فصل 31

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فصل 31

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Chapter Thirty-One

ACHILLES STANDS ON THE RIDGE WATCHING THE DARK shapes of battle moving across the field of Troy. He cannot make out faces or individual forms. The charge towards Troy looks like the tide coming in; the glint of swords and armor is fish-scale beneath the sun. The Greeks are routing the Trojans, as Patroclus had said. Soon he will return, and Agamemnon will kneel. They will be happy again.

But he cannot feel it. There is a numbness in him. The writhing field is like a gorgon’s face, turning him slowly to stone. The snakes twist and twist before him, gathering into a dark knot at the base of Troy. A king has fallen, or a prince, and they are fighting for the body. Who? He shields his eyes, but no more is revealed. Patroclus will be able to tell him.

HE SEES THE THING IN PIECES. Men, coming down the beach towards the camp. Odysseus, limping beside the other kings. Menelaus has something in his arms. A grass-stained foot hangs loose. Locks of tousled hair have slipped from the makeshift shroud. The numbness now is merciful. A last few moments of it. Then, the fall.

He snatches for his sword to slash his throat. It is only when his hand comes up empty that he remembers: he gave the sword to me. Then Antilochus is seizing his wrists, and the men are all talking. All he can see is the bloodstained cloth. With a roar he throws Antilochus from him, knocks down Menelaus. He falls on the body. The knowledge rushes up in him, choking off breath. A scream comes, tearing its way out. And then another, and another. He seizes his hair in his hands and yanks it from his head. Golden strands fall onto the bloody corpse. Patroclus, he says, Patroclus. Patroclus. Over and over until it is sound only. Somewhere Odysseus is kneeling, urging food and drink. A fierce red rage comes, and he almost kills him there. But he would have to let go of me. He cannot. He holds me so tightly I can feel the faint beat of his chest, like the wings of a moth. An echo, the last bit of spirit still tethered to my body. A torment.

BRISEIS RUNS TOWARDS US, face contorted. She bends over the body, her lovely dark eyes spilling water warm as summer rain. She covers her face with her hands and wails. Achilles does not look at her. He does not even see her. He stands.

“Who did this?” His voice is a terrible thing, cracked and broken.

“Hector,” Menelaus says. Achilles seizes his giant ash spear, and tries to tear free from the arms that hold him.

Odysseus grabs his shoulders. “Tomorrow,” he says. “He has gone inside the city. Tomorrow. Listen to me, Pelides. Tomorrow you can kill him. I swear it. Now you must eat, and rest.” ACHILLES WEEPS. He cradles me, and will not eat, nor speak a word other than my name. I see his face as if through water, as a fish sees the sun. His tears fall, but I cannot wipe them away. This is my element now, the half-life of the unburied spirit.

His mother comes. I hear her, the sound of waves breaking on shore. If I disgusted her when I was alive, it is worse to find my corpse in her son’s arms.

“He is dead,” she says, in her flat voice.

“Hector is dead,” he says. “Tomorrow.”

“You have no armor.”

“I do not need any.” His teeth show; it is an effort to speak.

She reaches, pale and cool, to take his hands from me. “He did it to himself,” she says.

“Do not touch me!”

She draws back, watching him cradle me in his arms.

“I will bring you armor,” she says.

IT GOES LIKE THIS, on and on, the tent flap opening, the tentative face. Phoinix, or Automedon, or Machaon. At last Odysseus. “Agamemnon has come to see you, and return the girl.” Achilles does not say, She has already returned. Perhaps he does not know.

The two men face each other in the flickering firelight. Agamemnon clears his throat. “It is time to forget the division between us. I come to bring you the girl, Achilles, unharmed and well.” He pauses, as if expecting a rush of gratitude. There is only silence. “Truly, a god must have snatched our wits from us to set us so at odds. But that is over now, and we are allies once more.” This last is said loudly, for the benefit of the watching men. Achilles does not respond. He is imagining killing Hector. It is all that keeps him standing.

Agamemnon hesitates. “Prince Achilles, I hear you will fight tomorrow?”

“Yes.” The suddenness of his answer startles them.

“Very good, that is very good.” Agamemnon waits another moment. “And you will fight after that, also?”

“If you wish,” Achilles answers. “I do not care. I will be dead soon.”

The watching men exchange glances. Agamemnon recovers.

“Well. We are settled then.” He turns to go, stops. “I was sorry to hear of Patroclus’ death. He fought bravely today. Did you hear he killed Sarpedon?” Achilles’ eyes lift. They are bloodshot and dead. “I wish he had let you all die.”

Agamemnon is too shocked to answer. Odysseus steps into the silence. “We will leave you to mourn, Prince Achilles.”

BRISEIS IS KNEELING by my body. She has brought water and cloth, and washes the blood and dirt from my skin. Her hands are gentle, as though she washes a baby, not a dead thing. Achilles opens the tent, and their eyes meet over my body.

“Get away from him,” he says.

“I am almost finished. He does not deserve to lie in filth.”

“I would not have your hands on him.”

Her eyes are sharp with tears. “Do you think you are the only one who loved him?”

“Get out. Get out!”

