A Stranger in the City – Chapter Eleven

Son
What have you done?
You’re caught by the river
You’re coming undone

Life
You know it can’t be so easy
But you can’t just leave it
Cause you’re not in control no more

And you give it all away
Would you give it all away now?

Caught by the River – Doves

OOO

Molossus covered his eyes with his hands and sat very still for some time. He was uncharacteristically silent.

“If I didn’t know you, I would think you’re kidding me” he said flatly. “I am… I am really shocked”

“I would never tell you those things, if you were my own son” Helenus answered in a quiet voice.

“Thank you for reminding me that I’m not your son! Thank you very much!” yelled Molossus, standing.

“You know what I mean” his stepfather replied, unimpressed.

“No, I don’t know what you mean!”

“You have your own father. If you are disappointed, you can turn to his memory” the older man explained. He looked aggravated.

…and Molossus had once thought that his man was made of stone…

The younger prince’s anger vanished as quickly as it had come. He sat back in front of the fireplace.

“Do you think… you would have betrayed your city, if Eudorus had said the right thing?” he asked cautiously.

“I have asked myself the same question many times and… I cannot know for sure, but I think I wouldn’t have dared anyway. After that conversation with Eudorus, I never really thought about betraying the city again. The idea of being used like a puppet nauseated me. Later on I realized… I was glad that I had not accepted” Helenus explained.

“And did you still think about… taking your life?”

The older man sighed, closing his eyes.

“Yes and no. That night, I realized that I would not act, although I didn’t have any… zest for life at that moment. It is difficult to explain what went on in my mind”

Molossus thought that he really wanted to know. But he didn’t dare to ask.

“In my life, there was no single accomplishment of which I could be proud. I thought that, if I used that knife, that would be it. I would die feeling ashamed. I wanted… to feel something else than shame”

Helenus’ eyes were closed but Molossus felt the need to look away nonetheless.

“So you… changed?”

Helenus made a strange sound, something between a cough and a rueful laugh.

“It is easier said than done. I realized that I couldn’t go on like that. At first, I just wished that the gods might take my life and put an end to my misery. I wanted things to be different but, for quite some time, I didn’t think that it was possible”

“And then?” asked Molossus.

OOO

It was the day of Demeter’s feast, in the middle of the winter. A few months had passed since the conversation with Eudorus.

The Trojans used to go out in procession to Demeter’s temple, asking the goddess to renew her gifts on the following spring. It was cold and, as often happened in Troy, there was a lashing wind.

Shivering, Helenus wrapped himself even more tightly in his woolen cloak.

He was feeling quite dizzy. He wondered whether he would make it until the end of the ceremony without fainting.

He had lost a lot of weight since the conversation with Eudorus. He didn’t want to, but he just couldn’t eat, even if he tried. Sometimes, he felt nauseous at the very thought of food. He was terrified of going to bed because he knew that he would not sleep. It was a wonder that he hadn’t gone insane yet.

His stamina was declining rapidly. On the previous day, he had chopped some wood and then he had needed to sit in the yard for a while because he couldn’t walk back to the temple.

Helenus knew that his turmoil was becoming noticeable. Grymas had openly asked him whether he was ill and suggested that he go to Apollo’s temple for advice.

Yes, he was definitely going to ask Cassandra for advice, he thought with a snort.

Well, maybe he should seek Aesacus‘ advice. Many years before, his old teacher had told him that he was available.

But what would Helenus say? He couldn’t confess that he had considered betraying the city. Nor could he confess any of the other things. He would never survive the shame. Aesacus would be outraged.

No. Helenus had even stopped going to the market because he didn’t want to meet Hermes’ priest.

He now left Artemis’ temple as rarely as possible. He had come to Demeter’s procession because the absence of a priest would have been noticed, it would have given scandal and it would have drawn attention to him. The last thing he wanted was attention.

He and Grymas reached the sacred way just in front of the market square, where the procession used to start. As soon as the royal family arrived, they set off.

