A/N: The Polyphemus you never knew. Perhaps all he really needed was a little attention and understanding. Or maybe, he just wanted a snack. Either way, maybe the big bad Cyclops isn't as big and bad as you think. Reviews appreciated!
Please note: The edition of the Odyssey used for this story is the Robert Fagles 1996 translation. However, most of the text from that has been altered slightly to fit the story.
To Be a Cyclops
"Come on, you lazy beasts! Up to the cave you go," he called out. Gathering that day's load of logs, Polyphemus herded the sheep up the coast. While he waited for the older ewes to catch up, the Cyclops glanced at the island. It really did look beautiful just after sunset, he thought. The lilac-grey color of the sky clashed beautifully with the emerald of the trees and fields. And the sea, now a deep blue, churned as always, reminding him of his father.
Poseidon had only claimed Polyphemus a few years ago, and to be honest, the Cyclops was still getting used to the idea. While many of the sea god's children did turn out to be Cyclopes, it was unusual for such a mighty god to claim any child of his, especially one that was not born of a human. A claiming was an enormous honor, and it sometimes caused unrest in the tribes.
He shook himself from that train of thought. Even the oldest of the flock were caught up and now waiting at the entrance to the cave. He herded the ewes and lambs inside, leaving the rest out to graze for the night.
Dropping the wood down on top of the pile, he wondered idly what to make for dinner that night. He was quite the gourmet chef, you see, and always loved experimenting with the island's abundance of ingredients. The pomegranate trees had ripened considerably on the north side of the island, and he'd discovered that the seeds were wonderful with a nice, juicy ram. He decided that the familiar recipe would be the way to go tonight—he was too tired to think of anything new.
As he lit the fire to roast the ram on, a flicker of movement in the corner caught his eye. He squinted, the eyebrow furrowing, trying to figure out what the small thing was. A human! And not just one, but a whole group of them. It had been so long since one of their kind had stumbled into his presence. He wondered what stories they would tell before he ate them. Despite his rugged appearance, Polyphemus was of the opinion that nothing topped a good tale. Humans were the best storytellers, always making themselves seem much more heroic than in reality. They were such entertaining little creatures.
"Strangers!" he called out joyfully, "now who are you? Where did you sail from, over the running sea-lanes? Out on a trading spree? Or roving the waves like pirates, sea-wolves raiding at will, who risk their lives to plunder other men?" He loved pirate stories best; those particular humans were always the most fun. Before they died, at least. They had a ghastly aftertaste.
Apparently, he was too enthusiastic, because the poor little things looked terrified. One of them, however, stepped forward. He wasn't the biggest of them, but he was dressed in a fine cloak and armor, so the Cyclops assumed that he was the leader of their group.
He went on long, winding speech, identifying them as Greeks coming from Troy, and launching into a tale of their misfortunes at sea. Admittedly, Polyphemus zoned out a bit once the human began talking about "King Zeus." For some reason, humans always thought throwing around the names of gods would help them. Like the Cyclops was supposed to say, "Oh, you come from the thunder guy! Gee, I better stay out your way."
When he finished, Polyphemus said, softer this time so that he didn't scare them, "Stranger, you must be a fool, telling me to fear the gods or avoid their wrath! We Cyclopes never blink at Zeus with his storm and thunder, or at any other god save for Lord Poseidon. I'd never spare you in fear of Zeus's hatred, you or your comrades here, unless I had the urge. But tell me, where did you moor your ship? Up the coast or close in?"
Usually once he got a human talking about their ship, they would make up some tragically heroic story about their hardships and expect him to honor them like a god.
The leader then said, smirking, that his ship and the rest of his crew had been destroyed by the terrible Poseidon. Polyphemus snorted. If his father truly had smashed this fool's ship, he probably deserved it. It was funny—whenever the gods punished mortals, they usually had good reason. But humans with their silly pride always assumed that the gods were cruel and that they, the poor victims, were blameless.
By this point, the Cyclops was getting tired of the little humans, and they hadn't yet told any good stories. Disappointing, he thought ruefully as he grabbed two of them, killing them quickly, and prepared dinner. Humans were always good, even without seasoning.
