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The Witch Queen
The name of the island was Æeea, which, however you attempt to pronounce it, sounds like a scream. It was a gold-green jigsaw fragment of land set far away from any other shore, laced with foam and compassed with the blue-shaded contours of the sea. Near at hand, the gold dulled to yellow: slivers of yellow sand along the coastline, dust-yellow roads, yellow earth and rock showing through the olive groves on the steep climb to the sky. The central crag was tall enough to hook the clouds; in ancient times the natives believed such clouds concealed the more questionable activities of their gods. Nowadays, the former fishermen and peasant farmers catered to the discerning tourist, telling stories of smugglers and shipwrecks, of nymphs and heroes, and of the famous enchantress who had once lived there in exile, snaring foolish travelers in the silken webs of her hair. Æeea was overlooked by the main vacation companies: only the specialists sent their customers to a location with little nightlife and no plate smashing in the quiet tavernas. Most of the more sumptuous villas were owned by wealthy mainlanders who wanted a bolt-hole far from the madding crowd of more commercial destinations.
by Jan Siegel
Del Ray, 2002
The villa above Hekati Beach was one of these. More modern than most, it had seaward walls of tinted glass, black marble pillars, cubist furniture standing tiptoe on blood-colored Persian carpets. There was a courtyard, completely enclosed, where orchids jostled for breathing space in the jungle air and the cold silver notes of falling water made the only music. At its heart the latest incumbent had planted a budding tree grown from a cutting—a thrusting, eager sapling, whiplash-slender, already putting forth leaves shaped like those of an oak but larger and veined with a sap that was red. The house was reputedly the property of a shipping magnate, a billionaire so reclusive that no one knew his name or had ever seen his face, but he would loan or rent it to friends, colleagues, strangers, unsocial lessees who wanted to bathe on a private beach far from the prying eyes of native peasant or vulgar tourist. The latest tenant had been there since the spring, cared for by an ancient crone who seemed to the local trades- people to be willfully deaf and all but dumb, selecting her purchases with grunts and hearing neither greeting nor question. Her back was hunched, and between many wrinkles the slits of her eyes appeared to have no whites, only the beady black gleam of iris and pupil. The few who had glimpsed the mistress declared she was as young as her servant was old, and as beautiful as the hag was ugly, yet she too was aloof even by the standards of the house. They said she did not lie in the sun, fearing perhaps to blemish the pallor of her perfect skin, but swam in the waters of the cove by moonlight, naked but for the dark veil of her hair. In the neighboring village the men speculated, talking in whispers over the last metaxa of a goddess beyond compare, and the women said she must be disfigured or diseased. She had a pet even stranger than her servant, a huge sphinx cat hairless as a baby, its skin pie- bald, grayish-white marked with bruise-black patches. It had been seen hunting on the mountain slopes above her garden; someone claimed to have watched it kill a snake.
Behind the glass walls of her house, the woman heard the villagers stories, though her servant never spoke, and smiled to herself, a sweet, secret smile that showed no teeth. She still bathed by night, secure in the power of the moon, and by day she stayed in a darkened room, lighting a cold fire on the cold marble hearth, and gazing, gazing into the smoke. Sometimes she sat in the courtyard, where little sun found its way through the vine-trellised canopy. No cicadas strummed here, though the slopes beyond throbbed with their gypsy sawing; no bee buzzed, or not for long. The hungry orchids snapped up all insect life in their spotted mouths. There was no sound but the water. The woman would sit among the carnivorous plants, dressed in a thin red garment spotted like an orchid, with the black ripples of her hair falling around her shoulders. Watching the tree. The cat came to her there and rubbed its bald flank against her limbs, purring. Will it fruit, Nehemet? she would murmur. It grows, but will it fruit? And if it does, what fruit will it bear? And she would touch the leaves with her pale fingertips—leaves that trembled at that contact, not after but before, as though in anticipation.
For Panioti, son of the woman who owned the village general store and gift shop, there came a night when the last metaxa was a drink too much. He was handsome as only a child of the sun can be, high of cheekbone and brown of skin, with the gloss of youth on him like velvet down and the idle assurance of absolute beauty. In the summer, he minded the shop for his mother and made love to all the prettiest visitors; in the off-season, he went to college in Athens, took life seriously, studied to be an engineer. “I do not believe in the loveliness of this unknown siren,” he maintained over the second to last drink, “or she would not hide herself. A beautiful woman puts on her smallest bikini and shows off her body on the beach. Has anyone seen her?” But no one had. “There you are. I won’t take her charms on trust; like any rumor, they will have grown in the telling. I want proof. I want to see her with my own eyes, swimming naked in the moonlight. Then I will believe her a goddess.”
“Why don’t you?” said one of his companions. “Hide in the olive grove down by the rocks. See for yourself.”
