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Phoenician traders reported seeing the Greek fleet assembling at the Bay of Aulis, commanded by High King Agamemnon, older brother to Menelaus. An old seer who read the flights of birds prophesied that my husband would sail with them and would not return for nineteen years.
We never talked about this prediction, though it was common gossip in the town. Still, I knew they would come for him, even as I struggled to find a way to keep him home. Rising before dawn to scan the bay for Greek ships, I was first to spot Palamedes' galley the red speck on the horizon that would cancel my happiness.
I found Odysseus lacing up his leather vest to go welcome whatever visitors were sailing into port.
"I know of a way to trick them!" I cried out.
He looked at me with pity in his eyes. "Dearest Penelope, they cannot compel me to go. You've said so yourself. I never swore the oath."
"Hear my plan...for our son's sake." I knelt at his feet, sobbing quietly. "They will not be put off so easily. They have to think you're incapable of serving their cause."
He lifted me to my feet and wrapped his arms around me. "All right, tell me your plan."
Odysseus didn't go down to the harbor to welcome the ship. When Palamedes arrived, my husband was working in the fields wearing filthy clothes and a pointed foolscap. Instead of oxen, he'd hitched two goats to his plow, and he was weaving in and out of furrows, pretending not to see his royal guests. Palamedes and an older king named Nestor stopped to watch underneath a stand of trees.
Having captured their attention, Odysseus laughed a cackling laugh as he grabbed a handful of salt from his pouch and cast it onto theearth.
"He's been like this for weeks," I told Palamedes, approaching with Telemachus on my hip. I'd brought along the child to enlist their pity, an idea that turned out to be a fatal mistake. I said, "He's been sowing his fields with salt instead of seeds. When he's not out here, he's sitting on the dung heap ranting and tearing his hair."
Palamedes narrowed his ferret eyes, squinting into the morning sun.
"My Lord, I apologize for this poor hospitality...."
Only desperation could have made me think I could fool Palamedes, who had a reputation for cunning that was almost equal to my husband's. It happened with no warning. His glance darted from me to Odysseus. Suddenly, he leaped forward and snatched my son from my arms. He ran into the field and, stooping, placed the child directly in the path of my husband's plow.
"Let's see if you're crazy enough to run over your son!" Palamedes shouted.
Of course Odysseus pulled to a stop and knelt to pick up Telemachus, who was only then beginning to cry.
"Stop this nonsense, Odysseus," Palamedes said. "Obviously you're sane enough to go to war."
Telemachus's wails pierced the silence.
"Indeed, a certain madness is a requirement for war," Odysseus said, looking down at his son, stroking the boy's silky hair.
"Odysseus, raider of cities, you know you're itching to feel the heft of a good sword in your hand." Palamedes smiled his crooked smile. "Admit it."
Odysseus dropped his eyes, and I knew this charge was at least partly true.
"Besides," Palamedes was saying, "wars are won by superior tactics and the gods' favor, both of which you possess in abundance. You cannot refuse your countrymen in this time of humiliation."
I stood there hugging my sides, hating them both.
Palamedes and Nestor spent the day telling Odysseus about the Greek coalition the water and food supplies, the men and ships already arrived at Aulis, a bay on the coast opposite Troy. Agamemnon had sent the two kings to enlist Odysseus and a second warrior, whose presence was even more crucial to a Greek victory a young man called Achilles, the son of a mortal king and a minor sea goddess. Oracles had prophesied that the Trojan War would not be won without him, but he had disappeared. According to the prophets, Achilles had a choice of destinies. He could lead either a long, uneventful life at home, or a short, glorious life fighting and dying in the Trojan War. Naturally, his mother, Thetis, was determined to secure the long, peaceful destiny for her only son.
"We think we know where she's hidden him," Palamedes said.
Nestor, who was famous for long-winded speeches, launched into the story. "She's put him with relatives on Scyros. Living in the women's quarters disguised as a girl! But there are rumors...." Grinning, the gray-bearded warrior slapped his knee. "The young stud has got one of the cousins pregnant."
Palamedes leaned forward. "I don't think the boy will offer much resistance, but we need Odysseus, master of disguises, to get close to him."
Like my husband's reputation as raider of cities, this was another side of him I had never seen. It made me wonder if I knew him at all.
Odysseus, Nestor, and Palamedes spent the better part of a month sailing to Scyros, where Odysseus had little trouble persuading Achilles to leave with them. My husband told the story in the men's hall the night they returned with the boy to Ithaca.
Arriving on Scyros, Odysseus had dressed as a peddler and visited the king's daughters with a pack full of shimmering veils, jewel-encrusted robes, and bronze mirrors from the Orient. The girls quivered with excitement, squealing and grabbing at his wares.
"All except one tall, ungainly maiden," my husband said slowly, drawing out the suspense. "She stood aside, arms crossed over her chest, smiling scornfully until I withdrew from its wrappings a magnificent sword, a gift to my father from Agamemnon...."
The men in the hall sat forward in their chairs, charmed by my husband's liquid voice.
"Then this tall, muscular maiden sprang forward and grabbed the sword, swishing it around her head." Odysseus laughed, pointing at Achilles. "And here she he sits, ready to shed Trojan blood!"
