فصل 21

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فصل 21

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Chapter Twenty-one THE WINTER STORMS CAME early that year. It rained in stinging drops that scarcely seemed to wet the ground. A stripping wind followed, tearing the leaves from the trees in a day. I had not been alone on my island in…I could not count. A century? Two? I had told myself that when he was away I would do all the things I had set aside for sixteen years. I would work at my spells from dawn until dusk, dig up roots and forget to eat, harvest the withy stems and weave baskets till they piled to the ceiling. It would be peaceful, the days drifting by. A time of rest. Instead, I paced the shore, gazing out, as if I could make my eyes stretch all the way to Ithaca. I counted the moments, measuring each one against his journey. He would be stopping for fresh water now. Now he would be sighting the island. He would have made his way to the palace and knelt. Odysseus would—what? I had not told him I was pregnant before he left. I had told him so little. What would he make of a child come from us? It will be well, I assured myself. He is a boy to be proud of. Odysseus would see his qualities clearly, just as he had picked out Daedalus’ loom. He would take him into his confidence and teach him all those arts of mortal men, swordplay, archery, hunting, speaking in council. Telegonus would sit at feasts and charm the Ithacans while his father looked on proudly. Even Penelope would be won over, and Telemachus. Perhaps he might find a place in their court, going back and forth between us, and so make a good life. And what else, Circe? Will they ride griffins and all become immortal? The air smelled of frost, and one or two flakes trickled from the sky. A thousand thousand times, I had crossed Aiaia’s slopes. The poplars, black and white, lacing their bare arms. The cornels and apple trees with fallen fruits still shriveling on the ground. The fennel tall as my waist, the sea rocks white with drying salt. Overhead, the skimming cormorants called to the waves. Mortals like to name such natural wonders changeless, eternal, but the island was always changing, that was the truth, flowing endlessly through its generations. Three hundred years and more had passed since I had come. The oak that creaked over my head I had known as a sapling. The beach ebbed and flowed, its curves changing with every winter season. Even the cliffs were different, carved by the rain and wind, by the claws of countless scrabbling lizards, by the seeds that stuck and sprouted in their cracks. Everything was united by the steady rise and fall of nature’s breath. Everything except for me. For sixteen years, I had pushed the thought aside. Telegonus made it easy, his wild babyhood filled with Athena’s threats, then the tantrums, his blooming youth and all the messy details of life that he trailed behind him every day: the tunics that must be washed, the meals served, the sheets changed. But now that he was gone, I could feel the truth lifting its head. Even if Telegonus survived Athena, even if he made it all the way to Ithaca and back, still I would lose him. To shipwreck or to sickness, to raids or wars. The best that I could hope for would be to watch his body fail, limb by limb. To see his shoulders droop, his legs tremble, his belly sink into itself. And at the last, I would have to stand over his white-haired corpse and watch it fed to the flames. The hills and trees before me, the worms and lions, stones and tender buds, Daedalus’ loom, all wavered as if they were a fraying dream. Beneath them was the place I truly dwelt, a cold eternity of endless grief.

One of my wolves had begun howling. “Quiet,” I said. But she kept it up, her voice rattling off the walls, grating at my ears. I had fallen asleep before the fire, my head on the hearthstones. I sat up, bleary, skin printed with the weave of my blanket. Through the windows streamed winter light, harsh and pale. It darted into my eyes and left shadows knee-deep on the ground. I wanted to sleep again. But she whined and howled, and at last I made myself get up. I went to the door and yanked it open. There! The wolf shoved past me and went racing across the clearing. I watched her go. Arcturos, we called her. Most of the animals did not have names, but she had been Telegonus’ favorite. She angled upwards, to the cliff that overlooked the shore. I left the door hanging and went after. I had not put on a cloak, and the rising storm-winds buffeted me as I climbed the peak to where Arcturos stood. The seas were at their winter worst, dragging and gusting, white-topped, savage. Only utmost necessity would take a sailor out. I stared, sure that I was wrong. But there it was: a ship. Telegonus’. I ran back down through the trees and the bare thorn thickets. Terror and joy jostled together in my throat. He is back. He is back too soon. There must have been some disaster. He is dead. He is changed. He collided with me among the laurels. I seized him, pulled him into my arms, pressing my face to his shoulder. He smelled of salt and felt broader than before. I clung to him, nerveless in my relief. “You are back already.” He did not answer. I lifted my head and took in his face. It was haggard, bruised and unslept. Thick with misery. I felt alarm flash through me. “What is it? What is the matter?” “Mother. I have to tell you.” He sounded as if he were choking. Arcturos pressed to his knee, but he did not touch her. All his body was cold and stiff. Mine had gone cold with it. “Tell me,” I said. But he was at a loss. He had spun so many stories in his life, but this one stuck in him, like ore to its rock. I took his hand. “Whatever it is, I will help.” “No!” He jerked away from me. “Do not say that! You must let me speak.” His face was gray, as if he had swallowed poison. The winds still blew, twisting at our clothes. I felt nothing but those bare inches between us.

