فصل 24

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فصل 24

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Chapter Twenty-four WE WATCHED THEM GO down the path to the shore. Telemachus looked half stunned, but that was only natural. He had learned he was Athena’s chosen and would make peace with his mother in the same moment. I had wanted to say something to him before he left, but no words had come. Telegonus bumped at my elbow. “What did Hermes mean, ‘Telemachus’ inheritance’?” I shook my head. Just that morning, I had seen the first green buds of spring. Athena had timed it well. She came as soon as she could make Telemachus sail. “I am surprised the spell takes three days to undo. Can’t you use that—what’s it called? Moly?” I turned to him. “You know my spells are governed by my will. If I let go, they will fall in a second. So no, it does not take three days.” He frowned. “You lied to Hermes? Won’t Athena be angry when she finds out?” His innocence could still frighten me. “I do not plan to tell her. Telegonus, these are gods. You must keep your tricks close or you will lose everything.” “You did it so they would have time to talk,” he said. “Penelope and Telemachus.” Young he was, but not a fool. “Something like that.” He tapped his finger on the shutters. The lions did not stir; they knew the noise of his restlessness well. “Will we see them again? If they leave?” “I think you will,” I said. If he heard the change I made, he said nothing. I could feel my chest heaving a little. It had been so long since I had spoken to Hermes, I’d forgotten the effort it took to face down that shrewd, all-seeing gaze. He said, “Do you think Athena will try to kill me?” “She must swear an oath before she comes, she will be bound by it. But I will have the spear, in case.” I made my hands work through their chores, plates and washing and weeding. When it began to grow dark, I packed a basket of food and sent Telegonus to find Penelope and Telemachus. “Don’t linger,” I said. “They should be alone.” He reddened. “I’m not an idiot child.” I drew in a breath. “I know you are not.” I paced while he was gone. I could not explain the stinging tension I felt. I had known he would be leaving. I had known all along. Penelope returned when the moon rose. “I am grateful to you,” she said. “Life is not so simple as a loom. What you weave, you cannot unravel with a tug. But I think I have made a start. Is it wrong of me to confess that I enjoyed watching you set Hermes back?” “I have a confession of my own. I am not sorry to let Athena twist for three days.” She smiled. “Thank you. Again.” Telegonus sat at the hearth fletching arrows, but he had scarcely managed a handful. He was as restless as I was, scuffing at the stones, staring out of the window at the empty garden path as if Hermes might appear again. I cleaned the tables that did not need cleaning. I set my pots of herbs now here, now there. Penelope’s black mourning cloak hung from the loom, nearly finished. I could have sat and worked awhile, but the change of hands would show in the cloth. “I am going out,” I told Telegonus. And before he could speak, I left. My feet carried me to a small hollow I knew among the oaks and olives. The branches made good shade, and the grass grew soft. You could listen to the night birds overhead. He was sitting on a fallen tree, outlined against the dark. “Do I disturb you?” “No,” he said. I sat beside him. Beneath my feet the grass was cool and faintly damp. The owls cried in the distance, still hungry from winter’s scarcity. “My mother told me what you did for us. Both now and before. Thank you.”

