فصل 19

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فصل 19

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Chapter Nineteen ALL THE REST OF that night I paced, running through Athena’s words. My son would grow up to do something she feared, something that touched her deeply. But what? Something that I would be sorry for as well, she had said. I paced, turning it over and over, but I could find no answer. At last I forced myself to set it aside. There was no profit in chasing riddles of the Fates. The point was: she would come and come. I had boasted that Athena did not know what I could do, but the truth was I did not know either. I could not kill her, and I could not change her. We could not outpace her, and we could not hide. No illusion I cast would cover us from her piercing gaze. Soon Telegonus would walk and run, and how could I keep him safe then? Black terror was rising in my brain. If I did not think of something, the vision in the pool would come to pass, his body ashen and cold in its shroud. I remember those days only in pieces. My teeth clenched in concentration as I scoured the island, digging up flowers and grinding leaves, searching out every feather and stone and root in the hopes that one of them might help me. They teetered in piles around the house, and the air of the kitchen grew grainy with dust. I chopped and boiled, my eyes wide and staring like an over-ridden horse. I kept Telegonus bound against me while I worked, for I was afraid to put him down. He hated such constraint and screamed, his puffy fists shoving at my chest. Wherever I walked, I smelled the iron-scorch of Athena’s skin. I could not tell if she was taunting me, or if my panic made me imagine it, but it drove me onwards like a goad. In desperation, I tried to remember every story of Olympians brought low that my uncles had told. I thought of calling on my grandmother, the sea-nymphs, my father, throwing myself at their feet. But even if they were disposed to help me, they would not dare to stand against Athena in her wrath. Aeëtes might have dared, but he hated me now. And Pasiphaë? It was not even worth asking. I do not know what season it was, what time of day. I saw only my hands working ceaselessly before me, my smeared knives, the herbs mashed and crushed on the table, the moly I boiled and boiled again. Telegonus had fallen asleep, head tipped back, the flush of rage still on his cheeks. I paused to breathe and steady myself. My eyelids scratched when I blinked. The walls no longer seemed stone, but soft as cloth, sagging inwards. I had rooted up an idea at last, but I needed something: a token from the house of Hades. The dead have passed where most gods cannot go, and therefore can hold our kind as the quick do not. But there was no way to get such a token. No gods, save those who govern souls, may set foot in the underworld. I spent hours pacing in profitless conjecture: how I might try to suborn an infernal deity to pluck a handful of gray asphodels or scoop some of Styx’s waves, or else how I might build a raft and sail it to the underworld’s edge, then use Odysseus’ trick to lure the ghosts out and catch a bit of their smoke. The thought made me remember the phial Odysseus had filled for me, with blood from his pit. Shades had touched their greedy lips to it, and it might still stink of their breath. I lifted it from its box and held it to the light. The dark liquid swam in its glass. One drop I poured off, and all day I worked with it, distilling, drawing out that weak scent. I added moly to strengthen it, shape it. My heart beat in alternating hope and despair: it will work, it will not. I waited until Telegonus slept again, for I could not summon the focus I needed while he was fighting against me. Two spells I made that night. One carried the drop of blood and moly; the other had fragments of every part of the island, from its cliffs to its salt flats. I worked in a great frenzy, and when the sun rose I held two stoppered flasks before me. My chest was heaving with exhaustion, but I would not wait, not another moment. With Telegonus still bound against me, I climbed to the highest peak, a bare strip of rock beneath the hanging sky. I set my feet upon the stone. “Athena would kill my child, and so I defend him,” I cried. “Be witness now to the power of Circe, witch of Aiaia.” I poured the blood-draught on the rock. It hissed like molten bronze in water. White smoke billowed into the air, rising, spreading. It massed, forming a great arc over the island, closing us in. A layer of living death. If Athena came, she would be forced to turn aside, like a shark meeting fresh water. The second spell I cast beneath it. It was an enchantment woven into