When I arrived at Naxos and made my way to the small beach on its eastern coast, I found only a handful of visitors who were there for the same reason I was. To consult the oracle, at the temple in the cave, on a small, unnamed island to the south.
I am Pamphilos of the Ardiae. My father left me one of the largest estates in southern Illyria. Our olive grove is the envy of the Adriatic. My household numbers fifteen slaves, and in times of war, five-thousand strong are sworn to answer my call.
As I write, I am sat, cross-legged, in a small hut, still on the island near Naxos. And I have decided that I will die here, far away from my lands, from my happiness, and from my home. This tragedy is mine because I asked an oracle a question.
Mine is like so many stories about oracles. Filled with inevitability. Were they all warnings? If so, then let me add my own. Perhaps some future traveller will fail to heed this tale, like I did with all the others.
I know oracles. I have listened to the Pythia. I have heard Zeus rustle the leaves at Dodona. I have descended into the depths of the Necromanteion.
I have sailed the Aegean to find an answer to my question. I have spoken with every soothsayer, every high priestess, and every messiah south of the Metzovon. Most of them spoke calculated nonsense. Some were observant enough to attempt some impressive guesswork; that I am a man of nobility out of his way and down on his luck, that I have traveled far and that I long for home. But I have a specific question, with a specific answer.
When I first heard of the oracle of Naxos, I had long given up. I was continuing my search not because I believed there was any hope of finding a true oracle, but because I no longer knew what else to do. I was going through the motions, because the motions were what I had left.
It was a fisherman in a taverna who first told me. I was well wary by then, of the showmen who stalk the harbors, drawing the believers to the temple for a cut of the proceeds. This was no showman. The man stumbled over his words, and struggled to make himself clear. He warned me not to go. Imploring, grabbing me drunkenly by the collar. At that point, no promises of mystical truth and salvation could have tempted me, but this was a sincere warning, from a clearly frightened man. Whatever he was warning me away from, he at least believed that it was genuine.
So I made my way to Naxos. I asked around, and found people who knew what I was talking about. The island was unnamed, home to a few handfuls of people. But there was a temple, and a small rowing boat ferried its visitors to the island and back once a day. I observed for a few days. In the morning, a small group, five was the most I saw, would patiently wait at the beach in the early morning, until a stocky, red-haired man, his bare, broad shoulders slathered in olive oil to protect against the sun, rowed up to an improvised wooden jetty, and took them to the island.
After a few days I decided it was time to join. I didn’t know whether I was meant to make arrangements somewhere or whether I needed to announce myself. I simply joined the group on the beach. I did not greet the other visitors, and they did not greet me. The red-haired man let me board the rowboat, and we set off.
The red-haired man rowed, uninterrupted, and the sun was almost at the zenith, when we reached the island. When the boat hit the beach, he jumped ashore, and pulled it aground as far he could. A small pole had been put in place for him to moor the boat, but there was no jetty, so we each jumped off into the shallow water, as he had done, and waded to the shore.
He pointed us along the shoreline, and walked up the beach himself. Hesitantly, we walked along the beach. Where the beach ended, we found a small rope ladder that allowed us to climb over the large rock protruding out into the sea. After that, another long beach. Where that ended, a set of small wooden walkways had been constructed, no broader than a single plank, barely wide enough for two feet. We spaced ourselves out so that no more than one of us would stretch the thin planks at a time.
The walkways continued for a while, along a rockface rising straight out of the sea. Clean white bands of quartzite lilted in the direction of our route. The walkway terminated in a small cove, still with no beach and nothing but white cliff faces on on all three sides. On the far side, the cliff face lifted very slightly out of the water to reveal a small cave entrance that swallowed the walkway.
I held back while the rest of the visitors approached the cave. I heard them being greeted by a young priestess, and being asked to wait. I made my way back along the walkway to the last beach.
Each temple is a theatre. If you want to see its true face, don’t enter with the crowd. Instead, watch the actors come and go. I had caught many a priestess that way, stripped of her dramatic costume, removed from the smoke and smell of incense, the paint cleared from her face. After that, there would be no false hope. I would see no mysticism where there were only theatrics.
Near the tree line, I found a small cluster of oak trees, that provided shade and a clear view of the walkway. I made myself comfortable for a long wait. I counted the people returning along the walkway, making their way back to the rowing boat. They all had the same, slow, contemplative gait as they moved along the beach. I must have walked that way myself, those first few times. They were still deciding. Whether to consider their questions answered, to go home with nothing but a faint nagging at the back of the head, but otherwise relieved, or to see the charade for what it is. I wished that I could give them my advice. Sometimes a fake medicine is the best available.
I waited long, until after the sun had set, and the last visitor had passed by, followed shortly after by the young priestess. I would have spent the night awake, need be. I had done it many times before. As it happened, when the dusk set in, a figure appeared at the cliff face. Another priestess, hunched slightly, and moving slowly and carefully along the narrow planks. As she moved on to the beach, I could see that her hair was long and grey.
She looked around. I had no need to hide. It was a moonless night and I was well covered by the oaks. The whole cluster of trees could not have been more than a silhouette to her. Nevertheless, she turned directly towards me. I wondered if I could have made some sound to give my position away. She began to walk in my direction.
Some spy, I decided, must have told her about me. One of the people on the boat. Hired to observe, to relay any salient details given away during the passage. A trick no competent mystic would overlook. I had often caught them out by loudly giving away false details to my fellow travelers, which the oracle would duly parrot back to me. That must be it, I decided as the old woman slowly made her way to me, her eyes trained precisely on mine long before she must have been able to see even my outline.
Her surreptitious assistant must have noticed that I did not stand in line, and have sought out my hiding place among the trees. He would be the first visitor she let in, the young man with the pallid complexion. He could easily have found my hiding place afterwards. I stayed perfectly still as she approached. Barely breathing. Let her play, I decided. If there was to be theatre, I would not make it easy.
By now, she was close enough that I could see her eyes, and she, presumably, mine. I stood perfectly still. Determined to give nothing away. Not even the slightest movement for her to read, to play off.
She smiled at me, kindly, and held out her arms. “Pamphilos.” She said it softly, almost pityingly.
“Pamphilos of the Ardiae. Your household numbers fifteen slaves. Five-thousand strong are sworn to answer your call. Your olive grove is the envy of the Adriatic. You have come to ask me a question. It is about your son.”
She kept smiling patiently as I stood there, silent.
I was at a loss. I had used assumed names, invented many characters for myself to play. For years, I had not given away a single truth. Precisely for this purpose. Precisely so that I would be armored against their cruel tricks.
“This is the night you’ve been waiting for Pamphilos, this is the night an oracle answers your questions.”
I could not have spoken if I wanted to. I stayed still. I tried desperately not to let her read how much she had shaken me.
“There are two options. If you want this done quickly, we can go back to the temple. I will answer your questions, directly and honestly, and you can be on your way. Anaxios, my rower, will take you back to Naxos tomorrow morning.”
It was an obvious ploy. She was guiding me towards the inevitable. I wonder now if she had actually left me any choice at all. Could I have chosen to go to the temple?
“And the second option?” I said it meekly, and without conviction.
“For that you will have to buy me a meal, and some wine. There is a small village not far from here. In return, I will not just tell you what you want to know, but also why I know it. I will give you what you truly want: a reason to believe me. You will not get any answer that you want to hear, but you will get an answer that you will believe.”
Before I could speak, she interjected.
“But you should know that there is no moving on from this. This will be a balm for your obsession, but you will spend the rest of your days on this island. There will be no return to glory for Pamphilos of the Ardiae.”
“And if we go to the cave? What happens then?”
“Then you will leave here in the morning. Not truly convinced, but convinced enough to return home. You will spend your days plagued by doubt, but you will spend them in Illyria, and you will see your olive trees again.”
She spoke with no drama. No theatre. Almost bored at the obvious truth of her proclamations.
“To the village”, I said at last. Whatever she had planned for me, whatever tricks she was playing, I could not let this end with a few simple questions and a night sleeping on the beach.
At first we walked in silence. I felt somehow that every question I would ask would pull me more firmly into her influence. I could sense it in her confidence.
“How did you know my name?”
“I know because of something that happened to me as a young girl. It gave me the power to see something of the future. And in those visions, I saw you, Pamphilos, and your name.”
“What happened to you as a girl?”
“I met a Jinn. Most Greeks don’t know about Jinns. Do you?”
I shook my head.
“They are a little like your demigods, perhaps. But older. Much older. They predate most of the gods of man. I was a goatherd in Palmyra, an orphan girl. I owned a small herd, just big enough to keep myself alive. I learned soon enough that even young girls should be vigilant in big cities, so I spent most of my time outside the walls by myself. I led my goats to young shrubs, and to fresh running water, and I slept under the stars most nights.
The lands around Palmyra are bountiful if you know where to look, but they can be treacherous as well. While leading my goats across a dangerous stretch of arid land, I spotted the shade of a figure in the distance. I saw him standing up, and then collapse to his knees. It could have been a trick of the light, I told myself, a dead tree or small cloud of dust kicked up by a desert rat. I was in no position to make detours. I deliberated for a while, but then decided: I did not want to spend the rest of my life unsure whether I had let an unfortunate traveler die.
I made my way to where I had seen him fall. The unconscious body quickly became clear. It was a heavy, muscular man with pale skin and no hair. With great trouble, I turned him over. I tried to give him water. He remained unconscious, but I found that when I gently poured small sips into his mouth, the water would eventually go down.
I managed to find enough deadwood to create some shade for us and for my goats. He was too heavy to move, so I decided to wait, hoping that he would eventually come to. When the sun began to set, I gave him milk, mixed with honey.
As night began to fall, he regained consciousness. He expressed his gratitude, acknowledging that I had certainly saved his life. Weakly, he offered his apologies. He was a poor man, with nothing left to give. Half asleep, he muttered that if he had been a Jinn, he would have surely granted me a wish.
Ah yes. Allow me to explain. There are many Jinns, with many different abilities. But there is only one type that anybody ever talks about. The Jinns that grant you a wish. Some say you must trap them, some say you must meet them on a full moon, some say you must save their life. Whatever the case, the Jinn is always reluctant, but if the conditions are right, you will get your wish.
Lying on his back still, with his eyes closed, the man asked me what my wish would be, if I ever did meet a Jinn. A common enough question to ask a stranger around a campfire outside Palmyra. Stories of Jinns are common fare, and we’ve all played out our private fantasies.
Of course, stories with wishes rarely end happily. I need hardly tell a Greek that. Ask for eternal life and you end up aging into infinity. Ask for your enemy’s true love to die, and you may come home to find your wife has met an early end. The gods are as cruel in Palmyra as they are everywhere else.
I had always believed that it was the greed and the malice in such wishes that invited the retribution. A virtuous request, I thought, could not possibly deserve to be punished.
And truth, I knew, is the greatest virtue. It may take great pains at the time, it may take courage, but ultimately, there is no greater virtue than to tell the truth. So that is what I told the stranger. If I ever met a Jinn, my wish would be to answer any question truthfully, no matter what the circumstances.
The stranger smiled weakly. ‘Of all the questions you could ask. I bet it seems like a simple thing to you. If a Ginnaye were to grant you such a wish, it would surely be his final act.’ He coughed.
‘But then, what a final act it would be. You would become a mighty thread in the tapestry, little one. Yes, that would be a good final wish for a Jinn to fulfill.’
We did not speak further. When I woke, the stranger was gone. He had taken none of my water, and I could find no tracks to indicate in which direction he had left.”
The old woman stopped speaking, and moved ahead of me as we entered the village. There were around twenty simple mud-brick houses scattered around a public well. The town was clearly asleep.
I watched the priestess as she led the way. Many mystics had told me their fanciful tales about how they came by their powers. This one fit the mold exactly: a distant land, a strange culture, some ancient obscure creature. The only difference was that this wasn’t a practiced patter. It seemed as though I was the first person she had told these things in a long time. Did she add that, to make her story more convincing? Was all this performance just to get a free meal out of me?
