No Bird but an Invisible Thing

by Christian T.S. Crumlish

Traditionally Homer was blind and therefore illiterate. This is probably not true but thatís how the story goes. (Each time I start this story itís different. I start each version in a different pen. This pen is felt. The ink soaks in.) A woman yelled out a request: Sing the one about the Great War!

I can start it from the egg or the apple, he said. That is, the egg that hatched Helen the cause of the war, or the golden apple of dischord coveted and disputed by three goddesses. Or I could start with mighty Achilles pouting. . . . His lower lip trembling, he knitted his brows.

Start with the egg, she snapped.

As he performed the tale now a tragic blues now burlesque, he thought, Even for a meal a comfortable nightís sleep this act is wearing thin. He remembered his every performanceóthis was an unwelcome side effect of his prodigious memory gift of a muse. He had seen better days he recalled them in detail but colors do fade not so much in the memory but in life itself.

 

I reached under the lampshade to turn off the light. I turned the wrong knob. It felt natural in my blind hand and itís always the wrong one that feels natural as you grope, that slides between your fingers, that you turn even as you are realizing that itís the wrong one and youíre turning something on not off. And then the room is brighter. This happens every time. Itís almost as if one light must come on before the other can go off. Except they all turn off in the end.

Iíll try again:

 

Picture Cyrus wedged into his cubbyhole at home. Crumpled paper stained with the thin blood of deli roast beef stuffed in the wedge formed by the top of his computer monitor and the corner it backs into. Piles of books lean in from all around him. Perched on his ergonomically correct chair all he would need is a tall pointed hat decorated with stars moons astrological symbols. A longer beard. A sturdy staff leaning somewhere maybe against the scanner over there. Cyrus is a seeker after arcane wisdom, wisdom of the past wisdom of the future. A lonely man busy with his cerebral hobbies. So he's a scholar? No. A scientist? Not really. A sorcerer? Youíll see.

Let's take it from the top.

 

Blind Homer wandered the byways plying his song. He never did stay in one place long. But when he ran into this one same guy for it must have been the seventh time (he recognized him by the voice what else could it be?) he had to stop and wonder why. He never knew himself what lay ahead.

Often heíd simply follow a patronís advice about which road to take, who else might want to hear the story songs, or where a local holyday was upcoming. (He loved festivals hootenannies jamborees. They were rare opportunities to share a stage to pick up new material prove he could still cut it.)

He confronted the man: You've been studying me. Donít you know I take no apprentices? The air was dry tense the sky brittle a faded yellow.

This ubiquitous follower explained in reassuring tones. My name is Setys, he offered. I'm no bard and I'm not trying to be one, old man. I am what you call a symbolist.

Homer had heard of these symbols but did not believe in them. How could they capture and hold sounds? He said, This is worse than I suspected. You're some kind of spellcasteró

Setys began quoting him from a rendition of the Terrible Journey Home and he recognized his own turns of phrase word for word from the night before last. Dumbfoundedó

 

In the real one Iím up late trying not to make any noise. The windows are closed the air close. Iím feeling enclosed inside this small hyperbola of light and yet this scribbling seems loud and I worry too much light will spill in on her just one door away. I stop. I notice when her breathing changes. And I freeze. And then she breathes again, snoring gently with a new different rhythm. And just before I sat down to write my pulse pounded as I tiptoed in sockfeet to turn off a lamp only to turn on and immediately off the other light in the same lamp (ochre yellow then sepia). And for a moment I considered working in the dark a stupid thought.

Where was I?

Cyrusís outward pose was normal, even supernormal: successful. High achieving. He was a computer programmer but he never talked about it and had no programmer friends and worked alone, selling his services as a free lance. He had always been bright, if desultory, had merely seen the handwriting on the wall in college and fallen into a readymade opportunity for an easy living.

His dark red kinky hair was cut in a short bushy style. He had pale skin with freckles everywhere a broad flattish nose gangly limbs. Picture him wearing a red and black plaid flannel shirt open over a black t-shirt jeans sneakers; he and his clothes look dirty, as if he never washes them just wears them over and over eventually discarding them. The air around him is gray. The sky threatens.