The other men were horrified, but Polyphemus didn't bother to say anything to them. Neither of them could change the situation now; they couldn't hope to escape, and he obviously couldn't bring their friends back to life. Once he finished, he stretched out on his bed and fell quickly into a deep sleep, thinking that the next night, they'd better have a suitable story.
The next morning, the humans were much quieter, as they often were after the hysteria, huddling in a far corner of the cave. The Cyclops went about his usual chores, snatching up two more humans for a quick breakfast. He knew that humans were a rare treat, but they were so good that he didn't feel like saving them up for later.
Out in the fields, he thought about the stories other humans had told before. One was a king, exiled by his treacherous brother. Another, the self-proclaimed son of Apollo, searching for some kind of magical arrow. And possibly the best one—a typical vagrant, starved and hoary, purporting to be Zeus himself. Oh, what a laugh he'd had with that one. The thing about humans was that they always thought that if they impressed their host and captor, they would escape. How cute.
He gathered up some nice herbs from the southern coast for dinner. Parsley in particular was excellent when paired with the more muscular humans; it softened them up just enough to take away the toughness. Once the sun had set again, he herded the sheep back to the cave, letting all of them spill through the opening. If the humans told a story tonight, Polyphemus thought, he might spare them and eat a nice ram for dinner instead. As long as the story was good.
But when he entered the cave they seemed as reluctant as ever, glaring up at him. The Cyclops sighed and went about his usual business. Once the sheep were all milked and suckled, he turned back to the humans. They were still huddled in the corner, so he assumed that they weren't exactly feeling inclined to participate in story time that night. Frowning, he took two more for dinner, adding the herbs he'd had gathered earlier for a nice touch. Once he finished, closing his eye to more fully savor the delicacy, the little leader approach him with a human-sized bowl of wine.
He wasn't actually that small, Polyphemus thought. Average size for a human, with an ego to make up for whatever height he lacked.
"Here, Cyclops, try this wine—to top off the banquet of human flesh you've bolted down!" said the diminutive man. "Judge for yourself what stock our ship has stored. I brought it here hoping you would have pity on me and send me home…" Then he went into an adorable rant about the Cyclops's "barbarianism," and how no one would ever visit him after this. As if the humans would be alive to recommend the island to anyone.
Ignoring the instinct that he shouldn't be taking offerings of liquor from captives of any sort, Polyphemus reached out for the little bowl and gulped it down at once. It was like nothing he had ever tasted before—sweet and flowery and irresistibly intoxicating. How could he have doubted the wine? If there was poison, he was glad to consume it if it was accompanied by such dulcet flavor. He asked the leader his name so that he might repay him with a gift.
In all honesty, Polyphemus never really intended to give the man anything other than a few extra days of life. Quite generous of him, actually. The leader looked a lot tastier than some of the others in his party.
He poured out two more cups of the delicious wine, and with each cup the Cyclops became tipsier and tipsier, reveling in the wonderful delirium of inebriation. Soon the room was spinning nauseatingly and his mind was a blur.
After the third cup, the leader came forward and told Polyphemus that his name was Nobody. Ha! What a funny name, the Cyclops thought. The poor man must've been tormented as a child. What kind of parents would name a boy Nobody… The entire thing was really quite funny.
"Nobody?" he laughed. "I'll eat Nobody last of all his friends—I'll eat the others first! That's my gift to you!" And with that he giggled himself into unconsciousness.
His peaceful, drunken sleep was quickly interrupted by the worst pain he had ever felt in his life. There were no words to describe it. One minute he was floating blissfully in a sea of wine, the next his head was in agony—something burning hot twisting around horribly—
He bellowed in the fury and agony of it all, hardly noticing the room shaking as he yanked the horrible, terrible thing out of his eye. Despite his efforts, the pain didn't stop. He vaguely heard the noise of scuttling little feet. The humans!
His yells were so loud that soon every Cyclops on that half of the island came rushing to the cave. They taunted him as the blood streamed down his face, asking, "What, Polyphemus, what in the world's the trouble? Roaring out in the night to rob us of our sleep. Surely no one's rustling your flocks against your will—surely no one's trying to kill you now by fraud or force!"
