HEAD OF MEDUSA by Marilar Aleixandre

The Roman poet Ovid’s famous book of poetry Metamorphoses contains a succession of women who are changed into something else after they have been raped. One of these is Medusa, the Gorgon, daughter of the sea deities (and also siblings) Phorcys and Ceto. She is reputed to have been a ravishingly beautiful maiden, with striking hair, who received the attention of many suitors. She was raped by the god of the sea, Neptune, in Minerva’s temple. In anger at this desecration of her temple, Minerva turned Medusa’s hair into serpents and made her face so terrible to behold that it would turn any who looked at it into stone. The Greek hero Perseus, son of Jupiter and the mortal Danaë, was sent by the king of Seriphos, Polydectes, who desired Perseus’ mother and wished to get Perseus out of the way, to behead the Gorgon. For this purpose, he received help from the gods: a shield of polished bronze, winged sandals, an adamantine sword and Hades’ helm of darkness (or invisibility cloak). According to the myth, he beheaded her in her sleep and used her head as a weapon before giving it to Minerva. But who is the real victim here? Medusa suffers for her beauty. She is raped by a god and punished by another. People then avoid looking her in the eye in case they are turned to stone. And how does the myth of Medusa relate to two students in Galicia in their final year at school, Sofía and Lupe, who after a fancy-dress dinner, in the early hours of the morning, are picked up by two men and sexually assaulted? What will the reaction of their classmates be? Will they be prepared to look them in the eye? And how will the girls themselves respond to this assault in a society that may prefer to sweep its acts of indecency under the carpet and turn a blind eye? Head of Medusa is a story of wrongdoing, friendship, renewal and moral courage.

Chapter 1 - FANCY DRESS

The azure Liriope, whom once Cephisus encircled in his winding stream, and offered violence to, when enclosed by his waters.

Ovid, Metamorphoses III.342-4


The Friday on which she was going to be raped started off muggy, the city struggling to push the tops of the buildings through the rags of mist. From the window of her bedroom, Sofía gazed at the houses that separated them from the coast, wrapped in a fog that rises from the water at the onset of spring, but sometimes gets ahead of itself and arrives in time for carnival, obstructing the circulation of cars and words. It was the beginning of February.

She stared at the fog and frowned. What clothes would she put on for the dinner if the weather didn’t improve? This doubt may have concealed another that had been pestering her all week: did the costume her mother had prepared for really suit her? Perhaps revealing her shoulders – which were so white Sofía didn’t like looking in the mirror – hadn’t been such a good idea. What was worse, two spots had appeared on her cleavage only a couple of days earlier. A disaster. But when it’s a quarter to eight and the first class – language – starts at ten to nine, she has no time to think about anything other than putting the milk in the microwave, wolfing down a biscuit in two bites, having a shower in three minutes and leaving for school with her chestnut hair still wet and her rucksack full of make-up pencils and confetti.

The only classes that day would be language and one after that. Following morning break, carnival would burst through the school corridors into the classrooms and spill into the assembly hall with a procession of carnival outfits, an award ceremony and a performance by Os Amolados do Se(i)xo, a group of rappers from Seixo heights, between Calvario and Cabral, fans of 5Talegos, Ghamberros and As Garotas, who, even though, like her, they were in their last year of high school or business studies, dreamed of making a living from music, of being famous, of youngsters pleading for their signature in the street and young women falling into their arms. All they had achieved for the moment was a succession of reprimands from the mother of Óscar, who played the drums, because of their inability to keep the garage where they practised tidy and clean. And the unconditional admiration of Nuno, Óscar’s younger brother, who attended their rehearsals with great enthusiasm.

