Scott Oden

How I Came to Write “Xenia in the Court of the Winds” (And an Excerpt)

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On the 17th of October, The H-Team and Knight Publishing released the collaborative novel A SEA OF SORROW: A Novel of Odysseus — a collection retelling The Odyssey from the point of view of the witches, monsters, and villains encountered by the King of Ithaca on his epic journey from Troy to his home. The tales are told as though the monsters, etc. were real people, wrongfully shaded into villainy by the inky brush of myth. My own contribution is a tale called “Xenia in the Court of the Winds”, which explores the man behind the myth of the monstrous Cyclops, Polyphemus.

I was invited to join The H-Team by Russell Whitfield (Gladiatrix), an excellent UK author I’ve known for a few years, now. Truth be told, I’d been in a bit of a writing slump when his offer to write on a new collaborative novel came through my inbox. I’d not written anything substantive in nigh upon a year, not since finishing the rewrites for A Gathering of Ravens (released 20 June 2017). I was floundering and needed a kick in the pants. Polyphemus gave me that kick.

But who was Polyphemus? A beast, for certain; a great one-eyed ogre who lived in a cave, who tended his flocks, and who had no mind for the laws of men or of the Gods.

But when we had reached the place, which lay close at hand, there on the land’s edge hard by the sea we saw a high cave, roofed over with laurels, and there many flocks, sheep and goats alike, were wont to sleep. Round about it a high court was built with stones set deep in the earth, and with tall pines and high-crested oaks. There a monstrous man was wont to sleep, who shepherded his flocks alone and afar, and mingled not with others, but lived apart, with his heart set on lawlessness. For he was fashioned a wondrous monster, and was not like a man that lives by bread, but like a wooded peak of lofty mountains, which stands out to view alone, apart from the rest. — Homer, The Odyssey, Book IX

The book is predicated on the question of “what if” . . . what if the tale Homer told was rooted in reality? What if the giant Cyclops could be explained without the gloss of myth? I sat down with a few books and played the game of “What if.” What if he were but an exceedingly tall fellow?  What if he lost an eye in battle? What if he were alien to Greek thought, to Hellenic ideals of hospitality? What if “Polyphemus” was not actually his name?

I followed this line of thinking until my imagination uncovered what I was looking for — the “skeleton” upon which was hung the fabric of fable. An Egyptian of Nubian descent, one of Pharaoh’s Medjay in a former life; impossibly tall to the Greeks, haughty but garrulous, possessed of alien virtues and mores. A warrior, he had been, before being shipwrecked on the coast of Sicily, and the tale of his service was written in hieratic scars with a stylus of bronze. Like great Horus, he, too, had lost an eye . . .

With a character in place and a story dictated somewhat by the work of Homer, all I needed was . . . well, all I needed was to do the work. Yet, I dithered. I wrote a few different openings, all in the third-person omniscient voice, but nothing seemed to catch fire in my imagination. I dithered some more as the deadline loomed. Then, at my night job, something came to me. I scrawled this paragraph on a scrap of yellow legal paper torn from my manager’s notebook:

“I saw him first, standing alone at the end of the stone mole that protected Aeolia’s harbor from the harsh winds that blew off the sea at season’s change: a figure etched against the dawn sky, wreathed in fire; a Titan in silhouette – taller even than my father, who men counted among the tallest of Aeolians. He simply stood there, unmoving, like the harbinger of a doom not yet written.”

First person, eh? Well played, imagination. Well played! Not having any experience writing in that voice for longer fiction, I tried to shoe-horn it back into the more comfortable third person. Alas! It was not to be. In a voice somewhere between Morgan Freeman and my Dad, the narrator of the piece spooled forth his tale; for two weeks I listened and wrote, unsure of how it would come across. Words mounted upon words, and before I knew it I’d finished the tale. After a quick polish I sent it on to our lead on this project, Vicky Alvear Shecter, with a warning: this was my first foray into long-form first person, and I’m pretty sure I wrote something unusable.

