A song of all heroes
Cuchulainn was lost.
Ravenwing startled flurrious his head;
Swordheft weighted quickening his hand.
This place was gloomthick, not meadowbright. Either it was not Tír na nóg or all he had ever known was in vain. The path sloped away and he dropped into dryfog. Riverrun past. Gradually his arm felt lighter, his head more clear. No quiver of warpspasm now, his armslength companion since that houndhaunted night at the hearth of Culann.
No land of youth, this: shades clattered from shadows, barbarring toothless and waterrank. Somewhere, a rhythmless plucking of dissonant strings. Ahead, two shades, clearly heroes, one of them decidedly middle-aged, greyturning, turning now to face Cuchulainn. He wore the skin of a demoncat and leaned on an ironmaul with a head like the head of Dub, the Brown Bull of Cuailnge.
“Oh, you’ve come,” the aging shade began. “We’ve been waiting for a hero like you for quite some time now, as much as time really matters any more. There is no after here, you see, and that makes all time somewhat suspect. They say that three make a crowd, but I also find that a third breaks a tie, so perhaps you can help us find our tune, as it were. My name is Rostam, and that surly fellow there is Achilles.” Now Cuchulainn could see the other hero, cutfooted darkbrow, bent into a private gloom, fretting over harpstrings. This then was the source of the outmoded earangst he had heard.
“How long, whitebeard, have you waited here, gloomstruck and songlost?”
Rostam slipped into verse:
“When I arrived he was already here
slumped in’s tent, bronze greaves and ashen spear.
And many heroes had since come below
who knew not him nor I did ever know.
By the time I got here, Achilles was already composing a song about himself. Classic hero stuff, really, and rather self serving, I felt. Still, to pass the time that never diminishes, I proposed that he and I might piece together a Song of All Heroes, vastly experienced as we are. Actually, I find him rather young to have much experience. He’s barely out of his piss cloths, but he wears the scars and shares the stories. All the same, the two of us can’t seem to agree on the first thing about what makes a hero, and until we do, he won’t ever get his harp in tune.”
Then a break from the dissonance, and Achilles began:
“Hail Cuchulainn of the Red Band of Ulster,
Bane alike of cattle herd and battlefield,
Raider, ruffian, son of thunder,
Who first took arms on Cathbad’s fateful day,
Who took his name from Culann’s faithful hound.
Many the wife of Connacht wailed the morn
she sent her love to join the cattle raid.
Just as the salmon, ripe with roe,
slip joyous and fertile upstream,
unaware of the bear sow
who grows fat on their glistening bellies,
so did the men of Connacht march against Cuailnge.”
Achilles rose. He gathered up a great stone that no two men could lift – such as men are now – and set it level beside his own bench. Cuchulainn sat.
“Tell then,” Cuchulainn said, growing interested, “what great feats your herosong describes.”
“To be truthful,” replied Rostam diplomatically, “we hadn’t gotten as far as feats. In fact, we hadn’t gotten past the hero’s birth. I did tell you, did I not, that we cannot agree about the first thing – the very first thing – that makes a hero. We agree that the birth must be great, supernatural even, but we cannot come together on what that means. See for yourself. Achilles, sing for Cuchulainn what you sang for me when I arrived. Sing of your birth.”
As Achilles sang, his tone grew more resonant. He was on familiar ground now, singing of gods lusting after a water nymph and of a prophecy that her son would outstrip his father and be the greatest of a generation.
Rostam interrupted and the strings rang sour. “What kind of hero,” he challenged, “is born to a god? And what kind of god has traffic with nymphs and with men? What superstition is this, gods and goddesses concerned with lust and sons and being outstripped? You sing fairy tales, Achilles, not hero songs. My mother was no goddess, and she was certainly not foisted on any man to bear him his destruction. She was pure as a mountain stream, sweet Rudaba, and just the mention of her beauty won my father’s heart, but she was human, and I was the greatest human child ever born.”
Achilles kept raking the strings of his harp. “A large child, maybe, but hardly great. A man is just a man unless he is also part god.”
Rostam rolled his eyes at Cuchulainn. “You see what I have had to tolerate all this time?”
“Achilles’ song is my song here,” offered Cuchulainn, “for I too am godsprung and skysired, though unlike your waterwombs, my birth was snowbound. Judging by your sunbaked skins, you two probably don’t even know what that means.”
