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The Academy of Chaos and Self-Command

I am Aeschylus son of Euphorion of Eleusis and I’ve come this day with my brother to take my place in the line with my tribe to meet the invader where he disembarks and to drive him back into the sea. We’ve rested and waited six days in the Herakleion sanctuary on the plain of Marathon, with the Medean fleet filling half of the shoreline of the bay, even with their ships anchored eight deep. More men-at-arms are assembling before the Great Marsh than any of us has ever seen. We’re told that their word for commander means “leader of the hosts.”

At the northeast end of the marsh is a lake, which enables them to water their horses. A stream flows out of it to the sea. It’s fresh enough to be drunk by cattle where it issues from the lake, but at its mouth it turns brackish and fills with saltwater fish.

Who knows me better than my brother Kynegeiros? Who’s looked after me with more care? Whom have I disappointed as intensely? Who’s been as terrible a household presence?

Who’s trained me? Who’s pruned my independence? Who’s stopped my mouth? Who’s set my feet on the path of understanding and showed that knowledge comes in suffering? Whose hard hand gave me this scar across my scalp, just because he could?

We’ve spent six days checking and rechecking our kit and avoiding idlers and gossips. He’s tried to interest me in his surgeon’s packet: here’s how you start the needle with the catgut twine; here’s how you grip the narrow-nose to extract an arrowhead as opposed to a sword shard. I don’t need to be reminded that battlefield surgery can save a life. Yesterday, to please him, I sewed up some ox hide as practice.

We marched here all night through Pallene, skirting Mount Pelikos to the southeast, and arrived on the plain at first light. The plain smells of the wild fennel that gives it its name. It’s empty of trees and left fallow for grazing.

I’m all aches and pains. My brother has a month-old sprain that he aggravated on a gravelly downhill track. I’m forty-four and he’s forty-nine. We’re no longer young men. We have families.

Here is our country’s situation as we understand it: The Persian has come in response to our support of the Ionian revolt and the burning of his citadel at Sardis. He has come with the combined nations of Medea, Sakai, Ethiopia, Egypt, Dacia, Scythia, Bactria, Illyria, Thessalia, and India. He has come through Rhodes, Kos, Samos, Naxos, Paros, Karystos, and Eritrea, subjugating each as he went. Everywhere his fleet has put in he has demanded and received hostages and men-at-arms. He has come in such numbers that the disembarking alone has taken, according to the local farmers, nine days.

We are of the deme Eleusis and the tribe Aiantis, and when our strategos, Stesileos, draws us up in battle order, we will be in the place of honor on the right flank, with the sea off our shoulders. We will, with our other Attic demes and allies, form a rank facing the invader that is sufficiently long but insufficiently deep. Our leaders call it Stretching the Soup. The rest of us call it, with quiet irony, Our Challenge.

*  *  *  *  

I channel the rote and the new and unseen. My head has always been the busiest of crossroads, a festival of happy and unhappy arrivals. When I was a boy, in the hours before daybreak, God sent me words as visitors. I told my brother. Back then, I was still in his favor. I kept my stylus and wax tablet within reach of my bedside. In the mornings I showed my mother, too, examples like loosed and winged. I remember that Tartarean troubled her in ways that I didn’t understand.

“Where did you get these words?” she asked. “Who’s been speaking to you?”

“Kynegeiros,” I always said. Which made her think the words came from him. When he denied it the first time—I was ten, he was fifteen—our father had him beaten. Some of the words were apparently impious.

“Tell me about the words,” my brother told me later, while I helped him with his back. “Don’t tell them.” We gathered and crushed in a pestle the foxglove and sorrel, and I applied the paste to the welts he couldn’t reach.

He questioned me about whatever else I noticed by way of omens or signs. He talked about how to know if I was only speaking with myself. What I told him caused him concern. I became his new responsibility. He gave himself over to it, his resentment plain.