“He was gone when I arrived. My father.” He swallowed. “I went to the palace and they said it was some hunting trip. I did not stay there. I stayed on the boat as you told me to.” I nodded. I was afraid he would break if I said a word. “In the evenings I would walk the beach a little. I took the spear always. I did not like to leave it in the boat. I did not want—” A spasm passed over his face. “It was sunset when the boat came driving in. A small craft, like mine, but piled with treasures. They flashed as the boat rocked in the waves. Armor, I think, and some weapons, bowls. Its captain threw down the anchor and jumped from the prow.” He met my eyes. “I knew. Even from that distance. He was shorter than I had thought he would be. His shoulders were broad as a bear’s. His hair was all gray. He could have been any sailor. I cannot say how I knew. It was as if…as if all this while, my eyes had been waiting for just that shape.” I knew the feeling. It is how I had felt first looking down at him in my arms. “I called out to him, but he was already moving towards me. I knelt. I thought…” His fist was pressing against his chest, as if he could press it through the skin. He mastered himself. “I thought he knew me too. But he was shouting. He said I could not steal from him and raid his lands. He would teach me a lesson.” I could imagine Telegonus’ shock. He who had never been accused of anything in his life. “He was running towards me. I said that he misunderstood. I had the permission of his son, the prince. It only made him angrier. I am ruler here, he said.” The winds were scouring us, and his skin was rough with gooseflesh. I tried to put my arms around him, but I might as well have embraced an oak. “He stood over me. His face was lined and salt-stained. There was a bandage on his arm, with the blood soaking through. He wore a knife at his belt.” His eyes were distant, as if he knelt on that beach again. I remembered those scarred arms of Odysseus’, marked from a hundred such shallow cuts. He liked fighting at close quarters. Taking blows on your arms, he said, was better than taking them in your guts. His smile in the dark of my room. Those heroes. You should see the look on their faces when I run straight for them. “He told me to put down my spear. I told him I could not, but he just kept shouting that I must set it down, set it down. Then he grabbed for me.” The scene bloomed in my mind: Odysseus with his bear shoulders, his corded legs, lunging at my son whose beard was not yet grown. All those stories I had hidden from him leapt into my mind. Of Odysseus beating the mutinous Thersites into unconsciousness. Of all the times contrary Eurylochos bore black eyes and a lumpen nose. Odysseus had endless patience for Agamemnon’s caprice, but with those beneath him he could be harsh as winter storms. It made him weary, all the ignorance in the world. So many stubborn wills that must be harnessed again and again to his purpose, so many foolish hearts that had to be led daily away from their hopes to his. No mouth could carry all that persuasion. There must be shortcuts, and so he found them. It might even have been a pleasure of sorts, to squash some little complaining soul who dared to stand in the way of the Best of the Greeks. And what would the Best of the Greeks have seen, looking at my son? A sweet temper, without fear. A young man who had never bent to another’s will in his life. I felt like an overdrawn rope, unbearably tight. “What happened?” “I ran. For the palace. They could tell him I meant no harm. But he was so fast, Mother.” Odysseus’ short legs were deceptive. His speed was second only to Achilles’. At Troy, he had won all the footraces. At wrestling once he had tripped up Ajax. “He grabbed the spear and yanked me back. The leather sheath flew off. I was afraid to let go. I was afraid that…” Telegonus stood before me living, but I felt the belated wash of panic. How close it had been. If the spear had twisted in his grip, had grazed him… And then I knew. I knew then. His face like a burnt-out field. His voice, cracked with grief. “I shouted that he must be careful. I told him, Mother. I said, don’t let it touch you. But he wrenched it away from me. It was just the barest scratch. The tip against his cheek.” Trygon’s tail. The death I had put into his hand. “His face just…stopped. He fell. I tried to wipe the poison away, but there was not even a wound. I will take you to my mother, I said, and she will help. His lips were white. I held him. I am your son, Telegonus, born from the goddess Circe. He heard. I think he heard. He looked at me before…he was gone.” My mouth was empty. All was coming clear at last. Athena’s armored desperation, her stiff face saying we would be sorry if Telegonus lived. She feared he would hurt someone that she loved. And who did Athena love most? I pressed my hand to my mouth. “Odysseus.” He shrank from the word like a curse. “I tried to warn him. I tried—” He choked off.

