Beneath the revelry of the feast the hall percolated with whisperings.
“Who is that stranger seated next to Alcinous?”
“Where does he come from?”
“Where is he going?”
No one knew. No one had heard. In a port city like Phaeacia comers and goers were usual‒ shipwrecks, traders, and diplomats. But, for each of them something could be said of their origins. All that was to be told for the man sitting beside the king was that he had washed up on shore the night before and had been found with the first rays of morning. Not a soul on the island knew even his name.
The Runner lay in the center of the track, like the Vitruvian man set in minature against the symmetry of the asphalt circle. He lay in an infinity of space, not knowing who or what he was. Now that it was over he felt muddled. Stuck. Uncertain. He had lost his bearings somewhere in the stormy sea. He was without compass. Without direction. There were no charts, no maps. He was lost.
What he had was a web of memories and personal histories, stories and remembrances. Things he had said and done. Things which had happened to him. His inner thoughts and longings. All ragtag and disconcerted. He let them swim to the forefront of his thoughts as he lay on the grass. They did not jump or pounce on him. They no longer scared him. Rather, he held onto them because they felt important. But just why that was… well he couldn’t say. At the moment they were without form, wispy, sifting around in the caverns of his frame. They were amorphous half finished sentences. And yet, they were unmistakably connected.
Alcinous’ banquet hall was at once overwhelmed by, and deaf to, the blissful notes of Demodocus’ harp and the fine timber of his voice. Overwhelmed in that no matter where in the hall a banqueter might be they could not help but hear the bard’s song. Deaf in that, though they certainly heard and were pleased to hear, only the nameless man next to Alcinous was listening.
He stared at Demodocus, enraptured. The old man’s frailty was evident in all but his fingers, which crested and fell, up and down, as they plucked the harp strings perfectly. His throat quivered with each note. Blind as he was, he stared off into a void, playing his instrument by touch. But, it seemed to the man that Demodocus was staring right at him. His blank eyes swirled with a sort of mist. They were dead, with none of the characteristic brightness of living eyes. And yet they seemed, in their listless way, fixated on the man watching from the high table.
Demodocus sang of the world’s creation. Of how Earth had risen from Chaos and sculpted on herself the mountains and valleys. He sang of the Titans, who overthrew their father, Ouranos, and took dominion of the world. Of the race of Olympian gods, born of Cronus, destined to overthrow him. He sang of Zeus’ triumph over the dragon Typhaon‒ how he struck him from the sky and buried him beneath Mount Etna, which belches smoke to this day. He sang of the Four ages of Man: Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron.
He told of the great heroes. Deucalion and Pyrrha, the first of the Iron age, who survived the Flood. Of Jason and the Argonauts, who brought back the golden fleece from Colchis. Perseus, who slew the Gorgon. Bellerophon, Theseus, Atlanta, Cadmus, Phaethon, Orpheus, Daedalus, Oedipus, and a host of others, until finally he came to the men at Troy. A most recent tragedy. The man watching fixed a dark grimace as Demodocus launched into the tale. His heart pounded in his chest.
“Sing to me muse of the wrath of Great Achilles” shrilled Demodocus. A thousand ships moored on Ilium’s beaches. 10 years. Soldiers devoured by mouths of spears. Longing for home. I never wanted to go. Noble Patroclus leveled by Hector. Achilles. Mourned through the night. The next day, no holding him back. Hector’s corpse dragged around the city. He shouldn’t have done it. More bitter fighting. Paris’ arrow struck Achilles’ heel. No saving him. An idea. My idea. A great horse. Made of wood. Left outside the city. The fleet gone. No trace. A great debate. Priam’s people brought it in. In the night slipped out the best of the Greeks. I was there. They opened the gates. Agamemnon’s army returned from hiding in full glory. They reduced the flame of Asia to ashes. Only because I had to.
Tears were brimming in the stranger’s eyes.
No safe passage home for the Greeks. No escaping their guilt. Little Ajax dashed against the cliffs. Menelaus blown far off course, he arrived home late and weathered. Agamemnon killed in his own house. And Odysseus…
Demodocus’ eyes remained blankly fixed on him.
No one new where Odysseus had gone. He left the day after the smoulder with his fleet and was never seen again. Stories circulated, Rumor made her rounds. He must be dead, most thought. Shipwrecked, drowned. Or lost, fewer believed. No one was sure.
The nameless man wanted to burst. I’m alive! I’m alive! I was lost. I was lost. I was horribly lost. I thought I’d never find my way back home.
The Runner gazed up at the nighttime sky. Until he pieced together all that had happened he was lost. Until such a time that he could speak clearly and boldly he was without identity. A vessel whose contents would never be known. Corked and catatonic. He felt that if he could put what he knew and what he had seen and done and felt into words there might be some semblance of clarity. He wanted very badly to tell his story.
But, how could he ever tell it honestly? It was all so tangled. All that there were were slanted, even self serving, memories and the shreds of his notebooks haphazardly splattered with ink (it is better, one finds, to write their worries and victories through when they privately confront and assess them). And what had really happened exactly did not correspond to his personal narrative. Not to any of what he had felt at the time, nor to any of his reflections. It was sort of made up. A kind of half formed fiction based on true events. He ruminated. Which version was true? The one which occurred factually was without life, and therefore woefully inaccurate. The version which stirred him, and which felt to be real, was certainly a fabrication. He wondered. Perhaps it was not possible to be completely honest, not in the details anyway. In fact, he concluded, it was decidedly not necessary.
The amorphous half finished sentences started to find their beginnings.