 

The story can start anywhere but there are traditional places to wade in. Another way to tell the story would be to talk about the beautiful doomed Antinous and his mentor and lover, the emperor Hadrian. You've never heard this one? Good, this story gets stale if you know it too well.

I forget what a grimacing monster we are when we grope through hated light. Why are you reading here? she blurts. On the way back to bed she passes me again and when I say are you all right (because she looks like sheís in pain) she says the light is shining in. I say sorry. I turn it off finish up realize itís late and go to bed.

 

Hadrian gazed at his protégé, could see an aura a halo if you will bathing his reclined head. In repose he was beatific. Antinous resembled a Greek statue come to life, the ringlets of hair golden perfect proportions. And sleeping he was the statue first brought to life and then set again under a spell. Except it is I who am enthralled? Hadrian thought.

He is but a boy really a brave boy o brave boy brave babe oh! thought the emperor, but never had I loved until I loved him. Never will I love again. If only I could abdicate abrogate forgo all responsibility go away away from disguise myself sneak away with him. I could keep him with me be with him.

No! I must not tantalize myself with these absurd thoughts. Th' accursed prophecies are clear. What did that little sharp stick of a wise man tell me? Such a strange man. . . . That one eye burning into me if I squirm or fidget if he senses the slightest hesitation as if how dare I challenge an iota of his sermons. But he is wise of that there is no doubt. I am the most powerful I rule from on high the entire civilized world but even the gods in heaven confront fate at their peril. And I know there are sights monsters wonders and scrolls that I will never see. Antinous will spy them all after. . . . Will he hear me when I pray to him?

A slave appeared mute beside him. Hadrian could tell from his demeanor and his mumbled charms that the priest was again in the palace. The servants were all afraid of the sage. His frail brittle body conceals neither his power nor his wisdom.

Only Pteh, this Egyptian priest, elder of the innermost brotherhood, has made sense of the prophecies. Tied them all together in fact. It is time for Osiris to come again. The wheel has turned and a new age is adawning, he explained. Osiris is here already. Then he turned and pointed a long finger a weathered bark-stripped stick at my boy and Antinous didn't flinch, just nodded in that knowing way he has that way that makes me a man over twice his age feel weak and foolish.

Still I am afraid for my beautiful man-boy afraid to see him torn asunder. It is sufficient that he drown, the priest reassured me. This is a reassurance? The sacred Nile will see his resurrection. Yes, so have I been told. Never has my faith been tested like this. That I should let him die let him walk out into the sunlight and disappear from my sight forever. Yet not forever if I believe the prophecies and the interpretations and the commentaries. And believe them I must. If I don't believe who will?

I am the great bridge to the gods the prayers of the tiny myriads who people my maps their prayers course through me. I'll set an example and they will also worship him. (Except those damned monotheists.) Who will build the temples and with what gold pieces if I don't lead and choose the proper day and open my purse and make the sacrifices make them over and over until they are propitious. And he must have believers multitudes of followers. Their voices must rise up singing his praises up to the heavens so that he might be heralded upon his entrance as one of the blessed. Oh look down upon me from the dome of heaven I have picked out the stars that will be your bones they will wink at me and shine. I'll have the constellation painted in that glowing fish-dye on my bedchamber ceiling it will always be night in there when I am not out in the air directly under his gaze.

Hadrian listened to the rain for a long while looked out over the balcony at the moonlit courtyard the dark trees. Those shadows held terrors. Then he turned in the silver light and gently woke the slumbering Antinous after first wiping the tiniest fleck of drool from his lip with the hem of his toga. The sumptuous appointments of the room were invisible to him as he drank deeply the visage before him. Pteh is here, he said, in almost a whisper, we must meet with him a final time for your instructions in the mysteries; we go East tomorrow. Antinous nodded, squeezed Hadrianís wrist to reassure him. Hadrianís trembling calmed.