the island itself, every bird and beast and grain of sand, every leaf and rock and drop of water. I marked them, and all the generations in their bellies, with Telegonus’ name. If ever she did break through that smoke, the island would rise up in his defense, the beasts and birds, the branches and rocks, the roots in the earth. Then we would make our stand together. I stood beneath the sun, waiting for an answer: a sizzling thunderbolt. Athena’s gray spear, pinning my heart to the rock. I could hear myself panting a little. The weight of those spells was dragging at my neck like a yoke. They were too great to stand by themselves, and hour after hour I would have to carry them with me, brace them up with my will, and renew them in full each month. Three days it would take me. One to regather all those pieces of the island, beach and grove and meadow, scale and feather and fur. Another day to mix them. A third of utmost concentration to draw out the stink of death from the drops of blood I hoarded. And all the while Telegonus would twist and wail against me, and the spells would grind down upon my shoulders. None of that mattered. I had said I would do anything for him, and now I would prove it and hold up the sky. I waited all morning, tensed, but no answer came. It was done, I finally realized. We were free. Not just from Athena, but from all of them. The spells hung on me, yet I felt weightless. For the first time, Aiaia was ours alone. Giddily, I knelt and unwrapped my fighting son. I set him down upon the earth, free. “You are safe. We may be happy at last.” What a fool I was. All those days of my fear and his constraint were like a debt that must be paid. He careered across the island, refusing to sit, or even stop for a moment. Athena had been barred, yet there still remained all the ordinary dangers of the island, rocks and cliffs and stinging creatures that I had to pry from his hands. Whenever I tried to reach for him, he would run, darting and defiant, towards some precipice. He seemed angry at the world. The stone he could not throw far enough, his own legs, which did not run fast enough. He wanted to scale the trees like the lions did, in a great leap, and when he could not he would beat at their trunks with his fists. I would try to take him in my arms, telling him, Have patience, your strength will come in time. But he arched away from me screaming, and nothing could console him, for he was not one of those children whom you may wave something shiny at and they will forget. I gave him soothing herbs and possets, even sleeping draughts, but they did nothing. The only thing that calmed him was the sea. The wind that was as restless as he was, the waves filled with their motion. He would stand in the surf, his small hand in mine, and point. The horizon, I named. The open sky. The waves and tides and currents. He would whisper the sounds to himself all the rest of the day, and if I tried to pull him away, show him something else, fruits or flowers, some small spell, he would leap from me, twisting up his face. No! The worst were the days when I had to shape those two spells again. He ran from me whenever I wanted him, but the moment I took up my work, he would drum at the floor with his heels, crying for my attention. Tomorrow I will take you to the sea, I promised. But that was nothing to him, and he would tear apart the house to draw my eye. He was older by then, too big to be slung to my chest, and the disasters he could cause had grown with him. He toppled over a table filled with plates; he climbed up the shelves and smashed my phials. I would set the wolves to watch him, but he was too much for them, and they fled to the garden. I could feel my panic rising. The spell would run out before I could cast it. Athena would arrive in her rage. I know what I was in those days: unsteady, inconstant, a badly made bow. Every fault in me his raising laid bare. Every selfishness, every weakness. One day, when the spells were due, he picked up a great glass bowl and broke it in shards on his bare feet. I came running to pluck him away, to sweep and scrub, but he battered at me as if I had taken his dearest friend. At last I had to put him in a bedroom and shut the door between us. He screamed and screamed, and there came a pounding like his head against the wall. I finished my cleaning and tried to work, but my own head was beating at itself by then. I kept thinking that if I let him rage long enough, he must at last wear himself out and sleep. But he only went on, wilder and wilder as the shadows lengthened. The day was passing and the spell not done. It would be easy to say that my hands moved on their own, but that is not how it was. I was angry, burning hot.

