It’s been a week of winter, and I don’t mean the cat, though he’s finding it cold and dark, as I am. Heavy snow, high winds, no power for a day or so. Yesterday we spent most of the afternoon in the kitchen, near the stove, and by 4:30, we lit the oil lamp, a few candles. Usually we read the Odyssey after dinner but we wanted to make the most of what light there was so we pulled our chairs as close as we could to the fire and continued our reading of Book 11, The Dead. How chilling to read of Odysseus’s encounters with the lost warriors of Troy, his mother, and to enter and re-enter Hades as he stopped his telling to suggest to Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians (and father of the lovely Nausicaa), that it might be time to sleep. I felt the same and was a little dismayed for Odysseus when Alcinous responded:
The night is long;
it is not time to sleep yet. Tell me more
amazing deeds! I would keep listening
until bright daybreak, if you kept on telling
the dangers you have passed.
I was in bed by 6:30. There wasn’t enough light by then to read and I was cold. Extra wool blankets on the bed, moonlight through the white curtains…No wonder I dreamed of the Odyssey myself. Or a version of it. 18 years ago I was writing a retelling of the middle books of the poem, set here on the west coast, at Oyster Bay: A Man in a Distant Field. It was a book I lived. I canoed with my friend around the bay to get a sense of what my character Declan O’Malley would see as he looked out the windows of the shack he’d washed up in, the apple tree where a robin built its nest, and how that particular bay would find its way into his own translation of the Odyssey. A young girl called Rose Neil would bring him milk most mornings from her family’s cow and she was of course a version of Nausicaa, crouched at the creek in a later chapter, doing her laundry.
No wonder my night was filled with water, with old stories, firelight, young women learning how a stranger on their shore could be a bridegroom, a lover, or someone longing for another hearth, a beloved wife and son, and how a mother might appear to talk about her own death:
The goddess did not shoot me in my home,
aiming with gentle arrows. Nor did sickness
suck all the strength out from my limbs, with long
and cruel wasting. No, it was missing you,
Odysseus, my sunshine; your sharp mind,
and your kind heart. That took sweet life from me.