Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Rage of Achilles Excerpt

ACHILLES ON THE BEACH

The sun has been up a long time, but Paris is still in bed. Light streams in through windows generously large in his house far from the walls. There is no fear of arrows or stray javelins here, high up in the citadel.

He scissors his legs lazily through a tangle of silk sheets still damp from dawn’s lovemaking. He likes watching his legs move. He runs his hands over his thighs and traces with his fingers the big muscles’ divide. He stares at his belly: sometimes it reminds him of his warrior brother’s breastplate, rippled and ridged like a god’s. As he stares at his belly and thighs, the snake between stirs, needing no attention but his.

But it has attracted another’s. She stands at the window wrapped in a robe his mother embroidered a long time ago. “Somebody’s awake,” she says. She has a little lisp. He once thought, long ago, that it would drive him crazy. It never has. She comes to the edge of the bed, near its foot. He smiles lazily and, holding her eye, runs the tip of his index finger down his shaft. The snake leaves its bed on his thigh and starts to strain upwards. Her eyes leave his and drift down. The wall behind her is painted with a garden that never existed on this earth; her head is garlanded with pigment lotus. “No war today?” she asks. A painted fingernail traces his instep.

“No war today.” The snake is throbbing and he admires it. “You haven’t heard the news?”

“I won’t know till you tell me what it is.” The lisp gets a little stronger when she grows petulant. Her head dips and her tongue takes her finger’s place, slipping between his toes and finally down the arch. He whimpers.

“Achilles is out of the war.”

Her head snaps up. “What?”

“Come on,” he laughs, “don’t stop.” Her head stays up. “Don’t stop or I won’t tell you.”

She dives back to his foot and splayed fingers start working their way up his calf. “The spies told us last night. Agamemnon stole Briseis from him. He said it was only fair because he was king and he had to give up his girl to save the Achaeans. Achilles went crazy. He swore he wouldn’t raise a hand again for Agamemnon. Or his brother, your husband. Did you do this for him?” His voice is suddenly sharp with anxiety.

“Never,” she slurs around his big toe.

“Good,” he says. Relaxing against the cushions, he wraps his hand around himself and squeezes. “So this is very good. The Achaeans don’t know what to do, and soon we will drive them into the sea.” He starts to pump himself. “Let me see them.”
Obediently, she releases his toe and sits up at the edge of the bed. She slips the robe off her left shoulder. Shrugging, she exposes it entirely. Even now, near ten years later, her breast affects him as it did the first time he saw it. It is like a mountain, like Olympus itself, pure white and thrusting arrogantly from the plain of her ribs, its crest a peak of coral that tightens and darkens as he watches. Any larger and it would sag to her waist; big as it is, on a woman nearly thirty, its continuing firmness is widely viewed as a sign of divine favor on the Trojan cause.
He moans. “Both.” She shrugs the robe off the other shoulder and it falls to her hips. “Touch them for me.” She smiles and reaches for the pot of oil beside the bed. Filling her hands, she anoints herself, delicately at first, then with a two-handed grip that makes the coral crests an impossible blood red that he has never seen on another woman. Her breath begins to labor and whistle.

She stops and reaches for the oil pot again. She hands it to him, smiles crookedly. “Touch yourself for me.” He grins and fills his hands with unguent.

***

The sun is directly overhead. The only shelter is in the lee of a canted ship. Two veterans have found it, as veterans will always find comfort when it is there to be found.

One, Cephales, mends the strap of his shield. It does not need mending. The old soldier just wants to be sure; he does not want to go out to face the Trojans tomorrow to find himself with an unguarded left one minute, and the next paying the boatman to take him across the River Styx. As he works, he wonders whether he is weakening the strap with his constant attention, and he gnaws his beard with anxiety. He knows he has been in the lines too long and that his heart is going if not gone. He prays that he will die before his friends know.
Lacademon, not so long in the lines but long enough to find shade when he can, does nothing. He sits on the sand with his back flush against a hull out of water so long that the barnacles might be fossils. He watches Cephales work the braided leather without guessing his purpose or his fear. Once, he glances at his own shield pitched beside him, and decides that the strap will do.

A third, Polycrates, approaches. He plants his javelin point down in the sand and leans his shield against the long, immobile ship, then drops on his ass in the shade and plants his back against the hull. “Hot,” he says. His friends grunt. “Heard the news?” The man doing nothing says nothing. The man fixing his strap must ask. “What news?”

“The boy wonder.”

“What about him?” Cephales has stopped his busy work; Lacademon turns his head.

“You heard that King Agamemnon took his girl?”

“Right. Big deal.”

“Fucking right it’s a big deal. Achilles is acting like he fucked his father. He’s running around screaming that he’s out of the fucking war and he’ll just sit on the beach and get a nice tan while we get our asses kicked.”

“No shit?” says Lacademon.

“No shit,” Polycrates says.

They sit in silence for a while. At last, Cephales puts down his worrisome shield and speaks. “What does Achilles care about one piece of ass more or less? He has a dozen girls and Patroclus, too.”

Polycrates shakes his head. “Brother, this isn’t just some piece of ass. I haven’t seen her, but one of my buddies did. Fifteen years old if she’s a day, tits like melons that stick straight out, and a face like Pallas Athena.” He shakes his head again. “What do you think it means?”

Cephales considers. “I think we will have a very hard time without Achilles.”

Polycrates nods. He turns to Lacademon. “You?”

“I think I’m glad I’m not Patroclus.”

All three laugh. Cephales stops before the others and starts working at his shield again.

***

The kings’ tents are pitched on hills, or the closest thing—dunes whose sand is anchored by tenacious, long-rooted grass. Still, each can sit on his little eminence and look down on his ships and men and see the other kings on their own dunes.
There is an ox-hide and olivewood stool at Odysseus’ canvas door. From where he sits he can look east to Achilles and west to Agamemnon. Last night he heard the gored-heifer bellowings from the east. This afternoon he looks west and sees Agamemnon, crowned with a wreath of field flowers, strolling with his arm around Briseis’ shoulders while a piper flutes behind them.

Odysseus sits alone and watches. He looks towards Achilles’ tent, from which no sound comes now, nor has it all day. He looks back to happy Agamemnon. He raises a bowl to his lips and takes a swallow of watered wine flavored with resin. He spits it onto the ground before him. “Nice work, shithead,” he says.

***

Achilles has been on the beach since just after the sun rose. As he raved and wept it traced its long course across the sky and now verges on drowning itself at the rim of the western sea. No one has dared disturb him in this rocky little cove a mile away from the farthest outpost of the shore-hugging Achaean fleet. A few Myrmidons, his very best, nervous equally from Trojan presence and their lord’s despair, at first followed him covertly as he made his way up the coast. His storm troopers, they thought themselves invisible even from him, dropping soundlessly to their faces or fading into brush whenever he even appeared to sense their presence. They thought they could post guard without his knowing. But just as he was about to climb down to the strand at the beginning of the rocky descent from the trail, he turned without a word and loosed one of the twin javelins he carried. It landed quivering between the two men in the lead. They stood open-mouthed, staring at their lord. He raised his arm and pointed wordlessly back down the trail. One by one, his commandos left rock clefts and trees and shambled back to camp.

He has spent the day in grief. He would not let his men hear again what they heard last night, so he kept silent until he drove them away. Certain of his solitude, he howled. At first he raged. Big rocks were raised overhead and shattered into gravel against unyielding cliff. The roaring surf could not hear itself crash over his shrieks. An unlucky octopus, caught in a tidal pool, found itself Agamemnon’s effigy: its eyes plucked out, each foot-long arm torn off slowly as ink jetted down Achilles’ chest, its bag of a head sloppily vivisected with fingers and teeth.

Finally, everything that could be broken had been broken and everything that lived had been killed. He was alone with himself. It was past noon. Achilles turned on Achilles. At first he was crude. He tore at his face and splashed salt water across the bleeding tracks. Shells crunched in his mouth to lacerate gums and tongue, but he could not make himself swallow. He stripped and ground his crotch across a boulder crusted with mussels, watching blood drip from his scrotum into the water. When he shat he rubbed his own filth into his hair and beard and cried out to Olympus to make it all end. The gods remained stubbornly silent.

Twice, he battered his head against rock, not because he wants to die, but because he wants the shame to stop. Yet he lives, and so does his shame. He is exhausted, but he cannot stop. Finally, he sits in the sea and stares at the sun, now an orange semicircle gilding fat clouds. He is slumped, his forearms resting against his thighs half submerged in surf growing colder with each wave. He feels sand shifting beneath him and knows that if he sits here long enough, the tide will rise and take him out to sea. This is not how it is supposed to end.

Finally, he speaks the words he knows he must. “Mother. Mother, please. Please.

Please help me, mother.” He waits. He waits a long time.

The sun is down to a quadrant, less, an octant, just one segment of an orange. The world before him is twilight, the world behind him dark. His head throbs with last night’s wine and today’s multiple stony traumas. He has given up hope and waits for the waves to take him away. He takes comfort in the knowledge that he will be asleep when the big fishes take off his toes and work their way up his legs. The cold water is now up to his sternum and its icy kiss makes him tired. He tries one more time. “Mother, please.”

The water is over his nipples. He thinks about getting up, running back to his clothes and arms, and walking back to the camp where there is a fire and wine. But there is shame there too, and he is tired anyway, and now he is beginning to feel warm rather than cold. So perhaps the glorious death he was promised is here in the water, with his last enemy an octopus not three feet across. The water is at his collarbone. He raises an arm out of the surf and notices that his fingers are blue. He is about to lean back, to recline as though at a banquet, and inhale salt water and drown his shame. But just as he rises up for a last backstroke, the water in front of him erupts. Twenty yards offshore a geyser rises, steam curling a hundred yards into the air, water boiling all around it. Suddenly he is in a whirlpool. Alive again and astonished, he sits up. “Mother? Mother, is it you?”

***

He stares straight into the heart of the geyser now subsiding into a boiling fountain, knowing that that is where she is. Then, just back from Hades’ grasp though he is, he remembers what it means to look at an immortal, even if he slipped into the world from between her thighs, and throws a forearm over his eyes. The water boils. He can hear it. He steals a glimpse down past his forearm and sees that thighs livid from cold a minute before have grown boiled-lobster red. If the water gets any hotter, the flesh will blister and part from bone. But it does not. The roiling has stopped; so has the geyser’s jet and crash. So too has the surf. Again he peeks at the water and sees it flat as a bath in which he has fallen asleep. He waits.

He thinks an hour has passed, but he knows enough not to expose his eyes. Never curious about anything other than war, he finally notices that no matter how many times his heart beats here in the surf at sunset, the sky grows no darker, as though the movement of the sun stopped with the surf. He knows then that he is no longer in time. He waits. Finally, he can bear it no longer. His back shrieks with his prolonged half crouch; his arm trembles with the effort of shielding himself from the divine. Eyes screwed shut, he drops his right arm into the water and begins to raise his left into its place. Something thick and wet and rubbery wraps itself around his left leg. Circles of cartilage hard as bone bite into his skin. His eyes pop open as a tentacle thick as his own arm wraps its way up to his groin and tightens hard enough to make him cry out.

As though awaiting that signal, the tentacle tightens further and pulls. He jerks forward against submerged sand and his head disappears under water. His mouth, still open, takes in water like a siphon. He claws at air and light. With another yank from the tentacle, his hands submerge as well.

The salt water bites his lungs. He flails and panics and coughs, expelling the last of his air in a few pathetic bubbles that race to the shimmering surface and break and are gone. He does not notice that the dark has yet to gather in his eyes, and so he fights, clutching at the sand and rocks speeding below him and kicking at the tentacle.

He snaps his head forward. Lungs and ears full of water, his groan is something he can only feel. He sees he has been taken by an octopus that must surely be the great-great-grandfather of this afternoon’s victim, fifty feet across with a head as big as an ox, eyes the size of platters, human as his own, that stare at him with neither pity nor reproach. He thinks that he has offended his mother by killing one of her creatures and knows himself to be a dead man taking the long way to Hades. He stops struggling.

The octopus descends. The dim light roofing Achilles’ new world fades. He wonders whom he will see, whether those he sent there himself will mock him, whether the friends who preceded him will welcome him at whatever tables the dead can keep. Still, the octopus dives. The light, rather than disappearing entirely, seems only to have shifted. Now it comes from below, a hazy point of brightness ahead and down. The octopus flexes and jets and pulses towards the light.

They arrive. The tentacle around his leg relaxes and Achilles drifts down to find a seat on a submerged rock. The octopus flaps once more and is gone. Ahead of him is what looks like a roofless temple: a dozen columns of coral, pink and white, arranged in a circle twenty yards across. Within is the source of light: a ball of lightning that rolls and dances from pillar to pillar. Knowing himself dead, he dares to look directly. Inside the ambient electricity he sees what seems to be the shadow of a human form.

He draws his eyes away. What looked like a temple now seems a military camp. Around it circle hundreds of great fish, orderly as cavalry patrols, each bigger than the biggest man, armed with serried ranks of white teeth and festooned with dimly glowing lights hanging from scalloped lips and fins. On the sand around are ranks of infantry: lobsters big as hunting dogs, crabs like wild boar. Clams the size of chariot cars snap open and shut in rhythm like bacchantes banging their cymbals.
Achilles sits and waits. Water seems to nourish a dead man’s lungs just as well as air, and now that he has died, he has plenty of time. He stares at the rolling light in the roofless temple. At length it stills and a voice fills his head. I know why you weep, Achilles, my son.

Achilles is startled. He had expected the voice of Charon.

I know why you rage. The voice comes from the fireball. Achilles weeps, his salt tears blending imperceptibly with the water around him. His mother has come through after all.

The fireball grows brighter. He is bathed in warmth, not of water boiling from the divine presence, but the radiance of her love. Speak, Achilles. You can.
He opens his mouth. It is an effort for lungs and diaphragm to push water rather than air, for teeth and tongue to form words in this new medium, but she is right. “I hurt,” he says.

"I know. I know, my son.

“He has shamed me before the fleet, before all the kings, before all my men, before the Trojans, before the gods.”

I know, I know.

“How can I make him pay?”

The fireball is silent. Poor boy. My poor boy. I bore you for a short life but promised you glory. Not this. Not shame before your friends. But don’t be afraid. Your mother won’t let this happen. I will speak to my father, your grandfather, the Lord of Lightning. He will bring Agamemnon grief beyond telling. And while this happens, you must rest by your ships. Stay out of the war. Let Agamemnon know what life is like without my boy.

The fireball has grown brighter by degrees until he can barely look at it. The figure inside stands out in sharper contrast. This is as close to seeing her as he will ever come. Though the glare around her makes his head throb, he forces himself to look anyway. Don’t worry, son. Do as I say and Agamemnon will regret this. And I promise you that you will have glory before you die.

He is about to speak again, but the light winks out. For a fraction of a second, he knows himself to be alone at the bottom of the sea. Then darkness enfolds him as well.

***

It is night when he awakens on the beach face down in gravel and sand, fifty yards from the water line, half covered with slimy weed. For a few seconds, he lies there without moving. The beach is bright with a full moon. Little crabs like spiders dance a few feet from his eyes, wondering whether he is dead enough to eat. So does he. Not until the bravest scuttles close and brushes his ear does he move. He rolls fast and crushes it with his fist, then crazed with rage and disgust, spins and pounds three more into twitching pulp before the others scatter.

Weaving and stumbling like a boxer in his last rounds, he staggers to the water and, kneeling in the surf, rinses shell fragments and guts from his hands. Then he vomits gallons of seawater back into its source. Only then does he remember. He walks into the water until it has risen to his waist and splashes his chest and face. When he can stand the cold no longer, he walks back onto the shore and towards the rocks where his clothes and weapons wait.

He will do as his mother told him.

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