"Make no mistake:
we two will know each other, even better—
we two have secret signs, known to us but hidden from the world." (23: 122-125)
Odysseus is always ravenous. He eats enough for twenty men, swallowing down smoked fish and bread, crumbly cheese, sharp-tasting olives and cup after cup of wine. At their first meal, Penelope served him herself, but soon enough she tired of getting up for more helpings and now she sends a servant instead. She sits and watches him and listens.
Despite the eating, he is neat and precise and forever talking, somehow managing to time everything so that he always has either a morsel or a word in his mouth, but never both at once. Here are all the stories of his life. He speaks quickly, as if he wants to fill her in on everything she has missed in twenty years. He dilutes months at sea with a cup of strong wine and slips an adventure on a distant island between two slices of bread. Penelope sits and soaks up his words, but it all becomes mixed up with the kitchen and the meal. The distant sound of washing becomes the roaring of the sea, the tableware becomes helmets and clashing swords, and the bright grape that falls from the edge of the table to the floor is the glistening eye of a Cyclops.
Telemachus bursts into the kitchen. He has been practicing with his bow all morning; she can tell from the raw redness of the fingers on his right hand. His face is flushed and the golden Trojan coin he wears as a necklace, the only keepsake Odysseus brought him from Ilium, glimmers in the morning light.
"Three staves!" he says. His smile could light up the Underworld. She had gotten so used to him frowning.
"Then you're a quarter of a man already," Odysseus teases.
Telemachus is undaunted. He no longer spends his mornings daydreaming and his afternoons wandering, speaking little except to deliver haughty, barely courteous replies to anyone who approaches him. Now his time is filled with rhetoric and athletics. He runs, wrestles, throws spears, and passes hour after hour pulling the great bow Odysseus has made for him, shooting an endless supply of arrows at the twelve staves set up in the meadow behind the hall. Penelope can see him growing more like his father every morning. Someday soon, one of Telemachus' arrows will split all twelve staves and then he'll throw off the last of his boyishness, becoming another warrior, another wanderer.
"The walls of Ilium," Odysseus is saying, "were nearly as tall as Olympus. If you dropped a stone from the ramparts, you had to wait a full minute to hear it hit the ground. Gods could sit on them and they'd crack and groan like old women, but they would stand there until the end of the world."
Telemachus is rapt as ever, worrying away at a handful of dates as his father polishes his narrative.
"They were impossible to breach—with force. No human strength could have brought down that city."
"But cunning is a better weapon than strength," Telemachus recites.
"And that's why Athena's favor is worth more than Ares'. I passed through the walls of Ilium twice—once in the Horse and once alone, in disguise. None of Priam's warriors could stop me. No one even knew me." Odysseus drains his cup and scrutinizes the dregs. "Except Helen and Hecuba."
"But they didn't tell anyone."
"No. Helen decided it."
"Helen of Sparta," says Penelope, "is a strange woman."
"A fickle woman," Odysseus says. His dark eyes dart to meet hers and the corners crease in a mysterious not-quite smile that warms something deep inside her. She can't remember if he used to smile like that before. Perhaps it's something he learned during all those long years, a guarded kind of happiness for a precarious life. She is slowly learning his face again, a face that, to her surprise and shame, she had barely recognized at first. A blunt nose and a wide, crooked mouth and a beautiful, noble forehead and deep-set eyes. Black beard and black curls. He looks older than she remembers and younger than he should.
"Nothing like your mother," her husband says, turning back to Telemachus. "Helen hated Ilium. She even hated Paris after a while. Aphrodite played a cruel trick on that woman."
Rising, Penelope wonders how long Helen of Sparta was happy with her lovers. Helen had been besieged by men all her life, first suitors and then soldiers. She had played them against each other, chosen from among them, and then chosen again. And finally she had walked away from that war beyond the sea unscathed, leaving a mountain of dead men behind.
Penelope imagines all those men in armor and chariots, lining up for Helen's sake and Helen's honor. But in her mind, they have familiar faces: the faces of Eurymachus and Leocritus and Antinous, a sea of dark heads and demanding voices. Perhaps she and Helen have something in common after all.
She finds another wine jug, faintly annoyed that all the servants have chosen this particular moment to disappear, and returns to the table.
"Helen let me go back to our camp without raising the alarm. So I convinced Menelaus to take her back instead of killing her. Though he wouldn't have, anyway," Odysseus says as Penelope fills his cup, "He married her for her beauty in the first place, not her character. And she was always beautiful."
Penelope doles out the wine for Telemachus and says with some wryness, "Greece would've been happier with plainer women."
Telemachus grins at her and takes a drink. His face turns gray and he chokes, spilling red liquid all over his clothing and the table.
