Rage, O Goddess, sing the rage of Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans so many losses, who sent down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, the souls of great warriors, but made their bodies carrion, food for dogs and birds, while the will of Zeus pushes ever to its end....
He was muttering again, he knew. The words played over and over in his head and he absently repeated them. Then he opened his eyes, suddenly, as though he expected they might not see.
Alive! At least I’m alive....
He breathed in dust and felt his body limp against an unyielding surface. His eyes saw mostly darkness. At the edges, a deep bronze light played with him. The surface beneath him was warm, wet with his perspiration. And his blood, he suspected. Soon he began to feel some vibration in the ground beneath him. It grew stronger and he realized what was happening. He broke through his stupor and, at the last possible moment, summoned what energy remained in him and thrust his weakened body over.
He felt the hot sun on his face. The noise and vibration continued and he knew he must go further. One more time, he urged himself, and rolled over again. Then again, and found himself quickly dropping into a shallow ditch filled with the powdery beige dust that covered everything in this Mediterranean landscape.
The vehicle that just missed him had a loud, banging engine as it went on down the road, a narrow route that wound along the coastline. The bus rolled to a halt, its engine sputtering then settling into a more harmonious noise. He heard the door creak open and some people bound out. They ran to him, striking up dust which hovered over his body, blocking the sun with their bodies.
The men’s voices were gruff, thickly accented. Their breaths were heavy as they pulled his broken body out of its spontaneous grave. They were careful as they laid him on the roadway. He could no longer open his eyes because of the blinding sun overhead, but he felt one man searching his pockets. Another dripped water on his face and wiped it away with a grubby, gnarled hand. Next, a fat finger, with rough skin and a wart, forced his mouth open and water followed—a warm, awful liquid he could not swallow.
Then he was floating, as though angels had come to gather him and take him home. He kept his eyes tightly shut, feeling the heat of the sun on his face. Eight hands lifted him into the air. He levitated over the dirt road, up the slope he had been about to mount before he collapsed, and into the welcome shadow of the bus. Voices, curious cackles, shot at him from the bus windows, all words he could not recognize. He was taken aboard, after some anxious discussion in the strange language, and the bus lurched into gear and backfired as it pulled away.
Perhaps, with some good fortune, he might return to his home, even if it took years. Yet just knowing he was on his way made his heart burn with hope. As his body fell limp against the floor of the bus, his lips, cracked and bleeding, twisted uncontrollably into a thankful grin, a silly mask he could not control.
“Your name?” came the voice outside the bandages, shaking him back to consciousness.
He wasn’t asleep, but he didn’t know exactly where he was, either, not being able to look out at the world. Feeling the bed beneath him and the scent of medicines around him, he guessed he was in a hospital or clinic. He took in a deep breath, pulling himself into more alertness, and tried to clear his head. Things did not feel right.
His first act was to see if his jaw would move. It wouldn’t—or, barely would.
“It’s wired,” came the answer to his unspoken question. “You can speak, yes?”
He tried again. He could move his jaw, he discovered, but the sudden shot of pain warned him not to do it again. Concerned, he raised his head off the pillow and felt all of the blood rush out of his brain, and fell back.
“It’s on this side, by your ear,” the man’s voice explained, and Alex felt a fingertip lightly tap his jaw. “It will heal.”
He wanted to say something, like “Thanks,” but he feared the pain of opening his mouth.
“Your name?” the man repeated.
“A—lex,” he managed after some time testing how much pain he could endure. The name sounded familiar.
“Aleksa? Ah, like El-Xandar, the Macedon, yes?” The voice laughed.
He didn’t know what the man was talking about at first. Gradually he understood that he shared his name with Alexander the Great, who had in 334 B.C. conquered this region of the world, leading an army of 10,000 at the age of twenty. He just knew it, he realized. It had been part of his Senior Seminar, a few weeks ago. He should have been out conquering something, instead of only writing about it. Instead, he was lost in Turkey, he recalled as if waking from a dream, and the land seemed to have conquered him.
“Where...?” he whispered.
“This, aaa, Edremit Hospital,” the man answered. “You American?”
Alex could not answer, too afraid and too much in pain. He did not know of any town named Edremit.
“You are lucky boy.”