“I am glad if it helped.” He nodded, faintly. “She has been three leagues ahead, as always.” Over us the branches stirred, carving the moon into slivers. “Are you ready to face the gray-eyed goddess?” “Is anyone?” “You have seen her before, at least. When she stopped the war between your father and the suitors’ kin.” “I have seen her many times,” he said. “She used to come to me when I was a child. Never in her own form. I would notice a quality to certain people around me. You know. The stranger with overly detailed advice. The old family friend whose eyes shine in the dark. The air would smell like buttery olives and iron. I would speak her name and the sky would glow bright as polished silver. The dull things of my life, the hangnail on my thumb, the suitors’ taunts, would fade. She made me feel like one of the heroes from songs, ready to tame fire-breathing bulls and sow dragons’ teeth.” An owl circled on its silent wings. In the quiet, the yearning in his voice rang like a bell. “After my father returned, I never saw her again. For a long time I waited. I killed ewes in her name. I scrutinized everyone who passed. Did that goatherd linger strangely? Was not that sailor too interested in my thoughts?” He made a sound in the dark, a half laugh. “You can imagine people didn’t love me for it, always staring at them, then turning away in disappointment.” “Do you know what she intends for you?” “Who can say, with a god?” I felt it like a rebuke. That old uncrossable gulf, between mortal and divinity. “You will have power certainly, and wealth. You will likely have your chance to be Telemachus the Just.” His eyes rested on the shadows of the forest. He had scarcely glanced at me since I came. Whatever had been between us was dispersed like smoke on the wind. His mind was with Athena, pointed at his future. I had known it would be so, but it surprised me how much it ached to see it happen so quickly. I spoke briskly. “You should take the boat, of course. It’s charmed against sea-disaster, as you know. With her help, you shouldn’t need that, but it will let you leave as soon as you are ready. Telegonus will not mind.” He was quiet so long I thought he had not heard. But at last he said, “That is a kind offer, thank you. Then you will have your island back.” I heard the crackles in the brush. I heard the sea distant on the shore, the sound of our breaths vanishing into its ceaseless wash. “Yes,” I said. “I will.”

In the days that followed, I passed him as if he were a table in my hall. Penelope eyed me, but I did not speak to her either. The two of them were often together now, mending what had been broken. I did not care to see it. I took Telegonus down to the sea to show me his swimming. His shoulders, hard with muscle, cut unerring through the sea. He looked older than sixteen, a man grown. Children of gods always came to their strength faster than mortals. He would miss them when they were gone, I knew. But I would find something else for him. I would help him forget. I would say, some people are like constellations that only touch the earth for a season. I set out their evening meals, then took my cloak and walked into the darkness. I sought the highest peaks, the brakes where mortals could not follow me. Even as I did it, I laughed at myself. Which of them do you think is going to chase after you? My mind turned through all those stories I had kept from Odysseus, Aeëtes and Scylla and the rest. I had not wanted my history to be only an amusement, grist for his relentless intelligence. But who else would have tolerated it, with all its ugliness and errors? I had missed my chance to speak, and now it was too late. I went to bed. I dreamed till dawn of the spear tipped with Trygon’s tail.

The morning of the third day Penelope touched me on the sleeve. She had finished the black cloak. It made her face look thinner, her skin dulled. She said, “I know I ask much, but will you be there when we speak to her?” “I will. And Telegonus too. I want it finished and clear. I am tired of games.” All my words felt like that, hard in my teeth. I strode up to the peak. The rocks there were darkened from sixteen years of my draughts. I reached down, rubbed my finger against the pitted stains. So many times I had come here. So many hours spent. I closed my eyes, and felt the spell above me, fragile as glass. I let it fall. There was the faintest ping, like the snap of an overdrawn bowstring. I waited for the old weight to drop from my shoulders, but instead a gray fatigue rolled through me. I put out my hand for balance and found only air. I staggered, knees wavering. But there was no time for such weakness. We were exposed. Athena was coming, arrowing down upon my island like an eagle in her dive. I made myself start down the mountain. My feet caught on every root, the rocks turned my ankles. My breath came thin and shallow. I opened the door. Three faces startled up to mine. Telegonus rose. “Mother?”

