MONDAY: The Decision


Copyright is held by the author.

IT WAS Little Ajax who brought the news, scrambling up the hillock: screened from Agamemnon by bulky Achilles, giving Agamemnon no time to prepare himself. Ajax’ announcement was curt as his appearance: “No luck, marshal.”

Agamemnon nodded mechanically. He’dbeen preparing, these eleven weeks, for the possibility that this was his fate: to watch Greece’s greatest army waste, under his leadership, on home shores of starvation and cholera.

Nestor, silver-tongued counsellor, declaimed consolation: in replenishing the army’s ship stores — devoured in its first month at Aulis — the province had already been depleted. How could it have been expected to keep supporting the army’s present consumption! It had no food left even for civilians.

Achilles, longbow ever-ready, muttered: “No food indeed! I’ll bring down before nightfall enough deer for a wedding-feast!”

Odysseus winked to the old man and patted Achilles soothingly on the arm.

But Agamemnon wasn’t listening. He heard only clanging clear around him the mocking Gods’ thunder.

“Calchas!” Menelaus pointed. “He has an answer.”

The gathered heroes turned to watch Calchas, knock-kneed, stutter up the hill towards them. Calchas didn’t raise his eyes till he gained the summit. Then he looked them in the eye: at a level, though he was by the shoulders shorter than most.

“I shall speak now,” Calchas gestured for the podium.

“We listen,” sneered Achilles.

Calchas glanced at him. No old-man pond-eyes, his, flickering with sand-grains and shifting with every change of light. No: eyes of autumn grey, steady with Apollo’s immortal truth. Achilles fell silent.

The podium was placed. Calchas clambered up it, signing Agamemnon to stand beside him.

The whole army had turned out on the plains below to hear Calchas. Calchas waited for the “He’s here,” for silence to percolate the behemoth. Agamemnon watched the beacons being lit for the night on camp’s borders, at vision’s end. Beacons of imprisonment, erected on Odysseus’ advice last month: when men, daunted by omens and strict rations, had begun deserting.

“I,” spoke Calchas, “Have implored at her shrine, in the names of all you Achaeans trapped here by her storms, Artemis. I asked the fleet-footed goddess the cause of her wrath. She replied: ‘Achilles in his folly slew one of my sacred fawns.’”

Anger rustled through the plains. Achilles stiffened.

Agamemnon darkened again with foreboding. Seldom did men receive from the Gods clear speech. ‘Let not Calchas utter, O Zeus,” he prayed silently, “A riddle, to prolong this limbo. Let me know what I am to do.” You should never pray for two things in one breath.

“I asked,” proclaimed Calchas, “How Achilles could atone. She said ‘It’s not for Achilles to atone, but for Agamemnon, he who has unpeopled Greece to bring Helen back to her marriage. He must sacrifice on my altar the most beautiful thing born in the year that marriage began, 13 years ago.’”

Agamemnon watched the swift winter sunset bloody the waiting mass. He would not look at Calchas, not encourage him to tease out the fox-eared silence.

“So that the storms may end, and the Achaeans not perish ignobly here — Artemis asks the sacrifice of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon.”


The prophet’s voice still echoing, Agamemnon was hustled into his tent. Shocked, but not stunned. From that first his sight was clear, though his thought was unsteady.

“It must be done,” reasoned Odysseus. “We can’t linger here forever.”

“Already we’re laughing-stocks,” boomed Achilles. “Twelve hundred ships crowded in Aulis bay, flies at a carcass!”

Even then Agamemnon smiled privately: “Where, o Achilles deep-chested, did you collect that expression? Word-feathers ill-beseem that pig’s-rump, your mouth.”

“The men fear our war has the Gods’ displeasure. If you do not this, we won’t have an army left,” Meges pleaded — but his voice betrayed him: what he asked he was already sure would be done.

“Doubt not Agamemnon,” Odysseus reassured them. “His oath holds him to do whatever’s necessary.”

“How devoted you are to your oath,” said Agamemnon, “Though of all the princes you alone attempted to escape it.” To escape the oath Odysseus’ own foresight had devised, swearing all Helen’s 40 suitors as allies of the eventual groom.

