فصل 10

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فصل 10

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Chapter Ten

IT WAS SPRING, AND WE WERE FIFTEEN. THE WINTER ICE HAD lasted longer than usual, and we were glad to be outside once more, beneath the sun. Our tunics were discarded, and our skin prickled in the light breeze. I had not been so naked all winter; it had been too cold to take off our furs and cloaks, beyond quick washes in the hollowed-out rock that served as our bath. Achilles was stretching, rolling limbs that were stiff from too long indoors. We had spent the morning swimming and chasing game through the forest. My muscles felt wearily content, glad to be used again.

I watched him. Other than the unsteady surface of the river, there were no mirrors on Mount Pelion, so I could only measure myself by the changes in Achilles. His limbs were still slender, but I could see the muscles in them now, rising and falling beneath his skin as he moved. His face, too, was firmer, and his shoulders broader than they had been.

“You look older,” I said.

He stopped, turned to me. “I do?”

“Yes.” I nodded. “Do I?”

“Come over here,” he said. I stood, walked to him. He regarded me a moment. “Yes,” he said.

“How?” I wanted to know. “A lot?”

“Your face is different,” he said.

“Where?”

He touched my jaw with his right hand, drew his fingertips along it. “Here. Your face is wider than it once was.” I reached up with my own hand, to see if I could feel this difference, but it was all the same to me, bone and skin. He took my hand and brought it down to my collarbone. “You are wider here also,” he said. “And this.” His finger touched, gently, the soft bulb that had emerged from my throat. I swallowed, and felt his fingertip ride against the motion.

“Where else?” I asked.

He pointed to the trail of fine, dark hair that ran down my chest and over my stomach.

He paused, and my face grew warm.

“That’s enough,” I said, more abruptly than I meant to. I sat again on the grass, and he resumed his stretches. I watched the breeze stir his hair; I watched the sun fall on his golden skin. I leaned back and let it fall on me as well.

After some time, he stopped and came to sit beside me. We watched the grass, and the trees, and the nubs of new buds, just growing.

His voice was remote, almost careless. “You would not be displeased, I think. With how you look now.”

My face grew warm, again. But we spoke no more of it.

WE WERE ALMOST SIXTEEN. Soon Peleus’ messengers would come with gifts; soon the berries would ripen, the fruits would blush and fall into our hands. Sixteen was our last year of childhood, the year before our fathers named us men, and we would begin to wear not just tunics but capes and chitons as well. A marriage would be arranged for Achilles, and I might take a wife, if I wished to. I thought again of the serving girls with their dull eyes. I remembered the snatches of conversation I had overheard from the boys, the talk of breasts and hips and coupling.

She’s like cream, she’s that soft.

Once her thighs are around you, you’ll forget your own name.

The boys’ voices had been sharp with excitement, their color high. But when I tried to imagine what they spoke of, my mind slid away, like a fish who would not be caught.

Other images came in their stead. The curve of a neck bent over a lyre, hair gleaming in firelight, hands with their flickering tendons. We were together all day, and I could not escape: the smell of the oils he used on his feet, the glimpses of skin as he dressed. I would wrench my gaze from him and remember the day on the beach, the coldness in his eyes and how he ran from me. And, always, I remembered his mother.

I began to go off by myself, early in the mornings, when Achilles still slept, or in the afternoons, when he would practice his spear thrusts. I brought a flute with me, but rarely played it. Instead I would find a tree to lean against and breathe the sharp drift of cypress-scent, blown from the highest part of the mountain.

Slowly, as if to escape my own notice, my hand would move to rest between my thighs. There was shame in this thing that I did, and a greater shame still in the thoughts that came with it. But it would be worse to think them inside the rose-quartz cave, with him beside me.

It was difficult sometimes, after, to return to the cave. “Where were you?” he’d ask.

“Just—” I’d say, and point vaguely.

He’d nod. But I knew he saw the flush that colored my cheeks.

