by Dominique Gracia

They never cleaned up after themselves. That was what really annoyed her. And it was hard work, having to smash them with the hammer. But she accepted her lot because, on the one hand, they could hardly tidy themselves away, and on the other hand, they’d be hard to move otherwise.

Hard. That was the watch-word on Sarpedon.

She preferred to hide in darkness, here, in the caves that burrowed into the island’s westerly face. Meeting them in darkness was easier than having to see their faces as it happened.

She wished she knew what did it, what made them hard, all of a sudden, rigid, sometimes in the most inconvenient positions. The one who turned to stone while he was taking a shit in the corner beside the cave’s mouth was particularly unpleasant to dispose of, and she’d accidentally hit the pile with the hammer and sent up a plume of it, which she experienced in slow motion, and on the walls for weeks afterwards.

A naturalist had come once. He’d spotted a monk seal, stony on the sea shore just outside one of the cave entrances, as he was sailing past on the way to some other place that would be more or less hospitable. The naturalist did not complete his journey.

She wasn’t sure what had happened to the monk seal. Most of the wildlife that entered the caves survived (if she didn’t catch and eat it first). She hadn’t wanted to smash it because she really quite liked watching the seals, and as it was lacking arms and spears and shields, she could roll it well enough, so with her muscles straining, she took it carefully into the surf at a point where she knew the floor fell off quickly, and she set it free.

She speculated that the other seals made a god of their lost brother, for she saw them in the waves now more than ever, but she never dared swim out to see. Sometimes the seals attracted boats, and then she was glad when the men came ashore because at least they would be punished, first with death, and then with her hammer. But still she waited in darkness until their fate was sealed.

Sometimes the seals attracted boats, and then she was glad when the men came ashore because at least they would be punished, first with death, and then with her hammer.

Did they know that she was here, those men who risked Sarpedon’s shores? The wandering soldiers, the explorers, the fishermen. Did they talk about her, out there, in the world? Did they think she was a babulas, and use the tale of men scattered into fragments to scare young sailors? Sometimes, she thought that she might have tried eating them, except that she couldn’t eat stone.

In the times before now, there had been an oracle at Sarpedon, and people had come from far and wide. She’d found the traces of their offerings: bowls and plates and jewellery of gold and silver and bronze; votive statues, whole, or just their ivory feet. But then had come disaster. The earth had shifted to one side and spat out something that still seeped through the rocks, that bubbled the hot pools on the north side. The oracle had fled, and Em had snuck in, happy to live in the cracks and be forgotten about.

Then, a woman came.

Em watched from the shadowed forest at the top of Sarpedon’s hill as the woman wandered freely, searching, unscathed. She made it to the cave walls, as some of the wandering men had done, and through the cave, as none had done before, and into the grove in the middle of that cragged circle, as Em made her way down the stony path from the top. They met, eye to eye, and the woman dropped to her knees, hands on her thighs, head flopping.

Em thought that would be an interesting posture for a statue, quite neat, and not really in the way, but then the woman rose again, wet patches from the grass across her shins, muddy where her bones had pressed into the ground.

‘Forgive the intrusion, Daughter of Ceto, Keeper of the Oracle.’

Em swallowed, remembering what it was like to make a language sound that was not a song to herself. Em thought it only fair to warn this visitor. If she’d survived so far, she might have time to get away again.

‘There’s nothing worth finding here. This island isn’t safe, you know?’ Em leant on the hammer’s handle with a bit more weight, resting to store her energy for the swing.

The woman looked at her boldly and rubbed one hand against her knee, brushing blades of grass away. ‘No. You’re wrong, Keeper. It will be safe for us.’

Em straightened again, hand grasping the handle she had carved from a fallen tree, the weight of the rocky head pulling against her. ‘What do you mean, us?’ she hissed.

‘In Darkness’, read and recorded by Dominique Gracia
Dominique Gracia

Dominique Gracia is a Victorianist, fascinated by things that come up again and again, and run below the surface, from Greek mythology to cultural tropes that won’t die, and the emotions that carry them all along.

Support Dear Damsels

Words are empowering – not only for the women who write them, but those who read them too.

Join our Patreon and help us continue to offer an inclusive and welcoming space for women to come together, share their words, and get a resounding response back.

Sign up to our Patreon