A Choice of Routes
By: Henry Hintermeister
A lonely ship bobs up and down on the wine dark sea. It’s quiet. The only sound is the sail beaten by the breeze, and the crash of the waves as the wind whips spray across the half deck. The salt stings the eyes of the crew, but they continue to ply their oars back and forth, driving the prow forward. They keep their gaze on the horizon, fixated, waiting.
Odysseus stands amidships, and notices his knuckles clench around the haft of his spear. He looks down, in thought, and the furrows on his brow deepen. Rain begins to patter against the deck. He hardly notices. Now days away from Circe’s island, the Queen of Aeaea’s warnings reverberate in his skull.
“A choice of routes is yours. I cannot advise you
which to take, or lead you through it all‒
you must decide for yourself”
The lieutenants lean against the ship’s railing, looking ahead in anticipation, casting furtive looks back at their captain. They murmur in hushed voices. A knot ties itself in Odysseus’ stomach. Circe’s words refuse to leave him, her voice fills his ears.
“On one side beetling cliffs shoot up, and against them
pound the huge roaring breakers…
The Crashing Rocks they’re called by the blissful gods.
Not even birds can escape them, no, not even the doves…
No ship of men has ever approached and slipped past‒
always some disaster‒ big timbers and sailors’ corpses
whirled away by waves and lethal blasts of fire…”
The Crashing Rocks loom ahead, black against a grey sky. They spew smoke against the rain, and the splintering waves thrash against them with deafening sound. The ribs of ships’ hulls jut from the jagged cliffs, hopelessly dashed against the rocks in some other age. No easy way past them, no.
Odysseus strides to the prow and surveys the cliffs for the narrow strait between the two largest peaks, the only way through. He sees the passage, almost hidden by the ocean’s spray, and directs the helmsman towards it. The crew lets out a cheer, thinking themselves saved, but Odysseus’ heart sinks. He strains his eyes, searching, searching, for a little black speck atop the western peak.
“On the other side loom two enormous crags…
One thrusts into the vaulting sky its jagged peak…
And halfway up that cliffside stands a fog-bound cavern
gaping west towards Erebus, land of death and darkness‒
…Scylla lurks inside it‒ the yelping horror…
She’s a grizzly monster, I assure you.
No one could look on her with any joy.”
A small dot appears in the rock, barely visible, unless you were looking for it. They’re not far off now. The mast groans. Odysseus knows what lies ahead.
“…six long swaying necks, a hideous head on each,
Each head barbed with a triple row of fangs, thickset,
Packed tight‒ and armed to the hilt with black death!
…with each of her six heads she snatches up
a man from the dark-prowed craft and whisks him off”
The waves grow choppier, and the men brace themselves as the ship rises and falls over violent crests. The crags appear larger now, pillars of black rock. Odysseus grips the railing harder, and squints against the brine. There’s more than a monster in that straight, he knows. The whirlpool. Where is it?
“The other crag is lower‒ you will see Odysseus‒ though both lie side-by-side, an arrow-shot apart…
beneath it awesome Charybdis gulps the dark water down.
Three times a day she vomits it up, three times she gulps it down”
The ship climbs the top of a wave and there, for what is undoubtedly a second but seems an eternity, he sees it, the epicenter of this water’s violence, sending up froth from it’s depths. Breakers crashing, and smoke billowing. He shudders.
“A choice of routes is yours. I cannot advise you.”
The Runner’s eyes are open. His alarm clock reads two in the morning. He finally sits up in his bed, and runs his hands through his hair. He can’t sleep. He picks up his pen, and begins to write.
You know, before you run, you come to this place in the sea. It’s like this hand clutching at your throat. And you it feel in your chest, like a gnarled knot in the oak tree, near the roots. And you count your breath to try and slow your heart down, because you can see it beating through your shirt. And you make the hours stretch into days.
You know, really, you know, that the exertion you’re about to do isn’t really so bad. It takes a few seconds, a minute, a few minutes, less than a half hour. It’s a short lived kind of pain.
But your anxious mind can’t help but recall anyway. You remember when your veins filled with acid instead of blood. You remember when your lungs felt like they were bleeding, working overtime, drowning in oxygen. When your legs locked up, and it took all the strength of your arms just to throw yourself over the finish line. And you stood, with your hands on your knees, gasping and you let the sweat pour out of your skin like river deltas down your back.
These things have a way of resurfacing the night before you race– the agitations of an anxious memory.
It’s like this whirlpool that sucks you down so that you can’t think about anything else. Your mind fixates on the labors the body must do. It can’t help it.
What’s funny about the whirlpool is that, your battle doesn’t really lie there. You can’t fight it. You can’t wish it away. It just, exists. There’s not much you can do. It’s this frightening, deathless, distraction.
The Runner stares out his window. He gets out of bed, and opens a bottle of melatonin. He puts three tablets in his mouth, and swallows. He crawls back under the covers, and he falls into a light sleep.
The crags are almost on them. The oarsmen can see the whirlpool for themselves, now, sending up brine and fire.
