فصل 20

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فصل 20

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Chapter Twenty I FOUND HIM IN the olive grove. The blankets were tangled around him, as if he had fought on against me in his dreams. “My son,” I said. The words were loud in the still air. It was not dawn yet, but I felt it coming, the great rolling wheels of my father’s chariot. “Telegonus.” His eyes opened, and his hands flew up, to ward me off. The pain was like a dagger’s point. “I come to say that you may go, and I will help you. But there must be conditions.” Did he know how much those words cost me? I do not think he could. It is youth’s gift not to feel its debts. The joy was already washing over him. He threw himself upon me, pressed his face to my neck. I closed my eyes. He smelled like green leaves and running sap. We had breathed only each other for sixteen years. “Two days’ delay,” I said. “And three things within them.” He nodded eagerly. “Anything.” Now that I had lost, he was pliant. At least he was gracious in victory. I led him to the house and filled his arms with herbs and bottles. Together we carried them clinking down to his ship. There upon his deck I began chopping, grinding, mixing my pastes. He surprised me by watching. Usually he drifted away when I did spells. “What will it do?” “It is a protection.” “Against what?” “Whatever I can think of. Whatever Athena can summon—storms, leviathans, a split hull.” “Leviathans?” I was glad to see him pale a little. “This will keep it at bay. If Athena wants to strike at you by sea, she will have to do it herself, directly, and I think she cannot, for she is bound by the Fates. You must keep to the boat, and as soon as you land on Ithaca, go to your father, and ask him to intercede with Athena for you. She is his patron and may listen. Swear to me.” “I will.” His face was solemn in the shadows. I poured those draughts over each rough board, every inch of sail, speaking my charms. “May I try?” he said. I gave him what was left of a draught. He drenched a bit of the deck, spoke the words he had heard me say. He poked at the wood. “Did it work?” “No,” I said. “How do you know what words to use?” “I speak what has meaning for me.” His face worked with effort, as if he pushed a boulder up a hill. He stared at the boards and spoke different words, then different words still. The deck was unchanged. He looked at me, accusing. “It is hard.” In spite of everything, I laughed. “Did you not think it was? Listen. When you set out to build this ship, you didn’t lift an axe once and expect it to be finished. It was work, day after day of it. Witchcraft is the same. I have labored for centuries and still I have not mastered it.” “But it is more than that,” he said. “It is also that I am not a witch like you.” It was my father I thought of. All those years ago when he had turned the log in our hearth to ash, and said, And that is the least of my powers. “It is likely you are not a witch,” I said. “But you are something else. Something you have not found yet. And that is why you go.” His smile reminded me of Ariadne’s, warm as summer grass. “Yes,” he said.

I led him to a shaded part of the beach. While he ate the last of the pears, I marked out his route with stones, tracing the stops and dangers. He would not go past Scylla. There were other ways to Ithaca. That Odysseus had not been able to take them had been a piece of Poseidon’s vengeance. “If Hermes helps you, that is well, but you must never depend on him. Anything he says is written on the wind. And always, you must be careful of Athena. She may come to you in other forms. A beautiful maiden, perhaps. You must not be taken in, not by any temptations she would offer.” “Mother.” His face was red. “I’m looking for my father. That’s all I think of.” I said no more. We were gentler with each other in those days than we had been, even before our fight. In the evenings, we sat together at the hearth. He had a foot stuck under one of the lions. It was only autumn, but the nights were cool already. I served his favorite meal, fish stuffed with roasted herbs and cheeses. He ate and let me lecture him. “Penelope,” I said. “Show her every honor. Kneel before her, offer her praises and gifts—I will give you suitable ones. She is reasonable, but no woman is happy with her husband’s by-blow at her feet. “And Telemachus. Be wary of him above all. He is the one with the most to lose from you. Many bastards have become kings in their day, and he will know it. Do not trust him. Do not turn your back on him. He will be clever and quick, trained by your father himself.” “I am good with a bow.” “Against oak boles and pheasants. You are not a warrior.” He took a breath. “Anyway, whatever he tries, your powers will guard me.” I stared at him in horror. “Do not be a fool. I have no powers that can serve you away from this place. To rely on that is death.” He touched my arm. “Mother, I only mean that he is a mortal. I am half your blood and have the tricks that come with that.” What tricks? I wanted to shake him. A little glamour? A way of charming mortals? His face, so full of its bold hopes, made me feel old. His youth had swelled in him, ripening. The dark curls hung into his eyes, and his voice had deepened. Girls and boys would sigh over him, but all I saw were the thousand soft places of his body where his life might be ended. The bareness of his neck looked obscene in the firelight. He leaned his head against mine. “I will be fine, I promise you.” You cannot make that promise, I wanted to shout. You know nothing. But whose fault was that? I had kept the face of the world veiled from him. I had painted his history in bright, bold colors, and he had fallen in love with my art. And now it was too late to go back and change it. If I was so old, I should be wise. I should know better than to howl when the bird was already flown.

