Harp & Altar

Donald Breckenridge is the fiction editor of The Brooklyn Rail and editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology (Hanging Loose Press, 2006). He is also the author of more than a dozen plays, as well as the novella Rockaway Wherein (Red Dust, 1998) and the novel 6/2/95 (Spuyten Duyvil, 2002). His second novel Arabesques for Sauquoit is forthcoming from Autonomedia and his third novel YOU ARE HERE is forthcoming from Starcherone.


Michael Carlson’s first book of poems, Cement Guitar, was awarded the Juniper Prize and published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2003. The manuscript he’s editing now is called Beware of Ideas. He teaches fifth grade in Brooklyn.


Oisín Curran’s Mopus was published in 2008 by Counterpath Press. He grew up in Maine and lives with his wife in Montreal.


Rising, Farrah Field’s first book of poems, won the 2007 Levis Prize and will be published in early 2009 by Four Way Books. Her poems have appeared in many publications and are forthcoming in Pebble Lake Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Fulcrum, and Typo. She is currently working on a novel and lives in Brooklyn.


Andrew Grace is a 2006-8 Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford. Sections of his manuscript Sancta are forthcoming in Washington Square, LIT, Gulf Stream, Mid-American Review, and H_NGM_N, among others. His second book, Shadeland, recently won the Ohio State University/The Journal prize for poetry.


Emily Gropp has received writing fellowships from the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets and the Syria-Lebanon Room at the University of Pittsburgh, where she recently completed an MFA in poetry. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bloom, The Fourth River, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Whiskey & Fox, and others. She lives in Pittsburgh, city of bridges.


Heinrich Heine (1791–1856) was a journalist, an essayist, and one of the most significant German Romantic poets. As a young man Heine converted from Judaism to Protestantism. In 1831, he emigrated from Germany to France. Heine is remembered chiefly for selections of his lyric poetry, many of which were set to music in the form of Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Strauss.


Stephen Hilger’s photographs from the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles appear in this issue of Harp & Altar. He lives in New York and New Orleans, where he is a visiting assistant professor of art at Tulane University. Additional work can be seen at www.stephenhilger.com.


Dan Hoy lives in Brooklyn and is co-editor of Soft Targets. His chapbook Outtakes was published in 2007 by Lame House Press.


Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey was the winner of the 2007 Starcherone Fiction Prize. His writings have appeared in Pleiades and The Journal of Literary Imagination. A computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence, Mason is currently working on another novel about the mythology and culture of AIs.


Sara Michas-Martin is a former Stegner Fellow now Jones lecturer at Stanford. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Court Green, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, Pool, and elsewhere.


Michael Newton’s gallery reviews have appeared in previous issues of Harp & Altar.


Benjamin Paloff is a poetry editor at Boston Review. His poems have recently appeared in Gulf Coast, Jacket, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. He teaches Slavic and comparative literature at the University of Michigan.


Derek White runs Calamari Press, edits Sleepingfish, and blogs at 5cense.com.


Jared White was born in Boston and currently lives in Brooklyn. He attended Columbia University for an MFA, where he was awarded a prize from the Academy of American Poets. His poetry has appeared in many journals, including Harp & Altar, Cannibal, The Modern Review, Barrow Street, Sawbuck, and Word For/Word, and more work is forthcoming with Fulcrum and Horse Less Review. He maintains an occasional blog at jaredswhite.blogspot.com.


Joshua Marie Wilkinson was born and raised in Seattle. He is the author of three books. Next year will see the release of The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth (Tupelo), 12x12: Conversations in Poetry & Poetics (Iowa), and Made a Machine by Describing the Landscape (a film about Califone on tour). He lives in Chicago.


Recipient of the Beard’s Fund Short Story Award, Peter Wortsman is the author of A Modern Way to Die: Small Stories and Microtales and the play The Tattooed Man Tells All. His translations from the German include Travel Pictures by Heinrich Heine (Archipelago), Posthumous Papers of a Living Author by Robert Musil (Archipelago), Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose by Peter Altenberg (Archipelago), and The Man Who Sold His Shadow by Adelbert von Chamisso (Fromm International).


