02 Jun THE KING OF ITHACA REAPS WHAT HE SOWS by Madeleine Vigneron
Telemachus is not the only fatherless boy in Ithaca. When Odysseus left to go to war, he took the men of Ithaca with him, and now their sons are old enough to eye his palace and his wife. Telemachus does not want one of his childhood playmates to marry his mom, thank you very much, but they didn’t pay his protests any heed; they simply walked into his house and parked themselves at his tables. The sheer masses of young men overrunning Telemachus’ house don’t seem to realize that there’s only one queen to wed. Maybe they’re planning on some sort of scheduled sharing scheme, or just to deal with that problem later; Telemachus doesn’t know and he has no desire to discuss it.
He knows he should drive the interlopers from his house like cattle; he knows that’s what his father would do, strong king that he was. Telemachus has his father’s eyes and his father’s curls, but he doesn’t have his father’s fortitude, so the best thing he can do is go searching for Odysseus.
All he finds are war stories from people for whom the war was a very long time ago. All he finds is that everyone else sailed home years ago, and none of them have a clue what happened to Odysseus. Maybe Odysseus is dead. Surely no one is that bad with directions. I mean, Telemachus has had enough time to grow a beard. The beginnings of a beard. Who’s to say at what point stubble becomes a beard anyway?
But that’s not the point; the point is that his dad might not be coming back to fend off all the weirdos who are trying to marry his mom, and Telemachus is seriously not into the idea of having a stepdad his own age. As Ithaca appears on the horizon, Telemachus thinks that maybe this is his time to shine. He’ll stand up for himself and for his family and assert the authority that he’s been wielding more like a limp flower stalk than a sword. Telemachus’ royal boat docks on the shore of the land that he rules by right, and he marches home with a conviction that will not be swayed by anything the gods can throw at him.
And what do the gods throw at him?
Odysseus has finally washed up on the shore of the land he’s been missing from for so long. He returns with Athena hovering over his shoulder: the goddess of wisdom, and the goddess of war, and also the goddess of how not to get in your dad’s way. Prophecy claimed that the king of the gods would have a son who would usurp him; instead, he had Athena, an asset rather than a danger to the throne, by virtue of her gender and her consistent willingness to stand next to him and look threatening. She’s not stingy with that talent, either; she’s just as threatening at Odysseus’ shoulder. And so Telemachus quietly crumples his ten-step plan for greatness and falls into line.
Telemachus isn’t sure that his father knows this is Ithaca and not Troy. He isn’t completely sure he himself won’t be slain in the war to come, and there will be a war. Best thing to do is stay by his side and maybe subtly ask for beard advice because they literally have the same genes, so whatever his dad’s doing should work perfectly for him, too, right?
Odysseus left home a father, but he returns a conqueror. This particular conquest will have to be accomplished without an army. He lost all his men on the way back from Troy; blown away by angry winds or eaten by angrier Cyclopes or killed by their own stupidity because they’d rather die trying to get home than keep sailing to shores that aren’t Ithaca’s. Well, Odysseus was always the cleverest of the bunch, and that’s why he’s standing on the shore, and the rest of them were torn to shreds and strewn across the Mediterranean. He’ll have to explain to their wives why their houses will stay empty, why he took the entire adult male population of Ithaca away with him, and why he returns, not even remembering most of their names. That’s okay, though; they died for king and country, and now he can feel the rocks of Ithaca under his feet for them.
His men’s houses are empty because their wives are irrelevant to the story he’s finally going to draw to a close, and because their sons are in Odysseus’ house trying to woo his wife. Odysseus has slept with his fair share of beautiful women over the past twenty years – it’s been a rough couple of decades, okay – but if Penelope desecrated their marriage bed he might shore up the walls with her blood too. After everything he’s been through, what’s one more body? But, no, she’s who he’s coming home to. Her and their bed and their son, who’s had twenty years trying to grow up but can’t even properly grow his father’s beard.
