From the multi-award-winning author Claire North comes a daring reimagining that breathes life into ancient myth and gives voice to the women who stand defiant in a world ruled by ruthless men. It’s time for the women of Ithaca to tell their tale . . .
Teodora is not the first to see the raiders, but she is the first to run.
They come from the north, by the light of the full moon. They do not burn any lanterns on their decks, but skim across the ocean like tears down a mirror. There are three ships, carrying some thirty men apiece, coils of rope set by the prow to bind their slaves; oars barely tugging the sea as the wind carries them to shore. They give no cries of war, beat no drums nor blow trumpets of brass or bone. Their sails are plain and patched, and had I power over the stars I would have willed them shine a little brighter, that the heavens might be eclipsed by the darkness of the ships as they obstructed the horizon. But the stars are not my domain, nor do I usually pay much attention to the dealings of little people in their sleepy villages by the sea, save when there is some great matter afoot that might be turned by a wily hand – or when my husband has strayed too far from home.
It is therefore without celestial intervention that Teodora, lips inclining towards those of her may-be lover, thinks she catches sight of something strange upon the sea. The few fisherwomen who ride the night are all known to her and their prows are nothing like the shapes she glimpses in the corner of her eye.
Then Dares – a young fool, certainly more foolish than she – catches her by her chin and pulls her deeper into his embrace, hand fumbling somewhat impertinently for her breast, and she has other things on her mind.
Above the village, a torch gutters upon the cliﬀs. It has been only briefly raised, a guide in the night to show these raiders where to go. Now its work is done, and the figure who has held it retreats down the hard stone path towards the inland slumber of the isle, feeling no compunction to stay and witness his work. It would be fair of this fellow to think himself unseen, save by his allies – the hour is late and the hot day had faded to a cool, slumbering dark, suitable for vast snoring and dreamless sleep. How little he knows.
In a cave above the shore, a queen in rags and dirt looks out onto the night, the blood still sticky on her hands, and sees the raiders come, but does not think they come for her. So she does not call out to the village below, but cries for her lover, who is dead.
In the east, a king rolls restlessly in the arms of Calypso, who hushes him and says, it is just a dream, my love. Everything beyond these shores is just a dream.
To the south, another fleet with black sails sits becalmed, the rowers asleep beneath the patient sky, while a princess caresses her brother’s sweating brow.
And on the beach, Teodora is beginning to suspect that Dares may not be entirely pure in his attentions, and that they should really start talking of marriage if this is the way things are going to go. She pushes him away with both her palms, but he holds her tight. In the brief shuﬄing of their feet on bony white sand, his eyes turn up and he at last sees the ships, sees their course for this little cove, and with a sluggish wit he declares: “Uh . . . ?”
Dares’ mother owns a grove of olive trees, two slaves and a cow. In the eyes of the sages of the island, these things are in fact owned by Dares’ father – but he never came home from Troy, and as the years ticked down and Dares grew from whelp to man, even the most pedantic elders stopped labouring the point. One day, shortly after his fifteenth birthday, Dares turned to his mother and mused: “It’s a good thing for you I let you hang around,” and in that moment her hope died, though he was a monster of her own making. He can fish, not well, dreams of turning pirate, and has not yet tasted hunger in the winter.
Teodora’s father was sixteen when he wed her mother; sev- enteen when he went to Troy. He left behind his bow, being a weapon for cowards, a few pots and a shawl his mother made. Last winter Teodora killed a lynx that was as hungry as her, the knife with which she would otherwise gut fish driven into its snapping jaw, and has few qualms about making snap decisions when death is on the line.
“Raiders!” she shouts, first to Dares, who hasn’t yet released her from his embrace, and when he finally does, to the village above and the slumbering night, running towards the low mud of hut and home as if she could catch the echo of her own voice. “Raiders! Raiders are coming!”