“Oh, you are the worst of all,” cried Rostam, “son of a god and a storm called snow. You remind me of Heracles. You would absolutely love him if he were still here, though I found him intolerably self-important. As for you, Achilles, and your immortal arrogance, I still maintain that a man must be fully man if he is ever to be anything great.
A bare-armed wrestler steps into the field
to face a warrior with sword and shield.
Nine times of ten the warrior takes the prize,
but gains no glory in the peoples’ eyes.
But that one time the wrestler wins the game
he gains forevermore a hero’s name.
Heroism comes from impossibility, my friend, and not from inevitability. Tell me, what benefit is victory to the invincible?”
“It is profitable and it is glorious,” Achilles scowled, “and I would not mind having had more of it.” He stormed off, leaving Rostam and Cuchulainn in what seemed a slightly lighter gloom.
After a silence of some time, Rostam spoke. “For what it’s worth, I believe I do know what snowstorm is. There were those who called my father by such a name. He used to tell me about cold days alone on a great mountain. He was covered in white stuff, the mountain and my father both, and everyone thought him a bit strange. I imagine snowstorm to be a magical place, and frightening.”
“I know it only from birth, a place of magicfright indeed,” answered Cuchulainn. “Of course, every songsmith tells the tale differently. For some it is all birdflight and snowstorm, for others the wyrmcup and Lugdream. Twiceborn, really, if you take the stories clearfaced. Of course, that probably counts as no great feat to you,” he teased, “with your preference for all things mortalborn. Still, you must have enjoyed having both parents in the world. They say my father is everywhere, but I only have memory of my mother, under all the violence.”
Rostam smiled at this and told of his own birth, of a father swollen with pride and a mother great with new life. He told of an enormous bird with plumes of fire cutting through ivory flesh to bring forth a child. “To some, I presume, I was not born of woman. Your two births must suffice for us both, then.”
Cuchulainn wondered at a firebird both nursemaid and knightsbane. All of Ulster and all of Connacht knew his stunstone feat, thirty birds dropped dead at a shot from his sling, but this Simurgh was wonderstuff indeed. As they talked, they walked along an indeterminate expanse of water. The water moved, but neither hero could tell if it was falling or rising, running or just turning in great eddies. The impression was of ever the same water, ever passing.
They walked toward a deeper gloom and the sound of discordant strings. Achilles saw them coming, for it is always easier to see out of the darkness than into it. As they approached along the water’s edge, though, he couldn’t make out if it was still just the two of them, or if more had joined their embassy. He stopped his tuning and listened, could hear Rostam speaking of the phoenix, bird of fire, and of his father, old man of many adventures. Two heroes brought with them the cast of many stories. But the phoenix – there was a tale indeed.
He thumbed his harp to catch their attention and bend their step, a beacon of sound. “Here’s a finer tune than the one I left you with. A beast that rises from its immolation. That is the dream, is it not? To burn out and then to rise again ever higher. Not the way Heracles did, that literalist oaf, lighting his own pyre to become a god. Better to do it like the serpent that sheds its skin to be reborn with new wrath, fed by spring grass. Only thus can we be both kings among the dead and masters among the living. A dream indeed, unless . . .” and Achilles fell into song:
A farmer or a woodsman called off to war
shoulders his spear, glances back at his home.
His wet-eyed wife clutches close their son,
the son’s job now, to wield the plow and axe.
Achilles’ fingers played on the strings, preparing another set of lines, but Cuchulainn and Rostam scolded him in unison, “Do not speak to me of sons!” All three fell silent, but only Cuchulainn seemed surprised. He turned and caught a glimpse of himself reflected in the ashen face of Rostam. Achilles explained:
“Calm, Red Hand of Ulster, unavenged champion of Conall,
You wouldn’t know of Rostam’s life, his most awful deed,
though we know of yours, we who came before.
He would not have it sung, his life’s great shame,
a father’s brooch revealed too late,
a mother’s love tossed against the stone of Sistan.
The sea draws back from the shore, forgotten and silent,
then builds into a wave of towering force.
Roaring huge, it smashes ships, scatters fish,
tosses kingfisher couples chattering over broken nests.
But when the wave, heavy with its flotsam spoil,
meets again the headland that gave it birth
it breaks back on itself, coating the stone with futile salt.”
