“Penny of Ithaca” by P.L. Watts

She’s even made the bed where another man will rape her. The swine have been slaughtered, the silver’s been laid. Everything’s ready. She scans the room once more. She’s always loved the morning light in here, the view of the cliffs and the waves down below.

A lifetime ago, she met him on another cliffside—her usual refuge. She tried to deny him, but his eyes were blue as the ocean on a perfect day. He approached until her body stiffened. He sat, then, waiting for her breathing to still. As he waited, he wove stories. His voice swelled like the tide as he spoke of men far away, worthy of song. His eyes shone, like he already followed them.

“And behind each, a woman left home to weep,” she said.

He looked at her then, like he was seeing her, finally, not a Goddess on a cliffside singing. He had no answer to that, and his face clouded over. There came to Penny a sudden intuition of the power, and terror, of loving another. How you could blot out dreams or lift them higher with one carelessly laid word.

She bridged the distance between them and took Odysseus’ hand.

That night, she ventured into her father’s hall for the first time since Odysseus arrived. She watched from a safe distance, but her father saw her, anyway. “Here, girl!” he said, slapping his great thigh. This was how he liked to show her off. “Come keep your old man warm!” Penny froze. In this mood, he was most used to getting his way and the least gentle about it. “NOW!” he said. Each second she stalled, he would only grow angrier. Penny knew this. A whim would become a demand. And that night, he’d handle her the rougher for it. But she could not go to him while Odysseus looked on.

Then Oddysseus was before her. “Your hospitality, my Lord,” he said to her father, though his eyes never left her face.

Such blues, she could drown in. “With your leave, my Lord,” she said.

They were married by the next full moon.

They were happy in their kingdom by the sea. But the tides shifted, eventually, as tides will. The early years of the war were easier than they might have been. A minstrel made songs of Odysseus’ exploits. And she was glad that he’d become someone to sing about. And there was a freedom in running her home, and caring for her son and kingdom. She grew in some intangible way. And when she spoke, which was still uncommon, people listened.

But the war ended, and he did not return.

Many men stopped and warmed themselves at her hearth on their way home from the siege. Such warming, they craved. And she was the only non-soldier who most of them ever found able to hear about the honesties of war. With her, they did not need to hide or glorify. She accepted their brokenness and their beauty, all as one. And they loved her for it. But soon they wanted more than she could give. As they crowded in, something split inside her, and the trembling child returned.

So Penny began to weave a shroud by day. With her weaving, she gave up hope. It was a mantra she told herself: hes dead, hes gone, if he were alive and he loved you, then he would return. When the shroud was done, she’d have to admit he was gone. By night, though, Penny removed the stitches. It was like her right hand didn’t know what her left hand was doing. No, it wasn’t like that at all. It was just that at night in the lonely hours, she couldn’t afford to believe he was gone. So she carefully unmade the stitches, keeping the future at bay. Until they discovered her deceit.

In her dreams, she searched for Odysseus. What did she need to tell him? He always slipped away before she remembered. But the dream was different on this final morning. Clearer. She opened the door, and there he was. But he would leave again if she didn’t say it right.

The journey isnt out there, she said. It doesn’t matter where you go or how much you see. The real journey is what we make inside and between us.

He looked so sad, her heart broke.

I know, he said.

Come back, she said.

He reached out to touch her shoulder. Just before his hand made contact, she woke. Her skin burned from the lack. She rolled into a tight ball and poured her heartbreak into her pillow.

Today is the day. Her waiting is over. She’s given up hope and prepared everything, as though she is still sane.

But there’s a knock at the door. It isn’t time to begin yet.

And surely the suitors are preparing themselves?

And the servants have all gone?

Her heart surges.

She runs.

Tears open the door, as though this is it, and her faith has proved true. But it’s just another raggedy old man with tired eyes. Someone else who needs something from her. The hope in her heart sputters and dies.

“I’m sorry old man,” she says. “I have nothing to give you today.”

P.L. Watts escaped from the Florida foster care system to the San Francisco Bay Area where she scribbles subversive stories by day but helps the rich get richer by night. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and was a 2015 and 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Fellow. Her fiction has appeared in two Emerge: Lambda Fellows anthologies, Bust Magazine, and Intrinsick.

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