Mestra was nearly 60, though looking at her it was hard to tell her age. Her chestnut hair, streaked with grey, was thick and lustrous; her dark blue eyes were clear and sparkling; the contours of her face – marked with the softest of lines – shifted with every change in the light.
The day was hot and the rippling waves in the bay below scattered the sun’s reflection onto the plastered ceiling and walls of the guest room of the old palace, making the painted dolphins seem to swim in an iridescent sea. She turned to the young man sitting opposite her, his eyes on the horizon, and smiled:
“Odysseus, you’ve done nothing for weeks but sit on that stool and stare out to sea.”
“What else is there to do Grandmother, until my leg heals and I can go home to Ithaka?” said her grandson, stroking his bandaged thigh. “Besides, I love the sea.”
“It must run in the family,” said Mestra. “Poseidon was my first love too; I couldn’t stay out of the water when I was a girl. I was a good swimmer then, almost as good as those dolphins on the wall.” She laughed – a deep chuckle – like the sound of gurgling water. “And if I wasn’t swimming I was lying on the beach, daydreaming about what it would be like to float like a jellyfish or fly like a seagull or dart like a sand eel.”
Odysseus gazed at his grandmother and tried to imagine her as she might have been at his own age. There were family rumours about her – that she had lived a far from ordinary life – but this was his first visit to his grandparent’s realm and he realized that he knew very little about her past.
“Tell me about your life Grandmother,” he said. “I shall be king in Ithaka one day and a king should know his lineage. Tell me your story.”
“Your grandfather has all the stories,” she replied. “He’ll make you laugh. You don’t want to listen to me; my story is too dark for a day like this.”
“Light or dark, it’s all the same to me,” said Odysseus. “I’m curious about the whole world; I want to know everything.”
“If you’re sure,” said Mestra, suddenly serious. “But I don’t think you’ll like it. Not all your ancestors pleased the gods or covered themselves with glory. You asked me to tell you my story but to do that I must tell you the story of my father – your great-grandfather.
“Things began well enough. He was born a prince: the only son of Tropias, king of Thessaly. But his parents spoiled him and he grew up too used to getting his own way. Most young men are selfish but he got more arrogant and demanding with each year that passed. One day he took it into his head to build a banqueting hall for himself and his companions. It would be the most splendid hall ever built, made from the rarest stone and finest timber.
“When it was time to raise the roof, he took 20 woodsmen – armed with double-axes – to a grove of trees. Pine and elm, oak and ash, apple and pear grew so close together that an arrow would scarcely have passed between them. Everyone knew that the grove was sacred to Demeter but that didn’t deter my father. At the centre stood a great oak, strung with garlands and wreaths, towering above the rest. It caught his eye at once. ‘Cut it down,’ he commanded.
“The woodsmen stood back afraid to touch the holy tree. Your grandfather seized an axe and swung the first blow himself. It’s said that the tree shuddered and groaned, and that blood poured out of the wound like the lifeblood that gushes from the throat of a bull sacrificed at the altar. The branches of the oak trembled and every leaf and acorn grew pale. ‘Stop this impious act,’ said one of the woodsmen, braver than the rest. ‘Can’t you see that you are offending the goddess herself?’
“Perhaps, if my father had stopped then, he might have been able to make amends. But that was not his way. ‘Take that for your piety,’ he cried and applied his axe to the protestor’s neck. No-one else dared oppose him and blow by blow they hacked at the shrieking tree until it crashed to the ground.”
Horrified by the images her words had conjured, Mestra fell silent. She touched her forehead with her right hand and cast her eyes up to heaven as if to remind the gods that it was her father who had committed this sacrilege and that she was just the storyteller.
“Then what happened?” prompted Odysseus.
“The gods themselves intervened and from that moment on my father was doomed,” said Mestra. “We are like dry leaves whirling in the wind they create as they pass through our lives. I will tell you what I know and what I have been told by those wiser than myself.
“The men cut the sacred tree into stout lengths of timber and took them back to the palace to complete the new banqueting hall. It was indeed a splendid building; its like had never been seen. But no feast was ever held there, no bards ever sung under its roof, and no guests ever entered its magnificent doors.
“The day after the hall was finished my father woke up with a fierce gnawing hunger that could not be satisfied. He went straight to the palace kitchens and began to eat everything in sight: bread, meat, fish, poultry, pastries, fruit, vegetables, grain, raw offal. He ate and ate and would not, could not, stop. When the kitchen was empty he ate the larder bare; when he had shoveled the contents of the larder down his gullet and drunk the cellar dry of wine, he went out into the yard and set his teeth into the heifer, the donkey and the cat. But the more he ate, the hungrier he became.
