a commonplace event

Alexander basiliskos to Ada Queen of Caria,

I have just come from the desert oracle of Ammon. It is daytime now, which is time to sleep; the nights are better for marches through the desert. We learned that on the way there. But I must use some of the light to write. I will tell you what the oracle said, if you ask. But not now.

You’re right that we are not squeamish of crucifixions in Macedon. I will tell you about my first crucifixion. You have told me of your mother; I must tell you of mine, Mother. Don’t be jealous.

In a way, I have already been telling you of Olympias: each letter that I shape with my own hand, when most kings grow lazy and entrust sensitive correspondence to scribes, is shaped by her. And each letter that she wrote was shaped by Eurydike, my father’s mother. So my writing and my reading are both lineages of mothers. I even read like a woman: silently, without even moving the lips. I did not know it was unusual until Aristotle told me so, by which point the habit was set. But in the end, I think she was right to teach me the woman’s way of reading, discreet and hidden from the ears of men.

We have spoken before of my tutor, before Aristotle came. He was a son of my mother’s father, named Leonidas, whom my mother had always been fond of. He was, I can see now, a ridiculous little man. He was that very particular kind of Greek who, suspecting that he might in fact be called barbarian by certain others whose claim to Greekness is more firm, goes out of his way to cultivate an interest, or perhaps an obsession, with the thing he is afraid he does not possess. My father was such a one, and his weak spot was Athens; for Leonidas, it was Sparta. Not the place itself, of course– he had never been anywhere near it– but the idea of it, and in that I must credit him with at least one kindness beyond the gift of the cooks which I have spoken of before. He introduced me to Xenophon, whose Constitution of the Lacedaemonians he regarded as a text to be lived by in the same way that wiser men regard Homer.

It is not to insult Xenophon that I rate him beneath Homer; that is no insult. And while I may have turned to other texts of Xenophon’s as more useful to me of late, there is certainly much in his description of the Spartan discipline to be admired. But you must admit that there have been no great poets from that city; no superlative orators, mathematicians, engineers, or philosophers. Not even any particularly great kings.

So, too, was Leonidas not a particularly learned man. He could read, but only because reading was the only way for him to access information about his favourite Greek city. He could not write, and had no desire to acquire any knowledge or skills beyond those he already possessed. Which made him the ideal tutor. It pleased my father to think that I was learning to be Greek, but not silly or self-indulgent. (As if one could be Greek without silly self-indulgence!) And it pleased my mother that, while her kinsman might be in charge of my discipline, she was in charge of my learning.

She taught me Homer, of course, first and always. The family of the Aiakidai are descended from Achilleus; I knew that long before I could read. She would read to me, her finger tracing the letters, but then would trail off and insert some verses of her own, or little stories that I never knew if she made up, or if they were older than her. A childhood memory, frozen as if in amber with no context around it: me standing on the threshold of a room and watching her paint her face as she said off-handedly, “Every time I read the poet, I think I have heard all there is to hear. And then the next time, the same words, I hear something new.” I didn’t understand what she meant; I thought perhaps there was some magic in the books, that inserted new words and took old ones away, so that the epics were constantly changing. Now I understand what she meant, and it is even better than that.

So she taught me, for years; and she would leave sweets hidden around my room for me to find, a game where she had to try to put them places without me noticing, and I had to find and eat them before Leonidas found and confiscated them. I loved her dearly. The cruelty of her kinsman made me love her gentleness all the more– which I think, now, was probably also her intention. And, at an age when most boys are seeing less and less of their mothers, I saw her every day for hours. I stared at her as she read to me, and as she read my attempts at poetry and speeches, and thought she must be the most beautiful woman in the world. So I was bound to notice, when she started growing.

At first it was only her clothing that changed. Actually, she probably could have kept it hidden from me for longer, if she had not tried so hard to hide it; she usually wore fine sheer linen, that hugged the curves of her skin. As soon as she realized that she would soon have a larger curve than usual, she began dressing in thicker, looser-draped fabric, and it was that I noticed first.

I was perhaps eight or nine; not ignorant, but the idea of people taking each other to bed seemed very far away. The idea of men taking others to bed against their will, even more so– though I knew it happened. Everyone knew that Pausanias, a bodyguard of my father’s, had been raped by Attalus in revenge for insulting his lover. There are people who enjoy telling such things to children, to try to shock them. Enough gossips had tried it with me that I was no longer shocked. And of course, there were men who looked too long at me. But I was untouchable. It never occurred to me that my mother wasn’t.

So when I guessed at the cause of her loose, covering clothing, when I made up excuses to brush up against her and feel that her belly was small but hard where it used to be soft, I assumed– well, I was a child. I knew that she spent what time she did give to my father getting in arguments with him. They yelled at each other like peasants arguing about the chores, not a King and Queen. And yet I still assumed, unable to conceive of any other option, that they made time for love in between their hatred, and I would soon have another sibling.