When Sofía entered the classroom, a couple of minutes before Olga, the Galician teacher, there were already half a dozen people in fancy dress. Lorena, of course, who always wore such outlandish clothes it would have been strange for her to dress normally, though it was difficult to work out what she was meant to be. Manolo and his colleagues had dressed as characters from South Park. It suited them, though, in Sofía’s opinion, none of the four of them was nearly half as intelligent as Kyle. Manolo had a pillow under his jersey with the aim of resembling the overweight Eric and a drawing on his T-shirt showing a heart next to “CHEESY FARTS”. Suso was Stan; Carlos, holding a stuffed elephant, was the clever Kyle; and that must have been Artur under Kenny’s orange hood. The hood and caps didn’t last long because the first thing Olga did when she entered the class was tell them to take them off.

Carnival began today, but Olga was unimpressed by mere events of the calendar. She had given them some homework on Tuesday and, carnival or no carnival, it was now time to hand it in. The homework had been received by most of the class as if they’d been asked to collect water in a basket. Who on earth would think of asking them to select a text by a contemporary author!

“Contemporary,” Olga had emphasized, “that means someone who lives at the same time as us, although… to make the selection easier, let’s leave a margin of ten years, so any author who’s alive today or has died in the last ten years.”

Manolo was one of those who protested most vociferously.

“You mean we can’t choose Rosalía or Cunqueiro or…? What if we don’t know any living writers? That’s not fair!”

Olga raised her hand, asking for silence.

“I didn’t hear that, Manolo, which is better for you, otherwise I’d be telling you you’re going to find it difficult to pass. How can you not know any living writers? In the course, in the textbook, there are at least a dozen of them.”

Artur rushed to defend his boss.

“Depends what you mean by ‘know’, Olga. We know their names, of course we do, but as for selecting a work by them… do you really think we remember anything they wrote?”

“One page,” Olga specified. “One page minimum, three pages max. If you can’t remember any of them, then you have the school library, bookshops and the Internet at your disposal.”

What other people found difficult was the idea of writing one or two pages to justify their choice. It didn’t require the same effort to choose a title as it did to read what the teacher had given you, to say why you liked a story or a novel as it did to answer questions that were more or less predictable.

Sofía got her idea from Sinda, the Latin teacher. In the spring term, they’d been translating episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which gave Sinda the opportunity in class to discuss equality (or discrimination) between men and women. Analyzing the turbulent relationship between a god and a nymph, Sinda came out with a sentence that piqued Sofía’s curiosity.

“They’re almost relations of love-hate, one of the central themes in all poetry and in Pilar Pallarés’ Book of Devorations.”

It was the first time she’d heard that word, and Sofía thought “devoration” would not appear in the dictionaries, but had been invented by the poet, a cross between “devour” and “oration”. But when she found out it was defined in the dictionary as “the act of devouring”, it became etched on her imagination as if it belonged to her. She borrowed the book from the school library. It was a slim volume, little more than fifty pages, which, according to the slip on the flyleaf, was being lent for the first time now, ten years after its publication. She typed out the third poem, “and when the time comes for memory I hate you”, which was probably one of the poems Sinda referred to, on her computer.

She imagined most of her classmates would select a novel or a story. She knew her friend Lupe had selected a passage from Xosé Miranda’s novel Wolfskin, in which Ana, one of the main characters, defends wolves because they run free and do not bear the mark of a leash, as dogs do. It was true that Lupe hadn’t had a chance to listen to Sinda, since she wasn’t doing humanities, but natural and health sciences and, while students of both specialities were mixed in class 2-D, they only had certain subjects in common. Lupe would have found it easier to justify why she’d chosen the vibrant story of two sisters who turned into wolves at night than Sofía would to explain what it was that moved her in that poem by Pilar Pallarés that ended “to unleash his dogs to devour me”.

Before collecting their homework, Olga asked some of them to read out what they had written. Listening to Manolo read a page from Winter Letters by Agustín Fernández Paz, a very popular book which, judging by the way he stammered through it, was obviously new to him, Sofía was confident the teacher’s eyes would not come to rest on her name. But she was unlucky.

