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.
I left the temple and found the agora where merchants sell sacrificial animals. I passed the pens of bulls and sheep, for such large animals are meant for the Olympian gods, not for lesser deities like Hypnos. There were fish in baskets but also caged birds and I chose a snow finch. Even without haggling the vendor could not make change for the ten drachma coin. “Give me what you can,” I said, and she gave me three silver drachmas and an assortment of small change. She handed me the bird. It was white-breasted and yellow-billed. Its brown wings were cinched to its torso with a leather binding.
I walked back toward the temple of Hypnos, holding the bird in my hand, feeling its rapid heartbeat and the fragile bones of its breast and thinking how I could crush it simply by squeezing. It stared at me with its golden eye, and though the philosopher says animals have no souls I thought it was speaking to me with as much animation as Bacenor had earlier. So when I reached the steps of the temple I untied the binding.
The snow finch perched on my knuckle for a moment, stretching its wings experimentally, then it flew off.
Without an offering for sacrifice I could not involve the temple priest so I went to the statue of the reposing Hypnos. There were two others there, one man of middle years and one white-haired woman even older than Bacenor, and they were praying in a way I have seen worshipers of Hades do before, that is on their hands and knees and slapping the floor as they mumbled their prayers. Because my mother was Persian, I learned to pray to Mitra, so I stooped down and mimicked those two but used one of the prayers for Mitra, the one which praises Mitra’s wisdom, strength, and forbearance, and asks that the pastures be kept green and the livestock well-fed. But I prayed to Hypnos instead, and asked that Bacenor’s mind be cooled and his staring eyes be touched closed by the god’s hovering wings. Then I requested that Hypnos relay a message to his brother Thanatos that Bacenor be forgiven for letting his son and wife die. And then I slapped the floor, too loudly, for the other two both turned to look at me.
Embarrassed, I stood up.
“Hello, stranger,” she said. It was the slave girl. Tanned dark, sun-streaked brown hair, eyes green as the Aegean Sea, well-muscled and strong. A leather collar around her throat, wooden steering handles hanging past her shoulders. “I am Doulus,” she said.
She was almost as tall as me.
I told her my name.
We touched hands: hers were rough and callused. But there was something soft about them anyway. “Who are you?” she asked. “Why did you free the bird?”
“I don’t believe in sacrifice. Many birds and rabbits have died and my master has slept no better.”
“You are a strange man. What do you believe in?”
“I pray to Aphrodite,” I said. Most Greeks don’t know Mitra. Fewer know the philosophers. “Who do you pray to?”
She didn’t answer that question; perhaps she was too shy to immediately address such a personal matter, but she did tell me something about herself. She was from Massalia, on the coast of Galatia, and she had the Galatian accent, which my ears found pleasing. “But I am of the tribes of the Soucanne River,” she said. River sounded like riv-ah. “My mistress is called Chrysanthe.”
“She does not sleep well?”
“She does not sleep at all. She stays up at night conversing with Artemis and Apollo.”
“The gods?” I asked.
“Of course. Did you think I meant slaves?”
“The sleepless sometimes are gifted with visions of the gods,” I said.
“It’s no gift,” she said. “She’s tormented. She wants me to kill her if she can’t find sleep here in Xuthos.” She said Xuth-oh, not Xuth-ose. Her voice was clear and her accent was like music.
“Ah. Can you do that? Kill your master?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never killed anyone.”
“You should get her to sign a release.”
“A contract. Releasing you from bondage, showing that she requested you kill her, absolving you from the crime.”
She frowned, chewed on a length of sun-bleached hair. “Who can write me such a release?” she asked.
“It would cost money, wouldn’t it?”
I shook my coin purse. “I have money.”
“But why? Why do such a thing?”
“I take joy in helping those in need.”
I did not say the obvious, that maybe she would let me pull loose the strings that kept her chiton closed so I could free her breasts and suckle on her nipples.
“Cur!” I heard from behind me. Bacenor had just come out from the green door. Hurriedly I drew three drachma coins from the purse and pushed them at her. She was too startled to thank me. “We’ll talk later,” I said, then I took my leave.
Bacenor was coming toward me, enraged. His face was red, his lips were twisted, his hump seemed to have grown. He pushed past people as he waddled along, nearly knocking over an old man with a cane. “Over here chatting with that big girl?”
“I prayed for you.”
“Just don’t stand there, you fool. Get me out!”
He signaled for me to stoop.
“I’m not supposed to carry you in this temple.”
“Damn this temple. We’re leaving.”
“But your treatment—”
“Is poppycock! Their beds are horribly uncomfortable anyway!”
I stooped down and he climbed onto my back. “That Dr. Phobetor knows nothing!” he growled. “He wouldn’t bleed me. Not with a cup. Not with a leech!”
“Bleeding only dulls you. It doesn’t make you sleep.”
“He asked me impertinent questions!”
“If I had heart problems. If I pass blood in my urine or stools. If my parents slept badly, or died young. If I walk. I am a rich man. What rich man walks?”
I carried him outside. The sun was near setting, a fat tangerine seeming to rest on the city wall to the west. Heat radiated from the stone steps. “Why did you bring me to that Dr. Phobetor? The man reeked of cardamom. He had shifty eyes. He chewed on his beard. What a quack! He didn’t even have a bed for me!”
Bacenor’s stories can shift and alter, old details forgotten and new ones elaborated. “Where shall we go now?” I asked.
“The gods are calling me,” Bacenor said, twisting my ear.
In some matters he has the delicacy of a maiden. He needed to piss. I took him to the public baths, a long low building in the shadow of the city wall. I am lucky in that in his discretion, he does not demand that I accompany him to the latrine and assist him in his business. While he was in the latrine—he seldom hurries—I dashed back to the temple of Hypnos. I wanted to find the tall girl, Doulus. I looked for her in the cool interior. There were fewer people inside, and the queue was breaking up as the clerk in blue was closing his ledger. A slave boy was scrubbing the statue of reclining Hypnos with a vinegar-soaked sponge. I did not see Doulus nor her master, and, after hesitating, I hurried back to the baths.
Bacenor was outside the building, leaning against a marble caryatid with plum-painted nipples, and fuming. “There you are, you cur! Were you out, gambling with the boys? Or talking to that philosopher again?”
“No,” I said. “We aren’t at home. We’re in Xuthos, the City of Sleep.”
“Don’t lie to me, you dog! Don’t try to pull any philosophical pranks! Why, I ought to beat you like a woman! I ought to sell you to Philip the Achaean; he knows better than I you shouldn’t coddle slaves!” His eyes sparkled with madness. “Stoop down and take me to Philip—he owes me a dinner anyway!”
“We’re here in Xuthos, not Elis,” said I. “And Philip is dead.”
“Lies! Ungrateful cur! Ignoble barbarian from the East!”
I spoke softly to him. “We are in Xuthos, to treat your sleeplessness. We left home and took a ship to Nauplia and walked here in three days. Here, look at my sandals.” I showed him my right foot. “These sandals were new, but I’ve already worn a hole through the heel.”
Bacenor touched the thin spot. “Huh. You’ve walked a lot.” The madness in his eyes dulled, maybe a memory came back. “Xuthos, you say. I should maybe buy you new sandals, before we start the journey back.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“But I have an idea.” He clasped my shoulder. “Pick me up, and let’s go find dinner.”
Sometimes he was like this. He would rage like Achilles, then something would burn out in him, and he would become placid and turn generous. “Take me to a symposium,” he said, knowing that I would rather listen to philosophy than watch wrestling. There was a merchant named Dionysus whom Bacenor had once traded with and who hosted lavish and educational dinners. We found his house and were welcomed by Dionysus, despite Bacenor’s awkward boasting of my talents as a scribe and thinker, as well as his waving another ten drachma coin in the air as if he were purchasing a bull in the market. “Put your silver away, Bacenor,” Dionysus said. “You will be my guest.”
Bacenor remembered his manners enough to not insist I carry him in. Dionysus, gray-haired and trim, Bacenor’s age though he looked a decade younger, led us to the andron. Here there were eleven other men reclining on low couches with soft pillows and ironwood frames. Dionysus directed us to an empty couch. I helped Bacenor lie down on his side and then went to stand behind the couch. “No, no,” Bacenor said, “you must sit with me, you are my memory.”
“Let the slave dine with us!” shouted a man who waved a cup of red wine. The men, most dressed in gold-embroidered robes of Egyptian linen, all seemed amused by the idea of a brawny slave in wool chiton partaking of their meal. I joined Bacenor on the sofa, reclining on my left elbow. A minute later a slave girl came in to rub olive oil into our hair and put a laurel wreath upon each of our heads. I could see her breasts through the sheer fabric of her tunic and the men laughed as I became obviously aroused. But it was less enjoyable than frustrating, for I wanted to see Doulus, not this girl, who because she was slight seemed hardly more than a child. And I would not see Doulus in this room, for symposia are for men only.
The slave girl brought food—honey cakes, sauces of lentil porridge into which you dipped poppy seed bread, saucers with figs, grapes, and chestnuts. I felt ill-at-ease until I drank the cup of wine that the girl had poured me. It was a strong resinous wine only watered-down a little. It warmed my stomach and face and made me less aware that I was lying on my side with Bacenor’s feet inches from my face. (I needed to trim his yellow toenails.) Having relaxed I took in what was happening.
The diners were playing the game of kottabos, where you throw wine to knock a statue off a lamp stand. If you knocked it off you could sing a ditty, or make an argument, or pick someone else to try to knock it down. If you didn’t knock it down you had to say what the man who picked you had requested. The figurine was a little plaster statue of Pan on a brass lamp stand in the center of the room.
The man who had been challenged to make up a bawdy rhyme on the subject of sleep was a big man with a balding head and a curly red beard. He slurped his wine down to the dregs, then with a flick of his hairy wrist sent the dregs flying from the cup, missing the statue entirely. The group roared with laughter, then there were calls of, “Recite, recite!”
Still reclining, Red Beard said:
“There once was a man from Selinus
Who had an argumentative penis
When he couldn’t sleep
After counting some sheep
His dick said try a new thesis!”
