Home is the Sailor
Brenda W. Clough
His crew had lashed spars and oars together into a crude stretcher. Swearing and stumbling in the autumn downpour, they hauled their captain up the steep rocky road to Ithaca’s humble acropolis. Odysseus clutched the slanting poles, making no unseemly outcry, his face turned skyward so that the sweat of agony was cleansed by the rain.
A clamor of women’s voices, and the stretcher leveled out so he could lie more easy. He looked along his body between his upturned toes, where the sodden brown back of a sailor steamed softly as the cold rain pelted the hot exhausted muscles. Brave fellows, they had borne him home as swift as Hermes.
Now Itheus the mate babbled the story piecemeal, talking across him as if his captain and king was a foundered cow: “—never got to Thesproti. The rain pouring down all the way, rough seas, and then a wave caught an oar just wrong. The butt end knocked the king heels over tip, like he was tossed by a bull –”
Galled beyond endurance, Odysseus raised his head. “Have you no sense? Get us all in out of this cursed rain!”
The motion drove dull knives into his chest, and he sank back gasping. His people wheeled and fluttered around him, like mewling gulls about to pick over his carcass. But then he came to himself again. He lay warm and dry in the royal bedchamber, in the big bed he had built with his own clever hands, under a familiar coverlet woven of fine wool. A woman sat in a wooden chair beside the bed, her fingers busy with roving and spindle. “Penelope…”
“No, it’s Polykaste, sir.”
Ah, yes – Penelope was in her tomb these past five years and more. He squinted in the dim lamplight at the newcomer. How could it be night? He must have dozed the day away. Her hair was pinned up like a woman’s, but she was little more than a girl, muffled against the chill in a big brown shawl. Polycaste… He couldn’t place her. With feeble cunning he said, “Who is your father, child?”
“Oh, for heaven’s love! I’m your daughter-in-law.”
“Of course, of course – lovely Polycaste, youngest of the daughters of Nestor son of Neleus.” Gods, how had he forgotten. “Where’s Telemacahos then?”
“Gone to Mykenae, at the behest of the high king. A messenger has gone, to fetch him back.”
“Oh, no need. A minor injury …” His son did all the stodgy diplomatic chores. “No flair for roaming or raiding, that boy.”
He hadn’t wanted to say that out loud, but her ears were young and sharp. “He wished to be home in time for the birth,” she said. When she stood up he saw the bulk of her pregnant body against the mellow glow of the clay lamp. The things that happened, when you left home for a year or so!
The physician came in at her call and laid his cold thin fingers against the horrible black bruises on his right side and chest. “Look how he can feel it, when I do this.” Odysseus snarled wordlessly at him. “The ribs are broken. Let him lie perfectly still as I have propped him, and we shall see if they knit. If the lung within has sustained no puncture, there is good hope of his recovery.”
“Vulture! You talk to me, not over me.” But the physician only held out a medicine cup. Odysseus took one swallow and gagged on the bitter brew, turning his head away. The cup followed, and he had to drink. There must have been poppy juice in the dose, because he tumbled into a deep blank hole of sleep.
Doggedly, slowly, he climbed back out of the dark into another gray day. Rain thrummed on the roof tiles, and water plashed from the eaves onto the terrace overlooking the harbor far below. If he could fling off the coverlet and stride to the parapet, he might see his ship. But he was too wise to do that yet. Heal up first, and then return to the sea…
The girl was here again, spinning the creamy fluff of wool into an even thread. She had been a pretty piece at the wedding, indeed the loveliest of old Nestor’s daughters – it must have been Aphrodite’s mercy, that a king with a face like the butt end of a cow could sire princesses with the grace of Naiads. But now with her puffy face and swollen ankles she was plainer than a mud hut. “Clotho,” he said. “Don’t measure and cut the thread yet.”
She frowned at him, shifting her weight awkwardly in the wooden chair. “Polykaste,” she reminded him.
“Joke,” he said, and her mouth thinned into a sour line. What a humorless child! But it came to him that she was unhappy. Weren’t increasing women supposed to be content? Perhaps she was missing the boy. “Telemachos is a solemn one too.”
The spindle didn’t pause in its twirl. She seemed to be thinking of other things, listening with only half an ear to a sick man’s maunderings. The thought was like the prick of a goad. Was he not much-enduring Odysseus, beguiler of kings, favored of gray-eyed Athene, as full of stories as an egg is of meat? He spoke up more strongly. “They’ve wasted that messenger. I’m sure to recover.”
Her indifferent gaze didn’t shift from the thread. “Indeed?”
