Other Tales: Balancing Scales

on February 11, 2009 in Other Tales

Two rarely seen characters.

The snakes on top of Cetea’s head looked around the food court like little periscopes until one of them spotted the human woman in a red sweater. All the snakes swiveled around to lock onto her face, and then she turned to face the student reporter, who had evidently had no problems spotting her in the dinner time crowd.

“Hi, Cetea… thanks for agreeing to talk with me,” Lucinda said, getting to her feet and holding out her hand.

“No problem,” Cetea said, clasping her palm to Lucinda’s but curling her four sharp-taloned fingers up loosely around the top of Lucinda’s hand instead of gripping firmly. Lucinda observed the awkwardness and made a mental note to check out the hands of future interviewees before trying to shake them.

“Go ahead and have a seat, unless you want to get some food,” Lucinda said. “I’m just getting stuff organized.”

“I’m fine. Do you do shorthand?” Cetea asked, watching the student reporter line up her pens and flip through her notepad.

“Kind of,” Lucinda replied. “I’ve got my own system.”

“Ah,” Cetea said, reaching up to stroke and soothe the snakes. “My cousin’s a steno.”

“Nice,” Lucinda said.

“Can I ask a question?” Cetea said. “I mean, I know you’re interviewing me, but I’m curious about something.”

“Sure,” Lucinda said. “Feel free. An interview’s not a monologue.”

“What’s this for, exactly?”

“Well, I’m a reporter with the Gazetteer…”

“I know, but… I didn’t just win any awards and I’ve kept my noses out of the little scandals,” Cetea said. “So what’s the story?”

“That’s what I want to find out,” Lucinda said. She gave her friendliest smile. “What is your story, Cetea? Who are you? Where do you come from? That kind of thing.”

“Why me, though?” Cetea said.

“Well, I’m going to be honest… I’m gathering material for something I’m not sure I can talk my editor into running. But somebody said something that got me thinking about why I got into journalism in the first place.”

“What was that?”

“Something about it being my job to tell people’s stories,” Lucinda said. “And you know, if the union burned down tomorrow or one of the deans got caught stealing money or something, we’d print it… but on a day to day basis, that’s what we do. But it’s mostly human stories.”

“So this is an affirmative action interview,” Cetea said.

“I wouldn’t have put it that way, but kind of. I just want to get more voices in the public forum. Does that bother you?” Lucinda said.

“Meh. It’s not the worst motive,” Cetea said. “Let’s go for it.”

“Okay, I’m going to be asking you about yourself, and also about your culture, because I don’t think most of our readers are very familiar with gorgons,” Lucinda said. She put a crystal down on the table. “I’m going to be taking notes so I can organize my thoughts, but I’m also going to be making an echo of this for later, just so I can make sure I’ve got everything accurately if I quote you. Is that okay?”

“Sure,” Cetea said, holding out one hand to examine the long fingernails. Her skin was covered in scales that were a very reflective yellow-green… her nails in particular were long and yellow and very shiny, like brass.

“Is that their natural color?” Lucinda asked her, pointing at the claws.

“Is that an interview question?”

“It’s a place to start,” the reporter said.

“Mostly,” Cetea said. “They tend to collect grime, so I clean and polish them regularly… the first time I ran out of nail polish last year and asked my roommate if she had any, it was kind of a learning experience.”

“Your roommate was…?”

“Her name was Willa. She was a golem. She dropped out about a month into the semester. Married someone she met on that crystal ball thing. One of those bigger-type goblins… I don’t remember his name, I only met him once. I thought they were both kind of stupid about it, but I kind of had the impression she only came here to meet someone. She was very single-minded about it.”

“How about you? Why’d you come here?”

“Not to bag a man,” Cetea said. “Or a woman. I wanted an education.”

“What are you studying?”

“Enchantment theory, and music.”

“Music?” Lucinda asked.

“Yeah.”

“You don’t seem… I mean… you know, never mind,” Lucinda said.

“What were you going to say?”

