“Autumn crocus”: a new short story by David Vann

A retelling of the gruesome story of Medea’s revenge.

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This lavender flesh so soft and impossible and no surface to it, no underside, patterned through. True flower. She would have this flesh herself, no inside and outside, no heart, no lungs, no womb, no blood, no history or home but only pattern of colour and light unending and still.

She unsheathes her knife, bronze face of a grandfather, throat of a brother, cuts flower from source, opens a grove of poison. She expects the blade to melt or hiss, some fear in her, but of course this poison is without sign, without scent, fire in purest, quietest form.

Bulbs plain as clods of dirt. She washes each carefully in a basin, as if they were infants, pats them dry and then slices each in half, severed flesh white, exposed, and slices again into quarters until all before her are in pieces.

Form of a world, form of her life, endlessly repeating.

She gathers them together, nestled in close. Her slave has brought stones for mashing, mortars and pestles, and Medea likes the feel of a stone fist, of pounding and breaking and tearing all that would hold. Jason’s heart is what she would like in her bowl. Stone phallus to smash and rip.

Make this bulb his heart, she says. Hekate, or stronger Nute, let him feel stone. Take all away from him and let him live too long, bereft and wandering.

These women beside her afraid. But let them hear. All is too late for everyone. Kreon has let her stay.

Fibrous mass submerged now in its own liquid, tainted brown from skin and earth. Sound like feet slapping into mud. But not as much liquid as she had hoped. She won’t be able to use flour. She must be more direct, a drink with honey and cinnamon, but why would they accept a drink from her?

Bring stone mugs, Medea says. Ancient. I’ve seen them at the feast. Cups from another time. Bring three.

Aeson and Promachus sitting on the bed watching. Are you strong, Aeson? she asks. Can you carry two heavy stone mugs?

I can carry, he says.

But then Promachus is upset, about to cry, face crumpling in child idiocy.

You’ll have one to carry, too, Promachus, she says. One all to yourself.

And now he’s smiling, giggling, too moronic to be true, but she can’t help responding. She’s at the bedside, pulling them both close, and Promachus is tugging at her hair. Lost, and before she knows it her slave has returned with the mugs.

Dark stone, each carved from a single piece. Black with hints of red like fire, smooth and polished from innumerable hands, thin curved handles too delicate to believe. How this was shaped from stone so long ago none can say.

Medea sets two on the table, and her slave holds a cloth of coarse linen over one as Medea pours. Fibre and fleck on the surface, liquid disappearing below. Medea pours a second bowl into the cloth, waits for last drops, then wrings out linen, last poison. She lifts the mug, enough poison for twenty people, the right amount for a princess or king or husband.

She strains the other two bowls into the second cup and now adds honey, slow sweet undulation. Cinnamon, strong enough to cover any scent. She stirs a drink almost invisible in dark stone. Sweet-smelling, innocent.

Into the third cup, only water, honey, and cinnamon.

Bring Jason, she says. She points to the youngest of her slaves, the most afraid, the least likely to tell. And yet what would she tell? She doesn’t know what these flowers are. Bring Jason, tell him I’m sorry and I understand his new marriage is best for all of us. Tell him our sons have gifts for the princess. Hurry.

The young slave is gone, and the other two stare down at the floor. Clear away this mess, Medea says. Hide every sign of what we’ve made. Leave only the gifts.

Then Medea kneels before her sons. Aeson, she says. These stone cups are heavy, but you must not spill. You must bring these to the princess and to the king.

Aeson nods, gravity of children, odd acolytes to perform ritual without understanding. Mirrors of all.

And Promachus, she says. You will carry this third cup. You’ll wait until Aeson is handing his cups to the princess and king, and then you can drink from yours. Everyone will laugh, but you can drink, and if there’s any left, you can share with your father.

Medea will leave Jason alive. She hopes he will live unnaturally long, and she will give him plenty to remember. He will live today a thousand times.

What if they want more? Aeson asks.

Illustration: Eleanor Taylor for the New Statesman

Medea smiles. I think it will be enough.

She rises to arrange the beautiful dress on the table, the golden funeral diadem, the two cups and the third. All signs of mashing gone, bulb and flower, mortar and pestle. The air bright with day, and she must convince Jason now, become something impossible and make him believe. A test even for the stupidity of men.

Waiting. The boys fidgeting on the bed, grabbing at each other’s hands. The two older slaves standing against a wall, Medea watching the door, and when Jason arrives, his mouth is already open. What is this, Medea? You’ve been told to leave, so leave. Leave us alone.

Strong arms, become a brute from the quarry in Iolcus. She had seen something more in him once.

Medea drops to her knees, bows her head to hide her face. You were right, Jason, she says. I’m sorry. I’m weak and give in to rage too easily, as you know. But I see now what you’ve done, securing a future for our sons. With royal brothers, they’ll have a place. I understand that now, and I’m grateful. You’ve done what is right.

But you didn’t understand quickly enough, Jason says. You made threats against the king and his daughter and against me, so now you’ve been banished, and our children with you. You’ve taken away what could have been theirs.

