BEFORE THE WAR . . .
Odysseus and his wife, Penelope, and their baby, Telemachus, are sitting on a woolen coverlet spread out in the shade of a pomegranate tree. It is early in the morning. The baby, recently fed, is drowsing on his back, his hands flung out above his head, his mouth a little open, and his eyes half closed. Penelope is trying hard not to cry. She's blinking to stop the tears from falling. She's turned her head away from her husband.
"Listen to me, Penelope," he says. "Look at me. Don't turn away. I have to go. Anyone who calls himself a man has a duty to go."
"It's not your war. It's not your fight. What's Agamemnon ever done for you? Stay here. Stay with me and Telemachus, I beg of you, Odysseus. Look at your son. How can you bear to leave him?"
Odysseus shakes his head. "I tried. You saw me trying. I did my best not to go. Didn't I? Didn't I pretend I was mad so as not to have to go?"
"It didn't work, though, did it?"
"Did you want me to run my plow over the body of my son?" Odysseus shakes his head.
"Agamemnon's as cunning as you are. He knew you were only pretending to be crazy. The ruler of Ithaka plowing his own fields and sowing them with salt!" Penelope's voice breaks as she speaks. "I saw the look on his face as he picked our baby up and laid him down on the ground, right in the path of your plow. He knew you were putting on a show. Tricking him."
Telemachus stirs, makes a moaning noise, and wakes up. He starts to fuss, and his mother gathers him up into her arms, nuzzling her face into the soft folds of his neck. Odysseus looks at his wife and child, and tears stand in his eyes.
"Listen to me, Penelope. I'll come back. I swear I will. On the life of my precious son and on the love that fills me when I look at you, I'm telling you that I'll return. Don't stop waiting for me, my darling. You have to believe me. Please, Penelope. Say you believe me."
"How can you ask such things of me? And how can you swear to come back? It's war, Odysseus, and men die in wars. They're wounded. They're torn apart. They're buried far from home."
Her tears are falling now, and Telemachus touches the drops that flow from his mother's eyes with his small fingers, enchanted by this novelty.
"I will fight in Troy," Odysseus whispers, "and I will come back to you. I give you my word."
He leans over and puts his right arm around his wife's shoulders and draws her to him. She turns her face up to his and he kisses her on the lips.
"You are my life," he says. "My life is nowhere else but here. On Ithaka. With you."
The sun rises higher in the sky and the light filters through the leaves of the pomegranate tree, scattering gold in Penelope's hair as she clings, weeping, to her husband.
"I believe you," she tells him. "And I will wait for you."
THIRTEEN YEARS LATER . . .
Pallas Athene in her owl shape flies over the water. The sky above the horizon is streaked with gold and pink as the burning chariot of the sun, driven by her brother, Phoebus Apollo, and pulled by his fire-footed horses, plunges down into the dark waves. Below her lies an island washed around on every side by the wide blue ocean. This place is beloved of everyone who lives there. Beloved, too, of one who is sailing toward it, and who has been longing to return to his home for many years. The white bird hovers on a breath of wind and fixes her amber eyes on Ithaka.
Mountains rise from a coastline that curves into coves and bays and inlets where the sand is pale and silvery and where rocks fringe the shore and caves stand with their black mouths gaping wide. The lower slopes of the green-clad hills are terraced and planted with vines, and wherever the land lies flatter, farmers have cultivated groves of olive trees and almond trees and orchards where figs and peaches and lemons grow.
The owl soars over the harbor: a natural curve in the landscape, with small boats and fishing vessels tied up along the seafront. Down on the quays, even though the clamor of the port is hushed, fishermen are working on their boats in the dim light of lanterns. They will set out before dawn to cross the seas around the island and fill their nets with silver fish. A town has taken root here, gathering together those who live on what they can take from the sea and by trade with their neighbors. They sell their fish and buy the produce of those from distant lands whose ships, laden with metal and cloth and spices, sail into Ithaka's waters. The market is quiet now, and the stalls lie covered up for the night, but light spills out of the doors of taverns, and in kitchens everywhere, fires are already lit to cook the evening meal.
Away from the harbor and up and up to the great gates of Odysseus's palace, the bird follows the road that leads from the town. Many are sleeping, but here and there a light shows at a window: a mother tending a feverish child, perhaps, or someone who is finding it hard to escape into dreams. Silence lies over everything, but from time to time, a groan or a sigh floats into the cool air.
The rulers of Ithaka live in a palace built around two courtyards, one leading from the other, like squares joined by covered passages. The white owl comes to rest on a fig tree that grows below Penelope's chamber. This is the only room in the palace where a light is still burning. This is where she is needed.
Penelope is wide awake. It happens to her often that she falls into a black sleep as soon as she lies down and then wakes a little while later, tormented by dreams. Then, it is hard to rest again. Tonight she finds herself gripped by a terror so strong that she has difficulty drawing breath. She goes to stand at the window and leans out into the fresh night air, trying to calm herself by looking at the branches of the fig tree that grows against the wall and spreads itself almost into her chamber. How happy they had been, she and Odysseus, when they used to sit under this tree and the rest of the palace seemed to fade away till there was nothing left but the two of them under a green canopy of leaves. She sighs. Those days seem very distant now.
Behind her is the bed that her husband carved out of a single olive tree before they were married. She has slept there alone for so many years that she sometimes thinks of it as a kind of desert. The headboard, chiseled into intricate patterns of flowers and garlands, reaches up to the ceiling of the chamber. Every one of the pillows has a cover that she has made with her own hands. A chest, its lid inlaid with mother-of-pearl, stands in one corner. It holds all her clothes, and whenever she opens it, a fragrance of cedarwood fills the chamber.She turns to look at the small loom that has been set up for her here, where she spends so much of her time. It is somewhatshorter than she is and narrower than the span of her arms: a wooden frame with threads stretched across it from top to bottom. Next to the loom lies a large basket woven from dried reeds, and this is where Penelope keeps her wools: skeins and balls in brown and green and purple and red and yellow; pale shades and dark ones in each color; thick strands and fine ones that she can push between the threads already on the frame, backward and forward again and again, until a small piece of fabric is finished: a wall hanging, or a decoration of some kind. The loom is placed to the right of the window to take advantage of the light. When she sits at her work, if she lifts her eyes, what Penelope sees is a white wall. All the beauty of the island is behind her as she weaves.
Suddenly, she notices a movement near the sill. She leans out to see better and catches sight of a white owl settled on a branch of the fig tree. She thinks, How beautiful and how peaceful this creature is! and fee...