Excerpt from 'House of Names'

House of Names

By Colm Tóibín

Penguin Random House

Copyright © 2017 The Heather Blazing Ltd
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-241-25768-5


I have been acquainted with the smell of death. The sickly, sugary smell that wafts in the wind towards the rooms in this palace. It is easy now for me to feel peaceful and content. I spend my morning looking at the sky and the changing light. The birdsong begins to rise as the world fills with its own pleasures and then, as day wanes, the sound too wanes and fades. I watch as the shadows lengthen. So much has slipped away, but the smell of death lingers. Maybe the smell has entered my body and been welcomed there like an old friend come to visit. The smell of fear and panic. The smell is here like the very air is here; it returns in the same way as light in the morning returns. It is my constant companion; it has put life into my eyes, eyes that grew dull with waiting, but are not dull now, eyes that are alive now with brightness.

I gave orders that the bodies should remain in the open under the sun a day or two until the sweetness gave way to stench. And I liked the flies that come, their little bodies perplexed and brave, buzzing after their feast, upset by the continuing hunger they felt in themselves, a hunger I had come to know too and had come to appreciate.

We are all hungry now. Food merely whets our appetite, it sharpens our teeth; meat makes us ravenous for more meat, as death is ravenous for more death. Murder makes us ravenous, fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction.

A knife piercing the soft flesh under the ear, with intimacy and precision, and then moving across the throat as soundlessly as the sun moves across the sky, but with greater speed and zeal, and then his dark blood flowing with the same inevitable hush as dark night falls on familiar things.

* * *

They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. My daughter had her hands tied tight behind her back, the skin on the wrists raw with the ropes, and her ankles bound. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, her muffled screams were heard when she finally realized that her father really did mean to murder her, that he did mean to sacrifice her life for his army. They had cropped her hair with haste and carelessness; one of the women managed to cut into the skin around my daughter's skull with a rusty blade, and when Iphigenia began her curse, that is when they tied an old cloth around her mouth so that her words could not be heard. I am proud that she never ceased to struggle, that never once, not for one second, despite the mild speech she had made, did she accept her fate. She did not give up trying to loosen the twine around her ankles or the ropes around her wrists so that she could get away from them. Or stop trying to curse her father so that he would feel the weight of her contempt.

No one is willing now to repeat the words she spoke in the moments before they muffled her voice, but I knew what those words were. I taught them to her. They were words to shrivel her father and his followers, with their foolish aims, they were words that announced what would happen to him and those around him once the news spread of how they dragged our daughter, the proud and beautiful Iphigenia, to that place, how they pulled her through the dust to sacrifice her so that they might prevail in their war. In that last second as she lived, I am told that she screamed aloud so that her voice pierced the hearts of those who heard her.

Her screams as they murdered her were nothing to what was heard when Agamemnon, her father, returned and I fooled him into thinking that I would not retaliate. I waited and I watched for signs, and smiled and opened my arms to him, and I had a table here prepared with food. Food for the fool! I was wearing the special scent that excited him. Scent for the fool!

I was ready as he was not, the hero home in glorious victory, the blood of his daughter on his hands, but his hands washed now as though free of all stain, his hands white, his arms outstretched to embrace his friends, his face all smiles, the great soldier who would soon, he believed, hold up a cup in celebration and put rich food into his mouth. His gaping mouth! Relieved that he was home!

I saw his hands clench in sudden pain, clench in the grim, shocked knowledge that at last it had come to him, and in his own palace, and in the slack time when he told me how often he had thought of the old stone bath and the ease to be found there.

That was what inspired him to go on, he said, the thought that this was waiting for him, healing water and spices and soft, clean clothes and familiar air and sounds. He was like a lion as he laid his muzzle down, his roaring all done, his body limp, and all thought of danger far from his mind.

I smiled and said that, yes, I too had thought of the welcome I would make for him. He had filled my waking life and my dreams, I told him. I had dreamed of him rising all cleansed from the perfumed water of the bath. I told him his bath was being prepared as the food was being cooked, as the table was being laid, and as his friends were gathering. And he must go there now, I said, he must go to the bath. He must bathe, bathe in the relief of being home. Yes, home. That is where the lion came. I knew what to do with the lion once he came home.

