Margaret Patton Chapman
Odysseus does not sleep. We would like to.
We are men on ships, pride of Ithika, heroes yearning for home. We are strong and we are patient, but we are sick of rancid food and cannibalism, of swabbing up vomit, with nothing in front of us and nothing behind us but this flat and endless sea. We would like to go home, even if only in dreams. The low waves laps at our vessel, rocking us like basketed babes. These should be nights for stretching out on the deck under the gibbous moon, thinking of home, of soft breasts and sweet scented hair.
But if Odysseus does not sleep, none of us sleep.
"Odysseus!" We say. "What's up? How are you feeling?"
Odysseus will not respond. We watch him. He watches the water and the night sky and his silence makes us nervous. He is our captain; if he says nothing, we do nothing. We think his silence is a sign. We think he is coming up with another plan.
Odysseus is a planner. Plan upon plans upon plans, the more elaborate–the more complicated the props, the more outlandish the costumes, the tougher the odds–the better. Our friends call him cunning, our enemies call him a liar and a crook. We call him captain. We have for years.
He told us, when we first got on this ship with him, that his father was the grandson of the wind, and he a born sailor, for the wind always blows fair on its progeny. The wind was certainly swift at first. Since then others whisper it was Sisyphus who sired him. Either way, Odysseus has inherited both caprice and hubris. We do one thing, then another. We do not know where we are but we know it isn't home. We float. We wander. Our numbers dwindle as we pick out teeth with the bones of our friends.
"Odysseus," we say. "Whatcha thinking? Tell us what's going on. We're dying over here."
Odysseus does not seem to mind our dying. We have loved Odysseus well and it confuses us that our love and devotion have been rewarded only with death, famine, and misery. It makes us sad that our beloved captain is indifferent to our suffering, to our dwindling. It makes us angry. As our captain watches the water, some among us grumble, whisper mutinously amidst the stowed oars and slackened sails. Some among us say "we are sick of this adventure". Some among us say it has been long enough.
Thirteen years ago we went to war and it seemed promising. The war was Odysseus's second plan. "To War Men of Ithika!" he cried and we responded with a mighty roar, footfalls following. We did not ask why we were going to war, or whom we warred against. It wouldn't have mattered. Had the captain waged war for offenses against his heart, we would have thought that reason enough shine our breast plates, sharpen our blades.
His first plan had been cooked up to escape a marriage. When Helen first appeared on the scene, we heard in the markets and wine houses of the ways our king woo'd her with his manly ardor: the races he won for her, the animals he fought, the way he oiled his body, stood shining and naked in the arenas and sang songs of her beauty. But, always changeful, he soon fell out of love with the hoity-toity Spartan, with her gold specked linen vestments and her beechnut tattooed limbs. Not that we ever saw her in the flesh, or peeked past the curtains of her silver-plated litter, but we've heard talk. Instead, to the satisfaction of the merchants and the augurs, he went after a modest, pretty local girl, clever with her fingers.
Too late we learned that Helen was the egg-hatched daughter of Nemesis – the vengeful Fate – and he could not so easily withdraw his affection. To save us all, he later said, from her mother's vengeance, he convinced Menelaus to marry her, and pledged to defend her against any threat. We knew none of this as we scooped up wedding wine from the city's fountains and welcomed Queen Penelope.
Odysseus's honeymoon was short. No sooner had we finished the thirty days of feasting and orgies than Helen was kidnapped. All of Greece took up arms against Troy to bring her back. Not just those noble knights who wooed her, but us too, we all signed up for Greece, for glory. Troy was a golden city, they said, rich and easy to bend. We were poor and optimistic, ready to plunder, to ravage, to leave behind a brood of Ithikan bastards, and to bring Trojan trinkets to our hearth-tending wives.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
We landed in a strange and forbidding country, but we were not afraid. We took to the beaches and the black sand singed us through our sandals but the pain only made us more determined to smite. We roared with readiness, strapped on our leather armor, we held our shields tight against our glistening chests. That day we blessed each other as we went out onto the battlefield, and in the evening we blessed each other as we burnt our fallen bodies, let our ashes melt into alien soil, into inhospitable seas. The next morning we rose to gulls sifting through the bits bones which had washed back onto shore.
For ten years we besieged the Trojan's city. For ten years it would not fall.
