It was a black vision. Sand under my feet, the ocean roaring, the flames biting at the sky as the holy city of Ilium was consumed. Achaean voices in the night; harsh, triumphant, trumpets braying the death of Troy.
It was not a vision. I smelt sweat, grease, salt, men, and burning. Always the burning, the reek of wood and flesh which soured my nostrils and seared my throat. I have no refuge. I am unarmed. I will not be here. I will not hear. I will not see. I will not feel.
# # #
When we were three, they took us, my twin brother and me, to the house of the Mother, the cave under Troy where Gaia the goddess dwelt, pregnant with life. I am told that we are identical, Cassandra and Eleni, both small, square children with the golden hair of the house of Tros.
We were not afraid, because we were never afraid when we were together. Nyssa, our nurse, led us to the entrance of the cave, and I remember hearing her voice quaver as she said, ‘Go in, now, and don’t be scared.’ We wondered that Nyssa was frightened. We could see nothing to fear. We joined hands in case there should be something interesting in the dark which one of us might miss and toddled forward into the grateful dark. Both Eleni and I have always had sensitive eyes which cannot bear strong sunlight.
It was not black, in the womb of the earth mother. A little light leaked in from the open door and more through cracks in the beehive brick which made the dome. The floor was dry and sandy.
The walls were decorated with frescoes of dancers and bulls and we were fascinated. Eleni pointed and said, ‘Bull,’ and we toddled over to touch the picture, tracing the proud horned head and the curves of the elegant acrobats, the bull-leapers, coloured ochre for male and white for female. In the centre of the womb rose the phallus of Dionysius the god, erect, pointing skyward, and when we ran out of bulls we sat down with our backs against it, beginning to be bored.
There was a slither in the sand and two snakes came out of some hole and inched towards us. We were delighted. We had never been allowed to play with the house snakes, and these were much bigger than the rat killers that lived under every house altar. They were as fat as my arm, mottled a beautiful green and brown like the gauze on our Lady Mother’s veil that came, she said, from so far away.
The snakes paused, flicked the air with their forked tongues, and inched towards us. Eleni and I held our breath, afraid that we might scare them. They moved in a fascinating way, leaving v-shaped patterns in the dust. Although we could hear a scrape of scales, they seemed to flow, without effort, and the patterns rippled as they moved. They seemed to be creatures entirely divine, unearthly, purposeful.
They split up and approached us. I stared into the dark, hoping that they would come closer. Eleni whispered, ‘Pretty,’ and reached out his hands. They came closer, one snake for each twin, and rose up from the ground, so that we were looking for a moment straight into the serpents’ eyes.
There was something there, we both felt it: intelligence or will. Slowly, as though they did not want to startle us, the heads swayed to left and right, and we giggled as the flickering tongues touched first one ear and then the other.
The snakes withdrew. We were sorry. Then an old woman and a young man came in, looked at us, and went out again. The woman was ancient. Her hair floated like a white cloud, she was bent and toothless and leaned on a staff. The young man glowed with life. He had a fierce, wild face and he grinned at us with white teeth. He carried a vine staff in one strong brown hand and he was wreathed with vine leaves.
It was the first time we had seen the gods. Mother Gaia as crone and Lord Dionysius in all his dangerous joy.
We cried when they left and Nyssa rushed in with two priests and took us into the temple.
I remember it chiefly because they gave us honey. We had never tasted such sweetness before.
# # #
The Lady Queen Hecube was our mother and the Lord King Priam was our father. They were magnificent, golden, and dis- tant as clouds. Nyssa looked after us, the royal twins. She was fat and skilled and loving. Her eyes were black, as was her hair, and her skin was like the sea foam at the water’s edge, where it is pale brown and crinkly. She was an Achaean and she taught us her language, as well as our own and the words for the gods, which were in an old and holy tongue. Nyssa’s only child had died, and when we were born the Lady Hecube had given us into her arms. She loved us as if we were her own.
Eleni and I were quick—or so Nyssa said—and we liked words and names. We would play word games between ourselves, learning the dangerous lesson that words can be used to cloak thoughts as well as reveal them.
‘What is Achaean for the father god?’ eight-year-old Eleni would ask me as we lay down for our compulsory sleep in the heat of the day.
‘Zeus, the Sky Father, Compeller of Clouds,’ I rolled the title over my tongue.
‘And the Trojan?’
‘Dionysius, Vine-Clad. What is the Achaean for the mother?’ ‘Hera. I think.’
‘Yes. And our mother?’
‘Gaia, mother of all. But Cassandra, there is another lady other Achaeans have. Nyssa told me when you were out with the herb gatherers. What were you looking for in the marsh, anyway?’
