فصل 25

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فصل 25

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Chapter Twenty-five HELIOS WAS NOT A god to be summoned, but I was the wayward daughter who had won Trygon’s tail. Gods love novelty, as I have said. They are curious as cats. He stepped from the air. He was wearing his crown, and its rays turned my beach to gold. The purple of his clothes was rich as deep-pooled blood. Hundreds of years and not a thread had changed. He was still that same image that had been seared upon me from my birth. “I am come,” he said. His voice rolled like heat from a bonfire. “I seek an end to my exile,” I said. “There is none. You are punished for eternity.” “I ask you to go to Zeus and speak on my behalf. Tell him you would take it as a favor to release me.” His face was more incredulous than angry. “Why would I do such a thing?” There were many answers I might have given. Because I have been your bargaining piece all along. Because you would have seen those men and known what they were and still you let them land on my island. Because after, when I was a broken thing, you did not come. “Because I am your daughter and would be free.” He did not even pause. “Disobedient as ever, and over-bold. Calling me here for foolishness and nothing.” I looked at his face, blazing with its righteous power. The Great Watchman of the Sky. The Savior, he is called. All-Seeing, Bringer of Light, Delight of Men. I had given him his chance. It was more than he had ever given me. “Do you remember,” I said, “when Prometheus was whipped in your hall?” His eyes narrowed. “Of course.” “I stayed behind, when all the rest of you left. I brought him comfort, and we spoke together.” His gaze burned into mine. “You would not have dared.” “If you doubt me, you may ask Prometheus himself. Or Aeëtes. Though if you get any truth from him it is a miracle.” My skin had begun to ache at his heat; my eyes watered. “If you did such a thing, it is deepest treason. You are more owed to exile than ever. You deserve greater punishment still, all I can give you. You have exposed us to Zeus’ wrath for some foolish whim.” “Yes,” I said. “And if you do not see my exile ended, I will expose you again. I will tell Zeus what I did.” His face contracted. For the first time in my life, I had truly shocked him. “You would not. Zeus will destroy you.” “Perhaps he will,” I said. “But I think he will listen first. And you are the one he will truly blame, for you should have kept better check on your daughter. Of course, I will tell him other things as well. All those tiptoeing treasons I heard you whisper with my uncles. I think Zeus would be glad to know how deep the Titan mutiny goes, don’t you?” “You dare to threaten me?” These gods, I thought. They always say the same thing. “I do.” My father’s skin flared blinding bright. His voice seared at my bones. “You would start a war.” “I hope so. For I will see you torn down, Father, before I will be jailed for your convenience any longer.” His rage was so hot the air bent and wavered around him. “I can end you with a thought.” It was my oldest fear, that white annihilation. I felt it shiver through me. But enough. At last, enough. “You can,” I said. “But you have always been cautious, Father. You know I have stood against Athena. I have walked in the blackest deeps. You cannot guess what spells I have cast, what poisons I have gathered to protect myself against you, how your power may rebound upon your head. Who knows what is in me? Will you find out?”

The words hung in the air. His eyes were discs of ignited gold, but I did not look away. “If I do this thing,” he said, “it is the last I will ever do for you. Do not come begging again.” “Father,” I said, “I never will. I leave this place tomorrow.” He would not ask where, he would not even wonder. So many years I had spent as a child sifting his bright features for his thoughts, trying to glimpse among them one that bore my name. But he was a harp with only one string, and the note it played was himself. “You have always been the worst of my children,” he said. “Be sure you do not dishonor me.” “I have a better idea. I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out.” His body was rigid with wrath. He looked as though he had swallowed a stone, and it choked him. “Give Mother my greetings,” I said. His jaw bit down and he was gone.

The yellow sands faded to their usual color. The shadows returned. For a moment I stood breathing, unmoving, my chest filled with a wild battering. But then it was gone. My thoughts were loosed forward, skimming the earth, flying up the hill to my room where the spear waited with its pale poison. It should have been returned to Trygon long ago, yet I had kept it for protection and something else I could not name. At last, I knew what it was. I went up to the house and found Penelope, sitting at my loom. “It is time for a decision. There are things I must do. I leave tomorrow, I cannot say for how long. I will take you first to Sparta if you would go there.” She looked up from the tapestry she was making. A wild sea, with a swimmer striking out into darkness. “And if I would not?” “Then you may stay here.” She held the shuttle lightly, as if it were a bird with its hollow bones. She said, “Would that not…intrude? I know what I have cost you.” Telegonus, she meant. There was grief, and so there would always be. But the gray fog was gone. I felt distant and very clear, like a hawk borne upon the highest aether. I said, “He would never have been happy here.” “But because of us, he went with Athena.” It had hurt once, but that was only pride. “She is far from the worst of them.” Them, I heard myself say. “I give you the choice, Penelope. What would you do?” A wolf stretched, her mouth squeaking a little with her yawn. “I find I am in no rush for Sparta,” Penelope said. “Then come, there are things you must know.” I led her to the kitchen with its rows of jars and bottles. “There is an illusion upon the island to make it appear inhospitable to ships. That will remain while I am gone. But sailors are reckless sometimes, and the ones that are most reckless are often the most desperate. These are my drugs that do not need witchcraft. There are poisons among them, and salves for healing. This one causes sleep.” I handed her a bottle. “It does not work immediately, so you cannot leave it till the last moment. You will need to get it in their wine. Ten drops will be enough. Do you think you can do it?” She tipped the contents, felt their weight. A faint smile touched her lips. “You may remember I have some experience in handling unwelcome guests.”

Wherever Telemachus was, he did not return for dinner. No matter, I told myself. The time when I had softened like wax was past. My path was laid before me. I packed my things. There were a few changes of clothing and a cloak, but the rest was herbs and bottles. I picked up the spear and carried it out into the warm night air. There was spell-work to do, but I wanted to go to the boat first. I had not seen it since Telemachus began his repairs, and I had to be sure it was ready to sail. Streaks of lightning flashed over the sea, and the breeze brought a distant smell of fire. It was that last storm I had told Telegonus to wait for, but I did not fear it. By morning it would blow itself out. I stepped into the cave, and stared. It was hard to believe I viewed the same boat. It was longer now, and its bow had been rebuilt and narrowed. The mast was better rigged, and the rudder more trim. I walked around it. At the front a small prow-piece had been added, a seated lioness with her jaws open. The fur was in the Eastern style, each lock separate, curled like the shell of a snail. I reached to touch one. “The wax is not set.” He stepped out from the darkness. “I have always thought every ship needs a prow spirit.” “It is beautiful,” I said.

“I was fishing in the cove when Helios came. All the shadows disappeared. I heard you speak to him.” I felt a flare of embarrassment. How baleful and outlandish and cruel we must have seemed. I rested my eyes on the boat so I would not have to look at him. “Then you know my exile is ended and I sail tomorrow. I asked your mother if she would go to Sparta or stay. She said she wished to stay. I offer the same choice to you.” Outside, the sea made a sound like a shuttle weaving. The stars were yellow as pears, low and ripe on the branch. “I have been angry with you,” he said. It surprised me. The blood rose stinging to my cheeks. “Angry.” “Yes,” he said. “You thought I would go with Athena. Even after all I have said to you. I am not your son and I am not my father. You should have known I do not want anything Athena has.” His voice was even, but I felt the sharp edge of his reproach. “I am sorry,” I said. “I could not believe that any in this world would refuse her divinity.” “That is amusing coming from you.” “I am not a promising young prince of whom great things are expected.” “It is overrated.” I ran my hand across the lion’s clawed foot, felt the sticky sheen of the wax. “Do you always make beautiful things for those you are angry with?” “No,” he said. “Only you.” Outside, the lightning flickered. “I was angry as well,” I said. “I thought you could not wait to leave.” “I do not know how you could think that. You know I cannot hide my face.” I could smell the beeswax, sweet and thick. “The way you spoke of Athena coming to you. I thought it was longing. Something you kept close, like a secret heart.” “I kept it close because I was ashamed. I did not want you to hear how she had preferred my father all along.” She is a fool. But I did not say it. “I do not want to go to Sparta,” he said. “Nor do I want to stay here. I think you know where I would like to be.” “You cannot come,” I said. “It is not safe for mortals.” “I suspect it is not safe at all. You should see your face. You cannot hide either.” What is my face like? I wanted to ask. Instead I said, “You would leave your mother?” “She will be well here. And content, I think.” Wood dust floated past, fragrant in the air. It was the same smell that rose from his skin when he carved. I felt reckless suddenly. Sick of all my fretting and convincing, my careful plotting. It came to some by nature, but not to me. “If you want to join me, I will not stop you,” I said. “We leave at dawn.”

I made my preparations and he made his. We worked until the sky began to pale. The ship was filled with all the stores it could hold: cheese and toasted barley, fruits dried and fresh. Telemachus added fishing nets and oars, extra rope and knives, all of it carefully stowed and strapped in its place. With rollers we pushed the boat down to the sea, its hull effortlessly slipping through the breakers. Penelope stood on the shore to wave us off. Telemachus had gone alone to tell her he was leaving. Whatever she thought of it she kept from her face. Telemachus lifted the sail. The storm was past. The winds were fresh and blowing well. They caught us, and we glided through the bay. I looked back at Aiaia. Twice in all my days I had seen her dwindling behind me. The water grew between us, and her cliffs shrank. I could taste the salt spray on my lips. All around were those silver-scrolling waves. No thunderbolt came. I was free. No, I thought. Not yet. “Where do we go?” Telemachus’ hand waited on the rudder.

The last time I had spoken her name aloud had been to his father. “To the straits,” I said. “To Scylla.” I watched the words register. He maneuvered the prow with competent hands. “You are not frightened?” “You warned me it was not safe,” he said. “I do not think being frightened will help.” The sea flowed by. We passed the island where I had stopped with Daedalus on the way to Crete. The beach was still there, and I glimpsed a grove of almond trees. The storm-blasted poplar would be long gone by now, crumbled to earth. A pale smudge appeared on the horizon. With each hour it grew, belling like smoke. I knew what it was. “Pull down the sail,” I said. “We have business here first.” Over the rail we caught twelve fish, large as we could find. They thrashed, spraying cold drops of salt across the deck. I pinched my herbs into their gasping mouths and spoke the word. The old cracking sound, the tearing of flesh, and then they were fish no more, but twelve rams, fat and addled. They jostled, eyes rolling, packed against each other in the small space. It was a blessing—they would not have been able to stand otherwise. They were not used to having feet. Telemachus had to climb over them to get to the oars. “It may be a little hard to row.” “They will not be here long.” He frowned at one. “Do they taste like mutton?” “I don’t know.” I lifted from my herb bag the small clay pot that I had filled the night before. It was stoppered with wax and had a looped handle. With a length of leather cord, I tied it around the largest ram’s neck. We unfurled the sail. I had warned Telemachus about the mist and spray, and he had a pair of oars ready in makeshift locks. They were awkward, for the boat was meant for sails, but they would help us through if the wind died completely. “We must keep moving,” I told him. “No matter what.” He nodded, as if it would be that easy. I knew better. The spear was in my hand, tipped with its poisonous spine, but I had seen how fast she was. I had told Odysseus once that there was no withstanding her. Yet here I was again. Lightly, I touched Telemachus’ shoulder and whispered a charm. I felt the illusion gather over him: he was gone, bare deck, empty air. It would not hold up to scrutiny, but it would hide him from her passing glance. He watched, asking no questions. He trusted me. I turned away, abrupt, to face the prow. The mist drifted over us. My hair grew damp, and the sucking sound of the whirlpool reached us across the waves. Charybdis, men had named that vortex. It had claimed its share of sailors, all those who tried to avoid Scylla’s appetite. The rams pressed against me, swaying. They made no sound, as real sheep would have. They did not know how to use their throats. I pitied them, in their trembling, monstrous forms. The straits loomed, and we slipped into their mouth. I glanced at Telemachus. He held the oars ready, his eyes alert. Hairs lifted on my neck. What had I done? I should never have brought him. The smell struck me, familiar even after so long: rot and hate. And then she came, slithering out of the gray fog. Those old lumpen heads of hers crept along the cliff, rasping as they went. Her bloodshot gaze was fixed on the rams, reeking of fat and fear. “Come!” I cried. She struck. Six rams were snatched up in six wide-split jaws. She darted back with them into the mist. I heard bones crunching, the wet gulping of her throats. Blood drizzled down the cliff face. I had time for a single glance at Telemachus. The wind was nearly dead, and he was rowing now, intent. The sweat stood out on his arms. Scylla returned, heads weaving with malevolence. Tufts of fleece showed between her teeth. “Now the rest,” I said. She took the other six so fast there was no time to count the beat between my words and their vanishing. The ram with the pot had been among them. I tried to listen for its clay shattering in her teeth, but I could make out nothing above the sounds of bones and flesh. Last night, beneath the cold moon, I had milked the spear’s poison. It had trickled, clear and thin, into my polished bronze bowl. I had added dittany, gathered so long ago from Crete, cypress root, shards of my cliffs and soil from my garden, and last of all my own red blood. The liquid had foamed and turned yellow. All this I had put into that pot, then sealed it with wax. The draught would be slipping down her throat by now, pooling in her guts. I thought twelve sheep would have dulled the edge of her hunger, but when she returned her eyes looked the same as ever, greedy and ravening. As if it were not her belly she fed, but an undying rage. “Scylla!” I lifted the spear. “It is I, Circe, daughter of Helios, witch of Aiaia.” She shrieked, that old baying cacophony, clawing at my ears, but there was no recognition in it. “Long ago I changed you to this form from the nymph you were. I come now with Trygon’s power to make an end to what I began.” And into the mist-soaked air, I spoke the word of my will. She hissed. Her gaze held not the slightest hint of curiosity. Her heads wove on, searching over the deck as if there might be sheep she had overlooked. Behind me, I could hear Telemachus straining at the oars. Our sail hung limp; he was all that kept us moving forward. I saw the instant her eyes pierced my illusion and spotted him. She moaned, low and eager.

“No!” I brandished the spear. “This mortal is under my protection. You will suffer eternal agony if you try to take him. You see I have Trygon’s tail.” She screamed again. Her breath washed over me, stink and searing heat. The heads were weaving faster in her excitement. They snapped the air, long strands of drool swinging from their jaws. She was afraid of the spear, but that would not hold her for long. She had come to like the taste of mortal flesh. She craved it. Stark, black terror rolled through me. I would have sworn I had felt the spell take hold. Had I been wrong? Panic drenched my shoulders. I would have to fight her six ravening heads at once. I was no trained warrior. One of them would get by me and then Telemachus—I would not let myself finish the thought. My mind spat through ideas, all useless: spells that could not touch her, poisons I did not have, gods who would not come to my aid. I could tell Telemachus to jump and swim, but there was nowhere to go. The only path safe from her reach would take him into the devouring whirlpool of Charybdis. I set myself between her and Telemachus, spear out-thrust, nerves drawn up. I must wound her before she gets by me, I told myself. I must at least get Trygon’s poison in her blood. I braced for the blow. It did not come. One of her mouths was working strangely, jaws hinging and unhinging. A choking noise came from deep within her chest. She gagged, and a yellow foam ran over her teeth. “What is it?” I heard Telemachus say. “What’s happening?” There was no time for an answer. Her body sagged out of the mist. I had never seen it before, gelatinous and huge. As we watched, it scraped down the cliffside above us. Her heads squealed and bucked, as if trying to haul it back up again. But it only sank further, as inexorably as if it were weighted with stones. I could see now the beginnings of her legs, those twelve monstrous tentacles stretching away from her body into the mist. She kept them hidden always, Hermes had told me, coiled in the cave among the bones and bits of old flesh, gripping the cave’s stone so that the rest of her might dart down for her meals and return. Scylla’s heads were snapping and whining, rearing back to bite their own necks. Her gray skin was streaked with yellow foam and her own red blood. A noise began like a boulder drawn across the earth, and suddenly a gray blur tumbled past us, smashing the waves beside our boat. The deck dipped wildly, and I nearly lost my balance. When I was steady again I found myself staring at one of her huge legs. It hung limp off her body, thick as the oldest oak on Aiaia, its end disappearing into the waves. It had let go its hold. “We must leave,” I said. “Now. There will be more.” Before the words were out, the dragging sound had begun again. Telemachus cried out a warning. The leg smashed so close to our stern it sucked the rail half beneath the waves. I was knocked to my knees, and Telemachus thrown from his seat. He managed to cling to the oars, and with effort wrested them back to their places. The waters around us seethed with wash, the boat pitched up and down. In the air over our heads, Scylla cried and thrashed. The weight of the fallen legs had pulled her further down the cliff. The heads were within range now, but she paid no attention to us. She was biting at the limp flesh of her legs, savaging it. I hesitated a moment, then wedged the spear-haft against our supplies so it would not roll in the chaos. I seized one of Telemachus’ oars. “Go.” We bent ourselves to rowing. The dragging sound came again and another leg fell, its great surge soaking the deck, slewing the prow towards Charybdis. I caught a glimpse of its whirling chaos that ate ships whole. Telemachus grappled at the rudder, trying to turn us. “A rope,” he shouted. I scrabbled one out from our stores. He looped it around the rudder, yanking at it, fighting to point us back out of the straits. Scylla’s body swayed two mast-lengths above us. The legs were still falling, and each impact pulled the dangling trunk further down. Ten, I counted. Eleven. “We have to go!” Telemachus had righted the prow. He tied off the rudder, and we scrambled back to the oars. Beneath the cliff the boat tossed back and forth in the chopped waters like a fallen leaf. The waves around us were stained yellow. Her remaining leg stretched back up the cliff face. It was all that held her, pulled grotesquely taut. She let go. Her massive body struck the water. The wave ripped the oars from our hands, and my head was buffeted by cold salt. I caught a glimpse of our stores washing into the sea, and vanishing with them into the white, Trygon’s spear. I felt the loss like a blow to my chest but there was no time to think of it. I seized Telemachus’ arm, expecting any moment the deck to crack beneath us. But the stout planks held, and the rope on the rudder too. The wash of that last great wave shoved us forward, out of the straits. The sound of Charybdis had faded, and the sea lay open around us. I got to my feet and looked back. At the base of the cliff, where Scylla had been, was a hulking shoal. The outline of six snaky necks was still visible upon it, but they did not move. They would never move again. She had turned to stone.