All Greece knew of Odysseus’ attempted escape from war. After peaceable demands for Helen’s return failed, princes from every corner had been summoned to honour their oath, invade Troy with Menelaus. Odysseus: ruler of an isolated islet, youngest of forty heroes: was confident that he had better claims on his time and could evade the summons. He’d started ploughing a field with salt, with a backwards plough. Acting mad, battle-unfit. Till his closest friend Diomedes, throwing Odysseus’ child before the plough, foiled the ruse.

“Has not my loyalty to the cause, since that error,” challenged Odysseus, “Been proved?”

Yes, thought Agamemnon: now that you know you’re fated to be from home 20 years, but to return to a peaceful reign and deathbed. Now your boldness is boundless.

“Brother,” beseeched Menelaus, “What say you?”

And Agamemnon saw that Menelaus — husband of Greece’s loveliest woman, king of its richest plains, fondly called its biggest fool — still didn’t see what Agamemnon had seen, in a lightning stab that first moment: this was the fulfillment of Thyestes’ curse. Menelaus thought Agamemnon was free to decide. Co-inheritor with him of the family legacy, Menelaus had never felt it.

Odysseus of course had seen it. He’d not have spoken, else, so boldly. “There’s no question of your going to fetch her, Marshal. You must remain in charge. I shall go to Mycenae: and Menelaus, her uncle.”

Why Menelaus? It was manifestly Agamemnon’s duty. If Agamemnon didn’t go, it mattered not who did. Then he remembered. It was Menelaus and Diomedes he’d sent to fetch Odysseus to war from his infant, kingdom, and ailing father. Now, Menelaus the filler would again be present. But, instead of Diomedes, Odysseus.

Odysseus always had been proud of his wit.


Agamemnon had withdrawn early from Helen’s suit — but not before taking the oath, Odysseus’ answer to Tyndareus’ dilemma: how to choose without upsetting the rest one among Helen’s suitors? In reward for his ingenuity, binding them all to peace, Tyndareus had helped Odysseus marry his niece.

What if he’d withdrawn sooner, recognised a week earlier the superiority of Tyndareus’ earthly daughter to his divine one? What if Tyndareus hadn’t finally chosen Menelaus, a pigeon to husband a swan?


Odysseus had been wise indeed: had driven, with the urgency of action, the thought of protest from Agamemnon’s mind. Only after the party departed for Mycenae did Agamemnon remember: Calchas was Mycenean. Patriarch of a vast clan. Had Agamemnon, in sixteen years of rule, disobliged Calchas? Vain thought, which he dismissed: a prophet’s word is sacrosanct.

But by absolving Agamemnon from fetching Iphigenia, Odysseus had also postponed his decision. Agamemnon’s consent was still only silence. The No that he’d failed to say, he could say still. Send her back home, claim an error. He could still defy Meges.

It was two days’ journey, there and back. He’d occupy himself with the ships. Eleven, in the turbulence, were irreparably damaged. They must be dismantled to repair the others; their men must be transferred.

How would Clytemnestra respond to Odysseus’ demand? Like a queen consort, he imagined; with the confidence that’d come to bolster his own. When on the threshold he’d looked, three months ago, from the war back towards his cavernous palace, she’d waved him forward, bade him go court glory. Reassuring him: “Go thou in peace. I will foster thy home, thy kingdom. Trust that thou’lt return to a civil populace and a loyal wife.” She would send either Iphigenia, acknowledging her husband’s greater duties; or Odysseus back empty-handed with counter-prophecies from other oracles. Eventually, in the trust they’d cultivated these 14 years, she’d yield. And Agamemnon would again be indebted to her for making a decision he was afraid to own.

In fifteen months of war preparations she hadn’t once mentioned her sister. To the sentence of silence they two had consigned the whore for whom he was stripping Greece of men and heroes.

They’d come to understand each other so, tacit in agreement.


“Agamemnon,” a voice called. “Have you chosen?”

It was Calchas, he saw, peering down the blazing beach. Nearly a mile away, his voice astride the breeze. How did Calchas know his uncertainty?

“No,” he shouted.

“Any man would hesitate,” said Calchas, motionless on the water’s edge, white-robed a dazzling sand-grain, as Agamemnon approached him. “Your position is almost as difficult as Tiresias’. He had as difficult a dilemma, but then only a moment to choose.”