“He would never dare,” said another. “Bet you five thousand drachma.”
By the last drink, the bet was on.
The cove was inaccessible save by the path down from the house, so the following evening Panioti swam around the headland, coming ashore on the rocks in order to leave no footprints, and concealed himself among the olive trees at the base of the slope. He carried in a waterproof case a camera, the kind that would take pictures in the dark without need of a flash, and a bottle of beer. He sat under the leaves in the fading sunset, leopard spotted with shadow, drinking the beer slowly, slowly, to make it last. The dark had come down before the bottle was empty, and he thrust it upright into the sandy soil. He waited, impatient with the crawling hours, held to his vigil only by the thought of his friends scorn if he were to return too soon. At long last his wristwatch showed the hands drawing toward midnight. Now she will come, he thought, or I shall leave. But I do not think she will come.
He first saw her as a white movement on the path, her form apparently wreathed in a glittering mist, her dark hair fading into darkness. She seemed to glide over the uneven ground with a motion that was smooth and altogether silent; he almost fancied her feet did not touch the earth. The hair prickled on his neck. For a moment he could have believed her a pagan spirit, a creature of another kind whose flesh and substance were not of this world. Then as she descended to the beach he realized the mist effect was a loose, transparent garment that she unfastened and shed on the sand; her body glowed in the moonlight, slender and shapely as an alabaster nymph, a cold, perfect thing. She raised her arms to the sky as if in greeting to some forgotten deity, then she walked out into the water. The sea was calm and all but waveless: it took her with barely a ripple. He saw her head for a while as a black nodule silhouetted against the sea glimmer, then it dipped and vanished. Belatedly, he remembered the camera, extracting it from its case, waiting for her to reemerge. He half wondered if she would show in a photograph or if, like some supernatural being, she would leave no imprint on celluloid. He moved forward, lying along the rocks, poised and ready; but the swimmer did not return. She was gone so long his breath shortened in fear and he put the camera aside, braced to plunge in in a search he knew would be hopeless.
She reappeared quite suddenly, within yards of the rocks where he lay. He thought her eyes were wide open, staring through the night with the same dilated gaze with which she must have pierced the darkness undersea. She began to swim toward the shore—toward him—with a sleek, invisible stroke. Then abruptly she rose from the water; the sea streamed from her limbs; her black hair clung wetly to breasts, shoulders, back. For the first time, he saw her face, dim in the moonglow but not dim enough—he looked into eyes deep as the abyss and bright with a luster that was not of the moon; he saw the lips parted as if in hunger . . . He tried to move, to flee, forgetful of the camera, of the bet, of his manly pride; but his legs were rooted. The whisper of her voice seemed to reach into his soul.
“Do I look fair to you, peasant?” She swept back her hair, thrusting her breasts toward him, pale hemispheres surmounted by nipples that jutted like thorns. “Look your fill. Tell me, did you feel bold coming here? Did you feel daring—sneaking among the rocks to gawp, and ogle, and boast to your friends? What will you say to them when you return—if you return? That you have seen Venus Infernalis,
Aphrodite risen from a watery grave, reborn from the spume of the sea god’s ecstasy? What will you say?”
Closer she came and closer; his spirit recoiled, but his muscles were locked and his body shuddered.
“Nothing,” he managed. “I will say nothing. I swear.”
“I know you will say nothing.” She was gentle now, touching a cold finger to his face. “Do you know the fate of those who spy on the goddess? One was struck blind, another transformed into a stag and torn to pieces by his own dogs. But you have no dog, and the blind can still see with the eyes of the mind. So I will blank your mind and put your soul in your eyes. You came here to see me, to behold the mystery of my beauty. I will give you your heart’s desire. Your eyes will be enchanted, lidless and sleepless, fixed on me forever. Does that sound good to you?” Her hands slid across his cheeks, cupped around his sockets. His skin shrank from the contact.
“Please,” he mumbled, and “No . . .” but her mouth smiled and her fingers probed unheeding.
In a velvet sky the moon pulled a wisp of cloud over her face, hiding her gaze from what followed.
The next morning a rumor circulated through the village that the woman and her servant had left in the small hours, taking the hairless cat and uprooting plants from the courtyard. The taxi driver who had driven them to the airport confirmed it, though his tip had been so generous he had gotten drunk for a week and was consequently confused. For some reason, the house was not occupied again. The owner left it untenanted and uncared for, the bloodred carpets faded, and only the orchids thrived. They found Panioti two days later, borne on the sea currents some way from Hekati. He had not drowned and there was no visible injury on his body, save where his eyeballs had been plucked out. But that was not a story they told the tourists.
Excerpted from The Witch Queen by Jan Siegel.
Copyright © 2002 by Jan Siegel. All rights reserved.
Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House,
Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced
or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.