The Letters of Odysseus to Kalypso[view as PDF / Issuu]
They started out very calmly, hello, Kalypso, how have you been, do you still have that necklace I made for you out of shells and dolphin tendons. Pretty quickly he began adding in short vignettes about his kid and some hunting trips they had been on, or how they’d gotten together on a Saturday afternoon and fixed a broken yoke. Then the kid stories stopped and he started telling her all about his fears—someone was in the house last night but he couldn’t catch him, someone was killing his beeves, there was a knife under his pillow he hadn’t put there, real chilling things.
The paper had aged. It was the color of weak tea. Or, of course—it had been dyed the color of weak tea: I always forget that they were a hoax. Paired with each letter in Greek was a separate page, written longhand in English. My boyfriend’s father kept the letters in plastic bags, wrapped in an old raincoat—an oily brown coat with large pockets and a dirty plaid liner, the kind of coat that used to be called a mackintosh. He admitted that he had been the one to store the letters in the raincoat; he did not, or could not, explain why, and I did not press him. We had taken seats across from each other at his small kitchen table. The table itself was a rough and polished oak, round, low. It was as though we were reading at a table below deck, in the hero’s ship with black sails.
“Where did these come from?” I had asked my boyfriend’s father.
“Margaret,” he said. His wife—my boyfriend’s mother—had died three years before I moved to Scotland, of a sort of muscle cancer. I have seen pictures of her. She is a plain, stolid looking woman, a serious looking woman whom I feel I would have liked. She worked as the Classical Antiquities curator at the City Museum of York; when she died, my boyfriend began his studies at St Andrews in Scotland and his father moved back to his homeland in order to be closer to his son. Her handwriting, in the notes she made on the translations, was small and upright, letters like small stoic soldiers.
In her early years at the museum, my boyfriend’s father said, his wife had received a packet of letters that purported to be the letters Odysseus had written to the goddess Kalypso after he had returned to reign on Ithaka. They had been sold at auction and donated to the museum. My boyfriend’s mother translated, read, and analyzed each one. She concluded, and everyone agreed: they were certainly a hoax. But my boyfriend’s mother liked the letters. She signed them out from the museum, and she decided to keep them. When she died, my boyfriend’s father found the letters among her work papers. He, too, decided to keep them, but, at the time I was with him, had not read them. He asked me if I might like to have a look at them, and if we might not read them together.
I never asked, “Why did you keep them?” but it was a question I wanted to ask.
One of my favorites was a letter Odysseus had written pretty early on, just after he had gotten back home to Ithaka. His dog had died, and he was feeling bad about that, but didn’t really feel like he could complain to his wife about anything because she had had such a sad twenty years herself.
Kalypso, [the translation read] when I was with you, I used to stay awake late, after we had had sex and you were sleeping. I would leave the bed and go to walk along the beach in the darkness of night. Your island was beautiful all the time, but it was never more beautiful than when I was exhausted from loving you and satisfied from it, and the ocean was moving and splashing in the dark. But then I would become cold and my tiredness would overcome me, and I would turn around again to go back inside and lie down to sleep with you. When I realized I was ready to go back inside and sleep, I walked with such sureness and joy and purpose: just so, just in that way, I make my way to my desk and write these letters to you.
I was grateful that the letters appeared when they did, at the beginning of the evening, an evening in which we would have nothing at all to discuss save what we would be doing the next morning. My boyfriend’s father is good man, but he is not gregarious or funny or helpful in the social sense. Nor am I. We are both people who sit quietly, on the periphery, as the more chummy and talkative faces crowd a room.
