“Mother, what does your name mean in your parents’ language?” the young princess asks the majestic queen.
“My name, Nausicaa, has the sea in it, the curl of the waves that our ancestor, Poseidon, is driving, and the seagull’s hunger for something it can’t name. It has the same root as nautical, for example”, she answers, feeling the pain in her chest that she hadn’t been allowed to teach her children her mother tongue.
Others say it means “the one burning ships”, but she doesn’t admit it. There was only one ship she wished her eyes could burn, with the passion of a denied first love, once upon a time….
The queen is now in her mid thirties, and she is surrounded, in the women’s room, by her three teenage daughters. One could see on her face that she was once more beautiful than them, even if they are pretty too. But in her eyes there is a mute sadness nothing could wipe off. Is it only her husband’s continuous mockery and persecution that she had failed her duty of giving him a male heir? Or is it also adding to the pain of being married with a man she had never loved, and comparing him always with the only one in her heart?
Somewhere outside, an old singer was singing the “Odyssey”. The song of her story, the dream she had, got to their ears:
How so remiss, and yet thy mother’s daughter?
leaving thy clothes uncared for, Nausikaa,
when soon thou must have store of marriage linen,
and put thy minstrelsy in wedding dress!
Beauty, in these, will make the folk admire,
And bring thy father and gentle mother joy.
Let us go washing in the shine of morning!
Beside thee I will drub, so wedding chests
will brim by evening. Maidenhood must end!
Tears got to the queen’s eyes instantly. Indeed, her maidenhood had ended around that time, only not how she had wished. The dream had lied. The fine husband it foretold about… turned to be the powerful old king of a far away island her father had given her in marriage to, not much afterwards. Yes, she understood his reasons: there were noble sons of the Phaeacians who had asked for her hand; if one was preferred and the others denied, a civil war could have ensued. That was why she was bound to be married far away; only that she had hoped her husband to be another man… – a certain handsome sailor.
When she was following her dream, washing the linen at the river together with her attendants, a wild appearance got in front of them, a naked, dirty man, awakened by their chatter and by the ball they were playing until the clothes were dried up by the sun. Her maids, scared, had run away, but she couldn’t. Perhaps it was the dignity of a princess, perhaps curiosity, because strangers didn’t come this way to them. Or, the dream’s revelation was added to these two. She knew that by washing her linen in that day, she would get a good husband.
He looked worse than a beggar then, but his words were sweet, polite and noble. She knew since hearing him plead to her that he was not an ordinary man, and she couldn’t deny him what he was asking. He had thanked her by wishing heaven to fulfil all her wishes: a good husband, a prosperous house, and a happy, peaceful home; what an irony! Sixteen years later, it is seen so differently! Her husband is rich, and good for anyone except her; her house is prosperous, and her home is peaceful, but happiness… this is an elusive word. A loveless life can never have happiness.
“Is it really your song, Mother?” the youngest daughter asked, and the queen nodded affirmatively.
She had lost her voice, loaded by tears. She took a sip from a water jug, then she was ready to answer the eldest’s question.
“And have you really loved Odysseus?”
Why lie to her? She is engaged, and in a couple of months she would leave her sisters to go after her husband, on another island…. The story would continue. Unlike Nausicaa, she is intrigued by her husband. Maybe too much to say that she loves him, they had met only once. However, Nausicaa knew better than anyone that sometimes once is more than enough. She would have fought with her husband, the king, blackmailed and done anything not to marry her daughters to men they didn’t want.
The oldest daughter is pretty, and her name is Agape. Everybody says that the mother gave her the name of what she lacked, wishing it to shower upon the little one at least.
“Yes, I had. I had fallen in love with him when he returned, cleaned and dressed in the clothes I gave to him. He was not as young as some of the men who were courting me, who were more of my brothers’ age, but he was handsome and imposing. He was shining like a lion in his prime. And he was considerate to mind my reputation, not willing to be seen with me on the road back to town, exactly how he hadn’t wanted, before, to take advantage of any of my maids, telling them to go away that he could wash. This made both me and my father to like him”, she smiled to the memory of the handsome stranger whom she had wished to marry.