‘Roots of comfrey, for wounds. What did Nyssa say?’ I settled more comfortably into the curve of my twin’s side. He was not interested in herb, and I was. It was the first time we had not both been occupied in learning the same thing and he was a little jealous. So was I, of him, for getting any new stories out of Nyssa.
‘Well, what does she do?’
‘She’s a virgin and she hunts things. Her priestesses are virgins, too.’
This struck me as odd. ‘Why? What special virtue lies in virginity? Are they barren?’
I was working with the healers and they were all women, as it was well known that women keep the secrets of birth and death. Are not the sisters Clotho, Lachesis, and Athropos the spinners of fate? Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures it, and Athropos cuts it. Maiden, mother, and crone; no state is good in itself. They all have their season and their power.
‘I don’t know, twin. That was all Nyssa said.’
I rolled over and idly examined our room. The sky blue paint was peeling away from the plaster where the ceiling joined the painted fresco of tritons and sea-creatures. Poseidon Earth-Shaker had originally painted in one corner, blowing a conch, but he had been painted over when Laomedon the king had banished the god from the city of Tros. You could still see the outline of a broad-chested man with blue hair under the later fishes.
‘Do you want to be a virgin all your life?’ asked Eleni and I pulled a handful of his corn-coloured hair.
‘You know I don’t. I want to marry you.’
He laughed and said, ‘Even to follow a goddess?’ I thought about this. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. Eleni turned to me and I saw his blue-green eyes glint in the cool light. ‘I would not be a virgin to follow any lady,’ he said. He kissed me lovingly. His mouth tasted of green herbs, fresh and unripe.
‘It will be six years before we can marry,’ I said wistfully. ‘When we are fourteen.’
‘We shall go up to the temple,’ said Eleni, his arm around me. I sighed on his breath, ‘And tell the Lady Gaia and the Lord Dionysius. I will have a purple chiton and a himation of gold.’ ‘I will have a purple tunic and a mantle of gold,’ he kissed me again.
‘Because we are the royal twins.’
‘And the snakes gave us the gift of prophecy.’
‘And they will bless us,’ I stroked Eleni’s neck, where the hair sprung rough from the nape.
‘They will marry us to each other,’ he whispered into my ear, making me shiver pleasantly.
‘As Pharoah marries his sister,’ ‘As Pharoah marries her brother,’
‘And we will be together for ever and ever,’ ‘And death shall not sever us.’
Strophe and antistrophe, this was litany. We loved each other with a pure love which was all encompassing. If Eleni loved something, then I loved it also. We kissed with eight-year-old passion which had nothing of the flesh in it, and fell asleep, as we always did, with our arms around each other, Eleni’s head and mine on the one pillow, each mimicking (Nyssa said) the attitude of the other.
We dreamed, and this is what we dreamed: the coming of a new god, a flesh-eating demon, who ate up Troy and belched fire. We woke screaming.
‘Demon! I saw a demon!’ Eleni grabbed wildly for comfort and I seized him tightly, witless with shock. We clutched each other close and found a little comfort in our embrace. ‘Dreadful,’ I panted. ‘He’s coming to eat us!’
‘And there were shades, grey ghosts—did you see them?’ We shuddered strongly. We had been taught that the dead, after remaining for three days until they are properly burned, go on to join the gods in the meadow playground where it never snows and wind never blows, to lie down with their loved ones in sweet grass and sleep or wake as they like, with the proud horses of the City of Horses beside them. Never to return, impossible to summon, no longer concerned with us, to be properly mourned and with all suitable ritual to be dismissed to their deserved rest in the fields of heaven. But Eleni and I, with one mind and sight, had seen grey shadows like men and women, draped in shadowy cloth, wandering mindless through grey streets, lost to their earth and their former selves, with no memory.
‘Their lovers,’ he choked, and began to cry, and our tears mingled and rolled down into our hair, ‘they passed each other and never knew that they loved.’
‘The children,’ I said, crying freely, ‘the children and the mothers not touching, not knowing…’
We cried together, speaking the vision for the first time. Previously they had been playful, funny, charming things, scenes of places far away, and sharing them in our minds had been enough. Now we were seriously disturbed and words gave us structure and took away some of the horror.
‘A demon god, on a throne, lord of demons, an eater of people,’ my twin sobbed into my breast.
‘Blood on his jowl and on his hands, dripping,’ I shook with terror and disgust.
‘Smoke from the burning of dead animals and men all around him; he snuffed it as though it smelt sweet as incense,’ whispered Eleni.
‘Horrible,’ I agreed. ‘He’s coming to eat Troy.’
‘Yes. We are his sacrifice—that’s what it means—the soldiers are coming to make a burned offering of Troy to their demon.’ ‘The soldiers. I saw them. Bronze men. They shone in the sun.’ ‘Glittering. Their helmets are made in the shapes of beasts.’