There were claps and catcalls, boos and hisses. Greedy ringed fingers grabbed figs and dates. Dionysus called for the slave girl to bring more wine and she topped our bowls, me watching Bacenor to make sure he didn’t drink too quickly. Red Beard scooped up a handful of almonds, then, as was his right, picked a new subject for gameplay. “Argue for slavery. Why is it good.” He gestured toward us. “Kottabos. Drink and throw.”
“Slavery? Me?” Bacenor asked.
“No, not you. Your man.” He made the “yoke” gesture towards me. “Kottabos.”
All looked at me. I was suddenly conscious of my collar, of the tattoos that branded me on my arms, of my sunburned face and my untrimmed beard, of my wool chiton which itched, of my dust-streaked legs. The signs of my bondage. I a slave and these men all greater than me.
“Kottabos!” someone else said.
“Drink and throw!” shouted another.
I looked for Bacenor for direction. The man looked befuddled; no direction there. But I saw he wore the laurel and I was reminded that I too wore the laurel and was therefore equal to the others for a moment.
I drank my wine quickly then, even as the gods warmed me, I tossed the dregs at the statue.
My aim was better than Red Beard’s: true but low, splashing the lamp stand. Pan tottered but did not fall.
“Recite!” the men shouted.
The wine quickened my tongue. “Why is slavery good? Why is it good to be a slave? I will tell you. There are a thousand reasons. Isn’t it better to live the carefree life of a slave, rather than to be worn down by the responsibilities of a free man? Isn’t it better to be slave than free, so if you commit a capital crime the collar used to strangle you is hardly different from the collar you wear daily? Isn’t it better to be a slave than to starve to death, as my grandparents did during the siege of Sardis? Isn’t it better to be born a slave than not be born at all? Consider the child of my mother’s cousin, cut out of her pregnant belly after she had been raped by a brave Athenian warrior, then its head smashed upon a paving stone. How much luckier my mother to be raped then brought home as booty so that I might be born as a secondary spoil of war!”
I delivered this in a light, joking tone and most of the men were amused. But Bacenor reddened and held his wine bowl before his face as if to hide from the others’ gaze.
“Don’t be embarrassed, Bacenor,” Dionysus said. “Not every slave can produce rhyming verses on demand.”
The other men laughed and Bacenor drank from his bowl, his wizened throat enlarging then shrinking like a blacksmith’s bellows as he finished his wine. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. He smiled, but his eyes were still bright with anger. “I am a rich man. He produces what I want at my pleasure.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Dionysus said. “He made a fine extemporaneous argument.” He turned to me. “Now, choose—”
The slave girl came close to me with the salver of almonds. I grabbed a handful then introduced the topic of beauty which was conventional and safe. I picked a man named Gelos who was large and bearded with a ready smile. The slave girl filled all our bowls but when she moved the jug of wine toward Bacenor’s bowl, I raised my hand to stop her.
“What are you doing?” Bacenor asked.
“You’ve had too much.”
Bacenor twisted his lips in an obvious effort to hold back a retort.
“Eat some figs,” I told him. “You like figs.”
Gelos laughed at me then the men shouted “Kottabos!” and Gelos threw his dregs knocking over the little Pan onto the floor with a thump.
There was much cheering, especially when Gelos chose not to continue the game, but bring on the next part of the evening, which was dancing and music. Two more slave girls, sisters evidently, came into the room. They were dressed like Egyptians, in flowing sheer gowns one green and the other purple, their heavy breasts unbound and pubic hair visible. They may have been Egyptians, their skin tawny, their long straight hair black, their eyes dark. One had a castanet, the other a tambourine. A young male slave played a double-piped aulos. The girls danced to several bright tunes, one I recognized as the song about a shepherd youth who meets Artemis in the guise of a doe. One dancer, the one in purple, pretended to play with me, catching my eye, smiling, running her hands up and down her hips as she shook her tambourine in front of my face. Her dark eyes were lined with kohl and her eyelids were painted magenta to match her gown. She smelled of musk and summer dew. When she danced so close to me that the fabric of her gown touched my face, I became aroused, but it was not a state I welcomed. Not only was there no means by which that arousal could be satisfied, but it served to remind me that I was separated from Doulus.
The girl moved off, and Bacenor said, “Good looking girl. Reminds me how your mother looked.”
“She looked nothing like that.”
“You remember her when she was older, and life had begun to beat her down. I remember when she was a peach, like that one. The big tits, the Assyrian cheekbones.”
I filled my mouth with figs instead of replying. The evening wore on. We ate lamb, pita bread with honey, chestnuts, dates, and drank more wine. I let Bacenor drink occasionally, weighing the possibility that he would whine now against the probability that he would rage on the morrow with a hangover. The symposium evolved into a discussion about the merits of slavery, some arguing it was better to have slaves than hired laborers, for laborers must be paid, and money cannot buy loyalty. Others maintained that free laborers were preferable, for slaves ultimately cost more, given that it is the owner’s burden to feed, clothe, and house his slaves, as well as provide medical help for the sick slave, and pay for funerary rites when he dies. “This big guy’s a drachma drain!” Bacenor said, in reference to me, his only contribution of the discussion.
As is typical of symposia where the wine flows freely, the discussion degraded into an exchange of veiled insults, Dionysus through his good humor able to keep tempers from blowing over. At last, as if coordinated by a secret process mediated by the gods, the men began to sit up on the couches, stretch, yawn. The symposium was over. “We have a bedroom for you,” Dionysus told Bacenor when he made as if to leave. “Be our guest; stay the night.”
“What about my slave?”
“He can sleep on the floor of your room.”
“No,” Bacenor growled, his mouth still twisted. “He can sleep outside somewhere.”
He was still angry with me for embarrassing him. He could more easily retain moods than facts. But I did not want to lie on the floor anyway, with my chiton rolled beneath me as a pillow, listening to him rant about the sinking of the ship or argue with the ghosts of his family members. I did not want to spend my night sponging his sweaty face and armpits, or sometimes singing soft lullabies to bring him back from Stygian depths.
I wanted to see Doulus.
I went outside in the evening. It was warm and pleasant, Xuthos being far inland from the sea and therefore not subject to Poseidon’s chilly breath. The streets were busy, the sleepless walking, conversing, eating, exulting in the spirit that animates insomniacs in the night when there is no sun to remind them how fatigued they are. Some of them wore costumes: I saw one man wearing a ram’s head, another the head of a lion. A man wearing the head of a bull and with shoulders and chest thick with muscle led a procession, five girls in white, three young men playing musical instruments, and a group, twenty at least, of others, mostly sleepless, following.
I joined the group to see where they were going.
They went to the city necropolis, which is in the southwest quarter of Xuthos on a hill. At the top of the hill was a grassy clearing surrounded by tombs. There were a couple of torches providing light attached to a large tomb at the far end of the clearing. Near that great structure was a bench on which a young man strummed a lyre and a girl beat a tympanum. A hidden performer with a stentorian voice was chanting verse in rhyme. There were a handful of people sitting in the grass listening to the performance. Our group filed in to join them, the musicians and the girls in white and the man with the head of the bull joining the performers, the rest of us sitting on the grass.
“Hey, you!” said someone, grabbing my arm. “Didn’t you see me?”
It was Doulus. She had painted her face white with chalk and darkened her brows with charcoal. She wore white like the girls, but her gown left her shoulder bare and she had wound golden thread or filigree around her leather collar so it looked like she wore a rich woman’s necklace. I could see that her untanned skin was almost as fair as her painted face. I was acutely aware of the curve of her breasts. I wanted to heft her breasts, lick her throat. She smelled of honey and ripe olives.
I invited her to sit.
“I didn’t recognize you, without—”
“The weight on my shoulders?”
“Without Chrysanthe,” I said, “of Massalia. Though you are of the tribes of the Soucanne River.”
She smiled. “You remembered.” She held something in her hand. It was a scroll. “I found a scribe to write the message, the release, like you said. That wasn’t so hard.”
I could feel her warmth against me. I leaned toward her so I could feel her hair brush my cheek.
“You did good,” I said.
“It was harder to get Chrysanthe to sign it. I gave the guard at Hypnos’s temple a gift so he would let me into the sleeping ward. Chrysanthe was awake and playing cards.”
“That’s her treatment for sleep?”
“She was bathing in warm saltwater. She was playing cards to tire her mind. She did not want to sign it. She has a soothsayer at home in Massalia who she likes to consult for such things. But I said it is a twelve days’ journey by ship back home. Does she want to suffer insomnia all the way back? Does she not remember how seasick she gets on boats? Does she forget how the gods berate her even as she vomits? She sighed and said a loyal slave would kill herself after killing her master. Life would be too unbearable otherwise. But then she signed it.”
I moved to put my arm around her but she pushed the scroll into my hand. “Would you read it?”
“Read it?” I asked.
“Would you read it for me?”
“I cannot read, and I thought you could.”
“Gladly,” I said. “I’ll need to get closer to the torchlight; it’s too dark here.”
But then she kissed me on the lips—a quick kiss, such as one gives a friend upon parting, though promising so much more—and a woman wearing the head of a gazelle passed us a cup of ceremonial wine, bidding us, “Drink the ichor of Thanatos,” and we drank, each of us in turn, the wine sweet as honeyed grape juice and also containing bits of solid food—barley, fragments of cheese. The wine affected me immediately, but not in the way wine does usually—the warmth in my gut, the heat in my face. What it did was make everything brighter—the grass, the sky, the gravestones, the people sitting in front of me. Could it be sunrise already? Then where was the sun? Doulus laughed when I asked that. Her face was brighter too. She had a glow of a fertile woman, as if Demeter had taken residence in her. Now I was being invited in too. I reached for her—
And then the music—the lute, the tympanum, the pipes—grew louder—and though we held each other our attention was on the musicians sitting on their bench, and on the tomb behind them, a great tomb as one would expect of Macedonians or Persians, not Greeks, with four marble columns and a triangular pediment as on a temple though the structure was not free standing but seemed emergent from the crest of the hill. And this temple had a door of iron bars that had just swung open. From inside the temple, someone climbed up a staircase, holding a lit torch. It was the bull-headed man. A gold loop pierced his flaring black nostrils. And behind him there came a handsome young man with a strange flapping clump of hair. No, not hair: little wings sprouting from his temples. It was Hypnos. And then Thanatos, his twin brother, with feathered wings—on his shoulders not head, for they are fraternal not identical twins. Thanatos held a torch, but upside-down and extinguished. For he smothers life’s fire.
