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فصل 23

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Chapter Twenty-three OUR SONS HAD RETURNED from their work windswept but dry. The thunder and rain had stayed out at sea. While the others ate their meal, I went up to the highest peak and felt the spell above me. From bay to bay it reached, from yellow sands to ragged stones. I felt it in my blood as well, that iron weight I had borne so long. Athena tested it surely. She prowled the edges, looking for a crack. But it would hold. When I returned, Penelope was at the loom again. She looked over her shoulder. “It seems we have a break in the weather. The seas should be calm enough now. Telegonus, would you learn to swim?” Of all the things I had expected after our conversation, that was not one. But I had no time to think of objecting. Telegonus nearly knocked over his cup in his eagerness. As they left through the garden, I heard him explaining my plants. Since when did he know what hornbeam was, or hemlock? But he pointed to them both and named their properties. Telemachus had come up silent beside me. “They look like mother and son,” he said. It had been my thought exactly, but I felt a spurt of anger to hear him voice it. I went out to the garden without answering. I knelt in my beds and yanked up weeds. He surprised me by following. “I do not mind helping your son, but let us be honest, that sty you told us to fix has not been used in years. Will you give me something to do that is actually useful?” I sat back on my heels, regarding him. “Royalty does not usually beg for chores.” “My subjects seem to have left me with some spare time. Your island is very beautiful, but I will go mad if I have to keep idle on it day after day.” “What can you do then?” “The usual. Fish and shoot. Tend the goats you do not have. Carve and build. I could fix your son’s boat.” “Is something wrong with it?” “The rudder is slow and unreliable, the sail too short and the mast too long. It wallows like a cow in any surge.” “It did not look so bad to me.” “I do not mean it was not impressive for a first try. Just that I am shocked we did not sink on the way over.” “It is charmed against sinking,” I said. “How did you become such a shipwright?” “I am from Ithaca,” he said simply. “And? Is there anything else I should know about?” His face was serious, as if giving a diagnosis. “The sheep are matted enough to ruin the spring shearing. Three tables in your hall are unbalanced, and the garden path flagstones wobble. There are at least two birds’ nests in your eaves.” I was half amused, half offended. “Is that all?” “I have not made a complete survey.” “In the morning you may fix the boat with Telegonus. As for now, we will start with the sheep.” He was right, they were matted and, after the wet winter, muddied past their shoulders. I brought out the brush and a large bowl filled with one of my draughts. He examined it. “What does it do?” “It cleans the mud without stripping the fleece.” He knew his business and went to it efficiently. My sheep were tame, but he had his own tricks of coaxing and soothing. His hand on their backs guided them effortlessly here and there. I said, “You have done this before.” “Of course. This wash is excellent, what is it?” “Thistle, artemisia, celery, sulfur. Magic.” “Ah.”

I had the trimming knife by then and set to cutting out burrs. He asked about the animals’ pedigree and my breeding methods. He wanted to know if it was a spell that kept them tame or my influence. When his hands were occupied he lost his awkward stiffness. Soon enough he was telling me stories of his follies at goat herding and I was laughing. I did not notice the sun drop into the sea, and I startled when Penelope and Telegonus appeared beside us. I could feel Penelope’s gaze on us as we rose and wiped the mud from our hands. “Come,” I said. “You must be hungry.”

