It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an agèd wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“You WHAT??!!!

Ulysses paused mid-stride. That unholy screech sounded like it had been uttered by one of the Eumenides, but something about the tone told him it could only have come from Penelope. Without turning, he said, “I guess you found my note.”

“Yes, I found your note. More like suicide letter.”

Ulysses stayed where he was, facing the ocean and the setting sun. He had hoped to get to the docks before his wife had discovered him missing. Sailing away on a ship into the sunset seemed much more of a romantic exit than…well, this.

He heard her sandals clacking on the stone as she walked down steps of the house towards him with deliberation. “How did you expect me to react?”

“I didn’t really expect anything. I’m not meant for this place.” He kept his eyes fixed on the horizon, but he heard her come closer. He could smell her now, that familiar, cloying smell of garlic and basil and body odor. She must have been no more than three feet away from him when she finally stood still.

“So I read.” He heard a rustle of parchment behind him as she unraveled his poem. “‘How dull it is to pause, to make an end.’ Is that what you think of the life we’ve made here? You only just returned a few years ago!”

“Try seven years.”

“And now I’m an ‘aged wife?’ When not even a decade ago I was surrounded by men who wanted to marry me and take over the estate?”

Photo by Stephen Fegan

Ulysses kept silent, looking steadily upon the dark waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The sun was beginning to set now, and its rays cast an orange glow on the waves.

She took a few defiant steps towards him. “Maybe I should have married one of those men.”

Ulysses let out a long-suffering sigh. “I don’t know, Penelope. Maybe you should have.”

Silence. Seconds ticked by. He knew she was crying. He imagined her there behind him, her tears flowing silently down her face and her hands balled up into fists at her sides. Her long gray hair had probably escaped their braids in her agitation. He fought the urge to turn to her, to comfort her.

Keeping his eyes on the horizon, he explained, “I can’t help the way I feel, Penny. There’s just so much yet to explore.”

“Then take me with you.” It was barely a whisper, uttered between sobs.

He swallowed and looked at his feet. “I can’t.”

How could he tell her? I want to get away from you just as much as I want to leave Ithaca. The mere thought of spending another night with you after having sampled the mystical charms of Circe and Calypso leaves me empty and unsatisfied. I need more, and you simply cannot give it to me. Every muscle strained to turn and spit those words out at her, this woman, who used her twenty-year chastity as a weapon of guilt to hurl at him whenever she could.

A bell rang out from down at the docks. High tide. It was time to go, and they both knew it. He adjusted the pack on his back.

“Don’t. Leave. Me.” The words came through gritted teeth, those old-woman teeth in that wrinkled mouth that he didn’t even want to kiss goodbye.

“I must.”

She threw something at him. It hit his shoulder and tumbled a ways in front of him. A coin. It glittered orange in the rays of the setting sun. He bent down to pick it up.

Imprinted in the metal was a picture of her. His wife. Penelope. Only it was what she looked like 27 years ago, when he had married her, before he had left the first time. Beautiful, with long, curly locks and a mysterious, alluring smile. She never smiles anymore, he thought. Maybe she’ll smile more when I’m not around.

He almost turned around, but stopped himself. It’s better this way. He pocketed the coin, and without any further goodbyes, continued down the road to the dock, to his ship, to freedom.

This week’s Indie Ink writing challenge came from Binaryfootprint, who writes:

Put yourself in Ulysses’ Sandals. Explain to your family why you are bored with life and have to go away on a journey and what you intend to do with your life away from them.

I have to admit, I was a little stumped on this one! My main sticking point is that I really have never had very much wanderlust at all, so it’s hard to relate to Ulysses on this level. So, with all due respect to Binaryfootprint, I used the prompt more as a jumping off point than actual instructions. I hope I didn’t disappoint.

My prompt went out to runaway sentence, who answered it with typical bad-assness here.

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  • Marian

    i am way less smart than you and am blanking altogether on the ulysses myth. but i am all fucking pissed at him for dismissing her in her “aged”-ness. i bet she is smokin’ hot and he is walking away, the bastard. go penny! hee.

  • Stopping by from Indie. I have to say if Ulysses had been this interestind in school, I wouldn’t have been so bored. Great job!

  • Yes! That’s exactly what I wanted people to feel. By my calculation, she’s only about 43. Old in ancient Greece, for sure, but not by our standards!

  • Wow! Strangely enough, I have never thought of penelope’s reaction to his leaving. I just assumed that, since he has never been at home to meet her needs, she would not be devastated by his going away. Looking at it from your work though..Jeez! He really thought he could get away with calling her old and his life with her boring. You write really well, inspite of my “Out-there” prompt. Love the way you put your twist into it. n

  • Trish

    I love this. I feel her anger in your words and yet I can empathize with him and his compelling need to leave. I’m sure she’s better off without him.

  • I am, literally, finishing this unit with my kids tomorrow. We spend quite a bit of time discussing his love and faithfulness to Penelope. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d love to share this in class. It would be an excellent starting point for a discussion with my kids. I really love this, Maren. A lot.

  • Yes, go ahead and use it! That would make me very happy.

  • Stefan

    In your email to us you wrote: “Well, mine isn’t quite as inspired as everyone else’s, but hopefully it’s entertaining.”nnWhy you said that I have no idea?! It was entertaining and inspiring! It was used in a class disscussion for heavens sake! (Yeah … it was hard not to miss the first comment below this ‘reply’ box).nnGO MAREN! You rock!

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  • Kat

    I think you owned this prompt, from a Greek mythology fan.

  • This was a wonderful read, Maren. I love how you take these classic tales and bring them to life in modern day. The circumstances may change, the names and markers that surround us, but the very human emotion of love and loss and quest perseveres across time. Always a pleasure to read your work!