The Witches

Cesare Pavese

Illustration by Dianna Xu

CIRCE:  Trust me, Leucò, I wasn’t very sure in the heat of the moment. Sometimes one can use the wrong formula, or an amnesia creeps in. And yet I touched him. The truth is, I had been waiting for so long I wasn’t thinking about it anymore. As soon as I understood everything—he already made a leap out, jumping on his sword—I thought I was about to laugh. There was so much elation, and disappointment to go along with. I even thought I’d be able to escape my fate, that it would leave me alone. “After all, he is Odysseus,” I told myself, “one who wants to go home.” And I made plans to send him aboard a ship, dear Leucò. He stood there, wiggling that blade—brave and ridiculous like only a man can be—and I had to smile and face him down as one does with them, then again act surprised and aloof. I was feeling like a little girl, like when we were young and they told us what would it be when we grew up, and us chuckling to no end. Everything unfolded as in a dance. He took me by my wrists, raised his voice, and I took on all different colors (though I was pale, Leucò); then I fell around his knees and delivered my entry line: “Who are you? Which land generated you . . . ” Poor man, I thought, he doesn’t know what is waiting for him. He was massive and curly. A handsome one, Leucò. What a superb porkbelly he could have been, what a wolf.

LEUCOTHEA:  But all these things, did you tell him during the year he spent with you?

CIRCE:  Oh girl, don’t talk about the business of destiny with a mortal. They believe they have exhausted the topic once they called it the iron chain, the fatal command. This is how they call us, you know, the “fatal ladies.”

LEUCOTHEA:  They don’t know how to smile.

CIRCE:  Yes. Some of them know how to smile on an impending destiny, or afterward, but in its unfolding one must always be dead serious or else dead altogether. They can’t shrug divine matters off, nor would they hear themselves rehearse like we do. Their life is so fleeting that it becomes unbearable to relive or commemorate what’s already happened. Even he, the fearless Odyssean, would stop understanding me at the first hint in this direction, and think about Penelope.

LEUCOTHEA:  What a drag.

CIRCE:  But I can still sympathize, you see. With Penelope he didn’t have to smile; everything, with her, even the daily meal, was unprecedented and somber—possibly, like funeral arrangements. You can’t imagine how death fascinates them. Dying is predetermined, yes, a repetition or something well known, but it fools them to think it also makes a difference.

LEUCOTHEA:  Why then didn’t he want to become a pig?

CIRCE:  Ah for that matter, Leucò, he refused to become a god, and you know how deeply the screwy Calypso implored him. Odysseus was like this, neither porcine nor divine: a lonely man, extremely sharp, and valiant in embracing his fate.

LEUCOTHEA:  Tell me, sweetie, did you really enjoy making up with him?

CIRCE:  Here’s what I think, dear. None of us ever wanted to trade the goddess for the woman, nobody really wished that much. And yet, that would be a sharp angle, drumming the chain out of joint.

LEUCOTHEA:  Would you like that?

CIRCE:  Please, Leucò . . . Odysseus could not comprehend why I kept smiling; often he didn’t even figure out my conniving. One time I thought I had explained to him why the beast is closer to us immortals rather than the intelligent, courageous man—a beast, see, with its wobbly sag, foam from its testicles, and no memory. And his answer was about homecoming: where a dog was waiting, a poor dog who could have been dead and whose name he told me. Do you realize, Leucò, a real name for that dog.

LEUCOTHEA:  Man gave names to all the creatures, us included.

CIRCE:  Odysseus gave me many names, while lying on my bed. Each time there was a name. In the beginning it was like a screeching animal, a wolf’s cry or a swine, but little by little he himself noticed that all those words had one syllable only. He called me with the names of every divinity, our celestial sisters, with the names of the mother, and all nourishing seeds. It was like a struggle with me, with fate. He wanted to call me, hold me, make me mortal. His will webbed with cracks. And he probed with the deepest nerve and wit—of which he had plenty—but he never knew how to smile. He never knew what amuses a god, like us, for whom destiny is a tongue in the mouth.

LEUCOTHEA:  No person could appreciate the like of us, and the beast. I have seen your humans. You make them howl or squeal, and they roar as if they still were men in one piece. It’s a torture. Their coarse alertness is quite withering. Have you played a lot with them?

CIRCE:  I have, Leucò, I have. As much as I could. I was not allowed to sleep with a divine being, and of the human bodies, only Odysseus. All the other corpses that I touch turn beastly, enraged, and this is how they search me: in a jerking frenzy. I take them in, Leucò, for their fury is neither better or worse than the love of a god. But with them I don’t even get to relax my grin: I sense them as grubbing shells—shrivelling, sliding away. And I don’t manage to lower my gaze.