Three things, I had told him we must do. But the last was for me alone. He did not question me about it. Some spell, he thought. Some herb she wants to grub up. I waited until he went to bed, then I walked by starlight to the ocean’s edge. The waves slid across my feet, twisted at the hem of my dress. I was near the cave where Telegonus’ boat waited. In a few hours he would board it, heave up the square rock anchor, unfurl the sail with its ragged stitches. He was a sweet boy and would wave to me as long as he knew I could see. Then he would turn, straining his eyes for the small, rocky island that lay at the end of his hopes. I was remembering my grandfather’s halls, the black currents of Oceanos, that great river that girdles all the earth. If a god had naiad blood, they could slip inside its waves and be borne onwards through tunnels of rock, through a thousand tributaries until they were brought to the place where its stream ran beneath the very bottom of the sea itself. We used to go there, Aeëtes and I. Where the two waters met they did not mingle, but made a sort of membrane, viscous as a jellyfish. Through it, you could watch the glimmers of phosphorescence in the ocean’s dark, and if you pressed your hand to it, you could feel the deep water on the other side, shockingly cold. Our fingers would come back tingling and tasting of salt. “Behold,” Aeëtes had said. He pointed to something moving in that endless murk. A pale gray shadow gliding forward, huge as a ship. It bore down on us, ghostly wings silent in the black. The only sound was the scrape of its spine tail, dragging on the sand floor. Trygon, my brother named it. The greatest of its kind, a god itself. Father Ouranos, maker of the world, was said to have placed it there for safety, for the poison in the creature’s tail was the most potent in the universe. A single touch would kill a mortal instantly, condemn a great god to an eternity of torment. And a lesser god? What would it do to us? We stared at its eerie, alien face, its flat slashing mouth. We watched its white-gilled stomach pass over us. Aeëtes’ eyes had been wide and bright. “Think of the weapon it would make.”

I was about to break my exile, I knew it. It was why I had waited for night and the drifting clouds across my aunt’s eyes. If I succeeded, I would return by morning, before my absence was noticed. And if I did not, well. I would likely be past punishments. I stepped into the waves. They rose over my legs, my belly. They rose over my face. I did not have to weight myself with rocks as a mortal would have, fighting against my own buoyancy. I walked steadily down the ocean’s shelves. Above me the tides kept up their relentless motion, but I was too deep to feel them. My eyes lit the way. The sand stirred around me, and a flounder darted from my feet. No other creatures came near. They could smell my naiad blood, or perhaps the lingering poisons on my hands from so many years of witcheries. I wondered if I should have tried to speak to the sea-nymphs, seek their aid. But I did not think they would like what I had come to do. Deeper I went, falling into the fathoms of blackness. That water was not my element and it knew it. The chill dug at my bones, the salt scoured my face. The ocean’s weight piled like mountains on my shoulders. But endurance had always been my virtue and I kept on. In the distance, I glimpsed the floating hulks of whales and giant squids. I gripped my knife, its edge sharp as the bronze could hold, but they too stayed away. At last, I landed upon the sea’s lowest floor. The sand was so cold it burned my feet. All was silent there, the water utterly still. The only light came from drifting strands of luminescence. He was wise, this god. To make his visitors travel to such a hostile place, where nothing lived but him. I cried out: “Great lord of the deep, I am come from the world to challenge you.”