Over time it became clear it was the gods who wanted war, not us. We fought slow, heavy, fatal combat, moved about like river stones on a board. Each year we became more brutal. The first year we held a funeral for every fallen man, put altars up, made sacrifices. By the fifth year the corpses were left to rot in the sun, to be disassembled by buzzards. By the tenth year we were eating our own dead friends as our provisions were long gone and the seas poison to us. When we finally, by Odysseus's third plan, tricked the Trojan bastards into giving up their precious city to us we found no loot, no spoils. And the golden face we'd seen at palace windows wishing for her husband was only a Helen-shaped cloud Zeus had made to trick us all, and which vanished into mist. The real Helen had been growing old in Egypt, eating Thebian plums and honey, waiting for us to come to our senses.
Learning this, we slaughtered everyone. Never has their been such a terror as the victorious and deceived Greeks. We marched the men off cliffs into the ocean. We slit the throats of women while we violated their children. We learned that blood could burn and that the burnt blood of our enemies tasted better than the burnt flesh of our friends.
When we were done with it Troy was nothing but a pile of ash, gristle and baby bones.
When we were done we were just glad to be going home. We boarded our ships, thought longingly of our wives, of our small sons who had grown to men. "Take us home, victor of Troy, King of Ithika, Odysseus, our captain."
"Of course," he said. "Let's just do one thing first." A detour to sack Ismaros lost 36 of our company. The decision to re-supply on Cyclops' Island lost 6 more. Three were never the same after the Lotus Eaters, and the dozen he sent as emissaries to the Amazonian cannibals of Lamos never returned. We stuffed our ears with wax so he could listen to the siren's song, and still he would not guide us home.
Now he watches the dark water, inky under moonlight, as if it might be an oracle's mirror, the fortune teller's spleens.
He does not eat.
"Odysseus," we say, "You seem depressed. You should take a break. You have been through a lot. Why don't you just rest, let one of us take the helm for a while."
We do not think he is suspicious of us. We are too scared now to mutiny, for we are scared of the horrors we have seen on the lands out here, and we are scared of the endless and unaccommodating sea.
His last order came perhaps a month ago. Waters were calm, winds blew us west, towards home. Odysseus knew the way, he said. We would be home in no time now. He consulted his star charts, he plotted points. He paced about, excited, anticipating.
"Where are we going?" we asked.
"A short cut," said Odysseus. "Trust me."
As night fell we saw in the distance a jagged peak rising from the water. It became clear we were sailing towards it.
"Trust me," he said. When the peak was still no bigger than a hand held at arms length against the horizon, we heard the wind's howl. We sailed toward the sun but it escaped us. In the dark we approached the cliffs, heard the water grow restless, felt the wind gale.
"This is probably your grandfather, Odysseus, who does not recognize you and is agitated," we said. "Tell him your name, ask him to be quiet."
"Maybe the wind is not my grandfather after all," Odysseus replied. In the dark, we could tell the water was not only angry, but swirling. We were moving against the wind. On our port, rocks like old wolves-teeth rose to stove our ship.
By the time we understood his intent was to thread the needle between the whirlpool and the rock, it was too late to go around. We did not see until last that the cliff was not a cliff but a hunchbacked horror, a giant dog-faced kracken-lady, surrounded by her six enormous children, whose misshapen heads bobbed on spike-like necks. The growled and snapped, blind and toothy. Odysseus kept to his path. The kraken tossed the ship, nearly capsizing it. Amidst the wash of waves, a half dozen of us finally mutinied, and for a moment, wrenched the helm from our king, attempted to steer us out of this hard place, but the monster's brood ate them all, one for each gruesome face. Once they had fed, she let the ship slip through.
"Some short cut, Odysseus," those of us left said as we nursed our wounds and tried not to think too hard about how close we had been to those searching, indiscriminate mouths.
We fear death, though we have seen or caused it in almost all of its known guises. We do not want to die the way our friends and enemies have, in foreign lands, our names forgotten. We no longer care about the glory that propelled us in the first place. We want to hear our wives murmur to us as they wrap their soft arms around us, we want to eat their home cooked meals by a fire while our sons tell us of their sport. We do not want to be eaten. We do not want to drown.
"You are closer to home," Odysseus said after the Kraken, and stopped speaking. He has not said a word or slept a wink for more than a month now, though what month it is he has stood silent we could not tell you, as the man who kept our calendar was killed or killed himself long ago.
So we wait for Odysseus and let him plan his next plan. We do not hope for much.
Yet, we know he will plan until we are dashed upon rocks and the only part of us which returns home will be the whitened fragments of bone our children's children may find among shells on the beach. He will plan until when I say we it will only be me. He will plan until when I say Odysseus it will also be me. When I say the ships it will mean what used to be ships, when I say the men it will mean what used to be the men but when I say the sea it will still be the sea.