The way to Demeter’s temple was long, and Helenus had to be careful not to stagger. He let out a sigh of relief when they finally arrived.

He could barely concentrate on the priestess’ words and on the chants. He was just trying to keep his teeth from chattering.

When it was finally over, he followed Grymas on the sacred way. He wanted to sit close to a fire or -even better- to lie down.

He knew that he was supposed to greet his family but he didn’t want to. Why should he talk to them? It was just a farce, pretending that there was any kind of relationship between them.

Someone patted him on the shoulder and he turned to see Hector, unusually annoyed.

“The ceremony is over and you haven’t greeted our parents yet” his older brother said sternly.

Helenus glanced at this parents. They were talking to Andromache, both of them smiling fondly.

“They don’t seem to be looking forward to see me” he hissed.

Hector stared at him, wide-eyed. Then he spoke, clearly struggling to stay calm.

“Look, I don’t know what has come over you. But whatever it is, there is no excuse for not greeting the king. If you make such a scene in public, people might think that you are not loyal to us”

The mention of treachery angered Helenus even more. He knew that he should shut his mouth, he just didn’t have the strength for it anymore.

“Am I accused of treachery now? How, since I barely leave my temple?” he asked sardonically.

Hector’s eyes became even wider, his lips thinner. He looked absolutely furious.

Helenus shook his head and walked to his parents. He didn’t want to make a scene.

“You look very pale and much thinner than the last time I saw you, Helenus” said his mother, while his father just looked closely at him.

“I have been ill, mother” he replied. She was seemingly satisfied with the answer, because she didn’t ask any more questions. He greeted his siblings and noticed that many of them stared at him in shock. Probably, he looked even worse than he felt.

He glanced around to see where Aesacus was and finally spotted him, not far away from his family. He sighed with relief noticing that Hermes’ priest was talking to Anchises and apparently hadn’t noticed him. He should walk away before Aesacus saw him.

-O-O-O-

On the way back from Demeter’s temple, he really thought that he would faint. He could barely stand when they finally made it back to Artemis’ temple. Thankfully, the temple was closed for Demeter’s feast.

He fell on his bed, exhausted, and didn’t join Grymas for the meal.

After some time, he heard the older priest’s steps in the corridor. He stopped right in front of Helenus’ curtains.

“Are you ill?” Grymas asked without pulling the curtains.

“No. I didn’t sleep well tonight” Helenus replied faintly.

There was a long silence.

“Good. I am visiting my brother in the city, I’ll be back tonightt” Grymas said.

“Fine”

“You should do something about your health” Artemis’ priest went on cautiously.

Like Helenus didn’t know it!

He didn’t reply, and after a moment Grymas walked away.

There was silence, finally, and Helenus hoped that he would fall asleep. But he just rolled over hopelessly.

After some time, he felt a soft knock on the temple’s door.

It couldn’t be Grymas, he wouldn’t knock.

Maybe it is because of a pregnant woman, he thought, sitting up. When a childbirth was difficult, sometimes the woman’s family brought an offer to Artemis even if the temple was closed. Gathering his strength, he stood up.

But on the other side of the door stood Aesacus.

Helenus was so shocked that he gasped and took a step backwards.

What a stupid move. He really had no self-control anymore.

“Yes, I know. I look terribly old” said Aesacus with a smile.

“Oh, no. Your visit is just unexpected” replied Helenus, moving to let him in.

Well, what was he supposed to do, tell Aesacus to go away?

“Since you never come to visit your old teacher, I thought I’d better come to you, young rogue! I used to see you at the market but I haven’t seen you in a while” Hermes’ priest said pleasantly.

Helenus led him to the kitchen, trying desperately to find something to say. Small talk was difficult enough for him, even more so in his current state. And he didn’t believe for a second that Aesacus had come for a courtesy visit.

“So, how have you been, Helenus?” the older priest asked as soon as they were seated.

