Literary Fiction Historical goddesses lies friendship marriage Women odysseus penelope

Penelope Unraveling

By Shannon Page
Mar 21, 2019 · 2,884 words · 11 minutes

Yarn used for carpet making.

Photo by Noor Sethi via Unsplash.

From the author: This story has never been published anywhere before now. When I was submitting stories regularly, I sent it everywhere; it gathered many, many near-miss rejections--"We love it but..." "Just not quite right..." Then I got deep into writing novels and set aside all short stories for years (I still don't write much short fiction these days). But there's a truth in this little piece that won't quite let go of me. I hope you enjoy it.

I worked the shroud by day and unraveled it by night, weaving coy deception with every prick of my needle. Oh, pious and loyal wife! The suitors watched me sew, admiring my domestic arts, appreciating the beauty of my work, the hospitality of my fine home.

This is the story.

This is all true.

What the story misses is the nature of my work, the meaning of the shroud itself. What it held. It was precious: I poured my essence into it, and over the long years of Odysseus’s travels, it became powerful. Magic itself. And mine.

This is what happens when goddesses come to visit.

There: already I’ve stepped false in this tale. Calling them suitors, letting others put words in my mouth. They were my friends, keeping me company in my husband’s lengthy—in fact legendary—absence. Yes, they were mostly men; yes, a few of them began to ask if I might not remarry some day, and if so, if I might not consider them. And, over the years, a few also suggested other, less formal ways of passing the time. Men being as they are.

But the notion that I suffered a hall full of suitors, year in, year out? I was not that desirable. I was not the only woman on Ithaca. Not even the only woman with a fine house, and a husband gone so long he might well have been imaginary.

Be that as it may, I did sew and I did unsew; and I did let it be known that I would consider no other major undertaking until my project was finished. And I was in no hurry to finish it. The doing of it, working the threads together and pulling them apart again: that was its joy. Its magic, its meaning.

The goddess Athena did not know she was changing the shape of the cloth the first time she touched it. Or, rather, I think she did know, as the gods know all; more likely she did not care. But once she did bring her godly regard to it, once she had laid her golden-brown hands on the warp and the weft, the threads and the knots: it was different. It became effervescent in my own touch, setting my fingertips a-tingle when I reached for a new spool, chose a new color. Soothing my skin when I unwound everything at night. Soft under my fingers, so soft.

So I worked, and I laughed, and so the years passed. My friends came and went; some married and moved on; new friends joined our gatherings. It was a congenial time, covering the fear and unhappiness and sheer boredom of waiting. Waiting for news of the war. Waiting for Odysseus to come home to me.

And then.

And then.

He came home. You do know that story: the great hero of the great war, and then his long and arduous journey, carrying him through the beds of goddesses and other such travails. The disguise: test of my faithfulness.

Happily ever after.

And then.

He chased away my friends. Well, he hadn’t invited them, and they had depleted the wine cellar pretty thoroughly. Remember, it had been twenty years.

My husband did not kill anyone upon his return. I do not know why that rumor started. To make him seem yet more heroic? To distract from his other unsavory adventures? I know not. But he certainly was angry.

He didn’t kill anyone…but he might as well have.

Odysseus came to our bed chamber that first night of his return. Still disguised, but I knew it was he—what woman would not know her own husband? Even after twenty years? He demanded a final test, so I asked him to move our bed, which of course was not possible, as one of the posts was the trunk of a living olive tree, growing straight up through our floor. I hung my silken robe from its branches of a day, to hide this fact from the servants, though I’m quite sure they knew. But this little game satisfied him, and we prepared to retire.

“My wife, have you missed me?” he asked, as he removed his tunic and sandals, tossing them on the floor, as men do.

“Yes, Odysseus, very much. The war ended ten years ago. I thought you might never return.” I sat at my dressing table, brushing my hair by the light of the oil lamp.

“It was a terrible journey,” he said, drawing back the covers. “I suffered tremendously. I was captured, and tortured, and beset by gods, and forced to perform all manner of terrible tasks.”

“It must have been quite a trial,” I said. Then, feeling a bit sorry for my tartness, I added, “Athena let me know you were not perished, and told me something of your troubles.”

“Athena?” He raised an eyebrow as he slid under the sheets. “Well, that’s good, then. I know you must have been very worried. Did she tell you about how I was held captive by the terrible creature Calypso?”

“Yes, I believe she did mention that. Seven years.” I continued brushing, and did not add, And the nymph bore you one child, or two? The stories varied, there. The goddess was evasive when I asked.

