THE GRIEF OF HECUBA

by Tari Gwaemir
The Trojan queen mourns for her dead children.

I have no more tears left for this last son. His face is colorless and swollen, his once-smooth cheek bruised and moist, but stiff to my touch. His once-grey eyes covered with a white sheen, blank and unseeing--are you really my Polydorus? You were always youngest and forgotten, following at Hector's heels with little Astyanax at your side, running to my loom to hide when your father passed, falling asleep during the sacrifices at Athena's temple...I remember you leaving for Thrace, still in your boy's tunic, your back turned on us for sending you away from the coming battle. How you, with your usually somber mouth, laughed as you never did before when Deiphobus gave you your first bronze dagger--so eager, like all your brothers, to play at war. You were a child still, and for you, Troy would always emerge victorious, as it did in the stories my women would tell you while you leaned against my knee. Did you ever forgive us for sending you away? Better to have died at the hands of Achilles, perhaps, than to be betrayed, your throat slit in the night, your body thrown into the water. I know my Polydorus would have preferred an honorable death.

I cannot weep for you. The last of my tears were given to Polyxena, the last victim of Achilles' neverending rage. She is still unburied, her virgin body untouched except for where the knife pierced her breast, spreading a crimson star against her linen robes. Her face is serene, her lips parted over her small teeth, as if she were merely asleep. I can see her standing before the Achaians, her thin narrow shoulders held back, welcoming the death blow as the blade sinks into her heart. She must have smiled even as she fell, already rushing to the Styx' shore, her father and brothers waiting for her on the other side of the black river. They have all left me behind.

How hardened and dry I have become! When Troilus died, my heart was still soft, and I rent my robes and streaked ashes in my hair. They bore his body back to us, the dust dulling his bright hair, the blood and dirt disfiguring his face. His hands were still tangled in the reins, his arms wrenched backwards, his body lying bent and twisted upon the shield. His panicked horses had dragged him across the battlefield, too frenzied to be caught before his body was already mauled beyond recognition. For ten days, the palace was filled with the sound of my women weeping--then, it seemed that there could be no end to our tears.

What did I know of sorrow then? I watched from behind the walls when Hector ran from Achilles, his proud helm lowered in fear as he desperately raced around Troy, the fleet-footed Achilles close behind. He turned, his eyes red and desperate with false hope, deceived by a disguised Athena, and cast his spear uselessly against Achilles' shield. Oh, cruel goddess! Yet even then, bereft of his only spear, he fought against his fate, my valiant Hector, before whose sword whole armies of the Achaians had fallen, like wheat beneath the scythe. I turned away as Achilles' spear pierced his neck; I could not bear to watch him fall.

But Achilles in his fury was not satisfied with Hector's death. Oh, Polydorus, if you had seen him, ankles tied to Achilles' chariot, fair head trailing in the earth soaked with blood! I tore my veil in half and fell to the ground at the sight. The palace echoed with Andromache's despairing cries, but I heard it not, for my own weeping filled my ears. Hector, my eldest son! I remember holding him in my arms when he was still but a small child--he was beautiful from the beginning, the dark hair curling around his fair face. I had thought that he, above all, must have been blessed by the gods, but the fates did not spare him. I could not speak for days after we finally buried his ashes, so hoarse was my voice from weeping.

And Paris, the unwitting cause of our doom, even for him, I shed so many tears. I sent him away as an infant to be abandoned on the mountainside, but what mother could banish her son again, when he returned from the dead, miraculously still alive? I should have hardened my heart then, no matter how his fair face resembled my father's, noble despite his shepherd's clothes. But no, I embraced him, and embraced him again, upon his homecoming from Sparta, with Helen at his side. Even now, I cannot hate him, the son who brought me so much misfortune. How we rejoiced when he slew Achilles, with the help of divine Apollo, who guided his arrow to the mortal heel! Yet the joy was only too short-lived, for he also fell, by an arrow drawn from Philoctetes' bow. Another son lost, another wound in my heart.

If only he had been the last! That final nightmare, when I woke to find Troy in flames around me, the vision still sears me with its horrific blaze when I close my eyes. I have not slept since Troy has fallen, since I saw Priam's head tumble into my lap, his bleeding body broken against the altar. All my other sons, too, still lying beneath the ruins of the palace, their bodies turned into charred cinders as they fell, one by one, to Neoptolemus' sword. I remained kneeling at that altar, unable to believe my weary eyes. The Achaian soldiers had to drag me out by my arms away from that body, for I was too spent to move.

Did you know, Polydorus, when I first saw your father? Priam, barely out of his youth, came to my father's palace, asking for my hand. He had just been crowned the king of Troy, the only one among his brothers to survive Poseidon's wrath. I was but a girl myself, and my old nurse let me peek behind the curtains of my room to see his face. She pointed at his broad forehead and said, "You can see he has the favor of the gods from his shining brow. You will know no sorrow in his palace." What did she know of the immortals? Divine favor is fleeting and fickle. Father Zeus has turned his back on the royal house of Troy, and the fates have us at their mercy.

My mourning is futile. I have spent my voice in wailing, and my cheeks have been worn ragged by the tracks of my tears. I have prayed day and night to the gods to spare me from watching another son die, and yet even you, the one in whom my hopes rested, have passed away into Hades' realm. What use are prayers and sacrifices? Have I ever neglected the altars of Zeus, of Hera, of Poseidon, of Athena? How powerless we are! I, who had once been Priam's queen, the mother of valiant Hector, can do nothing to appease their wrath. Oh, these pitiless immortals! No, I cannot, I will not weep for you, Polydorus. Who would listen to my cries? You have no father or brothers or even gods left to avenge your death.

I have had enough of tears.

END

Hecuba is Priam's queen and the mother of many of his children, including Hector and Paris. She survives the fall of Troy, after seeing nearly all of her children killed, and becomes one of Odysseus' captives. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, she eventually transforms into a dog. Even after Troy's surrender, Hecuba continues to experience tragedy after tragedy. Not only is her daughter, Polyxena, sacrificed to appease Achilles' shade, but she also discovers (while preparing for Polyxena's funeral, no less) that her youngest son, Polydorus, who was entrusted to the Thracian king Polymestor, has been treacherously murdered. (Priam had sent a large amount of treasure along with Polydorus, and the greedy king ordered his ward killed so he could claim the wealth for himself.) Hecuba has her revenge on Polymestor, luring him into a cave, believing that she was bringing more gold for her son, and attacking him with her bare hands, with the help of the other captive Trojan women. Upon hearing of their king's murder, the Thracians hunt down Hecuba and stone her, which is when she is transformed into a dog. She is left there to howl her grief for her misfortunes, and even Juno, who hates the Trojans, is moved to pity by her wails.

The Metamorphoses belong to Ovid.

Originally written as an assignment for my Rome of Augustus course.

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