Even so, I didn’t stop. In the mornings, I’d scratch onus or dyad in the loam of our herb garden. He’d explain their meanings. When our other brother Anacreon or our father happened near, we went about our business, the scratchings our secret.

But when we were alone again, he’d say, “Who’s giving you these?” I didn’t know, I told him. Where was I hearing them? he’d ask. In my head, I’d tell him. This caused him to hold his forehead with his fingertips.

Once he asked how I felt when they arrived. I didn’t know. Did I hear a voice or see the words in my head? I didn’t know.

So he broke my wax tablet and was angry with me for a week. It scared me. And pleased me. Maybe, I thought then, I was headed down the wrong path. Now, words from somewhere still marshal themselves, rebel or obey, send their havoc out into the world, and my reward is the laurel wreath. Then, I spent my time alone in the hills above our house, telling myself that if I couldn’t read the meaning of such signs, I could at least learn something about my world.

Anacreon also kept track of my strangeness, but with more hostility. He was the firstborn and eight years older. Usually I told myself that I had one brother who understood and one who didn’t, but the week Kynegeiros was angry I didn’t even have that. Wandering around alone, I collected signs to ask him about later, when he would speak to me again: the wind on a ridgeline like a rush of voices, or patterns in a poplar’s bark that repeated themselves in one of its taproots.

When he finally took me back, I asked him, Did my difference mean I was one of the elect or cast out? He cuffed me for my presumption. I didn’t persist. I decided to act and to let the inner spirit follow the outer shadow. I had him cut my hair in what he said was the ancient Doric style: close-cropped at the forehead and long in the back. I modeled as many of his behaviors as I could, the way as children we learned about the clean hand and the dirty hand and which you kept to yourself. Both of my brothers took pleasure in their manners and spoke only when addressed. Their greetings were commendable. They were respectful with their gaze.

*  *  *  *  

After matricide had especially disturbed him, he asked me to remember the first time the words had appeared. Did I remember? I thought I did: a morning when I was three or four, in a powdery season of little rain. I’d had barley dust on my hands. I’d been standing or sitting. He’d been seated nearby. He must have been eight or nine. He’d been watching Anacreon, who’d been working a rasp up and down an ash shake for a javelin. I watched him watch and my heart rose and fell, rose and fell, and no one knew. A word appeared before me: starfish. A crow dropped to the ground and he shooed it away.

I asked if he remembered. He didn’t. He held his wrist as if trying to immobilize one hand with the other. When he let it go, he said that he did remember the way my expressions at that age had been comically severe.

Back then, my brothers and their friends played war games at the edge of our wheat field. When I followed they chased me away. When I returned they chased me away again. At home I tried to talk about the architecture of the stalks. The leaf blades sheathed around the stem or the spikelets’ airy intricacy. Just being in the field made a force in my chest levitate. But my excitement went too far. Somehow it upset my family. I tried to confide in Kynegeiros when I caught him alone, but it repulsed and alarmed him that I was so tireless in my search for attention, as if he’d found a spider in his soup.

And he was forced to spend time in my company. Until he came of age, he was responsible for ensuring that I arrived daily at alphabet lessons and music. When he turned sixteen, I marched alone with other boys in ranks, from the music master’s house to the physical trainer’s palaestra. I sang “Pallas, Terrible Stormer of Cities” and “Ajax on his Rock” and played the hedgehog game. I missed him. At home in the afternoon I sang and resang songs for him. I was allowed to watch him play knucklebones or wrestle Anacreon. I pretended that I too was sixteen.

*  *  *  *  

That year he commissioned a first helmet like our father’s, a variant on the Corinthian design. I was allowed to lift it from its peg and run my palms through the brush of its crest. I coped with the excitement by breathing through my mouth.

And my head was becoming an open gate that the world streamed through. Brothers muscles honey wine stones. Honey brothers muscles stones wine.