After so many years together at school, you can already tell, before reading a poem out loud, who is not going to sink into the beautiful words, but is going to start laughing softly on hearing “the spume of his sex” or “hunger for his mouth”. Sofía was annoyed with herself, first for having chosen a love poem and second for giving more importance to the childish giggles of those who had not surpassed the age of South Park and “fart-bottom-pee” than to her own decisions. But she couldn’t help her voice trembling as she read:


mother similar to the spume of his sex is that of vengeance

have pity on me who lies to the left of the bed

with hunger for his mouth and his spittle

and an ivy in my stomach


mother make me a crown of diminutive teeth to bite me

have pity on me

who was detained by God’s sword at the door to Paradise

and walks lost in nostalgia for his acid tongue

and the wax in my waist

bereft of the initial syllable of all words

and already so given to death


Luckily, it was only necessary to read the text, not the justification. And Olga, with a withering look, kept those who had started a small ruckus in order.

“Wonderful, Sofía. A very original choice, bearing in mind we haven’t read anything in class by Pilar Pallarés, a contemporary poet with one of the most powerful voices. Quiet!”

For the next class, the eleven pupils in humanities had to leave to take an optional subject in another classroom, while those in sciences stayed behind to study maths. Sofía was just putting her books in her rucksack when she noticed Rubén from sciences standing next to her. This was a boy who, in the second year of high school, had had a babyish face, hair falling over his forehead and a perpetual look of surprise in his eyes. That was why he’d been given the nickname Baby. And yet Baby by now must have been about one metre eighty, and she had to look up at him from below.

“Do you want to sit here? I’m just leaving.”

“No, no,” he replied. “I wanted to tell you I also like the poem you read. It’s a difficult text. Not everybody appreciates what’s difficult.”

Even though boys didn’t usually go red, his cheeks seemed to have done so. Unsure what to answer, Sofía finished gathering her books and left.

After eleven o’clock, she forgot all about crowns of teeth or thorns, since the commotion of carnival pulled her towards 2-A’s classroom, which had been turned into a dressing room for girls who painted each other’s faces, exchanged items of clothing and tried on their costumes.

“Isn’t that blouse a bit risqué? You can almost see through it!”

“What’s the costume then – odalisque or nun?” retorted Lorena, playing the role of image assessor. “Besides, with that top underneath, the only thing that’s showing is your tummy button… If you want, I can lend you a plaster to cover it up…”

“What a huge amount of raw hormones!” whispered Lupe to Sofía. “As soon as they’re loose, some of these girls are going to go straight for the boys’ jugulars.”

“Boys in the plural, no. There are some whose jugular I wouldn’t bite even if it was smeared with strawberry jam.”

“What about Matías’?”

“His, yes. He’s so good-looking it makes you dizzy.”

They knew this was pure rhetoric. It would have been difficult for either of them to reach Matías’ jugular since he was thirty centimetres taller than them. Also, according to Sofía, biting a boy’s jugular meant the boy had to exude an air of morbidness and Matías, a swarthy boy with grey eyes who, judging by appearance, was only interested in basketball, was altogether lacking in morbidness. She hadn’t kissed anybody yet, perhaps because she hadn’t found anyone who was morbid enough or, to be quite honest, because no boy had made an attempt to kiss her. She sometimes felt hunger for a boy’s spittle, but didn’t know which one. It wouldn’t be long – a fortnight earlier, on 21 January, she had turned eighteen. Most of the girls in her class had already tasted a boy’s spittle. There were those like Lorena who’d been snogging boys since they were thirteen, or so they claimed. It wasn’t just a question of kissing for kissing’s sake, but of identifying the male with whom that kiss would turn into a glorious event, worthy of being remembered – she was sure of this – all her life.

Sitting at one of the tables, very patiently, Jessica was painting Belén’s nails while explaining:

“This is the French way of painting them, you see? With a white edge, like the edge of the nail, and the rest in colour… This pearly orange colour suits you very well.”

