How long have I been walking? I don’t remember any more, I can’t count days or months. Is that the moon, the sun? I can’t tell. The night star will sometimes light up the infinite fields of snow with an intensity like that of the sun, while the daytime star rises from the fog-shrouded horizon like a pale moon. The ice reflects the light like water does.
How long has it been since I’ve seen a man? How long since I’ve seen springtime, the sea, the holm oaks and myrtles that nestle between the crags of the mountainside? I have met wolves. Bears. They haven’t hurt me, haven’t attacked me. I haven’t laid a hand on my bow and I’ve survived all the same. I must; so that my journey may come to an end.
The last journey.
I’ve learned to talk with myself. It soothes me, and keeps my mind from evaporating. I miss my bride, her arms so soft and white. I miss her warm breasts and her black, black, black eyes. I miss my son, my boy, the only child I’ve fathered. When I left him he was still sleeping. Children sleep so soundly. He surely hates me: he had waited so long for me.
I miss my goddess with her green eyes, her perfect lips that have never given a kiss to a god nor to a mortal. She leaves no prints even if she walks at my side. Her breath won’t condense: cold, it is, like the snow. She loved me once. She would appear in disguise but I recognized her anyway, anywhere . . . Now she doesn’t speak to me any more, or is it I who cannot hear her?
Are you listening to me? Listening to me, son of a small island, son of a bitter fate? You incorrigible liar . . . How often have you plunged your bare hands in the snow to wash them of blood? But you’ve never succeeded.
You’re being watched, can you feel it? Walk, walk, journey on, on and on, as the horizon slips away, escapes you, and the land never ends. Vast, boundless, shapeless and sterile as the sea, flat as a dead calm.
And yet, although you may not believe me, I am a king. You, a king? Don’t make me laugh.
Laugh as long as you like, for I am a king. Without a kingdom, without subjects, without friends, without, without, without . . . but I am indeed a king. I carried out great endeavours, commanded a great number of ships . . . Warriors. Friends. Comrades. Dead. I’m cold. Can you hear me? I’m cold! Where are all of you? Near me, here? Beneath my feet? Under the ice? None of you can see your cold breath either. All invisible.
On, on and on. I don’t remember the last time I ate.
I don’t know why my fate cannot play itself out, why I can’t live like most men do, in a house, with a family, eating food prepared three times a day.
Athena. Do you still love me? Am I still your favourite? Perhaps this is my madness: my mind is connected to mysteries greater than I am, mysteries that I cannot fathom. The feet that go on and on, wrapped in the hides of rabbits that I have eaten, are my only way of seeing. There is no end to their journey, save the one prophesied by the seer who one moonless night I called up from the nether world. Where are they heading? A place like any other, but I will not know until I get there. I’ve lost count of the days and the nights. I never kept count, actually, and I don’t know how long I’ve been walking. I don’t even know how old I am. Certainly not young any more.
Rising alone like an island in the middle of the sea. And there’s a cave. Refuge from the wind cutting at my face, the sleet piercing my eyes.
A cave. It’s warm inside, on the bottom, where the wind has no room to move.
A rabbit is here. White on white. Hard to take aim, even harder to withstand hunger. How sweet would it be to give in to exhaustion, to let myself die slowly. Death, coming for me softly. Who would ever find me here?
Raw-boned, baring starved teeth . . .
Caught. Skinned. Devoured. Me, or the rabbit. What difference does it make? Since then, bones have piled up in front of my cave. And memories in my mind. Spring will return and I will meet a man who will ask me a question that I must answer. I’ll have to remember everything, then. Remember the screams and the groans, the echoes of agony. On the floor of this cave lies the oar I was carrying on my shoulder. I found it abandoned on the shore at Ithaca one morning after I had returned – wreckage from some old shipwreck. How long had it been floating on the sea? Years. I recognized it from the butterfly carved into the handle. A handle once gripped by a comrade of mine. The fourth oar on the right. Old friend, asleep now in the dark of the abyss . . . but you sent me a sign. Time to start out again.
My ship. I miss her. Curved flanks like a woman’s, soft and sensual. Like my green-eyed goddess. Lying broken in pieces on the bottom of the sea. My heart weeps. Stop weeping, heart of mine! You’ve been through much worse. Endless misfortunes, yes. Remember, try, at least, in your sleep. Remember it all. Memories are sweet: birth, life. The future is death, the death of a hero, the death of a rabbit. No difference, that is the awful truth.
The dim light is swallowed up by the night. The wind starts racing again over the plain, sighing in the darkness, rousing the long howl of the wolves, demanding snow, snow, snow. What long nights! The night will never end. Was there ever a sun that rose over mountains mantled with whispering oaks? My sun-kissed island, silent under the full moon, fragrant with rosemary and asphodel: did you ever really exist?
And yet one day long ago a baby was born on the island, in the palace on the mountain, an only son. He did not cry, but tried to talk at once, imitating the sounds he’d heard in his mother’s womb.
