Agamemnon

"The Mask of Agamemnon" courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“The Mask of Agamemnon” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

He sits on the beach in the collapsible plastic chair they found ages ago in the surf, drumming his fingers. Shirtless soldiers scrub barnacles from the bow and listen to radio static. The seagulls fly overhead in confounding signs, first in circles, then zagging, then diving. This morning, he watched two gang up and bloody a third and took it to mean nothing. The oracle told him otherwise.

The island is so damned peaceful, he tries to convince himself again to forget his other purposes and lean back in this chair forever. Closing his eyes, he is almost able to release himself into the amnesia of sleep, but the grunts of the working men fall with such a rococo beat that the pleasant urging of the waves dies in their calls.

Opening his eyes, his vision is bleached by the sun, making the soldier walking towards him appear a shade of pale blue. The timidity of his steps suggests this is another poor foot soldier sent over with an unpleasant embassy. Slowly, his vision returns, and the pale blue figure becomes a man with dark hair that glows with brilliant sunlight. His eyes would be beautiful if they were not so fearful and womanly.

“Is it done, sir?” the soldier stammers.

“What done?”

“The act. To please the gods.”

“Whichever act might please the gods has clearly not been done. You could as easily have looked at the clouds as asked me.”

The soldier shuffles his weight and offers an apologetic nod. “Any word, sir?”

“You hear that radio?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What does it sound like to you?”

“Static, sir.”

“So do you think I’ve had fucking word?”

The soldier looks ready to run off for protection in the sea foam but manages to keep himself steady. He fears who he returns to more than the man lazying in his plastic chair. Everyone knows Agamemnon fears to use the knife.

“We used to survive fine before the radio, sir. My king—”

“Which is your king?”

“He prefers not to say.”

“Of course. Continue.”

“My king reminds you, respectfully, that before the radios and refrigerators and plastics washed up on this shore, we were descending upon an enemy. He respectfully reminds you that it is in your power to marshal our forces over the sea again, so that we might win our war and return to our homes. And, respectfully, with all due respect, he suggests you make the sacrifice.”

“Tell your woman-child king that the son of Aetius does not take criticism from a man whose sore testicles keep him from delivering rebukes himself. Agamemnon may be old now, but he is strong enough to break any man on this island, to hold him down and shave his beard so he might better resemble the woman-creature he mimics.”

The soldier scrambles off, hopefully to tell whichever lord bothered to send him that Agamemnon is in no mood to play politics with underlings. If one of those small-city pant-pissers who fancies himself a king of his three hundred Achaeans wants to come over and chat about the weather, he can come himself.

Shading his eyes, he looks upwards. The sky is marvelously clear for miles. Yet in every direction the clouds linger in the distance, creating a wall of storm that condemns them this island. The whole might of Greece imprisoned by storm clouds.

Farther along the beach, a new discovery washes up, a Styrofoam container that appears to have more drink in it. Small plastic rings follow behind with a throttled tortoise rotting within. That’s another symbol for the oracle to ponder over. Amazing how the gods can be so cruel and so kind at once. But they ask too much now. Much too much.

“Daphis!”

A tall, scrawny lad comes forward from his position supervising the barnacles. Agamemnon motions for him to move faster, to which the boy complies by breaking into a jog. By the time he reaches the beach chair, his golden skin has broken out into a light sweat.

“How is it coming?”

“Well, sir. We’ve scrubbed away the majority of the underbelly. We might have time to start on the decks before sunset.”

“What are they saying?”

Daphis flinches and looks away at the rocky cliffs to the west. “They don’t say much, sir. There has been a little grumbling, but I’ve kept it quiet. I had one man flogged for impudence. Lucky he got away so lightly, but you cautioned against excessive force with your own men. No one else has been specific with his complaints.”

“Have you visited the other camps?”

“Several. The complaints…are more severe there. Many have their blood up for war. Many more would just go home. Very few wish to stay here much longer.”

“Every man is a king until the decisions fall to him. Then it all comes back to Agamemnon.” He sighs and twirls his hand, conducting war marches at the sea. “Do any of these men know where we should sail if the storms eased?”

“No one recalls exactly, but the general consensus is the direction is east for war and west for home.”

“Very good, Daphis. Thank you. Where is my daughter? I would see my daughter.”

