The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  She was a beautiful, sunny-tempered, merry-hearted young enchantress, living on her own island in a dappled forest glade, in her great high open hall of polished stone, with her four handmaidens, nymphs “born of the wells and of the woods and of the holy rivers, that flow forward into the salt sea.” Tall, golden haired, serene, she walked up and down before her high loom, weaving her imperishable web of shining, airy splendid stuff such as goddesses weave. As she walked she sang in such a high clear sweet voice the sound carried through the halls and into the forest to the suspicious ears of the fearful men, that half of Odysseus’ companions chosen by lot for the dangerous task of approaching and entering if possible the enchanted lair.

  The proud and lofty-souled Eurylochus, near kinsman of Odysseus, was by his bad luck at the head of this foray or was supposed to be. He had not liked anything about his mission. Far from leading, he held back. But peril was everywhere—there roamed about the place savage mountain-bred lions and wolves, which gave our heroes a fresh turn. These boisterous veterans of the ten years’ war over Helen (I follow Homer strictly) had gone through more than enough disaster lately, and almost anything could upset them. These frightful animals behaved in a way to confirm their worst fears: far from attacking the company, they came romping and fawning with a human gaze of entreaty in their eyes; unnerved at last, the heroes rushed upon the palace, shouting in voices tuned between fear and anger; when Circe instantly opened the great door and gently bade her uninvited guests welcome, they surged in heedlessly—except Eurylochus. He, guessing treason to lurk within, deserted promptly and ran back to the safety of Odysseus and the rest of the company on the shore near the long black ship, bawling like a calf all the way, of course; this dastardly act—dastardly even by ancient Greek heroic stan-dards—has not been so generally condemned as it merits. But, he brought the terrible news they had been half-expecting. Odysseus, against the clamor and tears and lamentations of Eurylochus, who refused to show him the way back, cast upon his shoulder his silver-studded sword, and slung his bow about him and set out by himself to the rescue.

  Odysseus was Pallas Athene’s darling, she never failed him in battle or any manly exploit. She loved to swoop down like an eagle at the side of her hero in times of hurly-burly and uproar. There was nobody like her for putting on whatever shape was suitable to the occasion and appearing beside him upon the disordered scene with her powers in full play. He was, she told him, the only mortal who could almost match her for guile and subtle trickery—for that she loved him. But she took no interest in his erotic entanglements and at such times abandoned him to his troubles. Such trivialities were not her province—she left that sort of thing to Hermes, whose business and delight it was to interfere in the love between men and women and to sever and to separate; he was the messenger of the high gods in this matter; for, as the goddesses had cause to complain, the gods who made so free with mortal women were jealous of goddesses who loved mortal men; Calypso complained bitterly of this, and even Aphrodite, the very goddess of love herself, was not free from the reproaches of Zeus or the tamperings of Hermes.

  So there was Hermes, the ambiguous and beautiful, a youth with the first down on his lip; in his golden sandals, carrying his wand, lurking in the forest to waylay Odysseus, to give him advice about Circe and to offer him the curious herb moly, more easily gathered by gods than by men, the one sure countermagic for men against the enchantments of women. Now all the gods were crafty, but they kept their word with their favored ones. Not Hermes—he was on all sides at once, stealing from anybody—Admetus’ oxen, you remember, and the girdle of Aphrodite right off of her, that time he begot the monster on her; and other incidents besides. A thoroughly untidy if fascinating character, he was, in this instance, thoroughly reliable; his heart was in his work. Odysseus accepted the herb and the advice, and there was a wonderful fairness in him being thus armed, for Odysseus, often called divine, was not so; he was of the seed of Zeus but not a half-god; and it was not justice that he should encounter with merely mortal weapons the half-goddess Circe with her fearful power. Circe, said Hermes, once outmagicked by the herb, will invite Odysseus to become her lover. She will be very likely to amuse herself by making him “a dastard and unmanned” once she has got him stripped and in bed.

  Odysseus, therefore, to avoid this fate worse than death, must force her to “swear a mighty oath by the blessed gods” that she will do no such thing, nor any other harm to him or his companions.

