Autobiography, Carved in Stone (July 2021)
By Gustavo Bondoni
“By the amount of wear, I’d say it’s from the twelfth century,” Benoit said, running his finger over the pitted surface of the statue.
“Impossible!” Terry replied. “Look at the detail work, look at the skill. We don’t have any evidence of a master sculptor working in this area back then… and precious few anywhere else. This looks like it was made at the height of the Golden Age.”
“I wish Vittoria could be here. She would likely tell us who sculpted it and the exact year just by looking at the hands. Those fingernails are just perfect!”
But Vittoria wasn’t there, and she wouldn’t be coming. The dig was located on the Greek peninsula of Mount Athos, a place where females of any kind were not permitted. It was an edict dating back nearly a thousand years and the Greek government was not in the least bit interested in changing it. It extended to human women, of course, but also to cows and sheep and everything else it was practical to police. The monks who ran the place only allowed female birds and mosquitoes because it was impossible to do anything about them.
“Well, take as many pictures as you can get onto the card and send them to her. She can make us feel like idiots when she wakes up and sees them.”
Vittoria was back in Texas, running the show from her office at the university despite being forced away from the actual dig by medieval misogyny. Her presence — and her absence — were felt in everything the expedition did.
With the help of one of the graduate students, Benoit pushed the life-sized carving into better light. The team had mounted in onto a wooden sled to make it easier to move … as long as that movement was headed generally downhill from where they’d found it.
The statue had been buried at the bottom of a ravine that cut its way up the side of a wooded hill. A monk happened to step on something after some hard rains and, when he looked down, saw what appeared to be a stone finger.
The statue depicted a slightly hunchbacked man with a bushy beard, wide eyes and one hand stretched out in a gesture of … what? Alarm? Salutation? The expression on the man’s face, the look that might have answered the question, was concealed behind a shaggy beard.
But there could be no doubt about the skill of the artist. As the statue moved into sunlight, Benoit reached out and touched the beard, half-expecting it to flatten under his touch like real facial hair. He was disappointed to find that it was unyielding rock … but so fine it was almost impossible to believe someone had carved it. The rough-woven cloth, likewise, was exactly the right texture. He thought he could almost see skin underneath.
“How has no one ever heard of this guy before?” the student, a rosy-cheeked kid called Andy, asked.
“The sculptor? I suppose it’s because nothing this fine would have survived the elements. The detail work on any of his statues that stood outdoors for any length of time would have eroded until they looked like every other statue in every museum. Hell, there are probably dozens of his pieces scattered around the world’s museums, and we have no clue what they looked like originally. This one must have been buried almost as soon as the guy put down his chisel.”
He began to take picture after picture of the sculpture, wondering what the subject had been. A peasant? A monk from an order with a vow of poverty? Other than the humble clothes and the stooped posture, testament to endless grinding work, there was little to go on.
Well, Benoit thought, whoever you were, you’re famous now.
Marcos took a long pull on the cigarette.
“You want to get turned to stone?” Adrian said.
“She won’t turn me to stone for smoking.”
“She will if we’re spotted.”
“Those guys on the hill can’t see anything. They’ll be blinded by the spotlights.”
The presence of the archaeologists from the American university on that particular hill had caused quite a stir among the crew of the Gorgon. As smugglers, their livelihood depended on having a good place to quietly drop off and pick up goods. Mount Athos had always been ideal: policed only by monks and ignored by the outside world, it was the definition of the perfect stretch of coast. And the mistress’ deal with the monks to keep women away from it meant that no one as tempted to set up a seaside tavern. That inspired idea, more than anything else, was the reason for the peace and quiet that allowed them to fulfill their illicit tasks unmolested.
And now this.
They drifted in, motors off, lights extinguished. Men with stout poles stationed around the small craft — it was a converted fishing boat — kept it off the rocks and on a straight path to the tiny inlet they used as a harbor.
It was a well-practiced exercise which created little sound. Marcos leapt from the prow onto an ancient wooden platform placed there to keep people from breaking their ankles and secured a rope to a rusted ring that looked like it had been drilled into the rock in the days of Homer.