“And about the witch Circe? She held me captive as well. Did Athena tell you that?” He patted my pillow in invitation and gave me a beseeching look.

“Yes, she told me that.” I applied scented unguent to my hands, then rubbed it into my no-longer-youthful face. I would be bearing no more children. Athena had been similarly vague about whether Circe had taken such a gift from my husband. Instead, she’d lifted my unfinished shroud from my lap and wrapped it around my shoulders, kissing me on the forehead before she vanished once more.

When I could delay no longer, I disrobed, drew the shroud over my shoulders, and joined Odysseus in our bed.

It is a hard tale to tell, and I have been dancing around it. I see I must simply say it: he destroyed my shroud. He pulled the magic from its very threads, left it tattered and inert on the bedroom floor. Ruined. He wept and wailed, crying out in anger and unhappiness, feeling so threatened by something so helpless. “You don’t need this!” he shouted, tearing and stomping and flinging the pieces aside.

I did not weep. Not then. Not before him.

He was sorry later, after he calmed down. “It was the wine, and all those men. I lost my head.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I thought one of them had given it to you.”

“No. I am making it with my own hands, as you can see.”

“I had been gone so long…you seemed to want to wrap yourself in the shawl more than you wanted to come to my bed.”

“It was a shroud. For your father.”

“I said I was sorry.”

I forgave him. What else was I to do? Of course I did. He hadn’t meant to hurt me. He had been half-mad with emotion, exhaustion, depleted from his adventures, which surely were quite taxing, no matter how many comfortable beds he visited along the way.

We passed some fair time becoming reacquainted with one another.

I set the ruined shroud aside and rededicated myself to household matters. Odysseus began to entertain, inviting friends and admirers from all over Ithaca to come to our home, to partake of our replenished wine cellar, the generosity of our kitchens. We took on a second cook, and several additional servants. Even some of my friends dared to come back, though of course the mood was no longer quite the same. I sat back and let my husband enjoy the attention he so clearly desired.

Odysseus was well pleased with the company. He regaled his audience with tales of his adventures, sometimes retelling episodes for several nights running, if there were different people in attendance. The stories grew in the telling, as such things do. Odysseus himself was the hero of all the tales, though he was careful to portray his own missteps and errors of judgment along the way. Naturally, this only increased his audience’s estimation of him.

“Such a good storyteller!” I heard Agelaus exclaim to Peisandros on their way out after one such late evening.

“Yes, he has surely missed his calling in life,” Peisandros laughed.

“Nay—what would he tell us about if he had stayed home? Domestic life does not a good epic make.”

No, it does not, does it? Just a small and sad story.

I found I fit poorly in my old container. As a loaf of bread rises, becoming larger than the dough it once was. I had enjoyed being the woman of the house, having a project of my own. Duplicitous as it may have been.

After a time, I picked up the torn pieces of the shroud and began stitching them back together. It would never be the same—there would always be a deep rent in the center, no matter how tight I made the seam—but perhaps I could coax some of Athena’s magic back to life. With enough color and embroidery, perhaps it could be a pleasing thing once more, in its diminished capacity. It would never serve as a funeral shroud now; maybe it could be a throw blanket for the lounge in our bedroom. Something to snuggle under on a cool evening.

My husband’s face darkened when he at last noticed. “I have already apologized, and offered to buy you a new shawl,” he said. “Must you constantly remind me of my mistake?”

“This is nothing to do with you,” I told him. “Go—your guests are in the garden awaiting you.”

“I want you by my side, my wife.”

“As you wish.” I brought the shroud and sat working it as Odysseus told the story of valiantly blinding the Cyclops and making a mad escape from his clutches, only to be beset by an angry Poseidon, and inadvertently betrayed by his own crew.

I had to admit, it was a pretty good story. Even if I had heard it several times already.

“I do not believe you understand how important this work has been to me,” I said to Odysseus. “I have put this cloth together, and painstakingly taken it apart, for twenty years now. This has been the work of my life even as the war and your subsequent journey was the work of yours.”

“But I am home now,” he said, stretched out across our wide mattress, dangling a bare foot over the edge, inches above the cool floor. “I am ready to return to our former joy in one another’s company, setting our temporary distractions aside.”

“It is not that simple,” I said. “We are both different—changed by the long years apart, our many experiences. You did not even understand what this contained—” I lifted the fabric up and shook it at him “—before you tore it to pieces in blind, unthinking anger.”

“Are you going to punish me with this forever?” he roared, then flung himself from the bed and stormed out of the room.