When I first met him, on the doorstep of the house his son and I shared in St Andrews, he seemed to me all beard, all brown bushy beard and coat. He had lifted his face up into the rain, like a child, and when I opened the door to him I could see only his beard and buttoned tweed. I remember being reminded of a book my father would read to me at Thanksgiving—a picture book called Cranberry Thanksgiving. In the story, there is an old woman who is renowned for her cranberry bread. One Thanksgiving, the woman’s granddaughter, Maggie, comes to visit. The grandmother, matchmaking, invites the handsome and dashing Mr. Horace to Thanksgiving dinner. In the morning, however, the girl goes out to gather wood for a fire and comes across the wild, stocky, and very hairy Mr. Whiskers; he is alone on Thanksgiving, and so Maggie kindly invites him to share their dinner. Later in the day, the recipe for the grandmother’s famous cranberry bread is stolen, and of course all suspicion falls on the wild Mr. Whiskers. But it is a book for children, and has a clear moral. At the end of the story, I remember feeling such relief that it was not the twinkling, bearded, lonely Mr. Whiskers who had stolen the recipe, but the charming and dignified Mr. Horace, who I had never liked for a minute. Perhaps for this reason I liked my boyfriend’s father instinctively; he was the Mr. Whiskers of my childhood, in the flesh—a mixture of virtue, brown beard, and the memory of my own father snuggled against me in the chill Cape Cod autumn.
And I suppose it was for that reason that I called him, of all those people I had come to know in Fife. My boyfriend was away for eight weeks, doing his field tests for the SIS. This meant, from what he told me afterward, that he spent six weeks lying alone in the mud somewhere in eastern Europe, waiting for something simulated to appear in the dark and hold a weapon to his neck. I hadn’t told my boyfriend anything about the pregnancy—I couldn’t, because he was unreachable, cut off by the might of the British military, for the entire eight weeks. I had been alone in our house. I had taken the test in the kitchen; I had peed in a coffee mug and dipped the test into the mug instead of what the instructions suggested, peeing directly onto it. The coffee mug was black, and it was one we rarely used; occasionally, if we were having a party and ran out of glasses, we might pour wine or whiskey into it for a friend. At the bottom, my pee looked like apple juice. I had felt very alone in the house because there was no tall, good-smelling man to laugh at me for my silliness, no one to push me playfully backwards into the bathroom and hold the mug at arm’s length and resolve never to drink from it again. I sat at the kitchen table, the curtains drawn against the late afternoon sun, and cupped my hands around the coffee mug as if it were a warm beverage. And after some time sitting there alone I had picked up the telephone and called my boyfriend’s father. You will want to know what I said and what he said back, but these are things I do not remember. My decision—to terminate—was conveyed.
He scheduled the appointment for me and, a week after I had called him, drove up from Kirkcaldy. It was a brutally cold day, and I waited for him on the stoop of the house with a wool scarf over most of my face. He had nodded when I told him I did not want to stay in our house, the house my boyfriend and I shared, on that night. We drove back south, ate soup at a pub off the a92, and then sat on the front stoop of his home, watching the road. It was the first time we had spent any real time with each other without my boyfriend there. Like a box of Legos between two little boys who have just moved next door to one another, the letters were a way for us to talk. And they saved us from discussing our only topic, the small thing alive and tiny in my belly, his grandbaby, who would be gone and away the next day.
We read them in the kitchen. I put on the kettle to boil water for tea. The kitchen was neat, orderly but not clean, the kitchen of an old man who lives alone. Together, standing over the kitchen table, we sorted the translations from the original letters. We put the originals in a plastic bag and the translations in the center of the table, in a stack. As I sat at the table, arranging the letters in the order they had been written (the translator had labeled them: Letter i, Letter ii, Letter iii, etc.), my boyfriend’s father made us mugs of tea and emptied a package of biscuits into a plate. At first we planned to split the stack of letters in half and read them independently. But of course we both wanted to read them chronologically, in sequence, just as Odysseus had written them. So it turned out that we sat across the kitchen table from one another, the giant Newfoundland dog underneath at our feet, and read the letters out loud to one another. At first it was a bit embarrassing—he wrote fairly graphically about sex—but then of course we remembered why I was there, after all, in the house. After a particularly explicit letter, in which the great tactician described a scent memory involving the addressee’s underparts, my boyfriend’s father raised his eyebrows at me. I shrugged, and lay my palm upon my midsection. We drank mugs of sweet, milky tea. Eventually it got dark outside, and if we looked out the window above the sink we could see the snow, white against the night. It was good to be inside.