  This gives us an oblique glimmer of truth about Circe; for these two methodically unreliable beings, strangely enough, never doubt for a moment that Circe can be trusted to honor her oath. It might reasonably be expected that she could not be relied upon any more than any of the other gods once they were set against one; but she could be trusted, it seems; they both knew it and set out cheerfully to take advantage of their knowledge.

  Not even a god, having once formed a man, can make a swine of him. That is for him to choose. Circe’s honeyed food with the lulling drug in it caused them to reveal themselves. The delicate-minded goddess touched them then with her wand, the wand of the transforming truth, and penned the groaning, grunting, weeping, bewildered creatures in the sty back of the hall. In the whole episode she showed one touch of witty malice, when she tossed them a handful of acorns and other victuals suitable to their new condition. No doubt she did it smilingly with her natural grace; what else should she have offered them at that moment? I think it was very good of her to go on feeding them at all. But then I am only human.

  Then Odysseus with a darkly troubled heart called aloud at the great shining door, and the goddess like a rainbow made of sunlight and sea water welcomed him gently, and the drama was played out again, up to that point where she tapped him with her wand and said, “Go thy way now to the sty, couch thee there with the rest of thy company.” The gods know each other on first sight but they do not always fathom each other’s magic. Was Circe so blinded by Hermes’ ambiguous herb she could not see she was dealing with a fox?

  Hermes had advised Odysseus instantly to draw his sword upon her and threaten her with death. She was deathless, as Hermes must have known and Odysseus might have guessed; but he seems to have forgot this, so convincing was her manner and look of a mortal woman. She did then, instantly and flatteringly, exactly what Hermes had said she would do—she slipped down and clasped his knees and bewailed her fate in perfect form, and said the one thing most calculated to win his heart; she guessed that he was Odysseus and that he had a mind within him that could not be enchanted, and ended: “Nay come, put thy sword into the sheath, and thereafter let us go up into my bed, that meeting in love and sleep we may trust each other.” Her tender, appropriate, womanly intentions were entirely misunderstood by Odysseus, experienced as he was in the ways of goddesses and women. He was irresistible to them all alike, except to Helen; he was the fate of women as Helen was the fate of men. He had married his dear mortal Penelope as a long second choice after half-goddess Helen, who refused him along with a phalanx of other suitors. Penelope had no rivals but goddesses ever after. In a way, he was tender to weakness with women, as men who really need them are apt to be; he wept upon them and pleaded and touched their hearts when he was getting ready to go. . . .

  He showed unexpected firmness and severity with Circe, defended as he was by the moly; he accused her of all the evil Hermes had spoken against her, and required of her the mighty oath, which she swore at once; and kept.

  And then—but this is all pure magic, this poem, the most enchanting thing ever dreamed of in the human imagination, how have I dared to touch it? And what is this passage that stops my heart with joy, as do so many others—the description of Calypso’s island; the scene of recognition between Odysseus and Penelope; Argive Helen in tears before Telemachus, remembering Troy and wondering at herself, so shameless, so blinded by Aphrodite; and all the rest? It is a description of women casting purple and white linen coverlets on silver-studded chairs, with golden baskets and g
olden wine goblets and silver wine bowls on silver tables; and “a great fire beneath a mighty cauldron” to warm the water; and of the goddess herself bathing away weariness of the loved mortal body under her hands; and it celebrates the smoothness of olive oil on the skin, and of fine linen next the flesh, and of good cheer and comfort and sweet smells and savors. . . a song of praise and delight in the pure senses, fresh as the pearl rosy morning of that morning world. . . .

