Neon Codex

Where digital meets classical.

Penelope to Odysseus: A Scattering of Tear Stained Fragments in the Sea

Note: Without much further ado, this is the second part to my little experiment. A companion piece more than a sequel, as the two letters are thematically bound to one another and could be read in either order. Having completed them both I think my favorite thing about the entire exercise is the characterizations of both Odysseus and Penelope, one half internal and the other through their lover's eyes, are only complete with both pieces. The full portrait appears of each lover most vividly when connected with the other half. Point and Counter-Point. Hope you like it. 

 

Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night by Dora Wheeler (1856–1940). Silk embroidered with silk thread. 

Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night by Dora Wheeler (1856–1940). Silk embroidered with silk thread. 

 

Dear Husband, 

Men have invaded our home, ransacked our grounds and defiled the honor of our very household. They are suitors who take liberties with tradition, and it is only within the ever loosening strictures of which do I feel safe from them. Their hungry eyes leer at me from the break of day, when they begin ransacking our wine stores and feasting at their discretion on our livestock, until they collapse on the palace floors drunk and stuffed full of food at night. Their fevered desire is tempered only by a thirst for power, for your throne and all that is yours. They mean to take my home from me, my family and life. They wish to crush my hope, the hope that you are alive my husband and returning to me to set these trespasses right. Until then our home, our wealth, our lands and all of our holdings, are my only bargaining chip with which I can broker for my own safety.

In the meantime they take out their frustration on our servants. After so many days and nights of drunkenness and feasting, I lay in my bed one night to hear the screams of one of our housemaids in the palace foyer. As the suitors chased her through the halls and eventually captured her. I stopped my ears and helplessly bit my pillow, so that I would not have to bear the shame of what they were doing to her, to confront the horror of the crime. Men are beasts my love, no more than a sty of violent tempered pigs or a kennel of rabid dogs, tearing away at the field mice so unlucky as to have slipped through the cracks between boards and stone. The young woman has not looked anyone in the eyes since, she enters rooms with her head bowed and she speaks only in hushed whispers. I am making what arrangements I can to send her away to a neighboring Kingdom, it is all that I can do for her now. 

Since that night I sometimes wake up screaming your name, reaching fruitlessly to the other side of the bed, where the warmth of your body would once comfort me, and I grasp only sheets, cooled by the wet breeze that comes in through my open window, from the Ionian Sea. And others I awake screaming for our son, Telemachus, but even his chamber is empty, he has left for Sparta to ask the King Menelaus if he has received any news of your whereabouts. It would seem I am all alone, in a house of wild beasts and half-shades, who haven't yet revealed to me whether they are still the men I love, waiting to reappear at the opportune time,  or wanderers towards the vast undergloom, citizens under rule of Hades.

In all of this madness I almost forgot to tell you, about your son, my child. He is a grown man now, not quite old enough to claim your throne, but not so young anymore that he won't try and find you. He is just like you, he will never give up. He so desperately wishes to know you, to see you with his own eyes and fill this empty place in his heart, where a boy should know the love of his father. He will make you proud, when you return from that treacherous sea and fill your place beside me again, in our martial bed, warming me in these cold fearful nights. 

And your mother, your mother you will find, if I pray to the gods on Olympus you have not already by joining her, has succumb to her grief. She couldn't bear the uncertainty of whether or not she would have to watch her own son pass into the Land of Shades before she, it weighed too strongly on her in the end and she left this world. 

But enough of despair my love, enough of hopelessness. As long as my love for you holds true, there will be hope. And my love for you is enough to fill all of the seas from here to the smoldering ruins of Troy, where you fought and reigned victorious. As I knew you would. And as I know now that you will come home to me. And if our love is as bountiful as Poseidon's waters, what chance does the God of the Sea have with his mere waves and fish?

