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Authors: Barry Unsworth

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The Songs of the Kings (19 page)

BOOK: The Songs of the Kings
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“No, not that I can remember.”

“Your tin is a timorous metal. It runs everywhere, it finds every thinnest crack to hide in, it flees away down slopes that look dead level to your eyes.”

He tilted the sheet as if inviting Calchas again to seek his reflection; but the diviner looked sharply away. “I will come tomorrow at this same time,” he said.

“Stay and see the work. You will see me smelt these two metals together and cast the bronze. Tell the King I will bond eight parts of copper with one of tin.”

He twisted the sheet again, and again it made the sound of a small creature in some extreme distress. It seemed to Calchas that the heat was intensifying. The air above the furnace was blurred with it. His vision was momentarily affected, so that the rings of the tattooed eye in the center of the smith's forehead appeared to turn slowly on their red center. Dread of the smith and what the smith seemed to know clutched at him. He thought of the half-eaten face and the slashed throat, the Boeotian squirming on the shingle as the dancer stepped round him, of his terrible failure to understand who must win that fight. It was then, he thought, while the life ebbed from Opilmenos, then that the gods withdrew their favor from me. He felt the beginnings of nausea.

“The best mix,” the smith said. “Less tin than that and the bronze will not hammer well, Calchas the diviner will not get a keen blade.”

The feeling of nausea grew stronger. “I will make this known to the King,” Calchas said, and he turned and went half blindly out from the enclosure of the walls.


The threshing of the wheat, which Calchas had seen as a haze of gold over the plain, continued in the days that followed, the days of waiting for Iphigeneia. Squads were sent out to seize the grain wherever it could be found; and the country people, faced with the prospect of starvation in the winter, grew cunning in concealment, leaving their granaries bare, carting off the grain in sacks during the night, hiding it in gullies and thickets. A man was beaten to death by his neighbors for taking a bronze incense burner, a thing he had no earthly use for and could not easily dispose of, to lead the soldiers to one such cache.

The straw was left, as always, in soft conical heaps, taller than a man, bright gold in the sunshine at first, soon bleaching to pale yellow. The wind swept across the open space, loosened the binding of the heaps, threw up the straw in clouds which rose and fell, drifting over a wide area, getting caught in ruts and hollows and in the short, sun-scorched grass of the plain. There was a period when the land seemed textured with it, as if this pale glinting yellow was the natural color of the earth. At this time too the foothills that lay beyond the plain had exactly this same shade of faded gold, so that the eye was carried on a single tide of color to the horizon. From the sparse settlements scattered over this great expanse the only sounds that could be heard above the wind were those of pain: the tormented braying of an ass, the squealing outcries of gelded hogs.

The altar was built under the supervision of Croton and his two assistant priests, who were allowed as many men as they needed for it. The crest of a short rise was chosen, beyond the confines of the camp, clear all round for maximum viewing, important both for the spectators and for Zeus himself, as Croton pointed out: in the open, under the wide sky, where the god could get a sweeping overall view, not in some thicket or cave or hole-in-corner place, haunts of Hecate and her devotees and all the obscene practices of the night.

It was no easy task to find stones of the right size and shape that could be fitted together and built up to form a waist-high platform. Lines of laboring figures, forced by their loads into attitudes of humility and supplication, toiled over slopes of thorny scrub that lacerated their legs. One man fell into a gulley and broke his collarbone, another dropped a stone on his foot, crushing the toes. However, stone by stone and hour by hour the work continued. At the end of the third day Croton professed himself satisfied; it was certain that Zeus would look favorably on such an altar. Now, however, what was needed was a road to it, broad enough for a ceremonial procession, naturally with Croton himself at the head—it was his ambition, and he had already petitioned Agamemnon in the matter, to be the one ordained to wield the knife. It was not of course possible to make a paved way up to the altar, but the track could be widened and stones cleared. Men worked in shifts to get the road ready for Iphigeneia.

There is a pattern, in periods of protracted waiting, made up of what is accustomed and what is singular. The figures of toiling men, the booming voice of Ajax the Larger as he shouted threats and promises to his squad of reluctant athletes, the soft, pervasive odor of excrement hanging over the camp, the sharper stink of the horses, the endless creaking and groaning of the ships as they rocked in their moorings, all these were things woven into the tissue of existence from day to day. But one afternoon a particular thing happened. A father and a daughter appeared, asking the way to the tent of Menelaus. They had with them a man from a neighboring village who had been recruited into the Euboean force under Elphenor and knew enough Greek to convert the local dialect into sounds intelligible to Menelaus and his Spartan guards.

