THE ISLE OF STONE A NOVEL OF ANCIENT SPARTA

The living are stretched bows, whose purpose is death.
—Heraclitus

Chapter I:
A Hush in the Brazen House

1.

In the early morning of her wedding day, Damatria went out to the privy hole behind her father's house. She had just cut her hair in short, boyish style, in preparation for the traditional first-night visit from her betrothed. Squatting, she imagined the smell of Molobrus as he pressed down on her, reeking of the barracks, of swine blood and vinegar from the mess table. He would fumble down there, and she would need to guide him in the process of her deflowerment. How ignorant of women were the brave lads, who lived their youths naked on Taygetus but trembled, lost as lambs, in the foothills of the Mount of Venus! What responsibilities womanhood entailed, ruling these men of Sparta.
     She was struck at once by a certain unsteadiness. After bracing herself against the ground, she realized it was the earth itself that was moving, not she. It was just a mild dislocation at first, as if she was perched on the wrist of a giant who was repeatedly clenching his fist. Then came a sick-making pulsation, wave upon wave, as if the earth became liquid. This went on for a few uncommonly vivid minutes, consuming her attention, until the waves ceased and she rose uncertainly to her feet, arms outstretched, as if expecting to plunge into the betrayed solidity below.
     Her father's house lay at the outskirts of the village of Mesoa. Where the structure had stood, there was now a cloud of plaster dust over a neat pile of debris. No houses stood intact anywhere she could see, though there were a number of other figures who were, like herself, standing unscathed. She met the gaze of the wife and mother who lived in the house next door; mute as a post, she was holding the handle of a broken waterjug, her eyes reflecting a faint bemusement with the reordered landscape. The woman seemed not to register the interleaved walls of the house before her, where minutes before her infant had delighted in lifting his tiny head. Damatria looked to the skyline of Taygetus over the valley, ordinarily so comforting in its familiarity. This time, in a way she could not describe, even the mountain seemed changed.
     She returned to her house and regarded its ruins. The roof appeared to have fallen in first, followed by three of the masonry walls in turn. Her father had been sleeping in the room at the front. He was on his couch, his lips smeared with the flesh of oversoft figs; she recalled how, before she went out, his chest heaved up and fell one time, as if making up for a history of shallow breaths. His walking stick was next to him, and it stood there still, resting against the house's last standing wall. Seeing the stick dispelled her reverie—the wreck instantly became a real place again, and the tangled mass beside the wall, a grave made by pitiless hands.
     The timbers were long and half-buried, and the cobbles were heavy. She made painful progress at her excavation as the sun climbed above the peaks. Sparta was a quiet place on non-festival days, and her people never wept or screamed at misfortune, but the quality of the silence after the earthquake was unnerving. The birds had stopped singing and never resumed; she could hear guttural exertions from next door, as intimate as the sounds of lovemaking, as her neighbor dug into the debris of her own house. Isolated, Damatria jumped when a voice suddenly spoke to her.
     "Are you the only one?" asked the soldier. He was standing on the road, a sword at his side, a blazon of fresh blood trailing from beneath his helmet. Damatria thought he must be a fool, believing he could defend himself from the great Earthshaker with a sword.
     "My father is here," she replied, indicating the wreckage.
     The soldier stared at the pile. "By order of the ephors," he said, "the people shall show their dignity."
     She made no response, as if such a reminder was beneath her notice.
     The soldier moved on, then stopped, resting his hand on the grip of his weapon. "You should know…the disorder has encouraged some of the helots."
     "If that is true, why are you standing here prattling with women? Go and be a man!"
     The soldier hung his head and left. She bent to her digging again, scattering the stones around her as the afternoon waned, heedless of the cuts made in her hands by exposed nails,. Suddenly—beneath a broken tile—a foot. Damatria paused, the sight affecting her more than she could immediately bear. She fell back on her haunches, regarding it, unsure whether to proceed.
     This was to be her wedding night; by sunset, she was supposed to be seized by Molobrus' family and brought to her future home. Perhaps by now she would have been in the traditional belted chemise, awaiting the furtive attentions of the groom. She should not expect to be taken as a woman the first time, or even the first several times, the old wives advised. Shorn of her hair like a young recruit, the Spartan bride had to understand the mechanics of barracks love. Damatria had long imagined this and the other nights that followed, as she would initiate Molobrus, in subtle but due course, into the way between male and female. The end of the process would put him inside her in fruitful fashion at last. For it would only be at that time, perhaps months into a good Spartan marriage, that bride and husband were supposed to see each other's faces by daylight.
     Did Molobrus' little house in Limnae still stand? Did her matrimonial bed contain only rubble? She must have stayed that way, thinking about such things, until she fell asleep. When she awoke her head was in the dirt, with a glow from the west shining in her eyes. She realized, with some shame, that after all those hours she had exposed nothing more of her father but that single foot.
     Resuming her work, she began to find objects from her quarters on the top floor. They were forlorn hints of her past life: a bronze mirror, bent askew; a handleless sickle; a clay lamp, now broken, from the souvenir booths near the Altis; a scroll of poetry by Alcman. By chance, she found the one illicit item in her possession—a sack of foreign staters. Possession of precious metal was still thought corrupting in Sparta, and was therefore illegal. That her Theban shields, Athenian owls, and Aeginetan sea turtles might see the light of day made her uneasy. She looked around for a place to hide them, until she was frozen by the figure of a man standing on the road, watching.