I had always sworn to myself that I would not use magic on him. It seemed like something Aeëtes would do, setting my will over his. But in that moment I seized the poppy, sleep-drugs, all the rest, brewed them till they sizzled. I went to the room. He was kicking the pieces of shutter that he had torn from the windows. Come, I said. Drink this. He drank and went back to his tearing. I did not mind now. It was almost a pleasure to watch. He would learn his lesson. He would understand who his mother was. I spoke the word. He fell like a toppled stone. His head hit the floor so loudly I gasped. I ran to him. I had thought it would be like sleep, his eyes gently closed. But his whole body was rigid, frozen mid-movement, his fingers curled into claws, his mouth open. His skin was cold beneath my fingers. Medea had said she did not know if those slaves in her father’s halls could perceive what happened to them. I knew. Behind his blank eyes, I could feel his confusion and terror. I cried out in horror, and the spell broke. His body sagged, then he scrambled away, staring wildly back at me like a cornered beast. I wept. My shame was hot as blood. I’m sorry, I told him, again and again. He let me come to him, take him in my arms. Gently, I touched the lump that had risen where he had struck his head. I spoke a word to ease it. The room was dark by then. Outside, the sun was gone. I held him in my lap as long as I dared, murmuring to him, singing. Then I carried him to the kitchen and gave him dinner. He ate it, clinging to me, and revived. He slid down and began to run again, slamming doors, pulling everything from the shelves that he could reach. I felt a weariness in me so great I thought I would sink into the earth. And every moment that passed, the spell against Athena went undone. He kept looking at me over his shoulder. As if he were daring me to come at him, to witch him, to hit him, I did not know. Instead I reached up to the highest shelf for the great clay honey jar he was always yearning for. Here, I said. Take it. He ran to it, rolling it in circles until it broke to pieces. Then he wallowed in the sticky puddles, and raced off, trailing threads for the wolves to lick. And so I finished the spells. It took a long time to bathe him and carry him to bed, but at last he lay beneath the quilts. He held my hand, his small warm fingers curled around mine. Guilt and shame sawed at me. He should hate me, I thought. He should flee. But I was all he had. His breath began to drag, and his limbs slackened. “Why can you not be more peaceful?” I whispered. “Why must it be so hard?” As if in answer, a vision of my father’s halls drifted up: the sterile earth floor, the black gleam of obsidian. The sound of the game pieces moving on their board, and my father’s golden legs beside me. I had lain quiet and still, but I remembered the ravening hunger that was in me always: to climb into my father’s lap, to rise and run and shout, snatch the draughts from the board and batter them against the walls. To stare at the logs until they burst into flame, to shake him for every secret, as fruits are shaken from a tree. But if I had done even one of those things there would have been no mercy. He would have burnt me down to ash. The moon lay on my son’s forehead. I saw the smudges that water and cloth had not quite scrubbed away. Why should he be peaceful? I never was, nor his father either, when I knew him. The difference was that he was not afraid to be burnt.

In the long days that followed I clutched that thought like a spar that would save me from the waves. And it did help a little. For when he stared at me, furious and defiant, his whole spirit drawn up against me, I could think of it and take one more breath. A thousand years I had lived, but they did not feel so long as Telegonus’ childhood. I had prayed that he would speak early, but then I was sorry for it, since it only gave voice to his storms. No, no, no, he cried, wrenching away from me. And then, a moment later, he would climb over my lap, shouting Mother until my ears ached. I am here, I told him, right here. Yet it was not close enough. I might walk with him all day, play every game he asked for, but if my attention strayed for even a moment, he would rage and wail, clinging to me. I yearned for my nymphs