It is well known that when a grieving wife looks to the sea for the ship of her husband and glimpses a sail threaded with gold, time will slow its pounding chariot to a crawl, and every minute of the ship’s return is an hour pricked out in sweating agony. Yet when pirates come to your shore, it is as if their vessels grow Hermes’ wings and leap, leap across the water, now rounding the hard pillars of stone where the crabs scuttle sideways, black-eyed and orange-backed, now driven by the relentless oars prow-first up the soft lip of the sand. Now men leap from the decks of the beaching ships; now they have axes in hand and carry crude shields of battered bronze and animal hide, their faces painted in pigment and ash. Now they charge from the water’s edge, not as soldiers do, but as wolves, splitting and circling their prey, howling, teeth bared silver in the moon’s gentle light.
Teodora has reached the village before them. Phenera is a place of little square houses set above the thin stream that carves its passage between two cliﬀs of blackened stone to run giddy into the cove. When it rains too hard in winter, the mud walls slop and flop away, and the roofs are constantly a-mending. Here they dry fish and pick at mussels, tend to goats and gossip about their neighbours. Their shrine is to Poseidon, who protects the thin- hulled boats they push into the bay and who, if I know anything about the old fart, doesn’t care a whelp for the meagre oﬀerings of grain and wine they spill upon his altar.
That at least is the picture that Phenera wishes the eye to behold; but look a little closer and you may find trinkets that shine beneath the rough wooden floors, and many a finger that is skilled at more than just fixing a net to catch fish in.
“Raiders! Raiders!” Teodora howls, and slowly a few dusty cloths are pulled back from the crooked doors, a few eyes blink into the shallow dark and shouts begin to rise in alarm. Then voices older and a little more respected sound as other eyes behold the men rushing upon their shores, and hands reach to gather their most precious goods, and like ants from the boiling nest, the people flee.
Too late, for so many – too late.
Their only blessing is that these men of snarling lip and beat- ing shield do not want to kill the youngest and the strongest. It is enough to scare them into cowering submission, to beat them and bind them with rope to take to some place to sell. The two slaves kept in Dares’ house look upon their new captors with weary eyes, for they have been through all this before, when they were first taken by the bold men of Ithaca. Their wretched despair at finding themselves encircled by blade and shield is a bit of a let-down for their attackers, who expected at the least some abject grovelling, but the whole atmosphere is somewhat redeemed when the masters and mistresses of Phenera wail and weep. They are reduced now to the level of those they had mas- tered, and their former slaves tut and say just do as we do, just say what we say, you will learn – you will learn.
Teodora stops to gather only one precious thing – the bow she keeps for killing rabbits. Nothing more. She has nothing so precious as her life, and so she runs, runs, runs for the hills, runs like Atalanta reborn, grabbing the branch of the thin-trunked dying tree that juts out from a promontory to pull herself up; climbing over stone and under leaf to the chittering black while below her home starts to burn. She hears footsteps behind her, the drumming of heavy weight upon the scrubby path, glances over her shoulder, sees torchlight and shadow, near stumbles on a treacherous root in her path, and is caught before she can fall. Hands grasp, old eyes stare, blink, a finger to the lips. Teodora is pulled quickly from her path into darkness, into thicket-leaf shadow, where hunkers a woman with hair like autumn clouds, skin like summer sand, an axe in her hand, a hunting knife on her belt. She could with such implements perhaps fight back; perhaps slam her blade into the throat of the man who pursues them, but what use would that be? None, tonight. None at all. So instead they hide, wrapped in each other’s eyes, their gazes screaming quiet, quiet, quiet! Until at last the footsteps of their pursuer fade away.
The old woman who holds Teodora in safety is called Semele, and she prays to Artemis, who does not deserve her devotions. In the village below, Dares is less sensible. He was raised on stories of the warrior men of Odysseus, and like all boys has learnt something of the spear and the blade. As the straw roof- tops begin to burn, he retrieves his sword from beneath the cot of his mother’s house, steps four paces from his smoking door,
gripping the hilt with both hands, sees an Illyrian dressed in flame and blood approach, takes up his stance, and actually man- ages to parry the first blow that comes for him. This surprises everyone, including Dares, and at the next thrust he turns his body and manages to smack his blade down so hard on the end of the short stabbing spear that the wood cracks and splinters. However, his delight at this development doesn’t last long, for his killer draws a short sword from his belt, turns in the direction of Dares’ next attack, comes under his guard, and splits him clean across the belly.
