Ajax Looks at the Stars
can you see me lying here?
Old wives' tales—old soldiers' too—
say that when a hero dies
he takes his place among the stars.
Which star are you tonight, Achilles?
I never looked at the stars myself
except to see what the weather would be
for tomorrow morning's battle line,
or when a woman squirmed astride me,
sometimes I saw the stars through her hair.
Damn all! I should be dead by now!
What's taking Death so long?
I planted the sword-hilt deep in the sand
and threw my big body hard upon it.
I tried my best to do it right!
But I must have been clumsy again.
I have always been clumsy—
nothing at all like Fleetfoot Achilles.
But not so clumsy I couldn't replace you—
when you sat in your tent on your god-like arse
and Hector challenged the rest of us
to meet him in single combat.
How they cheered me then our noble Greeks
when the lot that fell from the helmet was mine!
(And for all his pride even Hector paused.)
And I had him! I had him then and there—
I shattered his shield and knocked him down!
But Apollo, his keeper, lifted him up
and flung him at me again and again—
a leopard attacking an elephant bull!
Oh yes, he was brave and strong all right,
but he hardly left a scratch in the shield
that I alone had the strength to carry
and had broken a thousand Trojan spears.
I had him then—this hope of Troy!
The end of the war was a thrust away!
Then the heralds—goddamn them!—
The Trojan first, and then our own,
blew their horns and called for an end.
The sun was setting—the first star was seen.
No more fighting today lest the gods disapprove.
(After that I fought harder when daylight waned
and came to hate the sight of the stars.)
What's taking Death so long?
My sword could have used a god's guiding hand.
But of all the heroes, Trojan and Greek,
there was never a god to watch my back...
I never knew that the stars changed shape,
swelling and shrinking—
or is it my tears?
No—now I see clearly—no star at all
but your body, Achilles, in golden armor,
Paris' arrow stuck in your heel!
I was closest to you when you fell today.
I fought the Trojans who gathered like dogs
to strip you and carry their trophies home.
I lay my great shield the length of your corpse,
and turned on them like a mountain bear.
As I straddled your body Odysseus came,
and dragged and carried you back to our lines.
Then, with my great shield again on my arm,
I drove the whole pack to the city walls!
The Trojan heralds were only too glad
to see the first star and call for an end.
I went back to our camp armored in blood.
The common soldiers cheered and cheered.
But the council of nobles was already joined
to decide who would get your golden gear,
forged by the god Hephaistos himself.
Some shouted my name—
the lesser nobles, my own brother Teukros.
But the richer and greater—
they called for Odysseus to have the prize.
Odysseus was royal and I was common.
and Thersites, Agamemnon's fool
had the tent of the kings shaking with laughter—
"Dress a warhorse in gold, but never an ox!"
Then the world went red behind my eyes,
and I rushed at Odysseus with spear and sword.
But Athena was there to protect her pet.
She turned me aside, out into the night,
and pushed me toward the livestock pens.
She whispered the name of each hated lord,
and pointed them out among bulls and rams.
And I—great fool—
I saw what it was she told me to see.
I went to work on my enemies.
Menelaus and Agamemnon first—
I tied the two brothers horn to horn,
and picked a pretty heifer called Helen
to pet and beat and drive them wild.
And I found nagging Nestor, a skinny old steer,
and I cut his throat while he bawled advice.
And Odysseus—the largest ram in the flock—
I flogged his fleece red then rode his back
and trampled his bleating pirate crew.
Then, deep in the moonless midnight,
Athena took my madness away,
and opened my eyes to my shame.
The animals lay by the score all around me—
these great lords dead or crying to die.
I went down to the sea
and planted the hilt of my sword in the sand—
Hector's own sword,
an honoring gift to his enemy, Ajax.
But I missed my heart and punctured my gut,
and the weight of my body
pushed the blade through my spine.
I rolled on my back, still breathing and bleeding,
too clumsy, too big, for a good clean kill.
Some time ago I could hear the Greek voices
muttering in a wide circle around me.
Even now they were too afraid to come near.
Agamemnon was here—Menelaus as well—
and Teukros my brother damning them both.
And Thersites had come for a final joke:
"Athena made him slaughter the sheep.
But what if it were Aphrodite instead?
What might he have done to the poor sheep then?"
They left and took their laughter away.
It is colder now.
My blood must be drying
and freezing my hands to my belly like glue.
I hear a new sound—the wind of course—
but soft, like the notes of a distant lyre.
And I think I hear words of power and color,
but can make out only a single line:
"Ajax then stood forth at the challenge,
greatest of Greeks, second but to Achilles."
Now the stars are shrinking and going out.
And the song—or the wind—is dying away.
"Ajax...the greatest...but for Achilles...
but for Achilles...