The Death of Elpenor

Elpenor was a heavy sleeper, so I had to shake hard to wake him. He snorted and stirred, but then just blinked and looked around like a quickening lamb. I had to slip an arm under his shoulder and hoist him to his feet. In the dark of the queen’s high-columned hall, we padded past our shipmates and strained against the cool bronze doors until a tapered shaft of moonlight wedged them open.

Outside, we braced a ladder against the porch’s eaves and climbed the sturdy rungs to the roof. Our cloaks spread on the slant of river-polished stones, we took long swallows of the wine we’d clipped from Circe’s stores. The same vintage the goddess poured each night into our borrowed cups tasted finer from the lip of the skin. It was tangy with pine sap and stank of goat, but at least you could taste the hand of man in it. A fine, cool night, even under foreign stars. But then, without my asking, Elpenor started in again about the acorns.

“I’m telling you, you can’t imagine the taste, not with a man’s tongue.”

“What other tongue would I have?” I rolled over, drawing the cloak across my shoulders.

“When you bear down, the skin holds for a moment. But then it splits open, and you take that first snout-puckering bite—I can’t even describe it.”

“Then don’t.”

Elpenor had been soft-headed to begin with, moody and too fond of wine. A fleet runner with a young man’s eyes, he’d at least made a tolerable scout. But a year on Circe’s island had ruined him.

Seduced by her singing, he’d followed the others into her lair. My mates, the guileless asses, they sat at the witch’s table and drank from bowls brimmed with poisoned mead. Once they were glutted and sleepy, she drew her wand. She pricked their backs with sprouting hairs, cramped their fingers into hooves, and cast their varied features in the same swinish mold—wide snouts set between pale, squinting eyes.

Out of the whole party, I’d been the only one with the wits to hold back. Unseen, I sped to fetch their rescue. Odysseus, our captain, he made peace with the goddess and compelled her to undo her curse. The men wept for joy, spread their arms wide, and embraced. Only Elpenor had stood apart.

“But the flavor isn’t entirely bitter,” he kept on, “there’s something gentle, almost sweet, at the end.”

“I’ve eaten acorns before.” I sat up and brought my legs close. Seizing the bottom of my tunic, I tugged it over my knees. “You might’ve known that.”

“And the carya nuts, the shells were like bones boiled through the night in a cauldron—and with such sweet marrow inside.”

“I must’ve spoken of it.” The wine was working on me now, and though I’d suffered his nonsense for a year, pity was giving way to something hotter.

“But my favorites? Those were the berries from the dagger tree; it makes my mouth water just to think about it—”

“Enough! I’ve heard all this.” My cheeks red, I pitched him a spearman’s glare. He knew better than to say more.

I adjusted the brooch at my shoulder and gathered my tunic so that it fell in a ripple of orderly folds. Elpenor’s jacket was frayed and crusted with his own salt; it hung loose about his middle like an empty sack. Was it any wonder that the rest of the crew shunned him, a filthy and tiresome fool?

“Honestly,” I said, “I don’t know why you can’t be grateful. It’s true, Circe wronged us once, but that’s all mended now. What we would have given at Troy to dine each night on meat and honeyed wine—and in the hall of a goddess. If you longed for home like the rest of us, I could understand it.”

“It’s not that,” he said, topping his head with a rustic’s hat.

“The dread goddess took pity on you. To leave behind the world of men? To eat swill in a filthy sty, and no words to tell of your suffering? I would rather sink to the bottom of the sea than bear that.”

“I didn’t suffer. I didn’t know. She led us into our pen and gave us—”

“Delicious daggerberries!” I shoved the sloshing skin into his hands. “I don’t want to hear anymore about it. The way you go on, don’t you know it’s disgraceful? A swine’s pleasures aren’t fit for a man.”

“They were fit enough for me when I had them.”

I tried to remember what he had looked at the beginning, before our hands were blistered from turning oars and hefting spears, before scars traced crooked paths over our limbs. I still thought of him sometimes as that clumsy, copper-haired boy who had cried below deck and could not be comforted.

But ten years of war had wrung the boy out of him. His muscles were lean, hard cords, wound over his bones like ropes round a spar’s end. Most of his hair had fallen away and what was left, a ring around his sunburnt pate, was twisted and tan with filth.

“It’s not disgraceful,” he said, plucking at his beard.

“What now?”

“Zeus throws off his scepter and takes the form of a bull. All so he can pin some unlucky virgin under his hooves and ravish her. He’s the lord of all the gods. Who are we to call it disgraceful?”

“I was talking about you. Leave the gods out of it.”

“The deathless ones, why would they make themselves into beasts if there wasn’t something to it, a pleasure or casting off that even they long for? Just think of it. Memory, speech, custom, law—to just heap them all in some forgotten corner and go out on all fours with no master but your own blood.”