     Thinking the soldier had returned, she asked, "Are you back for your courage?" When he made no answer, she began to worry that he had seen the coins. She held the bag behind her back as the stranger stepped forward.
     By the way he stood—by that slightly stoop shouldered posture, and the way he twisted his neck as if to peer up at her—she knew he was a helot. His face was in shadow, but his hair was cut short in the manner best to distinguish servants from their long-locked superiors. His body, knotted with muscles telling of heavy, repetitive work, lacked the lean balance of a true fighting physique. At the end of one of those arms was a balled fist, and in that fist was a knife.
     He was on her before she could get away. The attack felt at first to her much like a wrestling match in the gymnasium, the kind of test of strength she never lost against other girls. She felt a surge of confidence as she struck the first blow and spun nearly free. Indeed, in her contempt for this helot she had no inclination to scream, for to do so would have been to acknowledge some inferiority. In the next instant she lost her chance to escape: as he brought the butt of the knife down across her temple Damatria, puzzled, felt her knees give way.
     She woke up before she dared open her eyes. It was either hours or seconds later—she could not tell—she was on her back in the dirt with the helot on top. He kept on trying to bend her knees around his midriff, but even in her half-stupor Damatria begrudged any opening, pressing her legs down flat on the ground. And so she waited, her jaw clenched so tightly shut with the pain that she cracked the crowns of her teeth. The physical ordeal, however, was not as bad as the sense of black despair, flowing like a liquid shadow into her every corner. It surprised her, so deep a well of loathing did she conjure in herself. Looking up, she saw a crow perched on a branch, cocking its head to regard her from one side. In that moment she despised that bird, so assured in its freedom, as much as she hated her own weakness.
     After the helot spilled into her he seemed to linger there with piggish satisfaction. Still unafraid, she tried to wiggle free until he regarded her with mild curiosity. For the first time, she got a good look at his face: everything about it was heavy, from the lips like fattened grubs to the broken nose to the thick lids of his eyes. She was staring into those eyes, scorning them, when the shadow of his chiseled arm blotted the sky and he brought a fist down on her face. A thousand blossoms bloomed of every color she had ever seen; the force of the blow made her aware that her skull was composed of many parts that were designed, but straining, to remain together.
     This time she did not pass out. Through slitted lids, she watched him take his feet, straighten his tattered workshirt over one shoulder, and step over her to continue on his way. After waiting a few minutes, she sat up. The first thing she noticed was that her half-spilled bag of silver coins was left untouched beside her. The second was that no matter which way she turned, one side of her world was dark. Reaching up, she felt the jagged ends of the small bones around what was once her left eye: the topography of the orbit above her cheekbone was alien to her, and something broken and soft was draining down to wet the corner of her mouth.
     She pursued the helot into the fields without making any conscious decision to do so. She was suddenly full of the spirit of Artemis, able to read the lay of the twigs and disturbed soil, tracking her quarry like she did small animals in her girlhood. His path ran through the heart of the village of Mesoa, which she hardly recognized because it encompassed not a single intact building. Instead, it resembled a mine or a quarry. Some of the people were digging through the rubble, as she had; others stood by, detached, as if on an excursion to a dead city.
     The helot skirted the southern slopes of the city acropolis on his way east, toward the river. Looking up, she saw that the Brazen House was still standing. The altar was below the crest of the hill, but she could see a curl of smoke rising above the temple gables as the Lacedaemonians gathered from every village to propitiate the gods. She would have been there too, if not on the present errand. Another black wave broke over her, making the light breeze seem to burn her skin. The handleless sickle from her father's house had somehow found its way into her right hand.
     The helot disappeared from view as he descended to the banks of the Eurotas. She concealed herself in the rushes and crept forward to observe him. Removing his clothes, he waded in as deep as his waist, breathing hard as he entered the swift, cold water. He scrubbed his penis with a handful of dirt from the banks, then bent down to rinse the knob. The act filled Damatria with disgust for the squeamishness of men: in her haste, despite her degradation, she had not washed any part of herself, inside or out. She watched, feeling a kind of forlorn contempt for the helot's utter exposure, his damnable obliviousness. Cleansing himself of me! Her fingers gripped the rusty blade until they bled.
     The helot floated on his back, as if savoring the taste of freedom for the first time. With a child's curiosity, he paused to inspect fragments of wood or wattle from shattered buildings as they floated by. When at last he pulled himself out of the water, he dressed and returned along the path by which he'd come. Damatria posted herself amid the plane trees, and knowing he would not be expecting her, hardly bothered to conceal herself.
     He passed by without taking any notice of her.
     She swung her sickle against the back of his head, lodging the broken end in the base of his skull. His body made sounds as it entered—a gasp of astonishment, a pop of dislocated bones, followed by a cluck of dismay. She wrenched his head around, watching him grimace and flutter his eyes in pain or stupefaction, she didn't know which. She didn't care.

