فصل 21

کتاب: افسانه آکیلیس ( آشیل) / فصل 21

فصل 21

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Chapter Twenty-One

WITH THE RAIDS CAME THE DISTRIBUTION. THIS WAS a custom of ours, the awarding of prizes, the claiming of war spoils. Each man was allowed to keep what he personally won—armor that he stripped from a dead soldier, a jewel he tore from the widow’s neck. But the rest, ewers and rugs and vases, were carried to the dais and piled high for distribution.

It was not so much about the worth of any object as about honor. The portion you were given was equal to your standing in the army. First allotment went usually to the army’s best soldier, but Agamemnon named himself first and Achilles second. I was surprised that Achilles only shrugged. “Everyone knows I am better. This only makes Agamemnon look greedy.” He was right, of course. And it made it all the sweeter when the men cheered for us, tottering beneath our pile of treasure, and not for Agamemnon. Only his own Mycenaeans applauded him.

After Achilles came Ajax, then Diomedes and Menelaus, and then Odysseus and on and away until Cebriones was left with only wooden helmets and chipped goblets. Sometimes, though, if a man had done particularly well that day, the general might award him something particularly fine, before even the first man’s turn. Thus, even Cebriones was not without hope.

IN THE THIRD WEEK, a girl stood on the dais amidst the swords and woven rugs and gold. She was beautiful, her skin a deep brown, her hair black and gleaming. High on her cheekbone was a spreading bruise where a knuckle had connected. In the twilight, her eyes seemed bruised as well, shadowed as if with Egyptian kohl. Her dress was torn at the shoulder and stained with blood. Her hands were bound.

The men gathered eagerly. They knew what her presence meant—Agamemnon was giving us permission for camp followers, for spear-wives and bed slaves. Until now, the women had simply been forced in the fields and left. In your own tent was a much more convenient arrangement.

Agamemnon mounted the dais, and I saw his eyes slide over the girl, a slight smile on his lips. He was known—all the house of Atreus was—for his appetites. I do not know what came over me then. But I seized Achilles’ arm and spoke into his ear.

“Take her.”

He turned to me, his eyes wide with surprise.

“Take her as your prize. Before Agamemnon does. Please.”

He hesitated, but only a second.

“Men of Greece.” He stepped forward, still in the day’s armor, still smeared with blood. “Great King of Mycenae.”

Agamemnon turned to face him, frowning. “Pelides?”

“I would have this girl as my war-prize.”

At the back of the dais Odysseus raised an eyebrow. The men around us murmured. His request was unusual, but not unreasonable; in any other army, first choice would have been his anyway. Irritation flashed in Agamemnon’s eyes. I saw the thoughts turn across his face: he did not like Achilles, yet it was not worth it, here, already, to be churlish. She was beautiful, but there would be other girls.

“I grant your wish, Prince of Phthia. She is yours.”

The crowd shouted its approval—they liked their commanders generous, their heroes bold and lusty.

Her eyes had followed the exchange with bright intelligence. When she understood that she was to come with us, I saw her swallow, her gaze darting over Achilles.

“I will leave my men here, for the rest of my belongings. The girl will come with me now.”

Appreciative laughter and whistles from the men. The girl trembled all over, very slightly, like a rabbit checked by a hawk overhead. “Come,” Achilles commanded. We turned to go. Head down, she followed.

BACK IN OUR CAMP, Achilles drew his knife, and her head jerked a little with fear. He was still bloody from the day’s battle; it had been her village he had plundered.

“Let me,” I said. He handed me the knife and backed away, almost embarrassed.

“I am going to free you,” I said.

Up close I saw how dark her eyes were, brown as richest earth, and large in her almond-shaped face. Her gaze flickered from the blade to me. I thought of frightened dogs I had seen, backed small and sharp into corners.

“No, no,” I said quickly. “We will not hurt you. I am going to free you.”

She looked at us in horror. The gods knew what she thought I was saying. She was an Anatolian farm-girl, with no reason to have ever heard Greek before. I stepped forward to put a hand her arm, to reassure. She flinched as if expecting a blow. I saw the fear in her eyes, of rape and worse.

I could not bear it. There was only one thing I could think of. I turned to Achilles and seized the front of his tunic. I kissed him.

When I let go again, she was staring at us. Staring and staring.

I gestured to her bonds and back to the knife. “All right?”

She hesitated a moment. Then slowly offered her hands.

ACHILLES LEFT TO SPEAK to Phoinix about procuring another tent. I took her to the grass-sided hill and had her sit while I made a compress for her bruised face. Gingerly, eyes downcast, she took it. I pointed to her leg—it was torn open, a long cut along her shin.

“May I see?” I asked, gesturing. She made no response, but reluctantly let me take her leg, dress the wound, and tie it closed with bandages. She followed every movement of my hands and never met my gaze.

After, I took her to her new-pitched tent. She seemed startled by it, almost afraid to enter. I threw open the flap and gestured— food, blankets, an ewer of water, and some clean cast-off clothes. Hesitating, she stepped inside, and I left her there, eyes wide, staring at it all.

