Updated: Mar 11
I left Ithaca. Having enough of the cold, I sought solar solace. From the moment I landed in Mexico, I basked in more warmth than I have felt in a very long time – radiating from the sheltering skies above and the kind people all around, down-to-earth and dreamers alike.
I let my eyes wander. From up above I could see San Miguel’s disarray of houses becoming the backdrop of a love lock, “Liliana y Moises” had high hopes, and I root for them. The small sun-colored Chapel of Old San Miguel, where the city started, closed its gates, but just behind it, well shrouded, ten metal mariachis invited me to trespass into a huge sculpture park. Ignacia Aguilar was sick, occasionally her heart stopped beating, and then one day it just kept still, so her relatives buried her in Guanajuato cemetery. Decades later her corpse was exhumed, alongside dozens of other well-preserved mummies, skin, gaping jaws and all. Ignacia, blood in her mouth, was biting her arm; she was buried alive. Up above, the city’s hilltop reveals a most dazzling tapestry of houses. Here’s a colorful diversity by choice, not birth, I was thinking, trying to inhale it through my color-blinded eyes. A fortress-like museum features giant murals on Mexico’s brutal path to independence, while the urinal boasts signs of scaled violence, from “hateful jokes” through “slapping” to “murder,” warning bare men of the slippery slope. A sunbeam welcomed me into a dark cave of hot springs, where I finally fled the heat to see light at the end of a white bulgy tunnel. A giant desert garden of cactuses in all their thorny glory tried to prepare me for a long horseback ride towards the sunset, the waning crescent above celebrating with three shooting stars. And in the neighborhood park, on a wooden totem, someone carved a question mark.
Sometimes, if I pay enough attention to the surrounding sounds, I imagine I can hear an answer. A midnight cab from Queretaro airport rattled and hummed to no avail, but I was too tired to worry. The metal mariachis made no sound, but the flesh-and-bones ones all over town surely did, on the full scale from humdrum to charm. The bells of a dark-alley church announced that the city refuses to slip into sleep, while a beautiful ballet dancer posed against the church’s coarse wooden door. The chocolate-like cobblestone streets of San Miguel were silently giving me free foot massages, while rowdily wounding the wheels of squat cars. Wailea, my humble horse, could have easily handled these stones, but alas, traversing mountainous terrain, he clamorously neighed with every riverbed ascend, trying to make me feel guilty (which I did!), perhaps for dancing to a swimming pool Zumba a day before. I got my penalty later, with the terrifying sound of a slammed glass door, closing me in a tube, its moondoor below opening beneath my feet.
Still, as wanderers know, every journey has that other sound, the absent one, the sound you long to hear but don’t, the sound you can never have enough of. Each traveler has their own dearly missed sound. It may be the erratic dripping water at your grandma’s always leaky faucet, the quasi-harmonious afternoon piano practice of your next-door neighbor, the voice of your beloved saying goodnight, or a distant thunder just missing its lightning companion, again.
Few travelers have wrestled with that absent sound more than the most famous one: Odysseus. On his seabound way back from the Trojan War to Ithaka, he encountered the enchanting Circe, who warned him about the Sirens whose songs lure sailors to their death. Well, it takes one to know one: Circe too is in the habit of luring men, albeit not to death but to metamorphosis, poisoning them into animals. She pulled the trick on Odysseus’s crew, but finally yielded to his charms, restoring his crew from swine to human, and advising Odysseus about the sirens: You must “stop your men's ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross piece halfway up the mast.”
Odysseus follows suit. He alone listens to the Sirens, as they seduce him: “Come here… renowned Ulysses… and listen… No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song--and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.” Odysseus was captivated. “They sang these words most musically, and as I longed to hear them further, I made signs by frowning to my men that they should set me free; but they quickened their stroke.” Odysseus is the only man to hear the Sirens sing, and not die broken on their rocks.
