فصل 22

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فصل 22

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Chapter Twenty-two HER FINGERS RAN LIGHTLY over the beams, stroked the threads of the weft like a stable master greeting a prize horse. She asked no questions; she seemed to absorb the loom’s workings by touch alone. The light from the window glowed on her hands, as if it wished to illuminate her work. Carefully, she took off my half-finished tapestry and strung the black yarn. Her motions were precise, nothing wasted. She was a swimmer, Odysseus had told me, long limbs cutting effortlessly to her destination. Outside the sky had turned. The clouds hung so low they seemed to graze the windows, and I could hear the first fat drops begin to fall. Telemachus and Telegonus gusted through the door, wet from hauling the boat. When Telegonus saw Penelope at the loom he hurried forward, already exclaiming over the fineness of her work. I watched Telemachus instead. His face went hard and he turned away abruptly to the window. I set out lunch, and we ate in near silence. The rain tapered off. I could not bear the thought of being shut up all afternoon and drew my son out for a walk along the shore. The sand was hard and wet, and our footprints looked as though they had been cut with a knife. I linked my arm through his and was surprised when he let it stay. His tremor from yesterday was gone, but I knew it would return. It was only a little after midday, yet something in the air felt dusky and obscuring, like a veil across my eyes. My conversation with Penelope was tugging at me. At the time, I had felt clever and swift, but now that I ran it back through my mind, I realized how little she had said. I had meant to question her, and instead I found myself showing her my loom. He had talked his way past the witch instead. “Whose idea was it to come here?” I said. He frowned at the suddenness of my question. “Does it matter?” “I am curious.” “I can’t remember.” But he did not meet my eyes. “Not yours.” He hesitated. “No. I suggested Sparta.” It was the natural thought. Penelope’s father lived in Sparta. Her cousin was a queen there. A widow would find welcome. “So you said nothing of Aiaia.” “No. I thought it would be…” He trailed off. Indelicate, of course. “So who first mentioned it?” “It may have been the queen. I remember she said that she would prefer not to go to Sparta. That she would have a little time.” He was choosing his words carefully. I felt a humming beneath my skin. “Time for what?” “She did not say.” Penelope the weaver, who could lead you over and under, into her design. We were passing through thickets, angling upwards beneath the dark, wet branches. “It is strange. Did she think her family would not have wanted her? Was there a rift with Helen? Did she speak of any enemies?” “I don’t know. No. Of course she did not speak of enemies.” “What did Telemachus say?” “He was not there.” “But when he learned you would come here, was he surprised?” “Mother.” “Just tell me her words. Say them exactly as you remember.” He had stopped on the path. “I thought you did not suspect them anymore.”

“Not of vengeance. But there are other questions.” He took a deep breath. “I cannot remember exactly. Not her words, nor anything at all. It is gray like a fog. It is still gray.” The pain had risen in his face. I said no more, but as we walked my mind kept picking at the thought, like fingers at a knot. There was a secret beneath that spider-silk. She had not wanted to go to Sparta. Instead she had gone to her husband’s lover’s island. And she wanted time. For what? We had reached the house by then. Inside, she was working at the loom. Telemachus stood by the window. His hands were tight at his sides and the air was stark. Had they quarreled? I looked at her face, but it was bent to her threads and showed nothing. No one shouted, no one wept, but I thought I would have preferred it to this quiet strain. Telegonus cleared his throat. “I’m thirsty. Who else would like a cup?” I watched him broach the cask and pour. My son with his valiant heart. Even in grief, he sought to bear us all up, to carry us through one moment to the next. But there was only so much he could do. The afternoon wore on in silence. Dinner was the same. The moment the food was gone, Penelope rose. “I’m tired,” she said. Telegonus stayed a little later, but by moonrise he was yawning into his hands. I sent him off with Arcturos. I expected Telemachus to follow, but when I turned he was still at his place. “I think you have stories of my father,” he said. “I would like to hear them.” His boldness kept taking me by surprise. All day he had hung back, avoiding my gaze, diffident and nearly invisible. Then suddenly he planted himself before me as if he had grown there fifty years. It was a trick even Odysseus would have admired. “You likely know all I have to tell already,” I said. “No.” The word rang a little in the room. “He told my mother his stories, but whenever I asked, he said I should talk to a bard.” A cruel answer. I wondered at Odysseus’ reasoning. Had it been merely spite? If there was some other purpose, we would never know it. All the things he