This story was commissioned by Stoneskin Press, London, and published in their fantastical bestiary: Gods, Memes and Monsters.
I am all, and I am one. This story speaks for all my kind, but also just for me. We are Gryphon, or Griffin, Griffen, Gryffyn… and many other lexical variations. Evidence – as if any were required – of our ancient and illustrious history. You surely know us by our fiery eyes, curved beaks, resplendent wings and the leonine muscularity of our limbs. Creatures of the skies we are, yet instinctively drawn to gold on terra firma.
Around 3000 BC, I was companion to the Pharaohs of Egypt, then I traversed the Mediterranean to Crete, where I guarded the Minoan Royal Family. The Indians claimed me next, knowing the uncanny power of my talons to detect poison. They glorified my body on their drinking vessels.
I wove my nests from gold and laid my agates therein. Defended my treasures from marauding humans, hippogriffs and eohippae – I particularly disliked the latter. In Greece I did flourish beside the Hyperboreans, bestowed as I was with the favour of Zeus. There I took gold from the one-eyed Arimaspias of Scythia.
Unkind Pomponius Mela called me a crude and eager wild beast, he warned settlers from my terrain – though perhaps this was for the best. Yet humans do invade those places that they are most bewaried of, humans do thirst for gold and for its vulgar misuse. Yes, Mela declared that I do wonderfully love the gold which lies discovered above the ground; that I do wonderfully keep it and am very fierce on those that do touch it. Ha – try touching it, Mela, try! For all Greece knows that in your cowardice you never approached me, all Greece knows that your sickly lettered wails were founded on reports of others, souls far braver than you... Know that I am gold, that I am the wealth of the dawning sun and that I am the glory of the East.
As Greece faded then did Rome succumb, enthralled, adorning many a splendid construction with my portrait.
I, we, became legion… and yet we are one. Transcending the entity they call society these days, though of course there is no such thing. There are only individuals – whining, odorous wretches who drag their ill-shod feet. It suits me to reside in lofty places, from whence I do not perceive the coarseness of their faces. Mountains have always suited, though any tall bastion of Capitalism can serve as a commodious seat. Casinos, for instance… In the realm of the game, wretched hordes are enticed by feathered showgirls and hostesses with gleaming teeth, through the flashy labyrinth of pinging, tootling slot machines and over unctuous carpets to an Inner Temple, where devotees – croupiers – empty the wretches’ wallets. Yes, Casinos delighted me, once upon a time... Banks concern themselves with such piffling matters as the lending of lucre in return for tithes – interest, they call it – and if the borrowing wretches cease payment of their tithes, their hovels are taken from them and sold. It makes for healthy coffers, but such concepts lack panache. Ah, how I ache for the old splendours of Athens, Alexandria, Babylon…
Monte Luxor is the most golden city left on this declining earth, its Grand Casino the finest of its ilk. They raised a statue to me in there, the mightiest I ever saw: Nero himself would have worshipped it. My colossal three-dimensional image dominated the Roulette Hall, thus my soul acquired the habit of hovering there every Tuesday to Saturday, anticipating the fan-fared sashaying of Melissa onto the stage where she would dance until the small hours... Goldfinger, Hey Big Spender, Money Money Money...
Melissa was the worthiest of showgirls. Golden-haired, golden-skinned and amber-eyed, her gilded limbs undulated beneath her glittering costume, a crown of orange tiger lilies riffled upon her head. From my first sight of her, she made me smile – not easy, when one is beaked – and yet I managed it. I could not stop smiling whenever she appeared. The fire in my eyes simmered down to a smoulder and in this Roulette Hall I lingered – until one night, I realised that my soul had graced no other of my domains for almost a year, and yet I did not mind. I had no idea what Melissa did in the mornings, or on Sundays, Mondays… but I didn’t care. Reckless as to my immortal endurance, I must admit I was content to wait for her entrances, to doze under this skin of gilt and to enjoy how my feathers gleamed under the rays of morning sun through glass.
It never occurred to me that Melissa was harbouring dark thoughts. When the small grey shadows first appeared under her eyes, I ascribed them to the ravages of mortal years and I loved her so much that I pitied her.
No, I have never been bothered by those wretches who call themselves Revolutionaries. After October 1917, St Petersburg had me worried for a mere five years. The destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 turned those Black Monday Black Wednesday whatevers into inconsequential blips – the human wretches will never abandon my truths, whatever banners and slogans certain among them might wave. And when, a few years ago, the balaclava-headed figures gathered with their placards in the boulevard outside the Grand Casino’s windows, I smirked – they were calling themselves the 99%. At least they were cognisant of how dull, how ordinary they were. Anarchists! Anachronisms, ha! I suppose, for a while, they distracted me from the much darker dealings of LAG.
First, the stickers began to appear, miniscule print on red squares too lowly for my attention. Then came the leaflets in their tiny cardboard holders glued to lavatory doors, to the slot machines lining the Roulette Hall walls, or tucked under the ledge of the Champagne Bar. The cleaning minions made short work of removing and shredding the leaflets, plus their holders, which were leaving unsightly streaks of glue everywhere. But – more of these heretic tracts littered my golden domain, titles like: WORKERS UNITE AGAINST CASINOS and RISE AGAINST THE TYRANNY OF CARD TABLES. The author signed himself: LAG.
