Harp & Altar
POETRY
Donald Breckenridge

Oisín Curran

Heinrich Heine
translated by Peter Wortsman

Zachary Mason
from The Lost Books of the Odyssey
The Iliad of Odysseus

Derek White
from Marsupial

Leni Zumas

The Iliad of Odysseus
Zachary Mason

I have often wondered whether all men are cowards like I am. Achaea’s flower, the chosen of Ares, disciplined, hard-muscled men who do not know what fear is—all a fraud, a conceit for bards and braggarts that has nothing to do with the vapid squalor of war.

I have no talent for martial arts. I was the despair of the arms master but I was the heir and to his sorrow he was in no position to give up on me. When I dropped my practice sword, hit myself in the head with my spear or broke down in frustrated tears, he would smile grimly and with forced good cheer say, “Anyone can learn to fight with enough application.” And, lo, the good man was right—despite my clumsiness, fat, stiff muscles and inclination to cry under stress I did eventually attain a modest standard of skill at arms, thanks mostly to my father watching our practices and encouraging the master to beat me bloody if I gave anything less than my absolute best. And beat me he did, and often, though to his credit I do not think he relished it. After a whipping he would help me up, dress my wounds and say, “Sorry, boy, but its your father’s orders and you’ll get worse than that when you go to war.” I dreamed of coming into my title and having him flogged and enslaved.

The exception to my general military ineptitude was with the bow, at which I excelled. When I pulled the string the world became quiet and I was aware only of the target, which I regarded with interest but no malice as my arrow all but invariably found its mark. Unfortunately for me this only exacerbated my reputation for effeminacy—as it allows one to strike from safety, the bow is a coward’s weapon, the sort of thing used by nomads and Asiatics. I could shoot rooks in the eye at a hundred paces all I liked and still be despised.

My shameful aptitudes did not end with archery—I was also articulate. I have never been at a loss for a tale, lie or synonym. I could recite the epic of Hercules after hearing it just four times. I was ideally suited to be a bard, a profession fit only for villains, wandering masterless men who live at the pleasure of their landed betters, as my father reminded me when I broached the idea. He and his men would say things like “We are here to live the stories, not compose them!” Sing, Muses, of the wrath of god-like shit-for-brains, hereditary lord of the mighty Coprophagoi, who skewered a number of other men with his pig-sticker and valued himself highly for so doing.

When I was twenty Agamemnon the High King came to the island to raise an army. His brother’s wife had preferred a sloe-eyed prince with a palace to her lawful husband, a Spartan King who lived in a mud hut and slept with his pigs for warmth. Privately, I saluted her common sense.

My father volunteered me to lead our troops. Age was slowing him down and he had lately been transferring more administrative responsibility to me but I hadn’t expected to be war-leader so soon. I had been making a point of carrying myself as I thought a battle-hardened hero would, loudly scorning danger, and though I thought my act was transparent enough for a child to penetrate it seems I had convinced both my father and the men in the guard—they gave a cheer when they got the news and immediately started divvying up old King Priam’s daughters and treasures.

Refusing to go to war was impossible. The only excuse would be madness or infirmity, and it would have been very suspicious if I were struck by a terrible disease just when it was time to sail. At this point a man of the common run would have realized the situation was impossible and bowed to fate but my cowardice made me capable of the extraordinary.

My father threw a feast in the High King’s honor and I got my first good look at him. I knew his reputation as a warrior but in his face was a willfulness such as I had never seen. He looked like a man who would lash out with all his strength if even minutely crossed.

I played the part of the young-buck-keen-to-make-a-name for all I was worth. How eager I was to leave boring, quiet Ithaca, see the world, win renown by feats of arms and so forth. Looking distant for a moment, I said, “And Troy is a long, long way away? If a man took ill there I suppose he would have no option but to stay and fight?” and darted a quick, inquisitive look at Agamemnon. Palamedes, Agamemnon’s lieutenant, a bald, silent man who thought much and spoke little, looked at me as though I had suddenly become interesting.