then, for anyone that I might seize by the arm and say, What is wrong with him? But then in the next moment, I was glad no one could see what I had done to him, letting all those early months of my terror batter at his head. No wonder he stormed. Come, I coaxed. Let’s do something fun. I will show you magic. Shall I change this berry for you? But he flung it away and ran off to the sea again. Every night when he slept, I stood over his bed and told myself: tomorrow I will do better. Sometimes it was even true. Sometimes, we would run laughing down to the beach and he would sit snug in my lap as we watched the waves. His feet still kicked, his hands pulled restlessly at the skin of my arms. Yet his cheek lay on my chest, and I felt the swell and fall of his breath. My patience overflowed. Scream and scream, I thought. I can bear it. Will it was, every hour, will. Like a spell after all, but one that I had to cast upon myself. He was a great river in flood, and I must have channels ready every moment to safely draw his torrent. I began to tell him stories, easy things of a rabbit who looks for food and finds it, of a baby waiting, whose mother comes. He clamored for more, so I went on. I hoped such gentle tales would soothe his fighting soul, and maybe they did. One day I realized that the moon had come and gone since he had thrown himself to the earth. Another moon passed, and somewhere in those months was the last time he ever screamed. I wish I could remember when it was. No, I wish rather I could have told myself when it would come, so all those hopeless days I could have looked to its horizon. His mind put forth leaves, thoughts and words that seemed to spring out of the air. Six years old, he was. His brow had cleared, and he would watch me working in the garden, hacking at some root. “Mother,” he said, putting his hand to my shoulder, “try cutting here.” He took out a little knife he had begun to carry, and the root gave way to him. “See?” he said, gravely. “It is easy.” He still loved the sea. He knew every shell and fish. He made rafts out of logs and floated in the bay. He blew bubbles into the tidal pools and watched the crabs skitter. “Look at this one,” he would say, towing me by the hand. “I have never seen a larger, I have never seen a smaller. This is the brightest, this is the blackest. This crab has lost one claw, and here its other is growing larger to take its place. Is that not clever?” Once again, I wished that someone else were there on the island. Not to commiserate now, but to cherish him with me. I would say, Look, can you believe it? We have come through the rocks and winds. I failed him, yet he is a sweet wonder of this world. He made a face, for he saw that my eyes were wet. “Mother,” he said, “the crab will be fine. I told you, the claw is already growing back. Now come here and look at this one. It has spots like eyes. Can it see from them, do you think?” At night, he no longer wanted my stories, he made up his own. I think it is where his wildness went, for every tale was filled with outlandish creatures: griffins and leviathans and chimeras who came to feed from his hands, whom he led on adventures or else bested with clever stratagems. Perhaps any child with only his mother for company would have been so imaginative. I cannot say, but his face was rapt as he conjured those visions. He seemed to age with every day, eight and ten and twelve. His gaze grew serious, his limbs tall and strong. He had a habit of tapping one finger on the table as he gave out morals like an old man. He liked best the stories of courage and virtue rewarded. And that is why you must never, you must always, that is why one should be sure to… I loved his certainty, his world that was an easy place of right action divided sharply from wrong, of mistake and consequence, of monsters defeated. It was no world I knew, but I would live in it as long as he would let me. It was one of those nights, summer, the pigs truffling softly below our window. He was thirteen. I laughed and said, “You have more tales in you than your father.” I saw him hesitate, as if I were a rare bird he feared to put to flight. He had asked about his father before, but I had always said, Not yet. “Go on,” I said, and smiled at him. “I will answer you. It is time.” “Who was he?”