2.

The earthquake destroyed all but a handful of buildings in Laconia. The toll ran into the tens of thousands, but the ephors saw no profit in advertising the city's weakness and sanctioned no official count. What could not be hidden, though, was the large numbers of children killed of every age-class. Many boys were collected in the doomed gymnasia in the morning hours. Since every Spartiate adult was held to be protector and educator of every free-born child in the city, citizens gathered en masse to dig out the victims. Foreigners and helots, however, were kept away from such scenes. The sorrow of the Lacedaemonians was not for outsiders to witness.
     When in doubt the Spartans mobilized for war. As aftershocks battered the city and unrecovered bodies stank in the streets, all five battalions of the infantry mustered in their appointed places. Mourning ceremonies halted for the families to comb their shattered storerooms for supplies to feed the troops. The soldiers practiced spearmanship, maneuvering to the pipes, and night-fighting under columns of smoke from the fires of continuous funerals.
     The thirty members of the city Gerousia, or executive council, convened in a goat-pen and voted to declare war on the helots. Along with the usual immunity this conferred on any Spartiate who wished for any reason to kill a helot, the measure included the activation of the Hidden Service. Young men specially trained for these gangs were excused from their units and went into hiding. At night, they would sneak into the helot villages and murder any males they encountered; most often the victims were the most intelligent helots, or the most respected, or the strongest, or the finest artisans, or any that showed some distinction that might prove remotely threatening.
     But these precautions failed to prevent an eventuality worse than the earthquake itself: the helots in Messenia, taking advantage of the misfortune of their masters, revolted. They were soon joined by several of the more restive Nigh-Dwellers and a few helots of Laconia proper. At a time when many of the granaries were already damaged, exposing the grain to rot, the helot farmers stood up and walked away from their fields. In a galling reversal, roving gangs of rebels made it impossible for decent citizens to travel at night. The army was forced to fight everywhere against the majority of the population of Laconia. The old men could not remember a less secure time in the life of the city.
     All this seemed very far from Damatria. She was still haunting the ruins of her house when Molobrus' father and two brothers came to see if she had survived. As they led her away, she was still not sure she could reassure them. Certainly, there was a "Damatria" who lived—a figure in a play with the almond-shaped eyes and straight teeth, the ingenue who still ate, breathed, smiled, and looked with virginal tremulousness on the mystery of her wedding night. According to this plot, she had stayed at her father's side during the disaster, and her left eye was put out by a falling brick. In this character she vested all the proprieties to which she could never quite conform herself. Disfigured but dutiful, she seemed to her new family a model of durable innocence; the match with Molobrus was declared by all to be a more pleasing prospect than ever.
     The other Damatria was not a virgin at all. The violence of the rape had torn her inside and out. In the streets, the sight of any face that even remotely resembled the helot caused her to be physically ill. At night, when she most wished to escape her memories, the dark half of her world did not remain so, but exploded with the same riot of phosphorescent colors she saw when he first crushed her eye. The spectacle forced her to relive the moment over and over, until she grew to dread the attempt to sleep.
     And so she went on simulating her former life, taking her place in Molobrus' Limnae house, pretending to conspire in his schemes to steal hours away from the barracks. The joy of these conjugal moments was lost to her. The hot anonymity she once imagined was repulsive, and Molobrus was too fascinated with her crushed features to preserve the usual mystery. He brought his round little face close to hers, whistling to himself as he examined her wound. She, in turn, looked back in smiling disappointment at his soft cheeks, so obvious in their failure to produce a man's growth of beard. Everything turned out to be harder than she imagined, with only a single exception: she didn't have to fake a virgin's fear of penetration.