You’d think it would be difficult now to remember them all. There were so many, many years worth, it seemed, and we read them very quickly. Some of them were amazingly boring. But I do remember, remarkably well. I remember one letter, at least five pages in translation, that did nothing but describe each individual tree in his orchard. Each one! “This tree, tall and thin as I imagine the young Eurymakhos, bears a fruit more firm than the others . . .” We read them all, but often, I thought, Kalypso must have merely skimmed them for a few salient points and gone back to her weaving. We did wonder, out loud to each other, whether she ever wrote back, and what she might have said, and if those letters, too, were hiding in an attic somewhere. There were no clues in the letters themselves, no allusions to letters she had written or answers to questions she had posed.
It was when they changed tone, when they became a little more violent than they had been, those are the letters I remember most vividly. Which is odd, I think, because it was the nice ones, about how much he loved his wife and loved Kalypso, that I remember really liking at the time. But I can’t remember so many of those as well, or the things he said in them. It’s the other ones I remember.
Well after midnight, we had sat without food or drink at the kitchen table. The dog had put himself to bed on the couch in the living room and every so often we could hear the springs groan as he resettled himself. We had turned on every light downstairs, to keep us awake and to keep us company. It was my boyfriend’s father’s turn to read and he had let his glasses slip down his nose while he was listening to me, so he took them off and rubbed his nose, put them back on again. He skipped the first few paragraphs—the letters always began with a series of polite, do-nothing sentences. Formalities. Then he read,
It has been impossible to get comfortable. Of Penelope’s suitors, one was worse—more disrespectful, more hateful and more ugly—than all the others. He was called Antinoos. When Telemakhos handed me my bow I made sure that the first arrow I shot was through that man’s throat. He died without a whisper. I doubt he even saw my face. I doubt his last thought was anything beyond his supper.
Lately I’ve been seeing him. Or perhaps not seeing him in flesh, but feeling his presence, as though he were in the house, hiding just when I enter the room, lurking in the looms. This morning I woke and found a knife under my pillow. I don’t remember putting it there. I think, perhaps, he was here, standing over me as I slept, and left the knife as a warning.
After this one, the letters became increasingly unsettling, paranoid, violent, and dark, and after one particularly disturbing description my boyfriend’s father paused and said, “No more.” We stacked up the papers, left them on the kitchen table, and left our mugs in the sink for the morning. He switched off the lamps and then he put his hand on my shoulder to guide me out of the dark kitchen and into the living room. The house was very ordinary and very small, made out of linoleum and brown carpet and simple furniture bought from thrift stores or from neighbors who were moving away and didn’t have room to take their coat rack, knife rack, umbrella rack, pot rack. We went around the house, turning off the lights and locking the doors, and then he walked me upstairs to the door of his son’s old room. On the bed was a stack, at least two feet high, of folded blankets—enough to smother an infant had they all been placed on top of its small body. He patted them with the palm of his hand, to make sure I saw them.
“If you get cold,” he said, “here are some extra blankets.” Then he left. I used only two of the blankets atop the comforter, a blue and purple Amish star quilt and a gray wool tartan, but underneath them I felt pleasantly weighted down, swaddled into my place in the bed. When I brought my knees to my belly and turned to lie on my side, I could see the snow outside my window, illuminated by a streetlamp. It appeared as though the snow fell from the electric light, as though the streetlamp was generating the snow. Of course it wasn’t, but I thought, playfully as you sometimes think before you fall asleep, about how easily one could trick a child, by bringing him to the window and saying, Look! The snow is coming from that streetlamp! It must be a magical streetlamp! I didn’t sleep, but after a few hours the Newfoundland came and lay on the floor near me, and I was able to rest.