“A prince who came to this island. He had a thousand and one tricks in him.” “What did he look like?” I had thought my memories of Odysseus would taste of salt. But there was a pleasure in conjuring him up. “Dark-haired, dark-eyed, with red in his beard. His hands were large, and his legs short and strong. He was always faster than you expected him to be.” “Why did he leave?” The question was like an oak seedling, I thought. A simple, green shoot above, but underneath the taproot burrowed, spreading deep. I took a breath. “When he left, he did not know I carried you. He had a wife at home, and a son as well. But it was more than that. Gods and mortals do not last together happily. He was right to leave when he did.” His face, drawn together in thought. “How old was he?” “Not far over forty.” I saw him counting. “So not even sixty yet. He still lives?” It was strange to think of: Odysseus walking on Ithaca’s shore, breathing the air. I had had so little time for dreaming since Telegonus was born. But the image felt solid, wholesome, before me. “I believe he does. He was very strong. In spirit, I mean.” Now that the gates were open he sought all I could remember of Odysseus, his lineage, his kingdom, his wife, his son, his childhood occupations, his honors in the war. The stories were still in me, vivid as when Odysseus had first told them, those thousand wily conspiracies and trials. Yet a strange thing happened when I began to recite them back to Telegonus. I found myself hesitating, omitting, altering. With my son’s face before me, their brutalities shone through as they never had before. What I had thought of as adventure now seemed blood-soaked and ugly. Even Odysseus himself seemed changed, callous instead of unflinching. The few times I did leave a story as it was, my son would frown. You did not tell it correctly, he said. My father would never have done such a thing. You are right, I would say. Your father let that Trojan spy with his weasel-skin cap go, and he returned safely home to his family. Your father always kept his word. Telegonus would beam. “I knew he was an honorable man. Tell me more of his noble deeds.” And so I would spin another lie. Would Odysseus have reproached me for it? I did not know, and I did not care. I would have done worse, much worse, to make my son happy. From time to time, in those days, I wondered what I would tell Telegonus if he ever asked me for my own stories. How I might polish Aeëtes, Pasiphaë, Scylla, the pigs. In the end, I did not have to try. He never asked. He began spending long hours away upon the island. When he came back, he would be flushed and spilling over with talk. His limbs were stretching, and I heard the crack in his voice. Tell me more about my father, he said. Where is Ithaca? What is it like? How far from here? And what dangers on the way?

It was autumn, and I was boiling the fruits in syrup for winter. I could have made the trees bloom fresh at any time, but this was something I had come to enjoy, the bubbling sugars, the translucent jewel colors, the storing up of a good season in my jars. “Mother!” He came shouting into the house. “There is a ship which needs us. They are off our shore, half foundered—they will sink if they do not land!” It was not the first time he had spotted sailors. They passed often by our isle. But it was the first time he had wanted to help them. I let him pull me out to the cliff. It was true, the ship was tilted over and the hull taking in water. “See? Just this once, will you drop the spell? I am sure they will be very grateful.” How would you know? I wanted to say. Often those men in most need hate most to be grateful, and will strike at you just to feel whole again. “Please,” he said. “What if it is someone like my father?” “There is no one like your father.” “They will sink, Mother. They will drown! We cannot just stand here and watch, we must do something!” His face was stricken. His eyes were sheened with tears. “Please, Mother! I cannot bear to watch them die.” “This once,” I said. “Once only.” We could hear their shouts carried on the wind. Shore, a shore! They turned their boat, lurching towards us. I made him promise to stay hidden while they climbed the trail up to the house. He was to remain in his room until the wine was drunk, and to leave again at my slightest signal. He agreed to all of it, he would have agreed to anything. I went to the kitchen and brewed my old potion. I felt as if I stood in two rooms at once. Here I was mixing the herbs I had mixed a hundred times, my fingers finding their old shapes. And here was my son, leaping and wild. Where are they from, can you tell? What rocks do you think they staved on? Can we help them fix the hull? I do not know how I answered. My blood had gone solid in my veins. I was trying to remember that trick of command I used to have. Come in, of course I will help you. Will you not have more wine? Though I expected it, I started when the knock came. I opened the door and there they were: ragged, hungry, desperate as always. The captain, did he look like a coiled snake? I could not tell. I felt a sudden, gagging nausea. I wanted to slam the door shut on them, but it was too late for that. They had seen me now, and my son was pressed to the wall, listening to everything. I had warned him that I might need to use magic