Cuchulainn recalled eveningfire amid leafshade, a proud boy stubborn in his namelessness come to confront the Red Band of Ulster. Demonfast the boy fought, fiercer still than Aife. Cuchulainn had felt he fought the sea itself, but in the end the boy’s pride was no proof against warriorwile and spearsedge. The memory dissolved like blood in the surf. Again, Achilles spoke first, now standing to face them. “Sympathies for you both, then, you who have killed a son for the pride of a land or the reputation of a king. Each of you greater than your sires and, at the end of the day, greater even than your own sons. Greatest of them all, indeed. Sometimes I wonder how my own red-born son would have fared across from me. I like to think he would have stood a chance. But no, Pyrrhus’ fate was to return from Troy. The same cannot be sung of any who fell within my spear’s orbit.”
Rostam was appalled. “Murder it was, the death of my son, and no act for the best of men or for the arrogant speculations of a surly mercenary.” His face waned paler still, seeming a snakebit ghost or curdled milk, and then faded into the gloom. At last he showed just two eyes, like stars, starting from their spheres, and then even these were gone.
When it was just the two of them, Cuchulainn turned to Achilles. “You spoke of the fate of Pyrrhus. Tell now, what came of fate.”
“Oh, my child. I think on fate a great deal, now that time is cheap. I cannot figure how it is that fate can be called such when it offers us the choice of how we ruin ourselves. I had a choice, you see.
Two moths circle a lamp in a plowman’s hut,
The family huddles over bowls of broth.
One moth settles on a roof-beam, forgotten;
one draws all eyes to a single burst of flame.
Only once have I regretted my choice, that time these gloomy reaches were pierced by the smell of roasted meat, the unflinching voice of a companion still breathing salt air.”
“My choice was timeforced,” replied Cuchulainn. “In childhaste I paused to hear only half of Cathbad’s fatespeak. I seized the bladeglory, deaf to warnings of too soon a death. What sort of choice does that make, if you act before the second option falls to words?”
“Your dilemma was not unlike ours is here, as we have lost the third to our chord. Where do you suppose Rostam has gone? He can’t have gone anywhere, really, and yet I do not see him. This whole heroes’ song was his idea, and now he has left no trace, no print to point to himself.”
As they walked, Achilles sang of wrath, of the bitterness of Styx itself, of a hero’s most glorious day, which promises everything then falls short by a foot. He sang of an anger sweet as honey and expansive as smoke. Cuchulainn heard a familiar song, of ragetorque and battletremor, of a madspiralling that leaves nothing to destroy.
Rostam was there again then, materializing from the gloom behind them. “You sing of Styx as if it is the source of life, a mothering stream. You sing rivers of death, Achilles, as if they define the hero’s life. Surely it cannot just be anger that drives you two on. There must be something greater for which you fight. My family are kings, but beyond and before that, we are the bulwarks of Iran. Even as the red water of my son’s life ebbed away and I felt it was I who died, still I knew I was duty-bound to fight for a king and for the idea of a land greater than myself or my son. I do believe that young Cuchulainn will agree with me here, that there is something that transcends us as heroes, something to be heroic for.”
Cuchulainn replied, “Perhaps this is the start of your everyman’s herosong. If we willingly give ourselves to our birthreach, what price to give one’s bloodson? As Connla lay dying, he greeted the men of Ulster and they loved him. In that moment, all knew that a terrible righteousness had been served. And when he was gone, fishgutted and proudeyed, each could say without doubt that no man would ever stand against the men of Ulster.”
“Some say we fought for Greece,” Achilles offered, “but I never knew what that meant. There was a king there, a low and petty man. Some fought for him. He fought for his brother, who fought for his wife. So many subcontracts tire the sword arm. My rage to fight fills the space where my desire for rest does not reach. The weariness of bickering men makes that latter desire swell. Oh, but we did bring righteous suffering to the people in great masses, I and my mustered Myrmidons. In the end, Paris’ fluke shot could not forestall fate: my brilliance shines in all directions from the shattered mirrors of Troy.”
Rostam was quiet, and then, “Perhaps what makes the hero is not what we do, but whom we leave to tell of it. Each of us knows our own life best, but if we remain each the only singer of our song, then our songs descend with us, and our deeds fade like a lamp that has run out of oil. Those who witness our lives must be the ones who tell our stories, and for that to happen, our stories must close before the mouths of our friends do.”
Achilles struck his harp, a rich and harmonious chord. The three heroes paused, then parted company, off to sing their song of all heroes, each in his own mode.