The man I had lain with so many nights, dead from the weapon I had sent, dead in my son’s arms. The Fates were laughing at me, at Athena, at all of us. It was their favorite bitter joke: those who fight against prophecy only draw it more tightly around their throats. The shining snare had closed, and my poor son, who had never harmed any man, was caught. He had sailed home all those empty hours with this crushing guilt on his heart. My hands were numb, but I made them move. I took him by the shoulders. “Listen,” I said. “Listen to me. You cannot blame yourself. It was fated long ago, fated a hundred different ways. Odysseus told me once he was destined to be killed by the sea. I thought it meant shipwreck, I did not even consider anything else. I was blind.” “You should have let Athena kill me.” His shoulders were fallen, his voice dull. “No!” I shook him, as if I could throw off that evil thought. “I never would have. Never. Even if I knew then. Are you listening to me?” The desperation scraped in my voice. “You know the stories. Oedipus, Paris. Their parents tried to murder them, yet still they lived to bear their fates. This was always the path you walked. You must take comfort in that.” “Comfort?” He looked up. “He is dead, Mother. My father is dead.” My old mistake, running so quickly to help him that I did not stop to think. “Oh, son,” I said. “It is agony. I feel it too.” He wept. My shoulder grew wet against his face. Beneath the bare branches we grieved together, for the man I had known, and the man he had not. Odysseus’ wide, plowman’s hands. His dry voice, drawing with precision the follies of gods and mortals. His eyes which saw everything and gave away so little. All perished. We had not been easy, but we had been good to each other. He had trusted me, and I him, when there was no one else. He was half of my son. After a little time, he drew back. His tears had slowed, though I knew they would come again. “I had hoped…” He trailed off, but the rest was clear. What do children always hope? To make their parents shine with pride. I knew how painful the death of that hope could be. I put my hand to his cheek. “The shades in the underworld learn the deeds of the living. He will not hold a grudge. He will hear of you. He will be proud.” Around us, the trees shook. The wind had changed directions. My uncle Boreas, breathing his chill over the world. “The underworld,” he said. “I did not think of that. He will be there. When I die, I will be able to see him. I will be able to beg forgiveness then. We will have all the rest of time together. Will we not?” His voice was vivid with hope. I saw the picture of it in his eyes: the great captain walking to him across the fields of asphodel. He would kneel on smoky knees, and Odysseus would gesture him up. They would dwell side by side in the house of the dead. Side by side, where I could never go. The grief of it was climbing my throat, threatening to swallow me. But I would have touched crippling poison for him. Could I not say those simple words, to give him a crumb of comfort? “So you will,” I said. His chest heaved, but he was calming. He rubbed the stains from his cheeks. “You understand why I had to bring them. I could not leave them, after what I did. Not when they asked to come. They are so weary, and mourning too.” I was weary myself, overwatched, buffeted by wave upon wave. “Who?” “The queen,” he said. “And Telemachus. They are waiting in the boat.” The branches tilted around me. “You brought them here?” He blinked at the sharpness of my voice. “Of course. They asked me to. There was nothing left for them on Ithaca.” “Nothing left? Telemachus is king now, and Penelope dowager queen. Why would they leave?” He was frowning. “That is what they said. They said they needed help. How could I question them?” “How could you not?” My pulse was beating in my throat. I heard Odysseus as if he stood beside me. My son will hunt down those men who laid me low. He will say, “You dared to spill the blood of Odysseus, and now yours is spilled in turn.” “Telemachus is sworn to kill you!” He stared at me. All the stories he had heard of avenging sons, and it was still a surprise to him. “No,” he said, slowly. “If he wanted to, he could have done it on the way.” “That is proof of nothing,” I said. My voice was jagged. “His father had a thousand wiles, and the first of them was to pretend friendship. Perhaps he means to try to harm us both. Perhaps he wants me to watch you fall.” A moment ago we had held each other. But now he stepped back. “That is my brother you speak of,” he said. That word, brother, on his lips. I thought of Ariadne reaching out her hands to the Minotaur, and the scar on her neck. “I have brothers too,” I said. “Do you know what they would do if I were in their power?” We stood on his father’s tomb, yet still we fought that same old fight. Gods and fear, gods and fear.

“He is the only blood of my father’s left in the world. I will not turn him away.” His breaths were harsh upon the air. “I cannot undo what I have done, but at least I can do this. If you will not have us, I will go. I will take them somewhere else.” He would do it, I had no doubt. Take them far away. I felt that old rage rising in me, the one that swore it would burn down the world before I let any harm come to him. With it, I had faced Athena and held up the sky. I had walked into the lightless deeps. There was a pleasure to it, that great hot rush through me. My mind leapt with images of destruction: the earth sent spiraling into darkness, islands drowned in the sea, my enemies transformed and crawling at my feet. But now when I sought those fantasies, my son’s face would not let them take root. If I burned down the world, he would burn with it. I breathed, letting the salt air fill me. I did not need such powers, not yet. Penelope and Telemachus might be clever, but they were not Athena, and I had held her off for sixteen years. They overreached if they thought to harm him here. The spells were still in place that protected him on the island. His wolf never left his side. My lions watched from their rocks. And here I stood, his witch mother. “Come then,” I said. “Let us show them Aiaia.”

They waited on the deck. Behind them, the pale circle of sun glowed against the cold sky, casting their faces in shadow. I wondered if they had planned that. Odysseus had told me once that half of a duel is maneuvering around the sun, trying to get the light to stab at your enemy’s eyes. But I was the blood of Helios, and no light could blind me. I saw them clear. Penelope and Telemachus. What would they do, I wondered, half-giddy. Kneel? What is the proper greeting for the goddess who bore a child with your husband? And if that child then brings about his death? Penelope inclined her head. “You honor us, goddess. We thank you for your shelter.” Her voice was smooth as cream, her face calm as still water. Very well, I thought. That is how we will do it. I know the tune. “You are my honored guest,” I said. “Be welcome here.” Telemachus wore a knife at his waist. It was the kind men used for gutting animals. I felt my pulse leap. Clever. A sword, a spear, these are articles of war. But an old hunting blade, with its grip unraveling, passes without suspicion. “And you, Telemachus,” I said. His head jerked a little at his name. I thought he would have looked like my son, brimming with youth and flashing grace. But he was narrow, his face serious. Thirty years, he would have been. He looked older. He said, “Has your son told you of my father’s death?” My father. The words hung in the air like a challenge. His boldness surprised me. I had not expected it from such a look. “He has,” I said. “I grieve for it. Your father was a man about whom songs are made.” A stiffening across Telemachus’ face. Anger, I thought, that I would dare to speak his father’s epitaph. Good. I wanted him angry. He would make mistakes that way. “Come,” I said.