‘Beast men, with a beast god.’
Open-mouthed, Eleni and I kissed. Salt with tears, the kiss was harsh, bitter as the embrace of the shipwrecked we sometimes found on the shore, arms around each other, dying mouth locked to mouth.
We slept again after a little while. We did not dream again and we did not tell anyone about the vision, not at the time. It seemed too strange, too horrible. We should have gone to the temple and told the priest of Apollo about it. He sent the dream, straight and wounding as an arrow, poisoning our sleep and stirring our passion.
We were woken by Hector, calling us to come down to the harbour with him. We dragged on our tunics and found our sandals and ran past Nyssa, who was telling us to wash our faces, and scaled Hector like a wall.
He laughed—we could feel his bass laugh through his embrace—and perched us one on each shoulder. We were high up and perfectly safe—Hector would never let us fall—and we grabbed a handful of his coarse, pale hair as we jolted down the steep street which led to the Scamander Gate. We crossed the Place of Strangers’ Gods and Hector set us down while he mounted his horse, then we scrambled up and clung to him, one each side, like the monkeys that Theones the shipmaster had brought back from the coasts of the strange land where the men were black and the forests yielded gold. Hector’s eyes were grey and they twinkled. He never teased and he always let us come with him.
‘What was wrong with you, twins?’ he asked, hugging Eleni closer as he seemed likely to fall off. ‘I heard you crying.’
Eleni looked at me round the bulk of our brother’s torso. I shook my head. I did not want to tell. ‘Just a bad dream,’ said Eleni. ‘We had a bad dream. Where are we going?’
‘Down to the harbour—two ships have come in from Kriti. Wine for the king, finest olive oil for the perfumers, and…’ he paused, smiling.
‘Honey for the twins!’ we chorused, greedily.
Our brother Hector was as tall as a tree, as strong as a bull, massive and gentle. He could throw a spear further than anyone else, tame the wildest horse with words and touch, leap like a deer and fight like a lion. What foe, what demon, could overcome Hector our brother?
He was our best source of stories. Hector knew everything.
The first story I remember he told us, we must have been four or five years old. We were lying on the flat roof of the palace. The palace is a rambling, three-storeyed building, the finest in Troy. It occupies the highest point. The Achaeans would call it an acropolis. When we came here from the Island, we built flat roofs, and although the newer houses have sloping roofs which drain better, the palace is the oldest building in Troy.
Hector was lying on his cloak, the purple himation of the prince of Ilium. All the royal house were dressed in purple, derived from boiling murex shells. We were not allowed to go down by the dyers because of the dreadful smell, so it became a fascinating and forbidden place, and we went there when we could, although Nyssa always knew because of the stink and because our feet were dyed by contact with the running gutters. Then she scrubbed us with soapleaf and pumice stone and scolded all the while.
We never minded Nyssa scolding. We learned a lot of new words. The only way she could effectively punish us was to separate us—we were proof against spanking and words ran off us like water off a turtle’s shell. But when separated we cried so lamentably, and above all so loudly, that she always relented after about an hour and put us back together again. Whereupon we would cease crying instantly and embrace and then think of something even more wicked to do. Poor Nyssa—we led her a trying life.
Eleni and I were lying on either side of Hector, resting our chins on his chest. He was broad-shouldered, our brother, and we liked the way the muscles moved under his skin when he breathed. He was as golden as a lion, with a mane of bright hair and a bristly golden beard as thick as twigs at the roots. His hands were big, with golden hair on the back, which I liked to tug at, and his arms were massive and bound with gold bracelets. He wore a pale green tunic of the cloth which came out of Egypt and was called linen. They make it out of reeds.
He had laid aside the pot of ink which he always wore on his neck, with the scribe’s pen in it, and the scroll of Egyptian papyrus to make notes on. Our brother made notes about everything. He was the arranger of the city, the king—our father’s right hand. Hector knew to bale how much wool we had sold to Phrygia, how much amber and tin bought from Caria, and how much pottery and how many necklaces from Achaea down to the last and tiniest bead. He knew how many horses were in any of the king’s herds, their breeding, their increase, and their value as chariot horses or plough beasts. Hector had at his little finger’s end more knowledge of the people of Troy, their trades, their occupations, and their private lives than all of the Priam’s sons who sailed and traded across the Pillars of Heracles and up and down the shoreless sea.
They said in the city that he had numbered the winds and counted the tides and they laughed at him, though carefully and out of earshot. They might curse his name and his family all the way back to Dardanus, as they searched a hold for a forgotten ingot or accounted for a lost sheep eaten by wolves the previous winter, but they trusted him, and he was very strong, a mighty warrior when there was cause. Was it not Hector Cuirass of Troy who had led a charge against the Mycenaean pirates who had landed and sacked a village, killing them to the last man?
