The Scylla came from her lair then – green and brown, in solid strands, like regurgitated food. She came and she kept coming, a geyser of gruesome gristle, coils uncoiling, a squid-like softness in her boneless tentacles. On the end of each tentacle gaped a mouth ragged with teeth. The Scylla’s brain was sunk somewhere in the core of her body, in the depth of her cave. There were no eyes or brain cells in her finger-ends, only a jumble of jagged teeth.
Each mouth seized someone – a sharp, serrated pain. One snatched Stheno, another a cyclops, another a sheep. Typhon reared up in fury, only to have one of his heads bitten clean off.
Pegasus and the harpies took off, to escape the slashing jaws. One harpy, though was snapped up in mid-air – a crunching, leathery noise like a piece of baggage being crushed. Hylas made no sound: the first Thoősa knew he had gone was when Typhon’s deafening voices demanded, “GIVE BACK MY LUCKY BOY!” In demanding it, he snagged hold of one of her tentacles, and might have grappled with her had he not been knocked off his feet by a herd of terrified sheep stampeding towards the stern. The spider Arachne, sitting on Thoősa’s shoulder, whispered, “No! Take me! Take me! Take me!” Opportunities to die were a sweet agony for Arachne. But she was too small a mouthful for the Scylla even to see. The sixth mouth closed on the nape of Talos’ metal neck, slid off with a hideous grating noise, only to grope around and find better purchase…
In that cold remote state that sometimes overtakes people meeting their death, Thoősa thought: Thoősa of Mysia: hostage of Heracles, strode Pegasus, was eaten by the Scylla. It still did not seem enough of a story.
She knew at once that this was the Scylla, of course: the mythical ambusher who sipped sailors off their ships and swallowed them all the way down to death. Even back in Mysia, she had heard the stories. Since then, she had met the monster’s mother, Lamia, and heard tell of another sister ….
“I know your family,” thought Thoősa out loud. And then louder: “Scylla, your mother is here, look! Your mother the Lamia is here! We are friends of your mother! She’ll be angry if you eat us! …And Scylla, I know your sister Sullah! Listen, listen! I have a message for you from your sister! Don’t you want to hear?” Far below her – very far now, for the Scylla was recoiling into her den – the Cetus swam on out of reach of danger.
Aboard the sea monster there was a confusion of panic, rage and noise. Some passengers had been dislodged into the ocean. Typhon, in sheerrage, had kicked the whimpering Laelaps overboard. Now he was commanding the Cetus to turn back, ordering the Furies to attack. But the Furies could not hear him above the shrill racket of the Lamia keening and wailing. The sheep were milling about.
High aloft, the Scylla gathered in her tentacles. The sheep gripped in one of the mouths flailed through the air towards Thoősa and she found herself in among its sharp little hooves, it bony legs, its wet wool. The sheep was silent, but the noise from the Lamia far below was piercing: a needle through the eardrums. “Child! Girl of mine! My daughter child! Lift me up! I’m here! Your mother is here!”
“Listen, Scylla! Do you hear?” urged Thoősa. “That’s your mother. She’s calling to you!”
Typhon (always incensed by anything taller than himself) was reaching skywards, necks at full stretch, while he stamped again and again on Cetus’s spine to make it go back to below the cave-mouth. It was not his way to flee a fight and never his way to leave an attacker living. His wife, though, was weeping tears of bitterest gall, torn between comforting her friend the Lamia and bellowing upwards for the return of her other friend Stheno.
No one has ever seen what the body of the Scylla looks like, thought Thoősa with the same stone cold detachment. Only her legs. But no, of course that was not true. Lots had seen it. They had just never lived to describe it.
The walls of the Scylla’s cave were worn eggshell-smooth from the restless squirming of her body. As a youngster, she had had room to turn, to stretch out, to digest her prey or tear it in pieces and eat it a little at a time. But she had grown, as all children do who cannot run about in the open and who regularly gorge on sailors. There were eggs, too - rubbery eggs piled up in the back of the cave, waiting to hatch. The sac containing Scylla’s large brain and larger stomach almost filled the remaining space, and it took her several clumsy attempts to fold her limbs away into her lair, coiling each tentacle in turn, as once she had wound her plaited hair around her pretty head.
Before the O’s had made her vile.
Scylla could draw only one victim at a time inside the cave. The rest, held in the curled tips of her tentacles, were bunched together in the doorway.
From down below it must look (thought Thoősa vacantly) as if we are queuing to get in. Freeing one hand, she reached out and took hold of Hylas’ hair. It was matted with blood where the Scylla had smacked him against the cliff: a hunter’s technique to stop her prey struggling. So that was why Hylas had made no sound.
The sheep was warm against Thoősa’s back now. The cyclops was punching at the tentacle round his waist. Stheno the gorgon, whose arms were pinned tightly to her sides, was tossing her snaky hair against the green skin, inflicted snake-bites on the limb that clasped her. She distilled venom by thinking her blackest thoughts, so her eyes were shut in concentration. Her snake-hair hissed like water coming to the boil.
Wake up, Hylas. The Scylla is going to eat you,” said Thoősa, then returned to her relentless chant. “Listen, Scylla! Your sister Sullah sent a message to Scylla. Listen, Scylla! Don’t you want to hear what your silly sister Sullah says?”
Inside the cave, the Scylla transferred the carcase of the harpy to her true mouth, and struggled with the meaning of words. After living so long alone, she found words harder to digest than flesh. Sullah. Scylla. Sullah your sister… listen Scylla… your silly sister Sullah, Scylla….
Typhon pelted the cliff face with foul mouthfuls of flame, singeing the sheep that hung captive outside the Scylla’s cave. The sheep, which had swung there, docile and wide-eyed till that moment, felt its fleece char and began to struggle. The Scylla banged it against the cliff. Meanwhile, the venom of the snakebites was muddling her brain with other messages: paralysis and pain. She fumbled her grip on Stheno who – had she really thought her plan through? – fell headlong and screaming into the sea below.
But the falling gorgon did not dislodge another figure spread-eagled against the cliff-face, doggedly climbing: the Lamia was clambering upwards, upwards towards the cave. Instinct was dragging her there. Her massive, muscular tail found grip where fingers never could have. Rags of her bridal dress snagged in crannies here and there, like snow blow.
Thoősa, meanwhile, kept up her insistent mantra: “Salutations, Scylla, from your sister Sullah! She stayed behind in Monstro – in Arima – underground. She was scared, do you see? Too scared to come with us. She likes to stay secret, inside. Hidden. Like you, Scylla. Sullah sends her kisses, Scylla…”
Inside the Scylla’s head, the words seethed and surged, like the soft sibilance of the sea. Hard to tell the difference. Sullah sister wishes kisses. Her jaws ground on the dead harpy. Her tendrils wrung her prisoners white. But she did not swallow. The mention of her sister had filled her throat with a lumpy sorrow that made it hard to eat. An unexpected figure wormed its way into view over the sill of the cave and between the legs of the captives. Scylla’s bulbous skull tilted quizzically.
“Daughter mine!” cried the Lamia.