Leni Zumas’s story collection Farewell Navigator is forthcoming from Open City Books in June. Her fiction appears in New York Tyrant, Quarterly West, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Hunter College and plays drums in the post-punk band S-S-S-Spectres. Her most pined-for travel destination is Iceland.


The Myrmidon Golem
Zachary Mason

Wounded pride justifies kidnapping, Agamemnon thought, when the pride is mine. He had just recruited the magus Odysseus from Ithaca by holding a sword to his infant son’s throat. He might have asked him to come but greatly feared the Trojans and dared not risk a rebuff. With characteristic self-assurance he assumed that his victim would soon accept his servitude as a fait accompli and embrace his, Agamemnon’s, purpose. Odysseus hated him as much for his presumption as for the kidnapping. From the bow of the ship he watched Ithaca recede and longed for his workshop, where he could have summoned a cackling sylph to seize Agamemnon and maroon him on the iciest peaks of the Caucasus. In the event he saw no option but biding his time.

A week out of Ithaca the ship touched at Syros. Odysseus was told to go recruit the warrior Achilles, and to do it within a day, or he, Agamemnon, would sail back to the now unguarded shores of Ithaca—he always needed more slaves. Agamemnon said, “The oracle at Delphi decreed that Achilles must sail with me or I will find a bad death waiting when I come back from Troy. Of course you see why I chose you, of all my men, for this mission.” Odysseus was amazed to see that Agamemnon expected him to be moved by his fulsomeness. Nonetheless, he disembarked and went to the court of the Syrian King Polyxenos, an old friend and a fellow devotee of the hermetic arts.

Polyxenos told Odysseus that Achilles, late his ward, had died, bitten on the heel by an adder. His mother, the sea nymph Thetis, had appeared in a cloud of grace and nursed him but the poison was implacable and on the seventh day the boy went down to Hades. Odysseus held his head in his hands—not even a sorcerer could call back the dead and Agamemnon was a resolute and stupid man who took pride in being unmoved by reason.

Polyxenos took pity on his friend and suggested that they use their arts to fashion a clay simulacrum of Achilles. Such an imitation would not withstand close inspection but it could fool everyone for a while. If need be, the double could be discretely dissolved in the sea. He observed that no one in the Greek army had ever set eyes on Achilles—who were they to doubt the Achilles they were given? Objections sprang to Odysseus’s mind but, as he had no better idea, he mastered himself and agreed with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.

In the small hours of the night the two lords crept out through the postern gate and filled canvas sacks with wet riverbank clay. By the time the moon set they were in the cool, dusty palace cellars, making a clay man. His proportions were heroic on the theory that idiosyncrasies are suspicious in an aristocrat but anything at all might be expected of a man whose very frame proclaims him half a god.

They lured a pretty young slave girl to the cellar with hints of assignation and preferment, and cut her throat as soon as she walked in the door. They hollowed out a cavity in the golem’s chest and poured in her blood so that it would partake of her bloom. At cockcrow the golem was done down to the smallest hair, and the girl’s body was buried under an oak tree on a hillside. Odysseus carved the word “Life” into the prostrate thing’s forehead and its dull eyes opened.

The golem’s cheeks were flushed and his skin was as warm and smooth as newly fired porcelain. When he stood up he seemed to be jointless. Second thoughts swarmed in Odysseus’s mind—the hair did not look real, the skin tone was wrong for a Mycenaean, and his gaze had a strange, intense fixity. It was too late to change anything, though, so they girt him in armor, put a spear in his hand and told him that his name was Achilles. The golem did all they bade him do, opening doors and putting away knives and alembics, but for all their commands and cajolery he would not speak. Odysseus would have turned the thing back to dust and started over but Polyxenos reminded him that the king was waiting. He summoned his son Patroclus and told him to go with Odysseus and help sustain the ruse. In the first hour of daylight they swathed the golem in black cloth and hurried him aboard the waiting ship.

