Ch. 003 - The possibilities of love
Everyone called Kleitos “the Black” for his dark hair and eyes, and his serious way. But when he came visiting, he’d laugh and wrestle Lanike’s three sons and me. He was so tall that when he lifted or tossed us, it felt like flying. I called him Uncle just as his nephews did, and no one minded.
One day he got on his knees to mock-fight me with wooden toy swords, leaving me big, slow openings. I found one, jabbed the point against his chest. He froze, clutching the spot, declaimed in an actor’s voice, “Ai, I am struck a mortal blow!”, fell sprawling on the grass and lay still.
All the world turned to stone and the sunlit day turned black. From a thousand stades away, it seemed, I heard Proteas, Lanike’s eldest, laugh “Ha ha, Alexander killed Uncle! Let’s all jump on him!”
“Kleitos.” I touched his shoulder. “Uncle. Wake up!” He did not move, even as they piled on, doing little-boy growls. Everything dimmed and brightened and dimmed again; I felt sick; I wanted to scream but was too frozen. I was too young to wonder why I was so terror-stricken at play-acting; I just knew I was. “Uncle Kleitos! Wake up!”
The other boys all froze in their perches on various parts of him, and stared at me. He opened his eyes and sat up fast. “Oh, Sprout! What’s the matter? I was just pretending!”
Relief washed over me like a flood, then anger roared up hot inside, like flames. How could you pretend something so evil? I ignored his outstretched arms, felt my fists clench. “Don’t do that! Don’t you ever dare do that again!”
He blinked, stunned. I’d almost never seen a grown-up not know what to do before. Proteas looked at me as if I were crazy; one of the others giggled a little nervously.
“All right, Sprout,” Kleitos said, in a voice like you’d use gentling a spooked horse. “I won’t. I give you my word.” He gave me his hand on it, too. The roaring anger turned to tears, and he got up and lifted me to that great height and handed me to Lanike, who let me wail into her neck. Even so, I heard him say, “I’d never have taken him for such a delicate soul.” There was a bit of worry in it, that I only came to understand later: maybe I wasn’t tough enough to be King.
“Oh yes.” Lanike’s voice rang all around and inside my head, since my ear was pressed to her collar-bone. “He’s all heart. Unearthly smart, you know, and I think he might even have a touch of prescience; his mother does. A great blessing for a king, but in the meantime, you never know when kids like that will see things that are more than they can bear.”
Kleitos was true to his word. He never play-acted death at my hands again.
Our palaistra was a great rectangular courtyard surrounded by two storeys of pure white marble columns. The ground was not flagstone but plain earth, since that was what a man would most often fight on, worn almost barren of grass by hundreds of feet, with two much-abused shade trees. Men and boys trained there, in sacred nakedness; armoured combat and large-scale maneuvers we practiced out in the field north of the city. I was too young to go onto the ground, but I’d lurk among the columns to watch. When the men came and went, they’d tousle my hair with their big weapon-callused hands.
The rules were looser when the boys of eight to eleven were practicing. I’d get nearest the youngest ones who were closest to my size and imitate them, with a short stick for a sword. Start position: kneeling with my right knee up and foot planted, right elbow on the knee, left knee down but toes curled under, ready to spring up, left arm hanging straight down ready to pick up my sword, which is lying on the earth to my left. Spring up, picking it up under the guard my left hand, then grab it by the grip with my right, and “draw.” Or the various blows: stab at face, stab at guts, cut for neck, cut for thigh, then with a longer stick for a spear. I loved the feel of the motions.
I didn’t qualify for a wooden sword, being barely seven. One day there was a lanky boy, a newbie, with brown hair in tight pin-curls, a wide chin and big ears that stuck out, a little Thessalian-looking. He was keeping his eyes straight ahead while he practiced the move as you’re supposed to, therefore not seeing his sword when it was not in his hand. I crept up behind the column nearest him and waited until the moment he put it down. I’d have to grab it clean; no way I’d win a tug-of-war with him, since he was a head taller than me. I ran away with it, giggles bursting out of me. “Wha... hey, hey!” he yelled in Thessalian Greek, sure enough.
My plan was to hide behind one of the columns too quick for him to know which, but he was too fast. “You! Little brat! Come back with that!” He chased after me; I wove through the columns like a grape-vine until I knew I had him expecting it, and so could jump him by going all the way around one instead of onto the next. I stuck out the sword, and he ran into the end belly-first. “Hah, you’re dead! Say you are!”
“Fine, I’m dead, you little sneak—give me that! Who do you think you are, being here with big boys?”
“Alexander!” I handed it to him, hilt-first as the students did. “Who’re you?”
His scowl eased. He had dark eyes and a wide, strong chin. “Hephaistion.”
“’Tion,” I said.
“Amyntor’s,” he added into the silence. Later I learned he thought I was too young to know I should give my father’s name. I thought everyone in the world knew it. “I... I’ll see you later.” He turned to run back to the class.
I hung around until they were done and spotted him coming out. Now he was awkward, all formal, someone having told him whose son I was. His family had recently moved from a village in the highlands down to Pella, I learned later, to better his father’s prospects in his career as an officer in the Horse Companions. He was not used to having so many people around him, all of whom seemed to know and be friends with each other, and he was especially not used to rubbing shoulders with royalty.
“Don’t call me prince, just call me Alexander,” I told him. “You’re my friend.” I invited him up to my rooms, but he said his mother would be expecting him at home. So I went with him to the Palace gate, introducing him to everyone we ran into on the way. That was something of torture for him, who’d grown up in the country with the same people around all the time. “You know so many people, and remember so many names!” he said.
