The city is smaller than I remember it. A boy when I left almost, away, to sea, sailing across the wine darkness into the rosy fingers of dawn on that morning. The Queen and the court on the docks, cheers and sadness together.
The gates are rotten. The bronze bolts stick out at angles. It will be one more winter before it drops of its hinges.
I pass people in the street. Young maidens in the latest low cut dresses. They are plentiful, some of an age you would expect to be married. Their mothers walk behind them talking, the market vendors cry out half-heartedly, the words are impotent on their lips and fade away to disappointment. The girls giggle. As they always do.
I see the palace atop the last hill. Defensible, impregnable. But not now. It is not a large hall. Enough for a hundred and then on the far side a series of rooms built into the steep hillside in and around an ancient Olive grove. The bedroom is there, I must remember the bedroom.
The Cowherd, the swineherd walk to my side. I have been invisible thanks to their magic. Rags from dead men, the stench of cow, pig, the fields on me. My hair is loose, long and knotted, my hands gnarled. Or so it would seem.
‘Supplicants are at midday’ Eumaeus growls in his low country voice. ‘We must make haste.’
We shuffle up the hill. I see old sights as I go. The old women washing, the orange tree at the midpoint of the hill. It is bare. The undressed branches are the sprawled hands of a woman I would rather forget. Circe and her cold hard eyes.
We enter the hall. It is empty apart from the long table and the Queen, supported by a handful of men and women. From what Eumaeus tells me they are all suitors in one fashion or another. A tall man speaks in Queen Penelope’s ear while the women fawn and flutter. She is at the centre of a web, caught, yet uneaten. The tallest of the men extends an arm and I feel myself tense at the disrespect as he lays a hand on my Queen, the Queen I have not seen for those long years.
It is custom. Here in Ithaka once the king is dead his son will inherit, and if no sons are found then the kiong can choose his own son from the men of the city. If there is no king, all the Queen has to do is declare him dead and choose a mate, a new husband to share her bed.
Penelope has held on for ten long years. Power in her hands, but power to condemn herself. Telemachus is dead. My own son, taken by fever only a year into my journey. The hopes of a homecoming dashed.
I shuffle across the smooth floor. The herdsmen stand well back. Philoetius and Eumaeus.
‘Queen’ I whisper, staggering, playing to the crowd. The tall man, Antinous looks down at me as if I am disease come for him in the night.
‘Argh, wretch’ he squeals, ‘Queen, why do you allow these men into your presence?’
The woman turns to him and speaks with slow deliberate words.
‘You eat my food suitor, you drink my wine, yet you will not show respect to the people who bring it to you.’
‘Queen’ I gasp, ‘I meant no disrespect, I am simply a humble man who has fallen on hard times as he has journeyed home.’
‘You are welcome here stranger’ she speaks without looking at me and I am thankful lest there is some recognition in her eyes. I back away as Antinous seethes. His eyes are cold but his hands are soft. He is a man who talks of war while others die.
That night I return and sit at the very lowest point possible. Eumaeus and Philoetious wait outside, turning a rabbit over a pit fire and talking.
The hall is long and narrow. The single table crowded by the men of the island. The old and the rich, the young and the hopeful. The lady of the island sits alone, to her left a single wooden, driftwood throne. Beaten but unbroken the chair is a sentinel over a raucous group of suitors for her hand. The kind long since vanished to the War, not yet returned, not yet confirmed dead. His presence is everywhere, and yet no-where.
‘I can tell stories’ I pipe up. Embarrassment in my voice, a calm set of eyes in my skull. One or two of the suitors turn and look at me. They see what I want them to see. A dark haired dirty stranger begging for scraps from the plates of great men. They turn away. I continue to speak.
‘I can tell stories’
‘No one cares vagrant’ one shouts. I duck as a wooden cup splinters against the stone doorway.
‘I can tell stories of the sea’ more cries for me to shut up, more cries for me to know my place. More food is thrown. Some hits, most misses. I watch a piece of bread loop from the far end of the table and catch it. I stand upright and bite a piece from it. Chewy and covered in gravy and spittle, nevertheless, I have eaten worse. I think about the horseflesh, and then the gull eggs and the sea kelp and finally rotting carcass of some great beast found washed up on the shores of Phaecia. I wince as I chew and remember the dogs that danced about its rib cage and the way the fat had started to drip from the leviathan in the heat.