“She plays with Nestor’s grandchildren.”

The young man points to a speck down the beach that is the ship of wise old Nestor. Agamemnon dismisses his lieutenant and strolls down the beach toward his last remaining ally on this island. Along the way, he passes the camps of Ajax and that cocky-shit Odysseus who sits amongst his men rewriting history to make himself sound grander. What a tongue that man has. With that kind of skill, Agamemnon might find a way out of this situation.

The soldiers are studious in finding enough work to keep their attention from their leader passing through. Somehow every head is turned. No one solutes. No one speaks an evil word either. He is simply ignored.

Patroclus rushes up on the edge of Achilles’ camp to whisper a loyal warning.

“He’s out of sorts today,” apologizes Patroclus. “He is eager for glory. He demands we sail. He demands women.”

“He demands, that is enough. The powerful always do.”

Patroclus bows his head but says nothing.

“I will not tax him.”

In order to avoid Achilles, whose temper is even swifter than his feet, Agamemnon takes a path through the rocky hillocks. This has the unfortunate result of leading him within sight of the cliff face, the area of the island he hates most of all. It is sharp and ugly, full of crags and pocks, always in shadow. The ledge that stands out farthest from the rest is flat and smooth, as if designed by the gods as a platform. It is a dead place where even the shrubs are leafless skeletons. Agamemnon tries to force himself to stare at the razor rocks and swallow the inevitable like a man, like a king. Yet when he looks up, his throat grows tight, his heart pounds against the cage of his chest, trying desperately to escape, and in his ears rings a terrible cry that turns his blood to ash.

He hears the scream again. Quickly, with near the speed of great Achilles, he rushes down the slope to Nestor’s camp. It was a real scream, distinct from every other on this island, that of his child Iphigenia. He rushes onto the beach, his eyes wide, alert, trying to take in reality, trying to brush away horrible dreams.

“Papa!” She runs into his arms. She smells of sea salt and wine. Her feet bleed grape juice. The barrels responsible are being towed onto the ships.

“Papa, tell the boys to play nicely with me. They pull my hair and poke at me with dull spears. Why can’t they ever be nice?”

The boys responsible twist their arms behind them and look off in every direction for excuses. They too have learned to ignore him.

Agamemnon rises to his full height and places his best frown on his face. “Is this true?”

“Yes, sir. It was only a game.”

“It’s a man’s game. Stick with what was made for children, else you will have a man’s punishment.”

“Yes, sir,” they say in unison. With relief, they run off with Iphigenia farther down the beach to play with more privacy.

“Stay away from the cliffs!” he calls after them, but they won’t listen. Perhaps it would be better not to caution them, let what must happen happen by accident, by a trick of the gods. No, it would be almost as monstrous that way as well.

Waving over his attention from the deck, the old wise king of Pylos beckons the general of all the Achaean forces. By the time Agamemnon steps onboard, Nestor has settled himself on a moldy sofa that appeared on the shore some time ago.

“Do you plan a feast?” asks Agamemnon.

“Some such, my lord. The men need their spirits raised. Nothing raises spirits like spirit itself.”

“And nothing lowers it afterward.”

“We deal with afterward, afterward.”

Nestor points to a second sofa just across from him but does not rise. Agamemnon chooses not to notice this small impropriety, reclines upon the assigned seat.

“You look tired, my lord. You do not sleep.”

“It comes rarely. Dreams…”

Nestor nods. “Sometimes dreams are sweet as mead to a thirsty soul, but they can turn against us if the gods will. They demand something of you.”

“We know what they demand.”

Nestor nods again then takes up a small block of wood and begins whittling. Agamemnon watches for unmarked minutes as the beach wood changes from nothing into the very image of a woman’s face, a beautiful woman.

“Who is that?”

“I do not recall, my lord. She was precious, though.”

Wood chips spring off the block, releasing the image with every careful flick of Nestor’s knife. First the cheeks and then the chin become smooth and real. The nose is small and ends gracefully. The forehead is elegant and long. The eyes are large and half-open, heavy-lidded with unhappiness. Somehow, he knows the color is a shade darker than honey, that they are watery and always look into the distance.

“How long have we been on this island?”

“A while, I’d wager. Longer than some would like.”

“Not long enough for others.”

“Not long enough for you, my lord. I do not think it will ever be long enough for you.”