THE SUMMER GREW HOTTER, and we sought the river’s shade, its water that threw off arcs of light as we splashed and dove. The rocks of the bottom were mossy and cool, rolling beneath my toes as I waded. We shouted, and frightened the fish, who fled to their muddy holes or quieter waters upstream. The rushing ice melt of spring was gone; I lay on my back and let the dozy current carry me. I liked the feel of the sun on my stomach and the cool depths of the river beneath me. Achilles floated beside me or swam against the slow tug of the river’s flow.

When we tired of this, we would seize the low-hanging branches of the osiers and hoist ourselves half-out of the water. On this day we kicked at each other, our legs tangling, trying to dislodge the other, or perhaps climb onto their branch. On an impulse, I released my branch and seized him around his hanging torso. He let out an ooph of surprise. We struggled that way for a moment, laughing, my arms wrapped around him. Then there was a sharp cracking sound, and his branch gave way, plunging us into the river. The cool water closed over us, and still we wrestled, hands against slippery skin.

When we surfaced, we were panting and eager. He leapt for me, bearing me down through the clear water. We grappled, emerged to gasp air, then sank again.

At length, our lungs burning, our faces red from too long underwater, we dragged ourselves to the bank and lay there amidst the sedge-grass and marshy weeds. Our feet sank into the cool mud of the water’s edge. Water still streamed from his hair, and I watched it bead, tracing across his arms and the lines of his chest.

ON THE MORNING of his sixteenth birthday I woke early. Chiron had showed me a tree on Pelion’s far slope that had figs just ripening, the first of the season. Achilles did not know of it, the centaur assured me. I watched them for days, their hard green knots swelling and darkening, growing gravid with seed. And now I would pick them for his breakfast.

It wasn’t my only gift. I had found a seasoned piece of ash and began to fashion it secretly, carving off its soft layers. Over nearly two months a shape had emerged—a boy playing the lyre, head raised to the sky, mouth open, as if he were singing. I had it with me now, as I walked.

The figs hung rich and heavy on the tree, their curved flesh pliant to my touch—two days later and they would be too ripe. I gathered them in a carved-wood bowl and bore them carefully back to the cave.

Achilles was sitting in the clearing with Chiron, a new box from Peleus resting unopened at his feet. I saw the quick widening of his eyes as he took in the figs. He was on his feet, eagerly reaching into the bowl before I could even set it down beside him. We ate until we were stuffed, our fingers and chins sticky with sweetness.

The box from Peleus held more tunics and lyre strings, and this time, for his sixteenth birthday, a cloak dyed with the expensive purple from the murex’s shell. It was the cape of a prince, of a future king, and I saw that it pleased him. It would look good on him, I knew, the purple seeming richer still beside the gold of his hair.

Chiron, too, gave presents—a staff for hiking, and a new belt-knife. And last, I passed him the statue. He examined it, his fingertips moving over the small marks my knife had left behind.

“It’s you,” I said, grinning foolishly.

He looked up, and there was bright pleasure in his eyes.

“I know,” he said.

ONE EVENING, not long after, we stayed late beside the fire’s embers. Achilles had been gone for much of the afternoon—Thetis had come and kept him longer even than usual. Now he was playing my mother’s lyre. The music was quiet and bright as the stars over our heads.

Next to me, I heard Chiron yawn, settle more deeply onto his folded legs. A moment later the lyre ceased, and Achilles’ voice came loud in the darkness. “Are you weary, Chiron?” “I am.”

“Then we will leave you to your rest.”

He was not usually so quick to go, nor to speak for me, but I was tired myself and did not object. He rose and bade Chiron good night, turning for the cave. I stretched, soaked up a few more moments of firelight, and followed.

Inside the cave, Achilles was already in bed, his face damp from a wash at the spring. I washed too, the water cool across my forehead.

He said, “You didn’t ask me about my mother’s visit yet.”

I said, “How is she?”

“She is well.” This was the answer he always gave. It was why I sometimes did not ask him.

“Good.” I lifted a handful of water, to rinse the soap off my face. We made it from the oil of olives, and it still smelled faintly of them, rich and buttery.

Achilles spoke again. “She says she cannot see us here.”

I had not been expecting him to say more. “Hmmm?”

“She cannot see us here. On Pelion.”

There was something in his voice, a strain. I turned to him. “What do you mean?”

