Medea (Christa Wolf)

book cover

first pullquote

second pullquote
  So this is how it is: either I'm out of my mind, or their city is founded on a crime. No, believe me, I'm quite clear on this point, what I say or think about it is quite clear to me, for I've found the proof, yes, I've touched it with my own hands. Oh, it's not arrogance that threatens to undo me now. The woman -- I simply followed her. Perhaps I just wanted to teach Jason a lesson, since he'd stood by and let them seat me at the end of the table among the servants, that's it, I didn't dream that, that was yesterday. At least they're the highest-ranking servants, he said pathetically, don't cause a scandal, Medea, please, not today, you know what's at stake, the King can't lose face in front of all his foreign guests. Ah, Jason, save your breath. He still hasn't understood that King Creon can't grieve me anymore, but that's not what I'm talking about, I have to clear my head. I have to promise myself never to speak about my discovery to a living soul. The best thing would be to do what Chalciope and I used to do with secrets when we were children, do you know what that was, Mother? We'd wrap our secret up tight in a leaf and eat it up while staring into one another's eyes. Our childhood -- or rather everything in Colchis -- was full of dark secrets, and when I arrived here, a refugee in King Creon's gleaming city-state of Corinth, I had an envious thought: these people have no secrets. And that's what they think too, that's what makes them so convincing; with every look, with every one of their measured movements, they're drumming it into you: Here's one place in the world where a person can be happy. It was only later that I realized how much they hold it against you if you express doubts about their happiness. But that's not what I'm talking about either, what's the matter with my head? It's buzzing with a whole swarm of thoughts, why is it so hard for me to reach into the swarm and snatch out the one thought I need?

I had the good fortune to be seated at the King's table between my friend Leukon, Creon's Second Astronomer, and Telamon. You know him too, Mother, he was the Argonaut who came to the palace with Jason after they landed on the Colchian coast. So I knew I wouldn't be bored at the banquet. Leukon's a clever man, I love to talk with him, there's a sympathy between us; and Telamon, though perhaps a bit uncouth, has been devoted to me since that first afternoon in Colchis, so many years ago that I can hardly count them. In my presence he always tries to be especially witty, also especially obscene, we all had to laugh. Resolved to punish the King from my lowly place, I acted the part of a princess -- which is, after all, what I am, right, Mother? A great Queen's daughter. It wasn't hard for me to attract notice and demand respect, even from the foreign emissaries, the Libyans and the Mediterranean islanders. Telamon played along; we had poor Jason in a tight spot, torn between jealousy and his eagerness to please a King we're all, of course, dependent on. He lifted a surreptitious glass to me, cautioning me with stern looks not to let my exuberance go too far, but whenever the King launched into one of his tirades Jason had to hang on his lips. We were having a merry time at our end of the table, now everything's coming back to me again. How the two men at my sides began to quarrel over me, how Leukon, tall, thin, a bit awkward, with his oval-shaped skull that understands jokes but can't make any, started to extol my abilities as a healer to Telamon, a giant with curly blond hair, and how thereupon Telamon went into loud raptures over my physical attributes, my brown skin, he said, for example, my woolly hair that all we Colchians have, that's what conquered Jason right away, and him besides, but what was he compared to Jason, and then he became sentimental, strong men do that so easily, my burning eyes, he said. Yes, you do know him, Mother, whenever I see him I remember how you put your hand to your mouth as though in fright and yelled out Aiee! when he appeared in our doorway. It was a cry of appreciation, if I'm not mistaken, and I remember how your eyes sparkled, and how I noticed that you were by no means an old woman yet, and then against my will my sour-faced, suspicious father crossed my mind. Ah, Mother. I'm not a young woman anymore, but according to the Corinthians I'm still wild, as far as they're concerned a woman is wild if she has a mind of her own. The Corinthian women seem like thoroughly tamed house pets to me, they stare at me as though I'm some strange apparition, and we three merrymakers at the end of the table drew all eyes upon us, all the courtiers' envious, indignant eyes, and also poor Jason's pleading ones -- well, yes.

Why did I follow that woman, the Queen, when I'd barely caught a glimpse of her during all my years in Corinth? Wrapped up in a thick cocoon of bloodcurdling rumors, securely hidden behind her unapproachability, she passes her days and her nights in the remotest, oldest wing of the palace, inside thick-walled rooms said to resemble dimly lit caves, fitter for a prisoner than a sovereign, served and guarded by two peculiarly rugged females who, however, are supposed to be quite devoted to her in their way. I don't believe she knows my name, and I had never wasted a thought on the unhappy Queen of a country that has always seemed alien to me and will stay that way forever. How my head aches, Mother, something inside me balks at climbing down into those caves again, into the Underworld, into Hades -- where for ages people have died and been born again, where living beings are baked fresh from the humus of the dead--and so back to the mothers, back to the goddess of death. But what can forward and back mean there? My fever's mounting -- I had to do it. The first time I saw this woman at Creon's side, Mother, it was with that second sight that you recognized in me. I struggled with all my might against becoming the pupil of that young priest, I preferred getting sick. Now I remember; it was during that same sickness that you showed me the lines in my palms, and later that priest committed some dreadful crimes, he wasn't a normal person, and that's when you said, the child has second sight. I've almost lost it here, sometimes I think the Corinthians' morbid fear of what they call my magical powers has robbed me of my gift. And so I was shocked when I saw Queen Merope. She was sitting beside King Creon without a word, she seemed to hate him and he seemed to fear her -- anyone with eyes in his head could have seen that. I mean something else. I mean that suddenly it became completely quiet. That I had that flickering in front of my eyes that comes before second sight. That in the vast banquet hall this woman and I were alone. I saw her there, her aura almost completely darkened by inconsolable grief, so much so that I was horror-stricken and I had to follow her when she stood up stiffly in her gold-embroidered formal dress as soon as the meal was over and left the room without a word of explanation, without so much as a good night for the foreign merchants and emissaries, thus forcing the King to cover up her impertinence by talking fast and laughing loudly. His defeat rejoiced my heart. He must have forced this woman to present her ravaged face to all those vain, prying people just as Jason had brought me to the point of performing a little comedy for them. Now I'd had enough. Both of us left for the same reason: pride. You once told me, and I've never forgotten it, that anyone who wanted to kill me would have to deal more blows to my pride than to anything else. Nothing has changed in that regard, nor will it, and it would be a good thing for my poor Jason to grasp this fact before too long.

