Read Achilles Online

Authors: Elizabeth Cook



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Title Page

Copyright Notice



Two Rivers

Two Rivers


His Girlhood

The Choice


Cut Off







Glossary of Classical Names

Praise for



for Jonathan Nevitt


I am very grateful to Greg Hicks. This work might
not have been completed without his enthusiasm
for it in its early stages and his readiness to voice
what had been written and embody it in performance.


Two Rivers

Two rivers. Flowing in contrary directions.

Two layers of water, each moving steadily, separate and self-possessed.

It is as if membrane divides them.

The upper flow, when the sun catches it, is sharp green. Chlorophyll: essence of life. Life teems in this water, gives it its green. Even from a boat you can see the fish streaming through, swift, thick as a rain of arrows. It doesn't take much to skim some off for a meal which lingers in the smoky, charred bits of flesh and skin that stick to your fingers till you rake at the bits and gnaw them off with your teeth to suck up the last of the salt.

The other river, which seems to run sluggish against the grain of the swift-flowing, sparkling green, attempting to turn it? What colour is this? Is it no colour? Would it have colour if the sun gashed it? Yes. Then it is sapphire blue; but mostly it appears black.

Nothing lives in this water. It is anoxic: hostile to life.

There is a passage of sea where these waters rope together to form a single cable. This cable has carried Odysseus to the edge of Ocean. There was no gainsaying its pull. Hand over fist it dragged the boat on till all at once they reached the place where the waters untwist and drop their cargo. Again the rivers assert their separateness. Only now it is the black that is uppermost. It seems to go on for ever and there is no movement in it. Nothing helps or hinders Odysseus and his men as they row to the shore – a shore not lapped by sea. The water just lies there, pooled like a lake. There is no breath but their own.

When they step into it, it is as warm as their own blood. So is the air. The exact heat of blood; not a jot hotter or colder. It is dark as an oven. Thick cloud covers the stars (if there are stars and it is night – the men have lost track) and with no sensation of temperature to define them it is hard to know where their bodies begin and end. Some of them slap and rub their hands over themselves for reassurance.

Another island. Another stop on the journey home.

Circe told Odysseus to come here, to follow the stream of Ocean till he came to the mouth of Hell; to the rock where two tributaries of Styx meet Acheron. Her instructions were detailed:

Dig a pit a cubit deep, a cubit wide each way, and fill this tank with drink that will satisfy the dead.

Milk, honey, wine, water.

All this is sprinkled with barley which bobs on the surface like scum. Odysseus prays; makes promises to the dead. Tells them what he will do for them when he gets home.
he gets home!

A ram and a black ewe have travelled with them from Circe's island, bleating tirelessly all the way but most protestingly just now, being dragged through the tight wood to the clearing.

First, the ewe.

Short close hair. Odysseus grasps the folds of flesh above the neck and tugs back her head. The point of his blade is exact. Blood pours from the creature's throat in a generous arc. The ram rears and bucks. One of Odysseus' men has to straddle him to hold him down while his throat too is cut. His blood drums into the drink pit like horse piss where it foams and steams.

Ah! That's more like it.

Milk and honey, wine and barley are all very well. They are right and proper. They are due. But they are not what the dead want. Now that the blood is soaking into the earth tank, making a rich mud of the floor, the flavour trickles down into Hades.

They arrive suddenly. So many of them, jostling and pushing – elbows, knees, necks – forcing their way forward, their mouths leading. Their mouths aflame.

Only at the very beginning did the living outnumber the dead. Now, as the dead press forward, Odysseus has great difficulty in standing his ground. Circe had told him what would happen. But not
what it would be like.

The sound of them. The sound of dissatisfaction.

Of layer upon layer of longing.

Achilles senses Odysseus long before he sees him. He has come up to the mouth of Hell with the others. To his great displeasure he has no choice. He would like to have stayed where he was, in Pluto's rich labyrinth, remembering life, knowing it in words. He can still speak better than all the rest, now, when he can no longer act and make a difference – not even dent the waters he bathes in. But the smell of the blood in that tank cannot be resisted. The flavour of iron seeps through the earth and the rocks, reaching Achilles and all the other dead. The fine veins that riddle the rocks are filled with it; the rocks themselves are suffused. The longing hooks into his heart and pulls him.

It is intolerable. He, who has always lived by his own necessity, who had choices and made them. To be dragged, helpless as a fish.

You would not think him helpless to look at him. He stands apart with Patroclus, his beloved through all eternity, and Patroclus – who loves Achilles but not so much as he is loved – waits for Achilles to move. His deference to Achilles is different from that of the others. They honour and respect him, keep a wise distance, because Achilles was better than all the rest. Better at being human. Fighting, singing, speaking, raging (oh, he is good at that still). Killing. But Patroclus alone is humbled by Achilles' love. Only a fool thinks that to be more loved than loving gives power. Only a fool vaunts it and displays his own littleness by bragging to his friends and making capricious demands of his lover. Patroclus isn't a fool. He knows that he is less than Achilles even in this. Humbled by the immensity of Achilles' love he loves him back with all his large, though lesser, heart.

