فصل 33

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فصل 33

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Chapter Thirty-Three

THE SEA-NYMPHS COME FOR THE BODY, TRAILING THEIR seafoam robes behind them. They wash him with rose oil and nectar, and weave flowers through his golden hair. The Myrmidons build him a pyre, and he is placed on it. The nymphs weep as the flames consume him. His beautiful body lost to bones and gray ash.

But many do not weep. Briseis, who stands watching until the last embers have gone out. Thetis, her spine straight, black hair loose and snaky in the wind. The men, kings and common. They gather at a distance, afraid of the eerie keening of the nymphs and Thetis’ thunderbolt eyes. Closest to tears is Ajax, leg bandaged and healing. But perhaps he is just thinking of his own long-awaited promotion.

The pyre burns itself out. If the ashes are not gathered soon, they will be lost to the winds, but Thetis, whose office it is, does not move. At last, Odysseus is sent to speak with her.

He kneels. “Goddess, we would know your will. Shall we collect the ashes?”

She turns to look at him. Perhaps there is grief in her eyes; perhaps not. It is impossible to say.

“Collect them. Bury them. I have done all I will do.”

He inclines his head. “Great Thetis, your son wished that his ashes be placed—”

“I know what he wished. Do as you please. It is not my concern.”

SERVANT GIRLS ARE SENT to collect the ashes; they carry them to the golden urn where I rest. Will I feel his ashes as they fall against mine? I think of the snowflakes on Pelion, cold on our red cheeks. The yearning for him is like hunger, hollowing me. Somewhere his soul waits, but it is nowhere I can reach. Bury us, and mark our names above. Let us be free. His ashes settle among mine, and I feel nothing.

AGAMEMNON CALLS a council to discuss the tomb they will build.

“We should put it on the field where he fell,” Nestor says.

Machaon shakes his head. “It will be more central on the beach, by the agora.”

“That’s the last thing we want. Tripping over it every day,” Diomedes says.

“On the hill, I think. The ridge by their camp,” Odysseus says.

Wherever, wherever, wherever.

“I have come to take my father’s place.” The clear voice cuts across the room.

The heads of the kings twist towards the tent flap. A boy stands framed in the tent’s doorway. His hair is bright red, the color of the fire’s crust; he is beautiful, but coldly so, a winter’s morning. Only the dullest would not know which father he means. It is stamped on every line of his face, so close it tears at me. Just his chin is different, angling sharply down to a point as his mother’s did.

“I am the son of Achilles,” he announces.

The kings are staring. Most did not even know Achilles had a child. Only Odysseus has the wits to speak. “May we know the name of Achilles’ son?” “My name is Neoptolemus. Called Pyrrhus.” Fire. But there is nothing of flame about him, beyond his hair. “Where is my father’s seat?” Idomeneus has taken it. He rises. “Here.”

Pyrrhus’ eyes rake over the Cretan king. “I pardon your presumption. You did not know I was coming.” He sits. “Lord of Mycenae, Lord of Sparta.” The slightest incline of his head. “I offer myself to your army.” Agamemnon’s face is caught between disbelief and displeasure. He had thought he was done with Achilles. And the boy’s affect is strange, unnerving.

“You do not seem old enough.”

Twelve. He is twelve.

“I have lived with the gods beneath the sea,” he says. “I have drunk their nectar and feasted on ambrosia. I come now to win the war for you. The Fates have said that Troy will not fall without me.” “What?” Agamemnon is aghast.

“If it is so, we are indeed glad to have you,” Menelaus says. “We were talking of your father’s tomb, and where to build it.” “On the hill,” Odysseus says.

Menelaus nods. “A fitting place for them.”

“Them?”

There is a slight pause. “Your father and his companion. Patroclus.”

“And why should this man be buried beside Aristos Achaion?”

The air is thick. They are all waiting to hear Menelaus’ answer.

“It was your father’s wish, Prince Neoptolemus, that their ashes be placed together. We cannot bury one without the other.” Pyrrhus lifts his sharp chin. “A slave has no place in his master’s tomb. If the ashes are together, it cannot be undone, but I will not allow my father’s fame to be diminished. The monument is for him, alone.” Do not let it be so. Do not leave me here without him.

The kings exchange glances.

“Very well,” Agamemnon says. “It shall be as you say.”

I am air and thought and can do nothing.

THE GREATER THE MONUMENT, the greater the man. The stone the Greeks quarry for his grave is huge and white, stretching up to the sky. ACHILLES, it reads. It will stand for him, and speak to all who pass: he lived and died, and lives again in memory.

PYRRHUS’ BANNERS bear the emblem of Scyros, his mother’s land, not Phthia. His soldiers, too, are from Scyros. Dutifully, Automedon lines up the Myrmidons and the women in welcome. They watch him make his way up the shore, his gleaming, new-minted troops, his red-gold hair like a flame against the blue of the sky.