“But I have not only time, but

Tiresias had no reason to hesitate. also didn’t know the consequences of his choice. Am I the unfortunate one?”

“True: if he’d known that his choice would lead him either to the rest of an ordinary life, or to blindness and prophecy, he would’ve hesitated as you do. But you have knowledge, and time to consider it in. You are free to decide.”

“Am I?” Agamemnon stopped, gesturing to the camp behind.

“True: you’re responsible for those men. But you’re responsible also for whatever you do on their behalf.”

“Back to riddles,” thought Agamemnon, “Very helpful.” He walked away.


Turning tent wards at dusk, Agamemnon noticed the storm had abated. The ships still tossed on the purple swell, but no longer strained taut on their anchors.

Had Artemis’ fury already contained itself?

It couldn’t have. She hadn’t yet received her sacrifice. She might never.

His heart swelled in sudden rage at the Gods’ complacency. How dared they accept a sacrifice he hadn’t yet decided to offer them?

Just ahead Ajax the Greater was strolling down the beach, about to turn and see him. He silenced himself and hurried away. He mustn’t admit doubt, even inwardly. If he was to say No it must be said with sudden determination.

He chose the longest path back through camp. Men were hurrying towards the bonfire iridescing in the salty evening rich fragrances of a poor meal. They stopped to make a path for him, bowing their heads. In times to come of these men would it be said, thought Agamemnon holding the gaze of one: “He died for his country, a great fighter.” Or perhaps: “He would’ve died fighting, but died of flogging after trying to flee Agamemnon’s cursed camp. Now his soul weeps in Hades.” But what a thing was death, that men should care how it came!

The face of bronze he must wear as king was crumbling, becoming brittle like the iron to which his spirit was devolving. As pride’s pillars failed him, he’d begun leaning on vanity’s gnarled stick, jealously guarding appearances as his substance disintegrated. Striding down the camp, with its unheroic human stink, its battle-glory squandered into weariness, he felt in the gaze of his peers the testing-stone that would show him for what he’d become: a man battling his fate.


The dread of the curse had crept into him three years ago: when he crossed the age at which his father, betraying his uncle, had regained the throne. Clytemnestra had seen the dread, though he hadn’t spoken of it even to her. Every routine choice had weighed him with the suddenly oppressive weight of kingship. He’d been crippled with indecision: in what impersonal act might divine retribution on/to himself, his line be hiding?

Then Clytemnestra — isolated, as woman, still sublimely from consequences, as he’d been till now — had braced him. “Search not the glassy heavens for thy destiny, but keep thy eyes on the earth where thy duty lies.”


The morning of the sixth day the party returned. Agamemnon, sleepless, heedless then of dignity, stalked out. Odysseus and Menelaus were heading towards him. Confusion murmured on the outskirts of camp.

“Wherefore so long?” demanded Agamemnon, as Odysseus led him back in.

“Calm yourself, son of Atreus… We reached Mycenae the day we left. There Clytemnestra bade us stay, arranged a feast, while she prepared the procession. Our way back was in slow majesty.”

“What procession?” He fought to keep his voice steady. “For what purpose did you tell my wife I wanted my daughter?”

“To be married to Achilles,” said Odysseus. “What did you think I’d tell her?”

Now (he imagined) Agamemnon saw the scope of his punishment. He was to lose not only his firstborn — who, he reflected, he wasn’t over-fond of — but his marriage. He knew the mettle of Clytemnestra’s will: had been drawn by it from Helen’s suit, choosing over the beautiful sister the noble one. And this woman, daughter of a Spartan King, was to learn from ungentle mouths of her husband’s treachery, her daughter’s sacrifice. Murder: for which she’d engorge, with her curses, the carrion-bloated raven cackling on the palace roof. However long the war raged on, at its end he’d return to a darkened home glinting with the fury she’d keep alight.

But he saw now, Odysseus couldn’t have told her the truth. Not only because Odysseus was a rat-snake, blind to the straight path: but because it was he who must decide. Clytemnestra couldn’t help him, this time.

“Why Achilles?”

“To amend,” said Odysseus, “The friendship between Achaea’s two greatest warriors that has run ever a thorny trail.”

Odysseus had done his part well. Even with delight. — But no, that was unjust. He’d done what was necessary.

Agamemnon heard, outside, the wedding procession, Iphigenia’s sunflower voice calling out to him. He let her enter. Of all the things affecting his decision, she wasn’t one. She was insignificant.

Yet his heart flinched as she skipped towards him, white arms open: radiant in bridal saffron, forelocks trimmed — sacrificed at maidenhood’s end to Artemis. Blushing uncertainty sparred in her little face with already-womanly triumph. Was it this Artemis demanded in recompense for her fawn? Had not Calchas lied? — But no, it was fitting. It is the fawn, sacred, that burns ever on the virgin goddess’ altar. The deer, full-wombed, Helen, remains free to cavort through the shadows. And Artemis remains virginal, virgin-protectress.

Iphigenia’s arms were around his neck; kisses on his jowl. He brushed off her caresses. The sacrifice mightn’t be, but this farce must end. He silenced her thanksgiving, signing Odysseus to take her away. Iphigenia disappeared, bewildered.

What would Odysseus tell her now? The truth or another lie? Both would plunge him further towards the decision he hadn’t yet made. His consent was given every moment she remained here, blindfolded. Every moment binding him.

Menelaus sat watching him, brown eyes soft with a dog’s sympathy. “Is there anything you wish me to do, brother?”

Only to leave his sight. Agamemnon felt rising against Menelaus a futile annoyance. As when his hounds, during a deer-hunt, had mangled a stray elephant calf his gamekeeper had adopted. He’d grown fond, himself, of the creature uncannily dash-footed; had expended on the ground his anger as he neared its wreck, his devoted idiots wagging up at him.

“Gather the army. Go at once!”


He’d been at Sparta last spring, at the anniversary of Menelaus’ succession to Tyndareus’ throne. He’d admired, with the rest, the talents of Paris in music, archery, and conversation; listened to Paris’ pastorals of his shepherd’s life before his recent homecoming to Priam’s palace. And he had watched, with lone watchfulness, Helen surrender to the hyacinth-haired, peach-necked prince.

He’d remained, the penultimate guest, when Menelaus was called away to Hellos. Paris — recognising his opportunity (as they now knew) to reap the reward of his Judgment, the heart of the loveliest woman alive, Aphrodite’s promise — feigned illness. Menelaus begged Paris to stay, in his absence, till he’d recovered; left the Trojan prince with tenders of blind friendship and with Helen.

He’d allowed Menelaus to leave without telling him of the danger he clearly saw. “If there’s any danger to Helen, I’m sure her husband sees it.” He’d left the same night.

He’d always respected Menelaus’ autonomy, claimed Menelaus was as intelligent as need be. Does a foolish man bear responsibility for his own actions? Menelaus never had. Agamemnon had chosen not to warn him.

And indeed, it was to him Menelaus came, grief-swollen upon discovering Helen’s infidelity. “She’s gone with Paris, freely.” And when Priam had defended his son’s transgression, Menelaus had invoked brotherhood’s sacred bonds: “I shall call upon all Achaea to redeem Tyndareus’ oath. You, its wisest warrior, captain of its greatest contingent: will you lead us?”

The responsibility he’d shifted had come around again, and he hadn’t denied it. But he’d glimpsed, with this charge, the trap of his destiny. The leadership of half Greece’s men, 14,000 soldiers, was a conceit to precipitate the Gods’ wrath massed above his family.

That dread of his punishment had redoubled these fifteen months. Still unknown but now imminent. He’d grown sure this war would bring it.

And now he’d fallen into it, sea at winter’s-end. Uncushioned by anticipation, clear in the cold horror of his choice.


And he’d been in the dining-hall, 27 years ago, when Atreus told Thyestes the ingredients of the meal he’d just finished: Thyestes’ children, Atreus’ nephews. Thyestes had lurched from the table, vomiting guts. Atreus had succeeded in exiling Thyestes, regaining the throne Thyestes had usurped. But Thyestes had renewed, upon Atreus and Atreus’ sons — as Agamemnon listened — Demeter’s curse.


He’d not been at the Gods’ banquet when his great-grandfather Tantalus, beloved of the Gods, to test them, had served them his own son, Pelops disguised as stew. Demeter had taken and disgorged the first mouthful, cursing, for Tantalus’ hubris, his seed to eternity.

