Bright Air Black: A Novel

Bright Air Black: A Novel

by David Vann


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“A writer to read and reread.”—The Economist

Following the success of Aquarium which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and garnered numerous rave reviews, David Vann transports us to 13th century B.C. to give a nuanced and electric portrait of the life of one of ancient mythology’s most fascinating and notorious women, Medea.

In brilliant poetic prose Bright Air Black brings us aboard the ship Argo for its epic return journey across the Black Sea from Persia’s Colchis—where Medea flees her home and father with Jason, the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece. Vann’s reimagining of this ancient tale offers a thrilling, realist alternative to the long held notions of Medea as monster or sorceress. We witness with dramatic urgency Medea’s humanity, her Bronze Age roots and position in Greek society, her love affair with Jason, and her tragic demise.

Atmospheric and spellbinding, Bright Air Black is an indispensable, fresh and provocative take on one of our earliest texts and the most intimate and corporal version of Medea’s story ever told.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802125804
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 03/07/2017
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 700,726
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Published in 20 languages, David Vann’s internationally-bestselling books have won 15 prizes, including best foreign novel in France and Spain, and appeared on 75 Best Books of the Year lists in a dozen countries. A former Guggenheim fellow, he is currently a Professor at the University of Warwick in England and Honorary Professor at the University of Franche-Comté in France.

Read an Excerpt


Her father a golden face in darkness. Appearing in torchlight over the water and vanishing again. Face of the sun, descendant of the sun. Betrayal and rage. Four plumes along his mask, a scattering of light, a kind of mane. His shield of many hides a hollowed blackness. Ashen spear a thin line, then gone. The sail above him bowed like the belly of an ox grown large as a god, hooves making no sound in the water below.

Nothing will stop him, Medea knows. He has lost too much. All she can do is slow him. She reaches down for a piece of her brother, a forearm strong and strangely soft now, already cooling, and drops it into the sea, almost without sound, buried by the splash of oars.

She has done this for Jason and will do more, she knows. Her brother dismembered at her feet. This is how the world begins.

Dark wood in darker water, a sea of ink, and pattern felt but unseen, quartering waves caught only in glimpses. Wood thick beneath them, lines creaking. Thick ropes of the steering at her back, groaning under pressure from the rudders. With every small wave she rises and falls and twists, and Jason and his men repeat every movement a moment later. All held together as one, barbarian and her Minyae. Each hull a home.

Flesh that should sink but will not, a forearm too small to notice in torchlight in that darkness but seen nonetheless. Her father commanding the sail lowered, the oars shipped. Great ox belly deflating, no longer holding light, gone dark and rumpled, the upper yard coming down. Oar faces in a row high over the water catching light and winking out again, the ship coming about. The hull dark, unseen, her father standing above. Bending now and reaching for his son.

A howl she would hear even from another sea, matched inside her, and if she could go back, she would.

Her father's ship drifts. Lost and receding, torches shrinking, drawing closer together. Jason's men pulling at the oars, practiced thieves. No talk among them. Watching her. No light, no sound except oar and sail and rope. A heavy breath of them, a heat.

Medea is without words, without thought. She has unstrung the world, pulled some vital thread and unraveled all. Nothing to do now but hold her breath and find out whether a new world re-forms. Her task is to portion carefully, use the pieces of her brother sparingly.

Her father raises his sail again, smaller now. Golden mask a fainter torch, spear and shield gone. Oars working invisible, glints of water disrupted and nothing more. But she knows his will. These Minyae no match.

Her father would pull the sun into its place and pull it down again, do his father's work. Bronze and fire and gold, all forms of the sun. Endless rage, and no reason, no stopping, the burning away of all. Her father descended from this, and she too. Demigods. Humans beyond human law.

By his decree, men buried not in the ground but in the air, strung from trees in untanned ox hides. Twisting forever above, the women below. He would balance earth and air. He believes he can do that. His rage now a simple disbelief that any of this could happen and to him. All of it foretold, but he didn't think to fear his daughters, feared only his son. Men visible, hung and rotting in their sacks and remembered, women invisible below.

Already he's drawing closer. Medea clings to the bulwark and sternpost and fears tumbling over the side, as if what she has done could claim her at any moment, pull her into black water. Kneeling in her brother, wet against her thighs. Smell of blood and viscera, sacrifice. A smell she's known all her life. To Helios the sun, and to other gods, to Hekate. Jason an able witch, slitting a lamb's throat to Hekate, burning a pyre, inviting serpents to writhe in the oaks above and hellhounds to howl, walking away with the strength to not look back. Her own strength failing. Kneeling in her brother's remains too much.

Lurch of each wave a sideways push, her face over water, hull falling away, caving. She can almost wish for this, to slip beneath the surface, cold and airless, silent, without motion except a gradual fall. All the world gone, the sun mute. A place even her father would not reach her.

Hekate, dark one, make this darkness last. Medea speaks in a tongue no man on the Argo can understand. Widen this sea and let this blood that drips from our decks thicken and slow my father. Blood of the sun. My own blood, my own brother. I give you this.