I had been taken in before, and for far more than the price of a meal. It was a small price to pay to see the cozener at her labour, and to find out what she had planned for me.
She led me to a small taverna. Above, the stars had begun to come out. The keeper, it seemed, was a confidant of the priestess, and was happy to provide us with the remnants of the day’s menu. He brought bread, bean soup, and some leftover cuts of braised pork, together with a cask of wine.
I paid twice what such a meal should cost, and in return he left us in peace. It was a warm night, so we sat outside on a small terrace.
“So you think the stranger was a Jinn?”
“I know he was a Jinn. I have lived with the consequences of my answer ever since.
But I did not know right away. I spent most of my time in those days with no other company than my goats. I rarely met people, except when I went into the city to sell my milk. The first person I spoke to after the Jinn had disappeared was a keeper of an inn just outside the south walls. An unpleasant man, but one who always paid a fair price.
He enjoyed asking me questions that made me uncomfortable. Intimate, physical questions. ‘Coming along nicely, I see’, he said, as he poked my chest with a fat finger. He spoke loudly, more to his patrons than to me. zSoon, you’ll be a ripe little fig. You’ll start craving the touch of a man like me. And more than a finger too!’ His patrons laughed.
‘How about it little one?’ I had passed him the milk, but he held back my money to taunt me. ‘Have you started having ungodly thoughts yet?’
‘Yes, I have.’ It took some time before I realized what I had said. I felt dizzy with shock.
He laughed heartily, almost as shocked at my honesty as I was. ‘Really? And what have you fantasized about, little one? Who would you like to give your little cherry to?’
‘There is a slave girl at the temple, she cleans the statues. I’ve talked to her a few times.’ The words came out easily, as though somebody else was speaking. ‘I think about kissing her. Kissing her everywhere. Then I think about her kissing me.’
The innkeeper did not understand what was happening to me, but he wasted no time in capitalizing on his good fortune. He forced me to recount my fantasies in as much detail as possible. He only relented when my crying became so heavy that I found it difficult to speak. But still, the words forced themselves out through my sore throat.
Normally his wife would step in after a few taunts, and make him pay me. But this time, she simply stood by with a horrified look. Perhaps I should explain. She was not horrified at what her husband was doing, you see. She was horrified at what I had said.
In those days the temple had a strong hold on Palmyra, and for one woman to lie with another was seen as an unforgivable sin. These were my most shameful, most secret thoughts. And with good reason. I had seen crowds, whipped into a fury, cheer the executions of men and women alike for just such acts as I had dreamed of committing with that innocent slave girl.
I hurried out with my money. I bought no supplies, and took my goats as far away from the city as I could. When night fell, I lay on my back, staring wide eyed at the stars. Letting the enormity of the firmament make me as small and as insignificant as it could.
When my shame had subsided, I began to realize exactly what had happened. The consequences of my answer to the stranger’s question. What the Jinn had done to me.
I fled from Palmyra in a panic. In shame, and in fear. These days I think they are more kind over there. But it changes like the wind, how people like me are treated. It does not shock you, Pamphilos, to share your table with a gynaikerastria?”
“Not in the least.”
“No.” She smiled lightly. “Not anymore. But before, in Illyria, you were a model of virtue then?”
It took me a long time to recall the details of my life long ago. “If you had been found out in our village, the judgement would most likely have fallen to me. I don’t expect I would have shown you much mercy then.”
“So you are changed. Is it your grief that has changed you, Pamhpilos? Or is it travel, exposure to so many different people? Perhaps it is simply time? A kind of empathy, that comes with age?”
“It is difficult to explain. I suppose simply that once your head, in fact your whole body, becomes filled with one subject, one purpose, everything else becomes trivial. I cannot understand anymore how other people care so much about so many different things.”
She dipped some bread into her bean soup.
“Hmm. That is not much use to me is it? It is hardly practical to saddle all virtuous men and women with obsessions such as yours. Even if we could somehow manage it, the world would be a sad place indeed.”
“No good to you? Is it your intention to change the fortunes of men?”
“Only the way the wind blows, Pamphilos. Let me continue my recollections. My purpose will soon become clear.”
I left Palmyra and headed west, to Antioch. I lost my flock to the heat. I was near the end myself when I found the tracks of a trader caravan. I followed them through the night and managed to catch up. A small group of other orphans followed the traders too, begging for scraps of food and water.
I was frightened to join them. I had no doubt now that I was cursed. I could feel it in my throat when I just imagined somebody asking me a question. So many innocent questions would get me in trouble. Where are you from, how did you get here, why did you leave Palmyra?
At first I considered mumbling my answers, or pretending to be mute. But of course, as soon as somebody would ask What’s the matter with you? the whole history would come out.
In the end, my hunger and thirst won out, and without a plan, I joined the other children.
The questions were not as bad as I had thought. ‘What’s your name?’ they asked and ‘Where are you from?’ It gave me an opportunity to test my condition. I found I could not hold back the answer for long, but if I did, I had some measure of control. I could state that I was ‘from Palmyra’, or ‘from the south’, ‘from a large city called Palmyra’.
Any details I tried to withhold would come out immediately, but if I relaxed and concentrated, I could control the phrasing, and the order in which the facts emerged. I tried answering in Aramaic instead of Greek, but I found that I could not. If I could possibly make myself understood to the person who asked me a question, I had to.
Mostly, I chose the shortest answer possible. Anything to keep people from asking more questions. This did not endear me to anybody, but I usually managed to get some share of the water and food.
Among the caravan, there was a storyteller. A true Greek. At night, when the campfires were lit, he would find a group of traders that had some coin to spare, and tell them stories. Mostly of your ancient heroes. Of Achilles and Odysseus. But also of Alexander. The Greek traders were fond of the stories from the glory days of their empire.”
She paused to help herself to some wine, and bread. I remembered the many storytellers I had seen in my own travels. Indeed, always the old heroes. Tales of the Greek peoples at their finest. People seem so weary now, scarred by so many small and petty wars. So much death and destruction for so little change, demanded by such feeble leaders. They long for the days of Alexander. When a single man, a single Greek, could conquer all the kingdoms to the ends of the world. Or before that, in the days of the old kings, when Agamemnon and Odysseus burned a city to the ground, for the honor of a single man.
Is this why there are so many storytellers nowadays, I thought to myself. Are we the remnants of an empire, looking for any ancient glory to hold on to? It must be why the oracles and the sooth sayers are so popular, too. We are desperate for any promise of guidance. Any promise of purpose.
“For the eastern traders, he reserved the more tragic stories. The stories that the Greeks themselves no longer tell. Of Croesus, of King Oedipus, of Aegeus and Theseus. Around these campfires, the darker, the perverse side of the Greek legacy made a welcome diversion. The eastern traders were eager to hear of anything they could use to put their arrogant western counterparts in their place.
We followed him around, to listen from a safe distance, without angering the traders. The other children would often act out his stories as we trudged after the caravan, pretending to feed each other murdered children, and to gouge their eyes out after they learned of the horrible things they had done.
When we came to Sardis, the caravan disbanded, and with it the group of orphans. As they ran off to their preferred places to beg, play, or steal, I was left alone. Instantly, I felt a great sense of despair come over me. I did not speak Greek well, and I did not know this city at all. Too late, I realized I should have followed the other children.
Behind me, I heard the storyteller. ‘Tell me, how is it that you have survived for so long?’ ‘I’m sorry, I said, I do not understand the question.’ ‘I grew up like you, you know. I lived on the streets when I was your age. Kids like you don’t survive. Kids who don’t fight. Kids who are polite and withdrawn. You need the other kids to survive, and you need to be able to take what you want from them, when it comes to that.’
I now understood. I hoped he would not ask again.
‘How did you survive so long?’
‘I was not always a beggar’, I said. ‘I used to be a goatherd in Palmyra. I kept to myself outside the city walls.’
‘That sounds like a charmed life, for an orphan girl. However did you manage to lose all that, and end up here with the likes of us?’
I tried to fight it, but I doubt he even noticed the pause between his question and my answer. The whole history trickled from me like water from a well spring. I spoke for minutes on end, barely managing to pause for breath.
He looked at me, wide-eyed.
‘Well, that was quite a story. Maybe I mistook you. Is this some scheme you run with your friends, to fool the gullible adults’
‘No. I have no friends.’
He grabbed my tunic. I struggled.
‘Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you. But this is far too interesting a game for you to just run off. You don’t mind, surely, if I put your story to the test.’
‘Please don’t ask me anything embarrassing’, I begged.
‘Hm, a nice touch. If I did that, it would give you just the opportunity to fake a convincing answer. I would feel in control, but really, it would be no test at all. I’m not so easily led, girl. A proper test would be a question about me. Something you wouldn’t know. The name of my first love for instance.’
He looked at me expectantly.
‘I think it needs to be a question’, I mumbled.
‘Your first love was not a maiden. It was a slave boy you called Lathyros. His real name was Phut.’
His eyes became wide. ‘How?’, he shouted, ‘How could you know that?’
He sank to his knees, still grabbing my tunic, dragging me down with him.
‘I didn’t’, I said, ‘until you asked me the question.’
‘You don’t know anything else? About him. About us?’
‘No, not until you ask me.’
His grip on my tunic relaxed, and he sat back. ‘Were you a slave too?’ I asked.
‘I was employed by a butcher then. I used to make deliveries to the villa where he lived.’
We sat in silence for a while. Then, he suddenly jumped to his feet, and smiled at me., ‘I suppose I should ask you more questions, just to be sure. But I’m a little scared, to tell you the truth. Tell you what, how about we stick together for a while? I can show you the city. Teach you some of the tricks the kids use to stay alive around here and scrounge a daily meal together. How do you feel about that?’
‘Relieved’, I said, ‘that I have an option, but a little worried, because I don’t really trust you.’
‘Oh, right’, he said, taken aback by my honesty. ‘I guess I should be careful with the direct questions. Tell you what. I will do my best not to ask you anything so long as we’re together. Not unless you give me permission.’
He thought for a while, seeking a suitable phrase, that wasn’t a question. ‘That might help, I think.’
‘I think it would.’ I smiled.
‘Call me Agias’, he said.
Over the next few weeks, we walked the city. The first priority of the moment was almost always food. Sometimes he would offer to tell a story at the market in exchange for scraps. Most times, people refused, but he would distract them enough that I could steal a loaf of bread.
If we had eaten, we would rest, and when we were rested, but not yet hungry again, we would think of ways to get money. It didn’t pay to have too much money, since it made you a target for robbery, and quite possibly murder, but a small amount of coin meant you didn’t have to worry about food all the time, and it could help with some of the necessities that could not be easily stolen.
I learned to conquer my fears quickly, and soon thought nothing of grabbing a cup of wine from a table outside a taverna, when all eyes were turned. The trick was always to be calm. Be ready to run, but don’t if you can avoid it. And if you keep track of where people’s attentions are, you will rarely need to.
The most exhilarating were the games of chance we offered. You must have seen them many times on your travels, Pamphilos. Three large walnut shells and a small pebble of quartz. Bright enough to be distinctive, but not so unique that you can’t find two alike, in a few hours of looking on the beach.
We played the game near the temples. That was one of his favorite pieces of advice; the temple-goers are desperate. They will believe anything. Work close enough to the temple that you can catch a good number of them, but far enough from the respectable neighborhoods, so that you are left alone by the soldiers.
He would play the shells. I was practicing, but he told me it would take months before I could safely play it in the streets. My job, until then, was to lure the passers-by into our chosen alley. I would ask them directly to join our game, or suggest that my friend was losing his money, and that I wanted them to get the soldiers. Occasionally, they asked me directly what was going on, and I would have to answer them honestly. Mostly, I was ignored and pushed aside. I learned to spot the promising targets much more quickly than I learned to manipulate the shells.
