Story

SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS (Part 1)

The sun drove across the sky, and one of Scylla’s heads watched the sea turn into a cacophonous maelstrom thrice a day before deciding that the monarch of Olympians had shown Charybdis no mercy.

i

Scylla was there the day Charybdis was planted in the sea. She sat atop her promontory and watched her new neighbour, in invisible chains, sink. The strait of Messina rushed over Charybdis’ head; her eyes were sun-gold, panicking. She sought breath and found only glittering shards of seawater. Scylla caught her gaze just before the submersion. It bore into her, inflamed with fear, for a moment shorter than a breath—and then Scylla turned her heads away from the burial.

She supposed she would never see those pretty eyes, nor hear from their unfortunate lady again.

ii

The sun drove across the sky, and one of Scylla’s heads watched the sea turn into a cacophonous maelstrom thrice a day before deciding that the monarch of Olympians had shown Charybdis no mercy. Scylla’s new neighbour was not drowned and dead but drowning and dying, gasping for air with a thirst only the sea could slake. Charybdis drank it in with an embarrassing and lusty thirst that Scylla could not look away from.

In scavenging, her fellow faces would sometimes turn to the strait. Charybdis would swallow the incoming tide until the waters crashed together and frightened the gulls into flight. Astonishingly, Scylla saw the tide lose. Defiant of the very moon, Charybdis would drink until the rocky shoals at Scylla’s feet became very shallow. Until they lay exposed. Then she would spit it all up so even with the tide running out the strait would be full of backwash, stinking and stale, turbid and treacherous.

Ships began to avoid the Sicilian coast, kipping closer to the Calabrian shoals and Scylla’s six, ravenous, drooling maws. She was a dainty eater, taking only a mouthful each. One head was always looking at her neighbour, sucking down entire vessels like a glutton.

iii

It was lonely on the Strait of Messina. Two monsters lay in exile there.

Scylla lay draped on her promontory in the summers, pierced by indolence. Her gaze hazy, her mind sullen, her slimy tentacles swirled in the water below. Thoughts crawled over memories like crabs over empty skulls. She did not remember much from before her accursed state. She had been a sea-nymph, a naiad; she remembered two mothers. She’d had long black hair rather than fur, scales, skin, tentacles and a heavy, ballasted body.

A humming filled Scylla’s chest. She did not know what to make of it.

In the winters, storms scourged her. She spread her slippery legs into crevices and clung grimly, heads hunkered down over old bones. As a naiad, she had swum the sea. As she was, she would sink in it. She had no intention of joining Charybdis as a bottom feeder, not merely punished but tortured.

And for what, Scylla thought contemptuously, a father that will not come for her? For a war gods fought in which less exalted beings died? She used that same big mouth to swallow lands and enlarge the demesne of he who shook the earth. Was there anything so futile as filial piety? Where was ancient Nethunsnow? Where had he been as his brother thrust his daughter into the depths? Had Nymphayaetis sung a dirge to her and marked her lost, even as she lay in his embrace?

The hum in Scylla’s chest grew and reverberated through her. A dirge, she thought, and remembered. Naiads sang. She opened her mouth, which had been used for nothing but roaring and devouring, and sang. Her own voice shocked her. Her body was alien; her voice clear as dawn and sweet as honey. Her throat recalled naiad songs: venerated the watery halls, praised their master and mothers, wept for nymphs lost to curses in the shape of gods.  

Scylla stopped abruptly, and looked with all her eyes across the slim channel that stretched between her and Charybdis.

For a long breath, no answer came. The silence humiliated Scylla, and she prepared to never sing again. Then, faintly, a snatch of song… cut off quickly by the turning tide. Scylla could not be sure, but she was greedy with hope. She picked up the melody, and echoed it. To and fro the echoes rang, and continued to ring henceforth.

It was lonely in the Strait of Messina, and heroes had learned to leave the dangers there to the gods. And the gods, well—

Scylla and Charybdis knew the gods despised them above all.

iv

A tentative town grew at Scylla’s back. Poor mortals fished in her waters, taking care not to wander too close to the monster on the rock.

Scylla waited. At length, it happened. A Lady arrived with men and sharp swords to claim the mortals for some mortal king, to take their labour and their fish and give them royal protection. The Lady approached the rock, thinking it was a good place to build a castle.

Scylla was spitting out indigestible bits for days after.

The Lady’s Lord tried to move her as well. Him, she flung out to sea with her reckless strength, and a delighted bark. Charybdis was in ebb, and took the offering.

Scylla lazed in the sunshine, watching fishing boats scudding across the northern strait. She wondered if her neighbour would thank her for the morsel. She let the hum build in her chest until it came free of her, her throat remembering the aubade even though her mind seemed to hear it for the first time.

A naiad, the song said, in the warm waters, tired of listening to her master and her mothers. A naiad, young and strong, went traveling to look for love and freedom. She met a sweet girl with kelp in her hair, whose arms around her neck were a garland of sea stars. But her lover’s arms, though gentle, caged her…the naiad left her, and kept looking. So the song went.

She sang often, but the answers came less frequently, and were muffled. Charybdis, Scylla supposed, had her mouth full. When she slept, she dreamed of naiads with kelp in their hair, and the harsh breaths Charybdis would take if she ever broke surface again. When she woke, she wore a smile on her many mouths.

CONT. IN PART TWO

This story was about: Gender Sexuality

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Nam Perugu is a doctor and writer from Hyderabad whose short story "Liturgy for the Apostate" was published in Chandrayarn, an anthology that went to the moon. She likes to write stories that give her comfort, especially stories with a queer perspective, and she hopes to share that comfort with her readers. Once, she accidentally procrastinated her way into learning a whole new language. To see more of her work, find her on Instagram @poetry.penguin
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