Perhaps it had.
“Only you and I will be going up today.”
He hadn’t seen her step from the ship, hadn’t heard her walk up behind him. It made him shudder, as always. He’d been a boy on the docks of Patras back when the docks were still awash with fishermen and dock workers as opposed to empty wastelands populated only by the occasional tourist. He knew how she moved, could tell the sound of her footfalls from half a block away.
But she still always managed to sneak up on him.
He nodded. She shouldn’t have been able to see the movement in the dark, but a hand on his arm told him that not only had she seen what she needed to, but that he was to lead the way.
A well-worn path led to the edge of the illuminated area. There, hidden in the trees, they watched five men ranging in age from a barely bearded youth just entering his third decade to grizzled veterans Marcos’ own age, go about their business.
Voices carried in the night; these men were unconcerned with stealth. They spoke English, a language which grated on his sensibilities. They were apparently in conference with someone at their home base.
“We dug up two more this afternoon,” the eldest of the men said. “There are at least eight remaining further up the hill, all executed to the same level. But …”
The woman’s distorted voice came in over a computer, probably via Skype or something similar. The younger sailors were always using that stuff to talk to girls. This was also a woman’s voice, one heavy with age and authority.
“The ones higher up are different.”
“I’ve just sent you the latest batch of pictures. Maybe it’s better if you see for yourself.”
A long silence ensued. The five men on site — at least the ones the laptop’s camera couldn’t see — exchanged worried glances. Marcos almost laughed; they thought they had an academic problem to worry about.
But he didn’t make a sound; that would have been both unprofessional and lethal.
“The clothing on those last pictures…”
The men around the computer nodded among themselves. “Exactly. The clothing gets more and more modern the further we go up the hill.”
“How modern? The last one you sent me looked like someone from the eighteenth century.”
“There are a few more further up. There’s even one carved to look like a German SS officer. The very last one is wearing jeans.”
“So this is all a false alarm, some sort of hoax?”
“Well … I thought so, too, but Terry is adamant that the wear on the statues at the bottom really is exactly right for a stone statue buried for hundreds of years.”
“Your guess is as good as mine. We think this is something the monks do, a tradition passed from one supreme master to another over the course of the centuries. They must have tools and techniques that I’ve never seen before, though.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. The monks were the ones who called us in. They wanted us to dig and to try to see what we had. They thought we might have found a site from the Classical Age. They’re not stupid: a good dig would bring money to their coffers… almost enough to cover their ridiculous decision to exclude half of humanity from their peninsula. But just in case, talk to them again.” The voice on the laptop didn’t sound happy. “Tomorrow. As soon as they wake up. I’ll be waiting for your answer, because we may need to cancel the project. I have a feeling the governors are going to be after my ass in a big way when I tell them.”
The sound of a call disconnecting echoed through the forest.
Marcos turned to his mistress, seeking instructions. The hood turned to face him and he held his breath even though it was much too dark for her magic.
“I’ll take it from here,” she whispered and stepped past him.
Her cloak fell onto the floor and he watched her stride, naked as always, into the center of the circle of men.
Other than her hair — a tangled mass of serpents that writhed furiously in a futile attempt to detach themselves from her head and strike out on their own evil agendas — Medusa’s body looked like that of a perfectly-formed twenty-year-old. Most men would have been unable to turn from that view.
Marcos shuddered and looked away.
Benoit cursed as Vittoria broke the connection. He knew better than to try to call her back, to try to smooth things over. She had an Italian temperament: quick to anger, but equally quick to calm down … if you gave her the chance. By tomorrow she would have constructive ideas aimed at salvaging what they could from the fiasco. He’d worked with her long enough to admire her ability for lateral thinking. Vittoria had an almost magical capacity to turn calamity into career advancement for herself and her team.
Terry turned to one of the grad students. “Give me a cigarette. I don’t care if it kills me. I need one of these.” He turned to Benoit. “So you’d better not say anything.”
