|The Priestess and the Slave
by Jenny Blackford
Chapter Two—Harmonia, The Slave
Athens, Summer, 430BC
THERE SHOULD HAVE BEEN nothing in Aristogeiton’s stomach except the water
that I had trickled between the boy’s bleeding lips over the previous hour, but all
the same he retched and groaned until the bowl I held was half-full of foul liquid.
The smell in the boy’s bedroom was appalling, but a slave must cope each day
with things that an Athenian citizen would never endure; I’d had twenty-two years
of it, since I’d been born a slave.
“I think that’s all for now, Harmonia,” the boy said, his voice wavering. “By all the
gods, I hope so. That was horrible.”
I wiped the boy’s raw, bloody mouth with a clean, damp cloth and settled him
back onto his pillows.
“Would you like more water?” I asked. For days, Aristogeiton had swallowed all
the liquid anyone could dribble into his mouth, but he was still thirsty.
“Soon,” he said, too quietly for my liking. “My mouth feels as if it’s on fire. But
wait a little while, first, Harmonia. I’m so tired.”
I carried the bowl to the door. Soon I would go and empty it into the cesspit in the
courtyard—but not until he was asleep. Under the vomit in the bowl lurked
Medusa’s face, painted in red, her tongue lolling from a too-wide mouth, snakes
writhing in her hair. The painter had put the angry gorgon in the center of the bowl
to avert evil, but the disease that had Aristogeiton in its foul jaws was not afraid of
her—or of anything.
The boy held up his right hand to me. “Am I dying, Harmonia?” he asked, his
voice as brave as an eleven-year-old could make it. He was his father’s son and
heir; he knew that he was expected to carry on the family name and bear a son to
tend the family’s graves.
“Of course you’re not dying, Aristogeiton,” I lied. “In a few years, you will be a
strong hoplite soldier just like your father. You will fight the enemies of Athens and
win great battles. And you will make wonderful sculptures, just like him.”
“I will,” he said, half-smiling. “Yes, I will. I’ll make friezes for temples, and big,
strong herms to stand guard at the front of people’s houses, and everything.” His
swollen eyes closed.
I closed my eyes, too, for a moment. I could not let the boy see me crying.
Aristogeiton had always loved the herms in his father’s workshop, each with life-
like cock and balls protruding from a smooth block of stone, and Hermes’ bearded
head at the top. But it didn’t seem likely that the boy would ever grow up to carve
one of them himself. Unless the gods intervened, he would die of this new disease
that was sweeping Athens, this plague, and nothing I or anyone else could do
would stop it.
I was just one of the family’s female slaves, house-born in Athens. I did what I
could to help the boy: bathing his head and his hot, reddened eyes; cleaning his
ulcerated body; trickling water and thin barley porridge into his bleeding mouth;
and stroking olive oil onto his congested, aching chest. It was not enough.
Aristogeiton’s flesh was cool to the touch, but to him it felt like flames, and all the
water in Athens could not cool the fire inside him.
My master Pauson came to the sickroom door. He was not ill like his son, but the
lines of his face were harsh in the midday light; they showed how little he had slept
lately. He looked at the boy, then looked at me, questioning.
“No change,” I mouthed.
He pulled a light chair up to the other side of the bed. “You will get better now,
Aristogeiton,” he said to his son. “I have given a sacrificial cake to Apollo Far-
shooter on our courtyard altar. I promised him that, when you are well again, I will
sacrifice a goat to him, and I will carve a statue for his temple from the finest
Pentelic marble I can buy. Apollo will help us now. His arrows bring plagues and
disease, but he is the Healer as well.”
The boy grabbed at his father’s hand, and held it tight.
Pauson kept talking, anxiously. Was he trying to convince the boy, or himself? “In
a few days it will be the seventh of Hekatombaion, and Athens will celebrate
Apollo’s yearly feast. The city will sacrifice countless fine cattle to the god, and he
will be pleased with all of us. Apollo the Healer will cure you, I’m sure.”
“Aristogeiton needs to sleep now, master,” I said. Really, it was the master who
needed to sleep, and me. Soon enough, unless the healing god intervened, the boy
would sleep quietly in his grave forever.
The boy was worst at night, coughing and retching. The night before, he’d thrown
up the contents of his stomach four, maybe five times. For the previous seven
days and nights, my twin sister and I had nursed him together, dozing on a pallet in
the corner when we could. The master had spent the nights in his own bedroom
with his wife, as was fitting, but he looked as if he hadn’t slept any more than we
At least Pauson wasn’t managing the sculpture workshop at the same time. With
the Spartan army camped in the countryside less than a day’s march from Athens,
just as in the previous summer, looting and burning, there was more demand for
swords and shields than for the works of stone and marble that Pauson usually
produced, and the war had put a stop to Perikles’ rebuilding of the temples up on
the Akropolis. The master’s strong male slaves were earning good wages for him
in an arms factory owned by his friend Drakes, making bronze weapons for
Athenian citizens going off to war.
“I will sit with my son for a while,” Pauson said, still holding Aristogeiton’s hand.
“Go rest, Harmonia, and leave me alone with him.”
Before I’d reached the door, Aristogeiton had a fit of coughing, and I ran back to
his side. The boy’s breath was strangely fetid, like nothing I had smelled before. I
took the cloth from his forehead, rinsed it in the jar of clean water at my feet, and
wiped his face with it. I rinsed the cloth again, then lay it back on his flushed
forehead to keep him cool.
Pauson gave me an exhausted half-smile, and pointed at the door. “Go,” he said.
* * *
How could I rest? I was too worried—about my sister, even more than about
Aristogeiton—and my mistress needed to know how her son was now. I nodded
obediently to my master, but I carried the bowl of vomit to the cesspit in the
corner of the courtyard and tipped it out, then drew fresh water up from the deep
well, to rinse it thoroughly.
My mistress Ismenia had most of the women of the house gathered around her in
the courtyard, working, as if it was a normal day. The mid-summer sun was high
in the sky, now, and the shady side of the courtyard, under the colonnade, was far
cooler than the workroom upstairs where we spent most of our days. She’d set up
the tall loom in the shade next to the kitchen wall, and was walking back and forth
in front of it, pushing the shuttle with the thread through the vertical strands of
fine-spun wool. Each pass my mistress made, tall, young Dosis beat the new
thread upwards, compacting the weave into good, dense cloth.
Ismenia was still elegant, despite everything. Her long, black hair was carefully
piled up into a low bun, and one of the slaves had tied a ribbon around her head;
her old-fashioned chiton draped gracefully from two brooches at her shoulders,
and the overfold that hung down to her waist was patterned at the edge with fine
blue and yellow lines. Unless you looked, you wouldn’t notice that her lovely eyes
were red from crying, but I’d heard her in the night, when Aristogeiton was quiet.
The mistress’ almost-nubile daughter, clever Philinna, sat on a stool nearby,
spinning washed and carded wool into fine thread as if it might save her younger
brother’s life, while a baby girl lay on the ground, trying to catch the spindle whorl
in her tiny grasping hands. Expensive toys were scattered all around her: a rattle, a
cart with wheels that really turned around, a man riding on a mule—but the spindle
whorl moved in the sunlight, entrancing her.
The baby belonged to Pauson’s moody sister Kalonike, who’d come to us after the
Spartan army had marched over the Isthmus into Attika to ravage and burn the
crops and houses of the countryside. Perikles, the strategos who’d led Athens to
so many victories, had commanded all those who lived outside the city walls to
retreat within their solid protection. Pauson had been happy to take in his difficult
sister and her husband, Thaumas, when they’d arrived here, even though he’d
said, apologetically, that this house in Athens was small by country standards.
Soon, though, refugees from the countryside were camping out anywhere they
could, in temples or on any empty land.
Kalonike’s grown son wasn’t married, and lived with them on their farm, but he’d
already been out on campaign when she and Thaumas had come here. Her
husband was soon levied to serve as one of the four thousand hoplites whom
Perikles took on his triremes to ravage the Spartans’ own coastline. It was only
Kalonike and her baby here now, in Pauson’s house, and the foolish woman
mourned her absent men as if they were dead.
The two middle-aged female slaves whom Kalonike had brought to the house with
her were busy carding wool, rubbing it on their thighs as they knelt on soft mats
on the stones of the courtyard. They spoke to one another quietly in their barbarian
tongue from far-off Syria, which I cannot understand. Their city had been
captured in a small war, decades ago; the men were put to death, and the women
and children enslaved. The two women seemed empty-headed when they spoke to
us in the halting Greek that they’d picked up after they were enslaved. For all I
knew, though, they could have been talking together about war and politics, or
epic verse, or even the strange gods who live in the East, where they came from.
Perhaps their lives were deeper and stranger than I ever understood.
Copyright (c) 2009 by Jenny Blackford
|Cover art (c) Rachael Mayo