I have a bad habit of ignoring short stories in favour of novels. I wrote the following a couple of months ago, with the intent of dealing with past attitudes in a non-judgemental, objective fashion. It’s easy to take the moral high ground when examining history, but to do so is to juxtapose our cultural norms with their cultural norms. If we judged historical figures by own standards, we would likely end up being disgusted, shocked, horrified. As L.P. Hartley wrote; ‘The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.’ And it’s best we just accept that.
Metic – Foreigner
Lacedaemon – Spartan
Polis – City-state
Oikoi – Household
It was a mild night, but that didn’t make my task any less urgent.
I followed the salty smell of rotting fish to the harbour. Oil lamps flickered all along the seafront as watchers gazed over Poseidon’s realm. Black triremes bobbed on the gentle current, their brass rammers twinkling beneath Selene’s passing gaze. The gods were busy tonight, both within the walls of Piraeus and in the ashen fields beyond.
Athenians slept rough like poor metics who had just arrived from some far flung part of Greece. I kicked an old, desperate looking man out of my way as if he were a disobedient slave, not a citizen of a polis. An Athenian. A democrat reduced to lying awake whilst his crops were trodden underfoot and his livestock slaughtered by the Lacedaemons. And all the while Pericles spoke of the courage of Athenian men, even as smoke from the Attic countryside stained the sky.
I stumbled closer to the waste dump. The smell was more potent each night, and I found myself covering my nose with my sleeve. I proceeded some way into the dump, before stopping and listening, trying to disconnect the separate sounds; to decipher the message on the wind…Wood creaking, sea breathing, cattle stomping, voices raised in the night…a baby balling. I held my breath and concentrated on the hungry infant’s cry, waiting for it to louden desperately, calling for someone, anyone; ordering attention like a master bossing his slaves.
Its commands were heralded and it stopped screeching, mouth plugged by its mother’s breast.
I continued my search. Broken pots grinded beneath my sandals, and I saw that I wasn’t alone, but was in the company of young boys who were making a game of sliding down the rotting hills whilst searching for anything valuable the swollen city might have unknowingly expelled. I shooed them away. They were competition, after all.
My decision not to bring an oil lamp seemed to have been the wrong one, as cloud rolled overhead and dulled the moon’s light. It wasn’t self-consciousness at what I was doing that had determined by decision, rather there were too many strangers in the city to risk showing myself off. So, I stopped where I was and I closed my eyes and I listened to the voices on the wind and again I heard something. Screaming. It didn’t stop.
Such a scream connects us all. From kings to slaves, everyone has screamed to such a tune like that I could now hear. This infant was more determined in its bossing of the world, like an old tyrant frantically calling to his many servants without realising that they had all left him to die alone. I was careful where I put my feet, especially when the volume of the cries rose to such an extent that I winced. So close to it, I felt a fluttering of compassion for such a tiny creature, an illogical anxiety that I still would not find the infant, rather someone else will.
All of that tension soon dispersed when I at last found the bossy baby, still wrapped in swaddling clothes, screeching and stretching. I picked it up gently, supporting its head. It calmed down slightly, perhaps in expectation of a meal. I checked to see that it was a girl, two days old perhaps. Her father had come to the decision that she wasn’t wanted quickly, as was his right. All he would have seen in her pink face was a dowry he could not afford – someone who would be married off to propagate another’s oikoi, whilst leaving his own poorer.
I held the lively child against my chest, having found with my own children that the heartbeat of another often soothes. The girl took pause from her frantic display, and looked at me with black eyes, wondering perhaps if I was her mother, who she will never see again.
I moved quickly, yet careful not to risk damaging the infant by stumbling or tripping over. Her tears resumed, and I whispered to her stories of Orpheus and his quest into Hades to rescue his love, and Orion’s doomed obsession with the beautiful Pleiades. Distracting myself like this, it seemed like no time at all until I was compressed within the Long Walls which connected Piraeus with the city proper. The route was crowded with refugees from Attica. There was a pestilence there making people cough until their eyes were blood red, vomit until they could no longer stand, so ravaged by ulcers that it hurt them too much to even move. Some were saying the Lacedaemon’s had poisoned Piraeus’ reservoirs; others that the gods were getting their revenge for some ill deed done towards them.
I left the worse of them behind and found the atmosphere in Athens less wretched, but still discernibly tense. Hoplites, in a panoply of armour despite the late hour, moved agitatedly between burning lamps, wondering when the day would come for them to march out of Athena’s city and meet their foe head on.
Approaching the Agora, I turned so that my back faced the Acropolis and carried on for a while until there was a wooden storehouse to my right. The child in my arms was silent, having fallen asleep some time ago.
I knocked on the door to the storehouse. Moments later a panel retracted and a pair of suspicious eyes stared at me. Trading hours had long since ended, but I was a familiar face, and the door soon swung open. The slave who had admitted me carried off the box he had needed to stand on to reach the peep hole, and went to call his master. The child in my arms threatened to scream again, perhaps disturbed by other infants she could hear crying.
One of the side doors opened and a tired-looking proprietor entered, accompanied by a freedman and a female slave. “Antenor,” he greeted me.
I acknowledged him. “Xenagoras.” I shifted my arms so as to show him the infant. “Another one exposed at Piraeus.”
Xenagoras nodded towards his freedman, whom I handed the child over to. She immediately started screaming. After examining her, the freedman gestured towards his former owner, before setting the infant down on a set of scales.
“A good weight,” Xenagoras said, clicking for his coin purse. “I’ll give you fifteen drachmas for it.”
“Twenty,” I said immediately. “And you can sell her for five times that amount in twelve years.”
“It’s the twelve years that cost,” Xenagoras said with a chuckle. “Seventeen, or you can put it back where you found it.”
I decided not to fray my working relationship, and so extended my hand and shook on a deal. The baby was handed over to the slave girl who would act as her wet nurse. Before they left I said to the slave, “Tell her a story if she needs calming down, just not the one about Niobe and the Twins.”
Business concluded, the freedman counted out the coins and hands them to me. I hid them in a pouch in my tunic.
As I was readying to leave, Xenagoras called out to me. “I heard your household has grown since last I saw you.”
Proudly, I turned back to him and said, “A little girl, two weeks old. I named her Cassandra. Her brothers seem to think she’s a toy, but gods’ willing she’s a strong, healthy child.”