on them. He had nodded. Of course, Mother, I understand. But he had no idea. He had never heard the crack of ribs remaking themselves, the wet tearing of flesh from its shape. They sat at my benches. They ate, and the wine went down their throats. Still, I watched the captain. His eyes were keen. They lingered on the room, on me. He rose. “Lady,” he said. “Your name? Whom should we honor for our meal?” I would have done it then, ripped them from themselves. But Telegonus was already stepping out into the hall. He wore a cape and a sword at his waist. He stood tall and straight as a man. He was fifteen. “You are in the house of the goddess Circe, daughter of Helios, and her son, called Telegonus. We saw your ship founder and allowed you to come to our island, though usually it is closed to mortals. We will be glad to help you all we can while you are here.” His voice was crackless, firm as seasoned planks. His eyes were dark as his father’s, but there were flecks of yellow that shone in them. The men stared. I stared. I thought of Odysseus, separated from Telemachus for years, the shock it must have been to see him suddenly grown. The captain knelt. “Goddess, great lord. The blessed Fates themselves must have brought us here.” Telegonus gestured for the man to rise. He took the head of the table and served out food from the platters. The men scarcely ate. They were growing towards him like vines to sun, their faces awestruck, competing to tell him their stories. I watched, wondering at where such a gift had hidden in him all this while. But then I had done no magic till I had plants to work upon. I let him go down to the shore with them, help them with their repairs. I did not worry, or at least, not much. My spell over the island’s beasts would protect him, but more than that his own spell would, for those men were like creatures enchanted. He was younger than all of them, but they nodded at every word from his lips. He showed them where the best groves were, what trees they could chop down. He showed them the streams and shade. Three days they stayed while they patched the hole in their ship and fed themselves upon our stores. In all that time, he left them only when they slept. Lord, they called him, when they spoke of him, and solicited his opinion earnestly, as if he were some master carpenter of ninety instead of a boy seeing his first hull. Lord Telegonus, sir, what do you think, will this do? He examined the patch. “Nicely, I think. Well constructed.” They beamed, and when they sailed, they hung off the side, shouting their thanks and prayers. His face stayed bright as long as he could see the ship. Then his joy bled away. For many years, I confess, I had hoped he might be a witch. I had tried to teach him about my herbs, their names and properties. I used to do small spells in his presence, hoping one might catch his eye. But he never showed even the faintest interest. Now I saw why. Witchcraft transforms the world. He wanted only to join it. I tried to say something, I do not know what. But he was already turning from me, heading for the woods.

He kept outside all that winter, and all that spring and summer too. From the sun’s first light in the sky until its setting, I did not see him. A few times I asked him where he went, and he waved his hand vaguely at the beach. I did not press. He was preoccupied, always running somewhere breathlessly, coming home flushed with burrs all over his tunic. I saw the strength rising in his shoulders, his jaw widening. “That cave down by the beach,” he said. “The one where my father kept his ship. Can I have it?” “Everything here is yours,” I said. “But can it be mine alone? You promise not to go in?” I remembered how much my young privacies had meant to me. “I promise,” I said. I have wondered since if he used those same charms on me that he had worked on the sailors. For I was like a well-fed cow in those days, placid, unquestioning. Let him go, I told myself. He is happy, he is growing. What harm can find him here? “Mother,” he said. It was just after dawn, the pale light warming the leaves. I was kneeling in the garden, weeding. He was not usually up so early, but it was his birthday. Sixteen, he was. “I made you honeyed pears,” I said. He held up his hand, showing a half-eaten fruit, shining with juice. “I found them, thank you.” He paused. “I have something to show you.” I wiped off the dirt and followed him down the forest path to the cave. Inside was a small boat, near the size Glaucos’ had been. “Whose is this?” I demanded. “Where are they?” He shook his head. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes bright. “No, Mother, it is mine. I had the idea before the men came but seeing them made it go much faster. They gave me some of their tools and showed me how to make the others. What do you think?” Now that I looked I could see that its sail was stitched from my sheets, its boards roughly planed, still full of splinters. I was angry, but a wondering pride glowed in me as well. My son had built it alone, with nothing but crude tools and his will. “It is very trim,” I said. He grinned. “It is, isn’t it? He said I should not say anything. But I did not want to keep it from you. I thought—” He stopped at the look on my face. “Who said?” “It is all right, Mother, he means me no harm. He has been helping me. He said he used to visit often. That you are old friends.”

