(content warning: childhood trauma, strangulation, snakes)
When I was young, I loved minerals. My favorite corner of our local natural science museum was home to the gem vault and its glass cases full of sparkling stones. I was so small in the beginning that I had to stand on tiptoe just to catch a glimpse of them on my own. My second favorite place was the gift shop where miniature synthetic replicas were sold. Each time we visited, I was allowed to buy one, until soon I had my own collection at home in a tiny, clear plastic container. I liked the way their bright colors jumbled together. I liked the rattling sound they made when I gave the box a gentle shake.
When I was young, I had beautiful hair. At least, that’s what everyone on the playground always told me. My long locks were straight, shiny, silky, and blacker than a bottomless hole. All the popular girls, who would never acknowledge me otherwise, came up to ask whether I washed with kids’ shampoo or shared a bottle with my mother. As if those were the only two options. I told them the tangled truth, that neither theory was correct.
When I was young, my best friend tried to strangle me with her bare hands. She did so repeatedly, each time taking me to what felt like the brink of death. I didn’t understand then what I’d done to provoke her. I didn’t understand then that I was only a stand-in for monsters at home that she herself was too young to fight. Most of all, I didn’t understand then why I never even considered confronting her until her family had moved away and left me without the option. I never saw her again, though later, much later, I desperately wished I could.
When I was young, I was afraid of snakes. My father and I regularly took weekend walks down by the creek behind our house, during which we’d swap stories about our weekday lives. On one excursion, he pointed out the dark, cylindrical shapes near the water, like coil pots made of unbaked clay. “Snakes in hibernation,” he warned me. Five poisonous varieties roamed our region, so we had to stay vigilant: “Remember, by the time you hear that telltale rattle, it’s already too late.” I wasn’t afraid of their venom, though. I wasn’t afraid of their fangs. I was afraid of their entire bodies, the way they looked like they could wind themselves around my neck like a garrote, stealing both my breath and my voice in one swift movement.
When I was young, I started losing my beautiful hair. At first, I only found a few stray strands curled around my hair elastics, or little nests in the drain strainer of my bathtub. But by ninth grade, I had a bald spot the size of a half dollar on top of my head. I began parting my hair to the other side. Instead of spending weekends at birthday parties, I spent them at doctors’ offices. Everyone there told me I was perfectly healthy. They wondered aloud if maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself. “Relax, Medusa,” they said. “You are young. You have nothing to worry about.”
When I was young, we dissected earthworms in Biology class before moving on to larger, more anatomically complex animals. I tried not to think about their snake-like bodies as I ran the blade of my scalpel down their cold bellies. In that classroom, my hair continued to betray me. My lab experiments were often tainted by wayward strands. I became so notorious for this dubious feat that if the same problem befell anyone else, our teacher would call it “pulling a Medusa,” and she always watched with a crooked smile as my cheeks burned at the taunting remark.
When I was young, that same teacher informed us that she could tell whether a girl was a virgin just by looking at her fully clothed. She uttered this proclamation in front of the boys in our class, too. They spent the rest of the semester ogling us girls from each and every angle, their x-ray gazes hunting for the key that unlocked the puzzle box of our bodies. My hair only grew thinner after that. I began wrapping a scarf around my head to hide the patches of exposed scalp. No one ever called those thinning tresses beautiful anymore.
When I was young, I woke up one morning to the soothing sound of sibilant voices inviting me back from the depths of sleep. “It’sss almosssst noon, Medusssssa,” they hissed, in a Greek chorus of collective sighs. Earnest. Filled with expectations. I opened my eyes to find myself face-to-face-to-face-to-face-to-face with a seemingly endless parade of rattlesnake heads crowding my personal space. I thought I must be dreaming. I thought I was trapped in my worst nightmare. But I couldn’t wake up because I was already awake. I scrambled out from under the covers to escape the hotbed of slithering creatures that must have somehow invaded my pillow during the night. But when I did, they followed. Because, I quickly realized, they had sprouted from the back of my head the way my hair once had. I screamed.
When I was young, I thought this new development was a punishment. A punishment for my vanity. My fear. My ssexuality. Some cruel act of puberty. I avoided mirrorss, refussed to look at what was right in front of me. Until an amazing thing happened: I opened my lidss in the middle of Biology classss and found my teacher sstaring back. As ssoon as she made eye contact, she turned to ssstone. Gemssstone, to be exact. Not a ssstatue, but a perfectly sssmooth pebble of mottled green-and-black ssserpentine that rocked gently in the ssspot where she once ssstood. The whole classssss ssscreamed.
When I wassss older, I realized my new head of hair wassss actually a gift. Because of it, I was eventually able to overcome my fear of baldnessssssss, of ssssnakessss, of humanssss and their threatening pressssencessss. I managed to ssssusssstain fulfilling relationshipssss without face-to-face communication. But ssssometimessss I encountered people who reminded me of that teacher, thosssse boyssss, my childhood friend. When these unfortunate souls looked me in the eyessss, I wassss still richly rewarded. With ssssstunning cutsssss of authentic amber, opal, sssssapphire, aquamarine, onyx, garnet, emerald, amethyssssst, and cubic zirconia. Very sssssoon, I had to find a much bigger box for my ssssstonesssss. And the delicioussssss sssssssound they produced when agitated echoed like the ghosssssstssssss of my new friendssssss’ missssssssssssing tailssssss.
Susan L. Lin is a Taiwanese American storyteller who hails from southeast Texas and holds an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts. Her novella Goodbye to the Ocean won the 2022 Etchings Press novella prize and is now available to purchase at susanllin.wordpress.com, where you can also find more of her published work. In her spare time, she enjoys sewing summer dresses, dancing to ’90s hits, reading mystery thrillers, and streaming TV.
Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson