Sleep of Bronze: An Iliad

In Issue 57 by Dawid Juraszek

Image
Photo by Matthew Smith on Unsplash
Synopsis

The Trojan War, as seen through the dust at the feet of immortal heroes. Euchenor, a young Achaean warrior finds himself cast on alien shores, a world away from his native Corinth. Hurled into the midst of the war raging round the towering walls of Troy and seemingly doomed by his Father's prophecy, Euchenor reconsiders and rediscovers the nature of his life and his world, battling his fate, the gods, and ultimately, himself.

Scamander

What if it was a god?

Shivering, I look down. Parched earth. Withered vegetation. My own bruised feet. I feel the might of the heat on the back of my neck. The stream, its life-giving waters too close to bear, might just as well be flowing beyond the horizon. What’s below is hard as stone, what’s above is just as heavy. Me, I am petrified.

It must have been a god.

What else could it be, embodied and embedded in the air the way it was – embodying and embedding the air the way it did – and talking to Achilles in a voice that needed no sound to echo across the plain.

The living plain that was no more.

Elms, willows, tamarisks – all gone in dust and smoke. The view to the edge of the world – unobscured. It never was. It is now. Distorted by waves on waves of heat, the walls, the huts, the tents in the distance shimmer and beckon with a hollow promise of shade and sustenance. I feel my throat close up from the acrid dryness and need to fight the urge to approach the stream to take some of its life force to sustain my own.

It too is a god.

I sense it is, the way it swells in rage that reverberates in my insides, in my thoughts. No human or divine likeness needs to rise out of the pools and eddies, identifiable and spectacular, for anyone to know the water breathes. Don’t you know in your innermost self – don’t you accept in your deepest dream – that this is so?

You do.

Now what?

Should I keep crouching, squatting, hoping to wait it all out?

I could. Just like I did wait out the clang of blood-spattered bronze and deathward grunts of combat. Isn’t that better than getting up, being seen, and then all of a sudden, one among the multitudes, sent down forever in ultimate throes? Ilium is a story you need to tell, not one you want to be told about you.

Or is it the other way round?

As if that mattered – underneath this sky, upon this dirt, within this landscape, changing and unchanging as they are – as if you did.

The plain was different when I arrived here, too long ago to remember, one faceless name among thousands of nameless faces. Everything was different. I was different.

I hear a voice of pleading. Not so much words: it’s the sound that makes a difference, determines the meaning. My train of thought broken, I have no choice but to look up.

The boy is naked, defenceless, all at Achilles’ mercy – and wants to live. Have I met him? His voice, his fair face, his bearing, all that means something real and true to him, but his body stripped of bronze as it has now been means nothing to me any longer.

His voice pleads for a future life as his words tell of his life past.

I wish I could hear something, anything, more of his unfolding story. Achilles? He has no patience for letting it unfold.

Slashed open and disembowelled, the boy falls into the waters and vanishes, reduced to food. Or is it “elevated to inspiration”?

A stab of sorrow strikes through my heart and then dissipates, all in one efficient heartbeat, leaving no trace worth thinking of. I shift to relieve my ligaments only to stop halfway through the motion as I see another boy, just as fair but still encased in bronze and – most of all – ambidextrous, as good as invincible in his symmetrical glory. Combining in him the human and the elemental, he shines like no other has or will, here and now. I choke at the sight of him, at the skill of his, at all the days, months, years that pain and joy shaped into who he has become.

What I feel, I think, I whisper, is reprehensible and forgivable. Please kill the beast. Kill the man. The god. Achilles.

If not you, then who, when, how? Right there and then they clash.

For a moment too painful to ever recollect, it seems as if you might. Just. Your ability almost a match for the twisted hybrid of irreconcilables, your heart so much more and deeper and fuller and hotter and truer than the efficient pump in that legendary chest. For a moment – a moment that should outlast us all – I believe all could be better, and so could we. And if not better, different. But I know none of this is enough, and so do you, and so does Achilles, who graciously (shrewdly) allows his own blood to be spilled in a single precious slow-falling drop to advance the narrative of his relentless glory for millennia to come, undoes you, and lets out a fearful cry while hurling what’s left of you, piece by piece, into the waters, yet another preposterous challenger now food for the fish, inspiration for storytellers.

I would weep if I was sufficiently hydrated, if I didn’t know any better, if I dropped well-wrought excuses not to. I don’t, I swallow hard, I focus on the world amassing before the front of my skull.

Yes, it must be a god or a goddess or any other of the myriad of possibilities, shimmering in the air around Achilles, his frame now enhanced and emboldened, and I feel it’s wrong, or at least not right, but what do I matter, being all but dust at the feet of the gods, muck at the fists of the hybrids.

