The Lorelei Signal
Unpicking the Stitches
Written by Maureen Bowden / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
I am Penelope, queen of Ithaca. You may have heard my story as told by Homer, but he’s a man, and men tend to rewrite history to suit themselves. This is what really happened.
I was relaxing in my boudoir, enjoying the ambience of a drowsy late summer afternoon, when my son, Telemachus flung open the door and stomped uninvited across my sheepskin rug. He was frowning.
“Why the sulky face, Lem?” I asked.
He sighed. “Get the shroud out, Mother. We’ve got another one.”
I shrugged. “Not to worry. Most of them are past the first flush of youth. Young blood would be most welcome.”
“Well, you’re out of luck. This one looks older than the rest of them, he’s wearing rags and he smells like he’s not taken a dip in months.”
“Thanks for the warning. I’ll make it quick.” I lifted Laertes’ burial shroud out of my needlework box and took up my sewing implements. I’d been embroidering the wretched thing for three years and unpicking my stitches each night. “Show him in, but open the window first.”
Lem obeyed, retreated and returned a few minutes later accompanied by my latest suitor. I’d observed such creatures begging for food in the market place, but there was arrogance in this man and something familiar in his demeanour. I felt uncomfortable in his presence.
He bowed. “Your Majesty, you are as beautiful as men say. Your husband is no doubt long dead, and I offer you my hand in marriage.”
I moved closer to the open window and took a breath of fresh air. “I am honoured, sir, but you may have observed the horde of suitors camped outside my palace walls. You are welcome to join them of course but I have vowed not to consider any marriage proposal until I have completed my beloved father-in-law’s burial shroud, and as you can see I am still applying myself to the task.”
He smiled “I believe the Lord Laertes is in good health, Your Majesty, and not in need of a burial shroud.”
I could have sworn I knew that smile. “But he is no longer young,” I said, “and he will certainly need it someday.”
“Your devoted subjects claim that you have woven the shroud for years, Your Majesty. Perhaps the time has now come for you to put it aside.”
I maintained my composure. “It will take as long as is necessary, sir. The weave is completed but it must be suitably embroidered, and skilful stitching needs to be done slowly. Laertes is an important man. He deserves a perfect shroud. Now, my son will provide you with food and clothing and escort you to the suitors’ camp site. You may bathe in the nearby river.”
Lem took the hint and ushered him out. I tried to regain my previous somnolence but my attempt was thwarted by the clanging of chainmail, breastplate and other military accoutrements, signalling the arrival of Athena, the goddess of war, wisdom, justice, mathematics and anything else beyond the capabilities of the Olympian in-crowd. She was a good friend, often dropped in unannounced and was mistress of the grand entrance.
She removed her helmet and flung it on my bed. “Good news and bad news, Pen,” she said. “Which do you want first?”
I inwardly groaned, fearing what was coming. “Let’s get the bad over with first.”
“Right you are. Odysseus survived the Trojan war; shipwrecks; the clutches of Calypso; the lotus eaters; the Cyclops; the embrace of Circe but not before giving her a son; and Zeus knows what else. He’ll be home anytime soon.”
The suspicion I’d been refusing to confront jumped up and slapped me around the ear. “He’s here, disguised as a beggar and stinking like the flatulence of Styx. What’s the good news?”
She produced a bottle from behind her shield. “The best happy juice you can get this side of a Dionysian orgy. Fetch a couple of glasses.”
“It’s not nectar is it? I don’t know how you lot stomach the stuff.”
“No chance. It’s nettle home-brew from Mount Ida, courtesy of Oenone, Paris’s first wife. What that girl can do with a nettle would put a smile on the face of a harpy. Beats me why Paris would leave her for that top-heavy trollop, Helen.”
“Something to do with a golden apple, wasn’t it?”
She raised her eyes. “Yes, well we’ll draw a veil over that incident. It was nobody’s finest hour.”
I fetched the glasses and we imbibed. I’d certainly tasted worse. Top marks to Oenone.
Athena drained her glass and refilled it. “Now, let’s consider what we do about odious Odysseus.”
“Find him another quest. He’s never happier than when he’s questing. Just make sure he doesn’t come back. You were supposed to turn him into a posthumous hero at Troy.”
She shrugged. “Sorry about that but Apollo was watching his back. Anyway, I thought you might reconsider. He’s a fine figure of a man.”
"True, and I admit we had our moments, but he’s bossy, always telling me what to do and when to do it. I’ve had twenty happy years doing what I want and I intend to keep it that way.”
She looked at me over the top of her third glass. “What about the pleasures of the flesh?”
Are you kidding? I’ve had my pick of a hundred and eight suitors who were only too happy for me to sample what was on offer.”
She gulped another mouthful “Enough, Pen. I get the gist. Details not required.” We finished the bottle in companionable silence, after which she rose unsteadily to her feet and reached for her helmet. “Must be off. I have an idea about who can help us dispose of the bold hero.”
I helped her to strap on the headgear. “Enlighten me. Who do you have in mind?”
“The witch? You’re not serious.”
“I am. She’s clever, devious, and she owes me a favour or six. Leave it with me.” She vanished.
