issue twenty-four
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(1800 words)
Becky Boncal
Penelope's Dilemma
       Before the old nurse shook her, told her to get up, right away, and dress, Penelope was dreaming. For hours she'd tossed around in bed, covering the shouts and laughter from the courtyard with a pillow on her ear, her stomach moaning at the smell of roasted meat. But sleep came as it did most nights when she heard the gentle, diplomatic voice of Amphinomus, quieting the drunken men, telling them to go back home to bed.

In the dream, she sat working at the loom, her hands jerking in the moonlight, pulling at the fibers, when a voice startled her -- the same voice from the courtyard. He was inside the room. "Don't be afraid," he said and stepped in close to examine the crimped threads that lay loose and spread out over the loom. She moved to hide the evidence of her deceit, but he knelt down and said, "Let me help." His clean, smooth fingers tugged at the strands, separated and untangled them. She felt his breath, warm and moist, on her cheek and just as she was about to turn her face to his, a cold hand pushed her shoulder.

"Get up and dress!" the nurse croaked, leaning in over the bed, her ancient face lit by a candle. "He has come home!" The old woman gathered up Penelope's robe and slippers. "You may not recognize him at first," she said. "But it's him. I saw the scar the boar gave him, right on his thigh, while I was washing him." She tossed the clothes on the bed. "He's not badly wounded. Just a few scrapes from the slaughter."

"Slaughter?" Penelope asked, not sure if she was quite awake.

"Yes!" The old woman's voice squeaked in a delighted laugh and she clapped her veiny hands. "He has killed them all! He and the prince, with bow and arrows. Oh, it went on for hours. I wasn't sure who would still be living by the end of it, all that groaning and screaming and 'please, spare me!' I don't know how you slept through it. I could hear every awful noise from where I was hiding in the servants' quarters. The poor maids have been scrubbing for hours and they've only just finished with the hall. But the king put down sulfur and has built a great fire to burn them."

Penelope put her arms into the sleeves of the robe. "Take me to them," she said.

The quiet in the passageways became ominous as they approached the staircase. Penelope came up beside the old nurse to help her but the nurse said, "You'll want to hold on yourself, when that sulfur hits you…" Penelope breathed into the sleeve of her robe. At the bottom of the stairs she stopped outside a long hall, lighted by torches, to stare at what appeared to be the work of an artist: a mural, painted in sweeping splashes and dark red streaks.

"Not that way," the nurse said. "They haven't got down there yet."

"Where are they?"

"The great hall."
Penelope listened for a rumble of voices, but heard only the lone screech of a table being moved. "All of them?" she asked.

The nurse stopped and turned to look at her over a hunched shoulder. "All of who?"

"The suitors," Penelope said.

The nurse emitted a series of confused utterances, a habit she'd developed since her hearing became poor. At last she said, in a tone that made Penelope feel like a fool, "We piled them up in the courtyard. The king is this way."

       She could look only briefly at his face at first, like trying her feet in a hot bath. While he talked, she traced the faded scar across his thigh and studied the unfamiliar marks: white and pink wounds, long healed, and new scrapes, glazed with crusts of blood. She wondered who inflicted them. Who among those men put up a fight, and who fell easy? Who begged for his life? An odor in the air caught her breath -- a stray hair sizzling in the candle flame. She hid her watering eyes against his chest, breathing in the perfume from his skin.

When her heart adjusted and she was able to gaze full upon his face, she understood why she did not recognize him when she saw him, sitting in the firelight, an old man, dressed in filthy rags and covered in blood. She had just one portrait of him, painted on an urn, but he was only fifteen when it was made. So she constructed in her mind a more current picture by examining the features of his father's face. Looking at him presently, she did not see Laertes, with his sunken eyes and boney forehead. At the temples and the jaw, in the lay of his ears, she saw the face of Sisyphus.
"But I've gone on and on," he said. He had been talking for hours. Driven on by her questions, he had described the constant rocking of his ship, the scorching sun of day, the dark unknown of night. She felt as if she had spent all those years soaking in brine -- her features withered over an endless tedium of days in bed and nights hunched over the loom. "What has life been like for you?" he asked.

She shrugged. "I wept and I waited for you."

