Выбрать главу

I was born, I am told, in Syracuse at a time when my people were involved in one of their numberless, dreary little wars with the Athenians. My parents and I were captured on the seas through circumstances unknown to me-whether by pirates, or through an attack by an Athenian naval trireme on the Syracusan merchant ship on which we were traveling, who can say? The little I have been told is that my soldier father was troublesome and my parents were sold as slaves, possibly several times, until they obtained positions in Gryllus' household while I was still a babe in arms. The only memory I retain of those times is a fragment of an ancient song in a language I do not speak, a discordant, tuneless chanting, which, though in days long past it may have brought meaning and even pleasure to those who heard it, to me remains indecipherable, even nightmarish.

My parents soon died of one of the terrible plagues that periodically swept through the city, one that unaccountably spared me. Orphans abounded in those times, of course, many of them born of pure Athenian stock, the children of parents who had been victims of the ongoing hostilities. These were raised by the State, lauded and praised at public events, and if their parents had died in the war, they were portrayed as heroes. Others, however, of nebulous ancestry, were subject to fortunes less clear-some prospered, if taken in by a kindly sponsor, while others were simply ignored and left to fend for themselves. So much the worse for those who, like myself, were born as slaves, or more ill-fated yet, as slaves from enemy peoples. I was mercifully kept on at the house, despite being only an infant unable to earn my keep. Possibly it was as a charity case in propitiation of the deities, or as a favor to the kindly old nurse who cared for me. My master, however, never concerned himself with my provenance, nor even seemed the least bit curious. It was simply another mystery, like the origin of the gods or the omnipotence of his father, that he accepted as a matter of course, forming, as it did, a part of his earliest understanding of life, one of those subjects it never occurred to him to question.

Those times were not easy. Athens was mired in a decades-long, self-destructive war with the Spartans, who after the defeat of the Persians by the Greek alliance had refused to submit to Athens' claim to leadership. Virtually every able-bodied man of means on both sides had been incorporated into the battalions of hoplites, heavily armed infantry troops that formed the core of the Athenian and Spartan armies. Each of these men, in turn, took one or more male slaves to serve as squires and baggage carriers, and this heavy commitment of resources to war left precious little manpower at home to do all such things for which men are needed, to keep a city prosperous and vibrant.

This made life difficult for the family of Gryllus, a wealthy Athenian landowner who maintained a rural estate in the deme of Erchia, twelve miles east of Athens. It was there that I was taken as an infant, and it was there that I spent the first years of my life raised by and serving a company of women. Most of the men, masters and slaves alike, spent the season at the front, with only a few months passed on the farm between campaigns, fruitlessly trying to make up for lost time and correct the ravages caused by neglect. Gryllus at one point had spent two years away from the estate, appearing at home only once for a single day before again returning to the front at the Council's orders. During that brief interlude, he managed to sire a son.

For Gryllus' wife, Philomena, however, a life of attempting to manage the rambunctious boy as well as the dwindling household and farm staff, while Gryllus battled the Spartans or served in the assembly at Athens, was too much. In the end, she threw up her hands, boarded up the house, sold most of the remaining farmhands, and moved in with her husband's widowed cousin, Leda, who maintained a house in Athens while her own husband's estate in Boeotia went untended. This city house had room to spare, though with the continued shortage of able-bodied men it was falling apart. Lamp and cooking oil was hard to come by in the city, even for the comparatively wealthy. Stove wood was hoarded and counted out splinter by splinter, and clothing was patched and repatched, made to serve long past the point that, in better times, it would have been given to the beggars. Only the plainest of foods were available, the staple consisting of a pasty lentil porridge. Figs, nuts, and olives were sometimes added for taste, and occasionally the family was able to obtain a bit of mutton or pork, smuggled into the city from the old sharecroppers in Erchia. Grasshoppers abounded in the vacant lots and were a handy source of protein for us slaves and kitchen staff, since even the most gristly scraps of meat were sucked dry by the patrons rather than left for the household help. Our only comfort was that Spartan food was known to be even worse. Gryllus often said that it was not surprising that the Spartans were so willing to die on the battlefield-death had to be better than living on food like theirs.

And so in Athens we made a new life, and it was while there that I was given permanent charge of the young urchin over whom I had been at least informally responsible since we were both barely old enough to walk. Gryllus' son, who until moving to Athens had never left the confines of the rural estate or been away from the watchful eyes of his mother or myself, viewed Athens as a paradise. To me, charged with monitoring his safety, the city was something else entirely. I close my eyes and can envision, as clearly as if I it were today, walking through the stifling heat and dust of the streets of Athens during those years before its fall, surrounded by the shouts and curses of mule drivers and young street toughs gazing at them in admiration for their exquisite command of the colloquial; the constant stream of vagrants, who included not only the usual lot of the deformed, blind, old and rachitic, but also foreigners fallen upon hard times who were attracted by the city's glory; thinkers who relished and even sought out such hard times as a badge of pride and a source of inspiration for their various schools of philosophy; and idle crowds of able-bodied men, soldiers on leave and sailors awaiting their proximate consignment. I see the flurry of sundry musicians, snake handlers, acrobats, heralds, pickpockets, and prostitutes of both sexes or of not quite either; the assorted legitimate street-dwellers of all kinds, construction workers and shopkeepers, money lenders, food and water peddlers, scribes, fishwives, tattoo artists, tinkers and tailors; and the hair-plucking paratiltrioi from the baths, resting their falsettos and drying their tweezers as they sought a bite to eat. So, too, I see a hundred other colorful personages, actors, priests, bear trainers, soldiers, pimps, and midwives, shouting their individual calls, striving to be heard above the rest, contributing to the deafening uproar that was the excitement, the filth, the ambition, and the madness of this city that was the center of the world.

In my mind's eye I pass from these chaotic streets through a humble, unmarked doorway in the side of a long stone wall, into a dark, cool passageway. Upon closing the stout oaken door I hear the roar of the city muffled into a faint and distant throb. My memory's corridor leads toward a sunlit courtyard at the end, where the dominant sounds are the tinkling of water in the tiny fountain, the soft clinking and scraping of cooking, and servants' gentle laughter from the kitchen adjacent to the main house. Most incongruous of all is the sound of birds-dozens of them, for every corner is furnished with one or more cages filled with tiny, colorful songbirds, chosen for the exquisite designs of their feathers and the sweetness of their warbling. Rising above the household patter are the high-pitched voices of two young boys as they play in the dust at the foot of the fountain with a handful of marbles fashioned out of clay.