had done in life must stand now as they were. I brought my goblet to the hearth. Outside, the storm had returned. It blew in earnest, muffling the house in wind and wet. Penelope and Telegonus were only down the hall, but the shadows had gathered around us, and they felt a world away. This time I took the silver chair. The inlay was cool against my wrists; the cowhides slipped a little beneath me. “What do you want to hear?” “Everything,” he said. “Whatever you know.” I did not even consider telling him the versions I had told Telegonus, with their happy endings and non-fatal wounds. He was not my child; he was not a child at all, but a man full-grown, who wanted his inheritance. I gave it. Murdered Palamades and abandoned Philoctetes. Odysseus tricking Achilles out of hiding and bringing him to war, Odysseus creeping at moondark into the camp of King Rhesus, one of Troy’s allies, and cutting the men’s throats while they slept. How he had devised the horse and taken Troy and seen Astyanax shattered. Then his savage journey home, with its cannibals and piracy and monsters. The stories were even bloodier than I had remembered, and a few times I hesitated. But Telemachus took his blows straight on. He sat silent, his eyes never leaving mine. I saved the cyclops for last, I cannot say why. Perhaps because I could remember Odysseus telling it so clearly. As I spoke, his words seemed to whisper beneath mine. They had landed exhausted on an island and spied a great cave, heaped with rich stores. Odysseus thought it might be good for plunder, or else they might beg hospitality from its inhabitants. They began feasting on the food within. The giant it belonged to, the one-eyed shepherd Polyphemus, returned with his flock and caught them at it. He rolled a great stone over the entrance to trap them, then seized one of the men and bit him in half. Man after man he gobbled down, until he was so full he belched up pieces of limbs. Despite such horrors, Odysseus plied the monster with wine and friendly words. His name he gave as Outis—No one. When the creature fell at last into a stupor, he sharpened a great stake, heated it over the fire, and plunged it into his eye. The cyclops roared and thrashed but could not see to catch Odysseus and the rest of the crew. They were able to escape when he let his sheep out to graze, each man clinging to the underside of a woolly beast. The enraged monster called for help from his fellow one-eyes, but they did not come, for he cried, “No one has blinded me! No one is escaping!” Odysseus and his crew reached the ships, and when they were safely distant, Odysseus turned back to shout across the waves, “If you would know the man who tricked you, it is Odysseus, son of Laertes and prince of Ithaca.” The words seemed to echo in the quiet air. Telemachus was silent, as if waiting for the sound to fade. At last he said, “It was a bad life.” “There are many who are unhappier.” “No.” His vehemence startled me. “I do not mean a bad life for him. I mean that he made life for others a misery. Why did his men go to that cave in the first place? Because he wanted more treasure. And Poseidon’s wrath that everyone pitied him for? He brought it on himself. Because he could not bear to leave the cyclops without taking credit for the trick.” His words were running forward like an undammed flood. “All those years of pain and wandering. Why? For a moment’s pride. He would rather be cursed by the gods than be No one. If he had returned home after the war, the suitors would never have come. My mother’s life would not have been blighted. My life. He talked so often of longing for us and home. But it was lies. When he was back on Ithaca he was never content, always looking to the horizon. Once we were his again, he wanted something else. What is that if not a bad life? Luring others to you, then turning from them?” I opened my mouth to say it was not true. But how often had I lain beside him, aching because I knew he thought of Penelope? That had been my choice. Telemachus had had no such luxury. “There is one more story I should tell you,” I said. “Before he returned to you, the gods demanded that your father journey to the underworld to speak to the prophet Teiresias. There he saw many of the souls he had known in life, Ajax, Agamemnon, and with them Achilles, once Best of the Greeks, who chose an early death as payment for eternal fame. Your father spoke to the hero warmly, praising him and assuring him of his reputation among men. But Achilles reproached him. He said he regretted his proud life, and wished he had lived more quietly, and happily.” “So that is what I must hope for then? That one day I will see my father in the underworld and he will be sorry?” It is better than some of us get. But I held my peace. He had a right to his anger, and it was not my place to try to take it. Outside, the garden rustled faintly as the lions prowled through the leaves. The sky had cleared. After so long among clouds the stars seemed very bright, hung in the darkness like lamps. If we listened, we would hear the faint twisting of their chains in the breeze. “Do you think it was true, what my father said? That the good ones never liked him?”

