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July 08, 2024

Alexander the Great

By Fred Hilary

Alexander the Great was top of our class. His real name was Alexandros Boulos, but we named him after the legendary Greek hero because as a pupil he outshone all us mere mortals. We were in the fourth year of secondary school on the Greek island of Euboea, and Alexander had achieved such celebrity by that point that even pupils from other classes wanted to come and see him in action, either to admire or to mock him. Whatever the class was, his hand always shot up a few seconds before any question was asked -- it was as if the teacher was following a script he had read already -- and he never got a single answer wrong.

Our Composition teacher, whom I secretly adored, worshipped at Alexander's shrine and every lesson would bring secret votive offerings to him: compliments that made him flash the briefest of smiles (as if letting go for too long would mean he'd taken his eye off the ball), red glowing love letters to his stories and poems. He had even written a play: the only child in our class of twenty-three who could do so, Mrs. Makri said. She'd never asked me if I could write one. For her, I would have written a whole folio of them, tragedies, comedies, problem plays, had she only commissioned them. But all her attention was fixed on Alexander, and I was just a minor player on a stage trodden by a God.

I think it was my sense of jealousy that started it all. My undying love for Mrs Makri, and my utter loathing of Alexander the Great, whose every utterance she praised to the skies. Living in Greece, I had my mind on the ancients a lot. I'd imagined Alexander going home every night, not to some cramped apartment block on the shores of the Euboean Gulf (like me), but to a moonlit glade, there to look at his own reflection in a midnight pool. There was Mrs. Makri at his side, transformed into the nymph, Echo. She told him nothing but how beautiful and clever and wonderful he was.

There is an old ruined temple on the hill at the other side of town. Just a few crumbling walls now, standing at the foot of a cliff, thought once to be one of the entrances to the underworld. That is where I made my sacrifice. I'd given a lot of thought to what might make a suitable offering. I'd thought about our cat, then put the idea aside, since my mother was too fond of it. Then the hamster, but in truth I was too fond of the thing myself. I'd eyed the strays for a few days -- the lanky cats and dogs flitting about amongst the rubbish bins at the end of our street. Luring one would be easy -- they were starving. Killing one would be the problem. I couldn't kill a living thing; I was a vegetarian anyway, and even with all my hatred of Alexander, the idea was unthinkable.

So I looked through a few old myths and saw that food could be made into an offering too. Harvests, fruit and grain and vegetables. That would be the way I'd have to go. I started collecting little scraps -- bits and bobs from the cupboards and the fridge -- and hoarding them up in a plastic bag at the back of my toy cupboard. My mother didn't find out, or I would have heard about it. I think she even felt pleased to see the fruit and veg going down, for she had always been on at me to eat more healthily.

When I had a full bag I snuck out in the late evening and began the forty-minute tramp to the hill. There were olive groves on the way up, and benches, and there were always lovers on the benches. I made an effort not to look, but it was tempting, especially since something inside me feared that if I did I might see Mrs. Makri there with her arms locked around Alexander the Great.

I reached the ruined temple and turned to look back at the sight of the town lights twinkling along the length of the Euboean Strait. It was beautiful. A hundred thousand little lights for at least twice as many lives, every one of them more interesting and more worthy than Alexander's. Oh, well. Let justice be done, if the gods allow it.

I emptied the bag of food in a heap near the crack and began my incantation. I had written it out myself, composed of little bits of Homer and Hesiod and some of my own stuff. It made a sort of prayer. "Because he does not fear or respect the gods," I intoned. "He thinks himself more handsome than Apollo. Wiser than Zeus, and the proclamations made upon him more just."

It was a clear, cool spring night, but at that moment I felt a chill breeze blowing from somewhere. Who knows where it came from? From the underworld, perhaps? I looked towards the crack in the cliff, half expecting to see shades gathered there, but there was nothing.

I went on with my prayer. "Send the Harpies as punishment. Let them swoop down and pluck up every sandwich on his plate, every apple, every little bit of food and drink."

I'd looked into Alexander's window once, from Costas Gikas's apartment across the street, and seen that he was always in there, studying. It wasn't a rich house, and his parents didn't have much money (they owned a wine shop) but they paid for every extravagance for their son. He had his food brought to him on a silver tray. The Harpies would soon take care of that. He wouldn't even be able to have a sip of water.