"What is it?" Penelope demands an instant after her husband. "It hasn't gone sour, has it?" she continues, "I gave the steward very precise instructions about storage!"
Telemachus is still gagging. "It's blood," he gasps, "This isn't wine. It's blood."
Odysseus dips a finger into his own cup and tastes it tentatively. He grimaces. "Blood," he confirms.
"Somebody must have switched it," Telemachus says. Penelope watches as his expression slides from shock and disgust into growing anger. "That's a malicious trick."
"A strange idea for a prank," Odysseus says. His face is calm and smooth except for a tiny line between his brows, like the first wisp of cloud that grows into a storm.
"It must be, though," Penelope murmurs. She doesn't want to voice her other thought: an evil omen. They've all had enough evil. "Don't trouble yourselves about it. I'll speak to the servants and find out who's responsible."
Odysseus turns his searching gaze on her and she smiles, knowing she looks serene and inscrutable. "A household is a woman's kingdom," she says.
So while her son goes to change his soiled clothing and her husband wanders off to meet with another visitor—they've been coming from far and wide since the news of Odysseus' homecoming spread—Penelope takes a side trip to the storeroom. If someone's been tampering with the amphorae, the wax seals should be broken. She doesn't want any more surprises.
Part-way down the stairs, she stops, shivering, as cold air rises to engulf her. She still has the half-full jug in her hand. In the gloom, the dark gods and goddesses under the earth seem almost tangibly near, waiting for their libation of blood. How Persephone must have rejoiced before the gates of Ilium.
Without knowing quite why, Penelope tips the jug, dripping a bit of its contents onto her finger. Steeling herself for the thick salt and copper flavor of it, she licks the blood from her skin.
But it tastes just like ordinary wine, strong and heady, but as wholesome as any she has ever tasted. Disbelieving, she takes a swallow from the jug. It remains sweet in her mouth and all the way down through her.
She can't quite stop shivering, even after she finishes checking the untouched amphorae and hurriedly empties the jug into the rubbish pit outside. The bright sunlight does nothing to warm the chill that has taken root in her body.
Penelope is falling from a great height. Though the rush of wind in her ears should be deafening, everything is silent. She can't even hear her own screams, although her mouth is open and her throat feels sore. Then the ground leaps up at her disjointedly and she slams into it and her body heaves and she's jerking up in her own bed, it's the middle of the night, she's safe but the blood is still coursing furiously through her veins and she can hear the throb of her living heart in her mind.
Gradually, her breaths slow as the familiarity of the surroundings calms her. This is the bedroom, the one she has slept in alone for two decades. Alone no longer, she turns to regard her husband, still fast asleep at her side. Odysseus is hogging the blankets. For twenty years, she has had exclusive mastery of those blankets and now this man, this semi-stranger, has left her half-uncovered and chilled by the night air. Or half-chilled: his leg and flank pressing against her are hot. Half of her is warm and pliant and the other half is frozen.
The dream is already vanishing like sand trickling through her fingers. She frowns, trying to summon it back. Goosebumps rise on her arms and she rubs them absently. There was something there, something that had filled her with recognition and trepidation. She shivers.
Only then, when a reflexive shudder sweeps through her frame does she realize that it is really too cold. The dead of winter might make her shiver like this, on a bad day.
She looks around slowly, staring into the darkness standing stagnant in the room. It is a dark, moonless night and the room has only one window. She can see nothing at all. Her other senses sharpen in response and she listens, smells, feels instead. The darkness is oppressive and she images that it is not empty, but alive and crouching, malevolent. There is a presence in the room.
No, she tells herself, no – it's only the silence and the thick darkness.
Even as the words take shape in her mind, she catches a hint of noise. Her head whips around, searching. It was a whisper, or maybe an exhale. She listens, trying to ignore the sounds of her breathing and heartbeat. A long, lagging moment passes. Her hands have fisted, clutching the blanket – not in fear, but in concentration.
Finally, she hears it again, and she is almost certain it's near the door. On the other side of the door, in the hallway: a light footfall.
Penelope is always decisive when she has identified a problem. Within seconds, she has slipped out of the bed and felt her way silently to the door. She opens it quickly.
Torches are burning in the hallway. They seem very bright after the pitch-black bedroom and by their light she can see that the corridor is completely empty. She steps out, peering intently to either side. On the right, the hall ends in a wall with a small window in it, looking down on the courtyard below. On the left, it continues on and turns a corner. The staircase is that way.
Penelope turns left. Another shudder wracks her body as she notices that her breath is misting as she exhales. It's unnaturally cold, supernaturally cold. She hurries on down the hall anyway. Only when she turns the corner and reaches the staircase does she realize that she has forgotten all about Odysseus, her new-old husband still sleeping in their marriage bed. Perhaps she should have woken him; he might know about, about it, whatever it is.