He lost patience with me again because of it. In the afternoons they shut me into the outer courtyard, but I followed their games by keeping my eye to the gate latch. They played at quail tapping. The bird, when rapped on its head, sometimes stood its ground and sometimes staggered out of the ring. They cheered it on and cheated by scaring it and exchanged coins on the basis of its behavior. I watched and sang battlefield paeans and imagined civic crises that would call forth a muster of even the youngest boys.

Anacreon loved the sea and spent his free time assisting the fishing fleet. Kynegeiros helped, and sometimes went his own way. When he did, I followed, reciting lists like figs, limes, almonds, olives, and lemons that soothed me and displaced the pressure of other lists that, arrayed in squadrons, so unsettled my brother. He leaped walls or rushed up high, gravelly hillsides to lose me. When he succeeded, my day was ruined. Eventually, I’d continue on, miserable. I’d follow flying beetles riding the hot air up those same hillsides or investigate the drowsings of hornets.

When I found him again, our eyes met like bones jarred in sockets. What did I want? he’d demand, and again disappear. And I always thought, By what miracle was the dust and the rock around me transformed into speech? When he talked to me it was like a duet in which the other voice was silent. When I thought of him it was like a sign from God that I wasn’t ready to read.

But when he talked to Anacreon about me, he said, My Aeschylus this, and My Aeschylus that. Anacreon talked about me to him the same way: Your Aeschylus this, and Your Aeschylus that.

*  *  *  *  

Our decision to wait six days was not unanimous. Every knot of two or more citizens has become a discussion group. Hellenes have, after all, made arguing black is white into a sport. My brother and I, when not engaged in drill, have walked the shoreline, both for training and to keep our own counsel. Sometimes we’ve walked until Phosphorus, the morning star and light-bearer, has left Hesperus, evening- and Western star, behind. Should we have stayed behind our city walls? Could we continue to wait for the Spartans? Should we have attacked while more of the enemy was disembarking? And why had they waited? Concern for their cavalry and its vulnerability to our camp’s shelter in the sacred grove? Or were we drawn here so that our city could be betrayed and given over like Eritrea?

The past three nights there’s been a waxing moon above the bay. When it wanes, the Spartans’ Karneian festival will have ended and they’ll have begun their march to us. We walk every night through the wavelets combing in onto the sand. We walk until the watch fires are banked down. Stretches of the shore are a seafarers’ junkyard, with stove-in and disintegrating small boats offering up their salt-eaten and mealy spare parts along the high tide mark.

Anacreon died of septic misfortune following a wound from a snapped spear in the campaign against Aegina seven years ago. He died in our house, a week after being carried home on a litter. For weeks after, Kynegeiros seemed enraged at the sight of me. And my own expressions of sadness seemed to incite him further.

We groped in the murk of the gods’ motives. All we knew was that their directives needed no explanation and had to be obeyed. Artemis is angry: Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter. Menelaus is favored: Troy must fall. And when a mortal is taken into a god’s confidence, that mortal brings everyone bad fortune.

We consulted a local oracle, though our mother hated oracles, with their language tricks and teasing word-mazes. We were told that human life was a nursery in which larger designs were revealed. We were told that we had brought this on ourselves. We were told to look to the youngest. I am the youngest.

Our father for years said with pride that parents lived on in their children and that the dead man rose in his offspring. He said, whenever he watched Anacreon on the parade ground, that he was like the gods’ medicine, used with kind intention. He called him the pillar for our roof. Our mother always chided us to remember that we were rich; that heaven’s grace had been poured over us.

We drained and washed his wound and packed it with the prescribed herbs. A surgeon bled him. We waited, sitting about as a family through long evenings, like the crew of a galley in an onshore wind, sullen and becalmed.

But with him the gods’ verdict was suffering followed by death. As if our natural condition were a world without mercy. Our hope dwindled for seven days and then was gone. We were left with our father on his knees and the greasy reek of our brother’s infected clothing on a courtyard pyre. Our mother became like Queen Procne, who lost her son and then, as a nightingale, forever sang his name. She went about laureled with misery.

