Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rous'd His Drowsy Blood

[Written for the Yuletide Challenge of 2009]

Heaven preserve me from the vindictive feelings you cherish, warping a noble nature to ignoble ends.
- Patroclus to Achilles; The Iliad (tr. E.V. Rieu)
With too much blood and too little brain, these two may run mad...
- Thersites; Troilus & Cressida (W. Shakespeare)

He is not willing to hand Patroclus over without a fight. Open wide and take your medicine; he gently slips the coin into Patroclus' mouth, fighting the urge to snatch it back. I'll fight you for him, I'll fight you for him. He wants to hide the coin in the sackcloth on his back, in the smeared ashes, in the pile of shorn red hair, that looks like dead and dying flames.

Come on, old Charon. I'll fight you for him. I'll fight you and I'll fight your dog too. Achilles clutches Patroclus' funeral shroud, his hand a fist in the snowy white material. He does not want to let go and they can't make him. He will wait for Charon, right here. That filthy old man can climb onto the funeral pyre if he wants to take Patroclus. Achilles' whole body shudders at the thought of Charon's bony fingers closing around Patroclus' ankle. The Myrmidons murmur at their chief's grief and they say it is a red rag to a bull. May the gods help Hector. The Spartans turn their faces away, embarrassed by this unseemly show of sorrow. It is excessive but that is Achilles, even in the face of such a death. Some dare to wonder aloud if Achilles wishes he was in Patroclus' place (although Patroclus was in Achilles' place and so it was and so it always has been). Contrary to popular opinion, Achilles does not have a death-wish. There will be time enough to make his indelible mark on the Underworld but Achilles, living and breathing and raging, is indispensible. The Greeks are lucky to have him, even in the anarchic depths of his sorrow and rage. (Narcissus will never have a patch on this man.)

Patroclus must burn but Achilles does not relent. If he cannot beg, borrow or steal Patroclus' life anew, he will lay on the most excessive funeral games seen this side of the wine-dark seas and every target and every prize is Hector's head and Hector's blood and Hector's innards and Hector's fingernails and kneecaps and Hector's gods-forsaken heart.


Achilles remembers, of course. He remembers when he first met Patroclus. Two young men, scarcely more than boys, eyeing each other doubtfully.

"I killed a man," said Patroclus. "Just to watch him die." And then he said, in an apologetic rush, "That's not true. It was an accident. He was my friend. That's why I've been sent away."

Achilles didn't know that he and Patroclus would be friends. He and Patroclus were cousins, apparently, except that Patroclus was not divine. (Oh, Patrocluswas divine.)

"When I was a baby, my mother tried to drown me and then she tried to burn me alive." Achilles looked at Patroclus with all defiance and was affronted when Patroclus did not lower his eyes or beg his pardon.

"I'm older than you," said Patroclus.

"Age before beauty, then!"

Patroclus was older than Achilles; he looked his new companion up and down, the way he had seen his father look at the maidservants. "As you say, O Beauteous Achilles."

There was something mischievous in Patroclus' tone, something altogether irreverent, and it knocked the breath out of Achilles (so he knocked Patroclus down). They began to wrestle and punch and the glorious, sweaty fight was worth the punishment levied on them by Cheiron.

Achilles remembers the moment he first realised that Patroclus was as hot-blooded as he. The nights were often cold and Cheiron did as Cheiron did and Achilles and Patroclus might be left to their own devices for days and nights at a time. They did not object; they were young men who could be kings. They relished their little freedoms, away from courtly life and goddess' meddling. They strategised by camp-fires and pointed sticks and drawings in the warm mud were battlefields enough for them.

"I am to lead a boring life, if my mother has her way," announced Achilles.

Patroclus looked around at the flickering shadows, at the cave-mouth, at this wilderness in which they were kings. "Do you intend to be a farmer, then?" he asked, drawing his stick across Achilles' carefully drawn battle-lines. "You will spend your days fretting about the rain and the rocks and never think of me for fear of becoming quite over-excited." Patroclus was all confidence. "I will be a soldier," he announced. "I will be the greatest warrior in this whole land."

Oh, Achilles was stung. There was nothing like the pride of another to awaken his own arrogance and Achilles did as Achilles did. "I will be the greatest warrior in all the lands!"

Patroclus tilted his head and narrowed his eyes and he did not need to speak his challenge aloud. The fights were always best when Cheiron was not there to separate them. Achilles does not know when split knuckles became a lover's caress but his thumb would glide across Patroclus' bruised cheek and Patroclus would raise Achilles' knuckles to his mouth.

"Hyacinthos," said Achilles, his eyes drifting shut.

"Oho, and that makes you Apollo, I assume?"

"Hmmm, and who is our West Wind? Though you will keep your head on your shoulders a while yet." Achilles was certain and Patroclus laughed, his lazy, contented laugh that warmed Achilles more than fires or his own whiplash scorn at the whole wide world.

"Hubris is our West Wind, or yours at least." (Oh, trust Patroclus to grow sombre in the space of a single heartbeat.)