She allows herself to think the words: something is here.
She considers going back and waking Odysseus. As she stands there, hesitating by the staircase, she hears it again and her heart stutters in her chest. Not a footstep this time, but a laugh, a high, gurgling laugh like a small child's. She might have thought that one of the servants' children had merely been unable to sleep and gone wandering, except for the awful cold.
The laugh chimes again, softly. It is coming from somewhere up the stairs. It wants her to follow.
Mesmerized, Penelope places a foot on the first step. The laughter floats down, settling all around her.
It would be intolerable to return to the bedroom and sit, wide awake and waiting in the dark, for the sun to rise. And if she went now to wake the household, perhaps by the time she managed to rouse anyone and bring them back here, it would be—too late. So she climbs alone to the third floor of the house.
Upstairs, there are fewer torches. Though the corridor here also appears to be empty, she can hear the soft patter of footsteps to her right, and follows it. The staircase opens up into an arcade that looks over the Second Court, in the eastern wing of the hall. The red pillars look almost black in the dim light and the two weak torches flicker in the night breeze. Penelope steps quickly to the low wall and gazes down into the court.
She sees it immediately by starlight: there is something lying on the flagstones, a vague, soft-looking lump. She stares, trying to make it out. Is it moving, or is that only a trick of her eyes?
She takes a torch from a bracket and leans over the wall, holding out the fire so it casts light out into the courtyard.
Yes, there is definitely something. For a moment, she thinks it's a dog. Then it flops over, floundering like a beached fish. One leg falls into the area lit by the torch and no, it's a human leg, a tiny, human leg attached to a human child. Penelope bites her lip to stop a whimper. The child-thing struggles weakly, as if attempting to crawl, and as more of it comes into the light, she sees that it is malformed, or perhaps broken, with blood soaking its tattered garments and streaking the flagstones around it. She can make out its head now; the face is half-crushed as if it has been severely beaten.
It is still dragging itself into the torchlight when it seems to become aware of her. It stops, raises its head, and the two glittering eyes that meet hers are complete whole and unharmed.
She drops the torch. It hits the ground below with a thud, but doesn't go out. But the light is useless now; as quickly as it had appeared, the specter is gone again. The courtyard is empty and its stones are clean.
Penelope finds that her hands have gripped the stony surface of the barrier wall and her breathing is loud and harsh in the cold air.
"Mother?" says a voice behind her.
She whirls, gasping. It is there, suddenly standing just outside the pool of light cast by the remaining torch: the dead child.
"Mother?" it says again and takes a step forward.
She is pressed up against the barrier wall with nothing else behind her except a lengthy drop to the hard stone ground.
"No – no!" she rasps, "Get out, shade! This is not your home."
Its little bloody face looks at her earnestly and the ragged mouth opens and says, "Father."
As she shouts the word, a wild gust of wind suddenly blows, extinguishing the torch and whipping her hair into her face. She is temporarily blinded, throwing her hands out to ward off the wind. It howls, battering at her, and she stumbles hard against a pillar, a dull throb of pain shooting through her shoulder as it makes contact with the stone. It is murderously cold, colder than anything she has ever experienced, and she screams furiously into the roaring around her. With her back to the pillar, she tries desperately to see past her whipping hair to the dead child.
Then, just as suddenly, the wind stops, leaving nothing behind but the echo of her own screams. She stays, crouched and tense, where she is. It is dark and silent and warm again – the touch of winter has vanished completely from the air. This last fact is what finally allows her to relax.
Exhaling, she catches the sound of activity from inside the house. Someone must have heard the noise. She remains still as a statue. Now that relief has replaced most of her agitation, her mind begins working.
She is still standing there, thinking, when Odysseus bursts onto the arcade, followed by several servants. Within seconds, he is at her side.
"What is the matter?" he says. She realizes she can see his face in the faint gray of twilight; dawn has had time to approach while she waited, motionless, for her thoughts to make sense.
"A god is punishing us," she says.
Odysseus' eyes search her face. "I know," he says, "He has been hounding me for ten years."
She shakes her head, unable to explain just yet. She decides to kiss him instead. His beard his rough under her hands and she can hear the servants' feet on the floor as they make a discreet exit. His big hands slide around her waist and she hasn't quite gotten used to that again yet, but she thinks that now is a good time to start.
They are still kissing when the sun tips above the horizon behind her.
"I don't think it was Poseidon," Penelope says, frowning, "He doesn't have that power. At least, not alone."
"What was it?"
She and Odysseus are in the megaron, the main hall, deserted at this early hour. She is sitting by the hearth, dipping bread in a cup of wine and trying to pick out the important details from the dark whirling memory of the night. It's frustratingly difficult to find the right words; it all seems silly in the bright, painted hall with its heroic friezes, and she is sure her words can only diminish the reality.