I will say this for the pirate – he had the courtesy to drive his blade through Dares’ heart, rather than simply leave him to die. The boy hadn’t earned such a clean death, but neither, I suppose, had he lived long enough to deserve the one that came for him.
Rosy-fingered dawn crawled its way across Ithaca’s back like an awkward lover fumbling at long skirts. The light of day should have been as crimson as the blood in the sea below Phenera; it should have circled the island like the sharks. Look towards the horizon, and even the eyes of the gods strain a little to see three sails disappearing into the east, with their stolen cargo of animals, grains and slaves. They will be gone, long gone, before the ships of Ithaca raise their sails.
Let us speak briefly of Ithaca.
It is a thoroughly backwards, wretched place. The golden touch of my footstep upon its meagre soil; the caress of my voice in the ears of its salt-scarred mothers – Ithaca does not deserve such divine attentions. But then again, its barren misery leads the other gods to rarely look upon it either, and so it is a miserable truth that I, Hera, mother of Olympus, who drove Heracles mad and struck vain royalty into stone – why here at least I may sometimes work without the censure of my kin.
Forget the songs of Apollo, or the proud declarations of haughty Athena. Their poems only glorify themselves. Listen to my voice: I who have been stripped of honour, of power and of that fire that should be mine, I who have nothing to lose that the poets have not already taken from me, only I will tell you the truth. I, who part the veil of time, will tell those stories that only the women tell. So follow me to the western isles, to the halls of Odysseus, and listen.
The island of Ithaca guards the watery mouth of Greece like an old cracked tooth, barely a scratch upon the ocean. A stout pair of even human legs might walk it in a day, if they could bear to spend so much time staggering through grubby forest of skulking trees that seem to grow only so far as the laziest necessity for grim survival, or over scrambling rocks of jutting stone that protrude from the earth like the fingers of the dead. Indeed, the island is remarkable only in that some fool thought it an apt locale upon which to attempt to build what the uncouth locals consider a “city” – if a scraggy hillside of crooked houses clinging to the harsh sea may be considered worthy of the name – and above this city, a so-called “palace”. From this termite hall the kings of Ithaca send forth their commands across the western isles, all of which are far more pleasant than this wretched rock. Yet though the people of Hyrie, Paxi, Lefkada, Kephalonia, Kythira and Zakynthos who live beneath Ithaca’s dominion may grow olives and grapes upon their shores, may eat rich barley and even rear the occasional cow, all the peoples of this little dominion are as ultimately uncouth as each other, varying only in their flawed pretensions. Neither the great princes of Mycenae or Sparta, Athens or Corinth, nor the poets who travel door to door have much cause to speak of Ithaca and her isles save as the butt of a joke about goats – until recently, that is. Until Odysseus.
Let us therefore to Ithaca go, in that warm late summer when the leaves begin to crinkle and the ocean clouds tumble in too mighty to be bothered by the little land below. It is the morning after full moon, and in the city beneath the palace of Odysseus, some few hours away by bare foot on hard soil, the first prayers are being sung in the temple of Athena. It is a crooked wooden thing, squat as if frightened of being blown apart in the storm, but with some notable pieces of pillaged gold and silver that only rustics would find magnificent. I avoid passing even a place so dull, lest my stepdaughter show her smug, preening face, or worse, whisper to my husband that she saw me afoot in the world of men. Athena is a priggish little madam; let us move by her shrine in haste.
There is a market that runs from the docks all the way to the gates of the palace. Here you may trade timber, stone, hides, goats, sheep, pigs, ducks – even the occasional horse or cow – beads, bronze, brass, amber, silver, tin, rope, clay, flax, dye and pigment, hides of animals both common and rare, fruit, veg- etables and of course – fish. So much fish. The western isles, every one of them, stink of fish. When I return to Olympus, I will have to bathe in ambrosia to wash the stench away, before some gossipy little nymph catches the whiﬀ of me.
