theia mania

Dionysos, who drives men to madness as both punishment and reward, gives no guidance when it comes to atonement.

Can fire atone for fire? If I throw an extra hand of incense on the flames at sacrifice, choose a young ram with glossy fur and clear eyes to slaughter? Perhaps the god is happy, but the ash of the sacrifice cannot put back together the ash of the palace of the forty columns. Its library of works about the gods and customs of the Persians– the Persians who worship sacred fire, for all the good it did them– is gone.

And the secret, the part that I wouldn’t atone for even if I could: I don’t care about the burned palace. I don’t care about the Magi and their sacred texts, the sculptures of animals streaming across the roof of the reception hall, the statues of glorious bull-men, the walls painted with the brightest pigments of Asia. I don’t care about any of it. I care only about my own failure.

He seemed so sure. So convincing. I’ve gotten so used to being able to tell, I almost forgot there was a time when I couldn’t. When we were boys Alexander would say Come on, nothing bad will happen; I know because Heracles told me so, and most of the time he was right. We snuck away to hunt boar before either of us were big enough even to hold a spear properly, and lived to tell the tale. He secretly joined a blood-feud battle just to get a taste of war, and I could have killed him for not taking me with him, but he came back with his first kill and the respect of his father Phillip’s men. He tamed the horse that everyone said would kill a boy of ten.

Sometimes he was wrong. The bone in his lower left leg never smoothed over after his jump from a high rock into shallow water at the delta near Pella when when we were seven, though nobody knows it but me; he told me before he jumped that either the water would be deep enough, or the gods would give him wings like the son of Daidalos. When his mother Olympias’ snake spoke to him, and said that it could give him a message from Zeus only in the darkness of the second watch, he brought it to bed with him; it bit him, and he spent days in a fever. When he said that the voice of Heracles was directing him to marry the daughter of Pixodaros, that it was the only way to secure his future, I believed him. But either Heracles was mistaken, or the voice was never that of Heracles at all.

But it’s been a long time since I failed to recognize a passion of Alexander’s that needed to be averted. Even in the Pixodaros affair, I knew; he was too far away from me, his colour high, his eyes wild, his speech racing ahead of my comprehension even as he insisted that marrying the Carian dreg intended for his simpleton half-brother was the only way. I could have stopped him if I’d had the courage, but I doubted myself. I don’t doubt myself now, when I know.

No, the last time I hadn’t known was much earlier. We were perhaps ten days away from leaving for Mieza, where Phillip had arranged for schooling for Alexander and the dozen sons of Phillip’s officers that Alexander liked best (plus Kassandros, whom he loathed, but had the good sense not to let on to his father), when a slave summoned me to Alexander’s room. At first I assumed that he had called for me, and perhaps had heard some more news or gossip about our soon-to-be teacher, Aristotle of Athens. But then I noticed that the slave was bleeding freely from his hand, and shaking like a leaf. When I asked the man what was wrong, he tremulously related that he had knocked at Alexander’s door with a gift of sweets from Olympias; but as soon as he entered, that Alexander had shouted and thrown a vase at him. When the slave bent to pick up the pieces of shattered pottery, he said, Alexander had then apologized so profusely and tearfully, and tried to press upon the man in atonement gifts of such insane and terrifying value, that he could think of nothing to do but flee and come find the only friend who seemed to truly have the prince’s ear.

When I entered the room, after giving the slave ten drachmae for his pains and continued discretion, I found Alexander kneeling on the shards of vase. Not next to them, but on them: jagged pieces of painted clay digging deep into his knees and calves, blood trickling along the floor.

“Hephaestion!” he said in a desperate whisper. “How did you find me? They’re angry with me– they’re angry with me, and they’re inside-- I was so worried that they wouldn’t let you see me.”

My stomach dropped. We were leaving for Mieza in less than a month; but for that time, Alexander was still under the power of his ghastly Lacedaemonian tutor, Leonidas. I’d never known him to show any distress at Leonidas’ harsh words, his insistence that Alexander stop eating while still hungry, his suspicious searches for treats sent by Olympias, or his beatings. My friend could, and still can, withstand hunger and pain just fine. What he never could bear was the deprivation of company and friendship; and it would be just like Leonidas to take that away at the last possible moment that he still held power.

I knelt down and tried to get him to move off of the shards that were cutting him, but he resisted, and the only effect my tugging had was to deepen the wounds. “Who?” I asked.