A sibling is a fraught concept when you are the son of a king, as you well know. I considered the matter carefully. Were it a girl, I would be able to love her unconditionally. Were it a boy, I would have to take care that my mother always loved me better, and that I always appeared the better man, the better warrior, the better son– but then, as soon as the thought occurred to me, I began to love my little brother all the more for it. I already had an older half-brother, but he was– is– slow; I loved him then and loved him now, but could not (except for a brief moment of madness with which you are no doubt familiar) imagine him ever threatening my succession. And I had a good secret half-brother, Ptolemy my elder, and Caranus who was legitimate but a babe in arms at the time; but they were both by other mothers. But a true brother, one that Olympias would fight for and love as fiercely as she did me, a brother I would have to work to prove my worthiness over! I loved such a brother immediately.

Having decided that I would love my sister and love my brother even more, I saw no reason to ask her about it. I knew that women waited several moons to be sure, before telling their husbands or lovers– she had told me about such things early, and I did not think it strange. Babies die in the womb, and once out of the womb they often die anyway– thus the Persian habit of keeping a child away from its father until the age of five, so if it dies it will not grieve him. I think it generally a good custom. (What about the grief of the mother, I can hear you asking me– or perhaps that is the voice of Olympias. Well, she will grieve either way, that cannot be avoided. Is more grief better? Would it be better for news of a beloved child’s death to reach a man before a battle, where in his distraction he dies as well, and gives his wife still more to grieve?)

But at the time, I only knew that women did not want to give their husbands good news, only to disappoint them. But I thought to myself that I could know; since I already loved the baby, its life had already been a good to me; the longer the life the greater the good, and if the life were short it would be therefore only a small good, and not a great evil.

So one day after our lesson, at the time that she would usually tell me to close my eyes and allow her to hide something for me to find later, I said instead, with an excitement that I’m sure I did not hide, “Mother, are you with child?”

I had expected her to smile, to hug me and praise how observant I was, to tell me which month she expected the baby in and what names she would like to call it by. Instead she stiffened and sat back down heavily at our writing-desk, whispering “Alexander, don’t tell anyone. Nobody must know.”

It was well for both of us, that I loved her too much to even consider the conclusion that most men would probably come to. I knew that she spoke of a thunderbolt coming upon her womb, when she conceived me– but that is a different matter. When a god wants a woman, it is not an insult to her husband to take her, nor to her. But when a wife wants a mortal man, and takes him as a lover– this must seem unbelievable to you. It never occurred to me, even knowing that she hated my father, that she might have chosen to take a lover. As it turns out, I was right.

I was so surprised, I didn’t even lower my voice to ask her why not. She dropped to her knees in front of me, her hands on my arms, staring into my eyes– beseeching, like a supplicant. I had never been given such a role of power before. “I didn’t mean to,” she said. “I couldn’t stop him. He was paid, and one of my serving-girls paid to put poppy-juice in my wine. I still don’t know who the girl was. But the man– I know him. He was paid by your father; he hoped that I would birth a child that could not possibly be his. It would discredit me, he could cast me aside, without touching you. There’s nothing I can do against him, not now, not with…”

Me. Not with me, was the sentence she didn’t finish. If she accused a man in my father’s pay of raping her– of raping her on his orders-- it would not matter that he had, at the time, no other viable and legitimate heirs. If I supported her, he would have no choice but to cast me out or kill me– and I would have to pick a side. She couldn’t bear to think I might pick his, nor could she bear to ask me to choose hers. Not to mention, of course, that the end of me would be the end of her hopes, too. She never made it a secret that, from the moment she was sent to symbolize the treaty between Epirus and Macedon, she planned to raise the next King.

How do women feel, towards the children they did not consent to conceive? I suppose I could ask one– the men are beginning to pick up campaign-wives. It is a delicate problem for me; my father was right to forbid families and camp-followers from the army. Surprise is everything; for as long as we can travel faster than the enemy, we will always have the advantage, even with smaller numbers. But my father planned seasonal campaigns, small wars. At the end of each one, he could send the men home to their families. We are going East from here, and we are not stopping. There will be no sending the men home for the winter. So, they must be allowed to take women with them, and some of those women are already with child. I suppose I could disguise myself, slip out into the camp and try to ask one if she loves the child in her belly. But it would not do me much good, because none of those women are Olympias.

My mother might have loved the child, but she loved her own honour more. As did I, of course, but in the space of the several moments that I had had to get used to the idea, the child had become my honour, my playmate, my rival, my equal; the man beside whom I would one day stand up in front of the men of Macedon and say “Choose which one of us you think better as your King, as is your ancient right.”