We dawdled at the gate talking. He was smarter than any other kid I’d met. His line was originally from the plains north of Larissa, hence the unusual ending to his father’s name, Amyntor rather than Amyntas. He had taken out Makednian citizenship so he could serve in Philip’s horse, a steadier living and more stable home than mercenary work, and they’d lived in the highlands to the north for a while. Now they’d just moved into a house in the horsemen’s quarter of Pella, northwest of the agora.
“I alone have my name,” he said—certainly I had never heard of another Hephaistion—“because it’s a prayer.”
“I was born with one foot turned inward. My father didn’t want to give me to the wolves, so they named me this as part of their offering to Hephaistos. Because He’s lame Himself. It worked, too. Else I’d never be able to catch you when you snatched my sword. You want to come to my house?”
I almost got away, but for sharp-eyed Menesthes Lanikos’s, on guard duty. “A-LEX-ander Philip’s! Have you forgotten your father’s orders? You’re not allowed out of the Palace without a grown-up.” He went a little pale. I had no idea why until long after.
“So come with me! Then I’ve got one. Or both of you, if you’d like.”
They stared down at me for a bit, looked at each other then back at me. “We can’t do that! That’s leaving our post. At least not without permission.”
“Then get permission!” Why did grown-ups make these things so complicated? Menesthes spoke fast with his door-mate, went inside, and came back after what seemed like forever with two other guards to take over for them. Off we went, with them on either side of us. Tion’s look was a mix of bewilderment and a certain happy realization of what having me for a friend meant.
Amyntor was an iliarch, commanding two hundred horsemen, but he owned no estate, feeding his family on his soldier’s pay. He had been promoted shortly before moving to town. An officer of such rank had the right to have his horses stabled in the royal stables and his sons trained in the palaistra for free; these things had been instituted by Philip, so as to draw the best men to Pella and train their sons to serve him from childhood. Once Hephaistion hit fourteen he’d serve my father as a Page.
Their house was a typical row-house of the cavalry quarter: about fifteen feet wide, two storeys and built of grey limestone with a roof of red half-pipe tile and window-shutters painted simply in blue and green, far away from the center of town where the men like Parmenion and Attalos and Antipater, rich enough to wear purple and have guards of their own, kept mansions. Just Hephaistion’s mother and little sisters, just two of them then, the younger still a walking baby, were home. The front room smelled deliciously of baking. I heard later that his mother, seeing two gleaming Palace guards come to her door, wondered whether she was about to be arrested, or her son had been and was being brought home so his father would be informed of his coming trial.
The place smelled deliciously of baking bread even before we went in. Everything from the earthen floor up was simple and straightforward; the leg of a chair or the handle of a spoon was just a smooth-wrought stick, unadorned; a pot was just a plain pot with perhaps a zig-zag line or two at most, no glazed athletes or warriors striving. His mother wore a long pale blue chiton with only a narrow embroidered border and no gold thread, her black hair tied back with a white ribbon. From behind her skirts a tiny curly head peeked out, then another with sparser hair, both with bright eyes wide at the sight of my guards’ gleaming greaves: Hephaistion’s little sisters.
Her face was broad and plain and warm, with a smile that had no thought of selfishness in it. I’d noticed that about people outside the palace before. I only saw any other expression—a momentary flash of alarm—when Hephaistion said to her, “Mama, meet my friend, Alexander the Prince!” Ordinary people lead lives of relative calm; that can change when they get mixed up with royalty. But the smile came back all but instantly, and she said, “Welcome, Alexander,” and hugged me just as she hugged him. Up close she smelled of flour and honey and a trace of sweat.
Calculation was in both my parents’ arms, always. Lanike was sincere, but always slightly tentative, as with a possession of someone else’s, being only my nurse. Everyone else was also a little distant in their touch. I had never really noticed these things until now. I had never felt anything like this.
“Thinned beer, gentlemen?” The guards took one cup each to be polite but declined to sit, as they were on duty. “Goat’s milk, boys?” We laughed at each other’s milk-moustaches. “The honey-cakes are nearly done, and then all may have one.” The tiny girls half-hid behind the skirts of her chiton, then came out with big bright-eyed smiles. Everything was so peaceful, it was like in a story.
When Amyntor came home, wearing his gear, he was also surprised to find two Palace guards in his kitchen. But he gave me the host’s hug too, and except for the greater hardness of his muscles, his hug was just the same as hers. I tried to soak it all into myself, like a sponge. Hephaistion, I realized, carried it with him wherever he went, having been raised in it. Can I have him near me forever?
We played in his tiny plain room, which was barely big enough to hold his rough-hewn bed. His toys were few and rough-hewn and unpainted. He told me about how from where he’d been born, you could see white-capped Olympos with its summit, where the Gods make their beds, always hidden in cloud. I told him about the Palace and Lanike and my mother’s snakes.
“I had friends up in the highlands, but now I’m lonely, because my sisters are too little,” he said.
“Me too,” I said. “My brother is too stupid, my big sister too busy because she has to learn fighting as well as women’s things, and my little sister is like your littlest, still a baby. So we can be like brothers, except better, because brothers sometimes plot against each other for their father’s stuff. You’re going to get your father’s stuff, and I’m going to get mine, so we can just like each other.” He smiled his wide smile, and we threw our arms around each other. Of course he hugged like they did.
He will be near me always... With him for a best friend and them for my best friend’s parents, it was as if my life had been deepened and opened up and given another whole world somehow, in the possibilities of love I now had. I felt both set free, and as if an emptiness in me had been filled, perhaps the first too-good-to-be-true thing in my life that I wanted that I suddenly got.