“Something stupid,” Lucinda said. “I don’t know what a bardic student is supposed to look like.”

“Human,” Cetea said.

“Uh… yeah. Sorry,” Lucinda blushed. “Stupid.”

“Eh, you’re trying,” Cetea said. “My uncle… great-uncle… used to crawl around caves with this guy, Lazarus, who taught music here forever ago…”

“Professor Lazar?” Lucinda asked. “The guy they named the music building after?”

“Yeah,” Cetea said. “Him. We called him Lazarus. I have one of his harps. Not here… I had to buy the one I use for classes. It’s waiting for me when I graduate.”

“Oh, wow,” Lucinda said. “Cool for you. So… you came here to study music?”

“I actually came here so I could learn other things along with the music,” Cetea said. “We do have something like a conservatory back home. It’s kind of famous… even elves send their children to learn.”

“Where’s home, for you?”

“Down,” Cetea said.

“In the underworld?”

“Yeah. We weren’t an underground race, originally,” Cetea said. “But the surface got crowded, and we got crowded out. There are some colonies still up top, but they’re very isolated… underground, it’s a bit of a struggle, but we’re not so cut off. We trade with kobolds and dwarves…”

“With both of them?”

“We’re neutral. If they want to trade with each other, they go through us.”

“And elves come down to study music at your school?”

“They come up,” Cetea said.

“Oh… you mean dark elves,” Lucinda said, realizing. “Sorry. I got hung up there for a second.”

“Yeah,” Cetea said. “Seeing pale white elves was kind of a shock when I came here. Not that I saw a lot of elven skin around the colony, but… well… that was an adjustment, too. When I was a hatchling, I thought elves were ghosts… that you could take the cloak off and there wouldn’t be anything there. I learned better, but it’s still weird seeing them with bare heads.”

“What else was an adjustment for you, coming to a human… predominantly human university?”

“Well, everything,” Cetea said. “There were girls who’d never seen a toilet before coming here. I mean, I hadn’t, but I read a lot…though really, that kind of thing doesn’t make it into a lot of your stories. Anyway, though, it’s not just the human stuff. I spent most of my time in Harlowe the first year, and there are so many different cultures on the floor, it’s hard not to tread on anybody. I think I did okay, if only because I’m personally used to dealing with different cultures, but I’m not sure who’s being served by having a separate dorm.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not like we’re any less strange to each other than we are to humans, and learning how to get along with goblins and gargoyles is nifty but it doesn’t help much in a ‘predominantly human’ university,” Cetea said. “It would be more useful if we were learning how to deal with humans, and vice-versa.”

“But you came back to Harlowe for your second year,” Lucinda said.

Cetea shrugged.

“If it wasn’t here, and we all had to mix, I think things would be better,” she said. “But it is, and I’m not going to be the one who slips outside her place.”

“Has anyone in particular made you feel that way?” Lucinda asked.

Cetea raised a shiny hand up to her mouth and covered it. The snakes’ mouths all opened and they hissed, not quite in unison. It was creepy to Lucinda, how much it sounded like laughter.

“I’m sorry,” Cetea said. “That question… ‘anyone in particular’. I got that a lot, when I tried to talk to my advisor about how I felt last year. It’s not anyone in particular. It’s everything in general. The lizardfolk get treated as beasts, because that’s what humans do with ‘humanoids’ that look like animals that aren’t monkeys.”

“What race looks like monkeys?” Lucinda asked.

“Oh… um… no one. I was being hypothetical there,” Cetea said. “Anyway, they’re beasts but I’m a monster… and when you’re a monster, everybody’s afraid of you, until the moment they think you’re weak and they decide to be brave.”

“So, there were moments when you were afraid of what a human student might do to you?”

“There were moments when I was afraid of what a hundred human students might do after what I did to one who tried to do something to me,” Cetea said. “Which is sad, because really, I’ve got the perfect non-fatal self-defense device right up here.” She pointed to her reflective eyes. “But because I have it and they don’t, people are afraid of it.”

