فصل 18

کتاب: افسانه آکیلیس ( آشیل) / فصل 18

فصل 18

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Chapter Eighteen

I WOKE THAT NIGHT GASPING. I WAS SWEAT-SOAKED, AND THE tent felt oppressively warm. Beside me Achilles slept, his skin as damp as mine.

I stepped outside, eager for a breeze off the water. But here, too, the air was heavy and humid. It was quiet, strangely so. I heard no flapping of canvas, no jingle of an unsecured harness. Even the sea was silent, as if the waves had ceased to fall against the shore. Out beyond the breakers it was flat as a polished bronze mirror.

There was no wind, I realized. That was the strangeness. The air that hung around me did not stir, even with the faintest whisper of current. I remember thinking: if it keeps up like this we won’t be able to sail tomorrow.

I washed my face, glad of the water’s coolness, then returned to Achilles and restless, turning sleep.

THE NEXT MORNING is the same. I wake in a pool of sweat, my skin puckered and parched. Gratefully I gulp the water that Automedon brings us. Achilles wakes, draws a hand over his soaked forehead. He frowns, goes outside, returns.

“There is no wind.”

I nod.

“We will not leave today.” Our men are strong oarsmen, but even they cannot power a full day’s journey. We need the wind to take us to Troy.

It does not come. Not that day, or that night, or the next day either. Agamemnon is forced to stand in the marketplace and announce further delay. As soon as the wind returns, we will leave, he promises us.

But the wind does not return. We are hot all the time, and the air feels like the blasts off a fire, scorching our lungs. We had never noticed how scalding the sand could be, how scratchy our blankets. Tempers fray, and fights break out. Achilles and I spend all our time in the sea, seeking the meager comfort it offers.

The days pass and our foreheads crease with worry. Two weeks with no wind is unnatural, yet Agamemnon does nothing. At last Achilles says, “I will speak to my mother.” I sit in the tent sweating and waiting while he summons her. When he returns, he says, “It is the gods.” But his mother will not—cannot—say who.

We go to Agamemnon. The king’s skin is red with heat-rash, and he is angry all the time—at the wind, at his restless army, at anyone who will give him an excuse for it. Achilles says, “You know my mother is a goddess.” Agamemnon almost snarls his answer. Odysseus lays a restraining hand on his shoulder.

“She says the weather is not natural. That it is a message from the gods.”

Agamemnon is not pleased to hear it; he glowers and dismisses us.

A month passes, a weary month of feverish sleep and sweltering days. Men’s faces are heavy with anger, but there are no more fights—it is too hot. They lie in the dark and hate each other.

Another month. We are all, I think, going to go mad, suffocated by the weight of the motionless air. How much longer can this go on? It is terrible: the glaring sky that pins down our host, the choking heat we suck in with every breath. Even Achilles and I, alone in our tent with the hundred games we make for each other, feel winnowed and bare. When will it end?

Finally, word comes. Agamemnon has spoken with the chief priest, Calchas. We know him—he is small, with a patchy brown beard. An ugly man, with a face sharp like a weasel and a habit of running a flickering tongue over his lips before he speaks. But most ugly of all are his eyes: blue, bright blue. When people see them, they flinch. Such things are freakish. He is lucky he was not killed at birth.

Calchas believes it is the goddess Artemis we have offended, though he does not say why. He gives the usual prescription: an enormous sacrifice. Dutifully, the cattle are gathered, and the honey-wine mixed. At our next camp meeting, Agamemnon announces that he has invited his daughter to help preside over the rites. She is a priestess of Artemis, and the youngest woman ever to have been so anointed; perhaps she can soothe the raging goddess.

Then we hear more—this daughter is being brought from Mycenae not just for the ceremony, but for marriage to one of the kings. Weddings are always propitious, pleasing to the gods; perhaps this too will help.

Agamemnon summons Achilles and me to his tent. His face looks rumpled and swollen, the skin of a man who has not been sleeping. His nose is still red with rash. Beside him sits Odysseus, cool as ever.

Agamemnon clears his throat. “Prince Achilles. I have called you here with a proposition. Perhaps you have heard that—” He stops, clears his throat again. “I have a daughter, Iphigenia. I would wish her to be your wife.” We stare. Achilles’ mouth opens, closes.