They called me Odysseus. It was my grandfather Autolykos, king of Acarnania, who gave me that name when he arrived at the palace a month after my birth. I soon realized that other children had fathers and I did not. At night, before going to sleep, I’d ask my nurse: ‘Mai, where is my father?’
‘He left with other kings and warriors to find a treasure in a faraway place.’
‘And when is he coming back?’
‘I don’t know. No one does. When you go to sea you never know when you’ll be back. There are storms, pirates, rocks. Your ship can even be destroyed, but maybe you manage to swim to shore, and survive. Then you have to wait until another ship comes by to save you and that may take months, or years. If a pirate vessel should stop instead, you’ll be snatched up and sold as a slave in the next port. It’s a risky life that sailors lead. The sea shelters any number of terrible monsters, mysterious creatures that live in her depths and rise to the surface on moonless nights . . . but now you must sleep, my little one.’
‘Why did he go to look for a treasure?’
‘Because all the most powerful warriors of Achaia were going. How could he not join them? One day the singers will tell of this tale and the names of those who took part will be remembered for all eternity.’
I nodded my head as if I approved but I really couldn’t understand why he had to leave. Why should you risk your life just so someone can sing about you one day and tell of how brave you’d been to leave home and risk your life?
‘Why do I have to sleep with you, mai? Why can’t I sleep with my mother?’
‘Because your mother is the queen and she can’t sleep with someone who wets the bed.’
‘I don’t wet the bed.’
‘Good,’ said the nurse, ‘so starting tomorrow you can sleep on your own.’ And that’s how it went. My mother, Queen Anticlea, had me moved to a room all my own with an oak bed decorated with inlaid bone. She had a fine woollen blanket embroidered with rich purple threads brought to me.
‘Why can’t I sleep with you?’
‘Because you’re not a baby any more and you are a prince. Princes are not afraid to sleep on their own. But for a little while I’ll tell Phemius to keep you company. He’s a fine young man. He knows lots of beautiful stories and he’ll sing them to you until you fall asleep.’
‘Whatever stories you like. Of how Perseus fought Medusa, of Theseus against the Minotaur and lots of others.’
‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Certainly,’ my mother replied.
‘Tonight I’d like you to tell me a story, any story you like. Something that my father has done. Tell me about when you met him for the first time.’
She smiled and sat down on my bed next to me. ‘What happened was that my father invited him to a hunting party. Our kingdoms were next to each other; your father’s was west, on the islands, and my father’s was on the mainland. It was a way they could band together, join up against invaders. I was lucky. I could have been promised to marry a fat, bald old man! But your father Laertes was handsome and strong, and just eight years older than me. He didn’t know how to ride, though. So my father taught him and gave him a horse as a gift.’
‘That’s all?’ I asked her. I had imagined a fierce battle to free her from a monster or from a cruel tyrant who was keeping her prisoner.
‘No,’ she replied, ‘but that’s all I can tell you. One day, maybe. When you’re big enough to understand.’
‘I can already understand.’ ‘No. Not now.’
Another year passed with no news from the king, but at least now I had a teacher who knew all kinds of things and told me all about my father. Hunting adventures, booty raids, battles against pirates: much better stories than the ones my mother told me. He, the teacher, was called Mentor. He was young, with dark eyes and a black beard that made him seem older than he was. He had an answer for every question, except the only one I really cared about: ‘When will my father be back?’
‘So you remember your father?’ I nodded yes.
‘You do? Then what colour was his hair?’ ‘Black.’
‘Everyone has black hair on this island. What about his eyes?’ ‘Sharp. The colour of the sea.’
Mentor looked deep into my eyes: ‘Do you really remember or are you just trying to guess?’
I didn’t answer.
My father came back at the end of spring. The news reached the palace one day just before dawn and threw everyone into a real flurry. My nurse quickly had a bath prepared for the queen, then helped her to choose a gown and dress her hair. Her jewellery box was fetched so she could pick the pieces she fancied. Then nurse had me put on the long robe I wore when we had visitors, a red one with two golden bands. I liked it. I tried to catch a glimpse of myself in one of the mirrors in the women’s quarters.
‘Don’t get dirty, don’t play in the dust, don’t play with the dogs . . .’ nurse called after me.
‘Can I wait under the portico?’ ‘Yes, if you don’t get dirty.’
I sat down under the portico. At least from there I could watch people coming and going, like the servants who were preparing lunch for the king. The pig squealed under the knife and then they hung him by his back legs. The dogs licked the trickle of blood that was dripping onto the ground. The servants had collected most of it in jars to make blood sausage. That was one thing I didn’t like at all.
Mentor arrived just then, grabbed his staff and started off down the path that led to the port. I looked around to make sure no one was watching me and took off after him, catching him up near the fountain.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Mentor asked me. ‘With you. To meet my father.’