So I withdraw to my transient corner of eternal space and watch Achilles do what he does for a living, for a dying.

I hear myself think what he does is annihilate just as I hear myself think what he does is create, with nothing – or nobody – in between. But (uncomfortably) I feel I’m seeing less than there is to see and I know I’m aware of less than there is to be aware of, as limbs are separated from torsos, as flesh oozes blood on a heap that only grows, as life stories that made sense to loved ones end up only making sense to strangers, as the expending are turned into the expended. The power of the narrative to misdirect is overwhelming and I relent and I admit and I believe.

Achilles does more – and less – and else – than that.

Fair faces, rehearsed thrusts, sheer force, mad fear – they keep coming at him left and right, up and down, one heartbeat after another, and another, and another. Lives teeming in the flesh I cannot touch, nurtured in places I cannot inhabit, by the most important people I cannot hope to ever meet, let alone know. He proceeds to cut all of these – and them – down – and up – and whichever way his blade – his rage – falls. And I see – sense – all of that.

No better time, no better place.

I’m comfortable here, behind a mound of clotted dust left over from previous battles, a broken trunk of a dead tree casting a fleeting shadow on my sunburnt neck, the very lack of purpose making this moment all the more meaningful.

It’s Achilles after all. First time I really see him. We rarely get to. After all, we are not at the point of his spear, are we. That’s where you see him best, don’t you. Unless we – you – I – get in the way. And then for the last time. Perhaps I will, given the way he moves across the plain. Would I run?

They aren’t.

They. There’s too many of them. Too many for their own good.

I shiver and shudder and shrink at the sight of yet another body taken apart, and yet another, and yet. To Achilles they’re all merely temporary assemblages of flesh from which he can extract his glory only to subsequently cast away – empty shells that fulfilled their purpose – into the living stream. There are always more to come. And go.

You may want to curse him. I may want to. But wait.

Weren’t all these bodies hauled over here from across the skies precisely with the purpose of having some thing or other extracted from them? Didn’t they agree – or at least acknowledge – that they would be sourced for clan pride or combat value or the glory of those who defeat them? Or any expedient combination of those?

It’s not the world we want but it’s the world we accept.

Their warm faces reduced to skin on flesh on bone. Familiar expressions rendered alien.

Smiles of greeting turned inward and extinguished.

I feel my throat close up again, twisting and twitching in an attempt at self-protection. There ensues a brief struggle with a fit of cough, and I lose. For a moment or two the only world that matters is my inner one, fighting to escape into elsewhere. When at long last I look up – my face red and my eyes wet – the stream has had its fill.

No. His fill. Or hers. Or theirs. All I know Scamander is now – and always – alive in the truest way.

Wherever I cast a glance, the waves are rising, thick with blood and gore, strewn with body parts, hued with secretions, frothed with pain. There’s no longer any clear line separating the elements, as the water merges with the land, less an invasion than an invitation, and I see why.

There’s been too much flesh clogging the bed of the stream, strangling its flow, arresting its universal motion, denying its life force the passage it demands and deserves.

Suddenly my mound seems but a speck against the force of the elements, as the plain rises to the skies and I see the swift-footed Achilles caught up in the waves, his blades and his points suddenly – finally – irrelevant and I want to cheer, I do, yes, even though he fights on our side, but do you want to win like this, do you want to bow to him, do you want that kind of a world, no you don’t, and in the space of a single breath I am free, I feel free, I imagine myself free, safe in the treasonous thrill of knowing that the hollowed out bodies will be ours, that whatever they have to provide will be extracted – or extricated – by others, that with Achilles leading who we’ve become it’s better us than them.

For a while, the hero of heroes seems lost, adrift on the waves heavy with the spent life force of the ones he exploited, and I hear conflicted voices echo in my mind, unwilling to articulate them, unable to reconcile them, repeating to myself, I don’t matter, I don’t, please don’t make me do.

The walls of the fortress in the far background, the eternal sky heavy above, the heart and liver carrying on inside.

For one, two, three pained hopeful heartbeats I see Achilles losing. What a revelation.

What an ache and a delight.

I don’t know what to feel and I don’t want to.

Be killed by the forces and vulnerabilities you wronged. Be harmed but survive and change your ways.

Be dead, for once, and for all. Leave us to fight on equal terms.

Diminish, know your place, up there in the pantheon, not down here on the battlefield. Don’t you see you skew it all wrong?

These are words first to scream and then to forget, their echo all that fears to remain. Let the waters win. Let them. They are fighting for you too, after all, you know. For all.

