Context: Homer’s Odyssey follows the story of the Greek hero Odysseus and his long journey home from Troy to the island of Ithaca. In the twenty years that he is gone, his son grows up and his wife, Penelope, is besieged by suitors who wish to marry her. Although they believe Odysseus to be dead, Penelope has not given up hope and devises a trick through which she can delay deciding who to marry, informing the suitors that she will choose when she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. However, at night, she secretly undoes the work she has achieved each day, thus spinning out the task. She has been portrayed as the perfect wife: a model of intelligence, patience, and loyalty. This piece reimagines how she may have really felt about her situation.
It is no secret, what I do at night.
Oh, they all play dumb, these suitors of mine, but what woman takes a year to weave a funeral shroud? Do they think that I am spinning my father-in-law extra life by drawing it out so? How nice, if only it were true. Some days it feels as if the old king is my sole ally in this rocky land.
There is my son, of course. Grown to manhood without a father and no worse off for it – or at least, I used to think so. Lately there is something unbalanced in him, as if he is caught between two worlds, a foot wedged precariously in each. Boy and man. In front of these strangers who have filled our home, he broadens his shoulders; observes closely the swagger of their hips and the way they clasp their hands in greeting. He uses their manners as a mantel to disguise his fear, and naturally I bear the brunt of this. “Leave us, Mother, this is men’s talk!” he ordered me last night, when I groaned and begged the bards to sing of something else: for who wants to hear more of Troy, when its walls are ten years fallen, and her husband still not yet returned?
But when we are alone, my son questions me as constantly as a child: How tall is he? What colour is his hair? Am I like him, Mother? Are you?
Am I like my husband? He thought so, certainly. I had a sharp cunning about me, he liked to say, that perfectly matched his own. Once, when observing our cook shelling peas in the courtyard, he held a pod up to my face, showed me the two green jewels nestled within. “We’re just like that,” he’d said with a wink, “you and I.”
Now that I am grown older, my eyes lined and my hair swept with white like the high bright crest of a wave, I realise that it was not our wits which drew us together, but our wanting. That man has a want an ocean wide, a want which swells the barrel of his chest and threatens to burst free. Not for me, no, though he loves me well enough. Nor even for my cousin Helen, who most men desire and still more have died for – my husband was smart enough to see that one coming and figured I would make a safer bet. No, his want is for the thrill of danger, for sly tricks of war and daring raids, no matter how much he protested that he needed only his home and a simple farmer’s life. I have heard the stories – how he and one other (Diomedes? I forget – there are so many heroes these days) stole into the Trojan camp, slaughtered soldiers in their hundreds. I know it was not me he was thinking of when he risked his neck like that.
And my want? According to custom, my husband and I should have lived at the court of my father, following our marriage. But he had a soft spot for his own barren kingdom and besides, I was over-ready to feel the sea-breeze on my skin and suck new air into my lungs, so it was agreed that we would make our home on Ithaca. My father sobbed when I left, but my eyes were bright with excitement beneath my veil and my new husband frowned at their gleam. I asked him whether we might not journey a little further together, perhaps explore the greener lands to the north, and I know that he heard the hunger in my voice because the first thing he built in our shared home was The Bed. It is very fine, carved into an olive tree which still loops and grows about us, permanent as the soft ground from which it springs. During those early nights I felt it pulling me into itself, making me part of the island, and turned to my husband with pleading on my tongue. I had thought that he would show me the world.
‘Be patient, Penelope,’ he said. And then he went to war.
My husband’s father, Laertes, often pats my hand and calls me patient. He sits with me while I weave the cloth which will cover his own face in death, and asks me how I can remain so calm, so serene. I tell him that it is my love for his son because I know it will bring a smile to that grim mouth and a tear to his misty eyes. But in reality, patience is just another word for those who have learned to hide their hunger, who have figured out how to shape it into stubbornness.
Even so, I feel my resolve growing thin. I am tired of the hustle and bustle of these men who are eating me out of house and home – and moulding my son into something I no longer recognise. I am tired of waiting and wanting and seeing nothing but these stone walls and this small life. Most of all, I am tired of this great trick I have devised, of maintaining the pretence that no-one knows what I am about. ‘When I have finished the dear old king’s funeral shroud’, I told the suitors, ‘Then I shall pick one of you to be my husband, agreed?’ They nodded gamely, and since then all in the household have turned a blind eye to the lamplight which shines from my chambers each night, as I sit and spoil the day’s progress, unravel a little more time for myself and a little more free hospitality for them. No wonder they have not complained. And at dawn, when I have at last unpicked the final threads and the first rays of light shine through the skeleton of my loom, I am so bone-weary I could weep.
In my dreams I am a ship. My belly, which had ripened so long ago with the shape of our son, rounds once more then hollows me out, makes a hull of my body. My hands become shuttles, weaving the soft warp and weft of my hair into white sails, and my spine leaps free of my ribs to spring up straight and tall, a mast for them to billow from. The sea swallows me whole and spits me out, sends me spinning past whirlpools and strange shores until, at last, I find my husband, shivering on some cold beach or wandering half-mad among fields of lotus flowers. He knows me at once, runs his calloused hands across my beams and is rocked to sleep in the curve of my bow.
Sometimes though, I do not seek him out, do not even think on him at all. Instead, I steer south and west, urge my wooden body through the waves and breathe fresher, cooler currents. Black depths and blue surfaces. There is salt coating my newly smoothed skin and, in my sails, and the bite of it is raw and hard and wonderful, and just for a moment I feel the want lessen, stream out into the surf and fragment, like the sun on the sea.
Light, water, air: I am weightless. A strand of silk, flying free.
But when I wake, here I am: alone in our branching tomb of a bed, and still rooted to the earth.
Written by Hazel Atkinson