The game needed a third player. Somebody who would be winning big just as the target approached. Agias recruited Lesches, a boy of 18, who could speak Greek with a noble accent. We split the winnings three ways. After a large win, we would buy wine, and spend the night outside the city, under the stars.
I spoke little, when Lesches was around. Agias recognized my fear, and usually cut Lesches off, when he started a direct question to me. But people of our class are naturally paranoid, and Lesches soon began to show his suspicion. When he was away on some errand, Agias took me aside.
‘I’m worried about Lesches. I think he suspects something is off about you. I think it’ll be increasingly difficult to keep him under control. I think you feel the same way.’
By now, he had become skilled in asking questions without asking them.
‘I think so. How do we know if he’s a risk?’
‘There’s one way to be sure. I could ask you.’
I told him he could.
‘If we keep playing the three-shell game with Lesches, what will happen?’
I felt a slight sting at the back of my head, a little nausea, but nothing more. ‘I think the question is too broad. Maybe the answer would take forever to say. Which means we wouldn’t be playing the game at all, so there isn’t a real answer.’
‘Right’, he said, ‘I guess I had better be a little more precise. If we decide to keep playing the three-shell game with Lesches for another week, will we keep playing until the end of the week?’
‘No’, I said.
‘In three days, we will win big. We will get drunk and he will get angry. He will ask me what my problem is, and I will tell him the story of the Jinn. In his drunken excitement, he will ask me questions about treasure, about the future. He will be careless, and the complexity of the answers will tax me to near death. You and he will fight, and you will kill him with the knife you hide in the back of your tunic. We will then attempt to escape the city.’
I was more shocked by the revelation than he was. He smiled lightly and showed me the knife. Reading my face, he said, ‘I tried to tell you child. People in our station… It’s not a bad life altogether, but you need to be prepared.’
‘Have you killed before?’ I realized it was not a smart thing to ask, but I was a child, and it had been a long time since I had had an adult to look up to.
‘Lots of people kill. From the gods, to the kings to us in the street. Even those nice people in the temple every week aren’t above a little poison in a cup of wine, if somebody gets in the way. Just so long as they are sure they can get away with it. I suggest you get used to the idea. I suggest you get used to the idea of doing it yourself. You may need to, one day.’
He wasn’t paying attention to me. He said it off-hand. But those few sentences started something in me. I think that was the moment I stopped waiting for things to happen to me. The moment I began to think about taking control.
Agias may have been a killer, but he didn’t revel in the act, and murder was no solution to the problem of Lesches. However, stopping the game now would certainly anger him. Leaving without a word would raise suspicion, and we would forever be wary of meeting him by accident. Instead Agias devised a far more neat solution. After the week’s first take, we celebrated outside the city, and, acting more drunk than we were, we left our parts of the winnings lying around, while we pretended to sleep. Lesches, predictably greedy, stole the money. For a small price, he was out of the picture, and it would be his job to avoid us.
The next morning, we were free of Lesches, but in urgent need of food. Winter was approaching. Life was moving inside, and people were conserving their money and food. Most of our games were designed for full markets, for people celebrating the harvest and eating outside.
One night, sitting around a fire in hunger, Agias pointed to me.
‘That curse of yours sure saved our hides, child. Have you ever considered it may not be such a curse at all? There might be a way in it to alleviate our current burden. Would you mind if I tried something? I promise not to ask you anything personal.’
‘Ok, How about this. Where… is the nearest buried treasure?’ He asked with a smile.
‘On an unnamed island in the Aegean sea. It is buried at the back of a deep cave.’
‘Hmm, that’s a little further away than I’d hoped.’ He thought for a minute. ‘Where is the nearest dropped coin?’
I pointed to a tree in the distance. ‘By that tree. It’s about two fingers deep in the soil.’
We walked over, and with a few further questions managed to locate the coin. It was a copper obol, which was far from enough to pay for a meal. But Agias soon refined the method. The largest coin within walking distance was a silver tetradrachm, on the other side of the city. A long walk, and buried deep in the earth but enough for several days of comfortable living. We had to spend it carefully too, as two vagrants with that much silver would surely have aroused suspicion at a moneychanger.
This is how we spent the following weeks. Digging for coins, and other valuables in the soil around the city. When all the dropped coins of any value had been found, we found new questions that allowed us to continue. Many coins are not dropped, but stay in the purse, so we found some lost purses. Occasionally, it was not just the purse that had dropped to the ground, but the owner as well. Agias barely flinched at taking money from a dead body. For me, it was another lesson. Another reminder of what was needed to survive.
We had struck gold. A city, it turns out, holds enough loose change for two people to live comfortably, if only for a while. We bought new clothes, and when sleeping outside became uncomfortable, we looked respectable enough to be able to rent a cheap room over a taverna. But something had changed. I was no longer Agias’ apprentice. The source of our income was no longer his experience of life on the streets. It was this strange curse of mine, which he could only control by controlling me. He took care of most things, holding on to the money, arranging food and our room. He told me it was the least he could do, considering I brought in the money, but there seemed to be a hint of fear, or anger beneath his words.
Once, as a test, I think, I pocketed a purse we had found, and tried to move on, back to the city. He didn’t move.
‘Why don’t you let me hold on to that?’
‘Come, let’s go to the city. It’s getting late, and I’m hungry.’
‘Give me the purse, child, it’s not safe for you to hold on to that kind of money.’</br> ‘You’re not making sense. We’re going to walk to the city, and spend all this immediately. Let me pay for dinner this time.’ I smiled in an attempt to lighten the mood. But his resistance showed me that this was not insignificant. This was a fight that was not going to go away.
He moved closer to me.
‘Give me that purse, child. This is important.’
‘You’re being impossible. What does it matter.’
He grabbed my wrist, and squeezed hard enough to hurt me.
‘Now. This is for your own good.’
I gave him the purse, and he set off towards the city. I followed a few paces behind in silence.
After dinner, he brought the incident up. ‘I’m sorry I was so rough with you. I slept badly, I shouldn’t have grabbed you like that. But I hope you see my point. It is better that I take care of the money. This city can be rough, and you haven’t been here for very long.’ I agreed, and apologised for my part.
‘Let us be friends again.’ He smiled, and held out his hand.
‘Of course’, I said, and shook it.
But that night I lay awake a long time.
After a few months, we had assembled a considerable collection of coins and jewelry. However, despite our new, clean clothes, and regular visits to the barber, we could not hide our class. We spoke the language, but not in the right way. Even Agias could not pass for someone who had any legitimate reason to possess a large amount of money. Changing too much money at once, or selling a golden necklace would still arouse suspicion. We had plenty of connections among the orphans and the thieves, of course, but showing too much of our wealth to them was an even greater risk.
One evening, we were sitting on the floor. Agias pointed to the large leather sack we used to hold the jewelry and larger coins we could not spend without arousing suspicion.
‘It’s getting too big to hide anywhere. The owner of the taverna will find it one of these days. He knows what we are. He’ll kick us out, and keep the treasure. He knows there’s nothing we can do.’
‘What if we move to a new inn. Get a bigger room, with better places to hide our finds.’
‘No. Look at this.’ He opened the bag ‘We’re richer than most people we meet on the street. We shouldn’t have to be afraid of anybody. We need a new way of thinking. What if we go bigger? Use that talent of yours to take the money we have and turn it into a real fortune.’
‘I don’t know. Whenever you ask the wrong question I get sick, or talk for ages. I’m scared to push this. How about we move to another city. By foot, we could reach Miletus in two days. We could find fresh coins, and the money changers would not know our faces.’
‘No, I like Sardis, I know how things work here. Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. I’ve been thinking about those chance-games we played, like the shells. What if we didn’t have to cheat? If you can tell us what will happen, we can work out a system where we always win, even if the game is fair!’
‘Why don’t we talk about this tomorrow. I’m tired.’
‘Here.’ He pulled an old obol out of his pocket, too rusty to pay with. ‘When I flip this, will it land head or tails?’
‘Heads.’ I said. He flipped the coin and let it land in his palm, the heads face up.
He leaned in closer. ‘Again, if I flip it, which side will it land?’
The white light again at the back of my head. I held off my answer, fighting the building nausea. Suddenly, the light resolved, and I could see. It’s difficult to describe it, Pamphilos. It’s not quite seeing. More like knowing. Finally I answered.
He flipped the coin and it landed heads.
He looked at me intently.
‘You paused there. Something was different.’
‘Please, I’d like to go to bed.’
‘What happened after I asked that question? Why did you hesitate?’
‘It’s the white light, the one I see when you ask me questions about the future. I could see… inside it somehow. I know what it means now.’
He waited, but this was something I wanted to keep to myself. I wanted to think this through in peace. But his promise not to ask questions when I didn’t want him to had long ago evaporated.
‘Tell me, what does it mean?’
‘The coin was going to hit your hand just on its edge. Which way it fell depended on the slightest disturbance of the air. If I had said heads, it would have landed heads. If I had said tails, then it would have landed tails. Both answers were equally true. The light was showing me. If I wait, if I let it resolve, I can see all the different answers that are true, if I choose to utter them.’
‘So by choosing one…‘
‘I make it happen.’
We sat in silence, both considering the implications. I could see he was tempted to ask further questions, but he thought better of it.
‘You’re right, it’s better to discuss such matters in the light of day. Let’s go to bed.’
I think we both lay awake a long time. Both pretending to be asleep. We both realized that our game was coming to an end. It was time for the final moves.
Agias was shrewd, Pamhilos, but arrogant. He thought, perhaps, that he had some time left to make a plan. Perhaps he had not guessed how much of my recent timidity and deference was an act. Perhaps he was just more tired than I was. Whatever the case, he let himself fall asleep. When he woke up, he found me sitting on his chest, with my knees pinning his arms in place.
I had taken the knife from his tunic and held it to his throat. I forced the tip deep into his skin.
‘Careful’, I said. ‘It’s some time ago that I last did this to one of my goats, but think I can still bleed a body when I need to. The tip of my knife should just be at your artery. It won’t take much movement from either of us.’
‘What is this? What do you want?’
‘I want to find out some truths. I also warn you that the next question you ask without my permission will be the last.’
‘Understood. Ask away.’
‘No, it won’t be quite that simple. You’re going to be the one asking. But I’ll supply the questions.’
I could see a hint of panic in his face. He stared into my eyes.
‘This isn’t you, child. I’ve seen how shocked you were whenever things got violent. All those bodies we found outside the city, you were terrified each time. You may have killed goats, but you can’t kill a man.’
‘Good. Let’s start there, shall we? Ask me if I’m willing to kill you, for a wrong move.’
‘Are you prepared to kill me if I try to escape?’
‘Are you prepared to kill me if I refuse to ask you a question?’
I gave him a moment to digest this information. He spoke softly, and very deliberately.
‘I see you’ve taken my advice to heart. Very well. You’re in control, what’s next?’
‘You ask me what your plan is for the money.’
‘What’s my plan for the money?’
‘You plan to take it. You don’t trust me anymore.’
‘Ask me why you don’t trust me anymore.’
‘Why don’t I trust you anymore?’
‘You realized yesterday that I held more power than you thought. If I could decide the future just by answering questions, I might eventually be able to give the most innocent answer to a question and seal your fate. You decided that the longer you played this game, the more the odds were against you.’
‘You are making me out to be a villain. You are suggesting that this is worth killing me over. It’s a scary thing, this curse of yours.’
‘If you want to plead your case, you’ll get the opportunity later. We are not finished yet. Ask me when you first decided to use my curse to make money.’
‘When we got rid of Lesches. Listen, child…‘
I twisted the knife. Blood started flowing slowly into the nape of his neck.’Ask. Be precise.’
‘When did I first decide to use your curse to make money?’
‘Almost immediately after you first learned about it. You realized you needed my confidence first, but you always knew you would eventually use me to make your fortune.’
He said nothing.
‘Ask me, in your plan to escape with the money, what did you plan to do to me.’
