He had been a warrior once. Great. Brave. Clever. It was how he had survived while so many of his comrades had fallen under the swift swing of the axe, blade, what have you. The specifics matters not, only the fact that war is a blunt instrument the removes the unworthy and raises those remaining on pedestals of glory. Odysseus had held that thought like a undeniable truth once. Like something handed down from the gods. But since he had returned home, to his sweet Penelope, his son, since he had throughly dispatched that throng of honorless bastards otherwise known as the suitors, doubts had begun creeping up from a place that Odysseus could not identify but despised regardless.
He had survived but what had he really sacrificed to achieve that?
His first days as the returned king are spent in contemplation. He walks to visit his father, he talks to Telemachus about the current finances of Ithaca, he tries to relearn the ways of being a husband, but truly he is not present for these things. He is numbed to all things around him save for the memories that live on in his mind.
At night his dreams are a battle, one scene of horror after another vying for his attention. In all of this seven men stand out among the chaos, the six that he knowingly led to die, and the one he left behind.
He sees them now.
He is sleeping....or perhaps not, perhaps it is a waking terror. Oh, but either way, it is a nightmare. One he is beginning to suspect he is worthy of.
The sea wind smoothed wood that makes up the ship. Their home for so long. Not a word is uttered in warning of Scylla. What difference would it make? We must get home and this is the way. He watches as six of his friends are devoured by elongated jaws. Ripping and tearing. Oh gods, the screams. I did not even grant the smallest of mercies by allowing them to fight for their lives, he thinks in a most agonizing recognition. He thinks he feels their blood on is face, splattered there by the force of Scylla’s teeth. His hand reaches to touch, to verify. Nothing.
After, his men are angry. Then weary. He thinks they should suspect him as the cause of their dangerous ignorance, but they do not. His mind in that moment thinks its for the best, they wouldn’t understand.
Soon they come upon an island, deceiving in its beauty. In a flash they are at the door of her hovel, the science of time within dreams collapsing their journey into seconds. They are hoping for rest, for food. What they find is a witch. A decrepit women with gnarled hands and hunched back. She claims to know things, many things, as she waves around her bag of bones and tattered feathers.
“I will read the bones for you, Odysseus....for a price.” Her voice is whispery with barely there malevolence, but all he can hear is potential. Answers to his questions. Of finding home. Without consultation of the rest of his party he agrees. Surly the price will be his alone to pay.
“Tell me” he demands hungrily.
The answer isn’t what he want. Not for years. He will not reach home for years and his suffering will last for just as long. Despite being unsatisfactory a debt is still owed.
“What will you have?” It is what he asks through gritted teeth. Her arm reaches out to point like a dead tree brach swaying in a storm. Stenides, the youngest of the remaining men, seems to flatten under her gaze. To look at him is to see a child that has long expected to die and yet has somehow miraculously managed to survive. He does not look surprised, only quietly devastated as he sees not one man comes to defend him against abandonment.
She is old, and so very alone, but she knows much. She would have her dark knowledge passed on. He will live a long life, she assures Odysseus, longer than most, here alone with her maddening foresight. And much to his utter shame he concedes.
They begin to leave and only once does Stenides call out.
His words echo. Day and night they are there with him.
Odysseus starts. His eyes dry and burning from staring so long unseeingly at his dinner plate. The rest of the hall has emptied leaving only Penelope. She tentatively touches his hand as if to ask if he is okay. As if to ask if him finally being here, present, has brought him some peace.
He thinks of those seven faces and can only shake his head.