Doulus pulled away from me. “I want to talk to Hypnos,” she said.
She stood up and I stood up too.
The bull-headed man was leading the demi-gods and the musicians around the periphery of the grass area, past the other tombs and grave stones. Doulus pushed past some others who were approaching the gods and I followed her. My legs seemed long, my feet far beneath me, and my upper arms seemed thick as tree trunks. The strumming of the flute and the blowing of the pipes seemed a sage’s commentary on my newly godlike limbs. Doulus spoke with Hypnos; I could not hear them over the rush of the music, but the wing on his temple cocked toward her face as if he were giving her careful consideration.
It occurred to me that I could make up for not sacrificing the bird for Bacenor earlier.
I went up to Thanatos. “Excuse me, Lord,” I said.
He did not turn to look at me as he spoke. “It is bad luck to ask favors of Death.”
“It’s not for me,” I said. “It is for my master, Bacenor of Elis.”
“Careful to wish ill on others. It may reflect on you.”
“I’m not wishing him ill. I wish to convey a message from Bacenor to his wife and son, in the Underworld. That he is sorry for being drunk and allowing them to drown.”
“He thinks Death delivers letters?”
“If you can help—”
“The Oracle of Sleep is who Bacenor needs. It is not your place to worry about Cybele and Timotheus.” He touched my shoulder with a hand cold as a witch’s heart. “You need to look to your own affairs.”
He nodded at the scroll in my hand then let go.
As I rubbed my shoulder, which was numb from cold, it occurred to me that I had not mentioned the names of Bacenor’s wife and son.
The musicians slowly walked past me, their gowns a radiant white, and I opened the scroll to read what was written there.
To Potentates, Magistrates, and Judges,
Be advised that the bearer of this note was employed to end my life upon the failure of the Physician Phobetor to cure my insomnia, and such person is made protected from any punitive consequences, civil, criminal, or religious, that normally attend the event of murder or manslaughter. In the City of Xuthos, in the good name of Zeus, in the third year of the hundred-and-fourth Olympiad.
It had the stamp of Chrysanthe of Massalia.
I thought it peculiar that it did not have Doulus’s name. Nor did it release Doulus from bondage.
I went to her. She had just parted from Hypnos and was smiling at me. “Why no name?” I said.
She put her arms around me and kissed me. It was a kiss to set my blood afire. And a long kiss, so that the gods and musicians and most of the sleepless were gone from the clearing by the time we broke off for air. There were still a group of four or five sitting and watching the open tomb as if expecting another god to emerge. “Let’s go somewhere private,” I suggested, taking her hand.
She didn’t move, but was still smiling: a strange smile, for her eyes were tearing.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I couldn’t,” she started. Then took a breath and began again. “I couldn’t have my name put to the scroll.”
She wiped an eye, still smiling. “Because I can’t do it. I can’t kill Chrysanthe.”
“You can’t? Why not?”
She looked down at her feet. “In Massalia they hang slaves who murder their masters.”
“And in Elis they strangle them. But so what? This is assisted suicide, not murder.” I raised the scroll and held it like a torch. “This document attests to that.”
“I can’t. I’m afraid.”
I sighed. “Then why even pay for the letter?”
She looked at me shyly. “Maybe someone else could do it.”
She stepped close to me, and whispered in my ear. “Maybe you could, silly.”
“What do you mean?”
“You could kill her.”
“Why me?” I asked.
“Because you are strong and fearless.”
“Many men are strong and fearless.”
“But most men don’t like me,” she said, touching my cheek. “They think I’m too big.”
“Those men are fools, then,” I said. “You’re perfect.”
She smiled, but said, “Don’t you see what I’m asking? I must know that you really like me. I must have proof of your affections.”
“You want me to kill Chrysanthe to prove that I like you?”
“I don’t just give myself to any man who asks.”
“But what if she falls asleep?”
“We can bargain anew when that happens.”
We shook hands to agree to the bargain.
So we would lie together only if I killed Chrysanthe. But that did not mean we could meet only with a chaperone present; we went to a far part of the necropolis, where the roots of olive trees dug into the city wall, and the twisted trunks with their gnarled branches grew in enough profusion to provide privacy, and she let me kiss her neck and stroke her thighs and touch her breasts. My blood boiled with excitement, my engorged member hurt as she lay pressed against it. Though there was no consummation there was still the smell of sex along with the musky scent of her body and the dry smell of olive trees that had not tasted water in many months. It seemed my pulse would never slow. But finally we fell asleep together.
When I woke she was gone.
It was overcast, and a white mist hugged the ground. I imagined she had gone back to Chrysanthe at the temple. I could find her later. I needed to go back to Bacenor.
At Dionysus’s house I knocked. Dionysus himself let me in and told me to wait in the kitchen where his slaves were eating breakfast. They gave me warm bread, and water in a bowl. The two “Egyptian Dancers” were kneading dough in a big pot on the table. They kept whispering to each other and laughing at me. They did not look as pretty this morning as last night—the forehead of one girl was pitted with smallpox scars, the other girl seemed to have no chin—and they were clearly Greeks, not exotics.
Finally Dionysus told me that Bacenor was awake and ready for me. He directed me to Bacenor’s room. When I got there my master was sitting on the bed dressed already.
“Where have you been? Who was that girl who dressed me? What is that on your face?”
I wiped my cheek and my hand came away white.
“It’s chalk, or something.” Doulus’s makeup must have rubbed off on me.
“You look like a ghost,” Bacenor said. “Did you go to the Underworld?
“There was a ceremony in the city graveyard. I talked to Thanatos—”
“Off cavorting with philosophers while I am in hell! How could you leave me alone last night?”
“You told me to—” I started, but broke off because Bacenor began fulminating about the events of his long night—the young men singing drunkenly in the courtyard of the house, the pitched battle he heard at one point on the roof, the actors he heard in the adjoining room putting on one of Aristophanes’ plays, the jugglers and acrobats who broke into his room in order to tumble over his bed.
“And someone—probably the girl who dressed me—poured chunks of ice on my feet!”
“Where could she get ice in summer?” I asked. His bed and blankets were dry to the touch. “Maybe you did fall asleep, and only dreamed those things?” I asked.
“Just like you! To abandon me, then mock me when I tell you of my suffering!”
“I’m sorry, my master. Truly it sounds like you endured an awful night. Maybe you could talk to Dr. Phobetor again.”
“No doctors! No charlatans!”
“Then someone else—”
“Help me up,” Bacenor ordered. “I want to go home!”
“But there is something else. There is the Oracle of Sleep.”
“We are in Delphi?”
“No. Xuthos. It’s a different oracle.”
“What use is an oracle? I need sleep, not prophecies.”
“Maybe she can ease your mind about Cybele and Timotheus.”
“Your wife and son, and your grief about their deaths.”
I thought he did not remember. But then he grabbed his grizzled chin as if he intended to twist it off his face. “It was the storm. Everyone says you don’t cross the Great Sea in winter. But I did it for wine, my greed for the wine, to sell the wine and drink the wine. The wine! I should have gone down in the sea with the ship.”
“Maybe you can speak to them, through the Oracle.”
“You’re a fool,” he said. Then he looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time. “Why not? Take me to this Oracle.”
After making inquiries, I found that The Oracle only spoke on Zeus’s Day, so we had a day before we could see her. So that morning when we left Dionysus’s house, Bacenor had me carry him to the herbalists’ section of the agora, presumably to buy some plant remedy to help himself to sleep. But it turned out that he just wanted wine. “Him! He’ll have wine! I recognize him! Who is he?” Bacenor pointed at a man who wore his beard in the Etruscan style, long, combed to a point, without a mustache. “Take me to him!”
“He’s nobody you know,” I said. Bacenor’s business partner fifteen years ago had been Etruscan, but this was a much younger man.
“Take me there, you big oaf!”
I took him to the merchant who, indeed, was Etruscan, and who had a variety of herbs both medicinal and soporific, but no wine. “Come now,” Bacenor said, “don’t you have a vineyard of twelve acres in sunny Latium?”
“This is all I have, kind master,” the Etruscan said, making a sweeping gesture toward his trays of herbs, his cloves of garlic and roots of ginger.
“Nothing to quench a rich man’s sleepless thirst?”
“No one sells wine here in this market,” the man said. He fidgeted with his beard as though ruminating. “Oh, good master! I may have something for you!”
“What?” asked Bacenor.
“Something from the desert wilderness south of Persia!”
“No grapes grow in the desert,” grumbled Bacenor.
“No. But other fruits do.” The Etruscan brought out a red amphora with a picture in black glaze of two naked men wrestling, and a clay cup. He opened the amphora and poured a dark viscous fluid into the cup. “This will wake you up,” he said.
“But I want sleep,” Bacenor said.
“Sleep comes to the man at night who is most awake in daytime,” the Etruscan said.
“How much?” Bacenor asked him.
“The smallest coin you have,” the Etruscan said.
Bacenor was pleased by this. He gave the man a silver obal and took the cup, but instead of drinking, passed it to me. “You try a little first.”
He had me test his food sometimes, as though he were an Oriental despot afraid he might be poisoned by a challenger. I drank. It was a bitter drink that reminded me of the medicine my mother used to make brewed from chicory and pine needles. It had an immediate effect: it lifted the mental fog left by last night’s wine.
Bacenor looked at me as if expecting I would fall over. “How is it?”
“It doesn’t taste good. Burns my throat a little. But it’s cleared my head.”
“Let me try it,” he said.
I gave him the cup and he drank it down. He frowned, smacked his lips, and then passed the cup back to the Etruscan. He took a few steps away from the merchant, summoning me to follow him. He whispered to me, “Don’t look, but I know who he is. Velthur the Etruscan. I had business dealings with him once.”
“No, sir, that is not Velthur.”
“Don’t contradict me. Velthur stole my vineyard.”
“No master, that is not Velthur,” I said. “Velthur was about your age. I do not think this man is more than twenty-five.”