As I finished the incantation, there was a deep, ominous silence on the hill. Even the cicadas stopped singing. I made my way back down the hill, pleased with myself, but filled with a vague sense of unrest. Something had been set in motion. There were pale strips of cloud hanging between the stars that looked like the wings of terrible birds.

The next morning at school, Alexander the Great looked normal, if a little rheumy-eyed. I guessed he hadn't slept. Maybe it was the nightmares. He handed in his work as usual though, and got a fawning smile from Mrs. Makri. I watched him, and waited, and the following morning again he seemed not to have slept. By the end of the week he looked thin, with sunken eyes and cheeks.

I plucked up the courage to ask him if he was feeling okay.

"Having trouble sleeping, that's all. Just a temporary thing."

"Eating, too, by the looks of things."

He eyed me askance. "My mother is feeding me all right. I eat everything she gives me. I eat while I'm studying -- no time to go down to the dinner table. When I look at the plate it's empty. I'm putting it away all right, but I'm always feeling hungry. Must be a sickness or something."

I agreed that it must, indeed, be a sickness. Well, it turned out that I'd been right -- Alexander did nothing but study in that room of his. But even more than that, my incantation had worked. The Harpies had come. Now it was only a matter of time.

The weeks went by. Alexander the Great got thinner and thinner. But every morning, without fail, he handed in his homework. He got the same grades he always got -- not even the slightest dip in his mark. Mrs. Makri fawned over him even more now that he looked ill -- she took him aside at the beginning and end of every lesson and whispered things in his ear. My plan wasn't working. It was killing Alexander, perhaps, but it wasn't doing a thing to his output, and worse it was making Mrs. Makri care for him even more. I would have to return to the hill, make a second incantation, and ask Zeus to call off the Harpies.

There were two prayers to be said. I didn't know if I'd be able to retract a wished-for punishment, but I made an offering all the same. Then I brought a second offering, gathered more quickly than my covertly collected first bag of veg and fruit, and spoke a second incantation.

"Because every work he hands in is unjustly praised," I said. "Because Mrs. Makri never sees the worth in anyone else's words but his. Mighty Zeus, send Laelaps, the dog that never fails to catch its prey. Let Laelaps pluck his work straight from his writing desk, just as soon as he lays down his pen, before the ink has dried on the last letter of the last word of the last line. Have Laelaps bring back, to the edge of this cliff, every freshly-minted essay and assignment Alexander the Great writes, and cast them over the brink."

There was another deep, ominous silence, as on the first night, and as I looked up towards the stars I thought I saw a flitting black shape, like a comet made of darkness, streak across the sky and down towards the clustered mass of city houses. The dog had come down from the heavens, and gone to work.

I sat down on the bench nearest the cliff. The lovers had gone, and I was alone for a while. Then, because the night was growing cold, I started my slow descent of the hill. At the bridge that crosses the Euboean strait I stopped because something, even from the lower slopes of the hill, had caught my eye out on the water. It was not one thing but many. They came like tiny drifting white birds, the pages, carried forth by the tide, hundreds of them, like migrating water fowl, moving out towards the Euboean Gulf. Alexander the Great's latest masterwork, gone to sea. As bidden, Laelaps had cast them off the cliff and this was their fate: to drift forth, on the streams of Tethys, towards infinity and oblivion. As each one passed I could see the words dissolving into splotches of ink as the water rippled over their surface; I could almost see Mrs Makri's praise and her red-inked superlatives disappear with Alexander's elegantly flowing script. It was all gone, gone to the dog, and finally to Lethe itself, where Tethys finally flowed into the Underworld.

Over the next days the effect was more noticeable, I fancied, on Mrs. Makri than on Alexander the Great. He came to school empty-handed: he produced nothing but pen and pencil and blank notebooks from his bag. Mrs. Makri, however, seemed to take all his guilt and disappointment upon herself. I saw the smile die on her face and the gleam in her eyes disappear. But that was only the beginning. Each day that passed, after the first day of Alexander's failure to produce work, she seemed to be more and more heavy-hearted.

Finally she stood before the class, holding a wad of our notebooks, clutching them in one hand as if they weighed nothing without Alexander's work. "Alexander, get up please," she said loudly.

Alexander had been staring down at his desk, whereon other, idler hands had etched worthless maxims and gnomic symbols. He looked up, without any trace of the enthusiasm he had once possessed, and got to his feet.

