The Return from Troy
‘Each of them is a tribute from a satisfied lover,’ Demonax explained. ‘So the more she has, the better!’
‘As long as you like your women well-used,’ Odysseus said. ‘However, my own thoughts incline more towards food right now, and this fruit of theirs …’
‘The lotus,’ Eurylochus supplied.
‘Well, whatever it’s called, I find it a touch sweet on my tongue. I gather that beef isn’t eaten hereabouts, but I was hoping that Procles might roast me a sucking pig.’
‘They don’t eat pork either, I’m afraid.’ Eurylochus was grinning as he spoke.
‘Yet you call this the Happy Isles! Is there nothing to eat but this cloying apology for a fruit?’
The men smiled at each other in amused conspiracy. ‘You mustn’t speak ill of the Lady Lotus, Captain,’ said Eurybates, whose black head was still bandaged from the wound he had taken at Ismarus. ‘We’ve all become her devotees.’
It had been a long time since Odysseus had seen his crew in so mellow and benevolent a mood. A little perplexed by it, aware that he was being teased, he said, ‘Then you all have even coarser palates than I thought.’
‘Not at all,’ Demonax tapped a finger at his pursed lips. ‘It’s an acquired taste.’
‘But it’s what happens when it’s made into wine,’ Grinus offered in explanation. ‘You’ve already tasted quite a lot of it, Captain, but perhaps you were too sleepy to remember. Here, let me pour you some more.’
An hour or two later, having eaten well on squid and barbecued goat’s flesh and a sticky dish made from the lotus fruit, Odysseus was sitting with his companions watching a huge sun sizzle like molten metal where it sank into the western sea. To the north a pale moon lay on its back with a single star hung in attendance. The Fair Return, the Nereid and the Swordfish lay side by side on the strand, all in need of repair, their holds only lightly guarded by a dozy watch of sailors. Egrets flashed their white wings in the evening sky. Not far away a string of camels recently arrived from a desert journey coughed and snorted as they lapped at a spring, while a solemn-eyed boy wearing goatskins soothed them with his pipes. In the distance, where the olive groves gave way to a rocky scrubland of juniper and tamarisk, they could hear a jackal yapping to the moon.
Not since they had been at home on Ithaca had the men known such a blessed time of peace. Strangely, however, none of them were thinking of home, not even Odysseus who had thought of almost nothing else in the last days of the war. The lotus had quietly worked its spell on him. Time had collapsed into a passive sequence of moments on which the past had no pressing claims, and where the future, with its prospects of anxiety and desire, was a matter of no enduring interest. And the war itself seemed to have dissolved into a wry anthology of stories that were, by this serene Libyan moonlight, curiously painless and often downright funny.
When Glaucus, the captain of the Nereid, dryly remarked that the yapping of the jackal put him in mind of that scurrilous dog Thersites, his words occasioned more hilarity than they merited. They led on to a happy remembrance of the way Odysseus had silenced Thersites’ foul-mouthed rant against him. Then they found they could laugh at the ridiculous quarrel between the insufferable Achilles and that vacillating bullfrog Agamemnon, and they were all helpless with mirth after fat Grinus reminded them of the truly awful stink of Philoctetes’ wound.
‘I see that the Lady Lotus has made you merry this evening,’ Hanno smiled as he came up beside them.
Odysseus made a wide gesture of welcome. ‘Come and join us. We’ve got plenty more in these rather handsome jars we lifted from Priam’s palace.’ But when Hanno politely declined the offer, his presence had a subduing effect on their jollity. Glaucus began to hum a song that was dear to him. Young Elpenor, whose head of blond curls now rested in a young woman’s lap, made only a poor effort to suppress an attack of giggles. Otherwise the group was silent for a time beneath the moon.
That casual reference to the sack of Troy had briefly lent a gloomy cast to Odysseus’ mind; yet he had no sooner observed the change than he seemed to float off into a more tranquil zone some distance away from his still weary body.
And it was not at all the same experience as being drunk with wine, for there was a startling clarity that came with it – a heightened sensitivity to every small sound chivvying the quiet air: the high-pitched shrilling of the cicadas, the choral belch of bullfrogs, the swishing murmur of the surf. He could also pick out the quite distinct scents of the salt-breeze off the sea, the sweet smell of the lotus and the nocturnal fragrance of jasmine and moon-flowers. Then he became fascinated by the burn-marks scarring the skin of Hanno’s temples as though the man had once been branded there. With uncharacteristic forwardness he asked about them.
‘The marks are customary among my people,’ Hanno diffidently replied.