The two remain silent, in control of themselves, while the other shades cram themselves in to whatever space they can find near the blood-tank. Like dogs they are; tongues hanging out, oblivious to all but their thirst and whatever blocks their way. Achilles cannot see what it is. Is that Tiresias' voice? The pitch of the man-woman; not a chord but a harmonic in which treble and bass combine and are distinct. Only Tiresias whacks out the words in that insistant, circling rhythm, like a whirlwind whipping through trees in a grove, circling and beating, then suddenly still. Then off again.

But Achilles cannot make out what the words are.

Then women's voices. He sees them: tall, graceful, slender as saplings. Aristocrats among women, wives and daughters of princes, lovers of gods. Each of them, bent with longing for a sup of that steaming blood. He can't make out all of them – many are cowled – but he catches sight of Phaedra, wiping her red-smudged mouth with her forearm, blinking from light.

Is Iphigeneia here? Perhaps she can resist.

She entered the underworld fearlessly, heart open, undeviating as one of his arrows; the way she pushed up through the wind, up the hill to Artemis' shrine.

That was the first time Agamemnon tried to make a fool of him: fetching him in to be her husband. To Agamemnon a ruse – ‘Tell her she's going to be married to Achilles.' That would get Clytemnestra excited; get her cooperating, full of maternal pride and vicarious lust. Agamemnon had no sense then – or ever – of how well-matched Achilles and Iphigeneia really were. In spite of Agamemnon Achilles had greeted her clean heart. She decided, not her father – not even the gods – that she belonged to Artemis. She showed him that the way to make your fate your choice is to choose it, fearlessly, your lungs drinking the air. It makes the gods ashamed.

Here in the underworld she has not gone stale. A glimpse of her and you feel you have brushed your sight against new leaves. A sense of green, where there is none.

This is what happens when you are dead:

You know the living are up there, driving your horses, ploughing your fields, handling your bowls. Eating. The living are always eating; their tongues fossicking among the bones.

They make use of your cloths. Your armour. You sense them, hear their footfalls; almost you can see them. In your mind it is clearer than when you were there but your eyes have lost the power to focus on matter. You can't hear them properly. The words they speak, real as bread when you spoke among them, are muffled like the words of foreign tribes. You don't know their edges.

The shade of Agamemnon pushes past. A bit too eager. Rein yourself in you greedy fool. You always liked blood that was shed at no risk to yourself. Still hiding behind your title of King. Everything you had was on account of that. Nothing was earned by your nature. You never saw any of it but the having. The Achaean warriors (who showed their greatness, not yours, in giving you loyalty) you made your instruments. Even Cassandra to you was just a cunt – a royal one – on legs. Every time you missed the point because the point you wanted to make was ‘Agamemnon is glorious.' Easy then for your wife to trick you. Red carpets. A bath like a cauldron. All that mocking pomp. She was another one you never saw. Not even when her knife went in and your own blood pumped unstoppably into the bath. Down here it is still ‘Agamemnon is glorious' but now your other chant is ‘Women are treacherous.' You never stopped to think why Clytemnestra wished you dead.

Achilles hears the drone of Agamemnon's voice. Even in the underworld he finds an audience. Now he's talking with one of the living. Still trying to impose his little will up there.

Achilles can't make out what he's saying. Not that he cares.

There are tears in Agamemnon's eyes as he moves back into the dark. He flinches from Achilles' gaze. Achilles glimpses Agamemnon as a man, shortlived and ignorant.

The way is clear now. The pit is at his feet.

He doesn't muzzle his way in like the others but kneels beside the pit as if it were a pool of clear rock water. Graceful as a nymph he dips a hand in and drinks from it; dips again and offers it to Patroclus, who drinks.

Sight clears:


Who else?

‘So you're still there.'

Reproach or admiration? Odysseus is not sure. Or does Achilles mock him? He has always made him feel that he tries too hard.

Achilles does laugh – from pleasure at seeing his old companion, stocky and foursquare and stinking with life.

‘Odysseus, son of Laertes, now I know you'll stop at nothing. Is no adventure too exacting or repugnant for you? For you it's the harder the better: the more nearly impossible the greater you show. And you've still got some companions left.'

Achilles stares back through the night. He can just make out Odysseus' men where they crowd round the fire: see a cheek, a hand in the light of the flame; they are turned away, not seeing the shades that Odysseus sees and speaks with. What Achilles would give to stand around that fire with them, to warm his hands, stir up the cinders with an old sword's point. And then to hunker down and eat.

But now, another hunger.

‘What's the news of my father? He's old now. How does he manage without me to defend him? Do the Myrmidons respect him? Honour him? Does he keep his land – the land I should be farming? How did he take my death?'

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