I heard no sound. Around me stretched the blind expanse of salt. Then the darkness parted, and he came. Huge he was, white and gray, burned onto the depths like an afterimage of the sun. His silent wings rippled, rills of current flowing off their tips. His eyes were thin and slitted like a cat’s, his mouth a bloodless slash. I stared. When I had stepped into the water, I had told myself that this would be only another Minotaur to wrestle, another Olympian I might outwit. But now, with his ghastly immensity before me, I quailed. This creature was older than all the lands of the world, old as the first drop of salt. Even my father would be like a child before him. You could no more stand against such a thing than stem the sea. Cold terror sluiced through me. My whole life I had feared a great horror was coming for me. I did not have to wait anymore. It was here. For what purpose do you challenge me? All the great gods have the power to speak in thoughts, but hearing that creature in my mind turned my belly to water. “I come to win your poison tail.” And why would you desire such strength? “Athena, daughter of Zeus, seeks my son’s life. My power cannot protect him, but yours can.” His unblinking eyes rested on mine. I know who you are, daughter of the sun. All that the sea touches comes to me at last in the depths. I have tasted you. I have tasted all your family. Your brother came once also seeking my power. He went away empty-handed, like all the rest. I am not such a one as you may fight. The despair rolled through me, for I knew he spoke truth. All the monsters of the depths were covered in scars from battles with their brother leviathans. Not him. He was smooth all over, for none dared to cross his ancient power. Even Aeëtes had recognized his limit. “Still,” I said, “I must try. For my son.” It is impossible. The words were flat as the rest of him. Moment by moment, I could feel my will leaching from me, bled away by the relentless chill of those waves and his unblinking gaze. I forced myself to speak. “I cannot accept that,” I said. “My son must live.” There is no must to the life of a mortal, except death. “If I cannot challenge you, perhaps I can give you something in exchange. Some gift. Perform a task.” The slit of his mouth opened in silent laughter. What could you have that I want? Nothing, I knew it. He regarded me with his pale cat eyes. My law is as it has ever been. If you would take my tail you must first submit to its poison. That is the price. Eternal pain in exchange for a few more mortal years for your son. Is it worth the cost? I thought of childbirth, which had nearly ended me. I thought of it going on and on with no cure, no salve, no relief. “You offered the same to my brother?” The offer stands for all. He refused. They always do. It gave me a sort of strength to know it. “What other conditions?” When you have no more need of its power, cast it into the waves, so it may return to me. “That is all? You swear it?” You would seek to bind me, child? “I would know you will honor your bargain.” I will honor it. The currents moved around us. If I did this thing, Telegonus would live. That was all that mattered. “I am ready,” I said. “Strike.” No. You must put your hand to the venom yourself. The water sucked at me. The darkness shriveled my courage. The sand was not smooth but jumbled with pieces of bone. All that died in the sea came to rest there at last. My skin rose, prickling and prickling, as if it would tear away and leave me. There was no mercy among the gods, I had known it all my life. I made myself walk forward. Something caught at my foot. A rib cage. I pulled free. If I stopped, I would never move again. I came to the seam where his tail joined gray skin. The flesh above looked unwholesomely soft, like something rotted. The spine rasped faintly against the ocean floor. Up close I could see its sawtooth edge, and I smelled its power, thick and gagging-sweet. Would I be able to climb out of the deep again, once the venom was in me? Or would I only lie there, clutching the tail, while my son died in the world above?