Tiring of the argument, I listened instead to the rapping of a tardy picus bird. Unaccountably awake, he was still gouging his beak into some piece of dead wood. I wondered if the boy really was beyond helping. Whatever queer spirit had taken hold of him that day in Circe’s hall still had him in its grip.

“You know,” I said, “we were having a fine time before you started jabbering like a barbaroi. As if anyone but a barbarian would willingly trade his lot for that of a pig. And what about a pig’s end, have you thought of that? One day a rough swineherd binds your feet, hangs you from a tree, and gashes your throat while you squeal and kick.”

“You talk like it’s better for us.” He wore a drunken smirk, but his eyes were mirthless.

I couldn’t deny it. We’d seen scores butchered at Troy. Chariots unjointed their limbs and ground their bones to meal. Spears smashed through their temples. Swords unspooled their guts in the dust. I wondered what they would think of us, the ones who had lived, talking this way.

“Besides,” he said, “beasts aren’t like us. Whatever they know of death, they learn it by dying. There’s a freedom in that.”

“Freedom? What nonsense. Never mind his death, a swine’s life isn’t his own. He must stay where he is penned, go where he is goaded, and give his flesh for the table when man—man wishes it. The basest slave has more license.”

“Tell that to fleet-footed Achilles.” He tilted back the skin and wine slopped from the corners of his mouth. “A man like that,” he said, not bothering to wipe his beard, “with his end decreed by prophecy? He had no more choice in it than a horse driven on by a whip.”

“A man and a horse, equally free? A fool knows better. Your mind is wild,” I said, “an unpropped vine that’s gone too long without the reed’s correction. It grows tangled and fruitless thoughts.” I rose to my feet, but above me, the sky wobbled. “I don’t know why I go on trying to husband you.”

Sopped in wine, I swayed like a new-fledged oarsman. “Help me find the ladder, will you? The light’s failing.”

“Are you going?”

The clouds parted and I peered down into the courtyard. I could just make out the form of a drowsing lion, one of Circe’s pets, a wide paw draped across its muzzle. She stirred and, gazing up, fixed me in the light of two green-glimmering beacons. Frightened, I took my seat again.

“You’re not wrong,” I offered. “Not completely. Fate doles each man his ration of suffering, it’s true, but that’s not the end of it. When men rage, when they’re lawless, when they speak blasphemies, then the deathless ones add to their miseries. Take Achilles for a lesson. Or look to Odysseus, still so many leagues from home.”

I yawned and blinked at the stars. “But why ruin the night worrying over other men’s prophecies? The augurs don’t know our names and as long as we don’t offend, what cause do the gods have to look in our direction?”

Elpenor smiled grimly. “The princes of the earth use us well enough.”

“Agreed. But still, we’re men, not horses. When we fulfill our oaths, when we show valor and endure hardships, it brings us honor. But when a charger storms into battle, gnashing an iron rod and driven on by the lash of the whip, it’s senseless to talk of honor then.”

“Or of shame if he flees.”

“Yes, but why worry yourself about that? We were courageous—some more than others, to be sure—but still, to a man, we fought hard. For years we rowed and marched, and at the end we won for them as many captives and as much gold as they could carry off. They owe us honor and—mark me now—that debt will be paid.” Elpenor looked down at his hands. When he raised his head again, his face had fallen in anguish. His eyes were wide as an owl’s and wild. I won’t deny it, his look made me shudder.

“We tore an infant from his mother,” he said, “and tossed him over the ramparts. We cut down a faultless girl to appease Achilles’ selfish ghost.” His voice began to falter. “And for what? Because we were frightened and because they told us to. I’ve searched, I’ve tried, but I can’t find the honor in it.”

Dread curdled into anger and I sprung to my feet. “I don’t cry tears for Hector’s heir—and yes, we did what we were told. What should we have done? We’ve been steadfast companions to our captain, faithful servants to our lords.”

“Not always faithful.”

“What was that?”

“We,” he said, looking up. His eyes were wet, but they held me. “You…not always faithful.”

“What would you know about it?”

He turned away and bent his hat’s wide brim over his face.

“I don’t want a fight. It’s getting late.”

“Ungrateful slanderer. Who was it that lifted you out of the muck when you fell? Not faithful? Who looked after your unshielded flank, guarded your life against the death-dealing Trojans?” He shrugged, indifferent. I seized him by the arm and cuffed the back of his mangy head. “I’ve wasted years bringing you up and damn you, I’ll be answered.”

“Let go of me,” he said, groping for his hat, “you’re in your cups tonight.”

“Speak! Or by this hand, I’ll split you against the bricks. I’ll leave you for the wolves—yes, by this hand—not a stone, or a fistful of dirt to cover you.” Disgusted, I turned him loose and took up the wineskin. I tilted it back, but there were only dregs.