Did he have the stamina? The strength? It was no easy thing, what he was proposing, not even if it was for his own peace of mind. To collect one’s belongings and orchestrate them in such a way that they make sense is a sacred and taxing enterprise. Once he began things could never be the same. He would have to continue his march through all manner of weather. He would want to give up in the middle, he was sure. At times he would feel hopeless. He would never finish. He would wonder why he had ever thought to set it down in the first place. Things were fine, before, weren’t they? What need was there? Wouldn’t it be easier to drop it and move along? Why tumble down the rabbit hole? Though, perhaps the task’s worth was also inherent in its difficulty.
The sentences grew punctuations.
At what point did reflection give way to self obsession? Was this not an entirely selfish exploit? One that removed him from society, even if only for a time, during which he would be of little use to anybody and perhaps least of all to himself? It was undoubtedly so. But, when weighed against the absolute necessity of what he felt, this acknowledgement was not enough to sway him. He had to make sense of it, or he would continue in his stuckness. In a state of stuckness one is of little use, anyway.
The sentences grew into paragraphs.
But what if…
And now the larger, more ominous question loomed.
What if it didn’t mean anything? Suppose he put it all down somewhere as best he could, only to find that it didn’t mean a god damned thing. That it was still just as muddled and confusing and labyrinthine as it was now. That it was nothing more than a series of coincidences, perhaps now organized, but nonetheless babbling and without direction or purpose. That at bottom it was empty.
Or, suppose, not being able to understand or come to grips with his own emptiness, he created “meaning” out of what was inherently meaningless. Suppose he manufactured, sculpted, or otherwise artificed some greater purpose simply in the act of putting it down. He wouldn’t be able to help it. Everything needed a beginning, middle, and end. The story had to have a final bell to justify its retelling. Did his life have such a bell? Probably not. He would become a liar, maybe. Delusional at best. A hopeless romantic of the worst sort.
And he wasn’t sure which was worse: finding nothing, or creating that which had never existed or belonged in the first place. Perhaps this question was unanswerable.
Demodocus’ spell was broken by a hearty hand on the stranger’s shoulder. It was Alcinous. His silvery hair fell around his circlet. His face was etched with laugh lines. He spoke to his guest through the fading reverberations of a chuckle, gesturing towards the lords joined with him in conversation.
“But come, my friend,
Tell us your own story now, and tell it truly,”
Odysseus back up at him. “You have heard it,” he said. “Just now in the bard’s song.”
“No,” Alcinous countered, “That is the story of Greece. What is your story?”
“Where have your rovings forced you?
What lands of men have you seen, what sturdy towns,
What men themselves?
The stranger opened his mouth to answer but no words came out. He wanted to tell him. Oh how badly he wanted to tell him. He wished that he could find the words to articulate just exactly what had happened, and how it had felt. Not just the events, but his own inner thoughts, too. He wanted to be out with it. There were terrible, fearful times. When the giants had smashed his ships in their harbor. When he had sailed to the black sands of Erebus and the ghostly shades swirled around him. When he had gazed into the Whirlpool’s gaping maw. He wanted to scream it out. I have seen these things!
And the triumphs. To coast on the winds of Aeolus himself. To see with his own eyes the splendid cattle of the sun on the shining bright island of Helios. To hear the Siren’s song, haunting and melancholy, it struck chords within his own depths‒ not even the bard here could match it. He wanted horribly to tell someone. To make them see as he had seen. To make them hear and feel as he had. He wasn’t sure why, but he no longer desired to be the stranger.
But, it was difficult. To plunge into all of it again. To make some sense of it. For every moment of exhilaration there would be one of suffering. For each victory, a defeat. To tell it honestly he would have to go back and relive it.
He threw a glance to Demodocus, who gazed back, as if to say “finish my song, Nobody.”
The Runner continued.
Something, nothing, or the resemblance of something, he felt he had to try. He had to try. At bottom he knew it was inevitable that he would, eventually. So, perhaps it was time to begin his labor. He must tell someone, even if only to have the satisfaction of the words spilling from his lips. He felt that if only someone could hear, could read, what he had to say then perhaps the horns would sound and the sky would break. He felt as if the reverberations of his vocal chords could shake mountains, and the stroke of his pen might drain the sea. That he could make them feel deeply what he had felt. That he could show them the most exquisite frightening things that he had found. He could fight the impulse no longer.
“Finish my song” said Demodocus’ blank eyes. The stranger’s wish to speak was brought to its brink. What a glory it might be to add his voice to the song of the world, sung so beautifully just now. The stranger looked back to Alcinous. He spoke,
“… you’re set on probing the bitter pains I’ve borne,
So I’m to weep and grieve, it seems still more.
Well, then what shall I go through first,
What shall I save for last?”
Where to begin?
Alcinous’ eyes softened. He waved his hand at the herald, who whispered in Demodocus’ ear. The Bard nodded and ceased. He gave a subtle smile to the man about to speak. The stranger took a deep breath in preparation.
“Let me begin by telling you my name…”
The Runner stood up.
There was something fantastic about those shredded bits of memory. Maybe they weren’t an answer, but they were a place to start. Now if only he could articulate it, then perhaps he would find some peace. He should be out with it if only to proclaim himself a part of the intricate tapestry of human existence that he would could never hope to see in its entirety. To announce his belonging. He would not feel at ease until he knew himself to be woven into its threads.
The Runner wondered about where to begin. He thought it best to start with his name. Then he reconsidered. Until he got it all down he had no desire to tell it. Not because he disliked his name. He just wasn’t sure to whom or what it referred. All of what was to come would be his attempt to find out.
Note: All excerpts from the Odyssey are taken from Robert Fagles’ translation.
Homer, Robert Fagles, and Bernard M. W. Knox. The Odyssey. N.p.: Penguin, 2002. Print.
“Lira heptacordada” by is licensed Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla under CC BY 2.0
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