Wanderings: The Retelling Of The Classical Story Of Kind Odysseus And Queen Penelope by Aleksandar Bajić is published by Porcupine Press and available now. This extract published by permission.
‘Tomorrow morning go to Laodocus’ hut and fetch Silhouette and Thunder. Then prepare a wagon. You’ll drive us to the east coast,’ the Queen said to a slave. She was looking forward to the outing. Telemachus had stayed with Laertes for ten days now. The King had invited his grandson and she had dutifully let the boy go. Penelope knew the old man was besieged by grief and loneliness; to Laertes, having Telemachus in his empty palace was like stumbling upon a spring in a desert. She gladly put up with the boy’s absence, knowing that Laertes’ gain was larger than her loss. One of the consequences of Telemachus’ stay at his grandfather’s was that she felt lonely and bored. During the ten days she had received only one message from the boy in which Telemachus described how he practised fencing and hunted with Laertes and his men. He announced that he had killed a hare. These matters were obviously very important to him because the message did not contain any other information. The boy’s story elicited diverse reactions from his mother. ‘He is too young for fencing and hunting,’ she thought. And immediately after that, ‘The message is well written. I must remember to show it to the tutor. He’ll be pleased.’ It was the monotony of the days without Telemachus that had given her the idea for an outing. It had been a long while since she had last seen the beautiful view from the east coast of the island. She decided it was time to treat her eyes to it again. Her ladies-in-waiting Hippodameia and Autonoe would go with her. One tended not to use horses on the island’s hilly terrain, but Penelope decided to make Silhouette and Thunder earn their keep on this occasion because it required some means of transport for the women and their refreshments.
The following morning the slave brought and harnessed the horses. The wagon was loaded and the women climbed in. They set off in high spirits. The bright blue sky almost hurt their eyes; there was no cloud in sight. A pleasant breeze kept them cool. The uneven terrain made the journey long, but it was enjoyable. The hats they had put on came in handy as the sun became hotter and hotter. They admired the island as they rode. The wagon went past fields where thick and tall maize grew. For a while they followed a fast stream which zigzagged across the stony ground. Penelope showed her companions tiny fish that were swimming quickly upstream just to stay in one place. There were occasional tufts of grass jutting out at the water’s edge; frogs jumped from them into the stream as the wagon approached. Once in a while a bird took off ahead of them, scared by the noise of their vehicle. They found a spot where the wagon could easily cross the stream. As they left the brook behind, the ride became smoother. The wagon was gliding through a lush pasture. A few cattle dotted the green tapestry in the distance where the pasture met the steep forested slopes of Mount Neriton. The majestic pine forests had provided timber for the Ithacan ships for as long as the Ithacans had sailed the sea. Before reaching the slopes, the wagon turned and started descending towards the coast. As it cautiously rolled on, the women admired the view of the peaceful, lazy sea and the misty mainland. When they came close to the shore, they stopped under some trees. They spread the blankets and took out the refreshments. The slave tied the horses to a tree while the women lay on the blankets, chatting. They could hear the murmur of the sea. Closer to them there was the song of the cicadas. The air was heavy with the rich scent of jolly flowering bushes and elegant cypresses. It seemed to the Queen the shore was suspended in time and space and she was part of it. Penelope was one with the island, having lain on the shore since the omnipotent gods had created the world. As old as Ithaca, she would stay there, simply an outcrop of the underlying rock; she would share the island’s destiny when the gods playfully returned their beautiful creation into the state of the preexisting chaos pregnant with potential. Penelope pictured the island over the centuries: generation upon generation of peasants and fishermen who would straighten from their work and, one hand above the eyes to shield them from the piercing sun, observe in the distance the latest invading armada to reach their shores; all of these people had to come and go in exactly the right sequence for her and her companions to experience this perfect day. ‘To me, this is the centre of the world,’ Hippodameia said lazily, breaking the spell, while she observed the ragged shore and the blue expanse of the water behind it.
Abruptly brought back from her reverie, Penelope didn’t know what to say. During her momentary confusion competing responses raced each other to her sensual lips; it happened so that laughter came first. ‘Be careful what you say or you’ll provoke the immortals’ envy,’ she said with a laugh. ‘Surely, they hold that Mount Olympus is the centre of the world. If you continue with this blasphemy, I expect Zeus to strike us with his thunderbolt.’ Her two companions smiled. ‘My only hope is that Zeus is not overly concerned with human preferences,’ said Hippodameia. ‘As far as I’m concerned, no place comes close to Ithaca.’ She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. ‘I have Ithaca in my blood. If somebody opened my chest, they’d find a heart in the shape of this island, exactly as you see it from the top of Mount Neriton.’ ‘I feel the same way, although I wasn’t born here,’ said Penelope. ‘So do I,’ Autonoe added. ‘We’re blessed in so many ways here. We have golden corn fields and lush vineyards whose wine is famous all over Achaea. We have pure springs watering rich pastures where thriving herds graze. Sometimes I can feel the presence of generations of Argives who have walked these paths before us. They’ve bequeathed Ithaca to us. It’s our inheritance, which we must cherish.’ Hippodameia said, ‘Even if I just sail to Alyzia, after two days I feel something’s missing and yearn to come home. But it doesn’t worry men. They think nothing of sailing to the ends of the earth and fighting there for years and years. Men are strange.’ ‘They think going to battle is heroic,’ Autonoe said. ‘They should try giving birth.’ ‘That’s right,’ Hippodameia added. ‘Two of my sisters-in-law have died giving birth. A doctor was with both, but there was nothing he could do.’ Penelope suddenly said, ‘Let’s just lie here quietly for a while and imagine that we are part of the island like these rocks and trees.’ Hippodameia opened her mouth to comment on her Queen’s strange suggestion, but changed her mind; the peace surrounding them seemed to support the proposal. Lazy moments were trickling past and they were lying completely still like a nearby uprooted tree when the switch occurred: they forgot who they were and became one with the playful wind weaving between cypresses. Then their consciousness, disconnected from their bodies, anchored in trees and rocks. Soon the whole landscape dissolved in the shimmering heat and they were absorbed in the glare of the sun which kept blazing, timeless and glorious. They spent indefinable cycles of time (hours? years?) in the vault of the burning sky. Then an intruder shattered the blazing paradise. A magpie landed, refocusing their attention from the sunshine to itself. They were three women lying on blankets again. The bird was eyeing the ring on Penelope’s finger. It came a little closer, watching the group carefully. Nobody moved. The bird came still closer. The women were watching it watching the ring. The magpie stepped forward again and took a tentative peck at the gold band. As its beak touched the metal, Penelope shifted her hand slightly and the bird flew away.