فصل 17

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فصل 17

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Chapter Seventeen THE TREES WERE JUST beginning to bud. The sea was still foam-capped, but soon its waves would calm, and it would be spring and time for Odysseus to sail. He would race across the sea, tacking between storms and Poseidon’s great hand, his eye fixed on home. And my island would fall silent again. I lay beside him in the moonlight each night. Just one more season, I imagined saying to him. Just till summer’s end, that is when the best winds come. It would surprise him. I would catch the faintest flicker of disappointment in his eyes. Golden witches are not supposed to beg. I let the island plead for me instead, speaking with its eloquent beauty. Every day the stones shed more of their icy chill, and the blossoms swelled. We ate picnics on the green grass. We walked on the sun-warm sand and swam in the bright bay. I took him to the shade of an apple tree, so that the scent would waft over him while he slept. I unrolled all Aiaia’s wonders like a rug before him, and I saw him begin to waver. His men saw too. Thirteen years they had lived beside him, and though his twisting thoughts were mostly beyond their ken, they sensed a change, as hounds scent the moods of their master. Day by day, they grew more restless. Ithaca, they said, loudly, every chance they got. Queen Penelope. Telemachus. Eurylochos stalked about my halls, glaring. I saw him whispering in corners with the others. When I passed by, they fell silent, gazes down. In ones and twos, they made their creeping way to Odysseus. I waited for him to send them away, but he only stared over their shoulders into the dusty sunset air. I should have left them pigs, I thought.

Death’s Brother is the name that poets give to sleep. For most men those dark hours are a reminder of the stillness that waits at the end of days. But Odysseus’ slumber was like his life, tossed and restless, heavy with murmurs that made my wolves prick up their ears. I watched him in the pearl-gray light of dawn: the tremors of his face, the striving tension in his shoulders. He twisted the sheets as if they were opponents he tried to throw in a wrestling match. A year of peaceful days he had stayed with me, and still every night he went to war. The shutters were open. It must have rained in the night, I thought. The air that drifted in felt washed and very clear. Each sound—bird trills, fluttering leaves, the hush of waves—hung in the air like a chime. I dressed and followed that glory outside. His men still slept. Elpenor was up on the roof, wrapped in one of my best blankets. The wind rippled past me like lyre notes, and my own breath seemed to pipe in harmony. A dewdrop fell from a branch. It struck the earth like the ringing of a bell. I felt my mouth go dry. He stepped out from my stand of laurels. Every line of his body was beautiful, perfect with grace. His dark, loose hair was crowned with a wreath. From his shoulder hung a shining, silver-tipped bow carved from olive wood. “Circe,” Apollo said, and it was the greatest chime of all. Every melody in the world belonged to him. He held up an elegant hand. “My brother warned me about your voice. I think it will be better if you speak as little as possible.” His words carried no malice. Though perhaps that was what malice sounded like in those perfect tones. “I will not be silenced on my own island.” He winced. “Hermes said that you were difficult. I come with a prophecy for Odysseus.” I felt myself tense. Olympian riddles were always double-edged. “He is inside.” “Yes,” he said, “I know.” The wind struck me across the face. I had no time to cry out. It rushed into my throat, battering its way to my belly as if all the sky were being funneled through me. I gagged, but its swelling force poured on and on, choking off my breath, drowning me in its alien power. Apollo watched, his face pleasant. The island clearing was swept away. Odysseus stood on a shore with cliffs rising around him. In the distance were goats and olive groves. I saw a wide-halled house, its courtyard set with stones, its walls gleaming with ancestral weapons. Ithaca. Then Odysseus stood upon a different shore. Dark sand and a sky that never saw my father’s light. Shadowed poplars loomed and willows trailed their leaves in black water. No birds sang, no beast moved. I knew the place at once, though I had never been there. A great cave gaped, and in its mouth stood an old man with unseeing eyes. I heard his name in my mind: Teiresias. I threw myself down into the dirt of my garden bed. Scrabbling, tugging up the moly roots, I stuffed a few into my mouth, brown earth still clinging. At once the wind ceased, dying as quickly as it had come. I coughed, my whole body shaking. My tongue tasted of slime and ash. I fought to my knees. “You dare,” I said. “You dare to misuse me on my own island? I am Titan blood. This will bring war. My father—” “It was your father who suggested it. My vessels must have prophecy in their blood. You should be honored,” he said. “You have borne a vision of Apollo.” His voice was a hymn. His beautiful face showed only the faintest puzzlement. I wanted to tear him with my nails. The gods and their incomprehensible rules. Always there was a reason you must kneel. “I will not tell Odysseus.” “That is beneath my concern,” he said. “The prophecy is delivered.” He was gone. I pressed my forehead to the wrinkled bole of an olive.