The wolves flowed, silent and gray, around us. I strode ahead. A breathing space, I wanted, before they occupied my house and hearth. A moment to plan. Telegonus was carrying the bags, he had insisted. They had not brought much, scarcely the wardrobe of a royal family, but then, Ithaca was not Knossos. I could hear Telegonus behind me, pointing out the treacherous places, the slippery roots and rocks. His guilt was thick in the air as winter mists. At least their presence seemed to distract him, pull him out of despair. He had touched my arm at the beach, whispering, She is very weak, I think she has not been eating. You see how thin she is? You should keep the animals back. And simple food. Can you make broth? I felt as if I were untethered from the earth. Odysseus was gone, and Penelope was here, and I must make her broth. After all those times I had spoken her name, at last she was summoned. Vengeance, I thought. It must be. What other purpose would bring them? They reached my door. Our words were cream still, come in, thank you, will you eat, you are too kind. I served the meal: broth indeed, platters of cheese and bread, wine. Telegonus heaped their plates, kept an eye on their cups. His face was still taut with that guilty attendance. My boy who had presided so skillfully over a boatload of sailors now hovered, watching like a dog, hoping for any morsel of forgiveness. It was dark by then, the tapers lit. The flames shook with our breaths. “Lady Penelope,” he said, “do you see that loom I told you of? I am sorry you had to leave yours behind, but you may use this one any time you like. If my mother agrees.” Under other circumstances, I would have laughed. It was an old saying: weaving at another woman’s loom is like lying with her husband. I watched to see if Penelope would flinch. “I am glad to see such a wonder. Odysseus told me of it often.” Odysseus. The name naked in the room. I would not quail if she did not. “Then perhaps,” I said, “Odysseus told you also that Daedalus himself made it? I have never been a weaver worthy of such a gift, but you are famed for your skill. I hope you will try it.” “You are too kind,” she said. “I’m afraid whatever you have heard is much exaggerated.” And so it went. There were no tears, no recriminations, and Telemachus did not lunge across the table. I watched his knife, but he wore it like he did not know it was there. He did not speak, and his mother spoke only rarely. My son labored on, filling up the silence, but with every moment, I saw his grief rising. He grew dull-eyed. A faint convulsive tremor had begun passing over him. “You are overtaxed,” I said. “I will take you to your beds.” It was not a question. They rose, Telegonus swaying a little. I showed Penelope and Telemachus their rooms, brought them water to wash with and saw their doors shut. I followed my son and sat beside him on the bed.

“I can give you a draught to sleep,” I said. He shook his head. “I will sleep.” In his despair and fatigue, he was pliant. He let me hold his hand and draw his head down onto my shoulder. I could not help finding a little pleasure in it, he so rarely allowed me such closeness. I stroked his hair, a shade lighter than his father’s. I felt the shiver run through him again. “Sleep,” I murmured, but he already did. I lowered him gently onto the pillow, pulling up the blanket and spinning a spell over the room to dull noise, to douse light. Arcturos panted at the bed’s end. “Where are the rest of your fellows?” I said to her. “I would have them here too.” She looked at me with pale eyes. I am enough. I closed the door behind me and walked through the night shadows of my house. I had not sent my lions away after all. It was always instructive to see how people would take them. Penelope and Telemachus had not faltered. My son had warned them, perhaps. Or was it something Odysseus had mentioned? The thought sent an eerie chill through me. I listened, as if I might hear an answer from their rooms. The house was still. They slept, or else kept to their thoughts in silence. When I stepped into my dining hall, Telemachus was there. He stood in the room’s center, poised as an arrow nocked to its string. The knife gleamed at his waist. So, I thought. It comes. Well, it would be on my terms. I walked past him to the hearth. I poured a cup of wine and took my chair. All the while, his eyes followed me. Good. My skin felt shot through with power, like the sky before a storm. “I know you plan to kill my son.” Nothing moved but the flames in the hearth. He said, “How do you know it?” “Because you are a prince, and the son of Odysseus. Because you respect the laws of gods and men. Because your father is dead, and my son the cause. Perhaps you think to try your hand at me as well. Or did you just want me to watch?” My eyes shone and made their own shadows. He said, “Lady, I bear neither you nor your son ill will.” “How kind,” I said. “I am completely reassured.” His muscles were not a warrior’s, bunched and hardened. He had no scars or calluses I could see. But he was a Mycenaean prince, honed and supple, trained to combat from his cradle. Penelope would have been scrupulous in his rearing. “How may I prove myself to you?” His voice was grave. He mocked me, I thought. “You cannot. I know a son is bound to avenge his father’s murder.” “I do not deny that.” His gaze did not waver. “But that only holds if he was murdered.” I lifted an eyebrow. “You say he was not? Yet you bring a blade into my house.” He looked down as if surprised to see it. “It is for carving,” he said. “Yes,” I said. “I imagine so.” He drew the knife from his belt and slid it down the table. It made a raw, juddering sound. “I was on the beach when my father died,” he said. “I had heard the shouts and feared a confrontation. Odysseus was not…welcoming in recent years. I came too late, but I saw the end. He had wrested away the spear. It was not by Telegonus’ hand that he died.” “Most men do not look for reasons to forgive their father’s death.” “I cannot speak for those men,” he said. “To insist upon your son’s fault would be unjust.” It was a strange word to hear on his lips. It had been one of his father’s favorites. That wry smile, his hands uplifted. What can I say? The world is an unjust place. I considered the man before me. In spite of my anger, there was something in him that compelled. He showed no courtly polish. His gestures were simple, even awkward. He had the grim purpose of a ship, battened against a storm. “You should understand,” I said, “that any attempt to harm my son would fail.” He cast an eye to the lions in their heaps. “I think I can understand that.” I had not expected it of him, that dryness, but I did not laugh. “You told my son there was nothing left for you on Ithaca. We both know a throne waits there. Why are you not in it?” “I am not welcome on Ithaca now.” “Why?”