“The voices,” he said, picking up a shard of pottery and holding it tightly as if unsure whether to use it to hurt himself, or me. “The gods and heroes, Hephaestion, are you an idiot? I’ve told you of them over and over…” I grabbed his wrist when he brought the shard towards me, and he dropped it like the limb was no longer his own.

It was true. He had told me over and over, and in that moment my entire world seemed to shift. That Alexander was chosen of the gods, I had no doubt. But I had always imagined his connection with them to be something akin to the mind’s connection to the hunger of the body: a knowledge that belonged to the soul but not to the realm of language. But he had been hearing their voices all along, as real as if they were in the room: Heracles, Zeus, Achilles, Dionysos, sometimes even Cyrus the Persian or Xenophon the Athenian as he read of their exploits with Leonidas.

If he had been born anything other than what Alexander is, a hearer of voices would have been sent to the temple to become a priest. If he had been the son of a soldier, perhaps he would have merely been sent to a doctor instead. But he was neither. Can I be blamed for keeping what I knew a secret? Who could I have told? Queen Olympias, who wanted only to extract as much power and glory from the success of her son as possible? King Phillip, who wanted a strong heir only as long as the heir wasn’t stronger than the king himself? Leonidas, who would beat it out of him? Perhaps Lysimachus, the kindly old man who called Alexander Achilles and himself went by Phoenix, would have been safe. But unlike Phoenix, Lysimachus was a rather simple man; he would have been of no use.

And then, of course, there is the truth, though it is blameworthy: I was jealously glad that I alone knew Alexander completely.

As I held his wrist, wondering if he would try to overpower me– I was bigger even then, but far from guaranteed victory in a scrap between us– he rubbed his fingers together, then began scratching at the skin of the arm I held with his free hand. “They’re inside,” he said again. “They’re not usually inside.”

“The voices are inside?” I asked.

He nodded and yanked his hand free, rubbing at his skin vigorously with both hands. There were tears dried on his face from his apology to the slave and now he seemed close to weeping again in frustration. “They won’t come out,” he whimpered. “Can’t you see them? Can’t you see them? They say that you can see them, that you’re lying if you say you can’t.” He held out his arms. There was nothing moving under his skin, besides the twitch of muscles and tendons.

I have never claimed to be worthy of the titles of honour that Alexander has given me. I am a perfectly adequate commander on the battlefield, but he has others who approach his genius. I understand the workings of cities and satrapies, but so do many of his men, and unlike others I cannot read the Aramaic decrees of the Persians. I am strong enough to hold a sarissa and patient enough to gentle a horse, but have neither of those qualities in excess. I have only one genius, and it is the one I learned of kneeling on the floor surrounded by pottery shards and a pool of my friend’s blood: I can handle Alexander.

I stood decisively and said, “We need to wash them out. Hot water, plenty of scrubbing, and I will need to make a prick in your finger to release them. Will you wait by the bath while I call for water?”

The tension in his body seemed to go out all at once, like a bow that had been waiting for me to release the string. He stood, and allowed me to pull the pieces of vase still stuck to him out of his knees. I went out into the hall and found a slave-girl, whom I promised a drachma if she would first bring bathwater and then clean the floor of Alexander’s room, all without making a sound or asking any questions. She was as good as her word; when she was gone and the tub was full of steaming water, Alexander endured without complaint as I made as small a cut as I could in the pad of his thumb with a rather dull hunting-knife from his dresser.

“You’ll need to push them all towards the cut,” he said as he climbed into the tub of steaming water, and his voice had a reassuring hint of his usual unshakable authority.

“I will,” I promised. He presented his arms to me as I stood over the tub and scrubbed at him vigorously with a sea sponge. It must have hurt, but he just sighed with relief as I did it, making sure each stroke of the sponge was directed towards the cut. It bled sluggishly and mixed with the residual bleeding of his knees to stain the water pink. Eventually, I couldn’t reach enough of him from my position above him.

I had even by that age imagined dozens of scenarios where Alexander and I might find ourselves naked together in closer proximity than the exercise-court allows; but every fanciful image left me as undressed and slid into the water, our legs intertwined. He leaned forward to present his back to me, and as his head leaned on my shoulder, I dared to ask: “What do they want?”

“Glory,” he answered simply, but there was a hesitation in his voice.

“You shall have that,” I said. “I know it. Something else?”