She had fed him, clothed him and taught him to ask for her mother’s mercy, with the secret hope that he would remain there and reciprocate her feelings. Yes, she had heard him praising her beauty, so it was clear that he was not indifferent to her charms either.
“So, have you fallen in love at first sight?” the girls asked.
“Yes, but learn from my tears, little ones: love at first sight is sudden, strong and doesn’t last”, she answered.
The handsome sailor had won the hospitality of Nausicaa’s parents and the heart of the young princess. When King Alcinous suspected he might be one of the dwellers of Olympus, he had denied it, saying that he was a mere mortal – and still the king had admired him and he had offered him to remain there and be his son-in-law, with the promise to receive a house and an estate as her dowry.
“Did he spurn you, even if you were younger and more beautiful than Penelope?” the middle daughter wondered loudly.
“I was younger and maybe more beautiful, as you say, but she was already his wife and mother of his son. I couldn’t offer him what she already had. So, Athena favoured her and cheated me”, she answered bitterly, not admitting that he had promised her something and he would have left furtively if she didn’t cross his path to the harbour, when he and the escort given by her father were ready to weigh anchor.
She couldn’t give anymore offerings neither to Athena nor to Aphrodite since Odysseus left. Soon she left too, as a married woman, and Hera protected them, so Hera became her protector goddess. Nothing to reproach. Nausicaa had everything she wanted, except love and understanding from her husband.
“In the great banquet hall where my father gave a feast in his honour, we, the noble women, could not enter. However, there was a curtain behind which I could listen to everything, and I even saw a little. I saw my beloved starting to weep when the Iliad was sung, and I understood that he had been at the siege of Troy. Then, some of my brothers and some of my suitors provoked him to the games,… but he was intent to go home even more since he heard about Penelope having suitors.”
“Last time when I heard this story, it was no reminiscing of Penelope”, another of the girls said.
“Bards say many things when singing this legend. There are no two of them telling it identically. From mouth to mouth, the legend changes.… I am telling only what I witnessed.”
Or, at least, part of it. Nausicaa couldn’t tell her daughters a secret which was only hers. The secret of a dark night before the dashing stranger admitted being Odysseus and having a wife waiting for him. If only Demodocus the bard hadn’t told him about Penelope’s suitors to raise his jealousy, he might have stayed with her, exactly how he had promised her, among caresses and passionate kisses, that night. Her only night of happiness with the handsome sailor. But maybe the blind bard had an unknown sense for what had happened then, otherwise he wouldn’t have sung at that party the loves of Ares and Aphrodite, and the anger of Hephaistos. There was no cuckolded husband in Antinous’ house, but a dishonoured father, oblivious to this fact.
Odysseus hadn’t received only the gifts of the twelve Phaeacian princes and that of King Alcinous himself; he had received Nausicaa’s love, and her maidenhood, still he was ready to leave her behind without a word.
“Good luck, my friend … and I hope that when you are in your own country you will remember me at times, since it is to me before all others that you owe your life,” she had told him with trembling voice, seeing him ready to embark, and she could never forget her words, neither his answer:
“I will never fail to worship you all the rest of my days. For it was you, lady, who gave me back my life.”
He somehow loved her, but he preferred his wife and his already grown up son, instead of the young girl who had offered him everything, and of the daughter he would never know he had.
Nausicaa’s devoted nurse, who had followed her, upon marriage, to this corner of nowhere, was the only one who could say, but never did, with the wisdom of the old midwives, that she had seen several children born at seven months, like Agape, but tinier and none with hair like she had…
No wonder that Agape wanted to listen again the “Odyssey”, and the younger sisters agreed. The bard was called. If she was the one to tell the story, Nausicaa would have told it much differently…
– THE END –
1) There are controversies among various writers of the Antiquity if Nausicaa married and whom. Some say she married Telemachos, son of Odysseus. Others say Telemachos married one of Nestor’s or even Circe’s daughters. In my version, Nausicaa married an unknown king, immediately after Odysseus’ departure.
2) The verses quoted in italics are from the Odyssey.