He did not hesitate. “Because I watched while my father fell. Because I did not kill your son where he stood. And after, when the pyre burned, I did not weep.” The words were calm but they had a heat to them like fresh coals. I remembered the look that had passed over his face when I’d spoken of honoring Odysseus. “You do not grieve for your father?” “I do. I grieve that I never met the father everyone told me I had.” I narrowed my eyes. “Explain.” “I am no storyteller.” “I am not asking for a story. You have come to my island. You owe me truth.” A moment passed, and then he nodded. “You will have it.”

I had taken the wooden chair, so he took the silver. His father’s old seat. It had been one of the first things that had caught my eye about Odysseus, how he’d lounged there like it was a bed. Telemachus sat up straight like a pupil called to recitation. I offered him wine. He declined. When Odysseus had not come home after the war, he said, suitors had begun to arrive seeking Penelope’s hand. Scions of Ithaca’s most prosperous families and ambitious sons from the neighboring islands, looking for a wife, and a throne if they could get it. “She refused them, but they lingered in the palace year after year, eating up our stores, demanding my mother choose one of them. She asked them to leave again and again, but they would not.” The old anger still burned in his voice. “They saw we could do nothing to them, a young man and a woman alone. When I reproached them, they only laughed.” I had known such men myself. I had sent them to my sty. But then Odysseus had returned. Ten years after he sailed from Troy, seven after he left Aiaia. “He came in disguise as a beggar and revealed himself only to a few of us. We devised an opportunity: a test of the suitors’ mettle. Whoever could string the great Odysseus’ bow would win my mother’s hand. One by one the suitors tried and failed. At last my father stepped forward. In a single motion he strung the bow and put an arrow through the throat of the worst among them. I had been frightened of those men for so long, but they fell to him like grass before the scythe. He killed them all.” The man of war, honed by twenty years of strife. The Best of the Greeks after Achilles, wielding his bow once more. Of course they had not stood a chance. They were green boys, overfed and spoiled. It made a good tale: the suitors, lazy and cruel, besieging the faithful wife, threatening the loyal heir. They had earned their punishment by all the laws of gods and men, and Odysseus came like Death himself to deal it, the wronged hero making the world right. Even Telegonus would have approved of such a moral. Yet somehow, it was a queasy vision for me: Odysseus, wading heart-deep in the halls he had dreamed of so long. “The next day the suitors’ fathers came. They were all men of the island. Nicanor, who kept the largest herds of goats. Agathon, with his carved-pine staff. Eupeithes, who used to let me pick pears from his orchard. He was the one who spoke. He said: Our sons were guests in your home, and you killed them. We seek reparation. “‘Your sons were thieves and villains,’ my father said. He gestured, and my grandfather threw his spear. Eupeithes’ face burst open, scattering the dust with his brains. My father ordered us to kill the rest, but Athena descended.” So Athena had come back to him at last. “She declared the feud finished. The suitors had paid fair price and there would be no more bloodshed. But the next day, the fathers of his soldiers began to come. ‘Where are our sons?’ they wanted to know. ‘We have waited twenty years to welcome them home from Troy.’” I knew the stories Odysseus would have had to tell them. Your son was eaten by a cyclops. Your son was eaten by Scylla. Your son was torn to pieces by cannibals. Your son got drunk and fell from a roof. His ship was sunk by giants while I fled. “Your father still had crew when he sailed from my island. Did none of them survive?” He hesitated. “You do not know?” “Know what?” But as I spoke, my mouth went dry as Aiaia’s yellow sands. In the wildness of Telegonus’ childhood, I had had no time to fret for what was out of my hands. But I remembered now Teiresias’ prophecy as clearly as if Odysseus had just spoken it. “The cattle,” I said. “They ate the cattle.” He nodded. “Yes.” A year those eager, reckless men had lived with me. I had fed them, cared for their illnesses and scars, taken pleasure in watching them mend. And now they were wiped from the earth as if they had never lived. “Tell me how it happened.” “As their ship was passing Thrinakia, a storm blew in and forced them to land. My father kept watch for days but the storm went on and on, stranding them, and at last my father had to sleep.” That same old story. “While he slept, his men killed some of the cows. The two nymphs who guard the island witnessed them and went to…” He hesitated again. I saw him consider those words: your father. “Lord Helios. When my father set sail again, the ship was blasted to pieces. All the men were drowned.”