Belén watched on in fascination as her fingers were transformed into glistening jewels by Jessica’s rapid hands. Jessica lived in a shelter home, she came to school for her classes and then went back to sleep there. She wasn’t the only student from a shelter home, but she was the only girl and the only one who’d chosen to do a high-school diploma instead of vocational training. Even though this information was meant to be a secret, somehow everybody in the class ended up knowing about it, even if they were unaware of the exact problems that affected her and her family. According to Carlos, who for certain things was a bit of a clever clogs, the ones with the problems were the children.

“Children of drug addicts or something like that end up with a family. The ones who are left behind in an orphanage, it’s because they’ve done something.”

Jessica would sometimes mention a grandmother who lived in Mallas, a village near Fisterra, where she spent her weekends. She was seventeen, like most of her classmates, but looked older and, although her features were not exactly regular, the boys considered her the most attractive girl in the class because of her curves, which she accentuated with tight clothing, and her permanent good mood. She realized Sofía was gazing at Belén’s manicure and made an offer:

“If you like, I can paint yours as well.”

It had never even occurred to Sofía to paint her nails since it was only five months earlier that she had stopped biting them. Before knowing how to reply, she found herself sitting opposite Jessica, her hands held out on the table, being asked:

“In the French style, then?”

“No… no, I don’t think so. Belén’s are very long, but I don’t think there’s enough room on mine for two colours.”

“This one?” said Jessica, showing her a scarlet colour that would have been visible at a distance of ten metres.

“I think that one would be better,” Sofía pointed to a jar that was pale pink.

“Are you sure? With that one, you’re going to look as if your nails have hardly been painted.”

“It will do for the first time… I used to bite them, you know?”

Sofía wondered whether Jessica would be going to the fancy-dress dinner the last-year students had organized that night as part of their fundraising campaign for their end-of-year trip. The question was a little inappropriate, but Jessica caught her by surprise by asking:

“What are you going as tonight?”

“Lupe and I are dressing sixties style, with a miniskirt, platform shoes, fishnet tights and some plastic earrings my grandmother lent us which she says are op art… my mother’s going to backcomb our hair.”

“That sounds fun!” sighed Jessica. “I can’t go, they won’t let me stay out so late.”

It was the first time she’d referred, albeit indirectly, to the differences between her situation and that of the others, and Sofía didn’t know what to reply.

“Careful where you put your hands! Blow on them to get them dry.”

“Thanks, Jessica, they look wonderful.”

Acting on impulse, Sofía gave her a kiss on the cheek. She smelled of a much more potent perfume than the one Sofía used, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Sofía wondered whether she would ever dare to wear such clingy skirts, a perfume like that, highlights in her hair and a wave cascading over her right eye. A plunging neckline like that, she was sure she wouldn’t – they were more suited to someone who had lots to show, not to thin girls who still looked like adolescents. She also wondered how many of the admiring looks boys gave Jessica as she walked along the corridor were due to the skirts, necklines, perfumes and highlights, and how many to Jessica’s sensual body and smile. Or perhaps they had something to do with a certain morbid fascination because of the shelter home, the experiences that must entail, so different from their own. The boys, however, hadn’t gone any further than looks, and Jessica had yet to go out with anybody from school. The shadow projected by the shelter home was to blame, or so Sofía suspected. Even though Jessica spent daytime hours with them, she was like those women who’ve been bitten by a vampire and have to return to their tomb at nightfall. The aura of the tomb where she took her rest accompanied her wherever she went.


Translated from Galician by Jonathan Dunne

Additional Info

  • purchase text:

    HEAD OF MEDUSA by Marilar Aleixandre, the eighteenth title in the series Galician Wave devoted to the best of Galician young adult fiction in English, is available for purchase through your local or online bookshop

    Barnes & Noble

    Book Depository


    ISBN: 978-954-384-099-1

    Publication Date: 08 November 2019

    Language: English

    Paperback: 176 pages

    Dimensions: 203 x 133 mm