فصل 22کتاب: افسانه آکیلیس ( آشیل) / فصل 24
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YEARS PASSED AND A SOLDIER, ONE OF AJAX’S, BEGAN TO complain about the war’s length. At first he was ignored; the man was hideously ugly and known to be a scoundrel. But he grew eloquent. Four years, he said, and nothing to show for it. Where is the treasure? Where is the woman? When will we leave? Ajax clouted him on the head, but the man would not be silenced. See how they treat us?
Slowly, his discontent spread from one camp to the next. It had been a bad season, particularly wet, and miserable for fighting. Injuries abounded, rashes and mud-turned ankles and infections. The biting flies had settled so thickly over parts of the camp they looked like clouds of smoke.
Sullen and scratching, men began to loiter around the agora. At first they did nothing but collect in small groups, whispering. Then the soldier who had begun it joined them, and their voices grew louder.
How do we know she’s even in there? Has anyone seen her?
Troy will never submit to us.
We should all just stop fighting.
When Agamemnon heard, he ordered them whipped. The next day there were twice as many; not a few were Mycenaeans.
Agamemnon sent an armed force to disperse them. The men slunk off, then returned when the force was gone. In answer, Agamemnon ordered a phalanx to guard the agora all day. But this was frustrating duty—in full sun, where the flies were most numerous. By the end of the day, the phalanx was ragged from desertion and the number of mutineers had swollen.
Agamemnon used spies to report on those who complained; these men were then seized and whipped. The next morning, several hundred men refused to fight. Some gave illness as an excuse, some gave no excuse at all. Word spread, and more men took suddenly ill. They threw their swords and shields onto the dais in a heap and blocked the agora. When Agamemnon tried to force his way through, they folded their arms and would not budge.
Denied in his own agora, Agamemnon grew red in the face, then redder. His fingers went white on the scepter he held, stout wood banded with iron. When the man in front of him spat at his feet, Agamemnon lifted the scepter and brought it down sharply on his head. We all heard the crack of breaking bone. The man dropped.
I do not think Agamemnon meant to hit him so hard. He seemed frozen, staring at the body at his feet, unable to move. Another man knelt to roll the body over; half the skull was caved in from the force of the blow. The news hissed through the men with a sound like a fire lighting. Many drew their knives. I heard Achilles murmur something; then he was gone from my side.
Agamemnon’s face was filled with the growing realization of his mistake. He had recklessly left his loyal guards behind. He was surrounded now; help could not reach him even if it wanted to. I held my breath, sure I was about to see him die.
“Men of Greece!”
Startled faces turned to the shout. Achilles stood atop a pile of shields on the dais. He looked every inch the champion, beautiful and strong, his face serious.
“You are angry,” he said.
This caught their attention. They were angry. It was unusual for a general to admit that his troops might feel such a thing.
“Speak your grievance,” he said.
“We want to leave!” The voice came from the back of the crowd. “The war is hopeless!”
“The general lied to us!”
A surging murmur of agreement.
“It has been four years!” This last was the angriest of all. I could not blame them. For me these four years had been an abundance, time that had been wrested from the hands of miserly fates. But for them it was a life stolen: from children and wives, from family and home.
“It is your right to question such things,” Achilles said. “You feel misled; you were promised victory.”
I caught a glimpse of Agamemnon’s face, curdled with anger. But he was stuck in the crowd, unable to free himself or speak without causing a scene.
“Tell me,” Achilles said. “Do you think Aristos Achaion fights in hopeless wars?”
The men did not answer.
“No,” someone said.
Achilles nodded, gravely. “No. I do not, and I will swear so on any oath. I am here because I believe that we will win. I am staying until the end.” “That is fine for you.” A different voice. “But what of those who wish to go?”
Agamemnon opened his mouth to answer. I could imagine what he might have said. No one leaves! Deserters will be executed! But he was lucky that Achilles was swifter.
“You’re welcome to leave whenever you like.”