Pelops had been resurrected. To propagate the curse.


“No,” he declared, stalking up and down.

Odysseus glanced outside, gesturing to the guards to keep away intruders. The sun was nearing the end of the auspicious hours. He squarely faced Agamemnon.

“It’s not to me you must say No. It’s to half of Achaea, waiting outside. Why did you send me to Mycenae? Why did you start repairing the ships? Why did you have Menelaus gather the army?”

“I did not swear this. Not to slay my own child.”

“We all know the curse above your house. You can’t escape it.”

“I can refuse to perform it with my hands!”

“Not your hands. The priestess will do it.”

“But they should be mine. As it should’ve been I who fetched her from home.”

“Listen, Agamemnon Atreides. There’s nothing you have lost, that you can recover by sending her back home. You have forfeited already the faith of your wife and daughter. Wherefore risk your marshalcy?”

Blood pounded in Agamemnon’s temples. “How dare you —”

“D’you suppose, if you failed in this, they could save you your marshalcy – your hundred ships of warriors, your illustrious campaigns, your brother? Will you not be spurned from the circle, a dog who defies his master? Will not Achilles, Eurytus, Menestheus rush at the spot you vacate?”

“Self-effacing as always.”

“I have no interest in war, as you frequently remind me. I know the limit of my talents. And I know you are the man to lead us to Troy.”

Agamemnon grunted.

“You gathered the army. You braved three months of storms. And you had your daughter brought here for Artemis’ altar so we could sail. We’ve all heard of Troy’s vast walls and tried allies. This war may last ten years. Who knows but Clytemnestra might forget?”

The page re-entered, asking again for the marshal at the temple. Agamemnon stalked out.

Odysseus didn’t know Clytemnestra: how she had ablated cleanly, without remorse from her life her errant half-sister. Clytemnestra would never forget.


“Do you consent?”

Iphigenia, still saffron-clad, blinked up at Artemis’ priestess. She’d struggled like a bull-calf – surprising Agamemnon. Trussed, gagged, nostrils eloquent, eyes goggling at the heroes around the altar. Familiar faces, frequent guests of her father: who’d listened over their wine-cups as she chanted thanksgiving. But already their faces were armoured, as their bodies would soon be, stern bronze.

She peered down at the crowd. They had never seen Helen; they had fields to tend that’d lie fallow the years of their absence – who knew how many? They’d never seen a human sacrifice. But they too quickly adapted. At last they were to sail. To death for many, but glory for some. For whom, what – they knew not. They roared their approval, strangling the demon frenzy in her brain.

“Give me your consent, or it’ll be taken from you.”

The priestess waited. Then she signed and water was poured on Iphigenia’s neck. Only a trickle, but unexpected: Iphigenia jerked her head.

The crowd cheered. She had nodded.

“And you?” The priestess asked Agamemnon.

He glanced around the circle of heroes. Had they forgotten applauding her song, burning at his hearth white bones to Zeus, praying for his family’s happiness? Would they not speak for him when his mouth was gagged — “Stop this monstrosity!” They watched him, tame wolves. Fire eyes veiled, nostrils quivering for weakness’ first drop. He refused their challenge.

He nodded.

The priestess approached, murmuring to the squirming creature. Caressing its brow, artfully blind to the barley-bag from which she’d snatch next moment deftly swooping the knife. But the sacrifice wasn’t deceived. The gag continued to stifle its screams; life continued to grab into their sockets its bursting eyes.

Facing the daughter he’d told himself he hadn’t loved, Agamemnon was overwhelmed by the urgency of his loss.

Still, with barley-grains clinging to her drenched wedding-dress. Still he could avert disaster from his house. Still he could say No. Return home, without honour but still with a home.

But he couldn’t escape his fate. At least, this was over.


Image of Amita Basu, outside, water in the background, looking off to the side, wearing sunglasses, hair covered.

Amita Basu’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in over fifty magazines and anthologies including The Penn Review, The Dalhousie Review, Bamboo Ridge, The Bombay Literary Magazine, and Gasher. She’s a review reader for Bewildering Stories and a submissions editor for Fairfield Scribes Microfiction. She lives in Bangalore, has a PhD in cognitive science, likes Captain Planet, and blogs at

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