Ha – I scowled – if wretched hordes wish to pay me homage, what right does LAG have to stop them? Naturally, I never suspected Melissa – something so perfectly golden could never harm me, I once thought. Is this most glorious of metals not my very blood?
And then one morning I opened my eyes to spidery red paint daubed high on a marble column:
And on nine other pillars, that same ominous signature as in the leaflets: LAG.
On another pillar, the elucidatory: LENINISTS AGAINST GAMBLING.
This was harder for the cleaning minions to deal with, sweating and wobbling on their ladders as they scrubbed. Signor Oroni, manager of the Grand Casino, and a faithful servant whom I have duly rewarded with four sports cars and thick golden neck-chains (they slide about his greasy hide), invested in security cameras, xtreem-kleen paint removal kits, and a private detective. Yet, not only did he fail to unmask the culprit, but the vandalism exacerbated with unnerving speed.
DEATH TO CAPITALIST PIGS – ill-formed black letters defacing the neo-Roman bas-relief over the Champagne Bar. Poor Apollo’s face, rendered positively Nubian – how shamed he would have been! The minions worked round the clock, their royal blue smocks turning navy with sweat.
CROUPIERS ARE STINKING COLLABORATORS – spray-painted in red on the sea-blue carpet. The minions attacked the heinous letters with their scrubbing brushes, to little effect. Signor Oroni had to call in the Mount Olympus Professional Carpet-Shampooing Service, who, at great expense, operated their gurgling specialist machines for five hours over the insult, yet still it glared, stark and bloody as the dribble on a gorgon’s lips.
It was at that point that Oroni’s ordinarily tangerine-coloured face turned plummy scarlet, then shifted to pale cantaloupe. “Rip it up then,” he wheezed, pointing at the carpet, next he whipped out his little golden telephone from his pocket. It was a Saturday, our most profitable session – but as the Grand Casino could not open its doors, not a single penny would be sent down to the vaults tonight.
“Is that MegaLux Flooring?” barked Oroni.
The croupiers and hostesses turned up: a discontented huddle whining about overdue bills, dependent families and other irksome nonsense, while Oroni scuttled about like a confused dog, haggling the cost of the new carpet, and no, he didn’t care about the nylon percentage of the tufts... A whole session’s revenue lost – he’d have to forget that new Lamborghini I promised him. Towards seven o’clock, the croupiers and hostesses quit their bickering and shuffled back to wherever their little lives were eked out. There was no sign of Melissa, which did not perturb me. Oroni would have had the grace to call her, his star, about the closure.
And then, from deep within the vaults where the lucre is stored before being transferred across the boulevard to the bank, I heard a rumbling sound. A split second later, the marble pedestal beneath my crouching hind paws tilted and the violated carpet rose up towards me, I made a vain attempt to unfold my wings – only then did I realise, oh horrors – I had forgotten how to fly. My soul had melded with the concrete heart of this statue.
I crashed to the floor in the most undignified splintering sprawl, my golden coat grubbied by dust from the wretched horde’s feet, and flecks of carpet shampoo. And then I saw Melissa, her radiance disguised under ugly black knitwear. She stood with her arms folded like a closed crab.
Come out, come out of your body, abandon this static indolence, rediscover your winged power… The little voice echoed from deep under my chest plumage, just at the point where it blurs into fur. Come out… Yes… My creaking soul prised itself from the shards and took flight: shaky, feeble, shameful circles. Harder and harder I beat my wings, willing my muscles to reform, yet the substance of my flesh remained elusive, wraith-like. Still only half-formed, through the shattered outline of the great window I flew.
The Grand Casino, most lovely of edifices, was lovely no more. A vast crater in its roof, and yet my eyes could not focus on the destruction, Melissa’s face emblazoned on my retina. Fury thickened my blood until the sound of my wings grew loud as drumbeats; I flew a loop, turned back towards the Grand Casino.
Beside its crumbling portal was Melissa… smiling. Not the gleaming lipsticked grin she flashed onstage but a bare smile, hardly more than a pencil stroke. Yet her eyes were melting as if she had never experienced such serenity in all her days…
I took my revenge, of course. That’s what claws are for.
Melissa’s smile turned into a scream as I dived down with my outstretched talons. One claw sliced into the warm poisonous flesh of her belly, the other into her long, showgirl’s legs.
“WHY?” I roared, “Tell me why!”
Melissa’s amber eyes watered, a groan slipped from her unwilling lips. I dug my talons deeper. She howled, then levelled her magnificent gaze with mine. Her parents had lost everything to poker, she snarled; they had starved her, ignored her childish pleas to abandon the card tables. “They’d always lie: just once more, one last game. Every poker night would start lucky and end in beggardom.”
Defiance was all she offered me. Was it then that I gouged out her heart, with my beak that I would have kissed her with? What else did she say? Not a single cry for mercy, it pains me to recall; merely some Vladimir Ilyich derived gibberish about owning the means of duping the masses, before her golden face blanched white with death and I threw away her bleeding, treacherous corpse.
Blinded by my own gold! I wept, then: the golden puddles of my tears turning grey under the ashen rain.