Odysseus says, “Agamemnon offers you a great honor, Prince of Phthia.”

Achilles stutters, a rare clumsiness. “Yes, and I thank him.” His eyes go to Odysseus, and I know that he is thinking: What of Deidameia? Achilles is already married, as Odysseus well knows.

But the king of Ithaca nods, slight so that Agamemnon will not see. We are to pretend that the princess of Scyros does not exist.

“I am honored that you would think of me,” Achilles says, hesitating still. His eyes flicker to me, in a question.

Odysseus sees, as he sees everything. “Sadly, you will only have a night together before she must leave again. Though of course, much may happen in a night.” He smiles. No one else does.

“It will be good, I believe, a wedding,” Agamemnon’s words come slowly. “Good for our families, good for the men.” He does not meet our gaze.

Achilles is watching for my answer; he will say no if I wish it. Jealousy pricks, but faintly. It will only be a night, I think. It will win him status and sway, and make peace with Agamemnon. It will mean nothing. I nod, slight, as Odysseus had.

Achilles offers his hand. “I accept, Agamemnon. I will be proud to name you father-in-law.”

Agamemnon takes the younger man’s hand. I watch his eyes as he does—they are cold and almost sad. Later, I will remember this.

He clears his throat, a third time. “Iphigenia,” he says, “is a good girl.”

“I am sure she is,” Achilles says. “I will be honored to have her as my wife.”

Agamemnon nods, a dismissal, and we turn to go. Iphigenia. A tripping name, the sound of goat hooves on rock, quick, lively, lovely.

A FEW DAYS LATER, she arrived with a guard of stern Mycenaeans —older men, the ones not fit for war. As her chariot rattled over the stony road to our camp, soldiers came out to stare. It had been long now, since many of them had seen a woman. They feasted on the curve of her neck, a flash of ankle, her hands prettily smoothing the skirt of her bridal gown. Her brown eyes were lit with excitement; she was coming to marry the best of the Greeks.

The wedding would take place in our makeshift marketplace, the square wooden platform with a raised altar behind it. The chariot drew closer, past the thronging, gathered men. Agamemnon stood on the dais, flanked by Odysseus and Diomedes; Calchas too was near. Achilles waited, as grooms do, at the dais’s side.

Iphigenia stepped delicately out of her chariot and onto the raised wood floor. She was very young, not yet fourteen, caught between priestess poise and childlike eagerness. She threw her arms around her father’s neck, laced her hands through his hair. She whispered something to him and laughed. I could not see his face, but his hands on her slender shoulders seemed to tighten.

Odysseus and Diomedes moved forward all smiles and bows, offering their greetings. Her responses were gracious, but impatient. Her eyes were already searching for the husband she had been promised. She found him easily, her gaze catching on his golden hair. She smiled at what she saw.

At her look, Achilles stepped forward to meet her, standing now just at the platform’s edge. He could have touched her then, and I saw him start to, reach towards her tapered fingers, fine as sea-smoothed shells.

Then the girl stumbled. I remember Achilles frowning. I remember him shift, to catch her.

But she wasn’t falling. She was being dragged backwards, to the altar behind her. No one had seen Diomedes move, but his hand was on her now, huge against her slender collarbone, bearing her down to the stone surface. She was too shocked to struggle, to know even what was happening. Agamemnon yanked something from his belt. It flashed in the sun as he swung it.

The knife’s edge fell onto her throat, and blood spurted over the altar, spilled down her dress. She choked, tried to speak, could not. Her body thrashed and writhed, but the hands of the king pinned her down. At last her struggles grew weaker, her kicking less; at last she lay still.

Blood slicked Agamemnon’s hands. He spoke into the silence: “The goddess is appeased.”

Who knows what might have happened then? The air was close with the iron-salt smell of her death. Human sacrifice was an abomination, driven from our lands long ago. And his own daughter. We were horrified and angry, and there was violence in us.

Then, before we could move: something on our cheeks. We paused, unsure, and it came again. Soft and cool and smelling of the sea. A murmur went through the men. Wind. The wind has come. Jaws unclenched, and muscles loosened. The goddess is appeased.