That night Penelope left dinner early again. I wondered if she meant to make a point, but her weariness seemed real enough. She was still grieving, I reminded myself. We all were. But the swimming had done my son good, or maybe it was Penelope’s attention. He was red-cheeked from wind and wanted to talk. Not about his father, which was still too much a wound, but his old, first love: heroic stories. There had apparently been a bard on Ithaca who was skilled at such tales, and he wanted to hear from Telemachus the versions that he’d told. Telemachus began: Bellerophon and Perseus, Tantalus, Atalanta. He had taken the wooden chair again, and I the silver. Telegonus leaned against a wolf on the floor. Looking between them I felt a strange, almost drunken sense of unreality. Had it really only been two days since they had come? It felt much longer. I was not used to so much company, so many conversations. My son begged for another story, and another, and Telemachus obliged. His hair was windblown from our work outside, and the firelight lay along his cheek. So much of him looked older than he was, but there was a sweetly made curve there that might almost be called boyish. He was no storyteller, as he had said, but that made it more enjoyable somehow, watching his serious face as he described flying horses and golden apples. The room was warm and the vintage good. My skin had begun to feel soft as wax. I leaned forward. “Tell me, did that bard ever speak of Pasiphaë, queen of Crete?” “The mother of the Minotaur,” Telemachus said. “Of course. She is always in the tale of Theseus.” “Did anyone say what happened to her when Minos died? She is immortal, does she still rule there?” Telemachus was frowning. It was not displeasure but the same face he had made when he examined my sheep wash. I saw him following the threads of genealogies through their tangle. A daughter of the sun, Pasiphaë was said to be. I saw when he understood. “No,” he said. “Her and Minos’ line no longer rules. A man named Leukos is king, who usurped from Idomeneus, who was her grandchild. In the story I heard, she went back to the halls of the gods after Minos died and lives in honor there.” “Whose halls?” “The bard did not say.” A giddy recklessness had seized me. “Oceanos’ most likely. Our grandfather. She will be terrorizing the nymphs as she used to. I was there when the Minotaur was born. I helped cage it.” Telegonus gaped. “You are related to Queen Pasiphaë? And you saw the Minotaur? Why did you not mention this?” “You did not ask me.” “Mother! You must tell me everything. Did you meet Minos? And Daedalus?” “How do you think I came by his loom?” “I don’t know! I thought it was, you know…” He waved his hand in the air. Telemachus was watching me. “No,” I said. “I knew the man.” “What else have you kept from me?” Telegonus demanded. “The Minotaur and Trygon, and how many others? The Chimera? The Nemean lion? Cerberus and Scylla?” I had been smiling at his wide-eyed outrage and did not see the blow coming. Where had my son heard her name? Hermes? Ithaca? It did not matter. A cold spear-point was twisting in my guts. What had I been thinking? My past was not some game, some adventure tale. It was the ugly wrack that storms left rotten on the shore. It was as bad as Odysseus’. “I have said all I will say. Do not ask me again.” I stood and walked away from their startled faces. In my room, I lay on my bed. There were no wolves or lions, they had stayed with my son. Over us somewhere was Athena, watching with her flashing eyes. Waiting with her spear to dart at my weakness. I spoke into the shadows. “Keep waiting.” And though I was sure I would not sleep, I did.

I woke clearheaded, determined. I had been tired the night before and drunk more than I was used to, but now I was firm again. I laid out breakfast. When Telegonus came, I saw him eyeing me, waiting for another outburst. But I was pleasant. He should not be so surprised, I thought. I could be pleasant. Telemachus kept his own counsel, but when the meal was finished he took his brother out to begin fixing the ship. “May I use your loom again?” Penelope wore a different dress. This one was finer, it had been bleached to a pale cream. It showed off well the dark tones of her skin.