‘I can tell stories of the islands’ I cry above the noise, above the cacophony of the anger and irritation. The men all turned to me now, they all looked with hatred. I am unclean, yet I dare to speak. I bite again into the bread. My eyes fixed on the lady alone. More missiles fly at me, I duck and weave. A few strike me, but none is sharp enough to cause harm.
‘I can tell stories of the heroes’ I yell, ‘I know them all’
This really angers one who stands and reaches for his belt to find no sword is there.
‘Dog’ he cries, ‘I should whip you. ‘The lady has no need for your tall tales and hopeless hopes.’
I move closer to him. I stink of the fields and he is revolted.
‘Please master’ I look at the lady as I speak, ‘I ask only to repay the lady for her kindness with a few tales of the war.’
As I say the word they all stop. They all look and they are all as one silent. There is only one war. The war that their king has yet to return from. The war that means potential heirs line up to marry the powerbroker on the island. The Queen sits still and steady, waiting forever for her husband. Yet weakening, and soon to succumb no doubt to the will of some angry, hungry man who wishes to wear kingship upon himself with no knowledge of its meaning, of its price.
The lady rises and beckons me forward. I stop at the very end of the table next to those least likely to succeed in stealing her away from the absent man. The young and the befuddled sit, drinking to excess. They ignore me, but the lady calls.
‘What story can you tell of the war stranger’ she says. Her voice is like the morning when it catches a dewy olive tree. It is oranges and yellows and lightness and grace.
‘I can tell all of it my lady’ I say.
‘And how can you be so certain of your tales?’
‘I was there when the city fell’ I say calmly. ‘When the trap split wide and your brave king and the troops of the late lamented son of Peleus tore the city asunder, I was there.’
I stare at the woman, wondering if there is any recognition in her eyes. He has been practiced these long years in holding her own counsel, but perhaps she suspects.
‘And what is your name stranger’ she asks, ‘we must know before we hear your tales.’
‘I would gladly give it my lady,’ I say, ‘but it is now lost, taken from me long ago. Now, across the wine dark sea I am simply nobody.’
As I told the tale that they wanted I remembered not the glory, or the heroics, but the realities of our daring plan. The horse left as an offering. Contained within five soldiers who had drawn straws to be with the cunning Odysseus. It was a risk. They could well have burned us alive. But luck, fate, some madness in a city tormented by hunger. Whatever it was they dragged the beast to the heart of their home, still arguing all the way about whether they should burn it as an offering in the city. We lay still in between the timbers.
The city breathed only gently in the morning. The screams and orgy of panic from the night before had given way to whispers and weeping. The central square was a butcher’s yard. Barrows continued to come from all quarters as Diomedes supervised the gathering of corpses to burn in offering.
Agamemnon sat aloft on the King’s dais. His brother Menelaus stood to one side. His barely recognisable wife by his side: pale, unconnected to the reality of what was happening before her. There was only the occasional flicker of eyes searching the meat for a recognisable face, a shield, a crest. Her children of the last ten years had been thrown from the battlements with the exception of her eldest daughter, now wrapped in rope in line with the rest of the remnants of the Trojan people. She had been lured away by her prince and would now pay the price of her happiness in full along with the rest of the city.
Every man that could be found was slaughtered, every boy gelded and every woman thrown in rope shackles. There must have been a thousand men piled on the blood soaked dust and more arrived every moment. The fire would burn for a day and the stench of charred flesh would no doubt remain in the air and on the stones for another ten years.
By the remnants of the horse lay the gelded boys. Some would bleed out, Infection would no doubt claim half within a few days. The rest would survive to become beasts of burden.
In the distance horns were being blown as the horsemen hunted down the remainder of the scattered Trojans. A few would no doubt escape into the Anatolian flats, possibly even as far as another settlement. Their ships were burned. Whoever had run would find themselves no better than if they had stayed. Eventually death would come to all.
I strolled through the city we had longed to occupy for so long and saw all of its splendour smashed and burned by the rampage of an army without joy or women for so long. Bloody patches where infants had been dashed against the light sun baked stone before being gathered up only to die in their mother’s arms a few paces later. Snatched away and thrown aside while the women were raped by an army that would show no mercy.
The streets were death now. The cold after a frenzy. The cleaned platter after a meal. Bones and loose flesh in the teeth of a conflict now at rest, digesting.