I could imagine my half-sisters with their long golden hair and painted eyes, bent on pretty knees. Oh, Father, it was not our fault. Punish them. As if he had ever needed urging. Helios and his endless wrath. I felt Telemachus’ eyes on me. I made myself lift my cup and drink. “Go on. Their fathers came.” “Their fathers came, and when they learned their sons were dead, they began demanding their sons’ shares of the treasure won fighting at Troy. Odysseus said it was all at the bottom of the sea, but the men did not give up. They came again and again, and each time my father’s rage grew. He beat Nicanor about the shoulders with a stick. Kleitos he knocked down. ‘You want the true story of your son? He was a fool and a braggart. He was greedy and stupid and disobeyed the gods.’” It was a shock to hear such blunt words put into Odysseus’ mouth. There was a piece of me that wanted to object, say that it didn’t sound like him. But how many times had I heard him praise such tactics? The only difference was how plainly Telemachus told it. I could imagine Odysseus sighing and holding out his empty hands. Such is the commander’s lot. Such is the folly of humanity. Is it not our human tragedy that some men must be beaten like donkeys before they will see reason? “They stayed away after that, but still my father brooded. He was sure they were plotting against him. He wanted sentries posted all around the palace, day and night. He talked of training dogs and digging trenches to catch villains in the dark. He drew up plans for a great palisade to be built. As if we were some war camp. I should have said something then. But I…still hoped it would pass.” “And your mother? What did she think?” “I do not claim to know what my mother thinks.” His voice had stiffened. They had not spoken to each other all night, I remembered. “She brought you up herself. You must have some idea.” “There is no one who can guess what my mother is doing until it is done.” There was not just stiffness in his voice now, but bitterness. I waited. I had begun to see that silence prompted him better than words. “There was a time we shared every confidence,” he said. “We plotted each night’s strategy against the suitors together, if she should come down or not, speak haughtily or conciliate, if I should bring out the good wine, if we should stage for them some confrontation. When I was a child we were together every day. She would take me swimming, and afterwards we would sit beneath a tree and watch the people of Ithaca go about their business. Each man or woman who passed, she knew their history and would tell it to me, for she said that you must understand people if you would rule them.” Telemachus’ gaze was fixed upon the air. The firelight picked out a crook in his nose I had not noticed before. An old break. “Whenever I fretted for my father’s safety, she would shake her head. ‘Never fear for him. He is too clever to be killed, for he knows all the tricks of men’s hearts, and how to turn them to his advantage. He will survive the war and return home again.’ And I was comforted, for what my mother said always came to pass.” A true-made bow, Odysseus had called her. A fixed star. A woman who knew herself. “I asked her how she did it once, how she understood the world so clearly. She told me that it was a matter of keeping very still and showing no emotions, leaving room for others to reveal themselves. She tried to practice with me, but I made her laugh. ‘You are as secret as a bull hiding on a beach!’ she said.” It was true Telemachus was not secret. The pain was drawn clear and precise across his face. I pitied him, but if I were honest, I envied him as well. Telegonus and I had never had such closeness to lose. “Then my father came home and all of that was wiped away. He was like a summer storm, lightning bright across a pale sky. When he was there, everything else faded.” I knew that trick of Odysseus’. I had seen it each day for a year. “I went to her the day he beat Nicanor. ‘I fear he goes too far,’ I said. She would not even look away from her loom. All she would answer was that we must give him time.” “And did time help?” “No. When my grandfather died, my father blamed Nicanor, the gods know why. He shot him with his great bow and threw the body on the beach for the birds to eat. The only thing he talked of by then was conspiracy, how the men of the island were gathering arms against him, how the servants were colluding in treacheries. At night, he paced the hearth, and every word from his mouth was guards and spies, measures and countermeasures.” “Were there such treacheries?” “A revolt in Ithaca?” He shook his head. “We don’t have time for that. Rebellion is for prosperous islands, or else those so ground down they have no other choice. I was angry by then. I told him that there was no conspiracy, there never had been, and he would do better saying three kind words to our men than plotting how to kill them. He smiled at me. ‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘that Achilles went to war at seventeen? And he was not the youngest man at Troy. Boys of thirteen, fourteen, all did themselves proud in the field. I’ve found that courage is not a matter of age, but true-made spirits.’” He did not imitate his father, not exactly. Yet the rhythm of the speech caught Odysseus’ confidential, luring mildness. “He meant I was a disgrace, of course. A coward. I should have fought off the suitors single-handedly. Was I not fifteen when they first came? I should have been able to shoot his great bow, not just string it. At Troy I would not have lived a day.” I could see it: the smoky fire and the tang of old bronze, the must of pressed olives. And Odysseus, expertly wrapping his son with shame. “I told him we were on Ithaca now. The war was finished and everyone knew it but him. It enraged him. He dropped his smile. He said, ‘You are a traitor. You wish for me to die so you can take my throne. Perhaps you even think to speed me along?’” Telemachus’ voice was steady, nearly expressionless, but his knuckles showed white on the chair’s arm. “I told him that he was the one who shamed our house. He could boast all he liked of the war, but all he had brought home was death. His hands would never be clean again and mine would not be either, for I had followed him into his lake of blood and I would be sorry for it all my days. It was finished after that. I was shut from his councils. I was barred from the hall. I heard him shouting at my mother that she had nursed a viper.”