I did not correct the other part, for it was close enough to being true. The two men had been business partners, investing in a vineyard, but Velthur took advantage of my master’s failing memory to trick him into signing over his share of the vineyard as a gift.
“You’re right,” Bacenor said, to my surprise. “Velthur’s beard was shot through with white.”
I fantasized about Doulus, daydreaming about seducing her, as I walked through the agora with Bacenor on my back. About staring into her eyes and running my fingers through her hair and brushing her lips with mine. If the bitter drink stimulated thoughts of Eros for me (it also burned my throat anew if I belched), it made Bacenor want to shop. Because his memory was poor he had always liked to buy trinkets as reminders. That day he considered oil lamps, shiny brass dinner plates with inscribed prayers or sayings, golden figurines of Hypnos and Apollo, having me pick up the items then pass them to him so he could examine them closely. “Factory-produced, probably in Rhodes,” he groused about the plates. “It’s too light for solid gold,” he grumbled about a winged Hypnos-head. “If you scratched it you would find clay.” He was interested in a set of playing cards with erotic pictures: huge-phallused men ravishing women, old men kissing boys, girls fellating athletic youths. “You would like these cards,” he said to me. “They would help you do philosophy.”
“Yes, master,” I said.
“No, really, should I buy it for you? Look at the sausage on that satyr! Look at him ramming the maiden like a trireme! Couldn’t you learn its lessons tonight when you sneak off? Don’t you want to do some advanced philosophizing?”
“I don’t play cards,” I said.
“What rot! Your drink, you roll dice, you bugger little boys, you contemplate the cosmos. You steal my money and gamble it away. Buy the cards. I insist.”
So I took the drachma he gave me and I bought the cards I did not want. He bought for himself a parody of the wooden toy children play with, of Apollo standing proudly in his chariot, pulling an orange-painted ball representing the Sun, only this Apollo looked put-upon and harried, as his chariot pulled not the Sun but a little bed on wheels, a tiny Hypnos asleep upon it.
And then the bitter drink seemed to wear off. Bacenor’s face got long, his eyelids grew heavy. He pulled my ear. “Enough of this. I need the baths.”
“For the toilet?” I asked.
“No, you bastard. He, the guy last night—”
“That’s the one. Dionysus told me I could sleep if I was relaxed. And the best way to relax is a hot bath and massage.”
So I carried him back to the Xuthos baths. “Wait here,” he told me. I could tell he didn’t remember that I had left him yesterday. He went inside. I stood by the marble caryatid with plum-painted nipples long enough to say the harvest prayer to Mitra. Then I went looking for Doulus.
I walked the temple district, glancing in at the temples to Hypnos, Ares, Athena, Zeus, and Hermes, and then I found myself in the Garden of the Lotus Eaters. It was green and pleasant, with flagstone pathways running past many kinds of trees—pomegranate, pear, and apple, as well as fig and olive. On some the fruit was ripe; I plucked a fig and ate it. There were bushes, too, many laden with flowers and fruits I did not recognize. And there were stone benches, but all were occupied, by people, sleeping in the middle of the day. Not shamming sleep as the ones by the statues but sleeping the sleep of the dead. Indeed I worried one young man actually was dead—he lay on his back with his arm dangling to the ground, and did not rouse when I shook him—but when I held my hand over his nose and mouth I could feel his breath.
Near the young man there grew a shrub with bunches of dark-yellow, sweet-smelling fruit. I picked one of the fruits.
“No!” Someone grabbed the fruit from my hand. “Don’t eat that!”
It was Doulus. She threw the fruit into the bushes.
“And good morning to you, too,” I said. “Why did you do that?”
“It’s the lotus. It’s bad. It will make you sleep for days.”
“It’s not for me,” I said. Then I kissed her. It was a kiss to launch a thousand ships. Because she was new I was aroused instantly. To be like Bacenor and have everything always new! When we stopped to catch our breaths, I said, “The famous lotus. Maybe I can give some to Bacenor.”
“You have to ask the owner of the garden for permission,” Doulus said.
“Who’s the owner?”
“Come with me,” she said, taking my hand. “I’m going to see him.”
She smiled. “Chrysanthe didn’t sleep last night, so I am going to buy something that will kill her.”
“Really? You’ve decided you can kill her after all?”
“No, silly. I’m buying it for you.”
It was strange talking about killing in such a pastoral setting—birds chirping, insects buzzing, and the babble of a fountain. But even Ares can play the lute.
We went into a little house at the edge of the garden. The main room had whitewashed walls and a narrow window facing the garden and a heavy wooden table.
Thanatos was sitting at the table. Black-haired and dark-eyed, fine-featured and beardless. His face was so pretty he could have performed as Lysistrata on stage. I could not see his wings.
“My Lord,” I said.
He frowned, but bade us sit on the two chairs at the table opposite him.
“It’s strange,” I said. “I would think your brother would own this garden.”
“What are you talking about?” Thanatos asked.
“The Lotus—if it’s for sleep, not death, your brother should be the one—”
“My brother is very ill. He doesn’t have the strength to tend a garden.”
“Oh.” I realized he was a man, not a god. That is why I couldn’t see his wings. What he had been last night I wasn’t sure, for as the philosopher says, in the right conditions wine can make men see Heaven.
“I have money,” Doulus said, “for the poison.”
“It is not a poison per se,” said the man who looked like Thanatos. He brought out something wrapped in a white muslin cloth. He unrolled the cloth.
“May Zeus defend us!” Doulus cried out, pointing at the revealed object.
“What?” I saw a root with several twisted branches.
“It’s a dead baby,” she said.
“It is the root of a mandrake,” Thanatos said.
I saw what Doulus meant: it looked like a stillborn infant, grotesquely misshapen, with a head topped with threadlike rooty hairs, a bulbous torso, two long slender arms, and two long slender legs and a tail. It had neither hands nor feet, and you could imagine not one but two faces in the bumps and whorls on its head. “Persian women wear mandrakes as amulets to attract lovers,” I said.
She cringed, and Thanatos frowned as if in annoyance at me. “As I was saying, the mandrake is not a poison per se. It is a drug, and like all drugs it changes its temper according to its proportions. Small dosages make men slumber. Slightly larger amounts give men visions. And still larger dosages kill.”
“How much of a dose to kill?” Doulus asked.
“It doesn’t take a great amount,” Thanatos said. “You scrape off the hairs and the skin of the root. Cut off the arms. Then cut off about an inch of the body—the smaller the pieces the better—and boil that in four cups of wine for an hour. Add some honey and lemongrass for taste. Then put it into an ampule—I will give one if you need it—and when the time is right, pour it into the drink. Wine or pomegranate juice is best so she won’t know.”
“Chrysanthe will know,” Doulus said. “It’s what she wants.”
Thanatos arched his eyebrow quizzically. “That’s good then. Any questions?”
“Do I have to buy the whole thing?” Doulus asked.
“I recommend it. The potency of mandrake can vary widely. Just an inch might not be enough. But it builds up in the body, so if the first dose doesn’t work, giving a second dose might do the trick.”
“Why not double the dose at the beginning?” I asked.
“Because,” said Thanatos, “too strong a dose and people vomit it up.”
“And for sleeping?” I asked. I wondered if I could use mandrake instead of the lotus. “How big a dose?”
“A tiny fraction,” he said, “no more than a tenth of an inch. Though that can vary too.”
I nodded, and then he asked Doulus for payment, but I brought out my coin purse and gave him the two drachmas he asked for.
That it was I who had paid seemed to soften his attitude toward me but when I shook his hand on leaving I noticed his hand was just as cold as the night before.
Doulus and I walked hand-in-hand through the garden. I was sick with longing. The poet is wrong for it gets worse when I am near her. Then a gray rabbit with long ears ran across the path. I took the rabbit as a good omen. I pointed, “Over there, I saw that place earlier.” We went to an area enclosed by a hedgerow made seemingly of grapevines. But these “grapes” did not cluster in the way I was accustomed to seeing. I did not need Doulus to tell me that they were probably poisonous, but anyway I wanted to taste her not taste fruit. So we kissed, and I tasted the dusky summer and her sweet breath and the wine of Aphrodite. And I wanted more, and I licked her neck, and I rubbed her nipples, and I lifted up her chiton and cupped her buttocks in my hand as I pushed her against a retaining wall. And then she said, “No, no further right now.”
My desire was unslaked. “But I want you.”
“You have to wait. Until you kill Chrysanthe.”
“Should I kill her now?”
“I have to make the poison drink.” She showed me the ampule: cloudy-green glass, cork stopper; it looked like a perfume jar my mother used to have. She smiled at me ruefully. “Oh, don’t look sad.” She grasped my penis through my chiton. “Be patient. You will have your fun later.”
She let me go. We kissed. Then we hugged. As we embraced, I studied her head. Her blonde streaks were so many colors—white, golden, copper-red, auburn. She looked a goddess not a slave. I caught my breath and thought more clearly. “We have to stay another night. Maybe I could help you make the poison drink? My own master could use some for sleep.”
“All right,” she said.
“Then tomorrow, we are going to see the Oracle of Xuthos. My master might hear something that will help him sleep. Maybe your master could come too.”
“Chrysanthe won’t want to come. She has given up.”
“Maybe you could ask her?”
“I could try, but she won’t want to come.”
A moment later we passed the young sleeping man I had been afraid for. He had raised his arm and turned onto his side. “He looks more comfortable now,” I said.
She examined him closely. “He looks dead.”
I have said that you cannot buy wine in Xuthos. But Dionysus had served us wine, and the man who looked like Thanatos told us that, yes, you could buy wine, but only in a few places, all dangerous, given that the sale of wine was prohibited by the city council. The least dangerous were the brothels and so we went to a brothel called Poet’s Rest, a two-story white building whose door was painted with a big red rose, as if seen from above.
After we knocked, a huge man, even bigger than me, opened the door. Shirtless and muscular and head shaved save for an oiled topknot. He saw by our collars that we were slaves and sized me up as though he thought I might charge at him. When I told him our desire he nodded but spoke to Doulus, not me, and ushered her in. He closed the door and I did think about charging in, and pounding his nose into his contemptuous face.
Just before Doulus returned with a jar of wine, I recognized that the door was painted not with a rose but with the open red flower of the female sex.
