Ch. 004 - How life would be without her
When dinner-time drew close, one of the guards starting pacing pointedly, and I knew I had to go or I’d be in trouble. I drew in one last deep breath of their house, honey-buns, mixed kitchen-herbs and all-enwrapping serenity.
My father, of course, forbade me to do this again, saying the guards had their posts to stay in, and I’d be allowed to go out into the city by myself once I was eleven. I counted on my fingers: four years! I felt like he’d sentenced me to hang. (A little later he’d tell me I could go out if I took Leonidas, but he was no fun; he wouldn’t let me go wherever I wanted, and in far too short a time he’d soon snap, “Enough questions! You don’t need to know everything this instant; learning will come to you!”)
No one had told me I wasn’t allowed to invite Hephaistion into my room, so the next day, I did. That meant more introductions. Grandma said, as if she could read his mind, “Don’t worry; you’ll grow into your ears.” Kynnane took his hands hard like a boy, so he didn’t know quite what to make of her. Lanike hugged him in a way that would make him feel at home. It didn’t occur to me to introduce him to my mother; I only learned later that he thought this was odd. He didn’t want to be introduced to my father, saying his father had told him it had to be later and done properly.
“Princes have such a big room and beautiful walls and nice things!” My bed with its wood polished to shining and gold rosettes and carven scroll-work, my walls with the horse-herd and the bright red, blue, black and white running-pattern along the top border, my two chests with their gilded corners, full of toys made for me rather than handed down, my bronze lamp-stand, my marble altar with incense from Sidon burning and the silver offering-chalice wrought small for my hands—I saw all these things I took for granted anew, from hearing how they looked to Tion.
He was awestruck that I had my own bathtub, and then when he had to pee, the drain-basin in the garderobe floor, joined to the drain system under the whole city. I didn’t know yet that all the cities of the world didn’t have what Archelaos had built in Pella, that even Perikles and Xerxes had used chamber-pots and middens. I thought it was just that Tion had lived in the country before, and was now in a house that didn’t join to the street-drains.
To lift the lids of the toy-chests I had to shoo off basking snakes, as usual. The first of my mother’s chambers was next to mine, joined by a curtained door, even though I was in the men’s side, so they roamed freely between. There were three or four who liked to sleep with me even in summer; in winter there were dozens who’d slide in under the covers to wrap themselves around me, the warming-stones and each other. Tion wasn’t afraid of them, blessedly.
When I opened the chest that was full of toy warriors, his jaw dropped. They had all come to me as gifts, the first one from Philip when I was born. I think it was supposed to be him, but the paint and the face were long gone, as I’d teethed on it. I had a tiny phalanx with sarissai made of wire, and hypaspists, and several ilai with the horses and men separately carved, and archers, and several miniature stone-throwers that really worked, and even the toy-carver’s uninformed version of elephants, looking like awkward horses with spindly legs and long wobbly noses. When the Persians had last come through Makednia, a hundred and fifty years before, they hadn’t taken any of India yet and so had no elephants, so Makednia had never seen one.
We fought the first of our epic battles that day, Makednians bravely fording the River of Alexander’s Two Blue Chitons Laid on the Floor, against Thessalians steadfastly holding the bank of Alexander’s Persian Carpet. Though stone-throwers were only supposed to be for breaking down walls, we hadn’t built any, so it was just as well to pelt his army across the river, not to mention him, for which he pelted me with cushions. Losses on both sides were worse even than the death-tolls of the most heart-rending tragedies: total, since by rolling around locked together and shrieking with giggles we knocked every warrior flat. So neither of us won per se.
“What’s mine is yours,” I said. “What do you like the most?” He thought I meant just one, but I disillusioned him of that by fetching a sack.
“Won’t someone get mad at you?” he asked me.
“Ehh, they won’t even notice,” I said. “I want to make you happy.”
How many things had my grandma seen in her life, more than sixty years of it? I asked her once what it had been like to live under the rule of the man who’d killed her eldest son, my namesake, and would have killed the other two except that she had written to Iphikrates. (She once said that literacy always comes in handy; never more than that day, for her.) I didn’t feel I could ask my half-mothers things like that, but I could talk to her about anything.
“Alexander, who bears my dear first son’s name, remember the story of Damokles, and the sword hanging over his head,” she said. “Suffering such things is the price of all these riches, and our names living forever. Mind you, every mother who has sons loses them in war; it’s hardly a privilege reserved for queens. You men, you march off, you fight, you chew each other up, and it is the women who keep the nation running. Don’t fool yourselves, thinking men make everything… for who makes the men?” She laughed, and tousled my hair.
She had to be proud beyond proud of Philip, I knew, and I’d see it in her eyes when she looked at him. I hoped to make her just as proud of me, but she never lived to see it. The fall I turned seven, as the first chill of winter came on, she died. Peacefully, in sleep; Nikesipolis found her, lying with a look on her face as if she were still sleeping.
Hers was the first funeral pyre I ever saw, the first corpse lying wreathed in flame. My father, of course, set the torch to it. Through my tears I watched the fire catch and flare up in her hair, then the fine-woven cloak she wore and the heap of shorn locks, given to her by those who loved her, including me, that lay on her chest under her crossed hands. I watched the gold border of her long woman’s chiton melt and drip over the edge of the bier onto the logs.
My father had lit the pyre with his usual grace, then stood unmoving and lordly; now suddenly he clenched his hair in his fists and sank to his knees. The seven Bodyguards closed in around him, but I heard him howl “Mama! Mamaaaaahh!”, his battle-strengthened voice rising over the crowd singing the dirge. A child can usually never imagine his father was a child, but now I got a flash of it.
As the sun sank, the fire gained power, roaring, turning her limbs black like burning logs. Tears sparkled on thousands of faces, so well-loved she had been. Beside the pyre, her tomb, built into the earth years ago, awaited her with its door open.
I let myself wail like a baby and ripped my own chiton until the full fire of the emotion burned itself out. My chest and throat felt full of hollowed-out red coals. I started to think about the next day, and how life would be without her, never again hearing her call me “my little Achilles” or prompt me from the Iliad as I recited, her one arm around me.
All through, my mother’s hard-edged hand held mine. At the level of my eyes swung the fringe of gold chains of her hip-belt, glistening in the firelight and tinkling faintly as she shifted from one foot to the other. Grandma had said it suited a dancer or flute-girl more than a Queen, except during Dionysia. My mother was wearing it now, I gathered, because Grandma could no longer say anything.
We stayed in Aigai, sleeping in the old Palace, built before men counted years and primitive enough that the ancient black rafters had adze-marks, for the two days of her funeral games and funeral feast. They took her calcined bones out of the ashes, wrapped them tenderly in gold-sparkled purple and laid them in a golden box, which they placed in her tomb with the things she’d specified: some of her finest-wrought gold earrings and necklaces, best scents, and favourite books. The door was sealed, and the whole tomb was buried in sacred black earth.
My mother’s eyes stayed dry all through. Instead there was a restlessness in her, like a tree bending and rustling to a wind that none of the other trees seem to feel. The evening we were home in Pella, she called me into her chambers.