فصل 23کتاب: افسانه آکیلیس ( آشیل) / فصل 23
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ONE FESTIVAL DAY, SOON AFTER OUR LANDING AT Troy, Achilles rose at dawn. “Where are you going?” I asked him.
“My mother,” he said, then slipped through the tent flap before I could speak again.
His mother. Some part of me had hoped, foolishly, that she would not follow us here. That her grief would keep her away, or the distance. But of course they did not. The shore of Anatolia was no more inconvenient than the shore of Greece. And her grief only made her visits longer. He would leave at dawn, and the sun would be nearly at its peak before he would return. I would wait, pacing and unsettled. What could she possibly have to say to him for so long? Some divine disaster, I feared. Some celestial dictate that would take him from me.
Briseis came often to wait with me. “Do you want to walk up to the woods?” she would say. Just the low sweetness of her voice, the fact that she wished to comfort me, helped take me out of myself. And a trip with her to the woods always soothed me. She seemed to know all its secrets, just as Chiron had—where the mushrooms hid, and the rabbits had their burrows. She had even begun to teach me the native names of the plants and trees.
When we were finished, we would sit on the ridge, looking over the camp, so I could watch for his return. On this day, she had picked a small basket of coriander; the fresh green-leaf smell was all around us.
“I am sure he will be back soon,” she said. Her words were like new leather, still stiff and precise, not yet run together with use. When I did not answer, she asked, “Where does he stay so long?” Why shouldn’t she know? It wasn’t a secret.
“His mother is a goddess,” I said. “A sea-nymph. He goes to see her.”
I had expected her to be startled or frightened, but she only nodded. “I thought that he was—something. He does not—” She paused. “He does not move like a human.” I smiled then. “What does a human move like?”
“Like you,” she said.
She did not know the word. I demonstrated, thinking to make her laugh. But she shook her head, vehemently. “No. You are not like that. That is not what I meant.”
I never heard what she meant, for at that moment Achilles crested the hill.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he said. Briseis excused herself, and returned to her tent. Achilles threw himself down on the ground, hand behind his head.
“I’m starving,” he said.
“Here.” I gave him the rest of the cheese we had brought for lunch. He ate it, gratefully.
“What did you talk about with your mother?” I was almost nervous to ask. Those hours with her were not forbidden to me, but they were always separate.
His breath blew out, not quite a sigh. “She is worried about me,” he said.
“Why?” I bristled at the thought of her fretting over him; that was mine to do.
“She says that there is strangeness among the gods, that they are fighting with each other, taking sides in the war. She fears that the gods have promised me fame, but not how much.” This was a new worry I had not considered. But of course: our stories had many characters. Great Perseus or modest Peleus. Heracles or almost-forgotten Hylas. Some had a whole epic, others just a verse.
He sat up, wrapping his arms around his knees. “I think she is afraid that someone else is going to kill Hector. Before me.”
Another new fear. Achilles’ life suddenly cut shorter than it already was. “Who does she mean?”
“I don’t know. Ajax has tried and failed. Diomedes, too. They are the best after me. There is no one else I can think of.”
“What about Menelaus?”
Achilles shook his head. “Never. He is brave and strong, but that is all. He would break against Hector like water on a rock. So. It is me, or no one.”
“You will not do it.” I tried not to let it sound like begging.
“No.” He was quiet a moment. “But I can see it. That’s the strange thing. Like in a dream. I can see myself throwing the spear, see him fall. I walk up to the body and stand over it.” Dread rose in my chest. I took a breath, forced it away. “And then what?”
“That’s the strangest of all. I look down at his blood and know my death is coming. But in the dream I do not mind. What I feel, most of all, is relief.”
“Do you think it can be prophecy?”
The question seemed to make him self-conscious. He shook his head. “No. I think it is nothing at all. A daydream.”
I forced my voice to match his in lightness. “I’m sure you’re right. After all, Hector hasn’t done anything to you.”
He smiled then, as I had hoped he would. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve heard that.”
DURING THE LONG HOURS of Achilles’ absence, I began to stray from our camp, seeking company, something to occupy myself. Thetis’ news had disturbed me; quarrels among the gods, Achilles’ mighty fame endangered. I did not know what to make of it, and my questions chased themselves around my head until I was half-crazy. I needed a distraction, something sensible and real. One of the men pointed me towards the white physicians’ tent. “If you’re looking for something to do, they always need help,” he said. I remembered Chiron’s patient hands, the instruments hung on rose-quartz walls. I went.