“What is asked of me is unnatural.”

“It can only be natural. It comes from the gods.”

“It cannot be asked of me.”

“Are you a king, my lord?”

“I am.”

“Then it must be asked. Remember that these men have left their families. Many will not come home. Many will come home and find no family remaining.”

“But that is nature, that is war.”

“This too is war.”

Agamemnon slams his hand down upon the arm of the sofa. Nestor, undisturbed, does not interrupt his careful markings along the bridge of the nose.

“I can give you no other advice. If your stubborn protests could sway the gods, another way would have been found by now. The men must go, either home or onward to war, but the men must go. If you seek more council, I recommend your brother.”

“Will you support me, Nestor, no matter what I choose?”

“I will support you, my lord, but I am not difficult to sway. I am old, I have made my goodbyes with the world. Where I pass is of no great concern to me. These men are young with lives to live and love and glory to gain. I am loyal but old; my speech is wise but unconvincing. I will follow you, my lord, but I can promise you nothing more than that.”

“I thank you for that at least.”

“Go see Menelaus, my lord. Go see your brother.”

He says farewell to Nestor as the sun falls off at the horizon behind those distant demanding clouds. Along the beach, new goods wash up: parasols and beach balls, plastic tarps and thermoses. Soldiers wander up in small groups and pick through the new bounty. Agamemnon picks up a cooler filled with steaks and other meat wrapped in plastic. This will make a good gift for Daphis and his men.

The children have quit their playing, so Agamemnon picks out his daughter from those remaining on the shore and sends her home with a soldier named Talos that Nestor has told him remains loyal. Just to be sure, Agamemnon promises him gifts once the task is done.

He bends down to whisper his daughter goodnight and insists she be asleep in her bed by the time he returns. She promises and accepts his kiss on her forehead.

“Did you have a good day, my sweet?”

“Yes, Papa. The boys were must nicer after you spoke to them. We played Theseus and the labyrinth. I was Ariadne.”

Agamemnon smiles at her and runs his rough hand over her soft cheek still plump with childhood. “Did you marry him and live happily?”

“No, I was left on a beach like this and died.”

“Not all the stories end that way.”

“The boys said they do.”

Agamemnon looks out over the water to the clouds now turned the color of Hades. The ends of his fingers have grown cold, so he pulls his hand back and warms it in the pit of his arm. He offers his daughter one last kiss and sends her off.

Diana lights his way with the last edge of her bow. The stars twinkle messages for the oracle, although the oracle only ever reads one command. From his brother’s camp, the cliff is distinguishable in the night’s shadow. Every burning eye from heaven looks at that sharp scrap of rock.

He finds Menelaus in his tent, petting a portrait of the woman Nestor was carving. It is a striking face, more striking for the lack of history Agamemnon can place to it. Somehow it makes him angry, lonely, and terribly hollow all at once.

“Do you remember her?” he asks as he settles down on a rug his brother hulled out of the sea a few months ago.

“Of course. I still burn from the slight to my honor.”

“Do you remember her name?”

“What does her name matter? She belongs to me. She is mine. She has been taken from me.”

“Who, though? Who stole her? Where is she now?”

His brother hesitates. The muscles in his strong arms flex and unflex as he tries to work out the history that has carried him along for so long. By the blank rage on his face, Agamemnon knows that the answer he seeks does not come at his bidding as it used to. So instead the massive lump of muscle that is the fearsome Menelaus rises and turns the gas on to heat his hotplate. He pulls a chunk of meat out of his mini-fridge and tosses it on his skillet.

“Wife,” whispers Menelaus. “She was my wife.”

“She was only a woman.”

“So I might say to you as well, brother.”

The meat clings to the skillet with desperate tendons. Menelaus abandons conversation as he focuses his attention on jabbing at the space where the flesh clutches the metal. His white teeth reveal themselves as he sneers and prods with a long knife. Eventually, the meat obeys, torn and shredded by this constant attack. Menelaus laughs and flips it over to do the whole thing again.

“I had to kill a man this week past. He spoke of desertion. He spoke of plots against my niece.”

“I’m glad you did your duty, though I suspect the act was enough reward for you.”

“Do you think me so brutal?”

“I do.”