His eyes studied the ceiling. “She says—I asked her if she watches us here.” His voice was high. “She says, she does not.”

There was silence in the cave. Silence, but for the sound of the slowly draining water.

“Oh,” I said.

“I wished to tell you. Because—” He paused. “I thought you would wish to know. She—” He hesitated again. “She was not pleased that I asked her.” “She was not pleased,” I repeated. I felt dizzy, my mind turning and turning through his words. She cannot see us. I realized that I was standing half-frozen by the water basin, the towel still raised to my chin. I forced myself to put down the cloth, to move to the bed. There was a wildness in me, of hope and terror.

I pulled back the covers and lay down on bedding already warm from his skin. His eyes were still fixed on the ceiling.

“Are you—pleased with her answer?” I said, finally.

“Yes,” he said.

We lay there a moment, in that strained and living silence. Usually at night we would tell each other jokes or stories. The ceiling above us was painted with the stars, and if we grew tired of talking, we would point to them. “Orion,” I would say, following his finger. “The Pleiades.” But tonight there was nothing. I closed my eyes and waited, long minutes, until I guessed he was asleep. Then I turned to look at him.

He was on his side, watching me. I had not heard him turn. I never hear him. He was utterly motionless, that stillness that was his alone. I breathed, and was aware of the bare stretch of dark pillow between us.

He leaned forward.

Our mouths opened under each other, and the warmth of his sweetened throat poured into mine. I could not think, could not do anything but drink him in, each breath as it came, the soft movements of his lips. It was a miracle.

I was trembling, afraid to put him to flight. I did not know what to do, what he would like. I kissed his neck, the span of his chest, and tasted the salt. He seemed to swell beneath my touch, to ripen. He smelled like almonds and earth. He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine.

He went still as I took him in my hand, soft as the delicate velvet of petals. I knew Achilles’ golden skin and the curve of his neck, the crooks of his elbows. I knew how pleasure looked on him. Our bodies cupped each other like hands.

The blankets had twisted around me. He shucked them from us both. The air over my skin was a shock, and I shivered. He was outlined against the painted stars; Polaris sat on his shoulder. His hand slipped over the quickened rise and fall of my belly’s breathing. He stroked me gently, as though smoothing finest cloth, and my hips lifted to his touch. I pulled him to me, and trembled and trembled. He was trembling, too. He sounded as though he had been running far and fast.

I said his name, I think. It blew through me; I was hollow as a reed hung up for the wind to sound. There was no time that passed but our breaths.

I found his hair between my fingers. There was a gathering inside me, a beat of blood against the movement of his hand. His face was pressed against me, but I tried to clutch him closer still. Do not stop, I said.

He did not stop. The feeling gathered and gathered till a hoarse cry leapt from my throat, and the sharp flowering drove me, arching, against him.

It was not enough. My hand reached, found the place of his pleasure. His eyes closed. There was a rhythm he liked, I could feel it, the catch of his breath, the yearning. My fingers were ceaseless, following each quickening gasp. His eyelids were the color of the dawn sky; he smelled like earth after rain. His mouth opened in an inarticulate cry, and we were pressed so close that I felt the spurt of his warmth against me. He shuddered, and we lay still.

Slowly, like dusk-fall, I became aware of my sweat, the dampness of the covers, and the wetness that slid between our bellies. We separated, peeling away from each other, our faces puffy and half-bruised from kisses. The cave smelled hot and sweet, like fruit beneath the sun. Our eyes met, and we did not speak. Fear rose in me, sudden and sharp. This was the moment of truest peril, and I tensed, fearing his regret.

He said, “I did not think—” And stopped. There was nothing in the world I wanted more than to hear what he had not said.

“What?” I asked him. If it is bad, let it be over quickly. “I did not think that we would ever—” He was hesitating over every word, and I could not blame him.

“I did not think so either,” I said.

“Are you sorry?” The words were quickly out of him, a single breath.

“I am not,” I said.

“I am not either.”

There was silence then, and I did not care about the damp pallet or how sweaty I was. His eyes were unwavering, green flecked with gold. A surety rose in me, lodged in my throat. I will never leave him. It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me.