Lying on Hector’s chest was his cat, a creature called Státhi, ash, because of the colour of his fur. He was a gift from a grateful priestess in the Nile delta, from a place called Bubastis. We did not ask what she was grateful for and Hector never told us. Státhi was the first cat we had ever seen in the fur. He was about the same size as a small dog, though dogs were terrified of him, and he had thick, deep velvety fur, ash-coloured and barred with black like burned wood. His eyes were leaf green and cool. Hector had been given him as a small cub, and had carried him in his tunic against his heart for the length of the voyage, afraid that such a small creature might die of cold. Thereafter Státhi considered Hector the only human worth noticing—I think he thought our brother was a large furless cat—and was distant with all others, if not hostile. Once Eleni and I had pulled his tail and been swiftly punished for our impudence with a hand each sliced across with talons as sharp as a hawk’s. We had not noticed that Státhi had claws—he kept them concealed in his paws—and we were much astonished and had howled. Hector had not been sympathetic.
‘Státhi is a divine creature, the servant of a goddess,’ he had reproved us. ‘You must expect to be hurt if you provoke him.’ Státhi had never seemed like a servant to us. He had a royal, arrogant leisure in all his movements. When the palace dogs attacked him in a body, barking at this strange new creature, he called upon his lady and she doubled his size, endowing him with eyes that glowed like embers and teeth of strongest ivory. She had also given him a scream which rose from a growl to a shriek, a voice that summoned all within hearing to the rescue. Not that he needed rescue. The dogs, thoroughly unnerved, decided that there were other things that urgently needed their attention and thereafter left him severely alone. He still occasionally slapped an intrusive nose with his thorned paw, just to remind them that a goddess’ friend was present, and they always retreated, howling. Státhi would sometimes allow a caress from someone other than Hector, and Eleni and I loved to stroke his velvety fur. But he would endure the caress rather than enjoy it, and when he was tired of the touch he would turn and bite, hard. The city called him ‘Hector’s shadow’ because, unless he had important business in the palace kitchens, he was always at the prince’s heels, an aloof and mystical being, interested in everything, following his own purposes.
Hector had once found him in the goddess’ shrine, seated with his tail wrapped around his paws, staring into the eyes of the sacred serpents, who also sat coiled and apart. Divine creatures recognise each other’s divinity.
‘Tell us a story,’ we begged, keeping a wary eye on Státhi, who might scratch if we disturbed him. Hector stared up at the starry sky. It was summer and hot in the palace below. It was cooler on the roof, where there is always a breeze.
‘I’ve been unloading ships all day,’ he said sleepily. ‘What sort of story?’
‘About us.’ ‘About Troy.’
Hector sighed—our chins rose and fell with his breath—and said, ‘Do you see those stars? The shape like a square, over there?’
‘We see them,’ said Eleni, speaking for both of us.
‘Once in the Troad, before this city was built, there was a king who had a beautiful child.’
Státhi, liking the sound of Hector’s voice, settled down into a crouch. We snuggled closer to our brother’s sides and wrapped the folds of his cloak around us all.
‘The child’s name was Ganymede,’ said Hector. Like his hair, his voice was golden, slightly husky and sweet on the ear. ‘The child was so beautiful that the god himself wanted him as a lover, so he sent an eagle down to the house of Tros and the eagle of the gods took the child up into the air, high as the sky, and brought him to the god. There he was much beloved, until the god’s other lover, a daughter of the goddess, grew jealous. Then the father, to save the child, lifted him higher into the cosmos and placed him among the stars. They call him Aquarius, the water-bearer.’ ‘And is he happy?’ I asked. ‘Wouldn’t he rather be a prince of Troy like you? Didn’t his mother and father cry for him?’ ‘They gave Tros and his wife two great horses—the mother and father of the horse herds of Troy.’
‘But they were horses, not a son,’ said Eleni, echoing thought. ‘Gods will not be denied, twins,’ said Hector gently. ‘When a god requires a life, then it cannot be denied. All people can do is make the best bargain they can.’
‘Could an eagle come and carry us off?’ Eleni asked anxiously. Everyone told us that we were beautiful, and we were twins, too—that might attract a god’s notice. Hector laughed so much that he jolted us off his chest. He hugged us close and sat up, groaning, much to the displeasure of Státhi.
‘An eagle could not possibly carry you off,’ he said, rubbing at his chest where our chins had rested. ‘You are much too heavy for one poor eagle.’
We were comforted by this and all four of us drifted off to sleep.