“When the rest of us were under Circe’s spell,” he said, “and the captain asked your counsel, do you remember what you said?”

“I don’t have to—”

“You told him to sail away.” He laughed to himself, as if he still couldn’t believe it.

“You’ve no cause—”

“We’ve been here a year already and I have two ears like everyone else. Did you think I wouldn’t hear? They call you a coward, Eury, a mutineer. You told him to leave us behind.”

I cringed to see my deed delivered, bare and unlovely, before me. I wanted to toss it away and disown it, find a mantle of fair words to cover its raw nakedness. But I was stripped of speech and couldn’t say more.

“So you don’t deny it?”

“Yes, I pleaded with him not to lead us to our deaths. You would have done the same if you had any sense.” Blood rushed hot behind my eyes. “And who are they to be my judges? Let them judge him, then, ‘brilliant’ and ‘god-like’ Odysseus. How many lives do you think he’s destroyed with his rashness?”

“Speak lower,” he said, looking over his shoulder.

“I will not. Strip him of his titles and his tricks, and that man is nothing but a wild and a lawless scoundrel—and everyone would know it if he didn’t have a devious mind and a tongue for treachery.”

“He’s still your captain, and a kinsman besides.”

“A kinsman? He’s kept me from my wife long enough, and given me disaster for a dowry.”

I caught my breath and waited for my blood to cool. I wanted him to look at me again, to show some sign of friendship, but he just stared out to sea. “And what will become of you, who departed untrothed and spent your best years in foreign lands? When our princes roamed the women’s tents and divided up the spoils, did they think of a wife for loyal Elpenor—did they think of that? It’s shameful!”

I tried to say more, but he raised his hand to silence me. The wind stirred and the air smelled of sparks, like the start of a gale. We heard the voice of the goddess then, singing from some inner chamber. The first note was a splash of molten gold. Transmuted by the heat of her song, it flared into an argent shimmering, like a shoal of skipjacks rippling beneath the breakers. Suddenly, it burst into the shining clash of cooled bronze. Stunned with pious dread, we were too afraid even to cover our ears. Men, we were sure, were not meant to hear this song.

Panicked, I tried to summon the sound of human music, to call back the days spent at my mother’s feet, staring up while she chanted the old hymns and sent the spindle twirling from from her thigh. But then a flush of crimson struck our eyes, unfurled in a pulsing bloom, and spun, finally, into a knot of polished opal.

The voice blanched. It flattened into a luminous disc and burned with the fenny glow of sunless caves. Circe’s final notes fell in a shower of sparking cinders that winked and then blackened against the sable sky. We were still for a long time after, listening to the flickering of the torches and the steady lashing of the surf.

“A song of parting.”

“Yes,” I said, when I could speak again. “She must be releasing him, and us with him.” I wiped the wetness from my eyes. “She must have shown him the way home. What else could it mean?” Filled with joy, I crouched down and seized him by the shoulders. But he shook me off and turned away again.

“Make haste, we have to tell the others.”

“I’m not going.”

“Elpenor,” I said, “don’t be stubborn. I was angry before. Let’s be friends again and together we’ll bear this good news back.” I peered again down into the courtyard. The proud panther had wandered off, preferring a bed of pine needles to a cot of stone.

“I’ll stay a bit longer,” he said. “The night is cool.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but there was something strange in his look. I had seen it once before, on the face of a dying soldier. On the field that day, what I’d seen, it wasn’t the ecstasy of the stab, not the ravishing surge that follows. That was common enough. No, that kill had been different. As I drew my sword from the Trojan’s ruined trunk, something had passed between us. He must have known the wound was mortal, and for a moment he seemed to be asking me to grieve with him for the life that was rushing away. I’d wanted to hearten him—his was a fine death; he had fallen defending the land of his fathers—but the words had stuck in my throat. He’d dropped away from me then and fell, gaping, into a well of darkness.

On the roof, I stared, uncomprehending, into Elpenor’s face. He seemed to smile, then turned away, seaward, to gaze down the darkened path that led to shore. Back in the hall, swaddled in thick pelts, I slept until the captain came to wake me. He went the same to each man, bidding us to return to the ship.

The men were in high spirits as we boarded. Some sang, others wept openly. When we took our places along the thwart, no one asked after the empty seat. I thought of Elpenor, probably still dozing on the roof, but said nothing. Let the boy dream away in sweet sleep, I thought. Let him stay and forget if he can.

Alone amongst the crew, I witnessed the goddess, heavy with child, lead a ram and a black ewe aboard ship. Then the sails unfurled and that reckless man swung the prow of our black ship north, towards the house of Hades. The two beasts, tethered fast to the mast-pole, turned to face the dawn. With bright, dumb eyes, they looked out over the reddening sea.