  But Odysseus still grieved, could not eat, could not be at rest until she had restored his dear companions. So she took her wand and went out and drove them back into the hall, a herd of great pigs shedding human tears. Circe, compelled by countermagic to give them back their belying human shapes, was still a goddess, and in this moment she showed an easy, godlike magnanimity. While she anointed the unhappy beasts, they went on weeping; ancient Greek heroes spent a good part of their time lamenting, howling in anguish, bewailing their fates. They wept alike for joy or grief, tears like spring rain; for they lived in a world of mystery and they were its children—what is the strength and the skill of even the bravest and wisest man when matched against the gods, their inscrutable wills, their incomprehensible purposes? As they wept, first in pain and then in happiness, Circe restored them not merely to what they had been but taller, younger, more beautiful than they were born to be—the act of a creatrix, the pure aesthetic genius at play; and we must not be tempted to think of it drearily in our sad terms as an act of divine mercy and reparation, full of profound moral and theological meanings, such as: that the regenerated soul, after punishment and purification, rises in a perfection it could never know except through suffering. No. In this sunny high comedy there are profound meanings, some lovely truth almost lost to us but that still hovers glimmering at the farthest edge of consciousness, a nearly remembered dream of glory; and it is our fault and our utter loss if we tarnish the bright vision with our guilt-laden breath, our nightmare phantasies. . . .

  The transformed warrior and the whole company, joined by still reluctant Eurylochus, stayed on cheerfully for a year as the guests of Circe. Odysseus shared her beautiful bed, in gentleness and candor, with that meeting in love and sleep and trust she had promised him. No one was in the least changed, no one learned anything by his experiences. They were not intent on building their characters or improving themselves; they were what they were and their concern was to fulfill their destinies.

  Meantime they were in the earthly Elysian fields, feasting themselves on the abundant roast flesh and sweet red wine, lolling in perfumed baths and rolling in perfumed oil, sleeping soft and waking easy to another rosy-fingered dawn. The goddess sat among them taking her own nectar and ambrosia, or walked singing back and forth before her endless shining web. This life was suitable to her; but the men became bored, then satiated, then sickened with all this abundance and generosity, this light and grace, tenderness, freedom from care, godlike splendor—they could endure it no longer. They complained to Odysseus when she was not present, or so Odysseus told her, and it could very well be true, but the warriors spoke his secret thought too. Circe had borne him a son, the quarter-godling Telegonus; Odysseus remembered with longing Telemachus and Penelope and Ithaca his kingdom. He longed to be again in the hollow black ship breasting the wild sea; the time had come for him to go. So, by her fair bed at her knees, he wept and told her all his longing, and reminded her of her promise that she would send him and his companions safely on their way toward home. Search Homer as you may, it is clear that she made no such promise at any time—no hint of it in any of her flowing honeyed words.

  Now one may ask, since she knew that the ambiguous Hermes had outcharmed her, why did she not, as some women or even some goddesses might have done, steal the herb and destroy it or cast a counterspell to annul it? Why did she not, as Calypso did later, make a towering scene, remind Odysseus that she had promised him nothing and then, with a smart tap of her wand, turn him into a fox to run his life away with those other wild creatures outside her walls?

  The only answer I can give is, this is Circe, and this is Odysseus; when he says to her, “Now is my spirit eager to be gone,” she replies at once, with gentle remoteness, “Odysseus of many devices, tarry ye now no longer in my house against your will,” and breaks to him the dreadful news that he must at once perform another journey, to Hades, to seek out Theban Teiresias, the blind soothsayer, who will give him directions how to reach home. This broke his heart and he went and groveled and implored her to tell him who would guide him on his way—“no man ever yet sailed to hell in a black ship.”

  “Set up the mast and spread abroad the white sails and sit thee down,” she told him, and promised to send the North Wind to waft his ship on its way. And she told him the ceremonies proper to one entering the place of the dead, the sacrifice of the black ram and the black ewe and the guarding of the blood from the voracious ghosts until Teiresias had spoken. Then things moved very swiftly and with great beauty and dignity. In the dawn Odysseus went through the hall waking his men; Circe gave him a mantle and doublet and “clad herself in a great shining robe. . . and put a veil upon her head.” But the youngest lad, Elpenor, heavy with wine, was sleeping on the roof, and roused too suddenly, fell, and his neck was broken. The men, who had arrived mourning and in tears, now departed the same way, tearing their hair. The goddess made herself invisible and went ahead of them and fastened a black ram and a black ewe by the dark ship: “lightly passing us by,” said Odysseus in wonder, “who may behold a god against his will, whether going to or fro?”