In the agora we found a stew seller who was willing, for three obal coins, to lend us his stew pot and cook-fire and cutting knives. His name was Sastura and he was a Hittite and like many of his race he seemed gripped by melancholy. “We Hittites once ruled the world,” he said, “and you Greeks think you will rule the world, too. But I tell you it shall be some other people, maybe the Carthaginians from the West, maybe the Persians from the East, who will destroy these temples—” he gestured toward the ochre-painted temple of Ares, “—and end the Greeks’ day in the sun.”
Doulus smirked as she cut tiny bits of flesh off her half of the mandrake.
“Yes, laugh at me,” Sastura said. His voice was lugubrious, his beard long and complexly braided, his heavy eyelids increasing my impression of his melancholy. “You probably didn’t even know the Hittites had an empire.”
“I knew of the Hittite Empire,” I said, though the philosopher says it is a myth. “What was funny was that you think Greeks want to rule the world. Greeks want to trade, not conquer. Certainly not to build an empire.”
His face darkened and he turned to inspect the stew pot, into which we had already poured wine. The stew was steaming but yet to boil.
I continued slicing my half of the mandrake. The root was tough, the smell like a storage bin of rotten vegetables. When I finished slicing I joined her in chopping the pieces into little chunks. By the time we were done chopping, the wine was boiling, so we poured the mandrake bits into the stew pot. Sastura said, “Love potions never work.”
“It will be a sleep potion,” Doulus said.
“From a mandrake?” Sastura asked. “Better to try knocking them out with a hammer. If they don’t die they can go into a coma, and that means a very long sleep indeed.”
After we made the poison drink, and poured it into the green ampule, we kissed some more, and we parted, first promising to meet at midnight by the gate to the Garden of the Lotus Eaters. I took the ampule (now holding poison) with me. I had a song in my heart, a skip in my feet. For a moment I did not care whether my master slept or Chrysanthe died, only that I would get to see Doulus again.
I went back to the baths. It occurred to me then that I had been gone most of the afternoon. It was hot and the shadows were long. I expected Bacenor to be there, by the statue with the plum-painted nipples. But he was not. On the brick pavement there lay only an ancient bald man, curled up on his side, trying to sleep in the shadow of the statue.
“Excuse me, grandfather,” I said to him. “Have you seen a hunchbacked old man, white-haired and beardless?”
“My eyes are closed,” said the man. “That means I’m sleeping. Leave me alone.”
“He would have been whining like an infant, cursing the gods and his fate.”
“Oh, that one.” The man kept his eyes closed as he spoke, but clutched his long white beard. “He was here calling out for his slave. Saying no rich man should have to suffer this. Please let me sleep.”
“Do you know where he went?”
“Who am I, Moros The-Omniscient? All I know is a couple of young rakes roughed him up, looking for his riches.”
“Roughed him up! Is he hurt? Is he dead? What happened to him?”
“You ask too many questions. You smell of sex. The warden of the baths took him into the building. Now, go away.”
I found Bacenor in one of the rooms used for massage. He lay supine upon a table, and was holding a wet cloth over his eyes. One of his sandals was missing: not only were his toenails long, but his calluses needed scraping badly. He was moaning softly. “Master,” I said.
“The thieves destroyed me,” he said. He lifted the cloth. One eye was swollen almost shut but otherwise he looked unharmed. “They took my purse and almost killed me.” He cast his red-rimmed good eye in my direction. “Where were you? Playing word games with your philosopher? Go get Agathon to arrest the thieves. There were five of them. Boys.”
Agathon was head councilman in Elis when I was a boy. He had been dead for years. “We are in Xuthos, master, and Agathon cannot help us.”
“Oh, Gods,” he groaned, good eye bulging, bad eye opening halfway. “I am doomed. I have no money. I will be a beggar in the streets.”
“I have some money,” I said, shaking my purse so you could hear the coins clink.
“You! Have money? I know why! You were outside rolling the bones with your philosopher while I was being manhandled by a dozen ruffians!”
“We can stay the night in an inn. I can pay for that.”
“How dishonorable that would be, a once-rich man relying on the charity of a slave!”
“Or we could go to Dionysus’s house. He is a kind man.”
“Bah,” he grumbled, “I know no Dionysus.” But then he moved as though trying to sit up, and cried out. When I reached down to help him up, he said, “No! No! My head hurts too much! Leave me be, you scoundrel!”
I let him back down on the table.
“Should I get a doctor?”
“No! No doctors! Let me rest!”
The warden of the baths let us stay the night without charge and even provided us bread and grapes to eat. He assured me that the captain of the city guard, one Fillimon, had been notified of the assault but doubted that much could be done, as Bacenor’s account of his assailants varied, now “a pair of boys”, a minute later, “an army of barbarians.” We broke bread and drank water and Bacenor complained that I had left him defenseless to throw kottabos with the philosopher. He repeated the charge and would not be corrected and gradually listed my other faults, that I carried him too slowly, that I looked at women, that I tried to embarrass him in front of wealthy merchants by showing off my learning, that I had stolen the golden statue of Ploutus he used to have in the altar room of his house. On, and on, with the familiar charges, leading up to “you let my wife and my son drown.” I wanted to be with Doulus and not listening to Bacenor so later on when he complained that he had water not wine, I told him I would get some wine for him.
I went again to the brothel called Poet’s Rest. Without Doulus I was treated differently, invited inside, allowed to sit in a room with a harpist while waiting for the wine, propositioned by three different women, one slender and boy-like, one hourglass shaped and voluptuous, one a little heavy and with breasts big as melons, all of them sweet faced and flowery smelling and dressed in gowns like see-through drapery. Each of them touched my arms and chest with their painted nails and pretended disappointment when I said I had come only to buy wine.
Finally the Madame of the house herself came out, a handsome middle-aged woman in gold-trimmed black, and gave me a flagon of wine. She would not take money for the wine. It was not an act of pity, I believed, but rather one of business acumen.
When I returned to the bath house, Bacenor was his usual combative self. He had covered his face with the cold cloth so only his mouth showed; when he realized I was there, he pushed back a corner to expose his good eye. “Why did you leave me alone, you craven dog? Did you know a crowd attacked me in the street?”
“I brought wine,” I said.
I placed the flagon on the rickety wooden table, beside the bowl of cold water used to wet the cloth, and I took out the ampule of poison. I found a cup and poured wine in.
“What’s taking so long, you giant oaf?”
“Just a moment.” I poured a little poison in, no more than a tenth of the ampule as Thanatos had instructed. I turned to him. “Can you raise your head?”
“No!” he snapped, but he let me lift his head up with my hand and pour some wine into his mouth. He puckered and made fish-lips and swished the wine in his mouth before swallowing. He pulled the cloth off his face and sat up. “Something odd about the taste. Did you put poison in it?”
“No, a sleep drug.”
“Well, that’s all right.” He took the cup from me then drank the entire cup down, spilling a little down the corners of his mouth. He stared at the black dregs at the bottom of the white cup as though taking a divination. “I thought you hated me taking drugs.”
“They work, then they don’t work and you’re worse off.”
“I’m sleepy.” He dropped the cup and it shattered. “Oops.”
I helped him lie down. I put the cloth back over his eye; he raised his hand as if to pull it off, but then his hand dropped to his side. He squirmed for a moment, then relaxed, and his breathing slowed.
Bacenor was asleep.
At midnight I went to the Gate at the Garden of the Lotus Eaters. The gate was closed and Doulus was not there. I waited long enough for the air to go from warm to chilly. I waited long enough that my thoughts went from anticipation for her arrival to the fear like that I used to feel as a child at night when I woke to find my mother gone because Bacenor or Cybele had called for her. The black terrors of the late night. I was about to leave when Doulus ran up to me. Her chest heaved and I could see her breath. “Sorry, I’m so late,” she said. “You must be angry with me.”
“Why? What did Achilles accomplish, brooding in his tent? My teacher taught me that patience is a virtue.”
She said, “You must be patient, with a master like what you have.”
I said: “I recite the annals of the Gods to pass the time.”
Doulus said, “You are angry.”
But I was not. I kissed her, and she kissed me back, but she felt that she had to keep talking. “Chrysanthe was angry at me for being late.”
“My master was angry at me too.”
Doulus said, “She didn’t want me to see you again.”
“But if I am to kill her, it will be easier if you are with me.”
“Well, yes. But you see it was Artemis and Apollo that have the argument.”
“Chrysanthe sees them?”
“Yes! You remember! But it is more, they speak through her!” Doulus summarized Apollo and Artemis’s conversation, apparently made manifest through Chrysanthe’s person. Apollo thought that love was good. Artemis thought it was bad, that there should be no carnal relations outside of marriage, if even then. Apollo said that Doulus should see her young man. Artemis said no. Apollo said it was strange that Doulus could not see her young man when he would be the one to kill Chrysanthe. Artemis said the young man was a barbarian and could not be trusted. “Then I interrupted,” Doulus said. “I told them—I told Chrysanthe—come meet him at the Oracle of Xuthos tomorrow, and you’ll see he’s Greek, and trustworthy!” Apollo liked that idea but Artemis was not convinced. So the two decided to have an arrow-shooting contest in Chrysanthe’s bedroom; while they were shooting and Chrysanthe was paying attention to that, Doulus sneaked out.
Since the gate to the garden was locked, we decided to take a stroll together. We saw a fire near the statue of Hephaestus, and went to investigate. “We are the Laborers of Hades,” said the fat bare-chested man with hairy shoulders who presided over the fire. It was a bonfire, and it burned smoky and olive-smelling from masses of olive branches. There were about a dozen of them (men not branches), all naked from the waist-up, artisans or bricklayers or workers of similar ilk, their bodies once decently muscled but now running to fat. Their oiled flesh gleamed in the firelight. They passed cups of mulled wine around while Hairy Shoulders spoke. “Pixodarus the slave trader cut down his olive grove today. Without sacrifice or even a prayer. Isn’t that just like a rich slaver, to ignore the wood nymphs that way?”
The other men shouted, “Yes!”
“Would rich men in our father’s time have ignored the Gods that way?”