‘Please, you can take the money, just let me go.’
I held the knife firm.
‘What did I plan to do to you?’
‘You planned to kill me.’
‘Ask me why you planned to kill me.’
‘Why did I plan to kill you?’
‘Now that you knew what I was capable of, you could not take the risk that I would follow you and get the money back. It would take one question from a willing stranger for me to track you down. If all I cared about was revenge, I wouldn’t even need to come to you. I could have someone ask about you. About your future, or about how you would die, or whether you would suffer any accidents this year. With a question far enough in the future, and a little bit of luck, I would get to choose from a wide range of answers. You could not bear the thought of living with that over your head.
Do you still want to plead your case? Convince me that I’m being paranoid?’
He remained silent.
‘Good. It may surprise you to learn that I don’t want to kill you. I want to take that money and I never want to see you again. Specifically, I want you to walk out of here, immediately, out of the city, and to keep walking until you get to Miletus. You will spend the rest of your life there.’
‘Of course, you win. Whatever you say.’
‘No. It isn’t quite that easy Agias.’ I paused to let him work out what was going to happen next.
‘Ask me, if I let you go now, whether you will spend the rest of your life in Miletus’
‘If you let me go, will I spend the rest of my life in Miletus?’
The white light again. I struggled to keep the knife steady, but there was only one answer.
‘No.’ I looked at him. ‘Ask me what will happen instead.’
‘What will happen instead?’
‘You will not leave the city. You will wait outside the inn until I leave. Your plan will be to ambush me, to kill me and to take the money.
We sat in silence for a time.
‘There are only two outcomes here, Agias. Ask me what will happen if you don’t convince me that you will spend the rest of your life in Miletus.’
‘What will happen?’ There was nothing but panic in his voice now.
‘I will drive this knife into your neck and you will die. Ask me again. If I let you go now, will you spend the rest of your life in Miletus.’
‘If… If you let me go will I spend the rest of my life in Miletus?’
‘No. Ask me what would happen instead.’
‘What would happen?’
‘You would make it to the city gates, before you regain your composure. Then you would turn back and attempt to track me down.
You need to convince me Agias. It’s the only way you live.’
‘But I can’t…’ he was crying. ‘I don’t know what to do. Please. I promise I want to do what you say.’
‘Shh. Concentrate. It’s not easy. You need to commit to the idea. You can make it true. Here, this might help. Ask me, if you convince me that you will stay in Miletus, whether you will live a quiet life.’
‘Will I live a quiet life, if I convince you?’
The white light again. I held out. Many answers were possible. In his current state, Agias would follow whatever path I chose for him here.
‘Yes, Agias, you will live a quiet life in Miletus if you want to.’
I saw him relax somewhat.
‘Take some time for this. Picture this life for yourself. Commit to the idea fully.’
He closed his eyes, and breathed in deep. I sat there, rigidly, as he concentrated. My muscles began to ache under the strain.
‘I think I’m ready’ ‘Ask the question.’ ‘If you let me go now, will I leave peacefully, make my way to Miletus, and spend the rest of my life there?’
There was no light, only one answer.
I withdrew the knife, and stood up carefully. He rose, rubbing his arms. Despite my precautions, I still pointed the knife at him. He looked at me with slightly dead eyes, as he dressed. He pointed at the water bowl, and our provisions.
‘Can I take some water… some food?’
He filled his wineskin, and took less than half the food. He looked back once, with the eyes of a beaten dog.
He walked out. I could see him out of the window. He walked for the city gates. He did not look back.
The old woman leaned back. The food was gone, and the sky was a deep black.
“What became of him?” I asked, “Agias. Did you ever find out?”
“You’re not usually so easily taken in, are you Pamhilos? You, who have travelled the Aegean, studied the oracles and the messias. Is a fanciful story accompanied by three cups of wine enough to convince you of my supernatural powers?”
I could not gather my words together before she interjected.
“Yes.” She smiled. “I know what became of Agias. I have my priestesses now. They will ask me what I tell them to ask me, and nothing more. I occasionally ask about Agias. He fulfilled his promise, and lived a quiet life in Miletus. He worked himself up to the respectable classes, and found himself an understanding wife. Before long I was a distant memory, something he didn’t need to think about at all, so long as he didn’t stray too far from the city walls.”
She leaned back, and idly tied up the loose ends of her tale.
“I left Sardis, and travelled north. I learned quickly to use my curse to survive. I found people I could pay to ask me questions. Beggars, prostitutes, sometimes small children if the risk was low. If I took people into my confidence, always two or three at a time. That way I could check the loyalty of one by having the other ask about them. Many people have tried to take advantage of me over the years. But it is easy for me to stay a few steps ahead at all times. Not everybody got off as lightly as old Agias, I’m afraid.”
She looked at me.
“I think the time has come, Pamphilos, for you to put me to the test. I’ll let you ask me some questions that will prove I’m speaking the truth. Or at least that I’m not lying about what I can do. What you ask is up to you, but if you’ll take my recommendation, may I suggest a simple secret from your childhood. Something you were once embarrassed about.”
I thought for some time. Just as I was about to speak, she interjected.
“Your question is what was your favorite childhood toy, and how did you come by it.”
I was stunned.
“My priestesses have asked me many questions about you, Pamphilos. About tonight and how this evening might proceed.”
“The toy, for the sake of completeness, was a small wooden gladius”, she said, recounting my own memories to me. “A sword like the Romans carry. It belonged to a friend, the son of the man who tended to your olive grove. They were poor, so his father had carved the sword himself, as a present. It was a beautiful piece of work.
Your father disapproved of the way the Roman army was idolized, and would never have bought such a toy for you, or have had one made. It was infuriating that the child of one of your servants could have something that you desired, something you could never have. So you stole it. You could not let your father see you with the sword, or the friend for that matter, so you hid it among the ancient trees in the rose garden, where the slaves weren’t allowed.
While your friend was chastised for losing the precious toy that his father had spent so much time on, you would sneak off to the garden by yourself to play with it. But you could not ignore your shame enough to enjoy your conquest, so you snapped the sword in anger. You then buried it, and avoided the rose garden for a long time.”
The memory was vague. It seemed clearer in her mind than mine. I was browbeaten, fully willing to go along with the woman’s story. With her plan for me, whatever it was.
She placed a coin on the table.
“I know you don’t feel like inquiring further. You feel sufficiently convinced. But I have some bitter truths for you, Pamphilos, and it will be easier if we fully remove the option of doubting my abilities.”
We played the coin flipping game a few times. I asked, she answered, and I flipped. I was satisfied after five turns, but she insisted I keep going. Thirty times, she said, that’s what it would take to convince a skeptical philosopher with a head for numbers.
She poured out the last of the wine. Half a cup each.
“I think it’s time for the next act. I’ve talked too much already, it’s your turn, Pamphilos. It’s time you told me what brings you here. What’s the question you have for me?”
“You know everything already? Where I’m from, about my son?” “Yes. I know all the details of your life. You are very important to me. I know about your son.”
My son. How do I convey what he meant to me? How can any father? I guess you’ll have to indulge me, and let me start at the beginning. It will show, if nothing else, why I made such a suitable target.
You’ve heard some small part of my childhood from the oracle. In truth, it tells you all you need to know. I was not a nice child, I think.
My parents had six children altogether, but by my ninth birthday I was the only one left alive. Most of my siblings died in childbirth, one an early death in the crib. One, my younger sister, I actually remember playing with. She died from a fever at three.
After that, my mother’s nerves were too frail to make any further attempts at extending the family. My father was expected to divorce her, and to try again with another woman, but he never did. When I was thirteen, she died. I don’t have many memories of her. I think she was deeply unwell for most of my life.
He kept me at home and took charge of my education. He taught me about our great pirate ancestors, the scourges of the Adriatic. Of how his father fought the Gauls in the mountains, and of how he himself twice fought the invading Romans.
During the day he drilled me in naval strategy, and the sneak tactics with small raiding parties that had served them so well in the war. “The Romans never change”, he would say, “They will be back one day and they will fight in exactly the same way with exactly the same tactics. So long as we are prepared, so long as we all remember how we beat them the last time, they will never cross Illyria. That’s us son, our class. Let the King play his games with the Senate. We are the memory of the Ardiae. So long as we remember, we can beat the Romans back when they come. And one day, we will be an independent people again.”
But despite all his lessons, he could not bring himself to take me outside, to let me rig a ship and sail it by myself, to take me to the square where the young men from the village practiced their maneuvers and their hand to hand combat. He would not let me come face to face with the men I might have to lead one day.
He knew what I needed to be prepared for, but he would only let me do it inside. The theories and exercises meant nothing to me without real experience, and I progressed little. The worse I did, the harder he drilled me, and the less it all made sense. He dreaded the day, he said, when he would have to give me control of the household.
With no siblings, and no children of my own class to play with, I resorted to uneasy friendships with the children of our servants. I have few precise memories, but I assume that I acted insufferable, and superior. I was superior, by the law of the land. And yet, I so often saw in their lives the things I craved. A doting mother. The freedom to swim in the sea or to play in the woods on the mountain. Brothers and sisters to argue with.
The day my father dreaded came sooner than he thought. He was summoned to the court of the new King, when he was struck by apoplexy. Even the physicians of the King could do little more than keep him alive. When he came home, his body was limp. When I looked at him, his eyes locked with mine in an intense stare, but he could no longer speak, or make his intentions known.
A messenger travelled with him, and informed me that by order of the King, and by the grace of the Roman senate, I had inherited my father’s lands. I was hereby instated as ruler of the house, and of our village.
While the slaves kept my father alive, with liquid meals, I stumbled into a life my father had utterly failed to prepare me for. I owe much to Midas, our principal slave, who had regularly carried out administrative tasks for my father. He arranged weekly meetings with representatives from the village, and cut in whenever a situation presented itself that I was unequipped to handle.
If he had wanted to, he could easily have ruled through me. The house, and with it the region. He had the cunning, and I would have been very easy to manipulate in those days. But Midas, I believe, always had the interests of the family at heart. I don’t believe that old Midas ever wanted anything but for me to adjust to my role.
And I did adjust. I made many mistakes; misspoken words to village elders, money misspent, calamities not foreseen. But we always adjusted and together, we could always adjust. I was not confident. I was not happy. But I managed. After a while, even some of the things my father had drilled into me began to make sense.
What Midas couldn’t possibly help me with, it would have been unthinkable for a slave even to comment, was my life outside the administration of the household. A better son would have visited his father. Talked to him, told him of my struggles and my triumphs. I was not that son. I never visited him. I passed quietly by his door. I awoke alone, and dined alone. My only company were the slaves and the representatives from the villages. And all the time, there was the door to my father’s room. The door, I told myself, one day I would open. One day I would visit my father, and speak to him. Just not today.
I never did, of course, and two years after the day the King’s men had carried my father into the house, Midas informed me that he had died. I told Midas to bury him with my mother, and to arrange for the necessary rites. I did not tell myself that I should be there. I let the burial pass me by, and at no time during the preparations did I imagine that I would be present. Some sense of virtue, of obligation had died in me.
I withdrew from the village in the same manner. I fulfilled my duties. I received the representatives, and sent my reports to the palace. But I stopped officiating weddings. I no longer visited the harvest festivities or the festivals of the solstice. I disdained common life. The smells, sights and noises of the villagers became something disgusting to me. I no longer strived to be happy or to be virtuous, or to be good at some chosen endeavour. All I longed for was solace. Moments spent by myself in true quiet. Away from sounds and smells. The rest of my time I spent in anger. Anger at nothing in particular. Lashing out at the slaves, at the villagers.
I was like a knot, too complex to untangle, and constantly pulled at from all sides. I saw no way out. My misery would increase, little by little, day by day, until death, like Alexander’s sword, would release me, and end our bloodline in shame.