“I think it was the sort of thing your father liked to say, and truth had nothing to do with it. After all, your mother liked him.” His eyes had found mine. “And so did you.” “I do not claim to be good.” “You liked him, though. Despite all of it.” There was a challenge in his voice. I found myself choosing my words carefully. “I did not see the worst of him. Even at his best he was not an easy man. But he was a friend to me in a time when I needed one.” “It is strange to think of a goddess needing friends.” “All creatures that are not mad need them.” “I think he got the better bargain.” “I did turn his men to pigs.” He did not smile. He was like an arrow shooting to the end of its arc. “All these gods, all these mortals who aided him. Men talk of his wiles. His true talent was in how well he could take from others.” “There are many who would be glad for such a gift,” I said. “I am not one.” He set down his cup. “I will tax you no further, Lady Circe. I am grateful for the truth of these stories. There are few who have taken such pains with me.” I did not answer him. Something had begun prickling at me, lifting the hairs on my neck. “Why are you here?” I said. He blinked. “I told you, we had to leave Ithaca.” “Yes,” I said. “But why come here?” He spoke slowly, like a man coming back from a dream. “I think it was my mother’s idea.” “Why?” A flush rose on his cheek. “As I have said, she does not share confidences with me.” No one can guess what my mother is doing until it is done. He turned and passed into the hall’s darkness. A moment later, I heard the soft sound of his door closing. The cold air seemed to rush through the cracks of the walls and pin me to my seat. I had been a fool. I should have held her over the cliff that first day and shaken the truth out of her. I remembered now how carefully she had asked after my spell, the one that could stop gods. Even Olympians. I did not go to her room, rip the door from its hinge. I burned at my window. The sill creaked under my fingers. There were hours till dawn, but hours were nothing to me. I watched the stars outside dim and the island emerge, blade by blade, into the light. The air had changed again and the sky had veiled itself. Another storm. The cypress boughs hissed in the air. I heard them wake. My son first, then Penelope, and last Telemachus, who had gone to bed so late. One by one they came into the hall, and I felt them pause as they saw me at the window, like rabbits checking at the hawk’s shadow. The table was bare, no breakfast laid. My son hurried to the kitchen to clatter plates. I liked feeling their silent glances at my back. My son urged them to eat, his words heavy with apology. I could imagine the speaking looks he was giving them: I’m sorry about my mother. Sometimes she is like this. “Telegonus,” I said, “the sty needs fixing and a storm comes. You will attend to it.” He cleared his throat. “I will, Mother.” “Your brother can help you.” Another silence, while they exchanged their glances. “I do not mind,” Telemachus said, mildly. A few more sounds of plates and benches. At last, the door closed behind them. I turned. “You take me for a fool. A dupe to be led by the nose. Asking so sweetly about my spell. Tell me which of the gods pursues you. Whose wrath have you brought upon my head?” She was seated at my loom. Her lap was full of raw, black wool. On the floor beside her lay a spindle and an ivory distaff, tipped with silver.