  When they returned to the island to give Elpenor burial and quiet his uneasy spirit, while they were mourning and performing the rites, Circe came with her handmaids bringing “flesh and bread in plenty and dark red wine.” She made them a noble speech of salutation: “Men overbold, who have gone alive into the house of Hades, to know death twice, while all men else die once for all. Nay come, eat ye meat and drink wine here all day long; and with the breaking of the day ye shall set sail, and myself I will show you the path and declare each thing, that ye may not suffer pain or hurt through any grievous ill-contrivance by sea or on the land.”

  As if she could! As if her divine amiability and fostering care could save these headstrong creatures from their ordained sufferings. But Odysseus was wise in his mortal wisdom: He knew that man cannot live as the gods do. His universal fate: birth, death, and the larger disasters, are from the gods; but within that circle he must work out his personal fate with or without their help. He saw his own inevitable end in the swarming, angry, uneasy, grieving shades of the dark underworld of death; but when later the lonely goddess Calypso offered him immortality he was not shaken. When she spoke jealously and contemptuously of Penelope’s beauty he answered her in a speech that is the key to all his history, a mortal bent on mortality: “Myself I know it well, how wise Penelope is meaner to look upon than thou, in comeliness and stature. But she is mortal and thou knowest not age or death. [Note: my italics.] Yet even so, I wish and long day by day to see the day of my returning. Yes, and if some god shall wreck me in the wine-dark deep, even so I will endure, with a heart within me patient of affliction. For already I have suffered full much, and much have I toiled in perils of waves and war; let this be added to the tales of these.”

  And there it is. But earlier, on the island of Circe, at the very last moment there was a memorable scene. After the ship and the men were supplied and ready, “then she took me by the hand,” Odysseus remembered long afterward, “and led me apart from my dear company, and made me sit down and laid herself at my feet, and asked all my tale.” He told everything about the journey to Hades, and she warned him again against the dangers to come, trying one last time to guide her wayward lover safely home. . . .

  After this long night of good counsel and loving kindness, “anon came the golden-throned Dawn. Then the fair goddess took her way up the island. . . .”

  This should be the end. But someone is certain to ask: “What about the unpleasa
nt episode of Circe turning Scylla into a monster?” Ah, well—without troubling to deny, or even mention, that hideous rumor, Circe told Odysseus plainly that Scylla was born a monster. In view of what we know about Circe, I am entirely happy to believe her.


  St. Augustine and the Bullfight

  ADVENTURE. The word has become a little stale to me, because it has been applied too often to the dull physical exploits of professional “adventurers” who write books about it, if they know how to write; if not, they hire ghosts who quite often can’t write either.

  I don’t read them, but rumors of them echo, and re-echo. The book business at least is full of heroes who spend their time, money and energy worrying other animals, manifestly their betters such as lions and tigers, to death in trackless jungles and deserts only to be crossed by the stoutest motorcar; or another feeds hooks to an inedible fish like the tarpon; another crosses the ocean on a raft, living on plankton and seaweed, why ever, I wonder? And always always, somebody is out climbing mountains, and writing books about it, which are read by quite millions of persons who feel, apparently, that the next best thing to going there yourself is to hear from somebody who went. And I have heard more than one young woman remark that, though she did not want to get married, still, she would like to have a baby, for the adventure: not lately though. That was a pose of the 1920s and very early ’30s. Several of them did it, too, but I do not know of any who wrote a book about it—good for them.

  W. B. Yeats remarked—I cannot find the passage now, so must say it in other words—that the unhappy man (unfortunate?) was one whose adventures outran his capacity for experience, capacity for experience being, I should say, roughly equal to the faculty for understanding what has happened to one. The difference then between mere adventure and a real experience might be this? That adventure is something you seek for pleasure, or even for profit, like a gold rush or invading a country; for the illusion of being more alive than ordinarily, the thing you will to occur; but experience is what really happens to you in the long run; the truth that finally overtakes you.

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