“Yes. Because, on my last voyage – Ah! I was on my way to the Paphlagonians, where the cattle are snow-white and as tall as a man. The milk they give is of such virtue that one sup can add a handspan’s growth to a child, or keep a man on his feet for a day of hard labor. We thought to steal us some of those fine cows. But Aiolos’s contrary winds blew us ashore in Etruria …”
He had her now. Her sullen blue eyes took on a soft glow of interest, and she leaned forward, “Are there people in Etruria? Is it far?”
“Oh, a long voyage! But there are fields and olives, sheep and cattle, men and maids, just like us.” Hastily he abridged a bit. A princess of Pylos ought not to hear sailor stories of Etrurian maidens and their charms. “And I met there a seer, a poet all in red, who read my future for me in a pool of ink and rendered it into triple rhyme. He lived in a cave on the bluff above the river Arno, and I gifted him with two sheep, a silver armlet, and a bronze cauldron as wide as a shield, in return for a story: the story of my death. For stories are worth treasure.”
The dangling spindle had slowed to a stop. The wool was now slowly unwinding itself, forgotten. “Your death!” She made an avert sign. “How can such a vision be worth treasure?”
He hitched himself higher on his pillows, ignoring the fierce twinge in his side. “Hah. This old salt has had more than one. One prophet tried to turn me against my own begotten son, saying he would kill me. That ploy’s older than Perseus. And there was the dull one, where I’d go inland, to where oars could be mistaken for winnowing fans, and be murdered by barbarians. But this last one was a treasure of a death. He sang of my final voyage past the Pillars of Herakles into the World Ocean. I shall achieve the far side of the world, before I sink within sight of the Isle of the Blest. My heart could ask for no better. That’s the death for me.”
It was growing difficult to breathe properly, and to get the rest of the words out he had to struggle like a fish on the gaff. “So you see that I’m sure to get better. Not going to die in my bed…at home. Not I.”
She rearranged the cushions, propping him to lie on the wounded side as the physician had ordered. Curiously, this gave him some relief. If he could get her to talk, he could rest a while without betraying weakness. “You must have gone to the seer yourself.” He nodded at her belly.
Immediately he sensed that it was the wrong thing to say. She pulled the shawl close around her shoulders, and set the spindle twirling again. “We sacrificed a black goat to Artemis. The priestess said it will be a boy. And the delivery will go well.”
“That’s a good seeing. Is it not?”
“Only if you believe.”
He said nothing, taking canny refuge in weakness, and after a time she went on. “There are different omens in my family.”
“Ah.” He nodded wisely.
“My mother died in childbed. And my older sister too.”
Again he nodded, though he knew nothing of midwives’ work. At last she said, “I dread the trial to come. I’m afraid.”
It seemed to him that Polykaste’s mother must have been brought successfully to bed at least twice. Else how did Polykaste herself come to be here? And an older sister, too. But the reasoning would be a waste of his short breath to voice. Frightened girls did not hear wisdom. Instead he beckoned her closer. There were other ways to hearten and encourage. He knew them all. “May I?”
He laid his hand on the firm dome of her belly. The life within bumped suddenly under the layers of shawl and himaton and womb, strong as a piglet in a market sack. He counted each painful word out like a grain of gold. “Heroes know. We have our lore. Shall I tell you our biggest secret?” He waited for her nod. “Don’t tell anyone, then. But we know fear too.”
She stared. “Mighty Odysseus, leader of men, wily and wise? Truly?”
“In the Trojan Horse we were sick with fright. Child, if you’re wise, you know fear. The trick is to not give it free rein. Great treasure is not won without great travail.”
He had done some good. A ghostly little smile brushed past the corners of her mouth. But it weighted on him, that he had not spoken with his old persuasion and power. Where are you, gray-eyed Athene? And his side hurt unbearably. The physician came in, fussing and prodding, and he was glad to take his dose and sleep again.
With the next day came fever, a scorching heat that racked him without mercy. He knew this was bad, but would not admit it. Instead he battled the physician, who wanted to cup him and administer a purge. The girl Polykaste was nowhere to be seen, and he had not the breath to ask for her aid. He contrived to kick over the physician’s brazier, almost setting the bed hangings alight. And he swished most of the vile medicine out the side of his mouth. But he couldn’t upbraid the old fraud as he deserved. Resourceful Odysseus, speechless! It disgusted him.
And over the steady roar of rain on the tiles came another sound, the mutter and tramp of men. Out in the great hall they were, men enough to throng the place, more men than his one ship could hold. Was his hearing going? For a moment he was lost in memory, the feasting suitors filling the hall and the mighty bow in his hand. Then the physician stooped nearer. “Your sailors are here, lord,” he said. “Itheus, and Lykon, and Ainios, and the others. They want to come in.”