“My son does not know,” she said. “He is not to blame.” “That is obvious. I can spot the spider in her web.” She nodded. “I confess that I have done what you say. I did it knowingly. I could claim that I thought because you are a goddess and a witch that the trouble to you would not be much. But it would be a lie. I know more of the gods than that.” Her calmness enraged me. “Is that all? I know what I have done and will brazen it out? Last night your son talked of his father as one who takes from others and brings only misery. I wonder what he would say of you.” The blow landed. I saw the blankness she used to cover it over. “You think me some tame witch, but you were not listening to your husband’s stories of me. Two days you have stayed on my isle. How many meals have you eaten, Penelope? How many cups of my wine have you drunk?” She paled. A faint graying along her hairline, like the creeping edge of dawn. “Speak, or I will use my power.” “I believe you have used it already.” The words were hard and cool as stones. “I brought danger to your isle. But you brought it to mine first.” “My son came of his own accord.” “I do not speak of your son, and I think you know it. I speak of the spear you sent, whose venom killed my husband.” And there it was between us. “I grieve that he is dead.” “So you have said.” “If you are waiting for my apology, you will not get it. Even if I had such powers as could turn back the sun, I would not. If Odysseus had not died on the beach, I think my son would have. And there is nothing I would not trade for his life.” A look passed across her face. I might have called it rage, if it were not pointed so inward. “Well then. You have made your trade and this is what you have: your son lives, and we are here.” “You see it as a sort of vengeance then. Bringing a god down on my head.” “I see it as payment in kind.” She would have made an archer, I thought. That cold-eyed precision. “You have no ground to make bargains, Lady Penelope. This is Aiaia.” “Then let me not bargain. What would you prefer, begging? Of course, you are a goddess.” She knelt at the foot of my loom and lifted her hands, lowering her eyes to the floor. “Daughter of Helios, Bright-eyed Circe, Mistress of Beasts and Witch of Aiaia, grant me sanctuary on your dread isle, for I have no husband and no home, and nowhere else in the world is safe for me and my son. I will give you blood every year, if you will hear me.” “Get up.” She did not move. The posture looked obscene on her. “My husband spoke warmly of you. More warmly, I confess, than I liked. He said of all the gods and monsters he had met, you were the only one he would wish to meet again.” “I said, get up.” She rose. “You will tell me everything, and then I will decide.” We faced each other across the shadowed room. The air tasted of lightning. She said, “You have been talking to my son. He will have implied that his father was lost in the war. That he came home changed, too soaked in death and grief to live as an ordinary man. The curse of soldiers. Is it so?” “Something like that.” “My son is better than I am, and better than his father too. Yet he does not see all things.” “And you do?” “I am from Sparta. We know about old soldiers there. The trembling hands, the startling from sleep. The man who spills his wine every time the trumpets blow. My husband’s hands were steady as a blacksmith’s, and when the trumpets sounded, he was first to the harbor scanning the horizon. The war did not break him; it made him more himself. At Troy he found at last a scope to equal his abilities. Always a new scheme, a new plot, a new disaster to avert.”

“He tried to get out of the war.” “Ah, that old story. The madness, the plow. That too was a plot. He had sworn an oath to the gods—he knew there was no getting out. He expected to be caught. Then the Greeks would laugh at his failure and think that all his tricks would be so easily seen through.” I was frowning. “He gave no sign of that when he told me.” “I’m sure he didn’t. My husband lied with every breath, and that includes to you, and to himself. He never did anything for a single purpose.” “He said the same of you once.” I meant it to wound her, but she only nodded. “We thought ourselves great minds of the world. When we were first married, we made a thousand plans together, of how we would turn everything we touched to our advantage. Then the war came. He said Agamemnon was the worst commander he had ever seen, but he thought he could use him to make a name for himself. And so he did. His contrivances defeated Troy and reshaped half the world. I contrived too. Which goats to breed with which, how to increase the harvest, where the fishermen could best cast their nets. Such were our pressing concerns on Ithaca. You should have seen his face when he came home. He killed the suitors, but then what was left? Fish and goats. A graying wife who was no goddess and a son he could not understand.” Her voice filled the air, sharp as crushed cypress. “There were no war councils, no armies to conquer or command. What men there had once been were