So whether or not my mother loved it, she knew what needed to be done. I knew, as well. Up to this point in the tale I must seem very naive to you, having not even considered that my mother might take a lover. I promise you, I only had– have, some probably whisper– such blind spots when it came to her. For the rest, I had spent much time with Olympias and her serving-girls. This was hardly the first time one of them had been with a baby whose appearance would ruin her, nor the first time she had had no choice in the matter. It was only the first time that the girl was the Queen.

She had always been kind to those girls, especially the ones who had been raped. She gave them money, and sent the afflicted girl with two or three companions to a witch-doctor who lived outside the walls of Pella. They stayed for a few days, and came back cured.

Olympias, of course, could not simply disappear like her girls. In fact, she had not even told those girls; though many were devoted to her, all of them were gossips. I was the only one who knew. She had done nothing, not even certain which servant she could trust to go to the doctor on her behalf.

I had just acquired my horse– yes, the old horse you met. I was in the good graces of my father from that little performance, and nobody would think it strange if I went out for a long ride. So the next day, I took Oxhead out in the afternoon, far into the country, so that I might have a true account of where I had been if asked. On the way back, I stopped at the farm my mother had described to me.

It was a strange little place; if I had not known that the purpose of most of the plants must be medicinal, I would have assumed it to be some city merchant’s country place, perhaps bought in a period of prosperity and not quite tended as much as he had assumed it would be.

The doctor was young, which I had not expected; and she had a husband, an Acarnanian, which I had expected even less, and a son. I did not like even the fact that the husband saw and recognized me, when he opened the door; but when I asked for her he led me courteously to a sort of consulting-room, and promised to fetch her. It was full of the smell of drying herbs, but what drew my eye more were the surgical tools hanging from the wall, a soft gleaming orange. When she entered the room, the first thing she said was “Anything you use to pierce or enter a body should contain copper. Remember, when you are grown, to never allow a field amputation to be done with an iron tool; it will fester. How may I help you?”

I told her.

She did not seem surprised by any of it. I told her everything– even that it had been done on the King’s orders– I did not know what might be essential to her art. I was putting my life in her hands, I suppose; she could have accused me of treachery. But I could tell, just from the consulting-room with its tools and ingredients, that she took her dedication to Apollo too seriously to betray the confidences spoken there. Her son appeared at the door as I was speaking, and tried to demand some food or toy from her. She cut me off before I even realized why; not out of fear that the child might hear and retain something of value, but I believe purely from principle. “Never open this door when it’s closed, Philip,” she said to the boy, and then gave him a pinch of incense that he was to sacrifice to the god in apology.

I spoke freely after that. I have remembered, and always made sure to always have a doctor whom I can trust. The boy Philip grew up to be almost as good as his mother.

When I had finished, she began mixing a draught. “This will make her very sick,” she said bluntly, “and it may not work. You will have to keep a close eye on her emissions. If she starts bleeding heavily from her sex, it has worked. If she does not bleed within a day of drinking, I will need to come remove what is in her womb with tools. Can you do that, Alexander?”

She spoke to me as if to a son. Kindly, yes, but even better, in the tone I had always hoped to be spoken to by my father: as if she were giving me my instructions in preparation for my first great battle. This was not quite the battle I had expected or hoped for, but there was no question of shirking it. I told her that I would give my mother the drink– the poison, I will call it what it was– and that if it worked, I would come tell her so the next day after the first watch, so that she need not come. If I did not come, she would know to come to the palace. I could not think for a moment of how to let her in, but she waved the concern aside, and said that the guards knew her, and would pretend not to see her. I suppose I should have expected that.

I returned late, but could hear the men still up drinking in the banquet-hall. Olympias often stayed up late as well, holding court in the womens’ rooms. Since I was still of an age to have access to both before being sent to bed, I knew that the scenes were almost the same as the mens’ banquets, complete with brawling; but tonight she was in bed early, if not asleep. I sent away the two serving-girls at the foot of her bed, and gave them a drachma to go beg some neat wine from the cooks. She pretended to be asleep until they were gone, and then sat up.

I sat down beside her, and cuddled up to her just like a boy seeking comfort from his mother after a nightmare. The walls have ears in all royal courts, of course, as you well know. Already at that age I knew that any conversation with her might be reported to my father, and every conversation with my father would certainly be reported to her. I passed her the little jar from the doctor. “If it works, you will bleed, and I must go tell her so,” I whispered close in her ear. “If not, she must come here tomorrow night, and…” I faltered, not quite knowing what to say. Sitting in the witch-doctor’s consulting-room, her copper tools had only made her seem powerful, like a man’s well-used armour on display. But sitting beside my mother’s warm familiar body, it occurred to me that I did not even know precisely what a womb was, and certainly not how the doctor planned to wield her tools to empty it.

