Big Men Falling a Long Way

(from Book 24 of the Iliad)

Christopher Logue

Sunset.

   Greece to its ships to eat and sleep.
But Achilles could not sleep
Because he could not stop himself
Thinking about Patroclus.
   How in this war or that
They saved each other’s lives a dozen times a day,
Or how rash words died in him at Patroclus’ glance.
   He tried this side, then that.
Then he got up and went down to the beach,
Refettered Hector’s ankles to his chariot’s step,
And galloped the cadaver – kept from harm by visitant hands –
Round and around the embers of his true heart’s pyre.
Crying his eyes out.

*

   Twelve days of this.

   Then

   God to His gods:

   ‘Hector kept faith with us:
Regular bloodshed: frequent prayers.
He dies. His body is defiled. And Heaven does nothing.
Achilles can do what he likes with you.
Thousands have lost as much again as he has lost.
Grief has its term. I will not have existence hissed.’

   ‘Darling,’ – His wife, Queen Hera, said –
‘Hector is just another animal. Contrarywise,
Achilles’ mother – as you know very well –
Is one of Us. He has immortal genes then? Yes?
Not a full set, agreed. Nevertheless
All Paradise – including You – came to their wedding.’
   ‘A memorable event.’
   ‘Thankyou, Athena.’

   ‘That is enough,’ God said.
‘Hector will have a royal end.
Iris?’

*

   There is a cave in Samothrace
Whose mouth is screened by fragrant leaves.
Here Iris found Achilles’ mother, Thetis,
Worrying about her son while gazing out
Across the still, Aegean sea,
And took her hand, and spoke to her by name.

   ‘God calls.’
   ‘I am too sad to look Him in the face,’ she said,
But put a shawl blue as the sky around her shoulders, then her head,
And went.

*

   Alone with God.

   ‘Thetis, tell your son grief has a pause.
See that he eats, then has a girl.
Remind him he is due to die quite soon,
And he must stop fouling Prince Hector’s corpse.’
   She goes.

   Then:

   ‘Iris.’

   ‘Sire?’

   ‘Visit Troy. Tell its King:
You are to bring your son’s corpse home.
Its ransom – large. Appropriate.
Go now. Alone, save for your driver.
You will be treated with respect.’

*

   Troy.

   ‘King,’ Iris said,
‘You are to bring your son’s corpse home.
Its ransom – large. Appropriate.
Go now. Alone, save for your driver.
You will be treated with respect.’

   ‘You will be killed,’ his wife, Hecuba, said.
‘God put Achilles on this earth to kill.
His name means kill.
He killed my Hector. He will kill you.
Each morning I go down onto my knees
Begging the Lord to let me strangle him,
Then butcher him, then boil, then eat his heart.
Remember Hector. My brave boy.’

*

   The Treasury.

   Its chests.

   Their painted lids.

   The gifts:

   12 cloaks, each with a stitch-worked hunting scene.
12 soutanes, cut from white silk, with silvered hems.
12 lots of butter-coloured, Irish gold.
An amber chalice rimmed with platinum –
A wedding gift from Tirium of Cos.

*

   The Citadel.

   Carrying a cloth of gold,
Weeping, and at the same time, laughing,
Watched by his wife, his wives, his teenaged sons,
Using his cane on anyone who came too close,
The old king helped himself into his cloak,
Reached for his driver’s hand and hub-stepped up
Onto the flat-topped transport; knelt, face cowled
Among his crated gifts, and prayed:

   ‘Great Lord and Master of the Widespread Sky,
   Grant that the Greek accepts my words, my gifts.’

As he was driven down the Skean road
Towards Achilles and the sea.

*

   No moon.

   Then,

   Torchlight on points

   On masks.

   Hands move the old king onto a litter.

   Then he is gone.

*

   To reach the curtains that divide
The inner from the outer areas of lord Achilles’ tent,
You take the three steps up
Onto a stage of jointed planks that lead to them
Beneath a sailcloth canopy.

   Beside these steps they parked King Priam’s litter,
Where, but above him, lord Achilles, waiting, let
The old king get himself up out of it
Onto the stage, and, kneeling, kiss his hands:
The hands that killed his son.

   A pause.
   Then they go in.

   ‘I shall not sit,’ King Priam said,
‘While my son Hector’s body lies outside
Dirty and bare.
Accept my gifts. Give me my son’s body. Let me go back to Troy.
And you go back to Greece. With gold.’

   ‘That is enough from you,’ Achilles said, and then –
After a pause –
   ‘The corpse is yours. You will sleep here. But out of sight.
The Greek kings often come to me.
One sees you, up goes the body’s price.
   Automedon?’

   ‘My Lord?’

   His bed is made.
Likewise his driver’s.
Everybody sleeps.

*

   Iris to Priam in a dream:

   ‘Leave now.’

   And while he shook his driver,
Yoked their mules, bolted their tail-gate,
As silently as if her hands were air,
The harness, air,
So no one heard them leave,
Or saw them as they drove away,
Then reached, and crossed,
Just as the sun came up,
Scamander’s ford,
With Hector’s body by the tail-gate
Wrapped in the cloth of gold.