“I am the son of Achilles,” he tells them. “I claim you as my inheritance and birthright. Your loyalty is mine now.” His eyes fix upon a woman who stands, eyes down, her hands folded. He goes to her and lifts her chin in his hand.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

“Briseis.”

“I’ve heard of you,” he says. “You were the reason my father stopped fighting.”

That night he sends his guards for her. They hold her arms as they walk her to the tent. Her head is bowed in submission, and she does not struggle.

The tent flap opens, and she is pushed through. Pyrrhus lounges in a chair, one leg dangling carelessly off the side. Achilles might have sat that way once. But his eyes were never like that, empty as the endless depths of black ocean, filled with nothing but the bloodless bodies of fish.

She kneels. “My lord.”

“My father broke with the army for you. You must have been a good bed-slave.”

Briseis’ eyes are at their darkest and most veiled. “You honor me, my lord, to say so. But I do not believe it was for me he refused to fight.” “Why then? In your slave’s opinion?” A precise eyebrow lifts. It is terrifying to watch him speak to her. He is like a snake; you do not know where he will strike.

“I was a war prize, and Agamemnon dishonored him in taking me. That is all.”

“Were you not his bed-slave?”

“No, my lord.”

“Enough.” His voice is sharp. “Do not lie to me again. You are the best woman in the camp. You were his.” Her shoulders have crept up a little. “I would not have you think better of me than I deserve. I was never so fortunate.” “Why? What is wrong with you?”

She hesitates. “My lord, have you heard of the man who is buried with your father?”

His face goes flat. “Of course I have not heard of him. He is no one.”

“Yet your father loved him well, and honored him. He would be well pleased to know they were buried together. He had no need of me.” Pyrrhus stares at her.

“My lord—”

“Silence.” The word cracks over her like a lash. “I will teach you what it means to lie to Aristos Achaion.” He stands. “Come here.” He is only twelve, but he does not look it. He has the body of a man.

Her eyes are wide. “My lord, I am sorry I have displeased you. You may ask anyone, Phoinix or Automedon. They will say I am not lying.” “I have given you an order.”

She stands, her hands fumbling in the folds of her dress. Run, I whisper. Do not go to him. But she goes.

“My lord, what would you have of me?”

He steps to her, eyes glittering. “Whatever I want.”

I cannot see where the blade comes from. It is in her hand, and then it is swinging down on him. But she has never killed a man before. She does not know how hard you need to drive it, nor with what conviction. And he is quick, twisting away already. The blade splits the skin, scoring it in a jagged line, but does not sink. He smacks her viciously to the ground. She throws the knife at his face and runs.

She erupts from the tent, past the too-slow hands of the guards, down the beach and into the sea. Behind her is Pyrrhus, tunic gashed open, bleeding across his stomach. He stands beside the bewildered guards and calmly takes a spear from one of their hands.

“Throw it,” a guard urges. For she is past the breakers now.

“A moment,” Pyrrhus murmurs.

Her limbs lift into the gray waves like the steady beats of wings. She has always been the strongest swimmer of the three of us. She used to swear she’d gone to Tenedos once, two hours by boat. I feel wild triumph as she pulls farther and farther from shore. The only man whose spear could have reached her is dead. She is free.

The only man but that man’s son.

The spear flies from the top of the beach, soundless and precise. Its point hits her back like a stone tossed onto a floating leaf. The gulp of black water swallows her whole.

Phoinix sends a man out, a diver, to look for her body, but he does not find it. Maybe her gods are kinder than ours, and she will find rest. I would give my life again to make it so.

THE PROPHECY TOLD TRULY. Now that Pyrrhus has come, Troy falls. He does not do it alone, of course. There is the horse, and Odysseus’ plan, and a whole army besides. But he is the one who kills Priam. He is the one who hunts down Hector’s wife, Andromache, hiding in a cellar with her son. He plucks the child from her arms and dashes his head against the stone of the walls, so hard the skull shatters like a rotted fruit. Even Agamemnon blanched when he heard.

The bones of the city are cracked and sucked dry. The Greek kings stuff their holds with its gold columns and princesses. Quicker than I could have imagined possible they pack the camp, all the tents rolled and stowed, the food killed and stored. The beach is stripped clean, like a well-picked carcass.

I haunt their dreams. Do not leave, I beg them. Not until you have given me peace. But if anyone hears, they do not answer.

Pyrrhus wishes a final sacrifice for his father the evening before they sail. The kings gather by the tomb, and Pyrrhus presides, with his royal prisoners at his heels, Andromache and Queen Hecuba and the young princess Polyxena. He trails them everywhere he goes now, in perpetual triumph.