The room was silent. I could feel the place where the fire’s warmth faded and died against the winter air. “The truth is, I think he would have preferred me as a traitor. At least then I would have been a son he could understand.” I had been watching him, as he talked, for his father’s mannerisms, those tricks that were as indivisible from Odysseus as tides from the ocean. The pauses and smiles, the dry voice and deprecating gestures, all wielded against the listener, to convince, to tease, and most of all, to mitigate. I had seen none. Telemachus took his blows straight on. “I went to my mother after that, but he had set guards to keep me out, and when I shouted past them she said I must be patient and not provoke him. The only person who would speak to me was my old nurse, Eurycleia, who had been his nurse as well. We sat by the fire, chewing our fish to paste. He was not always like this, she kept telling me. As if that changed anything. This man of rage was all the father I had. She died not long after, but my father did not stay to watch her pyre burn. He was tired of living among ashes, he said. He set out on a skiff and came back a month later with gold belts and cups and a new breastplate, and splashes of dried blood on his clothes. It was the happiest I had ever seen him. But it did not last. By the next morning he was railing about the smoky hall and the clumsiness of the servants.” I had seen him in such moods. Every petty defect of the world enraged him, all the waste and stupidity and slowness of men, and all the irritants of nature too, biting flies and warping wood and the briars that ripped his cloak. When he had lived with me, I’d smoothed all those things away, wrapping him in my magic and divinity. Perhaps it was why he had been so happy. An idyll, I had called our time. Illusion might have been a better word. “After that, he went on some raid every month. Reports came back, scarcely believable. He had taken a new wife, the queen of some inland kingdom. He ruled there happily among the cows and barley. He wore a golden circlet and feasted till dawn and ate boars whole and roared with laughter. He had fathered another son.” His eyes were Odysseus’. The shape and color, even the intensity. But the expression: Odysseus’ gaze was always reaching out, cajoling. Telemachus’ held fast to itself. “Was any of it true?” He lifted his shoulders, let them drop. “Who can say? Perhaps he started the rumors himself to wound us. I sent a message to my mother that the goats needed extra tending and went to live in an empty hut on the hillside. My father could plot and rage, but I did not have to see it. My mother could eat one piece of cheese all day and let her eyes turn gray on her loom, but I did not have to see that either.” In the fire, the logs had burnt down. Their remains glowed white, scaled with ash. “Into such miseries, your son came. Bright as a sunrise, sweet as ripe fruit. He carried that silly-looking spear, and gifts for us all, silver bowls and cloaks and gold. His face was handsome and his hopes crackled loud as a fire. I wanted to shake him. I thought: when my father returns, this boy will learn that life is not a bard’s song. And so he did.” The moon had lifted away from the window, and the room was draped in shadows. Telemachus’ hands rested on his knees. “You were trying to help him,” I said. “That is why you went down to the beach.” His eyes were on the fire’s ashes. “He did not need me, as it turned out.” I had used to imagine Telemachus so often. As a quiet boy keeping watch for Odysseus, as a burning youth bearing vengeance across land and sea. But now he was a man, and his voice was dull and drained. He was like those messengers who run great distances with news for kings. They gasp out their words, then fall to the ground and do not rise. Without thinking, I reached across and laid my hand on his arm. “You are not your blood. Do not let him take you with him.” He looked down at my fingers a moment, then up into my face. “You pity me. Do not. My father lied about many things, but he was right when he called me a coward. I let him be what he was for year after year, raging and beating the servants, shouting at my mother, and turning our house to ash. He told me to help him kill the suitors and I did it. Then he told me to kill all the men who had aided them, and I did that too. Then he commanded me to gather up all the slave girls who had ever lain with one of them and make them clean the blood-soaked floor, and when they were finished, I was to kill them as well.” The words jolted me. “The girls would have had no choice. Odysseus would have known it.” “Odysseus told me to carve them into joints like animals.” His eyes held mine. “Do you disbelieve it?” It was not one story that I thought of, but a dozen. He had always loved his vengeances. He had always hated those he thought betrayed him. “Did you do as he said?” “No,” he said. “I hanged them instead. I found twelve lengths of rope and tied twelve knots.” Each word was like a blade he thrust into himself. “I had never seen it done, but I remembered how in all the stories of my childhood the women were always hanging themselves. I had some thought that it must be more proper. I should have used the sword instead. I have never known such ugly, drawn-out deaths. I will see their feet twisting the rest of my days. Goodnight, Lady Circe.” He picked his knife up from my table and was gone.

The storm had passed, and the night sky was clear again. I walked, wanting to feel the new-washed breeze on my skin, the earth crumbling softly beneath my feet, to shake off that ugly image of twitching bodies. Overhead, my aunt sailed, but I did not trouble with her anymore. She liked to watch lovers, and I had not been one of those for a long time. Perhaps I had never been. I could imagine Odysseus’ face as he killed those suitors, man by man by man. I had seen him chop wood. He did it in one swift motion, clean through. They would have died at his feet, their blood staining him to the knees. He would note it coolly, distantly, like the click of a counter: done. The heat would have come after. When he had stood over the motionless slaughter-yard, and felt his rage still brimming and unspent. So he would have fed more into it, like logs, to keep a fire going. The men who had aided the suitors, the slaves who had lain with them, the fathers who dared to speak against him. On and on he would have gone, if Athena had not intervened.

And what of me? How long would I have gone on filling my sty, if Odysseus had not come? I remembered the night he had asked me about the pigs. “Tell me,” he had said, “how do you decide which man deserves punishment and which does not? How can you judge for certain, this heart is rotted and this one good? What if you make a mistake?” I had been warmed that night by wine and fire, lured by the flush of his regard. “Let us consider,” I said, “a boatload of sailors. Among them, some are undoubtedly worse than others. Some exult in rape and piracy, but others are newly come to it and scarcely have their beards. Some would never imagine robbery, except that their families are starving. Some feel shame after, some do it only because their captain commands it, and because they have the crowd of other men there, to hide among.” “And so,” he said, “which do you change, and which do you let go?” “I change them all,” I said. “They have come to my house. Why should I care what is in their hearts?” He had smiled and lifted his cup to me. “Lady, you and I are in accord.” An owl passed its wings over my head. I heard the sound of scuffling brush, the beak snap. A mouse had died for its carelessness. I was glad Telemachus would not know of those words between me and his father. At the time I had been boasting, showing off my ruthlessness. I had felt untouchable, filled with teeth and power. I scarcely remembered what that was like. Odysseus’ favorite pose had been to pretend that he was a man like other men, but there were none like him, and now that he was dead, there were none at all. All heroes are fools, he liked to say. What he meant was, all heroes but me. So who could correct him when he erred? He had stood on the beach looking at Telegonus and believing him a pirate. He had stood in his hall and accused Telemachus of conspiracy. Two children he had had, and he had not seen either clearly. But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults. I was in the cypress grove by then. Their branches showed black in the darkness, and as I passed the needles brushed my face, and I felt the faint sticky catch of their sap. He had liked this place. I remember him running his hand along a trunk. It was one of my favorite things about him, how he admired the world like a jewel, turning its facets to catch the light. A well-made boat, a well-grown tree, a well-told story, these were all pleasures to him. There were none like him, yet there was one who had matched him and now she slept in my house. Telemachus was no danger, but what of her? Was she plotting to open my son’s throat even now, to carry out her vengeance? Whatever she tried, my spells would hold. Not even Odysseus could talk his way past witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead. The dew was gathering on the grass. My feet were cool and silver with its touch. Telemachus would be in his bed, watching this same dark, seeing the faint tattering at its eastern edge. I thought of his face when he had spoken of hanging the slave girls, how he had held the memory to his skin like a burning brand. I should have said more to him, I thought. I could have told him that he was not the first man led to kill for Odysseus’ sake. There had once been a whole army who bent their spears to that task. I scarcely knew Telemachus, but I somehow did not think that would be a comfort. I could see the acid on his face. You will pardon me if I do not rejoice at being one in a long line of villains. Of all the sons in the world, he was not the one I would have guessed for Odysseus. He was stiff as a herald, blunt to the point of rudeness. He carried his wounds openly in his hands. When I’d reached for him, there had been an emotion on his face I could not quite name. Surprise, tinged with something like distaste. Well, he did not have to fear. I would not do it again. That was the thought that carried me home.

