The NEreids of Seriphos

. . . Here Perseus left DanaË and when after a successful voyage he
returned with Medusa’s head, and found King Polydectes making
love to Danaë, he forthwith turned him and all the Seriphiotes into
J. T Bent, The Cyclades (1885)

Sealed up in fright, the wedding party turned
to rock: the way they used to tell it,
one look at whatever the eye-catching
widow’s son had brought back from
whatever place he’d gone—out west,
or was it somewhere back east they said?—
had done it. But pin anybody down,
you find evasions, hearsay, a mere blur
of allegation.
And as for all that
weathered-clean economy, that fluted-pillared,
clear-eyed residue of myth—listen a minute
to the nineteenth-century traveler: “Of
all the towns in the Greek islands, Seriphos
will remain fixed in my mind as the
most filthy. The main street is a sewer
into which all the offal is thrown, and
it is tenanted by countless pigs. . . .”
The mire,
the stink of pigsties, of privies, of
the chamber pot upstairs, of soured milk,
mildew, kerosene, the purgatorial Lysol.
Yes. All this we know. Down there among
said-to-be-domesticated beasts—
the boar, the fenced-in bull, green drool
from bovine lips, green ooze of cowflops—
that we are animals, mire-born,
mud-cumbered, chilled and full of fear,
we know.
“The houses opening upon
this street were black holes, where sat families
shivering around charcoal fires. . . .” The discomforts
of Seriphos or of my own New Providence
(so called, an act of piety and resolution),
the terrors everybody knows about
and no one speaks of: God. Dying.
Getting caught. The telephone at midnight.
Fire. Tornadoes.
Horse Poseidon.

An old woman comes hobbling in, crossing herself
lest the stranger cast on her the evil eye.
His query has to do with certain
survivals of belief—in Nereids,
to be precise. Closing her eyes,
she groans, then mutters, “I know nothing.”
It had all happened years ago, of course.
Michael Kapuzacharias had been digging
near the church (here once again she
vehemently crosses herself) on what
had been a very calm, still day,
when suddenly a whirlwind came. They found him
lying senseless, and in that state
carried him home to his family. Of course.
The nineteenth-century traveler evinces
no surprise. All one, those whirlwinds—
Nereids, Harpies, whatever, such as carried
off the daughter of Pandareus.
Of course.
But in landlocked New Providence
(so called), a place of fright as yet
uncertified, Greek myth being merely
Guido Reni in a frame above the blackboard,
the elements are otherwise accounted for.
Thus, on the third day of June, 1860,
the meetinghouse was lifted from its foundation
by a wind wrapped in a cloud (as an eyewitness
by the name of A. M. Mulford would describe it)
of a dark purplish color, changing,
as it approached, to a white mist
so thick he could not see the fence
some thirty feet away. Whereupon (he wrote)
the wind began to blow with a fearful,
hollow, roaring sound . . .
A place of fright,
rebuilt with stained glass and a belfry, where
the sessions that, each Sunday morning, passed
for worship, were chilled still further
by the presence of a well-off farmer’s wife,
witheringly millinered, gowned, beaded,
vitrified; but in whose Gorgon look
nobody chose to speak of having met with
the evil eye—or with anything more notable
than the fatuity of those who’d rise above
the herd. The mire. The torpor.
No Nereids.
No Gorgons, “monstrous females with huge teeth
like those of swine”—thus Bulfinch,
nineteenth-century burnisher of myth,
who mentions '“an ingenious theory . . .
that the Gorgons and the Graeae were only
personifications of the terrors of the sea.”
Only. Only! (Shipwreck. Fear death by water,
whirlwind, waterspout, tornado.) No Nereids.
No Harpies. Bulfinch recycled to a tedious,
sapless anthology. Guido Reni, master
of those who prettify, auroral in a frame
above the blackboard in fifth grade. No mire.
No stink. The pig-tusked Gorgon
decertified, sealed up in fright
of the unmentionable:
Cancer. The
lurid budding of the menses. Having
your underpants fall down in public.
The epidemic that strikes down the young
before the name of what it was is known.
Exposure. Rape. Abortion. The mute
gropings of the wedding night
locked up in fright. Fright
locked in for life. Mere allegation.
Headed west, they say. Or was it
east? Nobody knows the story.