There are many houses, ranging from the humble homes of the craftsmen who can barely keep a slave to the grander courtyard sprawls of the great men who would rather be across the water in Kephalonia, where the hunting is better and, if you go inland, you might lose the smell of fish for a few min- utes to catch instead the whiﬀ of dung – change being a relief of its kind. There are two smiths, who after many years of rivalry finally realised they were better fixing prices together than competing apart. There is a tannery, and a place that was once a brothel but which was forced to take up the weaving and dyeing of clothes when a large part of its clientele set sail for war, and as no ships have returned from Troy carrying vic- torious Ithacans, they continue weaving and dyeing to this day. It has been nearly eighteen years since the manhood of Ithaca sailed to Troy, and even the many ships passing through port since that city fell have not been enough for whoring to be better economics than mastery of a nice bit of dye.
Above it all: the palace of Odysseus. It was the palace of Laertes for a while, and I have no doubt the old man wanted it to remain known by that glorious name, his legacy carved into stone – an Argonaut, no less, a man who once sailed, under my banner, to fetch the golden fleece, before that little shit Jason betrayed me. But Laertes grew old before all the men of Greece were summoned to Troy. Thus the son eclipsed the father, new daubs of black and red smeared across the corridors, wide-eyed and ochre-tinged. Odysseus and his bow. Odysseus in battle. Odysseus winning the armour of fallen Achilles. Odysseus with calves of an ox and Atlas’s shoulders. In the eighteen years since the king of Ithaca was last sighted on this isle, his somewhat short, unimpressive and far too hairy form has grown in stature and personal hygiene, if only in the poet’s eye.
The poets will tell you a lot about the heroes of Troy. Some details they have correct; in others, as with all things, they lie. They lie to please their masters. They lie without knowing what they do, for it is the poet’s art to make every ear that hears the ancient songs think they have been sung for them alone, the old made new. Whereas I sing for no creature’s pleasure but my own, and can attest that what you think you know of the last heroes of Greece, you do not know at all.
Follow me through the halls of the palace of Odysseus; follow to hear the stories that the men-poets of the greedy kings do not tell.
Even in dawn’s thinly mirrored light, the perfect white that bounces in oﬀ the sea, the great hall is a shadowed pit of inequity. The stench of men, of spilt wine and chewed bone, of flatulence and bile mingled with sweat – I pause in the door to pinch my nose at it. The maids are about already, trying their best to wash away the stink of last night’s feast, to return the plates to the kitchen and burn sweet herbs to clear the fetid air, but their work is interrupted by a few of the men still snoring like pigs beneath the table, hands out-reached to the ashes of the fire as if they had dreamt of ice.
These snoring lullards, these lumpen males are but a handful of suitors who sweep in and out like the tides from Odysseus’s door, feasting on his land and pawing at the skirts of his maids. There were twenty of them two years ago; fifty at the last turn- ing of the sun, and now near one hundred men have come to Ithaca, all with one purpose – to win the hand of Odysseus’s mourning, lonesome queen.
The painted eyes of Odysseus may watch from the walls, but he is dead – he is dead! the suitors exclaim. It has been eighteen years since he sailed from Ithaca, eight since Troy fell, seven since he was last sighted on the isle of Aeolus – he is drowned, surely he is drowned! No one is that bad a sailor. Come, oh tearful queen, come: it is time to pick a new man. It is time to pick a new king.
I know them all, these would-be princelings, snuggled shoul- der to shoulder like sleeping dogs. Antinous, son of Eupheithes, his dark hair waxed and oiled in a glistening hive swept back from his brow, so stiﬀ it stirs neither by rain nor sweat. He wears his father’s wealth in his tunic, which is hemmed with crimson purchased from a Cretan man who had no teeth, and in the tapestry of beads and gold slung casually about his neck as if to say, “What, these old things? I found them behind an amphora of wine, as one does – as one does.” Antinous was five years old when Odysseus went to war, and stood on the docks and cried and stamped his foot and wanted to know why he couldn’t be a soldier. Now Achilles is dead, Ajax and Hector rot in dust, and Antinous asks no more.