‘If Euriclea realizes you’re not there any more she’ll go crazy and then your mother will have her beaten; she’s only too happy to . . .’ Mentor stopped, realizing that what he was about to say wasn’t meant for a six-year-old’s ears.
‘My mother is jealous of Euriclea the nurse, isn’t she?’
Mentor couldn’t believe what he’d just heard: ‘Do you even know what the word “jealous” means?’
‘I do know but I don’t know how to explain it . . . I know, jealous is when you want something just for yourself.’
‘Right you are,’ replied Mentor, taking me by the hand. ‘Well, come along, then. Hold your robe up with your right hand so you won’t trip on it and get yourself punished.’
We started walking.
‘Why do you need a staff if you are young and a fast walker?’ ‘To scare off the vipers: if they bite you, you’re dead.’
‘It isn’t because you want to look wiser and more important?’
Mentor stopped short and gave me a stern look, pointing his index finger at me: ‘Don’t ask me any more questions that you already know the answer to.’
‘I was just trying to guess,’ I offered lamely.
The sun was already high when we arrived at the port. The royal ship had been sighted when it was still far from shore thanks to the standard waving at its stern. A great number of boats had gone out to escort it festively to land.
‘There he is,’ said Mentor, pointing a finger. ‘That man with the light blue cloak and the spear in his hand is King Laertes: your father.’
When I heard those words I wriggled my hand free and started running fast down the slope in the direction of the port. I ran like the wind until I found myself standing in front of the warrior with the sky-blue cloak. Then I stopped and looked at him, panting. Eyes the colour of the sea.
He recognized me and picked me up into his arms. ‘You’re my father, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, I am your father. Do you still remember me?’ ‘I do. You haven’t changed.’
‘Well you’ve changed quite a lot. Listen to you: you sound like a grown-up. And what a fast runner you’ve become! I was watching as you came down the mountain.’
A servant brought a horse, the only one on the island, for the king. Laertes mounted and pulled me up to sit in front of him. A whole procession followed us: my father’s friends, his bodyguards, the noblemen, the representatives of the people and the foremen in charge of the royal properties and livestock. As the procession advanced, people started pouring out along the path that snaked its way up to the palace. Mentor walked alongside the king’s horse, a position of respect that showed how highly he was thought of, but from my new perch I was seeing him from a completely new point of view, and that really made me feel like a prince.
The celebrations went on until late, but I had to go to bed right after dusk. I stayed awake a long time because of the din; all that laughing and loud talking coming from the banquet hall kept me from falling asleep. Raucous voices from the banquet hall . . .
Then everything was quiet. The oil lamps cast flickering shadows on the walls, doors were pulled open and slammed shut and bolts were drawn. Even though it was the middle of the night, I wasn’t really sound asleep, I was still too excited over all the singing and shouting. I was only in a half slumber when the sound of a door opening startled me awake. I slipped out into the hall in the dark and saw a man entering the room of Euriclea, my nurse. I got closer. I could hear strange noises coming from inside and I recognized my father’s voice. I understood deep down in my heart that what was happening in the room just then was not something a child could watch. I went back to bed and pulled the covers up completely over my head. My heart was beating so fast that it kept me awake a little longer but then finally it quietened and I fell asleep.
It was Mentor who woke me up the next day. Nurse must have been tired. ‘It’s morning! Go and wash up. We have a lot to do today and your father will be wanting to spend time with you.’
‘My father slept with my mother first and then with mai.’ ‘Mind your own business. Your father is the king and can do what he likes.’
‘I used to sleep with the nurse and now he does. I want to know why.’
‘You’ll know in time. Euriclea is his. He bought her and he can do what he pleases with her.’
I thought of the strange noises I’d heard during the night and maybe I understood.
‘I know what he did.’ ‘Did you spy on them?’
‘No. One day Eumeus, the swineherd, called me over when the boar was mounting the sow.’
‘Well he deserves a good smacking for that! Go and get washed,’ Mentor ordered me, pointing to the tub full of water taken from the spring that flowed from under the foundations of the palace.
I washed and then dressed myself. Mentor pointed to a boulder that overlooked the path about a hundred paces away. ‘Go and sit up there and wait. Your father went hunting before dawn. He’ll be coming back that way. When he sees you, he’ll stop to talk.’
I obeyed and started walking up the path alone. I watched the shepherds pushing the flocks out of the fold to take them out to pasture. The dogs followed, barking. I got to the boulder and climbed on top of it, and then I turned to wave at Mentor: I’m here! But he wasn’t there any more. He’d vanished.
I sat and watched the servants and farmers going about their business below me, the shepherds tending their sheep and goats. As one moment melted into the next, the sunlight seeped into all of the deepest valleys and lit up the crags that were most hidden. I started playing with some coloured stones I always kept in the pocket of my robe. I tossed them and picked them up, then tossed them out again to see if they’d fall differently. They were always different. I thought: how long would I have to keep tossing before the stones fell in exactly the same way as the time before? My whole life?