I watched the sun rise at my loom. I set out bread and cheese and fruit, and when I heard my son stir, I went to his door. I was relieved to see his face was not so dull, but the grief was still there, the heavy knowledge: my father is dead. He would wake up with that thought for a long time, I knew. “I spoke with Telemachus,” I said. “You are right about him.” He lifted his eyebrows. Did he think me incapable of seeing what was before my eyes? Or only of admitting it? “I am glad you think so,” he said. “Come. I have put breakfast out. And I think Telemachus is waking. Will you leave him alone with the lions?” “You’re not coming?” “I have spells to cast.” I did not really. I went back to my room and listened to them talking about the boat, the food, the most recent storm. The tonic of ordinary things. Telegonus suggested they go out and drag the boat back to the cave. Telemachus agreed. Two sets of feet upon the stone, and the door swung closed. Yesterday I would have thought myself mad to send them off together. Today it seemed like a gift to my son. I felt a pang of embarrassment: Telemachus and Telegonus. I knew how it looked to have named my son that, like a dog who scratches outside a door when it cannot come in. I wanted to explain that I had never thought they would know each other, that his name had been intended for me alone. Born far away, it meant. From his father, yes, but also from mine. From my mother and Oceanos, from the Minotaur and Pasiphaë and Aeëtes. Born for me, on my island of Aiaia. I would make no excuses for it. I had retrieved the spear yesterday and now it leaned against the wall of my room. I lifted the leather sheath. The ray’s tail looked even stranger on land, spectral and ragged. I turned it, catching the light on the infinitesimal beads of venom that crowned each feathered tooth. I must return it, I thought. Not yet. From down the hall, another stirring. I thought of all those men and women over the years, spilling their secrets while Penelope carefully gathered them up. I pulled the leather sheath back over the spear and opened my shutters. Outside was a beautiful morning, and on the wind were the first hints of what would soon ripen into spring. The knock upon my door came, as I had guessed it would.

“Open,” I said. She was framed in my doorway, wearing a pale cloak over a gray dress, as if she were wrapped in spider-silk. “I come to say I am ashamed. I did not speak of my gratitude yesterday as I should have. I do not mean only for your hospitality now. I mean also for your hospitality to my husband.” It was impossible to tell, in that mild voice of hers, if the comment was pointed. If it were, I supposed she was entitled. She said, “He told me how you helped him on his way. He would not have survived without your advice.” “You give me too much credit. He was wise.” “Sometimes,” she said. Her eyes were the color of mountain ash. “Do you know that after he left you, he landed with another nymph? Calypso. She fell in love with him and hoped to make him her immortal husband. Seven years, she stayed him on her isle, draping him in divine fabrics, feeding him delicacies.” “He did not thank her for it.” “No. He refused her and prayed to the gods to free him. At last they forced her to let him go.” I did not think I imagined the trace of satisfaction in her voice. “When your son came, I thought perhaps he was hers. But then I saw the weave of his cloak. I remembered Daedalus’ loom.” It was strange, how much she knew of me. But then, I knew about her too. “Calypso fawned over him, and you turned his men to pigs. Yet you were the one he preferred. Do you think that strange?” “No,” I said. It was nearly a smile. “Just so.” “He did not know about the child.” “I know,” she said. “He would never have kept that from me.” That was pointed. “I spoke with your son last night,” I said. “Did you?” I thought I heard a flicker of something in her voice. “He explained to me why you had to leave Ithaca. I was sorry to hear it.” “Your son was kind to bring us away.” Her eyes had found Trygon’s tail. “Is it like a bee’s venom, that stings only once? Or like a snake?” “It could poison a thousand times and more. There is no end to it. It was meant to stop a god.” “Telegonus told us that you faced the great lord of sting-rays himself.” “I did.” She nodded, a private gesture, as if in confirmation. “He told us that you took further precautions for him as well. That you have cast a spell over the island, and no god, not even Olympians, can pass.” “Gods of the dead may pass,” I said. “No others.” “You are fortunate,” she said, “to be able to summon such protections.” From the beach came faint shouts: our sons moving the boat. “I am embarrassed to ask this of you, but I did not bring a black cloak with me when we left. Do you have one I might wear? I would mourn for him.” I looked at her, as vivid in my doorway as the moon in the autumn sky. Her eyes held mine, gray and steady. It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did. “No,” I said. “But I have yarn, and a loom. Come.”

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