dead, since half were his crew and the other half my suitors. And every day there seemed to come some fresh report of distant glory. Menelaus had built a brand-new golden palace. Diomedes had conquered a kingdom in Italy. Even Aeneas, that Trojan refugee, had founded a city. My husband sent to Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, offering himself as counselor. Orestes sent back that he had all the counselors he needed, and anyway he would never want to disturb the rest of such a hero. “He sent to more sons after that, Nestor’s and Idomeneus’ and others’, but they all said the same. They did not want him. And do you know what I told myself? That he only needed time. That any moment he would remember the pleasures of modest home and hearth. The pleasures of my presence. We would plot together again.” Her mouth twisted in self-mockery. “But he did not want that life. He would go down to the beach and pace. I watched him from my window and remembered a story he’d told me once about a great serpent that the men of the north believe in, which yearns to devour all the world.” I remembered that story too. In the end, the serpent ate itself. “And as he paced, he would talk to the air, which gathered all around him, glowing brightest silver on his skin.” Silver. “Athena.” “Who else?” She smiled, bitter and cold. “Every time he would calm she came again. Whispering in his ear, darting down from the clouds to fill him up with dreams of all the adventures he was missing.” Athena, that restless goddess whose schemes spun on and on. She had fought to bring her hero home, to see him lifted among his people, for her honor and his. To hear him tell the tales of his victories, of the deaths they had dealt to the Trojans together. But I remembered the greed in her eyes when she spoke of him: an owl with a kill in its claws. Her favorite could never be allowed to grow dull and domestic. He must live in action’s eye, bright and polished, always striving and seeking, always delighting her with some new twist of cleverness, some brilliance he summoned out of the air. Outside, trees struggled in the dark sky. In that eerie light, the bones of Penelope’s face showed fine as one of Daedalus’ statues. I had wondered why she was not more jealous of me. I understood now. I was not the goddess who had taken her husband. “Gods pretend to be parents,” I said, “but they are children, clapping their hands and shouting for more.” “And now that her Odysseus is dead,” she said, “where will she find more?” The final tiles were set in their place, and at last the picture showed whole. Gods never give up a treasure. She would come for the next best thing after Odysseus. She would come for his blood. “Telemachus.” “Yes.” The tightness in my throat took me by surprise. “Does he know?” “I do not think so. It is hard to say.” She still held the wool, matted and stinking in her hands. I was angry, I could feel it searing my belly. She had put my son in danger. It was likely that Athena plotted vengeance against Telegonus already; this would add fuel to fire. Yet if I were honest, my rage was not so hot as it had been. Of all the gods she might have led to my door, this was the one I could bear best. How much more could Athena hate us? “You truly think you can keep him hidden from her?” “I know I cannot.” “Then what is it you seek?” She had drawn her cloak around herself, like a bird wrapped in its wings. “When I was young, I overheard our palace surgeon talking. He said that the medicines he sold were only for show. Most hurts heal by themselves, he said, if you give them enough time. It was the sort of secret I loved to discover, for it made me feel cynical and wise. I took it for a philosophy. I have always been good at waiting, you see. I outlasted the war and the suitors. I outlasted Odysseus’ travels. I told myself that if I were patient enough, I could outlast his restlessness and Athena too. Surely, I thought, there must be some other mortal in the world for her to love. But it seems there was not. And while I sat, Telemachus bore his father’s rage year after year. He suffered while I turned my eyes away.” I remembered what Odysseus had said about her once. That she never went astray, never made an error. I had been jealous then. Now I thought: what a burden. What an ugly weight upon your back.

“But this world does have true medicines. You are proof of that. You walked into the depths for your son. You defied the gods. I think of all the years of my life I wasted on that little man’s boast. I have paid for it, that is only justice, but I have made Telemachus pay as well. He is a good son, he has always been. I seek a little time before I lose him, before we are thrust into the tide again. Will you grant it, Circe of Aiaia?” She did not use those gray eyes on me. If she had, I would have refused her. She waited only. It was true that it looked well on her. She seemed to fit into the air like a jewel in its crown. “It is winter,” I said. “No ships sail now. Aiaia will bear you a little longer.”

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