It was a long way to land. My arms and back ached as if they had been whipped, and Telemachus must have been worse, yet our sail was miraculously intact and it bore us on. The sun seemed to drop into the sea like a falling plate, and night rose over the water. I sighted land through the star-pricked black, and we dragged the boat onto its beach. We had lost all our fresh water stores, and Telemachus was dull-eyed, nearly speechless. I went to find a river and carried back a brimming bowl I’d transformed from a rock. He drained it, and afterwards he lay still so long I began to be afraid, but at last he cleared his throat and asked what food there was. I had gathered a few berries by then, and caught a fish which was spitted over the fire. “I am sorry I put you in such danger,” I said. “If you had not been there, we would have been smashed to pieces.” He nodded wearily as he chewed. His face was still drawn and pale. “I confess I am glad we will not have to do it again.” He leaned back upon the sand, and his eyes drooped closed. He was safe, for our camp was backed into the corner of a cliff, so I left him to walk the shore. I thought we were on an island, but I could not tell for certain. There was no smoke rising above the trees, and when I listened, I heard nothing but night birds and brush and the hiss of the waves. There were flowers and forests growing thickly inland, but I did not go look. I was seeing before me again that rocky mass that had been Scylla. She was gone, truly gone. For the first time in centuries, I was not lashed to that flood of misery and grief. No more souls would walk to the underworld written with my name. I faced the sea. It felt strange to have nothing in my hands, no spear-haft to carry. I could feel the air moving across my palms, salt mingling with the green scent of spring. I imagined the gray length of the tail, sinking through the darkness to find its master. Trygon, I said, your tail comes home to you. I kept it too long, but I made good use of it at last. The soft waves washed across the sand. The darkness felt clean against my skin. I walked through the cool air as if it were a pool I bathed in. We had lost everything but the pouch of tools he had worn at his waist, and my spell bag, which had been tied to me. We would have to make oars, I thought, and lay in new stores of food. But those thoughts were for tomorrow.

I passed a pear tree drifted with white blossoms. A fish splashed in the moonlit river. With every step I felt lighter. An emotion was swelling in my throat. It took me a moment to recognize what it was. I had been old and stern for so long, carved with regrets and years like a monolith. But that was only a shape I had been poured into. I did not have to keep it. Telemachus slept on. His hands were clasped like a child’s under his chin. They had been bloodied at the oars, and I had salved them, their warm weight resting in my lap. His fingers had been more calloused than I imagined, but his palms were smooth. So often on Aiaia, I had wondered how it would feel to touch him. His eyes opened as if I had spoken the words aloud. They were clear as they always were. I said, “Scylla was not born a monster. I made her.” His face was in the fire’s shadows. “How did it happen?” There was a piece of me that shouted its alarm: if you speak he will turn gray and hate you. But I pushed past it. If he turned gray, then he did. I would not go on anymore weaving my cloths by day and unraveling them again at night, making nothing. I told him the whole tale of it, each jealousy and folly and all the lives that had been lost because of me. “Her name,” he said. “Scylla. It means the Render. Perhaps it was always her destiny to be a monster, and you were only the instrument.” “Do you use the same excuse for the maids you hanged?” It was as if I had struck him. “I make no excuse for that. I will wear that shame all my life. I cannot undo it, but I will spend my days wishing I could.” “It is how you know you are different from your father,” I said. “Yes.” His voice was sharp. “It is the same for me,” I said. “Do not try to take my regret from me.” He was quiet a long time. “You are wise,” he said. “If it is so,” I said, “it is only because I have been fool enough for a hundred lifetimes.” “Yet at least what you loved, you fought for.” “That is not always a blessing. I must tell you, all my past is like today, monsters and horrors no one wants to hear.” He held my gaze. Something about him then reminded me strangely of Trygon. An unearthly, quiet patience. “I want to hear,” he said. I had kept away from him for so many reasons: his mother and my son, his father and Athena. Because I was a god, and he a man. But it struck me then that at the root of all those reasons was a sort of fear. And I have never been a coward. I reached across that breathing air between us and found him.

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