Calchas leads a white heifer to the tomb’s base. But when he reaches for the knife, Pyrrhus stops him. “A single heifer. Is this all? The same you would do for any man? My father was Aristos Achaion. He was the best of you, and his son has proven better still. Yet you stint us?” Pyrrhus’ hand closes on the shapeless, blowing dress of the princess Polyxena and yanks her towards the altar. “This is what my father’s soul deserves.” He will not. He dare not.

As if in answer, Pyrrhus smiles. “Achilles is pleased,” he says, and tears open her throat.

I can taste it still, the gush of salt and iron. It seeped into the grass where we are buried, and choked me. The dead are supposed to crave blood, but not like this. Not like this.

THE GREEKS LEAVE TOMORROW, and I am desperate.

Odysseus.

He sleeps lightly, eyelids fluttering.

Odysseus. Listen to me.

He twitches. Even in sleep he is not at rest.

When you came to him for help, I answered you. Will you not answer me now? You know what he was to me. You saw, before you brought us here. Our peace is on your head.

“MY APOLOGIES for bothering you so late, Prince Pyrrhus.” He offers his easiest smile.

“I do not sleep,” Pyrrhus says.

“How convenient. No wonder you get so much more done than the rest of us.”

Pyrrhus watches him with narrowed eyes; he cannot tell if he is being mocked.

“Wine?” Odysseus holds up a skin.

“I suppose.” Pyrrhus jerks his chin at two goblets. “Leave us,” he says to Andromache. While she gathers her clothes, Odysseus pours.

“Well. You must be pleased with all you have done here. Hero by thirteen? Not many men can say so.”

“No other men.” The voice is cold. “What do you want?”

“I’m afraid I have been prompted by a rare stirring of guilt.”

“Oh?”

“We sail tomorrow, and leave many Greek dead behind us. All of them are properly buried, with a name to mark their memory. All but one. I am not a pious man, but I do not like to think of souls wandering among the living. I like to take my ease unmolested by restless spirits.” Pyrrhus listens, his lips drawn back in faint, habitual distaste.

“I cannot say I was your father’s friend, nor he mine. But I admired his skill and valued him as a soldier. And in ten years, you get to know a man, even if you don’t wish to. So I can tell you now that I do not believe he would want Patroclus to be forgotten.” Pyrrhus stiffens. “Did he say so?”

“He asked that their ashes be placed together, he asked that they be buried as one. In the spirit of this, I think we can say he wished it.” For the first time, I am grateful for his cleverness.

“I am his son. I am the one who says what his spirit wishes for.”

“Which is why I came to you. I have no stake in this. I am only an honest man, who likes to see right done.” “Is it right that my father’s fame should be diminished? Tainted by a commoner?”

“Patroclus was no commoner. He was born a prince and exiled. He served bravely in our army, and many men admired him. He killed Sarpedon, second only to Hector.” “In my father’s armor. With my father’s fame. He has none of his own.”

Odysseus inclines his head. “True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another.” He spread his broad hands. “We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?” He smiles. “Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.” “I doubt it.”

Odysseus shrugs. “We cannot say. We are men only, a brief flare of the torch. Those to come may raise us or lower us as they please. Patroclus may be such as will rise in the future.” “He is not.”

“Then it would be a good deed. A deed of charity and piety. To honor your father, and let a dead man rest.” “He is a blot on my father’s honor, and a blot on mine. I will not allow it. Take your sour wine and go.” Pyrrhus’ words are sharp as breaking sticks.

Odysseus stands but does not go. “Do you have a wife?” he asks.

“Of course not.”

“I have a wife. I have not seen her for ten years. I do not know if she is dead, or if I will die before I can return to her.” I had thought, always, that his wife was a joke, a fiction. But his voice is not mild now. Each word comes slowly, as if it must be brought from a great depth.

“My consolation is that we will be together in the underworld. That we will meet again there, if not in this life. I would not wish to be there without her.” “My father had no such wife,” Pyrrhus says.

Odysseus looks at the young man’s implacable face. “I have done my best,” he says. “Let it be remembered I tried.” I remember.

THE GREEKS SAIL, and take my hope with them. I cannot follow. I am tied to this earth where my ashes lie. I curl myself around the stone obelisk of his tomb. Perhaps it is cool to the touch; perhaps warm. I cannot tell. A C H I L L E S, it says, and nothing more. He has gone to the underworld, and I am here.

PEOPLE COME TO SEE his grave. Some hang back, as if they are afraid his ghost will rise and challenge them. Others stand at the base to look at the scenes of his life carved on the stone. They are a little hastily done, but clear enough. Achilles killing Memnon, killing Hector, killing Penthesilea. Nothing but death. This is how Pyrrhus’ tomb might look. Is this how he will be remembered?