After a few minutes I made myself look as ill as possible and made my excuses. I went out, closed the door behind me, and, taking a deep breath, fell down thrashing, my heel hammering against the floor. The door opened—there were Agamemnon and Laertes, Palamedes and the arms master, all the men I had grown up with looking down at me as I writhed on the ground, saliva dribbling down my chin. Through my convulsive chattering I growled, “Close the door. Close the door!” Abashed, they did, leaving me to complete my fit in private. After a minute I desisted, sick with relief.

The next morning I showed up for arms practice as usual, face ashen, very grave. Father was there, all but unmanned with grief—his son was damaged goods, all but unmarriageable and not fit for battle. Agamemnon clapped an avuncular hand on my shoulder and asked me how I did. Palamedes asked if I ever felt the touch of god when the fits came on me. I knew that seizures were often preceded by epiphanies so I reluctantly admitted that I did—sometimes, I told them, it was as though Pallas Athena herself spoke with me while my spell played out, whispering secrets in my ear. It was the first thing that came to mind. I had their rapt attention, which made me confident and, like a fool, I embellished on my intimacy with the god. Agamemnon smiled and I was horrified to see in his face an emotion I had thought alien to him—generosity. “My boy, your luck is in. Palamedes here was telling me about the warrior Laon, who suffered the same disease you do, but it never slowed him down, not for a moment. So you see, there is no need to be concerned. And I’m even told its lucky, the god’s-touch disease. And for this campaign I believe we’ll be needing all the luck we can get, ha ha!” He clapped me on the shoulder again and went off to see about his ships. Palamedes smiled at me before following him and I decided that if I got the chance I would kill him.

I had hoped that the war would be short and I could return with an undeserved reputation for bravery. Spirits were high, in the beginning. Agamemnon and his lieutenants expected a quick victory but it was soon evident to me that there would be no such thing. The Trojan walls were high and thick, our siege engines were grossly inadequate and there was not a single skilled sapper in the army. The Trojans were as aware of our weaknesses as we were ignorant of their strengths—they would only sally when they could bring overwhelming force to bear at little risk to themselves. Most of the time they were content to let us spend our strength against their impregnable walls.

Their city was larger and their fortifications stronger than anything in Achaea—I realized that Agamemnon was basing his strategy on his experience attacking the little towns on the Attic coast. I was the first, but by no means the last, to realize that our failure was certain. I tried to persuade Agamemnon and his cronies with artful words but they scorned me, wondering rhetorically which campaigns I had fought in and whether I wouldn’t rather skulk off home, leaving honor unavenged and glory lying in the dust? In vain I argued that honor could as well be served without wasting time, men and matériel.

The camp smelled of unwashed men, which was bad enough, and made worse by drunk soldiers who couldn’t stagger the hundred feet to the latrine trenches. Only I seemed to mind the stench—the others breathed it in as though it were perfume. They were content to spend every night drinking and lying about their conquests of cities and women. During the day they fought and those lucky enough to survive came back to camp to repeat the cycle the next day, world without end.

Many times I was on the verge of just leaving and sailing back to Ithaca. I did not flee only because I would have lost all face with my father and our subjects. As father and I know, and as we try not to remind them, there is no good reason for our subjects to pay their taxes, row our ships, fight our battles or tip their caps to us other than tradition and the threat of violence (which is implicit, nicely civilized and glossed over with older, better families like mine). Much as I loathed the war there was at least the prospect of a tolerable life afterwards. My father would have disinherited me if I had shamed our house and I would rather have died than come down in the world.

I have speculated that brave men do not exist, but Achilles son of Peleus was an exception. The young chief of the Myrmidons was built like a mountain but fleet as the wind. Women found him comely but he reserved all his affections for two young men, Patroclus and Antilochus. In combat he was the most cold-blooded and terrifying man I have ever seen. I took to following in his wake on the field—I earned the first notches in my shield by finishing off the Trojans he wounded. Here, I thought, was a man who was in his way as different from the common run as me.

