Content Warning: mention of sexual assault.
She doesn’t know the face of the king of Ithaca; the throne goes to whoever is bold enough to sit in it of a night, drunk and japing, japing and drunk, drunk, drunk. Always drunk. Melantho keeps her head down, and creeps past the raucous men, aching and sore, sore, sore. Like a song. She knows all the beats. She dares one last look over her shoulder. Eurymachus returns to the table and ribs Melanthius, her brother, as he pours the wine, barely watered. He does something in the air with his tongue. Everyone roars with laughter, and nobody louder than her brother Melanthius. Melantho scrubs at the back of her mouth with her wrist, and goes to Penelope.
It’s time to unravel the shroud.
Melantho doesn’t know Odysseus. She only knows the elderly Laertes, grief-stricken Laertes, hollow-eyed, ash-haunted, sentinel Laertes. She imagines his son must have looked like him, with his features re-spooled like thread, tightened back up. Laertes is weighed down by sorrow. He taught Melantho and the other girls the names of all his trees. Those are his loyal, steadfast children, his living children.
She knows also Telemachus, his son. She imagines his father must have looked like him, with the creases on his face blasted into crags. Telemachus is full of rage, with burning eyes, and, like his grandfather, he is grief-stricken for the father that left him. He commands the house in his father’s absence. Melantho would not be surprised if he didn’t know her name, or the name of any of the other girls. He has ears only for the stories of his father and other bold men, and for the affairs of the household.
Everyone knows Odysseus is dead. They ought to be weaving his burial shroud, not Laertes’s. But Penelope won’t hear of it. She says her king and husband yet lives, and that she waits for him, and all his loyal servants and slaves must await his return with secret, solemn joy.
She says that her husband and a great host of Greeks went forth to faraway Troy to reclaim the most beautiful woman in the world. Eurymachus’s father, so Eurymachus claims, has a beautiful Trojan slave and a brood of beautiful half-Trojan bastards. He must not have sent the beautiful ones. The servants that came with Eurymachus look ordinary to her.
All the others came back when Melantho was a child. Odysseus is never coming back. But Penelope has closed her ears to that. Penelope has closed her ears to a lot of things.
“I don’t know about Helen,” Eurymachus told her once. “They say she’s the daughter of Zeus. If so, then Zeus forsook her. If he had loved her, he would not have let the blood of all those soldiers stain her hands. She will be dripping with their blood for the rest of time.”
She felt very special to receive thoughtful words, rather than barked orders, from a man of his station. She felt very special to receive an upbringing from Penelope. She felt very special to be a slave in the household of the king of Ithaca, and to work at his looms, and to sit with his queen. She clings to that feeling every night, when they unravel the shroud, and when they all go to sleep, when she listens to the army of the suitors feasting and carousing, listens to Penelope staring up at the ceiling, thinking of her dead husband and the reunion that is to come. Only in Hades, Melantho thinks, only in Hades.
“A more beautiful girl could scarce be imagined,” Eurymachus told her, twirling a long curl around his finger, staring out at the courtyard and thinking of the throne, and of Penelope. Thinking of killing Telemachus, who is scarce older than Melantho. Thinking the words “King Eurymachus” over and over in the pounding, sticky rhythm men think all things in.
“If you saw Penelope, you would not have to imagine,” she told him, and he laughed, and praised her for her quick tongue, and that made her special, too.
“Your sister is a sweet little thing,” Eurymachus told her brother once, while looking over the goat he had killed for dinner. Melantho was barely more than a girl then, looking at herself reflected in the dead animal’s glassy eye. “She will be very beautiful when she grows older.”
“Melantho,” Melanthius told her, both rough hands on her shoulder, “I need you to understand that Odysseus is dead. No matter what the mistress tells you. I need you to understand this. One of those men will be our king one day.”
“Loyalty and silence are a woman’s greatest virtues,” Penelope told her while she was still small enough to fit under her arm. She smelled of sweat and wool, no perfume, no oil, no hair wax in her grief.
“It’s dangerous outside these walls, child,” King Laertes told her, burying a burned bone at the base of a dying tree, patting the soil with his weathered, gentle hands. “Those who leave are desolated and destroyed.”
“A single loyal servant is worth an army of treacherous men,” Eumaeus told her brother, but she was sitting there, watching Telemachus, who was watching Eumaeus with a son’s keen, focused expression.
“You’re hurting me,” she told Eurymachus.
And he told her, “you’re fine, you aren’t hurt. I wouldn’t hurt you. You are a good girl, aren’t you?”
The stores are getting lower, and everyone grows older. The floors get dirty faster than the girls can clean them, dirt and effluence and vomit and spilled wine. Many of the other slave women have children, some of them old enough to speak, whose fathers are competing to marry their future queen. The ones who pay their bastard children no attention at all are the ones Melantho hates the least. Laertes continues to sag toward the dirt that has given him loyal, steadfast children, Telemachus journeys away from home just like his absent king-father, and Penelope… Penelope…
“He hurt me,” Melantho sobbed into her lap. “He hurt me…”
It is time to unravel the shroud. Three years they’ve been doing this, night after night, pointless and futile. Melantho tears at it with her fingers curved like claws. The suitors are no closer to leaving. Odysseus wails in Hades, unmourned, and his wife and slaves are left rudderless.
Penelope doesn’t have to walk past them every night and every day. The last time a man tore at Penelope’s body in that pounding, sticky rhythm was twenty years ago. Penelope is beautiful, but she is the queen more than that, and that’s what they want from her, the kingship of Ithaca. Her body? They have a household of slaves to pick from, and they do, just as they pick from the stores, and the herds, and the vineyards and the orchards.
“One of those men will be our king one day.”
Melantho stares at the wreckage of the shroud. Looks over her shoulder at the weary-eyed Penelope, grief-stricken, grief-maddened Penelope. Penelope like Helen, in the walls of the kingdom, her hands dripping blood. If Odysseus had loved her…
When the noise has died down, Melantho goes to the hall where the best of the suitors sleep, picks her way through the servants and goes to the couch where Eurymachus snores. She crouches down and whispers his name by his ear until he awakes.
“Mgh… uh… Melantho…?” He’s not so smooth-tongued when he’s sleepy. “What do you want…?”
“I have to tell you something terrible… you must promise not to be angry…”
“Angry? At you? You wouldn’t give me reason to be angry. You are a good girl, aren’t you?”
Yes, Melantho thinks, I am, and very wise. I learned from the wisest woman in the world and from you. Loyalty is a woman’s greatest virtue.
What’s that? Dion has immense sympathy for the enslaved women in Greek epics??? Who Could Have Predicted This