Conundrum of the Prizes

The tent flap opened, sending a stinging wind across Odysseus' wounds.

"My door lies open, and yet my visitor blocks the light of every torch in every Achaean encampment!" Odysseus called out jovially, despite the pain. "Come in, my dear friend Ajax, and relieve your feet of their unenviable burden." He motioned to his servant, who hastily removed the guest chair from view, dragging a wide stump of oak into its stead.

"Thank you, my friend," said Great Ajax. The stump creaked but held him as he settled upon its flat top. "You look awful."

"For which I thank you, in turn," Odysseus smiled. "I hardly noticed these wounds during our struggle, or during the footrace afterward, but now they keep me from sleep." He wiped away some of the sand which the wind had driven into the abrasions across his arms and chest, and applied a poultice which Podalirius had prepared. "You look to be in a similar state, if I may presume that not all of the blood which dresses you is mine."

Ajax gave a deep chuckle. "You may indeed, though I daresay I have more to spare than you have." He looked past his friend, reliving Patroclus' funeral games. "Had I not seen you win that race with my own eyes, I would not have believed any man capable of it. Not after wrestling with me!"

"You are one to speak! You, who faced Diomedes in single combat, though my kick had robbed your knee of its strength! But come, surely you had some other purpose in mind, visiting me, than to banter over the day's events."

"True." Ajax refocused. "I was thinking about the prizes we won, for our wrestling match. A large tripod for the winner, and a woman, skilled in crafts, for the loser. When Achilles declared us both victors, and instructed us to share the prizes, it sounded like a fine deal. But it just occurred to me: How do we share a tripod? Or a woman?"

"It just..." Odysseus trailed off in astonishment. "My friend, no one can fault your stout heart and sure hand. Countless are the Argive lives you have rescued in battle, and Trojan lives you have taken. And many more have you to thank for their chance to return home after this war is ended, for you saved their ships from Hector's fire. Let it be no insult then to say that, when seen beside me, and only then, you are an imbecile. I had accepted the deal only to allow the games to resume, and because I had no wish to challenge proud Achilles in his day of grief."

"Good for you," Ajax said convincingly. "So I was thinking that if you took the left half of the tripod, and I the right, and then you took the right half of the woman, and I the left, the matter would be settled satisfactorily."

"A sage plan, with only two difficulties. First, I have not seen the woman in daylight. What if I like her left half better? And yet, assuming she is right-handed, I would certainly get the more skilled half this way. Second, while I could easily divide a tripod three ways, it tests even my skill to divide it evenly in half. Were I to succeed, a tripod with one and a half legs would be even harder to balance above a fire than one with two legs, or just one."

Ajax smiled. "And it would hardly be a tripod then. It would be a sesquipod."

"You're surprisingly ahead of your time, friend," said Odysseus. "That's a Latin prefix. Any ideas regarding the woman?"

"She has a name, by the way."

"Yes, I don't suppose she would have gotten very far without one."

"Nice reference. Her name is Alecyta," Ajax went on. "She knows the rearing of calves and the tanning of leather. She has graced my bed-"

"Already?!?" Odysseus interjected. "Damn it, man, I can barely move, and you've bedded her? You've hardly stopped bleeding! I hope laundry is among her skills too."

Ajax made to pay no heed, but his raised eyebrows gave away his pleasure at the unintended compliment. "... And I think she is up to the task of being shared in that way."

Odysseus blinked. "Ajax, my friend, I have no complaints about your magnificent physique. Nor could anyone. But... How many women do you have, back at your camp? Not counting..."

"Alecyta." Ajax stared at the roof for a few seconds. "Eight."

"Ten," Odysseus corrected. "And how many can you wear out in one night?"

"Nine," said Ajax after a shorter pause.

"Seven," Odysseus corrected. "Trust me: My sources are better than yours, and my counting is impeccable. I also assure you that my own women are more than enough for me. So we have no need to share any of them, that way."

"Well, what do you suggest?" asked Ajax.

Odysseus wrinkled his brow for several seconds. "Why my dear friend, we can share our prizes after all, with the aid of my skill at counting!" He nearly leapt from his seat in his enthusiasm, but then winced, settled back, and applied the poultice to his bleeding shoulder.

"Your impeccable skill."

"Precisely. Here's how we do it. The tripod is worth a dozen oxen. The woman, four: So our men have reckoned it. Would you agree?"

Ajax shook his head. "Alecyta is worth six oxen," he insisted.

"Even better. Okay, since you have already taken Alexandra, you keep her. I shall take the tripod, and give you three oxen. That way, you shall have received the worth of nine oxen. I, having received that which is worth twelve oxen, but having given up three, will benefit exactly as much as you do. Trust me, it works out."

"Too well," said Ajax. "This is an uncommonly fair deal to come from crafty Odysseus, love you though I do."

"You wound me!" cried Odysseus. "I would sooner go into combat without my spear than cheat a friend such as you. Anyway, the deal isn't quite fair yet. You see, the worth of the tripod lies in the fact that it has not yet been used. But what good is a tripod at all, if it never sees a fire? No, I shall honor our friend Achilles by building a fire under this prize every night. A gold cauldron shall hang from it, and the most succulent stew of fatted calf shall be prepared, with offerings to the gods. You must recognize, however, that its value will diminish with each roaring fire that mars its beauty. Whereas your Alma Mahler will hold her value for years, maybe decades!"

"You speak truly," said Ajax, with a resigned sigh.

"So each fortnight henceforth, as the shining tripod blackens, you will bring me one ox, to compensate me for the diminishing value of my prize. After the twelfth fortnight, the tripod shall be called worthless, and our debt settled." Odysseus spread his hands.

Ajax thought on this. "And what if the war is won shortly? Will I not have the better, lasting deal?"

"That you will, my friend. But come now, we have been at war for ten years. True, they have just lost their great champion Hector, and the fearsome Sarpedon besides. But we have lost our dear Patroclus, and Achilles himself is doomed by the will of the gods: We all know it. Then once again we will be at stalemate, and could be fighting for ten more years yet. No, the chance of this war ending soon is not even worth considering."

"But," said Ajax, "what if a hero on one side or the other were to invent a tactic that could win the war outright, evenly matched fighting be damned?"

"Were it not laughable, it would be my fondest wish," Odysseus said sympathetically. "Surely, if anyone could have done so, they would have done it by now — I would have! No, put these thoughts behind you, and see that you get some rest. In the morning, we can arrange to have the oxen delivered."

"You are wise, my friend. Rest yourself, if you can." Ajax stood from his stump, which, embedded back into the nourishing earth, had started to grow new roots. He smiled, turned his back, and was gone in a few long strides.

Odysseus lay down, grinning over his profitable scheme. His thoughts wandered to the funeral and the games: The giant pyre, the excitement of the chariot race... He finally reached elusive sleep, and dreamt of timber, horses and deceit.


- Joe Levy, September 2008

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