Odysseus steps onto the porch and reaches out to pet the dog he hasn’t seen in twenty years. The crotchety old dog raises its greying muzzle, sees its master, and promptly kicks the bucket—instant death. Muzzle hitting the porch. Rigour mortis starts to set in.
But Odysseus isn’t a seer, so he doesn’t let such omens faze him. He just steps over the dog and opens his front door. Inside, his wife’s suitors are eating dinner. The men in his house, the boys in his house – look up when he enters, chicken legs mid-way to their mouths, faces smeared with grease. They look so ridiculous – so young and vulnerable – that for a brief second, Odysseus considers not killing them all. But then he registers that that is his food, being served by his servants, and the end of the story congeals in blood once more.
Maybe it would be weird to kill so many boys his own son’s age, but he hasn’t been around for a while and honestly has shelved all the father-son feelings for later when his house no longer has a vermin problem. Kid needs to shave, though.
Before long Odysseus is the last one standing, no need for an army. Telemachus is in the corner throwing up. Odysseus wipes the blood from his blade and waits to feel the warm blanket of home envelop him, but all he feels is the sweat and blood drying slowly on his skin. He experimentally stabs the corpse closest to him again. No dice. The body kind of looks like his old buddy Elpenor, but Elpenor died years ago and – oh. Odysseus eyes his own son, still dry heaving in the corner.
This isn’t the home he thought he would come back to. All the furniture has been moved around, and there are bodies covering the nice hardwood he put in before he left. He goes looking for his wife, and instead, he finds his bedroom. The bed he built around an olive tree, so it could never be moved. Cute. Meant more before he’d razed forests. Out the window, a nice view of the garden. Maybe he’ll take up gardening; he knows it involves sharp metal tools, and he’s really got a knack for handling those. Maybe he’ll find his wife, and she won’t know the person he is anymore. Maybe he’ll finally be held by someone who knows something about him that isn’t a lie from his own mouth. Maybe he’ll quietly forget to mention all the women from the past twenty years, and they can be a family again. Pop out another baby, so that he can father someone for real.
Maybe he should just kill himself here in the bed so that at least the story will end on his terms. The only garden he’ll ever plant is the one downstairs, the rapidly cooling compost of organic matter sprouting nothing but the bronze weaponry still piercing the flowerbed of corpses. He doesn’t know how to cultivate something living. He doesn’t know how to live off-book. He doesn’t know how to be a husband or a father, and the house is covered in too much blood to ever wash off. He’s covered in too much blood to ever wash off. If that were a metaphor, it would be unbearably trite, but he is still quite literally soaked from head to toe in the guts of an entire generation, bar his wimp of a son.
Odysseus has been gone for too long to call himself the king of Ithaca anymore, and anyways there’s no one left in Ithaca to be the king of other than a bunch of women and probably some senior citizens, and he hates dealing with all the paperwork that senior citizens bring to a city, but all of his administrators were killed by Trojan arrows fifteen years ago. So, he put them on the front lines because he was tired of signing things. Now he wishes he could be tired of killing, but if he stops waving his sword around, he probably won’t ever move again.
At some point, Odysseus ended up horizontal in the bed, which reminds him of how he used to put Telemachus to sleep when Telemachus was a tiny baby instead of a grown man dry heaving over all his dead classmates. Odysseus waits for Penelope to come and hold him, and he tries to decide what he’ll plant in the garden. Maybe more olive trees. Not a lot grows in Greece, but the olive tree in his bed has been here for twenty years longer than he has. Odysseus waits for Penelope to come and yell at him for getting blood all over their sheets. Odysseus waits for Penelope to come and tell him that she’s leaving him. Odysseus waits for the women of Ithaca to come and take revenge for all the husbands and sons he killed and all the senior citizens he hasn’t been around to sign documents about. Odysseus falls asleep, and he dreams of the ocean rocking the boards under his feet and his men talking and laughing beside him and Ithaca being a destination that he’d do or kill anything to get back to.