He was quiet for a very long time, which is how I knew there was something. I washed his feet, his legs, his groin, his stomach. The thumb stopped bleeding little by little, and when every inch of him was scrubbed raw I turned us both so that he was leaning his back against my chest. He felt very small. I wanted to envelop him completely, forever; it seemed inconceivable that he should ever put himself in danger.

“They say that glory is loneliness,” he said eventually. “That they need to be inside me because I can’t have anyone. Not even you.”

“That’s not true,” I said, and I think I meant it. Whether he believed me or not, he seemed glad I said it.

“Alexander,” I said, “Will you send for me, next time? If the voices need to be washed out?”

“I can do it myself. How will you always be able to, when we’re campaigning? You’re my best friend; I will have important work to trust you with. You haven’t got time to bathe me.”

I laughed at the time, feeling nothing but relief that he was back to thinking about the glorious adventures we would have once he was king. But he was right, of course; he always knew what the future would hold, even as a boy of twelve.

But for a while he did send for me, often, and soon enough he didn’t need to; for we spent nearly every moment of the day together during the Mieza years. I learned him like a well-loved book, albeit a book that is still being written. I know when the voices inspire him, and when they overcome him. I can flush them out of him, or recite to him the verses of Homer that crowd out everything else in his mind, or subdue him with a hard fuck– oh yes, we learned plenty besides philosophy in the hours Aristotle gave us to read in.

I learned that Alexander, being a god, goes in cycles like a celestial body. It begins with him subdued, quietly despairing; he is convinced that he is nothing, has achieved nothing. Food and drink give him no pleasure, and not even good company cheers him. I am permitted to stay by his side day and night only because I am a part of him, and therefore being in my company is the same as being alone. In these moments he works doggedly but without joy at the business of the empire, and is likely to show mercy to any who ask for it, even the undeserving, for retribution requires high spirits. The voices of the gods never bother him in this state, but he misses them like a child mourning a dead parent, and is convinced they have left him forever.

I know better: they always come back. At the first signs of their return he gradually becomes more joyful. He loves to give presents to the friends he has ignored, to sit up long into the night over conversation, and to pore over maps of the world and imagine the day when we will unite all the land inside of the encircling Ocean under one government. The voices are kind to him, and give good advice; he is a better prophet in those times than the seer Aristandros, though he still consults the Telmessian piously.

They become less kind over time. They berate him for sleeping too long, eating too much, not contributing enough in battle. They taunt him that he is a soft and lazy king who risks his solders’ lives without putting his own on the line, and he responds with feats of heroism that the men adore him for: they compete to be the first over a ladder or through a gate, because if they didn’t, Alexander would do it for them. He washes twice a day in the ritual we first started as boys, trying to keep them at bay, and drinks no wine whenever good water is near; drink seems to make them stronger, and he understands that he ought to put off the inevitable as long as possible.

The inevitable: as the voices of the gods become stronger than his own thoughts, their advice loses meaning– or if it does have meaning, he can no longer interpret it, and cannot tell me what he hears with enough clarity to let me try. He drinks strong wine, because abstaining is no longer any use, and it makes him angry and vengeful. When he strikes me I let him, because it’s better that it be me than anyone else, and privately I treasure the bruises: they are proof that I can do something for him that nobody else can. His mercy evaporates: he talks of razing farmland, setting fire to cities, enslaving whole tribes. And this is where I prove, if such a thing is possible, my worth on the Earth: I can stop him. Not always, and not always do I want to: revolts still need to be put down, and the campaign financed with the sale of loot and captives. The Athenians would never have come over to us for good if they had not witnessed the fate of the Thebans. But the world will never know what could have been, over and over; and I plan to keep it that way.

So how did I miss it, this time? Why was I laughing and drinking at the other end of the table, carefree, as he whispered excitedly with Thaïs at the head?

I knew that the voices were waxing. This cycle had started with him quiet and downtrodden during the siege of Tyre, and gradually regaining in energy afterwards. When he commanded me to take the war engines by ship from Tyre to Gaza as he led the army over land, I recalled his youthful prediction that we would sometimes need to be parted on campaign, and went willingly. In parting I only made him promise that he would eat enough, which practically meant making him promise that he would continue eating after he felt he ought to stop (truthfully, I told him that if he wasn’t any fatter upon my return, I would beat him with my sandal; he was no thinner when I next saw him, but also no fatter, seemingly by gleeful design.)