And he was in so much agony, and still so drunk, that he disregarded what had happened when Poseidon claimed him. Polyphemus begged them for help. He tried to tell them—Nobody, that scoundrel, had attacked him and gouged his eye.
The others only laughed cruelly. "If you're alone, and nobody's trying to overpower you now—look, it must be your own stupidity, and the gods know there's no escape from that. You'd better pray to your father, Lord Poseidon." And with that they took off, still laughing.
He groaned in agony and despair. How stupid he had been to ask for their help. They were so jealous, so resentful, even now, that Poseidon had claimed him, and not any of them. He rolled the stone across the entrance so the treacherous humans couldn't escape, and promptly passed out from the pain, collapsing against the now bloodied boulder.
In the morning, it was the bahhing and shuffling of the flock that woke him, not the bright rays of the sun streaming through the cracks.
Polyphemus groaned, stumbling to his feet blindly and groping around for the rock. He cursed in a way that would've had his mother in shock. Cursed Nobody, cursed the other good-for-nothing Cyclopes, cursed Poseidon, who hadn't been proud enough of his son to help.
As he rolled the stone out of the way, he felt the back of each sheep to make sure they were all there. At this point, it wouldn't have surprised him if that horrible Nobody had slaughtered his livelihood along with his pride.
Last of all to exit was the old ram, the first sheep he'd ever raised on his own. He sighed and sat down next to him. If only he could speak, and tell where that coward was now, so that the Cyclops could take his revenge.
"You're lucky," he muttered, "that you're only a dumb animal. You don't have to deal with treacherous humans, or spiteful Cyclopes, or sheep that don't speak in return."
The rest of the morning he wallowed in misery. That is, when he wasn't plotting exactly how he would torture the humans. The sea sounded stormier than usual, he noticed, briny water slapping against the shore.
Then, suddenly, he heard human voices, and the sound of ship scraping against sand. That was definitely not a new guest. He rushed down to the coast, feet slipping on the luxuriant grass.
His thought whirred in a panicked spiral. Nobody couldn't have escaped. It was irrational. Simply impossible. There was a boulder in front of the cave. There was absolutely no way he could've …
And then he heard that horrible voice calling out from the sea, taunting him. That cowardly, slippery human taunting him, just like all the miserable Cyclopes on that gods-forsaken island. He picked up the nearest rock and hurled it in the direction of the voice. A splash and the cries of men met his ears. He listened, hoping that the blow had drowned them… but then minutes later he heard that awful voice again.
"Cyclops—if any man on the face of the earth should ask you who blinded you, shamed you so—say Odysseus…"
The name echoed in his head. Odysseus. The prophecy. No, no, no, no…
"That prophecy years ago," he groaned, barely realizing that he was saying this all aloud. "It all comes back to me with a vengeance now! We once a had a prophet here, a great tall man, Telemus, a master at reading signs. All this, he warned me, would come to pass someday—that I'd be blinded at the hands of one Odysseus. But I always looked for a handsome giant man to cross my path, some fighter clad in armor, but now, look what a dwarf, a spineless good-for-nothing, stuns me with wine, then gouges out my eye!
"Come here, Odysseus," he snarled. "Let me give you a guest-gift and urge Poseidon to speed you home. I am his son, after all, and he claims to be my father, and he himself will heal me if he pleases—no other god, no man can do the work!" The coward called back something about wanting to kill him. Polyphemus didn't listen; instead he lifted his arms and cried out a prayer to Poseidon.
"Hear me, Poseidon, god of the sea-blue mane who rocks the earth!" he shouted. "If I really am your son and you claim to be my father, come, grant that Odysseus never reaches home. Or if he's fated to see his people once again and reach his own native country, let him come home late and come a broken man—all shipmates lost, alone in a stranger's ship—and let him find a world of pain at home!"
With that he hoisted another, larger boulder and flung it at Odysseus, relishing the sound of the massive wave it created. The coward spoke no more, but he could faintly hear the sounds of oars splitting the waters and the terrified cries of men.
And despite the escape of his minuscule attacker, despite the fiery agony clenching his head like a vise, despite the gore caked on his face and the shame and hatred burning in his heart, Polyphemus smiled. Because he knew that even if he himself could not take revenge on Odysseus, the great god of the earthquake certainly would.