“You care more for him in death than in life.” Her voice is bitter with grief. “How could you have let him go? You knew he could not fight!” Achilles screams, and shatters a serving bowl. “Get out!”

Briseis does not flinch. “Kill me. It will not bring him back. He was worth ten of you. Ten! And you sent him to his death!”

The sound that comes from him is hardly human. “I tried to stop him! I told him not to leave the beach!”

“You are the one who made him go.” Briseis steps towards him. “He fought to save you, and your darling reputation. Because he could not bear to see you suffer!” Achilles buries his face in his hands. But she does not relent. “You have never deserved him. I do not know why he ever loved you. You care only for yourself!” Achilles’ gaze lifts to meet hers. She is afraid, but does not draw back. “I hope that Hector kills you.”

The breath rasps in his throat. “Do you think I do not hope the same?” he asks.

HE WEEPS as he lifts me onto our bed. My corpse sags; it is warm in the tent, and the smell will come soon. He does not seem to care. He holds me all night long, pressing my cold hands to his mouth.

At dawn, his mother returns with a shield and sword and breastplate, newly minted from still-warm bronze. She watches him arm and does not try to speak to him.

HE DOES NOT WAIT for the Myrmidons, or Automedon. He runs up the beach, past the Greeks who have come out to see. They grab their arms and follow. They do not want to miss it.

“Hector!” he screams. “Hector!” He tears through the advancing Trojan ranks, shattering chests and faces, marking them with the meteor of his fury. He is gone before their bodies hit the ground. The grass, thinned from ten years of warfare, drinks the rich blood of princes and kings.

Yet Hector eludes him, weaving through the chariots and men with the luck of the gods. No one calls it cowardice that he runs. He will not live if he is caught. He is wearing Achilles’ own armor, the unmistakable phoenix breastplate taken from beside my corpse. The men stare as the two pass: it looks, almost, as if Achilles is chasing himself.

Chest heaving, Hector races towards Troy’s wide river, the Scamander. Its water glints a creamy gold, dyed by the stones in its riverbed, the yellow rock for which Troy is known.

The waters are not golden now, but a muddied, churning red, choked with corpses and armor. Hector lunges into the waves and swims, arms cutting through the helmets and rolling bodies. He gains the other shore; Achilles leaps to follow.

A figure rises from the river to bar his way. Filthy water sluices off the muscles of his shoulders, pours from his black beard. He is taller than the tallest mortal, and swollen with strength like creeks in spring. He loves Troy and its people. In summer, they pour wine for him as a sacrifice, and drop garlands to float upon his waters. Most pious of all is Hector, prince of Troy.

Achilles’ face is spattered with blood. “You will not keep me from him.”

The river god Scamander lifts a thick staff, large as a small tree-trunk. He does not need a blade; one strike with this would break bones, snap a neck. Achilles has only a sword. His spears are gone, buried in bodies.

“Is it worth your life?” the god says.

No. Please. But I have no voice to speak. Achilles steps into the river and lifts his sword.

With hands as large as a man’s torso, the river god swings his staff. Achilles ducks and then rolls forward over the returning whistle of a second swing. He gains his feet and strikes, whipping towards the god’s unprotected chest. Easily, almost casually, the god twists away. The sword’s point passes harmlessly, as it has never done before.

The god attacks. His swings force Achilles backwards over the debris lining the river. He uses his staff like a hammer; wide arcs of spray leap from where it smashes against the river’s surface. Achilles must spring away each time. The waters do not seem to drag at him as they might at another man.

Achilles’ sword flashes faster than thought, but he cannot touch the god. Scamander catches every blow with his mighty staff, forcing him to be faster and then faster still. The god is old, old as the first melting of ice from the mountains, and he is wily. He has known every fight that was ever fought on these plains, and there is nothing new to him. Achilles begins to slow, worn out from the strain of holding back the god’s strength with only a thin edge of metal. Chips of wood fly as the weapons meet, but the staff is thick as one of Scamander’s legs; there is no hope that it will break. The god has begun to smile at how often now the man seeks to duck rather than meet his blows. Inexorably, he bears down. Achilles’ face is contorted with effort and focus. He is fighting at the edge, the very edge of his power. He is not, after all, a god.

I see him gathering himself, preparing one final, desperate attack. He begins the pass, sword blurring towards the god’s head. For a fraction of a second, Scamander must lean back to avoid it. That is the moment Achilles needs. I see his muscles tense for that last, single thrust; he leaps.

For the first time in all his life, he is not fast enough. The god catches the blow, and throws it violently aside. Achilles stumbles. It is so slight, just the smallest lurch off-balance, that I almost do not see it. But the god does. He lunges forward, vicious and victorious, in the pause, the small hitch of time that the stumble has made. The wood swings down in a killing arc.

He should have known better; I should have known. Those feet never stumbled, not once, in all the time I knew them. If a mistake had come, it would not be there, from the delicate bones and curving arches. Achilles has baited his hook with human failure, and the god has leapt for it.

As Scamander lunges, there is the opening, and Achilles’ sword streaks towards it. A gash flowers in the god’s side, and the river runs gold once more, stained with the ichor that spills from its master.