Old friends. How had I not seen this danger? I remembered now Telegonus’ giddiness when he would come home at night. My nymphs used to come back with that same face. Athena could not cross my spell, no, she had no powers in the underworld. But he walked everywhere. When he was not rolling his dice, he led the spirits to the doors of Hades himself. God of meddling, god of change. “Hermes is no friend of mine. Tell me everything he said to you. At once.” His face was mottled with embarrassment. “He said he could help me, and he did. He said that it must be sudden. If a scab is to come off, he said, the best way is quickly. It will not even take me half a month, and I will be back by spring. We have tried it in the bay, and it is sound.” His words tumbled out so fast I struggled to parse them. “What do you mean? What will not take you half a month?” “The journey,” he said. “To Ithaca. Hermes says he can lead me around the monsters, so you do not have to fear about that. If I sail at the noon tide, I will make the next island before dark.” I felt speechless, as if he had torn my tongue from my mouth. He put a hand to my arm. “You do not have to worry. I will be safe. Hermes is my ancestor through my father, he tells me. He would not betray me. Mother, do you hear?” He was peering at me anxiously from beneath his hair. My blood ran cold to see his greenness. Had I ever been so young? “He is a god of lies,” I said. “Only fools put their faith in him.” He flushed, but a defiance had come into his face. “I know what he is. I do not just rely on him. I have packed my bow. And he has been teaching me a little spear-work besides.” He gestured to a stick leaning in the corner, one of my old kitchen knives laced to its end. He must have seen my horror, for he added, “Not that I will have to use it. It is just a few days to Ithaca, and then I will be safe with my father.” He was leaning forward, earnestly. He thought he had answered all my objections. He was proud of himself, bright in his new-forged plans. How easily those words tumbled from him, safe, my father. I felt myself running with swift, clear rage. “What makes you think you will be welcome on Ithaca? All you know of your father is stories. And he already has a son. How do you think Telemachus will like his bastard brother appearing?” He flinched a little at bastard, but answered bravely. “I don’t think he would mind. I don’t come for his kingdom, or his inheritance, and so I will explain to him. I will stay the whole winter, and there will be time for us to know each other.” “So that is it. It is settled. You and Hermes have the plan, and now you think all that is needed is for me to wish you fair wind.” He looked at me, uncertain. “Tell me,” I said. “What does all-knowing Hermes say about his sister who wants you dead? About the fact that you will be killed the moment you step away from the island?” He nearly sighed. “Mother, it was so long ago. Surely she has forgotten.” “Forgotten?” My voice clawed the cave walls. “Are you an idiot? Athena does not forget. She will eat you in one gulp, like an owl takes a stupid mouse.” His face paled, but he pressed on like the valiant heart he was. “I will take my chances.” “You will not. I forbid it.” He stared at me. I had never forbidden him anything before. “But I must go to Ithaca. I have built the ship. I’m ready.” I stepped towards him. “Let me explain more clearly. If you leave, you will die. So you will not sail. And if you try, I will burn that boat of yours to cinders.” His face was blank with shock. I turned and walked away.

He did not sail that day. I stalked back and forth in my kitchen, and he kept to his woods. It was dusk when he returned to the house. He banged through the trunks, loudly gathered up bedding. He had come only to show me that he would not stay beneath my roof. When he passed me I said, “You want me to treat you like a man, but you act like a child. You have been protected here your whole life. You do not understand the dangers that wait for you in the world. You cannot simply pretend that Athena does not exist.” He was ready for me, like tinder for the spark. “You are right. I don’t know the world. How could I? You don’t let me out of your sight.” “Athena stood upon that very hearth and demanded I give you to her so she could kill you.” “I know,” he said. “You’ve told me a hundred times. Yet she has not tried since, has she? I’m alive, aren’t I?” “Because of the spells I cast and carry!” I rose to face him. “Do you know what I have had to do to keep them strong, the hours I have spent fretting over them, testing them to be sure she cannot break through?” “You like doing that.” “Like it?” The laugh scraped from me. “I like doing my own work, which I have scarcely had time for since you were born!”

