Read The Songs of the Kings Online

Authors: Barry Unsworth

Tags: #Historical, #Fiction

The Songs of the Kings (9 page)

BOOK: The Songs of the Kings
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“Doesn't belong? I am astonished to hear you say that. Have you never heard of flexibility? You of all people should know that anything can go into a Song, it just depends on the way you deliver it.”

The Singer wanted the rest of his bread and grapes, but he could not eat them while a conversation was going on; and this, combined with his dislike and fear of the voice, frayed his temper, took the guard from his tongue. “Do you think a Song is like a political speech or a funny story?” he said. “Do you think you can shovel anything into it to suit the purposes of the moment? A Song has the form that belongs to it and that is also the soul of the Song. Anything that touches the soul of the Song must depend on the Singer and the gods that speak through him.”

“Is that so? Well, now, I'll tell
something,” Odysseus said, still aiming at the Singer's ear. “I didn't come here to talk about art and soul and all that stuff. As far as that's concerned, I may be a philistine, but I know what I like. I'm going to have someone in that audience tomorrow morning and he's going to report back to me. I don't care whether you wrap it up in something else or tell it as a separate story, but if you know what is good for you, you'd better make sure this message about the wind goes over loud and clear, with briefer repetitions in subsequent sessions to reinforce the point. It must be noised abroad, made common knowledge, disseminated on a large scale, what's the word I'm looking for?”

“I haven't the faintest idea,” the Singer said with sudden weariness. “I have enough to do to find my own words.” And with this he lifted a compound wodge of bread and grapes to his mouth.


Calchas slept heavily by the dead fire and woke to the warmth of the sun on his face and the sighing sound of the wind. The sea below was covered with low ridges, white along the crests. The hills beyond the camp were half lost in the morning haze. He felt no sensation but hunger. He shared with Poimenos the bread and cheese they had brought, leaving some aside for the keeper. They did not speak much but he felt the boy's eyes on him; and when he returned this gaze he did not see inquiry or curiosity on the other's face but an expression brooding and grave, which he could not remember seeing before. It was as if years had been added to the boy in the course of this one night. He had slept badly, he said. Perhaps it was only this. Or perhaps my eyes wither what they look on, the priest thought.

The keeper held out thin brown arms for the food and bowed in thanks, but she did not eat before them and it was clear that she was waiting for them to be gone. They descended by the same path and waited near the shore, in the thin shade of a pine tree, for the boatman to come for them. Sure enough, as the sun rose overhead, they saw him plying across. As they waded through the surf and climbed into the boat, he made the same gestures of exaggerated toil. And Calchas felt a blankness in his mind, as if some power moved the man's limbs in exact repetition, so as to cancel all the time that had elapsed since he left them there, the presence of the Mother, the scented fire, the vision of the drained warriors and all the interval of night. In payment he gave the man the bronze belt buckle marked with a wave pattern along the edges which he had brought with him for the purpose; and the man was pleased with this, and even smiled.

The walk back took longer than the apparent distance seemed to warrant, generally the case by the sea, when there is no obstruction to the view; and Calchas was tired and walked slowly. So there was no time for rest when they returned, and not a great deal for preparation. Poimenos brought water and helped his master to wash away the traces of vomit and the heavy, sweetish smell of hemp that still hung about him, afterwards rubbing oil scented with jasmine into the priest's shoulders where they felt painful and cramped. Calchas put on his amethyst necklace and the white silk vest that had been the gift of Agamemnon, and a long skirt of dark blue cotton with gold-stitched hems. His long black hair was wetted and combed out and gathered at the nape with a piece of white ribbon. The chalk circles and the tiny crimson sunbursts within them were deftly applied to his cheeks. Then Poimenos was sent to ask when his master might approach and returned to say that the King required him immediately. But after all this haste Agamemnon was alone with his guards when he arrived, the chiefs had not yet begun to assemble.

“I wanted to speak to you alone,” Agamemnon said. “I sent for you in the night but you were not there.”

“My lord, I had your leave to be absent for the night, to go to the shrine of Artemis.”

“Yes, I know that, but I needed you.” He spoke as if the need alone should have brought his diviner back across the water. “I had a dream in the first part of the night and I needed you to tell the meaning.”

Calchas felt a premonition that restricted his breathing, like the drawing of strings within his chest. He too, by that fire, in the first part of the night, had been dreaming. “Does my lord remember the dream still?”