“You may.” I thought of going to the kitchen, but I often cut herbs at the long table near the hearth, and I did not see why I should relegate myself. I brought out the knives and bowls and all the rest. The spells that protected Telegonus did not need to be renewed for another half a moon, so what I did was only for my own pleasure, drying and grinding, distilling tinctures for later use. I thought we would not speak. In our place, Odysseus might have gone on concealing and jockeying, just for the pleasure of it. But after so long alone, I think we had both come to appreciate the value of open conversation. The light slanted through the window, pooling on our bare feet. I asked her about Helen, and she told me stories of when they were children together, swimming in Sparta’s rivers and playing at her uncle Tyndareos’ court. We talked of weaving and the best breeds of sheep. I thanked her for offering to teach Telegonus how to swim. She was glad to do it, she said. He reminded her of her cousin Castor, with his eagerness and good humor, his way of easing those around him. “Odysseus drew the world to him,” she said. “Telegonus runs after, shaping as he goes, like a river carving a channel.” It pleased me more than I could say to hear her praise him. “You should have known him as a baby. There was never such a wild creature. Though if I am honest, I was the wilder of the two of us. Motherhood seemed easy to me, before I had a child.” “Helen’s baby was like that,” she said. “Hermione. She screamed for half a decade but grew up sweet as anything. I worried that Telemachus did not scream enough. That he was well behaved too soon. I was always curious how a second child might have been different. But by the time Odysseus came home it seemed that was finished for me.” Her voice was matter-of-fact. Loyal, songs called her later. Faithful and true and prudent. Such passive, pale words for what she was. She could have taken another husband, borne another child while Odysseus was gone, her life would have been easier for it. But she had loved him fiercely and would accept no other. I took down a bunch of yarrow that had been hanging from a roof beam. “What is that used for?” “Healing salves. Yarrow stops bleeding.” “May I watch? I have never seen witchcraft.” It pleased me as much as her praise of Telegonus. I made room at the table. She was a flattering audience, asking careful questions as I named each ingredient and explained its purpose. She wanted to see the herbs I had used to turn men into pigs. I dropped the dried leaves into her hand. “I am not about to turn myself into a sow, am I?” “You would have to ingest it and speak the words of power. Only those plants fallen from divine blood need no spell to summon their magic. And, I think, you would have to be a witch.” “A goddess.” “No,” I said. “My niece was mortal, and she cast spells as strong as mine.” “Your niece,” she said. “You do not mean Medea?” It was strange to hear the name aloud after so long. “You know her?” “I know what is sung by bards and played in courtyards for kings.” “I would hear it,” I said. The trees outside clattered in the wind as she talked. Medea had indeed escaped Aeëtes. She had traveled on to Iolcos with Jason and borne him two sons, but he recoiled from her sorceries, and his people despised her. In time he sought a new marriage with a sweet, well-loved princess from home. Medea praised his wisdom and sent the bride gifts, a crown and cloak that she had made herself. When the girl put them on, she was burnt alive. Then Medea dragged her children to an altar and, swearing that Jason would never have them, slit their throats. She was last seen summoning a chariot drawn by dragons to take her back to Colchis. The bards had been at the story, no doubt, but I could still see Medea’s bright, piercing face. I believed that she would rather set the world on fire than lose. “I warned her once that grief would come of her marriage. There is no pleasure in hearing I was right.” “There seldom is.” Penelope’s voice was soft. She was thinking of those slaughtered children, perhaps. I was thinking of them too. And the dragon chariot that was of course my brother’s. It seemed incredible that she would go back to him, after all that had passed between them. Yet it also made a sort of sense to me. Aeëtes wanted an heir, and there was none more like him than Medea. She had grown up trained around his cruelty, and in the end it seemed she had not learned how to hold another shape. I poured honey onto the yarrow, added beeswax to bind the salve. The air was musky-sweet and sharp with herbs. Penelope said, “What makes a witch, then? If it is not divinity?” “I do not know for certain,” I said. “I once thought it was passed through blood, but Telegonus has no spells in him. I have come to believe it is mostly will.” She nodded. I did not have to explain. We knew what will was.

That afternoon Penelope and Telegonus went off again to the bay. I had assumed after my abruptness last night that Telemachus would keep his distance. But he found me at my herbs. “I thought I would work on the tables.”