If I had had words to speak such a thing, I would have. But there were none that seemed big enough for it, to hold that swelling truth.

As if he had heard me, he reached for my hand. I did not need to look; his fingers were etched into my memory, slender and petal-veined, strong and quick and never wrong.

“Patroclus,” he said. He was always better with words than I.

THE NEXT MORNING I awoke light-headed, my body woozy with warmth and ease. After the tenderness had come more passion; we had been slower then, and lingering, a dreamy night that stretched on and on. Now, watching him stir beside me, his hand resting on my stomach, damp and curled as a flower at dawn, I was nervous again. I remembered in a rush the things I had said and done, the noises I had made. I feared that the spell was broken, that the light that crept through the cave’s entrance would turn it all to stone. But then he was awake, his lips forming a half-sleepy greeting, and his hand was already reaching for mine. We lay there, like that, until the cave was bright with morning, and Chiron called.

We ate, then ran to the river to wash. I savored the miracle of being able to watch him openly, to enjoy the play of dappled light on his limbs, the curving of his back as he dove beneath the water. Later, we lay on the riverbank, learning the lines of each other’s bodies anew. This, and this and this. We were like gods at the dawning of the world, and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other.

IF CHIRON NOTICED a change, he did not speak of it. But I could not help worrying.

“Do you think he will be angry?”

We were by the olive grove on the north side of the mountain. The breezes were sweetest here, cool and clean as springwater.

“I don’t think he will.” He reached for my collarbone, the line he liked to draw his finger down.

“But he might. Surely he must know by now. Should we say something?”

It was not the first time I had wondered this. We had discussed it often, eager with conspiracy.

“If you like.” That is what he had said before.

“You don’t think he will be angry?”

He paused now, considering. I loved this about him. No matter how many times I had asked, he answered me as if it were the first time.

“I don’t know.” His eyes met mine. “Does it matter? I would not stop.” His voice was warm with desire. I felt an answering flush across my skin.

“But he could tell your father. He might be angry.”

I said it almost desperately. Soon my skin would grow too warm, and I would no longer be able to think.

“So what if he is?” The first time he had said something like this, I had been shocked. That his father might be angry and Achilles would still do as he wished—it was something I did not understand, could barely imagine. It was like a drug to hear him say it. I never tired of it.

“What about your mother?”

This was the trinity of my fears—Chiron, Peleus, and Thetis.

He shrugged. “What could she do? Kidnap me?”

She could kill me, I thought. But I did not say this. The breeze was too sweet, and the sun too warm for a thought like that to be spoken.

He studied me a moment. “Do you care if they are angry?”

Yes. I would be horrified to find Chiron upset with me. Disapproval had always burrowed deep in me; I could not shake it off as Achilles did. But I would not let it separate us, if it came to that. “No,” I told him.

“Good,” he said.

I reached down to stroke the wisps of hair at his temple. He closed his eyes. I watched his face, tipped up to meet the sun. There was a delicacy to his features that sometimes made him look younger than he was. His lips were flushed and full.

His eyes opened. “Name one hero who was happy.”

I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason’s children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus’ back.

“You can’t.” He was sitting up now, leaning forward.

“I can’t.”

“I know. They never let you be famous and happy.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you a secret.”

“Tell me.” I loved it when he was like this.

“I’m going to be the first.” He took my palm and held it to his. “Swear it.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re the reason. Swear it.”

“I swear it,” I said, lost in the high color of his cheeks, the flame in his eyes.

“I swear it,” he echoed.

We sat like that a moment, hands touching. He grinned.

“I feel like I could eat the world raw.”

A trumpet blew, somewhere on the slopes beneath us. It was abrupt and ragged, as if sounded in warning. Before I could speak or move, he was on his feet, his dagger out, slapped up from the sheath on his thigh. It was only a hunting knife, but in his hands it would be enough. He stood poised, utterly still, listening with all of his half-god senses.

I had a knife, too. Quietly, I reached for it and stood. He had placed himself between me and the sound. I did not know if I should go to him, stand beside him with my own weapon lifted. In the end, I did not. It had been a soldier’s trumpet, and battle, as Chiron had so bluntly said, was his gift, not mine.

