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The Gaze

When Stephanie Ascough isn't writing or parenting her four children, she likes to read, create imaginary worlds, dream about the mountains, and occasionally play around on strings (guitar and mandolin, to be specific). Her love languages include listening without interruption, dark chocolate, and burnt cheese. She believes in the value of everyone's participation in the human narrative. Her first book, A Land of Light and Shadow, was published in 2020. You can find her on her blog (stephanieascough.wordpress.com) and on Instagram @stephanieascough.
The thing about being a girl is this: you are far, far more likely to be chosen. Darius says the fates decide. But no one can ignore the fear in our leader's eyes on the day of choosing. No one can ignore his rabid relief when a girl's name is drawn for the yearly sacrifice. On the day I am chosen, I can only feel the dull weight of inevitability.
No one in this village, even after I'm gone, will ever truly feel relief. Only numbness. I guess in this way the victim is linked to those left behind.
I say goodbye to my aunt and uncle. Their faces are drawn; their eyes avoid mine. I wear my best clothes and walk at the head of the crowd to the place where I will meet my fate. It's almost always the young girls, someone mutters. Why is that? Don't worry, there are others, someone else says with a snicker. I walk among them now, but no one seems to know I am there. My legs are heavy and my mind is almost blank. Already, I am gone.
We have walked half the night. The ropes bind me in pitch blackness to the cool obelisk at my back, slick with the terror of every victim left tied here. I think of Nessa, held down not by ropes but by other's hands, and who may as well have been turned to stone for what Darius's sons did to her. But Darius's sons can do no wrong. And Nessa's choosing had come and gone a year ago.
Will this be as painful? Or will it be worse? I do not know if I am thinking about Nessa's first or second death. I almost forget I am thinking of my own.
The crowd trickles away, laughing with relief. Another year of peace from the monster.
I wait during the bottomless hours of night. My mind remains blank, because I have practiced this. But when the first golden streaks light the sky, panic rises in my chest like smoke from a fire. Where is it? Let it be over soon.
I see the monster then.
We are told to avert our eyes, but I cannot. The writhing mass ascends the hill below me. It is not very large. In fact, the monster looks very much like a woman, but for the strange hair undulating about her shoulders.
She stands opposite me now. Her face is green and scaled, like the snakes whispering from her head.
"Just do it," I say, looking my fate in the eyes. That's when I feel the first true shock: her face is kind.
"Child." Her sibilant voice glides toward me, a sturdy rope let down a well shaft. I realize I've been down that well shaft my whole life. "You will be safe with me. Come join the others."
She unties me, takes my hand. Together we walk down the hill and leave the obelisk to bake in the sun.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 6th, 2021


This story came to me after I was reaquainted with a certain snake-haired creature from Greek mythology. If monsters are born from humanity's fears, what does Medusa tell us?

- Stephanie Ascough
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