“We are?” The voice was dubious.
“Of course.” He paused, and offered his most guileless, friendly smile. “But I get your share of the treasure when we take Troy.”
I felt the tension in the air ease, heard a few huffs of appreciative laughter. The prince Achilles spoke of treasure to be won, and where there was greed there was hope.
Achilles saw the change in them. He said, “It is past time to take the field. The Trojans will start to think we are afraid.” He drew his flashing sword and held it in the air. “Who dares to show them otherwise?” There were shouts of agreement, followed by a general clanging as men reclaimed their armor, seized their spears. They hoisted the dead man and carried him off; everyone agreed that he had always been troublesome. Achilles leapt down from the dais and passed Agamemnon with a formal nod. The king of Mycenae said nothing. But I watched his eyes follow Achilles for a long time after that.
IN THE AFTERMATH of the almost-rebellion, Odysseus devised a project to keep the men too busy for further unrest: a giant palisade, built around the entire camp. Ten miles, he wanted it to run, protecting our tents and our ships from the plain beyond. At its base would be a ditch, bristling with spikes.
When Agamemnon announced the project, I was sure the men would know it for the ploy it was. In all the years of the war, the camp and ships had never been in danger, whatever reinforcements came. After all, who could get past Achilles?
But then Diomedes stepped forward, praising the plan and frightening the men with visions of night raids and burning ships. This last was particularly effective—without the ships, we could not get home again. By the end of it, the men’s eyes were bright and eager. As they went cheerfully off to the woods with their hatchets and levels, Odysseus found the original trouble-causing soldier—Thersites, his name was—and had him beaten quietly into unconsciousness.
That was the end of mutinies at Troy.
THINGS CHANGED AFTER THAT, whether because of the joint venture of the wall or the relief of violence averted. All of us, from the lowest foot soldier to the general himself, began to think of Troy as a sort of home. Our invasion became an occupation. Before now we had lived as scavengers off the land and the villages that we raided. Now we began to build, not just the wall, but the things of a town: a forge, and a pen for the cattle that we stole from the neighboring farms, even a potter’s shed. In this last, amateur artisans labored to replace the cracking ceramics we had brought with us, most of them leaking or broken from hard camp use. Everything we owned now was makeshift, scrounged, having lived at least two lives before as something else. Only the kings’ personal armors remained untouched, insignias polished and pure.
The men too became less like dozens of different armies, and more like countrymen. These men, who had left Aulis as Cretans and Cypriots and Argives, now were simply Greeks—cast into the same pot by the otherness of the Trojans, sharing food and women and clothing and battle stories, their distinctions blurred away. Agamemnon’s boast of uniting Greece was not so idle after all. Even years later this camaraderie would remain, a fellow-feeling so uncharacteristic of our fiercely warring kingdoms. For a generation, there would be no wars among those of us who had fought at Troy.
EVEN I WAS NOT EXEMPT. During this time—six, seven years in which I spent more and more hours in Machaon’s tent and fewer with Achilles in the field—I got to know the other men well. Everyone eventually made their way there, if only for smashed toes or ingrown nails. Even Automedon came, covering the bleeding remnants of a savaged boil with his hand. Men doted on their slave women and brought them to us with swollen bellies. We delivered their children in a steady, squalling stream, then fixed their hurts as they grew older.
And it was not just the common soldiery: in time, I came to know the kings as well. Nestor with his throat syrup, honeyed and warmed, that he wanted at the end of a day; Menelaus and the opiate he took for his headaches; Ajax’s acid stomach. It moved me to see how much they trusted me, turned hopeful faces towards me for comfort; I grew to like them, no matter how difficult they were in council.
I developed a reputation, a standing in the camp. I was asked for, known for my quick hands and how little pain I caused. Less and less often Podalerius took his turn in the tent—I was the one who was there when Machaon was not.
I began to surprise Achilles, calling out to these men as we walked through the camp. I was always gratified at how they would raise a hand in return, point to a scar that had healed over well.