We sat with them in their circle, drinking their wine, listening to them talk. I had thought they were a cult of Dionysus (the god, not the merchant) but they were just drinking friends or maybe a parody of a philosopher’s symposium, for the leader Hairy Shoulders talked about the Various Ages of Man, with the current age being the Age of the Slave, but the next age would be The Age of the Artisan, and in this new utopian age artisans could unite to wrest power from the masters and the kings. It was a peculiar philosophy and Hairy Shoulder’s eyes gleamed with intellectual madness as he spoke but as he drank more wine his speech slurred and his argument lost force.
The other men threw more branches on the fire. The flames rose high, warming our faces, making our skin golden-red and throwing my tattoos into relief. “What is this house-tattoo?” Doulus asked me.
“These three lines,” she said, tracing the pattern on my shoulder.
“That is the letter Pi. In Elis, that means I am a slave from Persia.”
“But you talk like a Greek,” she said.
“I’m half-Greek,” I said.
She looked worried. “I have told Chrysanthe that you are all Greek.”
I thought for a moment. “I can wear my cloak, to cover up the tattoos.”
“Is that safe?” She meant, Won’t people think you are trying to pretend you are a free man?
“There is no danger, as long as I am with Bacenor,” I said.
It was only a little reckless; it was easy to be far more reckless when I was near Doulus.
I kissed her, licking her teeth, sucking her lips, but she broke off the kiss too soon: “It’s time to plan tomorrow.”
We decided that I would kill Chrysanthe when we all went to see the Oracle.
After we had made our plan, after we had kissed so hard my lips swelled up, I returned to the bath house. A candle was burning in the room I thought was Bacenor’s, casting light beneath the blanket into the dark hallway, and I almost passed it, thinking I had been mistaken about which room was his. But I heard a familiar grumbling and I pushed in.
“There you are!” Bacenor was almost naked, wearing only his loincloth as he waddled a slow circle around the massage table, holding the table for support. “Where is my chamber pot?”
“You couldn’t stay asleep?”
“Sleep? Are you joking? Are you cruel?”
“You were asleep when I left you,” I said.
“Where is my chamber pot?” He kept moving around the table, his chest sunken and hairless, his skin pale as a fish’s belly, his back seemingly burnished where his knobby spine pressed against his skin. “Where is Hypatia? She helps me at night while you’re out cavorting.”
“You sold Hypatia five years ago. You could only afford one slave.”
“Cur! Scoundrel! I am a rich man! I have seven slaves! I have a closet full of fifty drachma coins! I could buy this town!”
“No. You lost half your riches when your ship sank near Rhodes. And the other half when you invested in the winery with Velthur the Etruscan.”
His eyes rolled back in his head and his knees buckled and as he collapsed, I moved in and caught him.
Sometimes making him angry brings him back to the present.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“We are in Xuthos, the City of Sleep.”
“Why did you leave me alone?” he said.
“I gave you something to sleep.”
“That explains the strange taste in my mouth.”
“But it must have only kept you asleep a few minutes.”
“I had a dream—an awful dream. Ploutus invited me into his house of gold, and he showed me my bedroom. It was full of gold and silver and jewels piled on the floor and Ploutus poured out even more treasure all for me from his cornucopia. He told me I was the richest man on Earth! I told him yes, but where is my bed, all I see is treasure. And he told me I don’t need a bed because I will never sleep again!”
I was still supporting him, hugging his fragile form. “Tomorrow we see the Oracle, and she shall ease your mind.”
He pushed away from me. “Help me find the toilet—the gods are calling me!”
The Oracle of Sleep resided in a limestone cave at the base of the necropolis hill. My master and I arrived at dawn but already there was a queue outside the entrance, a score of insomniacs at least, many looking especially haggard, as if the Oracle were a common last resort for the sleepless. Riding me, Bacenor was impatient, cursing, pulling my hair, digging into my ribs, twisting my ears, saying, “Who are these horrible people? Why do we have to wait for them?” He vexed me so much that I finally said, “May I let you down, Master? I have a bad cramp in my thigh.”
Bacenor, unaccustomed to my making such a request, said, “Fine.”
Chrysanthe and Doulus arrived a few minutes later. I nodded at them, pretending cool, but Bacenor said, “You have finally found someone your size. Good-looking Amazon warrior. A big bulky princess. Did you bed her?”
“If she’s pregnant I should have first pick of the litter.”
“That won’t happen,” I murmured.
Moments later the guard raised the iron gate and the queue moved into the cave. We lost our place in line because Bacenor insisted that I pick him up, but the good part of that was we went in with Doulus and Chrysanthe. Chrysanthe, perhaps of sturdier stock than Bacenor, walked rather than making Doulus carry her. As we entered the cave the old woman squeezed my forearm, and said, “What a strong young man! Of what lineage are you?”
“I am a son of Athens,” I said.
“And so fluent in Greek, too!” Chrysanthe said, obviously pleased.
Inside we got to sit beside each other on the floor of the cave, as the Oracle required that no one, not even slaves, stand. I sat next to Doulus, her proximity seeming to kindle the air as in the presence of a god. To my right sat Bacenor, to Doulus’s left Chrysanthe.
The cave was chilly, hewn by man from the soft stone, lit by candles atop small skulls, monkey skulls perhaps, placed in sconces carved from the rock. There were the smells that places of ritual often acquire, of burnt flesh and candle wax, but also of brimstone and something faint and wild, as if a beast had made its lair here sometime long ago. The cave was smaller than its more famous counterpart at Delphi, but appeared to operate according to similar principles. Opposite the semi-circle of supplicants, water in a great iron cauldron half-buried in the ground bubbled and steamed, as if heated by a fire I could not see. To each side of the steaming cauldron there stood one priest; two older men with full gray beards. They wore white robes with pomegranates hanging from the hems. The priests looked like twins and beneath those beards they seemed to have the fine almost feminine features I had found striking in the man—the one like Thanatos—who had sold us the poison in the garden. I wondered briefly if these men were indeed Hypnos and Thanatos, but costumed to look older. Or perhaps even minor gods can age themselves at whim. I whispered my suspicions to Doulus but she smirked, and said, “Where are their wings? They are just old men.”
Behind the cauldron was a stone tripod like the one the Oracle at Delphi sat on. But there was no sign of the Oracle this morning.
Bacenor grumbled. “Why are we here?”
“We’re here to see the Oracle of Sleep so you can learn to sleep.”
He scowled. “I am a rich man. Why am I sitting on the ground?”
“We all sit,” I whispered. “And they suggest we speak softly, to make it easier for the Oracle to hear the gods.”
“Poppycock,” Bacenor muttered. He groped in his purse, then brought out a half-chewed apple, pungent and well-browned. “Hera’s tits! That’s all I have? Where are my coins? Do you have a drachma, slave?”
I showed him my coin purse but kept it at arm’s length.
“Give me that! I need to pay them! A rich man does not wait!”
“Master, please, soft. This isn’t Delphi. You can’t buy a place in the queue.”
Or maybe you could. Bacenor was waving the rotten apple at the priest I thought looked like Thanatos, gesturing at him to come over. And now the man came. His face was stern and he wielded the upside-down torch as though it were a cudgel.
Bacenor asked him, “How much to be first to see the Oracle?”
The priest pointed his torch at the apple. “You bring rotten fruit as your offering for the Lords?”
“I—” Bacenor started.
“Don’t answer. Don’t speak. If I hear your voice again before you go before the Oracle I shall expel you from this temple.”
Bacenor’s eyes goggled and his mouth opened but he stifled the words he thought of saying.
I tried to apologize for Bacenor but the priest had moved to Chrysanthe. “Please bare your head in this temple, mother,” he requested of her in a more kindly manner. Doulus reached up and pulled the gold band off Chrysanthe’s head then untied the kerchief that had been hiding her hair.
Bacenor made a sighing sound and I flashed him a look, covering my mouth with my hand.
He nodded he understood but his eyes were still wide with fear or amazement.
Then I stopped paying him or even Doulus attention for the priest had returned to his position beside the cauldron. Together the priests both chanted something in the Arcadian dialect which I do not speak well. One tossed bright blue powder into the cauldron making a tall red flame that danced for a moment then vanished, the other tossed a dark powder in the cauldron making a great white cloud which made the cauldron seemingly vanish and which filled the cave with a sweet flowery smell.
And then there were sighs and exclamations for the mist dissolved to show the Oracle sitting there upon the stone tripod behind the cauldron.
“The Gods,” Doulus cried out.
The Oracle was a young woman no more than twenty, dressed in a white garb of Oriental silk, with a cloak of royal purple over her head and shoulders. Her raven-black hair was very long, a braid of it appearing from beneath the cloak to rest on her lap. Her features were fine, suggesting that she might be a daughter of one of the priests, and her dark eyes were big, as if the better to read the prescriptions of the Fates. Unlike her priests her expression was contemplative, not stern. She was young enough that I braced myself for Bacenor to complain that she should be bearing babies, not casting divinations, but he held back that comment.
“Who is that?” he said.
“The Oracle of Sleep,” I said.
She spoke: “I stare across the River Charon, for a glimpse of tomorrow, and I see nothing, for a veil of impurity covers my eyes.”
Then the priest who looked like Hypnos dipped a golden bowl into the bubbling cauldron of water and gave it to the Oracle. She sipped from it. “But then I drink the pure waters of the spring of Xuthos, and the veil is lifted.”
The last of the steam disappeared.
“Now who seeks answers of me?”
I thought that Bacenor would shout but he was strangely silent, as were the rest of the supplicants.
“None are brave enough,” said Thanatos. “They are weak and craven.”
“No,” said Hypnos. “They are impure as was our Lady; and they need the veil lifted likewise.”
“So be it,” said the Oracle, and then she chanted something in Arcadian to the priest I thought of as Hypnos.
Hypnos filled his bowl from the cauldron, took it to the first supplicant, said something, and stood hovering over the first supplicant as he took a sip and swallowed. Then Hypnos took the bowl and passed it to the second supplicant.
“Oh, no,” I said.
Doulus tensed. “You said we’d go up there,” she spat out.
I had. It had been our plan, that I, not Doulus, would accompany Chrysanthe when she was called forth to the Oracle, and then, as the priest handed her the cup I would help her drink, for her hands are shaky. And I would put the poison in the cup even as I helped her drink. Yes, I planned to accompany Chrysanthe and help her drink. For that is how it was done at Delphi. That is how I’d helped Bacenor when we had visited the Oracle there. But we were not at Delphi.