The late morning brought the wailing of the women. Like a north wind they were led through the city. Bloody and bowed under the yoke of their new masters. Split up and given to the captains of the fleet. They were chattel, the spoils of war. The dinner guests were regaled with the treasures of troy as I thought on this. My lips speaking of the gold and silver statues of horses and Gods they would laugh at while my mind thought only of the stench of dying and dead and the empty eyes of the woman they had used as the excuse for this carnage.
The suitors applaud as I finish my tale with lists of the treasures taken. I do not tell them of my sickness at the memories or of the callous horror. They want to hear about war, not experience it.
A man mentions Agamemnon and another calls for his tragic tale. I cannot bear to think of the man, but I will continue to relay what they want to hear.
They want to hear about the tragedy of Agamemnon. The king was a cruel man. His build short, stocky, without grace, without natural balance. He was a hacker of men, an arm hidden behind a chariot as it rode into the fray. His guard would die, but not him.
The dinner never heard of his lust for the Trojan lands, his desire so great he wanted to demonstrate, to prove to the Gods he was the man to do it, to take them, his resolve was such that he slew his daughter.
The tales differ depending on who you hear from. The romantics say she was spirited away the moment the blade touched her skin, his devotion proved the winds favourable. The truth is raw. Men who knew wept as they told me how the girl was dressed and brought to dinner. A dinner in her honour as eldest daughter. The mother Clytemnestra stood there beaming at her husband’s adoration for her beauty, the youngest siblings to one side marvelling at their father’s previous disdain become love and celebration.
The captains of the ships were there. The feast went on and then to the fire pit they went. Priests there, waiting for the sacrifice that would mean good winds and victory. Long robes, ancient beards, frail and uncaring, they knew.
Agamemnon called his daughter to him and asked her if she wanted success for their endeavour, she said yes, with all her heart. Then he signaled and the priests bound her. The storyteller recalled the tears in her eyes, the confusion, the anger and then finally the terror as she realised what she was to him. No more than a means to an end.
I want to tell you that she vanished, that she was spirited away to some far land. Her throat was cut as she screamed for mercy, mother held back by the sea captains, father watching intrigued at the outcome. Whether his sacrifice would be great enough for the success. The priests dismembered her and burned the offerings, removing the liver, blemish free to show the assembled horde who paused as if wondering who they were before a roar of triumph grew from whispers and they marched back into the hall for the rest of the feasting.
They left the mother and children sat in the bloodied dust.
They had not forgotten when the great king returned. He was welcomed as a hero. I sanitised the return, the slaves being pulled off the boat and passed to the troops for their delectation, the gaudy spectacle of his return to the castle atop the great hill. We were welcomed as guests and there at the gates to the citadel were Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes; the children now grown into a man and woman who held each other too closely to be brother and sister.
As an honoured guest I sat at the head of the table and in the midst of the feast I heard Clytemnestra tell Agamemnon.
‘Husband, I wish to wash the blood and dust off of your feet, I have prepared a bath for you.’
Agamemnon was a lustful man and she knew this more than most. Seven maidens appeared, all barely covered wearing the thinnest cloth to disguise themselves, but leave their bodies unhindered.
‘The women of the best men wish to thankyou as well.’
The great king lurched from his chair and away with the women. I can only report what I later saw. When looking for the king to make my peace and return to the beached ships I found the bath. Deep set in the floor of the room. He sat at one end, for a moment seeming at rest in the shadowy light, attendants either side of him. I crept forward with greetings and saw too soon that his arms were not rested, but pinned with great bronze spearheads to the side of the bath. His mouth was stuffed with burned rags of his long dead daughter and his throat had been opened with the sharpest of knives.
Brother and sister, naked and shivering knelt in front of him as his life slowly drained from him. His breath drawn now through the great maw in his neck. In the shadows behind emerged the queen. Naked her flesh was tight against her skin, age had been fought by anger and she could have been ancient or a maiden. In that moment she was beyond all creatures I have seen.
‘You are no one’ she called.
‘I am’ I replied.
‘You are not the same as when I saw you last.’
‘As is our way, dread Queen.’
‘Your intent?’ Both brother and sister had stood; they turned and faced me, clutching each other like lovers. Bloody water ran across their oiled skin.
‘To beg your leave to return to my ships. Home is a long way.’
‘Will you see home?’ she asked, bending and stroking the dying man’s hair.
‘One who is hated will return to Ithaca’ I said and turned.
My last vision of Agamemnon was the bronze knife of his wife slicing into his neck: his eyes bulging and his last bloody breath rasping over his vengeful wife and children.