Snorting and slumbering next to him, Eurymachus, whose father Polybus avoided going to war by sailing to the western colonies on “urgent business” that took ten urgent years – and whose nursemaid spoiled him rotten and told him he was descended from Heracles. Every little twerp is descended from Heracles these days, it’s practically a requirement for entry to polite society. Perhaps it is the tracery of sunlight in Eurymachus’s hair that gives the impression of some sordid divinity, but though a young man, his forehead is already climb- ing and his flaxen mane grows thin. Only his laughable oar-ish height and skinniness distracts from this fact, and he peers down upon the world as if perpetually surprised to find it still turning beneath his flapping feet.
Who else here of note? Amphinomous, son of a king, who was taught that honour is everything and suspects, perhaps, that he is not honourable but doesn’t entirely know what to do about the situation. His father was fruitful in sons, gourd-faced boys the lot of them, who rarely quarrelled and who made music like the whines of Cerberus. They are all dead now, three by Trojan hands, save Amphinomous, who will do what he must.
Andraemon, who does not sleep, but watches the maids with one eye open from where he has fallen across his folded arms. Did salt or sand dry his skin so that nails down his back make the sound of bone over leather? Did the harsh sun of Troy bleach his hair to such a burnished hue, does he have to throw discus every morn and every night to maintain such contours about his chest, chin, shoulders, arms – or is he blessed of Ares and Aphrodite, that men might quake and women swoon at his sight?
A little secret: he is not blessed, and arms like his are not cas- ually made.
These are the men of note. We regard them as one might regard a rash – hopeful that it does not spread further – and then move on.
About these slumbering suitors are the other part of this story – the part that the poets do not name, save to lie. The maids of the palace are many in number, for the palace itself is a little industry. No monarch of Ithaca dare rely on favourable winds and rich soils for regular income of grain – instead, the women keep ducks, geese, pigs, goats; they fish in a little cove where only the women go, prise mussels from black stone and tend to groves of olive and fields of barley as mere and tough as the mouths that will eat them; and at night, when the last of the suitors finally are asleep, they lie down and dream the dreams that are all their own. Listen – listen. Let us peek behind fresh-washed faces; let us swim in the soul of a passing maid.
. . . spin the yarn to make the thread an easy job my feet would kill for an easy job . . .
Antinous looked at me last night, I wonder if he thinks . . .
Must tell Melantho must tell her she’ll howl she’ll scream it’ll be hilarious where’s Melantho must tell her now!
But here, why listen here, here is a voice that whispers out of tune.
Death to the Greeks, beats the heart of one whose hair falls like clotted blood above her neck, her eyes down to the floor. Death to all the Greeks.
Of these maids of Ithaca – these slave women and sold girls, these indentured daughters – so much more of them will I have to say. I am the goddess of queens, wives and women; my tasks may be thankless, but I perform them nonetheless. But alas, events are already in motion that require our attention, and so let us look to the north.
From the hard carved road that winds down the terraced valley into what we will grudgingly call a city, Teodora comes. She has given up running; now each footfall is one at a time, counting the steps, forward without a destination, head first, heels twisting, and people scurry to clear a way before her. She carries a bow without arrows, and an old woman walks at her side. Their arrival will only make things harder, but I never shied from trouble.
By the palace gate, a man called Medon is preparing to do his rounds of the market. He is oﬃcially the voice of Ithaca, sent from the palace to proclaim the rulings of Ithaca’s king. Ithaca’s king has not been home for eighteen years, and he certainly can’t proclaim the rulings of some queen, so these days he proclaims very little and just hopes people get the idea and realise what’s good for them. Lately his optimism on that latter point is grow- ing thin. With a round, soft belly beneath a round, drooping face, he is one of very few men older than twenty-five on the island, and it is perhaps this novelty that causes Teodora to slow as she approaches him, swaying a little from the rising heat and broken weight of the night, before stopping altogether in front of him, staring long into his eyes as if she might find evidence that all this were just a dream resting in the pupil, and proclaiming simply: “The pirates came.”