Benoit shrugged. He was French, a nationality which prided itself on letting people kill themselves however they wished without overthinking it. Besides, after listening to Terry’s story of how hard it had been for him to quit, there was a certain perverse pleasure in seeing the American cave. “I need to pee,” was his only response.
He walked up the ravine to their latrine, just a clump of trees far enough from their workspace and the main path that odors wouldn’t disrupt their concentration.
Business done, he descended, but a rustle in the undergrowth stopped him. He froze; the monks had warned them that there had been some wolves in the forest the previous winter. Then he relaxed: wolves wouldn’t come anywhere near humans, especially considering the abundance of sheep — all male, of course — in the surrounding fields. He relaxed.
Then he heard it again, closer this time. He turned towards the origin of the noise and peered into the darkness.
A rough hand closed over his forearm.
Benoit jumped and turned, ready to fend off any foe.
“I’m sorry, my friend. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Tassos?” The stooping figure of their guide, a middle-aged monk from the St. Timiou monastery on the southern tip of the peninsula could be made out in the light form the spots that filtered through the trees. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to warn you that we saw a ship approaching. It would be best if your team stayed in the monastery tonight.”
“Probably. We don’t ask questions … some of these men do not care that we’re doing G-d’s work.”
Benoit nodded. They knew about the peninsula’s history. It would be a good excuse to sleep on a real bed. Vittoria had been so furious when she found out she wasn’t allowed to come that she’d told the team to ignore the monasteries and camp, and made it very clear that anyone who disagreed was welcome to stay behind.
Even under her edict, running into criminals in a semi-deserted wilderness wasn’t Benoit’s idea of a good time.
“Are they coming this way?”
“No. The crew is still on the ship. Even if they started up right after I looked, it should take them ten minutes to get here. Your team has time to gather their things and get clear.”
But when they reached the camp, his team was gone. The lights were on, the cluster of statues stood to one side, but nothing moved.
Benoit was just about to call out when he remembered that making noise would attract unwanted attention. So he tiptoed through the camp until he came to the carved figures. Then he shrugged and turned to Tassos. “They must have left. But where?”
His companion wasn’t listening. The man’s eyes grew wide, his face turned pale and he took a single, trembling step back. A hand pointed feebly to the statue beside Benoit before Tassos turned and ran like the devil himself was after him.
“What the …”
Benoit looked where Tassos had been pointing. Just one of the statues. This one appeared to be one of the ones in modern dress.
Then the bottom dropped out of his world.
Terry looked back at him with stone eyes. The statue was the spitting image of his friend and colleague.
Benoit reeled. He checked the cluster of statues and found that four of them, sprinkled among the figures they’d already dug up, represented members of the expedition.
He ran his hand over one of the carvings. It was brilliant, perfect.
Not one line was wrong. The representation of men he’d spent the past week with was utterly flawless, and Benoit thought that he had to meet the sculptor. Anyone who could create such masterpieces in the short time they’d likely had to work was a genius of a kind the world had likely never seen since Leonardo.
Maybe he’d been working from blanks — human-shaped blocks of stone awaiting only the final details of faces and clothing — but even so, the work was amazing. And it was repeated four times.
Another possibility was that someone out there had some kind of scanning machine, and they fed the data into automated carving equipment. Maybe something with lasers. If that was so, he still wanted to meet the party responsible: something like that would make creating reproductions of priceless artifacts a doddle.
Yeah. That was probably the best explanation: this was a marketing gimmick from some auto-carving company, a demonstration of just how good their products were. By dropping the results of their efforts right in the middle of their target audience, they could hope for immediate sales.
“Now where am I, then?” he wondered and chuckled. Tassos’ reaction and the story about smugglers was clearly part of the script. The monks wouldn’t turn down donations from an ad agency… he’d heard enough about how hard it was to get maintenance done on the colossal monasteries to know that.
Well, they’d be along to tell him the story in a minute or two, and likely to bring the statue representing Benoit himself, so he studied the image of Terry. Yes, it was flawless, right down to the cigarette he’d been smoking.
Terry had started smoking that particular cigarette no more than five minutes before. He’d quit years before, and had bored everyone with the story of how hard it had been. There was no way anyone could have carved the statue in the time it had taken Benoit to answer a call of nature, no matter what machinery they had.