After they were gone, Achilles would shake his head. “I don’t know how you remember them all. I swear they look the same to me.”
I would laugh and point them out again. “That’s Sthenelus, Diomedes’ charioteer. And that’s Podarces, whose brother was the first to die, remember?” “There are too many of them,” he said. “It’s simpler if they just remember me.”
THE FACES AROUND OUR HEARTH began to dwindle, as one woman after another quietly took a Myrmidon for her lover, and then husband. They no longer needed our fire; they had their own. We were glad. Laughter in the camp, and voices raised in pleasure at night, and even the swelling of bellies—Myrmidons grinning with satisfaction—were things that we welcomed, the golden stitch of their happiness like a fretted border around our own.
After a time, only Briseis was left. She never took a lover, despite her beauty and the many Myrmidons who pursued her. Instead she grew into a kind of aunt—a woman with sweets and love potions and soft fabrics for the drying of eyes. This is how I think of us, when I remember our nights at Troy: Achilles and I beside each other, and Phoinix smiling, and Automedon stuttering through the punch lines of jokes, and Briseis with her secret eyes and quick, spilling laughter.
I WOKE BEFORE DAWN and felt the first twinging cold of fall in the air. It was a festival day, the harvest of first-fruits to the god Apollo. Achilles was warm beside me, his naked body heavy with sleep. The tent was very dark, but I could just see the features of his face, the strong jaw and gentle curves of his eyes. I wanted to wake him and see those eyes open. A thousand thousand times I had seen it, but I never tired of it.
My hand slid lightly over his chest, stroking the muscles beneath. We were both of us strong now, from days in the white tent and in the field; it shocked me sometimes to catch sight of myself. I looked like a man, broad as my father had been, though much leaner.
He shivered beneath my hand, and I felt desire rise in me. I drew back the covers so that I might see all of him. I bent and pressed my mouth to him, in soft kisses that trailed down his stomach.
Dawn stole through the tent flap. The room lightened. I saw the moment he woke and knew me. Our limbs slid against one another, on paths that we had traced so many times before, yet still were not old.
Some time later, we rose and took our breakfast. We had thrown open the tent flap to let in the air; it ruffled pleasantly over our damp skin. Through the doorway we watched the crisscrossing of Myrmidons about their chores. We saw Automedon race down to the sea for a swim. We saw the sea itself, inviting and warm from a summer of sun. My hand sat familiarly on his knee.
She did not come through the door. She was simply there, in the tent’s center, where a moment before there had been empty space. I gasped, and yanked my hand from where it rested on him. I knew it was foolish, even as I did it. She was a goddess; she could see us whenever she wished.
“Mother,” he said, in greeting.
“I have received a warning.” The words were snapped off, like an owl biting through a bone. The tent was dim, but Thetis’ skin burned cold and bright. I could see each slicing line of her face, each fold of her shimmering robe. It had been a long time since I had seen her so close, since Scyros. I had changed since then. I had gained strength and size, and a beard that grew if I did not shave it away. But she was the same. Of course she was.
“Apollo is angry and looks for ways to move against the Greeks. You will sacrifice to him today?”
“I will,” Achilles said. We always observed the festivals, dutifully slitting the throats and roasting the fat.
“You must,” she said. Her eyes were fixed on Achilles; they did not seem to see me at all. “A hecatomb.” Our grandest offering, a hundred head of sheep or cattle. Only the richest and most powerful men could afford such an extravagance of piety. “Whatever the others do, do this. The gods have chosen sides, and you must not draw their anger.” It would take us most of the day to slaughter them all, and the camp would smell like a charnel house for a week. But Achilles nodded. “We will do it,” he promised.
Her lips were pressed together, two red slashes like the edge of a wound.
“There is more,” she said.
Even without her gaze upon me, she frightened me. She brought the whole urgent universe wherever she went, portents and angry deities and a thousand looming perils.
“What is it?”