Medea can see the waters coagulate and bind, waves slow and flatten, wind lose its hold, her father mired by what came from his own veins. The sun held below the surface of the sea, swallowed and never rebirthed. Held by Nute, blue god of the Egyptians, ancient god, ancient woman, older than the sun. Helios swallowed each night and sailing through the pathways of Nute's body toward birth but tricked this time by vanity. The sun wanting human form, wanting descendants and generations to worship. That blood now made into an anchor, the pathways become endless, and no light.

Medea the one who would end a god and all his descendants and the day-lit world. She would do this. She knows this is true, that whatever binds other people to each other has no hold on her. She is bound only by elements, by water and air and earth and fire and blood. She will do what her father will not and what Jason will not. She should be queen with no king, a Hatshepsut.

Where the Argo might take her. Iolcus, Jason's home, but who can say where else? Egypt, birthplace of the older gods, an older world. All ships drawn there to see the long echo of time.

But first they must outrun her father. It will be light soon, and nowhere to hide on this long open coast.

Jason, she calls. And when he comes, she turns away from her father, lies back in the remains of her brother, all the Argonauts watching. Skin lit by torchlight from far over the water, wandering, a luminescence that might originate in him or be only imagined. Eyes depthless, lit and black again. But his urgency is real, his heat. She pulls him close, binds him, mining his breath and heart. All else has been lost. This is what she has now. She will master this.

Night prolonged, Hekate hearing. Medea no longer a maiden, her blood mixed with her brother's and dripping into the sea. She understands now that her father must be broken, every last part of him broken, all taken away, that the prophecy was about this, about the humbling of a king. Medea the destroyer of kings. She would have a world without them.

Her Minyae so proud of their golden fleece, a theft ordered by another king, Pelias, in Iolcus. But there are hundreds of golden fleeces, untanned hides sifting the heavy dust of gold from every mountain stream that feeds into the great valley of her home. Hung from trees to dry before the gold is beaten and shaken from them. Something witnessed and taken far away and told and retold until there was only one fleece, made itself of gold, and to take it is to take a king's power.

Jason has hung it now from the lower yard, beneath the sail, and believes the ship will be faster. But his men will find gold dust on their shoulders and backs and will begin to find their outlines in starlight, and by the time they've reached Iolcus, the fleece will be only a sheep's hide, with no gold left in it at all.

Her father is gaining. Medea would have her oarsmen transformed, that fine dusting of gold, and she would have their oars ply air, the ship lift and sail free of water. She can feel the weight of the boat, pressing down into the sea, burying itself, a kind of grave, slowing. Her father's sail lit by torch against black, straining closer, eager, following a track invisible and inevitable through veins of night. Cave journey, unseen walls. Quiet. The sea could be tilted downward and they wouldn't know.

Medea clings to the stern and fears. She must drop another piece of her brother into the water, but she can't be too early or too late. Too early and there won't be enough of him to last. Too late and her father might not stop, might overtake and return for the remains.

Spear tips in the light, fifty cold metal slits glinting and disappearing and appearing again. She can see the curve of backs, her father's men rowing. Their spears hugged close, ready. They've gone to war before. Their sail pulls at the mast, pinned above and below on its yards. Close enough now to hear the lower binding creak, close enough to see a man standing aft with his legs braced, holding a line thick as his arm to tug at a lower edge, to find the wind. Ponderous heaving of the sail, restless and bloated. Her father knows this sea better than the Minyae, knows the wind rises now just before morning. His helmsmen know not to work the rudders, know to let the boat slide free and gain momentum. The rudders beside Medea working too much, snaking back and forth, turned against each other, losing power and speed. These helmsmen afraid.

She can see her father's hand on his spear.

I let him have me, she yells to her father over the water. Here on deck, in front of his sailors. The daughter of a king. Or what used to be a king.

She sees his spear and shield brought in closer.

In every land, we'll show the fleece, and I'll say it's the only one. The robe of a king, and no king without it.

He raises his spear, pulls back and lunges with a roar. Thin line in that night, arcing, glint of light, starfall, and no way of knowing where the arc will end. But Medea opens her arms wide, makes herself as big a target as she can be, and laughs as the spear falls short, faint rip into water and gone.

I'll save my brother's heart and say it's yours. I'll say the king of Colchis is dead and any may have his land. I'll hold your dried little heart and pretend to weep and say I loved my father but he was too weak.

Her father too proud to say anything in return. Silent behind his mask. Made smaller.

Descendant of the sun, she yells. If this is true, show yourself. All is being taken. Impotent king. No king.

Medea takes a piece of her brother, a thigh, heavy and tough, muscled, and licks blood from it, dark and thick. She spits, licks and spits again and again, three times to atone. Mouth filled with the taste of her family's blood, and she throws this piece of Helios into the waves.

She has ripped out all their hearts, she knows. Her father's crew crippled to see him made smaller. She will humble him until there's nothing left, until his men don't know why they're rowing. They will collect the pieces of the son and wonder that demigods can fall so easily.