Do not draw it out, I told myself. But I could not move another inch. My body, with its simple good sense, balked at self-destruction. My legs tensed to flee, to scramble back to the safety of the dry world. Just as Aeëtes had before me, and all the others who had come for Trygon’s power. Around me was murk and dark currents. I set Telegonus’ bright face before me. I reached. My hand passed through empty water, touching nothing. The creature was floating in front of me again, its flat gaze on mine. It is finished. My mind was black as that water. It was as if time had skipped. “I do not understand.” You would have touched the poison. That is enough. I felt as though I were mad. “How can this be?” I am old as the world, and make the conditions that please me. You are the first to meet them. He rose from the sand. The beat of his wing brushed my hair, and when he stopped, the seam where his tail met his body was before me again. Cut. Begin in the flesh above, else the venom will leak. His voice was calm, as if he told me to slice a fruit. I felt dizzied, still reeling. I looked at that skin, unmarked and delicate as the inside of a wrist. I could no more imagine cutting it than an infant’s throat. “You cannot allow this,” I said. “It must be a trick. I could blight the world with such power. I could threaten Zeus.” The world you speak of is nothing to me. You have won, now take the prize. Cut. His voice was neither harsh nor gentle, yet I felt it like a lash. The water pressed upon me, vast depths stretching out into their endless night. His soft flesh waited before me, smooth and gray. And still I did not move. You were ready to fight me to have it. Not if I am willing? My stomach churned against itself. “Please. Do not make me do this.” Make you? Child, you have come to me. I could not feel the knife handle in my hand. I could not feel anything. My son seemed distant as the sky. I lifted the blade, touched its tip to the creature’s skin. It tore as flowers tear, ragged and easy. The golden ichor welled up, drifting over my hands. I remember what I thought: surely, I am condemned for this. I can craft all the spells I want, all the magic spears. Yet I will spend the rest of my days watching this creature bleed. The last shred of skin parted. The tail came free in my hand. It was nearly weightless, and up close there was a quality to it almost like iridescence. “Thank you,” I said, but my voice was air. I felt the currents move. The grains of sand whispered against each other. His wings were lifting. The darkness around us shimmered with clouds of his gilded blood. Beneath my feet were the bones of a thousand years. I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. Then, child, make another. He glided off into the dark, trailing a ribbon of gold behind him.

It was a long way back up with that death in my hand. I saw no creature, not even in the distance. They had disliked me before; now they fled. When I emerged onto the beach it was nearly dawn and there was no time to rest. I went to the cave and found the old stick Telegonus had been using as a spear. Still trembling a little, my hands unwound the cord that bound the knife to its end. I stood a moment looking at its crooked length, wondering if I should find a new haft. But this was what he had practiced with, and I thought it safer to keep it as he was used to, crooks and all. I held the spine gently by its base. It had filmed over with a clear fluid. I bound it to the stick’s end with twine and magic, then fitted over it a sheath of leather, enchanted with moly, to keep the poison at bay. He was sleeping, his face smooth, his cheeks faintly flushed. I stood watching him until he woke. He started up, then squinted. “What is that?” “Protection. Do not touch anything but the shaft. A scratch is death to men and torment to gods. Always keep it sheathed. It is only for Athena, or utmost danger. It must return to me after.” He was fearless, he had always been. Without hesitation, he reached and took the haft against his palm. “This is lighter than bronze. What is it?” “The tail of Trygon.” The stories of monsters had always been his favorite. He stared at me. “Trygon?” His voice was filled with wonder. “You took his tail from him?”

“No,” I said. “He gave it to me, for a price.” I thought of that gold blood, staining the ocean depths. “Carry it now, and live.” He knelt before me, his eyes on the ground. “Mother,” he began. “Goddess—” I put my fingers to his mouth. “No.” I drew him up. He was as tall as I was. “Do not start now. It does not suit you, nor me either.” He smiled at me. We sat together at the table, eating the breakfast I had made, then we readied the ship, loading it with stores and guest-gifts, dragging it to the water’s edge. His face grew brighter by the minute, his feet skimmed the earth. He let me embrace him a last time. “I will give Odysseus your greetings,” he said. “I will bring you back so many stories, Mother, you will not believe them all. I will get you so many presents, you won’t be able to see the deck.” I nodded. I touched my fingers to his face, and he sailed away, waving indeed, until he vanished from my sight.

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