Context: This snippet explores homoerotic love in Greek mythology. It looks into the emerging love between the Greek hero, Achilles, and his longtime friend, Patroclus, who is the narrator. Patroclus describes their interactions leading up to Achilles' sixteenth birthday - for which he is preparing a special gift.
Achilles, “best of all the Greeks,” was everything I was not — strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess — and by all rights our paths should never have crossed. Yet one day, Achilles took me, a lowly prince, under his wing and we started living together at Mount Pelion. Soon our tentative connection gave way to a steadfast friendship.
IT WAS SPRING, AND WE WERE FIFTEEN. THE WINTER ICE HAD lasted longer than usual, and we were glad to be outside once more, beneath the sun. Our tunics were discarded, and our skin prickled in the light breeze. I had not been so naked all winter; it had been too cold to take off our furs and cloaks, beyond quick washes in the hollowed-out rock that served as our bath. Achilles was stretching, rolling limbs that were stiff from too long indoors. We had spent the morning swimming and chasing game through the forest. My muscles felt wearily content, glad to be used again.
I watched him. Other than the unsteady surface of the river, there were no mirrors on Mount Pelion, so I could only measure myself by the changes in Achilles. His limbs were still slender, but I could see the muscles in them now, rising and falling beneath his skin as he moved. His face, too, was firmer, and his shoulders broader than they had been.
“You look older,” I said.
He stopped, turned to me. “I do?”
“Yes.” I nodded. “Do I?”
“Come over here,” he said. I stood, walked to him. He regarded me a moment. “Yes,” he said.
“How?” I wanted to know. “A lot?”
“Your face is different,” he said.
He touched my jaw with his right hand, drew his fingertips along it. “Here. Your face is wider than it once was.” I reached up with my own hand, to see if I could feel this difference, but it was all the same to me, bone and skin. He took my hand and brought it down to my collarbone. “You are wider here also,” he said. “And this.” His finger touched, gently, the soft bulb that had emerged from my throat. I swallowed, and felt his fingertip ride against the motion.
“Where else?” I asked.
He pointed to the trail of fine, dark hair that ran down my chest and over my stomach.
He paused, and my face grew warm.
“That’s enough,” I said, more abruptly than I meant to. I sat again on the grass, and he resumed his stretches. I watched the breeze stir his hair; I watched the sun fall on his golden skin. I leaned back and let it fall on me as well.
After some time, he stopped and came to sit beside me. We watched the grass, and the trees, and the nubs of new buds, just growing.
His voice was remote, almost careless. “You would not be displeased, I think. With how you look now.”
My face grew warm, again. But we spoke no more of it.
WE WERE ALMOST SIXTEEN. Soon the berries would ripen, the fruits would blush and fall into our hands. Sixteen was our last year of childhood, the year before our fathers named us men, and we would begin to wear not just tunics but capes and chitons as well. A marriage would be arranged for Achilles, and I might take a wife, if I wished to. I thought of the serving girls with their dull eyes. I remembered the snatches of conversation I had overheard from the boys, the talk of breasts and hips and coupling.
She’s like cream, she’s that soft.
Once her thighs are around you, you’ll forget your own name.
The boys’ voices had been sharp with excitement, their color high. But when I tried to imagine what they spoke of, my mind slid away, like a fish who would not be caught.
Other images came in their stead. The curve of a neck bent over a lyre, hair gleaming in firelight, hands with their flickering tendons. We were together all day, and I could not escape: the smell of the oils he used on his feet, the glimpses of skin as he dressed. I would wrench my gaze from him and remember the day on the beach, the coldness in his eyes and how he ran from me. And, always, I remembered his mother.
I began to go off by myself, early in the mornings, when Achilles still slept, or in the afternoons, when he would practice his spear thrusts. I brought a flute with me, but rarely played it. Instead I would find a tree to lean against and breathe the sharp drift of cypress-scent, blown from the highest part of the mountain.
Slowly, as if to escape my own notice, my hand would move to rest between my thighs. There was shame in this thing that I did, and a greater shame still in the thoughts that came with it. But it would be worse to think them inside the rose-quartz cave, with him beside me.
It was difficult sometimes, after, to return to the cave. “Where were you?” he’d ask.
“Just—” I’d say, and point vaguely.
He’d nod. But I knew he saw the flush that colored my cheeks.
THE SUMMER GREW HOTTER, and we sought the river’s shade, its water that threw off arcs of light as we splashed and dove. The rocks of the bottom were mossy and cool, rolling beneath my toes as I waded. We shouted, and frightened the fish, who fled to their muddy holes or quieter waters upstream. The rushing ice melt of spring was gone; I lay on my back and let the dozy current carry me. I liked the feel of the sun on my stomach and the cool depths of the river beneath me. Achilles floated beside me or swam against the slow tug of the river’s flow.
When we tired of this, we would seize the low-hanging branches of the osiers and hoist ourselves half-out of the water. On this day we kicked at each other, our legs tangling, trying to dislodge the other, or perhaps climb onto their branch. On an impulse, I released my branch and seized him around his hanging torso. He let out an ooph of surprise. We struggled that way for a moment, laughing, my arms wrapped around him. Then there was a sharp cracking sound, and his branch gave way, plunging us into the river. The cool water closed over us, and still we wrestled, hands against slippery skin.
When we surfaced, we were panting and eager. He leapt for me, bearing me down through the clear water. We grappled, emerged to gasp air, then sank again.
At length, our lungs burning, our faces red from too long underwater, we dragged ourselves to the bank and lay there amidst the sedge-grass and marshy weeds. Our feet sank into the cool mud of the water’s edge. Water still streamed from his hair, and I watched it bead, tracing across his arms and the lines of his chest.
ON THE MORNING of his sixteenth birthday I woke early. I knew of a tree that had figs just ripening, the first of the season. Achilles did not know of it. I watched them for days, their hard green knots swelling and darkening, growing gravid with seed. And now I would pick them for his breakfast.
It wasn’t my only gift. I had found a seasoned piece of ash and began to fashion it secretly, carving off its soft layers. Over nearly two months a shape had emerged—a boy playing the lyre, head raised to the sky, mouth open, as if he were singing. I had it with me now, as I walked.
The figs hung rich and heavy on the tree, their curved flesh pliant to my touch—two days later and they would be too ripe. I gathered them in a carved-wood bowl and bore them carefully back to the cave.
Achilles was sitting in the clearing, a new box from his father resting unopened at his feet. I saw the quick widening of his eyes as he took in the figs. He was on his feet, eagerly reaching into the bowl before I could even set it down beside him. We ate until we were stuffed, our fingers and chins sticky with sweetness.
The box from his father held more tunics and lyre strings, and this time, for his sixteenth birthday, a cloak dyed with the expensive purple from the murex’s shell. It was the cape of a prince, of a future king, and I saw that it pleased him. It would look good on him, I knew, the purple seeming richer still beside the gold of his hair.
I passed him the statue I had made. He examined it, his fingertips moving over the small marks my knife had left behind.
“It’s you,” I said, grinning foolishly.
He looked up, and there was bright pleasure in his eyes.
“I know,” he said.
As we grew into young men skilled in our respective arts - war in the case of Achilles and medicine for me - our bond blossomed into something far deeper. Only to be broken years later by the Trojan war, which Achilles partook in. He fell and left in me a heavily broken man. But that was his destiny - he was a warrior and sought glory in war. His name was immortalized. On the other hand my destiny was just him. I wish I could have had more. All I am left with are the memories.
Snippet from Fathers and Sons
- Ivan Turgenev
Snippet from The Buried Giant
- Kazuo Ishiguro