I made him my study. He was devoted to a sea goddess, Thetis, in front of whose portable shrine he sat for hours each day in silent prayer. I watched him train with Patroclus and the Myrmidons. He came to practice early and for every javelin his men threw, even the champions, he threw three. He was, in his way, as relentless as death. Cultivating him was easy, as the other chiefs found him stand-offish and abstemious and he had few friends. It was easy to draw him out—I got the sense that he liked to talk about himself but rarely got the chance. He told me he had been blessed by Thetis at birth and made immortal, immune to every weapon. But for all that, his immunity was limited—the day of his death was already fixed by Fate and not even the gods could change it. He therefore intended to win what glory he could in his set span of days. I questioned the value an immortality that lasted exactly until one died but his fatalism was impregnable and he laughed at me and called me a sophist.

The war dragged on for years. Only our numbers kept us from being routed. We lost five men for each one of theirs, which was, alarmingly to my mind at least, considered an acceptable rate of attrition, as we outnumbered them ten to one. I did not wish to number myself among the sacrifices and therefore became a skilled tactician, anticipating the places where the Trojans would attack and being elsewhere. From time to time I would guess where the Trojans would be weak and ambush them, just to avoid getting a reputation as a man who avoided trouble. Over the years lines of tribal authority weakened and men with knowing eyes and similar dispositions gravitated to my troop.

I was with Achilles when his fate found him. Hector, the mainstay of the Trojan army, had appeared in the thick of battle, scattering Greeks before him. Achilles went straight to meet him but his bodyguards were shot with arrows and he found himself more or less alone (as always, I was hanging back, waiting to see what developed). Egged on by Hector, the Trojan rank and file hurled themselves at Achilles, overwhelming him. Moved to a rare feat of self-exposure I cried out, from a certain distance, daring them to come over and fight me—I had a clear path back to the encampment—but they ignored me. Achilles never shouted for help but burst out of them, spear whirling, killing many and, best of all, putting his spear through great Hector’s jaw. The remaining Trojans fled, then, but instead of pursuing them Achilles stood there leaning on his spear. I approached and found him grey faced, his left foot soaked in gore—he had finally been wounded and it was a bad one, the tendon in his left ankle slashed through. I put his arm over my shoulder and helped him hobble back to camp. The doctors dressed the wound but it got infected and when I went to visit him I could smell the gangrene. I pled with him to have the leg off as the physicians said he must, or die, but he refused, saying death was better than life as a cripple. Within days he got his preference.

This was five years into the war. Any sane man would have called it a loss, or perhaps found some way to construe it as a victory, and gone home, but Agamemnon was immovable. I was not the only one who tried to talk him into decamping but we might as well have debated with a stone.

I decided to end the war on my own. Knowing we would never take the city, I decided to go straight for the war’s cause, so one night I put on beggar’s rags and snuck into Troy with a bag of gold and a skinning knife. I went to the palace and lingered on the steps, begging alms of passersby (many of whom I recognized from the field, none of whom gave me a second glance). Helen passed by with her maids, all slaves, three Achaeans among them.

That night I slept under an abandoned market stall, stray dogs and adulterers padding by me. The Greeks probably thought I had deserted but I was both braver and more treacherous than they supposed. Early the next morning one of the Achaean maids came out to do her marketing. I fell into step behind her and, when opportunity arose, dragged her into an alley with my hand over her mouth. “Don’t scream, sister,” I said in Greek. “I have gifts, first gold and then your freedom, and in exchange I only want a little gold of another kind.” I told her what to do to earn her passage home. She said nothing but took the bag and the knife and I saw in her eyes that she was a viper, that she hated Helen and her bondage and would do the dreadful thing I asked.

I crept back to the Greek camp and was asked no questions. The next night the maid was dragged to my tent by a guard who had found her wandering within our perimeter. She gave me a dark canvas sack within which was a mass of tangled, blood-spattered blonde hair with chunks of scalp still attached. The tone and richness of the hair identified it as the locks of none other than Helen of Troy, late of Sparta, no longer the most beautiful of women in respect of her recent death and mutilation but for all I knew the most lovely of ghosts. I noticed the brown crust under the maid’s fingernails and called for a bath, telling her the hot water would wash away her bondage as the sea would wash away all indignities over the course of her imminent trip home.