As it happened, the fates were not content for me to be a loose thread in their tapestry. My knot was eventually loosened, not by a sword, but by the nimble fingers of a young woman. She was a young Nubian. Bought by Midas as an addition to the household. He suggested Anaximene as a name, in line with the tradition we had of taking names from Phrygian royalty.
She was a quiet girl, obedient. She could move around without making a sound, so I ordered that she take care of my morning routine. She would wake me, help me dress and bathe. Midas did this job before her, but could never do so quietly enough to avoid my ire. Even if I did lose my temper with her, where Midas would assume the correct response of downcast eyes, Anaximene would simply look back at me. Not defiant, but not apologetic either. Simply innocent, and still. Other citizens might have had the girl whipped for what they saw as a sign of disobedience. I could not bring myself to such violence, and was forced instead to control my anger. And so began a long, slow process of reflection on my anger and its origin.
At times I resented this, I think. I would imagine how the other men I met at court would respond if they saw a slave in my household refuse to subdue. I would resolve to be firmer, to speak with Midas, and have him discipline the girl. She would learn not to look me in the eye and things would continue as normal. But I never did, and the softer I grew, the more liberties the girl began to carve out for herself.
Ultimately, the opinions of other men never held much sway over me and before long I let go of all convention. I let the girl speak to me informally, I let her call me by my name, and initiate conversations. The other slaves, I’m sure, were bemused by this, and certainly Midas will have taken it upon himself occasionally, to reprimand her. But so long as I didn’t act, they could take little serious action, and the girl acquired a peculiar position in the household.
All this didn’t mean that I had found peace, or that the knot had come undone. One day, I found myself angered by noise from festivities in the village. I sent Midas out to put a stop to it, and treated the rest of the household with little consideration for the rest of the day. At night, I dismissed Anaximene, not wanting those piercing eyes of her to break the spell of my anger.
The next morning she woke me by lightly touching my shoulder, rather than opening the shutters that covered the window of the bedroom.
“How did you sleep?”
“Poorly” I answered bluntly.
“Do you still feel angry?” She sat with one leg on the side of my bed. A position that would have earned her a beating in any other household.
“I think I do, yes” Even by her standards, it was an impertinent question. I think that I answered truthfully, because I felt understood by it.
“Would you like me to keep the shutters in place? Perhaps a few more hours of sleep would do you good.”
“No, thank you Anaximene. I think I had better get up.”
“Your anger must be strong that it still burns after a night of sleep.” she said as she let the light in. “I rarely feel something so strongly that it does not die in my sleep.”
“I must have slept poorly.”
“Or perhaps it was too great an anger to be resolved by sleep and time. Sometimes that is the case. A deep grief, or a profound anger over a great injustice cannot be cured in a day.”
“There was no great injustice behind my anger. I’m not sure why I felt so bad yesterday. Everything was as it should be, and everybody was going about their business. Only the noise from the village disturbed me.”
“But, if you’ll permit me, it seems to me you felt angry before the festivities started. As early as the morning, even though you hid it well.”
I smiled, weakly.
“I can rarely hide these things from you Anaximene. You’re right, the noise simply served to fan the flames.”
“Your hearing really is most acute. I often barely notice noises from the village. It’s quite a distance from the villa.”
I got out of bed, and proceeded to wash my face with the bowl of water she had set down for me.
“Gordias told me it was a wedding yesterday, the party. They broke things off early after he told them to stop.”
She said it carelessly, as a matter of fact, but her words stopped me dead. I imagined a husband and wife, a family, a day of happiness, a day that was meant to be a lifelong memory. Crudely interrupted by a single order from me.
In the past I would surely have begrudged them their happiness. I would have found reasons to think of them as uncivilized, common. But now, I couldn’t see anything in my mind but a simple pair of young people in love. Celebrating love among their family. I sat down on my bed.
Anaximene knelt down at my feet, at once impertinent and submissive, a strange trick of hers. “What is the matter? They are your citizens. It is within your right to regulate festivities. Many noblemen would have done the same.”
“You’re very kind.” But her words did little to ease my mind.
“You are not the first man to act in anger, you know. And this is not the worst action taken in anger. Not by a long way.”
She began to tidy up the room.
“I doubt the villagers resent you very much for it. Much worse is happening in villages around Illyria, without a chance of revolt. If anything, the fact that you care shows you have a gentle soul. From what I see, you suffer worse than anybody.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, as you tell it, all this started because you felt angry. Anger without any cause, and any injustice. Anger so great that a long night of sleep does nothing to quell it.” She stopped what she was doing when she noticed that she had my complete attention. That I was looking up at her wide eyed and unable to speak.
“You’ve been angry for a long time, haven’t you?”
And so I began to tell her, over many days, the way I’d lived. She listened, patiently and without judgement. And in recounting, I found that I could force a change in myself. In some way reliving the past, in minute detail, was like opening an old wound once poorly healed. The process was painful, but the fresh wound would be allowed to heal properly. I doubt she ever knew that in listening to my past, she was playing the physician.
Memories began to come back to me. I knew there were many parts of my past I had avoided thinking about for a long time. What I didn’t know was how many of them were happy memories. My mother playing with me. My mother and father in a loving embrace.
The most vivid memory was of a time during one of the festivals when we ate a meal together. It was the first time I ate a pepper, and it burned my throat. My father laughed, and my mother chastised him for it. She told me to eat bread instead of drinking. My father told me that I would get used to it, that I would learn to enjoy the taste. In demonstration he grabbed a red pepper and ate it whole. He was almost immediately overcome by it, and his attempts to keep composed only worsened matters. My mother laughed at him and then so did I. I’ll give you a taste of pepper, he declared, and tried to kiss her as she squealed and giggled.
These were the memories I had pushed away, trained myself not to recall. The contrast, I suppose between the good and the bad was too great to bear, so I had eliminated only the good, and left myself twisted. Eventually I had convinced myself that all I had buried was misery and pain.
As painful as they were, these conversations were addictive, and I found myself living for little more than my days spent with Anaximene. Anaximene became Ana, and before long, I shared my bed with her as well as my history.
There is no shame in Illyria in taking a slave into your chambers. Taking one into your heart is less common. It may have raised some eyebrows around the household, around the village and even at court, but then I was never seen as a conventional man. And I did not want Ana treated as a commodity any longer. So she became my wife. The wedding was held privately, in the rose garden, the news unceremoniously announced, and Ana became the master to slaves that had previously given her orders. Midas, at least, was admirably stoic throughout, adjusting effortlessly to Ana’s new role as the head of the household. I believe that he could see the change in me, and was happy for it, whatever its source.
Our first child was stillborn. The second, a son, was healthy. I named him Hyllus, after the first Illyrian king. A reminder of our glory days. If I could crawl out of so deep a hole, then perhaps Illyria too, could find its way back into the light. And our family would regain its place at court. Hyllus may have been born of a slave girl, but I recognized Ana as my wife, and Hyllus as my son.
I spoke at length with Ana about how we would prepare him for his later duties. How I would avoid the mistakes of my father. As precious as he was to me, we would take the risk of letting him have adventures. He would meet the men of the village. He would grow up with them. Be trained by them and later train them. He would sail and see the world before he took charge of the household.
He would know what he was defending, and who he was defending it from.
She died when he was three. After surviving as a slave for most of her life and making it through two pregnancies in perfect health, she died in her sleep, suddenly, and with no clear cause.
There was no physician living in the village. Midas sent for a physician from Skhodra, who examined her body, and told us it was likely an infection of the heart. Uncommon in one so young, but not unheard of. He suggested that if she had suffered a period of starvation, or serious illness, in her past as a slave, it may have weakened her heart considerably.
From that point on, I felt like I was managing a forest fire in my chest. If she had been all I had had to live for, I would have gladly let it erupt, let it burn me down, one way or another. Often, I came close. Once, I nearly killed one of my slaves.
Shortly after the funeral, I caught a young slave in her bedroom. I thought he was preparing to clear it out, and I was ready to admonish him for it. But he simply stood there. Frozen, wide eyed, making no excuses. I realized something was wrong, but I could not immediately tell what was going on.
His right fist was clenched tight. I ordered him to open his hand, but he just stood there, motionless. I grabbed by his tunic, and pulled his hand up by the wrist. He relented, and opened it, revealing a small necklace. A gold chain threaded through a small beryl pendant, carved in the shape of two dolphins intertwined.
This was the first thing she bought for herself when she became a free woman. It was the necklace she wore when she wanted to be at her most beautiful. She knew that her face was fair enough, the line of neck gracious enough that too much jewelry would only diminish it. All she needed was one small touch of bright green, offset against the deep umber of her skin, with the faint highlight of the thin gold chain. She wore it often, and in all my happiest memories of her.
And here stood this fool, just days after we had performed the rites, after we had all mourned for her, as a household master and slave alike, sullying her belongings with his greedy fingers. And of all the things he could choose to steal, he picks the one item I would keep above all to remember her by.
I beat him. I kept beating. I was not a skilled fighter. I broke as many bones in my own hands as I did in his face. But he did not resist or fight back. If Midas had not found us, I would surely have killed him. When my rage had subsided, Midas took him away and sold him to a caravan bound for the east. We lost a fortune, selling him in that state, but it ensured that he would be taken far out of our lives, instead of lingering around the village.
But for Hyllus, I would have let that fire burn me to ash. That little boy, asleep in his little bed, offered me a refuge from my rage. A different kind of sorrow.
He was too young, we could not yet explain to him what had happened. He only knew that his mother was no longer there. He needed me. I did not know much about life, but I knew what it would be like for him to grow up without a mother. I knew how he would look to his father. When I looked at him, I felt frightened, unprepared, but filled with purpose. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew what not to do.
A household full of slaves can easily raise a boy. It would have been simple. It would have been expected of me. I would see the boy once a day, perhaps for a lesson, or perhaps we would eat together occasionally, and that would be it. But that was how I was raised. I remembered how jealous I was of the gardener’s children. They ate together every morning, and evening. Their mother put them to bed and sang them a song, or told them a story. I knew that this was what he needed, so this is what I became for him. I must have made a strange sight, a high-born father doting over his son like a wet-nurse, but I had little company, and what little regard I once had for the opinions of others died with Ana.
I lived like that for three good years. Repeating the same routine day after day. It was good for the boy and it was good for me. The simple act of caring for someone else, kept my mind off my own sorrows. It allowed me to mourn for Ana in piecemeal.
And just as I was beginning to find a true peace. Hard fought, well-earned, by any man’s measure, the gods showed their true nature. They were not testing me to build me up, to make me a finer person. They were not teaching me hard lessons through experience. They were simply being cruel. It was cruelty for cruelty’s sake.
Death had come to my door many times, and I was used to it. But Hyllus, he simply disappeared. In the morning, he would usually call for me, or for one of the slaves, since the door to his room was too heavy for him to open by himself. In the summer months we would leave it open, so he could come to my bed by himself and wake me at impossibly early hours of the morning, but in the colder months we closed the door to keep the room warm. This morning, I awoke by myself, with the sun already high in the sky. The slaves had long stopped waking me, since Hyllus performed the job so much more effectively.
I was immediately filled with a vague sense of despair, despite the fact that I could only come up with innocent explanations. He had gone for a walk with one of the slaves. They had let me sleep because I had seemed tired recently. Maybe I dismissed them in my sleep and forgot about it. With every explanation I came up with, my unease mounted. I made my way to his room and found it empty. With rising panic I called from slave to slave. Each occupied with their own jobs, and none of them aware of where the child could be. Mercifully, Midas took charge. He took a roster of all slaves, to make sure that everybody was accounted for and that nobody knew where the boy could have got too. Then he assigned each a part of the grounds and sent them looking, not just for the boy but anything out of place.
When nobody found anything, the men of the village were mobilized, and the woods and mountains were searched. They continued through the night, but nothing was found. No trace of burglary, no trace of an escape with a struggling boy.