These last had debated long and earnestly among themselves whether to disturb the king in his afternoon repose and so risk his wrath. The visitors did not look to be of much account, they were country people. The father was thin as a rake and vehement; the girl was broad-faced and stocky, with heavy breasts. Both had put on their best clothes for the visit, the father in clean white vest and loincloth, the girl in a high-necked bodice and long skirt decorated with paste glass beads of various colors. They would not say what their business was, conveying however that it was important, even urgent. Something affecting the security of the army, news of a plot they had somehow stumbled on? They might think Menelaus the commander most important and respected in the Greek host, the one to be told; it was not very likely that anyone should have that idea of him, but it couldn't be ruled out. If it was so, and these people were turned away, they would go elsewhere with their news and Menelaus would be absolutely livid. The guards hadn't much to occupy them, they were bored, ready to welcome any diversion. Besides, they were curious. They could put it to Menelaus that, considering him the most important and respected commander in the Greek host, they had thought it better not to take chances. In the end, having drawn lots, two of them went in to him, the visitors having resolutely refused to enter the tent.

The attempts to interrogate the pair and the subsequent discussion among the guards had aroused a good deal of interest, and when Menelaus emerged from the tent he found himself before a considerable crowd. “Well,” he said to the couple, in his brusque way, “who are you? What have you to say to Menelaus? Come on, get on with it, I haven't got all bloody day.”

The tone of this made translation unnecessary. The father's mouth worked in agitation and he began to speak in the soft, mumbling tongue of the region.

“What does he say?”

The interpreter hesitated a moment. “My lord, he says that this girl is his daughter and that you violated her yesterday afternoon when you passed by their house on a hunting trip.”

Menelaus had been dozing inside his tent and his eyes were not adjusted yet to the strong light outside and the wind that came against his face. He blinked and craned his head forward a little to stare at the girl. “By Zeus, yes,” he said after a moment. “Dead right. I knew I'd seen her somewhere before.” A smile overspread his face. It was agreeable to have his prowess made public in this way, as it were accidentally, just a casual thing which a man like himself, accustomed to such exploits, hadn't found necessary to mention. “I didn't recognize her at first,” he said. “She's got her glad rags on today. She didn't have so much on when I last saw her.”

There were sniggers at this from Menelaus's followers, and particularly from the two guards who had gone in to him with the message and who now, seeing his good humor, were congratulating themselves on having done the right thing, and expecting a good reward.

“Well, lads, you know how it is,” Menelaus said. “We've all been there, haven't we? On the way back to camp, it was. We'd been after boar all day and we were thirsty as hell, the dogs too. We stopped at this hovel. Water for the dogs, wine for us. These people always have wine, if you know where to look for it. We had to push this fellow around a bit before he got the idea.”

Menelaus closed one of his small eyes in a wink and smiled round at his audience. “They kept the stuff in an earth cellar behind this shack of theirs. He sent the girl to draw some off for us. I followed her with one man, whom I set to watch at the door. She fought a bit and tried to cry out, just for form's sake, you know. I mean, she knew who I was, there's no mistaking a kingly bearing, breeding will always show. I stuck her up against a barrel. Fantastic. No one had been there before. Now they have come to ask me to acknowledge it publicly, and you can see why. It isn't every day that a girl gets that sort of attention. It will give them tremendous status in their community. Well, I have always been a man who accepts his responsibilities. I want you all to know that their claim is just. Find out her name. I want the Singer to be told that this girl was raped by King Menelaus in person.”

This was conveyed to the couple, but the expected smiles did not appear on their faces. The girl said nothing, remaining with eyes cast down, aware of the gaze of all upon her, aware that in the minds of all she was still being pushed up against a wine barrel and roughly penetrated. The father glanced at the faces round him, and after a moment broke again into rapid, mumbling speech.

“What does he say?” Menelaus, disappointed in the reception his words had been accorded, was growing testy.

The interpreter took time over replying. It could be seen from his face that he was no longer much enjoying the job. “He says he doesn't want the Singer to be told. He says it is already bad enough that everyone in the village should know his daughter is no longer a virgin. He humbly appeals to the laws of hospitality and would humbly like to remind the king that there was not only the wine but also the eggs, the oatmeal and a round of cheese. Plus the fact that the girl's marriage prospects have sunk to zero.”

A scowl of mingled wrath and incredulity had come to Menelaus's face. “I can't believe what I'm hearing,” he said. “Not want the Singer to be told? He's a liar, there were no eggs, we looked everywhere.”

