We approached Xuthos, me carrying Bacenor on my back.
“What is that place?” said Bacenor, pulling at my ears. “Speak, you wretched slave!”
“That is Xuthos,” I said, “The City of Sleep.”
“Sleep? Sleep?” He dug his knees excitedly into my sides. “Do they have sleep contests, dream races? I’m no good at sleeping, you know!”
“Then why are we going there, slave? Do you think you will humiliate me?”
“You asked me to bring you, sir. Maybe they can cure you.”
“You haven’t slept for a thousand days.”
We hoped to cure his sleeping problem. But his addled memory might be beyond the healing arts. I served to help him remember. That was my function as his servant.
Xuthos sat like a traveler’s trunk on a mesa above the Arcadian Plain. It had three gates: one of iron, one of tin, and one of bronze. Iron for blood, tin for commerce, bronze for health.
We followed heavy foot traffic, up the switchback road carved out of the side of the mesa, then leading to the gate of iron. Carts pulled by work hounds carried produce for the markets or sometimes the very rich, who lay hopelessly awake in beds of useless comfort; mothers pushed carriages with infants or toddlers who could not sleep; men and women, of any age but with a distribution toward the oldest, shuffled and stumbled and sometimes conversed with the gods that only they could see, and a few other slave-master pairs like us approached the gate. Of note, one black-shrouded crone, fastened by a leather harness to a female, the girl tall but her chiton short and her thighs muscular and tanned bronze. They paid the entrance tax and disappeared through the gate before I could get a better look.
“Are you afraid, you wretch?” demanded Bacenor. “Your heart is beating harder.”
“No, sir. I just saw a girl.”
“Keep hiking, slave. I don’t pay you to be moonstruck.”
“You don’t pay me at all.”
We reached the gate of iron. Four hoplites stood guard, two each side the portcullis, their breastplates flashy and their helmets crested with blue peacock feathers. The guards looked green but their spears were sharp and while I could have taken out one or two, all four would have proved a problem. They eyed me nervously as I stooped before the metal-barred window in the wall. Bacenor pulled a coin from his purse and gave it to the tiller.
We were in.
In the city there were sleepers, the carved sleepers in the friezes on building walls, in one square the great marble sculpture of Athena on her divan, supine in a nightdress, yellow-painted hair let down, her armor shed beside her and her smiling face suggesting she had found bliss in dreams. Below her, ten or twelve sleepless men and women mimicked her posture, lying on the paved street of red brick, resting their heads on bedrolls or cushions. Mimicking her but poorly, for they fidgeted and groaned and did not smile. One man opened his eyes: eyes blue as the sky flashed hatred at us.
“What’s the matter?” Bacenor asked. “You resent your betters?”
I moved away before the man responded.
“Why did he look so angry?” Bacenor asked me. “Is it because I am a rich man?”
“No doubt,” I said, though in truth I doubted it very much.
“How rich am I?” he asked.
“Rich enough to buy this town,” I lied.
“Good. But we are here for sleeping. Over there—Zeus!”
He meant another plaza with another statue, this one of iron, thrice life size and with a bed to match, so big there were at least four sleepless on it, nestled against the metal god as if he might consent to cuddle.
“I’ve got a better idea.” I could smell lamb roasting in the distance. “We need to eat.”
Bacenor grumbled but let me take him to the city agora a few blocks away. Here a press of sleepless people, red-eyed, unkempt, and rank of odor, haggled with vendors for the accouterments of sleep—pillows, candle wax for ears, elephant bladders which inflated could serve as mattresses, music boxes which when opened featured tiny puppets singing lullabies. I pushed beyond them to the food vendors. From a barrel-chested Nubian with a golden earring I bought grapes and olives and a plate of cubed lamb that had been roasted with onions on a skewer. For Bacenor I bought chicken on pita bread and a flagon of white grape juice.
“What is this child’s drink?” Bacenor groused. “Get me wine, you ingrate.”
“They don’t sell it here,” I said.
“Anything can be bought.”
“Not wine in Xuthos,” I said. “It won’t help your sleep.”
“But it will!” Bacenor whined.
“It will push you to the edge of sleep, but not over. And then you will be more awake and hungover.”
“Lies! Cruel beast, why do you torture me?”
He twisted my ear till it hurt.
I grunted to give him satisfaction, and he let go.
