The Mouth of Charybdis

This selection is paired with Book 12 of The Odyssey by Homer. Get Issue 22 of NonBinary Review from Zoetic Press.

I am the mouth that swallowed your ships and ate your men. They are dead inside of me. You are the only one left, and if you let go of the root you are clinging to, I will eat you too.

But if you hold on until I spit my waters up again, you may find something to float on and you may live. None of the people who have clung to that root before have lived, but you might. Until then, save your breath, and let me speak.

None of this is my choice. I am a monster. I am Charybdis, the dread maelstrom. I can’t change what I am any more than the men on your ship could have turned into birds to escape.

That isn’t true—quite. But if you want to know the truth, you must listen to my story. You must not only listen to it, but you must believe it, and to do that, you should start by believing that lie. This story is more than a story. It’s my one remaining hope.

It’s my plea for mercy. Yes. I want your mercy.

Hold tight to your root, and I will explain myself.

First of all, I am more than a monster, at least more than you think of a monster. I am the child of Gaia, the Earth and Poseidon, the Sea. I am a God.

You laugh. You think Gods are beautiful and splendid. You know very little of Gods.

I had a God’s glory once. Like you, I couldn’t see past it. It made me arrogant. Foolish. I too thought it was what made me a God.

I was wrong. It was not my power either, though once I had that too. It is that we are, and always will be. Everything about us may change, and will change when circumstances demand it, but we cannot stop being. Give a God power and they will become beautiful to fool humans into thinking they deserve it. Chain a God to the bed of the ocean, and she will become what you see before you.

For this reason, Gods will always be either heroes or monsters. So say the wise among us.

Now, as you well know, in the beginning, the world was divided between three brothers. Zeus took the land, Hades took the dead and my father took the waters. You know the balance the three kingdoms have found. But not all balances are eternal. Some are nothing more than two fighters catching their breath between rounds.

In the early days, my father ordered us to send waves upon the Earth, to swallow and eat it. We were full of splendor, and it seemed only natural that our power should extend over the Earth as it did over the oceans. Nothing should exist, we told ourselves, that could say no to us.

Do you think I was a fool? I was a fool. I would give anything to be that fool again, but if I did, I would make the same mistake. And before you judge me, ask yourself, why did you set sail when you knew you could end up where you are? Why trust yourself to the ocean’s mercy if not for the chance to return home its conqueror?

In that spirit I launched the first attack. You should have seen me then. You should have seen me stride upon the waves I brought against the land and its cities. Then, you would have worshipped me. Humans fell to their knees in prayer when my waters crashed down upon them. I was the most beautiful of all Gods then: a God of pure, unmerciful power.

It’s hard to remember that moment now. I regret the rest of my story. I can never regret that moment. Even when I know I should…

In return, Zeus rained his lightning down upon our seas, killing the animals and boiling the water, which he held captive in the clouds. If my father had chosen to fight, I believe he could have won. Too much is meaningless if he couldn’t. But fighting was difficult, and surrendering was easy.

When Zeus chained me to the bottom of the sea, he gave me a curse: thirst. To drink the waters that I brought against the land. The punishments of Gods are eternal, and to seem just, they must appear rational. But it was never the waters that I loved. It was my power. And my crime was not drowning the Earth. It was being the lieutenant in a losing war.

You should have seen me when they first chained me down, when I had lost my power but not my splendor. You would have worshipped me then too. You would have given your life to save me.

If I had wanted to, I could have stayed like that forever. Or so I tell myself. You can only live so long on pity. Then you have to change.

I decided that since Zeus had put me here to drink, I would drink as little as possible and what I did drink, I would vomit forth, to destroy the peace of this small part of my father’s kingdom. I chose to live in spite. At the time, it seemed like power.

Three hours was as long as I could stand it. For the first hour, I ignored the thirst. For the second, I took pride in it. For the third, I endured it. Finally, I drank.

And so my mouth grew, until it was great enough to swallow nearly half this strait. My body grew thick and strong to meet the force of the waters and to pour them forth when I was done. My arms and legs, useless now, faded away.

Every trait you see that makes you call me a monster is my Godhood. They are monuments to the fact that even now, even here, I live. You won’t understand that, but if you did, you would worship me now most of all.

Don’t worry if you can’t understand that. I did, and I was just as repelled by my body as you are. I had to see myself in this coral-crusted shell, as awful as any of the creatures that share the bottom of the ocean with me. I hated this body more than you ever could.