Had he died of some illness, I would have simply taken my own life as well. Had he been murdered, I could have occupied myself with fantasies of a cruel revenge. This was the problem in me. If I had known what had happened, I would have known how to grieve, or at least how to destroy myself. Without knowing, the only thing I could do was to trace out what small certainties I had, like Odysseus, seeding his fields with salt.
I knew he had not wandered off by himself, because the door was too heavy for him to open. He could not reach the window. Only one other thing was missing, from among all his toys, a small cloth hippopotamus, stuffed with rags of linen. Made for him by his mother.
There was nothing special about the toy. Hyllus didn’t particularly care for it. The only significance was that his mother had made it for him. It was the toy I would have taken, if I could have chosen only one. It was the toy she would have taken. In my darkest moments, I feared that she had come back, judged me to be unworthly of her son, and taken Hyllus with her to the underworld.
More than once, I dreamt that I myself had taken him. That I had broken myself in two, one side filled with happiness and love, which had taken all that mattered: Hyllus and the memory of his mother, and one side left behind in my vast, empty house, filled with all the bitterness, loneliness and misery that I had collected over the years.
In my more lucid moments, I suspected all the slaves. Questioned them. One or two I beat, in hopes of a confession. I was hoping that somebody would run away, so that I would know that they were guilty. Of course, I had some enemies. Some villagers whose lives I had upset. Some slaves and ex-slaves. The thief, of course, could have made his way back from the slave market in Byzantion. Perhaps even Midas bore some hidden grudge against his new master. Would any of them be so aggrieved as to hurt me by taking my son? Did anything I had done in my life warrant such cruel retribution?
Finally, in my desperation, I turned to the oracles.
I traveled to Dodona first, just over the border in Macedon. Only a few days travel. It was Midas’ idea. To ask for guidance, nothing more, for a way to cope with my grief. But by the time I disembarked at Gitanea, and made my way up the mountains, I knew just what I would ask.
I paid a considerable sum and was given direct access to the main attraction; an ancient oak tree, guarded by a priest of the cult of Zeus. With a small knife, I carved my question in a slip of lead. Addressed to Zeus and to Dione. What happened to my son? I asked.
The priest sat with me, by the oak tree, and we listened intently to the rustling of the leaves. Yes, he said finally, Zeus Naios knows what happened to your son. He is not beyond saving. He wants to be saved. There is a possibility for you and him to see eye to eye again. The Father judges you as unworthy to know more. If you devote yourself, you will be reunited with your son.
I tried to ask more, but it was forbidden. No amount of money would convince them. I was still enthralled by the theatre. Only when I made my way back to the coast, did I slowly begin to realize what a hollow performance it had been. They had told me what I wanted to hear, and tried to rope me into their cult. They didn’t even know my son was gone. I could have been a father wondering why his son had grown distant, and all their answers would still have made perfect sense to me.
But the idea that I might get a meaningful answer this way had taken root. Only days after I had come back home, I left again for the Pythia at Delphi. Afterwards I travelled straight to Epyra, to ask the oracle of the dead whether Hyllus was already in the underworld.
Before long I rarely visited home at all, except briefly to refill my purse. The religious cults were to be found in the hills of Macedon and the islands of the Aegean. The brief moments when I was forced to return became a stone around my neck. I couldn’t bear to face Midas’ pitying eyes, and all the reminders of what I had lost. Eventually, I managed to locate an old friend of my father in Athens who would agree to occasionally lend me money, to be reimbursed periodically, with healthy interest, at the villa back home. The family fortune was more than enough to cover my meagre expenses, and to make it worth his efforts.
And with that final arrangement, I left an empty villa, no doubt tended to loyally by my slaves. An enviable olive grove, an ancient rose garden, and a dozen luxuriously furnished rooms. All kept in perfect condition for over a decade, for nobody in particular.
The wine was finished, and the small village was perfectly still. The old woman waited patiently for me to formulate a question.
“You are having some difficulty?”
“If you do not believe in my abilities, we can conduct further trials, if you like. I have many suggestions, if you are struggling to come up with convincing ways of testing me.”
I did not doubt her abilities. Even before she showed me she could dig into my past. There was simply something about the way she told her story. Not even her confidence, just the choices she made. The details she added, the ease with which she recalled them when necessary.
“I’m not sure what’s wrong”, I whispered.
“How long have you been at sea, Pamphilos?”
“Almost ten years, I think.”
“As long as Odysseus. It’s not easy to come home after such a long time.”
As she spoke, she idly took the breadknife from the table and placed it by her side.
“Like I said. There are many painful truths ahead. Why don’t we work up to the bigger questions. We could start with why it is that you are here. I told you that you are important to me. We could start there.”
“Very well, go ahead.”
“It would be better if you ask me.”
“Of course” I mumbled, “In what way am I important to you?”
“It is as your father always told you, Pamphilos. You are the memory of the Ardiae. When the Romans come, the royalty cowers, or faces them head on in a mad gamble. It’s your people that always beat them in the end. You know the land well enough to hide in the hills, to attack carefully and pick away, never giving open battle. It’s your people who sail from so young an age, and who know the water and the winds so well, that your triremes can face down the Roman navy.
Between you in the east, and Carthage in the west, the Romans are kept in their place, and the world… well, what you think of as the world: the powers around the great sea, Carthaginian, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, keep each other perfectly in balance.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“You need to ask the questions Pamphilos. I know it’s not easy opening your wounds yet again. But you need to ask, or you will never be convinced.”
“I am the memory of the Ardiae, and the Ardiae keep the Romans in place. Is that why I am important to you? Because you want this balance to be preserved?”
“Well, why then?”
“Be precise in your questions. Please.”
“Why then, am I important to you? What role do you want me to play in this careful balance?”
“Simply the opposite of what you suggested. What I want, and what will happen, is that the balance is upset. And for the Romans to be the ones to upset it. They will take Illyria. They will take Macedon. Eventually, they will come to encircle the great sea. They will rule all parts of the world that you and your countrymen know about. It will be an empire that will put Alexander’s to shame.”
I felt a rage build in me. Somewhere deep inside me, my love for Illyria, and my hatred of the Romans still smouldered after all these years, and she was fanning the flames with her nonsense.
“Why? These people brutalized my country. Why would you want them to have the world?”
“Because you have all brutalized each other. Not one of you is a hair better than the other. You Illyrians were nothing more than pirates, for the Gods’ sake, before one of you decided to start calling himself king. Your precious Alexander, loved by every single man and woman this side of the Metzovon. I’ve seen him Pamphilos. I’ve told my Priestesses to ask about him, again and again, until I could see him and his soldiers right there before my eyes. Butchering whole villages, and celebrating the same evening.”
“It’s like that everywhere. Everywhere and all the time. That is my true curse. To see the whole world, throughout all of time. To see the true face of man. Deep into the past, and far into the future. And that is where I made my great mistake.”
She had been speaking with a force that I hadn’t seen in her so far, but now her demeanor turned. If we had not been speaking in the cold dead of night, I probably would not have been able to make out her words. She breathed them rather than enunciating.
“I was still young. I had my priestesses, but I did not fully understand what I was doing. After seeing exactly how much of life in the past and present consisted simply of people being ravaged by warfare, I began to look into the future. I wanted to have some hope, I suppose. To see that it would change. That people learned.”
“Through the first of my priestesses, I asked myself a question. I asked what the worst war of the next three thousand years would look like.
As soon as I had said it I realized my mistake. But I was not quick enough to stop my priestess from repeating the question to me. As the white light hit, I seized up. This was an answer I had too much influence over. It depended far too much on my own actions. I had so much influence over the way the world would turn out, if I chose to use it. And that choice, would depend almost entirely on what I saw then and there as I lay convulsing on the floor.”
“Let me die here, I thought, even before the images flooded into me. If a question can kill me let this be it. Because whatever I answer, I will be responsible. Of course, as much as it taxed my body, the curse would not let me die. I had to answer, that had been my wish. I tried to hold out. With any strength still left in me, to wait for an answer that was not so horrific as what I was seeing. Something I could say that was true, that would give us some hope.”
“But it was no use. Perhaps no such answer was possible. Perhaps nothing I could have done in my lifetime would have saved humanity from the horrors it will inflict on itself. That’s what I try to tell myself most of the time. But I must consider the possibility that by asking this question, and answering it, I made my answer the truth.”
“What did you see?”
She looked up at me with a look in her eyes that changed her face entirely. It was suddenly she who was at my mercy. Begging me for some kind of salvation.
“I tried. As hard as I could, I tried to keep my answer vague. It’s the answer that needs to be true, you see, not what saw. So long as the answer was vague, there might still be room for change.”
She had avoided answering my question, and the strain was becoming too much to bear.
“I saw millions die. As many as all the people in the Roman empire, all the people around the great sea. Every last one of them, snuffed out. Vast machinery, on land, in the air, all built with the single purpose of taking the lives of as many people as possible. Gas, fire, disease, all at the command of man, to put whole generations to death at the stroke of a pen.”
She looked down as she spoke. The emotion evaporated from her voice. She looked up at me.
“But soldiers have always killed soldiers. If there are more people, then there will be more soldiers, and they will eventually all kill each other. The worst is always what soldiers do to the rest of us. Whole people, eradicated, mothers, children, elders.”
She chose her words carefully. I realized later that she was repeating exactly her answer from the first time she had answered the question. Being precise in every word, so as not to add details.
“Not to win a war, or claim some land. Eradication for the sole purpose of eradication. Millions.”
We sat in silence for a long time. My rage was gone, and I felt a strange need to comfort her.
“This was not your responsibility.”
“You are damned right it’s not!”, she snapped. “I’ve seen their faces. The men who will happily guide children to their death. Those who glory in it. Do not think for a damned minute that I will sit here, two thousand years in their past and shoulder the blame while they laugh as they recount to each other what they did.”
“Nevertheless, if I ever had the opportunity to guide the world of man towards a better path than this, I squandered it that day.”
“Did you ever ask? Whether things could have been different?”
“Occasionally, but I never received an answer. Too vague I think. Once something has happened, there rarely seems to be any real truth one way or another to any statement about what might have happened if I’d acted otherwise.”
She took a deep breath and composed herself.
“In all my misery, however, I was left with a purpose. I had pinned one part of the thread to the wall, but before and after that pin, the tapestry hung loose. There were still possibilities. and anything before and after this moment that I had seen, I still had some influence over.
I had learned my lesson, to be sure. I planned my questions more carefully. I quickly learned to ask about what possibilities I had to shape the future, before actually asking any questions. And so I came to the Romans.”
“And they are our best path forward? If they rule, we will live in peace?”
“No.” She spoke softly. “There is little I can do in the near future. The Romans will be as brutal as anybody else.”
“What then? Why do they need to win?”
“Because of their veneration of the Greeks, Pamphilos. It’s the Greek ideals that need to survive. Take solace in that, if you think of yourself as a Greek. Not that the Greeks cannot be brutal or petty. But somewhere in your societies are ideas. Ideas that need to be kept alive. Ideas that are now like fragile seeds, but that someday can germinate truly in the minds of men. The basic dignity of people governing themselves. The pursuit of truth and beauty. The idea that anybody can be held to account by their peers. These notions are nascent, flawed, among the Greeks, but they are there, and when they grow, they may prove our salvation.”
“Then why not the Greeks? Why should we subjugate ourselves to the Romans in order to keep our ideals alive?”
“You have seen that yourself, in the past 10 years. The Greeks are a splintered people. Browbeaten and defeated. Decadent, with no vision or ability to weather hardship. Any power they have they spend on pointless feuds. They do not value what they have. They do not remember Socrates and Plato. Or Hypathia and Aristarchus. They remember Alexander and Agamemnon. They dream only of another grand empire. If the Greeks win the great sea, there will simply be another line of cruel royalty. The temples will come to control the King, and in the name of virtue, your history will be wiped away.”