"And what about your suitors? The way they took over the house, I wonder how you managed."

"I avoided them," she said. He questioned her until she told him the story, how she lived as a prisoner in the house, how the men ate and drank, and how she deceived them, undoing what she'd woven every night. When she was finished, he held her tightly in his arms and told her she was a clever wife. Penelope smiled though she didn't know why his exuberance should irritate her.

While they were kissing, she thought of Amphinomus. She'd been cold to him yesterday in the garden. "What do I fear?" she'd asked bitingly. He said she was afraid of letting go. Amphinomus was wrong, she thought as she pressed into the warmth of her husband's body, ran her fingers through his thinning hair. The years waiting and worrying, and then after the war, when he didn't return, those years sobbing in bed, watching her youth, her beauty slip away, as her son was raised by servants among scoundrels, the many, so many lonely nights -- all worth the sacrifice. She realized now why she was drawn to that slender, soft-spoken man, with his ironic humor and his philosophical air; he was in every way unlike her husband. With him, she felt no threat of being tempted. Why, then, was she thinking of him now? Of his clean, smooth fingers? Thinking of his dark, quick-blinking eyes, with their long, pointed lashes, his sniffling laughter at her quick retorts when they walked together mornings in the garden. Why think of those words he said to her, now that she had the one she'd longed for in her arms?

He rocked her back against the roots, shook the purple olives on their branches. Zeus! This was Odysseus! Leaves and flowers danced around his head. Sweat sprinkled on her breasts and on the ox hide blanket. Their skin was clapping, his body clean and slick with oil. His hair smelled of the ocean. The olives swayed, slapping at the trunk. Only him, only him. No other man but him. For twenty years, she waited. Just for him.

"My king," she said. "My king!" He stretched her like his giant bow. The death-bringer, he pulled back for the final thrust and called, "Calypso!"

He dropped beside her on the bed like an arrow that has missed the target, stuck in the dirt.

The great tactician closed his eyes and said, "I told you, for seven years the goddess kept me a prisoner on her island."

"Yes, and you said you held out against her."

"I held out against a marriage."
"Such restraint."

"I was her slave. She wouldn't let me go even though I begged her, told her I had a wife and son. She was in love with me. When I wept, she became jealous. She couldn't understand why I preferred a mortal woman to a goddess. She thought she could convince me, but when I was with her, I thought only of you."

"And now you are with me, and you think of her."

"It was a reflex. A defense. I had to trick her until I found a chance to escape."

Penelope looked down at her breasts. They were like two loaves of unleavened bread, each decorated with a shriveled olive. "She is beautiful, I assume."

"She is a goddess," he said.

"So she didn't force you."

He took her hand and held it firmly in his. "I swear an oath by the gray-eyed goddess Athena that when my mouth called her name, my heart cried for you."

"Athena?" Penelope looked at him with sharpened eyes.

He dropped her hand and seemed to swell, rising up above the bed. "Woman, watch what you say. If not for Athena I would still be a prisoner on that island. I struggled to escape, sacrificed more than half my men, and suffered tortures in the hope that I would return to find you here."

Her skin burned with shame. How could she accuse him, after all he had been through? To question his love? After twenty years of waiting, he was home. Why spoil their reunion with a petty grievance? But then the thought occurred to her that she had not spoiled anything. "To find me faithful, you mean," she said and looked up at his eyes. "You hoped to return and find me faithful."

He stared at her, confounded. "Of course I hoped you were faithful."

"And if you found me unfaithful?"

"That doesn't matter. I'm home and you were faithful."

In the dark, she lay awake and listened to his steady breathing, afraid to fall asleep and wake to find it all a dream. At times, feeling his life in the bed beside her, she felt such a swell of love for him in her chest, she could hardly breathe. Then the dark took hold and the nights spent lying there with tears flowing from her eyes, years of nights, ran together into a never-ending night that stretched across the track of moonlight into the quiet dark. Once, she started to drift off, but a noise started her awake. She thought at first it was one of the suitors, drunk, talking in the courtyard. But it was only a servant shouting to another servant to keep the fire going, they had a whole pile of bodies yet to burn.


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This work is copyrighted by the author, Becky Boncal. All rights reserved.