By day she crafts; by night she unmakes. Surely somewhere, in all the myriad crossings of the threads, there is a future in which all will be well. Marie Brennan offers an intriguing new spin on a classic tale.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Paul Stevens.
The strands thrum faintly beneath her fingertips, like the strings of a lyre. Plain grey wool, held taut by the stone weights tied at the ends, awaiting her hand. She can feel the potential in the threads, the resonance. She has that much of the gift, at least.
But it is madness to think she can do more. It is hubris.
It is desperation.
Her maid stands ready with the bone pick. She takes it up, slides its point beneath the first thread, and begins to weave.
Antinoös will be the most easily provoked. He has no care for the obligations of a guest, the courtesy due to his host; he sees only the pleasures to be had in food and drink. If these are restricted, marred—the meat burnt, the wine thin, the grapes too soon consumed—then he will complain. And it will take but one poorly phrased reassurance for his complaint to become more than mere words.
The guards will know to watch for this. When Antinoös draws his knife, they will be ready. Others will come to Antinoös’ aid, of course; the tables will be knocked aside, the feast trampled underfoot, the rich treasures of the hall smashed to pieces.
Antinoös will not be the first to die, though. That will be Peisandros, who will fall with a guard’s sword through his heart. After him, Klymenos, and then Pseras of the guards; then it will be a dozen, two score, three hundred and more dead, blood in a torrent, flames licking at the palace walls, smoke and death and devastation.
She drops the shuttle, shaking with horror. No, no. That was not how she meant it to go.
“My lady?” the maid asks, uncertain.
She almost takes up scissors and cuts her error away. Some fragment of wisdom stops her: that is not her gift, and to try must surely end in disaster. Instead she retrieves the shuttle, sends it back through without changing the shed. Unweaving the line that had been. “The pick,” she commands, and her maid gives it to her in silent confusion. With a careful hand she lifts the warp threads, passes the shuttle through, reversing her movements from before. Undoing the work of hours with hours more, while her maid helps without understanding.
I must weave a funeral shroud, she had told them. She’d intended it to be for them. Not for all her city.
But the power was there: within her grasp, beyond her control.
She retires for the night, trembling, exhausted. Frightened. And exhilarated. When morning comes, all is as it was before, her problems unchanged, her desperation the same. Gathering her courage, she goes back to the loom.
Surely control may be learned.
After so many years enjoying the hospitality of the palace, the men will not be easily persuaded to leave. Frustration and failure will not do it; if those were sufficient, they would have departed long since. They stay on in perpetual hope of success, and will not leave until they believe that hope gone.
She will choose her tool with care. Eurymachos is renowned for his silver tongue; he will bend it to her chosen end. A dropped hint here, a frank conversation over too much wine there. Why should a man stay, when he believes another has claimed the place he intended to take? An elegant man, well dressed and better spoken than his rivals—and they will see the proof of it, when she bestows smiles upon him she denies to all others. For him, she will drape herself in rich cloth, adorn her ears and neck with gold. For him, she will play the coquette.
One by one, they will go. Grumbling, disappointed, a few vowing some revenge against Eurymachos for having stolen the place they thought to claim. But they will go, without a fight. Their numbers will dwindle: one hundred and eight, four score, two score, twelve. They will leave, and with each chamber emptied she will breathe more easily.
Until only one remains. Smiling, smooth spoken Eurymachos, to whom she has shown much favor. He will not leave. For has she not made a promise to him, in the absence of her husband, whom all presume dead?
Too late, she will see that it has gone too far. He has coaxed from her words she never meant to speak, implications she cannot disavow. To do so would bring war, and the destruction she sought to avoid. She will have no choice but to acquiesce, for the sake of her people, for the sake of her son.
She will fail, and pay the price of that failure until the end of her days.
This time she is shaking with rage. To be so manipulated, so trapped . . . she would die before she allowed that to happen.
Or would she? After all, the future now hanging on the loom is her own creation. However undesirable, it is possible. She could not have woven it, were it not so.
Her maid waits at her shoulder. They have long since begun to tell tales, she knows, her maidservants whispering of their mistress’ odd behavior. They think it only a tactic for delay, an excuse for avoiding the men. That, they whisper, is why she undoes her work each night, reclaiming her spent thread, only to start anew in the morning.
As reasons go, it is a good one. They need not know the rest of her purpose. If any hint of that reached the men, all hope of her freedom would be gone.
Night after night, fate after fate. She can only keep trying. Surely somewhere, in all the myriad crossings of the threads, there is a future in which all will be well.
Her son will ask again for stories of his father, and she will tell him what she knows. That the king was summoned to war, and he went; that many who sailed to the east never returned.
This time, Telemachos will not be content with the familiar tale. He will insist on hearing more. When she cannot satisfy him, he will declare his intent to go in search of the truth.
It will wrench her heart to let him go. The seas took one man from her already; will they take this one as well, this youth she remembers as a babe at her breast? But release him she will, because perhaps he will find what she cannot: an escape from this trap, for himself, for her, for them all.
He will board the ship and go to Pylos, to Sparta, and in the halls of a king he will indeed hear the tale. Full of joy, he will set sail for home—but on the beaches of Ithaka, he will find a different welcome.
Antinoös, Ktesippos, Elatos, and others besides. Armed and armored, prepared not for war, but for murder. There on the beaches they will cut her son down, and his blood will flower like anemone in the sand.