“Yes, I remember it perfectly.” Agamemnon's dark face, with its straight mouth and prominently curved beak of a nose, was suddenly younger, innocent-looking. “It was dark,” he said, “thick darkness, there was no light at all. I was in a forest, I had to feel my way among trees. There was a nightingale singing somewhere not far away. I knew it for a nightingale because I have heard them singing at home, on the slopes below the citadel. This song was beautiful and loud. I moved towards the song through the trees, reaching out with my hands because I could see nothing. As I drew nearer the bird sang more loudly, always more loudly with every step, until the darkness was full of this song and it seemed that the bird was very close, almost within the reach of my hands, but as I reached to take it, the song ceased and I was standing alone in the dark and I woke and heard the wind in the canvas and sent for you, not remembering, in the toils of the dream, that I had given you leave to go.”

Calchas had felt the blood drain from his face as the King spoke. It was immediately clear to him that Agamemnon had dreamed his own death, a death on the threshold of triumph, when the trumpets were sounding. That music of death came from the battlements of Troy. Dark and light held the same message, and it was the message of Pollein, god that blended two natures, water and the light on water. The silver of the river in the distance, empty of bodies, the darkness when the song ceases. Turning away from the song was the only salvation; but Agamemnon would not turn away from the promise of conquest. And Calchas knew he would kill the one who advised it.

“You can come closer,” Agamemnon said. “Speak to me closely, the guards need not hear.”

“My lord and king,” Calchas said, striving to control his voice, “I have made a study of the natures of the different birds. The nightingale is a special case. He is condemned to sing in the dark and yet he feels fear of the dark. The beauty of his song is caused by fear. When he senses a presence, this fear increases and he sings more and more loudly as the danger draws near. The bird felt your power in the darkness, and sang the more loudly till you reached to grasp him and then his heart burst with fear and with the effort of his song. There is also the story of Philomela, which the King will remember, of how she was seduced by Tereus, who was married to her sister, and of how he cut out her tongue to prevent her from speaking of this, and of how, at a moment of extreme fear, she was changed by the gods into a nightingale and given the tongue and throat of marvelous song. But Philomela remembers her fear, and when danger comes close she again becomes tongueless. Beyond any doubt, the bird in your dream represents Priam, king of Troy, who fears your greatness and puffs himself up and boasts the more loudly as the fear grows.”

He stopped short of saying what he knew the King wanted to hear, must already be assuming, that a burst heart was the fate that awaited Troy. The fewer words, the better; it might be possible yet to leave the bird to its song. “Your power goes before you,” he said.

“In that case,” Agamemnon said, “why was I left alone in total darkness?”

The exercise of his profession had taught Calchas that the memory of dreams and portents was generally subject to the embroidery of hope, and always the more so when it concerned the ambitious. “Great king,” he said, “pardon me, but are you certain there was no lessening of the dark after the bird fell silent? Think carefully. Was there not a faint light that grew among the trees?”

It had worked with others and he saw from the King's face that it would work now with him. “Well, now I come to think of it,” Agamemnon said after some moments, “I believe there
a change in the light. I seem to remember that I could just begin to make out the shapes of the trees.”

“The dawn of the new day,” Calchas said. “Extremely auspicious, a fortunate dream indeed.”

Luckily he was not required to say more, because Menelaus entered at this moment, the first to arrive. “Ye gods, what next?” he said. “It's all over the camp that Zeus has visited this wind on us because of some offense in the high command. I don't think it's me. We all make mistakes of course, but I can't think of anything I've left out, and in any case Zeus is squarely on my side because I'm the one whose hospitality was violated. No, the only thing I can accuse myself of, and even then it's the result of my generous and trusting nature, is letting that shitty Asian get anywhere near my Helen. I'm pretty certain now that he slipped something into her drink, otherwise how can you explain it? I have it on good authority that all Asian males hang weights on their pricks from early childhood to make them bigger, not that my Helen would have been interested in that. She rises above it.”

Absorbed as usual in his wrongs, he had not immediately registered the presence of Calchas. “Present company excepted,” he said now, with false joviality. “No evidence of weight-hanging there. Besides, you are an honorary Mycenaean by now.” Calchas was still trying to express his appreciation of this compliment when Odysseus and Chasimenos entered together, followed shortly afterwards by Achilles and his lover Patroclus. Then the aged Nestor came shambling in, flanked by his cooing sons.

When all were present, the King turned to his diviner. “Let Calchas speak first,” he said. “Calchas will give us his interpretation of the omen of the eagles and the hare and the hare's young.”