The trumpet sounded again. We heard the swish of underbrush, tangled by a pair of feet. One man. Perhaps he was lost, perhaps in danger. Achilles took a step towards the sound. As if in answer, the trumpet came again. Then a voice bawled up the mountain, “Prince Achilles!” We froze.

“Achilles! I am here for Prince Achilles!”

Birds burst from the trees, fleeing the clamor.

“From your father,” I whispered. Only a royal herald would have known where to call for us.

Achilles nodded, but seemed strangely reluctant to answer. I imagined how hard his pulse would be beating; he had been prepared to kill a moment ago.

“We are here!” I shouted into the cupped palms of my hand. The noise stopped for a moment.

“Where?”

“Can you follow my voice?”

He could, though poorly. It was some time before he stepped forward into the clearing. His face was scratched, and he had sweated through his palace tunic. He knelt with ill grace, resentfully. Achilles had lowered the knife, though I saw how tightly he still held it.

“Yes?” His voice was cool.

“Your father summons you. There is urgent business at home.”

I felt myself go still, as still as Achilles had been a moment before. If I stayed still enough, perhaps we would not have to go.

“What sort of business?” Achilles asked.

The man had recovered himself, somewhat. He remembered he was speaking to a prince.

“My lord, your pardon, I do not know all of it. Messengers came to Peleus from Mycenae with news. Your father plans to speak tonight to the people, and wishes you to be there. I have horses for you below.” There was a moment of silence. Almost, I thought Achilles would decline. But at last he said, “Patroclus and I will need to pack our things.” On the way back to the cave and Chiron, Achilles and I speculated about the news. Mycenae was far to our south, and its king was Agamemnon, who liked to call himself a lord of men. He was said to have the greatest army of all our kingdoms.

“Whatever it is, we’ll only be gone for a night or two,” Achilles told me. I nodded, grateful to hear him say it. Just a few days.

Chiron was waiting for us. “I heard the shouts,” the centaur said. Achilles and I, knowing him well, recognized the disapproval in his voice. He did not like the peace of his mountain disturbed.

“My father has summoned me home,” Achilles said, “just for tonight. I expect I will be back soon.”

“I see,” Chiron said. He seemed larger than usual, standing there, hooves dull against the bright grass, his chestnut-colored flanks lit by the sun. I wondered if he would be lonely without us. I had never seen him with another centaur. We asked him about them once, and his face had gone stiff. “Barbarians,” he’d said.

We gathered our things. I had almost nothing to bring with me, some tunics, a flute. Achilles had only a few possessions more, his clothes, and some spearheads he had made, and the statue I had carved for him. We placed them in leather bags and went to say our farewells to Chiron. Achilles, always bolder, embraced the centaur, his arms encircling the place where the horse flank gave way to flesh. The messenger, waiting behind me, shifted.

“Achilles,” Chiron said, “do you remember when I asked you what you would do when men wanted you to fight?”

“Yes,” said Achilles.

“You should consider your answer,” Chiron said. A chill went through me, but I did not have time to think on it. Chiron was turning to me.

“Patroclus,” he said, a summons. I walked forward, and he placed his hand, large and warm as the sun, on my head. I breathed in the scent that was his alone, horse and sweat and herbs and forest.

His voice was quiet. “You do not give things up so easily now as you once did,” he said.

I did not know what to say to this, so I said, “Thank you.”

A trace of smile. “Be well.” Then his hand was gone, leaving my head chilled in its absence.

“We will be back soon,” Achilles said, again.

Chiron’s eyes were dark in the slanting afternoon light. “I will look for you,” he said.

We shouldered our bags and left the cave’s clearing. The sun was already past the meridian, and the messenger was impatient. We moved quickly down the hill and climbed on the horses that waited for us. A saddle felt strange after so many years on foot, and the horses unnerved me. I half-expected them to speak, but of course they could not. I twisted in my seat to look back at Pelion. I hoped that I might be able to see the rose-quartz cave, or maybe Chiron himself. But we were too far. I turned to face the road and allowed myself to be led to Phthia.

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