Next morning, the sun had barely risen when Telemachus shook me awake. His voice trembled. “Mother, we have a situation. That stinking beggar challenged all your suitors to a duel. They were at it all night and he’s picking them off like fleas on a rustler’s bedroll. The bodies are piling up and I’ve had to set the slaves to building a funeral pyre.”
“That’s no beggar, Lem,” I said. “That’s your father.”
“What?” His face paled. “You don’t want him back, do you? Please tell me you don’t.”
“Of course I don’t. Athena’s working out how to get rid of him. You keep the slaves shovelling on the bodies while I attend to my health and beauty regime. Come back here in an hour, I’ll invoke her and we’ll get a progress update.”
I was suitably bathed, robed and perfumed when he returned. I sent my customary silent prayer to Athena.
She manifested with the usual cacophony and she wasn’t alone. “Greetings, Pen, and to you, Telemachus. What a fine specimen of manhood you’ve become. Allow me to introduce my friends.” She indicated the beautiful woman who was gazing at Lem with appreciation in her eyes, and the handsome young man who was displaying a similar interest in me. “This is Circe who, no doubt, you know by reputation, and her son, Telegonus.”
Circe gave me a brief nod of acknowledgement and turned her attention back to Lem.
Telegonus bowed low. “I am honoured, your majesty. Please call me Leg.”
I returned his bow. “Delighted to meet you, Leg. You bear a strong resemblance to my son, Lem, which is no great surprise, because, of course, you are brothers, but I’d expected you to be much younger.”
He grinned. “The sons of witches grow up quickly.”
Lem hadn’t taken his eyes off Circe. “Tell, me, beautiful lady,” he said, “How do you look younger than your son?”
She treated him to a seductive smile. “I’m a witch. I can choose how I look.”
Athena was observing us with an expression of exasperation. “I suspect that pesky brat, Eros, has been firing his arrows around here.”
Circe shrugged. “It makes the world go round, Lady War.”
“So I’m told, but before you send it flying off its axis can we discuss the matter in hand? We need to bring about the demise of Odysseus.”
Leg said, “No problem. I’ve made the acquaintance of a mob of local cattle rustlers. I’ll lead them on a raid; the farmers will howl for help; Odysseus will come after us, suited and booted; and I’ll kill him.”
I touched his arm. “I don’t doubt your skill in battle, Leg, but you must take care. Odysseus is a great warrior. He won’t be easy to kill.”
Circe laughed. “It’s sorted, Pen. I’ve spiked Leg’s spear with spine of stingray. The great warrior is a dead man walking. We’ll be off now. It’s time for Leg to round up the rustlers, but before we go I’d like a peek at the shroud you’ve been toying with, like Zeus with a frisky nymph.”
I retrieved it from my needlework box. She examined it. “Classy bit of fabric you have here. It would recycle into two top-notch bridal gowns. Finish the unpicking and we’re in business.”
After the guests left, Lem and I considered our future prospects. He said, “If I marry Circe I’ll be my brother’s stepfather.”
“And if I marry Leg I’ll be your sister-in-law, but compared to what the Olympians get up to it’s fairly conventional.”
Next morning Odysseus strode into my boudoir uninvited, bursting with purposeful intent. He was bathed and shaved, tooled up and kitted out in battle gear, every inch the alpha male. I felt a headache coming on. “Penelope, I am back,” he said.
“So I see. Did you have a nice time?”
He flung his arms wide. “I have many adventures to relate, my love, but it’s good to be home. I look forward to renewing our conjugal relations.”
“You’re not exactly dressed for such activity. Do you have a former engagement?”
He pulled a sorrowful face. “I regret I do. The cattle farmers are under attack from rustlers. I must vanquish these vermin but I will be back before sunset and we will have a night to remember.”
“Fair enough. Off you go, then.” Off he went.
After his departure Lem showed up. “Mother, can you call Athena? We need to know what’s happening.”
Before I could summon her she and Circe materialised. The witch said, “Prepare for a bit of sorcery that will give us a front row seat.” She pointed at a tapestry-covered wall. It transformed into a window with a view of the battle site. A herd of docile-looking cows were grazing on lush pasture land while the rustlers dozed in the midday heat. Leg stood alert, his eyes on the horizon, his armour gleaming in the sunlight. He looked magnificent.
Athena said, “I’ve brought a few bottles. Get the glasses out, Lem.” He obliged. The three of us made ourselves comfortable on the couch with Oenone’s hooch. I took out the shroud and unpicked while we waited for battle to commence.
We saw Odysseus approaching. Leg gave an order and the rustlers sprang into action, harassing the cows, who grudgingly stampeded. A lot of mooing, shouting, whooping and spear-waving erupted. The two warriors confronted each other. Apollo was apparently engaged elsewhere because nobody was watching Odysseus’s back—or front. Leg plunged his poisoned spear into my husband’s heart and I unpicked the last stitch.
Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian, living in Wales with her musician husband. She has had a hundred and sixty-seven stories and poems accepted by paying markets, she was nominated for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize, and in 2019 Hearth Books published an anthology of her stories, ‘Whispers of Magic.’ She also writes song lyrics, mostly comic political satire, set to traditional melodies. Her husband has performed these in folk music clubs throughout the UK. She loves her family and friends, rock ‘n’ roll, Shakespeare, and cats.