Here at Xuthos the slave did not help the master drink.
Here we would drink sitting down under the watchful gaze of Hypnos.
I felt the ampule in my coin purse, whispered, “You’re sitting by her. Do you want to pour?”
She said, “No.”
No. Maybe there would be no poisoning.
Maybe there would be no death, and I would be no killer.
I felt relief more than disappointment.
“Who is she?” asked Bacenor. “She looks like someone.”
He meant Chrysanthe. I had not seen her without a head covering before. Her silver hair was loose and straight and, as it was cut shoulder-length, it looked much like Cybele’s had. Otherwise she looked nothing like Cybele. “She is Chrysanthe, of Galatia,” I said. “She is no one that you know.”
While Bacenor pondered, I noticed that Thanatos was bringing the first supplicant, a pot-bellied bald man, up to the Oracle for his consultation. The man stumbled once as he walked. I leaned close to Bacenor. “You need to prepare your question for the Oracle. You need to get the question right, because you can only ask her one.”
“By Zeus, I swear I have seen her before.”
“Forget her,” I implored him. “Please concentrate. You could say something like, ‘What should I do that would help me sleep?’”
He looked at me, twisting his mouth sardonically. “Maybe I should grab a woman like you have?”
I shrugged. “Maybe you should. Ask the Oracle.”
Bacenor twisted his mouth and squirmed like a small child at a dinner party. He began whispering, rapidly and too softly for me to understand, as old people often do when they are speaking to gods. But Bacenor was speaking to Cybele, and to his own mother and father, and answering back in their voices. Though really he was just speaking to himself because as his memory has degraded, his sense that the ghosts of his family members are the ones he is conversing with has eroded likewise. At least this is what I think from having listened to him every day for years.
We sat like that while several other supplicants went up to the Oracle, each going round the cauldron to kneel beside her, asking his question, then waiting calmly (perhaps sedated by the drink) for an answer while the Oracle consulted with Hypnos (the god not the man), a strange thing happening as she consulted for it seemed her face distorted or warped for a moment, as though viewed through the bottom of a glass jar, then the distortion went away and she spoke, to the supplicant only for we could not hear her words. Then, looking dazed, the supplicant returned to sit. The older ones walked back with a pronounced wobble and one man would have fallen had Thanatos not been there to support him.
And then it was almost Bacenor’s turn to drink. “I’m going to ask her if Cybele and the boy—”
“If Cybele and Timotheus will forgive me.”
“For drowning them?” I asked.
“Drowning?” He looked puzzled. “I’m going to ask her if Cybele and the boy will forgive me.”
“Excellent,” I said. Maybe, I thought, it would be better if wife and son would forgive him in general, rather than for any one particular act.
Now Hypnos brought the golden bowl to Bacenor. “Take and drink, mortal man.”
“What is this?” Bacenor asked. “Wine?”
“Thy vision is cloudy so drink that thou might see.”
“Is it poison?”
“Just drink it,” I said to Bacenor.
At the word poison, I had brought the ampule out of my coin purse. Bacenor finally took the bowl of the Oracle’s water and took a dainty sip.
“Drink more,” Hypnos said.
While Bacenor was taking a more substantial swallow, I tried to pass the ampule to Doulus.
“Take it,” I whispered to her.
“No,” she said.
“Please take it.”
“I don’t want to use it,” she said with finality.
Bacenor had passed the bowl back to Hypnos. Now the priest presented it to me. “Take and drink, mortal man.”
I explained that I was Bacenor’s slave, not a supplicant.
Hypnos was insistent. “Thy vision is cloudy so drink that thou might see.”
I shook my head and Bacenor laughed at me. So I took the bowl. As I drank from it—the fluid sweet but the sweetness not concealing a bitter medicinal taste like the infusion made from the bark of ash trees—Doulus groaned and bent over, holding her stomach. And as Hypnos turned to look at her, I emptied the ampule into the bowl—and only then did I feel the cauldron water hot in my stomach. Its heat suffused through my body, into my limbs, into my extremities, and suddenly again I was fervent in my desire for Doulus, willing to do anything, do even what I had just done, for the Oracle’s water it seems to me now reversed cause and effect, among other wondrous things.
I passed the bowl back to Hypnos, the bowl of Oracle’s water now poisoned by my hand. “Take and drink, mortal woman,” he said to Doulus, but she was down on all fours, moaning, shamming (I think) illness. “Thy vision is cloudy so drink that thou might see,” he said, but she waved him off.
And then Hypnos stepped down to Chrysanthe. “Take and drink, mortal woman.”
She took the bowl and raised it to her lips with her shaking palsied hands.
“No!” cried out Bacenor, jumping up and moving faster than he had in years. He grabbed the bowl from Chrysanthe and brought it up to his own lips and, Adam’s apple like a fist flexing and unflexing, drank the contents down. “How dare thou try to poison Cybele, slave!” he shouted at me.
Then he dropped the bowl and fell over, dead.
I did not act wisely. But I was drugged, and how many men act wisely in their hour of desperation? Especially as my doom seemed evident; I could see my threads of Fate, and how soon they would be cut.
And who is to say what wisdom is, if the gods will poison us in pursuit of their mysterious agendas?
As the others—Hypnos and Chrysanthe, and Doulus no longer feigning illness, and some of the other supplicants—crowded around Bacenor, I edged toward the entrance of the cave, and then I pushed the gate up a little so I could slide under it. The trident-wielding entrance guard was flirting with a young woman, and did not notice me. I walked hurriedly, as if I were a merchant late for an appointment. Then when I had reached the statue of Zeus, four sleepless clutching its base, another sprawled uncomfortably on the sculpted bed, I heard someone ring the city alarm bell. I ran for the Iron Gate—but even as I neared it I saw that three of the hoplites that were posted there had come inside. They had their spears in position and were letting out no one. I stopped running, turned, and walked the other way.
When I reached Zeus again I ran. I had forgotten that I could run so fast without Bacenor to carry. I ran to the Garden of the Lotus Eaters and once through its gates I walked slowly, for a fast pace would be an affront to the spirit of the place and to those sleeping on the benches. I went to the hidden area, enclosed by the hedgerow of vines with poisonous black fruit, where Doulus and I had kissed before. There I sat in the dirt, wedged into a gap in the hedge which hid me further, catching my breath, letting my mind clear, though it was hard to think for I saw my master’s lips turn blue as he lay there on the cave floor; and I saw the slave Gregorios, my best friend in Elis who killed his own master, and whose face swelled big and purple after they tightened a leather collar around his neck; and I saw the Fates cutting both Bacenor’s and my life threads. When I breathed easy and smelled the garden, the lotus and honeysuckle and syrup-sweet fenugreek, the oleander and lavender, and I examined the small black fruit which grew on brambles in clusters of six and which smelled like milk gone sour, and I observed the pollen hanging in the warm air, and listened to the buzzing of honeybees and the faint murmur of distant voices, my body relaxed and I made a plan. I would wait here until night and then long after dark I would leave and go back to the necropolis to the other place where Doulus and I had kissed. There I would climb the olive trees growing against the wall and pull myself over. I would jump down and run, staying on the fields not roads. I would make my way not to Elis and not even to Nauplia but to some other port city. To the South. To Gythium by way of Sparta. There I would hire on to a merchant ship and work my passage to Massalia, where I could meet Doulus again.
This was my plan. I fell asleep during the heat of the day, and when I awoke it was dusk. I was not thirsty, I was not hungry, my mind was clear. It occurred to me I could shave off my mustache and pass myself off as an Etruscan, for I had learned some of their language from Velthur, my master’s business partner. I took out my knife and was starting to cut the hairs above my lips when I heard someone call my name.
I did not respond.
The voice again, my name, and “Are you here?”
Doulus. The sweet music of her accent. I could see her now, or at least her feet, her ankles, her bronzed muscular thighs. I pushed back the vines that hid me and I could see her, at the edge of the entrance to our lair. She could see me and I could see her and she did not have Chrysanthe on her back. At dusk her eyes were dark green like smoky emeralds. She smiled at me. “You don’t have to hide.”
“No.” I jumped up and hurried over to her and as I was about to kiss her I saw one of her green eyes was bruised black and blue and that a man behind her was pulling her collar by a rope. Like a dog on a leash. Then someone shouted “He has a knife!” and something hit me hard on the right side of my head and there was nothing more
I sit in my cell. Today was the day of my trial. In Xuthos, the head juryman runs the court session. The head juryman was Fillimon who was also the Captain of the Guard who arrested and interrogated me yesterday. Or he arrested me two days ago. I may have been only partly conscious for most of a day. They tell me it is rare but not extraordinarily so for the Captain of the Guard to be head juryman. The Fate can drop her thimble for any man, as the philosopher says. It made for occasional levity when Fillimon as the head juryman asked for something and Fillimon as Captain of the Guard responded.
In Xuthos a slave is not allowed to plead his case, though he can ask for witnesses to attest to his character. I could not ask Doulus and Chrysanthe because they have left the city, apparently expelled. Of those I asked to attest in my favor only the Madame of the Poet’s Rest came forward. Holding a parasol to shade her white-painted face, she was generous in her description of me. I asked for Dionysus but not only did he not come forward when I asked for him, he came forward when Fillimon asked for statements against me; Dionysus said I could fool people into thinking I was charming and good-natured but my true motives were base and malignant: he had observed how hungrily I had watched the dancing girls, and he had heard me in my own words mock the institution of slavery and even talk approvingly of slaves who murdered masters.
As I could not plead to the jury I could not tell them about the release letter. I could not show it to Fillimon as when I awoke my coin purse was empty. I told Fillimon about the release and he said, “You are in Xuthos, not Athens, not Elis, and no scribe here would consent to write such a spurious document.” I insisted and then he said, angrily, “What scribe wrote this document that does not exist?” But this was my interrogation, not my trial. At my trial I was silent.