Apparently not. Vicky and the other writers had a few notes, things to tighten and connections to make with the other stories, but for the most part the tale you can read in A SEA OF SORROW is as it came to me. Is it an accurate look at where the myth of Polyphemus might have come from? Perhaps. I’ll let others judge that . . . but as far as pieces of fiction, “Xenia in the Court of the Winds” has become my favorite from my own body of work. Thanks, then, to Russell Whitfield for dragging me into this, and the spirit of Homer for whispering inspiration to me one night at work . . .

 

“Xenia in the Court of the Winds”: An Excerpt

I dreamed, last night, of Lykomedes, Deon’s son; of goodhearted Meriones and of Old Phormion, who stood with me beneath the walls of Troy; of fleet-footed Aristaeus, who was my mother’s cousin. Their shades came to me, shuffling like men worn out with toil, and set up a groaning clamor; spectral fingers grasped and tore at their breasts as they howled over the injustice of dying by the hand of that cursed Kyklops. I felt the damning weight of their blame.

“Why?” they wailed. “Why did we not sail past that wretched land? Had you not had your fill of blood at Troy, vain Odysseus? Had you not glutted your passions for the rich viands of slaughter when you bid us put Ismaros-town to the spear, O son of Laertes? Why?”

But I could not answer them. Mistaking my silence for arrogance, they reached for me, then, and I woke with a start. Beneath the jeweled lamps of heaven, the silent grove was empty. Distraught, I placed my hands upon the breast of the earth and swore an oath to Lord Hades and his Queen. Once I reached Ithaca, I would sacrifice four black rams, the finest of my flocks, so that their blood and flesh might appease my fallen comrades . . .

1.

Mnemosyne, the Mother of the Muses, is a protean goddess. Her gifts are mercurial; without rhyme or reason she plays with men’s minds, obscuring what was once commonplace behind Time’s curtain while thrusting that which was once obscure onto the orchestra of recollection. I feel her hand on me. Names blur and fade; faces drift away on the tide of years like a skiff left unmoored. I can no longer recall what was said or done yesterday or the day before, but deeds done a thousand yesterdays ago? These memories are as clear and pure to me as the waters of holy Arethusa.

I was but a child – little older than you are right now, dear Eirene, daughter of my daughter – when the man rhapsodes named the Kyklops came to Aeolia. Eh, what was that? Was he a monster? My dear child, if the Fates grant you a life as long as mine, you will soon understand that while not all men are monsters, all monsters are but men. And this Kyklops was a man, no more and no less. It has been three score and eight years since that day. And while I can no longer recall my mother’s face, until Atropos cuts the thread of my life I will never forget the ruined visage of the Kyklops . . .

#

I saw him first, standing alone at the end of the stone mole that protected Aeolia’s harbor from the harsh winds that blew off the Tyrrhenian Sea at season’s change: a figure etched against the dawn sky, wreathed in fire; a Titan in silhouette – taller even than my father, who men counted among the tallest of Aeolians. He simply stood there, unmoving, like the harbinger of a doom not yet written.

“Papa,” I said. Father looked up from his nets, his fingers working across the strands of their own accord, and followed my gaze. A scowl cut deep furrows across his broad forehead.

“Zeus Savior and Eris,” Father muttered. Your great-grandfather, Eirene, was a pious man, and curses rarely passed his lips; hearing him invoke the Goddess of Discord caused the hairs to stir on the back of my neck. He straightened from his task and stood, shading his eyes with one long, calloused hand. “What is he doing here?”

“Who is he, Papa?”

“No one of consequence,” he replied. Our neighbors along the mole, fishermen like my father, also caught sight of the stranger. Murmurs of consternation rippled through them like wavelets caused by a dropped stone. “Stay here, boy.” Father stooped; nimbly, he caught up his bone-handled knife, its curved copper blade honed thin and pitted by the sea air. He sheathed it at his waist and mounted the crude steps to the top of the mole. Like his peers, my father wore nothing but a short kilt of saffron-colored linen, a zoma, supported by a supple girdle of ox hide. I watched him stalk toward the newcomer. “Polyphemus!” he called out.

You recall, dear child, the many times when your mother says one thing to you, but you hear another? That was what happened, then. Polyphemus was not the name my father had yelled, but it was the name my youthful ears heard. And when the tale went about, spread by that blind teller of tales in far Ionia, the name Polyphemus stuck. In truth, the name my father had bellowed that day was not “Polyphemus”, but “Polloi-phêmê.” Yes, “Many-Words”, it means in the tongue of Aeolia, as it does in the tongue of the Achaeans from whose loins we sprang. But while in Achaean it means ‘a man who has command of many languages’, in Aeolian it means ‘a man who does not know when it’s best to remain silent’.