Thetis comes. I watch her, withering the grass where she stands. I have not felt such hatred for her in a long time. She made Pyrrhus, and loved him more than Achilles.

She is looking at the scenes on the tomb, death after death. She reaches, as if she will touch them. I cannot bear it.

Thetis, I say.

Her hand jerks back. She vanishes.

Later she returns. Thetis. She does not react. Only stands, looking at her son’s tomb.

I am buried here. In your son’s grave.

She says nothing. Does nothing. She does not hear.

Every day she comes. She sits at the tomb’s base, and it seems that I can feel her cold through the earth, the slight searing smell of salt. I cannot make her leave, but I can hate her.

You said that Chiron ruined him. You are a goddess, and cold, and know nothing. You are the one who ruined him. Look at how he will be remembered now. Killing Hector, killing Troilus. For things he did cruelly in his grief.

Her face is like stone itself. It does not move. The days rise and fall.

Perhaps such things pass for virtue among the gods. But how is there glory in taking a life? We die so easily. Would you make him another Pyrrhus? Let the stories of him be something more.

“What more?” she says.

For once I am not afraid. What else can she do to me?

Returning Hector’s body to Priam, I say. That should be remembered.

She is silent for a long time. “And?”

His skill with the lyre. His beautiful voice.

She seems to be waiting.

The girls. He took them so that they would not suffer at another king’s hands.

“That was your doing.”

Why are you not with Pyrrhus?

Something flickers in her eyes. “He is dead.”

I am fiercely glad. How? It is a command, almost.

“He was killed by Agamemnon’s son.”

For what?

She does not answer for some time. “He stole his bride and ravished her.”

“Whatever I want,” he said to Briseis. Was this the son you preferred to Achilles?

Her mouth tightens. “Have you no more memories?”

I am made of memories.

“Speak, then.”

I ALMOST REFUSE. But the ache for him is stronger than my anger. I want to speak of something not dead or divine. I want him to live.

At first it is strange. I am used to keeping him from her, to hoarding him for myself. But the memories well up like springwater, faster than I can hold them back. They do not come as words, but like dreams, rising as scent from the rain-wet earth. This, I say. This and this. The way his hair looked in summer sun. His face when he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this. So many moments of happiness, crowding forward.

She closes her eyes. The skin over them is the color of sand in winter. She listens, and she too remembers.

She remembers standing on a beach, hair black and long as a horse’s tail. Slate-gray waves smash against rocks. Then a mortal’s hands, brutal and bruising on her polished skin. The sand scraping her raw, and the tearing inside. The gods, after, tying her to him.

She remembers feeling the child within her, luminous in the dark of her womb. She repeats to herself the prophecy that the three old women spoke to her: your son will be greater than his father.

The other gods had recoiled to hear it. They knew what powerful sons do to their fathers—Zeus’ thunderbolts still smell of singed flesh and patricide. They gave her to a mortal, trying to shackle the child’s power. Dilute him with humanity, diminish him.

She rests her hand on her stomach, feels him swimming within. It is her blood that will make him strong.

But not strong enough. I am a mortal! he screams at her, his face blotchy and sodden and dull.

WHY DO YOU not go to him?

“I cannot.” The pain in her voice is like something tearing. “I cannot go beneath the earth.” The underworld, with its cavernous gloom and fluttering souls, where only the dead may walk. “This is all that is left,” she says, her eyes still fixed on the monument. An eternity of stone.

I conjure the boy I knew. Achilles, grinning as the figs blur in his hands. His green eyes laughing into mine. Catch, he says. Achilles, outlined against the sky, hanging from a branch over the river. The thick warmth of his sleepy breath against my ear. If you have to go, I will go with you. My fears forgotten in the golden harbor of his arms.

The memories come, and come. She listens, staring into the grain of the stone. We are all there, goddess and mortal and the boy who was both.

THE SUN IS SETTING over the sea, spilling its colors on the water’s surface. She is beside me, silent in the blurry, creeping dusk. Her face is as unmarked as the first day I saw her. Her arms are crossed over her chest, as if to hold some thought to herself.

I have told her all. I have spared nothing, of any of us.

We watch the light sink into the grave of the western sky.

“I could not make him a god,” she says. Her jagged voice, rich with grief.

But you made him.

She does not answer me for a long time, only sits, eyes shining with the last of the dying light.

“I have done it,” she says. At first I do not understand. But then I see the tomb, and the marks she has made on the stone. ACHILLES, it reads. And beside it, PATROCLUS.

“Go,” she says. “He waits for you.”

IN THE DARKNESS, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills in a flood like a hundred golden urns pouring out of the sun.

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