Olympias put her arm around me, and hugged me tight as she drank the poison. “There,” she whispered, “It’s all right. You will see worse, you know, when you are a general.”

I suppose she was right. I have seen, certainly, much worse vomiting and flux than I saw that night. Although by the time the sun set the next day I thought the stench of her bedroom terrible, it was of course nothing compared to a festering gut-wound, or a sacked city the dogs and rats have taken to. Though the muffling of her cries was terrible, the sound of wounded men hidden under the corpses of their friends and calling out to ask for quick death is more piercing. And, of course, the one substance I hoped more than anything to see– blood– I have been drenched in beyond the wildest imaginings of an eight-year-old.

But the hoped-for torrent of blood did not come; not that night, nor the following day. By midday the poison had begun to wear off, and she was able to sleep a little without vomiting; I set the water-timer she sometimes used for prayers and spells, to check the cloths around her hips; but they were resolutely soaked only with sweat. Shortly after the third watch, the doctor came.

There was, I suppose, nothing so very awful about what followed. Olympias’ words still held: there are much worse things in the world when it comes to blood, vomit, pus, excrement, and pain. Such things are necessary to glory. Even when it comes to surgeries, I have seen worse.

Philip has said before that an entirely different kind of courage is required for witnessing medical procedures than for battle, or even for the experiencing of said procedures. He says it to praise me, in the hopes that I will continue to assist him and his surgeon when they must do something unpleasant– an amputation, or an arrowhead removal, things like that. Men tend to be better at lying still to bear the pain when their king is holding their hand, so I perform such services when I can.

There is something sincere, however, in Philip’s surprise and approval. Many men who can bear to see, inflict, or experience almost anything in the heat of battle become wiltingly squeamish when confronted with the insides of a human body after the action is over. To fight bravely, all you must do is offer yourself up to the bloodlust of Ares; he will take care of you for as long as the battle rages. But the fortification of the limbs and mind offered by that god is withdrawn the moment the action ends. There are other gods, subtler but more steadfast, who must be called upon for courage in other arenas. Philip says that I must be beloved of Apollo as well, to be able to witness such things while lacking the training of a doctor. Perhaps he is right. But perhaps there is another explanation: for all that I have soothed men even as they died under a knife meant to heal, I have never attended at a surgery more frightening than what I held my mother through that night.

It was, in the fashion of a complex clepsydra or an oxybeles, seemingly not so very impressive in individual pieces, yet more than the sum of its parts taken as a whole. Nothing about it was the worst I have seen, except the impression it left me with. The unyieldingness of the rod the doctor used to keep her from closing her knees or ankles as she worked, the way Olympias kept licking at the cup in which the doctor had given her a measure of poppy-juice in the hopes of somehow finding more, the terrible silence of her mouth stopped with cloth and the clink of the tools, at first sharp and lustrous and soon thick with fluids. Most of all, I remember the doctor’s face, and thinking that I had never seen a crueller, more unfeeling expression. That was her job, of course, and her gift: she could not have done what needed to be done if she had felt the weight of it. But it seemed to me that I was left to feel on behalf of us both, or perhaps that our roles were reversed– her a warrior, coated in blood and gore and minding none of it, and I a cowering woman looking on.

Ever since, I have avoided the medicine of women. Of course witch-doctors are necessary for some things, and I may even admit they know many common diseases better than the men educated by famous teachers. But I was unnerved by the feeling of both manhood and womanhood shared equally between us, in that room– as if both quantities were fluids, that could wash back and forth like wine in a bowl, and not qualities possessed firmly by each person. Perhaps that is closer to the truth, but that truth would not help in an army sick-tent. So it is lucky for me that she had a son, and not a daughter, who was just old and trained enough to accompany me when I left Macedon.

But look at me– cramping my hand just to explain the mysteries of women back to them. You must think me ridiculous, to have made so much of something that is, in reality, very commonplace. Also commonplace was what happened next: as the doctor cleaned and packed up her tools, and my mother rested in a haze of exhaustion and pain and poppy-juice, I went to a carpenter in the city and had him fashion a fresh cross. Then, accompanied by some particular and discreet friends of mine in the Guard– whom I told a story of a noble woman being raped, though I did not name her– I sought out the man who had taken my father’s coin for the deed, and nailed him to it. The spikes were iron; I remember finding it amusing, as I drove them into his hands and feet, that if the doctor was right, they would fester even before he was fully dead.

As a child, it is the commonplace things that affect us most; and as we grow, we learn which things are to be considered extraordinary, and must seek them out. I will take a little sleep, now, and hope that the next march can take us all the way to Memphis.