Kynegeiros, too, went about like a blind man. But my feelings were like chalk drawings, and if my father had known he would have flogged me raw. I cut my hair to crown my brother’s tomb. I helped pour the offering. But how could I make my prayers? What words could I pour into his tomb? And from which brother did I want forgiveness?

My surviving brother seemed to know. He looked at me as if he understood that in my case conceit and vanity would never abate. As if he could see now that I was Catastrophe, hand-reared at home.

Why did our family act like this? I asked my brother in frustration, almost a year ago. Our parents still had not recovered. I understood by then the old saying that grief is a cold hearth.

Others had had lives much more filled with grief. Families that had had blow after blow rained upon their reeling heads. What was different about ours?

The question has always been an unwise one to ask.

On this plain in front of the invader, sharing a sleeping pallet each night after our walks, under the stars, equally damp and cold with dew, my brother lies awake despite his exhaustion, still grieving for our other brother and still not forgiving me for having been spared.

Poison sweet waters once and they’re poisoned for good. I don’t ask him for his thoughts. Calamity is my school, and in it I’ve learned when to speak and when to keep silent.

*  *  *  *  

By the third watch it feels as though I’m the only one awake. My cloak doesn’t cover my feet, or if it does, it doesn’t cover my shoulders. Under the wood smoke I can smell marjoram and pine resin. In the distance there’s some quiet sentry-stirring in the dark.

When I lie awake on my mat, I compose. I sing about discipline and a good heart, which is not the same as having had either.

I made my debut at the City Dionysia festival at the age of twenty-two but did not win the prize until fifteen years later.

Our family belongs to the Eupatridai, heir to an aristocratic tradition extending back to the origins of Attica. My brother and I are old enough to remember the tyranny of Hippias and to have voted on Cleisthenes’ democratic reforms. We’re considered men of some moment, having had a foot in both worlds. My neighbors admire me for what they’ve seen during the festivals, and they admire my brother for what they know of his spirit. My children hold him up as their model for fiercely applied self-discipline. He doesn’t disappoint them. This evening for his supper, while I cooked, he contented himself with the kind of hard flaxseed loaf that’s fit mostly for winter boot insulation.

“They’ll fight tomorrow,” he says from out of the darkness beside me. When I ask him why, he reminds me that the Spartans will arrive the following day.

*  *  *  *  

My brother is always right. Over the morning breakfast fires we watch the invaders muster. Kynegeiros goes about the business of preparation without registering what’s before him. It’s a mesmerizing sight and it fills the plain from the mountain to the sea. There doesn’t seem to be enough earth to hold all of the activity. Dust kicked up floats slantwise across their ranks in the rear. Their line as it forms looks to have a frontage of about fifteen hundred men. The formations are at least ten to fifteen men deep. The Persians themselves, flanked by the Sakai, form the center. And this is without yet any sign of their cavalry.

Kynegeiros is still refusing to look, like a boy trying to impress me. Finally, we’re sixteen together.

We’re in the hands of God’s justice, one way or the other. The battle pennant, hoisted, informs us that command, rotating on a daily basis among the strategoi, falls today to Militiades, who had spoken the most insistently in favor of marching out to face the invader in the first place. All around us in our tribe we’re surrounded by the kind of sons of aristocratic families who give themselves nicknames, the way that young people do, nicknames like Sacred Erection or The Self-Abuser. They take courage from one another and from us the way each ship takes courage from its moorings. They present the invader with a version of Hellas bare and lean as a wolf.

Some of us write scraps of messages to family members or wives on small wax tablets or tree bark or potshards. My brother and I each write a line on the disposition of our property. Armorers pass among us with sacks to collect the notes for safekeeping back at the armament wagons, with the sacrificial goats.

The squires begin arming citizens from the feet up: bronze greaves prised apart for fitting and secured by the natural springiness of the metal, first.