Achilles seemed frozen, fixed to his spot beside the dais. I took his arm and pulled him through the crowd towards our tent. His eyes were wild, and his face was spattered with her blood. I wet a cloth and tried to clean it away, but he caught my hand. “I could have stopped them,” he said. The skin of his face was very pale; his voice was hoarse. “I was close enough. I could have saved her.” I shook my head. “You could not have known.”

He buried his face in his hands and did not speak. I held him and whispered all the bits of broken comfort I could find.

AFTER HE HAD WASHED his stained hands and changed his bloodied clothes, Agamemnon called us all back to the marketplace. Artemis, he said, had been displeased with the bloodshed this huge army intended. She demanded payment for it, in advance, in kind. Cows were not enough. A virgin priestess was required, human blood for human blood; the leader’s eldest daughter would be best.

Iphigenia had known, he said, had agreed to do it. Most men had not been close enough to see the startled panic in her eyes. Gratefully, they believed their general’s lie.

They burned her that night on cypress wood, the tree of our darkest gods. Agamemnon broached a hundred casks of wine for celebration; we were leaving for Troy on the morning’s tide. Inside our tent Achilles fell into exhausted sleep, his head in my lap. I stroked his forehead, watching the trembles of his dreaming face. In the corner lay his bloodied groom’s tunic. Looking at it, at him, my chest felt hot and tight. It was the first death he had ever witnessed. I eased his head off my lap and stood.

Outside, men sang and shouted, drunk and getting drunker. On the beach the pyre burned high, fed by the breeze. I strode past campfires, past lurching soldiers. I knew where I was going.

There were guards outside his tent, but they were slumping, half-asleep. “Who are you?” one asked, starting up. I stepped past him and threw open the tent’s door.

Odysseus turned. He had been standing at a small table, his finger to a map. There was a half-finished dinner plate beside it.

“Welcome, Patroclus. It’s all right, I know him,” he added to the guard stuttering apologies behind me. He waited until the man was gone. “I thought you might come.” I made a noise of contempt. “You would say that whatever you thought.”

He half-smiled. “Sit, if you like. I’m just finishing my dinner.”

“You let them murder her.” I spat the words at him.

He drew a chair to the table. “What makes you think I could have stopped them?”

“You would have, if it had been your daughter.” I felt like my eyes were throwing off sparks. I wanted him burnt.

“I don’t have a daughter.” He tore a piece of bread, sopped it into gravy. Ate.

“Your wife then. What if it had been your wife?”

He looked up at me. “What do you wish me to say? That I would not have done it?”

“Yes.”

“I would not have. But perhaps that is why Agamemnon is king of Mycenae, and I rule only Ithaca.”

Too easily his answers came to him. His patience enraged me.

“Her death is on your head.”

A wry twist of his mouth. “You give me too much credit. I am a counselor only, Patroclus. Not a general.”

“You lied to us.”

“About the wedding? Yes. It was the only way Clytemnestra would let the girl come.” The mother, back in Argos. Questions rose in me, but I knew this trick of his. I would not let him divert me from my anger. My finger stabbed the air.

“You dishonored him.” Achilles had not thought of this yet— he was too grieved with the girl’s death. But I had. They had tainted him with their deceit.

Odysseus waved a hand. “The men have already forgotten he was part of it. They forgot it when the girl’s blood spilled.”

“It is convenient for you to think so.”

He poured himself a cup of wine, drank. “You are angry, and not without reason. But why come to me? I did not hold the knife, or the girl.”

“There was blood,” I snarled. “All over him, his face. In his mouth. Do you know what it did to him?”

“He grieves that he did not prevent it.”

“Of course,” I snapped. “He could barely speak.”

Odysseus shrugged. “He has a tender heart. An admirable quality, surely. If it helps his conscience, tell him I placed Diomedes where he was on purpose. So Achilles would see too late.” I hated him so much I could not speak.

He leaned forward in his chair. “May I give you some advice? If you are truly his friend, you will help him leave this soft heart behind. He’s going to Troy to kill men, not rescue them.” His dark eyes held me like swift-running current. “He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.” The words drove breath from me, left me stuttering. “He is not—”

“But he is. The best the gods have ever made. And it is time he knew it, and you did too. If you hear nothing else I say, hear that. I do not say it in malice.” I was no match for him and his words that lodged like quills and would not be shaken loose.

“You are wrong,” I said. He did not answer me, only watched me turn and flee from him in silence.

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