Where was the trial? I should tell you. It was in the plaza between the statue of Zeus and the Temple of Apollo. A crowd of respectable size, two or three hundred, came to watch. Insomnia can drive men to desperate acts so murder trials are not unknown in Xuthos and they make good theater. A trio of callow young men pushed the sleepless off the statue of Zeus so they could climb up and get a better look at me. There were sixteen jurists, in addition to Fillimon, and they sat under a canvas tarp for shade. I sat in the hot sun behind a heavy wooden table. A rope secured me by my collar to a leg of the table. Iron manacles bound my wrists together behind my back so I could not untie the rope. Fillimon read the charges against me, which were of the murder of Bacenor, the attempted murder of Chrysanthe, the violation of the sanctity of the Oracle’s Temple, and impersonating a free man (because I wore a cloak covering my tattoo and hiding the collar.) The jury discussed between them the charges while I sat in the hot afternoon sun. There was a small bowl of water before me which I drank from, without my hands, like a dog or barbarian. By the time the jurists finally reached their verdict, most of the crowd had drifted off, and Fillimon as he walked across the dusty flagstone seemed to shimmer in my vision.
“Rise, slave of Bacenor of Elis,” he told me.
The guards came up behind me as if expecting me to be too weak to stand, but I stood on my own. They led me to the front of the table just far enough that the rope pulled tight.
Fillimon sat down on the tall chair he used for his office. He unrolled a scroll and read. “In the matter of impersonating a free man, the jury finds you innocent. In the matter of violating the sanctity of the temple, the jury finds you innocent. In the matter of the attempted murder of Chrysanthe, the jury wishes to abandon the charge. And in the matter of the murder of Bacenor, the jury finds you guilty.”
I tried to say something but the collar was too tight for me to speak.
“By the ancient laws of Xuthos you are condemned to die by strangulation at noon tomorrow.”
There were voices and a great roaring and I felt my soul flee my body for an instant.
But it returned.
And now I sit in my cell. The prison guards have given me a wooden bench but no bedroll, just a scattering of straw. I lay down for a long time but I could not sleep. It is late at night and chilly. I have eaten the round loaf of bread they fed me and feel revived at least physically. I smell the stench of my chamber pot for they have not emptied it after two days. Outside my cell, the torch in the stone corridor has burned out. I test the iron bars; they are well-forged and I cannot break them. I hear the snoring of the drunk man in another cell. Earlier I heard shouts and music of a procession, maybe the same group as from the other night, but now it is quiet. I find shards of broken tile, and I wonder if they have been left, as a mercy, so I might cut my throat. That would be faster than the collar, twisted around my neck. I remember how Gregorios’s eyes bulged to almost bursting. I remember the executioner trembling with exertion, the veins throbbing in his forearms.
I pray to Mitra, that He might offer solace.
A hundred breaths later, I pray to Athena, for wisdom and strength. I rarely pray, as the philosopher told me that the gods have no more control over the Fates than mortals do, but he agreed prayer could be useful if it calmed the distraught mind.
A hundred breaths after that, Bacenor appears.
He is in the cell with me. He is gray-skinned and faintly luminescent, as though moonlit. “Where am I?” he asks. His eye is swollen closed and his lips are blue. “Have they torn out your tongue? Speak, you wretched slave! Where am I?”
“The jail in Xuthos,” I say. This is his ghost, I decide; I can see the vertical lines of the iron bars through him like a strange tattoo. “You are dead, master. You should be in Hades, not here.”
He ponders this. Then he says, “And why are you here?”
“Because you died after drinking the poison I intended for Chrysanthe.”
He seems confused by this.
“They thought I killed you intentionally. They did not believe me that I wanted to kill her.”
“You wanted to kill her? Why”
“Because I loved the slave-girl, Doulus.”
“Love. I understand love. I once loved… someone.”
“Cybele,” I say. “Your wife.”
“This Doulus—where is she?”
“Gone,” I say. “Expelled.”
“Forget her then,” Bacenor says. “She does not love you or she would be here.”
“No, she’s gone. Expelled from the city.”
“And you know this how?”
“Fillimon told me. He said he would spare her from a trial if she left.”
“So that’s how little she cares for you. She probably took the release from the coin purse, too. And she probably led the men to your love nest.”
“Fillimon beat her,” I tell my master’s ghost.
“Why do you say that? Because she had bruising around one eye? She knows the old trick of smearing kohl and blackberry pulp around an eye, to make it look like a man socked her in the face.”
My heart seems to fall into my stomach. “How could you know any of this?”
“I bet she gave Fillimon a piece of her ass for her freedom.” Bacenor chuckles grimly. “I bet she set you up from the beginning. With the release and then the charade of being sick in the oracle’s cave. You’re such a trusting soul.”
“How could you know this? Did you talk to the god Hermes? Did he tell you these things while leading you to Hades?”
“Never mind that.” Bacenor’s ghost points at the ceiling. “I need your help.”
“Yes, help me! Get yourself out of this cell so I can be on my way!”
As a ghost Bacenor cannot speak with much authority, but I see what he means. A hole in the ceiling has been patched over with mud and straw. I drag the chair beneath the patch, then climb upon the chair. Then I reach up and punch through the dried mud and pull a handful of material down. Through a hole the size of a votive saucer I see a scattering of bright stars. A cloud of debris and moonlit dust passes glittering through Bacenor. I tear down more material, sections of wooden boards and pieces of clay roof tiles, engaging my muscles as if I were Hercules completing one of his labors. Within moments, my palms are bloody, but I have cleared a space wide enough for my shoulders to pass through. I pull myself up by grasping the edges of the hole, then—my shoulders burning and my joints creaking—I push myself up onto the roof.
When I have caught my breath, I reach down into the hole to give Bacenor a hand up.
But he is not there; the ghost is gone.
I hurry across the roof and clamber to the ground, pulling down another roof tile with me. On the streets I run. I have not devised a new plan for escape so I use the old one. Strike that. A man about to die does not spend time ruminating about choices that he made. Nor pondering new possibilities. He moves one foot in front of the other in the direction already determined. Thus I reach the city necropolis.
I keep to the edge of the necropolis, in the shadows of the trees, a little below the top of the hill where the big tombs are and the ceremony with Hypnos took place. I see no lights and hear no voices, but I smell smoke and wax, as of candles not long ago extinguished. A dog barks in the distance. As I creep along, twigs snap beneath my feet.
“Slow down, ingrate!”
Bacenor is beside me, goggle-eyed and wheezing. Obedient by habit, I slow, but I do not stop.
“Will you stoop down and let me climb aboard?”
“I’m your slave no longer,” I say. “You will have to walk.”
“Insolent cur!” Even shouting his voice is barely louder than my footsteps. “Rich men do not walk!”
“Dead men are not rich,” I say. I hurry again.
“You would leave me behind?” he wheezes. “An old and sickly man?”
I mean to harden my heart, but cannot do that even now. So when we reach the big olive tree against the city wall, I stoop. “Get on,” I say, impatiently.
“Um, it’s—” Bacenor says, then I feel something painfully cold pass through me, as if an icy blade has been sliced through my torso, from chin to groin. Then Bacenor is before me prone as if praying to Hades. “That didn’t work.” He stands up. “Let’s try that again.”
“You passed right through me!” I say. I start climbing the tree.
“Where are you going? Come back, you dog! I need you to carry me!”
And then I climb over the wall and drop down. The wall is twice the height of a man, and a drop from such a height can cause injury, but the gods favor me and I land on a juniper bush which cushions the force of my fall. It does leave me scratched and bruised and I see that my knee has been cut open, by a branch in the juniper or maybe by the sharp edge of a tile in the jail roof. Blood from the cut trickles down my shin.
I bind my knee with a strip of cloth torn from my chiton. Then I follow a tree-lined ditch across the mesa, avoiding the clusters of peasants’ houses that constitute suburban Xuthos. I follow a steep trail down the side of the mesa then set off across the fields staying away from the road. I decide to head north, not south, toward Corinth, because that is the port town that Doulus and Chrysanthe had docked at. Also because to the south is Sparta and Spartans, I realize upon reflection, are not likely to give safe haven to a fugitive. At best they would conscript me in their army, at worst they would kill me as a foreigner or enslave me and sell me back to Xuthos. I jog through brush and fields and soggy marshland until I am out of the Arcadian Plain and into the first hills. Then I hike and keep a good pace stopping well after dawn because I am beginning to stumble. I drink from a creek. Willows grow densely beside it, providing ample coverage, and I decide to sleep there and travel again at night. But I can only rest not sleep, and am fearful and impatient, so I start hiking again as soon as the worst heat of the day has passed.
When I am famished I kill a farmer’s chicken. I carry it until dusk staying at the edge of a forest in sight of the road to Corinth. Then I go deeper into the forest so no one from the road can see the flames if I start a fire. The kindling I gather proves too damp to catch flame, so, frustrated, I pluck the chicken then eat it raw, tearing its flesh off with my teeth and fingers, tasting the iron in its blood.
Then Bacenor joins me.
“You’re gory. You look like a Celt warrior, his face painted red.”
I wipe my face and hands with a clump of chicken feathers.
“You still look ghastly. No matter. Stoop, so you can carry me.”
“I can’t carry you,” I say. “You are dead. You should be in Hades.”
“Then carry me there! No rich man walks!”
“I’m going to Corinth, not Hades. You need Hermes to guide you.”
“But Hermes isn’t here! Am I dead? Did you bury me properly? Did you put a coin in my mouth for that ferryman—”
“—Charon to ferry you across the Styx? Talk to Fillimon. He made the burial arrangements.”
“But you are my slave!”
“No longer,” I say.
And then I start off, Bacenor following me. Sometimes he falls behind, sometimes he catches up, sometimes he is silent, more often he is talkative. He threatens, wheedles, pleads, whines. I ignore him mostly, though I can be drawn into argument, and I correct him more than I used to. I will answer his questions, to forestall an argument rooted in ignorance. I am patient. He walks beside me corpse-gray and bathed in moonlight. I am patient. The hills are steep so I walk on the road ready to hide in the bushes if others approach. I am patient and though wide awake I know Bacenor will leave me finally when I sleep. I will sleep at dawn, or I will sleep when I reach Corinth, or I will sleep aboard the ship that will take me to Massalia and to Doulus, with the blessings of Hypnos and of Mitra, and the lulling of the great sea under the vast dome of the night sky.