 

So is foreknowledge then an essential aspect of the story? No. It is possible to drown without knowing it. It is possible to surrender and be transformed without realizing it. It is possible to wake one day with false memories of going to sleep the night before. Often you're the last to know.

 

That night three women cornered Homer. He thought it was three. There were three voices but they sounded like the same voice in three different moods or at three different ages.

The first said, Is it true? You are old Homer? Others have claimed to be you. Some were very good. How do I know you are Homer?

(A weary shrug.) It is not for me. . . he began (in an elaborate stylee a fogeyish patter that old men affected when he was young). It is not for me to make you certain as to my being who I am, my identity. I am what am and thatís all what I am.

She laughed as he shifted his pipe to his other cheek and cocked his other blind eye at her.

But, said the second (or had the first moved? probably missed the full effect of the pose), I am a Grace.

A Grace? he blurted out. There was a distant peal of thunder.

Or a Fury a Fate a Norn. Itís the same, you know. More or less. I measure out the thread.

He said, Youíre shitting me.

Itís your turn to have faith, she said, now looking older now taller to his mindís eye. See that I have dropped some of my artifice. And Homer did see something and recoiled.

You too are more than one and one at the same time, she droned, hypnotically. Which one? He could not tell. Had he not heard these voices before in umpteen dreams?

What do you mean, Erinys? stammered the blind cringing old man all melody drained from his voice.

Where were you born? she demanded as if with sharp finger extended.

Thrace.

Not Ephesus? she taunted him

According to some legends, he admitted and started stopped looked puzzled.

Do you see what I mean? she said. Do you?

 

Look. A man drowned in a river or was dismembered and scattered in a river. The narratives differ: there are discrepancies. Some stories even lack the river. In each though there is death. That runs through the cycles of stories without fail. He conquers death. Here the stories again diverge. In one his sister or his lover or both reassembles his pieces (all but one) and he lives again or he descends into hell for his bride (and returns, having conquered Death, but without her). This happened before his death by dismemberment. In the river. Or he simply returns. In many of the stories there is a beloved woman.

Often the stories do not do justice to the women making them into male fear symbols. To get her story, you have to read between the lines study an incomplete record divine what the men have censored.

 

The slave Briseis was left alone in Agamemnonís tent. It was not markedly different from Achillesí. That fool. She could not bear the thought of his acne-scarred face. The legends never mentioned his blemishes. She thought about the legends. His mother (a titan? a nymph?) dipped him in a sacred fire (here the line used to go: "in the river Styx so dark so black"; Homer had tightened it up). How typical. His air of invulnerability. His spoiled pouting. Here he was breaking up the coalition over something petty. It was possible she was flattered but she longed for the opportunity for revenge. This is different from longing for revenge.

The air was dry as tinder. She paced the tent, tossing her long curly brown hair over first one shoulder and then the other. The legends were inconsistent about his heel, she observed, but his feigned nonchalance could not hide his nattering concern. How like a man. Repudiating weakness then obsessingóbeing eaten alive by fears. Of what? The inevitable of course. Itís impossible for him to have that weakness without it being exploited for dramatic irony. Look at Cassandra!

 

The record is incomplete, at times a nightmarish pastiche. I must have dreamt it the horror.

 

He was Orpheus and down he went not walking or swimming spinning out of control. And in the dream he saw Maureen but she was not his sister she was his wife. He was going down to find her and then she was going to find him. Donít look back he reminded her and she put him back together one piece at a time. He saw that he was naked he was ashamed. He put a hand down to cover himself find the missing piece. You are my sister he said. Oh Cyrus she said. He loved her he didnít love her he did.

 

Still I spend the whole day occupying myself fidgeting unable to be still and summon my thoughts. The sun bouncing noisily about the apartment from room to room distracts me.

Now when it is quiet she is asleep. The blinds are drawn etc. I can continue to assemble the story, still not sure it is my story, my story alone or ours together. I know that she enables me to write this.

At night I dream but pay no attention. Only rarely my psyche, a butterfly, flits over the threshold to conscious dreaming. The snatches I bring back after diving deep through the layer of sleep to the shallows of wakefulness, thought, the most mundane level of existence, those snatches have lost their virtue. I plant my dubious mental shards like magic beans (one cowís worth) and see what grows.