Oh, no. Now the sly fox was trying to get him to talk.

“I am fine”. He knew that he didn’t look fine at all, so he added: “But I am quite tired, there are a lot of things to do in the winter”

“I am worried for you. You have lost quite a lot of weight” Aesacus said softly.

“I have been unwell lately… winter’s little ailments” replied Helenus. trying to sound nonchalant.

“Are you quite sure that you are fine, Helenus?” asked Aesacus.

A part of him desperately wanted to say no. And then? Then he would probably lose it and tell Aesacus everything. He couldn’t do that. On the other hand, it was pointless to say yes. Hermes’ priest was not going to buy it.

Irritation started to rise in him.

Why couldn’t Aesacus just let him be?

“What do you care, anyway?” he asked furiously.

Aesacus didn’t take the bait.

“You know that I care. I am worried about you” he said calmly.

“Then mind your own business!” hissed Helenus, standing.

Aesacus didn’t reply.

It felt horribly wrong. Aesacus had always been kind to him, had never said anything hurtful. He had been encouraging and supportive. He had come to Artemis’ temple, on a cold winter afternoon, walking up the hill at his advanced age.

And Helenus had been nothing but insulting.

Once he would have never dared to treat Aesacus like that. What had happened to him?

He was already regretting those words. He should apologize. And then? Give up and tell everything Aesacus wanted to know? Or beg him to ask nothing more?

Hermes’ priest hadn’t spoken a word yet, and the silence was becoming overwhelming.

Summoning his courage, Helenus turned around and looked at him.

Aesacus was studying him, seemingly unperturbed.

“I know that you didn’t mean it, and I know that you’re having a hard time” he said softly. “I will not push you to discuss it, it has to be your decision. I think you know that, if you keep wasting away at this pace, your life will be in danger very soon. Do you really wish to die, Helenus? Have you considered that there might be another solution to whatever problem you have? Please, Helenus, before something irreparable happens, let me try and help you. Just come talk to me, my door will always be open. And whatever you will say, it will change nothing”

Helenus almost wanted to give up. Maybe he just had to swallow his pride and speak.

But he couldn’t open up. Hermes’ priest would be shocked to find out how awful he was.

“Take this, tonight” added Aesacus, handing him a small water skin. “It is a strong sleeping concoction. It’s not something you should be drinking often, but for a night it won’t hurt”

Aesacus stood and put on his cloak. Helenus realized that he hadn’t apologized yet.

“I am deeply sorry. I didn’t mean what I said to you and I was out of line. And… thank you for your offer. I will… I will think about it” he said softly, not trusting his voice.

“Never mind. I know that you’re sorry” replied Hermes’ priest.

And now he would walk back to his temple, in the cold, at his age…

“Should I… see you back to your temple?” asked Helenus.

“Thank you, but it won’t be necessary. Remember, the Traveler is my patron” answered Aesacus. “Besides, you can barely stand. Drink what I brought you, go to bed, and try to focus your mind on the old Gilgamesh story you liked so much as a boy. It will help you sleep, trust my word”

The concoction tasted of honey, mallow, valerian and something bitter he could not recognize.

He lay back in his bed and wrapped himself in his blanket.

Would be really be able to sleep? Well, after all Hermes was the good of sleep…

There was a single tree growing on the bank of the river Euphrates…

It was hard to concentrate on this, it had been so long…

The woman planted the tree with her feet, but not with her hands. She said: “When this will be a luxuriant bed on which I can lie down?”

He had to search for the verses in the back of his mind…

When dawn was breaking, when the horizon became bright, when the little birds, at the break of dawn, began to sing…

It was probably one of the herbs Aesacus had always refused to tell them about, Helenus thought while his eyes closed.

OOO

A Stranger in the City – Chapter Ten

Notes

  • The verses are from “Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld”, translation by Jeremy Black, already quoted in one of the first chapters
  • The approach to mental health featured in this story should not be taken as medical advice

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