Ten years now I’ve been away from my fields; ten years since the Kings sent men to our mountains and our lord called us in muster. One men in five he sent down to the black ships clustering in the harbour at Argos that hugs the cliffs beneath the glittering city—the longest journey I’d undertaken, and long it seemed to a man who’d never ranged beyond his father’s fields, save in nights of balmy spring when the sweet scent of flowers mingles with the scent of grass crushed under the hooves of the herds. Ten years, since I’ve smelt that fragrance, since I’ve held in my arms a lamb whose mother’s died in the ravening jaws of a wolf come down from his mountain home to hunt among the flock. I’ve learnt something of that wolf’s life since, how he lies in wait in the heights hungrily eyeing the sheep, how he envies its life and the ease with which the ewe gains food, for the yearly sacrifice of its pelt, how he longs for his cave and cubs and mate.
Ten years I’ve been here, like a wolf cut off from its pack in this pack cobbled together without ties of land or of blood—our lord would not denude Ithaka of its farmers, of its sailors, its hunters, and plucked us from distant villages, all men as little eager for war as he himself. It’s made us careful in war, for what man would rather die in another’s quarrel than safely sail the wine-dark seas to his own home? It’s made us better by far at killing than at being killed in shows of useless bravado—what use is it, when the captains scarcely know one of us from the others, and the world will remember only what the lords did, and no songs will be sung of us? Better by far to kill your man from behind the shelter of your mate’s shield, and come quietly back to your tents, and not hope for too great a reward. If the bronze spear of some Trojan horse-tamer shears your flesh from your bone, it’ll be your tent-mates who stitch flesh to flesh and pray to set your bones—even the lords give blood to Hades enthroned below, before the doctors can rush to them, and if they can die in the dust of battle, war-lords who give gifts of gold and women, what hope have men who must huddle three to a bed to stay warm in the bitter winter?
Ten years I’ve been here, ten bitter winters that have threaded grey through my hair and thinned out my curls. Winter is harsh here, and the winds unforgiving, and the watch-fire’s little light makes the fires of memory burn brighter, like the windblown flame of an earthen lamp makes a bonfire seem a great conflagration. At home, now, we would roast sheep—I’d always picked one from my flock and fed it tender leaves to give it good flesh, and the night I brought my flock back, as the wind started turning cold and the sun lost its summer heat, after the thighbones and the fat was given to the gods, we would feast, and in the morning my father would count over the animals, and send me up to give the steward my account and bring back coins jangling in my pouch. A good year would grant us heavy blankets, and enough hay to thatch the roof anew, and even in bad years I slept dry, slept warm, slept with my arms around my wife and with my children snug between our encircling bodies. They’ll be grown, now, the girl near old enough to be wed, the boy itching to take a man’s pleasures—he’ll have been shouldering a man’s duties these last five years—and my father grown stooped with age like a great gnarled olive that still bears the sweetest fruit. Let it not, oh gods, fall to my children to put coins on my father’s eyes, nor to my father to store my ashes, but let me go home to them, as my heart yearns, sail safe across the wine-dark seas under the great black sails.
Ten years I’ve slept with my sword unsheathed, and there are scars on me that my tent-mates know better than the woman I brought from her father’s home as my bride, who has these ten years kept my home and fields and flocks and kin. Sword and spear and the barbed head of Trojan arrows, they’ve all tasted my flesh, and my shield-mate’s anxious care with a needle—like a high-born virgin at her loom—that’s all that’s kept me alive, and his feeding me his rations when I’ve lain raving in fever when a wound’s festered, and his stealing wine to bathe my sores. Little fool going hungry for days to feed me, throat too parched to speak—strange to think I’d never know him but for the war, he in the harbour and I in the hills, and yet he’s done more than a brother for me, as much as a son who loves his father. And yet he might’ve been living, but for that, and since they brought his corpse in I’ve thought it, sleeping and waking and fighting and gathering wood enough to burn him. But for the care he took of me he might yet be alive and I dead. And I’ve naught to give him, who gave his life for mine and gloried in the giving of it, and no family to give it to. Well, but I’ve stories of him that I’ll tell my son, and my daughter, and my wife, and they’ll remember him as though they knew him every day of their lives, the brother their father found in the dust of battle. And I’ve his ashes, too, and they’ll rest with mine, side by side as we’ve fought ten years in combat and lain ten years in this tent.
Ten years I’ve lived on these bloodied sands, so far from my fields and from my folk, ten years and my children are grown and my father stooped with age and my bride grown weary in waiting, and at last this war is over and the lords have split the spoils. And now, oh merciful Poseidon, let the seas lie flat as we sail home to Ithaka, let us go home.