Of us. And more than us. Their flowing into the sea is your flowing into the life you truly own, return, reciprocate. If only you relent for the span of a single savoured breath you will see and feel and understand and smile – and lay down your arms. No more of what you’ve been best at. And that’s a good thing. There will be one terrifying moment of letting go but all you need to do is wait it out, just this once, trusting in the sense of losing control to emerge strengthened in a way you intuitively know already. Don’t you? You do. Tell me you do.

How do I know all of this? How can I be sure? How dare I tell a hybrid what to do? And yet.

Yet.

He wouldn’t listen. He wouldn’t stop. He sees it as his birth right to dominate. And so he does, with whatever means ready at hand. The tide rises and crashes down on him with a force that would pulverise a lesser man – a man – but he rebounds and finds his balance again. And again. Again. Then the waters rise in a feat of superelemental strength never told or heard of and come down on him as the Olympus itself might. Only then does he lose his footing. Desperately hugging an elm older than his human ancestors back to the seventh generation, drenched and battered by the unrelenting waves, he attempts to call on his unearthly allies – resort to his inherited privileges – but the tide decidedly – or desperately – uproots the sacrificial tree and carries the hybrid deeper and further, almost to the point of self-recognition, of self-sameness, until he unbelievably grasps a rocky outcrop on a fallen cliff and hauls himself up into the air that powers him to fight and before the stream-turned-river-turned-god regroups for another assault, Achilles demands the powers of the sky and the earth come to his aid. Duly they respond, restore, recover. And whatever this was, it’s over.

For a span of time that it takes a leaf to fall off a tree, I heard whispers of another story, told in another voice. They resonated in my ribcage, soft but deep, slow but piercing. Then, just like that, the intervening forces take control and the story is no more. Sudden firestorms bursting all around, I scramble to remember anything from this brief incursion of otherness, but it’s all over save for a few half-remembered sensations, and all I now see is a blaze rushing through the plain, its flaming edge as sharp as the bronze one that Achilles wields, its purpose the same, its force equally relentless, and I know it’s all gone forever.

There are still skirmishes here and there, individual waves on individual flames, thick clouds rising out of the clamour, yet it’s but a sideshow to the clash that has already taken place. Whatever powers have come to Achilles’ aid, they prevailed.

But then – really, I mean it – they stop dead in their tracks, confused and embarrassed, and – choking on the elements – I see them reconsider.

A flow of (re)generative life is blocked by a wall of (re)generative death.

Achilles’ greatest darkest foulest achievement crests right there, reaching out to the skies, heavy and floating at the same time, tangled limbs clotted with liquids that pulse no longer, eyes unseeing skin untingling, damming the water they were cast into, stripped of their life but giving life to so many other beings, and in their reincarnated multitude sacred. Paused midway through their re-entering of the circle, they weigh and tower, highlight and underscore, and I weep.

Achilles is nowhere to be seen.

The flames he called on to his aid waver, as if for a split second humbled by what they have been enlisted to commit, as if in awe or perhaps reverence.

I listen to the blowflies buzzing around and I know all of this could last forever if only we knew, but we don’t, not as a body we don’t, only as bodies disconnected and individual and as such dismembered, hiding in plain sight behind walls, mounds, and one another, powerless in the face of the powerful who draw their core strength from our scattered weaknesses.

And then the flames rise and roar. Reverence can only do so much. The dam swells in its last desperate effort to defend the eternal process, all but overwhelms itself, all but becomes everything, but then – then! – fails and collapses in on itself, its insentient load devoured by purple flames and excreted in ashy clouds that choke the sky.

There erupts in me a sudden shock of force that drives me to join in it all, scream in the final burst, let go for all times past and for all my futures. Why not, why not, tell me why? That was a god, after all, it is, all of it, and there I am, dust and muck and grateful for it.

But something else in me resists me myself – or simply absorbs the shock – and I flinch before making the final leap into the intoxicating torrent. It’s barely a blink of an eye, but it’s enough, and I laugh and cry out loud as I stay put, watching and witnessing, there and not there at the same time, in me, of me, outside of me, all true and all intertwined, here and now and nowhere and never.

It’s all over soon anyway, any remnants burnt and toppled, the flow gushing, the hierarchy restored, the sky clearing up, Achilles triumphant, Scamander irrelevant.

That’s their end, I realise and shudder. An end I wouldn’t wish on anyone or anything. The end of ends, with no way back. Wasted spent gone. Never to return in any shape or form, all the words and screams forever reverberating silence.

The tide relents and dissipates, its burden unloaded, its load unburdened, and I look up, to the shade and shadow of Achilles, and I know all is lost even if we win.

About the Author

Dawid Juraszek

Website

Dawid Juraszek is the author of Medea and Other Poems of the Anthropocene (Kelsay Books 2020). A bilingual writer and educator based in China, he is working on a PhD project in cognitive ecocriticism at Maastricht University. His fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in multiple venues in Poland, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand.