Meghan Callahan is a Denver native and first-year fiction MFA student at The Ohio State University.
Rage—it is for you, Goddess, to sing about the years he passed across the sea. Sing of the centuries he walked with you in a war not his own, and leave us to tell this story.
Achilles is ours now.
We know him by the slant of his shoulders, framed against the blue dawn, the gray waves. He has never made it to the west coast. The bay is not for him, with sands that still stink of blood and bronze in his nose. Rocky beaches are where he feels safest, and who are we to deny him, the child of the ocean’s daughter? Our parents’ parents remember him as a statue on the pier, a fisherman without a hook, long hair white and salty on weathered skin. He does not own a shirt that we have seen.
Achilles will not speak except in small words—“here” or “no” or “please.” He must have said his own name once, or else it started as a joke, but only he is old enough to remember and he will never say. Professor Skarlatos tried speaking Ancient Greek to him once on a weekend down from the college. Was it a taunt? A test? Even to us children the professor seemed so young. But perhaps it was more than that; educated men like Skarlatos are not immune to superstition. Achilles looked at Skarlatos with time in his eyes and said nothing. He said nothing until the professor left the beach, and then he went to stand in the surf as the tide rushed out around him and none of our words would draw him back.
Close up, it is easy to see the white scars on Achilles’ body, the places he’s been pierced. Some people try to help him with money, with food, with their hands. Once the Salvation Army tried to tell him that he could borrow a sweater and he cried at their feet like an animal. We are the only ones he allows near enough to sit beside him, and because we do not give him anything, he lets us stay. We don’t need to touch the holes in his body to know he is real.
Winters come and go and he remains unchanged. There’s a shack on the beach where he lives, we think, though inside there is nothing but blankets and gull feathers. He gathers things, too, pebbles or bits of sea glass, charred driftwood, or the perfect bleached bones of a fish. Once, a spiral shell washed ashore and he ran to it, caught it in gnarled hands and held it to his ear. We watched, and the adults worried. Poor man, they said. Sick, they said, and isn’t it a shame. Achilles listened to the shell for a long time, and then left it there and went beneath the pier, hid with the barnacles in shade so dark we couldn’t see him. When we picked up the shell we heard nothing, not even echoes. There was no one on the other end. He must have family, friends somewhere, the adults say. We know better, what he lost on the sand an ocean away, we who know what it means to have a friend and nothing else.
But we are growing older now, and soon we will forget. We have seen it happen. We will become the people who drive past unseeing, cars fueled by oil beneath the ground, machine minds whirling us away from the ocean, away from him. It is the way of things.
But we watch Achilles while we still can, his bare feet on sharp stones and the reach of his once-strong arms. We watch Achilles as he looks across the sea, but not toward home.
Sing, Goddess, of the triumph of battle. We will speak of what remains.