Thursday, 6 February 2014

Polutlas (revised)

So this is the second version of a flash fiction piece written for my Flash Writing course last semester. It's based on the story of Odysseus in the Trojan Horse, as recounted in Book IV of the Odyssey. The word polutlas is a Greek epithet applied to Odysseus, and means "much-enduring".


  He can’t endure much longer. How long have they been in this hellhole? Odysseus has no idea. Hunger and sleep compete for his attention. Anticlus, who has started to snore, is shaken violently awake; hands are clamped firmly over his mouth to prevent any sound escaping. The reek of urine and sweat fills every nook of the small space. The chamberpots are nearly overflowing. The water-skins are nearly empty. ­

  They need to strike soon.

  A decade of occasional battles and innumerable dice games. Ten dark winters spent huddling alone before a sputtering fire. He hasn’t touched a woman since he last touched Penelope.

  It has been too long.

  Odysseus recalls the almost unbroken tension of the past hours. The enemy's initial skepticism had quickly given way to thunderous sounds of merriment and echoing voices celebrating victory. Yet not even then could the Greeks cramped in the Horse afford to relax – the slightest whiff of suspicion could mean ruin. Now, at long last, the voices outside have subsided into snores, and the moans of copulating couples have ceased.

  Odysseus’ hand hovers over the trapdoor.

  He tenses. Voices, incoherent but definitely approaching.

  He makes out a male voice, deep and slurred with drink: "Helen". A woman's gentle murmur in reply. Then, so close that he can touch the speaker but for the rough wood separating them, a clear, high voice.

  "Menelaus. Menelaus, it is I."

  Menelaus jerks up, his eyes wild with shock.

  "I'm here, my love. I've missed you so. Come out to me."

  Menelaus’ mouth opens – Odysseus’ sword is at his throat. A small pinprick of blood trickles down the blade. Menelaus pants, but stays silent.

  Helen's voice continues relentlessly, morphing as it calls to Agamemnon, then Diomedes. More and more men become agitated as they hear their beloveds beseeching them individually with such haunting clarity. Helen had known these women, no doubt, and could reproduce every lilt and cadence of their voices perfectly. All around Odysseus, men are in tears, shaking with suppressed sobs. It has been too long.

  Odysseus moves to stand firmly on the trapdoor.

  The deep male voice, impatient this time, is heard again, persuading Helen to come back to bed. Odysseus takes a breath, lets it out slowly.


  He stiffens.

  A torrent of memories, unearthed by the sound of Penelope's voice. The first time he heard it in her father’s palace, warm breezes blowing in from the sea. The low murmur of her laughter and the way she would brush her arm against his. The day he hid from her in the apple orchard, making Penelope frantically call his name: “Odysseus.”

  Odysseus’ hand hovers over the trapdoor. His fingers grasp the catch

  He can almost see Penelope’s face, smell the fragrance of her hair, feel the soft down of her neck as they embraced on the beach that last morning.

  It has been too long.

  All around him are the faces of ragged men. Faces that have grown old and scarred with his; faces sleep-deprived and tear-streaked. Faces that now stare silently at him.

  Helen calls one last time.

  Odysseus lets go of the catch, curls his hand into a fist, and waits.

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