The next morning, before the sun had risen, I came downstairs and saw that my boyfriend’s father had done the washing up and started the car. Through the window, I saw the cloud of exhaust rising up into the snowfall. I couldn’t bring myself to eat or drink, so after I had showered and dressed, we left. He didn’t try to goad me into talk, as sometimes people do when they sense your discomfort. He had turned on the heat in the car and the radio. I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head, over my forehead and halfway down my face. I leaned against the window and tried to sleep. I watched the snow.
It does make sense that he wrote letters to her. When you figure that every one of his friends, at that point, was dead. Anyone who could have understood his situation or given him some advice, or just been there to talk about those days far from home. There was one letter in which he spits out a tirade against Agamemnon, who, he said, he never really liked anyway, who was nothing but a pissy, greedy little fuck. The translation actually used that word, “fuck,” as the noun. But you can tell that the whole letter is really about how sad he is that Agamemnon is dead. Nothing said about how he died, or at whose hand, or any musings about the lessons of Agamemnon’s death. He was just sad, you know, that he was gone. He wrote, in that letter, “I don’t feel as though he, alive, could have helped me. I don’t think we would have talked again. But his presence, his aliveness in the world and his ability to remain alive, has been a comfort to me and his absence makes me feel my own fragility.” He had spent seven years with Kalypso, and it makes sense that he’d want to talk to her. She knew about all the things he had been doing, knew about the war and his travels, and she might have been the only one left in the world who didn’t blame and hate him on some level. Or maybe she did. Though I myself would find it difficult to hate someone I knew so well.
My boyfriend’s father drove like an old man. Fast, and then too slow, edging little by little onto the soft, snowy shoulder. He was watching the white and empty road, gray in four parallel lines where the tires of earlier cars had driven through the powder. It was nice in the car, the snow outside, the warmth inside, the quiet and the music. The sun still hadn’t risen but the sky was lightening. The sky was gray and cloudless.
When we did turn off the back road and saw the signs for the a92, I realized that I had forgotten to brush my teeth and I opened and closed my mouth, rubbed and sucked my teeth with my tongue. Once we merged onto the A92 there were more cars on the road and when I looked into the rearview mirror I could see rows of coupled headlights behind us. My boyfriend’s father used his blinker and changed lanes though he did not speed up or slow down and there were no cars near him. We drove on the far right side of the highway, far away from the exit signs and the ramp entrances. Miles along on the highway the sun came up and the sky became a brighter gray, and milky. The snow melted, now, before it touched the pavement and so the road was black and wet.
Once we hit Dundee I found the directions I had written out. I read them out loud and we squinted through the wet windshield at the street signs. In the parking lot we sat for a little while and looked at the building. It was brick, squat. It looked like a library. My boyfriend’s father turned off the engine.
“You didn’t bring a book,” I said to him. “What will you do?”
“Dinnae ken,” he said, “I’ll just wait for you, all right.”
Dinnae ken means “I don’t know.” I can’t say it correctly, even after hearing it so often for years. My boyfriend’s father is the only person I know who has ever said it. That very boring letter that he wrote, describing each tree in his orchard? We both hated that letter, but funnily enough it’s one that we both remember. And I remember a lot of what was in it, actually. He’d give the names of people he had known, funny Greek idioms that didn’t really translate (“mud-tasting,” for one, and “small of hearing as the nether” was another), different ways to make the trees particular and distinct from each other. If the letter did nothing else it communicated the fact that he loved that orchard, and not just the orchard—he loved every individual tree in it. He named every one of them in the letter, or at least gave them identities, and even if this was tedious, it was memorable.
“I have no favorites,” he wrote, “but I am enamored of some in ways different from the others. There are thirteen pear trees. There are ten apple trees and forty trees of figs, then fifty rows of grapevines, for wine. The northernmost pear tree is unfortunate, squat and stumpy, like an unattractive woman. It was the tree I climbed first when I was a child, the one I would hide in and in which I would dream about the wars I would one day fight. The branches are accommodating. The way a wide and warm nurse will comfort a crying child by smothering it in her bosom, just so would this tree embrace, shelter, and console me. In this way I love this tree.”