At the center of the agora there was a fountain encircled by a granite bench. We sat there to eat our lunch. Bacenor beside me looked worse for our five days of travel. The hunch of his crooked back looked larger. Sun-reddened flesh hung loosely at his throat and around his eyes, as if he had climbed into the skin of a much larger man. Brown age spots on his scalp showed through his thin white hair. He scratched his jaw; he had a five-day growth of bristly white whiskers. “What happened to my beard? Didn’t I have a beard?”
“You had me shave it off,” I said.
“You cur! Why do such a thing?”
“You thought that you would sleep like a youth, if you had no beard like a youth.”
“Foolishness!” He busied himself eating, his gnarled arthritic fingers dropping clumps of meat onto his knobby sunburned knees. I turned my attention toward the crowd. He asked: “What are you looking at?”
I saw the tall girl again: her bronzed thighs, her breasts which filled her chiton, her uncovered sun-bleached hair, in contrast to the silver hair, mostly covered by a black shroud, of the crone upon her back. The girl was buying fruit—a mango and a pear—from a produce stand. I wished she would look my way.
“What are you staring at?” Bacenor asked. “Tell me!”
I ate another olive, chasing it down with a swallow of water, then said, “Beyond the red building—the Temple of Ares—is the Temple of Hypnos. The god of sleep. Let’s go there.”
“Hypnos? Do I know him? Do I pray to him?”
“You pray to Ploutos, the god of wealth.”
“Ah. He favors me, for I am a rich man.”
“A very rich man,” I agreed.
I carried him past the Temple of Ares, ochre-painted and poorly maintained, for what man makes offerings to the God of War for sleep? Next to it the Temple of Hypnos gleamed, polished white marble of its exterior contrasting with the dark within. I lugged Bacenor up the staircase and past the blue-painted Doric columns into the cool shadowed space of the interior. Hypnos, carved from unpainted obsidian, reclined on his side atop a bed of ebony shot through with veins of gold. Unlike the other gods in Xuthos he seemed awake, not sleeping, the strange little wings coming out of his brow like the erect ears of a dog. “Can he fly with those?” Bacenor asked.
“A little,” I said. “When he flaps them it makes a soporific breeze.”
He snorted at my little joke, and a middle-aged woman in a knee-length hair shirt regarded him judgmentally. No one else paid us attention, except for a guard in leather armor and a red chiton, who told us that slaves were not permitted to carry masters inside because it was not respectful to the god Hypnos. “The god Hypnos,” Bacenor sneered when the guard was out of earshot. “Who has even heard of such a god?”
Despite his sneers he climbed down and stood beside me, bow-legged and pigeon-toed, clutching my elbow for balance. We stood in a queue of fifteen or so sleepless. Unshaven, hollow-eyed, smelling of musty unwashed bedclothes. Grooming and cleanliness are the handmaids of good sleep. “What are we waiting for?” Bacenor said. There was a green door, before which stood a priest or clerk in a blue himation. Presently the door opened, and the first man in the queue was motioned in. “What’s in there?” Bacenor asked me. “A sanctum? Do they make an offering, slice open a sheep’s liver?”
“There’s a physician in there,” I said. “He treats insomnia with the latest in the healing arts.”
“Art? He plays the music of the spheres?”
“He performs medical techniques so as to make you amenable to messages from Hypnos.”
“Pshaw! Pshaw and poppycock!”
“The poppy, incidentally, is his flower.” I waved toward the jet-black planters set in sconces in the walls, orange petals vivid even in the gloom. “Narcotics come from the unripe fruit of the poppy.”
“Ah, yes, Nepenthes, the stuff is called.” Bacenor grinned triumphantly. “I remember the name! Buy me some.”
“You were addicted to it, master. After a fortnight of use it works badly and it gives you awful dreams. It gives you constipation, also. And it made your memory far worse.”
“You scoundrel!” He pinched me, digging his long yellow fingernails into my forearm. If I could get him to sleep I would cut those nails short. “Why torture me with these tales?”
“Only to caution you, that you might make better choices.”
“I pay you good money for this impertinence?”
“I am your slave, not your employee. Sometimes on festival days, you give me a drachma for a gift.”
“Yes. How likely.”
We waited in the queue, a few more went in to see the Physician, one came out. Bacenor asked me why so many went in without coming out. I told him that the building had a level beneath us and that the rooms down there had walls so thick that a battle could be fought in the streets without you hearing anything inside. Each room had a bed for a patient to sleep in and for the Physician to observe the patient and to try his treatments. It might take a few days to find the correct treatment.
“Hah! Thus to milk us poor insomniacs for as much money as he can!”
“I do not know if he charges for anything but results.”