It’s too late for me, Medea says. I understand that. But not for our children. Let our sons take these gifts now to Glauce and her father. A rare dress of fine linen and gold from Egypt, a diadem of beaten gold, cups of nectar the way we made in Colchis. I know I can’t offer these myself, but let the children bring the gifts, and beg Glauce and Kreon to accept them. Our sons should not be with a banished mother who is nothing. They should be here with you and their new brothers.

You think Glauce doesn’t already have gold and fine linen?

Please, Medea says. She’s found tears, so she raises her face now for Jason to see. This is all I have to offer. Please give our
sons a better life. I love them more than you can know.

Jason in his triumph. Scowling, imperious, the king in him, believing he is owed all. This is his weakness. Glauce his, the kingdom his, so why shouldn’t Medea grovel? All that is unnatural seems natural to him.

Well, he says. My sons shouldn’t suffer because of their mother.

 

****

 

They leave in a kind of procession, led by Jason. Aeson and Promachus bearing the stone cups, careful and proud, two slaves holding the dress as if it were a body lying in the air, third slave holding the diadem outspread like wings. Funerary wedding procession.

Medea left alone. Another threshold crossed, as when she first aided Jason against the bulls or sliced her brother’s throat. No part of Medea’s life may be undone. Each action of hers remains forever. Pelias will not be made young. These cups of poison cannot mean nothing.

She fills a goatskin with water, wraps dates and bread in coarse linen. They will need enough food and water to reach Athens, but they must also travel quickly. Only a few hours to get away from Korinth before Glauce and Kreon will begin to burn.

Medea will be dragging her sons. They won’t want to go, won’t understand, and she’ll have blood again on her hands from their wrists. She’ll take the main path at first, to move quickly, and when she hears the cries from town, she’ll lead her sons into wilderness, into this world too large where any may be lost. They’ll follow the coast until they reach Aegeus, and she’ll offer him her younger body, bear new children for another king, enslaved again, but what other choice does she have? The kingdom of Medea is without subjects, without land, without reference.

Hekate guide me, Medea says. More powerful Nute. Shape some future I cannot see. Find some new kingdom, sever me from all that has come before. Let me rule and not
be ruled.

A life of blood. No doubt she will need to kill Aegeus, too, or someone else in Athens, and more blood after. If she rules as king, it will be far away and many years from now. Somehow she knows that. She understands that her kingdom will not be won easily, understands that all are against her. Women of Korinth. They watched and did nothing, and so Medea would see them burn before she leaves, the entire city razed, all its brick soldiers, all its wealth and pride. The citizens of Iolcus, too, should have paid, and the stupid subjects of Cyzicus, who accepted a nothing man as their next king. She would be a wrath much larger. She would decimate all. And she wonders why this is. Rage, but others feel rage. The difference in her is that nothing will hold her back. She will do what is monstrous, because monstrous is only the absence of a lie, the great lie of what we are to each other, wife and husband, daughter and father, sister and brother, subject and king. In the absence of that lie, a great freedom, any action possible. She will feel nothing after the death of Glauce and Kreon. She could have eaten that stew of Pelias and the ram.

Her slaves return.

Where are my sons?

The oldest slave steps forward, head bowed, afraid. They are playing with the princess. We thought you’d be pleased. At first she wouldn’t see them, but Jason made her come out, and then she was delighted.

You were supposed to return with my sons. What have you done?

The slave drops to her knees. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. We thought this was what you wanted. She and the king have agreed to let your sons stay here in Korinth. This is what you wanted.

Medea slaps her slave as hard as she can. You stupid fool. Bring my sons back to me.

This woman shrinks away in pain and fear, worthless, mute.

Did they drink? Medea demands. Glauce and Kreon, did they drink from the cups?

Yes, the youngest slave says, stepping forward, shielding the woman Medea has slapped. A daughter defending her mother. Medea sees that now. Your oldest gave cups to Kreon and Glauce, and the little one, Promachus, drank from his. Little face disappearing in honey and cinnamon, pouring all down the front of him. Everyone laughed. There’s nothing better he could have done to make all love him.

And then they drank?

Yes, they drank the nectar. The king said it had something strange he’d never tasted before. The princess said it tasted like a flower, like a scent, a drink you could smell more than taste, and she kept drinking more, trying to find that scent and name it. And then she changed into the dress and diadem and looked so beautiful, so foreign, and all said so.

Was Jason delighted? Did he find her beautiful?

No answer to that. Only fear as the slaves watch Medea. And this is right. All should fear her.

Bring my sons back now, Medea says. Hurry.

But we thought you wanted them to stay with the princess.

Medea strikes the younger slave now. Would any mother send her children away? And to her husband’s new fuck-toy? How stupid can you be? Bring them back now, or I slit your own mother’s throat with this knife.

But what can I tell the princess?

Tell her I want to say goodbye to my children. And then I’ll be gone. All can forget me.

