The Last Of The WineBy: Mary Renault
When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.
You will say there is nothing out of the way in this. Yet I daresay it is less common than you might suppose; for as a rule, when a father decides to expose an infant, it is done and there the matter ends. And it is seldom a man can say, either of the Spartans or the plague, that he owes them life instead of death.
It was at the beginning of the Great War, when the Spartans were in Attica, burning the farms. There was a notion in those days that no other army could meet them on land and live; so we were holding only the City, and Piraeus, and the Long Walls between. This was the advice of Perikles. It is true that when I was born he was still alive, though already sick; which is no reason for foolish youths to ask me, as one did lately, whether I remember him.
The country people, whose farms were being burned, poured into the City, and lived like beasts wherever they could put up a few boards, or a roof of hide. They were even sleeping and cooking in the shrines, and in the colonnades of the wrestling schools. The Long Walls were lined with stinking huts all the way to the harbour. Somewhere thereabouts the plague began, and spread like fire in old heather. Some said the Spartans had called on Far-Shooting Apollo, some that they had contrived to poison the springs. Some of the women, I believe, blamed the country people for bringing in a curse; as if anyone could reasonably suppose that the gods would punish a state for treating its own citizens justly. But women, being ignorant of philosophy and logic, and fearing dream-diviners more than immortal Zeus, will always suppose that whatever causes them trouble must be wicked.
The plague thinned my family as it did every other. My mother’s father, Damiskos, the Olympic runner, was buried with his old trophies and his olive crown. My father was among those who got the disease and survived; it left him for some tune with a bloody flux, too sick for war; and when I was born he had only just recovered his strength.
On the day of my birth, my father’s younger brother, Alexias, died in his twenty-fourth year. He, hearing that a youth called Philon, with whom he was in love, had been taken sick, went at once to him; meeting, I have been told, not only the slaves but the boy’s own sister, running the other way. His father and mother had already perished; Alexias found the lad alone, lying in the basin of the courtyard fountain, where he had crawled to cool his fever; he had not called out to anyone to fetch his friend, not wishing to endanger him; but some passers-by, who had not cared to go very near, reported that they had seen Alexias carrying him indoors.
This reached my father after some time, while my mother was in labour with me. He sent over a reliable servant who had had the plague already; who, however, found both the young men dead. From the way they were lying, it seems that in the hour of Philon’s death, Alexias had felt himself sicken; and, knowing the end, had taken hemlock, so that they should make the journey together. The cup was standing on the floor beside him; he had tipped out the dregs, and written PHILON with his finger, as one does after supper in the last of the wine.
Getting this news at night, my father set out with torches to fetch the bodies, so that he could mix their ashes in one urn, and have a fit memorial made. They were gone, having been thrown already on a common pyre in the street; but later, my grandfather had a stone set up for Alexias in the Street of Tombs, with a relief showing the friends clasping hands in farewell, and a cup beside them on a pedestal. Every year at the Feast of Families, we sacrificed for Alexias at the household altar, and the story is one of the first that I remember.? My father used to say that all over the City, those who died in the plague were the beautiful and the good.
Alexias having died before the time of his marriage, my father now decided to name after him the child that was being born, if it should be a boy. My elder brother Philokles, who was two years old, had been a particularly fine strong child at his birth: but I, when held up by the midwife, was seen to be small, wizened and ugly; my mother having brought me forth nearly a month too soon, either through a weakness of her body or the foreknowledge of a god. My father decided at once that it would be unworthy of Alexias to name me after him; that I was the child of an unlucky time, marked with the gods’ anger, and that it would be better not to rear me.
As it happened, however, I had been born while he was out searching for the bodies; and the midwife had handed me over to my mother to nurse. This annoyed my father; for she had taken a fancy to me after this, as women will, and being rather sick and feverish begged for my life with tears. He was still reasoning with her- for he was reluctant to snatch me from her by force- when the herald blew for the horsemen, because the Spartans had been sighted making for the City.