 

Sing O Muse the anger of Achilles Peleusí son, sing the destruction that piled pains upon the Achaians, pain upon pain a thousand times. . . .

 

A merchant in the audience bedecked adorned and draped in presumptuous purple, stage whispered to the gentleman next to him. Thatís a new beginning isnít it?

Relatively new, he confirmed. But I have heard it beforeójust this last spring.

The merchant hooked his thumb toward the dais. And was it blind old Homer singing then?

I believe it was though he looks different now.

Older?

No not older. Shorter but less bent less gnarled; yet his voice is the same unmistakable and I recognize the dramatic gestures.

Could this be a student passing himself off as the master?

I donít believe so there is a magical quality that could not be learned but quiet, this is one of my favorite parts:

 

. . . With my own men Iíll take instead fair-cheeked Briseis who is yours, take that prize from your very tent, and I will teach you that Iím above you so that you will think again before comparing yourself to me. . . .

 

That Agamemnon he was an arrogant one was he not? interjected the merchant.

Yes indeed my jewel-encrusted friend. But was he a greater fool than Achilles who brought doom upon his own allies? I should like to ask Briseis, who knew them both.

And both fall to listening again.

 

The characters in the story tell each other the story without recognizing it as their own. The stream flows off the page wipes it clean of print of text of those symbols or have we perspired on the page. Were we crying? Even the teller does not make up the story but merely manipulates the pieces. The hubris. Think you can play with the fragments without getting hurt? Be careful, the edges are sharp.

 

Time fascinated Cyrus. He knew from high-school physics that time stretches and contracts, unlike light, the purest form of information. In his computer programming he often sliced it up, something much easier to do than isolate a single piece ("moment") in time. He knew it ran crazily in dreams and that dreams represent a higher level of perception than waking thought and he derived from this that timeís uniformity is an illusion. So he asked himself, Where am I going? And whatís taking me there if not time?

 

He is dead.

 

Even as they were fishing Antinousí body from the river Hadrian was already busy proclaiming his cult. He mourned privately and ordered games at the equinox in honor of the new Osiris.

I will have his image displayed everywhere throughout the civilized world, he vowed, though no statue even by the greatest Greek artisan could equal his beauty as a living boy or now as an immortal god.

I'll remake the constellations, so I can see him rise and set eight months of the year.

 

Trying not to think about money for instance I have to shake the day by day feelings that ground me keep me crawling forward one small insignificant inch at a time. Put it aside put it aside let the other feelings thoughts mainly feelings flood in push it aside clear out some space some space in space some space in time. Build build build up one idea one image on top of another make something real I must I must.

 

Ugly short gnarled he paced in small circles. He could not get the voice of those women out of his mind. Now he was not sure whether it was the second or third that had warned him. They spoke all at once it seemed from many more than three directions.

What she said was meaningless, inane, thought Homer, but I cannot so easily discount the message of such a one. His skin felt dry.

Something is coming something is going but will the new way of things surpass the old? will I even be able to compare them? How will I fit in when my story is not my own? Still, I cannot persevere forever as a lone voice. Perhaps I can bargain with those weird women if I meet them again. How strange the way they slip in and out of my thoughts. They are impossible to hold.

 

Maureen turned the knob and entered Cyrusí apartment. She is Cyrusí twin has his freckles and kinky dark red hair in long braids but her brow is less prominent than his her nose smaller. She is not gangly. She is slightly older than Cyrus.

As usual the place was a mess. She ran a finger along the molding and grew a dust bunny. The tiny living room was matted with newspaper sections and strewn clothing. She peeked into the kitchen and had to look away. The door to his study was closed.

 

Cyrus wandered along a shady river. It was hot and there was no one in sight. He hit fast forward. Shadows blurred by the sun reached higher and higher overhead. In the distance he could make out a bent-over figure. He resumed normal speed. As he got closer he heard her weeping. Are you Isis? he asked her.