"It was – I think it was a shade. A dead person wandering."
Odysseus makes a 'hmmm' sound. "But why would it be here? We have no unburied dead. I made sure the suitors had all the necessary rites." He mutters something she doesn't quite catch, but it's probably disparaging.
"It was a child. A toddler. But no children have died here recently, either."
"Perhaps there was one you didn't know about. Or perhaps it came from somewhere else."
Penelope gazes at him contemplatively. "It seemed to be looking for someone. Maybe its parents."
"Perhaps they were the ones who failed to give it a proper burial," he shrugs.
"Why would parents do something like that?"
"Perhaps they died first."
"You seem to be full of answers," she says, "Or at least 'perhapses.'" She takes another bite of bread to avoid his annoyed glance. That had sounded more accusatory than she had intended.
"Why didn't you wake me?"
It seemed she wasn't the only one who could sound accusatory.
"I thought it was nothing," she says, "I didn't want to bother you over nothing."
"Still, you bothered yourself over it…"
"I was already awake. I had a dream that woke me." She pauses, considering. "It was a dream about falling." She tries again to recall the details, but only the vague impression of rushing air and breaking bones remains.
Odysseus pinches her arm gently. "Is that significant?"
"The child, it was all bloodied and wounded. As if it had been beaten, but now that I think about it, a fall from somewhere high up—a cliff or a wall—might cause such wounds. And the wind in the courtyard was like the air in your face when you fall from a great height."
Odysseus' hand rests against her arm, motionless. "The shade of a child that died from a fall. We are piecing things together quickly now."
"I am, mostly." Penelope gives him a tiny, smug smile.
"Yes, it seems you didn't need me awake after all."
She is instantly remorseful. "I will call you, next time. If it happens again."
"We must assume it will. It seems too much to ask that it would simply go away."
"And we still don't know why it's here or what it wants. We will probably never get rid of it until we find out." Penelope sighs and takes a drink. She glances over at Odysseus, who is absently biting at his thumb. A sudden memory overwhelms her—Odysseus, so much younger, biting his thumb and saying, 'They all swore an oath. Those idiots value words more than lives.'—and for a moment, she is transported back in time to their youth. Not everything has changed.
"What aren't you telling me?" She says, hoping she sounds wry rather than suspicious.
But Odysseus only smiles brilliantly, as if he's pleased that she caught him.
"I may know who our wandering shade is. But I don't know if I can get rid of him."
He gets up, paces back and forth in front of the hearth.
"There is only one dead child with reason to haunt me. Though if it is him, he has waited a long time to come for me. Since we breached the walls of Ilium. "
Penelope follows the trail of words and asks, "The child was Trojan?" She waits for Odysseus' nod before continuing, "Who is he?"
"My guess is: Astyanax, the son of Hektor."
"Why should this child's shade have a grudge against you? You didn't kill Hektor."
Odysseus looks at her as if she's missing something obvious, but Penelope decides this isn't a hint she wants to take. Let him voice his own explanations.
"After the city fell, the women and children were taken prisoner as usual," Odysseus says. "But Astyanax was thrown from the top of the walls and fell to his death."
Her dream of falling, and the way the shade's wounds had looked—as if he'd been bashed against stone—yes, that part of it fit.
"And what does this have to do with you?"
Odysseus speaks in a carefully measured tone. "I was the one who counseled that he should be killed. The other captains would have allowed him to be taken as a slave if I hadn't convinced them otherwise."
Penelope's stomach churns sharply. Of course, she knows about the fate of the women and children of a defeated city—it's an ever-present possibility, lamented in poetry and song, a miserable destiny that fortune could deal out to anyone, including herself. But usually men avoided killing the helpless, except in extreme circumstances. She swallows down a lump of anger and nausea, controlling her expression with a skill born of years of habit.
"Are you alright?" Odysseus asks, not fooled, "You look pale. Women shouldn't drink wine."
She gulps down another mouthful, anyway. She began drinking wine during the years of his absence, when she was undisputed mistress of the hall, and she isn't going to stop now.
"You killed him so he wouldn't grow up to avenge his father. The son of Hektor could rally a huge army, with a birthright like his. One large enough to threaten Greece, even."
"This war nearly destroyed us. It might even still do so—half the cities are leaderless and they are all weak now that so many fighting men have died. The world couldn't stand another decade of war. The decision was right, no matter how much the thought of that child's death may horrify… us." Odysseus sounds as confident as ever, but she can see him watching for her reaction.
"I suppose it was," Penelope says. "I would have done the same."
"Would you?" He appears genuinely surprised. "You would have sentenced a child to death?"
She meets his gaze. He stares like he's trying to tear the truth out of her, raw and off-balance because for once she's the one with secrets he can only guess at.
