The Song of Achilles Read online
THE SONG OF ACHILLES
To my mother, Madeline, and Nathaniel
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MY FATHER WAS A KING AND THE SON OF KINGS. HE was a short man, as most of us were, and built like a bull, all shoulders. He married my mother when she was fourteen and sworn by the priestess to be fruitful. It was a good match: she was an only child, and her father’s fortune would go to her husband.
He did not find out until the wedding that she was simple. Her father had been scrupulous about keeping her veiled until the ceremony, and my father had humored him. If she was ugly, there were always slave girls and serving boys. When at last they pulled off the veil, they say my mother smiled. That is how they knew she was quite stupid. Brides did not smile.
When I was delivered, a boy, he plucked me from her arms and handed me to a nurse. In pity, the midwife gave my mother a pillow to hold instead of me. My mother hugged it. She did not seem to notice a change had been made.
Quickly, I became a disappointment: small, slight. I was not fast. I was not strong. I could not sing. The best that could be said of me was that I was not sickly. The colds and cramps that seized my peers left me untouched. This only made my father suspicious. Was I a changeling, inhuman? He scowled at me, watching. My hand shook, feeling his gaze. And there was my mother, dribbling wine on herself.
I AM FIVE when it is my father’s turn to host the games. Men gather from as far as Thessaly and Sparta, and our storehouses grow rich with their gold. A hundred servants work for twenty days beating out the racing track and clearing it of stones. My father is determined to have the finest games of his generation.
I remember the runners best, nut-brown bodies slicked with oil, stretching on the track beneath the sun. They mix together, broad-shouldered husbands, beardless youths and boys, their calves all thickly carved with muscle.
The bull has been killed, sweating the last of its blood into dust and dark bronze bowls. It went quietly to its death, a good omen for the games to come.
The runners are gathered before the dais where my father and I sit, surrounded by prizes we will give to the winners. There are golden mixing bowls for wine, beaten bronze tripods, ash-wood spears tipped with precious iron. But the real prize is in my hands: a wreath of dusty-green leaves, freshly clipped, rubbed to a shine by my thumb. My father has given it to me grudgingly. He reassures himself: all I have to do is hold it.
The youngest boys are running first, and they wait, shuffling their feet in the sand for the nod from the priest. They’re in their first flush of growth, bones sharp and spindly, poking against taut skin. My eye catches on a light head among dozens of dark, tousled crowns. I lean forward to see. Hair lit like honey in the sun, and within it, glints of gold—the circlet of a prince.
He is shorter than the others, and still plump with childhood in a way they are not. His hair is long and tied back with leather; it burns against the dark, bare skin of his back. His face, when he turns, is serious as a man’s.
When the priest strikes the ground, he slips past the thickened bodies of the older boys. He moves easily, his heels flashing pink as licking tongues. He wins.
I stare as my father lifts the garland from my lap and crowns him; the leaves seem almost black against the brightness of his hair. His father, Peleus, comes to claim him, smiling and proud. Peleus’ kingdom is smaller than ours, but his wife is rumored to be a goddess, and his people love him. My own father watches with envy. His wife is stupid and his son too slow to race in even the youngest group. He turns to me.
“That is what a son should be.”
My hands feel empty without the garland. I watch King Peleus embrace his son. I see the boy toss the garland in the air and catch it again. He is laughing, and his face is bright with victory.
BEYOND THIS, I remember little more than scattered images from my life then: my father frowning on his throne, a cunning toy horse I loved, my mother on the beach, her eyes turned towards the Aegean. In this last memory, I am skipping stones for her, plink, plink, plink, across the skin of the sea. She seems to like the way the ripples look, dispersing back to glass. Or perhaps it is the sea itself she likes. At her temple a starburst of white gleams like bone, the scar from the time her father hit her with the hilt of a sword. Her toes poke up from the sand where she has buried them, and I am careful not to disturb them as I search for rocks. I choose one and fling it out, glad to be good at this. It is the only memory I have of my mother and so golden that I am almost sure I have made it up. After all, it was unlikely for my father to have allowed us to be alone together, his simple son and simpler wife. And where are we? I do not recognize the beach, the view of coastline. So much has passed since then.
I WAS SUMMONED TO THE KING. I REMEMBER HATING THIS, the long walk up the endless throne room. At the front, I knelt on stone. Some kings chose to have rugs there for the knees of messengers who had long news to tell. My father preferred not to.
“King Tyndareus’ daughter is finally ready for marriage,” he said.
I knew the name. Tyndareus was king of Sparta and held huge tracts of the ripest southern lands, the kind my father coveted. I had heard of his daughter too, rumored to be the fairest woman in our countries. Her mother, Leda, was said to have been ravished by Zeus, the king of the gods himself, disguised as a swan. Nine months later, her womb yielded two sets of twins: Clytemnestra and Castor, children of her mortal husband; Helen and Polydeuces, the shining cygnets of the god. But gods were known to be notoriously poor parents; it was expected that Tyndareus would offer patrimony to all.
I did not respond to my father’s news. Such things meant nothing to me.
My father cleared his throat, loud in the silent chamber. “We would do well to have her in our family. You will go and put yourself forth as a suitor.” There was no one else in the hall, so my startled huff of breath was for his ears alone. But I knew better than to speak my discomfort. My father already knew all that I might say: that I was nine, unsightly, unpromising, uninterested.
We left the next morning, our packs heavy with gifts and food for the journey. Soldiers escorted us, in their finest armor. I don’t remember much of the trip—it was overland, through countryside that left no impression. At the head of the column, my father dictated new orders to secretaries and messengers who rode off in every direction. I lo