“I . . . I do not know you,” the man called Polyphemus replied. He spoke with an odd accent. “I am sorry, friend, but I do not know you.”

“But I know you, Kyklops! I am the son of Glaukos, called Lykaon, and all of us who make our livelihood upon the breast of Lord Poseidon’s realm know you! Aye! Pirate, we name you! And thief!” There was rancor in my father’s voice that went well beyond this day. His anger fed on the memory of some past transgression. Nor was he alone. Curses and shouts rose from the collected fishermen. Like dusky sharks haunting the shallows off the sandbar, they scented blood. I could not see through their forest of legs; Pandora’s curse gnawed at me, red-handed curiosity. Thus, ignoring my father’s command, I scrambled up the steps and onto the mole. Its stones were wet with salt spray as choppy surf crashed against the mole’s outward face. Clouds boiled along the far horizon, presaging a storm.

Even over the racket of the clustered fishermen, I could hear the stranger, this Polyphemus, sigh. “I was those things, once, son of Glaukos. And worse. The spear was my trade, and the blood of Pharaoh’s enemies the coin by which I paid my way. But no longer. I come to you in my hour of need.”

Though young and with little knowledge of the world beyond the familiar nooks and crannies of our harbor and the little town around it, even I could see there was something not quite right about this Polyphemus. He was xénos, a foreigner – neither Aeolian, nor Achaean, nor native Sikelian; likely a son of some distant land whose name was barbarous and uncouth to our civilized tongues. A fringed shawl of faded blue linen shrouded his face; though a giant in truth, he was nevertheless as thin as a manikin, with skin that gleamed beneath the sun like burnished terracotta. His body trembled and shook as though wracked by fever.

With a quaking hand, he drew down the shawl – I recall to this day how long his face was, his features as sharp as though a sculptor had molded them from a lump of stygian clay. His pate was smooth as an egg; his pointed chin sported a wiry beard the color of old silver. Tattooed cheeks bore the scars of fire and bronze. But his eyes, Eirene. His eyes . . . one socket was empty, child, the orb of sight long since sacrificed to Ares, and the flesh around it bisected by a brown and puckered scar. And the other . . . the other had been taken recently, gouged out in what surely must have been an act of wanton cruelty.
“Have the men of Aeolia no pity?” Blind Polyphemus said.

Lykaon, who had faced the gods’ wrath with the same forbearance as he had the wrath of his enemies, recoiled.

Even as a boy, I felt I knew my father. He was solid as bedrock; a staunch traditionalist, though not without some measure of flexibility. He was patient, slow to anger, and disapproved of raising his hand against me, my sisters, or my mother. We were not his possessions, as so many men treat those who live under their roofs, even in this enlightened day. Always he respected the gods and the king, giving each their due portion. Never less than what was proper, and often a good deal more. Knowing all this, I expected my father would put aside whatever grudge he carried against the stranger and offer him xenia.

What is that, dear Eirene? You do not know this word, xenia? Come, the sun has stolen our shade. Let us shift to that seat, yonder, beneath your father’s stately oak tree. Yes, this is much better. Xenia, child, is the duty one man owes to another: that he offer the hospitality of his oikos, his household, to a stranger in need. You welcome the stranger, offer them food and drink and a bath; you give up your comforts for them – your favorite chair or most comfortable bolster – and make them a gift upon their departure. For the stranger’s part, accepting xenia means they must be respectful of their host’s oikos, be charming and entertain their host as best they may, and not stay longer than needs must. If they have one, the stranger gives a gift to the host, as well. Do these things, child, and do them well. For we do not know when the next stranger we meet, who might be in need of our succor, is almighty Zeus in mortal guise.

My father taught me these things, which is why I expected him to relent of his anger and offer blind Polyphemus the hospitality of his house. Who’s to say he wasn’t a son of Poseidon – nay, even Lord Poseidon himself, eh?