“The priestess told my grandmother that Demeter was so infuriated by the desecration of her grove that she sent a nymph to the bare mountain top in Scythia where gaunt Hunger prowls, to bid her visit my father at night, wrap her bony arms around him, put her toothless gums to his mouth and send her stinking breath coursing through his veins. The priestess must have spoken the truth because my father’s appetite could not be satisfied.
“In the weeks and months that followed, entire flocks of sheep and goats were slaughtered; herds of prime cattle put to the knife; whole orchards and vines stripped of their fruit; granaries and storehouses emptied of their contents; hoards of silver, gold, and bronze exchanged for food; the very stones and timbers of the palace itself traded for anything that could be eaten. My father’s banqueting hall was the only royal building left intact; no-one dared to touch it in case they too suffered Demeter’s wrath.
“No amount of food or drink could diminish his titanic craving or nourish his aching body. He became more like a ghost than a man: his flesh withered until his arms and legs were no more than bone and sinew; his ribs rattled when he breathed; his wild eyes stared out of hollow sockets. His parents, friends, servants, even his wife – my mother – deserted him.
“Only I remained and I could hardly bear to see him. I stayed out of his way as much as I could, but when he had chomped his way through every last edible morsel in the kingdom and guzzled the last drop of wine, he called me to him.”
Odysseus stared wide-eyed at his grandmother: “He didn’t try to eat you too did he?”
“No,” said Mestra. “But what he had in mind was almost as bad. He sold me as a slave to a passing merchant to get money to buy more food.”
“Outrageous,” said Odysseus through gritted teeth. “It’s outrageous that one of my ancestors should do such a thing. How did the merchant treat you?”
“Well, you could say that the merchant got more – or rather that he got less – than he bargained for. As soon as we were alone, I started crying out to Poseidon, as if he were my lover. I wriggled my body like a fish; I curled and uncurled like a seahorse; I gulped the air as if I had gills. In short, I made the merchant think that I was quite mad. The girl he had bought disappeared and in her place was a creature of the sea. He let me go and I went home and begged my father to leave me in peace.
“But when I told him how I had escaped, he realized that this trick was too good not to repeat. He sold me again and again and each time I feigned madness to escape: I mooed, tossed my head and stamped my feet and the girl disappeared, changed into a cow; I became a horse, a dog, even a parrot.
“But the little he got from selling me was not enough to keep his cavernous stomach filled. He took to begging at crossroads for leavings and scraps of food. I realized that nothing I could do would save him and I couldn’t bear to watch my father dwindle and die. I was desperate to get away.
“When your grandfather Autolycus came along I allowed myself to be sold one last time. I made no effort to escape; I had had enough and I was happy to go with him. He would probably tell you that he bought me for a handful of silver but the truth is that I liked the look of him. He made me his queen and he’s never given me cause to regret my decision. He’s a decent man, despite his reputation for being a rogue. I think we both got a good bargain.”
“Well I’m certainly glad you found each other,” said Odysseus, “or I wouldn’t be here. But what happened to your father?”
“Word came to us that his half-eaten corpse was found by the crossroads. I can hardly bring myself to speak of it but they say that he died attempting to devour his own body. That was the terrible end meted out by the gods to your great-grandfather Erysichthon – the “earth-tearer” – as a warning to anyone who despoils sacred ground.
“My father’s kingdom has become a wasteland but the banqueting hall still stands, I’m told. It’s stones are covered in ivy and green shoots have sprung from the roof timbers. Demeter is taking back what is hers and should never have been taken from her.”
Mestra and her grandson sat quietly for a while, until their reverie was broken by the sound of dogs baying as they neared the palace after the day’s hunt. “Autolycus will soon be home,” Mestra said, to break the spell of the story.
“Are we cursed?” asked Odysseus. “Did Erysichthon’s crime condemn us too? Can a family ever be free of such a thing?”
“My father paid in full for what he did. We are free to live our lives knowing that our fates are our own. The gods will judge us by our own actions, not those of our forbears. We have neither license nor excuse for the choices we make.”
Mestra rose from her stool and walked over to her grandson. She held his head in both hands and kissed his forehead. “I am going outside to greet my husband when he returns,” she said. “Stay here and look at the sea some more. You are healing quickly; soon you will be well enough to sail upon it again and the adventure of your life will truly begin.”
Before Odysseus could reply, she released him from her embrace and strode out of the room. “I won’t disgrace you Grandmother,” he called after her, his eyes returning to the horizon. “I promise you.”
This is one of a growing collection of sideways looks at traditional stories that I am currently writing under the overall title of The Untold Tales © Geoff Mead 2014