I pushed past him. My sky lay open, and each moment was a danger. The spear, that is what I needed. I seized its crooked shaft from the corner where I kept it and breathed the sweet poison scent. My mind seemed to clear a little. Even Athena would not risk this. I carried it into the hall and set myself at the hearth. Uncertainly, they followed. There was no time for a warning. Her lightning-bolt limbs struck the room, and the air turned silver. Her breastplate glowed as if it were still half molten. The crest of her helmet bristled over us. Her eyes fixed on me. Her voice was dark as ore. “I told you that you would be sorry if he lived.” “You were wrong,” I said. “You have always been insolent, Titan.” Sharply, as if to wound me with her precision, she turned her gaze to Telemachus. He was kneeling, Penelope beside him. “Son of Odysseus,” she said. Her voice changed, gilding itself. “Zeus has foretold that a new empire will rise in the West. Aeneas is fled there with his remnant Trojans, and I would have Greeks to balance and hold them at bay. The land is fertile and rich, thick with beasts of field and forest, overhung with fruits of every kind. You will found a prosperous city there, you will build stout walls and set down laws to hold back the tide of savagery. You will seed a great people who will rule in ages to come. I have gathered good men from across our lands and set them on a ship. They arrive this day to bear you to your future.” The room burned with the aureate sparks of her vision. Telemachus burned too. His shoulders seemed broader, his limbs swollen with strength. Even his voice had deepened. “Goddess,” he said, “gray-eyed and wise. I am honored among mortals. No man can deserve such grace.” She smiled like a temple snake over its bowl of cream. “The ship will come for you at dusk. Be ready.” It was his cue to stand. To show off that glory she had bestowed on him, lift it like a glittering standard. But he knelt, unmoving. “I fear I am not worthy of your gifts.” I frowned. Why was he groveling so much? It was not wise. He should thank her and be done, before she found some reason for offense. Her voice had a tinge of impatience. “I know your weaknesses,” she said. “They will not matter, when I am there to steady your spear-arm. I guided you once to victory against the suitors. I will guide you again.” “You have watched over me,” he said. “I thank you for it. Yet I cannot accept.” The air in the room hung utterly still. “What do you mean?” The words sizzled. “I have considered,” he said. “For three days I have considered. And I find in myself no taste for fighting Trojans or building empires. I seek different days.” My throat had gone dry. What was the fool doing? The last man who refused Athena was Paris, prince of Troy. He had preferred the goddess Aphrodite, and now he was dead and his city ash. Her eyes were augers, boring through the air. “No taste? What is this? Has some other god offered you something better?” “No.” “What then?” He did not flinch from her gaze. “I do not desire such a life.” “Penelope.” The word was a lash. “Speak to your son.” Penelope’s face was bent to the floor. “I have, goddess. He is set in his course. You know his father’s blood was always stubborn.” “Stubborn in achievement.” Athena snapped each word like a dove’s neck. “In ingenuity. What is this degeneracy?” She swung back to Telemachus. “I do not make this offer again. If you persist in this foolishness, if you refuse me, all my glory will leave you. Even if you beg, I will not come.” “I understand,” he said. His calmness seemed to enrage her. “There will be no songs made of you. No stories. Do you understand? You will live a life of obscurity. You will be without a name in history. You will be no one.” Each word was like the blow of a hammer in a forge. He would give in, I thought. Of course he would. The fame she had described was what all mortals yearn for. It is their only hope of immortality. “I choose that fate,” he said. Disbelief shone naked on her cold, beautiful face. How many times in her eternity had she been told no? She could not parse it. She looked like an eagle who had been diving upon a rabbit, and the next moment found itself in the mud. “You are a fool,” she spat. “You are lucky I do not kill you where you stand. I spare you out of love for your father, but I am patron to you no more.” The glory that had shone upon him vanished. He looked shriveled without it, gray and gnarled as olive bark. I was as shocked as Athena. What had he done? And so wrapped was I in these thoughts that I could not see the path we walked until it was too late. “Telegonus,” Athena said. Her silver gaze darted to him. Her voice changed again; its iron grew filigree. “You have heard what I offered your brother. I offer it now to you. Will you sail and be my bulwark in Italy?” I felt as though I had slipped from a cliff. I was in the air, falling, with nothing to hold me. “Son,” I cried. “Say nothing.”