* * *

I had spies to tell me when he would come back. Men lit each fire that gave the news to farther hills where other men lit fires to alert me. It was the fire that brought the news, not the gods. Among the gods now there is no one who offers me assistance or oversees my actions or knows my mind. There is no one among the gods to whom I appeal. I live alone in the shivering, solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed.

I am praying to no gods. I am alone among those here because I do not pray and will not pray again. Instead, I will speak in ordinary whispers. I will speak in words that come from the world, and those words will be filled with regret for what has been lost. I will make sounds like prayers, but prayers that have no source and no destination, not even a human one, since my daughter is dead and cannot hear.

I know as no one else knows that the gods are distant, they have other concerns. They care about human desires and antics in the same way that I care about the leaves of a tree. I know the leaves are there, they wither and grow again and wither, as people come and live and then are replaced by others like them. There is nothing I can do to help them or prevent their withering. I do not deal with their desires.

I wish now to stand here and laugh. Hear me tittering and then howling with mirth at the idea that the gods allowed my husband to win his war, that they inspired every plan he worked out and move he made, that they knew his cloudy moods in the morning and the strange and silly exhilaration he could exude at night, that they listened to his implorings and discussed them in their godly homes, that they watched the murder of my daughter with approval.

The bargain was simple, or so he believed, or so his troops believed. Kill the innocent girl in return for a change in the wind. Take her out of the world, use a knife on her flesh to ensure that she would never again walk into a room or wake in the morning. Deprive the world of her grace. And as a reward, the gods would make the wind blow in her father's favour on the day he needed wind for his sails. They would hush the wind on the other days when his enemies needed it. The gods would make his men alert and brave and fill his enemies with fear. The gods would strengthen his swords and make them swift and sharp.

When he was alive, he and the men around him believed that the gods followed their fates and cared about them. Each of them. But I will say now that they did not, they do not. Our appeal to the gods is the same as the appeal a star makes in the sky above us before it falls, it is a sound we cannot hear, a sound to which, even if we did hear it, we would be fully indifferent.

The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive. For them, if they were to hear of us, we would be like the mild sound of wind in the trees, a distant, unpersistent, rustling sound.

I know that it was not always thus. There was a time when the gods came in the morning to wake us, when they combed our hair and filled our mouths with the sweetness of speech and listened to our desires and tried to fulfil them for us, when they knew our minds and when they could send us signs. Not long ago, within our memories, the crying women could be heard in the night in the time before death came. It was a way of calling the dying home, hastening their flight, softening their wavering journey to the place of rest. My husband was with me in the days before my mother died, and we both heard it, and my mother heard it too and it comforted her that death was ready to lure her with its cries.

That noise has stopped. There is no more crying like the wind. The dead fade in their own time. No one helps them, no one notices except those who have been close to them during their short spell in the world. As they fade from the earth, the gods do not hover over with their wavering, whistling sound. I notice it here, the silence around death. They have departed, the ones who oversaw death. They have gone and they will not be back.

My husband was lucky with the wind, that was all, and lucky his men were brave, and lucky that he prevailed. It could easily have been otherwise. He did not need to sacrifice our daughter to the gods.

My nurse was with me from the time I was born. In her last days, we did not believe that she was dying. I sat with her and we talked. If there had been the slightest sound of wailing, we would have heard. There was nothing, no sound to accompany her towards death. There was silence, or the usual noises from the kitchen, or the barking of dogs. And then she died, then she stopped breathing. It was over for her.

I went out and looked at the sky. And all I had then to help me was the leftover language of prayer. What had once been powerful and added meaning to everything was now desolate, strange, with its own sad, brittle power, with its memory, locked in its rhythms, of a vivid past when our words rose up and found completion. Now our words are trapped in time, they are filled with limits, they are mere distractions; they are as fleeting and monotonous as breath. They keep us alive, and maybe that is something, at least for the moment, for which we should be grateful. There is nothing else.

* * *

I have had the bodies removed and buried. It is twilight now. I can open the shutters onto the terrace and look at the last golden traces of the sun and the swifts arching in the air, moving like whips against the dense, raked light. As the air thickens, I can see the blurred edge of what is there. This is not a time for sharpness; I no longer want sharpness. I do not need clarity. I need a time like now when each object ceases to be itself and melts towards what is close to it, just as each action I and others have performed ceases to stand alone waiting for someone to come and judge it or record it.