Menelaus sticks his long knife into the rug. He wipes the sweat and fat of the meat onto his tunic. Multicolored tracks like oil skids in the ocean spread across his front. Menelaus looks down at the poor appearance he makes to his brother and smiles.

“He was anxious to get back to his wife, this traitor. It is the most common whine our subjects imbibe these days. ‘My wife!’ ‘My son!’ ‘When will I see my lover again?’ It is unmanly, I agree, but it has been a long while, has it not?”

Agamemnon does not answer. He turns off the hotplate and accepts the sliver of meat his brother offers him. It has been cooked dry, the salty grit in each bite reminds him of his goodnight kiss. She will be home now, asleep under her cloak in the space next to his. Daphis will have posted loyal guards. She is safe. She is safe.

Meanwhile, his brother takes the steak in his hands and rips a chunk with his teeth. “What of your wife, brother?”

“She waits.”

“For you? So long?”

“I am a son of Aetius, born of the strongest household in all of Greece.”

“So am I, yet where has my wife gone?”

They leave off on this topic, since neither can properly answer that question.

“Brother,” Agamemnon begins, “if we do not go…”

“If we do not go, you will have rebellion on your hands. Blood-minded Greeks will descend upon your camp and your ships. If we do not go, I can promise you no man but that demented geriatric Nestor will remain with you. And then the deed will be done anyway. You cannot stop what the gods will.”

“Then I reject the gods!” shouts Agamemnon.

“Reject all you like, it doesn’t change their will. You have stalled long enough. Get it done and sail east to please me or sail west to please the weak women in soldier’s dress, but you must get it done. The men will no longer be satisfied with detritus from the sea. You cannot keep them content away from glory and family with radios and volleyball nets.”

They part as friends, as they always do, his brother showing him out with the standard formulas of departure. Menelaus is brutal, but he is scrupulous with honor. On the way back, Agamemnon passes the night patrol. Their torches light their frowns. Most of the campfires are dowsed, save those belonging to the watch. Each Greek camp keeps watch, in theory towards the sea, but these days all the lights look out towards their fellow countrymen. There’s no trust from one Achaean to the next, from one king or city to the next. And these men intend to fight a war together? Is life so unbearable in the peace of this island?

His legs are weak from much walking today. His eyes ache from the sleep his thoughts have denied him for uncounted days. His head swims in deep seas. Somehow, he finds his way back to his own people. The Mycenaeans have bedded down just like the other tribes. Loyal Daphis walks over from the only fire in their territory and reports on the day’s events. The ships have been completely shucked of their barnacles. The decks are scrubbed clean. A number of interesting finds washed up on the shore that the king ought to examine tomorrow. Another two soldiers were flogged for insubordination. Iphigenia sleeps.

Agamemnon thanks his man and sends him to rest. Too late, he realizes he has left his cooler full of steaks back with his brother and is certain to never see them again. A new reward must be found for Daphis and Nestor and the boy who took his daughter home.

Standing just beyond his sleeping men, he reads the sky for a sign of sailing weather. The clouds remain as impenetrable as ever some distance from the island. Deadly storms rage, have raged, will rage there forever until he acts a king over a father. What a horrible world we live in.

In his tent, his daughter sleeps, curled up so tight her knees have left a mark on her chin. He kneels down and brushes her dark hair away from her forehead. She is still warm from the sun. The sun lives within her.

“Papa? Is it late?” she yawns.

“Very late, my sweet. Go back to sleep.” He strokes her hair and feels her body relax to his trusted touch. “We have a journey to make tomorrow. Go back to sleep. We have an awful lot to do tomorrow.”

He lays down and pretends the act of sleep until his daughter’s breathing tells him she has gone again to meet Morpheus. For a long time he keeps his eyes closed to the world and tries to find a picture to match the words “glory” and “duty.” He lays like that until the sun warms the outer walls of his tent. He does not sleep.

[Seth Libby is a 30-year-old writer from the United States. Brought up in small towns all across America, he developed an interest in literature, history, and mythology at an early age, all of which remain major sources of inspiration for his stories. Since 2005, he has lived mostly outside the United States, first as a university student, and later as a freelance writer and teacher of English. In the last year, he has taken on duties as a writer and editor for Rabona Magazine, an international football quarterly. He has recently completed his first novel and is looking for a publisher.]

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1 thought on “Agamemnon”

  1. This is WONDERFUL!

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