And as I turned into this, you humans turned into something else too. You fell from your golden age to your bronze age. The golden age humans never went sailing on little wooden boats. They were pious and understood their place was the land. They were peaceful and unambitious. Not like you.

The first time I swallowed a boat and its crew in my whirlpool, I understood everything that had happened to you humans. I loved it. I loved you, the way Gods who haven’t been powerless never can. You shared my desperate desire to subdue the world and my anger at the weaknesses that made it impossible. Of all the Gods, only I could understand that about you. Only I could fully love you.

I tried to drink more slowly for you. I didn’t want to hurt you. But my body had already changed. No matter how little I opened my mouth, the water poured in, forced it open, and no matter how gently I tried to push it out, I turned the sea around me white with riptides and whirlpools.

This is the truth of being a monster. Just as the chimera can’t help but burn and the Sphinx can’t help but riddle, I couldn’t help but destroy. What else could be born of monstrous circumstances?

I ate humans gladly then, even though I loved you. As a monster, it felt right that I should destroy what I loved. It felt right to suffer.

Then she came.

To your poets, she is as inevitable as the sun. What even is Charybdis without Scylla? But they are fools. What is more natural to a monster than being alone? Where did she fit in my empty world of water, coral and rotted ships?

She was a paradox. She was exactly like me and nothing like me. If it could just be one or the other, I thought, if she were either familiar or alien, it would be easy. Instead, she hungered where I thirsted. She plucked where I engulfed. And there was something more too.

She was singularly, irreducibly human. What could be more human than Scylla? I watched her birth. I saw the witch Circe put the potion in the water that she bathed in. And for what? The pettiest of all reasons: love. No, pettier than love. Jealousy. A war of Gods brought me to this strait, and she came by way of love. The greatest human achievement: to reach glory through smallness. To be divine and foolish all at once.

Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you about Scylla?

I love her.

Am I a fool to love her? Yes, but for the first time, I accept it. Wisdom is for the powerful. To survive weakness, you must cherish your foolishness.

And besides, she has blessed me. She taught me that I am not a monster. Monsters don’t love, so to call me a monster is to doubt my love.

I can doubt anything but that.

She has blessed me doubly. When I saw her black scaled dog heads swing down on the men who tried her side of the channel, I saw something in her I had never seen in myself. She was beautiful. She was an instrument of hunger, and in her, that hunger seemed as divine as any God’s wisdom ever had. The men she took became a hecatomb offered by herself to herself, and I became her worshipper.

Now I wonder if she sees the same thing in me when I drew in water and spit it out. I felt her power and I wonder if she can feel mine. I see the humanity still in her, and I dream that she can see the God in me.

But her third blessing is the greatest.

A God who swallows the humans she loves to satisfy a forgotten grudge, I realize, is not worthy of Scylla. I can’t be this thing, this evil whirlpool, and hope for her to love me. And I do hope that she loves me, more than anything in the world. And there is only one way for me to show her that.

I am a God. I have become this, and I must become something else.

I will learn to drink slowly and gently. I will find a way not to cast my water out and scar the sea. I’ll find better ways to quench my thirst. I will reshape my body into a form worthy of the love I want.

I will be my own declaration of love to her.

If she loves me as I love her, then, I dream, maybe she will do the same for me. Maybe she can find a kinder way to sate her hunger. Maybe she too can make herself something other than a monster.

But what?

At last we come to my plea.

If you live, and I want you to live, please tell my story. Not of the mouth that devours ships, but of the lover chained across a channel from her beloved. And if you have the imagination in you, tell the story of what she becomes one day.

A God can only be a hero or a monster. That is the wisdom; it is what the stories say. I want to be neither. Both have been too much for me. The only thing left is to become something totally new, something that has never existed in this world before.

Tell my story, and give that something a shape I can grow into. Give me the promise that my shape exists and I can reach it. Give me the story that makes my love possible.

In return, the monsters you lost your ship to will become nothing more than distant myths of a small pass in the ocean. We will be forgotten as rumors or explained away by wise men.

But we will still be here, neither monsters nor heroes.

We will be whatever you have the kindness to imagine us being.

So hold on now. It won’t be long. Hold on so that I can save you and you can save me.

Please hold on.

Lillie Franks is a trans author and playwright living in Chicago, Illinois. She writes about things that could never happen because she can’t think of anything more truthful. You can follow her on Twitter at @onyxaminedlife.