July 18, 2006

the finest funerary urn in existence

Posted in books tagged , at 3:43 pm by placeinthestars

I wanted to share this, because it knocks me dead every time I read it. Admittedly, she had one of the greatest stories ever to work with, but still, it’s all kinds of awesome:

When he has gone over it all and the remains of the pyre lie spread out like a field, Thetis walks in. She sets to work like a gleaner, her bare feet paddling in the soft dust, winnowing the ashes with her hands, gathering bones in the tunic which she holds in an apron before her. Some pieces are thin and dry as sycamore keys or the husk of a chrysalis when the winged creature has gone. She finds the long bones first: femur and tibia, the graceful fibula. The joints are still intact, cartilage shrunk like knobs of resin. Then she picks out the bones of the arms — humerus, radius, ulna. Not hard to find; they are so large, the bones which could move faster than a stag.

She holds the twelve long bones of his body across her arms like wands of peeled wood. They are curiously light now the fire has sucked out their moisture. Light as charcoal and as fragile. It will not take much to break them into dust. She sets down her load on a clean cloth before returning.

Next she finds the beautiful scapulae. So fine, they are almost transparent. She runs a finger along the delicate shelf of one, clearing it of powdery dust. This could be the beginning of a wing. The column of vertebrae, the spinal cord that threaded this necklace of armour now melted away. The circuit of the pelvis is intact. It makes a strange cincture with its buckle at the pubis. Now she collects the ribs like a precious bundle of kindling. The clavicles — first bones that formed in her womb — her womb now aching as it remembers how it was to carry him. She winnows the grey dust from the small bones that gave form to the spear-wielding hands, the swift and steady feet. She gathers them all and cradles them. They are hardly as heavy as the baby she once held. Much lighter than the armour she collected from heaven to protect him.

But the great helmet of his skull she does not take yet.

[…]

She remembers that her son wanted his bones to be mixed with the bones of Patroclus. Automedon has remembered this too and has been at work exhuming Patroclus’ urn. It is an earthenware pot and breaks open easily when struck. The desiccated bones have turned to porous fragments and it is hard to distinguish them from the other fragments — dust and bits of urn — which he carries to Thetis in a bronze bowl. With Thetis he feeds these fragments in through the mouth of the golden urn, then pours in the sediment of clinker.

Now it is Achilles’ turn. Thetis handles these bones on her own, knowing how soon they will break up and be indistinguishable from Patroclus’. She feels what each one is and was before she lets it go.

Lastly, she removes the skull from her bodice. She cradles it in her hands and then, as Automedon watches in wonder, seems in a moment to unmake it. For as she takes her hands away the skull tumbles into pieces, its separate bones revealed.

There is one bone, shaped like a bird in flight.

~pages 67-70, Achilles, Elizabeth Cook

~*~

I talked about the book here, and I think my assessment stands. It’s beautifully written, but the last section is a misstep. Still, I’d recommend it.

~*~

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