‘As a sign of dedication to a god?’ Odysseus pressed. ‘Nothing so mysterious, I’m afraid. Our mothers burn their infants here and here,’ Hanno indicated the marks on his own head, ‘with a smouldering piece of flock from a sheep’s fleece. We believe that it induces clarity of mind in later life.’
‘A pity that Agamemnon wasn’t born in Libya,’ Demonax muttered. ‘The war might have been over years ago.’
‘It might never have begun at all,’ said Odysseus. Then to stave off the shadow once more, he asked Hanno to tell them more about the various peoples among whom he had travelled and the customs that distinguished them.
And so, as the moon mounted the sky, he was taken on a voyage of the imagination across the wide regions of Libya, through countries where the women wore bronze leg rings, where men had mastered the art of harnessing four horses to their chariots, and where the dead were buried seated upright in their tombs. Hanno told him about his own people, the Garamantes, who took no interest in the arts of war, and of another tribe who were defeated in a war with the south wind which left them buried deep beneath the sands.
‘Meanwhile, to the west,’ he said, ‘around Lake Tritonis, can be found a cult of warrior maidens who serve the one you call Athena. She has her shrine and oracle there.’
Among the many marvels he listed, Hanno spoke of a spring called the Fountain of the Sun that was known to run both hot and cold according to the time of day; of oxen which walked backwards as they grazed because otherwise their long horns would get stuck in the earth; of an obscure race of troglodytes who fed mostly on serpents and spoke a language like the screeching of bats; and of a tribe of bee-keepers who painted their skins bright red and feasted on monkeys. He spoke also of a city he had seen that was built from blocks of salt – some white, some purple – by a people who were never visited by dreams.
‘Their land stretches to what you Argives call the Pillars of Heracles,’ Hanno declared, ‘but beyond that realm I have not travelled myself. Yet I have heard stories of dense forests to the south where elephants and horned asses abound; and two-legged creatures with the faces of dogs, and people without heads who bear their eyes in their bosoms; but apart from elephants, I have never seen such things myself. Also those traders who follow the sun around the coast tell of a land where gold is plentiful. Because its people speak no language that can be understood, the Phoenicians do business by leaving their goods on display at the shore and then withdrawing until the local people have determined the value of those goods in gold. Then they too withdraw so that the visitors can consider what is offered. If the Phoenicians think the measure of gold insufficient, they withdraw again until more gold is brought. The goods change hands only when both sides are satisfied. They call this honourable custom the silent trade.’
Listening to the Libyan’s stories under a black night thick with stars, Odysseus felt the universe expand around him. On Ithaca he had always been the one who returned with tales to make his kinsmen marvel. His reputation as an adventurer ran right across Argos to Thessaly and beyond. He had sailed eastwards as far as Sidon. People in Cyprus and Egypt spoke admiringly of him. Yet here in Zarzis, at the northern margin of a continent that stretched southwards, if Hanno was to be believed, for many hundreds of miles across deserts and forests and snow-crowned mountains and lush plains haunted by curious beasts, he felt as though he had been no more than a village pedlar bragging that his name was well-known in nearby towns. And the longer he listened, the more his heart stirred with the aching thrill of wanderlust that had fired him in his youth.
The night shimmered around and inside him. His mind became a map of unknown regions. He remembered a time, many years earlier when he had talked with Theseus of voyaging out past the Pillars of Hercules and on around that exotic coastline just to see what was there. Surely that was the spirit in which life ought to be lived? That was how Jason and his Argonauts had unlocked the secrets of the Black Sea trade in gold. That was how Theseus had dared the ancient might of Crete and brought it under his subjection. Let the crass Agamemnons of this world destroy and plunder as they wished. Henceforth it would be his mission to enlarge the world of men, to bring light to dark places, to foster trade and the profitable exchange of culture, to kindle the imagination.
His own imagination was scintillating with that very thought when, as abruptly and noiselessly as his companions around him, Odysseus dropped like a bull at an altar into a sleep as crowded with wonders as the huge Libyan night.
He woke late the next morning feeling a stiff twinge in his old thigh wound. Elsewhere, his headache might have put him in a foul mood for the rest of the day; here in Zarzis he felt surprisingly mellow – as though the pain provided an excuse, were any excuse needed, to laze in the shade with his indolent friends. At their encouragement he broke his fast on goat’s milk and a dish of the sticky lotus mashed with oatmeal that was served to him in a calabash by a woman with a benevolent, gap-toothed smile. Later in the day he would find that food was not all she had to offer and only a residual qualm of conscience reminded him that he was on his way home to Ithaca where his wife faithfully awaited him.