The tent’s interior was dim, the air dark and sweet and musky, heavy with the metallic scent of blood. In one corner was the physician Machaon, bearded, square-jawed, pragmatically bare-chested, an old tunic tied carelessly around his waist. He was darker than most Greeks, despite the time he spent inside, and his hair was cropped short, practical again, to keep it from his eyes. He bent now over a wounded man’s leg, his finger gently probing an embedded arrow point. On the other side of the tent his brother Podalerius finished strapping on his armor. He tossed an offhand word to Machaon before shouldering past me out the door. It was well known that he preferred the battlefield to the surgeon’s tent, though he served in both.
Machaon did not look up as he spoke: “You can’t be very wounded if you can stand for so long.”
“No,” I said. “I’m here—” I paused as the arrowhead came free in Machaon’s fingers, and the soldier groaned in relief.
“Well?” His voice was business-like but not unkind.
“Do you need help?”
He made a noise I guessed was assent. “Sit down and hold the salves for me,” he said, without looking. I obeyed, gathering up the small bottles strewn on the floor, some rattling with herbs, some heavy with ointment. I sniffed them and remembered: garlic and honey salve against infection, poppy for sedation, and yarrow to make the blood clot. Dozens of herbs that brought the centaur’s patient fingers back to me, the sweet green smell of the rose- colored cave.
I held out the ones he needed and watched his deft application— a pinch of sedative on the man’s upper lip for him to nose and nibble at, a swipe of salve to ward off infection, then dressings to pack and bind and cover. Machaon smoothed the last layer of creamy, scented beeswax over the man’s leg and looked up wearily. “Patroclus, yes? And you studied with Chiron? You are welcome here.” A clamor outside the tent, raised voices and cries of pain. He nodded towards it. “They’ve brought us another—you take him.”
The soldiers, Nestor’s men, hoisted their comrade onto the empty pallet in the tent’s corner. He had been shot with an arrow, barbed at the tip, through the right shoulder. His face was foamy with sweat-scum, and he’d bitten his lip almost in half with trying not to scream. His breath came now in muffled, explosive pants, and his panicked eyes rolled and trembled. I resisted the urge to call for Machaon—busy with another man who had started to wail—and reached for a cloth to wipe his face.
The arrow had pierced through the thickest part of his shoulder and was threaded half in and half out, like a terrible needle. I would have to break off the fletching and pull the end through him, without further tearing the flesh or leaving splinters that might fester.
Quickly, I gave him the draught that Chiron had taught me: a mix of poppy and willow bark that made the patient light-headed and blunted to pain. He could not hold the cup, so I held it for him, lifting and cradling his head so he would not choke, feeling his sweat and foam and blood seep into my tunic.
I tried to look reassuring, tried not to show the panic I was feeling. He was, I saw, only a year or so older than I. One of Nestor’s sons, Antilochus, a sweet-faced young man who doted on his father. “It will be all right,” I said, over and over, to myself or him I did not know.
The problem was the arrow shaft; normally a doctor would snap off one end, before pulling it through. But there was not enough of it sticking out of his chest to do it without tearing the flesh further. I could not leave it, nor drag the fletching through the wound. What then?
Behind me one of the soldiers who had brought him stood fidgeting in the doorway. I gestured to him over my shoulder.
“A knife, quickly. Sharp as you can find.” I surprised myself with the brisk authority in my voice, the instant obedience it provoked. He returned with a short, finely honed blade meant for cutting meat, still rusty with dried blood. He cleaned it on his tunic before handing it to me.
The boy’s face was slack now, his tongue flopping loose in his mouth. I leaned over him and held the arrow shaft, crushing the fletching into my damp palm. With my other hand, I began sawing, cutting through the wood a flake at a time, as lightly as possible, so as not to jar the boy’s shoulder. He snuffled and muttered, lost in the fog of the draught.
I sawed and braced and sawed. My back ached, and I berated myself for leaving his head on my knees, for not choosing a better position. Finally the feathered end snapped off, leaving only one long splinter that the knife quickly cut through. At last.
Then, just as difficult: to draw the shaft out the other side of his shoulder. In a moment of inspiration, I grabbed a salve for infection and carefully coated the wood, hoping it would ease the journey and ward off corruption. Then, a little at a time, I began to work the arrow through. After what felt like hours, the splintered end emerged, soaked with blood. With the last of my wits, I wrapped and packed the wound, binding it in a sort of sling across his chest.
Later Podalerius would tell me that I was insane to have done what I did, to have cut so slowly, at such an angle—a good wrench, he said, and the end would have broken. Jarred wound and splinters inside be damned, there were other men who needed tending. But Machaon saw how well the shoulder healed, with no infection and little pain, and next time there was an arrow wound he called me over and passed me a sharp blade, looking at me expectantly.
IT WAS A STRANGE TIME. Over us, every second, hung the terror of Achilles’ destiny, while the murmurs of war among the gods grew louder. But even I could not fill each minute with fear. I have heard that men who live by a waterfall cease to hear it—in such a way did I learn to live beside the rushing torrent of his doom. The days passed, and he lived. The months passed, and I could go a whole day without looking over the precipice of his death. The miracle of a year, then two.
The others seemed to feel a similar softening. Our camp began to form a sort of family, drawn together around the flames of the dinner fire. When the moon rose and the stars pricked through the sky’s darkness, we would all find our way there: Achilles and I, and old Phoinix, and then the women—originally only Briseis, but now a small clump of bobbing faces, reassured by the welcome she had received. And still one more—Automedon, the youngest of us, just seventeen. He was a quiet young man, and Achilles and I had watched his strength and deftness grow as he learned to drive Achilles’ difficult horses, to wheel around the battlefield with the necessary flourish.
It was a pleasure for Achilles and me to host our own hearth, playing the adults we did not quite feel like, as we passed the meat and poured the wine. As the fire died down, we would wipe the juice of the meal from our faces and clamor for stories from Phoinix. He would lean forward in his chair to oblige. The firelight made the bones of his face look significant, Delphic, something that augurs might try to read.
Briseis told stories too, strange and dreamlike—tales of enchantment, of gods spellbound by magic and mortals who blundered upon them unawares; the gods were strange, half man and half animal: rural deities, not the high gods that the city worshipped. They were beautiful, these tales, told in her low singsong voice. Sometimes they were funny too—her imitations of a Cyclops, or the snuffling of a lion seeking out a hidden man.
Later, when we were alone, Achilles would repeat little snatches of them, lifting his voice, playing a few notes on the lyre. It was easy to see how such lovely things might become songs. And I was pleased, because I felt that he had seen her, had understood why I spent my days with her when he was gone. She was one of us now, I thought. A member of our circle, for life.
IT WAS ON ONE OF THESE NIGHTS that Achilles asked her what she knew of Hector.
She had been leaning back on her hands, the inner flush of her elbows warmed by the fire. But at his voice, she startled a little and sat up. He did not speak directly to her often, nor she to him. A remnant, perhaps, of what had happened in her village.
“I do not know much,” she said. “I have never seen him, nor any of Priam’s family.”
“But you have heard things.” Achilles was sitting forward now himself.
“A little. I know more of his wife.”
“Anything,” Achilles said.
She nodded, cleared her throat softly as she often did before a story. “Her name is Andromache, and she is the only daughter of King Eetion of Cilicia. Hector is said to love her above all things.
“He first saw her when he came to her father’s kingdom for tribute. She welcomed him, and entertained him at the feast that evening. At the night’s end, Hector asked her father for her hand.” “She must have been very beautiful.”
“People say she is fair, but not the fairest girl Hector might have found. She is known for a sweet temper and gentle spirit. The country people love her because she often brings them food and clothes. She was pregnant, but I have not heard what became of the child.” “Where is Cilicia?” I asked.
“It is to the south, along the coast, not far from here by horse.”
“Near Lesbos,” Achilles said. Briseis nodded.
Later, when all the rest had gone, he said, “We raided Cilicia. Did you know?”
He nodded. “I remember that man, Eetion. He had eight sons. They tried to hold us off.”
I could tell by the quietness of his voice.
“You killed them.” An entire family, slaughtered.
He caught the look on my face though I tried to hide it. But he did not lie to me, ever.
I knew he killed men every day; he came home wet with their blood, stains he scrubbed from his skin before dinner. But there were moments, like now, when that knowledge overwhelmed me. When I would think of all the tears that he had made fall, in all the years that had passed. And now Andromache, too, and Hector grieved because of him. He seemed to sit across the world from me then, though he was so close I could feel the warmth rising from his skin. His hands were in his lap, spear-callused but beautiful still. No hands had ever been so gentle, or so deadly.
Overhead, the stars were veiled. I could feel the air’s heaviness. There would be a storm tonight. The rain would be soaking, filling up the earth till she burst her seams. It would gush down from the mountaintops, gathering strength to sweep away what stood in its path: animals and houses and men.
He is such a flood, I thought.
His voice broke the silence of my thoughts. “I left one son alive,” he said. “The eighth son. So that their line would not die.”
Strange that such a small kindness felt like grace. And yet, what other warrior would have done as much? Killing a whole family was something to boast of, a glorious deed that proved you powerful enough to wipe a name from the earth. This surviving son would have children; he would give them his family’s name and tell their story. They would be preserved, in memory if not in life.
“I am glad,” I said, my heart full.
The logs in the fire grew white with ash. “It is strange,” he said. “I have always said that Hector’s done nothing to offend me. But he cannot say the same, now.”
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