‘Are you playing by yourself?’ asked my father’s voice behind me.
‘There’s no one to play with.’
‘What do you expect to see when you toss your stones?’ ‘They predict the future.’
‘And what do they say?’
‘That I’ll make a long journey. Like you.’
‘That’s easy to predict. You live on an island that seems big to you now. In a little while it will seem small to you.’
‘I’ll go where no one else has ever gone.’ I looked into my father’s sea-green eyes. ‘How far have you gone?’
‘To where the sea breaks up against the mountains. They are very high, and always covered with snow. The snow melts into rivers that rush and tumble to the sea. The journey is so short that the water never has time to warm up even when the sun is out, and it stays icy cold until it joins the water of the sea.’
‘Is that where you found the treasure?’ ‘Who told you that?’
My father lowered his head. He had some white strands in his black hair.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But do you want the real truth or the tale that the singers tell?’
That was hard to answer. Was I interested in the real truth? Why should I be? The truth isn’t something for children. Once you tell about something, it becomes true. Like: the king of a little island departs for a great adventure. All of the most powerful warriors of Achaia are going. Could he possibly stay behind? That was the truth. But then, I started thinking that . . . for real, there were only men, goats, sheep and pigs on my island. But if someone should venture far away, really really far away, who knows what he might find: monsters? Giants? Sea serpents? Why not? The gods? Why not?
‘Tell me everything,’ I said. ‘Father, tell me about your comrades: is it true they are the greatest heroes of Achaia?’
‘They are!’ he smiled. ‘Hercules . . .’ he opened his arms wide, ‘is the strongest man on earth. When he flexes his muscles it’s a fearsome sight indeed. I believe he could kill a lion with his bare hands. No one can win a fight with him. His favourite weapon is a club; he never uses weapons made of metal. But he can bring down a bull with that club. Sometimes he would pull our ship to shore all by himself, and tie the hawser to an olive tree . . . You know what? He was the one who cut down the pine tree that we made the ship out of. A trunk so gigantic that twelve men could not join hands around it! The last of its kind on Mount Pelion. Then the master carpenter crafted the vessel using his hatchet on the outside and an adz on the inside. It was Hercules who gave the ship her name: the Argo, because she is so swift.’
I don’t remember how long we sat on that stone watching the slow movement of shadow and light on the contours of our island. I listened intently, enchanted by my father’s voice, chewing on an oat stalk. The words poured from his mouth like flocks of birds from a cliff when the sun comes up. The sound was like a hunting horn when it rises in pitch. It would stay with me my whole life. I still wake at night to ‘Get up, we’re going hunting!’ Now that he’s no longer alive . . . Atta . . . my father . . . my king.
Who was the strongest after Hercules, then? Who was it?
I realized that my father enjoyed spending time with me. He took me into the forest with him and the dogs; when I was too tired he hoisted me onto his shoulders.
‘One on top of the other we’re a rather tall man,’ he would say, laughing. I liked watching him laugh: he bared a row of very white teeth, squeezed his eyes until they were just slits and the laughter burbled from his mouth.
‘When are we going to see grandfather on the mainland?’ I asked him once.
‘Soon. Your mother would like to visit as well and it’s been a long time since we saw him. When I was away she didn’t want to leave the palace and the kingdom. Three years . . . a long time indeed.’
Every now and then I returned to my favourite thought: ‘You’ve never told me about the treasure. What was it?’
‘Ask Phemius. He’s our poet, isn’t he? He’ll tell you a wonderful story.’
‘I want the true one.’
‘Are you sure? The truth isn’t so interesting . . .’ ‘For me it is.’
‘Well, then . . . There’s a river that runs into the second sea. It is called the Phasis and . . . it carries gold. Glittering specks just under the surface of the water, but you can’t catch them. The natives put sheepskins on the bottom where the river isn’t very deep and hold them still with rocks. The gold specks get stuck in the fleece and are captured that way. Every two days they set them out to dry and then they shake them onto a linen cloth to catch the gold. Lots of it.’
‘So that’s why you needed such a powerful ship and the proudest warriors of Achaia?’
My father laughed again: ‘Well said, little one. Who told you that?’
‘Mentor. And so?’
‘The place is full of fierce warriors. They hide under the sand along the banks and they jump out all at once as if the earth had just delivered them up. They let out terrible war cries and they don’t seem to feel pain. How can you bring down a man who feels no pain?’
‘Everyone feels pain.’
‘Not them. Maybe they have a secret: a herb, they say, some kind of poison. The gold from the fleeces is kept inland, in a cave, and is guarded day and night. So that was our problem: how to find the place, take the gold, get back to the coast and set sail. What would you have done?’ My father’s eyes shone, catching the sun for an instant.
‘I would have become friends with one of them.’