“But if the Romans win, they will take your culture home as spoils of war. They will scarcely notice your brutality, since they have plenty of their own. They will see your statues, your architecture and your writing. They will bring them home, and in the light of your achievements, they will feel like brutes. The Greek ideals will take a hold of them, more than they ever did with the Greeks, and as the truth of Greek culture fades into history, its ideals will blossom.”
“They will fade again when the Roman empire does. But by then, their legacy will be indelible. The most powerful temples in the world will try and fail to erase the ideas alive today in the heads of these Greeks.”
They will be rediscovered. They will inspire again and again. They will not stop people from brutalizing each other. But we will see, in stark contrast to what we are, what we could be. After each atrocity, after each genocide, when we again come face to face with ourselves, confronted unmistakebly with what we are capable of, we will know what to turn to. We know the ideals we should live by even if we don’t, and each time we try, they will take root more strongly in our laws, and in our culture.”
“And all this will take thousands of years?”
“At least. I have not dared to look any further. Two millennia is enough responsibility for any one person.”
“And without the Romans, these ideas will not take hold?”
“Not in the lands around the great sea, and to the north. Many other people throughout time will hold to these ideals, and many more useful ones. But in the end what matters is the people to our north. Eventually, whatever they think, what they believe, the world will suffer. Somehow, some grain of empathy, some notion of human dignity must end up somewhere in their view of the world. Even if they don’t act on it, they should know that they should have done.”
“So the Romans need to take Illyria. And after that the world.”
“A large part of it.”
“But I can stop them.”
“Think of the empire as a boulder, held in place by just enough pebbles. You were one of those pebbles.”
She gave me a sympathetic smile, as I slowly locked eyes with her.
“Now, we come to the painful part.”
The fire was back in my chest, as I began to realize what I should have seen much sooner. My mind raced. For the first time, I felt the urge to take control over the conversation.
“Your plan for me… to get me out of the way. It’s already in motion.”
“Be sure, Pamphilos, that you are ready for what comes next.”
“Tell me.” I said, teeth clenched.
“Then ask me.”, she replied calmly.
“Did you take my son?” I was no longer hesitant to open old wounds.
“I was responsible, ultimately, for him being taken. But that is not where my influence on your life started. This will be easier for you if we start at the beginning.”
“When was the beginning? When did you start playing around with my life?”
“From my perspective, before you were born. I found my purpose the same year Illyria first submitted to the Romans. Your father fought for the queen. In him I saw the memory of the Ardiae. I saw you.”
“From my perspective. Where did it start for me? Did you kill my father?”
“No. You must remember, Pamphilos, that I am not a God. A man does not die because I want him to. I cannot send people where they do not want to go. I can only answer questions.”
“You had a clear intention: to remove me from the path of the Romans. What was the first thing you did to achieve that purpose?”
“I sent you Ana, Pamphilos.”
And with that one name, she had quelled the fire again.
“I did not do it out of kindness. But still, I take some solace in the fact that I brought you love among the misery.”
“Why any of it? Why did you need Ana?”
“You were an unhappy man. Without Ana, you would have had a son eventually, with a slave also, but not out of love. And you would not have been kind. It would have been sufficient. You would have trained a strong, and angry leader, and in a few years, when your current king blunders into another war, you and he would have been there, to make the passage through Illyria just enough of a miserable experience for the Romans, to stop them from fully conquering you.”
“I needed somebody gentle. Somebody clever and attractive. Somebody who could unpick you before it was too late. It wasn’t easy you, know. I found her in Egypt, and if not for me she would probably have stayed there. It took me five years to get her to Illyria.”
“How can that happen? How can you change the fates so much, just by answering questions?”
“I asked. I asked who it should be, and how to accomplish it. I started my temple, and let people ask me questions. I sent people away to distant cities. You will travel to Alexandria, you will meet a handsome stranger, you know the sort of thing. It’s easy to be vague enough that it will be true. Then, it’s a simple matter to add small requests of my own. If you travel to Alexandria, and tell a slaver named Apollodorus about this oracle, then you will meet a handsome stranger. I rarely need to be subtle.
So I slowly brought people to me. Slavers, traders, the rich and the poor. And I sent them on their way, to bring me more people. With every question I was asked, I increased my control over the traffic across the great sea, and with my priestesses I could plan months ahead.
When things finally came together, I had directly changed, and sometimes ruined, the lives of hundreds of people so that one slave boy in Cairo would neglect his duties for a night of passion with a young prostitute. True love, mind you, but they never would have met if a sailor I had called to me a year before, had not decided to give her a beating for declining her services just as the young boy passed by on an errand. He saved her, and she gladly rewarded him with the only means she had.
This one magical night cost him dearly, as the linen he was meant to be guarding was stolen. This left a silk trader who was visiting the next day without a return cargo. Instead he found a slave girl to sell back in Ephesus.
From there to Athens, and to Illyria. That part was easy. The further north, the more exotic her dark skin made her, so the traders could make a neat profit by buying slaves like her and moving them north.
Then I needed to put her before Midas, and to convince him to make the purchase. That was perhaps the biggest puzzle. His visit to the market was a month after she’d been moved on, originally, and her price was well above what was reasonable for a simple house slave. Moreover, Midas had a preference for a young boy, since he was looking for a slave that could help with the more intensive labor.”
I could not entice any of the traders to come to Naxos beforehand. This was one point of the world, where at this moment of time, I had little direct influence.
I knew it could be done, since I had asked, but whenever I asked how, the answers were frustratingly vague. For the longest time, I could not get the picture clear enough.”
She fell silent for a minute.
“It was the only way. I asked, I tried to find other options. There were none. To put Anaximene in your life, I killed 36 slaves. It was an Egyptian mercenary. A carrier of a dormant disease. It’s common in the south of Egypt, but not around here. I found him and put him on the wrong ship. He was captured by pirates in the Aegean, and sold into slavery at Lissos. Within two weeks, most of the slaves, and three of the traders lay dying.”
“Anaximene had come into contact with the disease at a younger age, and was now no longer susceptible to its effects. She survived where her captor did not, and when Midas finally came, she was by far the healthiest option at the market. The price was still steep, but he had travelled too far to return empty handed.”
There was remorse without regret. I could see in her eyes, the determination that must have faced Agias when he found her sitting on his chest with a knife to her throat. She knew, with greater certainty anybody else was ever afforded, what her path ought to be. And she was determined to follow to the end.
“That’s what it took. Five years, and 36 or so lives, but after that, Anaximene was in your life, and I needed to interfere no more. All the threads were pinned in place, and it was still five years before you or Ana would even be born.
When everything was prepared, I had my priestesses ask what your future would be and I gave the answer that I knew I would. You would fall in love with Anaximene, marry, have a son, she would die, and you would lose Hyllus, and then yourself. After that, your future was set in stone.”
“All this to remove me. Why not send the mercenary to my door? Have him infect me instead of those 36 boys, or just have him kill me directly. Anybody with a purse could have arranged for that.”
“Such drastic action rarely has the desired effect. I needed you out of the way, Pamhilos, but not your house. If you had died, there would have been a hundred would-be nobles eager to take your place. With no successor, the king would have given your lands to whatever high-ranked soldier had most recently pleased him. No, I needed you out of the way, but your house needed to remain in place. An empty villa managed by a senior slave.”
“Ask me, Pamphilos. Ask me about your son. It’s time to end your suffering.”
When I finally spoke, I realized I was crying.
“I don’t understand. You said you took him…”
“I said I was responsible. I knew what would happen. I planned for it to happen. I could have stopped it, and didn’t. I could have given you love and let you keep it. But Hyllus would have been a fierce and glorious leader for the Ardiae.
Ask me what happened to him.”
“He was taken by Gordias. One of your slaves. You beat him almost to death a few years before, when you caught him stealing on the day of Ana’s funeral.”
“Gordias? There is no sense in that. He was sold off. Midas made sure that he would end up in Byzantion at least. Are you suggesting he escaped? That his desire for revenge was so strong that he made it all the way back to Illyria to torment me by taking my son? All that for a simple beating?”
“No, I’m not saying that. Just that Gordias was the man who took your son. It would help, if you accepted that slaves are never as loyal as they seem. Your slaves had secrets from you.”
“Midas lied to me?”
“Frequently. In this case, he set Gordias free. He told you that he had sold him to a trader bound for the east. The boy escaped to the hills, and tried as best he could to live from what the forests provided.”
“Why? Midas loved Ana as we all did. Why would he take pity on that wretch after he stole from her on the day of her funeral?”
“Because Midas knew why Gordias took the necklace. It was a memento for him as well as for you. And for the same reason. It was the necklace she wore when she wanted to look beautiful. It was the necklace she wore whenever she went out to meet him.”
“You’re lying. I don’t believe a word of it.”
“Then ask me, Pamphilos.”
“This is nonsensical. She loved me. I know she loved me!”
“She did. I promise you that she did. She simply loved him as well. She saw no difficulty in that. I will explain, but you need to ask me first.”
“Did Ana betray me?”
“She lay with another man. To her mind this was not a betrayal, although she knew you would consider it such.”
“How can you say she loved me, when she did that. Did she love me?”
“Yes, Pamphilos. She loved you. But she was a very special woman, with a particular view of the world. After tonight, when this is all over, the one truth that you’ll struggle most to accept in the days to come is that you never truly knew your wife, and that you never really wanted to find out.”
“I knew her. She had my child. We raised…”. Emotion got the better of me.
“Yes, some parts of her you knew well. And some she kept hidden. Did you ever ask her what her life was like before she met you? Her life as a slave, for instance? How she came to be a slave?”
It seemed unnecessary for me to answer.
“I suppose it is to be expected. A million slavemasters in the past and present have turned away their eyes as you have. And will continue to do so for thousands of years to come. It’s rare that love should blossom between a master and a slave, but I shouldn’t expect that to cause you to open your eyes any further.
Her life as a slave was dismal. She was first sold at 12. I don’t suppose I need to tell you what happens in the trade routes to a pretty young girl, with such an exotic appearance. You may not have asked, but you felt those scars on her back, on her arms and on her legs.
How about before she became a slave? Did you know she was of minor royalty?”
Again, no answer seemed required.
“The lands to the south of the Ptolemaic kingdom are as contested as your own Illyria. Anaximene was one of the cousins of the ruler of a minute kingdom. The king had sworn allegiance to Ptolemy, so that he could maintain his status. When the area changed hands again, Ptolemy did not send armies to come to his vassal’s aid. Instead, he used the conquering of the kingdom to buy time to amass his forces on its northern border.
The king made an attempt to switch his allegiance, but you can only do that so many times, Pamphilos, before the gesture becomes meaningless. He was publicly humiliated, put to death, and his household sold into slavery. Among them Ana.
Can you really blame her, after such a life, for holding nothing sacred? For doing whatever she could get away with. Taking what little fruit life would give her and letting not a drop of juice go to waste? She had a gift that one, a gift for reading people. And she learned to use it soon enough. To stay alive, and to keep out of trouble as much as possible.
She had a gift, and she used that gift on you, Pamphilos, when she finally came to Illyria 14 years later. And the gift bought her freedom, and even luxury.”
“Is that what I was to her? A way out of slavery? You said that she loved me.”
“No, you were much more than that. That was why she was so special. Plenty of slaves learn to manipulate their masters. But Anaximene, she never became cynical. She always read people accurately. Not as a means to an end. She always saw the whole of you, for better or worse. She could care for you and use you at the same time. Perhaps it was because she had once had slaves of her own, that her view of the world and the people she met was so complete, and yet so detached.”
“Then how could she betray me? If she knew what it would do to me?”
“To her it was not a betrayal. She saw two very different things in two different men, and she took what little life had to offer her. She knew it was a betrayal to you, but… I suppose the best way to put it is that she knew you, but you didn’t know her. She saw in you all the kindness and bravery, all the insight that you were capable of. She saw how much you loathed yourself, and how little of that good you could see yourself. She had met so many brutal, cruel men. She saw in you, for the first time, how much self-loathing is reserved for the best of men. And this inspired her to love you.
