Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Based on Keats's "Lamia". I was originally writing this in rhymed iambic couplets, like the original, but it was a) unpublishably huge and b) making my brain melt out my ears, so I stopped.


The serpent Lamia lived in the enchanted forests of Crete. She moved in dreams and saw the truth, visiting distant lands like a phantom and watching the people there. In a moment of kindness, she worked a spell of invisibility on a beleaguered nymph whose beauty was such that every satyr, woodland sprite, and minor deity who saw her became obsessed with her.

In one of her dreams, she saw a young Corinthian named Lycius racing chariots, and fell in love with him. From then on her reptilian form, no matter how beautiful it was, and it was beautiful indeed, was a curse to her: she wished a human form, that she might win the young man as her own.

One day, the god Hermes visited Crete and overheard her cries of sorrow. When he found Lamia, she greeted him saying that she had seen him pining away on Olympus in a dream, and now she found him here: had he found who he was seeking?

He begged her to tell him, if she knew, where that beautiful nymph might be, for he could find her nowhere, and jealousy led him to suspect every satyr, fairy, and even the trees of winning her first.

"I will tell you if you swear to help me."

The god swore, quite earnestly.

She informed him of the protection she had granted the nymph, and told him that if he would again swear to help, she would lift the curse from his eyes so that he could woo the nymph himself. He swore a mighty oath, again, citing not only his staff of power but also the serpent's jewelled body and sparkling eyes. She asked for human form, and to be brought to near Corinth where she might find Lycius.

She granted him the power to see the nymph, and he saw her; he was barely not too entranced to keep his side of the bargain, and cast a spell upon Lamia before he abandoned her to pursue the woman of his desires.

The pain was excruciating. Her sparkling scales split and ripped open, and she writhed and contorted and suffered and bore up through it with the whispered name of the young man that she loved. The winds plucked her up and carried her away from her island home.

She found herself lying on a flower-strewn hillside near a pool, her gown gathered around her, and looked at her image: she was beautiful. She knew that Lycius would pass by that place on his way home, and waited for him.

He walked by her without seeing her, and she spoke up, asking him if he was so uncouth as to leave a woman alone in the wild. He turned and saw her, and, awestruck at her beauty, took her for an immortal, and told her that now that he had seen her, if she vanished as a goddess or fey creature might, he would die on the spot.

Still teasing, she asked him if he had anything to offer her that might match the loss of a divine home, for as a scholar surely he knew that the immortals pined and wasted away in merely mortal air. Dejected, he shook his head, unable to face such a loss; yet when she kissed him and he felt her human flesh, he was utterly exhilerated that such a woman might be real and mortal and willing to be his.

She continued to mock him gently, asking him how he could possibly have missed seeing her around Corinth, and he admitted that he had no idea. He asked if it was too far a walk before nightfall, and was so entranced by her that he did not notice that her magic made the journey very short indeed.

When they entered Corinth, he half-hid himself for fear of seeing someone he knew catching him with this strange, beautiful woman; when he spotted his tutor passing by, he shrank back even more, making Lamia nervous. She asked him who it was, and he shrugged it off, saying that it was just his sage, but seeing him led him to feel he should be acting less a young man in love and more a responsible adult.

They reached Lycius's family home and went inside.


They lived as lovers for a while, drowsing together where they could see each other when they woke, enjoying each other's company in all ways.

One night, while occupied in such happy reminiscence, Lycius was startled from his thoughts by the sound of trumpets in the distance, and his brow furrowed in contemplation.

Lamia saw that he was distracted, unsatisfied, seeking more than she could provide him, and sighed mournfully. He asked her what made her sad, and she pointed out that he had been struck with melancholy first, had drifted away from their shared moment. How could she not be sad, she asked him, when he was distressed and turning away from her?

He shook his head. "What man could have such a prize as you and not wish to show it off? I want to have you as mine, have the whole town cheer on your bridal procession. My enemies will choke on it, my friends will rejoice. What more could I ask for?"

She knelt at his feet and cried, and perhaps he smiled at the cruel effect he had on her even as he stroked her hair and listened to her plead with him not to make a show of her this way, to enjoy her as a free woman rather than make her a trophy. Eventually, though, she releted; she loved him too much not to relent.

He asked her for name, friends, kinsfolk to join the celebration; she could name none. She said her parents' bones were entombed, neglected out of love for him; perhaps he might have had some sense of shame for rites abandoned, but he did not. FInally, she said that when he assembled his guest list, he should leave off the tutor whose presence had caused her such distress the night she first came to his home; perplexed, but pleased to have caught her into demure submission, he agreed.

It was the custom of the time for the bride to come from her family's home, her passage strewn with flowers and led by torches, accompanied with song. Lamia had no family, no human friends; she had given up everything for him. So she worked to make for herself a fit display, working whatever charms might bring her fine clothes and assistance, and perhaps the servants heard the noise of wings within her private quarters. She decorated the house as if it were the enchanted wood of her home on Crete, which she now found herself missing, the place that she knew. She set out a feast and paced quietly, pleased with her accomplishment and caught in miserable solitude, setting her invisible servants to their tasks.

The crowds of invited guests came on the wedding day, gawked at all these things, wondered at what might have wrought them; all of them stared except Apollonius, the tutor, who simply smiled, shook his head, and entered uninvited. He apologised to Lycius for his intrusion, but asked to be forgiven; he was brought in to the feast and seated.

The hall was amazing: scented and perfumed with incense, filled with decoration suggestive of the wilds, with statues of the gods standing among the bounty of food. Slaves cared for the needs of all the guests, washing their hands and feet and offering fragrant oils to pour into their hair. When they felt themselves well-tended, they filed into the hall and looked around, amazed by the wealth and power displayed there, wondering where it could have come from. The sound of the music matched the murmurs of conversation, shifting even as the tone shifted with increasing intoxication.

Then Lamia appeared with her entourage, and she sat with Lycius at the head of the table. Her awkwardness was hidden by her beauty, and, indeed, Lycius could see nothing else but her, at least until he took a cup and turned to toast his tutor.

He saw that Apollonius was staring fixedly at Lamia.

Her hand was cold, and then hot, too hot, as if the stare were causing her pain. He tried to ask her what was wrong, and could not see even recognition in her eyes, so fixedly was she caught by the tutor's gaze. She did not even respond to him calling her name.

Lycius turned his rage upon Apollonius, and started to shout at him, demanding that he take whatever curse he was making off Lamia, who was now stark white, bloodless with fear. He called upon the houseguests to look at his tutor, see what evil he was wreaking.

"You are a fool," sneered the tutor, and Lycius sank back into his chair, shocked. "How much have I taught you, and should I stand by and feed you into the jaws of a serpent?"

His gaze returned to Lamia, whose horror at being named a snake escaped on her fading breath. She made a gesture as if to silence the old man, who simply screamed "Serpent!" in response; as the echoes died, she screamed and vanished, driven away or slain by the hatred and cruelty of one who knew where she had come from. Lycius's hands closed on nothingness, and there he died.

Monstrous Moral: Know that if you fall in love and step outside your enchanted forest, you will lose everything you had no matter what you provide, be put on display for your difference and distinction and have no recourse because you are isolated and vulnerable, and there will still be people who want to destroy you for daring to wish for humanity. People will be ashamed to be seen with you. Your love will destroy your beloved in the end.