The Cafe Irreal: International Imagination 

Issue Nineteen

Archaeotourism Update, Girl With an Olive Branch, and Pachyderm by Margarita Engle
The Canary by Juan José Millás
Herzenboogen's Theory of Collective Truth by Caitlin Horrocks
Just Words by Guido Eekhaut
Masks by Flavia M. Lobo
I'll See You in My Fugue and A Morbid Philosophy by Fred Ferraris
The Other Assassin and Odysseus in Hell by Zachary Mason


irreal (re)views


The Other Assassin
and Odysseus in Hell
by Zachary Mason

The Other Assassin

In the Imperial Court of Agamemnon, the serene, the lofty, the disingenuous, the elect of every corner of the empire, there were three viziers, ten consuls, twenty generals, thirty admirals, fifty hierophants, a hundred assassins, eight hundred administrators of the second degree, two thousand administrators of the third; and clerks, soldiers, courtesans, scholars, painters, musicians, beggars, larcenists, arsonists, stranglers, sycophants and hangers on of no particular description beyond all number, all poised to do the bright, the serene, the etc. emperor's will. It so happened that in the twentieth year of his reign Agamemnon's noble brow clouded at the thought of a certain Odysseus, whom he felt was much too much renowned for cleverness, when both cleverness and renown he preferred to reserve for the throne. While it was true that this Odysseus had made certain contributions to a recent campaign, involving the feigned offering of a horse which facilitated stealthy entry into an enemy city, this did not justify the infringement on the royal perogatives, and in any case, the war had long since been brought to a satisfactory conclusion, so Agamemnon called for the clerk of Suicides, Temple Offerings, Investitures, Bankruptcy and Humane and Just Liquidation, and signed Odysseus's death warrant.

The clerk of Suicides etc. bowed and with due formality passed the document to the General who Holds Death in His Right Hand, who annotated it, stamped it, and passed it to the Viceroy of Domestic Matters Involving Mortality and so on through the many twists and turns of the bureaucracy, through the hands of spy-masters, career criminals, blind assassins, mendacious clerics and finally to the lower ranks of advisors who had been promoted to responsibility for their dedication and competence (rare qualities given their low wages and the contempt with which they were treated by their well-connected or nobly born superiors), one of whom noted it was a death order of high priority and without reading it assigned it to that master of battle and frequent servant of the throne, Odysseus.

A messenger came to Ithaka and gave Odysseus his orders. Odysseus read them, his face closed, and thanked the messenger, commenting that the intended victim was in for a surprise, and that he was morally certain no problems would arise on his end.

On the eight succeeding days Odysseus sent the following messages to the court as protocol required:

"I am within a day's sail of his island."

"I walk among people who know him and his habits."

"I am within ten miles of his house."

"Five miles."


"I am at his gate."

"The full moon is reflected in the silver mirror over his bed. The silence is perfect but for his breathing."

"I am standing over his bed holding a razor flecked with his blood. Before the cut he looked into my face and swore to slay the man who ordered his death. I think that as a whispering shade he will do no harm."

Odysseus in Hell

A man picks his way along a steel cable strung over a refulgent blue abyss, a ship's oar over his shoulders for balance. The cable groans and sighs in the infinitesimal breeze. It is so narrow that the man is, when he thinks of it, surprised that he is able to keep his footing. Miles in front of him the horizon is shrouded in bright clouds. It may well be the same behind him but he has never looked back. The cable sags, very slightly, just discernably over the course of what may be hours, or days—he is descending.

Above him (he sees this out of his peripheral vision—to look up would be fatal) is an irregular dark massiveness suggesting mountains. There are iridescent patches that could be lakes or possibly cities. Below is open sky, gradations of deep featureless blue. Now a weariness comes over him and he stops to rest, squatting and balancing the oar across his shoulders, gripping the cable with feet and hands, peering down into the void in which he finds a measure of comfort.

He has been walking and balancing for a long time and his mind wanders. For the most part his reflections are vacant or circular recapitulations of the conditions of his confinement in this limitless open air. When a thought crystallizes it is this: Somewhere a judgment is being made. Even now advocates are striding in flapping robes through bleak arcades toward the ante-rooms where they will make their case before a judge, whose name he almost knows—Minos, or possibly Yama. This stirs something in his arid, empty mind—he wants to argue the case himself.

He knows that if the judgment goes against him a wind will rise in the west, a white rushing mass devouring a hemisphere of sky, racing over him and scouring the cable clean. He considers tactics for such a situation—leaning into the wind and walking on the wind side of the cable or breaking into a dead run when he sees the storm rising, with every hasty step risking a sudden, final slip, though there is no end in view. He recognizes the futility of these plans but this does not permit him to stop formulating them.

The cable might be getting narrower. His legs might be weakening. He might feel the air stirring. Eyes closed, he hesitates and imagines the languor of falling. He sees himself snatching futilely at the cable, missing, how quickly it would dwindle as he kept his eyes and hand turned to it, his sole reference point, and how he would at last have the luxury of looking up at the world he was falling away from, secure in the knowledge that no matter what else came the worst had happened. He steadies himself and takes another step.

Once a generation the spring tide reaches the broken walls of Troy and it is granted him to recall that once he was Odysseus.

Zachary Mason is an Artificial Intelligence scientist living in Palo Alto, California. These stories are part of an unpublished novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

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