But this love was one sided, incomplete. She saw so much of you, but you saw so very little of her, and she knew you never would. She needed someone to confide in. Someone who could understand her, the way a slavemaster never could. And she found it in Gordias.”
At the mention of his name I suddenly became angry. I was done with the play.
“Enough of this. Tell me what I came here to hear. What happened to my son?”
She took as deep a breath as her curse allowed before answering.
“Your son, Pamphilos, was stillborn. You and Anaximene buried him in the old rose garden.”
I was too angry to notice the subtlety in her emphasis. I blundered on, in blind anger, deeper into the fish trap.
“Stop playing these games. My second son, what happened to him.”
She gave me a pitying look.
“I’m afraid, Pamphilos, you only ever had one son. And he is buried among the roses.”
It was, I suppose, a truth I had been trying to escape from for the past ten years. Every time I carved the question into a slip of lead, whispered it in a dark temple to a smoky figure of a priestess, with every dark cave I descended into, I convinced myself ever more that the question was unanswerable. The greater I made the mystery for myself, the deeper I buried the simple truth that I had everything I needed to answer the question myself.
We sat in silence for a long time.
“Would you like me to tell you the details, Pamphilos? I think it’s important for you to hear.”
“I think it’s best if you ask me.”
I didn’t care. I felt numb. The obsessive desire to escape the truth that had driven me across the Aegean had been crudely pulled out of my chest. I was finally entirely empty. I wanted her to tell me what she felt it was necessary to tell me. But I couldn’t think of a way to phrase that as a question.
“What happened to Hyllus?”
“His father came back to take him. Gordias tried to leave Illyria, many times. He tried to tell himself that Hyllus was better off with you. Well fed, well cared for by a dozen slaves. He even recognized, despite his jealousy, that you were a far more loving father than any other slavemaster in Illyria would have been.
But he remembered what Anaximene had told him, when she was still alive. He was the father. If she would ever have to choose, she would choose him. If they ever had the opportunity to escape safely, she promised him, she would do it. If it was at all possible, they would live together as a family. No matter how much it would hurt you, Pamphilos, and how much it would hurt her to do that to you, Hyllus came first. And to her, Hyllus needed Gordias.”
“Did she mean it when she said that?”
“Yes. But all of it, Pamphilos. The thought of doing that to you, of leaving you was unbearable. But she was prepared to do it for the boy.
That is why Gordias ultimately did what he did. Not out of jealousy. Not to hurt you. For her. To honor the memory of the woman you both loved.
He knew the house of course. And Hyllus knew him. When you were away, he and Anaximene took every chance they could to spend time with the three of them. Hyllus knew that his mother trusted this man, so he trusted him as well.”
“Hyllus. Is he alive?” I said through my tears.
“Yes. Gordias did eventually travel to Byzantion, and found a work there with a maritime trader. When he was young, the trader’s wife took care of Hyllus, together with her own children, while the men were out at sea. From his twelfth year, he joined his father. He is 18 now, and regularly captains the ship. He is a very accomplished sailor.”
“Does he remember? His time with Anaximene? Does he know who I am?”
“Yes. I think that Gordias would have preferred to keep the details from him, but that would have entailed withholding the details of his mother and her life. And Gordias was determined that Hyllus should know as much of his mother, and her life as he himself could remember. And that included her time at your house. He was honest. He told Hyllus that after a long list of cruel and brutal masters and traders, she finally found herself in a villa in Illyria, under a master who hated himself, but was kinder to her than anybody she had ever met. He told him that she loved that master before she loved his father. And that the worst thing she was ever going to do was to break his heart and run away with Gordias.
Those stories shaped him a lot. He knows that the Illyrians are the finest sailors on the great sea, and he considers that part of his heritage. He thinks about his mother most of all. She has inspired in him a desire to live away from society, to have as little to do with its structures and rules as possible. His sailing life gives him that freedom.”
“Eighteen.” I it said with a tearful smile. Different emotions rolled over me like waves over a beach. For all this time, I had imagined him frozen in time, six years old, like he was the last time I saw him. I had never truly dared to dream that he was still alive, so I had never thought to imagine him growing up. I was buffeted between the fear of his death and the impossible fantasy of us continuing our lives exactly where we had left off. I had never let myself think anything so realistic as this. That Hyllus was leading a perfectly good life, with only a dim memory of me, while I slowly destroyed myself for no good reason.
Above us, the sky had turned from deep black to a dark purple. On the horizon was a faint, orange glow. A cold wind came in from the sea.
“So what happens now?”
“Now we discuss your future. I will make you an offer and you will take it. But, please, Pamphilos, be careful with such broad questions. I cannot always control what the answer will be.
You have had a lot to endure. You may feel now like you’ve accepted what I have told you, but over the next weeks you will come back to it again and again. You will realize how angry you truly are with me for manipulating your life. That anger will not die easily. You will think of travelling to Byzantion to see Hyllus. Or back to Illyria, to wait for him to visit. These are bad ideas.”
“Why? Why should I not meet him?”
“You would trade one obsession for another Pamphilos? So soon after you’ve been relieved of your burden? It’s a bad idea to visit him, because he has his own life. He is detached, and he is happy to be detached. His memories of you are the memories of his mother. That is the very best you have to offer him. That is what you can be to him. Meeting him now would only erase that.”
“What then? What is your offer?”
“While you come to terms with what you’ve heard tonight, you can stay on the island. There will be many times in the weeks to come when you will want to confront me. That will be a lot easier to do if you’re not halfway to Illyria. There is a free hut at the north end of the village. It’s not very big but it gets shade in the morning and sun in the evening. Eventually, you’ll need to help out with the daily labors of the village, but it’s generally light work. You may see me whenever you like, if I’m not otherwise engaged, and I’ll answer any questions you need answered.”
“And you’re sure I won’t try to hurt you? Or myself?”
“My dear Pamphilos, if there were any risk of that, I would never have let you come here. It was not necessary for my purposes that we meet. You are here by invitation. Even a man like you, desperately searching for every oracle that the Aegean has to offer would never find this island if I didn’t want him to.”
“So why did you bring me here? Out of guilt?”
“In a word, yes. I do not always enjoy the things I need to do. Whenever possible I try to make my confession. And while I cannot make amends for what I don’t wish to undo, I can do my best to offer you some comfort in the rest of your life, if you would accept it.”
“What comfort is there for me? After this life, what possible comfort could I hope for?”
“Like I said, I can help you come to terms with what has happened to you. Or, let us not mince words, with what I have done to you. And then, when things have settled down, I can offer you… questions.”
I did not understand immediately.
“I mean, I would allow you to ask me questions. Not at any moment of the day, I am very busy. But say, once every two weeks, for a short while, you may ask me a series of well-considered questions. Perhaps about Hyllus, to see how he is doing. About Midas, perhaps, or Anaximene’s past.
But also about the world. You may ask me what the planets and the stars are made of. Which of the gods are real. Whether there are people on the other side of the earth. I offer you anything you may wish to know. What the Roman emperor thinks about when he masturbates. So long as it doesn’t interfere with my intentions, I’m happy to let you ask what you want.
There are a few like you on this island already. I always look forward to speaking with them. I have mined this curse for everything I could think of, but you people, you somehow always manage to come up with questions I have never thought of before.”
“It doesn’t seem like a particularly appealing offer.”
“It will, in time. For now, hold on to the thought that I can tell you where Hyllus is and how he is doing. You are free to leave the island, but that is what you would be giving up. That should be enough to see you through the next month or so.”
She raised herself up with difficulty.
“It has been a long time since I spent a night awake. I don’t think it agrees with this old body of mine. For you, sleep will not come easy today, but I suggest you try anyway. Diotima over there will see you to your hut.” A young girl was standing, eyes downcast, by the well.
“Among the few luxuries we have on this island is a liberal stock of papyrus. If you have trouble sleeping, may I suggest you write down your thoughts, or simply write down anything else that comes to mind. I find that the process of writing can be helpful for people in a position like yours.”
That is where you find me now. In my hut, which is indeed surprisingly comfortable. Several of the villagers have offered to help me turn it into something that will be suitable for winter, should I decide to stay. She told me I will, and I have no reason to doubt her, but I do not feel it yet.
As I write, it has been eight weeks since I came to the island. So far everything she said has come true. The acceptance and relief I felt at the end of that night were short lived, and mostly inspired by exhaustion. After eventually finding some sleep, I found my fury refreshed as well as my body. I had many heated confrontations with her. She was mostly patient with me, and said what she needed to say to help me through my anger. It’s a frustrating experience to attempt an argument with somebody who has been able to plan the confrontation in advance, but she seems mostly to have my interests at heart.
I was not angry for what she chose to do. I cannot think what I would have done in her place. I also admitted, however angry I was, that she brought me everything that was good and worthwhile in my life. I could not even wish that she had chosen somebody else in Illyria, for that would have been to wish I had never met Anaximene.
I suppose I was simply angry. Everything happened as it should have. Everybody did what they should have done. And I just happened to be angry about it. I still am. But I no longer feel the need to direct the anger to her. I no longer expect to get some resolution out of a confrontation with her. My anger simply is, and I will let it be.
She still allows me to see her quite often, but now I am asked to prepare my questions in advance. She already knows what they will be, of course, and tells me whether any of them are disallowed. She allows many things, but questions about anything further than the immediate future are usually forbidden. I asked once, what she would do if I ignored her, and blurted the question out anyway. She said in that case I would be removed from the island long before I could even speak to her. Most likely, our first meeting never would have happened in the first place.
There is no such impulse in me. I mostly ask about Hyllus these days, and about Ana. Just as she suggested. It is painful and embarrassing to learn how little I knew her, but there is solace in coming to know her now.
Yesterday, the Oracle told me that the blue hippopotamus that she made for Hyllus was the symbol of her royal house. Apparently, her childhood palace was filled with statuettes and of the animal, elegantly carved in Lapis Lazuli. The floor of the palace’s throne room was a vast and sparkling blue mosaic, showing the full body of a hippopotamus, that cast an otherworldly light over the place.
The villagers let me be. It’s easy to tell her other victims apart from her priestesses and accomplices. They keep to themselves, write, take long walks. There is one I speak to occasionally. He used to be a soldier in the Seleucid empire, but it seems to be an unspoken rule that we do not discuss our histories in too much detail.
He told me that he too, spent a long time using his questions to find peace with what had happened. But then, as he settled in, he had started to wonder what things are made of, ultimately if we could see small enough, what would we see. It seemed a simple question, so he asked the Oracle. Her answer was so exceedingly vague that he couldn’t help but ask a series of further questions, even though he was only allowed three in total. She was patient with him, but the more she answered, the less he understood. Before long this was the problem that occupied his mind, to understand these answers. He has made great progress, he says, and suggests that sunlight and rain are both made of the same substance, which is in part like a missile from slingshot and in part like a wave on the sea.
This seems to be how most of them spend their days. They use the oracle to answer great and profound questions, and then spend their days attempting to understand the answers. Much is written, but we all accept that it is most likely that she will not allow any of it to survive, or to escape from the island. We are allowed to satisfy our own curiosities, but the days when we might have some effect on the course of history are behind us. We are not dead yet, but we are by no means fully alive. Whatever grand discoveries we make, they die with us.
I wonder, is she content with the same fate? Has she decided to make her exit from this world gracefully, with nobody ever to know what part she played in our history? Two-thousand years, she said. That is enough responsibility for any one person to shoulder. Perhaps she would allow something to remain hidden. Something, she could make sure we would only find in time. Something to let them know that there was some order, some choice, that the world they suffered through, as bad as it was, was not the worst possible. That there was somebody, in the depths of time, making sure that though they erred and suffered, someone somewhere would at least learn from their suffering. Someone who made sure that that lesson stayed alive.
I feel that they should know. And for all she’s done, I feel that she deserves for it to be recorded.