You have to take it. That was my philosophy. The gods gave us senses, dreams, and desires; they must be used. For ten years, the Trojans tried to take what was ours, but we took back. I, Elpenor, rode the mental chariot of the Lotus-Eaters and returned its horses to its stable. I ate the cheese of the Cyclops and helped stick the spike in his eye. After Odysseus told us to leave, I kept drinking Ciconian wine and butchering their animals, because some were left. Odysseus was angry, but I told him, “If it is there, you have to take it.”
He must have agreed with me at Circe’s. After Odysseus made her change us back from pigs to men, we surrendered to a year of excess. And why not? Pleasure is good enough for the gods. We indulged every inclination and ignored our bodies’ warnings. As a goddess, Circe possessed an unlimited supply of antidotes to self-loathing. When my over-stimulated body craved sleep, I crawled onto the roof, where it was cooler, and lay under a blanket of stars.
It was my habit to wake to the sparrow’s warble, the crow’s caw, and the scurry of a frightened shrew. The day I died was different. While I slept, Odysseus decided it was time to leave. The scramble of men gathering their belongings hit me like a slap. I jumped to unresponsive feet, missed the ladder, fell to the ground, and added a coda to the morning music: the snap of my neck.
Before I could say “Xenoncrates,” the tall, glowing Hermes stood next to my body, and so did I.
“Just like that?” I asked.
“Exactly,” he answered.
“I am not ready.”
“There’s no way to prepare.”
“I had much of my life in front of me,” I said.
“Now it’s behind you.”
“It’s Circe’s fault! Had she not turned me into a…”
He ignored that.
With a pointed spear in hand, a soldier believes all is negotiable, but my weapon lay on the ground beside my body. I lurched for it, but something restrained me. I thought it was Hermes’ hand, but he stood two paces away.
“Nothing prolongs eternity like resistance,” he said.
I had escaped many bad situations in my life. What would Odysseus do? He would recognize the imbalance between himself and a god, figure out a way to redress it, and wait for the right moment. I had endless time, and though the odds weren’t good, people had escaped the underworld. This was another adventure.
It seemed as natural as a falling tree to follow Hermes, past the sun and the realm of dreams. We drifted through fields of asphodel, the six-pronged flowers pointing at me like the faces of white scarecrows. Unable to grasp anything, I tried to arrest our progress with questions. With your many duties, do you begrudge transporting souls to the underworld? Why does an Olympian need to steal? If you are the protector of travelers, what am I doing here? To all my questions, he smiled, kept a spring in his winged step, and said, “I am but the messenger god.” We continued our walk, leaving me to think, for the first time, What am I?
As we approached the dark entrance of the underworld, he turned and said, “This is as far as I go.”
I peered inside and felt a chill, though I had no body to maintain heat. “What do I do?”
The hint of a laugh came from the old trickster’s mouth. “Do not look back.”
“Not look back? How else can I make sense of this? In what other direction is there anything to see? Heroes need challenges, and here…”
I was alone.
Was this not the greatest challenge of all? To return from the dead? I did look back, but a barren, rocky plain had replaced the fields of asphodel. Only in the underworld could I make something happen. I stepped through the entrance.
First, I noticed the absence of sound, calm and seductive, a void that hungered for my soul. Without an aural landscape, I felt dizzy, as if falling. After some silent steps, I distinguished the soft, breathy moans of the dead, though I could not be sure if they came from within me or without.
Next was the lack of light. I sensed more than saw outlines. The world was drawn in shades, a shock to one raised to worship the detailed beauty of the human body. I walked, without apparent progress, through a cavern of shadows, two body lengths high, three across. Yet I no longer felt the ground, my boundaries no more substantial than a smoldering, cloudy sky. After I had paced for what seemed a long time, I reversed and walked twice as far, but never saw the exit. The only direction was in.
Without physical foes to vanquish, I thought of Odysseus and my fellow soldiers. In their haste to leave Circe, had they buried me? Had they even noticed I was missing? As the goddess possessed many dissatisfied animals, I had little doubt of my body’s fate.
“Hades!” I said to the only one that could hear me. “I fought bravely. I honored the gods. An accident should not end my life.”
All facts and opinions feed the silence.
I began to pass shades of soldiers I had known, though they gave no indication they saw me. Achilles sulked, scratching his heel. Patroclus stood with his back to me, waiting for something that never came. Kritas, devoured by the Cyclops, sat listlessly against the wall.
“Kritas,” I said. “It is I, Elpenor. I too have died. Together we can wrestle Cerberus to the ground, kiss Persephone, and force Hades to return us to the land of the living!”
He looked at me blankly. We were both shades, yet we had nothing to share. Only the living get attention from the dead.
I continued to walk. The sameness of cavern walls gave the illusion—or truth?—that I did not move at all. Did this signify acceptance? Was immobility a step toward nothingness? Unsure, I sat.
With no sun to tell the time, no aging to signify limited opportunity, no moment to seize, I cannot say how much time passed, nor can I explain how I knew that brave Odysseus was alive and in the underworld. Such a man belonged where he did not belong, tempering his life against those who would steal it. His reach widened the possible, his grasp invigorated the weary. I jumped to my feet and rushed in the direction I sensed him. With his help, we would prevail as we always had.
He approached with purpose and substance. When the poets recited our adventures, the name of Odysseus would appear in the front, while mine would be under the epithet “his men,” but that was right. With him, I was something more—an unstoppable force that pushed beyond the limitations of man.
“I knew you would come,” I said.
He rubbed his eyes. “Elpenor?” Seeing my disappointment at his surprise, he added, “I saw you were not with us, but I thought you had remained at Circe’s. So you are dead.”
It sounded worse from someone alive. “Why are you here?”
“I seek the shade of Tiresias. He can tell how I can return home safely. For that, I would go anywhere.”
“Take me with you,” I begged.
He looked uncomfortable. “For my men, I have faced many risks, but none can do more than the gods allow. Even if I could bring you back, what can a shade be in the light?”
What can it be in the dark? In life, we attempt to grasp what we cannot. Failure points to a better way. Could that lesson be applied after death?
“I will not give up,” I said. I flung my arms around his sinewy waist. They passed through, and I fell prostrate to the ground.
“I am sorry,” he said, “but you have nothing to give up.” From the lips of a cruel man, what he said next could have been the ultimate slight, but from Odysseus, my comrade in arms, I believe it was a tribute to who I was. “You have to take it.”
Something turned in me. He had things to do, and I did not. I could not add to my life, only subtract. One who perpetually attempts the impossible is not a hero, but a doomed soul. When I had blamed Circe for my death, I had given her too much credit. The one-year debauch was not an anomaly. My life’s cause and effect were clear. My last choice was acceptance. I looked up at Odysseus, towering over me. He was doing this for love, and I had never loved. He would make it home, and I was already there.
“You will be going back,” I said, finally. “Please find my body, if any of it remains. Cover it with a mound, and plant the oar I rowed with my companions. I will forget, but the living can remember.”
“I will,” Odysseus said, and he was a man of his word. A burial mound would not distract from people’s memories of me. It would stand silent, but like the invisible wind, plant a seed into the heads of passersby: high hopes, unrealized potential, fleeting moments of joy when time stood still—that was Elpenor.
This is Elpenor.
—Richard Zwicker is an English teacher living in Vermont, USA, with his wife and beagle. His short stories have appeared in Red Sun Magazine, T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, Penumbra, and other semi-pro markets.