That's how I came to know Achilles. The boy who would soon strike terror into the hearts of Trojans was still a beardless youth unstained by the blood of battle, but even then there was something terrible about his thin-lipped smile. I knew he would relish the killing, that it would be, for him, like an act of love to plunge his sword into the body of an enemy warrior or maybe a fellow Greek. I was afraid my husband or even High King Agamemnon would never be able to manage him.
The next day, Palamedes and Nestor sailed for Aulis to deliver their prize warrior to Agamemnon. Odysseus stayed behind for another month to gather his fleet of twelve vessels from Ithaca, the mainland, and neighboring islands. But I had already lost him. Just once, I wanted to walk together at sunset in the orchard, to imprint that moment into my husband's memory. He never found the time. On the rare nights he held me in our olive tree bed, he was still thinking about provisioning ships and recruiting foot soldiers from the villages.
The morning he left, I brought my parting gifts a finely woven tunic, a fleecy maroon cape, and to clasp it, a brooch in the shape of his favorite hunting dog, Argos. I'd commissioned the piece from a master goldsmith to remind Odysseus of the good life he was leaving behind.
We had only moments alone. After packing my gifts, he sat down on the bed and reached for my hands, looking up at me. "Take care of my parents, as you have always done," he said. "I leave all things in your charge. Mentor will instruct our son in the martial arts. The old warrior will be a friend to you, too." I held his head against my breasts, drinking in the smell of his hair.
"But if I don't return..."
"Please...that cannot happen. I would die."
"Let us not lie to one another; we've never done that. Here, sit beside me so I can look at you." He stroked my face. "My beautiful Penelope, these years with you have given me more happiness than I could have known how to ask for." Then, after a silence, he said, "The Trojans are skilled warriors. Not every Greek will make it home."
I bit my lip, tasting blood on my tongue.
"When you see a beard on our son's face, you must marry again."
"Look at me, Penelope! When our son becomes a man, you must leave this house for Telemachus to rule. Make a new life for yourself."
I twisted away, covering my mouth with my hand. I felt sick to my stomach.
"You cannot wait for me forever. Promise me, Penelope!"
There was a knock on the door, and then Mentor's voice. "Master, the rations are loaded in the hull, all the wine jars, barley meal double wrapped in leather sacks. Shall I order the crews to man the oars?"
* * *
Down at the port I watched Odysseus holding the mast of his blue-prowed ship, shouting orders as if he had no thought for me or our son. I watched the ships drift toward the horizon, water churning behind each rhythmic stroke of the oars. Seven hundred men in twelve ships, and not all of them would return. Selfishness gripped my heart as I stood there, making bargains with the gods. I don't care about any of the others. Only Odysseus has to return. Please let him return.
Eurycleia stayed beside me and held my arm. I was grateful she didn't try to cheer me with false hopefulness. My throat ached; I longed for the release of tears as the ships disappeared into the summer haze. But I was the queen. People were watching, expecting composure.
"I hate him for leaving us," I said between my teeth.
"For shame!" Eurycleia whispered. "That's not like you at all!"
"He told me he wouldn't go! He could have refused!"
"You cannot blame him for following his warrior's heart. And his destiny."
"What's to be my destiny?"
Eurycleia didn't answer. We both knew that my destiny was to wait, to become expert at waiting.
I need not tell of the great war; traveling bards sing of it all over the civilized world. Only one thing: I was right about Achilles. He did not submit to his commander's authority. He and Agamemnon hated one another on sight, and conflict erupted into revolt when Agamemnon took a favorite slave girl Achilles had captured in a raid. Only my husband's intervention kept the boy from attacking his chief.
As nine years of siege outside Troy's walls dragged on, stories drifted to us of Odysseus's courage and ingenious tactics. It was said that the great Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, fought at his side, that the wooden horse that ended the siege was his design. In time, I created an image from these stories, and it became more real than the man I had known.
After the war, Odysseus and his men sailed for home, flushed with victory and loaded with Trojan gold. But a squall blew them off course to the Land of the Lotus-eaters, where friendly natives fed some of them a magical fruit, which erased all memory of home. Although badly in need of food, Odysseus drove his men to sail on. The next landfall belonged to the Cyclops, a savage race of one-eyed giants descended from the sea god, Poseidon. A search party located a cave well supplied with cheeses and sheep; the men wanted to help themselves and sail away. Of course, Odysseus was too honorable to take food without meeting the owner, asking for hospitality, and trading wine in exchange.
But there was no hospitality when the one-eyed giant, whose name was Polyphemus, returned home. He trapped them inside with a huge boulder and promptly devoured six of the men, crunching their bones and wiping blood off his chin with the back of his hand while their shipmates watched in horror. Odysseus refused to give way to panic. He offered the giant bowl after bowl of undiluted wine. When Polyphemus passed out drunk, Odysseus had them sharpen a tree trunk, which they used like a battering ram to put out the Cyclops's only eye. They escaped the next morning when the blinded Polyphemus let his sheep out to pasture.
But this rescue would earn my husband the wrath of Poseidon, for Polyphemus was not only the sea god's descendant, he was the god's favorite son. And from that day forward, the blue-maned Poseidon, who rules the oceans that wrap the earth, was determined that Odysseus and his loyal shipmates would never reach home.
Copyright © 2000 by Clemence McLaren