That evening I called a general assembly. With the heat of the bonfire on my back and the eyes of every Greek on me I told them that in one of my fits Athena had revealed that though Troy could not be taken, the war could be won. My announcement was greeted with hoots of derision. Loud voices wondered how this was possible. I shouted, “By bringing an end to the cause of this war, to Helen of the house of Tyndareus!” And I held up her hair, instantly recognizable in the firelight. A moan went up from the men and Menelaus leapt to his feet trembling, knocked over his wine-cup and called for a sword, a sword. I threw her hair at his feet, saying “Your wanton wife is dead and there’s your honor cleansed. The war is won, let us go home.” The Spartans gathered around him and some fool put a blade in his hand. The rest of the men gathered behind me, homesick and warsick, and turned hard gazes on the Spartans.

I had hoped that the Spartans, outnumbered, would back down. Menelaus and Agamemnon would bear me a grudge ’til the end of their days but let them, in everyone else’s eyes I would be a hero—Odysseus, who had won the war at a stroke and abased the High King’s pride. Unfortunately I had underestimated Spartan discipline and the hold the Spartan kings had on their men. They got their arms and my followers got their arms and battle was imminent when the Trojans attacked.

There must have been a spy in our camp—they could hardly have found a more vulnerable moment. We were disorganized, distracted, half armed, at odds with each other and tightly clustered. They rushed us from all sides. The fighting was bitter and in the first minutes I thought we would be overwhelmed. I fought my way away from the bonfire and found a store-tent to hide in as shrieking filled the night behind me.

The night passed with glacial slowness except when I cut the throat of a Trojan soldier who came in looking for spoil. I had hoped that our numbers would outweigh their initiative but by the time the false dawn lit the sky things were not much quieter—the Trojans were making an all-out effort to break us. It is strange to say that it occurred to me to find my men and rally them to the banner of the Laertides but I quickly suppressed this pointless impulse.

I borrowed the dead Trojan’s bloodstained cloak and helmet, reluctantly left the relative security of the tent and made for the camp’s edge. Trojans saw my helmet and assumed I was one of them. Greeks made to attack me till I hailed them in their own language. I passed a few knots of melee, my brothers in arms doing noble deeds and dying. I was terrified for my own life and did nothing to help them, though the circumstances of their deaths are etched in my memory. I clambered over the rude timber walls at the camp’s boundary and dropped down onto the sand below. From within the wall came cries of agony and the roar of flames—the Trojans must have gotten at the ships. Without, all was peaceful—a wide empty beach stretched before me and Troy was just visible on my left. It seemed unnatural that I could leave so easily. I threw my borrowed helmet into the surf and started walking.

After an hour the war seemed as though it had been a dream. I looked back and saw black pillars of smoke over the camp and over Troy.

I took stock of my situation. I had a sword, bread and a bag of silver. I was on a coast where I had no friends and many enemies, though few of them knew my name. Having no alternative, I kept walking south along the shore. I had heard of a city not far from Troy and in two days reached it. The guard at the gate asked me who I was and what I wanted. I had a mad impulse to say, “I am a sinister-minded foreigner who has lately been making war on the principal city of your country in hopes of rapine, pillage and blood-soaked revenge,” but instead said I was an itinerant bard hoping to sing for my supper. The guard looked at my sword and said I carried a strange sort of lyre. I replied that bandits abounded, many of them desperate and dangerous renegades from the war up north, and I had discovered by trial and error that it was more effective to hit them with a sword than a musical instrument. Indeed, my lyre had not survived the first trial but I was pleased to say my sword was in good shape even after many encores—my most popular ballad was “Feint Toward the Heart and Slash the Hamstring" but “Throw Sand in Their Eyes and Stab the Sword-Hand" was gaining popularity.

I found a place with the lord of the city. I had been afraid it would be galling to sit at the lower table but in the event found a bard’s station unobjectionable—I was given all I needed and there was no offensive familiarity. At first I sang the old stand-bys—“Theseus in the Repeating Labyrinth,” “The Tale of Medusa’s Shade,” “Athena’s Lover” and the like. I had the rapt attention of everyone from the lord to the potboy. Even the dogs under the tables watched with heads cocked.