Agamemnon was delighted to have avoided a bitter fate. Odysseus and Patroclus quietly monopolized their charge, who, on the rare occasions when they were not with him, stood board-straight by the railing and stared out to the sea. His minders explained his reserve alternately as the hauteur of one more god than man and as homesickness. Eventually Odysseus admitted to Agamemnon that Achilles was a little unbalanced by divine influences and unlikely ever to be like ordinary men—he had not revealed it earlier for fear of being accused of failing in his task and dooming his dear, distant wife to shackles. Agamemnon laughed and told him he need not worry about such quibbles when he was dealing with a great-hearted man of honor.

At Troy, Patroclus shared a tent with Achilles and it was widely assumed that they were lovers. In fact, Achilles was intelligent enough to cook, mend and polish, tireless, and endlessly biddable, which allowed Patroclus to live in the indolent luxury he craved.

Achilles’ eloquence in battle made up for his muteness and the ruse went undiscovered. Once Paris shot him in the face with an arrow at point blank range—it stuck, quivering, in his cheek. Achilles pulled it out in a puff of dust, threw it away and went back to his bloody work. In the confusion of battle, with friend and foe besmirched with white earth and blood, he sometimes killed at random, ignoring the Greeks’ terrified, indignant cries, and so he became feared by Greek and Trojan alike.

Odysseus approvingly surveyed the stacks of Greek and Trojan dead piled up by his creation—the Trojans were a lawful enemy and mere foreigners besides, and as for the Greeks they were fools serving a fool of a king.

His delight in the ruse ended when Hector put his spear through Patroclus’s heart. Achilles saw Patroclus die and went to stand over the body, shooing Hector away and trying to rouse his dead friend. The Trojans circled warily—Achilles killed those who got too close. The battle moved away but Achilles stayed with the body through the day and the night, sometimes nudging Patroclus with his foot, sometimes looking around as though for help, but he was the only one left on the moonlit plain. On the morning of the second day some understanding of death must have seeped into his thick clay skull because without warning he snatched up a spear, ran half a mile toward the thick of the fighting and threw himself in headlong. He fought in a rage, killing Greek and Trojan indiscriminately. He ignored the cruelest blows and his arm never tired—the flower of both armies poured their blood onto the field. All fled, leaving Achilles standing listlessly among the bodies with a bronze sword dangling from his hand. He reversed the blade and thrust it at his abdomen, snapping it.

In the following days both sides kept to their strongholds and even then they were afraid Achilles would overwhelm them, indifferent as he was both to blows and to entreaty. Peering over their barricades, they saw him walking a slow circuit around the city wall, dragging Patroclus behind him by the heel, occasionally looking back to see if he had revived.

The Greeks had had enough. Agamemnon fulminated but he could not stop them from breaking camp and taking to their ships. Odysseus was relieved that no one had thought to question him about Achilles’ extraordinary behavior and decided it was time to bring an end to his creation’s career. On a grey morning when the other captains were getting their ships ready for sea, he got a handful of black mud from the banks of the Scamander and went alone to the deserted plain where Achilles made his grisly circuit around Troy (it had been three hot days and Patroclus’s remains were faring poorly). “You there! Come here,” said Odysseus with a confidence he did not feel. “I am here to help. I will make your friend there as alive as you are.” Achilles approached him, all innocence, his burden ploughing the dust behind him. “Give me your helmet,” said Odysseus. As Achilles lifted it off, Odysseus reached up and smeared the mud on his forehead, effacing the word “Life.” Achilles stood there holding his helmet in his hands, as still as any stone.

Odysseus reflected that he hated both sides equally and might as well do both a disservice. He loaded the inert golem into a cart and drove it to the Trojan gates. To the guards on the walls he shouted, “Achilles, scourge of the plain, is no more—he went mad from grief and flung himself into the sea. He was our best man and we have no more stomach for war. Accept, then, this memento of our long war, in which you acquitted yourselves with honor. It is a statue of he who was our strength and our undoing. Take it, if you want it, and put it in your city to honor the man who slew your best but in the end preserved you.” Odysseus walked quickly away as dark clouds rolled in, the rain fell and the mud ran down Achilles’ face in black rivulets.