19. "The Water Bearers"

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Centering Briseis,
Enslaved to Achilles:

The ravages of Apollo's plagues
     turn waters murky with miasma,
     turn the springs sour with curdles,
               and so
          upriver we trek,
          into the Troad plain
          along Scamander's banks,
     as a parade of the enslaved
               with skins and buckets yoked over our shoulders,
                    there and back
          for as many trips as it takes
     to fill a boiling tripod.

The labor is exhausting,
     even with Iphis to share the burden.
We have little energy for talking,
               but
     she can tell when I'm troubled,
          and prompts me until I open up:
"I worry about Achilles."

     Iphis scowls.
"Have there been symptoms?
     They say headaches come first,
          and weakness,
          lack of motivation,
          loss of appetite,
          chills and nausea,
          and the rash. . . 
     Has he got the rash?"

     I shake my head.
"None of those,
     and lack of motivation least of all.
     The opposite in fact.
          He left the hut
               as a man possessed of a singular purpose.
               as he does on a day of battle,
                         and yet
          the Trojans didn't take the field today.
Who does Achilles war against,
     if not the army of Priam?"

We reach a bow in the river
     where some of the camp women are
           scrubbing clothes,
           dunking their bodies,
           bleaching linens for the dead.
     Some women fill their skins and buckets here.
Iphis and I continue our trek upstream.

"Patroclus confided in me
     that he worries for Achilles as well,"
          says Iphis.
     "He's spent these past ten days
          brooding through the camp,
          visiting each funeral pyre,
          scowling at Agamemnon's tent."

"The tyrant,"
     I spit.

"Hush,"
     warns Iphis.
          "An Overlord has a thousand ears."

"Among the women?
     Out in this wilderness?"

          "Two of his ears approach,
               even now."

     Ahead,
on the riverside trail,
     Chryseis Astynome
               walks toward us
          with a heavy load
          and a heavy belly.

"May we help with your burdens?"
     I ask.

"I have no burdens,
     just labors of love
          for my king."
     she puffs out her pregnant bulge
               and topples backward,
          mid-strut.
     Her waterskins spill onto thirsty soil.

     I look to Iphis.
          She nods.
"Let us refill those for you."

     Chryseis Astynome recoils
          from our helpful intent.
"Don't touch me,
     you filthy concubines of common soldiers!"

"What are you talking about?"
     asks Iphis.
          "Your situation is no better than ours."

"Worse than ours,"
     I affirm.
"I can't believe Agamemnon would have you working
     when you are so far along with a child."
     I stroke her bruised cheek,
          her twice-broken nose,
          the puffy swelling that surrounds her left eye,
               and still,
               though she flinches,
     her haughty glare remains.

"The Troad plain is my proving grounds,
          these wounds,
          my badges of honor,
     and this growing child,
     my ultimate snare
          to capture a king
               and win my place at his side."

"What fresh madness is this?"
     I laugh.
"Agamemnon already has a queen,
     twin sister to lovely Helen.
An heir of their marriage bed resides in Mycenae.
     Your child will inherit
          only a life of servitude."

     A scowl darkens her bruises.
"You know nothing,
     Briseis.
You haven't heard Agamemnon's complaints,
          his bone-deep hatred for Clytemnestra,
     'Helen's shadow,'
               he calls her,
     'a stain on the Mycenaen throne,'
          he says,
     'a darkness to Helen's light.'
It is best that my king be rid of Clytemnestra,
          I have decided,
               and so,
     I have worked my irresistible wiles,
               and now
          Agamemnon loves only me,
     and is loyal only to me,
You saw him turn my father's ransom aside?
          That was at my request!
     And even so will he evict his homefront bitch
          upon our triumphant return to the lands of Hellas,
               and with Clytemnestra gone,
               I shall be Queen of the Realm!"
Chryseis glows with arrogant pride,
     pregnant with delusions,
          burning to bend the Achaeans to her will.

I can almost feel sorry for her.
     Almost.

We retrieve our water in silence,
     and while we retrace our steps back to camp,
I consider the promises of Patroclus
          to marry Iphis after the war,
          to convince Achilles to marry me,
     that we all might live together in Phthia,
             happy,
                  safe,
               protected,
          as if in a perpetual dream.

But if Chryseis is deluded and absurd,
          what then am I then to think
     of Patroclus?
What is the curse upon this Troad plain
          that it drives reasonable souls
     to such madness?

Back among the beached blackships,
          choked by the ash of burning corpses,
     we collect stares and whispers
          as we pass the hive of activity
               that accompanies a new expedition.

I think again
     about Achilles,
          girding himself for a battle.
          Clearly,
     since I've seen him last,
someone has set a new plan into motion.

Agamemnon's heralds,
          Eurybates and Talthybius,
     intercept Chryseis
          before she reaches the Overlord's hut.
               Eurybates takes the water.
               Talthybius takes Chryseis.
     "Where are we going?"
          she demands.

"You are going home."

"To Mycenae?"
     she gasps.
"Has Clytemnestra been deposed already?"

"You are going home
          to the Island of Chryse,"
     Talthybius amends.

     Iphis shrieks.
"You are returning to your father!
     To your life of pampering and privilege!
          To be the envy of all of us who remain behind!"

     "No!"
Chryseis Astynome struggles
     against the herald's grip.
"Unhand me at once!
     My king would not discard me thus,
          not while I carry his heir.
As your future queen,
as the Hellenic Overlady to be,
     I demand you let me go!"
          Struggling against her fate,
          Struggling against her luck,
          Struggling against her own good fortune,
     Chryseis Astynome
is carried away by Talthybius,
          to be taken aboard the Ithacan flagship,
     and I watch
          with a growing sense of dread,
          with a growing certainty
     that something awful is about to happen.

EPIC CYCLE ROADMAP:

* The Kypria
* The Iliad
* The Posthomerica
* Tales of Nostos
* The Odyssey
* The Telegony
* The Aeneid
  Rage is the first book of the Iliad. Amazons is the first book of the Posthomerica.
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