“Have the men of Aeolia no pity?” Polyphemus asked. And my father, even as good and kind as I knew him to be, shook himself free of the horror he found in the stranger’s ruined visage, ducked his head, and spat.

“Did you take pity on our boats, Kyklops?” he said. “Did you offer succor to the men of Aeolia who wrecked upon your shore, these ten years past? Or did you put your heel to their necks and hold them under the water till they drowned, so you might have fair claim to their possessions?”

Then my father, Lykaon, son of Glaukos, who I thought the best of men, turned his back on the blind and pitiable stranger. The crowd of fishermen smelled the blood my father had left upon the water. I saw brazen flashes in the hazy morning sun, like the lightning that gathered out over the ocean, as men bared their knives. Polyphemus did not see. He merely stood there, blind and thin and feverish, racking his brain for the words that might assuage the long-simmering anger of the men of Aeolia.

Can I confide in you, dear child? Can I tell you something about that day that I have told no one else – not even my daughter, your beloved mother? I felt the hand of a god. That feathery touch that draws the essence of a man from this shell of flesh and allows the spirit of the divine to manifest and take control? I felt it, that day, as never before and never since. And though I was but a boy, it filled me with a man’s purpose and guided my steps. I threaded the labyrinth of kinsmen and neighbors, lips set in a thin line, my face a mask of will that showed little of the child beneath. I brushed past my father, who started and scowled. I have no recollection of it, but he told me later I rebuked him in a voice not my own.

The god, Zeus Xenios, perhaps, spoke through me: “You men of Aeolia are better than this!”

The crowd stopped, their anger forgotten; my father stopped, too. Their eyes watched in wonder as this small, brown child, naked but for a scrap of cloth about his loins and as precocious as the infant Hermes, marched up to the stranger. Thunder rolled in the distance.

“I apologize for my father’s rash tongue, Polyphemus,” I said, my words echoing still with the presence of the god. “You are welcome, here. Though I have no oikos of my own, I offer you my friendship, if you will have it.”

Polyphemus was as taken aback as the folk around us. Hesitantly, he reached down to touch my shoulder. Blood crusted the tattooed cheek below his gouged-out eye. “You,” he stammered. “You are the son of Lykaon?”

I nodded, but then realized he could not see the gesture. “I am Glaukos, son of Lykaon, son of Glaukos.” I took from around my neck a boy’s gimcrack – a pearlescent shell that hung from a thong of old fishing twine – and placed it in his long-fingered hand. “I make this gift to you, such as it is, so the Gods might smile upon our association.”

He smiled, too, then, his teeth like ivory against dark skin. “You are well-spoken, young Glaukos,” he replied. His voice bore a deep timbre that belied his thin frame, which was knitted together by lean sinew and striated muscle. “I would be honored to be your friend.” He unwrapped the fringed shawl from about his neck and held it out to me. “A gift for a gift, so the Gods of my home might know you as a man of honor.” The linen smelled faintly of sweat, of old spices, and of smoke. “I will not impose upon you, young Glaukos. If it is in your power, all I ask is your aid in reaching the palace of your king, good Aeolus. Alas,” Polyphemus said, “I come bearing ill tidings and a warning.”

“I will guide you.” I felt the god’s hand withdraw, leaving my face hot and prickling with embarrassment. The realization of what I’d just done struck me like a physical blow. He had ordered me to stay put, but I had flaunted my father’s will – flaunted it in public, no less. Had I made a fool of myself? Had I brought shame upon our household? Hand of a god or no, I knew when I turned I would see the rage in my father’s gray eyes, so like the storm building off in the distance. I would be lucky to escape with just a beating. But, as I had taken a man’s portion I resolved myself to face the consequences like a man. “Come, my friend,” I said, taking Polyphemus’s hand – his other hand clutched the shell necklace to his breast, as though it were a thing of great importance. I turned . . .

The god whose hand had guided me must have left a bit of his strength behind. For without flinching, I raised my eyes to meet my father’s gaze. What I saw nearly robbed me of my resolve. Tears dampened his bearded cheeks. But, they were not tears of rage, or even of disappointment. No, they were the product of another emotion. Something I now realize runs deep in a father’s soul.

With a start, I realized it was pride.

 

 

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