Through the consultation of the oracle at Siwah and the three confrontations with the Persians, he grew steadily more powerful and brilliant. It seemed that the gods of the Greeks were all-knowing and loving of their chosen one, and that the gods of the Persians were on our side. When he found Darius dead, betrayed by his own officers, he was incandescent with rage: but it seemed to me to be pure, righteous rage. He had wanted to meet the Persian king fairly in battle, and instead a worthy enemy had been stabbed and left to bleed out by his own cowardly officers. How could he not be angry?

Even as we entered Persepolis, I believed him to still be the master of his own passions. He had anger to spare, but again, it was justified: on our way in we were met by an enormous crowd of escaped Greek captives, who had fled in the city’s frantic preparations to defend against our arrival. They were all elderly, having worked in the Persian capital for many years; but instead of being allowed the dignity of old age, they had all been horribly disfigured. Those who could work one-handed were missing a hand, and those whose work needed their hands had had their feet removed. It was the Persians’ way of ensuring that slaves could not escape, or would be quickly identified and returned if they did. If Alexander hadn’t already been planning on allowing the army to loot the city, as they would clearly be restrained from doing only with extreme difficulty, the disfigured slaves limping down the road made it an easy decision.

Perhaps that is why I ignored his wild pacing, the fine tremors of his body, the odd sickly-sweet smell that always enveloped him when he was losing himself to the voices. After the battle near Arbela, I allowed myself to believe that the glory of victory would last forever. I didn’t want to temper his passion: I wanted to be consumed by it.

So I was. I ran in the foot-race at the victory games because I knew it would entertain him, even though I had no chance of winning. I sent the money in the citadel of Persepolis to Susa, and regaled him with fancies about the things we could afford with it: a powerful navy, a raise for the soldiers, splendid funerals for every loss on the battlefield. And I sat up drinking long into the night, not even noticing that both I and Alexander– in addition to everyone else, of course– were drinking too much wine.

Yes, it was Thaïs’ idea to burn the palace, but I don’t blame her. It’s my responsibility to know Alexander, not hers; and after all, she is Athenian, and got exactly what she wanted. Xerxes of the Persians burned the temple of her city; she was right to desire vengeance for her people, like the eternal charge of blood-feud. I have often thought that if Thaïs had family of any strategic value, she is the only kind of woman that Alexander would marry from desire, instead of duty. As it is, she is Ptolemy’s woman, so Alexander extends her instead the friendship he would give to a man. “I want to burn this place to the ground,” she declared so the whole table could hear, and turned to Alexander: “I want you to watch me throw the first torch, so that posterity will know that the women who followed Alexander took a more terrible revenge for the wrongs against Greece than any famous commanders before you!”

If there is one thing Alexander loves, it is giving gifts. And so, flushed with wine and anger and the cacophony of the gods inside him, he gave her the gift she asked for: she threw the first torch, and he the second.

It was beautiful, for a while. I remember thinking so, too drunk to do anything but stare as the palace, built mostly of cedar, was quickly engulfed in fire. The blaze lit the entire city in the darkness of the night; it was as if we had created a new day, and brightness was all around.

Then, just as quickly as he had turned to apologize after throwing the vase at the slave all those years ago, I heard Alexander’s voice– his battlefield voice, the one that can be heard above any din and is impossibly to disobey– cry out over the crackle of collapsing wood. “Put it out!” He ordered. “O Zeû, put it out right away!”

Everyone, Alexander included, spent the rest of the night running around with buckets of water. It took hours to completely smother the fire, and there is hardly anything to show for the effort it took to do it. Everything is destroyed. We might as well have simply let the fire run its course.

And for me: what has been destroyed? At long last and after much coaxing, Alexander sleeps. Perhaps it is only my own hubris that has been burned away. Next time, I will not be blinded by glory. And yet: I am beginning to wonder if what I said to Alexander as a boy– that the voices were wrong, and he would always have me as a companion and defender against the loneliness of his glory– was a lie. I think I knew it was even as I said it. I will be with him for as long as it is in my power to be, but I am not so self-important as to assume that my charge to protect the beloved of the gods includes divine protection for myself. My jealousy is at war with my love: if I die on the battlefield, or by fever, or by poison sent by a rival, he will be alone. The worst kind of aloneness: surrounded by those who want to be near him, adore him, use him. But none who know him.

Zeus-Ammon, father of my beloved; Dionysos, wanderer; Apollo, patron of divine madness; Heracles, ancestor of heroes; all you who torment him, hear me: I’ll hide my jealousy, force down my pride. If I am to die, send someone who can love him as I do.