LEUCOTHEA:  Odysseus, too.

CIRCE:  Nor would I ask who they are . . . You want to know who Odysseus was?

LEUCOTHEA:  Tell me, Circe.

CIRCE:  One evening he described me his arrival in Aeaea, the fear of his companions, the watchmen set up by the ships. He told me that the whole night they heard grunting, oinks, and shrieks, stretched in their blankets on the beachside of the sea. And then, once the first daylight showed them a spiralling smoke beyond the thick treetops, he told me of their booming joy in recognizing the homelands, and the houses. These were the things he shared, laughing that gloomy smirk which the humans laugh, as he sat by the fireplace at my side. He said he wanted to forget who I was and where he was, and that night he called me Penelope.

LEUCOTHEA:  O Circe, how could he be so foolish?

CIRCE:  I was the silly one, Phoenician friend, since I told him he could cry.

LEUCOTHEA:  Don’t mention it.

CIRCE:  And no, he didn’t cry. He knew that Circe loves the beasts, which don’t cry. He cried in a while, weeping on the day I disclosed to him a long journey that lay ahead and the descent to the underworld, the Ocean’s dark cartilages. Shedding tears like this gives one strength and a glistening stare: I myself, Circe, acknowledge it. That night, though, he spoke to me about destiny, his childhood, and he asked after me. He had a dubious laugh—talking and snickering, you see.

LEUCOTHEA:  I am trying to.

CIRCE:  There was a scoff running from mouth to inflection, but with his glaucous eyes hard-pressed by memories. Then he told me to sing. And while I sang I took it to the loom. Of my croaking voice I made a vehicle of the house and his childhood, a sweet soundscape; I made up his Penelope. And he held the head in his hands.

LEUCOTHEA:  Who was laughing in the end?

CIRCE:  Nobody, Leucò. Even I, that evening, was but a mortal. I had a name—Penelope. It was the only time that I could stare my own future in the face, without smiling and with the eyes turned down.

LEUCOTHEA:  And this was the man who loved a dog?

CIRCE:  A dog, a woman, his son, and a ship to sail across the sea. And since the countless return of the days never appeared to him like a harsh decree, he was running to his death knowing its inner gloom, and giving back to the earth bright pebbles of words and actions.

LEUCOTHEA:  Ah Circe, I don’t have your eyes but this, I can see, is my turn to smile as well. It was so naïve of you. If you had told him that wolves and swine were crawling on top of you like a corpse, he too would have fallen, getting frenzied like the others.

CIRCE:  I told him so. He half-twisted his mouth, shortly, into a crude smudge, and then he said: “As long as they are not my companions.”

LEUCOTHEA:  A jealous kind, then.

CIRCE:  Not jealous, for he cared about them. He understood everything—except that divine smile of ours. On the day he cried on my pillow, his tears were not out of fear, but because the last journey was imposed onto him from the above, it was something already determined. “Why should I do it, then?” he asked me, tying his sword around the waist and walking to the seaside. I brought him the little black lamb, and while the companions were weeping, he spotted a trail of swallows over the roof, and told me: “Even they are leaving, but with no better clue than to flush and storm. Only you, the Queen, know.”

LEUCOTHEA:  Did he add anything else?

CIRCE:  Nothing else.

LEUCOTHEA:  Why didn’t you kill him, Circe?

CIRCE:  Because I am seriously stupid. Sometimes I forget what the likes of us know. And then I enjoy myself like that girl I used to be, as if all these things happened to the great Olympian gods, as if indeed they unfolded like this—inexorably, and yet absurdly, suddenly. What I could never foresee is precisely the ability of foreseeing, of knowing each time what I am about to do and say, so that everything I do or say becomes, in turn, perennially new and surprising, as a game. Like the chess game which Odysseus taught me: all rules and norms but so beautiful and unpredictable, with its ivory pieces. He assured me that game was like life, a way, he told me, of keeping the upper hand with time.

LEUCOTHEA:  You have too many memories of him. You didn’t transform him into pig or wolf, now he’s a recollection.

CIRCE:  A human being, Leucò, has but one immortal feature—the trace he carries within and that he’s leaving behind. Names and words come down to this. In front of the power to recollect even they smile, accept it.

LEUCOTHEA:  Circe, you too are spreading words.

CIRCE:  I know my destiny, Leucò. Don’t be afraid.

translated from the Italian by Stefano Gulizia