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The Odyssey of Penelope
“Of all the names in the world why did I get Penelope?” The thought had crossed the mind of Penelope so many times that she had lost count. But before I go into the revelation of Penelope you must first understand her past, her present, and her future.
Penelope’s mother had given birth to Penelope one night, a few days behind the midwife’s predicted due date. Her mother had struggled through the labor and the longer Penelope stayed in the womb the more it had felt like a punishment from Hades. Eventually the baby had arrived red-faced and not crying. Her mother was paralyzed with fear that she had lost her child and put a hand to the baby’s cheek ready to cry. But then the baby opened her grey eyes focusing on her mother. Her expression was so clear; it almost seemed as if she recognized the woman touching her cheek. Penelope’s mother had said to her daughter many years later that she named her after the lovely and clever wife of Odysseus, much to Penelope’s disbelief.
As the years progressed Penelope had been loved and cared for by her mother, her father having left several years ago. Penelope’s mother was an unusual character in the village with her knowledge of medicine and healing the weak and elderly. Despite the mother’s profession, because of her gender and the fact that her husband left her made her a victim of the local men’s ridicule. The same men also ridiculed Penelope for identical reasons and others. Though Penelope had turned out to be a healthy child it wasn’t until the age of five that she began talking. Penelope had grown up with challenges of learning how to speak and read her own language. She also had difficulties keeping her focus and often day dreamed leading adults to think she was slow. On the contrary, Penelope was an intelligent child who loved listening to her mother’s stories, especially ones about enchanting creatures and faraway lands.
One day when she was twelve years old she was walking through the marketplace when an old woman behind a stall beckoned to her. The old woman was covered with old, yet still in good condition, clothing whose colors had faded with the washings of many years. The woman’s face had as much wrinkles on her face as the lines on a map, yet her eyes were timed with ageless wisdom and secrets of wild and fabulous stories. The woman’s stall was stacked with books, old and new, that looked inappropriate on the wooden table that looked ready to collapse. The books looked as though they had belonged to the greatest philosophers, maybe even to the Gods. Even to a person like Penelope who had always been plagued with confusion, the books were simply ambrosial.
She sighed knowing that they were filled with tales and skills she would never get to appreciate with her average reading skills. She exhaled heavily with regret and was about to turn away when the old woman touched her arm. She handed a simple green book to Penelope her grey eyes gleaming with something Penelope couldn’t place.
As Penelope was about to say no the old woman said,
“Every great hero began with a single step.” Even though Penelope didn’t fully understand, the look in the woman’s eyes told her it was important, so Penelope nodded and took the book. It wasn’t until later that Penelope realized that the expression in the woman’s eyes was that of analyzing Penelope and liking what she saw.
“As Penelope started reading the curious book it was like she had been sucked into Kharybdis’s vortex and into a world of auspicious escapades. She traveled through different lands and time, though she had never left her home. In a few days she had finished the book, Penelope, a girl who dreaded, well used to dread, reading a book.
One pleasant day Penelope walked back to the market where she had found the woman who had given her such a wonderful gift. As she looked among the tables, different vendors shouted fares for their products in booming voices. The sun’s warmth had lain on her hair as if acknowledging the academic revelation she had received. But as she approached the familiar stall she saw a young, pretty woman in the place of the old woman. When Penelope inquired of the whereabouts of the old woman the vendor looked at her as if she lost her mental stability. Penelope settled for the explanation that the woman was probably taking a day off and left with some books to read. Though Penelope returned to the stall several times she never saw the old woman again.
Meanwhile, as the years passed by, Penelope continued to read and started reading faster and larger books. She started reading medical books and started working as her mother’s apprentice learning the trade of her craft and helping others. No longer was she the girl who cringed away from books for lack of understanding. Now she couldn’t stop reading and learning how to better society.
One day word had spread throughout the land and beyond about her mother’s expertise in the medical community. Her knowledge was called for by a foreign king overseas and she was called to an island far, far away. She had taken Penelope for the excellent opportunity provided to further extend her education.
When they were on the ship leaving for their destination Penelope asked her mother a question that has been nagging her mind for so long.
“Why did you really choose to name me Penelope?” Penelope asked her mother.
“Surely you realize that Penelope was the name of Odysseus’s wife. You know of her story and how intelligent and clever Penelope was.”
Her mother smiled as if Penelope was still a child asking the simplest question in the world. She replied,
“When I looked into your eyes the day you were born I had thought I seen the eyes of Athena that she would have had if she had been a baby. I saw something so beautiful and intelligent in your eyes and named you after another woman like Athena. Today I still see that I was not wrong in choosing your name. Sometimes I think that Athena was your patron.”
Then something dawned on Penelope that now seemed so oblivious. The woman she had met on that day so long ago was Athena; the grey eyes, the books, and the wise presence. Athena had known Penelope needed a push into the academic world and had seen something in Penelope that Penelope hadn’t seen herself. The thought started in her mind and spread warmth throughout her body.
From that day on Penelope continued to study without ever limiting her focus or her abilities. She had become a heroine just like Athena said she would. Penelope had used her infinite knowledge to help the world, whether curing the deadliest diseases, battling in wars with her incredible war strategies, and battling sexist prejudices from men. As she became older she retired and settled into her mother’s position as village healer, taking care of the ailments of the weak and elderly. She soon shared her wisdom with her own daughter and said to her the same thing that Athena said when she had changed Penelope’s life forever.
“Every great hero began with a single step.”