Here I am she said, dark tall hollow eyed willowy seemingly draped in mists. Hunched over one minute filling all space the next. Who are you, mortal, to approach me unafraid and challenge me thus? Donít you see my grief?

He nodded.

Donít you fear the goddess in her sorrow? Her eyes flashed.

He said, I am sorry. I will show more respect. This is good, he thought. Itís keeping me in character.

What are you thinking she said suddenly. I do not like the look in your eyes.

Quickly he said, Why are you crying?

Is it not supposed to be a mystery? she asked. Do you think you can come and ask me anything? Are you an adept?

I donít know, he said.

You knew one of my names, she pointed out, Do you know my brother my lover?

I may know him.

Did you know he was dead?

I had heard but how can a god die?

A god is just a hero from a long time ago, she lectured; another hero can kill him. Seth the destroyer has scattered him in the river. I am plotting revenge. She gestured at a pile in the shade.

He tried to look without displaying unseemly interest. He could make out a thigh or piece of a torso a hand what may have been a shaggy mop of hair. You can put him together again?

I can. I could do it now but he would not be whole. There is a piece of him I cannot find and while I fear it is lost forever I owe it to him to look.

 

Maureen pushed the door open and peeked inside. Cyrus was lying on his black leather couch. A helmet nestled over his head and extended to gloves on each hand. It looked monstrous covering his whole face. She heard him whispering.

I want to watch him return, he murmured. And then, Do you love him? Maureen tapped his thigh. He twitched.

Of course, he continued, And he loves you. Maureen looked over the bank of hardware and lights adjoining Cyrusí workstation. She flicked a switch. Cyrus jerked on the couch, then flailed his arms and legs as if having a seizure but only for an instant. He lifted his gloved arms to his head and unlatched the helmet. Then he eased it off. Looking around and blinking he fixed on Maureen.

Never do that again, he said, itís psychically painful.

Maureen rolled her eyes. Cyrus trailed his equipment over to a lab console and put on music loud. Maureen shouted, What were you doing in there! Why donít you get a real life! We were going to go for a walk today, or donít you remember!

I remember, he mouthed quickly defensively. What time is it?

Itís ten.

The stereo said push me in the water.

He said I thought we were going this afternoon.

We were but you were supposed to call me. I got tired of sitting around waiting for you to call.

The stereo said take me to the river.

Youíve flaked on me before and plus you still havenít told me what you were doing in that reality thing of yours. Hey why is it always so cold in here?

 

The distance that seems necessary for writing, not absolute, but some balance between involvement and dispassion, itís so useful isnít it?

It is in these brief times I have to myself that I can overcome the urge not to do. Strange that I need the distance to have myself to myself when all the time Iím trying to get closer closer to myself closer to her.

 

Please stop crying dear said Agamemnon as soon as the others had left. He was red in the face his thick beard was matted with sweat. Come here to Papa. She rolled her eyes and kept sobbing. This one will take me use me but discard me in the end, she thought. I do not want him. There is no Patroklos here to bind me to him. And she thought of that one as she continued weeping. He had told her he would fight even if Achilles kept sulking. She knew he was rash, loyal. He seemed to love her but selflessly he promised to make things right between her and Achilles. Briseis, he had told her, he will marry you when he takes you home, Iíll see to it. You will be his queen.

And she had thought of her destroyed town her husband her three brothers slaughtered, and considered the alternatives. Patroklos would fight, she knew. She hoped Achilles would at least lend him his fabulous armor; he hardly needed it himself. The Trojans believed him invulnerable it was obvious by the way they fell to pieces when he appeared radiant. Perhaps Patroklos could rally the Argives and rout the Trojans. She wept loudly. Agamemnon threw his hands in the air then dragged them through his thick curly beard. I have a splitting headache, he announced.

 

And what kind of love is it that equals drowning that conjures up that final moment when the struggle ends, the lungs give up their last reserve of air, the body slips in the water falls like a leaf? What about the moments between? The still moments before or after when the wind is motionless on the surface but the currents run deep below?