‘We did something like that: our leader, Jason, the prince of Iolcus, sent gifts to the princess, then asked to be received by King Aeetes, her father. Jason is as handsome as a god and the princess fell in love with him. They would meet up in secret in the forest . . .’
I thought of the night he returned when he went into the nurse’s room and what I heard. It that what falling in love was?
Then he lowered his voice, as if he were talking to himself, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear: ‘. . . and they would make love, savagely, without saying a word.’ Then my father’s voice rose again: ‘Until one day Jason showed her a speck of gold in the palm of his hand and, using gestures, tried to explain what he wanted. Up until then, no one had attacked us: we were camped on the beach with the ship’s stern tied to an enormous olive tree and we spent our days fishing. Tunas as big as pigs would get entangled in our nets and we’d roast big pieces of them over the embers. Then one day Jason decided that the time had come. We set off at night with the girl as our guide, agile and silent as a fox! The sky was black and the clouds dropped down from the mountains almost all the way to the plain. It was like we were blind.
‘We were all armed: gigantic Hercules with his club, I with my sword and bow . . . we were joined by Tydeus and Amphiaraus from Argus, by Zetes and Calais, the so-called twin sons of the north wind – blond, their eyes icy and skin cold – and by Telamon of Salamis, tall and strongly built with his hair gathered at the nape of his neck in a bronze clasp . . . along with Iphitus of Mycenae and Oileus of Locris. Castor of Sparta, the wrestler, was with us, as was his twin brother Pollux, the boxer; they were very young, no more than boys . . . then there was Peleus of Phthia, home of the Myrmidons, as well as Admetus of Pherai, Meleager of Aetolia and so many others. Fifty of us in all. Twenty warriors remained with the ship, ready to man the lines and set sail at a moment’s notice. Amphiaraus stayed with them, sitting at the prow and staring into the darkness. Amphiaraus has big, dark eyes; they can delve into the mysteries of the past and the future, and his pupils dilate like a wolf’s at night. His deep, unblinking eyes followed us that night: we were invisible to all except him. He knew whether we would come back or whether we would all be annihilated. He was a seer . . .
Peirithous, the king of the Lapiths, the warrior who had battled the centaurs, stayed behind as well, close to the olive tree with his axe at the ready to cut the line as soon as we got back to the ship.’ I looked at King Laertes my father and I imagined him surging forward through the night, his sword in hand, with all the other champions: the strongest of Achaia, the mightiest of the world . . . I felt lucky. I looked at his arms, his bull’s neck, his wide shoulders, and I knew I was lucky. I was his son. His only son. His story enthralled me. I would have listened to him all day and all night. ‘Go on, atta, tell me more.’
The time had flown and the sun was high now on our right and it put sparkles in the water of the port, imprisoned by the green mountains sloping down between the light blue of the sky and the deeper blue of the sea. We sat in the shade of a fig tree, dappled by the light. The cicadas screeched. The dogs slumbered.
‘A steep, precarious path led us through the forest. We crossed a rocky gully so narrow that only one man could get by at a time, and then a swampy valley covered with tall grasses. We finally arrived at the site of the cave and the girl halted us. Fifty of their warriors were standing in the darkness, leaning on their spears. Shadows among the shadows. She had to point them out to us one by one. The tips of their spears reflected a dim light, but it was enough for us to make them out in the dark. The dying embers of a campfire. At the entrance to the cave was a very tall warrior covered with snake skins. His face was dark and his hand was closed around the haft of his spear.
‘Jason signalled for us to fan out into a semicircle and, at that instant, the girl shot an arrow into the nearly extinguished campfire and let out a shrill cry. The campfire blazed up with a blinding flash and lit up all the warriors on guard and the one standing at the entrance – he was covered with scales and looked like a dragon; his teeth had been filed to a point like the fangs of a beast. All at once we hurled our spears, all of us, then charged forward with our swords in hand. Jason took on the snake man and the night air rang with the din of their clashing. We fought like lions. Hercules’ legendary strength prevailed in an incredible show of force; Tydeus relentlessly dealt one blow after another without stopping for breath; Telamon had run out of weapons he could throw and began hurling rocks and boulders; Castor and Pollux landed stud-heavy punches and with every clout you could hear the sickening noise of bones shattering. There I was, panting and drenched with sweat, finally satisfied that no enemies were left standing, when I saw Hercules dragging two enormous slaughtered warriors by their feet. Dead meat. Jason had even managed to defeat the dragon man; he lit a torch then and we followed the girl into the cave. It was there that we all saw a glittering fleece hanging from the branches of a petrified oak. We were inside the cave of the treasure! Jason took it from the tree.’
My father stopped but I couldn’t break my open-mouthed stare. He was looking into my eyes to see the image already forming there of the treasure in the cave.
‘Dozens of jars, shiny copper jars filled to the brim with gold. We sank our hands into them and sparkles flew from the mouths of the jars, twinkling like a thousand little lightning flashes . . .’
