In The Orange Grove
Pella, Macedonia, 339 B.C.
The two young men followed a pace or so behind the elder as he spoke, the tall, elegant youth to his left and the shorter, stockier on the right. They kept themselves just out of his line of sight and far enough behind that they could hold their own whispered conversation without their tutor hearing. They listened with half an ear to the older man's teachings, but neither could keep their mind on the lesson. It was a mid-summer morning in the Macedonian capital city, and one on which most other boys of their age and class were watching or playing in various sports and games. King Philip had commanded that his son be given no leave from his studies during the festivities, so the prince Alexander was resigned to traipsing through the city after Aristotle already. It had not been difficult for him to persuade his less athletic, more intellectual friend to join him, although Hephaestion's presence was more of a distraction than a consolation. Aristotle, never a fool to anybody, was well aware of this fact and purposely slipped a number of essential facts, which he would remember to test them on in the front of the class, into his lecture when he was sure they were far more engrossed in each other than their lesson. The day was bright and the air uncommonly fresh, raising their spirits and sidetracking them from their lecture. People – mostly slaves – went past dressed in loose, brightly- coloured clothes while the two students felt stifled in scratchy tunics.
"It has been suggested," the teacher intoned as they strolled along a broad, tree-lined boulevard close to the palace, "that pleasure is the greatest virtue, and the purpose in life is to achieve the highest degree of happiness. However, this is hedonism and should be avoided. In life we must strive for perfection, which lies in the mean between two extremes. Therefore a perfect human will have experience equal amounts of pleasure and suffering. A brave man will be neither cowardly nor foolhardy. A wise man will be neither ignorant nor big-headed …"
Alexander rolled his eyes exaggeratedly behind their tutor's back, and Hephaestion had to turn a laugh into a cough. Aristotle was ignorant of neither but knew better than to make an issue of it; not only were the pair experts at getting themselves in trouble, they were experts at getting each other out of trouble too. When confronted, Hephaestion could argue his friend out of any situation, and on the rare occasions that the taller boy was the instigator of the trouble Alexander was equally adept at wrangling him out of it.
"… In our quest for ultimate understanding of our world, it is only people such as us who are capable of achieving this balance perfectly, and-"
This, Alexander had heard before and it got his full attention. "You're wrong," he said loudly, half-way through a whispered monologue to Hephaestion, who jumped at the blunt outburst. Aristotle raised his eyebrows as he turned to consider the bold youth, stopping below the statue of Zeus on the corner of the street.
"Well then, boy," he said with emphasis on the last word. "You had better show an old man the error in his thought."
Hephaestion visibly cringed, and Aristotle shot him a brief, reassuring smile; Alexander was being humoured and nothing more.
"You claim upper-class Greek males are the only people capable of fully understanding the world," said the prince hotly. "But I wouldn't be a different person if I were from Africa, or a slave. Or a woman, even. I would be the same person capable of the same levels of understanding."
The older man shook his head, and Hephaestion, spotting what his friend had missed, smiled silently. He deeply inhaled the citrus-tinted breeze and watched Alexander as Aristotle corrected him.
"You have forgotten one thing, Alexander," said the old Philosopher, setting off again on his purposely slow amble towards the palace. He made a point of slowing down almost imperceptibly during these strolling lessons so that his protégés unwittingly caught up with him and he was allowed brief windows into their conversation. Much to his disappointment it was usually nothing more interesting than the current scandals and intrigues up at the palace, where both boys resided, but just occasionally he heard snippets which interested him. Earlier that same day had been one of those occasions.
"What did I forget?" Alexander asked.
"Form shapes being," Aristotle replied. "The body shapes the mind. By your reasoning, should your horse, Bucephalus, have by some fluke been born a man, then he would still have a horse's thoughts; or if Hephaestion here were born a wolf he would still have the mind of a man. We would have a man concerned with nothing but oats and a wolf whose intellectual capabilities and powers of reasoning far outshone him. Does that sound logical to you?"
"Of course not, but I'm not suggesting we imagine Hephaestion as a wolf, merely myself as a woman or a slave. I wouldn't be a different animal, I'd still be human and have a human brain with human thoughts."
Aristotle chuckled quietly. "My dear boy, yourself, a slave and a women are all very different creatures."
"I suppose so."
"Good. Perhaps you have finally learned something today, and since I have other things to attend to I will ask you to continue with the studies I allocated to you yesterday." He stopped and smiled warmly at them. "Think about it. You above every other have the capability to understand all things."
The two boys stood respectfully and watched their tutor cross the road and disappear down a side-street. Hephaestion glanced at his shorter friend, but Alexander was still lost in though. A gentle touch on the arm and a warm smile were all Hephaestion needed to administer to jolt his friend back to the real world. Alexander shook his head.
"He is wrong, you know."
"Do you really think so?"
"Yes. But perhaps I'm wrong too. Who knows?"
There were fewer people in the street now, which meant that some major event was taking place in the arena or simply another part of the city. Alexander toyed with the notion of investigating the attraction, but the thought that his father – and probably his teacher – would be in attendance put him off. Besides, Hephaestion had little enthusiasm for sport, and Alexander considered it his duty to amuse his friend by other means. Several ideas had already presented themselves.
"Why don't we-" he began, but Hephaestion shook his head.
"You heard what Aristotle said."