 

They sat in his kitchen where he had cleared some space on the small table wedged in the corner. He poured three scoops of ground coffee into a gold mesh filter with a bent plastic rim. She said, Does your refrigerator always buzz like that. And he said, Yes, except it stops every now and then. I guess I donít notice it anymore. The water was boiling so he poured some into the filter.

Some drops of grainy coffee water splattered onto the stove top. Maureen said, You should just pour a little in at first and let the coffee grounds settle.

Sometimes I hear the chugging of the refrigerator as it shudders to a halt like itís exhausted and then silence. And only then do I realize Iíve been hearing this droning buzz weíre hearing now although youíre probably used to it already like I am. But you can hear it if you pay attention. Listen.

Sure, I still hear it.

After a while it starts again but I donít notice. Then it stops again. Itís one of those things I only notice when itís not there.

Iím like that with people, said Maureen. I take my friends for granted till theyíre gone. They were quiet for a while until Cyrus said, Cream?

 

And if you were always in the now always looking ahead always conscious of the present moment of the current state of your body of the amount of money in your wallet right now, and if you never look back never notice where you came from how you got here what you expected when you started out, then how would you ever really know who you were?

 

Homer was tired of singing. His voice creaked and his throat burned. But the weather was balmy and his joints were feeling resilient. He thought again about Setys. He would never understand this new magic not like the familiar power of his own art.

He felt that something was slipping away from him but he also felt a new spirit imbuing him. He saw himself performing less and less and nevertheless growing in renown and comfort. He pictured nine cities claiming him as a native son. Day by day he had been growing stronger.

Setys told him that the "writing" would be done in several weeks. Then they would "read" it to him and he would be able to add or make changes. It hadn't hurt a bit. He forgot now what the strange wom'n told him.

 

She came out squinting just now and is upset that Iím up so late writing. I bet she thinks Iíll be tired tomorrow and wonít want to go on a walk with her, but I wonít be and I will. Iíve rested enough.

 

Postscriptum: Soon after Hadrian himself died the cult of Antinous withered on the vine became a footnote.

 

I feel numb, said Cyrus, as he walked alongside Maureen. The hill was getting steeper.

What do you mean numb? You mean your feet.

Donít joke. This isnít easy for me to discuss. I mean numb like a zombie, like am I even alive?

I wasnít joking. Youíre breathing hard too. You should get out more. Youíre so pale.

Iím just like you, if Iím not in the dark I burn.

Well, itís shady here, at least till we get to the corner. You need the fresh air at least.

Youíre changing the subject.

Well, what am I supposed to say? What do you mean "numb"?

I mean I donít know if I have any feelings. I donít feel anything. I donít feel my feelings. This isnít making any sense. Itís like Iíve become totally unemotional.

Youíre probably the most emotional person I know. Look, letís stop here for a while. They sat on a bus stop bench.

Well itís obvious to you that Iím emotional. And other people have told me Iím moody. But Iím telling you I donít feel it. Itís like Iím a spectator.

Maybe youíre afraid of your feelings.

Obviously. But why?

Itís not so obvious. Donít be dismissive. Why do you think youíre afraid.

I donít know. I donít know. I guess. . . I just. . . donít. . . itís like Iíve kept my feelings under some kind of control so long that Iíve become a stranger to my own emotional life. I donít know where to begin.

And when you do begin, itís too scary?

Too intense. I run away.

Well Iíd say you withdraw. You know, into books computers games distractions. Anything you can control. Anything that happens on a thinking level.

I think too much.

Itís like youíre never alone.

But Iím always alone. I donít have anyone besides you. Letís start walking again.

You know Cyrus Iíve gone through periods of feeling like I needed a savior, someone to pull me out of whatever rut I was in and show me my true self make me feel alive. But itís never worked. I mean, no one else has ever been able to do that for me. I have to look in the mirror for that.

Cyrus started chuckling.

Whatís so funny?

When I look in the mirror I see you!

Maureen laughed. No way, youíre much uglier than me! Remember when we used to play the mirror game?