‘Father,’ I said, ‘where is our share? Can I see it?’
He seemed not to hear my question. ‘We put sticks through the handles of the jars and carried them off like that to the sea; two of us had to struggle to lift a single one.’
I realized that I felt short of breath. I was panting as if it were me carrying that weight of copper and gold. My heart was beating in my throat and at my temples.
‘Before long the night resounded with an ominous rolling of drums, which soon became confused with the rumble of distant thunder. We crossed the forest, the swamp, sinking into the mud up to our knees, made our way down the steep, narrow path . . . The wild princess leading us seemed terror-stricken and was shouting out words that none of us could understand but she was certainly telling us to go faster, faster and faster, because the drums were getting closer, our enemies were almost upon us. Lightning flashed over the fog, beyond the threshold of the night, ghosts of pale light first and then the bolts of Zeus himself rent the earth and the sky, set fire to the fog . . .’
‘Atta,’ I said, ‘the words coming from your mouth are magic ones, like the words that Mentor and Phemius use. Do you even remember now what really happened?’
Once again my father hadn’t seemed to hear my question. The dogs lifted their snouts to sniff at something carried on the wings of the wind from far away . . .
‘They were upon us all at once and the wild princess shrieked like a falcon rushing at its prey. She let her arrows fly and many hit their mark. Our assailants twisted and turned, making weird noises, but they neither screamed nor groaned; some tried to pull the arrows from their flesh. Maybe it was true that they didn’t feel pain, or maybe they were accustomed to ignoring it. We fought back as best we could, but we were all nerves. All we could think of were the jars full of gold that might vanish while we fought in the dark . . .’
‘Atta, why do people want gold?’
This time my father interrupted his story to answer me. ‘I could say it’s because it is the most beautiful of all metals. It’s like the sun. Its colour never changes, it doesn’t spoil or rust and every precious thing is made from this metal. But perhaps the reason is that since many people desire it, everyone desires it. And if everyone desires it, that must mean it is the most that any man could desire. Gold is power. The diadems of kings and the gowns of gods are made of gold.
‘There was no time to lose,’ he said then, picking up his story where he had left off. ‘I recognized the voices of Zetes and Calais nearby and I called out to them: “Run, run like your father the wind, go and call your comrades from the ship!”
‘They heard me and they raced down the path leading to the sea so fast that it didn’t look as if they were touching the ground, and we began fighting our assailants in earnest, in single combat. The wild princess blazed with an energy like fire and storm, as if fatigue could not touch her limbs. She struck first with her axe and then with her dagger, and when for a moment I was near her, I saw – or smelled, I couldn’t say which – that she was covered with blood. Jason, at her side, was no less of a fury, and Hercules, our bastion, was roaring like a lion as he took on a swarm of enemies, who probably could never have imagined that so much strength could spring from a single body.
‘I don’t know how much time passed. I do know that some of us were wounded, others died, although we continued to fight with all our might. But why had Zetes and Calais not returned? How long could it possibly take for the sons of Boreas to cover the distance that separated us from the ship and return?
‘I turned to Tydeus then, and shouted: “The horn! Sound the horn, that they may hear you!”
‘Tydeus began to blow into the shiny horn and soon a cry was launched in response. The sons of the wind were on their way back, bringing with them almost all of the comrades who had been guarding the Argo. Even Amphiaraus was with them: clad in bronze, his eyes in the night reflecting the light of the torches like those of a wolf. Our enemies fled. Exhausted as they were, they could not take on our warriors.
‘We finally reached the ship as the sky began to lighten to the east. The wild princess stripped naked and washed in the sea and then climbed a rope up to the prow. We weighed anchor.’
The sun was just setting behind Mount Neritus and the shadow of the mountain already covered a quarter of the island although the night was still far off. The land wind rustled the leaves of the oaks around us. I couldn’t say a word because I could not return to reality. I was still with the warriors battling in the dark, or maybe I was already on the ship, watching as the shore became distant.
‘What are you thinking?’ asked my father, getting to his feet and taking my hand.
‘I’m thinking that’s the way a man should live. Like you. You sail the sea and fight battles and win treasures.’
‘Yes, maybe that’s how men like us must live our lives, but today I’ve spent the day with you talking while we’ve watched the light and shadows passing over our island. This is a good way to live too.’
‘So one day I will be able to sail the seas and I’ll meet up with wild peoples in faraway lands . . .’
‘You certainly will. But look over there . . . smoke is rising from the roof of the palace and that means dinner will be ready soon: meat and bread and good wine. The palace will one day be yours, son. And you, that day, will be king of Ithaca.’
My father left again and again for other exploits; he journeyed to meet other kings or princes, to establish alliances, to punish unruly subordinates or plunder the territories of tribes living in the north or in other places even further away.
Not everyone always came back. When the young warriors accompanying him lost their lives, they were buried far from home. Their parents would never have the consolation of a tomb on which to weep for them. Other times, if there had been the time to build a pyre, the king returned with their ashes inside an urn, a covered jar with two handles, which he would give to the family after paying last respects, as custom required. Others came back wounded or maimed. My father himself often returned showing the signs of bitter combat on his own body; days and days would pass in idleness while he regained the strength and the blood he had lost, like a lion that hides in the forest to lick its wounds after being attacked by a pack of fierce mastiffs.
I was thirteen years old the day he was brought back to the palace from his ship on a stretcher borne by four men. He was pale as death and his chest was bound with bloodstained bandages. When the women heard the news they pulled out their hair and wailed as if they were grieving for a dead man. I cried too, but I swallowed my tears so no one could hear, the way I had been taught.
When that happened no one was allowed to go into his room, not even my mother. Only Mentor was let in; perhaps he alone knew how to cure him. Mentor knew how to do everything; he surely must know which secret herbs and philtres could restore a gravely wounded man to health. The king was alive but wanted no one to see him in that condition. Once I even knocked on his door: ‘Father, atta, can I come in?’ I got no answer and didn’t dare open the latch. I walked back down the corridor trying to imagine what he was doing, what he was thinking and why he hadn’t answered me. Wasn’t I his only son? Hadn’t we spent long days together talking and dreaming up adventures, leaning against the parapet on the roof as the moon rose from the sea? Why wouldn’t he let me in?
One night strange noises shook me from my sleep and I got out of bed. I climbed the steps leading to the second floor, holding the handrail in the dark, and peered down into the courtyard. A man was speaking excitedly to my father, who looked like he could barely stand; he was using two forked sticks as crutches. What had happened? Had there been an alarm? Was someone stealing our livestock? Was it pirates, perhaps, already pouring out of their ships and scattering through the countryside in search of plunder? How would we defend ourselves if the king could not bear arms and lead his men into battle?
My father returned to the palace, followed by the man who had been speaking to him. He would certainly be invited to stay. I curled up in a corner and remained there listening to the night-time sounds of the forest because I didn’t feel like sleeping any more. Downstairs I could hear the swift steps of the servants preparing a room for our guest. Then I heard the sound of crutches tapping across the floor and up the steps until I finally saw the king’s black shape walking slowly towards the parapet. He leaned his elbows on it and looked like he was weeping. I got up slowly and without making the slightest noise, since I was barefoot, I walked up behind him so that when he turned to go back to his room, he found me standing in front of him. He didn’t speak or make a move but I could feel the deep anguish that seemed to be crushing him. It hadn’t been an attack then: no pirates had landed in our well-sheltered port and no marauders were raiding the countryside. It was something much worse, something terrible.
‘What did the messenger tell you, father?’
He did not answer, but began hobbling back to the steps that led downstairs. Was it that he didn’t want to talk to me or that he couldn’t?
Only when weariness overwhelmed me did I creep back to bed. I lay there listlessly, listening to the north wind that blew hoarsely through the oak branches.
Euriclea woke me.
‘What happened, mai? Who was that man last night?’
‘You have no business wandering around at night. You should have been sleeping. Now get up and get dressed: the sun is already up.’
I put on my clothes and went down to the big hall, where one of the servants had already lit a blazing fire. Euriclea brought me a piece of bread, hot milk and honey from the kitchen. It was a clear, cold day; from the window I could see the peaks on the mainland sprinkled with snow. ‘Mai, when are we going to see grandfather?’
‘When your father decides.’
A man appeared in the hall. It had to be the messenger from the night before. His hair was unkempt and his eyes narrow as slits. The king came in next and sat down opposite him. A pleasant warmth had spread through the room. The carver roasted meat on a spit and served it with bread and fragrant herbs. When would I be allowed to eat meat at breakfast? I hated having to eat sweet stuff, as if I were a baby.
My father’s head was low and he said nothing. The messenger was speaking in a quiet voice: I could only hear a few words here and there: ‘. . . a pool of blood . . . on the floor . . . walls . . . his wife, children . . . I’m sorry . . .’ He stopped, and then: ‘The sea . . . the tide.’ He rose to his feet, bowed deeply and took his leave. Euriclea filled his knapsack with freshly baked bread and added a blood sausage and a small skin of wine.
I came close and sat at my father’s feet. ‘What happened?’ I asked.
He sighed and lifted his head. His eyes were filled with tears. I’d never seen him this way.
‘Hercules: do you remember him?’
‘Of course I do. The giant who used a tree as a club, who was so incredibly strong. Your friend when you went seeking the golden fleece. Has he died?’
‘Worse. He slaughtered his family at Mycenae, three nights ago. They found him asleep, lying in a pool of their blood. He was snoring like someone who had drunk too much pure wine, while the limbs of his wife and children were splayed all around him, slain by the sword he still held in his hand.’
My father seemed delirious himself, and the images he described came alive in my head. I wasn’t seeing the big hall of our palace with the fire burning, baskets full of fruit and cheeses from the orchards and cattle stables, the dogs curled up half asleep by the hearth, but a dark room, hemmed in by forbidding walls, its floor slick with blood. I trembled at the sight and my teeth chattered like when the north wind comes bringing snow.
‘How could this have happened?’ my father kept saying. Tears welled under his eyelids, rolled down his cheeks.
I was terrified. So a father can kill his own child? Would King Laertes do the same to me if I made him angry? He looked up at me and he must have realized what I was thinking because he touched my cheek. ‘Hercules is quick-tempered and he attacks like a lion in battle but he has a good heart, I know him well. He would never hurt a disarmed man, or anyone who could not defend himself. How could he have raised his sword against his own blood? Perhaps he’s gone mad, understand? Or perhaps someone, envious of his glory, gave him a poison that made him lose his mind . . . the king of Mycenae . . . I’ve never liked that look in his eye, that sinister smirk on his face . . .’
‘What’s going to happen now?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. Whatever the reason for his crime, he will have to atone for it.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘He’ll have to pay for what he’s done, even if it was not his fault.’
I fell silent. The words were too heavy for my heart.
‘When are we going to visit grandfather?’ I don’t know why those words came to my mouth. Perhaps I was trying to escape from the fear of something too enormous for me to understand. But it was only natural for a boy to want to visit his grandfather: to receive presents, listen to some good stories, not to have to think about terrible things. I knew very little about my grandfather, apart from the gossip of the servants and my nurse. I’d never seen him. It was only natural for me to be curious, to want to meet the man who was my mother’s father, the king of a barren, mountainous land who lived in a palace of stone on top of a cliff.
‘It’s not time yet. You’ll go next year when you’ve become a man.’
The carver removed the leftovers from the table. Euriclea set fruit, hot milk, bread and honey on a tray and brought it to the queen’s quarters, making her way up the steps carved in the rock.
My father began speaking again: ‘Do you know how your grandfather got his name? Autolykos means “he himself is a wolf ”. He’s called that because he’s a ruthless predator who has no consideration for anyone. He is hard and calculating; he cares nothing for rules or for respectable behaviour. He thinks nothing of breaking an oath. He lives in a steep-walled fortress, grey as iron, guarded by murderous cut-throats, on top of a cliff which is second in height only to Mount Parnassus itself, which looms behind it. He strikes fear into the hearts of all those living in a vast territory around him.’
I dropped my eyes, confused. My playmates had wise, loving grandfathers who took them out fishing on a boat or out to pasture with their flocks of sheep and loyal dogs.
‘The only time he came here to visit is when you were born. Your mother placed you on his knee and he gave you your name.’
‘Why him? Why not you, who are my father?’
‘Because he had waited so long for you. Even though we had assured him that if a boy were born he would be the first to know, he sent us messengers constantly to ask whether a son had been born in the palace. He seemed satisfied when he saw you. He furrowed his brow and said to us: “Daughter of mine, my son-in-law: give this child the name I will tell you now. I come here today nursing hatred in my heart for many a person, men and women alike. So the boy’s name shall be Odysseus.”’
Tears came to my eyes when I heard that story; the name I’d been given was cursed! My father said nothing. He watched me thoughtfully. But I could tell he was feeling the same dismay that had washed over me.
‘And thus it was. Once a name has crossed the threshold of the teeth, it cannot be taken back if the man pronouncing it has the child’s same blood, in a direct line of descent. And this is what happened.
‘But don’t be afraid. It will be you, by your actions and your deeds, the strength of your arms and your mind, who will give meaning to your name. Greatness can emerge from even the most bitter destiny. If your heart is strong and fearless, if you do not tremble in the face of any challenge, be it from man or god, you will have the life you deserve.’
I nodded to show that I understood even though the brief portrait of my grandfather that my father had sketched out had devastated me. He seemed to realize this: ‘In any event, before Autolykos left, setting sail on his big black ship, he turned back and said: “I’d like to invite my grandson to a hunting party.”
‘ “Now, wanax?” I asked him.
‘ “When the first hairs shadow his cheeks and his upper lip.”’ ‘How old was I when grandfather invited me?’ I asked.
‘Six months old. But that’s how he is.’
I was even more confused. Inviting a six-month-old baby to a hunting party must mean something that I couldn’t fathom. And I couldn’t stop thinking that a troubled fate was written in my name.
My father read the look in my eyes: ‘Even if there is a shadow in the name you bear, no omen could ever darken your path because . . . because I love you, Odysseus, my son.’
That’s what he said and he hugged me tightly. I could feel the heat of the fire blazing in the hearth and the heat and smell of the big body of my father, the hero Laertes, king of Ithaca.
Excerpted from Odysseus: The Oath by Valerio Massimo Manfredi. Copyright © 2012 by Valerio Massimo Manfredi. Translation copyright © 2013 by Macmillan.
First published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.