Nothing is stable, no colour under this light is still; the shadows grow darker and the things on the earth merge with each other, just as what all of us did merges into one action, and all our cries and gestures merge into one cry, one gesture. In the morning, when the light has been washed by darkness, we will face clarity and singleness again. In the meantime, the place where my memory lives is a shadowy, ambiguous place, comforted by soft, eroding edges, and that is enough for now. I might even sleep. I know that in the fullness of daylight, my memory will sharpen again, become precise, will cut through the things that happened like a dagger whose blade has been whetted for use.

* * *

There was a woman in one of the dusty villages beyond the river and towards the blue mountains. She was old and difficult but she had powers that had been lost to all others. She did not use her powers idly, I had been told, and most of the time she was not willing to use them at all. In her village she often paid imposters, women old and wizened like herself, women who sat in doorways with their eyes narrowed against the sun. The old woman paid them to stand in for her, to fool visitors into believing that they were the ones with the powers.

We had been watching this woman. Aegisthus, the man who shares my bed and would share this kingdom with me, had learned, with the help of some men who were under his sway, to distinguish between the other women, the decoys, who had no powers at all, and the real one, who could, when she wanted, weave a poison into any fabric.

If anyone wore that fabric they would be rendered frozen, unable to move, and rendered voiceless also, utterly silent. No matter how sudden the shock or severe the pain, they would not have the ability to cry out.

I planned to attack my husband when he returned. I would be waiting for him, all smiles. The gurgling sound he would make when I cut his throat became my obsession. I heard it in the night and I summoned it up once more when I woke in the morning. It stayed with me all day.

The old woman was brought here by the guards. I had her locked in one of the inner storerooms, a dry place where grain is kept. Aegisthus, whose powers of persuasion were as highly developed as the old woman's power to cause death, knew what to say to her.

Both Aegisthus and the old woman were stealthy and wily. But I was clear. I lived in the light. I cast shadows but I did not live in shadow. As I prepared for this, I lived in pure brightness.

What I required was simple. There was a robe made of netting that my husband sometimes used when he came from the bath. I wanted the old woman to stitch threads into it, threads that would have the power to immobilize him once the robe touched his skin. The threads would be as near to invisible as the woman could make them. And Aegisthus warned her that I wanted not only stealth but silence. I wanted no one to hear the cries of Agamemnon as I murdered him. I wanted not a sound to be heard from him.

The woman pretended for some time that she was, in fact, one of the imposters. And even though I allowed no one but Aegisthus to see her and bring her food, she began to divine why she was here, that she had been brought here to help with the murder of Agamemnon, the king, the great, bloodthirsty warrior, victorious in the wars, soon to arrive home. The woman believed that the gods were on his side. She did not wish to interfere with the intentions of the gods.

I had always known that she would be a challenge, but I had come to learn too that it was simpler to deal with those who held the old beliefs, who believed that the world was stable.

I arranged therefore to deal with this woman. I had time. Agamemnon was not to return for some days, and I would have warnings when he was approaching. We had spies in his camp by this time, and men on the hills. I left nothing to chance. I planned each step. I had left too much to luck and to the whims and needs of others in the past. I had trusted too many people.

I ordered the poisonous crone we had captured to be brought to one of the windows high in the wall of the corridor outside the room where she was being held. I gave instructions that this malignant creature be hoisted up so that she could see into the walled garden. I knew what she would see. She would see her own golden granddaughter, the light of her life. We had taken the child from the village. She, too, was our prisoner.

I arranged for Aegisthus to tell the woman that if she wove the poison and if it worked, then she and her granddaughter would immediately be released and allowed home. I ordered him not to finish the next sentence, the one that began, 'If you do not ...', but just to look at the woman with such clear intent and malice that she would tremble, or, more likely, make an effort not to show any sign of fear.

Thus it was easy. The weaving took, I was told, a matter of minutes. Although Aegisthus sat with the woman as she worked, he could not find the new threads in the robe when she had finished. When it was done, she merely asked him to be kind to her granddaughter while she was here and to make sure, when they were being returned to the village, that no one saw them or knew who had accompanied them or where they had been. She gazed coldly at him, and he knew from her gaze that the task had been successfully completed and that the lovely, fatal magic would work on Agamemnon.


Excerpted from House of Names by Colm Tóibín. Copyright © 2017 The Heather Blazing Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Random House.
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