I used to be beautiful. Don't we all say so, but I mean it—daughter of sea gods, I was born underwater, and when I rinsed the salt crust from my hair it glowed like sunstruck amber. I hardly remember what happened anymore: we were drunk, I was young, he was so much stronger, like marble in his nakedness, trident gleaming in one fist. He had it the way he wanted. From behind, at the hem of Athena's sacred stone skirts, olive branches digging into my knees and the smell of crushed sweet olive permeating the temple. But the men never pay for what they do. Sea snakes are the most venomous species, and at first they would bite me in my sleep—it was impossible to lie down without crushing one or another. I was sick all the time, poison glutting my veins, but of course I lived. Lived to turn all my lovers to stone, and when I cried over their bodies my tears sizzled against the rock. I learned to sleep sitting up, to catch rats and field mice so the snakes wouldn't go hungry. We began to play little games. They would wrap their cool bodies around a wrist or finger, lick behind my ears with forked tongues. They helped me to bear the loneliness. I couldn't even walk to town for a loaf of bread without leaving a wake of stone corpses, so I ate what I could kill in the forest. I got a lot of reading done. But then Perseus showed up, all tense muscles and the smell of sweat. I said goodbye to my snakes, pressed their smooth scales to my lips. I knew what he had come for. They always come for the same thing.
My mother died in childbirth. I had no father to resent me for it, so instead I held her absence close. When I was just a sliver of silver spinning in her veins, I would hear her voice singing lullabies to the snakes. Sibillance like she could speak their language. I imagined someday her breath rustling my fur, serpents knotting my mane. Instead I was torn from her neck in a gory rush, my first glimpse of her too late already. Perseus wiped the slick afterbirth from my hide and climbed on my back, one hand holding my mother's head, the other tearing at my mane, kicking my sides until I took off. The sky was vast and terrifying. I choked on cloud vapor while my mother's blood dripped onto my ankles, violet and stinging. I've heard the stories. It wasn't her fault. But had she lived I might remain unborn, safe in that poison fortress, wings curled close around her beating heart. I'm not even sure she knew I existed.
With knives in our hands—
skin gone orchid
in the softest parts of you.
We are the serpent in your basement
choking on its own fangs.
We are a furred pillar of honeybees,
stingers gone dormant.
You came here looking for beds thick with lilies:
toxic stamens, that funereal taste—
Only the devil can eat the devil out1
but a scorpion cannot survive its own sting.
We are always transfiguring
We cover ourselves with bugbites
We allow you to impale us
We close our eyes
& suck out the venom.
1 From “Poem for a Birthday,” by Sylvia Plath.