As she weaves the faces of the gods into the fabric of the funeral shroud, she listens for the rush of the tide and the wind in the top of the olive trees. Most days the bay is silent but for the laughter of the fishermen and the slapping of their nets on the pebbles, but sometimes the snap of sails on a bigger ship make her sit up and drop the spool from her hands. She has imagined her husband returning many times, leaping onto the beach, his hair laced with salt and grey, perhaps, but he has not come.
The old king Laertes sits outside in the shade of a tree, resting his trembling fingers on the head of an equally aged dog. The younger men tolerate his presence because his milky eyes, covered in a gelatine layer of film, don’t see much of what goes on in his hall, and they all agree he isn’t long for the world. There is nothing she can do for her father-in- law; yet his coming death is the pretext for delaying her second marriage, for all the hours she spends alone, up in the small room facing eastwards, weaving a shroud she does not intend to finish.
Some days, she wakes up feeling a slight disturbance, as if something is off about the island, and its reality is slowly becoming undone around the smallest nicks and flaws in its fabric – like someone is pulling the thread of their story on to a different course. Objects move around and disappear, only to turn up on the beach or in her clothes chest. A gnarled old tree that was felled by a winter storm in the first year of her marriage reappears in a different spot on the hillside, but when she points it out to her maids they shake their heads and say things are the same, the way they have always been.
At night she listens to the roar of the men drinking in her hallway, probably laughing about her skirts and her son they love to wind up, sending him scurrying furiously up the stairs. When she is sure they are truly drunk, she steals out of the bedroom and down the hall. The shroud sits ominously on its frame, a shadow against the stars outside. She lights a torch and the flame dances across the weave, illuminating the maze of King Minos and the glowering face of the beast inside.
The eyes of the minotaur shine yellow in the halfdark, the pupil a dark slit, more like a snake’s cold stare than a bull’s. When the textile flutters under her touch it looks like its nostrils widen and fall with the force of its breathing, sniffing out its prey. She slips her fingers under the thread, coaxing out the ocean blue and dun strands until the monster unravels and drops away harmlessly, leaving Theseus alone with a jagged string into the labyrinth. Heroes walk along the centre of her shroud, Hercules waving his club and loved by everyone, even the gods.
Nearer to the bottom Laertes himself is sitting on a throne, cross-legged and mellow. Odysseus stands beside his father. His face is turned away, towards the sea, obscured by his thick mane of curls. If she closes her eyes, she catches glimpses of what he was like – a mocking half-smile, or the corners of his dark eyes crinkling with laughter – but the face never comes into focus, remaining hazy, so unlike the man. For the first time, she wonders how he will be remembered, if he should be dead at sea.
Penelope strokes the weave and then pulls the thread loose, watching her husband fall in a tangle among the icons at her feet. When the sun comes up over the mountain, the maids will come and spin the colours of the heroes back onto the spools, to be reassembled during the days. Silently, she slides back through the hall on her bare feet, vowing that his name – Odysseus- will be remembered as the name of a hero, even if her own must pale and unravel over the years like one of her tapestries.
Written for the Weekly writing challenge. This week’s theme was ‘iconic’. I chose Greece because particularly the Homeric epics are an icon of story-telling to me. They make me wonder about all the moments that aren’t described in the Iliad and the Odyssee – and of course, for the stunning landscapes 🙂