“My lord,” the interpreter said unhappily, “he says they have been wronged, he will now have to find a much larger dowry for her, he asks for compensation.”

“What?” Menelaus had flushed a dark red. In a voice choked with rage, he said, “I, Menelaus, eagle king of the House of Atreus, leader of the Spartan host, am required to pay for sex with a peasant girl? That would be something for the Singer to get hold of. My image ruined for all time to come. How dare they? Fetch me a javelin. I'll show the clod compensation, I'll shove it up his backside.”

Several in the crowd, local men like the interpreter, closed round the couple and jostled them hastily away. By the time the guard came with a javelin they were some distance off and Menelaus was breathing heavily, in the way he had when his emotions were excited. He did not resort to the javelin but contented himself with shouting after them, in a voice broken by rage, “That was royal sperm, you bitch!”

When some measure of calm had returned and his breathing was back to normal, he sent for the two guards who had brought him news of the visitors. They came in fear and prostrated themselves before him.

“What a grotesque error of judgment,” Menelaus said. “You should have known better than to disturb my repose like that. My nerves have been in pieces since my hospitality was abused by that lecherous wog, Paris. Anyone with an ounce of savvy would have seen at once that those two characters were not worth bothering with. I mean, I knew it as soon as I set eyes on them. Such dolts too, refusing my offer of free publicity. I'm tempted to have the pair of you soundly flogged. You'd better watch out in future. Go and report to Big Ajax for two successive days of latrine duties.”

“Well, brother, that's the way the world goes,” one guard said to the other as they trudged towards the Salamis lines. “You try to act for the best and you end up shoveling shit.”


Then there was the business of the Athenian, Leucon, who was found in possession of a gilded pendant in the shape of a beetle, the property of Achilles. After various denials and evasions he admitted taking this from Achilles' tent while the latter was with Patroclus having a massage.

This theft was regarded by all the chiefs as a very serious matter. It was the thin end of the wedge. If not checked in time, it could lead to widespread pilfering, with consequent ill feeling and collapse of discipline. It had to be stamped on until they could get to Troy. A tribunal was hastily convened, open to any who cared to attend. Achilles was demanding the maximum penalty, which was death. Both he and the accused had the right to make a statement at any point in the proceedings but they could have no other part in the trial. Achilles entrusted the prosecution to one of his officers, a man named Pleuron. Leucon was defended by a fellow soldier, Calligonus, also from Athens, nimble of tongue and quick-witted, as the Athenians generally were. The final decision would rest with Agamemnon as Supreme Commander, helped in his deliberations by four chiefs who would act as judges—naturally none of them from either Attica or Phthia.

Pleuron began, speaking directly to Agamemnon, who sat immobile, hunched a little forward. This could by no means be regarded as an impulsive theft, he said. The accused man had waited, chosen his moment, a time when Achilles was away. He had taken advantage of some momentary inattention on the part of the guards. It was an open-and-shut case. There was no smallest doubt of Leucon's guilt. This was a deliberate, premeditated theft from a comrade in arms and deserved the maximum penalty.

This speech was greeted by cries of “no” from the Athenian contingent, a small but noisy group, and by a sustained growl of agreement from the Phthians.

Leucon's counsel began with the issue of impulse, crucial for the obtaining of a more lenient sentence. Passing by a tent, seeing it unguarded, entering it on the spur of a moment, if that wasn't impulse he didn't know what was. There was no momentary inattention on the part of the guards: they were playing dice in the shade, as everyone knew, but they were too frightened of Achilles to admit it. And what was this comrade business? Since when had there been comradeship between Attica and the Thessaly borders? Since when had there been comradeship between a great man like Achilles, lord of vast estates, rich and famous, with a goddess for a mother, and a common foot soldier like Leucon? It was a false and misleading term.

Pleuron was loyal and very steady in battle, but he was not nearly so clever an advocate as Calligonus, who was not particularly loyal or steady, but whose last remarks had been greeted with applause from all quarters. Feeling the case for the prosecution slipping away from him, with consequent loss of favor if he screwed up, he decided at this point to invite Achilles to make the personal statement to which he was entitled.

“Stand back, give me some air.” Achilles twisted his exquisitely molded lips into an expression of repugnance at the nearness to him of unwashed humanity. His person was well sprinkled with balsam, but darker whiffs got through to him all the same. Though always scrupulous, he had taken extra care with his appearance this morning. He was bareheaded, his fair hair freshly curled, fitting thick and close round his neat ears. His friend Patroclus, who was an expert in makeup, had painted small red sunbursts on his cheeks. He was naked above the waist save for a gold armband and the leather pads he wore on the shoulders to emphasize their width. His bronzed, splendidly proportioned torso gleamed with oil. The linen skirt showed off to advantage his shapely, strongly muscled thighs. He stood with the ease, the power in repose, of the supreme athlete, and his pale killer's eyes, very slightly astigmatic under their level brows, looked coldly and intently across at the man who had entered his tent and fingered his possessions and whose death he was resolved on.