     She became aware of her pregnancy a few weeks after the earthquake. For the sake of her sanity, she hoped that the child was Molobrus'. She subsisted on this hope for nine months, indulging her mother-in-law's compulsion to give advice:
     "For the child's sake, you must not only bath him in wine, but scrub his body with pine cones," Lampito advised her. "A baby's softness is better lost sooner than later."
     "And if a girl comes?"
     She frowned as if Damatria had done something akin to kissing her husband in public. "Sparta needs spears now," she said.
     Of that, there was no doubt. After three months of fighting, the immediate environs of Sparta were mostly safe, with some of the compliant helots assigned to rebuilding. But the uprising was far from over in Messenia. Troops were dispatched west through the Taygetos passes on a daily basis; they returned almost as frequently, as the old saying went, "either carrying their shields or on them." It was rumored that the Messenians fought as if the intervening three centuries of their subjugation had never occurred. A startling proportion of Lacedaemonian deaths were from festered human bites.
     Upon the birth of her son, before he could even be cleaned, Damatria demanded to see his face. Lampito laid his bloody form on his mother's belly, trusting that he would show enough Spartan vigor to claim the breast. The child inched up her body with clumsy but strong thrashing movements, like some swimming reptile. When he reached her breastbone he gazed up at his mother. There--unmistakeable in the balled pucker of his rooting lips and thickly-lidded eyes--she found herself confronted again with the face of her rapist.
     For the next few days Damatria twisted in a vortex of disgust and guilt. In that time someone thought to give the child a name--Antalcidas--in honor of Molobrus' father, Alcidas. She allowed them to put the thing on her chest again, but she made no effort to help him nurse. As with many unwanted children, however, his hunger for life exactly matched his mother's longing for him to die. He taught himself to suckle, which transported Lampito into fits of admiration.
     "What a fine boy!" she exclaimed. "And what a good Spartan mother, to compel the little warrior to find his own mess!"
     "He will have nothing to fear from the tribe," agreed Molobrus.
     Damatria perked up. Every Spartan infant was brought to the tribal elder when it was evident that he or she would survive the first days. The child would be examined, and if found to be in any way deficient, would be consigned to be thrown into Langadha Gorge. Most Spartan mothers respected the tradition, but dreaded the appraisal. To Damatria, it represented a ray of hope—a possibility that a lifetime ordeal would instead be cut mercifully short. She rose from her bed and took little Antalcidas in her arms.
     "I will prepare him for the judgment," she swore.
     Damatria's devotion to her son's improvement became legend in the village of Kynosoura. Molobrus returned to his regiment and was rarely seen since, but Lampito had ample opportunity to witness her daughter's commitment. Antalcidas was not only bathed in wine—his "bathwater" was pure, unmixed stuff. As the child screamed from the stinging in his eyes, Damatria ladled more over his head, until Lampito was quite sure she would drown him. When at last he began to convulse and vomit up his milk, she would relent, though she would never coddle him with swaddling clothes. Instead, she placed him outside her door to air dry. She did this even as winter came on and the temperatures plunged. His grandmother found him out there one evening, naked on the cold flagstone, his skin a color somewhere between wine-dark and hypothermic blue. Despite her pride in his Spartan toughness, Lampito feared for the boy's health. But when she brought him inside, she found Damatria impassively beaming.
     "Don't worry, Mother," she told Lampito. "One day, when he is camped in the dead of winter on the Taygetos in nothing but his skin and a thin cloak, he will thank his mother for this training."