"It was necessary." She ignores the faint queasiness in her middle as fiercely as she can. "But that hasn't stopped the spirit's anger. We have to get rid of it before it causes more trouble."
"Yes," he says, and sighs, "yes."
"Why didn't he receive proper burial rites?"
"I thought he did," Odysseus says, "I told them to pay special attention to that. I don't know why he's here now, unless he managed to find a way out of the world of the dead when…"
"When I went there. He may have followed me out."
The world turns on its head for a moment and Penelope's breath has been knocked out of her lungs by the sudden reversal.
"You were in Hades?" she gasps.
Briefly, her vision blurs and the man before her becomes a brownish smear. She wonders if he's really Odysseus after all, really her husband, or perhaps he's a shade of some kind himself, a monster from the world of the dead come to haunt her as punishment for the Greeks' audacity in sacking a city loved by Zeus. Perhaps they had all actually died at Ilium, Odysseus and Agamemnon, Menelaus and Diomedes, and ghosts now walked the Earth in their shape, tormenting their families as the final spiteful trick in the gods' cruel game of revenge.
"I had to speak to the dead," Odysseus says, and continues fantastically, "A sorceress told me I had to do it if I ever wanted to make it home again."
"You never spoke of this before," she says. A sorceress? Instead of ghosts, witches crowd into her imagination now: spell-casters and immortals, even goddesses, magic women or maybe just normal women. She has done her best not to think about that topic and she doesn't want to start now.
"Not everything makes for a good story, Penelope."
She doesn't see how Hades could make anything but a good story.
"It doesn't matter now, you'll have to tell me."
So he tells her, and even though he does it as briefly and starkly as possible, she's still enthralled. It's all so real: the distant world of the supernatural now at her fingertips, linked to her through this man.
At the same time, she is considering the facts. Odysseus went to the underworld and walked among the ghosts. The shade of Astyanax might have recognized him there. And though spirits are not normally allowed to leave Hades, some god might have prevailed upon Persephone to let this one go. After all, it's clear that several of them hate Odysseus and this is a perfect way to bring him misfortune.
She only hopes that someone is looking out for him, as well.
"If this is Astyanax and he has escaped from Hades," she finally says, "We must find a way to send him back."
Odysseus ponders briefly. "Leave this to me," he says. "You don't need to get involved; I'll get rid of him."
"But I might be able to help you." Penelope frowns. "And I'm already involved. I have to know what's happening in my own hall."
Odysseus is about to say something in reply, when Eurycleia comes into the hall to announce that Laertes is looking for his son.
"Don't worry about anything," he says, and runs out before she can stop him.
Of course, she worries anyway, and as she and Eurycleia clear away the remaining bread and wine, her head is filled with spirits and sorceresses.
Odysseus forgets about this conversation immediately - or so it seems to Penelope. During the next week, they speak only of household matters, when they speak at all. He stops telling stories about his travels and their exchanges become empty, trivial. In her mind's eye, Penelope sees him receding again, as if the wind were blowing his ship to another far shore after bringing him almost within her grasp.
Whenever she sees Odysseus, he is shadowed by either Laertes or Telemachus or both. The three of them keep their own counsel, an unbroken line of grandfather, father, and son united by their shared honor. Watching them, she guesses that they have discussed the matter of the shade haunting the hall, but if they have come to any decisions, none of them mentions it to her.
And inwardly, she slowly begins to seethe. This is her son, whose birthright she protected; her father-in-law, whose death shroud she wove and unwove for three years of long days and nights; her husband, to whom she had remained unwaveringly faithful and whose house she had guarded better than either Laertes or Telemachus, his chosen confidantes, could do.
For a week, she waits and watches them. None of the three gives any hint of their plans. Though rumors of a curse on the hall spread quickly among the servants and the townspeople, Odysseus makes no comment, offers no explanation or reassurance. When Eurycleia asks him whether it is true that a bad spirit followed him home, he laughs and compliments her imagination.
So instead, the people bring their fears to Penelope, and she listens to their reports of food suddenly spoiling, valuable possessions disappearing, sightings of two-headed deer and birds dropping dead in mid-flight. She lies awake at night, mulling over the stories and waiting for the angry presence she has felt once already to reappear. It doesn't.
Each day the tension in the air ratchets higher. It grows hotter and hotter, the cloudless sky offering no hint of relief. Though she doesn't say so aloud, Penelope can't help but feel the temperature is unnatural, a scorching manifestation of the inhuman anger threatening Ithaca.
Still, she keeps quiet, waiting to see what the men will do, until the day of the fire.
