The first night Penelope sat down behind the loom, candlelight dancing on her fingers as she worked the weft off of the warp, a slave girl came to her.
At once, Penelope tried to hide what she'd done, smoothing over the weave.
"Who are you?" she asked the girl, her voice cold.
"I am a slave in your household, my lady," the girl answered.
"I do not recognize you," Penelope said. "What is your name? Where are you from?"
The girl was silent. Her eyes were pools of a deep, clear grey. "I am No-Woman. And I hail from a land that is very far away from here. If I told you its name, you would not believe me."
"Whoever you are, you must leave me," Penelope said, turning away from the girl. "I have work that must be done. I am hastening to finish this shawl, you see. It is a burial shawl for Laertes. Once it is finished, I can be married."
"If you seek to finish this shawl, you would do better to spend your nights adding thread rather than removing it, my lady," said the girl who'd called herself No-Woman.
Penelope's hands stilled. "I will finish this shawl exactly when I please," she said. "No later, and no sooner."
The girl acknowledged her words with a nod. When Penelope looked up again a moment later, the girl was gone, and she was alone.
The next night, No-Woman came to her again. This time, Penelope did not attempt to disguise what she was doing. Either the slave would give her away to the suitors, or she wouldn't. But she would not unlearn the truth.
"How came you by this idea?" No-Woman asked, taking a seat beside Penelope.
Penelope sighed. "The men know many things, but they do not know women's work. They do not understand it, nor do they care to. For all of their understanding, weaving either flows fully-formed from a woman's hands, or it requires ten years of drudgery to manifest. They've seen us work, but the process is somehow still a mystery to them."
No-Woman stared at the intricate working on her loom. "It must be difficult," she said, "Putting the effort into weaving something as beautiful as this, and then undoing all of your work immediately after."
"Quite the contrary. It is the easiest thing in the world," Penelope said. "I relish it." She plucked at the thread with a sharp anger.
To that, No-Woman had nothing to say. She simply watched Penelope work, her grey eyes bright, and only when Penelope was finished with the weaving did the slave girl leave.
By the third night, Penelope had grown used to No-Woman’s presence. She’d also grown used to the mystery of her. No-Woman appeared perhaps a decade younger than Penelope, but seemed much older than that. Penelope never saw her except at night, and she did not ask any of the other slave girls what they knew of her, fearing their answer.
One night, Penelope could no longer bear it, and she set the shuttle aside and turned toward No-Woman and asked, “Are you an apparition? Or perhaps you are one of the immortal gods, here to bear witness to my torment?”
But No-Woman did not answer her. Penelope sat pinned beneath her stare until the force of her gaze and the silence became unbearable, and then Penelope turned back toward her work.
This went on for several months. Then, one evening, as Penelope prepared to retire for the night, she noticed an extra face among her slaves.
The slave girls moved to accompany Penelope to her room, but she stopped them with a hand.
“No. I only want one of you to attend to me tonight,” said Penelope. She looked at No-Woman, and pointed. “Her.”
And so, that night, No-Woman followed Penelope to her room, then assisted her as she undressed in the dark. No-Woman’s hands were very skilled, her fingers soft.
Afterward, Penelope sat down on the bed—that great marriage bed, rooted in the earth of Ithaca—and No-Woman sat down beside her.
“If you let me, I can offer you a reprieve from your grief.” No-Woman reached out and stroked her face.
At first, Penelope leaned away from her touch. For so long, she had rejected the touch of another. She had grown accustomed to the cold.
“I won’t betray him,” Penelope said.
“I am not asking you to,” No-Woman said. “I love him, too. Even though we have never lain together.”
“How?” Penelope asked. “How do you know him?”
“You ask questions that you already know the answer to,” No-Woman said. She reached out again, and this time Penelope let her.
No-Woman's hands brought Penelope down onto the bed. Her face leaned down over Penelope, as bright and pale as the moon, but she did not kiss her. Penelope stared up at her, and it was like gazing into the heavens of Olympus, beautiful and distant and exquisitely cold.
Then No-Woman lay down on the bed next to her, and Penelope wanted to reach for her, but did not know how.
That night, for the first time in a long time, sleep came easy to Penelope.
She woke as Dawn dragged her bloodied fingertips over the horizon. And when Penelope turned to glance at the expanse of bed beside her, she saw that it was empty.
From that night onward, No-Woman shared Penelope's bed. And while she was there, Penelope did not cry herself to sleep over her memories of a man whose face she had already begun to forget.
Some nights, No-Woman would not join Penelope while she undid her work on the loom. On those nights, Penelope’s sleep would be fitful and troubled, and she would wake with a deep feeling of dread knotted in her stomach.
She knew that this ruse would only work for so long.
With each thread she passed through the warp, she whispered a prayer to Athena that it would work long enough. That this period of stagnation, this cycle of waxing and waning, this push and pull with no forward momentum, would finally come to its natural end.
That it would end in her liberation and not in an ensnarement that wound tighter than thread.
Penelope was unweaving alone, the night that Melantho gave her up to the suitors.
They came into the room and yelled and jeered at her, and she lifted her face toward them and bore their anger proudly and boldly, not showing her tears as she watched everything unravel like the weaving between her hands.
No-Woman did not come to her again, after that. But sometimes, Penelope thought she could feel her presence in her room at night, like an owl perched on her windowsill, looking down at her with wise grey eyes as she cried out her sorrow and drifted into a dreamless sleep.