     The day finally arrived for the judgment of children born to mothers of the Dymanes tribe. Seven women, stern faced and unaccompanied, gathered with their babies in front of the Shrine of Athena of the City. This was called the Brazen House because the sturdy, four-square structure was decorated with bronze reliefs from the history of the Dorians. Between one plaque depicting Herakles' capture of the Hind of Ceryneia and another the defeat of the Messenians, the oldest surviving members of Damatria's tribe, Arcesilaus son of Areus, Alcander son of Pausanias, and Nicander son of Cleomenes, had installed themselves on stools. Sadly, the earthquake had cost the city so many of her elders that these judges were not so old after all--Alcander was not yet sixty.
     The order of presentation was determined by a pre-selection by the magistrates. The weakest candidates for survival were brought up first, so that the judgment could end with the state's happy endorsement of the stronger. Damatria was disappointed to learn that her son was picked third—too late in the round for her to be sure of the result.
     The first child presented was a girl with a cleft palate. Arcesilaus glanced at her once, exchanged a few words with his colleagues, and nodded to the guards. A basket was presented to the mother; with a stricken look, she placed the infant inside and covered its face with a cloth. In exchange, they handed her a barley cake for Eileithyia so that she might assuage her grief with a dedication. A dutiful Spartan mother, she offered a proud, if threadbare, smile. The grimace vanished from her face when, as the basket was borne away to the gorge, the contents began to cry.
     The second candidate was a boy. There seemed nothing outwardly wrong with the child until Arcesilaus tested his vision. Making him focus on an single finger moving laterally, Arcesilaus found the left eyeball at first tracked the target but then veered in the opposite direction. The boy's mother flushed with either fear or embarrassment: this was a defect she had not found. The elders murmured amongst themselves. Arcesilaus repeated the test, got the same result, and conferred again. To Damatria's surprise, the elders let the boy pass. The earthquake had changed more than the shape of Mt. Taygetos.
     Damatria presented Antalcidas, who was sleeping. She shook him awake. Arcesilaus regarded him, stroking his beard as the boy's head rolled on his tiny neck. They felt his grip, counted his digits, tested his reflexes.
     "This one's eyes seem irritated," Alcander remarked. "Have you been bathing him in unmixed wine?"
     "I have."
    Arcesilaus shook his head. "Mothers should wash their boys in wine at half-strength, not neat. Understand?"
     She looked away, saying nothing. This was not going as she hoped: the elders were smiling at the boy, evidently pleased at his vigor despite the ignorance of his mother.
     "Listen to his voice," she said. "His lungs are weaker than the other children."
     Nicander scratched his freckled pate. "His cry sounds healthy to me."
     "His movements are slow. And he nurses poorly."
     "The nursing," thundered Arcesilaus, "is something you must teach him!"
     "I have tried."
     "Try harder."
     "Esteemed Equals," she sighed, "who knows this child better than I? Please…"
     Arcesilaus' eyes widened. Anticipating what she meant to say, the other mothers regarded her with something close to horror. Damatria tried to continue, but couldn't.
     "There is nothing wrong with this boy. Rejoice in your good fortune." Arcesilaus pronounced. With that, his gaze shifted to the next candidate. Antalcidas had been passed.
     Damatria drifted a few steps away, her useless eye throbbing in its socket. Seeing the other women with their cherished babes made her dizzy with revulsion. The sound of Antalcidas' little breaths, his cloying smell, his very weight on her arm, filled her with unspeakable indignation. She whirled back at the elders.
     "I see that wisdom is dead among you. Before the gods, then, hear me: one day, one way or another, this child will grow up to be the shame of this city! Remember that a Spartan mother told you this, when you lacked the courage to act!"
     After this disaster she took the boy home and put him on the floor. She left him there a long time as she sat and thought. Might she have disposed of him earlier, she wondered, while sickness remained a plausible excuse? Could she still do so? Her mistake, she decided, was to leave her salvation in the hands of others. She resolved that she would not move until she knew what she might do to tolerate the prospect of her own future.

ISBN 0451217128

synopsis
reviews
buy the book

top
synopsis
reviews
buy the book

Home  Books  Culture Blog   Video   Bio   News   Contact   Other Publications

www.nicastrobooks.com