Have any of you had one of those moments when your senses are all in harmony?
The colors and shapes around you, the feelings in your heart, the taste on your tongue, the sounds in the background, the scent in the air?
I had one of those moments at approximately 12:48 AM, Friday night. I was in a pizza shop with aqua walls, concrete floors, and poppy-red barstools, chatting with two friends, one with lavender nail polish and a silver, ukuklele-charm necklace, the other with mussed hair, suspenders, and a bow tie. My pizza was lumpy with artichokes and zigzagged with siracha and pesto. The Smiths were singing to me, “Why pamper life’s complexities, when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?”
I always get a bit giddy during these moments, the ones when all senses are aligned! I love coming across them in books as well, which has prompted my choice for this week’s excerpt, a passage from Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.
I remember the runners best, nut-brown bodies slicked with oil, stretching on the track beneath the sun. They mix together, broad-shouldered husbands, beardless youths and boys, their calves all thickly carved with muscle.
The bull has been killed, sweating the last of its blood into dust and dark bronze bowls. It went quietly to its death, a good omen for the games to come. The runners are gathered before the dais where my father and I sit, surrounded by prizes we will give to the winners. There are golden mixing bowls for wine, beaten bronze tripods, ash-wood spears tipped with precious iron. But the real prize is in my hands: a wreath of dusty-green leaves, freshly clipped, rubbed to a shine by my thumb. My father has given it to me grudgingly. He reassures himself: all I have to do is hold it.
The youngest boys are running first, and they wait, shuffling their feet in the sand for the nod from the priest. They’re in their first flush of growth, bones sharp and spindly, poking against taut skin. My eye catches on a light head among dozens of dark, tousled crowns. I lean forward to see. Hair lit like honey in the sun, and within it, glints of gold—the circlet of a prince.
He is shorter than the others, and still plump with childhood in a way they are not. His hair is long and tied back with leather; it burns against the dark, bare skin of his back. His face, when he turns, is serious as a man’s.
When the priest strikes the ground, he slips past the thickened bodies of the older boys. He moves easily, his heels flashing pink as licking tongues. He wins. I stare as my father lifts the garland from my lap and crowns him; the leaves seem almost black against the brightness of his hair. His father, Peleus, comes to claim him, smiling and proud. Peleus’ kingdom is smaller than ours, but his wife is rumored to be a goddess, and his people love him. My own father watches with envy. His wife is stupid and his son too slow to race in even the youngest group. He turns to me.
“That is what a son should be.”
I love the colors and textures evoked in this passage, especially as they serve to enhance the contrast between the young Patroclus (narrating) and young Achilles (racing).
The colors associated with Patroclus’s world are “nut-brown,” “dark [and] beaten bronze,” “dusty green,” and “tousled.” They all evoke a dull, heavy earthiness.
That is until Patroclus spies Achilles, who is associated with the colors that “[are] lit like honey,” “glint with gold” or “flashing pink” (by the way, that simile for the soles of Achilles’ feet being “pink as licking tongues” is a showstopper!!) They all evoke brightness, innocence, levity.
And then the contrast comes to a point, when the garland is transferred from Patroclus’ hands to Achille’s brow. “The leaves seem almost black against the brightness of his hair.” The crowning honor of Patroclus’ world is a blight against the brightness of Achilles.
I’m such a fan of the way Ms. Miller has hijacked our sense of color to drive home the psychological differences between her characters. The other senses mesh into a cohesive scene as well, with the feel of “sun, sweat, dust, sand, burning” the taste of “blood, wine” adding to our understanding of Patroclus’ reality.