You could always beat me. You always knew what I was going to do.

I just psyched you out.

But I could never anticipate your movements.

Iím telling you I can read you like a book.

Cyrus thought about them playing that game like Harpo Marx (or was it Lucille Ball?) Their matching bowl haircuts their matching bell bottoms. So much corduroy and velour. Back then they were equally adorable he'd been told.

Look! said Maureen. They were just passing out of the shade of the building on the corner the air was lit with a mediterranean radiance clarity.

 

Pat and Mike went fishing.

They saw a sign that said:

Here Means River

Pat said, I donít know.

Mike said, I donít know either.

 

Finally it came to me what they saw.

 

Look at what?

There on the ground, I mean on the street.

Where?

Between those two cars. She kept pointing. She held her breath.

And what was she pointing at between two parked cars? Two birdís wings dirtier than a pigeonís but that same gray city color gray white black and different kinds of gray dirty raggamuffin like the frayed ear of a stuffed animal or the stump rather after the ear itself has been pulled off still sort of fuzzy woolly but soft.

Two wings laid next to each other but whereís the bird, no bird.

Like two little angel wings, she said.

Almost, yet sort of horrible, said he. They headed back to his house without talking.

 

Beyond the margin of the page Homer wandered into a tavern and winked at the barmaid. When I sent him over a drink he looked around and I signaled. He waved me over. Can I ask you a few questions? I said. Off the record?

 

He is dead.

 

Only Patroklos mattered, she realized as she wept. With all the tears I've shed why haven't my eyes run dry? First for my husband my brothers then to keep that doddering king at bay (now he has the gall to brag he has not touched me? as if he took an oath and had not simply been afraid of me and driven mad by my keening) and now for brave Patroklos torn with bronze lying here before me. Even his beautiful jet black curls are stained with blood. Those seven other womenóthey just throw women at Achilles to get him back into the game!óthose women of Lesbos weep as well but each for her own reason. I am tired of the haggling of these warriors. I am as a pebble to them or a trinket. This fireís almost burned itself out.

And Achilles. I suppose I am to be happy now that he has regained me, that he will fight again against Troy and perhaps triumph. I can not stand his pouting any longer. It is as if he only truly exists when in battle, otherwise he is turned entirely into himself. Listen to him sing. Where is there any joy? The one bright spot in my darkness is gone, his body broken here before me. He was always kind. I am so tired of Achillesí singing.

What became of Briseis is not written.

 

Let me tell you how she saved my hand:

The final step in making her special chili was preparing the garnishes. In this case three peppers, I forget which kinds. I know it was two of one kind, one of the other. One type was jalapeños Iím pretty sure. My job was to roast them over an open flame on the burner on the stove. To turn them repeatedly until they blistered all over. When ready weíd put them one by one in a bowl and cover it again with a plate. They were supposed to steam off most of the blistered skin. She would then strip them clean, cut out the seeds and other innards I think.

I was diligently trying to blister the entire outsides of the peppers (all green) but the deep part of the dimples resisted the heat. Inevitably I singed myself again and again, singed my left hand with which I manipulated the pepper by its stem, its stem charred by the flame and in one case burning through, leaving me with a stump barely suitable to flipping the pepper. Getting the ends blistered also required my fingers closer to the flame and I smelled the faint sickening smell of burning hair and saw the curled shriveled hairs on my knuckle flake away. It didnít hurt any more than a callous a toughening of my skin.

So I felt a little burn pain in my left hand anyway.

The chilis didnít peel much in the bowl like they were supposed to but the bowl became cloudy and showed condensed moisture inside. She managed to peel and slice them just fine anyway. I got a sponge and started wiping down the stove where little flakes of scorched pepper skin had settled. I grabbed the burner out of after-dinner-cleaning habit, realized my mistake before the motion was completed, and threw the burner back down. I may have said "Ouch." Iím pretty sure I made a loud noise. I darted toward the stove: she anticipated me. I remembered:

 

We were unpacking and putting away kitchen gear, mostly hers, and I was trying to get a feel for where everything was going, was going to go. With the refrigerator door open she said Oh yeah, this is very important. This is aloe, she showed me an unmarked dark amber bottle in the leftmost position of the upper shelf in the door.