Modern society and science couldn’t bear Odysseus’s audacity. With their “emergency sirens,” they try to strip the sirens of their spell and reverse their role: producing the crudest, not the sweetest, of sounds; repelling, not attracting, people (indeed, ordering them to stay away). But this only aggravates the deceit: modern sirens promise that help is under way.
Still, one modern writer was brave enough to resume Homer’s truth-seeking task and to improve on the original. In the twilight of World War I, Franz Kafka performed a careful historiographical excavation. Not long after narrating a lived experience of a Circe-like Metamorphosis, Kafka revealed that the entire ancient world knew perfectly well that wax and chains are useless against the Sirens. But Odysseus-Ulysses had his leap of faith: “He trusted absolutely to his handful of wax and his fathom of chain,” not realizing that –
The Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never. Against the feeling of having triumphed over them by one's own strength, and the consequent exaltation that bears down everything before it, no earthly powers could have remained intact.
Yet Ulysses remained very much intact. Perhaps he believed that the Sirens sing, perhaps he was just pretending, but “all this faded from his sight as he fixed his gaze on the distance, the Sirens literally vanished before his resolution… They no longer had any desire to allure; all that they wanted was to hold as long as they could the radiance that fell from Ulysses’ great eyes.”
Of course, today we know that Kafka too did not get the full story straight. While Homer received his account from Penelope, who heard it from Odysseus, who remained as cunning as ever, Kafka got his story from a Siren who lost her way into the Vltava River. Now that we have Odysseus’s own travel journal, lost and found in Ithaka, we can assemble the missing pieces.
Homer got one important fact right: Odysseus passionately wanted to hear the Sirens and kept his ears open while tied to the mast. Kafka too got a critical truth: the Sirens kept silent.
Odysseus writes –
While Eurylochus and Perimedes bound me to the cross piece, I was proud of my recent ploy, I could hardly care that Circe was the one suggesting the wax and the mast. I felt brave and ready, my mind and muscles perfectly attuned. For a moment I was worried I might be too strong for the ropes, so I asked Perimedes to give my binding four more rounds, which he did, and though I wondered, for a moment, if he obliged all too joyfully, my spirit was greatly elated by the sight of the Sirens’ first island. I couldn’t hear anything yet, but euphoria came rushing in. Memories of all my earlier travels left my mind, and I could only yearn for just one thing: the Sirens’ song. I ordered my crew beforehand to come as close as possible, enough for me to hear it all and still avoid the deadly rocks, and they rowed diligently, maneuvering well amidst the wild waves.
Once, when we laid in her bed, her right hand caressing my hair, her left hand hidden, me imagining it holding her venom, I asked Circe why seamen are so drawn to the Sirens. “They tailor to a sailor, each song his highest hope,” she answered. Facing the Sirens, I finally understood what she meant. I felt it in my heart, that deepest yearning, and then, as the Sirens spread their radiant wings, I could sense in the airs all the world’s secrets unfolding before me. But I heard nothing, nothing but the winds, and the waves, and my crew rowing and swearing. I shouted at them “faster, get closer,” and while they heard nothing, they approached the island, and I could gradually see the Sirens’ faces – their dark piercing eyes wide open, their mouths tightly close. One of them, intently looking at me, was grinning.
The following two pages are hard to decipher, the memory must have been too painful for the brave traveler to fairly narrate on paper. An initial analysis suggests that the anguished Odysseus went mad, refused to leave the sirens’ islands, and ordered his crew to row in endless circles around the sirens until they finally sing. At one point, it seems, Odysseus himself started to sing deliriously, trying to enchant himself with secrets only he knew. To no avail. He could trick others, but never himself. Then the clear writing resumes –
As the sun set behind my back, I was looking at my one and only Siren, finally meeting her eyes without seeking her voice, and it suddenly dawned on me. Her silence was her song, the one meant only for me. I felt free, ready to leave, ready to return. When I whispered my goodbye, I could finally see her lips moving, but I know not what she said.