POST # 10. THE STRANGER

The term “xeno” is a prefix denoting an outside entity, something foreign, something that doesn’t belong. I named my protagonist Xeno for that reason, before I had any idea what his background would be, or what would make him like he was. Though uneducated, he’s intelligent and keenly aware of the unseen dynamics underlying observable behavior. That should have made him empathetic, drawing people to him who wanted to be his friend. Instead, he’s at a distance from everyone, even those he needs and cares about. As I said in POST #1, his story, our story, went from short story to novel because I lost control of him, and even now, as of this writing, I don’t know all of how he came to be the way he is.

To tell the story, I needed Xeno to have that insight into behavior and its underlying dynamics, but such insight is not usually the province of men, especially young men, and as a conscripted peasant fisherman in antiquity, he had to be uneducated to the point of illiteracy. Having him grow up surrounded by females2 was a way for him to absorb those skills and insights, but a boy surrounded by doting women wouldn’t have the shadowy vision that my narrator needed to convey the story’s dark overtones. Like so many other things in my writing, the idea came to me when I was doing something else and not thinking about the story, at least not to my conscious knowledge.3 Xeno’s toxic family forces him to look into the shadow of motives just to survive, while allowing him to be surrounded by females who don’t buoy him with the confidence and self-esteem that would make him unable to tell my story. That background also gave me his horrible grandfather and passive-aggressive father, the most poignant parts of his first dream, though in truth, I envisioned the dream before I created the family. I don’t know how that process, or those processes, worked.

When he’s old enough, Xeno leaves his family, becoming a crewman on a merchant ship that plies the Aegean, eventually making its way to Troy to deliver supplies. At Troy, Xeno encounters his Ithacan king, Odysseus, who shanghais the crew into the army. It may seem that Xeno resigns himself to conscription a bit too easily. Though he has pent-up anger, he doesn’t really want to fight and kill, but he doesn’t have the self-esteem to see what’s done to him as wrong, that he doesn’t deserve it. It’s as if his anger is turned inward. And though he never trusts Odysseus, it’s not rooted in this initial betrayal. Xeno and Odysseus see themselves in each other; keen observers of the hidden dynamics of human behavior. Odysseus, born into royalty, can use what he sees to manipulate people, while Xeno, a peasant fishermen, can only use what he sees to survive. This power to manipulate, sometimes on a grand scale, is what makes Xeno mistrust and fear Odysseus. Social class separates them, but so does Xeno’s wariness of his king.

Other soldiers pick on Xeno because he doesn’t take to soldiering, but as he finally adapts, he becomes dependable, though not a leader or a hero. He thus moves from outcast to non-outcast, but isn’t really “one of the boys.” He speaks fondly of Mitri, but only to frame his suspicions about Odysseus’ vindictiveness. When he first leaves Troy, the morning after it’s sacked, he interacts well with several of his comrades, but there are no deep or lasting bonds. After the main armies leave for home, and the ethnically divided garrison further subdivides into core soldiers and unwanteds, Xeno realizes that he doesn’t belong in either group. Later, when most of the garrison abandons Troy after the Phrygian ultimatum, some of those who are staying gather to see, for the last time, close friends who are leaving. Xeno observes this, but he’s never part of it.

Though Xeno hates being in Troy, he volunteers for garrison duty because he hates the idea of going home even more. It’s not clear, even to me, if his family knows where he is, whether he’s alive, or if they even care. One might think, therefore, that his relationships within the garrison would be that much more important to him, but he never tells Tlemos, his closest ally and protector, what he’s learned about the actual reasons for the war, or that he’s acting as Odysseus and Menalaous’ scout for the missing Trojan treasury. He lies to Xeriagxi and Ygpatajz about why they’re not allowed inside the walls, and his promise to look for the Ygdaxojzi sacred fish is just a cover, allowing him to search more openly for Trojan wealth and tunnels. True, all the tribes are kept out of the city with the same lie, but Xeno never reveals the truth to anyone, even as his relationships with Xeriagxi, Ygpatajz, and the Ygdaxojzi tribe blossom. He remonstrates with himself about his deceptions, particularly in regard to Tlemos, but he doesn’t change his behavior. It’s not clear whether he’s being tactically discreet, or if he’s too psychologically damaged to fully trust anyone.

Eventually, we learn that Xeno marries Xeriagxi, becomes part of the Ygdaxojzi tribe, and lives out his life among them. But even after Xeno’s children are in their teens, he  occasionally slips, and refers to the Ygdaxojzi as “them” or “they” instead of “we” or “us.” The family has a long-standing gesture for when Xeno has “shadow eyes,” when he’s moody, distant, and his thoughts far away. Their youngest son has those same eyes, for which Xeriagxi blames Xeno. As they sIt in their home one evening, in the glow of the hearth, contemplating the birth of their first child, a cheerful comment from Xeriagxi sparks memories of helpless terror in the Trojan horse. Xeno is not only damaged, he’s estranged from his culture’s emotional symbols and core myths; estranged from the very idea of believing, or taking comfort in, those symbols and myths. Even as he becomes an Ygdaxojzi with an Ygdaxojzi family, there is still a part of him that doesn’t belong there, though he’d twice forsaken Ithaca, and then Greece itself, when he abandoned Troy. In time, Xeno seems mostly, though not completely, settled in Ygdaxojzi life, accepted as a former outsider, though not as a native. But in the midst of hearth and home, a casual word sends his thoughts out into the howling night, and he’s so alone … so alone, like veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

1 even though Zeno was a common name in ancient Greece, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeno

2 We learn about Xeno primarily from his dreams and his grim narration of what he sees. When Prothenor angrily asks Xeno if Ktealos is his Spartan brother, Xeno replies that he’s the only boy after three sisters. This may be the only time we learn about Xeno from his dialogue with other characters, yet another example of how isolated he is.  I note this because it only occurred to me as I wrote the footnoted sentence, and was unnerved to have missed it until now.

3 My wife says it’s like being at a picnic when a bird flies over and drops one on your head: you have to intelligently decide what you’re going to do about it. Not reflexively wiping it off, thus not dirtying my hand as well as my hair, is her definition of creativity. It should come as no surprise that people like her a lot more than they like me.

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