When the news reaches her, it will break her heart. She will fling herself from the walls of Ithaka, and her sole victory will be that none among her suitors will ever claim her.
She wants to weep, seeing what she has woven. The threads fight her, their orderly arrangement belying their potential for chaos. Each thread is a life, and each life is a thousand thousand choices; she is not goddess enough to control them. Only a woman, a mortal woman, with a trace of the divine in her veins. And a trace is not enough.
It has become far too familiar, this unweaving. Forward and back make little difference to the speed and surety of her hands. Melantho gathers up the loose thread silently, winds it back onto the shuttle, but her mistress does not miss the sullen look in the girl’s eyes. This is one who has made her life pleasant by giving herself to the men. She does not like being a maidservant, even to a queen.
A queen who can trace her ancestry back through her grandmother’s grandmother to the three daughters of Necessity. From them she inherits this fragment of their gift, to spin thread and link it to men, to weave the shape of their fates on her loom. If she continues her efforts . . .
But she has no chance to try again. When she goes to that high chamber the next morning, Leodes is there, and the frame is bare of threads. He knows what she has been doing; they all know, for Melantho has told them. Leodes has always been more tolerable than the others, for he is their priest, and alone among them he respects the obligations of a guest. He chides her now for her dishonesty, though, for lying to them all this time about the progress of her weaving. There will be no more thread for her, no days and nights spent safe in this room, trying to weave a path away from danger.
He leaves her there with the empty frame and empty hands. She is not without choices: she has woven a hundred of them, a thousand, a new one every day. But every one ends in disaster. She will not choose disaster.
In fury she takes up her scissors. There are no threads here for her to cut; she sets the blades instead to her hair. When she wed she cut a single lock in sacrifice; now she cuts them all. She kindles a fire in a bronze dish and gives her hair to the flames, an offering to the powers from whom she descends. If she cannot weave a good fate with her own hands, then she will pray for those powers to have pity upon her instead.
The flames rise high, dancing twisting flickering tongues, weaving about one another in ephemeral knots. In their light, she sees her answer, and she thrusts her hands into the fire.
When she withdraws them, threads of gold follow.
She casts them quickly into the air, the steady lines of the warp, the glowing bundle of the weft. There, without loom, without doubt, she begins to weave the fate of one man.
He is on the island of Kalypso, prisoner and guest. The nymph sings as she walks to and fro across her loom, weaving with a shuttle of gold. But Kalypso is no kin to the Fates. Her pattern will falter, give way to a power stronger than her own.
The gods themselves will order his release. One will try to drown him at sea, but he will come safe to the island of the Phaiakians. There he will find hospitality and tales of the war in years past, and one—the tale of his most clever strategem—will provoke him to admit his true name.
He will tell them his tale, the long years since that war, and out of respect they will aid him in his final journey. In the house of the swineherd Eumaios his son will find him: Telemachos, evading the trap Antinoös has laid. Together they will devise a new strategem. The king will return to his palace as a beggar, to be ridiculed and mocked by the men who have impoverished his house for so long.
And she . . .
She will put a challenge before her suitors, to string and shoot her husband’s bow. One after another they will try and fail, until the filthy old beggar does what they cannot. And then he will turn his bow upon them, until every man among them lies dead.
Odysseus, king of Ithaka, will come home at last.
The tapestry hangs in the air before her, a perfect creation, glowing with fire and hope.
In the darkness beyond, her half-blinded eyes discern a silhouette. A woman, helmed and regal, who studies her work with a critical eye.
Her own gaze follows, and she sees the flaw. The error which, perhaps, underlays all others, turning her every bid for victory into failure. And she knows how it must be mended.
It is not easy to cast the final row. To cloud her own mind, robbing herself of this memory, the knowledge that she has woven Odysseus’ fate and through him, the fate of them all. But she must. If she knows what is to come, she will ruin it; she will betray the truth through a careless word or a too cautious act. There is a reason this gift is a thing of gods and not mortals.
The thread settles into place, binding her own fate. She will see her husband and not know him; recognition will not come until he proves himself to her again.
Her weaving is done. She kneels before the grey-eyed goddess and bows her head, accepting the ignorance that wisdom bestows. The brilliant light of her creation flares and then fades away.
Her maids find her collapsed on the floor and hurry her off to bed. These are the ones whose threads will continue; they have kept faith with their queen, and so they will not be hanged with treacherous Melantho and her sisters. But all of that lies in a future they have not seen. Neither maids nor mistress knows what she has done.
She sleeps a day and a night, and when she rises, her hair is as long as it ever was. She goes about her duties in a daze, which her maids attribute to the absence of her son. Their reasoning is borne out when Telemachos returns, for then it seems that she wakes at last from her dream.
She goes to the head of the hall, looking out over her suitors, the men who have clamored for her hand, believing her to be the means by which they will shape their own fates.
The old beggar stands disregarded at the back of the hall. In this moment, every eye is upon her.
Penelope holds the mighty bow in her hand and speaks for all to hear. “My husband will be the man who can string the bow of Odysseus, and fire an arrow through twelve axe-heads. Thus the Fates have decreed, and on my word, it shall be so.”
“Daughter of Necessity” copyright © 2014 by Bryn Neuenschwander
Art copyright © 2014 by Ashley Mackenzie