The oars cease in their locks, and for a moment there is only the sound of the storm. Then, shouting, as the men leap from their benches. The helmsman abandons the rudder. Odysseus wheels around, angry, but is thrown off balance as Charybdis ceases her crashing and pulls the ship towards her. Her eye opens in her center, small at first, and then wider, wider, and pitch black. An empty nothing. Circe’s words are almost shrieks now:
“Don’t be there when the whirlpool swallows down‒
Not even the earthquake god could save you from disaster
No hug Scylla’s crag‒ sail on past her- top speed!
Better by far to lose six men and keep your ship
than lose your entire crew”
The Runner has his earphones in, stretching in lane 8, reaching for his lead leg. He keeps getting distracted, looking at the races on the track, watching middle distance burn the last hundred meters. He keeps looking at their wincing faces.
Second Call. He peels the back off his adhesive number, and sticks it to his hip. He turns his music up, shakes himself loose again, and leans further into his stretch.
Odysseus regains his balance and looks at his quavering crew. He pierces them with his eyes even as the ship begins to yaw.
“Friends, we’re hardly strangers at meeting danger and this danger is no worse than what we faced before. And even there my courage, my presence of mind and tactics saved us all, and we will live to remember this someday, I have no doubt. Up now, follow my orders. Lay on with the oars and strike the heaving swells, trusting that Zeus will pull us through these straits alive. You, helmsman, here’s your order‒ burn it in your mind‒ the steering-oar of our rolling ship is in your hands.”
The crew begins to gather itself.
The Runner is in lane 3, standing in front of his blocks. The others stand ahead of him in the stagger, in their own lanes. He starts to hop from one foot to another like a boxer, he lets his shoulders loosen. He centers his breathing into his diaphragm.
“Runners to your marks.” The referee raises his pistol. The Runner sets down into his blocks.
The crew plant themselves back on their benches. They start to pull in unison.
“Keep to that cliff” Odysseus shouts, pointing to the Western peak, “or the whirlpool will pull us down.” He’s made his decision. The helmsman scrambles back to the rudder, and points the ship away from Charybdis, and towards Scylla’s cave.
The Runner closes his eyes and opens them, inhaling deeply. He has a choice here. He knows exactly what a good race feels like. He can ease off a little. He doesn’t have to push himself to that point of breaking, so familiar. No one would know, except him.
He remembers his own words, scrawled on paper the night before so that he might never forget.
The real battle‒ the place where you might have some success, is the race itself. The only victory you can have is in passing through that agony you’re so afraid of. No runner yet can boast that they have reached the finish line without pain. You need only choose to confront it.
You can drown in Charybdis. You can drown in your fears. You can let your anxieties dictate your life. You can run from every heartbreak. Retreat from every failure. Tell yourself you’re never going out there again, because out there hurts.
But, pain is impermanent. Better by far to spend a minute intensely suffering than your whole life trying to dodge it.
Bang. The Runner bursts out of the blocks. He drives around the bend to the first hurdle, and launches over it. He rushes down the straight-away, smooth over the crossbars, a ship over cresting swells, and around the second bend, coming on what he knows is the most difficult part of the race.
And why not rid the world of pain? Pitch Scylla from the cliffs? Make the waters safer?
The oars cut through the waves speeding them faster and faster toward Scylla’s cave. Circe’s words come once more:
“Scylla’s no mortal, she’s an immortal devastation,
Terrible, savage, wild, no fighting her, no defense‒
Just flee the creature, that’s the only way.”
Scylla’s heads come snaking out of the cave atop the rocks. Odysseus grits his teeth.
The Runner enters the final hundred meters.
Pain, is an old goddess. A neurological construct that can’t be gotten rid of, or wished away. When you run you come to this place in the sea, and all you can do is endure Scylla’s six writhing heads. It’s the sacrifice you make to cross the finish line. It is hard. And it will always be there.
The Runner starts to falter. You can see him slowing down, dying. He can’t help it. His form becomes broken and frantic. He’s breathing hard. The others surge from behind. He can see them in his peripheral vision. He wants to give up. He wants to surrender. He grits his teeth.
But, you don’t have to bow to pain.
Contrary to the will of every neuron firing in his legs, against the advice of his aching arms, and in direct opposition to his lungs’ inability to take in any more oxygen, the Runner begins to pick his feet up faster, driving towards the finish.
Odysseus fastens his helmet, and grabs two long spears.
“So stubborn,” Circe says.
And then, she is silent
He knows none of these can kill Scylla, but as she lunges towards his crew he throws his spears at her, shouting. They careen off into the distance. Scylla snatches six sailors from the benches.
The ship emerges on the other side of the Crashing Rocks. The water calms as the clouds break and the sun reaches the deck for the first time in days. Odysseus takes off his helmet, kneels, and holds his head in his hands. The pull of Charybdis subsides.
The Runner crosses the finish line with the pitter patter of feet just behind. He’s panting, crouching with one hand on the track. He looks up, and he smiles faintly.
A choice of routes is yours.
Note: The excerpts of the Odyssey are taken from Robert Fagles’ translation:
Homer, Robert Fagles, and Bernard M. W. Knox. The Odyssey. N.p.: Penguin, 2002. Print.
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