He was gone. I pressed my forehead to the wrinkled bole of an olive. My chest was heaving. I shook with rage and humiliation. How many times would I have to learn? Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods’ pleasure. No matter what I did, how long I lived, at a whim they would be able to reach down and do with me what they wished. The sky was not yet fully blue. Inside, Odysseus still slept. I woke him and led him to the hall. I did not tell him the prophecy. I watched him eat and fingered my rage as if it were a knife’s point. I wanted to keep it sharp as long as I could, for I knew what would come after. In the vision, he had been back again on Ithaca. The last of my little hopes were gone. I set out my best dishes, broached my oldest wine. But there was no savor in it. His face was abstracted. All day he kept turning to look out the window as if someone would come. We spoke politely, but I felt him waiting for the men to eat, to go to bed. When the last of their voices had died into sleep, he knelt. “Goddess,” he said. He never called me that, and so I knew. I truly knew. Perhaps some divinity had come to him as well. Perhaps he had dreamed of Penelope. Our idyll was finished. I looked down at his hair, woven with gray. His shoulders were set, his eyes on the ground. I felt a dull anger. At least he might look me in the face. “What is it, mortal?” My voice was loud. My lions stirred. “I must go,” he said. “I have stayed too long. My men are impatient.” “Then go. I am a host, not a jailer.” He did look at me then. “I know it, lady. I am grateful to you beyond measure.” His eyes were brown and warm as summer earth. His words were simple. They had no art to them, which of course was also art. He always knew how to show himself to best advantage. It felt a kind of vengeance to say: “I have a message for you from the gods.” “A message.” His face grew wary. “You will reach home, they say. But first they command you to speak with the prophet Teiresias in the house of death.” No sane man could hear such a thing without quailing. He had gone rigid and pale as stone. “Why?” “The gods have their own reasons, which they have not seen fit to share.” “Will there never be an end to it?” His voice was raw. His face was like a wound that had opened again. My anger drained away. He was not my adversary. His road would be hard enough without the hurt we might do each other. I touched his chest where his great captain’s heart beat. “Come,” I said. “I do not desert you.” I led him to my room and spoke there the knowledge that had been rising in me all day, quick and unceasing, like bubbles from a stream. “The winds will carry you past lands and seas to the living world’s edge. There is a strand there, with a black poplar grove, and still, dark waters hung with willows. The entrance to the underworld. Dig a pit, as big as I will show you. Fill it with the blood of a black ewe and ram, and pour libations all around. The hungry shadows will come swarming. They will be desperate for that steaming life after so long in the dark.” His eyes were closed. Imagining, perhaps, the souls spilling from their gray halls. He would know some of them. Achilles and Patroclus, Ajax, Hector. All the Trojans he had killed, and all the Greeks too, and his crew that had been eaten, still crying out for justice. But this would not be the worst. There would be as well souls there he could not predict: the ones from home who had died in his absence. Perhaps his parents or Telemachus. Perhaps Penelope herself. “You must hold them off from the blood until Teiresias comes. He will drink his fill and give you his wisdom. Then you will return here, for a single day, as there may be more help I can give you.” He nodded. His lids were gray. I touched his cheek. “Sleep,” I said. “You will need it.” “I cannot,” he said. I understood. He was bracing himself, summoning up his strength to do battle once more. We lay beside each other in silent vigil through the long hours of the night. When it was dawn, I helped him dress with my own hands. I pinned his cloak around his shoulders. I settled his belt and gave him his sword. When we opened the front door, we found Elpenor sprawled upon the flagstones. He had fallen from my roof at last. We gazed down at his bluing lips, the ugly angle of his neck. “Already it comes.” Odysseus’ voice was grim with resignation. I knew what he meant. The Fates had him in their yoke again. “I will keep him for you. You have no time for a funeral now.” We carried the body to one of my beds, wrapped it in a sheet. I brought out stores for their journey, and the sheep he needed for the rite. The ship was already prepared, his men had rigged it days ago. Now they loaded it, and pushed it into the waves. The seas were churning and cold, the air misted with spray. They would have to fight for every league, and by night their shoulders would be knots. I should have given them salves for it, I thought. But it was too late. I watched the ship struggle over the horizon, then I went back and drew the sheet from Elpenor’s body. The only corpses I had ever seen were those that had lain broken on my floor, unrecognizable as men. I touched his chest. It was hard and cool. I had heard that in death faces looked younger than they were, but Elpenor had laughed often, and without the spark of life his face was slack with lines. I washed him and rubbed oils into his skin, as carefully as if he could still feel my fingers. I sang as I worked, a melody to keep his soul company while he waited to cross the great river to the underworld. I wrapped him again in his shroud, spoke a charm to keep away the rot, and closed the door behind me. In my garden, the green leaves were so new they shone like blades. I ran my fingers through the soil. Humid summer was gathering, and soon I must start staking out the vines. Last year Odysseus had helped me. I touched the thought like a bruise, testing its ache. When he was gone, would I be like Achilles, wailing over his lost lover Patroclus? I tried to picture myself running up and down the beaches, tearing at my hair,

cradling some scrap of old tunic he had left behind. Crying out for the loss of half my soul. I could not see it. That knowledge brought its own sort of pain. But perhaps that is how it was meant to be. In the stories, gods and mortals never joined for long. That night, I stayed in my kitchen stripping aconite. Already Odysseus would be facing his dead. As he’d left, I had pressed a phial into his hand and asked him to bring me blood from the pit he would make. The shades would infuse it with their chill presence, and I had wanted to feel that power, ashen and unearthly. Now I was sorry I had asked. It was something Perses or Aeëtes might do, someone with only witchcraft in their veins and no warmth. I moved carefully through my work, my fingers precise, aware of every sensation. From their shelves my herbs watched me. Row upon row of simples whose powers I had harvested with my own hands. I liked to see them there, in their bowls and bottles: sage and rose, horehound, chicory, wild laurel, the moly in its stoppered glass. And last of all, still in its cedar box: silphium ground with wormwood, the draught I had taken each moon since the first time I lay with Hermes. Each moon except the last.