Yet the greater temptation was to sleep, for here in Libya, sleep had proved to be a banquet of the senses in which an endlessly intriguing landscape unfolded round him, where curious beasts and monsters flourished, and everything made a bizarre kind of sense. Deciding that his ambitious vision of the previous night would take time to plan, he soon turned over on his side beneath the awning and closed his eyes against the light.
Afterwards, Odysseus would have difficulty recalling how much time had passed while he and his men lay about the shore of Zarzis, eating, drinking, fondling the women who made themselves available, and smiling with contentment at the complaisant men of the region, who appeared to have as little sense of urgency as they did themselves.
One morning they woke to find a huge grey fish stranded on the beach. It had a fronded mouth and its ribbed body was much larger than that of any fish they had seen before. They strolled about it for a while, gazing into the sad jelly of its eye and listening to the remote, failing thunder of its heart. But none of them could work up sufficient energy either to kill the monster or refloat it; so the great fish was left gasping in the sunlight till it died. After a time, when its flesh began to stink, they merely moved their mats upwind into a sheltered place and waited for a higher wave than usual to reclaim the rotting carcass and draw it out to sea.
Around that time Odysseus discovered that the lotus was not always benign. There were deranging moments when he was revisited without warning by images that had been seared on his memory at the fall of Troy. The lotus allowed ample time to inspect the gaudy colours erupting from the fat belly of a Trojan citizen he had slaughtered. He found himself staring at the white, pulpy texture, stained with pink, that he had seen in the brains of a boy whose head someone had smashed against a garden wall. He could hear the sounds of screaming women almost as clearly as the cries of the fish-eagles dawdling in the sky; and there was a bald-headed man with jewels in his ears who kept begging him for mercy, over and over again, as he lay pissing himself with fear on the steps of King Priam’s palace.
At other times the shade of Hecuba was everywhere, barking and jeering, as she clutched the eyes of Polymnestor in her hands.
After one such visitation, Odysseus sat up groaning and beating his head with his fists, only to find Hanno looking down at him with mild concern. When the Libyan asked the cause of his distress, he tried to explain what had happened on the night that Troy fell and in the days that followed. His account was rambling and fragmentary, articulate only in its pain.
Hanno said, ‘So you blame yourself for all the destruction that was done at Troy?’
‘Who else can I blame?’ he growled. ‘It was me who thought up the means to get us inside the city. It was me who gave the false promises that persuaded Antenor to come over to our side.’
‘I know nothing of war,’ Hanno answered. ‘But from what you have said it seems you had no knowledge that the promises were false?’
Unwilling to accept such glib absolution, Odysseus said, ‘The truth is, I might still have given them even if I’d known how false they were. And perhaps I knew it all along – not consciously, but in my secret heart, you understand?’
Hanno nodded his dark head and sighed. ‘In any case, my friend, each of us must follow his fate. The gods gave you a quick mind and a plausible tongue. You have merely made use of them.’
‘But I can’t seem to think straight these days. And I find it hard to talk as well.’
‘Sometimes the lotus darkens our thoughts. It is the price we pay for the illumination it also brings.’
Odysseus turned away. ‘I’ll not blame my troubles on a fruit. Nor do I expect the gods to look kindly on the desolation I’ve caused.’
The two men sat together in silence for a while watching some members of Odysseus’ crew at a dice-game along the shore. Sighing Hanno said, ‘I remember discussing such matters once with a teacher out of India whom I encountered in Egyptian Thebes. He was a very old man and as wise as he was old. He told me that the secret of life is to float on its surface as the flower of the lotus floats on water, without sinking and without wetting its leaves. I believe the teaching to be sound.’
Dryly Odysseus said, ‘Was he ever present at the sacking of a city?’
‘That I do not know,’ Hanno conceded, ‘though I believe him to have been a man of peace.’
‘Then what could he know of a warrior’s suffering?’
‘As to that,’ Hanno smiled, ‘he told me the story of a warrior-prince among his people who came to a field of battle and was appalled to find kinsmen and friends armed against him on the opposing side. His mind was thrown in turmoil at the prospect of killing people whom he loved and admired; but in his confusion the hero was visited by a god whom he held sacred. The god told him that it was the warrior’s duty to devote himself to battle in a righteous cause, and that he should be strengthened by the knowledge that the soul outlives the body, and that those who fall in battle do so only to be refunded into the great cycle of life.’
Odysseus studied the darkly smiling eyes. ‘A very satisfactory story,’ he said, ‘if you believe your cause to be righteous and that we are permitted more than one sojourn on this sorry earth.’
‘But how can we know that we are not?’ Hanno asked mildly.