Possessed by this resolve, and inspired by the knowledge that as the person wronged he would have the killing of the man if the death sentence was brought in, he spoke with less affectation of languidness than usual, explaining how great a value he set upon this pendant, how it was among his most treasured possessions, how distressed he had been to discover its loss, how glad he was that punishment for the wrongdoer was at hand, that justice would be done. “For what is justice, after all?” he demanded, coming to his peroration, turning his head gracefully from side to side so as to flex the marvelous tendons of his neck. “Justice is order and measure, justice is respect for rank and private property, justice is the safeguard of society as we know it. Without justice we would be delivered over to the rule of the mob.”

The chiefs nodded solemnly at these sentiments, but they did not go down so well with the mob itself, and lost Achilles some considerable sympathy. Noting this and hoping to build on it, Calligonus called upon the accused to make his statement.

It had been a sudden impulse, Leucon said. He didn't know what had come over him. He had never done such a thing before. There was no one guarding the tent, the guards were a good fifty paces off, sitting in the shade playing dice. They were the ones who should be on trial: if they had been doing their job this would never have happened. Once inside, he had seen this pendant and taken a fancy to it. He didn't know why, he had just liked the look of it. He hadn't taken anything else.

Calligonus now had a good idea. “May this object be held up to public view? Perhaps Lord Ajax, as the tallest man present, could . . . Thank you. Now here is the treasure we have heard so much about. A thin chain of bronze links, a pendant in the form of a scarab, also bronze, washed with gold. A pretty thing, finely made, but not of such great value in the materials. Leucon took only this. Would a real thief take only this? There were things much more precious and costly lying here and there in that tent. Are we going to put a man to death for giving way to a passing fancy?”

There were prolonged shouts of “no” in answer to this, coming now from every quarter. Achilles' brow was marred by a scowl. Pleuron, at his wits' end now, noticed that Nestor, accompanied as usual by his two sons, had joined the gathering. Some rambling and long-winded words from him, even if quite beside the point, might give the prosecution time to regain the initiative. “I call upon Nestor, wise in counsel, to give us the benefit of—”

He was interrupted by a shout from the back of the crowd. “I know that pendant!”

Heads craned round at this. But only those nearest could make out who had spoken. “Can that man be brought forward?” Calligonus shouted over the hubbub. This was done, to the accompaniment of some backslapping and words of encouragement. The interrupter was revealed as a person of short stature with luxuriant eyebrows and a habit of frequent blinking. He peered up at the pendant, still held aloft by Ajax. “I thought as much,” he said. “This pendant belonged to my mother's brother, I'd know it anywhere. He always wore it. He said it brought him luck.”

“When did you last see it?”

“He was wearing it when I saw him last. He went on a trading trip and never came back. None of the party came back. That's two years ago now—we've given him up for dead.”

“Your uncle's name?”

“Dalgon of Thebes. He was a merchant, he exported pottery from the workshops on the mainland to Thrace and the islands of the north.”

“And where did this particular trip take him?”

“To Pteleon.”

Eyes now turned towards Achilles, who had taken his small ivory-handled fan from a pocket in his skirt and was fanning himself slowly with it, looking over the heads of the crowd. This was impressive, it was somehow menacing: only Achilles could have thought of fanning himself in a wind. Everybody knew that Pteleon, and all the region east of Mount Othrys, formed part of his lands.

Calligonus risked a smile. He was entering the danger zone, but the passion of the pleader had him in its grip. “He said it brought him luck? His luck ran out when he got to Pteleon. Someone else saw a pretty thing and liked it.”

“I must protest against these innuendos,” Pleuron said. “There is no scrap of proof that this is the same pendant. And even if it were, everyone knows that objects taken from a slain foe constitute legitimate booty and add to the honor of the victor, whereas what we are discussing here is a case of vulgar theft.”

Agamemnon nodded slowly, his face showing ashen against the dark hair of his beard. It was his first public appearance since the waiting for Iphigeneia had begun. Chasimenos had prevailed on him to attend, pointing out that allowing someone else to preside over the tribunal would be taken as a sign of weakness. “Does this nephew of this uncle wish to make accusations against some particular person?” he asked. “Does he seek to avenge some slur on the honor of his family?”