My nymphs and I waited on the sand, watching the ship row in. The men waded to the shore in silence. Their bodies sagged as if borne down by stones, sickly and aged. I searched Odysseus’ face. It was ghastly, I could not read it. Even their clothes were faded, the fabric leached and gray. They looked like fish, caught beneath a winter’s skim of ice. I stepped forward, shining my eyes over them. “Welcome!” I cried. “Welcome back, you hearts of gold. You men of oak! You are heroes for the legends. You have done one of Heracles’ labors: seen the house of death and lived. Come, there are blankets here, laid for you upon the soft grass. There is wine and food. Rest and be well!” They moved slowly, like old men, but they sat. The roast platters stood by, and the wine, deep and red. We served and poured until their cheeks took color. The sun beat down, burning off the cold mist of death. I drew Odysseus aside to a green thicket. “Tell me,” I said. “They live,” he said. “That is the best news I have. My son and wife live. My father too.” Not his mother. I waited. He stared across his scarred knees. “Agamemnon was there. His wife had taken a lover, and when he returned, she slaughtered him in the bath like an ox. I saw Achilles and Patroclus, and Ajax bearing the wound he gave himself. They envied me my life, but at least their battles are done.” “Yours will be done. You will reach Ithaca. I have seen it.” “I will reach it, but Teiresias said that when I do I will find men besieging my home. Eating my stores and usurping my place. I must find a way to kill them. But then I will die of the sea, while I still walk on land. The gods love their riddles.” His voice was more bitter than I had ever heard it. “You cannot think of it,” I said. “It will only torment you. Think instead of the path before you, which carries you home to your wife and son.” “My path,” he said, darkly. “Teiresias laid it before me. I must pass Thrinakia.” The word was an arrow striking home. How many years had it been since I had heard that island’s name? The memory rose before me: my shining sisters, and Darling and Pretty and all the rest, swaying like lilies in the gilded dusk. “If I do not disturb the cattle, then I will reach home with my men. But if any are harmed, your father will loose his wrath. It will be years before I see Ithaca again, and all my men will die.” “Then you will not stop,” I said. “You will not even land on the shore.” “I will not stop.” But it was not so simple, and we knew it. The Fates lured and tricked. They set obstacles to drive you into their toils. Anything might serve them: the winds, the waves, the weak hearts of men. “If you run aground,” I said, “keep to the beach. Do not go look at the herds. You cannot know how they will tempt your hunger. They are to cows what gods are to mortals.” “I will hold.” It was not his will I feared. But what good would it do to say so, to sit over his door like a death-owl? He knew what his men were. And a new thought was rising in me. I was remembering the sea-routes Hermes had drawn for me so long ago. I traced them in my mind. If he went by Thrinakia, then… I closed my eyes. Another punishment from the gods. For him, and me as well. “What is it?” I opened my eyes. “Listen to me,” I said. “There are things you must know.” I drew the journey for him. One by one, I laid out the dangers he must avoid, the shoals, the barbarous islands, the Sirens, those birds with women’s heads who lure men to their death with song. At last I could delay no more. “Your path takes you past Scylla as well. You know her?” He knew. I watched the blow fall. Six men, or twelve. “There must be some way to prevent her,” he said. “Some weapon I might use.”

It was one of my favorite things about him: how he always fought for his chance. I turned away, so I would not have to see his face when I said, “No. There is nothing. Not even for such a mortal as you. I faced her once, long ago, and escaped only through magic and godhead. But the Sirens, there you may use your tricks. Fill your men’s ears with wax, and leave your own free. If you tie yourself to the mast, you may be the first man to ever hear their song and tell the tale. Would that not make a good story for your wife and son?” “It would.” But his voice was dull as a ruined blade. There was nothing I could do. He was passing from my hands. We carried Elpenor to his pyre. We did the rites for him, sang his deeds of war, set his name in the record of men who lived. My nymphs wailed, and the men wept, but he and I stood dry and silent. After, we loaded his ship with all the stores of mine that it could hold. His men stood at the ropes and oars. They were eager now, darting glances at each other, scuffling at the deck with their feet. I felt hollowed, gouged like a beach beneath a keel. Odysseus, son of Laertes, the great traveler, prince of wiles and tricks and a thousand ways. He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none. He stepped onto his ship, and when he turned back to look for me, I was gone.

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