“Then go do your spells! Go do them and let me leave! Be honest, you do not even know if Athena is still angry. Have you tried to speak with her? It has been sixteen years!” He said it as if it were sixteen centuries. He could not imagine the scope of gods, the mercilessness that comes of seeing generations rise and fall around you. He was mortal and young. A slow afternoon felt like a year to him. I could feel my face kindling, gathering heat. “You think all gods are like me. That you may ignore them as you please, treat them as your servants, that their wishes are only flies to be brushed aside. But they will crush you for pleasure, for spite.” “Fear and the gods, fear and the gods! That is all you talk about. It is all you have ever talked about. Yet a thousand thousand men and women walk this world and live to be old. Some of them are even happy, Mother. They do not just cling to safe harbors with desperate faces. I want to be one of them. I mean to be. Why can’t you understand that?” The air around me had begun to crackle. “You are the one who does not understand. I have said you will not leave, and that is the end of it.” “So that’s it then? I just stay here my whole life? Until I die? I never even try to leave?” “If need be.” “No!” He slammed the table between us. “I will not do it! There is nothing for me here. Even if another ship comes and I beg you to let it land, what then? A few days’ respite, then they will leave, and I will still be trapped. If this is life, then I would rather die. I would rather Athena kills me, do you hear? At least then I will have seen one thing in my life that was not this island!” My vision went white. “I do not care what you would rather. If you are too stupid to save your own life, then I will do it for you. My spells will do it.” For the first time, he faltered. “What do you mean?” “I mean you would not even know what you missed. You would never think of leaving again.” He took a step backwards. “No. I will not drink your wine. I will not touch anything you give me.” I could taste the venom in my mouth. It was a pleasure to see him frightened at last. “You think that will stop me? You have never understood how strong I am.” His look I will remember all my life. A man who has seen the veil lifted and beholds the true face of the world. He wrenched open the door and fled into the dark.

I stood there a long time, a bolt-struck tree scorched to its roots. Then I walked down to the shore. The air was cool but the sand still held the day’s heat. I thought of all the hours I had carried him there, his skin against mine. I had wanted him to walk freely in the world, unburnt and unafraid, and now I had gotten my wish. He could not conceive of a relentless goddess with her spear aimed at his heart. I had not told him of his infancy, how angry and difficult it was. I had not told him the stories of the gods’ cruelty, of his own father’s cruelty. I should have, I thought. For sixteen years, I had been holding up the sky, and he had not noticed. I should have forced him to go with me to pick those plants that saved his life. I should have made him stand over the stove while I spoke the words of power. He should understand all I had carried in silence, all that I had done for his safekeeping. But then what? He was somewhere in the trees, hiding from me. So easily those spells had risen in my mind, the ones that would let me cut his desires from him, like paring rot from fruit. I ground my jaw. I wanted to rage and tear myself and weep. I wanted to curse Hermes for his half-truths and temptations—but Hermes was nothing. I had seen Telegonus’ face when he used to look into the sea and whisper, horizon. I closed my eyes. I knew the shore so well, I did not have to see to walk. When he was a child I used to make lists of all the things I would do to keep him safe. It was not much of a game, because the answer was always the same. Anything. Odysseus had told me a story once about a king who had a wound that could not be healed, not by any doctor, not by any amount of time. He went to an oracle and heard its answer: only the man who had given the wound could fix it, with the same spear he had used to make it. So the king had limped across the world until he found his enemy, who mended him. I wished Odysseus were there so I could ask him: but how did the king get that man to help him, the one who had struck him so deep? The answer that came to me was from a different tale. Long ago, in my wide bed, I had asked Odysseus: “What did you do? When you could not make Achilles and Agamemnon listen?” He’d smiled in the firelight. “That is easy. You make a plan in which they do not.”

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