The Theban's eyes rested briefly on Achilles, whose splendidly articulated biceps rippled below the oiled skin with each slow movement of the fan, and who chose this moment to turn his head lazily, not as if looking but listening.

“We are waiting,” Agamemnon said.

“Well, now that I look again, I'm not so sure. I could be wrong. One pendant is very like another after all.”

“We understand perfectly,” Calligonus said, casting significant looks here and there. He was coming to the end of his plea and he wanted it to be strong. He felt the sympathy of the crowd and it led him now to think—a bad mistake, as it turned out—that he could get Leucon off altogether. “It is the wind that is to blame,” he said. “This terrible wind that keeps us cooped up here. Consider the case of this poor Leucon. Consider it well, because it is the case with all of us. When he first came here he was full of ardor and enthusiasm, determined to distinguish himself in battle, get his hands on a pile of loot and move up some notches in society. Then what happens? He lies awake night after night listening to the voices of the wind. He feels the constant touch of it, on his face, on his body, always picking him over, giving him no peace. Round the headland he knows it is a gale. Day by day his hopes wither, all that youthful idealism crumbles away, he is not far from a nervous breakdown. Like us all, he is waiting for Iphigeneia. Like us all, he must believe his leaders when they tell him that the sacrifice of the witch will bring an end to the wind. He must have faith. But faith is a variable, not a constant. It goes up and down. Anyone who denies this is either a fool or in bad faith. On top of everything else, this poor Leucon is hungry. It's getting harder all the time to screw anything out of these miserly people. And there aren't enough whores, Leucon has to stand in line. Waiting half a day in the wind is guaranteed to take the edge off anyone. Is it so surprising that his morale, his sense of solidarity, should be undermined? Is it so surprising that Leucon, in his frustration, should become bewildered and confused, should lose his sense of the distinction, a valid distinction as I am the first to agree, between pilfering and pillage? He took only one small thing, not very valuable. It was a gesture, a token. My friends, this was not a theft at all, it was a cry for help. Let our great commander Agamemnon, tamer of horses, show mercy to this poor confused man and give the blame to the wind.”

Even before he came to the end of this he saw a certain sort of stillness settle over the judges and knew he had blundered. There was silence for some moments, then Agamemnon said, “How can a wind sent by Zeus be a cause of crime?”

Odysseus, one of the two judges on Agamemnon's right, now spoke for the first time. “You would have done better to stick to the issue of impulse and beg for leniency, without bringing the wind into it. But you are in love with your own voice, Calligonus, and you have gone too far. Do you not see that you have forced us to an extreme judgment? If we make the wind an excuse for this theft, we make it an excuse for any wrong that is done here. Murder, mutiny, desertion, failure to keep your weapons in good order, you name it. It's a formula for anarchy. Above all, and this is where you have really fouled up your case, it reduces everyone to the same level. We are all exposed to the wind. If Leucon is a victim of the wind, so are we all. In that way we lose the vital distinction between a contemptible instance of petty thieving and the noble and altruistic readiness of our Commander-in-Chief to sacrifice his nearest and dearest for the sake of the common good.” He paused for a moment, glancing towards his fellow judges. “I hope I take you with me on this,” he said. “It seems to me absolutely crucial.”

No way round it, this Leucon would have to die, he thought as he watched them nodding. An even more dangerous precedent lurked behind this one of declaring that the wind was to blame. He had seen how cleverly Calligonus had swayed the audience, made his appeal to the common man; he had noted the easy rhetoric, the sense of theater, the readiness to run into danger for the sake of winning. That touch about it not being a crime but a cry for help, so bold and original. He could hardly have done it better himself. This Calligonus was a dangerous man, he would need watching carefully. An error of the first magnitude to give him the victory now, or any slightest concession that could add to his prestige or strengthen his influence among his fellows.

“One might just as well say the sound of the sea maddened me, or the cawing of the crows, or the voice of a neighbor,” said Agapenor, leader of the Arcadians, the judge on his left.

“Zeus sends the wind to show us our past crimes, not lead us into new ones.” This came from the Lapith chief, Polypoetes, on the other side of Agamemnon.

“We are agreed then. Guilty with no extenuating circumstances.” Odysseus looked towards Agamemnon as he said this. One could never be quite sure of the King's responses; that reference to the sacrifice had been a calculated risk, it could have released a flood of self-pitying bombast. “Great King, we wait for you to pronounce the sentence,” he said.

BOOK: The Songs of the Kings
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