Then how …
He heard the rustle behind him again and thought it must be Tassos returning, but his greeting caught in his throat.
Something pale approached through the undergrowth. He couldn’t see it clearly enough to tell what it was, but it was definitely too big to be a fox.
It wasn’t a conscious decision. One minute he was trying to identify the creature stalking him, the next he was running up the path as fast as his feet could carry him, branches cutting into his face. Terror made stopping, even to check whether his face was all right, unthinkable. The light dimmed as he left the floodlit area, but he didn’t care. Every step took him further from the thing behind him.
Benoit barely felt the root that tripped him. He certainly never saw it. One moment he was running full speed, the next he slammed into the ground, rolled into the underbrush and down a few meters of hill.
He lay panting in a hollow that appeared to consist half of dry leaves and half of sharp edges and took stock. He was scraped and bruised, but the sharp pain that denoted a broken bone was absent.
Relief was short lived, however. Something moved in the shadows, making its way slowly along the path he’d just left.
It stopped, searching. He could hear it breathe, but it was much too dark to see what it might be. The impression of size still dominated. Even bigger than a wolf; a bear? Could he really be that unlucky?
“Hello, little man.” The voice spoke Greek, but even this short phrase came through in the archaic tongue of the classroom, not the modern language spoken by people on the street.
The voice was a hissed whisper that cut through the forest and through him. He felt his blood freeze, and thought that he wouldn’t have been able to move even if he wanted to.
“I know you’re out there. I know you can hear me. Do you know what I’m going to do to you?”
Turn me to stone. The thought came unbidden from somewhere deep in the primeval hindbrain, but he didn’t doubt it. When you were lost in a forest, miles from civilization, sundered from all aid, you believed what your ancestors believed. This was how myths were created, woven out of fear and the things that only seemed real in the night.
And now he knew the origin of one of them.
“I’m coming, little man.” It was somehow a woman’s voice … well, a woman’s hiss.
The rustling he’d been hearing earlier reappeared. To his relief, it moved away from him.
Think, he admonished himself desperately. What can you do?
The problem, he realized, was that he was refusing to accept what was happening. Sure, the primal, unevolved remnant of his mind knew the answer, but the civilized, rational being was resisting.
This was no place to listen to reason.
“Are you she?” he asked, in his best attempt at the ancient tongue.
The rustling stopped. “You know of me?”
Excitement, the intellectual challenge of holding up his side of the sparring session, surged and had its usual calming effect. The sense was that of being thrown a curveball in an academic discussion: it was something he was used to. Suddenly, the forest around him disappeared and he was in a paneled exam hall.
“Know of you? I teach students about you. We analyze all the versions of the myth … of your story, I mean. We discuss what you represent and how you’ve been used as a symbol of what is done to powerful women and a servant of a male dominated world.”
She made a sound he couldn’t quite identify for a second. Then he realized what it was: the Gorgon was laughing.
“Spare me your petty political analysis. You academics are all the same, always trying to find the pattern in meaningless things. My life is what it is because of the same forces that mold every person’s existence. Lust and pride, selfishness and power games. Sometimes love and mercy.”
Inspiration hit. “But that’s not what people hear. It isn’t what they learn. I can rewrite your story with you as the protagonist, not Perseus.”
A loud hiss filled the dark woods. “That lying bastard. If you ever mention his name in my presence again, I’ll kill you the way I should have killed him.”
Which, of course, left the door open to the possibility that she wouldn’t kill him otherwise. If he talked fast enough.
“I understand how you feel, but he’s the guy standing between you and a rehabilitated image.”
The long pause that ensued could have meant anything. He hoped it was a sign that she was thinking about his proposal, and not sneaking up behind him. His heart thumped like a drum, filling the silence with its tattoo.
“You think you can change perception?”
“Not immediately. I’ll write the book. You can help me with the scholarship and tell me the real story, which I’ll then justify using the historic sources. The tangled myths can be made to tell any story, really… I think they’d be best served telling the truth, don’t you?”