I watched him while I ground the hellebore leaves. He had a measuring string, and a cup he had marked and filled to the line with water. “What are you doing?” “Testing if the floor is level. Your problem is actually the legs—they are slightly different sizes. It will be easy to adjust.” I watched him using the rasp, checking and rechecking the legs with his length of string. I asked him how he had broken his nose. “Swimming with my eyes closed,” he said. “I learned my lesson there.” When he was finished, he went out to do the flagstones. I followed, weeding, though the garden scarcely needed it. We discussed bees, how I always wished there were more on the island. He asked if I could tame them like other creatures. “No,” I said. “I use smoke like everyone else.” “I saw a hive that looks overfull,” he said. “I can split it in the spring, if you like.” I said I would and watched him scrape away the uneven soil. “The roof drains there,” I said. “Those flagstones will only wobble again after the next rain.” “That is how things go. You fix them, and they go awry, and then you fix them again.” “You have a patient temper.” “My father called it dullness. Shearing, cleaning out the hearths, pitting olives. He wanted to know how to do such things for curiosity’s sake, but he did not want to actually have to do them.” It was true. Odysseus’ favorite task was the sort that only had to be performed once: raiding a town, defeating a monster, finding a way inside an impenetrable city. “Perhaps you get it from your mother.” He did not look up, but I thought I saw him tense. “How is she? I know you speak to her.” “She misses you.” “She knows where I am.” The anger stood out plain and clean on his face. There was a sort of innocence to him, I thought. I do not mean this as the poets mean it: a virtue to be broken by the story’s end, or else upheld at greatest cost. Nor do I mean that he was foolish or guileless. I mean that he was made only of himself, without the dregs that clog the rest of us. He thought and felt and acted, and all these things made a straight line. No wonder his father had been so baffled by him. He would have been always looking for the hidden meaning, the knife in the dark. But Telemachus carried his blade in the open.

They were strange days. Athena hung over our heads like an axe, yet so she had hung for sixteen years, I would hardly faint at it now. Every morning Telegonus took his brother out upon the island. Penelope spun or wove while I shaped my herbs. I had drawn my son aside by then and told him some of what I had learned of Odysseus’ worsening temper on Ithaca, his suspicions and angers, and day by day I saw the knowledge work upon him. He still grieved, but the guilt began to ease, and the brightness came back to his face. Penelope and Telemachus’ presence helped still more. He basked in their attention like my lions in a patch of sun. It panged me to realize how much he had wanted family all these years. Penelope and Telemachus still did not speak to each other. Hour after hour, meal after meal, the air between them was brittle. It seemed absurd to me that they did not just confess their faults and sorrows and be done. But they were like eggs, each afraid to crack the other. In the afternoons, Telemachus always seemed to find some task that brought him near, and we would talk until the sun touched the sea. When I went inside to set out the plates for dinner, he followed. If there was work enough for two, he helped. If there was not, he sat at the hearth carving small pieces of wood: a bull, a bird, a whale breaching the waves. His hands had a precise, careful economy that I admired. He was no witch, but he had the temperament for it. I told him that the floor would clean itself, but he always swept the sawdust and wood-curls after. It was strange to have such constant company. Telegonus and I had mostly kept out of each other’s way, and my nymphs had been more like shadows flitting at the corner of my eye. Usually even that much presence wore on me, nagging at my attention until I had to leave and walk the island alone. But there was a contained quality to Telemachus, a quiet assurance that made him companionable without being intrusive. The creature he most reminded me of, I realized, was my lion. They had the same upright dignity, the same steady gaze with deep-set humor. Even the same earthbound grace, which pursued their own ends while I pursued mine. “What’s so funny?” he asked me. I shook my head. It was perhaps the sixth day since they had come. He was making an olive tree, shaping the twisting trunk, picking out each knot and hole with his knife’s point. “Do you miss Ithaca?” I asked him. He considered. “I miss those I knew. And I am sorry not to see my goats breed.” He paused. “I think I would not have been a bad king.” “Telemachus the Just,” I said. He smiled. “That’s what they call you if you’re so boring they can’t think of something better.”