I have thought like this, too—that trees and animals and plants have a sort of personality and will. The day I moved to Scotland was a day in the spring and the long grasses outside of Edinburgh flattened in the wind. Dotted on the hills were the sheep and close to the sheep were the lambs, who ran like schoolchildren newly freed from their desks. They bolted from one woolly white cloud to the next, nuzzled their brothers and sisters and leaped upwards to the sun. I thought I would never be happier than I would be in this country, as if the country itself had come out for me and sung me into it.
We sat in the car too long, my mind on Odysseus’s orchard and the hills outside Edinburgh. And my boyfriend’s father thinking whatever he was thinking, until he reached over and patted my shoulder and we got out of the car. My boots were too big and made sucking sounds as I walked across the parking lot. In my stomach I felt both empty and nauseous.
Inside, I gave my name and a woman with a limp brought me back to an exam room. My boyfriend’s father sat in the waiting room and waited. It felt like a grocery store in America, the way grocery stores in America are always colder than you expect them to be. I changed into a very thin paper dress. After I had put it on I reached down, took one of my bare feet in my hand and pulled it to my face. It did not smell the way my feet usually smell and my feet felt very cold. For a while I rubbed my toes with my hands, and then they turned red but were still cold. I put my wool socks back on. The nurse came in and took my blood pressure and left again but I never really saw her. I cannot remember what she said to me, what she looked like, if she was young, or old, or kind or cruel to me. I waited for her to be out of the room. When she was gone, it was very empty and very cold and very quiet. The socks were not enough to make me feel not naked. I hate being naked in a strange place.
“Scared?” I said. “It’ll be scary. But I’m going to be here the whole time with you and it’ll be okay. We’ll be scared together, okay? And remember we’re still together. This isn’t the end of this, little guy. Don’t think that. Don’t be scared, at all. We’re together, guy.”
I counted to fifty in my head, and then I said, “The best thing is that we’re still together. I can still talk to you, all the time, and you can talk to me. It’ll be sad, of course, for a little while. We’re both going to be sad. It’s okay to be sad. We might be really sad. We’ll miss each other. I might miss you so much I’ll wish I did something else. It’ll be okay. I will always be right here, and you will always be right here. I’ll know what you’ll look like and how tall you’re getting and if you are scared of the dark and I’ll know your name. I’ll know how old you are every day.”
I threw up in the corner of the room, in a bin. It was plastic, pink, shaped like a kidney. It looked made for this purpose.
The doctor came in and closed the door behind her very gently and watched me throw up. She told me to keep throwing up, to get it all out. I coughed and gagged a few more times, rinsed my mouth out in the sink, and then sat back up on the table. The doctor put on gloves and the nurse came in, too. I moved high up on the table, lay back, and put my sockfeet in the stirrups.
The doctor warned me that what she would do first would hurt, and then injected a needle filled with anesthetic through me and into my cervix. I held onto two small handles on the side of the table; it was very difficult to breathe. Then she threaded a soft blue tube up inside of me but because I was numbed I could not feel this part. This is inaccurate. I could feel it, but I felt it as from a great distance, the way you might feel it when, many miles away, your twin brother or sister is struck by a car or thrown from a horse. Then there was a sound, a machine starting, and I felt afraid; my uterus tightened, suddenly, around him as though to protect him. Then the rip and gutting of the sucking, halfway, just a pulling, then all of it, at once. I choked and felt my heart, with its aorta and valves and pumping and slippery side, come up and stick in my throat, and then he was gone and out of me, the hose sucked at all sides of my inside, and it was done.
“No more,” said the doctor. She talked to me for a little while longer—I cannot remember what she said—and helped me take my legs from the stirrups. The nurse reached in between my legs with a wad of gauze in the flat of her hand and pressed into me to soak up the blood.