“In fairness, don’t you see how having poison snakes for hair might be legitimately intimidating?” Lucinda asked.

“First of all, I don’t have snakes for hair,” she said. “I’m reptilian. Did you ever see a reptile with hair?”

“I saw a bearded dragon once,” Lucinda said.

“Funny,” Cetea said. “But I mean, the snakes aren’t there instead of anything. I’m not ‘supposed’ to have hair to begin with. That’s a mammal thing. Isn’t that where the word ‘mammal’ comes from?” She mimed like she was fluffing up a big poofy hairdo. “Because you have mammaries?”

“Um… that’s not what mammaries are,” Lucinda said.

“Really? What are they?”

“Breasts.”

“Every animal has a breast, though,” Cetea said.

“Breasts,” Lucinda said. “As in, boobies.” At Cetea’s blank stare, she cupped hers briefly. “These.”

“Oh, really? I thought those were just the cuppy things you wore,” Cetea said.

“Um, no,” Lucinda said. “Those are for support, since they don’t have a lot of, you know, structure. Didn’t you ever notice, with your roommate…?”

“Willa moved out and I never got another one last year,” Cetea said. “I have a roommate this year, but I don’t see much of her. I just thought… well, the goblin girls don’t wear them, and they don’t have anything there.”

“Well, goblins don’t have mammaries,” Lucinda said.

“Aren’t they mammals? They have hair.”

“I don’t know what they are,” Lucinda admitted. “I thought they were reptiles, because they don’t have… you know.”

“Huh,” Cetea said. “Anyway…”

“Poisonous snakes,” Lucinda said.

“Yeah, well, the way I see it… if I have a dozen mouths full of poison fangs, or a flaming catapult in my pocket, or whatever, that should make it more reassuring to people that I’ve got a way of disabling an attacker without hurting them.”

“Speaking as somebody who honestly does find you a little intimidating, I can say that it’s hard to think about somebody turning to stone as being painless or non-fatal,” Lucinda said.

“Human magic can cure a lot worse than that these days, though,” Cetea said. “And anyway, it wears off in about a week on its own. That’s something else that was an adjustment, though… training myself not to open my eyes when I’m startled.”

“Your eyes are closed?” Lucinda asked.

“Veiled,” Cetea said. “Lidded. It’s not the same thing that you have. I can see out, but you can’t see in. We walk around like that most of the time, but if something threatens us… poof.”

“So what color are your eyes under there?”

“Dunno,” Cetea said. “Nobody’s ever got a good look at them.”

“Not even your family?”

“We’re not immune to each others’ gazes,” Cetea said. “They’d be able to throw it off in a few hours, though.”

“What about you, in a mirror?”

Cetea shuddered and all her snakes reared. Lucinda jumped back in her chair.

“Sorry,” Cetea said. “Mirrors… that’s another adjustment. Great big mirrors in the bathrooms. We have horror stories about mirrors… like a bride who gets stuck in front of one for a hundred years, until the dust on it’s thick enough that she can’t see her eyes in it any more.”

“If that really happened, couldn’t she just close her eyes or look away as soon as she, uh, thawed?”

“It would be too late… how long does seeing something take you?” Cetea said. “That’s why in the bad old days, the other races had stories about how horrible we looked. None of them got a good look at our faces because as soon as they saw it, poof.”

“If you don’t mind me saying, I think gorgons are kind of pretty,” Lucinda said. “With your shiny scales, and everything.”

“Thank you,” Cetea said. “If you don’t mind me asking, what races do you think are ugly?”

“Uh… um…”

“Rhetorical question,” Cetea said. “There really aren’t any races I’ve found that really match my aesthetic ideals, but that’s because a good crown is one of the first things we look for.”

“Crown… of snakes?” Lucinda asked, and Cetea nodded. “So… male gorgons have them, too?”