If you ever burn yourself

immediately put some of this on the burn.

 

I remembered and pivoted. This all happened in the first second, easily. Again she was anticipating me already had the door open had the aloe out. I was afraid.

From the moment it happened I had been berating myself. I called myself an idiot or something worse. I felt like a fool. Strange that I had room in my mind to be embarrassed even as my body thrusted this way and that in panicked crisis management. But she soothed my feelings all along. Iíve done that, she said to reassure me.

She showed me that I had to tip the aloe onto my fingers myself. I couldnít specify where I was burned. I knew of course but I was deliberately not focusing my attention on those three spots, the first joint of my thumb and middle joints of middle and ring fingers, inside all, on diagonals. Imagine how you grab a burner off the stove to clean the enamel rim beneath it.

I tipped the aloe, pulpy like apple sauce but smoother, onto my hand but it ran like water through my fingers. I started rubbing it into the spots on my way back to the sink. She told me, Donít rub. Youíll warm it. She was already filling a metal bowl with ice. I ran the cold water. As soon as you feel the burn, put your hand in the ice water and keep it in as long as you can. After a minute or less I doubted my own perceptions. Could I feel a throbbing ache? Did the joints feel stiff if I flexed them slightly? I asked, Is there any reason to delay putting my hand in the water? I noticed how precisely I was speaking. From inside my head I sounded oddly calm but was anticipating the next few hours, hours of a party weíd been planning for months, hours of a party Iíd been anticipating all day, as the preceding hours unrolled slowly. I anticipated hours trying to entertain guests and ignore the searing pain of a brand.

I had been holding my hand in the water for a little while and now on the thin skin of my wrist I felt the pain of the cold. I held the back of my wrist to the bottom of the bowl my hand like a claw. The whole point, she explained, is to prevent your nerves from sending the message to your brain that youíre burning. Itíll send out the histamines and you donít want that. I was beginning to be hopeful. I thought perhaps I had escaped a maiming and I relaxed for the first time in what must have been about five minutes but felt like thirtyfive. You saved my hand, I said. I really think you did.

I kept my hand in the water longer as long as I could stand. The cold really hurt but seemed worth it and sure enough my hand was fine. Itís fine now. Telling this story earlier I thought I could feel something in my thumb but if so the twinge was so subtle that I bet my imagination was just enlivening the story.

During the party I forgot about it. I didnít even brag to anyone about this wonderful woman, my love, who saved my hand. If anything my left hand, singed in the flame, hurt a little bit.

 

He is dead.

 

Maureen found Cyrus's digital recording device, pressed Play. Cyrus's voice began:

. . . being at the beach with my mom and dad. Well thatís actually not true. I have a memory but I suspect it of being recycled. I was two at the time and I have no other memories from that far back and besides which I seem to remember too many of the details. Itís a patchwork memory but still itís the one Iíve got. I was playing down in the sand down by the waterís edge playing oblivious completely lost in my own world when a huge wave swept over me and carried me out. Maureen had been sitting on the blanket and saw the whole thing. Daddy, she said, Cyrus is gone. They looked around and said, What do you mean? (Now, I know I canít really remember this part, it must have been told to me but Iíve known it so long, itís a memory of someone elseís memory. In fact, Iíve reremembered it myself. Itís a third- or fourth-generation analog memory with tape hiss and drop outs.) A wave a wave, she screamed, a wave took him away! Then Dad understood and he got up and went into hero mode, racing down the beach and diving into the shallow surf. He came up with me almost immediately. Iíd been tossing and tumbling toddling and floating underwater still oblivious. I didnít even know to be scared until my father a big bear of the man at the time though he grew eventually rather normal sized and average looking, until my father seized me out of the waves and held me aloft. Thatís when I started crying and became afraid. My mom was crying too when he carried me back. Only Maureen was calmó

The voice cut off. The recorder stopped and turned off in her hand.

 

END