My father was the hero of every story. Tales of his cunning and strength came in with each returning ship of Achaians. You should be proud they said. He saved all our rears. Lied his way right into the heart of Troy. Spoke persuasion such that Helen would return repentant. Without him, we’d have been there another ten years. At least, thanks to him and to the Gods, I’m going to home. Home. To hearth and harvest, wife and babes.
They always asked to see his bow, to marvel at its size, the muscle it would take to string. One day, they said, you’ll be just as big and strong as he. I never touched it; mother would bring it for them, hoping to entice them into telling her the truth of his disappearance. They ruffled my hair, told her I looked just like him. The small dark eyes that stare back at me when I look in the mirror belong to her, and so do my dark curls. She indulged the men anyway with a gentle curl of her lip--amusement or gratitude, though I could never tell which.
The first time I saw it, I was but ten years old. I strained my neck trying looking through the crowd of men in the hall, the first crew of Achaians to land on our shores. The bow towered over me, the grip just above my head. It caught the light of the fire, seemed to be glowing warm. But wood cannot gather you into its arms, nor will polished horn teach you to hunt and to fight.
Once they had eaten and drunk their fill, she asked directly. Then would booming voices trail off. At first those who came had expected to find him seated at the head of his table, ordering feasts and divvying up gifts for the guests. Those who arrive now speak in hushed tones, as if in a funeral hall. Triumphs and boasts turned to ash in their mouths. No one can say what happened after. They know he left alive and well, belly full and ship loaded. No honor on the pyre for great Odysseus. But a son, at least; he left you a son they said. A boy to carry on his memory, someone with his face. A man to inherit the estate, to dower you again when the time comes. Her smile hides teeth like daggers.
For a while then, no one came. All who would return home had found their way. And the vultures who were to descend on us had not yet arrived. We were permitted a year or two of solitude. Still the stories were there, even unspoken, they hung thick in the air of the hall, fluttered on the morning breeze. I would find her sometimes, staring out across the sea, long hair blowing like a standard. I wondered then, what she could see. Did she know the bend and curve of the islands and shoals? She had come here herself, in a boat. I have always been here, can’t fathom this place without her. Can’t imagine him here.
Of course, I have imagined it hundreds of times. As a child I saw him striding through the hall: he would pick me up, bounce me on his knee. He would be the one to tousle my hair. Later, I would meet him on the coast: he leaping off his boat would look me up and down, know me immediately. Clap me on the back and the next morning, teach me to string the bow. Or perhaps it would be late afternoon, sun sinking slowly into the sea and I returning from a hunt, deer slung over my shoulder would happen to meet him coming into the hall. His face would glow with pride.
I should be learning. But no pedagogue has been procured for me. Instead, I ramble across the hills of Ithaca, watching the goats and cattle graze. I know the songs of nightjars and swifts, can tell the direction of the wind in the trees. Sometimes I visit the old man in his hut. My father is the hero of his stories too, but he tells them disjointed. Rambling half recollections of a cheeky youth who had done the best and the worst he could. The sight of him covered in blood after a day with his uncles. The insistence that he could outrun the thunder. Nursemaid forever having to clean wounds, patch clothes. Normal, for a strong healthy lad, he would say, shaking his head. Worrying quietly.
The first dark hairs appear on my lip and mother’s eyes darken with them. Her smile sad when I show her proudly. I never ask. I’m not the man he would want me to be. I want her to say it anyway. To see me as more than a water clock, emptying too fast. But that first sprouting is followed by others, and no sooner than word has spread that my beard is in, suitors arrive. They begin sickly sweet, smooth tongued-praise for Odysseus and for me. She overnice too, begging leave to weave that shroud, trying to plug a hole in the clock that has already run dry. And me stuck in the middle. Wanting her to go. Not wanting her to go. Wishing he would come home. Not knowing what I would do if he did.
Her ruse works, in a way. Keeps the men from fighting, from taking her by force. But their patience wears away and their politeness goes with it. And I can do nought but give all the meat and drink they request. Keep my head down when gentle ribbing becomes noisome insults. The hero of all my stories would not countenance these words. But I am not Odysseus. And along with the beard came something of sense. Odysseus’ bones, I think, now lie in some valley or adrift at sea.
I tell Mentes as much. But I go anyway. What worse could come of leaving than we have had already? What stories could I hear of him that have not already been told?