“Yeah,” Cetea said. “I’ve heard all the stories, that males don’t have snakes, or that they’re the ugly ones, or that we don’t have males… I honestly don’t know where they came from. Our men look exactly like our women, just like every other race… well, I guess the mammary thing is different, if that’s not just clothes.”

“I actually think more races have differences between men and women,” Lucinda said. “Which might be where the confusion came from.”

“Really?” Cetea said. “Well, I guess there are a lot of mammal races… but, goblins and kobolds are the same.”

“Except in the, you know, privates,” Lucinda said.

“The what?”

“The, uh, genitalia,” Lucinda clarified. “Men have different ones than women.”

“But they still look the same, don’t they?”

“I haven’t actually looked at any goblins,” Lucinda said. “But I think they’re normal.”

“What’s ‘normal’?”

“I mean, like ours,” Lucinda said. “Mammalian, I mean.”

“No offense, but I’m not sure I want to know what that means,” Cetea said, shaking her head. The snakes’ heads moved in the opposite direction. “That would be weird to me. Different… stuff… for men and women. I can’t wrap my head around it.”

“So, you’ve been going here more than a year now and you never realized that?”

“I didn’t spend a lot of time peeking in the boys’ bathroom,” Cetea said.

“Not to be indelicate, but did you never notice that men look different in tight jeans than women do?”

“I didn’t spend a lot of time staring at mammal crotches,” Cetea said. “But when I did notice it, I just figured they were aroused a lot of the time. I had no idea a lump like that was normal.”

“Well, see, we’re learning things about each others’ races,” Lucinda said. “Um, if I can ask a question about your crown?”

“Wreath,” Cetea said. “Men have crowns, women have wreaths.”

“But they’re exactly the same?”

“Crowns are male, wreaths are female.”

“Noted,” Lucinda said. “I’m not sure how to word this, but… can you see with them? I mean, it looked like they saw me first and then you did.”

“No, I only have two eyes that are mine,” Lucinda said. “But they ‘tell’ me things, and they respond to my thoughts.”

“So you don’t control them?”

“No,” Cetea said. “They knew I was looking for you, and they looked for you… but some days they get sulky, or they want attention. The worst is when they started fighting each other. I don’t know if they don’t realize that their blood is mine and they’re just making all of us sick when they bite each other, or if they don’t care.”

“They’re not intelligent, then?”

“They’re snakes.”

“So, if somebody tried to touch them…”

“They’d probably get bit,” Cetea said. “They bite me sometimes.”

“How long would they be, if they stretched all the way out?”

“About two feet long… but they really can’t just stretch out like that without something to support them. They’re halfway coiled most of the time.”

“Do you… uh… do you feed them?”

“They don’t need to eat separate from me, but if I don’t want my hands getting bit on the way to my mouth, I do,” she said. “They hunt rodents and lizards while I sleep. At home, I mean, they did.”

“Did they catch many from your bed?”

“Oh, we don’t sleep in beds,” Cetea said. “We all bed down in the kitchen, around the stove.”

“Do you wash them?”

“When I can,” she said. “They hate showers, so I don’t bother. I can’t really scrub them, or oil them up like I do the rest of my scales… that’s why they’re so dull compared to me.”

“Is it weird having a dozen living creatures sticking out of your skull?”

“Is it weird not having any?” Cetea asked. “I can understand how hard it can be to understand what it’s like, but I can’t really imagine what it’s like not to.”

“This might be getting into morbid territory, and please tell me if I’m touching on something taboo, but… if they’re alive, can they die? And what would happen?”

“Oh, they can be killed… older people often have lost a few to accidents or fights,” Cetea said. “They won’t die of natural causes because they’re not going to get any sicker from anything than I am, and they can heal from just about anything as long as I’m alive.”

“Could… forgive me, but my imagination… could they stay alive if you were dead?”

“Maybe for a while,” she said. “But I don’t think so. We share blood.”

“Sorry… I don’t mean to focus on your hair, er, your wreath,” Lucinda said. “Just tell me if anything I ask is bothering you.”