Fast as arrow-shot, she turned on me. “You dare to obstruct me again? What more do you want from me, witch? I have sworn an oath I will not harm him. I offer him a gift that men would trade their souls for. Will you keep him hobbled all his life, like a broken horse?” “You do not want him,” I said. “He killed Odysseus.” “Odysseus killed himself,” she said. The words hissed through the room like a scythe’s blade. “He lost his way.” “It was you who made him lose it.” Anger smoked in her eyes. I saw the thought in them, how her spearhead would look tearing the blood from my throat. “I would have made him a god,” she said. “An equal. But in the end, he was too weak.” It was all the apology you would ever get from a god. I bared my teeth and slashed the spear-tip through the air. “You will not have my son. I will fight you before I let you take him.” “Mother.” The voice was soft at my side. “May I speak?” I was breaking to pieces. I knew what I would see when I looked at him, his eager, pleading hope. He wanted to go. He had always wanted to go, from the moment he was born into my arms. I had let Penelope stay on my island so she would not lose her son. I would lose mine instead. “I have dreamed of this,” he said. “Of golden fields that stretch out, unbroken, to the horizon. Orchards, gleaming rivers, thriving flocks. I used to think it was Ithaca I saw.” He was trying to speak gently, to rein in the excitement that rose in him like a flood. I thought of Icarus, who had died when he was free. Telegonus would die if he were not. Not in flesh and years. But all that was sweet in him would wither and fall away. He took my hand. The gesture was like a bard’s. But were we not in a sort of song? This was the refrain we had practiced so often. “There is risk, I know it, but you have taught me to be careful. I can do this, Mother. I want to.” I was a gray space filled up with nothing. What could I say? One of us must grieve. I would not let it be him. “My son,” I said, “it is yours to decide.” Joy broke from him like a wave. I turned away so I would not have to see it. Athena would be glad, I thought. Here was her vengeance at last. “Be ready for the ship,” she said. “It comes this afternoon. I do not send another.”

The light faded back to simple sun. Penelope and Telemachus eased away. Telegonus embraced me as he had not since he was a child. As maybe he never had. Remember this, I told myself. His wide shoulders, the curve of the bones in his back, the warmth of his breath. But my mind felt parched and windswept. “Mother? Can you not be happy for me?” No, I wanted to shout at him. No, I cannot. Why must I be happy? Is it not enough that I let you go? But I did not want for that to be the last he saw of me, his mother shrieking and keening as if he were dead, though he was still filled with so many hopeful years. “I am happy for you,” I made myself say. I led him to his room. I helped him pack, filling trunks with medicines of every sort, for wounds and headaches, for pox and sleeplessness and even childbirth, which he blushed at. “You are founding a dynasty,” I said. “Heirs are usually necessary.” I gave him all the warmest clothes I had, though it was spring and would be summer soon. I said he should take Arcturos, who had loved him since she was a puppy. I pressed amulets on him, wrapped him in enchantments. I piled on treasure after treasure, gold and silver and finest embroidery, for new kings fare best when they have wonders to give. He had sobered by then. “What if I fail?” I thought of the land Athena had described. The rolling hills, crowded with their heavy fruits and fields of grain, the bright citadel he would build. He would hand down judgments from a lofted chair in its sunniest hall, and men and women would come from far and wide to kneel to him. He will be a good ruler, I thought. Fair-minded and warm. He will not be consumed like his father was. He had never been hungry for glory, only for life. “You will not fail,” I said. “You do not think she means some harm to me?” Now he was worried; now that it was too late. He was only sixteen, so new in the world. “No,” I said. “I do not. She values you for your blood, and in time she will value you for yourself as well. She is more reliable than Hermes, though no god can be called steady. You must remember to be your own man.” “I will.” He met my eyes. “You are not angry?”

