her back and waded into the water, I told Circe my story in a few words. I finished by saying, “My name is Glaucus.”
Scylla, waist deep in the water, turned around and taunted Circe, “I’ve learned much from your books.”
Still by the garden, Circe plucked something from one of the plants.
Scylla looked at me with her dark eyes, and called, “Glaucus, come bathe with me.”
I felt the pang of excitement that I felt in the tavern, but a hundred times stronger. I began to walk toward the sea, then I began to run. When I was about to pass Circe she stopped me. She touched my face and her fingers felt warm and soft, her eyes were caring.
As Scylla plunged under the water, Circe moved her fingertips to her lips. She blew the herb with a force so strong that it landed in the sea. At the swirls of water where Scylla went under, she did not resurface. A hump, instead, arched up. First just one, then directly behind it another, then a third. Then the beast disappeared into the sea.
Circe said she could arrange for me to get back to the port town. She also said I could stay with her forever. She let me choose.
I’m still on the island.