“It’s not bothering me,” Cetea said, smiling wryly. “But for reference, I think the closest equivalent would be you giving an interview all about your, uh, breasts.”

“Oh, well, let’s go to another subject,” Lucinda said. “Your uncle… your great-uncle… knew Professor Lazar?”

“They traveled together, a little. Cetus… my great-uncle… showed him the way around our neck of the underworld.”

“Is he the one who taught your people music?”

“Cetus?”

“Lazar.”

“Why would we need to be taught?” Cetea asked, and some of her snakes looked angry. “We already had the conservatory at that point… he was actually there to learn from us.”

“Oh! Sorry,” Lucinda said. “I didn’t mean to imply… I don’t think of reptilians as being musical. That’s probably stupid.”

“I don’t know any race that doesn’t have music,” Cetea said. “There was an ogre in one of my performance classes last year. He was pretty good, when he remembered to show up. Every race is musical. It’s the universal language.”

“By that token, what did Professor Lazar have to learn from you?”

“Our songs, I’d imagine,” Cetea said. “And the ones in our library. We had songs from all the races we traded with… dwarves, elves, kobolds…”

“Kobolds?”

“You’re doing it again,” Cetea said. “It was a cultural exchange. He had songs from all over the surface.”

“So, really, you were teaching each other, your ancestors and him,” Lucinda said.

“If this story comes out and it’s about how the brave Professor Lazar descended into darkness and taught the gorgons how to sing, I’m going to throw up,” Cetea said. “In front of you. And when I throw up, it’s a chain reaction.”

“I’m just thinking about the best angle to involve the average human reader in the story,” Lucinda said. “A cultural exchange is good.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Cetea said. “Anyway, he made four or five harps while he was down with us, and he left one with my great-uncle when he left.”

“As a sign of friendship?”

“As payment for a vase he broke,” Cetea said.

“Ah,” Lucinda said. “So, are your whole family musicians?”

“If they were, I’d probably never get the harp,” Cetea said. “My father is… I guess it would translate as ‘chef’, but there’s less cooking. We cook some things with heat, but our cuisine is more about presentation than anything else. Our mouths don’t chew well, so we keep portions small to avoid having to stretch out our jaws to swallow, and every meal includes a plate of amuse-gueules.”

“What’s that?”

“Distractions for them,” Cetea said. She pointed up at her wreath. “We have to make sure what they’re eating looks as good as or better than what we’re eating, or there are going to be bites. We’re each a little resistant to our own snakes’ venom, and those of close family, but it still doesn’t feel great.”

“Does anybody ever… muzzle or restrain them?”

“No, and I can’t imagine anybody doing that,” Cetea said.

“So, your father prepares food,” Lucinda said. “Is that a professional thing? I mean, does he do that for the family or…”

“I guess you’d call it professional,” Cetea said. “We’re communalists, it’s what he does for the colony. There’s usually a waiting list for his tables.”

“And your mother?”

“She teaches. Literature and storytelling.”

“Any siblings?”

“I have a sister, but she’s too young to have a path. I have a brother a few years younger than me,” Cetea said. “Nobody expects much from him, because he has feralia.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a condition where the snakes aren’t properly… connected? They act wildly all the time, they bite each other and the baby and anybody else that gets near. They have to be defanged, which… well, it’s pretty horrific for a child, but it beats the alternatives.”

“I’m sorry,” Lucinda said. “If you don’t want to talk about…”

“It’s okay,” Cetea said. “They still manage to cause a lot of trouble, even without fangs. He doesn’t get any feeling from them, so he never knows if they hurt themselves, and because they don’t send him signals he has a hard time getting around. He’s got to keep looking around and behind himself, stay away from walls, and stay out of narrow corridors.”

“I can see where some of that would be a problem, but nor… uh, I mean, other races can get around okay without a crown or wreath of snakes looking out for them,” Lucinda said.

“Well, maybe things are different for you,” Cetea said. “I probably couldn’t explain it properly to somebody who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have functional snakes.”