It goes without saying that my brother will handle our private commerce with the gods. He mixes a little of our honey and wine in our grandfather’s clay bowl, preparing the drink for Earth and to give the thirsty dead their sip. These are libations to sweeten dead men’s attitudes that are poured down into Earth’s hidden rooms, to our brother listening in his buried dark. Soon he’ll hear his dirt ceiling groan as it’s hammered and scratched open.

Kynegeiros pours the mixture and a straw-brown mantis with feathery grasping claws walks though the wet when he’s finished. Nearby on the temporary altar, for the army as a whole, two other goats are kept in reserve in case the bleeding from the first reads inauspiciously.

Even the cynics recognize the usefulness of these rituals: someone’s always seeing an eagle when they need to before battle.

When a city falls, the universe is upended and things are toppled that once climbed to heaven, are bound that should be free. The Persians have upset the natural order of things. As have I.

The final libations have been poured, the omens scrutinized and teased forth. There’s that pause, as at a banquet when the tables are cleared and the floors swept of shells and bones. We take our places in the lines, neighbors holding out their hands as they pass, like boys sliding palms along fenceposts, touching fingers.

Now it’s just men waiting in the heat. Squires circulate with water. My brother stands to my right. To my left is a neighbor we call Crayfish because he loves them and because his eyes unmoor from their pairing. The felt of his undercap is already soaked. Clouds like islands of migratory air sail by.

I’ve prayed. Now I have to bring my prayers to flower. My brother beside me marks his place for my father, mother, and brother who died. If I weep my love for the chambered dead, will those tears restore me? The dead’s grievances live on and on. I stand shoulder to shoulder with those I love while a flood tide of self-hate beats the prow of my ship. For my brother, one brother’s loss and the other’s shame is a grief past bearing, a tether ring that tears against all pulling. We must heal ourselves. Our cure is blood for blood. The ability to live with ourselves must be earned with the spear. We’re the corks that lift the nets and the lines that rise from the depths.

He’s the man who taught me bivouac and foraging, dress and parade rest. He taught me how to balance a pack animal’s load. Where in the kit bag to stuff the oil lamp. The usefulness of a hand mill for grain.

Any contact he’s had with me has been a mercy. Orestes, after the murder of his mother, was given his own table and drank separately, from a cup touched by his mouth alone.

After we had carried my brother’s body outside the walls of the town, after the pyre, after the ashes and bones had been gathered in his cerecloth and consigned to the urn, after the last libations had been poured, and after our clothes and house had been purified with seawater and hyssop, his cult was inaugurated with sacrifice days on the third, ninth, and thirtieth days after the funeral, and on all subsequent anniversaries.

The night after the purification, our father, drunk, quoted to us Hesiod’s advice about families: “Try, if you can, to have only one son, to care for the family inheritance: that’s the way wealth multiplies in one’s halls.”

He then added that it was a great deal to have been granted even a few years’ happiness by the Deity.

I found Kynegeiros in the hills above our house some hours later. He was on a slope near a cluster of deadnettle and mint. He stayed bent-backed and I stood about. We were like an old man and a soft-boned child. I wanted to say to him, You will not wear me down. All can still be well. I wanted to say to him, How can an infant explain his hunger or thirst or need for his pot? Aren’t his insides a law unto themselves? But I knew better than to voice my self-pity.

The past enters and floods our present while we wait. I’ve labored to the top of this hill and it’s taken half my life to get here, and the other side slopes down. Today, once again, we’ll trust to the way heaven’s law compels but does not always protect its human allies. Today he’ll teach me even more about the war between the self and the world, the self divided into soul and body, the body usually acting as the traitor within the gates. He’ll lead me to that magic that we recognize in dream, that makes the face of the sleeper relax. He’ll show me how my shame could rise like a glad bird and vanish over the shoulder of the hill. I can wish us united in good feeling and united in hate, with a cure for every injury, though I know there’s no regaining what’s gone. We’ll act so that something better can be rendered in the days to come.