“No,” I said. It had never truly been anger, only fear and sorrow. He was what the gods could use against me. A knock on the door. Telemachus, carrying a long wool parcel. “I am sorry to intrude.” His eyes kept away from mine. He held out the package to my son. “This is for you.” Telegonus unwrapped the cloth. A smooth length of wood, tapered at its ends and notched. The bowstrings were coiled neatly around it. Telegonus stroked the leather grip. “It is beautiful.” “It was our father’s,” Telemachus said. Telegonus looked up, stricken. I saw a shadow of the old grief pass across his face. “Brother, I cannot. I have already taken your city.” “That city was never mine,” he said. “Nor was this. You will do better with them both, I think.” I felt as though I stood a long way distant. I had never seen the age between them so clearly before. My keen son, and this man who chose to be no one. We carried Telegonus’ bags down to the shore. Telemachus and Penelope said their farewells, then stood back. I waited beside my son, but he scarcely knew it. His eyes had found the horizon, that seam of waves and sky. The ship came into the harbor. It was large, its sides fresh with resin and paint, its new sail shining. Its men worked cleanly, efficiently. Their beards were trimmed, their bodies honed with strength. When the gangplank was dropped, they gathered eagerly at the rail. Telegonus stepped forward to meet them. He stood broad and bright with sun. Arcturos heeled, panting at his side. His father’s bow was strung and hanging from his shoulder. “I am Telegonus of Aiaia,” he cried out, “son of a great hero, and a greater goddess. Welcome, for you have been led here by gray-eyed Athena herself.” The sailors dropped to their knees. I would not be able to bear it, I thought. I would seize him, hold him to me. But I only embraced him a final time, pressing hard as if to set him into my skin. Then I watched him take his place among them, stand upon the prow, outlined against the sky. The light darted silver from the waves. I lifted my hand in blessing and gave my son to the world.

In the days that followed, Penelope and Telemachus treated me as if I were Egyptian glass. They spoke softly and walked on light feet past my chair. Penelope offered me the place at the loom. Telemachus kept my cup filled. The fire was always freshly stoked. All of it slid away. They were kind, but they were nothing to me. The syrups in my pantry had been my companions longer. I went to my herbs, but they seemed to shrivel in my fingers. The air felt naked without my spell. Gods might come and go as they wished now. They might do anything. I had no power to stop them. The days grew warmer. The sky softened, opening over us like the ripe flesh of a fruit. The spear still leaned in my room. I went to it, took off the sheath to breathe over its pale, envenomed ridges, but what I wanted from it, I could not say. I rubbed at my chest as if it were bread I kneaded. Telemachus said, “Are you well?” “Of course I am well. What could be wrong with me? Immortals do not take sick.” I went to the beach. I walked carefully, as if I held an infant in my arms. The sun beat upon the horizon. It beat everywhere, upon my back and arms and face. I wore no shawl. I would not burn. I never did. My island lay around me. My herbs, my house, my animals. And so it would go, I thought, on and on, forever the same. It did not matter if Penelope and Telemachus were kind. It did not matter even if they stayed for their whole lives, if she were the friend I had yearned for and he were something else, it would only be a blink. They would wither, and I would burn their bodies and watch my memories of them yellow and fade as everything faded in the endless wash of centuries, even Daedalus, even the blood-spatter of the Minotaur, even Scylla’s appetites. Even Telegonus. Sixty, seventy years, a mortal might have. Then he would leave for the underworld, where I could never go, for gods are the opposite of death. I tried to imagine those dusky hills and gray meadows, the shades moving slow and white among them. Some walked hand in hand with those they had loved in life; some waited, secure that one day their beloved would come. And for those who had not loved, whose lives had been filled with pain and horror, there was the black river Lethe, where one might drink and forget. Some consolation. For me, there was nothing. I would go on through the countless millennia, while everyone I met ran through my fingers and I was left with only those who were like me. The Olympians and Titans. My sister and brothers. My father. I felt something in me then. It was like the old, early days of my spells, when the path would open, sudden and clear before my feet. All those years I had wrestled and fought, yet there was a part of me that had stood still, just as my sister said. I seemed to hear that pale creature in his black depths. Then, child, make another. I did nothing to prepare. If I was not ready now, when would I be? I did not even walk up to the peak. He could come here, upon my yellow sands, and face me where I stood. “Father,” I said, into the air, “I would speak with you.”

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