“To turn back to your experience here,” Lucinda said, “would you mind giving me some examples of what you were talking about, the problem of being viewed as a ‘monster’ among humans?”

“Well, if you want me to pull out the story about how I got lynched or the time I was chased out of town, I can’t help you,” Cetea said. “But you said earlier that I intimidated you.”

“Yeah, but… I’m here, sitting down and talking to you,” Lucinda said, sounding hurt.

“Sure, because you decided to do an interview with the ‘unknown voices’,” Cetea said. “Chances are you’re talking to me because I intimidate you. You didn’t pick a little goblin or a fluffy faun or something safe and ‘sexy’ like a mermaid, you went straight to the gorgon girl so you could make a point.”

“That’s not fair,” Lucinda said.

“I’m sorry, is this story about you?” Cetea said. “You asked a question. Let me finish answering. You’re intimidated by me. I understand that’s not anything personal, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are… and you’re not alone. People on the surface are intimidated by me, in general. I know this. Imagine how that affects me when I have a chance to decide whether to approach someone or not. Imagine how it affects others when they have a choice to approach me or not. Is it impossible for me to make friends with humans because I’m a gorgon? No, it’s not. Can I point to any one friend I lost when they suddenly realized I was a gorgon? No, I can’t. But knowing how you feel when you look at me, can you honestly say it’s hard to imagine that I have a harder time making friends than you do?”

“I suppose it really isn’t,” Lucinda said. “But… honestly, it feels kind of racist saying that.”

“Right,” Cetea said. “One human I met last year made a big deal about how she’s skinblind, as she put it. ‘I don’t see humans or gorgons or elves, I just see people.’ That’s a wonderful disorder for a human to have, but I can’t not be aware that I’m a gorgon surrounded by humans, and I’d rather have other people think about what that means than pretend it doesn’t matter.”

“Okay,” Lucinda said, scribbling on her notepad. “Um… I think that’s enough to work up a basic piece. I’ll probably quote you directly on that last, if you don’t mind, it was really good. Can I a-mail you if I have any follow-up questions?”

“Sure,” Cetea said. “I’d ask when this is going to go out, but you told me you don’t think it will.”

“Oh, I’m going to do something with it,” Lucinda said. “If it’s not in the Gazetteer, I’ll put it somewhere. I’ll cross that bridge when I get there, though. Thank you so much, Cetea,” she said, standing up. She started to hold out her hand, then raised it gave a little wave, which Cetea returned.

“You’re welcome,” Cetea said. “And just so you know we cover our eyes.”

“What?”

“When we’re greeting someone respectfully,” she said, lifting her hand and very slowly and putting it across her eyes, careful not to disturb the writhing snakes.

“Oh,” Lucinda said. “Do I do that back?”

“After I uncover mine,” Cetea said, doing so. One of the snake heads lunged for her hand and she pulled it out of the way. “That’s about the minimum polite time. You leave them covered longer when you’re greeting an important person, but they return the same.”

“Would it be an insult if they didn’t?”

“It would make them look foolish and petty, more than anything else.”

“This is good,” Lucinda said. “I know what my first question is going to be in my next interview.”


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4 Responses to “Other Tales: Balancing Scales”

  1. pedestrian says:

    AE, this is the most intelligent description of Gorgons I have ever read, congratulations.

    Current score: 4
    • Arakano says:

      Poor little Gorgon boy with feralia… 🙁

      Though I am curious now: if Gorgons really look exactly alike whether male or female, how is their gender/sex determined? Solely mentally, or by internal anatomy, or how?

      Current score: 1
      • Anonymous says:

        Easy. The snakes on the male Gorgon’s crown are male. And the snakes on the female Gorgon’s wreath are female. That’s the difference.
        😉

        Current score: 3
  2. Holodrum says:

    As the lady said. Boys have crowns, girls have wreaths. Just cause we couldn’t tell the difference doesn’t mean there’s no difference.

    Current score: 0