Be there Demodocus the bard of fame,
Taught by the gods to please, when high he sings
The vocal lay, responsive to the strings.
“Shush!” said Demodocus to his guide, a bit too sharply perhaps, but if he’d told him once, he’d told him a thousand times, “When the subject speaks, dispense with your description.” It was so simple, but alas, this herald-guide also fancied himself a bit of a wordsmith. He tried to impress the bard with his accounts of the visible world, when all the blind man wanted was unvarnished facts. And, as if the guide’s labored attempts at impromptu verse were not bad enough, the man had apparently never learned how to whisper.
Demodocus caught the end of the stranger’s speech, though it sounded muffled. It was probably spoken into the knees of the queen. Even strangers know who wears the sword around here! The stranger’s words were eloquent, even a bit over wrought. He ended with the usual blandishments and blessings.
Then Demodocus heard some scuffles and murmurs in the court. One of the elder Phaeacians, a man with more good sense than the rest, cleared his throat and addressed the king.
“He sits in the ashes, like a dung beetle,” said the herald in his ear loud as a trumpet, causing Demodocus to jump three feet in the air.
“What? Who, Echeneus?”
“No my lord, it is the stranger who sits in the hearth, humbly awaiting the wise words of our queen. It is Echeneus who speaks right now. He is telling King Alci—“
“I can hear him, by Hades! Or I could, were you to swallow your tongue.” His peevishness earned him a moment of peace in which to learn that Echeneus advised the king to follow Zeus’s law to treat the suppliant as honored guest.
Then King Alcinous (another who liked the sound of his own voice more than he ought) gave commands to serve the honeyed wine and commenced his speeching. “Let us all pour libation to the gods for bringing to us this stranger, a godlike guest who, from far off lands and terrible trials, has miraculously escaped, and arrives in our lands, a suppliant, in need of care.” He drew breath and the bard observed how his obsequious guide never interrupted the king’s endless ramblings.
“Princes and peers, consider my not inhuman proposition: Tonight the darkness inclines with our eyelids towards sleep. Soon you will all move along to your own lofty walls. Tomorrow when we are fully reposed, let us meet back here for feasting and making merry. Let us also fit out a proud ship, filling it with cedar chests of precious stuff, sending our suppliant to his homeland with praise for Phaeacian generosity on his lips.”
The king dismissed the nobles, leaving the household seated in a tight listening circle. Queen Arête spoke first, for she had recognized that the clothes worn by the stranger were her own women’s handiwork. She asked him how this had come to pass. He told his story:
He had been held captive for seven years by the nymph Calypso, who promised him immortality. “But all her blandishments successless prove, To banish from my breast my country’s love.” Finally, she released him, “urged by Jove, or her own changeful heart.”
She put him on a raft with stores of bread and ruby wine. She supplied winds. But when the Phaeacian shore had been in sight, the waves pushed his raft back, and he was forced to swim. (He hinted that Poseidon might have some grudge against him.)
There he slept and awoke to find the princess Nausicaa with her companions playing in the spring while the palace laundry dried in the sun. The princess had given him a golden flask of olive oil perfumed with cinnamon and myrrh, and laid out fine clothes for him to dress after bathing. Then she had told him how to find the palace.
Alcinous broke in and chided his daughter for not herself bringing the stranger back to the palace. The bard thought, not for the first time, that the king was an ass. How could a young unmarried princess escort a stranger through the streets to her home without scandal? The stranger said as much but said that it had been he that had refused. It sounded like he was covering for Nausicaa. The bard was beginning to like this stranger, though his tales were as fantastic as the bard’s own. It is unseemly for a hero to tell his own tale.
Wait! Was the king offering his own daughter to this man from nowhere? Hero or not, it is a terrible insult to the men of Phaeacia and Nausicaa herself. And if the bard was right in understanding this stranger to be hateful to the god of the sea, what good could come from them, a sailing people, making such an alliance. Happily, the stranger made his excuses gently and without offense. He had a wife already. The bard wanted to know who this stranger was. All with eyes to see suggested, with their attitude and words, that he had the bearing of a great warrior. The bard’s ears concurred. The stranger spoke like one used to commanding. Demodocus racked his brains for an answer and discovered a likely candidate. There were not so many of the great heroes left still wandering the seas from the Trojan War, lately fought. He would test his theory tomorrow. Yes. He would try the waters with a song.