"Alexander, you failed to hand in today's essay on the Fall of Constantinople. Tell me, when did the siege of Constantinople end?"

Alexander blinked, looked startled for a second. Then he answered, and said, as if he'd just been asked where he lived, "The twenty-ninth of May, 1453, which was a Tuesday. According to the Julian Calendar of course."

Mrs. Makri nodded, her face showing no surprise at all. She walked from the blackboard to Alexander's desk (which wasn't very far, as Alexander always sat at the front) and peered down at him over her green-rimmed glasses. "This is, to me, obviously a case of repetitive stress injury. Let me see your hand."

She took Alexander's hand and began, holy of holies, to massage it. Right there in front of all of us. It was sensual, like seeing a goddess transformed suddenly into a temptress of the flesh. At the same time it was obscene -- the touch that should have been for me alone, that I'd dreamed of for so long, was freely given to my worst enemy. I hated Alexander the Great more than ever then.

"Alexander, until your hand gets better, how about I just ask you a few things every time you've got an essay due," Mrs. Makri went on. "That way you'll be able to show that you've been studying, that you've not been neglecting your work."

Alexander breathed what looked like a sigh of relief. I kept studying him. He was weathering it all, it had to be said. Everything I tried seemed to be backfiring. It was as if some higher force was one step ahead all the time.

That was it, of course. I remembered the stories. If I, the hero of this tale, enacted the will of Zeus, there was another deity at work who wanted things to turn out differently. Who was it? Hera, most likely, Zeus's independent and strong-willed wife, who favoured Alexander the Great above me. Perhaps he was her child, secretly begotten.

I would have to up the ante. It was one thing keeping Alexander from eating, or having his work taken from him. There was never really any danger involved, except to his reputation. Perhaps it was time to invoke something far more deadly.

That is what I did, and that's where it all went wrong (though perhaps it all went wrong the night I made my first offering -- I can see the logic of that now).

I went up with another bag of mixed fruit and veg and invoked the name of Zeus a last time. All evening I'd been going through the coffee table book on mythology for suitable punishments.

What about Medusa, or her offspring Amphisbaena? Empusa, perhaps, the female demon, to waylay him on his way back from school? Winged Talos, who could stand, one foot on the Euboean side of the strait, and one on the mainland side, and pluck Alexander up when he crossed the old bridge and rend him into two pieces?

In the end I settled on the one thing that would hurt Alexander the Great more than any affliction, perhaps even more than death itself. I cut to the root of the thing, so to speak, and the next morning at school I smiled quietly as I waited for Alexander's arrival. Nothing could fail this time. There was no way Mrs. Makri could continue in her infatuation after what had happened.

But had it happened? At least, had it happened like I intended?

The first sign that something was wrong was that Alexander was late. Ten minutes into class and he still hadn't arrived. Twenty minutes and I was sure I could see the worry on Mrs. Makri's face. Where was her favourite, her beloved? Something was very wrong with the world. Alexander had to be ill.

He wasn't ill, of course. I knew that. At least, not in the way she would expect. There was a knock on the classroom door and Alexander was led inside, two faces -- Alexander's mother's and the headmaster's -- visible behind him. Words were exchanged with Mrs. Makri.

They weren't meant for us but I could hear the gist of it. Alexander wasn't feeling quite himself today but his mother had decided, after a worrisome morning, to bring him to school anyway. He'd had to be brought by car. His usual ritual -- dressing early, packing his school lunch himself -- had been interrupted for some reason. He hadn't been able to make it on his own.

Of course he hadn't been able to make it on his own. I was the only one -- Alexander included -- who knew why.

Mrs. Makri didn't ask him anything for the first part of the lesson. She kept throwing sidelong glances at him, apparently to see if he was taking in anything. Alexander the Great appeared in a kind of daze. He didn't appear to be taking in anything at all.

Towards the end of the lesson she tried it. I had seen it building up in her -- worry, eagerness to see that everything was all right. That it plainly wasn't was obvious to all of us.

"What do you think, Alexander? Do you have any ideas on why we can be sure Homer was one person and not many?" she asked him in a quiet voice. It was as if asking louder would have risked too much.

She had her face lowered while she asked it.

No answer came.


After a pause of about half a minute (which seems much longer in a classroom, being a place governed by slow time) she asked again.