“It hurt,” I said. After a little while I sat up and hung my legs off the side of the table and the doctor rubbed my back in small circles. The nurse and doctor talked about blood. After a little while longer the doctor left and the nurse walked me to a room with a bed where I could lie down.
In The Odyssey, Homer describes the garden of Kalypso: “And round about the cave there was a wood blossoming, alder and poplar and sweet-smelling cypress. And therein roosted birds long of wing, owls and falcons and chattering sea-crows, which have their business in the waters. And lo, there about the hollow cave trailed a gadding garden vine, all rich with clusters. And fountains four set orderly were running with clear water, hard by one another, turned each to his own course. And all around soft meadows bloomed of violets and parsley, yea, even a deathless god who came thither might wonder at the sight and be glad at heart.”
He remembered it differently. In a letter to her, he wrote,
I am not sad to be gone from your island, as beautiful as it was. I am not sad to be gone from you, as beautiful as you are. I love my old and unhappy wife. I love my dusty and untended land. I do.
What I am sad about, Kalypso, is that I did not take care of my memory while I was with you. I did not see and observe things, mark them, think to remember them. The things I remember are things that bring me pain now, though I know that there are many things I could remember that would bring me joy. What were these joyous things? You are there, still, and can remind me. Remind me of the things that will make me glad to be gone from there and glad to remember them.
I should remember the garden, or the fountains, or the wonders. What I remember is the rock where I would go in the mornings. I would sit on the rock and think about Ithaka and how I would never see it again. I was miserable in your beautiful home and now I am miserable here in mine. I sat on that rock for hours, days, staring at the ocean and watching the waves come in. Now I sit on a stone wall high up on a cliff, and I watch the waves stirring restlessly underneath.
Everywhere I am, I am sitting on a cold rock, watching the water, and wanting to be gone from there.
He does not ever claim to miss her. Maybe there was no word for that, in the language. But neither does he does not allude to the feeling of missing her, or cease to hint at it. He merely explains to her that her absence has lent a particular color—a “hue,” the translator called it—to his life. That her absence has mattered and changed all things.
In that small room I fell asleep, and when I woke up, my boyfriend’s father was sitting in a chair near my bed, dozing himself. I woke up when the nurse came in. She carried a tray of food and I ate most of it—some biscuits, a banana, a good deal of water. They were the good kind of biscuits, digestives with dark chocolate on top. And then the nurse took my blood pressure, my temperature, and told me that I could go home.
“How far are we from the beach?” I asked my boyfriend’s father.
“None too far,” he said.
“Could we go to the beach?” I asked him.
He helped me out of the bed and hugged me to his chest so that the hard bridge of my nose pressed into his sternum. He smelled like the wool of his sweater. He took my arm and we walked outside to the car.
In the car, I did cry, but not loudly. My boyfriend’s father rolled down the windows, and the winter air froze the tears into my eyelashes; I pressed my fingers onto my eyelids to melt them. The sun was high now, but obscure and filmy, heatless, dull, and watery. The heat in the car was hot on our feet. We could not hear the radio for the wind, but I left it on for the feeling of the bass underneath our seats. The A92 was slow and clogged with cars.
The access road, though, was empty and thick only with snow. My boyfriend’s father drove very slowly. He parked the car and went around to help me out of the passenger seat; he left me standing in the snow for a minute as he went to dig a woolen blanket from the boot.
“Dreich,” he said. It means damp, dismal, wet. It was. Very thin lines of blood rolled down my legs, or I imagined they did. The letter we had stopped on, the last one we had read before my boyfriend’s father had stopped reading and sent us to bed? At the end, Odysseus writes,
I keep all the weapons in the storeroom and I can spend hours in there, walking in between the rows, picking up shields and bows and mauls. There is one weapon—it is long, as long as my arm, and thin, razor sharp, neither a dagger nor a sword, but more a long needle. Very thin, the width of a baby’s finger, and sharpened to a fine, fine edge along each side. I used it, as a child a long time ago, to stab into the eyes of pigs. It is such a delicate weapon—a beautiful tool.
