The guy who rode thirty-seven elephants over the Alps, he’s under my bed.
The guy who’s responsible for the single bloodiest day in ancient warfare, he’s under my bed.
This sort of thing—Carthaginians pitching camp in the crevice between the carpet and my mattress—it’s been known to happen after fits.
The guy who killed a quarter of the male population in Rome—
It’s been known to happen after fits.
He describes how Italian housekeepers used to scare their children by saying, “Behave, or Hannibal will come and get you!”
It’s been known to happen in dreams after fits.
He says, “Stubb, get up!”
My attic bedroom is dark, lit by the crepuscular glow of Newport News’ suburban sky. An amber spotlight emanates from below, flickering under the bed.
I ask Hannibal what’s wrong with his flashlight.
He says, “That’s my eye, you idiot.”
I ask if his eye is all right.
He says, “Only the dead don’t blink.”
Hannibal reaches out from under the bed. Various rings decorate his blood-stained fingers. He doesn’t need to tell me that these are rings he’s cut off the fingers of dead soldiers.
Like a waiter performing the old tablecloth trick, Hannibal strips off the cover of my mattress and then retracts his hand underneath the bed. He sniffs, growls, “You’re twenty years old and you still wet your bed … ”
I grab my pillow. I scoot across my mattress until my back faces the wall, minimizing the space I occupy. I say, “I lose bladder control when I have a fit.”
Hannibal slides his upper torso out from underneath the bed. His face is white scars, gray facial hair, and a single incandescent eye.
“When I had a fit at the Battle of Cannae,” he says, “I grabbed the soldier I was fighting and shook him to death.” Hannibal traces a finger over his right eye—a calloused and sightless stump. “Stubb, every scar on your face is arbitrary. It’s disgusting.”
Armor clinking, knees popping, Hannibal slides out from underneath the bed and rises to his feet. Everything that falls under the general’s gaze is illuminated, stripped of its hiding place.
“When I was a child,” he continues, “my father held me over a pit of fire and made me swear that I would never stop fighting the Romans. Embers singeing my hair, I screamed out our covenant. I never did—I never stopped fighting.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I’m not like you.”
Hannibal throws his arms up in the air. His armor is caked in grime, as if the path from the third century BC to my bedroom led through a series of sewers and aqueducts. Gnashing his teeth, he paces my room in zigzag disgust.
My father introduced me to Hannibal. Dad’s response to his son’s onset of epilepsy was to research inspirational figures in history who had not only survived but thrived with the disorder. Being a high school English teacher, Dad’s plan was to use literary exemplars like Dostoevsky and Tennyson in order to instill in his son a chosen–one mentality. But knowing all too well that I had been bitten by the fantasy bug, Dad curbed his curriculum from the pen to the sword. I remember, when he first taught me that Hannibal had marched his elephants over the Alps, I wasn’t struck so much by the chutzpah of the act but by its logic, its symmetry. I wondered what the big deal was. Was there an animal more suited to the immensity of mountains? The real absurdity, I thought, would have been if Hannibal had marched ponies over the Alps. I felt an immediate kinship to this misunderstood Carthaginian—if, for no other reason, than for the fact that other than spasming to the floor we also shared the experience of riding an elephant.
My own elephant ride happened when I was seven, on a day in which Yiayia and Papou took me to the zoo. Every summer, I was dropped off by my parents to my grandparents’ house, where, after being sufficiently pampered and spoiled for a month, I was returned against my will. I remember feeling weird upon entering the zoo that day with my grandparents. The animals, they seemed like members of my extended family. There was Cousin Monkey, Nephew Eagle, Aunt Peacock, and Uncle Lion. And I guess, in a way, I was right. Man is the prodigal animal that never returned.
At the zoo, I rode an elephant named Cyprus. I still remember her name because there’s a picture of us with a message scribbled on the back that reads: “Cyprus at your service—from tusk till dawn!” Later, when we were leaving, I asked Papou how all the animals ended up in the zoo. He said, “Orpheus brought them.” I asked who Orpheus was. He said he was a musician whose music was so hypnotizing that everything followed him around like a magnet: stones, animals, humans, satyrs—you name it. I asked why he brought all the animals to the zoo. Papou said, “For money—what else?” “But what does Orpheus do with all the money?” “Gambles.” I felt bad for the animals, and I didn’t much like this Orpheus character. But I had to know more. I asked Papou what Orpheus did when he wasn’t gambling. Papou said he took his winnings and bribed greedy zookeepers for their keys and then unlocked all the animals at night, unleashing them upon the city. I said, “That doesn’t make any sense!” Papou said, “Of course it doesn’t—who told you it made sense?” He explained that Orpheus was a musician and that nothing musicians do makes sense. In fact, the greater the musician, the less sense. It’s the price for drinking of the river, Rhythm. If one wishes to play upon an instrument, one has to relinquish the reins and become an instrument. At the end of the day, the only thing under the musician’s control is to remain in tune.
Hannibal ends his pacing. The light in his eye shifts from amber to crimson. Moving in for the kill, he lunges in my direction, grabbing my left leg and dragging me out of bed.
I reach for the mattress.
I reach for the dresser.
I reach for Alexander the Great.
Hannibal breaks open the skylight and climbs onto the roof, dragging me along like a log to the fire. Dangling my body off the shingles, he screams, “Swear to me!”
“What?! “Swear what?!”
“Swear to me that you’ll conquer the world! Swear that you’ll sack the Vatican! Swear that you’ll be the first to circumnavigate the globe with a hang glider! Or just swear that you’ll stop wetting your bed, for fuck’s sake!”
Removed from the safety of my bedroom, suspended twenty feet high, I flap like a fish out of water, gills opening uselessly to the air of the outside world.
“Stubb, this isn’t a joke—I will drop you … ”
I twitch, smack my lips.
“Stubb, please … ”
I soil my underwear.
When my head reaches a vermilion red, Hannibal relents, reels me in, and drops my body on the carpet. Chest heaving in brooding respiration, he stares at the stains on my carpet.
“When I have nightmares,” he says, “I dream of a little boy who pretended to be me but who grows up to be a vegetable, a bed-wetter … ”
I try to respond, but everything comes out gurgled. My body attempts to escape me through sweat, drool, snot, and urine.
“Stubb, stop haunting me. Never hide under my bed again … ”