He fell asleep momentarily, literally fell, collapsing but waking even as I caught him. “Where am I? Who am I?” Panic-stricken, bulging frightened eyes.
“You are Bacenor, a rich man. You are at the Temple of Hypnos to—”
“—to get my insomnia cured,” he said.
“Exactly.” I was relieved. Sometimes his memory could be very bad after he had these little sleeps.
“Who is she?” he asked about the woman in the hair shirt. “Is she Cybele?”
Cybele was his wife. Or she had been, for she was long dead, having perished with their son Timotheus when Bacenor’s ship, carrying a cargo of ninety amphora of tawny wine, sunk off the coast of Rhodes. Bacenor and I were the only survivors.
This woman turned. She did have Cybele’s long aquiline nose, but her face was broader, her hair was white where Cybele’s had been silver, and her hair shirt—of stiff brindle horse-hair that left the skin of her throat raw—was nothing like the soft purple and white robes Cybele had loved to wear. “I’m not your goddess,” she said. “I’m a barren old woman.”
Cybele is also the goddess of fertility.
“See?” I asked him. “She’s not your wife.”
“Then Cybele—” He remembered, lips drooping, eyes downcast, forehead furrowing with anguish. “The water—the storm—the cold night—my wife—my boy. He was only eighteen. My boy—why did he drown?”
“He stayed on the ship too long,” I said. “He tried to unlock the chains of the rowers.”
“There were forty of them. The ship was already half-sunken. As the slaves screamed he dived down with the key so that he could unlock their chain. But the ship sank so quickly that it sucked him down and he could not save a single man.”
“My son died to save slaves? Say rather that the slaves killed him! Monsters, beasts! They lured him to his death!”
The woman ahead of us looked appalled, whether at the story or Bacenor’s lamentation I could not tell.
“He died a hero’s death,” I said.
“My wife—why did she die?”
“She could not swim. I had to let her go.”
“You were there? You let her go? A huge strong man like you? You let her drown?”
I whispered to Bacenor. “I was just a boy of ten. I was strong enough to carry only you.”
“I can swim!”
“You were drunk, and half-passed out.”
“Don’t lie, slave.”
I breathed deeply. The woman was not looking at us but had the erect posture of someone who was listening with intent. “You would get seasick on your trading voyages, and would break into the trading stock to find wine to calm your stomach. But wine is a poor medicine for nausea. It would roil your stomach, not soothe it, and you would drink more to compensate. You drank seven bowls the night of the shipwreck.”
His eyes rolled back in his head and he gripped my elbow as though he meant to pull me down or climb me. But he was not having an epileptic fit. He was merely thinking hard. He said, “Hypnos is the brother of Death?”
“Death is called Thanatos.”
“Maybe I should pray to Hypnos? Does he talk to Thanatos? Would he be able to get a message to my wife and my boy, asking them to forgive me?”
“Forgive you for what?” I asked.
“For bringing them on that fateful journey.”
“I can talk to the priest about that while you see the Physician. Maybe he can make a sacrifice.”
He let me go so he could pull out a ten drachma coin for the priest.
“Isn’t that too much?” I said.
“I am a rich man, am I not? Take it!”
I put the coin in the leather pouch that I kept tied around my neck.
Not much later the silver-haired woman was admitted to the sleeping ward and then it was our turn to be interviewed. The clerk, in a blue himation, bald, black-bearded, and officious, stood behind a high desk with a goose-feather pen in his hand. He wrote into a vellum ledger as he asked us questions. Who are you? Where are you from? How long since you last slept? He asked Bacenor at first but as I was the one who answered. He directed the balance of his questions to me. “Does he take stimulants or sedatives?”
“No longer,” I said.
“And do you ferry him everywhere, or does he walk on his own?”
“Almost always I carry—”
“I am a rich man!” Bacenor cried out. “Only hoi polloi walk!”
The clerk nodded and entered a mark into his ledger. “But he can walk if necessary?”
I affirmed he could.
“You can go through that door,” the clerk said. Bacenor gestured at me to stoop so I could carry him, but the clerk said, “No, you must go in alone.”
“But my slave is my memory,” Bacenor said.
“Your memory will improve once Dr. Phobetor has treated you.”
“Ahh,” he said uncertainly. He stared at me, his face twisted by confusion and fear, then found some remnant of dignity, and stood up straight as he could given his hunchback, and walked through the doorway.
The clerk told me the name of a cheap inn I could go to where slaves could sleep. Bacenor’s treatment, he said, would take at least one full day and night.