I remember when first I saw you. You were one of Helen's suitors; cunning, boastful, perfectly aloof. You brought no gifts, thinking that your keen intellect and pride should be enough to win you the day. I fell in love at that instant, though you were intolerable on one hand, you were radiant on the other. You were a man who followed through on his word, the world's last and only hero. Whose swiftness in combat was made unstoppable by his swifter yet mind. Make no mistake though husband, though I flatter you so, you were truly a sight to behold. I still laugh and smile to myself in kind when I think of you as a young man. But not cruelly, more important than your mind, your strength, is that you make me laugh. I would trade that simple gift, for all of the strength of Hercules, for all of the wisdom of Theseus. None can match the simple, beautiful way you reach my heart. 

I let rumors trickle through the vine, rumors of my impending betrothal, so that when Helen inevitably chose Menelaus, you would come to me with the rest of them. And come you did, with that crowd of suitors, to my father Icarius's palace. I remember sitting at the table of honor, another suitor talking into my ear, as my eyes followed you. I watched you walk across my father's courtyard garden, with your men from Ithaca, boasting of adventures and accomplishments, comparing lots and skills, as all of these men clamored around me not knowing I'd made my choice already. You were made of a different essence than those men; the way you stood, your dark beard with glistening blonde bristles, your strong face, and your olive-colored eyes that sparkled, with vision and wherewithal, despite the boasting, despite the arrogance. It is your strength of purpose my love, with it you lift my heart as no one ever could.

Yes, it is true you came as a suitor for Helen, but I knew that I would make you mine and that you would leave as my husband. You and your men thought you cunning husband, but unbeknownst to you, I was that much more so. I was, and always am, your perfect match. 

And when my father selected the best of them, through feats of strength and speed, he was left at the end with a small number of men, which of course included you. Finally he announced his terms, that the man who could best him in a footrace would have my hand in marriage. I quietly murmured my wishes to Hermes, to make you fleet as thought, such as he is, to lend you those winged sandals which would carry you across the finish line and into my heart. When all was said and done, you were the fastest, the swiftest, the best. And you took my hand, as I had desired all along, and swept me far away to our beautiful kingdom, where the clear blue waters wash against sparkling shorelines and the rolling green hills extend to the furthest horizon, bathed in the shining light of the sun. 

I chose you husband, every bit as much as you me.

You see, while men think that they rule the world, as beasts rule the fields and forests, us women are the true wellsprings of ingenuity. We are cornered by barbarism, and are forced to think our way into a more versatile sort of influence. Brute force is simple, it tires itself out and falls like the walls of that doomed city Troy. However it was Helen who caused the conflict to ensue in the first place and men fought it for her. Helen whose beauty remains unlike those city walls, everlasting, as a mortal echo of her half-sister, by Zeus, Aphrodite, whose wiles are much the same over man and god. 

It is from this position, this place of cunning, that I have managed to dupe these suitors who make themselves at home in our palace and protect myself. I tell them that I will chose one of them once I have finished weaving a burial shroud for your father. Which I do, day in and day out, slaving over the loom. However once all of the men have fallen unconscious from drink, I unweave it all again, only to start from the beginning the next day, and the next, and the next, until the day that you return home to me.

It is with great pain that I do this, like Sisyphus in Tartarus rolling his boulder up the hill day after day. But such is my devotion to you my husband, such is my love for you. I will continue to weave and unweave this shroud until my fingers crack and bleed, I will do it until I am old and withered, until the universe loses all structure and sense and returns to the swirling torrential chaos from which it was formed. I will do this until the day I see you again, in this world or the next. 

As I weave on the loom all these hours and days, I speak prayers constantly, under my breath, to Hermes, to Athena, to carry my love to you, on his winged sandals, and for her to guide you and protect you. 

And this letter, which I have no way of delivering to you, I will tear to pieces and scatter to the sea. As only then does it have any chance of reaching you, any more so than if these thoughts were to stay locked inside of my weary head. And perhaps then cruel Poseidon will receive my note and take pity, abating whatever loathing he so clearly has for you to keep you at sea and away from me for so very long.

You have always known exactly who it is that you are and the greatness that you would do my husband. You have always kept your word. And on that day, the day that I fell in love with you, I called to you and you came to me. So please, my love, my light, do so again now, come to me, swift as winds and rapid as the rushing waters. And be with me once more, so we both may be whole again.

Your ever faithful and loving wife,

Penelope