She hesitated, and fear knotted my throat. What could make a goddess pause was terrifying indeed.
“A prophecy,” she said. “That the best of the Myrmidons will die before two more years have passed.”
Achilles’ face was still; utterly still. “We have known it was coming,” he said.
A curt shake of her head. “No. The prophecy says you will still be alive when it happens.”
Achilles frowned. “What do you think it means?”
“I do not know,” she said. Her eyes were very large; the black pools opened as if they would drink him, pull him back into her. “I fear a trick.” The Fates were well known for such riddles, unclear until the final piece had fallen. Then, bitterly clear.
“Be watchful,” she said. “You must take care.”
“I will,” he said.
She had not seemed to know I was there, but now her eyes found me, and her nose wrinkled, as if at a rising stench. She looked back to him. “He is not worthy of you,” she said. “He has never been.” “We disagree on this,” Achilles answered. He said it as if he had said it many times before. Probably he had.
She made a low noise of contempt, then vanished. Achilles turned to me. “She is afraid.”
“I know,” I said. I cleared my throat, trying to release the clot of dread that had formed there.
“Who is the best of the Myrmidons, do you think? If I am excluded.”
I cast my mind through our captains. I thought of Automedon, who had become Achilles’ valuable second on the battlefield. But I would not call him best.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Do you think it means my father?” he asked.
Peleus, home in Phthia, who had fought with Heracles and Perseus. A legend in his own time for piety and courage, even if not in times to come. “Maybe,” I admitted.
We were silent a moment. Then he said, “I suppose we will know soon enough.”
“It is not you,” I said. “At least there is that.”
That afternoon we performed the sacrifice his mother had commanded. The Myrmidons built the altar fires high, and I held bowls for the blood while Achilles cut throat after throat. We burned the rich thigh-pieces with barley and pomegranate, poured our best wine over the coals. Apollo is angry, she had said. One of our most powerful gods, with his arrows that could stop a man’s heart, swift as rays of sun. I was not known for my piety, but that day I praised Apollo with an intensity that could have rivaled Peleus himself. And whoever the best of the Myrmidons was, I sent the gods a prayer for him as well.
BRISEIS ASKED ME to teach her medicine and promised in return a knowledge of the area’s herbs, indispensable to Machaon’s dwindling supply. I agreed, and passed many contented days with her in the forest, parting low-hanging branches, reaching underneath rotting logs for mushrooms as delicate and soft as the ear of a baby.
Sometimes on those days her hand would accidentally brush mine, and she would look up and smile, water drops hanging from her ears and hair like pearls. Her long skirt was tied practically around her knees, revealing feet that were sturdy and sure.
One of these days we had stopped for lunch. We feasted on cloth-wrapped bread and cheese, strips of dried meat, and water scooped with our hands from the stream. It was spring, and we were surrounded by the profusion of Anatolian fertility. For three weeks the earth would paint herself in every color, burst every bud, unfurl each rioting petal. Then, the wild flush of her excitement spent, she would settle down to the steady work of summer. It was my favorite time of year.
I should have seen it coming. Perhaps you will think me stupid that I did not. I was telling her a story—something about Chiron, I think—and she was listening, her eyes dark like the earth on which we sat. I finished, and she was quiet. This was nothing unusual; she was often quiet. We were sitting close to each other, heads together as if in conspiracy. I could smell the fruit she had eaten; I could smell the rose oils she pressed for the other girls, still staining her fingers. She was so dear to me, I thought. Her serious face and clever eyes. I imagined her as a girl, scraped with tree-climbing, skinny limbs flying as she ran. I wished that I had known her then, that she had been with me at my father’s house, had skipped stones with my mother. Almost, I could imagine her there, hovering just at the edge of my remembrance.
Her lips touched mine. I was so surprised I did not move. Her mouth was soft and a little hesitant. Her eyes were sweetly closed. Of habit, of its own accord, my mouth parted. A moment passed like this, the ground beneath us, the breeze sifting flower scents. Then she drew back, eyes down, waiting for judgment. My pulse sounded in my ears, but it was not as Achilles made it sound. It was something more like surprise, and fear that I would hurt her. I put my hand to hers.