“What for?” He had to mouth it.
The physician rolled his eyes, collecting the approval of the other sickroom attendants. “Lord, to say goodbye.”
He shook his head. “Not going. Not I. Tell them – fettle the ship, caulk her. We sail in the spring.” In this cursed downpour there would be little enough work they could do, but it was important for a ship’s captain to keep the men busy and out of trouble.
Then it was night, and he was too weak to resist any more. They worked their will on him far into the evening, cupping and bleeding and plastering his feet and head with herbs pounded to a paste and spread on linen.
He lay still, struggling for every breath, and recited to himself all the perils he had escaped: Scylla and hungry Charybdis, the Cyclops, angry Ajax, Hector with his bright bronze sword, kingly Priam and bright, doomed Achilles. I, Odysseus, I survived all these. I came alive out of Troy. I returned home safe after ten years’ journeying. And I will live to laugh at this fool injury. Heroes cannot die in sickbed, with weeping all around. How could a poet make a decent song of an end like that? We die in the bitter clash of armor and swords on the plains of windy Troy, leaving a corpse to be fought over by gods and men. Or we yell brass-lunged defiance and go down in a briny wave as the bronze-headed rams cleave the ship into planks and floating rags…
The air and his head grew clear, as if the rain had washed both clean together. The storm was past, and a clear yellow morning lay long and bright on the pavement outside the bedchamber. Beyond, above the terrace parapet, the sky was ten thousand leagues deep, that clear high Aegean blue fit to be set in the bezel of the ring of a god. Perfect traveling weather! It was a day for departures – a day to pour the libations of wine and oil to Poseidon, cast off the lines, and haul the sail high with singing and joy!
He leaned back on his pillows and drank the sweet air in tiny sips, not fighting for gulps of breath any longer. The morning shimmered with expectancy. Some great good was approaching, casting its glow before – a sure forerunner of the divine. He was not surprised to see a slim figure in flowing white pace slowly along the terrace towards him: Athene. The tears prickled in his eyes. At last!
But no – this woman wore no helm and bore neither spear nor shield. Instead she carried something close-wrapped in a brown shawl, something small and fragile. It was her serene pride that was goddess-like. She came in to the bedside and folded back the edge of the shawl for him to see. “King Odysseus, may I present your grandson?”
“Polykaste,” he breathed. She smiled down at him, and at the pink wriggling newborn in her arms. He wanted to burst out with congratulations and good-luck words, but all he could do was grin up at her. In his weakness he didn’t even dare to hold the infant. But he put his hand on the tiny head. The downy tender scalp was dented and discolored from the long battle to reach the light. A lively lad, a fighter already! And new, so very new. Against the baby head his hand looked like an old tree root scoured and bleached by the sea and cast up, driftwood, on the beach. He blessed the boy, silently: See new things and make new things, my lad. Drink every cup to the lees, and sink within sight of the Isle of the Blest.
“As soon as I stopped fighting the pangs, the birth went well,” Polykaste was saying. “It was just like your adventures. Like you said. I passed through great travail, to win a mighty treasure.”
Brave child, he wanted to tell her. Worthy descendant of a line of kings!
He had been certain her eyes were blue. But now in the golden morning they looked gray, as gray as rain. And she said, “There is a time to fight nature, and a time to be her friend.”
For an instant he held his breath, though he had no breath to spare. Aegis-wielding Athene, daughter of Zeus, he prayed silently. Never have you failed me. Thank you.
The girl beamed down at her babe with doting pride. Then she glanced at him, and her mouth dropped open with alarm. “Sir! Are you well? Shall I call the physician?”
He shook his head. She was right. Death indeed came as no foe, but a friend. What a long battle to the light it had been! But one final task lay before him. He crooked a kingly finger, beckoning her closer. “My men,” he croaked. He could no longer hear them out in the great hall. But he knew they had waited, the brave hearts, faithful as Argos. Let them come in, he wanted to say. They wished to bid their captain goodbye. I can stay a little for them. But he was very weary now.
“Home is the Sailor” © Brenda W. Clough Published in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores on July 23, 2022 It first appeared in STARLIGHT 3, the Tor anthology edited by Patrick Neilsen Hayden and Teresa Neilsen Hayden in September 2007.
Brenda W. Clough is the first female Asian-American SF writer, first appearing in print in 1984. Her latest time travel trilogy is Edge to
Center, available at Book View Café. A series of neo-Victorian thrillers is appearing, one a month, in 2021. Her complete bibliography is up on her web page, brendaclough.net
Illustration by Fran Eisemann. Stock used: Greek bronze sculpture of the head of Odysseus. Trojan Horse from Wikipedia, red dawn from Pixabay,.