A cry from her father, anguish at the sight of another piece, and he turns away to command the sail lowered. Men gather at the stern to let down the upper yard and collapse all power. A ship without wind no more than a collection of sticks. Oars held out of the water, wooden insect with thirty legs, coming about, stalling. Her father bent over the side, reaching for his son but missing. The boat rolling though the seas are small. Long wooden yards of the fallen sail tipping down almost to the water, then rising into the sky.

Her father bellowing in grief, strange sound like some animal in the field. Pushing back through his oarsmen to reach his son from the stern. No pretending to be a king. Only a father. The air in Medea's lungs gone heavy. Her father falling away into the night and she can't see whether he recovers the piece, his boat turned and blocking her view.

Her brother gone. She misses him there, far away, in his father's arms, and yet most of him is here. She kneels in him still. Impossible to locate the dead. Her brother everywhere and nowhere, and everything she's felt for him remains. No part of him dies when he's gone. He's only gone.

Argonauts pulling hard at the oars, sail full. She is with strangers. They feel nothing for her brother. And if Jason feels nothing for her brother, what can he feel for her?

Her father's ship receding, fading into night, torchlights narrowing, rotating, and so they must be circling back for her brother's thigh. Heavy piece of flesh, perhaps too heavy to pull easily from the waves. And now it could be lost in that darkness. They'll have to search, and they can't know where they've been. The ship drifting in the wind, but the wind with no hold on mostly submerged flesh, hidden, bobbing just at the surface, a whiteness in the black. With every moment more lost and her father more desperate. A future he could never have seen. A king always at the center, never without reference.

Hekate, keep this night, Medea says. Let it stay a while longer. Nute, do not give birth yet.

For her father, the sea is growing and his boat spinning. He tells his helmsmen one direction and then another, every patch of water black and unfamiliar and the same. The wind rising and waves larger. He could be fifty boat lengths now from his son, or only an arm's length and still not see. He should know when his own flesh is near. There should be something that binds.

Medea sails farther away with the rest of her brother, but what she feels is a need to help her father. Be his eyes in that night, take his arm and guide him. Put her brother back together and breathe life into him again. Call on Hekate to re-form a body and sacrifice her own. Make her family whole even if she is lost. Overwhelming feeling, an anchor in her chest, lodged and pulling, her body being torn apart, and this is how women are formed. Slaves. But she will not be a slave. She will feel this need to help her father and she will not help him. She will grieve her brother and kneel in his remains and throw the next piece overboard when the time comes. She will not be mastered. If it is natural to be a slave, she will be unnatural.

Water in a seam at the stern, luminescent. Curling from both sides, folding inward, then spinning off into miniature whorls filled with stars. No moon, no torches, but the sea with its own light, the heavens submerged and flung and still burning. Whatever made Helios himself, repeated here in fragment.

Medea has never seen this world before, never would have guessed its existence. Her first voyage on the sea. Any shape can be found in the sky below. Great aquarian bulls charging, the most fanciful birds with tail feathers reaching, slim, without end. Even her father, a gathering of stars with plumes like his mask, and the weight of darkness attached, rotating slowly and pulling all toward him. More life even than fire. Hekate found in fire, in sparks and sheets of flame, but unlimited here. No distraction of ground or wind, not limited to the fuel of wood but freed and infinite and transparent, able to reveal all. A landscape as unknown and unbound as the felt landscape within, seen by every man who has gone to sea at night for war or fishing but never shared. No man has told Medea of this. And what are these stars? Where did they come from?

New world, or an opening of the old. She can't find the constellations, familiar forms. Looking into the stars below, she might even find a new god, as the first gods were found by looking into the sky. A god is whatever can't be reached.

None of these stars fixed. Flung in orbits by the passing of Medea and her crew, a more responsive sky, what she's always wanted the heavens to be, not cold and distant.

Medea wants to return to the first naming, to when the sky above was as responsive as this one below, before it cooled and hardened and was known. She would have begun with a woman pregnant, Nute covering all, and she would have wandered through every land for years learning the shape of that woman, careful not to draw lines, letting the stars shift for as long as they needed, and only then would she have named the lesser constellations, the head and breasts and feet and hands and womb of this woman, each with its own attributes and promise, shape of all that is needed for worship in life below. And then smaller constellations still for each story, for each myth. She would be there to shape what is wrong and what is right. And then she would push every human head down into the sea, make them forget the sky and every myth and burn their eyes with endlessly shifting pattern in which new gods and their myths are born and die every moment.

What myth can hold when you kneel in your brother's remains? When you slit his throat yourself? What story can guide us if we can betray all?

Dark one, Medea says to the water. Let everything that binds fall. Let all that is known be confused. Let all that we are die. Let me be most hated of all women, and most true.

Endless night, but the sailors make no comment, if they even notice. Go about their business. Thieves with pygmy hearts. They've lost nothing.

The largest wears the hide of a bear and walks toward Medea, loosening the cloth around his hips. Jason giving her up so soon. But this bear-man stops at the rudder posts, holds onto one and leans back over the water, shits into the sea, fouling the air. The breeze not strong enough, and now the other men feel free to do the same.


Excerpted from "Bright Air Black"
by .
Copyright © 2017 David Vann.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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