Afterwards, no one can tell her how it started, only that the flames began in the eastern storeroom. It takes them half the day to put it out. The fire, fuelled by rows of wine-filled amphorae, nearly breaks through their attempts to contain it several times, coming desperately close to ravaging the entire hall. Only the fortunate fact that the cisterns are still full prevents a complete catastrophe.
The smoke hovers all day and on into the night. Instead of drifting away in the air, it dissolves into a gray haze hanging heavily over everything, like dust that refuses to settle. The day is the hottest yet, stifling and devoid of even a hint of a breeze. The sun burns angrily. Penelope's skin prickles whenever she steps out into the light—it reminds her of a glaring red eye, its gaze always fixed on her back no matter where she turns.
People are still clearing away the debris and thanking the gods they escaped injury when twilight begins to fall. Penelope dispatches a servant to organize a general meal in the main hall. When the woman is gone, she turns her eyes back to the person who has filled her mind all day, even while she was carrying water along with the servants.
Telemachus sits propped up against a column on the far side of the courtyard. A doctor has already seen to him; his burns have been salved with ointment and wrapped in clean linen bandages. He is awake and talking. If the wounds are kept clean, she knows, he will have nothing but scars, but the feeling of dread crouching tense in her guts refuses to dissipate.
Laertes and Odysseus crouch beside him, speaking in voices too low to carry. She approaches on quiet feet, but they stop and turn their eyes to her in unison before she can hear anything.
"Telemachus," she says.
"I'm fine, Mother," he says, standing up and stretching to prove it. Bandages cover his right arm and soot darkens his face, making his smile more brilliant in contrast. He keeps his left hand closed in a fist around the coin he wears around his neck, as he sometimes does these days when he's feeling unsure. "You don't need to worry about me."
"How did the fire start? You were there before anyone else." She brushes aside his attempt to direct the conversation; if she gives in and concerns herself about his injuries, she will get nothing but condescending reassurances out of all of them.
"I don't know, I only came running when I smelled the smoke. Perhaps someone left a candle burning in the storeroom and it fell over."
"You're the only person who was hurt."
"Yes, we got very lucky, didn't we?" Odysseus says. "Only one man injured and Telemachus is so strong his arm will be perfectly healed again in no time."
"Don't you think it's odd that someone would carry a candle around in daytime? Or that anyone would be in the storeroom in the first place? I didn't ask for anything to be brought up and all the servants claim they were elsewhere when the fire started. They only remember Telemachus calling for help."
"Someone must be lying," Laertes says, "Probably afraid of punishment when it comes out that they were so careless with a candle."
"Then we should question everyone in detail."
"I agree," Odysseus says, "Your advice is excellent, as always. I think you should talk to all the servants personally and find out what they think happened."
"That's perfect!" says Telemachus, "Everyone in the hall trusts you the most. They'll be sure to tell you the truth."
Just like that, they have won the game, and she has no option but to agree and leave them. After all, they have technically given her exactly what she wanted. She is more certain than ever that they are hiding the truth from her: they know how the fire started and it has something to do with the dead boy haunting Ithaca. The eastern storeroom is the same one where she tasted the wine-turned-blood-turned-wine-again on that first day.
In the hazy twilight, she slips away to take her own counsel.
The north courtyard is half a garden, with low lemon trees providing shade and a few hardy flowers adding color. There is a well at the far end. Penelope sits on its lip and gazes down into the water, gleaming faintly in the fading light. It is a dull mirror, throwing her image back at her in distorted form.
Looking down at the tiny, familiar face, she decides she has tired of waiting. This is her home being torn apart. It is bad enough that Odysseus suffered beyond her reach for twenty years; she will not allow him to suffer here, in her domain. She will not allow anyone, human or supernatural, to infest Ithaca with an unwelcome presence anymore.
Below her, the face in the well morphs and Penelope hears her own intake of breath, loud in her ears. She is no longer looking at herself, but at the little boy Astyanax, his soft, bloodied skin and rounded limbs flickering indistinctly in the water. She leans forward, fascinated, as the image of the ghost stares up at her, anger, terror, and supplication in its face. She looks into the eyes of every war child: the dead children, the orphans, the enslaved, those unborn due to their parents' separation, all sacrifices to the ambitions and passions of the adults who should protect them. She knows full well that it could have been her child tossed from the ramparts, if she had married elsewhere or war had come to Ithaca instead of Ilium. Even as she acknowledges it, she bares her teeth at the reflection.
"Don't expect me to pity you," she says, "I will drive you out of this house!"
The shade smiles as if it can understand her every word.
"Get out!" she hisses, her voice rising, "Get out!"
She jerks in surprise at the sound of her name, and only in turning away from the well does she realize how far she was leaning over it. Eurycleia is standing behind her, looking worried.
"What is it?" the old nurse asks.
"It's the – " Penelope looks back down into the water, but it reflects nothing but her face now. "It was the shade," she says anyway.