"Yes, but it's too nice a day to be indoors. We could do anything you like; go riding, take some food and go and sit mph-" he suddenly found himself stifled by a firm hand over his mouth.
"Do you ever stop trying to wriggle out of studying?" Hephaestion asked sternly. Alexander pried his hand away, let it go for a moment, then grabbed it again, leading his dark-haired friend back the way they had come.
"A compromise," he announced. "We get some food, find an orchard to occupy for a few hours, and I'll keep quiet until you finish your stupid homework."
"Sounds fair, especially when you add to it my delight when you get in trouble," said Hephaestion. "And … occupy?"
"Shush," came the dismissive reply. "Come on."
"I'm glad you weren't born a wolf."
Hephaestion frowned slightly, scratching furiously at the rough parchment with his black-inked quill. He was trying to write leaning on his own knee, which was not only impractical but painful too when the nib of the quill when through the parchment into his leg. Alexander had spent the last half an hour ambling through the orchard picking fallen fruit from the ground and inspecting its quality before returning to add it to the hoard by Hephaestion's left leg. Apparently he had become fed up either with the accumulation of stolen fruit or the silence of the orchard, which Hephaestion considered blissful and soothing. Alexander was not at home with peace and quiet for long, and was now towering over the lounging Hephaestion, prodding him in the shin with his foot. The quill scratched stubbornly across the parchment for a couple of more lines, and Alexander rolled his eyes. Although both of them were gifted students, Alexander was sure that, if it weren't for his military training, Hephaestion would have become a philosopher. He almost felt sorry for interrupting his concentration, but before he could say 'never mind' and amble off again, Hephaestion paused his pen and looked up.
"I said I am glad you weren't born a wolf," Alexander repeated.
"Oh." Hephaestion put down his quill. However enthralling his studies might be, Alexander would forever be infinitely more so. "Good," he said. "Um, why?"
The prince lowered himself onto the grass beside his friend. He rested his back against the same tree and stretched his limbs out, faintly annoyed to discover that at seventeen he was still lagging behind Hephaestion in height; he tried to stretch his own foot out to reach Hephaestion's, but couldn't come close.
"If you were a wolf," he mused, giving up and instead hooking his own legs over Hephaestion's, "then I would be too. And I don't think I'd like it much."
"You might not be. You cold still be a man."
Alexander shook his head stubbornly. "No. The gods would never allow us to be born apart. If you are a wolf, I am a wolf. And Wolf-Alexander and Wolf-Hephaestion are as close as we are."
"They might not be."
"They are. How could they not be? How could you and I stand to be around each other knowing we weren't the closest of friends? How could I go through my life knowing I can't just turn round and do something stupid like this?" Alexander leaned up and kissed Hephaestion, whose surprised exclamation was quickly stifled. The kiss lingered in the air with the smell of ripe oranges and sweet grass, and left Hephaestion a little short of breath when it finally broke.
"Even if I was a wolf," Alexander continued, twisting round to examine the bark of the tree in intricate detail, "I would need to have you beside me. Life just … doesn't make any sense without you."
Hephaestion nodded. He ran his graceful fingers along the already-scarred calf resting across his knee in the hope that it might prompt another kiss, but Alexander was now plucking grass and letting it fall through his fingers, a dozen sharp green flashes spiralling lightly back to the earth. Hephaestion knew what Alexander meant; there would be little point to his own life without the prince's constant companionship. But he couldn't help thinking Aristotle was right.
"What if Wolf-Alexander and Wolf-Hephaestion never meet?"
"Then they are truly tragic," said Alexander swiftly. "They must meet, or how should they grow old together as we will?"
"They might be Wolf-strangers," Hephaestion persisted, "or even Wolf-enemies. In fact I'm sure that's it. Wolves have different minds to us, they don't think like humans. You would be an alpha-wolf, and I would be nothing but competition."
"It's not true."
"No?" Hephaestion's hopeful fingers brushed lightly over the rough, red skin on Alexander's knee. "But that's how a wolf's mind works. Wolf-Alexander doesn't have friends, only rivals."
"He has Wolf-Hephaestion," the prince persisted.
"Body shape dictates mind shape," said Hephaestion, "and Wolf-Hephaestion is only interested in getting his share of the kill. Wolf-Alexander is only interested in making sure he doesn't."
Alexander gripped the darker boy's questing hand in his own, his gaze back on Hephaestion's face at last. "Body shape doesn't alter the shape of the soul, and we are soul mates," he said. "Aristotle can talk all he wants about ultimate understanding and the purity of the Greek race, but we, Hephaestion, don't need any of it. If we were ignorant, lowly sheep we would be together. If you were born in some far, unexplored land then I would hunt you down and not be able to sleep or eat until I found you. If we were wolves, you and I, we would quit the pack and its stupid rules so we could sit under the stars and howl together. I don't need to be the son of a king to tell you that."
Silence descended on the orchard again as Hephaestion picked up his quill. He rested the parchment against Alexander's thigh, and continued his dissertation on Plato's Forms. Perhaps, he thought, if he made the pen go through the paper enough it would leave a tattoo of Plato's works on Alexander's skin. But instead he showed a care in pressing lightly with the quill which he had lacked or considered unimportant when leaning on himself. Alexander shifted slightly so that he could pick up an orange, which he stripped of its peel and split in two pieces. Hephaestion silently accepted segments that were offered him by his prince, who did not consider himself too great to lick away the stray drops which escaped those pursed pink lips.