 

****

 

Too long waiting. Her sons not returned. Goatskin of water slung over her shoulder, and food for the journey to Athens, but time is what they need most. They must be outside the city before the poison begins to work.

Glauce spinning somewhere in her new dress, and Medea’s children chasing the hem, laughing and running round and round in idiotic delight. She can see their open mouths, and Promachus tucking his neck, trying to be cute. Her three men all fighting for the love of young Glauce. Jason believing he will have all: kingdom, flesh, more sons.

So much poison, far more than needed. It will act soon. Glauce falling as she spins, and clutching at her throat. Heavy golden sun around her neck, fire woven. She will say she’s burning, and Jason will not see flame. The air without sign. Burning, she’ll insist, as if fire could take new form. She’ll clutch at her head, at that funeral diadem of long golden petals, hammered suns, and her slaves won’t know what to do. She’ll want water, want to throw herself into a well, but the poison will bend her, drop her to the ground, deep cramp and pain, bound
by golden rope. She’ll turn to liquid, void her bowels and vomit and bleed and sweat, the dress no longer white or pure, and her father will rush to her, collapse over her body and the burning will engulf him, too, rare contagion from air or wrath of gods without reason. Beautiful, innocent Glauce and her good father, mild Kreon, caught in some inferno without cause. But then they’ll remember the drink, honey and cinnamon and something else, rare flower, and Medea hopes they have enough time before death to think of the first wife.

But her children still are not returned to her, young slave not believing what Medea will do. Her mother knelt on this floor and Medea’s hand on her knife.

Where are my children! she demands.
She can’t be in this room any longer, rushes into the street and hears cries from the citadel. So it has begun. No time for escape. She won’t leave without her children. Stone walls, city grown too large, guards everywhere.

Aeson! she screams. Promachus! The women of Korinth watching her, hearing the cries from the citadel, guards watching also. All have stopped, a day that will never be forgotten. Shriek of a princess burning, sound of fear, voice of a terrified king too high, shouts of slaves helpless. Humans become birds, voices lost together. Medea the still point, a centre to which all are about to collapse.

The young slave, running, a child herself pulling children. Medea watches her forever. Long hair swinging side to side, feet high over the stones and seeming never to touch, sun and shadow in flashes until it’s unclear which is absence, and she never comes closer. Medea’s sons stumbling behind, yanked by their thin arms, and unmoving. Guards beyond, shafts of spears and dull bronze, shields turning in some breeze like leaves. World bursting, made too full, too much weight for any surface to hold. Medea sinking into stone.

Sound rising behind her. More spears and shields, but she cannot turn to look, can only wait for her sons. So small and unlikely, pulled through air in odd twists as if they might fly if not caught by a wrist, insubstantial, bodies not held to the earth. Grotesque faces of giants at their backs, gaining, reaching, faces carved by helmets into slats and mouths bare and animal.

My children, Medea says, and is able to raise her hand through air too heavy, meets them as they collide against her, bodies too soft, hearts beating, heat and sweat and scent and crying, frightened.

Spears from every side, air lanced by shaft and point. She hugs her sons close, would pull them inside her ribs, but she is too soft and they are too soft. They will be skewered and held aloft, her babies. My children, she says, and every spear-arm pulled back, ready now to thrust, the circle closing, world of men.

Medea’s hand on Aeson’s cheek, and she lifts his chin, pulls him against her breast, unsheathes her knife, hugs him tight as she slices the blade across his throat.

Hot blood on her hands, Aeson jerking against her side, and she presses her forehead to his, looks into the last of his eyes, her baby. Panic and pain. Don’t be afraid, she says. Feels his body slack, blood slowing, no longer pouring out, no longer fighting, calming, and she must let him fall away from her. From breast on to stone, body unstrung, lying on his side so peacefully in deep red blood, a colour so rich in this light, without shadow, and she holds Promachus now, who is crying and struggling, but she lifts his face to hers, kisses him as the blade cuts through, holds him tight to let him know he is not alone, is loved, puts her cheek against his for last warmth. His hands scratching at her, punching her, but she clings to him, keeps him safe.

My children, she says. My babies. She keeps Promachus pressed close, reaches down for Aeson, holds both of them, her face in their hair, breathing them. She would stay like this forever now. There is nothing left, nowhere else to go. Nute, she says. Bring night, endless night. Let there never be day again. Swallow this world.

But the guards come closer. Not enough for them, not enough what she has lost. Animals! she screams. She pulls back Aeson’s head, fills her mouth with blood from his throat, spits it at the guards. Let them be covered in her children’s blood.

They step back, and she drinks again, lurches forward and sprays the air to turn it dark. Bright air black.

They fall away, these coward men, retreat with their spears. Medea, broken king, dragging her sons over the earth, one in each fist, mouth filled with their blood. Form of fear, earth-god unnamed. Jason won’t dare follow. None will follow.  Beyond human law, at war with the sun.

David Vann’s new novel, “Aquarium”, will be published by William Heinemann on 5 March

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English