"Then it's true," Eurycleia says in a low voice, "The master has brought a curse back with him."
"Yes, it's true." Penelope jumps down from the edge of the well. "But don't worry. I won't permit it to continue."
She waits for the full moon. She has enlisted Eurycleia; the two of them consult with a local wise woman, pray to Hecate and watch Odysseus, Telemachus, and Laertes surreptitiously. She knows that Odysseus has supplicated Athena already, more than once, but the results have not been favorable. Instead of vanishing, the ghost has merely redoubled its efforts to destroy Ithaca, as if it is aware of Penelope's - and presumably Odysseus' – resolve to drive it off. Or perhaps its power, too, waxes with the moon.
Within the next week, five people from the great hall disappear. Whether they are dead, taken by the ghost to Hades in revenge, or have merely run away in fear, Penelope cannot tell. But since no bodies are found, she hopes. She tries her best to comfort the members of the household when they come to her, terrified, with more stories about the ghost, but she can't tell them anything of her plans or their lord's, so the words sound hollow no matter how much conviction she puts into them.
She often wonders what Odysseus is thinking. She has no doubt that he has thought of a plan, though he does not share it with her. Instead, he maintains a façade of evasive cheerfulness. Their conversations become delicate sparring matches as she tries to coax a confidence from him and he sidesteps every attempt. She tries to be blunt, oblique, witty, gentle, and shocking, and sometimes he seems almost about to let something slip; but when all else fails, he can always resort to ignoring her and retreat to the company of Laertes and Telemachus.
The more he resists, of course, the more certain she becomes that he is planning something very dangerous. And so, when the moon is full at last, she feels relief instead of fear: whatever Odysseus' intentions are, she is going to cast out the spirit before he can put them into play.
She and Eurycleia have already chosen the crossroads just outside the town gates as the site. As a place where journeys meet, it is also a place with the power to send Astyanax on his journey back to Hades. Instead of going to her bedroom that evening, Penelope waits until just after dark, gathers up the materials she needs, and slips out into the night. Hopefully, everything will be finished before Odysseus thinks to come looking for her.
Eurycleia is waiting for her outside with a young lamb in her arms. The two of them make for the crossroads quickly. But despite their haste, Penelope knows as soon as they arrive that they are too late.
Odysseus and Telemachus are there, at the crossroads before them, pouring libations of blood.
It takes her only a split second to take in the scene: the ghastly, cold moonlight streaming over the heads and shoulders of her husband and son, the churned up earth where they have dug a trough, a knife in each of their hands and the dark blood dripping from their forearms. It is a blood sacrifice to draw out the angry shade.
At her side, Eurycleia gasps at the sight and takes a frightened step backward, but neither of them seems to hear.
Of course, Penelope thinks rapidly, Odysseus has come to the same conclusion she has: that Astyanax's desire for revenge is not general but specific. He wants a life for a life, a son for a son, and that means Telemachus. Telemachus, who was the first to discover the wine turned to blood and the first at the scene of the fire. Telemachus, whose death would pain Odysseus more than any other. And now they have summoned the shade and given it a taste of the very blood it wants.
Even as she realizes she has been pre-empted, the ghost appears, far more clearly than she has ever seen it before. It stands on the other side of the trough, across from Odysseus and Telemachus, gazing at them with naked hunger.
"Astyanax!" Odysseus says.
The ghost does not respond, directing its attention at Telemachus instead and drifting closer until it stands just at the edge of the blood-anointed trough.
"In the name of Athena, accept this blood for your own," Odysseus says. "In the name of Athena, accept our blood for your loss. In the name of Athena, go back to Hades where you belong!"
Astyanax neither vanishes nor advances. Instead, one insubstantial hand lifts and a finger points at Telemachus, not accusingly, but merely as if marking out a choice. And in response, Telemachus screams and falls to his knees. In the moonlight, Penelope can see that the blood is gushing from his arm with unnatural speed now, pooling and soaking into the upturned earth.
She barely hears her own scream of terror as she wrenches the lamb from Eurycleia's arms and thrusts a bundle of moly plants into its mouth. Moly, the magic herb that functions as both an aid for and a protection against transformation and illusion; she only hopes that she has gathered enough for the spell to take effect.
Leaping toward the ghost, she cuts the lamb's throat and throws the animal at its feet.
"Penelope!" Odysseus shouts, consternation making his voice rough.
"Take this!" she screams at the shade, "It's what you want! Take the blood!"
For a moment, Astyanax hesitates. She dares to hope, willing the ruse to work. Perhaps if she believes it hard enough, the moly plant will take effect and the ghost will believe it too: that the lamb is Telemachus, bleeding Telemachus' blood, and revenge can be satisfied now.