Alexander the Great was staring around him, his expression like a small, bewildered toddler. I knew, better than any of them there, that Alexander had no idea who Alexander was. He had no knowledge of anything but this very morning. This was his first glimpse of the world; the sun that rose this May was the first sun he had ever seen. His glimpse of the school gates as his mother led him in by the hand was the same view a child has when starting school for the first time. The world was wonderfully, bewilderingly new to Alexander. It was an enviable thing, now that I come to think of it. How many of us remember what it is like to see a thing for the first time?

I had emptied Alexander's memory, of course. All right, not me exactly, but the incantation had led to it. I had called up Hypnos, the god of sleep, from his cave under the earth. I had invoked his name and called him up to Alexander's bedroom with a cup full of Lethe -- yes, Lethe, the dark waters which when drunk brought forgetfulness, which blotted out memory of everything in mortal life. That night, Hypnos had leant over Alexander's bed and given him sip of Lethe's waters. And Alexander's mind had been purged of every trouble and every care and every memory that went along with them.

Now Alexander had not only forgotten his dates and facts. He had forgotten everything else.

They took it for an illness, at first. Then Alexander disappeared altogether. I suppose they started testing him, trying to find the cause of it all. I was safe, of course. They would be examining his mind. Where they should have been looking was a dark cave underground, but there was no chance of them looking there.

When the new year started, I was all prepared for a fresh start. I no longer had Alexander in my mind. I could concentrate on my work again. I could restart my efforts to win Mrs. Makri's approval. With Alexander gone, we were just a class of mere mortals. There was no demigod among us.

Of course, it never worked out. She didn't fall in love with me. She didn't fall in love with my words, with my work, with my ideas. It took me long enough to realise it, but I did. Right near the end of the third term. I was becoming a star pupil, but Mrs. Makri never looked on me as she had on Alexander the Great. When I broke my finger, and came to school with it bandaged, she did not massage my flesh as she had done Alexander's. The spirit had gone out of her, I guess.

Alexander was gone, I saw, but in the end it didn't matter. I had removed the one obstacle, as I thought, to Mrs. Makri's favour, but it didn't make any difference. She simply wasn't interested.

When Alexander came back, Mrs. Makri was gone. She'd had a transfer to another school. It was just over a year later, and nobody expected to see him again, least of all me.

Everyone was full of questions. They all seemed to have forgotten their envy and dislike. What had happened to him? Where had his memory gone?

It was amnesia, he said. The doctors had left it at that. Alexander's mind had drawn a complete blank, the slate had been wiped clean, so to speak, that day the previous May. He had gone for tests, and stayed home, and eventually his parents had decided that it didn't matter if he didn't attend school for a year or so. They were just happy to know their son was normal, that it wasn't going to get worse.

While he was home, he set about learning everything he had forgotten about his family, and about the life he had led right up to the incident of forgetting.

And then, when he was finished with that, he had gone on to the school books. Every single exercise book from all his prior school years, every book on the shelf. It had had to start from the beginning. Learning the alphabet again, learning how to read, learning to spell and to pronounce. One careful step at a time. And Alexander had done it all.

It was a morning in late September. Not long into the first term. Mrs. Katia, our new teacher, was standing at the head of the class, scanning the classroom for raised hands. She settled on Alexander's, and called out his name.

"Tell me, Alexander, what flower grew around the entrance of Hypnos's palace in the underworld?"

When Alexander answered, it seemed to me as if he was answering from direct experience.

"Poppies," he said. And of course he was right. He was right for the first time, and countless times after, and with his answer I thought I could detect something happening in my own mind. It was as if small drops of Lethe were emptying into my memory. Not effacing it, as I had had done with him, but in more subtle ways, clearing out the facts I should remember, wiping out, scattered here and there, the words that might have made my school work extraordinary, or my essays beautiful. Just enough to make me ordinary. Just enough to make me one of the mortals. It was a sinking, sobering feeling, but it was better than believing in one's greatness, and then sensing that the object of your hopes does not agree.

In the end I became Alexander the Great's greatest advocate. I worshipped at his shrine, just as they all secretly did, and sang his praises at every opportunity. He deserved every last ounce of our admiration, for not only had he surpassed as all, he had done it twice over. Don't we all need demigods, after all?

Article © Fred Hilary. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-09-30
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