“Lord of men, it is not a simple matter.” His throat had gone dry. Fear, from which he had been briefly rescued, returned now in full force. He had no plan, no policy, only what his cowardice prompted: to delay, to seek the refuge of a few more hours, the cover of another night. “There are things still not quite clear to me,” he said. “I need to speak again to the man who first told us that the hare was pregnant. I have some further questions for him.”

He saw the King frown. Croton raised his staff as if claiming the right to speak, but Phylakos forestalled him, stepping forward and coming to attention before the seated Agamemnon exactly as he had done on the previous day, when he had made himself spokesman for the men on watch. Again Calchas had the feeling that time was circling back on itself, that intervals were being canceled.

“It's not possible to produce this man for questioning,” Phylakos said. “He does not answer the call.”

“He must be somewhere,” the priest said.

Across the short space that separated them Phylakos regarded him without expression. “He cannot be found,” he said. “It is thought that he has deserted.”

There was a brief pause, then Calchas saw the King turn his head and knew he could delay no longer. As he spoke, he kept his eyes on the face of Odysseus, whom he knew for his greatest enemy. And Odysseus returned the gaze steadily, with an expression that seemed close to a smile.

“Zeus sent the eagles to bless our expedition. So much we know to be true. But our mistake has been to believe that this blessing was binding on us or that it was a guarantee of victory.” The dangerous words, once uttered, brought a sense of release almost reckless, he felt an easing of the heart, saliva gathered again in his mouth. “It was neither,” he said.

There came voices at this from different parts of the tent, but they were silenced by Odysseus, who had the gift of gaining attention without raising his voice. “Calchas is right,” he said, “as far as concerns the eagles. By the eagles we know we have a just cause, but cause and outcome are separate things. However, there is also the hare. The hare is the outcome, the hare is Troy devoured. That is our guarantee.” The suggestion of a smile disappeared from his face as he glanced at those around him, enlisting support. “As to what is binding,” he said, “the oaths of loyalty that unite us are binding, our national honor is binding, but perhaps a Hittite priest would not appreciate that.”

“Excuse me, I am not Hittite, I am Carian, we were there before they came, as were our gods.” He was tasting already the bitterness of defeat. He was too alone and too afraid. He knew that in argument it was fatal to have the premises of the adversary placed beyond question; but he could not question the story of the hare, could not say it was a fabrication, that the only truth in it was the word of Artemis gulped from that chosen throat, because the King clung to the story as he would cling to that dawn of promise in his dream. “The eagles fall on the hare and devour her,” he said. “But they also devour her young, ripping them from the womb. These are the innocent, this is the blood of the innocent, it must reflect on the justice of the cause, I mean in the sense that it obliges us to inquire into the true will of the gods in this matter.”

Chasimenos now stepped forward to speak, casting his usual quick glances from side to side. “I'd like to make one simple point,” he said, “and ask one simple question. If the cause of the war is just, nothing that happens in the pursuit of the war can make the war less just. The slaughter of the innocent cannot detract from the justice of the cause, though we may possibly call it an unjust effect of a just cause. If this were not so, there would be no such thing as a just war, only a necessary war, which is clearly absurd. Can Calchas be saying that Lord Zeus, in embarking us on a just cause whose inherent nature was that it could subsequently become less just, was in fact embarking us on an unjust cause from the very beginning? Let him answer that one.”

The scribe paused here and smiled in the manner of one who knows he has made a devastating point. Calchas was saved from the need to answer by Ajax the Larger, who now raised a voice hoarse from much shouting. “An end to this riddling,” he said. “Good grief, how can a fellow make head or tail of all this bullshit?” He glared at Chasimenos, whose smile disappeared abruptly. “Some people are too clever by half, they don't get enough fresh air, they need to do a few press-ups. A bit of healthy competition on the sports field wouldn't come amiss either. How about enrolling in one of the more light-hearted events which my small friend here has been organizing, the egg-and-shield race, for example?”

How Chasimenos might have responded to this invitation was never to be known, because it was at this moment that the senile Nestor, who had been preternaturally silent until now, raised the wavering song of his voice. “Who would carry javelins on a cattle raid? You need to make a quick getaway on a cattle raid, it was a sword, they knew how to make swords in those days, we crossed over into Elis in the dead of night, we rounded up their cattle, we got away with fifty cows. Iphiclomenos tried to stop me, I think that was the name, they were his father's cows. I went down on one knee, I stuck him in the belly, he wasn't expecting that, no . . .”

BOOK: The Songs of the Kings
4.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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