But the dead child only meets her eyes with a look that is almost derisive. The image of Astyanax has become clearer than ever, almost solid and real. All that blood, she realizes, it is drawing strength from the potent mixture of blood and magic they have all eagerly fed it.
With a dainty jump, it traverses the blood-filled trough and lays its plump hands on Telemachus' head. As one, Penelope and Odysseus leap towards it, but some force throws them both to the ground before they reach it. Penelope's head reels and she digs her fingernails into the earth, clinging desperately so its spinning doesn't hurl her off into the sky. A ringing fills her ears and she thinks that it's the sound of Telemachus screaming, filtered through her confusion.
She fights to raise her head. Through the dizziness and noise, she can see Telemachus kneeling in the dirt, Astyanax's hands on either side of his face. Their gazes are locked, Telemachus grinning in a rictus of fear, Astyanax smiling almost beatifically. Her son is pale and limp, all his life's blood running out of him like a river.
Rage and helplessness overwhelm her in equal measure. She is angry at them all: Helen and Agamemnon for starting everything, Astyanax for not staying dead, Telemachus for not trusting her, Odysseus for lying to her, Odysseus for leaving her, Odysseus for bringing his hideous past back home with him. Through all the anger, she feels someone gripping her hand. Odysseus, she recognizes instantly, and she grips back, focusing her rage on the place where their hands meet.
"Get away from him!" she hears both of them scream at the same time.
Miraculously, Astyanax turns his attention from his victim and gapes at them, the childish mouth falling open as if shocked to find them still alive. Telemachus recoils and instantly the ghost's head turns back to him, but that one instant is enough.
Telemachus grasps the golden Trojan coin he wears around his neck with his bandaged hand and tears it off, thrusting it quickly into Astyanax's still open mouth. Reflexively, the shade's lips close around it, and Penelope thinks with a sudden wild triumph: the coin, the Trojan coin, the ferryman's coin!
Then the ghost of Astyanax stumbles backwards, its hands jerking away from Telemachus. Its legs, dimpled and bow-legged, wobble beneath it as it retreats, until finally one foot lands in the trough dug for the libation and it begins to sink, slowly but with increasing speed, into the dark earth.
The three of them watch, mesmerized, until the ghost vanishes completely and only the churned, soaked soil remains.
When it's over, the night is quiet except for the harsh breathing of three people.
Telemachus is alive, Penelope thinks to herself throughout the whole of the funeral. Eurycleia is dead and it's her fault and she should never have brought an old woman with a weak heart to face off against an angry shade, but yet: Telemachus is alive. Her sorrow is mixed with joy and guilt and she sighs to herself and simply accepts the whole jumble of contradictory emotion. The oppressive heat has lifted and the wind blows, lively and refreshing, through the mourners' hair. She smiles a little through her tears.
Later, when she and Odysseus are alone in the kitchen, she fills his wine cup and says, "Next time we fight a monster, tell me what you're planning ahead of time."
"You could have just trusted me to take care of it," he sighs.
"It was your fault in the first place. And your plan was terrible. What if he hadn't been satisfied with such a small taste of blood?"
"Then I would've given my life in exchange for Telemachus."
"So that's why you didn't want to tell me anything."
"Your trick was a lot better," he concedes, "It might even have worked, if you got the spell right to convince the ghost to accept lamb's blood instead."
"I don't know," Penelope mumbles. "I'm not much of a sorceress."
"I've met sorceresses," he says with a smile. "And I prefer you."
She takes a drink of wine to hide what she can't deny is a definite blush. "I suppose you'll tell us about them? The sorceresses and everything else you left out before. I think we deserve to know all your stories, just in case any more old enemies show up."
"I'll tell you everything. Perhaps while we eat?"
She laughs a genuine laugh. "Some things about you don't change. And I suppose they never will, even when you go and leave again."
"Who's leaving?" Telemachus says, coming in and joining them gingerly at the table. Both of his arms are bandaged now, but his eyes and smile are still bright. "Father's not going away again, is he?"
"He will eventually," Penelope says, meeting Odysseus' warm brown gaze with her own, "And you and I will have to guard the hall until he comes home again."
"Ithaca will rejoice," Telemachus says impudently, "since the two of us are so much better at it!"
Odysseus throws an olive at him and they both laugh and the conversation drifts. Odysseus launches into a story about how he won the armor of Achilles from Ajax in a bragging contest, only to give it away later. Listening, Penelope realizes that now that Telemachus' coin necklace is gone, they have nothing left from Ilium, nothing at all to show for the endless years of war and waiting. Nothing except her husband's stories.
She smiles a little, only half aware of the banter around her. The past is buried at last. She thinks – she hopes – they can build their future now, even if the winds of that future separate them again. She hopes.