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Outside the Gates of Troy

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June 15, 2011

They sit down in an orderly, patient manner, packed together in the belly of the beast. The smell of varnish lingers on inside and intoxicates them all.

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Photograph via Flickr by Gonçalo Valverde

 

The wooden horse was finally completed, polished, and varnished at the break of day. It had been hard work and required dozens of soldiers supervised by three master carpenters. Majestic and motionless, it rises above the center of the beach. They leave it to dry the whole day. At night, watching carefully to ensure nobody can see them from the wall, the chosen warriors climb quickly up a hemp ladder, one after another, making no noise. They are armed with small bags, filled with salted meat to give them strength in the morning and a ration of water to slake their thirst, are tied to their belts. After the last warrior has climbed up, they pull in the ladder and close the door so it isn’t visible from the outside.

They sit down in an orderly, patient manner, packed together in the belly of the beast. The smell of varnish lingers on inside and intoxicates them all. They sleep lightly, nervous on the eve of an imminent victory. As agreed, at dawn, the soldiers in the encampment will collect their belongings, set fire to the tents, and board their ships, thus demonstrating that they have abandoned the war as lost and are making a definitive retreat. The chosen warriors watch their movements through the cracks between the timber planks. When the Achaean ships disappear over the horizon, they turn their gaze on the gates of the city. Soon they will open, the Trojans will emerge, take possession of the horse as war booty, and trundle it inside. The Achaean warriors use the wait to eat the meat they’d brought with them.

The hours pass slowly and nobody leaves the city. Ulysses orders the first soldier to express surprise to shut up. Nobody must open his mouth, and they must all make as little noise as possible. If a Trojan emerges and hears men speaking inside the horse, then all their guile will have been in vain.

By early afternoon, they’ve drunk all the water they had left. The belly of the horse is like an oven under the relentless sun. At night, they sleep and don’t feel cold. They are so many and so tightly packed together there’s no room to spread a blanket. The real problem is their pee. They’ve spent the whole previous day and night inside, and some decide to urinate on the sly in the various corners because they can’t hold it anymore. But the needs of Anticles are major rather than minor. Ulysses orders him to hold it. Anticles says he can’t (his stomach’s all knotted, he can’t resist a single moment more), and he loses his nerve and complains that the Trojans ought to have rolled the horse inside by now. They shouldn’t have to spend so long in there. He blurts this out: Ulysses has to strangle him to shut him up.

The stink from the urine and excrement is heightened by the stench from the first corpse . . .

Their hopes are renewed when dawn breaks. The Trojans will def­initely come today, finally take the horse and push it inside. It was only to be expected they wouldn’t do it yesterday, because they still must have been suspicious. They’ll do it today, as it is obvious the Achaeans have gone for good. This is confirmed mid-morning when they hear music coming from the city, strange songs that are undeniably cheerful. They must be celebrating their victory. In the afternoon, the Trojans finally open the city gates. The Achaean warriors are jubilant and (excited yet keeping still so as not to make a sound) watch a group of Trojans leaving the city and walking over to the horse. The Achaeans hold their breath. The Trojans surround the wooden animal and look at it, intrigued. They discuss it amongst themselves, but, although they listen hard, the Achaeans can’t hear what they are saying. They hear the murmur of voices blend with the sound of waves. Now at last they’ll take the horse and push it inside. But rather than do that they retrace their steps, go back inside, and close the gates.

The Achaeans find that night the most difficult one to get to sleep. They are all hungry and thirsty. They have no food or water left, and no way to get any, and that means there are frequent arguments that Ulysses cuts dead: he doesn’t want to hear a single sound. Or snore. The slightest noise could alert the Trojans to their ploy. Dawn breaks. The day passes and nobody comes. Ulysses hides his own concern. The rest of the warriors don’t. They’re hungry, and someone is complaining all the time that it’s not going to plan. Ulysses threatens to strangle anyone who won’t shut up.

It’s clear, they say, that it hasn’t worked, and only idiots persist with a plan that’s not working.

Two days later two warriors suggest leaving the horse, come what may, even if doing so reveals their ruse to the Trojans. It’s clear, they say, that it hasn’t worked, and only idiots persist with a plan that’s not working. Ulysses suppresses the attempted mutiny as he’d threatened to: by strangling them as he strangled Anticles. As they haven’t eaten for days, the warriors devour both corpses. One warrior, whose stomach is too delicate, vomits at the first bite. They all decide to drink their own urine in order to stave off dehydration.

The stink from the urine and excrement is heightened by the stench from the first corpse (Anticles’s, which is beginning to decompose in the heat) and from the guts of the other two. Someone suggests getting rid of them by opening the door and throwing them out. Ulysses is exasperated. How could they suggest such a thing? How could they throw them out without arousing the suspicions of the Trojans? If they left three corpses (two reduced to a pile of bones and viscera) next to the horse’s hoofs, it would obviously give them away. Another warrior suggests getting rid of them at night: lower them down the ladder and throw them into the sea. Yet another opines that the worst of it isn’t cohabiting with the stench from the corpses and the excrement, but the uncertainty about the future. The Achaeans must send lookouts everyday to see if the wooden horse had entered Troy, as they’d anticipated. They wouldn’t leave it many more days before they recognized that their ruse had failed and sailed home, accepting total defeat. That’s if they haven’t done so already. Ulysses throws himself at this individual, but he has no strength left and, as they can’t wrestle without any energy, they both fall on top of the other warriors who are jammed together side by side, getting thinner and thinner and weaker and weaker. Some are so still it’s difficult to be sure they’re still alive. Ulysses himself feels he is fainting, but he can’t let that happen. The Trojans, he repeats less and less wholeheartedly, will emerge at any moment and lead the horse off. It’s a matter of patience. When that happens, they (the best warriors, chosen from the crème de la crème of the Achaean youth) will wait until nightfall, leave the horse when the Trojans are all sleeping, sack the city, and knock its gates down. He looks longingly at the city walls through the cracks between the planks and covers his ears so he can’t hear the groans of his dying warriors.

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Monzo_Quim-100.jpgQuim Monzó was born in Barcelona in 1952. He has been awarded the National Award, the City of Barcelona Award, the Prudenci Bertrana Award, the El Temps Award, the Lletra d’Or Prize for the best book of the year, and the Catalan Writers’ Award. He has been awarded Serra d’Or magazine’s prestigious Critics’ Award four times. He has also translated numerous authors into Catalan, including Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway. This story is an excerpt from the upcoming story collection Guadalajara, to be published by Open Letter Books July, 2011.

Peter Bush is an award-winning literary translator who was born in Spalding, Lincolnshire, UK, and now lives in Barcelona. His recent translations from Spanish include Nijar Country and Exiled from Almost Everywhere by Juan Goytisolo and Celestina by Fernando de Rojas; from Catalan, A Shortcut to Paradise by Teresa Solana and The Last Patriarch by Najat El Hachmi. He is now finishing Tirano Banderas: Novela de Tierra Caliente by Ramón del Valle-Inclán, the classic novel on the theme of dictatorship in Latin America, and Éloge De L’amour, a philosophical dialogue between Alain Badiou and Nicolas Truong. He has also translated the novel The Enormity of the Tragedy by Quim Monzó.

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