“I think you would be a good king also,” I said. “Perhaps you still can be. The memories of men are short. You could return in glory as the long-awaited heir, bringing prosperity with the rightness of your blood.” “It sounds like a good story,” he said. “But what would I do in those rooms that my father and the suitors filled up? Every step would be a memory I wished I did not have.” “It must be difficult for you to be near Telegonus.” His brow creased. “Why would it be?” “Because he looks so much like your father.” He laughed. “What are you talking about? Telegonus is stamped from you. I do not just mean your face. It is your gestures, your walk. Your way of speaking, even your voice.” “You make it sound like a curse,” I said. “It is no curse,” he said. Our eyes met across the air. Far away, my hands were peeling pomegranates for dinner. Methodically, I scored the rind, revealed the white lattice. Within, the red juice pips glowed through their waxy cells. My mouth stung a little with thirst. I had been watching myself with him. It was a novelty to me, noticing the expressions shaping themselves on my face, the movement of the words across my tongue. So much of my life had been spent plunged up to the elbows, tacking now here, now there, spattered and impulsive. This new feeling crept over me like a sort of distant sleepiness, almost a languor. This was not the first speaking look that he had given me. But what did it matter? My son was his brother. His father had been in my bed. He was owed to Athena. I knew it, even if he did not.

Outside, the seasons had turned. The sky opened its hands, and the earth swelled to meet it. The light poured thickly down, coating us in gold. The sea lagged only a little behind. At breakfast Telegonus clapped his brother on the back. “In another few days, we can take the boat out in the bay.” I felt Penelope’s glance. How far does the spell extend? I did not know. Somewhere beyond the breakers, but I could not name the exact wave. I said, “Don’t forget, Telegonus, there’s always one last bad storm. Wait till then.” As if in answer, a knock sounded on the door. In the silence that followed Telegonus whispered, “The wolves did not howl.” “No.” I did not look at Penelope in warning; if she did not guess, she was a fool. I drew my divinity up, cold and bracing around me, and went to open the door. Those same black eyes, that same perfect and handsome face. I heard my son gasp, felt the frozen stillness behind me. “Daughter of Helios. May I come in?” “No.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I have a message that concerns one of your guests.” I felt a grating fear along my ribs, but I kept my voice flat. “They can hear you where you stand.” “Very well.” His skin glowed. His drawling, smirking manner vanished. This was the divine messenger of the gods, potent and inevitable. “Telemachus, prince of Ithaca, I come on behalf of the great goddess Athena, who would speak with you. She requires that the witch Circe lower the spell that bars her from the isle.” “Requires,” I said. “That is an interesting word for one who tried to kill my son. Who is to say she does not plan to try again?” “She is not interested in your son in the least.” He dropped his glory. His voice was casual once more. “If you will be a fool about it—these are her words, of course—she offers an oath of protection for him. It is Telemachus alone she wants. It is time for him to take his inheritance.” He looked past me to the table. “Do you hear, prince?” Telemachus’ eyes were lowered. “I hear. I am humbled by messenger and message both. But I am a guest on this island. I must await my hostess’ word.” Hermes cocked his head a little, his eyes intent. “Well, hostess?” I felt Penelope at my back, risen like an autumn moon. She had asked for time to mend things with Telemachus, and she had not done it yet. I could imagine her bitter thoughts. “I will do it,” I said. “But it will take some effort to unwind the spell’s working. She may expect to come in three days.” “You want me to tell the daughter of Zeus she has to wait three days?” “They have been here half a month. If she was in a hurry, she should have sent you earlier. And you may tell her those are my words.”

Amusement flashed in his eyes. I had fed off that look once, when I had been starving and thought such crumbs a feast. “Be sure I will.” We breathed into the empty space he left behind. Penelope met my eye. “Thank you,” she said. Then she turned to Telemachus. “Son.” It was the first time I had heard her speak to him directly. “I have made you wait too long. Will you walk with me?”

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