She knew, then. She felt it in the way I took her hand, the way my gaze rested on her. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
I shook my head, but could not think of what more to say.
Her shoulders crept up, like folded wings. “I know that you love him,” she said, hesitating a little before each word. “I know. But I thought that—some men have wives and lovers both.” Her face looked very small, and so sad that I could not be silent.
“Briseis,” I said. “If I ever wished to take a wife, it would be you.”
“But you do not wish to take a wife.”
“No,” I said, as gently as I could.
She nodded, and her eyes dropped again. I could hear her slow breaths, the faint tremor in her chest.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Do you not ever want children?” she asked.
The question surprised me. I still felt half a child myself, though most my age were parents several times over.
“I don’t think I would be much of a parent,” I said.
“I do not believe that,” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Do you?”
I asked it casually, but it seemed to strike deep, and she hesitated. “Maybe,” she said. And then I understood, too late, what she had really been asking me. I flushed, embarrassed at my thoughtlessness. And humbled, too. I opened my mouth to say something. To thank her, perhaps.
But she was already standing, brushing off her dress. “Shall we go?”
There was nothing to do but rise and join her.
THAT NIGHT I could not stop thinking of it: Briseis’ and my child. I saw stumbling legs, and dark hair and the mother’s big eyes. I saw us by the fire, Briseis and I, and the baby, playing with some bit of wood I had carved. Yet there was an emptiness to the scene, an ache of absence. Where was Achilles? Dead? Or had he never existed? I could not live in such a life. But Briseis had not asked me to. She had offered me all of it, herself and the child and Achilles, too.
I shifted to face Achilles. “Did you ever think of having children?” I asked.
His eyes were closed, but he was not sleeping. “I have a child,” he answered.
It shocked me anew each time I remembered it. His child with Deidameia. A boy, Thetis had told him, called Neoptolemus. New War. Nicknamed Pyrrhus, for his fiery red hair. It disturbed me to think of him—a piece of Achilles wandering through the world. “Does he look like you?” I had asked Achilles once. Achilles had shrugged. “I didn’t ask.” “Do you wish you could see him?”
Achilles shook his head. “It is best that my mother raise him. He will be better with her.”
I did not agree, but this was not the time to say so. I waited a moment, for him to ask me if I wished to have a child. But he did not, and his breathing grew more even. He always fell asleep before I did.
“Do you like Briseis?”
He frowned, his eyes still closed. “Like her?”
“Enjoy her,” I said. “You know.”
His eyes opened, more alert than I had expected. “What does this have to do with children?”
“Nothing.” But I was obviously lying.
“Does she wish to have a child?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“With me?” he said.
“No,” I said.
“That is good,” he said, eyelids drooping once more. Moments passed, and I was sure he was asleep. But then he said, “With you. She wants to have a child with you.” My silence was his answer. He sat up, the blanket falling from his chest. “Is she pregnant?” he asked.
There was a tautness to his voice I had not heard before.
“No,” I said.
His eyes dug into mine, sifting them for answers.
“Do you want to?” he asked. I saw the struggle on his face. Jealousy was strange to him, a foreign thing. He was hurt, but did not know how to speak of it. I felt cruel, suddenly, for bringing it up.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so. No.”
“If you wanted it, it would be all right.” Each word was carefully placed; he was trying to be fair.
I thought of the dark-haired child again. I thought of Achilles.
“It is all right now,” I said.
The relief on his face filled me with sweetness.
THINGS WERE STRANGE for some time after that. Briseis would have avoided me, but I called on her as I used to, and we went for our walks as we always had. We talked of camp gossip and medicine. She did not mention wives, and I was careful not to mention children. I still saw the softness in her eyes when she looked at me. I did my best to return it as I could.
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