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9. "Brothers"

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I slap Odysseus on the shoulder
     and push him aside.
"These others can not understand your melancholy,
     Achilles,
          as I do.
We are men,
     you and I,
     who have suffered great loss.
Patroclus was a brother to you,
     your father's adopted son,
     your constant companion
          during a too-brief childhood,
     who sat with you in the Phthian halls,
     who was tutored by Phoenix at your side,
     who joined this war,
          only reluctantly,
               to drive your chariot.
But did you forget,
     I also had a brother,
         Protesilaus,  
     first to die
on the Troad's foamy shore
     when we were, all of us,
         nine years and more younger
         nine years and more keener for glory
         than today."

A somber moment.
     Achilles's fingers come to rest
          on the lyre strings.
     Odysseus bows his head.

A woman attendant to the hero's tomb
     brings a jar of wine,
     and so Ajax
          pours out a libation.

But Thersites
     doubles over,
          laughing.
"Protesilaus?
     Protesilaus?!
No, my friends,
     Thersites remembers differently.
          It was Philoctetes
               who became our first casualty,
               left for dead
               on the island of Lemnos,
                    abandoned
          by his comrades
               because they couldn't stand his smelly feet!
     That's what Thersites remembers."

My fingers clench
     but I restrain my fist,
          remembering that Thersites,
               though not a friend,
          is still an ally
     and kin to honorable Diomedes.

"Protesilaus,
     on the day he died,"
Achilles prods,
     returning me
          to the moment,
          to the sea,
          to the crashing waves,
     audible from the hero's tomb.

"I wanted to join my brother,"
     I say.
"That day,
     I wanted to die,
          but I knew
          it was not yet my time.
     With every day,
     with every new battle,
          I still think of Protesilaus,
          and sometimes I still wish to die,
          and someday I surely will.
But each time the battle horn blows,
     I strap on grieves and breastplate.
     I don the plumed helmet.
     I charge into battle.
               Into the waves.
          I do my duty
               because he would want me to,
               because he no longer can."

"Protesilaus was your brother,"
     Achilles muses,
          with a hard strum
          followed by a pause.
"When his sandals touched Troy's sandy shore,
     and his body soon followed,
          what did you give up?
Your brotherhood,
     but not your life?
Your life,
     but not your brotherhood?"

"I lost both on that day,"
     I answer.
"I have nothing left in my heart
          except
     duty to his memory,
     duty to my country,
     duty to my oaths.
Surely this also is how you feel?"

"No,"
     Achilles says sadly.
"I lost neither my brother nor my life.
     What I lost
          was having them together."

THE EPIC CYCLE:

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