"My mother is a goddess," said Achilles. He locked his arm tight around Patroclus' neck.

"So you always say," murmured Patroclus, "whenever you have lost an argument."


Achilles' mother is a goddess.

Patroclus is dead and the war rages on and his corpse is the decaying epicentre. His armour has been stripped from his body and all of the best Greeks fight over him (except for that notable exception who is, even now, walking with his mother by the shore). New armour will be crafted for Achilles, better than before. Hector will rue the day.

Achilles' mother is quite mad; even he can see that. She sways in the shallows and tells him that he should have been a farmer. He might have lived to a ripe old age and Achilles balks at the very notion that some day his skin might sag and his hair might fall out. He will never be a toothless old man. Patroclus might not recognise him, even in the flattering shades of Hades. In any case, he has no intention of making Patroclus wait over-long, now that he has chosen his path.

"Do you remember the day I sent you to live in Lycomedes' court?"

"Oh, yes." This brave soldier does not get his feet wet as he walks along the sands. Of couse he remembers. What boy could forget the day his mother stuffed him into a dress to hide him from such horrid, wonderful things as war and death and blood? He bows, a near-imperceptible inclination of his head. (He learned such gently-mocking gestures from Patroclus.) "It does not appear to have worked, Mother."

Thetis draws herself up to her full height. She could destroy Troy in her rage or at least unsettle the livestock and worry the priestesses.

"I remember the day," she says. "You told me you would as soon wear Patroclus' clothes and skin and sinew; that he would keep you safe or die trying! Well, he has, I suppose, but you have always had a prescient bent, my son." She tosses her head and her hair flies about, like thick clumps of damp seaweed (some watered-down Medusa). "I knew that you would make a pretty girl. He had filled your head with such fancies and you believed them, like any young maiden might. You did your best to ruin it, of course. Deidamia's little red-headed son begotten with one of her own handmaidens!" Achilles smiles, though it was quite the wrong sort of Pyrrhic victory. He liked Deidamia well enough for a season or two and she gave him a fine son.

They walk in silence for a time, Thetis occasionally becoming distracted by shells or swirls or eddies. "Let me tell you about love, my boy."

Achilles knows what follows; he has heard it often enough. Let me tell you about love, my boy. I love your father, well enough, for a mortal man. Soon, though, he will be no more than dust and I shall shake him off my sandals. It is strange for she is always barefoot. So it is with your Patroclus. Only dust.

Achilles should be angry but Patroclus is not dust yet.

"Zeus should have been your father," Thetis declares, laying her water-wrinkled finger-tips on his cheek. "You should have been great."

"I am great," Achilles says. "I am Achilles. Zeus should, Zeus should. I do not care! Better that Odysseus should have kept his nose out of it or that Paris should have kept his-"

Thetis' son is a mortal (and yet he knows that mortal men are to blame).

"You will not kill Hector while you are wearing sackcloth," she intones with a lovely sigh, as though a lack of armour will be enough to dissuade Achilles. "If you kill him, you will die."

It is Achilles' stark expression that makes her blood run cold.


Achilles kills Hector. It cannot be desecration when it is vengeance. This ugly task done, it does not seem to matter that an entire civilisation is quaking behind its solid walls. They have seen the wrath of Achilles and they are afraid. He is invulnerable, that is how the whisper goes and grows. He is invulnerable. No one can believe that this half-mad, half-immortal man can die but the gods move in mysterious ways.

Half-mad and cowering in the sands because Patroclus must burn, Achilles mourns. He sacrifices dogs and horses and pretty Trojans. This is how he cares for the very man who warned him of this ugly end. Patroclus said it and Achilles laughed. "O, Patroclus the Wise. We will not die!" he said. "I am Achilles."

Patroclus the patient, idling by the gates of the Underworld until, at last, he comes to Achilles, an anaemic shade. He looks so reproachful that Achilles might have laughed; it was the very expression that had been Patroclus' face when Achilles told him he was prettier than any maiden in Peleus' court.

"They will not let me in," says Patroclus' ghost and Achilles is fiercely exultant that he has won, that Patroclus has not left him. "You will join me soon," Patroclus' ghost says. "Our ashes will sit in the same urn and your skin will (finally) be my skin, your heart my heart. You will be safe, don't you see?"

Achilles would scoff. He does not need to be kept safe, whether by cross-dressing or Olympian-forged armour or baby-baths in the Styx. He would scoff except that he understands his failure. Intent on revenge, he has failed Patroclus, good-natured Patroclus, who has come gently to remind him that he, too, deserves sacred funeral rites, for all that Achilles would keep him to himself. Achilles would take Patroclus in his arms now but Patroclus is as substantial as a breath of air (a warm breath on Achilles' neck in the darkness of a war-ridden, wound-riddled night).

Achilles makes his sacrifices. He makes a treaty with the river and gives Patroclus a lock of his hair in the river's stead.

Briseis weeps, as well she might. All the spoils of war weep because they know that Achilles does not fear death.

(Death would do well to fear Achilles.)