Refugees trickled in over the following weeks and from their accounts I pieced together the story of the war’s end. The Trojans had overplayed their hand—they set fire to the Greek ships but in their race to the shore left many Greek soldiers behind them, intact and desperate. Diomedes, an independent-minded Greek general, wrote off the ships as a loss and had his soldiers mount up and race for Troy, emptied of men, its gates hanging open. The Greeks erupted into the city and gave vent to their rage. When the Trojans saw the smoke they rushed home to stop the sack and hours and then days of vicious house-to-house fighting followed, until Troy and the Greek ships were all in ashes, the soldiers slain or scattered, both forces broken. The only Greek ship to survive was Agamemnon’s, which has been anchored out in the bay—he and a handful of men sailed away that night, their sails filled with the spark-laden wind pouring out of the burning city, leaving their countrymen to get home as best they could.

I was concerned that the refugees would recognize me but no one thought to look for a Greek captain in the face of the bard sleeping on sheep-skins by the hearth. Still, when a month had passed the city was thick with displaced Trojans and I decided to go.

There were few bards that far out on the periphery of the Greek speaking world and I flourished. I never failed to get applause when I gave them the classics and soon became confident enough to invent material. I never went as far as sussing out the local headman’s lineage and singing a paean—I preferred to keep an emotional distance from my patrons. I took to telling the story of Odysseus of the Greeks, cleverest of men, whose ruses had been the death of so many. (In the same moment I formulated this epithet it occurred to me that it was Helen’s treacherous maid who told the Trojans when to attack. I wondered whether she were wealthy now or dead, or perhaps both, lying in a beehive tomb with gold and wine jars piled around her.)

It was when I was a guest in Tyre that I first heard another bard singing one of my songs and it occurred to me that I had in my hands the means of making myself an epic hero. What good is the truth when those who were there are dead or scattered? So I rearranged the events of Troy’s downfall, eliding my betrayals and the woman-killing, and made a good tale out of it. My account of Odysseus’s heroics changed according to my mood. Sometimes I led the defence as the Trojans went to burn the ships, sometimes I put myself in Diomedes’ boots and led the counter-attack on Troy. Sometimes Athena loved me so much that she shattered the Trojan curtain wall with a thunderbolt.

Diomedes’ cavalry, the maid’s bag of gold and the hours hiding in the airless tent combined somehow to give me the idea of Greek soldiers ensconced in a treacherous wooden horse. The ruse appealed to me and though I could never come up with a fully satisfactory reason why the Trojans would blithely drag a suspicious fifty foot tall wooden statue into their city, I glossed over their deliberations and the story was well received. I told the story so many times that I sometimes thought I really remembered Menelaus breathing fast and shallow in the stuffy darkness of the horse’s belly.

I traveled widely and won much acclaim. I lived among other men but was not of them and this suited me precisely. On the island Chios I bought a gentleman’s farm where I passed the winters. There were women, sometimes the same one for years, but I never married any of them and their names ran together.

In the tenth year after leaving Ithaca I realized I was done with singing and with new shores and cities. I gave the Chian farm to my woman at the time, and there were no hard feelings when I left for port and hitched a ride on a Phoenician trader bound in the general direction of home. At sea I lay on my back on deck and stared at the grey skies while composing an account of the last five years. From a muscle-bound Scythian brigand who had caught me stealing cheeses from his cave I made a one-eyed cannibal ogre. From the cold winters on Chios when I spoke with no one but my lover I made island imprisonments with kindly witches (there are, as far as I have seen, and I have seen much, no gods, no spirits and no such thing as witches, but I seem to be the only one who knows it—the best I can say for the powers of the night is that they make good stories).

At last the traders dropped me on the Ithacan shore and I hid my chests of gold in a cave I remembered. I cast my old cloak into the woods and using a tide-pool for a mirror shaved off the beard I had started when I landed on Asian shores. Clean shaven, I looked absurdly young. I strode off to my father’s hall and the predictable kerfuffle ensued—amazement, tears, glad reunions, questions, more tears, feasts, speeches. Tedium. I played my part as best I could but just wanted it to end so I could spend my remaining years with sword and harp on the wall, making loans at high interest and fathering sons. I never sang again, fearful of being recognized, but I got some second-hand fame as a patron of bards. I was most generous with those who had my songs word-perfect.