Last night I could not sleep. I walked into the storeroom, and picked up this blade. And I walked out, carrying it. I traced the engravings in the hallway with its tip. Eventually, I went upstairs to where my wife was sleeping.
Somehow Penelope is still beautiful. I look like an old goat, from all the war and killing and fights I got into and the long years in the sun, and she looks like she’s eighteen, just plucked. When I saw her asleep, like a bride, I took the blade and I slid it up into her cunt and I held it there. And because it was so thin, she couldn’t even feel it, she didn’t even wake up, and I was very careful not to cut. I slid it in very gently. If she moved, even a half an inch, or shifted in her sleep just a tiny bit, the blade would slice inside of her and she’d open her eyes and look at me, and die.
It is difficult to remember, and, having remembered, difficult to believe that these letters were only a hoax. I didn’t tell my boyfriend about them, about reading them, or even that they existed, when he returned from his field tests, and I don’t think his father ever mentioned them either.
We went together down the planked walk and when we came to the beach the sand had been covered in a film, barely there, of snow. The waves broke and washed back with the snow water. He helped me to walk, with one arm around my shoulder and one hand under my elbow. I held a fist against my stomach. Snowflakes, like gypsophila, landed in his hair. We tripped through the sand toward the pier, which stood gigantic and looming and above us; far out, wave water tossed against its open legs. Under the pier he laid his blanket and helped me lower myself to sit on it. Under the pier the snow could not fall on him and the small white blossoms in his hair melted. Strands of my own hair came loose and hung damply on my forehead and cheeks. Then he walked toward the sea and away from me. I hugged my knees to my chest, turned my head, and rested my cheek on my kneecaps. If I squinted my eyes, I could just make out a fat woman in a yellow raincoat playing with her dog. She threw a tennis ball into the sea, and the dog, a border collie oblivious to the cold, jumped into the waves to find it bobbing on the surface. I huddled in the shelter of the pier and watched the dog. It would disappear completely into the white break of the waves, and come up again. My boyfriend’s father kept his eyes on the sea rising and crashing. I looked up to see him across the snow and sand, standing still and upright before the sea. His hands were in his pockets. I could not see his face. He stood like the pier, high above me. And I sat and rocked and my belly throbbed and moved like the water.
“I am sorry that I left you,” he wrote in the last letter, “because I loved you. But I loved Ithaka, too, and I could not know, at the time, which I would love more. I did not know, at the time, that all choices are versions of one another. But it is this, the fact that my leaving was a choice, that all my absences have been my own doing, that beguiles me still, my hours spent alone. That I could have chosen to keep you, but did not. That I could have chosen to stay, but did not. I am one who chooses loss, over and over again. Perhaps I have learned, though, by my leaving all things, what refuses to be left behind. I am comforted that you are a goddess, or almost one, and that you will never die. I will write you letters until I am dead, and when there are no more letters, you will know that there is no more Odysseus. There are things that cannot be killed. I begin to understand that I am not among them.”
The night I left America I had gone outside to see the moon. Our home sat on the edge of a cranberry bog that bled mighty and crimson when flooded, and I left my bed after midnight to go and see the land by light of night before I walked away from it for what I thought might have been forever. I had stood outside, on the short summer grass, and an earthworm slid up and down over the toes of my right foot. High and large, there was the moon with its massive and nuclear-like corona, a blast of a moon, a slow and frighteningly distant explosion. I had cried because I would be leaving my childhood home, and because I did so badly want to leave it. Eventually the ground became cold under my feet and the earthworm was cold, too. The slither of the worm seeped up into my heart and into my head, and I turned and went inside the house, slept, and waited for the morning that would bring me to an airplane that would bring me across the winedark sea, the fishcold sea, to Scotland.
Vol. 32, No. 4 (2012)