Alex didn’t feel so lucky. Why was this man he couldn’t see asking him such stupid questions? He started to go off on the litany of his lucky breaks: the cool summer jobs at CyberAmerica, being high school salutatorian, getting into a good college, the Webber scholarship, vice-president of his fraternity, getting a first date with Suzie Olmeyer, their sexual episodes. None of them were due to luck, he argued in the voice of his proud parents; it was his hard work, his dedication—
“You alive, yes?” the man interrupted.
Alex wasn’t sure about that, but he would take the stranger’s word for it. He felt too much pain to think for himself. For now, he could not see who he was speaking to, but he assured himself the man must be the doctor who bandaged his wounds. He tried to smile, not with his mouth and jaw, his lips and straight teeth, but with his mind and spirit hidden beneath the bandage that covered his eyes. From inside his fortress he could regroup and prepare to continue the campaign.
He listened to the man exit, detecting amusement in his voice.
Campaign? thought Alex, his head feeling heavy. What the heck was he doing on a campaign? He had already finished college, he told himself. No more homework, no more tests. Stop all this history stuff, he ordered himself. It was one thing to be interested enough in something to study it and achieve a degree in the subject, but it was very different to infuse one’s daily life with everything learned in four years of college. No-one who might hear him would understand anyway, he decided, remembering he had been touring the site of ancient Troy when he lost his way. A degree in ancient history? What good was that?
Alex tried to sit up, wanting to get some assurance from the medical staff that he was not dreaming. A sharp bolt of agony shot across his cheeks. The dull ache behind his eyes exploded into a sharp stabbing pain that sliced down his neck to the small of his back. He froze. Then screamed—using a mouth which could only mutter a moment before. He was not dreaming.
The doctor rushed in. He had a nurse give Alex an injection which left his head swimming and his body numb.
“You are bad boy, yes?” the doctor grilled him, almost with a chuckle.
Alex wondered what he meant.
“You have bad fall?” the doctor asked him, and burst into a snickering laughter than made Alex feel very uneasy, even as he slipped into a relaxed stupor.
If by ‘fall’ the doctor meant physically, like down a well, then no. But a fall from grace, perhaps? That was not out of the question. If only he could speak to the doctor—to anybody.
Alex was conscious enough now to fear his present circumstances. He wanted to speak whole paragraphs to them, not just one or two grunt responses. If he could just make them all understand what happened to him, maybe someone could do something. He did not belong here, he would confess. Right now, in his pain and fear and confusion, he simply wanted to go home.
It was not his fault, Alex wanted them all to know. He was not clumsy. He had not fallen down a well, as the doctor had supposed. He could not trip over a small rock and land face first into a ditch. He was certainly smart enough to not walk in front of a bus. Filled with anger, Alex could not relax, and that made him continue to feel pain. The drug was weak, he decided. He still felt pain, lots and lots of pain. But even as he tested the threshold for pain tolerance, he began to understand that much of the pain he felt was not from his body but from the wounds to his spirit.
Now, nearly immobilized in his sweat-soaked hospital bed in a stale room with no air conditioning, Alex did not believe he was going to survive. The sickening perfume of the medicines and ointments, along with the spicy, greasy Turkish food being handed out to each patient, made him conjure an eerie world where the gods and mortals continued playing their mythic games. The ho-humness of the staff, and the chuckling of his doctor, whom he was forced to rely on for any communication, made him think he was on his way down to Hades to mingle with its zombie-like hordes. The doctors and nurses who came and went seemed like denizens of the Underworld to him, faceless voices, touching him at random. In his mind, they condensed from an opaque gray background, as though stepping on stage, and after making their case for his injuries, just as fluidly coalesce with the background.
His mind was racing, spinning out of control as the drugs took effect and wore off and were injected again. How many days had it been since he had set out to visit Ilium, the site of the ten-year siege of Troy? It was three thousand years earlier, yet this dusty, dried-out, strangely fragrant land with its exotic charms and hidden dangers was the same.
And what alarmed him most about his situation and the state he had come to was his realization that they had both begun with a woman named Helen.
When he had awakened on the first morning of the cruise, Alex had looked out of his porthole, which sat just above the waterline, and immediately had visions of the oars of the Achaeans’ boats plying across the blue waters toward the shores of Asia Minor. All for a woman. Was it worth it? he pondered on the bright, golden morning he set out from Piraeus aboard the gleaming white cruise ship Aegean Princess. He was thinking about his own adventure, not that of the ancient Greeks.