I followed the woman. That passage, the one that leads to the banquet hall -- how often have I walked along it at Jason's side, the respected wife of the royal nephew and guest-friend, in times that seemed happy to me. How could I have deceived myself so thoroughly? But nothing is so deceptive as happiness, and there's no place that clouds clarity of perception so much as a place in the retinue of a King. It looked as though the earth had swallowed up Merope, there had to be some sort of hatch or opening somewhere, I searched around and found it hidden behind a pile of pelts. I took one of the burning torches from its holder and slipped into the passageway, which soon became so low that I had to walk stooped over, or did I dream that, the gloomy, vaulted cellarage, the King's bright glorious palace as its own counterimage in the depths of the earth, built into the darkness. The stone stairs, down one flight after another, I must have dreamed that; but the cold, surely that was no dream, I'm still shivering, nor the sharp-edged stones that tore my skin, why else would my arms be so covered with crusted scratches? And then at the bottom, at the deepest level, in that cellar where even in this dry country there were pools of water, the entrance to a labyrinth of caves, two steps and then down on my belly, crawling forward, protecting the torch that was only flickering now, not thinking anymore about Merope, who might or might not be ahead of me, not thinking about anything or anyone anymore, just knowing I must go on, on and on; when the passage finally broadened into a cave, it was familiar to me from my dreams -- if not, how did I know that the way forked there, how did I know that I had to keep to my left and that soon my torch would go out? It went out. At that point the passage was so narrow that I would have had to crawl backward to get out, therefore I had to keep going, knowing full well it could mean my undoing -- one's always hearing about someone who got lost while exploring underground caves and died inside them. Do I want to die, the question crossed my mind, I set my teeth and kept on crawling, then I licked some moisture seeping from the walls, tasteless dampness, then I sensed that the composition of the air was changing, and then my hair stood up even before I heard the sound. Then I heard the sound. It lasted longer than a person has breath, a barely audible but penetrating whining. It could just as well have been an animal, but it was no animal.

It was the woman. It was Merope. I wanted to go back, all the way back, and I pushed myself forward inch by inch. All at once, the sound stopped; the hammer in my chest drowned out any other noise, it hasn't stopped, it's hammering all the way up to my temples. Then, when my eyes had glimpsed the right direction in the darkness, I saw the Queen, sitting in the dim light of her little oil lamp, braced straight and still against the rocky cave wall, her eyes unwaveringly fixed on a point across from her. In this icy cold I was drenched with sweat, I stank of horror, such a thing had never happened to me. Something stirred in me that I had kept locked up and almost forgotten, something came alive in that corpses' crypt. This wasn't a game anymore. That whole production at the King's table, how vain that had been, how vain and affected my own behavior. But I've known one thing for a long time: there's a role in the big machine even for someone who makes fun of it. I wasn't going in for that sort of thing very much anymore, it's true, yet I must admit that I let a trace of coquetry spur me on at the King's banquet, instead of Merope's total, uncompromising refusal, and now she'd led me here, to the bottom of the Underworld, where my horror was suddenly replaced by panic, because there was something uncannily silent creeping in there, something I must hide from, but there weren't any cracks or fissures in the rock. Whatever was slithering this way had learned to move soundlessly, without causing so much as a current of air, even better than I can do it. For you taught me how to move like that at a very early age, Mother, showed me movement made up of tiny non-movements, and I learned how to melt into walls too--I'd need that in my father's palace, you said, before I understood why -- as well as the breathing that holds back every breath that would otherwise escape from a person's body; all I'd learned was still there, it took over the commands and stopped me from shivering out loud at the sight of the creature, the shadow of a shadow, that propelled itself to the woman's side, whispered a word to her, and took the dimming lamp out of her hand. Whereupon the Queen allowed herself to be led away by this female, as I now perceived her to be, and as the cave narrowed they both had to go down on their knees, a movement that I involuntarily imitated. I knelt down, either out of weakness or out of gratitude to a god who had extricated me from yet another predicament. Or out of mortal fear.

I waited until the women were out of earshot, and then I began to feel my way along the walls of the cave. I had to know this Queen's secret. In complete darkness my fingertips found what I suppose they were looking for: scratches in the stone not put there by nature, surfaces scraped with tools familiar to me from Colchis, lines that I could follow until they formed signs and figures which, as I knew, people here in Corinth carved in the cave graves of the eminent dead. This jibed with the suspicion I wouldn't yet have been able to express. At the spot where Merope had sat, I went down on all fours and crawled across to the wall the Queen had stared at, felt with reluctant fingers for the deep niche carved into the rock, found what I had feared to find, and uttered a cry that echoed in the maze of caves. Then I retraced my steps. I had learned what I wanted to know, I promised myself to forget it as soon as possible, and since then I can think of nothing but that meager, childish skull, those fine-boned shoulder blades, that brittle spinal column. Ah me.

The city is founded on a monstrous deed.
author's page
Bold Type
Excerpted from Medea by Christa Wolf. Copyright © 1998 by Christa Wolf. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.