*  *  *  *  

Medes, Egyptians, Dacians, Illyrians: they’re all drawn up now in their full panoply, their marshaling positions invisible behind the mass. The marsh behind them is a stretch of searing sun where the air goes hazy with mosquitoes. Nothing moves on the hillside up above them, to our left. Braced planks arrest the spill of a wall down the slope in the distance.

They wear trousers. Purple- or red-dyed boots. Quilted linen tunics. Cuirasses with metalwork like the meshings of a net. Open-faced helmets and animal-skin headdresses. Bowcases of leopard skin. Here they come, eager for combat, packed man on man: speartamers, horsebreakers, endurance and malice and fear on their faces, in horizon-crowding lines with their curved Scythian swords and double-ended pig stickers, the flower of the wide world’s earth, stepping forward while their parents and wives and younger brothers in their cold beds back in Asia count the days they’ve been gone.

*  *  *  *  

At the signal from our strategos we hammer our spear shafts on the outer curve of our shields. When we cease, he gives the order to swing down and fit snug the bronze facing of our helmets, and to advance.

In the sun we will seem an endlessly wide threshing machine of blades and unyielding surfaces. Our paean will be Zeus Savior, spare us who march into your fire. They’ll hear a roar, a windhowl, our singing together. We will find that bright vibration, that pitch at which the spirit oscillates. We will march through their archers’ bolts like covered wagons in a hailstorm. They will see, as we close, the spears of our first four ranks swinging down to the horizontal. They will discover how far beyond our shields the blades of those shafts can extend. We will break into a run. We will hit them like a bull. We will savage them of all they have. Our collision with the wood and wicker of their shields will be like the sound of kindling underfoot.

After the shock of impact, our following ranks will seat their shields into our backs, their shoulder bones under the upper rims, and, splaying dust and scrabbling for footing, will push and shove with all their force. The invader’s wicker will have no purchase against the implacable smoothness of our bowl-shaped bronze. Their front ranks will be left trampled in the gleaning ground, spooling out behind us as the butchery rolls forward, where they’ll meet the spiked clubs and gutting knives and bonebreakers of our light infantry. Our churning feet will continue the push, even slipping on their blood like boys’ feet on river rocks. We will hit them like a wave, the wild water seething into seaside homes; we will leave them like a tidal pool after a storm, with its clamor of blasted lives.

All of this is sent to me, or generated in me: visceral shadows instead of words, turning and turning in my imagination. In the cattle-stunning light before we step off I can see it, my head that open gate. They will be cut down, body on body. They will endure being god-overturned in war. Their slaughter will extend all the way back to their ships at anchor, where we, the right wing, the tribe of Aiantis, will be like the gods jumping both feet into their ranks, about to learn the whole reach of pain, our sandals piercing the shallows and the breakers’ roil, our thighs surging back and forth in the water’s wilderness of spumy sand, our bodies wading in full armor into the surf, our weapons slashing at the backwatering oars and cable ropes sliding in the waves’ retreat and gaffing the wounded like fish. And there my brother will lay hands on the backsliding deck of a trireme, and there, while I watch, a Persian’s boarding axe will chop through one of his wrists, and there on the beach his life will stream out of him and cover us in the river mouth of his blood, with his last words to me that their ships are getting away; their ships are getting away.

They will find out: all that begins well can come to the worst end. Having done evil, no less will they suffer. And more in the future. In their pride and self-deception they will have led themselves to the disasters of this day and more coming on. As I am for my family, with my friends and neighbors I’ll be their sorrow, a sad hollow son born to bring home misfortune, to initiate the roll of grief.

We can feel our hearts in their bony cages. We’re about to enroll them in the academy of chaos and self-command. We’re about to lead them to that world in which their sons and brothers are dead and gone. Lost and always there. And they’re about to form for us that jury in which each man reads his own future: Home and hearth, or no home and hearth. Pain, or release from pain.


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