The next day the great hall filled with the scents of burning cedarwood and sweet-spiced boar. After all had eaten, Demodocus was called upon to sing. He sang a portion of the great Song of Ilium featuring Agamemnon, Achilles and Odysseus. Indeed, it stirred sadness in the stranger’s heart. One could hear him crying for his lost companions from across the great hall. The bard deduced this must be Odysseus since Agamemnon, everyone knew, had been killed by his bitch-wife Clytemnestra, and Achilles had not survived the war.
King Alcinous did not like to have the man crying at his own party, so he sent them all out of doors for games. This provided his guide with ample opportunity to display his supposed skills, while the blind bard listened and suffered and tried to shut out the endless list of feats, “The brawny wrestlers are joined in fierce embrace, and the jumpers bound with single leaps across lengths of ground! Here the discus from strong arm flies, singing with unmatched force along the skies, and there the golden gloves of death are worn and whirled with superior skill by—“
“Stop!” said the bard to his gusty guide. He thought he heard some passionate words exchanged between the king’s son and Odysseus. “Listen!” he said. “Tell me what you see over there.” The bard inclined his head in the direction from where he heard the confrontation, but the guide was oblivious and so Demodocus clutched the ignoramus and pointed him in the right direction. “Now, tell me what you see.”
“I see our young prince, Laodamas, talking to the stranger.” He said obediently, though his reluctance at missing out on the games was evident. Well, he will be rewarded with a show shortly.
Prince Laodamas was pressing Odysseus to display his talents, “for no man has more worthy an opportunity to make a name for himself, and to mount his name in the stars.”
Who tells him this nonsense? The bard thought it must be his silly father. Don’t they hear anything I sing about? It’s war alone that distinguishes humans from the immortals. These games are no more than child’s play. It is Ares who brings greatness with his sorrows of death and short-lived glory. Otherwise, it’s all frivolity. We Phaeacians have been too long sheltered. When war inevitably comes, we will be doomed.
Furious, Odysseus raised his voice and saying, “Slander stings the brave!” picked up the biggest stone yet thrown (according to his guide whose interest had now been captured), and hurled it farther than all the previous smaller missals. Some unknown herald, who sounded like a god in disguise, shouted, “Even he who, sightless, wants his visual ray May by his touch alone award the day!” Odysseus, pride busting out despite himself, challenged the young men to another event, but thankfully, Alcinous put a stop to it.
“Godlike Demodocus,” the king said to the bard, “Let us hear a song that will set the dancers’ feet flying! We will show this stranger that it is in song and dance that we Phaeacians excel above the rest.”
His guide handed him his lyre and, after the dancers pushed the spectators back allowing space for him, Demodocus began singing of the affair of the gods of love and war, Ares and Aphrodite, and their ensnarement by the cuckolded husband Hephaistos. A real crowd-pleaser!
Back in the great hall, the blind bard sat at the center of his universe considering the hero’s gift, a choice piece of chine, fragrant with bay laurel, marjoram, onion, and garlic that made his mouth water.
The hero had delicately given it to Demodocus in exchange for a song of himself: “Sing to us of cunning Odysseus whose bright idea it was to build the wonderful horse that would carry the Greeks, unseen, inside the walls of Troy to win, finally, the long-fought war.”
His huge voice strained to be hushed. It is less possible for a great man to make small his commanding tones than to chip away at his massive chest.
Just as the sweet voice of the shepherdess beckons, her far-flung flock whose day’s grazing led some brave ones to darkening pastures, the words of the hero tugged at the elsewhere turned ears. The great clamoring clattering chattering hall had given way at its center to the pebbles dropped into the bard’s ear, creating ripples of murmurs that had turned to rings of silence.
Demodocus turned his nose from the tasty morsel. Ah well, there will be time to eat later. Attentive stillness is precious and not to be squandered. He beckoned for his lyre that hung on a peg behind him. As he tuned he grew strangely mischievous. It would be fun to tease this man who draped his humility over his pride like a tattered rag over shining armor. They will, of course, hear Odysseus’s tale of marvelous deeds and incredible monsters tomorrow and tomorrow, but today this mouthpiece of the muse would look with his inner eye to the dark waters from which all life springs, and sing a song of blindness.
*M. Leona Godin is a writer, actor, and educator who is blind. She received her PhD in English Literature from NYU. She is a Catapult columnist, and has been published in PLAYBOY, FLAPPERHOUSE, Quail Bell Magazine, and more. She serves on the editorial review board of Newtown Literary and is the founding editor of Aromatica Poetica.*