“Perhaps not the whole truth.”
And now he was on the homestretch. “Whatever version you prefer. I’ll sign my name to it.”
“And why should I trust a man who would put his mere survival ahead of keeping his honor intact?”
“Because if we do this right, clearing your name will make me a very famous and very wealthy man.”
The hissing laugh returned. “Stay there. I need to get some clothes.” The voice turned to ice, sibilant ice. “If you run, I’ll hunt you down like a dog.”
It was a warm night on the Aegean. Stars blinked brightly overhead and Benoit looked out over the water, hearing ripples break against the bows and a few insects chirping in the grass on the desolate islet behind him.
He’d been on board for two weeks, a prisoner in all but name. There was always some member of the crew there to watch him, to ensure that he didn’t try to run, although where he could run when the boat spent most of its time at sea or moored to tiny islands, he couldn’t imagine.
He felt her presence behind him. As always, he’d heard nothing.
“You were always planning to let me live, weren’t you?” he asked.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because, back on Mount Athos, you allowed me to hear you coming.”
A soft hissing laugh.
“You might be smarter than you look.”
“Not hard to do, in my case.”
“But important if you want to stay alive.”
“Oh, yes, I do.” Then he turned to face her. It was safe: Medusa always wore a veil when she was aboard. “I’m the foremost expert on Greek mythology in the world.”
“No. You aren’t. You’re just the only one I was able to lure here.”
Benoit was stunned. How much of this had she planned?
“Well, I will be the foremost expert once the book is published. Everything would be much easier if the team I was with hadn’t disappeared, though. That’s going to raise so many questions …. Isn’t there any way to bring them back?”
“Only the gods could do that, but I haven’t seen any evidence of them walking the Earth for two thousand years. The world doesn’t need them anymore. There was a talisman, once, the Golden Malak, but it’s long lost.”
“I’ve never heard of that.”
“And you call yourself an expert. You know nothing.”
He bristled, and she laughed again.
“Come,” Medusa said. “Let me show you something. Perhaps you’ll learn a skill that will serve you well.”
That didn’t help his mood, but he followed. What choice did he have?
The Gorgon led him along a path that was little more than a game trail. He lit the way with the flashlight from his phone — even if he’d wanted to call for help, there was no service out here, and no internet on the boat — but Medusa didn’t seem to need the light.
They came to what looked like a small grove but turned out to be a ring of trees around a central clearing.
The clearing wasn’t empty. Eight statues were arrayed inside. Now that he knew what they really were, Benoit stared with fascination.
“Who were they?” he asked.
“Glad you asked.” Though he couldn’t see her face, fortunately, Benoit could hear the smile in Medusa’s voice. “This one here,” she laid her hand on the shoulder of a bald, overweight man in a toga, worn down by the elements, “is Aeschines of Knossos. He was the first.” Then she stepped lightly along the line until she came to a mustached man wearing what looked to be a British uniform from World War II. “And this is Sir Alex Whitham of Oxford. He was the last. Well, the last so far.”
“Why are they here? What did they do?”
“Ah. That’s the question, isn’t it?” She looked at each of them. “They were learned men. Scholars. Each, in his day was … how did you so eloquently put it? Ah, yes, the foremost expert on Greek mythology in the world.” She patted Whitham’s arm. “And each received an offer equivalent to the one you got: tell the world the right story and live. Otherwise … well, they certainly lasted longer than they would have otherwise, don’t you think?”
“So that’s why the myths are all mixed up…”
“Partly. You also need to remember that when I was young everyone lied about everything, so a lot of the confusion dates from the very beginning. But my point is that these men, every single one of them, thought they could do what you’re tasked with. Each failed.”
Benoit said nothing. He just stared at the stone figures.
“I thought it would benefit you to sleep here tonight. Perhaps you’ll find their company inspirational.”
With a hiss of amusement, Medusa walked back towards the boat.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Gustavo Bondoni (website / Twitter) is novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA. His latest novel is Test Site Horror (2020). He has also published two other monster books: Ice Station: Death(2019) and Jungle Lab Terror (2020), three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).
In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.