THE NEXT DAY Achilles went raiding again. I trailed around the camp, collecting driftwood, cooling my feet in the surf. All the time I was aware of the new tent in the camp’s corner. We had seen nothing of her yet; the flap was shut tight as Troy. A dozen times I almost went to call through the fabric.

At last, at midday, I saw her in the doorway. She was watching me, half-hidden behind the folds. When she saw that I had noticed her, she turned quickly and went to leave.

“Wait!” I said.

She froze. The tunic she wore—one of mine—hung past her knees and made her look very young. How old was she? I did not even know.

I walked up to her. “Hello.” She stared at me with those wide eyes. Her hair had been drawn back, revealing the delicate bones of her cheeks. She was very pretty.

“Did you sleep well?” I do not know why I kept talking to her. I thought it might comfort her. I had once heard Chiron say that you talked to babies to soothe them.

“Patroclus,” I said, pointing at myself. Her eyes flickered to me, then away.

“Pa-tro-clus.” I repeated slowly. She did not answer, did not move; her fingers clutched the cloth of the tent flap. I felt ashamed then. I was frightening her.

“I will leave you,” I said. I inclined my head and made to go.

She spoke something, so low I could not hear it. I stopped.


“Briseis,” she repeated. She was pointing to herself.

“Briseis?” I said. She nodded, shyly.

That was the beginning.

IT TURNED OUT that she did know a little Greek. A few words that her father had picked up and taught her when he heard the army was coming. Mercy was one. Yes and please and what do you want? A father, teaching his daughter how to be a slave.

During the days, the camp was nearly empty but for us. We would sit on the beach and halt through sentences with each other. I grew to understand her expressions first, the thoughtful quiet of her eyes, the flickering smiles she would hide behind her hand. We could not talk of much, in those early days, but I did not mind. There was a peace in sitting beside her, the waves rolling companionably over our feet. Almost, it reminded me of my mother, but Briseis’ eyes were bright with observation as hers had never been.

Sometimes in the afternoons we would walk together around the camp, pointing to each thing she did not know the name of yet. Words piled on each other so quickly that soon we needed elaborate pantomimes. Cook dinner, have a bad dream. Even when my sketches were clumsy, Briseis understood and translated it into a series of gestures so precise that I could smell the meat cooking. I laughed often at her ingenuity, and she would grant me her secret smile.

THE RAIDING CONTINUED. Every day Agamemnon would climb the dais amidst the day’s plunder and say, “No news.” No news meant no soldiers, no signals, no sounds from the city. It sat stubbornly on the horizon and made us wait.

The men consoled themselves in other ways. After Briseis there was a girl or two on the dais nearly every day. They were all farm girls with callused hands and burnt noses, used to hard work in the sun. Agamemnon took his share, and the other kings as well. You saw them everywhere now, weaving between tents, slopping buckets of water onto their long wrinkled dresses—what they had happened to be wearing the day they were taken. They served fruit and cheese and olives, carved meat, and filled wine-cups. They polished armor, wedging the carapaces between their legs as they sat on the sand. Some of them even wove, spinning threads from tangled clots of sheepswool, animals we had stolen in our raids.

At night they served in other ways, and I cringed at the cries that reached even our corner of the camp. I tried not to think of their burnt villages and dead fathers, but it was difficult to banish. The raids were stamped on every one of the girls’ faces, large smears of grief that kept their eyes as wobbling and sloppy as the buckets that swung into their legs. And bruises too, from fists or elbows, and sometimes perfect circles—spear butts, to the forehead or temple.

I could barely watch these girls as they stumbled into camp to be parceled off. I sent Achilles out to ask for them, to seek as many as he could, and the men teased him about his voraciousness, his endless priapism. “Didn’t even know you liked girls,” Diomedes joked.

Each new girl went first to Briseis, who would speak comfort to her in soft Anatolian. She would be allowed to bathe and be given new clothes, and then would join the others in the tent. We put up a new one, larger, to fit them all: eight, ten, eleven girls. Mostly it was Phoinix and I who spoke to them; Achilles stayed away. He knew that they had seen him killing their brothers and lovers and fathers. Some things could not be forgiven.

Slowly, they grew less frightened. They spun, and talked in their own language, sharing the words they picked up from us— helpful words, like cheese, or water, or wool. They were not as quick as Briseis was, but they patched together enough that they could speak to us.

It was Briseis’ idea for me to spend a few hours with them each day, teaching them. But the lessons were more difficult than I thought: the girls were wary, their eyes darting to each other; they were not sure what to make of my sudden appearance in their lives. It was Briseis again who eased their fears and let our lessons grow more elaborate, stepping in with a word of explanation or a clarifying gesture. Her Greek was quite good now, and more and more I simply deferred to her. She was a better teacher than I, and funnier too. Her mimes brought us all to laughter: a sleepy-eyed lizard, two dogs fighting. It was easy to stay with them long and late, until I heard the creaking of the chariot, and the distant banging of bronze, and returned to greet my Achilles.

It was easy, in those moments, to forget that the war had not yet really begun.

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