“No,” I whispered to the empty air. “Just give me time. I am trying.”

Was I trying? Or was I trying to change him, to make him see me? To see the woman I was now; not the girl he had married.

Could both things be true?

The seam barely showed. It was going to be lovely, my creation. I added a new border, slightly ruffled, and a few pieces of gold-embroidered trim. It gave me comfort to work the piece, though I was preparing myself to set it down for good. I could leave it for days at a time now, not even missing it all that much.

I knew the importance of healing, and how long it takes, especially when the wound is deep.

I would tend this wound.

I would finish the shroud, though it would no longer be used for its original purpose. Or even its secondary one: to keep me occupied as I waited.

But I do not like unfinished business. So I stitched and sewed and repaired and covered. It was not what it was before, but it was something, and it pleased me to work it.

Odysseus was not happy.

He was home, returned safe from the war, and from his post-war journeys. He had his health and, if not his youth, he had his sturdy middle age. He had a loving wife, happy and successful children, and a comfortable home.

Yet there was ever something missing.

At night, in the bower of our marital bed, he reached for me again and again, but what he sought, what I gave him, did not satisfy the emptiness inside him. Soon enough, my own aging body tired of his relentless hunger, and I began to turn him away—only occasionally at first, then more often.

“This is not natural,” I whispered in the dark. My words drifted through the fragrant air of the night, dissipating in the curtains fluttering by the open window.

“Why do you no longer love me?” he cried.

“I do love you, my husband,” I reassured him, but my words were like ashes, dry and empty, worthless in his ears. “But you seek something in me that you should hunt inside yourself instead. This will never satiate you.”

“More, once more, please,” he pleaded.

I relented. For a while, anyway.

Living with a hero is not easy.

He held forth to his audiences in our great hall, and they laughed and gasped and showered him with adulation. He became his old self in their midst—nay, not their midst: he became his old self standing before them, and slightly above. His face sparkled and his eyes shone; he had the strength to talk all night, so long as someone listened.

And he could not bear it if someone else should try to tell a story; he would fidget and glower and sulk, barely pretending to be polite, turning the attention back to himself at the earliest opportunity.

I began to sleep in one of the guest chambers, alone. At least there, I could work on my shroud undisturbed.

It was only a matter of time before I invited guests to my new chambers. First a few women; then they brought their husbands and brothers and friends. Soon enough, I had something of a salon.

It was like the old days, before Odysseus’s return. We sat and laughed, drank and talked, and I stitched, and then unraveled. I didn’t even have to hide my efforts anymore. Not that I’d ever fooled anyone.

Life was good.

So of course it could not last.

The confrontation was very unpleasant. People are still talking about it. It’s quite uncomfortable when a grown man behaves that way.

Especially a hero.

He disbanded my salon, with some measure of force. You can, I am sure, imagine the details. I will not belabor them here.

After everyone had fled, Athena arrived, surprising both of us. I had not seen the goddess in several years. I had thought her finished with me.

“What are you doing?” she demanded, in her most terrible, godly voice.

Odysseus and I both began to explain. I confess, there may have been emotion in my voice. But I was not the one behaving as though I were a child!

The goddess cut us off. “This serves neither of you; set down your stories at once and speak to one another. Here, and now.”

“I speak to him until I am blue in the face!” I protested. “He does not listen!” Blood dripped into my eye from a gash on my forehead; I wiped it away. Odysseus dabbed a cloth at the long scratches on his arm.

Athena raised a hand, silencing me once more. “Will you squander my gift as well?” Then she vanished.

My husband and I looked at one another, across the wreckage of my salon. I knew what I needed to say to repair this. I knew this man, had known him all my life. Some things never change.

The goddess had spoken of her gift…I glanced down, at the shreds of my work around my feet. And something tightened in me.

“Everything isn’t always about you,” I hissed.

A new guest comes many nights now, taking down every detail, preparing to write an epic. Odysseus retells his stories to the scribe, keenly watching the man’s reactions.

I hope it satisfies him. For I do still love him. Even if he has walled himself up in his illusions.

I have always believed that nothing is unforgivable. That everyone can change, can learn.


Now I do not know. I pray to the goddess nightly, but she has not seen fit to return and bestow further wisdom upon us.

Meanwhile, I keep busy. I sew many things, not just my re-remade shroud; I garden; I dabble in the kitchen, where the cooks tolerate my presence. I see my friends at their homes. It’s easier that way.

I am too old for this.

Shannon Page

Shannon Page writes fantasy, mystery, science fiction, and whatever else captures her imagination...