Scamander will not die. But he must limp away now, weakened and weary, to the mountains and the source of his waters, to stanch the wound and regain his strength. He sinks into his river and is gone.

Achilles’ face is sweat-streaked, his breaths harsh. But he does not pause. “Hector!” he screams. And the hunt begins again.

Somewhere, the gods whisper:

He has beaten one of us.

What will happen if he attacks the city?

Troy is not meant to fall yet.

And I think: do not fear for Troy. It is only Hector that he wants. Hector, and Hector alone. When Hector is dead, he will stop.

THERE IS A GROVE at the base of Troy’s high walls, home to a sacred, twisting laurel. It is there that Hector, at last, stops running. Beneath its branches, the two men face each other. One of them is dark, his feet like roots driving deep into soil. He wears a golden breastplate and helmet, burnished greaves. It fit me well enough, but he is bigger than I, broader. At his throat the metal gapes away from his skin.

The other man’s face is twisted almost beyond recognition. His clothes are still damp from his fight in the river. He lifts his ashen spear.

No, I beg him. It is his own death he holds, his own blood that will spill. He does not hear me.

Hector’s eyes are wide, but he will run no longer. He says, “Grant me this. Give my body to my family, when you have killed me.” Achilles makes a sound like choking. “There are no bargains between lions and men. I will kill you and eat you raw.” His spearpoint flies in a dark whirlwind, bright as the evening-star, to catch the hollow at Hector’s throat.

ACHILLES RETURNS to the tent, where my body waits. He is red and red and rust-red, up to his elbows, his knees, his neck, as if he has swum in the vast dark chambers of a heart and emerged, just now, still dripping. He is dragging Hector’s body behind him, pierced through its heels with a leather thong. The neat beard is matted with dirt, the face black with bloody dust. He has been pulling it behind his chariot as the horses run.

The kings of Greece are waiting for him.

“You have triumphed today, Achilles,” Agamemnon says. “Bathe and rest yourself, and then we shall feast in your honor.”

“I will have no feast.” He pushes through them, dragging Hector after.

“HOKUMOROS,” HIS MOTHER CALLS him in her softest voice. Swift-fated. “Will you not eat?”

“You know I will not.”

She touches her hand to his cheek, as if to wipe away blood.

He flinches. “Stop,” he says.

Her face goes blank for a second, so quickly he does not see. When she speaks, her voice is hard.

“It is time to return Hector’s body to his family for burial. You have killed him and taken your vengeance. It is enough.”

“It will never be enough,” he says.

FOR THE FIRST TIME since my death, he falls into a fitful, trembling sleep.

Achilles. I cannot bear to see you grieving.

His limbs twitch and shudder.

Give us both peace. Burn me and bury me. I will wait for you among the shades. I will—

But already he is waking. “Patroclus! Wait! I am here!”

He shakes the body beside him. When I do not answer, he weeps again.

HE RISES AT DAWN to drag Hector’s body around the walls of the city for all of Troy to see. He does it again at midday, and again at evening. He does not see the Greeks begin to avert their eyes from him. He does not see the lips thinning in disapproval as he passes. How long can this go on?

Thetis is waiting for him in the tent, tall and straight as a flame.

“What do you want?” He drops Hector’s body by the door.

Her cheeks have spots of color, like blood spilled on marble. “You must stop this. Apollo is angry. He seeks vengeance upon you.” “Let him.” He kneels, smooths back the hair on my forehead. I am wrapped in blankets, to muffle the smell.

“Achilles.” She strides to him, seizes his chin. “Listen to me. You go too far in this. I will not be able to protect you from him.” He jerks his head from her and bares his teeth. “I do not need you to.”

Her skin is whiter than I have ever seen it. “Do not be a fool. It is only my power that—”

“What does it matter?” He cuts her off, snarling. “He is dead. Can your power bring him back?”

“No,” she says. “Nothing can.”

He stands. “Do you think I cannot see your rejoicing? I know how you hated him. You have always hated him! If you had not gone to Zeus, he would be alive!” “He is a mortal,” she says. “And mortals die.”

“I am a mortal!” he screams. “What good is godhead, if it cannot do this? What good are you?”

“I know you are mortal,” she says. She places each cold word as a tile in a mosaic. “I know it better than anyone. I left you too long on Pelion. It has ruined you.” She gestures, a flick, at his torn clothing, his tear-stained face. “This is not my son.” His chest heaves. “Then who is it, Mother? Am I not famous enough? I killed Hector. And who else? Send them before me. I will kill them all!” Her face twists. “You act like a child. At twelve Pyrrhus is more of a man than you.”

“Pyrrhus.” The word is a gasp.

“He will come, and Troy will fall. The city cannot be taken without him, the Fates say.” Her face glows.

Achilles stares. “You would bring him here?”

“He is the next Aristos Achaion.”

“I am not dead yet.”

“You may as well be.” The words are a lash. “Do you know what I have borne to make you great? And now you would destroy it for this?” She points at my festering body, her face tight with disgust. “I am done. There is no more I can do to save you.” Her black eyes seem to contract, like dying stars. “I am glad that he is dead,” she says.

It is the last thing she will ever say to him.

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